Monday, 31 January 2011

Blades of Glory: Prancing on ice with a bit of beheading

You don't normally get many laughs from Hollywood comedies, even if they're Oscar nominated. But Blades of Glory is better than most. Two rival ice skaters are banned from the sport for fighting, and then come back a few years later as a same-sex pairs team. One's a graceful child prodigy, the other a rough sex addict. Will they be able to overcome their differences and skate to gold in the big championship? Yes, they will. Nobody's winning any awards here, but it's enjoyable enough. Will Ferrell and Jon Heder are funny together, and that's what holds up the entire film. They punch each other on the podium and prance around on the ice, and that's funny. Though it can't be right that saying a comedy is 'enjoyable enough' counts as high praise. Some critics count laughs to decide the quality of these things. Where's the fun in that? Are comedies so boring that five laughs is a high point? These are professionals after all. There's actors who made their way as stand-up comedians. If they only got five laughs a show they'd be in trouble. The blandest comedies are based on one joke, stretched out to two hours. It's much easier to add jokes to something else. A drama with funny bits. A comedy horror. Romantic comedy. Something that just sets out to be funny is pretty brave. Trying to be appeal to everyone will leave most people bored. If there's no constant stream of ideas coming, you'd better make your one joke pretty good. Here the joke is that Chazz Michael Michaels and Jimmy MacElroy are complete opposites, and they have to dance together. It gets by on the performance of the two leads and the likeable, innocent charm. It doesn't go for sweary or vulgar, it's pretty gentle, which makes it easier to get along with.

And anyway, Chazz Michael Michaels is a complex guy. He's written a poetry collection called 'Let Me Put My Poems Inside You'. Which is probably the best name for a book of poetry I've ever heard.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Some day we'll be drinking with the seldom seen kid

Elbow seem to be back in business. Three years after the release of stupidly good Seldom Seen Kid, a new album will be coming in a few months. Build a rocket boys! will be it, and there's not much to go on except this new video of the song 'Lippy Kids'. I don't usually write about music news, mainly because I don't know any. But this is the rare thing that's worth a look two months before release. The video probably speaks for itself, so you'd be better off watching that first. Though I'll put on my music reviewer's hat and put some words to it (note: this is not a real hat, but I could consider getting one). Elbow are a band that seemed to have peaked fifteen years into their career. They released albums before Seldom Seen Kid, but only a relatively few people were paying attention. I only came in on that album, when a friend said 'you'll like this', and the songs were the backing track to every second television trailer. It may be the case that they'll never better that album - the one that elevated them to stadiums and mainstream ears - but they'll do a good job trying. It easily flowed between ballads and catchy riffs and soaring orchestral wonderousness. Held together by Guy Garvey's soothing tones. As an album opener, this new song is more relaxing than usual. Doesn't even have any unexpected trumpet explosions. Whatever comes next will probably be a treat.

And if you liked that you'll probably like this. To my ears The National sound like an American Elbow. Their fans would probably say it was the other way round, but I'll make the comparison for the sake of this post.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Body of Lies: Things are hard to find in the desert

Body of Lies doesn't appear to be saying one thing about Iraq, or trying to expose a grand conspiracy. It gives little pieces of insight and drama in the middle of a conventional thriller. Too serious to be fun, but too silly to be important. In tracking down an elusive terrorist, Russell Crowe's chubby CIA man has a few words of wisdom: 'Our enemy has realised they are fighting guys from the future. And if they live like it's the past and behave like it's the past, then guys from the future find it very hard to see them'. This is at least true of him, as he sits in his control room watching satellite pictures of people buying vegetables. It's a bit harder for DiCaprio's character, who's an agent in the middle of it all. He's having a bad time. Things are hard to find in the desert and people keep shooting at him. His operations are frequently sabotaged by the man in the sky, who seems to be casual about the danger involved. It's a film that wants to make you afraid of walking down the street, or at least a street in the Middle East: 'We're an easy target. And our world is a lot easier to put to an end than you might think'. Serious stuff then, but it can't shake the problem of being a slightly average thriller. Its plot is tangled and the enemy is elusive, so much so that it doesn't have any drive. It's caught between wanting to explode things and make serious points about doom. If it wants to have action it should go for it. Give me a car chase or a big fight. Instead it gets a bit shy and veers off into a little romantic subplot with an Iranian nurse. To be fair, it's an interesting subplot, but in a different film. Green Zone worked because it was a straight action film, making its points but never slowing down. Body of Lies goes halfway towards action, halfway towards drama. Not really committing to either.

One day someone is going to make a great film about these things. Body of Lies isn't it. I don't think Green Zone is either. It might come a long way in the future, when it's looking back instead of trying to predict the future. Body of Lies will probably be forgotten. Apart from Mark Strong's suave Jordanian intelligence minister. He's so good at it you won't even recognise him. Shady, threatening, and thoroughly polite. And DiCaprio has a big fluffy beard at one point. So that's good.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

The other people who made A Few Good Men

With The Social Network about to win all the Oscars, it's time to watch Aaron Sorkin's first film, A Few Good Men. Two marines are accused of murder at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, and Tom Cruise is brought in to defend them. He doesn't take things very seriously amongst the hard-drilled marines, quickly getting into trouble with Jack Nicholson. He believes his clients may have been ordered to murder one of their fellow marines, but he can't prove it. A Few Good Men ramps up to something engrossing. Not just courtroom drama, but with the familiar Sorkin pace and craft. And on top of that, there's Jack Nicholson saying the words. Tom Cruise is all very well and good, but Nicholson is the force of the film. Playing a fanatical colonel with a dislike for just about everybody, he can spin a character out of a glance. Particularly in the final scenes, where he goes into battle against Cruise's courtroom questioning, he's mesmerising. A figure of authority that has to be taken down piece by piece - arrogant, single minded, and scary. The script itself was based on Sorkin's play, so all the action is in the meaty dialogue. Sorkin was asked how he was going to 'open it up' for the screenplay, and not knowing what this meant, he added a bit where the main character buys a newspaper as the 'action scene'. While it doesn't have the blistering pace of something like The Social Network or The West Wing, it's recognisable. People talking in rooms (usually lawyers) is what defines the scripts, but they do talk in rooms very well. And there's an appearance from Joshua Malina and Sorkin himself to keep the people who notice these things happy.

It probably comes somewhere behind The West Wing and The Social Network on the Sorkin-o-meter. Very good, but there's better to come. Of course, a real film reviewer would have pointed out the other people involved in making the film. But with Sorkin soon to start directing as well, I won't have to remember to mention anyone else.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Everyone else is having fun in Adventureland

Adventureland was not the film I thought it was going to be. I fell into the trailer's cunning trap. I believed it was a comedy. It wasn't. So I'll need to forget about that before I start writing about it. What it is is a drama about a college graduate working in a theme park. He sits around on the 'games', making sure nobody wins and listening to repetitive music. The 'work of pathetic lazy morons', as one character says. Which is probably one of the reasons they're all a bit depressed. Everyone's having a melancholic time. It's 1987. Although that probably doesn't have anything to do with it. It's 1987 and they're bored, lost, and hopeless. The main character, played by Jesse Eisenberg of The Social Network, meets a girl who is also depressed. The whole thing is horribly believable. It ambles along in a dreary sort of way, showing these characters going nowhere and the summer passing. It's a film that will either captivate you or send you to sleep. And I have to admit that, unfortunately, I was bit bored. Which is a shame, because I desperately wanted to like it. For a film like this to work, you need to warm to it. Maybe from a nostalgia for the eighties. Maybe because you understand the characters. And this guy, with his degree in comparative literature and good intentions, can be easily understood. But I was left feeling apathetic towards this realistic character and his realistic problems. It's authentic but not particularly interesting. Not particularly entertaining. I feel bad criticising it, as its heart is in the right place, and if you watched it tomorrow there's a good chance you'd disagree with me. For me, the only spark of energy came from Bill Hader's theme park manager, who brings a little bit of moustache-comedy in his brief apperances. I've put off writing about it for a few days, in case I suddenly realised I loved it. This has not happened. I only remember it to be amiable, sweet, and a little dull.

Adventureland was not the film I thought it was going to be. A drama that's happy to be boring, if that's what reflects the story. As a slice of real life it succeeds (though I have no personal experience of 1987). As a film it's let down by its own intentions. Maybe if I hadn't been so cruelly deceived from the beginning I might have felt differently towards it. Mildly interesting? Yes, but for me little more than that.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

The highly inaccurate Scott Pilgrim appreciation test

Scott Pilgrim is quite good at 'POW', 'THWACK', and even 'KABIFF'. So good that he doesn't have much trouble fighting his new girlfriend's seven evil exes. He fights them with guitars, milk, and giant raging monkey apparitions. All to prove his love for a girl he sees skating through his dreams. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is relentless and bursting. Films are rarely full of so much stuff. Hardly a frame goes by without something exploding or smashing or lighting up in bright neon. Each scene crashes into the next without warning, crafted and wound up tight until it threatens to come apart. It's stylish, but in an inventive way. Somewhere the line exists between 'stylish' and 'annoying' - Scott Pilgrim manages to stay on the good side. Sometimes it barely makes sense, but just about manages to get away with it. For two confusing minutes it turns into a sitcom with a loud and disturbing laughter track. There's Vegan Police that crash through walls to deliver Vegan Justice. And the ending is a complete mess. Edgar Wright just throws everything in. Like I said, it's relentless. Sometimes it needs to calm down for five minutes so your eyes can recover. But the ambition to stuff it full of anything and everything is admirable. There's a joy of creativity here, and a love of all things nerdy. It might be true that only those with gaming claws for hands will understand most of the references. It hardly ever refers to a single game, but to gameyness in general. The flashing scores that rise from defeated enemies and the showers of coins that rain from their pixelly deaths. This is for children of the nineties, who can play every classic Nintendo game through muscle memory. Then again, I'm bound to like any film that features Zelda music.

A test for all of this is whether you understand the reference in 'Sex Bob-omb', the name of Scott Pilgrim's band. If you don't, there's a good chance you're not this film's target audience. It seems to have 'cult film' written all over it. Except that what it really has written all over it is 'KAPLOW' and 'THWUMP'. And sometimes 'BLAM'.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Especially in the snow. They have to put their noses in it.

Writing continues on 'Big Moon Forest'. Here the same two boys are walking back home after seeing something scary in the forest. Tom hasn't spoken in a while so Rhys wants to change the subject. To cows. I've got to admit I didn't do any research on the habits of a cold cow. This sounds about right though.

One of the things that fascinates me about screenwriting is the idea that something I imagine in my head, when I'm just sitting in front of a computer, could be put onto screen. That's complete creativity that you don't get from directing, when you have to work from the words that already exist. In writing, anything can happen. Anything you want. That's worth getting a little bit excited about. Everything that's ever been written is somebody making it up off the top of their head. And sometimes getting paid for it.

In this case, cows. Not the most exciting part of the screenplay. There aren't even any real cows in it. It'll be good, though. I promise.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Shutter Island, last year's second most mysterious island

In Shutter Island US Marshal Teddy Daniels arrives at the island's 'hospital for the criminally insane'. He's there to investigate the disappearance of a patient, who very mischievously escaped her locked cell and vanished into the night. Then so many twists pile up that, by the end of the film, this opening synopsis looks a bit silly. I'd already read Dennis Lehane's novel, so I was familiar with it all beforehand, like I was watching it for a second time. But I'm not going to start comparing it to the book. That would be annoying. The most important thing to consider here is the psychological, symbolic nature of the plot. There are dream sequences. Waking dreams in which Teddy gets surreal flashes of melting wives and paper rain. It's a claustrophobic film where, just as the characters are trapped on the island, we're trapped inside Teddy's mind. And he doesn't look very well. Scorsese has a lot of fun merging mind and reality and throwing everything around in the dream world. Like one of those other films that Leonardo DiCaprio's in, the dreams are a playground of creativity and metaphor, where anything and everything can happen. Little pieces of fantasy, but then the real world doesn't make much sense either. It's silly in a serious way, and can be quite distressing at times, especially if you don't like rats. There's tragedy, but it's wrapped up in mystery and uncertainty and big yellow pills. It becomes so twisty and ambiguous that I ended feeling slightly apathetic towards the whole thing. The film asks you to work it out while all the time giving you sly winks to contradict itself. It says 'here's the conclusion, but it could be like this, or what about this'. Maybe I've already over-analysed the book, making me reluctant to bother.

It's enjoyable though. Part detective story, part horror, part what-the-hell-is-going-on-now. Ominous and stylish and ominous some more, Scorsese knows how to keep you entertained. The mystery is there to be pondered, if you're interested, just don't think about it too hard.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Like sleeping on the furry chest of a Totoro

My Neighbour Totoro is the sort of film that's difficult to write about. It's good in a way that's hard to put into words. The normal sort of film review seems irrelevant. It makes you feel all fluffy inside, like you're asleep on the furry chest of a Totoro. Curled up in the middle of a giant tree. It's a classic Studio Ghibli animation about two girls' adventures with Totoro woodland spirits. Even for a children's film, it's remarkably colourful. There's none of the grotesque figures of Spirited Away, or the mean old witches of Howl's Moving Castle. No conflict. No threat. Just one of the happiest, sky blue things you'll ever see. The biggest Totoro may be a huge, growling beast, but the children just see him as a massive cuddly friend. As the character that made a cameo in Toy Story 3, he represents the fading childhood world. Only the children can see him, along with his mini counterparts, and only then if they're very lucky. In moments of darkness, in the dark and the rain, he turns up at a bus stop with a leaf on his head - comforting and mysterious. He protects the woods and makes them grow. This countryside is disappearing too, but there's a perfectly idyllic slice of it here. It highlights the quality of the animation. Rolling vistas and pastel skies, all watercolour greens and blues and reds. It's like watching a moving painting. The cat bus runs across it and bounces over electricity wires, grinning all the way. The adult world is here, with a father chin deep in paperwork and a mother recovering in hospital, but the acorn-chasing, soot-gremlin world of the children is always out front.

It's the sort of film I wish I saw when I was six. It looks like something I remember seeing all those years ago, even though I know I never did. If you have children, watch Miyazaki films with them. They may not thank you right away, but they'll remember them for a long time. Because where some films want to scare you, and others want to make you laugh, My Neighbour Totoro just wants to make you go a bit soft.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Everyone plays the game with the weapons they've got

My favourite scene from Battle Royale isn't the bit where a boy defends himself with a pot lid, or the moment when a dead man gets up and casually walks across the room to answer his phone. It comes early, when the students wake up in a disused classroom and are given a lesson on the rules of the game. At first they're skeptical. They think it's a joke, that they don't really have to kill each other. But then their teacher murders two of them for annoying him. They watch a cheery instructional video which explains that only one student is permitted to leave the island, that it's survival of the fittest and that most of them won't make it. They are called up one by one on the register and step forward. They are given a bag of supplies and a random weapon. Some weapons aren't as good as others. Some are given a machine gun. Others a sickle. Some a paper fan. The bag is thrown sharply at their head and they run off into the island to fend for themselves. In this moment they have to decide what they're going to do. Do they play the game, hide until it's over, try to escape, try to rebel? There are only a few things they can do trapped on this island, and there are some people aiming at their head. Some are given the best weapons from the start, others have to steal or acquire them. With perseverance even the worst weapons can be put to good use. Those that choose to hide will find a cave and wait for the game to be over, until they win or the bomb on their neck explodes. Others try to find a way out across the sea or over cliffs. There are a few that sit down and choose to play a different game, to try and take the whole thing down and win in their own way. Everyone plays the game with the weapons they've got.

Those who complained about the ultra-violent blood-spattered teenagers just weren't thinking allegorically enough. Who wins in the end? Not the ones with the biggest guns, but the people who trusted someone and stuck together. Nice, that. It is pretty violent though. Especially the bit with the sickle.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

The Spirit, or Why Films Don't Have to Be Like This

A dead man fighting crime against his arch-nemesis Samuel L. Jackson. That's about as much as you can tell you about the plot of The Spirit, because that's all that I understood. It's not a film that concerns itself with narrative clarity. It is, first and foremost, stylish. Super stylish. Hyper stylish. Stylish to the point of being annoying. It takes its comic book roots and smacks you in the face with them. All inked up in a Sin City sort of way, every shot resembling a panel from the source material. You can practically see the speech bubbles coming off the characters. You could see them if you closed your eyes too, because the acting is all bold type and capital letters. Any recognisable human sounds are thrown out the silhouetted window as the actors drone out one-dimensional chunks of words. The music parps. The faces shine. The green screen backgrounds scream at you even though you've fallen asleep. Nothing remotely engaging happens, because nothing seems to happen at all. If everything's in this misty highlighted landscape, and the people sound like parodies of themselves, why should I care? It drifts through cool-looking scenes in chunks and bits and never bothers to interest you.

Should comic book films really look like this? A drawing is stylish by necessity, a film can feature real things. Look at The Dark Knight, at Watchmen - style and substance and nobody's overdoing it. There's no need for so many fireworks. Ten minutes is fine, but then you get bored and annoyed and start looking at your watch. Even as a piece of character mythology, The Spirit falls way short. It's all half explained points and tangled backstory. The hero is a ladies man who loves his city. We know this because that's all he does. Kisses girls and talks about the city. The villain is doing something with clones and vases, but I honestly couldn't tell you what. And I was paying attention. I have no idea about the original work, but if it's any good at all, this film has badly let it down.

To Frank Miller and everyone else involved, stop it. Films do not have to be like this. Films should be about things. People and places and words being spoken properly. Style is what comes second. There was no need for this. If it serves any purpose, it's to remind us why films shouldn't be this way. Sin City was a novelty. This is taking the joke too far.