Saturday, 30 April 2011

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

With A Bit Of A Mind Flip [Review: Source Code]

I'm really, really excited about Duncan Jones now. I was impressed by his soulful debut picture Moon. Source Code, to me, proves that he is more than a one-hit wonder and is capable of consistently intelligent filmmaking and I look forward to his next film.

I have to admit though, I thought the title was misused. Source Code to me suggests a way of re-writing the program underlying existence itself - as in the Matrix, or perhaps Greg Bear's novels where quantum reality turns out to have computational properties. Source Code here is just a cool codename for a time-travel project. The trailer was misleading too - speeding trains, running plus explosions in trailer language translates as action-thriller with superhuman stunts. While there is certainly action, it's on a much more human and believable level and the film is more of a postmodern whodunnit with (naturally) existential twists.

Jake Gyllenhall plays a soldier, Stevens, sent back in time into the mind of a passenger on a doomed train, in order to work out the identity of the bomber. He can't avert the crisis which has already happened but the hope is to stop a second, larger attack.

Stevens can be sent back repeatedly, replaying the scenario in different ways - but if this is another Groundhog Day it is a particularly viscious one in which Stevens dies violently at the end of each iteration. The plot also reminded me of a short-lived time travel series, Seven Days, which also featured an experimental team led by a paraplegic scientist (here played by Jeffrey Wright.)

Source Code's plot relies on a particular version of time travel theory and the scriptwriter understands the implications and paradoxes, something missing from Seven Days. It's well-written drama too: the exchanges between Gyllenhall trapped in his capsule between sorties, and his commander Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) are particularly emotional. While the film gives up some of its secrets slightly too easily, the overall plot develops in ways that are captivating and surprising.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Sunflower Seeds

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's installation Sunflower Seeds: a vast, grey seed-sea. There is an immediate reaction: is this about the significance, or insignificance of humanity? What can you achieve as just one simple seed, and is there any real meaning to individuality? The setting, the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern further multiplies the sense of scale: not only are you one seed in ten million, but even the ten million are tiny specks of dust within a vast machine.
I resisted the Philip Dick-inspired urge to create a "fake fake" by adding real sunflower seeds.
Not only are the seeds artificial, they are neither robotic nor sweat-shop produce but each one has been hand-crafted and painted by someone. That's awe-inspiring.
For Weiwei the sunflower seed has a particular meaning: sharing of this snack has been a form of street comradeship under an oppressive regime and from there it becomes a symbol of resistance. If proof of the significance of this work is needed: Weiwei remains a political prisoner in China.

UPDATE 23.6.11 BBC News reported today that Weiwei has been released by the Chinese authorities following a "confession" apparently relating to tax irregularities.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

PSI: Special Victims Unit

For some reason, Quentin Dupieux' serial killer tyre movie Rubber only had a few one-off screenings in London so I missed my chance to see it on the big screen. Should have made tracks I suppose. Rubber has divided critics into two groups - those who pun and those who don't.

I felt let down by the Guardian's reviewer - the best he could come up with was "a road movie with a difference." So thank heaven for Clare Moody at Filmwerk who put the pressure back on with "You'll be wishing for it to hit the road after the first 15 minutes." There were several retreads: Clare and also Tim Evans at Sky Movies thought it was "tiresome" while Rob Vaux at Mania review, Kurt Loder at Reason Online and Brian Orndorf at decided it either "exhausts itself" or "runs out of gas." Stephanie Zacharek at Movie Line goes one further, accusing the director of "overinflating" the picture while Glenn Kenny at MSN wished it looked "a little less, you know, plastic."

David Edwards of The Mirror disagrees, finding Rubber to be "a gripping experience." It "bounces gamely along" for Jeff Shannon, Seattle Times, "merrily rolls on" for Manohla Dargis, New York Times, and doesn't "follow in any other movie's treads" for Liam Lacey, Globe and Mail. According to Jason Anderson at Eye Weekly it's an "absurd and ingenious delight for any viewer willing to roll in its direction."

Cole Smithey at gets the award for the most obvious missed pun with his conclusion "This film sucks." Blows, surely, Cole?

However the award for overall best review goes to Sukdev Sandhu at the Telegraph even with minimal punning. This is why I still want to see the film:

“There are advantages to having a tyre centre-screen. It’s a pleasing shape, dynamic and easy on the eye, and because of that large hole in the middle, it lends itself to framing the background scenery in a way that, say, Shia Labeouf, does not.

But the truth is, as a protagonist, the tyre leaves something to be desired. I’ve seen worse performances, but its range is surprisingly limited. It only comes in two modes: coasting, or venting (when he’s angry, he wobbles and undulates alarmingly). It wouldn’t be much of a stretch for any actor. For a tyre, you might say it’s stuck in a rut.”

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Am I Hot Or Not Part II [Review: Rate Me Red]

Richie Chevat's e-book Rate Me Red is a Brave New World to rival Blind Faith's 1984. It also describes a future extrapolated from today's Internet: again we have Facebook-style sharing and liking, together with a combination of YouTube vlogging and Second Life where your real-life clothes are cheap, but you then pay thousands of pounds more for your vid avatar to be seen wearing them.

Unlike Brave New World, where social mobility is zero and caste is defined before birth, Rate Me Red and Blind Faith describe futures where your social standing depends totally on your popularity – the Oranges and Yellows of Vidnet know that a chance encounter could precipitate a life-destroying chromofall at any time.

For the most part Vidnet society is a Machine Stops lifestyle - the novel follows hero Gordy through a real-life date and sexual encounter with his girlfriend Poppy, which is such a rare, shocking occurrence that it will surely boost both their ratings. The way everyone belongs to massive transnational corporations also reminded me of Max Barry's novel Jennifer Government, reviewed here.

You face a double humiliation in this future: not only must your every failure and embarrassment be made available to everyone over the net, but even worse – no-one’s actually watching it. In Blind Faith etiquette requires that you tell everyone how much you’ve enjoyed watching them argue or have sex, but of course no-one actually does because they’re self obsessed. In Rate Me Red you can’t actually keep up with all of your Twitter-style followers – so you buy a digital avatar who can do it for you, right down to replying to your e-mails.

Rate Me Red is bursting with ideas, from the ghetto-bound Blue underclass and mythical Purple untouchables to the pathetically intellectual Rejectionists. I particularly liked the idea that you couldn't be a success until you had a hate campaign against you - luckily Gordy's best friend is happy to oblige.

Neologisms TM have defined the dystopic fiction genre since 1984 and Clockwork Orange. They’re widely used here and while this is often effective there are a few misfires such as the constant referral to Real Life TM. This would be my only Criticism TM of Chevat’s writing – and on the other hand, perhaps because Chevat is also a playwright, the dialogue is particularly funny and well written, and the novel as a whole has a great pace. You can find out more or download the e-book from the author's website.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Am I Hot Or Not Part I [Review: Blind Faith]

Global warming meets Am I Hot Or Not by way of 1984 in Ben Elton's novel Blind Faith. The setting is a Facebook-style future following a rise in sea-level. Privacy and secrets are now perversions: you are required by law to share every aspect of your life. Consumerism, voyeurism and constant ratings are the norms, and there's a chatroom moderator in every block of flats constantly monitoring and interfering with your lives.

Elton uses this setting to tell a story that isn't really about Internet culture but about the rise of ignorance and celebrity obsession in general. Tabloid-style mob justice keeps everyone on their toes and there's a sinister populist religion that has taken advantage of the situation. In this future, the neonatal death rate has skyrocketed and the people have forgotten that it was not always so - a third of the way through, the story changes direction and follows a secret order who continue to provide children with vaccinations in a world where the ignorant population has rejected them as evil and unnatural.

This change in direction doesn't really help the narrative. Nevertheless the satire is spot on - the religious council that suddenly declares that everyone is now a celebrity, or the much repeated slogan "What's not to like?" are products of a society that is self-obsessed to delusional levels. I fully endorse the aims and methods of this novel, and it's an enjoyable satirical read if not quite on a par with Gridlock, Stark or Popcorn.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Rage Against Los Angeles

Battle Of Los Angeles is a SyFy channel TV movie produced by The Asylum, starring Nia Peeples as a katana-wielding version of the Men In Black. [Review to follow.] You may notice that a movie with a similar title, Battle: Los Angeles, has recently opened in cinemas, and you may even have wondered if one was perhaps some kind of rip-off of the other. It's an understandable mistake.

In fact both movie titles are ripped from Rage Against The Machine's 1999 album "The Battle Of Los Angeles" which in turn takes inspiration from classic science fiction. Many of the songs feature quotes from George Orwell's 1984 as well as other Orwellian themes and references.

Music videos were made for three tracks. Two of these, "Testify" and "Sleep Now In The Fire" were directed by Michael Moore, better known for documentaries such as Bowling For Columbine. "Testify" combines B-movie science fiction with a Moore-style swipe at the politics of presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore.

In the years following this music video, Bush "won" the election and became King of the World for a bit, while Gore now makes documentaries himself. Strange times.

"Testify" Rage Against The Machine

Friday, 1 April 2011

Hold On To Your Hats

Some more thoughts about The Adjustment Bureau: the film carries a rather obvious message about people who follow religious orders to the letter without thinking about their meaning, so I’m going to ignore that one and take this in a different direction.

See, in real life we probably do have free choice. I know some people don’t believe this, and of course such people are free to choose such a belief. In the pages of a novel we don’t: the characters are playing out their lives under the predetermined plans of supernatural forces: the author, the editor and often the publishers and marketing teams exert this control. An extreme example is the Mills and Boon romance formula which is adhered to strictly by the small team of hand-picked authors; the Adjustment Bureau’s G-men who lose sleep over David and Elise sharing a “real kiss” at the wrong time are thinking along similar lines.

Admittedly, there are a authors whose publishers give them more creative freedom – their characters may have real, meaningful existences within the imagination of the author and such a novel can change direction mid-flow as the characters take events into their own hands.

Now transplant this idea into cinema. A film isn’t made by an author, editor and a handful of publishers. Hundreds or sometimes thousands of people are named in blockbuster credits. The script may involve several people, and most are written to a formula far more exacting than the Mills and Boon recipe. Scenes, plots and whole films are written or selected to meet the needs of the studios and distributors, while endings are changed and dialogue is re-written to reflect the opinions of the investors or the test audiences. Films often rely on intertextuality, recreating whole scenes from previous films – and don’t get me started on re-makes which are often judged on faithfulness to their originals.

Fictional characters who take control of their lives are themselves a great fantasy theme: in Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, when book-jumper Thursday Next finds herself in Jane Eyre and “accidentally” changes the ending all hell breaks loose; both The Truman Show and Stranger Than Fiction place fictional characters in conflict with their creators.

Directors may be the most freakishly controlling of all control freaks – the idea of letting events in films shape themselves is anathema, and I think the attraction of CGI to many is not that you can now portray anything but you can now control anything. That tsunami wave looks great but how about a little less vapour to the lower left? I don’t like the shape of that cloud, can we change it? Thank goodness for the exceptions: superb directors like Kevin Smith, Mike Leigh and Gareth Edwards who are willing to take risks with the structure and let actors build up characters and improvise, often with spectacular results.