The Rear-View Mirror: 253 (1994)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Geoff Ryman’s novel 253 was published in print in 1996, but it saw daylight on the internet in 1994. It’s about a London tube train on the Bakerloo line, travelling southbound from Embankment to Elephant & Castle. It’s a seven-minute ride, with stops at Waterloo and Lambeth North. This is from the foreword: “There are seven carriages on a Bakerloo Line train, each with 36 seats. A train in which every passenger has a seat will carry 252 people. With the driver, that makes 253.” And this is the novel for you: it contains 253 characters, each of them travelling on the train for those seven minutes. There are 253 entries in the book, each 253 words long. Repetitive? Well, yes, but boring? Not to me. Continue reading

What’s the Czech for “Beautiful movie”?

I’ve pretty much given up on the Academy Awards for years now, to the extent that I have no idea whatsoever which films have been winning since that hobbit movie. I did hear about that Irish indie romance Once, though, but I didn’t really follow it. On paper (or, more accurately, “computer screen”) it sounded rather twee.

Then a message board friend of mine mentioned seeing it. He didn’t write much about the film, but from what he’d written it was clear that I wanted to check out the film.

Now I’m in this silly situation: I loved the film and I’d go so far as to say that it’s one of the best, most beautifully told and acted love stories I’ve ever seen on film. I also fear that anything that I might write about it will make the film sound twee. Words such as “sweet” and “charming” come to mind, but they don’t really get at what makes the film work.

It’s funny (in a film nerd way, that is): we watched two films on two consecutive nights last week that were amazingly similar in some ways but couldn’t be more different in others: Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland and, well, Once. Both were filmed simply, going for verisimilitude, especially in the acting and writing. Both were City movies, so to speak, very much rooted in London and Dublin respectively. Both were about people who have to struggle to make ends meet at times, and not the Guardian-reading upper middle class characters of, say, Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering.

Yet Once has an artlessness that in its effectiveness is highly artistic, whereas Wonderland never lets you forget that you’re watching a film by a director who wants his directing to be visible on screen. In its digicam, improv way Winterbottom’s film is as much a director’s film as any movie by Scorsese. It is the sort of film that some people might call “pretentious” because it forms its material in unexpected ways and makes this very clear on every frame. Once, by comparison, wants to be a small film, is a small film and knows it.

But it’s by no means unambitious. Pulling off a simple, bittersweet love story – with songs, no less! – take courage, or stupidity, but whatever it was, they managed it. For lack of a better word, Once may just be the most honest love story I’ve ever seen. And in some ways I hope never to read the words, “From the makers of Once” because I’m afraid that there’s no way they could do anything other than disappoint. Poor buggers…

Anyway, enough words from someone who basically said, “Words won’t live up to the film so I’ll keep this short.” Both films, Wonderland and Once, are very much worthwhile. The former is probably more a matter of personal taste – Winterbottom’s films are not likeable as such, nor do they set out to be – but still a definite recommendation. And now I will leave you with trailery goodness and shut up.

If it ain’t broken…

… oh, but it is. It is. In subtle but essential ways.

Okay, that’s probably way more cryptic than you would’ve hoped for – so let’s clarify things: Anthony Minghella’s latest, Breaking and Entering, a film that feels like it was made by Guardian readers for Guardian readers, gets some things very right. If you’re into urban decay, atmosphere, good acting, if you basically want to see a mood poem set in London, or indeed if you want to ogle Jude Law and enjoy his accent, this film is for you.

Abiding the Law

If you want a stringent story with credible character motivations and subtle writing… Meh. Not so much. It’s a shame, really, because the acting is there: I’m not usually a fan of Robin Wright Penn, but she makes her character’s pain credible, and the rest of the cast does a good, sometimes great job – but it doesn’t help that the film takes things that were already clear when they were only implied and makes them clumsily explicit. Also, one of the central two relationships seems to pop up out of nowhere in between scenes – and this, to me, almost crippled the film. (In fact, I felt like I’d fallen asleep for five minutes and had missed an important scene.)

What I really liked: the depiction of London; Martin Freeman’s character (oh so British!); Vera Farmiga’s character, miles away from her shrink in The Departed; Juliette Binoche (there are people, good friends of mine, who hate her – I’m sorry, guys, but I hope you forgive me for liking her acting a lot); the look and feel of the film. In some ways, I think I would have preferred Breaking and Entering if I’d seen it dubbed into some language I barely understand. If I could have watched the dialogues through some sound-proof window and taken in only the images and the soundtrack, I might have loved it.

P.S.: Minghella’s working on an anthology film called New York I Love You. Check out the list of directors, and give a good, hearty “What the…?”

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.)