Sunday, 27 January 2013

Scene 45: Film Review, Quartet

This afternoon I went to see the film Quartet - a British film about a retirement home for musicians, based on the play by Ronald Harwood and directed by Dustin HoffmanNote that this is the first film Hoffman has directed, or at least the first one he has been credited as directing. According to IMDb he also directed a film called Straight Time (1978) along with the director Ulu Grosbard

As I mentioned, the film is set at a home for retired musicians of all disclipines - some sing, some play instruments - and the film opens with the residents preparing for the home's annual concert on Verdi's birthday, which really needs to raise funds, because the home is starting to struggle finanically. 

Amongst the residents are three friends, who used to be opera singers - Cissy, who is sweet but has started to go senile, Wilf, who is flirty with all the ladies and sensible, quiet Reggie - played respectively by Pauline Collins, Billy Connolly and Tom Courtenay. 

Everything changes for the trio however with the arrival of Jean, played by Maggie Smith. An opera singer as well, she is an old friend and colleague of theirs, and has a painful history with Reggie. It then becomes a question of whether Reggie and Jean will reconcile, and whether Jean can be persuaded to sing in the annual show with the other three, as a quartet. 

That's the basic summary anyway. The film itself feels a bit rambling. There seems to be quite a lot of details and little things happening in the background, which does make the film feel a tad distracted sometimes - and I noticed a couple of scenes, that in my opinion, were essentially just flavour and  unnecessary to the central plot. Nonetheless these types of details and wanderings were enjoyable - such as two of the residents practising a cheerful song. 

Some of the these details, I think, were also used to point out the problems of becoming old. An issue the film does not try and filch away.  In particular is the moment a clarinet player is wheeled away by medics, right infront of all the residents eating breakfast. The moment seems to be a reminder that our protagonists don't have forever. Similarly, though Cissy's senility makes her sweet and childish, it is also shown to be a struggle sometimes for those who care for her. In one scene there is a painful moment where she doesn't seem to recognise Wilf or Reggie and a nurse has to remind her. 

I must also mention the location and the cinematography, which were both brilliant. The house, inside and out, looks gorgeous. The film uses the interiors an surrounding parkland and gardens to its advantage, and the film is full of gentle colours and golden light. The wet, rolling parkland and trees, which their brown leaves also hints at an autumnal feel, which I think is rather appropriate for a film about people in their twilight years. 

The shot angles and compisitions were good too. One of my particular favourites being a beautifully composed shot involving a balcony and two windows. In the scene Reggie is standing on a balcony, we see Jean through her window, which he can obviously see too, and then, between Reggie and Jean is another window to another room, where a solo cellist is mournfully playing. 

I could go on, but it is getting late. So I shall summarise - all in all, it was a enjoyable film. It had drama, lovely locations, some good one liners, a nice use of classical music and a fantastic cast - some of whom where actual musicians, and some actors I have not seen on screen for ages, but I was glad to see again. It was at once reflective and unfilching about old age and yet also hopeful and warm, without being sentimental. 

On the negative side, Billy Connolly's character was a bit irritating with his constant flirting, and there was one scene where he almost fainted which also annoyed me. It was a whole short scene, which seemed to be of importance, and based on what normally happens when people show signs of illness in films - I was expecting him to collapse later on, perhaps during the concert. So, when he didn't I felt a bit cheated. Perhaps reading to much in to it, but I felt that scene created an expectation that was never met. Like the 'chewing gum on the mantle piece' idea in novel writing, where if you draw the reader's attention to something in a book, making it appear important, a reader will generally expect to you to return to it later on.

So, my verdict is - a nice film, not amazing, but not bad. 

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Scene 43: Writing Your Hero, the Need for Empathy

Recently I've been feeling a little daunted by scriptwriting. There's a lot riding on a script, its not only the initial blueprint for project, but its also often the first thing you show people when your proposing a project like a television series, a film or in my case a web series - the last thing you want to do is show someone a lousy script. 

So last week, hoping to pick up some tips on character, I had a flip through my copy of Robert McKee's Story and came across the idea of empathy in character creation. 

Now, before I continue I'm just going to make clear the difference between sympathy and empathy and its sometimes easy to get them confused - I was rather unsure myself at first, but I checked up on WiseGeek, which gives an excellent explanation. 

Basically, empathy is identifying with another person's emotions, feeling with the person. Whilst sympathy is recognising other peoples feelings, and feeling for that person. 

Now I've explained that, I'll explain the idea, which is simply thus - your audience needs to connect to your protagonist/hero. They need to care about the hero, because if they do, then they'll care about the hero's goals and ultimately the outcome of the film. 

To create this bond with the audience you need to make the audience empathise with the character - they don't have to sympathise with the character, though that helps - but they must empathise. 

As Robert McKee himself says: The audience's emotional involvement is held by the glue of empathy. If the writer fails to fuse a bond between filmgoer and protagonist, we sit outside feeling nothing. 

Creating this empathy is of course, the difficult part. Robert McKee gives two examples of how in his book, and one of these is Macbeth. 

Macbeth does horrible things, he kills friends and their families for power. Yet, we can feel sympathetic and empathetic towards Macbeth - enough to care about what happens to him at the end of the play. Why? Because as McKee points out, Macbeth has a conscience. He is guilt-ridden for the things he's done, and we can empathise with that because we all know what feeling guilty is like -  we can feel that guilt with him. 

I experienced the same thing watching a film called Same Time, Next Year (1978). The film is about a couple who have an affair; meeting once a year, every year to do so. One of them, the bloke George, really irritated me at times. He was hypocritical, neurotic, worried and moaned alot - and yet I emphasised with him because he felt guilty about the affair, and was  beating himself up about the whole thing. Well most of the time, but I could also empathise with his conflicting feelings - we've all been tempted to do something we know we shouldn't! 

This is where the need for an empathy compliments another important rule for writing good characters, that is - characters don't have to be likeable, but they do have to be interesting.   

This means you can write characters that don't have to be nice guys, you can write protagonists that are irritating, extremely flawed, even bad guys and they will work if you can make sure that the audience feels empathy for them. As The Script Lab points out in its article Your Hero: Top Ten Rules

Empathy is the key. Not every hero is likeable or should be; there are many heroes (or antiheroes) that we dislike, but we stay with them because we're able to understand why they do as they do.

In summary, empathy is essential to your characters. Sympathy is helpful, but optional. 

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Scene 42: Zombieland, Life, the Universe and Everything

Ah, my 42nd blog post - I couldn't help making a reference to the Hitchhiker's Guide in the title. Especially when I only learnt today that the show's theme is called Journey of the Sorcerer, by The Eagles. You learn something new everyday!

Talking of learning something new. I've also just acquired the skills, through film format, to survive a zombie apocalypse - I've just seen Zombieland (2009). 

It's a really good movie, and it feels really original compared to other zombie films - even though it is actually part of small genre of zom-coms, which include Shaun of the Dead (2004) and recently Cockneys vs Zombies (2012). However, I think serious horrors like 28 Days Later (2002) are still in the majority. There's the Resident Evil series of course, which is all good action fun, but it still its not playing it for outright laughs. 

Conversely though, what I thought made Zombieland so brilliant was actually the serious stuff, Zombieland's has a subtle bittersweet side. 

When I watched Zombieland I felt I was really watching what society is going to be like after a zombie apocalypse. There's no military, no safe haven as far as they can tell, its just survival - but not just the normal don't-get-eaten survival. Interestingly in this film, it seems to address the survival of the human spirit as well - think about it, how boring, how lonely must it be to be roaming  an America barren of anyone but zombies?  - and I found that really refreshing. The fact that its a comedy, and this sad side doesn't overwhelm means its nicely balanced out as well. 

In short, it's a fast, fun film with a heart that feels genuine, and it teaches you the best way to cope with a zombie apocalypse - just in case, you know, that happens. 

Check out the website for more: Zombieland Rules

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Scene 41: The Life of Pi Review

The first post of a new year, and I've decided to review The Life of Pi, which I saw in my local cinema on New Year's Day. The film is based on the prize winning book of the same name, by Yann Martel, and has been translated to the screen by director Ang Lee. It is available in 3D, but I saw it in plain old 2D. 

The film is told in flashback by an older version of Pi to a writer, who has heard he has an amazing story to tell - and so he tells him this wondrous story of he survived, as a young man,  in a lifeboat with a tiger called Richard Parker, after the ship he was on sunk.

The film is visually fantastic, without the 3D, it looks great. Even in the quieter scenes, like in India and with the writer, look fresh and are full of colours. 

However, the best scenes happen out at sea, when the ship sinks in a whirlwind of rain and when Pi is stranded in the ocean. Light is used to a great effect in a scene where Pi looks beneath the waves and sees a flurry of strange and lovely images - including a colourful glimpse of galaxies and stars. 

Whilst those scenes are brilliant for their dreamlike quality, the tiger is incredible for its realism. I believe it must be mostly CGI, but it looks very real. It also sounds very real - its growling sounds threatening and close. 

I must say that the three actors who portrayed Pi were all excellent as well. They were all completely believable, and even though they were dealing with quite a dramatic story, they came across as melodramatic. 

Pi is a charming character, one which I enjoyed watching and who I sympathised with - which is fortunate, because as an audience we spend a lot time with him.

Now, I've gushed a bit about the look of the film and the main character, but what makes this film so good, I think, is that it is more than just a pretty face. In a way you can view it as two films - a wondrous story about a boy and tiger in a boat, or as beautiful discussion on religion, philosophy and human nature, without a perfectly definite answer at the end.

I won't spoil the ending for anyone here, but if you have an interest in faith, human nature or philosophy, and a friend to discuss it with, you'll be talking for hours. It is a very thought provoking film, if you wish it to be, and I am sure people will have lots of different interpretations. 

This is why I think The Life of Pi may become a classic film one day - because its so lovely to watch, and yet so thought provoking. 

Who knows, ether way I can highly recommend it, and I think I may go see it again, but in 3D.