Sunday, 24 March 2013

No Country For Old Men (2007)

A couple of weekends ago, I was camping in the wilds of rural Perthshire with a group of people I will soon be going on a trip to Borneo with in an event intended to prepare us for the dangers of camping in such a tropical climate. Unfortunately, our boredom and general awkwardness around each other meant that, on the second night, we resorted to a game of charades beside a river in a sheep field. When my turn inevitably came round, I decided to try and act out the film 'No Country For Old Men', as it was one of the batch of DVDs I had recently bought with an Amazon gift voucher. Thankfully, my friend Paul (who drove us to see Wreck It Ralph) got it after just the first word, and so my painful attempt at acting was euthanised.

As I was walking back to my seat, however, the man who was taking the camping trip and who would soon be taking everyone to Borneo appeared to think my choice of film meant I had actually seen it, and so he turned movie reviewer for a couple of minutes to vent his annoyance at the subject. He said two things about No Country For Old Men: 'I had to put subtitles on to understand a word anyone was saying, the accents were that strong', and 'That film had one of the weirdest, crappiest endings I've ever seen'.

Of course, at the time, I just smiled, nodded and tried to laugh at the correct moments, feeling it would be unnecessarily awkward to tell him that I had actually never seen it. Underneath, though, I wanted him to be wrong. As I pointed out in my first post, the Coen Brothers are my favourite directors, and No Country For Old Men is reputed to be their greatest work. So, on the first evening of the Easter holidays, I took the opportunity to see what all the fuss was about and put on the DVD.

For the first few minutes of narration over desert landscapes, I strained to understand every word that was being said in the thick Texan accent before I decided there was no point, as I could understand it quite happily anyway. Already Mark's first point had been disproved. Of course many sentences are so heavily slurred that you can't make out a word - particularly from Tommy Lee Jones - but what would the film be if it was all played out in clean, Californian accents? And you don't have to hear every word crisply to understand a character (see: Don Vito Corleone, The Godfather; Bane, The Dark Knight Rises). The characters are what make films like this, and you don't need to hear a word from Javier Bardem's already-iconic Anton Chigurh to be creeped out of your skin.

Lumbering an air canister with him wherever he goes, and sporting cinema's most misplaced bob haircut, Bardem's tall, dark and psychotic figure dominates every one of his scenes from his introduction, coldly garrotting a policeman with his handcuffs, to the later, unbearably tense scenes in which he blows locks trying to track down Josh Brolin and the money he unwittingly stole from an untouched former crime scene in the Texan desert. Chigurh slowly kills everyone who crosses his path as Tommy Lee Jones' aging sheriff Ed Tom Bell tries to stop him from reaching Brolin's Llewelyn Moss and salvaging the two million dollars that lay amongst the dead bodies in the desert. Brolin is nervous and desperate to keep the money and, later, his life, whilst Jones is tired and worn down by decades of seeing the wrong side of humanity. The cast is flawless, the acting immense.

And as for the ending, that's just the natural conclusion to the story. I don't see anything wrong with it. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, that's a weird and crappy ending. No Country For Old Men ends bleakly, without fully solving any of the problems that are picked up during the film happily and without and worries. But that's the way life happens. Maybe Mark would have preferred if Jones had tracked down Bardem, led him away in handcuffs and given the two million to a local children's charity. But, as the film's perfect tagline says, there are no clean getaways. None of the characters finish the film better than they started it. Awful, unpredictable things can happen to anyone, and they often do.

I'm pleased to say my love for the Coen brothers has only grown since watching No Country For Old Men. It demonstrates their ability to write a superbly entertaining and tense screenplay and then bring it to life on screen exactly as their brilliant minds imagined it, and you can only admire them for that. Go, watch it. If you've seen it before, watch it again. Don't worry about the subtitles.

Follow me on Twitter: @crunro

Friday, 22 March 2013

Argo (2012)

I don't believe there has been a film in my life that I have anticipated as highly as I anticipated Argo. Since I first saw a few columns about in last year in Empire, I was waiting for it to come out. When it came out, I pestered my friend Michael to come to the cinema with me to see it for weeks. When it went out of cinemas, having missed it, I felt defeated. Then I won an Amazon voucher at a Heriot-Watt University competition. With this voucher, I ordered, amongst other things, a DVD player and a DVD of Argo. During the period I waited for it to be released, Argo won Best Film and Best Director at the BAFTAs, and Best Picture at the Oscars. By this time, it was about six months since I first heard about it. My stomach was at my throat with expectation. I told myself that no matter what was on, I would watch Argo the night the DVD arrived. When it did, there was a geography exam the following day. Revision was pushed to second priority. Ben Affleck was first.

Let this be a lesson to you all. There was only one way this tale was ever going to end.

My version of the DVD seemed to have come from India or thereabouts, according to the messages before the film, and it took some fiddling about before I managed to turn off the subtitles that my DVD player seems so keen to put onto every film. The film begins with a disembodied voice (whose corresponding body isn't actually shown at any point in the movie) which narrates a short history of Iran and the events leading up to the Iranian Revolution of 1979 that smacks the plot on its way. It then starts where this narrative left off, with a crowd of angry people getting ticked off outside the US embassy in Tehran. As the crowd storms the building, only a group of six manage to escape out the back door to a mysteriously deserted back street and find solace in the Canadian ambassador's house. When the CIA back home in Washington, DC find out the situation, they know it's only a matter of time before the Iranians twig on and invade the Canadian's home.

Slag the ludicrous plot as heavily as you like, it all really happened. When the message 'some of the events in this film have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes' appears at the end of the credits, you do still wonder whether that includes a massive amount of the plot. Even I find it difficult to notice the differences in the Canadia and US American accents, never mind your average Tehranian. If they were so determined to find and kill six people who got away from the embassy, I wouldn't be surprised if they just pulled the trigger on anyone vaguely suspect. But there you go. A group from the CIA, led by the admirable Tony Mendez, really did go into Iran during a ferociously anti-American campaign posing as a Canadian film crew in order to rescue the six escapees. It happened. I can see why the film was already out within a couple of years of the previously top secret mission file being released. The supreme imagination of Mendez resulted in the full-scale production of a science fiction epic named Argo, with everyone from the actors to the production studios convinced that it actually existed.

Only Affleck, starring as Mendez, and his Hollywood-based cronies John Goodman and Alan Arkin know the entire this-message-will-self-destruct truth. It's these guys who are tasked with pulling off the entire charade convincingly, writing a script, hiring crew and persuading companies to invest in its success when the entire project relies on it ending as a damp squib. Goodman and Arkin really give Argo an ability to remain interesting and not become a generic historical action picture. Their characters shouldn't know how to react to such an absurd request, but they throw themselves into making it work. It is one of cinema's great injustices that John Goodman has never even been nominated for an Academy Award. He is brilliant. Ben Affleck has certainly moved into a new era since the Bay days of the 90s. While he may not come across as the obvious lead in the ensemble cast, permanently glum as he is, his talent is not to be sniffed at and he certainly shows much skill as a director.

The story of Argo was always aching to be made into a film. Thankfully, this manages to play down the potential Stars and Stripes Forever mood, thanking the Canadians more than anyone else for their help. The Americans are depicted as flawed and skeptical of the whole affair. This idea is carefully repented for, though, with suprise guest narrator Jimmy Carter giving his opinion on the mission over the credits, and a short, fascinating documentary on the real mission included on the DVD. This includes interviews with the people involved in the actual event over thirty years ago, including Jimmy and Tony Mendez himself, looking about as different to Ben Affleck as it is physically possible to be.

One day in the future, I will pick up my DVD of Argo, remember it not quite filling my expectations the first time round, and decide to give it a second chance. And I'll love it. For now, though, it was the unfortunate target of my relentless anticipation, and I can only blame myself for that.

Follow me on Twitter: @crunro

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Spirited Away (2001)

Swedish Charlotta texted me at the start of last week to tell me that, while shopping in town, she had bought two films in the immensely sad HMV closing down sale. One was an unnamed indie film starring Emma Watson, and the other was a film she had grown up with, Miyazaki's Spirited Away. She was incredibly keen to show me it when I said I didn't think I'd ever come across it before, and so we found ourselves sitting in front of the telly the very next day, trying out my brand new bargain DVD player.

Thanks to the complicated menu on the actual DVD, it took us a good twenty minutes before we figured out how to watch the film in Japanese with English subtitles, rather than dubbed over with cheesy American voices. Turns out you press play and it asks you about the language, and the language options menu is there only to take up the empty space on the DVD menu. Idiotic. Never had this problem with VHS. Nevertheless, we got there in the end and cheered as we heard Chihiro speak her native tongue for the first time. The overdub option is pointless, anyway. After a few minutes of watching, you're so engrossed that you don't realise you're looking down at subtitles every couple of seconds.

As with the best films, it doesn't take long for the anything interesting to happen. There isn't much background information to give in the opening scenes, as too much would probably distract from the true magic of the other world on the other side of the stone gate. Chihiro's parents, before settling into their new house, decide to take a look through the mysterious tunnel their car is parked in front of. What they find is a creepily deserted theme park-like town and some food that is still warm. The parents tuck in happily, but Chihiro is more cautious. Sensibly, it is shown, after night arrives and she discovers the eerie truth about the place her family has stumbled upon- this is the spirit world.

Left without her parents in this weirdest of weird worlds, Chihiro is forced to work deeper and deeper into the core of this alien society to find a way to stay alive and fit in for long enough to find a way home. Miyazaki shows off his uniquely astonishing imagination as layer after layer of the spirit world is peeled away, introducing stranger characters at every turn to create a Tolkienesque sense of realism in the truly extraordinary. It is obvious that his world is rich and thick with symbolism and metaphors, but that's for figuring out later. The first time you see the film, it's much more rewarding to just delight in the creativity and beauty of it all. The last animated film I looked at was the CGI animated film Wreck It Ralph from last year. I don't think I mentioned the animation techniques once in any of the paragraphs. There just isn't any comparison between computer-generated films and those like Spirited Away, which have been hand drawn carefully in a process that can take years. The 2D drawings, ironically, add an extra depth to the film. In it, you can see the artist's work and devotion towards their product. The detail in the lines of Yubaba's face demonstrates this.

It is easy to get drawn into the world of Spirited Away, and is often surprising to remember, while you're watching it, that it's actually in Japanese and you don't understand a word. There are many things that are left unexplained at the end of the film, and much is simply left to the audience's imagination. This gives you the story from Chihiro's perspective; it is wonderful, perplexing yet not totally unfathomable, and all too fleeting. It captures you and sucks you in, then lets you go again, a little bit wiser for the experience. Spirited Away is a film I wish I'd grown up with.

Follow me on Twitter: @crunro

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Wreck-It Ralph (2012)

What you should be reading now is a few paragraphs on the Wachowskis' new film Cloud Atlas, which I was planning to go and watch with friends Paul and Michael after we discussed the possibility of a cinema trip at a quiz last Friday. Alas, the timings were just not sensible when you have to wake up at seven the following morning, and I discovered on Monday evening that Paul would be taking me, Michael and a third friend, Finlay, to see the new Disney film at Ocean Terminal. Not a Monday evening I'd admit to to many people, but I had secretly been wanting to see Wreck-It Ralph since I heard about it. From the reviews, you'd think it was the new Pixar film.

Unfortunately, what I saw was what looked like a rather determined attempt to emulate a Pixar film that forgot to find a unique selling point of its own. The plot of games coming to life and possessing their own little world is just a little too reminiscent of the never-to-be-bettered Toy Story trilogy, and the meeting of video game bad guys seems to be nicked straight from the shark meeting in Finding Nemo. There is an interesting twist of the bad guy being the one we sympathise with, as Wreck-It Ralph tries to find redemption for the years of in-game destruction he has carried out despite his lovably eager-to-please personality. Ralph himself works well as a character, and I can see him continuing successfully through the inevitable film series that will follow.

Perhaps I didn't enjoy it as much as I might have because I am not, and never have been, a gamer. While the rest of my year has followed the evolution of the games console religiously, casting the earlier generation out to the Nintendump a matter of weeks after the new one's launch, I stalled halfway through the Playstation 2. It's got to the extent that I've never touched a Playstation 3 controller, and was so confused when I was handed an Xbox one that I froze the TV for a concerning amount of time. Wreck-It Ralph aims for the enormous audience of gamers old and new, from parents who remember going to the arcade for a spot of Donkey Kong to children with thumb muscles the size of grapefruits. It's packed full of references that I don't understand, but I can imagine someone with a vague knowledge of video game history would absolutely relish. It'll either be those people or the people who go for your classic Disney trademarks who will get the most out of Wreck-It Ralph. Not to say that people like me can't enjoy it. Michael thought it was great, and he is still the proud owner of a Playstation One.

I don't want to sound completely critical of it. The plot takes many turns, never sticking to a single section for too long for fear of it becoming dreary. Mind you, the whole adventure is kicked off by Ralph's ambition to get a game-winner medal, so he can show the inhabitants of his home game that he can be good for something. That's just a bit too Disney, if you know what I mean. It's almost as if the writers realised this at the very end, though, as they completely toss out the old cliche of the Disney princess in favour of an ending that almost sounds like it was written to follow some EU law about the correct political message to put across in the mass media.

When I walked out of the cinema, tossing my 3D glasses in the bin provided, I can't say I felt disappointed at Wreck-It Ralph. After all, I knew before I paid for the ticket that I was hardly the target audience for the film. Perhaps I had just expected an unfulfillable amount. I didn't get the film I thought I would, but what I did get was an imaginative, enjoyable romp made for a specific person who isn't me, but who would really love this movie.

Follow me on Twitter: @crunro

Monday, 4 March 2013

In Bruges (2008)

It's a truly wonderful feeling when, over the week, you are given the news that the rest of family will be out at a party on Saturday evening, meaning you've got the night all to yourself. Unlike most boys my age, who might take the opportunity to hop straight onto the internet for a hour or so of the old indecencies, I decided it was high time I cleared a bit of space on my Sky+ memory, given the sheer number of films I have saved on there. When Saturday came round, and after a bit of careful deliberation over time, I plumped for Martin McDonagh's 2008 dark comedy In Bruges, which I saved last year...

I might mention that a couple of years ago I visited Bruges as part of a school trip I was on, which added a nice little personal aspect to the setting, and I recognised a few if the places Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell explore with varying amounts of enthusiasm. Admittedly, the actual town plays a hardly enviable role in the film. Farrell's Ray cannot stand the place, and will stay indoors at all costs. However, he cheers up when he meets a dashing lady on the set of a film being made in the area, and the pair strike up a relationship. From there, the film takes a blacker and blacker path. We discover that Ray and Gleeson's Ken are hitmen back from a job gone badly wrong in London, and sent to Bruges without any clues as to why they are there and who their next mark will be.

The comedy in In Bruges is dark. If you're offended by swear words and murder, it's unlikely that you'll enjoy this. Just about every profanity in the English language is muttered or screamed at some point in the script, with several really grotesque ones happening withing the space of thirty seconds or so, and the gore really is second to none. I find it enormously entertaining, but there are scenes it's difficult to watch without your fingers trying to get between your eyes and the screen. Drama of the deepest order begins to surface as the film progresses, and it seems to replace the comedy to a certain extent. This is not Hot Fuzz, where the humour is in the sheer ferocity and graphic nature of the violence. Here, it's played mostly seriously, and it's the placing of two faulty assassins in the dull, medieval city of Bruges that McDonagh drives most of the comedy from.

In a movie where the action is so focussed on just two men, their performances are vital. It's fortunate, then, that McDonagh got a hold of two of Ireland's best living actors, Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell. His wonderful script required the leads to use both excellent comic skills and superb dramatic acting. Gleeson and Farrell work perfectly as a pair, with each individual reaction carefully crafted. Ralph Feinnes is ideal as their psychotically vulgar superior. The transitions from hilarious to shocking are faultless, showing the cast is more than capable of handling the darker aspects of the movie as well as the more irreverent.

While this is definitely one for people who like their comedy as a lactose intolerant person likes their coffee, you surprise yourself after the credits when you realise that running quite clearly alongside the jokes was a wonderfully crafted and told tale about subjects that many serious films struggle to handle correctly. Martin McDonagh has created a dramedy for the textbooks.

Follow me on Twitter: @crunro

Saturday, 2 March 2013

The Truman Show (1998)

Now here's an interesting one. In my second year of high school, my English teacher chose Peter Weir's film The Truman Show as the movie we would analyse for a short critical essay. Technically, therefore, I've already looked at it in detail, and gone through each significant line and camera angle thoroughly enough to make myself nauseous at the very mention of the name Truman. But that hasn't happened at all. When I saw it on today's TV listing, I decided it was actually worth another watch.

This is, at least in part, due to the fact that the premise is irresistable and fascinating. Truman Burbank is a man who has had hidden cameras filming him since he was in the womb, the focus of a huge-scale reality show that aims to document his entire life. He is the only occupant of a massive dome, containing a full-scale town called Seahaven, who is neither an actor or the disguised crew, and he is completely oblivious. However, Truman begins to notice minor faults with the world he lives in (a spotlight falls from the sky outside his house, a woman cycles past him on a regular loop) that makes him curious about what is really going on.

Writer Andrew Niccol adapted his idea from a Twilight Zone episode, and it's not difficult to imagine. There is something very Rod Serling about the concept of an entirely fabricated world occupied by a man who is entirely at the mercy of a television producer who cares more about the television programme's entertainment value than its star. When one of his assistants says, 'You can't kill him in front of a live audience', Christof quickly replies, 'He was born in front of a live audience.' It's a frightening idea, but in today's world it doesn't seem completely ridiculous. All it takes is a cross between Seven Up and Big Brother.

It's interesting to think that this film was released two years before the first series of Big Brother was broadcast. We think of reality television criticism as something modern, but people have been concerned with it for years. This is a nightmarish vision of what is possible in the future. Truman is manipulated with rather frightening techniques to ensure that he never wants to leave the fake island community he has lived in since he was born. The only time he has ever left was on a family trip to a brilliantly awful recreation of Mount Rushmore inside the dome. Since the programme has no breaks (having kept running non-stop for thirty years), it only gets its budget from blatant product placement by the terrible actors who make up Truman's neighbours, friends and family. Despite its dwindling viewership, it still remains popular, with some people leaving it on as they sleep for comfort. Would we really question it as much as we would like to think, if this were a real programme? After all, it's been running for thirty years. People have been born and died within that time. It would just be another staple of television that we don't really ask about, one that appeals to our voyeuristic nature as humans.

Warning: if you think too much into what I'm about to say, it might give away the ending.

One of the most crucial and frightening aspect of The Truman Show is Christof's narcissism, seeing himself as Truman's father and god. When he introduces himself to his subject, he says, 'I am the creator... of a television show'. The meaning and importance of that pause is very significant. This is what the idea of religion is concerned with. An unseen prescence somewhere beyond the sky influences everything that happens to you, and makes the decisions that affect your destiny. It is the idea that everything happens for a reason. This film, to me, takes quite an anti-religious stance. Christof decides everything that will happen to Truman, whether it improves his life or whether it rips his true ambitions away from him. It takes Truman's realisation that there is a man who dictates his life for him to decide that he would rather leave this world and become free to decide his own destiny.

Having all this information on the deepness of the plot and its messages, it might be surprising to find that Truman himself is played by none other than Jim Carrey. However, it turns out he has been hiding some considerable acting skill. There are times where his old trademarks of face-stretching and odd moaning noises return, but he can certainly handle the more profound moments when it's necessary. Ed Harris as Christof is a more understandable choice, and he handles the obsessed, demented character perfectly. This is a film with more interesting and necessary messages than most, and it's worth having a watch for education as much as for entertainment. Because, as The Truman Show shows, you must consider what you're watching rather than just letting it pass by.

Follow me on Twitter: @crunro