Thursday, 31 March 2011

The rest of the universe explained in pictures and words

A few days ago I briefly explained the workings of the universe, since the television has been teaching me these things. I didn't go into much detail, but it had something to do with a rabbit. There's a bit more to the universe than that, though. A few paragraphs more. For instance, I didn't mention black holes. They're bad. Really bad. I know this because the scientific description is ominous - 'a region of space from which nothing, not even light, can escape'. That's right, not even light. The forces of evil are at work here. When a star collapses at the end of its life it turns inside out and becomes this whirlpool of doom. Some scientists think that there's one at the centre of most galaxies, including our own. If you went near it you'd be sucked into it and then something will happen. Nobody knows what's at the centre of a black hole, not even Brian Cox. Probably all the rubbish that gets hoovered up; a massive bin in the middle of the galaxy. Chuck that planet in there, we don't need it anymore.

I'd guess they were warp zones to other parts of the universe. But it's probably theories like this that got me laughed out of the scientific community. I don't think they've got very far in my absence anyway. They still haven't worked out what's beyond the universe. They try to baffle you with numbers and diagrams but they don't know really. They say 'what if the universe is everything that exists, then there can't be anything outside it.' I say 'there might be other universes'. They say 'the universe is often visualised as a three-dimensional sphere embedded in four-dimensional space'. I say 'what if you go out one end and come in the other like in Pac-Man.'
Because the universe is big. Really, really big. No, not quite that big. But big. The most distant stars we can see are only visible in the past, because the light takes so long to get to us. The light from the furthest stars started travelling when there weren't even any humans on Earth. It wasn't even called Earth then. Just a mound in space. When the light started travelling there were just little squidgy things flopping around straining to evolve.
Then one of the them strained hard enough to get legs and arms, and all the others decided they wanted some too. Others couldn't be bothered and flopped in the sea to learn how to swim. We didn't talk to them again, but after a while we produced some fingers, and thumbs, and started calling each other names. Then we started speaking in words that we made up and learned how to be sarcastic all the time. Somebody called the mound Earth (who was this?) and people drew lines and divided the place up into turf. Some of the countries don't like each other very much. Somebody invented money and convinced everyone else that they need it. We got iPods, then iPhones, and eventually iPads. We evolved. And then we saw the light from the distant star. It took a while.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The universe explained in pictures and words

Astronomy would be really fun if it wasn't for all the hard science and stuff. What could be more interesting than trying to unravel the mysteries of the cosmos? Not much, but when I start looking into it I only come across equations the size of houses. All the good stuff is hidden behind impenetrable physics and words that come in five or six parts. But now Professor Brian Cox has been explaining these things to me, and I might be starting to understand. We're in the solar system, which is in a galaxy, and there's lots of galaxies in the universe. Right? Right? Good. Because it's best not to ask any more questions after that. What's outside the universe? And outside that? Maybe nothing, because it has to stop somewhere. Or maybe it repeats itself. Or maybe Men in Black was way ahead of its time. To summarise, let's look at the effect this sort of thinking has on the mind of a rabbit.

Wonders of the Universe is the only show on television that makes your mind actually break. That alone is worth the license fee. The Professor does a good job of explaining the fabric of existence to us. Everything's expanding, see. Expanding and getting messy. And when things reach their ultimate messy-ness, there won't be time any more, because nothing will change.
He doesn't have all the answers though. Which is probably a good thing. Ratings would go straight down. Like watching Lost, we don't really want to know why they're there or where the polar bear came from. The question is always more interesting than the answer. It's best to drag it out. When we find out, it's always the same reaction.

Monday, 21 March 2011

The Town: How to rob a bank and get away with it

In The Town Ben Affleck and friends might seem like professionals at the bank-robbing business, but they make a few simple mistakes. Even though they were wearing scary masks at the time, they can still be recognised afterwards. Which is why you shouldn't get to know one of your hostages. Romantic conversations in flower gardens are especially foolish. The car chases and shoot-outs that follow may be very exciting, but they're a sign that something has gone badly wrong. Maybe some of your team are a bit unstable. Maybe you shouldn't give them semi-automatic weaponry. And if someone offers you 'one last job', you should not be talked into it. Although, it does make the film more entertaining. The last act is pretty excellent. Robbing a stadium looks easy in cunning disguises and cool shades. You can get away with anything if you're wearing the right clothes and say things confidently enough.
Like Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck shows that he can direct solid, compelling stories. The Town lives up to its promise, and will entertain you for two hours straight. After all, it's always more fun to root for the criminals. As long they're not the really bad sort. A few heists and a bit of violence towards other criminals is nice enough. That's not hurting anybody. And the FBI do what the FBI always do - try to spoil everyone's fun. In film's at least. The real FBI do fine work, and I wouldn't want to suggest anything different to the internet robots that are now browsing this page.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Ondine: Strange people that come out of the water

I'll be honest, the only reason I watched Ondine was because one quarter of Sigur Rós composed the score. Which is probably a good enough reason to watch anything. If the other bits turn out to be good as well it'll be a bonus. So, an Irish fisherman catches a woman in his net and becomes convinced that she might be a bit mystical. His daughter thinks he's found a selkie, a sort of lady seal creature who can become temporarily human. When her singing starts bringing the fisherman luck, it seems that she might be right. But this is a film set in the real world. It asks how long the fantasy can be kept up, if it's real or just imagined. The woman doesn't want to confirm it either way, and does a lot of singing and floating around in the water. Ondine is a nice little film that spends most of it's time in the calm Irish countryside. It's gentle and funny and a little bit sleepy. There's a downbeat realism to it that stops it from getting too sugary, and Colin Farrell is likable enough to play the kind but slightly rubbish fisherman. It's the possibility of magic in a contemporary setting that keeps it interesting, and eventually a warming to the characters to see it through to the end.
And there's a few Sigur Rós songs as well. Apart from the new stuff, Kjartan Sveinsson added some familiar tunes. One song in particular plays an important part in the plot. Ondine sings it to the fishes, while being all mystical and mysterious. After all, what else would mermaids sing? The fisherman thinks it's a magical sound, proof of her being from another world. Then Sigur Rós appear on TV singing it, making him wonder if it really is a selkie song. 'That song, it's real', 'Of course it's real, it's Sigur Rós' - this is good dialogue. A film that hinges on a Sigur Rós song? This can only be a good thing.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Treme: Sometimes they cross paths and play a song together

David Simon's Treme might look like it's going to be one long rant about the state of post-Katrina New Orleans. And there's a bit of that, but it's mostly a laidback look at the people within the community. It's full of music. Full of it. Almost every character is a musician; they play music in the street, in clubs, in hospital waiting rooms - anywhere they can find. Sometimes they don't stop and whole scenes go by with nothing but trombones, violins, and pianos. These people are as keenly observed as anything from The Wire, but everyone's a lot gentler. Some are actually lighthearted. These are not the streets of Baltimore. The first four episodes border on uneventful but, in that way that few shows manage, are just an interesting place to be. The characters have musical difficulties instead of debilitating drug addictions. Nobody has a gun. It's a tight community rather than a sprawling city, even though they don't seem to know each other. In the way of these things, they occasionally cross paths and sometimes play a song together. There isn't a bad note among them.
The highlight is Davis McAlary, a loud-mouthed radio DJ who is fired for letting a guest sacrifice a chicken on air, and then thrown off a hotel reception desk for sending Christians to the wrong end of town. He's got a childlike enthusiasm for music that gets him by, occasionally composing a song or two and adding a welcome chunk of comedy. Elsewhere, Sonny and Annie busk for spare change, John Goodman screams at YouTube, and Antoine 'The Bunk' Baptiste plays trombone all day. I'm sure these people will develop large, dramatic problems, but for now they're just quite nice to watch. Some might be annoyed by its quest for authenticity, or dislike the characters when they arrogantly proclaim New Orleans to be the centre of the world. Though any show with this amount of social commentary is bound to make people take sides. I like that the characters are faintly fanatical about their city. Without that, Treme wouldn't exist.

Friday, 11 March 2011

The Host: The other sort of mutant fish

Ponyo made strange fish look cuddly. It was still pretty dangerous, but it wanted to be your friend. The fish from the Korean film The Host is a bit bigger, and probably just wants to eat you. This is what you get when you pour toxic chemicals down the sink. The mutated fish thing rampages across the city, gobbling people up or taking them to its lair to keep for later. And it really goes for it. They're not afraid to show the monster, so there's a fair amount of running away to be done. It appears in the first ten minutes. No build up. Just straight into it. That's commendable really, because this is one of the best starts to a monster film you'll ever see (is that a genre? I hope so). Then, when a man's daughter gets taken away by the creature, he sets off with his family to get her back. With plenty of resistance from the government, who are convinced that everyone's got a virus. It's a film that's a lot of fun. Underneath the bone-spitting there's a mixture of comedy and drama and mild jumpy bits. It can switch to tragedy without any fuss, too. All done with complete confidence. Of course, it's not all so much fun for the poor schoolgirl who has to wait in the sewer for dinner time. Her prospects look grim.

Almost as grim as the thought of an American remake. The more I think about it, the more I hate the idea of Hollywood recycling great world cinema. There's no good reason these films can't be released properly everywhere and find an audience. If there are people who don't want to read subtitles, they are completely and unremittingly stupid. 'Foreign' films are not stuffy or ponderous. Nobody would watch The Host and complain about the exciting action movie they just saw. And, let's face it, a monster rampage in Seoul is a lot cooler than the same thing happening in New York.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Ponyo: Fish with faces that come out of the sea

The first ten minutes of Ponyo are probably enough to turn you back into a child. The little fish escapes from her father's undersea fortress and rides to the top of the ocean on a squid, with hypnotic orchestral music pushing her up. It's the style of the Ghibli films that really impresses. The best hand-drawn animation you'll ever see, and the score turning everything into a fuzzy dream. In this case the plot is nothing special, but it doesn't seem to matter when there's tsunami-riding five year olds and piles of moon-pulled ships stacked against the horizon. Ponyo meets Sōsuke but is then taken back into the sea by Liam Neeson. Her enterprising attempts to get back to the boy causes a tsunami to drown the coastal town. At this point Sōsuke's massively irresponsible mother decides to drive through the storm to her hilltop house, almost killing her son a few times. She then leaves him there on his own and goes back to work. It's a good thing he's got a magic fish girl for company. She turns his toy boat into a proper one and they go sailing together.

It's hard not to spend a whole day watching this stuff. My Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle - these are films that need to be watched. All with an obvious Japanese identity but a universal wonderfulness. There's a Ghibli collection to be started. There's things I haven't seen - Princess Mononoke, Kiki's Delivery Service. The problem is that the DVD boxes are numbered one to seventeen. My instincts tell me I need all of them - they're numbered - but common sense tells me I only want a few. Six. Maybe seven. In order.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

The Other Guys: They were so convincing in their argument

The mildly interesting thing about The Other Guys isn't that it's a pretty boring comedy, it's that it's trying to make some sort of point. Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg playing a pair of useless cops are likeable enough, and they'd get away with it if they were in a better film. The problem's that they're not doing anything fun. Investigating a dodgy financial scheme doesn't sound like great comedy, and it isn't. The Other Guys wants to tell us something about the excess of capitalism and the crimes of the rich few, but doesn't present it in a solid enough way. It's dull, cold, verging on complicated. The end credits even start giving a lecture on corporate finance. There's pie charts and everything. And I'm still not getting it, because all I wanted was a comedy about buddy cops. The crime-fighting heroes that are killed off at the start - Samuel L. Jackson and The Rock - are more entertaining than the 'other guys'. It's a shame they jumped off a roof. If it's saying that the people who do the 'daily grind' are more important, try to make them more important. Overall, there's bits of funny in a pile of 'meh'. Ferrell's character doing his first 'desk pop', the tips for school children, and most things Steve Coogan says. A lot of it is like the 'Female Body Inspector' mug Wahlberg throws out the car window, and being asked 'You can see why it's funny right?'.

Don't just take my word for it though, because a lot of other people think differently. Now, I'd think opinion on this film could only reasonably range from 'bad' to 'kind of okay', but there's some people going going a bit mad. One critic calls it an 'insanely funny film', five out of five. There's a quote for the poster. Another takes the risky approach of saying 'send me the bill if you don't laugh'. One decides to be impossible wordy: 'an angrier or more lucid breakdown of the grubby malfeasance of the stripy-shirted masters of the self-designated masters of the universe has yet to be made'. No, I don't know what that means either. If I could, I would raise one eyebrow at the broadsheet critic who used the word 'masterpiece' in his review.  The majority stay sane and say something along the lines of 'yeah, it's okay, but is this the best we can do these days?' If all of these opinions are honest, they're completely valid. Maybe I'm just getting grumpy. If there was a RottenTomatoes for blogs though, it would tell a different story.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Buried: There's no need to be rude, sir

Buried in his box, Paul is having a bad time. He has a lighter and a phone and not much leg room. This is such a simple, powerful idea that I'm surprised it hasn't been done before. Setting a film inside an underground coffin, and watching somebody trying to get out. It's high concept stuff, and forces the director to be particularly creative with angles and lighting. There's the small flame of the lighter, the blue glare of the phone screen. Sometimes it's just dark. And Ryan Reynolds does a good job of convincing us that, yes, this really is very unpleasant. He negotiates with people on the phone, who put him on hold and hang up on him for being rude. All the time running out of oxygen and battery life. It's a film that asks how tension can be maintained in the space of a box, how many ideas there can be in a few yards of wood. At one point there's a snake in there, so that's good. The rest is cramped, frantic, suffocating blindness. It doesn't pull any punches. This character really is being buried alive. And it's not a short film. It keeps going and going and he's still not made it out - a sort of real-time nightmare. There's a surprising political edge to it too. Paul is a truck driver, ambushed in Iraq and being held for ransom. He wonders if anyone really cares about finding him, and argues with his captors about the war and the nature of terrorism. Which isn't really helping his situation, but he does it anyway.

Buried is an interesting film experiment, and it works. It works so well that it all comes down to this: only watch it if you want to feel quite upset afterwards. The script is expertly cruel. Films don't usually want to torment you this much. You'll hate the sight of the filmmakers. They are not to be trusted. It's all their fault, after all. They were very mean to this character, and if they weren't so good at it I'd stay angry.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Frost/Nixon: The Oscars and something about ice cream

There are some things that happened before I was born, and I know very little about most of them. So it's nice when a film can teach you something. Frost/Nixon, for example, teaches me that Richard Nixon really did have a strange voice, and that David Frost wasn't always old. These interviews are the sort of the thing that pop up on mundane 'Best of All Television' compilations, but it seems they're actually more interesting than that. The fact that I know next to nothing about seventies American politics and still enjoyed the film is important. It can just be about the drama of two men sitting in chairs talking about important things. At least, it is eventually, because Frost has to be propped up to ask the good questions. He doesn't do any work for the first few recordings, so it doesn't go very well. He wakes up eventually and handily stumbles across a vital piece of evidence that everyone else had missed. Then he's won. He leans forward and says all the right things to make Nixon crumble. Frost/Nixon is the sort of the film that's good in a very boring way. The script is expertly structured. The performances are excellent. The direction is polished. It's a very good film when you think about it, but not worth getting exciting about. It was nominated for five Oscars but didn't win any of them, losing to films that were just a bit more exciting. An analogy could come in handy here, but I can't think of any. Imagine you're eating ice cream. It's very nice ice cream and technically excellent. But then there's other ice cream that comes with strawberry sauce and colourful sprinkles, and has an emotional third act. You enjoyed all the ice cream but would probably only ask for the second one again.

What was I writing about? The Oscars, yes. On that subject, it is very rude to play the music over Aaron Sorkin. He can talk for as long as he wants to. It is also very rude to call The King's Speech the 'best picture', when it clearly isn't. The King's Speech is the first sort of ice cream. There were other films with all the toppings. Ah well, I'm sure everyone had a nice time.