Why You Should Give John Carter A Chance To Blow Your Mind

BFI Southbank was invaded by emissaries from Mars last night, and they were remarkably pretty and polite. Shades of Caruso has said it before and it’ll say it again for new readers; seeing famous people in the flesh never gets old, and when that line-up includes Willem Dafoe and international megastar Taylor “Riggins” Kitsch himself, the levels of pre-movie excitement were almost unbearable. It’s enough to make one forgive the cinema for projecting John Carter as badly as it did, or to at least think there was something wrong with the deluxe 3D glasses provided. Nevertheless, during a very entertaining post-screening Q&A hosted by Garth Jennings, director Andrew Stanton pointed out that the projection was haywire. Considering how often this happens during the London Film Festival, this is no surprise.

That picture there is obviously incredibly indistinct (how anyone can make a movie with an iPhone’s crummy little camera is beyond me), but for clarity’s sake, the line-up shows Andrew Stanton, producers Jim Morris and Lindsey Collins, James Purefoy (Kantor Kan), Samantha Morton (Sola), a blurred Dominic West (Sab Than), Mark Strong (Matai Shang), Willem Dafoe (Tars Tarkas), Lynn Collins (Dejah Thoris) and Taylor Kitsch (John Carter, obvs). Why am I telling you this? Because one of the most distressing tweets I read last night (from friend-of-the-blog and pop-culture expert @stayfrostymw) concerned how she was unaware that the movie had this cast (not to mention Bryan Cranston, Polly Walker, Thomas Haden Church and Ciarán Hinds). This is how poorly this movie has been promoted; one of the best casts of the year has not been exploited properly. Madness.

You’d think that with cinema currently embracing nostalgia in the face of modernity that Disney’s John Carter would be an enticing prospect for audiences, and one that could benefit from being tied in with this trend, but then you look at the slow pick-up in US box office for The Artist, the disappointing take for Hugo, and audience discomfort for such palpably old-fashioned confections as The Tourist (a big hit internationally but a fumble in the States), and you have to wonder if the considerable bad reputation of the yet-to-be-released John Carter is down to the bad promotional campaign and intensely, frighteningly stupid and panicky namechange, or just that American audiences don’t particularly want to look back right now.

Filmmakers seem to be eager to harken back to a time before movies were soiled by… well, whatever the hell they’re supposed to be soiled by; pick your poison from 3D, CGI, rapid editing, digital photography etc. etc. However that doesn’t match up with what the cinema-going public wants to see. The Transformers franchise is treated as the cancer that will devour Hollywood, but if that’s what people want, for better or worse, that’s just the way it is, and hating audiences for that gets us nowhere. We can merely hope that obscenely expensive “blockbusters” are made with a modicum of intelligence and passion; “big dumb summer movies” aren’t contractually obligated to have the word “dumb” in there.

These films can be done right. They can be big and human and crazy and grounded all at the same time. Cinema will always be a mixture of the intimate and “independent”, and the monolithic and numbing and corporate. If we’re going to go big, and make something on a scale that justifies attendance of public screenings on vast screens instead of waiting for Netflix to stream it in a year’s time, then we need the Epic to continue as a genre, and we need to pray to the Gods of cinema (John Ford, Howard Hawks, Buster Keaton and Ingmar Bergman) for the vegetables of intelligence to go with the steak of populism. And by God, John Carter is that fully balanced meal.

For those who have yet to hear the premise of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books (and certainly the woeful promotional campaign gives little sense of what it’s about), John Carter is a war-wearied and heartbroken Civil War veteran trying to make a living prospecting for gold in the unruly West, attempting to escape his past and the fighting that brought him nothing but misery. Through various mechanisms (underexplored in the books but here forming a central plank of the narrative), he finds himself on Mars, or Barsoom as it is known to its natives, where he is feted as a warrior with incredible powers caused by his superior earth-borne strength. He encounters incredible creatures, warring tribes, sinister supernatural forces, and the love of his life, Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium. As his story progresses he unites Mars, beats back the forces attempting to profit from the destruction of Mars, and gets the “girl”.

Whereas the ad campaign seems to have created the impression that the movie is some kind of baffling feature-length montage about a weedy Victorian gentleman pretending to be Conan the Barbarian or something, with a tidal wave of CGI that makes the dunder-headed and empty likes of Stephen Sommers’ filmography look like a Dogme festival. It’s really quite simple to promote, even if you’re not giving the full picture of this surprisingly complex but tightly plotted success. Just say this: “You know Star Wars and Flash Gordon and all those movies you loved when you were a kid? The daddy of those movies is back now, and he’s pissed at his kids for making him seem like an out-of-touch fossil.”

It might not be as camp as the beloved Mike Hodges / Lorenzo Semple Jr. Flash Gordon, or as concerned with trade disagreements and Macchiavellian politics as the Star Wars prequels, but John Carter is better made, smarter, funnier, and convincing than any of those movies. The most important factor in the considerable success of this lovable adventure is the enthusiasm and imagination of director Andrew Stanton and his collaborators Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon (yes, that Michael Chabon). They obviously adore Burroughs’ flight of fantasy, which reads like the out-of-control imagination-blurts of the smartest teenager ever to sit in front of a notebook with a fountainpen.

SoC has only read A Princess of Mars, but the mad gallop of invention was enough for about ten books. Here’s the impression given on first reading: Carter arrives on Barsoom (the native name for Mars) and meets and befriends the Tharks, fights against the Warhoon, woos Dejah Thoris, fights against white apes, resolves the familial troubles of his Thark friends Tars Tarkas and Sola, teaches their race how to love, fights the Zodangans, brokers a truce between the Tharks and the red Martians of Helium, discovers the atmosphere processor that keeps everyone on Mars alive (and learns telepathy in the process), and in the process criss-crosses Mars about 16 times. It’s a lot of fun, but coherent on a narrative level it’s not.

Stanton, Andrews and Chabon are obviously in love with this world, to the point that they manage to cram in not only the majority of this plot but also half of the second book, The Gods of Mars, which features the Barsoomian “afterlife”, the god Issus, and the creepy technologically superior Therns, who manipulate events in the universe for their own benefit. That’s a lot of event to add to a movie, but by stripping out unnecessary repetition (there’s a lot in the books) and simplifying the anthropological nature of Burroughs’ descriptions of Barsoomian culture (alluded to in the movie but dropped in favour of action and adventure), we get a pleasingly complicated movie with multiple dramatic set-ups, all with satisfying payoffs.

Part of the reason this multi-layered plot works, despite containing more exposition than a movie can usually handle, is because of the familiarity of many of the elements here; after all, they’ve influenced so many other tales over the last century, and were in turn influenced by stories told before that. The story of a mere soldier fighting for the love of a princess in a world riven by warfare and distrust is instantly recognisable, and the look of the movie harkens back to the artwork of old pulp fiction while also gleaming with modern production values.

Which is not to say the movie seems derivative. Quite the opposite, in fact. Stanton has run with the ideas presented in the novels, so on top of this familiar template he adds layers of invention and madness to make this feel utterly new. The unsettling bio-mechanical growth of the Thern’s technology, the walking city of Zodanga, the hyper-kinetic leaping of our hero as he flits around the screen with the ease of a God made flesh; the array of visual treats here is dizzying and thrilling. Stanton fills the frame with marvels, but never once does it overwhelm. It’s a world made real, as complete and convincing as James Cameron’s Pandora, but more lively, more informal. While Cameron was on a mission to prove that his new technology worked, and created a world to prove it, Stanton is running around in that playpen. His sense of joy is infectious.

So there is lightness here, and great humour, mostly from Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkas, and adorable sidekick Woola, though most of the main characters get a fair shake. James Purefoy’s Kantos Kan is obviously set up here as a more significant character in any sequel, as he’s given way more devilish charm than a forgettable side character should ever get. Nevertheless, there’s a dramatic heft too, and Stanton makes sure to give Carter an emotional obstacle to surmount that is far more elegant than the overly complicated relationship-delaying Martian manners subplot that keeps Carter and Thoris from consummating their love in the book.

Carter’s horrific past has tainted his soul and made him shy away from interaction with those around him, even as his naturally heroic nature keeps getting him into scrapes. We see him face his demons in the middle of the movie in a setpiece as brilliantly staged and visualised as I’ve ever seen. Some of the imagery therein, as Carter battles for the life of his beloved against the massed army of the Warhoon, took my breath away — the second time in the movie, after a bravura sequence involving Carter’s first meeting with Dejah left me agog and almost delirious with joy. In its best moments this is pure cinema, but then did anyone expect anything less from someone who could make something as elementally effective as the first half of Wall-E?

Stanton and his team of writers have also addressed the questionable politics of Burroughs’ outlook. Though it might seem churlish to complain about how Burroughs imagined his world considering it was written in such a different time, there is an unpleasant frisson when reading of how Carter brings civility and compassion to the primitive Tharks, rescuing his humanoid damsel in distress time and again as she faces enslavement or torture or even — in the most WTF-heavy passage — alien rape. Burroughs could have called it Noble Savages of Mars, to be honest, with Tars Tarkas progressing from Man Friday to Oroonoko thanks to the guidance of his white human friend. As I say, this isn’t really a dealbreaker, but it’s hard going for a handbag-clutching liberal such as myself.

John Carter the movie sees the Tharks treated a little better. The aggression of the Tharks is seemingly a clan-based matter, not a racial one, as these sympathetic creatures are compared to the utterly terrifying Warhoon, and are more accepting of Carter from the get-go. They are also convinced to join Carter’s fight against the Zodangans through reason, instead of it being a matter of our hero exploiting primitive Thark conventions to get them to kick off. It’s also telling that Stanton hints that the Tharks are in a more primitive state than the cultured and advanced humanoid Red Martians because of the interference of the evil Therns, an even more advanced race of European-esque pale villains that would make right-wing bloggers whine about their portrayal in the lib’rul meejah. They are The Man in ghostly white form, preventing the people of Barsoom from finding their feet.

This point is made lightly, however. The politics of Mars are not so heavily dictated by our own, thankfully, as turning this movie into an allegory for our own differences would ruin the tone of high adventure. The hints are there if you want to look for them but they’re embedded in the fabric of the movie in a way that certainly wasn’t the case for his sledgehammer-subtle Wall-E. I managed not to chortle during the Q&A that followed the BFI premiere when the utterly charming Stanton said that he didn’t like to make such points too obvious, considering the brazen agenda of his lovely Pixar sci-fi epic. I’m not saying I have a problem with it (again: I’m liberal), but that was not a subtle movie. In comparison, the comments in John Carter about how the advance of the walking city Zodanga is despoiling the Martian landscape are like feathers in the wind.

The portrayal of Dejah Thoris and the women of Barsoom is more subtle still, though pointed enough to warrant comment. The guards and aircraft pilots are female, which is treated matter-of-factly; Mars has much to teach us humans. The Dejah Thoris of Burrough’s books is strong enough to be a precursor of certain beloved women of fantasy and sci-fi, but is never really an agent in her future, tending to fall into trouble to be protected by John Carter. The Dejah Thoris so memorably personified by Lynn Collins, on the other hand, is a pioneering scientist and brave warrior who benefits from the help of John Carter but could probably survive without him. She saves his life at times, and their love comes from mutual respect, not servitude.

In fact, their meeting is caused not by happenstance, as are the majority of events in Burroughs’ books, but by her hasty departure from Helium after her father offers her up as a wife to evil Zadongan ruler (and Thern puppet) Sab Than; agency at last. Marriage to the odious oppressor would curtail her scientific research into the ninth-ray technology that would allow her race to save the planet from ecological meltdown, and so she flees for the sake of everyone — a rare instance of flight in a fictional work being borne of conviction, not cowardice.

Her imminent capture is foiled by John Carter but she ends up protecting him as much as he looks after her, and for much of the movie her dire fate at the hands of Sab Than and Thern leader Matai Shang is only a problem for her as she wrestles with the possibility that the easy route — marriage and an end to hostilities — is preferable to resistance, war, and the slim chance that she might be able to save Barsoom through her research. How rare to see a film give the female lead that much respect and responsibility.

And this is why I’m writing this, and tweeting about it every few minutes, and directly imploring the sci-fi and fantasy fans I know to see this movie on its opening weekend. The response I got after last night’s flurry of excited tweets was a mixture of disdain and concern that maybe I fell on my head and was imagining that Willem Dafoe was sitting three rows behind me (he totally was, you guys!). No one could believe it, which surprised me as I thought there had been a change in the tide, with critics coming out via Twitter to say they had a great time. But no. Apparently the consensus on John Carter that it’s a huge failure, an inevitable bomb, a warning to all studios to abandon waste and ambition and hubris, so that we never see another movie like John Carter again.

To which I say FUCK THAT. We need John Carter more now than ever. Yes, it’s too expensive. Yes, it seems a bit anachronistic. Yes, it’s naive to think that an audience would embrace something like this when there’s going to be another G.I. Joe movie this summer and that’s what the kids want nowadays. But goddamn it, I’ve seen enough good movies falter because of early negative reports or the gleeful malicious gossip of those who revel in the failure of expensive movies, not to mention the mindset displayed last night when numerous concern-troll questions were asked of Stanton, basically egging him on to decry the overuse of CGI and the pressure placed on him to post-convert the movie into 3D. He was a gentleman about it, of course.

Guys, the money is spent now, and the failure of John Carter will not put off studios from making big movies. They’ll just make them quicker and more generic, they’ll take less time to get it right, and they’ll ignore the input of smart filmmakers like Stanton in favour of committee thinking that removes any spark of imagination or joy. Damning John Carter before seeing it, or stating that it’s an inevitable failure prior to release, does nothing to improve cinema. It deters audiences from discovering it when right now it needs all the cheerleaders it can get to mitigate the dire promotional campaign.

This is a movie that has the chance to fire the imagination of millions of future moviegoers and filmmakers, to become the culture-enhancing hit of the year. We could all benefit from its success, and to deny it a chance is tantamount to spiteful vandalism. Sure, if you don’t like it that’s fair enough, criticise away. But if you’re just firing arrows at it because you enjoy shooting at things, then the only thing you’ll hit is your own foot. So I implore everyone who reads this; if you like high adventure, and are interested in seeing something light and fun and vibrant and imaginative, something with spectacular vistas and sumptuous design, a sense of romance and vision, something with remarkable characters played with total conviction by great actors, fantastic creatures and dazzling concepts and an epic sweep, you need to see John Carter. Please give it a chance.

Listmania ’11! Miscellaneous Movie Observations: Part Three

Oh blogging. You are the occasional pastime that makes me absurdly unhappy, for the most part. That’s because I don’t do it as often as I would like, and so when I do I over do it and write posts large enough to choke Cthulhu. And this last post in Listmania metastasised as soon as I started complaining about something; griping posts tend to run out of control. Friend of the blog @Beggarsoshat said to me after my Listmania! Crew Contributions post that he looked forward to me listing my favourite dolly grip of 2011, and after I had stopped crying because of how much he had cut me to the core, I wondered if there was maybe something in that. Why not keep spinning this out? I’m scratching my blogging itch even though all I’m doing is lazily transcribing the thoughts I’ve had lying around in my “mind palace” for months anyway.

But how could I? How could I keep talking about last year’s movies when I’d only seen 120 of them? Simple; why not talk about movies released in 2010? People love reading reviews of movies released 14 months ago. I traditionally do this during Listmania! season as an aside in the last post, but as this post had already gone all top heavy, why not post this section on its own without all of the other photo-heavy stuff I had planned on posting (and which will turn up in Listmania ’11: Miscellaneous Movie Observations: Part Four, and probably Five, Six and Seven too)? And so here we are, with a couple of thousand words on three movies that I’m sure only a handful of people have already talked about. After all, the first movie here was a pretty obscure little number.

Best Film(s) From 2010 That We Saw In 2011: True Grit / Tangled

Both of these movies were released in the UK just after SoC finished its last Listmania (which was done a lot quicker and with less baloney than this one, I can tell you), but would have radically changed the state of my Best Movies of ’10 completely. Both would have breached the top ten, with True Grit possibly making it into the hallowed and legendary top five of that year. The Coens were coming off the back of one of their least accessible — but most highly regarded — films with A Serious Man, and True Grit represents one of their “crowdpleasers”, if that’s the right word, as they did with No Country For Old Men and Burn After Reading. This is a slightly different beast, too dramatic to qualify as one of their comedies, but too funny to be a tragedy. It’s the most successful blending of their two different “flavours” to date.

The pleasures of this magnificent Western are numerous, but the best thing about it is the precise dialogue, which evokes the Wild West in a way only David Milch has ever come close to achieving. This poetry — so often evident in their writing but at its most striking here — is matched by the photography by Roger “King” Deakins, who does career best work with shadows and darkness; the night-time ride to save Mattie is one of the most haunting scenes in recent cinema, a dream painted almost solely with black. Hailee Steinfeld shines in her first role, perfectly riding the line between charmingly forward and obnoxiously precocious. I can picture her playing The Hunger Games‘ Katniss Everdeen far more readily than Jennifer Lawrence — an actress I admire but who is too old for the character, as are co-stars Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson.

She’s matched by Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, who both have their own balancing acts to do, between humour and drama. While Bridges has the flashier character to work with, Damon has a harder job, playing a dandified and ridiculous ranger LaBeouf who wins over Mattie and the audience despite being an awful blow-hard. Obviously, he succeeds; with each performance SoC realises how lucky we all are to have such a thoughtful, charming actor working today. This is not to take away from Bridges, though, who is as good here as he is in The Big Lebowski. This was already a late-career classic from the Coens, but his vastly entertaining turn pushes True Grit up there with Lebowski, Miller’s Crossing, and A Serious Man.

But I’ve had trouble figuring out whether I love it more than Disney’s Tangled, which so completely fried my brain at IMAX that I became a fervent and boring proselytist for it for months after. If you’re a 3D sceptic, this is the movie to change your mind. Seeing this in 3D, on that vast screen, was a memorable, tear-inducing experience I shall cherish forever. The whole film is great fun and filled with lovable characters (none more so than defiant horse Maximus), but the most memorable scene is also the single greatest use of 3D I’ve ever seen. Being in that room, dwarfed by the vast IMAX screen, was the most immersive cinema experience I’ve ever had. The illusion of being surrounded by floating lanterns was utterly convincing; when I wasn’t distracted by wiping tears from my eyes, that is.

The songs by Alan Menken feature lyrics from his sometime collaborator Glenn Slater; a happier fit than Stephen Schwartz, at least on this small sampling. They’re rich and funny and charming, reminiscent of his best work with the late, much-missed Howard Ashman. They’re the cherry on top of a superbly well-designed movie, that matches its symbolism (the light motif is present throughout) with its story so deftly that I wanted to applaud throughout. I’ll even go so far as to say… ::deep breath:: …I think I like it more than Beauty and the Beast, and I really loved Beauty and the Beast. It’s a triumph for Disney; a thrilling modernisation of their animation technique that pays humble tribute to the studio’s history, and possibly a portent of great things to come. SoC can’t wait to see what comes next.

Worst Film From 2010 That We Saw In 2011: Morning Glory

Until last year it looked like the movie output of Bad Robot Productions was going to be less diverse than their TV division, which has tried (and failed) to tap non-nerd audiences with Six Degrees and What about Brian? It’s worth praising them for adding Morning Glory to a roster that so far contains only sci-fi and spy movies (not counting Joy Ride), but the addition of something this unchallenging makes you wonder if Bad Robot’s other movies are as cynically produced as this. Even with a terrific cast (including Harrison Ford, in his liveliest performance since The Fugitive) and an interesting director, it has an enormous handicap: a rote script by dreaded screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna.

If Michael Bay is a cinematic villain for aiming all of his movies at the same Mountain-Dew-drinking, FHM-absorbing, Call-Of-Duty-playing fratboy demographic, then can we add Brosh McKenna to Hollywood’s rogues gallery for making numerous movies from the same template in which a doofy woman — with work skills so brilliant and yet so poorly depicted that she almost appears to have mystical powers — has trouble finding a man due to a habit of occasionally bursting with an emotion-geyser like all the normal people don’t. So far ABM has churned out 27 Dresses, The Devil Wears Prada, I Don’t Know How She Does It, and now Morning Glory; it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between them as they come tumbling down the conveyor belt like malformed Barbie dolls.

Among its crimes: trying to make us believe that Rachel McAdams’ awkwardness is representative of some large cross-section of the female audience, and that bagging Patrick “Saintly and Uncomplicated Love Interest” Wilson is some kind of victory for these mythical klutzy women; making Diane Keaton rap with 50 Cent in a display of cinematic desperation unmatched by anything else released in the past four years; punishing McAdams by making her run in high heels in almost every scene, which just makes her look like a lunatic with superhumanly strong ankles; inadvertently making Anchorman — a Dada-esque comedy — the superior comment on the treatment of women in the TV industry; setting up Harrison Ford as a villain with the AWFUL crime of criticising McAdams’ fringe/bangs; making me pine for another Bridget Jones sequel just to stop Brosh McKenna from going back to that dried-up well.

Worst of all, it attempts to make a case for breakfast news as something worthwhile, something as necessary as serious investigative journalism. Ford’s Mark Pomeroy is portrayed as a conceited horse’s ass who has a snooty attitude to the fripperies of breakfast TV, objecting to the clowning of Daybreak’s jokiest segments. We’re meant to be excited when he abandons his serious self in order to make a frittata in an effort to magically summon McAdams from her job interview with NBC (because all job interviews are done in the morning while you’re supposed to be at work).

This character moment, which shows what he is willing to sacrifice in order to placate his producer McAdams, softens him — a nice twist on the romcom trope where a romantic interest humbles himself in order to win the girl. And yet no matter what side-effects this final act has, we can’t escape the fact that this is a betrayal of a good point personified by the grizzled old news hound pining for his old career. All the way through the movie he’s right about the importance of investigative journalism, and McAdams is so averse to his philosophy that he has to lie to her to get her to cover the scandal story he’s been trying to tell her about for weeks, and only seems to recognise its value for the sake of plot convenience. And to stop her looking like a complete idiot.

This is similar to the scene in Devil Wears Prada in which Meryl Streep defends fashion from criticisms that it isn’t important. It’s a very well-acted speech by a great actress, but her claims that high fashion is what eventually trickles down to the lowest forms of clothing — that the Cerulean blue she celebrates in haute couture one month becomes the blue that everyone wears later — isn’t really the answer to the question “why should we care about fashion”, because if we weren’t wearing that shade of blue we’d just wear another. What she’s arguing for is the influence of fashion journalism, which is fine, but it’s a bit disingenuous to assume that without Vogue we wouldn’t know how to dress ourselves. Though I will say InStyle is a fine publication (one for @Ms_RH there).

So here we’re meant to swallow the line that breakfast TV is an essential component of the news cycle, that it acts as the “sugar” that sweetens the “fibre” that constitutes news. As if the world isn’t awash with sugar, while fibre is rarely present in our news diet. Anyone who watches, say, BBC Breakfast (which SoC has railed against before), will note that what little serious news is shown inbetween puff pieces and appearances by the magnificently oleaginous Chris DeBurgh is poorly researched, biased, and revealing of the presenters’ poor preparation. Any time the show covers matters of popular culture more racy than Midsomer Murders, or youth issues, will know that this is less fibre, more asbestos.

So to see a movie attempt to make excuses for something inconsequential, when in actual fact it’s salty and challenging investigative journalism that needs to be celebrated, is like hearing the self-defensive and unconvincing justifications of someone caught watching something frowned upon by others — say for example, a cliche-ridden Aline Brosh McKenna movie that sets back gender politics about 20 years. If you want to watch a breakfast show that spends more time covering Al Roker being a clown than it does serious issues, that’s your prerogative. If you want to argue that this is important, do it by making your case, not by belittling serious journalism. And Bad Robot? Stick to what you know best (i.e. lens flares).

Will this ever end? Can I keep this going forever? If not, I’m taking a break from it as soon as Listmania! is finally brought to heel, which will either be by mass reader apathy or a typing coma.

Listmania ’11! Miscellaneous Movie Observations: Part Two

No preamble, nothing worth saying when there’s already almost 5000 words here, but I should stress that I felt bad writing this post due to all the negativity involved. Bear in mind two of the movies I criticise here are films I like and have seen more than once. I just wish they were perfect. Thanks to the folks on Twitter who threw ideas at me while I was writing this; I’ve tried to credit you all, but if I’ve missed anyone off I apologise.

Most Pleasant Surprise of the Year: Real Steel

Though SoC tried to keep an open mind, sometimes it’s so so hard. A boxing movie about robots starring an actor whose recent choices had seemed so wobbly and which was directed by the dictionary definition of the journeyman and featuring a performance by Lost‘s least popular actress some time after she had promised us she was done with all that acting malarkey because she had had such a terrible experience living in Hawaii for six years oh dear. I’ll watch any old SF crap but even this didn’t appeal. It looked like a classic Disney merchandise trawl (well, Dreamworks, but Touchstone distributed it, so you know what I mean), and after enduring the cynical cash-in of Cars 2, I didn’t feel like going through that again.

But reviews were good, Levy had won a spot in our hearts for making the much-rewatched-and-enjoyed Date Night, and friends of the blog seemed to enjoy it, so we put it back on our watchlist, even though the sight of Hugh Jackman teaching a sparring robot how to box in the trailers never failed to reduce Daisyhellcakes to a mess of derisory laughter. Turns out those friends were right, as we were rewarded with an emotionally honest surprise, a family movie unafraid to paint its characters as douchebags who earn their redemption. What had seemed from the trailers to be the kind of toothless thing Disney would once release back when Kurt Russell was a fresh-faced kid was surprisingly hard-nosed.

That’s not to say it’s some gritty drama; it’s about a guy who tries to make a living by pitting his robots against other robots in boxing matches, so we’re already in a weird and unbelievable future world. Nevertheless, protagonist Charlie Kenton is surprisingly unpleasant. He doesn’t give a damn about his son and only agrees to take him on because his step-uncle is going on holiday and doesn’t want him around. He’s also an idiot who takes forever to actually earn any cash, and even then it’s only because his son has a better understanding of the robot boxing world. I doubt Shawn Levy would have pushed Charlie’s sourness so far if he hadn’t got Jackman on board. It’s amazing what he gets away with in the film while still maintaining audience goodwill.

There are some problems with Real Steel, and not just because it’s so implausible and riddled with plot holes (this podcast makes that case very well). It’s certainly too long, lasting over two hours. Large chunks of plot come from two movies by Sylvester Stallone — Rocky and arm-wrestling nonsense Over The Top — with barely any alteration visible. Also Evangeline Lilly’s in it. I mean, how can it be expected to survive all of these problems? And yet it does, because it does two things well; it takes itself seriously, and it treats the fights lightly. As a result, it becomes a genuine crowdpleaser with real emotional charge.

By this I mean it doesn’t make light of the stakes involved. Charlie is on the verge of real trouble throughout, and Jackman’s performance is dark enough that we get a sense that he really will become a broken and lonely old man if something drastic doesn’t happen to change it. The way his fate, the relationship with his son, and the slow climb out of the pit of his self-loathing, is beautifully intertwined with the world of robot boxing in a way that would utterly fail if Charlie’s plight — and what looks like depression — isn’t addressed. Levy does a fine job of bringing Charlie and son Max together in such an organic way that it was only when Real Steel hits the end-of-second-act crisis that I realised how close they had become, how likeable the pairing is, and how much I wanted them to prevail.

It also helps that Levy and writer John Gatins don’t anthropomorphise the robots too much. Though Max bonds with their sparring-bot Atom there is no hint that he has sentience. He really is just an avatar for Charlie, and a symbol of Max and Charlie’s relationship — he’s rescued from a pit by Max and is fixed by Charlie before being taught how to fight, like a father would teach a son. It’s not a subtle metaphor but it’s a powerful one. I won’t lie; there comes a point during the final fight when the link between Charlie and Atom becomes more personal, and Max watches his father overcome his self-doubt, that made me blub the happiest tears I had blubbed in quite a while.

And yet the film doesn’t unbalance itself by making Atom a character with agency, which would turn this into Short Circuit 3. The fights are fun but they’re not treated as if the stakes are about the robots. We’re not meant to fret about what happens to Atom — early in the film we’re disabused of the notion that the robots are anything to sympathise with as Charlie loses two bots in quick and humiliating succession. We’re meant to be concerned about the people involved, and as a result what had looked like a silly robot movie in the publicity becomes one of the best popular movies about familial bonds to be released in a long time.

Other smart choices, such as the decision not to make Hope Davis and James Rebhorn’s aunt and uncle characters into out-and-out villains enhance this air of seriousness. There is more dramatic weight here than expected, at least considering how it was marketed as something inconsequential and cynical for kids who just like robots. Ditch your preconceptions about Real Steel before you watch it — and I do urge you to watch it. If you’re anything like me you’ll find yourself craning forward in your seat during the superbly orchestrated finale, and realise you just lost yourself in a robot boxing movie for a moment and you really just don’t care.

Most Frustrating Movie of the Year: Captain America: The First Avenger

As I said in my review of Thor, Marvel are on a hell of a roll right now. If Avengers is even half as good as everyone hopes, it might be too much for this old nerd to handle. At the beginning of last summer Thor appeared to be the wildcard in Marvel’s deck, with Captain America guaranteed big US box office; at least to pundits who foolishly thought the movie would be gung-ho patriotic nonsense. But Marvel are smarter than that, and its international box office doesn’t reflect the care they put into making it universally appealing. Thor won out, and in the process overshadowed Cap. Maybe other countries were sick of superheroes by that point in the summer season, in which case we can happily add one more thing to the list of Green Lantern‘s crimes.

However, just on the level of its quality as a film, Cap was problematic. Not because it was bad, but because it was almost Marvel’s finest hour. I was horribly conflicted over it, even more so than when watching X-Men: First Class, which squandered its best opportunities before it even got to the screen; a consequence of diluting the potentially amazing Magneto: Nazi Hunter thread with way too much plot. Cap made it to the screen with some brilliance intact but dropped the ball halfway through. Not so much as to ruin the experience completely, but enough to leave me deflated as I walked out of the cinema.

The first half of the movie was fine. Better than fine. Miraculous, even. Until Cap breaks Bucky and the rest of his platoon out of the Red Skull’s factory, I’d argue that Captain America: The First Avenger represents the best thing Marvel has done. Regular readers may recall my common vexation with superhero movies that don’t feature super heroes, merely superpowered people who get into fights with each other. Villainous threats to the public are either ill-defined or non-existent, and often supervillains are only interested in punishing the friends and families of our protagonists; fine on a basic dramatic level, but kinda missing the point of why people like superheroes in the first place.

Captain America, at least in its magnificent first half, might be the primary example of a superhero movie that’s actually about someone who wants to do good. Steve Rogers wants to be a hero more than anything else, and goes through hell to fulfil his dreams. I won’t lie; the sight of Steve Rogers leaping on a grenade and yelling at everyone to run away, or begging Howard Stark’s scientists to finish their experiment on him despite his agony, made me sob happy tears out of my face. There’s very little that stirs me more than pure heroism in movies; in recent times only Kick Ass has revolved around someone who wants to do the right thing no matter the cost.

It gets me right there, and Cap’s sincerity and heroism was exactly what I’ve been waiting for in a superhero movie. It’s also one of the reasons why criticism of Chris Evans’ pitch-perfect work as the titular hero has upset me so much. Critics have complained that he’s boring or muted, apparently not realising that Evans’  portrayal of the quietly heroic Rogers is absolutely spot-on. Longtime fans of the character picked that up immediately, and have quietly noted the silliness of the criticisms; yet more proof, if proof be needed, that mainstream critics are just not qualified to judge this corner of culture.

Evans personifies the stoic righteousness of Captain America, whose sense of duty is as overdeveloped as his muscles, and who takes no pleasure in being a super-soldier. Even though SoC has long been a fan of Evans we fretted that he had too flighty a personality to play someone who is meant to be an inspiration to everyone around him, as Cap is in the comic, and as the country he represents is meant to be to all of the nations in the world. We shouldn’t have doubted. Evans excels as the beacon of hope, virtue and courage. It’s thrilling, terribly underrated work.

That’s not the only success of the first half of the movie. We’re also treated to yet another showstealing turn from Stanley Tucci as Abraham Erskine, whose recognition of Steve’s inherent decency and courage led to even more tears. Tommy Lee Jones and Hayley “Rather Pretty” Atwell were perfectly cast too; great picks by Joe Johnston, who was a perfect choice as director considering his time on fantastical WWII movies Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Rocketeer. The now-traditional Marvel stamp of quality meant every element was an integral part of a greater whole, and an example of gratifying attention to detail, not to mention nods to the comics, like the first shot of Arnim Zola, or the references to Cap’s fight against Hitler. It’s popular moviemaking done right; 100% effort from very smart people.

And then the wheels came off. As soon as Cap is united with Bucky and the Howling Commandos, it all starts to feel a bit hollow. Part of that is the underwhelming villainy of the Red Skull, who spends the first half of the movie growling in labs and the second half getting angry in front of a green screen. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely do their best to create a link between Cap and Red Skull by pushing the idea that the Super-Serum enhances a person’s inner self, turning Steve Rogers into the angelic antithesis of Johann Schmidt’s demon. Nevertheless, coming after Thor‘s resonant hero/villain dynamic between Thor and Loki, Cap suffers in comparison.

It doesn’t help that the final act of the movie has little impact and makes so little sense. The threat that the Red Skull poses to the US is barely described, but apparently at the end he’s flying over to the US with some things that do some stuff that won’t be nice. That’s not enough. We needed a demonstration of some kind of Doomsday device, even though we know he has harnessed the power of the Cosmic Cube and even though demonstrations of Doomsday devices in movies are overdone. Even just a quick shot of Red Skull destroying a city would’ve been enough to enhance the tension at the end. Instead we’re not sure what Cap is sacrificing himself for. As for the logistics of that sacrifice, I’ll let this superb video speak for me:

That’s bad enough, but as the movie zips through the war in a lengthy montage, we only get a sense of what Cap meant to the world; a problem as we head toward The Avengers. Apparently that will mostly focus around Cap, so there’s a chance his legacy will make more sense, but as of this moment, we don’t get enough Cap vs Nazis, and certainly not enough of the Howling Commandos. That’s the price we pay for that superb first hour. Minimal Peggy Carter, minimal Dum Dum Dugan and co. If we knew they’d be back in a sequel it wouldn’t feel like we just got shortchanged but how can they return? To have spent so little time with these great characters is like a kind of punishment.

It’s not all bad. That first hour is amazing, and the second hour has numerous pleasures too: quick but heartening glimpses of proactive badass Peggy Carter, Bucky’s “death” (surely a Winter Soldier set-up), a couple of nifty action scenes. Even more pleasing is how this movie acts as the connective tissue for the Marvel universe so far, with Yggdrasil, the Stark Expo and the Super Serum bringing the other movies together; a revisit to Louis Leterrier’s Hulk was far more pleasurable after having seen Captain America.

But it could have been Marvel’s Superman – The Movie. Part of me hopes for a 6-hour directors cut with loads of extra action scenes, and maybe a cameo from Namor, and a scene where the Red Skull’s version of the Afrika Corps is repelled by an African nation with access to incredible technology. But that’s not to be, and until Avengers or Cap 2 comes along to show me what comes next, I’m going to feel a bit deflated when I think of this, and what could — and should — have been.

“Greatest Gulf Between Critical Opinion and the Feelings of SoC” Movies of the Year: Tyrannosaur / Snowtown

After swimming through the grimy water of Innaritu’s Biutiful SoC took the opportunity to have a good old moan about miserabilist movies, that sub-section of cinema that mistakes the skin of the kitchen-sink genre for the meat. The consequence of this error of judgement, other than to present us with an unpleasant flagellatory experience, is to delude the makers into thinking that they are providing some kind of education. This glimpse into horror, they seem to say, will make you a better person. You’ll understand humanity more for seeing how the other half lives. And I shall bask in this glow as a brave chronicler of the lowest circles of our man-made hell.

SoC thinks that this is absolute horseshit. Life can be cruel, no doubt. There are people out there suffering terribly, in lives of quiet desperation, but making movies about this kind of experience is a problematic exercise that can’t honestly capture what a bad life is like. It’s a noble intention, but inescapably patronising, even if the story told is directly analogous to something genuinely experienced. Too often it’s a contrived distillation of the worst of life presented as a real document of what it is to exist in the modern world, and as such is fundamentally dishonest.

Of course all narrative is a mixture of translated truth and opportunistic lies, but this is a different kind of falsehood, one that insults the people who do suffer terribly through lives of squalor and unhappiness. They also represent a negation of the human spirit. Though many of these stories feature some kind of redemption (as Tyrannosaur does to a certain extent, and Precious before it), there’s often a sense that until that moment there is absolutely nothing that makes life worth living. The woes that are heaped on such characters can often reach comical levels of misfortune; the number of vile events that stack up by the end of Tyrannosaur are almost unintentionally funny, if you haven’t bought into it by that point.

I say almost; any possibility of laughing had been smacked out of me by the time writer-director Paddy Considine was done slathering his movie in depressing circumstance, but the crucial thing is that I didn’t buy into his film for even a second. Though I have no idea what this film meant to him, or whether it represents something of his life, it’s curious that he chose to make this as his first project, in much the same way that Gary Oldman and Tim Roth chose to make Nil By Mouth and The War Zone respectively. That’s an odd trilogy of gritty grey misery right there.

Is this penance for living a reasonably lucky life, or guilt over escaping lives of desperation (I know that Oldman wanted to dramatise the effects that alcoholism had on families, after experiencing something similar in his own life)? I’m not about to judge their motives, or the reasoning behind Justin Kurzel and Shaun Grant’s decision to make Snowtown – the dramatisation of Australia’s most notorious serial killing spree – but I will happily say that these movies are oppressively unpleasant for reasons that don’t justify this approach.

I don’t trust Tyrannosaur as a depiction of real life, and I don’t think anything can be learned by picking at the sordid details of John Bunting’s crimes in Snowtown other than to say people who are disenfranchised may say or do unspeakable things. That’s a message that can arguably be justified in terms of fiction – I’d defend Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or Man Bites Dog, especially as their larger point was to question the complicity of the audience in the violence shown or not shown onscreen – but when it’s something real, a line is crossed.

So can stories about the struggles of the unfortunate, unemployed, unloved working classes be handled at all, if I were to have my way? I’ve got more time for tales of sadness that either tell a story other than “look at how totally shit I’ve imagined life can be”: Andrea Arnold’s three wonderful full-length films trade in some of the tropes of miserabilist cinema but she’s also telling stories about vivid, interesting, mysterious characters, who experience more than just a hundred gallons of bad-luck-bukkake. There is also the matter of her superior artistry, but that’s a viewpoint I don’t really have the vocabulary to explain, and I’m sure someone will have a coherent and convincing argument for Kursel’s washed-out visuals and Considine’s choice of an oxtail-soup palette.

The bitter pill of modern realism can also be sweetened with genre touches: Attack the Block‘s message about the effect of disenfranchisement on modern youth was rendered more powerful by being handled as the metaphorical subtext of a sci-fi horror movie, and the replicants of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner are more memorable for being tragic slaves treated with an exaggerated disdain that the working classes suffer now (“Skinjob” as the next decade’s “Chav”?). John Carpenter’s They Live shone a light on the plight of the homeless in LA in a way that very other few movies have, and its allegorical treatment of the victimisation of the poor by our heartless corporate overlords has struck a chord that very few miserabilist movies ever could.

This diet of glum social commentary, served up like worthy gruel, is no good for you, I’m telling you. It’s sad that these two movies hit me in this way, almost one after the other. Except for good work from Daniel Henshall as the charismatic leader of the murderous gang in Snowtown, and the exceptional, award-worthy performance by Olivia Colman in Tyrannosaur, there was nothing else in either movie to keep me watching once the semi-parodic roll-call of social-realist images began to pour past my eyes like gloopy misery-treacle.

I’m not asking for every movie to be some kind of Chris Tookey-placating floofy feel-good marshmallow, but I’d ask that a work of art at least address that life is a tapestry of feelings, that it’s not all misery (and no, the one happy scene in Tyrannosaur doesn’t count as it’s set during a wake, a choice that made me wonder if Considine was actually taking the piss). As much as I regret that the lives of the poor and weak in the world are under-represented in the media, the thought of them being treated as little more than Dickensian victims to be stared at and pitied is even worse. Arnold gives her characters agency and stories to live within, and Kurzel and (for the most part) Considine don’t.

A lot of folks I know and respect liked one or both of these movies, and I don’t doubt they derived some genuine… well, not pleasure, but inner appreciation for these movies. Let my criticisms here not stand as criticisms of their viewpoint, or dismissal of their criteria for success in a story. But know this; if there was ever a kind of movie that would be SoC’s Kryptonite, these represent the most shocking examples, that sucked the heart out of me and left nothing in its place but a suspicion that I had been duped. I hope I never see even a frame from either of them again.

Movie That Would’ve Found A Place In My Top Ten If It Wasn’t For That Goddamn Third Act: The Adjustment Bureau

Nothing else released this year annoyed me as much as this, George Nolfi’s directorial debut and adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story. Nothing else bothered me and niggled at my brain as much as this during 2011. Total abject failures are one thing, and I added those to my worst movies list. Good movies that fall slightly short still have a chance of getting onto my best films list, as seen with the lower-numbered inclusions like Tintin and Kung Fu Panda 2. But this film, which mostly succeeded, just couldn’t find a home. And so it shall be placed here, for me to fawn over and rail against simultaneously.

Romance in sci-fi is often badly handled. Good examples that come to mind include Han and Leia in the Star Wars movies and Deckard and Rachel in Blade Runner. A quick Twitter survey came up with Neo and Trinity (thanks, @ericthehamster), Tom and Izzi in The Fountain and Wall-E / Eve (gracias @cockbongo), Kyle MacLachlan and his own fringe from Dune (cheers @nathanditum), Sean Connery’s red nappy and The Eternals from Zardoz (merci Masticateur), and Bud and Lindsey Brigman in The Abyss (Xie xie, @Cowfields).

Then I was reminded of Eddie and Emily Jessup from Altered States (how could I forget that? Sorry @catvincent), Chris/Kris Kelvin and Rheya/Hari in the two versions of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (spasiba, @FilmLandEmpire), Tom Cruise and himself (not sure if the lovely @KitCaless meant Tom in Minority Report or War of the Worlds), Logan and Jessica in Logan’s Run (nicely done, @douglasmillan), and Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor in The Terminator (well picked, @SparklyPaws). All fine choices, and gratefully received.

Mostly, though, if you look at the sheer number of movies made, the memorable choices are pretty limited. And not just in SF. Romcoms of recent years have made a hash of representing actual romantic feelings with any kind of verity. Just shoving a wild-eyed and panicky Katherine Heigl into a movie with some rictus-grinned B-lister does not a relationship make, and so whenever a film comes along that features any kind of chemistry between the leads, it’s worth beating a path to see it.

In recent years I can only think of Mila Kunis paired with Justin Timberlake in Friends With Benefits and Jason Segal in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Drew Barrymore paired with Justin Long in Going The Distance and Hugh Grant in Music and Lyrics, as truly convincing partnerships between people who seem to enjoy each other’s company. The stakes in these movies mean something because we want these guys to stay together. I’ve haven’t cared if J-Lo gets together with the male lead in a movie since Out of Sight, and I doubt I ever will again.

Which is why The Adjustment Bureau has stayed in my head all year. The relationship between David Norris (Matt Damon) and Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) is arguably the most convincing and endearing love match in a movie for years. Blunt’s natural energy and Damon’s easy charm combine to create a pairing that seems perfect. George Nolfi has to be congratulated for bringing these two together, and for letting Blunt go wild with her off-kilter charm. It’s been a miserable experience watching almost every director squander her charisma. Adjustment Bureau deserved a place on SoC’s best movies list just for giving us that burst of unfiltered Blunt. (For the record, I’ll happily admit that I’m a chronic Bluntman. So keep that in mind.)

By placing that easy, funny and flirtatious relationship at the heart of his SF paranoia tale, Nolfi is already streets ahead of most other filmmakers, as the stakes instantly become raised. After years of waiting for a really likeable pair to show up onscreen, the thought of them not getting together is genuinely troubling. We root for them as Nolfi cleverly casts his Dickian tale as a parable for all thwarted relationships. A lot of people watching will have had a “What if…” romance in their past, and by casting those past failures as a matter of cosmic significance, Nolfi flatters the audience and reinterprets our past dalliances as mistakes erased by God.

It’s such a versatile idea that it should have become a universally accepted trope, like the Deja Vu explanation in The Matrix. Nolfi even goes so far as to draw parallels between political spin and the micromanagement of the Bureau; a nice little touch. However, even though Nolfi creates two thirds of a brilliant, affecting movie from Dick’s original idea, there’s nowhere to go by the end, no way for our heroes to resolve the situation, which sees them kept apart through divine intervention. Nolfi tries to fix this problem by giving David and Elise a real corporeal threat in the form of Thompson (menacing Terence Stamp), but there’s no way for them to combat that without the help of Mitchell (Anthony Mackie, fantastic as ever), who gives David a chance to do something.

Unfortunately, that “something” would see their lives ruined; his intervention, though inspired by his frustration with the Adjustment system, doesn’t really have an endgame. David’s final gamble should have seen him lobotomised. No one can predict that it would turn out okay but it does, with a very literal deus ex machina. It’s such a monumental cheat that it undoes all of the good work previously done by Nolfi. It also doesn’t help that there is a long scene of Mitchell prepping David for his plan, but in the end David just ignores it; obviously this was to give him more agency in the final minutes, but it also wastes our time.

And what else does the ending give us? A lot of running. There’s no other way to finish the story so Nolfi just makes our heroes run around a lot, but he hasn’t figured out a way to visualise the supernatural threat, or where they are spatially. The door-jumping technology is cleverly used earlier in the movie; John Slattery’s frustration with the tangle of subspace jumps through downtown is a lovely light touch that helps the audience look past the reality-bending confusion of Nolfi’s conceit, but in the third act there’s no sense of menace or danger. It’s just running and running and running. Maybe if Nolfi added some kind of abstract visualisation of the labyrinth of doors and subspace jumps, it might have worked. Instead all of the tension created by that point evaporates.

As for that menace, it has to come at the expense of the good-natured air in the first half. Richardson, so well-played by as the perpetually annoyed John Slattery, is such a fun antagonist that it’s a huge loss when he gets sidelined. I understand that the threat needed to be amped up after David and Elise hook up for the third time, but to lose such a richly developed character is a crime. Once he’s sidelined and the chirpy, good-natured air of the first two-thirds is replaced by a necessary but unavoidably grumpy earnestness, my enthusiasm for the film began to wilt, and by the end, when a magic wand is waved and everything turns out okay, I was done.

Does this movie deserve to be pilloried the way it was by some mainstream critics? Absolutely not. Does it deserve to be complained about by a shlub like me with a very narrowly-defined sense of what constitutes a success? Of course! Don’t get me wrong, I certainly don’t think the movie counts as a failure at all. It’s a not-success, and that’s arguably worse. If it had stuck the landing this could have been a huge commercial and critical hit, and could live on beyond 2011 as an ingenious allegory for romantic strife. That it didn’t is a crying shame. Nevertheless, it remains essential viewing. Anyone considering making a romantic drama or comedy in the future should be forced to watch this first. It may fall short of greatness, but its representation of love between David and Elise should become the benchmark for movie romance. For that, I’m eternally grateful to all involved.

“Is it over?” begs the reader. But no, I’m still not done. :-(

Listmania ‘10! Miscellaneous Movie Observations: Part Two

One last post, and then I’m done for a bit, though I may return to film blogging when the Oscars happen. As usual, I had finished writing most of this series of year-end posts just before seeing the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, which would have easily found a place on many of the Best Of lists here: certainly it would be on the 25 Best films list, as would ace cinematographer Roger “King” Deakins and lead actor Jeff Bridges. I expect to be seeing The Fighter and The King’s Speech soon too. I have high hopes for one of them: anyone who knows me will know which one that is. As ever it difficult to do these posts in timely fashion, and I envy critics (especially US ones) who get to sample so many movies with plenty of time to compile lists. Sad, really. I’d love a job as a critic not because I love films so much, but because I want more time to make a bunch of pointless lists. I may need to reassess my life-goals here.

So anyway, this is a bunch of extremely miscellaneous gubbins. Have at it.

Best Movie From 2009 That We Saw In 2010: The Princess and the Frog

2009 was the best year for feature length animation that I can recall, thanks to the efforts of Pixar, Studio Ghibli, the Cloudy chaps, and Henry Selick. Just as Christmas rolled around lucky Americans got one last treat: a cel-animated Disney musical good enough to stand next to their 90’s run of classics. Ron Clements and John Musker got back the mojo they had started to slowly lose after Aladdin with a joyous and spry reworking of the Grimm Brothers fairy tale and subsequent novel by E.D. Baker, smartly adding iconography and mythology from African-American history. This decision seemed to rejuvenate the creative powers of all involved: it’s funny, moving, energetic, has a cast of utterly charming characters — plus Keith “Superawesome” David’s Dr. Facilier, the best Disney villain since Little Mermaid‘s Ursula — and features songs and music from Randy Newman that eclipse anything else he’s done in years. A triumph, in short, and one that already needs to be reappraised after it came and went from public view with such little fanfare.

Honorable Mentions:

Bright Star – Another great movie from Jane Campion: no real surprise there. What was unexpected was how much this tale moved a schmuck like me, who thinks that films about writers are usually only interesting if they feature Mugwumps. Credit is due to Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish for bringing the fragile love affair of John Keats and Fannie Brawne to such vivid life, and even more credit is due to Paul Schneider, who is truly excellent as the repellent Charles Brown, lingering in the shadows and spitting poison at the lovers.

Sherlock Holmes – Haters can suck it. Guy Ritchie’s surprisingly entertaining romp caught two-thirds of Shades of Caruso completely out by not being awful. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s loyal to the books, very funny, properly exciting and imaginatively filmed. It’s also the most successful film Joel Silver has produced in years: as a fan of his output from the 80s and 90s, it’s good to see him hit big every once in a while, especially as he seems increasingly keen to promote smaller genre movies like Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and Splice and he isn’t making much money from them.

Worst Movie From 2009 That We Saw In 2010: Whatever Works

Whenever I impotently but passionately rail against the staggering of global release dates for films, I should always be grateful for one thing: the fact that Woody Allen’s movies seem to arrive here very late or not at all, even though Britain is supposed to be one of the countries that are most fond of the increasingly irrelevant old grouch. Whatever Works limped over to the UK about a year after it was released in the States, and really, thanks so much to UK distributors Warner Bros. for getting a last few spins out of those worn-out prints. This is not quite as bad as Cassandra’s Dream, but it’s considerably worse than Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which was already not that great. Basically it’s just an excuse for the once-great director to hire nubile Evan Rachel Wood to bounce around in front of his latest ancient proxy in a tight-shirt-and-hotpants combo and acting like one a’ dem Suthners frawm thuh Red Stayts what is men-ta-lee challunjjed. It’s nothing more than a snide wank fantasy. I fucking HATED IT. I note that Peter Bradshaw is YET AGAIN tying himself in knots to justify the formerly brilliant director’s descent into awfulness. Not mediocrity: I’m talking total and utter artistic decrepitude. Give it up, man!

Dishonorable Mentions:

An Education – Carey Mulligan is transcendentally wonderful in this uninspiring coming-of-age tale, perhaps so much so that some critics failed to see what a lemon they had on their hands. A lot of great work was done to give this adaptation of Lynn Barber’s memoirs an authentic period feel, but the tone is all over the place. Alfred Molina seems lost in his scenes, broadly playing a character that could have done with being quieter, though thankfully he is skilled enough to add some nice notes. Worst of all of Nick Hornby’s clunking screenplay, banging the movie’s points as hard as possible in case the audience was asleep. Dispiriting stuff.

Nine – How do you make a clumsy and unappealing musical worse? Get Rob Marshall to make a hash of filming it! As if Maury Yeston’s lyrics weren’t already excruciating to listen to (Possibly my least favourite lyric ever: “My husband makes movies / To make them, he makes himself obsessed. / He goes for weeks on end without a bit of rest. / No other way can he achieve his level best.”), now they’re linked to dance routines whose listless choreography is only matched by Marshall’s inability to put the camera in the right place, or cut to the most dynamic moments. If you thought Chicago was badly filmed, stay the hell away from this. Only the godlike Marion Cotillard and Fergie’s voicebox come out of this with any credit. A pox on it. Watch 8 ½ and then go watch the nearest Sondheim revival.

Invictus – Forgive me for taking the review I wrote on Flixster several months ago and just dumping it here, but it says what I need to say about Clint Eastwood’s horrid sport-uplift-a-thon better than anything I could no crank out, many months later:

For an hour Morgan Freeman’s performance as Nelson Mandela is entertaining enough to hold the audience’s attention even with the overwhelming treacle-thick sentiment pouring out of the screen and into your face. After that, nothing can save it. Endless – ENDLESS – scenes of incoherently edited rugby matches drag the movie to a halt, as the slow-motion sports scenes get slower and slower and slower. By the end you can’t remember who is playing any more. Which end of the pitch are they supposed to run to? Who is passing the ball? Why is he passing it now? Who’s that guy?

It eventually becomes an avant-garde exercise in deconstructing linear experience by bringing it to the temporal equivalent of absolute zero. Someone slowly points left. Another man falls over. Who are all these people watching? Morgan looks a bit excited. Another man points. A ball arcs slowly into another man’s chest. Matt Damon is tired now. Or in pain.

By now the movie has been on for fourteen years. The ball bounces across the floor. Morgan looks scared. The sound of cheering is like the screaming of God. Matt Damon leaps into the air: it takes so long he might be flying. Another shot of the crowd: CGI never looked so real-ish. Is that a goal? It can’t be. The South Africans shout “NO!” Oh, actually, they shout “YES!” The sound design is such that I cannot tell any more. Did they win? The uplifting music suggests they did: I check Wikipedia just to be sure.

In all, it is a staggering triumph.

South Africa’s victory, I meant. The movie’s shit.

The one comment I got on this was someone pointing out that the South African rugby team for that year was actually really terrible. If the worst team won, this conclusively proves my point about all sport being a total waste of time.

Best Movies I Saw in 2009 That Were Released In 2010 And Got On A Few Best Ofs And Thus Make My Exclusion Of Them Look Like I Didn’t Like Them Which Just Isn’t True, And Just To Prove It You Can Follow The Hyperlinks To My Reviews Of Them: Enter The Void / A Prophet / Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans / White Material

Ranking Decision Made In Last Year’s Best Movies List That I’ve Come To Regret: Placing Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet at number five in the list behind Avatar at number four has dogged me ever since I did it. That’s not to say I now dislike James Cameron’s slightly successful space opera: after seeing it a few times since I stand behind my glowing review 100%. Nevertheless, I suspect seeing it in IMAX just a couple of weeks before finishing my list may have pushed it a little higher than it deserves. I’m retroactively knocking it down to number five, and putting Audiard’s peerless prison classic up to four, because this shit is important to me. I wonder which of this year’s choices I’ll regret next year…

Best Hero: Shinzaemon Shimada (Kôji Yakusho) – 13 Assassins

Honorable Mentions:

Quorra (Olivia Wilde) – Tron: Legacy

Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone) – Easy A

Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) – Winter’s Bone

Robin Hood (Russell Crowe) – Robin Hood

Kick-Ass (Aaron Johnson) – Kick-Ass

Best Villain: Lotso (Ned Beatty) – Toy Story 3

Honorable Mentions:

Lord Narigatsu (Gorô Inagaki) – 13 Assassins

Fergus ‘Fergie’ Colm (The late, great Pete Postlethwaite) – The Town

Mal / The overwhelming guilt felt by Cobb that has forced an intervention by his therapist [Delete according to your theory of Inception‘s meaning] (Marion Cotillard) – Inception

Cheng (Zhenwei Wang) – The Karate Kid

Godfrey (Mark Strong) – Robin Hood

Worst Hero: Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) – Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief

Dishonorable Mentions:

Milo Boyd (Gerard Butler) – The Bounty Hunter

Bazil (Dany Boon) – Micmacs

Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) – The Expendables

Soren (Jim Sturgess) – Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole

Aang The Avatar (Noah Ringer) – The Last Airbender

Worst Villain: Arnold Wesker (Shawn Roberts) – Resident Evil: Afterlife

Dishonorable Mentions:

Other people’s feelings and needs / the concept of working for a living / the world just being SO MEAN and not, like, totally spiritual and stuff – Eat, Pray, Love

William (Aaron Johnson) – Chatroom

Ilosovic Stayne, the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover) – Alice in Wonderland

God (Played by nothing) – Legion

Fitzgerald (Peter Sarsgaard) – Knight and Day

Best Hero… OR IS SHE??!?!!?: Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) – Salt

Worst Hero… OR IS HE?!?!??!: Roy Miller (Tom Cruise) – Knight and Day

Worst Nazi Owl: Metalbeak (Joel Edgerton) – Legends of the Guardian: The Owls of Ga’Hoole

Most Passive Character: Bella Swan – Twilight: Eclipse (second year running, and still spending most of the movie being protected by the big strong men in her life UGGGHHH.)

Douchiest Crimefighter of the Year: FBI S.A. Adam Frawley – The Town

Most Annoying Character(s) of the Year:  Those goddamn squeaky minions in Despicable Me

Dishonorable Mentions:

Rashid (Amit Shah) – The Infidel

Rhiannon “Rhi” Abernathy (Aly Michalka) – Easy A

Captain H.M. Murdoch (Sharlto Copley) – The A-Team

Lou Dorchen (Rob Corrdry) – Hot Tub Time Machine

Paul Hodges (Tracy Morgan) – Cop Out

Unluckiest Character of the Year: Rafael Dacanay (Joel Torre) – Amigo

I won’t go into the details of what happens to the hapless town leader in John Sayles’ excellent historical drama, but let’s just say, if you think you’re having a bad day, this character’s troubles might make you feel better about your life. Poor guy.

Most Entertaining Scumbag: Stans (Walton Goggins) – Predators

Honorable Mention: Jason Patric (Max) – The Losers

Least Entertaining Psychic: Uxbal (Javier Bardem) – Biutiful

Badass of the Year: Hitgirl (Chloe Moretz) – Kick-Ass

Most Surprising Badass of the Year: “The Tough Guy” (Adrien Brody) – Predators

Most Debonair Badass of the Year: Eames (Tom Hardy) – Inception

Best Couple of the Year: Erin (Drew Barrymore) and Garrett (Justin Long) – Going The Distance

Best Parents of the Year: Dill (Stanley Tucci) and Rosemary Penderghast (Patricia Clarkson) – Easy A

“I Hope Those Crazy Kids Make It” Couple of the Year: Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) and Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige) – Submarine

“Dear God, Just Split Up Already” Couple of the Year: Nick Twisp (Michael Cera) and Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday) – Youth In Revolt

“I Realise Now That I’ve Never Really Cared Whether Or Not You Make It Work” Couple of the Year: Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) and Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) – Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

Most Tedious Couple of the Year: Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able) and Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) – Monsters

Most Improbable Couple of the Year: Mahmoud (Omid Djalili) and Saamiya Nasir (Archie Panjabi) – The Infidel

Least Credible, Charming, Sexy, Appealing or Tolerable Couple of the Year: Milo Boyd (Gerard Butler) and Nicole Hurley (Jennifer Aniston) – The Bounty Hunter

Best Scene: The hour-long setpiece finale of Inception, from the “beginning” of the dream to the end.

Honorable Mentions:

Annette Bening and Mark Ruffalo temporarily bond over Joni Mitchell in The Kids Are All Right.

MacGruber creates a fiendish trap using water, string, a cup and a corpse.

The heartbreaking sack of the Alexandrian Serapeum in Agora.

Jonah Hill strokes the furry wall while Diddy goes berserk in Get Him To The Greek.

The first sighting of “Space Dad” in Megamind.

Best Action Scene: 13 Assassins vs over 200 warriors in a town filled with traps. For 45 minutes. 45 unbelievably exciting minutes.

Honorable Mentions:

The Wheel King’s assassins’ attempt to kill Drizzle is deflected by her protector (spoiler obscured there) in Reign of Assassins.

Matt Damon, Jason Isaacs and Khalid Abdalla race across war-torn Baghdad at the end of Green Zone.

Iron Man and War Machine in a Genndy-Tartakovsky-choreographed blitz of orchestrated chaos against evil drones at the end of Iron Man 2.

Angelina Jolie and her stuntperson chase the President down a lift shaft in Salt.

Jason Statham destroys a pier with machine guns and a flare gun in The Expendables.

Cruellest Moment In Cinema History: The toys chase Lotso through a trash incinerator in Toy Story 3

Most Excruciating Moment in Cinema 2010: Futterwacken – Alice in Wonderland

Most Exciting Scene Involving Rampaging Bulls: 13 Assassins

Least Exciting Scene Involving Rampaging Bulls: Knight and Day

Most Satisfying Finale: Black Swan

Honorable Mentions:



Toy Story 3

The Karate Kid

The Ghost Writer

Least Satisfying Ending: The Infidel

Dishonorable Mentions:

Remember Me

Twilight: Eclipse

Jonah Hex

Resident Evil: Afterlife

Knight and Day

Best Twist of the Year: There’s a corker about halfway through The Disappearance of Alice Creed. I shall say no more about that, or all of the other almost-as-good twists. Good work, J Blakeson.

Worst Twist of the Year: The end of The Book of Eli is not only nonsensical, but I’m really not sure it adds anything to the movie, either narratively or thematically. I’d go back and rewatch to see how well it’s set up, but I really can’t be that bothered.

Satisfying, Unhistrionic and Beautifully Performed Ending That Made Me Sob And Sob And Sob: Rabbit Hole

Most Batshit Crazy Ending of the Year: The Killer Inside Me / Skyline

Directorial Debut of the Year: Richard Ayoade – Submarine

Honorary Mention: J Blakeson – The Disappearance of Alice Creed

Most Egregious Waste of a Musical Resource: Mastodon – Jonah Hex

Most Appropriate Use of David Byrne and Brian Eno’s Album Everything That Happens Will Happen Today As A Soundtrack Choice: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, as Oliver Stone added a couple of tracks from their previous collaboration — My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts — to the first and far, far inferior Wall Street movie. It’s, like, a homage or something.

Best Trailer: Clash of the Titans

Best Poster: Black Swan

Worst Poster: Death at a Funeral (Bad though the Photoshop is, it’s the exclamation point at the end of the tagline that sealed it.)

Creepiest Poster: Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore

Most Misleading Poster: The Last Exorcism (Nothing like this happens in the movie.)

Least Informative Poster: Knight and Day

Best Promotional Campaign: Inception

Remember the first trailer for Inception, the one that came out in 2009? What the hell is this?, we all thought as we rewatched it for the twenty-hundredth time. It makes no sense but is so pretty and sounds so nice, what with that cool booming thing going on. I can’t recall the last time I got so excited for a movie on such little information. Keeping the plot a secret for so long was a brilliant move. With no recognisable characters or source material to look at, there was no way anyone could have known what Christopher Nolan had in store for audiences. The next trailer almost drove me out of my mind. The sight of Paris folding over was like a mindbomb going off. Had Nolan made something completely unprecedented in popular cinema? You know a promotional campaign has hit paydirt when something as innocuous as the booming noises in Zack Hemsey‘s Mind Heist end up being mimicked and mocked over and over again.

That noise seemed to soundtrack the entire year, but credit where credit is due, it’s also down to possibly the best poster campaign I’ve ever seen for a major movie. Despite no one knowing what the movie was going to be before release, the campaign rested on cryptic but epic-scale posters featuring flooded or folding cities and characters listed as The Shade and The Extractor. It was utterly baffling and incredibly exciting. A week before the movie was released, almost to the hour, a flood of reviews washed across the internet as Warner Bros. embargo ended. The sense that a genuine event was about to occur was palpable. Seeing it a week later at the IMAX near Waterloo was one of the most thrilling experiences I’ve ever had in a cinema, and much of it was due to the audience. Primed for the cerebral narrative to come, we raced through Nolan’s maze and came to that divisive and bold final shot, and greeted it with shouts of “NO!” and “What the fuck!” And then the applause. The campaign worked. Dismiss it as hype, but there’s almost an art to hype if it’s done right and used to promote something of actual merit. I doff my cap to everyone involved.

Worst Promotional Campaign: The Bounty Hunter

One of the most dispiriting sights of the year was watching the cynical promotional campaign for this lifeless romactioncom spill out across the pop-culture spectrum. Seemingly aware that there was nothing interesting to say about the punch-card-generated tale of a bounty hunter on the hunt for his ex-wife (LOL), the publicists were forced to play the weakest hand in their deck: the are-they-aren’t-they “romance” between stars Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler. Not only was it lazy, but the actors obviously wanted nothing to do with it. Their fidgety non-commitals and attempts to brush aside questions from chat-show hosts and E! reporters were not just an attempt to create ambiguity: they looked genuinely embarrassed. The weak box office shows that no one else was interested either. Luckily once the movie was gone everyone could just forget about it, as if it was a drunken fumble between cousins that no one wants to talk about ever again.

Bravest Promotional Campaign of the Century: MacGruber

This notoriously unsuccessful but hysterical comedy — arguably the funniest of the year — featured one of the boldest performances of all time. Will Forte is utterly shameless as the hapless, cowardly mercenary, but the depths to which he was willing to plunge in order to generate a laugh happened offscreen, with this series of NSFW images. Maybe this was the reason the film sadly only made about $14, a half-full Starbucks loyalty card, and a poorly coloured-in photocopy of a $20 bill.

Best Hair: Pretty much everyone in Inception

Worst Hair: Scoot McNairy – Monsters

Best Wig (Male): Nicolas Cage – The Sorceror’s Apprentice

Best Wig (Female): Mary Elizabeth Winstead – Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

Most Eclectic Collection of Wigs: Thekla Reuten – The American

Honorary Manuela Velasco Award for Services to Scream-Queen Culture: Rooney Mara – A Nightmare on Elm Street

Most Comfortable Actor of the Year: Denzel Washington, who gets to sit down for most of Unstoppable

Most Convincing Lust Object of the Year: Danny Fucking Trejo – Machete

Honorary Mention: Mila Kunis – Black Swan

Least Convincing Lust Object of the Year: Bradley Cooper – The A-Team

Dishonorable Mention: Megan Fox – Jonah Hex

Best Use of a Gun To Intensify Usual Levels of Hottness to Almost Unbearable Levels: Helen Mirren – Red

Best Value For Money of the Year: Alfred Molina

As you would hope, Molina takes a couple of underwritten roles in two Bruckheimer misfires and makes the most of them. In both movies he gives the liveliest performances of the entire cast, saving both movies from being consigned to the bottom half of my 2010-movie-quality-spectrum. Long may he get cast to add some spice to underwhelming action comedies. Or, you know, get the lead in a really good movie. That would be nice, HOLLYWOOD!

Lamest Contribution to a Major Battle: The end of Sir Ridley of Scott’s Robin Hood: The Puffy Years features a big pitched battle on a beach between the English and French. Midway through Maid Marian rocks up with her Feral Boys in an attempt to help repel the French using ponies and sticks. There’s about 12 of them, they do nothing, and then Marian ends up getting smacked around by Sir Godfrey until Robin saves her. Not sure what the point of this was other than to have Robin do something heroic for his suddenly useless lady. Not cool, Sir Ridley.

Best Movie Featuring Liam Cunningham as a Fearless Badass From Ancient Times: Centurion

Worst Movie Featuring Liam Cunningham as a Fearless Badass From Ancient Times: Clash of the Titans

Best Robot: Madd Chadd in Step Up 3D

Most Listless Movie: Somewhere

A half-asleep arse-poot of a movie that says nothing about life other than it’s easy to get a bit bored when you have a lot of money. Makes Sofia Coppola’s previous movie — Marie Antoinette — look like Trainspotting. Consider this half-hearted critique my homage to Coppola’s work ethic.

Most Unsuspendable Mountain of Disbelief: Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole

I tried so hard — SO HARD — to buy into this movie’s central conceit, but I could not get past the fact that it was a movie about warrior owls, no matter how beautiful it looked (and trust me on this, it’s one of the most beautiful computer-animated movies yet made: almost every shot is breathtaking). The killing blow was the shot of an owl blacksmith hammering away at a hot piece of metal, sparks flying everywhere. It’s an owl blacksmith. An owl, working as a blacksmith, with its tiny little talons gripping a huge hammer and smacking at a hot piece of metal it had just pulled from a furnace made by other owls in a tree village designed by owl architects and built by owl builders carrying little hods in their tiny owl hands. Maybe in the book this could work. Onscreen? Not so much.

Most References To Other Movies: Repo Men

Controversy surrounded this reasonably entertaining sci-fi movie after it became apparent that it bore some similarity to Repo! The Genetic Opera, though according to this HuffPo article this has been amicably resolved by all involved. Certainly the increased possibility of artificial organs being developed and then sold on by private insurance companies in the US is bound to get many writers’ minds working: I wonder how many thousands of potential novels and screenplays withered on the vine as Repo! and The Repossession Mambo (the novel on which Repo Men was based) were released. Nevertheless, the makers of Repo Men certainly owe huge debts to Martin Scorsese and Nick Pileggi for the framing device and freeze-frames they incorporated from Goodfellas, Chan-wook Park for the Oldboy-esque action scene that occurs close to the end of the movie, and Terry Gilliam for… well, let’s just say the ending seems rather familiar. As I say, I kinda liked it: the gore was plentiful and amusing, and the leads (Jude Law, Forest Whitaker and Liev Schreiber) were very entertaining. It did feel like it ran down some well-trod paths, though.

Most Amusing Number of Publicity Photos of a Director Pointing And Thinking And Holding A Camera: Alejandro González Iñárritu

While looking for publicity shots of the dirge-like Biutiful, I noticed that director Iñárritu (as he now prefers to be called — thanks to ace Tweeter and film blogger @iambags for spotting that) crops up in a surprising number of pictures looking all handsome and directory. Almost as many as lead actor Javier Bardem in fact. Not as many as Michael Bay, but then Bay has made more movies, so you’d expect that. I’m going to keep an eye on this race to become IMDb’s most photographed and photogenic director.

Most Frustrating Directorial Decision of the Year: The Last Exorcism

This Eli-Roth produced horror “documentary” featured a terrific breakout performance from Patrick Fabian — a familiar face who has had recurring roles on Veronica Mars and Big Love but has never headed up a film before — but sadly director Daniel Stamm let him down after an hour of commanding the screen. Whether through poor editing or a lack of money or some other unforeseen and unavoidable problem, the final half an hour, with all of its craziness and weird reveals, happen in a blur of badly-chosen camera angles and looping. The biggest emotional moments come at the end, and hopefully would have shown Fabian at his best, but the camera barely focuses on his face in the last act, with his moment of revelation seemingly shot from under his armpit and his final lines almost inaudible due to some muddy sound design. It’s a shame, as up to that point he had made a huge impression. Let’s hope the success of this low-budget movie convinces someone else to give Fabian another chance at the prize.

Worst Loss Of Superproducer Mojo: Jerry Bruckheimer

Two expensive potential tentpoles (Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Prince of Persia, obvs) crawled towards the edge of profitability thanks to worldwide box office, but it’s fair to say Bruckheimer won’t be trying to keep these frankly half-hearted franchises going. What’s worse is he only seems to have Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides lined up for next year, and though the Captain Jack Sparrow fan in me is excited (perhaps not as excited as the Elliott & Rossio fan in me, but still), it’s directed by Rob Marshall. I honestly don’t know what Jer (as he likes me to call him) was thinking. Let’s hope the main man gets his mojo back soon. Or hires Elliott and Rossio to write all of his movies, what with them being totes awesome and all that.

And with that little expression of hope, that we can see a franchise come back on track just through the power of the writer, I’ll leave it there. Thanks to everyone who has responded to these posts: your contributions and comments have been greatly appreciated. Let’s hope we have a thrilling 2011 in movies.

BBC Breakfast Watch: Tweaking Shatner’s Bassoon

[Note to new readers: for the record, I’ve had other meltdowns over the offensive content of BBC Breakfast, usually about their treatment of young guests on the show or their poorly-researched and alarmist comments on technology. Here are my previous rants, ordered chronologically:

It’s been a while since Shades of Caruso has addressed the aggressive Daily-Mail-esque ignorance of the news-and-Strictly-Come-Dancing info update service known as BBC Breakfast, but then it’s been a while since they’ve been as stupid as they were this morning, probably because Kate Silverton was on there for a while being much more sensible than the other presenters. Oh sure, every so often one of the presenters — usually Bill “Confusion” Turnbull — will treat a teenager like a cross between Charles Manson and Typhoid Mary, or Sian “Disapproving” Williams will bring her withering school-marm-esque Victorian sensibilities to bear on some poor person who thought they were just going on another stage of a PR tour for a book, not a Spanish-Inquisition-style interrogation as to why they are a Satanist in disguise, but these things happen so often that it would get very boring for me (and, of course, for you, dear reader) if I came on here every day and said, “Bill just acted like the atheist he was interviewing was chewing on baby-flavoured gum and masturbating all over their tacky chat-sofa”. Though I have been tempted.


Today, though? Hoooooo-boy. I was struggling to extricate myself from bed while being pinned down by multiple angry cats when Daisyhellcakes started using the profane language she saves for extra-stupid segments on Breakfast. It’s like the Bat-Symbol being flashed over Gotham when she does that. I put my ass into high gear, and 35 minutes later I’d made it downstairs to watch one of the most shockingly biased interviews I’ve ever seen, which can be summed up in the phrase “Concerned Parent Armed With Zero Knowledge But Infinite Outrage Vs. Scientist Making Good Points”. It was the worst kind of interview: one where the interviewer refuses to accept the information given to him by the interviewee, and actively goes out of his way to distort the interviewee’s message in order to quash it.

Before I get into it, here’s the caveat I always have to crack out when I take on Breakfast. Yes, this is not Newsnight. We’re not talking about Mecha-Paxman here. This is not the Today programme with John “Sarcastic Voice” Humphrys, and it’s not even The Politics Show with Andrew “Brillo Pad” Neil (a man I should hate for his terrible behaviour during the News Corp strikes, but would get on my “People I Would Like To Have A Beer With” list). Breakfast is one notch above Richard Littlejohn’s Daily Mail column, which means it’s two notches above Jan Moir’s column. This is where rationality and relevance goes to die, and so my heart bleeds for poor Professor David Nutt from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, who was interviewed by Charlie “Young Bill Turnbull” Stayt after Nutt, during a lecture, criticised the government’s decision to reclassify cannabis as a Class B drug.


Of course, the Daily Mail beat Breakfast to the punch with this article, but to be honest, even though it features a few snide digs and references to outraged comments from drugs campaigners that haven’t actually happened yet — a typical Mail trick to create the illusion of controversy when there is none is to say “His comments are likely to prove explosive” –it’s a bit more balanced than the Breakfast coverage. The Mail even quotes Richard Garside, director of the CCJS, who said, “Professor Nutt’s briefing gives us an insight into what drugs policy might look like if it was based on the research evidence, rather than political posturing and moralistic positioning.” That they put this comment in without making monstering Garside is a real surprise, though yes, it is at the bottom of the article. They’re not going to put something like that in the first paragraph.

Breakfast, on the other hand, dived in with both Fists of Fury flying. Taking place via super-futuristic vid link, Charlie Stayt quizzed Prof. Nutt — who was in the BBC Bristol studio — about his statement, and the good Professor talked about scientific evidence and popular opinion pointing to cannabis as being a Class C drug rather than a Class B drug, and mentioned that arrest for possession of a Class C drug carries with it the possibility of a two-year prison sentence (I assume for possession of large quantities. Two years for having a half-smoked lump of black in your pocket seems pretty harsh). Fair enough, but nothing was going to stop Stayt. Having got the pleasantries out of the way, Stayt then said:

If I’m looking through — and correct me if I’m wrong — if I look through what you’re saying at this stage, it seems to me one of the things you’re saying is that, effectively, taking LSD, sort of on a given night, is the equivalent of having a beer. [At this moment Prof. Nutt looks a little startled, though I could be misreading his reaction] Now a lot of people think that just doesn’t make any sense. Is that effectively what you are saying?


Prof. Nutt immediately points out that Stayt has started talking about a lecture he gave in July, which has nothing to do with what he did last night. That report concerned population impact of all drugs, both prohibited and accepted by the mainstream, such as booze and fags. Nutt said:

In the UK at present, LSD actually causes very little harm. Because it’s relatively little used it has a low propensity to cause dependence. And so in comparison with other drugs, in particular drugs like alcohol which are very very heavily used with very high levels of dependence and toxicity, the LSD would rank more low… lower because it’s relatively — in population terms — safer.

These comments made by Nutt earlier in the year have followed him around ever since, but then that’s exactly what happens when someone uses an inflammatory but pithy soundbite to describe a series of statistical observations. It’s especially annoying when those stats seem to make so much sense. Anyone who wanders the streets of London between 10pm and midnight will know exactly how widespread alcohol usage is. Where are all the hallucinating fools sitting on the tube and screaming about the gargoyles climbing up their legs or telling everyone around them how connected they feel to The Cosmic Mesh? Okay, they’re at home, probably, but at least they’re not starting fights, accosting women, or falling down escalators. Sadly, Stayt is immune to statistical truth, and continued to ignore Nutt’s findings with studied and insulting insistence:

Yeah, it’s funny though, isn’t it, cuz if you… if you… Say you think about this as a parent, and you think about your child, you’ve got a teenage child, and you think well… I know you’re saying that “LSD, cannabis and Ecstasy are less dangerous than alcohol and cigarettes”. Now, if you ask a parent which of those you want your child experimenting with, I would suspect — and I’m not sure about this — they might say they really don’t want them experimenting with Ecstasy and LSD, and drinks and cigarettes, they might think, is the better of the options, but you seem to be presenting it the other way around!

How many parents out there are saying to their kids, “Right, I’ll let you experiment with one drug of choice, and you can take your pick. Oh shit! Not LSD! Wouldn’t you rather try some nutritious Guinness?” Stayt makes it sound like parents are giving their kids an option of trying just one, and the horror of Nutt’s report is that now kids will be picking LSD instead of booze. Of course, if the findings of the scientific community are right, then this would be a good thing, because — drumroll — it’s less dangerous than alcohol. This finding will not penetrate Stayt’s head, though. LSD is more dangerous than booze, and science has a terribly immoral pro-hallucinogenic bias. Stab science with a big knife because it is so evil!

altered states

Anyway, this is how the rest of the interview went, though the transcript sadly doesn’t capture the clarity of Nutt’s responses, nor the sneering and patronising anti-rational questioning by Stayt:

Nutt: [Re: Stayt’s last question] Well, that’s precisely why we’re having this debate, because it’s very difficult to give guidance to parents, because these drugs are all very toxic in different ways, and what I am doing is engaging you — and, hopefully, the general population, including parents — in a debate about this. Today… tonight, a child in the UK will die of alcohol poisoning. No one will die of LSD. And that’s the kind of issue that parents should really be taking onboard: what advice do you give to your children when they go out and they drink heavily? Alcohol is currently the biggest, most worrying killer of the drugs that we’re not really grappling with under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

Stayt: Yeeaahh, well I’m not suggesting that alcohol doesn’t have its problems too. If we talk about cigarettes, for example… Now in relation to cannabis, are you saying there is a link with mental illness or not? Is it just a possibility?

Nutt: [talking over Stayt’s last sentence, probably because he’s sickened by the level of debate] Oh, cannabis is not good for mental health. Cannabis certainly can make schizophrenia worse if you’ve got it, but what has confused people is this claim that it is the cause of schizophrenia. Well, it contributes to a very small percentage of the cases of schizophrenia, and most people who smoke cannabis do not end up getting schizophrenia or psychosis from it.

Stayt: And do you know, one of the problems is — I’m sure you must be aware of this — there is a possibility that people listening to your sort of train of thought on this… and I know you’re trying to prompt debate, but in the gist of what you’re saying, there will be some people who come away from this thinking, “D’you know what, these drugs — LSD, cannabis, Ecstasy — they’re not so bad, really”, and that might be the message people get from what you’re saying.

Nutt: Well, the message they should get from what I’m saying is that they are bad but they’re not as bad as heroin and crack. That’s why I think it’s really critical that the Misuse of Drugs Act properly represents the global harms of the drugs that are controlled in the Act, because unless the Act is correct, we can’t give the right message.

After which Stayt thanked the Professor and we got to see a shot of co-presenter Susanna Reid looking like she was sucking the world’s biggest Disapproval Lemon. Daisyhellcakes saved her biggest expression of disdain for Stayt’s playacting of a foolish teenager thinking the report was pro-drugs, shouting out, “They’ve trotted out the Hypothetical Idiot!” Long-time readers will know that I’ve railed against the rhetorical use of the Hypothetical Idiot in the past, as shown in the posts I’ve linked to above, because everyone knows that no matter what you do, someone out there (“there” being the mind of an aggrieved and ill-informed paranoid desperate to win an argument by creating numerous straw-men) will use any idea or object to kill themself and millions of others, thus justifying the banning of any piece of information or any object just in case someone uses it as a weapon.

That’s not even the worst part of the interview, though. The moment that enraged me the most was Stayt accusing Nutt of unintentionally promoting the use of drugs by talking about them in a way that could be misinterpreted while deliberately and repeatedly misinterpreting the findings himself. The man is a cretin. Get him off TV now before he further defecates all over the public forum. We don’t need his kind of alarmist, knee-jerk moralising getting in the way of adult discussion when there are plenty of people out there who will think Stayt is speaking from a position of intellectual certainty and superiority simply because he’s wearing a suit on the telly.


Compare his snide interview with the news bulletin coverage just a few minutes earlier, which quotes Nutt’s concern over the reclassification of cannabis potentially leading to an increase in usage. The more transgressive a drug seems, the more attractive it becomes to rebellious teens. Isn’t this obvious? We’re so busy treating teenagers like criminals in waiting without even trying to address the psychology of pubertal and post-pubertal kids, just assuming they’re bound to break the law without considering the societal prejudices and actions that can trigger this behaviour. During the short news piece on Nutt’s lecture is a voxpop from Debra Bell, who runs the website Talking About Cannabis. Mrs. Bell has been chronicling her son’s drug use and rehabilitation for several years now, attracting the attention of the UK press and some angry bloggers. Of course, as this was a voxpop Mrs. Bell’s comments were not challenged at all, and again she seemed oblivious to the psychology of teenagers, thinking that telling them cannabis is bad for you and is frowned upon by the authorities will be enough to make kids reconsider smoking the drugs.

She also seemed to think that Prof. Nutt was actually saying cannabis should be downgraded to Class C because it’s not harmful at all, which is not what he is saying. I get the feeling that the only acceptable way to describe the effects of cannabis is to scream “IT WILL SEND YOU TO HELL AND SATAN WILL SODOMISE YOU WITH A TRIDENT-SHAPED BONG!” Anything less than that is to imply that dope-smoke is little more than fragrant air, and all of those deaths from cannabis usage will be on your hands, mister! Of course, Mrs. Bell was concerned that telling kids the truth about drugs was the most important thing, but her page of “facts” about cannabis features many statistics that have been debunked by Godlike super-genius Ben Goldacre, so she’s the last person who we should be listening to on this subject.


I’m not one who takes illicit substances anyway, but the interview is offensively biased enough that I just have to rail against it, howling into the emptiness like an impotent wolf bellowing at the uncaring moon. This interview was, as if often the case on Breakfast, a fucking debacle. Any attempt to increase the public’s knowledge about any moral issue is treated with disrespect and distrust, with the ill-prepared and incurious presenters relying on willful ignorance and hearsay, Old Wives’ tales and superstition. It’s taken as fact that the BBC’s news operation is the best in the world, but with this carbuncle on its face, how are we to ever take it seriously? I know breakfast TV is meant to be trivial, but treating important issues in this way is making things far worse. They should have a serious journalist in reserve on set, someone who can rush out and present something like this instead of relying on a fellow who, during an undemanding interview with Enid Blyton’s grand-daughter Sophie Smallwood, commented on her work on a new classic Noddy book by saying:

Stayt: It’s a big responsibility, isn’t it. Cuz, obvi… I mean, you knew your grandmother very well…

Smallwood: Well, no…

Stayt: Did you?

Smallwood: I was two years after she died.

Nice work, BBC. This is exactly the guy you need interviewing scientists about their research. (Sidenote: the small feature on Noddy showed a short clip from the recent TV show, which updated the character, and true to form, both Charlie and Susanna regarded it the way a reluctant babysitter regards a soiled nappy.)

Of course, the embarrassing and biased interviews are not the only bad things featured on Breakfast. This morning’s installment also featured the most information-free puff-piece I’ve seen on TV recently: a survey — probably taken in a conference room within Television Centre when someone realised Breakfast was going to run three minutes short one morning — says men are crying at films more often. Cue lots of free-publicity for Up, with “comedy” reporter Tim Muffett — talking to a psychologist about what makes people cry when they watch movies. FYI, according to Dr. Simon Moore:

In terms of the characteristics of a kind of a “sob-film”, or a “weepie” as we might call it, there are technical skills you could use in terms of facial expression, you can use colour. Sound, for example, or lack of it. All these things could, for certain individuals, have an effect, but it won’t happen for everybody.

I’ve always said that Kubrick’s use of white in 2001 is what makes that film such an emotional rollercoaster. I’m sure it was the lovely balloons that made my cry while watching Up, not the emotional connection you feel towards a man who has lost the love of his life after decades of loving companionship. God forbid it would be empathy that causes these emotional responses. It must be brane-science and some kind of subliminal tricksiness! The worst comment made during this most desperate of time-filling fripperies came from Peter Bradshaw, much to my horror. When talking about Up (surely the most emotionally devastating movie of the year), he said:

I was one of those people sobbing away like a baby. It’s all the more sad because you don’t expect it. This is a kind of high-gloss digital family comedy from Pixar Disney. You don’t expect to be moved. You don’t expect to be moved to tears.

He’s got a point. Disney and Pixar have never…




…even tried to make audiences cry before.

::Disclaimer – None of the quotes in this post are fabricated.  Not even the “sob-film” one. They have been very carefully transcribed from my Sky+ box, and the idiocy contained within is not my property or my fault. Sorry for foisting it upon my readers, who deserve better.::

ETA, date 30.10.09: As the Mail predicted, Professor Nutt’s comments did indeed provoke outrage, as Home Secretary Alan Johnson has had him removed as head of the Advisory Council on Misuse of Drugs, saying he has created “public confusion between scientific advice and policy”. So, basically, it’s not whether he is right or wrong. He’s just not towing the party line. Pathetic. It’s obvious the ACMD is only there to back up governmental policy with a veneer of scientific authority. Drugs policy in this country continues its backwards march.