Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Lady In A Big Shirt

Let's be honest, you either like the films of M. Night Shyamalan or you don't.

Okay, maybe The Sixth Sense is an exception. But, basically, you're either the kind of person who took to Unbreakable, Signs and The Village, or you ain't. Either of these is fine by me - I'm a movie fan who genuinely never took to Coen Brothers movies, after all. (Hey, I KNOW they're good films, but, Fargo aside, I just don't gel with them.)

What his critics say about him is basically right. He's short on new tricks, he's massively formal in his style, and his characters are 'characters' rather than 'people'. Oh, and his ego may be becoming larger than his talent - though in that regard he'll always tail behind all-ego-minimal-ability Cabin Fever director Eli Roth, who seems to have got into movies in order to 'score chicks'.

So, anyway - Lady in the Water.

I should preface this waffle with two caveats. Firstly, I genuinely believe there is nothing more adorable and attractive on this Earth than a woman dressed in just a man's shirt. It's sexy, for sure, but more than anything it just makes me want to curl up and cuddle. And Bryce Dallas Howard spends the entire movie dressed this way.

Secondly, I like Night's movies. He's not the revolutionary genius he thinks he is - I remember one interview where he claimed that only he and Spielberg had the secret to making great, popular films, something Lady's box office seems to disprove - but he IS a talent to be acknowledged.

Lady has a great deal going for it. Paul Giamatti for one thing, who's wonderful as the building caretaker trying to escape his old, painful life. The photography's gorgeous, too. Not chocolate-box, but unusual; no apartment building ever felt more familiar and yet alien.

The story is hard to convey, because it's a story about storytelling. A water nymph arrives to inspire a writer to a great work just with her presence. That Night PLAYS this writer is disgustingly self-aggrandising; "What me? Change the world with my words? Well, gee..." It's a stupid mistake, because he's actually fine in the part. His acting isn't great, but it's not noticeably bad, either. But why THAT part?!

Still, the writer DOES have an interesting arc. Lady in the Water makes the reasonable point that hugely influential, world-changing writers tend to be recognised after they die; and sometimes they're killed for their views. If you knew your book would improve the world, but that you'd be killed for it, would you still write the book?

Me, I'd use a pseudonym. But that's not part of the guy's poetry. It's not a cynical film.

What I would have loved to see is Night in the role of the critic. Yep, that's right, one of Lady's characters is a movie critic. You can tell he is, because he's miserable and judgmental and complains about things being derivative and unoriginal. Because critics are always negative and uncreative, and writers are always life-embracing and inspirational. Always. Obviously.

I'm a writer AND a critic, and I feel I'm being misrepresented twice.

So, with her writer duly inspired (seeing each other was, apparently, enough; reducing the concept of a 'muse' to something pretty bland), our nymph has to get home.

There then follows a series of discoveries about fairytale rules. The legend goes that our nymph - called a Narf, apparently, and this particular shirt-wearing lady is named Story (for crying out loud...) - will be carried away by an eagle. She would, too, if it weren't for the dog-like Scrunts trying to kill her. But they can be held back by...

...and so it goes on.

At this point the film is more like Signs than any other Night movie. It presents a series of oddities and threads and waits to tie them all together. But where Signs' wrap-up didn't really work, this one does, if only by virtue of continually reminding you that THIS IS A STORY. Unlike 'life', it has to follow the rules of narrative cinema.

Which means that our hero eventually goes to the critic to ask what happens next.

Now, brilliantly, the critic tells him. He doesn't know why he's being asked, it's all done in the hypothetical, but later - when he turns out to be wrong - one character gets to say "What kind of man would presume to know what is in another's heart?" That dang rat-bastard critic, that's who.

Which is all Night's way of digging at people who write bad reviews, presumably. Because they're uppity, talking about storytelling when they clearly know nothing about it. Ugh.

What's massively wrong with this picture is that a) the critic was asked about a hypothetical movie storyline, he didn't know some idiot was going to follow his advice because lives depended on it, and b) he's being written by Night. So how could he give the right answer? ("Oh, I'm in a Night movie? Well, he hates critics, so assume whatever I say will be wrong...")

Actually, any critic in the audience would have given a more extended answer than the one in the film, one that included the following: "Well, we're still in the middle act, so there has to be some misdirection. So the solution we seem to have found nice an early will have to turn out to be wrong, but that the REAL solution will still have been seeded early in the plot exactly like I told you."

It's anger-inducing, because the critical vendetta really gets in the way of what, otherwise, could have been a great film. It really could. Away from those moments we have neat narrative tricks, smartly used effects, the odd good scare, some genuinely affecting tear-jerks, and some quirky characterisation. Plus a running thread about the importance - the need - for belief in stories.

I LOVE that nobody in the building questions the weirdness of what's going on; they want it to be true, so let it be. Wouldn't we all like to shake off our cynicism? The sharpness of it, the cruelty, is horrible. But we have to have it to keep living - otherwise we'd all have been conned, ripped-off, cheated or killed by now. It's a survival instinct we wish we didn't need - and that's a great thing to make a movie about.

Disney kicked Night out based on this film. Too self-indulgent and weird, they said. Well, weird is fine, but the other thing is spot-on. This cried out for a script editor, or an executive, with power enough to make the egotist reconsider. "Night, you've got two-thirds of a great movie here. It treats fairy stories with the same reverence and importance as Unbreakable treated comics. The terminology gets a bit daft and over-complicated, but we can fix that. So, what say we give you the greenlight based on one change - dump the critic."

So, yeah, see it if you like his stuff. You'll be frustrated by some of its tricks, delighted by others, and irritated by the ego and the bare-faced, one-dimensional temper-tantrum that is the 'critics are bad' theme...but, with that ignored, it's actually an interesting piece of cinema.

Plus - lady in a bloke's shirt. I'm just sayin' - in any context, Best Thing In The World Ever.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Life In The Not-Sure-Which Lane

Pixar-Disney's Cars is out now, and it's a joy. An absolute delight. Only, it's kind of a disappointment as well. Here are some of the reasons why.

When we think of Pixar, we think of Toy Story, Toy Story 2 and The Incredibles. Which is like thinking of Francis Ford Coppola and immediately going to Godfather, Godfather 2 and Apocalypse Now. Yes, he made them, and they're his best movies...but they're also three of the best films ever made by ANYONE. To expect his career to continually provide that standard is ridiculous.

Pixar have made, bar none, some of the best animated films ever. With those named examples, in fact, you can even afford to lose the 'animated' caveat. But seriously - how many genuine masterpieces does anyone have in them? Get past the top five Da Vincis or Van Goghs and you're into the 'brilliant but less iconic' stuff. It has to be that way.

Pixar's second tier is led by Finding Nemo - brilliant, beautiful, witty, but wearing thin on the buddy concept - followed by Monsters Inc and A Bug's Life.

Cars can certainly sit comfortably alongside those last two. All top-class affairs with spot-on voice talent, nifty direction, great gags, strong characters...they just ain't Toy Story. But in a world of Over The Hedges and Madagascars, they don't have to be. Even lesser Pixar kicks the pretenders to the curb. Only Dreamworks' Shrek movies come close.

It should, I suppose, be pleasing to Pixar that their greatest competition is themselves. But in the meantime critics are dwelling on a perceived 'mediocrity' that just ain't there.

A few upsides, then, before I get hypocritical and tap Cars's flaws. The voice cast is spot on, the characterisation strong, the visuals astounding. The world is smartly thought out, with its own anthropomorphic logics, just as Bug's Life or Nemo had theirs.

Unlike previous films, though, Cars has NO humans. These aren't cars living in our world - like the toys that only come alive when you don't look, or the fish threatened by our nets - they live on a totally auto'd version of Earth. No animals, no people.

This is a strange and illogical existence, riddled with paradox. Despite feeling uncomfortable about the film's constant 'burning' of fossil fuels, you have to reason that they're not using petroleum, because where could it have come from without organic life? And who drilled for it? Hell, who built the cars in the first place?

I know, I think too much. But, in a more mature movie, questions like these ARE begged. (Still, it does lead to a GREAT end credits sequence where the cars go to the drive-in and watch 'Toy Car Story' and 'Monster Trucks Inc.')

More mature? Oh yes. The humour is often lower-key than usual, and this may be what's off-balanced audiences expecting a kid-friendly flick with a few cunning gags for the adults.

This is an adult animated movie, with a few slapstick gags for the kids.

I'm serious. What sproglet is going to follow the satire of big-money motor-sport, the significance of symbolic nightmares, the implications of a bottom-of-the-back tattoo?

After the maturity of The Incredibles - which itself went for wit over wacky and didn't panic if there wasn't a gag every two seconds - this is another step forward for Pixar. A smaller step, to be sure, but a suggestion that animated objects aren't just for the kids.

What's next? Grown-up talking animals? I can dream... (Come on, Bugs Bunny's always been better the older you get.)

Still, with a mature film comes mature themes. The message of Cars is confused. It wants to say that you don't have to rush, and that winning isn't everything. You can afford to slow down. But then, it's a film about a race car, and there's a climactic race to enter for the finale. Hmm. This final sequence - which, by the way, really cooks - contradicts the previous message entirely. The audience whoops as the film gets out of the slow lane and puts its foot back on the gas.

Mixed messages aside, it's also scuppered slightly by the hero. He's arrogant, inconsiderate and, because of that, lonely. And while he DOES learn his lesson, for a long time he's kinda short on redeeming features. Having accidentally trashed half the town, Lightning McQueen's response is "Oops. So, when can I get outta here?" Where's the apology?

It's a bold move to put an unlikable character front and centre, and Owen Wilson's charms do soften the blow. But again I say - lovely, likeable heroes are the safe choice of more childish films. A more adult outlook makes for bolder choices. Anyone accusing Pixar of playing it safe this time around should bear this in mind.

More good stuff, then...

See it for the amazing action. For the Cars universe version of insects - oh, and cows. You'll LOVE the cows. That gag is SO good it's worth doing five times, and it's funny EVERY SINGLE TIME. See it for the raging climax which, as a three-car race, totally avoids all those binary result problems I like to bang on about.

Cry, whoop, cheer. Laugh (slowly, but building exponentially). And fall totally in love with the latest in a long line of lovable comedy sidekicks - Mater the tow-truck. He'll be your new best friend:

"You know, I once knew this girl Doreen. Good-looking girl. Looked just like a Jaguar, only she was a truck. You know, I used to crash into her just so I could speak to her. "

Friday, August 11, 2006

Hello, You Must Be Going

So - four housemates have been returned to Big Brother's 'House Next Door'.

Yes, I watch it, I like it, I'm blogging about it. Bugger off.

The public outcry is typically nuts. People who voted demanding refunds, claiming they were misled. Um - you know it's a TV show, right? It's hilarious that Big Brother, which is famous for changing the rules on its participants, has finally pulled a switcheroo on the viewers.

The thing is, TV viewers don't really know what's good for them. Year after year the loud and annoying are dumped in favour of the dull and innocuous. Which is fine - hey, it rewards not-being-irritating, a rare virtue that SHOULD be rewarded - but it leaves the show with all the flavour of tap water.

There are typically three kind of BB vote results:

"Yes!!" - When someone genuinely ghastly gets the boot, usually due to people who rarely vote taking the time to ensure their downfall. Cezar and Grace both got votes from me this year, when usually I only vote in the final. But I wanted to be REALLY sure they were off my TV screen.

"No!!" - When nice people get chucked. It's like splitting up with someone you actually like, but are never going to love. Sorry Sam, you were jolly sweet. This also applies to the eviction of people who were irritating, but provided good entertainment value. That's Nikki.

"Meh..." - When the person getting the boot will barely be remembered a week later. Bonnie, Michael...who were they again?

Look, angry people of Britain, you placed a text or phone vote and it cost you, what, 25p? If you're especially dumb, you voted dozens of times every week, in which case before getting your money back you should get some kind of psychological evaluation, making sure you're actually mentally fit to have money and, y'know, be around other people.

You voted to evict, right? To evict. Not to have the person executed, not even to remove them from the public eye permanently (if only); just to have them taken out of the house.

Also - IT'S A TV SHOW!

Does it actually matter who wins this thing? They all make way more than the prize money in their first few months out of the house. After that, the smart ones save up for the day when they can't get so much as a job in Tescos. The stupid ones try to release novelty singles and wind up drinking lighter fluid on the street.

It's not a president you're electing. And if it was...maybe we should get Endemol's producers to run our political system. You know that horrible moment where you realise you've voted into power a total gimp? Here's a second chance - try again, get it right this time.

Okay, okay - fascist dictatorship. It can't really happen. But this, I'll say again, IS A TV SHOW! It's powered by money and ratings, and the sad truth is that the people behind the scenes, pulling the strings, know what makes good telly better than you do.

Frankly, you haven't got a bloody clue.

You reward volume and violence, provided its directed where you want it. You have a ten-second memory for people's actions - falling off a chair in week 8 doesn't suddenly make being a consistently selfish gonad 'okay'. You reward stupidity.

Still, if Endemol needed any further proof that you don't know what you're doing, just look at who you've voted back in.

Nikki. Well, Nikki was a no-brainer. But you do know she's not been living in a box for the last few weeks, right? She's seen the videos, she's done the magazines and the TV shows. She thinks her histrionics are brilliant now so she's putting them on. Sure, it was always a bit of an act - but it's on a whole new level now. She's doing an impersonation of herself!

Oh, and she's STILL too dense to know what's going on...

Lea. Actually, yeah, okay, she looks like a Barbie that's been left too close to a hot stove, and she has some stalky tendencies. But she's motherly, she's caring, and she talks a string of utter filth. That's fine.

Mikey. Never was a man more confrontational in his requests that people stop being confrontational. Again, thick as custard, arrogant as hell, and the kind of guy who uses the word 'gash' in conversation referring to...exactly what you hope it doesn't. He's also a fawning lapdog to...


Look, okay, I get it. We wanted some fire and personality back. But you voted her back in! You idiots!

Never was there such a respository of bile. Never has a face so obviously conveyed contempt - despite this woman being in a position to look down on nobody. This vile, hateful, sadist, this control freak, this spoilt brat. A person who thinks the best way to raise your self-esteem is to shove everyone else's over. Vindictive, manipulative...and, again, too stupid to breathe in and out.

Grace, darling, you nominated every week. Took pleasure in it, in fact. Had you been asked to vote for EVERY person in the house, and give valid reasons, they couldn't have kept you out of that diary room.

So how come one woman voting for you - citing only reasons that you 'hadn't really bonded' - warranted such a reaction? Suzie, bland as she was, had no idea she was the only person nominating; you did, and you made every effort to suck up in the preceding days.

Oh, right, sorry, yes - that's it. It's not the voting, it's that your efforts to fake being nice didn't work.

A small tip, then: Fake always feels fake. And some of us don't have to labour constantly to BE nice. For some people, it's where they go first. Hate's a last resort, not a preferred destination.

We, the voters, have rewarded this pig of a human being with more fame. She's back in...for now. And, like Nikki, she's taken this as a licence to bitch.

She's back, I guess, because we want some fireworks. But what possible pleasure is there, at this stage, of watching Nikki and Mikey gather around Grace's hateful fire, being mean for the sake of it? I've no interest in seeing them come face to face with Aisleyne - self-absorbed loudmouths fronting up. Ashlyene too daft to argue intelligently, Grace to busy being mean to bother understanding people. Who needs it?

Oh, and don't give me that "She's only 20" thing. Cobblers. I wasn't cruel like that at 20, and anyone who is has CHOSEN to be. Being voted out, and getting that huge panto reaction, is the least Grace deserves. Does voting her back in make her learn a lesson, or undermine the one thing that eviction might have taught her?

I've no problem with the game being played on us as strongly as it is on the entrants. We're all complicit in the same cruelties, and we deserve to have our choices questioned and undermined.

What we don't deserve is any more screen time for a woman who thinks kindness and understanding are abstract concepts reserved for the movies, who believes that being thin entitles her to a living, and who's incapable of seeing life from another's perspective.

Evict her. Again. Please.