Thursday, 24 February 2011

The King's Speech: Let's not forget what the great films look like

Maybe it's the weight of expectation, but The King's Speech is, in all honesty, alright. Fine. Not great. Just good. It's what happens when a film is held up as a year's highlight. One of the best things you'll see. Something to applaud and celebrate. But I don't think anybody could say it was a masterpiece, or even something that's going to be remembered for a long time. It's calm and gentle, with a great performance from Colin Firth. And that's good enough for me, but let's not get carried away. You get a sense of a man trapped in a horrible situation, abused and neglected and called royalty. Despite being Colin Firth, he looks small and worried, shaking at the prospect of speaking in front of people. His relationship with the 'common' speech therapist is at the heart of the film. This guy really doesn't give a damn. He calls the king 'Bertie' and sits on thrones with his feet up - 'It's a chair. I don't care how many royal arseholes have sat in it'. If it wasn't for this Australian the film would have just been a bunch of royals swanning around in large rooms, and I'm not interested in that. We can thank history for supplying Lionel then, and livening up what could have been a boring two hours. The politics of the royal family does not make a great film, mainly because none of them seem like people. Apart from poor Bertie and his wife, who summon just enough sympathy to make us care. He stammers 'so beautifully' that they never expected to have to deal with these problems. He manages though, and we're still thanking Lionel for that.

But here's the thing. When I look at some of the other films up for winning Shiny Trinkets, then I wonder how this has ever got a look in. The Social Network, Toy Story 3, Inception - at least three films that deserve the prize for Best Picture more (and, er, the only other ones I've seen). The Social Network is literally inspirational, it makes me feel excited about filmmaking. Toy Story 3 is a masterpiece of animation. Inception is surreal, confusing, and a little bit wonderful. The King's Speech did not make me feel much of anything. It's fine, give Colin Firth all the acting awards you want, he deserves it, but let's not get confused about what the really great films look like.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Catfish: Strange things that happen on the internet

In Catfish, a filmmaker starts documenting his brother Nev's online relationship with a family. After an eight-year-old girl sends him a painting of one his photos, he starts talking to her mother and older sister on Facebook. The paintings keep coming in the post, along with recorded songs from the sister. Soon he starts talking to them on the phone, even starting to believe that the relationship with Megan, the older sister, could be 'something serious'. Through Facebook and emails and texts they keep contacting each other, with the whole thing seeming strangely normal. Technology has apparently brought them together but always keeping them at a distance. Nev is in New York, while his new friends live in Michigan. You can probably see where this is going. For the sake of the 'documentary' they go on a road trip to meet the family. On the way they begin to suspect that something's not right. By the time they get to Michigan the tension is cranked right up, like they're about to discover something sinister. There's a real sense of excitement as they get nearer and nearer, even dabbling in a bit of mild horror. I won't say what happens, except that, like all mysteries, the question is more interesting than the answer. These few young men seem genuinely scared of what they're getting themselves into. How much they're acting up to the camera isn't clear, but their fear and nervous excitement seems real. There's a good period in Catfish that's incredibly compelling. The truth takes the edge off it eventually, but until then it's captivating. It's the sort of thing that can only be really enjoyed the first time you see it. When it ends you'll think back to that golden half an hour when everything was fresh and mysterious, and feel a bit sad that you'll never be able to see it like that again.

It's a film filtered through technology, where everything is analysed and deduced through the internet. Google Street View gives a glimpse of places before they go there. Emails hide clues that can be worked out through YouTube, Facebook, Twitter. The technology is useful but cold. Everyone is hiding behind it until they go to confront the real world. This is a story about right now, a bit scary and a bit exciting.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

22 Bullets: An excuse to mention something else

22 Bullets, knows an L'Immortel in France, begins with Jean Reno getting gunned down in a car park. After all, you can't escape your past, especially if you're a retired gangster. He survives and vows revenge on everyone involved. Or at least, he does eventually. For a while the film seems to be interested in anything but the plot, with the hero hardly saying a word for the first half hour. Despite the tag 'revenge thriller', 22 Bullets has more artistic intentions. It spends more time with an alcoholic detective and complicated gangster politics than it does with the main man. It's a shame, because there's an interesting story in here. When Jean Reno walks into a restaurant with a grenade and a gun, it makes more sense. But you'll be waiting a while for that. It's far too concerned in everything that's happening around the action, so it doesn't move along with any drive, instead sagging under the weight of all the other people. At times it comes together and Mr Reno is able to deliver the justice he's been waiting for. The baddies even get round to kidnapping his children, so he finally gets a bit worked up about it. Unfortunately, the whole thing is just too confusing to follow properly. Who's this? Who's side is he on? Why does he want to frame this guy who's doing that thing over there with those other people? Just get on with it. You'll have to fill in the gaps yourself if you want to give context to the violence.

It prides itself on being 'from the producers of Taken'. Another film that's from the producers of Taken is, er, Taken 2, which seems to be in production. This sounds like a brilliant and slightly rubbish idea. Somebody is going to have to be taken. But who? He's probably keeping a better eye on his daughter, so that won't happen again. Maybe somebody else's daughter? But nobody cares about that. And terrorist's wouldn't work, even though Liam Neeson could hunt them all down in five minutes. Somebody he likes will need to be abducted and shipped to a different country. I'm sure they can sort it out. Whatever happens, it'll be entertainment.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Boardwalk Empire: I ain't building no bookcase

After watching the fourth episode of Boardwalk Empire, I think it's starting to take shape. It's set in America's Prohibition era, where criminals and political figures still control the flow of alcohol. 'Nucky' Thompson is at the head of it, a political 'boss' who controls Atlantic City through all sorts of criminal activities. It's part gangster show and part political drama - there's no line between the two. And Nucky's brother is Sheriff of the county, so they can pretty much get away with anything. Thankfully they seem to be fairly decent gangsters, more helpful than destructive. In the most recent episode they handed the leader of a Ku Klux Klan group over to Chalky White, the head of the black community in the city. Played by Michael K Williams, this character is the centre of any scene he's in, of which there aren't nearly enough. Here he tells the Klan member a story about his father, a gifted carpenter who was killed by 'six white men'. He gets out his father's tools, and when asked what he intends to do with them, says 'I ain't building no bookcase'. But in a threatening, Omar Little sort of way. In fact, sometimes he just seems like Omar in a red coat. Maybe an ancestor, or evidence of time travel, he's still the coolest thing in an entirely different show.

Elsewhere the show is really going for the 'old society' thing. Racism and sexism are a big part of it. We look in from the outside, with a bunch of sympathetic characters around to stop us going mad. There's the bad gangsters, who are okay really, then the really bad gangsters who say mean things about everyone. Though, in the case of some of these women, they may have a point. The majority of the female characters are completely pathetic, sitting around on their husband's laps being apocalyptically stupid. It's there for a point, to show a contrast to the pleasant Mrs Schroeder, but it's overdoing it a bit. The fact that Margaret actually has opinions on things impresses Nucky, when she puts forward some thoughts on women's right to vote. It might not sound like much, but his current girlfriend can hardly string two words together.

And there's a thing going on with Jimmy, who always looks like he's about to start singing Arcade Fire songs. Gangsters have meetings in big coats and hats. I'm not really sure who most of them are, but it'll become clear eventually. It's going for the slow build-up approach, and I'm more than happy to see where it goes. There are moments of brilliance here. Moments that are getting more frequent as the series goes on.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

The Hurt Locker: This box is full of stuff that almost killed me

Unlike most war films, The Hurt Locker is quiet and careful. It follows a US bomb squad in Iraq, and is mainly made up of tense standoffs that play out in whispers and clicking machinery. The streets are always deserted when the soldiers arrive. As one of them walks towards the bomb in a big blast suit the others scan the buildings around them. People appear at windows, some of them just watching, others waiting to detonate the bomb on the roadside. It's always the quiet before an explosion or a gunshot. In fact, one of the best scenes doesn't even feature a bomb. There's a sniper duel in the middle of the desert, with the soldiers boiling under the sun. As people get picked off around them they have to clean blood off the bullets to make them fire, and fiddle around with straws on juice drinks. There's a slow motion shot of a bullet casing bouncing off the sand. It's slow, tense action. Even when they start running and shouting it feels off balance, a bit surreal. It's like they're policing a ghost town. And made even stranger by the squad leader's attitude. He's laid back and cocky, strolling up to bombs without much worry. If he dies he dies, and he doesn't seem to care. He'll probably get the others killed. He goes off on personal missions, addicted to the 'rush of battle'. The film is about these soldiers rather than the politics of the war. It doesn't even have to be specifically about Iraq. It's closer than that. Without pulling away from the action, it becomes about how the soldiers deal with the everyday danger. There's a clarity to it that you don't get in other war films, a clear focus on a few people that isn't confusing. By showing a handful of characters rather than the whole country, it gives more insight than a chaotic thriller.

The quiet flow of it is hypnotic, full of ticking bombs that could go off at any moment.  It's a sturdy thing that knows exactly what it wants to do and does it well. This is a serious film but also one that's a lot of fun. It only occasionally throws messages at you, but doesn't overdo the psychological trauma angle. As a suspense thriller it is excellent, as a drama it's pretty good. As a film it's solid and watchable.

Friday, 11 February 2011

REC: There must be something upstairs

A cameraman and a presenter follow a fire crew into an apartment building. They were called in to rescue a 'trapped woman'. They soon realise that a fire would have been nicer, as the building is quarantined for 'public health reasons'. In other words, a bunch of people are trapped in a building with nasty things. Something is turning the residents into screaming flesh-eaters, and the disease spreads to the bitten. Better run away then. Unlike something like The Crazies, there's an almost real sense of terror coming off the screen in REC. The documentary style puts you right there with them, with the biting and the screaming and the running. It jitters and jumps and throws you across the room as the cameraman runs up six flights of stairs to escape the monsters. It's claustrophobic. As we only get to see through a narrow lens, we're as trapped as the characters - forced to watch whatever the camera points at. Occasionally someone says 'turn it off, turn it off', and for a second that sounds like a good idea. But you'll want to see what happens. It's a compelling thing. Lasting only seventy eight minutes, it spends a lot of time in quieter moments, playing out the fake documentary. The presenter interviews everyone in the assumption that she'll make it out to edit the footage. In this style it's like an extreme version of Paranormal Activity. The monsters are very real and very visible, and when it all kicks off it's very violent. The camera only catches glimpses off it, but it's definitely there. Then the lights go out and they switch to night vision for the really horrible stuff.

It's not very pleasant then, so why would you want to watch it? The thing about REC, as with most horror films, is that it's nonsense. Over the top, entertaining, ridiculous nonsense. To be physically scared or effected by it is to take it seriously. And nobody's doing that. It's putting yourself into a compelling nightmare while you eat biscuits. It's way beyond the line of fantasy and doing all the right things to keep you watching. It's a story you've seen before, but still fun.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Two boys walk into Big Moon Forest in the middle of winter

This is a scene from early in Big Moon Forest. After walking for miles, Rhys is finally able to show Tom what he's found in the forest. It's also a lesson in how not to format a screenplay. Click on the fancy 'read more' link to see the rest.

RHYS and TOM have arrived at the forest's edge. The tall trees are just brown sticks without their leaves. Dead spikes from the ground. RHYS - Can you hear it?  TOM - No.  RHYS - I can't either. They listen but can only hear the breeze and their own breath. TOM slaps RHYS on the back of the head. TOM - Can you hear that?  RHYS - Be quiet. Another slap from TOM. Harder this time. RHYS - You need to be quiet. TOM doesn't respond, and they wait again. Listening to the breeze and staring into the forest. TOM- I come all the way out here for what? RHYS walks forward into the –
- and onto the crunching dead leaves. He can hear it straight away. A distant noise: like wood grinding and splintering, thundering and screaming. It's coming through the forest. After a moment TOM joins him. He can hear it too. They are both frozen, shivering, listening. It's thumping through the forest but still distant.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

The Crazies: Mad people with cunning plans to kill you

People are going crazy from bad chemicals in the water. The Crazies are crazy in a murderous way. And then after a while their faces start melting. This isn't good news for a sunny American town, where everyone was having a nice time until this happened. The chemicals came from a crashed military plane, and the government decide to 'quarantine' the place. Soldiers in masks turn up to herd everyone around and explode things. For the sheriff and his wife, who probably aren't sick, this is a very unfortunate few days. As a horror film The Crazies has a fundamental problem. The crazy people aren't scary. They're extremely violent but not horrifying. As a version of a zombie infection, it doesn't get it right. Zombies are brainless monsters that lurk and shamble, these are mad people with cunning plans to kill you. More action than horror. There aren't even any hordes of them. A few sequences get away with it by highlighting scraping pitchforks, but our heroes don't run into many of the monsters. The real menace is the military, who turn up with flamethrowers and big trucks. They're so good at killing the crazies that the sting is taken out of the film. Of course, they want to kill the characters too, but they should have arrived a bit later. I want more scenes of 'I wonder where everyone is', and 'what's wrong with Mr Hobbs, he's looking a bit pale today'. So it tips the other way, into a gory action film. Except the action isn't that exciting. There's a peculiar scene in a car wash, where the characters are trapped in their car going along the conveyor belt. Big sponges attack them from either side. It's terrifying. And when it really does all start to kick off, the film ends, leaving some unresolved issues.

The most effective part of the film is the opening scenes. The town is idyllic. Quaint. The word 'foreboding' is written across the sky in big letters. They needed to get more out of this, because pretty quickly everything explodes and the tension is lost. The Crazies is a film that has its moments, but for anyone who's seen more than one horror film, it must try harder.