Thursday, 30 May 2013

Unforgiven (1992)

On Tuesday, with a vital geography exam on Thursday, I saw a film that I liked the sound of via Top Film Tip, a movie-catching service on Twitter. Rather than revise atmospheric circulation, preventative measures for malaria and the Green Revolution, I decided it would benefit me more in the long term if I caught Unforgiven on TCM. I can't say if that was the right choice until results day in August, but I certainly don't regret it yet. Now the geography exam's over, and with that all my fifth year exams, I no longer have an excuse for not watching any films. I'm going to try and make up for lost time in the week's holiday I have left.

But anyway, Unforgiven was on the telly. I was particularly drawn to it as it was a Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards, one of only three westerns to have walked away with the top prize (two of which, oddly, were in the nineties, hardly a period iconic for the cowboy movie). I know, a western. I've never felt particularly enthused by westerns. In fact, I think Unforgiven might just be the first western I've watched all the way through unless, I've just realised, you count Blazing Saddles, which you probably do. They've never appealed to me. Maybe I feel a bit alienated by such an overtly American genre. Maybe it's because I've never imagined the plot digressing too far between different films (it's probably about two old rivals meeting for the final time, and solving their dispute once and for all with a couple of Magnum pistols), or because I know what a load of nostalgic bollocks it is. Either way, it's meant I've avoided them pretty successfully for seventeen years. Except Blazing Saddles. And, I've now remembered, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I realise my earlier statement might be flaking a bit.

The greatest icon of this sort of film has always been, and probably always will be, Clint Eastwood. The name comes with a sort of gravitas that comes rarely, one that invokes a particular image. It's a name that's almost grown beyond the actual person who owns it, like Elvis Presley, or Albert Einstein. He personifies The Western in a way not even legends like John Wayne or Gary Cooper can, at least over in the UK. It must have been a surprise, then, when he announced that Unforgiven would be the last western he would ever make. He'd be directing, producing and starring in it. It would be his baby.

It must have also come as a surprise when everyone actually watched it. This isn't the typical, generic, Eastwood western of black-and-white Good against Evil. It's a black, sticky web of badness, just bad people going up against other bad people. Clint isn't a hero in this, although he likes to play with your perceptions. He's William Munny, an ageing cowboy who's given up his ways in order to raise his kids on their pig farm. In a past life, he was a thief, a man who killed swathes of men, women and children. After getting married, he quit and moved far away to be with his family. Soon after his wife dies, however, Munny is visited by a young man who asks him to accompany his bounty hunt against two men who disfigured a prostitute's face. After the young man's wildly exaggerated description of the attack, Munny initially refuses before being tempted by the lure of his old life and the idea of justice.

It's a curious film, is Unforgiven. At no point do you find yourself cheering anyone on. There's an interesting chap played by Richard Harris named English Bob who appears separate to the main plot line. Initially, after his short speech on a train advocating gun control, I found myself thinking, finally, someone I can feel for. Then, during a confrontation with Gene Hackman's sheriff, you find that he's a bastard who could stand with the best of them. It's a cynical film, one that tells you no man is better than anyone else. The young man who recruits Eastwood boasts to Morgan Freeman that he's killed five men; by the end, he's killed his first, and breaks down in horror at what he's done. It's quite affecting and harrowing to watch.

It's a story of violence twisting into more violence because violent people with guns believe violence with solve it. There are a lot of guns in Unforgiven. There's a scene in a sheriff's office where you can hardly hear anyone speak for the constant clicking of loading and unloading guns. The only people without any bad karma in the film are a bunch of prostitutes. The 'hero' kills just about everyone in a bar without a word. It's unpleasant to watch, but a fantastic look at the true motivations people have - nowadays just as much as in the Wild West.

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Thursday, 23 May 2013

The Simpsons Movie (2007)

There's a special place in my heart for The Simpsons. I'm addicted to it like nothing else, watching at least half an hour of it every day for the past eight years or so. It's simply the best TV programme ever made, with round about a hundred episodes in the mid-nineties containing some of the best comedy writing ever committed to screen. I'm well aware of the recent decline in its standard, but with such a spectacular high, I believe it was always inevitable. It certainly doesn't make me any less obsessed. If I was to go on Mastermind, my specialist subject would be The Simpsons.

I remember being thrilled in 2007 when I found out there was going to be a movie made. There had been talk of it for a few years, much like there is for Doctor Who just now. Expectation was high, as it should be for a programme of such considerable acclaim. There was very little chance of the film actually topping the series for epic scale, as just about every scenario had already been done. It is well-known that The Simpsons is viewed with a certain degree of contempt in the animation world, as, in its over twenty year history, it has covered just about every storyline you could conjure up for an animated show (as a side note, I blame this fact for the show's recent decline. They've become too reliant on lampooning modern TV shows and storylines involving popular celebrities). Just about every momentous moment of the series, from Homer becoming an astronaut, a mayor and a voiceover artist to him finding his mother and to her eventual death, had already been dealt with. No film would be able to top what had already happened.

And so, cleverly, that's exactly what they didn't do. The writers essentially wrote what was an 87-minute long episode, one that would fit right into the series, but with a plot that could fill a feature-length film. The episodes following the film's release often refer back to it, as if it was just a particularly special show. However, writing such a plot wasn't easy, as you can tell from the ridiculously long stream of writers in the end credits. Many different stories were discussed, many different scripts were written, with the result that the film was released a full decade after it was originally planned out. This comes across in the film. There are so many different parts to it. Like the best of episodes, the entire plot is a huge domino line, a Rube Goldberg machine. It starts by following a minor storyline, which sparks a series of events which eventually grow into the main plot.

This is how we get from Homer daring Bart to skateboard naked through Springfield to the entire family moving to Alaska in order to get away from a baying mob of former neighbours. I could go through each minor event that causes the next u-turn in the story, but I won't, as it would be dull for you, give away spoilers and ruin the movie's golden humour. The minor stories don't always work. For example, Lisa's crush on Colin, a charming Irish boy who she meets at the beginning, remains criminally unexplored at the end credits. It's a section I think the film could have done without, to be honest. I imagine that it was only included as Lisa has very little to do in the film compared to the rest of the family (it mainly looks at Homer's relationships with Marge and Bart) but I know that these, some of the best writers in the US, could have come up with something more creative than a simple, dull love story for Lisa, one of the show's most interesting characters.

The fact that it is The Simpsons does forgive a few of the movie's more minor problems, such as the hilariously frequent continuity errors. I very rarely manage to spot any problems with continuity in movies, but it actually became quite a fun game to count them in The Simpsons Movie. If anything, errors like that only add to the charm of the thing, and its wonderful self-awareness assures you that it's not meant to be taken too seriously anyway. In a way, though, I also think that the fact it is The Simpsons also contributed to the whole relatively quiet reaction following its release. It was good; of course it was good, it's The Simpsons. Excellency was the least we expected from it. If it was bad, there would have been much more of a fuss made over it. Because it satisfied most people's expectations, most people were content. If the same film was made without The Simpsons moniker, I think it would have become a classic. People wouldn't just be content, they'd be heaping praise on it. I still think it was a joke that it wasn't even nominated for the Best Animated Feature Academy Award, though.

The Simpsons Movie didn't disappoint, a major achievement for a film with so much to live up to. I am happy about its unremarkable nature, as it makes no attempt to overshadow the unovershadowable. And even after almost a quarter of a century of unbeatable television, I am pleased that the movie is one of my favourite episodes of The Simpsons.

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Friday, 17 May 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

First of all, I must apologise sincerely. Since we're on exam leave (which is, let's face it, just a holiday) I should have been wasting my vast amounts of spare time watching film upon film, clearing my Sky+ memory as I go. Unfortunately, with my birthday having been last week, my friend Michael's birthday being this week, and an unprecedented number of 'other things to do' in between, I've only managed to fit in a couple of movies so far in the month of May, and with exams on the 20th, 22nd, 27th and 30th, it looks unlikely that I'll get to fit any more in. I can imagine June and July will be even worse, too. Never mind.

The last film I had a look at was Star Trek, JJ Abrams' 2009 contribution to the hugely popular sci-fi saga. I said there that I was watching it in preparation for this sequel that would be coming out later in the month, and which I would definitely be seeing. Well, on the 16th of May, me and my friends Vonnor and Nck decided to treat Michael to a little day off from revision for his birthday. After a lunch at The Filling Station, Star Trek Into Darkness would be the film that we went to see. We stockpiled up on Vimto drinks, Vimto chews and Vimto bonbons at Poundland before paying our way in.

As soon as the Paramount logo, introduced to the wonderful blaring brass of Michael Giacchino's soundtrack, fades away, we are thrown into a very quick-paced, spectacularly large opening sequence, which involves a chase through an alien forest, a volcanic eruption, the lava from that eruption being frozen as it spurts out, and the USS Enterprise rising from the ocean bed as a crowd of Dulux-coated humanoids watch in awe. It is an impressive start, and one that gets Chris Pine's Captain James T Kirk removed as a Starfleet captain for breaching the company's protocol. However, he is rapidly reinstated when a massive-scale terrorist attack against the organisation brings it to its knees. There begins a (surprisingly short) across-the-universe chase to find the man who has claimed responsibility for the disaster, Benedict Cumberbatch's cold, sophisticated and mysterious John Harrison.

Simon Pegg, amongst others associated with the film, have told of the plot's theme of home-grown terrorism, a brand that is often the most devastating as those on the inside often know the places that will hurt most. This message is particularly relevant today, what with the recent Boston marathon bombings and mass shootings in the United States, most of which were carried out by people born or raised in the USA. It's a terrifying prospect, but one that is very real and concerning at the moment. It may seem a bit insensitive to bring up such topics in what is essentially a Hollywood blockbuster from conception, there to make money for the studio and precious little else, but it is a testament to the intellect of JJ Abrams that he should bring up such topics when he is given the opportunity. The problem is never actually solved in the film, a metaphor for the ineffectiveness and futility of any precautions brought in anywhere that attempt to solve this problem for good.

The aforementioned terrorist John Harrison is played awesomely well by Britain's own Benedict Cumberbatch (I'll never get tired of that tremendous name). His Harrison is calculated and menacing, played with a quiet and casual intensity that makes him all the more frightening. Like Hannibal Lecter (and Cumberbatch would make a fantastic Hannibal Lecter), he has his awful plans all worked out beforehand in his head, with almost all eventualities covered, and he carries them out with precision. The well-trodden villain cliche that they are always one step ahead applies here. The moment when his secret is revealed should make a Star Trek fan quiver, and makes the rest of us gasp without fully knowing why.

I know enough about Star Trek to recognise a few of the references to famous earlier moments in the series, and they certainly add an extra layer of poignancy. Although a separate timeline was established in the first movie, there is still an element of familiarity about some plot lines, and it works. With a story of epic scale and a villain who will go up there with the best of them, Star Trek Into Darkness is a very enjoyable sequel which can more than stand its own ground.

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Sunday, 5 May 2013

Star Trek (2009)

Later this month, the sequel to JJ Abrams' Star Trek will come out. I am very much planning to see it, if only for the inspired casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as his first Hollywood villain. I'm not a Star Trek fan. I could just about name most of the original crew members of the USS Enterprise, and a couple from the Next Generation, but I'm far from being a trekkie. I'm not going to see it because I'm curious about how Abrams is going to handle the delicate world of the Star Trek universe, one that has been built up to the very precise details (including, famously, an entire language) in the decades since Gene Roddenberry's original series. I won't be taking umbridge on an online forum if Abrams neglects to include a minor character's pet babel fish.

The great thing is, JJ Abrams isn't a Star Trek fan either. As he explained in his introduction to It on Channel 4 last night, he approached his film by looking from the outside in, and deciding what he would want to see in a Star Trek movie rather than what he thought a trekkie would want to see in a Star Trek movie. I fear that if Paramount had handed the job to a fan, they would have got bogged down in the minutiae and lumped in references to the many films that came in beforehand, assuming that the viewer has already seen them all much like Iron Man 3 did. Abrams decided to restart the whole saga with an origin story for the crew, allowing him to bring his own interpretation of the characters into the story.

But he had more than one trick up his sleeve, did JJ. By using time travel as a minor plot point, he managed to set his interpretation of the Star Trek saga in an alternate reality to the one seen in all other interpretations. This allowed him to carry out unspeakable continuity errors (the destruction of Spock's home planet Vulcan being chief among them) without problem, and also shattered that classic origin story predicament of no-need-to-worry-we-know-they're-going-to-survive-anyway. It's all done rather cleverly, and give him as a director a lot of free reign with what happens to the characters.

For a person who barely knows the first thing about the actual story of Star Trek, Abrams' film is a superb place to start. He begins by telling the story of Chris Pine's James T. Kirk and Zachary Quinto's Spock, from their difficult starts in life through to their arrival at Starfleet. A die-hard fan might be shocked that my introduction to the whole Star Trek universe came from JJ Abrams' film, barely four years old, but this is exactly what the studio was trying to achieve; to win a whole new batch of fans and to make Star Trek cool again. I really enjoyed it. I was surprised by how sympathetic I felt towards Kirk, despite him acting like a right bellend at the beginning. I liked the Spock storyline of a half human, half alien struggling to suppress his human emotions in order to fit in to his coldly logical alien society. I thought the ways in which the crew members from the original series were gradually introduced worked well, with each character lent certain amounts of importance to the plot (even if Simon Pegg's brilliant Scotty took a while to appear).

Behind the ludicrous amounts of lens flare, there is a brilliantly handled movie that might have suffered in the wrong hands. Abrams didn't want to play it safe by simply adding another movie to the original pantheon, so he restarted the whole thing and managed to pull it off. The baddie, Nero, may not seem as too vital to the plot with his bare-minimum amount of screen time, but that's because the film wasn't about him. That whole problem will be put right by Cumberbatch's John Harrison in the new film, anyway. Abrams did seem to get a bit power-hungry after rewriting the Star Trek story, however, when he decided to rewrite the laws of physics for the sake of the plot, too (Fire explosives into the black hole! The blast will shoot us away from the event horizon!). But Star Trek was never praised for its technical accuracy. As long as your disbelief is satisfactorily suspended, this film is a sci-fi dream that should satisfy hardcore fans as well as hook non-trekkies.

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