Films #120-122: Fast and Furious 4-6

film 120 121 122 fast and furious

Ratings: Fast and Furious, 3/5; Fast and Furious 5, 5/5; Fast and Furious 6, 4/5

Who’d have thought, fourteen years ago, that the fairly low-budget, kind-of exploitation movie Fast and Furious would have spawned six sequels, with another three to come? Now one of the hottest franchises around, part 7 promises to be ridiculous, and ridiculously entertaining – albeit tainted by the sudden death of Paul Walker in a real car accident. How they’ll deal with this remains to be seen, and how the series copes with the loss of one of its lead actors will largely depend on what direction the writers choose to take it. In advance of part 7’s release, however, I watched parts 4-6 – the revamped, rebooted portion of the franchise, following the less memorable Tokyo Drift. Back to back, it was a great afternoon/evening and, by the end of it, Vin Diesel had become one of my favourite bad actors. Bless his cotton socks, he tries. He really does – you can see the effort in every heartfelt scene, every moment of conflict. He so clearly takes his craft so seriously, but no matter what inner turmoil the character’s going through, none of it translates. He is the man with one face – blank, stoic, an empty void. Yet I can’t help but enjoy his performances, particularly when they’re watched one after the other. Somehow this franchise has survived despite the fact that I’m fairly certain neither of the leads (and most of the ensemble cast around them) can act.

And it’s not just about the cars. The F&F movies have succeeded for a few key reasons. One, the characters are simple and unremarkable, but they’re all likeable and, to the writers’ credit, each one has their own distinctive personality – however unimaginative and lacking nuance – and they all spark off each other well. I can’t even complain about the women, who hold their own while looking smokin’ hot. Two, the action sequences – of which there are many – are dynamic, explosive, absurd, and thoroughly engaging. These are such macho movies, but they’re not alienating, and that’s quite impressive really. Three, the cars themselves are a thing of beauty, if you’re that way inclined, and there’s something for every afficionado, from American muscle cars, to hot hatches, and even some proper supercars. Needless to say, everything’s really shiny. Four, Dwayne Johnson is now most definitely part of the F&F “family”. More on him in a bit. And finally – perhaps even more importantly than the inclusion of The Rock – these films are just plain fun. They do exactly what they say they’re going to: fast cars, fast driving, furious action, full-on entertainment. Having moved beyond the original street-car themes, these movies are now straight-up action, and all the better for it.

Although each film in the series does fit into the F&F universe, it’s the last three that have really moved directly on from each other – part 4 even finishes on a cliffhanger that opens part 5. Part 4 is good, but it’s nothing compared to 5, when all hell breaks loose in Rio and Dwayne Johnson turns up to out-Vin-Diesel Vin Diesel. Sporting a tough-guy goatee and some serious muscle, Johnson is the actor Vin Diesel can never hope to be – bigger, stronger, and infinitely more charismatic. Whereas Vin Diesel appears to think he’s starring in the next hard-hitting think-piece, Johnson knows full well where he is: slap-bang in the middle of a world where the laws of gravity no longer apply, where criminals are good guys but bad guys are super bad, where jail never really seems to be a possibility and money is rarely an issue. This is a world like the one that James Bond inhabits, where the bad guys’ cars instantly implode on impact, but the good guys can be taken out by trucks and walk away unscathed. It’s a world where, somehow, everyone seems to have a licence to kill, and no qualms about using it, where law enforcement is fully aware of this fact but does nothing, and there are absolutely no repercussions whatsoever following the majority of Rio being taken out by a giant runaway safe. Simply put, it’s my kind of world.

There is a risk, of course, that the films will become stupid in their efforts to outdo themselves, and it’s already happening. Part 6 is a step down after the glorious stupidity and hugely entertaining heist scheme of part 5 – there’s more action, less story, more ass-kicking, less attention to physics, less The Rock, more London. By the time the plane started taking off on the runway, signalling the beginning of one of the most ludicrous final scenes in recent cinema memory (experts claim the runway must be almost 30km in length, exceeding the world’s longest by almost 25km), I had completely lost track of why they were there in the first place. Something about an international terrorist and a bunch of top secret “components”? Not that it really matters much – who cares about plot when you’ve got a tank taking out innocent drivers on a Spanish motorway, a street race through Piccadilly Circus, and a bad-guy plane (you know what that means!)? Well, in truth, me – a little bit. Part 6 is fun, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t quite get the balance right. So it goes like this: Part 4 is them finding their feet (wheels?); Part 5 is them in their prime; Part 6 is trying just a bit too hard. As for Part 7? Well, the trailer looks pretty epic – and I expect nothing less.

Film #119: The Lego Movie (2014)

film 119 the lego movie

Rating: 4/5

“Everything is awesome!!!!”

Despite the fact that this film is the most blatant and shameless example of product placement, it’s a lot of fun. It’s also probably the only time we’ll ever get an ensemble cast quite as epic: Gandalf, Batman, Abraham Lincoln, Wonderwoman, Han Solo, and half of the LA Lakers together? When Wreck-It Ralph promised to feature all the classic video game characters in one movie, the results were crushingly inadequate. Here, The Lego Movie delivers, and the interactions between the various cameos – no matter how brief – are very entertaining. It’s the cameo characters that have some of the best running jokes in the movie – poor loser Green Lantern, for example, or 1950’s Space Man Benny desperately trying to build a spaceship. The voice cast is excellent too – kudos to Liam Neeson in particular, sending himself up as split personality Good Cop/ Bad Cop, one of the best characters in the movie.

As well as a seemingly endless number of super-awesome cameos to keep an eye out for, the movie itself is jam-packed. Visually it’s a treat – not quite as puntastic as Aardman’s stop-motion, but just as eye-catching. It’s like a regular movie that’s eaten six bags of sugar in under thirty seconds, washed down with five energy drinks: it’s chaotic, manic, delirious. The pace is non-stop and, quite brilliantly, acknowledged as being such – it’s revealed that the action is apparently playing out in real time. Jack Bauer would be proud (or green with envy at these characters’ productivity). It’s also truly vast in scope, with the action racing from a perfectly ordered city, to the wild west (complete with beautiful panoramic views), to the high seas and beyond. I wonder if the writers had watched A Town Called Panic for inspiration – the films share more than a passing resemblance. Both feature crazy stop motion, non-stop action, hugely ambitious landscapes, and a barely contained insanity. I have to admit, however, A Town Called Panic is the better film. I don’t mind the product placement in The Lego Movie (although it becomes a bit too explicit towards the end) – the biggest issue I have is its confused message about the product placement. Poor Lego seems very muddled about what its purpose and appeal is, and the attempts to unite the sentiment of the product with the most effective marketing ploys don’t really work.

The film itself focuses on Emmet, a generic construction worker who has boundless energy and optimism, but no friends. He likes to conform, to fit in – everything has its place and thinking outside the box is definitely a bad thing. Yet Emmet’s structured life leaves him feeling isolated and unfulfilled until one day, when everything changes. Accidentally becoming the fabled “Special” – the only person who can stop evil Lord Business’ dastardly plans for Taco Tuesday, whatever that is, Emmet finds himself working with a band of “master builders” – an assortment of characters, including Batman, love interest Wyld Style, and Morgan Freeman (sorry, Vitruvius, played by Morgan Freeman), who can create anything in seconds using the Lego pieces around them. The message is clear: conformity bad, creativity good. The structured world preferred by Lord Business is perfect, perfectly ordered, and perfectly boring. In contrast, Cloud Cuckoo Land, a place where imagination runs wild, is a veritable utopia. Meanwhile, Emmet has to unlock his imagination to become the “Special” and save the world. The potential for invention is endless, and the movie makes it very clear that this is the “right” way of thinking about Lego. This is great, and seems to really embody the original concept of Lego, which came in buckets or could be bought like bags of pick ‘n’ mix. It’s a wonderful idea: let your imagination run wild, using simple blocks of plastic that can become whatever you want – cities, animals, whole worlds, anything. Problem is, however, that Lego now comes in pre-packaged assembly kits. Do you want a pirate boat? Buy the pirate boat kit. Want a race-car, a farm, a house, a spaceship? Buy the kit. Most depressing about this whole situation is that now you can even buy kits for the creatures and objects made by the master builders in the movie – the things that work precisely because they don’t conform. Hell, you can buy a Cloud Cuckoo landscape and a Unikitty.

It’s this kind of basic inner conflict that makes The Lego Movie such a problematic product and, no matter how fun and entertaining it is – and it is, absolutely – I can’t help but feel that the creators have really proved how troubled the whole Lego world really is now. There’s another movie planned, of course, but it’s unclear what direction a sequel can really go in. This film loses momentum as it reaches its conclusion: there are hints throughout as to how it’s going to end, but the sudden shift from hyped-up craziness to solemn sentimentality is underwhelming. Yet until this point, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It’s just a shame that the product itself seems to be having a complete identity crisis.

Film #114: Good Vibrations (2012)

film 114 good vibrations

Rating: 4/5

“When it comes to punk, New York has the hair, London has the trousers, but Belfast has the reason.”

Based on stories from Terri Hooley’s biography Hooleygan: Music, Mayhem, Good Vibrations, Good Vibrations wisely concentrates its attentions on the more uplifting aspects of the music fanatic-turned music store owner’s life. This rose-tinted approach is, however, a relief, and it manages to be possibly the only film I’ve seen set against the backdrop of the Troubles in Northern Ireland that I’ve enjoyed. Perhaps more surprisingly, it’s also the first I’ve seen that really offered a sense of what it was like living in Belfast during the particularly turbulent 1970s. The extent of the civil war, and the direct impact it had on those trying to simply get on with their lives, looms over the film throughout – its setting is crucial – but the tone is neither self-pitying nor exploitative. And, it’s not the violence that is foregrounded, but (and apologies if this sounds cheesy) the overwhelming ability of music to break down the social and political boundaries that plagued the country.

Punk fans may well be aware of Hooley who, despite the ongoing problems in Belfast, decides to open a music store. It’s a brave move at a time when everything is affected by the Troubles, and entrepreneurial spirit is virtually non-existent. As Hooley (Richard Dormer) reminisces, he once had friends, but the civil unrest was such that it turned everyone into one of two things: protestant or catholic. As someone who considered himself neither (he appears most influenced by his father’s socialist leanings), his inability, or unwillingness, to pick sides meant that he fit in nowhere. Despite this, Hooley’s enthusiasm and, so the film goes, the allure of music enables him to step back from the problems. His gift of vinyl to the two opposing sides comes with a proviso: to keep politics out of his record store. It seems to work, for the most part. Yet it’s only with the discovery of Northern Ireland’s underground punk movement that Hooley finds a group of friends for whom politics and religion don’t matter – they reject authority in general; in his words, they “don’t give a shit.” This attitude is refreshing, uplifting, enlightening, and Hooley becomes a man on a mission, determined to bring punk to the masses.

The impact of Hooley’s dedication should not be underestimated. Despite terrible business sense and a self-destructiveness (presented in the film more as boyish naivety than anything sinister), he is responsible for bringing The Undertones to the public sphere – the band that, according to the film, led legendary radio DJ John Peel to do something he’d never done before, and play the same song, Teenage Kicks, twice in a row. Hooley barely seems to know what he’s doing, but still manages to create a small record label, to get the kids into the studio, and even get them on the radio. All this despite the ongoing Troubles, and the achievement is perfectly revealed when he and the bands are stopped by British police at a road check point. Asking the bandmembers where they live in Belfast, the soldiers are astonished to discover they’re from all over the city (this being a time when simply your geographical location immediately implied your political and/or religious leanings). “You’re saying some of these boys are catholic and some are protestant?” the soldier asks incredulously. “I never thought to ask,” replies Hooley. For him and the other punks, it’s the shared love of music that matters – they are not one denomination or the other, they are music fans first and foremost.

Good Vibrations is deliberately uplifting, but it’s best to go with it, rather than sour the experience with rationalism. The punk bands are all lovely individuals – one of the funniest scenes involves a store-full of them carefully stuffing vinyl records like a mohawk-clad, safety-pin-adorned team of Santa’s elves. Dormer is excellent as Hooley, bringing a real energy and likeability to the character. In truth, he was probably a difficult person to live with, but this is only touched upon, with his wife Ruth (Jodie Whittaker) largely remaining loyal and supportive. His alcoholism is implied, but it’s all presented with a good-natured tone, with the film clearly preferring to focus on the good. With the main action keeping a fairly tight focus – this is a biography, after all – the troubles are relayed through genuine footage interspersed throughout the narrative. This brings a realism to the film, serving as a more sober reminder of the conditions under which Hooley was working. Yet this is the backdrop, and Hooley remains front and centre. In many ways the film adopts a very formulaic structure, relating the most successful portion of his life, culminating in a big spectacle, a moment of triumph. What happens afterwards is consigned to a few intertitles at the end, though anyone interested can read the biography. Yet it’s appropriate that Good Vibrations should focus on a small part of Hooley’s life, considering how brief the punk movement in general really was, and although the Troubles continued long after the narrative here stops (and even continues today), we’re asked to look back fondly at the small but significant impact one man made.

Cinema Lottery #14

cinema 14 into the storm

Into the Storm; Two Days, One Night; Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For; Obvious Child

Into the Storm
Release date: 20 August 2014
Rating: 2.5/5

Almost twenty years after Twister, it’s quite surprising that it’s taken this long for a new tornado-themed disaster movie to make it to the big screen. The trailers for Into the Storm looked mildly promising: trashy, no doubt, and clichéd, naturally, but with the promise of some full blown destruction. Yet what the trailers don’t show is that the whole film is shot as a found footage movie – a pointless, incoherent decision. Whether the footage originates from professional tornado-chasing documentary makers or by two redneck adrenaline morons, it all looks the same. Even worse, there are frequently unmotivated camera angles – conversations are framed in the classic shot-reverse-shot technique, despite there being only one cameraman in the scene, overhead shots come from nowhere. Ostensibly the “found footage” style exists to add tension, but it never achieves this.

The characters themselves are all nondescript, and subplots like a blossoming teen romance are abandoned quickly. At one point a character instructs another to look after the footage because the film “might save lives one day” – how it could ever achieve this is unknown, because the science is non-existent. Like Twister, the final setpiece involves characters seeing the eye of the tornado – as though this is something new, when it’s already been achieved by both professional and amateur storm chasers in real life. Yet this is a film with the most generic, uninspiring of screenplays, so it’s little surprise that the motivation is mundane. That being said, some of the destruction is pretty nifty. It makes no sense, of course – whether a tiny little spout or a mile-wide behemoth (all of which instantaneously appear), all the tornadoes cause the same amount of damage: total carnage. Yet although it’s no doubt fun (for disaster movie fans, at least) to watch an airport be destroyed, or to see a fire-nado (a real thing), the best bits are all shown in the trailer. There’s simply not enough in the rest of the film to be worth watching. Perhaps the biggest problem is it takes itself too seriously. It appears to actually have honourable, educational intentions, despite being little better than a SyFy original movie. Truth is, if you want a good disaster movie, watch Twister and, if you want a bad one, why would you watch this when you could watch Sharknado?

Two Days, One Night
Release date: 22 August 2014
Rating: 3.5/5

The latest film by the Dardenne brothers, this is a gentle drama following Sandra (Marion Cotillard) over a weekend as she attempts to convince her colleagues to give up their bonuses so that she can keep her job. It’s a simple premise but an interesting one, and there are no real villains here – just normal people, trying to survive in a difficult world where, unfortunately, being selfish is often a necessity. Cotillard is entirely convincing as Sandra, who is hoping to return to work following extended sick leave due to a bout of depression. Her problems are cited as one of the reasons why she should not be brought back – her work may be compromised by her mental state. And if there is a problem with the Dardennes’ screenplay it is that she doesn’t seem to be ready. She cries over the smallest thing, is clearly stressed and fragile, and seems to barely be keeping herself together. Gaining equal support and rejection, as Monday looms closer she takes even more drastic measures, surely indicating that there is still a long way to go before she is truly stable, but it passes by with almost as little ceremony as any other moment in the film.

Despite the film’s simplicity, it’s not boring, largely due to the variety of characters Sandra meets. Two Days, One Night adopts an almost segmented structure, as Sandra goes to speak to each of her sixteen colleagues, hoping to sway them to her side. Although some of the conversations become a bit repetitive (particularly her having to explain why the vote is being recast), such is the strength of the performances that it feels authentic rather than tedious. Although Sandra is the film’s focus, Cotillard is fully supported by the rest of the cast, all of whom bring the characters to life, if only for a scene or two. There are no real surprises, no significant twists (apart from the aforementioned, which seems to have been included for a moment of drama, but I could have happily done without) – it’s a gentle, simple, well-crafted yet quite unremarkable movie, one that is pleasant but, ultimately, largely forgettable.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
Release date: 25 August 2014
Rating: 3/5

When Sin City was first released in 2005 it burst onto the screens, a grimy, dirty, adults-only noir the likes of which had never been seen. It’s a shame, therefore that, nine years later, the once eagerly awaited sequel proves to offer absolutely nothing new. Gone is the innovation of the first film; this one looks and sounds the same. Whether it could have done something vastly different is less the point than the fact that this is nine years later, and what was impressive in the mid-2000s is barely noticeable today. A Dame to Kill For, then, is in many ways the worst kind of sequel – outdated, unimaginative, uninspiring, routine. Yet for all that can be criticised about it, stylistically it still ticked the boxes for me. There are no complex characters or profound storylines here, of course, and anyone expecting them has been sorely misled. Instead, there is the usual bevy of hot, scantily clad, ass-kicking females, Eva Green in her typical vamp seductress role, heavy use of voice-over, and a bunch of actors punching well below their weight technically and well above their weight figuratively. Josh Brolin in particular is wasted in his role, while Joseph Gordon Levitt is adequate but largely irrelevant. I’ll always have a soft spot for Mickey Rourke, however, and despite the heavy prosthetics, he’s the only one who brings any life to his character – it seems he understands best of all that he need not take himself entirely seriously.

Sin City was a triumph of style over substance, and its sequel is no different. It may not be as original as the first (obviously), but visually it’s still quite beautiful. Heavily stylised, it’s hyper-noir, deliberately fantastical, explicitly acknowledging its graphic novel roots. In a time when the primary goal of most comic book movies appears to be realism, it’s quite a relief to see a film that rejects any guise of authenticity so entirely. That being said, the 3D is completely pointless – in a film that’s deliberately flat, all the 3D does is dull the bright white of the contrasting monochrome. As a final point, it should be said that, while A Dame to Kill For is violent (stylishly so), it barely seems to warrant its 18-rating – though perhaps this says more about the relaxation of the BBFC’s rating system than anything else. At a time when even Saw films can be a 15, Sin City‘s violence barely even matches that of a post-watershed television show – indeed, with shadows conveniently covering people’s lower halves, and blood shed in pretty arcs of white light, this is actually tamer than many series. Perhaps this is the final nail in the coffin for the movie, proving that in the nine years separating it from its predecessor, the world has changed, but Sin City has failed to keep up.

Obvious Child

Release date: 29 August 2014
Rating: 3/5

There’s usually a wild card at these press days – the film that no one’s heard of. Today, this was it, a small indie “comedy” about womanhood and the issues that matter. Whether you like it or not will most likely depend on a few factors: are you a woman, are you a feminist, do you enjoy jokes about bodily functions, how do you feel about abortion. Personally, I find it tedious that these films by women, for women still seem to be incapable of thinking outside the box, instead focusing, inevitably, on relationships and pregnancy. Is that really all that matters to the female human? If this film is anything to go by, as a gender we reclaim our femininity by discussing stains on knickers and saying the word “vagina” a lot (literally airing our dirty laundry in public), we drunk-phone ex-boyfriends like lunatics, and believe that it’s somehow acceptable to make the decision to have an abortion following a one-night stand yet – this is the important bit – not feel the need to inform the man about any of it. Obvious Child, the title taken from a Paul Simon song, offended me in the way that Sex and the City offended me, with its crudeness and self-obsessed whining.

Here, despite a strong performance from Jenny Slate as Donna, the almost-thirty woman-child forced to grow up after discovering she’s pregnant, it was difficult to really empathise with anyone on screen. Gaby Hoffmann, once a child actor seen saving LA from a volcano in Volcano, is one of the only recognisable faces, and her choice of roles in recent years seems to be deliberately based on feminist ideals, but her tirade about “a woman’s choice” is uninspiring. It’s particularly annoying that the men of the film are given such a raw deal. Donna’s dad pops up briefly, but serves no purpose. The ex boyfriend, ditto. The most rounded male character is gay (but stereotypically so), while the one-night-stand-turned-possible-love-interest (despite Jewish Donna worrying that he’s too “obviously Christian” to date) is easily one of the blandest characters ever – having not been told about the proposed abortion, he learns of Donna’s pregnancy when she uses the entire tale (including the forthcoming abortion) as part of her stand-up comedy routine. Yet even this isn’t enough to rouse Max, who is infuriatingly placid, supportive, and doesn’t even think to question Donna’s decision. Surely he should be at least the slightest bit annoyed at learning something so important at a comedy club? Shouldn’t he demand answers, or an explanation? Well, apparently not. In this movie, it appears to be only the females that are afforded any depth or complexity. Yet in the end, the writers seem to equate female empowerment with discussions about farting and defecation, as though that’s somehow something to aspire to. I remain unconvinced, and unamused.

Film #105: Easy A (2010)

Emma Stone as "Olive Penderghast" in Screen Gems' EASY A.

Rating: 3.5/5

“The rumours of my promiscuity have been greatly exaggerated.”

Although Jennifer Lawrence is currently Number One Sweetheart in Hollywood, arguably Emma Stone is a close second. After roles in Superbad and the stupidly hilarious The House Bunny, she burst onto the scene with Zombieland, took the lead in Easy A, and made females around the world jealous by smooching Ryan Gosling in not one but two films (Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad). Safe to say now she’s a hot commodity. I’m not quite convinced – she’s likeable, of course, but even here she’s by no means the most interesting or funny person on screen, nor is she (in my opinion – I’m sure there are plenty who would disagree) the most personable. But Easy A‘s a strange film, self-aware yet oddly oblivious to its own problems, one that is perfectly entertaining while it’s being watched, but littered with inconsistencies in retrospect.

Stone is Olive, a clean-cut, presumably straight-A student who is invisible to the boys (and most of the girls) in her school. Despite this she’s beautiful, trendy, has a quick wit and no real evidence of any insecurities – to be honest, it’s really not clear why she’s not popular. She’s not particularly awkward (like, for example, Stone’s character in The House Bunny), she’s neither stupid nor pious, but for whatever reason, she’s somehow the outsider. Via online video chat, she relates her version of recent events, using click-baity intertitles to punctuate the various chapters of the story – most of the film consists of flashbacks to said events (in hindsight this implies that almost all the scenes involving her parents and adopted brother are entirely incoherent in this context – as sequences that do not progress or impact upon the main purpose of her testimonial, the reasons for their inclusion are unclear. They are, however, among the funniest scenes of the film). Olive’s story begins with an innocent white lie, which snowballs into school-wide rumours about her promiscuity; mirroring her assigned reading (Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter), she becomes the school harlot and finds that infamy and notoriety – whether justified or not – is not necessarily as fun as it first appeared.

While the plot is fairly straight-forward, it’s Olive herself who is so incoherent as a character. Of course, this isn’t Stone’s fault, but that of writer Bert V Royal, who never seems quite sure whether his leading lady is a protagonist, antagonist, smart, stupid, worldly, or naïve. I find it very difficult to believe that, with such enlightened, laid-back and liberal parents (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, both excelling in their roles and stealing all the scenes they feature in), Olive would actually encourage a bullied gay kid to pretend he’s straight to fit in – surely she would oppose this kind of falseness? Yet this is where it all begins – he takes her advice, they pretend they’ve had sex, and in the blink of an eye she’s the local slut. And, rather than reject this new reputation, she embraces it (though never seems quite sure as to whether she enjoys it or not), accepting gift cards from fat losers and nerds as payment for their alleged sexual encounters, until it all starts going horribly wrong – her best friend Rhiannon (former Disney child Aly Michalka), another entirely incoherent character with hippy-dippy nudist parents and a penchant for calling everyone “bitch,” dumps her, the school’s born-again Christian students, led by Amanda Byne’s holier-than-thou Marianne, are determined to get her expelled, and the lies somehow end up threatening her favourite teacher’s marriage.

If I sound particularly negative towards Easy A, I don’t mean to be – it’s a perfectly engaging film, with some funny moments. Royal’s script attempts to situate itself within a broader group of well-respected school-movies – namely John Hughes’ 80s classics – and there are frequent references to other films, as well as self-referential moments (Olive’s voice-over comments on the clichés in the story, for example) and a whole host of pop-culture remarks. The script is snappy and quick, matched by equally snappy pacing that conveniently conceals the fact that so little makes sense. It’s got a great cast, for instance, but character development is severely limited, and some of the cameos are in desperate need of expansion. Malcolm McDowell’s principal, for example, has one scene in which he (rather inappropriately, it seems, but most of the adults speak to Olive in ways that seem particularly inappropriate) declares that “this is public school. If I can keep the girls off the pole and the boys off the pipe, I get a bonus” – then he’s never seen again, despite the apparent scandals that are rocking the school’s faculty and students. Other characters – Rhiannon, Marianne, dimwitted 22-year old Micah (Cam Gigandet) – have minor subplot stories that mostly lead nowhere. Really, Olive is the only character who grows at all, and even her lesson is a half-hearted one in the end, with the film’s eventual message getting lost beneath the weight of the screenplay’s need to conclude with a homage to better movies. In retrospect, these are the things that stand out the most: Olive’s dog is amazing and I want one; and “Pocketful of Sunshine” is undeniably, infuriatingly catchy yet becomes the most memorable bit of the whole movie.

Film #104: Troll Hunter (2010)

film 104 troll hunter

Rating: 4.5/5

“They are not bright. They manage to eat. But how hard is it to survive on rocks?”

Almost as soon as it was released in the UK it was announced that Troll Hunter was going to be getting the now expected English-language remake. As of September 2013 writer-director Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, The Descent) was linked to the film, admittedly making it a slightly more appealing venture, but quite frankly Hitchcock himself could be on board and it would still be an utterly pointless project. Fortunately there seems to be no recent information on IMDb, suggesting the remake has been ditched – fingers crossed. If people can’t be bothered to read the subtitles, then they can just miss out on this little genre gem.

Like many of the “found footage” films of recent years, Troll Hunter takes the realistic medium and adds a supernatural twist. Echoing so many films that have gone before (the horror genre in particular is over-saturated with cheap, shaky hand-cam found footage movies), opening titles inform the viewer that what they are about to see is some of 200-plus hours of footage shot by a small group of students. This proviso also handily explains why the film is so neatly edited – dead time is missing, and the pace (unlike so many inferior films of the genre) is quick, because someone has helpfully compiled all the stock into a palatable movie. And then it begins: three college kids, Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud), the announcer, seen most often on the screen, Johanna (Johanna Mørck), in charge of capturing sound, and Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen), the cameraman are out in the rugged wilderness of the Norwegian countryside apparently trying to shoot a film about bear poaching. Having spoken to some of the official bear hunters, it becomes evident that someone else is also on the hunt – a mysterious poacher with a ramshackle old caravan and a grumpy disposition. Initially reluctant to speak on camera, this gruff individual – Hans (Otto Jespersen) – eventually allows the trio to follow him on what turns out to be his troll hunting expeditions.

There’s so much to like about Troll Hunter. Despite its genre title and the overwhelming potential to be another disappointing, annoying, cheap found footage flick, it’s smart, dry, and expertly made, with some good jumpy moments and a healthy dash of humour. Poor Hans, Norway’s only troll hunter, finally agrees to be filmed not because he’s been caught out, but because he’s sick of all the bureaucracy and the lack of employment benefits – he doesn’t even get paid unsociable hours, despite being out hunting trolls every night. It’s a thankless job, and he’s sick of it. Like a troll-hunting Van Helsing, he works tirelessly to keep Norway safe and, although we find out very little about him, he seems to be a rather complex individual – worn out and tired of the bloodshed, yet unable to retire. In contrast, the kids – who we follow throughout the film – are excellent substitutes for the viewer: mildly irritating at the beginning, because of their doggedness more than anything, then suitably incredulous as Hans first comes rushing through the woods screaming, “Troooooooollll!” moments before something destroys their car and eats their tyres, then excited to be the ones documenting such a scoop.

And what a scoop it is. Also distinguishing it from the other cheap horror movies, Troll Hunter doesn’t shy away from showing its spectacle and, when the trolls are shown, they’re utterly delightful. They look exactly how trolls should look – depending on their breed, they’re furry, hairy, gigantic, have comically stupid-looking faces with bulbous potato-noses, yet still manage to look fearsome. As Hans says, they’re not the brightest creatures, but they’re still dangerous – particularly the ones the group are coming up against here, who seem to be acting especially erratically. It’s here also that it becomes so evident that a remake is pointless, because the trolls are so firmly embedded in Norwegian culture. The craggy, desolate but beautiful landscape has been shaped by the trolls – rocky patches of land are the result of feuding trolls throwing boulders at each other, for example. I’m sure native audiences would pick up on many more references, but even non-Norwegians ought to be familiar with some of the fairy tales mentioned in the film – there’s a clear reference to Three Billy Goats Gruff, for instance. There are also some interesting modern variations on classic themes – Hans warns the trio that they mustn’t believe in God, because trolls can smell the blood of a Christian man, yet later on no one is sure what will happen when a Muslim joins the group. It’s a wonderfully light touch, pointing out the flaws in local legends and pointing to the increased multiculturalism today (has anyone dealt with this in a vampire context, by the way? Would, for example, Indian vampires still fear the cross?!)

I’ve never been much of a fan of the found footage films – having had to watch far too many straight-to-DVD movies of the type for review purposes (like this one, or this), I’ve long tired of the shoddy, stomach-churning incoherence and unsatisfactory conclusions that dominate the style. Yet Troll Hunter stands apart from these shoddy disappointments: it’s great fun, clever and, unlike so many of the inferior examples, it truly delivers. By the end, I was completely sold: obviously there are trolls in Norway. Even the prime minister said so.

Film #101: Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

film 101 cave of forgotten dreams

Rating: 4/5

“Are we today the crocodiles who look back into the abyss of time when we see the paintings of Chauvet cave?”

Finally, a Werner Herzog film (there are plenty more to come) – one of his most recent, and his only venture into 3D. Cave of Forgotten Dreams arrived on the big screen just as the arthouse cinemas were admitting defeat and installing 3D-ready projectors and screens, but I have to admit that, having watched it in both formats now, something is actually lost in the 2D version. Generally, I believe that 3D should only be used as a gimmick – at least when it’s used in films like Piranha 3D and A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas you know you’re going to get your money’s worth. 3D is, and always will be, a gimmick, so if there aren’t things flying out of the screen towards my face, generally I’m not interested. Herzog doesn’t throw anything at our faces here, but his subject matter – the spectacular cave paintings found, perfectly preserved, in 1994 at what are now called the Chauvet Caves in France – really benefits from that third dimension. In his narration, Herzog talks about how the painters used the undulations of the cave walls in their art; he attempts to recreate the flickering light of a fire to show how the pictures move and warp. In 2D it’s fairly easy to imagine, but in 3D – as loathe as I am to admit it – the effect is truly realised.

The Chauvet Cave paintings, the oldest known in the world, are somewhere in the region of 32 000 years old. Found in 1994 by three explorers, access is now severely limited – this is no tourist trap, but a carefully, meticulously examined and preserved site of huge importance. Protected by a landslide thousands of years ago, the cave is pristine – the floor is littered with the bones of long-extinct animals, now covered with a fine dusting of calcite, making everything sparkle. The paintings themselves – dozens of beautiful renditions of animals – are so fresh that, when they were found, they were suspected to be a hoax.

Herzog’s film offers people a rare opportunity to see such important works. With other cave paintings destroyed by mould that grew as a result of tourists’ breath, there’s no chance that us regular folk will ever be granted access. Herzog secured his visits by agreeing to take only one euro in payment, and his film was sponsored by the French Ministry of Culture. Using stringent methods, there’s a rawness to the resulting film – its guerilla-style filmmaking reminded me of one of Herzog’s early documentaries, the stunning La Soufriere, in which the director and a few friends travel to a small island about to be devastated by a volcanic eruption. The space inside the caves is often cramped and restricted so, as Herzog acknowledges, the tiny film crew (only four people for the interior shots) cannot avoid being captured on screen also. Their equipment is rudimentary, restricted so as to cause the least amount of damage to the paintings (it should be said that the sometimes shaky, hand-cam footage does not work in 3D at all).

Once in the caves, however, Herzog allows the paintings to be the star of his film. Long sequences pass by without comment, punctuated by the director’s trademark soundtrack, composed by long-standing collaborator Ernst Reijseger. The haunting orchestral score imbues the images, and the cave itself, with an solemnity – almost a spiritualism – and it becomes easy to imagine the space being once not only a special, but a sacred, place for the people who so carefully daubed the walls. These moments quietly ask for contemplation, and the absence of narration gave us time to discuss the implications of the images on screen. The paintings are stunning, perfectly capturing not just the physicality of these animals (bison, lions, bears, and horses, among others – there is one human on the walls, tantalisingly concealed behind a rock, but it’s the only painting that, to me, doesn’t immediately make obvious what its subject matter is. Is it really the lower half of a woman, with a bison head? The bison part is clear, but I remain sceptical of the rest – perhaps we’re just desperate to be represented) but their essence – they come to life on the walls. Yet there is so much more to them. Herzog doesn’t comment on the fact that the cave has now been sealed off from the world, perfectly, artificially preserved, but it seems particularly pertinent when he acknowledges that some of the paintings appear to have been done five thousand years apart. To put that into perspective – just over two hundred years ago, the Lewis and Clark Expedition set off to discover whether it was possible to reach the west coast of America. There wasn’t even a road, and now there’s LA – in the Chauvet Caves, five thousand years passed, and someone returned to add to the artwork. My brain cannot comprehend such vast swathes of time. Can you imagine someone going and touching up the Mona Lisa, or The Last Supper? Today, what is sacred is preserved, remaining untouched and hidden away from prying eyes or errant hands – it’s a curious aspect of humanity that, I guess, simply wasn’t a factor so many millennia ago.

He might not specifically question this, but it is still a Herzog documentary and, naturally, his interests are varied and obscure. He spends time considering “humanness” – what makes us human, whether these cave paintings are the first physical indication of the discovery of a soul. His interviews with scientists and archaeologists tends to deviate from specifically relevant information – he asks about their dreams after first seeing the paintings, talks to an “experimental” archaeologist and a perfumer trying to locate new caves using his sense of smell. Perhaps because he is just incapable of not adding his touch of Herzog-weirdness (or perhaps because we all expect it now), the film’s post-script features mutant albino crocodiles (mentioned in pretty much every review of the film) now living in an artificial nuclear biosphere a few miles away from the caves. Yet really the film is not about this strangeness, but about the paintings, and he presents them with a reverence that indicates his respect for such important works. For Herzog, the paintings are a key moment in human development, bringing beauty and life to the world like the opera does today. They might be hidden away from the hazards of flash photography, grubby shoes, and pesky carbon dioxide, but Herzog brings them back into the light, allowing us all to bear witness to what is arguably one of the most important cultural discoveries ever.