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.