Film review: The Road

I didn’t expect to like this film. From the premise I expected it to be an either depressing or a just another pretentious genre movie set after the apocalypse. After all, who could enjoy watching a father and son wander around a devastated Earth for two hours and slowly starving to death? Turns out that The Road is a bit more clever and interesting than that; it’s actually a great character study and story about what people will do to survive in desperate times.

As the movie begins, the world has ended and things are only going to get worse. Some unknown disaster has blocked out the sun, and now “every day only gets greyer”. Nearly all of the plant and animal life in the world has died, leaving only a few human survivors to desperately scrape a living out of canned food and, frequently, each other. The two unnamed protagonists, billed as “the boy” and “the man” are making a desperate journey to the coast in an attempt to find food and company which won’t eat and/or rape them.

Vigo Mortesen puts in one of his best performances as “the man”. He practically radiates exhaustion and pain; his entire world has been stripped away, and the only thing he really cares about now is “the boy”, played with endearing innocence by …. The supporting cast emanate exhausted gloom; even the cannibals seem more depressed than malicious. In contrast to Hollywood disaster movies like The Day After Tommorrow, everyone dresses like a hobo, everyone seems weary, everyone is covered with more mud than the peasants in Monty Python and there is no magical McGuffin to resolve the plot. Just a boy and a man. Making their way through the world, such as it is. Trying to make the best of things.

There are terrific scenes as the characters make their way through the stricken landscape, which resembles America after a huge forest fire or ground zero at Hiroshima. It’s a testament to the acting and direction how much you want the boy and the man to succeed when they briefly find refuge in an abandoned bomb shelter. This becomes even more gut wrenching later on when it turns out that they didn’t need to abandon it in the first place.

One of the repeated motifs of this film is whether the characters can call themselves “good” when they do the things that they need to do to survive. At one point, Vigo Mortesan’s character strips a man who stole their supplies naked, then leaves him for dead. Was that a good thing to do? At another, a misunderstanding results in a close-range shooting battle and the deaths of two of the last surviving members of the human race. Who is the bad guy there? The cannibals are truly horrible, but with the whole world apparently dying anyway, how far can you really blame them? The pre-teen boy wants to help everyone they meet along the road; later evidence in the film suggests that he may have been right, but the situation is left for the individual viewer to decide.

In the end, The Road is a truly haunting and touching experience and a brilliantly made and shot film. More importantly, it has what most apocalyptic films lack; a touch of humanity to balance out the melodrama and spectacle of the end of the world.


Julian Assange: trumped up charges?

Well, we now have confirmation that Julian Assange will be bailed out. The fugitive who shook up the world with information alone reduced to paying £240,00 just to get out of jail, and what seems to be a blatant case of trumping up charges for political reasons can now go ahead as planned.

I have somewhat mixed feelings about Wikileak’s work in general (despite my contractual obligation to like it as a journalist). I don’t know if a badly-thought-out anarchist philosophy can justify putting the lives of dozens of soldiers at risk, although it’s done some clear good in exposing the coalition’s military blunders in Iraq.

Its founder is also a controversial and difficult figure. I’ve seen Julian Assange in person when he came to a debate at City University, and he didn’t make a good impression. He didn’t seem willing to answer any questions about whether WikiLeaks had gone too far in spreading information, and he was arrogant, rude and far too paranoid about the US government and the military-industrial complex (when I watched him I was reminded of the “it’s the corporations man!” bit from Team America). I don’t think anyone in the audience who saw him in action really liked him or thought he’d won the debate. But a rapist?

It’s revealing that when he was first accused, the case was dismissed after one day for lack of evidence. The case was re-opened in September, but we have yet to hear of any of this new evidence that his accusers supposedly have.  The two women involved at least initially seemed more concerned about the fact that he had sex with them without a condom and refused to get an STD test than anything else. This is not exactly nice behaviour, but it’s hardly the same thing as rape. It’s also telling that a red notice was only issued for Mr Assange after he published the US diplomatic documents.

The circumstances of his arrest seem dodgy too: apparently, he went to a voluntary meeting with police, and was willing to  turn himself in. As Justice Ouseley said “this is not the conduct of a person seeking to evade justice”. Yet the Swedish authorities still issued a red notice on him, despite his willingness to meet with them voluntarily. Clearly, someone wants him under lock and key as quickly as possible.

Anyway, his lawyer has said that he is pretty sure of beating the case, and despite this being hyperbole 90% of the time that a lawyer says it I’m inclined to agree. This is such a manifestly weak case that it can’t help but collapse. The real issue is that this gives other governments time whilst he’s in prison to prepare a case against him based on the diplomatic cables, and the implications that will have for his future freedom.

Mr Assange is too paranoid about the governments interfering with people’s civil liberties, but even a stopped clock is right a couple of times a day…

Saw 3D Review: terrible or not? (major spoilers)

Yesterday I watched Saw 3D and I unequivocally hated it. The violence was sickening and over-the-top, most of the acting was wooden in the extreme, and there were long stretches where nothing interesting happened. Now I’ve had time to think about it though, I’m starting to wonder if I didn’t give it enough credit. Not that it gets much credit, but maybe a little more than I thought at first.

A problem I had with this film, apart from the not-to-be-watched on-a-full-stomach-content, was how ineffective Bobby the self-help Guru seemed compared to previous protaganists of the series. There are a couple of Jigsaw’s victims-of-the-week that he could definately have saved- his poor wife, if he’d been quick enough to connect the extension cables which would have stopped the oven from closing, and his best buddy, who died because he managed to drop the key to open his noose-hanging thing at a critical moment. Afraid if you fumble a pass like that, it’s on you dude.

He also wimps out from lifting the bars on the weightlifting trap for long enough to save his publicist, something it seems like the earlier protaganists in the series (Dr Gordon from the first film for example) would have managed without trouble. Overall, none of the victims who he gets a chance to save survive, something which is (I think) unpreceedented in the Saw franchise. Then I realised that’s the whole point of the story.

Bobby’s backstory is that he cashed in on the Jigsaw vogue by claiming to have been in a trap where he had to perform a typical gristly act on himself to escape. He was, of course, lying; the most danger he’s ever been in is from excessively heavy noogies in the playground. He used the fame he gained from his deception to get a job dispensing self-help cliches about how “empowering” (what does that word mean?) his experience was, and how everyone who had been in a trap should be grateful. And along comes the Jigsaw killer, the quintessential poetic psychopath, ready to take him at his word…

Bobby’s ordeal is a kind of karmic punishment for his previous lies to the world; he is put in a position where he can live up to his talk about empowerment, seizing his goals and doing what it takes to survive, and he fails miserably. When placed in a genuinely dangerous situation, he doesn’t have what it takes to survive or transform his life; in his story he claimed to feel “reborn” after getting away from Jigsaw alive, whilst here he reacts with utter horror. Because he failed to save anyone, it means that unlike a few of Jigsaw’s victims he doesn’t benefit from his experiences; he is completely destroyed by them.

Anyway, I still wouldn’t recommend this film to anyone really, since it’s so over-the-top nasty and quite boring a lot of the time, but there is a sort of story in there, if you dig. In more competant hands, it could have been decent. Can anyone else think of redeeming features in otherwise horrible films? 

The Inbetweeners Season 3 Episode 5

“Finding out your mother’s on Facebook is bad enough, but finding out she’s looking for cock…” Wise words from Will, who suffers even more than usual in this week’s episode thanks to the rest of the boys moving in with him whilst his mum is on holiday.

Amongst other things, he puts up with more ‘your mother’ jokes against him than even The Inbetweeners usually has due to his mum’s new boyfriend, he has to stop his friends from pooing in the garden, and he inadvertently breaks up his mum and said boyfriend by karate kicking a middle-aged man down some stairs.

Jay, on the other hand, has serious animal problems; first, a squirrel makes the mistake of provoking him, and he promptly reverses his Nissan Micra into it. He calls it a “little p*sstaker”, but you tell by his eyes he regrets it. Second, his dad has his dog put down after he lies to have it taken out of the house; apparently it was distracting him whilst he was, um, “relieving” himself. You really feel for the guy, even if he does bring it all on himself.  

A subplot is Simon spending this week discovering the delights of playing golf. The rest of the boys discover the delights of playing golf with a neighbour’s flowerbeds. Will doesn’t want to do it but gets pressured into it. Guess who’s the one who gets caught?

It’s maybe a bit formulaic at the moment; Neil is thick, Jay is still obsessed with being a “playa”, and Will and Simon are stuck in the middle as usual. Luckily, we have Greg Davies’ short scene as evil Head of Sixth Form Mr Gilbert to cheer us up “Oh, I’m single at the moment. She (Will’s mum) is exactly my type. Just think, if it goes well enough, you could end up calling me daddy” (eyes go big). He is far and away the best actor in the cast, and maybe in any sitcom running at the moment.

Anyway, the finale is next week. Will Will earn the respect of the school? Will Simon win back Tara? Will Jay finally get some? We’ll soon see.

Gran Torino Review

Gran Torino opens with Walt Kowalski directing a scowl at the camera that would chill the bones of a Mexican Bandito or a San Francisco criminal. “Dad’s still living in the 50s”, says his son, “living by himself in the old neighbourhood, he’s going to get into trouble”. Both of these sentences prove prophetic; Walt is still living in the past, and it does lead to him getting into a hell of a lot of trouble.

The main plot involves misanthropic war veteran Walt accidently forming a friendship with Sue, a Hnung girl next door, and Thao, her shy brother. This gets him into grief with the despicable Spider, the main antagonist and the physical embodiment of people’s fears about immigrants in America. Thao “doesn’t know which direction to go in”; Spider wants him to steal Walt’s Gran Torino, whilst Walt, reluctantly, eventually comes round to helping him earn it.  

Easwood’s performance is the big draw of this film; a kind of right-wing, grumpy bear character, he still has his old rifle and medals from Korea, perhaps because he just cannot let go of the past. He gets no respect from his relatives, his wife has died, all his friends have left the neighbourhood, and, at the start of the film, he hates the foreigners who have moved in their place. He’s a jerk, but a sympathetic one because he’s almost the only viewpoint character who isn’t a yuppie or an outright criminal, and because he’s played with such grit and conviction by Eastwood that his ass-kicking is convincing even at the advanced age of 78.

The story of an old man discovering his better nature could have been sentimental glurge, but it rises above its material partly because of its uncompromising look at the worst aspects of modern day crime (the main antagonist’s heinous deeds include machine-gunning a house, burning a boy’s face with a cigarette and raping his own cousin) and partly because of Eastwood’s character’s utter refusal to be sentimental. His racism, though played perhaps a little too sympathetically, sometimes produces moments which are shockingly funny- when his Hnung neighbours invite him to a barbeque; he growls “just keep your hands off my dog”, and considering that he directs just as many jibes at his Italian and Irish friends he is clearly meant to be seen as a misanthrope with outdated views rather than a bigot.

An interesting subplot in the film which took a few viewings to understand is the local priest trying to extract a confession from Walt about his time in Korea and general cranky behaviour towards everyone. Walt, despite his old-fashioned beliefs, is firmly agnostic and having none of it. In the end, however, he will only admit to kissing a woman who wasn’t his wife and selling a boat illegally “I didn’t pay the taxes; it’s the same as stealing!” It’s unclear what this means in the context of the story; does he feel that he doesn’t need to apologise for his earlier behaviour and his actions during the war, or is he still holding out on the priest and the audience?

I prefer the former possibility; it fits in better with Walt’s character. In the end, despite what he’s done, he doesn’t regret it; his lack of a confession shows that he feels he has made up for himself and now has nothing to prove. Taken this way, his final scene seems to be about the fact that, by the end of the film Walt has redeemed himself in the eyes of his neighbours but, and this would certainly be more important to him, also in his own.

Scott Pilgrim Vs the World (with spoilers).

Scott Pilgrim vs the World

I saw this film a couple of weeks ago and thought I’d have a stab at reviewing it, since of all the superhero movies released recently it is probably the oddest. Unfortunately, I’ve been so busy that this is the first real chance I’ve had to do it; I’m sitting here with a plot summary to make sure I don’t make any obvious mistakes. I should say that I’ve never read the comic series that the film is based on, and that for all I know it may be brilliant.

The story is simple: Scott Pilgrim, unemployed everyman and bassist, meets the beautiful Ramona Flowers, the (literal) girl of his dreams. However, she’s carrying heavy baggage in the form of the League of Evil Exes, past boyfriends (and one girlfriend) with major relationship issues. To win her hand, Scott must defeat each of the exes with Super Smash Bros-style fighting moves, gaining self-confidence and a large number of Canadian dollars along the way.

The film’s visual style is its great strength; the mystical powers which everyone seems to have are written as magical realism, music appears as brilliant colours crossing the screen and the constantly shifting camera angles and close-in shots appear innovative, although even this becomes grating when they’re used to highlight the very un-awesome music of Scott’s band. In terms of style, this film is more original than The Dark Knight, which makes it sad that its actual content is so irritating.   

The film’s big problem is that for a story like this to work, the audience needs to identify with the character who discovers he can fly, shoot webs, turn any object a different colour etc. Scott is clearly meant to fit the lovable loser archetype, but for the first half of the film he’s such an irritating douchebag that you mainly want to reach through the screen and strangle him (and yes, Michael Cera may be hot. Despite looking like the human equivalent of a damp tissue, he may be hot. As a heterosexual guy, I don’t see it).

At the start of the film he’s mourning his break-up with former girlfriend Envy, and coping with his depression by stringing along and cheating on a high-school girl, bumming his possessions and flat off his mates and generally acting like a self-centred dork. This means that the climax of the film where Scott gains his self-confidence loses most of its impact; it seems like he already has enough self-confidence and just needs to learn not to be such a massive jerk, already. 

The film’s other big problem is the character of Ramona Flowers, the driving force of the plot. She’s introduced as literally an image in Scott’s head, and unfortunately she may as well have stayed there for all the character development she gets; her main personality features are changing her hair colour and working for Yeah, Mary Elizabeth Winstead is good-looking, but what does she really have on, say, Envy, or even his supposedly lame high-school girlfriend? (Ellen Wong, whose vivacious performance is one of the better parts of the film). In the end, despite a decent performance from Ms Winstead, there seems to be little justification for her character’s central place in the movie.

More than anything else, crossing a hipster romance with a dorky superhero film just proves how irritating both subcultures can be.