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2005 – A Year in the Dark

It looks as though the blame lies on the shoulders of Tim Burton. The legacy of 1989’s Batman was the marketing boys’ realisation that bubble-gum cinema franchises could reap extra profits by being dark. In marketing terms dark = mature, and mature = kids thinking they’re hard, and kids thinking they’re hard = wads of cash at the box office. Dark is the new black, so to speak. Even when something is not dark and mopey it’s very lack of darkness and mopiness is also a marketing strategy – The Fantastic Four was marketed as “look folks, it’s not dark and what’s more there’s not a tedious single-use-of-the-f-word-12-rating either”. So ultimately we can blame Tim Burton for the “now with added darkness” Batman Begins and the “increasingly grim” Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, ironic in a year when Burton himself produced two of his most light, frothy and family centred films. Even if they have a dark side…

It really was war of the worlds when it came to the summer’s two biggest sf blockbusters and, despite being set a long time apart in galaxies far, far away they shared similar themes of broken families amidst a background of turmoil. If you subscribe to the view that Hollywood films somehow mirror the concerns of the world (the hedonistic capitalism of the 1980’s film, the grim Vietnam era horror film etc) then both Star Wars Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith and The War of the Worlds both seem to address concerns about America’s current political climate – a powerless military against a destructive alien invader. Indeed Star Wars is now to be found “with added gloom” and a 12A rating. What this means is more hacked limbs and some “intense sequences” as they like to call them. But Star Wars always was gruesome, Episode 3 merely foregrounds these elements to fit with its tragic tone. Altogether though the film’s technical achievements are impressive, Lucas’s recent penchant for overfilling his canvas is given full reign. And Anakin’s descent to the dark side the result of a bad dream? Hmm. Spielberg’s War of the Worlds starts with a bang but its final whimper is pretty pitiful. Mercifully it lasts but a few minutes, unlike the excruciating ending of A.I. (2001). Once you get over the initially clichéd premise (another estranged father reclaims his place in the hearts of his kids) the film neatly rollercoasters from action set-pieces to family drama. The initial scenes of Martian destruction are breathtaking but more disturbing are the scenes of societal breakdown and panic. The ultimate message of reconciliation and a brave new world is a nice thought but comes across as cynical and ultimately a big cheat.

SerenityThen there was Joss Whedon’s Serenity, the mid-budget contender and spin-off of the ill-fated (or rather ill-exposed and early cancelled) series Firefly. The crew of Serenity are on the run again but this time the full story of their mysterious passenger River Tam is to be revealed. The film is unshackled from the restraints of the 44 minute format and we have the luxury of a plot that is given time to mature and conclude. It’s by no means perfect but at least the characters are memorable and the action is plot driven and exciting. Hell it’s even got some martial arts that don’t look too lame or too edited, what more could you want? (Before you answer, the astonishing in-camera martial arts insanity of Ong-Bak doesn’t count.) In contrast to all the doom and gloom the long-awaited big screen version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy finally arrived and, while eschewing the grit-faced determinism of The War of the Worlds, it did show that the Vogons could do what the Martians couldn’t: destroy the Earth. The crew of The Heart of Gold don’t quite make the ‘family’ unit that Serenity does but their encounters are of a more surreal kind. The film was never going to get an easy time from devotees of the series but viewed in context of its cinematic contemporaries it holds its own, despite its many faults. The Island starred Ewan McGregor who, along with Scarlett Johansson, has discovered that he’s a clone living in a hi-tech futuristic compound and has to escape to save those left behind. Lots of action combines with lots of product placement and, being a Michael Bay film, the message is transparent with little room for introspection. We also finally got to see the Russian blockbuster Night Watch on the big screen, complete with novelty arty subtitles to make you forget you were watching a film where everyone spoke Russian. Reportedly costing a pittance Night Watch has really got something for all genre fans – you want horror, vampires, demons? You got it. Apocalypse? Yep. Fantasy warriors of the past? Mysticism? Funky gadgets? Dark and broody moments? Basically everything, including the kitchen sink, is thrown into a convoluted plot, allegedly the first of a trilogy. Yes, it’s loud and filled with cliché but it has some inventive shots and a few moral dilemmas. Sometimes it IS more fun being messy.

It’s hard to believe but Toy Story (1995) is ten years old. The awe of the first feature length, big screen, full CGI film inevitably led to a succession of CGI movies. Whilst the ubiquity of the CGI flick has had a more muted fanfare with each new release, it has allowed for some diversification of product (like last year’s marvellous The Incredibles). The tail-side is a slew of bland (Jimmy Neutron Boy Tedious) or just plain awful (Shark’s Tale) films. With no 2005 Pixar release (Cars is due Autumn 2006) there were plentiful opportunities for others to fill the gap, but the results were not entirely successful. In keeping with family film’s premise of anthropomorphising animals, reducing the need for human (i.e. difficult to render convincingly) characters, most of this year’s CGI-fests plumped for this approach with one opting for even more render-friendly machinery. Dreamworks seem to concentrate on post-modern hipness and slapstick to distinguish its product from main rival Pixar, also revelling in celebrity voicing to pull in a crowd. The results have, to say the least, been varied. Madagascar is a feeble affair as a bunch of New York zoo animals find themselves in the real wild with “hilarious” results. By the numbers characterisation conspires with a paper-thin plot to make lame viewing. The added insult was just when you thought you were safe from its mediocre clutches, it appeared in a riotously unfunny short film preceding Wallace and Gromit. Passable Brit contender Valiant offered a homage to 1950’s film-making (notably The Dam Busters (1954) and 633 Squadron (1964)). The love of its genre is clear with its depiction of plucky carrier pigeons versus the predatory Hun, although it’s not as tightly integrated as Chicken Run (2000). Were this a live action film the racial stereotyping would have given ‘Allo ‘Allo a run for its money, but somehow the medium tempers this and even includes some poignant moments. Its main faults lie at the polar ends of the spectrum – a painful SS Falcon voiced by John Cleese contrasts with Valiant himself, chirpy Ewan McGregor. Mr McGregor fares better as the chirpy star of Robots, another Euro-film but one with broader appeal. Country-bot Rodney Copperbottom goes to the big city to find fame as an inventor only to discover that his idol’s renowned business has fallen in the hands of a corporate robot and his metal-melting mother. So maybe the “corporate is bad” message is a touch heavy-handed but there are plenty of visual gags, a few emotional scenes and the inevitable sell-the-video-game-tie-in action sequences.

Curse of the Were-RabbitDespite all the CGI jiggery-pokery it was great to see two stop-motion films vying for the family market. Both are distinctly quirky and steeped in the trappings of the horror genre. Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit’s combination of Hammer Horror and mild Carry On humour is distinctly British, the popular duo surviving the translation to feature length intact, complete with quirky gadgets and framed holiday snaps. Vermin controllers Anti-pesto face a new and devastating force, the result of bizarre experimentation, threatening the annual Big Vegetable competition and the local countryside. Class considerations are at the forefront with inventor Wallace (Peter Sallis) falling for the aristocratic Lady Tottington (Helena Bonham-Carter) while trying to contain his inner-beast and foil smarmy Victor Quartermain’s advances towards “Totty”. Ms. Bonham-Carter also voices a more complex love triangle (more of a love square really) in Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride. Again, class divide is the reigning subtext as nervous, nouveau-riche Victor Van Dort (Johnny Depp) is to be wed to posh but impoverished Victoria Everglot. Unfortunately the nervous groom accidentally weds the tragic corpse Emily (Bonham-Carter) leaving his would-be bride facing the advances of lecherous, money grabbing toff Barkis Bittern. The Corpse Bride is a feast for the eyes and ears with breathtaking model animation and a superb Danny Elfman score. Funny and moving, it’s a true fairytale for the big screen. Both Wallace and Gromit and Corpse Bride rely on the other-worldliness generated by their use of model work and are tactile creations in a world ruled by ones and zeros. It says a lot that traditional forms of animation have fallen out of favour with the studios when it comes to big-screen fare. At least in the West. What is interesting about the work of Korean and Japanese animators is the lack of demarcation between animation techniques where CGI complements or enhances elements of production in a more transparent way than their western counterparts. This year has seen the long awaited return of Otomo Katsuhiro with Steamboy and the Korean made Sky Blue. And 2005 also brought back the familiar face of Miyazaki Hayao and Studio Ghibli with a stunning adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle. Miyazaki’s dogmatic use of traditional animation seems as defiant as ever (although he does integrate some CG). What separates Ghibli from other studios is the way that charm and threat co-exist and there is no compromise in characterisation or ambiguity. Young milliner Sophie is transformed into an old lady by the Witch of the Wastes and thus the familiar themes of environmental concern, the loss of youth and the exhilaration of flying create a magical and complex work where the overriding plot has to be derived by the viewer rather than spelt out to them. Miyazaki’s world is a mixture of cruelty and compassion, where forgiveness is as powerful as vengeance but there is no guarantee of happiness without sacrifice.

This year has seen a lull in the franchise superhero market with no X-Men or Spider-man to rake in the bucks. The closest was the mid-budget Daredevil (2003) spin-off Elektra with Jennifer Garner reprising her role without Ben Affleck. Little reference is made to Daredevil and as such this works well as a standalone film. Ironically it is the lack of budget that forces the film-makers to concentrate on getting the inter-character dynamics right. There may be no prizes for originality (hit-girl for hire can’t bump off a guy and his kid after she has interacted with them) but the enjoyably hands-on combat sequences and mystical gubbins from Terence Stamp make for diverting viewing. There were two attempts to kick-start a new superhero franchise. Batman Begins went down the “dark and brooding” route having forgotten that was where it was probably heading in the 1989 Burton film had it not been hijacked by Jack Nicholson. Christian Bale is the new, glum-faced caped crusader – trained in the Himalayas to be a lethal martial arts assassin, haunted by the murder of his parents and psychologically empowered by facing his childhood bat trauma. All earnest stuff and well disguised by director Chris Nolan as a piece of revenge tragedy rather than a geekboy action film. The problem is… it’s a superhero film. With silly costumes and bad guys. The antidote, we were reliably informed, was The Fantastic Four, a family film set – get ready for a shock – during daylight hours. The special effects work is more than adequate but, even more than Batman Begins, it really suffers from the “is that it?” syndrome that plagues first instalments of superhero franchises. So much time is spent establishing the characters’ origins that there are only a few minutes left for a quick brawl before the closing credits. Having four unlikeable characters only makes matters worse. Mr Wotsisname Stretchy Bloke is dull and pious, Invisible Girl is next to useless, The Thing may look cool trashing Buicks but he’s horribly self-obsessed. And then there’s flame-on Johnny Torch, an arrogant thrill-seeker who we are apparently meant to admire, not want to smack in the chops.

Sin CityThe world of the comic-book hero is often viewed as inseparable in the mainstream to that of comics in general, to the extent that the media often replace the word comic with “graphic novel” as a way of distinguishing perceived quality from pulp. This change was partly brought about through a comics renaissance in the 1980’s, particularly associated with the works of Frank Miller and Alan Moore. The coincidence that two of Miller’s more famous works make up the “dark hero” trend shown in Elektra and Batman Begins is compounded by his debut behind the camera as co-director of Sin City. A more comic-book film would be hard to imagine (even Romero’s Creepshow (1982) couldn’t push it this far) with stark angles, harsh black-and-white with streaks of occasional primary colour, exaggerated movements and impossible actions. The material is deliberately pulp and trashy, imbued with the kind of hard-boiled dialogue that’s been absent from the screen for a good while (although lightning struck twice this year, with the deliciously dark thriller Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). The characters are two dimensional and better for it. Miller’s partner in crime Robert Rodriguez is one of the few mainstream directors to utilise CGI and digital photography for both budgetary and aesthetic reasons. In contrast to this aesthetic approach David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence is shown in a more restrained, almost relaxed manner but still manages to retain the comic-book air of its origins. Again the characters are mostly two-dimensional and the violence is graphic. Unlike Sin City, A History of Violence is unsettling in its casual, sporadic depiction of violence as a result of its juxtaposition with the real world – Sin City’s atrocities are piled high but are detached from any notion of normality.

Fantasy, it’s the new Sci-Fi. Outright SF from the major studios has been slowly rescinding in the light of competition from the superhero and fantasy genres where graphics advances have made spectacle once again the dominant force in mainstream cinema. What’s interesting is to see how these genres run the whole gamut of budgets from straight-to-video to state-of-the-art cinema releases. Fantasy used to lie in the realm of the low budget film-maker but now it comprises massive armies of clashing beasties, mile-high towers with swirling flying things and more pointy ears than a Star Trek convention. This year’s main contenders were both aimed at the family market but even Mr Potter and his chums have, you guessed it, gone the “dark and brooding” route. Harry, you see, has “grown up with his audience”, presumably a reference to the fact that people only ever watch films or read books when they are released, never discovering them at a later point. To be fair to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire it is a far better film than it has any right to be and Mike Newell does hit his stride after a murky start. But try as it might (getting rid of 200 pages of waffle in the first 15 minutes for example) it can’t escape being the weakest and most bloated of the Potter books – the structure makes events inevitable rather than surprising with only the ending pulling things out of the doldrums. With The Lord of the Rings finally over a new fantasy franchise was born – The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was both beautifully realised and box office dynamite.

Also in the world of the fantastic is Tim Burton’s “re-imagining” of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This is less a rework of the inexplicably popular Gene Wilder film than a return to Dahl’s original text, mocking Oompa Loompa chorus segments and all. As seen through the eyes of Burton it has grandiose sets, a sense of the macabre, eye-searing colours and a lavish, if over eclectic, score. There is little concession to realist film-making and none is more abnormal than the figure of Willy Wonka, a Howard Hughes meets Marilyn Manson figure. The dogmatic use of studio-bound sets over green-screen may well have given the financiers worries, but it’s a sumptuous treat that delights and unnerves in equal measure. More conventional beasties were to be found in Terry Gilliam’s long-delayed The Brothers Grimm where the two anthropologists are shown to be pantomime confidence tricksters, creating beasts merely to destroy them… for a price of course. Naturally there are genuine supernatural beasts to contend with and our cowardly duo must battle the real forces of evil. Gilliam’s love of in-camera effects and scale are tempered slightly by some forced post-production gloss, but that doesn’t stop The Brothers Grimm being a good yarn. It’s the “dark and moody” (darn there we go again) answer to Shrek (2001), but not as good as vintage Gilliam.

Life AquaticAnd then there was the remake to end all remakes: King Kong. Yes, it was spectacular, brilliantly made, moving and exciting. But why remake, when the original is spectacular, brilliantly made, moving and exciting? Peter Jackson’s argument that he was updating the 1933 classic for a modern audience probably does hold, after all, how many kids would bother to see an old black and white film? It displays a clear love of the original and Jackson’s cinematic roots. But does it also point to a lack of original ideas in Hollywood? Well there were some truly quirky films released last year, most notably Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, starring the usual suspects (Bill Murray, Angelica Huston, Owen Wilson). Oceanographer Steve Zissou sets off to search for a mythical shark that killed his partner with his estranged wife, a pregnant journalist and an airline pilot who may or may not be his son. The diegesis is convincingly preposterous, just crossing the border to the fantastical, and the overall product is thoroughly engaging and slightly whimsical with a very dry sense of humour. Also of note were Ong Bak and Kung Fu Hustle, martial arts without the pretensions of art and superior entertainment in every way. Similarly Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement was set in a wonderful sepia Brittany, proof that with a bit of imagination it is still possible to inspire a sense of cinematic charm that is genuinely original.

One advantage that the horror film has over rival genres is its ability to reflect trends quickly. The horror film is one of the largest niche markets but can only occasionally match the box office of family orientated or spectacle based pictures. The horror film also relies on tried and tested marketing formulas – the message or tone of the film may well change to react to external social conditions but the emphasis is still generally aimed at young people as prime consumers. Recent trends have altered this perception slightly – the effect of the creepy film in the light of Ringu (1998) and The Sixth Sense (1999) have held the horror film as something that can be enjoyed by a different audience even though the basic principle remains. The continued Asian horror influence has seen the release of Hideo Nakata’s Ring Two, a fairly average sequel to Gore Verbinski’s remake of Nakata’s own Ringu. Nakata had, bizarrely, already made a different sequel to Ringu previously. He also directed the updated haunted house film Dark Water (2002) which got a pointless but passable remake this year at the hands of Motorcycle Diaries’ (2004) director Walter Salles. Skeleton Key was also heavily influenced by Asian horror and had muted success. Continuing with more existential horror we finally had the opportunity to see Paul Schrader’s version of Exorcist: The Prequel, now renamed Dominion (Schrader had had his version shelved and the studios brought in Renny Harlin to direct a wham-bam-popcorn-man version using the same sets and cast). More a meditation on the loss of faith with grisly bits and theological imagery, the film is an unsettling look at man’s evil towards fellow man. The Exorcism of Emily Rose seemed as though it was trailed for a year, like some ghastly recurring nightmare and was ultimately a John Grisham film with priests and devils. C’est la vie. At least at the less worthy end of the market we could hope for some brainless splat befalling some pretty young teen with an attitude. But then came George A Romero’s Land of the Dead. Romero’s films deliver the gore and grue but, crucially, are also critiques on society and its attitudes. Whilst current slasher flicks are happy to reflect contemporary culture as an in-joke to an audience with perceived low memory retention, Romero actively attacks what he sees as wrong with society. In a sense Land of the Dead could not be better timed in its criticism of US militaristic attitudes and society decaying from within. Sadly the studios seemed to realise that Romero’s films are heavily politicised and gave him a third of the budget that they gave last year’s Dawn of the Dead re-make and buried the film with a lacklustre release. Instead bus-shelters around the country urged us to see The Devil’s Rejects which, like Rob Zombie’s previous House of 1000 Corpses, wallows in 1970’s knowingness and a plain adoration for the genre. It was Texas Chainsaw Massacre meets the Mansons out on the road and in the sunshine. House of Wax ticks all the teen requirement boxes and has the most obviously signposted last girl (and perhaps boy, we’ll let you find that one out) for many a moon. Rejecting the plot and 3-D of the original this covers all the brainstorming basics that the title allows, e.g. the house literally is wax. So far, so tedious but it’s all pulled back by some genuine sadism (the first waxed victim is still alive as people start picking chunks out of his molten face – this has a 15 rating, remember) and a truly surreal climax that at least puts its relatively substantial budget to good use. More gore in Saw II, the hurried sequel to last year’s sleeper hit. Predictably more gruesome goings on than first time round, it mercifully doesn’t descend into postmodern self-reflexivity but, frankly, the first played a decent hand, so it should really have quit while it was ahead. Horror has a tendency to reflect the mood, normally by producing straight to video theme-a-likes, of what the larger productions are doing. These often aim at different markets by grossing out the PG-13 crowd or toning down the R rating to create a similar but distinct product. Bizarrely this year that battle came to the big screen with the “spot the difference” trailers for The Cave and The Descent – a group in a cave get mashed by monsters. The Cave goes for the PG-13 with “intense creature violence” while The Descent doesn’t hold back and goes straight for the blind sonar sensing cannibal humanoid approach. Ultimately the latter is more successful, as a group of female friends go caving together. The tension is built on the fact that for much of the film the threat is either the environment or their own egos, a sort of Deliverance (1972) for the Noughties, but it quickly spirals into examining human nature, betrayal and trust in the face of adversity. As an old fashioned thrill ride it builds up admirably and delivers the scares and shocks but is made all the more palatable by understanding the motivation of the main protagonists.

2005 has shown an increase in designer gloom in the film world but frankly most of it is as morbid as a living dead doll – bubblegum depression for a News 24 culture trying to understand a world of fear while sipping their Starbucks lattes and upgrading their mobile phones. Film can as much reflect the perception of market research as it does society’s attitudes and it seems that as the world becomes homogenised so do its fears, threats and media responses. Thank heavens then for the quirky moments amidst the gloom with a few personal visions slipping beneath the corporate net.

The winners are:

Best sf: Serenity

Best Fantasy: Howl’s Moving Castle, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Corpse Bride