Wednesday, 30 June 2010

The band of their generation

In a break from tradition, this a post about music that has nothing to do with any Icelandic people. Muse recently played at Glastonbury again, putting in a performance that shows why they deserve all those Best Live Band in the World awards. It was a relentless succession of the biggest songs from over a decade of albums, a huge crowd-pleasing rock show. Its been said that whenever Muse turn up at a festival they overshadow everyone else with the fireworks and sheer scale of their set, but they always belong on the big stage. There's a confidence about their playing that you don't find in most bands - they frequently add half-improvised sections at the end of songs just for the fun of it and leave whole verses for the crowd to sing. And they can switch to quiet, spacier moments without missing a beat. They weren't there to promote their newest album, they played all the songs that everyone wanted to hear - from 'Citizen Erased' to 'Resistance', from 'Time is Running Out' to 'Uprising'. The surprise arrival of U2's The Edge (why is he called The Edge?), whose own band couldn't play the night before because of the singer's broken back, produced an excellent cover of a classic song I'd never heard before. The only song that failed to impress was the dull-in-comparison 'Undisclosed Desires', a recent R&B effort which is fine is isolation but has no place in this set.

This is a band at the top of their game. From the release of Showbiz in 1999 each album has increased in size and ambition, culminating in grand three-part symphony to end their latest album. And the themes of the songs have evolved to encompass a broad and slightly insane world of conspiracy and science-fiction. Although, to be fair, this band has always been sci-fi. Every piece of artwork shows the stars, the sky, the planets. They'd play on the moon if they could. Some people might call them overblown, too big - but you don't listen to Muse to relax. They're not meant to be calm. And as a whole they work wonderfully, though it's clear where the heart of the band is. Dom Howard (drums) and Chris Wolstenholme (bass) are excellent musicians, but they must be pleased they know Matt Bellamy. It's fair to say they'd be nowhere with him. Songwriter, vocals, lead guitar, piano - all done effortlessly. He's the creative force behind the band and where much of the attention usually goes. Commonly described as one of the finest rock guitarists ever, he also has a powerful falsetto and amazing classical piano-ability to go with it. And instead of letting it all get to him he still seems completely humble, almost not aware of how big the band have become and determined to not become, in his own words, 'a tit'. They're described as the band of their generation. They're quite good. And they're not even Icelandic.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

We're all stories in the end

And that's that. This season of Doctor Who ends with Steven Moffat's two-parter 'The Pandorica Opens' and 'The Big Bang'. The cracks in time that have popped up everywhere have been leading to something big and bad. The 'Pandorica' is going to open and the 'most feared thing in the universe' will emerge. Doctor Who likes to throw hyperbole at its monsters but, in a nice twist, this lives up to its promise. The first episode is completely and undeniably epic. There's Stonehenge, Romans, Rory, and every monster ever dreamt up. It does tragedy in ways that only Doctor Who can: your girlfriend can't remember you because you never existed and it turns out you're a robot anyway. It all makes sense in a wonderfully fantastical way, being important and ridiculous at the same time. The first part ends as first parts always should: with the question 'how are they possibly going to get out of this?' The answer is 'do timey-wimey things'.

'The Big Bang' starts by undercutting the scale of the first part with some misplaced jokes and a box that's apparently easier to open than you thought. It then goes on to explain itself in a very timey-wimey way. Almost too timey-wimey. The episode is groaning under the weight of its own explanations. Every few minutes someone stops to try and make us understand it all, which isn't easy. It's extremely convoluted, not entirely coherent, and sort of breaks the promises of the episode before. But it gets by on delivering what Doctor Who is so good at - the emotional finale. Yes, I don't understand why the universe is collapsing, but the relationship between Doctor and assistant stays at the heart of the story. I don't want either of them to die in their past's future's present or anything. It gets itself out of holes in unclear and slightly dubious ways, but the power of the characters means that you don't really care.

Like usual this has been a season of remarkable planning on foresight. Episode one creates a puzzle and the rest are the pieces. Admittedly, its a puzzle with strange answers, but it does come together eventually. Sort of. In an unusual decision, some of the story has been left untold. It seems the show is becoming less closed off and more open to a running story. Even more unusual still is that the next season will apparently keep the same cast. No change this time. The Eleventh Doctor and Amy Pond live on. Which is nice. Apart from one mid-season dip the quality has remained high and has rarely resorted to action set-pieces. A confident new era has started and it isn't interested in slowing down. Doctor Who is in good hands.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Robin Hood deals with the French first

Russell Crowe has been getting very annoyed when people mention Robin Hood's accent, but I didn't really notice. I was too busy wondering when the real Robin Hood was going to turn up. The outlaw that lives in the forest and does the thing with the rich and the poor people. For most of the film Robin's pretending to be a noble landowner and commanding whole armies of Englishmen. This was all pretty confusing until I realised it was meant to be a prequel to the 'real' story. Now it all makes sense. I'm not aware of the historical accuracy of any of this, but they've definitely spun a complicated plot around kings and barons and the French. I understand that the French are bad, this much I know, but the politics of the English throne is a little harder to follow. It works, although maybe it's a little too complex for what is essentially meant to be a mainstream historical thriller. When the action does start it really hits hard, with axes and arrows and other violent objects flying around. And it's muddy. And the sky is permanently cloudy. It's all pretty convincing. Apart from the accents. But you're not meant to mention that.

The real problem lies with the villains. They're not villainous enough. For a fair portion of the film there's no deep injustice to feel outraged about. There's no evil adversary that Robin is desperate to kill. In Gladiator, the entire film revolves around the utter evilness of the emperor and Maximus' desire for revenge. Here Robin tends to be just pottering about with no huge complaint towards anybody. He has a bit of a fight with Mark Strong, but then the two don't see each other for hours. There's no driving force pushing the film to a climax. Even the Sheriff of Nottingham is reduced to a minor character in prequel-land. It's a surprising omission from Brian Helgeland, who also wrote A Knight's Tale. What this film needed was a Count Adhemar. Someone completely nasty. The village pillaging comes late on, and by the time it's kicked into gear I've run out of popcorn.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

The West Wing: Season Four

This season, unlike the third, is lined with memorable episodes. I know this because, looking at this episode list, I know what happens in all twenty two. It starts with Sorkin's best season opener (and so the best of any season). '20 Hours in America' combines pretty bleak drama with some of the funniest scenes of the whole show. Josh, Toby, and Donna are stranded in Indiana, having been left behind by the motorcade. Unlike usual. where people are just running between offices, this feels like a real journey. They have to deal with their general real-world incompetence and the distractions of anyone that gives them a ride. They eventually make it back to DC just as President Bartlet is giving one of his more powerful speeches: 'every time we think we've measured our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and we are reminded that that capacity may well be limitless'. Good stuff. In fact the entire season follows this lead, reinvigorating the show with comedy that looks effortless. Toby and Charlie get arrested in California ('Did they rob the bar?'), Leo gets angry about a goat ('I'm gonna put snakes in your car and you won't know where they are or if you got them all out') and the staff start playing poker again. The largely sombre tone of the previous season has been forgotten about.

Unfortunately though, all this comes at a price. For some reason or other, Rob Lowe left, meaning that Sam Seaborn is quietly shoved aside. It's a good storyline - he replaces a victorious dead candidate in California. But after some excellent episodes on the subject, he just disappears. He loses, then disappears. Toby mentioned that he could have come back to the White House, but he was never mentioned again. He apparently became another resident of Mandyville. Just a passing reference to his continuing existence would have been nice. His replacement, Will Bailey, is perfectly fine. This season is the only time he actually fits in though. After a promising beginning he permanently gets into Toby's bad books and alienates himself from the staff for years. It's a shame because the episodes where he's part of the team - 'Inaugration Over There',' Privateers', 'Evidence of Things Not Seen' - are excellent.

At the end of the season 'Commencement' presents itself as the perfect finale, the episode that has everything. It's got comedy ('Yeah, we're in a brook now'), tragedy, horrible sadness, and a brilliantly tense conclusion. Massive Attack's 'Angel' combined with a pile of dramatic scenes is an ominous and overwhelming few minutes. It's so good it's easy to forget that there's still another episode to come. 'Commencement' seems like to the true Sorkin finale, 'Twenty Five' is the coda. It brings to an end four seasons of near perfect television. It zips past so quickly and so confidently that you can only spot the faults after the fifth viewing. I'm not sure how Aaron Sorkin wrote over a hundred episodes of powerful, monumental television and made it all look so effortless. How did he do it? Maybe it was all the drugs. Or maybe he's a genius.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Vincent van Gogh and the alien that lives upstairs

'Vincent and the Doctor' is another one of Doctor Who's 'meeting an historical figure' episode. This time it's Vincent van Gogh. Poor, under appreciated Vincent van Gogh. And there's a big monster running around as well. It feels a bit similar to the Shakespeare episode. There's a lot of jokes about the work and the life of the artist, including one shot that mirrors 'Bedroom in Arles' (I looked that up).Fictionalising someone like this creates a ready-made character. Nobody wants to buy his paintings. He's a bit lonely. And it turns out to be a much better episode than you'd expect. The invisible monster is kept in the background, which is understandable. Because it's all a set-up for the end, where Vincent takes a trip in the Tardis to see his own work in a modern museum. It's a good idea - so good I was convinced they weren't going to do it. It's a powerful ending to an episode that could have been a bit throwaway. Richard Curtis did a good job here. It rises above its gimmick and lifts the show out of its mid-season dip.

In the next episode, 'The Lodger', there's even less big monstery threats. Here the Doctor is trapped in a English suburb while Amy Pond tries to land the Tardis. Something's causing interference from the top flat of a house, so the Doctor moves into the flat below. It's about watching him trying to be human, about him trying to handle social situations. It's almost a Doctor Who sitcom. This sounds awful, but it turns out to be a lot of fun. The script is funny, and James Corden - the confused flatmate - is surprisingly not annoying. There's a bit where the Doctor plays football (before giving his 'No violence. Not while I'm here' speech to the bemused players), a bit where he cooks dinner, a bit where he ruins his flatmate's romantic evening. Again, this sounds awful, but part of the appeal is seeing how completely alien Matt Smith's performance is. A mad and eccentric shift from David Tennant. He's settled into the role now (not that there was ever any problems to begin with). Above all, this a light-hearted forty minutes before the Big Epic Two-Parter Finale. There is a creepy alien thing living upstairs that lures people to their doom. But like the monster from the last one, it doesn't seem to matter.

Monday, 14 June 2010

James Bond gets angry and kills everyone

Quantum of Solace assumes that you've only just finished watching Casino Royale. The intention to develop a running story for the franchise is commendable, but the film offers no explanation of what's actually going on. The first twenty minutes or so is Bond chasing and shooting a series of people. Someone will be about to say something useful but he's already run out the door, diving across rooftops and swinging around on ropes. It doesn't bother with set-up because that was apparently all done years ago. The idea of a running narrative isn't to only makes parts of a film - to make one six hour long epic - each film has to work by itself. The rest of Quantum meanders all over the place. The end seems to come about three times. That is until he's off again, chasing down baddies that you'd forgotten about and visiting countries for (probably) a very good reason. I'm sure there's a reasonable plot in there somewhere, maybe I just wasn't paying attention, but the boring talky story bits are rushed through so there can be more exploding. I need set-up before something blows up.

Maybe this is what happens when there's three writers, or maybe it doesn't really matter. If you turn your brain off and stop worrying about it there's a lot of good action to watch. Paul Greengrass seems to have set a template (incidentally the Bourne films show how a running film narrative can work). It's all very energetic. All very post-Bourne Supremacy. This is how car chases should be done. Dangerous and loud with bits of metal hitting your face. And messy fights. And tile-clattering roof chases. And a bit where the action's intersected with opera, which is all new. There's boat chases too, but we don't talk about boat chases. It might be less stylish than Casino (when did MI5 get funny Star Trek screens?) but what it does well, it does very well. All its problems seem to come from the script, which could have been tidied up.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

The same old frakking toasters

It's always nice to have some new Battlestar Galactica, but the new film-thing The Plan is almost pointless. It presents the story of the first few seasons from the Cylon's point of view. This sounds alright, but what it mainly amounts to is a collection of little scenes placed around old events. The Cylon 'One' orders his minions to blow things up and they do it. That's about it. We don't learn anything new here, it's just an elaborate flashback. The old footage from early seasons gives it structure, and I can understand why it's there, but they really start to overdo it. Why not make an entirely new episode? This seems like a compilation of past glories sped up to fit into two hours. They could have given us an interesting insight into the mythology - maybe the Final Five or the original Earth. This just shows us everything we've seen before from a slightly different perspective. It's almost like they're trying to tie up a few minor loose ends by saying 'this guy did it' or 'this small conversation happened in a corridor'. It's not much of a film, even with its impressive writing credits and familiar Galactica feel. The creators are saying 'Remember all this cool stuff we did years ago? You do remember don't you? Good, now watch our new series.'

This could have been much more. They've shown that they can do TV-movies. Razor was an interesting look at the backstory of the Pegasus ship, which filled out a lot of characters and didn't rely on old footage to tell its story. The Plan is a shame. BsG was excellent television - a brave and dynamic show. I don't know if there'll be anymore, but this is a weak add-on existing only to plug a few gaps. Sometimes things need to be tied up in a bow and left alone. I hardly know anything about Caprica, the new prequel series, but I'm hoping it can stand on its own two feet.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The quiet side of Jónsi

The special edition of Jónsi's new album comes with a little film called Go Quiet. It's from the director of Heima so you can only expect good things. Here Jónsi sings his songs acoustically, using any rickety instruments he can find lying around his house. Stripped of all the bombast and explosions of the album, these songs seem fragile and shy. Jónsi's voice is usually layered underneath the huge audio productions, so these sorts of performances always show the songs in a new light. A similar thing was done in Heima, but this is even smaller. There's no audiences or community halls. It's just one man and an instrument. 'Around Us' reverts to its original quiet piano, 'Animal Arithmetic' is slower and almost relaxing, 'Grow Till Tall' completely bare. That being said, it's definitely not Heima (although most things aren't). There's no journey, no scale. It only wants to be reflective. Which is fair enough.

It's beautifully shot too. Dean DeBlois knows how to frame a shot with some fancy focus, and it's fascinating to watch. There are segments of the New Years Eve party that Jónsi had just held, but they never outstay their welcome. It's not a documentary, it's a short film. One that's been expertly crafted to show off Jónsi's talent and general weirdness. At one point he wanders into a quaint shop full of lamps to find the antique pianos at the back. Why? It doesn't seem to matter. Sigur Rós teach you not to wonder what it's supposed to mean, only what you want it to. Above all it's a fitting accompaniment to the album Go. It's the other half of Jónsi. The quiet half that was forced into hiding. The songs originally sounded like this. Now the album is complete.

Monday, 7 June 2010

How it was made

I've written a lot about the production of how to be god, but none of it has really gotten across how the show was made. This video is pretty accurate. Just imagine a year of it.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Luther doesn't play by the rules

It would be easy to make fun of Luther. He's a maverick detective who doesn't play by the rules. He's a genius with 'emotional difficulties'. He solves a different crime every week. This has all been done before. I would write that review, except for one problem - Luther is very good television. Yes, it's an episodic police procedural, but these are episodes that each build to something extremely tense. It's unpredictable and brave and perfectly willing to kill its cast. The enjoyment comes from the knowledge that, when a deranged serial killer is bashing down a door, the good guys might not actually make it there in time. I'm usually against episodic television because I imagine closed-off, dramatically sterile episodes where nothing ever happens and the right people always win. This is not like that. And to think I only started watching it because Idris 'Stringer Bell from The Wire' Elba is in it. Two shows that are almost structural opposites. Although maybe it wouldn't be so entertaining without this lead. Sometimes he carries the show on his big apparently-British shoulders. Because with one look at the sceen you can tell where this was made. The overriding colour is grey - the sky is grey, the offices are grey, the suits are grey - it's pessimistic and English. And the interesting choice to leave a lot of empty space in the frame makes it even bleaker. The people look small.

But there is an arc going through the series and, like The Wire, you have to wait for it to burst. It's delivered in little nuggets but has now just exploded five episodes in. It's not often that television completely surprises me. I always hope it will, but it hardly ever does. Here there's scenes that really impressed me. The scenes that go 'well he's clearly not going to shoot her. There's no way they're killing - oh, dead now'. Drama that's willing to pull the trigger and go off in dangerous new directions is what I like. I'm hoping the next episode lives up to this, and I'm hoping there'll be more.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Around here the graves eat people

For the new parter, 'The Hungry Earth' and 'Cold Blood', Doctor Who is back in the countryside. Most people are probably bored of it by now, but I don't care, I love it. Sleepy villages and empty fields can be surreal, fantastical and creepy. Cities are usually too loud for this. Unfortunately though, there's not much to like here. There's a city of reptile-people underneath a Welsh village. The humans are drilling down and the reptiles don't like it. Sounds fine, but barely anything happens for an hour and a half. I have no idea why this is a two-parter. The first half is a long set-up for something that never really happens. They're apparently on the edge of war, but there's no tension anywhere near these episodes. It starts to ask questions about whether humanity is ready to share the planet with aliens, but doesn't seem committed to answering it. It shows us vast armies of reptile-men before moving away and going back into small rooms. I was always waiting for it to get interesting and it never really did, which is a shame. The events that do occur are in the last five minutes and completely unrelated to the episode. This could have trimmed down.

More worrying than any of this was that, for the first time this series, I found the whole thing unconvincing. The subterranean alien world never felt real. You could see the joins in the effects. You could tell they'd just dressed up a stage with some plants. The Doctor wanders around tunnels that seem plastic, talking to aliens that aren't original. It's a shame, because up till now the series has been full of imagination and creativity. I didn't believe in this one at all. Even the characters it introduced didn't seem to work. These aren't the 'best of humanity' at all. An irritating mother and a small boy who was just there to get in the way. A grandfather who gets poisoned by the reptiles but is so manly he hardly complains. The most offensive one is Nasreen, the head of the mining operation, who wanders around the alien world like it's a supermarket. In fact, none of them seem phased by this peculiar turn of events. They meet an entire alien civilisation that's been living beneath their feet. The little boy says 'wow'. That's as surprised as they get. Why aren't their mind breaking? In one scene Nasreen casually discusses the fate of the planet with the reptile elder like she does it every day. Nothing gels here. It's all very pretend. You're not meant to notice it's fiction. The only redeeming feature is the Doctor, whose enthusiastic bounding around is always entertaining. Hopefully normal service will be resumed next week.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Two novels by Ishiguro

Ishiguro novels seem to have a thing about the past. The two that I've read, When We Were Orphans and Never Let Me Go, are both written from a point in the future, looking back at what's past. And if Ishiguro didn't know how to hold a story so well, they might be as dull as I've made them sound. He takes something familiar, something everyone has read before, and twists it a little bit to bring reality in. In Never Let Me Go it's clones. Created for organ donations and hidden away in boarding schools. The idea is taken straight out of science-fiction but here it's a placed in a real setting - late 90s England - where their existence seems more difficult. The book is completely uncluttered by science or explanation, it's just about the people. For large sections it'll seem like a story about school, or about 'university', but then they mention their donations. It's all bit sinister. These characters are human, and that's the most troubling thing. After all the childhood games and the (slightly annoying) teenage politics, they're just slabs of meat to be sold off. Their deaths are unceremonious and understated, because that's what they were there for in the first place.

And the detective of When We Were Orphans writes from inside his own fantasies. He's convinced that his parents, who were abducted in Shanghai when he was young, are still being held captive twenty years later. They're clearly not, but he plays out the detective game until it breaks. He's stuck as a ten year old - the entire profession of 'detecting' is a way of delaying adult reality and responsibilty. The language is a lot posher, more adapted to the boring London society. It's rare for a writer to almost completely change their style from book to book. Ishiguro chooses a voice and goes with it, keeping himself in the background. It's not an easy thing to do. But if there's a link between the two, it's that both see childhood as formative and inescapable. It completely makes up who these characters are. Only now it's become a collection of memories that they have to decipher one by one. It has become a story that they have to tell themselves. In other words, it's a big pile of literary stuff that Ishiguro can write pages and pages about and still leave things untold. That's enough for now, but I might read more one day.