Other People’s Music

It’s possible to have great fun in a predictable formula movie. My daughter and me went to see Yesterday, about a luckless singer who has a road accident and wakes up in a world without the Beatles songbook. It slowly dawns on poor Jack that he is the only one who remembers the Fab Four. Screenplay by Richard Curtis, directed by Danny Boyle. That’s a pretty snazzy premise, innit? We went during a sweltering hot day, the movie theater was cool, and it was the tiniest viewing room in our city. “It’s just like a movie theater people would have at home,” she exclaimed. We were the only ones sitting there, and so we sang along to all the tunes. Great fun. Continue reading

Here comes the Train again

Why does Mark Renton return to Edinburgh 20 years later? I don’t know which reasons Irvine Welsh’s novels give, but Danny Boyle’s T2 Trainspotting lets us take our pick. I like that ambiguity – it keeps you guessing about the characters and about the story. Renton says he is here because his wife is going to divorce him. Could be, but we never see her. There is also the money he wants to give back to Sick Boy out of guilt. Sick Boy, still very blond, now runs his dead auntie’s run-down Leith pub and calls himself Simon. I have another theory: Renton simply remembers the best of times and the worst of times he had with Simon, Spud, Diane and maybe even Begbie, as depicted in the original Trainspotting (1996). Everything else since then wasn’t half as intense as those times 20 years ago, even if it almost killed him. Continue reading

iMac billionaire

It’s rather surprising to realize that Steve Jobs is a Danny Boyle movie. Boyle’s trademark is kinetic energy – his camera wants to move, to jump, pan and zoom and sometimes go wild (remember how Trainspotting hit the ground running all those years ago?). His biopic Steve Jobs, however, shows you two hours’ worth of talking heads. That is what you get when the screenplay is by Aaron Sorkin.

steve-jobs-2x Continue reading

Space race

Gravity is a gorgeously shot film, no doubt. It’s a film by a director who knows what he’s doing; there’s not an ounce of fat on that movie. It’s a thrilling piece of cinematic craftsmanship, and one that has rightly garnered praise from critics and audiences alike. It’s difficult not to see some of the criticism as internet-age contrariness. Is the film’s plot simple? Perhaps. Is it too simple? Well, that point was ably countered by that patron of upper-case criticism, Film Crit Hulk.

And yet, I came away from having seen Gravity being subtly disappointed. It’s a good film, definitely, and Cuaron does a great job – but already one or two days after having seen it, when I try to think about what I saw the images that come to mind aren’t Gravity‘s, they’re from Danny Boyle’s Sunshine.

Now, Sunshine… It’s a flawed film that’s almost sunk by its last third. It’s messy and confused. Yet it resonated with me to a much larger extent than Cuaron’s more accomplished, more consistent movie did. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons why I was somewhat disappointed with Gravity is this: I was immediately pulled in by the trailer, which evoked the visceral dread of floating off untethered into the infinity of space. The film itself didn’t bring back this dread, because of its structure: obviously Gravity wasn’t going to kill off Sandra Bullock, at least not before the final five minutes or so, which meant that there was little sense of risk. It’s possible for stories to solve this conundrum by involving their audience in a sleight of hand where they know a protagonist won’t die, yet they feel that they may just be wrong about that. Gravity didn’t do that, at least not for me, and I’m not sure it wanted to – its aim was to show Bullock’s character struggling and triumphing.

Gravity

That’s the other thing, though: I did care about the character triumphing, but not much. Dr. Ryan Stone, first-time astronaut, works as an audience stand-in, especially in concert with the amazing cinematography (seriously, if Emmanuel Lubezki doesn’t get an Academy Award for this, the Academy should be shot into space!), but to be honest, I didn’t particularly care about her. Part of this is Bullock’s particularly American everywoman quality: a bit like a female Tom Hanks, there’s something to calculatedly likeable about her. She works well in Gravity, but I often find her (and Hanks) bland, compared to, say, the everyman characters of Jimmy Stewart that hinted at darker qualities under the folksy niceness.

Adding to this are my issues with Gravity‘s themes: Film Crit Hulk (and other critics) liked the rebirth motif running through the movie, but I found it somewhat hackneyed and distractingly obvious. By the time we get Bullock’s zero-G fetal position and realise that the line tethering her character to various space vessels doubles as an umbilical cord, the film is practically shouting its subtext at us in IMAX-sized captions: we’re witnessing her rebirth, get it?

sunshine

Sunshine is hardly all that more subtle about its themes, but it’s less single-minded – it’s more messy, as I mentioned earlier – and for me this makes the film resonate more. It’s fair to say that Boyle’s movie doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, but the result is that Sunshine‘s themes aren’t as pushy. More than that, though, I cared about its characters and their plight much more than I did about Dr. Stone’s; she may be more likeable, but her likeability is largely predicated on the audience liking Sandra Bullock. Sunshine‘s characters are more flawed, more complicated, and to my mind more human. As a result, when those characters die it feels more like a loss, whereas Gravity‘s deaths were mostly forgotten a minute after they occurred.

There’s something else that Sunshine pulled off and that makes the film resonate more with me than Cuaron’s arguably more accomplished movie: both films have a metaphysical component, but Sunshine‘s goes beyond the individual level. It’s not just about the potential death of one audience stand-in, it’s about the possible death of mankind. It’s about the two directions in which playing God can go: the film’s protagonists are working on saving the sun and, by extension, mankind, while the antagonist wants to return us all to the stardust we came from. Both sides are torn between being flawed humans and aspiring to the kind of power that humans should not have. It is a shame that Boyle turns this metaphysical playground into a slasher movie, almost drowning the more interesting themes in a space-age retread of And then there were none, but the power of the filmmaking – always more disjointed than Cuaron’s, but for me more engaging in this – got to me to an extent that Gravity didn’t in the end.

Gravity is accomplished in ways that Sunshine doesn’t manage. It is the more coherent film, it gets more things right and fewer things wrong. But the things that Sunshine gets right – and even its noble failures – means that I’d rather sit in a tin can with Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne and Hiroyuki Sanada than with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. I’m glad that Dr. Stone made it, but for me her triumpant rebirth doesn’t even begin to touch Sunshine‘s final scene, which is confident enough to be simple and quiet – and all the more glorious for it.

Swan on Swan

So, tonight’s the night. Stars all gussied up, waiting to hear those coveted words: “And the winner is…” A show that is best enjoyed with vast amounts of alcohol and decadent nibbles. (A couple of years ago, my girlfriend and I pulled out the sofa in front of the TV and made it into a bed, slept until early in the morning and then had toast and salmon while watching the Oscars. Good times. Much better than the one where we tried to do a Vacherin fondue and the cheese both smelled and tasted putrescent.)

I haven’t seen all of the nominees, far from it. Colin Firth hasn’t stuttered his way into my heart yet (aww…), an ageing Dude hasn’t yet shown us what True Grit is, and I have no idea whether The Kids Are All Right or not. In the last two weeks I’ve watched two of the multiple nominees, though: 127 Hours and Black Swan. I enjoyed both films, but I wouldn’t necessarily call both of them ‘good’ films. They both are showcases for their directors, full of stylistic flourishes – but I found 127 Hours exhilarating, thrilling and moving, and I was able to take the film seriously throughout. Black Swan, for all its technical accomplishment, struck me as silly to the point of becoming laughable.

It’s an eminently well made, well acted, well shot, well edited film – but it’s a B movie dressed up to be Oscar bait. It’s a Brian De Palma thriller pretending to be a relevant statement about the artist’s responsibility to destroy herself in order to produce true art. And it’s cheesy as hell – but like a good cheeseburger, it is a yummy treat and should be acknowledged as such.

My main problem is this: if you’re going to make a film about someone going mad, with scenes that signal at every edit, “Is this real or is this only happening in her poor, psychotic imagination?”, you need to have a certain base reality. Natalie Portman’s Nina, though, is a few feathers short of a cygnet from the beginning, and even the scenes that are supposedly real are turned up to 11, producing a hyper-reality that is only halfway removed from the all out insanity that eventually grips Nina’s mind. And the turny-twisty revelation at the end might be believable (I’m not talking about realism but about what is credible in the world established by the film) in opera, but decidedly less so in this movie.

What doesn’t do the film any favours is the spectre of better films that haunts it: All About Eve and obviously Powell’s The Red Shoes. And no hot (though imaginary – oops, did I give it away? The film already does a good job of doing so…) bedroom scene straight out of Lesbian Spank Inferno III: The Birds can banish these ghosts completely. There’s even a hint of Buffy‘s Faith, although that is one ghost that makes Black Swan look good by comparison – Mila Kunis is both hotter and a more convincing actress than poor Eliza Dushku.

So what about that much praised performance by Natalie Portman? She definitely does a very good job, but she’s not always helped by the script, which keeps the character samey for the first half, varying between forte and fortissimo, and then escalates it for too short a time. Portman finally makes for a magnificent black swan, but it’s difficult to say how much the performance is bolstered by make-up, costume and CGI effects.

So, who will win? Hmm… From the films I’ve seen, I can’t really say much about the nominated actors, having seen too few of them in these specific performances. I also don’t think all that much of a “Best Picture” category, since the best films in different genres can hardly be compared. (Is Chinatown a better film than Raiders of the Lost Ark? Does it matter?)

I am rooting for L’Illusioniste, though, because its doomed, beautiful magic has given me one of the most enchanting cinematic experiences, not only this year, but ever. Pixar’s got enough of those little golden men on their mantlepiece, after all.

On getting old and soft

I used to like a good, dark, depressing ending. I used to watch Seven as a feelgood movie. I used to think that Brazil‘s ending was actually as close as possible to a happy ending, given the situation Sam Lowry’s in. (I still think that.)

I don’t know what exactly has changed, but this seems to be an older, gentler me… who actually likes films not to end on a note of utter despair. They can still be pretty dark – but please, please, please, don’t think you need to bring about the complete and utter destruction of mankind, at least in Europe, Africa and Asia to make me enjoy a film. Killing most of the population of Britain’s horrible enough; you don’t actually need to top that one. It’s overkill. Haha. Erm.

Yes, we watched 28 Weeks Later, thanks to the kind programming people at Film4. The film’s actually surprisingly good, well filmed and cast, taking the premise and ending of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later further in intelligent ways. It isn’t a necessary, as far as sequels are concerned, nor does it manage to be as disconcertingly lyrical and moving as the first film is at its best, but it’s a smart, scary, effective horror film.

But it doesn’t half heap up the dreariness at the end. It’s not enough that kiddo is infected. It’s not enough that all the good guys die in various horrible ways: clubbed to death by Robert Carlyle, burnt alive by US soldiers (hey, at least Jeremy Renner got to come back and defuse bombs in Iraq, which has got to beat being fried by your own guys in the process of a zombie apocalypse), having your eyes squeezed into your skull by the hubbie who left you to be eaten by the Infected. Life in post-apocalyptic Britain isn’t pleasant to begin with… so do we really need to end on dozens of Rage-infected Frenchmen running towards the Eiffel Tower, most likely after having had a good nosh on us?

It’s totally silly, I know – but I appreciated that there was a note of hope at the end of 28 Days Later. It wasn’t a happy ending by any means, what with most of England dead and gnawed on, but at least it could get better. Ending on “You thought there was hope? Nope, unless hope in your books means, ‘Well, the Frenchies get killed too! Haha!'”? Now that’s just plain mean.

P.S.: Something Awful tends to have lots of crap jokes, but their most recent Photoshop Phriday produced this thing of rare beauty:

Habemus PS3…

… and a stomach bug brought home from Egypt. All in glorious HD.

So why have I, a stalwart PC gamer (with a PS2 obtained originally for entirely academic purposes, I swear!), got myself one of those newfangled PS3 Slims? Two reasons, really: 1) Blu-rays and 2) The Last Guardian. Obviously I had more reasons than that, but they’re the main ones.

1) When we originally got digital TV, I was told that our connection was fast enough for HD channels. And yes, it was pretty glorious (in a nerdy way) to be able to record and watch both volumes of Kill Bill in high-def. Even boring old football (that’s “soccer” for y’all yanks out there) just popped off the screen in a way that made it watchable. For five minutes. At most. But you could see every blade of grass, and every pore on people’s faces! (Makes you feel all Walt Whitmanesque…)

But then our digital connection was downgraded. Why? They couldn’t tell; in fact, they were pretty mystified why I’d been told to begin with that the connection was fast enough. Guess I imagined all those red pixels in Kill Bill

In any case, yesterday we watched our first complete Blu-ray disk, Sunshine. To paraphrase another brainy sci-fi flick, “My god, it is full of details.” While I still have problems with the film’s ending, this visually stunning film becomes doubly so in HD. Almost makes you want to dive into the sun yourself… in a good way.

(If you’re interested in seeing a good comparison of DVD vs. Blu-ray, check out this YouTube video. Make sure to watch it in HQ though.)

2) This one is a bit more esoteric, perhaps. Two of my favourite games on the PS2 are called ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, and they may just be the main reasons why I got the PS2 to begin with. I was writing a paper on games as art (Et tu, Roger?), and both of these seemed to fit the bill, combining subtle storytelling, beautiful art direction and gameplay in ways that few other games have managed. The developer’s new project is called The Last Colossus, and the trailers definitely have left me more than curious:

It happened at the movies… (2)

28 Days Later and Millions – these films couldn’t be much more different in terms of what they’re about, yet they’re so obviously directed by the same person… I missed the former at the cinema due to middling reviews (and probably also the agonised moans of zombie aficionados all over the internet). Then, after I’d already pretty much forgotten about the film, a friend lent it to me on DVD. I didn’t expect much when I popped the disk into the player, but I was very positively surprised to find one of the most atmospheric, effecive, thrilling and beautifully paced films I’d seen that year. Yes, the ending is a mess, but it can’t ruin what the first 75% of the movie has built up. The shots of a deserted London alone deserve to become one of the iconic images of British cinema.

Millions, too, was an unexpected joy. The film is wildly inventive and balances its sentimental elements (that feel truthful and are never overplayed) with a sly sense of humour. It’s on a very short list of Christmas films that don’t make me feel like throwing up my eggnog all over the prezzies. And it’s got two of the best child performances I’ve ever seen on film.

Add to these two cinematic surprises directed by Danny Boyle that I’d seen a marvellous stage adaptation of Alex Garland’s evocative novel The Coma, which you can find a trailer for here. Garland also wrote the script for 28 Days Later, so when I heard that the two of them had teamed up again for Sunshine, a sci-fi movie, I was excited.

After seeing the film at the cinema, I was disappointed. I’d wanted to like, even love, Sunshine, and again, the first 3/4 gave me a lot of material to love. If you submit to its slow buildup of tension, it’s one of the strongest films of a space mission going horribly wrong since 2001: A Space Odyssey. And then it attempts to become a metaphysical thriller – but it slips and becomes a somewhat more restrained (but not much better) take on Event Horizon. When I read the script afterward, I realised what they were going for, but unfortunately they didn’t quite manage. On a larger scale, it was 28 Days Later all over, but moer disappointing, since this time I expected something great to begin with.

Still, do the final 30-40 minutes destroy what came before? They almost did on my first viewing; nevertheless, the preceding scenes are what stayed with me. Boyle and Garland succeed at impressing something of the immensity of the sun, and of the astronauts’ task, on us. This isn’t Armageddon or Deep Impact, it’s not heroic Bruce Willis going off to save the world to the strains of Aerosmith. These are normal people who’ve been given a task that, if you think about it too much, will drive you mad.

And while the film’s sort-of-villain verbalises the metaphysical implications less than successfully, the visuals of the dying sun actually convey some of what he says. Staring into the annihilating fires is perhaps the closest you can get to looking at the face of God. It’s interesting, though, that Garland, an atheist, and Boyle, more of a doubtful theist, read their film, and its metaphysical dimension, in completely different ways: the movie is wise not to come down on any one side of the God issue. It just sits there, like the dying sun – and if you stare at it for too long, it may just burn off your face. Now didn’t your mother warn you not to sit too close to the telly?

P.S.: Here’s the film’s international trailer. I do apologise, though, for the criminally overused orchestral piece nicked from Requiem for a Dream. (How anyone can think it’s a good idea to use music from that film to evoke ‘epic-ness’ is beyond me.)