Friday, 30 May 2014

9 Days In The Life Of Jack Bauer

Inspired by the new London based season, which I’m yet to watch any of so don’t worry about spoilers, I’ve started to re-watch the entire of 24.

I own the first 5 seasons on DVD, but I don’t think I’ve watched any of them since the first time through several years ago. I’m already onto season 3 after only a couple of weeks, so that gives you an idea of the addictive quality that has entertained so many people.

I’ve often seen people criticise the show for being ridiculous, over-wrought and hamstrung by it’s own real time set up. These people are missing the point. It’s those very features, especially the first two that most fans enjoy about the show.

It’s certainly the case for me. If I wanted to watch a hard-hitting, grounded and deep drama I’d watch something like the indisputably far superior The Wire. That’s not what I’m looking for when I watch 24. I watch the show for the melodrama, the brutal action and the sheer amount of chaos they manage to cram into a single day.

24, unlike Jack Bauer, it’s gravel voiced, permanently annoyed central hero, is not a show that stands up to too much questioning.

Characters switch sides and betray each other with such frequency that it’s amazing the U.S government doesn’t collapse between seasons due to the surely crippling trust issues everyone must have. Incidentally that’s been one of the enjoyable things about going through the show again; I largely remember who goes bad, but not always when or why, so I’m constantly suspicious of most of the characters, trying to work out when they’re going to turn on Jack.

Jack himself should have died about 15 times over by the midpoint of season 3, in one episode alone he was tased, cut with a scalpel that had been dipped in acid, beaten and injected with a chemical that stopped his heart. To Jack this is a slightly rough hour but other than stubbornly refusing to have a heart attack in later episodes, it’s treated as a temporary inconvenience. What’s impressive is that through a combination of almost everyone else being expendable and the likelihood of being stabbed in the back (literally and figuratively) the writers manage to maintain a high degree of tension despite the fact that it’s clear no one could actually kill Jack. Even when he tries to sacrifice himself he survives. You do start to question why the mere mention of his name doesn’t just see the terrorists abandon their plans and go home by around season 6, word must have spread by then.

It has proved controversial for it’s regular use of torture, seen by many to be condoning the practices that have been so fiercely debated in the post 9/11 world. It’s a fair criticism; torture is shown to get results the majority of time and is often the go to method of getting information.

You can make an argument that the time constraints of the show rule out a lot of other methods and it certainly doesn’t glamorise the scenes, never shying away from the brutal, horrific reality of forcing a confession from someone, but there is a genuine issue around the ubiquity of those methods in the show.
Some critics have also argued that the torture scenes are part of a wider neo-liberal wet dream atmosphere to the show. It’s understandable and to be expected that the show has become a target on this front. It began airing in late November 2001 and has run almost parallel to the real world War on Terror that has dominated so much of 21st century politics.

I’d argue that this particular criticism is unfair on a show that has been a lot more progressive and balanced than it’s often been given credit for. This is a show that had an eloquent, principled black president, long before anyone had even heard of Obama and has been credited by some with actually helping the latter’s rise to prominence by normalising the idea of a black president by having him on one of the most popular TV shows. 

Then there’s the plot that revolved around oil interests and war hungry politicians trying to drag America into a foreign conflict, which began while the Iraq war was only just appearing on the horizon for most Americans. Or you could look at the shadiest of the men 24 has put into the presidency, a man who’s actions include a fair few parallels with President Nixon (there’s even a physical similarity).

It’s one of the few shows to capture the over the top action & drama of the best action movies (Die Hard, Heat, the Bourne trilogy) in a weekly T.V show format. It’s never dull and does a remarkable job of making the 24 hour format work to it’s advantage, even if you might sometimes wonder when Jack eats anything or why every dramatic showdown takes place near the turn of the hour.

If this latest season of 24 set in the U.K is as simultaneously ridiculous and exciting as the previous 8, I’ll be very happy. I suspect we won’t get many more, because while Jack may be indestructible, Kiefer Sutherland is merely human and won’t be able to convincingly save the world that many more times.

About Time (2013)

Young, awkward British man. Ridiculously attractive and charming American woman. Meet cutes and expletive ridden tirades. A selection of the finest actors Britain has to offer. So far, so standard Richard Curtis fare.

About Time continues many of the traditions that we’ve come to expect from a Richard Curtis film. Domhnall Gleeson is an excellent choice as Tim, a man capable due to time travel of bumbling through the same scenario multiple times, for a role that Hugh Grant would have probably played 20 years earlier. As Mary, Rachel McAdams is, as always (excluding Mean Girls) extremely likeable and blessed with great comic timing. She’s arguably too pretty to pull off some of the early scenes where she seems surprised at Tim’s interest and comes over all bashful, but you buy the attraction from both of them.

And Bill Nighy is Bill Nighy, so there’s that.

There’s the usual mix of cute and excruciatingly awkward moments as the two leads fall for each other, with the twist of time travel allowing the embarrassment to be spread over multiple attempts at the same meeting.
The time travel element is the biggest departure from traditional Curtis territory and the plot holes and inconsistent rules show sci-fi is not his strong suit, but this didn’t bother me too much. Despite the title it’s not really a film about time travel, it’s just a useful plot device for the story he wanted to tell. Then there’s the fact that time travel stories written by people obsessed with the genre are rarely watertight in their explanation and execution, so I give him a pass on that front.

The bit I’m less able to let pass relating to this is my discomfort with the idea of winning a girl’s affection with the use of time travel and the implicit level of deceit involved if he never reveals his ability. There are a couple of scenes which are aiming for comic but because she has no idea of his abilities, become more than a little morally dubious. 

Compare it to The Time Traveller’s Wife (the film of which McAdams also starred in) where both parties know about the time travel, or Groundhog Day where Phil uses the time travel to become a better person rather than exploit his knowledge. There are efforts made to deal with this issue, early on it’s explicitly stated that the power can’t “turn a no into a yes”, but it’s never going to be a great basis for a relationship in my opinion.

About Time largely gets away with this for three reasons.

Firstly, Curtis is one of the best there is at writing those awkward early days of a relationship, full of passion, nerves and excitement. They’re not always the most realistic, but they are some of the most charming. Secondly Gleeson and McAdams sell the mutual affection well; what will they, won’t they moments there are come from the fickle consequences of time travel and life getting in the way rather than the usual arguments and misunderstandings that populate the genre. It’s a charmingly low key romance, well suited to the film overall.

The most crucial factor in why this film didn’t fall apart on the morally dodgy ground it’s built on is that the romance part of the rom-com is largely done & dusted by the halfway point.

Instead what this film is really about is family, about the big choices we all have to make and the reality that growing up always comes at a cost. As important as Tim and Mary’s romance is, it’s his relationships with his father (Nighy) and sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson) that are arguably the heart of this film. Bill Nighy is perfectly cast, bringing all his charm and humour to the role. The scenes with Tim and his dad are some of the strongest in the film. It’s a more contemplative film than some of Curtis’s more straight forward rom-coms and is better for it.

I’ve always enjoyed Richard Curtis films, they’re comforting and familiar, an idealised take on modern romance and modern Britain that usually makes up for what it lacks in realism with sentiment. His films are unashamedly romantic, and About Time is no different, it just splits it’s attention between two very different but equally important relationships.

There’s more I’d like to say about my issues with some of the specific uses of time travel in the film and more broadly about the role of women in this film but it’s tough to discuss them in any more detail without straying into spoiler territory. They have nagged away at me and gradually taken some of the shine off of a movie I really enjoyed. That’ll make for a separate blog post though.

For now I'll finish by saying that if you’re looking for a Sunday afternoon kind of film; charming, light weight and heart warming it’s a good choice. You might feel you need to give your parents a call afterwards though.

There's an awful lot to like, but Curtis definitely makes some poor choices along the way. If it proves to be his last film as he's suggested then perhaps it's a fitting conclusion to his film career. 

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Godzilla (Edwards, 2014)

I'm sorry it's been a while since my last blog post. I've started a new job recently and as it involves staring at a computer screen all day I've not been as keen to spend my evenings doing the same. I've got a couple of other film reviews I want to write (The Raid 2, Seven Samurai and maybe About Time) but for now here's a review of Gareth Edwards' Godzilla.


Monster movies are a tough genre to pull off if you aim for anything more than trashy fun. Too much of the monster and a lot of your audience will complain that they got bored of seeing CGI destruction without enough of a human element to anchor the plot. Too little of the monster and you risk disappointing the committed fans of whatever creature you’re using while also not providing enough action for those who want to see cities levelled and epic action.

It’s a tough balance to strike and Gareth Edwards clearly struggles with it throughout his version of Godzilla, released last week. It is perhaps the toughest of the classic monster movies to pull off because there is a rich back catalogue and passionate fans that have strong expectations of what a Godzilla movie should entail. 
However to many cinema goers Godzilla is a bit of a joke, images of a man in a cheap monster suit stamping on cardboard cities in their mind. Then there’s the pretty damn awful 1998 Roland Emmerich version, the memory of which is hardly going to have helped convince people they should give this film a chance.

To be clear from the start, this film is better than Emmerich’s, but that barely counts as praise. And to be honest with you, praise is going to be a little thin on the ground for this film overall.

I wanted to love this film; a big budget blockbuster from a man who did so much with very little was an enticing prospect. Gareth Edward’s first film, Monsters, was a master class in what can be done on a limited budget if you have the skill and imagination. The story of two strangers attempting to make it across a quarantine zone decades after an “invasion” by an Alien race that arrived by accident and were herd animals with no intent to conquer the planet, the film understood two crucial things about making great action sci-fi. 
Firstly, you have to care about the characters, they have to be your way into the story even if it ends up having a much wider scope than just them. Secondly that sometimes limiting the amount of time the monster spends on screen makes the moments they are much more powerful (this would not go down well with the hardcore monster fan necessarily, but I reckon most average ones would agree).

So the choice of director got me interested and the cast announcements had me truly excited. Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe, Juliette Binoche, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Sally Hawkins is a really strong cast for the genre. They made me hopeful that this would be a blockbuster with heart and depth, packed with engaging performances.

Finally the trailers promised action set pieces full of drama and suspense, especially the sequence of marines skydiving through the clouds towards a devastated city.

It was all so promising but sadly it added up to far too little.

Edwards is undoubtedly a talented director and I look forward to whatever he does next, but this film struggled for tone throughout, seemingly uncertain about what kind of a movie it wanted to be. Others have commented on this being a post-Nolan’s Batman monster movie, too focussed on being dark and forgetting that films about monsters and men clashing over cities needs a sense of fun as well. It’s definitely true that the film could have done with a bit more humour, a few knowing nods towards the inherently daft concept or the ineffectiveness of mankind’s efforts to stop Godzilla would have livened up the mood as the film moved into the final act.

However I think it could have worked as a darker, grittier take (as over-played as that approach is at the moment) if the characterisation had been stronger and the plot tighter. There’s a lot to like about the opening third of the film as the origins and previous sightings of Godzilla are explored, first through an excellent title sequence that uses archive footage of nuclear tests and redacted documents, then by setting up Bryan Cranston’s scientist Joe Brody as someone unravelling a conspiracy. If they’d ran with that atmosphere for longer the film could have been much stronger, making full use of the stellar cast to bring us a monster movie that looks as much at the impact on real humans, their courage and their personal tragedies.

Instead act two devolves into being the army vs. monsters, with an ever growing scale of collateral damage. Taylor-Johnson is a good young actor (take a look at Nowhere Boy or Kick Ass) but he ends up with a role that could have played by any reasonably athletic, good looking actor. He plays Joe’s U.S marine son, Ford and It’s such a limited role that his performance ends up dull and almost wooden at times. He’s wasted, as is Ken Watanabe who is used to wander on screen at 20 minute intervals to utter superficially deep statements about man’s relationship with nature.

Those two could have been used so much better, but the character that annoyed me most was Elizabeth Olsen’s Elle Brody. She’s such a promising young actress, one of the most exciting out there, starting to break into big roles after her performances in Martha Marcy May Marlene and Liberal Arts. Edwards just uses her as a generic wife/crying woman and that’s a damn shame. To make her such a one dimensional character is a waste of a good actress and another example of the lack of depth in the central characters that ends up spoiling this film.

You can make a fun and stupid monster movie and no one will hold a lack of complex characters against you, but if you aim for serious and intense, you have to provide someone the audience will care about, someone to make you feel the peril. The perfect movie for me would probably be some delicate balance of the two, but I’d happily of settled for a Godzilla movie that was one or the other.

Instead we got a movie that took itself too seriously to be great fun, but delivered such lukewarm characterisation and a generic plot that I couldn’t engage with the drama.

Despite how this review reads, I don’t actually think Godzilla was a BAD film, it was just such a disappointing one given its promise.  As mentioned above the first third works well and has some engaging character beats, they’re just abandoned too soon after to build to anything. There are also some excellent action sequences, fully justifying its IMAX release and demonstrating the devastating power of Godzilla whenever he hits land (he spends an awful lot of the film swimming, which I’m not sure anyone really paid to see). The skydiving sequence from the trailer is visually stunning in full, even if the plot justification for it seems a little vague. In fact my only criticism of the action itself is that we see too much of it in the trailer; too many of what should have been shocking, stand out moments already felt familiar if you’d seen any of the several trailers released in the lead up to the film.

It’ll be interesting to watch it again on DVD in a few months, both to see whether the action loses its punchy feel on the small screen and whether I enjoy it more for having already had my expectations lowered.

For now it joins the list of films that, while decent, could have been so much more.