All posts by Gerry McAuley

Enemy

by Gerry McAuley

Jake Gyllenhaal plays a history professor in Enemy.I had the chance to see a preview of Denis Villeneuve’s second collaboration with Jake Gylenhaal last Spring when the film was released in North America and Spain. It is testament to the film’s lasting impact on the viewer that I can write this review quite clearly many months later when it finally gets a general release.

I’m not expecting too many people in the UK to see it at the cinema because frankly it’s had minimal promotion; those that do venture out, however, will undoubtedly have a ‘Marmite’ reaction. I absolutely loved it, even if I don’t fully understand it. My other half hated it. This is a polarising film that you will argue over (and try to understand) for a long time. For that reason alone it’s worthwhile viewing but there is so much more that makes it significant.

Enemy is a psychological thriller that centres around two Gylenhaal characters: Adam, a solitary professor who seems to be frustrated by his monotonous life yet incapable of changing it, and Anthony, an aspiring actor who appears to be Adam’s exact physical doppelgänger. When he spots Anthony in a minor role in a movie, Adam becomes obsessed with tracking down his double.

I don’t want to give away anything further about the narrative as this is the key to the film’s success. Based on a Jose Saramago novel, Villeneuve’s direction always seeks to create ambiguity and prompt questions. You will find yourself asking what the hell is going on here on a number of occasions. And that’s what’s so fantastic in my opinion – this is challenging without straying into art-house bollocks, thrilling and puzzling and horrifying and brilliant and potentially rubbish all at the same time.

What I can say is that there is something unmistakably ‘off’ about the entire film. There is a cloying sense of a rotten core, a darkness just below the surface that continually threatens to expose itself fully before scurrying tantalisingly out of the viewer’s reach. No interpretation I have come up with fully satisfies. Currently there are two separate theories/explanations I’m subscribing to without being able to decide if they can be compatible or not.

There are two outstanding elements that prevent Enemy from becoming the aforementioned art-house bollocks. The first is Gylenhaal’s performance as the two protagonists. He brings tremendous variety and nuance to each so that they become distinct while hinting at hidden depths which make the film so enigmatically wonderful.

The second is Villeneuve’s direction – the pacing is measured (some might say slow) and the use of light and camera to create atmosphere is excellent. He’s confident enough to leave extended pauses between anyone speaking, interspersing the narrative work with lingering shots of birds flocking above the Toronto skyline. There is a feeling that everything is deliberate, every element of a shot carrying some kind of meaning that will be crucial when attempting to decipher this film afterwards (and that is what you have to do – probably with a second viewing) that is reminiscent of true masters of the genre like Hitchcock and Haneke.

That’s not to say that I think Enemy is on a par with either of their best efforts, just that Villeneuve is one of the outstanding up-and-coming talents in mainstream cinema. With Enemy the boundaries are pushed even though the experience also feels comfortingly familiar. This is a film that merits several viewings and animated discussions around the dinner table – I will be checking it out again myself with the hope that I can finally debate its meaning with people I know. It’s unusual to be able to say this about a film that’s just gone on general release but I can assure you that Enemy will stay with you for a long time, regardless of your opinion on it.

In trying to provide a conclusion to this review I struggled for quite some time to adequately capture my feelings, to provide a neat, short summary on what this film is or why you should watch it. Truthfully there isn’t any way to accurately convey how good this film is in a short written review. And that, in fact, is probably the best thing I could say.

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A Decade In Film – The Noughties: 2005

A series where the Failed Critics look back on a particular decade in the world of cinema, choosing their favourite films from each year of that decade.

When I was putting together the longlist for this article, I realised that this year seems to be notable for the number of eminently forgettable films it produced. That is, films I’ve watched that I’ve never had a desire to watch again or, worse, had forgotten that I’d even seen. Examples include Syriana, Wedding Crashers (come at me bro), Jarhead, The Island, The Business, Casanova, War of the Worlds, Revolver, Mr and Mrs Smith, The Producers, Robots, The Longest Yard, Assault on Precinct 13, Just Friends, Lord of War, Match Point, Cinderella Man, Wallace and Gromit, King Kong, whichever mediocre interpretation of Harry Potter was due that year…

Oh and apparently someone made a fan-film about how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader? And they even pretended to be George Lucas?! What a crazy idea. I’m just glad it’s not part of the official canon – I’d hate for the legacy of the Star Wars trilogy to be tarnished.

Anyway, my conclusion is that I may have watched more films from this year than any other so far, and yet I’ve struggled to pull together 5 films that are really amazing. Usually selecting 5 films is an agonising process. I just have very little emotional connection to many films – I’d say my Top 4 are strong and I chose the other fairly arbitrarily out a number of ‘meh’ choices. And please, as always, bear in mind that these are not supposed to be the ‘best’ films of the year but simply the ones I enjoy the most.

5. Kingdom of Heaven

kingdom of heavenThere will be a day when you will wish you had done a little evil to do a greater good.

I know this may be fairly controversial as many people I speak to think KoH is boring, but Ridley Scott’s epic tale of the Crusades has a lot going for it. Orlando Bloom is as good as Orlando Bloom gets (which admittedly isn’t all that great) and the historical world is lovingly created. Really though, I like this film because it has some awesome battle sequences, a rousing, sweeping soundtrack, and simply because I find that era of history utterly fascinating.

I won’t go into the historical accuracy or controversy about the film’s message on Western-Arab relations at a deeply sensitive time; far more qualified people than I have covered this in much greater detail. If you’ve not seen the film before or haven’t watched it in a long time, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of the Director’s Cut Blu-Ray and strap yourself in to the home cinema system for the film and accompanying documentaries.

4. A History of Violence

a history of violenceThere. You see how cozy it can be when you decide to play nice? Now come, Joey. Get in the car. You won’t need your toothbrush. We’ll take care of everything.

Criminally underrated by the general population but loved by critics, David Cronenberg’s film stars Viggo Mortensen as a man in a quiet town who responds with extraordinary, lethal skill when two men try to rob his diner. While not the most surprising or twist-filled narrative, the story is still gripping and as the film unravels, it is a pleasure to watch Mortensen’s consummate portrayal of the protagonist.

I’m not going to say any more about this film other than this: if you’ve not seen it, rectify this immediately. If you have, you’re probably overdue another viewing.

3. Hidden (Caché)

hiddenIsn’t it lonely, if you can’t go out?

It took me far too long to watch this film and I suspect many readers will be aware of the film without having seen it. As I said when raving about the film on a podcast many moons ago, the main feeling I was left with was simply awe at Haneke’s direction.

At the heart of the film is a mystery, a frighteningly real and possible mystery that it would be detrimental to discuss in case you, the reader, haven’t seen the film. Nonetheless, the way in which the narrative is unwound, meticulously, thread by thread, is a joy to behold. Without spoiling anything, I can say that the mystery continues right up until the final shot – which unlike most films doesn’t give the viewer closure but instead opens up a whole other line of enquiry for the viewer to ponder as they walk away from the film.

The beauty is therefore in Haneke’s intention; no explanation is fully satisfactory. There are flaws in any theory to answer the film’s questions, just as in life. If you’ve seen Hidden though, I’m sure you will be bursting with theories of your own and will happily engage others in a discussion/argument about it. And that, really, is the beauty of good entertainment, of a fine cultural artefact – enjoyable in the moment, just as enjoyable when shared with others.

2. Sin City

sin cityThe silencer makes a whisper of the gunshot. I hold her close until she’s gone. I’ll never know what she was running from. I’ll cash her cheque in the morning.

Stylish, brutally violent and full of smart dialogue, Frank Miller’s graphic novel series is definitely worth a read. And as the film is arguably the most faithful interpretation of comic/graphic novel source material you’re likely to find, it isn’t surprising to find it here on this list. Robert Rodriguez had spent a few years directing kids films by this point (interspersed with Once Upon a Time in Mexico) so this represented a powerful return to type.

Still notable nearly ten years on for the striking visuals thanks to being shot almost entirely on green screen, Sin City explores the dark side of urban humanity. RR managed to pull together an all-star cast (who interestingly weren’t all signed up when some scenes were shot, so RR digitally swapped them in for doubles later on) and in particular a great turn from Mickey Rourke after years in the wilderness, an absolute must given the disparate nature of the multiple narratives woven together. Plus it has lots of sexy ladies in it who, much like in Planet Terror a couple of years later, kick a lot of ass and aren’t just there purely as eye candy.

Sin City is like the most archetypal film noir ever made and yet completely unlike pretty much every film noir at the same time. Mostly though, it’s just terrifically entertaining.

1. Batman Begins

batman beginsJim Gordon: I never said thank you.
Batman: And you’ll never have to.

There was only ever going to be one winner here and we all know it. Just a few weeks ago I found that a significant number of my work colleagues consider BB the best of the Nolan Batman films and I know they aren’t alone in feeling that way. Personally I think The Dark Knight is superior but Begins will always have a special place in my heart as a Batman geek.

It may be difficult to remember now but Begins came out when superhero films were reaching a difficult stage. We’d seen the DC heroes (Batman and Superman) decline by the late 90s with the genre seemingly dead until Raimi’s Spiderman and the original X-Men films smashed a big-budget hole in the cinematic landscape. Suddenly cinemas were awash with shiny, polished interpretations of a whole range of comic book heroes. New special effects technologies transported us to incredible, fantastical versions of the world time and again, with huge ticket and DVD sales for even the mediocre efforts (for instance, the distinctly average Hulk took $245m). Warner Bros took a look at their big ticket hero. And they had a problem.

What on earth were they to do with Batman? Since Schumacher took on the mantle, the Batman of recent memory was all style, no substance – and the style was questionable. Tim Burton’s Batman films in the late 80s/early 90s had been a huge success but the landscape seemed to have moved on. The WB execs found a way to get back to that darker vision of Bats and gambled on audiences being fed up of the more superficial treatment prevalent at the time. Enter Chris Nolan, still relatively unknown by mainstream audiences despite the relative success of Memento & Insomnia, with a bold vision: to make a film about Bruce Wayne, not about Batman.

The rest is history. I could write a very long article about this film, about the series it spawned, about the brilliance of Nolan’s interpretation (I kind of already have). I may still do. For now, let’s just bask in the glory of Batman Begins, a film that changed cinema for the better and kicked off one of the finest trilogies in recent film history.

100 Greatest TV Episodes: Homer the Heretic (s4 ep3)

The latest addition to our 100 greatest individual television episodes, as chosen by Gerry McAuley. Homer the Heretic makes The Simpsons the first series to have two separate entries into our list!

One of my criteria for greatness in the arts is timelessness. I don’t think I’m alone in that. Now, that isn’t to say that you can only call something great if it’s been around for a long time; sometimes you just know instantly that something is so amazing that your grandkids could watch it* and, while they may not get the same experience as you did given the different cultural environment, there’d still be something tremendously valuable about it. In this case, it’s that the episode is still brilliantly funny and simultaneously tells us something interesting about the culture of its time.

In a few months time, Homer the Heretic will be 21 years old. It was on TV recently and even watching it for the umpteenth time I was laughing like a loon. David Meyer’s writing is so crisp and poised and brilliantly structured that it’s almost divine. This is where I feel we see Homer at his best, the Homer of the earlier series: selfish, ignorant and gluttonous in a way that we can all identify with, rather than just some oafish buffoon to do slapstick gags and dumb jokes with. What’s more, he asks genuinely insightful questions of society through his actions and even his words – famously and poignantly asking God:

“I’m not a bad guy, I work hard, and I love my kids. So why should I spend half my Sunday hearing about how I’m going to hell?”

Who knew he could say something that wasn’t entirely stupid, eh, current Simpsons writing team?

homer 1

“What if we picked the wrong religion? Every week we’re just making God madder and madder.”

For the handful of people whose lives have somehow led to them being able to read this article online but not having seen this episode, here’s the story: one freezing morning, Homer decides to stay in bed rather than go to Church. He enjoys it so much that he decides to stop going to Church altogether, incurring the wrath of Marge and causing various concerned Springfield citizens to try to bring him back into the fold and see the error of his ways.

Homer’s joy at having the house to himself is something I think we can all relate to and, while we may not all enjoy his patented space age out of this world moon waffles, I’m fairly confident we’ve all enjoyed some of the activities he does when home alone. The Simpsons is brilliant at making movie references and the Risky Business reference is actually one of the most obvious. It is, however, sure to bring a smile to your face. They also riff on the previous year’s Backdraft, finding comedy in the classic cinematic trope of the heroic rescue.

This is The Simpsons at its most bold. To actually depict God, in physical form, appearing in dreams and chatting to Homer is quite ‘out there’, especially in the good ol’ US of A. To show God as an ordinary guy at heart (“You know, sometimes even I’d rather be watching football”), mocking certain aspects of religious beliefs (“Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to appear in a tortilla in Mexico”) – that really takes some stones.

Meyer was brought up Catholic but became an atheist and the combination of detailed knowledge and devastating criticism here is perfectly balanced. The episode drips with quotable, funny lines.There’s a very fine line to tread when dealing with multiple religious groups and managing to poke fun at Christians, Jews and Hindus (or “miscellaneous” as Reverend Lovejoy calls them) without really annoying them massively is an impressive feat. The resolution, with its message that we’re all human no matter your religious beliefs, chimes with God approving Homer’s decision to worship in his own unique way. Meyer and his team manage to provide a ‘message’ that can be interpreted in multiple ways by different audiences and thus keep everyone laughing and largely unoffended.

homer 2

This episode has everything that makes the show great: bags of humour, thought-provoking social commentary and satire, an insightful depiction of family life and a remarkable likeability even when characters seem to be acting selfishly. Episodes like this are also significant in that they laid the ground for shows like South Park to really tear into things that people hold dear. A much more delicate and family-friendly balance than that is struck by The Simpsons team at the height of their powers; sadly, they don’t replicate such highs these days, but at least we have the memories. Or should I say, at least they show the classics on TV on a regular basis so we can keep enjoying them. As I say, I have every intention of still laughing like a lunatic at this episode with my grandchildren many years from now.

 

*The caveat being that some truly great shows might be a bit uncomfortable to watch with your grandchildren, no matter how old they are. Like Game of Thrones. 

homer 3

THAT’S GAME HENDRIX!

A Decade In Film – The Noughties: 2004

Our journey through the most recent completed decade hurtles onwards, to the year when cinema was finally freed from the iron grasp of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. This year was certainly the most difficult so far to narrow down to just five films, with a plethora of high quality films released. There’s a nice little list of also-rans underneath my five choices so as not to spoil the overwhelming tension you are no doubt experiencing as you wait to find out which five films I’ve chosen.

5. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

eternal sunshine of the spotless mind

“Are we like those bored couples you feel sorry for in restaurants? Are we the dining dead? I can’t stand the idea of us being a couple people think that about.”

Michel Gondry’s surreal and slightly sci-fi tale of a couple erasing each other from their memories tells us so much about sadness, loss and relationships. It won Gondry, Charlie Kaufman and Pierre Bismuth the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in the process, as well as serving as a timely reminder that Jim Carrey is a brilliant serious actor when he wants to be. Eternal Sunshine isn’t simple to understand, it isn’t chronological, its characters (even the strong supporting cast) constantly reveal new layers of complexity; in other words, it pretty much urges you to watch it through a second and even a third time, for fear that you’ve missed out on something valuable. Though disorienting, the film continually brings us back to its message: that humans need love and companionship and that, however fleeting the attainment of that may be, we are better off having it (and remembering it) than never experiencing it at all. No matter the pain, memories are sometimes all we have. Without them, as Gondry shows us, we are not really us.

4. Dead Man’s Shoes

dead mans shoes

“I’m not threatening you mate. It’s beyond fucking words. I watched over you when you were asleep and I looked at your fucking neck and I was that far away from slicing it.”

Paddy Considine is awesome. We know this. Everyone accepts this as one of the key truths of current British cinema. Shane Meadows is also pretty damn good. He gets a lot of plaudits from critics and ‘ordinary viewers’ alike, so we know he’s one of the most talented men in British cinema too. Partly why we know both of these things is Dead Man’s Shoes, a visceral psychological examination of one man’s personal war in the sleepy town of Buxton. These men, we see, bullied his disabled brother. And Paddy didn’t like that. Not one bit.

Considine is captivating as he inflicts his terrifying revenge upon them, Meadows manipulating the audience from the get-go into a tumult of anxiety and conflict. Yes, these people are drug dealers, but do we revel in their misery? Do we feel that this is all merited? What the hell would I do if someone like this came after me? The setting is so recognisable to British viewers (particularly Northern monkeys like myself) and the style so effective that the film feels horrifyingly real.

A modern British classic that paved the way for This is England, Meadows builds upon A Room for Romeo Brass (and the muddled Once Upon a Time in the Midlands) and applies his style to a different genre, producing a film that you felt only he was capable of making. Fortunately, Considine has since used experiences like this when he stepped into the director’s chair, resulting in the brilliant Tyrannosaur.

3. Bad Education

bad education

“I think I’ve just lost my faith at this moment, so I no longer believe in God or hell. As I don’t believe in hell, I’m not afraid. And without fear I’m capable of anything.”

A semi-autobiographical tale of Catholic child abuse and the long-lasting trauma this inflicts upon those involved. What’s not to like? Exploring how his characters’ sexual identities are shaped by their earlier lives, visionary director Pedro Almodóvar is almost, almost, at his best here. It’s in his top five, anyway, which puts it at a higher level than most directors in Hollywood could ever hope to achieve.

Gael García Bernal – or, to give him his full title, the annoyingly-attractive-even-when-dressed-like-a-woman- Gael García Bernal – stars as Ignacio, who visits struggling director Enrique and forces him to confront their supposed past. Fiction and reality become blurred. We question who is who, we are fooled, we are unsure where the truth and fantasy diverge, if at all. The acting, from all involved, is outstanding to the point that we end up wishing that it didn’t feel so real.

Make no mistake, watching this film is an unsettling experience. Not just because of its depictions of prostitution, drug taking, transvestitism (I had to wikipedia that term) and child abuse, but also because there is layer upon layer of complexity here and you won’t come out of the other side feeling optimistic. The abundant sex is never gratuitous, the consequences always much more impactful than anything we see on screen. A film to treasure, for here we see a great director creating meaningful art with great actors that enthralls us from start to finish. And that, really, is all we can ask for in a film.

2. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

anchorman

“Mr. Harken, this city needs its news. And you are going to deprive them of that because I have breasts? Exquisite breasts? Now, I am gonna go on, and if you want to try and stop me, bring it on. Because I am good at three things: Fighting, screwing, and reading the news. I’ve already done one of those today, so what’s the other one gonna be?”

Perhaps the most quotable film of all time, Anchorman is pretty much the foundation for the likes of Steve Carrell, Paul Rudd and Will Ferrell receiving top billing in Hollywood comedies and Judd Apatow producing everything ever since. Building on the success of Old School, Ferrell teamed up with fellow SNL staffer Adam McKay to write this tale of a sexist, outrageous news team in 1970s San Diego. One of the best satirical movies of recent decades in my view, Anchorman spoofs 70s America in the same way Austin Powers skewered 60s Britain – exaggerating aspects of the culture yet maintaining a realistic, recognisable feel that only serves to make it funnier. These are characters we can all recognise and, unfortunately, attitudes that we have probably all experienced too. Watching the news team attempt to woo new girl Veronica Corningstone will be familiar to anyone old enough to view the film – their juvenile and misguided efforts doubtless drawing parallels from some poor fool we know/knew growing up. The cameos from the comedy elite of the period are thick and fast, most notably in an insane brawl that parodies West Side Story, and the outlandish lines and quips come even thicker and faster (that’s definitely a thing – I’m making it a thing).

Cinema snobs (film critics in general, to be fair) will tell you this isn’t a great movie, or a great comedy, or that it doesn’t quite work, or it’s juvenile. It may well be that those watching it for the first time twenty years from now will wonder what all the fuss was about, and why their dads keep quoting it to each other. This is my generation’s Animal House. I will defend it to the end. Anchorman works through a bunch of excellent comic actors taking a middling-to-good script and, through outstanding delivery and excellent rapport, making it work (well, 60% of the time, it works every time). Watching the deleted scenes on the DVD will show you just how great their improv ability is, a fact that both Hollywood and the major networks picked up on straight away.

1. The Sea Inside

the sea inside

“Only time and the evolution of consciences will decide one day if my request was reasonable or not.”

For anyone to watch this film and not experience a gamut of emotions is surely impossible. This is a film that reaches out of the screen and grabs you, leaves you open mouthed at its central performance and deeply touched on a human level at the power of its story. That the film has its basis in real events makes it all the more enthralling.

Javier Bardem has been the darling of the English speaking cinematic world since his turn in No Country For Old Men. This is unquestionably his best performance though, bringing to life Ramón Sampedro, a Galician man who becomes quadriplegic after an accident. That Bardem is restricted to lying motionless for the majority of his screen time yet still turns in one of the most astonishing performances of the decade tells you all you need to know about the subtlety of his brilliance. The supporting cast, not least Belén Rueda and Lola Dueñas, are excellent thanks to the outrageously good direction of Alejandro Amenábar. Probably best known by English speakers for The Others (underrated), Amenábar established himself with Open Your Eyes – the vastly superior original of Vanilla Sky – and this is his first Spanish language film since that release seven years earlier. He hasn’t worked much since either (only middling 2009 Rachel Weisz vehicle Agora) so I remain hopeful that when he next makes a film, it will approach these dizzying heights again. This is stunning filmmaking, deeply uplifting yet haunting; a masterpiece.

Good but not quite good enough

So here are the ones that made the not-so-shortlist, the longest thus far in the series. So many of these were desperately unlucky to miss out that I’m already practically apologising to them for omitting them:

The Motorcycle Diaries, Collateral, Team America, Ong Bak, The Bourne Supremacy, Million Dollar Baby, The Aviator, Napoleon Dynamite, Downfall, Dodgeball, Mean Girls, Kill Bill Vol. 2, The Machinist, The Incredibles.

You can find more of our revitalised Decade In Film articles so far here, from 1963-2004.

Despicable Me 2

despicable-me-2-gru-edith-agnes-margoThere’s something you should know before we get started. I liked the original Despicable Me quite a lot, but nowhere near as much as my girlfriend does. The fact that she is currently on her second Despicable Me message tone should tell you all you need to know about that. Accordingly, while it is held in high esteem in my household and was one of the more unexpected successes in recent animation, I don’t even consider it the best animation of 2010 (Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon are superior).

Enter the sequel. Gru is (spoiler alert) now on the straight and narrow and turning his talents (and minions) to the manufacture of jams and jellies. Meanwhile, his ‘girls’ and his neighbours are encouraging him to go dating. Gru seems more concerned with grappling with parenthood and fruit than with women, but his life gets disrupted when, without spoiling too much, he ends up on the other side of the super-villain/forces of good battle.

On the plus side, the trailers that have been infiltrating my cinematic experience for what seems like aeons haven’t told us all this already, being instead dominated by the unlikely stars of the original, Gru’s minions (a standalone Minions film is in the works). Disappointingly though, the trailers turned out to be entire scenes from the film, leaving regular cinema-goers like myself unexpectedly disengaged at a couple of points simply because you have already seen what’s unfolding at least 25 times before.

That’s one of my only criticisms though and, fortunately, the trailer scenes were far from the ‘best bits’. Unlike many sequels, the charm of the original is ever-present here and the quality is consistently high. Agnes is one of the most impossibly cute characters in cinematic history and melted even my usually cold, dark heart. Her siblings, likewise, provide their own attributes to give some variety to the child characters. This is in fact one of the more refreshing aspects of Despicable Me 2: there is more development of the contrasts between Fairy Princess party-loving Agnes and teenager Margo, experiencing the flourishing sentiment and excitement of adolescence. And we have Edith, an all-action tomboy who rejects the classic ‘girly’ stereotype, criminally underused because Kristen Wiig’s secret agent Lucy is covering the action girl side nicely.

For all the plaudits of Brave’s ‘alternative’ princess, this shows a more rounded view of the different identities modern girls can take. Lucy neatly combines the three siblings’ features: at times innocent, at times arse-kicking, at times emotionally vulnerable. It’s nice to see a female lead who isn’t simply a masculine action hero or just a vulnerable, soft-centred romantic, but both. Beyond the females, there is an excellent supporting cast and enough variety to give everyone in the audience something to relate to.

As good as the characters are though, it’s the humour that sets the film apart. Despicable Me 2 is not only funnier than its predecessor, it’s funnier than most of the comedies I’ve watched recently (yes, The Campaign, you especially). It doesn’t have the originality of the first film of course, so there is less reliance on gags around Gru’s villainy. Thankfully, the creators have chosen to find comedy from a wider range of sources rather than mining the same resource to the point of overuse.

There are jokes for all ages too, with knowing nods to parents and a plethora of references alongside more slapstick and child-centric gags. Universal Pictures/Illumination Entertainment seem to be forging a path here amongst titans like Pixar and Dreamworks, thanks largely to their ability to do what those two do so well: create films that are funny enough to make the entire audience laugh and touch us emotionally too.

A quick note on the visuals. I watched the 2D version (obviously) so I have no idea if the 3D is any good, but there is a definite step up in quality from the first. Some of the final scenes in particular are absolutely gorgeous and there is an attention to detail reminiscent of Pixar, particularly in terms of the nods to other films. That said, there is nothing quite at the level of the first’s Lehman Brothers gag or the priceless masterpieces hidden away in the girls’ bedrooms and I want to manage expectations: this isn’t as good as Pixar at their best. Having had the trailer for Planes before watching this though, I think it’s safe to say hopes are pinned on Monster’s University providing a return to previous standards (and, dare I say it, artistic integrity over merchandising sales).

More than anything, going to the cinema to watch this film was an enjoyable experience. Sometimes you are reminded why we go to the cinema in the first place. Whether it’s an all-out action film like The Raid or a film that genuinely caters to the entire family like this, we pay to go to the cinema to be entertained and have a good time. Yes, the prices are steep. Yes, other people are really annoying. Yes, Odeon Premiere seats are an appalling example of capitalist greed. But when a film is this good, all that gets forgotten. I recommend catching this on the big screen as watching it with a backdrop of little kids’ laughter enhances the experience (kudos to the little girl behind me who kept shouting ‘NEE-NAW-NEE-NAW’ at inappropriate points for making us chuckle too).

Charming, funny and pretty nice to look at, I walked out of Despicable Me 2 with a big smile on my face that stayed there for a long time. Frankly, if you go to watch this film at the cinema and don’t walk out smiling, I’d get to the nearest hospital and ask them to check your vital signs. You might be dead. Even a super-villain like Gru was charmed by it all, for God’s sake.

A Decade In Film: The Noughties – 2003

This week, Gerry gives us his top five from 2003 – be sure to check out the entries for 2002, 2001 and 2000 if you haven’t already done so. We’d love to hear your thoughts on these so please get in touch with a comment or on twitter.

5. Finding Nemo

FindingNemo460“The dropoff? They’re going to the dropoff? What – what are you insane? Why not just fry them up now and serve them with chips?”

It’s not my favourite Pixar film, but that’s like saying Stairway to Heaven isn’t my favourite Led Zeppelin song – it’s still fucking good, it just happens to have been created by people who reach greater heights. Gorgeous to look at and full of charm, the storyline and characters are perhaps a little weaker than others in the stable; this, of course, still means that they are superior to the vast majority of animated films and lots of ‘normal’ films too. The voice cast is so outstanding I’m not even going to highlight anyone in particular. This film was a long time in the making (3-5 years) and it shows in the attention to detail. Gorgeous and, a decade on, firmly established in the pantheon of family classics for young children and former children alike.

4. Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King

ROTK Viggo“Then let us be rid of it… once and for all! Come on, Mr. Frodo. I can’t carry it for you… but I can carry you!”

The culmination of a growing mastery of epic fantasy over the preceding years, Jackson’s final installment is often derided for having about 27 endings, but that ignores the excellence that goes before it. It’s very hard for me to decide between the three LOTR films and I will continue to argue that they are one of the rare examples of films that, as a trilogy, are much greater than the sum of their parts. Still, a visually wonderful and enthralling film with iconic battle scenes and the closing of one of western narrative’s great achievements – what’s not to like?

3. Kill Bill Vol 1

Kill bill uma thurman“Those of you lucky enough to have your lives, take them with you. However, leave the limbs you’ve lost. They belong to me now.”

Stylish, witty and chocked full of violence, Kill Bill is one of my favourite Tarantino films (and I really like Tarantino). Uma Thurman is great, the references are too numerous to count, and the story clips along at a lovely pace. This sums up what Tarantino is about for me – his encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema shines through, while his control as a director is superb. The result is just a really fun film. Slightly better than Vol 2 in my opinion, although I am quite eager to see the original cut of both as a (very long) single film.

2.Elf

Elf Will Ferrell“First we’ll make snow angels for a two hours, then we’ll go ice skating, then we’ll eat a whole roll of Tollhouse Cookiedough as fast as we can, and then we’ll snuggle”

Yes, Elf. The joint best Christmas film ever made (alongside It’s A Wonderful Life, obviously) which sees Will Ferrell’s Buddy as a human adopted by elves who goes to New York City to find his real parents. This is a film that can only be described as charming from start to finish. The supporting cast is pretty good all round, especially a short turn from Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones) as a ridiculous children’s author, but this is undoubtedly Ferrell’s film. This was a great year for Ferrell, with Old School close to making this list too. Most remarkable is David Berenbaum’s screenplay – his first – and the fact that, in his second proper outing as a director, Jon Favreau marked his arrival as a director with genuine potential thanks to his understanding the nature of Hollywood cinema magnificently. Honestly, it’s a Christmas institution in my household and I know it is for many of my generation – I challenge you to watch Elf and not smile, no matter how many times you’ve seen it.

1. Te Doy Mis Ojos (Take My Eyes)

Take My Eyes“Where it reads ‘home’ read ‘hell’. Where it reads ‘love’ there is pain”

This is a remarkable film. The simple fact that it won seven Goya awards in 2004 (the Spanish equivalent of the Oscars) including Best Picture, Director, Lead Actor and Lead Actress should indicate to you quite how much quality is bursting from every scene here. But let me make a disclaimer early on: this film is brutal. It depicts some dark depths as far as humanity is concerned. This most certainly isn’t one to watch on a romantic night in (trust me, I’ve watched this with my girlfriend) unless you’re in a very established relationship. It tells the story of Pilar and Antonio, a couple in the wonderful city of Toledo. The opening scene shows Pilar leaving him due to the abusive nature of their relationship, moving in with her sister, Ana. As she tries to rebuild her life, Antonio goes to anger management classes. Slowly but surely, they begin to interact again. We are presented unflinchingly with a troubling examination of abusive relationships, the powerful effect they have on the victim and those around them, and the strange irresistible pull of the abuser despite all the horrors they have committed. Luis Tosar’s Antonio is one of the outstanding performances of the decade, making the film worth watching for that alone. But this is truly brilliant in many aspects. In a way that European cinema seems to manage so much better than Hollywood, the characters are not black and white. This is no hero and villain affair. We feel sympathy where we ‘shouldn’t’, anger and annoyance towards those who are ostensibly in the right. Yes, Antonio is an awful human being but we see the sides of him that make Pilar still love him. We are exasperated at her lacking the strength to completely cut him off. This cuts to the core of Spain’s problems with domestic violence and is in fact sociologically significant, as it helped catapult the debate into the limelight after decades of awkward silence. A woman dies every week at the hands of her partner in Spain. Watch this and you will understand the horror of that experience, one that is unfortunately repeated in countless homes all the time*. But you will also understand a little more about people.

*The death rate for domestic violence in the UK is actually higher than this, but we don’t talk about it – perhaps we need to have films like Tyrannosaur reaching a much wider audience to stimulate debate? You know, get powerful dramas about the dark side of society on general release with big marketing? Accept that as a nation we are capable of appreciating more than CGI and loud noises? Just saying, Hollywood obsessed shitty cinema chains; you can do what you like with that suggestion. I suspect nothing and more ‘John Carter on 15 screens for a fortnight’ crap. Rant over.

Film4’s Studio Ghibli season: The highlights

Princess Mononoke, one of the films showing in Film 4's Studio Ghibli season
Princess Mononoke, one of the films showing in Film 4’s Studio Ghibli season

Today marks the beginning of two and a half weeks of cinematic excellence on Film4, as their Studio Ghibli celebration begins. Of course, very few people will have time to watch them all (Owen Hughes of this parish will probably manage it) so we thought it would be useful to pick out five to watch. These five would provide a perfect entry point into the magical world of Studio Ghibli but this list is by no means exhaustive. There are a large number of great films in their canon and I urge you to watch as many as you can – I will certainly be taking the opportunity to catch the ones I haven’t yet seen.

Wait, Studio Ghibli? What the hell is that?

First, a little intro to Studio Ghibli for those unfamiliar with this powerhouse of Japanese animation. Set up by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata in 1985 following the success of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, the studio has always prioritised artistic integrity over commercial appeal. This, famously, has extended to a “no cuts” policy when distributing internationally; Harvey Weinstein, upon suggesting that Princess Mononoke be cut to give it more commercial appeal, received a Samurai sword in the post with an accompanying message of “no cuts” from the film’s producer*. Frequent themes are nature (and man’s destruction of it), childhood and magic. The studio is notable for its frequent use of female leads who are very different from the typical Disney Princess.

Of the ten highest-grossing films in Japanese history, Ghibli has produced four of them – including number 1, Spirited Away. John Lasseter, Pixar’s chief creative officer and director of Toy Story among others, describes Miyazaki as “the world’s greatest living animator”. Outside of Disney and Lasseter himself, it is hard to think of anyone who has had more influence on animated films.

Spirited Away – Tuesday 26th, 6.30pm [subtitled]; Saturday 6th April 4.35pm [dubbed]

Previously discussed here and here, this is one of my favourite films. I’ll leave it to the BBC’s Jamie Russell, writing in 2003:

With none of the sentimentality of Disney nor the computerised sheen of Pixar, this traditional animé even blows the brilliant Finding Nemoout of the water. It’s epic story is more imaginative, rousing and luscious than anything American animation has produced since the halcyon days of Snow White and the Seven DwarfsIn two hours Miyazaki offers more magic and innovation than most animators could manage in over two decades.

Princess Mononoke – Wednesday 27th, 6.05pm [subtitled]; Wednesday 10th April, 1.10pm [dubbed]

The highest-grossing film in Japanese history until Titanic came along and ruined everything, this is a Princess tale unlike anything Disney has provided. Set in an imagined 14th Century Japan where humans and forest creatures live side-by-side, there is a surprising complexity and ambiguity to this tale. The familiar tropes of animated fantasy in the West are gone here: no black-and-white morality with a valiant hero and a damsel in distress for Miyazaki and co. Instead we find that everyone has their reasons and not everything about them is bad; in terms of educating children how the world works, this is far better than the classic Disney tale. Visually stunning throughout, whilst the film may appear a little impenetrable on the surface please don’t be put off – Princess Mononoke is a landmark in animation.

My Neighbour Totoro – Saturday 30th, 4.55pm [dubbed]

Again, I’ve written about Totoro before so I will leave it to the great Roger Ebert to describe this, the only competitor with Toy Story in my mind for the title of best animated film:

Here is a children’s film made for the world we should live in, rather than the one we occupy… Whenever I watch it, I smile, and smile, and smile… It is a little sad, a little scary, a little surprising and a little informative, just like life itself. It depends on a situation instead of a plot, and suggests that the wonder of life and the resources of imagination supply all the adventure you need.

Howl’s Moving Castle – Monday 1st, 4.35pm [dubbed]; Friday April 12th TBC [subtitled]

Surprisingly, this film is based on a book by a Welsh children’s author and Miyazaki himself is a big fan of the country; its predecessor and sister film Castle in the Sky draws heavily on his experiences of the Welsh Miner’s Strike a couple of years before its release. Not quite achieving the clarity of thought and purpose of his previous efforts, this is nonetheless a tremendously entertaining film. Here we see Sophie, a young girl, transformed into a witch and journeying to the aforementioned castle to free a fire demon from a curse in the midst of a war.

Grave of the Fireflies – Friday 5th, 12.15am

Takahata’s tale of two children struggling to survive among the bombs in late WWII Japan is more ‘adult’ than the other films here, as evidenced by it being on late at night. One of the most powerful war movies ever made (seriously), this remains the only film to make me cry. You have been warned. That said, don’t be put off by the tragic element at all. The opening scene reveals that our narrator is dead so we know throughout that this is a doomed story; however there is joy, as well as sadness, to be found in the life he tells us about. That is the real power of the film – the characters are brilliantly formed and  we care about them. This is a tale of two lives, innocently caught up in war and the societal breakdown accompanying it. That an animation can feel so real and so relevant is testament to the skill of all involved.

*Miyazaki explains: “…I did go to New York to meet this man, this Harvey Weinstein, and I was bombarded with this aggressive attack, all these demands for cuts. I defeated him.”

Best films on TV – week commencing 25th March 2013

Here is my selection of the best films showing on UK free-to-air television this week. Yes, these are the ‘best’ ones in my opinion, not some kind of universal truth. Tweet me about how wrong I am if you like but I’m hardly going to change my mind!

The Battle Royale of 'Battle Royales'Monday 25th March – The Godfather: Part II  (Film4, 9pm)

You watched The Godfather on Sunday at 9 right? We did tell you in last week’s article before you start claiming ignorance. Just like 24 hours earlier, it’s an unusual day when this film isn’t the best film on TV. Pacino is outstanding, the story is phenomenal, it’s a classic of cinema. I don’t really need to say anything else. You will be up to nigh on 1am though, which isn’t great if like me you are boring and like to get 8 hours a night, every night.

Tuesday 26th March – Spirited Away (Film4, 6.30pm)

Today marks the start of Film4’s Studio Ghibli season, which everyone should be taking advantage of. Like a Japanese Pixar/Disney, Studio Ghibli is a byword for top-notch animation. Spirited Away found fame in the West by winning the Best Animated Film Oscar in 2003 and, slightly more prestigiously, being recognised as one of the year’s best films by yours truly on a site not a million miles from here. The film tells the story of a young girl who, on the way to moving to a new house, finds herself in a magical spirit world trying to save her parents who have been turned into pigs (happens to me all the time). It encapsulates childhood, fantasy and the sense of magical wonder we all unfortunately seem to lose when we hit puberty; frankly, if you don’t like this film you and I are probably not going to get on. A masterpiece.

Wednesday 27th March – Copycat (More4, 10pm)

On a truly magnificent day for films, I’m avoiding the two obvious choices quite simply because otherwise this will look like a Film4-sponsored piece). Nonetheless, an evening of Princess Mononoke (6.05pm) followed by The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (9pm) might be bum-numbing but it sounds bloody fantastic to me. Assuming people have lives, though, set those to record and watch Copycat, the 1995 tale of Sigourney Weaver’s agorophobic criminal psychologist trying to catch a serial killer who seems to be a fan of a whole bunch of other serial killers. It’s not as good as The Silence of the Lambs or Se7en, films it clearly draws heavily upon, but if you like either of those you will find a lot to enjoy here. Sigourney reckons this is the performance she’s most proud of, which should be enough to sell it to you, and it’s a shame this got lost amongst a deluge of serial killer thrillers in this period.

Thursday 28th March – Doubt (BBC4, 10pm)

Yes, the 2nd LOTR film is on tonight. Watch that if you haven’t seen it already. I think pretty much everyone who wants to has, though, which makes Doubt today’s best film. Quite simply, if you like good acting, you will like this film. Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman do battle in mesmerising fashion, supported by an astonishing Amy Adams (who showed the world she should be taken seriously with this performance) and future Oscar nominee Viola Davis. In fact, all four got Oscar nods – PSH for best supporting actor, Streep for best leading actress and Adams and Davis competing for the supporting actress gong – along with writer/director John Patrick Shanley for best adapted screenplay. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t to be – a combination of Heath Ledger, Slumdog Millionaire, Kate Winslet and, most bizarrely, Penelope Cruz (in forgettable Woody Allen Spaniard vehicle Vicky Cristina Barcelona) denying this excellent film success.

Friday 29th March – Battle Royale (Film4, 12:55am)

I don’t care what anyone says, The Hunger Games is a poor man’s Battle Royale. And I liked The Hunger Games quite a lot. Which means, beloved reader, Battle Royale is bloody outstanding. It’s as shocking today as it was on release (which I’ve written about previously) yet despite the copious amounts of gore, communicates a deeper message. Like the best of all art, it tells us something about society as well as entertaining. ‘Like Tarantino, but they’re Japanese’ as a mate once said.

Saturday 30th March – My Neighbour Totoro (Film4, 4:55pm)

Possibly the animated film that has filled me with joy more than any other (and I really do like animated films), My Neighbour Totoro is Studio Ghibli at its finest. Of course, you’ll have already watched Spirited Away on Tuesday so by now you will have an idea of the sheer magic that is a Hayao Miyazaki film. This 1988 masterpiece tells the story of two young girls who discover that the woods around their new home are inhabited by magical creatures. All I can say is that on its initial release in Japan this was only available as a double-bill with Grave of the Fireflies, which sounds like the most perfect combination imaginable if one wanted to represent all the aspects of childhood on screen. Watch it. Love it. Worship it. Rave about it to all your friends and family. Wish you had a real Totoro as a constant companion. Remember how bloody amazing being a kid was. Yes, it really is that good.

Honourable mention today for The Secret in their Eyes (BBC4, 9.50pm), the quite brilliant Argentinian film that took home Best Foreign Language Oscar 2010 and currently sits ahead of Rocky, The Exorcist and others at #155 on the IMDB 250 [in fact, it’s rated 8.1 – the same as Mary and Max which we discussed on a recent podcast]. Totoro followed by this would make an excellent evening’s viewing, most certainly.

Sunday 31st March – The Girl Who Played With Fire (Film4, 11pm)

On an Easter Sunday packed with cinematic choice, this was a hard one. There’s such a feast of films, you could go for a theme. Family films or Westerns for instance. The Goonies or True Grit (the original) might occupy your afternoon from 1.30 and 1:45pm respectively. Then you could move on to Arrietty (5.15pm) or the best Western ever Wild Wild West (5.55pm). That last one was a joke before you start tweeting me.

This Scandinavian powerhouse of a film is rather good though. There may or may not be an American remake but proper cinema fans will want to see the (superior) Swedish trilogy, with the excellent Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth. Violent, thrilling and with a powerful storyline – what’s not to like? 

A Decade In Film: The Noughties – 2002

A continuing series where Failed Critics contributors look back on a particular decade in the world of cinema, choose their favourite films from each year of that decade, and discuss the legacy those years have left us.

As this is podcaster Gerry’s idea, he’s nabbed the noughties. Here he gives us his top five from 2002 – be sure to check out the entries for 2001 and 2000 if you haven’t already done so. We’d love to hear your thoughts on these so please get in touch with a comment or on twitter.

5. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

the-lord-of-the-rings-the-two-towers-large-pictureI think we might have made a mistake leaving the Shire, Pippin.

The first was a towering achievement of storytelling and fantasy narrative brought to life on screen; the follow-up continued that great work and showed a generation of film fans and aspiring film-makers what epic productions are like. With more action than its predecessor, The Two Towers stepped up the cinematic intensity and silenced criticisms from some corners that the films were long and boring. Jackson builds steadily towards a triumphant final hour centred around the battle at Helm’s Deep, a battle scene which absolutely captivated my imagination as a 13 year old watching this in the cinema. I have, of course, since seen many epic films with epic battle sequences but this film is often a benchmark to compare them with. Podcast listeners will know I moaned about The Hobbit recently but as you may guess from this series, I bloody love TLOTR trilogy, and a decade on The Two Towers remains a staggering achievement, a lesson to us all on how to do exciting fantasy drama on a massive scale.

4. Spirited Away

spirited-away-large-picture-1Once you do something, you never forget. Even if you can’t remember. 

Studio Ghibli films are widely regarded by cine-literate people as outstanding. Yet the majority of the population seem blissfully unaware of their work. Spirited Away is much like their other films – it gets to the heart of childhood and imagination, transporting us forward into a hitherto unseen world of the creator’s making while simultaneously catapulting the viewer back to their own youth, that sense that magic lurked so close that a wrong turn could mean you winding up in a vastly different reality to your own. That is precisely what happens in this film. Chihiro’s family end up getting lost and wandering into an abandoned theme park – her greedy parents eating the tempting food left seemingly unattended and, of course, being transformed into pigs. Fans of Disney and particularly Pixar will find much to love in this classic animation, both in thematic content and the rich visuals our senses are practically assaulted with from the word go. I don’t think it quite matches up to My Neighbour Totoro or Grave of the Fireflies (note to Matt Lambourne – they’d better be 1 and 2 for 1988) but nonetheless, this is better than 90% of the kids films you will ever see – whether you’re a nostalgic adult or a child who hasn’t yet lost that wonder at the potential marvels of the world around them. [I’ve included this for 2002 as it was released in Japan in 2001, film festivals around the world in 2002 and in the UK in 2003, making 2002 the middle ground in such a confusing and drawn out release schedule]

3. Punch-Drunk Love

punch drunk love adam sandlerI have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.

I’m not going to lie to you – I only watched this film about a month ago. I absolutely loved it. No, in fact, I fell in love with it. A mild introduction to art-house cinema for the uninitiated (or soft-core art house if you like), Punch-Drunk Love is a quirky tale featuring Adam Sandler as a possibly autistic, possibly partially psychotic entrepeneur who falls for slightly-less-odd Emily Watson.  Despite the backdrop of constant belittlement from his seven sisters, their romantic journey begins, alongside Sandler’s efforts to disentangle himself from a scam he fell into by ringing a phone sex line to chat about his life. It sounds weird and it is a bit, but if you doubt Sandler’s credentials for this then you’ve obviously never listened to Mark Kermode before. Literally the only downside to watching this film is that you will now be even more annoyed by the constant stream of utter shit Sandler is churning out these days when he is capable not only of genuinely funny films like Happy Gilmore but also excellent serious acting performances like he puts in here. Psst Adam, here’s a hint – make more films with people like Paul Thomas Anderson and less with Dennis Dugan and you might be ok.

2. City of God

city-of-godYou need more than guts to be a good gangster. You need ideas. 

A gripping tale of corruption, poverty and crime in the underbelly of Rio de Janeiro, City of God did wonders for Brazilian cinema. I actually studied a module on Brazilian cinema in University purely based on the fact that in doing so I could watch City of God again and find out the context behind it. For all the complex and important social issues it explores, City of God has a fairly standard cinematic trope at its core: two boys grow up in the same place, take different paths in the face of external pressures, yet their lives always seem to be intertwined and meet with dramatic consequences. Famed for its use of first-time actors taken from the streets of the favelas themselves (even including the mother of one of the real-life criminals depicted in the film), there is a brutal realism to Cidade de Deus that some viewers may find unpalatable. In my view it is that harsh realism which makes the film so powerful and for it to be viewed as anything other than a strength is missing the point entirely. This war between drug lords really happened. It wasn’t nice. With brilliant cinematography that captures the lo-fi 70s vibe of the time whilst still producing stunning visuals and some iconic shots, it is no wonder that the film remains one of the most successful and well-known films in ‘world cinema’ to UK viewers. Fernando Meirelles hasn’t made the move to Hollywood big-shot as many predicted but is trying to make himself the Brazilian Almodóvar. Speaking of my mate Pedro…

1. Talk to Her

On the face of it, Hable con Ella is a pretty odd film. It centres on the solitude and inner turmoil of two men who bond over the beds of the female coma victims who they care for, the gradual entanglement of their lives – whilst in parallel the events leading up to the film’s present are slowly unravelled in flashbacks. There is a quiet power to the film which draws the viewer into this world so deeply that it is impossible to forget. Essentially, old Pedro tests how far he can push an audience (again), this time in terms of how much you’re willing to forgive because you like someone. I often say this about foreign films on the podcast but THIS IS WHAT CINEMA IS ABOUT. Tremendous performances, a director whose vision is so clear and whose skill is so well-developed that they are able to interweave symbolism and narrative to devastating effect, a story which engages throughout and an exploration of wider themes and societal issues without being preachy or ever failing to entertain.

Like all of his films are to some extent, at heart this is an exploration of gender roles. We have the two male leads crying over a performance at the ballet; a female bullfighter who is harsh and masculine, while her boyfriend is vulnerable and openly emotional; a male nurse; and a now infamous scene from the film-within-the-film which seems outrageously shocking, but is in fact less shocking than what it masks. There are a number of genuinely haunting scenes in Talk to Her, precisely because we are drawn into the drama so powerfully by the cast and crew. Javier Cámara and Darío Grandinetti are mesmerising. Almodóvar was under some serious pressure after the global success of All About My Mother and this was what he came up with.

In my opinion it’s his finest work – in a catalogue of films that most people in Hollywood would be proud to have in their DVD collection, let alone make. This is cinema. This is art without being arty or pretentious. This is a film about humanity, morality, imperfection, societal conditioning, sex, solitude, normality, mental illness… There is a disturbing, unsettling effect as you question your morality and precisely why you feel sympathy or empathy at certain points. It pushes you to think outside normality and ask questions of yourself and the world because it has engrossed you so totally and manipulated you so delicately. That, for me, is what cinema is.

A Decade In Film: The Noughties – 2001

A continuing series where Failed Critics contributors look back on a particular decade in the world of cinema, choose their favourite films from each year of that decade, and discuss the legacy those years have left us.

As this is podcaster Gerry’s own idea, he’s nabbed the noughties. In this article, he talks about his favourite films from the year we were supposed to have a Space Odyssey, 2001.

5. Donnie Darko

Image

I’m going to make an admission before we get started. This one made the list to annoy James, because he hates it and was disgusted that I didn’t like Amelie enough to include it on here (spoiler alert). On this last point by the way, I intend to watch it again as it’s a number of years since I watched it as a teenager and I suspect I might think differently on it now.

Anyhoo, the film that launched Jake Gylenhaal’s career is a moody 80s teenage tale about a young lad who imagines (or does he?) a 6 foot bunny rabbit called Frank, which adds to his already complicated life. Donnie, you see, is already seeing a psychiatrist and struggles to get on with his family, as well as struggling (like we all did) to get things moving with fellow oddball Gretchen who he has somehow managed to date. Richard Kelly explores time travel and mental illness with this cult classic debut, whose success he has never managed to match since either as a writer or director. This is the part where James rants about how deliberately indie this film is but it’s a bit more thoughtful than most teen films and, as a young teen, really hit a chord with me. It straddles genres and tones but somehow makes it work in my eyes – plus it has a deliciously creepy turn from Patrick Swayze. Captures the 80s vibe brilliantly as well as the stifling nature of suburban life which makes it a winner already but the outstanding soundtrack rounds things off nicely.

4. The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del diablo)

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Guillermo Del Toro’s chilling ghost story is apparently inspired by his own experiences of his uncle’s reincarnation as a ghost. How true this is remains to be proven, but it is certainly filled with a sense of history and realism that adds to the thrills. A dream combination for me in terms of cast (Marisa Paredes, one of Spain’s finest actresses of all time) and crew (Del Toro directing, the Almodóvar brothers producing), this film has all the makings of a classic on paper. It duly delivers. Spine-chillingly brilliant, it tells the story of 12 year old Carlos as he settles into a remote orphanage in the closing stages of the Spanish Civil War. The Nationalist forces are closing in on them although the only signs of this are an undetonated bomb sticking out of the ground and Carlos’ being there at all – his father died in the conflict – as the film eschews portrayal of the conflict itself, instead using it as a backdrop, a pervasive feeling of dread and impending doom that permeates every scene.

Podcast regulars will know of my passion for this period in history (the subject of my Masters), this director and particularly his film Pan’s Labyrinth, which Del Toro describes as the ‘sister’ to this film, the ‘brother’ in the sibling relationship. Indeed, this is an exploration of a young boy’s grappling with how horrendous the real world is in much the same way as Pan’s explores a young girl’s struggles in this regard. To the filmmakers’ credit, the ghost story is often rather secondary to the very human drama and this is most certainly a far cry from the average Hollywood horror. Utterly tremendous. So tremendous in fact that just writing this article has made me decide to watch it again tonight.

3. A Beautiful Mind

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Russell Crowe was number one in my last list and he is outstanding again here as John Nash, the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician whose brilliant intellect is unfortunately coupled with rather fragile mental health. Beginning with Nash enrolling at Princeton as an implausibly old-looking student and following his life and career, this is more than a simple biopic. Ron Howard manages to craft an engaging and exciting drama to go alongside excellent examinations of the characters and mental illness in general, as John’s grip on reality becomes less and less firm. There is a sense of genuine care and affection for the material throughout and the cast, including excellent performances from Ed Harris and Paul Bettany, keep the film grounded and engaging. Crowe is absolutely outstanding though and his keenly observed depiction of John Nash, who he met during filming, is consistently wonderful. This is no doubt in part due to the fact that the film was shot sequentially, so Crowe could maintain a sense of steady decline and progress further and further into Nash’s mental illness.

This film speaks to something in me that I can’t quite put my finger on, with Crowe’s emotional turmoil and despair often really affecting me (something films don’t do all that much to me to be honest – I’m half dead inside when it comes to celluloid). The recurring theme of love is dealt with in an even-handed way, building to a deeply emotional ending. A thoughtful exploration of mental illness from a big Hollywood director with a big Hollywood star (who the year before was iconic as Gladiator Maximus, let’s not forget) – who’dathunkit? Yes I know that lots of unsavoury elements of Nash’s life were left out (including homosexual affairs, which were left out to avoid mistaken connections between homosexuality and schizophrenia) but this remains an outstanding film. Even Roger Ebert says so.

2. Monsters, Inc.

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I didn’t get round to watching Monsters Inc until a few years ago, largely because I was at that stage where you feel too old to watch kids films and can’t appreciate them in the same way you do as an adult. What an error. The story of Mike and Sully, two monsters whose job is to scare children to generate power, and Boo – a child who wanders back into Monstropolis, where the monsters are in fact terrified of her thanks to their fear of being contaminated by a child. Pete Docter, the bizarre-looking genius who would later direct Up and write Wall-E, stepped up to directing this having written the first two Toy Story films. He got it bang on.

Visually stunning and setting new standards in animation (frames with Sulley in took around 12 hours to render due to his 2.3 million individually animated strands of hair), Monsters Inc is also brilliantly written. The most outstanding feature however is the voice talent. Unusually, John Goodman and Billy Crystal recorded together, as did Steve Buscemi and Frank Oz – see what I mean about voice talent? Crystal, as an aside, lobbied for this part after turning down a part in Toy Story, calling it the biggest regret of his career. Equally fascinating and reflective of the dedication to innovation at Pixar, the actress who played Boo was so authentically young that she would wander around rather than stand at a mic and perform her lines. Pixar simply followed her around with a microphone as she played, giving her speech a joyfully authentic feeling.

That joy and enthusiasm for childhood, evident in all Pixar’s films, saturates every frame of this. We’ve come to expect the attention to detail and cool trivia (numerous Toy Story references feature, as does Nemo two years before that film was finished. Oh and the pizza planet truck is in the shot of the trailer at the end, the same trailer from A Bug’s Life. METAOVERLOAD) but this really confirmed that outside of Toy Story, Pixar still had a genuine talent for identifying what it feels like to be a kid and to depict that in such a way that the viewer can’t help but be drawn into a world of nostalgia and happiness. I am massively excited about the sequel currently in development and yet simultaneously terrified it will be shit.

1. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

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You knew this was coming. Don’t act like you didn’t. Peter Jackson’s epic saga kicked off with this and it was so outstanding, so visually lush, so joyously nerdish and cherishing of the source material, and so dramatically powerful that it seemed a certainty to clean up at the Oscars. As it was, despite thirteen nominations, LOTR won only (ONLY) four in technical categories, losing out to A Beautiful Mind for Best Picture and Best Director. That said, I prefer this film because despite its length, I feel it offers the most immersive cinematic experience since Star Wars. Viggo Mortensen and Elijah Wood weren’t big names beforehand but they certainly were after this, along with most of the cast. Ian McKellen is positively iconic as Gandalf and even Orlando Bloom manages to not be annoying for one of only two times in his film career (the other being Kingdom of Heaven). I’m reviewing this as if it’s the entire series because it is the basis for the two even better films that come after it and, despite being the ‘worst’ of the trilogy, was still the best film of the year.

I know a lot of people find it too long or boring or nerdy or whatever but frankly, I don’t care. This is an epic journey in the same tradition that stretches back through human history, a thoroughly British tale about fantastical worlds that is still universal (and helped boost New Zealand’s profile and economy considerably) thanks to its deeply human core. I have my reservations about The Hobbit but there is no doubting that this film is the beginning of a trilogy which sets the benchmark for epic drama. Plus, had this not been made in this way, would we have Game of Thrones on TV in a grand scale? I think not. And Game of Thrones is fucking awesome. So there.

A Decade In Film: The Noughties – 2000

The first in a new series of articles where  Failed Critics contributors look back on a particular decade in the world of cinema, choose their favoruite films from each year of that decade, and give us a little insight into the legacy those years have left us.

As this is Gerry’s (from the Failed Critics podcasts) own idea, he’s nabbed the noughties. Today he counts down his favourite films from 2000.

5. Meet the Parents

A remake of an independent film from 1992 and essentially little more than a comedy about families, Meet the Parents is somehow greater than the sum of its parts. Ben Stiller is his usual self and brings some good laughs, but it’s Robert De Niro who is the real star here with a wonderful comedic performance. It hasn’t aged as well perhaps as the likes of American Pie and Zoolander but these are situations we can all empathise with and it is this universality that makes it so consistently funny.

It’s more slapstick and slightly less gross-out than the other comedies of that era, making it more of a family-friendly and arguably complete film than most of its ilk. The sequels which followed it never quite reached these heights but it’s always worth a watch and at the very least helped inspire American Dad, Family Guy’s sister show.

4. Battle Royale

Brutal, violent and shocking, Battle Royale somehow manages to be genuinely thought-provoking despite its subject matter. Now a cult classic, it tells the tale of a class of high-schoolers who are forced to battle it out to the death on a remote island by their sadistic teacher, the iconic Takeshi Kitano.

The obvious inspiration for The Hunger Games, the film and the novel it was adapted from sparked massive controversies both in Japan and worldwide, with the Japanese Parliament trying to ban both. They succeeded only in generating more interest and the film has become one of the most successful in Japanese cinema history. Tarantino counts it as the only of the films released since the beginning of his career that he wishes he had made, and there is certainly a Tarantino-esque flair for combining violence with social commentary.

The Hunger Games made a big splash this year and James talked about this genre here. In my opinion this is basically a far superior original that was copied and made for Western consumption by Suzanne Collins 9 years after the Japanese novel’s release (Collins denies copying Battle Royale, for the record). If you’ve seen the Hunger Games and not this, go and rectify this immediately. Harrowing but brilliant, Battle Royale is that rarest of things – a violent action thriller with a deeper message that’s well communicated.

3. Snatch

Building on the success of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Guy Ritchie’s frantic cockney gangster film managed to combine comedy and brutal violence so perfectly that he practically spawned a new sub-genre. The cast is large and features the likes of Brad Pitt as an Irish-gypsy boxer and everyone’s favourite platform diver Jason Statham (seriously, look it up – he doesn’t just bang hot models you know) among many others. Ritchie’s supreme ability to manage such a large cast and juggle so many sub-plots is what makes the film so outstanding – all the characters end up being well developed and the world created is utterly believable.

Visually, the film is also great – fast paced, brilliantly edited and with an almost constantly moving camera. Whilst the film is very similar to its predecessor, the characters are brilliant enough to distinguish themselves, even if some of the actors are the same. With a whipping 163 usages of the F-word, Snatch’s dialogue could have been crude and boring; instead, it is consistently funny and created a cult following whose only downside is that your mate always quotes the film to you in certain situations. Must-see viewing for all Brits and surprisingly successful across the pond, this film helped put British cinema back on the map. Takings of £12m+ domestically and $30m+ in the US, from a £3m budget, certainly helped make our filmmakers an attractive proposition for studios.

2. Memento

Christopher Nolan’s mind-boggling thriller was made for just $5,000,000 and was only his second feature-length outing. Having garnered a lot of critical acclaim following its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, the film was a major success around Europe when it was released towards the end of the year; however the project struggled to find a US distributor initially and was passed up by the likes of Harvey Weinstein at Miramax. Once the film found a distributor and made its way onto US screens in March 2001, eventually grossing $25,000,000, Weinstein and his pals realised their mistake. Nolan hasn’t struggled for work since and went on to make some brilliant blockbusters.

The plot is complex, as Guy Pearce’s Leonard tries to overcome his amnesia and discover who murdered his wife. Running two strands of the storyline parallel to each other, with one moving in normal chronological order and the other in reverse, was a brave decision which put off the likes of Weinstein. It paid off massively. Memento was a breath of fresh air and managed to find the right balance of complexity, thoughtfulness and thrills.

I’m quite a fan of Nolan, as most of the world seems to be now, but I still think this is one of his finest films. I probably even prefer it to Batman Begins, and as you know I’m a big Batman fan. Accomplished, compelling and innovative, Memento launched the career of one of the biggest figures in the industry today with very good reason.

1. Gladiator

If one film dominated the box office in 2000, it was Ridley Scott’s swords and sandals epic. Russell Crowe is iconic as Maximus, Joaquin Phoenix is brilliantly sinister and scheming as Commodus, and Connie Nielsen is captivating as his sister Lucilla. It’s the casting outside of the three main protagonists where I think Gladiator really excels though – Oliver Reed famously died during filming and some scenes were added using CGI, but he’s absolutely fantastic throughout; Marcus Aurelius is played convincingly by Richard Harris; Djimon Hounsou launched his career off the back of his turn as Juba, Maximus’ companion in the arena. The characters have become so recognisable thanks to the excellent performances of all the cast.

That said, this was not an easy shoot by all accounts. Harris, at 70, could not be bothered to learn new lines when re-writes were made, although he reportedly became good friends with Crowe. Reed, on the other hand, is purported to have offered Crowe out at one stage having taken an instant dislike to the gruff Australian. Similarly, Crowe emulated Harrison Ford in clashing frequently with director Scott and the writers, and criticising the dialogue (as James mentioned on a recent podcast). The schedule was punishing and shoots went on so long that the film was altered significantly by the long days: the blurring in the opening battle sequence was necessitated by the light running out and everyone being too tired to come back again the next day, while the usage of CGI to replace Reed was preferred to going back and shooting scenes again by the now exhausted crew.

Despite all these difficulties, Gladiator is a cinematic triumph. Shying away from the clichés of the genre such as the Emperor languishing in a chair being fed grapes, Scott nevertheless builds on classic elements from films such as Ben Hur and gives them a vibrancy and reality that those productions never achieved. This Rome feels real, gritty, crawling with corruption, greed and malice. The North African setting looks dusty, hot and uncomfortable, the sets look lived-in rather than freshly constructed. The battle scenes are amongst the best I have ever seen and have set a benchmark, in my view, for all that has followed. We’ve probably all seen it, we all know it won 5 Oscars and it’s one of the most quoted and spoofed films in recent history, but we can’t forget just how great Gladiator is. Undoubtedly the best film of 2000.

Honourable mentions:

American Psycho
Amores Perros
Billy Elliot
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Road Trip

BATMAN WEEK – Batman Begins Here

In honour of this week’s release of  The Dark Knight Rises, Failed Critics is going quite literally Batshit mental as we devote the site for one week only to the Caped Crusader. Today our very own Gerry McAuley gives us a brief summary of the main influences on Christopher Nolan’s trilogy from the comic book world. So you can seem knowledgeable to your friends on the way in to the cinema, obviously!

I’m sure we’re all familiar with Batman – after all, D.C. Comics’ flagship superhero has infiltrated popular culture quite successfully in his 70+ years of life. Film adaptations since 1989 have revived the franchise and put a new spin on a hero who for most people was previously associated with the annoyingly camp and light-hearted original series (and 1966 film) starring Adam West as Bruce Wayne/Bats.

What fewer are aware of though is that the darker interpretation which began with Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 and was continued 16 years later by Christopher Nolan (I prefer to forget the Schumacher films in between) reflects a shift in tone in the comic world too. In 1986, Frank Miller – who would of course go on to write Sin City and 300, both of which became hugely successful films – wrote The Dark Knight Returns, the gritty tale of a jaded 55 year old Batman who was forced to come out of retirement and save Gotham again.

The gap between The Dark Knight and the sequel would seem to be based on Miller’s story, as Batman has been chased out of Gotham for eight years after taking responsibility for Harvey Dent’s crimes. Of course, Tom Hardy’s Bane first gained prominence in the Knightfall story arc in the early 90s, so Nolan’s universe is hugely reliant on recent Batman interpretations. As will be seen later, another Miller title, Batman: Year One, is a major influence on Batman Begins.

Another huge name in comics had also helped revive Batman in the late 80s. Alan Moore is probably known to most film fans through adaptations of his work: Watchmen, V for Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and From Hell are all based on his publications, although Moore dislikes all film interpretations of his comics/graphic novels. Just a year prior to Burton’s film being released, D.C. published Moore’s one-off graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke, a dark examination of the Joker’s madness that interspersed his origin story with his twisted attempts to drive Commissioner Gordon insane. The disturbing tone of the story, which involved the Joker shooting Gordon’s daughter in the spine and paralysing a character who was also Batgirl, explored the morality behind the Batman/Joker battle and was undoubtedly a huge factor in the performances of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger in their respective film roles. For instance, the Joker has varying memories of how he came to be:

“Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”

Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight famously provides differing accounts of how he got his scars, which his comic book counterpart does not have – just one example of the different ways the Batman mythology can be interpreted.

The strongest influence on Nolan however seems to have been Batman: The Long Halloween, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s 1996-1997 epic. So strong was that influence that Nolan and David Goyer, the co-writer of the trilogy, provided an introduction to the latest edition of the graphic novel. Although taken from an interview in 2006, just before principal photography began on TDK, both men cite the influence Long Halloween had on both movies and surely the third instalment too.

“When you’re putting together a Batman film, people always ask, ‘Are you looking at this comic book or that comic book?’ And the truth is you look at all of them. As a filmmaker, though, The Long Halloween was one Batman story that really drew me in in terms of cinematic potential… to integrate the more fantastical elements of Batman, most notably the villains, within the context of the real world, strike a balance that felt credible [The Long Halloween] was a great inspiration to us in terms of tonality.”

And with that, allow me to make some suggestions for those of you who are curious about exploring the Batman legend further. Nolan’s trilogy is so epic in scope that one cannot help be drawn in to that world; given that, it seems appropriate to focus on the more recent interpretations which have that gritty, realistic feel.

The place to start is Frank Miller’s Year One, which tells the origin story better than anything else and was recently voted the greatest Batman story ever by IGN. Goyer cites it as one of the three main influences on him in Batman lore and this is clear in Begins. There are various versions of the book around and crucially for those of you who don’t find comics appealing, an animated film of the story was released in 2011 which very faithfully follows Miller’s original.

The next stop should be The Long Halloween, which takes place early in Batman’s career and takes in a staggering number of the rogues gallery of villains our hero faces. If Year One is the basis of Begins, this is obviously the foundation of TDK. Harvey Dent’s story will be very familiar and the Nolan interpretation is largely faithful to Loeb’s story. Furthermore, the subtle differences between the two will give a new appreciation of Nolan’s skill – for instance, he plays with the viewer by having a gun pulled on Dent in the courtroom, a threat which Dent confidently disarms; in Long Halloween, this is a much more pivotal moment which I won’t spoil here. Needless to say, familiar Batman fans had a different moment of suspense and surprise with that particular scene.

Moving on, The Killing Joke is utterly brilliant and really gets to the heart of how small the differences are between good and evil, exploring how our reactions to difficulties can shape both our lives and the world. Yes, there is much more to Batman than you might think. As an aside, there’s a book called Batman and Philosophy which highlights just how many issues are present in the Dark Knight’s struggles against evil.

Once you’ve seen how the Joker began, it seems logical to look at his first battle with Batman – step forward The Man Who Laughs, which takes place in the same early years as Long Halloween, seemingly straight after Year One. Then we can move away from these early Bat adventures and look at something totally different in style. Arkham Asylum: A serious house on serious earth is another journey into madness and the fine line that separates good from evil, as Batman enters the asylum to save the staff from the villains who are holding them hostage. Those who have played the game of the same name will find this familiar territory but the presentation is astonishingly different. This is as close to art as Batman gets in my view and is essential reading. More on the games in a forthcoming article by the way…

With a view to The Dark Knight Rises, the main villains could do with a look too. Bane, as mentioned, appears in Gotham in the Knightfall trilogy and Hardy’s version is apparently much more true to the original than the horrible portrayal Schumacher had Robert Swenson give in Batman & Robin. For Catwoman, choices abound and both Long Halloween and Year One feature a certain Selina Kyle. Hush is the most recent title to have an interesting portrait of Bruce and Selina’s complex relationship and is visually stunning.

To finish off, of course The Dark Knight Returns is a must. I’ve already spoken about the content and the impact of the story but it bears repeating that this is far, far more than ‘just a comic’ as many tend to dismiss Batman stories – as if comics cannot be a serious medium. Hopefully, reading some of the above will correct that impression and give you the added bonus of really knowing what you’re talking about when watching the films with your mates, rather than just blagging it based on the info I’ve given you.

Gerry will be discussing this article as well as a myriad of other Bat-things on this week’s Failed Critics Podcast Batman Special.