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.