Tag Archives: substance

Burke and Hare/Shutter Island


A week ago today I saw Burke and Hare at the cinema. Now ordinarily I wouldn’t dream of waiting an entire week, allowing my first impressions, insights and musings to rot and fester, before decanting my thoughts into review form. That would just be unprofessional. Even more amateur than my usual efforts. However in the case of Burke and Hare I knew before, during and after the film that it would not be a memorable experience. Burke and Hare is predictable stuff that can be neatly categorized and classified. It is, as one reviewer says, “packed with the cream of British comedy talent”. You cannot help but regard it as waste though that the cream should resemble the squirty, mass manufactured variety rather than a rich, full and substantive treat.

The only strong lasting impression that Burke and Hare had on me was to increase my desire to go to Edinburgh. I have technically been before, as a four year old, but have no tangible recollection of the visit. It would be too generous though to claim that the film was solely responsible for my urge to head north, as it was an idea formed in my mind previously over the past few weeks, founded by reading about the city, strengthened with some lovely shots in David Tennant’s recent drama Single Father and rounded off with the agreeable atmosphere of the place presented here.

As I’ve said, Burke and Hare is predictable. It starts off pleasantly enough with Bill Bailey humorously introducing us to the premise, but not that humorously, and he sums up the film too. The problem is that it barely steps up a notch from this gentle beginning. It watches like a who’s who of British comedy and television and thus falls into the trap of lots of British productions by feeling like something more suited to the small screen. Rarely did I think a scene warranted the scale and noise of the cinema and there were only a handful of others with me, showing that the public must have reached the same pre-emptive judgement.

However I hope that Burke and Hare hasn’t fallen completely flat on its face at the box office to deter filmmakers from churning out such hearty fare. Because this sort of comedy is like a British biscuit; by no means unique but it certainly has its place as a needed comfort food from time to time. Refreshingly the film does not take itself too seriously and some (emphasis on some), some of the classic visual gags are nostalgically funny. It’s also splendid to see Ronnie Corbett again, even though it’s surely sheer novelty that makes his scenes so enjoyable rather than majestic acting prowess or a hilariously wonderful script. Simon Pegg also enhances his reputation by doing a remarkable job with mediocre material; as Burke he is the only character to come close to being rounded as well as occasionally funny. His relationship with Isla Fisher’s character, who adds the traditional totty to proceedings, has the potential to be moving at times. As several reviewers have remarked though, Burke and Hare could have done with a sprinkling of Pegg behind the camera as well to make this a more modern, and most of all a funnier British comedy.

If Burke and Hare was difficult to remember then Shutter Island will be difficult to forget. I genuinely believe that this Scorsese thriller is one of the films of the year and I’ll be rushing out to buy it on DVD so I can enjoy its treasures again and again. It’s impossible to fully appreciate this film in one sitting. It also must have been magnificent on the big screen and I am gutted that I did not manage to see it at the cinema as I desperately wanted to. If Burke and Hare’s score was jolly and comforting, then Shutter Island’s is chilling and mesmerising as it builds the tension and paranoia.

Leonardo DiCaprio hogged the limelight with Inception and critics raved about director Christopher Nolan’s exploration of dreams. But in my view Inception did not represent what dreams are really like and merely toyed with the structures of narrative with some fresh action scenes in comparison to Shutter Island’s bemusing, beautiful and ugly psychological study. DiCaprio’s character was haunted by visions of his dead wife in Inception too, but here the nightmares and the hallucinations are far more recognisable as dreams with their symbolism and scares.

It would be easy to dwell on Shutter Island’s brilliance but I will try and briefly summarise it. I cannot think of anything I disliked about the film and it feels far shorter than its considerable runtime. It is well acted and directed. The locations look fantastic. The soundtrack is the perfect accompaniment and enhancer of the rising levels of terror, paranoia and tension. The action scenes are engaging; the period perfectly evoked and made use of with its undertones of Cold War suspicion and Second World War horror. Most of all the narrative twists and turns are truly gripping and seductive. You come to care about DiCaprio’s character far more than the oddly named Cobb in the more widely praised Inception, and you’re far more clueless and concerned about what’s going on. In short: Shutter Island is a must see. It’s the primetime meat to Burke and Hare’s daytime sandwich.

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Cameron’s crafted call to arms lacked clarity and substance


David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative party conference in Birmingham yesterday was an accomplished rallying cry and an impassioned response to his critics. Of all the party leader’s speeches during this conference season there is no doubt that Cameron’s was the most polished and technically the best. He stood out as a Prime Minister and appeared like a leader, completing a transformation from head of the Opposition to the most experienced politician in Britain. He sought to counter Ed Miliband’s claim that Labour were the optimists now with his own stirring note of idealism. However in doing so he once again missed an opportunity to spell out his message clearly to the country, opting instead for reams of empty rhetoric that made excellent sound bites but often contradicted each other.

Most strikingly Cameron again tried to explain what he meant by the “Big Society” and again failed catastrophically to render it a reality accessible to voters. In his haste to counter the new Labour leader’s charge of pessimism, Cameron swung dangerously into the realms of wild over optimism. In the speech he simultaneously claimed that his coalition government was both realistic about what it could achieve in power and optimistic about what government could achieve in partnership with the people. In principle this all sounds lovely of course. Of course government should concede it cannot solve everything by decree and ask cooperation from its people, whilst also setting high standards of achievement. In reality though Cameron has no credible claim to the titles of both realist and optimist. He must choose one or the other to define his leadership. He let the tone of his speech tip into an unrealistic optimism, probably due to that desire to stop the Labour revolution in its tracks. He blasted the “cynics” who would pour scorn on his “Big Society” rhetoric and indeed it was a clever ploy from the Prime Minister to call on the people to come to the aid of the nation, with grand, fluffy, empty rhetoric, and offer nothing concrete. Those who criticise Cameron’s speech for its lack of substance will be easily labelled as non-believers, as statists who do not trust the brilliance of the British people. Cameron therefore tried to lay a trap for opponents of the “Big Society”. But there is a reason I continue to put the “Big Society” in inverted commas, and it’s the same reason voters and indeed Conservatives distrust the policy; good idea in principle, but it’ll never work in practice.

Again Cameron failed to articulate what the “Big Society” would actually mean in terms of government policy, besides him praising voluntary organisations in speeches and urging everyone to go out and get involved. Rhetoric and the lifting of restrictions alone will not drastically change people’s behaviour and therefore the country. The kind of society Cameron claims to want, one that rewards contribution and discourages excessive consumption, simply cannot happen without at least some prompting by central government. It is also confusing that Cameron should place such an emphasis on contribution and consumption, areas that would be better suited to alterations in tax policy, when his government has vowed to tackle the deficit predominantly through spending cuts. On the other hand Cameron did make it clear he wanted a state that was better run, more powerful and within the means of government. Again this is sensible in principle, but shockingly for a government claiming to be the “greenest ever”, Cameron simply refused to utter the word “sustainability”.

To have made sustainability a key theme of the speech would have given it greater direction and purpose and clarity. It should also be made a more important plank of his government’s policy agenda. At the moment it is an area that lies wide open for Ed Miliband’s “new generation” to seize upon and exploit. Cameron’s deficit slashing philosophy, he was at pains to point out, was not simply ideological but a necessity. However the public is already convinced that the cuts, whichever party implements them, will be in some way driven by that party’s ideology. An ideology containing the idea of sustainability would be far easier to justify than the abstract notion of the “Big Society”.

Cameron also hinted at a promise that after the pain there will be rewards. He should have placed much greater emphasis on his long term goals and how action now would lead to sustainable rewards in future, but he was perhaps deterred by the short term nature of the coalition. He was also perhaps put off of any mention of “sustainability” because a truly sustainable recovery, that really could end “boom and bust” as Gordon Brown once rashly promised, would require substantial investment now to ensure growth, energy supplies and long lasting jobs. Cameron is simply not prepared to take the gambles required of the “greenest government ever”. His brush with the backlash of child benefits cuts this week has reinforced to him that it is difficult to justify changes of policy, particularly from those promised in manifestos, to the media and electorate. He will therefore not be seen to spend now, even if that spending is necessary because of what he has previously said. So despite the obvious passion and idealism of his speech, his actions as Prime Minister suggest that Cameron is happy for the “Big Society” to remain a vague enigma, which will inspire some, baffle many and prove largely immune to damaging criticism, as critics will remain unsure as to what it is they object to. And if the Prime Minister was truly serious about lifting the burden of debt from our children then he would also use the shield of coalition to act in the “national interest” now to avert a legacy of unalterable climate change for them to inherit.

A Single Man/Sherlock


I’ve seen A Single Man twice and I am pleased to say it lost none of its impact upon a second viewing. The first time I watched it I was shocked at how I connected with it emotionally. It was the sort of heart squeezing link I only usually make with a piece of music or a poem; it was less a film than a piece of art saying something, expressing something, profoundly true about existence.

Of course for many critics the idea that this film was a glorious piece of visual art, a stimulating feast for the eyes, was simultaneously a strength to be applauded and a glaring weakness deflating all worth from the project. I had previously only come across the director and co-writer Tom Ford as the man who designed Daniel Craig’s suits for the Bond reboot Casino Royale. Whilst the tux was suitably suave my lack of expertise in the area meant I withheld judgement on Ford as an artist and a filmmaker until after the film. Those who knew better than me talked knowingly of Ford’s accomplished designing abilities and the inevitable shiny gloss of beautiful high fashion that would be evident in every frame of A Single Man. However critics also questioned the designer turned director’s ability to make his first film something more than a 90 minute perfume ad.

There are moments that feel a little too polished. In particular a flashback sequence in black and white that pictures Colin Firth and his dead lover sunbathing on an impossibly rocky, empty hillside. The Guardian critic picked out this scene as one that felt too crisp, too artificial and more at home in the fashion world than the realm of gay, grieving George’s story. I was inclined to agree but perhaps I was being too harsh. Having seen the whole film twice and loved it both times I am certainly more than happy to overlook an artificial feel to what was after all a dream sequence.

Besides those critics too focused upon the abundance of style in A Single Man may be missing the whole point of the story. Colin Firth’s bereaved, suicidal character comes to see that life is greatly lacking substance; style wins the day. Be it the style he hides behind for his neighbours, colleagues or students, George the lecturer deals mostly in the triumph of style over substance. His substance used to be Jim, his long term lover, but this was taken from him. The film charts a single day in this single man’s life, showing us mostly the tedious motions of his stylish act, with occasional glimpses of substance through the excellent, restrained performance of Colin Firth. That essence of suppressed British emotion so often seen in trashy romantic comedies finally finds its perfect place here in a gay man pondering the meaning of life. The film climaxes with a kind of answer to this question, as through an encounter with a student who reminds him of youth, George comes to treasure the handful of meaningful moments, when all seems clear, that really do make the veneer of stylish everyday nonsense worthwhile.  

So first time director Tom Ford must be praised for pulling off such a story. He should not listen to those who criticise the stylishness of his film as it simply irresistibly oozes the essence of an era I absolutely love and as discussed above, the sheer beauty of every frame adds to the meaning of the piece. He also co-wrote the script which seems to be a sensitive adaptation of Isherwood’s original work and is just the right length; this is a man capable of fine tuning the components of storytelling not just the image in front of a camera. Colin Firth’s performance, along with those supporting him, is also completely believable and compelling. Most films with a voiceover inevitably disappoint but this one pulls it off, largely due to Firth. A Single Man is certainly not a gripping, edge of your seat film experience but it is a compelling story beautiful enough to hang on your wall. If you could do so you would, for every time you see it you will ponder the nature of the human condition profoundly and re-examine your life.

To Sherlock then, a new version of the classic Holmes and Watson partnership, that updates the sleuthing to a modern day London setting. This time-leap transformation has not really been explored by filmmakers, perhaps out of respect for the characters’ grounding in Victoriana, or perhaps because it couldn’t be done well.

But if anyone can do it surely Steven Moffat, head writer of Doctor Who previously discussed on this blog, could! In partnership with fellow Whovian script writer Mark Gattis, Moffat has set out to introduce Holmes and Watson to a new generation via a new crime fighting era. The idea for the series came about during journeys to Doctor Who’s Cardiff HQ. In the title role Benedict Cumberbatch, an actor I have long thought would make an excellent Doctor at some point, plays the brilliant, socially inept mastermind of detection. The music for the series is composed by David Arnold of Bond film fame. All these things meant I couldn’t not like this programme!

I did of course love the first episode, A Study in Pink, perhaps all the more for being able to note Moffat’s little tweaks from Conan Doyle’s original story that united Holmes and Watson for the first time, A Study in Scarlet. However as with A Single Man the style was sometimes more impressive than the substance. A Guardian review has already noted that the plot was thin for this first episode, despite some wonderful Moffat-esque twists such as Mycroft appearing to be Moriarty and most importantly of all the spot on characterisation. Martin Freeman’s Watson is just the right balance between war veteran and ordinary man, avoiding the bumbling screen Watsons of past adaptations. Cumberbatch’s Holmes is marvellously distant, methodical and brilliant. The Sherlock influences on Dr Who were apparent whilst watching this and vice versa. I do hope Benedict gets a shot at being a Timelord. For now though I shall enjoy his interpretation of another one of my favourite characters and hope that this promising opener was but a taster of better things to come.