Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Queen

In theory, I suppose I'm not the natural constituency for Stephen Frears' The Queen, since I really couldn't care less about the royal family one way of the other. On the one hand, they're a rather pointless hangover from a bygone era, but on the other hand, they pay for themselves in tourist income, so it does no harm to keep them around.

But this is an unexpectedly interesting little film. Okay, yes, Mark Kermode probably has a point when he complains that it's really just a TV movie being shown in large scale - it's not the most cinematic thing in the world, and you won't lose anything by waiting for the inevitable primetime showing on ITV. (The film was funded by Granada.) In every other respect, though, this is very good stuff.

The film follows the Royal Family in the days immediately after the death of Princess Diana back in 1997, as they initially misread the public mood altogether, and then have no idea how to react to it. The newly elected Tony Blair ends up leading them by the hand through a minefield of public relations that he at least understands, and which they only begrudgingly acknowledge as relevant.

The big idea is to focus on the Queen as an actual human being trying to come to terms with the situation, and the first ever significant public backlash against her. It's played as a comedy of manners, but never strays into caricature, at least with the major characters. Although wildly fictionalised, the whole point is that it should at least have the aura of credibility. And once you get over the initial hump of actors playing major public figures, it pretty much succeeds.

Some American reviewers seem to think that the point is to show the Queen as out of touch and emotionally damaged, and that the big climax is supposed to be her coming to terms with the need to make some public display of emotion. This is a remarkable misreading of the film, if you ask me. In fact, Morgan and Frears clearly like the Queen a lot, and have tremendous sympathy with her predicament. Her problem here is more fundamental (and goes to the heart of the idea of making a film showing her as a person).

The trappings of monarchy used to symbolise actual power. But the monarch hasn't really had that power for centuries. Nowadays, the institution is almost purely symbolic, although exactly what it symbolises is rather nebulous - a sort of all-purpose continuity with the past, perhaps. The Queen's primary role is to be a living symbol, and for decades she's done just that. By keeping her personality very much to the margins, and surrounding herself with the sort of inscrutable traditions that nobody really understands aside from a handful of constitutional etiquette purists, she makes herself an enigma who can mean whatever you want her to mean.

And this is the right way to do the job. The better we know somebody as a person, the harder it is for them to symbolise anything. This is one of the major problems with Charles as an heir to throne; in large part because of the public scraps with Diana towards the end of her life, he's far too well known by the public, and even the most ardent monarchist finds it difficult to accept him as a symbol for anything at all. His reign will be a very tricky one to pull off.

In the week after Diana dies, the Queen tries to continue as a symbol instead of grieving in public. This is not her mistake. Her mistake is that the traditional way of doing things is wildly misinterpreted by the public. They see the refusal to fly a flag at half mast as an insult, rather than a straightforward application of centuries of protocol. They see the decision to remain in Balmoral as a slight to the seriousness of the situation, rather than as an attempt to keep a dignified silence and allow her children to grieve in peace. In other words, there's a huge communication breakdown and the Queen is symbolising the wrong things.

This is not a film about the Queen learning to become a person rather than a symbol. It's a film about Tony Blair teaching the royals to speak the language of 1997 so that they can symbolise the right things. The demand that the Royal Family should act like human beings in public is actually a fundamental challenge to their purpose in life, and it's no wonder they struggle to understand it. If they start being people and stop being symbols, their last remaining function disappears. In this film, the Queen never concedes the point that she should be acting like a grieving relative before the public. (And why should she? Who the hell do the histrionic crowd of total strangers think they are?) She never shows her true feelings; rather, she learns to give the right signals to convey the impression of humanity without actually showing it directly.

In a wonderful lead performance, Helen Mirren pulls off the difficult balancing act of playing the Queen as a real three-dimensional character while staying true to what we know of her, without lapsing into a comedy impersonation. The trick is not to look at the Queen's public persona and extrapolate from that, but rather to ask what sort of person would construct a public image like hers.

Refreshingly, with the possible exception of Cherie Blair, nobody here is played for caricature. Even Prince Charles is shown in a largely sympathetic light, seriously concerned for his kids and (unique among the royals) recognising from the outset that a different approach is needed. Tony Blair's character arc sees him getting a grip on what the monarchy actually does and why it works. Wisely, Diana is kept to a handful of newsreel clips and otherwise remains an offstage presence.

It's not perfect - Cherie's scenes can be a bit one-dimensional, and there's some really clunky exposition at the beginning where the Queen's aides explain who Tony Blair is for the benefit of any Americans that might be watching. But overall, this is a clever and entertaining little film with some really intriguing ideas about the monarchy - possibly expressed a little too subtly to engage a non-British audience, but that's their loss.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Oh, one more thing...

I've seen it said that Mitchell & Webb's "Numberwang" sketch is basically the same joke as the classic Adam & Joe "Quizzlesticks" sketch from, ooh, must be a decade ago now. (That would be this one, if you haven't seen it.)

Well, no. The joke in "Quizzlesticks" is that the rules are unfathomably complex. The joke in "Numberwang" is that people shout out completely random numbers and everyone acts as though it was a perfectly sensible puzzle game. That's a totally different joke.

Mind you, "Numberwang" is undeniably the same joke as "Mornington Crescent." (Or at least, the joke that "Mornington Crescent" has been doing for most of its existence.)

That Mitchell & Webb Look

David Mitchell and Robert Webb have been doing sketch comedy for years, in a whole range of shows that people mostly don't remember. They were in Bruiser, apparently. No, I don't remember it either. They had a show on UK Play a good few years back, which was perfectly decent by that channel's erratic and low-budget standards (they even commissioned a Mark Radcliffe & Lard sketch show, for god's sake), but understandably languished in obscurity until their recent success led to a DVD release.

In fact, Mitchell and Webb's transfer to a mainstream audience came on the back of Peep Show, a Channel 4 sitcom which they didn't actually write. Peep Show is the classic example of a cult hit - the viewing figures have always been shaky, but reviewers love it and it seems to stick around in large part because it's the sort of thing Channel 4 ought to be seen to be doing. But at least it's introduced them to a more mainstream audience, and it's given David Mitchell in particular the opportunity to do the rounds on the UK's panel game circuit ensuring that as many people as possible know who he is. Peep Show is one of those sitcoms based primarily on excruciating embarrassment, and to be honest, it's always been something I admire rather than particularly enjoy.

Now, after a successful run on Radio 4, the BBC has given them another shot with a sketch show of their own. That Mitchell & Webb Look is perhaps the most traditional sketch show I've seen on BBC2 in some time. And that's not a criticism. They're just doing a straight down the line comedy programme which, given the choice, would clearly prefer to be Alas Smith & Jones for the 21st century rather than a cult show for students.

Perhaps it takes a cult following from something like Peep Show to persuade the BBC to make something like this - intelligent, but still unapologetically mainstream. You get a lot of this sort of comedy on Radio 4 and at live revue shows on the Edinburgh Festival, but it's a nice change to see somebody doing it properly on TV.

Besides, this is the most entertaining thing involving superheroes I've seen all week...

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Unforgiven 2006

Another WWE pay-per-view, this time from the Raw roster. Normally these single-brand shows tend to be fairly throwaway, but this is an exception. One reason is that, after years without any real competition, the WWE is now being regularly thrashed in terms of PPV audiences by the UFC, the one-time cage-fighting pariahs who have rehabilitated themselves over the last few years as the leading American promoters of mixed martial arts. The WWE don't know quite what to make of this; they've never really understood other approaches to wrestling, let alone real sports that compete for their audience. So, by the standards of single-brand shows, Unforgiven sees them wheeling out the big guns, with two high-profile gimmick matches on the same show.

There's also some relatively mediocre stuff on the undercard, but nonetheless, this is one I'm actually looking forward to. Especially because it's airing on Sky Sports 1, so I don't have to pay for it.

1. WWE Title, TLC Match: Edge -v- John Cena. This is the blow-off match for the long-running Edge/Cena feud. In theory, the story goes something like this: Edge is the bad guy, and in order to get one last shot at his title, Cena offered to let him choose the match stipulations and promised that if he lost, he'd leave Raw and join the Smackdown roster instead. Edge has chosen the little-used TLC gimmick - basically, a ladder match with tables and steel chairs also legal for use. Come to think of it, you can't get disqualified in a ladder match anyway, so it's really just a ladder match where they're promising particularly spectacular and dangerous stunts.

The TLC match was originally devised for the seemingly interminable late-90s tag team feud between the Hardy Boys, the Dudley Boys and Edge & Christian (since their signature weapons were ladders, tables and chairs respectively). That makes it Edge's personal gimmick match, and he's never lost one. On top of that, the show is in his home town of Toronto. Combine that with Cena's usual mixed reactions and we ought to get a perverse crowd cheering enthusiastically for the bad guy.

This one should be good. Edge and Cena have had strong matches in the past, and Edge has got a surprisingly amount of mileage from the gimmick in previous shows. The conventional wisdom is that Cena will win, since he's got a dreadful-sounding movie to promote, but I wouldn't completely write off the possibility of him being parachuted to Smackdown - the show desperately needs help, with particularly bad ratings in recent weeks even after pre-emptions are taken into account, and Cena could add some much-needed star power to their first show on the new CW network. (And let's not even think about what the WWE is implying about their own show by having "go to Smackdown" as a forfeit for the loser.)

But most likely, Cena will win an entertaining match, and the live crowd will be furious. It should be fun.

2. Hell in a Cell: D-Generation X (Triple H & Shawn Michaels) -v- Vince McMahon, Shane McMahon & The Big Show. The semi-main event is a 3-on-2 handicap match continuing the "please god, aren't we finished yet?" feud between the reunited DX and the McMahon family. Since this feud involves the de facto owner of the company (Vince McMahon), his son (Shane McMahon) and his real-life son-in-law (Triple H), the WWE has basically convinced itself that this is the hottest feud in the company, despite debatable evidence in terms of ratings. In fact, the Vince/DX segment on this week's Raw got the lowest ratings of the show.

This feud should have been blown off at least two PPVs ago and DX should have moved on to fight some actual wrestlers rather than the 61-year-old chairman of the company. Ego has evidently got the better of all involved - with the possible exception of Shawn Michaels, who by all accounts isn't too thrilled about having to re-enact the obnoxious frat-boy gimmick he was doing ten years ago before he became a born-again Christian. To liven it up this time, we have the Hell in a Cell cage match gimmick, on which diminishing returns long since set in, and the completely arbitrary inclusion of current ECW champion the Big Show, who is at least a decent enough giant with the right opponent.

It'll be an over-extended brawl with a lot of blood and not much actual wrestling, I imagine. Shane will doubtless do some suicidal stunt. He usually does. In theory the good guys ought to win so that we can end the sodding story. I wouldn't be entirely shocked to see the McMahons actually win this, but to be honest, I don't care - I started fast-forwarding through everything involving this feud several weeks ago.

Even so, the WWE think this is a big-money match (however questionably), and its very presence on the same show as a TLC match is interesting in its own right.

3. WWE Intercontinental Title: Johnny Nitro -v- Jeff Hardy. Back in more normal territory, Johnny Nitro, proud owner of one of the cheesiest names in wrestling, will be defending the secondary singles title against Jeff Hardy, recently returned after a lengthy absence that the WWE hasn't chosen to explain. The usual version of the story is that towards the end of his time with the company, Jeff Hardy had rather less interest in wrestling, and rather more interest in recreational pharmaceuticals. After drifting around aimlessly for a while and working the occasional indie show, he started making semi-regular appearances for rival promoter TNA ("semi-regular" because he was remarkably erratic at actually showing up for work).

To be fair, Jeff does seem a little more motivated in recent weeks than he has in the past. He had a decent enough match with Nitro on TV a few weeks ago, and this will probably be solid as an undercard match. That's assuming Jeff has his eye on the ball - if he doesn't, it'll be a trainwreck, although Nitro is a solid enough wrestler these days, and might get something watchable out of him even in the worst case scenario.

As it's Jeff's first PPV match since returning to the company, and he's getting an enormous push as a returning star (even though he was only really a midcarder in the first place), I expect he'll probably win.

4. WWE Women's Title: Lita -v- Trish Stratus. This is an odd one, but I'm rather looking forward to it. Lita used to be a regular wrestler in the women's division, but she's spent the last couple of years mainly standing next to Edge and nodding. Out of nowhere, they've put the belt back on her, and she'll be defending it against Trish Stratus.

But this match is really the Trish Stratus show, and Lita is really just there as a much-hated villain who's relatively fresh as an opponent. Because this is Trish Stratus' retirement match. They've made this abundantly clear on TV, although I still wonder whether the audience actually believes it, given how often fake retirements happen in wrestling. But this one is genuine - Patricia Stratigias is now aged 30, she's been on the road as a wrestler for seven years, she's about to get married, she's done everything there is to do as a woman wrestler in the USA, and she's decided not to renew her contract. She's about to become one of the tiny minority of professional wrestlers who voluntarily walk away with their health intact and their lives in front of them. This used to be virtually unknown, and although it's become slightly more common in recent years - Chris Jericho chose not to renew his contract last year, in favour of enjoying his savings and having fun with his rock band - it's still unusual.

I have a lot of time for Trish. She was obviously hired on the strength of being a pneumatic blonde, since god knows in her early appearances she couldn't do anything. But unlike most of the bimbos who've passed through the WWE over the last decade, she made a proper effort to become a real wrestler, in the face of total indifference from her employers, and despite having to work with some abominably inept opponents. And she's become pretty good, clearly taking more pride in her work than most people in her position do.

This is the right time to be leaving - she's done everything, and it's just endless repetition and slow decline from here on. It's rather bizarre for her to challenge for the Women's Title in her last night with the company, but not entirely unprecedented - if she wins, she'll retire as champion. I hope that's the ending they go with, because it's deserved, and god knows it's a rare opportunity to make the belt mean something.

Trish is a Toronto native, so she'll be performing her last match before a hometown crowd. We'll miss her.

5. WWE Tag Team Titles: The Spirit Squad -v- The Highlanders. Down to earth with a thump here, as comedy Scotsmen the Highlanders will be facing comedy male cheerleaders the Spirit Squad for the tag team titles. (Well, strictly speaking they'll be facing two of them. For reasons too dull to go into here, the Squad are theoretically all co-holders of the titles, although only two can actually defend them at a time.)

The Highlanders have done some reasonably amusing sketches setting up their characters, but their actual wrestling is rather dull. As for the Spirit Squad, they've had their credibility torn to shreds by months spent losing 5-on-2 handicap matches against DX. Who, apparently, couldn't be bothered actually taking the tag titles off them. So the champs are total losers, and if the challengers don't annihilate them in early course, they won't look like anything special. Oh, and given the gimmicks, it'll be a comedy match. And there's nothing to make a title belt seem important like a comedy match.

In the best case scenario, Squad members Kenny or Johnny might get a reasonably decent match out of this. Chances are the Highlanders win and the Squad move on to a break-up angle which has been rumoured for weeks now.

Sadly, still hasn't posted the Highlanders' entrance video, so you'll just have to imagine their irritating bagpipe drone for yourselves.

6. Carlito -v- Randy Orton. This month's obligatory "two top guys who weren't doing anything else" match. Carlito is stuck in a romance angle with Trish which, obviously, has just been derailed by her retirement. He hasn't really been that impressive of late, but he does have some momentum behind them, and if they're serious about trying to present him as a major character, he should probably win over Orton, who can certainly afford the loss. Match quality is difficult to predict, as both guys can be alarmingly hit-and-miss.

7. Kane -v- Umaga. Thrown-together monster-versus-monster match in which Kane, whose career is also reportedly in the closing stretches, will probably be the latest person to lie down for Umaga, a jawdropping Samoan wild-man stereotype who seems to have fallen through a timewarp from an era every other form of entertainment was proud to leave behind. The less said about this character the better, to be frank, but the old-fashioned "keep beating people until the fans accept you as a credible threat" approach seems to be working with him. It'll probably be short and, as a six-minute filler match goes, I suppose it's likely to be okay.

Worth buying? Hmm. The main event will be good, and I think Trish Stratus' retirement match is also something of a draw. The McMahon/DX thing has long outstayed its welcome and the undercard is a bit erratic, though some of it could be good. It's certainly an intriguing show which I'm more than happy to watch for free. On balance, I probably would pay for this one if I had to, although I'd be bracing myself for sheer tedium when the cage match came on...

Monday, September 04, 2006

A Scanner Darkly

Now this is a weird film.

A Scanner Darkly is Richard Linklater's adaptation of the Philip K Dick novel. Dick was always big on paranoia, and good god, this is a paranoid film. It's also the second time Linklater has made a film entirely in rotoscoping (which starts with live action and then digitally turns the whole thing into animation), following from the also-weird Waking Life.

This time round, there's a plot. Kind of. Set an implausible 7 years into the future, 20% of Americans are addicted to something called Substance D. Keanu Reeves plays Bob Arctor, an undercover cop in an organisation so secretive that everyone has to wear "scramble suits" that blur out their appearance and replace them with endlessly changing images of other people. (This is the bit that would be have been painfully expensive in live action, but comes in on budget thanks to rotoscoping.) Since none of his colleagues actually know who he is either, Arctor has somehow ended up doing surveillance on himself. Possibly. He's not quite sure any more. Because Arctor has taken his undercover duties so seriously that he's hopelessly addicted to Substance D himself and can barely think straight. Quite how he got to this point, he's no longer sure.

In fact, most of the characters are also on Substance D, and since they're all delusionally paranoid, it's often unclear what's really happening and what's just paranoia. That's the point. Although there is a proper plot, it's not really the focus of the film. It's more a character piece, as Arctor and his supporting cast spiral off into total insanity, none of them really sure what they're doing or why.

As you can imagine, it takes a while to get a handle on it. About twenty minutes in, I was totally lost. After a while, I figured out that it was meant to be utterly confusing, and that "What the hell is going on here?" was precisely the question I was meant to be asking. Once you get a grip on that, the film develops more shape - rest assured, it does build to a clear explanation of what's happening. (And, in a roundabout way, a clear explanation of why the film places so little emphasis on what would normally be its plot. Without giving away the ending, this is a film about Arctor's character being crushed by circumstances, not a film about the circumstances themselves.)

I should probably go and see the film again, come to think of it, to see if I get any more out of the first half now that I know what's happening. It's certainly a film that's likely to repay repeating viewings, if only because it's so challenging to decipher on the first time round.

Rotoscoping is an odd technique that could easily come across as gimmickry. But it works in this film, for a number of reasons. It disguises the fact that we're not really in the future. It allows special effects like the scramble suits to be done in a way that serves the concept and the story, rather than becoming set-pieces for the CGI guys. And most of all, the weird instability of rotoscoping works perfectly to give a sense of how these addled characters see the world. There are some things rotoscoping struggles with - multiple planes of motion confuse it enormously, for example - but in this film, the slightly sickly swaying of the background actually works to advantage.

At first glance, Keanu Reeves seems an odd choice for the lead character. You've got a film-making technique that covers up the actor entirely; you might think that calls for a powerful physical performance. We get one of those in the supporting cast, from Robert Downey Jr. Oddly enough, the more physical the actor, the less effective the rotoscope technique is - the body language comes through too perfectly, and it doesn't seem animated. Reeves' passive confusion actually feels more suitable for animation.

It's a damnably odd film, and considering that it's basically a slow-burn descent into madness rather than something more plot-driven, it could probably stand to lose fifteen minutes or so. I still can't quite decide in my own mind whether it's a real artistic success or a very, very intriguing and ambitious curio. But either way, it's fascinating.