Zoom into an action scene close enough, and the fun turns into torture. The Hurt Locker is action film-making in real-time close-up. The camera follows every bead of sweat, catches every panicked flicker of its protagonists’ eyes. We register every distant cry, hear the crunch of sand under every footstep, wince at the roar of jets overhead. At this level of intimacy and immersion, action isn’t exciting, it’s terrifying. It’s somewhere you don’t want to be.

Especially in its standout set-pieces – the opening, the car bomb – there is a sharp, tactile quality to the film. The ruined streets of Baghdad could almost be an alien planet, the suited-up soldiers of the Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit treading its fraught surface like astronauts. Each scene is enveloped in a dizzyingly vivid sense of place and mapped out in a clear geography – a surprisingly rare skill among action directors. The verite-style camerawork, frame-perfect editing, flawless spatial construction, exceptional sound design and minimal score combine to make every scene tense, visceral: The Hurt Locker is a remarkable technical achievement for Kathryn Bigelow and her crew.

Everything that is inessential to the action is pared away. Politics, or even much of a narrative, are conspicuously absent – we follow a bomb disposal team’s tour of duty, during which they engage in routine operations, where any momentary sense of safety is relative at best. The film never leaves a soldier’s-eye-view. This is about nothing other than the thrill and fear of constant danger, each moment pregnant with the possibility of instant, unforseeable death.

It’s now been overshadowed by its Academy Awards success, Bigelow’s historic win in particular. It’s a more modest film (in intent, not in quality) than this hype might suggest, which has already led to an undeserved backlash. It doesn’t set out to be a Big Statement film, and it’s all the better for it. As a study of men’s responses to death and mortal peril  (and this is a very masculine film), as a riveting, unforgiving piece of action cinema, The Hurt Locker marks itself indeliby in the mind.

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Even if we could dissociate it, at this point, from the monolithic cultural status it has gained as the Most Successful Film Of All Time, Avatar is an extremely difficult film to review. I can’t help but feel frustrated at its crippling, fundamental issues, its roll-call of cliches, the frustratingly missed opportunities at every turn. It’s not, strictly speaking, a great film. And yet I watched it in wide-eyed wonder, feeling like I was eight again and going to the cinema for the first time to see Jurassic Park. Which, in retrospect, wasn’t really a great movie, either. Still – that effortless, childlike joy has to count for something.

Let’s agree, straight off, that this is no Aliens or Terminator (though, on the other hand, it’s no Titanic, either). To be fair, it isn’t trying to be – where James Cameron’s 1980s masterpieces were taut, claustrophobic thrillers, Avatar shoots for the sweeping epic. It’s certainly the approach that fits the story best, and it’s in keeping with Cameron’s status as King of the World. But if only it could have been done with a little more vision. I don’t need to point out that the plot is – ahem – not exactly new; others have already done so eloquently. Now, this isn’t necessarily a problem – the story of “people A oppress people B, people B fight back” is an archetypal one, and, as Terrence Malick proved masterfully with The New World (2005), it can still lead to magnificent results. Sure, it’s an unfair comparison, but given Cameron’s evident ambition to make the Na’vi culture come to life, there’s none of Malick’s subtletly or intelligence here – the plot is drawn in broad strokes, and it’s very much a case of the noble savage versus the evil American military-industrial complex (which is all we see of humanity here). Apart from a handful of dissenting good guys, the humans in Avatar are glowering, pantomime villains – the corporate executives’ profit motive is clear enough, but what is it, exactly, that drives Colonel Quaritch’s psychotic hatred of every living thing on Pandora?

Perhaps a more relevant comparison that The New World is Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki, 1997), which shares Avatar‘s action-epic structure, its nature-versus-industry dynamic and its pantheistic mysticisim. And yet, despite all those similarities, what a different film it is: with neither side being entirely good or entirely, cartoonishly evil, both sides of the conflict seem equally valid. No easy identification is possible, and the viewer is forced to actually consider the merits of both sides and imagine what sort of compromise might be achieved. Compare this to Cameron’s film – there is no room for shades of grey in Avatar‘s black-and-white world, and – both dramatically and thematically – it suffers for it.

Equally disappointing is Cameron’s baffling lack of interest in the film’s central conceit. The idea of the avatar is an interesting and timely one, and yet, despite the titular prominence granted to the concept and the central role it plays in the opening scenes, it becomes little more than a plot device once we get to the action. There’s no development of the relationship between a person and their avatar. No hint of the physical toll that being essentially always awake must take. Not even the merest suggestion of the existential dilemmas brought up by inhabiting a second body. Okay, it’s an action film, but if you’re going to call your film Avatar and bring the idea up at all, for God’s sake, do something with it.

And yet, how much of this really matters? I’m still not sure. What I do know is that, as soon as the film left the confines of the military compound and ventured out into the lush jungles of Pandora, I remembered how I felt being eight and watching Jurassic Park on my second ever outing to the cinema, or being eleven and watching Independence Day. The word – and I don’t want to use it lightly – is wonder, and in its best moments Avatar made me feel that again. I don’t think that’s an unimportant achievement.

Many critic speak of the film’s astonishing visual sequences as if Cameron pushed a button on a computer and all these breathtaking images and masterful sequences came out automatically. There is vivid imagination, painstaking craft and remarkable technical achievements in every frame of Avatar – more than enough to remind us that, in terms of visceral, spectacular blockbuster entertainment, few film-makers come even close to Cameron at the top of his game.

There’s definitely a feeling that, given its investment in presenting a functional world and inviting the viewer to inhabit it, Avatar might have made for a better game than film – I’m not the first to point this out – but, having said that, the sheer sensual power of the world presented here is jaw-dropping, and the simple, archetypal narrative does a good job of leading the viewer on a whistle-stop tour of Pandora. The point, though, says a lot about the film: its flimsy narrative elements serve only as an excuse for the presentation of its remarkably-wrought world; whether or not that’s a valid approach for a film – I’m not sure.

So where does that leave me? I’m uneasy when people proclaim Avatar‘s greatness, and feel obliged to note its severe shortcomings; and yet the backlash is equally irritating. I have a feeling that viewed at home, without the benefits of its truly groundbreaking 3D techniques, its flaws will come more forcefully to the foreground, and it’ll be that much more difficult to be swept away by its simplistic narrative. Still, there’ll always be the memory of that glorious first viewing.

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I’m a big, big fan of Luhrmann’s two previous films – Romeo + Juliet (1996) is not only the best film adaptation of the star-crossed lovers’ tale, but one of the best Shakespeare films in general, a heady pop-culture rush of breathless energy that seamlessly blends high and low culture to produce a film that is exciting, thrilling, tragic and alive. Moulin Rouge! (2001) was even better – an astonishing pantomime carnival of music, dance, colour, life and love, a manic display of kitchen-sink, throw-everything-at-the-screen, endlessly inventive filmmaking.

So what the hell happened with Australia? Apart from a (very, very) few moments, mostly in its okayish-I-guess first hour, Australia is precisely the sort of turgid, plodding, lifeless and uninspired “prestige” cinema that Luhrmann’s earlier films were such a refreshing antidote to. Where is all the energy, the wit, the visual imagination, the joie de vivre? Where is the never-pause-for-breath pace, the wit, the postmodern playing with genre, the fun?

Australia feels like Luhrmann behaving himself, wanting to show us he’s grown up, has put away childish things and is tackling Big, Important Themes. Racism! War!  Wait…maybe that didn’t come across clearly enough. RACISM! WAR! And rest assured that from the opening title cards explaining the background story of Australia’s “Stolen Generations” of aboriginal children to…well, the fade-out title cards talking about exactly the same thing, the film won’t let you forget for one second what it’s really about. There’s no avoiding the feeling that this is Luhrmann angling for a mantelpiece-ful of Academy Awards, reining in anything even remotely “edgy” about his film-making and aiming resolutely for the middlebrow – and it’s painful.

There are slight glimmers of hope in the first hour-and-a-half, which is where all the few recognizable hints of Luhrmann are concentrated. This section is basically a pop-buddy-Western, following the very English Lady Sarah Ashley and the very Australian Drover (Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, who both give in decent, if unremarkable, performances) in their quest to drive Lady Ashley’s herd of cattle to the port of Darwin before the evil cattle corporation can win the army contract.  There are a few decent moments of comedy, it moves along at a brisk pace, there are some diverting moments of excitement, one or two impressive shots, a romance, predictable character arcs, a happy ending, even a couple of sequences – I’m thinking especially of some early scenes in the Faraway Downs sequence – where Luhrmann’s former brilliance just about shines through. It’s hardly great, but it’s reasonable enough entertainment for ninety minutes – the kind of thing that would pass a lazy Sunday afternoon and be forgotten by the next day.

But wait! There’s more! Over an hour more, as it turns out, for once the film reaches this logical conclusion it just inexplicably starts again and keeps going on and on, bringing in the Japanese attack on Darwin and the forced deportation of half-caste children in a desperate effort for the film to justify its “epic” tag. Structurally, this puts the whole film out of balance – it feels like a half-decent film and its train-wreck, self-consciously “dark” sequel crammed into one movie. None of this latter part works well – narratively, it comes across as a series of increasingly outlandish coincidences and improbable circumstances, never gelling into anything coherent. The dramatic scenes are spectacularly mishandled and never steer far from the most hackneyed of cliches – most cringe-inducing is David Wenham’s comic-book caricature snarling baddie, a character who simply has no place in anything with even the remotest pretension to seriousness. The climactic Japanese attack, meanwhile, comes across as a third-rate, one-tenth-budget pastiche of Pearl Harbor (Michael Bay, 2001). Now when did I ever think I would be comparing Luhrmann unfavourably to Michael Bay?

Luhrmann has entirely jettisoned the rapid-cutting, frenetic montage style that was one of the most distinctive in contemporary cinema. The problem is that there’s nothing new to replace it, and all we get is a glossy, expensive-looking no-style, all soft focus, tourist-ad landscape shots and lingering sunsets. It’s artless, frequently clumsy and lacking in any substance. The landscapes look pretty enough but there isn’t even a hint of the eerie, spiritual majesty the Australian landscape acquires in, say, Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1976), or even John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005), while there’s none of the weight or gravitas of the epic to replace Luhrmann’s usual levity and energy. More than anything, Australia is stylistically bland and entirely dull, which is the last thing anyone could have said of Luhrmann’s earlier filmography.

Where the suffocating blanket of dullness lifts momentarily, all that we glimpse is confusion. There are moments where the landscapes and backdrops are so blatantly artificial that they almost seem an intentional pastiche of the Golden Age of Hollywood studio epics that the film so desperately wants to be. This is reflected in the film as a whole, which occasionally ramps up the camp and suggests an entertaining, kitschy pastiche of the classical Hollywood epic struggling to get through. Now that’s a film that Luhrmann could have made great. It could have been the most joyous, grin-inducing film of the year.  Instead we have a schizophrenic film that constantly feels unsure of itself – too scared to tip itself all the way into camp, too ridiculous and fake to muster any real drama or emotion, it walks a barren middle ground where it’s neither one thing nor the other, just two and a half very, very long hours of grand, loud, bombastic, tedious, hollow nothing.

Sometimes it’s nice to not get quite what you expected. I watched In Bruges expecting another post-Tarantino and post-Ritchie slice of self-conscious cool, all motor-mouthed hitmen engaging in witty pop-culture digressions and almost-slapstick bouts of graphic violence.

Now, there are elements of this in In Bruges. It is undeniably about a pair of comically mismatched hitmen, Ray and Ken (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson), who certainly engage in their fair share of witty banter as they lie low in the titular medieval Belgian city after a job in London has gone horribly wrong; and there is a fair amount of violence involved in the tale. Fundamentally, however, it is something very different. The humour (and In Bruges is a very, very funny film) is dry, desperate and often painful; it is the laugh of the doomed man who has nothing left to lose and drowns himself in the absurdity of it all. It is a momentary flicker of levity over murky depths of melancholy, ennui and moral crisis.

All of this centres around Colin Farrell, and his performance here, especially to someone who was never much of a fan of his, is a revelation. He has, to be fair, acquitted himself well in some films, notably The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005). But he has done nothing, to these eyes, that suggested the depths of talent he makes evident here. His Ray is a figure of painful vulnerability, conveying a sharp and consuming sadness in every look. He is a man inescapably haunted and tortured by crushing guilt, a manic-depressive prone to despondent brooding broken by sudden eruptions of excitement or violence.

In Bruges is a character study wrapped up in a morality play. Once we learn the nature of Ray’s sin and its repercussions, the comedy dies away, bringing the film’s true colours (accentuated by Carter Burwell’s excellent dirge-like score) to the fore.  It soon becomes evident that the choice of setting is far from arbitrary; the medieval environment, heavy with the memory of the Dark Ages, is the perfect backdrop for this tale of transgression and retribution. Ken and mob boss Harry (Ralph FIennes) arrange themselves on opposite sides of Ray’s Everyman as agents, respectively, of forgiveness and vengeance, New and Old Testament, and McDonagh loads both script and image with enough Christian symbolism to lend the film a sombre, portentous quality, without slipping into cliche or leaden allegory.The thematic fulcrum of the film is a scene where Ray and Ken view Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Last Judgement” in a gallery; Ray, defiantly unmoved by anything else he has seen in Bruges, is clearly stirred, and bares his soul, entering a heartfelt reverie on sin, guilt, atonement and judgement.

The painting’s fantastical imagery is glimpsed again, its monstrous figures erupting into garish life on the cobbled town streets, in the powerfully surreal climactic scene, where judgement finally falls on Ray. It’s a remarkably well-executed scene that culminates in an unexpected, simple yet potentially profound twist that demolishes the rigid morality play code of ethics in one fell swoop.

It’s remarkable how well In Bruges integrates its disparate elements into a whole that feels entirely natural and right. At its most sombre and allegorical, it remains riotously entertaining; at its most whimsically comic, it is nonetheless deeply melancholy. It’s a difficult balancing act, but the pay-off is one of the best films of the year to date, and a hugely promising debut for writer/director Martin McDonagh.

Illustrating the missing link between PJ Harvey’s early 90s output and the abrasive end of hardcore, Made out of Babies’ third album ranks as one of the most satisfyingly gruelling listens of the year. It’s difficult to say whether these songs would be compelling without Julie Christmas’ remarkable voice, but it’s irrelevant -her versatile cords are never far from the forefront.

To say that Christmas’ vocal range is impressive is an understatement. On opener “Cooker” alone, she delivers an almost Bjork-like warble that soars into a full-bodied, powerful tones before exploding into ragged, gut-wrenching screams. It is this ability to shift from contained tension to savage ferocity at the drop of a coin that colours this album’s jagged and unpredictable emotional register.

If the rest of the band’s contributions struggle to match the raw power of their attention-grabbing frontwoman, there is still plenty to admire. Musically, The Ruiner never veers too far from the hardcore formula – and perhaps it’s a slight occasional reliance on off-the-peg moshpit riffing that keeps the albums from the ranks of the truly great. Nonetheless, there is more than enough variety and impressive craft here to keep one’s interest – from the grandiose melodic tones of “Invisible Ink”, perhaps the most immediately palatable song here, to the taut tension and relentless drive of “Grimace” and the driving, violent rhythms of “Bunny Boots”, the latter matched by Christmas’ most histrionic performance. For a good proportion of the album, Made Out of Babies pull off the tricky combination of strong melodies with quasi-metal intensity and power; in their finest moments, the effect is staggering.

Ultimately, The Ruiner is going to put off as many people as it attracts. It’s too bleak, unsettling and ragged to be an addictive listen, and it does make for an exhausting forty-two minutes. Nonetheless its impact is undeniable, and, even if it’s just slightly let down by a (very) occasional slide into the cliches of the genre, it comes, on its own terms, close to greatness.

Made Out of Babies on MySpace

I love 80s kiddie fantasy films, so I’ve been a bit late picking up on viewing this one…I was flipping through the appropriate nostalgia section of the DVD store with Daniel…Willow *check* The Dark Crystal *check* Never Ending Story *check* Labyrinth *check x 20+* etc…then we came across a film that is not only based on Roald Dahl’s “The Witches”, but also pairs the names Jim Henson and Nicolas Roeg…sounded like a geek-fest 🙂

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its creative team, often straining to balance a tone which seems to attempt to pull off Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968) for kids. However, the implacable resilience of this approach is admirable, producing occasionally striking montages of grotesque imagery: low angles and extreme, defamiliarising close-ups of the witches’ faces and other revolting attributes. Particularly striking is the scene where the protagonist, Luke, is turned into a mouse…a scene which we witness through a series of successive first-person shots and drastic low-angles paired with trick photography and kaleidoscope camera movement. Unfortunately, the sugar rush produced by such moments is drowned amidst what appears to be an attempt to preserve as much of Dahl’s general “I’m an ever so cruel-evil-stinky-icky-poo-poo adult” dialogue as physically possible. In general, the need to preserve Dahl’s effective conspiracy with the child by making the serious and boring adult appear the villain is a move I understand and generally thoroughly enjoy, though here it results in audience unrest where what we really want is for Roeg to explode into the more visuals/less talk mode which we know from the masterpiece Don’t Look Now (1973).

Having said this, the black comedy is not completely lost, though it is generally more effective when it transgresses the realm of childhood conspiracy into adult terrain…it is at such moments, when the uneasy mixture of secondary school play dialogue and sleazy innuendo meet, that the film demonstrates the ability to disturb. Most notable in this respect is the scene where Dahl’s greedy-boy archetype Bruno Jenkins is lured into a meeting hall full of witches by the promise of six bars of chocolate, where he will act as guinea pig to a formula which turns children into mice. Amidst a sea of cackling witches disguised as little British old ladies from the RSPCC, Bruno edges closer to the platform where we see the stern and black-satin clad grand high witch (Anjelica Huston) in a medium-shot as she repeatedly thrusts her hips and bites her lower lip, the anticipation appearing to mime masturbation. The reference is misleading enough to pass for general villainous behaviour and slide past the rating board, but the take lasts a few seconds too long for comfort, and reveals Roeg’s talent for winking at the adult over directing exclusively for the child.

Returning to Rosemary’s Baby time and again, the film not only betrays its debt to the classic horror film, but also strives to adapt the most grotesque moments to a children’s film. As previously mentioned, this doesn’t always work due to a swamping amount of dialogue, though the thematic material it borrows does: we have the horror residing inside an innocuous-looking three star hotel in Britain, the sadistic hatred directed at the young by the embittered, and the effective parody of the ambitious middle-class who are duped or reveal their own corruption. In this way, as an adaptation, the film tries for a faithful rendering of a Dahl universe replete with yapping social climbers, grotesque villains and whinging minor characters who converge inside one rather grotty but pretentious British sea-side hotel. The combination is not at all uninteresting, with Rowan Atkinson playing the fumbling hotel manager, as well as a couple of scenes in the kitchen which seem like precursors to the recent Ratatouille (Brad Bird/Jan Pinkava, 2007)…

Overall however, the film often feels like a Jean Pierre Jeunet film in progress, but because of the compromise between its direction and the ratings board, it never fully lives up to its apparent scope. Moreover, what appears to be a hideous post-dub often renders the ample dialogue noxiously unbearable, and presents us with a loss of lip-synch and cast of whinging voices which we’d find only moderately acceptable in an English dub of a foreign language film (think along the lines of the English dub of City of Lost Children (Marc Caro/ Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1995), which I had the misfortune of experiencing).

Finally, if you’re into 80s/early 90s kids’ films you might enjoy the very fact of its uneven tone as an authentic feature of the period…it’s not among the best, but it has its individual iconic moments.

It’s been a pretty good summer blockbuster season. Even without the towering achievement of The Dark Knight, we’ve had some truly great films (WALL-E), some very very good ones (Hellboy II: The Golden Army), and some less-great but still thoroughly enjoyable offerings (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Iron Man). All of which makes the crushing mediocrity of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor even harder to excuse.

Now, The Mummy (Stephen Sommers, 1999) was pretty damn far from what you would call good cinema, but, call it a guilty pleasure if you must, it was good, trashy fun – melding two delightfully old-fashioned genres (the B-movie horror film and the adventure serial), with modern CG spectacle. The Mummy Returns (2001) kinda sucked overall, but it had its moments, and in its better sequences it retained the energy and wit of its predecessor. The law of diminishing returns, however, is in full swing here: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is a near-worthless conveyor-belt product, joylessly going through the motions of the series and hoping a change of scenery (China instead of Egypt) will disguise the onset of rigor mortis.

There is nothing interesting, inventive or entertaining about this film, and in no part does it work well. The action takes far too long to get started, and instead, for the first half-hour or so, we’re regaled with a re-introduction to the protagonists, Rick and Evelyn O’Connell (the latter now played by Maria Bello – generally a talented and dependable actress, but here seeming bored throughout). These early scenes are played for broad comedy, but, as with all the numerous attempts at humour in the film, this falls flat. Every trite and unfunny one-liner is lingered over with nudge-wink emphasis, and none succeeds in raising as much as an amused half-smile. Also disappointing is the lack of the chemistry and witty interplay between Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz  – every scene Fraser and Bello share feels lifeless and forced, making the early scenes focusing on their relationship a chore to sit through.

Once the action finally starts, however, you start to wish it hadn’t. Rob Cohen (of The Fast and the Furious and XXX fame) directs these scenes with his trademark uninspired rapid-cutting and shaky camerawork. It’s impossible to figure out exactly what is going on, and impossible to care, because none of the numerous action sequences that make up the whole of the film’s second half offer anything interesting or memorable. More damningly, there’s never the slightest sense of peril or real danger – the lazy plotting means that, again and again, at the moment when the situation threatens to get out of hands, the O’Connells are miraculously saved by some nick-of-time deus ex machina – an ancient magical weapon no-one bothered to mention before, some sub-clause in the unwieldily complicated web of spells surrounding the undead emperor, etcetera. Most jarringly, the good guys are rescued from a battle in the Himalayas that is starting to look hopeless by a gang of Yetis that suddenly show up out of nowhere to do the rescuing and then, just as suddenly, disappear. This happens not once, but twice in the space of five minutes, after which the fluffy protectors go back to wherever the hell they came from and are never spoken of again. This sort of anything-goes plotting is the worst trap a fantasy-tinged narrative can fall into, and it’s inexcusable.

The sheer lack of ideas and facile plotting make themselves most evident when the film resorts to simply lifting scenes from earlier (better) movies. One of the central set-pieces, a brawl in a Shanghai nightclub and a subsequent car chase through the brightly-lit streets of the city, doesn’t even try to hide its plagiarism of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Steven Spielberg, 1984) – to follow it up with a flight to the Himalayas in a rickety, livestock-laden cargo plane is just insulting.

Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. then, is neither funny, nor thrilling, nor entertaining in the slightest. It’s rarely painful to watch – it’s at least competent – but it is terminally boring, fatally uninteresting and completely forgettable. If anything, it puts Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull into focus – while it was inevitably a disappointment in the light of its unimpeachable predecessors, it had character, ideas and a film-making verve that Tomb of the Dragon Emperor cannot even dream of. Digging up the Mummy franchise a third time was clearly inadvisable – this corpse has started to rot. Perhaps it’s time to lay it to rest for good.