Monday, 31 December 2012

Nerd Technologies' Film of the Year 2012

As we reach the end of 2012, and reveal my final Film of the Year review, I must first issue a couple of warnings:

Warning 1: This review assumes some knowledge of the material. Character and actor names are used throughout with no clarification, and the plot up to this point is not discussed.

Warning 2: There may be gushing. Sorry.

1: The Avengers (aka. Avengers Assemble) - Joss Whedon

I loved The Avengers. I loved it in a way I haven't loved a film since I first saw the Star Wars trilogy (in the 1997 cinematic re-release) or possibly since Jurassic Park. I saw it three times in the cinema and each time I left with an enormous grin on my face, in what I can only call a state of pure joy.

Was there ever any doubt they'd pull it off?
Now, after the runaway success and the billions of dollars, it really doesn't feel like it. But this was never a sure thing. Marvel Studios sought to try something no-one had ever done in having characters from several different movie franchises - Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and The Incredible Hulk - unite within one film to tackle a common foe. Even after those prior films proved to be not just successful but genuinely good, throwing them all together at the same time still seemed a crazy risky prospect. Yet here we are, mere months later, and it's almost impossible to recall that uncertainty.
What's frightening is that the doubt and fear actually continue through the first sequence of the film. It looks, for a moment at least, like Disney and Marvel and Whedon may have fumbled the ball. The opening scene, in which villain Loki (from Thor) uses the Tesseract (from Captain America) to infiltrate a facility run by SHIELD (from Iron Man), feels a little messy - and then it devolves into an underwhelming car-chase that feels very messy. All the preceding Marvel films had stronger openings than this, you think, and as the stupid British title appears on screen (Avengers Assemble? Really?) you feel the tiniest twinge of disappointment.

Don't worry. It passes, and it passes fast.

The Avengers is playing the long game, and playing it perfectly. This is the first film I can remember, ever, that consistently gets better throughout. There are five main setpieces (including that lacklustre car-chase) and each one is twice as good as the one before. The same thing applies to dialogue scenes and emotional beats - each one is better than the one before it. Within the setpieces themselves each money-shot is an improvement on the last. It's incredible. It seems so obvious, yet I've never seen it before. Surely all blockbusters should be made this way! If the opening is a low point, it's a necessary one to make this exponential climb achievable.

We're this far into the review and we've not even mentioned the characters. Which is ridiculous because the characters are why we're there, they're the best part of the film, and they're the reason any of this works. Joss Whedon gets characters. We knew this already, from Buffy, Firefly and more, and it becomes quickly apparent that Marvel knew this too - it's why they hired him. There are nine major characters in the film (the team themselves, their boss, their enemy, and fan-favourite Agent Coulson) and, with only a few exceptions, each one gets a significant moment with each of the others. Every relationship in this complex web is clear and fleshed out, and all of the best moments in the film emerge naturally from those relationships. Stark and Banner, Loki and Black Widow, Coulson and Captain America - these are moments you'll remember as much as some of the action beats. For some (read "Hulk") the best character interactions are the best action beats!
This juggling act is handled so well that, despite the many strong and conflicting personalities, despite some characters being more famous or popular than others, no-one ever seems in danger of overshadowing the others (cough, Tony Stark, cough). Robert Downey Jr. plays his usual showboating rockstar, but that's ok because the script doesn't try to make the others into rockstars. It lets them compete on their own terms: Banner sarcastically undercuts him, Cap stares him down, and Thor doesn't even care - he's a god! They all get their moments, but they grab that limelight in different ways. It's why they work when they're at odds with one another, and it's why they work even better when they finally come together as a unit.

Oh, there are flaws, sure. Maybe more flaws than any other film on this list:
Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye is seriously short-changed for over half of the movie, character-wise, but he has history with Black Widow (possibly the most fleshed-out of the team) and their easy friendship goes a long way towards fixing this.
Whedon's composition is sometimes a little flat - he's a TV director on only his second ever movie, and when there's five people talking in the SHIELD war-room it really does show - but like everything else in the film this gets better as it goes on, eventually opening out into something grand and cinematic.
The eventual enemies are an army of generic robo-thingies, just identical cannon-fodder with no character beyond "evil", but storywise they're only an extension of Tom Hiddleston's brilliant Loki and that guy has more than enough personality to go around!
Banner/Hulk's arc swerves very quickly at one point and can be hard to accept, but the film does explain it and it worked for me.
Certain things at the end fall into place a little too conveniently, but they don't stick out or feel forced and they certainly don't take anything away from the massive climax.
We got a silly different title in this country, for which there is no reasonable excuse.
There are others - probably lots of others - but in the moment itself they don't even register. You're having far too much fun to care!

The entire film is perfectly summed up in one moment of the final battle. A microcosm in a single shot. The camera flows from character to character as they fight through the streets, giving them each an individual moment that highlights their personality and skills, then having them join another character to combine their powers in unique and personal ways, before fluidly moving onto the next - it constantly ramps up the scale and excitement into a huge finale, then ends with a strong laugh.
Did I mention this film is funny? Because, on top of everything else, this film is really funny!

It's obvious at this point that my objectivity is completely gone. I unashamedly love The Avengers. It's without doubt the greatest experience I've had in a cinema for years. Maybe ever. When the credits appeared I actually applauded. I didn't clap for long because this is England and people looked at me funny, but I longed to be in an American cinema so I could be part of the cheering crowd this film deserved. I thought that feeling would fade, but I felt the same way the next two times I saw it, too.
When I look back on the films of 2012, as much as I love Middle-Earth and as great as Looper was, my overriding thought is of that scene with Loki and Hulk. I wouldn't dream of suggesting that The Avengers is the best film of the year; but, for me, it is undeniably the Film of the Year.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

NerdTech's Film of the Year 2012 - #2

2: The Cabin in the Woods - Drew Goddard

The Cabin in the Woods was not even on my radar at the beginning of the year, but it quickly became my favourite horror film of all time. Except it's not a horror film; not really. The two friends I went with would disagree - both having come out saying it was disturbing and they never wanted to see it again - but I was in absolute stitches for most of its runtime. It's possible that says more about me than the film.

Cabin is about a group of attractive teens who, looking to let their hair down and get "off the grid" for a few days, head out to (you guessed it) a cabin in the woods. But, after they read an ancient diary in the basement, an evil awakens and they're soon fighting for their lives. It sounds clich├ęd, and that's because it is. That's the whole point. It's a carbon copy of Evil Dead but, really, it could be any horror film. Things play out exactly as you expect but then, don't they always?
What's important is not what happens, but why. Why do these same beats crop up in every horror film? Why do the group split up when they should clearly stick together? Why can they only survive if they don't have sex?
Where Scream and others have asked these questions, Cabin in the Woods finally answers them, for all films ever. And as the answers are slowly revealed you will be shocked and amazed. Even if you saw the "spoiler-filled" trailers, which "spoil" a "twist" from the first scene of the movie, you will not be prepared for where Cabin's answers eventually lead. When it does finally go there, it is glorious.

There are a few issues. The budget isn't enormous, but Goddard is smart enough to save his effects and spectacle until they're truly needed. About eighty percent of their money seems to have been saved for that astonishing final act.
The tone may present a problem for some - the two I saw it with included - as horror-comedy doesn't play to everyone. This isn't the kind of horror-comedy where the tone jumps from one to the other, either. It's the kind where the horror is the comedy. Cabin expects you to laugh at some pretty grotesque things and, while I certainly laughed, I realise that not everyone will.
Perhaps the film's biggest problem is a limitation of the genre it's exploring. The very nature of horror means that, even though the characters are likable, they aren't really around long enough to become attached to. They're purely stock characters, too - stereotypes - and that's actually addressed in the film, but addressing it doesn't make them any more relatable. The nature of this particular horror means the action also jumps between different characters and locations a lot, which only makes attachment even harder. By the end, though, some of the characters have broken free of their archetypes and the movie finds real, albeit utterly ridiculous, stakes.

It may seem, especially since I penalised The Hobbit for the exact same issue of not making me care about its characters, that this film has no right being higher than that one in my list. And you're probably right. I agonised over that ranking for days. But, as I said in my introduction, the gut reaction wins the day. On leaving the cinema after Cabin in the Woods I knew I had witnessed something special. It's a unique film and, while not the "game-changer" that some have proclaimed it, it's certainly a breath of fresh air. I knew instantly that I wanted to see it again - to catch things I may have missed and to relive the sense of sadistic glee that the finale gave me. In contrast, I instantly wanted to see The Hobbit again because I wasn't entirely sure what I thought of it.
This is not a list of the best films this year - it's a list of the ones I most enjoyed. And bloody hell did I enjoy this one.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

NerdTech's Film of the Year 2012 - #3

3: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Peter Jackson

The Lord of the Rings trilogy, taken as a whole, constitute my favourite films of all time. Picking just one would be like choosing between my own adorable hairy-footed children. So it pains me to say that I found An Unexpected Journey not exactly disappointing, but certainly underwhelming.

Because this is the same director returning to the same world with the same team and even some of the same cast, this review will inevitably make comparisons to the original trilogy. I apologise for that because it is, perhaps, a little unfair. The Hobbit is not trying to do the same thing as that series and makes this clear from the beginning. Where Rings was an epic fantasy saga, The Hobbit is a fairytale romp. Like Tolkien's source-material, Hobbit is skewed much younger than Rings, and is filled to bursting with the Jackson humour that only appeared in the rare lighter moments of Rings. Set decades before Fellowship, this Middle-Earth is an airier, brighter place: Darkness has not yet arisen in Mordor and Greenwood has not yet become Mirkwood. And it works! Tolkien's locales, some familiar and some new, fit as perfectly with this breezy tone as they did the weight and grit of Rings. Jackson and writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens do instil the story with an undercurrent of darkness, linking the new trilogy to the old in both tone and story terms, but on the whole The Hobbit is its own beast and is more than confident in that role. Our party of thirteen dwarves, one wizard, and the titular halfling Bilbo essentially stumble from one mishap to the next. One standout scene involving three hungry trolls (who can talk in this one) is more a slapstick farce than the skirmish you might expect, and it's all the better for it.

The only downside to this gentler tone is a lack of propulsion. Where the Fellowship were pursued constantly by Ringwraiths and later by Uruks, forcing the story forwards towards the eventual goal, the dwarves have no such driving force. They are being pursued, but the threat feels less immediate and, frankly, like less of a threat. Again, this is more a fault of the meandering book than the film, and the threat in question, Azog the Defiler, is actually a fairly successful addition by the writers to address that lack of urgency.
In truth the leisurely pace is not really a problem anyway. Middle-Earth, whether it be New Zealand, a digital creation, or a Weta Workshop set, is beautiful - perhaps moreso than ever before - and it's wonderful just to spend time there. Jackson and his team have spent so long in this world now that they know exactly what they are doing, and build upon the already brilliant work in Lord of the Rings. Rivendell in particular is achingly gorgeous, but everything from the glimpses into dwarven culture (finally!) to the underground chasms of Goblin Town are perfectly realised, feeling natural and lived in. This is aided by incredible 3D work and digital effects. The height tricks, with wizard Gandalf towering over the rest of the party, are even more effective than they were in the first three films. The 3D depth of field really sells them being stood together. No forced-perspective here! The effects are just astounding, too. Gollum, always the most real of CGI characters, is more real than he's ever been, and the trolls mentioned above come pretty close to that. Again 3D helps sell the illusion of these characters sharing the same space, with the much debated HFR 48fps format making them look more real than we've ever seen before. When a digital character interacts with a real one, the seams are invisible. They are just two characters touching in the world of the film. It's amazing.

A quick word on 48fps: The format does take a bit of getting used to, but I found it worth it for the incredible realism it added to the digital characters alone. In general this first use of the new technique is a successful one, though there is one unfortunate character (sometimes real, sometimes not) who features in the only two sequences where the format falters. Poor Radagast. But on the whole, HFR shines.

On the strength of the points above, I really did want to put The Hobbit at number two on my list, but there is one thing holding it back. While there was no possible way this film could match the thematic and narrative weight of The Lord of the Rings, and I applaud them for embracing that fact, it could and should have had the same emotional weight. And while I adore Martin Freeman as Bilbo, and really felt for him, the same cannot be said for any other character. In Fellowship there are nine distinct characters, half of whom we don't meet until over an hour in, yet I felt emotionally attached to every single one. Even Legolas - the weakest actor and the least fleshed out. When (spoiler) Boromir takes those arrows it's upsetting and moving, even though he is essentially a villain for parts of that movie.
In The Hobbit, there are more characters, yes, but we meet them all right at the beginning and they benefit from an extended sequence (it's about half an hour long) where they are all introduced. I'm not expecting to know all of them, but I would hope to become attached to some of them during that time. But other than maybe Ken Stott's Balin, I don't really feel for any of these dwarves. Prince Thorin is the one with all the backstory, but he's too distant, too cold, and everything we know about him we are told by other characters (often Balin again) rather than shown through his own actions. I could watch any one of them take an arrow without any reaction beyond a shrug. Considering the amount of time we spend with them all, especially at the beginning, that feels inexcusable.

For that reason and for that reason alone, An Unexpected Journey is my number three rather than my number two. It's an exquisitely made film, beautiful in a great many ways, and it's a welcome return to a world I love. I just wish it had taken my heart back there too.

Friday, 28 December 2012

NerdTech's Film of the Year 2012 - #4

4: Looper - Rian Johnson

There's a point in Looper where Bruce Willis says to his younger self - a prosthetically-altered Joseph Gordon-Levitt - that there's no point thinking too hard about "this time-travel shit" and that he should just accept it. It's hard not to believe that he's also talking to the audience.
That's not to say the time-travel in Looper is confusing (it's much simpler than, say, Back to the Future part II) but rather that the time-travel is completely broken. It just doesn't work. Ten seconds of thought at the end reveals paradoxes you could drive a TARDIS through. Not the "so who invented rock 'n' roll?" kind, either, but the "THIS PLOT MAKES NO LOGICAL SENSE!!" kind.

It's a good thing, then, that Looper is a better drama than it is a sci-fi.
The story revolves around Joe, played by both of the actors mentioned above, a hitman who kills targets sent back from the future. Bodies from the future are, of course, impossible to identify, because all evidence will point to someone who is demonstrably still alive. It's the perfect crime. It's also the perfect way to dispose of hitmen like Joe, which is of course what happens, as Joe is tasked with offing his older self from the future.
Calling it a bad sci-fi is actually really unfair, because all of this stuff is handled exceptionally well. This dirty, mob-ruled near-future is realised simply but effectively, with all the concepts introduced and explained with ease and flair. Things like solar-panels jury-rigged onto battered cars show us exactly what kind of world we are seeing, without ever being mentioned or focused upon. One nice touch is the fact that a mobile-phone is by far the most hi-tech looking thing in the movie, while the time-machine is essentially a rusty metal box.

The trailers made Looper look like an action movie - all running and gunning - and, while there certainly is action, it's always dealt with swiftly and brutally. There are no grandstanding setpieces - at least, not the kind you might expect. And that's a recurring theme throughout: this film is not what you expected.
The biggest example of this is about half way through, where the film takes a surprising turn and changes from fast-paced chase movie into slow-burn character drama. While the sci-fi is well handled (minus the crayon-scribble of a timeline) and the action is explosive and intense, it's with the dramatic stuff that Looper really excels.
Joe and Joe have very different agendas here, and neither of them is clearly right or wrong, good or bad. Lines are crossed by both of them, terrible things done, but good things too. We understand both their motivations, but can't really support many of their actions. It's good stuff, and it only gets better when the big bad is eventually revealed.
Even then, with the audience finally understanding the true stakes, it's hard to take sides and even harder to predict an outcome. The time-travel may be stupid but the film, thankfully, isn't. Johnson's assured direction and the great performances, particularly from Gordon-Levitt, subtly riffing on Willis' mannerisms, more than earn it a place on this list.
That and Willis' truly godawful flashback wig.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

NerdTech's Film of the Year 2012 - #5

Not a lot of content on the blog for a while, though I should have an update on Dudey Joe 3 in the new year, so I thought I'd get in on the movie-blogging game.
Over the next five days I'm going to run through my top five films of the year, with a (hopefully) quick review of each.

A couple of ground rules first.
When I say "Film of the Year" I do not mean an Oscar style "Best Picture". For one thing I don't see nearly enough artsy indie films to feel comfortable going that way, but mainly it's because my criteria are different. Most "Best Picture" or "Best Film" awards go to films that are the best crafted, where my choice is based purely on enjoyment. Don't make the mistake of thinking I mean "fun" (though that's obviously a factor) - I mean films that engage and entertain on any level. Films that break your heart or horrify you count as entertaining. Most of my favourite films ever are the ones that make me cry!
For example, I believe The Hurt Locker is an exquisite film. Incredibly well made, powerful and intelligent. It deserved to win every single craft based award that year, which it did... but my Film of the Year was Avatar, because that's the one that grabbed me and entertained me from start to finish. The Hurt Locker is objectively the far better film, but it engaged me intellectually more than viscerally. The gut reaction wins the day.

Most people have probably stopped reading after that blow to my credibility, but never mind - on to the awards!

5: Brave - Brenda Chapman & Mark Andrews

This is an animation blog and I'm an animator and, as such, I have a confession to make: Brave was the only new animated film I saw this year. It's entirely possible that ParaNorman, Rise of the Guardians, Frankenweenie or even Madagascar 3 could be better films. Though, in the case of the latter two, I very much doubt it.

The first thing to understand about Brave is that Pixar have it rough. Cars 2 came out last year and it was their worst film ever. From a lot of reviews one might think it was the worst film ever, and that the once reliable studio had released an absolute stinker. Which is just unfair. Cars 2 was made by one of the most consistently brilliant studios in history, and followed the incredible four-piece of Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3. Anything would look bad after that!
But what if a different studio had made it? Dreamworks, Pixar's closest competitor, have made a lot more films than Pixar. Yet, of their seventeen computer-generated films, I'd say only How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda (1, but not 2) are decisively better than Cars 2, though a case could also be made for Megamind, Antz and Monsters vs. Aliens. I originally included Shrek in that list, but that film (like the pop-culture gags its first half is built on) has not aged well. Cars 2 may appear "bad" when compared to Pixar's other output - but it's in a completely different league to the likes of Shrek 3, Shark Tale and the Madagascars.
Pixar have it rough not because there's anything wrong with Cars 2 and Brave, but because they're being held to a much higher standard than their competition. With that in mind, Brave is one of Pixar's weaker entries. Which, viewed objectively, means that it's a fantastic, beautiful, emotional, entertaining, masterful family film.

It's a much more traditional film than we're used to from Pixar. One of princesses and magic and kid-friendly life-lessons. The setting is a vaguely-mythic ancient Scotland, which might seem unusual but amounts to little more than a standard fairytale land with extra kilts, accents and jokes about cabers. Ironically, "traditional" and "standard" are something of a departure for the studio - even Cars 2 cannot be faulted for its unique and unusual world - but what's not a departure is the emphasis on storytelling and strong characters. Not to mention moments precision-engineered to make me cry like a baby.
The story focuses on Merida, a Disney princess with more in common with Mulan than any other - except, maybe, for the gravity-defying red hair of Ariel. Merida is widely considered Pixar's first female lead (though Helen Parr may beg to differ) and, surprising absolutely no-one, she's a fully-formed human character who just happens to be a girl. The same is true of her mother, Queen Elinor, a proud woman who is preparing her daughter for a life of responsibility and royal duty. Merida, a child as unruly as her hair, wants none of it, preferring horse-riding and archery and other unladylike things.
This conflict comes to a head during a competition for the heirs of three local clans to win Merida's hand in marriage. Merida sabotages the competition, both princess and queen say (and do) things they'll regret, and an ill-thought-out deal is made with a witch. This magical aspect of the story has, refreshingly, been mostly absent from the marketing, so I will not reveal its exact nature here. What the marketing focused on instead was the relationships and Merida's rebelling against her mother - fair, since these are the heart and soul of the film both before and after the mystical twist. When the two main characters are wrestling (and failing) to understand each other are some of the best scenes in the movie. Their arguments feel natural and uncomfortable and escalate in a way all too familiar to anyone who's ever had a mother. We see them say exactly what they need to when the other's not around, but unable to communicate when together. When they finally do come to understand each other it feels real and earned and a natural end to their journey.

The problem with such an intimate story is a certain lack of scale. Despite being filled with sweeping shots of the Scottish landscape, the film plays out in only about four distinct locations - three of which are just visited for brief periods. It's not a huge problem, but it does feel a little limiting. What looks at one point to be the beginnings of that Pixar favourite, the road-trip, quickly turns round and returns to the locations we already know. It makes sense thematically, but does feel a little weird as a viewer.
There are other slight issues - the witch, for instance, seems to be in a completely different film, using modern language and out-of-place jokes about telephone answering systems - but Brave overcomes them easily. Come the finale, which ties together more threads than we realise the film even has, none of the problems matter. We don't care that it's a comparatively weaker Pixar film, we don't care that the locations are limited, that the scale is small, we don't care that the solution might have been too simple - what we do care about is Merida and Elinor and the emotions at the heart of the film. The movie is never more personal than at that moment, and it plays perfectly.

At least, I think that's the case. It was hard to tell through all the tears.