Full, Unexploded 1,700 word Version

This film begins with a robot’s tracks rolling over the rubble of an urban battlefield, very much as The Terminator did back in 1984. Given that Kathryn Bigelow was married to James Cameron once upon a time, you might be forgiven for thinking that this, her latest film, was going in a similar direction … but you could hardly be more wrong.

Here, the urban battlefield is not in some non-specific place in some non-specific future, it’s in Baghdad, during the recent unpleasantness there and the robot is a remote bomb disposal unit.

Those who are familiar with Bigelow’s previous films, such as Near Dark (1987), Strange Days (1995) and particularly Point Break (1991) will know that she is fascinated with exploring the relationship between violence with masculinity. Well, there are few places where you can study that more closely than in a theatre of war. And uniquely among the armed forces – the bomb disposal specialists are the guys who walk towards bombs.

The bomb-proof body-armour they wear when doing this is one part medieval armour to two parts deep-sea diving suit … and whenever they put it on, they walk away from the world of relative safety, of support, of some sort of sanity, into a mad, upside-down world where they are all alone … just them and their bomb. Or bombs.

As in Memphis Belle (1990) and Platoon (1986), films about two very different wars, we feel the pressure mount as the end of Bravo Company’s tour of duty approaches … no one says it, but everyone is thinking: “How many more times can we put ourselves in harm’s way … before it’s our turn to not come back?”

Well, that’s a gamble new kid on the Baghdad block, Will James (Jeremy Renner), seems determined to take. When he puts on the armour, he’s an adrenaline-junkie, prone to taking liberties with his own life and his two colleagues’ without hesitation. The other two (played with minimalist restrain by Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty) see his macho posturing for what it is … unnecessary and dangerous. When he is told that his responsibility is to stay safe, he shrugs, smiles and dismisses the idea with a casual “It’s combat, buddy”.

The several bomb-disposal set-pieces are nerve-shredding in their intensity. Watching the lone man, in his armour, walking alone down the middle of a deserted, rubble-strewn street puts one in mind of the recent swathe of end-of-the-world and zombie movies the post-9/11 hysteria has given rise to. Indeed, when he finds himself surrounded by mines, he pulls on the cord that connects them, and they rise up out of the dirt like zombies … but such similarities are merely perceptual and peripheral. This film may be a comment on the hysteria of mainstream cinema, but it’s not a contribution to it.

What makes this film even more disturbing is the knowledge that scriptwriter Mark Boal based it on his experiences as a journalist embedded with a unit of bomb technicians. So the man knows of whence he writes.

When Will is faced with a car full of mines, his first thought is to divest himself of his armour because, with that much explosive, it’ll make no difference. Freed from its restrictions, he doggedly traces the wires through the nooks and crannies of the burnt-out car, determined to defuse the bombs, even as the soldiers around him are becoming ever more panicky, feeling besieged by the onlookers on every rooftop. Yet, such is the skill of Bigelow and Boal, such is their determination to present the truth of the war in all its complicated moral greyness, this scene seems more reckless than heroic.

James is the maverick, the rebel, exactly the sort of character that typically makes for the most engaging Hollywood protagonists, but here he is seen from the perspective of his colleagues and, to their mind, his death wish is simply going to get them killed too. The only back-story we get from him is when the others are looking through the box of mementoes he has, bits of different bombs he has defused, which he describes as a box is full of things that nearly killed him. Significantly, his wedding ring is in there also.

Throughout the film there are deftly-handled references to several other war films, the afore-mentioned Platoon for one, Full Metal Jacket (1987) for another and, inevitably, Apocalypse Now (1979), but these aren’t just post-modern jokes there for the sake of it, they reflect the reality of the lives of these soldiers … it stands to reason that they will see the war they are fighting in relation to the movies they grew up watching and the first-person-shooters they grew up playing.

Back in the safety of The Green Zone, they play Gears of War (which is just the latest iteration of the ideas Bigelow’s ex-husband first had when working on Aliens in 1986). Why do they play this? Well, because this is a controllable sort of war, one where you know who the enemy is, who your friends are and you have a clear objective in mind. It’s nothing like the war they fight on a daily basis, it’s a fantasy!

It is here that Specialist Eldridge is gripped by survivor guilt, which gets keener the nearer he gets to going home. His doctor helpfully counsels him that war is a once in a lifetime experience which “could be fun!” He, unlike Boal and Bigelow, clearly hasn’t understood the difference between Gears of War and the real thing.

Cameo performances from Guy Pearce, as the disposal specialist who demonstrates to us just how dangerous the job is, David Morse as the officer who has clearly watched Apocalypse Now too often and desperately wants to be Colonel Kilgore and Ralph Fiennes, in an extraordinary turn as a mercenary we meet in the middle of the desert, are all so well drawn and bring with them so much texture, they add to the feeling that what we are seeing just one small story in a much larger on-going narrative.

The film succeeds in avoiding the problem I had with Black Hawk Down (20001) by concentrating on a small crew. So there’s only three cloned troopers wearing identical hair and camouflage to tell apart, and one of those is black. Makes it a lot easier to identify with a character when you can actually pick them out of a crowd.

Finally, the three specialists come together as a unit during an extraordinary sequence when they find themselves pinned down by snipers and have to fight back using bullets which are, symbolically, already stained with blood.

This film overflows with extraordinary moments, there’s not just the edge-of-the-seat defusings, there’s also the ambush, there’s Will, fully clothed, standing in a shower which quickly fills up with blood, there’s haunting footage of him out of uniform, running through the neon-lit late-night streets which, for some peculiar reason, reminded me of Taxi Driver (1975).

Jarhead (2005) made the burning Kuwaiti oil-fields look like something out of a Biblical dark fantasy, not that it had to try hard, because they did look like Hell on Earth … here, the site of a night-time bus explosion, rubble lit by burning trees, is a similarly Biblical, similarly diabolical vision … accompanied by the unearthly wailing of women. All of which reminded me of the No Lung Bridge sequence from Apocalypse Now, the moment when sanity finally and completely transformed into insanity … when Willard and his crew stepped off the map. Here Will and his team take it upon themselves to leave the protection of their comrades and plunge into the dark labyrinth of streets and alleys that the bombers, “The Haj”, call home.

Whilst the demilitarised area where some vestige of normalacy exists, might be called The Green Zone, the war is clearly being fought in a perpetual Grey Zone … where nothing quite makes sense and one’s moral compass just goes round and round.

The main performance by Jeremy Renner is a study in caged rage. As impactful as Colin Farrell’s debut in the thematically-similar Tigerland (2000), I hope this does for Renner’s career what that did for Farrell’s, because he deserves it. Thanks to his fiercely intense eyes, he manages to communicate so much intense emotion while saying nothing. The moment when he finally breaks is when he finds the corpse of a child, with a booby-trap surgically implanted inside it. This reminds him of his own son, the one he abandoned to go off and get shot at and, because of this, it’s just one horror too many.

The dialogue is sparse, the narrative fragmentary, yet the performances are humane enough that we come to care for these guys in a very deep and real sense. We’re glad they’re out there, instead of us. The film never shrinks away from the contradictions in their characters, and doesn’t proffer pat, psycho-babble explanations for their behaviour. These guys don’t communicate in an open, healthy way. They deal with their emotions by staging a really-quite-vicious gut-punching contest with each-other instead. Like all real people, they’re complex and contradictory. Sometimes we understand them, sometimes we don’t, and the mystifying decision that James makes at the end of the movie is both horrifying and, sadly inevitable.

Only in the film’s closing moments, do we fully understand the quotation we see at the beginning.

The Hurt Locker has spent much of this year walking its way around the world’s festivals, hoovering up accolades as it goes, and justifiably so. That’s the intelligent way to market a film, especially on as critic-friendly as this one, because it allows you to build up that word of mouth gradually that ensures this film will be the sleeper hit it richly deserves to be.

This is this year’s The Wrestler … a film that comes out of nowhere and stands confident and proud in crowd of complacent, lazy films. In time, The Hurt Locker will be spoken of in the same breath as Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket and, for an analysis of the greyness of modern warfare, I can think of no greater achievement.


Fully Undead 900 word Version:

This is an early eighties American movie … it just happens to have been made in Norway in the late noughties. It begins, as Evil Dead (1981) does, with a group of students in a car heading out into the woods for a weekend getaway in an isolated cabin. We even have a few aerial shots of them driving along the side of a snow-bound lake in the mountains, which will put us immediately in mind of The Shining (1980).

Of course, these references, and the others that pepper the film, are quite deliberate. As the students wade through the snow along the repeatedly-mentioned “45 minute hike” from the road to the cabin, one of their number, a film-geek named Erlend, asks: “Hang on … How many films start like this?” Lots. About as many as have the obligatory post-modern film-geek character, I’d say.

Unlike your typical Grindhouse schlock-fest, this film features some stunning snowscape photography by the not-remotely-Nordic-sounding Matthew Weston. While Sweden’s Let The Right One (2008) and, to a lesser extent, America’s 30 Days of Night (2007) showed us how dark and claustrophobic snow could be, this film immediately opens up the aperture to let all that reflected sunlight come flooding in. It has the audacity to allow its horror to take place in the broadest imaginable daylight which, of course, means that you can see the horror coming from further away … the downside being: It can see you, too. You can run, but you certainly can’t hide.

During their first night in the cabin, the traditional Mysterious Stranger knocks on the door, to warn the unwary of the horrors they can expect to encounter. In a mesmerising monologue, the unnamed stranger tells the students about the Eisatz, the platoon of Germans who were stationed there during the war and who were “evil, hellish bastards” led by the devilish Colonel Herzog. He finishes with the wonderfully quotable warning “People tread lightly up here” then takes his leave to, rather foolishly, pitch his tent somewhere in the middle of the killing snowfields.

Soon after he leaves, the students find a box of Nazi gold under the cabin floorboards (“Fortune and glory, kid” mutters the film geek … if you don’t know why, I won’t bore you with the reason) which discovery brings the long-dormant local undead rising from their resting places in the snow to retrieve it.

Død Snø wears its heart (and its intestines) so openly on its sleeve that Erlend has on a Braindead t-shirt when he is torn-apart, in a good-old-fashioned latex prosthetic special-effect with lashings of livid red 80s-style blood. Vegard, the nominal leader of the gang, gets to act like Bruce Campbell engaging in a fist-fight with the first zombie. Martin, the specky nerd character, has to chainsaw his own arm off. This is the film that My Name is Bruce wishes it was!

If you haven’t already clicked, it’ll be about here that you realise you’re actually watching a comedy. One which very quickly escalates to almost undreamed-of heights of gory slap-stick. The silliest and sickest effects take place in bright, unforgiving daylight, with gouts of bright blood spraying liberally against the pristine white background, with the considerable short-comings of the effects unashamedly there for all to see but, of course, quality counts for nothing: When a character is hanging off a cliff, clinging to a rope made of writhing zombie entrails, you don’t really worry too much about how realistic they look.

For all its fearless exuberance, the film has some real problems. You are left to wonder where, exactly, have the Nazis been hiding for the last sixty years and may notice that, since they’re working together and taking orders from their commander, they can’t really be zombies! Even the central conceit, the Nazi zombie idea, has been done before in Shock Waves (1977) and, more recently, Outpost (2008), but that’s okay because there is no attempt to be original here … this film is a celebration of schlock, not an attempt to rehabilitate it.

So, you are encouraged to look upon this film as disposable, forgettable slap-stick, but then the wonderfully sophisticated visuals, sharp editing and excellent use of music are all quite at odds with the lampooning of the one-dimensional characters and loopy half-written plot. I think, with a bit more experience and the support of the more highly-developed American studios (who have apparently already drawn him into their web) director Wirkola will hopefully turn into an inspired and enterprising new talent. He certainly has the connections to make it big!

Sara, the girl who owns the cabin and who was, unbeknownst to her friends, killed in the film’s pre-title sequence, is played by Ane Dahl Torp, a veritable Norwegian mega-star; while The Mysterious Stranger is played by Bjørn Sundquist, Norway’s favourite serious actor. He clearly relishes his time slumming it in a genre movie and presumably both he and Torp supported this project (and worked at considerably below their usual pay scale, no doubt) because Wirkola persuaded them that this was an opportunity to push Norwegian cinema onto the world stage. Which is exactly what Død Snø has done. Apparently it received only lukewarm reviews in the Norwegian press upon its release but then it wasn’t made for Norwegian critics … it was made for people who love The Evil Dead … it was made for you!

Director: Tommy Wirkola.
Writers: Stig Frode Henriksen & Tommy Wirkola.
Cast: Charlotte Frogner, Ørjan Garnst, Stig Frode Henriksen, Bjorn Sundquist, Ane Dahl Torp.
Dur: 91 mins
Cert: 18



I haven’t read the book. There, I’ve said it. It’s out in the open. I’ve got it off my chest. Whew.

But, here’s a thing … a lot of the people paying their money to watch the film won’t have read the book. And many of them, myself included, won’t have seen the previous film (Harry Potter and the Order of Fried Rice - 2007) since its release two long cold summers ago. So, they, like me, are going to be a bit dazed and confused by the first fifteen minutes or so of this film. Note to the producers: A “Previously on Harry Potter …” like they do at the beginning of 24 or Lost was in order!

Because, let’s face it, this is nothing more than another episode in an ongoing series. There’s going to be no resolution at the end because, even noggin-scratching muggles like me know fine well that it isn’t the end. There’s another, final, book in the series, which they are apparently going to split into two separate films (a sort of Kill Harry pts 1 and 2) for release next year. So Harry Potter and the Half Baked Idea was never going to be anything more than a teaser trailer for next year’s instalments.

Further, those of us who have only experienced these stories on screen have noticed how progressively less twee they have become and, as we move inexorably towards the end, how their ever-darkening tone is more and more concerned with existential thoughts of mortality. I don’t imagine that is mere coincidence that has brought them, at the same time, ever-closer to us here in the real world. (Well, to those in London, at any rate … I guess The Smoke counts as the real world).

So this film starts in our London, with Harry all by himself on a tube station caff at midnight, while the smoke-like Death Eaters (so-called, I suppose, because they seemingly don’t eat much death) roar through the streets overhead, caring nothing for the muggles who see them as they tear the Millennium Bridge apart. I’m guessing they were architectural critics in a previous life. Unravelling a footbridge across the Thames … well, let’s face it, its not quite as iconic an opening gambit as tearing The Golden Gate Bridge apart … but, this being London, I guess it’ll do.

But anyway, why is Harry all on his todd, in a greasy-spoon after dark? Well, because he’s discovered girls (finally) and rather fancies his chances with the waitress. But, just as he’s practicing his best moves on her, his Manifest Destiny comes a-knocking once again in the form of Dumbledore, looking not at all out-of-place in his dress and waist-length beard, standing on a underground platform in our real world.

So Harry stands on his own metaphorical bridge, the one between the two worlds he inhabits … on one side the world of having to work in a café at night to earn a living … on the other, the world of getting everything one wants just by essentially wishing for it. Which way will he go? Stay with the girl or go with the beckoning weirdo in the frock? Well, we won’t have much of a movie if he stays with the girl, so ...

As ever, Gambon’s performance walks the fine line between trustworthy and suspicious. He clearly knows more than he’s letting on and the nagging doubt remains about his judgement of what to tell Harry and when to tell him it. I’m not sure he’s the kind of stranger I’d like my child wandering off with but, as Harry himself puts it, over the years he’s just learned to go with it.

Now, a cynical person might pause to wonder why, after several defeats, ole Darth Voldemort doesn’t have a pop at Harry over the summer months when he’s off on his own, unprotected, hanging around in tube stations in our magic-free world, rather than waiting until he’s back a Hogwarts, supported by his friends and surrounded by the strongest wizards in the world. More of a challenge, I suppose! After all, Voldy is demonstrably the kind of guy who cuts off his nose to spite his face. (Not that you’d know that from this film, since he’s nowhere to be seen apart from during a peculiar “Ooh, that cloud looks like Rafe Feinnes with no nose” moment).

So, Dumbledum takes Harry to meet this year’s deux ex machina supply teacher, Slughorn, played to bumbling perfection by Jim Broadbent, one of the ever-dwindling number of quality British thesps who haven’t already taken Warner’s coin for a cameo appearance here. Slughorn is living in someone else’s house while they’re away. He’s on the run and never stays anywhere for more than a week, so he’s quite relieved to take a place behind Hogwarts’ ever-changing protective walls.

The first school assembly here sings with nostalgia … reminding me of the earlier films, when the kids were more innocent, the atmosphere less doom-laden and the convenient cure-all of magic tricks were less at odds with the fatalistic reality of the films. Even the quidditch match is played on a dank, grey mist-enshrouded and very British day, not the magical, sun-kissed days of yore.

As usual, the few lessons our heroes attend provide them with the convenient solutions to some problems they’ll encounter later, Ron is there to provide comic relief, as ever, and Hermione is there to be emotional and distracting. As the films move on they seem to be increasingly irrelevant to the films, receiving less and less significant screen-time, which is a shame because, when events do kick off, Harry relies on his friends and dumb luck as usual because, let’s face it, he’s never been much cop as a magician.

The only real surprises are in the quality of the acting in that, after six films, Alan Rickman’s Snape finally gets to do some. Meanwhile, stepping out of the shadows after being in the background for several films, Tom Felton has grown into quite the young man, cutting quite a dash as Draco in his sharp suits. Instead of the annoyingly smug, impotent little shit he played in the early films, he’s become something altogether more complicated, positively haunted by the responsibility he has undertaken. Felton has taken his chance to use this performance as his audition for the rest of his career, once Potter’s golden shackles fall away, and credit to him for it.

The other new ingredient here is the sexual chemistry … which was still being resisted in the last film, two years ago (rightly, I think, given the age of the characters) but now, as the age gap between the characters and the actors playing then widens, it seems less exploitative to finally be acknowledging (even in a girly, romanticised way) what kids in their late teens really think about all day. After all, that’s what the Twilight books and films trade on, the Potter franchise will be missing a trick and possibly alienating its audience (who are also in their late teens and twenties now) if it doesn’t follow suit.

The third act, when Harry steps away from the comfortable surroundings of Hogwarts, followed by the shocking revelations of his return, are genuinely creepy and make evident, for those who hadn’t already noticed, what a great debt these later Potter films owe to Tolkein / Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Lucas’ Star Wars films and indeed, any of the films that follow Joseph Campbell’s rules of the Hero’s Journey.

For those of us who understand the rules, the ending of this film was always inevitable, it was not a matter of ‘if’ so much as ‘when’. So the only surprises lie in the all-important ‘how’ which, in this case, is dealt with surprisingly well, giving the film a delightfully post-modern twist which, I gather, is quite different from the way the matter was handled in the book. Hm, I might have to go against all my natural instincts and actually have a look at the book. Just don’t tell anyone, alright!?


. .
Digital is the way to go. I’ve been saying this ever since I saw Bee Movie and Blade Runner: The Final Cut on the same day at the all-digital Vue Cinema in Hull, in 2008. Odd double-bill you might think, and you’d be right, but they served to show the full range of possibilities made available to us by digital projection. The twenty-five year-old Blade Runner has never been sharper and the CGI Bee Movie had real sting. I’d never seen a clearer, richer, more detailed picture anywhere.

Here in Britain, we rarely get to see pristine prints of films. Even first-run films at big cinemas are often hurriedly mass-produced prints, or re-cycled ones from the States, so it’s rare to see a film at its absolute best, even on the big screen. Not a problem with digital. Every ‘print’ is as good as the original, no scratches, no cigarette-burns, no reel-ends missing. It’s exactly as the film-makers wanted it to be.

The only variables, then, are the quality of the venue you see it in and the aptitude of the person running the projectors. Ah, but there’s the rub. A custom-built system, calibrated and maintained to optimum levels and operated by a technician with experience and a real feel for his art (like at Hull's Vue), is as close to perfect as I ever expect to get in a cinema. However, a converted analogue screen, thrown-together simply to draw down some European funding and operated like some circus side-show by an incompetent orang-utan’s dumber, younger brother is, by contrast, only marginally less unpleasant than being force-fed crusty toe-nails by a grinning, gap-toothed chav with ferocious body-odour and a Mockney accent.

Which brings me back to Ice Age 3 (Or Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs to give it its full, non-sensical title). I didn't see this at a custom-built digital cinema. I saw this in the sadly more-common dodgy conversion.

The digital presentation I saw was flat and fuzzy and pallid in colour. It speaks volumes of the film that I managed to fight through this curtain of exhibitor-incompetence to actually enjoy it!

Our story kick’s off an elephant’s gestation period after the last film, we have Ellie and Manny the mammoths expecting the patter of, frankly, quite large feet, which makes Sid the surprisingly energetic Sloth just plain broody. He stumbles across a clutch of dinosaur eggs (dinosaurs … you know, those things which the first Ace Age (2002) correctly stated had died out millions of years before our mammal protagonists evolved) and, dubbing them Egbert, Shelly and Yoko, decides to adopt them.

Well, of course, the triplets’ real dino-mum arrives (and we all know how much we enjoy a CGI saurian, they were, after-all, CGI’s coming-of-age back in 1993), takes Sid along for the ride and leads the gang to a Pellucidar-type land of the lost where we meet this movie’s star-turn, a buckle-swashing one-eyed weasel called Buck. Voiced exuberantly by Simon Pegg, he is clearly this franchise’s attempt to cash-in on Puss In Boots from Dreamworks' other trilogy franchise: Shrek. He is their guide through the exotic flora and fauna of this subterranean world where pretty-much everything wants to kill you.

As with all of the sensible animations this year, the 3D here is used sparingly and with care, to give depth and detail to the landscape, to help create the magical, fantastical vistas the animators have dreamed up, with only the occasional cheap-thrill sequence designed to be turned into a ride or video-game, such as the spectacular pterodactyl dog-fight.

The slapstick humour is classic Looney Tunes tom-foolery, with the rat-a-tat one-liners reminding me of nothing so much as the Hope and Crosby Road films, while the musical score has all the scope and romance of a Korngold classic. I love the fact that today's animators draw inspiration from source-material so old that, in all likelihood, even the parents of the supposed target-audience kids won’t recognise it. All of which tells me that a good animated film’s roots are growing in soil far deeper and richer than that which spawns your typical, undemanding, lowest-common-dee-dum-dee-dum-dum kid flick. Seeing beyond the short-term demands of this year’s fashion is partly what gave John Lasseter’s Pixar its strength, and Katzenberger's Dreamworks has been wise to follow Lasseter’s lead, therefore it would have been the acme of foolishness if Blue Sky Studios (the makers of the Ice Age films and the backbone of Fox's animation division) had not followed suit.

So, is Ice Age 3 that rarest of things, an artistically successful and enjoyable sequel? Unequivocally yes! The film-makers know that bringing the dinosaurs back is nonsense (one character opines at one point “I preferred you when you were extinct”) but they are cartoon dinosaurs, in a cartoon world. After all, if we are untroubled by the notion that sabre-tooths (sabre-teeth?), woolly-mammoths et al can talk to each-other … in English … then having dinosaurs hidden away in a secret jungle shouldn’t cause us any problems.

If was good enough for Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Willis O’Brien … it’s good enough for me!
Directed by: Carlos Saldanha & Mike Thurmeier
Stars: Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary, Simon Pegg
Dur: 94 mins
Cert: U
Image © 20 Century Fox