Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Songs that should be in films: Hægt, kemur ljósið

I recently learnt that a Sigur Rós song is prominently featured in the new Danny Boyle film, 127 Hours. This pleases me. It's nice when two things I like come together - melded together like, er, something that's melded. Now, I could mention what Sigur Rós songs would work well in a film, but I'm pretty sure they've all been used. Making the exercise a bit pointless. But I've chosen something equally Icelandic: Hægt, kemur ljósið by Ólafur Arnalds. He's a composer, who Wikipedia reliably informs me is aged 23-24. That's a nice age to be. Adding to the confusion, he writes 'neo-classical' music (thanks Wikipedia) and his song titles contain letters I'm not familiar with. But the music speaks for itself. I imagine this song could come near the end of a film, or the climax of a television series - a montage perhaps. Everyone's sad, a bit downbeat. A lot of bad things have happened. Maybe somebody's been happy for five minutes until Joss Whedon killed everyone they loved. They could perhaps be on a boat. Cut to other characters looking pensive. Wide shots of the scenery. Then, at around fifty seconds, the song picks up and they realise they have a lot to look forward to. And they're happy, but still in a poignant, reflective way. I imagine someone could start running at this point. There are alternative uses, like a bunch of presumed-dead fishermen returning to port, and then looking back out to sea to think about the journey.

For all my sarcastic meanderings, this is obviously a good song. That's the technical term used by music critics: a good song. For more impressive sight and sound, watch this other video. To sum it up in noises, it'll make you go 'ooo'.

Monday, 29 November 2010

The Pillars of the Earth: Slightly different hair but no happier

At the end of it all The Pillars of the Earth seemed to ask: how many bad things can happen to people in their lifetime? The people of Kingsbridge have an extremely bad time. They're trying to build a cathedral, but it doesn't go very well. I wrote before about my expectations for the series, and its relation to the original novel. In watching it I was reminded just what these characters have to overcome. It's all down to a pair of thoroughly evil people: Waleran Bigod and William Hamleigh. They plotted and murdered their way through half a century. One an ambitious bishop and the other just plain bad. This is how to fill fifty years. Look at Jack Jackson, the hero of the story. He wants to marry Aliena, but before he can do that he has to be banished, strangled, banished again, and turned into a monk. Then she marries somebody else. He transforms from mute boy to master mason, despite not looking a year older. It's a sprawling story where people have to wait decades to get what they want. A new episode might jump fourteen years into the future, when everyone has slightly different hair but are no happier. It makes the payoff all the more satisfying. When William is clouted over the head with a rock it comes after weeks of waiting. It makes everything better.

The backdrop to all this strife is the argument over the throne. With so many political deals and earls to slaughter it becomes difficult to follow. And nobody really cares anyway. Sometimes the throne will swap hands between episodes, and the battles just seem to amount to a bunch of people on horses riding around in the same field. Never mind then, all the entertainment is happening elsewhere - with the monks and the wool merchants and the fancy new rib vaulting on the cathedral. It's not as powerful as the book. Sometimes an adaption just can't hope for that. But it does a good job of making you forget.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

The Walking Dead: Chewing on zombie-Lost

The third episode of The Walking Dead has a lot of making up to do. Can it regain its credibility (in my eyes) as a tense, dark drama, or become a cluttered show of annoying characters? Here we're introduced to even more people back at camp. Though not all necessarily annoying, I do miss the times of a lonely man and his horse. It's getting more and more like zombie-Lost. One camp full of disparate people, stuck in a mysterious, horrible situation. Stranded. All with stories to tell. Just dying to jump into flashback. There's so many of them that a few can be thrown to the undead every now and then to keep things ticking. Better to have a large group of zombie-food, or a tight family where every loss matters? We'll see, though not before they've got over their arguments. There's now a wife beater to join the racist on the dumb and evil pile. Characterisation comes in big strokes. Like the zombies just want to eat brains, there are people who only do one thing. Early days, obviously, but does anyone ever think about how good Lost was? In The Walking Dead Sawyer would be a racist drunk and nothing else. I hope to be proven wrong, as there's still good stuff going on the middle of it all. Rick finds his family, which holds up the entire episode. It's a nice moment, and you begin to forget how rubbish his wife is. Maybe it is just unremarkable drama with added zombies. The monsters make it interesting, to be honest. Every now and then one might turn up. There's always that threat. There was only one in this episode, chewing on a deer near camp.They are the other thing that's going on, hiding the shadows.

I look forward to seeing personalities shift and characters having another side. I don't look forward to a cycling succession of new survivors that come in to replace the chewed ones. Is it still annoying? Not really, it made it past that. But it's changed so much in a few episodes that I don't know which show it's going to turn out to be.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Especially if you're an action hero living in the mountains

Wolverine is guilty of not realising the obvious: your past will always find you. In X-Men Origins: Wolverine, it happens to be the past of his past that finds him (it's probably right to be suspicious of any film with a colon in its title). This backstory can go on forever, right the way back to mysteries about his parents. And it all matters, apparently. Or it can just set up another thread of the franchise. I don't believe Hollywood is interested in making fan pleasing canon-fodder, so there must be some life left in these X-Men. Here we see that Wolverine and his brother used to be part of a military team of mutants, taking orders from the appropriately named Colonel Stryker. This all becomes a bit too shady for Wolverine but his brother seems to like it. Cut to six years later and the good one is living in the picturesque Canadian mountains, working as a humble lumberjack and living with his lovely girlfriend. Like the hundreds of retired heroes who came before him, he asks 'why won't they just leave me alone?' It was all going so well. The men in black cars always arrive to tempt you back into a plot that may or may not be a con. I'm not complaining. Thriller's are built on this idea. The violent past finds the pleasant present and then everyone can do some revenge. It's the standard for two thirds of all action films, even the good ones. In fact, Wolverine begins to make a habit of destroying idyllic things. He runs into two unrealistically kind old people, who let him sleep in their barn and give him the clothes he wears for the rest of the film. Then things start exploding.

Apart from this, a lot of time is spent in military labs and secret island bases. We see how he gets his metal and I'm reminded how invincible he is. There's no need to worry about him getting hurt, but the scale of the action makes up for it. He can slash through tanks with his claws. He's an action prop, but an effective one. This may all be about to change with the Darren Aronofsky sequel. Will he descend into a drug-fuelled haze and reflect on his loneliness? Possibly. And so, to sum up this film in a mildly interested sort of way: it's alright.

Friday, 19 November 2010

The wicked witch of the west was the bad one

I wrote before that I'm easily impressed by found-footage horror, so it's about time I watched The Blair Witch Project. You've probably seen it already. In fact, you probably saw it when it came out ten years ago. But I saw it last night. I like to stay up to date. Three film students go out into the woods to make a documentary about the Blair Witch, a nasty-sounding ghost that haunts the place. They stock up on cereal and battery packs and set off for some camping. For a film of just eighty-six minutes, there's a good chunk of set-up before things start getting spooky. It's a nice walk in the forest until a bit of arguing, and a bit of map losing, makes the situation a lot worse. But how scary is it? Suggestion is a powerful tool but, perhaps unusually, it wasn't really working for me. There's shouting in the night and a lot of arts and crafts in the woods -mostly a bit too subtle, a bit too far away to count as horror. Maybe I didn't have my imagination switched on in the right places, but the piles of rocks weren't spooky. I could have done with a little bit more. A more concrete suggestion of something solid, ugly, and scary. Especially at the end, where something definitely needed to present itself. It is an effective film though, because without all these scares you're left with a drama about people going mad in the woods. The film crew really were harassing them and leaving suggestions for improvisation. Eventually they just start rocking back and forth. Importantly, the camera is a comfort to whoever is holding it. It's a disconnection from reality, 'a filtered reality', and makes them braver. They can only go out into the night if they're seeing it through a lens - it means it's not really happening.

I know that these characters aren't enjoying it, I'm just not feeling the same thing. One says that she's 'too scared to close her eyes and too scared to open them'. I believe her, I just need to be shown why. I'm usually a fan of this sort of horror, but finding scary things isn't the same as experiencing it. A bit more, that's all that's needed, just a little bit. So it may not have been the scary treat I was hoping for, but it's an interesting (and probably by now 'classic') part of the found-footage genre.

Monday, 15 November 2010

The Walking Dead part deux: Kill them all Rick

Two posts in a row about the same thing? This can't be healthy. But the second episode of The Walking Dead raises a lot of questions. I wrote last week that the first episode was a 'very promising start'. And it was. Atmospheric, creepy, poignant. The second episode attempts to undo all that good work. It seems like a different show. We're introduced to a bunch of new characters who are, to put it softly, annoying. Officer Rick is a nice guy, wandering around the south looking for his family. But then he runs into these idiots. The first one he meets encourages him to get out of his 'cosy' tank and run around shooting things. Why is this a good idea? He's in a tank. But never mind, at least he gets to be in peril. After that he becomes stuck in a building with at least five new people. These, so far, seem like stereotypical flat characters, not helped by some clunky writing and acting. In some cases the faults are easy to spot: the racist, the slightly nerdy one. Others are harder to put your finger on, they're just a bit off. Like caricatures. It doesn't help that they seem to find the whole situation a bit amusing, like they're playing out some action film fantasy. Think back to the first episode and this all seems ridiculous. Remember that man's attempt to 'put down' his zombie wife, and his son who had to 'cry into the pillow'. Those seemed like real people. From a different show. Now we have characters wandering around in zombie guts to blend in with the undead, and when it starts raining someone puts their hand out and says 'Oh man'. Yes, it is unfortunate that it's raining and you're all going to die, now speak properly.

Maybe I'm being a bit mean. It's only one episode after all. But there was so much promise. Now I can't wait for this lot to meet the gruesome deaths they deserve. Poor Rick comes off mostly untarnished. I just wish he had something to look forward too. Now his wife and best friend are having sex in the forest there can't be much to smile about. Why did he marry this stroppy woman? It's a zombie apocalypse, don't have a pout. Kill them all Rick. Kill them and find another horse to ride. You used to be so much fun.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Ride into Atlanta on a horse called Blade

Frank Darabont's name is all over The Walking Dead. Writer, director, developer (although I'm not sure what that last one means). The adverts scream Shawshank Redemption at you, but this seems to have more in common with his 2007 monstery film The Mist. In the first episode Officer Rick Grimes wakes up from a coma to find the world a lot more dead than it used to be. It's a 'post-zombie' apocalypse - all the action has already happened and now we're seeing the aftermath. The hero waking up in hospital may be a familiar scenario, but it's very effective. His first steps out into the blood-stained body-strewn corridors are gripping. Nothing's more creepy than a deserted hospital, after all. What will his first reaction be? What will he do first? He makes his way home past lots of bad things to find his wife and son are missing. So far it's more drama than horror. There may be a lot of intestinal bits flying about, but it chooses characters over quick scares. Rick goes back to find a half-eaten zombie women he'd met earlier to put her out of her misery. Another survivor has to choose whether to 'put down' his zombie wife. He can't quite manage it. The sunny American south makes for an eerie and oddly pleasant setting. The quiet countryside towns are only dotted with the undead. They quietly wander around without much trouble and congregate at night to look more menacing. There's plenty of wide shots of deserted roads and quiet desolation. The green fields seem wonderful until someone comes across an overturned car, or an eaten horse, or a sinister little zombie girl.

Rick makes the mistake of looking for the advertised shelter in the city. These shelters never live up to their promise. It all seems as deserted as the countryside until he turns a corner to find five hundred 'walkers' in one street. Then he's in trouble. Although, in a shocking twist, his wife and son aren't dead (yet). He should be reunited with them pretty soon. And then they will all die. That's not a spoiler, just a prediction. I imagine his son might get the zombie fever, and they'll have to frantically search for a cure. That sort of thing. It may be standard stuff, but it's confidently and powerfully done. A very promising start.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Wrestles on the weekend in front of small crowds

The Wrestler follows Randy "The Ram" Robinson, an old and broken wrestler struggling to pay the rent for his tiny trailer. He used to be a celebrity, but now he works in a supermarket and wrestles on the weekend in front of small crowds. He's a man from the past being chewed up by the modern world. He's past his prime. Even his Nintendo is old. The first act shows the brutal effects of the job. Aside from the weights, tanning, and growth drugs we see a a tired man being repeatedly pummelled into the ground. A 'hardcore' match proves too much for him, causing a heart attack and forced retirement. Randy doesn't really know what to do outside the ring. He doesn't want to be called by his real name. He doesn't know how to speak to his daughter. He attempts to start a relationship with a stripper, who is also getting too old for her job. They both have stage lives that control them, seperate identities that earn them money and recognition. If it all doesn't work he'll have to go back to the ring. With Darren Aronofsky directing there's probably not going to be a lot of laughs, but it's a compelling and powerful drama. It's set in winter, when everything's dead or dying and getting darker. To exercise Randy runs through depressing little dead forests before stopping to cough and collapse. It doesn't go well. He could do with a Rocky-style montage. Maybe a run up some steps. But no montage comes. The film has a commitment to cold reality and won't compromise that for some traditional sports film energy.

In a big match finale, the nature of wrestling means that it's all rehearsed and decided beforehand. The uncertainty comes from the Ram's physical and emotional failures. The line between stage and reality is crossed. It doesn't sound like a lot of fun, but it's definitely worth a watch. There's enough metaphor in the script to make everybody's inner film student happy (he works at the meat counter, selling meat, because he's just a lump of meat), or you can just sit back and watch it unfold. You never know, there might be a happy ending.

Friday, 5 November 2010

They're coming for you, Barbra

What's the best thing to do in a zombie apocalypse? The characters of Night of the Living Dead were some of the first to go through it, and they didn't have a clue. The best option would probably be to run, especially as this is only a localised zombie apocalypse. Run and keep running until there aren't any zombies. Barbra appears to get the idea. She does fall over quite a lot but she understands what to do. But then she decides to hide in a house, which is where it all goes wrong. It's like the rules of zombies are being explained. They're slow. They don't like fire. They'll go down if they're shot in the head. In recent outbreaks of the living dead everyone understands the situation pretty quickly. Here it's all fresh. A bit too fresh for Barbra, whose mind seems to break. The other survivors argue over the best strategy. Is it best to stay in the house or the cellar? Is it best to be boxed in or to keep escape routes? They foolishly decide against just running away. Leave the child in the basement, she'll be alright. Just run away from the slow, ambling zombies. Some of them are a bit more spritely and know how to use weapons, but don't wait for them to gather outside. Although maybe I shouldn't be patronising. It's not easy being the first. These people provide a service. They prepare us for our fight against the flesh-eating hordes (not horses, as I just typed by mistake - that's a different film entirely). You wonder whether the characters of recent zombie dramas have seen all these films, because they never seem to mention them. Maybe they just weren't taking notes.

For me, the most effective part of Night of the Living Dead is the threat of the very first zombie. If you didn't know the title of the film you might just assume he was a drunk gravedigger, but he's more energetic than the others. He almost starts running through the cemetery, something that zombies definitely aren't supposed to do. He's a menace. If only he'd stayed in the background and wandered past. Poor Barbra.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

The same thing in a different colour

I haven't seen Let Me In. And the more I hear about it, the less I want too. The problem is that it's, apparently, not rubbish. It's not a travesty. It's a 'shot-for-shot remake' of Let the Right One In. Now, I'm not about to review a film I haven't seen, but the thing that troubles me here is the term 'shot-for-shot remake'. What happens if the same film is made in a different language, just so a new audience of the subtitles-scared can watch it? It's a copy, so does that make it worse, better, or exactly the same as the original? Let's even forget about Swedish vampire films for a second. There are only a few things that can change in a 'shot-for-shot remake'. If the script is the same and the shots are the same, what's left? The acting, the score, the location. And other things I haven't thought about. What if these things are better the second time round? Is the original automatically better? When a book is translated into English by a different writer some of the words lose their meaning, some phrases get shifted around, but it's still the same book. If a sentence is a camera shot, it can be rearranged into different words but still mean the same thing. If that shot is of a girl in a dark room saying 'I've been twelve for a very long time', it still must work in a different language, in a different place, with more expensive cameras. It's in Sweden, it's blue. It's in New Mexico, it's red.

More importantly though, it makes me sad that such a thing is necessary. If a different bunch of people remake a film and turn it into something else, then at least it's different. It's doing its own thing. To copy something exactly is pointless. Who are these people who won't watch a film with subtitles? Where are they? I hope that Let Me In is different. I hope that it's better. I hope that it's worse. Just don't make me watch a new film I've seen before. It's weird. We'll see how it goes.