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.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

We were going to make a whole world like this

It's interesting that they chose to film Where the Wild Things Are with people instead of pixels. It would have worked fine as an animated film, but instead they chose to dress people up in huge costumes and make them bound around in the woods. It creates an immediately distinctive style. There's a real physicality to it, and a reality that makes it seem even more fantastical. The creatures look out of proportion and dangerous, a bit cuddly and a bit scary. There's a lot of them and they usually feel too big for the screen, making most scenes crowded and loud. It's wild and confusing and sometimes disorientating. In the middle of such a beautifully shot countryside these big shaggy monsters smash everything up and steal all the focus. It's a different, much more striking effect, to the now-conventional computer animation. And if these brilliant creations rest uneasily on the screen, their general attitude doesn't help. Max, a slightly annoying little boy, runs away from home and meets the 'wild things' in some fantasy land of his own making. But they don't really have exciting adventures. They all seem a bit depressed. As representations of Max's own life, they argue and bicker and have violent mood swings. Occasionally they cheer up, but within minutes they're back to their glum pondering. They want Max to 'keep out all the sadness', which turns out to be quite difficult. This mood, along with the strange visual style, sets the whole thing off balance in an endearing way.

The main issue with it, as a film, is that the plot is difficult to grab on to. There's no strong driving force behind any of it. They just play and argue. It moves along without much of a purpose, it just shows you a world. This is exactly the thing that will attract some people to it. It's unconventional. It can wash over you without needing to make sense, or it can be analysed and poked until everything falls into place. But without repeated viewings, or really thinking hard about it, Where the Wild Things Are is alien.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

The end of the Toy Story

(There's spoilers here) Toy Story has always been about loss and nostalgia. The life cycle of a toy is shown time and again as being from love to abandonment. In the first film Woody was replaced by Buzz, and in the second he started to feel his usefulness running out. The third film was always going to start at the end. Here the toys are concocting schemes to trick Andy into playing with them. This doesn't work, and as he's about to leave for 'college', they start thinking about their life in the attic. They eventually decide to send themselves to 'daycare', in the hope of being played with every day. Even though most of Toy Story 3 focuses on the prison break from this not-so-nice nursery, the heart of the film is really with the toys, and the decisions Andy will make. It's the end of a chapter, and about saying goodbye. Through an unfortunate chain of events they find themselves at the dump, confronted by what they fear most. They run along the conveyor belt of rubbish, battling desperately to stay alive. Before this they've been running around roads and airports, but now the fire of the incinerator ties up everything they've been running from the whole time. As they realise they're finished they let themselves slowly get pulled down towards the flame. I think it's fair to say this was the most traumatic thing I've ever seen in the cinema. It was not beyond this film to let them melt. They are, after all, only toys.

So why is this all so important? It's just a kid's film about toys isn't it? The thing is, Toy Story has perfectly captured childhood. These toys represent things you had as a child - things you lost or just can't find anymore. The death of the toys is the death of childhood. They're fighting to keep this time alive, but eventually, faced with the futile struggle against the fire, they resign to let it die. Maybe the younger audience won't get it. Not yet, anyway. Because Andy, the fool, grows up and gives his toys away. He doesn't put them in the attic to try and preserve them. He gives them to another child so that the cycle can repeat all over again. The life of a toy, and the childhood that goes with it, will always be finite.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

A sheep that may or may not be running the world

I didn't seem to like the last Murakami book I read. Admittedly, I didn't really understand that Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World was meant to be parody of 'hard-boiled' fiction until it was too late (the clue was probably in the title). I liked its fantasy tone but found it a bit flat, a bit slow, and a bit too eager to be all 'postmodern'. Although despite all that, it's clearly a good book. The fact that I didn't like it seems beside the point. But the boring bits are still boring, I don't care how postmodern they are.

Now, A Wild Sheep Chase, written before Hard-boiled Wonderland, actually impressed me. To be honest, I'm probably going to like any book that has the sentence 'a sheep that may or may not be running the world' in its blurb. It's a sinister sheep too. It possesses people and uses them to build an evil empire. Murakami took something completely banal and flipped the switch to 'interesting'. There's passages where people are just explaining the farming of sheep in Japan. But it works because, at the bottom of it, you know there's something completely different. This book felt much more like a journey, an adventure through the sleepy towns of Japan. The images are sharp and the characters distinctive. Most Murakami books are described through these people. Apart from an evil sheep, this one has a girl with reality-bending ears, an 'ovine-obsessed professor' and a 'manic-depressive in a sheep outfit'. This Sheep Man is a highlight, turning up near the end of the story and speaking entirely without pause. He says that he hides in the mountains because he 'didn'twanttogoofftowar'. So, in all, it was a good idea not to give up on Haruki Murakami. There's a lot of hyperbole surrounding him, but some of it might be deserved. It's just a case of finding the right book.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Inventive ways to be violent with vegetables

Shoot 'Em Up tries really, really hard to be ridiculous. Nothing more than a man with guns against a man with henchmen. The bare bones of most action films. That's all fine, but it also wants to be ironic. Like a parody of the genre it's so desperate to be a part of. This irony gives it license to do anything it wants. The hero eats nothing but carrots, as he throws a baby around in the middle of gunfights. It's a comedy, so this is still fine. But then it becomes annoying. Like how everyone is obsessed with guns in a slightly creepy way. Or how all the woman in the film are prostitutes. Don't worry though. It's ironic. Don't worry about it. The only time I have a problem with this sort of tone is when it makes the film wilfully awful. Why not just make something good instead? Because really, it's not meant to be ironic, it's just meant to be really cool. It doesn't have the rubbish charm of something like Transporter, which is stupid in a friendly way. This is just trying to appeal to manly men who like manly films, like how a sugary romantic comedy is meant to appeal to women. Creating a stereotype and hoping everyone goes along with it. Everything about Shoot 'Em Up is cool, apart from admitting that it's not very good.

It's still ironic though isn't it? Until irony becomes normality and the cycle has to start all over again. In its defence, it does feature a lot of inventive ways to be violent with vegetables, but I don't think they'd put that on the box. There are different sorts of good films, some are deep and meaningful, others are allowed to just have guns. But they all have to make you care a bit. This is just a bit nasty.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

The other thing I know about comic books

It seems that The Incredible Hulk doesn't take itself too seriously. Bruce Banner, on the run from the US military, works in a bottling plant. Not the best place for a rampaging beast man thing to work. And it manages to solve the trousers mystery - they're stretchy, very stretchy. The danger with all this is that, after all the good work done by the writers, there's just a big silly green man bounding around at the centre of the film. At first they're not keen to show him. He smashes things in the shadows of the unfortunate bottling place and occasionally growls a bit. It's easy to think they're scared of the reveal, but later on, when he's shown off completely, it's done confidently and unapologetically. It's found the right balance between physicality and cartoon flimsiness. And they don't overdo it, managing to calm down like Banner himself and suppress the Hulk until it's needed. Towards the end, when another scaly monster starts running around New York like Godzilla (there's a film that never got a sequel) it all starts to look a bit more expensive. Fair enough really. It doesn't try to do anything special, but what it does it does well.

The other day I wrote that most comic films are 'fun but formulaic'. This probably fits into that. Nothing surprising happens, but that's alright. It's the three-star film that you can't complain about. Again, I have no idea how it compares to the original work, and I still don't think it matters. In fact, I care so little about that I don't know why I just wrote it. Although, in a rare piece of comic book knowledge, I assume Robert Downey Jr. turning up at the end has something to do with the upcoming Joss Whedon film. I know these things.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Who directs the Watchmen?

I don't know anything about the original Watchmen work, so I can look at the film with completely fresh eyes. After all the fuss in its development, going through decades, studios and directors, the end result is a Zack Snyder three-hour adaption that's trying its best to please everyone. But like I said, I don't care about that - I've only learnt the history after watching the film. The good news is that, despite going though flashbacks and exposition, it never seems convoluted. No film would be this concerned with the origin stories of its retired superheroes without owing a debt to source material, but it manages to stay interesting long past your legs have gone to sleep. And for all the angling at political depth, it's the twist on the genre that impressed me. Outside of a few recent examples, comic book films can be stuck in the conventions of Hollywood action. Fun but formulaic, with good and evil and a masterplan that'll definitely be foiled. Yes, Watchmen has an unfortunate accident in a physics-lab, but it does things differently. Some of the superheroes aren't heroic at all, there's no obvious villain for most of the film, and the conclusion probably confused half the people in Hollywood. It's easy to see why it almost never got made.

I wonder what all the other directors would have made of it. Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky, Paul Greengrass. Looking at those names, I can't help but think they missed a huge opportunity, but as it is, with all the Zack Snyder powing and thwacking, it's pretty good.

Friday, 13 August 2010

If the children don't grow old

There's a lot of pressure on Arcade Fire. In 2004 they released their first album, Funeral, which turned out to be quite good. It sounded fresh and old at the same time, a bit epic and a bit comforting. Behind convoluted song titles like 'Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)' and 'Rebellion (Lies)' are seemingly simple songs of positivity and energy that are unashamedly sincere. They work as pop songs but they never sound commercial, there's a rawness to the sound that stops them from being too easy to listen to. It was an album of highlights that mostly seemed to follow on from each other, the highlightiest highlight being 'Wake Up'. A song that, like most of the album, really is difficult to describe. It seems so obvious when you hear it but isn't easy to put into words. The problem with all this goodness is that, despite being called things like a 'modern classic', it was only their first album. Where does a band go from there? Well, they, um, release their second album. Neon Bible is a bit darker, and the highlights are there, but not as many and not as high. It's an impressive album, perhaps unfairly overshadowed by what came before.

Now they've released The Suburbs, which nicely goes back to the old theme of childhood memories. The difference here being that it sounds a lot more relaxed. There aren't any obvious highlights, it just goes from one pretty good song to the next pretty good song. What it lacks in 'epic' it makes up for in quiet confidence. It almost sounds like it's from a different time, like it should only be available as a record. It's more obviously influenced by classic American rock and isn't trying so hard to impress you. If I did have a complaint - which I, er, do - it's that some songs seem too focused on the lyrics. Which is a strange thing to say when they're as good as this - all nostalgic and suburban - but, to be honest, I'm not really interested. It's all about the music for me. Wasn't Funeral at its best when they were just singing sounds? The music was always above the words, and some heights can only be reached without them. Getting too attached to the words can leave a few songs featureless. That's just a little grumble though. On the whole, after listening to The Suburbs, you're just more likely to say 'that was nice' than be too out of breath to say anything.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

How Simon Amstell hurt my head

Simon Amstell used to present the panel show Never Mind the Buzzcocks. He was entertainingly mean towards the music types that sat around him, who just seemed to come on the show to be mocked. Apparently he wasn't enjoying it though. In a new sitcom, Grandma's House, he plays himself, telling his family that he's going to leave his show. This is where it starts to confuse me. He's not acting a character, he's pretending to be himself. He uses the same sarcastic, embarrassed tone that became familiar on Buzzcocks, like he's just walked off one set and on to the next. It's reality presented as fiction, but it doesn't make the sitcom seem realistic, it makes his previous 'real' show seem fictional. Maybe it's self-indulgent, but he's still funny, and backed up by a nice script with a few actors from The Thick of It. It would be nice if I could watch it without wondering things like: is it possible to act as yourself? Why didn't he just do a documentary? Why is it so strange to watch a 'real' person surrounded by actors? It's like he's trapped in some strange Truman Show world, and it makes the whole thing a bit uncomfortable.

You could say that I was playing myself in how to be god, but that was just a character that sounded like me. I'm not an actor, so I just said the lines. Somebody else would have done it differently. I may have engineered some lines towards myself to make it easier to play, but I don't have an ambiguous illness, and I don't want to start a religion, and I'm not called Wash. Simon Amstell is playing Simon, who is him. But with a script. I've never seen Curb Your Enthusiasm, so this sort of thing is new to me. I hope it doesn't catch on. It's confusing.

Monday, 9 August 2010

The game, Mrs Hudson, is on

In many ways the BBC's Sherlock, another re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes, is a lot like Doctor Who. Apart from sharing writers (Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss) the relationship between Holmes and Watson feels the same as the Doctor and his assistant. The brilliant but strange adventurer and his slower but indispensable companion - it works. You could almost imagine the roles reversed - Matt Smith as Sherlock and Benedict Cumberbatch (you can go far in life with a name like that) playing the Doctor. Another similarity is that, like Doctor Who, this is very good television. The century-old characters now seem young and fresh, in episodes based loosely on the old stories. This new Sherlock Holmes is a brilliant, horrible, likeable sociopath. He doesn't understand people and keeps human heads in his fridge. Like a Time Lord without a time machine, he sits around bored until something happens. And when it does he plays a game called Extreme Deduction, the synapses firing off in his mind at the sight of a dead body or a pair of shoes. John Watson just tries to keep up (Martin Freeman almost escaping the role of 'that guy from The Office'). The three episodes were like little films, lasting a chunky ninety minutes and twisting around clever mysteries. The second episode was a bit of dip, adopting Conan Doyle's shady foreign criminals who were shady just because they're foreign, but outside that it's expertly crafted stuff.

Moriarty serves as the Big Bad for the series, stepping out of the shadows at the end with bombs plots and sniper rifles. It troubled me a bit though. Wasn't Moriarty just a device Conan Doyle invented to quickly kill off Holmes? There was no mention of him, and then suddenly he turns up in 'The Final Problem' as the 'Napoleon of crime'. Not really a great literary villain, more of a means to an end. I wonder if the whole thing has just taken on a mind of its own, like the characters exist outside of the original writing as endlessly repeated cultural figures. Anyway, Sherlock is the modern British take on the whole thing, and it's quite good.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

High explosives work better without history

There's something admirable about the filmmaker who looks at the strange language the Nazis spoke in and thinks 'No, I can't be bothered'. After all, it doesn't really matter how they speak, just what they're saying. It's a shame that the makers of Valkyrie didn't take the historical inaccuracy a little further. While watching Tom Cruise and Bill Nighy plotting to assassinate Hitler, you get the feeling that they're not going to succeed. Which is a shame. It looks like it might work. It looks like they're going to win. But they don't. And that's not a spoiler. It's history. But this doesn't feel like a serious war drama - it feels like a thriller. Viewed like this the inevitable conclusion is disappointing. Would it be wrong to twist the past in order to make a 'better' film? Or would it be fun to see a different scenario play out? The whole thing is a construction. As soon as actors walk in and start saying lines it becomes fiction. It's all fake really. Not accurate at all. So does the plot really have a responsibility?

Probably shouldn't get philosophical about it though. It's a film. It's not bad. It moves along with a nice amount of tension and doesn't give too much thought to showing the grim reality. Bryan Singer, director of X-Men and Superman Returns, doesn't get bogged down in anything too horrible. Colonel Stauffenberg has a few poignant moments with his family, but he doesn't overdo it. He's got a job to do. The focus is on the conspiracy, the execution, and the aftermath. Two hours. No crying. Done.