Seniors in film

There is not much of a market for films about the elderly. At least not much of a market for films that even vaguely attempt to portray the truth about getting and being old. However, every now and then there comes along a film that is worth watching for the way in which it captures the human spirit with all the frailty of old age. I know of only one film that I can wholeheartedly recommend in this genre and one that has moments of beauty and an acting performance worthy of the Oscar nomination that Peter O’Toole received.

I’ll start with Venus. It stars Peter O’Toole and even in his old age he is still as mesmeric on screen as ever (well almost, advancing age has taken its toll somewhat).Without giving away any of the plot, the story shows how two old men are accepting of their decline and at the same time they rail against it. How they need each other for support and find comradeship in people of the same age, whilst  one of them in particular yearns for the love and company of the young.

This relationship in particular brings the level of discomfort that both brings the real drama and also prevents the film from reaching the heights of The Straight Story. The Straight Story was directed by David Lynch, he of Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks fame. Which is what makes a story about an old man and his estranged brother all the more touching. The pacing is slow, as befitting the movement of the lead actor; the action is small scale and the denouement so subtle as to leave you feeling that you missed something. But as with Venus the performance of the lead actor, in this case Richard Farnsworth, is outstanding. There is no overarching intention of the film, just a simple, honest story that should warm the heart of even the most jaded cynic.

We all get older each day- some have the grace to accept old age and some fight against it. But finding films, in particular The Straight Story, that show a possible vision of all our futures and still bring a tear to the eye, a warmth to the heart and a smile on your face; well that is a true demonstration of the arts of story telling and film making

A Batman’s Review of the Dark Knight

Of all the super heroes, Batman has always been my favourite. Possibly something to do with my name and the obvious nick-name generated from it, but who says there needs to be justification for being a fan (after all I also support Arsenal and for years there was no justification for that). I went to see the first Tim Burton/ Michael Keaton Batman as part of my 21st birthday celebrations and was very impressed with the reboot of the franchise by Christopher Nolan/ Christian Bale. So the Dark Knight was high on the list of ‘must see’ films for the summer.

The short summary is that the film more than lives up to its predecessor- other critics have said it was over-long, but I didn’t notice that. What I really liked, but what also prompted this post, is the way that the villains are far more grounded in realism than any of the previous incarnations of Batman: By this I mean that Two-Face is verging on the horrific, especially when you first see his face. And this is the problem- my kids have been watching the trailer for the Dark Knight for months now and their excitement has been palpable, but there is no way that I can take either of them to see the film. In the UK it is rated as a ’12’ which means that children under 12 can see the film, but only if accompanied by a responsible adult. Now each child that an adult is responsible for is different, and we are all too aware of the loss of innocence in our children, but I am going to take a stand and not allow my kids to see the Dark Knight. Not yet anyway.

As a grown up I can see the Dark Knight and think it is a fantastic film, but just as ‘comic books’ grew up and became ‘graphic novels’, so are the super hero films growing up. There is a complete logic to this- the people now making these films may have read your father’s comics as children, but as they grew up so did the comics: Writers such as Frank Miller rebooted Batman and then went onto write novels such as Sin City, Alan Moore and David Lloyd wrote V for Vendetta and then Alan Moore teamed up with Dave Gibbons for Watchmen; and then Neil Gaiman created the Sandman. None of these are in any way your father’s comics; some have overtly political overtones, all involve copious and gratuitous amounts of violence and a few are clearly verging on what would typically be called horror.

What these graphic novels have in common is that there are often costumed or ‘cartoon’ characters, but unlike the camp Batman of the 1960’s there is no ‘Thwock, Kapow, Crash’ involved. There is real violence, death (sometimes real, sometimes off-screen) and all the other trappings of a grown up world. This would be fine were the films marketed at adults (as Sin City was), but when Burger King is including Dark Knight toys in its Happy Meal kids meal then the marketing department is creating a disconnection between the product (the film) and the audience they are targeting (I don’t know many 12 year olds who still eat Happy Meals).

So here is my take, for what it’s worth: the Dark Knight is a damned good summer film, but if you have children, go see it for yourself first before taking them along. And if you don’t have children, go see it anyway- it is what films based on graphic novels have evolved into- you may not like it and you may wish to head back to the ‘Golden Age’ of comics but that is what your DVD collection is for.

Cloverfield: Style over substance?

Let’s start with a contentious one and see how the day takes us from there:

I have a theory about blogs: the only people with time enough to update a blog on a frequent basis are those people who do not lead exciting enough lives to actually warrant posting anything. Conversely, when you are doing loads of stuff and coming up with cool ideas that other people will want to know about, there is no time to actually sit down at a keyboard and write it up.

So it is with the next post: Had I gotten around to posting these thoughts about Cloverfield when they were fresh in my mind, the posting would have been quite topical. As it is, the moment has passed: Anyone who wanted to see it, will have seen it and those who don’t will almost certainly not be interested. On the other hand, I have never been one to stop in the face of overwhelming stupidity, so let’s plough on regardless.

For anyone who hasn’t heard of Cloverfield it is a movie that was released in early 2008. There were various stories published about the making of the film, including that the actors didn’t know all the parts of the story, that the name of the film kept changing etc etc. So why the rumours? Well, much of the advertising was done via a ‘viral marketing’ campaign. This can be a risky strategy for films that may work spectacularly (e.g. Blair Witch Project) or fail dismally (e.g. Snakes on a Plane).

But why would you need to use such a risky strategy for Cloverfield? Well, because at its heart it is a story that has been told countless times before. According to Angie Errigo (and various others) there are only really 7 basic plots and every story ever told is simply a variation on one or more of those plot-lines. This is apparent when you look at at films like ‘Dan in Real Life’ which looks remarkably like ‘Roxanne’ which is ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ etc etc. And Cloverfield is no different: It is telling us one of those 7 stories that we have all seen before; this time it is a monster story (don’t think I am giving anything away here). So why are we going to see the story again? Well, sometimes it is because we do know the story and want to see how it has been updated (think Peter Jackson’s King Kong) and sometimes we don’t know the story but have heard cool things about the film: And this is the approach that Cloverfield took.

As a monster film goes it is pretty cool- I jumped at all the right moments, I laughed (though possibly not at the right moments) and I wanted to stars to escape from the monster. Is it a great film? Absolutely not. Was it worth spending the €8 to see what the hype was about? Probably. Would I have gone to see the film without the viral marketing campaign? Probably not. So, whatever the film’s producers spent on viral marketing, they made some money back on it.

A downbeat ending to a film

I am Legend is not a happy film. OK, the vampire/ zombie/ end-of-the-world apocalypse genre is kind of hard to make amusing, but I left the cinema with an empty feeling in my stomach (and it had nothing to do with the burger and fries that I ate before I saw the film). The final scene showed a possible happy future, but with the gloom in the preceding scenes it felt like the artificial scene at the end of the original version of Blade Runner.

A film with a similarly downbeat ending is Man on Fire. Maybe because the hero in Man on Fire is only trying to save 1 small girl, whilst the hero in I am Legend is trying to save the entire human race, our emotions react differently. Denzel Washington is extremely violent in his quest to save the girl whilst Will Smith is more measured as he tries to survive long enough to save humanity. Surely if humanity is saved we will leave the theatre happy and entertained? So why do I prefer the ultra violence and ruthlessness in the quest to save 1 girl?

I have a theory, but I don’t know if it holds up: The style of Man on Fire is vastly different from I am Legend: where I am Legend uses natural light to empahsise the isolation in New York, Man on Fire uses strange colours, fast edits and a pumping sound track. Tony Scott, the director of Man on Fire, uses similar techniques in Domino to pretty good effect. But you have to want to take a post-rock’n’roll trip to enjoy the film. If you can keep up, it is fantastic; though watching the film at a theatre may be overpowering, seeing it on your own big screen TV is mind blowing. This seems to be reflected in the ratings for these films on Rotten Tomatoes but as I saw both Man on Fire and Domino on DVD maybe I got a better experience.

Which brings me to my final downbeat ending to a film: Sin City. If you thought that Man on Fire was violent, boy you ain’t seen nothing yet. I saw the trailer for Sin City and knew that I had to see the film. I knew nothing of the story or the comic books by Frank Miller that it was based on, but watching the film at a theatre was a truly incredible experience. However, and this is a big however, as I came out of the cinema I honestly don’t know if I enjoyed it. The film was amazing, the style, the acting and the way the stories interwove was a feat to behold. But enjoy it? I don’t know- and I wasn’t the only one. I overheard 2 women talking about the film as we left the theatre: “Did you enjoy it?” “I don’t know. It was good, don’t get me wrong, but I am not sure if I enjoyed it”

All three films (I am Legend, Man on Fire and Sin City) had downbeat endings. For me, the experience I had watching the films was vastly improved by the style of the film: Sin City and Man on Fire had something that took you out of the story and into the director’s vision of what he was trying to say. I am Legend just left me as flat and bored as the empty streets of New York in the film.

Contents of a Library

In the past an extensive collection of books in a library was a sign of both education and wealth.

Today a library will more often be made up from DVD’s and CD’s as well as books; but with the availability of multi channel TV on Demand, Video rental (from stores or on-line), iTunes and music sharing what do you really want to buy to put in your library. I propose that the DVD’s  that we buy fall into 1 of 2 categories:

  1. Movies/ TV Shows that we truly will watch many, many times. Typically these will be children’s films (because kids will watch the same film again and again and again) or guilty pleasures that we use as comfort food. Basically anything by Pixar, Disney or Dreamworks falls into this camp.
  2. Movies/ TV Shows that we want other people to see on our library shelf.  You might not ever get around to watching these DVD’s (you definitely won’t watch them often enough to justify the cost you paid) but they show that you are familiar with Truffaut/ Shakespeare/ Welles etc etc. I know that I will never watch the original version of ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ often enough to justify the price I paid for it (not least of which is because it scared the bejeezus out out me) but it sure do look good on the shelf.

And sometimes, just very occasionally we get a DVD that falls into both categories. And when you do, it makes you very, very happy.

Life imitating art

I can’t remember the exact dialogue from Pulp Fiction when Samuel L Jackson & John Travolta are discussing the ‘Royale with Cheese’ but I wish it had another fantastic fact about living in the Netherlands:

You can go to a movie and a waitress will bring you beer whilst you are watching the movie. Now, OK, this isn’t up there with splitting the atom, but by God it felt good to sit in a theatre, watch the Bourne Ultimatum (again) and have nachos and beer served.

And if you want to go and recreate the experience for yourself (and I would heartily recommend that you do) you can choose: (Just don’t be freaked out by the fact it is all in dutch)