Thursday, 5 January 2012

Review: Films part 4. The really, really good ones

And so it was Christmas, and what have you done? I'll tell you what you haven't done - watched enough films. Films are ace. Here are my favourites of 2011.

I have not included the Jan-Feb Oscar run, as I went on about them at length during Oscar season. As I remember, I really liked The King's Speech and Black Swan, and probably The Fighter. But it's all so long ago, and I was so much younger.

Anyway. 2011.

Source Code

Certainly not Quantum Leap. Don't say it is!

Duncan 'Moon' Jones's second feature is a slick high-concept sci-fi premise that goes as follows:  Jake "Donnie Darko" Gyllenhall wakes up on a train, not knowing who he is. Someone spills stuff on his shoes, he meets a pretty girl, the train explodes. Good start, huh?

Well. Then he wakes up again, except this time he's in what looks like the loading level from an X-Box game. Now I think about it, Gyllenhall is often waking up in his films. The first time we see him in Donnie Darko he's waking up on a golf course. And I'm pretty sure he does it in Brokeback Mountain too, after a warm, cuddly night with the Joker. Obviously it's something he does quite well, and maybe that's why he gets cast.

Either way, Jake spends most of the film waking up either on his train - where he always gets stuff on his shoes and the train always explodes - or in his XBox room, where people explain the plot to him. And the plot is this.

A bad terrorist blew up the train with a bomb, and this same guy has an even bigger bomb which he is going to use to blow up everything else. Luckily, a machine exists - the Source Code - which can send Jake back into the mind of a guy who was on the train, so he can relive the last 8 minutes of the train's journey, and try to find out who the bomber was. If that last bit doesn't make sense to you, don't worry, because a) it doesn't make any sense, at all, to anyone, b) you can enjoy the film without it making sense.

What follows is a Groundhog Day-esque repetition of the last 8 minutes of the train ride, as Jake constantly replays the scenario and tries a variety of methods to find out who the bomber is, all the while falling slowly in love with the pretty girl and constantly getting stuff on his shoes. Like Groundhog Day, the re-use of events is witty and inventive, playing fast and loose with action movie conventions while nibbling at some wider themes. As in  Moon there is a challenge to the notion of unique personal identity, with a few questions about ethics, science and destiny thrown in for free.

Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll

Don't know if this was 2011 or 2010, but I only just saw it, so you're going to have to live with it.

This is a great film. There are lots of reasons why - fascinating subject matter in Ian Dury, great soundtrack, confident and stylish directing - but the main one is Andy Serkis.

You know Andy Serkis, of course. He was in 24 Hour Party People, but no-one has ever seen that, even though they should have. More famously, he plays every CGI creation you've ever seen in a film, ever. Gollum in Lord of the Rings, obviously, and King Kong. And, more recently, Caesar in the recent Rise of the Planet of the Apes. And probably Optimus Prime, and the snow in The Day After Tomorrow, and Alderaan exploding in Star Wars. There's no limit to his talents.

Anyway. In this, he plays Ian Dury. Who, apparently, was a very clever and talented man, but also a giant pain in backside if you had to spend any time with him. This, to me, is one of the joys of film. Spending time with characters who, in real life, you would hide from when they knocked on the door. It's much easier to appreciate their entertainment value when you are separated by a screen, and you can pause the buggers and run away for a bit.

I don't know how accurate this is as a portayal of the man himself, but it's certainly a very entertaining and intelligent film, and the soundtrack is unbeatable.

X-Men First Class

Prequels are almost always a bad idea. If a story has an interesting, mysterious background, the worst thing you can do is go rooting around in it. You risk demistifying the beauty of a distant story, cheapening it with the mundanity of actors and effects and mediocre scriptwriting. The uber-example of this is, of course, the Star Wars prequels, where the time of the Clone Wars - a gorgeous, evocative idea that permeated my childhood imaginings with its unknowable majesty - was rendered as some bad actors running up and down against a greenscreen fighting cartoon wankers.

However, however, however. Not so X-Men First Class. It's got a pretty good script, full of economical characterisation and fun ideas. OK, there are a couple of by-the-numbers sequences where teenagers learn they have the power of rendering CGI effects in real time. But for the most part, it is an intelligent and engaging telling of the myth.

The best thing about the film is actually two things, and those things are James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. Playing the young Professor X and Magneto respectively, the two actors pull of the Christopher-Reeve like trick of both taking the roles seriously and enjoying themselves tremendously. I would have happily spent more time with both these guys and their interesting, multi-faceted friendship.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

When I saw the first trailer for this film I was all "Man, this looks like it will suck! And not in a pleasurable way." It seemed like a heavy handed, blockbuster-brained smashing to pieces of yet another classic film.

I'm happy to say I was wronger than wrong. ROTPOTA is a thrilling, brilliant film with a well articulated range of ideas, exciting set pieces and that incredibly rare thing: a set up for a sequel that makes you actually look forward to the prospect.

The narrative is driven by the plight of Caesar, the genetically modified ape who inspires the titular Rise. The genius of the film is to make this character not just a threat and a monster, but a beautiful, sad, lost creature who is given glimpses of love, acceptance and family, and then cruelly denied them. Caesar is a near perfect combination of state of the art CGI and a great performace by Andy Serkis, and the scenes where he is central are compelling and often heartbreaking.

Also fun is the bit where he fights the guy played by Tom Felton, because you can pretend it is Draco Malfoy fighting Ian Dury. Now there's a film.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Things your brain will say during this film:

"Ooh - this is clever."

"What just happened then? Was that important?"

"God, the seventies were horrible. I hope I never get sent through a time vortex and trapped there."

"Hang on... I though he was dead?"

"How old is Gary Oldman now? Is that really good make up, or is he actually really old now? I suppose he must be quite old. Or do I just think that because of his name?"

"Oh good, here's Sherlock. He'll sort it out."

"Why are any of these people doing any of these things?"

"Ah! He is dead. It's a flashback!"

"Oh. No, it isn't. he's not dead. What?"

"Look out Sherlock - it's Bronson! Run!"

"I honestly have no idea what is going on."

"Are these guys gay? Or is that a spy thing?"

"This is brilliant. But I'm not entirely sure why..."


Wasn't expecting to like this much - it looked a bit generic. Virus starts making people die. Scientists try to find out how to stop it. Government people look serious and consider increasingly serious 'options'. Ordinary people run around going "Aaaaarrrgg!" and then fall over with blood coming out of their mouths.

To be honest, there's little in the film to surprise you. What we have here is a strong story, well told by an excellent director (Steven Soderbergh) with a cast of excitingly famous people, some of whom die horribly. It's properly scary, and will make you realise how often you touch a) things other people have touched and b) your face.

What makes this so good, I think, is that it knows what kind of film it is. We don't spend much time with the individual characters, all of whom just exist to show us the way the virus affects different parts of society. We don't get any big reveals plotwise, or learn huge new truths. We just get a gripping, powerfully told account of something that could happen, and a terrifying glimpse of what it would be like if it did.

That'll do.


Gorgeous, funny Disney updating of Rapunzel which has a) a great title, b) stunning visuals and c) an amusing horse. I liked it, and so will you. Unless you have no soul. Or hate horses.

And so, to the number one film of the year. And I'm not quite sure why I love this film so much, so please be patient while I try to unravel the beauty of...


Right. I don't know how to say why I like this film. And I don't know if you'll like it as much as I do, you see. Some people I know loved it. Some hated it. Also, I don't want to give too much away, as there are some interesting moments that made us all go "Urk!" when they happened, and I wouldn't want to spoil that. So. What is it like?


Imagine an ice cream, lit by tiny beautiful spotlights. Rotating. Now, that ice cream looks really tasty. In a subtle, elegant, made-with-real-cream kind of way. It's got a dark cone that offsets the brilliant white of the cream. And it wears a flake. Man, I mean, it really wears that flake! Like, even though you really want to eat the flake, you also don't want to take it out of the ice cream.

But it is an ice cream, and it's for eating, so let's have a taste. Mmm! That's smooth. Smoother than I was expecting. Too smooth? Maybe. It was almost kind of frictionless, more like the idea of eating an ice cream. Am I enjoying eating this? I think so. Maybe a little bit of that flake. Oh my goodness, that's gorgeous! Yeah, yeah - I am enjoying this...

What the hell was that!?!

Well, I wasn't expecting to taste... whatever I just tasted! It's all... good grief. My mouth. Is that a nice taste? It's certainly the only thing I'll be able to taste for a while.

Bloody hell.

But also...


Yeah. Alright. So my mouth is kind of numb from the cold now, and little pink lights are dancing in front of my eyes because I might have brain freeze... and yes, this is an ice cream but also no, it's not...

And now I'm scared of flakes.

So there you go. I hope you feel enlightened. If you or anyone you know has been affected by the issues raised in this review, I suggest you put the kettle on and make a) a cup of tea and b) a hot water bottle.

Sweet dreams.