Monday, 3 November 2008

Things we noticed watching tv this week 11 (spoilers)

As mentioned last week, I thought I'd give the tv a break and catch up on some movies. First up was Run Fatboy Run, essentially billed as a rom com about a guy who has to win back the pregnant girl he ditched on their wedding day, by running a marathon. I like Simon Pegg. I like what he does and I think he is the only British actor at the moment that can open a comedy movie (with the exception of Sacha Baron Cohen but he does his own thing with this own characters). So I knew Fatboy would be daft and sweet, and there were certainly funny moments. But the two main things that were of interest to me focused on the central character and the genre. Continuing our look at unflattering, morally dubious characters, all the films I watched this week have these. Simon Pegg plays Dennis Doyle, a slacker who runs from commitment and responsibility and as I said, abandoned his pregnant fiancee on their wedding day. Not a common set up for a rom com lead. A key factor was certainly casting Pegg, who can bring a warmth and humanity to obnoxious characters, something he did before this with Shaun of the Dead and afterwards with How To Lose Friends and Alienate People. But another major part of keeping this guy likable, and of course us on side with him, was his relationship with his son. Dennis is not the best dad, but he tries, and his son loves him. The movie is as much about their relationship as it is about whether he can win back Thandie Newton. And this is the key problem. Whether a marketing tool or otherwise, this movie is not really a rom com. The active question is really will he finish the race, will he prove himself to be something other than a quitter. This is articulated clearly when Dennis says, towards the end, he's doing it for himself and no one else. Neither does Dennis win back Newton at the end, although he does ask her out and she accepts, hinting at a brighter future, but that's all. The important information seems to be that he is fitter, a better person and a better dad. There's nothing wrong with this. But the movie suffers from trying to shoehorn a rom com plot into it. This is more often a British phenomena (Dodgeball, Old School, Happy Gilmore etc have minimal romantic subplots but are comfortable enough within their premise and comedy to let the main story speak for itself). But it's surprising here because, although set in London with a predominantly British cast, the film is written and directed by Americans (Michael Ian Black and David Schwimmer).

Eastern Promises was a whole different kettle of fish. Written by Steven Knight and directed by David Cronenberg, this is a dark, brutal film about Russian gangsters in London. It features an outstanding performance from Viggo Mortensen (although I may not be able to watch him as Aragon in Lord of the Rings in quite the same light anymore!). I have a fondness for gangster movies and I liked this one... right up until the twist. Mortensen's character is fascinating. He's the driver and enforcer for the son of the head of the family. He is clearly rising through the ranks. We see him 'clean' a body for disposal and it's made clear he is capable of extreme violence. But at the same time, there are hints of a kinder morality about him. We can tell his interest in Naomi Watts' Anna is genuine. He not only helps her out, but also a prostitute they have working for them. There is something different about this guy and that makes him interesting to watch. You find yourself on his side, backing him against nastier enemies. So when it looks like he may have killed Anna's uncle, as he was ordered to do, you are unsure of yourself again. I find that fascinating. BUT. The reveal is then that he's actually an undercover cop. It was a massive let down because now we know exactly why he behaves the way he does (he of course didn't kill the uncle after all, only arranged for him to leave town). He behaves the way he does because he has to. He doesn't question his morality or his actions. He's a cop, he enforces the law, that's the end that justifies his means. But this isn't Donnie Brasco. We don't get to explore what makes a man surrender his own life to become someone else, someone repugnant, for the sake of the greater good. So it left it all rather empty and that was a big shame.

Finally there was Michael Clayton. Obviously this film got a fantastic response when released so I was expecting big things (which is always dangerous!). The fact is, it's well written and directed, both by Tony Gilroy. It had the feeling of one of those seventies movies, slow, careful, deliberate, with great performances from Clooney, Tilda Swinton and Tom Wilkinson. Clayton is a lawyer, but really he's a fixer. Or a janitor as he calls himself. Sorting out the problems of major clients. He becomes involved in a case where it's clear that the corporate clients are guilty as sin and are responsible for giving cancer to the many plaintiffs. But this is not Erin Brokovitch. Clayton is no hero fighting for the underdog. His chief responsibility is to ensure the cover up, solve his own gambling debts and keep doing his job. But when his friend is killed things change. But, the problem, as I saw it, is as follows. The film is called Michael Clayton. He is played by George Clooney. It's very obviously focused on him. But for all that, we don't get much of a character arc. We don't see much of Clayton before the story begins, only a glimpse of his ruthlessness etc. So by the end, when he of course does the right thing and shops his clients to the police, it's all rather predictable and unsatisfying. For example, there's a cracking Act Two choice. Clayton is $75,000 in debt and will have to deal with some very bad people if he can't pay it. He also now has the evidence to destroy the clients. But, his boss gives him the money to pay off his debt. So, quite literally, in one hand he has the cheque, and in the other the evidence. What to do? This was brilliant writing and encapsulated the character's problem. His choice now would define the movie. Take the cheque and it's virtually hush money to save himself. Rat out the client and he'll lose more than his job. But the very next scene sees him handing the cheque over to clear his debt - and then he goes on to deal with clients! He gets his cake and eats it. There are no consequences to his moral choice. It was a staggering choice by the writer and for me, played a major part in making the movie feel unsatisfying overall.

So what to take away from all this. Well, as we mentioned with Run Fat Boy Run, genre rules are very important and knowing what genre you are working in can prevent a whole lot of painful rewriting later on, as well as a muddled movie. But the key thing apparent to me this week, was that characters, and character choices, will define a story and a plot. I know what you're thinking - that's blindingly obvious! But it can sometimes get lost amongst three act structures and weaving intricate plots etc. Shoehorning is not going to work or go unnoticed. The choices the characters make had better make sense within the context of the story, and had better lead to the most satisfying of conclusions, because if not, the whole thing is going to feel very luke warm.

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