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.

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An Opera Posessed

My last post left the story of JRR Tolkein immediately after his writing of his first bestseller; the rather charming, lighthearted, almost fairy story of a tale that was The Hobbit. This was a major success, and not just among the ‘children aged between 6 and 12’ demographic identified by young Rayner Unwin; adults lapped up Tolkein’s work too, and his publishers Allen & Unwin were positively rubbing their hands in glee. Naturally, they requested a sequel, a request to which Tolkein’s attitude appears to have been along the lines of ‘challenge accepted’.

Even holding down the rigours of another job, and even accounting for the phenomenal length of his finished product, the writing of a book is a process that takes a few months for a professional writer (Dame Barbara Cartland once released 25 books in the space of a year, but that’s another story), and perhaps a year or two for an amateur like Tolkein. He started writing the book in December 1937, and it was finally published 18 years later in 1955.

This was partly a reflection of the difficulties Tolkein had in publishing his work (more on that later), but this also reflects the measured, meticulous and very serious approach Tolkein took to his writing. He started his story from scratch, each time going in a completely different direction with an entirely different plot, at least three times. His first effort, for instance, was due to chronicle another adventure of his protagonist Bilbo from The Hobbit, making it a direct sequel in both a literal and spiritual sense. However, he then remembered about the ring Bilbo found beneath the mountains, won (or stolen, depending on your point of view) from the creature Gollum, and the strange power it held; not just invisibility, as was Bilbo’s main use for it, but the hypnotic effect it had on Gollum (he even subsequently rewrote that scene for The Hobbit‘s second edition to emphasise that effect). He decided that the strange power of the ring was a more natural direction to follow, and so he wrote about that instead.

Progress was slow. Tolkein went months at a time without working on the book, making only occasional, sporadic yet highly focused bouts of progress. Huge amounts were cross-referenced or borrowed from his earlier writings concerning the mythology, history & background of Middle Earth, Tolkein constantly trying to make his mythic world feel and, in a sense, be as real as possible, but it was mainly due to the influence of his son Christopher, who Tolkein would send chapters to whilst he was away fighting the Second World War in his father’s native South Africa, that the book ever got finished at all. When it eventually did, Tolkein had been working the story of Bilbo’s son Frodo and his adventure to destroy the Ring of Power for over 12 years. His final work was over 1000 pages long, spread across six ‘books’, as well as being laden with appendices to explain & offer background information, and he called it The Lord of The Rings (in reference to his overarching antagonist, the Dark Lord Sauron).

A similar story had, incidentally, been attempted once before; Der Ring des Nibelungen is an opera (well, four operas) written by German composer Richard Wagner during the 19th century, traditionally performed over the course of four consecutive nights (yeah, you have to be pretty committed to sit through all of that) and also known as ‘The Ring Cycle’- it’s where ‘Ride of The Valkyries’ comes from. The opera follows the story of a ring, made from the traditionally evil Rhinegold (gold panned from the Rhine river), and the trail of death, chaos and destruction it leaves in its wake between its forging & destruction. Many commentators have pointed out the close similarities between the two, and as a keen follower of Germanic mythology Tolkein certainly knew the story, but Tolkein rubbished any suggestion that he had borrowed from it, saying “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases”. You can probably work out my approximate personal opinion from the title of this post, although I wouldn’t read too much into it.

Even once his epic was finished, the problems weren’t over. Once finished, he quarrelled with Allen & Unwin over his desire to release LOTR in one volume, along with his still-incomplete Silmarillion (that he wasn’t allowed to may explain all the appendices). He then turned to Collins, but they claimed his book was in urgent need of an editor and a license to cut (my words, not theirs, I should add). Many other people have voiced this complaint since, but Tolkein refused and ordered Collins to publish by 1952. This they failed to do, so Tolkein wrote back to Allen & Unwin and eventually agreed to publish his book in three parts; The Fellowship of The Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of The King (a title Tolkein, incidentally, detested because it told you how the book ended).

Still, the book was out now, and the critics… weren’t that enthusiastic. Well, some of them were, certainly, but the book has always had its detractors among the world of literature, and that was most certainly the case during its inception. The New York Times criticised Tolkein’s academic approach, saying he had “formulated a high-minded belief in the importance of his mission as a literary preservationist, which turns out to be death to literature itself”, whilst others claimed it, and its characters in particular, lacked depth. Even Hugo Dyson, one of Tolkein’s close friends and a member of his own literary group, spent public readings of the book lying on a sofa shouting complaints along the lines of “Oh God, not another elf!”. Unlike The Hobbit, which had been a light-hearted children’s story in many ways, The Lord of The Rings was darker & more grown up, dealing with themes of death, power and evil and written in a far more adult style; this could be said to have exposed it to more serious critics and a harder gaze than its predecessor, causing some to be put off by it (a problem that wasn’t helped by the sheer size of the thing).

However, I personally am part of the other crowd, those who have voiced their opinions in nearly 500 five-star reviews on Amazon (although one should never read too much into such figures) and who agree with the likes of CS  Lewis, The Sunday Telegraph and Sunday Times of the time that “Here is a book that will break your heart”, that it is “among the greatest works of imaginative fiction of the twentieth century” and that “the English-speaking world is divided into those who have read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and those who are going to read them”. These are the people who have shown the truth in the review of the New York Herald Tribune: that Tolkein’s masterpiece was and is “destined to outlast our time”.

But… what exactly is it that makes Tolkein’s epic so special, such a fixture; why, even years after its publication as the first genuinely great work of fantasy, it is still widely regarded as the finest work the genre has ever produced? I could probably write an entire book just to try and answer that question (and several people probably have done), but to me it was because Tolkein understood, absolutely perfectly and fundamentally, exactly what he was trying to write. Many modern fantasy novels try to be uber-fantastical, or try to base themselves around an idea or a concept, in some way trying to find their own level of reality on which their world can exist, and they often find themselves in a sort of awkward middle ground, but Tolkein never suffered that problem because he knew that, quite simply, he was writing a myth, and he knew exactly how that was done. Terry Pratchett may have mastered comedic fantasy, George RR Martin may be the king of political-style fantasy, but only JRR Tolkein has, in recent times, been able to harness the awesome power of the first source of story; the legend, told around the campfire, of the hero and the villain, of the character defined by their virtues over their flaws, of the purest, rawest adventure in the pursuit of saving what is good and true in this world. These are the stories written to outlast the generations, and Tolkein’s mastery of them is, to me, the secret to his masterpiece.

The Dark Knight Rises

OK, I’m going to take a bit of a risk on this one- I’m going to dip back into the world of film reviewing. I’ve tried this once before over the course of this blog (about The Hunger Games) and it went about as well as a booze-up in a monastery (although it did get me my first ever comment!). However, never one to shirk from a challenge I thought I might try again, this time with something I’m a little more overall familiar with: Christopher Nolan’s conclusion to his Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises.

Ahem

Christopher Nolan has never been one to make his plots simple and straightforward (he did do Inception after all), but most of his previous efforts have at least tried to focus on only one or two things at a time. In Dark Knight Rises however, he has gone ambitious, trying to weave no less than 6 different storylines into one film. Not only that, but 4 of those are trying to explore entirely new characters and a fifth pretty much does the whole ‘road to Batman’ origins story that was done in Batman Begins. That places the onus of the film firmly on its characters and their development, and trying to do that properly to so many new faces was always going to push everyone for space, even in a film that’s nearly 3 hours long.

So, did it work? Well… kind of. Some characters seem real and compelling pretty much from the off, in the same way that Joker did in The Dark Knight- Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle (not once referred to as Catwoman in the entire film) is a little bland here and there and we don’t get to see much of the emotion that supposedly drives her, but she is (like everyone else) superbly acted and does the ‘femme fakickass’ thing brilliantly, whilst Joseph Gordon Levitt’s young cop John Blake (who gets a wonderful twist to his character right at the end) is probably the most- and best-developed character of the film, adding some genuine emotional depth. Michael Caine is typically brilliant as Alfred, this time adding his own kick to the ‘origins’ plot line, and Christian Bale finally gets to do what no other Batman film has done before- make Batman/Bruce Wayne the most interesting part of the film.

However, whilst the main good guys’ story arcs are unique among Batman films by being the best parts of the film, some of the other elements don’t work as well. For someone who is meant to be a really key part of the story, Marion Cotillard’s Miranda Tate gets nothing that gives her character real depth- lots of narration and exposition, but we see next to none of her for huge chunks of the film and she just never feels like she matters very much. Tom Hardy as Bane suffers from a similar problem- he was clearly designed in the mould of Ducard (Liam Neeson) in Begins, acting as an overbearing figure of control and power that Batman simply doesn’t have (rather than the pure terror of Joker’s madness), but his actual actions never present him as anything other just a device to try and give the rest of the film a reason to happen, and he never appears to have any genuinely emotional investment or motivation in anything he’s doing. Part of the problem is his mask- whilst clearly a key feature of his character, it makes it impossible to see his mouth and bunches up his cheeks into an immovable pair of blobs beneath his eyes, meaning there is nothing visible for him to express feeling with, effectively turning him into a blunt machine rather than a believable bad guy. There’s also an entire arc concerning Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and his guilt over letting Batman take the blame for Harvey Dent’s death that is barely explored at all, but thankfully it’s so irrelevant to the overall plot that it might as well not be there at all.

It is, in many ways, a crying shame, because there are so many things the film does so, so right. The actual plot is a rollercoaster of an experience, pushing the stakes high and the action (in typical Nolan fashion) through the roof. The cinematography is great, every actor does a brilliant job in their respective roles and a lot of the little details- the pit & its leap to freedom, the ‘death by exile’ sequence and the undiluted awesome that is The Bat- are truly superb. In fact if Nolan had just decided on a core storyline and focus and then stuck with it as a solid structure, then I would probably still not have managed to wipe the inane grin off my face. But by being as ambitious as he has done, he has just squeezed screen time away from where it really needed to be, and turned the whole thing into a structural mess that doesn’t really know where it’s going at times. It’s a tribute to how good the good parts are that the whole experience is still such good fun, but it’s such a shame to see a near-perfect film let down so badly.

The final thing I have to say about the film is simply: go and see it. Seriously, however bad you think this review portrays it as, if you haven’t seen the film yet and you at all liked the other two (or any other major action blockbuster with half a brain), then get down to your nearest cinema and give it a watch. I can’t guarantee that you’ll have your greatest ever filmgoing experience there, but I can guarantee that it’ll be a really entertaining way to spend a few hours, and you certainly won’t regret having seen it.

The Hunger Redemption

Today, I wish to take a look at the subject of films. I do not make any claims to be a film buff or any expert on such things, but I go to see my fair share and like to think I know the basic principles and terminology.

Normally though, I still wouldn’t bring the topic up, but a couple of events over the last couple of days almost wrote a post for me. The first of these was a showing of The Shawshank Redemption on the TV the other day, which changed my opinion of the film from the mere Excellent ranking it had slipped to since last time I saw to up to the far more deserving Superlatively Awesome position. The other occurred earlier today, when I went to see The Hunger Games, and I saw an interesting opportunity to compare the two.

At first glance, this might seem quite an odd choice of comparison- the two films are from completely different eras of film making and have some wildly different fundamentals, but when one thinks about it they are actually remarkably similar in several aspects. Both are exactly the same length, both are adapted from highly successful books, both manage to cram a lot of film into their (admittedly still quite long) running times, and both contain a central theme of the man (or in the newer film’s case, woman) versus the system, to name but a few. The most important similarity though, is the films’ aims- neither are action showstoppers or visual spectaculars, trying to wow the audience with a show- these films are trying to appeal more on the basis of what they say and mean instead.

However, one crucial difference strikes me- my reaction to the film. Shawshank is a very emotive film for me, and it is impossible to watch it and not leave with a deep sense of the profound and the epic- the film just feels like it’s really, really good, as well as being so. The Hunger Games, on the other hand? Well, it’s certainly not bad, and is certainly above average, but something strikes me as… missing. There is nothing to elevate this film from the mundane and merely ‘good’, to the unique and exceptional- it lacks a certain spark imbued to truly great films.

But why exactly is that? What is it about the execution of The Hunger Games that makes me respond so comparatively poorly to it?

A first thing that strikes me is a lack of depth in the film’s plot. I have said already that a lot of stuff happens in the film, and I can see why they’ve done it- to drop sections would annoy fans of the book and spark web-based outrage for critics to giggle at. But then again, Harry Potter did much the same thing in pretty much every film (because how the hell do you pack 800 pages into a couple of hours screen time?) and, with hindsight, the film benefited from it. For all I know, not having read the books, Gary Ross (director & screenwriter) already did plenty of cutting but… a bit more probably wouldn’t have hurt, to be honest. So much ends up happening that is not a natural progression from another moment that it severely eats into the film’s running time without really adding anything major to it, and prevents anything from gathering any emotive weight to make it seem meaningful.

Speaking of lack of natural progression, that’s another thing- the film has a lot of thematic inconsistency that makes some sections sit very uncomfortably with others. The raw, rough nature of the District 12 opening scenes, for example, does not contrast as effectively as it should with the opulence of the Capitol and the accompanying stupid fashion sense. There is prime opportunity here to contrast the decadence and the poverty of the two and to create some real emotional hit to carry the film along with, but it never really comes. Katniss (the main character, whose name I cannot write without giggling inside) just seems to sit too comfortably with all the pomp and ceremony, which for a character who is meant to be fighting the system and even inspires a f*&%^$g rebellion, just seems odd- and yes, I know she has to make herself popular to attract sponsors, but it’s not beyond the wit of a filmmaker to at least demonstrate some emotional response to the whole business, is it? The irony is that the acting in the film is actually very good and emotive- but the screenplay and directing simply don’t allow it to come to the fore.

This lack of consistency is not only a plot-driven thing- there is a lot of it in the cinematography too. The film switches between ‘Hollywood-style’ backed off shots and more gritty, up close and personal moments- which I would applaud if this switching all happened when it apparently should. As it is… well, take a fight scene near the end. These scenes generally attempt to have on consistent camera aesthetic to get a consistent feel and allow the audience to absorb themselves in the action, rather than doing what Ross has chosen to do on this occasion and constantly switch between confusing, rolling shots between three people in black jumpsuits on a black background so you have no idea who anyone is, to sudden wide shots which tell you roughly who everyone is without giving you any real sense of immersion before throwing you back into the realm of confusion.

If I wanted to, I could go on nit-picking all day, which I don’t really means to since it demeans what is still a very good film. But my real point is that my perpetual feeling whilst watching The Hunger Games is one of a loss of direction, of there being something missing. There are lots of great elements, great camera shots, and great themes in there, but they all just appeared to have been thrown in haphazardly and mixed together without any real aim or direction. There is no real sense that this film has one consistent message, one standout theme, or one clear idea that it builds itself upon, and this just makes it feel… unsatisfying.

…And now to actually justify this as a contrast, I once again give you: The Shawshank Redemption– the epitome of a driven message ramming itself home. To understand what makes Shawshank great, only one simple fact needs to be noted- every single moment in this film is just one part of the emotional rollercoaster of up ‘n’ down of Andy DuFresne’s life. This is a film purely about one man’s life being  dragged through the shitheap, and his sheer determination and balls to pull himself out of it. It is a series of slow buildups and damning falls, of hopes being built and broken, and of the man finally coming good. Every risen hope dashed invests the heart of the viewer in DuFresne, and he becomes our collective avatar. We feel his joy when a chance of freedom or hope arises, and share his pain when it is dashed against the rock- which makes the film’s perfectly paced and beautiful finale something truly special, and something which the entire audience can enjoy and experience. Because we never get that kind of emotional investment in our characters, we are never in a position to enjoy it in the same way as The Hunger Games.

Do not take from this by any means that Games is a bad film, because it’s not, and I don’t mean to slam it so hard. I just think it’s a shame that would could have been a brilliant film has had to be compromised in such a way.