Saturday, 22 June 2013

The Wire Season 1 (2002)

Quality TV in is fast becoming the most consumed and talked about artform of this decade. Game of Thrones is smashing records, both legal and nautical, every time it shows its face. Breaking Bad is ready to set the internet alight with its final eight episodes come the end of summer. Even the way TV is being made is changing, with Netflix getting in on the action with House of Cards and the latest season of Arrested Development. Both shows took the new approach of releasing all episodes at once for you to choose your own pace: watch one a week when you get time, one every night for a week or two, or do what I do and binge through them all in a weekend.

Even with the recent loss of the greatly talented James Gandolfini, you can see how quality programming has dug its feet in. This was a man who was in a film just last year that received five Oscar nominations (Zero Dark Thirty) among numerous massively successful films, but every single mention of him has forgone all them to describe him as "Sopranos star James Gandolfini".

It's, now "classic", shows like The Sopranos that today's TV owes its existence to. The early 2000s set the precedent, and 2002 gave us one of the most influential shows when HBO debuted The Wire.

The Wire, when boiled down to the bare minimum, is a cat-and-mouse drama set in the crime and drug riddled city of Baltimore. The extensive cast of characters come mostly from two sides: the cops and one of the city's many drug gangs. But to say it's a black and white, clear cut story of cops chasing robbers is a disservice to how grey The Wire gets. Nobody is a fully blown bad guy or good guy, but there are a few that are close to the extremes on both sides. Essentially, the people you end up rooting for aren't those on the right side of the law but the people who are trying to do the best for themselves and their friends given the restrictions of the world they inhabit.

Characterisation is where the show truly shines. It's a credit to the shows writers that the frankly huge cast (only a fraction of whom are in the artwork above) all seem to be developed at least to some degree of believability in just 13 episodes. So often in any medium, be it TV, film or books, you get characters who exist solely to perform one action that moves the plot forward. But here, even if that's the only reason a character exists, they're at least fleshed out to be interesting enough that you don't notice.

Apparently, my favourite from the roster is shared with President Obama himself in Omar Little. Imagine your typical gay, black drug dealer character  and Omar will subvert it. This is one scary motherfucker, and I don't mean that creepy type of scary that lazy writers will use to try and make a gay character scary. Omar literally gets people running from the streets  when he makes an appearance because they know that he, along with his trademark shotgun and whistled theme tune, has come to town to cause some bad shit for some unlucky people. Despite being an armed robber by trade he has a strict adherence to a code of honour and it's these sort of almost contradicting traits that make him one of the best characters to watch on screen.

Not only that, Omar has the best single line of the series, and Michael K Williams absolutely nails it.

The tradeoff of focussing so heavily on characters is pacing. You have to go all in with a show like The Wire because the payoff is great but you're going to be waiting a while to get there. This isn't Homeland where every episode has a 50% chance of having an "Oh holy shit!" moment; there's a handful in the season but they are so much more worth it. It's for this reason that I'd recommend the binge approach for this show. I watched all 13 episodes of the first series over the course of four nights (because I have no life) and even then I had to stop for a minute at least once per episode to remind myself who had done what and what had happened. Slow, steady pacing and a cast that'd fill a coach isn't a recipe that comes out best when cooked over 13 weeks.

If you haven't clicked on by this point: I really, really like The Wire and thank it for everything it's responsible for in the modern TV landscape. And if that's not enough for you the show even managed to get the famously sarcastic and pessimistic Charlie Brooker to just sit back and say "It is just fucking brilliant".

Sunday, 9 June 2013

V/H/S/2 (2013)

When you've essentially got five teams working on five different short films, it's easy to get stuff done fast. Thanks to this V/H/S/2, the sequel to my favourite horror of the past few years (V/H/S), is here less than a year after the original and it hasn't suffered too abdly for it.

These films are taking us back to an old style you don't see too often any more: the horror anthology. V/H/S/2 follows pretty much exactly the same format as the first: there's a central story about some people being duped into going to a house and finding a bunch of random ass VHS tapes (despite being set right now). They pop the tapes in and we get a bunch of short films breaking up the central story.

Again, the framing story is the weakest of the lot. It doesn't really need to be strong at all though, seeing as it just functions as an excuse to play a bunch of short found-footage type films. I will say though, in the first we were given a reason to believe the guys in the central story deserved to be in this fucked up situation, but in this one they just seem to be good people getting fucked with for no real reason.

As for the feature shorts, there's a range of quality.

The first ("Phase I Clinical Trials") is pretty much your standard ghost story and easily the most disappointing of the bunch. It's pretty well made, and there's an interesting backstory that's alluded to but otherwise it's just pretty standard and has really predictable jumpscares. Not to mention the instance of completely out of the blue gratuitous nudity. I mean, I'm an insane Game of Thrones fan, so gratuitous nudity isn't a problem for me, but in this it's comes out of the blue and for no real reason other than tits.

With the start of the second film ("A Ride in the Park") my stomach sank and my eyes rolled. I won't spoil what it is, but it's a monster invasion that's been done to undeath so much these past few years. Luckily for me, it continues past the point where you'd expect the run-of-the-mill version to and actually becomes a fresh, fun take on something quite tired.

"Safe Haven" in slot three is the highlight of V/H/S/2. If the first film didn't have Amateur Night, Safe Haven would be the highlight of the series so far. Gareth Evans, director of the massively acclaimed action film The Raid: Redemption, throws a news crew into a commune of an apocalyptic death cult during the climax of their doomsday prophecy. Things get very crazy very, very quickly. It just keeps escalating and getting more and more intense until it gets so messed up even some of the victims can't help but just laugh at the sheer ridiculous brilliance.

Coming in last is the very efficiently titled "Slumber Party Alien Abduction". Yeah, it pretty much does exactly what it says on the tin. It's a very 90s styled throwback that knows what it is and just decides to have a bit of fun with it.

Overall,  the film feels a lot less coherent than its predecessor. The first film was incredibly tight and despite having a handful of directors had very clear themes running throughout but the sequel just feels like a bunch of, seemingly random, short horror films from all over the genre. It's still a very good example of found-footage done right, but if you're left only able to see one for some bizarre reason, go for the first.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Side Effects (2013)

With a cold open of an apartment floor spattered with blood and deep red footprints, Side Effects  starts with the air of mystery and intrigue it keeps throughout. 

Without giving away too much, Side Effects revolves around a group of people, both patients and doctors, in the psychiatric world and the dangerous possibilities that foreseen or unforeseen side effects can bring about. This is a psychological thriller that deals in money, sex, lies and (pharmaceutical) drugs. Much like many police procedurals with which it shares its style, Side Effects hinges on that oh so ambiguous thing: the truth. When a course of anti-depressants leads to horrific consequences for Emily (Rooney Mara), her doctor (Jude Law) sets on to unravel the mystery of just what happened on a fateful night between her and her husband. More importantly, with his reputation and sense of justice on the line, he pursues why it happened.

The two leads (Mara and Law) elevate what could potentially have descended into one of those convoluted daytime TV movies. Jude Law gives his Dr Banks a pure heart and develops a truly compelling sense of righteousness that would leave only the most cynical not on his side, which makes some later developments for him all the more a difficult pill to swallow. On the flip side, Mara shows off her true range here. We've seen her as an everyday sort of girl in her bit part in The Social Network and the volatilely broken Lisbeth in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. In Side Effects she shows off a number of sides. From her all too believable state through the depression as a timid and injured soul to scenes where she is anything but (to say any more would give away too much), Mara is enthralling throughout.

Side Effects is quite a wild ride with twists and turns... once it gets going. For the first forty-ish minutes you're kind of left wondering where everything is going and although there are one or two interesting characters, they're not doing much, rather that things are just happening. Getting past that first act, something happens that makes you retro-actively appreciate everything that happened. It's a bit of a mis-step in that I would really have preferred to enjoy it as it was happening but being able to look back and think "Damn that was clever". As it stands, the first act is a lot more like looking at a sad painting instead of watching a film, which is great if you're into character studies like me, but it's not why a lot of people watch films. That said, do stick with it. If you like complicated mysteries that flip and flop and have people playing off each other in a vortex of angles, you'll love the last two thirds of Side Effects.

Gotta say though (ending spoilers) the ending is very much bittersweet... Actually no, it's just bitter. This character you've been rooting for pretty much the whole time pulls a massive dick move. I'm not saying it's not justified, but considering their motivations all the way through, the exact type of resolution seems particularly cruel.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

Derek Cianfrance pulled no punches in his d├ębut film Blue Valentine and he shows no signs of slowing down with The Place Beyond The Pines. But where Blue Valentine focussed tightly on the two central characters falling in and out of love, the sense of scale has been ramped up taking The Place Beyond The Pines into grander territory.

Focussing on the lives of two fathers, the central conflict comes from people who are neither wholly good or wholly bad but the beautifully murky grey area of just trying to do what's best for their families. In the first two acts, of this film which is very clearly divided into three parts, focus on the trials of Luke and Avery. Luke (Ryan Gosling) is a motorcycle stunt rider who, upon returning to a town with his annually touring show, finds he has a child that he fathered the previous year and sets out to provide for him in the only way he can. His less than lawful profession sets him on a collision course with the incorruptible cop in Avery (Bradley Cooper) and worlds collide as the two men and their families struggle to come to terms with the consequences over the next two decades.

TPBTP is a long film, and it feels long too, but if you can invest yourself in it it pays off in spades. There are no heroes here, only people ruled by their emotions and their efforts to do what is right. Mistakes, guilt and lies echo through generations as the sins of the father are imprinted on those who are doomed to also suffer for them. You may find yourself a little lost at the end of the first act and wondering why any of the progression we get of Avery in the second chunk matters, but it all comes to fruition in the understated and powerful final half hour.

It will be a film that polarises audiences. Many will criticise its awkward pacing and overly lengthy run time. But for those who love characters who are fundamentally broken, especially those who have major identity issues with their somewhat broken homes, this film will resonate to the core. Personally, I saw a lot of powerful emotions reflected back at me that I've dealt with myself. Never to the degree shown here, but I'd argue that anyone who has an issue with a parent would struggle to empathise here.