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Monday, January 18, 2010

THE ROAD (2009) - John Hillcoat

Cormac McCarthy is currently viewed as America’s greatest living author. His books are bestsellers and No Country For Old Men, released as a film in 2007, was a multi-Oscar winning film. His Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road, a post-apocalyptic road story has now been turned into a film by The Proposition director, John Hillcoat. The book was outstanding, but can the adaptation live up to what is viewed as a modern classic?

The world is dying. After some unnamed apocalyptic event, society has crumbled, millions are dead, and those who survive face a hopeless, grey, dark future. A man and his son travel alone along a road, heading for the coast. They don’t know what they will find there. But they will do all they can to survive the journey. Along the way, the encounter gangs of violent killers, people forced into cannibalism, and lone survivors, trying to find a life but without much hope.

Sounds like a pretty upbeat and joyful film, eh?! It is a grim and relentlessly downbeat film, however there is plenty of beauty to be found within. Central to this are the performances. The cast is populated by very few characters. Other than the man and the boy, most other humans they encounter last barely a few scenes before they are dispatched, or go on their own way. And yet there is not one performance that is in any way weak. The whole film hinges on the relationship between the father and his son. It is through their eyes that we see this dying world. The father is a pragmatist, and will kill to protect his son, the light of his world, and one of the few pure things left in their world. Yet despite his pragmatism, his humanity is been sapped by the fear, paranoia and hopelessness of their situation, and it is up to his son to keep him from losing his humanity completely.

This was the overriding theme of the book, and Hillcoat has successfully managed to retain this vital element in the film. Central to his success is his superb casting of Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the father and son respectively. Mortensen conveys his desperation to instil good values in his son while fighting a situation that brings out the worst in humanity superbly. He successfully manages to be the average man stuck in extraordinarily grim circumstances. Newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee mixes the wide-eyed innocence of a boy who is aware that the world is a dangerous place, but still has the innocence that comes with wanting to be the good guys. And he manages to balance these two elements perfectly. These are two remarkably subtle performances and embody the characters of the book superbly. Also making appearances are Michael K. Williams and Robert Duvall. Both are brilliant in two tiny, yet pivotal roles, and in particular, Robert Duvall does outstanding work with so little to go by.

The Road could very easily have been a disaster of a film. Yet Hillcoat’s brilliant direction finds beauty in what should be a hopeless and somber film. There are few special effects. And yet the world looks like a post-apocalyptic landscape. It’s a film of remarkable subtleties and at times gut-wrenching harshness. And it’s this balance that is what makes The Road such a success. Brilliant performances, a sparse and yet poignant script and outstanding direction make The Road an outstanding start to 2010. We can only hope it’s the beginning of a trend.


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Fuck you, 2009. Don't let us down, 2010

2009. What a year. By June, I’d given up hope on finding any film worth celebrating. In fact, it was fast becoming the worst year I could think of in terms of film. By December, nothing much had changed. It was an awful, awful year. So bad, I lost interest in seeing a lot of the films released in the cinema. Hence the paltry 52 posts in the entire year. That, and laziness.
But there was hope. Despite a truly awful year for film, there were some highlights. And those highlights were fantastic. Those films that really stood out were genre pieces. In fact, out of my own personal Top 10, only two films weren’t genre pieces, or animated films. 2007 was the year of the western. 2009 was the year of sci-fi. And the differences between the sci-fi films showed that big-budget genre pieces work when thought is put into them, and small-budget genre pieces work without the need for massive budgets.
So, here’s the real Top 10 of 2009. I’m in a belligerent mood as I write this (thanks very much weather and Irish Rail), so if you don’t agree, well... go to hell!

The Critical Mass Top 10 of 2009

10. Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs- CWACOM may not be the top animated film of 2009. It won’t beat Up to the Oscar. But it is a brilliantly surreal, beautifully designed and animated, bit of laugh-out loud fun. At times it’s like a kid’s version of Silent Hill weirdness. But there’re jokes here for everyone. And a voice cast that is made up actors chosen for the role, not for their name; they’re all great as their characters. And who wouldn’t be happy to see a film in the Top 10 that features both Mr. T and Bruce Campbell?!

9. The Wrestler- Released way back in January (here), Darren Aronofsky’s film about a washed-up wrestler, played by a once washed-up actor is the perfect storm. A brilliant script, a savagely personal and brilliant performance by Mickey Rourke, and a director who is a contender for the best director working today, The Wrestler is the personal film at it’s best.

8. In The Loop- A British comedy that at the same time does and doesn’t feel like a British comedy, In The Loop is a brilliantly-written piece of savage satire. Peter Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker is a prime contender for the character of 2009, and is supported by a cast of characters who are all brilliantly written and performed. It’s rare that a film surpasses it’s television version, but In The Loop often does.

7. Star Trek- Purists may have many problems with this ‘reboot.’ But what can’t be argued is the Star Trek franchise was dead on it’s feet. In steps J.J. Abrams to give the series a shot of adrenalin. The story may not have set the world on fire. But it was fun, accessible for non-Trek fans, and Chris Pine makes for a great Kirk. Sci-fi came back with a bang.

6. Paranormal Activity- Little can be said about this film without spoiling it. And it deserves to be seen without knowing anything. A tiny budget, simple set up and terrifying pay-offs, it’s horror at it’s best.

5. Let The Right One In- I don’t like vampires. At least, I don’t like what vampires have become. They’re fucking everywhere now. But Let The Right One In is a vampire film that does away with the clichés and distils a horror film to it’s bare essentials. As much a film about fear of children as fear of vampires, Let The Right One In is lauded by those who’ve seen it. And rightly so.

4. Moon- When I saw Moon, I declared that no film would top it in 2009. It’s a brilliant debut from Duncan Jones and has two top actors at the top of their game, both of them Sam Rockwell. It’s a 1970’s paranoid sci-fi film for the 21st Century, all story and performance, with a concept that’s not that wild. And it proves you don’t need big computer effects to deliver brilliant sci-fi.

3. Avatar- But then sometimes big computer effects can blow you face off. 12 years in the making, and worth every second and penny, Avatar brought James Cameron back to what he does best- big budget, balls-out action sci-fi. Hyped to be ‘the future of cinema,’ Avatar could very well be the future of the blockbuster. A huge step forward in technology, with a world that is jaw-droppingly real, and some of the best special effects ever put to film, Avatar proves that if you want mega-budget, action-packed spectacle, put a bit of thought and care into it. Not the top of 2009, but certainly a huge step forward for the industry.

2. District 9- Simply put, the best science fiction film of the last 10 years. Alegorical, funny, tense, with both human and alien characters we can identify with, District 9 is what happens when a very talented no-budget filmmaker is picked up by a hugely successful filmmaker who also made the transition to big budget. District 9 started as a brilliantly-made short. Peter Jackson saw it and gave the director, Neill Blomkamp the money to turn it into something bigger. Blomkamp never lost his original vision and the result is a brilliant piece of sci-fi.

1. Up- It was a difficult choice between District 9 and Up. But in the end, Up is just such an achingly beautiful story, that it really just had to take the top spot. Pixar are technical geniuses. Each of their films is flawlessly executed. But none of the films have had a story quite like Up. After the first 10 minutes, the entire cinema was stunned into tearful silence. Later on, we were all creased with laughter. This wide-ranging emotional impact is rarely seen in films, let alone animated films. Pete Docter delivers a film so brilliantly executed, the real tragedy is that it wont be recognised as the best film of 2009 by the academy. There’s still a stigma that surrounds animated films; ‘ah sure they’re just for kids.’ Fuck you. Up proves that animation is no less of an art-form than live-action. A perfect film.

So, not bad all in all. Couldda been worse, I guess. But I’d like to thank the film industry for throwing out such a large proportion of films that ranged from incredibly average to just plain awful. The list above really are the diamonds in the rough. And now... ugh... onto the dregs of 2009. While I’d like to list 10 films that really bugged the shit out of me, truth be told, I avoided a hell of a lot of films this year. So you won’t see the likes of The Time Traveller’s Wife, Year One, The Ugly Truth or 2012 on this list. The last of which is actually a shame. Emmerich’s becoming something of a regular fixture on the worst-of lists, so it feels kinda lacking without him. Anyways, here are seven films I wish I could erase from history, all of which were released in 2009.

7. Orphan- Whoah, nelly, is this a stinker. It’s a tense psychological thriller. Or else, it wants to be. But the scene where a ‘nine year old’ seduces her adopted father is both jaw-droppingly misguided and unintentionally hilarious at the same time. Still, the 12 year old Isabelle Fuhrman makes for one hell of a villain.

6. Knowing- What a wonderful thing it is to watch Nicholas Cage single-handedly destroy his own career. Why? Because when he’s good, he’s very good. But when he’s bad, he’s the Wicker Man. And Knowing continues the trend of gravitas in the face of laughably stupid premise. Knowing is bad M. Night Shyamalan. Which, after Lady In The Water and The Happening is pretty fucking awful. While I watched this ludicrous film of disasters leading to an ‘event,’ as I witnessed Cage’s character race stupidly into the middle of a plane crash, I couldn’t help but smile. Art imitates life.

5. X-Men Origins: Wolverine- What happens when you take a well-established, much-loved genre character, $150 million dollars and give them to a director who clearly has no idea where to point the camera and what special effects should look like? You get Wolverine. Terrible script, worse director and CGI that is so shockingly poor, I thought I was watching the internet-leaked workprint. I know Hugh Jackman loves playing Wolverine, but Christ, the man deserves better than this.

4. Angels And Demons- They’ve stolen a Higgs Bosun particle from the Large Hadron Collider! Need I say any more?

3. Terminator Salvation- If this list was about the films that had the most potential, the most expectation surrounding it, and still managed to turn the film into one giant cluster-fuck, Terminator Salvation would win. The first time I saw it, I’ll admit, I thought it was all right. But I reckon I was suffering from swine flu... or something. What can I say about McG? I’ll refrain from mentioning the fact that his name is absolutely fucking shit. The only thing going for it is it takes longer to type the word shit than it does ‘McG.’ Anyway, Terminator Salvation. A film made up of stupid decisions. The omnipotent and brutal Skynet keep their distance and don’t really bother the humans instead of wiping them out in one quick operation? Skynet has human-sized corridors and human-friendly interfaces? They build USB ports into their killer-bike things? They have killer-bike things? They allowed the director of the Charlie’s Angels films get his talentless mits on this? Either James Cameron is still wiping the tears of laughter off his cheek after seeing this mess, or else he’s wiping a tear off his cheek after witnessing what’s become of the iconic franchise he created.

2. G.I. Joe- How does Stephen Sommers still have a career? His resume reads like a list of war crimes. The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, Van Helsing and now G.I. Joe. This ghastly pile of garbage is just a load of clichés, badly-written characters, flash-backs (the talentless writer’s crutch to avoid putting thought into writing) and inexcusably poor special effects. Marlon Wayans used up any credibility he gained by being in a Darren Aronofsky film a long, long time ago. Any director, other than his equally talentless brother, Keenen, who hires this ‘actor’ should immediately hand in his DGA membership. The only redeeming thing about G.I. Joe is that I saw it on an airplane and didn’t have to pay to see it.

1. Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen- Michael Bay. Essentially a pornographer with a budget of $200,000,000 but a strict warning to keep it PG13. Treats his female characters with all the subtlety and chivalry of Ted Bundy. Treats the audience like they’re drooling idiots. And in some way, they are. Including me. For paying for this inexcusably bad film. Megan Fox. Somehow missed the bus for pornography central and wound up in Hollywood. Has as much talent as a pair of tits whittled from wood. Has dark, soulless eyes, not unlike those of a shark. Can’t even manage to run convincingly. Shia LaBeouf. Fuck him. He contributed to killing Indiana Jones. John Turturro. Oh my god, how the mighty have fallen. Has gone from being a Coen Brothers darling to stripping down to a g-string for a cheap laugh.
There is so much wrong with Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen that it actually hurts my brain to try and remember it all. Logic is thrown out the window. Geography is bafflingly ignored. The pyramids at Giza are wilfully destroyed because, ya know, fuck the Egyptians. America has shit to blow up. Robot testicles. Robot heaven. Also, side-kicks and incidental characters are so incredibly racist, even George Lucas must shake his head in disbelief. I’ve said it before, and I’m saying it again. FUCK YOU MICHAEL BAY.

Four bad, and three awful films. Have to congratulate Michael Bay though. He’s managed to make the film I most hate in the world. I have a list of bad films. But they’re just bad. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen actually makes me angry.

And in a change to regular programming, since I couldn’t come up with at least ten bad films of 2009, I’ll share with you some things that made me smile in 2009. You lucky people! Little bits of media that made the year that little bit more pleasant. They may be worth checking out, you may hate them. But they made me skip, jump, head-bang and shriek with delight! Also, these are in no particular order.


Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe- After five seasons of Screenwipe, the foul-mouthed, yet incredibly insightful TV pundit turned his eye to news on television. Informative, eye-opening and always hilarious, it thankfully returns to television in January. Sometime.

David Attenborough’s Life In The Undergrowth- Yeah, yeah. It was released in 2005. But I only got to see it this year. And fuck me, is it crazy. A more appropriate title would have been David Attenborough’s I Swear, We’re Not Making This Shit Up. It’s absolutely engrossing and at times, completely unbelievable. Fantastic viewing.

The Office- The US version. I thought this series would have run out of steam a long time ago, but Season Five still seems fresh, mainly thanks to Steve Carrell, Rainn Wilson and Ed Helms. It’s pretty clear a lot of what these guys do is improvised, but that just makes it even better. And Steve Carrell is actually a pretty damn fine actor.

Flight Of The Conchords- Season Two of this brilliant series aired this year. The comedy was sharper, the songs catchier and Murray had more to do. The series is over now, but at least it went out on a high.

Battlestar Galactica- I know, a lot of people were disappointed in the ending. But I wasn’t. Sometimes we don’t need to be spoon-fed answers, and life doesn’t always deal in absolutes. And while it’s clear Ronald D. Moore had a bit of a hard time trying to tie up loose ends, the series was so strong overall, that I’ll forgive it it’s faults. And also, The Plan was a damn fine watch.

It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia- Good lord, it doesn’t get more low-brow or vulgar as this. And that’s what’s so good about it. And it’s absolutely incredible to see how far an Oscar-nominated actor like Danny Devito is willing to go. Frank Reynolds, I salute you!


Gallows- Grey Britain- Anger-infused punk is back. And it’s fucking awesome.

Florence And The Machine- Lungs- Helluva debut album. Full of really catch songs, and Florence Welch has a helluva voice.

Dan Deacon- Bromst- Great album, even better live gig.

La Roux- La Roux- Only discovered this in the last week or so, but it’s pretty damn good.

Fuck Buttons- Tarot Sport- These guys create a sound that is incredibly epic sound. Loud, bombastic electronic noise. Brilliant.

Susan Boyle- I Dreamed A Dream- Simply incredible. No, really. Nah, just kidding. If I have to hear about this ‘phenomenon’ again, I may just put a skewer through my ears.


Street Fighter IV- There's no need for any other fighting game to exist. As close to the perfect fighting game as any game has achieved. Maybe Super Street Fighter IV will perfect the game.

Batman: Arkham Asylum- The best super-hero game ever made. One of the most solid, well-designed, brilliantly written games I’ve ever played, it’s also a game I flew through in a week as it was so addictive. The combat is simple, yet unrelentingly fun, and both Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprise their roles of Batman and The Joker respectively. Amazing fun.

Left 4 Dead 2- Improved on it’s predecessor in many ways. Simple premise. Multiplayer gaming in it’s purest form. Funny, gruesome, often terrifying, always action-packed.

Assassin’s Creed 2- Got this for Christmas. Played it nearly every day since. Free-running is pure fun, the violence is brutal and savage, and it’s an actioner with puzzle elements. Could end up being crap. Most likely won’t.

Canabalt- Have you got an iPhone or an iPod Touch? Then get Canabalt. The premise is simple. Jump over obstacles while the city crumbles around you. But it’s incredibly addictive. Hell, even if you don’t have one of Steve Job’s gadgets, go here.


Sheikra, Busch Gardens, Florida- I visited Busch Gardens 10 years ago. It was (and remains) the best theme park in Florida. And Sheikra, the latest roller-coaster in the park is balls-out terrifying. I hate heights. So a coaster that drops you from two heights is right up my street. It's brilliant, and worth checking out if you go stateside.

So there you have it. Some of the shit I liked in 2009. So what’s there to look forward to in 2010. Well, first up, The Road. It’s an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, and while stateside, they’ve already seen and done this, it’s our turn here in Europe. The book was brilliant and painfully beautiful. Can The Proposition’s John Hillcoat do it justice?

Peter Jackson’s ambitious The Lovely Bones could go either way. It’s not a massive release like Lord Of The Rings, or the upcoming Tintin, but the guy does special effects very well, so it could be very good. The old monster, The Wolfman gets revisited. Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins and Hugo Weaving headline, so on paper, it looks good. But Joe Johnston has his ups and downs, so it could go either way.

Leonardo DiCaprio has two pretty big films coming out this year. First of all, there’s Shutter Island, the new film directed by Martin Scorsese. To me, judging by the trailer, it looks like a very stylish Wicker Man (the original and best one. Not the balls remake).

And then there’s Inception, the film I’m most looking forward to. Word has it, it cost more to make than The Dark Knight. It’s Christopher Nolan doing original again, and nobody knows anything about it. My And considering that every new Chris Nolan film is his best film, I’m already pretty excited. Especially after seeing that second trailer.

Other stuff I’m really looking forward to is... Matt Damon, Bourne goes Baghdad in Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone... Legion looks rubbish, but high-concept fun rubbish... Ridley Scott does medieval once again with Robin Hood. And with Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett on board, it’ll at least be acted well... Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, always at their best when working together release Cemetery Junction in April... Liam Neeson plays Hannibal Smith in The A-Team. I dunno how that cannot be good... Sam Worthington tries to solidify his name as the blockbuster go-to guy with the frankly awesome looking Clash Of The Titans... and Harry Potter begins his final school year with Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 1... Oh, and some other Pixar film called Toy Story 3. Never heard of it.

2010 on paper, looks a helluva lot more promising than 2009. I, for one, hope it proves to be better. At least Michael Bay can’t put a taint on it with some awful abortion of a film. Thank heaven for small mercies.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

AVATAR (2009) - James Cameron

Twelve years ago, James Cameron released what was to become the biggest grossing film of all time, Titanic. Unfortunately, box office receipts and 11 Oscars don’t necessarily add up to a decent film. Titanic was shite. For the next few years, it seemed Cameron was obsessed with the sunken ship, and filmmaking became a side-line to his obsession. Rumours persisted that Cameron was working on a film that would change the face of cinema. It’s been well over a decade, but that film has finally arrived. Avatar.

It’s 2154. Humans have spread out into the galaxy. The RDA Corporation have set up shop on Pandora, a moon of the planet Polyphemus. RDA are after a mineral that exists on Pandora named Unobtanium. However, the indigenous species of Pandora, the Na’vi come between RDA and their mineral. In order to understand and come to some sort of agreement with the Na’vi, RDA has setup the Avatar Program. Jake Sully is the brother of one of the scientists in the Avatar Program. When his brother is killed, Sully is offered the opportunity to take his brother’s place. He steps up to the challenge and is approached by the mercenaries hired to protect RDA to infiltrate and influence the Na’vi. But Sully meets Neytiri, a princess of the Na’vi. She is charged with teaching Sully the ways of the Na’vi, and Sully soon finds himself torn between his job and the natives of Pandora.

It’s almost impossible to know where to start with Avatar. It’s not easy to just call it a film. It’s a whole lot more than that. These days, it’s almost unheard of to have a movie experience in the cinema. Everything is made to make money. We occasionally get a film that has love, care, blood and sweat pumped into it, and those films always stand out. But Avatar seems to transcend even that. It’s a film that not only tells a story, but literally creates a world, it’s inhabitants, flora, fauna and mythology. Cameron is known for his attention to detail, technical ability and immersive worlds. But here, he’s outdone even himself.

The story is pretty much what you’ve heard of by now. It’s Dances With Wolves in space. It’s not that original, you know from the first half hour where things are going, and you’re not surprised when they get there. And usually, this would piss me off to no end. But Avatar is so much more than that, that all story faults can be forgiven. At the heart of it, Avatar is an invader goes native story. The characters conform to archetypes and there’s a clear line between good and evil. There’s a lot sitting on Sam Worthington’s shoulders. For a man who a year ago was relatively unknown, it’s a pretty hefty cross to bear. And while not reaching Daniel Day Lewis heights of acting prowess, Worthington does a pretty good job of being the man with the moral dilemma.

Zoe Saldana is quickly becoming the thinking-person’s sci-fi girl, and she does a great job as Neytiri. Despite that she’s about 12 foot tall, blue and looks like a cat, the combination of Cameron’s technology and Saldana’s performance creates a fully rounded and believable alien character. Cinema depends on connecting with a character. In Wall-E, the audience connected with a pile of circuits and wires. Here, it’s hard not to connect with this alien. Sigourney Weaver is the veteran in the young main cast. Having worked with Cameron before, Weaver clearly knows what the director wants and delivers a very solid performance. But for me, the stand-out performance was Stephen Lang’s Colonel Miles Quartich. Quartich is a man of ambition and singular vision. He’s remorseless, violent, seething with menace and an absolute joy to watch. He’s the perfect foil for the Na’vi.

But the real star of the film are the visuals. Avatar is unlike anything you’ll have seen before. Everything in the film seems to have been meticulously thought-out and created with the highest possible attention to detail. Pandora is incredibly stunning. It’s absolutely believable and somewhere you will completely forget is created by technology. The ideas that go into creating the world are incredible, yet logical if you go so far as to thing of the physics and evolution that might be involved in such a place. I’ve seen the film twice now. The first time I watched it, I was so immersed in the visuals that I felt like I had been in the cinema for a week. Which is not a bad thing. Like Weaver’s character, I wanted to take samples, observe the wildlife and learn more about Pandora. The second time I saw the film, the entire thing flew by. It’s a very well paced piece of science fiction.

3D is quickly becoming a staple of cinema. For better or worse, it doesn’t look like the format is going anywhere any time soon. I was previously unconvinced, enjoying the few films that were presented in 3D, but ultimately dismissing it as a fad. Having seen Avatar, I can safely say 3D definitely has a place in the film industry. The 3D in Avatar is simply mind-blowing. Despite one or two moment, it’s not about stuff pointing out of the screen. Avatar shows the 3D can give depth to the screen. At the beginning of the film, there are a few 3D moments thrown in there to make you aware of the 3D. But soon, it becomes just part of the film. It’s been said before, and I scoffed. But it’s true. Avatar is the next great step in film.

Every time James Cameron takes a step forward in technology, the industry sits up, listens, and then follows suit. Avatar isn’t a step forward. It’s a massive leap forward. The twelve years Cameron took to make the film was worth every day. And I can finally forgive him for Titanic. Cameron’s back doing what he does best. Science fiction. In a resume that already includes The Abyss, Aliens and Terminator 2, Avatar takes it’s place among Cameron’s finest films. It’s not just a film. It’s an experience.


*I really wanted to give this a 10. But the story is a little weak. Otherwise, it's the finest example of what a combination of film and technology can achieve.