Tuesday, 31 December 2013

NerdTech's Film of the Year 2013!

It's been one year, give or take, since this site randomly turned into a movie blog for no reason. The first stuff on here was the 2012 Film of the Year awards so, naturally, we're marking our first anniversary with the 2013 awards!

The rules are the same as last year: this is not the best films of the year, it's the films that had the biggest effect on me - be that emotional, exciting, hilarious or terrifying. The best film I saw this year, objectively speaking, actually is on this list - but, because it's an intentionally subjective list, it barely made it into the top 3.
Gut reactions are the order of the day.

5: Iron Man 3 - Shane Black

It's been a pretty crappy year for blockbusters. Star Trek was fun but, in retrospect, indefensibly stupid; Man of Steel was a boring, self-serious mess; and GI Joe was just plain terrible. Even Pacific Rim, much as I loved it, peaked too soon and sagged at the end. Thank Odin, then, for Marvel.

Of their two offerings this year (three if you count Agents of SHIELD) Iron Man 3 was the clear winner. Shane Black made a superhero movie that breaks all the rules and never does what it's supposed to; at once both a part of the Marvel universe and its own crazy thing.
Iron Man, the guy in the suit, is barely in it - his biggest villain, likewise - and somehow that's actually to the movie's benefit. Black's film goes out of its way to be different, and the result is a fresh and unusual take on an overplayed genre. Even if it did upset a few people.

Many franchises this year split their fanbase down the middle, and Iron Man was no exception. Man of Steel and Star Trek both delighted and disgusted fans in equal measure. But where they caused divisions with their plotholes and problems, Iron Man 3 did it on purpose, with a pitch-perfect reveal that flipped everything on its head.
It's that mischievous nature - true to the comics yet completely subverting them - that earns it a place on this list. The fact that it also has a great script, brilliant action, and is often really funny is just the polish on this shiny metal suit.

Read the full review here!

4: Monsters University - Dan Scanlon

I can't say I was thrilled when I heard that they were making a prequel to one of my favourite films. Prequels tend to be a Bad Idea - I can't think of the last one that actually lived up to the original (X-Men: First Class maybe, but that's actually more of a reboot).
And, if we're being honest, MU can't match the pure magic of Monsters Inc. either. But it's different enough and funny enough and, as it hits its final act, clever enough that it never actually matters.

At first glance it's a pretty generic collage movie story, but the specifics of the film and its world make it far more unique and, more importantly, flat-out hilarious. Every moment of the film boasts a joke of some kind - be they tiny visual puns in the background or huge set-piece gags - and every single one lands.
It's Pixar's funniest film but, in true Pixar fashion, they don't let that get in the way of the great characters and their surprisingly heartfelt story. If nothing else, it's great that it keeps surprising us, even though we already know how it ends.

It's quite possible that Monsters University would have made this list merely for being the funniest film of the year but then, in a final act as dramatic as it is unexpected, it cements itself as one of the year's absolute best.

Read the full review here!

3: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug - Peter Jackson

For a number of reasons - including Christmas, and something you'll see in a moment - I still haven't finished my review of The Hobbit. Because I don't want to spoil that review, which will be up first thing next year, I'll keep this brief.
Just know that, even though I've given it the same ranking, Desolation is the film we all hoped An Unexpected Journey would be - a lighter, less serious tale than Lord of the Rings, but still recognisably set in the same world. Middle Earth is alive again, and everything from the characters to the locations has the depth and texture that the first Hobbit seemed to lack.

But none of that is why it's on this list. It's on this list for Smaug, and that's all you need to know.

Full review soon!

2: Gravity / Rush - Alphonso Cuarón / Ron Howard

This second position was originally going to go to Gravity alone; but then I crashed my car. Suddenly I'm jumping out of my skin every time I see break-lights, and Rush is very much at the forefront of my mind.
Since then I've been trying to rank them properly - to figure out which is better - but it's an impossible choice. Rush is probably the better film, but Gravity is the more powerful experience, and they both work so perfectly. In the end I've decided to cheat: my number 2 goes to immersive, beautiful, terrifying white-knuckle movies. Both of them.

They're very different films, of course. One is a true story that spans years, with a bunch of characters and a lot of talking; the other is a very fictional day-long story, with barely four characters and minimal dialogue. Also one of them happens in space.
But, as I'm lumping them together, they're actually more similar than they might appear. Both films are about their characters' single-minded determination to reach a goal - being World Champion and not dying respectively - and the horrific events that get in their way. By dragging us intimately through their stories, and by getting incredible work from the actors, they both make us care and feel for characters we normally wouldn't, either because we know nothing about them or because they're kind of awful.
The biggest similarity, though, is that they're both just flawlessly executed. Even though Howard uses a thousand shots where Cuarón might use three, every single one of those shots is necessary, meaningful and stunning to look at; and every one propels the film at a breakneck pace. Neither director wastes even a moment.

Despite their huge differences in story and style, these two share a spot because they're both transportive, breathless, powerful movies. And they both scared the shit out of me.

Read the full Gravity review here!
Read the full Rush review here!

1: Wreck-It Ralph - Rich Moore

All my favourite animated films seem to centre on unlikely friendships. Sully and Boo, Lilo and Stitch, Wall-E and Eve, Hogarth and the Giant, Hiccup and Toothless, even Wallace and Gromit. It was probably inevitable that Ralph and Vanellope would jump straight onto that list, too.
What wasn't inevitable is that they would do it with such style.

I don't just mean that it looks gorgeous - though it certainly does, with brilliant design work and ingenious game-like animation - but also the flair with which it pulls off its story. We're rapidly plunged into not one, but a whole handful of worlds, each with their own rules and textures. Characters feel fully-rounded from the first moment they appear. The main villain is somehow set up without us even knowing that there's meant to be one.
It's all just so clever and assured!

Cleverest and most assured of all, though, is how emotional things get. It's very funny the entire time - the whole cast is made up of comedians - and yet it choked me up again and again. That central pairing, for whatever reason, grabbed my heart as only animated odd-couples seem to do.
Often that emotion would come at the expense of scale but here, even at its most quiet and private, this film is never afraid to go big. When it all reaches its tremendous, apocalyptic climax everything, from those intimate emotions to the wonderful designs to tiny ideas we didn't know were important, collide to create an ending both huge and wonderfully personal.
The defining moment of the cinematic year, for me, was when a big dumb guy holding a cookie chanted a totally meaningless mantra, and somehow made it mean so much.

Wreck-It Ralph was the first new film I saw in 2013 - and nothing topped it. Honestly, nothing even came close.

Read the full review here!

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Frozen Review

Walt Disney Animation Studios, reborn from the ashes of the early two-thousands, still haven't figured out how to make the songs work. Tangled came the closest, but neither The Princess and the Frog or now Frozen quite capture the magic of the old classics.
I'm not sure what it is, exactly, but the songs don't gel with the rest of the action the way they did in, say, Aladdin or Beauty and the Beast. It might be as simple as the type of music; where Tangled has a fairly traditional feel, Princess had its jazz thing and Frozen is more of a modern pop musical - it's no coincidence that one of the leads is Idina Menzel from Wicked. It might also be a pacing issue; Frozen crams all its songs into the first half, leaving the second half feeling kind of empty, and the last song we hear is a jokey comedy number which just doesn't seem right somehow.

It's clear, though, that Disney is truly passionate about keeping the animated musical alive, long after it was declared dead, and that is a wonderful thing. Maybe they haven't nailed it yet - there's bound to be a few hiccups in this early stage - but they've come damn close, and the fact they're trying at all is a triumph in itself.
Besides, while the songs may not blend seamlessly with the rest of the film, they're still great songs. There's a couple I'll be humming well into next year.

Their real strength, though, is how earnest and heartfelt they are. Every number, bar the aforementioned comedy one, crackles with emotion and really lets us into the hearts of the characters. What we find there isn't always obvious, either. A cute song about building snowmen suddenly becomes incredibly poignant, an even cuter song about snowmen is surprisingly bittersweet, and a duet combines the excitement of one character with the dread of another. The single best sequence in the entire film is when we're expecting one kind of song but get the complete opposite - it's just so unexpected and powerful!

That's sort of Frozen's entire philosophy; to be moving in unexpected ways. We have the traditional Disney setup of a princess with no parents, a handsome prince, a magical curse. But the unexpected part is that there's two princesses, sisters Elsa and Anna, and every part of the story - both the warmth and the conflict - comes from their relationship. Except for one snivelling ambassador, there's not even a villain, and it's amazing how well that works.

When they were younger the sisters were extremely close, as you'd expect, but one day Elsa, the oldest and heir to the throne, suddenly shut herself away and they've barely spoken since. The reason, unbeknownst to Anna, is that her sister can magically manipulate ice and snow. When, as children, those powers almost got Anna killed, Elsa became a recluse to keep her sister safe and try to repress the magic. All Anna knows is that her best friend suddenly shut her out and she misses her deeply.
When Elsa's secret is eventually revealed, in the most explosive and public way possible, she flees to the top of a mountain, accidentally trapping the country in an unending winter. This leaves Anna as the only one who can follow her up there and make things right - and that double meaning of "make things right" is basically the whole point. It's a quest to save the country, sure, but it's equally about saving their broken relationship.

While this sounds pretty heavy - and it is, particularly for Elsa - the film stays light and fun, with Anna almost hyperactive from being cooped up in a castle her whole life with no-one to talk to or play with. The side-characters help with this too, as Anna collects a small posse on her way up the mountain - Kristoff the hunky ice-farmer, Sven the reindeer, and Olaf the comedy snowman (he likes warm hugs) are all very funny and bounce off each other nicely.
While every character is important and has something to do within the story, including a handful of townspeople and the dashing Prince Hans, all of it's ultimately incidental to the central tale of two sisters. We never lose sight of the film's heart.

As a result it's a very touching film but, like Brave last year, the intimate focus leaves everything feeling quite small. There's only a few locations, and travelling between them seems to take very little time (Elsa's mountain must be quite a short one). But, like Brave again, the lack of scale allows for a very fine level of polish, and the emotions are anything but small. Though the finale in particular is technically tiny, it feels big - it's such an emotional moment for the sisters, and it staunchly refuses to take the obvious or traditional way out. It works brilliantly.

In the end, Frozen fully embraces everything that makes Disney musicals great, centring itself around a heartwarming family story, and balancing fun with genuine feeling. But, importantly, it always finds ways to mix those things up - from the number of princesses to the direction of the songs - becoming something unusual and special. This slightly subversive streak runs through everything, right down to the message of the film, which basically boils down to "most Disney movies have a stupid message." Add to that the only Disney song that will ever contain the word "fractal" and it's worth the ticket price already.

Friday, 6 December 2013

The Birthday of the Doctor

It's weird, but my relationship with Steven Moffat's run on Doctor Who seems to be closely mirroring my real-life relationship. There was the initial giddy joy, where everything was exciting and new; there was the part where we grew closer, but things got tangled up and complicated; then there was the rocky part where we didn't see much of each other, and when we did we just got into fights. In both cases we were on the verge of violently splitting up - and yet, in both cases, we rekindled our passion in the flickering darkness of a cinema.

Too much information? Maybe. Worth it? Definitely.

So, after a dragged-out two-year series that I borderline loathed, Doctor Who has won me back with its excellent 50th Anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor. It probably helped that my birthday is only two days after the good Doctor's, and that, as a special birthday surprise, I got to see it in 3D on a cinema screen - we even had a Doctor Who cake!
Since I wrote three massive posts about why the last series sucked, I think it's only fair I write one about why the special didn't.

The 3D is actually a good place to start because, knowing they were going to film this in 3D, they seem to have written the plot and shot the episode specifically around that feature. This ends up being both a blessing and a curse.
It's a blessing because they created those cool 3D Timelord paintings to justify using the format and, as well as being a clever and interesting device and just plain looking really cool, travelling through them allowed for some crazy stuff with the camera. The whole thing was shot more cinematically than usual and looked great, but those painting sequences really stood out.
Unfortunately, while the story-centric painting stuff used deep and immersive 3D, the episode sometimes fell into using gimmicky comin'-atcha 3D as well. The many quick shots of Zygons lurching at the screen, and closeups of shattering glass, got annoying very quickly, and the intro of the TARDIS randomly swinging over London was just gratuitous. They actually seem to do that in every other Doctor Who special, for some reason, but this time felt rushed and cluttered and it was obviously only there to flaunt the 3D.

There were other problems too - this episode is far from perfect - but most of them are incredibly minor. The biggest problem for me, though, was that utterly baffling scene with Tom Baker.
Everyone else seems to have loved this (and I swear I saw an article somewhere calling this the "best handled cameo ever") - to which I can only say, what cameo were you watching? It begins really strong, staying gently ambiguous while informing the plot... but then it just turns into nonsense, making it far too overt who Baker is while also somehow making it more confusing and then they congratulate each other about it and then it tries to be sad and weighty even though he's delivering happy news and it makes no sense! There was a way to make Baker's cameo work, but this definitely wasn't it.

Conversely, a problem that a lot of other people had - that we never get to see the outcome of the Zygon situation - I had the opposite reaction to. I loved how open-ended that was, letting us know that they definitely worked something out, but not telling us what. I can see how it seems a little incomplete, but any more time with them would have spoiled that clever, and surprisingly deep, bit with the inhaler.

And that deep, clever writing is the hallmark of this episode. The script is sharp, with the characters bouncing off each other brilliantly, and the story is a strong one. But what really set The Day of the Doctor apart is this one line:

"What is it that makes you so ashamed of being a grownup?"

That single sentence from John Hurt, and the look that the other two then give him, completely floored me. It instantly changes so much, adding new context to everything we've seen since the 2005 relaunch and giving meaning to things that were never intended to matter.
The Doctor is a thousand-year-old man in a body that keeps getting younger and younger, acting sillier and sillier. Until now that was just a matter of casting and writing, but now it's a plot-point. Not just a throwaway plot-point to explain something, either, but a meaningful decade-long arc that ends with this special, allowing the Doctor to move on and explaining why his next incarnation is the much older Peter Capaldi. It's fantastically clever and, more importantly, the pain in Tennant and Smith's silent reaction gives it great emotional power, too.

That whole dungeon scene, with Matt Smith's perfect delivery of the word "spoilers", was better written and better acted than the whole of the last two years put together. From that moment on I was back in love with Doctor Who.

The special as a whole actually works the same way, reframing things we thought we knew or just accepted as read. Until now we thought Gallifrey was destroyed but, without actually changing anything that happened, The Day of the Doctor gives new meaning to everything we've ever seen. We can go back and watch the Eccleston series again and, although nothing has changed, it all means something different. Again, where the Time War was previously just an event that happened, there's now an arc, with the Doctor coming to terms with what he's done and eventually owning it and facing it. Twice.

Of course, while this episode heavily influences the whole of the timeline, it's heavily influenced by the timeline in turn. It does what all anniversary episodes should: referencing and commenting on the past, while remaining a self-contained story.
Beyond using an obscure legacy monster, and returning to UNIT, the War Doctor's exasperation at his successors (and, later, Tennant's "I don't want to go") felt like a critique of the show itself, and the changes it's undergone in fifty years. It celebrates but also criticises, and then it goes one further. Where all programmes can reference the past, Doctor Who can actually visit it, filling in gaps and following up eight-years of loose ends. The Time War is the obvious one, but Captain Jack's transporter and the Doctor's marriage to Elizabeth are just as vital and just as welcome. Even the ending's cruel Eccleston cocktease, infuriating though it was, works perfectly in this respect. It's pulling the whole timeline together, giving things new meaning and purpose.

The ultimate example of this is obviously that massive, crowd-pleasing finale - a half-century of television brought together all at once - and it might be the cleverest part of a very clever episode.
It's not that it's particularly ingenious as an idea, but the way it's built up so subtly, without us even noticing, is astounding. Moments we think are throwaway gags or just neat ideas - like the four-hundred-year sonic-screwdriver calculation, or the 3D pictures which could so easily have only been a gimmick - unexpectedly come back in that huge, monumental payoff. Bringing in all thirteen Doctors at the last minute could have felt eye-rollingly silly, but because it's set up earlier, using nothing more than a door and a screwdriver, it becomes an overwhelmingly powerful moment and, in our cinema at least, it made the crowd explode.

This special is full of the stuff Moffat does so well, and it's the same stuff that was missing all series. Wibbly-wobbly stories across multiple timelines that weave tightly together in surprising ways. Like the series it seems to be a jumble of disconnected ideas - Zygons, paintings, queens, sentient superweapons, complex maths and more - but, unlike the floundering series, it all turns out to be important and relevant, and it all slots together to form something great.
It's so cleverly done, in fact, that it's basically showing off. I think the Doctor would approve.

Going forward, the biggest takeaway from The Day of the Doctor is that it gives Who a specific purpose. Over the last two years we've seen what happens when Moffat's Doctor is left drifting aimlessly, and it wasn't pretty. With its clear new goal of finding Gallifrey, the show has found a strong foundation of story to build upon. That, as this episode once again proved, is when Moffat excels as a showrunner, and that fills me with hope.
The other major issue this series was, of course, Clara. She isn't actually in The Day of the Doctor a great deal, but already we're seeing her vague character become a little more settled and defined. She's a teacher now, which is nice, but much nicer is that she seems to be developing actual traits; she's pragmatic and sensible and, while she may well have been those things before, they never really stood out against whatever other random traits she had this week.
She's not there yet, but Clara is beginning to look like a character. If Series 8 can continue to sketch out her edges, and if it ties that process to a more focused story, then maybe our relationship can blossom again. In fact, if it continues to follow real life, I may very well end up proposing.