Tuesday, May 16, 2006

"Memorise This Map"

Silent Hill, then. It's a turning-point for cinema as we know it.

It really, really is a decent movie based on a computer game. For the first time ever, someone's figured out how to do it.

There are two key issues with video game adaptations.

Number one is plot. Games have them, but they either have too much, or not enough - at least so far as the playing sections are concerned. It's either 'get gun, shoot blokes, shoot more blokes, shoot next lot of blokes' or it's 'find key, open door, find passcode, unlock vault, find gold, give gold to wizard, get spell from wizard, use spell to conjure dog, follow dog to cave...' and so on into eternity.

Either too much, or not enough. And neither of those works for a film.

Problem two is the REST of the plot. The cut-scenes that make up a game. And cut-scenes do not a movie make, either.

Why? That's a little tougher. They get a lot of beats across - character, time, place, next steps, all in just a few minutes. With more time, surely they'd be deeper, more satisfying. Just what a movie can do.

Well, yeah, okay. But most video games suffer from second-generation syndrome: they're already based on something else.

How can you make a movie of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City? Won't it just feel like a cheap rip-off of Scarface? Didn't Doom just end up being Aliens-lite? Of course it did! The games-makers were Aliens fans, they were influenced. And for a game, that's great - I WANT to feel like I'm playing the Aliens movie, that I'm Scarface. Why the hell not?

Which brings us back to Silent Hill.

Not being a fan of the game, I'm not going to be totally clear on what of the movie is game-based. But I can take an educated guess.

The story - a mother loses her child in an abandoned/possessed town in the middle of nowhere - is based on stock characters and situations. Horror movie staples. Woman alone, abandonment issues and dark, scary rooms. It's textbook.

But then, a decent horror movie should be aware of the textbook.

The Scream film series was always fun, but it had one enormous problem. You can't, actually, subvert the genre. Horror movies do what they do because, to some degree, it works.

To be ACTUALLY subversive, Scream needed to have a male hero, without any dark secrets or vulnerabilities. No character would ever have gone anywhere alone, nobody would ever have cornered themselves, and the lights would always be on. Always.

At what point does that film get, in any way, scary? It doesn't.

You gotta use the textbook.

So Silent Hill catches a break. It's a horror movie built on a horror game built on the horror movie genre.

What the film-makers got spot-on, though, was an understanding of just why Silent Hill was rich for adaptation: the visuals.

It's the game's imagery and atmosphere that stuck with players. And cinema can do that. It's astounding how many directors fail to realise that. In trying to make a generic plot and generic characters adapt into a generic film, someone misses the reason for the adaptation in the first place.

In truth, mostly that reason is money. But the money's there because the game's memorable. What made the game memorable? Nine times out of ten it's gameplay. And no amount of clever writing will make Halo's playability transfer to the silver screen.

Again, Silent Hill catches a break. It's key appeal was never the find-and-use gameplay...it was the atmos.

The film, in terms of 'good horror' and 'atmosphere', works an absolute bloody treat. The photography is amazing. Bleached-white skies, raining ash...and then it gets really evil. Dark, blood-stained, ashen Silent Hill, barbed and rusted and ugly. This stuff looks INCREDIBLE.

The final trick - clever at first, but ultimately the thing that makes the movie's tasty coda work - is that there's a THIRD Silent Hill in the film. White and dark are two, the third is 'real'. It's just what a town that's died looks like. Three parallel versions of one place. And nobody ever, EVER explains it. We get it though. The visuals tell the story.

That's CINEMA, man. Tell the story, use pictures.

Silent Hill, the film, is apparently larger on exposition than the elusive game ever was. But it's still in no hurry to tell you anything. When you get info, pay attention. Remember the names. Because it may only be coming once.

Concentrate. Because you won't be getting one of those awful dubbed-on lines. You know the ones - they put them on when you can't see the character's face; add a line or two because the preview audience got confused. They're over-exposition, and they're almost always for the cheap seats.

Silent Hill, with its admirable restraint, shows amazing class here. And everywhere.

Nobody's doing this the easy way. The performances are universally strong...even hard. Sean Bean has a bit of trouble with the American accent, but that's about it.

Also, for a supposedly sexist genre - the video-game adaptation brought us two inexorable Lara Croft films, lest we forget; where bra padding got more attention than the story - this is an admirably all-girl film.

The two male characters give some context, keep the viewer aware of a 'real' world away from the weirdness, but just when you think they're going to be doing the exposition (while Radha Mitchell gets scared, dirty and sweaty), they bail. They don't unearth much of anything. One knows plenty, one knows nothing, and they never share it with each other or the audience.

Radha Mitchell, meanwhile, is caught in a terrific maelstrom of mother issues, sister issues, grandmother issues. Of blood and life.

You see where I'm coming from, right?

Silent Hill's secrets, its crimes, are all girl-on-girl. They nod back to The Crucible. And they're shocking. You respond emotionally. Not bad for a video-game.

The visuals, it turns out, spring from that emotion. It all fits together - not in some script-school-handbook kinda way, but tonally, thematically. And, also, they just plain RULE. God loves a director who holds back on the CGI until he needs it, and then uses it in interesting ways.

The prosthetics in this film, the sets, the REAL stuff - just gorgeous. Mixed with casting, movement, camerawork...gasp-inducing. Take a corridor filled with white-clad, white-fleshed nurses with mangled faces and the stuttered movements of epilectic zombies - it's affecting. The flesh (legs and cleavage) has an effect when coupled with the make-up, the lighting, the movement. No way that works a tenth as well in CGI.

But when the CG turns up, it works. One reality peels away, rots off, to reveal another. But it's...slick. Not in a 'wow' way, but in an 'ugh' way. Like insect movement, or oil on water. Preternatural...but not in a computer way. In a...well, in a natural way.

Sure, there are flaws. Pacing is a little off - fast to get to Silent Hill, slow to move through it - and much of the narrative is pretty hum-drum: visit room, find clue, follow clue to room, find clue, follow clue, all with some scares in between.

But, seriously, the last three scary films you saw - were the plots much better? And could they lay claim to carrying some hefty feminist weight? Some serious questions about sin, righteousness and revenge?

I'm going to guess not.

"Memorise this map," our heroine is told. "It may save your life."

It's hard to shake off the feeling that we should grab a pen and paper and make a copy of the map. We may have to navigate out of the level later. But it's only in these not-too-prevalent moments that the video-game shows too strongly.

Most of the time, you're too busy thinking about the story, feeling for the characters, or jumping out of your skin.

I can think of no stronger recommendation.

It's a four-star film. It's not revolutionary. But it does mean that Peter Jackson and his team have, at least, SOME kind of bar to aim for with the Halo film next year.

Atmosphere, Pete. Remember - atmosphere.


Additional - May 17th

After a quick Wiki I've discovered a little more about the original Silent Hill game. Interesting, this - it seems the first game, which has roughly the movie's plot, actually starred a MALE character looking for HIS daughter.

This puts us less in the standard horror category, and more into the world of Stephen King. Paternal love is a big King dealy. (Firestarter, for one of several examples.) And, again, he's a definite videogame influence. Throw in the wacky town of the undead and it's all very Steve.

But here's the thing - King horror stories, despite being some of the best ever written (Carrie, The Shining, Pet Sematary and The Dark Half all rock my world), don't usually transfer all that well to cinema or TV. His stuff is horror-drama, and nobody seems to know quite what to do with that...

Except some do, at least to make it movie-ish. DePalma, for example, made the Carrie movie a pyrotechnic set-piece wonderland. He made it iconic horror cinema, often by making changes to the book. (The death of Carrie's mother, which ends up using crucifixion inconography, makes for a visual feast; the book was smaller, more dramatic than visceral.) And Kubrick's Shining, which I have some issues with, did things with a steadycam that changed horror movies forever. Again, made it cinema...by embracing genre-ness.

So, Silent Hill changed the male lead to female. And while we can argue the cliché of this forever, it works to transfer a King-like game into a piece of genre cinema. In the best way.

Good for them.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Things I Have Learnt About Germany

I've just returned from a few days in Germany, and here's what I have discovered:

* Everybody stops for a red 'Don't Walk' signal. Everyone. It's incredible - it's like that bit in The Matrix where they freeze the programme and the entire street stops moving. It's almost as if they value common sense over getting somewhere fifteen seconds earlier.

* There is not a single sausage roll in the entire country. Not one. You try to explain 'pig meat in pastry' and they look at you like you're from Venus. (There may have been a 'beef roll', but I didn't risk it.)

* If you stay very quiet and smile occasionally, people forget you don't actually speak the language.

* As a result, you start to pick up words - maybe one in twenty. That's after two days. Extrapolating this figure, a person could become fluent in, ooh, about a month. No wonder Germany children find it so easy.

* Outgoing flight - three and a half hour delay. Homebound - exactly on time. Through this one example I choose to see all myths about German efficiency as accurate.

* Oh, and prostitution is legal. Something I didn't discover until the end of my final day. Typical.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Top Movies

A few years ago I compiled my top ten movies for a website list. These were they:

1 The Fly (1986)
2 The Breakfast Club (1985)
3 Goodfellas (1990)
4 Back to the Future (1985)
5 A Few Good Men (1992)
6 Se7en (1995)
7 Always (1989)
8 It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
9 The Paper (1994)
10 Metropolis (1927)

Interesting to note what's changed and what hasn't then. Well for me anyway; if it's no fun for you you should feel free to suffer in silence. Or post in the talkbacks...it's never been done before, why not start a revolution?

Spielberg's Always pegs higher for me now than it did then, and A Few Good Men still makes the grade, though drops a little due to The West Wing TV series being even better. (Aaron, you're a bloody genius, but the price you pay for getting better is it makes your older stuff look less great. This is why embracing mediocrity is clearly the only way to go.)

Se7en might drop out of the list, to be replaced by Fincher's OTHER great movie, Fight Club. And The Paper might fall off altogether - despite still being massively underrated.

And what gets added? Crash for sure - the Haggis film, not Cronenberg's. Despite its lazy title, it's an amazing screenplay. One of these days I'll write something about the backlash the film has faced, and why I couldn't care less about it. But not today.

The Lord of the Rings movies might go in as a single film. It would normally be against the rules, but when they're all made together - a cohesive whole in a way that Star Wars or the Godfather series could never be when they're filmed separately - the rules kinda change. (That said, I can't accept Back to the Futures 2 and 3 as one film because, despite being filmed together, they strive to be individual.)


So, which from this badly-organised list fit my 'not fade away' mumblings from the other week?

The Fly, oh yes. Great finale. Blows the guy's head off, cries, fade out. That's an ending.

The Breakfast Club does it - making sense of the opening voiceover (it's Brian's detention essay), sending everyone away in a reworking of the opening introductions.

Goodfellas - spot-on. Henry Hill reduced to a common schlub in a single shot, followed by a direct crib from The Great Train Robbery (silent, black and white): Joe Pesci fires his gun into camera. The gag being that there's no definitive print of the Train Robbery flick, and because those movies used to run on a loop nobody knows for sure whether it was the closing shot or the opening (making it an interesting precursor to the James Bond gunbarrel sequence).

It works as start or finish. So it just plain WORKS.

A Few Good Men kicks everyone out of the courtroom and never follows up on the prosecutions to follow - very bold. It's a Wonderful Life gets it all done in one scene, too; for that matter, Metropolis concludes in the rubble of the climax, too.

Always, Crash, The Paper and Se7en round off - not too hard, but not too soft. A Springer-esque 'final thought', if you like. Or even if you don't. And Back to the Future hits a (previously mentioned) memorable coda.

Only the Rings movies go fade-out and coda crazy. But it's hard to be mad when, truthfully, it's actually the codas from three films all together. Or it would be, if Samwise didn't go Springer at the end of films 1 and 2.

So - what are your top films? And, more importantly, how do they end?

Question: Can a great film - not a really good one, but one that hits your top five - have a weak ending? Examples to the usual empty-posting place.