24 June, 2008

Suspense, laughter, violence, hope, heart, nudity, sex, happy endings... mainly happy endings

So here's the thing.

I found myself standing outside at 7am this morning, in the cold, wearing a heavy jacket and gloves, and listening to my iPod, waiting sixth in queue for the ticket office to open at 8am. Yay for the film festival!

This was the second year I've actually queued and waited for tickets to go on sale. And although it's really hard to get up that early (it's just unnatural to be up at 5.30 in the morning) and it means incessant yawning for the rest of the day, it's worth it to be guaranteed good seats, perfectly centred to the screen, in the nice comfortable plush seats at the Embassy or in the (only) comfortable seating section in the Paramount (Really, why don't they hurry up and install those seats in the rest of the cinema?).

Anyway, the films I will be going to see are:
- Man On Wire
- Married Life
- Rain of the Children
- In Bruges
- The Red Balloon/White Mane (just because I've never seen The Red Balloon, and it's one of these films everyone says you should see)
- Earth
- Persepolis (this is the film I was most excited to see in the festival)
- The Counterfeiters (won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film)
- Bigger, Stronger, Faster* (and yes, the asterisk is part of the film title - no idea why)
- Lorna's Silence
- Taxi To The Dark Side
- Be Kind Rewind
- Funny Games (this is a shot-by-shot English-language remake, by the same director, of a German-language film from 1997. I watched the original in the weekend, and have started working on a post about that film.)
- The Adventures of Robin Hood (Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone swordfighting on the big screen!)
- Mongol (an epic about Genghis Khan. Should be great on the Embassy screen.)
- Standard Operating Procedure
- The Wave
- The Escapist
- Crazy Love
- The Savages
- The Freshman (this is the Live Cinema screening this year - a Harold Lloyd silent film with the Wellington Vector Orchestra providing live accompaniment)

I believe that, with 21 films, this is probably the most films I've ever been to in the festival. (I'm pretty sure I've never broken the 20 film mark before.) There is one day where I have four films in a row, so that will be a challenge. (There was a fifth film I was considering for that day, but I thought five in one day would just be too much, especially since that final film would be subtitled, and I would be much too tired for subtitles.)

Anyway, it's going to be exciting. 24 days to go.

16 June, 2008

The flames rise high into the night

So here's the thing.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Shine A Light, the new film directed by Martin Scorsese, is the realisation that Scorsese hasn't made this film before. The movie is basically a concert film, recording a single live performance* by the Rolling Stones at the Beacon Theatre in New York in late 2006. And looking at Scorsese's 35-year film career, it's surprising that it has taken this long for him to film the Stones. After all, the Rolling Stones' music is an integral part both in Scorsese's life and his films, and Scorsese has real experience with concert films, having worked as an editor on the Woodstock movie, as well as directing The Last Waltz (the highly praised film of the final concert by a band I've never heard of called The Band). And now, Scorsese has finally filmed the Stones, and while you would never say that this is the culmination of his career, in a lot of ways you can tell that this is a movie he's dreamed of making all his life.

* The soundtrack CD also includes three songs recorded at a concert two nights earlier at the same venue, but none of those songs are in the film.

The film starts with a nice little arrangement of footage of the planning and preparation, both for the concert and for the film. And it's a real delight, with arrangements being made between the parties in different cities, in different countries even, no-one quite sure who made what decision. Serious concerns are expressed that the lighting for one piece might actually set fire to Mick Jagger (Scorsese unequivocably states that they cannot set Jagger on fire). Pretty much every review I have read of the film highlights the multiple scenes where Scorsese tries unsuccessfully to get a confirmed set list out of Jagger, and with good reason. It's an illuminating scene, showing the clash between a director who needs to plan, and a band that after 45 years together know how to improvise and completely alter the set list during the show itself, based on how the crowd feels. Scorsese has to plan for a wide variety of songs that could be performed, but many of which will not, categorising the different songs into "definitely perform", "will probably perform", "good chance will perform", and "may perform".

Meanwhile, the Stones come across as the old hands that they are. While it is clear that they put a lot of preparation into their concerts, they know what they're doing, and the performance tonight is just the most comfortable thing in the world. The one thing that seems to make them uncomfortable is all the schmoozing that comes with the job - they meet Bill Clinton, and then discover they'll have to come back later to meet 30 guests of Clinton, and then they have to wait for Hillary's mother to arrive late.

Meanwhile Scorsese's inability to get a setlist from the band is clearly driving him insane - at one point he seems to give up on getting a confirmed set list, or even just confirmation of which song will be played first, he just wants to know which instrument will start playing first just so he knows who to actually focus all cameras on. This all builds to a climax with the show about to start in five seconds four three two Scorsese gets the set list "First song!" and BAM with a burst of guitars the show starts.

It's impossible to actually express how thrilling that entire opening sequence was. It's brilliantly concieved and executed, and quite essential because it actually gets you in the right mood for the film. If you go to any kind of performance, the moments right before it starts are really very intense. You've had your tickets for months, you've been looking forward to this day, you've built it up so much in your mind, and finally you're actually there, it's all going to start in five minutes, and you watch your watch, and finally the scheduled start time arrives, and it passes, it was supposed to start one, two minutes ago, it could start any moment now, and finally the lights dim, you see movement on the stage, you might hear an announcement, and finally the stage lights go up and the rush, the "This is it" thrill is incredible. An ordinary filmed recording of a concert would not have that same rush of anticipation as the performance starts - you couldn't do it. And so Scorsese uses the whole buildup to the show and to the filming as a way of achieving that same excitement. Will Scorsese get a set list, will there be any last minute problems, and these concerns build up so when they reach a point five seconds from the first notes, you have that same sense of "What is going to happen? Will this work out?" It may not be the same kind of rush you would get from a live concert, but it's a pretty good approximation. So when Jumpin' Jack Flash starts, you're prepared.

Now, this is the point where I probably need to make a disclaimer. I am not a Rolling Stones fan. I'm not saying I dislike their music - I don't - it's just that, as those of you who know me will know, I'm not a big rock music person full stop. I've never really listened to the Stones, I honestly don't know them. Of all the songs performed in the film, I actually only knew two (Start Me Up and Satisfaction) and had vague recollection of having heard a third before (Sympathy For The Devil). (The soundtrack CD also included a third song, Paint It Black, that I also know, but that's not in the film.) The rest were entirely new to me. As for the band members themselves, obviously I knew who Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were (everyone knows them), but I only knew who Ronnie Wood was because he was on Top Gear recently, and I didn't know who Charlie Watts was at all. That said... Wow.

Just over a month ago, I went to see U2 3D. And I really enjoyed that film, a lot. It was a great experience, what with the spectacle of a U2 concert, and the 3D giving a real "you are there" feel to the film. Shine A Light was very different. There was no spectacle, no giant screens, no collosal arena, no over-the-top theatrics. There were just four guys in their 60s, performing in a (comparatively) small theater to a crowd of less that 3000 people.

And Shine A Light was easily better. Because shorn of any add-ons, relying solely on their performances, the Stones really are incredible entertainers. Years of the rock-and-roll lifestyle may mean some band members look even older than their actual age (and, even on an ordinary non-Imax screen, every crease, every wrinkle on Keith or Mick's face is a clearly visible crevasse), but there is no sense of age in their performance. (If anything, Jagger and Richards seem an advertisement for the life-sustaining properties of the rock-and-roll lifestyle.) It's impossible to imagine that a performance by a young Jagger would be any different to the one captured in the film. He jumps, leaps, runs, dances with a vigour and an excitement that is tiring just to watch. And the rapport between the band members is something to behold. Every now and then, you'll get a very cool moment, where the band members just see each other, and just for a moment you get these guys grinning, seemingly still amazed at how cool it is that this is how they make their living. Forty-five years these guys have been touring and playing together, and it's never grown old. And that is cool.

One of the things the film really identifies is the role of the audience in the performance - without an audience, you're just playing, but with an audience, you're performing. With the U2 film, in addition to all the footage shot during many actual concerts, they got the band to do an entire concert to an empty stadium so they could get some of the shots without intruding on the crowd's view. And the more I think about that, the more it bothers me, because it reduces the playing of a song down to a purely technical level - this note then this note, this lyric then this one. Whereas, with Shine A Light, Scorsese seems determined to prove they didn't do anything like that, ensuring that the crowd is ever present - the camera is either down at crowd level, surrounded by people watching and enjoying the show, or it's filming a performer with the audience clearly visible in the background. In fact, it's difficult to think of a shot that could have been shot in an empty theatre. And that's a great thing, because the band clearly feed off the energy in the room. They're not focused on trying to give a good performance for the camera, they're focused on entertaining the crowd. And that just gives a natural real performance that happens to be fun to watch.

But while the focus of the film is absolutely on the Stones' performance, Scorsese does some nice work in inserting the occasional piece of classic footage - mostly old interviews from the 1960s to 1980s, but there's also the odd piece of news footage. And that's interesting, just because it really drives home how long these guys have been doing this. In the most amusing footage, an impossibly young-looking Jagger expresses surprise that the band has been going a full two(!) years, and hopes that this will go on for at least another year. (Although I was rather fond of the Japanese interview from the 1980s where the female interviewer, clearly struggling to think of any questions, asks Jagger how old he is). While the clips unfortunately lack context for those of us that aren't versed in Stones history (news audiences at the time would have known the background to Mick Jagger's arrest and eventual release, but I had to look it up), it's still a nice element that makes the film less of a filmed concert, more a part of the recorded Stones history.

I think the film really benefits from having Scorsese direct it. The challenge of trying to make this film must have been phenomenal - one single concert with no retakes, trying to construct it on-the-fly to work as a film while not intruding at all on the Stones' performances or the show itself. (Jagger, worried about ruining the crowd's enjoyment, expresses doubt about even including a camera that sweeps across the crowd to the stage, although he eventually relented.) The team that he put together was phenomenal, with some of the top cinematographers operating today (including Andrew Lesnie, who shot Lord of the Rings) shooting the concert, just to make sure that the images they got from the concert were as good as possible, since they won't get a second shot. And Scorsese's input is essential - the music of the Stones is so ingrained in him that he's completely in sync with the performances - every camera move, every cut and edit, is perfectly timed to work with the music, never cutting across the song. The challenge and pressure of trying to construct a film under these constraints really seems to have stimulated Scorsese, who really delivers a movie that is not just a filmed concert, but a genuine cinematic experience.

I guess the best way to sum up the film is by returning to compare Shine A Light with the U2 3D film. And what I find is this: U2 had a lot of advantages - a lot of song familiarity on my part, a lot of concert spectacle, and the general gimmick of a 3D film. And it was enjoyable, and I do recommend it. But, even if they could replicate the 3D element on a home entertainment system, it's not a film I could see myself owning. There is something lacking from the film, a spark, and I didn't realise it until I saw Shine A Light and saw that spark of life. Because this film had all the disadvantages: I only knew a couple of songs, and the concert lacked spectacle. But you don't need that when you have a band like the Rolling Stones, a band of phenomenal charisma and performance excellence, captured in a film filled with imagination and excitement. The film is seriously a highlight of the year for me. Strongly recommended.

11 June, 2008

Babette Ate Oatmeal

So here's the thing.

I'm looking at the New York Times website, and they had an article about how you can now buy T-shirts with headlines from the CNN website.

I'm not joking. CNN.com actually has a T-shirt store on the site, where you can currently buy T-shirts announcing things like "Teen calls prom 'most wasteful event'" or "Bo Derek battles illegal wildlife trade". But you need to be in quick, because you can apparently only buy a headline T-shirt for as long as it's in the "Latest News" list.

The T-shirts (available in black, white, or grey) carry the headline, as well as a date-and-time-stamp and the statement "I just saw it at CNN.com".

Here's what I want to know. Who on earth came up with this idea? How on earth do you come up with an idea like this? And why on earth would you spend money on something like that? The point of a headline is to tantalise the reader, make them think "I want to know what that article is about". But many of these headlines make no sense away from the actual article. You need to actually read the article to know that "Spike to Clint: We're not on a plantation" is about Spike Lee criticising Clint Eastwood for the lack of African-American characters in his Iwo Jima movies. But you can't read the article because it's not on the T-shirt, so the title just stays there, existing with no reason for being there. Most of the headlines are neither witty enough to be amusing, or sufficiently self-explanatory to work once they're off the website and onto a T-shirt. And in any case - it's a news headline. It gets out-of-date or irrelevant pretty fast, and within a week you're wearing last night's fish-and-chips paper.

Now on the other hand, if The Onion produced T-shirts, that would actually make sense, because Onion headlines are intended to be funny on their own - the accompanying article is just an extension of the joke. You don't need to actually read on to find headlines like "Way Too Much Raised For Bronchitis Research", "Museum Of Television And Radio Acquires Rare 'Caroline In The City' Episode", or "FCC Okays Nudity On TV If It’s Alyson Hannigan" funny. Because they're funny in and of themselves. Plus, since they're fake news, you never need to worry about being out of date. You see, these would work on a T-shirt. CNN headlines just do not.

10 June, 2008

Born under a bad sign with a blue moon in your eyes

So here's the thing.

Did you realise that today is the one year anniversary of the HBO airing of "Made In America", the final episode of The Sopranos. One year since every person in America simultaneously yelled out "What the **** was that?"

Now I've always been very clear on my view of what happens in that controversial final scene (and if you never watched The Sopranos, never saw the final episode, turn off your computer, take a week off work, go to the local rental store, hire the DVDs, watch them, and then come back. I will be discussing spoilers.)

A lot of people believe Tony died in the final episode. They point to the "Guy In Members Only Jacket" going to the bathroom, suggesting that, like in The Godfather, he's going to collect a gun. The reason for the sudden unexpected cut-to-10-second-black-screen is that Tony is suddenly dead, shot in the back of the head - the black screen and sudden silence is an example of Bobby's comment that when you die, you never hear it coming.

And it's an argument I've never bought. For a start, it's too obvious. Ending the story of a mafia boss with the boss dying? Too predictable, too cliched. And a lot of people cite The Godfather reference as proof. To me, that's never a convincing argument. There's no doubt that Chase loves the Godfather films, but not so much that he would end this, the programme he will be remembered for until he dies, copying the movie.

Personally, I've always seen the final scene as an extreme version of a life-goes-on ending. Throughout the run of the series we've always known, whatever happens, Tony Soprano was safe. He's the main character, and he's pretty much irreplaceable. There may have been some tension of how he will deal with any particular problem, but we always knew he was okay. We wasn't going to die, he probably wasn't going to go to prison (even if he had some close calls). He would just carry on being Tony. Even when Tony was shot at the end of the first episode of the final season, wounded so badly he ended up in a coma, we knew he was essentially safe. So we never had any fear about what would happen to Tony.

Until the final scene. Because we know that all bets are off. There are only five minutes to go, they don't need to protect their star character anymore. For the first time in the entire series, anything could happen. Tony could be killed. Tony could be arrested. Will Tony be fine, but something happen to someone else in the family? Or things could just go on as normal. What's going to happen.

And the final scene seems a strange choice for the show - there's nothing obviously significant about it, it almost seems mundane. Tony walks into an typical American diner, takes a booth, orders onion rings. Slowly the rest of the family arrive, first Carmela and AJ. But here's where David Chase is brilliant. He knows that we don't know whether Tony is safe, so suddenly we, the viewer, are looking at every single person we see in the scene with suspicion. Two black guys walk in, there's someone in a cap possibly hiding their face, someone glances over and seems to take an interest in Tony, is he a hitman, or just someone thinking "Didn't I see him on the news once?". Everywhere the camera looks, even in this inocuous scene of a family eating, we see a potential threat. So, possibly for the first real time in the entire run of the show, we actually sense what it really means to be in the mob, the constant danger, the constant risk. It's not quite that we've been put in the mind of Tony Soprano, as I initially thought, since Tony is actually quite relaxed in the scene. He's used to living with that danger, so he's learned not to be constantly looking over his shoulder (since living every moment like that would drive him crazy). It's more that, whether or not Tony is actually worried about it, the audience understands that that danger is always there.

And then we get the sudden cut-to-black-slience, sustained for 10 seconds. What does that mean? Let's imagine the scene executed somewhat differently - Tony sits there, talking to his family, Meadow comes in, sits down, the camera pulls back away from the family, their conversation fades away, and finally so does the image. If they had shot the scene like that, with a typical life-goes-on feel to it, this story has come to an end, but the characters continue. Most importantly, it has a satisfying everything's-going-to-be-all-right feel. And that would be completely wrong for the show, because, after all, everything's not going to be all right. Tony may not killed tonight, but there's a good chance at some time in the future he will be. The guy who was talking to the Feds may not give them everything they need for a prosecution, but one of these days they will have enough, and Tony will go to jail. Whatever happens tonight is irrelevant, because at some point in the future he's either going to be killed or arrested.

So to me, the sudden cut-to-black-silence was about making that point in a dramatic fashion that a traditonal fade-to-black ending would not. David Chase basically seems to be saying that life goes on, whatever happens it's going to end badly, but you're not going to see it because we can't follow these characters for the rest of their lives. All we need to know is that it will happen one day, the final scene sets up the two main options, and then Chase says "I've finished telling the story" at an essentially arbitrary point. And the fact that it's mid-scene is irrelevant - in fact, it highlights the fact that the endpoint is essentially arbitrary.

So that is how I interpret the scene and the ending. Until tonight, because I've just read this impressively in-depth 21,750-word analysis of the ending, which argues forcefully for a Tony-dies interpretation. (I came across it after Alan Sepinwall wrote a post in which he highlighted this analysis.) He does a great beat-by-beat analysis of the final scene, interpreting the POV shots. He also does some nice work in analysing the overarching themes of the season and where Tony's death would fit into that, examines the role played by Tony's coma dream, does a nice comparison with the death of Phil Leotardo, and goes back to the first episode of the season (Members Only) for further clues. It didn't quite win me over to his point of view, but it came close, and certainly had me questioning how I interpret the ending for the first time since the series ended. Anyway, it's a fascinating read, and if you're a Sopranos fan, it's worth reading no matter how you interpret the final scene.

01 June, 2008

Frozen donkey wheel

So here's the thing.

I was wrong about the season finale of Lost. Or at least, I'm pretty sure I was wrong - there certainly wasn't the big three-year jump I was expecting. Oh well.

Still, I have spent all that time the past few weeks thinking about the term "frozen donkey wheel", wondering where it had come from, what it could mean. And yet at no point did it occur to me that there might be an actual literal frozen donkey wheel in the episode - not in the actual scene that had the FDW codename (that would be the final revelation of who was in the coffin), but there was one pivotal scene of someone turning a frozen donkey wheel. And I never saw that coming.

I had thought about writing this post in the way Alan Sepinwall writes the posts on his blog, with brief introductory comments, and then full comments with spoilers on the main post page, so anyone that hadn't seen the episode would not be spoiled. But I spent a couple of hours last night working on trying to figure out how to do it, and I have no idea - the instructions on this site are impenetrable. So I'll just put the text here on the main page in a white font, and if you want to read my comments on the Lost season finale, just highlight the text. Sorry about the inconvenience. (I'll have a couple of non-spoiler comments down the bottom that you should be able to read without highlighting.)

[highlight from here] Okay, so there wasn't a big 3 year leap in time - if only because we learned in the final scene that a lot of bad stuff happened after the Oceanic 6 left the island. But there definitely was room for the island to have moved forward in time a shorter period - and the most likely candidate is 10 months, since Ben's flashforward in The Shape Of Things To Come, where he arrived in the Sahara in late 2005 with a bloodied arm and wearing a Dharma parka, clearly followed on immediately from the point where he used the frozen donkey wheel to move the island. If that's where he went to, it's very possible the island also moved to that point in time as well

So Locke was in the coffin. Not a big surprise - he was one of the most popular guesses - but it does raise interesting questions. What happened on the island once they moved it? What exactly did they move it to? How did he die? (There was a reference to suicide - did he really kill himself, if so why, if he was murdered, by who and why?) Why do the Lostees refer to him as Bentham, even when they're in conversation among themselves - preserving the lie, or somethign else? What was Locke doing off the island? And while I know there were definitely problems between the Oceanic 6 and Locke, why did no-one, not even Hurley or now-appropriately-aged Walt (man has he grown up) go to his funeral to say goodbye to someone who was once a friend? Plus, he's now the leader of the Others, which should be a good opportunity to get further insight into the island residents, especially mysterious unaging Richard Alpert.

But more interestingly the fact that Locke is dead is a possible move towards the popular theory that Locke is actually Jacob. After all, he is dead in 2007 and will need to be taken to the island in that coffin. This obviously has strong echoes of Christian, who also arrived on the island in a coffin, and is now Jacob's mouthpiece. And, if we assume that the 50-year-old Adam-and-Eve skeletons they found in the Rape Caves back in season 1 actually do have some significance to the story (and
Lindelof and Cuse have said they do), then there has surely got to be some point where characters actually travel back to the past. And if it happens, why couldn't the characters, trying to return to the island, accidentally travel into the past. Locke's body is therefore on the island back in the 1950s, where he is brought back by the island and becomes Jacob. So that's my new theory - I wasn't fully on board with the Locke/Jacob theory, but now I am, and that's how I think it will work out.

One of the things I love about the show is that the showrunners are totally commited to the show and its world, but they never lose sight of the fact that it's rather absurd. Witness the laught-out-loud exchange between Locke and Ben, "Is he talking about what I'm thinking about?" "If it's time travelling bunnies, then yes." In fact, that whole scene was pure gold, with Locke watching the video, then getting nervous about Ben loading the machine with metal just as the orientation video explicitly states "no metal in the machine".

The scene of the Oceanic 6 in the raft was surprisingly intense, as the showmakers played on our memory of the Others taking Walt in the season 1 finale. When the boat appeared in the distance, we knew the Oceanic 6 would be safe, but there was also Desmond and Lapidus also on the raft, and we didn't know what would happen to them. So there was real fear for those guys. Are these bad guys in the boat? Will they kidnap Lapidus or Desmond (who had only just survived drowning)? And then the most unexpected moment of the finale happened - Penny appeared. The Desmond/Penny is easily the best love story in the show, and their reunion was every bit as emotional and powerful as I had hoped. I was looking forward to their ultimate reunion, but was certainly not expecting it this early. But it makes sense - especially since Ben promised Widmore (in The Shape Of Things To Come) that he would kill Penny. What would happen if he tried to send Sayid, who was rescued by Penny and who will now know that this was actually Desmond's Penny. Watching that whole story play out should be fun.

I've long believed that Claire is actually dead, died in the house explosion (again, in The Shape Of Things To Come), and the Claire we've been watching is an island manifestation like Christian Shepherd. And her creepy appearance in Kate's dream seemed to me to be one further confirmation of that idea.

Yay for creepy appearances by undead Christian, this time to let redemption-seeking Michael know he could go, about a second before he died. (Interestingly, Walt doesn't seem to know his father is dead.) Also Yay for Hurley playing chess with undead invisible Mr Eko.

The revelation that Charlotte may have had some connection to the island was interesting - partly because it had me (in my trying-to-keep-on-top-of-possible-revelations mode) realising I couldn't remember what happened to Ben's girlfriend Annie. And when I went back and checked, it seems we never found out - she was just gone by the time of the purge. Now, it's not her, but for a moment I thought it might be, before I realised Charlotte is too young to be Annie. I've seen some people suggest she might be Ben and Annie's daughter, and that is an interesting idea. At the very least, even if she has nothing to do with Ben or Annie, she has some connection to the island, and just what that will be should be interesting to discover.

One final note. I did love the opening - the way the "Previouslies" end on Jack's "We have to go back" scene from last season's finale, then the episode proper picks up immediately from that point. I never saw that coming, but it was perfectly executed.

[stop highlighting]

The main thing was, it was an exceptional episode. There were no big game-changing shocks in the way the last two season finales had (the Portuguese monitoring station offering us a glimpse of the outside world, or the flash-forward revelation), but since we already knew how a lot of the story was going to end (with the Oceanic 6) or where they were heading towards, it was fascinating watching everything play out. Some exceptionally tense moments, a few nice character beats, genuine laughs, leaving us with a headful of questions to think about over the oh-so-long eight month wait until season 5 starts next year.

And by the way, while we now know who it was in the coffin, two alternate endings were recorded. In one, James"Sawyer" Ford is in the coffin, in the other, it was Desmond Hume. The two other endings (along with the real ending, so don't watch if you haven't seen the episode)were on Good Morning America, and can be seen on YouTube. (Man, I hate the Good Morning America hosts - they are astonishingly annoying, even in this small clip. Imagine how awful it would be to watch an entire programme with them.)