Thursday, May 31, 2007

Pirates 3 and Summer Blockbuster Season

Summer blockbuster season has for as long as I can remember been the time of mega-action, complex special effects and limited plotlines. Now I know I can be a harsh critic and I tend to prefer movies that make me think, but in the past I have genuinely looked forward to the summer season. There’s nothing quite like sitting back in your allocated seat and marvelling at the constant stream of eye candy.

From Back to the Future 3 to Spiderman, summertime represents style over content and long may it continue.

That was until the last couple of years. The competition in Hollywood is now so fierce that studios have opted to go for ‘bigger’ movies year on year. The problem with this is how to outdo what has gone before. Summer blockbusters aren’t going to win Oscars for the acting or screenwriting categories so the general view is to just up the threat levels, increase the amount of action and throw in extra layers of complexity.

Unfortunately, summer blockbusters are notoriously hit and miss. The problems are too many to list here but suffice to say the fact that there are more than ever before doesn’t help.

With this in mind I went into the crammed showing of Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End expecting the worst. The news that the film was going to weigh in at 2 hours and 40 minutes did not sit well with me. As I’ve argued before, for a movie to stretch well past the 2 hour mark it needs to have more than just fun special effects and great action scenes. It needs to have an epic storyline. Blockbusters rarely have these and after the travesty of Pirates 2 I was right to feel concerned.

And then the movie started.

Pirates 3 brings together the many plotlines left open from the previous movie and rather than mangle them together to form a Spiderman 3 shaped mess, it actually flows along really well. Despite the many convoluted stories left hanging in the previous film the director successfully manages to produce a classic film of 3 acts. In the beginning the group must tie up the loose ends and rescue Jack from Davy Jones’ Locker. Act 2 slows the pace down enough to allow our heroes time to choose their allegiances. More importantly it gives the director a chance to build a story that, while simplistic in nature, is both epic and tragic. Of course it wouldn’t be a summer blockbuster without the de facto climactic battle to end all battles to make up a final act. And boy is it yo-ho-me-hearties fun.

For me, the success of Pirates 3 has less to do with it returning to the roots of what makes summer blockbusters good and more to do with it actually nailing how to make a modern, complex popcorn movie.

Merging extra layers of plot into a big budget action movie is difficult. I say this because until now I can’t ever recall seeing it working. Spiderman 3 is a great example of a failure to understand how to increase the complexity of a movie while maintaining its popcorn cinema credentials. The first two Spideys were very well done; firmly in the blockbuster mould but with enough plot and depth to keep more than just a 12 year old entertained. However, in an effort to be ‘bigger’ than its predecessors, Spidey 3 became a mess; a hotchpotch of convoluted plotlines and missed chances. I’m not going to do a review of the movie, but for a good breakdown of the problems, check out George’s blog.

The same can be said of the second outing of Pirates of the Caribbean. Some might argue that it is a problem of hype, but movies like this create their own hype so it’s hard to be sympathetic. The marketing now is 24/7 (thankyou Star Wars) and while it has had the desired effect of increasing the number of bums on seats, for me the quality has been ever-decreasing. The directors of these movies are inevitably charged with trying to make longer and more complex movies while adhering to the principle that their craft must entertain the pre-pubescent kiddies. The result is more and more likely to be a Spiderman 3 or a Pirates 2. But every once in a while everything comes together and just works.

Pirates 3 is a great example of this. Whereas the middle part of the trilogy (why must everything be a trilogy?) felt like a movie in which the writers had come up with 3 or 4 great set pieces and then tried to write a story around it, the third film has a central plot that ties all the characters together. All of the other sub-plots are handled in their own time and without forcing the movie off on some wild-goose chase. Love stories like the one between Davy Jones and Tia are woven nicely into a central plot about fighting for the freedom to roam the seas.

The performances from the central characters are strong. I was particularly impressed with Orlando Bloom, who finally seemed to step out of the shadow of Lord of the Rings. Naturally Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush were on top form. Even Keira Knightley failed to dampen my enjoyment. If I have one criticism of the cast it would be of the total waste of the talent that is Chow Yun-Fat. I mean, this guy is one of the coolest men on the planet and the writers give him about 3 scenes. Gutting!

Also, while I was very impressed with the handling of the many plot threads I did still have issues with the central theme. Fight for freedom movies are great but I couldn’t shake the feeling that having a bunch of pirates standing for freedom was a bit rich really. I mean don’t get me wrong, the villain is perfectly cast as the truly evil East India Trading Company. You won’t ever get me defending their actions, but to have pirates held up as heroes was akin to saying you prefer Blair to Bush because he has less nuclear weapons. It’s all shades of dark grey!

Anyway, I’m digressing and forgetting that this is popcorn cinema, and you’d be right to pull me to one side and say… “er Nige, it was a movie about pirates fighting sea monsters, lighten up!”.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End is a very good piece of cinema. While not on par with the first film, it is strong on merit. It manages something extremely rare in the movie business and actually makes a very simple premise last for well over 2 and a half hours without compromising on quality or forgetting it’s central story. If only we could re-edit Pirates 2 then the franchise would make a half-decent trilogy.

So there we go. Reading back through this blog it’s clear that I have the capacity to write a summer blockbuster. My prose is convoluted, my central theme goes missing for long periods and I’ve kind of left it open for a sequel.

Taxi to Hollywood please!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Fall of Caesar

Shakespeare would have been proud. With more than a hint of melancholy Tony Blair made his pre-resignation speech today defending his policies and proclaiming that the British people have it far better now than we did in 1997.

Given that Blair was obsessed with image and buzz words like ‘Cool Brittania’, it was only fitting that Blair should see fit to drag this one out with as much heart-tugging poignancy as he could muster. One commentator described it as being delivered in the ‘Diana Funeral’ style, and it certainly seems that Blair views this whole event as some kind of Shakespearean tragedy. The great Caesar is going, long before his time. Forced out by low opinion polls and a legacy that includes Britains most disastrous foreign policy engagement since the Suez crisis.

As friends, Romans and countrymen line up to offer tributes to their fallen King, I feel it necessary to point out that this is only the PRE-resignation speech. The guy won’t be leaving office until June 27th, meaning that we are likely to be treated to another slice of Blair wisdom then. In fact this is technically his second pre-resignation speech after first announcing he’d be gone ‘within a year’ last September.

Of course, it would be wrong of me not to comment a little on his 10 years in power. The media likes to boil things down into a nutshell; has he been good for the country or bad for the country? Well it isn’t really that simple is it? Even I, a hardened anti-Blair activist, can recognise that it is impossible for any leader to be in power for 10 years without doing something good!

Sadly, my opinion is that pretty much all the good came in the first 4 years. The introduction of the minimum wage, the handing over of interest-rate management to the bank of England, the introduction of devolved assemblies in Wales and Scotland and the successes on the World stage (Good Friday Agreement, Kosovo, Sierra Leone) all occurred in his first term of office.

After 9/11 everything changed. It has been written that Blair really did (and still does) see this as a great battle between ideologies; That invading Iraq and Afghanistan are acceptable cases of liberal interventionism (like Kosovo was). This isn’t the case. I believe whole-heartedly in liberal interventionism. We shouldn’t stand back while people are slaughtered in countries around the world. We must take action. The war in Kosovo was right and just. The war in Iraq was a mistake of arrogance.

The only tenuous moral justification Blair had left for Iraq was that Saddam was a dictator that murdered his own people and suppressed opinion with violence. However, this was not the reason we went to war. It was the reason given when all the others (WMD, links to Al Qaeda etc) failed to produce significant evidence to back them up. But more than anything, his failure in Iraq is that a plan for managing the peace was not effectively drawn up in the months prior to the invasion. Vague plans for holding elections and training a police force are nothing more than rhetoric if most of the country doesn’t have electricity or running water. Throughout 1944 and 1945 the allied forces put together a detailed plan for post-war Europe. Given that we were constantly told how Saddam was the greatest threat we had faced since Hitler, it is astonishing that no-one in the vast ranks of military advisors, politicians and civil servants considered what would happen when you create a power vacuum in a country were a dictator has ruled with an iron fist for over 25 years.

While it would be easy to chalk up the remainder of Blair’s time in office post 9/11 as a tale of wars, terrorism and trips across the Atlantic the truth is that a considerable amount of legislation has been introduced. However, while Blair started out his tenure talking of social justice and freedom of choice for all, increasingly the last 5 years has taken on a more controversial nature. From top-up tuition fees which went against a manifesto promise, to measures for curbing a citizen’s right to protest, I find it difficult to rationalise the change in direction his second term took. Hell, even his efforts to modernise the House of Lords have become overshadowed by scandal and corruption.

In his speech, Blair turned to his favourite friend to detail his achievements. No not Alistair or Peter, but rather the statistics that have been the backbone of his time in office. Crime is down, hospital waiting lists are down, schools are more productive, our economy is the most stable it has been in generations and unemployment is down. Of course, statistics are too easy to spin, and sadly for Blair too much of his time in office has been spent obsessing about figures that ‘prove’ his success.

  • Reported crime is down, but violent crime is up.

  • Hospital waiting lists are down, but a considerable number of trusts are in heavy debt and have been forced to put caps on hiring staff, even to replace natural turnover.

  • We have the highest rate of University attendance in history, but students are now burdened with considerable debt and find themselves over-qualified for the jobs available in this country.

  • Our economy is booming, but it is based entirely on massive borrowing and held up by the highest level of consumer debt in history.

  • Unemployment is down… okay Tony, I’ll give you that one.

On top of statistics we’ve had the positioning of unelected advisors reporting on government departments – a move I find shameful and deeply undemocratic. Indeed, Blair’s first two terms can be described as more Presidential than anything we have seen before.

Blair has said that we should all think back 10 years and ask if our standard of living has improved. That is the saddest excuse a Prime Minister can use to explain away his time in office. To boil down his achievements to this is an indictment of failure. Let me ask you, in 1997 would you say your standard of living had improved since 1979? Of course it had. Standard of living in this country has been improving steadily since the end of WW2.

Blair has achieved some great things in his time. Of that there is no doubt, but my opinion of him will always be that of a man who was more spin than substance; a man who used his massive majority to force through unpopular legislation; a man who rather than improving democracy in this country, has damaged it considerably; a man who squandered the greatest chance in generations to make this country a better place for all; a man who cannot hide behind moral justification for a war that has made the World a more dangerous place and given disillusioned Muslims a reason to turn to violence.

I won’t miss you Tony.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Blair does a Bush

Perhaps the funniest story from this weeks local and parliamentary elections was the fact that hundreds of thousands of votes may have been lost due to glitches and general confusion with the new systems of votes.

Of course the irony of this is that the problems occurred in the one part of the country where Tony Blair was fighting neck-a-neck to hold on to power. Now I'm not suggesting that Tony tried to take a leaf out of George Bush's Election 2000 book... well ok I am... but either way it didn't work. The largest party in Scotland is now the SNP, who will look to forge an alliance with one of the smaller parties in an effort to form a government. Thankfully, their hopes of forcing a referendum on Scottish independence are unlikely to come to fruition as their likely partner (the Lib Dems) have categorically ruled out voting in favour of such a move.