Monday, 16 January 2012

'The Artist' Review

In 2007, the Rotterdam Film Festival premiered an Argentine Science-Fiction film, called La Antena. Written and directed by Esteban Sapir, the feature told the story of a town where no one could speak anymore. Instead, everyone had to communicate by mouthing out the words into the air as visual letters. Only La Voz, a singer, can speak, working for the despotic Mr. TV; a man whose control of sound must be thwarted if the city and its denizens wish to speak ever again. Mirroring both German Expressionist cinema and early Russian features such as Aelita, this black and white film was a modest success, packed with plenty of post-modern play with the (dis)connect between sound and vision.

 To say that La Antena – whilst an achievement – is a superior film to Michel Hazanavicius’ critical darling, The Artist, is to be a contrarian for the sake of it (and I do not dig “cool to hate” attitudes – see: The Black Swan, Lost in Translation, The Phantom Menace etc.), but La Antena, against The Artist, nevertheless stands as a reminder of just how powerful good distribution is. As a caveat to what is to come, I wish to champion La Antena for taking an earlier stab at what many are hailing The Artist as so daringly attempting now. The Artist might do a better job of it, but it didn’t do it first. Of course, La Antena was a rather avant-garde piece of fantasy adventure, whilst The Artist, mimicking also the glorious days prior to the talkies, does so by way of Hollywood rather than Murnau or Lang (on the whole, at least), and is as much a celebration of the “Golden Age” of Hollywoodland as it is an ode to a cinematic style long since abandoned. Charmingly buoyant in its reverent approach, Hazanavicius’ feature is an absolute delight to watch, deserving of most – if not all – of the acclaim attributed to it.

 The film’s tale tracks the crossed paths of silent sweetheart George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) and Hollywood hopeful Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), meeting first at the premiere of George’s Fantomas riff, A Russian Affair, only to find their opposing paths entwined as the era of talkies sets into Hollywood. Together, the two actors’ stories track this major shift in studio output during the late 20s and early 30s, figured in Al Zimmer’s (John Goodman) studio, Kinograph, looking at the bright future of cinematic sound and the cost it had on those indelibly linked to silence. Hazanavicius’ film achieves this through mirroring the style of the very films he pays homage to, and as might be expected, a plethora of cues and quick references to the canon of early cinema abound throughout (it’s interesting to note what forms flattery can take; the didactic approach of Hugo, when compared to the more pronounced imitative aspect of The Artist, reads even more as an essay than it did prior).

 Of course, smug call-backs for the preening cinephile to gloat over do not a good film make, but Dujardin, Bejo and – wait for it - Uggie the dog manage to channel that sense of stardom embedded in those earlier films and elevate the film far beyond the status of a museum piece. The trio are electric, never more so than when onscreen together, and their presence is enough to carry the film through what is a rather lagging march to the inevitable climax. The fact that the Weinstein Company have managed to generate so much PR out of Uggie’s skill is a testament to the dog’s role in making the film so charming, and is in itself fittingly old school (bless him). The whole she-bang is rounded off by Ludovic Bource’s peppy (do-ho-ho-ho) score, perfectly mimicking the likes of Shield and Chaplin.

 It’s hard not to watch The Artist without grinning like a loon throughout, always endearing even in its most flawed, repetitive moments. Quite whether this is the Best Film of 2011 that happened to miss the cut off date is debatable – I think that would be a rather excessive claim – but it nevertheless represents a great start to the cinema of 2012 (even if it is filling that now familiar role of the early year “indie hit”).

The trailer is so Weinstein. Weinstein. Weinstein Weinstein Weinstein. Ok, I'll drop it.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Join the spectrum

In order to get more fully involved in my collaborative effort, Spectrum, I will be making that site my first port of call for film reviews and thoughts from now on. You Killed the Car will still be updated, but will usually pay host to reviews for films that one of my cohorts may have already called dibs on back over at Spectrum.

I'm not sure how many regular readers I have these days as I know things have dropped off the past few months. However, if you're still around and enjoy my work, PLEASE do come and have a gander at Spectrum. I've got reviews for Hugo and The Awakening up, whilst pal Nick has his own take on Tintin, as well as We Need to Talk About Kevin, Take Shelter and David Lynch's new album Crazy Clown Time. My top 10 films for 2011 will be discussed with Nick's choices on the site, offering something a bit different to the usual linear listing. It should be good, so come and check it out!

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Tintin: the Secret of the Unicorn review

The best thing about Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn was its opening credits. In them, familiar (or else soon to be) silhouettes conduct a shadow play, darting in and out between highly stylised, colour blocked scenery to a silent drama. In the space of a few short minutes, our mute Tintin discovers a murder victim or two, jostles with a thief, and then chases said criminal across land sea and air in a display of plucky heroism. Fast paced, fun, economic storytelling. Exactly what the rest of the film isn’t.

It’s not exactly asking for much, contextually, to expect Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn to be the next Indiana Jones. Like that killer adventure franchise before it, the Hollywood debut of Tintin follows the coupling of (former) imagination factory Spielberg with a much lauded director famous for his work in epic genre cinema, taking on a world thoroughly indebted to the early 20th century’s love of globe-trotting adventurers. Oh, and this time round, three of England’s biggest names in TV and cinema today happen to have co-scripted the thing, and one of those writers happens to be responsible for the recent injection of intelligence into the revived Doctor Who. Another one is famous for his hyper-kinetic storytelling in films such as Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs the World. So no, it’s not exactly asking for much is it?

Perhaps Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn was always setting itself up for a pratfall, given how loudly it declared its backstage kudos, parading it about to all and sundry. Certainly, it acts like it’s going to deliver on those promises in the aforementioned credit sequence. And then the film proper starts, and it all gently unravels – slowly and steadily – before your eyes. Tintin, as the do-gooder to end all do-gooders, needs a world filled to the brim with charm and heart-stopping adventure to offset his at times plank-like demeanour, and in the comics, Herge of course got this right – those books are loved for a reason. But in the process of translating this world to the screen, one can’t but feel that WETA and Spielberg got a bit too enamoured with their (admittedly fantastic) CGI work and forgot that the devil is in certain other, more filmic, details along the way.

(Such is life in the wireframe world)

Racking in at a weighty 106 minutes, what follows is a rather bland adventure in which Tintin (Jamie Bell) tracks down the secret of the Unicorn Man’O’War, racing against the somewhat irritating villain Sakharine (Daniel Craig, doing his best to channel a snarky school teacher) and forging a lifelong friendship with the alcoholic Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) along the way  - picking up something of a heart for the film in doing so (there is a reason all of the TV promos are emphasising Haddock’s lines rather than Tintin’s. And this is a series where the moderate blandness of the protagonist is supposed to be endearing). The film seems to lurch from technically accomplished if emotionally uninvolving set piece to set piece, occasionally offering glimpses of real charm (Snowy, Haddock, Tintin when he’s able to get his shit together) that are swiftly undercut by utter frustration (Pegg and Frost’s Thompson and Thomson specifically). It all plays out a bit like a balloon having the wind let out – loud and proud to begin with, before dissolving into a half hearted whimper of final cold air at that last, critical moment.

It’s a bloody shame as the cards were laid out for something beautiful here, and at times, the film feels like it might still achieve this Platonic ideal, allowing you to walk away feeling fleetingly entertained if not actually impressed. Unfortunately, all this really does is confirm two things for me (assuming Jackson’s involvement was notable):

a)      Spielberg is irredeemable.
b)      Jackson wants you to fall asleep in the cinema. I fucking told you all, so I did.

Tintin ain’t bad. Like its titular hero, it’s colourless and inoffensive. For Tintin, that’s fine – it’s the world around him that fills in the details. For his film, however, it means the final product is a little cold. You expect more. And you’re right to. Given the talent involved, the unremarkableness of the final product is unforgivable.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

That there is Spectrum!

Spectrum is a new collaborative blog, between myself and a number of friends. It will cover film, music, TV, literature, original creative writing and art, and anything else that comes to mind. It is shiny and new and exciting, with Nick Pierce heading the way on filmic content with a cracking review of We Need to Talk About Kevin.

You Killed the Car will remain my first port of call for any film-related thoughts and opinions, but if you're interested in a wider pool of writing, have a look-in at Spectrum. Over the next couple of weeks, we're hoping to get the ball really rolling with something cool, so t'would be grand if you'd come along with us!

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Happy Birthday YKTC!

Happy birthday dear blog, happy birthday to you.

Still awfully quiet I know. But two things are set to change that:

1) A landfill's worth of books dedicated to new teachers trying to piece together a life outside of work.

2) A Spectrum of varied content waiting in the wings to be offered to you and more!

See you soon, hopefully with a lovely surprise!

(Also, the spectre of YKTC past lives on, in the form of a Neil Blompkamp Retrospective Redux! Over here at Dreaming Genius )

Sunday, 25 September 2011

A Surprise Guest Appearance from the Missing Author

I am currently three weeks into a job in teaching, and am neck high in work-related stuff, so, as you've guessed, the blog's semi-hiatus is once again full on. Sorry guys, I'll try and keep things ticking over when I can, but that might not be for awhile yet.

In other news, Tony Nunes and Dreaming Genius blog have very kindly included me in their initiative and cross-posted June's Joystick Cinema essay. Please do check out the rest of their blog, as it spans all sorts ranging from music to film to literature. It's a cracker.

Also, I'm in print! Why not buy issue 2 of New Empress Magazine if you like what I have to say, or want to read the (far greater) words of others who say what you and I like to hear.

I'm going back in my hole now. Bye.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

The Case Against 'The Lord of the Rings'

Following on from the previous post, courtesy of Rob Keeling, here is my response to the LOTR trilogy. Those of you who agreed with Rob might not as keen on what I have to say...

I’m well aware that I’m fighting on the losing side when it comes to picking a brawl against Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings series (2001-2003), going against a formidable force made up of everything from the casual movie watcher to the die-hard fantasy fan, all of whom will no doubt vouch for the sheer power of the films – the audience who really felt the magic of the series. Like a lost orphan cat wondering the streets however, I am not amongst them. No, I prowl around the phenomenon, occasionally popping up to nibble at some little scrap before moving on, detached from the core proceedings, perhaps scratching my back against a dying Orc’s armour plating as I do so. Maybe playing with a trinket hanging from an Elf’s head dress while the fate of the world is decided in a New Zealand forest. If I’m really lucky I get to eat a wee crumb of Lembas bread Samwise carelessly dropped on his way up to Mordor, but that’s really a rare opportunity. It’s a hard life. The point is, I’m not totally engaged, and I’m not too sure I have a solid reason beyond personal taste (or seeming lack of?). I would genuinely rather watch Footloose again. Maybe even She’s the Man. Nevertheless, over the next few paragraphs, I’m going to try and offer up my opinion on why the Lord of the Rings films just aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, possibly relying / deflecting on to King Kong (2005) more than is really necessary along the way.

I was about eleven when I first found out a Lord of the Rings series was being made. I’d read The Hobbit and had been informed on a vague synopsis of the epic sequel by a friend at school – the idea that Bilbo’s little old invisibility ring was actually the One Ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them seemed pretty awesome to little old me. It certainly sounded a lot edgier than The Hobbit, which, though fun, had some seriously anodyne moments. Surely an epic full of battles would offer nothing of that sort though, right? So we fast-orward another year or so, and it’s time to go see The Fellowship of the Ring with the folks, a film that was going toe-to-toe with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in my mind as the ultimate Christmas movie of 2001 EVER. Needless to say, Fellowship did of course win hands down (even then, Daniel Radcliffe’s closing lines of “but Hagrid, we’re not allowed to use magic outside of Hogwarts” sounded like a hostage reading from the kidnapper’s cue card for ransom).  

is still my favourite of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and is a film I could happily watch again and again. From the opening prologue on the War of the Rings up until that final cliffhanger with the Fellowship already divided (I distinctly remember a kid at school vehemently complaining that the film had been released unfinished to anyone who applauded it in the playground), its seat of your pants stuff. What that guy at school said is in fact rather ironic, as to my mind Fellowship actually feels to be the most complete of the three films that make up the trilogy – it’s probably the only one you can watch and enjoy as a self contained unit if you so choose, having as it does an accomplished narrative arc that carries a sense of immediate progression that comes to a conclusion of a sort in the wake of the Uruk-hai attack at Parth Galen and Boromir’s death. This is no doubt largely a result of the “road-trip” set up that characterises the film; Frodo and gang travel across the landscape of Middle Earth, forming a growing unit of warriors along the way and having distinct, episodic adventures along the way (Bree, Rivendell, the Mines of Moria etc). All the while, the group are pursued by the Ringwraiths, a formidable lot who are set up to be a constant, nagging presence throughout the trilogy...and then they’re not, replaced instead by the Uruk-Hai, who in turn sort of stop mattering so much after they’ve dusted off Boromir. Indeed, when the Nazgul King finally shows up in Return of the King, his overdue arrival is a bit lame – like, 80s puppeteer fantasy level lame. But I’m getting ahead of myself – plenty of space to gripe on that movie a bit later...

A year later, Frodo’s adventures continued with The Two Towers, and the problems with the trilogy began to crack through the polished veneer. With our Fellowship split up, the story now spreads itself between three core threads; Frodo and Samwise taking the ring to Mordor, Aragorn and co. heading to the Saxon settlement of Rohan to gather support and...Merry and Pippin sort of flouncing around trying not to get caught and generally acting as filler material. Well, can’t have it all I guess. But wait! After the initial intrigue of King Theoden’s possession by Wormtongue, it all seems to start descending into making the necessary on-screen moves to get everyone prepped up for the Battle of Helm’s Deep etc, acceptable in that the battle is a rather fitting way to end the film, but after the watertight, relatively compressed storytelling of Fellowship, that sense of urgency that the former ended on just isn’t quite there any more, no matter how hard Jackson and gang try and fake it. This wouldn’t be so bad usually – the midpoints of most stories, epic or not, rely upon a sort of spring-cleaning and manoeuvring before the endgame may take place, but then Return of the King happens...

The day I saw Return of the King in the cinema was the day I realised how similar to an isolation cell a screening room can be. Promises of a return to the succinctly loaded narration of the first film are offered in the pre-credits sequence providing the origin of Gollum with flare, but then it all goes Two Towers 2: Electric Boogaloo by just becoming a random mess of disparate battles and tying-up-of-threads for three hours. It doesn’t matter if you’re Jackson, Bay, or whoever, just because actions scenes are good doesn’t mean that piling them up one on top of another makes good storytelling. Somewhere along the way, what we’re invested in begins to get lost in the background (please don’t kill me this is just my personal opinion). Return of the King is in fact the only film in the trilogy I’ve been unable to watch the whole way through beyond my first encounter; when we first bought the DVD, just looking at it made me feel cold, tired, and in need of a good lie down with some Whitney Houston ballads playing in the background to calm me down. Return of the King, for me, highlights everything that’s wrong with the trilogy as a whole, and indeed my major gripes with Peter Jackson’s career post-gore-fest-Brain-Dead days. On the surface, everything’s there for a major blockbuster; action, adventure, and a strong cast of performers doing a sturdy job. But underneath it all, there’s an odd lack of soul and a gnawing sense of tedium that I swear everyone just pretends they can’t feel because “goodness me haven’t WETA done a great job!” (And they really have – if nothing else, the trilogy provided us with a special effects house so accomplished that it’s only topped by ILM). It’s there in 2005’s King Kong too, a remake that somehow managed to play out the length of the original 1933 classic twice without offering a whole lot more depth in doing so. Jackson’s Kong is absolutely interminable, and I feel awful for saying that because I can feel the love put into the painstaking recreation of the era, but it’s bloody boring, even if it does contain a barely-fictionalised version of Orson Welles (if he’d happened to find a giant gorilla...). Things rack up similarly for Return of the King; I can see the technical achievement, but for me there’s nothing beyond it.

“But what about the Extended Editions, Tom? Maybe they’ll show you the light!” I hear you cry! And for a time, I entertained that notion too. I recently had the pleasure of seeing the Extended Editions for the first time, however, and I am sorry to say that it merely exacerbated my condition rather than curing it. Seeing a meatier Fellowship was an absolute delight, a lengthier Two Towers felt a bit like a TV mini-series plodding along to make the necessary episode limit, and – guess what – I didn’t even make it the whole way through Return, opting instead for a nap / morphine. The additions of the scenes merely highlight the lack of real structure in the latter two films, the final film particularly seemingly just drifting along to its conclusion by way of battle after battle. I have heard that it is a popular activity to watch all three of the Extended cuts in a marathon, a process that equates to 682 minutes of viewing time – or, 11 hours, 22 minutes. In that time, a whole day has been lost. Here are a number of other activities that may have been carried out instead in the same time:
  • ·         A Godfather trilogy marathon
  • ·         A day trip to somewhere you’ve never been before - perhaps a spa visit.
  • ·         Eleven hour long baths. Eleven. With time to quickly dry off between each one.
  • ·         Running up and down the stairs one thousand, three hundred and sixty four times. Think of all the calories burned.
  • ·         You could have finally got through on that customer services call that kept putting you on hold.
  • ·         682 issues of Hello! Magazine (assuming you take your time with each issue)
The possibilities beyond even those mouth-watering delights are near endless. At least to me. Given the above tirade, it might strike you as more than a little bit odd that I’m actually looking forward to The Hobbit. Hopefully the simpler story will catch me onboard. Plus, a dragon voiced by ol’ Benedict – the stuff dreams are made of right there. For those of you versed in videogames however, part of me feels like I’m just letting myself in for another Halo style disappointment (yes, Halo fanboys, I don’t care for your stinkin’ franchise either you precious little bunch of sniffling noses. I’m a Sonic the Hedgehog man, shitty games be damned!). We must wait and see, secure at least in the knowledge that Guillermo del Toro’s “thorns for Thorin!” type designs didn’t make the cut, and hopeful that the brisk pacing of Fellowship will return once again. I know I won’t have won anyone over with my rant, and have probably made a lot of enemies, but I can’t be the only soul who secretly thinks The Lord of the Rings films are a bit boring, right? Please, if you’re out there, contact me. I’m cold and alone.