Monday, 28 September 2009

Changeling is pointy

I didn't expect there to be axe murdering. That was my first reaction of Changeling. Corrupt police departments, electro-therapy, child abduction. I was prepared for these things. I was not prepared for axe murdering. It's a far darker film than I had imagined. When a woman's son disappears the thoroughly corrupt LAPD bring back a different boy in a stab at some good publicity. What follows is a pretty harrowing tale of female disempowerment. With a mental institution full of women that nobody would believe and a doctor prepared to explain how a boy can grow four inches shorter, it paints a damning picture of the police. The narrative follows the structure of 'this is quite sad - it's getting worse now - it can't get any worse than this - oh, yes it can'. And Clint Eastwood, again, makes the whole thing look easy. As the camera follows someone through a farmhouse it makes sure to highlight all the sharp objects. Just a cutaway to a knife on table transforms an entire scene. It's very precise.

Changeling is a film that feels longer than it actually is. Not because it drags, but because the climax happens about four times. As with many films 'based on true events', there's a lot stuffed in here. It's not always easy to watch but it is a powerful film.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Anvil are real, I think

Anvil! The Story of Anvil is partly a 'real' Spinal Tap: the disastrous tour and album promotion, the intense relationship between the band's two frontmen, in the eighties they even looked like Spinal Tap. It goes a lot deeper than Spinal Tap though, it's about people still trying to 'follow their dream' after thirty years of being knocked back. It's being sold as an 'inspirational fable' rather than a documentary about metal and it's true that the music is only the background to a story about human endeavour. The sheer amount of bare emotion wears you down into actually wanting them to succeed. There are moments when they seem as dumb as their fictional counterparts, but the film is always with them and never looks down. It's a documentary that stays on the level of its subjects rather than laughing at them. Of course the film itself has been a huge success for them, making the whole thing weirdly metafictional. I'm waiting for the film about the film.

It confuses me, though, when a documentary is called a 'masterpiece.' The crew can only film what is real and put in the front of them. The subjects rely on the crew to portray them in the right way. It can't (or shouldn't) be written or orchestrated. So who should take the credit for the 'masterpiece'? How can reality be a 'masterpiece'? I don't know.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Arcs vs. episodes

I've been wondering about the difference between television with episodic plotting and programs that develop a story arc. In other words, a program that introduces a new situation and set of characters every episode versus those with a running narrative. I seem to be losing all interest in television that's entirely episodic. I like to invest in characters and plots, and to have them replaced after every forty-five minutes is too jarring. There's nothing to compell me to keep watching, it just adds up as a series of individual stories. An example of this would be the X-Files, a show that I watched three and a half seasons of and then just left. Mulder and Scully are always in a new place, investigating new people - there's no consistency of place or character. The occasional arc episodes do have an impact on the characters but the isolated episodes don't seem to change them, it's like they never happened. I remember them being stuck on a ship, aging rapidly until their skin was rotting and losing all hope of survival, then in the next episode they never mentioned it. I need to believe that these are real characters having important experiences.

Some shows have a consistent location with obvious character arcs but can still feel episodic. In ER there a main characters that go through seasons with the same problems but still deal with isolated issues. People come in with a broken head, they live or they die, but it doesn't really matter because next episode it'll be somebody else with a broken head. Maybe this is unfair, patients can't stay in a hospital forever, but they could have tried a little harder to disguise it. A show that gets the blend between episodic and arc right is The West Wing (and never mind for a second that I think it's the Best Television Ever). Occasionally (usually during the middle of a season) a problem is brought up and dealt with entirely within the episode, but it often has consequences, or is at least mentioned later on. The majority of episodes deal with shifting story arcs, with characters that don't forget things. Sometimes it's an election, sometimes it's something more subtle like Bartlet's psychology.

And then there are the shows that are entirely arcy (that's an adjective now). The Wire sees itself as a visual book with chapters instead of episodes, it builds up one story a season that ultimately gives greater rewards. It's more powerful to see a character's demise after thirteen hours rather than forty-five minutes. Maybe the creators make the point too strongly ('Are you paying attention? If you're not paying attention you won't understand our intricate plots. Make sure you're paying attention. Are you sure you're paying attention?') but it's something I'd like to see more of. And it's proven that it can work over a longer season, with the whole point of 24 being the insistent cliffhangers.

There are a few shows that can work with an episodic structure (Doctor Who manages it, I don't know how) and others that go right to the other end of the scale, like Lost. Most shows find a happy middle ground though. Battlestar Galactica, Buffy, Dexter, Firefly - this is all good television.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Muse return to their Resistance

Here's something that has nothing to do with films, television, or even Sigur Rós. The new album from Muse, The Resistance, is a glorious piece of theatre. Their previous album, Black Holes and Revelations, was far too polite. It was like they were holding back, trying to conform with bland pop music. It was still Muse, but it was lacking. Now they've completely let go and recorded an epic and sweeping album. And it's not just because they've added an orchestra. These songs reach heights that they haven't aimed for in a long time, the structure of the songs is adventurous, Bellamy's vocals are more powerful than ever. The title track 'Resistance' is uplifting and eccentric (there aren't enough songs based on Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four in the world). 'The United States of Eurasia' is grand and dramatic, with some Queen-style vocals punching into the chorus. 'Unnatural Selection' and 'Mk Ultra' sound like a Muse we haven't heard for six years, but are still exciting. 'I Belong to You' is perhaps the highlight, at once catchy, operatic and unpredictable. And the three-part symphony 'Exogenesis' is a surpise. I was expecting a prog-rock epic. Instead it's purely classical, being ambitious and wonderfully overblown. The only disappointment is 'Undisclosed Desires', a little electronic stain that has no place in this album.

If this is all sounds a bit pretentious, that's because it is. It's uncompromising space rock. It tells of humans leaving Earth in search of a new home and totalitarian goverments keeping an eye on everything. It's like they've gone a little bit mad. But mostly, it's just some good songs.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Ghost children aren't always scary

With Guillermo del Toro's name plastered all over the front cover of The Orphanage it's easy to forget that he was only a producer. Easy to forget because, if you didn't know otherwise, you'd assume it was from the mind of Mr Pan's Labyrinth. It's advertised as a horror, but I'm convinced that it's a drama. Laura and her husband Carlos return, with their son Simón, to the orphanage where Laura spent her childhood. Yes, already that sounds scary, and the fact that Simón begins to see 'imaginary' children roaming the halls doesn't help to prove my point. The film, as I see it, is about family and the search for a missing child. When Laura is confronting the ghosts of the house, she is not confronting evil demons that want to hurt her, but parts of her past that she has to deal with. The perceived threat helps the drama along and doesn't overpower it, bringing up themes of childhood loss and transience. It builds to an emotionally confusing ending that J.A Bayona (the director) handles wonderfully. It's a ghost story, not a horror film - creepy and poignant, not scary. Calling it a horror is like saying Pan's Labyrinth is an action film. In other words, completely missing the point.

That said, when I watched it with friends they said it was 'the scariest thing they'd ever seen'. So, you know, maybe I'm wrong.

Monday, 7 September 2009

The Office still smells the same

I've recently been reminded how good The Office is (the original UK show). Apart from being very funny it's a perfect representation of a drab, dull office. Sometimes it's so realistic you can smell it - photocopying, over-head projectors, crisps for lunch. There's no attempt to put any gloss on it: people arrive in the morning, do a bit of typing, go home in the evening. It looks like a depressing place to be, but it's compelling to watch. Tim and Dawn are presented as the relatable characters; you want them to escape from boredom as you'd want yourself to, even though they can't entirely manage it. Hearing them speak about their ambitions is completely and realistically tragic. The camera moves around the place as a physical thing that the characters react and play too. When Tim looks into it with his trademark 'what am I doing here?' face it's like he's asking a direct question.

And David Brent, obviously, is a brilliant creation. He plays up to the camera, is false, deluded and self-aggrandising. Then in the second season he is given some unexpected depth. He does, after all, just want to be popular and begins to notice that he isn't. His confidence is shattered with jealousy and disappointment. Personally, I wanted the Swindon lot to like him, I wanted him to succeed some of the time. The writing and acting has to be this good for you to feel sympathetic towards a horrible person. He's funny because he isn't, and I wonder whether I would still laugh at him if I was actually there. Putting the camera as an extra character means that we'll never know what he's like without it. The entire time he is talking though the television.

I'm convinced it's a masterpiece.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

I should order the puppets

I've been emphasising the anti-religion side of how to be god in an attempt to give it an identity, but in writing it I'm watching it become something else. The student that wants to become god by setting up his own religion is at the centre of what I hope will be a very real representation of university life. Exaggerated in places for comedy but overall easily relatable. There'll be Christian characters that represent the positive side of faith and others that show the blind, fanatical side. Even though one side might win the end, it'll be a fair fight. But it's not exclusively about religion, it won't be a show set in chapels and churches. I want to stick a camera into university housing and come out with something real, even though I've written it. I'll be attempting the documentary-style that I've always wanted to try, resisting my urge shove other-worldly beings in there.

It'll be a challenge. I found that gathering the right people for a short film was hard enough, let alone an entire web series. I'll have to find a committed bunch, maybe offering them alcohol/Haribo-based incentives. If all else fails - puppets.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

The trailer

Here's a trailer for how to be god. As usual it's high on blasphemy but low on expense and sense. I've dropped the 'name god after yourself' idea, it wasn't clear enough and was slightly off putting. And I realise I haven't actually explained what the show is about yet. I'll do that soon.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Intentionally rubbish

How do you make a trailer for something that doesn't exist yet, with no actors or footage? That's what I'm trying to work out at the moment. The answer seems to be to make it intentionally rubbish. I'm good at intentionally rubbish. I can do it well. If something needs a budget I'll get rid of it and make it for the cost of charging the camera. If something needs special effects I'll see what I can do using mirrors. It's a a principle that has got me this far (so, not far really), I'm not going to change now. I don't want people to expect how to be god to have, you know, expense. That would be false advertisement. The trailer needs to be made though, so I can give some idea of what the thing will be like. At the very least it will have moving images.

So the trailer for how to be god will be in cinemas soon. Yes. And 'cinemas' was a metaphor. It won't be in cinemas.