Friday, 23 August 2013

Film Catchup: Midnight in Paris

As my first Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris was as charming as I hoped it would be. I understand that this film was generally considered as a return to form for Allen, which is interesting as the film is not without flaws. The film focuses on screenwriter Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) who is on holiday with his fiance and is trying to get his debut novel to work. Frustrated at the distractions of reality, Gil discovers that at midnight Paris turns into some sort of gateway to the 1920s, to Gil a veritable Golden Age of artistry. I say a 'sort of' gateway as the film doesn't explain it and revels in the ambiguity of Gil's time-travelling ability; is it real or is he just deluding himself in nostalgia? This film is about artistry and the beauty of art. But incredibly, the film isn't as pretentious or introverted as I've described it.

True, I didn't get every reference to the literature and art of the 1920s but I still found the film delightfully witty. I've never seen a Luis Buñuel movie or even knew who he was (a surreal artist, from what I gather) before watching the film, but I still laughed at Gil suggesting a plot for a film ("But why can't they leave?"). All the other artists that Gil meets (who I won't name, because it is fun to see who turns up and everyone will recognise at least two of them) are entertaining and engaging when on screen, but the focus is very much in Gil.

Owen Wilson is really terrific here. Yes, he's funny but he also convinces as a man who is more interested in artistic issues from the past than the issues in his real life. There's a lovely moment when he only realises something about his wife when he's given a critique of his book. As I said earlier, this could've been a really pretentious, unlikeable character but Wilson shows the character's excitement in talking to his idols that allows you to sympathise with his desire to abandon the present to enter the world of the past.

Perhaps due to the short running time, the characters in the real world aren't particularly well fleshed out as the film has more fun in messing about in the 1920s. And I can't blame them as they are really joyful and the best parts of the film. Gil's marital troubles don't quite have the dramatic heft to really work and it is here that the film should have been less flippant and more dramatic. But in the end, it's just a terrifically enjoyable film that really charms.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Film Catchup: Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction - The Best of Quentin Tarantino?

As I explain in the sidebar, I am always catching up on films, books and television. It's gotten so bad that I've started a new thread on this blog dedicated towards catching up. As such, I regularly have to defend myself from playful shaming that I haven't seen Trainspotting or Fight Club or Avengers Assemble or (worst of all crimes) Game of Thrones. Those examples are regular subjects of these conversations because everyone I know has seen them, apparently. It's now got to the point that I've decided to avoid these conversations and join in on the fun ones - the ones where you can talk about what you enjoy rather than the ones everyone else enjoys. And starting off are Reservoir Dogs and the film which nobody I know actively dislikes and always tell me to watch, Pulp Fiction.

 I'll get to Pulp Fiction later because, even though I watched it before Reservoir Dogs, seeing them both has made me think about them in an interesting way. Or at least something worthy of a blog post. Now, these aren't my first Tarantino films. In fact, my first was his latest one, Django Unchained, which I have seen twice. I've always been fairly squeamish about explicit and bloody violence in films, hence why it's taken me so long to watch a Tarantino film. Django then was a way for me to test the waters, to see how well I could cope. Not only did I watch the whole film untraumatised, I really enjoyed myself. So I figured I'd be able to cope with Tarantino's previous work, and what better place then to go back to the beginning, to the films that made his name?

Safe to say, Reservoir Dogs is a very different film. It's a heist movie that doesn't show much of the heist itself, instead focusing on the men involved and how they treat each other before and afterwards. You can see the techniques, the snappy dialogue, the complex characterisation, and the excellent performances that are signatures of Tarantino's style. Even only watching three of his films, I am aware that he has a certain style of filmmaking that he is very good at, and seeing his debut in the light of later works they're fairly easy to spot. Indeed, I think this is his best film.

The dialogue, the characters, the violence, they are all fantastically executed and feed into the dark and dangerous world Tarantino creates. You invest in these characters and as attracted to their personalities as you are repelled by their actions. The famous ear scene deserves its reputation, a fine example of the uncomfortable and tense atmosphere of the film. The simplistic technique of using an upbeat song (and a song that I really like) for a scene of horror is incredibly effective. I've no idea if its the first film to use this technique (I'd be interested if anyone knows of a earlier example) but nevertheless, I've decided to call it the 'Stealer's Wheel effect' since I've seen it used in many other films and television shows. (Psychoville uses it particularly well in some of its episodes).*

While this is a well regarded film, it is largely overshadowed by Tarantino's subsequent film Pulp Fiction. Now, I found this much more enjoyable than his first film, but is it a better film? Well....

Like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction has a non-chronological narrative, exploring multiple storylines that beautifully fit together. Tarantino shows such skill in using this style of narrative that it makes Django Unchained look simplistic in comparison. But Pulp Fiction similarly looks simplistic in comparison to its predecessor. It is a brilliant film and much more fun to watch than Tarantino's debut. There's still extraordinary and uncomfortable scenes of violence, overdosing and a gimp, but Pulp Fiction is generally having fun with its shock moments, as the title would suggest.

But as such, it doesn't pack as much of a punch as Reservoir Dogs. There are disturbing moments and some fantastic drama (Bruce Willis, one of many incredible actors in the cast, does extraordinary work as a boxer looking for his father's watch with the desperation and violence of the character a constant threat), but the overall tone is set by the fantastic pairing of John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson as two hitmen. Their conversations about burgers, divine intervention and whether massaging feet counts as an affair are funny, snappy and incredibly entertaining. But unlike the previous film, Tarantino uses his good ear for dialogue for little more than flippancy and snappy one liners. Compare Mr. Orange's performing an anecdote to convince Daddy's gang to accept him. The fantastic moment when we see him simultaneously acting out the event and describing it is genius and hints beautifully at how the character's mind works. Just before they meet their victims, Sam Jackson tells Travolta, "Let's get into character." That's it - we don't get any understanding or awareness of how they create their personas.

This summarises some people's problem with Tarantino's recent work: he's squandering the talent he has by just referencing other movies, including his own. I now get the "tasty beverage" gag in Django, but as such the line now seems just a reference rather than a display of Candie's callous attitude about his atrocious behaviour. Indeed, Django now seems even less remarkable a film than I thought when I first watched it. Now that I've seen Tarantino is capable of tackling complex scenarios and issues, to see him treat slavery so superficially is disappointing. It doesn't explore the issues of slavery in any depth beyond stating, 'Wasn't slavery a bad thing?'. Sam L Jackson is again phenomenal as is the equally loathsome Candie, Leonardo DiCaprio almost unrecognisable. Christoph Waltz steals the show as Waltz and Jamie Foxx is powerful as the lead. But beyond a checklist approach (it looks nice, the violence is well executed), I can't muster much enthusiasm about Django beyond 'I enjoyed it'.
Now this isn't a problem as such - I've enjoyed all of Tarantino's films but any sign of genius he showed in his first film has diminished as he wastes his talent.

Now I haven't seen Jackie Brown which from what I heard was his last really great film (although I enjoyed Django and intrigued by Inglorious). If there are any Tarantino fans or film fans or people of good taste (I reckon you fall into at least one of these categories), do you have any suggestions of where I should go next? To do as so many others do and paraphrase Tarantino's dialogue, he had my curiosity but now he has my attention.

*Friends of mine have since pointed out that A Clockwork Orange, which predates Reservoir Dogs, uses 'Singing in the Rain' for a similar effect. Having been unsettled by the book, I'm gradually building up courage to see an attempt at visualizing the book, hence my not mentioning it. When I do, expect a post - I doubt I'll be able to resist. Oh and I'll rename it 'the Clockwork Orange effect', just to satisfy myself if not anyone else.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Some thoughts on recent television

Sometimes these blog posts are hard to write. Actually, now I've set a (reasonably) strict schedule, more for myself then any one else, they're a struggle most of the time. Especially when I don't have an awful lot to say about something. This has led to Film Roundups and posts like these where I just collect comments on various shows which don't justify a post on their own. For example, new BBC show Family Tree, starring Chris O'Dowd, is really funny. There's not a lot more to say without simply listing my favourite jokes (personal highlights are the brilliant parodies of naff television genres that are used as background for the most part, proving how good the comedy is in this show). So go and watch that. Not particularly groundbreaking but it made me laugh and just a thoroughly likable show.

A programme that many, many people watched was of course, Doctor Who Live: The Next Doctor. While I've only just watched it on iPlayer, even on holiday in the mystical realms of York I managed to find out Peter Capaldi was cast. (By the way, great choice, can't wait for the specials, really excited to see what he does.) To be honest, it seems like it was the best way to find out as I didn't have to put up with over twenty minutes of cheesy television just for a five minute exclusive interview. While those five minutes were great, the rest was... well it was just naff, wasn't it?

Don't get me wrong, it was nice but really, what was the point? Hype basically. The whole show was like a child shouting at you "Isn't Doctor Who the best show ever?". Which, fair enough. I mean, I love it so of course I'm inclined to forgive it for behaving like that and its famous enough to not seem utterly moronic. But honestly, I would have been happy with the way they did it with Matt Smith - a far more understated programme that had a similar message (there's not much deviation possible with an announcement like this) but wasn't shoved so much down your throat. Of course, the reason it was making so much noise was because people would have actually heard of the actor this time.

So, basically, I'm not blaming the programme for how it did the announcement but it was still pretty empty. While Bernard Cribbins is always a joy to watch and it was great to see Rufus Hound being an unashamed geek, these moments of charm didn't hide the fact that it was all just a delay tactic that probably pissed a lot of people off. They just want to know who the Doctor is goddamit! Nice enough but honestly, it really needed to settle down a bit. Yes it's all exciting but there's no need to scream it in our faces. We want to scream as loud as it did but we know that's really annoying for 30 minutes. Still, at least people seem genuinely excited about all this. That's always nice to see.

Meanwhile, a programme that doesn't seem to be quite as popular proves to be just as charming. Folk at the BBC (available on iPlayer until next Saturday)has some truly lovely performances as you'd expect, but I was surprised to see other archive material that provides some context for the reception of folk music in Britain. While I'm unashamed to admit chuckling at the pure 60s-ness of the conversations (folk musicians are genuinely described as long-haired ruffians - proof that stereotypes, no matter how ridiculous, will always be believed in by someone), it is also really fascinating to see this footage.

There is a frankness in the coverage that is refreshing in comparison to Doctor Who Live. There's no incessant fawning here, people say what they feel and with real force which often seems lacking whenever anything cultural is covered in mainstream media. With shows like The Review Show and The Culture Show being awfully treated, there is real neglect for an audience interested in learning what is new in literature, music, film, television, theatre etc. Beyond radio show Front Row and the aforementioned shows, there are few programmes that exist for this audience that I would consider myself a part of.

Obviously, it is better to give more room to cultural content rather than shows about cultural content, but I always enjoy seeing people really passionate about the arts and as such when they occur (such as Danny Baker's lambasting on the BBC selling Television Centre in Goodbye Television Centre) I feel reassured that such people do exist. But it would be nice to not have to be reassured and see them as more prominent figures instead of being shoved onto increasingly neglected BBC 4. Speaking of which, one of its final original dramas Burton and Taylor was great and demonstrates why it is a tragedy that it is no longer allowed to continue producing some of the best programmes on the BBC.

Oh, and finally my thoughts on the final three episodes of The Returned, which is still one of my favourite television shows at the moment. (Considering the amount of television I watch is pretty small, this isn't much praise, but it's still an extraordinary piece of work). Its gradual buildup of tension and horror explodes in a truly unnerving piece of horror in the final episode. In this show, though, an explosion of horror just means that the chills and shivers are more frequent as it continues to skilfully use violence as shocking rather than unpleasant as bad horror does.

The standoff in the final fifteen minutes or so is incredibly tense and the highlight of the series. Dramatic in its own right, it is also packed with thematic significance as it provides a climax to the buildup of the series. As I predicted, the first series ends on a cliffhanger but it's not frustrating but suitably enigmatic. The only frustration is for the waiting for the next series. There are resolutions here but they are not final. The series has taken the first step in its story and its one that I hope will continue to be riveting, unsettling drama.

Now I know that people read these (or I look at them more often then I realise) so I'm going to ask for some advice on a future post. I definitely intend to talk about Southcliffe soon but I've been debating whether to start with The Mlll first, as it's already aired two of its four episodes. Has anyone seen it and what did you think? It'd be nice to actually know what my audience thinks so don't be afraid to comment.

Friday, 2 August 2013

A Poet's Guide to Britain (BBC 4, Sunday, 9PM)

Despite this programme being several years old now, it is only the latest repeats on BBC 4 that I discovered this program. Looking at the program in light of the cuts and mistreatment the channel has had, the programme appears to represent the best qualities of the channel and the lack of encouragement it has experienced. Aimed at its typical cultural and creatively inclined audience, the programme explores areas of Britain through the perspective of various poems across the six episodes by poets such as William Wordsworth and Sylvia Plath.

Presented by poet Owen Sheers, he struggles to avoid the cliches associated with documentary presenters (talking about journeys, describing history in the present tense, unnecessary dramatic pauses- essentially everything Peter Capaldi parodies in the excellent The Cricklewood Greats). As such, he struggles to stand out and doesn't leave much of an impact as a presenter.

He's not helped by the programme wasting much of its running time being mini-documentaries about the poet's life, when his and the programmes strengths really shine when focusing on the poems themselves. The highlights are when Sheers is able to wax lyrical on the poems and relates the poem to its location. More of this would make it a must see for all poetry fans, surely the target audience. The programme works best when the biographical elements are used as context to enlighten the poems reading.

I'm fully ready to admit that this criticism is down to personal taste. It is almost certainly the literature geek in me that actually enjoys examining and analysing poetry rather than author's biographies. However, I exaggerate my dislike for them as they are usually interesting in their own right - I am fascinated how creative minds work and what fuels their creativity. As I say, they are interesting enough here but I feel the programme really needed to push its ambitions. The idea of using a poem to comment on the British landscape has potential that is squandered when biographic information is so abruptly used - it gives the impression of being forced as a tenuous link to its ambition.

Nevertheless, they are only half an hour long and enjoyable enough to not outstay its welcome.