Thursday, 30 December 2010

The Expendables are sent to explode a small country

Or at least, that's what they end up doing. They're a bunch of mercenaries hired to overthrow the island's dictator. Stallone's character, who seems to be in charge of The Expendables, goes there once to kill the baddies, but then goes back to rescue a woman he met briefly. He also brings his friends along, who all have very big muscles and very big guns and very big knives. The baddies also include a rogue CIA agent, and Stone Cold Steve Austin. The film was marketed as a nostalgic throwback to eighties action films, although I'm not sure these films ever went away. Jason Statham is proof enough of that. He turns up here with his usual 'muscular head', as Mickey Rourke says. At times it's more of a guest list than a film, hiring old muscley men and new ones that might be out of work. Van Damme turned down a role because of the lack of substance or character development. This doesn't seem to worry anybody else. It's a film that knows what it is and isn't ashamed of it. Unfortunately, this honesty doesn't stop it being rubbish. For all the violence and carnage to be interesting, you have to vaguely care about what's going on. Or it at least has be stylish. Here the explosions last forever but don't have any impact. Your mind begins to wander, and you wonder if Stallone has dyed his moustache, or why his eyebrows are permanently raised. There's sudden decapitation every few seconds, which is entertaining enough, but it only happens to the poor foreign army. Mown down in their hundreds. I bet some of them weren't even baddies. Just nice men who didn't really want to be in the army, but all the fishing jobs had been taken and they needed to make a living somehow. They are the real expendables.

There'll probably be a sequel with an even larger cast list. That's not necessarily a bad thing. It's still sort of fun to see these people making something so honestly stupid. That fun doesn't last for the whole film. About a minute of thinking 'look it's Arnold Schwarzenegger' and wondering who Dolph Lundgren is. A good minute though.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Well done everyone, we're halfway out of the dark

With the Christmas special, Steven Moffat again proves that the best episodes of Doctor Who are the ones that are full of ideas. Here a man watches his past Christmas Eves being changed as the Doctor introduces his younger self to an annually-defrosted woman. It's a version of Dickens' Christmas Carol, and this man is Scrooge, refusing to save a plummeting space ship in the skies of his planet. And there's flying fish. The story's not made up of lots of running around, but clever ideas expertly stuck together. With each Christmas Eve that passes, the mean old man gains new memories and new experiences. The woman that comes out of the ice every year teaches him that the world isn't so bad after all, and that the massive flying sharks are nothing to be afraid of if you've got a good singing voice. Doctor Who can work these seemingly random ideas into one episode without feeling messy. It takes skilled writing to make something like this seem coherent. It takes extraordinary writing to make it good. Yes, it uses plenty of dubious Who logic to reach its conclusion, but where there's a sonic screwdriver there is always a way. The usual companions are mostly absent, screaming somewhere up in the sky for the Doctor to save them. Instead there's Michael Gambon giving speeches like this: 'On every world, wherever people are, in the deepest part of the winter, at the exact mid-point, everybody stops and turns and hugs. As if to say, well done. Well done everyone. We're halfway out of the dark.'

The reason I write so much about Doctor Who, more than any other TV show anyway, is that every episode is a new story, a new little film. They can't be grouped together and summarised in a few sentences. Doctor Who can do anything it wants and, in the new season, it probably will.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Grow and crack big trees in ten seconds

This is the part of my writing where I get a bit loose with things like punctuation and grammar. It doesn't make perfect sense, but then it probably doesn't need to. It's from a short story called 'The Average Colour of the Universe', which is mostly a lot gentler than this.

The universe is beige, apparently. A beige called cosmic latte. Another name for it is 'skyvory'. This doesn't actually have a lot to do with the short story, which is all over the place, but it's nice to know. The idea of a forest moving up and down on fast forward has been turned into something else since I wrote this. Something that reads less like the scrawls of a mad person. The structure of screenplays can be good. I'm less tempted to make everything explode.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

The boy who said there was a wolf but there wasn't a wolf

This is from a screenplay called, at the moment, 'Big Moon Forest'. Here two boys are walking to the forest to see something. It turns out Rhys is telling the truth, but it's not really a monster. And I couldn't resist the 'trees' comment, even though it's a pretty bad joke.

I was told that I shouldn't write about children, because my style is too obvious a fit for them. For some reason I'm not listening, and am writing two stories about children. They start in the same place but go off in wildly different directions. This one involves a bit less of the surreal. A bit.

'The Boy Who Cried Wolf' has been attributed to Aesop. So this is something clever my university lecturers would have called 'intertextuality'. Maybe. I could just be making it up as I go along. What other way is there? Like everything else, the story is summed up in The Simpsons, when Bart tells lies about a test, and is then chased around school by a wolf.

Is the idea of 'a minute a page' true? Doesn't seem accurate to me. Some pages can go by in half that. Some could be about three. I'll play along with that idea if it makes things easier, but I don't believe it. A script of a hundred and twenty pages would be two hours long? Okay then.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Digging a hole through the world

Here's a link to a website that actually lets you dig through the world. Or at least find the other side. You'll be lucky if you don't end up in the sea.

This is something from a novel, working title 'I don't know what it's called'. As there's a high chance it'll take five years to write and then be thrown away for something else, I'll put a bit of it here to make it exist more. Other things are happening, like a screenplay, and shorter bits, but this'll do for now. It's about holes in the pavement - not the entire story, just this bit here.

I always struggle naming characters. Are they meant to mean something, sound like something? I don't know. So here there's James, a random name, and Boy, because he's a boy. This might change. Although it hasn't yet and I'm thousands of words in. Never mind. He can be Boy.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

If that girl's only hope is you, she's Gone Baby Gone

A little girl goes missing at the start of Gone Baby Gone. The family hire private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro to deal with the 'neighbourhood aspect' in this run-down part of Boston. The police suspect the mother may have had something to do with it. Then twists pile upon twists upon twists. It lies somewhere between a serious drama and a detective story - too dark to be a thriller and too implausible to be true. That being said, it's impressive how real it all feels. Ben Affleck's direction is careful and powerful, never tipping into melodrama or feeling to glossy. And Casey Affleck's casting as the lead detective is interesting. Characters comment that he seems too young and inexperienced, but he shows himself to be tougher than he looks, being particularly protective of his partner. In one scene he gets into an argument with a man in a bar, when the doors are locked and the entire place stands up to glare at him. There's no chance of him fighting his way out, so it feels more dangerous and more threatening than this situation normally would. It's a film full of these tense moments, where action has consequences and violence matters. It's based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, who's had three of his books turned into films (including work on The Wire). I haven't read the book, which is actually from a series of Kenzie-Gennaro novels, but it's easy to see the influence. Some scenes drift by as prose monologues - 'Your city, your neighbourhood, your family. People here take pride in these things, like it was something they'd accomplished. The bodies around their souls, the cities wrapped around those'. It's an another compliment to the quality of the directing and acting that this doesn't feel pretentious. Elsewhere, Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman play the cops with lines on their faces. Old and wise and patronising towards the hero.

A very good film. Maybe slightly irrelevantly, it's interesting to see actors from The Wire playing the opposites of their characters. Michael K. Williams looks strange in a policeman's uniform, and Amy Ryan plays the sort of drug runner her Baltimore character would have helped lock up. One day I'll stop relating everything to The Wire, but not right now. Watch Gone Baby Gone, if you haven't already.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Home Alone - We need to talk about Kevin

It doesn't look much like Christmas around here. I can fix that. Sit back, listen to this music, and watch festive films in your head. In Home Alone Kevin McCallister's very large family go on holiday and leave him in his very large house. On purpose. It's important to remember how talented this boy was. When bad men try to break into his house he warns them off with dozens of clever contraptions. At one point he manipulates a room full of mannequins and inflatable dummies with a system of levers and pulleys. Could you do that? No. This boy was a master craftsman. He shows a grasp of science way beyond his age, using ice, heat, fans, feathers, irons, nails, paint cans, toy cars - anything that can be used as a weapon. At the very least he has a career in the military ahead of him. First he draws brilliant plans of his house to work out the logistics of the operation, and then arms himself with an air gun. When these men threaten to murder him he is undeterred and continues to unleash his arsenal, taunting them with one-liners - 'You guys give up yet, or you are thirsty for more?' He is not scared of these criminals. He is, however, scared of a kindly old man with a shovel and the boiler in the basement. Neither of these things turn out to be dangerous, except for when the old man is delivering justice with his spade.

The following year, in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, these horribly neglectful parents continue to abuse their son, this time sending him on a plane to New York by himself. They just want to get rid of him. Thankfully, New York has some kindly old people to look after the orphan. Kevin, still unphased, is given two turtle doves by the owner of a toy shop. I didn't know what turtle doves were. I still don't know what turtle doves are. But it's comforting to have two. And a scary pigeon lady turns out to be quite nice, letting Kevin come into her spacious loft space in a church. The criminals that Kevin failed to put away last Christmas are back, at which point the boy realises he is powerless without a house. He breaks into somebody else's and builds another impenetrable fortress. An extremely clever, resourceful boy. The filmmakers decided not to produce Home Alone 3: Kevin Needs Therapy, and rebooted the series with a new child. Probably for the best.

Monday, 13 December 2010

The Walking Dead: This is our extinction event

Now that The Walking Dead has finished its (surprisingly short) first season, I can try to work out whether it was actually any good. It's difficult. It's a show that frequently threatened to be rubbish and pointless, but then came up with a good scene, or a nice moment, or something genuinely different. In the fourth episode one of Rick's crew was held hostage by a bunch of gangsters in the city. Cue a pointless diversion with 'tense' standoffs between the two camps. That's how it looked, but by the end (when I was considering turning it off) these hardened gangsters turned out to be nurses protecting elderly ladies in hospital. There are good ideas here, hidden somewhere in the mess. Thankfully though, it went out on a high. Arriving at the 'Center for Disease Control and Prevention', the survivors meet the last scientist still working on a cure. He's understandably depressed, and his calm remarks about the end of the world give the whole thing weight. 'Don't you get it?' he says, 'this is our extinction event'. Everything is running out of power, including the building they're in - 'the world runs on fossil fuel, how crazy is that?' The Center is counting down to 'quarantine mode', the scientific term for a big explosion. He locks everyone into the control room and tries to convince them to stay.

Now, I've written before that the show had spread itself too thin. Too many characters, too little time to make them interesting. And that's mostly true, but here I actually wanted them to survive. This is a big difference from two episodes ago, when zombies attacked the camp and I wanted them all to get eaten. I don't know their names, but after six hours I began supporting the living. And then it ended. Why did it take so long? What happened to Morgan from the first episode, and that man that cut his hand off? Never mind. Overall, it's gone from being good to barely acceptable and back again, finally resting somewhere in the middle. I was expecting a one-off series, instead I watched what felt like half a season. With a longer second season in production, I hope it comes back with more bite (yes, that's a good pithy remark to end on, I could also have said something about 'brains' or 'guts', but 'bite' is good).

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Tropic Thunder goes out into the jungle with a few good jokes

The characters in Tropic Thunder are making a Vietnam war film, but it's not going very well. So the director sends them out into the jungle to do some 'guerilla style acting'. When the camera crew loses them and a real jungle gang turns up, some of them don't realise the filming is over. That's the premise anyway, and for the first half an hour it's very funny.The shooting of the film in a film is full of ideas, and the satirical take on Hollywood actors works well. Robert Downey Jr. is especially good, playing a method actor who's so immersed in the role he's changed the colour of his skin. It promises imagination, but when they set off into the jungle it quickly runs out of steam. You realise that all the quick, funny jokes from the first part are actually integral to the plot. In a better comedy something like a fake trailer for 'Simple Jack' would only be mentioned once to make room for the next joke. Here they repeat it until it's boring. Tropic Thunder rests on a few funny ideas rather than throwing hundreds at you. The whole thing gets stuck on a few jokes and a few locations. I wanted it to zip along. In the end it becomes what it was parodying in the first place. Too afraid to blow any of the characters up, it all gets a bit boring. It's one of those American comedies where all the actors are Hollywood buddies, just getting their friends to come in and have a cameo. They assume they're funnier than they are. Tom Cruise dancing in a fat suit is not funny just because it's Tom Cruise dancing in a fat suit.

I might sound like I'm being too harsh, but only because I'm disappointed. It didn't live up to my expectations, which might have been too high in the first place. It's okay, but I wanted the inventive, satirical comedy that I was promised. This promise may have been something I just made up in my head. If this ever appears on television, watch the start and then do something else.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Romance, the dead, and dental humour

The ghosts that haunt Ricky Gervais' character in Ghost Town are the nice sort that only want you to do odd jobs for them. This is death as comedy, where someone getting hit by a bus is funny because of the cheerful music. And the good news is that it is funny - probably the first thing you'd expect from a comedy. It's not even particularly dark; it's all the gloss you'd expect from a Hollywood romantic comedy, but with ghosts. Gervais plays Dr Bertram Pincus, a misanthropic dentist with bowel problems. After dying 'for a bit' during a colonoscopy he begins to be pestered by New York's ghosts. One persistent spirit wants him to drive his ex-wife away from her new fiancé. What follows is a fairly standard romantic comedy, where Pincus inexplicably manages to get the girl. He's constantly rude and selfish, but is able to use his skills in dentistry to convince her that, maybe, he's not so bad after all. This is about as believable as the ghosts, so it's impressive that it all holds together. Ghost Town aims at darker issues but then flinches and goes the other way, which isn't a bad thing. The casual and friendly approach to the undead is refreshing - almost relaxing in its flippancy. It says 'yeah, there's hundreds of ghosts wandering around, but don't get worked up about it'. And it turns out Ricky Gervais can be funny with someone else's script. His casting as the unlikely lead makes the whole thing more interesting. Everyone lives in very fancy New York apartments, with jobs like 'Egyptoligist' and 'human-rights lawyer'. This could be offensive if the protagonist looks like a Thunderbird puppet too. Instead, the 'fat, British, middle-aged man' looks like he's broken in to this perfect world.

There's a question of why this had to be romantic at all. Is it just the default mode for lighthearted comedy? It has ghosts. It could go anywhere. As it is, it's watchable, funny, and verging on interesting. Something to watch.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Songs that should be in films: Hægt, kemur ljósið

I recently learnt that a Sigur Rós song is prominently featured in the new Danny Boyle film, 127 Hours. This pleases me. It's nice when two things I like come together - melded together like, er, something that's melded. Now, I could mention what Sigur Rós songs would work well in a film, but I'm pretty sure they've all been used. Making the exercise a bit pointless. But I've chosen something equally Icelandic: Hægt, kemur ljósið by Ólafur Arnalds. He's a composer, who Wikipedia reliably informs me is aged 23-24. That's a nice age to be. Adding to the confusion, he writes 'neo-classical' music (thanks Wikipedia) and his song titles contain letters I'm not familiar with. But the music speaks for itself. I imagine this song could come near the end of a film, or the climax of a television series - a montage perhaps. Everyone's sad, a bit downbeat. A lot of bad things have happened. Maybe somebody's been happy for five minutes until Joss Whedon killed everyone they loved. They could perhaps be on a boat. Cut to other characters looking pensive. Wide shots of the scenery. Then, at around fifty seconds, the song picks up and they realise they have a lot to look forward to. And they're happy, but still in a poignant, reflective way. I imagine someone could start running at this point. There are alternative uses, like a bunch of presumed-dead fishermen returning to port, and then looking back out to sea to think about the journey.

For all my sarcastic meanderings, this is obviously a good song. That's the technical term used by music critics: a good song. For more impressive sight and sound, watch this other video. To sum it up in noises, it'll make you go 'ooo'.

Monday, 29 November 2010

The Pillars of the Earth: Slightly different hair but no happier

At the end of it all The Pillars of the Earth seemed to ask: how many bad things can happen to people in their lifetime? The people of Kingsbridge have an extremely bad time. They're trying to build a cathedral, but it doesn't go very well. I wrote before about my expectations for the series, and its relation to the original novel. In watching it I was reminded just what these characters have to overcome. It's all down to a pair of thoroughly evil people: Waleran Bigod and William Hamleigh. They plotted and murdered their way through half a century. One an ambitious bishop and the other just plain bad. This is how to fill fifty years. Look at Jack Jackson, the hero of the story. He wants to marry Aliena, but before he can do that he has to be banished, strangled, banished again, and turned into a monk. Then she marries somebody else. He transforms from mute boy to master mason, despite not looking a year older. It's a sprawling story where people have to wait decades to get what they want. A new episode might jump fourteen years into the future, when everyone has slightly different hair but are no happier. It makes the payoff all the more satisfying. When William is clouted over the head with a rock it comes after weeks of waiting. It makes everything better.

The backdrop to all this strife is the argument over the throne. With so many political deals and earls to slaughter it becomes difficult to follow. And nobody really cares anyway. Sometimes the throne will swap hands between episodes, and the battles just seem to amount to a bunch of people on horses riding around in the same field. Never mind then, all the entertainment is happening elsewhere - with the monks and the wool merchants and the fancy new rib vaulting on the cathedral. It's not as powerful as the book. Sometimes an adaption just can't hope for that. But it does a good job of making you forget.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

The Walking Dead: Chewing on zombie-Lost

The third episode of The Walking Dead has a lot of making up to do. Can it regain its credibility (in my eyes) as a tense, dark drama, or become a cluttered show of annoying characters? Here we're introduced to even more people back at camp. Though not all necessarily annoying, I do miss the times of a lonely man and his horse. It's getting more and more like zombie-Lost. One camp full of disparate people, stuck in a mysterious, horrible situation. Stranded. All with stories to tell. Just dying to jump into flashback. There's so many of them that a few can be thrown to the undead every now and then to keep things ticking. Better to have a large group of zombie-food, or a tight family where every loss matters? We'll see, though not before they've got over their arguments. There's now a wife beater to join the racist on the dumb and evil pile. Characterisation comes in big strokes. Like the zombies just want to eat brains, there are people who only do one thing. Early days, obviously, but does anyone ever think about how good Lost was? In The Walking Dead Sawyer would be a racist drunk and nothing else. I hope to be proven wrong, as there's still good stuff going on the middle of it all. Rick finds his family, which holds up the entire episode. It's a nice moment, and you begin to forget how rubbish his wife is. Maybe it is just unremarkable drama with added zombies. The monsters make it interesting, to be honest. Every now and then one might turn up. There's always that threat. There was only one in this episode, chewing on a deer near camp.They are the other thing that's going on, hiding the shadows.

I look forward to seeing personalities shift and characters having another side. I don't look forward to a cycling succession of new survivors that come in to replace the chewed ones. Is it still annoying? Not really, it made it past that. But it's changed so much in a few episodes that I don't know which show it's going to turn out to be.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Especially if you're an action hero living in the mountains

Wolverine is guilty of not realising the obvious: your past will always find you. In X-Men Origins: Wolverine, it happens to be the past of his past that finds him (it's probably right to be suspicious of any film with a colon in its title). This backstory can go on forever, right the way back to mysteries about his parents. And it all matters, apparently. Or it can just set up another thread of the franchise. I don't believe Hollywood is interested in making fan pleasing canon-fodder, so there must be some life left in these X-Men. Here we see that Wolverine and his brother used to be part of a military team of mutants, taking orders from the appropriately named Colonel Stryker. This all becomes a bit too shady for Wolverine but his brother seems to like it. Cut to six years later and the good one is living in the picturesque Canadian mountains, working as a humble lumberjack and living with his lovely girlfriend. Like the hundreds of retired heroes who came before him, he asks 'why won't they just leave me alone?' It was all going so well. The men in black cars always arrive to tempt you back into a plot that may or may not be a con. I'm not complaining. Thriller's are built on this idea. The violent past finds the pleasant present and then everyone can do some revenge. It's the standard for two thirds of all action films, even the good ones. In fact, Wolverine begins to make a habit of destroying idyllic things. He runs into two unrealistically kind old people, who let him sleep in their barn and give him the clothes he wears for the rest of the film. Then things start exploding.

Apart from this, a lot of time is spent in military labs and secret island bases. We see how he gets his metal and I'm reminded how invincible he is. There's no need to worry about him getting hurt, but the scale of the action makes up for it. He can slash through tanks with his claws. He's an action prop, but an effective one. This may all be about to change with the Darren Aronofsky sequel. Will he descend into a drug-fuelled haze and reflect on his loneliness? Possibly. And so, to sum up this film in a mildly interested sort of way: it's alright.

Friday, 19 November 2010

The wicked witch of the west was the bad one

I wrote before that I'm easily impressed by found-footage horror, so it's about time I watched The Blair Witch Project. You've probably seen it already. In fact, you probably saw it when it came out ten years ago. But I saw it last night. I like to stay up to date. Three film students go out into the woods to make a documentary about the Blair Witch, a nasty-sounding ghost that haunts the place. They stock up on cereal and battery packs and set off for some camping. For a film of just eighty-six minutes, there's a good chunk of set-up before things start getting spooky. It's a nice walk in the forest until a bit of arguing, and a bit of map losing, makes the situation a lot worse. But how scary is it? Suggestion is a powerful tool but, perhaps unusually, it wasn't really working for me. There's shouting in the night and a lot of arts and crafts in the woods -mostly a bit too subtle, a bit too far away to count as horror. Maybe I didn't have my imagination switched on in the right places, but the piles of rocks weren't spooky. I could have done with a little bit more. A more concrete suggestion of something solid, ugly, and scary. Especially at the end, where something definitely needed to present itself. It is an effective film though, because without all these scares you're left with a drama about people going mad in the woods. The film crew really were harassing them and leaving suggestions for improvisation. Eventually they just start rocking back and forth. Importantly, the camera is a comfort to whoever is holding it. It's a disconnection from reality, 'a filtered reality', and makes them braver. They can only go out into the night if they're seeing it through a lens - it means it's not really happening.

I know that these characters aren't enjoying it, I'm just not feeling the same thing. One says that she's 'too scared to close her eyes and too scared to open them'. I believe her, I just need to be shown why. I'm usually a fan of this sort of horror, but finding scary things isn't the same as experiencing it. A bit more, that's all that's needed, just a little bit. So it may not have been the scary treat I was hoping for, but it's an interesting (and probably by now 'classic') part of the found-footage genre.

Monday, 15 November 2010

The Walking Dead part deux: Kill them all Rick

Two posts in a row about the same thing? This can't be healthy. But the second episode of The Walking Dead raises a lot of questions. I wrote last week that the first episode was a 'very promising start'. And it was. Atmospheric, creepy, poignant. The second episode attempts to undo all that good work. It seems like a different show. We're introduced to a bunch of new characters who are, to put it softly, annoying. Officer Rick is a nice guy, wandering around the south looking for his family. But then he runs into these idiots. The first one he meets encourages him to get out of his 'cosy' tank and run around shooting things. Why is this a good idea? He's in a tank. But never mind, at least he gets to be in peril. After that he becomes stuck in a building with at least five new people. These, so far, seem like stereotypical flat characters, not helped by some clunky writing and acting. In some cases the faults are easy to spot: the racist, the slightly nerdy one. Others are harder to put your finger on, they're just a bit off. Like caricatures. It doesn't help that they seem to find the whole situation a bit amusing, like they're playing out some action film fantasy. Think back to the first episode and this all seems ridiculous. Remember that man's attempt to 'put down' his zombie wife, and his son who had to 'cry into the pillow'. Those seemed like real people. From a different show. Now we have characters wandering around in zombie guts to blend in with the undead, and when it starts raining someone puts their hand out and says 'Oh man'. Yes, it is unfortunate that it's raining and you're all going to die, now speak properly.

Maybe I'm being a bit mean. It's only one episode after all. But there was so much promise. Now I can't wait for this lot to meet the gruesome deaths they deserve. Poor Rick comes off mostly untarnished. I just wish he had something to look forward too. Now his wife and best friend are having sex in the forest there can't be much to smile about. Why did he marry this stroppy woman? It's a zombie apocalypse, don't have a pout. Kill them all Rick. Kill them and find another horse to ride. You used to be so much fun.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Ride into Atlanta on a horse called Blade

Frank Darabont's name is all over The Walking Dead. Writer, director, developer (although I'm not sure what that last one means). The adverts scream Shawshank Redemption at you, but this seems to have more in common with his 2007 monstery film The Mist. In the first episode Officer Rick Grimes wakes up from a coma to find the world a lot more dead than it used to be. It's a 'post-zombie' apocalypse - all the action has already happened and now we're seeing the aftermath. The hero waking up in hospital may be a familiar scenario, but it's very effective. His first steps out into the blood-stained body-strewn corridors are gripping. Nothing's more creepy than a deserted hospital, after all. What will his first reaction be? What will he do first? He makes his way home past lots of bad things to find his wife and son are missing. So far it's more drama than horror. There may be a lot of intestinal bits flying about, but it chooses characters over quick scares. Rick goes back to find a half-eaten zombie women he'd met earlier to put her out of her misery. Another survivor has to choose whether to 'put down' his zombie wife. He can't quite manage it. The sunny American south makes for an eerie and oddly pleasant setting. The quiet countryside towns are only dotted with the undead. They quietly wander around without much trouble and congregate at night to look more menacing. There's plenty of wide shots of deserted roads and quiet desolation. The green fields seem wonderful until someone comes across an overturned car, or an eaten horse, or a sinister little zombie girl.

Rick makes the mistake of looking for the advertised shelter in the city. These shelters never live up to their promise. It all seems as deserted as the countryside until he turns a corner to find five hundred 'walkers' in one street. Then he's in trouble. Although, in a shocking twist, his wife and son aren't dead (yet). He should be reunited with them pretty soon. And then they will all die. That's not a spoiler, just a prediction. I imagine his son might get the zombie fever, and they'll have to frantically search for a cure. That sort of thing. It may be standard stuff, but it's confidently and powerfully done. A very promising start.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Wrestles on the weekend in front of small crowds

The Wrestler follows Randy "The Ram" Robinson, an old and broken wrestler struggling to pay the rent for his tiny trailer. He used to be a celebrity, but now he works in a supermarket and wrestles on the weekend in front of small crowds. He's a man from the past being chewed up by the modern world. He's past his prime. Even his Nintendo is old. The first act shows the brutal effects of the job. Aside from the weights, tanning, and growth drugs we see a a tired man being repeatedly pummelled into the ground. A 'hardcore' match proves too much for him, causing a heart attack and forced retirement. Randy doesn't really know what to do outside the ring. He doesn't want to be called by his real name. He doesn't know how to speak to his daughter. He attempts to start a relationship with a stripper, who is also getting too old for her job. They both have stage lives that control them, seperate identities that earn them money and recognition. If it all doesn't work he'll have to go back to the ring. With Darren Aronofsky directing there's probably not going to be a lot of laughs, but it's a compelling and powerful drama. It's set in winter, when everything's dead or dying and getting darker. To exercise Randy runs through depressing little dead forests before stopping to cough and collapse. It doesn't go well. He could do with a Rocky-style montage. Maybe a run up some steps. But no montage comes. The film has a commitment to cold reality and won't compromise that for some traditional sports film energy.

In a big match finale, the nature of wrestling means that it's all rehearsed and decided beforehand. The uncertainty comes from the Ram's physical and emotional failures. The line between stage and reality is crossed. It doesn't sound like a lot of fun, but it's definitely worth a watch. There's enough metaphor in the script to make everybody's inner film student happy (he works at the meat counter, selling meat, because he's just a lump of meat), or you can just sit back and watch it unfold. You never know, there might be a happy ending.

Friday, 5 November 2010

They're coming for you, Barbra

What's the best thing to do in a zombie apocalypse? The characters of Night of the Living Dead were some of the first to go through it, and they didn't have a clue. The best option would probably be to run, especially as this is only a localised zombie apocalypse. Run and keep running until there aren't any zombies. Barbra appears to get the idea. She does fall over quite a lot but she understands what to do. But then she decides to hide in a house, which is where it all goes wrong. It's like the rules of zombies are being explained. They're slow. They don't like fire. They'll go down if they're shot in the head. In recent outbreaks of the living dead everyone understands the situation pretty quickly. Here it's all fresh. A bit too fresh for Barbra, whose mind seems to break. The other survivors argue over the best strategy. Is it best to stay in the house or the cellar? Is it best to be boxed in or to keep escape routes? They foolishly decide against just running away. Leave the child in the basement, she'll be alright. Just run away from the slow, ambling zombies. Some of them are a bit more spritely and know how to use weapons, but don't wait for them to gather outside. Although maybe I shouldn't be patronising. It's not easy being the first. These people provide a service. They prepare us for our fight against the flesh-eating hordes (not horses, as I just typed by mistake - that's a different film entirely). You wonder whether the characters of recent zombie dramas have seen all these films, because they never seem to mention them. Maybe they just weren't taking notes.

For me, the most effective part of Night of the Living Dead is the threat of the very first zombie. If you didn't know the title of the film you might just assume he was a drunk gravedigger, but he's more energetic than the others. He almost starts running through the cemetery, something that zombies definitely aren't supposed to do. He's a menace. If only he'd stayed in the background and wandered past. Poor Barbra.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

The same thing in a different colour

I haven't seen Let Me In. And the more I hear about it, the less I want too. The problem is that it's, apparently, not rubbish. It's not a travesty. It's a 'shot-for-shot remake' of Let the Right One In. Now, I'm not about to review a film I haven't seen, but the thing that troubles me here is the term 'shot-for-shot remake'. What happens if the same film is made in a different language, just so a new audience of the subtitles-scared can watch it? It's a copy, so does that make it worse, better, or exactly the same as the original? Let's even forget about Swedish vampire films for a second. There are only a few things that can change in a 'shot-for-shot remake'. If the script is the same and the shots are the same, what's left? The acting, the score, the location. And other things I haven't thought about. What if these things are better the second time round? Is the original automatically better? When a book is translated into English by a different writer some of the words lose their meaning, some phrases get shifted around, but it's still the same book. If a sentence is a camera shot, it can be rearranged into different words but still mean the same thing. If that shot is of a girl in a dark room saying 'I've been twelve for a very long time', it still must work in a different language, in a different place, with more expensive cameras. It's in Sweden, it's blue. It's in New Mexico, it's red.

More importantly though, it makes me sad that such a thing is necessary. If a different bunch of people remake a film and turn it into something else, then at least it's different. It's doing its own thing. To copy something exactly is pointless. Who are these people who won't watch a film with subtitles? Where are they? I hope that Let Me In is different. I hope that it's better. I hope that it's worse. Just don't make me watch a new film I've seen before. It's weird. We'll see how it goes.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

If it can be sorted out with a rocket launcher

Action films are always better when they're set in Paris. The Bourne Identity. Taken. And, er, all those other films that I'm sure prove my point. There's nothing in this city that can't be solved with a fight or a car chase. Which bodes well for the characters of From Paris With Love, the new thriller from the French people who make this sort of thing. An embassy worker who has a side job with the CIA is partnered with agent Travolta. He's 'unorthodox'. He doesn't play by the rules. He has a bald head and a beard and isn't evil. Maybe just a bit too rough for his 'chess master' partner. What follows is the good sort of average thriller. You won't remember it in a week's time, but there's enough going on in the ninety-two minutes to keep you entertained. It's fluffy, lightweight nonsense, but not in an offensive way. It contains twists that would only be acceptable in a film with rocket launchers. If your mother turns out to be a terrorist, don't complain. In fact, you should probably shoot her. And then take down her whole terror cell who are planning to explode things. That's not what happens, but you get the idea. You know what sort of film you're dealing with when most of the action takes place in Chinese restaurants and nondescript warehouses. There are twenty baddies with Uzis coming for you, but it's okay. Piles of boxes are good for cover, and when you're unorthodox you'll always win.

I'm not recommending this film. I'm not saying it's any good. Not really. But if you find yourself to be watching it, for whatever reason, you probably won't have many complaints.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Hello, Dexter Morgan

Season four of Dexter finished last night. In many ways it was the same as the others. Dexter has trouble hiding his secret life. People get suspicious. But now the line that seperates the world of his 'dark passenger' and his home life is getting thinner. It used to be a simple divide. Kill the bad guy then go home to your wife. Now he keeps creating more identities and more problems until something slips through the gap. Here the Big Bad is played by John Lithgow - the 'Trinity killer' who at first seems to be standard fodder for Dexter's plastic wrap. The problem is, he's bigger and badder than the others, and apparently can't be killed straight away. Dexter notices similarities to himself and decides to befriend the bad man, using the alias 'Kyle Butler'. As the season progresses Dexter puts off the kill in order to understand and learn from this secretly psychotic family man. This only leads to problems. 'Kill him, kill him now' is a phrase that'll probably pass through your head. Because the thing that drives Dexter, the fear at the heart of it, is what will happen when the two worlds collide. When the evil tracks his family down, or his activities are revealed.

This season goes for the build up. Even the slightly dull Quinn and his slightly dull girlfriend turn out to be pieces of the bigger picture. And when Dexter is always there to protect the right people at the right time, Kyle Butler isn't. Kyle Butler procrastinates, he makes everyone a bit uneasy. He kills the wrong people. Trinity eventually tracks him to his office, walks in, reads his name badge and says 'Hello, Dexter Morgan'. Then it's time to protect his brightly coloured home from the dark threats of a thoroughly evil man. Dexter always gets the man in the end and dumps him into the sea in pieces. It's reassuring. But just when you think there might be a nice tidy, happy ending, along comes horrific unthinkable tragedy. Which is good, if you like that sort of thing.

Friday, 29 October 2010

The West Wing: Season Seven

The Santos and Vinick campaigns dominate the final season of The West Wing.The last presidential election (back in season four) was mainly comedy. Bartlet was always going to win that one. The Republican candidate was hardly seen, and when he was he looked ridiculous. The entire campaign didn't last long. There was no tension but it was obviously very good. Now there are entire episodes from the Republicans point of view and as the season builds, including a 'live' debate, it's really not clear who's going to win. The White House is having some problems too, including nuclear reactors and military leaks. Perhaps the best episode is the last but one - 'Institutional Memory'. It's a sign-off for a lot of the characters, away from all the ceremony of the final episode. Where 'Tomorrow' focuses on the future of the White House, 'Institutional Memory' is more of a look back, a goodbye to the characters and to the building. But through all this there are two questions that hang over this (very good) season. Questions that will probably never be answered. First of all: what did they do to Toby? After being integral to the show and the staff for the entire run, he's shoved off into a sidenote. It doesn't help that the arc makes barely any sense. Toby Zeigler would never, not in a million years, betray the president. Richard Schiff said as much in an interview. So when he says 'I was the leak', the obvious reaction is 'No you weren't, why are you saying that?' Are we meant to believe that he's lying in order to protect the Santos campaign? Seems unrealistic. He'd always been critical of Santos, and going to jail would be to abandon his two young children. So he must he must be telling the truth. Which is also ridiculous. Either way, Toby is not treated fairly.

And it isn't clear whether Leo's death was planned, or just made sadly necessary. John Spencer's death is announced before episode ten, 'Running Mates', with his last appearance being in episode thirteen, 'The Cold'. Leo dies from a heart attack in episode seventeen, 'Election Day Part II'. It would seem that this was a last minute change to accommodate for the loss of an actor, but where was Leo in episode one's flash forward? The season starts with a scene from three years in the future, where most of the characters are waiting for the new president to arrive. Leo isn't there, or even mentioned. It was aired several months before John Spencer's death, so there's no way they could have re-filmed it. So Leo must have had a reason for not being there. Maybe, as the Vice-President, he'd just be somewhere else, or they'd planned the character's death all along. Although, from a writing point of view, giving a character two heart attacks in two seasons doesn't make much sense. Either way, 'Requiem' has a sense of finality about it, a tragic end to one of the show's finest characters.

Statements from the producers contradict each other about a planned Vinick or Santos win. Whether John Spencer's death forced them to change their minds or not, the final script was written long before. Overall, The West Wing might not be entirely consistent in quality - a brilliant first four years followed by a scramble to find itself again. Sometimes things get lost in Mandyville, but there's no doubt it's one of the best television shows ever made.

Season 1 | Season 2 | Season 3 | Season 4 | Season 5 | Season 6

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Quiet. Quiet. Quiet. Thud. Thud. Thud.

I've never seen a film that's scared me. That's not me trying to sound manly. I've seen films that I recognise as being scary, but they don't actually make me feel scared. It's just a film, after all. So I watched Paranormal Activity, which is apparently so scary it stops people sleeping. It's based on the idea that bad things happen while you're asleep, and that some creaks might not be the wind. It might be a demon coming up the stairs to drag you out of bed by your ankles. That sort of a thing. Here, a woman lives with her boyfriend in a nice house and is convinced that something spooky is going on. The boyfriend is less convinced and sets up a camera to film the bedroom while they're sleeping. The film uses the 'found footage' style, where the camera is part of the story and we only see what the characters choose to record. I'm easily impressed by this sort of thing. The roughness makes it real and it gives you a sense of physically being there. And, appropriately, nothing happens for the first few nights apart from some ambient rumblings. Everyone becomes skeptical enough to relax. Then bad things start happening. The famous still frame of their bedroom is the most effective gimmick. It's just their bed and the dark landing outside the door, with stairs leading down to the living room. If you stare at it long enough (which you will, because there's nothing else to look at) you'll believe there's something there. It plays on the most effective horror device - suggestion. What you imagine to be coming up the stairs is much more powerful than anything it could show you.

Of course, it's not all creaking doors. As it ramps up, and each night becomes a bit worse, the ambient rumblings give way to more sinister things. It's true that the rhythm of the film is: Quiet. Quiet. Quiet. Boo. Or occasionally: Quiet. Quiet. Quiet. Thud. Thud. Thud. Sometimes there's thuds and then a boo. And it is, admittedly, all very tense. One significant boo made me lurch forward quite quickly. But was I scared? I was worried for these characters, who seemed like nice people in a very unfortunate situation. I was scared for them. I enjoyed it. I slept fine.

Monday, 25 October 2010

They sit down and watch Ghibli films

I like Spirited Away. It's strange, colourful, uplifting, surreal, imaginative, and other similar adjectives. The first time you watch it you miss all the messages, and even some of the plot - you just go along with it. A young girl has to work in a bathhouse for spirits and monsters after her parents are turned into pigs. That's the premise anyway, but it just seems to become a rapid succession of ideas. There's magical soot loading coal into a furnace. Now there's a dragon being attacked by paper arrows. Now the entire world has been covered in water as a train skims across the surface. It's a film that demonstrates the limitless scope of animation. If it can be drawn it can be in the film. John Lasseter from Pixar has said that, when his staff are stuck for ideas, they sit down and watch Ghibli films. These are the people the masters turn to for inspiration. That's high praise. For all its anime style, Spirited Away comes from the same place as any Pixar masterpiece. There are same powerful themes - losing your parents in this case - but dressed up in dense anime plot. It's less immediate, but it gets the job done (in a slightly more convoluted way). Just when you're trying to work it out, the film might hit you with something simple and beautiful to make you forget. Hayao Miyazaki (writer and director) seems keen on the grotesque too. Big wrinkled heads and slimy globs of death shift it away from the friendly adventure you'd think it might be. The deserted spirit village is just plain sinister, and the talking frog is actually quite threatening. And I haven't even mentioned the music.

I saw Howl's Moving Castle a while ago. That impressed me, but now I might be realising why everyone loves Ghibli. Even if I'm not sure how to say it. Gib-lee? Jib-lee? I don't know enough.

Friday, 22 October 2010

The worst time to try and get a cathedral built

The Pillars of the Earth is a very long book. It takes a while to build a cathedral in the 12th century, especially when there are lots of thoroughly evil people around to try and stop you. It's a sprawling story where people grow up and grow old and kings see off several generations of traitors. It's also brutal, violent, and uncompromising. So you'd have to be brave to try and put it on television - brave people like Ridley and Tony Scott. There's Ian McShane as a sly bishop, Rufus Sewell as a nice builder (there must be some mistake there), and Matthew Macfadyen being very Welsh. But the most important thing to mention here, particularly if you've read the book, is that the adaption is spot on. It could have been lifted straight from the (many, many) pages of the book. When an adaption is this good it replaces the images the book left in your mind. You begin to believe that you always imagined Earl Bartholomew to look just like Donald Sutherland. The town of Kingsbridge, with all its sulky monks, has been taken straight from your brain. The only slight difference is William Hamleigh, who doesn't quite look enough like the embodiment of evil. In a way though, all these comparisons are irrelevant. Without ever having heard of the book, The Pillars of the Earth should still live up to its promise as an intricate and muddy medieval drama. It could never have fitted into a film, it needs hours and hours (and hours) of room. I'm looking forward to seeing how it progresses across the century, and listening to more of Prior Philip saying 'It's God's will it is, I'm shooer of it'.

If you haven't read the book, and fancy giving a chunk of your life to an historical epic, read it first. If you're not that bothered, just watch this. It's only just started on British telly. After watching the next eight hours I'll tell you if it was worth it.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

The start of The Social Network

The Social Network begins with two people sitting at a table, talking. A student's girlfriend is breaking up with him. Nothing remarkable in that, but from this first second the film grabs you. It starts at a sprint, with unbelievably energetic dialogue. It's a standard camera set-up, brilliant writing, and two actors working all their socks off. It becomes almost hypnotic. One of these students is Mark Zuckerberg, who then goes back to his room to write an internet program comparing girls. It's the start of the 'creation myth' of Facebook, a story of 'friendship, betrayal, and lust for power'. Zuckerberg is the social outcast who creates a new way to socialise, where people don't have to be near each other and their attributes are reduced to lists. The website is like the construction of an empire. In the rise to power the emperor betrays his friends and accepts the help of villains. And what stands out in all of this, obviously, is the writing.

By this point I might just sound like some sort of crazed Sorkin fanatic, but when it's this good it can't be helped. There aren't enough superlatives to describe it - rapid, witty, exciting and - most importantly - never dull. It's just people talking in rooms but it never loses it's energy or sense of progression. One scene bounces into the next, flying between depositions, bars, coding, parties. It's funny, but by the time you've laughed it's already moved on. It's in the rhythm of the words and the inflections of the acting. Jesse Eisenberg plays Zuckerberg like a fizzling robot, firing off the lines with dry emotionless aggression. Andrew Garfield plays the good guy left behind. Justin Timberlake is the sly but suave antagonist who gains the confidence of the king. Most of these characters are completely horrible but, somehow, completely watchable. There's so much going on it's difficult to remember a lot of it. I could have watched it again straight after leaving the cinema. It makes you realise how good a script can be, how a director can hand the reigns over to the actors and the words. Inspirational stuff.

It's like watching the best West Wing for the first time. Classic Sorkin, and classic everything else.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Who does Michael Douglas think he is?

Aaron Sorkin wrote The American President before The West Wing. That much is obvious. It's interesting to watch as messed-up preview of The West Wing, where everything is out of place and rearranged. It's a shame the film follows the slightly dull conventions of Hollywood romance, but there's enough other stuff going on to make it watchable. And it's still Sorkin. Here's some similarities between the two, both in cast and writing:
  • Martin Sheen plays the Chief of Staff. This is just wrong. This man is the President of the United States. Who does Michael Douglas think he is? Like Bartlet and Leo, these two are old friends. But they play pool instead of chess. And to be fair, Douglas does a good POTUS.
  • Joshua Malina turns up. That's all, really.
  • Anna Deveare Smith plays the Press Secretary. I had to look that name up, but she played National Security Advisor Nancy McNally. She was always around.
  • Ellie, who had a whole episode named after her, has a minor role here. Not the character, the actress. Nina Siemmaszko.
  • Michael J. Fox, who plays the 'Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy' (lets say Deputy Chief of Staff) is a lot like Josh Lyman. He gets worked up easily. He's completely obsessed with the job. And he has a similar moment to Josh's 'take your legislative agenda and shove it up your ass' rant. But with more swearing.
  • The relationship between the President and his daughter has some similarities to Bartlet and Zoey. 'You're going to make me read this book cover to cover and then ask me a thousand questions about it at dinner'. Or something like that.
  • 'What is the virtue of a proportional response?' That came up pretty early in Season One.
  • The President says 'What's next?' The final words of the pilot and the line that was missing from the last episode.
  • Finally, and probably most importantly, the writing feels similar. The rhythm of the dialogue, the walking and talking, the sheer amount of stuff happening in each sentence. And the big speech at the end could have been straight from Bartlet. If it wasn't about the President's new girlfriend.
There's probably more, but I haven't seen The West Wing that many times to notice. Or maybe I have. The question is, was The American President the practise run or the inspiration?

Monday, 18 October 2010

Not many choose the happy fluffy things

I haven't written anything mildly interesting in a while. I've been having some adventures with the BBC, and have been too far away from an internet connection and the mental ability to write anything. But now that's finished and I've watched a film. Yes. With The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Terry Gilliam said that he just wanted to 'relax and make something joyous and playful'. It's the sort of film that happens when a director is allowed to do anything they want. Doctor Parnassus' travelling troupe set up shop in the middle of a street and try to entice people into their magical mirror. Inside they're presented with a projection of their imagination, which is divided into happy fluffy things and the darker temptations of the devil. They have to make a choice, and not many of them choose the happy fluffy things. These dreamy worlds are Gilliam's license to go mad. Anything and everything can be shoved into these rainbow fantasies. It's where the 'joyous and playful' bit comes in. Inception's dreamscapes are almost realistic compared to this. Outside the visual spectacle, the cold reality is all puddles, shopping centres, and drunk people. The Imaginarium is a nice place to be. It justifies the (sadly necessary) changing faces of the central character. It has giant ladders that turn into stilts. It makes you lose track of the plot. This is a confident and strange film that knows exactly what it wants to do.

And it comes with a useful reminder. It is almost always a bad idea to make a deal with the devil. If the deal is immortality in return for giving the devil your first-born daughter, the last thing you should do is have a daughter. Doctor Paranassus becomes forgetful in his old age. The devil always wins, especially if he's played by Tom Waits. He's the one who rightly advised us to 'keep the devil way down in the hole'. 

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Even Bourne wouldn't have found them

Whether or not Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon wanted to sell Green Zone as a companion piece to the Bourne films, the similarities are obvious. Revealing truth in government is something Jason Bourne spent a trilogy trying to achieve, and 'Roy Miller' doesn't do a bad job. He wonders why nobody's finding any WMDs in Baghdad and whether the invasion was justified. The film doesn't show the US versus Iraq, but warring sides of the American forces. Some of them talk sense, others are a bit shady. Green Zone has a point to make, and it could have said it more softly, but they decided to make this point through an action film. A pretty good action film. All of its messages are condensed into single lines - 'It is not for you to decide what happens here' - leaving room for the explosions. The message isn't weakened by this style. Paul Greengrass and writer Brian Helgeland actually manage to give it more volume. It's shouted across helicopter fights and car chases, and in Jason Isaacs' large moustache. By the time George Bush appears giving a victory speech, the film has already painted him as the villain. So it's annoyed Fox News and pleased anyone who wants to pretend that it's the fourth Bourne film. That's probably a good day's work.

Greengrass uses the same loose and frantic style, though I'm not really sure what to call it. It's not 'documentary style', there's too much music for that. It might be 'cinema vérité', but I'm not about to start writing in French. It could be 'handheld', but that sounds too vague. You know what I mean though. Some people complain that it's just shaky and disorientating, but these people are almost definitely wrong. Greengrass would say it 'crackles with reality'. Yes, he's probably right.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

The West Wing: Season Six

After a period of not much happening in Season Five, the sixth is where everything seems to happen at once. After the first few episodes most of the cast are in hospital (alright, two, but they were in perfect health until now). Leo's near-death is especially powerful. You could watch the end of the 'The Birnam Wood' fifty times and still be convinced he's going to die. Nobody's supposed to come back from a heart attack in the woods. There was even soft piano music. This kick starts the season, which is defined by job changes and elections. CJ's first days as the new Chief of Staff are a highlight, showing that these super-human people do feel stress after all. They were starting to get a bit too comfortable. When it's all shaken up the show seems fresh again. If the fifth season was the transition, this is the confident start of a new era. Half-way through you suspect that the show might have changed for good, as it focuses on Josh's campaign with Santos (played by Jimmy Smits, who dubiously appears in the credits before he's mentioned in the show). Now Will's departure from the White House begins to make sense, as the division between the Russell and Santos camps is made clear. It almost starts to turn into the Josh Lyman show, as the other characters are pushed to the side. Poor Toby is left behind, and his and Josh's relationship never really recovers after they actually start hitting each other (although arguably it was never that good to begin with). And Vinick is the Republican who sounds like a Democrat, meaning that the other side look like a credible threat for the first time. The campaign is compelling stuff, but completely alien. When the show shifts back to the West Wing it's like settling back into a comfy seat, where nothing has changed and everything's (mostly) in its place.

The real joy of The West Wing doesn't come from the events, but from the strength of the writing. In that respect this season makes back a lot of points. It remembers how to be funny, even if it's sometimes a bit inappropriate (why are CJ and Josh arguing about donuts when Leo's close to death?). It starts to reference season one when Leo gives another 'let Bartlet be Bartlet' speech. It remembers how to be a bit subversive. It remembers how to be energetic. The middle episode of Season Five was called 'Slow News Day', here it's called 'A Good Day'. This is more like it.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

The best films I've never seen

Even though film criticism is subjective, I'm not about watch a film that received entirely poor reviews. Sometimes a pile of critics could have the opposite opinion to me, but I'm not going to risk two hours on something I'm probably not going to like. The 'reviews' on this blog range from positive to indifferent; I very rarely come across something I dislike, because I'll only watch it if I've heard good things about it. Usually. I've seen some 'bad' films by accident - maybe because I'd never heard of them, or I just disagree with everyone else. Sometimes you have to watch a bad film to know what a good one looks like, and they're always easier to write about. But without critics, and ratings, and the realms of everything on the internet, I probably wouldn't know what films I wanted to watch. There are things I will watch soon. I want to see more Studio Ghibli. I want to see if there's a film that actually scares me. I want to one day understand what '3D films' are meant to be. There's good television I've never seen too: Mad Men, Deadwood, Dollhouse. These things take up days, so I have to choose carefully.

That was all a long introduction to asking you what films I should watch. People are better than critics after all. If you recommend a film I'll put it on a list somewhere, watch it, then pour my thoughts out onto these beige pages (according to Wikipedia, beige is quite close to the 'average colour of the universe'). You can also recommend bad films if you like. That way I don't have to be so nice all the time.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Not as clever as Cumberbatch

Sherlock Homes would have been more interesting if I hadn't seen the whole thing done a lot better. There's no Cumberbatch here. The film exists in a time when everything was brown and Sherlock Holmes didn't wear such a cool coat. Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law are the squabbling couple that Holmes and Watson should be, but they also beat a lot of people up. Rather than playing games of Extreme Deduction to outwit the criminals, they're more likely to wrestle with them. I didn't really believe that this man was a genius. He has moments where he works out the best places to punch people, but that's about it. He is good at disguises though. All the ingredients are here, pumped up by a lot of Hollywood action. It's not bad, but Moffat's series was second and better. Of course it's important to appreciate every film on its own merit, but I'm unfair like that. The BBC's Sherlock must be available on DVD by now, so watch that instead. It must be good, because it's taken over my thoughts on a completely seperate film. There'll be more of each adaption, which'll be nice, even if I am completely bored of the Sherlock Holmes franchise (I'm calling it a franchise). I don't want to know which quotes are from the books, or who Moriarty turns out to be. I only want something mysterious to happen.

To be fair, there's a bit of mystery here. A bad man comes back from the dead and starts doing magical things. Disappointingly though, Holmes figures it all out after the big confrontation. He's not as clever as Cumberbatch. Nowhere near. Cumberbatch would have cleared the whole thing up in a day.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Why the Russians can't be trusted

It seems like a long time since the Russians were the baddies. These days action heroes are going after the evils of their own government, the inner layers of their psyche, or anybody from the Middle East. James Bond killed Xenia Onatopp all the way back in 1995. Salt refers back too a time when the Russians were very bad indeed, and the reveal of the Big Bad is a man changing his accent and saying 'My name is Dmitri'. Then a countdown starts on a computer screen, the end result of which will be total annihilation. All tense stuff then. Angelina Jolie is in the middle of it all, jumping around on top of lorries and trying on various disguises. It feels like a film from fifteen years ago, but with modern explosions. You can work the plot twists out from the first twenty minutes, and then put them to one side until you're proven right. It's obviously not a bad film, it would just be more comfortable in another time. Harrison Ford would have been good in this film. Harrison Ford from the 90s. He could have played Salt, or the President, or maybe the CIA guy with a heart. He definitely wouldn't have been Dmitri though. Harrison Ford would have saved everyone from total annihilation. Angelina Jolie is okay, but who would you really want to do the job when nukes are being pointed at millions of innocent people? Exactly.

The CIA seem to be no better at their jobs these days. They definitely didn't see all this coming. Nobody suspects the Russian sleeper agents. They're the ones that pretend to be your friend, then they kidnap your husband and steal the nuclear launch codes. I wonder what Natalya Simonova is doing these days. She was useless. I also wonder what the Russians are planning right now. They're clearly up to something.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Van Damme complains and cries convincingly

I've written before about how all this meta-fiction confuses me. Even Jean-Claude Van Damme is doing it in JCVD. After making ten years of straight-to-video films, self-reflection got him back on cinema screens. Here he plays himself - a tired, exhausted actor who's sick of all these rubbish films. He walks in on a bank heist and, instead of beating everyone up, is thrown in with the rest of the hostages. It's a long way from an action film, as it moves back and forth through shifting perspectives and timelines. It also has chapters with artistic titles, like 'stone falls on egg, egg breaks' (yes, I suppose it would, but what does that have to do with the film?). This 'art' probably also explains why everything looks so washed out and blurry. But never mind, because if nothing else, this film shows that Van Damme deserves to be in better films. He can obviously act, and is a likable enough screen presence to be in the mainstream. I don't think I've seen any of his action films, but watching this made me feel like I had. It starts with a sprawling shot of him in full karate mode, dancing past explosions and throwing people around. When he finishes, the petulant director tells him to do it all again. Van Damme explains that it's difficult for him to do that, as he's forty-seven and quite tired.

If this is all peeling back one layer of fiction, it goes even further by giving Van Damme a six-minute monologue, where he breaks down all sorts of fourth walls (what are the first three?) by talking straight to the camera. He talks about his life in a cryptic way, and seems to get all emotional about it. It's a film making all sorts of points about the relationship between fiction and reality, but I'm not going to go into that - I've finished my English Literature degree now. And it doesn't look like it's started an art-house career revival for Van Damme, so this may be all the crying we see from him.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

All I have seen through dark glasses

So far the '3D' film effect has only annoyed me. Admittedly, I've only seen one 3D film - Toy Story 3. I watched it with two pairs of glasses on and spent a lot of the time trying to work out what I was supposed to be seeing. I couldn't see any difference from watching it in plain old two-dimensions. Only that it was darker. A colourful, wonderful film was put into a shade - like I was wearing sunglasses (incidentally, the glasses package instructs you 'NOT' to use them as sunglasses - oh alright then, I won't). I tried taking them off, but it was just a brighter blurry mess. I started to think that my eyes weren't picking up the effect, as everyone else seemed to be enjoying their new spectacles. To be fair though, this was the wrong film to judge it by. Someone at Pixar has said that they designed the 3D effect to be subtle and understated. But then why do it at all? Just to go along with the trend? Surely Pixar don't do that sort of thing. It didn't enhance the film, it just made it worse (maybe 'less good' is the right term). I haven't seen Avatar. I haven't seen Something Else 3D. I've only seen Toy Story 3 lose its colour. So at this point, I'm still just annoyed.

Some people have called 3D a revolution in film. Others say it'll be reduced to novelty status by this time next year. I don't know. I've yet to see this extra dimension. 'Things jump off the screen and hang in front of your eyes'. Really? Ok, I'll take your word for it. I'm far behind the rest of Film Land with this. I don't even know what they're talking about. I'm willing to let it go. It's probably got one more chance to impress me. But the glasses: necessity or money-making scheme? Nintendo have made a new DS console that does 3D without glasses. Clever people could make cinema screens like this. If it's revolutionary it must be worth the money.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Solomon Kane decides against peaceful protest

Solomon Kane is understandably quite annoyed. His soul has been sold to the devil without his knowledge and now he's in a bit of trouble. So he renounces his violent ways and goes to live with some kindly monks, with all the swamps and crows of Medieval England. He has become a 'man of peace'. Except that, given the right set of circumstances, he'll be very violent indeed. When some evil hordes do bad things to nice people, he goes on a murderous rampage. It's a muddy adventure through grey forests and ruined towns, a bit like a mini-Lord of the Rings. I say mini, but this is actually an impressive film. The world is convincing and the hero gruffly entertaining. Action heroes are always best when they want revenge - unstoppable, brutal, uncompromising revenge. James Purefoy sums it up brilliantly with the line: 'If I kill you I will be bound for hell. That is a price I will gladly pay'. Yes. Well done. In fact he's full of good of lines. When he says 'Let not one of these putrid heathens live', I don't want any of the putrid heathens to live. You won't get him to smile but you can count on him to put a sword in the right place. Even if the Big Bad does look like he fell asleep on a newspaper, he can summon fire demons that live in mirrors. Big fire demons who love to smash pillars, so it's definitely not a good idea to hide behind them. And there's flashbacks to Kane's past family life that may or may not be relevant. It all adds up.

It's a film that does conventional things. There's a damsel in a distress and an evil sorcerer in a castle. But it does these things powerfully and with complete conviction. This sort of thing can be done well without lasting three hours. One man on a quest to defeat evil and everything falls into place. I think it slipped through cinemas without anybody noticing, despite picking up good reviews. It's a film that deserves attention. It's an origin story, like the recent Robin Hood film, but doesn't outstay its welcome. Solomon Kane gets the job done.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Is there anything important on television?

I recently watched these people prattle on about how good The Wire is. They seem to quite like it. And they're right. It's very good. But they go as far as to suggest that it's so significant it's actually your cultural and civic duty to watch it. You have to. No choice. Without it you would be a lesser human. Now I wonder what television dramas, if any, are actually required viewing. If any have become such an essential part of culture that you have to watch them. In the case of The Wire, it definitely does things differently. It's a novelistic picture of a city, with a sprawling cast of characters and no intention to rest in a comfort zone. The second season shifted from the first and introduced a different world within the city, with a whole new set of characters. There's still all the familiar faces, but now they've moved around the city and care about different things. With each season new characters are piled on until all of Baltimore has come into focus. Here the number of main characters is approaching thirty, where most shows only have about ten. It wants to show you something. But do I feel different because I've seen it? Apart from it's structure, it comes full of messages about the state of the American inner city. David Simon describes it as a 'treatise on the end of the American empire, and who we are as a people and what we've come to'. See, important.

But is it required that you watch it? I definitely feel like I know a lot more about Baltimore now, so at the very least it's taught me things. David Simon also says that 'we've treated television as if it's not a mass medium, and we've been rewarded in kind'. I think this means that we now don't expect television to show us anything worthwhile, or teach us anything at all. So what shows hold up to this sort of thinking? That aren't just entertaining, but actually demand your attention. Everyone loves The West Wing, but does it change the way you look at American politics? I think it does, but I'm biased. Does The Sopranos count for anything? Does Doctor Who matter? I'm not saying everything has to be this significant. Entertainment is entertaining, there's no need for everything to be about the real world. But there has to be some. Maybe most of them just haven't been made. Outside of all the hyperbole, which pieces of television are actually that important? Like with most things, I don't know.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Everything you already know about Dexter

About a year behind, Dexter has finally appeared back on British telly. You probably know all about it. In fact, you've probably seen a lot more of it than I have. So this post will only serve as a reminder. Alternatively, start watching it right now. Dexter Morgan, a blood spatter expert with the Miami police, kills people in his spare time. But as Arnold Schwarzenegger once said in some film or other - 'Yes, but they were all bad'. Dexter tracks down criminals that have escaped the law and kills them in a routine that involves a lot of plastic sheets and knives. It makes him feel better. The real triumph of the show is how it balances this dark subject with humour. Dexter's calm, organised world is disturbed by people. Troublesome, annoying people who crowd around him with their problems, expecting him to care because he's their 'brother' or 'husband'. But he doesn't understand what they're talking about and just nods along. He's a strangely likable psychopath, who seems perfectly nice apart from all the killing. His inner monologue is delivered in dry monotone, and every fake piece of emotion comes with a wink at the audience. And as he expertly keeps his two worlds separate, one will always infringe on the other. In the fourth season his murder-ritual is disrupted by sleepless nights with a new baby - he falls asleep and drops carefully chopped limbs all over the floor.

Even though the first season didn't really grab me, Dexter has been compelling television ever since. Under less skilled cast and crew, this would be a horrible and nasty examination of a serial killer. Instead it's equal parts funny and disturbing, ironic and a bit scary. It's holding all these elements as it walks a tightrope, always ready to fall off but never losing its footing. It's quite good. But like I said, you already know this.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Does shiny and famous still make money?

It seemed that not enough people wanted to watch Knight and Day in the US, despite it 'starring' Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. Or maybe because it has Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz in it. Perhaps the idea of seeing famous people on screen has become less exciting than a big 3D-fest, franchise, or simply good films.The advertising for Knight and Day is just saying 'Look, shiny famous faces. We don't care if they're insane and/or boring'. So it's a good thing that it failed to make a billion dollars? It's definitely a slap in the (not so shiny) face for some suited studio people, but under all this is a film that's not bad. The absence of a negative. You won't remember it the next day, but never mind. Tom Cruise is a US agent gone mad and on the run from everyone. He's funny too, casually and amiably shooting everything while trying to keep Cameron Diaz calm. The expensive car chases and helicopter fights are no bother at all. He's definitely the best thing here, even if everyone seems to forget about the comedy halfway through. It starts to become a standard action film and everyone puts on their serious faces. Still ridiculous, just not funny. A shame, but it's still done well.

In some ways it's flimsy. Every now and then Cameron Diaz's character is drugged or knocked out, making the screen go black and fade into a new exotic location. A series of set-pieces with no link, like levels in a game. A lot of action films travel rapidly travel around locations, but not usually so shamelessly. Doesn't really matter though, in much the same way as you ignore Diaz's habit of talking out loud when she's deducing things. It'll do.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Rugby can solve everyone's problems

A film about rugby must be a pretty hard sell, because most of the film-watching world don't care about it. But if a sport is surrounded by a story - that's when films get made. In Invictus, President Mandela sees that the Springboks (the South African rugby team) still represent apartheid and white culture, and chooses the team to try and unite the country. In a film about South African race relations, the focus on the 1995 Rugby World Cup centres the problem up to a point without any mess or fuss. There's the microcosm of Mandela's mixed race bodyguards arguing about the importance of the sport, right up to stadium crowds who are finally supporting the same team. As the Springboks progress in the championship, everyone starts to get on a bit better. It might be a simplification, but it's a trajectory that works. Everything fits into place under Clint Eastwood's sturdy direction, so it's difficult to find any complaints. Sports films all come down to the same thing - a team or a player gets beaten, improves, then wins - the difference here being that it actually seems to matter. I don't know whether a rugby game really did unite a country, but in Film Land it did, and it's only Film Land that matters around here. Morgan Freeman does the same wise old man performance but with a South African accent. That works. Matt Damon manages to play rugby without looking ridiculous. That works too. It's predictable in an acceptable way.

Also, I think this was the first time I've ever seen rugby 'faked' for the camera. This sort of thing is done regularly for American Football films and, you know, golf, but this might actually hurt. In the middle of one of the most chaotic and brutal sports in the world, somebody wandered in with a very expensive camera and told them all to do it again. It looks real too. Good job.