The World’s End

Yeah, I know I’m out of date on this- but this review was written a year ago, and The World’s End was thought-provoking film I saw last summer. So there.

Quite what the ‘Blood and Ice Cream trilogy’ (or ‘Cornetto trilogy’ if you prefer) is fundamentally about is a matter of some debate, ranging from it simply being an excuse for Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright to make films together with an in-joke of relating each film to a Cornetto flavour to there being some subtle, in-depth backstory connecting all three that may or may not ever be explicitly discussed. Thematically, what ‘Shaun of the Dead’, ‘Hot Fuzz’ and ‘The World’s End’ all share is a sense of parody of both a particular genre and some aspect of British life, but one of the things that makes The World’s End unique among the three is its focus on the latter rather than the former aspect. Whilst Shaun of the Dead was essentially a zombie parody with a joking relationship subplot and Hot Fuzz an equal parts buddy cop parody and gentle mockery of the English country town, The World’s End is primarily a comedic attack on the normalisation and loss of identity experienced in British suburbia that happens to find itself turned into an ‘Invasion of the Bodysnatchers’ parody halfway through.

What hasn’t changed is the film’s focus on its characters, particularly those of Pegg and Frost, and the interaction between them, but what has changed is the role each is playing. This time out, we find Frost taking up the more serious character as former best mate turned serious businessman Andy, a role also adopted in some shape or form by the rest of the film’s male supporting cast of Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan and Paddy Considine. Pegg, meanwhile, fulfils the more inherently comedic role as the wild, impulsive Gary King, former leader of their group as teenagers but now an ostensibly grown man incapable of moving on from their teenage antics and lifestyle. In keeping with this, he manages to cajole his four old schoolfriends back to their old home town of Newton Haven in an attempt to complete a pub crawl known as ‘The Golden Mile’ that they failed to complete as teenagers, but find the town (and its pubs) have lost most of their original individuality and personality. As this trend becomes both more obvious and more disturbing (whilst the four of them get progressively drunker), things start getting increasingly more bizarre. And then the robots materialise.

But anyway, back to the characters- and specifically that of Gary King. A manchild character in the mould of Pegg’s is hardly an underplayed comedic trope, but here things are given a twist by keeping Pegg as the focal character (as he has been in previous films) rather than using Gary as mere comedy relief or to fulfil a supporting role. Whilst this allows the more typical, experienced leading man Pegg to carry the film, this move is a very bold one thanks to the way it fundamentally changes the dynamic between Pegg & Frost. In the trilogy’s two previous instalments, Pegg has been the driving force moving the plot onwards whilst Frost has fulfilled a comedic role, oscillating plot-wise between helpful and dead weight, that is frequently the catalyst for the hilarity of the various situations they find themselves in. Here Pegg is playing plot-driver, dead weight and source of most comedic situations on top of a character whose story plays out more like that of a bastardised Arthur Miller-style tragedy than anything else; a man who not only has not grown up but physically cannot and is left clutching at the fading straws of his youth with all the bitter futility of Willy Loman’s belief in the American Dream. That Pegg manages to successfully deliver on all counts is merely the proof of his stellar acting performance.

The other headline actors are meanwhile left to work with parts that, although written with individual plot elements and multiple aspects to their personality in the style of a more leading role, are necessarily relegated to supporting roles by virtue of their having to act as a contrast to Pegg. All do so with all the ability one would expect from the cream of British acting, and it is a nice surprise to see Frost fulfilling a grown-up role with such aplomb, but two principle highlights come from Paddy Considine and Rosamund Pike as the film’s token romantic interests- if only because they manage to elevate their characters beyond being just that. So, to summarise: an interesting plot, a bold and successful choice to move beyond the old formula and all executed brilliantly by actors and action choreographers alike. Thus, it’s a good film; but something about the way it all fits it together meant I actually enjoy myself as much as I feel I should, and leads me to dub it the weakest of the trilogy.

Other than the structure of the Pegg/Frost combo, the main thematic difference between ‘The World’s End’ and previous instalments is the nature of its comedy. Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz both seemed to be having fun both with the genre and the side-angle they were poking fun at; it was gentle mockery, it was light-hearted, it was entertaining. The World’s End, however, is grown up thematically as well as in its characters (cue wild speculation as to whether this was an intentional metaphor), and rather than simply having fun with the concept the first half of the film is little more than a straight-up attack on and a condemnation of the loss of identity in towns like Newton Haven. And, frankly, that isn’t that funny. Similarly is the early part of the Gary King story; his wild antics in the face of his compatriots’ quiet, adult behaviour is apparently intended to be a source of humour and hilarity, but since he only partially succeeds in dragging them along for the ride this only highlights his disconnection from the group (a crucial factor in demonstrating the hopelessness of his character, to be fair) and creates moments that are more awkward than they are funny.

Thankfully, this all starts to fade away as our heroes get drunker and fantastically choreographed robot fights become the film’s principle focus, and this second half of the film does bring some of the fun back in. It’s just a shame that, to me, what could have been a shining way to finish off the trilogy had to spoil itself just a little by not being that consistently funny.

And we don’t even get to see a Cornetto until the end.

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Leave Reality at Home

One of the most contentious issues surrounding criticisms of many forms of media, particularly in films and videogames, is the issue of realism. How realistic a videogame is, how accurately it replicates the world around us both visually and thematically, is the most frequently cited factor in determining how immersive a game is, how much you ‘get into it’, and films that keep their feet very much in the real world delight both nerds and film critics alike by responding favourably to their nit-picking. But the place of realism in these media is not a simple question of ‘as much realism as possible is better’; finding the ideally realistic situation (which is a phrase I totally didn’t just make up) is a delicate balance that can vary enormously from one product to another, and getting that balance right is frequently the key to success.

That too much realism can be a bad thing can be demonstrated quite easily on both a thematic and visual front. To deal with the visual sphere of things first, I believe I have talked before about ‘the uncanny valley’, which is originated as a robotics term first hypothesised by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori. The theory, now supported by research from the likes of Hiroshi Ishiguro (who specialises in making hyper-realistic robots), states that as a robot gets steadily more and more human in appearance, humans tend to react more favourably to it, until we reach a high point of a stylised, human-like appearance that is nonetheless clearly non-human. Beyond this point, however, our reactions to such a robot get dramatically worse, as the design starts to look less like a human-like robot and more like a very weird looking human, until we get to the point at which the two are indistinguishable from one another and we reach another peak. This dip in positive reacton, the point where faces start to look ‘creepy’, is known as the uncanny valley, and the principle can be applied just as easily to computer graphics as it can to robots. The main way of overcoming the issue involves a careful design process intended to stylise certain features; in other words, the only way to make something quite realistic not look creepy is to make it selectively less realistic. Thus, hyper-realism is not always the way forward in drawn/animated forms of media, and won’t be until the magical end-goal of photorealistic graphics are achieved. If that ever happens.

However, the uncanny valley is far less interesting than the questions that arise when considering the idea of thematic realism (which I again totally didn’t just make up). These are the extent to which stories are realistic, or aspects of a story, or events in a film and somesuch, and here we arrive at an apparent double standard. Here, our evidence comes from nerds; as we all know, film nerds (and I suspect everyone else if they can find them) delight in pointing out continuity errors in everything they watch (a personal favourite is the ‘Hollywood’ sign in the remake of The Italian Job that quite clearly says OHLLYWOOD at one camera angle), and are prepared to go into a veritable tizz of enjoyment when something apparently implausible is somehow able to adhere fastidiously to the laws of physics. Being realistic is clearly something that can add a great deal to a film, indicating that the director has really thought about this; not only is this frequently an indicator of a properly good film, but it also helps satisfy a nerd’s natural desire to know all the details and background (which is the reason, by the way, that comic books spend so much of their time referencing to overcomplicated bits of canon).

However, evidence that reality is not at the core of our enjoyment when it comes to film and gaming can be quite easily revealed by considering the enormous popularity of the sci-fi and fantasy genres. We all of course know that these worlds are not real and, despite a lot of the jargon spouted in sci-fi to satisfy the already mentioned nerd curiosity, we also know that they fundamentally cannot be real. There is no such thing as magic, no dilithium crystals, no hyperspace and no elves, but that doesn’t prevent the idea of them from enjoying massive popularity from all sides. I mean, just about the biggest film of last summer was The Avengers, in which a group of superheroes fight a group of giant monsters sent through a magical portal by an ancient Norse god; about as realistic as a tap-dancing elephant, and yet most agreed as to the general awesomeness of that film. These fantastical, otherworldly and/or downright ridiculous worlds and stories have barely any bearing on the real world, and yet somehow this somehow makes it better.

The key detail here is, I think, the concept of escapism. Possibly the single biggest reason why we watch films, spend hours in front of Netflix, dedicate days of our life to videogames, is in pursuit of escapism; to get away from the mundaneness of our world and escape into our own little fantasy. We can follow a super-soldier blasting through waves of bad guys such as we all dream to be able to do, we can play as a hero with otherworldly magic at our fingertips , we can lead our sports teams to glory like we could never do in real life. Some of these stories take place in a realistic setting, others in a world of fantasy, yet in all the real pull factor is the same; we are getting to play or see a world that we fantasise about being able to live ourselves, and yet cannot.

The trick of successfully incorporating reality into these worlds is, therefore, one of supporting our escapism. In certain situations, such as in an ultra-realistic modern military shooter, an increasingly realistic situation makes this situation more like our fantasy, and as such adds to the immersion and the joy of the escapism; when we are facing challenges similar to those experienced by real soldiers (or at least the over-romanticised view of soldiering that we in fact fantasise about, rather than the day-to-day drudgery that is so often ignored), it makes our fantasy seem more tangible, fuelling the idea that we are, in fact, living the dream. On the other hand, applying the wrong sort of realism to a situation (like, say, not being able to make the impossible jumps or failing to have perfect balance) can kill the fantasy, reminding us just as easily as the unreality of a continuity error that this fantasy we are entertaining cannot actually happen, reminding us of the real world and ruining all the fun. There is, therefore, a kind of thematic uncanny valley as well; a state at which the reality of a film or videogame is just… wrong, and is thus able to take us out of the act of escapism. The location of this valley, however, is a lot harder to plot on a graph.

FILM FORTNIGHT: Rango

When it came out, Rango quickly divided critics; some praised its attempt to breath some originality into the world of children’s cinema or its sharp and somewhat tongue-in-cheek reimagining of the classic western, whilst others just found it plain old boring, without being engaging enough for anything interesting to leap out at them. A few even took the opportunity to comment on the trend of an established screen star (in this case Johnny Depp as the title role, although Bill Nighy also has a typically charismatic place as bad guy Rattlesnake Jake) taking on a voice acting job in order to win the film attention, rather than sticking to career voice actors, so short of stuff were they to talk about.

Personally, I don’t know quite where they were coming from with this, because whilst Rango is many things boring is not among them. Admittedly, its plot is hardly the path less travelled; our title character is a domestic chameleon who, upon being dumped unceremoniously out of his comfortable terrarium existence accidentally defeats a hawk and is elected sheriff of a rural ‘old west’ town with a water crisis, before the requisite high jinks and moral lesson or two. Basically, think ‘Flushed Away’ with the water situation reversed and you’re mostly there. However, around this basic premise director Gore Verbinski spins a genuinely deep and relative rollercoaster of a story, ranging from one of the most fist-pumpingly fun chase sequences I’ve seen in any film (Ride of The Valkyries blasting out at the requisite 11 at all appropriate moments as the dive bombers swoop in; yeah it gets kinda random in places) to a group of 4 owls simultaneously fulfilling the roles of orchestra and narration who spend most of the film talking about imminent death (although telling you that is probably less of a spoiler than this caveat is).* That these two scenes are both able to exist in the same film is indicative of the near-constant contrast between the film’s darker, edgier undertones that are the real driving force of the plot and the more action- & humour-based sequences; a contrast that is, however, a sharp one, making the whole business feel like two plots that Verbinski has tried to get running in parallel.

*Weirdly, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the theatre version of War Horse (aside note for all people within reach of London; go and see the theatre version of War Horse), which also has a bloke whose sole job is to add some suitable musical accompaniment to the required scenes. Dude is seriously awesome though.

Was Verbinski successful? Well… kind of. On the one hand we have the fact that the action is pretty damn good in a lot of places, the humour and slapstick broadly speaking well-timed and funny, and that the film’s darker & deeper sequences feel genuinely profound and meaningful. Combine that with some almost surprisingly well-done and realistic (well, for a bunch of stylised talking animals anyway) characters, and what is almost certainly the single best animation, graphical quality and overall visual design of any film ever made (yes, I went there), and it’s hard to argue with the quality of Verbinski’s execution of this project.

No, the problem lies less with the film’s content and more with how it all fits together. On occasion, the film’s more subtle jokes (the way it characterises ‘The Spirit of the West’ in a modern light being one good example) are able to exist in perfect harmony with its more meaningful side, and everything (both goofy and meaningful) is unquestionably well-done. On the other hand, the contrast between comic and serious is on occasion not merely sharp but almost painful to watch, each one ruining the other in equal measure. Whether the attempt to join these two tones together was a producer’s decision to try and force the film into a more formulaic, ‘family-friendly’ style, whether that’s the only way the screenwriter could think to tie in all the bits and pieces, or whether Verbinski just had a few jokes he really, really wanted to use is hard to identify, but either way the film would probably have benefited by trusting a little more in the audience’s intelligence and their ability to enjoy what was there, rather than shoehorning in what probably should have been left out. That sensation of what might have been, combined with a plot that seemed patchy on interconnectedness in too many places, was all too noticeable in what was otherwise an entertaining film that genuinely tried to be something fresh and not boring. It frequently succeeded too; that’s what’s so frustrating about it all.

I have one further thing I want to say about Rango; watch it. Just like ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ was last summer, Rango is a film whose many good qualities only serve to highlight its errors, and make any review of it seem far more negative than the experience of watching such a fun, intelligent film actually was. Here we have a shining example of a kid’s film that genuinely tries to be something original and smart, pushing boundaries where it could have just been safe and boring, and it deserves as much attention as possible

Huh. Only 900 words. Clearly there’s a reason other reviewers needed something else to write about.

Iron Man Three

The Avengers (sorry, “Avengers Assemble”) was a great film; don’t tell me otherwise. Not only was it the culmination of one of the most ambitious big-budget cinema experiments of the last decade, bringing together four separate IP’s each with their own film series into one place, but it was a triumph of effective characterisation and of emotional investment with all characters on all sides. Loki was the perfect bad guy, Nick Fury the perfect badass leader-figure, the individual Avengers each played their role fantastically and Agent Coulson was just the icing on the cake. Couple that with a solid, well-written plot and one of the most epic and well-done action sequences I’ve ever seen put to film, and it all became a veritable rollercoaster of a good time. Sometimes, films just aren’t meant to be deep artistic explorations, and are never destined to be Oscar-winners, and Avengers was the best example of that.

However, once the dust had settled some started to voice their concerns as to what the sheer magnitude of the film would mean to the Marvel canon. The film had barely been released when Marvel announced plans for Iron Man 3, Thor 2, another Captain America and, somewhere along the line, an Avengers 2 as well. But… where can you really go from Avengers? How can the world face a bigger threat than Loki (the ‘he escapes’ trick is only going to work once, and you just know there’s going to be an Avengers 3 whilst they still make as much money as they currently do) and a horde of marauding aliens, and how could each individual superhero now start facing up to problems that wouldn’t have a massive ‘oh wait why not call in all my superhero buddies’ plothole running straight through the middle of them.

Iron Man Three (apparently the symbol ‘3’ has gone out of fashion for all non-advertising purposes) is the first Marvel film to have to face up to these challenges, and goes about doing so in two ways. The first is to very explicitly state early on that our chosen bad guy, The Mandarin, is very much the US government’s problem rather than one for the world in general, and Tony Stark gets involved for personal reasons. The other is to redefine Tony Stark’s role as a character. This is, arguably, a relic of Iron Man 2; after handing control of Stark Industries to Pepper Potts, Tony Stark is no longer defined by his company’s achievements and behaviour. In this film, Potts’ romantic influence has led him to abandon the flashy partygoer side to his personality too (although, in a nice twist, it is this very part of his old self that has come back to haunt him here), and all that is left is Tony Stark as Iron Man. But this is an Iron Man with no baddies to fight, who spends his days tinkering with the metal suits that have come to define him as a symbol rather than a person, and who still suffers from flashbacks of the last time he had bad guys to face and ended up falling half-dead through a wormhole in space. Indeed, the incident and the way it has changed the world of the Marvel characters is a key centrepoint of the film, the phrase ‘after New York’ uttered with every inch the gravitas used when discussing events such as 9/11. All three Iron Man films have had to work hard to give the ‘genius billionaire playboy philanthropist’ a challenge to face up to by disabling to some degree, but whilst the first two crushed his physical capabilities Iron Man Three is all about his internal demons- a smart move that works extremely well thanks in equal measure to Robert Downey Jnr.’s abilities as an actor and Shane Black’s directorial skill.

However, what makes Iron Man Three a really good film rather than a mediocre one with an interesting premise is what’s built around this. Take, for instance, The Mandarin; my research tells me that in the comics he was almost a caricature of a James Bond baddie, with various magical laser powers, but Ben Kingsley’s version here is an unnervingly real mix of all America’s post-9/11 fears. A cross between an oriental Osama bin Laden and Batman Begins’ portrayal of Ra’as Al Ghul, he is able to strike anywhere without warning and to devastating effect, frequently taking over American airwaves despite all government attempts to stop him. He feels like a genuine threat, something that no amount of Iron Man firepower can take down, and it is worth noting that in this film more than any other, Tony Stark faces up to his problems outside of the Iron Man suit; another nice touch on the character-building front. I would love to say more about this character and the film’s other bad guy, the smooth, dangerous Aldritch Killian (Guy Pearce- oh come on, like you weren’t going to work out in the first five minutes he was a bad guy), but feel I can’t d so without giving away some major spoilers. Awesome spoilers though they would be, I’m just gonna have to let you enjoy them.

It’s also nice to see Pepper Potts finally start to pay back all the slow building of her character the previous two films have done; Gwyneth Paltrow’s character started off in the first film as little more than a device left in because Comic Said So, but her upgrade to CEO in number two reflected her increasing depth and importance as a character. Now, she is the key driving force of the plot and of Stark’s character development, playing both sides of the ‘damsel in distress’ coin, and even gets a chance towards the end to make her own submission to the film’s badassery meter. Which, by the way, is fantastic; every action sequence is supremely well-paced and directed and made to feel all the more awesome thanks to our emotional investment in those involved. Plus, it’s got Robert Downey Jnr. and Jarvis, so you know you’re gonna get a few good laughs along the way.

The one thing I do find somewhat strange about the film is the way it ended. The last scene wrapped up plenty of loose ends and seemed to show Tony Stark at peace with himself, providing a lovely sense of closure to the whole thing. Except that this isn’t going to be an end; we already know there’s an Avengers 2 coming along, and these things are making too much money for this to be the last Iron Man (unless Marvel show a surprising degree of artistic integrity). Whilst the closure felt lovely, whoever has to direct the next one is going to have an awful job trying to write Iron Man out of this hole in a way that doesn’t feel horribly clichéd or just plain weird. Still, that’s for another time; for now, just go and see this film, and have a great time doing so.

The Myth of Popularity

WARNING: Everything I say forthwith is purely speculative based on a rough approximation of a presented view of how a part of our world works, plus some vaguely related stuff I happen to know. It is very likely to differ from your own personal view of things, so please don’t get angry with me if it does.

Bad TV and cinema is a great source of inspiration; not because there’s much in it that’s interesting, but because there’s just so much of it that even without watching any it is possible to pick up enough information to diagnose trends, which are generally interesting to analyse. In this case, I refer to the picture of American schools that is so often portrayed by iteration after iteration of generic teenage romance/romcom/’drama’, and more specifically the people in it.

One of the classic plot lines of these types of things involves the ‘hopelessly lonely/unpopular nerd who has crush on Miss Popular de Cheerleader and must prove himself by [insert totally retarded idea]’. Needless to say these plot lines are more unintentionally hilarious and excruciating than anything else, but they work because they play on the one trope that so many of us are familiar with; that of the overbearing, idiotic, horrible people from the ‘popular’ social circle. Even if we were not raised within a sitcom, it’s a situation repeated in thousands of schools across the world- the popular kids are the arseholes at the top with inexplicable access to all the gadgets and girls, and the more normal, nice people lower down the social circle.

The image exists in our conciousness long after leaving school for a whole host of reasons; partly because major personal events during our formative years tend to have a greater impact on our psyche than those occurring later on in life, but also because it is often our first major interaction with the harsh unfairness life is capable of throwing at us. The whole situation seems totally unfair and unjust; why should all these horrible people be the popular ones, and get all the social benefits associated with that? Why not me, a basically nice, humble person without a Ralph Lauren jacket or an iPad 3, but with a genuine personality? Why should they have all the luck?

However, upon analysing the issue then this object of hate begins to break down; not because the ‘popular kids’ are any less hateful, but because they are not genuinely popular. If we define popular as a scale representative of how many and how much people like you (because what the hell else is it?), then it becomes a lot easier to approach it from a numerical, mathematical perspective. Those at the perceived top end of the social spectrum generally form themselves into a clique of superiority, where they all like one another (presumably- I’ve never been privy to being in that kind of group in order to find out) but their arrogance means that they receive a certain amount of dislike, and even some downright resentment, from the rest of the immediate social world. By contrast, members of other social groups (nerds, academics [often not the same people], those sportsmen not in the ‘popular’ sphere, and the myriad of groups of undefineable ‘normies’ who just splinter off into their own little cliques) tend to be liked by members of their selected group and treated with either neutrality or minor positive or negative feeling from everyone else, leaving them with an overall ‘popularity score’, from an approximated mathematical point of view, roughly equal to or even greater than the ‘popular’ kids. Thus, the image of popularity is really something of a myth, as these people are not technically speaking any more popular than anyone else.

So, then, how has this image come to present itself as one of popularity, of being the top of the social spectrum? Why are these guys on top, seemingly above group after group of normal, friendly people with a roughly level playing field when it comes to social standing?

If you were to ask George Orwell this question, he would present you with a very compelling argument concerning the nature of a social structure to form a ‘high’ class of people (shortly after asking you how you managed to communicate with him beyond the grave). He and other social commentators have frequently pointed out that the existence of a social system where all are genuinely treated equally is unstable without some ‘higher class’ of people to look up to- even if it is only in hatred. It is humanity’s natural tendency to try and better itself, try to fight its way to the top of the pile, so if the ‘high’ group disappear temporarily they will be quickly replaced; hence why there is such a disparity between rich and poor even in a country such as the USA founded on the principle that ‘all men are created free and equal’. This principle applies to social situations too; if the ‘popular’ kids were to fall from grace, then some other group would likely rise to fill the power vacuum at the top of the social spectrum. And, as we all know, power and influence are powerful corrupting forces, so this position would be likely to transform this new ‘popular’ group into arrogant b*stards too, removing the niceness they had when they were just normal guys. This effect is also in evidence that many of the previously hateful people at the top of the spectrum become very normal and friendly when spoken to one-on-one, outside of their social group (from my experience anyway; this does not apply to all people in such groups)

However, another explanation is perhaps more believable; that arrogance is a cause rather than a symptom. By acting like they are better than the rest of the world, the rest of the world subconsciously get it into their heads that, much though they are hated, they are the top of the social ladder purely because they said so. And perhaps this idea is more comforting, because it takes us back to the idea we started with; that nobody is more actually popular than anyone else, and that it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Regardless of where your group ranks on the social scale, if it’s yours and you get along with the people in it, then it doesn’t really matter about everyone else or what they think, so long as you can get on, be happy, and enjoy yourself.

Footnote: I get most of these ideas from what is painted by the media as being the norm in American schools and from what friends have told me, since I’ve been lucky enough that the social hierarchies I encountered from my school experience basically left one another along. Judging by the horror stories other people tell me, I presume it was just my school. Plus, even if it’s total horseshit, it’s enough of a trope that I can write a post about it.

The Sting

I have twice before used this blog to foray into the strange world of film reviewing; something that I enjoy, given that I enjoy cinema, but am usually unable to make a stable source of material since I don’t generally have the time (or, given a lot of the films that get released in my local cinema, inclination) to see too many of them. My first foray was a rather rambling (and decidedly rubbish) examination of The Hunger Games, with a couple of nods to the general awesomeness of The Shawshank Redemption, whilst I felt compelled to write my second just to articulate my frustration after seeing The Dark Knight Rises. Today, I wish to return to the magical fairy kingdom of the big screen, this time concerning something that I would ordinarily have never seen at all; 70s crime flick ‘The Sting’

The Sting is quite clearly a film from another era of filmmaking; I am not old enough to remember the times when a stock ‘thump’ sound byte was inserted into the footage every time an object is put onto a table, but this film contains such cinematic anachronisms in spades. Similarly, this is the first film I have ever seen starring Robert Redford and my first from director George Roy Hill, but age should be no barrier to quality entertainment if it’s there to shine through and thankfully it’s basic plot and premise lend it to a graceful aging process.

The plot can be fairly summarily described as uncomplicated; a young confidence trickster who ends up accidentally making a small fortune from a fairly routine con is pursued by the mob boss whose money he has now lost, so teams up with an experienced ‘old head’ to bring him down. So Ocean’s Eleven with a simpler character base and more realistic motivations. Where the two differ, however, is in their dedication to their subject material; whilst the Ocean’s films are generally content to follow some rather formulaic Hollywood scriptwriting, placing their emphasis heavily on interpersonal relationships and love interests, The Sting goes out of its way to be a true crime story to its very core. Set in the golden age of organised crime (1930s prohibition-era Illinois, real-life home of Al Capone) with a memorable ragtime soundtrack to match, every stage (illustrated explicitly through the use of old-fashioned title cards) of the film’s overarching ‘big con’ plot takes the form of a classic confidence trick, from an old-fashioned money switch to a large-scale rigged betting house, incorporating along the way possibly the finest played (and cheated) game of poker ever to appear on screen. Every feature, facet and subplot from the cheated cop to the seemingly out-of-place love interest all has its place in the big con, and there was nothing there that didn’t have a very good reason to be. Not only did this create a rollercoaster of a focused, central plot without unnecessary distractions, but the authenticity of the tricks, characters and terminology used built a believable, compelling world to immerse oneself in and enjoy. Combine that with a truly stellar portrayal of the seen-it-all genius conman Henry Gondorff by Paul Newman, and Robert Redford’s evident gift for building a very real, believable character in the form of naive youngster Johnny Hooker, and we have the makings of an incredibly immersive story that you often have to remind yourself isn’t actually real.

However, by putting such focus on its central con, The Sting puts itself under an awful lot of pressure, for without any extraneous components (hell, there aren’t even any proper action scenes, despite the not infrequent bouts of gunfire) it has got nowhere to fall if its central plot fails. Thus, the success of the film very much rests on the success of the con it centres around, not just in terms of execution itself but in making its execution fit its style. The Sting is not about coming up with something on the fly, about something unexpected coming up and winning through on the day- it is an homage to planning, to the skill of the con, of hooking in the mark and making them think they’ve won, before turning the ace in the hole. To turn successful planning, what was intended to happen happening, into compelling drama is a task indeed for a filmmaker.

And yet, despite all the odds, The Sting pulls it off, thanks to the extraordinary depth director Hill packs into his seemingly simplistic plot. Each subplot put into play is like adding another dot to the puzzle, and it is left to the viewer to try and join them all to formulate the finished picture- or alternatively watch to see the film do so all with staggering aplomb. Every element is laid out on the table, everyone can see the cards, and it’s simply a matter of the film being far smarter than you are in revealing how it pulls its trick, just like a conman and his mark. You, the viewer, have been stung just as much as Robert Shaw’s mob boss of a mark, except that you can walk out of the room with your wallet full and a smile on your face.

This is not to say that the film doesn’t have problems. Whilst the basic premise is simple and well-executed enough to be bulletproof, its ‘setup’ phase (as the title cards called it) spends an awful lot of time on world-, scenario- and character-building, filling the early parts of the film with enough exposition to make me feel decidedly lukewarm about it- it’s all necessary to remove plot holes and to build the wonderful air of depth and authenticity, but something about its execution strikes me as clunky. It also suffers Inception’s problem of being potentially confusing to anyone not keeping a very close track of what’s going on, and one or two of the minor characters suffer from having enough of a role to be significant but not enough characterisation to seem especially real. That said, this film won seven Oscars for a reason, and regardless of how slow it may seem to begin with, it’s definitely worth sticking it out to the end. I can promise you it will be worth it.

NMEvolution

Music has been called by some the greatest thing the human race has ever done, and at its best it is undoubtedly a profound expression of emotion more poetic than anything Shakespeare ever wrote. True, done badly it can sound like a trapped cat in a box of staplers falling down a staircase, but let’s not get hung up on details here- music is awesome.

However, music as we know it has only really existed for around a century or so, and many of the developments in music’s  history that have shaped it into the tour de force that it is in modern culture are in direct parallel to human history. As such, the history of our development as a race and the development of music run closely alongside one another, so I thought I might attempt a set of edited highlights of the former (well, western history at least) by way of an exploration of the latter.

Exactly how and when the various instruments as we know them were invented and developed into what they currently are is largely irrelevant (mostly since I don’t actually know and don’t have the time to research all of them), but historically they fell into one of two classes. The first could be loosely dubbed ‘noble’ instruments- stuff like the piano, clarinet or cello, which were (and are) hugely expensive to make, required a significant level of skill to do so, and were generally played for and by the rich upper classes in vast orchestras, playing centuries-old music written by the very few men with the both the riches, social status and talent to compose them. On the other hand, we have the less historically significant, but just as important, ‘common’ instruments, such as the recorder and the ancestors of the acoustic guitar. These were a lot cheaper to make and thus more available to (although certainly far from widespread among) the poorer echelons of society, and it was on these instruments that tunes were passed down from generation to generation, accompanying traditional folk dances and the like; the kind of people who played such instruments very rarely had the time to spare to really write anything new for them, and certainly stood no chance of making a living out of them. And, for many centuries, that was it- what you played and what you listened to, if you did so at all, depended on who you were born as.

However, during the great socioeconomic upheaval and levelling that accompanied the 19th century industrial revolution, music began to penetrate society in new ways. The growing middle and upper-middle classes quickly adopted the piano as a respectable ‘front room’ instrument for their daughters to learn, and sheet music was rapidly becoming both available and cheap for the masses. As such, music began to become an accessible activity for far larger swathes of the population and concert attendances swelled. This was the Romantic era of music composition, with the likes of Chopin, Mendelssohn and Brahms rising to prominence, and the size of an orchestra grew considerably to its modern size of four thousand violinists, two oboes and a bored drummer (I may be a little out in my numbers here) as they sought to add some new experimentation to their music. This experimentation with classical orchestral forms was continued through the turn of the century by a succession of orchestral composers, but this period also saw music head in a new and violently different direction; jazz.

Jazz was the quintessential product of the United States’ famous motto ‘E Pluribus Unum’ (From Many, One), being as it was the result of a mixing of immigrant US cultures. Jazz originated amongst America’s black community, many of whom were descendants of imported slaves or even former slaves themselves, and was the result of traditional African music blending with that of their forcibly-adopted land. Whilst many black people were heavily discriminated against when it came to finding work, they found they could forge a living in the entertainment industry, in seedier venues like bars and brothels. First finding its feet in the irregular, flowing rhythms of ragtime music, the music of the deep south moved onto the more discordant patterns of blues in the early 20th century before finally incorporating a swinging, syncopated rhythm and an innovative sentiment of improvisation to invent jazz proper.

Jazz quickly spread like wildfire across the underground performing circuit, but it wouldn’t force its way into popular culture until the introduction of prohibition in the USA. From 1920 all the way up until the Presidency of Franklin D Roosevelt (whose dropping of the bill is a story in and of itself) the US government banned the consumption of alcohol, which (as was to be expected, in all honesty) simply forced the practice underground. Dozens of illegal speakeasies (venues of drinking, entertainment and prostitution usually run by the mob) sprung up in every district of every major American city, and they were frequented by everyone from the poorest street sweeper to the police officers who were supposed to be closing them down. And in these venues, jazz flourished. Suddenly, everyone knew about jazz- it was a fresh, new sound to everyone’s ears, something that stuck in the head and, because of its ‘common’, underground connotations, quickly became the music of the people. Jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong (a true pioneer of the genre) became the first celebrity musicians, and the way the music’s feel resonated with the happy, prosperous feeling surrounding the economic good times of the 1920s lead that decade to be dubbed ‘the Jazz Age’.

Countless things allowed jazz and other, successive generations to spread around the world- the invention of the gramophone further enhanced the public access to music, as did the new cultural phenomenon of the cinema and even the Second World War, which allowed for truly international spread. By the end of the war, jazz, soul, blues, R&B and all other derivatives had spread from their mainly deep south origins across the globe, blazing a trail for all other forms of popular music to follow in its wake. And, come the 50s, they did so in truly spectacular style… but I think that’ll have to wait until next time.