March 29, 2011 by Nick
Limitless stars Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro in a thriller that owes a thematic debt to Flowers for Algernon and features some interesting visuals. Although the plot appears to be familiar at first blush, it unfolds in a thoroughly modern and materialistic way. This is about the delights of knowledge or the benefit of wisdom, but about the pursuit of excess and riches. From being far baser and less noble in its aims the film gains a certain edge and realism. While this may sound like something that a moralistic ending could be tacked onto, the film treads a far more ambiguous path.
That is not to say the film is a character piece about moral ambiguity and people interacting. Far from it: it is a visceral film that employs effects to act as shorthand in telling the story. The flashiness of the effect is to induce and suggest a mood, a heightened sense of being and a different reality. But it is also mindful of the fact it has to look good. To understand the effects we must touch upon the premise of the film: a failed writer takes a drug that allows him to better utilise his knowledge and intelligence to accomplish far more than he should be able. When he takes the film the colours of the film go from being blue and washed out (almost monochrome and distinctly cold) to being saturated and at the red end of the spectrum (suggesting hyper reality and warmth). To show the passage of time, but also journeying and travelling, the film employs a sort of speeded up tracking shot that is one part montage and one part cgi trickery. I actually really like it, I find it quite effective if a little showy. It reminds me most of the tracking shot in Zodiac where the city rebuilds itself.
The film is well acted and none of it particularly jars in relation to its central concept or execution. The film moves from wish fulfillment to escalating level of threat (from multiple sources, which is a nice touch) to action and reaction. The clunky moments in the trailer are oddly missing in the cinema release (showing a late tweaking?) and side threats are played up at the expense of what you may expect to be the central conflict within the film. Often the film pushes against our expectations as an audience and goes in directions other than those we expect, but it also plays to genre conventions and features a lot of very well executed cliches. That both of these dichotomous elements exist within the same film and don’t seem at odds is a sign of the strength of direction and focus but also symptomatic of the underlying nature of the story. It’s about contrasts and the miraculous and mundane. The bleakness of reality and the unreality of escape. The mediocre and the magnificent.
The film opens with Cooper’s character at a low ebb, he is in a dissolving relationship and has no money. At no point is he presented as a particularly admirable or likable protagonist, which is one of the film’s braver points and inherent strengths. The most heroic and noble characters are relegated to supporting status, with the main protagonist and antagonists all having multiple motivations and none of them are completely evil. The protagonist himself is a hero of circumstance rather than inherent nobility, and his main foil is arguably more admirable and deserving than the lead. Throughout the film the threat level escalates and the effects of withdrawal and tolerance to drugs is clearly shown, but the ending is a little too neat with regards to the primary threat and either dismissive or ambiguous with regards to the drug use. I would say, apart from the relatively underdeveloped character of the protagonist’s girlfriend, it is my main problem with the film. Part of me feels it is brave and intentionally ambiguous, but I don’t think the rest of the film is quite clever or thought provoking enough to get away with as open ended an ending. Or it could just be that the ending is messy, in which case it is disappointing compared to the relative quality of the rest of the film.
March 17, 2011 by Nick
I saw Rango last weekend and, to put it mildly, it is a strange film. It’s an animated movie starring Johnny Depp as the eponymous hero (he is a chameleon, which is important in exactly one scene and then never mentioned or even alluded to ever again) and directed by Gore Verbinski.
The animation on display in Rango is spectacular. Take the characters’ eyes: they obviously have lenses with reflections and appropriate distortions, they have a sense of liquid coating them and orbs are layered and realistic. I spent a while just marvelling at them and comparing them with the surface layer effect in most other animated films, including Pixar.
The technical excellence continues to the hair and skin textures. Everything on display feels detailed and intricate, leading to a strange hyper reality and feast of detail on display which counters the sometimes sparse plot and relaxed pacing.
This is not a film brimming with jokes. It’s occasionally very funny, but it is not trying to make you laugh every few minutes. The plot is straightforward and often barren but there are some surreal moments. There wasn’t anything I would say is particularly scary for small children but I don’t really think it is aimed at them or something they would necessarily love.
What did seem odd to me was the decision to make Rango a chameleon. Because there is nothing, aside from one scene, that makes use of his abilities and exactly no subtext or running point of the fact he eschews using them. He just happens to be a chameleon just as other creatures happen to be the species they are. No character really gains traits from their species save the mayor, his rattlesnake enforcer and some burrowing animals.
I know I have yet to touch on the plot of the film, but that is symptomatic of the approach the film itself takes: the plot is not really a major component of the film and the influences and pastiches are so clearly obvious that nothing really comes as a surprise. It’s the style and sheer technical prowess on display that makes the film worthwhile.
This is not to say I dislike the plot, you could do much worse: much of it is lifted from Chinatown, there are pastiches of various westerns and a homage to the third Pirates film. Chinatown is a really primal film, with a mythic theme. Rango appropriates it nicely and, although making it obvious, it still gives the film a sense of purpose and overall theme.
So while the plot is minimal it isn’t awful. And the animation is superlative. I will definitely see worse films this year.
10 O’Clock Live and Friday Night Dinner
March 5, 2011 by Nick
Until South Park returns there is precious little I feel any sense of urgency to watch. Or even a mild, passing fancy. However I do watch 10 O Clock Live (on catch up, I am in bed by that time, typically) and have added Friday Night Dinner to the list.
10 O Clock live is a tag team effort consisting of David Mitchell, Charlie Brooker, Lauren Laverne and Jimmy Carr. To be honest, and increasingly so, I only watch it for Charlie Brooker. Aside from his oddly American pronunciation of “schedule” he is consistently very funny. Carr tends to be gimmicky, Laverne is under utilised and Mitchell is starting to seriously annoy me. This week he chaired a debate on discussion of immigration where he clearly sided with one of the participants who was massively disingenuous.
While extolling the virtue of immigrants he (the guest and, by extension, Mitchell) lumped all immigrants and their progeny together, rather than actually accepting that different people and different cultures can actually be different and have different effects. The guest blithely oscillated between anecdotal and statistical arguments depending on which actually supported his point while castigating someone else for doing the same. And Mitchell happily let him talk over the others in doing so. I realise it is meant to be a comedy show but this was no way to host a round table debate.
In another segment Mitchell complained about the idea of the speed limit on British roads being raised in the context of motorway driving. Motorway driving, which is the fastest legally allowed in the country, is also the safest. There was no attempt to actually back up any of his (incredibly stupid) rant with anything approaching statistics or reasoning because it would fatally undermine it. Speed is more likely to result in fatalities in a collision, but the fact remains that the key tipping point for fatalities is somewhere between 30 and 40 miles an hour. Not 70 and 80. In Germany they have much higher speed limits and, oddly enough, no reputation for being the most dangerous roads in Europe. I don’t drive, I have no axe to grind here, but Mitchell is quickly becoming a smug little man who has no actual capacity for making distinctions and nuanced argument rather than cheap arguments he tries to justify as somehow reasonable or intellectual.
Friday Night Dinner, by contrast, was brilliant and nigh flawless. All my reservations about the previous week changed into rasping laughs and snorts of amusement. The jokes were often crass, but not repetitive and all built into one another brilliantly. There were running jokes that were funny and showed progression rather than resorting to catchphrases. There is a logic in why the family gathers on a Friday night that I had missed in the previous episode and a real sense of a family dynamic. A lot of jokes stem from the plot and none really seem at odds with the rest of the events of the episode. And they are funny. Genuinely funny. I haven’t laughed as hard in months.
March 2, 2011 by Nick
This weekend, having been battling a cold for most of the week, I finally succumbed to sleep. A solid 10 or so hours, riddled with those strange dreams you only get when you have been ill.
In one dream I was removing used carpet tiles and storing them. Psychologists, I dare say, would have a field day with that. In another I was trying to escape a flood by going into a tall building and running up the floors. As I reached the top floor (ninth, if memory serves) I was surrounded by children looking at tanks of water with fish in them. Upon studying a tank I was accosted by a fish shaped animal that had a human esque face, but coloured blue with gold eyebrows (but no hair). An earnest, young face with wide eyes and oddly sharp features. If I had to say, I would say a P Craig Russell drawing made 3d and animated. There were also para sailing SWAT teams at the windows.
Now I remember reading somewhere (and you will have to forgive me, because I can’t remember where) that the human brain cannot create new faces and that the faces of everyone who appears in dreams is of someone who we have previously met or seen. Which can explain, to an extent, why people we know pop up in our dreams so frequently. It is not necessarily that we need them to be there or that they actually represent themselves, but that they are familiar and our brain needs someone’s face for that role. But, hand on heart, I can honestly say I have never met a small, talking, bald, fish person with P Craig Russell features.
Memory and dreaming is an odd concept anyway, as is trying to recall a dream once you awaken: the conscious mind takes the man disparate and non-linear threads of a dream, where locales morph seamlessly into one another with no travelling between them and people change completely within moments and enforces a structure and logic on them that they never had. In trying to analyse or even remember a dream we throw much of it out in an attempt to even comprehend it. And the more time passes between the dream and our attempt to work it out or actually recall it the less of it we actually recall, what was vivid imagery as we awaken rescinding into the merest of summarised descriptions.
I have had a few dreams that seemed to have burst forth whole from my subconscious, which I have transcribed as best I can to use as stories at some later date. If I ever get round to fleshing them out. If ever I manage to draw them. But the thing about fever dreams is they seem to lack any form of structure or narrative or meaning that would allow me to do that. Despite my best efforts all they ever remain is the fragmented musings of a healing mind that defy all efforts of transcription.