Film #60: Clerks (1994)

Directed by: Kevin Smith
Language: English
Length: 92 minutes
Watched on: 17 July

Clerks is one of those films that I’d only ever managed to catch occasional bits of before. But it always seemed kinda funny. It’s famously very low budget, so low that they couldn’t afford colour film, and actually filmed it in their local convenience store (damn you Japanese, I keep wanting to type ‘combini’!) in New Jersey. It’s also famously a ‘cult’ film and it’s a well-regarded comedy, so I decided to watch it.

Kevin Smith’s films, of which I’ve already seen Dogma and maybe a bit of another one, seem to have some kind of strange continuity, especially with the background characters Jay and Silent Bob (Silent Bob is actually Smith, which might go some of the way to explaining that), who crop up in a lot of different movies and have one dedicated to themselves. So it’s kind of amusing for me because I was vaguely familiar with these characters to see them in their first screen appearance. But they’re not really important to the film.

The film follows a day in the life of two slacker store clerks, who work at a convenience store and video rental store that are next door to each other. I’m no good with character names, though; I’ve already forgotten them three days after watching the film. Video guy is around at the convenience store for most of the day, seemingly not bothering to ever do his job, while Convenience Store guy was called up at six in the morning, reluctantly, to cover for his boss. It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that his initial reluctance turns to annoyance when his boss doesn’t show up.

I guess the main plot of the film is to do with the guy’s girlfriends, one ex and one current; he’s still in love with the ex, finds out via the paper that she’s getting married, and starts moping all day until she shows up and declares her love. Or something. It wasn’t actually that interesting.

What I actually gleaned from the film was that it’s more like sketch comedy. I guess this reflects the fact that such a colourful variety of characters come into any one convenience store over the course of a day – the film sort of focuses on one skit with a particular customer for a while, before moving onto the next. It starts with a man who comes in on some kind of mission to get people to stop smoking; he turns out to be a chewing gum salesman. The rest are pretty similar to that. Some of them are pretty funny, some are pretty boring. What all of them have in common is people being unexplainably idiotic, which is always good for a bit of absurd comedy.

Overall, I guess I’m still willing to watch more of Smith’s movies, but I think the humour in this film isn’t quite my style. I found bits of it funny, certainly, but I think it was quite bland. Or perhaps I just wasn’t identifying with it. I dunno, really. It was fine, just not the masterpiece that I’ve heard about.

TV: Breaking Bad Seasons 1-4 (2008-2011)

Created by: Vince Gilligan
Language: English, Spanish, and a tiny bit of Chinese
Length: 46 (7, 13, 13, 13 resp.) episodes of 47 mins each
Finished watching on: 23 Apr, 11 May, 28 May, 8 Jul resp.

I first heard about this series a while ago, but I got the chance recently when a friend offered me the series from his hard drive. The first thing anyone should know is that it contains the dad from Malcolm in the Middle in a decidedly more dramatic role. For a few episodes this is amusing, as I could only see Hal, but Bryan Cranston is in fact a really good actor (not that we couldn’t tell this from his performance in Malcolm anyway), and in his role as the protagonist of this series, Walter White, he is quite formidable. Plus, his appearance changes quite dramatically during the first season, so it gives a good visual hint that Walter and Hal are two very different people.

The basic premise is fairly easy to sum up: an overqualified chemistry teacher gets cancer, and then decides that since he’s about to shuffle off the mortal coil, he’d better leave something behind for his family, but since he isn’t making anything in either of his two jobs, he promptly starts cooking the finest batch of crystal meth known to man (he’s a really good chemist). He takes a partner in a former flunk-out student of his named Jesse, who likes saying “Bitch” and “Yo” a lot and presumably knows the business… but is also a meth addict. You win some, you lose some, perhaps.

It’s mostly a drama, I’d say, although there are certainly elements of black comedy in there, and the show doesn’t waste any time starting its body count; I think at least one or two characters are dead by the end of the pilot. This will continue to mount for the rest of the show, essentially.

Generally, I really liked it. It has a good sense of realism about it, which I like. When I directly compare it to the last American drama I watched, which was United States of Tara, I see a rather upper-middle class family who don’t really have any major life problems except for those directly posed to them by the drama itself, while here the family aren’t particularly well-off at all and have all sorts of problems that don’t relate directly to the main narrative. Apart from the dad with cancer, there’s a pregnant mum and a son with a minor-but-noteworthy disability (rarely referred to directly, incidentally; the fact that it doesn’t even come close to defining the boy’s character feels quite refreshing), and a house that is massive by UK or Japanese standards, but probably fairly average in suburban America.

To round off the cast of main characters, there is also the mother’s sister and brother-in-law, who works for the Drug Enforcement Agency, and is constantly on Walter’s tail without ever actually sussing him. There’s also a hilariously corrupt lawyer and various drug barons that the pair work for; first the violent Tuco, and later Gus, who looks a bit like a lifelessly scary Obama and is usually acted in an ominously emotionless way.

I don’t want to give too much away, though. The story is excellent, and it twists and turns all over the place throughout the series’ run. In general I can’t find fault with the characters or the acting. As they develop, the story gets darker, which I sort of expect from many dramas – it feels more like a romp in the first series or two, and starts becoming thicker and more eerie during the third, where people really start mistrusting each other. By this point there is also a main antagonist, too; for the first and second season this was often just Walter’s wife Skyler, who didn’t think too much of him disappearing all the time with flimsy excuses.

I guess the main criticism is that it’s fairly dry. I could never watch more than one episode in a day, because even though the drama and the storyline are generally great, sometimes you have episodes where not much happens, or stuff only happens in one part of the episode, with the other half focussing on something that is perhaps important to the storyline, and may even be funny, but is basically mundane. Again, this stands in contrast to the last American drama I watched, which was more like an addictive pageturner. This means that it took me several months to finish, rather than a couple of weeks, although it took longer because I got distracted by various other series too. I don’t know whether this is a good or a bad thing; I guess it’s probably good, because it’s the perfect amount of drama and tedium that makes you want to watch more, but not immediately, and therefore watching it once a week and keeping up with the TV schedule wouldn’t be too much of a problem for me. Less tedium would still be nice, hoewever. Speaking of which, the new series is starting in America on Sunday. I guess I’ll have to find a way to -ahem- acquire it then.

All in all, comes with a full recommendation…

Book #22: Gulliver’s Travels (1726)

aka: Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships (phew)
By: Jonathan Swift
Language: English, gobbledigook and a bit of Latin
Finished reading on: 29 June 2012

I’ve been intending to read this for quite a number of years now. I even started reading it and got about halfway through before getting bored. I should have taken that as a warning sign, frankly… I think I assumed that with age I would come round to it, but no. I started reading this book in February. February, for heaven’s sakes! I don’t even have the excuse of being a couple of months behind on my blog this time, since I’ve caught up with it now and after this post I’ll have no backlog for the first time in over a year; I only finished reading it two days ago. So it’s taken me five months to finish this book. Phew. OK, technically it’s taken many years, but I don’t know when I did start reading it before. This, of course, stands in stark contrast to the last book I read, which I started in London and finished two and a half weeks later on the way back from work, on a cold evening, in a place that I realised later was not the most convenient way to get home, because I had to wait around for buses for ages. Anyway, that’s another story.

There’s certainly a lot in Gulliver’s Travels that made for a good story, and that I enjoyed reading. The plot itself is fun, and bears reading about; man goes on travels around the world and finds islands of strange people. Of course, most people have only heard of the first story, in which Gulliver meets the tiny Lilliputians, and perhaps the second, in which he meets the giant Brobdingnagians, but would be hard pressed to tell you what happens in the third – although the giant floating castle Laputa gave its name to a Studio Ghibli film – or the fourth, in which Gulliver meets the intelligent Houyhnhnm race of horses and the vile disgusting Yahoos, a wild race of human-like creatures. Again, this has given its name to a famous modern day company.

To be honest, I think this is partly because the Lilliputian storyline is the most interesting, and the story kind of goes downhill from there. The giants’ storyline is alright, but the third storyline isn’t particularly interesting to me and is more difficult to define with a high concept, unlike the others; he goes to many different countries, for one thing. Aside from the floating castle, there is a race of humans so caught up in their own thoughts that they need to hire people to flap at their ears and eyes with a soft paddle to get them to concentrate, and they are so caught up in scientific thinking that they never get anything useful done.

It’s often known as a great work of satire. This is obvious if you dig even a little deep; in the Lilliputian storyline there is a great holy war over which side of an egg should be broken first, and they use Gulliver as a weapon in the war to get the upper hand. Then there are the scientist race, probably a criticism of the enlightenment, and then in the Houyhnhnm storyline he ditches the pretence and starts properly railing against lawyers and politicians, calling them the most vile of all kinds of human, bred from birth to spread lies. The horse people just look to their own wild Yahoos and reply “Yeah, we know.” The most depressing thing about this exchange is that this is still the case today, three hundred years later. Certain things were worse back then, but overall they just spout the same bullshit to us these days as they did back then.

On a genre level, it is also supposed to be a satire of the then-popular genre of travelogue, but as to this I can’t say very much more, since this style of travelogue is no longer popular (now we just have Stephen Fry being sent away with a camera by the BBC).

There are a few other points that I did like about it. There are some jokes strewn about through the text here and there, such as jokes about the relative size of his knob compared to the Lilliputians, and toilet humour is certainly not shied away from – he pisses on a fire in the Lilliputian palace to put it out. There are numerous slights towards the Dutch, such as the implication that they’re not good people or good Christians, or that their language sounds horrible. And I laughed out loud when I saw the full title for Part III, which is “A Voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and Japan”; seeing the name of the country I live in tacked onto an increasingly ridiculous-sounding string of names made me chortle. And yet I think it was only tacked on because Japan at the time was just as mysterious and unknown as any of Swift’s invented countries, having closed its borders to almost all Europeans at the beginning of the 18th century. Unfortunately, he only visits for a few pages before packing off back to Europe, and the passage was only used for making slights at the Dutch, who were the only Europeans allowed. I got a little bit excited when I saw references to Yedo, the old name for Tokyo, partly because it’s alongside such exotic names as Xamoschi and Nangasac (Nagasaki?) – but a google search for these only returns pages discussing this book, so I don’t know where Swift got the names from.

But let’s face it, for all that the book has going for it, it’s just a bit boring! I think the very dry style that Swift employs has a lot to do with it. I just don’t find his writing engaging, even though content-wise it should be sound. Part of this is that it all seems a bit impersonal. It’s written through the eyes of a man writing a travelogue for an audience, rather than as a story in itself. It rarely if ever employs direct quotation or conversation, although frequently it will use quotation marks for indirect quotation, which I found jarring and distracting. Events that should be exciting come across as just another dull entry in the man’s diary.

I can certainly accept that this is just a factor of time, and that this was a normal way of writing 300 years ago. Yeah, language changes. In that case, I’m just glad that extraneous capitals were excised from the Project Gutenberg version of the book, since I would have quickly grown annoyed by that. I understand that most people who have read this book were suitably gripped by it, and that it’s considered a masterpiece by many, but not me. I think it had its good points, as detailed above, but it didn’t grip me, and it felt like a chore to read, which is never a good thing. And hence it took me five months to read. I could perhaps point out that I’ve been particularly busy over the past five months, and I was almost willing to be more charitable on this point about this book, but I started the new Terry Pratchett book on the train yesterday and I was unable to put it down until I’d got home – I just kept reading as I got off the train. So I think this really is a function of how good the writing is, and how well it can grip me, and thus Gulliver’s Travels doesn’t quite make the cut.

The Inbetweeners

TV: The Inbetweeners (2008-2010)
Created by: Damon Beesley & Ian Morris
Language: English and a bit of French
Length: 3 seasons of 6 episodes (18 total) of 23 minutes each
Finished watching on: 30 May, 13 Jun, 21 Jun 2012
Film #60: The Inbetweeners Movie
Directed by: Ben Palmer
Language: English
Length: 97 minutes
Watched on: 23 Jun 2012

I’ve kind of had this show on my radar for a few years now, and I’d seen a few episodes in the past before I started watching it in May. It was always billed in contrast to Skins, which I did quite like for its first two years or so before I became to old for it and all the characters changed (not a good way to keep viewers), but which was always criticised for being unrealistic; there do exist people who have debaucherous parties and do lots of drugs like in Skins, but a much greater proportion of people actually didn’t, which is where this show comes in.

I’d be hesitant to call The Inbetweeners “realistic”, because at the end of the day it’s a comedy, but most of the situations in the show are ones that most teenage boys come across while they’re at school, even though basically everything that happens is above and beyond anything that would happen in real life. It’s cringe comedy, for sure, but unlike most cringe comedy that just keeps getting cringier as the episode goes on (I’m not such a fan of this), this one goes past the level of cringe and becomes funny again just through surpassing the reality of a situation and becoming ridiculous.

It follows the adventures of a group of four high school boys, who spend most of the show trying unsuccessfully to get girls. Or rather, occasionally they’re successful but only one of them’s lost his virginity by the end of the show.

The characters are all funny and consistent, and seem to be true to life in some form or another. They manage to exaggerate their characteristics quite well in general. Their parents are just as exaggerated.

So in general, I liked it and found it quite easy to watch. I guess one of my main criticisms is that they can come across as very homophobic at times; I kind of understand that this is to do with the realism factor; that teenage boys really are often like that… it’s still a little bit disconcerting for me because even when I was in the closet and at high school it wasn’t quite as bad.

Another disappointing factor of the show is that there’s only 18 episodes – and most American series produce more than that for a single season. We could have endless discussions of the merits of both of these; in the end I’d like to have seen more of this show as it is, but one of the main advantages of short seasons is better writing; the episodes of this are very tightly plotted, because they’re essentially fitting more material into a shorter space, a lot of the time, whereas American shows often have pointless filler. On a more depressing note, I hear that there will be an American version of this show coming out next year or something. Just because it worked for one or two shows (The Office and Queer As Folk are the two examples I can think of off the top of my head that are more popular in the American version) doesn’t mean they have to try it for everything! But it’s kind of ironic in a way, because it’ll come out with 12 episodes at once, already more than half the episodes of the original.

Anyway, it’s sent off quite nicely at the end of the third season, with one of the characters being packed off to Wales, but a year or so later the imaginatively-titled The Inbetweeners Movie came out, and does pretty much what it promises (the guy mentions idly at the beginning that Wales never happened, but doesn’t bother to explain it to us… it doesn’t really matter, though). This one sees the boys off to Crete for a holiday, so it’s got a few fish-out-of-water moments, but is basically more of the same. My main criticism with this one is that it stands in contrast to the pessimism of the TV show. Perhaps this is a movie thing where audiences have to be satisfied with a happy ending at the end of a film, or perhaps it’s because they want to send the characters off in a nicer way than the rather depressing ending of the series (although rumours are that they want to create a fourth series, which I don’t see working), but essentially (plot spoiler warning) the boys meet a lovely group of four girls, almost like the opposite-gender versions of themselves, pair off almost instantly, and after mostly false starts for most of the movie end up together at the end. Somehow. Each storyline is different, of course, and the problems that the boys encounter with the girls vary for each one of them, but I’d have much preferred it if they’d just had a good time, come back and got on with their lives. Or if they hadn’t just paired off with the first girls they meet on the island.

So that’s my main beef with that film, anyway. I couldn’t tell you if it rings true in any other area because that sort of holiday resort doesn’t appeal to me. It’s pretty much what I’d imagine a place like that to be, though. Debauchery… so becoming more like Skins. Full circle…

Film #59: Airplane! (1980)

Directed by: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
Language: English, Jive and a tiny bit of Japanese
Length: 88 minutes
Watched on: 18 June 2012

This is the second time I’ve seen this film now, although I’ve yet to see its sequel. It’s one of the first parody films of a genre that would later spawn monstrosities like “Epic Movie”, but here the writing is actually good and the actors are all brilliant. It’s one of those few films that really just has gag after gag after gag, with several recurring themes throughout, especially people who take things too literally. “Don’t call me Shirley!”, anyone?

I don’t really know what it is that the film is spoofing, to be honest. I think it’s some film from the 1960s, although I hadn’t heard of it. Evidently the plot is lifted pretty much directly from it with minimal changes, because both films were owned by the same production company.

There’s just a lot going on in this film, and it’s quite easy to watch because it doesn’t ever quite get boring (although this is partly a function of its length; any longer and it might start to get very repetitive). I kinda wish the modern examples of this genre would be nearly as good. And I wanna see the sequel.

TV: How I Met Your Mother – Season 7 (2011-12)

Created by: Carter Bays & Craig Thomas
Language: English with some Japanese, Russian, French
Length: 24 episodes of 22-23 minutes each.
Finished watching on: 10 June 2012

I just realised at the beginning of last month that the newest season had just finished airing, so I got about to watching it quite promptly. The first six seasons of How I Met Your Mother waste a lot of time with false leads to the “main” mother plot, and extra excuses for a sitcom plot to develop. This season starts and ends with a flashforward to Barney’s wedding (so we already know that his character’s going to change a bit during the season), which will maybe come at the end of the next season, I don’t know. This at least means that it’s getting closer to some kind of hint about the true identity of the mother in the show.

The rest of the season is fairly predictable fare for this show, though. The tricks that they used to insert a sitcomesque B-plot into a story ostensibly told by another person get more and more ridiculous, with many episodes involving someone telling a story, getting sidetracked, and having to be sternly told to get to the point, which they never do. This happens enough times that it gets boring and trite, but serves as a nice nod towards the increasing ridiculousness of the show’s conceit.

It has its fair share of dramatic moments, though, where you’re made to care about the characters’ plight, and I think it’s good that a comedy show inserts moments like these.

Anyway, it’s still a very addictive show, and I think I watched at least two episodes every day. I like the fact that I get all the little jokes that the series has built up over the many seasons.

I don’t like the fact that I’ll have to wait a year for the next season, though (at the moment, it’s only been about 7 months since I watched the first six seasons). I guess I’ll just have to live with that. At least I didn’t have to wait weeks between episodes…