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  • Jack Reacher

    January 1, 2013 by Nick

    Jack Reacher, with Tom Cruise as the eponymous character, is the story of an ex military investigator who sets out to discover the truth of a seemingly open and shut case of a lunatic sniper. My mother will tell you that Tom Cruise is completely wrong for the role. Her may be. My problem is that the film isn’t particularly good.

    Tom Cruise isn’t at his most photogenic here and does manage to do “concentrating.” The problem is the plot is slim: we know the sniper can’t have done it from the fact that the film fails if he has, the attack in the bar is essentially a power demonstration sequence and has no real tension, the kidnapping of the lawyer is perfunctory and demanded by the plot, her assertion that she has shown “compelling evidence” is completely undermined by her completely contradictory sentence immediately preceding it. But that isn’t the worst of it: the big reveal the film hinges on is both obvious and has no dramatic weight at all.

    So, what we are left with is a perfunctory thriller devoid of tension. It doesn’t do anything particularly well, but it isn’t really excessively incompetent either. Cruise is suitably unlike-able  but doesn’t have the presence or strangeness that perhaps he might. As I understand Reacher, Chris Helmsworth might have been a much better fit, but he can’t handle not being eminently affable.

    The film is also designed to serve as the start of a franchise. I can’t really see it succeeding. Reacher is a cypher and not particularly interesting. The strength of the film therefore is dependent on the other characters around him and their actions and situations. And the film itself is bloody boring. Reacher isn’t mysterious so much as boring, he has no wit and doesn’t really seem to have much in the way of an interesting past. The monologue explaining him is the single best thing about him in the film and his appearance at the end of it completely undermines it.

    I think we’re meant to be witnessing the emergence of a determined, single minded anti hero in the mould of The Man With No Name. Unfortunately we’re left with something that seems to already be descending into the parody that Dirty Harry became and cut from far more similar cloth than anything more iconic or entertaining. It’s not the film is bad, but it is never good. And it certainly never actually achieves entertaining.

    Doctor Who – The Snowmen

    December 26, 2012 by Nick

    It’s really hard to fairly review Doctor Who – The Snowmen without spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t seen it. The good bits tend to hinge on the plot, which can’t really be revealed because part of the joy is the way it unfolds. It’s the annual Christmas special episode of Doctor Who, and it feels a lot more substantial than any I can remember.

    Usually Christmas specials sit in their own little pockets of continuity. They’re not part of larger story arcs, neither ending nor starting them and very rarely even referencing them. They take place on Earth or an Earth analogue, have characters and plots that are of no import to the series as a whole and tend to being overly sentimental.

    This is probably not the case in Snowmen. Here we see a Doctor badly hurt (arguably too affected) by the preceding series and surrounded by characters we have seen before. Moreover, the characters are fleshed out to the extent where we can hazard a guess that we will very likely see them again.

    The characters are the episode’s greatest strengths: the dialogue crackles, the Silurian and her wife are made 3 dimensional and interesting, the Sontaran even manages to rise above the level of comedy relief and gets some great lines. And then there’s Clara.

    If you haven’t seen the previous series you won’t know why Clara is important (although I am in the minority in thinking the ending of that particular episode telegraphed its ending). If you don’t watch this episode then you won’t know how she is important and how much the following series is going to hinge on her. Moffat pulls out all the stops to make her likeable, and it is his fine character work throughout the episode that is perhaps to the detriment of the overall story.

    That’s not to say the story is wholly bad: even viewed in isolation it is above most of the Christmas specials. But it’s relatively straightforward and glosses over a rather large plot hole for the sake of convenience. There are ideas that recur from previous episodes (but they’re good ones) and the villains never come across as quite as threatening or scary as perhaps they could. It isn’t that the story isn’t dark, but not in the way you may entirely expect.

    There are great moments of humour too. And, for once, not limited to the Doctor and his dialogue. For once he is the straight man to the great character work being done around him. He’s too human, but also too distant. He’s hurting and his feelings are actually responsible for the plot unfolding as it does.

    And the new Tardis debuts. It looks brilliant. The only real reservation I have had about the past few series done away in a single shot. Unfortunately the new reworking of the theme is trying too hard.

    The Best Of Norman Rockwell

    December 24, 2012 by Nick

    For my birthday my sister got me “The Best of Norman Rockwell”, which is a lavishly illustrated book with no real biography or notes. The plates and prints are incredibly well produced and run the course of Rockwell’s career. It’s a beautiful book and one of my favourite art books.

    Rockwell was primarily an advertising and magazine illustrator who started work on some nicely presented but rather flat advertising paintings. They’re nice illustrations and show great technical skill, but they don’t really show the products off and tend not to look striking at a distance. His magazine covers started later and tended towards a formula, often effective as images but showing a high degree of repetition.

    And then something happened. Because the work in the book is presented mainly chronologically you can see the moment where Rockwell goes from capable but limited to being something else entirely. In the late 30s he married his technical skill with great composition and even better draughtsmanship. There is a piece called “Simply a Sharpshooter” (that, unfortunately, I can’t find a good copy of on Google to link) that marries composition, a great use of light and dark, sheer technical bravura and a dynamic and exciting set of figures. It has foreground, middle ground, background and far background. It is, put simply, absolutely incredible. And the 40s onwards are full of works near that quality.

    It’s a beautiful, inspiring and intimidating book. Made all the better for having surprises in and because of the wonderful level of reproduction.

    Overreaching Conspiracies

    December 23, 2012 by Nick

    Billy Wilder used to say that if you thought you had a problem with the third act of a story then the problem was invariably in the first (act). Basically a story has to be constructed in such a way as there is a pay off at the end that relates back to elements at the beginning in order for it to be satisfying. This suggests that stories are finite and that their length and form is determined by their openings, which makes a certain degree of sense to me. But what happens when your story has to run an indefinite length and still have to be satisfying?

    It’s a limitation that I see in comics and television. TV is generally commissioned on a season by season basis, so may have to wrap up in a given year or keep plate spinning indefinitely. It tends to make things disintegrate either into a wholly static experience in which the overall story is never advanced or a ludicrous series of digressions that undermine the underpinning story and leave you no longer caring if they reach resolution. In the only two shows I watch that have any pretence of having a definite story but are open ended as to length they both approach this as an overreaching conspiracy.

    Overreaching has two meanings, and both are wholly appropriate here. I watch the Mentalist, which is a not very good program in which a fictional crime fighting agency ignores rules as the plot dictates and engage in a seventies style chase of suspects every episode but has a titular character he elevates it from near spoof to compelling television. Unfortunately the story trying to hold it all together has a serial killer (usually a particularly solitary occupation) having enough reach and allies to be able to organise a putsch rather than just torment the protagonist.

    Castle, which I suspect knows its time is limited, has a cop investigating her mother’s death that implicates large swathes of the establishment and frequently causes for jarring tone shifts. One of the reason I suspect the show runners know that their time is nigh is that they have taken steps to wrap up the conspiracy and shift the dynamic of the show. It could be they’re casting around for a new direction, but it could be that they are moving towards wrapping everything up.

    Other shows, which I have never watched, I understand to have the same problem. The Fugitive was based on the search for a man guilty of murder, Lost was all based on a mystery/conspiracy and many shows disintegrate into a mass of teeming contradictions in order to satisfy the suggestion of having an overall story (The X-Files, I am sure, falls into this category). It’s a sign of the limitation of the form and the uncertainty of where the first act ends and where the third act begins. An arc is a parabola, and the way Western stories tend to be structured. Unfortunately episodic storytelling is often thoroughly linear until it heads a dead-stop or is derailed. The conspiracy is an attempt to marry these disparate disciplines. Unfortunately it often breaks both.

    The Life Of Pi

    December 22, 2012 by Nick

    The Life of Pi is directed by Ang Lee, and is the story of a boy who sets sail from India to Canada in a cargo ship with his family and the contents of their private zoo. It’s told in flashback, with him recounting the story as an adult to a novelist. Sometimes this takes you out of the story and breaks the flow a little, but it is necessary to frame the story and for the ending to make sense.

    Visually it’s lush and beautiful. Lee has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about the composition of his shots and how they will work in 3D. Nowhere is it clearer than in the opening titles, where depth of field (including focusing and defocusing elements), the framing and composition of the shots have all been selected to make the visuals as inviting and encompassing as possible. There is precious little cutting of foreground elements with the edges of the screen and none of the disorientating motion that seems to plague 3D films where the director doesn’t understand that focusing in 3D is necessarily different and more difficult than in the traditional flat plane.

    The weather effects and use of small animals throughout make great use of 3D, and it is the sheer depth achieved that make the film as lush and engrossing as it is. The story is actually relatively slight, but told so well that it is virtually impossible not to be emotionally invested in it. You find yourself passionately caring about the animals, and they take on personalities of their own. This is actually vital to the ending of the film, and the message conveyed by the film itself.

    I had to admit I approached the film with some trepidation. It’s relatively long, I knew next to nothing about it (and, even now, I can only tell you who two of the actors involved are, neither of whom were the star) and I feared that it may be a mistake to see it along the lines of King Kong (a sumptuous film with great reviews that I felt was an utter mess). Even worse, my initial impression was that it was similar to Slumdog Millionaire. I was wrong. It’s not a truly great film, but it is a good film that is full of visual splendour and wonder that really does need to be seen on the big screen and is as good a use of 3D as any I have seen. And it achieves both a parable like quality and comes close to being life affirming in a way that precious few films can.

    Doctor Who – The Angels Take Manhattan

    October 3, 2012 by Nick

    The current run of Doctor Who took a break with the episode “The Angels Take Manhattan” which had been widely trailed as featuring the final farewell for the Doctor and his current travelling companions, Amy and Rory Williams/Pond.

    It featured the return of the Weeping Angels, who are arguably the finest Doctor Who villains, but have been less effective with each appearance. I was struck, on reflection, about how similar they are to the Alien trilogy in implementation: Blink (their introduction) was effective horror against a small number of villains of unknown capabilities and motivation. Their second appearance had them as a known quantity in much greater numbers facing against a trained squad dedicated to killing them. This time they’re facing against the unarmed but desperate, a smaller and less epic tale heavy with personal sacrifice and fittingly final. Until someone brings them back and botches it utterly.

    The main story, arguably, is incidental compared to what is happening to the characters. The Angels have been chosen because of their capabilities and the way that this leads to dramatic moments. Or the dramatic moments are catered around the Angels. Or Moffat knows that it is time to bring all his best creations together. It doesn’t matter, it is a real high spot for the show as a whole in a way that the largely mediocre episodes of the recent demi season could never manage.

    The story ties back to both the Ponds’ own, with references to how Rory perpetually waits for Amy and also the fact he has died for her in the past, as well as the introduction of the Angels themselves in Blink. In Blink the best moments (besides the sheer terror elicited by stone statues, a menace that Doctor Who has never managed as effectively before or since) deal with how the Angels actions are predicted and how best to deal with them. In Manhattan, the Doctor is once again dealing with tips from the past (which is also the future), although this time he is receiving rather than giving them. It’s a clever inversion and helps to tie everything together.

    The Ponds story also finishes, but not in a way that ties up every lose end or is as neat as I was expecting. There are possibilities left open, although the coda at the end gives everything a rosier glow than a more ambiguous ending would. Part of me feels it is a cheat, but then again I have to remember that it is a kids’ show and that it did make me feel emotions I never thought it could. And the very end also ties back to the introduction of both this iteration of the Doctor and Amy Pond herself. It’s an emotionally satisfying end for Amy, the end of a chapter for the Doctor, has some great ideas and makes the Angels special and scary again.

    Challenge 25

    October 2, 2012 by Nick

    There’s a movement in supermarkets where staff will challenge you to produce ID to prove that you are over 18 if they believe you to look under 25 when buying an age restricted item. To my chagrin I have never been asked to do so. The perils of looking old. This is especially annoying as one shop I regularly go in and occasionally buy alcohol in demands pensioners produce ID. I look older than octogenarians with walking sticks.

    But mad ideas occur to me. The Liberal Democrats recently floated the utterly impractical idea of means testing bus passes for pensioners. The cost of doing so will no doubt massively outweigh the potential cost benefits. And The recent political consensus in this country is to open things that were formally the responsibility of the public sector to private industry.

    VAT is a tax paid on the value of goods at the point of purchase. It is generally levied on items deemed non essential. One of the things about it is that it is paid on transactions within the European Union and, if memory serves, transactions with businesses or individuals from outside the EU are exempt. Which brings me to my mad idea: if you’re not an EU citizen and not legally resident within the EU then you shouldn’t be paying VAT. And supermarkets, who sell many items that have VAT on them, already have staff who check ID on restricted items.

    So why don’t we challenge people to prove their residential status when they’re paying VAT? If they’re legally entitled to be in the EU then they can pay VAT on their petfood, fruit smoothie or clothing (you know, those frivolous non essential items) and if they’re not from the EU they can show their holiday itinerary, visa or be deported. You know, without paying VAT.

    I just privatised vetting and immigration. At no cost. You’re welcome.

    Looper

    by Nick

    I went to see Looper after a host of positive quotes on the promotional materials from publications I don’t tend to disbelieve (if something is only lauded by the like of Heat, Look or the Daily Star I know to give it a wide berth). One of the descriptions was along the lines of “The new Matrix.” It isn’t. It’s obviously cheaper and not trying to appeal to the same visceral impulses. It is, however, very good.

    A “Looper” is an assassin who is hired to kill people who are sent back from the future. More than that, however, they are paid to dispose of the body. They do this for a future crime syndicate who have sent back a representative who oversees the actions in the (still future-) present day. Time travel, on discovery, is outlawed and is solely the purview of criminals. Everyone involved is a complex character without idealistic morality.  It makes for a great backdrop and interesting protagonists. People act according to their perceived best interests, both at the current time and for their individual futures. Their actions have an internal logic but aren’t easily predictable.

    When the protagonist is paid to kill his future self he accidentally fails to do so. His employers set about to capture his current self and kill his future self. To make things complicated he also sets out to kill his future self in order to redeem himself in their eyes. And his future self is following his own distinct agenda. There are lots of films that could provide touchstones: The Terminator movies trying to change or protect the future, Hitchcockian thrillers pitting the protagonist against the forces of both good and evil (although who the real hero of the film actually is could be a real debate) and more tricksy experiments into myriad possibilities coupled with unreliable narrators. The real success of the film is the fact it actually manages to create such a solid and comprehensible narrative: when you consider it there is an awful lot going on and things could have got very complicated.

    Joseph Gordon-Levett has some very odd prosthetics attached to his face to try to make him look like a young Bruce Willis. It doesn’t quite work (the placing of his nose is too close to his lips) but it isn’t as far apart or as stupid as I expected. Both male leads are good, and their reasoning and actions appear logical. The cast is largely good, and there is a definite economy in the storytelling. There is one character who is arguably a little broadly defined as purely comic relief, but the other characters are rich and believable. They’re also believable and complicated, with their own secrets and arcs.

    Looper isn’t perfect, but it has admirable scope and comes close to matching its ambitions. And it is very, very ambitious. It was far more than I expected. And also pleasantly different

    Breaking Bad

    October 1, 2012 by Nick

    Breaking Bad Series 4 is now available on DVD. I would highly recommend it with one caveat: you have to have seen the first three series to actually know what is going on and get the best from it.

    Breaking Bad starts as a middle aged man, on discovering he has cancer, rebels against his largely unfulfilling life and decides to become a manufacturer of meth amphetamine. Now, he is a college graduate who has become a high school chemistry teacher, so his ability isn’t too much of a stretch. On a bust with his DEA agent brother in law he realises how much money is to be made making the drug and, seeing a former student escape the raid, he has a route in.

    Over the next few series his decision has ramifications that he could never have imagined and alliances are made, betrayed, problems manifest and are overcome, and he learns much about how he is prepared to behave and truths about himself, those around him and the world at large. It’s frequently compelling television, even if it does seem to start relatively sedately and almost predictably.

    But series 4 is where it gets really, really good. It’s the pay off for plot threads that have been placed throughout the first three series and the point where Walter White (the former high school chemistry teacher who has become a sought after drug maker) reaches both his nadir and his zenith. He has been transformed from the humble family man beaten by the world into a truly desperate creature who is only just working out what he is truly capable of. There were shocks in previous series, and the show is rarely less than watchable, but the last 3 episodes of series 4 are compelling in a way that the climax of the first Godfather film is.

    Over the first 3 series White (and his partner, and their support network) go from amateurs trying to find a way to make some money to real criminals, with the change in expectation and ethics that this brings. They go from incompetence to greater heights and the climax of 4 is White fighting for his very life while trying to control his destiny. It’s compelling and beautiful.

    Breaking Bad is mature in the best way: it doesn’t layer profanity, violence or sex onto a simplistic morality tale, it has protagonists who are despicable and every character is flawed and has traits to be abhorred. No one is perfect and there are no heroes, and those that we find ourselves identifying with are often the most corrupt and least admirable. And the true shocks are not from violence or events, but the decisions and emotions that cause them. It’s high opera and drama that exists from extreme situations and interesting characters. And this is where it comes together perfectly.

    Judge Dredd

    September 30, 2012 by Nick

    Judge Dredd is the second attempt to bring the comic character to the screen, after the not particularly successful Sylvester Stallone vehicle of the nineties. Critically and artistically it has proved to be more successful, but I am unsure about commercially. I won’t particularly weep over this. It’s a competent film, and the leads are strong, but it didn’t leave me wanting more or believe that the people who made it would tap into the well of potential they mostly left undrawn.

    The comic always struck me as a violent straight man cast in a mad future of dystopian society and social commentary topped in garish neon and deliciously over the top. I don’t know if that is indicative of the stories I happened upon rather than the overall milieu  I was never that big a fan. The film plays things straighter, and the future is more recognisable as an extension of our present. Its understandable from a budgetary and artistic point of view, but it means that the character of Dredd seems much more grounded in the world around him and he doesn’t become a cypher in a world of absurdity as much as a logical participant in a grim reality. It loses something.

    Our real point of view character is Judge Anderson, who is undergoing an assessment to find out if she is suitable to work in the world of the Judges. This is partially for the aim of exposition, as people who are unfamiliar with Dredd are far more likely to see the film than those who are, but it is also because Dredd never removes his helmet the entire way through the film. We need a character who can emote and express, not just one who spends the entire film either snarling or scowling.

    There is a certain purity to the film, particularly in Urban’s portrayal as Dredd. There is no romantic sub-plot, no humorous characters, no extraneous scenes or secondary objectives: Dredd and Anderson go to investigate a multiple killing and struggle to survive as the perpetrators try to kill them. Along the way a lot of people die, including innocents in the cross fire and a large quantity of criminals. Some of these deaths are imaginative or serve the overall plot (if only to show how ruthless the villains are or give the story a sense of place and scale) but an awful lot are perfunctory. And that is my real feeling about the film: it does its job and nothing about it is particularly wrong, but it never really shows wit or flair and never really excites or stirs anything in me. But I didn’t hate it.