Author Archives: Gareth Negus

The Dictator

The Dictator, the new film from Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles, is both similar and fundamentally different to their previous collaborations, Borat and Bruno. Once again, Baron Cohen is playing a foreigner in America, an outrageous figure whose behaviour and attitudes challenge the westerners he encounters. The difference is that the people he meets are not unwitting members of the public, but actors delivering scripted dialogue. The change has some advantages, but something is lost along the way.

Baron Cohen plays General Aladeen, Dictator of Wadiya. While visiting America (a land “built by the blacks, and owned by the Chinese”) to assure the UN that his nuclear programme is entirely peaceful, an attempted coup by General Tamir (Ben Kingsley) leaves Aladeen penniless and beardless on the streets, with a slow-witted double in his place in the palace. He is taken in by Zooey (Anna Faris), a left-wing manager of a fair trade grocery, who loathes Aladeen and all he stands for; and soon, the dictator’s plans to retake his country are distracted by his growing affection for Zooey.

You might think that having an actual script (I’m sure plenty of improvisation went on, but still) might result in a more focussed plot than Baron Cohen’s previous films. That’s not really the case, though. The Dictator is still essentially a vehicle for another larger-than-life character; Aladeen dominates the film, with virtually all the characters being reduced to foils for him – the exception being his reluctant sidekick, Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas). You can’t help but wonder on occasion whether more comic mileage could have been made from including a least a few unsuspecting members of the public. The plot is serviceable but thin (it is claimed to be based on Zabibah and The King, a novel by Saddam Hussein; I would love to how closely). A number of scenes feel more like sketches rather than integral parts of the film. Some are very funny, but some (the funeral in particular) serve no obvious purpose other than beefing out the running time.

Some of the toilet humour gags had me rolling my eyes wearily (honestly, has there ever been a man in all of human history who couldn’t work out how to masturbate without help?). But there are plenty more that hit the spot. The laughs start straight away (the film is lovingly dedicated to Kim Jong-il). There’s a great scene in a helicopter which I won’t spoil, and Aladeen’s climactic address to the UN and the representatives of western democracy is hilariously caustic. I would have preferred to have more moments like this, and less defecating on passers-by from a great height (yes, that happens). Overall though, the film hits more than it misses, and is certainly better than Bruno.


Sci-Fi London 2012

I only spent a day at the International Festival of Science Fiction and Fantastic Film, but the four films I saw managed to cover a pretty good range: two documentaries, one actual sf film and one fantasy gave a pleasingly varied spread.

The day started with a definite highlight: a new film directed by William Shatner. There’s a sentence I never thought I’d type. And yet it’s true: his documentary The Captains managed to be funny, interesting and moving.

The basic idea is that Shatner is jetting around the world to interview the various other actors to have played Captains in various versions of Star Trek: Patrick Stewart, Avery Brooks, Kate Mulgrew, Scott Bakula and Chris Pine. There’s every reason to fear this might not work. Shatner, after all, is probably the closest thing America has to Tom Baker. Like Baker, he is indelibly linked to a role in a sci-fi series, and has been happily playing a caricatured version of himself for so long that it’s impossible to tell where the persona ends and the real person begins. But while there’s a fair amount of Shatner doing his thing (wandering around a Trek convention and enjoying the whoops as people notice him), there’s also plenty of space for the other actors to talk – although Brooks prefers to answer questions through the magical language of jazz rather than English. (Is he like this all the time? It must be exhausting for everyone else.)

Along the way, interesting parallels emerge: all the actors had a stage background before being cast in Trek (though the tiny clip we see of Shatner in Shakespeare suggests his liking for generous slices of ham didn’t start with Where No Man Has Gone Before). A couple cite great teachers for inspiring their interest in the arts. All talk about how the long hours demanded by weekly TV shows affected their personal lives; in the most moving sequence, a clip of Shatner and Bakula laughing ruefully over stories of their divorces (Bakula’s was during his time on Quantum Leap) segues to Stewart admitting that his greatest regret is how he behaved during his two marriages.

Shatner doesn’t completely put his ego aside. He credits Stewart’s approach to the role, as stated during their interview, with helping him overcome his embarrassment at being associated with Trek. At that point, the cynic in me did perk up, asking: Really, Bill? You had this epiphany only just now, after how many films and conventions, during the making of your film? While I don’t doubt that Shatner’s perception of his most famous work has shifted in the way he describes, the idea that it took this long felt driven more by the need to give the documentary a narrative resolution than by strict chronological accuracy. But that’s a minor point. The Captains is a very entertaining film, and while it is obviously of particular interest to Trek fans, it should also appeal to anyone interested in hearing actors talk about their craft.

The second documentary of the day, Eric Solstein’s The Golden Age of Science Fiction, is likely to appeal to a narrower audience. The subject is John W Campbell Jr, legendary editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine whose reign spanned over thirty years. The picture that emerges from the various talking heads is occasionally contradictory; the jury may be permanently out on whether he was the appalling racist and anti-semite painted in some anecdotes, or whether, as other suggest, he just liked being contrary to inspire a reaction. The most interesting part of the film is a 1965 short by James Gunn, Lunch with John Campbell, which records a lunch-cum-editorial discussion between Campbell and two of his writers, including Harry Harrison, as they attempt to pitch Campbell an SF version of Lifeboat. Later, I wondered what they would have made of Eric Hayden’s The Last Push, which was a lifeboat story of sorts. Khary Payton (who is very good) plays astronaut Michael Forrest, who is woken from hibernation by a technical malfunction aboard the first manned flight to Jupiter’s moon Europa, where evidence of life has been spotted. With his co-pilot dead and the habitation module wrecked, Forrest is stuck in a tiny room, with communication subject to long delays, obliged to rewire the ships engines in order to get back to Earth – a journey which takes several years.

You can’t imagine this particular space oddity having much life outside festivals; certainly it would be too tough a sell for a theatrical release and I must confess that had I been watching on DVD, my finger may have connected with the fast forward button. The real issue is that it’s a struggle to imagine Forrest, or anyone, staying sane, stuck in one room over that length of time (and I was impressed with the way his one set of clothes still looked as good as new at the end – maybe they’re made from some super futuristic fabric). Payton just about keeps it believable, and the film does have some very pretty FX shots, but this is ultimately a noble effort that doesn’t quite come off.

My final film of the day, Kurt Kuenne’s Shuffle, was a very different kettle of fish. A romantic fantasy, it follows photographer Lovell Milo (TJ Thyne) who is, for reasons unknown to him, living his days in a completely random order. One day he is 92; the next, 30; the next, ten. He becomes convinced this is happening so that he can change a tragic event in his life; all he has to do is work out what that was, when it happened, and how he can avoid it.

Festival Director Louis Savy assured me this film would make me cry. I insisted that was highly unlikely, on the grounds that I am cold and dead inside, while secretly hoping he was right. Sadly, my tear ducts remained dry; although some scenes do pack a decent punch – particularly those between the young Lovell and his fairly monstrous father – the resolution becomes too treacly for me (part of the problem is the string-heavy, romantic score, which Kuenne also composed). It’s ultimately closer to It’s a Wonderful Life than Memento, but I don’t doubt that’s completely what Kuenne was aiming for. I’m also sure that plenty of people will love it dearly, and that’s absolutely fair enough.

The Cabin in the Woods

Some facts about The Cabin in the Woods are known by pretty much everyone who might care. Everyone knows it’s written by Joss Whedon. Most people know it’s co-written and directed by Drew Goddard. A fair few know its release has been delayed for several years due to financial issues; it was made before star Chris Hemsworth got to be Thor. (It’s been so long, you may even wonder if it was made before Bradley Whitford got The West Wing.) But the main thing people know is not to read too much about it before seeing it.

And they are quite right. This is certainly a film where anything more than a minimal plot synopsis leads to major spoilers. I avoided most of these, but I did see the trailer, and with hindsight would rather I hadn’t; granted, it’s impossible to create an entirely spoiler-free trail without making the film look like a piece of generic hack work, but it still meant I was alert to some plot twists. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, even though it’s probably too late now.

While it’s hard to write about the film in a wholly spoiler-free manner, I shall do my best to minimise the damage (though you may wish to stop reading now). The Cabin in the Woods starts with a group of five college friends – good girl Dana (Kristen Connolly), not-so-good girl Jules (Anna Hutchison), beefcake Curt (Hemsworth), brain Holden (Jesse Williams) and stoner Marty (Fran Kranz) – heading off for a weekend in the titular holiday spot. The sort of things that always happen in these films duly happen; they encounter a creepy local at the run-down gas station, they nose around in the cellar where they find lots of weird stuff – sinister puzzle boxes, dead peoples’ diaries, old portraits of Jodelle Ferland looking scary, that kind of thing.

But while that sounds like the set-up of dozens of films you’ve seen before, Whedon and Goddard delight in surprising you at every turn. One big reveal just isn’t enough for them: Cabin has stacks of them, starting in the opening minutes, with the introduction of two characters played by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jennings. Whitford and Jennings play very well together, and it’s a pleasure to watch them interact with several Whedon regulars (Amy Acker, among others). The younger cast members also make good work of deliberately archetypal characters; Kranz, who is lucky enough to deliver most of the characteristic Whedon gags, gets most of the laughs.

In its deconstruction of horror film storytelling, the films Cabin most reminded me of were Wes Craven’s po-mo classics Scream and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. One of those films was a massive hit on release, the other tanked; I wouldn’t like to guess which end of the scale Cabin will land at when it’s finally released in a couple of weeks. I don’t see it having anything like the effect of Scream, whose success led to the rebirth of the non-ironic slasher film. Certainly, I suspect not everyone will like the ending. I did, in large part because I suspected it was going to end rather differently.

It’s very much a film for and by people who love horror films, but get frustrated by their clichés. It’s funny, clever, and – though the knowing humour does work against any genuine sense of dread – it’s even reasonably scary in places. It’s absolutely worth seeing.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

The gripping Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of those films that makes you want to rush out and urge everyone in sight to see it as soon as possible. I felt the same way about Winter’s Bone in 2010, and MMMM ticks some of the same boxes: an American indie centred around an incredible performance by a young actress I’d never previously heard of, with a great supporting turn by John Hawkes. But the film is very much its own beast.

The film opens with Martha – aka Marcy May (Elizabeth Olsen) – slipping away from a small country farm where, we learn, she has been living for a couple of years. Apparently terrified, she calls her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) to collect her. Once back at the home Lucy shares with her husband (Hugh Dancy), Martha tries to settle in; refusing to discuss where she’s been or what has happened to her, it’s only gradually that they, and we, register how deeply traumatised she actually is.

This truth is revealed in part through a series of flashbacks to Martha’s time with the cult, which is presided over by the charismatic but evil Patrick (Hawkes). The situation so far is not unfamiliar if you’ve seen other films about Manson-inspired cult leaders (sure enough, the trailer reorders them into chronological order, making the film appear much more of a conventional thriller than it actually is). Plenty of horror films have taken the same basic premise, though the horror in MMMM is psychological rather than the more graphic horrors of, say, Kevin Smith’s Red State. Writer/director Sean Durkin constructs his film so that as the flashbacks become increasingly disturbing to watch, so Martha’s behaviour becomes more and more unpredictable. Starting out as merely odd – she sleeps curled on the edge of her bed, goes swimming naked and is surprised that anyone might be shocked – by the end she has become completely paranoid, barely able to tell what is real and what isn’t.

It’s a shame that Hugh Dancy’s character is a rather two dimensional yuppie, as it weakens some sections of the film. Martha critiques his materialistic lifestyle, pointing out that there are other ways to live. If the intention is to suggest that modern capitalistic enslaves people just as much as crazy cult leaders in the middle of nowhere, it doesn’t quite come off. But it’s a minor problem.

Olsen is superb in the lead role, and deserves award recognition. As her mental state deteriorates, we are ultimately sucked entirely into her fractured world view. The way the film ends will not be liked by all. I’ve heard it compared to the ending of the recent Take Shelter, which I felt was entirely different, and more accurately to John Sayles’ Limbo. All I can say is that it worked for me, and the final scenes had my stomach in knots. This riveting film is a triumph for both Durkin and Olsen.


A deeply odd film, it is a struggle to work out exactly who the audience for W.E. is supposed to be – unless it’s Madonna herself. If you don’t happen to be Madonna, you are likely to find it fundamentally unsatisfying. A strange attempt to blend King’s Speech style costume drama with The Hours and Drop Dead Fred, it doesn’t reach the high points of any.

The film flits between the stories of Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), the American divorcee for whom King Edward VIII (James D’Arcy) gave up the throne of England, and Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), unhappily married in the present day to a wealthy shrink (Richard Coyle). Wally is named after Wallis, and is obsessed with her story, spending hours hanging around the Sotheby’s exhibition of her soon-to-be-auctioned personal effects.

Madonna not only directed the film (and quite competently, actually, though perhaps a bit heavy on the homages); she also co-wrote it, with Alek Keshinian (director of the Madonna documentary In Bed with Madonna). And it’s the screenplay that’s the problem. It contains a fairly high level of bemoaning the difficult lives of the wealthy and privileged – much is made of Wallis’ sacrifice of privacy for her Royal affair, being endlessly pursued by the press, to the point that you feel Madonna is bringing her personal baggage to the table. Which does feel like a bit of an overstatement; they may have married in a castle, but Guy Ritchie was hardly royalty.

We are left to consider to what extent the historical sections are intended as a ‘true’ story (in the way that The King’s Speech, say, is presented as a ‘true’ story) and to what extent they are Wally’s fantasy versions; this is particularly pertinent in a party sequence which sees Wallis and her society chums dance with The Sex Pistols on the soundtrack. Is Wally adding her own preferred soundtrack to her image of what Wallis’ life might have been like? Or is the scene there because Madonna has seen Sofia Coppolla’s Marie Antoinette and thought, I’ll try that?

The major difficulty with the dual storyline is that Wally is not particularly interesting. We know she has a fascination with Wallis and is in a crappy marriage, but that seems to be about all there is to her. Attempts to draw parallels between their lives are pretty superficial, so her sense of connection is never convincing. At the end, as Wally tells Wallis she no longer needs her, I had to stifle laughter. It felt as emotionally true as an episode of Ghost Whisperer.

The film is generally well acted and put together, but the shallow screenplay dooms it. It’s not the cataclysmically dire film some reports have claimed, but it never feels like much more than a vanity project.

Hugo and The Artist

In the past week and a bit, I’ve seen two films which both act as loving tributes to early cinema: Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, and Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist. I enjoyed each one to a large degree, yet there’s something small but significant missing from both.

There’s an obvious difference between the two: The Artist is a silent film (or almost), produced in a manner that makes it look like the movies of the time in which it is set. Hugo, though steeped in visual references to the works of the 1920s and earlier, is in up-to-the-minute digital 3D. And while The Artist appears to take it as read that the audience will be broadly familiar, at least on some level, with the narrative conventions it adopts, Hugo functions in part as Scorsese’s introductory lecture on film history for kids.

Hugo is an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, with which I am unfamiliar. It is set in a snow-covered, romanticised Paris between the wars, where orphan Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives in the walls of the central station; he spends his time winding the clocks, dodging the station inspector who is determined to pack him off to an orphanage, and stealing parts for the automaton he was trying to repair with his late father. This brings him into conflict with the grumpy old man who runs the station toy shop, who turns out to be – spoiler alert! – silent cinema pioneer George Méliès (Ben Kingsley). Bitter after the loss of his films and public following after the First World War, Méliès has kept his work secret from his goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) who teams up with Hugo to discover his secret.

Though it’s being promoted as a family adventure, Hugo contains relatively little adventuring beyond the children scampering around the station hiding from adults. Not a problem in itself (though judging from the audience numbers at the multiplex where I saw the film, the distributors have miscalculated in releasing it on the same day as Happy Feet Two), but the film unfortunately comes grinding to a halt once Méliès’ true identity is revealed. This plot twist allows Scorsese to share a potted biography of Méliès, introduce his best known works, and indulge in some regrets about how much early cinema has been lost forever. I found myself wondering whether the handful of children in the audience grasped that the character on screen was based on a real person.

The story ends with lots of people watching a film, which is probably the happiest ending possible in Scorsese’s book. The lack of an actual villain (even the Inspector is treated sympathetically) means the stakes never feel particularly high, and the second half of the film ambles to its conclusion. But despite that, there is plenty to enjoy – the production design creates a delightful version of the Gare Montparnasse criss-crossed with the labyrinth of hidden passages in which Hugo makes his home. Butterfield and Moretz play their parts with plenty of wide-eyed charm, and the supporting cast is full of welcome faces – it’s always a pleasure to see Christopher Lee.

It also has what is possibly the best use of 3D I’ve seen to date. In virtually all other modern 3D films – even Avatar – I’ve found myself become accustomed to the effect by the half way mark, only noticing it thereafter if something is very obviously stuck out of the screen at me, whereupon it becomes a distraction from the narrative. This reduces the effect to the level of a gimmick; fine for something like Final Destination 5, but an irritant when it comes to storytelling. In this case, I was conscious of the 3D throughout the film. Though it felt unnecessary in one or two places – a shot of three people talking in a room doesn’t require this kind of technical trimmings – for the most part it satisfyingly added to the world Scorsese and his team were building. He takes every opportunity to place objects in the foreground – lights hanging from the walls, Hugo’s hands as he winds a clock. At one point, Sacha Baron Cohen’s face looms menacingly from the screen. Yet Scorsese saves the best ‘til last, working in some 3D renderings of vintage Méliès films that present these familiar images in a thrilling new way.

The Artist is perhaps less concerned with saluting the pioneers of film than it is with showing audiences a good time, something it does quite successfully. Told largely in the language of silent films, it does have a few jokes that play to the modern audience’s expectations of soundtracks. They are far too much fun to spoil, but I’ll mention the opening sequence, which takes place at the premiere of George Valentin’s (Jean Dujardin) latest drama. The hero is being questioned by the enemy agents who have captured him: “I will never talk!” he assures them in the intertitle. (The gag is repeated later when his wife tells him, “We have to talk.”) As the screening ends, we see Valentin behind the screen listening for the audience’s reaction. To us it appears non-existent, until a shot of the audience reveals what the character could hear – they are all applauding wildly.

The film is set at the end of the silent era, as film studios start switching to sound (much as they would start enthusiastically converting everything to 3D decades later). Valentin dismisses sound as a gimmick, and refuses to even try it (what seems like a baffling attitude is neatly explained in the final scene). Consequently, his star does not fade so much as implode overnight, while Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), the starlet who adores him and played a small role in his last major feature, becomes a sensation.

While there’s no denying the success of the storytelling, but the actual story of The Artist is pretty weak. Valentin is not a particularly sympathetic, or even interesting, character; Dujardin’s broad playing is reminiscent of his lead role in the 0SS comedies, but The Artist is not a spoof. Peppy, though aptly named, is just as two dimensional. While I greatly enjoyed the film’s ingenuity and homages to a bygone age, I would have liked to have become emotionally invested in the story as well. I wonder what impression modern audiences, those unfamiliar with the breadth and artistry of the best silent films, will make of the form; Valentin’s swansong is, after all, a pretentious melodrama which seems to deserve its box office failure. Hugo, on the other hand, has its young leads sneak into a cinema to watch Harold Lloyd in Safety Last – a film which definitely still works as a crowdpleaser today.

It will be interesting to see whether either film helps spread an interest in early cinema, particularly among young audiences who may not yet have seen a silent film – which do still have showings across the country, albeit sporadically in most cases. I would say Hugo, with its more appealing characters and modern gloss, has the better chance of doing this; The Artist is more likely to find itself preaching to the converted, no matter how many Oscar nominations it ends up with. Either way, it’s good to see cinema’s history being celebrated so warmly by two such enjoyable films.

The silly bits of Shark Night 3D

It’s not that I went into Shark Night 3D expecting anything particularly intelligent, obviously.  I was just looking for something entertaining about pretty people being eaten, and that’s what I got.  So I’m not complaining here, you understand; I enjoyed the film.  But despite that, I did come away with rather more than the usual number of nagging questions.

Some questions are pretty trivial.  For instance, did our heroine Sara (Sara Paxton) never once think that now might be a good moment to pop upstairs and put some trousers on?  I don’t mind that she didn’t; I was quite happy for her to spend about three quarters of the film in her bikini (left).  It just struck me as odd. 
I was rather more concerned with the details of the villains’ evil plan (and the spoilers start here).  Their plan really is pretty stupid, even for stupid villains in a stupid film (and one that comes from the director of Snakes on a Plane, so he’s not without form when it comes to films with implausible plots); it’s so stupid that you wonder if the characters (or the writers) have really bothered to stop and think it through.
Essentially, three men (I suppose they could have further partners who we don’t meet during the film) have decided to put lots of sharks into a salt water lake in order to create snuff films to be sold online – the logic being that Shark Week on TV is popular, so some people must be prepared to pay to see the real thing.  Now, even if we avoid wondering too hard about how they got hold of all these sharks and put them in the lake, and what is happening to the lake’s ecosystem as a result, this plan seems riddled with holes.  First of all, assuming the target market even exists (they don’t appear to have done any actual research), how do these rednecks expect to deliver the product?  Sure, they’re savvy enough to attach cameras to the sharks and get footage of their kills.  But where’s their website? How will they take payment?  How many customers do they need before they can even cover their start-up costs?
One villain, while explaining his evil plan to the tied up hero (thereby giving him time to escape in the traditional manner), points out that Faces of Death “can be downloaded by any 8 year old, for free!”  Without seeming to realise it, he has hit on a major problem for their potential business, one that should be factored into any film distributor’s business plan: the threat of online piracy. 
The snuff movie angle makes the film sound a bit like a late arrival to the torture porn bandwagon, but it’s a bit too lightweight for that – anything too nasty, that might have cost the film a lower certificate, is carefully avoided.  This does mean credibility suffers further (and I realise that discussing the credibility of a film like this is a pointless exercise), as the redneck villain who leers over the female victims in the early scenes then simply throws them to the sharks.  I’m certainly not bemoaning the absence of an attempted rape scene, least of all in a ‘fun’ b-movie like this; just regretting that the film bothers to set up an implied sexual threat, but then acts like it doesn’t exist.
A further question (one that also kept popping into mind during this year’s FrightFest): how the hell do these fuckwits expect to get away with it?  They’ve filled a lake, which people do appear to visit, with dozens of sharks.  Will none of the locals notice?  Are they all in on the plot?  And clearly, they will need a steady supply of fresh victims in order to keep their potential customers coming back for more.  This kind of killing spree only seems credible if the location is so incredibly remote that a huge search could conceivably fail to find the missing people (as in Wolf Creek, or Wrong Turn).  How many vacationing college kids can they throw to the sharks before someone takes notice? 
I enjoyed Shark Night, despite what the above might suggest; if you like this sort of thing, it’s worth a watch. I’d even accept that its barefaced fuckwittery added to the entertainment, in a way.  But given that it’s sillier than Shark Attack 1, 2 and 3 put together, watching it in an actual cinema rather than on DVD seemed wrong somehow.

How Marvel messed up Captain America

I don’t plan to spend much time on the first 105 minutes or so of Captain America.  Suffice to say, I enjoyed it, as I have pretty much all the Marvel adaptations.  It’s a fun adventure through an American folk memory version of World War II, with a few nods to Raiders of the Lost Ark as well as the rest of the Marvel canon.  It looks good, has a decent cast, a few good jokes, and all in all should satisfy anyone who has enjoyed the original comics.
But then you get the ending.  Which I’m going to talk about in detail, so beware if you haven’t seen the film yet.
It’s hardly a secret that the film is another designed to lead into next year’s The Avengers, which I’m looking forward to.  So it’s also hardly a shocker that the film sets up Captain America’s unfortunate freezing, allowing him to be woken in the present day still looking like Chris Evans; this is alluded to in the opening scene of the film.  But the way its handled is a major misjudgement. 
Everything’s fine until we reach Cap’s final face off with the Red Skull, in the latter’s plane.  At this point, Cap’s shield gives the Skull’s power source – the Cosmic Cube (I think that’s right, though I’m not 100% on all areas of Marvel lore).  The Skull picks it up and is apparently disintegrated (or possibly beamed up to Asgard in order to scheme another day). 
This is my first issue with the ending:  Cap appears to have beaten the Skull more by luck than anything else.  Unless I blinked and missed a bit of exposition (not impossible), he wasn’t fully clued up as to what the cube was and had no particular reason to think smacking it with his shield would solve all his problems.  And the Skull was pretty stupid to just pick it up like that, but then he is evil and mad and all.
But the biggest problem comes shortly afterwards, as Cap realises he’s going to have to go down with the ship and says a tearful goodbye to his love interest.  He crashes.  Then wakes up in the present day, in the very next scene.  That’s the end of the movie.
This is simply bad storytelling.  All the things the film has apparently been about – you know, heroism, freedom, the American spirit and that – are abruptly chucked away, along with the characters who helped represent it.  Because everyone is suddenly forgotten about; the people played by Hayley Atwell and Tommy Lee Jones and the rest are swept under the carpet.  What the hell happened to them?  The very least we could have had was a few captions letting us know what they went on to do; whether Peggy got married, whether Cap’s crack team of soldiers survived the war.  A shot of some sort of memorial to Captain America would have been good.  Something to show that his sacrifice was remembered, and had an effect on the people he cared about.  (Look at the end of Titanic, where Rose’s photos briefly fill you in on her post-iceberg life, to see what I’m talking about.) 
This is doubly necessary because Steve Rogers has not fundamentally changed at all since we met him.  He starts out as a decent guy who just wants to do the right thing; he ends up the same way.  If a story, even a broad and simplistic one like this, is going to satisfy the audience then it needs to show that the characters have changed.  And if the lead can’t change, then we need to see how he has changed others. 
Other Marvel movies understand this: Iron Man, Thor, Spider-Man all have lessons to learn in order to become heroes.  That’s why those films (even Iron Man II, just about) satisfy as films in their own right.  But Captain America doesn’t: what could have been a perfectly entertaining adventure is turned into nothing more than a two hour trailer for The Avengers, for which we’ve been charged the price of a normal ticket.  I’d hoped for, and expected, more.

Edinburgh 2011 reviews continued

Albatross: Enjoyable coming of age yarn that plays a little like Tamara Drewe, though for my money it’s a lot more entertaining.  The middle aged writer this time is Sebastian Koch, still living off and haunted by the success of his debut novel a couple of decades previously.  The object of his desire is Emilia (Jessica Brown-Findlay), a free spirit, aspiring writer and new best friend to his daughter Beth (Felicity Jones). 

Emilia is a gift of a role for Brown-Findlay, who will deservedly get a lot more work from this film (I was trying to remember what I recognised her from – turned out to be an episode of Misfits, though she was also in Downton Abbey).  Koch and Jones are also strong, as is Julia Ormonds as Beth’s bitter mother.  It is perhaps a bit too tidily structured (it’s like, everyone in the film has an albatross round their neck, yeah?) but a very worthwhile watch nonetheless.

Rabies: This Israeli horror starts like many a torture porn flick: a young woman is caught in a trap in the woods, a young man is struggling to free her, a killer is on the prowl.  Once the rest of the characters turn up – two couples looking for a tennis club, a couple of cops – it becomes more of a black comedy. On those terms it works pretty well, though it does stretch credulity that so many stupid people could show up in the same remote spot in such a tight time period.  The film has some decent jumps among the running around in the woods, and a good punchline, but the high level of fuckwittery on display makes you want to throttle many of the characters. 

Troll Hunter: The hotly anticipated found footage comedy horror from Norway.  A trio of students are attempting to make a film about an apparent poacher: it’s not really spoiling things to say he turns out to be a troll hunter, secretly employed by the Norwegian authorities to manage the country’s troll population. 

My expectations for this were probably too high, and I suspect I’ll like it more on a second viewing.  First time round I felt the need for more scares among the comedy, and a subplot about one of the characters becoming ill ends up going nowhere.  But the basic concept is strong, and the trolls themselves are beautifully rendered, looking just like you imagined them in childhood. 

The Divide: There seem to be a quite a few apocalypses on screen at Edinburgh this year (apocalypti?), and this is the most depressing.  After someone – we never know who – drops a nuke on New York, a group of characters hole up in a bunker under their apartment building to wait for rescue, which doesn’t come.  Things get gradually worse and worse for them, and the luckless audience.  I can’t honestly recommend that anyone see this film, but if you want something that crushes all sense of hope and fills you with loathing and contempt for your fellow man, then this certainly does the job.

Finally, The Caller.  A slightly odd selection for the Festival – it’s not bad by any means, but I’m not clear what it’s doing here rather than the shelves of HMV in a box with ‘the stars of Twilight and True Blood’ plastered across it.

Rachel Lefevre moves into an old apartment after splitting from her violent husband, where she starts getting phone calls from a woman who thinks it’s 1977.  Our heroine decides it would be a good idea to encourage her to be less of a doormat, only to inadvertantly create a monster – a crazed murderer who who is able to bump off the people she cares about before she’s even met them. 

It reminded me of Asif Kapadia’s The Return, in that it’s a straight to DVD premise with greater stylistic aspirations.  Lefevre and her love interest Stephen Moyer are both good, but it’s one of those films that will work just as well on TV.

Edinburgh 2011 part II

Interestingly, the first two documentaries I’ve seen at Edinburgh this year have followed very similar plot arcs.  Both concern an individual who is feted from an early age for his unusual intellectual abilities. In both films, the subject becomes a media darling before his unpredictable and aggressive behaviour begins to drive his friends away. He becomes a lonely, tragic individual before a late partial redemption, thanks to old friends and supportive well-wishers, allows him to live out his days in a degree of comfort and security. Both tell their stories through a.mix of archive footage and interviews with people who knew and worked with the subject, who is now deceased.

Also, they’re both excellent.

The comparison does fall down in that genius chess player Bobby Fischer- subject of Bobby Fischer Against the World- was brought down by his own paranoia and madness, whereas Nim Chimsky- the primate whose life is explored in Project Nim – was exploited  from birth by humans whose motives he could not possibly understand. He was initially part of an experiment to study apes’ potential to learn  to communicate like humans, being raised in a family like human baby, and taught sign language. Later, as  he became too strong and unpredictable to control, he ended up in an animal experimentation lab.

A number of his teachers clearly feel a degree of guilt for the part they played in Nim’s unnatural life (though the project’s originator might benefit from a little more self awareness). Nim’s essential powerlessness makes his story the more emotionally affecting of the two, but both films are highly recommended.