Monday, 2 August 2010

Inception Review - A Neat Fit Within The "Summer Blockbuster" Template

There is a member of the AANP Towers clan who likes his films straightforward, a scholar of the Bruce-Willies-Versus-The-Baddies-One-At-A-Time school of All Action No Plot cinema. Alas, said inhabitant of these four walls would find himself completely stranded if he tried to negotiate the vaguely labyrinthine new Leonardo DiCaprio film Inception. Rather a shame, because in terms of action, originality, acting and script the film is a cracking effort that neatly fits within the “Summer Blockbuster” template.

To try explaining the plot on paper would be like trying to provide written instructions on how to navigate a maze – hardly compelling reading, and a little pointless unless you happen to be slap bang in the middle of the ruddy thing. Suffice to say the plot keeps viewers on their toes without straying completely off course. Inception uses the pretty darned unique plot-device of a dream within a dream to go bending the laws of physics somewhat, with the result that a decent fist-fight can be interrupted by a sudden ninety degree shifts in gravity. All manner of mighty impressive action sequences duly follow, and in fact even the non-action sequences are fairly mind-blowing, as the powers-that-be have some fun with the various possible scenarios on offer.

All these bells and whistles are complemented by a cracking storyline and slick group of characters. Leonardo DiCaprio assembles his team Mission Impossible style, a likeable bunch -and a jolly well-dressed bunch too, if I may say so, whose sartorial elegance helps to give the whole film a polished film. This lot- including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe and Cillian Murphy - partake in some nice understated dry wit and banter, which helps keep the film ticking along nicely. It’s a cracking cast, as befits a film which slips in cameos from Michael Caine and Pete Posthelthwaite without breaking stride.

The action is unashamedly Matrix-esque, while the storyline could perhaps be classed in the Minority Report category of futuristic thrillers. To its credit the film does not seem overlong, even though it apparently lasts comfortably over two hours. As long as you’re well aware that The A-Team this ain’t, and sharpen your wits accordingly, you ought to emerge from Inception nodding in approval, while perhaps bracing yourself for sudden shifts in gravity.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Predators Review - Doing Justice To The Good Name Of Predator

In a nutshell, it’s a cross between Predator and Aliens – and let’s face it, irrespective of how well or badly a film is made, if this is the principle it adopts it has the building blocks in place to be one ruddy masterpiece of a cinematic event (at least for the All Action No Plot generation).

The film does not waste any time with such boring and slow-paced elements as preamble and scene-setting, opening instead with the protagonists literally dropping into the jungle and loading their weapons for a fight. I honestly don’t think they even bothered with names, or established who they ought to shoot – they simply aimed their weapons and waited for a chance to mow down various parts of the Amazon with their uzis and what-not.

(By this stage my readership ought to be swiftly separating into those who realise they are on the wrong page of the interweb, and those true All-Action-No-Plot devotees who have presumably already seen the film.)

That line about it being a cross between Predator and Aliens is no exaggeration by the way. The plot really can be defined thus. A bunch of pretty hardened commandoes in the jungle (admittedly minus the bulging biceps of Schwarzenegger’s merry men), hunted by an unseen beast? So far, so Predator. Throw in the fact that they are actually on the beasts’ home turf, and that there is more than one of said beast, and you have a healthy dose of Aliens. The characters are also lifted straight out of Aliens, without so much a as a cursory rub-down. Alice Braga plays a Ripley-Vazquez hybrid; Adrien Brody the quiet, wiry Hicks-style group leader; Walton Goggins the Hudson-style comic relief; while as a silent-but-deadly type who removes his shirt and decides to take on a predator with just one enormous sword, Louis Ozawa Changchien is a reincarnation of Predator’s Billy.

None of which should be thought of as pejorative, for just as these were winning elements to Predator and Aliens, so they provide fistfuls of goodness to Predators.

MANP does not mind admitting that it was with a strong degree of suspicion that it braced itself for Adrien Brody’s attempt to play tough-guy. Merrily enough, we grant him a Gladiator-style thumbs up. Just about. He does rather overdo it initially, doing everything short of carrying a sign saying “I’m bad-ass (and intense). Honest!” No time to stop and breathe, Brody does not use four words if three and a moody stare will suffice. He moodily declares himself leader, before examining the grass and moodily declaring they head yonder, then examining the sky and moodily declaring they hunt their captors or whatever. But it’s not a bad effort at all.

The pace is fast, and the suspense, hunter-hunted dynamic, violence and explosions are up there alongside the original. Predators may have benefited from more quotable lines, but this is pretty harsh criticism. It is a worthy sequel to the original, 1987 Predator. Whereas, say Terminator Salvation, seemed simply to be a summer blockbuster which almost sacrilegiously adopted the good name of the Terminator franchise to attract rear-ends to seats, Predators has the feel of a film lovingly hand-crafted by an aficionado of that original Schwarzenegger movie, an effort basically to replicate the original and give another 90 minutes’ worth to those who enjoy working “Get to da choppaaaa” into their everyday parlance.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

The Shadow of the Wind (Zafon) - All hail Fermin Romero de Torres

I have no problem admitting that having borrowed The Shadow of the Wind from the library, I was inclined to return it immediately – and rinse my hands of it with lashings of disinfectant – for the blurb on the back cover hinted at all that I abhor most in the literary world. Said the Guardian note on the back cover, “What makes this novel so irresistibly readiable is the emotional energy generate...” Excuse me? “Emotional energy”? Good grief...

Further horror was to follow some five lines further down, when I noted, by now aghast, that the last review on the back cover was posted by no less a publication of testosterone-fuelled sage judgement than Elle magazine. Chilling portents you will no doubt concur, but having pledged to begin the book I bit the bullet, held my breath and dived in.

It is not difficult to see from where such pointless gubbins as “emotional energy” arises, for the book is littered with Mills and Boon-esque romantic clenches and paternal embraces, all too reminiscent of the overly-sensitive types at University who would destroy a good al fresco barbecue by unsheathing a guitar and strumming some rancid ballad. Indeed, the very name of the book is enough to prompt a raised eyebrow of scepticism.

Mercifully however, such Elle-friendly fare is offset by some truly corking moments of written genius. In Fermín Romero de Torres the author senor Zafón has created one of the great literary characters of our time, a hilarious, irresistible, verbose tramp-cum-philosopher, whose pearls of wisdom on the fairer sex manage to coat the most sordid sentiments in gloriously ornate vernacular. A man who makes the crudest animal instincts seem like Wilde at his most flourishing, Fermín’s every line is an absolute gem. I for one would quite happily have dispensed with the principal storyline of The Shadow of the Wind, and simply gorged myself on 400 pages of exchanges between Fermín and the young chief protagonist, Daniel, who himself dealt a neat line in rapier-like, slightly exasperated ripostes.

To what extent Zafón himself deserves credit is actually unclear, for the translation into English is provided by Lucia Graves, and so rich is the language used that it is difficult to know how much has been added by a translator with a twinkle in her eye – or indeed, how much lost by the transition from the native tongue to a potentially more leaden English. Personally I doff my cap in both directions, but I do wish I knew Spanish sufficiently well to appreciate The Shadow of the Wind as intended by its maker.

The plot is enjoyable enough nonsense, a literary history that turns out to have its roots in reality, linked inextricably to a violent and occasionally murderous game of cat-and-mouse. Although beginning from a flimsy and fairly incredible initial few premises, it proceeds along at a pleasant pace - punctuated by quirky characters, a likeably bumbling rites-of-passage journey for the central character, a couple of attention-grabbing plot twists and, of course, carried by the interjections of the magnificent Fermín. Zafón makes full use of his 400 pages, fleshing out his plot and sub-plots, without ever getting bogged down in detail, and painting mid-twentieth century Barcelona without dwelling unnecessarily on aesthetics.

The pedants amongst us may quibble that there is not much beneath the surface – but when the surface is as ornately and sumptuously presented as by Zafón this proves an eminently bearable flaw. The Shadow of the Wind has enough about it to keep the reader satisfied.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

The Hangover - A Tad Underwhelming

Is there such a thing as objective beauty? An infuriating poser from my University days as a wide-eyed philosophy student, and one of which I was reminded, in a tangential sort of way on watching The Hangover. Is there such a thing as objectively funny comedy?

The Hangover came well recommended, and after my own absolutely mental all-action weekend away for a friend's stag-do in Benidorm, I was well set for an hour and a half of comedy gold. Perhaps it is precisely because of such a build-up that the film fell a little flat. Funny undoubtedly, but not laugh-til-you-cry funny. Ironically enough, after getting home I switched on the telly-box and ended up laughing until my stomach hurt, at The Inbetweeners on Channel 4. "Stomach-achingly funny" was definitely not a label I could honestly plaster across The Hangover.

It worked well enough, but most of the gags just seemed a little telegraphed. Again, perhaps because I'd seen the trailers a few times, I felt like I knew what was coming (SPOILER ALERT!!! AVERT YOUR EYES HERE) with the baby, the tiger and Mike Tyson. All funny in principle, but as much because of the surprise value.

There were undoubtedly some very funny moments, primarily the more spontaneous, non-situational ones (which it would therefore be rather pointless to list here). The leads were likeable, and displayed some impeccable comic timing at times, and the baby, though under-used in my opinion, made me laugh every time he was on screen. I was also rather pleased to see a gross-out style comedy with precious few gross moments, although that probably has more to do with my puritanical disdain for vulgarity as a form of humour. The Hangover was not so much gross-out as unashamedly boyish, a lads' weekend in cinematic form, and with the memory loss, unexplained injuries and mattress ending up on a roof it certainly did evoke memories of the Benidorm stag-weekend.

So, it was entertaining enough, but if you've seen the trailer the punch-lines rather lose their punch. And yet, friends of mine, and various others with me in the cinema, were killing themselves with laughter. Which does lead me to wonder – is it just my sense of humour? Was it really a better film than I'm crediting it? Is there such a thing as objectively funny comedy?

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Ashes Day One - The Excitement of Moving Five-Day Chess

Was trying to explain the appeal of cricket to some good-naturedly enthusiastic lady-friends yesterday. I now admit, in hindsight, that my pitch of "five-day moving chess" probably was not the most advisable tag-line to use in trying to sell the game. My point, however, was that the ostensibly slow nature of the game is amply compensated for by the constant scope it provides for examining the current situation, and speculating as to how it might change in the blink of an eye.

At face-value, 336 for 7 is pretty even. BUT… that first hour of day two could be crucial. If the Aussies rattle through the last three wickets, in under half an hour and for 15 or so runs, they gain the upper hand. Alternatively, if we hang around for another hour and a half, and nudge over 400, we can liberally dish out back-pats, safe in the knowledge that we ought really to have removed an Australian victory from the equation.

You see? It's the examination of the situation, and what might happen that's exciting! (At this point, presumably, various non-cricket enthusiasts give up and check facebook.)

Now admittedly the first hour may fall in between these two extremes, and meander gently for an hour, with England reaching around 380 all out in thoroughly unspectacular fashion. Should that be the case, however, then the following hour will become all important, for a handful of early Australian wickets would really give England the advantage… I jest ye not, I can barely contain my excitement.

The KP Debate Continues

As mentioned, at face-value it's even, but given that England won the toss, 336 -7 is mildly disappointing. It was a placid wicket, and the Australian attack does not instil the same fear of a fairly recent yesteryear. Bopara, Strauss and Prior were dismissed by decent deliveries, but with so many batsmen having made good starts, the lack of a big hundred was disappointing, and may well cost us victory.

Having opted to bat, we should have looked for at least 450. KP's dismissal was a rather exaggerated example of how our batsmen were too charitable in giving away their wickets. Geoff Boycott described his offending shot – an attempt to sweep a ball a foot and a half outside off-stump – as "stupid".

Boycott is always outspoken, and to be honest he rather irritates me, but I think he is spot-on here. If KP were still in this morning he'd have 100 by now and we'd be cruising towards 400+.

However, in KP's defence, that is the nature of the beast. If he did not attempt those unnecessary attacking – and downright daft - shots he would neither play half the excellent-but-unorthodox shots that make him our best batsman. For every infuriating and narcissistic dismal he also hits a breath-taking bravado 50. It is a debate that will be had many a time and oft, but the All-Action opinion is that it is a trade-off worth making.

Looking forward to a crucial first hour….

Monday, 6 July 2009

Transformers 2 - How Good Would This Be If It Were An 18...?

First things first - any film in which giant robots relentlessly beat each other up while just about everything explodes in the background can't possibly be bad.

However, no film – no film – should ever leave any self-respecting All Action No Plotter musing halfway through that it's gone on rather a long time. And this, regrettably, is why Transformers 2 will never be granted access into the pantheon of all-time All-Action-No-Plot celluloid greats.

Transformers 2 is an entertaining action film, no mistake. As mentioned, giant robot fights; lots of crash, bang and walloping, some inspired comedy moments and eye-candy a-plenty. The film begins with the likeable, if bafflingly-named, Shia LeBoeuf heading off to college to lead a normal life. This plan lasts about 30 seconds, before a robot war spanning numerous millennia and across several planets kicks off.

Thus, before you know it, LeBoeuf is being chased through forests, buildings and ancient Egyptian ruins, by humongous robots, who would be the ultimate killing machines were it not for the fact that their aim and ruthlessness mysteriously desert them whenever their target is within touching distance.

(Actually, that's a lie – they do occasionally pop a good-guy, but this is no impediment to the film's producers, who merrily resurrect them with minimal explanation whenever the plot needs them back.)

The action sequences are undeniably enjoyable, old-school carnage presented so well you rather forget that it's all CGI. The men are macho and heroic; the women suitably drop-dead gorgeous and gratuitously filmed, with Megan Fox joined by delectable blonde Isabel Lucas. Romance is kept to a level most men should be able to follow and stomach, and the plot is not particularly relevant - some gubbins about destroying the sun.

Mildlly irritating then, that for a film with such minimal plot there was so much meandering midway through. The heroes went on the run from the police, then broke into a museum, then were magically whisked away (I kid ye not) to Egypt, then traipsed through a desert and into some old building and back out into the desert and through more ruins... None of which was really necessary, and all of which contributed to that rarest of beasts, a film well over two hours in length.

Would it have been a better film had it been given a higher rating than 12A? By jiminy it would have (but then, what wouldn't?). As with the original, the attempts to make the film child-friendly rather detracted from the spectacle, and left me wanting to make small children cry. Someone somewhere ought to be sacked for the introduction of two excruciatingly annoying slapstick autobots, in the Jar-Jar Binks mould.

More bloody deaths, and general sex, drugs and rock'n'roll would have benefited Transformers 2 enormously – but I'm possibly digressing at this point into the mystical, celestial world of The Best All Action No Plot Films Ever.

It's not a must-see, and the novelty of the original is understandably lacking, but for mindless big-screen action Transformers 2 does tick that all-important box labelled All Action No Plot.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Listelss. A rap.

How the blazes it came to this no-one quite knows – but in a development which will have my former philosophy tutor at Cambridge spluttering over her Wittgenstein essays in disgust, I have penned my first rap.

Actually, the question of how the blazes this came about can be answered immediately, and with greater ease than had previously been suggested. An associate, on reading my critique of D. Rascal's Bonkers, had suggested that I did the man a disservice, in chiding him for lack of depth in his lyrics. 'Twas a social commentary, and examination of the human condition, he argued. Specifically, he claimed, Bonkers is about listlessness, disaffection and the negative preoccupations of the subject of his verse.

In my capacity as The Most Gullible Person I Know, I must admit to being a little unsure of the sincerity of these comments. I listened again to Bonkers – always a pleasure, never a chore - and while the lyrics could certainly be construed as interpretations of the themes suggested, I would hardly compare them to Wilde in terms of intelligence, variety and general exploration of the richness of language. They rhyme, and they're catchy, but I've heard better rap (from Mr Rascal himself, I might add).

However, I am inclined to think 'tis wrong to judge a man until one has walked a mile in his shoes. I therefore endeavoured to write my own rap about listlessness and disaffection.

I should point out that it works rather better if heard, rather than read, and would also certainly benefit from some sort of melodious background accompaniment. Be that as it may, do please go right ahead and knock yourself out, with Listless.

I'm so full of talent, got so many skills
Hold tight, or your legs give way at my skills
I can click with my left, do fifty-six sit-ups
These just some my skills, y'all playing catch-up
Skills, mad skills, talent, flair, gift, skills
Donde mate, just a shame I'm so listless

I'm listless mate, and it's not my fault
Everything takes effort, which I don't got

It's not fair boss, no-one works to support me
Don't give money, cars, girls, won't do anything for me
I got so many talents no-one else should survive
But I'm listless mate, so y'all be deprived

Check out my skills mate, I can make pasta
Get the sauce from a jar, and believe, it's top pasta
Nutritious, delicious, and not too firm blud
Done eight minutes flat, only needs hot water
I'm so slick it's unfair, go warn your peoples
Donde mate, just a shame I'm so listless

I'm listless mate, and it's not my fault
Everything takes effort, which I don't got

It's not fair boss, no-one works to support me
Don't give money, cars, girls, won't do anything for me
I got so many talents no-one else should survive
But I'm listless mate, so y'all be deprived

And yes yes mate, watch me make paper-planes
There's gold in these fingers when I make paper planes
I'm all over the folds, flaps, wings, tip, nose
Check out the creases, watch my talent you knows it
Sometimes they die – true – but sometimes they fly – yes
Donde mate, just a shame I'm so listless.

I'm listless mate, and it's not my fault
Everything takes effort, which I don't got

It's not fair boss, no-one works to support me
Don't give money, cars, girls, won't do anything for me
I got so many talents no-one else should survive
But I'm listless mate, so y'all be deprived