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Edinburgh 2012 part III

Let’s start with some nominees for the Michael Powell Award. Life Just Is starts with several characters watching a film on TV. One comments: “That’s 90 minutes of my life I’ll never get back”. This is what is known in Film Studies circles as ‘asking for trouble’.
I won’t comment further on the script, as I left about half way through. I took no pleasure in doing so – getting a film made obviously entails a great deal of work, and I generally feel I should at least watch the end result properly before putting the boot in.  But this time I just couldn’t.
He film is a tale of middle youth angst, starring a bunch of twentysomethings. The opening scenes are among the most stilted I’ve seen in years; a group of people sitting awkwardly in a room that, it is painfully obvious, is not where they live in real life (it is absurdly tidy), delivering dialogue with lengthy pauses between each line. It feels like watching an early rehearsal of a fringe play.  Whatever effect director Alex Barrett was aiming for is missed by miles.
It’s not as though he’s lacking in visual sense, though his influences can be a bit obvious; there’s a nice shot that follows one character along a street before circling round in front of him. But this will do him little good if he can’t master shooting dialogue that sounds as though it’s being delivered by actual human beings.
I am something of a sucker for films set in Cuba (even more so than for films set in Edinburgh). You’re pretty much guaranteed stunning locations and a great soundtrack. So John Roberts’ Day of the Flowers, the story of two bickering sisters taking their father’s ashes back to Trinidad, was always going to score some easy points from me.
There’s plenty more to like in the film as well, starting with the cast – Eva Birthistle and Charity Wakefield as the leads, and Carlos Acosta as the inevitable local romantic interest (the excellent Bryan Dick is sadly left largely on the sidelines). Against that, the plot unfolds in rather predictable fashion. You know Birthistle’s determinedly self-reliant and perpetually right-on character will have her preconceptions challenged, and will learn to accept help from the right sources. You know that she and her more materialistic sibling will fall out before becoming closer; and you know that some family secrets will be unexpectedly revealed (though some of the details here were left a little vague).  It hits all the emotional beats in a fairly effective manner, but that’s not always enough. There are a lot of films in cinemas, and for a release to stand out it generally needs either a massive marketing budget, or to be very, very good.  Day of the Flowers is an entertaining watch,  but the screenplay needed a further polish to raise it above the ‘fine for TV’ level.
Much better is California Solo. Robert Carlyle stars as a former britpop star now living quietly in California, where he works on a farm. Haunted by guilt over the death of his brother, he drinks far too much. When he’s caught driving drunk, an old drugs possession charge leaves him facing deportation.
It’s no surprise that Carlyle is terrific. What’s less expected is the fine screenplay from director Marshall Lewy. Lachlan (Carlyle’s character) has clearly spent a fair chunk of his life acting like a bit of a shit, yet Carlyle gives him the charm and charisma to show why his friends stick with him.
Better yet,the screenplay allows Carlyle to gradually reveal the character without having to spell things out. It makes it’s points about the need to accept and face the past without resorting to easy sentiment, and is all the more moving for it. Highly recommended.
A very different kettle of squid is Grabbers, yet along with California Solo, it’s perhaps the most satisfying film I’ve seen at Edinburgh yet this year. What we have here is essentially the Irish Tremors. It’s not quite as good as Tremors – few films are – but it’s several cuts above your average monster movie.
Something nasty and hungryis emerging from the waters around a tiny Irish island. It drinks blood, bites off heads, lays eggs and thrives in water – and there’s a big storm on the way, which makes things all the tougher for alcoholic Garda cop Richard Coyle and his perky, by-the-book partner Ruth Bradley.
The film looks good, and has impressive creature effects.  The cast is strong – Russell Tovey delivers some top drawer drunk acting – and, most importantly, someone has paid attention to the script, which delivers plenty of laughs. You’re bound to get a chance to see this one, and hopefully in cinemas: it’s a dead cert for FrightFest, and deserves a decent release.
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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.

My Oscar predictions

This year’s Oscars have a pretty good selection of films up for awards; it’s so good, in fact, that I worry a bit that the next six months will see nothing but crap released (bit of a worry when you run a cinema).  Whereas the Golden Globes were reduced to nominating The Tourist, and the BAFTAs managed to miss the fact that Winter’s Bone had even been released, the Oscars have managed to avoid any obvious omissions, and are pretty low on undeserving nominations.  I’ve seen all the Best Picture nominees except The Kids Are All Right, so I’m having a crack at predicting the results of the major awards.
I’ll start with the no brainers.  Natalie Portman clearly has Best Actress in the bag, and that’s in a year when she had a lot of strong competition (after Edinburgh this year I was certain Jennifer Lawrence had already nailed it).  She’s the perfect candidate in that great things have been predicted for her since Leon, but she’s never really given the performance everyone thought she was capable of (possibly because the right role just hasn’t come along).  Black Swan itself may be love it or hate it (I loved it myself) but most would agree this is a triumphant turn by someone who always seems like a nice person.  I don’t think anyone (well, maybe Annette Bening) would begrudge her the award.
Similarly, it seems pretty clear that it’s Colin Firth’s turn.  He’s come close before, so he’s shown patience and earned his spurs.  And he is genuinely very good in The King’s Speech. 

As for the rest, I would like to see The Social Network run off with the bulk of categories.  However, it’s facing the twin threat of a reliable, very well made, traditional British costume drama on one side and a reliable, very well made, traditional American costume drama on the other (King’s Speech and True Grit).  I might be wrong, but I suspect the Academy hive mind will share the awards out between these two, though I wouldn’t want to guess which will get Best Picture, with a smattering for the others.  Aaron Sorkin should get something for the screenplay, but that could well be the lot.
The Supporting Actor/Actress awards are tougher to call.  This is The Fighter’s best chance of picking up an award (well, unless it gets Best Sound Editing or one of the others that nobody really cares about) so it’s supporters may well decide to concentrate their votes here.  However, I will be actively enraged if Christian Bale gets something for his manic, scene hogging turn.  I don’t care how close he is to the real person he’s playing; it’s too big for the film.  But they love giving Oscars to people who play real people, and Bale is generally seen as Oscar worthy.  Just not for this one, please.  Similarly, though I’ve been a fan of Melissa Leo since her time in Homicide: Life on the Street, her turn in The Fighter is pitched to match Bale’s, and therefore becomes part of the problem.
I would rather see John Hawkes rewarded for Winter’s Bone, and Hailee Steinfield for True Grit (even though she’s playing the lead and should not, therefore, be in this category).  But I wouldn’t be totally surprised if the King’s Speech juggernaut takes these as well.
For director I would pick David Fincher, but the Coens will probably take it, leaving Original Screenplay for The King’s Speech.  Not an ideal split, but at least the nominations are fairly spread over a good selection of films, so everyone will have something good to put on the DVD covers.

A small lament for the death of FU

This morning, like most other mornings, I went online via my phone to have a quick look at any new posts on Film Unlimited, the film section of The Guardian’s talkboards.  Only to find it wasn’t there.  Someone had killed it overnight.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been quite so surprised.  There were rumours about it a few years ago, and I had noticed the ‘talk’ link had recently disappeared from the menu of the main Guardian film site; but that’s happened before and FU survived, so I just altered my bookmarks and thought nothing more of it.  Little did I realise that the End Times were upon us.
I’ve been posting on FU for seven years (I remember my first post was on The Passion of the Christ, so it was easy to check the date).  I had tried to start earlier; I first registered during the BBC2 run of 24 season 2, because the thread for that show was hilarious and I wanted to join in.  Unfortunately the registration process took so baffling long that by the time Frank100 was up and running, the season had ended.
In that time, it’s been rare that I’ve gone more than 24 hours without checking in.  I haven’t always posted, but I’ve always been reading.  The number of regular posters in that time has always been fairly small, but that’s partly why I liked FU so  much – it was relatively easy to get to know who was who (although people would sometimes switch usernames, causing temporary confusion) and to tune in to the various in jokes.  Maybe that did make the place feel cliquey on occasion, but it was the right kind of cliquey, if you see what I mean (and newbies were hardly unwelcome, so long as they could get past being asked if they were Wolfie).  Some of those people I’ve since met in real life; others I’ve only spoken with on the boards, but they feel like friends anyway.
Some of my personal highlights since have been TV threads for Harper’s Island and the Andrew Lloyd Webber talent shows, being a temporary dictator, and occasionally finding hundreds of new posts on a thread and realising there’d been an almighty row overnight.  On the morning of the 7/7 attacks, FU was the best place to get updates on what was happening in central London.  People were always ready with advice, and when I received a misaddressed threatening letter from an amusingly inept stalker a few years ago my first thought was, “Ooh, I must tell people on FU about this.” The releases threads were saved, going back years, and only last week I tracked down the thread for The Ruins after watching that film for the first time on TV.  Good stuff was happening right up to the end, with the True Grit thread being busy yesterday.  All of it gone, presumably forever.  It’s hard to believe I’ll never be able to read that Lost in Translation thread again.
I’m sure the Graun had valid reasons for axing the Boards, and for doing so without any warning worthy of the term.  There are other places on the web to gather; I’ve followed a further dozen or so FUers on Twitter so far today, and most followed me back in minutes.  Nothing’s really changed, except that the Guardian has lost a little bit of my loyalty.  But I’m feeling a tiny bit bereft all the same.  

Top 10 2010

This year I’ve seen 125 films; 115 in one of 21 various cinemas and another on screeners and in various video rooms.   I imagine I’ll squeeze in a couple more before 31 December, but unless Tron: Legacy turns out to be much less shite than I anticipate, my top 10 list of the year is pretty much set. 

It might look a bit different if I’d manage to catch everything I wanted, but inevitably one or two of the limited releases slipped through my fingers (Uncle Boonmee and Still Walking being chief among them).  Anyway, the ten have been arrived at without much in the way of deep thought – I’ve basically picked the ones I enjoyed most at the time, and arranged them in an approximate order.  The top five, I think, are essential viewing; the rest maybe less so, but all provide solid entertainment that’s more interesting than average.

Tenth place was a struggle, and I nearly bottled the choice by replacing it with a whole bunch of runner ups.  But in the end, The Illusionist, The Runaways, The Last Exorcism and The Town all had to settle for honourable mentions.  No doubt they’re gutted.

10. Skeletons
A film I very nearly walked out of after about 20 minutes, but thankfully stuck with.  A very peculiar British fantasy comedy drama it’s certainly not for everyone, but edges out the competition by being completely its own thing.

9. The Secret in Their Eyes
One of those films that was greatly enjoyed by an audience you suspect might have shunned it had it not been subtitled.  Never mind, it was melodramatic tosh but I enjoyed it greatly for all that.

8. Dogtooth

7. Monsters
This gets pretty much everything right, starting with a first appearance by a monster that’s as exciting as the one in The Host. After that we spend more time with the two leads than with the aliens, which is fine as they’re both very likeable and they’re traveling through some lovely scenery. Unfortunately I have some issues with the ending; I had been hoping throughout that they wouldn’t go that cynical horror movie route where you think everyones survived and then they haven’t.  But they did. 

6. Inception
My top ten usually has space for the year’s best blockbuster, and this was 2010s.  An original screenplay (well, original in the sense that it’s not based on a comic book or another film – obviously it has its own antecedents), excellent cast and loads of cool visuals make it superior multiplex fodder.

5. Mother
A Bong Joon-Ho film is worth watching pretty much by definition, and if this didn’t seem quite up to his brilliant Memories of Murder it’s only because I now have such high expectations of him. 

4. Four Lions

3. Toy Story 3

And the final two, which could easily switch places:
2. The Social Network

1. Winter’s Bone

Hollywood Endings

Alexandre Aja’s remake of Piranha is, for the most part, tremendous trashy fun. It has no pretensions to be anything other than an unashamed B-movie, with plenty of gratuitous gore and even more gratuitous nudity. I sometimes get depressed by nudity in films – it too often feels like a sop to a perceived audience of teenage boys who don’t get to see the real thing yet, and I feel bad for the actress whose only role in the film is to get her tits out and then get killed. But the nudity in Piranha is so frequent and blatant, so completely over the top that it punches through the barrier of offensiveness to be become almost innocent fun. There are so many breasts on view that after a while you stop noticing them.

But there’s one thing that let the film down for me, and that’s the ending. (Warning: spoilers for Piranha, and several other films, follow.)

Piranha follows what seems to be an increasing number of films in not having a proper ending: it just stops in what is, to all intents and purposes, the middle of a scene. The strategy is to make the audience think the film is over, and the threat has passed, only to pull the rug suddenly out from under them before the end credits crash in. In this case, just as we think our heroes have escaped being eaten by the piranhas, the Basil Exposition character (Christopher Lloyd) rings up to say they were in fact only babies. On cue, a giant – almost mega – adult piranha leaps from the water and swallows the male lead. End of film.

Obviously, twist endings aren’t new. Nor is the habit of horror movies suggesting that the evil has only temporarily been vanquished and will rise again at some indeterminate point in the future – whether that’s revealed by a shot of another baby alligator being flushed into the sewers, or a shot of Freddy Kreuger apparently reflected in a fountain. That’s fine. But with Piranha, we’re left asking – is that the only adult fish? Are all the other characters about to be eaten? Will that include the two children?

This, to my mind, is just bad storytelling; a cheap and lazy trick to play on the audience. It’s not that I object to downbeat endings. Although it’s true that as I get older and more sentimental I prefer at least a ray of hope at the end of a horror movie, sometimes an unhappy ending feels right. Take The Descent, which (at least in the UK) ends with the heroine alone in the caves, lost and apparently mad, as the monsters close in. This felt like the ending to which the film had been building all along; it played fair with the audience. (Shame they couldn’t stick to it; it would have spared us the redundant sequel.) Similarly, the Saw films regularly conclude with a doomed character realising, too late, all the ways they could have avoided becoming one of Jigsaw’s victims.

Piranha’s approach follows any number of other films: the first Friday the 13th, the original Nightmare on Elm Street (a film which famously struggled to get its ending right, and didn’t succeed). Brian de Palma’s Carrie has one of the most famous shock endings, though this is at least revealed to be a dream sequence.

The recent wave of 70s remakes seemingly delight in following the same pattern, so faithfully that you wonder if idiot producers have come to believe it’s a necessary part of the formula. The Hills Have Eyes (also the work of Aja) pulls back to reveal the surviving family members being watched by another mutant, suggesting that their fight isn’t over yet. The recent version of The Crazies pulls pretty much the same trick, though this one asks us to believe the US government is now planning to wipe out an entire city and try to cover it up; I don’t see them pulling that one off. Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead at least has the hope-crushing scenes play out under the end credits, which feels more honest that the “Ha ha! Gotcha!” approach of Piranha.

The Final Destination films love doing this, and one of the reasons that the second is my favourite of the series is that you can still read the ending as having the two lead characters survive. The two following films don’t even bother to pretend there’s any chance of the characters making it to the end, which severely lessens the suspense, and therefore the fun, of the film. The most recent, The Final Destination, is so uninterested in its characters that we learn virtually nothing about them – are they still in High School? College? Gainful careers? Do they have families? Who cares, they’ll all be dead meat in 85 minutes.

Ultimately, this kind of approach cheapens the film. If you want audiences to become involved in your story, however hackneyed it is, they have to care about at least some of the characters and want them to survive. Even a movie like Piranha, which is silly and shallow (that’s not a criticism in context), should take you on an emotional journey with the hero and/or heroine. The audience should feel a degree of empathy. To have that snatched away for the sake of cheap jolt makes a joke of that involvement, as though the filmmakers are mocking you for giving a shit. Hollywood: please stop doing it.