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Yeah, I know I’m out of date on this- but this review was written a year ago, and The World’s End was thought-provoking film I saw last summer.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

Gravity

At time of writing, I’ve just come home from watching Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron’s recent space-set thriller. And my immediate reaction can be essentially summed up in three words: holy f***ing shit.

OK, OK, I’ll fill in a bit; if you weren’t already aware, Gravity tells the story of a space shuttle mission gone disastrously wrong whilst in orbit, leaving just two survivors: George Clooney playing essentially a spacegoing version of himself as the suave, talkative veteran Matt Kowalski and Sandra Bullock as the inexperienced, depressive and perpetually scared Dr. Ryan Stone. With their craft destroyed, both are faced with the daunting prospect of trying to return to earth alive- without the luxuries of a ship, communications, equipment or much ability to control their own movements. And that’s all I can really say without giving away spoilers- indeed, I feel like the rest of this review may end up giving away a fair few details. However, since the main thrust of what makes the film such an experience is not contained within its plot, so unless you have a burning desire to see Gravity completely unspoiled you’re probably not going to lose out on much by reading on.

The result is something pretty amazing, but Gravity is not flawless by any means- I doubt any film ever was. I don’t know whether the story of former astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield getting thrown out of a Canadian cinema for shouting about the film’s inaccuracies at the screen is true or not, but if so I can see where he’d have been coming from- I am no astronaut, but I know enough about space to say that communications and spy satellites operate at completely different altitudes, neither of which are in the range depicted by the film, and that during re-entry there should not be random objects floating around the cabin like it’s in zero-g. Those are only the more obvious errors- the film does a grand job of delivering the general gist of a spacial environment, but had I so wished I could have spent the entire film pointing out minor inaccuracies or inconsistencies. But then again, I’m no astronaut- and besides, Gravity is hardly the only film to take some rather serious liberties with the laws of physics.

It’s not only in terms of its scientific accuracy where the film has flaws. Its characterisation is almost non-existent, the plot is as stripped-down and oversimplified as it could possibly be whilst still existing, multiple story elements seem decidedly contrived and the whole thing has precisely zero thematic complexity between the tried & tested ‘indomitable human spirit’ arc. But that’s all kinda the point. Gravity is not an actor’s film, nor indeed a writer’s- indeed I have a sneaking suspicion that Cuaron may simply have done three days filming, then locked himself in  a room with his cinematographer and CGI person for a few months putting together the rest of it. The result is nothing less than a jaw-dropping spectacle of a film, something genuinely amazing: to be honest, I’m not even sure that’s even a compliment. It feels more like a simple description of the film’s nature- even if this had been the background setting for something written by Ed Wood, the sheer amazement factor of how the film presents itself would still have left me sitting back in my seat mouth open like a goon.

I mean, just consider the visuals. Alone, they would be enough to make watching Gravity a special experience, capturing as they do both the scale and beauty of the view from space alongside the strange unreality that is sitting in a tin can hurtling at unimaginable speed thousands of kilometres above the surface of our mother earth. The film’s extensive use of CGI (because seriously, how else do you create an action set piece around a ****ing space station) is noticeable, but by keeping the visual style very consistent the film avoids drawing attention to it and maintains a highly immersive experience. Then there’s the cinematography; from the early outset Gravity sets a baseline for weirdness and confusion as a constantly moving, rotating camera reminds us of the nature of space, and the total lack of a reference frame that one has in it. There is no up or down- there is only ‘over there’, and when ‘over there’ is flying around madly as you tumble uncontrollably towards it, as happens frequently during the action set pieces, the whole thing gets decidedly disorientating. I’m rather glad I don’t get motion sick, or indeed scared of heights once the film decides to point out that space flight is, in fact, nothing more than falling very, very quickly.

But what makes Gravity really work is how it creates an atmosphere. The whole thing seems specifically designed to make space seem as utterly, utterly terrifying on all levels to make our hero’s struggle seem that much more daunting and amazing, and the film pulls off on that spectacularly. A key part of its toolbox is its use of thematic contrast: the huge, jaw-dropping visual spectacles that are the action sequences keep the danger and blind terror foremost in our mind, but are offset by the near-silent intimate moments that both give the audience time to process the beautiful insanity playing out in front of them and to remind us all that, surrounded by airless wilderness, ‘in space, nobody can hear you scream’. Cuaron deserves particular credit for his use of music in this regard- it’s one of those things you almost don’t notice, but every set piece is built up slowly, cranking up the tension, before launching into a booming orchestral inferno of noise as the action gets into full flow. And then- silence, save for our protagonist’s terrified breathing. I don’t think any film has ever made me feel a character’s emotion quite so much, and certainly none has done so to a faceless spacesuit.

Ultimately, I’m not sure me spouting words can really do the film justice- it’s one of those things where I could describe the entire storyline, down to the last scene, and it’d still be the barest shadow of what viewing the film in all its glory is. Just let me put it this way: Gravity is an hour and a half of watching people falling out of the sky through the most hostile environment in the universe amidst a chaotic firestorm of broken metal and machinery. And it is every bit as terrifying, jaw-dropping and downright awe-inspiring as that sounds.

The Fighter

Some time ago I reviewed The King’s Speech, and expressed some surprise that two of the film’s standout performers, Helena Bonham Carter and Geoffrey Rush, weren’t more decorated than they ended up being when awards season rolled around. The film that snatched the ‘Best Supporting Actor/Actress’ Oscars away from them was The Fighter, which I have no got around to watching.

In some respects, The Fighter is just another sporting underdog story; the underdog in question is Mark Wahlberg’s Micky Ward, a welterweight boxer who lives and trains in his home town of Lowell, Massachusetts. His trainer (whenever he can be persuaded to stop smoking crack) is his brother Dicky, a former boxer himself (“the pride of Lowell”) who is perpetually obsessed by his career highlight, beating Sugar Ray Leonard live on HBO some years ago. With his brother proving an unreliable trainer and his mother (Melissa Leo) an imperfect agent, things come to a head when Micky is soundly thrashed in a high-profile match against someone twenty pounds heavier than him. Ashamed and unhappy, Micky starts to withdraw from family affairs and, when his brother is arrested and discredited, he turns his back on boxing altogether. And you can probably guess at the basic outline of the rest; persuaded to get back into training by his father (Jack McGee) and inspired by his girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams), Micky wins a couple of high-profile matches and takes the welterweight title.

Put like that, you might think this film was a sort of gritty reimagining of Rocky, but there are three very good reasons why a boxing film managed to overcome all the Academy prejudice you might expect against this sort of thing and bag two Oscars. The first is that all-important phrase ‘based on a true story’: Micky Ward is a real guy with a successful career behind him (he has now retired) and, although multiple details are apparently innacurate, Ward really did give up on the sport for several months amid his brother’s battle with drug addiction before achieving success. Not only that, but the entire film is done in an incredibly realistic fashion; there are no stylistic frills stuck on for the sake of appearances or to make anything more ‘dramatic’. This works perfectly with the gritty, uncompromising and in some respects unpleasant story, and the dedication and attention to detail of all involved is plain to see.

This sense of realism spills over into the film’s second killer edge: the acting. Although Wahlberg, apparently a big fan of Ward’s, was possibly the most committed of all those involved (spending four years in training, refusing stunt doubles for the fight sequences, living with the real Ward brothers for a time), he frequently struggles to deliver much beyond gritty seriousness in his non-comedic roles, and his performance here, whilst more animated, is merely good. The real stars are, perhaps predictably given the awards they bagged, his supporting cast: Amy Adams is the least decorated of them, but her performance is infused with a kind of fierce determination that both perfectly suits her character and builds throughout the film, giving the piece an extra level of depth and realism as we see development across the board, rather than just those the story deals with. Melissa Leo delivers a masterclass in character acting as the matriarch of the Ward family, her simplest mannerisms and inflections allowing the audience to pretty much fill in her entire back story and character traits with barely a word spoken. However, it is Christian Bale’s performance as Dicky that really steals the show- every half-smile, every crazed whirl of limbs, all the casual swagger, even the way he hangs his shoulders reveals to us the character within, building this complete image of a character built entirely on his own brand sometimes delusional self-confidence (bordering on arrogance on occasion), yet still encompassing some small sense of shame and self-loathing at what he knows are deplorable activities. When his fall finally hits, as it inevitably must, one facial expression is all it takes to show us how this entire frame of reference has come crumbling down around him, and it is Bale who offers up the majority of the film’s emotional punch. In a nice extra touch, director David O. Russell included a small segment featuring the two real-life Ward brothers during the credits, showing just how well Bale captured both Dicky’s distinctive, outgoing style and all his expansive mannerisms. Whilst I’m not 100% sure that Leo’s performance beats Bonham Carter’s in The King’s Speech that won her the ‘Best Supporting Actress’ Academy award (although, frankly, trying to compare two such radically different films is a somewhat impossible task), I am damn sure that Bale here knocks just about every other supporting actor role ever performed into a cocked hat and thoroughly deserved his Oscar.

The final thing that elevates The Fighter above mere ‘sporting film’ status is its thematic nature. In most sporting films, the key theme is one of redemption, of overcoming some great adversity and winning through despite all the odds. This idea is most certainly present in The Fighter, and indeed forms the centrepiece of the film, but it is underplayed and, much like with the acting, in which the supporting actors  are able to add so much more than the apparent lead, it’s the supporting, secondary themes that really drive this film: those of family, of self-destruction and of trying to do what’s best. And all the casualties that those result in. One particularly well-used underlying theme is that of shame, and indeed it could be argued that shame, or at least guilt, becomes a key motivating factor for every one of the characters in the end, each character having their own personal moment of epiphany of their own failings that drives the film onwards. Indeed, the character of Ward is perhaps unique in this regard, for whilst shame forms a key part of his character early on, the key moment of his character development comes from positive outside influence.

The limitations (to call them failings would be far, far too harsh) of the film’s central premise and character are enough to prevent The Fighter from being a perfect film, and cause it to lack something in the way of true emotional weight; but then again, a truly perfect film will never be made. What makes this film work is David O. Russell’s ability to weave the apparently secondary themes and stories that the film has to tell into its very fabric, turning it into a film that is fundamentally about so much more than a boxer and a couple of big fights. I didn’t fall in love with The Fighter, but I am prepared to stand up and applaud all day anyone who takes an easy story and does something special with it.

Zero Dark Thirty

Well, I did say I wanted to make film reviewing more of a regular thing…

The story of Zero Dark Thirty’s production is a both maddeningly frustrating and ever so slightly hilarious one; the original concept, about an intelligence officer’s incessant, bordering on obsessive, quest to try and find Osama bin Laden was first brought up some time around 2010, and the screenplay was finished in the spring of 2011. The film’s centrepiece was the Battle for Tora Bora, which took place in late 2001; American and allied forces had been on the ground for just a few weeks before the Taliban government and political system was in total disarray. Al-Qaeda were on the run, and some quarters thought the war would be pretty much over within a few months, apart from a few troops left over to smoothen the new government’s coming into power (yeah, that really worked out well). All the intelligence (and it was good too) pointed to bin Laden’s hiding in the mountains of Tora Bora, near the Pakistani border, and after a fierce bombing campaign the net was tightening. However, allied Pakistani and Afghan militia (who some believe were on the Al-Qaeda side) requested for a ceasefire so that some dead & wounded might be evacuated and prisoners taken; a move reluctantly accepted by the Americans, who then had to sit back as countless Al-Qaeda troops, including bin Laden, fled the scene.

Where was I? Oh yes, Zero Dark Thirty.

This was originally planned to be the central event of the film, but just as filming was about to commence the news broke that Bin Laden had, in fact, been killed which, whilst it did at least allow the filmmakers to produce a ‘happy’ ending, required that the whole script be torn up and rewritten. However, despite this, the tone and themes of the film have managed to remain true to this original morally ambiguous, chaotic story, despite  including no footage of any events prior to 2003. We still have the story of the long, confused and tortured quest of the small team of CIA operatives whose sole job it was to find and kill bin Laden, and it honestly doesn’t feel like the story would have felt much different were it to end with bin Laden still alive. And tortured is the word; much has been made of the film’s depiction of torture, some deploring the fact that it is shown to get vital information and arguing that the film ‘glorifies’ it, whilst others point out the way that the key information that finally revealed bin Laden’s location was found after the newly-inaugurated President Obama closed down the ‘detainee’ program. Personally, I think it’s depicted… appropriately. This is a very, very real film, telling a real story about real events and the work of real people, even if specifics aren’t the gospel truth (I mean, there’s only so much the CIA are going to be willing to tell the world), and nobody can deny that prisoners were tortured during the first few years of the war. Or, indeed, that the practice almost certainly did give the CIA information. If anything, that’s the point of the torture debate; it’s awful, but it works, and which side of the debate you fall on really depends on whether the latter is worth the former. In any case, it is certainly revealing that the film chooses to open with a torture scene, revealing the kind of pulls-no-punches intent that comes to define it.

There are the depictions of the chaos of the intelligence process, the web of indistinguishable truths and lies, the hopes pinned on half-leads, all amid plenty of timely reminders of just what is at stake; the attacks, both the big ones that everyone’s heard of and can relate to and the littler ones that hide away in the corners of the media reporting that manage to mean so, so much more to our chosen characters. Of particular note is the final attack on bin Laden’s compound, in one of the least ‘Hollywood’ and most painstakingly accurate portrayals of a military operation ever put onto the big screen. It also manages to come across as totally non-judgemental; torture, terrorism and even the killing of one of western culture’s biggest hate figures of the last decade are presented in exactly the same deadpan fashion. In another film, neutrality over contentious issues can come across as a weak cop-out; here it only adds to the realism.

The most obvious comparison to Zero Dark Thirty is The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow’s previous ultra-realistic story about the War on Terror, and it is a pretty fair comparison to say that what The Hurt Locker was to soldiers, Zero Dark Thirty is to intelligence. However, whilst The Hurt Locker was very much about its characters  and their internal struggles, with the events of the film acting more as background than anything else, Zero Dark Thirty is instead dedicated to its events (to say ‘story’ would rather overplay the interconnectedness and coherence of the whole business). Many characters are reduced to devices, people who do stuff that the film is talking about, and many of the acting performances are… unchallenging; nothing against the actors concerned, just to say that this is very much Bigelow’s film rather than her characters. The shining exception is Jessica Chastain as our central character of Maya, who manages to depict her character’s sheer drive and unflinching determination with outstanding aplomb: as well as showing her human side (in its brief appearances) in both touching and elegant fashion.

For all these reasons and more, I can wholeheartedly recommend Zero Dark Thirty as something people should try and see if they can; what I cannot do, however, is to really enjoy it. This isn’t because it isn’t fun, for lots of great films aren’t, but because it doesn’t really stir any great emotions within me, despite asking its fair share of moral questions about war. Maybe its because I tend to be very analytical over such matters, but I’m inclined to feel that the film has actually taken its neutrality and frankness of delivery a little too far. By having no really identifiable, consistent, empathetic characters beyond Maya, our emotional investment in the film is entirely dependent on our emotional investment in the subject matter, and by presenting it in such a neutral matter it fails to really do so in people without a strong existing opinion on it. I have heard this film described as a Rorschach test for people’s opinions on the war and the techniques used in it; maybe my response to this film just reveals that I don’t really have many.

FILM FORTNIGHT: The King’s Speech

Ah, Tom Hooper, whatever are we to do with you; a professional Oscar-bagger whose adherents’ vociferousness in their praise of his directorial skill is only matched by his critics slagging him off. This is not to say that he makes bad films (although I have seen one reviewer call Les Miserables the third worst film of 2012; a somewhat bold claim), but more a reflection of the fact that Hooper’s style of film making is pretty much what the Academy thinks is the cinematic equivalent of nirvana. This very… specific style has not endeared him to everyone, specifically those who think his films are all the more dull and predictable for it.

Where was I again? Oh yes; The King’s Speech, the most critically successful to date of Hooper’s films, bagging a Golden Globe, seven BAFTAs and four Oscars. For the four of you who never quite heard what the plot was about, our gaze is cast back to 1925 and onto the then Duke of York, Prince Albert (Colin Firth), second in line to the throne after his older brother David (Guy Pearce). Albert is among of the most interesting Royals in (relatively) recent history and was the father to our current Queen, but the part of his character we are most interested in now is his heavily pronounced stammer. This impediment is hardly conducive to him being comfortable in a heavily public role, and he tries multiple methods to cure himself; but this is the early 20th century, and we are yet to see the extraordinary advances in medical science that came along during the decades after the Second World War. As such, the treatments offered are somewhat Victorian in nature and don’t work, leading to increasing frustration from the Prince regarding the issue, to the point where he basically decides to give up. His wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), however, is more determined, and puts him in touch with Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian speech therapist with somewhat unconventional methods (and indeed mannerisms) for the time.

The changing relationship between Logue and the Prince is the central plot thread for the remainder of the film; one a rather bluntly-spoken commoner and the other who has spent his entire life being served in deference to with the complex rules of formality and tradition acting as his social bodyguard. That this is going to cause tension is obvious from the opening scene, and is indicative of one of the film’s most prominent flaws; the near-total lack of anticipation. This does not half to be a bad thing necessarily; many a good film has been so without any need to resort to tension or anticipation, but every scene of The King’s Speech can pretty much be calculated from the first five seconds, and sticking around to watch frequently doesn’t add anything to the central plotline.

It’s a shame really, because there are other aspects (and other scenes) that the film gets magnificently right, particularly those scenes that focus on the transitional state of the world at the time. This particular point in history was a turbulent one; times were changing, the new and old were trying (and in many cases failing) to coexist, and the establishment was frequently struggling to cope with all this newness. No establishment embodied this more than the royalty; these were the last days for nobility in all its pomp and finery, the days when it finally realised how much of its power had been stripped away and how it could not go on pretending to be a divine figure of authoritative power. As the film makes clear, monarchies had been falling across Europe, and others were to be reduced to puppets beneath new regimes, and while this theme is never explicitly mentioned or made a central part of the film, it subtly pervades all around it in a way that makes one feel genuine sympathy for the characters concerned. It is present in the way the prince treats the children and the stories he tells of how his father treated him, in the methods that work for him and the methods that don’t, even in the way characters address one another. All in all a wonderful piece of directing to work in there; I only wish it had taken centre stage more frequently. Perhaps then it wouldn’t perpetually feel as if it were 15 minutes away from finishing.

Mention must of course be made of the actors; Colin Firth took three ‘Best Actor’ prizes for his role as the king, and I found his portrayal incredibly interesting. Firth has always brought a particular brand of confidence, even cockiness, to the roles he plays and is frequently cast in controlling figures of power for this very reason; but here he is required to express both the power and authority of a monarch and the fragility of a patient. The film’s plot, and in particular Geoffrey Rush’s perfectly executed character of Logue, mean that these two opposing images must frequently share the limelight and come into conflict with one another, whilst all the while having to make themselves felt through the Prince’s stammer. This would be a mean task for even the most skilled of actors, and for someone such as Firth who I have never seen portray weakness in this way, it is a particularly interesting challenge. I wouldn’t say that he pulls it off perfectly, or that I find his performance massively compelling (he doesn’t quite manage to express how hard he’s trying, from my point of view), but it is nonetheless a good attempt at a very challenging role. This may have been somewhat hindered by the fact that, as usual, Bonham Carter manages to steal the show, once again showing her extraordinary versatility as an actress with a striking, and occasionally even funny, portrayal of the Duchess (a woman we would now refer to as the Queen Mother). That she and Rush only took home one ‘Supporting Actor/Actress’ role apiece is, to me, quite an eyebrow raiser, even if it was up against The Fighter. Some other performances, most notably Timothy Spall turning up as Winston Churchill for no readily explained reason, are less beneficial to the film and often feel as though they are taking screentime away from what’s important (there’s a fine line between ‘interesting cameo’ and ‘why the hell are they here?’), but thankfully they are not prevalent enough for this to be a massive problem.

To me, The King’s Speech is far from a perfect film; it is not terribly compelling all too frequently, large pieces of the plot seem to serve very little purpose, the script takes significant artistic liberties with historical fact (yes, I know that shouldn’t be important, but I’m too much of a nerd about these things), the plot is somewhat formulaic and predictable and it can’t quite seem to make up its mind over what it is, thematically speaking, about. However, it is executed so exquisitely that these flaws, in part, hardly matter; yes, they’re there, yes the film is imperfect, but that’s no reason not to sit back and enjoy the experience. Did The King’s Speech deserve two ‘Best Picture’ awards? Perhaps not. Is it a bad film? Not a chance. Perhaps not worth digging through to see, but certainly worth watching if you get the chance.

FILM FORTNIGHT: The Counterfeiters

Very few people I know have heard of this film, not that I’m terribly surprised; it takes something pretty special for any foreign language film (the film is Austrian, so spoken in German) to make it big in the somewhat saturated UK film market, and we are hardly short of films about Nazism in any language. Still, that’s no reason to malign it straight off the bat, and I managed well enough with just the subtitles.

The film’s story covers yet another of the ‘hidden tales’ of the Second World War; some small aspect of the war plan of either side that was in its own way, big or small, somehow critical to the war’s outcome. It is a constant source of amazement to me that we don’t run out of these stories at some point, since there were only so many people in Europe at the time to have an Amazing True Story happen to them, but happen they clearly did. This particular story concerns a wing of the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, where tens of thousands of Jews and political enemies of the Nazi state died during the war, either by being worked to death or systematically exterminated; many others were transferred to Auschwitz to be killed. However, even in Germany at the time there was some dissidence to the state’s fanatical Jew-hating; the Jews were a successful sect of German society, with many skilled doctors, engineers, bankers and such among them, and it was a truth that (understandably) went unsaid that by locking up, driving away and killing all these people the Third Reich was hamstringing itself. Apparently, even the high-ups recognised the potential usefulness of some of these people, and here our film takes up the story; our main protagonist is career forger Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), arrested for… well… being a career forger, as well as a Jew. However, his talents soon make themselves known and he is moved to Sachsenhausen along with as many other prisoners the Nazis can find with skills related to artwork, printing or forgery. Their task? Come up with a facility for the mass-production of dud British and American banknotes, with the aim to flood the market with them and thus destabilise the Allied economy through hyperinflation. Some might call this a slightly eccentric strategy, but after hyperinflation had totally annihilated the German economy in the early 1930s (paving the way for the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933) the Germans knew all too well how devastating this had the potential to be.

However, this complex historical context is all so much background noise, for the real meat of the film concerns our characters. Every one is representative of the complex mess of moral ambiguity and contradiction that the prisoners find themselves in; Sorowitsch is something of a cynical moneymaker, but finds himself in the role of leader and spokesperson for the band of forgers, and whether his priorities lie with his own survival or empathy for them becomes an increasingly grey area as the film progresses. Then there is the question of the act of collaboration; some are quite clearly happy to do whatever the Nazis want if it means they can stay alive, but others are quite plainly disgusted at the idea of working for those who would quite happily have seen them dead. This moral standpoint is personified by the character of Adolf Burger (August Diehl), whose memoirs the film is based upon; not only does he vehemently hate the Nazis and does everything he can to fight back against them, but his every action is indicative of his moral repulsion against their situation. Because of the importance of their work, the forgers live a relatively well-off existence, with decent clothes, good living conditions and sufficient food. By contrast, the life of a less lucky prisoner was horrific; fed on scraps when they were fed at all (there are several accounts of prisoners starving to death as concentration camps and factories argued over whose job it was to feed them), they were subjected to backbreaking labour and near-constant systematic abuse from their guards. The death rate was correspondingly horrific. This gulf in quality of life between them and their fellow prisoners, never seen until the very end of the film to provide a stark, brutal contrast, is of personal significance to Burger (his wife is imprisoned elsewhere), and whilst his comrades dress themselves in the clothes of the dead, he remains clad in prison wear, a constant and undoubtedly effective visual reminder of the moral mess the film finds itself in.

This moral quagmire is, really, the film’s underlying theme, the question of what is right versus what will keep you alive ever-present. Other films have addressed this message, but the setting of this one makes it especially poignant; across the vast expanse of German-controlled Europe, countless of ordinary people really did collaborate with the Nazi occupiers, and the shame associated with this act still lingers today. In some cases, collaborators may have believed in the Nazi ideals, but doubtless most were simply trying to make life a little less hard in whatever way they could. Was what they did right? What is worth sacrificing, worth accepting, in order to stay alive? Far better philosophers than me have pondered that question and failed to come to an answer.

However, for me the crowning moral contradiction of the lot comes in the form of the prisoner’s Nazi controller, Herzog (Devid Streisow; in real life the operation was headed by a man named Bernhard Kruger). A softly-spoken family man who is proud to say that he never beats his children, it is Herzog who is responsible for the prisoners’ comfortable existence; and an undoubtedly ruthless Nazi who threatens to start shooting prisoners if anyone conspires to sabotage the operation (adding another layer of moral quandary to Burger’s sabotage attempts). In more ways than one, Herzog is symbolic of the strange quirks of moral reasoning of the Nazi party as a whole; a political party who, whilst happy to gas millions upon millions of Jews for no good reason, had very strong objections to hunting, cruelty to animals and smoking (they were the first to show that smoking is unhealthy, although nobody took them seriously at the time). Herzog is a metaphor for the system he represents, just as the film is a metaphor for a thousand stories of small-time collaborators across the continent.

The Counterfeiters is most certainly not a perfect film. Whilst it is grim, gritty, realistic and deals with some genuinely meaningful subject matter, director Stefan Ruzowitsky doesn’t seem able to differentiate between the gravity of different scenes, making those that should have packed a powerful punch seem rather tired and listless. Whilst not taxing for the brain, it is rather hard to enjoy for this reason, and whilst the moral ambiguity of the characters gives them purpose it is not done in such a way as to make them seem sympathetic and likeable. No, I cannot definitely say that I enjoyed The Counterfeiters, but I respect the hell out of it for telling a story that tries to mean something, and for having the guts to be unconventional.

PS: Reading around some of the source material for this film, I came across the story of Bernhard Kruger, the real-life version of Herzog. His story and the story in the film do not apparently synch up (even Adolf Burger is on record as saying that the film does not portray events as they really happened), and he was apparently just as much of a murderer as the likes of Rudolf Hoess (the commandant of Auschwitz); according to Burger, he murdered six ill prisoners in the final days of the war to prevent them from talking when they went to hospital. However, his story becomes interesting when he was put on trial for war crimes; several former members of his unit apparently gave evidence of his good treatment of them during the war, and he was acquitted; because this film didn’t have quite enough moral ambiguity on its own…

FILM FORTNIGHT: Ocean’s Eleven

Any film with ‘Eleven’ in its title is giving itself rather ambitious goals; eleven of anything, be it targets, bad guys, explosions or, as in this case, lead characters, is always going to be difficult to fit into a film without at least the last four losing any touch of something special. Even the original Ocean’s Eleven, made back in 1960 (did you know this film was a remake? I sure as hell didn’t) apparently made do with just five main leads and a few bit-part players to act as manpower for the con, and by introducing eleven distinct characters each with a well-defined role, the risk of the whole film turning into a screen time contest is ever-present. Thankfully, everybody knows their place; the film is plenty long enough for everyone to get their five minutes of character definition so we know who the hell this guy is when he shows up an hour later, and the film has the good sense to be plot- rather than character-driven to allow it to stick to what it’s about; the heist.

Yes, it’s another organised crime/massively-overblown-way-of-nicking-a-ton-of-money film; our protagonist this time is George Clooney’s Danny Ocean, recently released from prison and instantly deciding to go back into business as a career criminal (because laying low is for wusses). His partner in crime is old friend Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt), and their plan is hardly lacking for ambition; rob the vault that serves three of the biggest casinos in Las Vegas when at its fullest. This is a typical feature of modern big-budget film-making; building tension and a sense of ‘this really means something so I should care about it’ by virtue of sheer scale, rather than emphasising the importance of the con itself.

But ho-hum, the film tells us, this is not merely an exercise of scale; this con does have a special meaning for our characters. This comes in the form of Ocean’s ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts) and Rather Unnecessary Romantic Subplot™ which, since it takes the form of a ‘big reveal’ halfway through the film I shall choose not to spoil here. Not that it matters especially, since it is a rather extraneous feature; it doesn’t serve to make the protagonist’s actions any more realistic since it is so bloody stupid, and its only real reason for being is so that the filmmakers could put Julia Roberts’ name on the promo material. In 2001 Roberts was the undisputed female star of the film industry, the first woman ever to be paid $20 million for a film, and her name sold cinema seats.

Anyway, back to the actual con, where the film now tries to build scale through complexity; to pull it off, Ocean and Ryan decide to build a the stereotypical ‘crack team’ to handle the job. To this end, they recruit nine fellow crewmembers, each with their own special skill and stereotype revealed in their scheduled two minutes of exposition. We have the socially awkward pickpocket (Matt Damon), the incredibly cockney explosives nut (Don Cheadle, executing what is often regarded as the worst British accent in cinema history), the gifted but infighting brothers (Casey Affleck/Scott Caan) and the Oriental super-acrobat (Shaobo Qin), to name but the most interesting, and all have their requisite one moment of usefulness in the resulting con itself.

However, even if the film has the good sense not to focus on its protagonists, the sheer number of them still presents issues. Of the film’s two hour running time, what feels like three-quarters of it is made up of pure setup, with no action, no fun, no heist; nothing to keep the pace up and the film interesting. In a genre where pace and tension are everything, having no actually interesting subplots to keep the ball rolling for the first hour or so is sheer directorial madness. It seems as if the film was relying on the Clooney/Roberts romantic subplot to cover this period, but since this whole dynamic never feels either especially real nor purports to be meaningful it’s not enough to carry the whole shebang. Steven Soderbergh is not exactly delivering a vintage directorial display here.

The number of actors presents problems in other ways too; there are some pretty good bits of acting on show here, with Clooney being realistic if not particularly emotional and Pitt bringing some characteristic personality to his role. Carl Reiner’s Saul, an old-school con man with one of the more significant roles in the film, also works as a consistent and compelling character, helped by a generous portion of screentime, but these turns are so restricted for space that none of them are ever able to mean anything, only serving to highlight the flaws in the film’s plot. It doesn’t help that pickpocket Linus Caldwell has the misfortune to be played by Matt Damon, who doesn’t appear to function terribly well when not leading a film. His performance here is somewhat uninspired, which would be more forgiveable were his character not meant to be particularly significant. Between these character flaws and those in the film’s storyline, by 80 minutes in I was getting positively bored.

Soderbergh does manage to, somewhat belatedly, partially redeem himself with the execution of the film’s central con, when it finally turns up; the deception employed is as multi-layered, clever and effective as a good on-screen heist should be. It also manages to be totally unexpected without resorting to any of the deus ex machina that inexplicably turned up in the sequel, instead relying on a supremely well-set up piece of criminality that would be far more effective if it had the good grace to turn up at the end of a film I was actually emotionally invested in.

In my review of The Sting, I described it as ‘Ocean’s Eleven with a simpler character base and more realistic motivations’. Whereas The Sting is a proper old-fashioned crime film, Ocean’s Eleven only tries to be one for the last half-hour, and is significantly poorer for it. Still, could be worse; Ocean’s Twelve proved that.