17 December, 2009

Nothing is permanent, not even death

So here's the thing.

I love Terry Gilliam films, have done ever since I caught the wonderful Adventures of Baron Munchausen when it aired on television in the early 90s and was astonished by the brilliance and imagination on the screen. At university, I quickly absorbed every film he had made (Brazil is now my second-favourite film), and these days eagerly await every new release from the filmmaker. (Although I confess I haven't yet seen Tideland - I want to, but I keep putting it off since I'm a little bit afraid to watch it). There's something particularly exciting about seeing a new Gilliam film - it's not just "Yay, another film from a director I like", there's a real sense that it's a miracle every time he manages to complete a movie. Gilliam is easily one of the most notoriously embattled film directors, needing to struggle to produce every minute of film. (He recently walked around Hollywood wearing a sandwich board only half-jokingly reading "Studioless filmmaker will direct for food", and his production difficulties have even been the subject of a very funny article in The Onion.) Gilliam famously fought with Universal to protect Brazil from being released in the US in a severely re-edited and drastically changed cut (a fight that was later detailed in the brilliant book The Battle For Brazil). Baron Munchausen went well over budget and was at the time one of the largest film flops ever. His film of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote collapsed after only two weeks of unsuccessful filming in a mess of NATO jets, flash floods, and health problems. (A decade later, Gilliam is finally resuming production on Don Quixote.) One of the big problems that I think leads to Gilliam's troubles is that his films are usually not exactly commercial films, they're very personal, almost art films. At the same time, his distinctive visuals and wild imagination mean that his films demand a much higher budget - still low budget when compared to most major Hollywood blockbusters, but still higher budget than your typical arthouse movie - and with higher budgets come higher requirements for box-office returns and greater difficulty raising money for a filmmaker whose box-office potential can vary wildly.

So, (and I hate to be callous, but) I think it is understandable that when Heath Ledger died, while I had all the expected reactions to his death (surprise and shock, sorrow for his family, and sadness at the loss of an actor that I rather liked), one of the first things that occured to me was "What about Doctor Parnassus?" I knew that Heath Ledger had a major role in the new Gilliam film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus - indeed, I knew that Ledger's presence in the film was a pivotal element in securing funding for the budget. (The film's other stars - Christopher Plummer, Tom Waits, Verne Troyer - aren't exactly box-office names, but Heath Ledger's attachment encouraged investment in the film in the hope that his name might attract audiences.) I also knew they had completed a substantial amount of filming, but it was by no means complete. So I had resigned myself to the knowledge that Parnassus was another Gilliam film that would never be.

Then, one day, it was announed that production on Doctor Parnassus was resuming, and that Gilliam had managed to get Johnny Depp (who worked with Gilliam on the aborted Don Quixote, as well as on Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas), as well as Jude Law and Colin Farrell, to complete Heath Ledger's role. It seemed that much of the film took place in the real world, but there were a number of significant sequences that took place in a fantasy world. Filming had finished on the real-world scenes, and the only scenes remaining were those set in the fantasy world. With a couple of minor changes to the script, we now had a film in which Heath Ledger's character Tony changes his appearance in the fantasy world. It was undeniably a cheat intended to work around an unavoidable problem, but for me it was exciting news, since it meant that we would still get to see the film.

And then I saw the film. And I loved the film. But what surprised me was the fact that the actor changes don't seem like a cheat at all - in fact, it seemed as though it was always intended. There are three major scenes where Tony goes through the mirror into the world beyond (hence the three actors playing the role), but the first two times, Tony enters the mirror while wearing a mask that covers the top half of his face, but not his distinctive facial hair. (And bear in mind, that was how it was scripted and filmed with Ledger on set.) This means, for the first few minutes inside the mirror, the audience isn't thinking "who is that?", they're just following Tony wearing a mask. Once the mask is removed to reveal the new actor, there's a brief "Hello, I've changed face" moment, but the scenes proceed on very quickly. (The final time Tony enters the mirror, he's not wearing a mask, but by then we've grown accustomed to the changing face of Tony, so there's no confusion for the audience about who Colin Farrell is supposed to be.) Add to that that there are certain reasons why it is understandable that this particular character more than any other would change so dramatically every time he enters this other world - indeed, it highlights significant aspects of the person that Tony is. And it's not like Tony is the only character to change their appearance in the mirror world - some of the others we see in this world do grow older or younger, even if the change is not quite as dramatic as Tony's. (Although this could be a post-death change intended to pave the way for Tony's more obvious change.) So I was pleased to find that the actor replacement, which could have been disruptive for the audience, instead works seamlessly, and may in fact have actually improved the film.

But, moving on from the replacement of one of the film's most important characters, what is Doctor Parnassus like as a film? It revolves around a thousand-year-old monk who (through a complicated backstory) gained immortality following a bet with the devil, but now owes the devilish Mr Nick his nearly-16-year-old daughter. So the good doctor (who travels around modern-day London with his anachronistic horse-drawn sideshow allowing people to enter an alternate world through a magic mirror) makes one final bet with the devil in an effort to save his daughter. As you've probably picked up from that description, it's a very curious film - in the Gilliam oeuvre, it probably feels closest to a Baron Munchausen in tone. And as a Gilliam fan who is frankly amazed to even get to see this film finished at all, I'm hardly unbiased in my assessment, but I really did love this film.

The acting in the film is excellent, not just from Heath Ledger and the other Tonys, but also from Christopher Plummer and Tom Waits. As Parnassus, Plummer gives the role a haunted weariness, a knowledge of the curse that immortality would be, and a growing desperation as he faces the possibility of losing his daughter. Meanwhile Tom Waits plays Mr Nick perfectly - the character never fully loses his menace, we're always aware of exactly who he is and exactly what the consequences are of his winning the bet, both for Parnassus' daughter and for those people at the centre of the bet. Yet there's a mischievious element to his playing of the game that is quite delightful, and the character clearly genuinely likes competing against his long-time opponent. These excellent performances are supported by the remaining cast, with particular attention needing to be paid to the performance of Lily Cole as Parnassus's daughter Valentina. I've never seen Cole before - she's apparently best known as a model - but she manages to present a strong worldly sexuality while still retaining the curious naivety of someone who has never had a normal life or really lived in the real world. It's quite a compelling performance that I really enjoyed.

I was watching the (excellent) Monty Python: Almost The Truth documentary last night, and seeing footage of the young Gilliam directing Holy Grail, set against interview footage of Gilliam these days, it really hits home that he's getting on a bit. (He turned 69 just last month.) And it's surprising how obvious Gilliam's age is in the film - this is the film of someone who has realised he doesn't have as much time on the earth as he once did. Death pervades the film - our first meeting on Tony follows a failed attempt to kill the man, the central character sought immortality to avoid death but now regrets that choice, and various other character look for ways to ward off death just for the moment, although that threat remains everpresent in the film.

(One of the film's most uncomfortable scenes comes when Johnny Depp fills the role of Tony. He accompanies a woman inside the mirror, until they find a stream where little barges float down carrying pictures of Marilyn Monroe, Buddy Holly, Princess Diana, James Dean. When the woman points out that all these people are dead, Tony replies: "To be reborn, first you must die. All of them have achieved a kind of immortality. And we love them all the more for it. They won't get old or fat. They wont get sick or feeble. They are beyond fear. They are forever young. They are gods. And you can join them." It's a line of dialogue that sits uncomfortably in the film, feeling like a too-on-the-nose reference to Ledger's death, and yet that line was in a version of the script written eight months before he died. It's just another indication of the tragic irony that Ledger's last film was one so focused on death.)

If the film has a weakness, it's in its script. The film is very well-written, has an intriguing and enjoyable story, but I couldn't help feeling like the backstory of Parnassus' relationship with the devil wasn't quite as developed as I would have liked. As I mentioned earlier, it was a complicated backstory - perhaps too complicated - and while I have no doubt that Gilliam and Charles McKeown (as screenwriters) are perfectly clear on the backstory, I'm not sure they quite succeeded in making that information sufficiently clear to the viewer.

But that's a minor quibble compared to what the film does right. And what it really does well is give Gilliam an opportunity to exercise his imagination. Right from the film's early moments, where an incongruous horse-drawn carriage pulling a carnival sideshow sets up outside a modern-day London pub, there is little doubt that this is Gilliam's imagination given full flight, and the various journeys into the many different fantasy worlds offer an incredibly rich visual treat. Gilliam is a director whose works cry out for high-definition and Blu-Ray, where the audience can just explore the depth of his imagined world, and Parnassus is no exception. It truly is a wonderful cinematic experience.

13 November, 2009

The Schizoid Man

So here's the thing.

"Where am I?"
"In the Village."
"What do you want?"
"Whose side are you on?"
"That would be telling.... We want information. Information! INFORMATION!"
"You won't get it."
"By hook or by crook, we will."
"Who are you?"
"The new Number 2."
"Who is Number 1?"
"You are Number 6."
"I am not a number - I am a free man!"

The main point of this post is just because I wanted to share this Basic Instructions comic strip, which was posted yesterday, and which I think is quite hilarious.

I love The Prisoner. I first saw it about eight or so years ago, and have revisited it three or four times since then. It's a brilliant inventive compelling show (and if you've never seen it then you should), but it's also a show that if you just sit down and look at it, it does seem absurd. If you've never seen the show, believe me, everything in this strip is accurate. We really don't know who the main character, Number Six, actually is. We don't know where the Village is, nor which side is holding him, and there are as many theories about what the show actually means as there are people that have actually watched the show. And there really was a (very good) episode where Number Six was hypnotized to believe he was left-handed. I'm a bit bothered by the description of an episode as being about Number Six running for president of the prison - any fan of the show would refer to it as "the Village" never "the prison", and he was actually running for the position of "Number Two" rather than president, but otherwise it's an accurate description of another excellent episode. I've always realised that the final episode was weird (and it undeniably was - Patrick McGoohan famously went on holiday after it aired to escape from angry people demanding to know what exactly happened), but one of the things I love about this strip is that it reminds me that the show as a whole was always pretty weird, and the finale just pushed the weirdness to its (logical?) conclusion.

The remake of the show referred to in the strip actually airs this coming week on an American cable channel, AMC (the same channel that makes the great Mad Men and Breaking Bad), and I'm looking forward to seeing it. I'm not bothered either way about the new Number Six, Jim Caviezel, but having Ian McKellan as Number Two is great casting, as he has that friendly jocular menacing tone perfected. And from what I've seen the new Village does look visually striking and distinctive, although it doesn't come close to the original's. (One of the great things about shooting the original series at Portmerion was that it meant the Village never looked like it was just a set constructed for the show - it was much too big and spectacular for that - yet it still seemed unlike anything we'd seen before.) So I'm excited to see what the remake actually ends up like. I doubt it will come close to the original, but I am hopeful for a few nights of entertaining and fascinating television.

Be seeing you.

24 September, 2009

Make love, not war

So here's the thing.

I once watched an episode of the British comedy series The Thick Of It. I wasn't too impressed with it, and never bothered watching any more episodes. But in the years since I saw that episode, I've heard so many people talk about how great the show was that I began to wonder whether I was wrong in my assessment. So, with the festival showing the film version of the series, called In The Loop (see the trailer here), I decided to give it another look.

Upon reflection, I wonder whether my problem was that I came to the TV series with wrong expectations. I first watched the show because I'd heard it compared to the classic TV comedy series Yes, Minister, a show I've loved since I first saw it at the age of 11. One of the things I really enjoyed about that show was the dialogue, the masterful way the writers played with the English language to obfuscate the message being communicated. Here's an example line of dialogue, in which Sir Humphrey confesses to having made a mistake:

"The identity of the official whose alleged responsibility for this hypothetical oversight has been the subject of recent discussion is not shrouded in quite such impenetrable obscurity as certain previous disclosures may have led you to assume, but not to put too fine a point on it, the individual in question is, it may surprise you to learn, one whom your present interlocutor is in the habit of defining by means of the perpendicular pronoun."

How can you not love any show that has a character delivering dialogue like that. There's a beauty to that sentence, there's no point where the line is actually difficult to understand, it's just that the sentence goes on and on, building up until the listener gets lost in a torrent of words. Wonderful.

In The Loop. like its parent show, also makes distinctive use of dialogue. Here's a sample line of dialogue from the film, coming after someone says that something falls within their "purview".

"Where do you think you are, some fucking Regency costume drama? This is a Government department, not some fucking Jane fucking Austen novel! Allow me to pop a jaunty little bonnet on your purview and ram it up your shitter with a lubricated horse cock!"

And here, you see, I think we have the answer to the question of why, exactly, I initially disliked The Thick Of It. It's not that I'm offended by swearing in movies and television, I'm not. But when you sit down to watch something expecting to see Sir Humphrey Appleby, you're not actually prepared for Malcolm Tucker. Coming to the film with more realistic expectations, I realised that, as a cutting political satire, comparisons to the earlier classic series really are deserved.

The film is basically a comedy about how the Iraq invasion happened. Not explicitly - it's a fictional film with fictional characters, and the name of the country being invaded is never once mentioned - but despite being so non-specific, it's difficult to not interpret as an exploration of how a situation like the Iraq war would have arisen. The British Minister for International Development, Simon Foster, is against the war, but accidentally breaks the Government's line of remaining neutral on the prospect of the invasion when he describes the war as being "unforeseeable". An attempt to backtrack on this entirely non-neutral word choice results in another quote being seen as a pro-war statement. It's not long before Simon and his assistant Toby find themselves in the United States, being pushed and pulled to support or oppose the war. And meanwhile, on both sides of the Atlantic, political machinations move both countries steadily towards war. The film culminates at the United Nations, where votes to authorise the invasion are held based on the evidence of dubious intelligence provided by people with silly codenames, and no-one seems to quite know how to stop the war from happening. If they even want to.

The acting in the film is uniformly great. Most of the core UK characters are filled by the stars of the TV series (although only a couple of people are actually playing their TV character), and they all give very good performances. Among the UK cast, Tom Hollander is the main actor that's new to this world, and he manages to make Simon Foster pathetic, indecisive, and impotent, all without losing audience sympathy.

I initially found Peter Capaldi's performance as Malcolm Tucker a bit disorienting, as just that week I had watched him playing a weak-willed bureaucrat in the Torchwood: Children of Earth miniseries, and it was somewhat startling to be confronted by him as a force of nature. As in the TV series (which I have since sought out and watched in its entirety), Malcolm Tucker is just a supporting character, but his appearances are so completely overwhelming that he feels everpresent. But where the series portrays Tucker almost as the boogyman, a figure whose appearances completely overwhelm and terrify the other characters, the film does a nice job in establishing his character, and then moving him to the States where his reign of terror is completely stymied. In the UK, his force comes not just from the overpowering fire of his profane verbal attacks, but the fact that he has actual power as basically the voice of the PM. But in the US, he's a nobody, tolerated as the PM's representative, but ultimately a somewhat irrelevant creature completely devoid of power to back up his bluster. And it's extremely entertaining to watch him try to get control of a situation where he is completely powerless.

But it's the American cast that really make the film sing. David Rasche has created a nice career in recent years of being the best part of anything he works in, and as the person responsibe for spearheading the move to war, he gives us an entertaining performance as a character that's almost the gung-ho Sledge Hammer reinvented as a politician. James Gandolfini clearly relished a the script that delivers his anti-war general many of the film's best one-liners. (Only Capaldi gets better dialogue.) And it's a surprise to see that My Girl's Anna Chlumsky has grown to be a talented comedic actress. (Her interactions with her mortal enemy, an obnoxious and awkward aide called Chad, were a particular highlight.)

Given that it was probably the language that put me off the original show, it was surprising to realise that it is a genuine love of the use of language that ties both Yes, Minister and In The Loop together. In The Loop may not have Yes, Minister's thesaurus-based dialogue (unless you can get a profanity thesaurus), but nevertheless they both take real delight in exploring the use of language, the implications of language, and the way it can be used to obscure the truth. After all, the entire plot of In The Loop is set off by the use of a single word, "unforeseeable", there are whole scenes that explore the implications of that one word, meaningless non-committal phrases start appearing on jingoistic bumper stickers, and the war-preparation committee is deliberately disguised by the blandest name imaginable, The Future Planning Committee. Indeed, Malcolm Tucker may be referred to as the PM's "enforcer", but basically he's a spin doctor - and spin is essentially a way of disguising unpalatable facts through the most positive use of language possible. And then there's just the general dialogue, which may be profane and offensive, but is also witty and hilarious and memorable and quotable.

But the film also has a lot to say about the increasing role of ideology in shaping the modern political sphere. Those who are behind the war push have clearly decided that the attack is going to happen, and so their focus is not on examining the case for going to war, but just how to get approval for the war while trying to minimise the involvement of those that may oppose the conflict. In one of the film's many plot threads, a lowly aide prepares a paper arguing that the war is not justified, which ends up being the focus of political attention. ("It's like a Harry Potter book, if Harry Potter made people really, really angry.") Over the course of the film, we follow the paper as it is read, edited, leaked, and ultimately even manipulated to provide the very evidence and justification for the war it's arguing against. And yet at no point does anyone really even examine the argument the paper makes, all because ideology has already fixed their position on the conflict.

It's difficult to know what else to say. It's a sharp satire of behind-the-scenes international politics, while remaining accessible to an audience that may not be aware of political intricacies and nuances. It's filled with a great cast of characters, all of whom are to some degree self-serving and behave appallingly, but are great fun to watch. It's fast, witty, and an utterly enjoyable experience.

As I said, since seeing the film, I've seen the complete run of The Thick Of It. And I'm glad to discover how wrong I was about the TV series, it's a brilliant show, I strongly recommend it, and I'm excited to learn that they're making another series, but I definitely prefer the film. There's something essentially insular and small-scale about the series, with people trying to hide from the type of political storms that are forgotten a week later. But In The Loop is a much bigger film, examining complicated and long-lasting international issues, and it's made more interesting and urgent for the importance of the issues at the core of the film. Which is not to say the film is about "issues" - that's just incidental to the film's main focus, which is on being as entertainingly and exhaustingly funny as possible. And it succeeds admirably, proving to be one of the best comedies of the year.

13 September, 2009

Putting out fier with gasoleen

So here's the thing.

Going into the new Tarantino film, Inglourious Basterds, I had a very clear understanding about the general and critical reaction to the film. I knew a lot of people really loved the film, a lot of people thought it was painfully awful, and there seemed to be no middle-ground. (Looking at it now, I discover it's not quite as even as I thought - Rotten Tomatoes gives the film an 88% rating, while the more accurate Metacritic gives it a lower but still positive score of 69.) But at the time, I understood that opinion was pretty evenly divided. So I went to the film, partly because I was glad to finally see Tarantino has finally made the WWII-film-by-way-of-spaghetti-western he's talked about for the last ten years, but partly because I was curious about how I would feel about the film. Given the perceived even division on the film, which side would I fall on - would I love it or hate it?

I should establish what my position on Tarantino was prior to seeing the film. I feel that he's an interesting director, and someone whose work I always try to keep an eye on, but I'm not a big fan. I certainly don't quite get all the praise of his skills in writing dialogue, which I always found somewhat overwritten and intrusively reliant on pop-culture references. I haaated Reservoir Dogs, although that may have been because I was completely put off by the ear scene (I was much more squeamish back then, and I wonder how I would respond to the film these days). I've enjoyed Pulp Fiction the couple of times I've seen it, but it's not a film I really think about. I remember enjoying Jackie Brown in cinemas, but haven't felt a need to revisit it since then. I thought Vol 1 of Kill Bill was good but had some issues - however, watching both Vol 1 and Vol 2 in a double-screening resolved my issues, and I really like the film as a whole. In fact, Kill Bill as a whole is the first Tarantino film I actually like. And I thought Death Proof was pretty awful right until the climax of the film. Most of the film is dull and tedious, and feels like Tarantino is relying far too much on his dialogue (which as I said I've never been impressed by), but once Zoe gets on the car bonnet, the film became an intense and brilliant experience.

As for Inglourious Basterds? I thought it was genuinely great. I walked out of the film thinking it was a really fast 2-hour film, and it was a shock to look at my watch to discover the film was a full 30 minutes longer than I had realised. And, having sat through a 2½ hour film, my only real criticism was that I wanted the film to be longer. I've watched it twice now, absolutely enthralled each time, and the more I think about it, the more I read about it, the more amazed I am by the film. It's rich, beautiful, intelligent, powerful, incredible and truly is the most perfect example of what I hope for every time I go to the movies. And every day, as I look through the paper and see it appearing in the cinema listings, I start planning to skip work for a few hours and catch the next screening.*

* (To CP: Not really. To everyone else: Yes, really.)

The film adopts a unusual pace, much slower than most modern films (it apparently features only 16 significant scenes in the entire film - your average film these days will have between 40 and 60 different scenes), but Tarantino manages the film's pace expertly, building the tensions in each scene, raising the pressure, until the inevitable occurs. Just look at the opening scene, which revolves around a Nazi officer (nicknamed "the Jewhunter") talking to a French dairy farmer about a Jewish family that has gone missing. The scene runs close to 20 minutes long, and while as a viewer it's noticeably a long scene by today's standards, it's so suspenseful and intense that it simply does not feel like 20 minutes. And for pretty much the entire scene it's just two people talking, the Nazi friendly, charming, joking, the farmer on edge, nervous, tense. And it's brilliant. For the first time in his career, I was really impressed by Tarantino's dialogue - it felt natural, as though these were real people having real conversations, rather than just being mouthpieces for the director. And even in a simple dialogue scene, Tarantino manages to surprise, throwing in twist developments that startle the audience while still remaining true to the scene and the characters. The scene also plays with the viewer's expectations - it starts off in subtitled French, but after a few minutes the characters decide to start speaking in English. At that point, it seemed like a device in any other film where characters start speaking their own language and then transition to English to avoid forcing the viewer to read subtitles for the entire film. Fortunately not only does it prove not to be such a device (indeed, most of the film is in subtitled French, German, or Italian), but the change in language actually proves to be an essential element in allowing the scene to develop as it does. It's an exceptional scene, and in any other film would be a high point. But the great thing is, in Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino has better to come.

Tarantino plays out similar scenes throughout the film, intense scenes of dialogue where he seems almost to be experimenting with how long he can stretch out the suspense, and he never falters in his sense of how far he can push the scene. The scenes work because they don't just revolve around the uncertainty of what will happen, but the tension of when it will happen. (Another incredible scene, a meeting in a tavern with a table of drunken German soldiers playing the card-on-forehead identity-guessing game, lasts nearly half-an-hour. By the time the scene reaches its climax, it's all the better for taking that length of time to build the tension.) One of the things that makes these scenes work so well is the fact that because Tarantino knows he has the time to let things build up to a boil, he doesn't need to force the tension by artificially going big. When interrogating the farmer, Landa doesn't yell or rant Travolta-style, he barely speaks above a whisper, just talking and unnerving the person opposite, subtly pushing the discussion towards the result he wants. Characters get no relief from the need to be guarded and careful in everything they say and do because anything, even the smallest most common gestures, can give you away. It's a nice change in pace from the way most films are made, and when the scenes come to their (often explosive) conclusion, there's almost a sense that this is the inevitable unavoidable conclusion to the scene's set-up and development, rather than just being "how the writer wrote it".

If I have a problem with the film, it's in the way it uses the characters of the Basterds. There's pretty much no better way to describe the Basterds than to quote Brad Pitt's introductory speech.

"My name is Lt. Aldo Raine and I need me eight soldiers. Eight Jewish-American soldiers. Now, y'all might of heard rumours about the armada happening soon. Well, we'll be leaving a little earlier. We're gonna be dropped into France, dressed as civilians. And once we're in enemy territory, as a bushwackin' guerrilla army, we're gonna be doing one thing and one thing only... killing Nazis. Members of the Nationalist Socialist Party conquered Europe through murder, torture, intimation, and terror. And that's exactly what we're gonna do to them. Now, I don't know about y'all, but I sure as hell didn't come down from the goddamn Smoky Mountains, cross five thousand miles of water, fight my way through half of Sicily, and then jump out of an air-o-plane to teach the Nazis lessons in humanity. Nazi ain't got no humanity. They're the foot soldiers of a Jew-hatin', mass murderin' maniac and they need to be dee-stroyed. That's why every sonuvabitch we find wearin' a Nazi uniform, they're gonna die. We will be cruel to the Germans and through our cruelty they will know who we are. They will find the evidence of our cruelty in the disemboweled, dismembered, disfigured bodies of their brothers we leave behind us, and the Germans will not be able to help themselves from imagining the cruelty their brothers endured at our hands, at our boot heels, and the edge of our knives. And the Germans will be sickened by us, the Germans will talk about us and the Germans will fear us. And when the Germans close their eyes at night and their subconscious tortures them for the evil they've done, it will be with thoughts of us that it tortures them with. Sound good?"

So they make their way through France, killing almost every Nazi they find, but sparing the odd person (after carving a swastika in their forehead) to go back and spread the word about the Basterds. Now, I don't have an issue with the Basterds themselves - it's a rather fascinating idea, and honestly it would probably have been a good thing if they had actually existed - but the way the film uses them as characters is problematic. I remember a few years ago Tarantino said his script for the film was at that point long enough for three films, and frustratingly I suspect that, in his efforts to cut it down to a more manageable length, Tarantino had to cut a lot of material about the Basterds. After all, the Basterds' actions and motivations aren't too complex, whereas those of the Jewish survivor Shosanna require much more time to establish. What this means is that the characters of the Basterds aren't as fleshed out as we really needed. We get a lot of Brad Pitt's character, completely overplayed in a performance that definitely divides the viewers, but which I personally loved. We also get a lot of Eli Roth's character, nicknamed "the Bear Jew" and famous for taking a baseball bat to the heads of captured Nazis, and a former German soldier named Hugo Stiglitz who is recruited by the Basterds after killing 13 high-ranking Nazis. But sadly, we get very little of most of the remaining Basterds. I was excited when it was announced that Samm Levine (from Freaks And Geeks) and BJ Novak (from the US version of The Office) had been cast as two of the Basterds, but really they're just there to make up numbers, never getting any distinctive or memorable individual moments. (In fact there are several Basterds that just vanish from the story without explanation. In some ways it adds believability - there was some time that passed between Chapters 2 and 4, and they probably just died in that time with no reason for anyone to discuss their deaths when the film meets up with the Basterds months later, but it still felt a bit sloppy.) Coming out of the film, my main issue with the film was that I felt it needed an extra half-an-hour, just to give it a bit more time to flesh out the titular characters.

One thing that's interesting to realise is the way that war films have changed recently. War films these days are probably best represented by a film like Saving Private Ryan, a very earnest attempt to present the "war is hell" viewpoint, the terror and horror of wartime experiences. Tarantino's film is a clear callback to a much earlier type of film, the war-as-action film, films like The Dirty Dozen or The Guns Of Navarone where the Allies are good guys and the Nazis are evil. And yet despite that underpinning element, Tarantino is surprisingly (for Tarantino) aware of the moral complexities of his story. It's not just the Jewish-revenge-p0rn film that many people perceive it to be. Yes, there are people in the film who die in particularly graphic ways (one particularly deserving character takes a volley of machine-gun fire to the face, in what proves to be a cathartic Hell Yeah! moment), but there are a number of situations where the Nazis being killed come across more sympathetically than the "good guy" Basterds. (In one memorable scene, a German soldier chooses to be beaten to death rather than reveal information that would result in the deaths of other Germans. Had that character been an Allied soldier captured by Nazis, he would be regarded as a hero, and despite his delivering a last-minute defiant insult about Jews it's still disconcerting when the "good guys" are whooping and cheering his death as being the closest they come to going to the movies.)

This leads me to the most surprising thing about the film. It's a film that to me seems acutely aware of the toll that revenge actually has on the person taking it. If we look at Kill Bill, a film that's even more explicitly about revenge, the only acknowledgement that film gives to the impact of The Bride's actions on herself comes right at the end of the film, when she collapses in the bathroom crying. Contrast this with Inglourious Basterds, which is basically a revenge film covered with the trappings of a war film. The Basterds are deeply unpleasant people, hardened by a need to seek revenge for all the evil unleashed by the Nazis against the Jewish people and the world. They barely seem human in their braying enjoyment of killing Nazis. In the end, these may have been good people once upon a time, but by the time we see them on the battlefield they're pretty bad people working to achieve a good outcome, and they come up against some brave and honourable people working for an evil end. Similarly, as we look at the laughing face of Shosanna, it's impossible to not think about the toll her need for revenge has taken on her personally. But this film is not some liberal treatise on how we're all human and why can't we all get along. The Nazis were evil, utterly evil and hateful, end of story. And Tarantino is well aware that it is basically enjoyable to watch Nazis die, because there is so little ambiguity in how evil they were. It's still a film where revenge is fun and violence is cool, especially when it's against the Nazis, it's just that Tarantino seems to acknowledge a greater degree of complexity to the issue than I think he really has before.

It's also interesting to see that Tarantino for the first time seems to recognise the disconcerting nature of film violence. The climax of the film takes place in a premiere screening of a Nazi propaganda film about a German sniper that killed 300 Allied soldiers in three days. And as you watch the Nazi audience braying and cheering every Allied death on the screen, people openly laughing with joy at the sight of American soldiers dying, it reminds the viewer both of the Basterds enjoying the death by bat of the German soldier, and of how some audience members will have responded to that scene. (It's no accident that the Basterds adopt Nazi-style levels of cruelty to those they capture.) Similarly, we get the character of Zoller, whose exploits are dramatised (and who plays himself) in that film. Tarantino never actually goes into Zoller's thought-processes watching the film (beyond a joking "that actor was terrible"), but as we see his discomfort watching his wartime experiences on the big screen, it seemed almost as though the weight of the deaths he had caused weighed heavily on Zoller, as if he was a bit repulsed by the thought of that experience being repackaged as entertainment (although, to be honest, there are a multitude of ways Zoller's reaction could be interpretted). Now, it's not uncommon for directors to seek to use their films to criticise the culture of film violence and damn the audience for enjoying it (I'm looking at you, Michael Haneke), and much of the time I feel they actually end up hypocritically endorsing the very thing they claim to be speaking against. Tarantino at least knows that he enjoys movie violence too much to be able to criticise it, so he doesn't adopt a hypocritical "you are bad for enjoying this" position. He acknowledges this is an issue, he just then says "But who cares? I'm having fun."

I've already referred to Brad Pitt's over-the-top performance in the film (which leads to the film's funniest scene, where Pitt poses as an Italian film director, speaking minimal Eye-talian in a thick Southern-hillbilly accent), but it's interesting how stylistically varying all the performances are. On the one hand, there are a lot of over-the-top exaggerated performances. Christoph Waltz's incredible performance as Hans Landa won him Best Actor in Cannes, and he is brilliant, but it's never a subtle performance. At times the character himself is openly performing for the people around him to achieve a particular effect (look at the pipe he smokes in the opening scene, for example), but most of the time that's just who he is - giddy, threatening, intelligent, scheming, eloquent, persuasive, even absurd, often at the same time. Waltz manages to present Landa almost as a comical figure while still remaining a sinister and threatening presence. Then we have similarly larger-than-life appearances from people like Eli Roth or August Diehl. (We also get an OTT Mike Myers playing an English general, in one of the film's more minor missteps. It's an okay performance from the actor, in an otherwise excellent scene, but it's so obviously Myers under lots of makeup that it's distracting. In a film largely cast with unknown actors, it would have been better had Tarantino cast someone else - especially since I just want Mike Myers' career to end, and I hate that he's received the validation that comes with being in a Tarantino film.)

What's surprising about these performances is that, despite their undeniable excesses, they nevertheless feel like real, three-dimensional humans, and they continue to convince even while appearing with actors giving much more subtle realistic performances. For me, the acting highlight of the film is Melanie Laurent as Shosanna, the sole survivor of her family's massacre. It's a performance that everyone would have been talking about had it not been overshadowed by the acclaim over Christoph Waltz. Laurent, a French actress I've never seen before, gives a subtle nuanced performance that is completely captivating. So much of her performance is carried in small gestures, in her eyes, in tiny twitches, in her breathing (just look at the way she barely suppresses her anger, her fear, and her blind panic when she first meets Landa face-to-face), that by the point where she justifiably goes over-the-top, it's made that much more terrifying for the fact that she has been so controlled up to that point. And it's impossible to mention Melanie Laurent without also pointing to Daniel Bruhl's similarly excellent performance as Zoller, playing a Nazi war hero seemingly convinced that he's in the middle of a romantic comedy with Shosanna. And there are other exceptional performances - Michael Fassbender as the British film critic turned soldier, say, or Diane Kruger as German film star Bridget von Hammersmark - that create a nice complementary contrast to the more excessive performances of Pitt or Waltz.

As I mentioned before, what's also surprising about the film is how movie-star-light the film is. Tarantino is famous for packing his films with an impressive cast of current and past stars, but in this film Brad Pitt was the only main actor recognisable to the general public. (Mike Myers is only a brief cameo, while both Harvey Keitel and Samuel L Jackson make voice-only cameos, one as a US General on the phone, the other as a narrator for a couple of sequences.) Now, this is not a reflection on the quality of the actors or the performances, almost all of whom are stellar, but it's a nice thing to see from Tarantino. Too often he seems to cast his films on the basis of "wouldn't it be cool to work with so-and-so", and writing his scripts on that basis, so it's nice to see him stretching and finding widely unseen talent to fill his film.

I'm surprised to look through my review and realise I've made it this far without making any significant comment on the climactic scene. The various plotlines converge on the premiere screening of a Nazi propaganda film in a small cinema, with both Shosanna (who runs the cinema) and the Basterds independently executing their own plans against the Nazis gathered for the movie. Crucially, we know exactly what Shosanna's plans are, but really only learn about what the Basterds were planning as they execute the plans. And really, it's clearly due to the contrivance of Tarantino the writer that the plans come together as well as they do. After all, Shosanna doesn't even know the Basterds exist let alone what they are planning, and vice versa. And yet each plan is really only effective because of how it works in conjunction with the other plan. Similarly the timing of the two plots works out too perfectly for unknowing and independent plans (what are the odds they both decide to execute their plans at the exact same time?). And yet, I can't fault Tarantino for this, because for all of the evident presence of his hand as a writer manoeuvring the various players together, it culminates in what was for me easily the most extraordinary moment in film that I have seen for a long time. It's exciting, brilliant, disturbing, violent, beautiful, haunting. Like much of Tarantino's work, it reminds me of many other films, but where Tarantino usually feels like he is just referencing / appropriating / plagiarising other work, here he may be echoing something I've seen before, but at the same time he's created something entirely new. (A lot of people trying to articulate why this feels so familiar have had to point to Raiders of the Lost Ark or Carrie for anything similar, but those films are so different from this that it really demonstrates how far the scene is from anything that Tarantino might be referencing. Tarantino has gone beyond mere visual quoting - as he does at the start of the film by mimicking The Searchers - and has started refining his inspirations down to their essence and using them to create something entirely new.) That scene at the cinema is easily the best thing Tarantino has ever done, and here it caps a truly extraordinary masterful film. Having seen it twice now, having been thinking about it a lot over the past two weeks, I feel that Tarantino has finally justified his position as one of the most essential directors working today. It really is that great.

08 September, 2009

Review in passion

So here's the thing.

I read an article the other night, one of the most impressive pieces of writing I've encountered in a while. It's called "The Letter I Would Love To Read To You In Person", and I strongly recommend you follow that link and read it. It's an article, apparently written last year, by a young Filipino film critic I'd previously never heard of named Alexis Tioseco, and it really is an extraordinary piece of writing. It's framed as a love letter, but like no other love letter I've encountered. He's not just writing about his love for a girl, a Slovenian film critic by the name of Nika Bohinc, he's also pondering his life growing up and moving as a teenager to the Philippines, he's writing a personal reflection on his connection with and passion for Filipino films, and he's writing a manifesto about what needs to change in that country's film industry. And if it seems strange that all these should be mixed in a love letter, well, as Tioseco comments, "The first impulse of any good film critic, and to this I think you would agree, must be of love. To be moved enough to want to share their affection for a particular work or to relate their experience so that others may be curious." There's a passion that pours out of the letter that's infectious - I've never heard of the films of Antoinette Jadaone, or the animations of Roxlee, but suddenly I feel like I need to learn about them, that I'm losing out by not seeing their work. Alexis's passion for Filipino cinema is so complete that it seems he feels you can't fully understand him without understanding how and why he feels about his country's film output. It's a beautiful piece of writing, and in my view an essential read.

But I'm not the only person to have been reading this piece this week. I visit a few film-related blogs, and in the past few days everyone has been writing about Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc, many of them pointing to this article. And in a number of cases, the writers freely acknowledge that they've never heard of these two until this past week, but now are moved to write about them.

In the article, Tioseco mentions discussions the two have had about where they will live, commenting that Bohinc had come to terms with the idea of moving to the Philippines, and it seems that she did. Because a few days ago, Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc died when they were shot by burglars in their home in Manila. It's a strange thing to read that letter, filled with youth and vitality and passion, and to imagine that voice having been silenced. Any death in such circumstances is a tragedy, but sadly when you hear about such events, it usually almost seems distant, an abstraction, sad in concept but almost irrelevant. But in this case we can read his words and understand what a passionate, eloquent, and thoughtful person has been lost, and as I read various posts about the couple from people that knew them, it becomes clear that Nika Bohinc was no less a forceful advocate for cinema. It all drives home just how awful this event was. Rest in peace, Alexis and Nika.

But reading the letter, I found myself contemplating another issue, something that's been bothering me for the past few days. In reading Alexis Tioseco's passionate defence of the Filipino film industry, my initial thought (if I'm honest) was, "there's a Filipino film industry?" Now, of course there is, pretty much everywhere has a film industry, but I was still surprised. I like to fool myself that I'm a cultured filmgoer whose cinematic taste go beyond the ordinary multiplex, but in truth I'm not that much better than the average viewer of Transformers 2. I might go to a larger number of foreign films than most people, especially during the film festival, but even then my foreign film experience is pretty much limited to French, German, Chinese, or Hong Kong films. I stay in my cinematic box just like most other people, even if my box is marginally larger than the average. (Not that much, though - I don't think watching Jackie Chan's films with subtitles count as broadening your cinematic horizons.) Taking away film society screenings (which occasionally offer more challenging foreign films from unexpected countries that I would otherwise have never sought to see), my film viewing is still extremely limited, and largely American-centric. Even when I do see a foreign film, it's more likely to have been appointed as "worthwhile" by the American film industry, say, through an Oscar nomination for Foreign Language Film. It's easy to argue this as a consequence of availability - not even the typical arthouse cinema shows that many Filipino films, let alone an average multiplex - but that's just an excuse. Even in the film festival, which really is an opportunity to view films from everywhere, I stayed very much within my comfort zone. I mean, I enjoyed Adventureland, but did I really need to see the new film from the director of Superbad at the film festival? Couldn't I have taken the spot in my festival schedule that was occupied by that film and used it instead to sample something a bit different, something I might never have a chance to see, something outside my limits, something from the Philippines or Kazakhstan or Belarus or some country I've never heard of but that could offer me a different perspective on cinema. I could have, I didn't, and I was wrong not to do so.

Now I know that, come next year's festival, I'll be back to normal, watching the same comfortable films, limiting my foreign film consumption to films that have either received the approval of the American film industry or that come from the standard filmmaking countries. I'm not going to be adventurous, I'm not going to try anything new. I'll forget I ever wrote this post. When I come to look through the festival programme and see a film from the Philippines, I'll probably even think "Wow, I didn't know they made films in the Philippines". But right now, right at this moment, I regret my limited horizons. I just wish I would seek to break out of them.

30 August, 2009

¿Usted no habla Español, verdad?

So here's the thing.

There's a scene in Jim Jarmusch's new film, The Limits Of Control, (see the simultaneously misleading and much too spoiler-filled trailer here) that I found rather fascinating. In it, the unnamed central character sits at a table at a Spanish cafe. He orders two espressos, in separate cups, for himself. After a while, someone sits at his table, and ask in Spanish "You don't speak Spanish, do you?" "No," the man says. The new person then starts talking for a while about whether wooden instruments (like violins) retain the memory of every note ever played on them. Meanwhile, the man sits silently, unengaged in the matter being talked about. Eventually he pulls out a box of matches and puts it on the table. After a while, the other person finishes his conversation, picks up the matchbox, replaces it with a different matchbox, and leaves. The man opens the new matchbox, and finds a small piece of paper folded up. He unfolds it to find a short coded message. He reads it, folds it up again, eats the paper, and drinks his coffee.

There's another scene that I found similarly fascinating. In it, the unnamed central character sits at a table at a Spanish cafe. He orders two espressos, in separate cups, for himself. After a while, someone sits at his table, and asks in Spanish "You don't speak Spanish, do you?" "No," the man says. The new person then starts talking for a while about dreams and about how she enjoys watching old films because they give an insight into a long-gone world. Meanwhile, the man sits silently, unengaged in the matter being talked about. Eventually he pulls out a box of matches and puts it on the table. After a while, the other person finishes her conversation, picks up the matchbox, replaces it with a different matchbox, and leaves. The man opens the new matchbox, and finds a small piece of paper folded up. He unfolds it to find a short coded message. He reads it, folds it up again, eats the paper, and drinks his coffee.

But I really have to tell you about this other scene in which the unnamed central character sits at a table at a Spanish cafe. He orders two espressos, in separate cups, for himself. After a while... well, you get the idea.

What's interesting about these scenes (which play out maybe six or seven times throughout the film, usually at a cafe but not always, and with a different person sitting at the man's table each time) is that the only obvious point of difference in each variation on the scene is the subject of conversation. And our main character isn't interested. There's clearly no meaning, no hidden code in the conversation, since the only point of actual importance in the exchange was the opening codeword question about speaking Spanish. The various conversations, which range in topics from the origin of the term 'bohemian' to whether you could study the molecules in something to discover everywhere it ever was, are clearly just points of obsession for the different characters.

But there's another interesting series of scenes in the film. The Lone Man (as the character is credited) comes to his hotel room to find a naked woman on his bed. She's one of his contacts, who has arrived several days early, and she is unhappy to learn he doesn't have sex when he's on a job. Cut to a shot of the woman (whose role is listed in the credits as Nude) sleeping naked next to the fully-clothed Lone Man. The Lone Man goes out the next day. That night, she models a entirely transparent raincoat for him, naked under the coat. Cut to a shot of the woman sleeping naked next to the fully-clothed Lone Man. The Lone Man goes out the next day. That night, she swims in the hotel pool, naked, while the fully-clothed Lone Man watches her. Cut to a shot of the woman sleeping naked next to the fully-clothed Lone Man. The Lone Man goes out the next day. That night, she sits, naked, on the couch next to the fully clothed Lone Man. Cut to a shot of the woman sleeping naked next to the fully-clothed Lone Man. The Lone Man goes out the next day. And this day the Lone Man actually acquires the object he needs to give to her, and she gives him the information he needs in return, and then she leaves.

Basically, what I'm trying to express to you is that there's a lot of repetition in the film. In a lot of ways, the level of repetition probably makes the film sound quite boring, although it wasn't. The Limits of Control is one film where I walked out unsure whether I liked it or not, although the more I think about it the more I realise I really did enjoy it. I think. Far from making the film boring, the repetition really added to the film, establishing a rhythm in the film and giving it a comfortable feel. And Jarmusch plays with the repetition, using variations in the routines as the source of a surprising amount of humour. (There's a very funny moment involving the Lone Man's developing interaction over time with a waiter that may be one of my favourite moments in the festival.)

And yet, for a film that (if we're honest) is largely plotless, a bunch of encounters where almost all of the substantive dialogue consists of irrelevant monologues, there's a very clear sense of direction in the film. We as viewers don't know exactly what his ultimate task will be (although it's not exactly difficult to guess), but despite that uncertainty there's a real sense of dread that increasingly fills the film, even as we sit through these bizarre scenes with his various contacts. It's going somewhere, every interaction may appear meaningless to the audience but they all move the Lone Man forward, bringing him one step closer to his ultimate goal. Even having seen the film, I don't know exactly why he had to do what he ultimately did, what the events were that justified the hiring of the Lone Man, nor exactly who hired him.

But I think that's part of the point of the film. This film belongs to a very specific, recognisable genre, but it's stripped of everything extraneous to the core of the genre. And I mean everything. Hitchcock used to talk about the McGuffin in a film - it's a term that refers to that thing around which the film's plot revolves, the device that motivates the action in the film, but that the audience itself doesn't actually care about beyond its role in actually starting the film's events. And The Limits Of Control is so stripped to its bare bones that even the McGuffin is absent - the reasons why the Lone Man has to do what he does are irrelevant to us as viewers, it just matters that he does them. The characters aren't actually characters, but just stand in the position of characters.* In that way, the pointless but enjoyable conversations seem almost like a commentary on the way this genre, or indeed any genre, relies on pointless irrelevancies to fill the screening time and provide the elements of interest in the film.

* (In addition to Lone Man and Nude, the film's other characters are named in the credits as Creole, French, Waiter, Violin, Blonde, Molecules, Guitar, Mexican, Driver, American, Second American, Flamenco Club Waitress, Flight Attendant, Street Kids #1, #2, and #3, Flamenco Dancer, Flamenco Singer, and Flamenco Guitarist. Not one person in the film actually has a name.)

I do have to mention the cast. The film has a great cast, with people like Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Gael García Bernal, and Bill Murray making appearances, and everyone gives very good performances. It can't be easy to play someone who by definition is just a bare cypher, especially when most of the actors really only get a scene or two to play with, but as they deliver their monologues the characters come alive - they feel like they could be real people breaking through the plot devices they might be expected to be. In some ways, that almost seems like part of the film's commentary on the genre - where most films focus on the main character and dismiss those people that make a single appearance as simple plot functionaries, here we walk out of the cinema knowing more about the personalities of each of the Lone Man's contacts than we do about the Lone Man himself. (Indeed, the final scene in the airport seems to suggest that the Lone Man may be a very different person when he's not working than the silent professional that we saw. Assuming, of course, that that was the real-life Lone Man we saw.)

Now, this film is not for everybody. In fact I suspect it's not for most people. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 39% rating, while Metacritic gives it a score of 40. And I can completely understand the film getting this type of poor reception. As I said, it took me a few days to decide whether or not I even liked it. But I do feel that, once you realise what the film is doing, and just allow yourself to be subsumed into this film world, recognising the constant repetition as providing the base for some interesting variations on a theme, then I think the film can work for you. At the very least, it's both familiar and unlike anything I've seen before. The films of Jim Jarmusch are an unfortunate gap in my cinematic knowledge, and I've been meaning to address that failing for a while but never quite got around to. But someone who could make a film like this as fascinating and intriguing as it was is someone whose work I really need to explore further. I don't feel that I've even begun to grasp what Jarmusch is doing in the film, but it's stayed with me a lot more than a number of festival films that I unequivocally liked, and I look forward to grappling with the film in the future.

18 August, 2009

Take your protein pills and put your helmet on

So here's the thing.

Sam Bell is tired, he is alone, he is 250,000 miles from home. As the sole resident of a fully-automated moonbase mining an essential mineral for power generation back on Earth, Sam's not really needed - his only job is to keep an eye on any problems with the mechanised works. So he spends most of his time watching television, exercising in the gym, or building an intricate model of a small town. Problems in the communications systems mean all contact he has back home, whether with his bosses or his family, is limited to pre-recorded video messages. His only real-time conversation is with GERTY, the robot that actually runs the moonbase. But Sam is coming up to the end of his three-year shift - soon his replacement will arrive and he can return home. And it's about time - the isolation seems to have left him going a little crazy, suffering from disturbing hallucinations. After being involved in a terrible accident while outside the base, he wakes to find himself in the infirmary, with GERTY assuring him all is fine, although the robot does seem to be hiding something. And then... Well, I can't say what happens next, because to do so would ruin the surprise and joy of watching one of my favourite films in the festival unfold.

Moon (please do not watch the far-too-spoilery trailer here) is the first film from director Duncan Jones, son of another famously space-obsessed artist. But while his father is someone who was definitely interested in spectacle, Jones seems almost uninterested in the wonder offered by the film's location. The film ventures out onto the moon's surface only rarely, when absolutely required by the plot, and mostly stays firmly within the confines of the moonbase. No doubt it's partly a money-saving exercise - the film may use (rather impressive) modelwork instead of expensive CGI, but shooting on set has still got to be cheaper for a low-budget film - but Jones also seems aware that focusing the film on the spectacle of the moon as a location would have distracted from the film's focus as a character piece.

And it absolutely is a character piece. So often science fiction films present space as the final frontier, an exciting world to explore. And no doubt it is, for those pioneers who are breaking new ground in space exploration. But Moon presents us with someone for whom space is just where he works. Sam would probably have been excited when he first arrived, "Oh my gosh, I'm on the moon!", but three years later, he barely even thinks about it. He just gets up and goes to work, never even thinking about the phenomenal view out the windows, because (strange as it seems) he's actually become bored by it. But on top of the mundane day-to-day existence, there's also the isolation. Watching the film, I was reminded of the documentary In The Shadow Of The Moon. In one part Michael Collins (the third astronaut on Apollo 11) spoke about being left alone to orbit the moon while Armstrong and Aldrin went down in the lunar module. He talked about being the loneliest man ever, with not a single human being within thousands of miles. In making Moon, Jones was clearly very aware of the sense of isolation that comes from being so far away from even the possibility of human contact. Humans are essentially social beings, so how do you cope when you're a quarter-of-a-million miles from the nearest human being, and you have been for over a thousand days? What kind of toll would that take on you?

At the centre of the film is Sam Rockwell, an actor whose presence automatically makes any film a little bit more interesting. And in Moon, he is the film. After all, he has no interaction with anyone on Earth - the prerecorded nature of all messages from the planet make him a passive viewer for any such scene. He occasionally talks to GERTY, a robot that speaks with the calmed tones of Kevin Spacey, but for huge chunks of the film he has to carry the film alone. I don't know how many scenes in the film consist entirely of Sam Rockwell talking to himself, but there's a lot of them. And it's a credit to Sam Rockwell, and the intelligent and challenging script that he's working from, that these scenes are as compelling and convincing as they are.

One of the problems with modern films is that the twist ending is so prevalent a storytelling device, which means that whenever watching a film that establishes some type of mystery the viewer finds themselves expecting that the explanation will be held back until the end. In that mindset, there was a moment where I was worried the film would disappoint me. There is a pivotal development that comes in the film, not long after Sam wakes in the infirmary, that frustrated me largely because as soon as it happened it became clear to me as a viewer what was actually going on (to be honest, it's not exactly an original scenario). And so watching our main character walk around asking himself "What's going on?" became frustrating, because I thought it was so obvious what was happening, and years of twist-endings had me expecting the film to hold back the revelation until the end. Instead, after only a couple of minutes, Sam himself articulates what is happening, and this is confirmed not long after. And this means that the film can move on to more interesting material, as the film can start to focus on the implications of the revelation. It's not "What is going on?", but "How would someone react, cope with this knowledge?" And that makes the film much more interesting. You see, in a way, Moon is one of the purest science-fiction films out there. It's not a big adventure film, a space opera, or a space western. Instead, it's unmistakably about humanity, using the science fiction setting to explore questions and issues about who we are as humans, what is it that makes us human. And that's what pure science fiction has ultimately always been about.

The most exciting news around the film is that it seems Duncan Jones has not finished with this world yet. I can't find the reference right now, but I remember reading reports that Moon may be the first of a trilogy of sorts. And while these days an announcement of a trilogy to follow a single successful film is the norm (and almost invariably proves disappointing), in this case I'm rather positive about the idea should it eventuate. And that's partly because, in Moon, Jones has crafted an intelligent, thoughtful, and challenging film, and I see no reason to expect him to do any less in the future. But it's also because it seems he's not talking about a direct sequel per se. It sounds like they will be new stories that will take place in the world established by this film, but he won't be going over the same ground. Certainly Sam Rockwell has confirmed that his character will be making a short cameo appearance in the second film, but that it won't revolve around him at all. And that's good, because that will force the sequel to move into new directions, explore new ideas and concepts. And I'm excited to see just where Jones takes us next.

11 August, 2009

If our team don't break stories first, there are consequences (updated)

So here's the thing.

Last week, the Stuff news website dangled someone off the sixth story of a central Auckland building. The whole thing was part of a promotional campaign about how Fairfax reporters are so dedicated to getting the news stories to the reader fast, not because they're good journalists who believe in the role of an independent fourth estate working hard to ensure an adequately informed and up-to-date populace, but because their bosses terrorise them with threats to their wellbeing if the NZ Herald website reports a story one minute before Stuff.

For some reason, Fairfax thought this was a good promotion for the Stuff website, and so chose to highlight it extensively. They wrote an article about it in which they made the threats pretty explicit ("In today's case, ... we had to use a stunt man. But the Stuff team know they won't be so lucky in the future"). You can even watch video of the stunt. And it's highlighted at the top of the website, right next to the site's name, as you can see in the image to the right. (In the interests of full disclosure, I did delete some white space between the site's name and the "consequences" box, but otherwise, that's how it appears on the site.)

But the good news is that the intimidatory efforts of Fairfax executives seem to be working. Looking at the articles highlighted on the home page of the website, the dedication pours off the screen. It's not just that they've got the hard-hitting stories that you need to know, it's that they are constantly working to ensure the story is up-to-date. If there's new information, new angles to discuss, they don't just dismiss it, say "I've already written that story". No, they update their article, make sure that the reader always has the key information to grasp the most essential issues of the day.

Here's what I mean.

Yes, this really is a story that, as I post this blog post, is highlighted on the home page of the Stuff website. Exactly as I show it.

And yes, the story is exactly what you would imagine. It's 12 photographs of dogs that, if you happen to like dogs rather than regarding them as the miserable dangerous killer mongrels that they are, might be regarded as "cute". And they are accompanied with captions telling us about the dogs - their names, their ages, and how cutey-wutey they are wif their tiny-winy itty-bitty wittle paws, ohhhh, don't you just luv them?

No I f**king don't.

And they felt the need to update this story. What, did they initially only have ten photos, but feel they hadn't adequately explored the pressing issue of the cuteness of dogs? And so they had to highlight it on the homepage just so that everyone knows that there's new information to be gained?

But it turns out this isn't a one-off story. Stuff is dedicating its full investigative resources into identifying every possible aspect of this matter. That's why they've got an entire f**king section dedicated to photos of animals. And every f**king month they show us that month's CuteStuff dogs and CuteStuff cats, and sometimes they'll even do a special f**king feature on CuteStuff pets in the snow or some such bulls**t.

[EDIT: 12 August 2009, 7.49pm - Indeed, right now, on the homepage, they are now highlighting a f**king CuteStuff Cats article, and once again, they felt the need to update the f**king thing.]

This isn't f**king news, Stuff. If someone had set the f**king dogs on fire, or if they had won a f**king dog show, then it would be f**king news, but this? This is Facebook bulls**t for tweens who heart animal pictures. This is f**king LOLcats without the marginal attempt at humour. You're just a garish coloured font and a pink background away from being a f**king Geocities site from ten years ago. Do you really want that? All those "best news website" awards you keep trumpeting on about having? You need to return the f**king things because this bulls**t invalidates every single f**king one.

So here's the thing. Stuff, feel free to abuse your journalists as much as you want, if that's the image you want to project. Just as long as you also extend the same treatment to the bastards responsible for this bulls**t. Basically, I want you to take the CuteStuff team and dangle them out of the sixth floor window.

And then let the motherf**kers go.

06 August, 2009

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

So here's the thing.

One of the difficulties with going to the movies is that, all too often, it can be difficult to separate out the knowledge that we take in and just assess the film on the basis of what we actually see on screen. Instead, we find ourselves viewing the film through the prism of what we expected to see.

I had that problem when I went to see the new John Woo film, Red Cliff (see the trailer here). The film is based on a true story of a famous Chinese battle from the early 3rd century AD, in which Cao Cao, Prime Minister to the Emperor, led the Imperial Army to destroy a number of rebel warlords trying to set themselves up as rulers over the southern regions. The film version was impressive, huge, epic, with extraordinary battle scenes, exceptional cinematography, and just a great experience on the Embassy screen.

The problem is, going into the film, I knew that it was released in China in two parts, nearly five hours long in total. However, in the international version being shown at the festival it had been cut down to just 148 minutes. That means literally half the film had been cut. And you can't cut a film in half just by trimming out minor subplots. You need to start cutting into core character and plot moments.

And knowing that fact, it became all too easy to look for signs of that editing. The film opens with clumsily inserted narration (in English). Now that's fine, many films open with some sort of narration or on-screen scroll to provide vital scene-setting information, particularly with films like this that require an understanding of the complex political context that led to the central conflict. What's less common is when, ten minutes later, the film cuts to the other side and we again get voiceover narration providing new information about the characters that we're now seeing. At that point it feels very much like they're using the narration to cover over explanatory scenes that were cut from this version. Similarly, core characters are introduced to us with on-screen titles identifying them - an understandable device, since most of these characters are introduced to us in the heat of battle where there is no time to actually establish who these people are. However, it again felt like a clumsy device to accommodate the elimination of, I assume, pre-battle scenes that would introduce us to the characters in a more elegant manner. It also felt very much like those editing the film (understandably) prioritised the spectacle of the battle sequences over the smaller character moments, so it felt like the central characters were very thin sketches, without the level of detail and realism that I assume was in the original version.

But worst of all were a number of dialogue scenes that felt like they had been trimmed to the bone. These weren't conversations, these were individual statements, maybe 6 or 8 sentences in total in some cases, pieced together to get across the point of the conversation in the shortest possible time. In the most frustrating examples, they would actually fade away from the person speaking to show, say, a closeup of the rain outside dripping off the roof or a hand preparing tea, before fading back to the scene, often to the exact same shot as before, as the same person starts speaking the next sentence. It was a strange device, very dissimilar to the editing in the rest of the film, that to be honest seemed to add almost a dreamlike unreal feel to some important scenes that was just distracting. The only reason I can come up with for that type of editing is that they cut several sentences between each line of dialogue, but the fade away was needed to disguise the otherwise obvious cut in a single shot.

Now, I do need to emphasise, I've not seen the full version, and all this is just conjecture. For all I know, these scenes could be exactly the same in the complete film. But the film really felt like it had been awkwardly edited to cut its running time. And I found that frustrating.

Which was a shame, because despite these flaws I really did enjoy the film. His Hollywood output (Face/Off excepted) doesn't really show it, but John Woo is one of the great action directors, and in Red Cliff he seems determined to prove his reputation is deserved. It's a common complaint that modern action films are shot and edited, all quick cuts and rapid camera movement, in a way that makes action sequences incomprehensible. While that's not normally an issue that bothers me, it's still nice to watch a film where the director actually allows time to show what's actually going on. In the midst of giant battlefields, the viewer is always aware of the wider battle context and the various one-on-one conflicts the individual characters are involved in.

Plus, as someone unaware of the history of the Battle of Red Cliff, it was a nice surprise to see that the battles were ultimately won, not by superior numbers of warriors, but by considered tactics and outthinking the opposition. Although we get glimpses of the various plans, it's never clear until each individual battle what they are planning, which leads to some thrilling reveals (In one scene, one side has to steal 100,000 arrows from the other side, and the reveal of the actual plan as it is being executed may be one of my favourite film moments of the year.)

Yet in some ways, the film occasionally overdoes the "winning by outthinking" aspect - especially since Woo has claimed the film to be a more realistic account of the battle than some of the fanciful romances written about it. In one of the most frustrating scenes, one character is able to predict, almost to the second, the moment the winds will change direction. Either the ancient Chinese had some spectacular weather knowledge long-since lost to modern meteorologists, or the film is just being silly. But despite such small problems, as well as my larger issues about the editing of the shortened version, I really enjoyed this film, and hope to be able to see the complete version one day.

One of the things that makes the screening of the shortened Red Cliff so frustrating is that I can't help feeling that they should have been able to show the whole thing. After all, they managed to show the complete Che (see the trailer here), and that's only half an hour shorter.

As you can probably guess, the film tells the story of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the iconic revolutionary who played a pivotal role in the Cuban revolution and bringing Castro to power, before going to Bolivia and dying while leading a failed revolution in that country. The film is excellent, and Benicio del Toro in the title role manages to be even better than I was expecting (and I was expecting a lot). Steven Soderbergh manages to balance the huge spectacle of big battle scenes with the smaller character moments, and reminds us just why he is one of the more important and talented American directors working today.

But in writing this post, the more interesting thing to write about is not that it's a great film (suffice it to say it is). The thing I found really fascinating was the way the film was made.

I haven't mentioned it yet, but Che is not actually a four-and-a-half-hour film. It's actually two films, each running about 130 to 135 minutes, which were screened back-to-back with an intermission. The first film, which according to the credits is just called "Che: Part One" but which has acquired the sub-title "The Argentine" in its promotion, tells the story of Che meeting Castro and fighting in the Cuban revolution. At the end of that film, they've won, and Cuba is in their hands. "Che: Part Two", also known by the sub-title "Guerrilla", opens several years later, with Che resigning his ministerial positions and sneaking into Bolivia to try to lead the revolution there. As you can tell, each of these is a very self-contained story. Indeed, the title character is the only person to appear in both films, they have very different settings, and each film is clearly designed to be able to be viewed and provide a satisfying cinematic experience in and of itself.

But what I found fascinating is the extent to which they are seperate experiences. Soderbergh knew that the film would have its general release in the two parts, and so clearly approached each film as separate films rather than one part of a whole, considering the story of each film and filming it in the best way to tell the story. And this means that there are huge differences between the films. Part One has a framing device, where we see black-and-white footage of Che giving an interview about the revolution during his visit to New York to speak to the UN. Part Two contains no such device. The effect of this is significant - even if you can forget what we know about Guevara, the framing device in Part One gives us the safety of knowing he survives the Cuban revolution, and its absence in Part Two makes the events more immediate and more unsafe, since we don't have any in-film certainty about whether Guevara will survive (which, obviously, he doesn't).

But it's not just framing devices and storytelling techniques, or the lack of, that show the differences in the film. The very visual styles of the film vary wildly. Part One is very fluid, very smooth in the camera movements, clearly making good use of dolly tracks and the steadicam. Meanwhile the film's visuals are extremely rich and colourful. Whether in the forests or towns of Cuba, the picture is lush and beautiful. The whole film feels bold and confident. But right from the start of Part Two, it changes. Much of the film feels like it was shot handheld, almost shakycam, where even in still shots the camera is subtly moving and bobbing up and down. Meanwhile, the image is stark, washed-out. It all leaves the viewer on edge, never at ease, perfectly suited for a film in which the title character finds himself in a situation spiralling out of his control.

And there's even more. The most surprising difference was that there was a change in aspect ratio between the films. The first film was shot in the wider 2.40:1 ratio of films like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. This means that the image has space, has a cinematic scope to it. But when we arrive at Part Two, the image changes to a 1.85:1 ratio. Now, this change wouldn't be quite as effective in your typical multiplex cinema or at home on DVD, where the screen has a constant width and the second film would, if anything, appear larger than the first. But on a constant-height screen like that at the Embassy, where the sides press in to create the smaller image, the change is very noticeable. The second film doesn't have the space of the first, screen compositions become tighter, giving the feel of the forces pressing in on Guevara. All these elements combine to give us two films that are stylistically completely unrelated, unlike in almost any aspect, and each creative decision is made solely for the benefit of the specific film that it relates to, Part One or Part Two, without making any concessions to the whole.

And yet, it's not like these films are unrelated. They were filmed back to back (although I believe Part Two was actually filmed first), and they were always conceived as being one whole. And despite the drastic stylistic changes between the two parts, it clearly works much better as one 265-minute film. It's a richer experience. With the first film fresh in your mind, the second film isn't just a sequel, but a natural continuation of the story. Watching the two together, it's obvious how Che approaches the revolution in Bolivia with many of the same tactics that worked for him in Cuba, and we can therefore consider what the differences are that allowed them to work in Cuba, but fail in Bolivia. And each film is necessary to provide counterpoint and clarify the other - Che almost seems superhuman in the first film, impervious to harm, and so the second film is needed to make him real. And so much of the second film rests on Che's reputation, a reputation that is largely unearned in Part Two and relies entirely on an awareness of the events in Part One.

The final image of Part Two, and thus the film, proves how much these films depend on being seen as one single movie experience. As we see Che's dead body (sorry about the spoiler), the film fades to a wordless scene of Che on a boat, looking at a couple of people. If you were to watch Che Part Two as a film by itself, that image would be meaningless to you, because the scene is a flashback to the first film, and the people he's looking at don't even appear in the second film. The scene only really holds meaning to a viewer that has watched both films.

So it's a fascinating film. Soderbergh managed quite successfully to make a two-part film where each of its parts is a satisfying experience in and of itself, and yet as a whole make a rich enveloping experience far beyond that of the component parts. I'm glad I saw the complete version, but in any form, this is possibly one of the most essential films of the year.