Saturday, 30 March 2013

The Grey (2012)

I know he was Oskar Schindler, but ever since I saw his other defining film it's been hard not to associate Liam Neeson with "that guy who punches Albanians in the face for 90 minutes in Taken". So when The Grey comes along and side-swipes me by being more than "that guy punching wolves in the face for 90 minutes"it was quite a pleasant surprise.

Don't get me wrong, there is a significant amount of wolf punching but it all feels a bit hopeless. The Grey, as is probably hinted at in such a title, is bleak. Neeson's opening monologue describes the oil plant in the sticks of Alaska where he works as "at the end of the world" and a place for "men unfit for mankind".

It continues as it starts too. After a brief brush with the perils of suicide while on work, Neeson and his co-workers are flying back to civilisation on leave when their plane crashes in the middle of the wilderness and the few remaining survivors must battle the elements and the predators of the wild to survive. They are without food, without shelter, without weapons and, most significantly, without hope of rescue.

There are more wolves than men. And you can't beg, buy or reason with wolves. As soon as the survivors first encounter their foes it's clear to all how this is going to play out. If anything, the tension and sense of isolation that builds as the group predictably dwindles feels downright reminiscent of Alien. The Grey owes a lot to the sci-fi horror in that sense. It might not live up to rival such a classic, but it's certainly part of its worthy legacy.

The Grey gives you a full cast despite the clear fate of most of them. Once the literal plane-load of people gets thinned out a bit you really start to get to know the survivors in a way that most survival/monster movies don't allow. The wolves are a constant threat, but they're not constantly on screen or chewing on the necks of the cast. the sizeable lulls in the action give ample room for some worthy characters who are deserving of the sympathy and give the fittingly bleak ending some actual emotional weight.

The only real negative I took away from The Grey is the length that those dialogue heavy scenes add to the film. I wouldn't want them removed whatsoever, but this film clocks in at a hair under two hours and it certainly feels like it.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Rubber (2010)

I honestly couldn't wait to see Rubber after watching the trailer. I was sold a B-movie style, tongue in cheek film about a sentient tyre named Robert who went around murdering people with his psychic powers. That is not what I got.

Rubber, being a French film by Quentin Dupieux, is a very different film that the one you're sold by the trailer, and I suspect that's completely intentional. What Rubber actually is, is a very heavy-handed critique of both the Hollywood movie industry and the entirety of the audience it caters to.

We open with a very not-subtle introduction where the audience (both the one sat on the sofa and the one actually in the film) being told that in every classic film there's an element of "no reason". They're being introduced to a film they've been invited to watch from somewhere in the desert about a tyre that goes around murdering people. They're sat up on a mountaintop, binoculars in hand as everyone in the surrounding area acts out the real movie around them. Of course, this being a critque of the average movie-goer, it doesn't end well for them or for the representatives of the industry with all of them eventually choking on the same bland, low standard poison in the end.

Rubber's a film of two sides. On the first, the critique of the movie industry and the audience is nothing new if you're into slightly artsy and very pretentious films like myself but it still works and is relatively entertaining as you figure out the quite transparent imagery in real time. On the other, I feel robbed that I didn't get much of a film about a tyre that's come to life and taken to murdering people with a mounted effort by the police force to stop it.

I got an okay film that was a lot more pretentious than I thought. I didn't get the film the trailer showed me. And I most certainly didn't get the film I wanted to see.

But I guess that's how I'm supposed to feel. Or something.

Game of Thrones (Season 1)

In the past (and present, I guess) I may have had a reputation as a bit of a nerd. Hard to believe I know, especially of someone who's written tens of thousands of words on films for nobody in particular. But anyway, I haven't done anything properly nerdy recently and this needed correcting. Enter Game of Thrones.

Based on the, apparently, massively successful fantasy book series A Song of Ice and Fire, Game of Thrones is epic in its scale. Everything about the series is big. There are three major interwoven plots: an ongoing war of conspiracy and outright violence for the throne of Westeros (one of the fantasy world's continents), the approaching threat of the supernatural from the north along with the impending years-long winter, and the ambitions of an exiled family looking to retake control of Westeros. The series was certainly a task to take on, with a story spanning multiple noble families, two continents, a ridiculous number of characters and a catalogue of background lore, it would prove too much for any TV studio to take on and do properly. Except HBO.

HBO is responsible for the best, not just some of the best, straight up the best TV of the last two decades: Band of Brothers, The Pacific, The Wire, Deadwood and of course The fucking Sopranos. So far, at the end of S1, Game of Thrones fits right in there alongside these greats.

That said, it's not going to have as wide an appeal as some of those shows. Fantasy stuff will always alienate people who have an innate fear of all things nerdy, no matter how many Oscars the Lord of the Rings trilogy gets. But Game of Thrones tends to be more low-fantasy. There isn't a wizard on every corner, no stupid number of different races with sub-races within (because honestly I couldn't give a shit what the difference between a Rivendell elf and a wood elf is) and I can count the number of magical things in the first series on one hand. The lo-fi approach to the arcane is so much better than being bombarded with monsters and magic every five minutes, because when it happens it actually happens with impact and you know shit's going down.

So if this fantasy series is mostly just guys in furs with swords, what actually happens? The majority of the plot(s) revolve around a bunch of people being so focussed on their individual problems that they become completely blind to all the other mounting, bigger problems going on around them. Sex, bloodshed and lies all come in bucketloads and if you enjoy any of these you'll be spoiled for choice on which vice you enjoy more. Seriously, there're tits and blood everywhere.

In the deft hands of HBO, none of this feels too excessive or gratuitous. In fact, much of it contributes to the series' trademark visceral visual style. Being tasked with creating 10 hours of entertainment (and shooting in five different countries at times) would usually be a pretty decent excuse to play it safe with the cinematography, but not HBO. Honestly, it's one of the best-looking things on TV since Mad Men helped re-glamorise many sixties styles.

I know it'll make me look like a bit of a freak, but the amount of effort over colour grading, lighting and general composition in scenes like below (I wouldn't say there's spoilers in it, but YMMV Ignore that, I wrote it before I found the video. The video totally has spoilers, but the pictures are fine) create some really visually beautiful scenes.

When it's in motion, this scene just works. In context, it's about an outsider being initiated into a foreign culture. The glowing lighting centred on Daenerys' bright white hair and pale skin, with the stark three-way contrast against both the earthern grounded shades of the surroundings and the shockingly red blood, says all that's necessary without anyone speaking a word. If anything, this scene would've worked so much better being shorter with no dialogue. The exposition could have been shoe-horned in somewhere else easily.

So, it's compelling, made by HBO, full of drama, visually impressive and not overloaded with fantasy guff. There's really no reason you shouldn't be watching Game of Thrones.