2008 In Retrospect

Introduction

And so 2008 is finally at an end (really this time). It’s always odd, looking back, and seeing just how long ago January was… and yet, at the same time, how close it feels.

The films I’ve watched, numbered as they are, provide an especially concrete example of this. Take this pair: Dark City was just the second film I watched in 2008, but it feels barely months since I first saw it. Atonement, on the other hand, was only the seventh film — barely a month after Dark City — but it feels like years ago. But that’s Time for you: entirely relative.

This is why, as I go through the year watching my new films, I keep a pair of lists. The first, and longest, is the ‘short’ list for my Best Films Of 2008 — being the best films I’ve seen (for the first time) in the year past, not the best films released (for the first time) in that year. The second, mercifully shorter, is the short list for my Worst Films Of 2008 — again, ones I’ve seen. These lists are handy in making sure I don’t forget anything… and meaning I don’t have to trawl through all 100 again!


What follows…

…is quite simple: first up, my five Worst Films, in no particular order; then, my ten Best Films, in a lovely countdown. Each of the latter is accompanied by a further recommendation from this year’s viewing. These aren’t numbers 11 to 20 on my list, but instead films I’ve seen this year that are in some way similar to the one they’re attached to.

With that all over-explained, here goes:


The Five Worst Films I’ve Seen in 2008

The Baskerville Curse
This was only the second single-star review I’ve doled out in two years and 254 reviews (including the shorts). I maintain it’s an overrated Holmes tale, but it can be adapted well — I like the 1939 version more than my review suggests, and also the BBC’s 2002 effort. This needlessly renamed version wastes its short running time on the story’s less important elements (train journeys! letter writing!), depicted through low-quality animation with no atmosphere. Disappointing.

The Invasion
A slow, predictable plot and ludicrous final message scupper this effort, which is a shame because it’s the sort of allegorical sci-fi tale that’s probably ripe for a good retelling.

Superhero Movie
Lazy in every respect (so it can make do with this lazy comment).

Southland Tales
Last year I picked one film for this list that, as well as being weak in itself, stood for all the year’s disappointments. While there weren’t so many this year, this was undoubtedly one. I haven’t seen Donnie Darko for a few years so I don’t know if I’ve grown out of it (some seem to have), but it was a great experience when I first saw it in the cinema and I’ve eagerly awaited Kelly’s follow-up ever since. That he turned in such a confused mess was truly disappointing. Hopefully his next effort will be better.

Cube²: Hypercube and Cube Zero
A slight cheat, I know, but together they took an excellent, original, stand-alone sci-fi film and tried to turn it into yet another horror franchise. One might live with that if they were decent pieces of work, but both are risible, missing all the points that made the first so great. An exceptionally good example of why wholly unnecessary sequels are wholly bad.


The Ten Best Films I’ve Seen For the First Time in 2008

10) Sunshine
As this year ends Danny Boyle is garnering much praise and Oscar buzz for his new flick, but this SF effort is possibly my favourite of his films to date. Yes, it completely loses it in the final stretch — and it’s that ending that held off a fifth star from me, and I think generally damaged its critical standing too — but to that point it’s an exciting yet believable (enough, anyway) space-faring drama.
See also: The Fountain, a more metaphysical space mission as just one part of a no-doubt-meaningful century-spanning narrative.

9) Cloverfield
There’s never been hype quite like Cloverfield’s, and I was surprised as anyone when it actually paid off. Probably a pain on the big screen, it really suits your TV. It’s not the scariest horror ever (its PG-13 rating surely put paid to that) and it’s a bit slow to get going (especially if you’re any older than the protagonists, it seems), but once it does it holds impressively faithful to its high-concept camcorder style and uses it to good effect on several occasions.
See also: Russian Ark, for a whole film shot in a real single take.

8) Hellboy II: The Golden Army
I enjoyed the original Hellboy, but here del Toro perfects the formula. It’s no small feat to balance character drama (where two of the main characters are a giant red demon and a fish-man) with humour (genuinely funny humour at that), spellbinding production design, and thrilling action sequences, but del Toro does it with ease. Pan’s Labyrinth may have captured more critics, but personally I’d rather enjoy this one again. Fingers crossed that a third entry can overcome all the odds, so stacked against it, and grace our screens one day.
See also: Transformers, a surprisingly entertaining blockbuster (narrowly missing out on a place here).

7) Notorious
Notorious was one of those semi-accidental discoveries for me — “there’s a Hitchcock on I’ve not seen on telly? Let’s give it a go.” Packed with incident, and with an unforgettable crane shot, it was certainly worth it. (Hitchcock fans may want to keep an eye on the blog in 2009 — I’ve acquired almost all his films on DVD recently and may get stuck into them soon.) [I didn’t.]
See also: Rebecca, another excellent Hitchcock-directed romantic mystery.

6) Hairspray
A bit of fluff with an incredibly catchy closing number that always turns up on the Royal Variety Performance and the like? Yes — but also so much more. The toe-tapping tunes (there’s a cliché I never thought I’d use) and lovable characters make it an above-average feel-good flick, but it’s the surprising presence and assured handling of A Serious Issue that notch it up to such heights.
See also: Mamma Mia!, if you like your musicals feel-good and familiar.

5) Rashomon
My first encounter with Akira Kurosawa was undoubtedly belated, but certainly worth the wait. Rashomon is a seminal work, its title now a byword for multiple-perspective narratives, and the reputation this affords it is certainly deserved. Modern films may attempt to trade off this style, but are often nothing of the sort (Vantage Point, I’m looking at you) — Rashomon is the one true version.
See also: Throne of Blood, another brilliant Kurosawa adaptation, this time of my favourite Shakespeare.

4) Stardust
Dubbing this “the British Princess Bride” rather undersells it. Stardust is a truly magical film, packed with wit, action, delicious villains, a star-packed cast, a stirring score, genuinely special effects, British locations that look as stunning as anything New Zealand had to offer, and — of course — more. The odd duff note (Ricky Gervais, I’m looking at you) can’t detract from the pure fun on offer.
See also: Enchanted, a beautifully executed riff on a similar fantastical genre.

3) Dark City
It was a close call which film landed third and which second, and on another day it might’ve been the other way round, but Alex Proyas’ dark sci-fi was narrowly pipped at the post. It’s all but forgotten, which is a shame because it does what it does amazingly — including much of what the Matrix sequels had to offer, only five years earlier and in a way that makes sense. To say too much would be to ruin it, and I definitely don’t want to do that. A long-awaited director’s cut was finally released on DVD this year — reportedly now the only decent way to watch the film, it will surely find a place on next year’s list. [It didn’t.]
See also: Cube Zero, pretty dreadful but with a similar(ish) retro-industrial-SF production design.

2) Zodiac
David Fincher is a wonderful director, currently adding another string to his bow with the highly praised Curious Case of Benjamin Button (see #10 on this list for a similar situation). For me, Zodiac is possibly his best film yet, a thoroughly atypical serial-killer thriller that sticks to the facts over a lengthy running time, yet manages to hold your attention too. Again, the (only marginally longer) DVD-released director’s cut is likely to find a place on the 2009 list. [It didn’t, but did in 2011.]
See also: L.A. Confidential, more period-set investigation of brutal crimes thick with conspiracy.

1) The Dark Knight
No surprises here. I’m unashamedly one of those who believe The Dark Knight isn’t just one of the best films of 2008, it’s one of the best films ever. There’s little else to say that hasn’t already been said — especially as I’ve already reviewed it twice.
See also: Iron Man, this year’s other billionaire-in-a-suit superhero, with less plot but more laughs.


Special Mentions

I can’t end this without mentioning the 16 films that earned themselves 5-star ratings this year. Seven of them made it into the top ten (much better than last year, I think). Those were: Dark City, The Dark Knight, Hairspray, Notorious, Rashomon, Stardust, and Zodiac. Last year I commented that I’d since rethought some of the 5s I’d handed out; not so this year, and most of the following came very close to making the top ten: Atonement, Cathy Come Home, Double Indemnity, The Green Mile, L.A. Confidential, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Rebecca, and Throne of Blood.

There was also a 5 for Leon: Version Integrale. I’ve singled it out because it’s one of my favourite films ever, and I felt this cut was different enough from the original version to number it individually… but not different enough to include in my Top 10. Here’s a whole honorary paragraph instead.

Additionally, two shorts scored full marks for the first time this year: Pixar’s Presto, which preceded WALL-E on the big screen and can now be found on that film’s DVD; and Aardman’s Wallace and Gromit in A Matter of Loaf and Death, a Christmas treat that will be getting its own DVD release. There were also 5-star re-watch reviews for Bond re-boot Casino Royale and inadvertent franchise-starter Cube. And finally, the ubiquitous Dark Knight earned itself a second full set of stars thanks to its stunning IMAX version.


The Films I Didn’t See

As has been noted, this isn’t a Top 10 of 2008 in the traditional sense (at all), but new films do feature, and with that in mind there were a number of notable releases this year that I’ve yet to see.

So, after the intense interest of doing this last year, here’s an alphabetical list of 50 films listed as 2008 on IMDb that I’ve missed. These have been chosen for a variety of reasons, from box office success to critical acclaim, from fame to infamy. (Most of the alphabet’s covered too, but, frustratingly, not quite all of it.)

10,000 BC
Australia
Babylon A.D.
The Bank Job
Body of Lies
Burn After Reading
Changeling
Che Parts One & Two
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Defiance
Doomsday
Doubt
The Duchess
The Edge of Love
Frost/Nixon
Get Smart
Gran Torino
Hancock
High School Musical 3: Senior Year
How to Lose Friends and Alienate People
In Bruges
Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D
Jumper
Kung Fu Panda
Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa
Man on Wire
Max Payne
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
The Other Boleyn Girl
Rambo
The Reader
Revolutionary Road
Righteous Kill
RocknRolla
Sex and the City
Slumdog Millionaire
Speed Racer
The Spirit
Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Transporter 3
Tropic Thunder
Twilight
Valkyrie
W.
Waltz With Bashir
The X-Files: I Want to Believe
Yes Man
Zack and Miri Make a Porno


Final Thoughts

I didn’t think I was going to make it to 100 films this year (as I may have mentioned), but it shows what a little determination — in the final stages at least — can do for you. Better luck next year, perhaps.

Maybe I’ll be able to pack in a few more unseen classics too — looking back over this year’s films to choose my top ten, many seemed almost like total-boosting placeholders. That’s not quite the truth of the matter, but it may have skewed the top ten a little (“no WALL-E?” some may ask, for just one oddity).

Still, what’s done is done. Now, to catch up on the reviews left hanging from ’08 (eleven!), and then it’s on to ’09…

2008: The Full List

Introduction

And so the end is here, and here is the end — part one. I’ve flipped the final two entries this year, so my top ten (and bottom five) will be here in a day or two, but before that…

Although there’s now a full list of reviews (with handy links to every one), I’m still posting this list of all I saw in 2008 because, while it may not be as useful as a complete reviews archive, it still shows what I watched this year.

This year hasn’t been quite as successful as last, at least in terms of film viewing. As the year neared its end I didn’t think I’d make it to 100, and was all prepared to settle for 90 around Christmas time, but a final push saw me make it in the nick of time. Hurrah! On the other hand, the move to FilmJournal has had a huge, positive impact on readership. In that vein I’d like to thank everyone who’s commented on the blog, as well as all regular (and irregular) readers who don’t — I know I follow several FilmJournal blogs and never or rarely comment, so I’m sure there must be some doing the same with mine. And while I definitely appreciate all comments (even if I don’t reply, or agree!), special thanks to Colin and Mike for their regular and enjoyable comments on my Rathbone Holmes reviews, even when my articles are neither.

With that said, here’s the list. Scroll to the end for a bunch of irreverent stats about my viewing this year.


The Full List

24: Redemption (2008)
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)
After the Sunset (2004)
Agatha (1979)
Almost Famous (2000)
The Aristocrats (2005)
Atonement (2007)
The Baskerville Curse (1983)
Batman: Gotham Knight (2008)
Be Kind Rewind (2008)
Becoming Jane (2007)
Beowulf: Director’s Cut (2007)
Best in Show (2000)
The Blues Brothers (1980)
Brideshead Revisited (2008)
The Cable Guy (1996)
Calendar Girls (2003)
Cathy Come Home (1966)
Chicago (2002)
Churchill: The Hollywood Years (2004)
Clockwise (1986)
Cloverfield (2008)
Cube²: Hypercube (2002)
Cube Zero (2004)
Dark City (1998)
The Dark Knight (2008)
Die Hard 2 (1990)
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)
Done the Impossible: The Fans’ Tale of Firefly and Serenity (2006)
Double Indemnity (1944)
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (2003)
Enchanted (2007)
Field of Dreams (1989)
Fist of Legend (1994)
Flushed Away (2006)
The Fountain (2006)
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
The Golden Compass (2007)
Great Expectations (1998)
The Green Mile (1999)
Hairspray (2007)
Hamlet (1996)
The Happening (2008)
Hard Boiled (1992)
Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
Henry V (1944)
Henry V (1989)
Hitman: Unrated (2007)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)
Hulk (2003)
I Am Legend (2007)
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
The Invasion (2007)
Iron Man (2008)
The Jane Austen Book Club (2007)
Jane Eyre (1944)
L.A. Confidential (1997)
Leon: Version Integrale (1994/1996)
Madagascar (2005)
Mamma Mia! (2008)
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
The Mirror Crack’d (1980)
Notorious (1946)
Ocean’s Thirteen (2007)
Quantum of Solace (2008)
Rashomon (1950)
Ratatouille (2007)
Rebecca (1940)
Road to Singapore (1940)
A Room With a View (1985)
Russian Ark (2002)
Scenes of a Sexual Nature (2006)
Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)
Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)
Shoot ‘Em Up (2007)
The Simpsons Movie (2007)
Snakes on a Plane (2006)
Southland Tales (2006)
St. Trinian’s (2007)
Stardust (2007)
Starwoids (2001)
Stay (2005)
Sunset Blvd. (1950)
Sunshine (2007)
Superhero Movie (2008)
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Swing Time (1936)
Texas Across the River (1966)
Throne of Blood (1957)
Transformers (2007)
Troy: Director’s Cut (2004/2007)
Ultimate Avengers (2006)
Ultimate Avengers II (2006)
Vantage Point (2008)
WALL-E (2008)
Wanted (2008)
White Christmas (1954)
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Zodiac (2007)

Alternate Cuts
The Dark Knight: The IMAX Experience (2008)
I Am Legend: Alternate Theatrical Version (2007/2008)

Other Reviews
Casino Royale (2006)
Cube (1997)

Shorts
Gasman (1997)
Inside-Out (1997)
Presto (2008)
Wallace and Gromit in A Matter of Loaf and Death (2008)


The Full Statistics

Before we begin, I’ll just point out that all of these stats include every film on this list, even if I’ve yet to post the review.

In the end, I watched exactly 100 new feature films in 2008. While this is a 22% drop on last year’s total of 129, it’s still my target (obviously).

I watched three features I’d seen before that were extended or altered in some way, two of which I’d only seen for the first time earlier this year. This is three less than in 2007, which, really, is neither here nor there. I also reviewed two films I’d seen before, in each case because I was about to watch their sequel(s). (All 104 are counted in the following statistics, unless otherwise indicated.)

Additionally, I watched four shorts this year (none of which shall be counted in any of the statistics), half of what I saw in 2007. Somewhat surprisingly (to me, anyway), three of these can be found in my DVD collection.

The total running time of new features was 175 hours and 57 minutes. The total running time of all features and shorts was 184 hours and 55 minutes — almost 8 days’ solid viewing, which doesn’t sound much put next to the 366 days available.

I’ve already seen six films from this list again — specifically, The Green Mile, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Mamma Mia!, Stardust, The Dark Knight (on IMAX) and I Am Legend (in its alternate cut).

I made 10 trips to the cinema this year. That’s far beaten by the number of new films I saw on DVD however, which stands at 64 (rising to 67 with those extended/altered/seen ones). It’s downloads that (just) come in a distant second place with 11, while TV equals the cinema with 10. VHS still skulks around with two, and there are three formats new to this blog as well: Blu-ray, also with two, and one each for IMAX and in-flight. A ragtag bunch if ever there was one.

The most popular decade was once agin the 00s by a long way, with 65 films — 62.5%, easily topping last year’s 52%. The nearest was the 90s with a mere 11. A somewhat surprising third was the 40s with eight, closely followed by the 80s with seven. Of the rest, the 30s managed four, the 50s a marginally better five, and the 60s and 70s had two a piece. Nothing before 1936 though.

The average score was 3.6, marginally lower than 2007’s average of 3.7. This year there were 19 five-star films (slightly up from 2007’s 16) and just 1 one-star film (equal to last year). The majority of films — 45 — scored four stars, compared to a huge 72 last year. There were also 24 three-star films (down from 32) and 15 two-star films (practically equal to last year’s 14).

13 films appear on the IMDb Top 250 Films at the time of writing, about two-thirds of 2007’s 21. Their positions ranges from 4th (The Dark Knight, of course) to 199th (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). Some of the films undoubtedly appear on other ‘Best Films Ever’ and ‘Best of 2008’ lists, but I’m hardly going to research them all.

At the end of 2007, I included a list of 50 notable films I’d missed from that year’s releases. With all of 2008 taken into account, I’ve managed to see 17 of them, more or less a third. They’ll probably continue to pop up in 2009.

A total of 88 solo directors and 8 directing partnerships (or teams in some cases!) appear on the list this year, 15 less than last. Coincidentally, 15 directors had more than one film on the list in 2007 — one managed seven (that was Martin Scorsese) — but only six manage a second appearance this year, and none a third or more. Those with two new films are Kenneth Branagh, Marc Forster, Alfred Hitchcock, Julian Jarrold, Akira Kurosawa, and Billy Wilder. Additionally, Francis Lawrence and Christopher Nolan each put in a second appearance with the same film.

And finally… 56 of the films are currently in my DVD collection, once again nearly identical to 2007’s 57. (The IMAX Dark Knight doesn’t count, incidentally, because the IMAX scenes aren’t integrated on DVD.)


Still to come…

My Top 10, and Bottom 5, and other such things. Nearly over…

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)

2008 #93
Guillermo del Toro | 115 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

This review contains minor spoilers.

Hellboy II The Golden ArmyDespite enjoying the first live action Hellboy movie last year, I didn’t make it to the cinema for this sequel. Unfortunately neither did a lot of others, choosing to see The Dark Knight again and again instead. Of course these days the DVD release is almost as important… except Hellboy’s was on the same day as Dark Knight’s. I don’t have sales figures, but I expect it was thoroughly overshadowed again — which is a shame, because Hellboy II is actually a very different beast.

Despite shared roots in the pages of comic books, Hellboy II sits comfortably apart from last Summer’s other two big comic book adaptations, The Dark Knight and Iron Man. While the former was aiming for a real-world crime-epic feel and the latter a more humour-littered sci-fi, they both still dealt with billionaires investing in identity-hiding suits to fight crime of one kind or another. Hellboy exists in a completely different place. Of course there are still wise-cracking heroes (with requisite Issues) and scheming villains, action sequences and a liberal use of CGI (mixed with “we did it for real!” bits, thankfully the ‘in thing’ right now) — but it’s not Sci-Fi, it’s Fantasy.

Del Toro uses this to his advantage, allowing his incredibly fertile imagination to run riot over every frame. There are more creatures than the first Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth combined — in the Troll Market sequence, there’s probably more in each shot — and, in the vicious Tooth Fairies, a wonderfully gruesome twist on a familiar concept. Though couple these with certain other inventions, such as a baby-like talking tumor, and one might begin to wonder how this got passed as a 12 / PG-13; and you’d think a giant red demon getting a human girl pregnant might be enough to raise the classification. (I jest, of course — giant red demons are entitled to all the same rights as the rest of us.)

Imagination isn’t limited to creature design either. An attractively animated prologue manages to both bring back the ever-excellent John Hurt and find a way to convey the huge back story without making it tediously dull (it also has a Christmassy feel that was perfect for when I watched it). The action sequences have all the requisite coolness too, especially the closing duel on giant moving cogs. In fact, del Toro’s creation seems to overflow — the laying of plot threads for a further film is even more overt than it was in the first film — which makes it even more unfortunate that the director’s long term commitment to The Hobbit and its sequel, plus about half a dozen projects after that, makes a proposed trilogy-closer seem increasingly unlikely. This isn’t a major problem with the film, however, just an annoyance that we may never get a third entry.

One of the most amusingly idiotic criticisms I’ve encountered of Hellboy II was that it was “comic-book-ish” — not only does that make one think, “well, duh”, but also, “and why not?” When the other big comic book movies are aiming for real-world seriousness, it’s nice to have a more fantastical alternative. Hellboy II is more than up to the task.

4 out of 5

Hellboy II: The Golden Army placed 8th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2008, which can be read in full here. The brief comment there is probably more eloquent than this review, so please check that out too.

Be Kind Rewind (2008)

2008 #90
Michel Gondry | 97 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

Be Kind RewindThe work of Michel Gondry and the comedy of Jack Black are both, shall we say, acquired tastes, and not ones you would necessarily expect to overlap. Yet here they do — at least to an extent — but while Black is again doing his usual schtick as the Ker-Azy Best Mate, it’s the writer-director who is perhaps offering some surprises.

Gondry has exactly the sort of fanbase you’d expect for a French director who started out in music videos for Bjork and The Chemical Brothers before progressing to films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep. It’s not inconceivable those fans may’ve been a bit surprised by this effort, about two video store clerks who begin to remake well-known movies when all the store’s tapes are accidentally wiped, because it seems so thoroughly mainstream; or, to put it a nicer way, accessible. That’s not to say it doesn’t have an oddness about it — early plot points hit unreal levels, before the film becomes more grounded — but for the most part it errs on the side of realism. It’s almost hard to believe Gondry wrote and directed it, considering his previous output.

In fact, so conceivable is so much of the story that one could almost believe it was a fictionalised version of real events. The way the films are remade — using elaborate cardboard props and cunning camera tricks — are all pleasantly innovative, but well within the bounds of believability; and when they gain a previously-meaningless nickname (“sweded”) and explode with cult popularity, it’s heavily reminiscent of so many Internet-based crazes, several of which do revolve around retelling popular films. Indeed, placing the concept of ‘sweding’ at the heart of the film taps into the popularity such things tend to garner, and the enjoyability of the idea helps carry the film through some rougher patches.

And Be Kind Rewind is at its best — and, crucially, funniest — during the ‘sweding’ of recognisable films. These sequences are packed with the vicarious joy of recreating iconic moments from beloved films with just a video camera, some mates, and a pile of card. It’s here that the lovability of the concept comes to the fore, and it would perhaps benefit from even more of this. On the other hand, an endless stream of re-made movies is no substitute for a proper plot, so Gondry wisely limits how many films we see being ‘sweded’.

The problem is, the rest of the story doesn’t always do a great deal to make up for it. There’s a surprising number of stock moments and subplots considering Gondry’s roots, and some threads are underplayed to the point of seeming extraneous. In particular, a romantic subplot is so inconclusive — not even ‘resolved’ in an open-ended manner — that one wonders why it was included at all.

Your enjoyment of Be Kind Rewind is likely to ride on how much you like the idea of ‘sweding’. If it sounds like a fun thing to watch or do, the goodwill engendered by the concept may carry you through the film’s weaker moments. If, however, you think it sounds faintly silly, there’s not much else on offer besides a familiar moral message about community, and achieving your goals, and all that jazz.

4 out of 5

Russian Ark (2002)

aka Russkiy Kovcheg

2008 #98
Alexander Sokurov | 96 mins | DVD | U

Russian ArkRussian Ark has received boundless praise from some quarters, and not just for being shot in a recording-smashing single take — to cite one review in particular, “anyone with an eye for beauty, a yearning for the past or a passion for pure cinema is going to be spellbound.”

Apparently some sort of artistic documentary on the history of Russia, told via a fantastical time-travelling-ish tour of a Russian museum, Russian Ark is certainly ‘artistic’. Unfortunately, it doesn’t teach you much and is at no point clear about what it’s covering. Perhaps a more detailed knowledge of Russian history would lend some meaning to the tableaus that are half-glimpsed as the Steadicam drifts by, though it spends as much time meandering down empty corridors in search of something to film as it does actually showing anything. When it does alight on something, the staging is occasionally spectacular, especially considering the self-imposed technical restrictions, but I gained little from this alone.

I freely admit this may say more about me than the film itself, but the most interesting parts were when the character whose point-of-view we inhabit and the French historian he encounters begin to discuss something that almost (almost) resembles a plot — how did they get there, how can the Frenchman speak Russian, can others see them, and so on. Sokurov merrily raises all these questions, in the process throwing a sci-fi dimension into his artistic-documentary-fantasy, but are there any answers offered? No, of course not — that’s not the point. Which does rather make you wonder why they’re vocalised at all…

Watching Russian Ark is a little like doing what the nominal lead characters do: wander aimlessly around an unfamiliar museum without any guide to what they see. Undoubtedly impressive, and worth seeing for the audacity of the single take, but I, unlike others, was far from spellbound.

2 out of 5

(Originally posted on 30th January 2009.)

The Green Mile (1999)

2008 #78
Frank Darabont | 181 mins | DVD | 18 / R

This review contains major spoilers.

The Worst Movie Poster of All TimeFive years after making The Shawshank Redemption — somewhat ignored at the time, but now incredibly popular and constantly bidding for acknowledgement as The Best Film Ever — writer-director Frank Darabont returned to the Stephen King Non-Horror Well (quite a shallow one, I should think) to film this tale of a man on death row in the ’30s. Darabont writing & directing a three-hour adaptation of a Stephen King story set in a prison in early 20th Century America? But Shawshank 2 this is not; in fact, I would argue that, due to one key difference amid those similarities, it’s actually the anti-Shawshank.

The key difference, I should rush to point out, is not the presence of the supernatural. While obviously a major element of the film, the level of realism dedicated to it, plus the overall tone of the piece, means that it still doesn’t feel too far removed from its predecessor. Nonetheless, where Shawshank was very much a real-world story, The Green Mile gradually draws the viewer into believing that miracles may be possible. It’s a whole hour before Michael Clarke Duncan’s near-silent John Coffey (“like the drink, only not spelled the same”) does his healing thing, at which point what was apparently a straightforward period prison drama gains a new dimension.

The fact that this occurs so late, after a lot of effort has been spent establishing the normal real-world setting, means it is firmly grounded in reality. Where most supernatural-focused films ask the viewer to accept, “in this world, this is real”, The Green Mile forces us to ask, “in the real world, what is this power? where does it come from?” Perhaps this seems a subtle distinction, but it isn’t; and the film pulls it off with impressive ease thanks to Darabont’s writing and direction, plus the well-judged performances of Duncan, Tom Hanks as lead warden Paul Edgecomb, and the rest of the cast.

Up to this point, the film feels like a collection of subplots. It takes a slow and careful, but never dull, approach to storytelling, slowly unfurling details of the characters, their relationships, and the technicalities of prison life; but it’s not until Coffey’s power emerges that these really begin to come together. Within this process, Darabont’s writing cleverly structures the release of information to the viewer. We never learn any details of some of the inmates’ crimes, for example, allowing us to sympathise with them; indeed, a lot of subtle effort is put into making Michael Jeter’s Del likeable, serving the double purpose of making his death infinitely more shocking (that we don’t know his crimes largely removes the danger of a “well he deserved it” reaction from certain viewers) and, by his association with Coffey, helping the viewer to like the apparent child murderer. All sorts of details slip by almost as scene setting, only to have horrendous significance later on, and both the reveals and later revelations are played out perfectly.

The film’s ending successfully brings together a wide variety of these seeded elements, neatly melding the remaining subplots without pushing into the realm of unsatisfactory coincidence. But the conclusion is also unapologetically downbeat, and it’s this which affirms that anti-Shawshank status: where Shawshank ends with escape and hope, The Green Mile ends with injustice and imprisonment — the execution of an innocent, miraculous man, and Paul’s ‘imprisonment’ in an unknowably long (potentially, endless) life, suffering the constant loss of those he loves and the guilt of what he did.

If The Green Mile is not quite Shawshank then that’s because it’s not trying to be. It’s a superb film in its own right, but the lack of an uplifting ending is the reason it isn’t — and never will be — as popular as its apparent twin.

5 out of 5

(Originally posted on 28th January 2009.)

Becoming Jane (2007)

2008 #91
Julian Jarrold | 115 mins | DVD | PG / PG

Becoming JaneDirector Julian Jarrold seems to have found his cinematic niche in “coming a bit late”. His Kinky Boots, while entertaining, was reminiscent of films like The Full Monty… except 8 years later; Becoming Jane rides the Pride & Prejudice bandwagon… except 18 months later; and his latest, the new Brideshead Revisited, had something of the Atonements about it… except 6 months later. At least his lead times have got shorter.

Perhaps Jarrold’s other inspiration here was Batman Begins. No, bear with me, for this is Austen Begins: Jane’s literary career has yet to start, but as the film progresses we see something of her personality taking shape — and plenty of the inspiration for her novels. Lord alone knows how factual any of it is, but I’m sure it must be a lot of fun for certain Austenites. On the other hand, purists might be less pleased with their idol being constantly lovelorn and indulging in (whisper it, children) snogging. For those with only the most cursory knowledge of Austen’s work, these might be the only things that stop them believing this is an adaptation of one of her novels; though, in truth, they’re probably not even that intrusive.

The big advantage to this being a somewhat Hollywoodised version of the story is the slew of English acting talent on display. Julie Walters, Maggie Smith and Ian Richardson are all present, in roles of varying sizes, plus the younger Anna Maxwell Martin (Bleak House) and Laurence Fox (son of Edward); not to mention James McAvoy, busy appearing in everything under the sun at the time. In the lead role, Anne Hathaway does a fine job, though there’s the inevitable question of “why not cast a Brit?” (to which one must assume the answer is, “for the sake of the US box office”). At least her accent is good.

Becoming Jane is a Jane Austen biopic treated as if it were a Jane Austen novel. In fact, so much is it embedded in the writing of Pride & Prejudice — and the notion that most of that was inspired by her own life — that it occasionally feels like another adaptation of it. This approach is a little uncomfortable in places, though probably makes sense considering the target market; and, by being so relatively lightweight, the resultant films seems to have faced less criticism from some Austenites than the similarly-timed TV biopic, Miss Austen Regrets. It’s for precisely this reason that the latter was a superior product, however: it may be darker and less uplifting — it ends with Austen’s death, rather than the start of her literary career — but it has a level of reflection that makes it more than Austen-Lite. Unlike this.

3 out of 5

Becoming Jane is on BBC Two today, Wednesday 31st December 2014, at 1:20pm.

(Originally posted on 27th January 2009.)

White Christmas (1954)

2008 #97
Michael Curtiz | 115 mins | DVD | U

White ChristmasWhite Christmas is surprisingly un-Christmassy. Yes, it’s set at the right time of year, and the plot concerns itself with do-gooding and charity and other such vaguely seasonal themes; but, crucially, there’s a distinct absence of snow (until the very end) and little else actually inspires much Christmas feeling.

The plot winds its way to a moving finale, but, baring a few memorable numbers — Sisters, for example; and, particularly, a rendition of it by the male leads — most of the path there is quite average. One wonders how much of its renown is actually based on the titular song.

3 out of 5

White Christmas is on Film4 today, Monday 24th November 2014, at 12:50pm.

Die Hard 2 (1990)

aka Die Hard 2: Die Harder

2008 #95
Renny Harlin | 118 mins | DVD | 18 / R

Die Hard 2Good guides to how to write always advise that your hero is only as good as the villain. This is one of the reasons Die Hard is such an endlessly enjoyable film — as well as a great high-concept setup, excellent action sequences, and amusing one-liners, Alan Rickman’s villain, Hans Gruber, is one of the best ever committed to celluloid. Dry witted and clearly more educated than his opponent, Bruce Willis’ John McClane, he’s nonetheless defeated by that everyman spanner-in-the-works. Yippee-kay-aye indeed.

So how do you top that? Well, not like this. The generic Traitor General character offered here isn’t a patch on Gruber, meaning the hero/nemesis relationship between him and McClane never kicks off in quite the same way. The final act even tries to introduce a new villain, probably aware that the first one wasn’t quite working, though it’s to little avail. Their final duel — on the wing of a moving plane — is exciting enough, but doesn’t pack the same punch as the first film’s verbal sparring.

Arguably the other main reason Die Hard worked so well — the confined office block setting — is also discarded, giving McClane a whole airport to run around. We have to be grateful that this isn’t just a straight forward rehash of the first film — probably the advantage of being adapted from an unrelated novel, 58 Minutes, rather than a committee considering how to recycle the same idea — but it doesn’t have the same brilliant simplicity. That said, the line acknowledging similarities between the scenarios is a highlight, and good use is made of McClane’s fame following the events of the first film.

Die Hard 2 is by no means a bad action film — there are several sequences that are above par for the genre, an acceptable degree of silliness, and the odd spectacular explosion too — but the unavoidable comparison to one of the genre’s all-time classics is to its detriment. If only the villain was someone like Gruber’s brother…

4 out of 5

(Originally posted on 25th January 2009.)

Chicago (2002)

2008 #96
Rob Marshall | 108 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

ChicagoI remember being distinctly unimpressed when Chicago took the Best Picture Oscar in 2003, especially as the alternatives included Gangs of New York and The Two Towers — not to mention Road to Perdition, an excellent film that was massively undervalued during award season.

In its favour are a number of memorable songs, all performed with impressive routines. On the downside, they’re all quite stagey in their choreography, though this suits the daydream-fantasy style in which they come about. In fact, the ability of film to make clear the distinction between ‘real life’ and fantasy means the film is far easier to follow than the stage version.

The story is passable enough, serving as a roadmap between the songs and offering the occasional bit of commentary/criticism on celebrity culture — it may be set in the ’20s and have been written in the ’70s, but the characters’ underhand tactics to keep their story on the front pages are as pertinent now as ever.

Five years on, Chicago isn’t as poor as expected — it manages to be consistently entertaining — but nor is it superior to the alternatives. For a current comparison, it’s only marginally better than if Mamma Mia were to trot round winning Best Picture gongs this year.

4 out of 5