Saturday, May 30, 2009

Seven Pounds

Seven Pounds is a movie that has one idea, and tries to stretch it into a two-hour length movie and does so unsuccessfully.

From the immediate start the movie poses a question that controls the entire experience of the movie: Why does this man want to commit suicide?
If you are a competent viewer with a brain, you can arrive at the correct conclusion after 30-40 minutes as Will Smith continually speaks to people in need of organs; we, as the audience, receive car-crash and life-debilitating flashbacks; and then Will Smith wraps up any notion of doubt by talking about killer Jelly Fish and signing organ donor papers--and he does all of this about 40 minutes in about a 2 hour movie. This leaves the remainder of the time just pointlessly re-establishing Will Smith's intentions. Everything he does thereafter has already been stated before in the movie. The whole second half is basically a load of redundancy and boringness. Yes, he cleans and fixes some kind of machine because he's an engineer and he wants to do nice things for people. Yes, he gives a poor lady a house because he's abandoning his former life. Yes, he is doing all these things, but we already know that because it was established priorly in a different and perhaps more effective manner.

The movie goes on and on and on, seeming to meander around in pointlessness as we are approaching the ever nearing conclusion which was already solidified in the back of viewer's heads an hour ago. The only thing that film attempts to do in the second half is establish a romantic subplot which nulls viewers to sleep. I would attribute this boringness to a lack of any conflict in the story--but I am not a professional screenwriter--and since the mystery has already been solved, there is nothing else to watch for. As such, the romantic subplot does not provide much of a context in order to improve the plot.

This movie was interesting at the beginning, but once the mystery is solved, there is nothing else there. The IDEA itself is not bad--it's just not fit to be a 2 hour length film. It would work MUCH better as a 20 minute-or-so short film of the like, where they cut out all the redundancies, chop up all the meandering dialog, and give the basic plot in a much more tight execution.

Seven Pounds, as it stands, has a good idea, but its execution cannot support it for a full two hours.

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Monday, May 18, 2009

Lost Season 5 (REVIEW)

To me, LOST is a show that works because of one thing: mystery. It presents you with a series of unexplainable or mysterious phenomena, and then proceeds to give you a series of clues--or lack thereof--which allows viewers to postulate all sorts of crazy ideas and theories about what's going on. In my opinion, everything else comes as secondary to that. Sure, you have great characters who conflict with each other, and you have all sorts of plot strands and backstories, but what ultimately keeps me watching is the idea of explaining the unexplainable--of picking up these little strands and pieces of dialog and forming them into a hypothesis in my head. It is that experience that makes this show so satisfying.

So now we come to Season 5 of LOST--a season that is predominantly plot-focused. This isn't bad, perse, except it means that we're not focusing on the mystery and instead focusing on the narrative-vehicle in hopes of arriving at the destination the show wants to take us. Unfortunately, this means that the characters can take a backseat and ultimately become arbitrary plot devices to keep this story going. Jack can try to come up with any reason he wants to find this H-Bomb and blow up the island, but it all feels forced by the plot--the plot compels the characters to arrive at this loop because the new dichotomy of time-travel demands it. This means that we're not so much getting drama or story created by characters and their decisions--think back to Season 3, Jack saves Kate & Sawyer during Ben's surgery, or even Season 2, when the characters argue about interrogating Ben--instead, it means that the plot creates the characters, which makes it much less effective and believable. One thing that I think could have helped this situation was to add one or two more episodes in between the crucial plot decisions. Many of the episodes felt rushed without much time for the characters to contemplate their current predicament and forge their own motivations while being out of place in 1977. Instead we, as the audience, are rushed through these characters' decisions to a predefined conclusion.

However, season 5 does have its fair share of mysteries. The opening scene from the season finale is perhaps the best case in point. Ever since season 3, the show has taunted us with the idea of Jacob--who is he, what does he do, and what is his role in all of this? We are finally given a glimpse of this new character in a dialog that hints at the ever-expanding mythos of LOST, perhaps dating centuries back in time. The pieces of this dialog are just a plethora of clues for the viewers to deconstruct and then place in their own personal theories. It is the dialogs like these that make the show's mysteries what they are.

Lastly, I'm going to talk about the notion of receiving answers. As a viewer, I want to know more about the Dharma initiative, so what would be the best way for the show to give us that information? Through endless backstory flashbacks that contain no immediate suspense or tension or relevance to what's happening at the current time? Nope, so here comes the introduction of time travel to place our favorite group of stranded castaways in the midst of the great Dharma initiative to give the viewers the answers they long have waited for. As I've said before, this allows the show to give us exposition in the context of something else: the LOSTies' search for survival and reunion. With this added sense of tension and character placement, the viewers are given the exposition while at the same time caring for the characters in the context of the exposition. Jack, Hurley, and Kate could die at any moment--this couldn't happen in a flashback. Essentially, the time-travel plot-device, however illogical or nonsensical it may be, works extremely well to explain backstory.

But in the end, what do we really want from the show? More answers? Because as time drags on, I start to doubt if that's what I really want from this show. Do I really want to know how and why the smoke monster operates, where the whispering voices are coming from, and why dead people, stallions, and visions pop up all over the jungle? Sometimes, I, as a viewer, just want clues, and more clues to draw my own inferences to decide what's going on. I don't always need a concrete explanation, because when you have an explanation, you don't have a mystery, so why keep watching?

It reminds me of a magic trick. First, LOST has given us the pledge: the normal plane crash on the deserted tropical island. Next, it has given us the turn: hatches, polar bears, statue feet, mysterious Others, unexplainable phenomena. Finally it must give us the prestige: the truth, the answers to all these mysteries.
However, It's been five years however since the pledge. The Prestige seems to be coming, finally, but we'll have to wait for the final season to figure out if it was worth waiting for.

So, see you in nine months.

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Friday, May 15, 2009

The Prestige

The Prestige (2006) was made by Christopher Nolan after Memento (2000) and Batman Begins (2005), but prior to the Dark Knight (2008). The Prestige, like The Dark Knight, is an excellent example of storytelling in film, no less due to a grasp on film and literary techniques.

Starting off from the beginning, the opening shot once again represents the idea of the film in the scattered field of top hats. It presents a moral dilemma in the nature of a magic trick and what lengths a magician will go to to deceive an audience. This is further explained through Michael Caine's ever-so-eloquent dialog about the 3-Act structure for a magic act. The Pledge, the Turn, and the Prestige, which can be said to represent the movie's structure up until the very end.

Right from the introduction, which is the inciting incident, thankfully, you have three key things in The Prestige that Nolan also did in the Dark Knight: conflict, things go wrong, and mystery. First you have the conflict between Bale and Jackman as Bale rushes on the stage and watches Jackman drown. Bale appears to make no attempt to save Jackman, which works to establish conflict between the two characters--one wishes the other to die, or at least it appears so. Without this conflict, a story about an obsessed magician wouldn't be very fulfilling. Second, things go wrong in the inciting incident. It appears that Jackman fell into the wrong tank, or even a tank to begin with, and in so doing altered the correct state of affairs. A lesson learned from The Dark Knight: Everything going according to plan = BORING. Lastly, the inciting incident also has mystery--the audience needs a question that must be answered, otherwise there won't be an incentive to keep watching. Why does Bale kill Jackman, through inaction, no less? What is this giant Tesla machine that Jackman is using? What fueled Bale to let Jackman die? Questions also existed in the Dark Knight, except to a lesser degree, because Jokers could rob banks for any standard reason. In essence, however, both the Dark Knight and The Prestige have excellent inciting incidents that provide a strong foundation for each respective film.

The Prestige is told through a non-linear, flashback structure, starting the film at the ending, and then reverting back to the beginning. I usually loathe structures like this because they suspend the real narrative at hand and keep you restrained from further plot development. However--of course--I actually loved this in The Prestige, because it does it a bit differently. The film is set up so that there are three narratives going on at the same time: The End narrative (Christian Bale's jail cell), The Beginning narrative (Starting with the feud and the first murder), and the Middle narrative (Tesla storyline). Furthermore, each narrative has its own plot problems and goals for each character to achieve: Christian Bale must escape prison, Hugh Jackman must be a better magician than Bale, and Jackman must get the machine from Tesla. This works much better than those boring flashback story structures where the flashback is just exposition and buildup until the story problem which was revealed at the present (Iron Man--har har). By having three narratives, the stories intertwine and strengthen each other better than a linear narrative could. The non-linear aspect sets up key questions, such as: why did Jackman go to find Tesla? How and why did Bale murder Jackman? This non-linear narrative structures the story in a way that benefits it more than a linear narrative could.

The editing in The Prestige is also very well done. Key sequences are built up suspensefully by swapping shots between the incident itself, and the aftermath of the incident. When Jackman goes to Bale's magic show, the film does not portray this in a linear sequence with the show, and then Jackman's thoughts afterward. Instead, the film swaps in between what Jackman thought of the show afterward while reverting to the present, building up suspense toward the prestige (har har) in Bale's current magic trick. Doing this places a higher value on the scene and the suspense level. Nolan--or his editing man for that matter--also did this in The Dark Knight, most notably in the scene where Joker crashes Wayne Manor while simultaneously murdering the judge and the chief of police. This swap editing technique used in both The Prestige and The Dark Knight is an excellent trick to build up suspense.

So how does The Prestige compare to The Dark Knight and Nolan's other films? I would say that each film has its own distinct theme, and therefore must be judged separately for that. Each film endeavors to encapsulate its own ideas, morals, and themes, and should not be judged for not doing what the other films did do.
Memento is a film about memory--leading to death, revenge, trickery, deceit, obsession.
Batman Begins is a film about fear--leading to death, revenge, trickery, deceit, obsession.
The Prestige is a film about trickery--leading to death, revenge, trickery, deceit, obsession.
The Dark Knight is a movie about suspense--leading to death, revenge, trickery, deceit, obsession.

Each film has its own specific theme, but uses that as a foundation to catapult itself into its own unique story with its own twists and turns. The Prestige is no exception, and uses trickery as its method for success.

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