Annihilation (2018)

2018 #45
Alex Garland | 115 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

Annihilation

Many column inches (and even more tweets) have been penned about Paramount’s decision to relegate director Alex Garland’s second third film straight to Netflix outside the US, Canada, and China, so I presume the pros and cons of that move have been thoroughly discussed elsewhere. Personally, I’m on the fence: it’s disappointing not to see intelligent sci-fi being given a shot at the box office, but I’m one of those people who’s 50/50 on whether I go to see it or just wait for disc/streaming/etc. (I’ve not even seen The Shape of Water, for example, although that’s partly due to a dearth of convenient screenings during its brief theatrical appearance. Conversely, I did go to Arrival.) Anyway, it is what it is at this point, so let’s move on to the film itself.

Loosely based on the acclaimed novel by Jeff VanderMeer (reportedly Garland read the book once then wrote the screenplay from memory), it follows biologist, academic, and former member of the Army, Lena (Natalie Portman), whose soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) went missing a year ago during a secretive mission. After he suddenly reappears, apparently with no memory of his time away but with some severe medical problems, the couple are scooped up by a military organisation investigating Area X, a top-secret quarantined zone affected by an unexplained phenomenon known as the Shimmer. Various teams have been sent inside the Shimmer, but Kane is the only person to ever return. As his health deteriorates, Lena, desperate for answers, joins the latest squad to venture inside. That’s where stuff gets crazy…

Squad goals

The first thing Annihilation made me think of was Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. The connection was initially triggered by the score: the ambient soundtrack by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury reminded me so much of Arrival’s that I had to check this wasn’t a last work by Jóhann Jóhannsson. Once I spotted that, the other similarities in the story leapt out: they’re both thoughtful sci-fi parables about a female university lecturer being co-opted into a military operation to investigate a strange extraterrestrial presence on Earth, while also remembering her family life in flashbacks.

Despite Paramount’s insistence that the film was too intelligent for non-US audiences (you can take a moment to laugh at that notion if you like), Annihilation is perhaps more accessible than Arrival, at least initially. Whereas Villeneuve’s film played like a character drama, Garland’s has a strong adventure-movie vein, also laced with elements of the horror genre. It’s still not a mile-a-minute thrill-ride, but, if you wanted, you could engage with it on the level of a quest through an alien event, encountering strange phenomena and creatures, with events of life-threatening jeopardy. However, for all the original sci-fi ideas, it does also touch on weightier, more human psychological issues — as the Empire review summarised it, “depression, grief and the human propensity for self-destruction.”

All the better to eat you with

Naturally this material is carried by the cast. Portman makes for an interesting lead. Clearly damaged by grief, she’s quite a cold figure, which may distance her from some viewers in the way it does from some of her team mates. But there’s more to it than that, and Portman delivers subtle nuances that hint at more beneath the surface. The rest of her all-female squad — played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, and Gina Rodriguez — all have distinct personalities, all get brief subplots and moments, and they’re mostly managed with an equal level of understatement. Perhaps the best is Thompson, whose calm, gently heartfelt performance is quietly superb, and even more striking as it marks a huge contrast to her star-making turn in Thor: Ragnarok just a few months ago. As a pair of films to be a calling-card for her skills, one could barely ask for more.

A lot of disappointment about the lack of a theatrical release stems to not being able to see these visuals on a cinema screen; not being able to experience the audio with a cinema sound system. Well, that partly depends on your own setup at home, of course. Setting that aside, though, while there are certainly some very striking visuals, it wasn’t as consistently stunning as some reviews made it sound. I’m not saying it wouldn’t benefit from the big screen, especially if you’re particularly fond of that experience, but I didn’t feel I was missing much scale by watching at home. I felt similarly about the sound design, though I do say that as someone with a 7.1 system. For spectacle, the intricate and colourful end credits are the most striking bit — I’m certain they benefitted from my viewing the film in 4K HDR.

Scared of the dark?

However you get to see it, writer-director Alex Garland has crafted another sci-fi mystery/thriller that engages on multiple levels. For me it was somewhat damaged by the hype, perhaps a result of US reviewers frantically urging people to get out and see it to prove that Paramount’s lack of faith was a mistake. While I didn’t instantly love it in the same way as, say, Arrival, or Garland’s debut, Ex Machina, it’s undoubtedly a fascinating, thought-provoking slice of science-fiction — and a much-needed critical success for the “Netflix Original” brand after a couple of recent duds. I’d also say it places Garland ahead of genre contemporaries like Neill Blomkamp and Duncan Jones as a filmmaker to keep an eye on. Okay, he’s not quite Denis Villeneuve, but he’s a lot closer than the others.

4 out of 5

Annihilation is available on Netflix in most of the world now.

Black Swan (2010)

2017 #128
Darren Aronofsky | 108 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Black Swan

Oscar statue2011 Academy Awards
5 nominations — 1 win

Winner: Best Actress (Natalie Portman).
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing.



Described by director Darren Aronofsky as “a psychological thriller horror film”, Black Swan straddles the divide between classy Cinema and genre Movies as artfully as, say, a Hitchcock thriller. It’s the story of ballet dancer Nina (Natalie Portman) who’s desperate to be the lead in her company’s production of Swan Lake. She’s suited to the White Swan but struggles as its black counterpart, a role newly-arrived rival Lily (Mila Kunis) seems perfect for. As Nina pursues perfection with a monomaniacal focus, she’s pressured by the lascivious director (Vincent Cassel) and her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey), to the point where her sanity is beginning to crack…

Shot handheld on a mix of 16mm and video-capable HD DSLRs, Black Swan has a documentary look, often emphasised by its editing — at times it could almost pass for a fly-on-the-wall look behind the scenes of a ballet company. That’s not to say the visuals lack artistry, however. In particular, the constant presence and use of mirrors is fantastic — both thematically relevant and visually rich. Nonetheless, the documentary-ish look serves to make the film’s unsettling parts all the more effective, especially as they take a while to emerge and continue to sidle up on you as the film goes on. The final act is where everything really kicks off — the point of the rest is to build up to that; to establish and put in place and explain everything we need for a shocking, thrilling, somewhat unguessable climax. If that sounds like a criticism, it’s not, because the movie leading up to that point certainly has worth.

Reflections

I’m not particularly familiar with Swan Lake, but it would seem Black Swan’s story echoes it — to the point, even, that all the cast are credited with both their character in the film and their equivalent in the ballet (and I don’t just mean the dancers who also play that role in the ballet-within-the-film — Hershey, for example, is billed as Erica Sayers / The Queen”). This extends outwards in other ways, like how the music of Tchaikovsky is repurposed by the film to its own magnificent effect. That’s as well as featuring a typically striking score from Clint Mansell.

Natalie Portman is brilliant as the conflicted Nina. She’s introverted and sheltered but has chosen (or been railroaded into) a career that requires she perform publicly; she’s fragile and under-confident but in a profession that invites criticism from all sides; she’s been left repressed, uptight, and virginal, which clashes with her perfectionism when trying to embody a role that is none of those things. It’s a complex role with many subtle facets that Portman negotiates skilfully. It feels like a departure from who she is — proper acting, if you like — which makes the performance all the more striking. Conversely, Mila Kunis feels more in her comfort zone as Lily, the free-spirited, lively but imperfect, almost a bit of a bitch, company dancer that Nina is inexplicably drawn to. She holds her own against Portman when required, but it’s not exactly a role of equatable complexity.

Titular terror

Depending how you want to see it, Aronofsky’s film is an arty movie about ballet and the psychological effects of perfectionism, or a slow-burn horror-thriller with almost as many jump scares as instances of introspection. Best of all, it can be both those things.

5 out of 5

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

Darren Aronofsky’s latest dark mind-bender, mother!, is released on UK DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow.

The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

2017 #35

Whoa there! Hold your horses! Before The Darjeeling Limited, we need to talk about…

Hotel Chevalier
(2007)

2017 #34a
Wes Anderson | 13 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & France / English | 15 / R

Hotel Chevalier

The short film that exists as a kind-of-prequel, kind-of-Part-One to The Darjeeling Limited. It’s probably best remembered for its controversies — around whether or not it was attached to the feature’s theatrical release (it was, then it wasn’t, then it was); and around Natalie Portman’s ass, firstly because oh my God you get to see Natalie Portman’s ass, then later about whether or not she regretted baring it (long story short: she didn’t). The former issue annoyed fans at the time for reasons that, a decade later, are immaterial (though if you’re interested you can read about it here). The latter… well, frankly, I guess it got a lot of attention because, a) men are men, and b) what else there is to talk about from the short isn’t necessarily all that obvious.

In it we’re introduced to Jason Schwartzman’s character from The Darjeeling Limited, one of the feature’s three leads, who here is seen lazing about in a Paris hotel room when he gets a phone call from a woman, who shortly thereafter arrives. Then they talk and stuff. All shot with director Wes Anderson’s usual style, because obviously.

Natalie Portman's ass not pictured

Hotel Chevalier exists in a weird in-between state, where it’s almost essential to the main film (the feature includes numerous callbacks to it; some inconsequential, others that I’m not sure make sense without seeing the short), but it also feels like the right decision to have left it out of the film. Its setting and the presence of only one of the trio of main characters mean it feels like a different entity, and if it had been in the feature itself, even as a prologue, it would’ve shifted the focus onto Schwartzman as the primary character. I don’t think that would’ve been right.

So maybe it’s just a glorified deleted scene, then? Or maybe there was something I didn’t get and I’m doing it a disservice. The thing it most reminds me of, watching in 2017, is those Blade Runner 2049 shorts: it informs the main feature without being an essential component of it. So, while I didn’t dislike it, I don’t know how much it has to offer outside of setting up part of The Darjeeling Limited. Unless you just want to see Natalie Portman’s ass, of course.

3 out of 5

You can watch Hotel Chevalier on YouTube here.

The Darjeeling Limited
(2007)

2017 #35
Wes Anderson | 88 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The Darjeeling Limited

So, the film proper. It’s the story of three estranged brothers (Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson, and Jason Schwartzman) who reunite a year after their father’s funeral. One of them has organised a train trip across India so they can reconnect, although he also has an ulterior motive…

My impression has always been that The Darjeeling Limited is a lesser work on Wes Anderson’s CV. I don’t remember it making much of a splash when it came out — maybe I’m wrong, but “another film where Wes Anderson does what Wes Anderson does” was my impression at the time — and I don’t think I’ve seen it discussed a great deal since. As someone who still feels new to Anderson’s world and is working through his oeuvre in a roundabout fashion, I don’t necessarily disagree with this sentiment. If you want to find out what’s so great about Anderson, there are certainly other places to start.

Brothers on a train

That said, I did enjoy the film. Anderson’s mannered camerawork, kooky characters, and shaggy dog storylines seem to have gelled well with my own sensibilities. Conversely, finally getting round to this review nine months after I saw the film, I can’t remember many specifics. It’s a movie I’ll likely add to my Wes Anderson Blu-ray collection someday (for comparison, I can’t definitely say the same about Rushmore), and will be happy to revisit, but for the time being I’ve exhausted what little thoughts I had about it.

4 out of 5

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.

Léon (1994)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #51

He moves without sound.
Kills without emotion.
Disappears without trace.

Also Known As: The Professional (USA) *shudder*

Country: France
Language: English
Runtime: 110 minutes | 132 minutes (version intégrale)
BBFC: 18 | 15 (version intégrale)
MPAA: R

Original Release: 14th September 1994 (France)
US Release: 18th November 1994
UK Release: 3rd February 1995
First Seen: VHS, c.1999

Stars
Jean Reno (Les visiteurs, Ronin)
Natalie Portman (Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Black Swan)
Gary Oldman (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)

Director
Luc Besson (Nikita, The Fifth Element)

Screenwriter
Luc Besson (The Transporter, Taken)

The Story
When her family are murdered by a corrupt police officer, 12-year-old Mathilda runs to hide with her quiet, reclusive neighbour, Léon. Turns out he’s a hitman, and she begins to train with him so she can exact her revenge…

Our Heroes
As the title character, Jean Reno’s child-like hired killer is likeable, sympathetic, and quite sweet — traits one wouldn’t typically associate with his profession. As his young ward, Mathilda, Natalie Portman is compelling, playing a hardened, emotionally bruised kid in desperate need of support and guidance, more so than she needs vengeance.

Our Villain
Gary Oldman brings pure entertainment value to the film in one of his most iconic performances: Stansfield, the crazy copper with a penchant for both drugs and quotable dialogue.

Best Supporting Character
There’s not much room for anyone else to stand out around the three lead performances, but Danny Aiello comes closest as Léon’s kindly mafioso handler, Tony.

Memorable Quote
Stansfield: “Bring me everyone.”
Benny: “What do you mean ‘everyone’?”
Stansfield: “EV-RY-ONE.

Memorable Scene
As Mathilda returns home from buying groceries, she sees the door to her family’s apartment open and a man standing suspiciously outside. As she nears, she catches a glimpse inside — her father sprawled on the floor in a pool of blood. She keeps walking, pretending not to have seen, and approaches Léon’s door — where he’s been watching through his peephole. Trying to hold back tears, she rings his bell. Behind the door, Léon fidgets, not answering — he doesn’t want to get involved. She pleads under her breath. She rings again. The man at her door watches, suspicious. She rings again, desperate. Léon is torn… OK, you know all along what he’s going to do, but Besson’s direction and the performances from Portman and Reno ring every second of tension out of the sequence.

Letting the Side Down
Some people find the relationship between Léon and Mathilda problematic, and that gets in the way of their enjoyment of the movie. I’ve never seen it that way. Mathilda tries to inappropriately push herself on Léon, but he never takes her up on it. He’s a child himself in many ways and that side of life doesn’t seem to engage him at all, never mind in an unacceptable fashion.

Making of
The film’s second shot (still in the credits) is a tracking shot that travels along a New York road without stopping. It was only possible after studying the pattern of the traffic lights along the route to make sure the camera truck didn’t encounter any red lights.

Previously on…
The film was inspired by Jean Reno’s role in Besson’s previous film, Nikita (aka La Femme Nikita), in which he turns up in the third act as “Victor the Cleaner”, dressed in an outfit similar to Léon’s, to deal with Nikita’s botched mission.

Next time…
Besson wrote a script for a sequel focusing on a grown-up Mathilda. While they waited for Portman to age into the role, Besson left Gaumont to start his own studio, EuropaCorp. Unhappy at his departure, Gaumont have apparently refused to let him have the necessary rights. According to Olivier Megaton (the director of Besson projects like Transporter 3 and both Taken sequels) it will now likely never happen. Reportedly the script was recycled into Colombiana, which I am now 100% more interested in seeing.

Awards
7 César nominations (Film, Actor (Jean Reno), Director, Music, Cinematography, Editing, Sound)

What the Critics Said
“For Luc Besson, [Léon] is a poetic brute, a man without humanity who has lived so close to darkness for so long that he has lost all connection to the light. The universe around him, too, is a symbolic construction, an interweaving of opera, film noir and existentialism, where the larger-than-life forces of innocence and corruption explode in blood and violence. […] Reno plays it minimally; Oldman splatters his performance all over the screen. Oldman is the least inhibited actor of his generation, and as this deranged detective, he keeps absolutely nothing in reserve. When the camera gets close to him, you feel as if you want to back away. […] Stansfield’s signature is his passion for music. He thinks of everything, even his blood orgies, in terms of rhythm and color. You want Beethoven? he asks, picking up a shotgun. I’ll play you some Beethoven. Fortunately, Besson structures his film in much the same way. Not only does music play an important role in giving texture to his material, his scenes — especially the violent ones — are presented as arias, chamber pieces, symphonies.” — Hal Hinson, The Washington Post

Worst Spurious Connection in a Supposedly Professional Review
“A favorite of IMDb fanboys (who have absurdly — but predictably — ranked it the 27th best movie of all time!) and reportedly of pedophiles as well” — Matt Brunson, Creative Loafing (You’re right about one thing, though, Matt: 27th is ridiculous — Léon is top ten material.)

Counterpoint to Mr Brunson
“[It] would go on to become one of his most highly-regarded films among audiences. Sadly it was not thought of nearly as well by critics, merely receiving somewhat average reviews, giving us another sad oversight [and] proving that there are those times where the general audience can have more perception into a film than those that analyze them for a living.” — Jeff Beck, examiner.com

Score: 71%

What the Public Say
“In spite of ranking on the top ten lists of many, many movie fans since its release, my love for [Léon] was not immediate. As a matter of fact I pretty much disliked it on the first and second outings because I couldn’t quite grasp what Luc Besson was going for with this film. It’s not an action movie, it’s more of a love story set to the tone of bloodshed and corruption, a subtle poetic masterpiece that relies on characterization and artistic strokes of pure raw emotion than some shoot em up gangster flick. […] I’ve come to truly appreciate what a pure piece of brilliant filmmaking this is and the loose allusions this has toward another Besson masterpiece La Femme Nikita. Everything about this film from the performances right down to the set pieces are like pieces of moving art, and Besson is the artist with the brush. […] Besson’s incomparable film is almost impossible to beat and there’s yet to be a director who could match his magnum opus. Even after almost twenty years, [Léon] stands as the superlative masterpiece of action filmmaking and has yet to be matched or toppled by any director in the business.” — Felix Vasquez, Cinema Crazed

Elsewhere on 100 Films
I reviewed the extended “version intégrale” cut of the film in 2008, asserting that “I prefer this version. Not because there’s anything wrong with the original — far from it — but because this one has more. […] I love the film and the characters, I could happily take more of them, and I very much enjoyed all of the added material. […] Léon (in either cut) is unquestionably essential.”

Verdict

Léon delivers the kind of tense sequences of action you’d imagine of a dramatic action-thriller (i.e. not highly-choreographed punch-ups every five minutes, but the action scenes that do appear are suspenseful), but the film’s real joy lies in its characters, who are expertly performed and wonderful to spend time with (in a movie context — in real life, I wouldn’t be so sure…) As a whole, Besson brews the grittily realistic with something far more fantastical to create a film that is, perhaps, a little too unique for some to get a handle on (I’m thinking of the handful of low-rated critics reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, which fly in the face of the consensus opinion). For the majority, however, Léon is a gripping, characterful, rewatchable masterpiece.

#52 just can’t wait… to be king.

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

2014 #70
Alan Taylor | 112 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Thor: The Dark WorldThor was one of the best surprises of Marvel’s Phase One for me: they took a character I had no interest in, and if anything thought seemed like a silly idea (what’s a Norse God got to do with superheroes?), and produced one of the first wave’s most entertaining and accomplished movies. They followed this up by turning the widely-acclaimed Avengers Assemble team-up into Thor 2 in all but name: sure, there’s plenty for all the other sub-franchises’ characters to do, but the major villain and cosmic scope are much closer to the events of Thor than any of the other lead-in films.

Cut to the real Thor 2, The Dark World, and there’s no small degree of expectation to live up to — not to mention that director Alan Taylor and the five credited writers (story by Don Payne and Robert Rodat, screenplay by Christopher L. Yost and Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely) are landed with the need to resolve plot threads left dangling by not one but two preceding films. What are the chances of them succeeding?

Mixed, as it turns out. When it works, The Dark World is exciting, inventive, and often genuinely hilarious. Placing most of the movie’s biggest laughs during its climactic battle — which already features a thrilling conceit in and of itself — makes the ending one of the best action sequences in the entire Marvel movie canon. Sometimes that climax is a long time coming, though, with a story that has so many disparate elements to juggle, you can be certain some have got lost in the mix. There’s hints of a love triangle, which disappears almost as soon as it begins; the rules of Loki’s green-tinged cloaking-y-thing are never expounded upon, meaning it can be whipped out whenever a cheap twist is required — indeed, it’s ultimately used once or twice too often.

Dark Who, Doctor ElvesGood will towards the participants counts for a lot, though. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki steals pretty much any scene he’s in, but Chris Hemsworth’s Thor is not an unlikeable hero, building further on the responsibility-and-honour story arc of the first film. Idris Elba also benefits from an expanded role, but others are less lucky: one of the Warriors Three is ditched as soon as we’re reacquainted with him; more criminally, Christopher Eccleston’s villain has nought to do but stomp around spouting exposition in a made-up language. Anyone could play that role, you don’t need an actor of Eccleston’s ability. Maybe something got cut (though it’s not in the Blu-ray’s deleted scenes), because I don’t see why else he’d’ve taken the part. Well, possibly the payday.

At the helm, Taylor was a late-in-the-day replacement for Monster director Patty Jenkins. Previously best known for TV’s Game of Thrones (as well as episodes of pretty much every other major HBO series), thanks to Marvel Taylor is now a Major Motion Picture Director: his next project is the Terminator reboot/prequel/whatever. He steps up to feature film level well enough, though the much-heralded “more grounded” Asgard he was supposed to be providing is little shown: we see a pub and a training area, and other than that there’s too much going on to linger in the one-realm-to-rule-them-all. In fact, we get a better look at the film’s Stonehenge-and-sunny-London version of England, where if you get arrested at Stonehenge you’re locked up in London. Ah, American movies.

Ooh, look at his hammerDespite the title, there’s much fun to be had with The Dark World. It can’t deliver on all of its aims — the equally-promised expansion of Thor and Jane’s relationship is equally sidelined — but there’s enough entertainment value to make it a worthwhile proposition. Perhaps the longer lead-in that the third film seems to be getting (there’s no announced slot for it among Marvel’s numerous future release dates, meaning it’s unlikely to arrive before 2017) will allow them to round everything out a little better.

4 out of 5

Thor: The Dark World is on Sky Movies Premiere from today at 4:15pm and 8pm.

Léon: Version Intégrale (1994/1996)

2008 #42
Luc Besson | 127 mins | DVD | 15*

Léon: Version IntégraleI first saw Léon about 10 years ago, back when video was still an acceptable way of watching things. A friend leant it to me, insisting it was a film I absolutely had to see, and he wasn’t wrong. It’s remained one of my favourite films ever since, though typically I haven’t watched it more than once or twice in the intervening decade. (It also fostered a love for Sting’s closing song, Shape of My Heart, which is criminally missing from a Greatest Hits CD my dad owned (even though his dire song from Demolition Man is on there), and in moderately recent years was indifferently reused by both Sugababes and Craig David.)

I became aware of this extended cut a few years ago, a little while before it was released on R1 DVD. Having held out for a UK R2 release for about half a decade now, I gave in and bought the (apparently superior, and also in a Steelbook, which always has a way of persuading me) German R2. It’s labelled as a “Director’s Cut” but, as Besson states in the relatively lengthy booklet (translated with the aid of [the now defunct] Babel Fish), “the second version is neither better nor worse than the original” — it’s not a preferred cut, just a different, extended one.

But personally, I prefer this version. Not because there’s anything wrong with the original — far from it — but because this one has more. Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing of course, but I don’t think that’s happened here. The additions build on the characters and relationships, primarily between the two leads, and also add extra doses of humour and action. Besson wasn’t necessarily wrong to remove these things from his original cut — the extent of Léon and Mathilda’s relationship is especially controversial for some, and the extended scenes of Léon training Mathilda as a Cleaner are arguably extraneous — but they all add to the experience. Wisely, he doesn’t seem to have touched what was already there. Everything that was great about the original — from the astounding performances of Jean Reno, Natalie Portman and Gary Oldman, to the thrilling action sequences, and plenty else in between — remains intact. They’ve not been buggered about with, just expanded around.

Ultimately, the reason I prefer this version is quite simple: I love the film and the characters, I could happily take more of them, and I very much enjoyed all of the added material. I can understand objections to the insinuations about Léon and Mathilda’s relationship, but I didn’t find it any creepier here than it was before (besides which, any paedophilic notions come from her and he quashes them). The quality of the performances in the new scenes, plus other solid additions, make all the new bits worthwhile.

The version intégrale isn’t too much of a good thing, then, just more of a great thing. To my mind, Léon (in either cut) is unquestionably essential.

5 out of 5

* The original cut of Léon was last classified in 1996 and given an 18. The longer version was classified in 2009 and received a 15. That must be a pretty rare case of a longer version (technically) having a lower certificate. ^

Garden State (2004)

Garden State2007 #45
Zach Braff | 98 mins | DVD | 15 / R

Zach Braff of Scrubs fame writes, directs and stars in this coming-of-age-style comedy-drama, his first feature as writer and director. While it’s not devoid of predictable elements, there are some good scenes and performances along the way, as well as a few laughs (only a handful of them in any way marred by the trailer). It’s probably the directing that really stands out, so it’ll be interesting to see what his next film (2008’s Open Hearts) is like.

4 out of 5

nb: I don’t know what happened to Open Hearts, but Braff’s second feature wound up being 2014’s Kickstarter-funded Wish I Was Where.