Friday, 8 November 2013

Film Roundup: Real life dramas (The Fifth Estate, Captain Phillips)

Wow, been a while since one of these huh? Blame the hectic university lifestyle.

This week, there has been two films that deviate from a typical biopic and attempt to turn the true stories into thrillers. The Fifth Estate clearly owes a huge debt to The Social Network, which successfully made the backroom in-fighting about the creation of Facebook one of the most gripping films of the year. The visual style of The Fifth Estate has clearly been influenced by it but is nonetheless stunning. The visualisations of the workings of the Internet are jawdropping. But is this a case of style over substance? You would hope not considering the story at the heart of the film - the founding of Wikileaks, which shook up the world in a way that is still affecting us now.

The first half of the film focuses on Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch, or as Jeremy Jahns brilliantly describes him 'Cumberbleach') founding Wikileaks and gradually building up its reputation with the help of Daniel Schmitt (Daniel Bruhl).* As you'd expect Cumberbatch is extraordinary, capturing the authentic vocal inflections and dominating presence that Assange appears to have. Bruhl is less captivating but then this isn't a particular surprise. For one, he is by far the least interesting character and, not surprisingly, the one we are more familiar with. This means that the relationship they have in the film comes across much like Nick Carraway and Gatsby in The Great Gatsby; the central character, fascinated by an elusive and uncommunicative figure, finds himself over his head when involved in the unusual events the mysterious figure is involved in.

Unfortunately, this isn't as good as it sounds. Great as Cumberbatch is, we never get a foothold of his character. This is not necessarily a problem except that as soon as the major events occur in the second half of the film, we are expected to understand his character enough to feel the dramatic importance of the revelations. As such, the film seems to be in two minds about Assange - whether to treat him as an elusive, Gatsby-like figure, or to make him a fully rounded character to lock heads with Schmitt over important decisions. The very final scenes then go on a completely different track altogether. Perhaps all this shows how difficult Assange is to place as a character. This would be fine in a straight biopic but it is just frustrating within the drama the filmmakers appear to be trying to make, and to be honest, I'm not even that sure what type of film they're trying to make now I'm trying to write about it.

This indecision also affects Schmitt. The films attempt to go into thriller territory in the latter half relies upon him selling the threat. However, the character is so constantly confused and in the dark about everything, we end up feeling as clueless as he does. Despite Bruhl's best efforts, the character does not leave a lasting impression. However, at least he isn't as poorly treated as Alicia Vikander is playing Schmitt's girlfriend, Anke Domscheit. I had to look up her character name so unimpressionable was her character. In fact, I'm not 100% sure I've got the right character. She is set up to be Schmitt's moral conscience, someone to remind him how his work is affecting the world. But in the film, she exists to do specific acts: shout at Schmitt, be angry at Assange, mope occasionally, and have sex with Schmitt. What an absolute waste of a character. Not many people seem to be talking about the sexual politics of this film, but I'll just say that when the prominent female character spends most of her scenes kissing the protagonist and being abandoned by him post-sex, it becomes an unfortunately major problem.

Thankfully, Captain Phillips does not leave such a disappointing taste afterwards. It just leaves you in awe and shock. A much preferable reaction I'm sure we'd all agree. Marine Captain Richard Phillips is undergoing a typical cargo mission when he strays too close to pirate territory and finds his ship under threat. I'll avoid any more plot details because frankly, it's unnecessary to go into it. The film is a thriller, hence some people may be able to see where it is going even if they didn't know the true story. I have to say I was always on tenterhooks. While a part of me was thinking, "It'll be fine. It's a thriller with Tom Hanks. Everything will turn out alright", the film constantly made my stomach plunge as Phillips is put to an ever increasingly desperate situation. By the time the credits came up, I needed a deep breath.

So clearly, the film is an excellent thriller. But as Paul Greengrass did so well in United 93 (another film which is difficult to endure but oh so rewarding), the thriller aspects are given more heft by fantastic drama. The two captains oppose, reflect and feed into each other. Everyone is saying how fabulous Tom Hanks and I'm not going to deny that. He is excellent and plays a role as I have never seen him before. So vulnerable, so flawed. But he is matched and at times outstaged by the truly excellent Barkhad Abdi as the pirate captain. In fact, the whole crew is superb, and are so believable and well rounded that a part of me wanted them to, not necessarily succeed, but come out all right.

While both films boast excellent performances throughout the entire cast, I felt that Captain Phillips brought me in confidently and somewhat brusquely into the situation. Not for one moment did I have absolute certainty of what would happen next or even what I could have done in that situation. It was engaging and involving in the way The Fifth Estate wasn't with all its bombasity and self-importance. Greengrass knew exactly what he was doing; I feel Bill Condon had more of a struggle with his material, which is understandable. A hijacking film seems easier to pull off as a drama then the Wikileaks scandal. But that would be too dismissive of Captain Phillips, which is truly an excellent film and everyone should go see.
If you need a Dumb Person's Guide to Wikileaks, as I did, The Fith Estate serves fine. It is a perfectly efficient film but not a particularly memorable one.

*I would just like to note that obviously the intricate details about the founding and running of Wikileaks is constantly debated. I am summarising the story of the film rather than trying to explain the reality, of which I know little of, as I'm about to explain...

Friday, 18 October 2013

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

I had a big ambitious series of posts planned for last week, where I'd cover the entire Man Booker Prize shortlist. Unfortunately, university and, to be frank, laziness meant I didn't actually, really, properly read the shortlist. I read half, which is better than last year, as well as a few from the longlist. I'm sure I'll put up reviews soon of those I read (see if you can guess) but luckily I devoted a lot of time to the longest book on the shortlist which ended up being the winner, as I guessed it would be. So, what did I actually think of it?

Well, as I said I felt that the second book from Eleanor Catton was most likely to win. This is mostly to do with the sheer ambition of the book. The 800 odd page novel begins with Walter Moody accidentally interrupting a secret meeting between a group of gentleman with a story to tell. Before he can tell it though, he finds himself involved in the investigation of a number of mysterious events: a murder, a suicide attempt, disappearances and stolen money.

It is impossible to ignore the sheer length of the book but far from off-putting, Catton uses it expertly to create a sprawling epic. Following various characters each with their own story at various points in time, it is impossible not to admire the sheer skill Catton has. Every character is memorable with detailed and vivid characterisation, and very quickly you are able to tell each character apart and not muddle them up into a bunch of caricatures. Catton uses the complex and lengthy narrative to flesh out every area of the characters which massively benefits as the story unfolds.

The intricate links and connections of the stories are expertly done. She avoids giving ll the information straight out but teases enough out for you to feel very clever when you spot a link. Rather than a dull world building exercise, the book is an engrossing mystery which explores Catton's version of 1866 New Zealand. Within an atmosphere of intrigue and excitement, Catton gradually reveals more and more of the world so that you can really appreciate the depth and vivacity of it.

However, I wouldn't say that this is a perfect book. Like a previous Man Booker nominee Pigeon English, an attempt at bringing a supernatural element into this grounded world feels forced. Once the main plot is over, the astrological implications gain more focus and these become less interesting, unfortunately tarnishing the fascinating character studies that conclude the book. There is also an interrupting narrator, which beyond giving a pleasing metafictional touch, doesn't really add anything to the novel.

But these are minor quibbles in what is a truly extraordinarily ambitious book which I'm sure will be rewarding on re-readings. Despite the length of it and the time it took to read it, a part of me is really tempted to jump back in again to Catton's glorious world, gripping mysteries and written in gorgeous prose to boot. A worthy winner and well worth investing your time in.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Thoughts on rewriting Shakespeare

Literary obsessives among you may be aware of the recent news that Penguin Random House are commissioning a series that will adapt the plays of Shakespeare into the novel form. Award winning authors Margaret Atwood and Howard Jacobson have been added to the list of authors attempting this task (so far only four have been announced, see the story for more). As you might expect, some have been up in arms: surely the authors have better things to do? Why should we meddle with Shakespeare? What will this achieve? Is this going to ruin Shakespeare?

To be fair, I am generalising massively here and the reputation of the authors so far announced is making people very excited. Even better, some people are very open to reinterpretation of Shakespeare and correctly say that it is not a brand new idea. Indeed, there are a series of children's books which I got one Christmas that tell the plays of Shakespeare in modern prose and charming illustrations. Now, this project is going to be more ambitious than that series. Here, they are going to use the novel from to retell the stories rather than just summarise them. Again, not without precedence: A Thousand Acres (one of the many books on my 'must read' list) retells the story of King Lear, and there are numerous plays and films that use Shakespeare's plays as a starting point.

Personally, I'm going to read them and quite excited about future announcements. This is an exciting chance to see another interpretation of Shakespeare's work which we see every month it seems. I see no reason that this news should not be as exciting as the news this week of the Royal Shakespeare Company announcing its summer season. Both projects are going to give us versions of Shakespeare that will not be to everyone's taste. But everyone has their version of Shakespeare. That is why his work lasts, because it can be endlessly reassessed, looked at in a different way.

In fact, the novels will probably be more faithful to the plays than most modern theatre productions will be. Shakespeare's plays are long and a lot of the material simply doesn't work nowadays. This, as well as creative decisions, means that rarely do you see a Shakespeare play in its entirety (as Kenneth Branagh's film proved Hamlet would be about four hours long). Beyond page length, novels don't have this problem with length and just as modern productions do now, can rework the unworkable material into something that does.

I'm definitely going to check these out although as has been pointed out by others, so far no-one has been announced for the tragedies. While the commissioned author of Hamlet or Macbeth (my all time favourite Shakespeare play) will be naturally daunted, they should be thrilled to have such a unique opportunity that would be hard to refuse. As terrifying as it would be, I would definitely love to have a shot at producing my version of these timeless works. Best of luck to the authors, I can't wait to read them.

Friday, 6 September 2013

How should we treat YouTube? (Response to Culture Show: YouTube - The Future of TV?)

I don't purport to be an expert or deeply knowledgeable about YouTube. I am subscribed to many channels and love them all, but I wouldn't call myself an obsessive like I would about books. However I am fascinated with its inner workings. I've already discussed Becoming YouTube on this blog (it explains what Becoming YouTube is and saves me repeating myself here) and it is that has sparked my curiosity. I've finally decided to commit my incoherent thoughts into sort-or-coherent words as a response to the latest Culture Show programme which focused on YouTube and asked the question: "YouTube - The Future of TV?" (Not quite a question I know, but we'll get to that).

This has been a long time coming as the episode of Becoming YouTube presenter Jacques Peretti's cameo was in, of which we see the behind the scenes of in the programme, was put up at the end of May. Nevertheless, it was an interesting programme although despite his evident enthusiasm Peretti couldn't avoid the occasional patronising comment ("This is actually really funny"). It was very evident that the programme was from the perspective of a older generation of which YouTube is still perceived as a new thing that all the kids are into. I'm ready to admit my complete bias in my opinions about the site as I am clearly of the YouTube generation and at the age in which it was established early on in my life as an everyday thing. Nevertheless I genuinely think that YouTube is reaching the point, if it is not already, in which it can now be considered a medium in its own right.

That's right - alongside theatre, radio, television, literature and cinema, Youtube, I believe, can be considered just as much as an art form. Now before I explain how innovative YouTube is (as everyone constantly does) I want to mention how it arguably has roots in 'traditional media'. Communicating with your audience is the basis of phone in radio shows like 606 and is increasingly a key part to live television shows. Of course, reality shows literally leave the decisions up to audience, which was copied by some comedy and drama shows: a selection of endings were offered to the audience (usually with spoiler free titles such as Happy or Sad) who were then asked to pick one of them to be broadcast. Examples from my memory include CBBC show Jeopardy (a creepy Australian show) and BBC 3's Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps. Immediate response is also present in theatre - you literally know if the audience is enjoying it; the same applies to stand-up, musical performances or any other live performance. So those are just a handful of examples how YouTube actually fits in quite nicely with media and culture, so why such a fuss? What is so special about it?

Well, I'm not totally sure. As I say I'm not an expert or possess the journalistic skill of Benjamin Cook. but I'll have a go anyway. To be fair, it is not too far away to what Peretti was suggesting in The Culture Show special: there is something really inspiring about having such a blurred line between viewer and creator. Of course, all creators are viewers of some kind; there aren't many film directors or television stars, I imagine, that don't actually watch other films or television shows. However, that YouTube is on the Internet, where responses can be almost immediate (this very post being a prime example), means that it can be constantly on the ball, addressing the latest topic, covering recent events as they happen. The same can't be applied to other medium which generally require a longer creative process. With YouTube, a person can turn on their webcam, talk into it and then put it on YouTube within minutes. Just stop and appreciate how wonderful that is. The opportunities are endless and the sheer number of videos on YouTube prove that.

And this is why Becoming YouTube is so special. Because I genuinely consider it a work of art that will be long held up in the same regard as Shakespeare, Chaplin and the like. This sounds like hyperbole or exaggeration but that's because in comparison to other art forms, YouTube is in its infancy. And yet look how far it has come. I have laughed to tears, been incredibly moved, got shivers of excitement and reconsidered my views abut the world because of numerous YouTube videos. I have had similar reactions to theatrical productions, music concerts, books and films. It is clear to see that YouTube creators are constantly producing quality that is in the same league as those who work in those other mediums. Such that they now have it as a full-time job. And not all of them necessarily want to transfer their skills to television or film. YouTube is where they want to be and why the hell not? If it produces as good quality products, even better quality products, than shows on television or films in cinemas, why should they just abandon ship? Because right now its still not considered 'proper art'? Pretty much every art form has faced this scrutiny and overcome it. Why? Because it was popular and also bloody good. Theatre, cinema, television, radio, they've all been labelled as 'inferior' or 'the death of culture' at some point in history and are now part of the cultural bedrock. And, I believe, this is where YouTube will be soon.

Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised if in years to come it will join literature, theatre, film, music etc. as a worthy subject for a university degree. What on earth that would be like I have no idea, but the idea is not unfeasible in my mind. So basically, to answer my own question and at the same time the one posed by The Culture Show, YouTube isn't the future of TV or any other media. It is perfectly comfortable being a media in its own right. It's on a trajectory now where people aren't just watching television and film on it. They're actually watching original content and realising that it might actually be better than what else is out there. I'm not suggesting that this means other mediums have to step up their game; from what I can tell they're doing alright for themselves. But they're facing serious competition for viewers with YouTube. They're bringing something new to the party and the audience are loving it. It is not the future of entertainment. YouTube is just the newest form its taken.

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.

Friday, 26 July 2013

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis - is literature always pretentious?

In an attempt to be a more organised student for next year (they do exist, I believe), I'm keeping on top of my reading by reading the set texts before we actually start studying them. I'm that bad at keeping on the ball. As such, any reading for pleasure is slightly restricted to short stories, plays and, to a lesser extent, poetry (although I do enjoy most of the set texts, after all that's why I picked the modules in the first place).

But personally, I enjoy these various forms of literature* because of their brevity. While they may be quick to read, that they are also capable of profound and emotive power as Lydia Davis clearly recognises in four of her short story collections, which are also available in:
madness: a mad person not helped out of his trouble by anything real begins to trust what is not real because it helps him out and he needs it because real things continue not to help him- 'Liminal: The Little Man'

Recently announced the winner of the International Man Booker Prize, Lydia Davis has been recommended to me before for being a unique American writer and so, I found a copy in my local library to see what Davis had to offer. What I found reading these stories was a peculiar experience. In fact, I think it's inaccurate to describe them as stories; what Davis has written here are experiences, at one alienating and familiar snapshots of the lives of humans. Almost none of the characters of her stories are given names and nearly all are written in the first person, and so remarkably creates a version of the world purely through the viewpoint of one character. As such, there is a great variety within the collection. She clearly has a good sense of humour ('Television', 'Idea for a Short Documentary Film'), well-read and intelligent enough to pull off numerous pastiches ('Kafka Cooks Dinner' is just wonderful in every way and is probably my favourite of her short stories), and capable of deconstructions on the acts of writing and reading ('We Miss You', 'Grammar Questions', 'French Lesson I: Le Meurtre', 'The Centre of the Story').

She is clearly playing and experimenting with the short story form, with some of them being the shortest ever written. At times this leads to some incredibly poignant passages such as the following:
it occurs to me that I must not know altogether what I am, [...] and that others know certain things about me better than I do, though I think I ought to know all there is to know and I proceed as if I do. Even once I see this, however, I have no choice but to continue to proceed as if I know altogether what I am, though I may also try to guess, from time to time, just what it is that others know that I do not know.
                 - 'A Friend of Mine'
But while she creates incredibly emotional pieces, at times her experimentations appear to exist to solely show off her cleverness and technical skill. These pieces seem to have something missing and cause frustration - is she being deliberately alienating or is annoying pretentiousness part of her writing style? This latter problem is best seen in the shortest stories and are often bewildering rather than resonating emotionally ('The Senses' is the only example that springs to mind as really working).

As such, I had an odd feeling about this collection when reading it and after I finished it. I wasn't sure if I liked it although, like Wolf Hall, I admire the ambition of the writing and using the consistent present tense to perfect effect - really capturing the essence of human life. But did I enjoy reading it? In a way, but Davis cannot escape the problem that every short story writer faces: not every short story is going to work or be as equally good as each other. But that's not my problem with it. Even those I enjoyed seemed to be because I was willing to deal with the pretentiousness of it all; that she's playing with technique and manipulation.

This is not a problem in itself though, and actually made me consider the question that sort of titles this post - is literature always pretentious? It's interesting that with The Great Gatsby film recently come out, people constantly discuss the original book as an accepted classic, no questions asked. While I agree that it is a wonderful book that is absolutely a 'classic' book that everyone should read, I'm not beyond accepting that to a degree it is pretentious. Discussion of the book is always about the symbolism, and Fitzgerald's use of language and imagery and dismiss the criticism that the characters are all thoroughly unlikeable (I do think this is the point, just as it is in The Catcher in the Rye).

While it is the technique that is most highly praised, it doesn't mean it is not a fantastic book. Just because it is often discussed in a pretentious manner or appears to be a pretentious book in itself, that does not mean it is a bad book. But of course, you can choose to dislike or simply not like a book that is very well written. And I think that's the case with Lydia Davis' short stories. I enjoyed some of them, but on the whole her writing is just a bit too artful for my tasted. But that's fine and I wouldn't put anyone off reading them for themselves. This collection is long at 600 pages, so I would recommend taking it one collection at a time. There's only four at the moment but my favourite story, 'Kafka Cooks Dinner' is in her latest collection, Varieties of Disturbance, although I did like her earlier stuff a bit more. Either way, you'll probably find out fairly quickly whether she is to your taste or not.

*My argument for why plays count as literature is for another blog post, but for now, consider that arguably one of, if not the, greatest writer is generally agreed to be a writer who wrote no novels and only poetry and, most famously, plays.

Friday, 19 July 2013

The Returned (Channel 4, Sunday, 9PM)

The popularity of foreign television dramas like The Killing and slow-burn mysteries like Broadchurch suggests that Channel 4's broadcasting of French drama The Returned is an attempt to cash in on these trends. However, The Returned is a truly unique piece that provides the perfect example for why more foreign television should be made aware to the general British public.

A plot synopsis alone demonstrates the peculiarity of the show: the drama follows a number of individuals who return to their hometown, only to find out that they have been dead for years. Many summaries and discussions of the show describe these individuals as zombies, which to me is inaccurate. Zombies are mentioned twice in the first six episodes, while ghost is a much more common term although the eeriness of the drama lies in the lack of explanation of who/what the Returned are. If we look at the untranslated title - Les Revenants - it is clear that they are meant to be considered for the most part as ghosts, particularly as this is what the word 'revenant' alludes to.

But the supernatural element is not the main focus of the show. Much like Broadchurch, The Returned presents its genre through the perspective of an ordinary community and uses to explore the relationships of the characters. While there are some dream-like imagery (such as the butterfly coming to life in the first episode), the show makes the supernatural ordinary and rather than asking what caused the return, it presents how the characters try to incorporate it into their lives. Rather than mystifying or frustrating, the plot gradually unravels with ease as it draws you in with its atmosphere and characters. The one misstep is the ongoing plotline at a plantation which doesn't tie into any of the plot lines. It is either a red herring or an important part of the story, but at the moment it's the one jarring aspect to the production.

The performances are fantastic across the board. The potential for confusion and forgetting who is who is reduced by the memorable performances and extraordinary writing. The child actors are particularly impressive. Yara Pilartz as Camille is arguably the lead character (although the show is generally based on an ensemble cast) as her story begins the series but she also lends some comic relief when she's not pushing the drama forward. Swann Nambotin as "Victor" is also strikingly memorable, saying very little but really has a lingering presence on screen that is at once charming and unnerving.

This effect is generated by the superb direction throughout the series. There is real confidence behind the camera which isn't afraid to linger on uncomfortable moments. The murders that occur are suitably horrifying and disturbing in their violence. Yet there is also a distanced perspective, letting the characters tell the story and grounding the show rather than overstylising it. The moments of surrealism and bizarre imagery are striking but feed into the drama and emphasise the peculiarities of the world it depicts. Considering how alienating the material could be, it is impressive that it remains gripping throughout, with endings that leave you longing for more.

I intend to post on the final episodes once they have aired, but safe to say this is one of the best dramas I've seen this year and is well worth catching up on as we approach the finale of this first series. As I'm now aware there is going to be a second series, I'm curious to see how much will be resolved by the end of this series. As long as its not a massive cliffhanger that I'll then have to wait months for a resolution to - I don't think my nerves could take it.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Panorama on Hillsborough - "How They Buried the Truth"

I have now caught up with the Panorama documentary about the cover up of the Hillsborough disaster. It was broadcast back in May but is still available for another 10 months on iPlayer. I would highly recommend watching it. As you would expect, it is an emotional and horrifying piece but it is an important one. We can all recognise that the cover up was an atrocious tragedy but the documentary explores it thoroughly, revealing how its horror is complex and not as clear cut as we would like it to be. It is not enough, I feel, to call something evil and have done with it. Panorama prove that if we are to use this label we must understand why it deserves it. And in my mind there is absolutely no doubt that the cover up was evil. 
What I found particularly interesting is the relationship between the events as perceived at the time and as perceive now. A word that continually crops up in the discussions with those involved with the events is 'hindsight', and is most commonly used as a form of defence for what they did - without hindsight they had no idea of how devastating the tragedy was.

This is not a poor excuse in and of itself, and one I'm sure most of us have used in our own personal experiences. However, it is a poor excuse for the institutionalised discrimination that the police displayed here. Many of the people that headed the institutions that investigated the events excuse themselves or their superiors because of the huge demands expected of them and their role. Lord Dear, who helped lead the initial investigation, excuses Lord Justice Taylor for allowing South Yorkshire Police to take responsibility of the officers' statements, which included censorship and editing of these statements, by claiming that because he was Lord Justice  "It is not for you or I to query that [decision] I [would] suggest".
On the other hand, Dear is not presented as entirely unsympathetic although he seems to care more about his reputation rather than actual justice. Nevertheless, he and Taylor agreed that the tragedy was caused by overcrowding and poor organisation by the police responsible for the game.
And yet, the police still avoided total responsibility for the disaster and the documentary tracks the eventual reversal of this stance and was eventually made 'officialy' true.

As I was swept up in the incredible footage and moving statements, I noticed that at the heart of the documentary was a story that seems to appear in almost every fiction I've come across: that of the individual fighting against a society ruled by a collection of powerful, single-minded individuals. It seems that the reason it crops up in so much fiction is because it is a reality that many face. While it is easy to criticise and attack institutions, when we see the destruction they can cause, such as Hillsborough, it is not difficult to see why it is so easy to do so. In the end, the tragedy is not only in the exploitation individuals suffered (as devastating as it is). It is in the inability for major institutions (in this case, the police and the government) to accept the immorality of their actions unless it is made official by other institutions. They are trapped in bureaucracy that removes emotion and any sense of justice to the event. And so of course we ask "How could this happen?", because there's nothing else left to say.

That the institutions allow themselves to be so callous in their procedures is monstrous but at least it has come to light. At least the Hillsborough Inquest Panel refused to give up and let themselves be "worn down". This is democracy and free speech at its strongest. This is why we shouldn't suffer the bullshit institutions feel the need to provide in order to cover their backs. That is not to say they are entirely evil, but the documentary stresses something that apparently institutions seem to forget - they are there to help others, not their own interests. It's far more difficult to help individuals and so it is understandable when they make mistakes or are placed under stress. But that is only because without them, many people will be helpless to the actions of evil, selfish people. As soon as institutions refuse to aid those who need help and start to behave like selfish individuals, then those victims have nowhere to turn for help.

Now, looking objectively at the programme, the documentary is clearly biased in its argument. It opposes the arguments of the police by using the perspective of the fans and the families of the fans involved in the tragedy to tell the story of the coverup. But bias isn't automatically a bad thing unless it is overwhelmingly so. As I referred to in my review of London's Burning, the drama about the London riots, the lack of input from the police limited any argument the drama wanted to put forward. Here, there is balance with the police allowed to speak alongside the victims, which is a huge improvement to how Hillsborough had been discussed at the time. The argument had been short and clear cut - the fans were to blame and the police were in the right in all of their actions. There was no opposing voice that was considered of any value i.e. any opposing argument that at all implied the police were in the wrong.

As I said at the start, this documentary absolutely proves that the cover up of Hillsborough was an atrocity which nobody involved denies. The few attempts at justifications are non-retrospective and only considered in light of the circumstances of the events. It may end with an apology by David Cameron but it is clear that Hillsborough will never be over. This is not something to swept away as history. This is a tragedy that must be remembered for the horror that it is. This is an event that must never happen again.

Friday, 5 July 2013

The Village (BBC)

Since this series is coming out on DVD soon, I thought I'd let you know why this is worth your time.

In brief, The Village focuses on, well, a villag,e during the 1910s with a specific focus on the Middleton family and the youngest boy Burt Middleton, who is being interviewed as he is now the oldest man in the world. This framing device is unconvincing and acts only as a forced prelude to the episodes, which do not benefit from it at all. Nevertheless, as the popularity of Broadchurch proved, great drama can be found in exploring relations within a close community and taking its time to explore the nuances within them.

The series begins with the arrival of the first bus to the village which to most people's surprise actually has someone on it. Change seems to be what drives the drama throughout this series as events beyond the characters control affect their way of life, notably the First World War. Writer Peter Moffatt avoids patronising or sentimentalising rural life and the class differences within it. In fact, it avoids cliche and stereotype altogether by remaining true to its characters and settings - even the seemingly angelic and perfect Caro Allingham is revealed to be a far more complex character than either we or the other characters expect her to be. She suffers as much as Burt's father, Jon, does as his traditional working life begins to be challenged. However, while the character development is convincing and engrossing, it often appears sudden such as the conversion of Jon Middleton. Perhaps if the show was longer, such transitions would be smoother. Indeed, that I would like it to be longer shows how entranced I was by the community on screen, despite the downbeat tone of the production.

As critics of the show complained, there is a lot of suffering in The Village providing a tragic inevitability for much of the drama. But rather than predictable, it allows the tragedies to really pack a punch and bring the best out of the actors who fully embody their characters. Matt Stokoe as phenomenal as Gerard Eyre, a friendly teacher at Burt's school. It is predominately his performance that makes Episode 3 a standout as it examines the initial impact of the First World War and deals with Eyre struggling to cope with being condemned for being a conscientious objector. Indeed its treatment of the War is admirable, resisting portraying life at the front and presenting it only through its relationship to the village and its inhabitants, such as in the harrowing fifth episode where Nico Mirallegro as Joe Middleton gives a very unsettling and sympathetic portrayal of shell shock.

The Middleton family as a whole are incredibly fascinating with John Simm and Maxine Peake heading the family and manage to communicate the characters years of hard endurance through looks and posture. The child actors here also show great talent with Bill Jones as Young Burt Middleton making a fantastic lead character demonstrating as much complexities as the experienced actors around him.

The actors that I've picked may be personal favourites but the cast as a whole are phenomenal. They are very much an ensemble which helps to establish the community of the village. While it would be easy to try and reduce the characters to stereotypes, the characters defy these stereotypes and demonstrate much complexities. It is this degree of complexity that I believe has caused people to call the show uncomfortable and unpleasant. By no means is the show for everyone but if you're looking for complex drama which resists going for easy resolutions and safe straightforward plotlines, then this should be right up your street.

From what I've heard, the follow-up to this series will each deal with subsequent decades, so the next series will explore the 1920s. If they can create as much fantastic drama from that period as they have here, then I can't wait.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Looking for authorial intent (Looking for Alaska)

If you're on the Internet (i.e. reading this), you've probably heard of John Green. If you read a lot, you've heard of John Green. If you have an interest in Young Adult fiction, you're wondering what I'm going to say about The Fault in Our Stars, his bestselling novel and being made into a film. However, I'm going to talk about his debut novel, Looking for Alaska. Since he always finds himself talking about it in his YouTube videos, I might as well chip in my two pennies (or two cents would probably be more appropriate).

As well as a well known author, John Green is arguably more well known for his YouTube channel, the Vlogbrothers, which I briefly mentioned in a previous post. Via numerous channels, he discusses (amongst many other things) the process of his books and his intentions in writing them. When specifically talking about Looking for Alaska, he's recently discussed the apparent pornographic content in Alaska (which he correctly asserts is an inaccurate description of said scene) and his use of the Manic Pixie Girl trope (which he helpfully defines two minutes into the video)*. What these videos seem to show is an author who realises the novel he has written is not the novel he intended. As it is a debut novel this feeling is not surprising, at least to me. Naturally it is going to take a while for a writer to hone their craft and make their technique match their ideas. The videos seem to show John considering Looking for Alaska as failing what he intended to do.

However, along with many others I think Looking for Alaska is my favourite of his books and I'm going to explain why the mistakes that John believes exists in the book are reasons for why it is great.

An event occurs halfway through the book that divides the book into two halves, 'Before' and 'After'. I won't spoil what that event is but I will discuss how the novel changes between sections which will probably hint at what this is, so go on at your peril if you haven't read it.
Interestingly, John did not intend this as an event that warrants a spoiler warning. It was meant to be something that was inevitable and fairly obvious to see coming. So if we are to take the author as the authority of their book, I should freely reveal what the event is.

But when the event happened, I was dumbstruck. I genuinely stopped reading to take in the impact. It was an incredibly powerful moment that I didn't see coming. Nor did many others. Which surprised John. Yet while John thinks this effect changes the book from his intentions, this effect is not a negative one. In fact, it benefits the book enormously. While it changes the tone, the first half character development isn't abandoned but expanded. As we get a hold of who we think the characters are (muddling through the unpredictability of growing up), the second half severely challenges them and it is devastating to see these characters who were getting more self-confidence to be so shaken up. In particular, the one that resonates is the narrator, Miles. Seeing him cope with the consequence of the event, which we see through his actions and the style of his narration, results in one of the most beautiful and powerful depictions of grief I've ever seen.

As effective as I found the book, this effect seems to create a different sort of tragedy, one probably every author has experienced: being misunderstood. Alaska is a deliberate distant figure as we see her through Miles' eyes, who idolises her and puts her on a pedestal while paradoxically desperate to obtain her. After the event, this distanced relationship means Alaska becomes even more of a mystery and leaves the audience as mystified as Miles, according to John. From what I can tell, John intended to show how foolish Miles' perception is rather than have us sympathise with it. But for me, I think a combination of the two occurs and is why it struck such a chord with me. I could recognise Miles' behaviour as similar to my own far too recently while also recognising it as a stupid way to treat girls who are nice to you. I don't believe John intended this, indeed I don't expect any writer to be able to depict emotions and experiences I have had. That's just the perks of literature; by attempting to capture aspects of humanity in a fictional form, various books will have a particular influence on certain people as they see things that only they would recognise.

In fact, this whole post has been based upon my interpretation of what John said in the videos - I haven't quoted him for example, which is bad for an essay but has a purpose in this post. John displays much confidence in what the books are about with good reason - after all, he wrote it. However, I am inclined to follow the 'death of the author' view of literature. I am aware most authors dislike this perception of literature, including John who made the humorous quip that this theory makes him worried about how long he has left to live. Funny as that is, I do believe that the text of a book is out of the control of the author as soon as someone else reads it. They bring their own experiences, lifestyle and interpretation to it, and so the text they read will probably (though not always) be a very different one to what the author believed they wrote. For example, it is fine for Baz Lurhmann to present The Great Gatsby as gaudy and visually spectacular, and it is also fine for people not to like that version and prefer the one they have when they read the book.

Basically, to clarify the title of this post, authorial intent is not totally irrelevant as long as you don't simply let it replace how you feel about the book. It's a similar approach to how one should read reviews - this is a person's opinion. It is fine for them to have a different one to you. Just don't assume either of you are entirely right because in literature, there can be no such thing.

And if you haven't read anything by John Green, I highly recommend you do. I have yet to read An Abundance of Katherines or Let It Snow, but all of his other books are well worth reading. I'm not as fond as The Fault in Our Stars as others (although it's still brilliant) and personally prefer Paper Towns. However, Looking for Alaska is far and away my favourite and is as good as a place as any to start.

*Don't worry about the fact he's playing FIFA and is weirdly obsessed in creating a fictional word involving those players. I enjoy the videos and would recommend watching from the start, but the linked videos are still worth watching on their own, if ever so slightly bewildering.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Film Roundup: Enjoying yourself is a serious matter. Sometimes. (Behind the Candelabra, The Stone Roses: Made of Stone, After Earth)

Like the star of its story, Behind the Candelabra revels in its ability to entertain its audience but also uses its glamour to hide dark and personal demons. Swinging between comedy and drama with speed and ease, the film explores the glitzy and bizarre world of Liberace (Michael Douglas), the flamboyant piano player and entertainer who hid his sexuality in plain sight. The story is told through the eyes of Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), who finds himself employed as his companion. Michael Douglas is an obvious standout as the character demands attention anyway. While Douglas shines as Liberache the entertainer, he proves to be just as skillful in displaying his manipulative manner and desperation. As we peel back the layers on the man (at times quite literally), he becomes increasingly complex and almost unnerving; he is a man who is unafraid to do as he pleases and damn the consequences.

This effect would be significantly less powerful were Douglas not equalled, and at times surpassed, in performance by Matt Damon as Scott. He is arguably the main character here as it is very much his story (the film is based on Thorson's autobiography) and much of the film explores Scott's repulsed attraction to Liberache's personality. We learn far more about Scott than we do Liberache, and is arguably more sympathetic. Damon has never been better and convincingly portrays how Scott's life revolves around Liberache. However, while Damon and Douglas are extraordinary, every scene they share with Rob Lowe's hilarious plastic surgeon is stolen from them. While his face displays almost no expression at all, Lowe is absolutely wonderful and utterly memorable despite his little screen time.

In contrast to the awkward switch of genres in Side Effects (director Steven Soderburgh's previous film, which he claimed to be his last), Soderburgh is much more sleek here with sudden cuts and transitions rarely awkward and creating an impact, whether they be comic or dramatic. One of my favourite films this year, but I wish I knew less about it before I went in. Knowing the basic story from the trailer, the foreshadowing early on of Damon's plight was obvious and subsequently didn't have the full effect it should of had. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this film on every level - dramatic, funny, stylish. I couldn't of asked for more.

Unfortunately, I didn't enjoy Shane Meadows' latest film and first documentary The Stone Roses: Made of Stone as much as I wanted to. Don't get me wrong, it is a very enjoyable film. Meadows very easily fits into documentary filmmaking as you'd expect from the skilled director of This is England. He's clearly enjoying himself and it is striking how even the real life people he interviews seem to resemble the characters of his films.

Indeed, it is clearly a film for these fans although it doesn't completely alienate those who are unfamiliar with the Stone Roses, such as myself. I did enjoy the songs and you get plenty of them - about half the running time is essentially concert footage. Meadows uses the standard documentary technique of going back and forth in history to track the history of the Stone Roses but also really builds up the impact of their return as a historical event and also shows how they haven't seemed to have really changed much over 20 years.

However, just enjoying the music isn't enough, I feel, to truly appreciate this film. It does remarkably capture the joy of being a fan and the rush you get when seeing live music - lots of great memories came flooding back to me of wonderful concerts I've been to.  But while it is charming, I agree with one of the fans when he tells Meadows why he loves the Stone Roses: "You know, I know, but you can't put it into words". I can appreciate the film and the fandom at the heart of it, but since I can't relate to it, I'm always at a distance.

After Earth on the other hand is just underwhelming completely. While Meadows remains superb when experimenting with genre, M. Night Shaymalan seems to be on a downward trend although he hasn't lost all the innovation he showed in The Sixth Sense. The film is visually attractive and it is not without interesting ideas - the father/son relationship in the film goes on an interesting arc and the Will Smith character's conflict between appearing strong and wanting to express emotion has potential to be really powerful. But as you might notice, I don't even know the characters name and I really can't be bothered to recount the plot (bad reviewing I know, but I also struggle to remember it and I only saw it last week). Basically, Jayden Smith has to fight for survival on a devastated Earth and is less exciting than that sounds. (And it doesn't even sound that exciting). As much as there is interesting stuff in there somewhere, it's so dully executed it is not worth trying to pay attention to them since the film clearly doesn't either.

What's annoying is that it is not awful, it is just very, very average. There is no tension or scares beyond annoying jump scares. While it is a serious drama, it takes itself far too seriously and doesn't allow the survival action scenes to be exciting or thrilling, just gruelling. It seems Shaymalan is so desperate to express deep ideas through imagery, he ignores any sense of fun. The few moments Will Smith is not spouting exposition are deathly dull with only one line allowing him to express any human emotion. His son doesn't fare much better, who struggles to get anything interesting out of his character. The interesting character background is incredibly disjointed to his present self who is just scared all the time. In the end, it's just a very dull film which is arguably the worst thing a film can be.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Film Roundup: Don't judge a movie by its poster (The Purge, Byzantium, Populaire)

Yes, this is technically a week late but these films may still be around by the time you read this. Anyway...

Everything about this poster seems to scream at a mainstream audience to like it. Referencing two popular and memorable films (which I haven't actually seen), and encouraging the use of a hashtag demonstrates an attempt at manipulation that could put someone off. The premise is straightforward, the running time is just under 90 minutes - how can this film offer anything substantial? It appears to be just a throwaway thriller. Even Jeremy Jahns says so. However, the film does not totally ignore its interesting premise and actually uses it to provide a social commentary on modern America, sort of. Within the film, the purge is shown to work and so the immorality of the situation is irrelevant to the characters. Presented with this moral vacuum, the audience is left to consider it instead, and gradually the characters begin to do so too.

Instead of exploring this big idea in a similarly grand style, the film goes small and focuses on how this situation would be experienced. As such, the big idea is somewhat muted as it is so grand that it makes one wonder what is happening outside of the house. While at times this means it falls back easily on a standard house invasion thriller, it also allows for interrogation of the characters' psychology and ask why people feel naturally inclined to murder. Unfortunately, as intellectually stimulating as it is, it is often unsubtle in its attempts to communicate its ideas, too easily resorting to clunky dialogue and blatant exposition. Nevertheless, in its basic setup, it could be argued the film takes the traditional American family model and challenges it by placing it within an extreme situation. Indeed, despite their dysfunctions, they resemble recognisable tropes (working father, housewife mother, stroppy teenage girl, isolated but creative boy). This interpretation doesn't seem too much of an over-reading in a film that addresses some intelligent ideas, but also explains why the characters are fairly two-dimensional. As such, the incredibly short running time seems to not fit the grandness of the central concept and fits the house invasion thriller film better.

However, in the latter half it all fits perfectly. It never feels boring and doesn't outstay its welcome - if much longer, I would have probably sooner lost patience with the film and its clunky dialogue. While the opening ten/fifteen minutes or so drag, the film soon kicks into gear and the tension becomes palpable. The film does fall into the trap of occasional unnecessary dramatic stings, which seems to be a consistent problem with recent films that require tension. They seem to rely on the 'long periods of quiet AND THEN A SUDDEN NOISE' technique (commonly known as 'jump scares') which really grates after seeing it hundreds of times. Nevertheless, when the ideas match the style, the film is as unsettling as something like Right at Your Door, which similarly combined thriller with social commentary.

Similarly intellectually stimulating is the new film from Neil Jordan, Byzantium. I am only familiar with one other Jordan film, The Company of Wolves which Gemma Arterton, the lead in Byzantium, said is one of her favourite films. With the quotes on the poster and the horrific imagery of that film in mind, I expected something very different that I didn't really get. Far from disappointing, Byzantium takes the traditions of the vampire and uses them to explore the tragedy of being the living dead. There is plenty of gory imagery, the most spectacular of which is very early on (you have been warned) and a really innovative (and unnerving) method for vampires to feed.

However, the overall tone is melancholic and sombre, which may bore some people. Stick with it though and you are rewarded with some fantastic characterisation of the sympathetic mother and daughter. Excellently played by Saoirse Ronan and Arterton, the mother/daughter relationship is incredibly moving and is very much the heart of the film. To call it "Twilight for grown-ups" is understandable but silly. While there is a love story between a human and a vampire, it has a dangerous and uncertain edge that is riveting even if Caleb Landry Jones overacts a bit too much. Sam Riley and Jonny Lee Miller contribute to the traditional vampire story that is told in flashback by Ronan, who finds her relationship with her mother strained by her mother's past coming back to haunt her.

Yes, it plays with the traditions of vampire lore but it isn't designed to scare. Like The Purge. it's not a film for mere entertainment as the posters suggest, but provide food for thought and ask the audience to think about what they've just watched. They're not too serious though and understand the genres they are in, which allows for a nice break between the thoughtful stuff.

Meanwhile, Populaire is exactly what the poster suggests - a frothy French comedy which harks back to 50s comedies. It's a straightforward, predictable plot but the leads are engaging and you care about their relationships. Its shot very stylishly with great attention to period detail. It does make typewriting contests exciting but also give a knowing wink at how absurd the idea is. Very enjoyable but not one to desperately seek out.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Abigail's Party on stage (4th June 2013, New Theatre, Cardiff)

It was only after I read the programme for this production of Abigail's Party that I knew that it had began as a play. Like most, I knew Abigail's Party from the wonderful television play from 1977, starring Alison Steadman. Even when watching a repeat on television a couple of years ago, Mike Leigh's damning social commentary still packs a punch. While teenager Abigail has a riotous party across the road, Beverly (Hannah Waterman) attempts to throw a more modest affair with just as much fun. While much smaller - there is only her and her husband Laurence, new couple Angela and Tony, and Abigail's mother Susan - her party spins out of control just as quickly as the fifteen year old's.

A comic drama rather than a full on comedy, there is still much fun to be had at seeing social manners so quickly disintegrate, as the suburban sheen gradually fades away. Even the set seems to be be simultaneously attractive and repulsive. It may stick close to the 1970s setting but this production proves how even today Leigh's criticism of 'keeping up appearances' is still effective, aided by a talented cast, led by Waterman, who avoids rehashing Steadman's performance and plays Beverly as a more desperate and pitiful character. While her quips are funny, they also hint at her despair at the humdrum life she lives. As such, her seducing of Tony is bitterly comic as we see her desperation for fun and freedom.

In fact, this production seems much bleaker than the television play, to the credit of the cast who avoid playing it too broadly or trying to get easy laughs. Most of the laughs here are uncomfortable ones. Particularly since the television play is so well-regarded, it would be easy for the cast to just fall into character types and caricatures. However, the cast work extraordinarily well at convincing you that these people have a life outside the events of the play. Awkward silences are hilariously recognisable as are the arguments that occur about class and art. Martin Marquez as Laurence is brilliantly stuck up, and appears even more so when he occasionally locks head with Samuel James' Tony, a down-to-earth man who is brilliantly deadpan and aggressive when required. His wife (Katie Lightfoot) gets the balance perfect between irritating and endearing, and Emily Raymond as Susan gives a suitably sympathetic put-upon performance.

The one criticism I have is that there was an interval, which seemed to rudely interrupt the play. It would've been much better to have the ordeal of the party occur uninterrupted, especially as the play really benefits being done as a live performance. From the stalls, you get a fairly similar perspective to the characters on stage allowing the awkwardness and hilarity of the party to be experienced head-on. While for some the television play can't be matched, actually experiencing the events live and have them occur physically in front of you really gives an edge to the play especially as it moves towards tragedy in its final movements.

Mike Leigh has this incredible quality in his work to be able to present human interactions in an authentic and entertaining manner. His process may remain elusive to outsiders, but as long as it continues to produce quality material I'm happy to let the magician keep the secrets under his hat. Well worth seeing live if you can, but if not possible, at least track down the television play. While more muted, it stands up as a remarkable piece of drama.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Becoming Youtube and becoming a person

There is a fascinating series on YouTube at the moment called Becoming Youtube, which allows relative newbies (such as myself) to get a brief catchup on the history of Youtube (and I mean very brief, it focuses on very specific areas, mostly due to who is available to intelligent and informative host and creator, Benjamin Cook) while also treating this influential website as an important cultural tool. By no means is it a cheerleader for the site though. Quite the contrary, it engages and challenges how its influence has grown and surpassed its original origins due to the huge growth in its audience. I'm going to be concerned with the latest episode, but every one so far has been fascinating, so here's a link to the first episode. They are fairly long but fascinating nevertheless.

The latest episode looked at fandom, with Nerdfighteria as the case study. I won't repeat the perfectly good summary in the episode (about 2.57) so just check that out and then we can continue.

You watched all of it didn't you? Don't blame you, after all I asked you to, although it was a long and lonely wait. So now we know what being a nerdfighter means we can move on.


That last sentence is wrong pretty much entirely. If you aren't a nerdfighter, surely you don't know what it is? Even if you think you do, if you were a part of it surely that definition would change. What you thought previously will be proved to be incorrect as you become more involved in the community. This is the problem that fandom has but is by no means unique - any group that encourages its participants to label themselves (fandoms are one example, as are political groups, religions, critical theorists and so on) automatically excludes themselves from those that aren't part of the group. I suppose that is the point of these groups, to find others who share your views and that aren't like everybody else. Until people who claim to be part of your group do things that act against everything that you thought the group stands for. You then have to justify your allegiance to the group to those who criticise it because of one individuals actions. Which can be quite difficult.

"Hi, I'm Kevin. I'm a big fan of the Batman films." Really? How big?
"Bit obsessive to be honest. Haha." Ha. What, like dressing up and stuff?
"Yeah, sometimes. But only when I'm out with my mates who love it as much as I do." So you're like that murderer in Colorado? Wasn't he dressed as the Joker or something?
"Oh, he's not like us." But he said he loves the films as well. He was just as big a fan as you.
"Well, not to me." So you're the representative of your group?
"Well no, there are others like me but they obviously have different views." Like the guy who killed all those people?
"Um..." Um....

Everyone is wrong aren't they? The critic is wrong to generalise a group because of an individual but the participant is similarly wrong to assume everyone in the group shares their view. Examples are evident in the documentary I mentioned above* as indeed there is in real life. And that's my problem with all these groups that encourage their fans to label themselves. They put them within a conflict that nobody wants to get involved in, but as I tried to demonstrate is automatic whenever being a fan of something appears. I'm sure many of us have experienced at some point. And probably from both sides.

Personally, I'm fond of many things and would consider myself a fan of a handful of them- Doctor Who (despite the recent increase of disappointment recently, the concept opens so many possible routes I can't abandon it), theatre and literature are the ones that dominate my life most. Both are capable of disappointing me or not doing things I like, but to me there is something about them that makes abandonment impossible. This doesn't mean you can't stop being a fan. Indeed, in some ways I would encourage it as it will generally cause less arguments. I used to be very passionate about football, but due to a gradual lack of interest and a feeling that if I said I supported Man. United I would be hated by many automatically. Similarly, I have no specific taste in music beyond being fond of certain bands (last night I went to a Two Door Cinema Club concert, who have yet to make a bad song and are incredible live. Check them out if you don't know them). The reason I like to be impartial in most of these areas is mostly because everyone is very proud and (obviously) committed to their opinions. As such, they will defend them to the bitter end, and as such can cause friendships, arguments and some parties to come to a similarly bitter end.

Obviously, being part of a group has many, many benefits which make these negative aspects somewhat bearable. I'm part of a drama society here at university, of which I'm proud of even if I don't know everyone. We all share a passion for performing and watching great shows, which triumphs over any tempestuous personal relations which arises naturally within large groups. What annoys me is those people who choose to use their group membership to be unnecessarily cruel to those who aren't part of their group and, unfortunately, other groups. Disagreement will always occur, but we can at least be respectful about it.

I have friends who like things I don't and vice versa, but crucially they are friends. If you're so committed to your group that friendships are unnecessary, then a reality check is in order. The feeling of fandom can come and go, at least in my experience. Building relationships with people outside that environment is more likely to be more rewarding and beneficial in your life - there are a significant minority of examples where that isn't the case. Even if you get successful through obsession of YouTube or Doctor Who or whatever, it won't be solely because of that. Involvement with the real world is the only way for you to actually do something, rather than just admire people who aren't just fans but able to actually do something (say running a political party or writing a script for a new TV show) that can potentially generate fandoms and group worship in the first place.

As ever, there are others out there who can summarise my posts into a one-liner and the trend continues today. In the latest episode of Becoming YouTube, Jack Howard says, "If people are Nerdfighters, then fine. Just don't be a prick about it."
Just because you are part of a group doesn't mean you are automatically a good or a bad person - you're just a person who likes something more than most people do. It's not an excuse or a justification for anything that is in and of itself morally repugnant and evil.

*I find I have to defend myself for referring to Becoming Youtube as a documentary. as it's on YouTube, associated with people falling over and funny animals, but the documentary is worthy of being shown on TV** but by being on YouTube, it feels more relevant / focused.

**which people think is somehow a better media than the Internet despite also showing people falling over and funny animals, clips of which are then put on YouTube - it's a vicious cycle the media.