In the interests of not writing off-puttingly long 5000-word blogposts any more, my Miscellaneous Gubbins post has been split in two. The next one will feature more pictures than words, I promise. Also, apologies for relying on personal anecdote while talking about these movies. These are the films that don’t quite fit on my best and worst lists, movies that are not perfect or utterly imperfect, but fit right in between. They all have something to praise, or to criticise, and the level of enjoyment I got from them is often sadly linked to subjective experiences from either before or during my time with them. Hence, my clumsy authorial presence splattered all over this page like emoticons in an email from your mom.
Best Remake of the Year: The Karate Kid
When The Karate Kid won the weekend box office over the heavily plugged A-Team remake, I was befuddled. The remake of John G. Avildsen’s fondly-remembered-but-not-really-that-good coming-of-age tale seemed like a mindless low-rent cash-in, as lazily made as most of Jackie Chan’s US movies, while A-Team seemed at least to be making an effort. After seeing both, the depth of my error was made clear. Joe Carnahan’s shouty adaptation was not without its fun moments, but mostly it missed the mark, mainly by overestimating the appeal of Bradley Cooper and, sadly, Sharlto Copley. (N.B. I like Copley, and think he does a good job of mimicking Dwight Shultz’s original incarnation of H.M. Murdoch: the problem is that that character is not as amusing as you might remember. If you stumble across repeats on multi-channel TV, prepare for disappointment.)
Harald Zwart, on the other hand, helmed an indecently entertaining reworking of the threadbare Avildsen original, helped by Christopher Murphey’s clever tweaking of Robert Mark Kamen’s original script. The key to its success is the relocation of the story to China: placing protagonist “Xiao” Dre Parker in a new and unfamiliar country is far more effective at providing an alienating motivation than moving Ralph Macchio from one American city to another, and the cultural differences between Americans and Chinese are skilfully played up without veering too far into over-familiar avenues. It also makes the movie look distinctive: the location shooting is some of the best of the year. Occasionally it wanders into travelogue territory, but it’s never less than a fascinating window on contemporary Chinese urban life, even if there is likely some inevitable pro-tourism white-washing going on.
Best of all is the considerable emotional charge within: kudos to Zwart and his main actors Jaden Smith and a never-better Jackie Chan (seriously, he’s never hinted at being able to convey the emotional turmoil he does here). Treated with a potent mixture of solemnity and playfulness, the movie skips through its considerable running time with welcome momentum, building to a thrilling final half-hour of emotional revelation and cathartic resolution. It would take a truly stony-hearted person not to feel a thrill of emotion during Xiao Dre’s final battle. If every overrated movie of the 80s was remade this well, perhaps there would be less complaint about how there are no new ideas out there.
Worst Remake of the Year: Edge of Darkness
Regular readers will know that I tend to go easy on Hollywood product, partly due to long-standing fondness for populist cinema, partly as a corrective to the relentless negativity about mainstream culture from some cineastes who are unable to allow that there is any form of value or artistry present in such commercially funded baubles, and partly because I genuinely do think some “blockbuster” movies are properly thrilling, especially when seen as part of the expansion of cinema’s storytelling toolbox. Sadly, Martin Campbell’s second run at this tale is just the kind of thing that makes even a soft touch like myself despair of Hollywood’s distrust of anything even vaguely challenging. It’s especially frustrating as Campbell and writers William Monahan and Andrew Bovell often make a pretty good fist of things: I call this the worst remake of the year, but really it’s just the most exasperating.
Almost anyone who has seen Campbell and Troy Kennedy Martin’s original BBC mini-series will know what an amazing achievement it was: an emotional journey as well as a politically relevant story with an epic sweep. Its ecological message was timely, but that doesn’t mean to say it isn’t any less relevant today, which is one of the reasons why it’s so sad that the remake jettisons that plot in favour of a “topical” conspiracy tale about manufacturing bombs and making them look like they were made by Al-Qaeda. The BBC series’ focus on looming ecological disaster generated a frisson of cataclysmic terror even if the drama didn’t go in for apocalyptic histrionics. The movie is more interested in depicting Mel “The Gentleman’s Gentleman” Gibson’s grief over the death of his daughter: fair enough, as that was a key factor in the success of the original, and this is only a two-hour movie with a greater need to find one point of focus, but Edge of Darkness 2 is not really doing anything that hasn’t been done before.
Basically, there’s no room for the weird here, and even if the intensity of Gibson’s grief is depicted with skill, it’s the details that are missed. There’s no way we’re going to have a “vibrator” moment in something this streamlined, and Ray Winstone’s Jedburgh is no match for the unforgettable oddness of Joe Don Baker in the original. The true killing blow has to be the absurd final scene. No spoilers here, but the mawkish daftness of it is an insult to the poignant final image that played out behind the credits of the series. For everything this version does right (such as casting “Dependable” Danny Huston as the bad guy), it does about 5.6 things wrong. It’s a missed opportunity.
Disappointing Movie of the Year: Machete
Man, I was totally psyched about this movie for so long, so imagine how miserable I was when it turned out that the invention displayed in the hilarious trailers was stretched so thinly over an hour and forty-five minutes. Planet Terror was perfectly weighted in the truncated version that ran as half of Grindhouse, cramming huge amounts of disjointed madness into a punchy 80 minutes of fun. I’ve not yet seen the extended version, but if Machete is anything to go by, I should stick with my memories of the original. There’s still much to love in Machete, especially the continuing resurgence of Mighty Jeff Fahey, but well before the final battle rolls around, my patience was at an end. Sad that this advert for iced tea is almost more fun than the movie it’s based on.
Surprising Movie of the Year: A Nightmare on Elm Street
Initial responses to the Platinum Dunes remake of Wes Craven’s beloved original were so negative it was hard to expect more than a misguided and cynical failure. Perhaps it’s just low expectations that led to me enjoying Samuel Bayer’s gloomy and depressing revisit, as well as a smarter and more respectful script by Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer than was necessary. It’s obviously no match for Craven’s eccentric and creepy masterwork, but as these modern retellings of “old” horror classics are so often phoned in and obnoxiously boisterous that an attempt to make something quiet and moody — albeit punctuated by grisly murder — should be noted.
The best move was to make Freddy Krueger less campy (though his awful jokes remain) and focus on what he really is: a disgusting and depraved monster who preys on children. His taunting of his victims is sickening and plays on the mind far more than the silliness of the later installments of the original series, to the point that the movie veers very close to tastelessness. Changing Krueger from a child murderer to a paedophile who is now killing his former victims during their dreams is a brash and unpleasant move, but it does maybe make the movie work on a new level, as a metaphor for the difficulty in healing horrific psychic wounds that flare up in later life. As I ponder it I go back and forth on whether or not this is an exploitative move too far. Nevertheless, it lingers in the mind longer than you’d expect: some scenes were still bothering me several weeks later. Recommended, hesitantly. (See also Breck Eisner’s well-played and bleak remake of Romero’s The Crazies, which was an early surprise in 2010.)
Overrated Movie of the Year: Monsters
Arriving on a tidal wave of positive word from festival screenings, and breathless talk of director Gareth Edwards being the next big thing, how could I not see it? Anything that expands the sci-fi genre has to be worth hunting down, and the frankly stunning Red camera photography shown in the trailer made it look like the most beautiful movie about aliens made this year. Well, it actually was the most beautiful monster movie of the year, but also the most inconsequential. Unlike District 9, to which Edwards’ movie is compared on a regular basis, Monsters has little to commend it other than its impressive low-budget production values. Though yes, much praise is due to everyone involved for making something so visually compelling on such a small amount of money, and Edwards needs garlands thrown at his feet for getting off his arse and making something this technically accomplished and ambitious. It’s a genuinely monumental achievement.
Nevertheless, it’s also a sci-fi movie that doesn’t even need to be a sci-fi movie, and merely serves as an indicator of critical opinion of the genre. The existence of the monsters is, for the most part, a MacGuffin just to keep these two self-absorbed ninnies together as they trek through pretty scenery and encounter “local flavour” during their travelogue ramblings. Only the final monster scene has some purpose other than to have a big effect in it, and even then it’s only tangential to the real will-they-won’t-they “plot”. Perhaps if you buy into the love story at its core Monsters is a moving experience, and certainly I’ve been told by many people that the slowly developing affection plucked their heartstrings, but if you find these guys as insufferable and tedious and annoying as I did, then no amount of off-camera grumbling sound effects will hold your attention.
And yet, despite the thinly sketched characters and the lack of event — plus lots of mood that pleasingly flows from the screen like dry ice at a Spinal Tap concert — critics have fallen over themselves to point out that this is superior to other sci-fi as it’s about real people and not effects. Fine, whatever. Sci-fi does not require effects. Well done for spotting that. However, all stories need something — anything — besides an A-to-B structure to qualify as a worthwhile journey, and Monsters lacks this. As for the “real people”, yes, our heroes are like people in that they have torsos, limbs and heads and don’t run around shooting things or running away from explosions in slow motion, but what we really need in a movie is a pair of “characters” who contain multitudes. Instead, we get cyphers: he’s a bit of a dick who becomes slightly less of a dick, she’s getting married to someone offscreen and then she isn’t getting married to someone offscreen.
I’m not asking for McKee to swan in and add subplots and emphasise clunking arcs and second/third act transitions, etc. I’m just asking for some content to go with the lovely atmospherics. No critic wants to go out of their way to praise a genre movie: even the mainstream raves for Inception made an effort to paint the sci-fi elements as the brainy stuff Nolan puts in there to look smart like some big NERD or something haw haw. Monsters gives them a get-out clause, as it’s about a “worthy” thing, about “people” and not spectacle (funny that the spectacle is the best thing about it). It’s about “love”, and so is deserving of praise. Because love is nice, and sci-fi is usually about robots or the helium-coated moons orbiting the gas-giant Zootrong or alien impregnation or something. Ew, icky. But look! They’re in love! Like in real life!
When Richard Linklater made Before Sunset and Before Sunrise — two other movies about people wandering through a foreign land — he joined with Julie Delpy, Kim Krizan and Ethan Hawke to create arguably the most fascinating, complex couple in recent cinema history, two smart and funny people whose chemistry sparked and whose conversations flowed with wit and insight and personality, and whose relationship and affection grew organically and realistically. Edwards has made a movie about two people who don’t like each other, and then do. But with aliens. Call me a stupid cynical asshole if you want, but that’s really just not enough. (Disclaimer: I can’t wait to see what Edwards does with Godzilla. A more ruminative take on that classic character would be very interesting.)
Underrated Movie of the Year: Predators
And now I shall praise a big splashy sci-fi movie featuring alien hunters and lasers and macho men fighting! Hoorah! I am a philistine! And proud of it. Predators isn’t about love. It’s not about emotion, really, other than fear and gritty determination. It’s got little insight into humanity, and it features big action setpieces involving running through jungles and firing mini-guns at trees and stabbing things to death with knives. It’s gory and loud and fast-moving and has McKee structures and everything. It’s the polar opposite of Edwards’ sedate love story, AND I LOVED IT!
Which is not to say it’s art, but then, neither is Monsters. Predators is a sequel to a sequel, it’s about nothing more than not getting killed in space, and it’s mostly about bombarding the eyes and ears with spectacle. That’s all. But it does all of that with such verve, and sly narrative trickery, and good performances, that it achieves what all movies should: it sets out to do one thing well, and it exceeds its goal. And yet it was dismissed by mainstream critics (predictable) and genre-friendly critics (surprising) alike. Again, perhaps low expectations played their part. Nevertheless, what I saw was a punchy, well-paced and surprisingly smart actioner that easily matches the absurdly entertaining original.
The casting helps. Adrien Brody does a shockingly good impression of a tough guy as “The Tough Guy”, aided by equally committed performers as Topher Grace, Alice Braga, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, and the magnificent scene-stealing acting colossus that is Shades of Caruso favourite Walton “Shane Vendrell” Goggins. Even more so is the peculiar casting of Lawrence “Also An SoC Favourite” Fishburne as the crazy survivor of a previous hunting round. Fishburne’s fidgety paranoia plays interestingly against his usual gravitas-laden personality, creating a pleasant disconnect that keeps the movie flowing through what would otherwise be a mid-movie lull. Perhaps that’s the best thing about Nimrod Antal’s movie: it moves at a clip, keeps you guessing, and places its key showdowns at exactly the right moments.
No, it’s not “art” and it won’t “fulfill” you like the sight of two photogenic people going from point A to point B with the odd well-shot glance of something resembling an emotion, but it will give you space-boar rampages, multiple canny references to John McTiernan’s original action-horror classic, Adrien Brody with his shirt off, Danny Fucking Trejo, some well-conceived last-act surprises, and a Yakuza enforcer with a katana facing off against a Predator in a samurai duel. A YAKUZA ENFORCER WITH A KATANA FACING OFF AGAINST A PREDATOR IN A SAMURAI DUEL! Monsters can’t even begin to compete. Predators can rip out its skull and spine and turn it into a nice trophy, for all I care.
Critically Acclaimed Award-Winning Movie That Almost Sent Me To Sleep: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Remember what I said about being a philistine? Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s mysterious… something or other won the Palme d’Or, and came garlanded with ecstatic praise from critics I respect and trust. It should have knocked my socks off, but instead I was wrapped in a confusing fog of baffling symbolism. Upon escaping it, I was left utterly bemused and — most crucially — utterly unmoved and intellectually isolated. Much has been made of Weerasethakul’s facility with mood, and certainly there were moments where hazy atmospherics held the attention, but these moments were not enough to make up for the frustration I experienced as I tried to parse the obscure events depicted.
Maybe I thought about it too much. Maybe I should have let it flow over me. Maybe I would have been able to surrender to Weerasethakul’s vision if I saw anywhere other than the ICA, which is the home of fidgety women scribbling on rustle-paper notepads directly behind me in a miserable room heated in the middle of winter by a tiny tiny radiator hidden behind a chair near the perpetually open exit. When the last baffling image faded, I dragged my consciousness away from the theta-wave mire it had almost fallen into and scoured the Internet for the meaning of these symbols, assuming that my ignorant ass was just in need of a quick primer on Thai culture or Buddhism that would unlock all of these mysteries. But no. Instead it seems that Weerasethakul’s symbolism was specific and meaningful only to him.
That’s great for him, and I’m not saying it’s not a valid way to make a movie, but I’m not that interested in watching his large-scale doodle-pad/dream diary get brought to life. It’s not put me off catching up on seeing his other movies — which I hope will be more comprehensible, less alienating — especially as there were truly wondrous moments in Boonmee that rocked me in my seat: not just the dread-soaked images of the monkey ghosts emerging from the darkness with their eyes blazing red, but the outrageous catfish sex scene, and the descent into caves that turn into a glittering starscape. It’s apparent that Weerasethakul has a unique directorial eye and ear, enough that I desperately want to be on board with him. However, this was not the movie to do it.
I’m not gonna get into a debate over who is to blame for my inability to bond with this movie: Weerasethakul for selfishly making a movie with the express intention of making audiences feel stupid as an act of cultural warfare, or poor, blameless me who was fooled into spending money to see this film instead of donating it to a puppy charity. Whoever is at fault, the fact remains: of all the cinema experiences I’ve had this year, seeing Boonmee was one of the most frustrating and boring. Even more so than seeing Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, which I was convinced would blow my mind but ended up alternately thrilling and annoying me. Now, who shall I blame for that exasperating experience? Bryan Lee O’Malley? Or the pungent tramp sitting on one side of me, and the shoeless guy on the other side who kept creepily hugging his son throughout? ::sigh:: If only I could buy the right audience when I buy my ticket.
One last one to come! If my shameful praise for base Hollywood confectionery hasn’t put you off, dear reader.