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  • Henry’s Crime

    October 30, 2011 by Nick

    Henry’s Crime is a gentle comedy starring James Caan, Keanu Reeves and Vera Farmiga. It centres on Henry (played by Keanu Reeves) who works in a mundane job on a toll both and lives in a modest house in a relatively loveless marriage with his similarly nondescript wife. This changes very quickly, as an old schoolmate tricks him into acting as the getaway driver in a botched bank robbery.

    Going to jail for his part in the crime, exacerbated by his refusal to name the real criminals, Henry ends up sharing a cell with a conman played by James Caan. Their friendship develops organically and Henry is forced to question his attitude  to life and what he actually wants to achieve. But not in a particularly angsty way, and not in such a way as to push it to the forefront of the events on film. Henry’s wife also leaves him, and he finds himself leaving jail to a relatively clean slate.

    Returning to the scene of the crime, Henry meets Farmiga, here playing a local actress. Through a series of coincidences and events Henry hatches a scheme to rob the bank again by tunneling into it from the theatre that Farmiga is starring in a play at. He also becomes lead actor in the production. Enlisting Caan’s help in the endeavour Henry has to ask himself what he actually wants: whether it is to star in the play, successfully rob the bank or to nurture a relationship with Carmiga.

    Although billed as a comedy, this is more in the vein of “It could happen to you” than anything particularly ribald. The comedy is gentle and not always obvious. The events are not particularly wacky or contrived for comedic effect; this is as much a romantic comedy as anything else. Although it could be argued that it is a journey of one man and his self discovery, I don’t buy that from Reeves’ acting and there is precious little else in the script to suggest that. Of the main leads, Farmiga is the most engaging and gives the best performance. Reeves, as ever, seems a blank state and does not show much in the way of inner turmoil, advancement or even emotion. Within his oft-mentioned constraints he plays the part well and I don’t feel the script asked for anything he couldn’t deliver.

    I went into the film expecting a more knockabout comedy and to laugh heartily. What Henry’s Crime is is a gentle, heartwarming story that doesn’t try to be obvious yet isn’t impenetrable. It’s a slight story and there wasn’t really enough happening to hold my interest, but the cast are likeable and it isn’t unpleasant.

    The European Issue

    October 26, 2011 by Nick

    David Cameron has just had to deal with, arguably, the biggest problem of his premiership: a rebellion of some 87 of his backbench MPs on the issue of a referendum on membership of the EU. This accounts for over a quarter of his parliamentary party and was even in the face of a three line whip (which is a sign he was aware it would be contentious and was doing everything he could to minimise the fall out from the vote) and his own aversion to tabling the issue with the public.

    Membership of the EU probably looks like a bad idea right now: we’re propping up failing economies all over the continent and we will never see some of that money back. We are getting economic immigrants and people who, legally, we have to allow the opportunity to work, access to healthcare and education, and benefits. Personally I am a Europhile, but even I would be in favour of a smaller, core, EU that features such luminaries as Ireland (oops), Spain (oh dear), Portugal (they might come good), Ireland (they’ve been in trouble for at least 12 years that I knew to) and Italy (well, maybe when they change government) but keeps out a lot of the former Eastern Europe (seemingly we now call it Central Europe) and places like Greece on the basis that their economies and populace seem to have nothing to offer the existing European partners.

    So, I can see where the rebels are coming from: Europe may be a good idea but something, somewhere, has gone drastically wrong. The problem is that we can only help shape and reform Europe by being at its centre. The other odd thing, to my mind, is the relative strength of the Euro throughout the turmoil. This appears to show that there is enough benefit in being linked to some of these economies (and I am guessing this is mainly Germany’s) and this is possibly what is keeping Greece from a Great Depression style slump. Well, that and billions of pounds/euros/dollars.

    However, the Conservative party has always had a problem with Europe throughout my lifetime: the Ed Heath, Michael Heseltine and Ken Clarke wing of the party whom believe in the free market and primarily city based entrepreneur-ism are all in favour of the greater access to markets that Europe brings. Landowners, traditionalists and the more agrarian (which always strikes me as odd, because I am sure European farming subsidies keep a great many of them in business)  orientated are staunchly opposed. The Conservative party historically represents money, but money doesn’t always have the same aim.

    Throughout Thatcher we had a Eurosceptic leader who knew of the economic benefits that Europe could bring even as token resistance to it kept her constituency intact at home. This was probably underlined by a series of more enthusiastic chancellors, especially Lawson. Major’s premiership was more friendly to Europe, although he himself had to engage in some interesting manoeuvring with regards to Maastricht. And every subsequent leader has been largely irrelevant due to their complete inability to attain power.

    Which all leads back to Cameron, and his current problems are exacerbated by being in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. The Liberals are the most pro-Europe of any of the major parties and the obvious home for disenfranchised pro-European Tories. They also hold the key to Cameron remaining in power. So he has to keep them appeased even as he is reliant on them. Which keeps us locked into Europe for the duration of this parliament, even if the majority of the parliamentary Conservative party (and, I assume, their grass-roots support) don’t wish it.

    Friends With Benefits

    by Nick

    Friends with Benefits is a kind of romantic comedy starring Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis with some very funny support from Woody Harrelson.  Now, I say that it is “kind of” a romantic comedy because although it uses some of the tropes of a romantic comedy and quite a lot of the same plot mechanics, it also subverts the genre (sometimes explicitly in a form of meta commentary) and doesn’t want to achieve quite the same effect or resolution.

    The film basically hinges on Justin Timberlake’s character moving from California to New York at the behest of Mila Kunis’ headhunter character (as in employment consultant, it is not that kind of film)  and her being the only person he knows there. This leads them to becoming friends and, as they both have lousy experience with dating and romantic partners, “friends with benefits.” There does seem to be a genuine spark between the two leads and they make a believable couple (even if their supposed professions are a huge stretch to my mind) even when some of the events around them seem contrived by writers who have no experience of them in much the same way as the films they send up. I am not wholly sure if this is deliberate commentary or laziness.

    Timberlake’s character, in particular, seems quite guarded and it is not until the final act of the film that you realise how private he is. Partially this is because he is removed from his own environment, whereas Kunis’ character is very much on home ground. There are some staples of the romantic comedy: siblings, blocking characters, life changing choices, wacky parents but also the welcome and hilarious addition of Harrelson’s predatory gay work colleague (seriously: the best bit of the film).

    There are some moments of genuine tenderness, particularly between Timberlake and his family, but the film is basically about the “real” relationship of Kunis and Timberlake as opposed to the Hollywood ideal (displayed in a series of cameos by Jason Siegel who is not the only Forgetting Sarah Marshall alumni making a cameo) that the two send up as part of their courting ritual.

    Which brings me to my one annoyance about the film: it uses flash mobs as plot devices repeatedly throughout the film: do the writers not know they are a good decade out of date with this?

    Overall, I enjoyed the film far more than I thought I would and it is definitely one that is funny on a second viewing.

    Captain America

    by Nick

    Captain America is an upscaled 3D film directed by Joe Johnston and on general release now. It stars Chris Evans and Hugo Weaving and has a supporting cast that includes Tommy Lee Jones (who gets all the best lines and threatens to steal the film). Set mainly in the 1940s, it deals with the origin of Captain America and his struggles against an off shoot of Nazism.

    Now, Captain America is a comic book movie in that it is derived from a comic book but also in the sense that it is morally simplistic in the extreme. To make the distinction between good and evil as clear as it could possibly be the Nazis are replaced with a group that is even more evil and make the Nazis themselves look like under achieving moderates. This is not intended as damning criticism, although the film carries a 12 certificate that the material does not warrant (and, for the life of me, I cannot understand where it was earned) and the tone is not intended to be too serious or melodramatic. This is a romp with clearly defined good and bad guys and meant as entertainment.

    Although I enjoyed the film, I did find the action scenes to be oddly flat. At no point do they capture a sense of energy or tension and I am at a loss as to why this might be. I do wonder if there are places where the direction (although certainly competent and eliciting reasonable performances from the cast and at no point to blame for anything being glaringly off in terms of tone) is not what it could be: perhaps less steady camera work or different angles during the action set pieces would help to create some visual interest.

    Overall I thought the movie served as an enjoyable origin piece but, unlike some of Marvel’s other recent output, nothing more.

    Rupert Murdoch – Fiddling While Rome Burns

    August 7, 2011 by Nick

    In the Nightly News Johnathan Hickman (or, technically, his characters) rage against factual inaccuracies within the news media and the media’s disinclination to tackle them as it cosies up to the establishment in a terrifying symbiosis of propaganda and power. While I don’t advocate shooting or blowing up journalists Rupert Murdoch’s sprawling media empire has done some undeniably terrible things over the years. It’s unrepentant demonisation of Liverpool fans in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster, the casual firing of hundreds (as recently as last weekend in a failed attempt to extract News International from the mire of its own making) and the near perversion of the cause of justice hacking the mobile phone of a disappeared girl and thus giving false hope to her family and potentially destroying vital evidence.

    The warranted public revulsion at the latter is tempered by the fact the readers of these stories, the politicians who rush to denounce it having courted and employed so much of News International and their former staff and the police who were complicit and sometimes even in the pay of Murdoch’s empire are all partially responsible for the evil that Murdoch’s empire has wrought. I am reminded of nothing so much as Germany sleepwalking into Fascism in the 1930s.

    South Park Series 14

    May 22, 2011 by Nick

    South Park series 14 started badly. The first 3 episodes struck me as suitable to air after the mid season break, when the show inevitably returns with lesser offerings. I had started to lose my impatience when it came to watching the program and could imagine myself missing it. And then there was episode 4.

    The episode opens with Butters offering a view on the messy dissolution of Maria Shriver’s and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s marriage. Unlike recent topical jokes on the program it is neither lazy nor obvious: it manages to poke fun at the situation, make fun of Schwarzenegger’s career and future career choices, take in pop culture references and make fun of Shriver’s appearance. In about 20 seconds. While staying true to the characters involved in the joke and being genuinely funny. My faith in the series was restored within the first minute.

    If the joke had existed by itself, without any other good jokes within the episode, it would have been a reasonable episode. It had the audacity to get better: Cartman is a reactionary idiot, Randy Marsh is a bigger reactionary idiot, the mass public is stupid, government is out of touch, Cartman gets a moment of purity and his comeuppance, and there are lots and lots of jokes. Some of the episode is very clever, some of it is strikingly puerile. These two extremes are frequently evident in the same joke. I finished the show and immediately went back and watched it again.

    I wouldn’t say that the episode is up to the heights of things like the Losing Edge or Scott Tenorman Must Die, but it is certainly worth watching and shows that South Park can be relevant, incisive and very, very funny. Which is all I really want from South Park and something that sets it apart from most television available for consumption.

    Pirates 4

    May 21, 2011 by Nick

    I saw Pirates 4 on Wednesday, and have very conflicting views on it: on the one hand I think it is a good film with a great set piece and some genuinely entertaining moments. On the other, I am disappointed as it doesn’t maintain the quality it sometimes attains. It’s an odd case of something being good and better than I could reasonably expect it to be yet still letting me down. I think this is a sign of the regard I hold the first 3 films in as much as any comment on the fourth film.

    Once again the film stars Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush, and this time they are accompanied by Ian MacShane and Penelope Cruz. On paper this is considerably better than Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, but I am left with a nagging feeling that something of the first three films is missing. And I am not wholly sure what.

    The film starts on dry land, with a sequence that counts among the best in the series and in adventure and action films in general. The pace is frenetic, the action well choreographed and imaginative and the overall set piece exciting and enjoyable. This turns out to be the high point of the film and, in retrospect, shows an underlying weakness in the structure of the film.

    The remainder of the film looks lush, but there are points of odd anti-climax and of events occurring in a manner and sequence which diminishes their overall impact. When we are first introduced to mermaids we have our expectations toyed with and subverted, but the dramatic strength of the scene would have been better served by seeing the relative strengths and abilities of the mermaids which are demonstrated so ably in the next sequence shown prior to the scene in which they are actually introduced. It is an example of the problems inherent in the order of the set pieces within the film.

    Much of the plot of the film revolves around Jack Sparrow meeting up with a woman from his past and their feelings for each other and the relationship she is now in. This gives Jack more motivation and shades his character a little, but seems to rob the character of a little lightness and unpredictably. The more interesting character arc is actually Barbosa’s: his actions initially seem out of character compared to his previous experiences, but as his motivations become clear they make sense and give the film its emotional and dramatic heart. The real climax, for me, of the film is the end of his character arc and logical culmination of his motivation. But it isn’t an exciting visual set piece: it’s emotional and dramatic resonance is not immediate or visceral.

    I feel I sound unnecessarily critical and possibly overly analytical of the film: it’s enjoyable, well acted, largely well written and quite exciting. It’s just not as good as I hoped it would be and somehow different in tone to the films that preceded it.

    Alternative Vote

    May 2, 2011 by Nick

    There is a referendum on Thursday as well as the local elections. The referendum is to decide whether MPs elected to Westminster should be chosen via Alternative Vote (AV). Succinctly AV allows you to rank the options available to you in order of preference so that your second and third choices may factor into the election of a candidate should they not be enough people’s first choice. Personally I am very much in favour of it for a number of reasons.

    Firstly, and I am sure I can’t be alone in this, I often view voting as a case of choosing the most palatable of the realistic options or in keeping the least palatable out of office. I may want to vote for a fringe party that is more in step with my beliefs but I opt for a mainstream candidate in order to keep another mainstream candidate out. With AV I can vote as my conscience dictates without worrying this is going to enable another candidate I don’t like to sneak in with me having wasted a vote.

    Our political system will change. If a candidate is loathed by 60% (or more) of their electorate then they won’t somehow sneak in on the back of their not being an opposition candidate around whom support coalesces. It will be impossible to win despite being unpopular with everyone who didn’t expressly want to vote for you.

    Our political system will stay the same in some very important ways. We will still have local representatives whom we can connect with and are locally accountable. More than we currently have, even. MPs will still have to have surgeries and will no longer be able to ignore people who didn’t actively vote for them as their first choice. This will make politics more local as well as more representative of the national mood.

    We won’t face coalitions like the one we have currently; where one party that is unpopular with the majority of the electorate yet somehow finds itself the largest party. Where one party with a large share of the popular vote nevertheless has very few MPs and has to go along with policies it strongly disagrees with. This coalition is not indicative of things to come; it is a symptom of what is wrong with our current system.

    It will be harder to commit electoral fraud.

    We will see degrees of commonality amongst centrist parties leading to a continuity of government, rather than sudden lurches to political extremes every few years that destabilises our country.

    I think most of the reasons for voting against AV come down to fear of the unknown, conservatism (and I always find traditionalism inherently odd, why shouldn’t we embrace something new if it is an improvement?) and irrational personal attacks (this is not a referendum on Nick Clegg and, if you believe it to be, isn’t a “no” vote an implicit endorsement of David Cameron?). I don’t think AV is a pressing issue that will improve the economy or create new jobs or fix education, policing or health in the short term. But a “yes” vote on AV will mean we get the governments we can at least with, rather than one other people choose to give us.

    Thor

    by Nick

    Thor is a Kenneth Brannagh film released through Paramount by Marvel Studios. It stars Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins and Chris Hemsworth as the eponymous character. It’s shot in upscaled 3D and currently on general release. To my mind it harkens back to Richard Donner’s Superman but those less kind may suggest it is more akin to Flash Gordon.

    Honestly, I enjoyed it greatly. I think the fact I had very low expectations helped, but the whole film felt near pitch perfect to me. From the relatively b-movie opening of Portman and her colleagues chasing storms that nonetheless effectively set their status quo to the introduction of Thor himself and sense of mystery his appearance engenders, this was efficient and well thought out storytelling. The film then loops back to explain the events leading to Thor’s introduction as well as setting up the Asgardian milieu and central conflict that is at the heart of the film.

    We see Thor as a child, explore sibling rivalry and family duties, come to understand the very real flaws of his character and the strengths of those around him. For all the grandeur and massive sense of scale the film evokes, this is a flawed hero that is inherently human. The antagonists, too, are humanised and shaded with their own complexity and understandable motivation. It is only in the supporting god characters that we see a lack of character. More than this, even as the lead characters have character traits and complex motivations, they also all have character arcs. That this is achieved with conflict, drama, excitement and romance is testament to the film’s writers and director. This is a surprisingly good film and one of the stronger comics to film conversions.

    Branagh, as director, has obviously put thought into the fact that there will be 3D conversion. There is a lot of symmetry employed and he has distinct foregrounds and backgrounds, with a very clear idea which characters should be the focal point of each shot. very few shots have anything appearing to the edge that could confuse or flatten the image on screen and Asgard is seemingly designed from the ground up to be a 3D playground. It’s also very well realised, not looking cheap or ridiculous and comes across much better than the Olympus portrayed in Clash of the Titans.

    The gods themselves are well costumed, with their outfits looking incongruous rather than ridiculous when they are transported to Earth. They look otherworldly and strange, but not laughable. This is partially down to the sheer physicality of the actors portraying them (particularly Hemsworth) but also in sensible costuming making them look more armour like and less theatrical.

    Hemsworth surprises with the role, his accent never jarringly slipping and coming across as likable, brattish, impulsive, angry and heroic. He is actually believable in the role and a definite screen presence. Portman is fantastic as ever, and looks gorgeous.

    Thor was a very pleasant surprise and something I would actually like to see a sequel to. A rarity in itself.

    Source Code

    April 14, 2011 by Nick

    Source Code is a science fiction film starring Jake Gyllenhaal and directed by Duncan Jones. It appears to be set in the current day or not too distant future, as all the fashions and consumer electronics are consistent with the world in which we live and there is nothing jarringly out of place.

    The film opens with the protagonist awaking with a start, to find he doesn’t recognise his surroundings or travelling companion (he is on a train) and, as he tries to get his bearings, the train around him explodes. He awakes with a start to find himself in a small containment pod where it is explained to him that he will keep reliving the events on the train over and over until he identifies the bomber in the hope of preventing further catastrophe.

    Much of the film hinges on the invention of the script in re enacting the same events over and over but keeping them interesting and the performance of Gyllenhaal. The film never feels claustrophobic (apart from when it sets out to) and deftly handles tone and mood.

    As the film progresses we learn more about Gyllenhaal’s military character, which has repercussions for how he approaches his mission on the train. Both his realities dovetail into each other and affect his behaviour, with what happens in one affecting what he does in the other.

    It is the more militaristic of the scenarios which features the strongest acting and character development, probably because it is more static and less reliant on events. Vera Farmiga plays a character torn between her duty and what she believes to be right, with human responses and uncertainty. She actually seems real and is a sympathetic and believable character. Jeffrey Wright is vain and officious and self serving, but still has depth and human weaknesses and strength.

    This is not to say that the train comes across as noticeably unrealistic or shallow: the supporting characters on the train feel like actual people
    and have personality traits on display. They just don’t have the time or space to have actual arcs.

    The film has an undercurrent of optimism and is positive, despite the occasional darkness of the material it contains. It’s enjoyable but has a real emotional heart and strong performances with considered writing. And it is done with real style and is engaging and convinces you of it’s reality and plausibility, even if the premise and execution falls apart under scrutiny. I genuinely loved it and look forward to watching it repeatedly on DVD, but it’s the emotional resonance rather than logic and coherence that makes it such a good film.