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.