Sunday, 16 November 2014

No Man Is An Island

It takes a wise man to coin an aphorism which endures for 400 years, but John Donne managed it with some aplomb. No man, indeed, is an island. We are all wrapped up in mankind, our humanity intrinsically linked to the humanity of those around us. Alone, we are nothing.

But many people are alone. Many of us are islands.

We live in a world of interconnectedness: Facebook, Twitter, mobile phones, rolling news coverage, email alerts, Snapchats and Instagrams. We announce our every move, pronounce our every thought, picture our every meal. We know where are friends are. Who they've been with. What they wore. Who did their hair.

None of this shit matters.

These are details. Fripperies. They are not real. They are illusions. They have no depth, no weight, no emotion. Yet for many of us they have come to replace real human contact.

We labour under the misconception that our friendships are close and meaningful because we know what and when and where our friends do the things they do. But how often do we ask how or why?

We see the glossy surface they choose to represent: the best photos of their night out, the edited highlights of their holiday. We witness this artifice, this social construction and we convince ourselves it is real. It isn't.

Our social media selves are a representation of the real us. They don't show the drudgery, the struggle, the schlep that life often is. We struggle with boredom, self-doubt and loneliness because we compare ourselves with the bullshit beamed onto our devices - the kind of highlights packages we can't ever dream to compete with.

We have replaced time spent together with time spent watching each other through the window, a glass screen separating us from what really matters: a hug, a squeeze, a kiss. We feel that we're involved because we know so much, but all we really know is what's on the surface. We forget to scratch beneath for what really matters, isolating ourselves, retreating into our hermetically sealed existence.

We watch our friends' lives and worry that ours aren't so interesting. We see their relationships and compare ours to theirs, chastising ourselves for our inadequacies. We see people having the fun we wish we were having and we withdraw still further, until one day we realise that we haven't actually seen a good friend for twelve months, that we didn't cuddle them when their mum was ill, that we haven't met their baby daughter.

And as we cast ourselves adrift, we peddle the lie that things are okay. We represent ourselves online in the way we wish to be seen, convincing our friends and families that we are fine when in reality we are lonely and hurting, scared to express our true feelings lest they become lost in the ocean of updates, tweets and images.

Instead of skimming this surface meaning, we must take the plunge and dive beneath it, immersing ourselves and, as John Donne advised, ensuring we are "involved in mankind". It's the only way we can hold our heads above water.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Captain Phillips

I have a hatred of Hanks which I find difficult to justify. Perhaps it his slightly nasal, whiny voice. Maybe that irritating eye-narrowing thing he does. Possibly his annoying everyman shtick. More likely it’s that batch of woeful romantic comedies he made with Meg Ryan in the mid-nineties. After all, I’ve occasionally chosen to overlook my Hanks hate – Forrest Gump, the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan, childhood favourite Big. And so it was with Captain Phillips: a film which, despite its abysmal title, has received rave reviews and in which Tom Hanks gives possibly the best performance of his career.

The plot is a simple one: the eponymous Captain (Hanks) is piloting his cargo ship through international waters off the Horn of Africa when it is hijacked by a group of four Somali pirates. Phillips appeals for help from the authorities, but assistance fails to arrive in time to stop the armed raiders boarding the ship – leaving the noble captain to protect his unarmed crew and his boat.

Such a simple synopsis reveals nothing of the film, however. 

Tom Hanks is superb as a man out of his depth, forced to confront difficult decisions in the most difficult of circumstances. Initially he seems the archetypal company man, following protocol and playing it by the book. But as his captors become increasingly unpredictable, so Phillips’ actions become more inspired, courageous and innovative. He takes huge risks in the most prosaic ways – it’s only after leaving the cinema and reflecting on the movie that it becomes clear how just how risky some of his plays were.

At the other end of behavioural the spectrum is the pirates’ own captain. Muse (Barkhad Abdi) is desperate, bitter and emotional – a trembling, wide-eyed, wounded animal whose erratic nature is the antithesis of Phillips’ cool exterior. It’s a mesmerising performance from a first-timer who didn’t even meet Tom Hanks until their first on-screen confrontation. 

And what a confrontation it is. Sparks fly as the characters face off, with the threat of violence constantly simmering beneath the surface. There is mutual respect too, with moments of genuine compassion and humanity passing between the two – not least as Muse attempts to protect Phillips from some of the less sanguine pirates in his crew. 

As the film lurches towards a conclusion, the action becomes increasingly claustrophobic and the tension is almost unbearable. Barry Ackroyd’s photography is superb, placing the camera amidst the action as blood and sweat are spilled and violence threatens to erupt in the closest possible confines. Even knowing the true story which inspired the film doesn’t lessen the knuckle-whitening tension.

The final scenes are an acting tour-de-force: a visceral, powerfully emotional outpouring which offer an increasingly tense audience some kind of catharsis after one of the most gripping, tautly made movies of recent years.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The World's End

First, a confession: I didn’t like Spaced. I was not a huge fan of Shaun of the Dead. I didn’t even watch Hot Fuzz. It’s important to get this information out in the open in order to deal with accusations of prejudice appropriately: I really wanted to enjoy this film.

For this man of a certain age, a movie about reuniting the old gang and returning to the shit-hole town of their birth has a particularly personal resonance: our annual pub crawls have only recently ended thanks to births, marriages and disapproving spouses. With my man-crush Paddy Considine on board and a soundtrack borrowed from my youth, The World’s End would surely be the film which finally convinced me of Pegg, Frost and director Edgar Wright’s charms.

The story is a simple one: Simon Pegg plays Gary King, once Newton Haven’s biggest big-shot, but now desperately trying to recapture his youth by recreating what remains the best night of his life. That night saw Gary and four friends fail to complete the Golden Mile pub crawl, falling just a few pubs short of their twelve pint target. Here, he reassembles the gang to finish what began so many years before.

Obviously, the crew have moved on significantly since that ‘legendary’ night, assuming comfortable lives at the helms of various businesses. They’re a stereotypical, crudely drawn bunch – but thanks to the actors filling the roles this can almost be forgiven. Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman and Eddie Marsan are always charismatic presences, although they’re given little to do here save for one touching speech from Marsan.
Rather, the focus remains firmly on Pegg’s Gary. This is his story and he is central to everything that happens.
This would not be a problem if he were not such an insufferable wanker. Obviously this is, in some part, deliberate. Gary is an alienating presence whose presence divides even his friends. But the problem here is that there is no warmth in the character: he does not deserve anyone’s sympathy. Even in flashback, Gary is a bit of a prick – just why did anyone like him in the first place?

Thankfully, if you throw enough mud some if it sticks.There are some clever moments: incorporating song lyrics into the script is a neat in-joke which reveals much about Gary’s character; a neatly choreographed fight scene sees him struggle to beat off dozens of aliens without spilling his precious pint.

Oh yes, the aliens. It transpires that Newton Haven has been taken over by robot aliens intent on beating the shit out of our increasingly drunken gang. It’s a familiar trope, but has been done so much better so many times before. From Dusk Til Dawn did it with vampires and everyone has done it with zombies – including those concerned here.

The action scenes here are zingy and well filmed, but rapidly become repetitive and dull. There is no real sense of genuine peril and the enemies are less than terrifying. Perhaps the whole film would have worked more effectively if they’d accentuated the political and societal satire touched on: conformity and homogeneity are gently mocked, but there is scope for truly biting satire with such subject matter.

Instead, The World’s End takes the easy way out – not least with a truly atrocious final battle which demonstrates a lack of imagination and absolutely no dramatic impact at all. Thankfully an epilogue is added which dilutes the pain of the terrible concluding conflict.

Above all, however, The World’s End’s problem is this: it is not funny. I genuinely did not laugh. The audience around me sniggered just three or four times. Not funny, no emotional heart, dislikeable characters – a bad film all around. Thankfully Pegg/Frost/Wright have indicated that this is the final part of the ‘Cornetto Trilogy’ – the success of the previous films have caused them to become self-indulgent and lazy. Enough is enough.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

The Prestige

Christopher Nolan is one of the most feted filmmakers in the world and for good reason. He blends the cerebral with the spectacular in fine fashion, creating blockbusters with brains and creating compelling characters – a rarity in a world where tent-pole summer releases rely on relentless action rather than any sense of plot of character development. Yet somehow, The Prestige has become Nolan’s forgotten film. An amazing cast and intricate plot proved spectacularly successful for Inception, but here the presence of Bale, Jackman, Caine (and even David Bowie) did not have nearly the same impact.

Perhaps this can be attributed to the Victorian setting: in all regards this is an old fashioned film. There is little CGI, with the film relying on traditional mechanical effects where possible (an approach Nolan continues to employ) and the art of storytelling to create its impact. Even the performances (particularly Hugh Jackman’s vaudevillian) are pleasingly old school.

Based on the novel by Christopher Priest, The Prestige tells the tale of two stage magicians: American showman Angier (Jackman) and his working class rival Borden (Christian Bale). Their enmity is born of a tragic stage accident which sees Angier’s wife perish on stage and is fuelled by a dangerous sense of one-upmanship. The desperate desire to outdo one another becomes centred on a stunningly simplistic trick: The Transported Man.

Michael Caine’s charming explanation of the three part magic trick - the pledge (the set-up), the turn (the twist) and the prestige (the unbelievable finale) – opens the film, playing over the thrilling denouement of The Transported Man and the conclusion of the film itself. What follows is an explanation of how we came to this point in a multi-layered narrative which moves backwards and forwards in time and across countries.

Of course, the real intrigue in the film is in the magic. The mechanics of the craft are discussed and revealed, the science explored and debated. But above all else the audience is reminded that this is all a trick. From the outset Nolan asks his audience, “Are you watching closely?” – suggesting that there is a deception lurking beneath the surface sheen of his film. And as an observer you know you are about to be fooled – but how?

It’s a daringly devious trick from Nolan which, if discovered partway through the tale might ruin its telling. But having failed to spot it the first time, a second viewing serves only to confirm just how audacious the sleight of hand really is. Subtle it ain’t, but like all the best magic tricks the art is not in the trick itself, but in the misdirection which disguises it.

Perhaps the film’s (relative) lack of success can be attributed to the unsympathetic characters – neither Angier nor Borden are particularly likeable. Perhaps the twist which sees magic become science (courtesy of Bowie’s Nikola Tesla) was too hard to swallow. But for sheer showmanship, The Prestige is a film which deserves to be seen. And then seen again – so you can work out what you’ve just seen!

Monday, 17 June 2013

Man of Steel

The involvement of Chris Nolan (as screenwriter and producer) ought to guarantee a successful re-imagining of a superhero franchise. After his sterling work on Batman, his wonderful manipulation of narrative in films like Memento and proving his big-budget blockbuster credentials in Inception, who better than to steer director Zak Snyder and his all star cast through another attempt at rebooting Superman.

Since Christopher Reeve’s early incarnation as the Man of Steel, the franchise has suffered by the law of diminishing returns. The sequels grew worse, and a recent attempt to resurrect Clark Kent’s alter-ego was so unmemorable that nobody can even remember who played him. 

Small screen success was easier to find, with Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher enjoying considerable chemistry in the nineties, and the popular Smallville exploring Superman’s early years on TV. It’s here, in fact, where the inspiration for much of Man of Steel’s most successful scenes seems to have been gleaned.

While the film focuses on the relationship between the young Clark and his father on earth (a fabulously weathered Kevin Costner), it really works: a superb combination of youthful angst and worldly wisdom debating the pros and cons of revealing Clark’s true identity. One scene particularly, as a huge tornado rages around them, is beautifully written and played. Sadly, this material is in short supply.
The problems with this film are huge. And there are lots of them.

Although Henry Cavill has the chiselled face and physique required for the role, he doesn’t seem to have the personality. Whether this is lack of acting ability on Cavill’s behalf is uncertain – it seems the part is badly underwritten. Here, Superman is little more than a cipher, a symbol or a plot device. He certainly lacks of the depth of Christian Bale’s Batman or Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. Perhaps this is because the end product was intended to be a little lighter fare than those previous movies, but the humour required for this is conspicuous by its absence.

The storyline initially appears adventurous, with interesting twists adding to the back-story of Krypton’s destruction and how Clark comes to be so powerful on Earth, but the plot rapidly runs out of steam and becomes reliant on preposterous exposition and absurd alien invasions. Russell Crowe is Clark’s father on Krypton and dies early – only to constantly reappear throughout, engaging in detailed conversation with his son despite his demise 33 years earlier. It’s a contrivance which makes absolutely no sense – but it’s not the only one.

Following an unsuccessful coup on Krypton, the evil General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his minions are frozen in stasis and set adrift in space. Conveniently, however, the destruction of their home planet results in their release. There’s no explicable reason for this – other than a desire to have them turn up later in the film as the main villains. There are other such examples – insults to an audience’s intelligence.

Perhaps, though, the expectation was that the audience would demand little cerebral stimulation? It certainly seems that way as the film barrels towards its conclusion via a series of ‘epic’ battles which are so spirit crushingly repetitive that I committed the cardinal sin of falling asleep in the cinema. These sequences are extremely and execrably dull, employing so much CGI that you may as well be watching your little brother playing a video game. At least then you could join in.