Archive for April, 2011

At the Cinema: Limitless

Posted on April 25th, 2011 in At the cinema | No Comments »

w. Leslie Dixon (novel The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn) d. Neil Burger
Bradley Cooper, Abbie Cornish, Robert de Niro, Anna Friel

Limitless is a sprawling pharmaceutical fantasy that works handsomely for as long as it can coast on its star’s winning charm, inventive direction and the giddy excitement of its premise, but is slightly let down by a clumsy ending and some lapses in logic.

Struggling writer Eddie Mora (Cooper) is offered a little clear pill known as NZT which, his sleazy ex-brother-in-law claims, will allow him to access 100% of his brain, instead of the mythical mere 20%. Not scenting urban legend bullshit, Mora takes the pill, pulls his landlord’s wife, spruces up his apartment and rattles off ninety brilliant pages of novel in a frenzy of organised creativity until the magic medicine wears off. Now hooked, he goes in search of a further – ideally limitless – supply, and that’s where his troubles really start.

This is all sketched in with admirable economy, and director Burger uses every trick in what must be a fairly hefty book to bring these changes of mental state to life. Sudden close-ups of Cooper’s impossibly blue irises, infinite zoom-ins, shifts in digital grading, animated letters falling from the sky, simultaneous Bradley Coopers multi-tasking, all work well to make cinematic and visceral what might otherwise have been merely conceptual. I found the x-ray movie of him swallowing the pill a little hard-to-take and it’s true that these kind of directorial flourishes can becoming irritating and tic-y if overused, but Burger seems in control of the material – almost to the end.

Before then, Abbie Cornish is winsome but underused. De Niro seems cast largely because his reputation as an actor saves three script pages to build up the character, but he shows up and glowers suitably. A variety of largely unfamiliar faces fill out the remaining roles of sleazy gangsters, smooth executives and bangable babes.

For much of its length, the movie is high on its own giddy concept – there’s nothing Eddie can’t do when pumped up on NZT and the film loves to see his superbrain tackle tough spot after tough spot. Of course, he’s done nothing to earn this, which is why having such a likeable star is so important. And then comes the inevitable crash, but – hopefully without giving too much away (stop reading now if you’re genuinely spoilerphobic) – the movie’s too much in love with its delightful central character and can’t bring itself to punish him in the way we’ve clearly been promised. The filmmakers even wheel in a tastefully uglified Anna Friel to point out just why this can’t last – and then ignore it. It turns out that NZT’s use is rather more widespread, which starts to raise other little awkward questions about who is manufacturing it and why.

Unable to decide whether his hero should pay the price for his hubris or be rewarded for his cunning, director Burger and screenwriter Leslie Dixon just go ahead and give us a jarringly brutal fight scene to resolve most of the dangling plot strands and then an ambiguous but basically “junkily-ever-after” coda designed to ensure that Eddie won’t have a sudden come-down and so neither will we.

Thoroughly enjoyable, full of charm, wit and invention, but ultimately empty inside the glittery shell and not really sure what it was trying to say. Not every movie has to have a strong moral message (use Western Union) but is it asking too much of a piece of popcorn entertainment to pick a point-of-view and stick to it?

So… What did I think of The Impossible Astronaut

Posted on April 24th, 2011 in Culture | 3 Comments »

The last series kicked off with the biggest discontinuity since the 2005 restart which itself was without equal since the series started back 1963. In spring 2010 we got a new Doctor, a new companion, a new producer and a complete new roster of directors. Even in 1970 when Jon Pertwee and colour exploded on to our screen, and when the whole format of the show was changed, we had the return of Lethbridge-Stewart, familiar names credited as writer and script-editor and (for one story only) the same producer as at the end of the previous series.

This time, for the first time since the programme returned in 2005, we have total continuity from series-to-series. The same TARDIS crew as at the end of the previous series and the same key personnel behind-the-scenes. It’s time for a change.

Doctor Who is now so firmly embedded in the BBC that the problem is not how will we cope when the programme is only on for one quarter of the year, it’s how to avoid over-saturation. With various spin-offs, specials (Christmas and charity) and huge media coverage leading up to each new series, canny producers now look for ways to ration the supply so that withdrawal kicks in and we are clamouring for our next fix. Russell created the 2009 “Gap Year” for this purpose and now Moffat gives us the 2011 “Divided Season”. Instead of this “hit” lasting us all the way to July, it’s going to abruptly terminate in early June and leave us dangling until the autumn, when if we’re not very lucky it’s going to be up against X Factor.

So, one paper-thin but hugely enjoyable Christmas Special and one tissue-paper thin and instantly forgettable (hah!) Comic Relief skit later, and Series Six is finally here. Is it any good?

Oh, how I hate to prejudge two-parters. Um. Much of it is very good indeed, but I have concerns to say the least about the Moffat method. The good first of all…

The regular cast are on sparkling form. Rory the Roman, now with Arthur Darvill’s name firmly embedded in the new bejazzled titles, manfully shoulders the burden of carrying the exposition – not so much for we viewers as for guest star Mark Sheppard aka Canton Everett Delaware III aka Romo Lampkin off of Battlestar Galactica. Alex Kingston is still having a marvellous time as Dr River Song, setting out the rules which Rory will no doubt obediently follow and which Amy will no doubt break as soon as possible. Karen Gillan brings both joy and pain as well as gravitas when she brilliantly swears an oath of fealty to the Doctor, invoking fish custard to prove her worth. And Matt Smith continues to find hidden avenues to explore as he switches from ebullient foolishness to heart-stopping severity without apparently changing gears. His casting was an absolute masterstroke.

And there’s some fun stuff in the White House, with Stuart Milligan, so irritatingly unfunny in the otherwise splendid Jonathan Creek, making a decent fist of Nixon – not quite an uncanny portrayal but more convincing than Ian MacNeice as Churchill last year, not that that’s saying much. And I love, love, love the Forget-Me-Trons, a brilliant spin on Moffat’s greatest triumph, the Weeping Angels, but in their own way far creepier, and in their execution of Joy, far more sinister killers.

But Toby Haynes who did so well with last year’s two-part finale seemed to be off his game once or twice. The American location are gorgeous, but he fumbles the hugely important death of the Doctor scene, keeping the spaceman out of shot too long as the Doctor’s friends huddle around his body, and – until the moment of execution – just has Amy and The Silent stare pointlessly at each other in the bathroom, as the tension ebbs away.

Now let’s talk about plotting.

Steven Moffat is a very clever man, of that there is no doubt at all. And he and Doctor Who are a perfect fit. Not only is he a devoted fan, he is a perfect choice to build on that fannish body of knowledge with the kind of more sophisticated storytelling which Russell primed us to expect. However, I worry that his love of puzzles and his love of time-travel are slowly starting to steer him away from where Doctor Who’s best stories are actually to be found.

Time paradoxes, a long-time staple of science fiction of all kinds, have only rarely featured in Doctor Who. In the vast majority of classic stories, travel in time simply delivers the Doctor to the start of the adventure and then takes him to the next one at the end. Only in Day of the Daleks and Mawdryn Undead is any kind of time travel central to the plot. Even when multiple Doctors meet up, any notion that the Second Doctor might remember the events from the point of view of the First Doctor is cheerfully ignored. (The Five Doctors in particular only really makes sense if one views the role of Doctor as a post from which one retires and which is then taken over by another.)

In the new series, time travel was used a little more. The moment when I fell in love with nu-Who was the moment when Rose was returned to The Powell Estate a year too late. Stories like Father’s Day, School Reunion and – of course – Silence in the Library all use time travel a little more, but all stop short of using it as an intellectual sonic screwdriver: pop back in time and fix it. This problem with giving an impossibly benevolent wizard complete power over time and space is exactly what Moffat himself was spoofing in 1999’s Comic Relief skit The Curse of Fatal Death with the Doctor and the Master stuck in an endless recursive bribing-the-architect loop.

But what made Curse of Fatal Death so effective was precisely that it was a loving parody. In many ways, it was the episode Moffat thought he’d never get to write – but the episode he pretty much did write at the end of the last series when Matt Smith appeared with that fez and that mop. And again when he started talk to Sardick from within his own home movie.

This is just how Steven Moffat’s mind works. And it always has. Playing these kind of formal games with time has always been one of the attractions. But when in Press Gang, we open with a funeral and are told that one of the Junior Gazette journalists has been murdered, and then flash back to the office where the regulars are being held at gun point, then the tension is unbearable, but also the storytelling device is novel. When in Coupling, we play two-points of view simultaneously, the opportunities for comic juxtaposition and irony are tremendous, but also the storytelling device is novel. However, when your lead character is defined by his ability to travel in time, then you don’t get bonus novelty points for playing around with time. In fact, if you’re not careful, you’ll blow up the whole format.

So, when the Doctor sends himself a message from two hundred years in the future, ensuring that his younger self will be present on the day of his death, it doesn’t feel shockingly game-changing and like “anything can happen”. It feels familiar, reheated and tired. Worse than that, when the central point of the episode is presented like a puzzle, then as an audience we sit here trying to figure it out. But we don’t watch Doctor Who instead of solving sudokus. We watch Doctor Who for the adventure of it.

As I say, this is part one of two, so I will withhold judgement for now. But so far, although there is much, much, much to enjoy here, I worry that Moffat is now working a bit too hard to be a bit too clever and is forgetting that Doctor Who doesn’t have to be complicated to be fun and that it can be complicated in lots of different ways instead of always in the same way.

PS: Farewell Elisabeth Sladen. You will be missed.

Update #2: iPad

Posted on April 2nd, 2011 in Technology | No Comments »

So, Steve brought us the iPad 2, and my cycle of responses to new technology repeated itself. My first thought, on watching the keynote (on my original iPad, on a plane to South Africa) was that I’d dodged a bullet. By foolishly (but necessarily) buying the orginal model months before the new version was announced I risked almost instant obsolescence. However, the new model struck me as only a bit better than the old model, albeit with a very snazzy magnetic “SmartCover”.

The tipping point for me came when I discovered that iMovie, Apple’s video-editing software, would not run on the old iPad. Having struggled mightily with various versions of Windows Movie Maker over the years, I was eagerly anticipating becoming Tablet B deMille, but this was not to be unless I upgraded. Then, Apple went and cut the price, despite the VAT hike, and so it was all over. My first-generation iPad is currently on eBay, and I have a slim new iPad 2 with a navy blue leather Smart Cover which I always have with me.

And it’s the size and shape and weight which has turned out to be the killer app for me. Despite loving having with me on my trips to Australia, South Africa and the West Midlands, the old iPad in its case was that bit too clunky, chunky and bulky for me to be able just to toss it in my bag and forget it’s there. The new one slips into the side pocket of my briefcase and I can be editing a document, writing a blog post, drawing a diagram or reading an email in ten seconds flat. It’s a little marvel and I love it.

Update #1: Oscars

Posted on April 2nd, 2011 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

This blog having been sadly neglected, I’m going to put up a few quick posts tying up loose ends. First is the Oscars. My quest to see all ten Best Picture nominees having met with success, all that was left was to watch the ceremony and test the quality of my powers of prognostication.

The ceremony itself was certainly marred by the choice of host. Anne Hathaway is a perfectly charming presence, but was rarely given anything funny to say. James Franco, such a charismatic and fearless actor seemed to be playing the part of stiff and gauche neophyte out-of-his-depth and made me feel rather uneasy watching him moreorless throughout.

On the upside, some of the dopier decisions of ceremonies past had been quietly reversed. Gone was the shepherding of multiple technical award winners on to the stage simultaneously. Gone were the ponderous personal valedictions from five presenters to five acting nominees. Back were the individual musical numbers for Best Song (sort-of).

The awards themselves were fairly predictable. In the technical categories, both Inception and The Social Network did slightly better than some had predicted, raising a question mark over The King’s Speech‘s chances at the top prizes. But stuttering Bertie eventually scooped up Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay as it was always bound to. Apparently, my choice of Tom Hooper was anti-consensus, but honestly I only picked him because of the momentum of the movie itself.

Truth be told, it almost certainly wasn’t the best-directed movie of the year – certainly 127 Hours and The Social Network both have stronger claims. Yet, I don’t think it’s fair to right off Tom Hooper’s contribution entirely. Hooper does use the camera and the sound design in interesting and compelling ways. The movie neither looks nor sounds like a TV movie (as An Education did last year, for example) and if, as is generally agreed, Colin Firth pulled off the performance of his career, then surely some of the credit for that can be given to the director?

My only other anti-consensus call was picking Hailee Steinfeld for best supporting actor, which I had serious cause to doubt after watching Melissa Leo in The Fighter but if you make an out-there prediction, and you stick to it, and you’re right – then you’re a genius. Whereas if you dither about and pile up caveats and codicils, then who cares? Of course, Steinfeld did not prevail and Melissa Leo fucking did, not undeservedly.

That’s it till next year. If this blog is still here, we’ll do it all again then.