Sunday, 31 October 2010

If it can be sorted out with a rocket launcher

Action films are always better when they're set in Paris. The Bourne Identity. Taken. And, er, all those other films that I'm sure prove my point. There's nothing in this city that can't be solved with a fight or a car chase. Which bodes well for the characters of From Paris With Love, the new thriller from the French people who make this sort of thing. An embassy worker who has a side job with the CIA is partnered with agent Travolta. He's 'unorthodox'. He doesn't play by the rules. He has a bald head and a beard and isn't evil. Maybe just a bit too rough for his 'chess master' partner. What follows is the good sort of average thriller. You won't remember it in a week's time, but there's enough going on in the ninety-two minutes to keep you entertained. It's fluffy, lightweight nonsense, but not in an offensive way. It contains twists that would only be acceptable in a film with rocket launchers. If your mother turns out to be a terrorist, don't complain. In fact, you should probably shoot her. And then take down her whole terror cell who are planning to explode things. That's not what happens, but you get the idea. You know what sort of film you're dealing with when most of the action takes place in Chinese restaurants and nondescript warehouses. There are twenty baddies with Uzis coming for you, but it's okay. Piles of boxes are good for cover, and when you're unorthodox you'll always win.

I'm not recommending this film. I'm not saying it's any good. Not really. But if you find yourself to be watching it, for whatever reason, you probably won't have many complaints.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Hello, Dexter Morgan

Season four of Dexter finished last night. In many ways it was the same as the others. Dexter has trouble hiding his secret life. People get suspicious. But now the line that seperates the world of his 'dark passenger' and his home life is getting thinner. It used to be a simple divide. Kill the bad guy then go home to your wife. Now he keeps creating more identities and more problems until something slips through the gap. Here the Big Bad is played by John Lithgow - the 'Trinity killer' who at first seems to be standard fodder for Dexter's plastic wrap. The problem is, he's bigger and badder than the others, and apparently can't be killed straight away. Dexter notices similarities to himself and decides to befriend the bad man, using the alias 'Kyle Butler'. As the season progresses Dexter puts off the kill in order to understand and learn from this secretly psychotic family man. This only leads to problems. 'Kill him, kill him now' is a phrase that'll probably pass through your head. Because the thing that drives Dexter, the fear at the heart of it, is what will happen when the two worlds collide. When the evil tracks his family down, or his activities are revealed.

This season goes for the build up. Even the slightly dull Quinn and his slightly dull girlfriend turn out to be pieces of the bigger picture. And when Dexter is always there to protect the right people at the right time, Kyle Butler isn't. Kyle Butler procrastinates, he makes everyone a bit uneasy. He kills the wrong people. Trinity eventually tracks him to his office, walks in, reads his name badge and says 'Hello, Dexter Morgan'. Then it's time to protect his brightly coloured home from the dark threats of a thoroughly evil man. Dexter always gets the man in the end and dumps him into the sea in pieces. It's reassuring. But just when you think there might be a nice tidy, happy ending, along comes horrific unthinkable tragedy. Which is good, if you like that sort of thing.

Friday, 29 October 2010

The West Wing: Season Seven

The Santos and Vinick campaigns dominate the final season of The West Wing.The last presidential election (back in season four) was mainly comedy. Bartlet was always going to win that one. The Republican candidate was hardly seen, and when he was he looked ridiculous. The entire campaign didn't last long. There was no tension but it was obviously very good. Now there are entire episodes from the Republicans point of view and as the season builds, including a 'live' debate, it's really not clear who's going to win. The White House is having some problems too, including nuclear reactors and military leaks. Perhaps the best episode is the last but one - 'Institutional Memory'. It's a sign-off for a lot of the characters, away from all the ceremony of the final episode. Where 'Tomorrow' focuses on the future of the White House, 'Institutional Memory' is more of a look back, a goodbye to the characters and to the building. But through all this there are two questions that hang over this (very good) season. Questions that will probably never be answered. First of all: what did they do to Toby? After being integral to the show and the staff for the entire run, he's shoved off into a sidenote. It doesn't help that the arc makes barely any sense. Toby Zeigler would never, not in a million years, betray the president. Richard Schiff said as much in an interview. So when he says 'I was the leak', the obvious reaction is 'No you weren't, why are you saying that?' Are we meant to believe that he's lying in order to protect the Santos campaign? Seems unrealistic. He'd always been critical of Santos, and going to jail would be to abandon his two young children. So he must he must be telling the truth. Which is also ridiculous. Either way, Toby is not treated fairly.

And it isn't clear whether Leo's death was planned, or just made sadly necessary. John Spencer's death is announced before episode ten, 'Running Mates', with his last appearance being in episode thirteen, 'The Cold'. Leo dies from a heart attack in episode seventeen, 'Election Day Part II'. It would seem that this was a last minute change to accommodate for the loss of an actor, but where was Leo in episode one's flash forward? The season starts with a scene from three years in the future, where most of the characters are waiting for the new president to arrive. Leo isn't there, or even mentioned. It was aired several months before John Spencer's death, so there's no way they could have re-filmed it. So Leo must have had a reason for not being there. Maybe, as the Vice-President, he'd just be somewhere else, or they'd planned the character's death all along. Although, from a writing point of view, giving a character two heart attacks in two seasons doesn't make much sense. Either way, 'Requiem' has a sense of finality about it, a tragic end to one of the show's finest characters.

Statements from the producers contradict each other about a planned Vinick or Santos win. Whether John Spencer's death forced them to change their minds or not, the final script was written long before. Overall, The West Wing might not be entirely consistent in quality - a brilliant first four years followed by a scramble to find itself again. Sometimes things get lost in Mandyville, but there's no doubt it's one of the best television shows ever made.

Season 1 | Season 2 | Season 3 | Season 4 | Season 5 | Season 6

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Quiet. Quiet. Quiet. Thud. Thud. Thud.

I've never seen a film that's scared me. That's not me trying to sound manly. I've seen films that I recognise as being scary, but they don't actually make me feel scared. It's just a film, after all. So I watched Paranormal Activity, which is apparently so scary it stops people sleeping. It's based on the idea that bad things happen while you're asleep, and that some creaks might not be the wind. It might be a demon coming up the stairs to drag you out of bed by your ankles. That sort of a thing. Here, a woman lives with her boyfriend in a nice house and is convinced that something spooky is going on. The boyfriend is less convinced and sets up a camera to film the bedroom while they're sleeping. The film uses the 'found footage' style, where the camera is part of the story and we only see what the characters choose to record. I'm easily impressed by this sort of thing. The roughness makes it real and it gives you a sense of physically being there. And, appropriately, nothing happens for the first few nights apart from some ambient rumblings. Everyone becomes skeptical enough to relax. Then bad things start happening. The famous still frame of their bedroom is the most effective gimmick. It's just their bed and the dark landing outside the door, with stairs leading down to the living room. If you stare at it long enough (which you will, because there's nothing else to look at) you'll believe there's something there. It plays on the most effective horror device - suggestion. What you imagine to be coming up the stairs is much more powerful than anything it could show you.

Of course, it's not all creaking doors. As it ramps up, and each night becomes a bit worse, the ambient rumblings give way to more sinister things. It's true that the rhythm of the film is: Quiet. Quiet. Quiet. Boo. Or occasionally: Quiet. Quiet. Quiet. Thud. Thud. Thud. Sometimes there's thuds and then a boo. And it is, admittedly, all very tense. One significant boo made me lurch forward quite quickly. But was I scared? I was worried for these characters, who seemed like nice people in a very unfortunate situation. I was scared for them. I enjoyed it. I slept fine.

Monday, 25 October 2010

They sit down and watch Ghibli films

I like Spirited Away. It's strange, colourful, uplifting, surreal, imaginative, and other similar adjectives. The first time you watch it you miss all the messages, and even some of the plot - you just go along with it. A young girl has to work in a bathhouse for spirits and monsters after her parents are turned into pigs. That's the premise anyway, but it just seems to become a rapid succession of ideas. There's magical soot loading coal into a furnace. Now there's a dragon being attacked by paper arrows. Now the entire world has been covered in water as a train skims across the surface. It's a film that demonstrates the limitless scope of animation. If it can be drawn it can be in the film. John Lasseter from Pixar has said that, when his staff are stuck for ideas, they sit down and watch Ghibli films. These are the people the masters turn to for inspiration. That's high praise. For all its anime style, Spirited Away comes from the same place as any Pixar masterpiece. There are same powerful themes - losing your parents in this case - but dressed up in dense anime plot. It's less immediate, but it gets the job done (in a slightly more convoluted way). Just when you're trying to work it out, the film might hit you with something simple and beautiful to make you forget. Hayao Miyazaki (writer and director) seems keen on the grotesque too. Big wrinkled heads and slimy globs of death shift it away from the friendly adventure you'd think it might be. The deserted spirit village is just plain sinister, and the talking frog is actually quite threatening. And I haven't even mentioned the music.

I saw Howl's Moving Castle a while ago. That impressed me, but now I might be realising why everyone loves Ghibli. Even if I'm not sure how to say it. Gib-lee? Jib-lee? I don't know enough.

Friday, 22 October 2010

The worst time to try and get a cathedral built

The Pillars of the Earth is a very long book. It takes a while to build a cathedral in the 12th century, especially when there are lots of thoroughly evil people around to try and stop you. It's a sprawling story where people grow up and grow old and kings see off several generations of traitors. It's also brutal, violent, and uncompromising. So you'd have to be brave to try and put it on television - brave people like Ridley and Tony Scott. There's Ian McShane as a sly bishop, Rufus Sewell as a nice builder (there must be some mistake there), and Matthew Macfadyen being very Welsh. But the most important thing to mention here, particularly if you've read the book, is that the adaption is spot on. It could have been lifted straight from the (many, many) pages of the book. When an adaption is this good it replaces the images the book left in your mind. You begin to believe that you always imagined Earl Bartholomew to look just like Donald Sutherland. The town of Kingsbridge, with all its sulky monks, has been taken straight from your brain. The only slight difference is William Hamleigh, who doesn't quite look enough like the embodiment of evil. In a way though, all these comparisons are irrelevant. Without ever having heard of the book, The Pillars of the Earth should still live up to its promise as an intricate and muddy medieval drama. It could never have fitted into a film, it needs hours and hours (and hours) of room. I'm looking forward to seeing how it progresses across the century, and listening to more of Prior Philip saying 'It's God's will it is, I'm shooer of it'.

If you haven't read the book, and fancy giving a chunk of your life to an historical epic, read it first. If you're not that bothered, just watch this. It's only just started on British telly. After watching the next eight hours I'll tell you if it was worth it.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

The start of The Social Network

The Social Network begins with two people sitting at a table, talking. A student's girlfriend is breaking up with him. Nothing remarkable in that, but from this first second the film grabs you. It starts at a sprint, with unbelievably energetic dialogue. It's a standard camera set-up, brilliant writing, and two actors working all their socks off. It becomes almost hypnotic. One of these students is Mark Zuckerberg, who then goes back to his room to write an internet program comparing girls. It's the start of the 'creation myth' of Facebook, a story of 'friendship, betrayal, and lust for power'. Zuckerberg is the social outcast who creates a new way to socialise, where people don't have to be near each other and their attributes are reduced to lists. The website is like the construction of an empire. In the rise to power the emperor betrays his friends and accepts the help of villains. And what stands out in all of this, obviously, is the writing.

By this point I might just sound like some sort of crazed Sorkin fanatic, but when it's this good it can't be helped. There aren't enough superlatives to describe it - rapid, witty, exciting and - most importantly - never dull. It's just people talking in rooms but it never loses it's energy or sense of progression. One scene bounces into the next, flying between depositions, bars, coding, parties. It's funny, but by the time you've laughed it's already moved on. It's in the rhythm of the words and the inflections of the acting. Jesse Eisenberg plays Zuckerberg like a fizzling robot, firing off the lines with dry emotionless aggression. Andrew Garfield plays the good guy left behind. Justin Timberlake is the sly but suave antagonist who gains the confidence of the king. Most of these characters are completely horrible but, somehow, completely watchable. There's so much going on it's difficult to remember a lot of it. I could have watched it again straight after leaving the cinema. It makes you realise how good a script can be, how a director can hand the reigns over to the actors and the words. Inspirational stuff.

It's like watching the best West Wing for the first time. Classic Sorkin, and classic everything else.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Who does Michael Douglas think he is?

Aaron Sorkin wrote The American President before The West Wing. That much is obvious. It's interesting to watch as messed-up preview of The West Wing, where everything is out of place and rearranged. It's a shame the film follows the slightly dull conventions of Hollywood romance, but there's enough other stuff going on to make it watchable. And it's still Sorkin. Here's some similarities between the two, both in cast and writing:
  • Martin Sheen plays the Chief of Staff. This is just wrong. This man is the President of the United States. Who does Michael Douglas think he is? Like Bartlet and Leo, these two are old friends. But they play pool instead of chess. And to be fair, Douglas does a good POTUS.
  • Joshua Malina turns up. That's all, really.
  • Anna Deveare Smith plays the Press Secretary. I had to look that name up, but she played National Security Advisor Nancy McNally. She was always around.
  • Ellie, who had a whole episode named after her, has a minor role here. Not the character, the actress. Nina Siemmaszko.
  • Michael J. Fox, who plays the 'Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy' (lets say Deputy Chief of Staff) is a lot like Josh Lyman. He gets worked up easily. He's completely obsessed with the job. And he has a similar moment to Josh's 'take your legislative agenda and shove it up your ass' rant. But with more swearing.
  • The relationship between the President and his daughter has some similarities to Bartlet and Zoey. 'You're going to make me read this book cover to cover and then ask me a thousand questions about it at dinner'. Or something like that.
  • 'What is the virtue of a proportional response?' That came up pretty early in Season One.
  • The President says 'What's next?' The final words of the pilot and the line that was missing from the last episode.
  • Finally, and probably most importantly, the writing feels similar. The rhythm of the dialogue, the walking and talking, the sheer amount of stuff happening in each sentence. And the big speech at the end could have been straight from Bartlet. If it wasn't about the President's new girlfriend.
There's probably more, but I haven't seen The West Wing that many times to notice. Or maybe I have. The question is, was The American President the practise run or the inspiration?

Monday, 18 October 2010

Not many choose the happy fluffy things

I haven't written anything mildly interesting in a while. I've been having some adventures with the BBC, and have been too far away from an internet connection and the mental ability to write anything. But now that's finished and I've watched a film. Yes. With The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Terry Gilliam said that he just wanted to 'relax and make something joyous and playful'. It's the sort of film that happens when a director is allowed to do anything they want. Doctor Parnassus' travelling troupe set up shop in the middle of a street and try to entice people into their magical mirror. Inside they're presented with a projection of their imagination, which is divided into happy fluffy things and the darker temptations of the devil. They have to make a choice, and not many of them choose the happy fluffy things. These dreamy worlds are Gilliam's license to go mad. Anything and everything can be shoved into these rainbow fantasies. It's where the 'joyous and playful' bit comes in. Inception's dreamscapes are almost realistic compared to this. Outside the visual spectacle, the cold reality is all puddles, shopping centres, and drunk people. The Imaginarium is a nice place to be. It justifies the (sadly necessary) changing faces of the central character. It has giant ladders that turn into stilts. It makes you lose track of the plot. This is a confident and strange film that knows exactly what it wants to do.

And it comes with a useful reminder. It is almost always a bad idea to make a deal with the devil. If the deal is immortality in return for giving the devil your first-born daughter, the last thing you should do is have a daughter. Doctor Paranassus becomes forgetful in his old age. The devil always wins, especially if he's played by Tom Waits. He's the one who rightly advised us to 'keep the devil way down in the hole'. 

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Even Bourne wouldn't have found them

Whether or not Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon wanted to sell Green Zone as a companion piece to the Bourne films, the similarities are obvious. Revealing truth in government is something Jason Bourne spent a trilogy trying to achieve, and 'Roy Miller' doesn't do a bad job. He wonders why nobody's finding any WMDs in Baghdad and whether the invasion was justified. The film doesn't show the US versus Iraq, but warring sides of the American forces. Some of them talk sense, others are a bit shady. Green Zone has a point to make, and it could have said it more softly, but they decided to make this point through an action film. A pretty good action film. All of its messages are condensed into single lines - 'It is not for you to decide what happens here' - leaving room for the explosions. The message isn't weakened by this style. Paul Greengrass and writer Brian Helgeland actually manage to give it more volume. It's shouted across helicopter fights and car chases, and in Jason Isaacs' large moustache. By the time George Bush appears giving a victory speech, the film has already painted him as the villain. So it's annoyed Fox News and pleased anyone who wants to pretend that it's the fourth Bourne film. That's probably a good day's work.

Greengrass uses the same loose and frantic style, though I'm not really sure what to call it. It's not 'documentary style', there's too much music for that. It might be 'cinema vérité', but I'm not about to start writing in French. It could be 'handheld', but that sounds too vague. You know what I mean though. Some people complain that it's just shaky and disorientating, but these people are almost definitely wrong. Greengrass would say it 'crackles with reality'. Yes, he's probably right.