Sunday, 19 June 2011

Breaking Bad and Tron Legacy

Have been watching Breaking Bad Season 2 and Tron legacy.

Breaking Bad has had a lot of praise and its wonderful. The writing is in character and plot is excellent and surprising, is always intrigued by its world, which is important for a TV show. The acting is terrific, especially in small details and looks that often propel the narrative, character weakness in these looks, in small narrative loose ends, always seeming to lead to bad ends.

The fun of the show is watching the incremental details and blind spots that a person has will lead them to staggeringly awful decisions. The choice of a terminal cancer patient Walt saying to himself I'm doing this for a good reason, to give my family money when I die, even though creating pure crystal meth, starts off disturbing, and gets increasingly twisted, as the details of how to set yourself up as a supplier is far more work than imagined, leading to lies, death, a need to feel important. Walt's pride is horrific, as he refuses help that would have stopped the dealer sitution from occuring, or given him an early out, then increasingly pushes his dealer partner Jesse into darker dealer enforcment situations, which Walt refuses to get involved in directly, leading to many deaths and ruined lives. And so many lies.

The irony of the characters keep coming up. Walt's wife, Skylar, who he lies to keep his business from, is as proud, annoying and as headstrong as he is, is a very funny take on the normal character. Watching these two fight is always fun as neither of them are capable of backing down, only beatign a tactical retreat, and they tend to be in action showing the weakness of the other. the weakness of both is rage that the world seemingly doesn't live up to their warped standards, adn that they both feel left behind by the world. Both always act as if they are the rational ones but neither truly are.

Jessie, Walt's partner, begins to slowly become the sympathetic character of the show. He's a weak man, addicted to crystal meth, trying to survive, not that ambitious and initially annoying. But he is driven by Walt to succeed, being pushed into increasingly awful situations by the partnership until he's a shell of a man by the end of season 2.

The show si terrific in all these details. And its has Danny Trejo's head but on top of a tortoise.

I've also been watching Burn Notice. There's not much to say about that beyond its loads of fun. Well-written acted and engaging entertainment, with no pretensions.

Tron Legacy is a fun, silly movie that's far better directed than it is written.

It was written by two guys who wrote for Lost and shares with Lost the useless hero and the attitude of we don't need to answer many questions raised, if in fact any. The crippling aspect of the film is in its story beats, which rips off Matrix Revolutions consistently and badly (a virtual world under threat causing problems for the real world, machine evolution, everything ultimately is tied to duality of a soul and finding purpose from that).

Tron Legacy takes place about 30 years after Tron and is about the mystery of the Jeff Bridges character disappearing from the world and his son trying to find him. After an appalling first few minutes of info dump to link Tron to its sequel, the story of the son searching for his father settles down to the the most solid aspect of the film, taking us from the real world, to the world of Tron, its battles, its power structures. All those elements, even if startlingly unoriginal in every plot point, are solid. Even as the film goes a bit crazy, after the son finds Jeff Bridges in Tron, this element remains solid.

Not that its well written in character. The lead actor Garret Hedlund, who plays the son, struggles with some appalling character work inflicted upon him by the writers. His character is pouty, more than a bit dumb, never listens, never has any real plan, leading to a lack of direction for the film. Its a staggeringly awful peice of writing development scene to scene but the actor, while not able to make the character unique, manages to at least overcome the writing and make the character work within the film. But its leaves the film stranded in a set of sequences without any narative momentum or core, without an interesting goal. Jeff Bridges isn't given much interesting scenes to play either, as the mysterious lost father, who is found and who changes his mind about every ten minutes but being a terrific actor, hides it with eccentricity. So the lack of centre for the film is a major problem. That's the downside. Plus the plot of the virtual characters getting ready to come into the real world to kill us all. That's a dumb plot device that's difficult to overcome.

And yet I like the film. The director Jospeh Kosinski has a good eye, is the main power behind keeping the film working. He seems to be aware of the flaws in script and tries to sell the concepts visually, to use images and cinematic technique to sell the simple idea of a magic techno world. Despite Tron being almost one-note in visual idea, a computer world always stays a computer world, he kept the visuals intereresting and varied by changing perspective, by revealing the Tron world and shadings slowly, knowing to use a strong series of images when there's a dodgy plot turn coming (such as the end and the army of Tron soldiers, which looks so good you forget the dumbness of the idea behind it). He sold the real world and the world of Tron as related to each other in interesting ways, liking architecture, the villains in almost CEO type glass guildings compared to dungeon-like dwellings of the creators of the technology in both worlds. The lack of directoon within the characters is made interesting by how he frames them, making their confusion seem more interesting within the world than it should be. Despite there being no real plot or character development in this area, the journey the lead character takes is sold beatifully by visual information, by the changes in location, pacing of scenes, styles of landscape. The idea of Jeff Bridges fighting another younger version of himself within Tron, of being a soul cut in half, is a non-event narratively, as not much time is spent with either Bridges character but Bridges and the way Kosinski shoots Bridges throughout suggests an intriguing connection and disaffection, a lack of centre to both characters. The finale to this beat works only visually, as the plot reasons seem dull but the idea of a person inegrating two parts of his soul are fascinating.

Tron Legacy almost works as a silent movie. None of the dialogue is worth a damn but the visuals are always intriguing and suggest a more developed and fascinating world beyond the limits of the writers. Its best to view it the way you would view the theatrical cut of Fincher's Alien 3. (the Alien 3workprint cut solves many of these problems but elaboration and detail) Yes there are lots of problems, the narrative starts and stops but lok at how the director sets up shots, places people within landscape, is in love with the visual aspects. So I recommend it, but be aware that its more about the start of a promising director rather than a successful film on the whole.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Lost & Caprica

I've finished watching the final seasons to Lost and Caprica, finding that both could be fascinating and exasperating, and that they were effective in very different ways. The reason that I combine the shows in one post is that I saw their conclusion within a  few days of each other and their respective success/failures interest me in response to one another. Do you want well-done character beats that mean little  as it is a genre exercise ultimately or crazy idea-led stories with real-life ties.

In my experience its usually one or the other. The set-up of a complex series of characters tends to make development tricky, with a lack of idealisation in characters redemptions, actions multi-layered and difficult to take a side on, leading to what is in most cases is inertia. Pulp tends to pop along with bells and whistles, is fun. On Lost was that no matter how complex they tried to make the story it was ultimately safe and very unthreatening in ideas, being the hero's journey, which is a cop-out for ideas as its based on a sentimental lie that people rise to the occasion no matter what, rather than conmpromises and inertia leading to actiosn that can take on a positive or negative state. In Lost no-one was ever going to be confonted with anything too complicated. The characters could go dark but there was ultimately a mysterious reason, that could serve as a cop-out to some degree. It never quite got as ambitious in character or situation, or as feral as I would like.

Caprica, like Battlestar Galactica, had a more complicated take to life, to fate, even to the great narrative cheat, divine intervention, where the divine is an ultimately psychotically destructive and disgusting, used when a society has broken down with no chance of escape, the intervention lead on from the insanity of the characters that lead to destruction. It was ambitious but with Caprica the drama was less than involving. A show like Deadwood or Caprica's sister show Battlestar Galactica can have stories of complex ideas and emotions, as well as defined characters that can be linked to genre, can be out of control, so the prinicpal drive is the chaos but the genre brakes are there but can be used carefully, as safe elements for the audience to hook onto, such as characters like Adama.  The Sopranos and Mad Men have these safer elements. There is traditional elements in any long-running drama that are always fake, sentimental, that create a sense of life that is not entirely true, that make the more difficult elements easier to take, even if they can be subtly subverted, to tie into audience projections on a character. But characters are the glue to be worked from in television, and tend to be the thing that sinks a show, as the characters get to be too idealised and sentimental. Caprica never really mastered character involvement week to week.

Lost lasted for six seasons, had advantage in being a complete series arc, as well as having stronger dramatic characters, while Caprica was complex, grown up, had superior ideas, and was linked to the story of Battlestar Galactica, a show that Lost never truly could compete with in quality. If I were to be honest, Lost was the more enjoyable show, but it could also be by far a worse show than Caprica ever managed.

Lost started strong, sagged in the middle of season 2 to the later parts of season 3, recovered and was at its peak until the end of season 5 then had an interesting but very confused final season. It was a fantastical suspense show that wasn't always very good at suspense, as it relied heavily on idiot plot, where character have to be idiots for the plot to work. Its strength was in its fantasical set-up and some of its characters, its weakness was in it could be deeply unimaginative on plot solution, on variation of story beats, and had bad instincts on its central characters, making them dull in ways that sentimental deands on characters can be on TV shows.

I'll start with the negatives because I'd like to end on the positives. The central character Jack was meant to be a hero but was a self-righteous moron, a surgeon with a severe impulse control problem. The writers at least recognised this about the character and did increasingly interesting things with it, expanding it around its weird contradictions. The female lead Kate was dumb, a self-destructive loser, was the world's worst fugitive, who was set up to be a kind person with a mysterious past, the ultimate TV cliche. Alas in plot she was always making things worse for herself with entirely useless actions, her reasons being a fugutive was selfish and unforgivable (and very stupid). the character was a disaster of smugness and bad writing and plot movements, working always on the wrong side of playing audience needs to play on underdogs. She only became reasonable halfway through season 5, when she became a little more selfless and self-aware of her own basic stupidity, like the Jack character. The actors playing these parts did a good job but they were acting the dregs when it came to characterisation, with pitiful attempts to play on genre expectations that always seemed to lack any real human tocuhes. The creators seemed to have a blind spot when it came to realising how much these characters were failing.

The mysteries could also be annoying in that I ultimately it had the internal logic of an episode of The Magic Roundabout, and was under-cooked. The writers set things up and generally didn't know how to resolve them dramatically, so moved on to the next idea and explained it away as being mysterious. That's acceptable a few times on a show but occured about five times a season at best. There were many episode of Lost that felt like a how not-to write a TV show in regards to its mythology. The suspense beats could feel the same way. Again its flaws went back to basic takes on genre expectations done badly.

On the other hand, much of the pleasure came from the wonderful situation, of the mysterious island, the Jules verne meets The Shining set-up, with eighties tech, creepy monsters, a thirst for killing off characters once they had served their purpose. It was an infallable set-up that the writers kept finding fun ways to add to, from the crash survivors investigating the island, the ghosts on the island, the hatch, the others, with flashbacks, flashforwards, time travel where the characters set-up some of their future, and even the sideway alternative universe. All of these were intriguing situations that had great moments of pulp character and suspense. As stories expanding from a genre base, the show made strong ties between the character's past, from before they ever met, which gave a feeling of further complexity. The show kept being inventive and atmospheric, having mysteries that worked for weeks or years as suspense tools, which is one of the main needs of a long-running show. The shame came in the reveals, such as in season three, where the others weren't as interesting as the two season set-up had promised. This type of weak ending to mystery is always a dissapointment and was a genuine repeating flaw of the show, suggesting a fatal lack of imagination in details beyond a genre-influenced point. But the show continually built well from its pulp origins, and did a lot around its flaws.

The supporting characters really made the show work. There were many but these characters had very well developed growth, had stages, where the characters were always spiky and intriguing. Lost had some terrific points of interest week to week away from the leads, in Sawyer, Locke, Desmond, Ben Linus, and Hurley, all of whom had continually added complications, who created the sense of depth in the world, all of whom would have worked better as the leads and who were spared the hack-work by not having to be the sentimental projections to the intended audience.

Sawyer started out as a con man, had a very good reading on people, could be guarranteed in early seasons to be sarcastic, selfish, offensive, then selfish some more. The character, who never got off the island until the ending, managed to have growth under constant duress to become the leader over the years, to overcome a horrifying back story  with a great pay-off (which felt nasty and had a damaging effect on him, and always made the Kate story look whiney and annoying,), and had the most affecting love story of the series with Juliet, who along with Sun, was one of the few well done female characters. The nastiness of his character at the start allowed the rest of the story to play intriguingly. The writers of this show had trouble when you were meant to like a character instantly but give them a damaged character needing development, they worked wonders.

Locke was a sad story, a man who ruined his life due to delusional behaviour, who had a blind spot when it came to how much he knew, a faithful believer who thought he was asking the right questions but who never understood people. He was a driven character, restless, always pushing ahead. The strength of this character was that it allowed the writers to get their awe of the situation of the island, to personalise it and to keep it to character, to allow it to develop in human touches, as well as to show failure and the darker side of faith and the magic. Even within the genre restraints of the show, Locke always gave hints of craziness, of a series ready to go interesting and beyond its limits.

Desmond was an intriguing figure in that he started off a minor character that the writers obviously liked, who started to develop as a man tortured by the island, by his fate, being being able to see through time, when he wanted a simple life. It was actually a very simple short story planted in the middle of more complex arcs which made it always stand out, as a simple beat that could come in every so often to clarify. He was also the character that allowed the show to have complex plots within a flawed human figure, as Desmond was always a little weak but determined. It was good used of a character adding background detail without a lot of obvious effort.

Ben Linus was a terrific villain in this story in that he was written as an all-out villain but was always human and vulnerable. He was the face of the island at the start, who was forced to do horrible things to protect it, who was always manipulative and dangerous to ftriends and enemies. But his arc, following the death of his daughter in season 4, become one of the more emotional beats in the story, far stronger than the central character dynamics, leading to a great episode where he confronts why he killed his own leader, the effects of his daughter's death, and the rage that followed that, as well as seeing what his life could have been like without the island. The finale gave him a few lovely scenes where he starts to come to terms with his past. It was a character that worked best on the idea of what fate or other influences make you do, and was a great example of a show working aginst the limitation of a genre base.

Hurley was probably the least complex character in the series, in that he basically a decent guy given some very bad luck, but like Desmond, when placed against the other characters, he worked, and deepened with careful handling, year by year, so that the revelation that he was destined to become the Island's protector succeeded beautifully, as it kept the emotion simple. Essentially you gotta love a show where the studly hero's fate turns out to be cannon fodder for the fat guy. Again it was a genre base, the nice fat guy, but it was done with sensitivity as Hurley never had to carry the series.

So Lost was a show that's base idea and supporting characters created a sense of complexity. It never was genuinely complex but gave the illusion of being so at times. But the entertainment was consistent. Like many a good TV series, the strengths of a show tend to make you overlook the weakness that it builds.

Caprica was a crazy show that wasn't quite sure of itself at times, that wasn't always set-up well, could be paceless, that it had a couple of characters that it never had a clue what to do with who could drag the show down, but it had some wonderful moments with terrific sci-fi ideas, was starting to develop itself into a strong show, and started to push its stronger characters in interesting directions.

The pilot is a very good set-up to a series, and highlights its best set-up, the father-daughter dynamic, using the idea of AI and robots as a way to play the frankenstein idea against real-life home tensions, by making the monsters an already living daughter who has died and been brought back to life. The Daniel and Zoe Graystone characters were where the story was strongest continually, in that it used technology to play around how parent-offspring relations can be difficult, emotional and twisted on both ends, in what both sides want, in how selfish both can be. In the first half of the series it was the dominant focus, then lost its way as other elements came into play before returning for its finale.

Some characters who started a bit vague and could be not very bright who started to develop once the writers started moving the story forward so the flaws of the characters in the start-up of a series could be forgiven. Characters like Joseph Adama, a lawyer with mob connections who slowly becomes involved in the creations of the cylons (and is the father of the lead of Battlestar Galactica), Clarice, the head of the terrorists, who is vain, vicious but with emotions that get complicated, and Lacey, the best friend of Zoe who gets trapped into the machinations of the crazy religious terrorist cult were made interesting. Characters like Graystone's wife and an agent investigating the terrorists, depsite have decent actors playing them, never got interesting because the characters were not developed in detail and had little internal drive in character interaction beyond where the story placed them. These two characters tended to sink the show whenever they had focus.

The show was frustrating. It never fully got going but had terrific moments of father-daughter consuion and dysfunction, some creepy highlighting of religious madness and myopia among seemingly rational people, and had some good mob stories. It was a show with everything there but it never quite came together. And yet its characters are more complicated than  anyone in lost. its sitution is more intriguing than the games and overdone/kinda silly metaphors of Lost. The first half was too slow and was about ideas and a second half with better pacing that tended to have less emphasis on ideas. But despite all of this, its more unique than Lost.

Both of these shows are recommended but have deep flaws. But what one is more worthy of your interest?

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Well Well Well

So Dr Who series 5 part 1 is finished. Figured I'd watch them all before posting, as it was half a season really.

Essentially its four very good stories, one pretty good story and a dud. Not bad for Dr Who. At least the dud was a one-parter and was fairly painless.

The best stories were fairly obvious. The three Moffat entries and The Gaiman story.

The Moffat stories could be seen as maybe a little too fast on first viewings, beginning with the death of the Doctor and unravelling from there, into the story of the Silence and its invasion, the first moon landing, haunted houses, subliminal images, rage-filled rescues and horrible mistakes, leading up to the revelation of who River Song is, which, while not a suprise, at least is consistant and has excellent internal logic in regards to what has come before. The stories make more sense on re-watch, have a wonderful take of fantasy and humour, of odd, scary moments. They also have terrific side characters, like the Victorian era Silurian and her lesbian maid/lover, or the woman soldier who has been looking for the Doctor. The weakest parts are in the first half of "The Good Man Goes To War", which is a bit busy and could have been tightened a little but the pay-offs in this episode are terrific (even if I'm not writing what they are, as its not been shown in other countries as of yet).

The Gaiman story, of the Doctor leaving the known universe, ending up confronted by the Tardis' soul in the body of a woman, was a simple fairystory idea that worked, as these ideas resonated, were properly worked out but kept visually simple, focused the pace but allowed for breathing room to get into the ideas. The story was directed upon the scary aspects of the ideas, of leaving the universe, of a graveyards of Tardis', of the Tardis being under the control of an alien, malignant creature, and of the Doctor confornting his oldest ally. It was a terrific story that also kept the resolutions affecting.

As for the other two stories, the Matthew Graham ganger story, set in an old castle, may not have had the out of control buzz of the half-season highlights but was a genuinely solid old-school two-parter, with a strong set-up of clones becoming self-aware, had some fun moments of identity-crisis (in a b-movie way) with images of flesh against stone that was lovely, in a sick sci-fi way. It also had some good supporting character turns in Raquel Cassidy's sarcastic boss and Sarah Smart's crazy ganger, and of course had Matt Smith versus Matt Smith, as the Doctor being delighted by his clone. It's one of those stories that may be appreciated a bit better as time passes, as its pleasures were traditional.

The dud was the pirate story. I don't have that much to write about it because it was so badly directed, making it difficult to judge anything else. The writing seemed decent if unexpectional in the mystery and conclusion but it had some momentum, with the black spot curses, the crazy creature coming from the sea, the mystery of the water/mirrors. It could have been at the level of the ganger story with a little added care, with a director with a feel for atmosphere and horror/sci-fi staging, or for modulation of scenes. Alas it was hobbled by this poor choice, which left the the story weakened to a point where interest failed no matter what was thrown at the audience in imagery or twists.

On other things watched in recent weeks, there's Lost, which I'm up to Season 5 in (more on that later, once I get to the end) and a few movies of differing quality.

There's Machete, a gleeful b-movie of many great guilty pleasures, the main one seeing a Danny Trejo starring-movie. This movie also has as highlights DeNiro as a supporting snivelling villain who gets more and more pathetic the further the film goes on (one of his better recent parts) and Jeff Fahey as a truly sleazy businessman (whose daughter is Lindsay Lohan- his interests in her are unhealthy to say the least, she ends up as a crack-addict, an on-line porn star and a nun) Best of all is a one-eyed Michelle Rodriguez leading a gang of illegal immigrant Mexicans to mow down some white racists with a wide range of weaponry. Stellar cheesy stuff.

Then there's Green Hornet, which is the exact opposite of Machete. It's pretty much Michel Gondry's worst film (yep, I've seen and liked Human Nature). It's just so lazy. In the writing, in the acting, in the action, its just fairly dull. Basically no-one involved could be bothered to think up cool things for the chracters to do, have unique or unsual action, or to have a series of inter-connected plotted events that would give the film any momentum. Instead its a dull buddy movie where the buddies have no real chemistry, nor motivation, where the jokes aren't remotely funny, nor are the gadgets interesting or amusing. Gondry shoots the movie like its an 80's era TV show. You start to wonder where is David Hasselhoff and Jan-Michael Vincent. Its a Joel Schumacher Batman-era event I'm afraid. And the Green Hornet tune plays for like two seconds.

Finally there the 5-hour cut of Until The End Of The World. I'll go into it in more detail probably in a serperate post but its one of those films, like Alien 3, where the longer cut feels shorter than the theatrical version. This is because the film is allowed to breathe, to have its pace dictated by the characters and atmosphere rather than thundering through with the plot (which isn't the film's strong point anyway). The female lead is still a little weak but the final half of the film in Australia, where the world may have ended, is fantastic, and a lot of the build-up now has a relaxed charm.