Saturday, January 08, 2011

The Sharpest Cuts

With last month’s severe wintry weather conditions pushing the usual festive madness to even more extremes, and making any kind of external activity either a little adventurous or downright treacherous, it seemed like the ideal opportunity to sit back, put my feet up, and catch up with some of the movies that I’d missed during the year. All too often I seem to bemoan how few times I get to the cinema nowadays. Though not a resolution, every January I tell myself to make more of an effort and I suppose 2010 was no different.

It all started out rather well with a double bill of Sherlock Holmes and Up in the Air, and I suppose that back then I felt, however briefly, that this year was going to be better than the last. But not long after that it all went rapidly downhill with trips to see Avatar, Shutter Island and Clash of the Titans. Though Disney’s The Princess and the Frog lacked some of the magic of the company’s great animations I had grown up with it wasn’t that bad, although the evening was soured by getting the screening times wrong and, missing out on Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo, I made the incredibly ill–judged decision of going to see the wholly unnecessary film version of Edge of Darkness immediately afterwards.

Obviously I have to shoulder some of the blame for making a lot of really bad choices (although the studios too deserve a good shellacking for making bad movies), but by the time I got around to seeing Robin Hood in May I was pretty much done. In that instance it wasn’t the movie, which I loved, thereby putting me in the minority, apparently, but the whole cinema–going experience. Everyone probably has some gripe about trying to watch a movie in an auditorium with uncomfortable seats, sticky floors from spilt soda, poor projection and audio set–ups that really sticks it to the dialogue. Then there are the fellow members of the audience who appear to have left any good manners at home. But when the venue’s staff couldn’t give a shit, close the box–office and make you queue for a ticket at the concession stands behind social Neanderthals who can’t decide which flavour ice cream they want, causing you to almost miss the start of the film, that’s more than enough for me. And this whole enforced 3D experience can fuck right off.

So I fell back on the tried and true stratagem of waiting to see the film on DVD instead. At least then if there’s some arsehole talking back to the screen then it’s obviously me and I’m okay with that. Over the last couple months I eventually got around to seeing the likes of Iron Man 2 and Chris Morris’ Four Lions which were entertaining enough and far better received from the comfort of the sofa than if I had queued to see them at a multiplex. But in the end I knew I’d have to wait until the festive season for any of the bigger, dumber summer movies to be spun out on shiny disc, just in time to be plucked from the shelves and wrapped in shiny wrapping paper because I suppose nothing says Christmas more than a copy of the latest instalment in the tween–moistening Twilight saga.

For some explicable reason I started off with The A–Team. I’m sure there’s a perfectly valid reason for that kind of behaviour, although at this exact moment it escapes me. Even if I had continued going to the pictures I would have given this one a pass. Because as much as I love a caper movie, ones that are devoid of wit and intelligence, instead burying their shortcomings under an avalanche of mindless cartoon violence and sheer stupidity are given a wide berth. Maybe I stuck it first on the list because I figured the titles that followed couldn’t be any worse, which turned out to be not always the case.

I’d never been a fan of the television series and don’t think I’ve ever sat through a whole episode, instead preferring to associate the recently departed Stephen J Cannell with The Rockford Files. Though I’d enjoyed director Joe Carnahan’s Narc I absolutely loathed the crass absurdity of his follow–up, Smokin’ Aces. Though it was obvious this film was going to be closer in temperament to that film, because The A–Team, as a known quantity, had potential franchise written all over it, and had been dragging its arse through a decade–and–a–half of development, I suppose I was intrigued to see the result of all that time and money. It wasn’t good. I’ve seen shell games played out with more panache by the late–night street hustlers on Bourbon Street and the only real intrigue was how the quartet of characters had stayed together so long without killing each other.

The few feeble attempts at humour paled in comparison to the initial guffaw that came even before the film had begun, when CELEBRATING 75 YEARS appeared above Rocky Longo’s familiar 20th Century Fox logo. With The A–Team? Really? It must take a certain warped pride to follow such a proclamation with a $110 million stream of effluvium smeared onto two hours worth of celluloid. Maybe an apology might have been the better option. But then, when you’re a subsidiary of Mephistopheles Murdoch’s News Corp., commerce trounces artistry at every turn, as is evident by the less than stellar tribute video the studio released earlier in the year.

That’s the best they could come up with? Really? Seventy-five years of movie making and they opt for the likes of I, Robot, Mr and Mrs Smith, Australia, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Mrs Doubtfire? Watching it again, I still couldn’t decide whether it was hastily cobbled together by an editor eager to leave for a planned weekend in Big Bear or some unpaid intern who had just ordered a pizza and had to be down at the main gate to pick it up. If they had stayed true to celebrating the studios long, and sometimes distinguished, output rather than turn it into a rather tawdry excuse to hawk some titles that perhaps aren’t pulling their weight in the current home entertainment market, what films should have been highlighted?

When it comes to 20th Century Fox, the only title that immediately springs to mind is Star Wars and that’s chiefly because since John Williams composed its main theme as an extension of Alfred Newman’s celebrated fanfare the two have become virtually engrained, and of course they used copious clips from that one, so that wasn’t any help. Trying to think of others just off the top of my head has left me drawing a blank. Why is that?

Back when I was a kid, watching all those great film seasons scheduled on the BBC it didn’t take long for me to associate Universal Pictures with the classic 1930s and 40s horror films and Warner Bros with gangster movies, Errol Flynn swashbucklers and Bogart in a trench coat. Paramount had the Bob Hope & Bing Crosby Road movies as well as a generous selection of Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder–directed films while Columbia Pictures swung between screwball comedies and David Lean’s wartime epics. United Artists regularly served up further helpings of The Pink Panther and James Bond, RKO delivered Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals and Val Lewton's low–budget horror, along with a fair spread of film noir. That left MGM with more lavish musicals, The Thin Man series, and Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan the Ape Man. But Fox? If the studio had a readily identifiable genre associated with its output it failed with burrow into my subconscious.

That said, even the most rudimentary search reveals the diversity and quality of the studio’s more distinguished output. For instance there’s FW Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, which won the award for Unique and Artistic Production at the very first Academy Awards ceremony in 1928, and the film version of Noel Coward’s Cavalcade, winner of the Best Picture Oscar five years later. Other Academy Award–winning productions like John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley and The Grapes Of Wrath, The Hustler, Planet of the Apes and M*A*S*H, joined Sunrise by being selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”, along with Miracle on 34th Street, My Darling Clementine and The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Even though they didn’t make the Library of Congress’ list there’s also An Affair to Remember, the musicals Hello Dolly!, South Pacific and The King and I, the first pairing of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce in The Hound of the Baskervilles, and Tony Curtis in The Boston Strangler. More recent titles include Alien, Broadcast News and Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon, which chronicled the interactions of a group of disparate characters in Los Angeles well over a decade before Paul Haggis covered pretty much the same ground with Crash, crucially replacing Kasdan’s wit and gentle humour with the sort of po-faced sermonising that sent the movie disappearing up it’s own fundament long before the credits rolled.

Rather than simply falling back on the sort of utter guff directed by Roland Emmerich or starring Will Smith (or worse, directed by Roland Emmerich and starring Will Smith) shouldn’t clips from even a handful of these films have found their way into a proper tribute, or do they no longer serve a purpose? Anyone old enough to have seen any of the titles would be reminded just how godawful most new releases are, while the mouth–breathers who make up today’s main cinema–going demographic, and resolutely ignore anything made before they were born, would no doubt respond to their appearance with a querying “Huh?!”

Though suspecting some entertainment might have been eked out of giving The A–Team another spin, this time listening to the audio commentary to see whether Carnahan would make a stab at justifying the film’s worthless existence, it didn’t seem worth wasting any more precious time on. So I wasted more precious time on something else instead. As well as an aversion to daft television series, I spent the 1980s and 90s trying to steer well clear of the crass action movies featuring moronic, monosyllabic, muscle–bound lunkheads, although the memory of being taken to see Cobra still gives me chills. The upshot of this was that any novelty value The Expendables was supposed to have was totally lost on me.

With its bland production values, if this was meant to be a throwback to the movies that helped make stars of the veteran actors, well before most of them ended up looking like whole sides of beef thrown from the back of a refrigerated truck and run over by all the traffic behind it, shouldn’t it have also embraced the filmmaking practices of those times before CGI crippled invention and the violent videogame aesthetic pushed acts of brutality to extremes? There was a real ingenuity to, say, Dick Smith’s makeup effects for The Godfather, making a scene like Sonny Corleone’s almost balletic death throes during the tollbooth ambush utterly unforgettable. In The Expendables the truly expendable minions were instantly turned into a pixel purée by rounds that were almost artillery shells, with a repetition that negated the initial shock value and frittered away any dramatic currency. Still, I suppose I should be thankful they hadn’t bothered to cast Jean–Claude Van Spam.

In the lackluster hinterland between Christmas and the New Year I tried to fill two hours of the yawning void with Scott Pilgrim vs The World. Obviously that too was a big mistake. Unaware of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s series of graphic novels, which is something I can happily live with, but all too aware of Michael Cera cornering the market when it comes to playing slackers, which is something I can happily live without, all I can remember of the wretched experience is that the film seriously needed a course of methylphenidate to make it even remotely bearable and, like Kick Ass before it, made me realize “I’m getting too old for this shit”, (a phrase I’ve never used before and hope to never use again).

Before that, however, came How To Train Your Dragon. I can’t say I was expecting much. Over the years I’ve found myself in a love–hate relationship with Pixar and Dreamworks’ computer–generated animated features insomuch that I love the former and hate the latter. After the unappealing Antz the studio had a well–deserved hit with Shrek, delighting in filling the frame with such barely contained vitriol for The Walt Disney Company that the film appeared to be influenced more by Kim Masters’ scathing The Keys to the Kingdom than William Steig’s original fairy tale. But once the studio got that off its chest successive features lazily fell back on celebrity stunt voice casting, painfully obvious gags that wouldn’t have made it into an episode of The Flintstones let alone The Simpsons, and an over–reliance on contemporary pop culture references that were dated before each film finished production.

Now that computer animation has reached the point where, given enough time and money, any damn thing you please can be rendered in all its gigabyte glory, without a good story and well–developed characters to bind everything together what appears on screen becomes nothing more than very expensive moving wallpaper. For the discerning viewer, Dreamworks have never hit the heights achieved by Pixar because they blithely ignored investing both story and characters with a real emotional heart. Based on Cressida Cowell’s series of children’s books featuring Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, aka “the Dragon Whisperer”, How To Train Your Dragon mercifully dialled down on the usual shtick but just couldn’t let go of the snarky teen dialogue that kept me at arm's–length.

In the plus side it was a vast improvement on Monsters vs. Aliens, which I tried watching on a few occasions over the summer, usually giving up somewhere around the twenty–minute mark. In terms of content, How To Train Your Dragon felt like the closest Dreamworks have come to producing a more traditional Disney animation, although I’m not sure whether that was because it amplified the moral of the story more than usual or came down to the fact that visually Toothless, the injured Night Fury dragon befriended by Hiccup, constantly reminding me of a less maniacal version of Experiment 626 from Lilo & Stitch, also co–directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois before the studio showed them the door.

With those films out the way, all that was left were the two big hitters from the summer to catch up on: Toy Story 3 and Inception. There’s a lot to be said about film trilogies and belated sequels, most of it not good. Apart from a very few rare exceptions, they’re another bad example of commerce striding in bold as brass and punching artistry square in the face. They may be a easy way to bring in some extra cash but a really botched follow–up can tarnish the original, violently raping it’s initial inventiveness, with The Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean and The Mummy trilogies being prime examples. And did we really need Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? Or the soulless Star Wars prequels? Or... well, fill in any number of blanks yourself.

At least Pixar have enough of a reputation for audiences to know they’re not out to be fleeced by carpetbagging hacks, and though this third film may not have seemed necessary after so many years, it brought closure to the tale of Andy’s toys with marvellously astute creativity and taut storytelling. If the studio had released Toy Story 3 a couple of years back it would have really bowled me over, but coming in the wake of Wall–E and Up it felt like two steps back. Whereas both those films have instances in their begins, middles and ends that can still reduce me to a blubbering wreck, in Toy Story 3 there was only one point – when the toys all join hands, finally accepting the especially unpleasant fate they expect to befall them – that there was a slight tightness in the throat and a moistening of the eyes, but it didn’t go beyond that.

If the big emotional payoff didn’t pack the same punch as those previous releases I can only put that down to personal circumstances. As a wee lad I didn’t have a lot of toys to play with, which I should say was through choice rather than some kind of Dickensian deprivation, preferring to build model kits, play board games and, more importantly, read and draw insatiably. Moving at regular occasions during my childhood as my folks changed businesses, meaning new houses and new schools, any totems of those salad days started to get left by the wayside early on. The succession of new environments meant that contemporaries came and went with an almost alarming rapidity, regrettably inuring me to people leaving in my later years, which figures in the subtext of those final scenes.

Since they didn’t get to me the same way a worn–out robot yearning to hold hands or an old man carrying the weight of his life on his back did, it may mean I need to watch Toy Story 3 a few more times for it to sink in. Before then came the new film from Christopher Nolan. I don’t think I need to go on and on about how much I loathed The Dark Knight, which went on and on far too long, repeatedly bludgeoning home the moral dilemmas that I got the first time, thankyouverymuch! While The Prestige was far better, going to see the film having been informed in advance there was a big twist, though not knowing what it was, meant that from the get–go I was trying to work out the angle rather than sitting back and enjoying the story.

A summer movie that requires audiences to actually think for a change is certainly going to get press attention, especially when people’s brains have been deadened by far too many seasons of mindless blockbuster escapades. The problem with the one or two films that, if we’re lucky, annually stand head and shoulders above the rest, is divorcing them from the attendant hype to avoid disappointment. Even though it wasn’t my thing, probably the reason I wasn’t swayed into buying any of the original line of Star Wars toys, helping George Lucas make his millions, was that after seeing the movie, that first time as a pre–teen, I walked out of the cinema feeling that it hadn’t lived up to expectations.

However long you wait for hype to wash away there’ll always be a residue of anticipation that lingers like a faded stain, but I tried to come to Inception with clean hands and a memory flushed from comments that it had thematic comparisons with The Matrix and Avatar, with characters finding themselves wired up to live another life, or was too damned complicated to understand on the first viewing. As it turned out Inception didn’t appear to be as labyrinthine as I expected. Calling Ellen Page’s newly hired dream architect Ariadne was the one instance where it made me wince for trying to be too clever for it’s own good and discovering Leonardo DiCaprio was being vexed by a dead wife brought up the horrible aftertaste of Shutter Island, but it was all good.

Except, in the end, however clever the concept, particularly the idea that within each successive dream–within–a–dream exponentially affords more time in an increasingly unstable environment, after so much set up the resolutions didn’t feel that satisfying. Obviously the massive budget required a mass appeal blockbuster but as the credits rolled I was left wondering whether the idea might have had far more substance either in prose or as a television serial. Instead of any comparison to other movies, Inception reminded me most of Channel 4’s Grand Designs and an episode that showcases a rather unique and remarkably well–constructed property that upon completion turns out to be something I could admire but not particularly want to live in.

So that was it: a half dozen films to round off the year. I guess in total I didn’t see much more than two–dozen new releases either in the increasingly unfriendly environs of the local multiplex or from the comfort of my home sofa. Thankfully times have changed so that if you fail to catch a movie during its theatrical release it means waiting a couple of years before it ends up on television, unless it comes back around as part of a double bill. Just before I settled down to start watching this final round up, Filmography 2010 appeared on YouTube to helpfully show me how many titles I had missed, and how much catching up I had to do if I wanted to put in the effort. (Although to be fair it does include a number of features yet to be released over here).

Apart from being a handy guide to what came out last year, hopefully the piece has been watched by the folk who keep posting their supposedly jokey mashups on YouTube so that they finally learn there is actually a real art to editing. Of course juxtaposition can be funny, but it’s even funnier if you cut it just right. While the difference between a good filmmaker and a bad filmmaker is huge, the difference between a good editor and a bad editor is a yawning chasm that can kill the end result stone dead.

Although the reel reminds me to look out for The Social Network, which I assume will be coming to disc sometime around Easter, around the 3:20 mark there’s a clip from what was probably one of my favourite new releases of 2010, Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Robert Harris’ The Ghost. It was the film I should have seen instead of wasting time watching Clash of the Titans (where no titans actually clashed), so I had to wait for the DVD. And it was well worth the wait. A cracking Hitchcockian thriller from start to finish, it benefited greatly from taking the ending of the book, which worked brilliantly in print, and replacing it with an utterly superb visual resolution.

Of course in the end it comes down to sitting back and watching something I’m going to enjoy. Tagged back in the summer by Stephen Gallagher to list the films that I’ll watch any number of times and finally responding at the beginning of September, not long afterwards Fred Zinnemann’s The Day of the Jackal started popping up at regular intervals on ITV4’s schedule and every time, no matter how late it started, I’d find myself watching it. So maybe the answer is to stick with what you know or have something to go back to when contemporary movies fail.

This year I suppose there’s no point resolving to make a better effort, again. 2011 may be starting out with the usual BAFTA–bait like The King’s Speech and the Coen Brothers’ True Grit but down the line there’s a wholly unnecessary, third Transformers movie, even more unnecessary Pirates of the Caribbean nonsense, and another go at Conan the Barbarian, in 3D, which makes me bilious just contemplating it. So I’m beginning to think that if I ever make it to the cinema in the next twelve months it might be an idea to simply stick to foreign language films.

A year or more since I bought The Lives of Others and Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long, the DVDs remained unwatched on the shelves. It’s not that I don’t want to see either of them, it’s just that a subtitled film requires more attention. Watching at home, where sometimes I’ll watch a film from my desk, there are more reasons to momentarily takes your eyes off the screen and accidentally miss vital plot points. As much as I tried to make an effort watching The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo on DVD there were a good number of instances when I was reaching for the remote to replay a scene or two. I suppose I’ll have to wait and see.

So, in brief, my favourite new releases of the year turned out to be Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood and The Ghost. But the best experience I had in a cinema in 2010 turned out to be this.


At 9:55 am, Blogger Unknown said...

That was a very nice review - must have taken you a long time to write it. Thanks! I actually enjoyed "The A Team" - I thought the chemistry that was non-existent in the execrable "Let's just pick up a pay cheque" Expendables was present, and although it was nonsense it was fun nonsense.

I'm afraid I loved "The Dark Knight" and it's a film I've enjoyed re-watching several times, with what is fast becoming one of my favourite scores (although it's annoying that every other composer now seems to be ripping it off), but "Inception" left me rather cold. Clever, but lacking in any kind of emotion.

And I'm afraid "Shutter Island", with all of its unsubtle Hitchcockian B-movie revelry, was one of my favourite films of the year - a guilty pleasure perhaps.

However, looking through my favourite films, I too find that foreign films make up the vast majority, with "Departures", "Mother", "The Prophet" and "Carlos" (the extended TV mini-series edition) being particular standouts. There IS something wrong when the best films are those you end up having to "read" rather than watch.

At 1:17 am, Blogger Good Dog said...


Well, yes and no. Because I’ve been rather lax of late, only managing to publish one post a month on average, this one stitched together a whole lot of scribbles I’d hurriedly jotted down over the past few months and never got around to properly writing up.

I can’t remember the score for The Dark Knight, but then apart from my problem with the length the sound mix at the Odeon Leicester Square, where I originally saw it, was so awful I probably didn’t hear it, much like most of the dialogue.

The thing with Shutter Island is that I’m a committed reader of Dennis Lehane’s books, loving the Kenzie & Gennaro series and Mystic River. Unfortunately I wasn’t bowled over with Shutter Island when I snapped up the hardback. On screen I wasn’t that taken with the found music soundtrack, especially the intrusive tracks that sounded like a vulture with a broken neck trying to hawk up phlegm.

Still, the thing to do is to find films you enjoy rather than watch the ones you’re told to watch or told to enjoy.

Oh, and talking of soundtracks, I’ve been listening to Carter Burwell’s superb music for True Grit. I’m not sure it’ll make me go to the movie when it comes out. When I first saw the trailers on the Apple site I found myself straining to hear what the characters were saying. There appears to be some mumbling, which my hearing won’t be able to pick up. So as much as I’m intrigued to see it, I think I’m going to have to wait and “read” that one.

At 12:04 pm, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

I think you'll like THE LIVES OF OTHERS but lest it tempt the gods I won't put any money on that. I thought it a beautifully composed, understated thriller with a heart and a brain. Production values are top-drawer Hollywood but apparently it was made for buttons.

I'd been putting off THE GHOST because I wasn't sure that I'd be able to view it other than through the filter of the extradition controversy. But there's no denying Polanski's absolute command of classical cinecraft. For me the experience was like that of reading a serviceable potboiler in a first-class cabin. Issues from outside the movie didn't intrude. With respect to which, I had to settle for feeling guilty about not feeling guilty.

At 5:35 am, Blogger Good Dog said...


Since I’m going through a lethal bout of insomnia this month, getting about two hours sleep a day, I settle down to The Lives of Others one of these nights. I’m still not going to check out the budget until after I’ve watched it.

Perhaps if I had seen The Ghost when it first came out – and if I remember right, it was the film I was planning to see instead of Clash of the Titans but got there too late, I would have had the controversy knocking around in the back of my head. What was the joke over here...? The Ghost got a 15 certificate but Polanski claimed it was an 18?!

So waiting for the DVD the distance helped. An absolute potboiler, and the throwback to the sort of films to watch on a wet weekend, but it’s nice to see something that isn’t all hollow flash. I loved that the unnamed ghost writer, who says right at the beginning that he knows nothing about politics, is even more out of his depth than JJ Gittes.

Ewan McGregor might not have been completely right for the role but better than Nicholas Cage who was the first choice. Still, Olivia Williams was terrific and even in the one scene, it’s the best work I’ve seen Jim Belushi do since Thief and Salvador.

At 9:41 am, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

Belushi was so edgy a presence that for a moment I didn't quite believe it was him.


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