You Must Remember This

You Must Remember This

Saturday, 22 December 2012


Or, Piscine's Wager


The first time that Ang Lee's Life of Pi truly seized my attention, it's protagonist was skittering across the wind and rain-swept of cargo freighter, shouting to the turbulent heavens like some underage, subaltern Lear. However, what Piscine Molitor Patel - named for a Parisian swimming pool - sees as God putting on a show is nevertheless deadly: we watch as, on the cargo deck below, we an unknown, faceless sailor is swept overboard by the invading sea. From this point on, everything changes for the eponymous Pi and for the audience.

The film opens innocuously enough with a middle-aged Pi, played by Irrfan Khan, being paid a visit by author and plot device Rafe Spall. He's heard that the Indian expatriate, now living in French Canada, has a remarkable story to tell. Thus begins our introduction to how our protagonist came to spend 227 days trapped on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal Tiger for company. This framing device, not in the original Booker Prize winning novel by Yann Martel, provides us an extra degree of perspective, with sufficient time having passed for Pi to have assessed the events he has undergone and come to terms with them. The story Khan's Pi tells is not one of tragedy and trauma, though it contains both, but of a religious awakening.

It's the voice of the older Pi who guides us through his early years in Pondicherry, India, as the second son of zookeeper and his wife - from the circumstances of his naming to the means by which he came by the nickname Pi (give you a hint: there is a mathematical root). Young Pi is shown to be naive, precocious, hopelessly inquisitive, all the traits you want in a protagonist at the start of a Bilgungsroman, and the place in which he lives, a place of great beauty - 'The French Riviera of the Eastern subcontinent'.

Director Ang Lee and writer David Magee, who adapted Martel's work, present India as both spiritually and culturally vibrant. This is not, however, Slumdog Millionaire - regardless of your opinions on the quality of the piece as Best Picture winner - and issues of poverty and sectarian violence go unaddressed. This is more akin to the India of Eat, Pray, Love or Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, though it never seeks to commercialize or patronize the East in the way that either of those films do. Life of Pi is more concerned with the grand questions of Life as opposed to the hard facts of living - this is a work of magical realism in the vein of Salman Rushdie or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, though without the political considerations, and the Canadian Martel, American Magee, and Taiwanese Lee make a remarkably good of of it.

Rafe Spall’s earnest novelist claims to have been told that Pi’s story is one to make you believe in God; Pi himself never confirms nor denies this, but lets the story speak for itself. After the ship carrying Pi’s family – and crucially their zoo – to Canada sinks beneath the waves, Pi finds himself trapped on a life raft, first with a chimpanzee, a hyena, and a wounded zebra, and finally with Richard Parker, an adult Bengal tiger. It’s a minor miracle that these CG creations are never less than fully convincing: Richard Parker, who serves as Pi’s sole companion for most of his journey, is a living, breathing creation up there with Gollum from Lord of the Rings. The film itself is rich, beautiful, vibrant, organic – a handful of adjectives that do little to describe the film’s visual triumph. Suffice it to say, you will not see/have seen a more majestic film this year than Life of Pi. 

As the film addresses it, however, beauty, and also majesty, are dangerous things. Blake’s famous poem may capture the former, but it cannot address the deadliness of the beast. Just as Pi’s father forced him, as a boy, to observe Richard Parker slaughtering a goat in order to gain an appreciation for the danger of the beast, so the film, like the book, forces you to confront a very peculiar issue, one perhaps not tackled in world philosophy since Pythagoras: do animals have souls? 

From the moment at which the Japanese freighter Tsmitsum disappears under the sea, all lights on, all hands onboard save one, Pi finds himself at the mercy of the waves and the thrall of the wild. To return briefly to the ship, as may become relevant later, Gerard Depardieu has a supporting role, more of a cameo even, as the ship’s cook, unsympathetic to the plight of vegetarians aboard the ship. An essentially one note humorous role takes on additional undertones given the actor’s recent appearances in the press. Life of Pi is whimsical, bit never saccharine, which, with Pi essentially serving as a bargain basement Noah, is a careful balancing act, with scenes of fish-out-of-water comedy (or certain-animals-that-shouldn’t-be-put-together-in-a-lifeboat-put-together-in-a-lifeboat comedy) tempered with the inevitable violence such a situation precludes. 

Pi’s father claims that we as humans project our own emotions upon animals, our own morality; with the hyena behaving as an utter bastard, the audience should quickly come to understand the dilemma in which Pi finds himself, the need to believe that Richard Parker is human, relatable, versus the need to be wary of him, to stay alive. As such, Parker serves, in part, as a far more deadly Wilson.  

Life of Pi’s net contains full and varied range of emotions – from joy to terror to despair – and newcomer Suraj Sharma captures them all marvelously. Despite his courage and his ingenuity, Pi remains, essentially, a blank canvas onto which the viewer can project themselves. When Pi looks into the tiger’s eyes and sees himself, we feel the same way – but, of course, there is a twist in the tale. (Note to self: Tale? Tail? No, no, don’t. Just leave it.) 

The film deals with the routine of life at sea. Lee plays some ingenious tricks with the water, from the famous Piscine Molitor in which the water is so clear we don’t even realize we are looking through it till a swimmer passes above us, to a becalmed Pacific in which, mirror-like, it appears that Pi and his raft are floating on sky. Despite the film’s frequent lulls, the moments of quiet reflection or simple activity, it’s too bizarre to ever be boring: learning to fish become suspenseful when it’s a matter of stopping a tiger from paddling across a brief span of water and eating you. When Richard Parker is wet and miserable, it’s easy to feel sorry for him; just as when Pi, a vegetarian, is forced to kill a big-eyed shiny fish, we feel the cost it has on his soul. 

It’s easy to make fun of the pseudo-profundity, but the film never lets us forget that beauty comes with danger. When the bioluminescent whale featured so heavily in the trailers breaks from the water, the film reminds us of it’s depths – when the whale dives, it swamps Pi’s boat, costing him almost all his remaining rations. Life of Pi has a mainly episodic narrative – from the flying fish that batter the boat to Richard Parker’s snarling desperation in a storm. In fact, the film’s structure perhaps bears most similarity to, say, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’: a series of improbable events that reflect on the times in which the hero lives. But while in Swift’s book this was satire, here it’s magical realism. As such, the eventual arrival of land can’t help but be anticlimactic. 

The film calls upon the audience to surrender itself to it, just as Pi believes the universe, that God, is calling on him to surrender. Life of Pi is unabashedly pro religion, or at least pro God. Even when we’re presented with the final twist, as Pi recounts to two insurance agents concerned with the sinking of the ship the “true story” of what may or may not have happened – which I won’t spoil here – Pi gives us the option of which story to believe in. Believing in God, it seems to suggest, is a choice between rationalization and faith – Piscine’s wager if you will. 

Through Pi’s journey with Richard Parker, he believes that he comes to understand God. Pi says to the tiger early on in their journey, “If we are going to live together, we have to learn to communicate”, and this sums up Life of Pi nicely. The alternate story Pi posits is unsatisfying, coming as it does at the 11th hour, and seeks to reduce the extraordinariness of all that has preceded it to mundane brutality. Rationalism/reality may well be technically in the right, but it provides for a far less interesting story than faith/fantasy.

VERDICT: The animals are a marvel, the visuals astounding - Life of Pi is itself a minor miracle. A faithful adaptation of the book and highly enjoyable trip to the cinema. If you fancy seeing something life affirming this holiday and don't fancy the biographical rigors of The Impossible, this is probably your best bet.

Thursday, 13 December 2012


 A Deconstruction

If you haven’t yet seen the first part of Peter Jackson’s new trilogy based on the esteemed fantasy novel/children’s book by J. R. R. Tolkien and don’t wish to have it tainted by misanthropic grumblings and general pedantry, stop here. There are some very strong and mixed feelings bubbling up within me as I write this and many of them carry with them spoilers. 

In fact, just in case someone’s stumbled across this blog in search of nothing more than a simple précis and an everyman’s star rating, WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS. Further warning:. This review is long and rambling and relies to an extent on your having seen The Lord of the Rings trilogy. That said, let’s start at the beginning: “In a hole in the group there lived a hobbit…”

The film opens in familiar surroundings, Bag End, on a familiar occasion, the build-up to Bilbo Baggins’ long-expected party. Bilbo, played by a returning Ian Holm, is adding the final touches to his memoirs as he considers at last leaving is home in The Shire and heading for distant, unknown climes. 

Elijah Wood returns in a brief cameo as Frodo Baggins, the erstwhile hero of The Lord of the Rings. They discuss the Sackville-Baggins’ and their pilfering ways, the imminent appearance of Gandalf (back in grey) and his marvelous fireworks; we even get to see Frodo put up a recognizable sign that reads ‘No Admittance Except on Party Business’. So far, so comfortable, if a little derivative. From the off, there’s the sense that the film is playing it safe, treading water even. Unfortunately, this is not a feeling that goes away any time soon.

Pretty quickly, we’re into the flashback that makes up the rest of the story, namely Bilbo’s first unexpected journey that took him away from his home in The Shire, across the length of Middle Earth, into unimaginable danger, before, as well you know, depositing him back where he began. If that also sounds familiar, it’s because the plot of ‘The Hobbit’, or There And Back Again, as a work of literature bears many similarities to its successor. 

Bilbo Baggins, now played as a staid, conservative figure by Martin Freeman (SherlockThe Hitchhiker’s Guide…), is approached by Gandalf, the ever-reliable, twinkly-eyed Sir Ian McKellen, who makes him an offer of adventure that Bilbo is quick to refuse. The Refusal of The Call dealt with, Bilbo nevertheless finds himself drawn into Gandalf’s quest as one by one, then all at once, a band of dwarves make their appearance on his doorstep.

This prolonged sequence is played mostly for laughs with a series of evidently un-house-trained strangers appearing on Bilbo’s doorstep and proceeding to make themselves at home, to the increasing exasperation of their host. They quickly upset his orderly home – raiding the larder and juggling the crockery. It’s unsubstantial stuff, but entertaining, and a reasonably effective way of introducing us to Thorin’s band of dwarves, of whom there are twelve. Twelve! 

These are, in no particular order, the moody but noble Thorin (Richard Armitage, Spooks); the thuggish Dwalin (Graham MacTavish, Rambo); the scholarly Balin (Ken Stott, Hancock and Joan); brash twins Fíli and Kíli (Dean O’Gorman, Young Hercules, and Aidan Turner, Being Human); Ori, the youngest of the group (Adam Brown, ChuckleVision); Dori, who’s a little bit fat (Mark Hadlow, King Kong); Nori, who has braids (District 9); Bifur, who’s got an axe in his head (William Kircher, Shark in the Park); the jovial Bofur (James Nesbitt, Jekyll); Bombur, who’s very fat (Stephen Hunter, Ladies Night); Óin, who’s a bit deaf (John Callen, Worzel Gummidge Down Under); and Glóin, who's distinguished only in that he seemingly has no distinguishing features whatsoever (Peter Hambleton, The Rainbow Warrior).

These are mostly character actors who’ve worked with Jackson before in some capacity (with a few notable exceptions, such as Armitage, Nesbitt, MacTavish, etc.) and if they sound like they’re difficult to keep track of, don’t worry: most of them have little or no part to play in the story. Several of the dwarves, I could swear, have no lines at all, and, by the end of the film’s quest, could reasonably be mistaken for the most persistent extras of all time. When Bilbo declares, “There are too many dwarves in my dining room as it is”, an otherwise good line, the film has no idea how prescient its being.

Furthermore, it’s about the point the dwarves begin performing a truncated version of, let’s call it, The Crockery Song – “Chip the glasses and crack the plates! / Blunt the knives and bend the forks! / That's what Bilbo Baggins hates—” – that it becomes clear how much of the story is still just padding. It was here that my heart sank as I came to the realisation that either An Unexpected Journey was going to turn out to be a) a kid’s film, or b) utterly tonally inconsistent. Though there’s nothing in there that would upset a precocious ten-year old, I believe the latter to be more the case.

By the time the ragtag band finally leave on their quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain from Smaug the Dragon almost an hour has passed. The film up until this point has been slow and exploratory – in all fairness, fan-ish. I was cynical when New Line announced their intention to turn the relatively slim tome The Hobbit into not two but three feature-length films, but felt, rightfully enough, there was enough material in the expanded universe to make up for the deficit.

For instance, Radagast the Brown, one of Gandalf’s order of wizards (played by Sylvester McCoy of Doctor Who fame) makes an non-canonical appearance. A twitchy, forgetful animal lover who barges into the film long enough to announce the re-emergence of an ancient evil in Mirkwood Forest before disappearing on his rabbit-drawn sleigh, Radagast’s presence is very much fan service, serving only to introduce a secondary plot involving the mysterious but oh-so familiar Necromancer, whose role will presumably be expanded upon in the later films.

However, this is when put in context much of a muchness. It all seems entirely episodic. For instance, the scene between Bilbo and the trolls, which does appear in the book, takes place over almost ten minutes – consisting mostly of some japery, some trickery, and some troll snot (instantly reminiscent of the second Harry Potter film), manages to feel overlong whilst simultaneously cutting Gandalf’s clever use of ventriloquism that is supposed to have distracted the trolls long enough for the sun to rise and turn them all to stone. The Tolkien fan in me cried out for purism; the casual filmgoer in me was very nearly bored.

 I know that it’s perhaps unfair to judge An Unexpected Journey in the context of the book and the three film sequels, but it’s almost unavoidable. Gandalf’s swooping in out of nowhere to save the day is one of two occasions he does so in the film – a Gandalf ex machine, if you will. To it’s credit certainly makes me want to go back and reread the book more than Lord of the Rings did – which in terms of getting kids into literature is no bad thing – but not for the reasons I’d hoped.

Still, An Unexpected Journey, odd, flawed, and strangely paced as it may be, was nevertheless occasionally quite engrossing. The flashback sequence that opens the film, narrated by Holm’s Bilbo, which tells the tale of how Smaug came to the mountain, was a lovely sequence which, though not featured in the book, set up neatly how the dwarves came to leave Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, and how Thorin’s obsession to reclaim it came about. It draws on the fall of Sauron from The Fellowship of the Ring and represents, along with another later flashback, a brief return to the epicness – in the terms of scale and ambition – that Lord of the Rings achieved so masterfully. To return inevitably to the flipside, it’s a shame that the cast was, on the whole, handled so poorly, not to mention certain aspects of the CGI, and that other such uses of material from the Appendices were fitted into the narrative somewhat less engrossingly.

To handle these complains in order, despite attempts to establish Thorin Oakenshield as a well-rounded character – in mourning for his homeland and longing to revenge his father’s death – the film is not entirely successful in doing so. The fact remains that Thorin ultimately longs not so much for the mountain and the community it represents than for the gold and promise of wealth it contains. As for the death of his father, the failure to connect with that may lie partly on the shoulders of Azog, his father’s killer, whom I will return to later.

It’s even more galling when comparing Thorin with a character such as Aragorn: Aragorn who similarly longs to sit on the throne of Gondor and comes from a broken line of kings, but whose quest is grounded in his fear of failure and the curse of Isildur that haunts him. Again, call it a failure of Tolkien’s writing if you must, heretical though that may seen, but Thorin cannot scale the same heights, even with an actor as deeply charismatic as Armitage straining to achieve credibility.  The dwarves, forgettable individually, also fail to work as a whole due to lack of differentiation between them: the reason the Fellowship worked dramatically is that it contained a full range of characters, from the seemingly aloof elf to the outgoing dwarf, by way of a number of well-differentiated hobbits. 

Bilbo, who otherwise perhaps most resembles Samwise Gamgee in terms of characters, goes some way towards remedying this, with Freeman turning it a restrained but remarkably likeable performance. There’s no earnest Frodo to balance him out, however, no trouble-causing Merry and Pippen – both with their own arcs – or angst-ridden Boromir – with his own agenda. In short, there’s little or no dramatic tension. Thorin doesn’t think Bilbo belongs in the group and Bilbo agrees with him. Even Gandalf is left with relatively little to do.

When – and again, if you haven’t already got this, spoilers – he kills the grotesque Great Goblin (played by Barry Humphries, better known as Dame Edna Everage), the villain of the second act, the moment’s played for humour. “That’ll do it”, the many-chinned tyrant gurgles as Gandalf easily dispatches him. Coming where it does in the film, once can’t help but think back to the dramatic highpoint of Gandalf v. The Balrog in Fellowship. That, for want of a better word, was “serious”, that had consequences. In contrast, An Unexpected Journey seems content to coast along on charm, of which it has a sufficiency.

At around the halfway point of the film, the troupe arrives at Rivendell where Gandalf has designed to bring them for his own secret reasons. While the dwarves mess around, falling off chairs and juggling food, Gandalf conducts a private council with Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and – surprise, surprise – Saruman the White (Christopher Lee). Let’s hope they don’t cut Saruman’s closure out of the third Hobbit film, There And Back Again, eh. And there arises a crucial concept: closure.

A meeting between four of the most powerful and awe-inspiring figures in all of Middle Earth should be fascinating: there are thousands of years of history between them, back-story that fills entire tomes. And there’s the problem: it’s been confined to the Appendices because it does not translate well dramatically. Even in the knowledge of the threat the Necromancer will later become, it’s hard to care. We already know what the payoff is, we’ve already seen it: we know how this story ends because we’ve already seen it in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The magisterial Elrond; the radiant Galadriel; the mighty Saruman; Gandalf – it’s still just a group of people around a table laying out the plot. This isn’t the Star Wars prequels telling the story of events crucial to the following films – the rise and fall of a hero-villain. This is the story – spoilers, spoilers, spoilers – of how Sauron moved house, and, sadder still, Christopher Lee is looking old and tired indeed.

An Unexpected Journey feels like you’re almost always in the interim, waiting for something significant to happen. There’s no gravitas to it. The action-y bits feel like fluff and the talk-y bit are leaden. The purists will hate the former, the casual cinemagoer the latter. It all feels like a caper – based on it’s use in my review of the film Argo and, to an extent, of Seven Psychopaths, I’m beginning to hate that word – where things just intermittently stop. That’s part of the tonal problem.

A scene between Azog – getting to him shortly – and his orc band takes place at Weathertop, the hilltop ruins where the Ringwraiths attacked the Fellowship and wounded Frodo in the first of the LotR trilogy (from now on I’ll abridge it, as much for your sake as for mine). The scene itself is a standard villain-kills-subordinate-to-prove-his-ruthlessness – we get it, they’re orcs – and the set dressing just serves to try and imbue it with some non-existent significance. Action, exposition, and fan service mix like oil, water, and, I dunno, something that doesn’t go well with either of them, fire. New Zealand is, as always, very beautiful and goes some way towards making up for this. Somewhat.

It’s all small potatoes, minor jeopardy disguised as life or death. It all feels throwaway. A scene involving Thorin’s band on a cliff face directly mirrors a similar scene from Fellowship, down to someone screaming for them to take shelter (albeit with giant, boxing rock people standing in for an avalanche). An Unexpected Journey could lose an hour of runtime and not dispense with much of import. I’ve seen the whole extended LotR trilogy back to back, which stands at almost twelve hours, and felt exhausted but satisfied at the end of it; I never felt the same way here. In fact, it’s got me wanting to rewatch the sequels to see if it still holds up – and, again, not for reasons I’m entirely happy with.

Still, there are some very nice smaller moments, moments of pathos, such as when Gandalf explains to Galadriel why he chose Bilbo to join their party. The ethos he expresses, that of the importance of the little people, of everyday deeds, resonates beautifully with the films that have come before, with the inspiration behind Tolkien’s work – that of ordinary people in the trenches of World War I, fighting to make a difference.

To continue with the positives: Gollum. Just… Gollum. Riddles in the Dark. Gollum: brutal, threatening, jubilant, mad, pitiful Gollum. Serkis is as good in the role as ever and An Unexpected Journey gives a wonderful if self-contained showcase for his talents when Bilbo comes across the conflicted creature in the depths of the Misty Mountains. Serkis utterly redeems a whole swathe of the film merely through his presence. They even gave him his coracle.

What could otherwise have been a static interaction between Bilbo and Gollum is played wonderfully: Gollum creeps about in the dark, through the nooks and crannies of the cave in which he dwells, looking to strike, as Bilbo, sword drawn, tries to keep him at bay with a game of riddles. It may have been my note-taking that distracted me at the vital moment – mea culpa – but Bilbo’s discovery of the ring is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it occurrence. Even so, Gollum’s dawning realization of exactly what the hobbit has in its pockets is terrifying. He nevertheless remains a sympathetic figure, or at least half one, for yes, indeed, Smeagol is present and accounted for, and in a particular instant Bilbo makes a decision – which I won’t reveal here, but which you can guess at – that resonates through all of Middle Earth, and it’s moment of consequence well earned.

All too soon, we leave Gollum behind in the caves of the Misty Mountains – “Bagginses! We hates it forever!” – knowing that, unless Jackson hugely changes up the plot of The Hobbit, we may never see him again. He will be missed.

The CGI success story that is Gollum serves to throw into harsh relief the film’s numerous other failures in that department. The orcs, previously just actors in make-up, have now been augmented with CGI, to varying degrees of— Azog. Azog, ostensibly the main villain of An Unexpected Journey, looks like a shaved albino baboon. Lurtz in, again – my apologies – Fellowship was a believably terrifying foe because he carried with him a physical realism. I didn’t even realize that Azog had a real-life actor behind his CGI visage – one Manu Bennett to Lurtz’s Lawrence Makoare, both presumably Maoris.

Even at the standard 24 frames per second, as opposed to the 48fps at which An Unexpected Journey was shot and will be playing as in certain cinemas, it was enough to complete rob Azog of any believability, thus diminishing my investment in Thorin taking his vengeance upon the character. The wargs, too, have changed – they no longer seem to carry the weight they once did. Everything is glossier, smoother somehow. In short, it’s lost its edge. To really push the boat out, this is one of the same criticisms levelled at the Star Wars prequels.

At this point my notes slip into stream of consciousness as the denouement approaches. I will try to recreate accurately as a representation of the emotional rollercoaster that was my state of mind at this point in the film (S.P.O.I.L.E.R.S:
  • ·      Oh, look, the trees on fire. It’s like that bit from the song all the way back in Hobbiton – “The trees like torches blazed with light”. That’s sort of nice.
  • ·      Ian McKellen’s whispering to a moth. That’s a call back to Lord of the Rings, which means the eagles are en route to save everyone. Duh. Damnit, now I’m getting annoyed with LotR over that plot hole about why they didn’t just get the eagles to drop the ring in Mount Doom for them if they’re at Gandalf’s beck and call. Damnit. Prequels should not retroactively make the sequels seem worsel.
  • ·      Azog still looks like a hairless albino chimp, even more so by firelight. *sigh* I miss Lurtz.
  • ·      I just realised I’m okay with waiting till next year to see the next one of these. That’s a bad sign.
  • ·      This is a three star film.
  • ·      The warg’s have cat’s-eyes. That sort of makes sense. But in this context, it just looks like a lot of miniature lens flares. It’s like their eyes are being directed by JJ Abrams.
  •   The quite-fat dwarf is about to die. I don’t care. That’s tragic in it’s own way. This is depressing.
  • ·      This Azog/Thorin fight is surprisingly good. If they cut An Unexpected Journey down for the director’s version, there might actually be a very good film in here.
  • ·      This is possibly a four star film.
  • ·      Now the warg is eating him. It looks like he’s being chewed by something out of the back catalogue of a not very good taxidermist.
  • ·      And the eagles are here just in time. That’s four out of the five armies from The Battles of the Five Armies we’ve seen so far.
  • ·      And Azog is still alive. Of course. No resolution. He has to kark it at the end of the third film. I don’t care. I’m not invested enough to care.
  • ·      An eagle grips the possibly dead hero in its claws as sad/dramatic music plays over. Great, now they’re ripping off the end of The Return of The King.
  • ·      New Zealand is still very lovely.
  • ·      I reckon if this wasn’t directed by the same guy who did LotR, the reviews would’ve been far less kind.
  • Sir Ian carries the scene, even being shot on a separate set can’t hold this guy back.
  • ·      Thorin is suddenly okay with Bilbo being part of the group after his sudden last minute display of courage. Wow, this is the emotional closure I’ve been waiting for… It feels sorta forced… Right, the films have to stand alone, too. That explains it.
  • ·      And the f**king eagles drop them off on a plateau in the middle of nowhere. That would be too easy. There’s still Mirkwood to go.
  • ·      In Fellowship, they would have made it at least partway through Mirkwood. The pacing here sucks. Guess which malevolent force is going to provide a second act diversion to The Desolation of Smaug?
  • ·      At least we can now see Erebor on the horizon.
  • ·      Bilbo: “The worst is behind us.” Irony aside, I fucking hope so.
  • ·      A thrush bangs a snail on the side of the mountain. The echo travels through the halls of The Lonely Mountain. Something stirs beneath the golden hoard. A reptilian eye opens. Great, I’m now inexplicably excited about the next film. F**k you, Peter Jackson!

FURTHER NOTE: On the car journey back, my friend Josh argued that it’s the lack of human beings that make An Unexpected Journey disappointed: there’s no Aragorn or Boromir to relate to, no flawed human figures to identify with, and that these issues are inherent in the book, too. What do you expect when you attempt to make not just one two hour and forty minute film out of a three hundred page book (six paragraphs of truncated synopsis on Wikipedia)?*
*Or words to this effect

VERDICT: An Unexpected Journey is three parts LotR to one part Eragon. Its shows the occasional frustrating sign of being very good, but it isn’t, really. If my review leans heavily towards the negative – which I know it does – that’s only because of how frustrating the film is given the comparatively awesome three that have preceded it. I enjoyed it a fair bit while I was watching it, but given the source material and crew involved I’d hoped for more. While I can’t unreservedly say it’s good to be back in Middle Earth, An Unexpected Journey is never boring for too long and there’s some great stuff in there. The worst you can accuse it of is a lack of ambition. Still, it’s nice to catch up with some old friends and hopefully the new ones will grow into place over the next two films.

CAVEAT: As you might have guessed, I am hugely ambivalent about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, perhaps more so than any other film I have ever seen. The weight of expectation on it was enormous - I wanted to love it - and I’m not entirely sure how to feel about it yet. This review may prove overly harsh or it may well be validated. These are still just my first impressions – I’m still working through them. For now though, it seems a bit – pardon my inexact metaphor – Looney Tunes meets The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I may come to re-evaluate. I genuinely hope so.

Monday, 10 December 2012



‘End of Watch’ is a found footage style cop drama, directed and written by the writer of Training Day and Street Kings. It’s also way better than that sounds. 

David Ayers, who also wrote the script for The Fast and the Furious, shoots the majority of the film from the perspective of Officer Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal), who drives a patrol car in South Central LA with his partner Mike Zavala (Michael Peña). Taylor carries with him a video camera at most times: He’s taken up filmmaking as part of an elective unit in a law degree. 

The point is made early on about the incongruity of a beat cop who chooses to make a video record of day to day life on the beat – as one of his fellow officers points out, the footage can be subpoenaed if there are any complaints against him. Even so, Ayers makes it work, using ambient video sources (chest-mounted cameras, dashboard cameras) to supplement Taylor’s project. In terms of style, it’s closer to The Shield than Cloverfield. The shakycam does add something to the dynamism of a foot chase, though footage shot of a car chase from the perspective of the dashboard cam inescapably brings to mind something like America’s Best Justified Use of Deadly Force. 

Taylor’s opening voiceover monologue, in which he lays out his own personal creed on police work – If you run away I will chase you. If you fight me I will fight back. If you shoot at me I will shoot back. By law I am unable to walk away. I am a consequence. I am the unpaid bill. I am fate with a badge and a gun” – this stands at odds with the surprising naturalism of the rest of the film. ‘End of Watch’ is often episodic, featuring weddings, birthdays, and yes, a funeral – this is the closest the genre gets to total naturalism. It charts the development of the relationship of the deceptively brainy Taylor and his new squeeze Janet (Anna Kendrick); Taylor having previously lamented ever finding an attractive woman with whom he can have a serious conversation. 

It’s to ‘End of Watch’s credit that, despite these diversions, you never lose the sense the film is going somewhere, even if it never plays out quite as expected – the obvious choice for lead villain never materialises as such and at no point do you really feel you know how it’s going to all play out. 

Gyllenhaal and Peña have great chemistry, from the casual well-intentioned racism, with Zavala doing his best white guy voice to talk about “white people shit”, like flavoured coffee, and Taylor promising to pick him up a taco. There’s a lot of affection between the two, though life in the patrol car is not without it’s tension – when Taylor bitches about Zavala having got his incident report out of order, you really get the impression that these are two guys who do this for a living. 

The police station squad room is equally well rendered, from the playful animosity between our protagonists and the tetchy Van Hauser (David Harbour) and juvenile pranks involving shaving cream. ‘End of Days’ does the day-to-day procedural with remarkable fidelity, which manages to never feel dull or forced. The sporadic bursts of violence the film contains are done so cleanly, matter of factly – the film never dwells on or shies away from them. You get the feeling that this is just an unpleasant part of the job. 

In what could otherwise have been a slice of life portrayal of life as a South Central job, there are premonitions of darker things to come. When Taylor and Zavilla’s earnest but haunted sergeant (Frank Grillo) delivers a maudlin, half-drunk anecdote to the rookies about the partner who took a bullet from him, you get the sense that ‘End of Watch’ is slowly moving towards tragedy. By the time Gyllenhaal’s Taylor has cause to tell Zavilla, “I’m a happy, man”, you know the film is about to enter the end of second act blues. 

‘End of Watch’ may be broader, less plot driven, than Ayers’ earlier offering to the canon, the award winning Training Day, I would argue that it is the better film. It may lack the kinetic energy of it’s predecessor or the grandstanding performance of an actor the caliber of Denzel Washington, but that by no means diminishes what ‘End of Watch’ achieves. Gyllenhaal shave-headed Taylor, who seems for some reason to be perpetually squininting, and Peña’s honour-bound family man Zavala are more fully realised, more believable, than Washington’s Alonso Harris, though they are of course very different characters in very different films. 

Both films, however, have the same brand of moral ambiguity: a felon to whom Bryan and Zavilla have shown lenience warns them about a potential hit on them, just as in Training Day an act of kindness by Ethan Hawke’s Hoyt to a gangbanger’s niece ends up saving his life. Just because these are bad guys doesn’t mean they can’t be good guys; this is a world of favours and respect. Other of the film’s villains aren’t as subtly portrayed – arguably one of ‘End of Watches’ few failings – that’s because this is a cop film as opposed to Chekov. To fall back on pop culture as a form of validation, ain’t nobody got time for that. When a murderous posse rolls up behind Taylor and Zavala at a stoplight, Ayers cuts between the two cars – the former waiting to carry out an execution, the latter discussing the usual banalities – in order to generate tension. If the question remains as to exactly why a group of seasoned if arrogant police killers would put to film an attempted capital murder charge, this is nevertheless textbook filmmaking. 

As I’ve said before, ‘End of Watch’s greatest strength is it’s sense of fidelity – never having ridden a patrol car, I can only speculate, but on the head of it this would seem to be bite size David SimonIf that feels like a high plaudit, the film, in my opinion, earns it. In a recent interview, Jake Gyllenhaal castigated himself for allowing himself to be shot with a stun gun as part of training for the film – “I was an idiot… It felt terrible... I was screaming like a child… It felt like it was forever and it lasted a second and a half.” Say what you want about going method, but if there’s one thing ‘End of Watch’ is nothing if not committed. These could be real people, real officers, out there in the world today, and the film works because of it. 

From a directorial standpoint, the film isn’t showy, less so for instance than Ayers' previous directorial effort, Street Kings. A POV down the barrel of a gun is about as gimmicky as ‘End of Watch’s approach gets, and if a particular shootout suffers from the occasional flash of videogame-style disconnect, that’s just an unavoidable part of the style. 

‘End of Watch’ comments on the futility of any cop, or pair of cops, attempting to stand alone – the tagline on it’s poster is “No cop survives alone” – but nevertheless valorizes any attempt to do so. When in the aforementioned funeral scene a seemingly endless procession of squad cars disgorge countless numbers of officers dressed up in their dress blues to pay their respects to fallen comrade(s), it’s clear that life goes on. Men may fall but the thin blue line endures.

Verdict: ‘End of Watch’ earns its stripes with solid performances, solid camerawork, a solid storyline. It’s well made, well executed, solid all the way through. If that sounds like faint praise, suffice to say it’s the best cop film I’ve seen in years and a strong candidate for my all-time favorite. To call it a classic of solidity does not diminish it; there are no histrionics here, just good cinema.

Length: 109 mins

Tuesday, 4 December 2012


Or, F***kin’ Hollywood

Hans: As Gandhi said...'An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind'. I believe that wholeheartedly.
Billy: No, it doesn't. There'll be one guy left with one eye. How's the last blind guy going to take out the eye of the last guy left whose still got one eye left? All that guy has to do is run away and hide behind a bush. Gandhi was wrong. It's just that nobody's got the balls to come out and say it.

            That one exchange would seem to sum up ‘Seven Psychopaths’, the new absurdist, quasi-philosophical offering from Martin McDonagh, award winning playwright and director of 2008’s In Bruges.
            ‘Seven Psychopaths’ is the story of Marty (Colin Farrell), an Irish émigré struggling to finish his new screenplay amidst the Hollywood Hills. He may also have an alcohol problem. His manic best friend, Billy (Sam Rockwell), makes a living kidnapping dogs and returning them for profit, along with his partner, the offbeat Hans (Christopher Walken). However, when Billy kidnaps a pooch belonging to unstable gangster Charlie (Woody Harrelson), all bets are suddenly off. Psychopaths start appearing in Marty’s life, though not necessarily the ones you think, and soon it seems it’ll be less of a problem mustering the inspiration to finish his film than simply surviving the day.

            ‘Seven Psychopaths’ is a far more sprawling, arguably ambitious offering than In Bruges. The superlative cast is in place, though there’s arguably no single performance to match Ralph Fiennes’ profane, childlike Harry in McDonagh’s earlier work. During the Q&A after the screening – which I will get to later – McDonagh referred Bruges as a fairytale place, seemingly without reference to Harry’s identical description in the eponymous film. There’s a lot of McDonagh in his work. Indeed, Marty – at one point specifically referred to as Martin – would seem to be very much a surrogate for the writer-director. The concerns he mentions in trying to write ‘Seven Psychopaths’, his own project within the film of the same name, would seem to mirror McDonagh’s own.
            As I’ve said, the ensemble is great. Zelijko Ivanek returns for a bit part as one of Charlie’s henchmen, a bigger but less pivotal part than In Bruges. Carter Burwell is once more on scoring duties and much of the crew has been carried over, too. If McDonagh is assembling his own troupe, in the vein of Wes Anderson or Orson Welles, then it’s a worthy one. ‘Seven Psychopaths’, apparently written at the same time as In Bruges, wouldn’t necessarily work as a first film. It requires an understanding of the writer’s dark, twistedly comic oeuvre. If psychopaths are to McDonagh what identity crises are to Charlie Kaufman, then ‘Seven Psychopaths’ is arguably McDonagh’s Adaptation.

            As a writer of gangster films, McDonagh is fully familiar with the conventions of the genre, and both uses and subverts them here. When the freewheeling Billy exclaims his intention to take the bad guys on in a shootout in the desert (with the exasperated Marty clarifying, “What do you think we should to do in real life?!”), you can tell what way the film is going. Marty/McDonagh claims he is sick of Hollywood psychopath movies – he doesn’t want guns or violence; indeed, he claims to be a pacifist – but that’s the type of film he finds himself writing, almost against his will. ‘Seven Psychopaths’ is perhaps, then, an attempt for McDonagh to have his cake and eat it.
            Within the structure of the movie, there are numerous flights of fantasy involving psychopaths who may or may not be of Marty’s creation, amongst them a Buddhist/Amish/Quaker psychopath (played in part by Harry Dean Stanton) and a serial killer killer (Tom Waits). McDonagh apparently concocted several of these sequences as part of a collection of short stories, others of which contributed to his Olivier Award winning play The Pillowman. In less capable hands, the whole thing might come across as piecemeal, but, even with trips to war era Vietnam and the home of the Zodiac killer, ‘Seven Psychopaths’ is a mostly coherent whole.

With no strong female characters, apart from perhaps Hans’ ailing wife, McDonagh gets in a couple of in-jokes about “Marty’s” terrible writing of women. The film is very funny, often morbidly so, with, as in In Bruges, little impact on the emotional content. It may never scale the heights of In Bruges (in case of Ken’s agonized ascent, literally so) – the jokes in ‘Seven Psychopaths’ come thick and fast, most of them from Billy or the deadpan Hans, so it becomes difficult to keep track of them till they pop up again. And, indeed, they frequently do pop up again in unexpected places, like the bunny that accompanies Tom Waits’ subdued maniac. It’s a poppy film, but not unsatisfying for it.
If Quentin Tarantino’s early work seemed self-aware then ‘Seven Psychopaths’ is borderline neurotic. It’s clever, madcap, sometimes strangely touching. If this constitutes McDonagh’s purgation of any desire to write about the type of characters that have so far defined his film career – weird, mixed-up, well meaning and otherwise –it’ll be a shame, but perhaps McDonagh has gone as far as he can or wants to with them. Having announced his desire to return to theatre, at least for a short time, I eagerly await his next offering.

Paulo: Put your hands up!
Hans: No.
Paulo: But I've got a gun.
Hans: I don't care.
Paulo: That doesn't make any sense!
Hans: Too bad!

Verdict: In Bruges takes its cues from Pinter’s Dumbwaiter, ‘Seven Psychopaths’ from Pulp Fiction by way of Adaptation. Might not recapture the brilliance of the former, but certainly destined for cultdom.

Saturday, 1 December 2012


The newest film by Chasing Amy* star Ben Affleck is notable for many reasons, not least in that it has broken the director’s run of continuous 94%s on Rotten Tomatoes. Whether it is an objectively better film that either Gone Baby Gone or The Town is open to debate. ‘Argo’ tells the “real life” story of CIA office Tony Mendez, played by Affleck himself, and his operation to rescue six hostages who escaped from the storming of the US Embassy in 1970s Iran by posing as the crew of a science fiction film.

So far so Wag the Dog

Indeed, ‘Argo’ bears more similarities with this work of satire – in which a spin-doctor orchestrates a fake war with the aid of a Hollywood producer in order to divert attention from a Presidential indiscretion during a reelection campaign – than ‘All the President’s Men’, which it harkens back to stylistically. John Chambers, who won an Oscar for Planet of the Apes, as played by John Goodman and film producer, Lester Seigel, as played by Alan Arkin, are both recruited by Mendez into his harried superior O’Donnell describes as “the best bad plan we have”. 

The whole thing is a slick production within as well as without: Goodman and Arkin have some great exchanges in the commissioning of the plan – “You’re worried about the Ayatollah, try the WGA!” – as the film periodically cuts to the plight of the hostages to remind us that the clock is ticking. 

The film is not as much a whitewash as it might have been in terms of portraying America’s precipitation of the Iran crisis: A expository prologue done in the style of cinematic story boards provides context to the historical events, including the US’ sheltering of Iran’s deposed Shah, having previously deposed his democratically elected predecessor. 

Nevertheless, Affleck’s Mendez is a straightforward and unambiguous hero with an estranged wife and son he doesn’t see enough of, and the Iranian people are alternatingly either a senseless mob or ruthless torturers obsessed with capturing agents of The Great Satan. Affleck is competent in the role, but hasn’t given himself much to work with. He’s hardly Eric Bana’s tormented assassin in Spielberg’s Munich, and, indeed, ‘Argo’ never aspires to such.

‘Argo’ has been described by some as a caper film, which is very much in evidence, and it never aims to be much more. Scott McNairy goes some way to providing depth to at least one of the hostages, that of Joe Stafford, who doesn’t immediately put his trust in the shady Mendez or his unlikely plan. 

Even so, the film lacks almost any of the ambivalence or darkness of Affleck’s earlier efforts, though it’s arguably the most focused picture of the three with the most definite idea of what it wants to be; however, (relatively) meagre its ambitions. Of Affleck's directorial trifecta, ‘Argo’ seems the least likely to endure in memory, competently executed and stylistically faithful though it may be. It's been described as Lumet lite and that seems apt.

Still, as the saying going, that’s entertainment!

Verdict: Entertaining but ultimately forgettable – Alan J. Pakula without the bite.

* If it seems dismissive to refer to Affleck as such, it's perhaps because his acting career would seem to be of little note apart from Hollywoodland and Good Will Hunting. Despite the reservations expressed above, his directorial career seems far more promising.