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Yeah, I know I’m out of date on this- but this review was written a year ago, and The World’s End was thought-provoking film I saw last summer.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

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.

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: Trance

OK, I know that technically I’ve already done my scheduled fortnight, but shush; at time of writing I only saw this yesterday, and wanted to get my thoughts off ma chest.

This film is… different, but then again I did kinda expect it to be. Psychological thrillers are rarely simple affairs, but most tend to generate their weirdness from either a confusing, tangential plot or by employing every trick of cinematography in the book in an effort to mess with your brain. Trance does neither of these things, but nonetheless this is most certainly not your average mid-afternoon popcorn film.

The plot centres around an art heist; our main protagonist is Simon (James McAvoy), a young art auctioneer who gets himself mixed up in a plot to rob a Goya painting, ‘Witches In The Air’. However, for reasons that can’t really be explained without giving away any spoilers (the film’s somewhat odd storytelling structure makes it a veritable spoiler minefield), and in some respects are never fully explained at all, the painting manages to go missing. Blame for this falls squarely on Simon, who is suffering that old cinematic trope of amnesia, leading him to not remember what has happened to it. Indeed, one of the characters even puts in a subtle meta-commentary to this effect- but I’m getting sidetracked. Suffice it to say that the group, or more specifically their leader Frank (Vincent Cassel) pick hypnosis as a potential solution; and here the word ‘psychological’ rapidly prefixes itself onto the tag of ‘thriller’.

Amnesia as a plot device is a cliché seemingly as old as the hills, but here it gets the Danny Boyle treatment, and a subsequent new lease of life. Other reviewers have frequently compared the film to Inception for its superficially similar subject matter of the human mind, and it could be argued that what Inception did with dreams Trance attempts to do with memory. However, the comparison is not an especially valid one; whereas Inception was a fast-paced action film that perfectly showcased Christopher Nolan’s talent for scope and grand gestures, Trance is a far smaller affair that plays to Boyle’s strengths of bringing out the little moments. Here, the concept of memory is not only used as the core plot concept, but after being taken as it stands, it is summarily twisted, bent, lost, found, stamped all over, made to run around in circles for three hours, soaked, wrung out to dry and then left in a tangled mess that renders the simplicity of the original concept almost unrecognisable. Suffice it to say that this film most certainly does not take the obvious route with its subject matter.

Tinkering on the minute level is also evident in the film’s plot, an equally twisted affair that makes a marked departure for the more straightline storytelling of the other Boyle films I’ve seen. This might have something to do that this is the first of Boyle’s films for a while not to be based on a pre-existing book (see Trainspotting, Millions, Slumdog Millionaire & 127 Hours) have been based on screenplays adapted from existing books, but here we have an entirely fresh script, co-written by Joe Ahearne and John Hodge. The latter, I glean from a little research, was something of a Boyle regular during his early career (this is their fifth film together), and some stylistic similarities between this and their most famous collaboration (Trainspotting) become clear once you realise the link exists.

For the film’s first hour, Trance doesn’t offer much that could be said to be special; it’s an unconventional but perfectly understandable film that is written, directed and acted well, but doesn’t seem like it’s going to break any major rules. The first and second acts establish a few character relationships, a few ideas that look like they’re going to become important later on, nothing especially out of the ordinary. Indeed, if you’re anything like me, then you’ll think you’ve figured out what ‘The Big Twist’ will be somewhere around the hour mark, and will be just about ready to start feeling smug when the third act kicks in. And kick in it does; not only are the pace and tension each cranked up several notches, but the plot’s initial strangeness begins to give way to mayhem as chronology shifts back and forth, the worlds of hypnosis and reality begin to converge and the film’s themes and story really begin to twist themselves into the aforementioned tangles. Everything made out to be some important concept, a feature that we are sure will turn out to be important, is left by the wayside, and all the small details, slipped in so subtly and hidden so well, take on new significance- a peculiar reversal that, when I think about it, I’m surprised ever worked. That it does is testament to the way every contributor to the film begins to show their class during this period; James McAvoy puts the finishing touches on a stunningly versatile acting performance that covers just about every emotion and character trope known to humankind, whilst co-star Rosario Dawson (who plays hypnotherapist Elizabeth Lamb) begins to show the character beneath all the subtle woman-of-mystery stuff from the second act. Boyle too puts himself on show; all the careful execution of the first two acts, all the subtlety and false leads, all the things only hinted at through the minutiae of character behaviour, all are finally paid off in his chaotic finale, and it shows his skill off marvellously.

However.

I can appreciate an awful lot of things about Trance. I can appreciate the fantastic acting, I can appreciate the clever, intriguing storytelling, I can certainly appreciate the directorial skill. But somehow… I find I can’t quite enjoy it. Maybe it’s something to do with having unsympathetic characters, nobody we can ever think of as a hero (or, for that matter, antihero), maybe it’s that the plot doesn’t really have any consistent underlying emotional scenes, or maybe it’s just that all the things that really matter by the end are not given enough time to make themselves feel meaningful, amidst the mayhem of the third act. Honestly, I’m not quite sure, but it’s a shame, frankly; Trance is smart, quirky, exceptionally well done and tells a story like nothing else. I only wish it could feel meaningful too.

One last thing; how in the name of hell this film was given a 15 rating I have no idea. I don’t really have an opinion on the BBFC rating system, whether it’s appropriate and so forth, but I do have an opinion that if you have an 18 rating and a film with torture, nudity about as blatant as it comes, rather graphic gore, enough corpses to keep a coroner busy for a month and it doesn’t get it… well what the hell is an 18 then?

OK, I quite liked doing this, so I think I might make film reviews a bit more of a regular thing. I might even get round to making a category for them. Might.

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.