Friday, March 16, 2012

The Prestige - Complexity and Symmetry

This post contains huge plot spoilers for The Prestige.

Last night I inexplicably had the urge to watch Christopher Nolan's follow up to Batman Begins, 2006s The Prestige. I had enjoyed the film immensely upon release but had not had a chance to revisit it since. I fired it up on my laptop and sat back in my hotel room to see if it was still as captivating as it was six years ago.

There were two things in particular that really stood out to me on this viewing. The first was how Nolan has the uncanny ability to tell an extremely complex tale in a way that never seems complex. If you actually break down the plot of The Prestige it is astounding how many layers deep it goes (a prelude to Inception no doubt). The film opens with the murder trial of Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) who has been accused of killing fellow magician Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman). While behind bars Borden is given the journal of Angier which he proceeds to read, it's content being played out on screen via flashback. In the journal Angier writes about having acquired Borden's journal which he is deciphering, and again we see the contents of that journal played out too. Essentially the film begins at the end and then we are unraveling the mystery via a flashback within a flashback. Then on top of this already mind-melting structure, Nolan also freely jumps around in time independently of the journal flashbacks (such as the opening shot of the top hats etc.). Phew. As you can see, saying that The Prestige has a complex structure is an understatement. Hell, I'm struggling to even describe the temporal nature of the plot in this post!

But this is where Nolan's genius lies. The Prestige is never hard to follow. Miraculously Nolan is able to weave a coherent and gripping tale all the while never alienating his audience. It would have been incredibly easy for this film to be an indecipherable mess. But somehow Nolan dodges that bullet and crafts a film the feels as though it is totally in control of it's structure. Sure, you need to pay attention. But it never makes the audience feel stupid or lost. This is an amazing feat, and one that should not be overlooked.

The other aspect of The Prestige that really struck me was the thematic symmetry that permeates throughout the film. Firstly, and most obviously, the film is itself is about doubles, Borden's twin brother and Angier's eventual clone. The majority of the plot revolves around Angeir's obsession with discovering the the secret behind the "Transported Man" illusion, one in which identical cupboards or doors are positioned at each end of the stage. There is also symmetry to be found in the lives of the characters. Angier's wife drowns then he himself drowns each night at the climax of his final performance. Borden's wife hangs herself then Borden himself is hanged. The whole diary, within a diary conceit has a beautiful symmetry too.

There is also symmetry in the construction of the film itself. The opening sequence features a scene in which Cutter (Michael Caine) performs a magic trick for a small girl. The illusion consists of a bird and a cage disappearing then the bird reappearing as if my magic. However what is actually occurring is that Cutter crushes both the bird and the cage (killing the bird) then presenting a new bird which the girl assumes is actually the old one. This trick perfectly mirrors the final reveal of the film in which we discover that Angier has essentially been performing the exact same trick using himself and a clone each night.

It is this structural mirroring and thematic symmetry that helps Nolan create a film that, despite its incredibly complex nature, is easy to follow and dramatically powerful. The Prestige is a remarkable film from a remarkable director. Nolan is often showered in praise for his Batman films, however looking beyond those (admittedly groundbreaking) films, I think it is worth taking note that there isn't another filmmaker working within Hollywood that consistently produces such complex and interesting work. I for one am looking forward to discovering what he has planned for us once his Batman trilogy is complete.

American Horror Story - Disappointingly conventional television

A few weeks ago I wrote a post praising FX's American Horror Story for is unique and bold take on serialised television based on its pilot episode. Since writing that piece, however, I have completed the remainder of the series and unfortunately must report that the success of the pilot is not mirrored in subsequent episodes.

American Horror Story isn't a complete disaster, but it does shoot itself in the foot quite spectacularly. The most glaring error made by the show is that, beginning with episode two, it starts to humanise its spirits and ghouls. A large number of the twelve episodes open with a flashback which depicts the way in which a previous occupant of the house came to their grizzly end. These flashbacks serve one of two purposes, they either add a new spook to terrorise the house's current occupants or explain the existence of an already present ghost. This makes sense in terms of the way serial dramas traditionally flesh out a large number of characters in order to fill many hours of screen time. However in this case the show fails to understand one of the key aspects of horror: we fear what we do not understand. The second we know that one of the ghosts is merely a poor former occupant who was tragically murdered, they lose their scare factor. They are not necessarily malevolent, just tragic characters stuck in limbo. After the pilot episode American Horror Story rapidly loses its brilliant sense of the surreal and steadily slips into the conventional.

The other way the show trips up is by introducing a "rule" about halfway through the series. The rule is, if a spirit is terrorising you, all you need to do is close your eyes and tell it to "go away" and it will disappear. Yep that's right, every single ounce of threat that was left in our increasingly humanised spirits is instantly destroyed by uttering two words. Sure it serves as one of the ways to rationalise why this family would continue living in such a (literal?) hell hole, but it comes at too costly a price. As an audience we simply do not feel as though our protagonists are in any form of danger. The tension is sucked from the show and suddenly it all becomes a bit dull.

The combined effect of these developments is that as the season progresses its ability to frighten diminishes. That's not to say it's all bad. There are some dramatic arcs that are compelling and work to hook you in, and there are even a few plot developments late in the series that are quite impressive. However, as a whole, it's just not enough. It is disappointing to see a show that premiered feeling genuinely bold and actually frightening devolve into such a scare-free affair.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Clone Wars - Star Wars done right

OK, so this post is going to expose my inner nerd.

This week Simon Pegg announced on his Twitter feed that he will be voicing the character of Dengar in upcoming episodes of The Clone Wars animated series. I had never watched the program having written it off as nothing more than a cheap cash in aimed at selling new toys to young children. Hell, the three prequel films were cartoony enough, why would I want to subject myself to something that would surely fall even further into silly slap-stick comedy and kids exclaiming "yippee!"? But Simon Pegg was willing to be involved? OK, maybe it's not that bad? In fact Pegg even tweeted that he chose to star in The Clone Wars as it is "making Star Wars cool again, twenty minutes at a time."

That was all the endorsement I needed. I dived in. Admittedly the first episode didn't inspire much confidence. It featured Yoda and a bunch of clone troopers facing off against a platoon of droids. Nothing atrocious, but I was in no way blown away. However episode two really impressed me. It featured a nail-biting rescue sequence set amongst the debris of a destroyed spaceship. A small escape pod desperately attempting to remain unnoticed by a droid ship that was making it's way through the wreckage, slaughtering any survivors. Yep, killing survivors. Sure it wasn't in any way graphic (though we do see dead bodies) but what is important is that it lead to a palpable sense of danger for our protagonists. Something sorely lacking in the prequels.

My point is, The Clone Wars seems to understand what Lucas clearly forgot when making the prequel trilogy. Suspense is everything. Sure, The Clone Wars is a cartoon aimed at quite a young demographic, but it still understands how to build tension and create drama. If you can overlook the hammy writing and sometimes clunky voice acting, there is a great little show to be found here. Stylistically beautiful and narratively captivating. Perhaps Simon Pegg was right, The Clone Wars really is making Star Wars cool again, twenty minutes at a time.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Rant: Source Code - Frustratingly overrated

This post contains major plot spoilers for Source Code.

Lately I have been catching up on the Slate Spoiler Special podcasts, going through the backlog of episodes and listening to opinions on older films which where either controversial or - at least in my eyes - overrated. Today I listened to their take on Duncan Jones' sophomore effort Source Code.

I distinctly remember seeing this film upon its theatrical release. I had been anticipating it for some time as I was a huge fan of Jones' previous film Moon. On the day it opened I rushed to the cinema with my girlfriend at the time and a group of work colleagues. Upon exiting the film I distinctly remember being the only person in the group who didn't like it. They all seemed completely satisfied with everything the film presented. Hell, one of my friends even claimed it may be one of the best films he had ever seen. I was dumbfounded. Had we seen the same film? Because the Source Code I saw was full of plot holes and huge inconsistencies within its own internal logic.

To make things worse on the train ride home I tried to explain the issues I had with the film to my girlfriend. She loved the film and after I attempted to argue my case things got a little heated and she claimed that I just didn't "get" it as I didn't understand quantum theory and the concept of branching realities (now I don't pretend to be an expert on such matters but I sure as hell have enough of an understanding to "get" the plot of a Hollywood film!). Needless to say that was not at all the problem with the film and she is indeed now my ex-girlfriend.

I found this series of events infuriating, and the myriad of positive reviews the film seemed to receive only exacerbated my frustration. Eventually I chose to forget the film. I moved on and simply refrained from recommending the film to any friends or colleagues. Until today, when I decided to listen to the Spoiler Special for the film. And boy was I pleased to hear them tear the film apart.

The Slate guys had the exact same issues with the film I did. Namely that the internal logic simply does not make sense. Basically for those who are unfamiliar with the film, a bomb destroys a packed train and the authorities are trying to figure out who the bomber is before he destroys a new target. An army Sargent named Colter is then given access to a program named Source Code which allows him to inhabit the body of one of the passengers on the train for a period of eight minutes before the bomb is detonated. Repeatedly Source Code tells its audience that when Colter is on board the train for these eight minutes - in which he must identify the bomber - that it is not time travel. Essentially the logic that the film lays out is that after death the brain is still active for eight minutes, so the military has recovered a passenger that was on board the train and are (somehow) able to give the consciousness of Colter access to that eight minutes of memory in order to try and figure out who the bomber is.

So there is essentially no time travel taking place. All Sgt Colter is doing is repeatedly reliving the last eight minutes of a dead man's memory. Now this alone proves problematic as when Colter is reliving this memory he is inexplicably able to visit places that Sean, the bomb victim, could never have seen. He interacts with other passengers and generally gleans new information that could never have been found in the memory of his "host". This may seem nitpicky, but it just goes to underline the inherent flaws in the reality presented by Source Code.

Then on top of all this, at the film's end, Colter is able to stop the bombing and for some unknown reason exist within Sean's body after the eight minutes has expired. What the fuck?! Suddenly the film completely changes tack and suggests that Colter has indeed traveled back in time and is now existing in a alternate reality where the bombing never happened. Though bizarrely he still inhabits the body of Sean, which begs the question, what happened to poor Sean's consciousness if his body is now being controlled by Colter??

These questions infuriated me. How could Jones, the man responsible for the subtle and intelligent Moon, have left such glaring holes in the logic of this film? It is actually quite incredible how many inconsistencies emerge in Source Code's second half. Frustrating doesn't begin to describe it. Particularly as the beginning of the film holds so much promise. Perhaps I should write it off to studio interference? Or maybe Moon was just a fluke? I guess I'll just have to wait for his next effort before I can make a call. Though in the mean time I might just re-listen to the Spoiler Special podcast. There was something supremely cathartic about finally hearing someone who shares my opinion of the film.

The Artist - Silence as gimmick

This post contains plot spoilers for The Artist.

A  few nights ago The Artist cleaned up the this years Academy Awards ceremony. Hardly a surprise as the majority of the press had it pegged as the favourite. And it's easy to see why. It's an undeniably charming little film. It's central story of an silent film actor's fall from grace thanks to the introduction of the "talkie" into Hollywood is endearing, and the romantic subplot that develops is crowd-pleasingly sweet.

I was not immune to it's charms either. For the most part it is a delightful piece of cinema. I was completely along for the ride, that was, until the end. The climax of the film sees our hero George Valentin finally agree to do a new film which sees him tap dancing away in a musical number. Ok, that's a nice way to end the film.  Over the course of the plot we have followed  George as he stubbornly refuses to embrace the introduction of sound into film. His pride is his downfall, and we watch on as he gradually slips into poverty. But in the end our protagonist finally overcomes his crippling self pride and finds a "talkie" he is willing to participate in. Everybody wins.

That is until the sound continues after the musical number is complete and inexplicably we hear George speak, his words emerging in a thick French accent. Turns out he wasn't a stubborn actor who refused to embrace a new technology. He just couldn't speak fluent English. Turns out that the studio executives didn't write him off as a has-been, they just needed someone who spoke English for their talkies. The "twist" also plays as cutesy. Suddenly giving the world diagetic sound as our hero charmingly speaks his lines in a thick accent. Isn't that adorable?

No. It undermines the entire narrative of the film. And not only that, it turns what at first seemed like a loving devotion and respect to the silent roots of cinema into nothing more than a set up for a cute punchline. As a result the film comes off, not as sincere, but as gimmicky. Admitedly this revel is somewhat forshadowed by a dream seuqence in which George (and inexplicably the audience) begins to hear the sound of his glass as he places it down on the table. This monment is indeed cringeworthy, but as it has little ramification it can be easily overlooked. The finale however, damages the film as a whole. The Artist is still a fun film, I still enjoyed myself. Hell, I'm even keen to see it again. I just wish Michel Hazanavicius had been more in love with silent cinema, and less in love with making The Artist cute and clever, because it was both those things to begin with. It didn't need a gimmick. 

Saturday, March 3, 2012

American Horror Story - Surprisingly bold television

I started watching the recent FX series American Horror Story this week. I've always been a bit of a horror fan and upon hearing relatively good reviews I figured that it would be a fun way to fill the hole left by the first season of the excellent Downton Abbey.

I wasn't disappointed. At least not with the first episode. American Horror Story is a strange beast indeed. Not at all what I expected. The series pilot is a giddy exercise in excess. The episode opens with a flashback to the 1970s in which a preteen handicapped girl eerily tells two young redheaded twin boys that they will die in the creepy house they are about to enter in order to retrieve their wayward baseball. Surely a prime time TV show wouldn't kill two young children in its opening sequence. Right?

Wrong. They die. Brutally.

And that's just the beginning. We are then treated to a deliciously disturbing opening title sequence, very reminiscent of Fincher's Se7en, except here tinged with hints of the supernatural. Following the titles the show hits the ground running and over the remaining forty minutes we are relentlessly assaulted with a barrage of creepy imagery, some more successful than others, but the show screams forward at such a pace that there is barely a chance to think about what you have just witnessed before the next ghoulish image is splashed across the screen.

And this is what I loved about the pilot. There is simply so much craziness thrown at the audience that the show begins to take on a surreal, Lynchian atmosphere. American Horror Story presents a world that is spatially and temporally fractured. Nothing seems to fit, you are never sure how much time is passing. It's full of jump cuts, crash zooms and off kilter camera angles. Yes it's brash and silly. But if you roll with it you will be rewarded with one of the loopiest, most fun television pilots I've seen in years.

The downside however is that I have since watched the next four or five episodes and the giddy insanity doesn't quite hold up. American Horror Story has begun to morph into a more conventional television serial. That's not to say there isn't any fun to be had, there is. It just lacks the crazy surrealism of the pilot. The spooky creatures are becoming fleshed out characters, which unfortunately also renders them less frightening. The jarring, choppy structure too has begun to fade into a more conventional passage of time which again lessens the show's creepiness.

Having said that I do plan to keep watching. American Horror Story is a bold and unique show. It's certainly not afraid to go places most shows would never dream of going. Admittedly the strategy of the creators seems to be to throw as many scares at the audience as possible and assume at least some will stick. But luckily, some usually do. And I for one am keen to know where this show will go and what it will become.

Plus I need to know what's up with the weird haunted leather gimp suit.