Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Review: Leverage (Pilot)

There’s nothing more adorable than television crooks, and the new show Leverage has the most adorable crooks I have ever seen. Like Fringe and the US Life on Mars, the available episode of Leverage is a pre-air pilot, presumably released to spark interest. However, where Fringe and Life on Mars have had respectively prompted a mixed reception and an entire remake, Leverage seems to have done what it set out to do.

I’ve been complaining a lot about character development in these new pilots, but Leverage doesn’t have any of the problems that Fringe and Life on Mars exhibited. Instead of fumbling with poor dialogue, the writers of Leverage go (Dean Devlin, John Rogers) directly to the point of the characters, providing a snapshot of a moment that tells you who the person is.

This technique wouldn’t work for every show, but it works for this one because Leverage is a lighthearted, funny show that allows for that kind of thing. However, the characterization doesn’t stop there. The characters act and speak in ways that are consistent with their established personalities, or personalities that become more apparent as the show goes along.

And does it ever go along. If Leverage does have a few weaknesses it gets away with them by being slick, speedy and funny. When we are laughing, we are too delighted with the joke to poke holes in the show. When each scene is just as long as it needs to be, and reasonably fat with content, we are not languishing around, we are on the edge of our seats. A tight show can get away with a few flaws.

All shows have flaws. In Leverage, Beth Riesgraf, playing a character who is supposedly insane, does not quite manage to capture a woman who doesn’t quite have her marbles. She more seems as if she is pretending to be insane to get away with being slightly different. The result is that Riesgraf is almost, but not quite, perfect for the role (there are moments that are great). I feel that if the intention of the writers and directors is to have her be genuinely unhinged, it will not take much to get the actress there.

The other characters, as I mentioned above, are adorable. I’d seen a younger Christian Kane in Angel before, and he was perhaps better in Leverage; his role fit him like a glove. Gina Bellman and Aldis Hodge were great and immediately loveable. Timothy Hutton was immediately charismatic as the ‘Danny Ocean’ character, and when depth was required in an otherwise lighthearted show, depth he had.

My main fear for this show is that it will not manage to keep itself together. I love the lightheartedness of it, and it has great episodic Chuck-like potential, but I’m worried that it will be too happy-go-lucky for its own good. It calls itself a drama, but it was more of a comedy-with-serious-bits. (I forget who said that). Hustle, a great British show which is very, very similar to Leverage (Life on Mars US please take note), also makes good use of the comedy inherent in the situation of criminals, but managed a gravitas that never quite crossed all the way over into heavy drama to lose the show’s greatest strength- the humour. I think Leverage must aim for this same balance between the drama masks or risk becoming all fluff.

Backstory tragedy is not enough. If the final scene of the pilot was an indication, I think the writers might have a chance to go a CSI-style route to emotional growth, exploring the individual characters through their interactions during the episode.

What I want to see is stakes for the characters, even if they are small incremental ones. We already love the characters, now let’s see them get caught, be wrong, and grow while retaining at least some of that adorable glow.

Otherwise, if you’re looking for something with a low emotional commitment to lighten your mood, the pilot of Leverage is an excellent 56-minute ride into the totally unreal, adorable world of television criminals.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Review: Life on Mars (US) - Pre-Air Pilot

I loved the UK Life on Mars so when I heard there was a pre-air floating around of the US Life on Mars, airing this fall, I snagged it immediately. I thought it would be fun to watch the two together and compare them.

This has minor spoilers on what I consider well-known facts about the show, and a few vague dialogue and character references.

I’m afraid that compared with the sparkling UK show, the US one loses much and adds (almost) nothing to make up for it. The result is a lacklustre copy that leaves you wondering exactly who thought it would be such a good idea to remake, and what exactly they had in mind when they suggested it.

I’ve heard that two of the cast, Colm Meaney (of Star Trek: TNG fame), playing Detective Gene Hunt, and Rachelle Lefevre playing Annie Cartwright, are going to be recast. I’m not sure why this is happening, since they were not the major problem in the episode. The writing was poor, the directing was lacking and Jason O'Mara, playing the main character Detective John Simm, was by far the weakest of the cast.

First of all, if you’re familiar with the UK version, you’ll recognise the plot of the US version. All of the major plot elements are the same, down to, in many cases, the physical attributes of the characters. The setting is LA, rather than Manchester.

However, the US Life on Mars has lost the sharp, slick writing, plot, character development and attention to detail that the UK show immediately demonstrated. In the UK show, which is a whole eight minutes longer than the US version, it takes six or so minutes to get to the moment Sam Tyler time-travels. The US version takes almost twice as long. What is in this extended period of time you ask? Talking about what they’re going to do before doing it. Shoddy conversation presumably intended to develop character. Longer, indistinct fight scenes.

This delay characterizes the pilot in general. What the writers appear to have done is lost details and certain interesting bits of the plot and instead of replacing them with country-appropriate moments of interest, it simply skips them. In order to get up to an average American pilot length (51 minutes), events are slowed down, conversations are longer, scenes flow together in a more languid way. Contrary to popular belief, fight scenes do not build excitement.

For some reason, the dialogue and character development has suffered peculiarly. Although of the dialogue has survived somewhat intact, it is often it is modified or given to another character. In a previous post I argued that this is a good way to adapt, but in this case, the same scene with the same characters exist but the dialogue is exchanged, resulting in less well or re-defined characters. For example: Instead of the main character Sam Tyler being wrong, he is instead made right and the girlfriend (with the tinned characteristic of “spunky”) gets to be wrong. Instead of her getting herself into danger, he sends her into danger. Presumably this is intended to give the character more guilt over what happens, but him being right and then also being responsible for her wholly undermines her character.

This switching of dialogue roles occurs again later on, again resulting in a bit of a muddle. Generally, the main character is given more ‘hero’ moments, instead of being complicated, and showing his intelligence in using other people’s expertise. The character of Annie Cartwright, supposedly the woman in a men’s world who is allowed by the more modern Sam Tyler to show her intelligence, is reduced to spinning camera and romantic music while Detective Tyler gets to answer the question again. (This very much annoyed me.) The choice of actor doesn’t help: Jason O’Mara is a bit of a slab, without the bright-eyed intelligence and nuanced performance given by the less-hunky John Simm.

Two characters from the UK version- the rookie and the enemy- are missing from the US version, and their absence makes the show even sparser. The only new character was an embattled lawyer, who actually introduced a little interest to the show, but his appearances were minimal.

And then there’s the modification of dialogue. Compare these two lines, occurring at the same point in the story, when seeing a familiar music store:

SAM TYLER: I used to come here. I bought my first… Gary Numan. ‘Cars’.

SAM TYLER: I used to get all my CDs here.

The first line is the UK pilot, and John Simm is peering through the stained record shop window in delight (the camera inside the store behind dirty glass, Annie in the background and records in the foreground visible). The second is delivered by Jason O’Hara while crossing the road after seeing the store.

I don’t even know where to start with these two lines. The first is precise, human, delighted with the memory, evocative, and harkens back to another era, if not quite this one. It reveals detail about the character.

The second is boring, entirely uninventive, vague, and perhaps refers to the very first years of the 21st century, when Sam bought ‘his CDs’. I understand that the choice of artist might need to be different, as may the language used to express the sentiment, but that doesn’t mean that a slick, fat line can be replaced by a shoddy thin one. The lines were there for the adapters (Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec and Scott Rosenberg) to see. They turned a fat line into one there purely for plot purposes.

It is also the director’s fault. His work is also un-evocative. This show is a chance to lovingly reproduce an era that many of his viewers may remember. It might be a chance to bring a new generation into his audience. And yet he does not deliver with this nostalgia. I’m surprised, because the director, Thomas Schlamme, is one who was heavily involved in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The West Wing, both of which I like very much. Thinking about it, both of those shows required much indoor shooting- corridors, rooms, offices etc. Life on Mars is more scenic and those scenic moments is when I noticed the directing lacking.

All in all, I found comparing these two shows a fascinating opportunity. The same plot, reproduced with different writers, cast and crew? Delicious. Sadly, the comparison was not a positive one for the new Life on Mars. Almost every aspect of the US pilot fared poorly. The writing was slow, empty, thin and confused. The directing did not make use of the era, and was not as slick as I would expect. None of the actors shone, although perhaps they were held down by the shoddy dialogue and character development. O’Hara was particularly uninspiring.

What I would like to see: A slicker, wittier, more evocative, far more compact, more detailed and more nuanced performance from the writers and cast, and more expansive, scene-sensitive work from the director.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Review: The Golden Compass (2007)

The Golden Compass, controversial work of Philip Pullman, adapted for the screen this last December by Chris Weitz, who also directed. Rotten Tomatoes gives this film 41% Fresh, which I think is pretty darn right on.

I realize December was six months ago, but there are certain movies that elicit from me a reaction that explodes into a long rant that emerges every time I think about the film in question. This is one of these movies.

There are a few spoilers but nothing remotely major. Apologies for length.

I found The Golden Compass what I'm going to call "enjoyable". Frankly, I expected worse, possibly explaining why I actually rather enjoyed it. The strength of Pullman's wonderful story managed to struggle through the failings of the film, against tough odds. The art direction and costumes were stunning, the acting was good and (although I generally pay little attention to such things) I'm told the animation was excellent.

Sadly, in the areas where it really counts, The Golden Compass was weak. These areas include writing, directing, adaptive inventiveness/imagination and plot logic, so pretty much the things that make a film really good instead of 59% heading-towards-a-new-life-form. A great cast dressed in great costumes wandering aimlessly around a great set cannot quite carry a film by themselves.

I’m going to discuss writing in detail, because it’s what strikes me most. Interestingly, the writing has an odd story. The script was originally written by Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) and, although I haven’t, was allegedly slow and ponderous. I can well believe it. Stoppard is brilliant but as far as my experience with his work goes, far too thoughtful for what boils down to a children’s adventure film.

According to the internet, Chris Weitz wrote a fourty-page treatment of the story and was subsequently hired, despite the script already existing. His passion is admirable. The excitement in his script undeniable. According to a New York Times blog the initial Weitz draft, although long, was much better than the finished product. The blog complains that the movie’s trimming ruined the original Weitz adaptation, but I disagree that shorter necessarily has to get so thin and ludicrously cliché as the final product.

Nobody denies the complexity of the plot and characters of this book. Some simplification and modification is inevitable and necessary. The film managed to somewhat do this, reversing the order of elements to give it a more natural, watchable flow of events. However, within the basic framework, the film finds itself weighed down by explicit (as opposed to implicit) exposition and resorts to cliché dialogue, poor logic and tired plot elements.

Part of the problem is caused by simple lack of inventiveness and imagination. In order to modify a well-loved, complex story in such a way to have it fit onto movie-sized screen, some imagination and thought is required. I think this is especially true of fantasy films, where it is necessary to quickly establish an entirely new world in a few minutes. Although I know many people are not huge fans of the Lord of the Rings adaptations, they are nevertheless a good example of an inventive and imaginative adaptation that beautifully conveys a sense of each people it visits without hitting you over the head with a large club. The LOTR books are much longer and yet even the Theatre Releases were bristling with plot. This was not the case with The Golden Compass.

An inventive adaptation expands the basic story down and up, rather than lengthwise. It layers each scene to provide more information than you think you are getting. This is not only using layered dialogue, this is using setting, body language and action to convey plot, character, mood etc. For example, the movie begins well, with the children’s clay-throwing fights described in the second chapter of the book, and yet almost nothing is revealed about the world in this scene that is useful to us in the coming two hours; there’s plenty of time to build Lyra up and all it takes is a well placed clod of clay to make us like her.

What we really need to see is the world and given the way the movie unfolded, what would have been nice would be to set this clay-fight along the river and the gyptians’ longboats. It would have given us a sense of their importance, their culture, could have introduced us to important characters such as Ma Costa. Her calling ‘Billy’ into the dusk would be enough to establish her as a maternal character, introduce the existence of Billy, and, as her voice fades away as we watch Lyra streak towards Jordan College to the next scene, set up a sense of ominousness that did not require the obligatory dark shadow. (Which, if I remember correctly, was employed in the film).

An inventive, thoughtful screenwriter can turn a thin scene into a fat one. They unravel the story and mine the details to put it back together. They should not only provide a competent play-by-play of the plot, but also provide depth, even if that requires shuffling of dialogue, setting and even plot.

This said, I think that one ‘rule’ to think of when writing an adaptation is to not use a new line or scene when an old one will do, even if it’s patched in from the description or another character. Many of the best adaptations make use of the language of their source material liberally interspersed with the new material.

To some extent, Chris Weitz followed this ‘rule’ that I have just invented. However, there are certain instances where his deviations are bizarrely unnecessary. At one point, the little girl Lyra says to another character after a scary moment, “I thought I lost you”, a line that anyone who has read or seen more than a couple of stories knows is far too overused to be used again. Aside from being tired, does anyone really say that, let alone the character Lyra? Here’s what she says in the book: “Let me help you - I want to make sure you e’nt too badly hurt…” We do not need to be told the line “I thought I’d lost you”; the actress was good enough to show us her fear, the original line truncated is enough to show us her concern and, more than that, it reveals things about her character. Her need to do act, rather than talk, for example.

As it stands “I thought I’d lost you,” conveys exactly one thing, and it not a good one.

In all, I disagree with the assertion that a longer script would have been tons better. If the scenes and dialogue were left as-is, with simply more of them, it would have continued to be thin and cliché, if not quite so illogical as before. What the script lacked most was not length, it was depth. Little more than one thing was occurring at once. Ideas were introduced consecutively rather than concurrently. Exposition was clunky, taking up a vast amount of the early dialogue that could and should have been employed much more efficiently.

An adaptation is a challenge not only to trim and rearrange, but also to imagine, to think and to delve. ("When is he going to start delving? I asked myself." - This one's for you, Mr. Stoppard.)

These same ideas apply to the directing. The director can produce a thin film, or he can produce a fat one. It is up to him or her to look beyond the script and pull out things from the book that are not written there. Perhaps it was a bad idea to let Chris Weitz, however competent and passionate and excited he was, to both write and direct alone. A director can bring new ideas to a writer’s script. A director-writer is only bringing to life what he or she wrote. This can work brilliantly, but I feel that in this instance, with a complex story and world to bring to life, the movie would benefit from two separate minds with two separate imaginations.

Review: Fringe (Pilot)

There's a new super-hyped show coming this September, brought to you by J.J. Abrams, the fellow behind Alias and Lost. Somehow, either by mistake or design, the pilot has made it out onto the internets. I was particularly interested in seeing it because I had "casually" (yes, I know nobody really thinks people just "happened to be passing", even if they were) wandered past this show being filmed on location and a shot I had seen being rehearsed or filmed made it into the commercial, which you can see on YouTube.

Having got my hands on a copy of the pilot, I've reviewed the show for general interest's sake. It's non-spoilerish- I've tried to restrict my 'reveals' to things commonly mentioned in descriptions in the show, but like any review, you're going to pick up some idea of the show. If you want it to be entirely new, you shouldn't read reviews at all. :P

I found the pilot mostly competent, but nothing really striking. The whole thing without commercials (obviously) is 81 minutes long, and apparently cost $10 million to make. Presumably, with J.J. Abrams and his frequent co-writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci at the writing and producing helm, there was a certain amount of carte blanche going on. Perhaps this isn't the best idea. Success tends to make people sloppy.

The opening was grotesque (warning: if you are squeamish, the opening scene might be one to skip) but other than being eye-catching in its grossness, provided little in the way of interest.

The credits were very reminiscent of Lost's. The title and the various place names throughout the show reminded me very much of the words you create in 3D-Max. I think if it was simplicity they were going for they should have got with flat words. The choice to have place-titles as part of the scene itself was pretty interesting but in my opinion stood out as a little gimmicky.

From the opening hook, the plot progressed in a fairly standard manner, introducing the three main characters, all of whom were pretty standard. All three of the main characters seemed to have been given character traits like you buy tins at the supermarket (I'll have a small tin of womanizer, a tin of tough, a tin of mad scientist). None of these traits, or any others, were particularly convincing. The genius (Joshua Jackson) exhibited few signs of extreme intelligence and never once had a chance to use his brain, the mad scientist (John Noble) didn't seem terribly mad (although he got the only humour in the show and fared well for it). The other main character (Anna Torv) was given few individual traits, but seemed to carry the part off reasonably well.

Any tension between the characters was presented with half-hearted dialogue, and quickly dispelled as the plot progressed.

However, I liked Lance Reddick in his role as someone-who-knows-more-than-the-rest-of us. He managed to provide more mystery and ominousness with his obvious dialogue than any scary shrieks and music could summon. I liked to see ReGenesis star Peter Outerbridge passing through; he didn't have much to say, but he did a good job not saying it, if that makes any sense. A woman who I think was played by Charlotte Rampling was suitably evil, but there was nothing unremarkable or new about her portrayal of the Evil Woman character.

Wobbly characterization is normal in a pilot. The writers are still hammering out the ways the characters act and speak and actors are still figuring out who their characters are off the page. However, Fringe does not suffer from this kind of wobbliness. The characters do not make sense, are inconsistent and bland. Any tensions are resolved or swept away far too quickly (although they may be resurrected in episode two, I suppose.)

Thankfully, despite the problems with character, Mr. Abrams delivered an episodic plot that wrapped up at the end of the episode with hints of more X-Files-type plot to come. That said, at the moment, I'm getting little of the sense of gleeful mystery I get from the X-Files. The characters display surprise at or disdain for the various science fictiony bits, but there's no sense of fascination from even the mad scientist. What scientist working at any level doesn't take some kind of fascination in his or her work, let alone somebody working in a field unknown to majority of the world?

What I most enjoyed was seeing the bit of Toronto I've spent the last four years living in, doubling variously as Harvard and Boston. I'm referring to the environs of the University of Toronto. The choice of the new wing of the Royal Ontario Museum as the Evil Corporation was interesting. It was lovely to see University College and Knox College (and even the stump of the CN Tower- I guess they have a giant tower in Cambridge, too) doubling as bits of Harvard. Meehee. And the flashiest bits of the Bahen Centre for Information Technology as a centre of operations. The University of Toronto looks good on camera (you can also see it in The Hulk).

Overall, I think the show suffers from a lack of heart. J.J. Abrams can deliver a reasonably good show- I truly enjoyed the first season of Alias- but here he has barely produced a competent one.vOn top of that, there's a spark that is conspicuously absent from the plot, the dialogue, the characters and the mystery.

What I'm hoping to see: Much better characterization, better dialogue, a slightly less cliché plot. Much more spark.