Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Film Review of Moon

I could talk for hours about this film. As soon as I walked out of the cinema (The Showrom to be exact) I instantly placed it alongside my joint best films of the year so far: Frost/Nixon, Let The Right One In and Coraline, making my top 4 even more eclectic.

Moon is sci-fi in the style of films like Sunshine, although even that is misleading since Sunshine was crammed with CGI visuals of blazing light and was about saving mankind, whereas Moon is the story of 1 man in a grubby base on the desolate, dusty, monochrome surface of our moon.

The world of Moon is very quickly laid out at the start of the film in a corporate promo video kind of way, the headline being: energy crisis on Earth solved by collecting H3 on the far side of the moon and shipping it back to Earth to be used in fusion reactors. The scene is then promptly set as we meet our two principal characters; Sam Bell and Gerty.

The process of harvesting H3 is mostly automated but Sam is charged with making sure that everything runs smoothly and dealing with the minor problems that will always arise in such a harsh environment. His contract runs for a full 3 years and his only company is Gerty; the base’s computer, which is actually capable of handling all of the on-base maintenance without Sam’s assistance.

The technology Sam is charged with maintaining is wonderful; huge, tracked combine harvesters crawl across the landscape spewing out plumes of rock behind them; his lunar rovers trundle along on 6 massive wheels looking every moment like they’re about to bounce away into space. There was an irresistible charm to these creations that brought out the grinning 8 year old in me whenever they appeared.

The set of the base was also wonderfully near-future. Everything was white but covered in dirt and grime; Sam is not the type to spend his spare hours scrubbing away to keep things clean and this is not such a far flung future that mankind is worrying about how to keep their lunar bases shiny.

Gerty is a fantastic construction; an amalgam of Kevin Spacey, Hal from 2001, the ship’s computer from WALL-E, and msn messenger. He’s essentially a white box suspended from the ceiling by a pole that travels along tracks in order to get around. He’s voiced by Kevin Spacey, has a big black electronic eye and a screen which displays emoticons whenever he interacts with Sam.

Gerty close up

The use of these changing faces; happy, sad, confused, thoughtful etc is absolutely hilarious in parts and does a great job of characterising Gerty as more than just a machine. They steer clear of the clichéd computer-caught-in-a-logic-problem-that-goes-nuts characterisation in favour of a more complex personality that struggles to marry morality with its programming. It’s a refreshing approach.

I’ve hardly mentioned the plot so far, the reason being it’s quite difficult to without spoiling it. Quite early on Sam has an accident whilst going to check on one of the harvesters out on the moon’s surface and is quite badly hurt. A second Sam is revealed at this point and I can’t say what the relationship between the 2 Sams is without giving the game away.

Joe, my esteemed co-author of this site saw this film before me and told me its one major fault was that it lacked tension. He has a valid point as Moon is not a film that builds and builds towards a grand revelation at the end; it gets going quite quickly and proceeds at an unceasing canter until the end – I think I glanced at my watch once whilst watching it and that was a full hour in.

The biggest revelation to be had is obviously the relationship of the two Sams to each other and this is solved a while before the end. Incidentally, Sam Rockwell’s portrayals of the Sams is really very good. There are none of the clichéd shots that normally accompany doppelganger scenes in sci-fi and my friend and I were briefly convinced that it had to be 2 different actors. He played the first Sam particularly well, forming a character that got into my head and has stayed there ever since.

He is by far the most complete and developed character and the most poignant scene in the film sees him finally broken emotionally. He loses something, but the realisation is such that you find out that he never had to begin with. The result gave me a feeling of the purest melancholy loneliness, heightened by the fact that physically he was as alone as you could possibly imagine, whilst the Earth moved across the sky overhead. We see a lot of Sam’s frustration in Moon but moments of deeper emotion like this are kept rare, which is fair enough since Sam’s been 3 years with very little human contact.

Sam the first

My gripes with this film are very few. I don’t think the lack of cloying tension is a bad thing because the film’s pacing doesn’t require it. The one annoyance for me was that the technology that explains the dual Sams seems quite a bit beyond the rest of the near-future style tech that permeates the rest of Moon.

The fact of the matter is that the characters carry this film through; it has little CGI and is mostly modelled, it lacks a grand battle of good vs evil, the fate of the world is not at stake, no one is taking over anything or blowing anyone up. Characterwise it has 2 men played by one actor, a talking box, and a few brief appearances by people on screens. But they’re all played so well that I found it riveting. The first Sam in particular carried me through Moon with him, and now I’m carrying it to the top of my favourites list.

I love this film and it may well end up as my film of the year. I advise you to see Moon if you have a head with a brain in it, eyes on the front of it, and ears on the side of it. In fact I recommend it even if you don’t.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Top Gear: ‘Goodnight’ – or simply one of the best pieces of filmmaking I have ever seen. (TV Blog)

Tonight at 8pm was aired the final episode of the current series of Top Gear. I was in the audience for the first episode of this series and saw surprise guest Michael Schumacher interviewed live and up close.

It was a very enjoyable experience, something that almost all fans of the show would love to do no doubt. It takes a whole afternoon to film the 1 hour show, and bearing in mind that all the track/challenge/review segments are recorded in advance, it’s quite a ridiculously long time. However, it doesn’t feel that long and I daresay I’ve never stood still for such long periods without complaining about it. It would be nice to go again and yet… I don’t watch the show wishing I was there. I’m quite happy with my vantage point.

When I attended the F1 Grand Prix at Silverstone a few years back it was the same thing. I had a great view looking down over the last section; 4 or 5 winding corners before the cars disappeared onto the start/finish straight. The noise was incredible, and as an obsessive, timesheet-watching fan, to see it all up close was a great experience. And yet… I don’t watch grands prix wishing I was there either.

This is the power of television. It dismisses space and time. When Jeremy Clarkson does a gag 4 times, with the 4th time having the perfect wording and intonation it’s great for the home viewer who only sees an impeccable laugh-out-loud line. Standing in the studio audience though you laugh genuinely at the quite funny first attempt and then laugh on command every time after that. You don’t get to enjoy the polished, finished article. Time is dismissed by the mighty television; minutes and seconds litter the editing suite’s floor.

With Formula 1 it’s distance. For 2 hours you are everywhere, wherever something’s happening; there you are. You track individual cars through lap after lap, you dart to every overtaking attempt, every lockup. When it’s over you don’t wonder where you could get a vantage of the podium from, you’re right there. Miles and miles litter the floor of the production truck.

In both cases television facilitates bringing you the best. The cameras are always rolling, and the best performance, the most significant action, the best entertainment is brought straight to your living room, your television, directly to you. Which is the other thing. Crowds. Think of it this way. You are going to meet your hero, whoever it may be. Would you rather run into them alone, in an unguarded moment? Or as a nameless face in several hundred other people? It’s another wonderful illusion of television; that it’s YOURS. They’re talking just to you. Especially these days with the proliferation of channels and programmes meaning that there’s almost always something on that’s to your taste (God bless Dave).

So what on Earth am I getting at? Well I’ve been pretty unimpressed with this series of Top Gear. It’s gone a bit too entertainment-y for my liking. I miss the complicated scoreboards for challenges. I miss the news segments actually talking about cars. Top Gear used to either make me laugh, have my inner (outer) child grinning inanely, or feed my inner nerd for the entire 60 minutes. It’s not a sudden transition, but this series saw them finally slip over the line where even my inner (outer) child was thinking “this is just silly. It’s TOO obviously fake.” I wasn’t alone in my living room anymore, everyone was in on the joke and it wasn’t funny anymore. Parts of every episode were still very, very funny. But it just wasn’t quite Top Gear.

Jay Leno.

Tonight was a typical example of this. A mixed bag, a funny but peculiarly ordered show that seemed to end with an interview with Jay Leno. Who did a rubbish lap. And is unknown in this country. And despite being a petrolhead didn’t talk much about cars. And said one funny thing. Ending a show with this, let alone the series finale?! A brain fart of the highest order. But oh no, it was not over. 8.57pm according to my stereo but no not over yet. There was one final segment to go. In no preview was it mentioned, nor at the top of the show, nor was the Aston Martin in the corner shown until this point. Top Gear has always been allowed overrun – up to 5 minutes sometimes – but even using all of that, this would a brief outing in this particular Aston. Very strange since Aston Martin is the brand championed by the show. Very strange indeed.

What followed, was stunning.

All told it was 4:24 in length and featured no explosions, no stunts, no comedy, no one liners, no power slides, no caravans, no celebrities, no stopwatches and no test tracks. Just Jeremy Clarkson, in a new silver, V12 Vantage. Driving through the most mountainous and deserted miles of our green and pleasant land.

In a previous Aston Martin test a while back, Clarkson quipped early on that we probably expected him to cue the Elgar and sail off into leaden skies on a cloud of engine noise. This time the sentiment was implicit rather than comical. It’s allowed to sink in as, for the first minute, Jeremy is uncharacteristically silent.

Winding roads, mountains, wild flowers, skies of white and black clouds shifting over bright blue chinks of sky. The car and landscape blend together. He is alone, plunging through these mountains that speak so strongly of home. There are long periods of silence where he says nothing and only haunting, pared-down, Sigur Ros-esque notes touch your ears. He says just 87 words in the entire thing – about the length of one simile in his usual tests.

There’s no stuttering and searching and grasping for hyperbole; he’s calm, assured, concise, controlled and quiet. The camera in the car next to him isn’t fixed on him as usual, it pans very slowly over to him when he speaks; his hands creep into view and he doesn’t speak until it reaches his face. This happens several times and builds the expectation of what he will say, brings great weight to his words.

“Weeeell it’s an Aston Martin vantage with a V12 engine. So what do you think it’s gonna be like?

The Aston in question

“It is fantastic. It’s wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.”

“What it makes me feel though, is sad.”

“I just can’t help thinking that thanks to all sorts of things; the environment, the economy, problems in the middle east, the relentless war on speed … cars like this will soon be consigned to the history books.”

“I just have this horrible dreadful feeling, that what I’m driving here is an ending.”

And this is the atmosphere of the entire video. It’s the end of an episode, end of the series and he presents to us the end of an era. It is an epilogue. Top Gear could end now, because in a thousand series they could never end it a better way.

Mr. Clarkson

I hope they didn’t show it to the studio audience. I would have hated to be there. This isn’t something to be watched standing up, craning your neck upwards to squint at a tiny TV in the rafters of a crowded warehouse. The whole aura of the video was of loneliness, of wonder, of a silent appreciation. Not one other car or living soul could be seen. To bring to us, personally, in our living rooms, on our sofas, this feeling, was the entire point. The long silences and gentle music let you float out through your eyes and into the screen, feel the steering wheel in your grasp, and feel the miles slip away beneath you.

We’re used to Jeremy Clarkson the clownish buffoon. The performing entertainer. Those who lambast him sometimes forget how well he plays the fool. A full minute and a half passes before the camera slowly pans to him a final time… he reaches down to change gear… glances at the camera… looks back to the road… and with a little sigh, and just the barest trace of a tight, wry little smile…


The credits roll as the film and music continue. He drives off into the distance as the camera rises through clouds until everything is gone. I’m not too macho to admit that the whole experience made me quite emotional. Some will say that this is just manipulative filmmaking, and they may well be right, perhaps I have been manipulated. But when done with such care, such attention to detail, such beautiful camerawork, I don’t care.

For the record I don’t doubt the sincerity of the piece, and for my money, one reason why Clarkson smiles, just slightly, is because he knew. Recorded weeks or months ago no doubt, sat in the car, probably before they even had all the shots, he knew that the segment would have a big effect. “I’m not just a clown” he seems to say. I couldn’t help but think it was the greatest advert imaginable for Aston Martin; ironic given how his failed comedic adverts for a VW earlier in the show were panned with horror by experts.

What British shows will this era of TV be remembered for? Well, the people I know who don’t watch Top Gear don’t watch television. I felt like I was watching a significant moment in TV history tonight. A moment that will be preserved in our collective memory. Or not. Maybe it’ll just be me. But if so, then so much the better. That’s the power of television, used to its full effect. And I’ll treasure it.


Sunday, 26 July 2009

Film Review of The Fallen

To get into the groove of doing this, I'm starting by reviewing a DVD, a relatively unknown film from 2004 called The Fallen. This is one of the strangest films I have ever seen. Maybe the strangest. I can't quite decide. I picked up the DVD on a whim one day, having never heard of it but thinking I couldn't go far wrong with a festival-winning film with a blazing cover for just £3.

"Saving Private Ryan but even better" is the review emblazoned across the top of the DVD. Now, I'm not the biggest fan of Saving Private Ryan and hardly know it by heart, but the only similarity I can think of between it and The Fallen is that they both feature the Second World War. Although when it comes to The Fallen you could be forgiven for forgetting which war you're watching, what with the character of Packard (who I thought was called "Packet" until the closing credits - bloody American accents) looking very much like he's arrived in Northern Italy via 1960s Vietnam, complete with crazy eyes and OTT facepaint. But make no mistake, this is WW2. Although most of the time it’s Dad’s Army’s WW2, not Saving Private Ryan’s.

The gravitas and even melodrama suggested by the poster, DVD cover and indeed the film’s title are completely and totally absent from the film itself. The blurb tells us that “the film boasts a unique cinematic style that evokes the feeling of authentic newsreel footage” by which it means the budget only stretched to buying the cameras from Dad’s Army to film it. The poor quality, high exposure and the tendency of green to leap out of the screen evoked the reaction of “bleugh!” from me personally, but after about 10 minutes it ceased to be obtrusive, and was only noticeable when special effects were called for.

The Fallen features a veritable smorgasbord of easily confused characters speaking a variety of subtitled languages, wandering through homogenous Italian forest that could be anywhere in the Northern hemisphere. It follows many groups of people; Italian soldiers, German soldiers, American soldiers and Italian villagers who have sided with the Allies. I don’t usually struggle with large casts but so few of the characters were of any interest that it was quite difficult to keep all of them in mind and hence also care when something good or bad befalls them.

The American soldiers take the form of a group of loveable, useless supply guys who are given an operation too scary for them, which then takes 10 times longer than it should because their jeep-type-thing breaks down and they are unable to repair it. It’s then repaired in literally seconds by an Italian villager who drives off in it. Yep, that’s the calibre of soldier we’re dealing with here. They are led by the alcoholic Malone and are instructed to take the lunatic “Packet” with them when their superior realises just how useless they are. Presumably hoping he’ll finally snap and murder them all. Or maybe that's just me.

You would think these guys would be the main focus of the film, and you would be right. Sort of. They disappeared for quite a while in the middle of the film, very occasionally appearing in scenes where nothing happens. And what are they ditched in favour of? An odd subplot about the Italian and German soldiers not getting along, rendered all the more daft by the fact that the only way to tell them apart is that German and Italian mercifully sound nothing alike. Oh and it’s settled over shooting a deer. Of course. The large cast of characters need not be a problem but the poor interweaving of all the subplots hindered my attempts to keep track of them, rather than helping it. Better editing certainly could have helped with this.

One of the big – and we are talking Godzilla-sized – problems with The Fallen is that you could quite easily forget that there is a war on. A few brief shootouts and the obligatory loud finale are the only times that the war itself intervenes. There is no tension. The Germans are more worried about running out of food than fighting the Americans, the Italians mostly debate the best way to surrender (I kid you not) and as previously mentioned the Americans are hiking aimlessly through the forest.

Quite early on you realise it’s ok to laugh. You wouldn’t have thought a film that pointed and laughed at Italians this much would win the Milan International Film Festival, but there we go. My favourite character, besides the wonderfully mad “Packet”, was Rossini; a greasy, chess-playing, wine-loving, Italian man who seems ripe for transplantation to New Jersey to replace Tony Soprano. We first see him scamming wine from an American soldier, and being driven around in a trailer full of chairs hitched up to an old tractor. Despite providing the greatest comic relief of The Fallen he also has the only journey that affects you in the slightest as the Italian army attempts to make an example of him to prove their loyalty to the Germans.

Yet even this seems like it’s just there to make a point. Rossini was only endeared to us to make his martyrdom more affecting, and even that martyrdom was quite clichéd. The raft of paper-thin characters is deployed in this way over and over again, but the characters are so weak it’s impossible to care; you don’t hate the axis armies for what happens to Rossini, you only miss him for what he could have brought to the rest of the film.

Ultimately it is the register of the film that kills it, you can’t take it seriously; the plot (what there is of it) is poor, the acting is ordinary, the cinematography is poor, and the film-maker knows that you’re going to be laughing so takes advantage of this with some comic moments. It would have been better if they had gone more Dad’s Army with the majority of the film and then wrenched the audience back to a harsh reality just as in the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth. Unfortunately comedy was not used to endear more characters to the viewer and neither did The Fallen have the quality to earn the respect required to be taken seriously.

A curiosity of a film that I can only recommend you see once, and once only. If that. Purely to marvel at the strangeness of it.

And there's my first film review. Ever. I have never written a formal review of anything before, so I welcome any thoughts/criticisms on how I write, and how I've approached this, it would be very helpful!

Sunday, 28 June 2009

It Begins.

Soon I shall start posting reviews of new films, slightly older films that I'm particularly fond of, and maybe some reviews of TV programmes to boot. Took bloody ages to get that banner sorted!