Quick Bits

I’m cobbling together my Top 10 of the year, playing crazy catch-up to fit in as many missed on cinema release as possible. Only God Forgives, Mud and The Act of Killing are likely to be referenced at the end of December, so I’ll refrain from writing further until I’ve finished gathering my thoughts. It’s been a startlingly impressive eleven (.5) months, with no shortage of great work vying for celebration at years end.

 Brief recent shit:

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. All together rounder and richer than the first film, impressive in scope and ambition with a terrific Jennifer Lawrence and propulsive, purposeful setpieces. Lionsgate has a franchise on their hands here that seems determined to prove itself more relevant and interesting than anything pooped out over the summer season.

Saving Mr Banks. Great, sparky cast let down by over-reliance on convention, poor structure and bland direction. In conclusion – unremarkable, solid entertainment with some nice sequences and strong Hanks moustache. Disney will push it big for awards contention but beyond the performances, there’s nothing with the bite to warrant standing alongside the years best.

‘Philomena’ (Stephen Frears, 2013)

Stephen Frears has fashioned a thirty-year career out of these sorts of middlebrow dramas, though rarely are they anchored by a story as immediately compelling as Martin Sixsmith’s The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. Unlike fellow travellers, the Stephen Daldry’s of this world and so on, Frears never milks the tragedy to play to the back of a room. He’s very much a film and television guy, no theatrical background pushing for those overwrought moments to hit the balcony seats. Frears is a better filmmaker than most of his British contemporaries because he services the material he’s given, whether it’s Nick Hornby, Peter Morgan or, in this case, Sixsmith’s book, he’ll shape the thing to fit its desired format and intended audience, and he’ll always underplay the big moment if it’s the right thing to do.

Aside from the best original score of the year (another bow for the unstoppable Alexandre Desplat), Philomena features two perfectly observed, tightly complimentary performances from the never better Judi Dench and (co-writer) Steve Coogan, both funny, charming, and knocking lightly through the journey without smoothing down those rougher edges around their characters.

‘Gravity’ (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)

I remember thinking about three years ago that the actors turning down Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Gravity’ project might live to regret it. Before settling on Bullock and Clooney, a multitude of potential pairings seemed to float by, all inexplicably rejecting what was always going to be a very special opportunity. From the beginning it seemed clear that if the conceptual ambition of the film could be realised on screen, its stunning reality would leave those numerous disinterested groups regretting their haste in turning away.

I found Gravity an almost overwhelming audiovisual experience, immersive in a way few films dare, wrapped in the sights and dangers of a wholly foreign world over 200 miles above the Earth, whilst succeeding, ultimately, not just because of its bold, mesmerising visuals but because Cuarón never loses sight of the human story. For all the technical achievements, and each frame is rich with them, it’s the raw, survival thriller at the heart that really takes hold, reminding me more of Joe Carnahan’s The Grey than an Apollo 13.

As a critic of the increasing pervasiveness of 3D across major releases, I remain cautious when each fresh release rumoured to be the one to ‘convert’ the unconvinced passes without stirring any sort of reassessment. Gravity, for all its triumph as a feat of cinematography, galvanises my view that the 3D effect should be isolated to IMAX theatres, and the sorts of releases capable of capitalising on the technique. By good virtue of being largely animated (always a benefit) and unusually featuring no fixed-camera points, it’s the rare, almost unique, example of a film that might, dare I say it, benefit from the stretched depth of stereoscopy. My mind isn’t changed about the number of releases abusing the format solely for commercial reasons, none of which achieve anything for the furthering of the photographic arts, but as for Gravity – it’s my most positive 3D experience since Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express.

‘Ender’s Game’ (Gavin Hood, 2013)/‘Thor: The Dark World’ (Alan Taylor, 2013)

I read, and enjoyed, the Orson Scott Card novel of Ender’s Game some fifteen years ago, though any residual affection hasn’t really passed over to this competent, albeit unremarkable, adaptation. I’m not sure how long the development process has been going on for, but I can’t help feeling this film probably should’ve been shot in the eighties, with plastic sets and dodgy wirework giving a nostalgic sheen that slick, modern special effects will never share. I feel bad for director Gavin Hood, the pressures of a sizeable budget forcing a thoughtful text to conform to audience expectations of a visually punchy seasonal blockbuster. Elysium, another troubled late-summer mixed bag, had similar problems – on that occasion the heavy-handed commentary was layered on too explicitly, and it felt swamped by the mess of interesting ideas fighting for space over its limited runtime.

Thor: The Dark World (aka – character actors play dress up) is every bit the pantomime of the first. A couple of years ago I praised Kenneth Branagh’s confident troupe for embracing the theatricality of this nutty universe and getting away with playing it so broadly with their OTT costumes and ever-so-slightly exaggerated accents. Replacement director Alan Taylor, like Branagh, combines his skill as a dramatist with a certain lightness of touch that continues to help this fantasy/comicbook hybrid franchise ride its wave of innate silliness without so much as a flicker of doubt. For their unashamed silliness, the Thor films are probably my favourite of the current Avengers standalones. May they never mature.

‘Captain Phillips’ (Paul Greengrass, 2013)

Paul Greengrass is the master of these intense, docu-dramaesque pieces. His two Bourne sequels succeeded not just because of Tony Gilroy’s screenplays or Matt Damon’s charisma, but because Greengrass, beyond those cynical accusations that handheld is an easy mans game, brought a grubby legitimacy to a Hollywood thriller so keen, as they all are, to unteather itself from any sort of reality. Whether it’s Damon leaping between buildings or a real-time 9/11 re-enactment in United 93, Greengrass is there, dropping the audience right into the action. His work doesn’t quite have the breadth of vision Mark Boal’s scripts bring to Kathryn Bigelow’s similarly taut combat dramas (but then Zero Dark Thirty operates on levels few films in a lifetime dare to reach), however as a master of re-enactment, as a pop purveyor of tension in nail biting contemporary thrillers, there’s no one else out there quite like him.

Working with a bona fide auteur like Greengrass might be the smartest move Tom Hanks has made in some time. With the exception of Cloud Atlas (which I kinda loved – in spite of itself), Hanks has been slumming it for years, bubbling along nicely on the Robert Langdon paycheques and neglecting his quite unique rapport with audiences. It’s a sublimely effective, perfectly cast role, that catapults him back to relevance and the inevitable awards season circus. Greengrass, for all his concern with the propulsive, immediacy of unfolding events, allows his leading man loose on the full playground of his range in a way I don’t think I’ve seen since the Robert Zemeckis collaborations.

Hanks, for all his poster-topping status, has always been a terrific team player and works well with the unknown Somali co-stars, finding common ground together in the (accurate) view that Somalia is generally pretty rubbish unless you’re Mo Farah or a khat-chewing gang boss. The young Barkhad Abdi as the head pirate is especially strong, expressing the strange sort of buried humanity a lesser performer (or director, for that matter) could quite easily ignore.

‘Machete Kills’ (Robert Rodriguez, 2013)

Robert Rodriguez’ production style doesn’t always lend itself to coherence. About a decade ago, the freedom of a backyard studio and work-hungry Texan troupe pushed the talented writer/producer/director/editor/composer into a world of indulgence where bringing on board his children to co-write suddenly seemed a smart idea. Prolific to the point of madness, a sequel like Machete Kills ends up having more in common with one of those Friedberg & Seltzer parody movies than the B-pictures of his youth, quickie ideas thrown together on cheap sets with a cast largely composed of friends. Now, Rodriguez is too naturally gifted for any of his work to deteriorate to Disaster Movie or Meet the Spartans levels of inanity, but its increasingly clear that beyond the tremendous Trejo (who I have a lot of time for), these Machete pictures lack the authenticity or fun of true Z-trash. I just can’t help thinking a badass like Machete would fit better into the Expendables or Fast & Furious teamups than carrying his own franchise. Machete Kills Again…in Space? Well, if anything’s going to win me back, space sequel is the trick.

‘Sunshine on Leith’ (Dexter Fletcher, 2013)/’Prisoners’ (Denis Villeneuve, 2013)

Knowing next to nothing about The Proclaimers, I’m ill equipped to assess whether jukebox musical Sunshine on Leith satisfies the hardcore that’ve pined over every syllable of their back catalogue for thirty years. My emotional baggage, for better or worse, limited to a spike of delight whenever the camera glosses over the Edinburgh scenery, I found this something of a voyage of discovery, engaging with the songs simply in the context of Dexter Fletcher’s film without worrying about omitted favourites or oversight. On this level, I found it inordinately satisfying, charming and a reminder of the quite unique pleasures the movie musical can offer. After being so down on Tom Hooper’s over-wrought and mangled stab at Les Misérables this spring, it’s nice to be reminded that when enough is done early to forge those essential emotional connections, there’s much delight to seeing well-drawn characters break into song.

Prisoners reminded me of those crisp, frosty Scandinavian thrillers that keep blessing TV and film, director Denis Villeneuve bringing a little French-Canadian charm and some sharp old Roger Deakins photography to the North American setting. It’s long, satisfying, but ever-so-slightly generic with the central moral conundrum conflicting somewhat with the pulpier elements.

The cast are uniformly excellent and get to dig in deep, Jackman growling through the opportunity to indulge in his dark side whilst Gyllenhaal builds on strong recent work in End of Watch and Source Code. I was impressed by how relentlessly dour Villeneuve’s film was, giving good reason to believe Paul Dano’s torture victim is a culpable party in the abduction whilst ceaselessly questioning the ethical implications of Jackman’s conduct. Solid.

‘Rush’ (Ron Howard, 2013)

Ron Howard gets a lot of slack for allegedly being a ‘vanilla’ director, bereft of any particular distinctive style or interest, firing out bland, sanitised studio product at intervals. I’ve always felt this unfair. Many faceless journeymen fulfil that role in the studio system, but to pick on the likeable Howard for crimes against style is to wrongly condemn one of Hollywood’s most reliable, functional filmmakers to the dustbin when he’s proven, time and time again, that his eye for projects is first class.

Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon and now Rush, beyond betraying Howard’s passion for 70s dramatisations, show a razor-sharp instinct for high-stakes character drama, never sacrificing tension or suspense despite our familiarity with the outcomes. These may be formulaic pictures, hitting the requisite emotional beats at the expected moments, but Howard always finds the hook that makes them work. Even when I can see the artifice, it’s impossible to doubt his probity and good intention. There is, at the heart of these films (even the underwhelming Cinderella Man or A Beautiful Mind), a positive, optimistic voice that brings these stories to screen with great performances and impeccable period detail.

Rush, given the relative restraint of Howard’s other work, morphs periodically into a kinetic, aggressively edited and exciting racing film, more in common with vintage Tony Scott than any staid or stodgy biopic. It’s an unexpected and appealing development for Howard, showing the possibility of flair outside his usual comfort zone and boding well for his Dark Tower adaptation, assuming it ever finds financial backing. I can’t pretend to any particular expertise in F1 history, but Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl nail the Hunt/Lauda relationship, bouncing nicely around Peter Morgan’s script and proving equally adept at handling both the nuance of their rivalry and the intensity of the setpieces.

‘Insidious: Chapter 2’ (James Wan, 2013)

Picking up immediately where the first film left off, and drawing the story of the central family to a close, this new Insidious movie feels like a fledging horror franchise carving out that brave first step beyond the original to a world of opportunity ahead. Call me a maniac, but I’ve a great affection for the bizarre self-contained mythologies of the best multi-part horror series. When I think of these Insidious films, astral-projection and their foggy soundstage ‘further’, I’m taken back to the whacked out fun of Hellbound: Hellraiser II and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors.

Following The Conjuring – one of the year’s best – director James Wan could be accused of over indulgence, or maybe just a ramped up work ethic that’s enabled him to slam out a quickie Insidious follow-up for his second 2013 release, but I really believe he’s firing on all cylinders here, sucking the scares from Leigh Whannell’s soggy script and grabbing the opportunity to expand his oeuvre into a little body horror to supplement the requisite creaking floorboards and floating furniture. Surely by now, several films into a career, we can officially exalt Wan as the master of the scary wardrobe!

Where Insidious: Chapter 2 may lose fans is with screenwriter Whannell’s obsessive focus on retroactive continuity and nods to the first entry. His three Saw scripts were similarly guilty of jumping around timeframes, however this goes further, playing the Back to the Future II game of using a time travel device to interact with the events of Chapter 1. For me, that’s fine, I love that sort of shit, but for all but the most eagle-eyed genre fan it’s a decadent and irritating departure from the restrained spooks and jumps that defined the first hour of that first film. No longer are the team content to let the simple scares suffice, this is a crazed, silly universe now of beardy psychics, transsexual serial killer witches, and smiley ghosts.

‘Insidious VIII: University demon and the space poltergeist’ (2021). I want it now!!

‘Riddick’ (David Twohy, 2013)

For anyone who thought the Fast & Furious franchise was Big Vin’s paean to his closeted homosexuality, his five films as Dominic Toretto don’t even come close to the penchant for man love displayed over two hours of this third entry for Dicky B RideDick, cutely titled after its rapey lead. When Riddick isn’t whispering seductively at muscle-bound mercs or trying to chat up hardass lesbians, he’s casting his memory back to the overwrought ambition of 2004’s Chronicles of Riddick, ignoring the allure of a bedfull of Necromonger escorts in favour of more time with Karl Urban’s buff military commander.

I’m staggered this film exists. Chronicles crumbled under its own pretensions, losing a small fortune on cinema release, a significant enough financial failure to (under other circumstances) banish the character forever to late night ITV2 screenings of Pitch Black. A revitalised career and a slashed budget go a long way though to heal the wounds of commercial failure, and the Diesel/Twohy power team are back for a third stab, stripping back to the culty, B-movie heart of their strange mythology and pumping out a workable, meaty little genre picture. This allows for a sense of fun completely absent from the previous film, letting Diesel’s peculiar sense of humour off the leash and dropping quips as he dispatches bad guys in a film that best resembles a madcap combination of an 80s slasher picture and Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away. Diesel, in a move built to later tear out hearts, even has an animated alien dog thing as a pet. Yes, it’s really that level of crazy silly. I’m there already for Riddick IV: Generic Subtitle.

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