A Christmas Carol (2009)

aka Disney’s A Christmas Carol

2016 #188
Robert Zemeckis | 88 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Disney's A Christmas Carol

You surely know the story of A Christmas Carol — if you don’t instantly, it’s the one with Scrooge and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future — so what matters is which particular adaptation this is and if it’s any good.

Well, this is the one made by Robert Zemeckis back when he was obsessed with motion-captured computer animation, following the financial (though, I would argue, not artistic) success of The Polar Express and Beowulf. Fortunately A Christmas Carol seemed to kill off this diversion in his career (he’s since returned to making passably-received live-action films), because it’s the worst of that trilogy.

The theoretical star of the show is Jim Carrey, who leads as Scrooge — here performed as “Jim Carrey playing an old man” — but also portrays all the ghosts, meaning he’s the only actor on screen for much of the film. Except he’s never on screen at all, of course, because CGI. Elsewise, Gary Oldman is entirely lost within the CG of Bob Cratchit, as well as, bizarrely, playing his son, Tiny Tim. The less said about this the better. Colin Firth is also here, his character designed to actually look like him — which, frankly, is even worse. There are also small supporting roles for the likes of Bob Hoskins, Robin Wright Penn, Cary Elwes, and Lesley Manville, but no one emerges from this movie with any credit.

I ain't afraid of no ghosts... except this one

In the early days of motion-captured movies many critics were inordinately concerned with the “uncanny valley”, the effect whereby an animated human being looks almost real but there’s something undefinable that’s off about them. Robert Zemeckis attracted such criticism for The Polar Express, mainly focusing on the characters’ dead eyes. No such worries here, though: the animation looks far too cheap to come anywhere near bothering uncanny valley territory. There’s an array of ludicrously mismatched character designs, which put hyper-real humans alongside cartoonish ones, all of them with blank simplistically-textured features. Rather than a movie, it looks like one very long video game cutscene.

I don’t necessarily like getting distracted by technical merits of special effects over story, etc, but A Christmas Carol’s style — or lack thereof — is so damn distracting. Beside which, as I said at the start, this is a very familiar and oft-told tale, making the method of this particular telling all the more pertinent. At times it well conveys the free-flowing lunacy of a nightmare, at least, but who enjoys a nightmare?

2 out of 5

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

aka Hauru no ugoku shiro

2016 #193
Hayao Miyazaki | 114 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | U / PG

Howl's Moving Castle

Director Hayao Miyazaki’s first film after he won the Oscar for Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle is another fantasy adventure about a young girl encountering a magical world. Well, I’m bending that similarity a bit — the heroine is considerably older than the one in Spirited Away (a young woman rather than a girl) and she already lives in a world where magic exists (but she doesn’t seem to have encountered much of it).

Adapted from a novel by British author Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle concerns Sophie Hatter (voiced in the English version by Emily Mortimer), who works in her family’s hat shop in a fictional Mitteleuropean country in a steampunk-y past (anime really gets away with launching you into these subgenre-mash-up worlds in a way no Western work ever dares, doesn’t it?) After a brief chance encounter with famed wizard Howl (Christian Bale), Sophie is attacked by the wicked Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall) and transformed into an old woman (now voiced by Jean Simmons). She goes hunting for Howl’s titular abode/transportation, wherein she meets sentient fire Calcifer (Billy Crystal), Howl’s young assistant Markl (Josh Hutcherson), and alongside them gets swept into a brewing war with a neighbouring country.

Frankly, the plot is a bit messy, flitting from one situation to another in a way that feels in need of some streamlining. The climax is particularly hurried, underpowered, and under-explained. For example, there’s a missing prince who suddenly turns up to resolve the whole war storyline — a prince who was only mentioned in passing in some background dialogue nearly two hours earlier.

Running up that hill, no problem

However, much of the film is enjoyable in a moment-to-moment sense. The affable characters are quite delightful to get to know even as they’re getting to know each other, and there are some magical sequences. Plus it’s all beautifully designed and animated, as you’d expect from Studio Ghibli, though we should never take such achievements for granted. The English dub is pretty good too, benefitting from Disney picking it up and getting a starry cast, and no doubt the direction of Pete “Monsters Inc / Up / Inside Out” Docter and Rick Dempsey. No disrespect to the professional voice actors who work in anime day-in day-out, but they often perform with a certain stylisation that isn’t always naturalistic.

Apparently Howl’s Moving Castle is Miyazaki’s favourite from his own work, probably because some of its themes (anti-war sentiment, a positive depiction of old age, the value of compassion) are close to his heart. While those are worthwhile topics, they sit alongside the aspects mentioned above as good parts that aren’t wrapped up into a whole that equals their sum. But even if it’s not Ghibli’s finest work, it’s still a likeable fantasy adventure.

4 out of 5

Howl’s Moving Castle was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Studio Ghibli’s first TV series, Ronja, The Robber’s Daughter, is available on Amazon Prime in the UK and USA (and presumably elsewhere too) from today.

The Pianist (2002)

2016 #175
Roman Polanski | 143 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | France, Poland, Germany & UK / English, German & Russian | 15 / R

The PianistRoman Polanski’s semi-autobiographical biopic of Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), who survived the Warsaw ghetto in World War 2 primarily through luck and good fortune, is a subtly powerful work. It may not poke at your emotions quite so readily as, say, Schindler’s List, but that’s because Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood dodge histrionics or an operatic envisioning of events. Instead this feels like a grounded relation of the facts, with everyday heroism (and cruelty) the order of the day — but, of course, there’s nothing “everyday” about it.

If this were fiction it would seem improbable; because it’s true, it’s extraordinary.

5 out of 5

The Pianist was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Into the Wild (2007)

2017 #7
Sean Penn | 148 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Danish | 15 / R

Into the WildThe true story of Christopher McCandless, who abandoned regular life after college to go hitchhiking and become one with nature or something, then accidentally killed himself by being a pretentious wanker.

The filmmaking is driven by this same youthful pomposity, which when you consider it was “screenplay and directed by” (to quote the awkward credits) a 47-year-old Sean Penn makes it feel both inauthentic and also, frankly, a little pathetic.

At least there’s some stunning scenery; and Hal Holbrook’s performance as a lonely old man, whose outward cheerfulness masks inner sorrow and a need reengage with life, is suitably affecting.

2 out of 5

Into the Wild was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

Young Adam (2003)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #100

Everyone has a past.
Everyone has a secret.

Country: UK & France
Language: English
Runtime: 98 minutes
BBFC: 18
MPAA: NC-17 (uncut) | R (cut)

Original Release: 4th September 2003 (Netherlands)
UK Release: 26th September 2003
First Seen: DVD, c.2005

Stars
Ewan McGregor (Shallow Grave, Big Fish)
Tilda Swinton (Orlando, We Need to Talk About Kevin)
Peter Mullan (Trainspotting, Tyrannosaur)
Emily Mortimer (Lovely & Amazing, Match Point)

Director
David Mackenzie (Starred Up, Hell or High Water)

Screenwriter
David Mackenzie (The Last Great Wilderness, Hallam Foe)

Based on
Young Adam, a novel by Alexander Trocchi.

The Story
Joe is earning his keep helping transport coal on a barge between Glasgow and Edinburgh, spending his free time lusting after his employer’s wife, when he spots a woman’s dead body floating in the canal — something Joe knows more about than he lets on…

Our Hero
Joe is a young drifter, who’s wound up working on a barge with Les and Ella Gault and their son. He’s a horny bugger, sex obsessed to the point of distraction, which will have an effect on everyone’s lives.

Our Villain
It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say the film is a murder mystery — especially as it’s not clear if the woman was indeed murdered. But how did she die? How was Joe involved? He’s the main character, which makes him the hero, but is he actually a bad’un?

Best Supporting Character
Harried barge wife Ella is not anyone’s typical image of desirability, but nonetheless becomes the object of Joe’s own brand of affections, which brings her some happiness… for a while. Mainly, it’s a brilliant, layered performance by Tilda Swinton.

Memorable Quote
Joe: “Are you sorry?”
Ella: “Fat lot of good that would do me.”

Memorable Scene
Cathie, another of Joe’s lovers, comes home soaking wet. As she undresses, she berates him for doing nothing useful with his time. He informs he has made custard, which he throws over her, followed by various other condiments. Then there is, shall we say, an act with (at best) debatable consent. I believe this is a version of something called “sploshing” (thanks, internet).

Memorable Music
David Byrne’s ambient score haunts the soundtrack, as essential to the film’s grey mood as the drizzly Scottish locations and overcast photography. My favourite part is the plaintive closing song, The Great Western Road.

Awards
4 BAFTA Scotland Awards (Film, Actor in a Scottish Film (Ewan McGregor), Actress in a Scottish Film (Tilda Swinton), Director)
4 British Independent Film Award nominations (British Independent Film, Actor (Ewan McGregor), Actress (Tilda Swinton), Director)
3 Empire Awards nominations (British Film, British Actor (Ewan McGregor), British Actress (Emily Mortimer))

What the Critics Said
“Joe is a hard case. Opaque. Not tender, not good with the small talk. Around women, he has a certain intensity that informs them he plans to have sex with them, and it is up to them to agree or go away. He is not a rapist, but he has only one purpose in his mind, and some women find that intensity of focus to be exciting. It’s as if, at the same time, he cares nothing for them and can think only of them. […] He is not a murderer but a man unwilling to intervene, a man so detached, so cold, so willing to sacrifice others to his own convenience, that perhaps in his mind it occurs that he would feel better about the young woman’s death if he had actually, actively, killed her. Then at least he would know what he had done and would not find such emptiness when he looks inside himself. This is an almost Dostoyevskian study of a man brooding upon evil until it paralyzes him. […] The death of the girl and the plot surrounding it are handled not as a crime or a mystery but as an event that jars characters out of their fixed orbits. When you have a policy of behavior, a pose toward the world, that has hardened like concrete into who you are, it takes more than guilt to break you loose.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Score: 62%

What the Public Say
“McGregor, putting his meat and two veg on show once again, is really good as the conflicted and sex addict, Swinton does almost steal the show as the sex-craving barge woman, who also gets naked, and Mortimer in the flashbacks is very good, with her clothes off too. The film is just stuffed with sexual scenes, and with the dead body premise it combines film noir and melodrama, all adding up to a well crafted and most watchable period drama.” — Jackson Booth-Millard @ IMDb

Verdict

Part murder mystery, part beat character study, part erotic drama, Young Adam is an enigmatic, moody, conflicted film — in a good way. It presents a grimily realistic view of life and sex, around which writhes a murder mystery that, as it turns out, doesn’t contain a murder and, relatively quickly, isn’t much of a mystery. Instead it’s something of an ethical dilemma, presented to a character who’s not exactly unethical but isn’t necessarily concerned about doing what’s right either, especially if it’s against his own interests. Not a cheery one, then, but a film of grey morals, grey imagery, and grey mood — in a good way.

Next time… looking back over my 100 favourites.

X2 (2003)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #99

The time has come for those who are different to stand united.

Also Known As: X-Men 2 (promotional/DVD title), X2: X-Men United (US promotional title)

Country: USA & Canada
Language: English
Runtime: 134 minutes
BBFC: 12A
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 25th April 2003 (Lithuania)
UK Release: 1st May 2003
US Release: 2nd May 2003
First Seen: cinema, May 2003

Stars
Hugh Jackman (Van Helsing, The Prestige)
Patrick Stewart (Dune, Hamlet)
Ian McKellen (Gods and Monsters, Mr. Holmes)
Brian Cox (Braveheart, Troy)
Alan Cumming (Emma, Josie and the Pussycats)

Director
Bryan Singer (Apt Pupil, X-Men: Days of Future Past)

Screenwriters
Michael Dougherty (Superman Returns, Trick ‘r Treat)
Dan Harris (Superman Returns, Imaginary Heroes)
David Hayter (X-Men, Wolves)

Story by
David Hayter (The Scorpion King, Watchmen)
Zak Penn (Last Action Hero, The Incredible Hulk)
Bryan Singer (X-Men, The Triangle)

Based on
The X-Men, comic book superheroes created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. In part inspired by the graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills by Chris Claremont and Brent Anderson.

The Story
When a mutant attempts to assassinate the president, military scientist William Stryker uses it as a pretext to step up his persecution of mutants. With the X-Men occupied hunting for the would-be assassin, the school is attacked and the remaining students flee with Wolverine — whose still-mysterious past has some connection to Stryker.

Our Heroes
The X-Men, a team of mutants — humans who have evolved superpowers — organised by Professor Charles Xavier. As well as returning heroes Wolverine, Cyclops, Jean Grey, Storm, and Rogue (see X-Men), the roster this time includes Bobby Drake, aka Iceman, who can generate and manipulate ice, and John Allerdyce, aka Pyro, who can control fire. Plus Kurt Wagner, aka Nightcrawler, a demonic-looking blue-skinned German teleporter.

Our Villains
Col. William Stryker, a military scientist who wants to eradicate mutants, and plans to use Xavier’s mutant-finding Cerebro machine to do so. Has a role in Wolverine’s mysterious past…

Best Supporting Character
Imprisoned at the end of the last film, Magneto is tortured by Stryker for information on Cerebro… until he escapes and teams up with the X-Men to stop the new threat.

Memorable Quote
“Have you ever tried… not being a mutant?” — Bobby’s mom

Memorable Scene
When Stryker launches a military assault on the school, Wolverine goes full berserker to defend the students, before he comes face to face with Stryker — as it turns out, not for the first time.

Write the Theme Tune…
I’ve always loved John Ottman’s main theme for X2, so I’ve been very pleased that Bryan Singer has made it the recurrent theme for the X-Men series since he retook the directorial reins for Day of Future Past. Its appearance there is quite short, but Apocalypse has two fantastic renditions.

Making of
The set for Stryker’s underground base was the largest in North America at the time — so large that cast and crew used bicycles to get to the bathroom as quickly as possible. Some areas of the set weren’t even used in the film, such as a room that was to be the setting of a Nightcrawler vs. Toad fight. (Several other sets were built and not used, including the X-Men’s famous Danger Room training centre. After also dropping its inclusion from the first X-Men, it finally turns up in The Last Stand.)

Previously on…
The film that started the modern era of comic book movies, X-Men.

Next time…
The trilogy was rounded out by X-Men: The Last Stand, though answers about Wolverine’s past were saved for spin-off movie X-Men Origins: Wolverine. More history was revealed in prequel X-Men: First Class, before time travel adventure X-Men: Days of Future Past combined both casts. The prequels continued with this summer’s ’80s-set X-Men: Apocalypse, with a ’90s-set follow-up in the works. Spin-offs include The Wolverine and next year’s third Wolverine movie, Logan, as well as Deadpool, the perpetually delayed Gambit, and X-Men: The New Mutants. TV series Legion is based on the X-Men licence but may or may not be connected to the films, and other connected (or not) TV series are in development.

Awards
1 Saturn Award (Science Fiction Film)
6 Saturn nominations (Director, Writing, Music, Costumes, Make Up, Special Effects)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
2 Kids’ Choice Awards nominations (including Favorite Female Butt Kicker (Halle Berry))
1 MTV Movie Awards Mexico nomination (Sexiest Female Villain (Rebecca Romijn) — she lost to Demi Moore in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle)

What the Critics Said
X2 is also possessed of an emotional complexity that won’t surprise comics fans, but will delight connoisseurs of the summer blockbuster. […] The plot, in which hatred of a minority group threatens to spark a global war, is frighteningly topical and Singer doesn’t flinch from showing that resolution often comes at a bitter price — albeit one which paves the way for a pleasingly inevitable X3. Yet it’s not all FX-augmented naval-gazing. Though it does get very dark, X2 is unashamedly entertaining, with crowd-pleasing moments for geeks (the appearance of metal-skinned muscle man Colossus in full armoured form should benefit upholsterers everywhere) and non-geeks (a Nightcrawler-led mid-air rescue is exhilarating) alike.” — William Thomas, Empire

Score: 86%

What the Public Say
“it was the perfect superhero film sequel, the one that truly set the bar for all future sequels (and many managed to match it, thankfully.) Singer understood what worked about the first film, he understood that the audience wanted ‘more of the same’ but not just the same story over again. The core elements were preserved. The team’s personalities, diversity, and relationships that formed the emotional core of the first film, and were the most faithful thing about Singer’s adaptation, were carried on, as was the emphasis on Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Charles’ (Patrick Stewart) relationship and contrasting philosophies. The driving elements of the plot, though different than the driving elements of X-Men‘s plot, didn’t feel like they ‘came out of nowhere.’ Everything felt familiar without necessarily being the same. The ‘new’ elements that were introduced really did broaden the world, but were based in elements X-Men had already established. […] Although I, unlike many fans, didn’t consider this an improvement over Singer’s first X-Men film, I also don’t think it needed to be. And despite my preference for the first film, X2 was to a certain extent really when the series hit its stride and showed that it had staying power.” — Kat, Love. Think. Speak.

Verdict

If there’s one trend in the modern superhero era that’s gone under-analysed (at least as far as I’m aware), it’s this: sequels that are better than their predecessor, upending the accepted order of things. It’s not a universal occurrence (Iron Man 2, anyone?), but it happens often enough that many reviews of first films now note they’re setup a sequel. And as with so many things in the current superhero epoch, it started with the X-Men.

Personally I’ve always slightly preferred the first movie, but X2 does polish up the action sequences, engages with the series’ thematic subtexts in an effective manner, and adds significantly to the ongoing mystery of Wolverine’s past. Coupled with a shock ending that teased a big plot to come, everything looked so good for the third movie. Sadly, the whole “sequels are better” thing still doesn’t regularly extend to third movies. (Suffice to say, The Last Stand will not be next week’s #100.)

#100 is the moment when… Ewan McGregor drops his Jedi knickers and pulls out his real lightsaber.

X-Men (2000)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #98

Trust a few.
Fear the rest.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 104 minutes
BBFC: 12
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 13th July 2000 (Australia)
US Release: 14th July 2000
UK Release: 18th August 2000
First Seen: cinema, 2000

Stars
Hugh Jackman (Oklahoma!, Les Misérables)
Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: First Contact, Green Room)
Ian McKellen (Richard III, The Lord of the Rings)
Anna Paquin (The Piano, Margaret)
Famke Janssen (GoldenEye, Taken 2)
James Marsden (Gossip, The Box)
Halle Berry (B*A*P*S*, Catwoman)

Director
Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, Superman Returns)

Screenwriter
David Hayter (The Scorpion King, Watchmen)

Story by
Tom DeSanto (producer of Apt Pupil & Transformers)
Bryan Singer (Public Access, Superman Returns)

Based on
The X-Men, Marvel comic book superheroes created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; and in particular Wolverine, a comic book superhero created by Roy Thomas, Len Wein, and John Romita, Sr.

The Story
In a near future where some humans have mutated to have extraordinary powers, and consequently are hated and feared by the general population, a runaway teen comes under the protection of a mysterious stranger. As a radical leader hunts them for his world-changing scheme, they encounter a school for mutants — and the superpowered team who teach there.

Our Heroes
The X-Men, a team of mutants — humans who have evolved superpowers — organised by Professor Charles Xavier, a wheelchair-bound telepath. There’s team leader Scott Summers, aka Cyclops, who shoots force beams from his eyes; Dr. Jean Grey, potentially an even more powerful telepath than Professor X, who can also move things with her mind; Ororo Monroe, aka Storm, who can control the weather. We’re led into their world by teen runaway Marie, aka Rogue, who can absorb people’s energy, and her reluctant protector, Logan, aka Wolverine, who has metal claws in his hands, can heal really fast, and can’t remember most of his past.

Our Villain
Erik Lehnsherr, aka Magneto, who can manipulate metal. A one-time friend of Xavier’s, they parted ways over his beliefs that mutants and humans couldn’t coexist, which leads him to violently oppose mutant oppression.

Best Supporting Character
Mystique, one of Magneto’s gang, who runs around naked — but that’s because her skin’s blue and bumpy and stuff, so it’s OK. She can shape shift into the form of anyone she’s made contact with, which is very useful for her and very tricky for our heroes.

Memorable Quote
Magneto: “Does it ever wake you in the middle of the night, the feeling that one day they will pass that foolish law, or one just like it, and come for you and your children?”
Xavier: “It does indeed.”
Magneto: “What do you do, when you wake up to that?”
Xavier: “I feel a great swell of pity for the poor soul who comes to that school looking for trouble.”

Memorable Scene
As Magneto, Sabretooth and Toad exit a train station with a kidnapped Rogue, they’re greeted by a sea of policemen. With his powers, Magneto takes all their guns and turns them on their owners. Then Sabretooth grabs Magneto’s throat — he’s being mind-controlled by Xavier. Magneto fires all the weaponry in his control, but stops the bullets just short of their targets — unless Xavier lets him go…

Truly Special Effect
Superheroes really needed the modern era of CGI to make them possible — and, as with everything else, X-Men led the way. Probably the most memorable are Mystique’s skin-changing transformations, which involved 8,000 scales animated in different directions.

Making of
Stanley Kubrick is responsible for the casting of Wolverine. No, really. Well, sort of. Here’s how it goes: Kubrick’s famous perfectionism meant the filming of Eyes Wide Shut overran; that meant star Tom Cruise had to delay his next project, Mission: Impossible II; that sequel finishing later than scheduled meant Dougray Scott — who played the lead villain in M:I-2 and was originally cast as Wolverine — had to drop out of X-Men, which was already on an insanely tight schedule to make its release date. Hugh Jackman was cast on the recommendation of his friend Russell Crowe, who had been sought for the role, and only joined the production several weeks into filming. Apparently if you look closely you can see Jackman’s physique change in various scenes because he was working out extensively while filming continued.

Previously on…
Although this is the first X-movie, I’m sure the enduring popularity of the 1992-1997 animated series can’t’ve hurt the film’s success.

Next time…
In an immediate sense, X2. After that, multiple direct sequels, prequels, and spin-offs. Plus the entire current multitude of comic book movies owe their existence to this film being (a) good, and (b) a hit. Whether that’s a mark for or against X-Men is up to you.

Awards
6 Saturn Awards (Science Fiction Film, Actor (Hugh Jackman), Supporting Actress (Rebecca Romijn), Director, Writing, Costumes)
4 Saturn nominations (Supporting Actor (Patrick Stewart), Younger Actor (Anna Paquin), Make-Up, Special Effects)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation
1 World Stunt Award nomination (Best Speciality Stunt for “Wolverine blown out of truck”)

What the Critics Said
“After trying for decades, Marvel Comics finally may gain the kind of pop-cultural cachet that only comes from a major leap into movies. That movie is X-Men, a fully realized translation of comics’ adolescent power fantasies to adult-level, big-screen entertainment. It’s a film X-Men fans can embrace and action fans in general can appreciate. It has emotion and a solid story to go with its mayhem, and the comics’ central themes aren’t betrayed. Director Bryan Singer gets bang for his buck. At $75 million, X-Men was a modest and rushed shoot for an action showcase, yet its computer generated imaging effects are handsome, and it gleams with polished production design.” — Bruce Westbrook, Houston Chronicle

Score: 81%

What the Public Say
“this is a superhero movie with ideas, fully aware of the potential social commentary inherent in its source material. It paints simplistically, in broad strokes, but elegantly. It feels small-scale but full-bodied, and it takes storytelling risks. I mean, the damn thing opens on a concentration camp. The main characters being mutants, discriminated against by ‘normal’ people, gives the screenplay the opportunity to use this as a catchall allegory. Any feared or shunned group of people can find familiar themes at work in the world of the film. […] reflecting on the first X-Men solidifies its status as not just a prelude of better things to come, but as quite a strong movie in its own right. After seeing the franchise move the Golden Gate Bridge, travel decades in time, and resurrect an Egyptian god, it’s refreshing to rewind to this one humble tale of ‘the not too distant future’. The 2000 film has a great lo-fi charm to it, while at the same time being lent gravitas by McKellen and Stewart’s war of wills. It holds up not just as a curiosity, but also as a well-told story of mutants and morals.” — Paul Stanis, A Voyage through Film

Verdict

I’ve written before (several times) of my near-lifelong fandom of the X-Men. This isn’t where it started (that’d be the classic ’90s animated series), but it certainly helped cement it. Its significance to the current movie landscape is hard to underestimate: it took the superhero subgenre, which hadn’t actually produced that many major movies and had nonetheless reached a comedic nadir with Batman & Robin, and made it respectable blockbuster fodder, which leads directly to where we are today. And the reason it sparked all that is because it’s a quality entertainment in its own right, mixing superpowered action with weighty themes and top-drawer performances from a cast who are almost all better than this, elevating the material rather than besmirching themselves with it. I mean, even without the witty lines and tightly choreographed fisticuffs, anything that has Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen verbally sparring over a game of chess is bound to bring satisfaction.

#99 will be… X-Men united.

V for Vendetta (2005)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #96

Freedom! Forever!

Country: UK, USA & Germany
Language: English
Runtime: 132 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 23rd February 2006 (Finland)
UK Release: 17th March 2006
US Release: 17th March 2006
First Seen: cinema, 2006

Stars
Natalie Portman (Léon, Thor)
Hugo Weaving (The Matrix, Captain America: The First Avenger)
Stephen Rea (The Crying Game, Underworld Awakening)
Stephen Fry (Wilde, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug)
John Hurt (Alien, Hellboy)

Director
James McTeigue (Ninja Assassin, The Raven)

Screenwriters
The Wachowski Brothers (The Matrix, Speed Racer)

Based on
V for Vendetta, a graphic novel by Alan Moore & David Lloyd.

The Story
In the near future, Britain is ruled by a tyrannical fascist government — considering the film was made in 2005, it’s probably set in about 2016 right? Anyway, masked freedom fighter V has his sights set on overthrowing the oppressive regime, partly in revenge for what they did to him…

Our Heroes
In lieu of the more commonplace sobriquet, permit me to suggest the character of this dramatis persona. Voilà! In view, a humble vaudevillian veteran, cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of Fate. His visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the vox populi, now vacant, vanished. However, this valorous visitation of a by-gone vexation, stands vivified and has vowed to vanquish the venal and virulent vermin vanguarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition. The only verdict is vengeance; a vendetta, held as a votive, not in vain, for the value and veracity of such shall one day vindicate the vigilant and the virtuous. Verily, this vichyssoise of verbiage veers most verbose, so let me simply add that you may call him V. Also Evey, a young woman V rescues and subsequently takes under his wing as a kind of protégée.

Our Villains
The fascist regime ruling near-future England, led by Supreme Chancellor Donald Trump Adam Sutler and enforced by numerous toadies.

Best Supporting Character
Gordon Deitrich is a TV host who delivers government-sanctioned comedy to the masses, despite his distaste for the regime. Could something inspire him to stand up for what’s right? But at what cost?

Memorable Quote
“People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.” — V

Memorable Scene
Bit of a spoiler, this, but the film’s most memorable imagery comes at the end: after V successfully blows up the Houses of Parliament, there is a massive crowd of onlookers, all wearing V’s Guy Fawkes mask. Then they take the masks of, revealing hundreds of ordinary people — including deceased characters. It’s allegorical, see.

Technical Wizardry
The fight between V and a group of government agents in Victoria Station was shot at 60fps to play in slow motion, but the effect was emphasised further by having the stuntmen playing the agents actually move in slow motion, while stuntman David Leitch (later co-director of John Wick, fact fans) as V moved in real time, making it seem as if he was moving much faster than them.

Truly Special Effect
The scene where V is ‘born’ from fire isn’t CGI: stuntman Chad Stahelski (later co-director of John Wick, fact fans) actually walked through fire wearing nothing but fire-resistant gel and a g-string. His body temperature had to be lowered before the scene was shot. Fortunately, it was -3°C on the night of the shoot; then, 15 minutes before a take, Stahelski put on ice-cold flame-resistant clothing; when he took that off, he was covered with the fire-resistant gel, which had been on ice all day. Each to their own, eh?

Making of
James Purefoy was originally cast as V, but pulled out four weeks into filming and was replaced by Hugo Weaving. Because V wears his mask at all times, his dialogue is dubbed throughout (they tried attaching mics to the mask, but they didn’t work well), so the footage starring Purefoy was retained and Weaving’s voice was placed over it. Director James McTeigue later commented, “Can I tell the difference? Yeah. Can the audience tell? I doubt it.”

Awards
1 Saturn Award (Actress (Natalie Portman))
3 Saturn nominations (Science Fiction Film, Writing, Costume)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form

What the Critics Said
“Just when we were ready to give up mainstream movies as braindead, along comes the controversial and gleefully subversive V for Vendetta, a piece of corporate-sponsored art that will have audiences rooting for a bomb-throwing anarchist. […] Much to the film ‘s credit, and to the exasperation of its critics, the audience is left to decide for itself whether V is a terrorist, freedom fighter, vengeance-seeking psychotic, or maybe all three simultaneously – and whether his extreme actions are a justifiable response to government repression. This pretty heady stuff for a big-budget comic-book movie” — Lou Lumenick, New York Post

Score: 73%

What the Public Say
“Halfway through it occurred to me that ten years had passed since the film’s release. TEN YEARS. And yet the film’s overriding themes: the dangers of fascism, how fear can affect our actions, privacy versus the oft used term ‘national security,’ freedom of speech, intolerance of members of the LGBT community, and the manipulation and dissemination of information, are still very relevant today. Maybe even moreso. What separates good movies from great movies, often comes down to social relevance throughout the decades. Can it stand the test of time? Does it mean something similar in today’s society as it did when the film was first released? This is why films like Metropolis and Citizen Kane and In the Heat of the Night are still studied in film classes. Their themes are universal, something that can apply to most decades. V for Vendetta fits that category to a T.” — Darth Gandalf, Funk’s House of Geekery

Verdict

Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s dystopic graphic novel was a reflection of the 1980s England in which it was originally published; then the film adaptation became a reflection of the mid-’00s world in which it was produced; and then it began to influence that world, with V’s Guy Fawkes mask becoming widely recognised as a symbol for certain protest groups. Although dressed up as part of an entertaining action movie, the story’s real topic is the rights and wrongs of government, and our attitudes and responsibilities towards it as citizens. That message feels as relevant as ever after the events of this year. Perhaps it always will — like George Orwell’s 1984, an enduring warning against things going too far. Let’s pray it’s heeded.

#97 will be… an animation investigation.

Unbreakable (2000)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #95

Are you ready for the truth?

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 107 minutes
BBFC: 12
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 22nd November 2000 (USA)
UK Release: 29th December 2000
First Seen: DVD, 2001

Stars
Bruce Willis (Armageddon, Looper)
Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction, Avengers Assemble)
Robin Wright Penn (The Princess Bride, The Conspirator)

Director
M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, The Village)

Screenwriter
M. Night Shyamalan (Stuart Little, The Visit)

The Story
When security guard David Dunn is the only survivor of a train crash, and without a scratch on him, he encounters comic book fan Elijah Price, who has an unusual theory: that David is indestructible, a real-life superhero.

Our Hero
David Dunn is just an ordinary guy, with a low-key job and a wife and kid, but after his near-impossible feat of survival he begins to test himself. Could he be more remarkable than he ever imagined?

Our Villain
Spoilers! Which, considering this is an M. Night Shyamalan movie, is basically a red flag saying “here’s where the twist is”. All I’ll say is, keep an eye on David’s kid, Joseph. I mean, pointing a gun at your parent is never innocent, is it?

Best Supporting Character
Comic book art dealer Elijah Price was born with Type I osteogenesis imperfecta, a rare disease that makes his bones extremely fragile and prone to fracture. Losing himself in the world of comic book superheroes throughout his childhood, he develops a theory: that if he represents an extreme of human weakness, there must be someone at the opposite extreme…

Memorable Quote
Elijah: “Why is it, do you think, that of all the professions in the world you chose protection?”
David: “You are a very strange man.”
Elijah: “You could have been a tax accountant. You could have owned your own gym. You could have opened a chain of restaurants. You could’ve done of ten thousand things, but in the end, you chose to protect people. You made that decision, and I find that very, very interesting.”

Memorable Scene
As well as his indestructibility, David comes to believe he may have a form of ESP, that allows him to glimpse people’s criminal acts when he touches them. Encouraged by Elijah, he goes to a bustling train station, stands in the middle of the crowd, and holds out his arms…

Next time…
Reportedly the plot of Unbreakable was merely Act One of Shyamalan’s original concept, until it wound up expanding into an entire movie. Talk of a sequel and/or trilogy used to occur regularly, but Shyamalan made a bunch of crap no one liked instead. 16 years on, I guess hopes of a continuation are long dead.

Awards
1 Saturn nomination (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film)

What the Critics Said
The Sixth Sense was no fluke. Unbreakable, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s dazzling reunion with Bruce Willis confirms he’s one of the most brilliant filmmakers working today. […] The deliberately paced Unbreakable, make no mistake about it, is a vehicle form-fitted to Bruce Willis’ burgeoning gifts as an uncommonly subtle and affecting actor. Willis should get the Oscar nomination he deserved for The Sixth Sense, and Jackson’s enigmatic Elijah – who has devoted his life to searching for the sole survivor of a disaster, for reasons that won’t be explained here – is equally commanding in a difficult if somewhat underwritten role.” — Lou Lumenick, New York Post

Score: 68%

What Quentin Tarantino Says
“The final film, alphabetically, on my top twenty list is M. Night Shamalamadingdong’s Unbreakable, which I actually think, 1) not only has Bruce Willis’ best performance on film that he’s ever given. I think he’s absolutely magnificent in the film. It also is a brilliant retelling of the Superman mythology. In fact, so much so that, to me, the film was very obscure when it came out as far as what it was about. I actually think they did themselves a disservice, because you can actually break down what the film is about by basically one sentence, that I should think would’ve proved far more intriguing than their ad campaign, which is basically, “what if Superman was here on Earth and didn’t know he was Superman?”, which is what the film is about. Course, you don’t know that until actually you see the movie. Anyway, Unbreakable is, I actually think, one of the masterpieces of our time.” — Quentin Tarantino’s Favourite Movies from 1992 to 2009

What the Public Say
“The story is unique… I mean we see stories about superheroes everywhere… everywhere, and despite things here and there changed, they are still the same stories we have heard a thousand times before. This film had an original story that was both compelling and intense. The use of the camera angles is so well done it is a shock that Unbreakable is not at the top of everyone’s favorite Shyamalan film. It is masked under the presumption that it is moving slowly, because in reality… a lot is going on.” — Dave, Dave Examines Movies

Verdict

Some people view Unbreakable as the start of M. Night Shyamalan’s inexorable quality slide after the debut peak of The Sixth Sense (not that it was his debut). Those people are wrong. Partly because that degeneration doesn’t really start until the final act of The Village; partly because Unbreakable is Shyamalan’s best film. We’ve now had countless big-screen takes on superhero mythology, but none are quite like this. Man of Steel may have attempted to ask “what would happen if Superman were real?”, but it’s Unbreakable that better answers that question. With subtle performances, including arguably a career-best turn from Bruce Willis, and a plausible handling of its fantastical material, which nonetheless develops into a satisfying climax, Unbreakable is still one of the most original and best superhero movies ever made.

#96 will be… gunpowder, treason, and plot.

The Transporter (2002)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #94

Rules are made to be broken.

Country: France & USA
Language: English, French & Mandarin
Runtime: 92 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 11th October 2002 (USA)
UK Release: 17th January 2003
First Seen: DVD, c.2003

Stars
Jason Statham (Snatch., Crank)
Shu Qi (The Storm Riders, The Assassin)
Matt Schulze (Blade II, Fast Five)
François Berléand (Au Revoir Les Enfants, The Chorus)

Directors
Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk, Now You See Me)
Corey Yuen (The Legend of Fong Sai Yuk, DOA: Dead or Alive)

Screenwriter
Luc Besson (Léon, Lucy)
Robert Mark Kamen (The Karate Kid, Taken)

The Story
Frank Martin is “The Transporter”, a driver for hire who moves people and goods, no questions asked. He never looks inside the package… until, on one job, the package moves. Finding a young woman gagged inside, Frank winds up embroiled in her rescue from some very bad men.

Our Hero
Frank Martin, expert driver (he’s the titular transporter after all) and martial artist, as handy with his fists as he is with a steering wheel. Lives by a simple set of rules… which he breaks, because it’s a movie and it needs a plot.

Our Villain
Darren “Wall Street” Bettencourt, an American gangster who initially hires Frank, then tries to kill him — even though he did a good job! And you thought people who left unnecessarily low feedback on eBay were a pain.

Best Supporting Character
Inspector Tarconi, the local police detective who’s on to Frank but can’t prove anything. Comes through in the end, becoming Frank’s ally in the sequels.

Memorable Quote
“Rule #1: never change the deal.” — Frank

Memorable Scene
Oil everywhere + people wanting to fight = ingeniously slippery combat. Seriously, that one scene is the main reason the entire film is here.

Technical Wizardry
Jason Statham did most of his own stunts, fighting, and driving. That included learning martial arts to supplement his kickboxing abilities and, for one sequence, actually hanging off the bottom of a truck with just a wire up his leg for safety.

Letting the Side Down
The trailer showed Frank deflecting a missile with a tea tray. A missile. With a tea tray. It was removed from the final cut because Statham didn’t think audiences would believe it, but c’mon, this is an action movie, and that’s silly-awesome. I mean, deflecting a missile… with a tea tray!

Making of
The oil in the famous fight scene is actually molasses syrup. Apparently it was very sticky, which is kind of the opposite to its purpose in the film, but that’s movie magic for you.

Next time…
Two direct sequels of typically decreasing quality; a spin-off TV series that ran for two seasons; and a reboot movie last year, which went down badly but I quite enjoyed (for what it was). Plus: a mini-empire of similarly-styled Euro-produced English-language action movies masterminded by Luc Besson, the most famous of which is the Taken series.

What the Critics Said
“Post-Ghosts Of Mars, if anyone had suggested that big, bald, brusque Jase could hold his own as an action hero, they’d have been laughed out of town. And while he doesn’t exactly deliver an acting masterclass (his ‘American’ accent doesn’t quite stand up to the rigours of actually opening his mouth and talking), this is all about kicking ass and taking names. […] The spirit of Hong Kong action movies hangs heavily over The Transporter, most notably in the CG-free fight scenes which, thanks to former fight choreographer Yuen, have enough zing and originality to satisfy even Hong Kong aficionados. […] simultaneously the best (the fight scenes) and worst (everything else) action movie of the year. Destined for drunken Friday night rental heaven.” — William Thomas, Empire

Score: 54%

What the Public Say
The Transporter doesn’t hold up as well on a rewatch as I would have hoped. It’s a bit stop-start and the ending didn’t feel as BIG as it should have been. At the same time, it has a couple of outstanding scenes and no review of this film is complete without a reference to and expression of WTF?! about the now infamous oil-slick fight scene. Truly a marvel of film thinking, then perfectly executed. […] The Transporter is exactly the kind of daft film that Hollywood became ashamed of making — and it really shouldn’t have.” — Steve G @ Letterboxd

Verdict

The Transporter is neither big nor clever. In terms of the former, it’s a relatively small-scale, low-key action movie, not some Hollywood extravaganza; and in terms of the latter, it’s a relatively small-scale, low-key action movie, so of course it’s not been pumped full of brains. Instead it’s pumped full of adrenaline, with a brisk running time that serves up impressively choreographed action at a solid rate, with an amenably light tone in between the combat. It also made an action star of Jason “The Stath” Statham, which I’m sure some people would thank it for. It certainly brought down the average age of participants in The Expendables.

#95 is… indestructible.