January Variety Pack (2)

A bit later than promised, but here’s the second January Variety Pack, containing all the snap, crackle and pop you could hope for, as well as Teutonic metaphysics and an ageless gnome who’s finally getting old.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog is one of those film makers I’ve been aware of for a long time but whose work I’d never seen. His name triggers childhood memories of zapping into Klaus Kinski films and being weirded out by the guy, and I definitely remember hearing about the epic, ongoing on-set battles between Kinski and Herzog – but I’d never seen more than a couple of seconds of the actual films. I’d heard good things about his earlier documentary, Grizzly Man – but again, if it was ever on I missed it. Cave of Forgotten Dreams hadn’t even been shown at cinemas here when I succumbed to the post-Christmas lure of Amazon.com and went ahead and ordered the film on Blu-ray. Hey, if people praise its amazing visuals, I want all the pixels I can get, right? (No 3D, though – it’s available on the disk, but my TV don’t do three-dimensionality.)

Herzog’s a weird one, at least on the basis of this film. Much of his slow, accented voice-over is heavy on the metaphysics, and while I wouldn’t necessarily say I like it, I cannot deny that I find it compelling – right down to the surreal epilogue featuring albino alligators. It becomes even weirder when Herzog cracks a joke, in the same slow, deliberate, strangely sad voice. (Imagine a voice with a heavy German accent that’s pretty much the aural equivalent of Tommy Lee Jones’ facial expression throughout The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

As much as Herzog puts his stamp on the film, its real star is the cave itself and its amazing paintings dating back tens of thousands of years. Not all of the individual paintings are equally fascinating, but some show striking subtlety and artistry – and they look as if someone left them there just yesterday. Herzog’s film is highly successful at evoking both the age of the cave artworks and their immediacy – freaky amphibian reptiles with blood-red eyes are just an extra. The film is enjoyable even without smoking pot or drinking a bottle of cheap-but-nice red wine beforehand.

Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol

… or MI:4, to its friends. In spite of my pretentious-yet-middle-of-the-road film geek credentials (with a few dozen Criterion editions on my shelves I cannot really deny it) I like a good action movie. I’ve enjoyed the Bourne series, Die Hard is one of my favourite Christmas flicks (right there with It’s A Wonderful Life and Nightmare Before Christmas) and I have fond memories of the Californian governor relieving Bill Paxton of his boots, clothes and motorbike.

In those terms, is Em-Aye Four a success? There are moments in the film that I’d consider among the most exciting action scenes of the last ten years. (It helps that we’ve arrived at a point where you can’t always tell a green-screen shot from stunt work.) I sat on the edge of the chair, I jumped, my pulse went up, my breath caught, just as the movie intended.

Apart from that, though, the film fails in one fundamental way: I didn’t care about any of the characters. Is the problem that Brad Bird’s first non-animated movie doesn’t know what to do with its human cast (nor, cheap joke alert!, with Tom Cruise)? Perhaps. It pays lip service to characterisation, but the motivations it provides for its protagonists are uninterestingly written and the actors don’t make them come to life. In fact, you care more about the characters when they’re not angsting about the partners they’ve lost to the job – they’re more relatable when they shut the hell up than when they open their mouths and pretend they’re real people.

For what it’s worth, MI:4 is better than John Woo’s MI:2 – but then, watching a burning dove fly past pooing itself in slow-motion fear is (marginally) better than that film. Is it on par with MI:3? I honestly couldn’t say, because for the most part J.J. Abrahams’ stab at the Missionary position self-destructed about five seconds after I exited the cinema… which is quite the achievement, admittedly, for a film featuring Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

Speaking of achievements, though, CGI has finally managed to conceal the fact that Thomas Cruise, Esq. does not age. The wrinkles that have begun to show on the Cruisester’s face look positively life-like. Will the Academy Award go to Make-Up or to Visual Effects? And is there any truth to the rumour that Cruise’s performance was motion-captured off Andy Serkis?

P.S.: For the record, I quite like Tom Cruise as an actor, when he’s got good material and is directed well – or when he shows that he’s got a sense of humour. (A bit of respecting this! and taming that! also seems to work quite well for him…)

Have yourselves a merry little Christmas

Well… the blog is almost three months old now. And Christmas, the most unrelenting of holidays is upon us. Run! Or, alternatively, grab some eggnog, lean back, and enjoy some festive YouTube clips, courtesy of… well, YouTube.

And have a merry Christmas!

It happened at the movies… (2)

28 Days Later and Millions – these films couldn’t be much more different in terms of what they’re about, yet they’re so obviously directed by the same person… I missed the former at the cinema due to middling reviews (and probably also the agonised moans of zombie aficionados all over the internet). Then, after I’d already pretty much forgotten about the film, a friend lent it to me on DVD. I didn’t expect much when I popped the disk into the player, but I was very positively surprised to find one of the most atmospheric, effecive, thrilling and beautifully paced films I’d seen that year. Yes, the ending is a mess, but it can’t ruin what the first 75% of the movie has built up. The shots of a deserted London alone deserve to become one of the iconic images of British cinema.

Millions, too, was an unexpected joy. The film is wildly inventive and balances its sentimental elements (that feel truthful and are never overplayed) with a sly sense of humour. It’s on a very short list of Christmas films that don’t make me feel like throwing up my eggnog all over the prezzies. And it’s got two of the best child performances I’ve ever seen on film.

Add to these two cinematic surprises directed by Danny Boyle that I’d seen a marvellous stage adaptation of Alex Garland’s evocative novel The Coma, which you can find a trailer for here. Garland also wrote the script for 28 Days Later, so when I heard that the two of them had teamed up again for Sunshine, a sci-fi movie, I was excited.

After seeing the film at the cinema, I was disappointed. I’d wanted to like, even love, Sunshine, and again, the first 3/4 gave me a lot of material to love. If you submit to its slow buildup of tension, it’s one of the strongest films of a space mission going horribly wrong since 2001: A Space Odyssey. And then it attempts to become a metaphysical thriller – but it slips and becomes a somewhat more restrained (but not much better) take on Event Horizon. When I read the script afterward, I realised what they were going for, but unfortunately they didn’t quite manage. On a larger scale, it was 28 Days Later all over, but moer disappointing, since this time I expected something great to begin with.

Still, do the final 30-40 minutes destroy what came before? They almost did on my first viewing; nevertheless, the preceding scenes are what stayed with me. Boyle and Garland succeed at impressing something of the immensity of the sun, and of the astronauts’ task, on us. This isn’t Armageddon or Deep Impact, it’s not heroic Bruce Willis going off to save the world to the strains of Aerosmith. These are normal people who’ve been given a task that, if you think about it too much, will drive you mad.

And while the film’s sort-of-villain verbalises the metaphysical implications less than successfully, the visuals of the dying sun actually convey some of what he says. Staring into the annihilating fires is perhaps the closest you can get to looking at the face of God. It’s interesting, though, that Garland, an atheist, and Boyle, more of a doubtful theist, read their film, and its metaphysical dimension, in completely different ways: the movie is wise not to come down on any one side of the God issue. It just sits there, like the dying sun – and if you stare at it for too long, it may just burn off your face. Now didn’t your mother warn you not to sit too close to the telly?

P.S.: Here’s the film’s international trailer. I do apologise, though, for the criminally overused orchestral piece nicked from Requiem for a Dream. (How anyone can think it’s a good idea to use music from that film to evoke ‘epic-ness’ is beyond me.)