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The Incredibles (2004)
Brad Bird is the Steven Spielberg of animation
Brad Bird directed my all-time-favourite animated feature The Iron Giant; one of the most criminally underrated films ever. So for me expectation was extremely high for this, his second feature. Opting for computer animation over hand drawings and working with Pixar studios for the first time, I wondered if he could repeat the magic. He has. As far as I'm concerned, Brad Bird is now the Steven Spielberg of animation. It may be premature to say this after one viewing, but I think its Pixar's greatest picture to date, better even than Toy Story 2.
The story is far too good to spoil but I will reveal this much. Superheroes have become outlawed through a series of lawsuits. Mr Incredible and his superhero wife Elastigirl had to enter a witness protection programme to hide their secret identities. Mr Incredible now holds down a boring office job in an insurance company and has three children, all of whom have powers but are forbidden to use them. Suffice to say this leads to a hilarious and poignant home life full of domestic difficulties and Mr Incredible begins to long for the good old days of superhero exploits.
The bittersweet early scenes soon give way to a full-on action adventure, and this is the point where I redundantly mention how staggering the animation is, because no amount of description can do it justice. It is beautifully rendered making tremendous use of widescreen space. The witty, sophisticated screenplay has an informed knowledge of comic book lore without once resorting to the cheap, self conscious spoof so common in similar works. Instead, it has the courage to play it fairly straight, which gives the story great emotional resonance. That's not to say it isn't funny. It's frequently hilarious; one inspired gag involving capes is especially amusing and a vocal cameo from Brad Bird himself as a luvvie fashion designer is guaranteed to bring the house down. The most knowing line comes from the villain, who having captured Mr Incredible starts explaining his master plan before realising what he's doing: 'I can't believe you've got me monologuing!'
One of Bird's favourite films is obviously the 1950's version of The War of the Worlds, as both The Iron Giant and The Incredibles feature huge robots which are an obvious homage to said film. It also has the coolest 'baddies base' I've ever seen, even outstripping You Only Live Twice. Speaking of James Bond, Michael Giacchino's John Barryesque music score is outstanding, and very reminiscent of the classic 1960's Bond films. The vocal talents are all excellent; Craig T Nelson as Mr Incredible, Holly Hunter as Elastigirl and especially Samuel L Jackson as friend of the family superhero Frozone. Even the end credits are wonderfully stylish. Above all, this is one film that must be seen on a big screen. Even the most 'stay-at-home-and-wait-for-the-video' among you should make an exception (you know who you are!).
Some critics have carped that the mega-action climax is overkill and that the film is too long. Personally, I thought the finale appropriately loud and exciting and whilst it is longer than normal (120 minutes is unusual for a cartoon feature), it never outstays its welcome. In short, this is the best animated film of the year, the best family film of the year and the most out and out fun film of the year.
Oh, and for those poor unfortunates among you who haven't seen The Iron Giant yet, buy or rent the DVD and watch that too!
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
As good as the first film
Spider-Man 2 has received the best reviews of any film so far this year. I'm not about to buck that trend; it is indeed a triumph.
Equal in every way to its predecessor, the movie kicks off with a brilliant title sequence incorporating paintings depicting scenes from the original film. The story picks up two years after part one with Peter Parker trying to attend college, hold down jobs (from which he keeps getting fired) and be Spiderman all at the same time. The pressure is really getting to him, and worse, his spider powers seem to be suddenly failing at inopportune moments.
Mary-Jane, with whom Peter is still secretly in love with, has become a successful actress and model. Meanwhile, Harry Osbourn still swears revenge against Spiderman for killing his father (aka the Green Goblin in part one). He has inherited his father's company and is funding the dangerous fusion research of one Dr Octavius. In the tradition of all movie and comic book scientists, something goes horribly wrong in the experiment, and Octavius finds himself possessed by four AI mechanical arms which take over his mind and turn him into classic Spiderman villain Dr Octopus.
The entire cast acquit themselves superbly. We really care about what happens with not just Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) but everyone else from tormented villain Dr Octopus (Alfred Molina on top form) trying to regain his sanity to Peter's Aunt May (Rosemary Harris), who is about to lose her house because she's behind on mortgage payments. Best of all, Harry Osbourne (the brilliant James Franco) is evolving into a fascinating character; a young man spoilt by riches yet tormented by his dead father from beyond the grave. His obsession with killing Spider-Man not realising his true identity is brilliantly handled and has a splendid pay-off/set-up for part three.
Speaking of sequels, those among you familiar with the comics will spot not one but three characters available to become super villains in future instalments. The producers are wisely keeping their options open, and if the success of this film is anything to go by, the franchise could run and run.
What really sets Spider-Man 2 apart from the usual mindless summer blockbuster fare is its dedication to character and plot. Director Sam Raimi wisely keeps the human drama at the centre, with the stunning action scenes advancing rather than holding up the plot. There are several amazing set pieces, particularly one involving a runaway train. Comedy plays a big part too. There are many hilarious moments, such as a scene where Parker washes his Spiderman costume in a laundrette. Another moment with Spiderman in a lift is a hoot. Skinflint Bugle editor Jameson (JK Simmons) provides loads more laughs here than he did in the first film. Also, there are amusing in jokes for film buffs and fans of Raimi's earlier horror films (including a very funny Evil Dead reference). There is even a hilarious and highly effective homage to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
The special effects, needless to say, are amazing. The film looks bright, vibrant and colourful, and Danny Elfman's dynamic and emotive music score underscores the drama wonderfully.
Spider-Man 2 is at its heart a hugely poignant coming-of-age story, as Peter Parker comes to terms with his destiny as a superhero. I could greatly expound on the endless positive moral and spiritual messages in the film, but I can't be bothered to. Instead, stop reading this and go and see it!
Not as good as the book
Widely considered the best book in the series, Harry Potter part three is cracking read. A darker addition to the Potter canon, it deals with the escape of murderer Sirius Black from Azkaban (not a middle eastern country but a wizard prison). Apparently responsible for betraying Harry's parents to Lord Voldemort, Black is now after Harry too. His friends and teachers all want to protect him, but Harry has something else on his mind: revenge.
It's therefore a great shame to report that this instalment, despite a visual makeover, a new director, and better performances from the lead actors, remains depressingly pedestrian in comparison to the novel. All the keystone events of the book are present, yet the screenplay shows undue reverence to the source material, again forgetting the adage `Show, don't tell'. For example, just as the first film ought to have opened with the murder of Harry's parents, this one ought to have opened with Black's dramatic arrest after his apparent murder of Peter Pettigrew.
The Dementors, Ringwraith-like guardians of Azkaban prison, are initially frightening but fail to remain menacing as the film progresses. Not enough effort is made to make us afraid of Black. Key moments of emotional weight from the book are skimmed over, especially in the finale. The performances are OK, especially from Daniel Radcliffe who has improved tremendously, and Gary Oldman is well cast as Sirius Black, but one expects better from Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman. The only really memorable turn comes from David Thewlis' Professor Lupin.
On the plus side, John Williams' music score is very good; building nicely on his outstanding score for the first film he contributes some fine new themes here. Special effects look great too, especially Buckbeak the Hippogriff, a bizarre cross between an eagle and a horse. The cinematography is fine, with the Glen Coe locations looking very beautiful. And director Alfonso Cuaron gives the whole piece a stylish makeover, clearly taking a leaf out of Peter Jackson's book.
That said, this is not a huge improvement on films one and two, and given the source material should have been far better. The real problem with the Harry Potter films is they still feel like a franchise following a formula, which is remarkable considering their unpredictable plots. The old cliché is once again true; it's not as good as the book.
The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
Highly exciting and instantly forgettable
Roland Emmerich's The Day after Tomorrow is a surprisingly enjoyable disaster movie romp. Global warming and polar ice cap melting cause a cataclysmic sudden change in global climate. Tornados, tidal waves, and temperatures that plummet ten degrees per second mete out chaos worldwide. This allows for some truly spectacular and breathtaking visual effects. If this is your cup of tea, then make sure you see it on the biggest screen possible with the best sound systems. This is a true summer blockbuster highly exciting, and instantly forgettable.
Dennis Quiad is the government scientist saying `I told you so' to a Dick Cheneyesque vice president, but as disaster strikes, he undertakes a personal quest to rescue his teenage son, who is trapped in a frozen over New York. Plotwise, nothing particularly profound happens, but what is worth noting is the political, rather than meteorological climate this film reflects.
For a start, the afore-mentioned vice President's character is clearly a metaphor for the current Bush/Cheney administration who failed to sign the Koyoto accord, infuriating environmentalists and many other politicians worldwide. The science of the film may be bunk (and who cares for goodness sake), but the message is clearly a wrap on the knuckles for the US, and for the most part, takes a slightly subversive tone.
Elsewhere, the satire is painted in broad brushstrokes, such as US refugees illegally crossing the Rio Grande to get into Mexico in an attempt to escape the deadly climate. Another interesting comparison to make is between the set of `token Brit characters' in Independence Day (another Emmerich epic) and this film. The former, pre-9/11 Brit characters were barely given a line, much less a personality. However, since we live in post-9/11 `Brits-are-friends-who-help-us-invade-Middle-Eastern-countries' times, the characters contained herein (played by the likes of Ian Holm) are given more to do, funnier lines, and attempts are made to make you care about them before they obligingly perish in true stiff upper lip style.
In the end though, The Day after Tomorrow doesn't have anything terribly profound to say about environmentalism or politics. It's just big, loud, and all-the better for it.
An infuriatingly mixed bag
Wolfgang Peterson's Troy is an infuriatingly mixed bag by no means the disaster most critics say but not the masterpiece it could have been.
Based (somewhat loosely) on Homer's The Illiad, Troy tells of the ten year siege of Troy caused by Prince Paris illicit romance with Helen of Sparta the face that launched a thousand ships. And those thousand ships, battles, and numerous special effects certainly please the eye. But huge battles do not a great film make. Fortunately, the Illiad is such a superb story it's virtually impossible to mess it up completely.
Most of the cast acquit themselves well, despite mispronouncing certain names. Brad Pitt makes a fine Achilles, Brian Cox a suitably scheming King Agamemnon, and Orlando Bloom an appropriately cowardly Paris. However, all are totally outclassed by Peter O'Toole's King Priam, an outstanding performance. In fact, it made me wish David Lean had directed The Illiad in the 1960's and cast O'Toole as Achilles. The only actor who even comes close to his brilliance is Eric Bana, who strikes a suitably tragic note as Hector.
On the other hand, Diane Kruger does not convince as Helen, and I am forced to agree with Empire magazine her face might launch a rubber dingy or two, but not a thousand ships.
Also, James Horner's music score is rather pedestrian which is hardly surprisingly considering he had very little time to write it. Apparently some brainless studio executive thought it was a good idea to replace Gabriel Yared's reportedly marvellous original score because it wasn't `thumping enough'.
Why on earth anyone thought it a good idea to eliminate the supernatural elements of the tale I will never know. Integral to The Illiad are the gods and their petty squabbling, and Achilles, whose identity as a son of the gods is never explained. Those with no previous knowledge of Greek mythology will be wondering why on earth an arrow in the heel kills him.
Overlong, overblown, and ultimately taking itself way too seriously, the film is worth watching for a single brilliant scene where Peter O'Toole begs Brad Pitt for the body of his dead son. In that moment the film ascends, temporarily, to the level of the great Greek tragedy.
A welcome antidote to the annual deluge of rubbish romantic comedies
Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet star in this bizarre love story which is more or less told in reverse. Imagine a rather surreal love story version of Memento you'll get the idea. After Joel (Carrey) and Clementine (Winslet) have an unsuccessful romance, they decide to undergo a radical medical procedure to erase each other from their memories. However, as Joel has the process done, he finds he wants to keep some of his memories after all, and tries to hide them at deep subconscious levels.
For every person I've met who liked this film I met someone who hated it. I belong in the former category. Charlie Kaufman's screenplay is amusing, melancholic and clever. Michel Gondry directs with flair, and Carrey is as good here as he was in The Truman Show, playing against type. There is also fine support from Winslet, Kirstin Dunst and Tom Wilkinson who is at the centre of an unexpected and interesting subplot I won't spoil here.
The only thing I didn't like was the regulation f-ing and blinding which despite being realistic, somewhat soured it for me. That said, this is recommended for anyone on the lookout for something a little different, and a welcome antidote to the annual deluge of rubbish romantic comedies with neither romance nor comedy.
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Riveting, shockingly bloody and profoundly moving
Let me say one thing straight away: go and see this film. Over the years there have been several versions of this story, some good (Jesus of Nazareth), some terrible (The Last Temptation of Christ) and some completely dull and overrated (the Jesus film that's been translated into umpteen languages). However, none are anywhere near as disturbing, violent and staggeringly powerful as The Passion of the Christ, unquestionably the definitive cinematic rendering.
Whether one is a Christian or not, this is an undoubted work of art and a triumph for director Mel Gibson. Beautifully directed and acted, the dialogue, spoken in flawless Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic adds a rare authenticity. Based on the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (with some creative licence) the film covers the last 12 hours of Jesus' life with flashbacks to past events. The film opens at night in the atmospheric garden of Gethsemane, with Jesus being tempted by Satan as he prays to God in anguish. His subsequent betrayal, arrest, trial and crucifixion are riveting.
Jim Caviezel is mesmerising as Jesus, and is ably supported by a cast of relative unknowns. Maia Morgenstern is particularly potent as Mary, whose looks and glances infuse powerful emotion. Luca Lionello's Judas is very effective, and Satan, a creepily androgynous figure played brilliantly by Rosalinda Celentano, adds an intriguing spiritual dimension to the film.
As a director, Gibson has advanced considerably since Braveheart. His use of slow motion and imaginative camera angles beautifully accentuate the already potent mix. The cinematography by Caleb Deschanel is beautiful, evoking the religious paintings of Italian artist Caravaggio. The music score by John Debney is also very good.
Some have criticised the film for showing too much blood and gore and not enough of Jesus' ministry. I disagree for two reasons. First, adding more flashbacks would have diluted the dramatic power and focus of the picture. Second, the brief flashbacks that are there show just enough to whet the appetite, leaving unanswered questions which will encourage non-Christians to either read the Bible or question their Christian friends.
Whilst the violence is intense (particularly the scourging sequence) it is restrained compared with what Romans actually did in crucifixions. For example, victims were stripped naked. Gibson says he wanted to push the audience to the edge. This he certainly does. He also says he `backed off a bit' from showing the full horror. This he also does. Therefore, it's certainly not a film for children, but for older teenagers and adults.
What I do find baffling are critics who said the film was too violent, yet consistently recommend countless other films with horrendous violence. These people are hypocrites and cannot have it both ways, just because the film upsets their particular sensibilities. Of course, the Bible says the cross is an offence to some people and salvation to others. Such polarised views will no doubt continue until the end of time.
Which brings me to the second main controversy surrounding the film. It has come under fire from some Jewish groups for anti-Semitism. As a Jew myself, let me say most emphatically that The Passion is not intentionally anti-Semitic. The film does not exceed the gospels in its portrayal of corrupt religious leaders. It also goes out of its way to show the dissenting voices in the Jewish council, sympathetic Jews such as Simon of Cyrene, the disciples, and of course Jesus himself.
Great art by its very nature is dangerous in that it has power for good or evil and the potential for misinterpretation. Unfortunately, over the centuries many groups and people have grossly misread the Bible. It is understandable that the Jewish community is cautious. One line deleted from the subtitles (but not the soundtrack) is the notorious `blood libel' from Matthew 27 verse 25, `His blood be on us and our children.' Traditionally, this line has been interpreted as a curse on the Jewish people and has been misquoted down the centuries as a means of blaming the Jews for Christ's death. What this fails to take into account is that it was God's will for Jesus to die, for all our sins. Furthermore, in Acts chapters 2 and 3, many of that same Jewish mob who pronounced that curse on themselves become some of the first Christians. Thus `His blood be on us and our children' becomes a blessing rather than a curse, as indeed Jesus said on the cross `Father forgive them, for they know not what they do' and the apostle Peter concedes in Acts 3 verse 17 that the mob acted in ignorance. Therefore, to read anti-Semitism into either the Bible or the film is preposterous. I understand why Mel Gibson took Matthew 25 verse 27 out, but I think he should have been brave and left it in.
In conclusion, I urge you in the strongest possible terms to see this masterpiece. This is riveting, shockingly bloody and profoundly moving cinema. A must-see movie both artistically, and if you're a Christian, spiritually.
An absolute must for history and navy buffs
Peter Weir is the most underrated director working today. He has shown consistent brilliance from such early masterpieces as Picnic at Hanging Rock and Gallipoli to later works like The Mosquito Coast and Fearless. Weir has managed to coax several career best turns from his lead actors, such as Harrison Ford, Robin Williams, and Jim Carrey. He should have won an Oscar by now (criminally overlooked for Witness, Dead Poets Society and The Truman Show). The recurrent theme in his work is isolation, whether on an Amish farm, in a repressive boys preparatory school, in a reality TV show, or, in the case of his latest film, in the early nineteenth century Royal Navy.
Master and Commander: The Far side of the world is based on a series of Hornbloweresque novels. I've never read them, but the film is a remarkable work. Despite not being an expert on naval warfare, I understand this to be the most accurate depiction of life at sea circa 1805 ever put on screen. The crew, led by the wildly heroic Jack Aubery (Russell Crowe) act, dress and speak exactly as they would have done, to often incomprehensible effect on a modern audience. The most shocking aspect of this accuracy is how many of the crew are young boys, and some of them officers having to face harrowing and bloody naval battles. By contrast, the enemy isn't depicted at all, one of the great strengths of the film. The action stays entirely with the protagonists on their ship increasing the claustrophobia and tension of the plot.
French vessel Acheron ambushes HMS Surprise in the opening scenes (showing, again with great accuracy, how difficult it is to actually sink a ship). Aubery and his crew narrowly escape. After fixing up the ship, instead of returning to port, Aubrey decides to pursue the Acheron around Cape Horn and go on the offensive. This puts strain on his friendship with ships surgeon Dr Steven Maturin (Paul Bettany) who believes he is pursuing the French vessel out of pride, putting the crew at unnecessary risk.
But this is no Mutiny on the Bounty. Although the relationship between Aubrey and Maturin at first seems to have William Bligh/Fletcher Christian overtones, this later proves false. This is a far more intelligent and clever film than it first appears, with unusual complexity in its depiction of heroism, what makes a great leader and the human cost of war. Aubrey is not a tyrant, but neither is he entirely rational. He is heroic but flawed. By contrast, Maturin is warm and kind, simmering with righteous indignation, but not always the voice of reason he likes to think he is.
Towards the middle, the film bogs down somewhat under the weight of its many subplots, particularly in the sequences around the Galapagos islands. However, the film returns to form for a splendid and exciting finish, which I won't spoil here.
The cast are excellent, with Crowe never better. Paul Bettany is also very good. The cinematography is absolutely stunning (this film has to be seen on a big screen). The opening alone is worthy of admission price as Aubrey stares into the fog and sees the silent red glow from the cannons of the French ship in hiding. He yells for the crew to get down as cannon balls whizz overhead and strike the Surprise to terrifying effect. Special effects, music and sound are all very good too.
All in all this is highly recommended to anyone with a serious interest in cinema, and an absolute must for history and navy buffs. Another to add to the list of the years ten best films and almost certain to be Oscar nominated.
Good Bye Lenin! (2003)
Startling and unusual black comedy.
Good Bye Lenin is a startling and unusual German black comedy, directed by Wolfgang Becker.
Before the fall of the Berlin wall, East German pro-Communist Christiane Kerner (Katrin Sass), has an accident that leaves her in a coma. Before she wakes up, the Berlin wall falls. Her son Alex (Daniel Bruhl) is warned that any kind of shock could kill her. Therefore, when she recovers, he pretends nothing has changed in East Berlin and undertakes an elaborate deception to prevent her thinking otherwise.
This is a hilarious film, which manages to be political without being preachy and poignant without being sentimental. The plot provides a fascinating inside look at German reunification using historic touchstones such as the 1990 world cup to good effect.
Most interesting however, are the lengths Alex goes to keeping up the facade. He even creates fake news broadcasts with his wannabe film director friend, in which the fall of the Berlin wall is reversed, saying refugees from West Germany are fleeing to the East to escape the excesses of Capitalism.
Politically, the film is wonderfully even handed. The fake East Germany Alex creates is far better than the corrupt, oppressive Communist regime that actually existed. At the same time Capitalism is seen as no better than Communism, with the onslaught soulless consumerism destroying the hopes and dreams of many, including a former East German cosmonaut reduced to driving a taxi for a living. The films many bitter ironies are handled with great delicacy. The emotional undercurrents are beautifully understated with exquisite performances by the entire cast.
Good Bye Lenin gently echoes the ideas of other films such as The Truman Show and Life is Beautiful, whilst remaining a completely unique experience in itself. I strongly recommend you make the effort and see it.
A first rate adventure film.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl is easily the most enjoyable blockbuster film of the silly season for one simple reason: its immensely good fun.
Its a classic tale of adventure on the high seas as blacksmith Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) discovers his true heritage as a pirate. The wonderful, surprise-laden plot is too intricately daft to spoil, suffice to say it rattles from start to finish with cursed medallions, sea battles, hidden islands, secret tunnels, treasure, ghostly scares, sword fights, betrayal, romance, action, adventure and of course pirates (both alive and "undead").
The whole cast is superb with Orlando Bloom playing the straight hero to Johnny Depp's hilarious and stunningly offbeat pirate Jack Sparrow (or "Captain" Jack Sparrow as he insists on being known). Kiera Knightly is wonderful as spunky love interest Elizabeth Swann, who gets a lot of the best lines (including some great gags about corsets). Geoffrey Rush makes a splendid villain, and Jonathan Pryce is marvellous as Knightly's cowardly father.
The script is sharp and often hysterically funny ("the pirate code is more like guidelines"). The special effects are stunning, as is the cinematography, which makes beautiful use of widescreen. The music score is appropriately rousing and Gore Verbinski directs the whole thing with a tremendously old fashioned sense of fun which makes this film rank up with the classic Hollywood swashbucklers like Captain Blood.
All in all, a first rate adventure film.