Sunday, 19 May 2013

Dr Who Series 7

It’s a shame that series 7 was split in two, as it created an artificial diversion in the through-story, which is about a man jumping between people and adventures nervously, not quite able to connect as much as he’d like, while the world has moved on around him. He is a character in these stories not wanting to have people with him for too long, nor get into scrapes with him, to be put into danger long-term by him, meaning that they’re not quite as interested in him as he’d like. It’s a fun metaphor for the character as a whole, done with a cheeky wink. This constant flux at the centre leads to a great gag in the finale where the universe unwinds and falls to darkness due to his fidgety travelling nature and the contradictions of him existing and not existing, winding back for centuries, of worlds failing and stars collapsing because of his emerging death over hundreds of occasions causing paradoxes and rips in time.

Of course there’s a lot of fun stories throughout, many of which in this series have an element of the character’s past. Its peak were with the Steven Moffat stories Asylum of the Daleks, The Angels Take Manhattan, The Snowmen and The Name of the Doctor, which were all tales interested in the history of characters and how that defines them, winding time paradoxes that trap the villains and protagonists, and lost love. (Moffat’s wi-fi story The Belles of Saint John was a bit of a miss despite good moments, being a shallow comedy bit that lacked an interesting final act). All of these stories had atmosphere, a fast pace, good character beats (marriage of and then farewell to Ponds, introduction of Clara and series villain, a companion focusing on the many faces of the doctor) and managed to be uncluttered and confident. The weakest episodes in the series attempted to replicate this mix but suffered from a lack of clever plotting and dialogue. The stronger episodes outside Moffat tended to be their own thing.

Other highlights included the Mark Gatiss stories Cold War and The Crimson Horror, which were throwbacks to old Who, specifically to the Troughton and Tom Baker eras, the first story bringing back the terrific monster The Ice Warriors while Crimson Horror was a nod to the mid-70’s Robert Holmes stories, specifically The Talons of Weng Chiang. Also impressive were the under-rated fantasy orientated Neil Cross duo The Rings of Akhaten, which was a fairy story in sci-fi setting, and his ghost story Hide, which was Quatermass inspired but worked well as a story of a woman trapped in time, which echoed the series themes. Cross didn’t over-pack his tales and made them short-story-like in plot structure, avoiding silly over-plotting.

A Town Called Mercy, Journey to the Centre of the Tardis and Gaiman’s Nightmare in Silver, had good ideas and some terrific moments (Doctor versus an intellectual killer who mirrors his own character, Clara wondering through odd rooms and avoiding zombie flash-forwards to a grisly possible fate, the cybermen and their upgrades and the doctor going mad scientist evil dead 2 fight against himself)  but could have done with stronger, atmospheric direction, more defined support in the acting of certain parts, and final act rewrites (the final acts were a major flaw for series 7). These three tales never quite landed on consistent atmosphere but the ideas got them through. They were messy and minor but likable.

The clunkers were the Chibnall duo Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and Power of Three, which despite promising elements (Dinosaurs, Doctor in real life trying to work out a seemingly mundane puzzle) threw away the charm for mechanical and fairly dull plotting. The plots felt exhausted and wheezing yet dominated the stories at the expense of the wonder the tales had potential for. They were terribly paced and Dinosaurs had the worst villain of the year (a grumpy old man with dumb robots) while Power Of Three had a final act where the writer essentially gave up and created a gibberish monster with no menace nor tie to the central threat.
 
The series was as unique and as interesting as 5 or 6, yet was probably over-all the weakest of Moffat’s run in its no two-parter policy and playing down of its over-all arc left the series a little fragmented. Asylum of the Daleks, Cold War and Nightmare in Silver would have benefitted from longer running times. The idea of the Doctor dropping into lives, rarely staying with them between stories, played with the convention of the stories, was a funny and inventive idea, yet left the series feeling bitty at times.
 
On the other hand series 7 had some of the character’s finest moments. Moffat gave the solution to the Clara mystery in the Dalek episode that introduced Clara (that she’s a voice and presence helping him escape difficult times), repeated it in the Snowmen and giving her a face to him, and then let the Doctor catch up to what was going on, as it’s a character felt but not seen throughout his life. The Great Intelligence, while not as overt as some series-long villains, was threatening enough to keep the story moving without dominating artificially, and worked as a mirror to the Doctor (as a character who dominates the lives of his companions/friends, but to a more fascist direction, while the Doctor is careful to let his friend’s escape from his influence and move on). The two Moffat-written Pond stories were terrific and atmospheric, with great moments such as the Daleks forgetting all knowledge of their greatest enemy and the Ponds trapped happily in America, with a time paradox separating them from the Doctor (the first hint of the final story in the series would be around time paradoxes). The return of the Ice Warriors was terrific and pared down, and was an old school triumph. Finally there were the images of the old Doctor’s in the Name of the Doctor, the sight of Hartnell stealing the Tardis and interacting with Clara (who points him on his way to the right Tardis to use) and finally the mysterious John Hurt incarnation of the character, which is a great cliff-hanger for the series.
So despite flaws, this was a very worthwhile series of stories.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

To The Wonder & Cloud Atlas

The mainstream has been fairly weak and specifically wretched on a basic scripting level. To the side of this, the more ambitious, art-house side of medium has delivered real achievements.

To The Wonder is a major achievement. Like Robert Bresson’s later films such as Un Femme Douce and Lancelot De Lac, it has been criticised by many, even its director’s admirers, as a self-parody of an established auteur style. This is unfortunate. It is in fact a major advance for Terrence Malick, is pared and focused, is stronger than either The New World or Tree Of Life.
It’s the story of a romance that floats in and out of commitment and emotional engagement by its lovers, who are a flighty, emotionally fragile French woman and a closed off American engineer. It takes in their initial romance, their early days of living together, their split and the man’s failed romance with another woman, the woman moving home and returning to the man, an affair by the woman, and finally confused commitment to one another by both parties.

The film works on the logic of a silent film. Much of the dialogue is kept to a minimum, nothing important said outside voice-over. The characters are trapped by their inability to express themselves, are inside their limited understanding of the world, possess desires that causes them pain whether embraced or denied. The characters move through space, happy or sad, together or apart, the film felt using essential, pared movements, accumulating through a variety of emotional states.

What is important to the approach is that the emotions are not written into glib dialogue, nor is the story progression shown in segments that suggest an growing artificial understanding of the other. Each of the lovers remains trapped by themselves, each story area informing the next yet they remain apart in soul, allowing the reactions and voice-overs to allow us to understand how the lovers misunderstand one another. The film is about being apart yet somehow in love, yet not understanding the realities and the subtler inflections of these emotions, nor what to do with them. The pace of the film is careful to be tied to the emotions, the pain of the situation, of what is desired but not very well understood. All that is left is confusion. Despite their marriage in the film, the lovers do not truly become a couple until the ending. Even then this is tenuous, has issues that affect a relationship.

The film is about the inexpressible pressures on a soul yet is not expressionistic. It has a relaxed, naturalistic style, which informs the viewer through a scenes pacing, the framing of shots and people in expansive or domestic landscapes, and through the acting, which is superb and pared to the emotional essence of a character. This is a masterpiece, inspired by Murnau and Bresson, but has its own voice and sense of obsession.

Cloud Atlas isn’t on the same scale on achievement. It is an anthology story that is inter-cut rather than played sequentially. Most of its flaws are results of keeping clarity within stories that are being inter-cut, so the film does not become obscure. Therefore its storytelling and themes hit slightly obvious areas at times, there are dialogue issues, and there are segments of the film that stretch beyond the interest point. Yet it’s still a worthy film.

The film jumps between six stories, is focused upon the development of a variety of souls, played by the same actor in each segment, as humanity rises and falls. It is focused upon the personal and societal cul-de-sacs that individuals and a culture possess and are dominated by. They are based in the financial, reputation, scientific dominance, family, sexual and evolution. Most stories deal with one or more of these areas.
The film’s joy is in how the stories inter-cut. These stories are intentionally short story slight in plot but use the other stories to suggest additional weight. They have the pleasures of short stories yet they keep find the layers of how disparate stories, of failed love or rebellion against slavery, have base elements which are integral to how people express themselves from age to age, questioning how much people evolve truly over time. In the film, like To The Wonder, characters are unable to see beyond their personal prisons. In Cloud Atlas, sometimes the characters survive, sometimes they don’t. Humanity moves on, learning or not from the past. The past is finally only stories. I’m unsure if that’s pessimistic or realistic. It is an interesting ambiguous element. Certain souls played by actors seem to develop in a positive fashion while others seem to not change or devolve.

The film was written and directed by The Wachowski’s and Tom Twyker. It’s a terrific achievement by both.

Friday, 10 May 2013

New films - There shall be spoilers

Iron Man 3

This is unashamed pulp from Shane Black. There is a joy in the outrageous elements, such as men and women glowing bright and burning people, a suit travelling halfway across the country in pieces to help the hero and then mostly turning up late, and having the villain turn out to be an ham actor. It throws away major developments in voice-over in the final few minutes. It doesn’t even bother to explain the villain’s motivations and plans in real detail and that’s fine.

Outside of Captain America, this is the Marvel film most confident in what it is. It switches what kind of film it is in every act while staying in the spy genre, beginning as a hero under internal pressure, moving to a buddy bonding with a kid movie with the hero on the run before becoming a Bond movie for the final act. Yet it all feels like one story, and knows when to move on before an element gets stale. Outside of Downey Jnr, who’s more interesting here than he’s been since the Iron Man, Guy Pearce is the stand-out, playing a 1930’s style villain. He knows what kind of film he’s in and goes for it, tongue always slightly in cheek but keeping the vengeful menace in view.


Star Trek Into Darkness

What a mess. There’s a lack of inspiration in this film that’s fairly pathetic.  

It begins with a story that’s not a story, that are instead a series of twists that are not reveals as there is nothing to develop, and have motivations that are taken back. It has a relentless pace that is worked mechanically, as things occur with no space to develop or create emotional attachment.  It introduces Khan as the villain halfway through the film, which is a cul-de-sac, as they can’t kill him because he’s needed for Wrath Of Khan.

Instead the film works variations of The Wrath Of Khan but without any guts. Is Khan betrayed, a betrayer, a villain, a misunderstood hero? Everything is attempted but the gimmicks are po-faced, laboured by creaking plot devices, and are only an actor’s workshop. There’s no through-line to character and situation, unlike in Iron Man 3.  Chris Pine as Kirk is stupid throughout, being the dumbest hero to disgrace a movie. Pine works hard, pulls off far more than the script should allow. Peter Weller turns up as the dumbest secondary villain, which is no way to treat a good actor. He’s obviously the villain from the first and makes idiot mistakes in every scene.

The film is monotone in its second and third acts. It needs to literally turn on some lights as there is scene after scene in darkness without variation, where a good film would adapt visually to allow elements to pop. It’s samey throughout in a wearying manner, that every scene is a drag, where every character as a similar run-down feel.

The stupidity and dumbest aspect is that the film kills Kirk yet brings him back in a method that is set-up twice and is absurd, by giving Kirk Khan’s super-blood, so you know it’s coming yet it makes so little sense that you’ve had time to hate it before the final supposedly emotional reveal, when the hero is saved. Nothing feels earned in this film. Everything is a cheat.

The frustrating aspect of this film is that there are genuinely good elements. The first thirty minutes are strong and sets everything up well. There’s a spacewalk scene that’s no original but is well done. The enterprise loses gravity as it falls towards earth, which is great but is so brief that it’s annoying.

This is a very unfortunate film.


Oblivion

This film is fun if none-too-bright. Unlike Star Trek Into Darkness it plays fair with its clich├ęd elements, has variation, takes its time, works hard to have emotional content. It’s too bad that it’s essentially a rip-off of every sci-fi movie you’ve ever seen, and never quite delivers on the emotion. It cheats a little at the end and has a late studio mandated but kinda dull action scene but sets both up carefully enough so that you know what it’s gonna do but doesn’t overplay it. For a dumb sci-fi blockbuster that’s fine. There’s nothing here that is sillier than elements from sci-fi movies from the sixties/seventies such as Planet Of The Apes, The Omega Man or Rollerball, who also had dubious plot or moral aspects, gaps in logic but are well-regarded.

The best areas are in the acting and design. It’s basically a three-hander with a Morgan Freeman cameo but that is handled well and is an interesting if limited claustrophobic play on two’s company three’s a crowd. The design is beautiful and unforced, and has an aspect that has been lost in modern sci-fi, machines and atmosphere that is pleasurable to view.

So this one is a low-grade winner.


Django Unchained

This is a sign of devolving talent.

There’s no coffin being dragged, no iconic lead, no inventive villains. Instead it’s a slog with a minor Django with an obvious story, fighting idiots who won’t just kill him due to being none-too-bright. He murders people to find his wife, who he has the chemistry of “let’s not even bother with a one-night-stand.”

Jamie Foxx has been good in other films but he’s such a boring Django. He’s like a moody teen who just wants to kill people. As soon as he loses his sidekick he loses his only bit of humanity. You’re meant to be reading complexity but he comes across as Sticky Fingaz playing Blade and wishing he was Wesley Snipes. You have to assume that he’s not killed because he bored the villains into forgetting about him.

Christopher Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio are the best things in the film. They are theatrical, petulant, stupid, have many over-written scenes but are fun. Ironically their scenes are what drags the film down as they go on for way too long in their narrative purpose for suspense, as the viewer forgets to think about the situation, wondering are they still talking. How long’s it been? An hour?

Samuel L. Jackson turns up but it’s dull work. The character never clicks into being interesting. He’s just this vengeful guy who spots what’s obvious and then forgets to kill the hero, after the hero has killed half a plantation.

There is action but its brief and lacks impact, as its ultimately quoting better films without genuine inspiration.

After the oddball inventiveness of his the Nazi-film history exploitation-fest Inglorious Basterds and the woefully under-rated Stuntman hunting women Grindhouse segment, it’s a shame that Tarantino missed on what seemed to be an obvious fit, of a revenge-filled slave-based western.


Oz: The Great And Powerful

This film is from a talent that is not peaking but moving at a steady, unspectacular pace, repeating from past victories. It’s a minor film from Sam Raimi. There are plenty of problems, from an under-developed story, a running time that’s about twenty minutes too long, to scenes that are too leisurely.

The upside is that these don’t matter so much. The film has a lead character that is intentionally selfish and obnoxious. It’s basically Ash form Raimi’s Army Of Darkness put into Oz, still making dumb mistakes that causes catastrophe for all and then denying all blame, then running away until he is finally forced to take action. That could be a disastrous character but Raimi knows how to work it, keep it funny, keep the joke on the lead character. James Franco is game to look like a fool throughout, so the centre of the film works.

Also terrific are the minor characters, from the china girl to the monkey that Franco treats like a pathetic slave in a series of great gags, to the wicked and good witches. It’s very female focused in characters, which is useful, as it gives the film different challenges and focus from the usual blockbuster macho nonsense.

Oz is realised in a solid, spectacular but unoriginal way, Raimi playing on nostalgia for the iconic Wizard Of Oz. That works as a base, with Raimi finding areas to expand upon with chases through fog, magic bubbles and illusion tricks.

It’s a good film but not at the same level as his previous film, the riotous Drag Me To Hell.