Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Memento (2000)

As the holidays came round, I thought I would take the opportunity to lighten the load on my Sky+ box, which contains dozens of memory-filling films recorded from TV over the past few months. It turns out that I've only managed to fit in one so far, Christopher Nolan's psychological thriller Memento. This was recommended to me over Twitter by a friend called Lewis a couple of months ago, and I told myself it would be the first I watched when I got the chance. The sound of a brain-bending and confusing film to get my head around appealed to me.

A recurring feature in Nolan's films is the intelligent analysis of what goes on inside the human mind. The way he puts this across is outstandingly creative, and there's no better example of this than Memento. To put the audience on the same level as the main character, who is unable to form new memories after being attacked in his house, the story is told backwards. The film is made up of a number of short scenes played out in reverse chronological order, gradually revealing the truth about each of the characters we've already met; the truth that Leonard, the damaged protagonist, has already forgotten. It's a genuinely interesting way of doing things, and, like the dream world in Inception, it takes us inside the brain. At the start of the film, the audience is just as confused as Leonard, and only finds everything out at he same pace as him.

Because the smallest detail in one scene could have caused one of the major event seen earlier on in the film, Memento punishes those whose concentration wanders for a minute or two. Characters who you always assumed were on Leonard's side turn out to be taking advantage of his condition, and vice versa. The words that Leonard has written underneath his Polaroid pictures change meaning. Nolan has crammed as many twists as physically possible into 113 minutes, and so it is necessary to keep your wits about you for the entire thing. If you do manage it, though, you'll get a hell of a reward by the end credits.

Before not too long, you'll have worked out that Leonard is after a mysterious man named John G, who supposedly raped and murdered his wife in front of his eyes during the same attack where he lost his ability to form new memories. We follow him as he moves around town, meeting new contacts and taking their photos so he is able to remember them when he sees them again. To confuse things further, each reverse-chronological main scene is separated from the next by a series of scenes shot in monochrome and shown in chronological order, with Leonard in his hotel room. These two timelines eventually meet by the end. If you can understand those last two sentences, you'll have no trouble with Memento.

Guy Pearce's Leonard strikes exactly the right notes, being just as determined and constantly perplexed as he should be. The acting, for the most part, does take a back seat to the story and script, though. What starts like a simple murder mystery (albeit a why-did-he-do-it rather than a whodunnit) ends as something much more fascinating and shocking. A deceptively simple way of telling the story is worked to its full potential by Nolan, making Memento one of the most enjoyably unique and cerebral movies of the 21st century.

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Monday, 29 July 2013

The World's End (2013)

The World's End is a film I've wanted to see for a scarily long time. It started about five years ago when, after seeing Hot Fuzz for the first time, I looked at its Wikipedia page (as I was wont to do back then). This led me to discover the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy, an otherwise unrelated series of comedy films with Edgar Wright as their director and Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as their stars. At this point, The World's End was only a rumour, with only its Cornetto flavour confirmed (if you're unfamiliar, each of the three films are associated with a particular colour, also a flavour of Cornetto ice cream: Shaun of the Dead was strawberry, a gory zombie red, and Hot Fuzz was classic, a blue for the police force). The World's End would be mint choc chip, for the traditional Martian green. Where Shaun had its zombies and Hot Fuzz had its suspiciously friendly village folk, World's End would deal with some sort of alien invader.

Pegg and Frost released Paul in 2011, another sci-fi comedy which could almost have been a taster for this one. This, however, had nothing of the influence of Edgar Wright, of whom I am a stonking big fan. The first two in the trilogy were very unique, although they both retained the same style - a blend of brilliantly puerile and wonderfully intelligent humour, full of sharp and quotable lines and coy references to the sort of cult show or film enjoyed by the writing team of Pegg and Wright. Their television show Spaced was similar, and The World's End belongs to the very same vein.

It's true that it doesn't have the gore of the other two, which some fans might have been looking forward to. There's relatively little blood in The World's End, with organs and bloodstreams replaced with the blue gunge contained within the extraterrestrials' fragile white shell. The over-the-top arterial spurting in Hot Fuzz is hilarious, but it's not such an integral part of the humour in the movies. I think the violence is Wright and Pegg's method of getting some of their trademark surreality into a story about policemen; it's automatically there in Shaun and World's End thanks to the supernatural nature of their plots.

But that's enough of looking at the film as part of a trilogy. To all intents and purposes, it's not. It's an individual film with a story and characters that bear no relation to those in either Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz. The World's End has a particular fondness for its characters that makes it unique. We first meet Gary King (played by Simon Pegg) and his four friends (Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman and Eddie Marsan) as teenagers, when they first attempt the 'Golden Mile', a pub crawl in the quiet rural town of Newton Haven. It appears to have been a disaster for everyone other than Gary, who remembers it as the best night of his life. So, spurred by irritation at never completing the crawl and a painful inability to let go of his past, he sets about finding his old mates and organising another shot.

As the five move with varying enthusiasm between the pubs, their true selves, beaten down by years of having to perform as a sensible adult, are released, and each has a glorious drunk personality. In addition to this, it slowly becomes obvious that Newton Haven is not in the same state as when they left it. The townsfolk are acting suspiciously, with no one recognising the team who painted the town red not so long ago. They appear to be being controlled by a third party. When they get angry, King and co. have to get their hands dirty.

Simon Pegg clearly relishes being given a character with such depth, someone clinging on his youth with such moronic desperation that you can't help pitying him. He reels off Gary's many great speeches with delight. Nick Frost demonstrates he can play a (relatively) straight part as well as anything else, Paddy Considine makes you feel as if he could be your best mate and Eddie Marsan is as brilliantly charming as always. It's nice to see Martin Freeman returning to the sort of British comedy he made his name with now he has become a major Hollywood player. The World's End is a cameo-spotter's dream, with a great number of recognisable faces from UK film and TV making an appearance, including Michael Smiley, David Bradley and Reece Shearsmith, as well as a couple of more internationally-known names.

The music is exceptional, the astonishing fight scenes are very well choreographed and shot and the script is written with love. Edgar Wright has confirmed his place as one of the top British directors and writers out there. There is no good reason why you shouldn't go out to the cinema and see it.

Follow me on Twitter: @crunro

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Now You See Me (2013)

This is a film my friend Michael has intended to see for a good long while, as he nurtures a keen interest in magic and is quite an impressive magician himself (he does events!). Organised the minute I got back from my Borneo trip, we went back to Ocean Terminal for another film-watching day out: Now You See Me, followed by Frankie and Benny's for dinner, and then The World's End to round off the evening. I admit to having been quite excited myself. I'm fascinated by magic tricks (who isn't?), and Now You See Me's USP is that all the tricks featured in the film were performed for real.

This is an impressive claim, considering the huge scale of everything featured in the film. One trick in particular, where Isla Fisher tosses two ribbons in the air and they dance about before revealing the huge machine that has appeared from thin air behind the material, seems suspiciously computer animated. This isn't the problem, though. The tricks are spectacular, and the knowledge that at least some of them were performed for real (David Copperfield is credited as a 'magic advisor' on the film) adds a further layer to the magic. No, the problem is the whole business of linking together all the tricks with a tangible storyline.

I loved the idea of a group of magicians carrying out the crime of the century. From the scenes in the trailer - 'We are going to rob a bank!', Jesse Eisenberg switching the handcuffs in the interrogation room - that looked like what it was going to be. I was looking forward to a reverse Jonathan Creek, where the magicians use their skills to carry out the crime rather than solve it. They would vanish in a puff of smoke from their jail cell, and then go on to explain how they did it. That was the film I wanted to see, and that's what the first section of the film is like. I enjoyed it, even if the explanations were a bit tenuous.

Then it all gets a bit... Dan Brown. A hooded figure leaves the four magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson and Dave Franco) a calling card, instructing them to meet at a deserted apartment. It is there that they are instructed on how to carry out these huge crimes. From there it's downhill into Da Vinci Code territory, with Interpol getting involved, police chases through major cities and eventually, director Louis Leterrier just going the whole nine yards and introducing a mysterious ancient society.

The magnificent all-star cast, clearly drawn in by the attractive synopsis, are tragically wasted. Morgan Freeman's character, an ex-magician who now reveals to the public how other illusionists do their tricks, is far less interesting than he should be. He spends a majority of his time teasing everyone else by not telling them how the tricks were done. Out of the main four magicians (known in the movie as the Four Horsemen), Leterrier clearly favours Eisenberg and Harrelson. Isla Fisher plays a generic female part, bitter with Eisenberg after some previous relationship, and Dave Franco's character is terribly dull. He's an amateur who's better at pickpocketing than magic, an interesting premise but that's all we really find out. Mark Ruffalo's grumbling cop character has well over the regulatory amount of clich├ęs ('I refuse to do any research that might help with the investigation, I just want to find these guys and shoot 'em!').

Now You See Me is a film with so much going for it. Woody Harrelson and Michael Caine are wonderful as always, and the idea of an extraordinary Ocean's Eleven is undeniably good. Unfortunately, the story's lost me by the ridiculous twist ending, which must have come in too late to fit in any sort of explanation afterwards. I left with more questions than answers, and not in a good way. Leterrier tries his best to weave a fast-paced and intelligent thriller, but there's just not enough room for any of his characters. Hopefully someone will grab this premise and squeeze out the full potential.

Follow me on Twitter: @crunro

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Monsters University (2013)

A new Pixar film in the cinema is always an event. It's the thought of an addition to the enviable filmography the animation studio basks in that makes it so special. Can they pull it off again? What can they possibly do in this which will better the one before? They've already made some of the greatest Hollywood films of the 21st century and some of the best animated films of all time. It can't, and won't, go on like this forever.

Some might argue that the quality has been declining ever since they reached a peak with Toy Story 3 in 2010. Brave was relatively and uncharacteristically generic, not making much of an impact, whereas Cars 2 was, by some margin, the least successful film Pixar has done. So, determined to shake off this notion of a downhill slope in Pixar's film quality, my sister and I headed out to Ocean Terminal for a small day out and a look at their latest, Monster's University. It's their first prequel, explaining how the main characters of 2001's classic Monsters, Inc. got on in their higher education and how they got into the business of scaring. It's been years since I saw Monsters, Inc. I can hardly remember the plot. I was concerned this might ruin the plot a little, there would be references I don't understand, characters I can't remember.

As it turns out, I could have stepped onto the planet for the first time four minutes before going into the cinema and everything would still make sense. In fact, if it wasn't for the improvement in animation graphics, Monsters University could well have been the first film of the two, with Monsters, Inc. released twelve years later. As a prequel, however, this does allow for a clever bit of character study. Sulley, as it turns out, used to be a bit of a dick, using his much-admired family name to hide the fact that he is not a very talented scarer. And before he reached the amiable personality that made him so loveable in the first film, Mike was quite self-absorbed and unwilling to hand over power to others. The story arc that lands them at their Monsters, Inc. characters is great fun to watch and brilliantly written.

Mike is an ambitious teenage monster who applies for the scaring course at Monsters University after being enthralled by the factory on a school trip when he was young. On the first day, he becomes rivals with Sulley, who appears to have got into university solely based on the fact he is descended from a line of distinguished scarers and is arrogant without having the skills to back it up. Whilst Mike is incredibly hard-working and knowledgeable about the history and techniques of scaring, he is, naturally, far too cute to make a small child scream. Sulley, on the other hand, knows only one scaring technique. It's very effective, but he needs a full set to make an impression at uni. When they are both kicked off the course for inadequacy, they must team together, along with the rest of their fraternity house, to show the university's best why they ought to stay.

In such a deceptively simple plot line, there are many spaces for unexpected twists. It's a great script, with the same Pixar humour that everyone can get as well as insights into the characters. The voice cast is superb, with the fantastic John Goodman and Steve Buscemi returning from the first film with Billy Crystal, and Helen Mirren and Nathan Fillion amongst those joining the new film as staff and students. This is a worthy addition to Pixar's bunch of wonderful movies, and comfortably their best since Toy Story 3. Expect to see OK t-shirts everywhere within the next year or so.

Follow me on Twitter: @crunro

Saturday, 20 July 2013

A Month Away. Four Movies

It's been well over a month now since I wrote about Toy Story 3, my last post. It's the longest gap I've taken since this started up seven months ago, but I do have a relatively decent excuse. Yesterday, I got back from an expedition to Borneo with my school, flying over to the Malaysian section for an experience lasting for just under four weeks. During that time, and despite the social culture focus of the trip, I found myself in various situations where I managed to catch a movie. The first of the four films I watched while away, Moonrise Kingdom, I saw exactly a month ago, so I decided I wouldn't get very far writing a separate post on each one. This chunk is what I ended up with.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

On our first long-haul flight (13 hours from Heathrow to Kuala Lumpur), Malaysian Airlines provided a small TV set in the back of each economy seat. This small screen contained well over 100 films. I had already had a look on the website, which contains a list of every film available, and decided on all the films I would do my best to watch during the half-a-day I was in the air. There was The Mask, which I would watch first, then The Way (one of my friend Michael's favourite films), then I might have caught Die Hard, and I couldn't miss A Bug's Life...

In the end, I slept for about eight hours. I could only fit in one movie, and that turned out to be Wes Anderson's teenage romance comedy Moonrise Kingdom, a film that has been in the back of my mind as one that I might really enjoy since it was released last year. It turned out to be just as charmingly eccentric as I had imagined, with very pleasing camerawork and outstanding acting from a group of the best used to tell what is essentially the simplest of love stories. A young Scout runs away from camp to escape from the bullies in the troop and find the girl he has been smitten with since they briefly met the year before. This provokes an island-wide search for the couple, led by Edward Norton's scoutmaster. Bill Murray, Frances McDormand and Bruce Willis also feature in great roles, taking advantage of the wonderful script.

The plot may be simple enough to predict, but that hardly matters when the story is handled so well by Anderson, with an ideal cast and wonderful cinematography to carry it along.

Man of Steel (2013)

On a relatively quiet night in Kota Kinabalu (capital of Sabah, the region of Malaysia we were visiting), we found out that there was a great big cinema on the top floor of Suria Sabah, the city's largest shopping centre. Abandoning the Bornean culture for an evening, me and a small group from our team went to see Man of Steel (with Malay subtitles), a film I had been curious to see since hearing there was a new Superman film in production. Curious, not keen.

I wondered how Superman could possibly be portrayed as sympathetic to cinema audiences. Unlike Batman (and the Dark Knight films are very closely linked to Man of Steel; they share a writer in David S Goyer and Christopher Nolan produces), Superman is not human. He cannot be injured by any natural means, or by Earth weapons. Had he gone against the Joker, he could have flown, faster than a speeding bullet, to save both Rachel and Harvey with time to spare. Had he gone against Bane, he could have broken his back and flown the bomb to the centre of the Pacific or something. He is not weak, physically or mentally. He has no moments of wavering morality. He can come out of any situation with a sparkling grin, immaculate hair and his square jaw intact.

It isn't enough for audiences to just watch evil villains and their henchmen be beaten up for a couple of hours. They need something to associate with. For the first movie - and it is the first, as a sequel was recently confirmed at San Diego Comic Con - Zack Snyder drafted in a true match in General Zod, a fellow Kryptonian with a vengeance against Kal-El and epic plans for the destruction of Planet Earth. The closing battle between the two is enjoyably destructive, with things smashing and exploding all over the place and another building collapsing every other frame. What I liked the most, though, were the scenes in the middle of the movie, showing Clark Kent having to constantly move between jobs as he always ends up blatantly using his superpowers for benevolent means, with the Superman legend being created in his wake. Is Superman a religious metaphor? The Jesus analogy is, at one point, openly discussed. And in one scene, if I'm not reading too much into it, he battles against 'evolution' and wins...

Having now seen it, I'm no less skeptical about whether Superman can really appeal. I can't imagine these films ever really touching on emotional themes on the same scale as Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. The good story, great cast and grand scale are all slightly let down by such a sadly thin main character. There is a part of me, though, that is aching to see the next few films, even if it is just to see where they go from here.

Kil (2013)

On the bus to Sepilok Orang-Utan Sanctuary, the eight hours on dull roads through endless palm plantations were made more bearable with the screening of two Malaysian films on small television screens hanging down from the roof. The first of these, about a man who exacts revenge on the group of gangsters who murdered his humble fisherman father, lost my interest about fifteen minutes in and was so bad I can't remember what it was called. This was followed, however, by a drama named Kil, set in Kuala Lumpur, which immediately caught my eye.

I couldn't take my eyes off it for the length. Starring a man who I can only describe as the Malaysian equivalent of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Kil concerns a man named Akil (his nickname gives the film its title), who wants to commit suicide but can't bring himself to jump from the tower block where he lives. He finds a flyer for a mysterious company (Life Solutions, Inc) which assists suicidal people, and signs a contract that hires one of their people to murder him at a random point within the coming weeks. However, he finds himself regretting this when he meets a girl and falls in love within days of taking out the contract. This is paralleled with the story of a film director who, left by his family and scorned by the media over his latest film, takes out the same contract.

Suicide is an undeniably tough issue to confront, but Kil faces it starkly with sympathy and insight. The two main actors (called Redza Minhat and Cristina Suzzane, now I've done some research) are incredibly talented, delivering performances suited to the powerful story. It has a stylish and modern look, drawing on the bright lights of Kuala Lumpur. The smart ending embellishes rather than confuses the film.

Doing a bit more research, I found out Kil was filmed in just eleven days on a tiny budget. This is a testament to Nik Amir Mustapha as director, and it is mad to learn that this was his debut film. A very impressive achievement. Find it and watch it.

Trance (2013)

We had taken off in June, to return in July. Malaysian Airlines had brought in a whole new crop of recent movies for the new month. Among these was the great Danny Boyle's new movie, Trance with James McAvoy. Suitable for Boyle's famously eclectic filmography, Trance slots into another genre he has never tried out before: the psychological heist thriller. To be fair, it's a bit of a specific subgenre that not many people have made a film in before (Inception?), but it's hardly Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours or Trainspotting.

Trance is another film for which style and image is important. The editing and camerawork is sleek, the colours distinct. This is a cool film. From the opening few scenes, with McAvoy's Simon addressing the viewers directly for his description of an art auction's security measures to the epic, almost over-the-top climactic scenes, close attention has been paid to the look. Simon is an aid at an art auction when a painting just sold for several million pounds is apparently stolen in a violent heist. He quickly cuts it out the frame and hides it from the gangsters, who knock him unconscious. In doing so, they wipe out the memory of where the real painting is hidden. Simon is sent to a hypnotist to worm out the final location of the picture, but more than intended is uncovered.

It's as confusing as you'd want and expect from such a film, and only gets more puzzling as the audience are taken deeper and deeper into Simon's mind, before the crushing truth is dramatically revealed. It takes a very clever mind to pull off such an intricate plot, but Danny Boyle's is that mind. He is aided by the suave but on-edge McAvoy, the main player in a film where the majority of the script belongs to just three characters. It's an enjoyable film of memorable images and ideas, and it will certainly provoke many conversations over the credits, about what was actually happening there.

We had a hll of a good time over in Borneo, and we returned during the school's summer holidays. This means it's back to the classic routine. I've already racked up three more films to write about before I can relax. Probably by watching a movie, I suppose.

Follow me on Twitter: @crunro