Friday, 23 July 2010

A single idea from the human mind

It's true that while watching Inception your mind will mainly be occupied by trying to understand it. The premise of going into people's dreams isn't that complicated, but there's a lot of strange rules to it. A subject's subconscious has to enter a designed dream where other subconsciouses (plural of subconscious?) can come along for the ride. Then there's dreams within dreams, a strange 'limbo' place even further down, and 'totems' that remind people where they are. The idea of 'inception' is to plant an idea in someone's mind rather than extract information, which sounds quite difficult. Thankfully Leonardo DiCaprio and his various assistants are up to it. Like the best heist films, every stage of its plot is based on a clever idea, a twist that changes everything. And even if you strip away all the layered psychology, there's still a good action film underneath. It can go anywhere it wants at the flick of switch - from inner city car chases (with a train) to snow fortresses and weightless corridor fights. The highlight is the cityscape that folds in on itself, rising and falling like all the people are going to fall out. It's brave to spend this much money on something so wilfully complex. It's like Christopher Nolan has been let loose with millions of dollars to do whatever he wants. The result is an inventive, imaginative, intelligent thriller.

You don't usually get questions like 'what is reality?' from mainstream cinema, but that's the first thing this film makes you think. Next to all the explosions and shooting there are people discussing (usually quite quickly) the difference between dreams and reality. The plot sets up layers of dreams, with the top one being called 'reality'. Obviously, you've got to wonder if it really is, and what it means in the first place. These are the sort of philosophical ponderings the film promotes. Whether or not everyone is always in a dream or not is irrelevant though, it just matters that you thought about it.

And with that I'm having a two-week break from these internet things.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

He's not the driver, he's the undertaker

It can't be easy to look like the walking embodiment of evil, but Viggo Mortensen manages it in Eastern Promises. Even amongst the other thorougly evil Russian gangsters he looks like a bad sort. Maybe it's the sunglasses, or the hair, or the sight of him defrosting a frozen corpse with a hair dryer - he definitely looks mean. He serves as the driver and 'undertaker' for a Russian crime family, who specialise in a variety of bad things. A midwife starts poking around asking questions about a baby that was born in her hospital. Obviously this isn't a good idea. Viggo Mortensen's character has a habit of waiting for her in ominous places (he makes anywhere looking ominous) and saying nice things that sound very threatening. It's a dark and convincing world, and at times extremely violent. David Cronenberg's previous film, A History of Violence, showed how he can punctuate a drama with some nasty scenes. Here it's as unpleasant as it's meant to be, starting as it means to go on with a slicey assassination in a barber shop. This shady world is so convincing, the characters so horribly realistic, that you don't see the surprise coming. It's the best sort of twist, one that has clues laid throughout the plot that you don't want to notice, until one scene changes everything and it all makes sense.

As a gangster film it doesn't have flair or comedy; it's more of a dark, violent drama. It may be categorised as a 'thriller' but there aren't that many thrills, it's more worrying. You'll worry about the silly woman who won't stop going to see evil criminals. You'll worry what the crime boss means when he looks at a baby and says 'we can do a deal, yes?'. You'll also worry about any scene that involves the walking embodiment of evil. It occurred to me halfway through watching it that Liam Neeson could turn up and easily kill all of these people. He doesn't do that, but he could.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Staring at goats isn't as much fun as you'd think

George Clooney as a psychic spy. Jeff Bridges as a hippy soldier. Goats. This all sounds entertaining, but it's just not as much fun as it should be. It's a shame, because the premise is a good one. A lonely journalist starts investigating the government's more 'free-thinking' military operations - running through walls, invisibility, staring at animals until they die - and ends up traipsing through the desert with a retired spy on a secret mission. Flashbacks show how these ideas came about, in sequences that are 'sort of true'. This is where the real action is, in crazy generals handing out daffodils and teaching meditation through dance. It's always disappointing to see the story go back to the desert, where, as you can imagine, not much happens. Eventually the past catches up, but fails to live up to its promise. It's the sort of film where you'll already have seen the best bits in the trailer. There's still a few nice moments though. George Clooney's character comments that after trying to develop invisibility for a while they 'changed the goal to the idea of not being seen', 'Like camouflage?', 'No, not like camoflage'.

As a comedy it's not that funny and as political satire it's not that edgy. It runs a middleground, not doing either particularly well but working in parts. It could have done with a bit more of a creative spark, a bit more imagination. They didn't try to go too far outside the lines, it's very neat and tidy and doesn't push any boundaries. It's almost subversive in that it defies expectation, like it must have been really hard to make such an interesting subject so formulaic. Not bad, but just watch the trailer if you want a laugh.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

The old magician and the curious boy

I remember Michael Caine saying (in an interview, I haven't spoken to him) that Is Anybody There? is the first time he'd died in a film. Not shot or blown up or run over, just died from being old. It's a film completely occupied with death. Morbid and funny and sometimes morbidly funny. An eleven-year-old boy lives in an old people's home and has to put up with people dying all around him. As this becomes a part of his life he attempts to understand it, asking questions about 'bright lights' and 'long tunnels'. He approaches it with a child's eye for magic. He talks about ghosts and spirits and seances and says that 'it can't just be black'. Michael Caine, an aging magician, shows him exactly how magic works. It's by sleight of hand and tricks of perspective, its methodical and simple. Magic doesn't exist. The boy's wonder is ruined and he no longer asks any questions. He can even do the card tricks himself. This link between a magician's art and a child's magic was an interesting approach, something I hadn't seen before. But after all, the adults can't really answer the boy's questions, they just stop him asking.

As a film it seems to have strange pacing. Everything goes downhill quickly at the end, like somebody flicked a switch. Maybe it was to cut everything off at the end without emphasis, but after a long build-up it goes out very quietly. Obviously there's something very quiet about the whole film. It's a British indie sort-of-thing that'll do exactly what it wants. Not entirely depressing, just not cheerful. You probably shouldn't watch it if you feel a bit ill, it'll just make you worse. Watch something a bit happier. Maybe a musical.

Friday, 16 July 2010

The West Wing: Season Five

The problem with reviewing the fifth season of The West Wing is that I can't really remember what happened in it. Without Aaron Sorkin the show had to find its feet again with a bunch of new writers. But I'm looking at an episode list right now, and without the plot summaries I'd have almost no idea what went on. 'The Benign Prerogative', 'Talking Points', 'The Stormy Present' - I have no idea. Even when I read the synopsis I have trouble. The season is held up by its bookends - the conclusion of the kidnapping and the trip to Gaza for the finale. Even though Zoey is returned quite quickly, like they were trying to wrap up the Sorkin era, these two arcs are excellent. 'Gaza' and 'Memorial Day' are so good they seem to define the season, as they rise out of the relatively dull middle section with an explosion. The fact that episode twelve is called 'Slow News Day' says an awful lot. It's mostly standalone episodes that don't stick in the mind, that are about politics that don't seem to matter. It drifts by without having much impact.

Although, the lowest point of The West Wing is still good television. The writing, though not as sharp as Sorkin's, still keeps some of its quality. Determinedly. They had to imitate a style that appeared effortless and turned out to be quite hard. It lost its pace. 'They forgot to bring the funny'. And sometimes even the camera isn't very interested, slowly moving into a scene like they're not all in a rush. It might be fair to say that a group of writers can't sustain a year in the White House like Sorkin could. Where the remaining two seasons shake everything up with elections and job changes, season five is just a normal year. But unlike the first four it doesn't really know what to do. So it's a dip from season four. A big dip. Nobody loves it. But it sits there in the middle of the box demanding to be watched again, so you can find all the stories that you'd forgotten and forget them again. It has its place in the series: it's the stamp of a new era that starts on shaky ground, the harsh divide between the old and the new. It'll never be as good as it was, but it'll get close.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

It was a nightmare, more like an exorcism

The BBC's new comedy, Rev., shows a lot of sympathy for its main character, a struggling inner city vicar. He seems constantly tired, trying to remain a moral voice under the weight of a failing church. It's a modern sort of sitcom - no laughter track, real sets - but is a lot gentler than you'd expect. Its comedy doesn't come from entertaining swearing or one-liners, but from the strangeness of the acting and the intelligence of the satire.The highlight was in episode two, where a bunch of teenage evangelists invaded the vicar's church, filling it with smoothie bars and rapping preachers. There was something instantly funny and scary about it. The vicar, who only brought them in to increase congregation numbers, throws them and their bullying priest out of his building. It shows their peculiarity without commenting on it, and makes me sorry I didn't have fifty extras and an actual budget to make how to be god with. I was restricted to conversation, breaking the 'show don't tell' rule that this show strives to follow.

Elsewhere Rev. appears to be open to both sides. The vicar occasionally steps outside of his increasingly business-like job to talk about Christianity. He tells the often-drunk Colin that 'a snail's shell is perfect, but it doesn't have to be'. He's got ideas which are all deemed old-fashioned and 'rural' by the overbearing archdeacon. In the third episode he invites Muslims to use the church, to which the archdeacon cynically replies 'Oh how very exciting of you', before rushing off to a celebrity book launch. To be honest, on the whole the show isn't that funny, but each episode has had a few clever moments that made me smile. Nothing special then, but it'll do.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Take the balloon house to Paradise Falls

At the heart of Up, like with many Pixar films, is a sense of nostalgia and loss. An old man is left alone in his house after his wife dies, having never been on the adventure she dreamed about. So he attaches balloons to his house and flies off to 'Paradise Falls'. By itself this would be a fairly good story, but its set up with real care. The first part of the film shows Mr Fredricksen go from eight to eighty, growing up with his wife and going grey. There aren't many films that would do such a montage. It's brave, especially in a children's film, to start with so much death and sadness. Of course you probably already know this, because you've probably already seen it, but it also has a place in the wider scheme of things. For instance, the entire Toy Story series is set at points where the characters believe that their good times are behind them and that their usefulness will soon run out. In the first film Buzz Lightyear arrives, putting an end to Woody's position as the top toy. Then there's the general sense that it's all finite, that it'll all come to an end very soon. It hangs over the films. And Up is set in a similar place, except the toy is an old man.

And it's very funny. It's confident and almost effortless. In other hands a character like Kevin the bird would have been voiced by Ben Stiller or George Clooney. Here it just squawks. That's all it needs to do. It works on the strength of the animation and nothing else. And Dug the dog is done by the co-director Bob Peterson, just because that was the best way to do it. Why pay Hollywood-types to come in and be boring when all you need is the creativity to do it yourself? Like I said before, there's a purity to what Pixar do. It's like they lock themselves away and don't come out until the film is ready. They think of the perfect person to play a part and they get them. They think of the best story to tell and they tell it. And what other company would show  an unrelated short before the film starts, just because they wanted to make one? If I gave out stars, which I don't, Up would have five. Out of five. Full stars.

Friday, 9 July 2010

You are a toy

The first two Toy Story films have been called The Godfather Parts I and II of animation. But that's just nonsense. Toy Story is much better than The Godfather. It's amazing what Pixar can do. Many animator's try to emulate them, thinking that they only have to make a dog or a fish talk. What Pixar do is almost intangible - they expertly craft charm into their creations, they go the extra mile to make the animation real. It's in the eyes, the faces, the movement. The amount of time these people spend staring at a computer to get a cowboy's eyebrow to move just right is staggering. If the end result wasn't so wonderful they'd have given up to find some sunlight. Real creativity and love goes into their films, they don't bow to focus groups or trends (a film about an old man attaching balloons to his house?), they make films that others follow.

Obviously the normal film requirements apply too - script, acting, score. In each of these Toy Story excels. By itself the first film has one of the purest film plots around - enemies become friends, evil is defeated, the heroes make it home. I was surprised to learn that, this being the first CGI feature film, it was made back in 1995. 1995? That's fifteen years ago (I can do maths), I was six years old when this was released. In other words, a long time ago. In all this time it has barely been surpassed. They did it perfectly the first time. Amazing, really. If it had gone badly the whole thing might not have taken off. Toy Story provided the base for every computer animated film to come, something to aspire and live up to. The creators said that they were 'too young to realise what they were going wasn't possible', they were just having as much fun with it as they could. And the good news is, after all these years, the third film is receiving equal adoration. You see, much better than The Godfather.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

The two types of plot

Somebody once told me that there are only two plots in all fiction: boy leaves home and stranger comes to town. As metaphorical as they are, I'm not sure I trust it. Let's have a look at various film, book, and TV things:
  • The Road There's a lot of leaving home going on here. They find that nice bunker full of peaches and then they leave again. So it happens more than once.
  • Doctor Who In general this seems to be both. The assistant leaves home because the Doctor has arrived, who is pretty strange.
  • The Bourne Identity He's on a journey, but was he ever at home to begin with?
  • District 9 Lots of scaley strangers coming to town. Also, the protagonist is turning into an alien, so that can't be very comfortable.
  • The Lion King It's Hamlet, right? And in Hamlet people go mad, which is strange. This is maybe stretching it slightly. Shakespeare is awkward.
  • Taken Boy leaves home to kill everyone in France. Technically he's an ex-CIA operative, but lets say boy.
  • A Knight's Tale He's definitely leaving home here. He goes back at the end but that doesn't count.
  • Pride and Prejudice Stranger comes to town. In Jane Austen it is always stranger comes to town.
  • Lost Everything at once from ten different viewpoints and alternative timelines. Also: polar bears.
  • Lord of the Rings Probably the definition of boy leaves home.
Does it work? Maybe. But then you could easily write a story that doesn't follow the rules, just to be sly. I did not include sly artists in this list.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Where characters get frowns from

I was rifling through old essays (maybe it wasn't a rifle, more of a sift) when I came across something I'd written about character depth. It was a long essay, and it was mainly me trying to sound cleverer than I am, but this was a bit of it:
If depth already exists within the reader, then the character is constructed instantly. When the reader identifies with a character, they recognise certain qualities or traits that they have in common, and so believe the character to be a representation of themselves. The character then acquires the depth of the reader by sharing a personality and becoming an extension of the reader.
Many characters, even in a very small part, contain something you can relate to. Josh Lyman is the Deputy Chief of Staff at the White House but in some ways he's still a bit of a child. The Doctor is a Time Lord but he's also a nerd. Dexter Morgan is an emotionless serial killer but he also likes a beer in the evening. Taking characters into yourself (maybe less with the last one) turns them into something important. If someone that's a bit like you doesn't get killed by rampaging demons then you might feel a bit better about yourself.

Mostly though, I just think this is rubbish. Everything on screen is not a representation of ourselves. They are fictional creations written to appear human. They need to have depth by themselves, not relying on some nice viewer or reader to adopt them. So what does it mean when a character is called 'flat' as opposed to 'three-dimensonal' - what does character depth mean? Well, my Very Clever essay used a quote from a real academic-type. They said that a character should act on 'multiple impulses that cohere into a single identity'. Yes. So they need to show more than one impulse, more than one emotion. Tony Soprano is a crime lord but also wants to be a good father. Stringer Bell tries to be a gangster and a businessman at the same time. They need to be more than one thing, they need to change. What's my point? Much like in the essay, I don't have a point. But it's, you know, something to think about.