2002: Cinematic Hits and Misses

The bigger they come, the harder they fail…

The last palindromic year for over a century is in the books, and it only remains for me to chuck my two cents in and announce the TC top ten. Hollywood executives are holding their breath – will Snow Dogs make the cut? I think it’s safe to say the answer is not quite going to shake the foundations of the studio system.

I saw seven of the year’s top ten grossing movies, down one from 2001 – the missed ones were Star Wars II (which I still might catch up with now it’s playing at the IMAX), My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and Goldmember. Last year, two of the top ten made this list, this year’s it’s just one – slightly less than one, actually, for reasons which I’ll get into shortly, and making this more of a Top 9.9 than a Top 10, I suppose. The #1 at the box-office, Spiderman, cracked $400m in the US alone, marking Sam Raimi’s arrival in the super-mainstream. With him and Peter Jackson helming 2002 box-office behemoths, any bets on which former ‘video nasty’ director will be next? Dario Argento? Jorg Buttgereit? Guess we can rule out Lucio Fulci, at least…

It was, it seemed, a disappointing year, particularly for action movies. The more a film was anticipated, the less it actually seemed to deliver; two of the best trailers of the year, XXX and Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, turned out to be leaden lumps of tedium with few redeeming features. Things didn’t get better with the new 007 flick, the third consecutive disappointing entry in that series, and even The Two Towers failed to live up to the standards of its predecessor.

Fortunately, peeping under the wire were a couple of pleasant surprises, not least the arrival of Jason Statham as a legitimate British action here in The Transporter. However, to avoid disappointment, I am consciously trying not to get over-excited for any of 2003’s releases, most notably Terminator 3 and The Matrix Reloaded. I figure if I expect less of them, it reduces the chance of unpleasant surprises.

A couple of words to Disney: you suck. You lobby to get the copyright law changed to protect Mickey, while shamelessly raping the public domain for the likes of Treasure Planet, and even pillage your own back catalog, whoring any beloved cartoon you can into straight-to-video sequels. Then, when you get your hands on the best animated film of the year (Spirited Away), you hide it in 151 theatres nationwide, with hardly any publicity – compare TP, which opened in over 3,200 with a marketing blitz, and still tanked.

And while we’re at it, can someone please give Christopher Walken some money? That way, we wouldn’t have to suffer the trauma of seeing one of the finest actors of our generation in stuff like Kangaroo Jack and The Country Bears Movie. Walken wins the Klaus Kinski “Fuck the script, send me the check” Memorial Award for 2002.

#10 – Equilbrium. Sliding in so low under the wire, I’d not even heard of it until the day we saw it, Christian Bale delivers a great performance in a setting that combines the best of Orwell, Huxley and Bradbury.

#9 – Signs. Would have been several notches higher, if not for an ending that would have got a failing grade in your Primary 3 English class. That this disastrous finale doesn’t flush the movie out of here entirely speaks volumes for the quality of the rest of it.

#8 – Jane White is Sick and Twisted. As previously, 2003 had its share of festival hits that, sadly, in all probability we’ll never see again. This maniacal riff on pop culture took homage to undreamt-of depths, in a wild ride through the TV landscape which is the third millenium. A career programming reality shows for the FOX network beckons those responsible.

#7 – Blade II. The year’s most unexpectedly-decent sequel was Del Toro’s gory-as-hell take on what is possibly the coolest comic character to hit the screen thus far. Face-splitting, autopsies, and more exploding vamps than you can shake an ultraviolet hand-grenade at, plus Donnie Yen (right) and Wesley himself. Woo-hoo!

#6 – Sum of all Fears. Never having read the book, I had no idea what to expect here, and the Ben Affleck/Harrison Ford thing passed me over entirely. What the makers delivered was the tensest movie of the year; once Baltimore was sacrificed, you got the feeling anything could happen, at any time.

#5 – Minority Report. It’d been a long while since Spielberg had made anything in the pure entertainment line, which is where his fame began, but this delivers the goods. Chalk up another Dick adaptation which bears little resemblance to the book but is still great on its own terms.

#4 – Spirited Away. Hayao Miyazaki is another film-maker who returned to form in 2002. After a few mediocre entries, he got back to what he does best: imaginative story-telling. He creates a wonderful parallel world of amazing characters and visual style.

#3 – Dead Dogs Lie. The best film of 2002 which you won’t have heard of (except here) sends three hitmen on a road trip. Less plot- than incident-driven, it had the sharpest dialogue of the year; here’s hoping someone picks it up for distribution soon. Or else we might have to. 🙂

#2 – The Ring. Just another crappy Hollywood rema…No, hang on, what’s this? It kicks the original’s turgid butt in just about every way, keeping the good and cranking the Creep Factor up to 11. Our son came home from seeing it and started asking if we had any covered wells on the property…

#1 – Nine Queens. Proving that there’s life in David Mamet’s style yet…if not perhaps in David Mamet… A script to treasure, unfolding with precise grace right up until the end. Bordering on a shaggy-dog story, I almost don’t want to see it again, in case it proves less fabulous second time around.

24: The First Season

BINK-u…BINK-u…BINK-u…BINK-u… Which is, as near as I can figure it, a phonetic representation of the start of 24, with its relentlessly ticking digital clock*. We missed the show first time through, largely because of Fox’s incessant advertising of it during the 2001 World Series. We watched every pitch, since the Arizona Diamondbacks were playing, but this resulted in a steadily-increasing aversion to all the hype. After all, what was the last decent thing Kiefer Sutherland was in? The Lost Boys? [Ok, we might give him Dark City.]

It thus passed us by, but the second season drew us in, and hooked us completely, becoming the most-anticipated show on television. It was no surprise to find the DVDs of the first series in my stocking in Christmas morning, though if we were being honest, I think it was as much for Chris as me – hey, turnabout’s fair play, I bought her Brotherhood of the Wolf! What was a shock was how fast we got through it, especially given the nine months it took to get through the similarly-sized second season of Buffy. We started at 2pm December 29th; by 11pm on the 31st, we’d gone through all 24 episodes, some 19 hours of TV in less than 2 1/2 days.

The gimmick is, of course, that the show takes place in real time. 24 episodes = 1 day, each representing an hour. If someone takes ten minutes to drive from one location to another, that’s how long they take. Fortunately, there are multiple story threads, which save us from lengthy sequences of Kiefer Sutherland picking his nose in traffic. Central to the story is a plot to assassinate Democratic Presidential nominee David Palmer. At first, this seems straightforward – he is the first black candidate for the office – but as things unravel, it becomes clear that there is a lot more going on. People in his entourage are working against him, and his wife is not prepared to let anything stand in the way of her becoming the First Lady.

Leading the hunt is Jack Bauer (Sutherland), agent of CTU (Counter Terrorist Unit) who is equally unwilling to let anything – least of all department protocol – stop him from finding the perpetrators. This is made pretty clear early on, when he shoots his boss with a tranquilizer dart and blackmails him in order to extract information. It also becomes apparent that someone inside CTU is not totally loyal either. Oh, and Jack’s wife and daughter have been kidnapped, to coerce him into assisting the assassination. Are we having fun yet?

It’s weird watching season one, only after seeing a good chunk of season two. In some ways, it does weaken the show, because you know who returns, which removes the sense of threat. But in others, it heightens the tension, providing a sense of futility to the struggles of characters who you know are going to die. We now know who is the mole inside CTU – so, in season one, every time the hero interacts with the traitor, we urge him to pull his gun and pump an entire magazine into the treacherous scum.

Mind you, some things are refreshingly similar. His daugher is still an irritating and stupid bimbo – the sooner she gets reunited with her mother, the better – and Palmer’s wife remains about as trustworthy as a king cobra with a hangover. The greatest joy of the DVDs is that you don’t need to wait a week for the next one, which was a huge relief, because it is genuinely hard to turn off. We inevitably found ourselves watching “just one more episode”, and returning to season two with 167 hours between installments was an immensely painful experience.

The scripting is great, despite an obviously contrived nature – each episode brings several mini-climaxes, building towards a finale of apocalyptic intensity (it’s remarkable how many exciting events happen at 58 minutes past the hour…). Our favourite was probably the end of #23, where the mole is revealed, yanking the carpet out from under you in truly spectacular fashion. We can only imagine how that felt on the first screening.

If there’s a flaw, it’s in the villains’ plans to assassinate Palmer, which are hideously over-convoluted, and more befitting a Bond villain. They have plants working in the power station where the first attempt is made, but rely on Jack to smuggle in a weapon when the security is at its tightest. Their ability to tap into any CCTV system at short notice is remarkable, and they possess so much technology as to suggest assistance from the Rowell aliens. They can infiltrate federal buildings and personnel. One would imagine they could find less complex methods, that are more likely to succeed.

However, the pace is so breathless that such concerns seem trivial, and the acting also helps paper over the cracks too. Special mentions go to Susan Clarke, as the cool, ultra-efficient Nina (who is even better in series 2), Dennis Haysbert as David Palmer (surely heading for a write-in Presidential campaign next year!) and Carlos Bernard as Tony (loyal to a fault, despite his previous differences with Jack). They lend critical support to Sutherland, and help make the show infinitely watchable.

It makes us wonder why there aren’t more films done in similar style – the last one to run minute-for-minute was Nick of Time, an obvious inspiration for 24, with its kidnapped child and omniscient villain. It’s probably a logistical nightmare – imagine the continuity problems of making sure everyone looks exactly the same throughout the months of shooting. But still, suspect we might well now see a slew of them in the wake of this show’s success.

But they’ll be hard pushed to deliver the same amount of excitement and intensity as the first season of 24, right up to the final scene. If the second series can manage to finish on such a high note – well, it was high, unless you were the major character whose cold corpse was discovered therein – we’ll be more than happy.

[* Chris just made it her “You’ve got mail” sound; freakily, guess how many messages she had in her mailbox when she tested it out? Yep – 24…]