Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Case for Control

It seems to be the Samantha Morton season on my movie viewing list at the moment. After seeing her as a psycho Scot in Elizabeth: the Golden Age, she popped up again as a not-quite-so-freaky housewife in the movie Control.

Control outlines the later life of Joy Division front man Ian Curtis, played by an astounding Sam Riley. The flier says that the film has been described as “extraordinary” (the Independent), “Outstanding” (the Guardian there) and “Electrifying” (by a gushing Empire magazine), and most of that praise has to be directly creditable to Riley’s portrayal of the talented but doomed Curtis.

However, the word that springs to my mind when I think of this film is “bleak”. Filmed in harsh black and white and set in soul-sapping brick suburbia, the depression and apparent lack of control that Curtis suffered from oozes from every frame. The film is set in Manchester too, so add extra layers of negativity to the image this description may have formed in your mind. I have always found Joy Division’s music fairly gloomy as well, so it acts as a perfect enhancement to the joyless visual style.

Storywise – well, the story is well told. It’s not a happy tale by any means, and it focuses on the leading man and his wife to the exclusion of everyone else (probably not surprising considering it was sourced from the wife’s memoirs). So, while the downward spiral of Curtis is shown in sympathetic detail, those around him seem to be either totally ignorant of his condition or unwilling or unable to even begin to assist. The end, when it eventually arrives, is kind of a relief in the way. The “agonising private conflicts” (as the flier describes them) are the kinds that shows like Oprah and Dr Phil address all the time – so, if the film was set in the 2000s rather than the 1970s, it may have turned out a wee bit differently.

In the end, the film itself was amazing. Not an easy watch, with long silences filled with depressive meaning that occasionally had me nodding off a bit; but overall, an incredible piece of work.

Verdict: Definitely not something to watch if you want “light and frothy”, an R14 out of an R16

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Case for the Universe

How is it possible to make a series about the Universe absolute rubbish? Somehow, the History Channel has managed to find one. Sure, it looks good, it has the impressive title of The Universe, and it is a documentary series. And yet, while I do watch it for the odd bit and piece of fascinating information and the stunning graphics, it manages to irritate me and have me hovering over the remote control fast forward button.

Where does it go so wrong? Firstly the title: I have not seen the whole series yet (evidently), but I get the impression The Universe is really only the Solar System. And yet, even there, the series has taken a turn for the curious by going from the Sun straight to Mars and now Jupiter. Perhaps that's because Mercury and Venus exist on a parallel plane of existence that they haven't covered yet, but I think the reason is more to do with the second "wrongness".

And that is the focus: while the title may be all about the universe, the series is actually all about Earth. It's a cosmological catastrophe series disguised as a "real" doco. The Sun episode focussed on how the Sun could kill us all; Mars was all about how Earth could turn into it; and Jupiter likewise is viewed through the lens of "protector from meteors" and "bad storm place - like those on Earth".

All of which really dumsb down the series. And depresses me.

Is this the future of American documentary making? Are we doomed to be bombarded from the History Channel by interesting facts wrapped up in an intellectually stunted, sensationalistic wrapper? Can anything save us? Perhaps we need a documentary series to explore that impending doom - though perhaps it is already too late...

Verdict: The Universe is a big, dumb, flashy place. And while the Earth might not revolve around the Sun, the Universe still does.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Case for Queenly Sequels

Seeing a movie at the Embassy Theatre is always a wonder and a joy.

A pity then that the movie I chose to see there, Elizabeth: the Golden Age, wasn’t quite as engrossing.

To be fair, I find Cate Blanchett absolutely fascinating, so I enjoyed every scene where she ran around screaming (a lot of those) in some outrageous outfit or other. Clive Owen made a fine tall dark “scoundrel”; Abbie Cornish (who I swore was the wondrous Melanie Lynsky but, much to my embarrassment, was not) played the lust object well; Samantha Morton always freaks me out even when she isn’t playing a psychotic Scottish Queen; and everyone else was fairly good as well, though the Spanish King was played as insane rather than just as a religious nutter, which kind of made him a joke rather than a menacing force.

So it wasn’t the actors then, or the script (well, not really). It was the little things. The score was overly loud (that may have been the superior Embassy sound system, but I doubt it) and drowned almost every scene in an orchestral mire; the climactic high seas battle scenes were a CGI marvel, but were also confusing (I am sure they were in reality too; but it didn’t really make for easy viewing, which detracted from its climaxateness); and the whole final battle from the Queen’s perspective seemed to be directed by the person who had put together music videos for Enya in the 1980s, all billowing saffron and gazing into the distance.

The cinematography was quite interesting too. Obviously someone decided to take advantage of the (real?) sets and get a few cameras up in the rafters, as we occasionally had a birds eye view on the mousey humans scurrying about their palatial mazes. While “noice and different”, it also got to be a bit distancing (were we meant to be flying away from what was happening to the central characters?), especially after the first few uses.

And historical accuracy was (I am sure) sacrificed on the pyre of artistic license.

So: loved Cate, the rest was okay, so overall, a bit disappointing. Love the venue though. Ah, the Embassy!

Verdict: 2 cannons out of 5, with one extra cannon belonging solely to Cate

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Case for Smarties

The concept of smart v dumb has fascinated me. Because I think it is plain to everyone that some who may at first glance be dumb can actually be quite smart, and vice versa. For example, George W Bush: is he a foil being blindly led by self-interested parties that surround him for personal financial gain; or a cunning man of the people who has managed to win re-election through an amazing ability to adapt both himself and the facts to new political situations?

I am not going to argue about individuals (a Judgement for another day perhaps), but rather, today, I sit in judgement of the scale of “smart” and “dumb” – and I have found them wanting. “Wanting” in that I believe that there are extra dimensions to smartness that aren’t smart, and dumbness that aren’t dumb. So I have constructed the Smartscale™ (v1), which groups multiple types of “smarts” (where smart is the smart end of the scale and dumb is the unsmart) in the following two ways:

1) Firstly, potential smarts. While I had initially thought to label this “academic smarts”, that term does not really seem to fit as it seems to limit the scope to bits and pieces of paper. Potential smarts are background indicators of smartness, like experience or study. I see this as looking at a person’s smarts C.V. and from that determining the smarts they may have access to, or at least have deep down inside. Potential smarts can only be acquired with time, but are not necessarily acquired in all areas, or perhaps not at all. It gives a base in being what people call smart, but does not guarantee the person will appear smart when you meet them in person.

2) And that is the second part of the Smartscale™ (v1) – the apparent smarts, which could also be described as astuteness. We all know these people – those who are quick on their feet, witty, dauntless, unstoppable. Every question has an answer, some shrewd and accurate, while others being cases of bulldust baffling brains. These smarts can only be determined in person and, while it may not actually be a true indication of deeper depth, the obvious intelligence required to be able to react so quickly and be so persuasive and thus provide (if nothing more) the illusion of being smart is a type of smartness in itself. This scale is harder to move along, as it requires a certain “natural” way of thinking and dealing with people to be convincing.

And, as I am making this a more complex scale, the two interact. In the scale below, I have started with the potential dumb on the left hand side. As (one hopes) people tend to become more well read and experienced with time, this provides the x axis to “ground” the smart scale. Apparent smarts, as something a bit harder to change with time, forms the y axis. And where people sit, well, it’s a combination of the two.

[Not sure what I have done, but this image looks horrible here; but click on it and it should look better - or, at least, be legible]

Personally I think of myself as sitting in the Smart – Dumb quadrant. I can be a complete mutard in person, but (a conceit perhaps) I tend to think of myself as a bit of a thinker about things. I am not going to attempt to identify exactly where I sit within that quadrant, as that is just inviting trouble.

And the idea of placing oneself in this scale is, really, quite pointless. The only people who can judge where one sits on the Smartscale™ (v1) is someone (or someones) else. A judge, as it were.

Right, I have now laid down the groundwork for my Smartscale™ (v1) and, when I next decide to sit down and engage myself in thinking about something completely useless, I can refine this tool a bit more. Suggestions (and comments on its complete inanity) welcome.

Just as an aside, I have toyed with the idea of a 3 x 3 matrix of determining “smartness”, and it may have to come to that depending on my ruminations…

Verdict: A giant leap forward in uselessness

Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Case for 3D

3D is almost back in style.

It used to be a gimmick to lure people back to the cinema after the advent of television. A bit like cinemascope and smellovision. But now it is back. Probably to lure people back to the cinema after the advent of home theatre. And Beo-Wulf was my first taste of it in a non-I-Max cinema.

Unfortunately, Beo-Wulf is actually quite dull. It got off to a rocky start when the sound track was out of synch with the images. To be honest, I actually thought it might have been (badly) dubbed from the original "Danish", but then it became apparent that the naked King was in fact Anthony Hopkins, so that wasn't to blame. However, even when the soundtrack was sorted out about 20 minutes later, things didn't really get better.

Sure, the action sequences were quite nifty. But the interminable non-action sequences were like watching 3D paint dry. Beo-Wulf leant himself to the most amusing scene where he battled the hideous Grendel in his birthday suit (to face the monster on its own terms) and the "camera angles" used to obscure his "manliness" were inventive, if bordering on the ridiculous after the first 5 seconds of combat. The fact the naked torso of Beo-Wulf got a lot more screentime than the naked outline of stunning Angelina Jolie as the nameless demoness made one wonder who the target audience for the film was. Most of the characters were actually deathly dull (for example, the Queen was sour, depressing and flavourless for most of the film, and it got worse when she sang) and the two and a bit hour running time could definitely have used some trimming.

And we didn't even get to keep the 3D glasses at the end of the film either, even though we paid for the priviledge of wearing them.

Verdict: Beo-Wulf made 3D images two dimensional - or perhaps even one dimensional. Fractions would just be cruel...