Sunday, 21 February 2010

What I've Been Watching - Films on DVD

F0A20FC9-095B-4169-832C-BB3025B88CFB.jpgRequiem for a Dream
Directed by Darren Aronofsky (Pi, The Fountain, The Wrestler), Requiem for a Dream is based on a book of the same name written in the 70s. The dream it refers to is almost certainly the American one: that hard work and determination can give you all your wants and desires in the land of the free.

The validity of said dream is questioned in the form of addiction. The three younger characters are all addicted to heroin, and the lead's mother is addicted to television and junk food.

Aptly described as one of the most depressing movies ever made, the film's plot sees things going from bad (functioning addicts) to worse (their drug dealing business loses its supply/addiction & diet pills that turn out to be amphetamines) to worse again (infected needles, prostitution, the 'diet pills' cause the mother to lose her grip on reality).

The way this is handled by Aronofsky only adds to this sense of despair. The now infamous score; the fast cutting from one tragic character's circumstances to the next; and the use of dream sequences all give the viewer little chance of escape or release.

Though not a horror movie in the traditional sense, this is much more difficult to watch than some random teenager get chopped to death by an enraged masked figure. The pain and suffering feels a lot more pronounced, and the final scene isn't merely affective because of what's going on in front of you, but also because of its intensity, and feeling of never letting up.

Requiem For A Dream is certainly a movie you will remember. I can't decide if I should be angry at Aronofsky for purposefully showing me something so bleak and devoid of hope. Ultimately I feel the message his film has about addiction and the precarious nature of the American Dream is worth telling. Although I wouldn't hold it against anyone who felt they would rather sit this one out.

Over the last ten years I've come to love the "B-Movie", by which I mean any movie which forgoes artistic integrity in favour of a more basic form of entertainment. This classification of movies is most closely associated with the horror and action genres (Evil Dead, Crank, Final Destination). And it's perhaps typical of the last ten years, that directors make these movies with the intention of making them as ridiculous and exploitative as possible (cf. Grindhouse).

Del Torro's Mimic should be exactly that. Certainly, I can't see how its writer intended this to be anything other that a fun, rollicking adventure about some bugs that evolve into humanoid predators. Nevertheless, there are some trademarks of del Torro's movies present here that attempt to give it some depth. The opening scene in a children's hospital is reminiscent of The Devil's Backbone, and also the more recent The Orphanage. The use of religious metaphors (The priest falling to his death past a neon sign proclaiming Jesus saves for example) is also in keeping with his modus operandi.

Clearly there's some deeper themes that del Torro wants us to think about. However, given the broad strokes and one-note characters the film contains, any message the film was supposed to convey gets lost under the sound of "Mr Funny Shoes" and co.

Where the film excels is in its silly/exploitative moments. Kids die in the most gruesome of manners; characters collect faeces; insect guts must be smothered over our protagonists so they can hide the smell of their humanity. It's also worth noting that the impressive design of "Mr Funny Shoes" is reminiscent of some of the more iconic creatures from Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy.

Mimic fails in the sense that I don't think it's the movie del Torro intends it to be (especially when viewed alongside his other works). Nevertheless, it's the type of movie that's best watched alongside friends, since the set pieces and idiosyncrasies of the plot are either entirely ridiculous or entirely genius.

B5C9E8B6-FF41-4D6E-941B-B2D2417CC06B.jpgShadow of a Doubt
1943 was a long time ago. 67 years to be precise. It's interesting to me how few people will seek out films from that era, (wrongly) assuming they'll have nothing to saw to a 21st century audience. Unlike bookstores which have whole shelves devoted to 'classics', it's rare to see a similar section in your local Blockbuster.

In many ways Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt does come from a completely different world. Set in a small town, where everyone knows everyone, it opens as Uncle Charlie is about to visit his sister's family, much to the delight of his niece, also called Charlie. However, Charlie's initial delight soon turns to fear, as she discovers some cops have been following her uncle across the states on suspicion of murder.

Like all good movies, you soon forgive its obvious foibles (the slightly dodgy dialogue, and unnecessary repeating of expositional dialogue) as the movie finishes setting-up its key characters and the story of the mysterious Uncle Charlie kicks in.

Aside from the main plot, there's a couple of nice side characters and exchanges that give the film some depth beyond that of a traditional thriller. The father and his best friend are constantly discussing ways of killing one another, inspired by detective stories like Sherlock Holmes and so on. Despite this, they have no clue about the real-life mystery going on around them.

Also admirable is Hitchcock's depiction of small-town America: which purposefully idolises the way people are overly familiar with one another's lives. Meaning travellers like Uncle Charlie are seen as as great adventurers with colourful, exhilarating stories to share.

Shadow of a Doubt is clearly a well-loved movie (No. 201 in IMDb's Top 250 movies of all-time). It's nicely paced and well constructed, and although not a masterpiece, it is nevertheless consistently enjoyable and entertaining.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Film School: Eyes Wide Shut

39A1EC80-010D-4404-A501-7EDAA8534429.jpgEyes Wide Shut was the last film Stanley Kubrick directed before he died. It stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as a married couple, and was famous at the time for being slated by critics for what it wasn't. Cruise and Kidman were not chosen for their on-screen chemistry (of which there is little, but neither is there opportunity for much); they weren't necessarily chosen for their wide-reaching acting abilities (even if they were, the dialogue gives them little opportunity for oscar-worthy performances); finally it isn't the most sexy mainstream movie ever made, despite what censors at the time would have you believe.

What then is it? Hmmm... what then is it? In answering the question, I could detail the plot which sees Cruise find out his wife has been fantasising about a man she met only once, and goes out to find his own sexual fantasy: encountering a bereaved daughter, a prostitute, an orgy as he does so.

I could also detail the visual style and art direction: all the sets look like hotels: bereft of any warmth or individuality. You don't really believe the characters have lived there or that they have lives anything like yours or mine. The film deals almost exclusively with those on the upper-crust of society, and the sets point to the artificiality of that existence.

6D98843A-BB08-44F5-BF8A-433783DC3584.jpgFinally, the dialogue, as already alluded to is deceptively simple. Exchanges are so one dimensional, they must surely have hidden depth. As a result characters feel like actors playing roles.

Putting all of these things together make the movie feel incredibly dreamlike. Phones ring at the most convenient of times, allowing Cruise to avoid decisions he would rather not make. Characters float into existence, almost from nowhere. Cruise quickly moves from one place to the next with little time for thinking in between. The events of the movie are also so unlikely and surreal they could easily fit into a David Lynch movie.

So what then is Eyes Wide Shut? Perhaps the best way to answer that question is to say that it could be anything. There are hundreds of articles on the meaning of the film, all pointing to different ideas. For example, some feel it is a celebration of marriage, others a celebration of sexual fantasy. Regardless of what Kubrick's intentions are, the movie will surely hold different interpretations to different viewers. Like our own dreams, where only we can can expect to truly interpret them, Eyes Wide Shut is a film so rich in subtext, its meaning will be different to each viewer. Intentionally making a film so open to analysis and inference is one of the reasons Kubrick and his movies will be remembered for many years to come.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

What I've been watching - Television

26EB8E6A-10A6-4CA7-97D9-9CF6D356A57C.jpgDollhouse (Season 2)
Spoilers for seasons 1 & 2 ahead
Dollhouse's second and final season finished at the end of January. For those of you who don't know, it comes from creator Joss Whedon (Buffy, Angel, Firefly), and stars Eliza Dushku as a 'doll' who can be imprinted with different personalities, depending of the needs of the Dollhouse's clients.

At least, that was the premise of the first season. However, the second season was clearly what Whedon had in mind when he created the show. Instead of having to feel morally tangled about spending time with characters responsible for human trafficking, we can actually start to support Echo's mission to take down the Dollhouse from the inside.

The season itself soars through a combination of tightly constructed storylines, and characters you become more invested in each week. Like all of Whedon's shows, most of the joy is not in the actual plotline of a particular episode, but merely in spending time with 'people' who's fates you really care about.

5BADB986-8BF0-4186-BB88-2674B645168A.jpgYou see, both the strength and weakness of Whedon's shows are that it takes time to become invested in them. Like real people, it's unlikely that you'll hit it off straight away, however, by spending time together, you begin to appreciate and warm to them more. Unlike shows such as 24 and CSI, where the history of a character isn't actually that important unless it has an explicit link to this week's storyline, in Whedon's narratives it's the implicit links that make the show worth watching. The week when Adelle gave Victor her ideal personality, plays into all the conversations she has with him from then on, regardless of his current personality; A remote wipe in the show's fourth episode seems like a plot device, but turns out to have ramifications that last for the show's entire run.

The idea of how memories affect our personalities is incredibly important to the show's story. Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that Dollhouse is a show which never forgets. Every line, action and plot point, no matter how indiscriminate it may seem at the time, can later be picked up. Perhaps this is why it appealed to so few people: after all isn't television like The Dollhouse's 'chair': designed so we can sit down, switch our brains off and be at peace?

F31719AF-EAC4-47B2-A983-2102AB39E537.jpgCharlie Brooker's Newswipe
Newswipe is surely The Daily Show of British television: holding a mirror up to the UK media, and making fun of it in an insightful way. Unlike 'The Daily Show', which is political satire disguised as comedy, Newswipe has no such pretensions, often allowing ten minute features from contributors with little to no comic slant.

In many ways it's a series of academic articles interspersed with flashing titles, and Brooker making fun of news anchors and celebrities. Despite Brooker's best efforts to make it as funny and accessible as possible, there's no denying his entirely serious and important mantra: the news is biased. It's bias because news is a product: a product like Coca-Cola, Carlsberg and Dyson. And as such it needs to be sold and marketed correctly. News has become more like advertisements, telling people either what they would most like to hear or, ironically, what they would least like to hear: so long as it provokes a reaction. The worst news is boring news, regardless of its truth.

This mantra can clearly be seen in the 'serious' pieces that occur about half-way through Newswipe. Pieces that tell us about why narratives are important in news, why journalists like to keep us afraid, and why news is only important so long as people are talking about it.

73739066-A42E-4E21-B194-100CC701F472.jpgIn the latest episode, Brooker looks at the coverage of Blair's turn to give evidence in the Iraq enquiry. He points out we learnt precisely nothing new about why we went to war. Then again what should we expect? Despite this, whole days were given to stations like Radio 5 to cover this event. An event, the BBC (and all other news organisations) had clearly already decided their opinion on (cf. Hutton enquiry).

Speaking personally here, perhaps enquiries like this show us just how prevalent 'Trial by Media' has become. Regardless of what truth we discover from the months of questioning we've seen senior politicians and aides undergo, everyone has already made up their mind. Most of the media say he's guilty, and no lengthy enquiry is going to change their minds. Like Hutton, they will merely call into question the validity of the enquiry, and point out their own brilliance at uncovering truth. Truth that's seemingly as clear-cut as Blair=Liar. Am I the only one who thinks it's more complex than that?

Newswipe matters because it's able to point out the inconsistencies in news coverage. However, until someone comes up with a different way of portraying news, so that it's interest is second to it's truth and importance, it may remain a lone voice on the hill.

3C382C4F-1227-4EE8-8171-CF0CD8B2645C.jpgThe Wire (Season 5)
Speaking of the media, I just finished the Wire's final season, who's theme is precisely that. In it they deal with the slow death of the local newspaper; America's obsession with serial killers; and lies so big you no choice but to believe them.

Like all the seasons of The Wire, this one is incredibly tight and well-written. In fact it's a bit pointless to wax lyrical about what makes the show so good, since so many people have done so already. If you haven't see it yet, go and procure a copy of season 1 now and settle into what is quite a ride.

The Wire is among my favourite shows on television because of its ability to allow me to see things in different ways. By giving you a detailed look at how drug dealers, addicts, the police, and journalists live and survive you can entirely understand why they make the decisions they do. Except on those ever so rare occasions when the show succumbs to pressure to tell a story more important than the characters it portrays. In a show which prides itself on realism, any storylines which feel forced stick out like a sore thumb. For me there are two such occasions when this happens, the first is season three's Hamsterdam. The second occurs in season five.

F692DAE2-0050-4472-82E1-3E686B02FE20.jpgSpoilers for Season 5 from now on
McNulty's decision to fake murders fits in with the renegade part of his personality that would do anything for a case, but nevertheless felt forced to me. Aside from his decision to give up his stability to rejoin a case, I didn't actually believe he was that invested in wanting to bring down Marlo (unlike Freamon, who's actions I buy entirely). There may be many good reasons for this to fit with what we've seen, but I can't think of them. McNulty's problem has always been with those in authority, and he gets a real kick out of getting one over those with more power than he. He "gives a f*** when it's not his turn", as Bunk would say. Nevertheless, I do feel like he has a conscience (something we see at the end of the season). Doesn't he care about the families of the 'victims' he's manipulating; or the people who's careers he's putting on the line to get his own way? McNulty's actions as a detective up until now have always been at the expense of people unwilling to make tough choices. In season five we see a character inconsistent with that way of working.

Despite this misstep, the rest of the season is as brilliant as ever. The introduction of the media fitting in perfectly with the world the show's creators have taken four seasons to create. Bubble's arc gave us some much needed hope, while Dookie's gave us an insight into how Bub's addiction may have started. Senator Davis' arc showed us how in a democracy, having the public on your side can become more important than truth. Finally, Mayor Carcetti's arc showed us how the best of intentions can soon subside when the allure of power is near. His arc in particular fitting into the Wire's strong idea that be successful at your job always seems to be doing what those in power tell you to do, regardless of its impact on those you are supposed to be serving. The Wire's self-proclaimed 'critique of modern capitalism' will live on long after its end. It works because it asks all the right questions, and forces audiences to consider for themselves what the right answers are. That, and Omar is a badass.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Toy Story 3 Trailer

The new trailer for Toy Story 3 came out yesterday, if you haven't see all 150 seconds of it. Here's your chance now:

Toy Story 3 Trailer 2 in HD

Trailer Park Movies | MySpace Video

I think it does a good job of getting across the basic story, without spoiling too much of the plot. The toys arrive at Day Care, they want to be with Andy. Some of the other toys don't like them.

Finally it's great to see so many new, and unique looking characters with the type of attention to detail we've come to expect from Pixar (notice how each of them moves in entirely different ways).

The movie's release date in the UK is 23rd July 2010. Can't wait.

Film School: Meantime

233DC573-E7F1-4DBB-AFAF-D05A5631902A.jpgMeantime is directed by Mike Leigh and stars Phil Daniels, Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, Pam Ferris, and Alfred Molina (among others). Leigh is film-maker known for his unique approach to movies. Rather than writing a script and getting actors to perform lines, he creates characters and a basic storyline, and works with the actors/actresses to create a script. Once the actors have been told about who their characters are, Leigh will put them in a room together and let them improvise lines. This gives each of his movies very natural and realistic dialogue, at the expense of a tight story or obvious character arcs.

In Meantime, the story centres on a family in Thatcherite Britain living in high-rises in East London. The father and two sons are all unemployed, and rely on the dole to eat/smoke/drink. The mother's sister is faring better, living in a middle-class suburb, and this clash of cultures forms the basis for the film's story.

Leigh's individual style is one that very much appeals to me. It gives each of the characters a great sense of 'self' that few movies have. When films were first made, the main experience people had of acting was the theatre, where lines are delivered as much to the audience as the co-stars. This type of delivery can still be seen in most modern movies. Where 'exposition' will mean characters say things people would never really say in real life. For example in last week's Lost the camera pans over a huge temple before cutting to Hurley who says: "So this is the temple."

6F1BB2C1-E559-4677-9066-DE2517E7585B.jpgIn Meantime characters will often be so involved in their own worlds, that they aren't actually listening to what the other person is saying, or don't quite get it. How many times have you been in a conversation where your mind is elsewhere, or you kind of half answer a question? The other thing you get is the sense of conversing to fill the awkward silence that often fills the air between two people. So that dialogue is not interesting because of what is being said, but because it reflects a more realistic form of conversation rarely seen in film.

All of this makes for a very unique and interesting movie, which says a lot about Britain in the early 80s. It does it by showing the impact on people's lives without resorting to some character's rise and fall, or other movie trope. Instead, character's lives change little because of events: stuff happens, but its impact is left open to interpretation. Again reflecting the slow process of change and people's general adversity to it.

Out of the five movies I've seen so far (including next week's Eyes Wide Shut) Meantime is definitely my favourite. It's a movie that could only be made by its director, and as a result has a realism and truth you rarely see portrayed on screen.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

What I've Been Watching - Cinema

5A945D68-AB35-4DF0-B6B0-C2AC1C1571CB.jpgUp in the Air
Directed by Jason Reitman (Thank You For Smoking, Juno), Up In The Air stars George Clooney as a man who's job it is to fire people. Companies hire him to tell people they're no longer doing. This suits him down to the ground, (or should that be up in the air?...) since flying from city to city in America means he has no time to make any human connections. Clooney prides himself on having no baggage to weigh him down.

Up in the Air is primarily an examination of the need for human relationships: Is it possible to live a fulfilled life alone? Through Clooney's relationship with a young college graduate who threatens to change his unique lifestyle, it also examines how our expectations for life change as we grow older. What is it that will sustain us? What is it that we will strive for?

Through a great script, and great performances from its leads, I felt as though Up in the Air was a complete success. Balancing depth and humour in a way I've now come to expect from Reitman's movies. The lead character was surprisingly unique. He had a point-of-view few can relate to, without being a complete jackass, or being in apparent need of a radical life change.

Spoilers for the ending of the movie
Critics like Mark Kermode have critised the movie's ending for succumbing to what he sees as the character 'learning a lesson' and 'undergoing a life change'. I, however, believe it was in-keeping with the first two thirds of the movie, where we're lead to believe neither he nor his new girlfriend always had this lifestyle. To me, the ending gave a lot more depth to the character, forcing me to think what past events led him to being the person we meet at the start of the movie. If one sees the film like that, it leaves the events of the last fifteen minutes a lot more open to interpretation, since Clooney's experience may not lead to any radical changes in his life, but merely be a confirmation of what he believed all along.

Brothers is a remake of a Danish film. It stars Tobey Maguire as a man married to Natalie Portman, who's about to go serve his country in Afghanistan. His brother, Jake Gyllenhall, has just been released from prison, and is aiming to rebuild his life now he's free.

The movie gives us an examination of their relationship, and how the expectations on both of them have influenced who they are. We also see the importance of having somewhere they belong, as tragedy strikes in the first third of the movie.

It's difficult to go into very much more detail about the plot, or even its themes without spoiling the movie. Some critics have said the original movie was better. I haven't seen the Danish version, however, since I feel the story was the weakest part of the movie, I find this hard to believe. In fact, it would have been nice to see a different film with the same characters/relationships/dialogue without the type of story Michael Bay would have been proud of.

I'd still recommend the movie, since its well-formed characters did give me a way-in to the sentiment of the film. Like Gone Baby Gone it's a movie which succeeds despite its ill-conceived plot twists, but rather because of the underlying truth to the emotion they're experiencing.

My father often recounts the time when our Youth Fellowship was taken to an evening event one Sunday for all the Presbyterian churches in the area. At the event, a bunch of 12-18 year olds were shown some fairly harrowing clips from Schindler's List: the scene where the bodies are piled on top of one another and burnt, with vast clouds of smoke consuming a vast area surrounding it. Afterwards, a minister from another church spoke about hell: and how that's what it was like. Of course, no one remembers what he said because the images were too powerful, and instead the only thing on our minds was the nature of suffering, and how anyone could be so cruel.

Films often carry images/scenes/dialogue that become ingrained in your consciousness for various reasons. The problem I had with Precious, is that I got the impression there was a message I was supposed to pick up about never giving up; the importance of education; and the importance of having people to support you. Although these messages came through on the periphery, the main feeling I had was one of despair and sympathy for the main character, and everything she's had to put up with. Precious may want to be a meaningful human drama, but in my opinion, it ended up being more like a horror movie: it's most harrowing scenes being ingrained in my mind.

It's failure in impacting me, isn't because of a lack of effort by the director, but rather a lack of understanding of what audiences will make of what they're being shown. Schindler's List works because its message fits its images: no society should ever let anything like the holocaust happen. Precious doesn't seem to be questioning the role of society, but rather the individuals responsible for the acts of brutality. It asks us to celebrate someone who didn't give up despite having every reason to do so. The problem is I don't feel much like celebrating.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Film School: Slow Motion

A05CE9F7-C333-4E72-BF4A-0502BF0C8D6B.jpgThis week's film school movie is Slow Motion (or Sauve qui peut (la vie), to give it its French title. Directed by Jean-Luc Godard, it's about a director (also called Godard) who no longer loves his work; his girlfriend who wants to leave city life to cycle in the countryside; and the prostitute he sleeps with, who's trying to earn enough money to rent her own place. Although its story is of little importance to the film as I'll explain.

Godard is a director well known for making 'difficult' movies: one's that tell the audience little and ask for a lot of investment before seeing any return. Slow Motion is certainly representative of this form of film-making. It fluctuates between the bizarre (formula 1 cars appearing in and out of a scene without explanation) and the obscene (the character Godard talking about his daughter in a highly inappropriate way). In between there's philosophy readings, scenes where characters look out windows, and slow motion hugging.

Trying to accurately describe Godard to someone who's never seen him is like trying to describe a rainbow to someone who's only seen black and white. There is no denying the uniqueness and creativity of the director, regardless of my feelings about the result of this endeavour.

271077AA-A44B-4316-8E7B-E27380ABA525.jpgFor my money, it appears as though Godard is determined to do nothing you would expect in a narrative movie: so story, plot, and character arcs are practically non-existent. However, in loosing what he feels are the chains of classic cinema, I feel like he's shackled himself up to new restrictions. Only shooting in a way that's challenging and unique for his own pleasure/challenge, rather than in a manner that gives his audience any insight into the world he's created. His movies perhaps say more about film-making than they do their subjects.

Perhaps Godard's movies can only really be appreciated by those who believe a script is not the be and end all of cinema. Given that almost every movie films with a script, or at least a clear outline of characters (cf. Mike Leigh), perhaps this shows you how limited Godard believes film-makers can make themselves. Nevertheless, the reason most people (myself included) watch movies is for characters and stories, take that away and you're left with something akin to a great piece of art: challenging and insightful but without the emotional attachment to characters/scenes most of us associate with our favourite movies.