Friday, 24 July 2009

Beating up evil Europeans

Taken is an enjoyable simple action film, which is confusing. It is basically just a revenge thriller, with Liam Neeson killing a procession of bad people. It shouldn't be a good film. It sounds like a game. So why is it? It's definitely suspend-your-disbelief time, as one man kills about about a hundred people, but if you do go along with it then you'll accept the fantasy. This isn't enough though, and Taken has one strong point of depth - the bond between father and daughter. There is a good amount of characterisation before the fighting starts. You feel sorry for him and as a result slightly worried for his daughter. You want him to succeed and beat up everyone in Europe to find her. It's a relationship that holds up the entire film, it would probably be terrible without it. This film knows it isn't clever and only wants to be efficient and satisfying. It's a B-movie. It shouldn't be taken too seriously.

I should probably summarise all this: Inside Man thinks it's clever and isn't, Heat thinks it's clever and is, Taken thinks it isn't clever and isn't.

And with that I'm running away for two weeks.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

No action puppets

I blogged about the evils of Hollywood action films a week ago (is 'blog' a verb now?) so it's time I wrote about the other side of the coin. Michael Mann's Heat is a crime thriller, but as it goes along you get the sense that it's about people rather than gunfights. I enjoy a good gunfight (and there's some brilliant ones here) but there has to be a real plot surrounding them. Heat is about the consequences of crime, with the two main characters being completely controlled by it. These characters are not typical action puppets, they have 'real' lives that are more complicated than their day job. More time is spent exploring the effects of the struggle than the struggle itself. The coffee shop scene adds weight to everything that happens after; the characters both understand each other, they recognise parts of themselves in the other. It is fitting that it all ends with them holding hands. And there are no mavericks, no caricatures, and I wasn't thinking about the music - because it was excellent.

Mann usually makes films about two men locked in some sort of battle. Collateral was claustrophobic and played out a struggle between an improviser and a planner, contained in a taxi. Public Enemies wanted to go somewhere like this but failed because one side was just a flat FBI agent. Heat is epic and sprawling and is about more than two characters, it's a thriller done with thought and intelligence. It wants to be something above its genre.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Scarecrows and statues

I recently discovered that some of my favourite episodes of Doctor Who are contained on one boxset disc, which, if you're me, is exciting. The two-parter 'Human Nature' and 'The Family of Blood' and the episode 'Blink' are the show at its best, and ironically the Doctor is hardly in them at all. When it's not just a big fight and lots of running, when it's creepy and intelligent, Doctor Who is brilliant. These episodes achieve what very few things can - they are clever, epic, personal and sad all at the same time. And they have genuinely scary monsters. Daleks and Cybermen are nice, but scarecrows and statues are more menacing. Asking 'did that statue just move?' and 'why is that scarecrow waving at me?' is far more entertaining than metal aliens.

In 'Human Nature' the Doctor is stuck in 1913, having stored his Time Lord consciousness in a watch (does this make sense to anyone outside of Britain?). As John Smith he has to decide whether he wants to back to his 'real' life, to be immortal but lonely. It raises the 'what does it mean to human?' question the writers like so much, but it rarely works as well as it does here. He also has to consider whether anyone would have died if he'd never turned up. It's heavy stuff for Saturday night television. And 'Blink' features the best time-wimey stuff of any series. Statues that move when you blink send you back in time to 'let you live to death.' What could be better than that?

Friday, 17 July 2009

Strange blue golf courses

The Aviator seems to be about planes, which, for all their historical significance. don't really interest me. It's the portrayal of Howard Hughes that keeps the film going. Here he is always hanging over complete madness, sometimes dipping his foot into it but crawling back out again. This isn't the usual case of 'power corrupts', it's not the one-way trip that I was expecting. The aviation politics and the filmmaking and the women surround his madness and sometimes help it along, as he appears to order multi-million dollar projects on a whim. There are some interesting stylistic choices too; Scorsese chose to colorize the first fifty minutes in red and blue, creating an apparently historically but surreal look. Add to that to the almost constantly spiralling music and Hughes seemed to be moving through a strange 1930s dream world.

DiCaprio gives a typically enjoyable performance, and there's an interesting supporting cast - including, brilliantly, Alan Alda. On the other hand, Cate Blanchett (cough) gives a very annoying performance. I can't blame her for a supposedly accurate, if slightly exaggerated, portrayal of a real person, but the character was mind grating. A small point of criticism on a decent film.

Monday, 13 July 2009

How to be unimaginative

I recently watched Inside Man. It turned out to be a depressingly unimaginative bank heist film, occasionally being so predictable that it verged on parody. But I did learn a few things from it.

How to make a standard Hollywood action movie
1. A maverick detective with a point to prove. He's a bit of an outsider in the department and his unorthodox methods raise a few eyebrows on the operation. He will eventually get the job done, maybe gaining some respect along the way.
2. A veteran policeman who's seen it all before. He will occasionally smoke and make philosophical comments - 'Why does it have to be like this?'
3. A mastermind criminal who's got it all figured out. He's calm. Very calm. Because he's got it all figured out. It's the perfect plan. He's a genius.
4. A sassy woman's in there somewhere. She's untouchable, unpredictable and sassy. Did I mention she's sassy? Yes, yes I did.
5. If there are hostages they all have to be inherently annoying. They chatter to each other about how they were going to 'a ball game' until the terrorists captured them. There's one that wants to be a hero. There's a loud one. There's a child. There's always a child.
6. A variety of rubbish music. There's the this-is-a-serious-situation music, the walking-cops-with-attitude music and the aren't-these-people-evil music. Whenever the maverick detective phones his girlfriend cue sexy saxophone music.

The only interesting thing about Inside Man is that it's got James Ransone from The Wire in it. Watch that instead.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

No sonic screwdrivers

The recent episodes of Torchwood took what could be a fairly standard sci-fi plot - giving children to aliens - and turned it into something dark, personal, and strangely real. It treated the idea realistically, showing the government deciding which children to give up (they eventually decided on the stupid ones) and taking it down to an individual level, to the people who had their children taken away. Like I said, it's dark, creating serious consequences, not a fluffy plot with plastic aliens. It felt miles away from it's parent show Doctor Who; almost as if these problems were too serious, too grown-up, for the Doctor to fix with his sonic screwdriver.

Torchwood has been pretty erratic in quality before this, wandering between dull and brilliant. It's first few episodes were embarrassing ('Quick! Somebody swear in the first five minutes to prove that it's not for kids.'). In the past week it's been better than Doctor Who, and that's not easy.

Friday, 10 July 2009

I drink your milkshake

I don't have to say that There Will Be Blood is an excellent film. You probably know that already. So instead I'll write about one small part of it - the battle between Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday. An atheist and a preacher, both slightly mad, delivering a series of blows to each other throughout the film. They both have the same powerful, corrupting ambition and use oil or God to find success. What's only a minor disagreement explodes (literally) halfway through the film into something physically and mentally violent. Plainview slaps Sunday around a bit and as revenge gets baptised in full fire-and-brimstone mode. Like most of the film, the baptism scene is funny and troubling at the same time, with Plainview only seeing it as an elaborate show. Sunday is a wonderfully over-enthusiastic preacher, using the service to hit Plainview back. It's difficult to side with any character, but I did get the sense that Sunday was too smug for his own good.

I won't mention the ending because, obviously, I'd go to a special sort of hell for that. Apart from to say that it's unsettling, satisfying, tragic and comic - all at the same time. Paul Thomas Anderson has constructed a brilliant thing.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Handheld for the 30s

Michael Mann's Public Enemies tries to go somewhere really interesting but doesn't quite make it. Johnny Depp is John Dillinger, the 30s American bank robber, being pursued by the FBI (Christian Bale, mainly). Unfortunately there isn't enough of a relationship between the two sides, no communication that adds a personal edge to the struggle. Admittedly, the only time Dillinger would be talking to the FBI would be when he was being arrested, but they could have worked something out. The only interesting relationship in the film is that of Dillinger and his girlfriend Billie, but the film doesn't put much emphasis on that. These faults don't make it a bad film though, it's enjoyable enough.

I'm glad Mann decided to stick with his digital handheld style, even for a 30s gangster picture. It might not look old-fashioned but I doubt life really happened in smooth Steadicam back then (I'm only guessing). A story like this should be rough, it should have energy. Sometimes modern techniques are better, even if they ruin the nostalgic sheen. I will defend handheld camera work until the end. Or at least until I change my mind about it.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Frakking toasters

(no spoilers, honestly)
Battlestar Galactica is brilliant. I'm not sure how it ever made it to four seasons, being largely impenetrable for any one who hadn't seen it from the start. It was brave enough to be a sweeping space epic when all TV networks were interested in was hospital dramas. And it moved along at a rapid pace, only very occasionally resorting to episodic fluff. The writers had their hands on a genuinely compelling plot and they weren't afraid to completely and unexpectedly turn it on its head. It's one of those rare shows that isn't afraid of killing its characters, there was a real sense of risk that's usually missing in television. I admire a show that is so full of ideas that it can barely contain itself, always moving onto something new like it knows there isn't much time, never letting itself be cosy or predictable.

Science-fiction is a genre that can be incredibly dull, resorting to an episodic structure to attract new viewers (what Joss Whedon would call 'reset television'). Done properly it can have a deep and dangerous arc that can captivate its fans. It can be pretentious but completely engaging. It can be, in the truest sense of the word, epic. This is science-fiction done properly. It's over now. Which is a shame.