Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Being Human: UK's answer to Buffy?

9AB937BD-EE4E-4249-B928-880E5536D6C7.jpgSeason 2 of Being Human started a couple of weeks ago on BBC3. As the title suggests it's about what it means to be human. The irony is its three main characters are anything but. A vampire, werewolf and ghost to be precise. At this point you've probably already decided whether or not this programme is for you. Much like musicals, sci-fi/fantasy shows have limited cross-over appeal. However, to me judging a show purely on its premise, is as silly as judging a person purely on their appearance.

(Minor spoilers for season 1 in this paragraph)
So if it's not just a fantasy show: what is it? Well really it's a show about the relationships between the three housemates at the centre of the piece. The fantasy elements acting as metaphors for issues people deal with in real life. 503BC7E9-6856-47D1-BC87-F308637B28AE.jpg In the first season we saw the vampire, Mitchell, coping with his lust [for blood] and whether he can have, or even deserves, redemption for sins of the past. The werewolf was trying to form a relationship with someone, but keeping his 'disease' secret kept pushing her further away. Finally, the ghost was dealing with a break-up: having to cope with the fact she can no longer be her fiance on account of her lack of a pulse. However, we later learnt she'd idolised her relationship with him, and chosen to forget certain memories too painful to consider.

Serious Stuff.

CBCC9D31-E3B9-4422-A028-2B5BC2AFBDE3.jpgDespite these rich, tough themes, the show is also very funny. The 'odd couple' (or 'odd trio') nature of the premise providing for plenty of comic moments. This mixture of humour and deceptive depth reminds me a lot of the aforementioned Buffy. That show was a master of making you laugh one second, then shocking you the next: welcoming you into a world of brilliant, likeable characters with great rapport, then shooting you through the heart with a tragedy or misfortune. Although Being Human is a lot darker than Buffy ever was, it still holds true to that formula.

Season 2 Episodes 1-3 are available on iPlayer now. If what I've described sounds interesting to you, please check it out:

Or if you have a lovefilm account season 1 is here:

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Film School: Shonen

4504C599-D069-4A14-A684-86FC6D8F7E92.jpgThis week's film is a Japanese one called Shonen, which translated into French means 'garçon'. It's about a boy who's parents get him to fake accidents with cars in order to win compensation. Based on a true story, the family goes from city to city defrauding innocent drivers - playing on their guilt for hitting a helpless child.

It's shot in quite a unique way: the camera rarely moves in a scene, giving a feeling of uneasy separation from the characters it portrays. We discussed at film class this might be because normally it's very easy to sympathise with child characters in movies, and by giving the viewer this 'distance' it allows them to genuinely bond with the boy as oppose to a more instant, superficial connection.

The 'boy' in question is literally called that by his parents, giving you a sense of the relationship between him and his father/step-mother. Despite this mistreatment, he always plays his fraudulent role exceedingly well, faking injuries, pain and anger with seemingly little or no effort. One of the movie's strengths is showing the viewer how quickly children pick up the habits and morality of their parents.

65F8AA7A-A892-48B4-A93F-11C35D4F0DD4.jpgWhere as a lot of movies nowadays show cruelty by children as a result of a broken society (City of God, Let The Right One In, etc.), Shonen has a much more simple explanation for its lead character's lack of morality, and one that is much easier to understand and empathise with. It's his parent's fault.

The end of the movie gives the boy some hope as events allow him to see the impact of what he's doing, and force him to reconsider the life he and his parents have been living for such a long time. This kind of thinking gives the character a maturity beyond his years, and despite the overall bleakness of the movie, we are left with hope that the main character may not repeat the mistakes of his parents in the future.

Shonen is not available on DVD. However, you can read a list of director Nagisa Ôshima's other films on DVD here: http://www.lovefilm.com/browse/contributor/96561/Nagisa_Oshima.html . Certainly "Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence", starring none other than David Bowie must be worth a look...

Next week I'll be watching a French movie directed by Jean Luc Goddard: Slow Motion

Thursday, 21 January 2010

What I've Been Watching - Films on DVD - January

C4085FF8-C8DD-4317-992B-9CE348D6711F.jpgSunshine Cleaning (2009)
Sunshine Cleaning is a film by the producers that brought you 2006's Little Miss Sunshine. It tells the story of two sisters, played by Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, who start their own company cleaning houses after suicides, murders, or generally gruesome deaths.

The film very much sticks to the same formula that made Little Miss Sunshine a success: humour, darkness, family, and Alan Arkin. The problem is it's not as good. If you're going to market a movie on the success of the first, you need to either make it different enough that it's not fair to compare them, or so great that it doesn't matter.

It's a pity, because there is a lot to like. The performances of Amy Adams and Emily Blunt are superb, and they give a lot of depth to the two leads. It's well written and it's also nice to see a movie with female leads that's not a romantic comedy/horror. The balance between dark subject matter and humour is well navigated, and the idea of death being difficult to clean-up works as a good metaphor for what's happened in each of the characters' lives.

In summation: "a difficult second album".

79B47434-8070-4010-9971-48A58D360C5D.jpgPi (1998)
Pi is directed by Darren Aronofsky and is his first foray into the world of film. The main character, Max, is a mathematician who believes patterns exist not only in nature, but society. He aims to prove this by finding a pattern in the stock market.

It's impossible to talk about the film without mentioning the way it's shot. Told entirely from the lead's point of view: it's in black and white, uses strange camera angles, slow frame rates, and dream sequences with brains. All of this is designed to show us how the main character sees the world: distorted, intense but with an underlying order he can't quite grasp.

The movie does a good job of showing the madness and obsession of genius: the protagonist can be viewed as either entirely delusional or as someone who is really close to grasping a reality no one else can see.

The movie succeeds in a lot of ways, however, as someone who knows a bit about maths, it annoyed me that the maths used was so broad and da-Vinci-code-like. As a consequence, the film failed to convince me of the protagonist's genius, and allowed me only to see his madness and obsession. It almost pains me to say that a much less ambitious film, A Beautiful Mind, did a better job of keeping this balance.

5C8A8F05-14C6-42D3-8B4D-A90CC3727B4D.jpgSideways (2006)
Sideways stars Paul Giamatti as a middle-aged divorcee who is going to be best man for his old college friend, played by Thomas Hayden Church. Before Giamatti gets married, they go off for a weekend together in Tuscan, where one wants to drink wine and play golf, and the other to "sow his wild oats" while he still can.

Sideways is a movie which has a lot going for it: the script, characters and story are all work together to produce a believable world that's easy to become invested in. Giamatti gives a faultless performance of pain, regret and longing as he allows us to root for his character despite the idiosyncrasies and pretension he displays.

If the film has any faults, it's that it's best scene is half-way through the movie. Those of you who have seen the movie will remember the point where Giamatti compares himself to Pinot Noir. After that, I felt as though the film almost ran out of things to say - That scene gives us everything we need to know about his character, and tells us everything about the relationship that is about to develop. Action movies normally save their best set-piece until last, given this is a 'conversation' movie, it's a pity it didn't do the same.

Despite what I considered a mis-step, I still really enjoyed the movie, and I'm sure I'll revisit its rich, developed characters at some point in the future.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Film School: Chinatown

7D751665-38B2-469D-A572-DBD34CAB21D2.jpgOn Wednesday, I started an evening course at Edinburgh University called "Talking Film". The format of the course if fairly simple: you watch a film and then discuss it with one another at the 2-hour class. The lecturer leads the discussion, and shows the clip from the film itself, as well as other clips relevant to its genre/stars/director. Over the next ten weeks, I'll try and review each of the ten films I'll be watching.

This week's film was Roman Polawski's Chinatown. The plot of the film concerns Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a P.I. in the 50's. He's hired to investigate the affairs of a city employee, Hollis Mulwray. Things get complicated when Mulwray dies and Gittes feels compelled to find out who killed him and why.

70EB62C6-8FB2-4056-BA8E-C4851819586D.jpgChinatown borrows heavily from the tropes of Film Noir: a male lead with few ties, a femme fatale, and a dark mystery to be solved. However, without spoiling anything, the resolution to the film's plot manages to make it much more than a simple detective story.

When I watched the movie on Sunday, I was impressed without being blown away: it's a very well-paced and plotted movie and the nature of the genre means there's always something going on to keep you interested. Nevertheless, while an excellent example of film noir, I don't feel like it does anything for the genre that hasn't been done elsewhere.

I would compare my feelings about it to something like Shawshank Redemption: an excellently plotted, tight movie that's easy to like but will never rock the foundations of cinema.

1663193C-0E24-4E30-8EF8-9CE887B24E62.jpgThere are a number of reasons I feel this way. One is that the photography lacks a 'cinematic quality'- the film could easily be adapted for the stage without losing much in the translation. In addition, the plot and characters could almost be considered 'too tight': every action and conversation can be brought back to a specific motivation or event. You're not given the impression there's anything else going on in these characters lives aside from the occurrences we see or hear about in the film.

However, perhaps the main reason I don't hold in such high regard is that I'm just not big a fan of detective stories in general. I've seen enough episodes of Jonathan Creek, Midsomer Murders and Scooby Doo to know that one of the people you meet will be the killer, and most of the time you could spin a wheel to decide who it is. This 'predictable unpredictability' (X killed Y because of event Z we couldn't possibly have known anything about) leaves me with a feeling of being cheated. Chinatown may not be quite so convoluted, but perhaps the feeling of inevitability this genre gives me meant I wasn't as involved in the story as others can allow themselves to be.

I'll conclude by saying I probably enjoyed Chinatown more than the criticism in this post implies. I'd certainly recommend it for fans of the genre, but even beyond that I find it difficult to see anyone not getting something from what is a very well-made, carefully executed film. However, if like me, you're not a fan of the genre, don't expect to be overwhelmed.

If you're interested, the films that have been chosen for discussion at this class are:
1. Chinatown
2. Shonen
3. Slow Motion
4. Vagabond
5. Meantime
6. Eyes Wide Shut
7. Do the Right Thing
8. Battle in Heaven
9. McCabe and Mrs Miller
10. Chungking Express

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Trailer for "Treme" - New TV Show By Creator Of The Wire

Treme is the new show from David Simon, creator of The Wire. It's set in New Orleans in the weeks and months following Katrina, and will star The Wire's Wendell Pierce (Bunk) & Clarke Peters (Freamon), as well as John Goodman and Steve Zahn. The show will be based around the jazz routes of the city, as you'll get a flavour of in the teaser trailer below:

The show will debut in April in the US. For UK viewers, hopefully that'll mean the DVDs are available by the end of the year.

Monday, 11 January 2010

What I've Been Watching: Cinema - January

8A88EBB6-0122-4848-B4F9-7740B7486308.jpgSherlock Holmes
This movie has 'disaster' written all over it. Guy Ritchie, a man who hasn't made a good movie for about ten years at the helm; a seemingly dumb-downed Holmes, more likely to use his fists than his brains to outfox opponents; and, clearly taking a leaf of out Michael Bay's book- stuff blows up. A lot.

Yet, would you adam and eve it - Sherlock Holmes is actually quite watchable? In fact I'd go so far as to say 'good'. Perhaps even 'very good'. As it happens, I'm just going to stick out my neck and say 'Guy Ritchie' for 'best director' at the oscars. Too far? Yeah, it probably is...

F990A93D-497E-4961-B7E4-57B94285AFBB.jpg Sherlock Holmes succeeds because Ritchie managed to identify a winning formula for the series: its central relationship. Much like The Damned United, the partnership between the lead and their assistant is played like a marriage. Holmes, the genius with a tendency to go in over his head; Watson, his reluctant, more down-to-earth sidekick. They quarrel, they quibble; they get jealous; they sigh; yet they can't stay apart for very long without realising their need for one and another.

The rest of the film does its job: the plot, the side characters and the visuals all do an adequate job of filling in the gaps when Holmes and Watson aren't on screen. However, this is a love story. And a beautiful one at that.

B6F12541-7D89-4A84-AC05-A30BBC1A8E2C.jpgThe Road
The Road, is based on the book by Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men). It tells the story of a father and son who have survived the end of civilisation and are heading south to the coast, to avoid the cold winters that have accompanied the recent apocalypse.

I came to this movie having read the book, and therefore the bleakness of the piece probably didn't impact as much as if I had come to it fresh. Unlike most films of this genre, there is little hope, little trust, and little humanity left. The world has changed for the worse, and it'll never ever go back to the way things were.

The result of this reality can clearly be seen in Mortensen's character. He banks everything on his son. He will do anything to protect him - that means taking no risks and trusting literally no one else. He will 'carry the fire' and pass it onto his son. He will remain a 'good guy'.

The Road is one of the most remarkable, and interesting books I've ever read. It's unapologetic bleakness was hard going at first, but drew me in with its central relationship between the father and son. It's impossible for any film to convey all of that emotion in the short space of two hours. The Road is a great adaptation, but it can never be as important a movie, as McCarthy's book is a literary piece.

"In a world ruled by vampires...."
Daybreakers takes the above premise and runs with it. The human race is close to extinction. Vampires are the dominant species. However, on the surface not much has changed: people still go to work (at night obviously), they eat, and they still drink coffee (now with 5% blood). As the story opens the human race's dwindling population means the supply of the red stuff is running out: the race is on the find a synthetic replacement, or succumb to the realities of the predator-prey model.

Daybreakers reminds me a lot of The Matrix. Like that film it's a fairly unique premise directed by brothers who are newcomers to the business. We also see a main character trying to understand what it means to be human, what it means to be free. The shot of the human farm factory on the movie's poster will also remind viewers of a similarly stark image in the Wachowski's 1999 feature.

It has the underpinnings of a very good, smart movie: a rich, well-constructed world, with characters that have interesting dilemmas set before them. Nevertheless, it lacks the finesse and vision to see its story through: some plot points seem unnecessary, or at the very least underdeveloped. (Sam Neill's daughter I'm looking at you)

None of these problems make Daybreakers a bad movie: it's easy to watch, intelligent when it needs to be, and scary at the right times. However, there seem to be some key scenes that would otherwise have made it a classic of the genre. Overall, I'd say it's a film that will please fans of the vampire genre without really winning any new converts.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Glee: the new High School Musical?

6CE73551-9004-4BAA-A4B0-9D570D7719D0.jpgGlee is a new musical comedy, which arrives on British television screens this Monday at 9pm on E4. The plot concerns a small group of high school misfits who join the "Glee Club" in order to perform song and dance routines to as big an audience as possible. Comparisons to High School Musical are easily made beyond even the basic premise. Its lead, henceforth known as 'NotTroy', is the quarterback for the school football team, who wants to perform on stage, even though his teammates have other ideas. The female lead, 'NotSharpay', is willing to do anything to take centre stage, and doesn't care who she stamps on along the way. Add to this the OTT dialogue and caricatures of high schoolers taken from every teen drama ever to grace our screens, and Glee seems like a show unashamedly jumping on the success of the HSM phenomenon.

1B361BA2-5984-4702-82A2-529C4C841FEF.jpgHowever, to dismiss it as a HSM clone is to misunderstand its target audience. After the titles role, and the plot starts kicking in, you quickly realise this is not a show aimed at 8-12 year old tweens. Perhaps this is best summarised by a teacher being fired right at the start of the episode for 'improper misconduct' with a pupil. Later in the episode, we see accused teacher now making a living selling marijuana- Hardly the stuff of Disney Channel movies. Then again, what else should be expect from the creator of Nip/Tuck?

395DC6C5-FC30-4545-A89E-6C7C9B1A8F88.jpgTrying to describe these two aspects of Glee makes it something of a hard-sell. It's not as rude or crude as the puppet musical, Avenue Q. Then again, neither is it as innocent or cheery as High School Musical. As such, you can only really understand the tone of the show by watching it. Having done just that, I felt like I was enjoying it fine as it went through the gears and set-up storylines for the rest of the season. The music was fun, the characters were enjoyable to watch, with just enough depth to keep me interested. Then the final number happened. Unexpectedly, my eyes got a little moist (Admittedly, by no means an uncommon occurrence). Somehow the show and its characters got under my skin and I didn't even realise it. So much so that for the rest of the day I was humming all the songs from the episode. You see, like all good musicals, Glee works on the strength of the songs: its ability to summarise all the emotions of a storyline in one 2-minute number. As such, the first episode at least was a complete success.

If you are a fan of musicals, Glee is surely must-see television. I feel like the harmonies, dancing and arrangements will only improve as the weeks go by. If you're not a fan of musicals (i.e. dead inside), I'd still advise checking it out, since it's mix of humour and quirkiness make it a lot more watchable than the average teen drama: Just try not to be too embarrassed when you end up humming Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" for the rest of the week.

E4 have put the entire first episode of Glee online now for you to view. So if you wanna get a sneak preview of the show click on the link below:
http://www.channel4.com/programmes/glee/4od (UK Residents Only)

What I've Been Watching (Television) - January

One of my favourite podcasts is slashfilm: a podcast hosted by self-confessed movies geeks. One feature they have on the show is "What We've Been Watching" and I've borrowed that ingeniously simple idea for this blog in what will hopefully be a regular feature.

So without further ado, here's some thoughts on the television I've been watching over the past few weeks:

Doctor Who: The End of Time

BA043CB1-9471-4691-92FD-70BC24262B3A.jpgDavid Tennant's well publisized exit took place over the holiday period. The story saw The Doctor team up with Donna's grandfather, Wilfred, to do battle with the resurrected Master.

For me, the episodes were a triumph. A minor quibble would be that the first instalment lacking a completeness that previous episodes broadcast on the same day managed. Like Christmas day movies, there was always something nice about watching a complete adventure with The Doctor, and then being able to switch it off and feel all was right with the world. As such, it would have been nice if the second part had been broadcast on Boxing Day, to give us a sense of imminent closure on the episode. I think what the writers were going for was more a two-part season finale feel, and if viewed simply as that, it worked.

Putting this trivial issue aside, I thought the reason the episode worked so well was the choice of the Doctor's assistant. Having Wilfred at his side was a complete masterstroke. So much so, you forget how little screen time they'd had together previously.

We've seen the writers misstep in the past in this regard. And by this I'm referring to none other than Martha Jones. Creating a Rose-clone for the Doctor to spend time with, merely reminded us of everything we loved about Piper in the role. As such, the show lacked a freshness the previous two seasons had. Donna, although annoying at first, was an incredibly clever move. It was great to see how the Doctor reacted to a different dynamic, and having someone loud and obnoxious to counter his intelligence, wit, (and arrogance) made the show a lot more enticing in its fourth 'season'.

In the combination of The Doctor and Donna's grandfather, we saw two characters with real history in their souls, who had been through hardships and knew their story was approaching its final chapters. That shared bond had an incredibly profound impact on this two-part story. The conversations between the two of them crackling with energy and foreboding.

Clearly this was what the writers were aiming for, since despite all the loud bangs, and flashing lights, this bond was at the centre of the Tennant's final exit. An entirely fitting way for the tenth doctor to leave the show.

Gavin and Stacey (Season 3)

4EEC3A73-071F-4F72-8F85-273789651EF4.jpgI can't decide whether this comes under the category of 'guilty pleasure' or genuinely well-written comedy. Less laugh-out-loud moments than a programme like "The Royle Family". A show, incidentally, it owes an awful lot to. Then again, unlike most comedies, its characters are much more rounded, and as such you are a lot more invested in them. I also felt it was a series that rewarded regular viewing with plenty of references and on-going subplots threaded into its run.

It's ironic (or perhaps entirely intentional) that the two characters after whom the show is named are the least interesting. They live a fairytale romance with storylines that leave little doubt about their future together. It's Smithy and Nessa, played by the shows' creators, that have the best lines, moments and arcs throughout the series. These two characters are its heart and soul, and hopefully their real-life counterparts, James Corden and Ruth Jones, will continue their writing partnership in the future.

Gavin & Stacey started as a small show on BBC3, and finished its run on New Year's Day on BBC1. I think its almost-universal appeal comes from the central bond between all its characters: they look out for each other, love spending time together, and as such, you actually want to spend time with them. Gavin and Stacey was never going to be a ground-breaking show, but it should be commended for its simplicity and warmth in a genre increasing dominated by cynicism, and unlikable leads.

Peep Show (Season 2)

644F087C-2469-4207-B3FB-2ABB86D2C738.jpgSpeaking of unlikable leads, I wouldn't normally mention a show that's been out for five years, and fairly well-known. However, the whole series (seasons 1 to 6) is available on 4od here:

http://www.channel4.com/programmes/peep-show/4od (UK Residents only)

If you've never watched the show about two guys in their late 20s/early 30s. Its uniqueness comes from the fact that most of its episodes take place from Mark and Jeremy's point of view. As such, we always know what they're thinking. The insights we get are excruciatingly honest (imagine someone could hear every single thought that crossed your mind), yet funny and (mostly) endearing at the same time.

Peep Show is not for the faint of heart (it does nothing to dispel the idiom that guys only think about one thing) However, beneath its crude exterior lies a very funny and insightful show.

Coming Up Next: Expect A "What I've Been Watching: Film" Post in the near future, as well as a preview of Glee, a new American Musical Comedy Show, which premieres on E4 next week.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Top 5 Television Seasons of 2009

The last of my top fives for a while, this concerns what I consider the television highlights for 2009. Unlike film, it's impossible to come close to watching everything that comes on, so this list is by no means definitive. My only rule for doing this was that the show must have been broadcast somewhere on British television this year. As such, I've had to include one honourable mention below for a show broadcast in America this year, but which has still not been picked up beyond its first season by any network in the UK.

I think it's also worth mentioning my biggest disappointment for the year: and that's the final season of Battlestar Galactica. At the start of last year this would have been top of a hypothetical Most Anticipated Shows of 2009 list. And, while I enjoyed it fine at the time, over the year I've come to appreciate just how big a disappointment the finale was.  It failed to adequately answer a lot of questions, and threw away important themes that had been set-up through out its previous seasons. However, my disappointment for the finale and season can be adequately summed up with one word: Starbuck.

Anyway, enough with the negatives, let's talk about the positives:

Honourable Mention:
Friday Night Lights: Season 3 (DVD: Region 1 only)

Not only has this not been broadcast in the UK, only season 1 of it is available on Region 2 DVD. Such is my love of the show, I've imported the last two seasons from America in order to watch it. It's such a pity so few people watch this show. I actually think this will be a show people discover over time, and hope it gets the audience it deserves as word gets around about it over time. (Much like that HBO show based in Baltimore).  Season 3 was the end of an era, as most of the characters we've come to love were graduating high school.  This season was, in my opinion, the best so far, as the audience and writers know all the characters so well the storylines really hit home.  Tyra's arc this season (and in the series as a whole) was a real highlight for me: summed up by my tears of joy/sadness/emotion when she writes her application letter for college.  The season ended on an unexpected cliff-hanger, which I'm certain will give the show a great lease of life when it returns.

5. Torchwood: Children of the Earth (BBC 1)
Torchwood finally reached its potential with this 5 episode mini-series. Season 1 started poorly, but picked up a little towards the end. Season 2 understood better that making an 'adult' version of Doctor Who doesn't mean having to have lots of swearing and sex. This story gave it the room to come up with the kind of haunting, bleak story Doctor Who could never attempt. A brilliantly paced story with a great mix of action, horror and drama. I hope they can continue that kind of form when it returns for a full season, presumably at the end of this year.

4. Mad Men Season 2 (BBC 4)
An incredibly well-written show which can so much with so little. It's hard to describe why a show about an advertising agency in the 60s is so watchable. Perhaps it's because the characters constantly surprise you without acting "out of character". An episode can give you just one scene with a character that totally changes the view you've had of them for the past two seasons. (One scene from The Golden Violin comes to mind). If you're a fan of shows like The West Wing and The Wire you should definitely check it out.

3. Lost - Season 5 (Sky One)
(Spoilers for the end of Season 4)
The show that never stops getting stranger. This season our lostees were not only lost on an island but lost in time. It's crazy that they never introduced us to the time-travelling elements of this show, but thankfully the writers have taught us to expect the unexpected and I feel as though these elements really paid off. The Variable, my personal fave, summed up how well the writers could use this new dimension to create great moments of drama. As normal, the season ended on a cliff-hanger. Only this one is so big, I literally have no idea what season 6 will be about. It starts again in about four weeks and I can't wait.

2. Dollhouse - Seasons 1 & 2 (Sci-Fi UK)
(Spoilers for season 1 ahead)
It's strange to think that a year ago, I hadn't even seen one episode of this show. Like Torchwood (and Buffy and Firefly) it got off to a shaky start. The procedural nature of the early episodes not suiting the stories its creator, Joss Whedon, has become known for. Since about half-way through the first season, however, its become an incredible show. Not least because of the ground-breaking Epitaph One: which showed us a startling version of the not-so-distant-future our protagonists helped create. That episode has really propelled the second season of the show, where we see the characters make the seemingly innocuous choices that will lead to the end of civilisation as they know it. A show which really rewards second viewing since the writers sow a lot of seeds early on that they pay off later. Like Firefly, I think this will be a show only appreciated after it has stopped airing at the end of this month.

1. The Thick of It - Season 3 (BBC 2)
I had heard the The Thick of It was really worth watching, but just never got round to watching it. So when the film In the Loop, which is based on the series came out, I thought I'd better check it out. I wasn't disappointed. Its blend of political satire, awkwardness and strangely poetic swearing won my over. So much so, that the film is definitely my favourite comedy of 2009. The third season started in October, and I wish I'd watched from the start. In the age of MPs expenses, its dark take on the inner workings of politics feels all the more pertinent. The episode where they appear on Five Live was a personal favourite: with joy turning to anguish and back to joy for the two parties and their MPs at every turn.  When Tucker and his Conservative rival clash at the end, the blend of machoism and insecurity was one of the best written pieces of drama I've seen.  That scene superbly sums up why the show works: despite big personas, the characters are written as real people, meaning the dramatic moments hit home just as well as the comedic ones.

Oh and if you're interested my top five most anticipated shows of 2009 would be:
5. Breaking Bad (Seasons 1&2 - I've yet to see either)

4. Glee 
3. Doctor Who 
2. The Pacific
1. Lost

Monday, 4 January 2010

Top 5 Most Anticipated Movies of 2010

Another day, another top five. This time it's about movies not yet released. This list, unlike the others, is very much my inner fanboy coming out to play. I have no idea what the quality of these movies will be, but I do know the excitement I feel when thinking about their release.

5. Inception
This film is directed by Christopher Nolan (Dark Knight, Prestige, Memento) so it makes the list for that reason alone. The plot isn't that clear as yet, but its tagline: "Your Mind is the Scene of the Crime" implies this will be a psychological thriller where it's not always clear what reality is. It also makes me think Nolan will also exploring the true intent of his characters' actions: the strongest theme in his work to date.
I'll let you try and make sense of the trailer:

4. Kick Ass
Directed by Matthew Vaughn, who worked with Guy Ritchie on Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels then Snatch before going on to direct Layer Cake and the excellent Stardust by himself. Kick-Ass concerns a group of have-a-go-superheroes without any actual superpowers. Among them is the incredibly violent Hit-Girl: played by twelve-year old Chloe Moretz. I think you get a good sense of the mix of violence and humour from the pre-watershed trailer:

As well as the 18-rated post-watershed trailer which introduces you to Hit-Girl, and as such contains very strong language, so NSFW:

3. Up in The Air
I spoke last week about my love for the trailer of this movie. Having listened to the film's director Jason Reitman (Thank You For Smoking, Juno) talk about this project, as well as film critics in America, I can't wait to see it. George Clooney plays a character who's job it is to fire people. He spends most of his life in hotel rooms and airports doing his best to make connections, so long as they aren't human. Zing! - One day I will write trailer monologues:

In a world of connections, Ryan is doing his make to make some - cut to him making a flight - and avoid others - cut to him making excuse after leaving a woman in a hotel room.

Thankfully they didn't hire me to do the trailer, and made this wonderful one instead:

2. Toy Story 3
I've heard Toy Story 1 & 2 described as "The Godfather" of animated movies: an amazing first feature followed by an even better sequel. Here's hoping the third one doesn't turn out to be like the ill-judged Godfather Part 3 then. The film opens with Andy going off to college, so the toys are taken to a day-care centre. Once there, the unbridled chaos of dozens of little toddlers leads them to plot their escape. Pixar's last three movies have all been in my top five of their respective years. They've succeeded, because unlike the Shreks of the animated world, they realise that making adult-friendly films goes beyond making smutty jokes that go over kids heads (Do you think he's maybe compensating for something?). It's about story. Here's the trailer:

1. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
Scott Pilgrim is based on a comic book series by Bryan Lee O'Malley and directed by Edgar Wright (Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz). It tells the story of 23-year-old Scott Pilgrim who's in the post-uni, pre-work stage of life. His life changes when he meets Ramona Flowers, literally the girl of his dreams. Mixing action, music and pop-culture references, this is one of my favourite comics ever. I'm super-excited about seeing the film, which stars Michael Cera as the lead, and also includes a grown-up Kieran Culkin as his totally platonic gay-bedmate.
There's no trailer for the movie yet, so you'll have to make do with Edgar Wright's description of the film, interspersed with sword-fighting from the cast:

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Change of Blog Title

I started writing this blog a week or so with the intention of doing my top fives of the decade and year and then stopping. In previous years, I had posted these on facebook, but since I knew the posts I wanted to do would take at least two hours to write, thought I'd open it up to a slightly wider audience.

The feedback from speaking to friends has been positive enough that I'll hopefully continue to update this blog on a semi-regular basis (by which I mean a few times every month). My intention is to post about anything interesting I've seen recently on the big or small screen. Whether that be trailers, movies, episodes/seasons of TV, or cats playing pianos with their tails.

As such this blog will hence forth be known as:
"You can observe a lot by just watching"

If you're interested the quote is from Yogi Berra a baseball player/coach who was known for coming up with some of the most well-known sporting cliches/paradoxes. "It ain't over til it's over" being the most well-known.

The URL for the site will remain the same:

Bonus points for the first person to tell me where I got the phrase "those who are dumber" from.

Paul Thomas Anderson: My Favourite Director?

When it comes to naming famous directors, I don't think many in the general public would go for p t anderson.  Spielberg, Cameron, Eastwood, Scorsese, or Ridley Scott are all names that resonate with the public. In fact if I were to mention the name Anderson, people would probably think I was referring to the director of Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Life Aquatic. Or even worse the director of Resident Evil and Alien vs. Predator.

I guess if you're reading this article, there's every chance you're in the same camp as the great unwashed. None of his films have made hundreds of millions at the box office. In fact, his namesake, Paul W.S. Anderson, has made more money with his last three by-the-numbers movies, than p t anderson has with his five great ones.

Nevertheless, two of his films, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, I would certainly put in my top ten movies of all time. The emotions I get from watching those two features are unlike anything any other films give me: the worlds Anderson creates are so unique and enchanting that I can't help but be sucked in. For me there's two big reasons that his movies are so watchable:

1. His ability to create a fable-like world without traditional fantasy elements
If you take directors like Tim Burton or Guillermo del Toro: the fairy-tale like worlds they create are obvious from the first frame. Their use of colour, creature/character-design and set-design leave you in no doubt that this is a world unlike our own. Anderson's movies also exist in a world unlike our own: they contain coincedences, and inexplicable events that subtly reveal to the viewer this is not trying to show us reality in its truest form. Examples of this include the "Wise Up" musical scene in Magnolia; The appearance of the harmonium in Punch Drunk Love; and although There Will Be Blood has less-obvious signs: the inclusion of a Eli's twin, Paul at the start of the movie, and the way neither of the main characters age at all in the final chapter also point towards this tale being outside of our own reality.

2. His use of music
Despite rarely using the same composer, the soundtrack to each of his films has its own feeling. There's a sense of enchantment yet underlying sadness about them. In creating his 'fables', the music plays a very important part in bringing the viewer into these strange yet emotionally-charaged worlds.

I'm now going to go through each of his movies and explain what makes them so special. The excpetion will be There Will Be Blood which I feel I've convered extensively in this blog: coming top of my movies of 2008 and movies of the decade.

Hard Eight (a.k.a. Sydney)
Based on a chapter from Cigarettes and Alcohol, this tells this story of Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) meeting John (John C. Reilly) and mentoring him in how to make money from casinos. Like Punch Drunk Love, this is a much smaller, more intimate movie. It features a lot of Anderson's trademarks: long scenes of dialogue, and a 'moment': A moment that forces the movie to shift gears abruptly and move in a completely new direction. It also features Reilly, Hoffman, Hall and Melora Waters, who would each have roles in Anderson's next two movies. A small, well-told story of trust and redemption.

Boogie Nights
Boogie Nights tells the rise and fall of Dirk Diggler, a porn star in the 1970s. From a film-making standpoint this is a very good movie. The introductory shot does an incredible job of not only introducing the mood and feel of the time the movie is set in, but also in showing you the main characters and where they're at as the story begins. Something, narratively, many movies can take about twenty minutes to achieve. The fact it's all in one take gives it an energy and vitality that make it one of my favourite openings to any movie.
If you skip to 1 minute in the clip below, you can watch the scene in question. The opening shot ends at about 4 minutes, with the first shot of Dirk (Mark Wahlberg)

Despite wonderful moments like this, for me the subject-matter had a big impact on my enjoyment of the movie. Films must keep the viewer engaged in the world, and I felt there were times I couldn't engross myself with the characters and story because of the nature of its content. For this reason alone it's my least favourite of Anderson's movies.

Magnolia tells about ten stories, which all interweave. Common themes of disappointment, family and forgiveness all feature strongly in a movie that I can watch again and again without being bored. Viewing it feels like entering a dream: sometimes I'll put it on just to watch half an hour and find I've reached the point where it 'all goes biblical' two and a half hours in. There are so many moments I love, and so many of the stories I cherish. Tom Cruise's tale is certainly one of them. For my money, this is his finest performance. His arc is one of the most remarkable I've ever seen, as I go from viewing him as the most despicable being on the planet to someone a few sandwiches short of a picnic to someone you will be crying with by the end of the movie.
It's remarkable that all the characters bring you on a similar sort of journey: where you feel such a range of emotions towards them: loathing, pity, frustration, warmth. Sometimes all in one scene. A remarkable movie which everyone with even a passing interest in cinema must watch.

Among my favourite scenes is the one below, where all the characters sing Aimee Mann's "Wise Up". In the wrong hands or in a different movie, this type of thing could be the cheesiest, most cringe-enducing thing ever. However, when I watch the film, this is the scene that always brings a tear to my eye:

Punch Drunk Love
The movie that proves, against all previous evidence, Adam Sandler can act. He plays a lonely office worker, Barry, who is employed by a company that sells novelty items. He meets Lena, and the film shows us the beginnings of their relationship, as Barry copes with a complicated web of family, sex-lines and airmiles.
Like (500) Days of Summer, and Garden State this is a romantic comedy that can be enjoyed equally by guys and girls. Sandler's frustrated office worker is a brilliantly strange mix of ingenious and idiocy. I've only seen this once, and I found the tale told is charmingly simple yet weirdly unpredictable. On first viewing, I felt it suffered from pacing issues, although feel this would probably be a non-issue on repeat viewings. A nice, endearing film that proves romantic comedies can be done in really creative and insightful way.

So there you have it, my summation of my love for p t anderson. If you're a fan of him, you probably disagree with some of the interpretations I've put above. If you've never seen a movie by this inspirational director, I hope this has persuaded you to rent one of his movies out in the near future. Were that to be the case for just one reader, I would consider this blog entry a complete success.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Favourite Trailer of the Year: Up In The Air

Yesterday I promised to do a write-up on Paul Thomas Anderson.  However, since I've got a flight to catch today I'll be unable to do the blog entry justice in the time available.
Instead, in keeping with my theme of "Top Fives of the Year" I'm giving you my number one trailer from last year: "Up In The Air"

There's a number of reasons this trailer works. However, the reason it's my favourite is thatit works as a piece of entertainment in its own right. The monologue doesn't actually need a movie to exist: it works on its own terms. I've heard a lot of good things about the movie, but regardless of its quality this trailer should be appreciated as a two-minute piece of art.