At last a year to rejoice for the box office was topped this year by the most preposterous and overblown science fiction fantasy ever committed to celluloid. No, not The Dark Knight (that topped the US box office but not the UK), but the hilariously inept Mamma Mia! – a film so shockingly amateur it defined a whole new anti-cinema aesthetic. Things, as the irritating song goes, could only get better…
Except for a few exceptions it was more of the same. Hollywood retrenched into safe genre films and PG-13/12A friendly bubblegum pictures despite the seemingly endless quest to become “darker” to reflect our times. Maybe the credit crunch will see the chickens coming home to roost in an industry nervously anticipating tightening budgets and a slew of strikes that had been foreshadowed by the television industry. The currently accepted ‘wisdom’ (if there is such a thing in the gambling world of the blockbuster) is that mid-budget dramas and musicals are the feel good solution to everyone’s ills – not just Mamma Mia! but in the shadow of the sleeper mega-smash of the year Twilight. The roaring financial success of this modest, at times claustrophobically shot in painstaking angst ridden goth-lite close-up, is initially difficult to understand. Huge swathes of ‘repeat what the audience has just seen five times in case they nipped out to get popcorn’ dialogue, much pained pouting and a virtual absence of action until the final showdown pad out the two hour timeline. But somehow the central premise is so audaciously simplistic (girl loves vampire), the passions so bubbling hot yet rendered as chaste as LazyTown that it comes across as quaint. Still the lack of fangs and the sudden need to introduce conflict in case the film really didn’t have any plot do go against it but Twilight does point to a more character led future (indeed some of the sparse effects here arguably aren’t even necessary). Vampire films in general go through phases of popularity, they’ve been in a bit of a slump recently, so expect a revival of more toothsome bloodsuckers in the coming years.
The Dark Knight – Heathe Ledger is The JokerHollywood’s on-going affair with all things comic book saw no signs of abating although some cracks are beginning to show. No cracks in the remarkable, record smashing returns from The Dark Knight – the second highest grossing film of all time in the US. Director Christopher Nolan gives a thinly veiled allegory for our current time and predicament – questioning responses to terrorism, the surveillance society and the disintegration of individual morality in the face of increasingly anarchic brutality. Heady stuff for a 12A superhero film (indeed the rating became an issue with irate parents complaining that their 5 year old kids were freaked out by the menace on show) and for the most part it succeeds. Christian Bale returns as Batman and, like most incarnations post-Adam West, is less important to the film than the villain. Here the villain is played by the late Heath Ledger, a truly frightening performance as the Joker, forever banishing that dreadful Jack Nicholson pantomime. It’s so easy to become enthralled by the performances, the spectacular cinematography and the political/moral subtext that you miss the film’s failings – it’s far too long and edited on autopilot, the final pay-offs happening too late and are way too convenient. A set-up for a sequel seems to mark the further decline into cynicism that the rest of the film is so eager to avoid. A similar set-up can be seen in the similarly overlong but enjoyable Iron Man, a Marvel franchise but where the central character’s wealth and gadgets feel more DC. Robert Downey Jr is in career reviving mould as Tony Stark, a scummy weapons dealer who, following capture in the Middle East gets himself out of a tricky scrape by building a metal suit of awesome destructive capability. Back home he refines it, gives it a maroon lick of metallic paint and is reborn as high flying super-techno-dude Iron Man. Icing on the cake would have been the use of Black Sabbath (like in the trailer) but for the most part the film succeeds on its own rollercoaster terms, getting credible love interest Gwyneth Paltrow once it had done its political fudging in the first half. Far less successful, either commercially or artistically, was The Incredible Hulk. We were promised a whole different film from Ang Lee’s superior but inexplicably derided Hulk (2003) but in many respects this was more of a semi-sequel remake with an increasingly hysterical Tim Roth camping it up as a Hulkier-than-thou opponent to brooding Bruce Banner (Edward Norton). The wildly fluctuating scenes of ‘meaningful’ introspection, lost love and doomed heroics contrasted with hyperbolic action as various CGI hulky things bashed seven bells out of each other and chewed the scenery. It was amiable enough while it lasted but its memory, like its box office returns, swiftly faded away. Taking no prisoners and eschewing the trendy need for comic book introspection and its relations to US foreign policy Hellboy 2: The Golden Army galloped out of the stalls to deliver the most enjoyable of the year’s comic book films. The irony that the word enjoyable be used in the context of a film whose lead character is not only a demon from the pits of Hell but, gasp, smokes tobacco is not lost on anyone. Guillermo del Toro brings the visual imagination of his arthouse work into the blockbuster arena and blows a raspberry in the face of its earnest rivals. An uneasy truth between the magical realm and the human world is about to be broken when evil elf Prince Nuada (Luke “Bros” Goss) seeks the pieces of a broken crown that will give him control over the mighty Golden Army of 70 x 70 robotic human killing machines. Only the red faced, wise cracking Hellboy (Ron Perlman) can stop the plan through outrageous punch-ups and against-the-odds battles. Mayhem ensues. Naturally.
Further portents to 2009 occurred as the first trickle of 3D films started to work their way onto the screen – a trend that will inevitably increase in anticipation of James Cameron’s long awaited return to the big screen with Avatar. Gone are the green and red lenses and in come custom-made glasses. Unfortunately two rival systems and the expense of new equipment has meant many cinema chains have yet to invest in the technology necessary to project 3D (certainly outside of London) resulting in a number of flat prints being released to impoverished outreaches. Journey to the Centre of the Earth was a mildly diverting version of the Jules Verne favourite with Brendan Fraser taking the kind of physical pratfalls he is most famous for. Viewers watching the flat version were perplexed by the unfathomable shots of “stuff” being waved at the screen but the simple quest-arrive-escape story with dinosaurs, a kid and a love triangle was an easy way to pass an hour and a half. All the in-your-face effects work in the world could not rescue the truly lame CGI Fly Me To The Moon where a plucky trio of juvenile flies attempt to sneak onto Apollo 11 and get to the moon. Bad jokes are repeated ad nauseum (“oh my lord… of the flies”) and the kid-friendly bodily emissions scenes (including having a fly covered in snot sneezed directly into your face… in 3D) wear very thin, very quickly. The final live action appearance of Buzz Aldrin insisting that the film you’ve just watched is made up (no shit, Buzz) and that there were, in fact, no flies on him is just bizarre.
RECRegular readers of our annual round up will know our thinly veiled disdain for hastily remade films of normally superior films that just happen to not be made in English. Although the pace is beginning to slacken a touch (the height of the J-Horror boom having long since past) the audacity of one film in particular is jaw dropping. So this year we’ve had One Missed Call, a remake of a Miike Takashi film that is not, in all honesty, his best (we await the big budget remake of Visitor Q with eager trepidation), Jessica Alba in a deeply unnecessary remake of the Pang Brothers’ glossy shocker The Eye and a toned down to the point of tedium rerun of the superior Thai shocker Shutter. If that were not enough Austrian bad boy Michael Haneke remade his own film virtually shot for shot in a photocopier remake of the classic Funny Games. Why Michael, why? But the biggest insult of all was yet to come. In April came the release of [REC], a Spanish horror film that did something very few horror films have done recently – scare. A taut, white knuckle ride that actually used its shaky first person camera to logical and terrifying effect [REC] follows a low budget film-crew filming a television documentary about the lives of workers who work after hours. Following their subjects, a fire crew, into a building where an old lady is apparently trapped in her room they soon find themselves imprisoned in a complex where very bad things start to happen. Now [REC] may not be original, it steals from a huge variety of sources, but makes them its own with ruthless efficiency. Quite clearly the horror film of the year. More horrific though is the unnerving sign of Quarantine – a lazy remake that cropped up with indecent haste in November the same year. Madness. And, we just refused point blank to go see The Day the Earth Stood Still. So there.
There were a fair number of CG films that hit the big screen last year and they ranged from the sublime to the substandard (Dreamworks, please stop with the Madagascar thing, it was rubbish first time around). Best of the bunch (and a contender for best film of the year) was Pixar’s Wall-E, a delightful tale of the last functioning waste disposal robot on earth, dutifully going about his job of cleaning up the planet which has become basically a giant rubbish tip (the human race has cleared off into deep space to let him get on with it) until he falls in love with super-robot Eve. A charming tale, the first half hour of which is told virtually entirely visually, proving that cinema doesn’t need to rely on dialogue to tell a story. Yes, it had the usual heartwarming message in the end, but it was a good story, supremely told and with great characterisation. To get an audience to empathise with a solitary character who isn’t even alive is a great achievement, to make that character so appealing to all ages is nothing short of a miracle. In future they will teach this film as an introduction to arthouse cinema. Trust us on this one.
Kung Fu Panda was very silly indeed and no bad thing. The laziest creature in the village, Po the panda, suddenly ends up joining an elite fighting squad in order to fulfil a prophecy. Cue lots of training sequences and fat panda jokes. Yes, it has the usual heartwarming message in the end – it’s OK to be yourself – but Dreamworks seem to have realised here that a good story combined with well-executed action and comedy sequences in addition to the voice talent, makes for a superior experience. For martial arts buffs there were even enough references to films from the seventies and eighties to keep them happy (Five Venoms anyone), a departure from the usual one-year old cultural myopia that prevails in Dreamworks post-modern output. Keeping with the Occupation Animal title theme, Space Chimps, however, was best left well alone although better than the aforementioned Fly Me To The Moon.
The surprise treat on the CGI calendar (after all Pixar only surprises when it isn’t good) was Igor, a modest film which told the tale of a hunchbacked assistant who aspires to be a mad scientist and create an evil being. One for all the family, even its heartwarming message was a little bit sick and therefore much funnier than all the other heartwarming messages that are de rigour in this field. Igor cunningly relied on strong visual gags and used its more limited resources to create a more angular and stylised environment that exactly suited its subject. Think Ren and Stimpy make a Tim Burton film. With songs. To top it all it even had gloriously over-the-top supervillains which, frankly, was exactly what Quantum of Solace could have done with instead of relying on corporate non-entities, moping around like an angst ridden teenager and a slew of increasingly irrelevant action sequences. Tips for DC Bond #3: Lighten up, get a proper villain and for griefs sake get a plot.
Horror films have diversified a bit this year and the best of these moved away from the overt gore (yes, we were bored with the Saw franchise after the first one, 5 really didn’t push any buttons… other than the off one) that has typified the genre for the last few years and replaced it with tension. Some did both. Did we mention how good [REC] is? Anyway, Frank Darabont seems to have gained himself a reputation as the director who makes decent versions of Stephen King stories (no mean feat given the track record) and this year saw The Mist hit the big screen. For no readily apparent reason, although it’s bound to be military, a small town in Maine becomes engulfed in a mysterious mist. And nasty things lurk within – deadly creatures capable of tearing a man apart or infecting them with deadly poison. A group of survivors camp out in the local supermarket and attempt to see off the threat but soon they start splitting into rival factions, creating as much tension inside as out. The Mist is basically a monster movie – big splattery effects coupled with lots of tension – which also takes in a serious message about fanaticism and the lengths people will go to in order to survive. The combination of high horror thrills and pessimism is a sure-fire winner. Another cracker of a horror lay in the Spanish Guillermo del Toro produced El Orfanato (The Orphanage) a slow burning, creepy and fascinating film. Laura (Belén Rueda) buys her childhood orphanage in order to re-open it as a facility for disabled children. Once there, her son begins to play games with invisible friends and becomes increasingly disturbed. The orphanage seems to develop a life of its own. Laura seeks parapsychological help but does she really want to uncover the secrets of the past? With only brief moments of gore on screen The Orphanage relies on frisson and melancholy to weave its eerie magic – the number one film of its year in Spain it shows the appalling lack of diversity at the UK box office by being the ONLY non-English language film in the top 100 of 2008. At number 97. You barbarians. Speaking of unexplained events, The Happening, M Night Shyamalan’s ‘creepy movie with a twist’ was unusual in that it didn’t have a twist this time – unless you count Mark Wahlberg interrogating a plastic plant a twist. Although heavily derided there are a number of stand out moments that make the film worthy of your time – notably the serenely unnerving opening sequences. In Black Water a small family group go for a river trip in the Australian outback and get attacked by a giant crocodile. The end. Actually, Black Water is a reasonable film – it’s fairly tense and does a good job of getting across the boredom of waiting to be rescued. Even though the scares are obvious and signposted, the croc is well executed – hidden for much of the time but delivers when it’s required to attack. P2 was very similar to Black Water but it replaced the river with a car park and the crocodile with a serial killer but lacked the tension and replaced it with a solitary scene of extreme gore. But if all this seemed a bit, well, tame, Tim Burton’s version of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street had enough gushing blood to satisfy the most hardened of gore-hounds. If they could stomach the music. Sweeney Todd a.k.a Benjamin Barker returns to London to take revenge upon Judge Turpin, the man who stole his wife and daughter from him and banished him to certain death. He opens a barbershop above Mrs. Lovett’s shop which sells ‘the worst pies in London.’ With the help of Mrs. Lovett, Todd means to rid London of the corrupt aristocracy, and hopes to be reunited with his daughter, Johanna, who is now Judge Turpin’s ward. As is to be expected from Burton, this is has stunning set design and the performances are terrific. Bonham Carter is fabulous, as is Depp, and even Sacha Baron Cohen doesn’t upset the apple cart (Gervais take note) in this tale of bloody revenge, a dish best served, presumably, encased in pastry.
A number of fantasies were aimed squarely at family audiences, although everyone missed out on the 6th part of the Potter franchise in 2007 for reasons known only to Warners (is it rubbish then?) Still, Prince Caspian heralded the second of the Narnia franchise. Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy are back in Narnia, summoned by Susan’s horn, blown by a desperate Prince Caspian, escaping assassination. Over a thousand years have passed since they were last there and Narnia has become a more barbaric place, with the Telmarine wanting to destroy the magical creatures of Narnia, and Caspian with it. The kings and queens have returned but can they muster an army big enough for the fight ahead and where’s Aslan when you need him? Ultimately this was an epic adventure for all the family but with a less enchanting or engaging plot than the first film with a greater emphasis on impressive battle scenes than on relating to the characters.
The Spiderwick Chronicles starred Freddie Highmore and Freddie Highmore as good twin/bad twin who, with their mom and sister, begin a new life in their great aunt’s house. But little do they know that when Jared (bad twin) opens a magic book, their world will be turned upside down as they become aware of magical creatures in the garden, including an ogre who will stop at nothing to get hold of the book and destroy the creatures it chronicles within. The Spiderwick Chronicles is one of the better fantasy offerings this year, enhanced by truly excellent performances by Highmore. The protagonists feel more realistic – the parents have just split up and the kids are having a hard time – which lends an air of plausibility to the fantasy world which lurks beyond their front door. Superior effects and a brisk running time made for a genuinely exciting adventure – far more engaging than the books it was based upon. Inkheart was an amiable little number from the books by Cornelia Funke. Meggie Folchart and her father Mo (Brendan Fraser) are both bookworms although Mo doesn’t read stories out loud to his daughter. Why? Well he’s a silvertongue and when he does the characters come to life in the real world. The terrible consequence of this is that someone in the real world has to replace them. That happened to Meggie’s mum when she was just 3 and now Mo is searching desperately for the book – Inkheart – inside which he believes she resides. But the evil characters from the book are all too real, they’re in our world and want to rule it. Inkheart is a kind of lost opportunity – it feels as though it should be good and there’s a wealth of characters to choose from, but somehow it just feels like a who’s who of kidlit with a not particularly convincing evil nemesis. Much better was Penelope, a contemporary fairy tale about an heiress (Christina Ricci) born under a curse, which makes her resemble a pig. The curse can only be broken when she finds true love with “one who will love her faithfully.” It’s sweet and romantic, funny and engaging without being too cloying – the rom-com reimagined as a contemporary fairy tale. Hyperactive, eye-searingly bright and utterly barking was Speed Racer from the Wachowski brothers, based on the Japanese cartoon Mahha Go Go Go. Speed Racer, for that is his name, is born to race but it’s clear that the championship he’s driving in is full of evil cheating corporate sponsors. Realism is not a word in Speed Racers dictionary, a film so bright you need sun factor 40 to prevent burning. Revolutionary use of editing, and sugar-rush visuals make this very much an acquired taste – a taste it seemed many were unwilling to try.
Quirky? Bonkers? Hilariously violent? It’s all good for us. In Timur Bekmambetov’s Wanted Wesley’s (James McAvoy) cubicle job and cheating girlfriend life are ended when he finds he has inherited his dead father’s assassination skills and starts working for the Fraternity, a clandestine group of killers whose credo is “kill one save many”. Tough training follows with scary pouting Angelina Jolie at the helm and a deadly game begins to be played out between rival assassins. This, then, is madder than a bottle of stupid pills… but in a good way. It’s so bonkers that it features the Loom of Destiny – a ridiculous plot device that sees orders woven out in some weird de Vinci code telex manner. Bullets curve. Cars apparently fly. Much goes “bang”. Still, the action setpieces are astonishing and the pace breathtaking that the raw stupidity isn’t there to be derided, it’s there to be embraced.
In Be Kind, Rewind, Jack Black becomes magnetized when attacking an electricity substation (don’t try this at home, folks) and unintentionally destroys every tape in his friend’s video store. In order to satisfy the store’s most loyal customer (Mia Farrow), the two men set out to remake the lost films, which include Ghostbusters, The Lion King, Rush Hour, Back to the Future, Driving Miss Daisy, and Robocop. Like much of Michel Gondry’s output (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep) Be Kind, Rewind has a great premise that matures on subsequent viewings. The remakes of the movies put you into film geek heaven; they are pure inventiveness and very funny but also quite inspiring – you too feel you could create your own Sweded masterpiece. There’s also an underlying story about the nature of the local community as the video store is under threat from the developers, just in case you need a heartwarming message too, as well as a questioning of hard line corporate tactics against fan homages to copyright material.
In a case of “you-wait-years-for-a-hand-held-horror-to-come-along-then-three-come-along-at-the-same-time” [REC] (horror film of the year TM) was joined by the virally marketed hype machine Cloverfield and Romero’s dead-cam Diary of the Dead. Cloverfield, on the crest of immeasurable buzz, proved an adequate, taunt horror about a (alien?) invasion that causes chaos and death. The “one tape recorded over another” conceit helped iron out the characterisation and it was undoubtedly tense at moments. The short scenes of match-moved monsters were eerily realised even if the actual monster itself was a bit dubious. Even lower on the budgetary scale Diary of the Dead shows how far cheap effects technology has come. Effectively a pumped up student project (it is rough around the edges) Diary squeezes every cent out of its budget and proves once again that Romero is as much interested in politics and criticising society as he is on horror par se. The almost throw away ending (the reason the film received an 18 rating) is so casually chilling its political and humanitarian implications are all too real and all too much to contemplate.
Back out of retirement was monosyllabic killing machine Rambo and wise crackin’ whip weildin’ grave robbin’ Indiana Jones. In Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull we’ve moved on to the cold war era (despite the twenty year hiatus… hmmm) and a pitch-perfect camp performance from Cate Blanchett heralds a new “race to the artifact” mission for Indy – this time involving crystal skulls of an unknown origin that can send a man insane (or at least make a man John Hurt, here as a crazy professor). This sets up the standard run of action set pieces and comedy asides which in the main are refreshingly tactile but lose their charm when the CGI becomes more obvious. While it’s good to see Karen Allen back after over a quarter of a century less welcome is the addition of Indy jnr (although he’s nowhere near as bad as he could’ve been) and a widely fluctuating Ray Winstone. And let’s not talk about the ending. Or the fridge. John Hurt has had a bit of a type-cast year, being a professor of some idiosyncrasy in both Indiana Jones and Hellboy II as well as in Álex de la Iglesia’s barking mad modern giallo The Oxford Murders. A series of bizarre murders (or are they?) are connected by obscure mathematics (or are they?) with reluctant amateur sleuth (or is… well you get the idea) Prof. Seldom begrudgingly teaming up with an idol-worshipping mathematics wunderkind played by Frodo Baggins. Increasingly hysterical and convoluted The Oxford Murders manages to be insane enough to allow its most macabre and offensive elements appear just another normal part of a what is basically Inspector Morse meets Freaks or Dario Argento’s A Beautiful Mind. 10000 BCAnd while we are talking implausible and convoluted what words can describe the lunatic incredulity of 10,000 B.C? They are capturing folk to build the pyramids. With mammoths. D’Leh finds his hottie Evolet is captured by the brutal builders and so he sets about getting her back (there’s some mythical gubbins here but we’ll gloss over that for the moment). This involves following them on foot from artic ice to rain forest heat (in the space of about half an hour walking!) to desert, befriending initially hostile tribes along the way and earning the trust of a sabre-toothed tiger. Yes. Really. The fact that the score and direction point to some epic and worthy statement picture make the event all the more hilarious for their attempt to be worthy. Sort of like Apocalypto. For kids.
In the old days the word “jumper” meant something rocking chair crooner Val Doonican habitually wore but over the years this functional, cozy but fashionably dubious item of clothing has become more acceptable, particularly following its prominence in The Matrix and its sequels. And now we have Jumper – not a comfy piece of knitwear (always feeling better when some lived in holes had materialised) but a science fiction film from director Doug Liman (he of Go, Bourne Identity and the slightly unhinged Mr and Mrs Smith). David Rice (Hayden “youngling killer” Christensen) finds out he is a jumper – that is someone able to teleport anywhere he wants to. Great. Free money from banks and the life of Riley awaits. Except that he’s not the only one and his kind are not welcomed, not least by the paladins, a centuries old organisation who will do anything to eradicate them, and paladin Roland (Samuel L. Jackson) has got him in his sights… It had so much potential but the ideas fizzle out after an intriguing start and Liman’s decision to use Greengrass inspired shaky camerawork drains any sense of excitement from the action, crazy given his previous competence in that area. A missed opportunity that just ends and then has a hasty tacked on “room for a sequel” epilogue. In their dreams.
In Inkheart this years busiest genre lead Brendan Fraser (John Hurt beats him in roles but not for leads) is Mo “Silvertongue” Folchart whose unusual ability is to be able to read aloud fictional characters into the real world. Unfortunately in a sort-of-physics way each action has an equal and opposite reaction so someone from our world ends up wandering the fictional lands – often not very pleasant ones at that. This is a fate that has befallen his own wife, which is why he now reads without moving his lips and why he is searching for a copy of the inexplicably rare book she has fallen into, Inkheart. Now, with his daughter, he searches antique bookshops for the missing tome (think Ninth Gate. For kids) but wouldn’t you know it the nasties from Inkheart (led by a supremely gurning turn from Andrew Serkis, a panchant for excess that suited him well in the muddled but enjoyably tasteless splatter comedy The Cottage) want world domination – something they intend to achieve by taking the reluctant Silvertongue out of retirement. A time passing fantasy of the old school (plenty of prosthetic and in camera work here) with a cast clearly enjoying itself (Jim Broadbent, Paul Bethany in typically top form and even Helen Mirren) Inkheart passes by admirably and enjoyably but without the verve it really needs to raise it that little bit higher. Meanwhile in Bedtime Stories Adam Sandler finds he is able to read aloud fictional characters into the real world…with far less enjoyable results. There’s more alleged comics in fantasy films when a near death experience causes Ricki Gervais to see dead people in the annoying Ghost Town – a sort of Sixth Sense meets Topper without either of those films charm. Still the supreme irony that Mr Gervais (last seen trying to ruin the otherwise excellent Stardust and managing to wrestle any vestiges of enjoyment from Night in the Museum) plays a dentist here at least means that we get to quip that this film was as funny as having teeth pulled.
That man Fraser again in the belated sequel The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor where this time Rachel Weiss has wisely jumped ship to be replaced by Maria Bello, a point made in some excruciatingly poor attempts at comedy earlier in the script. This time round the “mummy” in question is cursed Emperor Han (Jet Li) who will, as legend dictates in these films, be undefeated if XY and Z conditions are met. Once things get going its exciting enough in a seen-it-all-before kind of a way and at least the injection of hostile yetis brings a (probably unintentional) smile to the face and Anthony is typically in form as the ruthless General Yang but the problems remain (sticking to type, John Hannah irritates) compounded by a “is that it?” denouement and a criminal underuse of Jet Li only exacerbated by an even more underused Michelle Yeoh. A waste of opportunity and talent. Jet Li fared better in The Forbidden Kingdom, a far better than expected east-meets-west fantasy in which a bullied American boy called Jason (Michael Angarano) finds himself transported to ancient China when he becomes the owner of the Monkey Kings magic stick. Thing is said stick could revive the Monkey King and hopefully defeat the evil Jade Warrior who has the regal simian trapped, so naturally he wants the stick for himself. Helping (and occasionally hindering) Jason on his journey are Lu Yan (Jackie Chan reprising his drunken master roles) and Silent Monk (Jet Li), occasionally joined by Golden Sparrow (Crystal Liu). For younger new-comers to the martial arts film this is an ideal introduction (and a good companion piece to Kung-Fu Panda) although Jason may be a bit young to see the copy of Bride With the White Hair he clearly possess. For older viewers this is the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Chan and Li fight on screen – an enjoyable scene given the limits of the family-friendly rating.
Out of nowhere comes one of the highlights of the year. Admittedly it’s one of the highlights of the year 1981 but that’s not a bad thing, it was a good year for low budget science fiction. Neil Marshall, he of Dog Soldiers and The Descent fame, returns with the hugely enjoyable if disreputable Doomsday. If last years Tarantino/Rodriguez films were homages to their ill spent youths then Marshall has clearly relished returning to his – in this case the post-apocalyptic joys of Mad Max 2 and John Carpenter’s peerless Escape From New York. Eden Sinclair has a job to do – to go to Scotland on a mission. Problem is Scotland has been cut off to prevent the Reaper virus infecting the rest of the UK. Only thing is that the virus has cropped up in London and the only hope seems to come from a land which everyone thought was inhabited only by corpses. But no Scotland has a violent tribal society of cannibals and freaks that will do anything to stop the outsiders. Non-stop action and excessive violence (the UK fortunately didn’t suffer the indignity of the R-rated print) make Doomsday a high-fun, high-octane thrillride of the highest B-Movie order (that’s a compliment!), also finding time for a soundtrack that includes Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Adam and the Ants as well as a sequence that looks like Duran Duran’s Wild Boys video set in an abattoir.
You’ve got to admire Hollywood’s desperation at trying to tap into the lucrative gaming market but surely by now the constant attempts at bringing interactive entertainment to a distinctly un-interactive big screen have shown that the results are messy. At best. Apparently not because here we find Max Payne (the irony being that the studio’s wanted a PG-13 rating in the US so Moderate Payne might’ve be a better title), played by everyone’s favourite guy with a plastic plant for an analyst Mr Mark Wahlberg, the tale of a cop out to avenge the death of his wife and daughter. Except it’s not that easy because there’s some heavy duty Hell inducing drugs on the street and blah, blah, blah. Some nice visual touches can’t save the garbled plot and sagging narrative.
Normally we have a saying in these reviews “sometimes we watch them so you don’t have to” but in the case of the remake of Robert Wise’s peerless The Day The Earth Stood Still we didn’t watch it. Some sacrifices are too great, even for Vector (I mean what next? Remake West Side Story? Sound of Music? The Haunting? Oh, wait…)
At least some superhero films tried to escape the tried and tested formula and offer a different slant on matters. We’ll ignore the by numbers “comedy” tedium of blink and you’ve forgotten it spoof Superhero Movie and concentrate on two very different films with strikingly similar premises. In Hancock Will Smith plays a hard drinking superhero out of favour with the public, his acts of chivalry inevitably ending in chaos and destruction. Inevitably the cynicism and dark humour give way to a lighter film (there’s a bit of a schism going on here in the film) but its enjoyable while it lasts. Bizarre is the word for Dainipponjin Dainipponjin (Big Japanese Person) debut feature from writer-director-comic Hitoshi Matsumoto, one half of comedy sensations Downtown. Matsumoto is the titular character, a dour, unpopular middle-aged guy interviewed for a documentary. Every once in a while he is juiced up by electric power stations and grows in size to fight an increasingly deranged selection of aliens. A combination of ultra-low-key and ridiculous camp this is clearly a contender for most odd film of the year.
X-Files: I Want To Believe The Franchise Has Finally Sputtered Its Last Breath reunited the star of the excellent but naughty Californication David Duchovny with Gillian Anderson – as Moulder and Scully. This time the duo (Scully now a catholic nurse, Moulder a shabby recluse) are investigating claims by a bleeding eyed defrocked kiddy-fiddler priest played by Billy Connolly that he has visions that could help them on a high profile kidnapping case. Please no more. This is also a plea that can be labelled at the irritatingly titled AVPR: Aliens vs Predator – Requiem, a further kick in the egg sacks for the venerable franchises although at least it doesn’t go the PG-13 route of AVP (or whatever it’s called).
Star Wars: The Clone Wars comes in-between episodes 2 and 3, a spin off of the TV series of mini-CGI episodes. Despite the expansive palette offered by the big screen and some clever design touches the film all but disappeared in the swamp of summer tentpoles.
Once great hope Mathieu La Haine Kassovitz saw a further career blooper with garbled nonsense Babylon A.D. – a messianic sci-fi future The Transporter 3 with Vin Diesel an over earnest man-for-hire transporting the potential saviour of the world (nearly two dozen languages off pat by age two credibility fans) along with her guardian, Michelle Yeoh playing a nun. We’re not making this up.
So a mixed bag of a year. What is perhaps encouraging is the signs of an emerging confidence in mid-budget films, providing they get adequate distribution, over the increasingly familiar eye-candy of the blockbusters.
Films of the Year: