Thursday, 31 January 2013

Batman Begins (2005)

With the SQA's first round of preliminary exams over and done with, there is time to celebrate the sudden influx of free time in the evenings with a Christmas boxset. The two I got were Father Ted from my sister and The Dark Knight trilogy, which I had been asking for for roughly half a year before the big day and which was calling me yesterday evening. And so, with Swedish Charlotta in the house, we picked out the first of Christopher Nolan's three, Batman Begins, and watched as the laptop sucked it up.

Now, I should point out before I start on this that I have very little previous experience with Batman, having read the Beano and Dandy as a youngster rather than any classic panels from DC and having grown up with animated films such as The Emperor's New Groove and Toy Story 2 rather than Tim Burton's trend setting efforts or 1997's seminal, genre-redefining Batman & Robin (ahem). The only childhood experience I have with the Caped Crusader (I really dislike that term, but the word Batman should only be used sparingly) was the not-too-shabby Batman: The Animated Series which I caught on the BBC in the early morning. If I fancy a laugh these days, I'll turn on the original 60s series of Batman starring Adam West and Burt Ward, which has a tongue-in-cheek approach that is still far funnier than much of what there is to be found on modern telly. The only films I have seen so far have been the three in Nolan's trilogy, which some might be shocked by, and some may be jealous of. Suffice to say, I can't imagine how any others could better these.

Batman Begins risks confusion at the start by running three separate timelines alongside each other: a young Bruce Wayne develops a phobia of bats and sees his parents killed; the older Bruce Wayne meets Liam Neeson in a foreign prison and enlists his help in developing the abilities he needs to fight injustice; Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham City after a seven year absense with a view to becoming Batman. Luckily, this is presented in such a way that it isn't too hard to swallow. Most moviegoers these days are well aware of Batman's origin story anyway, so it is to Nolan's credit that the deaths of Mr and Mrs Wayne are still frightening and unexpected. Essentially, all the film is, is another 'Superhero Origin' movie, of the sort that we see so often, intended to start anew and show off the filmmaker's unique take on a series. This one differs to the others, I think, in that... it's good.

There are a few new bits added in, a twist to the story of Ra's al Ghul chief among them. The plot is ludicrous, involving a massive machine which can vaporize a huge supply of water. It is carried out very pleasingly, though, with not only al Ghul but Cillian Murphy's creepy Scarecrow plotting to destroy the corrupt city of Gotham and start afresh against Christian Bale's insistence that he can help out in a much more safe and humane manner as Batman. Really, this film was made to show off Batman's skills and how he came to get everything he has, from the Batcave to a humble and loyal butler, before really pushing the boat (ferry?) out with the superlative follow-up, The Dark Knight. While Batman Begins isn't too bad a movie, no one could have picked up from it what was to come from the trilogy next. But that's for later.

Christopher Nolan is a Brit, having been born in London in 1970. You can almost tell this from the casting of the film, which is dominated by British talent. Christian Bale is Welsh, although he doesn't like to show it, and Liam Neeson and Cillian Murphy are sons of Ireland. The reliably superb Gary Oldman takes pride of place in the film as James Gordon, Gotham's sole trustworthy policeman. Neeson is the only one of these four who doesn't have to put on an American accent for his role, not that it matters in any way. The facial hair in Batman Begins is second to none, by the way, with such offerings as Oldman's impeccable hairbrush moustache, Neeson's lovely goatee, Morgan Freeman's trim upper lip fuzz and Ken Watanabe's near indescribable parallel moustache/beard mutation. Google it, if you don't know what I mean.

Batman Begins was already high on many a best superhero film list, even before the rest of the trilogy came to light. Beside the two other films, this one might seem a bit drab and ordinary, particularly as many recent superhero films have borrowed from the tone of this one and portrayed a much darker hero than the ones in the old school movies. It's the fashion. Counted alongside the other two, it makes for a useful and necessary introduction to Nolan's interpretation of Batman and how he thinks. The acting is better than your average comic book adaption, too. It all clicks together as a whole, although each part works solo quite happily. It's like a triptych. Batman Begins makes you want more, and oh, how that paid off.

Follow me on Twitter: @crunro

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)

I've found recently that a few films I've been meaning to watch for a while have the same thing in common; being, they all contain Michael Cera to a greater or lesser extent. Therefore, I have decided to begin a mission of sorts, to see these films as soon as the opportunity arises, and without thought for any consequences. This mission will be called Que Sera Sera Cera (Whatever will be, will be Michael Cera). One of the most important films on the hitlist was Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, which was, handily, on the laptop of none other than Swedish Charlotta. Completely legally, I might add. I condone it, and I appreciate it.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World sees two of my favourite Forces For Good combine together: Canada and Edgar Wright. The Munro family summer holiday in 2012 was taken to the very area the film's set, and it's a very lovely place with very lovely people. I've never known a Canadian I didn't like, and the landscape and cities are prettier and more pleasant than your average country. Wright, meanwhile, is responsible for two of the greatest British films of the 2000s, Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, and is very soon to release his third film with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, The World's End. He was also part of the dream team that concieved and gave birth to 2011's brilliant The Adventures of Tintin, along with Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, Adam and Joe's Joe Cornish and Doctor Who and Sherlock's Stephen Moffat. In short, Wright has, thus far, created nothing that I haven't loved.

And Scott Pilgrim does not disappoint. Far from it, in fact. From the moment the 8-bit Universal logo comes up, it's clear this is going to be done properly. The visuals are great fun, with information about the characters popping up beside them as they are introduced, Scott's pee-bar appearing above him as he goes to the toilet, and lots of subtle inserts to hint at the video game IRL idea that hovers over the entire film. Edgar Wright is well known for inserting references to his favourite genres and films into his work, and this one shows off his love handsomely. There is a brilliantly random homage to Seinfeld in the middle, and some similarities between Pilgrim's dream sequences and those of The Dude in the Coen Brothers' Big Lebowski. The comedy is appealing and charming, the characters relatable and interesting and hilarious, and not a single line is wasted.

The story goes as follows: Scott Pilgrim is a bass player in a band called the Sex Bob-Ombs, Canadian and in his early twenties. When we meet him, he has just found a new girlfriend (his third), but is teased by his bandmates as she still goes to high school. Soon, though, he meets a girl (literally of his dreams) named Ramona at a party, and immediately becomes infactuated with her. They go on a few dates and Scott dumps his earlier girlfriend. As the relationship intensifies, however, it becomes clear that there are a few obstacles to overcome before they are able to settle down in peace. Namely, these are Ramona's Seven Evil Exes, previous relationships she has had that have gone sour and left the other half smitten. Scott must defeat the evil exes, who grow in power as the film continues, before he can have Ramona to himself. The story, the cast and the image of the film all smell strongly of cult viewing, and cult viewing it became.

The self-referential plot and idiosyncratic characters are vastly engaging, and contibutes to the film just being fantastic fun to watch and enjoy. If anything, it just seems rather rushed. The seven evil exes come and come with each only having a mere few minutes to work the screen and battle. I believe it would have worked better as two films. But maybe that's just because I want to see more of Scott Pilgrim as a character, and more of what he gets up to. It's clever in an entertaining way, rather than a patronising way. It doesn't have any important points to make, but that just allows you to relax and enjoy it more. Put this on the repeat viewing list.

Follow me on Twitter: @crunro

Friday, 11 January 2013

Jack Reacher (2012)

The fifth of January 2013, and I was, once again, in Edinburgh, but this time with two friends from school. Once again, we found ourselves heading to the cinema in the Omni centre on a total whim after finding that we were left with nothing else to do. When you're with two male friends and you're going to the cinema, there is only a select few genres it's socially sensible to plump for. One is a horror film, of which there were (thankfully) none available at the time. Another is the dark comedy, of which the new Martin McDonagh film, Seven Psychopaths, was the only option. I'd have be happy to have gone for that one if the only screening was not five minutes from midnight.

Then there's the generic action film, the genre which we decided on in the end. Jack Reacher is the latest film from the original generic action hero, Tom Cruise. I've never really gone for Tom as an actor, I'm afraid, but judging by the unexpected critical success of Reacher, I thought it wouldn't do any harm to give it a shot. I was hoping for something beyond the genericism of the regular action film, with its fights and guns and 2D bad guys. I was intrigued by the 12A certificate. How much must an action film remove in order to warrant one of those?

Well, it appears they can get away with quite a lot. At the beginning, a sniper in a multi-storey car park picks off five seemingly random members of the public, and drives off. Perhaps not a fantastic scene to broadcast during one of the largest gun control debates in recent times, but I don't tend to have a personal problem with violence in the cinema such as that. It was Cruise's introduction that I had my first mild problem with. The man accused of the crime writes his name on a sheet of paper, and he is discussed as a man who is off all official charts, shouldn't exist, only appears when he sees justice needs to be done... I don't know how long ago Hollywood ran out of personalities, but this one seems to be the cinematic equivalent of a Bag For Life.

Obviously, this character isn't of Los Angeleno origin, and is based on the one made up by the author Lee Child in his series of very popular books, so it isn't the screenwriters' fault, the poor things. Some characters have aspects that I do find interesting. The Zec's fingers, for example. That's quite something. He bit off his own fingers, and forces those loyal to him to do the same if he feels like it. And the person who plays The Zec, that's pretty interesting. Yeah. In one of the strangest casting decisions since the invention of the zoetrope, one of the greatest living film directors, Werner Herzog, was chosen to play the villain in this, a pretty standard-issue action film. I can't imagine the circumstances that led the casting director to think of that one, what cocktails were consumed that night. The funny thing is, it doesn't entirely not work. Maybe it's a curiousity thing. I'm still not entirely convinced that he was the only possibility for the role, though.

I look forward to the day when I go to the cinema and watch an action film which I truly enjoy. That day, unfortunately, wasn't the fifth of January 2013. It's just another film in which the main character gets into a fight at every available opportunity, so the screenwriters are able to show his skills under the circumstances. It's just another film that teaches us that every one of life's problems can be solved using a gun. Not my sort of film, I'm afraid. Next time I'll wait for the late night comedy.

Follow me on Twitter: @crunro

Saturday, 5 January 2013

The Emperor's New Groove (2000)

We made it to the 3rd of January before my sister plucked out the first of the pile of DVDs I got her for Christmas. We had a free hour or two after I returned from Edinburgh, having been to see Ang Lee's Life of Pi, and it was Karen who suggested an undiluted shot of nostalgia in the form of the 2000 Disney animation, The Emperor's New Groove.

As you might have guessed, me and my sister must have watched this film hundreds of times from when I was about four to the age of nine or so. It was the dawn of the DVD that eventually killed it, as our only copy was a funky dark blue videotape. When I saw the DVD sitting in HMV during my Christmas shopping, and knowing how my sister values nostalgia above much else, it was just asking to be picked up and purchased. I imagine that most people have a Disney film from their childhood, one that takes you back to those years surprisingly vividly if you watch it again. This was ours.

Watching it back was quite a strange experience. It's rare to have so many things you had completely forgotten about streamed directly to you in the space of just over two hours. It's wonderful. Small things like the way the villain, an old crone called Yzma, pronounces the word 'lever', and the moment when the arrogant emperor antihero Kuzco notices an unidentifiable green plant between her teeth. We are a strange species, so fascinated by our immediate past for so little reason. I think we just want to be reminded what we felt like as a child, when we all seemed to be at our happiest. No other creature dwells so much on what happened to them so long ago.

It's quite a marvellous film as well, a good one to be exposed to that many times. There is an important moral message underneath it, as is the case with most Disney films. Kuzco learns the error of his ways from Pacha, a humble local whose village he is planning to destroy to make room for a new summer palace for him, and who he ends up relying on to look after him when he is turned into, of all things, a llama by one of Yzma's potions. The chase caper that follows is funnier than your average Disney film.

It has enough jokes to satisfy me, even now that I'm probably out of the target audience. Maybe it's just that I remember laughing my arse off when I was younger, but I found myself laughing out loud quite often, particularly at Kronk, Yzma's hapless bodyguard, who is such a cliche of a character but still manages to be hilarious. Maybe the film moves along a bit quickly, but what does a child care about that? It's 127 minutes of wonderful comic sketches, based around what is essentially quite a simple story, which come together to result in a great children's film with a clever message.

Having said that, there is a single bad point. That is the most extreme contrast between the music in the actual film and the song in the end credits. Tom Jones sings the fantastic opening number, and there are big band sounds thoughout the film that have a great rhythm and tune. Sting sings the bleak, drab and piano driven end credits ballad called 'My Funny Friend And Me', which was Oscar nominated for reasons I can't fathom. Perhaps the committee listened to it out of context. But children don't watch the end credits. They just appreciate good, fun, well written films such as this. This is the seven-year-old me's favourite film.

Follow me on Twitter: @crunro

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Life of Pi (2012)

It was before heading out into Edinburgh today that I decided to look up times at the local Vue cinema for the film Life of Pi in 3D. It was Charlotta's first full day back in Scotland after a Christmas fortnight spent in her native Sweden, and before her departure she had mentioned a few times how keen she was to see this film. In all honesty, I was quite keen myself, and so I decided that today would be the day to pay a visit to the pictures. When we found ourselves a bit lost for something to do after completing late Christmas shopping, I suggested we shifted towards the Omni centre, got our tickets, grabbed our glasses, and we headed straight in.

Edinburgh was celebrating hogmanay three days beforehand, and I was there, looking down into Princes St. gardens as bands such as The View and Bwani Junction welcomed in 2013. Today, the stage was still being put away. Music is all well and good, but the best way to start a new year is going to see a really great film. I've heard much about Life of Pi, how Yann Martel's novel of the same name was always deemed unadaptable, focussing as it does on an Indian teenager stranded in a lifeboat with a tiger. There is the famous film-making cliche that says you shouldn't work with children, animals or water. All three of these should be totally impossible to control fully. Therefore, it would be easy to understand if any film that was adapted from such a novel would merely be a show-off piece, more interesting in demonstrating how brilliant the film maker is at making films than telling the story.

I wasn't expecting what I got. Pi's backstory, shown in the first section of the film, plays out like a rather poignant comedy drama. His story about the origin of his name and how he confronted the bullies who teased him about it is surprisingly funny, and the older Pi, chatting to a wide-eyed Rafe Spall, comes across as rather witty and wise. The conversation then turns to religion, as Rafe queries about Pi's story, which, he has been told, will make him believe in God. Pi describes himself as a Catholic Hindu with Islamic tendencies, as he had fascinating experiences with each of these faiths in his younger days. It surprised me that a film with such a blatant religious message was given such a wide release, but I'm glad it has. Whilst I don't see myself as religious at all, this aspect certainly added another layer to the film, one that is particularly deep.

This whole underlying theme runs through the rest of the film, through a frankly astounding scene in which a ship full of exotic zoo animals sinks, a nasty last-one-standing between all the creatures who made it onto Pi's lifeboat after the disaster, and Pi's efforts to tame Richard Parker, the tiger who he finds himself going through the rest of the journey with (there is an interesting reason why Martel originally chose that name, if you fancy googling it). It's the sort of film that I would like to just sit in a room alone watching for some period of time, trying to figure out all the different aspects to it. That's the sort of film I like. The ending leaves you more curious.

Ang Lee clearly doesn't get too caught up in his 3D, and it never even tries to overtake the story as the centrepiece of the film. However, this doesn't disqualify it as one of the most masterful uses of 3D I've seen. The scene used in the trailer, in which an enormous whale bursts out of an ocean iridescent with jellyfish and leaps over the lifeboat really is a spectacle to behold in 3D. And far from being infuriatingly difficult to work with, every scene in which Lee focusses on the water Pi is surrounded by, be it during his early days in the pool or afloat in the Pacific, is filled with beauty rarely seen in a blockbuster like this. This is the film to go and see if you want to give your eyes a big thanks for all the work they've done over the years.

I am unsure about the casting of Gerard Depardieu, who gets top billing according to Vue, but has the most pathetically small role in the film as a cook on board the ship Tsimtsum (this name, incidentally, was not a random choice for Martel either). It feels unnecessary, an attempt to get a big-name star in the credits when the real standout performance is clearly given by debut actor Suraj Sharma, who never makes you doubt that he really was in a lifeboat trying to tame a tiger (he wasn't, incidentally). Ang Lee has shown that he is very able to show the unshowable, and show it well. This is a film to stimulate the mind as well as the eyes, and, at times, to give you goosebumps.

Follow me on Twitter: @crunro