Another year has whooshed by, like a probe on its way to Titan. Genre-wise we’ve had more of the same: blockbusters, lots of CGI, and remake upon remake. However a few gems have slipped in under the mainstream carpet. So, was 2004 any good?
The IncrediblesBrad Bird, veteran of The Simpsons and the man behind the criminally under-rated beatnik Miyazaki homage The Iron Giant (1999) joins the Pixar stable for his second feature. Superheroes have protected society from crime with their incredible abilities… that is until a series of lawsuits (including one from a suicidal man who didn’t want to be saved) have forced them into retirement. Now Mr Incredible and his wife Elastigirl have to live ordinary lives under a government protection scheme, their superchildren forced to suppress their powers. But when Mr Incredible is sent on a secret mission it becomes clear there’s a new supervillain at large and the time for anonymity has passed. Brimming with excellent visual gags and witty dialogue there really is something for everybody. Again Pixar have created an exemplary rendered universe that is internally consistent in design and execution. Technically the film is astonishing but this proficiency is used as a tool rather than a means to an end – it is the design (at times perfectly reflecting Fleischer Superman cartoons) and execution that make this exciting, witty and intelligent. It is also proof that animation can work beyond the 80 minute barrier if the material is strong enough.
A Shark’s Tale
Scorsese, Will Smith and de Niro in the same film. And it’s a gangster film. In CGI! With fish! What’s more it earned a pile of cash at the box-office. Must be pretty good right? Well, no. It has poorly structured direction, mumbly dialogue and tedious film references that give post-modernism a bad rap. The time when anything CGI is automatically “good” is long gone – something Pixar realised right from the start by concentrating on scripting and coherent cinematic language over look-at-me visuals and a billboard-friendly named cast.
The happy couple are back in da swamp and ready to enjoy a life of domestic bliss. However there is the slight problem in that hot-headed Shrek has yet to meet the in-laws, so he and Fiona set off, accompanied by hyperactive Donkey, to the land of Far Far Away. Naturally father in-law disapproves of Shrek and wishes to return the princess back to her former, more conventionally beautiful, self. Shrek 2 provides a steady stream of gags, doing its job well because its scattershot (rather than focussed) approach to jokes means that while some fall flat others work well, and are pitched at many different age groups. Antonio Banderas steals the show as Puss in Boots, purrrrrfectly sending up his Mask of Zorro (1998) persona with a wicked streak of amoral, typically feline humour.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
Sky Captain – Angelina JolieLike the strange offspring of George Lucas and Guy Madden, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow revels in its retro Fantastic Stories look, impressive but deliberately over-stylised machinery and film technique that harks back to earlier eras. Lovers of Saturday morning serials will be right at home as Skycaptain (Jude Law) must save the world from a terrible fate. Quite simply stunning to look at, the design is amongst the finest of this year’s films. The insanity of the decision to make this virtually all CGI works in its favour because the whole film is internally coherent but basically preposterous, the combination of old fashioned and distinctly cutting edge making for ideal bedfellows. Our science fiction yarn was truly ripped.
Looney Tunes: Back In Action
It looked so good on paper. Joe Dante is, after all, the world’s most vocal Chuck Jones aficionado and long time purveyor of irresponsible anarchic entertainment. And modern cinema’s favourite whipping boy Brendan Fraser has taken almost as many knocks as Jackie Chan in the cause of making people laugh. This pairing in a re-run of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) (let’s forget, please, Space Jam(1996)) but with more violence seemed a sure winner to succeed. Sadly the plot to re-instate Daffy as a bona fide star and Fraser’s search for his dad feels tacked together. Although there are gags aplenty (including a great sequence in the Louvre) Steve Martin exterminates any pleasure from the proceedings. Looney Tunes work best as short cartoons (see the excellent Wizard of Ow! which precedes the film) – stretching them to feature length makes it all seem increasingly tiresome.
If it’s Worth Doing Once…
…it’s worth overdoing. This year has seen huge numbers of sequels and re-makes, particularly horror films, shocking people too ignorant to rent the original. In some ways this is a hypocritical view – Frankenstein and Dracula films are perennial after all – but something about direct remakes seems somehow… well, pointless. Sometimes the originals are bad films (as in Tobe Hooper’s recent remake of the notorious, and still heavily censored, The Toolbox Murders), but re-making a classic seems tantamount to asking for trouble. We await the proposed remake of Argento’s Suspiria with utter dread…
Here’s a remake conundrum – director Takashi Shimizu has virtually remade his own film (Ju-On) in Japan a few times, but here he is doing it again for a Hollywood audience. What is surprising is how much of the low-key, constantly creepy, motiveless shocks and almost total absence of humour has made it into the westernised version. Even more surprising is the sheer amount of money it made in the box office despite no expensive pyrotechnics and half the dialogue subtitled. This is a great scary movie of the kind we have rarely seen since Halloween – not overtly gory but plenty of jumps. When bad things happen at a place, the spirits live on to be nasty to people for no discernible reason. Classic scary camp-fire nonsense. But… what was the point of remaking?
Texas Chainsaw Massacre (re-make)
What, precisely, was wrong with the original? Well, apparently a creepy policeman was needed and, er, there just wasn’t enough gore first time round. Tobe Hooper’s ‘less is more’ approach (hoping the film would get a PG rating – it was banned for 25 years here in Blighty) created one of the most tense black comedies around, but this time prosthetics and shock tactics go straight for the so-called “hard-R”. It’s not all bad, the book-ended grainy footage is a nice touch and there are a few unexpected twists. The decision to keep it firmly in the 70’s manages jumps on the retro bandwagon but frees it from post-Scream (1996) knowingness. Mildly diverting.
Dawn of the Dead (re-make)
Dawn of the Dead RemkeRomero’s classic 1978 sequel (to Night of the Living Dead (1969) which was re-made by Tom Savini before re-makes became fashionable, allegedly as a way of maintaining copyright) relocated the haunted house to a shopping mall in order to criticise consumerism while providing plenty of splattery entertainment. In this version the mall setting is retained… until script-writer James Gunn (Tromeo and Juliet (1996) and Scooby Doo (2002) [dog]) gets bored and runs riot with the characters’ predicaments. The result is less a re-run or re-imagining (uugh.. please let the phrase die…) than a springboard and it’s all the better for it, especially having zombies that can move at pace rather than just shambling about. Realising that today’s popcorn junkies don’t give a stuff for messages we just get a cracking horror-action yarn packed with clichés and imaginative grue. Add a real early 80’s ending and the package is complete – not art but an ideal ‘Friday night with beers’ film. Interestingly the proposed sequel will be Dawn of the Dead 2 and not Day of the Dead.
Perhaps fearing that milking Universal’s back catalogue of monsters one at a time was going to take a while, Stephen (The Mummy) Sommers has just thrown loads of ’em together in one film. Van Helsing is now an ass-kicker more akin to pantomime gothic pro-wrestler rather than man of medicine. His side-kick for this mission is Kate Beckinsale wearing her Kate Beckinsale Impractical Tight Black Number (TM). The bad guy is none other than Count Dracula who is after Frankenstein’s creative spark in order to give birth to thousands of kids, spawned by his three brides in a huge cave beneath his interdimensionally cloaked castle. And then things get silly. Sommers throws everything at this one, homages to Whale and Polanski, the less obvious Hammer films (Kiss of the Vampire, Vampire Circus etc) as well as James Bond-style gadgets and hair-raising chase sequences. However, there is a problem. Many films can sustain slightly shabby effects, but Sommers’ brand of downright entertaining nonsense requires a certain verisimilitude that is lacking here, with some of the CGI lacking that difficult-to-depict quality – weight. But it doesn’t stop the film being a good laugh.
Alien vs Predator
Alien (1979) – gruesome star of a series of splatterific s-f films splashing the walls with giblets and mutilated acid-scarred bodies.
Predator (1987) – gruesome star of a series of nasty splatterfilms so unpleasant that they remain heavily censored in some countries for their disturbing content.
Alien vs Predator – rated PG-13 (in the US) to get the kids in. Whoever wins, we lose. Ne’er a more apt tag-line.
Resident Evil 2: Nemesis
Paul Anderson’s Resident Evil was a dumb but fun action flick. But he was too busy making Alien vs Predator (hahaha) to make the sequel, so we have this is a dreary affair instead. Stupendously violent but virtually bloodless, this is the antithesis of the Capcom games where stealth and a dwindling supply of ammo make every bullet count and the deaths all have a visceral impact. Carrying on from part one Alice (Milla Jovovich) faces the normal array of zombies with a new group of dumb-talking misfits for company. Those naughty blighters at Umbrella Corp have an über-zombie/hybrid/thing that, it turns out, is actually… no that would be telling (like you care). Waves upon waves of faceless hordes get mown down, our heroes get trapped, they escape, waves upon waves of faceless hordes get mown down, our heroes get trapped, they escape, waves upon… you get the idea. There are no jumps, no scares (the games are genuinely scary) just plodding, senseless, sanitised violence. More second rate schmup than survival horror. Dreadful.
The Chronicles of Riddick
Chronicles of Riddick-ulousWhen, in polite company, say at a little party somewhere, you mention that you like science fiction films a common response implies that you have rabies and a taste for human flesh. Science fiction, you see, is a genre (apparently) that consists of people with stupid names, wearing stupid costumes, travelling to stupid “high concept” planets, talking pish and pontificating cod-Nietzsche while pointing a laser super destroyer ray at you that looks like a tinsel covered twig. If you can be bothered you normally protest, spraying a mouthful of half-chewed twiglets in their direction crying “no, no, it’s not like that”. Then they mention The Chronicles of Riddick and you know you are on to a loser. Pitch Black’s (2000) unpretentious combination of insectoid splatter and low-budget thrills has somehow spawned this high-budget abomination of a sequel – all portentous semi-transparent Judi Dench and clench-jawed macho gibberish from quite possibly the least charismatic screen antihero of the last decade.
“Thunderbirds are Noooooooo!!!” Normally the expression ‘no strings attached’ is a positive thing, sadly this is not the case here. Insert additional witty comments as necessary (“Thunderbirds are C.R.A.P.”, “No M’lady”, wooden acting analogies etc), something anyone who reviews Thunderbirds is compelled to do. Jonathan Frakes continues his long and unimpressive run of films devoid of any directorial interest and in the process has created a virtual vacuum of cinematic technique. Good job Commander Riker…
Parker Posey, in full panto Josie and the Pussycats (2001) mode, and her vampire buddies raise the original vampire from his sandy tomb somewhere in the Syrian desert. The purpose? To kill off stony-faced funmeister Blade (scourge of vamps the world over and, of course, part-vamp himself) and turn the humans into living bloodbags. To make matters worse Blade is filmed bumping off a human (wearing fake fangs) so now has the police on his tail. Then Whistler is killed for, oh, about the thirtieth time in the series, and Blade’s forced to team up with a bunch of green-under-the-collar vampire hunters to defeat the new super daywalking shapshifting uber-vamp and develop a vampire-killing virus. Phew! Utter nonsense of course, but who cares? Blade: Trinity marries one action scene after another and a lot of amusing mumbo jumbo. Scenes of carnage follow like clockwork but each set-piece is at least recognisable from the previous one. As vacuous as outer space but entertaining nonetheless.
Superheroes all go through the ‘disillusionment phase’, especially in the acne-spattered angst-ridden world of Marvel. Forget the litigious futurist world of Mr Incredible, Peter Parker has real problems – he can’t hold down his pizza delivery job, is less than attentive at his studies and he’s broke. Why? Because he goes around saving dumb people from horrible people and gets diddly-squat in return. He even lost his girl to some astronaut. But before you can say ‘hang up your fetish wear’, along come a couple of miffed super-villains; the son of Norman “Green Goblin” Osborn and the recently mutated Dr Otto “Doc Ock” Octavius. The joy of Spider-Man 2 lies in the juxtaposition of the mundane and the extraordinary – of holding a lousy minimum wage job and yet fighting a madman with giant metal tentacles, or visiting your aunt but also fitting in time to face a misguided nemesis. It’s these human elements that make the fantastical ones so exciting. Again Raimi has pulled out all the stops visually. While this may not seem so groundbreaking in the light of many recent blockbusters, it’s worth noting that Raimi has been perfecting his camera techniques for over twenty years.
Workaholic estate agent Jim Evers’ (Eddie Murphy) wife Sara receives an offer to view a highly desirable property providing she attends alone. But Jim tags along with the kids anyway. Just as well, sinister butler Ramsley (Terence Stamp) plans to use Sara to revive his dead master. Disney plunder another theme park ride in an attempt to swell the coffers (we await the film version of the one with the spinning tea-cups with some trepidation) but the result as more a series of gentle undulations than a rollercoaster. There are some nice set pieces and the design is suitably overblown. Ultimately though, it is as transparent and wispy as its many spirits.
It’s Like, You Know, For Kids
Around the World in 80 Days
That Phileas Fogg bloke (you know, the guy who invented unusual snacks in the 1980’s) is played by Alan Partridge and his sidekick, Passepartout (or Biyometrik Eyedeecard as he will be known in the 2008 remake) by gurny-faced kung-fu buffoon Jackie Chan. Together they follow in the footsteps of Michael Palin, only a century earlier. Or something. Fogg’s crackpot ideas have led to a potentially career mauling wager in which he must, as the title so succinctly suggests, traverse the globe in less than three months. Chan’s aboard, off for a free trip back to China (save the village, stolen ancient Chinese artefacts – usual JC Macguffins) – so the recipe is set for an episodic travelogue peppered with star cameos, sweeping international vistas and slapstick. The design is suitably unrealistic, the brief fight-scene in a Paris gallery a slight return to form for Chan and, overall, proceedings tick by on auto-pilot… just no more.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Chris Columbus retains producing credit but hands the directorial reins to Alfonso (Y Tu Mama!) Cuarón, who gave us an excellent version of The Little Princess (1995). The Prisoner of Azkaban is a far more morbid affair than its predecessors – not only with the first appearance of the Dementors (a great scene aboard the Hogwarts Express) but even in the more overtly humorous sequences such as Harry’s breakneck journey on the Night Bus. Given that The Prisoner of Azkaban started the climb into phonebook page counts that turned (particularly) the fourth book into a cumbersome bore, it’s amazing how much they’ve crammed into the running time. Primarily the Harry Potter films are aware of their target audience and play to it – they look great, are exciting, occasionally scary and show the tribulations of school friendships and rivalries in an fantastical context. The Prisoner of Azkaban manages to succeed its predecessors as superior diverting children’s entertainment. We do, however, wait with dread at the prospect of Mike “Four Weddings” Newell’s The Goblet of Fire, a task that would appear nigh on impossible to do with any conviction. Unless, of course, Harry wakes up exclaiming “fuckity fuck I’m still at the Dursley’s”…
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events
Lemony Snickets – Jim CareyWe were very concerned that this would turn into a saccharine franchise. Based on the first three books, A Series of Unfortunate Events tells the awful trials of the Baudelaire children, sorry, Baudelaire orphans – owing to the fact that their parents perish in a mysterious fire. Seeking custody of the siblings is the iniquitous Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), a word here meaning “liable to bump off orphans in order to get his hands on their inheritance”, who will try any disguise to grasp the three plucky, intelligent and moderately good-looking children and pinch their cash. Making the books into a feature was always going to be problematic – children like gross things, but parents don’t like them seeing them – so while horrible and unfortunate events occur with alarming regularity, they are occasionally a touch less macabre than the books allow. Carrey is alternately brilliant and irritating as the malevolent Olaf, a word here meaning “evil and gurning simultaneously”, and his impossibly lanky stature matches the books’ illustrations perfectly. The design looks fabulous thanks to Rick Heinrich’s impeccable art direction. The script cleverly places the second and third books in the middle of the first one and includes many Snicket eccentricities (he is an omnipresent narrator) but the result is that the final act is a touch rushed. By no means perfect, but better than we could reasonably expect. Oh, and the end credits (which should be at the start) are fabulous.
13 Going On 30
This year’s “child in an adult mind” comedy (see the Freaky Friday re-make for last year’s) sees schoolgirl Jenna Rink wishing she was no longer 13. Bingo, a sprinkle of magic dust later and she awakes to find herself head magazine design guru, with a very buff bloke in the buff in her bedroom. Yikes! Unfortunately it also conspires that not only have the 17 years made her rich and famous they’ve also made her a total bitch. Naturally her good-natured self tries to rectify all this. Jennifer Garner ditches the tough kicking sf of Daredevil and TV’s Alias and proves more than up to the job of feel-good fantasy comedy. What could easily have strayed into murky waters proves an easy to watch (but consequently easy to forget and wafer thin) comedy of manners and situation.
What, Some Real Science Fiction? Naaaaahhh!
Bzzzzzchhhhttt. Not the sound of servos kickin’ into action on a super-advanced android, but the sound of spinning from six feet under. Onomatopoeia is so difficult. So here we have a high concept title and a marquee star battling with famed “Laws of Robotics”. Oooooooo. Anyone expecting a faithful Asimov adaptation was clearly delusional so just forget about it, alright? Instead we get trainer wearing Luddite Will Smith who’s deeply suspicious about the androids created to serve us. But as there has never been a single case of robots harming humans surely the guy is nuts and not suitable for a police career? And you’d be right, everything’s fine and there’s lots of hugs and feel-good man-android interaction in this beautiful utopian future. Oh alright then, no-one would pay to see robots being nice so of course there’s murder, conspiracy and shed-loads of well choreographed action. Jolly fun it is too and there’s surprising depth in the arguments about humanity and the nature of self that means we have this year’s ‘not as dumb as the sticker suggests’ award for surprisingly decent sf. Not thesis material but at least it attempts to pitch at a level above Janet and John.
PaycheckIf you want to see a Philip K Dick film you’re better off catching up on anything written by Charlie Kaufman (see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) than something supposedly based on the man’s actual work. Sure Total Recall is a great film, but it’s only tangentially related to Dick. Along comes Paycheck and initially it looks hopeful – Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck) reverse engineers products for sneaky companies, earns shed-loads of cash but has all his work memories wiped-out to prevent him spilling the beans. Inevitably the ‘last big job’ comes up, it’s dodgy, he wakes up with a year missing from his mind and a set of clues left to him by himself. And everyone wants him dead. And he’s in love with Uma Thurman. Twice. There’s a lot of easy on the eye action (a ridiculous, pointless but energetic motorcycle chase being a highlight) and blah-blah technobabble but ultimately, like its hero, once the job’s over you’ve forgotten all about it. John Woo is slowly crawling back from the travesty that was MI:2, but it’s a far cry from the majesty of Bullet in the Head, A Better Tomorrow or Hard Boiled.
In the village they keep things to themselves. That’s no going outside the borders (or the bogeymen will savage you) and, naturally, the colour red is strictly forbidden. It’s all very puritanical in a founding fathers kind of a way but for the most part it seems to work. Except some people want to know what lies outside the borders. What is the secret of the village? M Night Shyamalan returns with another creepy-twisty spook tale and this time, to keep you on your toes, he has a number of (un)expected events take you by surprise. Didn’t see the Joaquin Phoenix bit coming! It is, of course, utter hokum but when has that ever prevented a film from being enjoyable?
The Day After Tomorrow
A-ha. Remember that dreadful term they used for The Core? Well it’s back! Science faction or, using technobabble to give an air of respectability to your ludicrous premise. Sincerity in the face of the absurd has always been Roland Emmerich’s modus operandi and here is no exception – The Day After Tomorrow comes with doomsayer prophecies of imminent environmental despair and a plea for liberal (well, alright, democratic) politics in the crucial US election year. Anyway, the environment’s gone to pot and our scientist hero tries to warn everyone. Who, of course, don’t listen. It’s very cold. And he has to go find his son because he feels guilty. Basically this is just a wafer-thin premise for seventies-style disaster movie pyrotechnics. Except there’s never any doubt who is going to live and who is going ‘the way of the extra’, the characters have the emotional thickness of a Rizla and the foreshadowing is signposted in letters a mile high. “Hey! The wolves have escaped from the zoo! I SAID THE WOLVES HAVE ESCAPED FROM THE ZOO!” Wonder if they’ll be turning up later then?
Bryan Forbes’ fairly misogynist version of Ira Levin’s very misogynist book gets the ironic modernisation touch from Muppet man Frank Oz. Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman) is the family breadwinner and the face behind a hugely successful TV station but she is having a nervous breakdown. Hubby Walter finds the perfect place away from the hustle and bustle – a house in the high security, multi-amenity, big buck town of Stepford. There’s something strange though – all the men are geeky and devote their lives to leisure while their wives are pretty, docile and domesticated. Wisely Oz ditches the shock twist of the original, figuring that the audience will already be aware of it and concentrates on the revelations as seen by our heroine. Things are certainly played for ironic chuckles this time round and, while the film keeps its subversion tuned to mild, there’s much to enjoy.
azumiKept away from the world, ten kids have been trained from birth to become hardened warriors by an elder samurai. Their mission: to stop a devious plan to usurp the current shogun. Their samurai master trains them so hard that half of them fail the entrance test. One who does pass is destined for greatness: Azumi. Kitamura’s films, despite their reliance on stock Japanese stories/manga/history are more easily defined by western pop influences than on traditional Japanese film-making which has its own style of editing and composition. Instead MTV and advertising inform the restless camerawork, Raimi and Romero the visual style. Azumi unashamedly plays to the stalls – its lead is kawaii idoru Aya Ueto who spends much of the film chopping hundreds of people into little pieces while the camera blurs in a free-wheeling burn of motion-tracking and CGI-gore excess.
House of Flying Daggers
To expect one wu xia ‘martial arthouse’ film from a respected film-maker may seem presumptuous (Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Wong Kar-Wai’s Ashes of Time(1994)), to expect two seems downright greedy. But following on from his multiple viewpoint, breathtakingly colourful Hero, Zhang Yimou has come up with another slice of exemplary swordplay: The House of Flying Daggers. The House in question are an underground bunch of Robin Hood types – a group the authorities want dead. Both sides fight dirty. The police plant their best man as a mole in the Daggers’ camp by trying to get him to earn the trust of blind swordswoman and dancer Mei and lead them to the Daggers’ secret lair. With plenty of twists and turns House of Flying Daggers has it all – intrigue, betrayal, plot twists and doomed, inevitable, love. Quite simply stunning to look at with some of Ching Siu-Tung’s finest wirework yet (and that is saying something!) you’ll gasp in amazement and weep with sadness. Magical.
With the exception of an odd handful of films, genre tends to favour the young and able-bodied for its heroes. Bubba Ho-tep not only challenges this narrow-minded view but also answers one of the two most nagging questions of last century – did Elvis really die and is Bruce Lee travelling incognito on a philosophical journey of enlightenment? Well, we’re not sure about the Dragon but the King is definitely alive, infirm and incontinent in a rest home. Where he resides with a guy who swears he’s JFK. There they end up battling an evil Egyptian undead spirit who also wants a bit of TLC in his twilight years. OK it’s a bit of a one gag premise and the budget limitations are quite apparent, but the sight of a Vegas-era suited old Elvis (a role Bruce Campbell was born to play) shuffling down corridors with a Zimmer-frame trying to defeat the undead menace is a hard image to shake. Disreputable fun from Don (Phantasm) Coscarelli
Johnny Depp’s mighty CV notches up another winner (for such a popular star he has a frighteningly good batting average) as he tackles the role of JM Barrie, specifically his relationship with widowed Sylvia Davies (Kate Winslet) and her children, and the writing of Peter Pan. The strains of the budget show occasionally and there’s a valiant attempt to reign in the sentimentality, but the delightful blurring of fantasy and reality, the genuine warmth of character and the desire to if not break with convention, but at least bruise it, is all in its favour.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Like David O Russell’s existential detective comedy I Heart Huckabees, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind comes in decidedly left-field of the usual Hollywood fare. Once again screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has created a distorted, hallucinatory world of paranoia and the bizarre in which his perpetually confused characters must somehow pick their way towards some semblance of sanity… usually unsuccessfully. Joel (Jim Carrey in not-irritating mode) is having a hard time coming to terms with the fact his kooky girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) has had all memory of their relationship whipped from her mind. Depressed, he seeks to erase his own recollections of their vibrant but unconventional relationship. But matters don’t quite go to plan and past, present, reality and fantasy become increasingly difficult to distinguish in Joel’s anguished and addled brain. This is as near to Philip K Dick as you are likely to see at present and at the same time a melancholy romance for our times. Great stuff.
ZatoichiNarrowly clipping De-Lovely at the post for the Year’s Best Tap-dancing Routine award comes Takeshi “Beat” Kitano’s Zatoichi – an updating of the popular Japanese film series. The premise is breathtakingly simple – Zatoichi, a blind wandering masseur arrives in town. People ignore him because he’s blind. Some bad guys appear and rough people up. Zatoichi then unleashes a blur of deadly skill with his mighty katana. Heads roll. Blood spurts. People get miffed. A final confrontation beckons. Kitano is wise enough not to deviate too wildly from genre conventions but at the same time makes the film his own with painstakingly composed shots, his renowned use of periods of introspection followed by bursts of extreme violence and an expert knowledge of the way sound and vision harmonise. The use of music is at once relational, breathtaking and witty as percussive tracks are mirrored in intricate agricultural work or a construction site becomes the Edo equivalent of an avant garde orchestra. A marvellous blend of intelligent art film and pulp entertainment, this is, remarkably, the only Kitano directed film to have had any impact on its national box office!
Kill Bill vol 2
Not the all out fantasy bloodbath of Vol 1, Vol 2 is included here more for completeness, although the training sections with Gordon Lau add a sense of Shaolin surrealism to proceedings. The Bride is back with only three names left on the list. And that’s it – two and a half hours of the kind of dialogue missing from Vol 1 fly past. For Tarantino aficionados this makes up for Vol 1 – for the rest of us it is an equally good but different approach. Still, it could do with another Crazy Fists massacre…
It’s a yakuza flick. With a big killer monster born out of some kinky sex. It’s Miike Takashi. It MUST be good.
Spiderman? Batman? The Hulk? Nah. Zebraman. Schoolteacher by day, crimebustin’ Zebraman by night. It’s got giant intergalactic crayfish in it! It’s Miike Takashi. But for kids. It MUST be good.
Hints of Horror and Finally, Fantasy
Phantom of the Opera
Dramatic Chromatic! DAAAAAA. Da da da da DAAAAAAAAAA. Da da da da DAAAAAAAAAAA. He’s the phantom, a kind of Elephant Man-lite driven into the opera house catacombs, who falls in love with a chorus girl and demands the staging of his own pompous music… or else. Joel Schumacher brings plenty of visual flair and necessarily ostentatious showmanship to Gaston Leroux’s classic tale of dark romance, putting its moderate budget right where it counts – on the screen. However no amount of inventiveness and flair can compensate for a dire score that consists three songs and a load of random notes (and no, the “DAAAAAA. Da Da Da Da DAAAAAAAAAA. Da Da Da Da DAAAAAAAAAAA!” riff repeated as a “Look out! He’s behind you!” pantomime leitmotif does not count). Add to that a phantom who: a) isn’t very frightening and b) can’t sing and you have a pile of drivel.
Mathieu (La Haine) Kassovitz gets a stab at the US market with a supernatural-horror-thriller starring Halle Berri. Berri is slammed up in an asylum for a brutal murder, the irony being that she used to be one of the psychiatric nurses dealing with patients’ recollections (or are they?) of satanic rape. Thing is with all the hallucinations, the communal showers and the appalling catering she can’t be sure she didn’t commit the crime. Gothika has a sense of preposterous logic that only a horror flick can get away with and has the pre-requisite pointless jumps and strobe punctuated nightmares. This got panned by everyone but is actually a reasonably shot piece of campfire drivel.
Taking on Garfield at the feline end of the box office we have Oscar-winning thesp Halle Berri in what could be the most staggeringly, “Halle-riously” inept superhero film of all time (and that’s saying something). Our frumpy fashion designer heroine is almost bumped off but revived by cat dribble and driven to licking her own butt in front of houseguests (or something…) before facing the real nasty cat Sharon Stone in a tedious showdown atop a glassy building. The resulting film is, frankly, an embarrassment with some of the most atrocious CGI ever committed to film. Treats its audience with an unprecedented degree of contempt.
Shaun of the Dead
Here we have a very British take on the zombie film – ‘Spaced with the living dead’ is perhaps the easiest pitch. Taking the premise that if the country were overtaken by shambling, incoherent braindeads we’d probably not notice until they bit us (quite literally), Simon Pegg’s constantly hung-over antihero gathers together his acquaintances and family in the only place they can feel truly safe… the pub. Full of in-gags for the zombie connoisseur (Dylan Moran’s evisceration is straight from Day of the Dead for example) but with plenty of humour directed at the British way of life, at last we have a national film that’s entertaining and doesn’t involve Victorian/Regency toffs, navel gazing gloom or Hugh Grant.
Cigar chewing red guy with sawn-off horns battles against tenticular demi-gods and clockwork Nazis. What’s not to like in Guillermo del Toro’s gleefully irreverent comic book horror? So maybe things can’t quite live up to the prologue – Nazi occultists raising demons from another universe in the Hebrides – but it’s still two hours of damned fine entertainment with wise-cracking Perlman at his best (outside the Jeunet films). Great action, a budget that’s all on screen and some genuinely disturbing bits amidst the carnage. Like Cthulu. For kids.
Couple go out scuba diving. The boat that drops them off goes back to shore. They bob about and shout a lot. Cheap and tense, Open Water has a lot to offer – postage stamp plot, sudden scary bits, high concept.
Burton springs back to form after the mediocrity that was the ‘re-imagining’ of The Planet of the Apes but doesn’t quite hit the highs of, say, Edward Scissorhands (1990). Billy Crudup plays William Bloom who’s fed up with his dying dad Ed’s preposterous tales of rescuing conjoined singers in the Far East, being a human cannonball for love, detachable-eyed witches and a huge BFG called Karl. Perhaps most absurd is that Pop claims he met someone who looks like Steve Buscemi. Perpetually grinning Ewan McGregor plays the younger Ed Bloom in a story of a man who outlives his little town and goes out in search of love and adventure. Burton’s film is filled with the visual warmth and storybook logic that permeates his best work, the relative limitations of the budget (funded from Europe, fact fans) work the kind of tactile magic that total CGI can currently only dream of. So what if it’s basically a thinly related series of absurd vignettes – it still has more imagination than most other films this year.
Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid
How could anyone top king turkey Anaconda (1997)? Jon Voight in a career-defining role. Eric Stoltz in a coma. J-Lo. Ice Cube. Breathtakingly stupid and a lesson in how not to continuity edit, Anaconda has achieved cult status due to tacky gore, a hilarious script and a staggering degree of laugh out loud ineptness. No film could possibly follow that. Certainly not one PG-13’d to get the kids in.
The Polar Express
Tom Hanks controls the Polar Express where he takes Tom Hanks on a magical journey. On the way Hanks meets with Tom Hanks and, among others, Tom Hanks. And some dancing waiters. Or something. A “storybook come to life”. Or something.
As judge, juror and executioner, Frank seeks to rid America of crime after the tragic loss of his family. A comic-book film with an 18 rating? Can’t remember seeing one of those since Raimi’s Darkman (1990).
Almost forgot about this one. Julianne Moore can’t mourn the loss of her son because, according to everyone, he never existed. Interesting concept, but quite forgettable.
And the winners are:
Best Fantasy: The Incredibles
Best Fantasy: Zatoichi
Best Fantasy: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Best Fantasy: House of Flying Daggers