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  • Sucker Punch

    April 14, 2011 by Nick

    I saw Sucker Punch, which is Zack Snyder’s new film and the first he has done from an original idea rather than an adaption of a pre-existing concept. As Snyder is a director with undoubted visual flair but a track record of making some odd additions and changes to his source material I approached this with curiosity as much as excitement.

    In 300 Snyder’s additions to the story are amongst the weakest scenes within the film, including falling into the cliche of repeating lines of dialogue that have different meanings depending on the speaker and situation. Interestingly, they are also differently lit than the remainder of the film, having a distinct blue tint rather than the rest of the film’s red hue.

    In Watchmen some of the changes simplify the narrative of the film, but a lot strip characters of their complexity and scenes of their subtlety. I have to say that he brought an angle to Adrian that I hadn’t previously considered, but I find the performance of the aged Silk Spectre fairly awful (an actress he goes on to use again in Sucker Punch).

    Despite my reservations I have enjoyed Snyder’s earlier work and certainly didn’t consider not seeing Sucker Punch. And it starts well, using a very efficient opening sequence to set up the background of the protagonist using well shot imagery that played on our knowledge of the situations it related rather than spelling it out explicitly. While not difficult to follow or abstract or impressionistic, it achieved a lot by suggestion rather than explicit revelation. And most of the shots were beautiful.

    As the story unfolds we have a semi cryptic female voiceover and are introduced to a series of stock characters who never really get fleshed out through the course of the film. The main focus of the film never actually talks in what we are presented as reality (the film seemingly occurs on 3 levels: reality, the first delusional state and the outright fantasies in the delusional state) and the events of the film occur as delusional flashback she experiences within moments of the end of the opening scene and the start of the closing one. But, with Synder’s frenetic pacing and raw impulses, it never feels as structured or brilliant as the superficially similar Inception.

    One of the things about Sucker Punch, because it uses our expectations and knowledge of events from other films to avoid having to flesh out the scenarios it presents in order to save time and cram more in, is that it invites implicit comparisons to other movies and characters. That none of the characters are ever known by anything other than their nicknames makes me think of Hitchcock’s Rebecca or a spaghetti western (with one of the girls even called “Blondie” despite clearly being nothing of the sort) and each character is defined broadly and quickly, with little to no shade or depth.

    The fantasy set pieces are all spectacular and worthy of the price paid to see the film. And there are several of them. Shorn of the necessary supporting structure to make sense or carry dramatic weight, they sit as clear moments of fantastic escape. But they’re wonderful visually and each set in a distinct time and place that is recognisable from history and other films. That they all feature the same cast in different situations is testament to their simplicity and immediacy and they all unfold similarly despite their disparate settings. One oddity was the lack of actual bloody violence, with all the violence featuring near superhuman levels of punishment endured by the girls and their enemies, and the enemies themselves all inhuman and dying without any blood.

    The girls are all given their own character moments, but there characters are all familiar and defined by events rather than any real sense of who they are. I would say the most clearly Caucasian get the most screen time and most sympathetic traits, but I am not sure if this is my own prejudice. None of the cast do a bad job but there is precious little here allowing anyone to shine save the elder mentor.

    Again, the familiarity of the character roles and the roles themselves echo to many other films. And that ties back to the structure of stories within stories and the crypticism of the narration. The music and some of the fantasies are wildly anachronistic but there are hints also that the asylum setting itself could be a fantasy. Rather than being a film that sets out to define and challenge structure and be deliberately ambiguous it is more a collection of cool visuals and exciting scenes in need of a coherent and over reaching narrative.

    Arguably the most similar films I have seen are Kasshern and Shutter Island. As I feel both of these are big on style but structurally flawed I would argue it is a fair comparison. Sucker Punch looks great, has some utterly brilliant sequences and makes for a series of adrenaline spectacles, but isn’t actually very challenging or even particularly developed.

    Limitless

    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.

    Rango

    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.

    Dreams

    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.

    The Oscars

    February 28, 2011 by Nick

    I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1933), Citizen Kane (1941), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), High Noon (1952), MASH (1970), Chinatown (1974), Goodfellas (1990), LA Confidential (1999), and (now) Inception. All films nominated for Best Picture Oscars that lost to an inferior winner. In the case of Chinatown it was The Godfather Part II, which is a close thing, but LA Confidential lost to the trite vanity project that is Titanic and that any film could beat Citizen Kane is frankly ludicrous. And this is before I get into the likes of Touch of Evil and The Third Man which weren’t even nominated. The Oscars have a long history of ignoring great films and being hopelessly unaware of the craft and art present in the very medium that they are meant to be championing.

    Every year I find myself, despite myself, caring about the outcome of the Oscars. I love films. I love the feeling a great film brings out in me. I get evangelical about making people watch films and I feel protective and possessive of them. Films make me smile, excite me and make me cry. I care about the characters and thrill at the events. Inception, in particular, left me breathless and speechless. The first time I saw it I walked out of the cinema aware I had just seen something very special indeed. I texted some friends informing them that (Inception) is Nolan’s Citizen Kane moment. Little did I know how accurate this would be when it came to it actually achieving any recognition.

    I won’t go into what Inception is about, may be about, how well made it is and how thought provoking. It’s a brilliant film and probably the best since Goodfellas (which didn’t win an Oscar), and arguably thematically similar to Blade Runner (not even nominated). It’s the latest in a string of genre movies overlooked at the Oscars because the voters clearly don’t like science fiction. In the entire time the awards have been given not one science fiction film has won the top prize. It’s rare they even get nominated. Films that comment on the human condition and provide social commentary invariably get overlooked for people overcoming adversity and overly serious biopics.

    And this morning all I can think is how much of a missed opportunity this was, how the best film of the past several years (decade? more?) and potentially finest film of the next few years has been overlooked for yet another heartwarming story in which someone wins and Oscar by pretending to have a disability . . .

    Friday Night Dinner

    February 27, 2011 by Nick

    Friday Night Dinner is a new sitcom on Channel 4 starring Simon Bird of the Inbetweeners (in fairness, as part of a fairly evenly spotlighted cast) as part of a family which gets together to have a meal once a week. The family consists of two brothers who have both grown and left the home, their mother and father and also featured their distinctly strange neighbour.

    The plot was fairly rudimentary: the boys show up for a meal, bicker, their dad is cleaning out the stuff he has stored in the garage, they play practical jokes on one another, someone comes round to collect the sofa bed that the dad is getting rid of and the next door neighbour keeps popping round to use the loo.

    This is not to say the plot is bad or annoying, but it exists as a platform for jokes, which is what a good sitcom should do. The jokes themselves are mainly funny, and none are really annoying or embarrassing (in the bad way). There probably aren’t enough jokes, but certainly is funny rather than not and is definitely something I will watch again. There are some jokes that are set up in the show, and they are mainly fairly organic. Only one of them seems particularly telegraphed and still works when it finally pays off.

    The characters themselves are fairly interesting, with the younger duo seemingly more rounded. This could be because I empathise with them more but they certainly seem to have fewer eccentricities and seem to be victims of the foibles of their parents rather than afflicting their character defects on them. This works nicely as they become our point of view characters and the unfolding strangeness and comic moments around them make them straight men, in effect. The family life, while no doubt exaggerated, does ring true and there is a strong undercurrent of familiarity in the setting rather than the jokes.

    Overall I would say that it is a welcome distraction and definitely among the better sitcoms of the past few years. The only real problem is that it will doubtless be compared to The Inbetweeners and will fall short.

    Paul

    February 20, 2011 by Nick

    I went to see Paul earlier today and I have to admit I enjoyed it. It’s written and starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. It also features the voice of Seth Rogen as the titular character.

    Previously Nick Frost and Simon Pegg have worked together on Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, which are two of my favourite films. What these films have in common, other than their stars, is their director and co-writer: Edgar Wright. And as much as I did enjoy the film, you can fell his absence.

    Paul starts with Pegg’s and Frost’s character going to Comic-Con International in San Diego before going on a road trip of America touring the sites of supposed alien contact. Upon leaving one of these sites they encounter a genuine alien and embark on a journey to help him return home.

    There are a lot of jokes I enjoyed in the film, although they range from nerdy ones that I feel smug for getting to broad slapstick ones that probably play to the lowest common denominator. There wasn’t really much in the way of middle-ground to them. There are, however, just about enough of them to keep the film moving along, even if it does feel a bit episodic in places.

    Simon Pegg plays his normal, likeable and slightly more mature character to Frost’s more buffoonish and immature comedic character. This is a double act that they have used since the TV series Spaced and in their other films together and works well. They have obvious chemistry together and their timing of the jokes works well. It is, however, by now largely predictable. Pegg’s character has all the real plot moments and Frost’s character has an arc where he matures or achieves some success.

    The film is structured as a series of chases as well as the requisite road/buddy movie. There is a lot of familiarity here as well as several explicit homages to science fiction films. There is also quite a lot of swearing, which even forms a plot point in the film. There is also quite a British slant to a lot of the humour, with America’s heartland getting quite a raw deal, especially Christianity and those who support the idea of intelligent design.

    The special effects are good, with Paul wonderfully designed and full of nice little touches. In a couple of scenes you can just about tell there is puppetry rather than CGI at work, but it works and doesn’t really drag you too far out of the film.

    My only real reservations about the film are the fact that Edgar Wright films are funnier and the film draws an implicit comparison to them just through the cast, and that some of the humour is quite broad and the plot predicable and episodic. It’s a funny film and none of the performances are particularly bad, and none of the scenes miss fire. It just isn’t as great as Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz.

    Nokia and Microsoft

    February 14, 2011 by Nick

    The new CEO of Nokia (whose name I forget and I am disinclined to look up) caused a few raised eyebrows the other week when he released a memo to his staff basically maligning the two software platforms that Nokia smartphones run on: Meego and Symbian. Now I used to buy a Nokia every time I needed a new phone. I had two separate N73s alone. In its day Symbian was brilliant and still has an active eco system going supporting it. Meego I know less about.

    This week he raised a few more: he announced a deal whereby Nokia would use Microsoft Phone Operating Systems and basically signaled an end to using Symbian and Meego.

    Obviously I know nothing about running a huge multinational company. But I can’t help but think this is the wrong decision for any one of a huge number of reasons. Firstly, just in terms of general PR: many within the company are incredibly unhappy with the decision and a large number walked out for the day on Friday to voice their displeasure. Existing users have basically just been told that their phones are obsolete and the company whose name is on them views them as a bit of a joke and useless. I don’t see that really engendering much brand loyalty (the goodwill that accountants love to over declare the value of).

    Secondly, the whole thing smacks of short termism. In the rush to bring a smartphone to market, the company has turned its back on two separate platforms it could be hoping to exploit and pinning its future on the whims and relative merits of Microsoft. Windows is a PC product with a lot of flaws caused by legacy code and backwards compatibility. As it moves onto different platforms these problems tend to exacerbate themselves by it still being designed for mouse and full keyboard input and having a large footprint. Simply put, it isn’t designed for a phone, a touchscreen or a low powered processor and trying to force it to do these things stops it doing what it is actually good at. It’s a me too product with more problems than solutions in this space.

    The rationale behind the decision is apparently to make phones that appeal to businesses by having the Windows brand on them. There are two things about this, in my mind: it makes the Nokia subservient to Microsoft on the phone and Apple in particular have made huge strides in appealing to businesses. Microsoft are trying to enter the smartphone space on the back of Nokia as a brand and Nokia are doing the same on the back of Microsoft. All the while the two leaders in the space are finding more and more ways to appeal to businesses using platforms that were actually designed for phones in the first place.

    And where does this leave Symbian and Meego?
    Symbian is a collective that produces the software, but Nokia is probably central to its success. Without them there is no real vendor and probably not the financial support it needs. Meego is a partnership with Intel which makes no real sense, but I don’t think Nokia really wants to upset Intel at this point, just in case it needs them in future.

    As much as I want to see Nokia thrive, I don’t think this is going to do them any favours and is probably disastrous in the long run. And I am starting to think the trend for this decade, in technology terms, is Microsoft fading from the market leader into the sort of position IBM currently has.

    RIP Wizard

    January 25, 2011 by Nick

    Wizard, The Guide To Comics, has announced that it is to cease existing as a monthly magazine. The current idea is for it to become an online only destination.

    Wizard was a magazine dedicated to articles about mainstream American comics. Over the years it became a periodical about movies, tv, games and comics. It also went from a large readership to a much smaller readership. The content and format changed and I went from being a regular reader to not even flicking through copies I got given for free.

    As much as I do believe I became more discerning between my first exposure to Wizard (both it and I were in our teens at the time) I think the change in content was far more to blame. I used to buy Wizard and devour a huge chunk of reading matter. It had articles on comics I liked, interviews with creators I cared about, art I couldn’t find anywhere else, posters, drawing tutorials and guides on comic production.

    Now, the internet has made a lot of a monthly periodical obsolete: news can be immediate and there is a greater variety of media and effects possible. But the long form read lives on and thrives: analysis, commentary, reviews, articles and stories that can’t be read easily on screens are still sought after and purchased. I know that the readership for these is in decline, but successes are still possible and common. What is less common, seemingly, is advertisers to go alongside them. I know anecdotally that magazines are slimmer just because of the decrease in the number and size of adverts in them, as much an indication of the growth of the internet for advertising and the necessity in changing article type in magazines as it is the decline in readership.

    I could sit and nit pick for hours on where Wizard went wrong, but I think it comes down to being a shoddy magazine that did everything badly and thus had no value when it was once a niche magazine that did a few things well. And that isn’t the internet, that is poor business.