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Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Moneyball

A statistical approach to baseball might not seem the most gripping basis for a sports movie, but this is a surprisingly compelling character portrait with hidden depths.

Adapted from Michael Lewis’ unlikely bestseller, it explores how Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) defied conventional wisdom with the help of an assistant (Jonah Hill) who convinced him of the hidden value of data.

As an ex-player, Beane had grown up in era where scouts and grizzled veterans had stifled both his own career and the true potential of players who weren’t superstars on big salaries.

In late 2001 when his star players have been traded to bigger teams (“organ donors to the rich”) he finds inspiration in Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a young economics graduate who can spot underrated baseball players the bigger teams are ignoring (his character is a composite largely based on Paul DePodesta).

What follows is a movie every bit as brilliant and radical as the system that went on to revolutionise US baseball.

Fundamentally, it is a compelling portrait of a man motivated by his past to change the present, but it also quietly subverts the traditional US sports movie by not pandering to clichés of underdogs triumphing against the odds.

Director Bennett Miller brings an unusual aesthetic to the genre by making the off-field action more dramatic than what happens on the pitch, which dovetails beautifully with Beane’s superstitious compulsion to never watch the games.

The harsh realities of running a sports team at the highest level are conveyed through his battles with coach Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), doubting scouts who naturally resent the new data driven approach and the chorus of critics amongst the media and fans.

There are personal dramas too: flashbacks of Beane’s early playing career are skilfully woven into his motivational backstory, whilst his relationship with his young daughter (Kerris Dorsey) is both touching and central to the story.

The main challenge with this approach is to make things visually interesting, but the choice of DP Wally Pfister was shrewd: his brand of subtle lighting and shooting that serves the story wisely keeps the focus on the characters and the unfolding drama.

As for the screenplay – collaboration credited to Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin – it manages to take the human drama behind a baseball franchise and make it a wider metaphor for anyone battling against personal demons or institutional arrogance.

One of the reasons the book became an unlikely bestseller and proved influential in both the sport and business world, is because by mining a very specific episode, it ultimately tapped into universal truths.

Although the film is an underdog story of sorts, it explores how people in a bad place are forced to become creative (they have nothing to lose) and how easy solutions (in this case ‘on base percentage’) to difficult problems can be so hard to see.

It also documents a time when old school sporting philosophies based on hunches gave way to statistical analysis powered by computers and spread sheets. Or more simply: when the geeks beat the jocks at their own game.

But it’s the human drama that makes Moneyball really tick: Beane is a fascinating character and the exploration of why he went against conventional wisdom lies the heart of the film, but also possibly puts another interpretation on the title.

The film puts forward the daring notion that money ruined his playing career – his motivation as general manager was partly driven by a desire to push back against a sport corrupted by cash.

Brad Pitt gives perhaps his finest performance in the lead role, not only convincing as charismatic leader of a sports team but as a more vulnerable father and someone struggling with the past.

Jonah Hill might seem an unlikely choice as Beane’s assistant, but he plays the straight man role very well and his chemistry with Pitt suggests his very casting highlights the ‘hidden value’ concept his character explains in the movie.

There are also solid turns from Philip Seymour Hoffman (showing a subtle, quiet gruffness), Chris Pratt as the first underrated player they sign and Kerris Dorsey as Beane’s daughter, whose presence is always keenly felt in the background.

Where the film really triumphs is in how it applies the low-key approach Miller used so successfully in Capote to a big studio film about a fascinating chapter in America’s most beloved sport.

The use of MLB footage and real locations grounds the film in a realistic setting far removed from the glossy visions of previous sports movies, whilst Mychael Danna’s wonderful, atmospheric score sounds like Philip Glass’ scoring an Errol Morris baseball documentary.

Like Beane’s impact on Major League Baseball the final it is both surprising and effective.

Given the tortured production history of the project, which saw a noted director (Steven Soderbergh) leave over creative differences and one A-list screenwriter (Aaron Sorkin) hired to re-write another (Steve Zaillian), it is a miracle that the film exists at all.

Part of that must lie down to the persistence of Brad Pitt (who also serves as producer) and it is tempting to read parallels into his struggle to get this made at a major studio (Sony Pictures) with Beane’s story.

To extend the analogy, Pitt is Beane (protagonist struggling against received wisdom), Bennett Miller is Brand (the unconventional catalyst), Sony Pictures is the Oakland A’s (an organisation trying to meet commercial demands) and Major League Baseball is Hollywood (large institution where passion frequently clashes with pragmatism).

In a year in which he has also delivered a powerful performance and produced Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, we can be grateful that a movie star like Pitt is using his influence to make interesting movies rather than just counting money.

This takes on a new relevance as the wonderfully staged final scenes click into place.

Perhaps the most potent aspect of Moneyball is that it grows in your mind long after you’ve seen it, which for a movie belonging to a genre prone to cliché is really quite an achievement.

Maybe it can also function as a parable for major studios to keep looking for those quietly interesting projects rather than just the loud, costly franchises.

> Official site
> Reviews of Moneyball at Metacritic and MUBi
> More about Billy Beane and Moneyball at Wikipedia

Categories
Cinema Reviews Thoughts

A Dangerous Method

David Cronenberg’s exploration of the founders of psychoanalysis is a dry but gradually absorbing film.

Adapted by Christopher Hampton from his own play, it examines the relationships between young psychiatrist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), his mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and the troubled patient Sabina Spielrein (Kiera Knightley).

Immediately opening with a jarring sequence of a troubled patient, it seems at first seems like a distant exploration of historical figures.

But as it progresses, we are actually in the realm of Cronenberg’s more overtly psychological work like Dead Ringers (1988) or Spider (2002), where the body horror he was once famous for is internalised into the mind.

The central dramatic thrust is how Jung’s relationship with Sabina created a rift with Freud.

Why is this significant?

Freud was – rightly or wrongly – one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century, using a method to examine taboo areas of sexual desires.

Jung was to an extent his prodigal son, an early supporter of his work who treated – and then had an affair with – a woman who eventually became a significant psychoanalyst herself.

In a sense this film puts psychoanalysis itself on the couch by examining the early desires, neuroses and secret impulses that helped shaped it.

The first part of the narrative deals with Jung’s treatment of Sabina during 1904 at his clinic in Zurich as he uses Freud’s theories to help cure his patient.

Two years later, a second patient as Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel) proves more troubling: he convinces Jung to unlock his own desires towards Sabina but also proves an important catalyst in his growing split with Freud (“never repress anything”).

Hampton’s screenplay manages to combine its own intellectual analysis with some sharply written dialogues between the characters.

There are bracing intellectual exchanges, which avoid feeling too forced, whilst the oncoming dread of global war hovers in the background.

The central drama is brought to life by four vivid performances who vividly transfer Hampton’s characters to the screen.

Fassbender convinces as an ambitious, intensely curious doctor whose intellectual hunger is mirrored by his desire to break away from the past.

Mortenson proves an effective foil, with a wry and controlled performance which suggests hidden depths to the older and more cautious Freud.

Knightley has the most difficult part, moving from awkward hysterics to lucid eloquence over the course of the movie, but it is a brave performance which she ultimately pulls off.

Perhaps the most interesting performance comes from Vincent Cassell, as his lack of screen time doesn’t diminish his character’s presence in the story or on the screen.

Given that this is a period film involving a lot of people talking in rooms, the temptation amongst some might be to dismiss it as some dry, analytical affair.

Cronenberg and his key technical crew have factored this into consideration and this is very handsomely staged film.

James McAteer’s excellent production design creates a believeable world; DP Peter Suschitzky shoots the action with precision and clarity; the editing by Ronald Sanders feels smoothly unfashionable in this age of chaos cinema and the green screen visual effects work (to create many of the backdrops) is mostly seamless.

Howard Shore’s typically brooding score is effective without being overpowering, but those familiar with his work might feel flashbacks.

Down the years Cronenberg has become associated with the ‘body horror’ genre, due to key films such as Shivers (1975), Scanners (1981) and The Fly (1987), his CV also reveals precise enquiries into the human mind.

A Dangerous Method applies a similar approach to the human mind and although it contains little of what the director is commonly ‘known for’ it mines dark emotional terrains.

In a 1986 documentary Cronenberg mentioned Freud when being asked about his films:

“Imagination is dangerous and if you accept – at least to some extent – the Freudian dictum that civilisation is repression, then imagination and an unrepressed creativity is dangerous to civilisation”

This not only describes Cronenberg’s method, which proved controversial with Crash (1993), but also possibly highlights his choice of material.

After all it seems natural that a master of presenting physical and mental anxiety would be drawn to the men who pioneered the diagnosis of many in the 20th century.

After his earlier work exploring the physical horror of the flesh (Rabid, Scanners, Videodrome and The Fly), his latest offers us a different form of mental dread.

Despite the period setting and beautiful backdrops of Vienna and Swiss lakes, there are elements of A Dangerous Method which feel like a chilly wind.

The conflicts in this story took place just as the neuroses of nation states were fomenting destruction on an unimaginable scale.

Little details reveal at lot: Jung and Sabina’s love of Wagner and Freud’s concern about Jewish identity are just some of ideas laced throughout the script which hint at darker problems to come.

Although it doesn’t immediately grip as a film, the slow-burn approach is partly why the ideas linger on after the ending, as we are left to reflect on how mental anxieties can lie at the root of human destruction.

A Dangerous Method opens in selected cinemas in the US from today and the UK on Friday 10th February 

> Official website
> Reviews of A Dangerous Method at MUBi and Metacritic
> Find out more about Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung at Wikipedia

Categories
Technology Thoughts

Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol at the IMAX

Yesterday I went to a 20 minute preview of the new Mission Impossible film at the BFI London IMAX.

One of the biggest releases this Christmas season, it will only be the third mainstream release to have significant portions shot natively in the IMAX film format.

It appears Paramount see this as a long running franchise in the same way that United Artists saw the Bond series in the early 1970s.

The analogy isn’t precise as we are 15 years on from the first Mission Impossible (one of the big summer blockbusters of 1996) and there had been many more Bonds from 1962 to 1977 (9 to be exact).

But it seems like a flexible enough franchise to incorporate different characters and plot lines.

But if this one is a big hit, Tom Cruise will probably return, but the studio reportedly wanted Jeremy Renner (fresh off his Oscar-nominated turn in The Hurt Locker) as he was an actor could eventually extend the franchise.

Deadline reported last year that he was hired because he:

…potentially carry the series on his own down the line, should Cruise’s Ethan Hunt character not continue to be the emphasis.

This is the first film in the series not to open in the summer, but that’s probably wise as not only do you avoid the logjam of releases but films like Avatar, and Sherlock Holmes have been huge hits during the busy Christmas period.

Its principal rival will be David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but is something of an unknown quantity – despite being based on a massive novel, will the R-rated violence be off-putting to mainstream audiences?

Then there is the choice of Brad Bird as director.

As one of the key key filmmakers at Pixar, he has been part of arguably the most creative and commercially successful movie company of the last decade.

Like his colleague Andrew Stanton, just finshing up on the big-budget John Carter, this will be his first live action film.

Certain people have expressed surprise when I’ve told them that the director The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille (all excellent) is making this.

But if you’ve seen those films or ever heard him talk about movies, this is clearly a talented and experienced pair of hands with a formidable film knowledge (listen to him talk about Dr. Zhivago at the AFI here)

The other fascinating aspect is the decision to shoot certain sequences natively in IMAX as this is only the third major studio release to do so after The Dark Knight and Transformers 3 (which featured 9 mins compared to The Dark Knight’s 28 mins).

Although plenty of films have been shot on 35mm and blown up using IMAX’s proprietary DMR system (Digital Media Remastering), not many films have used the cameras.

The main problem is that the cameras are big and bulky and the actual cost of the film stock is high.

This means at the moment only certain sequences – usually action set-pieces – are shot natively in IMAX.

But the upside is that it looks absolutely extraordinary when you see it projected with the enhanced resolution and sound on the squarer screen of an IMAX cinema.

I remember seeing The Dark Knight inside the BFI IMAX and when the opening helicopter shot of the building came on some audience members gasped at the image that filled the screen.

Some near me also reached out as if they wanted to touch the image, as the resolution was so good, it almost seemed tactile.

When the camera lurches over a window ledge, it also produced a feeling of vertigo.

David Keighley, the IMAX executive who oversaw post-production with Nolan and his team on The Dark Knight, has said that eleven of the prints screened in select cinemas – including London – were OCN’s (original color negatives) and that these were:

“the best projected versions of any film in history”

Maybe this quote deserves to be on the poster for upcoming The Dark Knight Rises?

So the appeal of IMAX is clear to see and for a major action picture it is a seductive alternative to 3D, because the image isn’t dimmed by wearing glasses.

Which brings us to the two preview scenes in Ghost Protocol.

The story sees Ethan Hunt and his IMF team disavowed after a Kremlin bombing and they have to go to Dubai to find out who is behind it.

The first sequence involved the team trying to break in to the world’s tallest building in Dubai – the Burj Khalifa.

Not only was it a treat to see an action sequence shot with amazing clarity in bright sunlight, but it had been carefully planned to make the most out of Cruise doing his own stunts.

The second was a chase sequence set during a sandstorm, which involved Ethan and a mysterious man.

During this sequence a different visual approach was adopted – with the sand making the scene intentionally darker – but it seemed this was to enhance the sound, which is often an overlooked feature of IMAX.

Not only do you really feel the crashes and bumps but the audio texture of the whole film is considerably enhanced by the speakers being behind the actual screen and around the auditorium.

Obviously you can’t judge a whole movie from a preview footage screening but from a technical point of view it was interesting to see another live action film shot and projected in IMAX.

Major studios are perhaps feeling that 3D wasn’t quite the box office saviour they expected in the heady days of early 2010 when Avatar was smashing records in the format.

But even though IMAX versions of movies will only play in selected cities, it increases the resolution for when it comes to mastering the Blu-ray, and also keeps the flame for theatrical exhibition burning.

Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol is released at cinemas on December 21st

> Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol official site
> More on IMAX at Wikipedia

Categories
Thoughts

First Films

New film formats come along every era but your first time with one usually sticks with you.

For my generation a common question to a music fan was ‘what was the first record you bought?’

But what about film experiences?

Yesterday London listings magazine Time Out asked readers on Twitter what their first DVD was and it triggered some memories not just of actual films, but the manner in which I first saw them.

In my life time I’ve seen movies projected via celluloid and digital prints at various cinemas, rented and then bought VHS tapes, DVDs, Blu-ray discs and digital downloads.

There’s a whole generation growing up now in a time where the digital quickly replacing the physical and between 2013 and 2015 it is estimated that celluloid as a projection medium will effectively die.

Remembering the first time you saw a film in a certain format not only triggers an important memory but also reminds us of what those experiences and technologies meant.

Here’s my list. (If you want to use Twitter for this use the hashtag #firstfilms and my username is @filmdetail)

FIRST CINEMA EXPERIENCE(S): The Empire Strikes Back

Given the amount of films I’ve seen in cinemas down the years, it might seem odd that I have difficulty remembering what the very first one was.

I know the cinema (The Rex in Berkhamstead), even the screen, and I’m pretty certain it was The Empire Strikes Back (which would’ve made it sometime in 1980) but being just 3 years old, I can only recall a few sequences and images.

After closing in 1988, the cinema was reborn years later and in 2006 Garth Jennings would film some scenes from Son of Rambow there.

Not long after I saw Superman II (which opened in the UK a few months before its US premiere) and the following year E.T. at the Hemel Hempstead Odeon.

I clearly remember being in the auditorium and a big deal at the times, but one that I couldn’t fully take in at the time.

My first ‘pristine’ cinema memory was Return of the Jedi (again at the Rex, Berkhamsted) and Octopussy (at the Watford Odeon) during the summer of 1983.

Never Say Never Again and Jaws 3D followed later that year.

I can also recall weird stuff that no-one ever talks about now like Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn (“It’s High Noon at the end of the universe!”) which for years I was concerned was actually a figment of my imagination, until the IMDb and Wikipedia confirmed it really did exist.

Part of the fascination of the cinema then and now is pretty simple.

The big screen and sound is overwhelming and at its very best provides a lift like no other art form in human history.

At a young age, it is almost a form of magic that images so big can exist in a large room near to where you actually live, before immersing you in stories and locations anywhere in the world (or even outside it).

What’s interesting to note if you look at the biggest releases of this era, along with the PG-rated blockbusters I was allowed to see they were also a lot of adult films which I couldn’t get in to due to the restrictive ratings system in the UK.

Home video was about to change that.

FIRST VIDEO(S): Blade Runner and The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Before the advent of home video, the only way you could watch films outside of their theatrical release was a repeat run or on television.

Sony actually developed the idea of recording video signals on to magnetic tape in the 1970s, but the major studios were vehemently opposed to it.

They felt it would kill their existing theatrical business (although ultimately home video became a huge profit source they relied upon) and sided against Sony’s Betamax format in favour of JVC’s VHS.

Plastic tapes inside the home were here to stay for the 1980s and 1990s.

Amongst the films on TV that I taped with the intensity of a projectionist responsible for a gala premiere were: Raiders of the Lost Ark (on ITV in 1985) and Escape from New York (on ITV in 1986).

Although I was young at the time (8 to be precise), the advent of the VCR was fairly mind blowing.

It not only meant you could actually record films on late at night and watch them the following day, but with rental stores opening up it was possible to see all the films you missed out on at the cinema.

As someone who regularly scanned Teletext (like an early version of the web but with 3 digit codes instead of URLs) for the latest cinema and TV listings, this was another revolution.

Although there is a generation that complained that they couldn’t work a VCR, these were people who couldn’t read the manual and didn’t think that recording films after the watershed (9pm) was incredibly exciting.

But I was that person and the first film I recorded off the TV was Every Which Way But Loose (1978) and I have to confess part of me didn’t think it would work.

Not because I doubted the instructions, but because there was something incredible about waking up, checking the VCR and watching a film in your own home.

This was what it was like to be a young film fan in the mid-1980s.

But if you wanted to see newer films (at this point the release window was 12 months) you had to go down to the video rental store as retail came later in 1989.

Sometime in 1985 I remember being given a big list of films the local renal store had which must have been around 200 titles, which was not quite Netflix or Amazon levels, but still mind-blowing for an 8 year old.

I’d like to say I picked Blade Runner as my first video rental because I somehow knew it would become an enduring classic, but the fact was it starred Harrison Ford and seemed along the lines of Star Wars.

This was seven years before the restored director’s cut surfaced in 1992 and I was too young to fully take it in, even though at that time many MTV videos were ripping off its visual aesthetic.

But it was still exciting that films were available outside the whims of broadcasters.

Amongst the rental highlights of this era were Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome in 1986 (which I saw before the first two), Beverly Hills Cop in 1987 (a full year before BBC1 removed *all* the swearing for its unintentionally hilarious network TV premiere) and Aliens in 1988 (mainly because it starred my friend’s dad).

When I later moved within walking distance of a video store, things got really serious.

New releases such as The Pick-Up Artist, Robocop, Maximum Overdrive, Predator and The Princess Bride were exciting to watch but there was also something about browsing the shelves.

The big black cases of Warner Bros movies, the CIC logo on Universal & Paramount titles and excitement of seeing if a new in-demand release had been returned was all heady stuff.

Notice how this CBS/Fox trailer for films on VHS employs a lot of the (now dated) video effects that were emerging in the 1980s:

One thing I can’t imagine going back to was the squarer aspect ratio for all those widescreen movies, even if a small minority of modern directors like Andrea Arnold and Gus Van Sant have gone back to it for effect.

Of course this notion seems comical in the current era of digital plenty, but maybe the idea that films were inherently special was partly forged in these trips where you couldn’t just rent anything as a lot of the hot titles were not available every time you went to the store.

When I switched schools in 1988 all the talk in the classroom was of the massive VHS titles of that era: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (girls and boys), Dirty Dancing (mainly girls), Lethal Weapon and Nightmare on Elm St III (which lazy people referred to as “Freddy III”).

Companies were easing back-catalogue titles into sell-through and the first retail video I owned (or had bought for me) was The Good, the Bad & the Ugly in early 1988 and it is still a special film to me for all sorts of reasons.

For a few years you couldn’t really buy a new release rental video (unless you wanted to shell out about £80) as film companies felt that retail would cannibalise the rental market for brand new titles.

When Warner Bros broke the mould by releasing Rain Man to buy and rent on the same day in November 1989, it marked the beginning of an era when videos really became ubiquitous until the start of the DVD boom.

There were even annoying anti-piracy ads back then:

FIRST DVD: Glengarry Glen Ross

Although it will probably go down as the most profitable home format in history, I wasn’t an early adopter when it came to DVD, as the cost of the players seemed too high at first.

The bestselling titles early on included Enemy of the State in the spring of 1999 and later that year The Matrix, which really gave the format a boost.

It wasn’t until December 2001 that I got my first DVD player and in retrospect I can’t believe I left it that long.

For some reason I bought Glengarry Glen Ross as my first DVD (maybe it was cheap?) which was cropped to the 4:3 aspect ratio and weirdly on the Carlton TV DVD label.

The US distributor New Line Cinema would shrewdly sell off the foreign rights to their films to UK distributors, but why Carlton (a British TV company) distributed it is still something of a mystery.

I know their former boss Michael Green was a big film fan but it seems somewhat random that they distributed various films such as The Shawshank Redemption.

Early DVDs I remember renting included Hannibal, whilst Fight Club and Memento other discs I bought and kept coming back to (especially the latter).

FIRST BLU-RAY: There Will Be Blood

People may forget that the industry upgrade to a single HD format was a mess, which wasted two very valuable years, wasted a lot of Toshiba’s money and confused a lot of consumers.

Part of the problem was convincing people to upgrade the DVD collections just a few years after they had done the same with VHS tapes.

Not only that but you needed a new TV and player to do so and if that wasn’t enough studios and manufacturers were split on to what format to go with.

Sony’s Blu-ray eventually won the battle when Toshiba finally caved in during early 2008.

It was a few months later that Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic about a deranged oil man became my first Blu-ray purchase in anticipation of actually buying a player.

I knew it would look great in HD and wanted to wait until Christmas until the prices of players came down further.

When I played it for the first time, I was slightly disappointed in the loading time of the player and disc, which was later solved by a software update.

It looked fantastic, but those initial problems would foreshadow why HD formats wouldn’t take off in the same way that DVD did.

But although I had my doubts about HD, it has rekindled my love of older films, especially the digital restorations which breathe new life into classics.

Titles such as North By Northwest, Apocalypse Now, Baraka, Pierrot Le Fou, Ben Hur and Taxi Driver are just some that look spectacular.

Ironically, the digital process – by which the negative elements are scanned, restored frame-by-frame and then mastered at high-resolution – revives the filmic look of the original and in some cases is superior to even revival prints I’ve seen in the past.

Here’s Martin Scorsese talking about the format and the history of home video:

FIRST DIGITAL DOWNLOAD: Crazy Heart

This one is a bit of cheat because I had a Blu-ray disc of Crazy Heart and (legally) transferred the digital copy on to my computer, using the code provided on the triple play edition.

In truth, I’m not a big downloader even though the internet is the inevitable delivery system of the future.

Why doesn’t it cut it for me just yet?

The picture quality on Blu-ray is superior and you also have the problem of the large file sizes chewing up your hard drive.

That said, a digital copy of a film on a device like an iPad is handy if you want to analyse a film closely, as there’s something tactile about touching and looking at it on those kind of devices.

A smartphone is still too small a screen for long form video and I tend to agree with David Lynch’s opinion about watching a whole film on an iPhone.

I still think it is relatively early days for digital downloads as the market is dominated by only a few key players Apple, Amazon and Netflix.

This means the studios who control the content are wary of surrendering control to a dominant gatekeeper in the same way the major music labels ceded power to Apple.

At the moment the main digital initiative amongst the major studios is UltraViolet, which essentially allows users to buy digital versions of films.

Practically, this means that if you buy the UltraViolet version of a film, you can – in theory – download it to an internet connected device be it a TV, tablet or whatever device you choose.

At the moment Sony Pictures, Universal, Fox, Paramount, Warner Bros. and Lionsgate are all signed up to this.

Disney and Apple, who’ve had a close relationship since 2006, have opted for their digital file service called KeyChest and one can assume it will be closely tied to iTunes or maybe even the rumoured Apple television set.

Someone who currently works for the home entertainment arm of a major studio told me recently that the major challenge they currently face is a psychological one.

This particular studio has digitized most of its film library for downloads to various devices (especially gaming consoles like X-box and the PS3) there is still a resistance.

Older consumers used to buying discs in shops are still sometimes wary of digital downloads because they can’t physically touch them and worried about passwords not working or some technical glitch stopping them from watching films they’ve bought.

Another aspect is the recession hitting younger consumers who have been been an important part of driving new formats.

Then there is the storage issue: a disc can sit on your shelf for years but what about that download you bought on an older computer?

Users of iTunes – easily the most successful digital distribution platform – will attest that transferring you MP3 libraries between different computers is something of a nightmare.

This has led to Apple introducing iCloud, which stores all your media purchases in one place, but it is still early days for that to become fully mainstream.

Despite the huge cost savings that digital distribution will provide, perhaps it will take until broadband speeds get even faster, TVs get less fiddly and the average consumer (not just early adopters) get comfortable with the idea of replacing their discs.

So, what are your first films?

> Find out more about VHS, DVD, Blu-ray and UltraViolet at Wikipedia
> From Celluloid to Digital

Categories
Documentaries Reviews Thoughts

Into the Abyss

A powerful exploration of the death penalty sees Werner Herzog probe deep into the horrors of killings in Texas.

There is a moment in Herzog’s latest film where he tells a young man that “I don’t have to like you”.

You soon realise why.

The man he’s speaking to is Michael Perry, who is on death row after being convicted, along with an accomplice, of murdering three people in October 2001.

Viewers might be conditioned to think that a film about the death penalty made by someone who opposes it (as Herzog does) might be an issue film.

After all, Errol Morris famously got an innocent man off death row with his 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line.

But we quickly realise this isn’t an issue film about the death penalty and instead a long hard look at death itself, as seen through the ripple effects of a murder.

In a similar way to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood it provides an examination of evil in the heartland of America.

Perry was convicted, along with Jason Burkett, of brutally killing three people in Conroe, Texas: a 50 year old nurse, her teenage son and his friend.

Herzog’s conversation with Perry is one of several: he also speaks to Burkett, the families of the prisoners and victims, as well as various people connected with the business of death, including a retired executioner and pastor.

Whilst it doesn’t come to any firm conclusion as to Perry’s guilt – he protests his innocence throughout – it seems likely he was guilty.

But the film is not an exploration of who did what and instead opts to probe around the question of why people kill and condone killing.

The shallow reason Perry and Burkett murdered was to steal a car for a joyride, whilst Texas as a state seems to have a pathological addiction to killing its prisoners.

Since the resumption the death penalty in 1976 (after four years when it was suspended) Texas has executed nearly four times as many inmates as its closest rival, Virginia.

But Herzog isn’t singling out the Lone Star state – the disturbing details of the murder case are constantly in the air and some of the people not directly connected with the case have an impressive moral dignity.

There is the retired executioner who forgoes his pension because he is tired with legally killing people, whilst a pastor manages to give an unexpectedly profound answer to Herzog’s curve ball question about a squirrel.

As usual the small quirks of human behaviour are picked up on although this is a much more sober film than Herzog’s recent work and at time Mark Degli Antoni’s sparse score gives it an appropriately sombre tone.

Herzog is a past master at eliciting revealing answers by asking deceptively straightforward questions.

One of the most startling dialogues here is with an articulate woman who became attracted to and pregnant by Burkett.

Quite how an inmate gets a woman pregnant from inside prison is an open question, but that is part of the rich tapestry Herzog weaves with this film, managing to touch upon the trend of death row groupies.

Always a director attracted to extremes, be it pulling a boat over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo or putting his cast under hypnosis for Heart of Glass, here the extremity of the subject matter is complemented by a notable visual restraint.

We never see him on screen and his regular DP Peter Zeitlinger opts for a restrained visual style, but this is purposely not a fly-on-the-wall film.

In fact it’s quite the opposite, as Herzog’s probing presence and restless curiosity can be felt in every frame as he engages with the people surrounding the killings and the issues such actions raise.

Just a few days after filming in July 2010, Perry himself was killed by lethal injection, which provides the film with a brutal final stop.

It doesn’t come to any definitive conclusions, but therein lies its power – after the film is over the questions raised stay with us, precisely because they have no definitive answers.

The title of this film could describe many of Herzog’s previous movies, as it perfectly describes deep themes and stark feeling of awe embedded in his best work.

It is hard not to come out profoundly shaken as the questions of how and why human beings destroy one another are presented with such piercing clarity that they linger in your mind long after the final credits.

Into the Abyss is out now in the US and opens in the UK on March 23rd

> Official site
> Reviews of the film at MUBi and Metacritic
> Interesting Guardian article on the case by Joanna Walters, who interviewed Perry just after Herzog

Categories
Technology Thoughts

From Celluloid to Digital

The digital revolution in how films are seen and made is currently spelling a slow death for celluloid.

Since the early days of photographic film in the late 19th century, moving pictures have been captured and then projected via some form of celluloid print.

The origin of the name “film” even comes from the process and has been the primary method for recording and displaying motion pictures for over a century.

But with the advent of digital technology over the last decade the days of film-based production and projection are numbered.

This also presents an an interesting paradox: what will we call films once they are no longer shot or projected on film? (Should I rename this very website?)

But whilst we ponder that, it is worth exploring why this is all happening and the differences between the old and new processes.

PROJECTION

From the early days of cinema until very recently light has shone through a piece of celluloid and the resultant moving image was then projected on to a cinema screen.

This video by the Phoenix Cinema in Finchley shows how film projection has traditionally worked:

In the last few years cinemas around the world have been gradually replacing the above method with digital projectors, which essentially replace cans of film with a large hard drive of data which is then projected via a computer system.

This video from the Electric Cinema in Birmingham shows how a local UK cinema is dealing with the transition to digital:

But why is this happening?

Think back to the first four months of 1998 when Titanic was dominating the global box office.

In cinemas around the world 35mm prints of that movie had been delivered in cans and spooled through projectors on to screens.

Although it was a box office phenomenon that played for an unusually long time, James Cameron has since revealed an interesting technical paradox about its success.

At the Cinema Con conference back in April he claimed that the only reason it didn’t play longer was because the prints physically wore out after 16 weeks.

“Titanic played so long that our prints fell apart. We actually only left theaters because our prints [had become] unwatchable. We hit the upper boundary of how long prints can run in theaters, and I can tell you how long that is – its 16 weeks. It’s a good problem to have but for the last half of that [theatrical run] they looked pretty ragged, they were all scratched up… so all that stuff is in the past and we’re really in a brave new world right now.”

The rise of digital cinema projection began in 1999 just when digital optical discs were gaining traction in the home market with the DVD format.

The first major film to be digitally projected was Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, although it was only shown on a limited number of screens in New York and Los Angeles.

Over the next decade, digital projection gradually become a reality: 2002 saw the major studios form a joint initiative to agree on technical standards and by 2007 many multiplex and arthouse screens in the UK began upgrading to digital systems.

But for wide acceptance the new system still needed a boost and in the same way that Star Wars in 1977 convinced cinemas to upgrade their sound systems, Avatar would be a game changer for visuals.

When James Cameron was making his sci-fi epic, he felt that 3D films would ride on the back of digital cinema, only to find out that its staggering commercial success actually drove the digital conversion of the remaining cinemas, as 3D movies can only be shown on digital screens.

So in the heady days of early 2010 as Avatar was overtaking Titanic as the all-time box office champ, many executives in Hollywood were convinced 3D was a magic formula, especially as it was quickly followed by the huge commercial successes of Tim Burton’s 3D version of Alice in Wonderland and Toy Story 3.

You could debate that those films were going to be hits anyway but studios and cinema owners looked at the numbers and felt they would be missing out if they didn’t have digital screens to show 3D movies, even if the quality was poor (as was the case with Clash of the Titans that Easter).

During 2009 there were 650 digital screens in the UK, but just a year later this had nearly trebled to 1400, with 1080 of them 3D enabled. This meant that 80 per cent of all cinema releases in the UK were on digital prints, compared to France where the figure was just 20 per cent.

Another driver has been hugely profitable animated films in 3D, such as the recent Pixar movies (Up, Toy Story 3) and even less acclaimed films like Ice Age 3 and Rio, which have been enormously profitable for studios.

The formula is a seductive one – they aren’t as risky or expensive to make as a big-budget live action film and they have a wide appeal to family audiences who often go more than once and buy their kids related merchandise.

This is why cinemas during school holidays increasingly resemble an animation convention.

But the post-Avatar boom in 3D titles has given way to a dip of sorts, with some questioning just how much it has boosted recent blockbusters, but whether the 3D trend continues or not, digital projection is here to stay.

But how long before film-based projection will effectively end?

It seems the end of 2013 will be a key moment.

Part of what is driving the digital revolution is raw economics and the reduced costs of shipping digital versions of movies to cinemas as opposed to cans of film.

At a movie conference in Australia earlier this year a participant said that major studios have made deals that will effectively end the wide distribution of film prints by 2013.

After that an independent cinema could still rent an old celluloid print, but the rise in costs will make it prohibitive for them, so in a few years this projection method will effectively be over.

At CinemCon earlier this year in Las Vegas, the head of NATO (North American Theater Owners) John Fithian said that almost 16,000 screens out of a total of 39,000 had been converted to digital and confirmed that the end of 2013 was effectively a cut off date.

He essentially urged members who hadn’t made the jump yet to get on board or go out of business:

“For any exhibitor who can hear my voice who hasn’t begun your digital transition, I urge you to get moving. The distribution and exhibition industries achieved history when we agreed to technical standards and a virtual print fee model to enable this transition. But the VPFs won’t last forever. Domestically, you must be installed by the end of 2012 if you want to qualify. Equally significantly, based on our assessment of the roll-out schedule and our conversations with our distribution partners, I believe that film prints could be unavailable as early as the end of 2013. Simply put, if you don’t make the decision to get on the digital train soon, you will be making the decision to get out of the business.”

Is this a sad development or the start of a new and exciting era?

There is a lot of misplaced nostalgia about a print being lovingly threaded through a projector by a dedicated projectionist and that there is something inherently special in 35 mm.

It is true that a good print in a decent cinema looks great, but if you ventured outside of the premium cinemas that critics and filmmakers view films on, there was a different story.

Back in 2007 I saw Ocean’s Thirteen projected digitally at Warner Bros in London and it looked and sounded great – colours popped and the image was stable.

When I saw an analogue equivalent a few weeks later at a multiplex in East London, the image was dim, the print was scratched and the whole experience was less than satisfactory.

During 2009 I saw major releases such as Funny People and Sherlock Holmes on opening night at a suburban multiplex and not only were the celluloid prints degraded but it was also shown in the wrong aspect ratio (i.e. the widescreen image was clipped at the sides).

Part of the reason you don’t often hear about poor projection in the media is that most audiences don’t know any better (and who would they complain to if they did?) whilst journalists writing about films tend to see them at preview screenings at decent cinemas.

Hence you hear a lot about the decline of the projectionist as opposed to how poor the image and sound quality could be for most people who weren’t able to get to a decent cinema.

But with digital projection there are issues that still need to be addressed such as the brightness levels of 3D films and the wrong projector lenses being left on for 2D films.

As with any new technology, there will be teething problems. During a press screening at last month’s London film festival at the Odeon Leicester Square (probably the most high profile cinema in the country) faulty audio issues meant that the film had to be paused (as it was digitally projected, the image held on screen just like a DVD player)

But this isn’t primarily a technical issue, but a human one – if cinemas employed the right people to make the necessary checks then issues like this wouldn’t happen.

Multiplexes should actually continue to employ projectionists to oversee what the audience sees – cutting costs here is damaging to the long term health of the cinema experience.

In an age where it is much cheaper for audiences to rent or download a wide range of high quality films in the home, this is something they should be wary of.

As for the art-house chains in the UK, such as Picturehouse and Curzon, you could argue digital has been a success: not only is there a reduced cost for distributor and cinema but a film like Senna definitely benefited.

Watching Asif Kapadia’s documentary this summer at the HMV Curzon cinema in Wimbledon was an eye-opening experience: not only were the sound and audio excellent, but it was a good example of how digital can benefit lower budget films, as well as the big tent pole releases.

Although distributed by the UK arm of a major studio (Universal) it was a specialist release at selected cinemas which needed careful planning and the reduced costs in digital distribution almost certainly helped it become the highest grossing documentary so far this year.

It is also worth noting that digital has reduced costs for documentary filmmakers, which is perhaps why we are seeing a resurgence this year with films shot in the format from such heavy hitters such as Errol Morris (Tabloid) and Werner Herzog (Into the Abyss), along with directors newer to the genre like Kapadia.

CAPTURE

The death of celluloid as a projection medium is only two years away, but arguably has a longer life as a tool to capture the action we end up seeing on screen.

But the long term future is less assured.

Last month the world’s leading film camera manufacturers – Arri, Panavision and Aaton – confirmed that they would cease production on traditional cameras and now focus entirely on digital models.

Arri’s VP for cameras Bill Russell said to Creative Cow recently:

“The demand for film cameras on a global basis has all but disappeared. There are still some markets – not in the U.S. – where film cameras are still sold, but those numbers are far fewer than they used to be. If you talk to the people in camera rentals, the amount of film camera utilization in the overall schedule is probably between 30 to 40 percent. In two or three years, it could be 85 percent digital and 15 percent film. But the date of the complete disappearance of film? No one knows.”

Although there will still be plenty of older camera bodies available for some time to come, it did seem to mark the end of an era: what would the medium of film be without film stock?

That question would seem to lie with Kodak and Fujifilm, the two main suppliers to the film industry.

But with the proliferation of consumer digital cameras in the home, 2011 is not a great time to be manufacturing celluloid – back in September the Wall Street Journal reported that Kodak’s share price had dropped to an all-time low as it hired lawyers to help restructure its business.

Ominously for fans of the older process, the large service companies that print and distribute celluloid for the major studios, principally Technicolor and Deluxe, have been hit by the rise of digital and are moving their processes in accordance with the times.

Technicolor recently shut their film labs in Hollywood and Montreal whilst Deluxe ceased processing 35mm and 16mm negatives at two UK facilities.

In preparation for a recent exhibition, artist Tacita Dean was shocked to discover that Deluxe had stopped processing 16mm film stock altogether.

Her latest work is simply called ‘Film’ and is essentially a love letter to the declining medium – a silent 35mm looped film projected onto a monolith standing 13 metres tall inside the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London.

In the Creative Cow article, Deluxe executive Gray Ainsworth basically admitted that they were preparing for a digital future:

“From the lab side, obviously film as a distribution medium is changing from the physical print world to file-based delivery and Digital Cinema. The big factories are absolutely in decline. Part of the planning for this has been significant investments and acquisitions to bolster the non-photochemical lab part of our business.”

With Technicolor also making investments in visual effects and 2D-to-3D conversion it seems that that two pillars of the old order are preparing for a future without celluloid.

However, film capture will remain for a few years to come with high profile directors like Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan staying loyal to the traditional photochemical process.

But there is no doubt that over the last decade digital has gradually found favour with filmmakers such as Michael Mann, David Fincher and James Cameron.

If you take A-list directors as a group they are at something of a crossroads, with the film side claiming that digital is still visually inferior, whilst the digital camp say that cameras have not only caught up, but will get better and that a digital work flow saves money and time.

This split was best seen in early 2010 at a panel during the Santa Barbara Film Festival in the run up to last year’s Oscars when Quentin Tarantino declared that he would rather burn his LA repertory cinema down rather than show a digital print there [beginning at 5.20].

Whilst the crowd are laughing and applauding at Quentin for his defence of 35mm film prints, fellow panellist James Cameron can be seen shaking his head slightly as if he couldn’t disagree more, given his advocacy for digital capture and projection as the future of cinema.

Only a couple of months ago he was unveiling a new 3D rig for Arri’s Alexa M camera and said:

“People are welcoming that they can finally drive a stake through the heart of film”

From Cameron’s point of view the hurdle has been two-fold: to get filmmakers conditioned to using celluloid to embrace digital cameras and 3D.

Part of the reason is that film-based processes don’t work if you are shooting natively in 3D (as opposed to post-converting) as you need to sync both stereo channels with precision, which can’t really be achieved using conventional film cameras.

Whilst the jury may be out on 3D, it seems that the last 18 months have marked a tipping point for sceptical directors and cinematographers.

Arri were instrumental in shaping the film camera throughout the twentieth century, inventing the world’s first reflex shutter camera in 1937 – the Arri 35 – and then its successor the Arri 35 II, which is amongst the most influential 35mm cameras ever built, with its portable and durable design gracing numerous features and documentaries.

The Arri Alexa could be to the digital era what the 35 II was for the age of celluloid, with world class cinematographers like Roger Deakins and Robert Richardson using it, with Deakins saying in a recent interview with the British Society of Cinematographers:

“I was surprised how quickly I became comfortable shooting with a digital camera”

Richardson shot the new Martin Scorsese film Hugo in 3D using the aforementioned Alexa M camera and films such as Melancholia, Drive and Anonymous were all shot using the camera and the quality of the images appears to have won over many digital sceptics.

Anna Foerster, the DP on Roland Emmerich’s new film Anonymous, has said of the camera:

“It was interesting because so far I have always shot on 35 mm and I kind of felt lucky that I had escaped digital for so long. I think that the moment I was confronted with digital was the moment we reached a level that is absolutely amazing and incomparable to what has come before”

The pioneering company in the digital realm were RED whose cameras were embraced by Steven Soderbergh, Doug Liman and David Fincher and with the new Hobbit films being shot on them it would appear Peter Jackson has fully signed up to the digital revolution.

Soderbergh has shot all of his recent films on the RED camera (starting with Che in 2008) and talks here about what it means for directors:

Interestingly, the biggest release of next year will buck the digital trend – The Dark Knight Rises will be shot on a combination of IMAX and 35mm film stock, which will provide resolutions higher than any current digital camera can muster.

But even Christopher Nolan has admitted that the bulk of camera research and development over the last decade has gone into digital, so he represents an exception rather than the rule.

However, Nolan and his DP Wally Pfister are stout defenders of film-based cameras for a reason – the image captured on them can look phenomenal if done correctly.

At this year’s Cine Gear Expo 2011 Rob Hummel gave a talk as to why film is still a superior capture format:

Again at the recent London film festival I saw back-to-back press screenings of Like Crazy and Pariah on the NFT screen at the BFI Southbank, which is one of the best cinema screens in the country.

There was no question that Like Crazy (shot on Canon DSLR cameras) looked inferior to Pariah (shot using 35mm on an Arri Camlite), which demonstrates that film stock still has a place as a capture medium.

Cinematographer John Bailey spoke earlier this year about why he still shoots on film and the dilemma facing movie archives if we eventually move in to an all digital world:

But what does this march towards digital capture and projection mean for the industry and the average cinema goer?

Whilst some audience members won’t immediately notice the difference, digital projection means greater stability of image and perhaps an opportunity for lower budget films to make a greater mark, as it reduces distribution costs in the long run.

For many filmmakers, it represents the dawn of a new era in which workflows and resolutions will improve as sensors, lenses and on-set data systems (such as those used on Hugo) allow greater flexibility once they have adapted to the possibilities afforded to them by newer and ever improving technology.

For celluloid though the end has already begun, as the photochemical process which sustained cinema for over a century slowly fades into an oncoming digital reality.

> More on film stock at Wikipedia
> Matt Zoeller Seitz at Salon on the death of film
> WSJ on Kodak’s problems
> DLP cinema
> Time Out on the decline of projectionists

Categories
Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Tyrannosaur

A stunning directorial debut from actor Paddy Considine features some of the best acting you’ll see all year.

It explores what happens when an angry widower (Peter Mullan) stikes up a relationship with a Christian charity worker (Olivia Colman), who is married to a stern husband (Eddie Marsan).

Expanded from Considine’s 2007 short Dog Altogether, on the surface this may seem like another British exercise in urban misery.

But this is a film that manages to rise above expectations and is one of the most impressive dramas in recent years.

A brutal opening scene sets the mood that this isn’t going to be a barrel of laughs, but it blends its darker elements with an impressive sense of place and time.

Shot on location in Leeds with a piercing but humane eye for the murkier details of urban Britain, it presents a riveting tale of violence and redemption.

Part of its raw power is down to the astonishing performances, which rank amongst the best you’ll see this year.

Mullan has his best part since My Name is Joe (1998), channeling the rage and regret of his character with an honest conviction that is extraordinary to watch.

Olivia Colman makes for a compelling foil, managing to create that rarest of things on screen – a genuinely good, selfless person.

It is an astonishing performance filled emotion and nuance that ranks amongst the best given by any actress in years.

The chemistry between them is something to behold and the development of their relationship is as convincing as it is surprising.

Marsan has less screen time but still manages to create a completely chilling character, made scarier because he is as plausible as he is malevolent.

Like The Interrupters – another outstanding film out this year – it presents violence as a disease that spreads and infects people from all walks of life.

Touching upon issues of class, it is a distressing film to watch in places but an intenseley rewarding one, building up to a climax which is richly earned.

Considine previously starred in Jim Sheridan’s In America (2002) and had supporting roles in Cinderella Man (2005) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), but this is an extraordinarily assured directorial debut.

Not only are the dynamics between the characters handled with compassion and subtlety, but he doesn’t shy away from the harshness of the violence, which is never gratuitous but deeply affecting.

The understated score by Chris Baldwin and Dan Baker, featuring heavy use of acoustic guitars, provides an effective contrast to the bouts of violence which occasionaly erupt.

Cinematographer Erik Alexander Wilson presents the action with deceptively simple lighting which feels wholly appropriate for the subject matter.

In between the darker scenes, there is an uplifting humanity to the film which is down to a combination of sharp writing and the emotion the actors bring to their roles.

In some ways it marks a progression from the tougher films of Shane Meadows, with humour and observation mixed in with the harsher realities of daily existence.

There are numerous little details which are expertly done, ranging from Mullan’s relationships with his neighbours and ill friend and a moving speech which explains the film’s title.

Although it is about violence, the film doesn’t present it irresponsibly and instead draws a believable picture of where it can come from.

A remarkable and deeply affecting portrait of people struggling to cope with their demons, it promises a great deal for Considine’s future career behind the camera.

> Tyrannosaur at the IMDb
> Official Facebook page

Categories
Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Anonymous

The very idea of Roland Emmerich making a movie about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays is enough to spark laughter, but the end result is a handsomely staged period piece.

For those not familiar with the Shakespeare authorship question, it goes a little something like this: how could a man who didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge write some of the greatest works of literature of all time?

Throw in the fact that little is known about certain aspects of his life and you have a vacuum into which a well-oiled conspiracy can grow, the principal one being that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays, which this film uses as a dramatic device.

For me, this has always been the literary equivalent of the people who think Paul McCartney died in 1967 or that the US government was somehow involved in 9/11.

But like those ideas it has an alarmingly large number of supporters, including Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud and even actors like Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance, who both have small roles in this film.

Although not an expert on the period, I have yet to see any compelling evidence that proves Shakespeare didn’t write the works attributed to him and tend to trust scholars such as Stanley Wells, Stephen Greenblatt and Jonathan Bate, who have written and spoken at length about how the man from Stratford did actually write the famous plays and poems.

Which brings us to Roland Emmerich’s new film, which arrived in UK and US cinemas this weekend amidst a predictable blizzard of stories about the ‘controversy’ surrounding this film with several critics scoffing loudly at it.

In fact Sony Pictures seemed to have staged a deeply misguided marketing campaign, baiting those upset with the premise of the film.

As of this weekend it hasn’t worked as early tracking suggests younger audiences have more problem with the ambitious jigsaw puzzle script than they do with the authorship question.

This has meant that they have scaled back the release of the film and their hopes of award season success seem limited to the technical categories.

All of this is a shame because Anonymous is a highly accomplished film, even if the phony debate surrounding it leaves a lot to be desired.

How did a project like this come about?

It goes back to the script John Orloff first wrote in the 1990s, which was originally shelved because of the success of Shakespeare in Love and later postponed in 2005 when Emmerich was going to direct it.

By this point he had earned enough money for the studio system with his apocalyptic blockbusters – Indpendence Day (1996), The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and 2012 (2009) – to attempt a pet project like this.

He’d always been an admirer of the script, which cleverly fuses Elizabethan literary and political conspiracies, whilst simultaneously reflecting very Shakespearean themes such as appearence and reality, the passage of time and the realities of power.

Opening with a modern day prologue (like Henry V) which takes the premise that Shakespeare was a fraud, it employs an ambitious flashback structure that goes between the succession crisis at the end of the Elizabethan era and the earlier events which led to the creation of plays which reflected both the politics of the time and would burn brightly for centuries to come.

Although it is hard to describe the narrative without venturing into major spoiler territory, but it revolves around Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) and the conceit that he not only wrote the plays of Shakespeare, but did so as part of an elaborate political conspiracy involving Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave), playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) and Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (Sebastian Reid).

It is vital to remember that like Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) and Shakespeare’s play Richard III, this is a version of history, which plays around with history for dramatic effect and further discussion.

Forget the provocative device that the movie has been sold on and enjoy the way in which it weaves the subjects and themes of Shakespeare into an Elizabethan conspiracy thriller.

The way in which elements of Shakespeare’s plays are woven into the material is masterful – Henry VA Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet are just some of the plays that are referenced throughout, leading up to a climax which makes you want to watch the story all over again.

For those curious about Emmerich’s involvement, he manages to use his considerable technical skills as a big budget director to help shape a stunning depiction of Elizabethan England.

The production design, costumes and visual effects work wonders in creating a believable world – probably the best ever recreation of this period – even though the events which happen in it are wildly speculative.

It is this duality which makes Anonymous interesting – a film which uses the latest filmmaking technology is also an engaging depiction of the power of words in both politics and art.

There is also some stellar acting going on, most notably Rhys Ifans in the main role. After a wildly fluctuating career, he gives a performance of great depth and power, which is as welcome as it is surprising.

In supporting roles there is the neat trick of casting the mother and daughter team of Redgrave and Joely Richardson as Elizabeth I (both are excellent) and other reliable British thespians like David Thewlis in key roles.

The major flaw in terms of the characters is (ironically) the presentation of Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) as a total dolt, which is a failed attempt to position him in the traditional fool role – although any student of the plays knows it is often the fools who provide the insight and wisdom.

As for the failed joke in the otherwise excellent script about actors and playwrights, it didn’t prevent actors like Moliere and Pinter from becoming decent writers.

However, the presentation of the plays within the film is excellent – if a little inaccurate – and is probably the most advanced recreation of the Globe Theatre on film, showing how the audience were an important part of the experience (which also mirrors the political importance of the stage at the time).

The digital visuals by cinematographer Anna J. Foerster look incredible, with the darker candlelit interiors captured with amazing depth and clarity.

Shot on Arri’s (relatively) new Alexa camera, some scenes may be used as a benchmark test for what can be achieved using modern digital cameras.

For Emmerich this may be a glorious one-off before he goes back to the blockbuster realm – so good in fact, that future audiences might think he didn’t actually direct it.

> Official site
> Reviews and links about Anonymous from MUBi
> More on the Shakespeare Authorship Question at Wikipedia

Categories
Cinema Reviews Thoughts

The Ides of March

A wonkish but highly efficient political drama provides George Clooney the chance to pay tribute to his favourite era of filmmaking.

Adapted from Beau Williams’ stage play Farragut North, the basic story is a cocktail loosely inspired by the skulduggery of recent US presidential primaries.

It focuses on a young, ambitious strategist (Ryan Gosling) who is assisting his campaign boss (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in getting an inspirational Democratic candidate (George Clooney) elected.

With the Republican field bare, the primary takes on extra significance, especially when a rival campaign manager (Paul Giamatti), a journalist (Marisa Tomei) and an intern (Evan Rachel Wood) start to pose ethical and moral dilemmas.

With a script credited to Williams, Clooney and Grant Heslov, it seems to be a deliberate attempt to apply the weary but wise tone of classic 70s cinema to recent times.

It offers up an approach that seems to draw on the best work of directors such as Alan Pakula and Sidney Lumet, with moral ambiguity, composed framing and a considered use of long takes all adding to the atmosphere.

Clooney has admitted that he delayed making this film until the brief tidal wave of hope that got Obama elected subsided and there is no doubt that this is trying to capture the dynamics of modern politics with an eye to the past.

It even appears to draw from some of the drama of the 2008 Democratic primary campaign, as well as its 2004 predecessor in which Williams worked for presidential hopeful Howard Dean.

Throughout the film is peppered with neat little political references, be it the Shepherd Fairey Obama poster, Eisenhower’s campaign slogan (‘I Like Ike‘ crosses party lines to become ‘I Like Mike’) and there is a great line about an ‘unofficial rule’ for Democratic candidates (which I wont spoil here).

It seems the writers and crew have been absorbing documentaries as D.A. Pennebaker’s The War Room, reading dishy campaign books such as Race of a Lifetime by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, whilst blending them in with current disillusionment about the US political system.

For non-political junkies, this occasionally veers into territory that some might consider arcane, with operatives discussing strategies, insider websites and how a story might be killed or resurrected (then killed again), which might leave some audience members cold.

The original title of the play refers to a Washington metro station near to where veteran campaign operatives ‘retire’ to create lucrative political consulting firms.

But Clooney has opted to widen the scope of the material: the new Shakespearean title (which both refers to Julius Caesar and Super Tuesday) and the emphasis on themes of loyalty give it a relevance beyond a particular campaign or country.

One of the most immediately pleasurable aspects of the film is the pacing of the narrative, which starts off brisk and then sucks you into the unfolding drama, courtesy of the script and Stephen Mirrione’s brisk, efficient editing.

Shooting on location in Ohio and Michigan has paid off handsomely, as the bleak wintry landscapes not only feel realistic but seem an appropriate backdrop for the actions of the central characters.

This is probably one of the most dazzling Hollywood ensembles in quite some time: Gosling is believable as the brilliant but naive protagonist; Clooney exudes the charm and ambition of a serious candidate; Seymour Hoffman and Giamatti excel as the weary but wise campaign managers and Wood and Tomei are convincing in small but key roles.

If there is a flaw with the casting, it is that actors of the quality of Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Ehle are limited to very minor roles.

Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael skilfully channels the desaturated look of 70s dramas like Three Days of the Condor, The Conversation and to create a strong visual palette for the movie.

One particular influence appears to be Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate, which starred Robert Redford as a hopeful Democratic candidate: it would make an interesting double bill with this film.

As an actor-director making serious movies inside the Hollywood system, Clooney is in some ways a modern day Redford and both films present fascinating depictions of ends justifying the means, both in politics and art.

Another film that offers an interesting comparison with this is Michael Clayton, a 2007 corporate thriller which itself was heavily indebted to Pakula’s conspiracy trilogy of the 1970s, only in The Ides of March it is Clooney in the Sydney Pollack (or maybe Tom Wilkinson?) role and Gosling in the Clooney part.

This isn’t quite on the same level as Tony Gilroy’s film, let alone its 70s forebears,  but it nonetheless offers us a darker-than-usual depiction of power, politics and the reality of grasping the White House from your ideological enemies .

The score by Alexander Desplat is suitably brooding and atmospheric, without ever overpowering the action on screen and combined with some clever sound editing, makes for some highly effective moments.

If The West Wing represented a fantasy of what the Clinton presidency could have been (and oddly predicted the Obama candidacy), The Ides of March perhaps represents a more realistic depiction of where American politics is at on the eve of the 2012 presidential election.

After Obama’s historic win of 2008, the country is more bitterly divided than ever: tea party lunacy fuelled by internet nonsense jostles with Wall Street occupiers feeling betrayed by the faith their Baby Boomer parents put in the governments of the last 30 years.

With both political parties and the current system seemingly paralysed by an inability to reform the financial system, a drama like this feels weirdly appropriate for the current times in which we live.

By showing the compromises and skulduggery on the campaign trail, it mirrors the bleak reality of politicians once they are in actually in power and the crushed dreams of the present era.

> Official site
> Reviews from Venice and Toronto at MUBi and Metacritic
> More on the play Farragut North at Wikipedia (Spoilers)

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Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Reviews Thoughts

LFF 2011: We Need to Talk About Kevin

Director Lynne Ramsay’s return to films after nine years is a dazzling and disturbing adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel.

Cleverly adapting the epistolary form of the book with a flashback structure, Ramsay and co-writer Rory Kinnear have crafted a bold and unsettling drama that borders on horror.

It depicts the fears and anxieties of a middle class American mother, Eva (Tilda Swinton) as we see her disturbing relationship with her son over a number of years.

There is the doubtful pregnancy, where she seemingly regrets the loss of independence motherhood brings, and the different stages of Kevin.

We see the young toddler (Rocky Duer), the creepy 6-8 year old (Jasper Newell), the malevolent teenager (Ezra Miller) and the period after where Eva must shape a new life for herself.

Along the way, we see how events affect her husband (John C. Reilly) and younger daughter (Ashley Gerasimovich) as things spiral out of control.

It isn’t an exaggeration to describe this as a kind of horror movie, as it not only channels classics of the genre such as Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Omen (1976) but homes in with laser-like precision on the darkest fears of motherhood.

It’s effectiveness is such that I would warn expectant mothers to realise that this may do for parenthood what Psycho (1960) did for showering in remote hotels or Jaws (1975) did for swimming on a beach.

Nonetheless, this only speaks to the skill with which the book has been visualised for the big screen and the core themes and questions are all still here.

How much do the formative early years of childhood shape a character? Is it possible for evil to be an innate characteristic? Do ambivalent mothers somehow transmit their feelings to their offspring? Do parents and children pick sides in a family?

It is to Ramsay’s great credit that she has dealt with these uncomfortable concepts with such verve, whilst preserving the ambiguous, tantalising details which continually make us question characters and their actions.

The film looks stunning with the director and her cinematographer Seamus McGarvey opting for carefully composed widescreen images, which not only isolate Swinton’s protagonist but accentuate the little details which make up the visual fabric of the film.

Opting to use the colour red at every conceivable opportunity, the film seems to be referencing a similar visual motif from Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1971), an idea made more intriguing when you realise Luc Roeg (Nic’s son) is one of the producers.

We Need to Talk About Kevin plays like a weird contemporary reversal of that film: instead of the death of a child bringing tragedy upon a family, it is the birth of one that causes all the problems.

The intricate look is augmented by a rich audio design by Paul Davies, which brilliantly accentuates key sounds such as Kevin’s collicky screams against a builder’s drill or the grotesque eating of food to create a memorable ‘second layer’ to the film.

There is also the editing by Joe Bini (a veteran of Werner Herzog’s documentaries) which delineates between the different periods with consummate grace and also provides the film with a narrative drive as it circles around a key, revelatory event.

Jonny Greenwood’s atmospheric score isn’t quite up to the level of his work on There Will Be Blood (2007) but it does give the film a discordant quality, which syncs nicely with the rest of the film.

Despite the excellence of its construction, the film is dependant on a key lead performance from Tilda Swinton who more than delivers as Eva, reflecting the doubts, fears and weary disappointment of a woman caught in a living nightmare.

It is a very tricky character to play, by turns sympathetic and cold, but she delivers some of the best acting of her career here, which given her past roles is really saying something.

The supporting cast suffer a little from Swinton’s domination of the screen: John C Reilly feels a little miscast and Ezra Miller at times overdoes the demonic act to the point where some scenes feel like he’s auditioning for Damien: Omen II.

If there is a problem with the film, it may be that it is too effective for its own good.

Due to the collapse in the upscale indie market since 2008, Ramsay and the producers had to rework the script and budget in order to get the final financing in place.

I’m glad they did because this is a film that will stand the test of time, but as for its commercial prospects one can only wonder what the core audience for this film will think.

It could be that they appreciate the skill with which Shriver’s book has been adapted but also appalled at the way it burrows into their deepest fears and then explodes like an emotional dirty bomb.

I’ve already heard a couple of reactions to this film where members of the audience seemed viscerally angry with the way it dealt with a topic in a way which is probably still taboo.

Perhaps for some it will be too much and in the current recessionary climate its box office probably won’t be reflective of the sheer quality on display.

But over time I suspect it will be gain a certain status as a daring film and in the privacy of their own home many parents will sneakily watch it in the same way they used to sneakily observe horrors their parents banned them from seeing.

This is a unconventional family movie played as a tangible waking nightmare: there are Kevin’s out there and sometimes they happen to the best of parents.

> Facebook page
> Reviews of We Need to Talk About Kevin at MUBi

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DVD & Blu-ray Reviews Thoughts

Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer

The controversial 1986 drama gets a welcome re-release on Blu-ray with added extras and a solid transfer.

It is highly unusual that films get released to acclaim four years after they were made, but John McNaughton‘s feature debut is an interesting example of a film that eventually found its audience after initial problems with ratings boards in the US and the UK.

In the early 1980s McNaughton worked for Chicago production company MPI ran by Malik and Waleed B. Ali and directed two relatively successful documentaries, which both used public domain footage.

When they offered him just over $100,000 to make a horror film with a ‘plenty of blood’ the director hatched an ingenious idea – instead of making a horror with expensive creatures or make-up he decided to make a low-budget, but ultra-realistic film about a serial killer.

Opting to shoot guerilla-style in real life locations in the Windy City and based on a real life murderer Henry Lee Lucas, the end result was one of the most resourceful productions of its era and even today makes for disturbing viewing.

Depicting the wanderings of Henry (Michael Rooker) and his room-mate Otis (Tom Towles), the story follows them as they murder people at random and film them on videotape, as well as their relationship with Becky (Tracy Arnold) who happens to be Otis’ sister.

This might sound like kind of low-rent slasher film, but the clinical, detached way the murders are depicted make it a genuinely unnerving experience, unlike any film of its era.

Part of the strength of the film is how it subverts the conventions of movie killings: often in mainstream cinema we are invited to cheer the hero in a morality tale as he dispatches evil villains and faceless henchman whilst not worrying too much about the piles of corpses that litter the screen.

This often applies to many genres: western, war film or crime drama.

But what about a film that places us firmly inside the very world of a serial killer, focusing relentlessly on a man who murders innocent people?

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is just that film.

The genre is still blurry – Wikipedia calls it a ‘crime-horror‘, whilst around the release McNaughton described it simply as a ‘character study’.

Whatever the label, he shrewdly made a virtue of shooting on the streets and shady areas of Chicago, lending the film an added authenticity, whilst the use of video footage – Henry films and re-watches his murders – gives it an unsettling voyeuristic feel.

In some ways, the film was a hybrid of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, both haunting portraits of isolated loners in a hostile, urban environment.

Although Michael Rooker has gone on to have a decent career – mostly in supporting roles – he has never really bettered his methodical and relentless performance as Henry.

He cuts a much scarier figure than a later movie serial killer like Hannibal Lecter, who in the shape of Anthony Hopkins eventually became a kind of stylised anti-hero.

The connection with Thomas Harris’ creation is an interesting one because his 1981 novel Red Dragon was adapted by director Michael Mann into the film Manhunter at around the same time as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

By the mid-1980s the notion of the serial killer was forming in the American psyche and Harris’ novel was influential on the films, which – coincidentally – both shot in 1985.

Whilst the two directors opted for different stylistic approaches, they share a certain realism in how they depict a serial killer and helped lay the groundwork for the pop culture interest in them in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Both took an interesting approach to the genuine horror of serial murder – by taking two killers and stripping them of any supernatural trappings and placing them in the real world make them more believably creepy.

(Note how urban settings are favoured over remote rural backwaters such as Friday the 13th or Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies)

There are strange parallels between the two films: Mann’s adaptation was a stylish cop thriller which depicted a haunted FBI agent chasing a serial killer who works in a photo processing lab, whilst McNaughton’s is about the reality of the serial killers who film their exploits on videotape.

The killers also have intriguing similarities: Dollarhyde (played by Tom Noonan) and Henry have an attraction to a kind woman; film their victims; and seem to represent a darker side of Regan’s America.

Whilst Mann’s film was a commercial disappointment that became influential and rediscovered over time, McNaughton’s had its own lengthy battles with various ratings boards as it struggled to get a release both at the cinema and on home video.

In fact the release struggle of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is one of the most interesting case studies in film censorship of the last thirty years.

After screening at the Chicago Film Festival in 1986, distributors were interested in buying it but were put off by the X rating that the MPAA gave it, which essentially means commercial death as advertisers and cinema chains would refuse to touch it.

According to McNaughton, they were deeply troubled by the ‘general tone’, as well as certain scenes.

It wasn’t until Errol Morris caught a specially arranged midnight screening in New York that the film’s fortunes began to change, as he invited it to the 1989 Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, where the documentarian was serving as guest director.

People in the industry saw it and its battles with the MPAA – who still refused to change the X rating to an R – now added to the buzz surrounding the film, with the producer boasting that the film was “too disturbing”.

It what was a pioneering independent release strategy, the production company MPI opted to show the film unrated at cinemas around the US, taking the print around the country on a city-by-city basis.

The film was and remains disturbing, precisely because it rejects conventional movie violence: people are killed in a variety of ways but interestingly the censors often had a problem with the corpses we see after they have been killed off-screen.

This was the case with the British censors the BBFC, who had multiple issues with the film.

Whilst they seemed to acknowledge the film was not just a gratuitous of seeing a dark but thoughtful film they baulked at some scenes – especially one scene set inside a domestic home – before it was allowed a cinema release in April 1991.

For the home video release other cuts were made, with BBFC director James Ferman particularly objecting to one scene involving the watching of a murder on television, which was ironic as it destroyed the serious point it was making.

In the last decade the film has still had issues on its UK release in various home formats until 2003 when Optimum Releasing (now StudioCanal) finally secured a fully uncut version for classification for home video release.

The late 1990s had seen a more open minded attitude at the BBFC with ‘problem films’ such as The Exorcist being cleared for release in the home but the struggle to get Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer release perhaps hints at the genuine power of the film as well as the outdated thinking of our censors.

In particular, the most notorious sequence plays around with the very notion of watching a murder, as the audience observe killers reliving their deeds via a television set.

Dreadfully unsettling it may be – especially when watched in a home – but it is part of the overall construct of the film.

In fact, you could argue that it is the very essence of the film.

It is doubly ironic that censors treated the film as though it actually was the blood-drenched slasher the producers originally envisioned – not only did the repeated cuts help boost its profile, but McNaughton’s laudable artistic aims helped the film find favour with critics and discerning audiences.

Originally shot on 16mm, the transfer is surprisingly good, which is perhaps a testament to the durability of the format and the care with which the original film was shot.

Filmed in and around Chicago, often without official permission, the film has a suitably raw and grimy vibe which probably wouldn’t have been achieved if they had opted for a more ‘professional’ approach.

Eagle-eyed viewers might note that a key sequence is filmed in the same road – Wacker Drive – that Christopher Nolan would memorably use in The Dark Knight over twenty years later.

The extras on the disc feature some which were on the 2003 Optimum disc, but are boosted by a lengthy making of documentary and the 20/20 programme that originally gave McNaughton the idea for the film.

EXTRAS

  • Portrait: The Making of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer: Very comprehensive making-of-documentary which explores the history of the production.
  • The Serial Killers: Henry Lee Lucas: TV documentary about the real life inspiration for Henry.
  • Interview with Director John McNaughton: Lengthy interview with McNaughton about his career and the creation of the film.
  • John McNaughton in conversation with Nigel Floyd: Another lengthy interview, with greater focus on the censorship problems the film faced, especially in the UK with the BBFC.
  • Censorship History: Interactive timeline of the films troubled history with ratings boards.
  • Deleted Scenes and Outtakes with commentary by John McNaughton: Nigel Floyd and McNaughton discuss the scenes which caused particular problems with censors.
  • Stills Gallery
  • Original storyboards
  • Trailer
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is released on Blu-ray by StudioCanal on October 24th
> Buy Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer on Blu-ray/DVD from Amazon UK
> Find out more about Henry Lee Lucas at Wikipedia
Categories
Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Reviews Thoughts

LFF 2011: The Artist

An ingenious love letter to the silent era of Hollywood is executed with an almost effortless brilliance.

One of the surprise hits on the festival circuit this year has been a black and white French film shot in Los Angeles with two relative unknown actors in the lead roles.

You might think that this was some kind of strange experiment designed exclusively for cinephiles, but is actually one of the most charming and audience-friendly films to be released this year.

Opening in 1927, the story charts the fortunes of a silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardjin) and a rising young actress (Berenice Bojo) as the introduction of sound into cinema threatens to disrupt the established order.

As an box office star Valentin is dismissive of the new audio technology despite warnings from the key people (and animals) in his life: a cigar-chomping studio mogul (John Goodman), frustrated wife (Penelope Ann Miller), driver (James Cromwell) and a loyal dog (Uggie).

The key trick which director Michel Hazanavicius brilliantly pulls off is that the film itself is a silent movie (with some crucial exceptions) that manages to simultaneously pay homage to and have fun with a now distant era of the medium.

Not only has he clearly done his research on the period, using modern technology to recreate older techniques, but he brings in a sense of fun that could make this an unlikely cross over hit with open-minded audiences.

Cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman, production designer Laurence Bennett and costume designer Mark Bridges all combine to impressively recreate the 1920s, even if they slightly hold back on certain elements for effect.

Shot in the Academy ratio of 1:33, the use of music and inter-titles give it an authentic feel, but Hazanavicius has a lot of fun with this world, sprinkling sequences with a sophisticated but heartfelt humour.

There’s also lots of lovely touches such as spinning newspapers, exaggerated facial expressions and even a dog who seems to have a natural gift for comedy.

The lead performances are outstanding: Dujardin is every inch the silent matinee idol (heavily modelled on Douglas Fairbanks), whilst Bejos makes a charming foil.

Without using their voices – one of the essential tools of modern acting – their physical expression through their bodies and faces works beautifully and blends seamlessly with the intricately crafted world of the film and – even better – the films within the film.

In supporting roles, Goodman and Cromwell especially stand out, although special mention must go to Uggie (trained on set by Sarah Clifford and his owner Omar Muller), who is the most memorable screen dog since Flike in Umberto D. (he even won this year’s Palme Dog award).

There is so much intelligence and charm packed into The Artist that I’m reluctant to reveal too much, but I will say that sequences involving a movie premiere, a nightmare and a house fire provide more satisfaction and humour than most contemporary comedies do in their whole running time.

It doesn’t just riff on the silent era but also appears to have many references to classical Hollywood movies: Citizen Kane, A Star is Born and Vertigo are just some of the many movie easter eggs that discerning audience members will delight in spotting.

There is also the ingenious conceit that lies at the heart of the project: the film both is a recreation and pastiche of a silent-era melodrama, with much of the film mirroring both the classical style of the period and the actual film-within-a-film scenes.

If all this sounds a bit too clever for its own good, don’t be alarmed – it blends this sophistication with a suprisingly light touch and injects plenty of inventive physical humour into almost every sequence.

Hazanavicius is best known for his spy pastiches OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies and OSS 117: Lost in Rio but this film marks a new chapter for him as a director, even though he is using familiar elements (Dujardin and Bejo both worked in his previous films).

Whilst it shares the cunning craftsmanship and wry humour of his previous work there is something more audacious here in venturing to Hollywood in order to remind it of the wonder of cinema, which France invented and America exported around the world.

A contemporary French production baked in its love of older American movies, it is an unusual beast: sophisticated but accessible; nostalgic yet contemporary – the end result is almost a filmic representation of those two cultures shared passion for the movies.

There are many fascinating parallels with the present day: as Hollywood undergoes a painful but necessary transition to digital technology, roughly equivalent to the advent of sound, the film may have an unexpected resonance with contemporary filmmakers and audiences.

The fact that the economic difficulties of the Great Depression closely mirror those of the current climate will only add to its lustre, following in footsteps of silent icons like Chaplin and Keaton.

A late addition to this year’s lineup at Cannes, I can now see why Parisian sales company Wild Bunch and The Weinstein Company (who acquired distribution rights for several territories back in May) were so bullish about this film: on paper it sounds eccentric, but in front of an audience it works like magic.

Although it lost out on the Palme d’Or, Harvey Weinstein must surely be rubbing his hands with glee.

Not only does this film resemble last year’s unexpected hit The King’s Speech (a well crafted, feel-good period film) but it is also the kind of foreign language title he excelled in marketing to Oscar voters back in the 1990s heyday of Miramax (Il Postino and Life is Beautiful are just two titles which spring to mind).

Veteran Academy members and actors (the largest voting branch) will find much to feast on.

Not only is it an inventive, loving tribute to their industry and town, but it also deals with the fears and hopes of performers in the same way that an Oscar favourite like All About Eve managed to do (although that used Broadway as a substitute for Hollywood).

The main challenge will be getting audiences outside of the art-house realm to see it, but the word of mouth on this could potentially spread like wildfire once people experience the film’s heady charms for themselves.

Not only does the genuinely uplifting mood and sparkling invention make it attractive to audiences in depressing times, but the silent movie aspect means it could potentially translate across several continents and cultures.

A glorious and highly inventive tribute to cinema, its playful cleverness and uplifting tone often hide the considerable invention it took to craft what is easily one of the best films of 2011.

The Artist screens at the London Film Festival tonight (Tues 18th) and Saturday (22nd) before opening in the US on November 23rd. The UK release date is TBC

> Official site
> Collected reviews of The Artist at MUBi
> Find out more about the silent era of Hollywood at Wikipedia

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Cinema Reviews Thoughts

The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn

Steven Spielberg’s long cherished dream of bringing Herge’s famous character to the screen utilises cutting edge visual effects to create a delightful adaptation.

Although as his first animated film it marks new technical territory for the director, the globe-trotting nature of the narrative closely resembles his Indiana Jones movies and he weaves something fresh and exciting out of a much loved character.

The story blends elements of the first three Tintin books – The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure – and centres around an intrepid reporter (Jamie Bell) and his loyal dog Snowy as they come across a valuable model boat.

They soon discover that various other people are interested in it and their investigation sees them come across various characters, including: enigmatic Sakharine (Daniel Craig), drink-soaked Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) and twin Interpol agents Thomson and Thompson (Nick Frost and Simon Pegg).

Using a similar 3D motion capture process that James Cameron pioneered on Avatar, Spielberg shot the actors on a stage with a virtual camera and then producer Peter Jackson’s visual effects company Weta Digital essentially animated over the performances and created the world in which they inhabit.

It should be noted that Jackson was closely involved in the project – he is even credited as 2nd unit director – and will probably co-direct a sequel, if this one meets commercial expectations.

The end result is visually stunning, a rich and immersive depiction of Herge’s world filled with impressive detail and colour.

Spielberg especially seems energised by the new process, exploring visual angles and movements that wouldn’t be possible in a conventional live action film.

Various action sequences utilise the virtual locations extremely well and the filmmakers really squeeze the excitement out of different spaces, be they streets, ships or deserts.

Nowhere is this more apparent in the character of Snowy – an integral part of Tintin’s world – who simply wouldn’t have been possible in a live action process (unless they found a ridiculously talented dog).

The motion-capture process also gives the main characters bodies a greater sense of weight and their movement a greater believability, although it is still early days in the technology when it comes to the detail of the face.

A slight sense of weirdness comes when there are facial close ups, as they are so rich in detail that they venture into uncanny valley territory, but overall this isn’t too much of a problem as the look has been carefully designed on pre-existing source material and isn’t meant to duplicate real people.

It perhaps isn’t a surprise that the stand-out performance comes from Serkis, now the most experienced motion-capture actor in the world after his pioneering work in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong and Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Not only is his character engaging and hilarious, his performance is the most complete hybrid of voice and movement in the cast, setting a new benchmark in this new technical zone of acting.

That said the other main performances – especially Bell – help bring their characters to life and unlike recent Robert Zemeckis films that have used motion capture (such as A Christmas Carol) they feel more complete and polished.

The recreation of light, be it from lamps on a ship or direct sunlight, is remarkable and matched by the tricky business of water (which is similarly impressive) giving scenes which combine them a real wow factor.

Mainstream audiences are likely to be dazzled by the overall look and some of the visual transitions, which explain potentially tricky plot elements, are done with such finesse and joy they suggest Spielberg was thoroughly enamoured with his new digital tool kit.

Is it too much of a stretch to suggest his love of shooting on celluloid and editing on a Steenbeck could be waning in the face of the possibilities afforded by digital? (Michael Kahn has confirmed that they edited the upcoming War Horse on an Avid)

Spielberg has always stated that he’s going to shoot on film stock for live action movies, but the screening of this in very week that Panavision and ARRI announced they would stop making traditional film cameras in favour of digital models seems like some kind of portent.

But whatever the future holds, this is probably Spielberg’s most purely enjoyable film since Minority Report as he handles the action and characters with effervescent aplomb, each sequence snapping easily into another.

Much of the solid foundation of the film lies in the witty, respectful script by British writers Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, who have wisely focused on getting the fundamental characters right and letting everything flow from there.

Fans of the books and a whole new audience will find much to enjoy in Snowy’s persistence, Tintin’s fearlessness and Haddock’s drunken wisdom, whilst enjoying the mix of playful humour and genuine excitement.

The eagle eyed will notice the loving references to Herge’s world and what seemed to me like Easter egg references to each of the first three Indiana Jones movies – I won’t spoil what they were, but keep an eye out for a van, a plane and a motorbike side-car.

In some ways, there are parallels to Raiders of the Lost Ark as that was an adventure film heavily influenced by existing source material (the serials of the 1930s and 40s) and Secret of the Unicorn sees Spielberg flex similar creative muscles, with its mix of fast-paced action, humour and globe-trotting adventure.

Perhaps the best credit you can give the filmmakers is that it seemed like they had a blast making it and that infectious enthusiasm – a classic trait in Spielberg’s best work – transmits to the end result.

As for the 3D, the filmmakers and distributor seem to have taken into consideration the problem of brightness levels, which has bedevilled recent releases such as Captain America: The First Avenger and the final Harry Potter movie.

Although the colours are distinctive to begin with, the brightness level on the cinema screen I saw (the Odeon Leicester Square in London) was amongst the best I’ve seen in a 3D screening and Spielberg also makes intelligent use of the sense of space that the medium offers.

As for the director’s usual collaborators, Michael Kahn’s editing helps give the film an energy and smooth sense of movement, whilst the score from John Williams – whilst not one of his most immediately melodic – forms a similar function and never overpowers the visuals.

Given the nature of the production, which involves digital rather than traditional photochemical cinematography, regular DP Janusz Kaminski has performed a different role as a ‘visual consultant’ but seems to have played a role in the realisation of Herge’s drawings and the virtual lighting and camera moves.

Unusually for a major release, this will be released in Europe almost two months before America, presumably to build buzz and anticipation in the continent where the characters are most familiar.

There was a lot that was unconventional about this project, as two major directors have teamed up for a franchise that is being released by a pair of major studios, with Paramount distributing in Europe and Sony in America.

It is ironic that the latest digital filmmaking technology has been utilised to bring such a traditional character to the big screen, but it says a lot that Spielberg and his team of collaborators have kept faith with the core characters and look of the source material.

The end result has a beautiful charm and simplicity to it which should appeal to a wide spectrum of audiences around the world, possibly paving the way for an enduring franchise.

The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn opens in the UK on October 26th and in the US on December 19th

> Official Tintin site, Facebook and Twitter
> Find out more about the Tintin books at Wikipedia

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DVD & Blu-ray Reviews Thoughts

DVD & Blu-ray: Quatermass and the Pit

The third and most interesting film in the famous British sci-fi franchise gets a worthy transfer to DVD & Blu-ray, along with some solid extras.

Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass TV series subsequently led to a follow-up film series: The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), Quatermass 2 (1957) and a decade later Quatermass and the Pit (1967), which was called Five Million Years to Earth in the USA.

Although better known for their horror films during this time, the character of Quatermass was something of a money spinner for Hammer at this point and proved very popular with audiences, who were both scared and fascinated by the possibilities of science.

This film begins with the discovery of a mysterious alien ship beneath London and the subsequent investigation which sees Professor Quatermass (Andrew Keir) called in by the British army to offer an explanation as to what it is about.

Director Roy Ward Baker was probably best known at this point for directing A Night To Remember (1958) – the ‘other’ film about the Titanic – and during the 1960s was also directing TV shows such as The Avengers, The Saint, The Persuaders! and The Champions.

He keeps things tight here and despite a couple of dated visual effects, the film is surprisingly ambitious in its ideas: unlike the little green men of 1950s US sci-fi, we are presented with the radical concept that man might have evolved from alien creatures and that we could be psychically connected with them.

Coming after a decade when alien invasion movies were essentially Eisenhower-era metaphors for communism, this was pretty radical stuff.

Quatermass is often seen as a weary Oppenheimer figure in opposition to the complacent military and its worth remembering that it was made and released at the height of the Vietnam War and a time of great social change.

Often genre films are ignored for their political subtext, but it is precisely because of this that they can be trojan horses for more serious themes – the Quatermass franchise reflects the fear and promise of science and this one is especially interesting as it seems to reflect an uncertainty and mystery.

As with a lot of the better sci-fi material in the 1960s (Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K Dick) it relied on the strength of its own ideas rather than epic scale and there is something quietly radical about a mainstream films questioning the historical origins of man.

Although sci-fi movies would take a quantum leap the following year with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Quatermass and the Pitt marked out its own little corner of the genre and, like Kubrick’s film, was also shot at MGM British Studios in Elstree.

Even though it stays in roughly the same location, Arthur Grant’s visuals and Kenneth Ryan’s art direction give it a more detailed look than one might expect and the Nigel Kneale screenplay skilfully juggles ideas with tension.

Keep an eye out too for Julian Glover as an army officer and compare his fate with the Nazi deaths at the climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981); then ponder his casting in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) as he also features here.

Was Spielberg a fan of this film, or was it just coincidence?

While some visual effects are not up to scratch – some alien bodies look like cardboard terrapins dipped in green paint – the difficulties of doing optical effects back then was a major handicap.

Despite this there is enough of here to interest fans of the film and genre, whilst Optimum have done a sterling job with the Blu-ray transfer, releasing this as a double play edition.

SPECIAL FEATURES

  • New UK exclusive interviews with Julian Glover, Mark Gatiss, Judith Kerr, Kim Newman, Joe Dante and Marcus Hearne
  • Audio commentary with Nigel Kneale and Roy Ward Baker
  • World of Hammer – Sci-Fi Episode
  • UK and US trailers

> Buy the DVD & Blu-ray Dual edition from Amazon UK
> More about the Quatermass character at Wikipedia

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Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Melancholia

Despite a Cannes premiere overshadowed by controversy, director Lars Von Trier has returned with arguably his finest film.

It explores the relationship between two sisters at a large country house: Justine (Kirsten Dunst), recently married to Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who along with her husband (Kiefer Sutherland), has organised the wedding and reception.

Split into two parts, the first involves an extravagant wedding reception, filled with misery; whilst the second focuses on the two sisters as they stay in the same location, as a large blue planet called Melancholia threatens to collide with the earth.

Opening with a stunning slow-motion overture, set to Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan and Isolde, it blends intimate drama with grand, apocalyptic disaster and the end result is a stylish and – unusually for Von Trier – heartfelt film.

In the past the director’s sneaky, contrarian could be both a blessing and a curse, making his films boldly inventive, exasperating, or sometimes both.

His last film Antichrist (2009) displayed some of his undoubted gifts as a director before collapsing into a ludicrous orgy of violence and hysteria, which scandalised the audiences at its world premiere in Cannes.

After the climactic scene of the film – which was one of those genuine ‘is Von-Trier-taking-the-piss?’ endings – a bizarre dedication appeared to Andrei Tarkovsky.

Why? I’m not exactly sure, other than the Danish director seems like a big fan.

But strangely, it is his latest that bears the touch of the great Russian director.

Here he seems to be channelling two very different films: Solaris (1972), with its exploration of a ‘living’ planet affecting human emotions, and The Celebration (1998), Thomas Vinterberg’s hellish depiction of a family gathering, which still stands as the highpoint of the Dogme movement Von Trier helped create.

But Melancholia has its own unique charms and manages to capture the Dane at his very best – he never takes the material too seriously, but also isn’t afraid to indulge in big, bold strokes.

The wedding section is filmed with his puckish sense of humour that often drives his detractors crazy: not only do the happy couple struggle to even reach the party in their limousine, but when they get there, discover that no-one is really happy anyway.

Opting for a handheld shooting style, after the slow-motion imagery at the beginning, the director has a lot of fun with the tacky misery of the event: the meaningless counting of beans, unhappy relationships and fruitless driving around in golf carts create a tangible atmosphere.

Rarely has despair been so joyously captured on screen.

But there is something more here than Von Trier just having a cheap dig at the shallow pretensions of the rich: he is making a wider point about human emotions, our capacity for self-delusion and the wisdom of despair. Speaking of emotions, according to Cine Vue some films are able to make us smell scents and feel other sensations apart from the audio-visual experience.

If we are going to die and life is meaningless anyway, surely it is the natural condition?

As the second half of the film progresses, Christine appears to grow stronger as her misery gives way to a higher wisdom about her situation and that of the planet.

This could have been what he was aiming for in Antichrist, in which nature was a chaotic force that ‘reigned’ over the humans.

But here he seems a little more focused as wider cosmic forces in the shape of a rogue planet come to affect the central characters – but instead of shrill hysteria and genital mutilation we get a richer reflection on life and existence.

Both films could be seen as a therapy double-bill for the director – who has talked about his battles with depression over the last few years – but with Melancholia he seems to be taking his foot off the accelerator and his work feels all the better for it.

Coming across as a darker, more subversive version of Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married (2008), it is a perfectly pitched antidote to the traditional ‘movie wedding’ (frequently a virus-like staple of US romantic comedies) and sprinkled with a pleasingly arch mood.

This is matched by some great locations and production design: the use of Tjolöholm Castle in Sweden is inspired, providing a visually interesting backdrop, with its immaculately tendered golf course, claustrophobic interiors and frequently stunning exteriors, which revolve around atmospheric night scenes of the ever encroaching blue planet.

Dunst gives a career-best performance, convincingly showing her character’s descent into depression and subsequent stoic acceptance of impending global doom, whilst Gainsbourg is equally strong as a more naïvely empathetic character.

Their chemistry as sisters is physically unlikely, but emotionally believable and as the film progresses they provide some of the best acting in a Von Trier film since Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves (1995).

Although he often gets criticised for torturing his female characters, he frequently manages to draw emotionally brave performances from them, unlike many directors working in the mainstream.

In the supporting cast, John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling have small but juicy roles as bickering parents whilst Kiefer Sutherland brings considerable depth to his delusional rich, husband who struggles to keep up the veneer that everything will be OK.

The film could be seen as an extended metaphor for the depressed artist (namely Von Trier himself), in that no-one really believes Justine when she is ill and her advertiser bosses are always asking what her next project might be.

That is one valid interpretation, but its hard not see the film as Von Trier pointing out the craziness of polite society (ironically the people who go to see his films) and how it is the seemingly unhinged who cope the best when truly bad things happen.

Given that there is no evolutionary reason for depression, an ailment which often leads to self-destruction, perhaps it is a painfully valuable reminder of our mortality?

Such heady ideas are expressed with considerable skill as Von Trier interchanges a rough and ready visual style, with some stunningly beautiful sequences, which include helicopter shots and slow-motion tableau.

It almost provides a snapshot of his own career, as the rough Dogme aesthetic of his earlier work blends with a lush beauty that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

Cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro assists with some stunning digital images throughout – this was one of the first films to shoot on Arri’s Alexa camera – whilst the visual effects of the encroaching planet supervised by Peter Hjorth evoke an appropriate sense of wonder and awe.

All this marks a highpoint in Von Trier’s career, which is all the more shame that he undid a lot of that hard work by making some foolishly ill-placed jokes at the launch of the film in Cannes.

He clearly wasn’t being serious when he jokingly called himself a Nazi, said he understood Hitler and made some inappropriate remarks about Susanne Bier, as well as ‘planning a hardcore porn movie’ with Dunst and Gainsbourg.

But given the particular sensitivities still felt in France about the Holocaust and the instantaneous nature of modern news, it was an ugly episode in which Von Trier’s bad-boy act came back to haunt him as he was banned from the festival.

Typically, Von Trier has since played up his persona non grata status, but forget the off-screen nonsense and enjoy what is an unexpectedly beautiful vision of the apocalypse.

 

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Reviews Thoughts

Blu-ray: Ben-Hur

One of the most important Blu-ray releases of the year is this impeccable restoration of William Wyler’s 1959 Roman epic.

Depicting the adventures of a Jewish prince (Charlton Heston), it charts his rich life in Judea, subsequent fall into slavery and rise as a champion charioteer in Rome.

Along the way we see his encounters with his mother (Martha Scott), sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell), Roman rival (Stephen Boyd), former slave (Haya Harareet), a naval commander (Jack Hawkins) and even Jesus Christ.

A blockbuster release of its time, it was one of the most ambitious film projects ever attempted up to that point.

Adapted from Lew Wallace’s best-selling novel, it had previously reached the screen in 1907 and 1926, but by the 1950s Hollywood were under threat from the rapidly growing medium of television.

MGM were in financial trouble and decided to mount a biblical epic along the lines of Cecil B DeMille‘s Samson and Delilah (1949) and The Ten Commandments (1956), which were both huge box office hits.

In addition to tapping in to this hunger for ancient religious stories, the major studios came up with various technical innovations to lure audiences away from their television sets.

Various larger film formats were introduced to create a bigger and more expansive image on the screen.

This culminated in epics such as The Robe (1953), the first film in the widescreen process known as CinemaScope, and The Ten Commandments, which utilised the greater resolution of Paramount’s VistaVision format.

With Ben Hur MGM decided to shoot in a new process known as ‘MGM Camera 65’ (later known as Ultra Panavision 70), which meant that it has an unusual aspect ratio of 2.76:1, making it one of the widest films ever made.

This was appropriate because they also spent a huge amount on creating a vast epic at a cost of $15m – then a huge amount – and over 300 sets, including a spectacular Roman amphitheatre at Rome’s Cinecitta Studios.

MGM’s gamble to stave off bankruptcy succeeded, with Ben Hur becoming the highest grossing film of 1959 (making $90m worldwide) and winning 11 Oscars, a feat only equalled since by Titanic (1998) and The Return of the King (2004).

Its critical reputation suffered during the 1960s, as a new generation of directors and critics reacted against the expense and spectacle of the previous decade.

Director William Wyler was even quoted as saying:

“Cahiers du cinéma never forgave me for the picture.”

Perhaps he was too versatile to be pegged as an auteur in the way that Orson Welles or Alfred Hitchcock were, or maybe after winning three Best Director Oscars he was too much of an ‘establishment’ figure for young guns like Truffaut and Godard to re-evaluate and champion.

However, although these large scale biblical epics were scorned by certain cinephiles of the day as an expression of the stifling conformity of the 1950s, they can also be seen as coded parables which echoed the concerns of writers during the era.

When Messala demands that Ben-Hur either stand with him or against him, he not only echoes the Manichean cry of McCarthyism but also the world view of more recent administrations (the following year Spartacus – scripted by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo – would take this theme even further).

But what makes this restored version of Ben Hur fascinating to revisit is that Hollywood now is undergoing a similar kind of seismic change that it went through fifty years ago.

Instead of television wreaking havoc with the established order we now have the Internet and whereas once we had studios looking for salvation in biblical epics, now they turn to large scale fantasies from the church of Marvel or DC.

Even the 3D craze of the 1950s has updated itself in recent years with a newer, digital form.

However, this Blu-ray represents a pleasing collision of both worlds, as digital technology has been used to present the best ever home version of the film.

The Warner Bros restoration team have preserved the ethos of the original MGM production, which was to create a stunning spectacle on screen.

Whilst we can’t go back in time to the fresh print 70mm presentations back in November 1959, this represents the next best thing.

[UPDATE: Actually the next best thing is to see the 8K digital cinema print that screens at the New York Film Festival this Saturday – can Warner Bros arrange for a UK screening?]

It is easily one of the best restorations I’ve seen in the Blu-ray format and is up there with Warner Bros’ previous outstanding transfers of Dr. Zhivago (1965), North By Northwest (1959) and Gone With the Wind (1939).

Presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.76:1, the action frequently looks breathtaking due to the care and attention that was put into the original production (production design, costumes, location, visuals and sound) and the painstaking restoration process.

This was originally slated for a 50th anniversary release but Warner Bros took their time, due to the complexities involved.

Speaking to Hollywood Elsewhere back in June, Jeff Baker of Warner Home Video stressed why they didn’t want to rush the release:

“At WB we are more than acutely aware of the age of Ben-Hur — i.e., 52 in 2011. It was our intention to release this film in Blu-ray in 2009, but the film restoration was complex, and the 8K scan was the optimal solution vs. 2K or 4K, therefore we took our time and did it right to deliver the best possible resolution for the consumer. Therefore we are celebrating the 50th anniversary in 2011, and considering that it is more than 50 years, we do not see this as being disingenuous, particularly due to the circumstances surrounding this restoration. After all, we are not advancing the clock and celebrating the 55th or 60th.”

As noted in the same piece, this is one of the most precise and detailed restorations of a classic Hollywood movie:

“The Ben-Hur restoration, just to be clear, was completed from an 8k scan of the original 65mm camera negative, with a 6k finish making this the highest resolution restoration ever completed by Warner Bros.”

Another bonus is that this three hour film has been spread over two discs, preserving the quality of the film by using up as much space on each one, with nearly all the extras appearing on the third.

The image quality is stunning and all the expense that was poured into making this one of the most epic films ever staged really pays off in its transfer to HD.

Of particular note are the compositions, as Wyler and cinematographer Robert L. Surtees created shots and sequences which really used the wide frame – interior locations (such as the prison sequence) and exterior vistas are brilliantly captured.

Intimate shots of actors faces also look tremendous, with some sequences making clever use of them in lower light conditions.

The sound is also outstanding: the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is immense, preserving Miklós Rózsa’s famous score, whilst the chariot race sequence feels more intense than ever before.

A landmark film in Hollywood history, Ben Hur also establishes a new gold standard for Blu-ray restorations.

SPECIAL FEATURES

Most of the extras have been ported over from the 2005 2-disc DVD set but there are a couple of notable new features that have been added for the Blu-ray.

They break down like this:

  • Audio commentary by T. Gene Hatcher with Charlton Heston: This commentary from the film historian Hatcher is relatively informative, but Heston’s comments are more valuable. However, they were recorded separately and are more sparse but do offer valuable background information about about the production and his time filming in Rome.
  • Music Only Track of Mikos Rózsa’s score: This is probably for more specialist tastes but given that Rózsa’s score is of considerable historical interest it is a valuable option to be able to listen to it separately, even if it is in Dolby Digital 2.0 and not a lossless audio.
  • Trailers (14:15)
  • Charlton Heston and Ben-Hur: A Personal Journey (1:18:06): This new HD featurette made especially for the Blu-ray mixes interviews with Heston’s wife Lydia, son Fraser and daughter Holly Ann, along with various people who have worked with the late actor. Heston documented the production of Ben Hur with a detailed journal (from which his son reads extracts) and a wealth of 16mm footage filmed by Lydia which include a lot of material shot in and around Rome.
  • The 1925 silent version of Ben-Hur (2:23:06): The full version of the older, silent version of Ben Hur is included and it makes for an interesting comparison. A hugely ambitious production in its own right, it acted as a kind of template for Wyler’s version, especially the set pieces involving the sea battle and the chariot race. This version is restored with a score by Carl Davis.
  • Ben-Hur: The Epic That Changed Cinema (57:46): This 2005 documentary that accompanied the 2-disc DVD release is a useful place to begin for newcomers and is a good introduction to the film’s place in cinema history. Various directors (Ridley Scott, George Lucas), cinematographers (Janusz Kaminski, Ernest Dickerson), production designers, and historians discuss the movie and the elements that make it such an enduring classic.
  • Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic (58:15): A 1994 made for television documentary goes for a more conventional behind-the-scenes exploration of the film. Narrated by Christopher Plummer, it looks as past adaptations but mainly stays with Wyler’s version, offering a steady stream of on-set photographs, footage, and interviews with key players.
  • Ben-Hur: A Journey Through Pictures (5:09): A montage of production photos set to Rózsa’s famous score.
  • Screen Tests (29:18): The real jaw-dropper here is to see Leslie Nielsen’s screen test for the role of Messala (which eventually went to Stephen Boyd). Also keep an eye out for I, Claudius star George Baker as he auditions for the title role at MGM studios in Borehamwood whilst answering some questions from what appears to be a very posh English casting director.
  • Newsreels (9:45): Easily one of the standout extras, this assortment of newsreels documents the various premieres of the film and what a big deal it was as it premiered in New York, Los Angeles, Washington and Tokyo. My favourite bit is Heston signing autographs and serving coffee to New Yorkers in the queue for tickets at Loew’s State Theatre.
  • Highlights from the 1960 Academy Awards Telecast (9:47): Although the audio is patchy, the ceremony that year was broadcast in black and white from the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles and marked a record 11 Oscars for the film. Perhaps the most notable moment is when producer Sam Zimbalist’s widow Mary comes on to collect the Oscar for Best Picture after her husband had passed away during filming.
> Buy Ben Hur on Blu-ray or DVD from Amazon UK
> Find out more about Ben-Hur at Wikipedia
> William Wyler profile at TSPDT
Categories
Interesting Thoughts

The Evolution of the Hitchcock Trailer

Once he was established as a Hollywood director Alfred Hitchcock cleverly used his persona as a major promotional tool for his films.

Although he is rightly regarded as one of the great directors in cinema, the marketing of his movies reveal a lot about how he managed to combine his artistic sensibilities with commercial instincts.

Charlton Heston was once quoted as saying:

“The trouble with movies as a business is that it’s an art, and the trouble with movies as art is that it’s a business”.

Perhaps more than any other director, Hitchcock managed to solve this conundrum and we can see his mastery of the movies as both an art and a business by looking at the trailers to several of his films.

For his breakthrough US work Rebecca (1940), the trailer played up the fact that it was a David O’Selznick production as much as an Alfred Hitchcock film and that it was also “the most glamorous film of all time”:

At this point, despite his experience, he was essentially a director for hire and had yet to become the portly icon of later years.

Notorious (1946) goes for the ‘big fonts proclaiming big things’ approach to trailers and Hitch is still nowhere to be seen, although it is worth noting that he is referred to as ‘the master of suspense’.

A sign that Hitchcock was more talented than the average Hollywood director was the ambition of Rope (1948), a film which had the illusion of being mostly shot in one take, although it was actually a string of set pieces cleverly stitched together.

The trailer was partly narrated by Jimmy Stewart’s character and didn’t feature the director, although the form of the film played an important part in establishing his reputation as more than just a director for hire.

The 1950s saw Hollywood embrace all kinds of technical innovations (e.g. Cinemascope, 3D) to stave off the threat of television, but Hitchcock was embracing it both as a form in itself and seizing the opportunity to become a familiar face to great swathes of Americans every week.

In 1949 one million Americans owned TV sets and by the end of the decade this number had sky-rocketed to over 50 million, so here was a director clearly in touch with both his audience and the emerging trends of the time.

By 1955 Hitchcock had his own TV series – Alfred Hitchcock Presents, later to become The Alfred Hitchcock Hour – which became famous for his opening monologues.

This is the first episode, where he addressed the audience in his own inimitable way:

On the burgeoning medium of television during this period it provided invaluable publicity for his career as a movie director.

It was ironic that in an age of chiselled movie stars he would become such an American cultural icon, especially after a childhood in England crippled by shyness and obesity.

But perhaps there was a conflicted showman inside the director.

What else could explain his famous cameos throughout his career, which were a simultaneous expression to stay hidden and be noticed?

By The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), which saw him remake his own film, his reputation was established but for the trailer it was Jimmy Stewart who again who addressed the audience to describe the making of the movie.

The same year Hitchcock made his first notable appearence in a trailer, talking about himself in the third person no less, whilst narrating the outline for The Wrong Man (1956):

A vitally important film for the director both in content and style, it seems appropriate that he would make an early marketing appearance here.

Perhaps his promotional performances every week on TV in front of millions of viewers had convinced the studio bosses he not only had a reputation but could be trusted to sell to the audience directly?

For Vertigo (1958) however, Hitchcock took a back seat to a conventional narration guy.

Was it because the story of an obsessive man who forces a reluctant brunette to become an icy blonde was a bit too personal for him?

After the relative commercial failure of this hypnotic film – which would mushroom in critical esteem decades later – he returned with his most commercial project to date.

North By Northwest (1959) was a pretty big deal for MGM and they let Hitchcock completely take over the trailer, using his dry wit to play up the humour in the material and guarantee they would be in for a ride.

Can you imagine any modern studio or contemporary director approve a trailer like this?

His next film was less obviously commercial, based on a novel with grisly real life influences, and was to be filmed in black and white with his TV crew.

The project began life at Paramount, who were so put off by the material that they originally refused to make it and sold off key rights to Universal and the director (even today it is often mistakenly thought of as a Universal movie).

Psycho (1960) certainly presented a marketing challenge and Hitchcock responded with perhaps his most famous trailer, which was this 6 minute promotional short.

It was a shrewd move as the director’s trademark humour let viewers know that the film wasn’t as dark as they may have heard.

That being said, the sudden climax at the end, complete with Bernard Herrman’s violins hinted that there was something dark and sinister within the main attraction.

Not only did Psycho represent the high watermark of the director’s artistic and commercial career, is also saw him reach a plateau as a marketing genius.

Hitchcock persuaded cinemas not to allow audiences in if they were late, which intensified the must-see factor and also provided the film with valuable extra publicity.

Who did audiences see in the foyer of their local cinema?

The director pointing at his watch and telling them that if they were late they had to attend the next showing of the film.

Whilst the public loved it, critical reaction was decidedly cooler with The Observer’s critic embarrassing themselves by not even staying until the end (I’m happy to report that their current critic Philip French always stays until the end credits of each movie he sees).

For The Birds (1963), the director repeated the trick with another witty short.

Note how the dry humour again deflects from the dark subject matter, which could have proved a commercial turn off.

By this point Hitchcock was a major cultural personality due to both his movies and TV shows, which first aired on CBS from 1955 to 1960, and then on NBC from 1960 to 1962.

This was then followed by The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, which lasted from 1962 to 1965 and such was the director’s longevity that even after his death in 1980, NBC and USA Network even revived the show for four seasons in the late 1980s.

If you think of each TV introduction as free publicity for his films, it also ranks as one of the longest and most cost-effective marketing campaigns in movie history.

The Marnie (1964) trailer continued the concept of the director as master showman.

Such was Hitchcock’s elevated status at this point – note how he literally ascends from a lofty position at the beginning – that he could refer to his previous films with the expectation that the general audience would know what he was talking about.

Perhaps one of his most interesting films, the trailer captures the changing social attitudes of the 1960s as Hitchcock is being less coded about sex and uses his dry, comic prudishness to neat effect.

One can almost imagine the team from Mad Men working on the campaign for this movie, and although Cary Grant in North By Northwest is often rightfully cited as an influence on Matthew Weiner’s show, Sean Connery’s character in Marnie seems like a more accurate touchstone for Don Draper.

In retrospect, the film is a fascinating collision of two cinematic icons as the ‘Master of Suspense’ cast James Bond in a major role – the commercial side of Hitchcock’s brain wanted a star in Sean Connery, but the artist knew his screen presence would add an extra dimension to the film.

However, the explosive success of the Bond franchise may have had an adverse effect on Hitchcock’s films as the mid-60s craze for Cold War spy films led him to make two films which saw him go somewhat astray.

Torn Curtain (1966) was beset by production difficulties and reflected the uneasy reality that was dawning on directors like Hitchcock and studios such as Universal.

Stars like Paul Newman and Julie Andrews were becoming increasingly important and the days when the men in suits could order them around like cattle were beginning to change.

This is reflected in the trailer which plays up Hitchcock’s brand name but places greater emphasis on the two leads, violence (‘Shock! Intrigue!’) and the Cold War intrigue which had gripped pop culture.

Topaz (1969) saw the problems of his previous film multiply and is rightly considered one of his weakest.

Again we have a Cold War spy thriller, although this one is even more muddled.

We briefly see Hitchcock at the beginning saying that it is ‘a story of espionage in high places’, before a self-consciously groovy montage of split-screen techniques which seems to reflect the messy, fragmentary nature of the film.

In creating his own worlds he was often a master, but in this period he was less successful in crafting suspense out of the complexities of the Cold War, when actual news stories could be more shocking than anything in his imagination.

Frenzy (1972) saw Hitchcock return to his home country of England and is by far his most interesting later work.

The trailer sees him return to centre stage with a monologue which seems to reference his extended promotional short for Psycho – which is appropriate as both films revolve around a sinister murderer (Mrs. Bates/The Necktie Murderer) and a single location (Covent Garden/Bates Motel).

This film saw the director’s career come full circle, as he returned to the murder-mystery genre after his unsuccessful espionage movies and it was set and shot around Covent Garden, where his father used to make a living as a greengrocer.

It is hard to watch the bit where Hitchcock spots his tie without thinking of the childhood story the director once told about being sent to a police station as a boy, or the William Friedkin anecdote about when Hitch questioned his young apprentice for not wearing a tie whilst shooting the final episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

The trailer for his swan song Family Plot (1976) sees the director make his final appearence in a trailer.

The quality of the film and his customary dry wit seem to betray the fact that he had one eye on retirement.

What do all these trailers say about Hitchcock?

In them we can see the evolution of a director who managed to use the very commercialism of the Hollywood system to his artistic advantage.

By cultivating a showman persona, he enticed audiences into cinemas and once they were there he usually surprised them in strange and imaginative ways.

> More on Alfred Hitchcock at Wikipedia
> The Hitchcock Wiki
> Hitchcock TV

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News Thoughts

Discs, Streams and Dilemmas

The recent announcement and subsequent u-turn by Netflix reflects a wider crisis facing Hollywood.

Before the 1950s Hollywood studios made their money renting their movies to cinemas and then splitting the profits.

When televison became a popular medium in the 1950s, it was a time of panic but eventually became another revenue stream as studios could monetise their libraries by selling them to a new emerging medium.

In the 1970s when Sony invented the Betamax format, which allowed viewers to record programming on videocassettes, it spurred a worried Hollywood into adopting a rival format (VHS), which ultimately created a new home entertainment revenue stream.

The video rental boom of the 1980s also gradually turned into a retail one as consumers bought videos of their favourite films.

When the DVD format was introduced in the late 1990s, consumers upgraded to the format in the same way they had replaced their analogue vinyl records and tapes with digital CDs.

Home video innovations that the studios thought would destroy them, actually turned out to be their salvation.

From 1998 until 2004 there was a DVD boom which saw profits pour into studio coffers, as consumers embraced the format as DVDs were often availble to buy and rent on the same day.

But dark clouds began to form in 2005 as the industry debated about what would be the high definition successor to DVD.

After a costly format war between Sony’s Blu-ray and Toshiba’s HD-DVD, the former won in February 2008 partly due to the fact that they owned a movie studio and could put Blu-ray drives in the PS3 console (10 million PS3s outnumbered the million HD-DVD players in the market).

By early 2008 things looked to have stabilised for the manufacturers and studios as there was now one format which they could all get behind.

However, there were still some major challenges:

  1. Consumer upgrade costs: The jump from DVD to Blu-ray was much more costly that VHS to DVD as it involved the cost of getting a new TV and player and at this stage costs of equipment and discs were unattractively high (even though they would later come down).
  2. The Recession: The financial crisis of 2008 had many wide-ranging consequences as the world went into a global recession. For the entertainment industry the subsequent drop in consumer spending meant that people weren’t willing to replace their DVDs with Blu-rays.
  3. Netflix and Digital Downloads: Over the last decade US service Netflix saw explosive growth in subscriptions, which has eaten away at the traditional DVD model as the company movies towards streaming.

Studios and retailers dealt with the cost issue by dropping prices and with many major titles folding in the Blu-ray and digital copy with the DVD release (sometimes known as a Triple play).

The recession poses a much greater problem, particularly as online retailers like Amazon can undercut traditional shops (thus reducing studio profits) and streaming services make consumers indulge in cheaper alternatives.

What are those alternatives?

Until recently Netflix subscribers in the US could gorge on an incredible back catalogue of films for a cheap monthly fee, whilst the price of back catalogue DVDs is ridiculously low.

So the last few years have seen a volatile environment emerge in which DVD profits have been eroded and Hollywood executives concerned about their balance sheets.

Michael Lynton of Sony Pictures Entertainment reflected this concern, saying to The Guardian in 2009:

“This has become a major issue for the movie business,” says Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman and CEO Michael Lynton. “Over the past decade, the DVD business has been perhaps the most important profit centre for the industry. But now it isn’t just contracting, it’s become more volatile and unpredictable than it used to be. And that very volatility is what makes your decision-making more difficult, because when you don’t really know why a lot of titles aren’t performing, the only rational response is to become more cautious when you’re deciding what movies to make.”

Another factor that Guardian article points out is that studios clouded their DVD profits in complexity:

The problem is that studios have invested years in obfuscating their DVD profits, fearful that A-list actors and filmmakers would get wind of how much money was pouring in and want a bigger piece of the action. By Sunday, everyone knows what movies made in cinemas – it’s a carefully monitored cash business.

DVD has little of that transparency, especially with some DVDs being rentals while others are purchases, making the numbers more difficult to quantify. When studios announce their opening-day DVD numbers, they aren’t actual sales figures – the numbers represent the amount of DVDs shipped to stores. The DVDs that don’t sell get shipped back to the studio. The industry abounds with stories of studios who have warehouses full to the ceiling with DVDs that went unsold and were shipped back, left to rot in storage.

Isn’t this a little similar to the financial industry embracing obscure instruments and loans which almost brought the world economy down?

Earlier this year, the problem has become something of a crisis with the Digital Entertainment Group reporting that DVD sales had plunged in the first quarter of 2011.

Retail sales had dropped 19% and high-street rentals had fallen by 36%, whilst video chain Blockbuster was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy (meaning essentially that it’s on the business equivalent of life support).

In the UK, retailers like Woolworths, Borders and Zavvi have closed down and even a once iconic chain like HMV is facing a major challenge to stay afloat in the era of online options.

Although digital downloads and streaming have grown rapidly in recent years, there is a major shortfall as viewing habits are split between discs and streams and downloads.

On a more fundamental level the shift to rental from retail is proving problematic as the studios don’t make as much from consumers who use services like Netflix than they do from ones who buy physical discs.

Netflix is at the forefront of this problem, as for a monthly fee users can get DVDs through the post or stream films direct to their TVs or laptop at no extra charge.

This meant the company has seen explosive growth, with subscribers rising from 8 million users in 2008 to over 23 million this April.

The UK equivalent is LOVEFiLM, which has the same basic model, and that was recently bought by Amazon, presumably with an eye to where consumer habits are going.

Netflix has been incredibly successful in a relatively short period of time, with reports that it accounts for 20% of non-mobile internet traffic in America during the evenings.

Although studios still have the crucial bargaining chip of their movie and TV libraries, they are still probably concerned that Netflix have accrued so much dominance in so little time.

The Economist recently quoted Kevin Tsujihara, the head of home entertainment at Warner Bros, and analysed the current deals the studio system is negotiating with Netflix:

I have nothing against $1 rentals—at some point,” explains He just doesn’t want cheap rentals competing with disc sales. So last year Warner Bros, Fox and Universal Studios struck deals with Netflix. The service would keep its hands off their movies for 28 days, to give them a chance to sell in shops and in high-street video stores—in effect creating a new window. In return, the studios allow Netflix to stream more old films and television shows. Sony keeps big-budget films out of Netflix’s hands for 28 days but not smaller films.

This brings us on to the issue of the release window, which sees studios open films in cinemas first and then stagger the opening over different platforms (DVD/Blu-ray/VOD, pay TV, free-to-air TV) in order to make money each time it hits them.

Studios are split on what the precise nature of these windows should be: Warner Bros and Fox feel that holding releases back from cheaper online platforms sees a bump in disc sales and rentals, whilst Sony don’t think that consumers care that much about a window.

In a recession, many people are probably prepared to wait a month for the price of a film to come down as opposed to buy it when it comes out.

Disney has another approach. With a huge merchandise division they can afford to try and get their films on as many platforms as possible and they have pushed for a shortening of windows, both video and theatrical.

When Alice in Wonderland came out last year, UK cinema chains almost pulled it from release because of Disney’s plans to release it on Blu-Ray and DVD earlier than was usual.

That particular spat was resolved but it highligthed the different ways in which studios want to monetise their assets in an uncertain digital age.

Back in April at Cinema Con, the annual convention of cinema owners in Las Vegas, four of the major studios (Warner Bros, Fox, Sony and Uniersal) shocked the conference by announcing a premium VOD service.

This reflects a shift towards the idea that the release window is not fit for the digital age and that audiences should be able to legally access films via download or pay-per-view sooner rather than later.

Paramount sided with the theater owners, citing piracy as a major concern (e.g. digital copies can leak sooner) and some observers feel it is a case of Hollywood shooting itself in the foot.

But what the row highlighted was the larger cultural and technological changes going on as consumers want greater control over their viewing experience and studios want to cut costs by moving to a digital distribution system.

Which brings us back to Netflix.

It seems odd that such a realtively new and successful company could be experiencing problems but recently they faced their own digital dilemma: do they focus on streaming or DVD?

The company decided to split its operations so that customers had to decide whether they wanted to pay for online streams, DVDs by mail, or both.

For users that currently pay $9.99 for the combined streaming-plus-one-DVD plan the hike to $15.98 per month felt like a major increase.

In addition, Netflix made the bizarre decision to eliminate customer profiles from their website.

All this led to a furious backlash from Netflix users and an apologetic blog post from CEO Reed Hastings where he said:

“I messed up. I owe everyone an explanation. It is clear from the feedback over the past two months that many members felt we lacked respect and humility in the way we announced the separation of DVD and streaming, and the price changes. That was certainly not our intent, and I offer my sincere apology.”

Why were loyal customers angry?

Partly it was the way it was handled, as although Netflix could see the business logic of raising subscription fees , it was a tone-deaf move during a recession.

This was compounded by the fact that one of the reason subscribers have traditionally loved Netflix is that they feel they get great value from the service.

That perception – for some – was wiped out overnight.

But why would Netflix do this?

The answer lies in what Hastings announced in the same post: that they would be spinning off their DVD-by-mail service into a separate service called Qwikster, whilst Netflix would be dedicated to streaming.

They clearly realise that streaming is the future because of the lower costs and greater technical flexibility across viewing devices.

Robert Cringely wrote this week about how Hastings has always seen digital delivery via the Internet as the goal of the company and that he would’ve done it sooner if he could:

I first met Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings in 2001 at a Maxtor event where I was the dinner speaker. He explained then that the company had always intended to deliver movies over the Internet (hence the name Netflix) but was starting with DVDs because the network infrastructure simply wasn’t ready for digital delivery. They’d eventually drop the DVD deliveries, though I think his estimate of when that would happen was around 2007, not 2011 as the company announced this week.

However, the problem they face is that discs still form a huge part of their business and making people shift from this is going to be difficult when the overall media landscape is in a state of flux.

What happens when one part of your customer base wants DVDs by mail, another wants streaming and yet another wants both?

If you stay still your company could slow down and be overtaken by a rival and if you make necessary changes then you are bound to upset some users.

Even for a company as modern and data driven as Netflix, it’s difficult to adjust a stable business model to fit around shifting customer habits.

In a sense their dilemma represents the wider problems faced by the studios, who are struggling to adjust their business models in an era of rapid technological and social change.

But if the studios can’t make up the shortfall in profits caused in part by digital delivery systems, then how can they continue to fund the very films we watch over them?

Categories
Thoughts

Interesting Audio Commentaries

Audio commentaries on DVD or Blu-ray provide an insight into the filmmamking process and here are some that stand out.

I’ve long felt a bit guilty about my love of audio commentaries for films on a disc format.

After all, it is about the most unsocial way to watch a film if you’re in casual company and sitting around the TV.

But if – like me – you are interested in how a film gets made and want to hear the perspective of those involved then it is a fantastic resource.

As a marketing tool they can be traced back to the days of laserdisc, the video format which never took off but which saw companies like Criterion, specialise in editions of classic films which included bonus features.

According to Wikipedia, the first audio commentary was the original King Kong movie on a Criterion laserdisc in December 1984 and film historian Ronald Haver introduced it by saying:

Hello, ladies and gentlemen, I’m Ronald Haver, and I’m here to do something which we feel is rather unique. I’m going to take you on a lecture tour of King Kong as you watch the film. The laserdisc technology offers us this opportunity and we feel it’s rather unique — the ability to switch back and forth between the soundtrack and this lecture track…

We’ve come along way since then with notable ones, alternate ones, parodies and even its use in video games.

Digging into the newly released DVD of Attack the Block I noticed there was three different ‘levels’ of audio commentary involving junior actors, senior actors and executive producers, all hosted by director Joe Cornish.

At first it seemd like a bit of a giggle but given the time and effort both cast and crew put into a movie, why not have an audio document of the movie, which can often take months or even years to make?

The executive producer commentary featuring Cornish and Wright is filled with interesting details, including:

  • Cornish once worked on forgotten surfer comedy Blue Juice (1995)
  • Chris Cunningham is a big fan of Xtro (1982)
  • The Ralph Bakshi version of The Lord of the Rings (1978) and Cornish’s black cat inspired some of the VFX by Double Negative and Fido
  • The practical effects of Day of the Dead (1985) were also an inspiration
  • Night time movies with a location under siege such as Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and Die Hard (1988) were a big influence

Plus, there is the following exchange:

Joe Cornish: “I love all the Friday the 13th movies”
Edgar Wright: “ALL of them?!

But I realise even amongst filmmakers the idea of audio commentaries can be divisive.

Directors like David Fincher and Edgar Wright like to document their films with hefty DVD or Blu-ray packages which nearly always include an audio track (or tracks) of them discussing the film directly.

However, Steven Spielberg refuses to even do them at all and more recently Christopher Nolan and Paul Thomas Anderson have shied away from them.

A few years ago Warner Bros held a screening of Goodfellas (1990) for the 2-disc DVD re-release and they turned the audio commentary on, which I found a little odd.

Everyone there had already seen the film, but I don’t think the audience (including myself) quite expected the screening to happen like this despite the pleasure of hearing Scorsese and cast speak.

There is something that seems to make it work in the privacy of your own home (preferably with headphones) and not amongst the communal atmosphere of the cinema.

With that in mind, here are some audio commentaries which I’d highly recommend:

  • Steven Soderbergh and James Cameron on SOLARIS (2002): Two very different filmmakers sit down to discuss the adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s classic sci-fi novel. With Soderbergh directing and Cameron producing, their fascinating dialogue touches upon the book, Tarkovsky’s film version and the fonts used on the credits. Fact: There’s an extended sequence which was filmed but omitted and it doesn’t even appear on the deleted scenes.
  • The Cast of THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1982): Listening to the cast of Spinal Tap comment on the film in character is such a great idea, it actually adds another layer of genius on to what is already a gold plated comedy masterpiece. I’m not sure that it would work on other films – in fact it could become grating in the wrong hands – but here it extends the world of the film. Fact: The actress who plays Janine (June Chadwick) was once in an episode of Magnum PI.
  • Martin Scorsese on TAXI DRIVER (1976): The current Blu-ray (an absolutely essential purchase) uses the wonderful audio commentary director Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader recorded for the 1986 laser disc. Although they never took off as a consumer format, it laid the groundwork for DVD and this commentary is wonderfully old-school with a host linking the audio bits. Both provide considerable insights into the film, which is a personal film for both of them. Fact: The scene where Travis is on the pay phone is the same building where Late Night with David Letterman is taped.
  • Tony Gilroy and John Gilroy on MICHAEL CLAYTON (2007): Worthy commentary with writer-director Tony Gilroy joining his brother and editor for a wide-ranging discussion on the looping structure, locations, acting and influences on this modern classic. This was Tony’s debut as director after an established screenwriting career and the commentary hits a lot of points budding filmmakers should pay attention to. Fact: Actor-director Tom McCarthy can be heard but not seen on the phone to Clooney as he asks him to visit an angry client (Denis O’Hare) in Westchester.
  • Paul Thomas Anderson on BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997): Unfortunately this is the last one PTA ever did, but it’s a gem as he describes the production with the help of his cast. One of the truly great films of the 1990s, the energy and invention on screen is matched by Anderson’s audio descriptions. There is also a startling story about an extended deleted scene which featured a car crash. Fact: Leonardo DiCaprio was the first choice for Dirk Diggler and Samuel L Jackson turned down Don Cheadle’s role.
  • Christopher Nolan on FOLLOWING (1998): The writer-director of Memento, The Dark Knight and Inception describes in depth how how he made his debut feature for around £6,000. An astounding production achievement, Nolan reveals all kinds of tricks used to make the film seem bigger: Black and White visuals, good sound at the beginning, natural lighting tips and use of rooftops as an effective location. Filled with useful information this is like a film school course, only it costs £4 instead of £40,000. Fact: Some scenes were shot in the North London house where Nolan grew up (and later stayed whilst he filmed Batman Begins (2005) in the capital).
  • James Cameron and William Wisher on TERMINATOR 2 (1991): One of the greatest action films of the 1990s has an audio commentary filled with fascinating information including production stories, the groundbreaking CGI, night-time visuals and individual scenes. There’s also some some revealing commentary on how the astonishing live action stunts were achieved. Fact: The biker bar scene was filmed just across the street from where the LAPD assaulted Rodney King – the amateur cameraman was filming the T2 shoot and just turned on his camera one night.
  • Ridley Scott on ALIEN (1979): The Blu-ray of Alien is such an incredible audio-visual experience that it almost borders on the illegal. Scott gives some great insights into this deeply textured and groundbreaking film that was an indelible influence on the two genres of sci-fi and horror. He was known as being a demanding director on his crew but that paid off in the final film and the commentary also demonstrates his great eyes and ears for detail. Fact: Jon Finch was cast in the Jon Hurt role but had to drop out due to illness.
  • William Friedkin on CRUISING (1980): This is Friedkin’s most interesting commentary, even if it is far from his best film. A thriller starring Al Pacino as a cop who goes undercover in New York’s gay community proved controversial and was a box office flop. But Friedkin’s commentary is an interesting defence of the film which manages to use the phrase “leather bars” at every opportunity and his favourite theme of the thin line “Between good [pause] And Evil.”

With that in mind, here are some commentaries I’d love to hear. All the director has to do is record themselves whilst watching the film and upload the MP3 to the internet (compared to making a film, this is easy).

Can anyone with influence make them happen?

  • Steven Spielberg on Lawrence of Arabia (1962): Spielberg famously refuses to do audio commentaries on his films. He has said in the past that David Lean describing elements of Lawrence of Arabia to him during a screening is part of the reason. But he is such an erudite champion of the film (see his recent DGA tribute) that if only he could be persuaded to do a commentary for the upcoming Blu-ray… well, it would be a fantastic resource for audiences and budding filmmakers.
  • Quentin Tarantino on The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966): The writer-director has long admitted that his favourite film of all time is Sergio Leone’s monumental spaghetti western and that the climax is his favourite scene ever. Tarantino’s wide-ranging discussion of the visuals, sounds, music and the film’s place in the western genre would be an audio document worth a coffin full of gold.
  • James Cameron on Inception (2010): He’s described the film as ‘astounding’ but a full commentary on Nolan’s intricate sci-fi action epic would be fascinating. Kate Winslet reportedly turned down the role of Mal, which would have made for a fascinating parallel with Titanic (1998), given DiCaprio’s presence as lead in both films. Even so, it would be great to hear Cameron’s detailed thoughts on the narrative structure, the eye-popping visuals, clever use of sets and CGI.
  • Christopher Nolan on The New World (2005): Nolan is a huge Malick fan as this promotional video featurette for The Tree of Life (2011) demonstrates. Although known for his distinctive narratives, he is a director who cares deeply about the visual image, which is why he still relies on relatively old-school photochemical processes (e.g. shunning a digital intermediate). Malick’s 2005 film was one of the most visually ravishing of the decade (with its rare use of 70mm cameras in certain scenes) and Nolan’s take on Malick’s distinctive visual and editing style would be interesting.
  • Brian De Palma on Taxi Driver (1976): De Palma was originally going to direct this film before Scorsese and his original deal with Columbia meant that he got a small cut of it (this surprised Scorsese when Schrader revealed this at a Q&A earlier this year). What does he make of the film he nearly directed? Come to think of it a De Palma-Scorsese-De Niro co-commentary would be very cool, especially as both directors gave him breakthrough roles.
  • Danny Boyle on Apocalypse Now (1979): Although his favourite film is probably Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) his love for Coppola’s Vietnam epic knows no bounds. A commentary on the original cut would be intriguing (although there’s no need to revisit the inferior Redux version).
  • David Thomson on Terminator 2 (1991): The author of The Biographical Dictionary of Film is a big fan of the first two Terminator movies (he actually told me this in 2008) and an erudite discussion of Cameron’s film would be great. Not only is the screenplay a textbook action script, but there are profound themes at the heart of the story and Thomson rifting on the editing, camerawork and visual effects would be great.
  • Martin Scorsese on The Wrong Man (1956): Hitchcock has long been an important director for Scorsese and this film is a particular thematic and stylistic touchstone. It isn’t one of Hitchcock’s ‘established’ classics (like North by Northwest, Vertigo or Psycho) but that would make it even more interesting given Scorsese’s encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema.
Do you have any favourite audio commentaries?
Just leave them below in the comments.
Categories
Thoughts

The Three Types of British Film

What exactly makes a film British?

Do we define its identity by financing, story, talent, setting, filming locations, or a combination of all these elements?

If we clarify what we mean when we discuss the precise nature of British productions, they fall into three different categories:

  1. Homegrown films
  2. International co-productions
  3. Iconic franchises.

I’m not suggesting that one category is better than another, as the ultimate test of a film should be whether it is any good, regardless of its country of origin.

HOMEGROWN FILMS

This category covers films that are 100% produced by British companies.

They can – and often are – picked up by US distributors, but that doesn’t mean that a US company financed it.

Sometimes, the label gets confused by even the most established organisations, such as when BAFTA decided in 2007 that The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) was a ‘British production’, so it could be nominated for Best British Film (a silly category that still exists, whilst for years a Best Documentary one did not).

Why they did this when it was funded by a large American studio (Universal) is beyond me, but when productions are based here – and that film was based at Pinewood Studios – there is a temptation to call them British productions.

But I would resist this slippery definition and simply follow the money and the companies that provide it.

Also worth noting is the separation between production (the making of a film) and distribution (the releasing of it), as films are often made here but often picked up for distribution by foreign companies.

Good examples of homegrown British films would be:

  • The Inbetweeners (2011): This TV spin-off movie has emerged as one of the biggest films at the UK box office this year. Back in August it had an incredible opening weekend of £13.22m, which meant it had a bigger opening than The Hangover Part II, Transformers 3 and and Pirates of the Caribbean 5. Produced by Film4 Productions, Bwark Productions and Young Films, it was distributed by Entertainment Films and cleverly picked up on the audience who had grown up with the TV show and were off from school during the holidays.
  • The King’s Speech (2010): Reportedly turned down by Film4 and BBC Films, this was ultimately produced by See-Saw Films and Bedlam Productions with assistance by the recently closed UK Film Council. The talent involved (director Tom Hooper and stars Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush) obviously saw the potential of the material and were ultimately vindicated by the massive commercial success of the film. The Weinstein Company also snapped up the US distribution rights early on and their awards campaign – which culminated in several Oscars – played a significant part in the film breaking through to the multiplexes. It also proved to be a cash bonanza for UK distributor Momentum Pictures which released it here.
  • StreetDance 3D (2010): This dance film was released not long after the success of Avatar had bewitched studios and exhibitors into thinking 3D was the future of cinema. Produced by BBC Films and Vertigo Films it used dancers from the popular TV show Britain’s Got Talent and the soundtrack featured a lot of UK artists. Not a blockbuster, but for such a British film, it sold to a surprising amount of territories around the world.
  • Slumdog Millionaire (2008): This was an interesting case of a movie where the British TV company Celador (who owned the rights to the game show) co-partnered with Film4 Productions. US distribution was initially sold to Warner Independent Pictures, whilst Pathé got the international rights. When Warner dropped out, Fox Searchlight saw its potential and huge commercial and Oscar success ensued.

INTERNATIONAL CO-PRODUCTIONS

This is perhaps the broadest term which can cover a multitude of productions but that in turn is reflective of the nature of film financing which can come from multiple sources.

There are so many examples of co-productions that it is probably most useful to focus on one British company that typify this type of film.

Working Title are probably the biggest success story of the British film industry over the last two decades and were co-founded by producers Tim Bevan and Sarah Radclyffe in the early 1980s

They were acquired by PolyGram in 1992, when Eric Fellner joined Bevan to become co-chairman, and the music company was a subsidiary of the Dutch conglomerate Phillips.

During a period in the 1990s Working Title had considerable international success with movies like Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Bean (1997).

Four Weddings seemed very British but was a co-production with Channel 4 films (an earlier version of Film4) and Polygram.

After Universal bought Polygram in 1999, they continued to carve out an impressive niche in partnership with a large US studio, which saw them produce films such as Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001), Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Atonement (2007).

Speaking in 2005 to The Guardian, Tim Bevan said:

“When we were independents we were very wary about the studios. But what we realised through our experience with Polygram is that being part of a US studio structure is essential if you want to play the long game in the movie business. Six studios control movie distribution worldwide. The various supply engines, like talent agencies and marketing people, understand the studios and everyone who is playing seriously in the film business will be part of a studio structure.”

Their latest film is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), an adaptation of the John le Carre spy novel, starring Gary Oldman as an agent who has to find a mole in the higher echelons of British intelligence.

Despite its very British seeming surface, it is a co-production with StudioCanal, the French company which owns the third-largest film library in the world, and will be distributed here under the recently renamed StudioCanal UK distribution arm (previously known as Optimum Releasing).

It was also directed by a Swedish filmmaker, Tomas Alfredson, and shot by a Dutch cinematographer, Hoyte Van Hoytema, who were both hot off the success of Let The Right One in In (2008).

Does it matter that a non-UK talent was chosen to direct it, or that a French company are helping finance and distribute the film?

I don’t think it does, as long as the film is good (and it is very good), but if it wins awards and certain British newspapers proclaim it a ‘British success’, it is worth remembering who stumped up some of the cash for it and who directed it.

Let’s also cast our minds back to the 1990s when Gary Oldman made his directorial debut with Nil By Mouth (1997), which despite being a very British story, had to get financing from the French company EuropaCorp, co-founded and run by Luc Besson.

Sometimes our British successes are a little less British than we like to think.

ICONIC FRANCHISES

This term only really applies to two British franchises that are both brought to the screen with American money.

They are only British in the cultural sense of the term, but deserve a category because it shows how British stories can be repackaged and monetised by foreign money.

Harry Potter (2001-2011)

The most profitable film series of all time is notable for being bankrolled by US studio Warner Bros, but I would guess that a lot of people regard them as British. After all, the saga seems very British on the surface: the source material was written by J.K. Rowling and all the films have been brought to the screen after being shot here with predominantly British crews and cast.

You couldn’t get a more British setting than a posh boarding school and even when the film ventures outside Hogwarts it is nearly always remains in Britain, unlike James Bond who is constantly globe trotting in his pursuit of villains, women and martinis.

But like Bond it is a series that has resonated around the world and become like the Star Wars for this generation: a fantasy that has dug deep into the hearts and minds of children and their parents.

Its place in the British film industry is fairly unique as over the last decade it has become a huge Hollywood series based over here, employing vast numbers of people.

The series has effectively created its own mini-industry, as cast, crews and post-production facilities continually worked on the latest Harry Potter film from 2000 until 2011.

Perhaps the lasting legacy of the franchise is in visual effects.

Although US companies such as ILM worked on the earlier films, British effects houses such as Double Negative and Framestore grew in size and stature as the series went on and led to them working on other Hollywood blockbusters such as The Dark Knight (2008) and Inception (2008).

By the final film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, the UK visual effects triumvirate of Framestore, Moving Picture Company and Double Negative were doing world-class work – it was just a shame that the decision to release the film in 3D obscured the brightness levels.

So despite the fact that US money has bankrolled what appears to be a very British series, the knock on effect has been considerable for related parts of the UK industry.

The big question now is what will fill the gap now that the films have ended?

James Bond (1962-Present)

Bond was the most famous British film icon before a certain young wizard came along. Like Potter, he was a very British creation that was brought to the screen by American money.

Although the franchise has always been a family affair, tracking how it has reached cinemas worldwide through various distributors is a mission which 007 himself might find taxing

When producer Cubby Broccoli acquired the rights to adapt Ian Fleming’s books for the big screen he formed Eon Productions with Harry Saltzman in order to make the movies.

They also formed the US parent company Danjaq, which became Eon’s holding company, meaning that although Eon is registered in Britain, the company which ultimately produces the films is American.

For many years US studio United Artists distributed the Bond films – which were a significant cash cow for them – and in 1975 Harry Saltzman sold his shares of Danjaq to them.

When Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer acquired UA in 1981, MGM/UA Entertainment Co. was formed and acted as distributor until 1995 when the series was restarted after a six-year hiatus with Goldeneye (1995).

Although Cubby died in 1996, Eon Productions is still owned by the Broccoli family, with his daughter Barbara and Michael G. Wilson still acting as producers.

After United Artists ceased being a major studio in the late 1990s, MGM then acted as distributor from 1997 until 2002.

Then in 2005 Sony Pictures Entertainment bought a stake in MGM (in a consortium that included Comcast, TPG Capital and Providence Equity Partners) and they distributed Casino Royale (2006) and Quantum of Solace (2008).

After MGM’s complicated financial troubles, which saw it emerge from bankruptcy, Sony reteamed with Danjaq to produce the upcoming Bond film.

Like Potter, Bond films have employed a lot of British crews down the years and even have a stage named after 007 at Pinewood.

But they also represent that curious paradox – a film franchise that people think of as being British, whilst actually being bankrolled by America.

So what do these three types of British film mean in a wider context?

A simple commercial fact is that Britain is not a major production centre for films – our output pales in comparison to countries like the US, India or even France.

So by producing fewer films we obviously struggle to get international recognition by sheer volume.

The reasons for this are long and complex but if you pushed me I’d say that in a nutshell the British generally care more about television and theatre than they do about film.

In the US and France, the reverse is true at both a multiplex and arthouse level, so it’s not really a high/low culture argument.

However, you could make a case for British talent – as distinct from actual films – making a significant global impact.

Recently, films such as The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire have broken through internationally, winning Oscars and achieving impressive box office.

Just last week at the Venice Film Festival, British films and talent were amongst the most high profile with films Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Shame and Wuthering Heights.

So certain British talent punches well above its weight and manages to make a global impact, which doesn’t necessarily mean we have to get all excited and jingoistic.

All art is part of a cycle and in the last few years outstanding British films such as Hunger (2008), Submarine (2010) and Senna (2011) shouldn’t blind us to the fact that some creative misfires could lurk around the corner.

Ultimately it doesn’t really matter how British a film is, but the next time someone declares a particular era to be golden or rotten, let’s consider the details of the production behind the headlines.

> More on cinema of the United Kingdom at Wikipedia
> The Observer report on how crap British films are in 2009 and how great they are in 2011
> Vital Stats section at the UK Film Council
> Virginmedia list the 20 Worst British Films Ever
> Highest grossing films of 2011 at the UK box office
> Bigger Picture Research
> Ken Loach keynote speech on the state of the UK film industry at the LFF 2010

Categories
Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Jane Eyre

An exquisitely realised adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s novel injects new life into the much filmed text.

Opening with a key flash-forward sequence, the story depicts the struggles of a young woman (Mia Wasikowska) in 19th century England as she survives a tough childhood, before eventually working at a country house owned by the moody Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender).

Along the way Jane encounters an uncaring aunt (Sally Hawkins), a cruel teacher (Simon McBurney), a sympathetic parson (Jamie Bell) and an amiable housekeeper (Judi Dench).

There is also the matter of her own emotions, which are considerably stretched by her enigmatic new boss who not only has his own feelings for her, but seems to embody the 20th century phrase “it’s complicated”.

Often British literary costume dramas can be lifeless museum pieces but BBC Films and Focus Features made the wise choice of hiring director Cary Fukunaga to adapt an elegant script by playwright Moira Buffini.

His stunning debut Sin Nombre (2009) depicted a wildly different exterior world to Bronte’s England, but the interior emotional terrains are surprisingly similar.

Part of what makes this adaptation so striking is the stylish, unfussy way in which Fukunaga shoots the characters and their environment.

Every drab, visual cliché of the British period film – be it the moors, country houses or costumes – is revamped to create a believable world which feels richly alive.

Along with cinematographer Adriano Goldman, Fukunaga uses realistic lighting – with some night scenes lit by fireplaces and candlelight – and smooth, composed framing to create a striking visual look.

The use of the Derbyshire locations is also interesting (and not just because they are standing in for Yorkshire), as they retain the darkly gothic vibe of the book but are also subtly augmented with lighting and visual effects.

This is all helped by some terrific production design by Will Hughes-Jones and period costumes by Michael O’Connor (although Fukunaga has admitted they skipped a decade because dresses in the 1830s made women look like ‘wedding cakes’).

But the beating heart of this film lies with Wasikowska and Fassbender, who both lift the film on to another emotional level with their depiction of the central, slow burning relationship.

Jane is complex and iconic female role but Wasikowska impressively conveys her quiet determination and emotional longing, whilst Fassbender demonstrates again why he is already one of the most sought after actors working today, as his Rochester feels believably human, whilst maintaining the air of mystery that surrounds him.

Together they form a deeply moving couple as two lost souls struggling to realise that in each other they have found the possibility of love and understanding.

Hollywood insiders, casting directors and cultural tastemakers are currently obsessed with these two young actors, but on the evidence of this film it is easy to see why.

The supporting cast is also excellent, especially Judi Dench who is cleverly cast against type as Mrs. Fairfax: her warm housekeeper provides a welcome contrast to her sterner roles in the Bond series or countless Miramax period movies.

Composer Dario Marianelli wisely keeps away from melodramatics, using a subtle blend of violin, piano and strings to create a rich musical foil to the emotions on screen.

Part of the enduring appeal of the novel is that depicts decent people struggling to find happiness in a cruel and inhospitable world.

Perhaps out of reverence, the previous eighteen film adaptations cautiously trod around the novel and merely prodded at its emotional centre.

Although this excises some of the religious material of the book – perhaps for time or contemporary relevance – this is the best screen version of Jane Eyre so far, as Fukunaga’s outside American eye manages to unlock the deeper themes inside of it.

> Official site
> Reviews of Jane Eyre at Metacritic
> Find out more about the original novel at Wikipedia

Categories
Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Drive

This ultra stylish LA noir not only provides Ryan Gosling with an memorable lead role but cleverly takes a European approach to an American genre film.

When an enigmatic stunt driver (Ryan Gosling) decides to help out his neighbour (Carey Mulligan) and her family, he finds himself caught up in a dangerous game with a local businessman (Albert Brooks).

Hollywood driver by day and getaway driver at night, the nameless protagonist finds his spartan existence threatened by his emotions and an increasingly tangled web of criminality.

The opening sequence sets the mood as we hear the Driver explain his code of rules and then assist in a getaway which shows both his mastery of cars and the backstreets of Los Angeles.

Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn shoots the city with a coolly detached European eye: his images are steady, composed and artful, whilst jolts of violence and sparse dialogue make it feel like a modern day update of a Leone western or a Melville crime drama.

Adapted from a 2005 novel by James Sallis by screenwriter Hossein Amini, it was originally going to be a bigger budget film with Hugh Jackman in the lead and Neil Marshall directing.

However, the decision to rebuild the project as a sleeker, lower cost model has proved inspired as it manages to successfully combine satisfying genre elements within a stylish European exterior.

Attired in a satin jacket, Gosling is borderline iconic in the lead role, channelling the likes of Steve McQueen in Bullit (1968) and Alain Delon in Le Samurai (1967), but also displaying an undercurrent of emotion as he quietly seeks human intimacy.

In a male-dominated crime story Mulligan is given less to do, although she has a tangible screen presence, and in a minor supporting role Christina Hendricks feels almost unrecognisable from Mad Men.

Brooks has the stand out supporting role as a wily crime boss and he’s brilliantly cast against type, injecting the role with just the right blend of geniality and menace, whilst Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman and Oscar Isaac offer solid support.

Refn often opts for enigmatic silence or music, instead of clumsy dialogue to reveal emotions: sequences involving drives, hallways or lifts are expertly handled and the help connect the dazzling visual artifice with a deep emotional core.

The pacing is lean and mean, without a scene being wasted as the narrative plays around with the heist movie form; establishing, overhead shots of LA unusually focus on the cars and there are some genuinely surprising moments sprinkled amongst the genre elements.

Newton Thomas Siegel‘s widescreen cinematography paints a striking vision of LA as a neon-soaked den of crime but also frames the domestic interior and driving sequences in fresh and interesting ways.

Using the digital Arri Alexa camera, the LA night time visuals are strikingly alive (superior in quality to the digitally-shot Collateral back in 2004) and the tasteful, considered compositions feel like gulps of fresh air in an era of chaotic action visuals.

The sound design by Lou Bender and Victor Ray Ennis also really sells the action, be it the squeak of Gosling’s driver gloves, the roar of his car engine or the cracking of bone, even though conventional set-pieces are kept to a minimum.

A dramatic car chase stands out not only because it is expertly put together but because in an age of over reliance of green screen trickery, the filming of real cars on actual roads seems to be a dying art.

The soundtrack blends tracks from the likes of Kavinsky, College and Desire with Cliff Martinez‘s pulsating electronic score, creating a rich sonic backdrop which chimes in perfectly with the visuals.

This all provides the best musical backdrop to an LA crime movie since Heat (1995), where Michael Mann recruited Elliot Goldenthal to provide a dramatic score, whilst utilising invaluable contributions from Brian Eno, Michael Brook and Moby.

The film builds on the noble tradition of European directors filming crime movies in California: Point Blank (1967) and Bullit (1968) are obvious touchstones, but there is also a strong American influence of films such as The Driver (1978), To Live and Die in LA (1985) and Manhunter (1986).

This blending of European and American sensibilities is what makes Drive such an intoxicating mix: like the central character, it is stylish creation of few words but has a lasting impact on those who see it.

It is no wonder the audience at the Cannes premiere were beguiled by the fusing of transatlantic sensibilities which have fuelled the festival since its inception.

The question mark that hangs over the film is whether or not US distributor FilmDistrict can get people to go and see it: some may be put off by the flashes of violence but if art house and mainstream audiences keep an open mind, this could be a richly deserved hit.

Drive opens in the UK on September 23rd and in the US on September 16th

> Official Facebook page
> Reviews of Drive at Metacritic
> Reactions to Drive at Cannes 2011
> Excellent Cinema-Scope interview with Refn on the making of Drive

Categories
Thoughts

Summer Season 2011

With the summer movie season at an end, how did the major releases fare?

The season kicked off in late April with Fast and Furious Five and ended in August with The Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

But how did all these films do in a season flooded with sequels and remakes?

N.B. This is based on UK release dates, although a lot of releases were day-and-date. Also, critical scores are out of 100 and are an average based on the Metacritic, Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb user ratings.

APRIL

  • Fast and Furious Five (Universal): Watchable sequel to a franchise that has been weirdly resurrected after the fourth film. Budget: $125 million / Box Office: $606m / Critical score: 73
  • Thor (Marvel/Paramount): Surprisingly watchable tale of the Nordic god with a big hammer who comes to earth. Budget: $150m / Box Office: $448m / Critical score: 69

MAY

  • Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Walt Disney): Another chapter in the pirate franchise with Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow. Budget: $200m approx. / Box Office: $1 billion / Critical score: 47
  • The Hangover Part II (Warner Bros): Sequel to the 2009 hit comedy which takes exactly the same plot and transports it to Thailand. Budget: $80m / Box Office: $581m / Critical score: 50

JUNE

  • X-Men: First Class (20th Century Fox): Surprisingly good prequel set in the 1960s with some good performances and clever 1960s period setting. Budget: $150m / Box Office: $350m / Critical score: 77
  • Kung Fu Panda 2 (Paramount): OK sequel to the 2008 animated film about a kung fu panda. Box Office: $150m / Box Office: $637m / Critical score: 75
  • Green Lantern (Warner Bros.): The biggest fiasco of the summer saw Ryan Reynolds play a comic book character most people don’t care about. Budget: $200m / Box Office: $205m / Critical score: 43
  • Bridesmaids (Universal): Not technically a blockbuster, but this comedy outperformed many bigger budget rivals as word of mouth spread week after week. Budget: $32m / Box Office: $272m / Critical score: 80
  • Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Paramount): The third Transformers film saw more incomprehensible mayhem unleashed by alien robots. Budget: $195m / Box Office: $1.1 billion / Critical score: 48

JULY

  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (Warner Bros.): The final Harry Potter film was as successful as everyone predicted. Box Office: $250m (shared with Part 1) / Box Office: $1.3 billion / Critical score: 89
  • Cars 2 (Walt Disney): Pixar shocked the world by releasing their first average film but audiences didn’t seem to mind. Budget: $200m / Box Office: $521m / Critical score: 53
  • Captain America: The First Avenger (Paramount/Marvel): World War 2 era superhero film that was surprisingly good in parts but didn’t benefit from being in 3D. Budget: $140m / Box Office: $325m / Critical score: 73

AUGUST

  • Cowboys & Aliens (Paramount/Universal): Sci-fi western (never a good mix) adapted from a comic-book was an expensively assembled bomb. Budget: $163m / Box Office: $129m / Critical score: 54
  • Super 8 (Paramount): J.J. Abrams homage to Steven Spielberg’s early movies was a charming relief in a summer of bigger rivals. Budget: $50 / Box Office: $244m / Critical score: 76
  • The Smurfs (Sony Pictures): Hollywood sniggered at this mixture of animation and live-action was green lit, but it has out grossed bigger rivals. Budget: $110m / Box Office: $381m / Critical score: 33
  • Rise of the Planet of the Apes (20th Century Fox): The Planet of the Apes prequel surprised a lot of people to become the ‘sleeper blockbuster hit’ of the summer. Budget: $93m / Box Office: $305m / Critical score: 77
  • The Inbetweeners Movie (Entertainment): US readers will scratch their heads at this but the spin-off film of the TV show was a gigantic hit in the UK (it hasn’t opened abroad yet and its probably one for the home market) and the second ‘indie blockbuster’ of the year here, after The King’s Speech.

So, what have we learned from this summer season?

Here are some conclusions:

  • The superhero movies were surprisingly OK, especially the X-Men prequel which deserved to do better.
  • The Pirates of the Caribbean juggernaut defies comprehension but pleases Disney shareholders.
  • The Hangover Part III will probably be better than Part II.
  • The general public don’t have a clue who or what Green Lantern is.
  • Not all movies aimed at women have to be garbage starring Kate Hudson or Katherine Heigl.
  • Transformers 3 was essentially Michael Bay’s tribute to himself.
  • Harry Potter is the Star Wars of its generation (but shouldn’t have been in 3D).
  • The Pixar magic finally ran out.
  • Sci-fi and Westerns don’t mix.
  • Whoever greenlit The Smurfs at Sony is having the last laugh.
  • Rise of the Planet of the Apes seemed better than it actually was.
  • Documentaries like Senna, The Interrupters and Project Nim put most big budget films to shame.
> 2011 in movies at Wikipedia
> Number 1 films at the UK Box Office
Categories
Interesting Thoughts

HMV and the Decline of Retail

Images of a flagship HMV store in London reveal much about the changing nature of retail down the years.

HMV is an iconic UK retail chain for music and films, founded in 1921 by the Gramaphone Company, which was one of the earliest companies to record and sell music to the public.

The store’s name is an acronym for “His Master’s Voice” and got its distinctive logo from a painting by English artist Francis Barraud.

It depicts a dog called Nipper, which the artist inherited from his late brother, as he listens to a recording on a wind-up gramophone.

Although for many years the company was not actually “HMV” or His Master’s Voice, the popularity of the trademark persisted and the first HMV shop opened in 1921 in London.

In the decades since then it has not only spawned shops around the world but remained a permanent retail fixture in the capital city, despite switching locations.

Recently the Voices of East Anglia blog posted some photos, including this shot from HMV’s Flickr account of what the store looked like in the 1960s.

hmv 363 Oxford Street, London - Exterior of store 1960s

The full gallery is worth checking out as you can see how people used to browse for vinyl records in the personal export lounge, examine what music systems and televisions used to look like and observe the stage and screen section.

It really is like an episode of Mad Men.

There is also a gallery of photos from the 1970s (now in colour!) which shows the same HMV store, though sadly not the interior.

1976 - London - Oxfordstr. - HMV

I’m not an expert on the history of retail on Oxford Street (maybe someone can help in the comments?) but I think that HMV moved from this building and then opened a store across the street, before opening a larger store at 150 Oxford Street.

The original building is now this branch of Footlocker:

Last year HMV closed down the store near Bond Street tube station but the flagship store at 150 Oxford Street remains.

The only question is: for how long?

The recession has so far led to the closure of retailers like Woolworths, Borders and Zavvi (formerly Virgin Megastores).

On Oxford Street in particular, the closure of the Zavvi and Borders branches felt like the retail equivalent of organ removal.

Since I was a kid I’ve always browsed for music, films and books there and to see them close down is sad.

There is something to be said for the serendipity of browsing in a store, but the economics of these stores increasingly don’t add up in the age of Amazon.

How can these places compete with a retailer which has dramatically lower overheads, enviable distribution costs, vastly superior customer data and greater insight into how people shop in the 21st century?

The ‘Amazon Effect’ on retail struck me when I went into the Covent Garden branch of Fopp, the music and film retailer which HMV bought in 2007.

When it comes to music, why would I want to purchase physical CDs when I can listen to vast amounts of music on Spotify and iTunes or (semi-legally) YouTube?

This very dilemma has seen the music industry decimated over the last decade and the vast profits generated from sales be transferred into the bank accounts of two technology giants.

In 2008 Apple surpassed Walmart to become the world’s largest music retailer as they reap enormous profits from selling the inexpensive digital music (MP3 files) and the expensive hardware on which it plays (iPods and iPhones).

Google have a search site which powers the proliferation of free MP3s (just type in the name of a song and you’ll probably find it) and in YouTube owns the worlds largest unofficial music library, which you can personalise by visiting www.youtube.com/disco.

Film is probably a few years behind music, but movie companies and retailers arguably face a similar tsunami of change as digital delivery of content (e.g. Netflix streaming) replaces the physical (e.g. DVD and Blu-ray discs).

Two things struck me as I browsed the DVD and Blu-ray section of Fopp, which HMV saved in 2007.

Firstly, this is a golden age of DVD bargains: the sheer quality of films on offer for bargain bucket prices was staggering.

For example, in HMV Oxford Street you can get the following titles for around £5: All The President’s Men (1976), Breathless (1960), Chinatown (1974) and Sideways (2004).

Amazing HMV Bargains

But this is also true of Amazon where you can get hold of classic material for low prices: Citizen Kane for £3.97, The Roman Polanksi Collection (3 film collection of Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant!) for £6.93 and if you want a great value blockbuster in HD, try Terminator 2 on Blu-ray for just £7.93.

In fact it was downstairs in the Blu-ray section of Fopp where the ‘Amazon effect’ really struck me.

I wanted to check out my favourite Blu-ray box set of 2010, which is the Alien Anthology (quick tip: skip the final two films, feast on the first two and put several hours aside for the incredible array of extras).

How much did the Alien Anthology Blu-ray box-set cost in Fopp? £52.

I got out my iPhone and ran a price check on Amazon, where it cost £19.98.

That’s a staggering price difference of £32.02.

Now this is just a single example of one particular product, but I suspect it is reflective of a wider shift as retail and content move into an increasingly virtual world.

Two months ago the BBC reported that HMV profits fell 14.5% in its results for the year to April and the share price has slumped dramatically over the past twelve months.

Part of their new strategy has been to open stores like the one in Wimbledon, which have a small cinema above the shop.

I went back in June and was impressed not only with the sound and projection, but the fact that they were screening up scale fare like Senna alongside blockbusters such as X-Men: First Class.

The other part of the strategy is for the group to expand into live ticketing and digital music.

But whether they can make significant profits from these avenues quickly enough remains to be seen.

Maintaining their bricks-and-mortar operations whilst trying to make inroads into the digital world is going to be a huge challenge.

This comment on Metafilter by the user memebake is perhaps a realistic note to end on:

I used to go to HMV and the independent stores on Berwick Street loads about 15 years ago, and it was fun flipping through the racks looking for things. But before I get too nostalgic, its worth reminding myself that a lot of the albums I bought in that era turned out to be rubbish. The old “hear one song on the radio then buy the album for £12 without hearing any of it” model just encouraged lazy albums with two singles and a bunch of filler tracks.

Whereas now I can get crowdsourced ratings and reviews, preview individual tracks, and then buy the thing without leaving the place I’m sitting. The problem for me nowdays is not buying albums that turn out to be rubbish, its downloading albums and then forgetting to ever go back and listen to them.

Business (we are often told) is all about adapting to new opportunities and taking risks and all that stuff. The old music retail business failed to do that and basically let Amazon and Apple take over. It was obvious for years and years that large-store-large-inventory wasn’t going to be able to compete. They wont get any sad goodbyes from me. I still try and go to Selectadisc now and then though.

> Find out more about HMV, Fopp and Amazon at Wikipedia
> Flickr Gallery of London 35 Years Ago

Categories
Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Kill List

Despite some intriguing twists this horror film suffers from many of the problems that afflict homegrown British cinema.

The story explores what happens when two hit men, Jay (Neil Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley), are hired for a job which becomes ever more sinister and mysterious.

It is hard to discuss the plot without giving away major spoilers, but it also depicts the emotional fallout on Jay’s wife, Shel (MyAnna Buring), Gal’s enigmatic new girlfriend (Emma Fryer) and various other characters including a mysterious client (Struan Rodger) who they meet up with in a hotel.

To the credit of director Ben Wheatley, who co-wrote the screenplay with Amy Jump,  many of the twists are well handled and an ominous atmosphere is skilfully evoked as the hit men gradually uncover details of their new assignment.

Using the suburbs of Sheffield as a main location, though the precise setting is kept ambiguous, the blandness of Britain actually forms a grimly effective backdrop to the events that transpire.

For the most part the main characters are believable and have a natural chemistry with each other in their professional and personal lives.

But as the story progresses Kill List suffers from a kind of split personality disorder, as domestic drama mixes uneasily with more obvious genre elements.

Certain scenes smack of undercooked, improvised dialogue and some of the darker elements of the film (though often well executed) are no more than cheap pandering to slavish horror fan boys turned on by violence.

Similar problems affected Wheatley’s debut film Down Terrace (2009), which involved a lot of people sitting indoors talking about things and pointless scenes where characters light up cigarettes for no real reason.

Whilst Kill List is a more interesting story, both suffer from looking like television: a chronic disease which afflicts many homegrown British films. Is it too much to ask for something cinematic when we actually go to the cinema?

But the biggest drawback of the film is the lead character as played by Neil Maskell, who is almost a parody of the cockney criminal stereotype that has littered British film since the late 1990s.

A brief glance at his acting C.V. suggests he’s been increasingly trapped in Brit movie hell: Bonded by Blood (2010), Doghouse (2009), Rise of the Footsoldier (2007) and The Football Factory (2004) are just some of the dire films he’s been in.

To be fair, this is a film that tries to escape that particular ghetto but when the protagonist is such a jarring cliché it deflates everything around it.

Given that this was shot on a relatively low budget, the technical aspects are solid: the HD camerawork by Laurie Rose, sound design by Martin Pavey and music by Jim Williams all contribute to a believable mood of dread and menace.

Watching this in a decent screening room with excellent visuals and sound was a reminder of how digital projection and distribution can benefit lower budget films like this.

Whether this can break out an be a decent-sized success at the UK box office is another question – there are elements which will put off some audiences but word of mouth at the twists and ending might create good buzz.

Produced by Warp X and Rook Films, with backing from Film4, the U.K. Film Council and Screen Yorkshire, it looks certain to make a decent profit given its relatively low cost.

Sales agent Protagonist Pictures is looking to repeat their trick of last year, when they sold a similar micro-budget film – Monsters (2010) – after making waves at SXSW in Austin, where Optimum nabbed UK distribution and IFC Midnight picked up U.S. rights.

There is also a similar pattern surrounding this film: it will screen at Fright Fest in London and lots of horror bloggers – and some mainstream outlets – will fan the flames of hype surrounding it.

Although ultimately just a watchable horror film, Kill List will no doubt have a decent life on home video (both disc and VOD) and horror aficionados will enjoy the parallels to a certain cult classic of the 1970s.

British micro-budget genre films such as this could be on the rise during the recession, as companies look to capitalise on lower cost, higher value filmmaking techniques and buzz out of festivals like SXSW which attract breakout genre titles.

Although such a trend is likely to produce some talented filmmakers, audiences should be wary of the hype.

> Official site
> Ben Wheatley at the IMDb

Categories
Interesting Thoughts video

Chaos Cinema and the Rise of the Avid

This two-part video essay by Matthias Stork on the style of modern action films considers the rise of chaos cinema.

The first part contrasts traditional, composed action set-pieces in Die Hard (1988) with the frenetic approach adopted in more recent films from directors like Paul Greengrass and Michael Bay, as well as highlighting the importance of sound in shaping our perception of a scene.

The second part explores the way dialogue scenes have also been affected, but also points out the benefits of chaos cinema if used for a specific purpose, using the example of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2009).

I’m not sure I agree with all examples here, as the Greengrass Bourne films – The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) – are exhilarating and shouldn’t be blamed for the lame copycats that followed in their wake.

The question I was left pondering after watching these videos is why did ‘chaos cinema’ really take hold over the last 15 years?

One could cite the influence of a generation of directors who ‘graduated’ from MTV videos and commercials, such as Michael Bay, Gore Verbinski and David Fincher.

Or perhaps the rise of handheld visuals and quick cutting has roots in trying to satiate the attention spans of the younger audiences used to first person video games, as shooter games like Overwatch, people play with the use of services as Overwatch boosting from sites online.

In a sense, the GoldenEye first-person shooter game which came out in 1997 proved more influential and prophetic than the actual film that inspired it two years beforehand.

Perhaps audiences got used to shorter attention spans in the age of the Internet and this frenetic multi-tasking was somehow reflected on screen.

My theory is that computer based non-linear editing systems, such as the Avid and Final Cut Pro have had a major influence.

Back in 1990 when Bernardo Bertolucci was editing The Sheltering Sky (1990), the Italian director was asked by a BBC film crew to compare the old editing system with a new non-linear based one.

Filmmaker and author Michael Rubin worked on the production and discussed in 2006 how it used the laserdisc-based CMX 6000 editing system:

“No-one was using non-linear on feature films at the time. We set it up at the post-production in Soho …the English [producers] were waiting for this computer to crash, so we could get back to film.”

This was a pretty extraordinary development, given that Bertolucci, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and editor Gabriella Cristiani had all just won Oscars for their sumptuous epic The Last Emperor (1987).

Bertolucci admitted to the BBC crew that he missed the feel and smell of celluloid on a traditional flat-bed system, but seemed impressed by the unprecedented freedom offered by a computerised system.

It was clear that a gradual revolution was taking place, roughly at the same time as computerisation was changing visual effects with ILM doing ground-breaking work on Terminator 2 (1991), partly thanks to a new program called Photoshop.

In the past, using machines like a Steenbeck – which physically cut and spliced celluloid – made editing a much slower and more considered process.

When you see someone like David Lean editing A Passage to India (1984) on a moviola, you realise what a skilled and mechanical process it was to physically cut a film:

The rise of the Avid in the 1990s changed all that, giving editors astonishing flexibility and freedom to arrange sequences and cut them with precision.

Bill Warner, the pioneer who came up with the basic idea of the Avid, mistakenly thought that such as system already existed in the late 1980s when he developed what was essentially a software program that ran on a Macintosh.

When early computerised editing systems first came in, the challenge they faced was convincing directors and editors who were used to editing on older systems they were familiar with.

After all, if traditional editing machines like the Moviola, Steenbeck and KEM weren’t broke, then why fix them?

In the high-pressure world of film post-production time literally is money and there is often a rush to get the scenes arranged for the score and final sound mix.

It would have been quite a challenge to explain to experienced editors used to cutting the old way that Avid offered a compelling alternative and that they had to learn how to use a computer.

*UPDATE 01/06/15* Filmmaker IQ do a nice history of the transition here:

Given the steep learning curve, it was no surprise that change was gradual but by the early 1990s Avids began to replace older flatbed editing machines and by 1995 many major productions had made the switch to scanning their films in via telecine and then cutting them on computer.

When Walter Murch won the Oscar for editing The English Patient (1996) on an Avid, it became the first editing Oscar to be awarded to a production that used a digital based system, even though the final print was still celluloid.

Whilst mainstream Hollywood has made the switch, Steven Spielberg has been a famous hold out against editing machines like the Avid, because he dislikes the very speed of the modern workflow, saying he needs time to think during editing.

Although even he admitted at a recent DGA event that he has surrendered to the new system whilst editing his latest film, War Horse, which will be cut by his longtime collaborator Michael Kahn.

This freedom to quickly arrange and cut together elements of a film seems to have had a profound influence on the work of ‘chaos cinema’ directors.

Paul Greengrass shoots lots of footage so he can assemble it in the editing room; Tony Scott shoots on multiple cameras with such ferocity that his films are almost avant garde; and Michael Bay’s career seems like a case study in applying techniques of MTV videos directly to the multiplex.

These filmmakers get a lot of attention for how they shoot action, but the way they piece it together in the editing room is as fundamental to their visual style.

Would they be agents of chaos without modern, lightweight cameras and faster editing systems?

> IndieWire essay on Chaos Cinema
> David Bordwell on ‘intensified continuity’
> Find out more about non-linear editing systems at Wikipedia

Categories
Thoughts

Sorcerer

One of the great commercial disasters of the 1970s deserves a proper home video release.

By the middle of that decade director William Friedkin had already directed two of the major films of that decade.

The French Connection (1971) was a ground breaking crime drama, which won 5 Oscars (including Best Director and Best Picture) and ended up as the second highest grossing film of that year.

Whilst The Exorcist (1973) was a cultural sensation which was the highest grossing film of its year and ended up being nominated for 10 Oscars.

In career terms Friedkin was up there with Coppola as one of the princes of the New Hollywood era.

His follow up film was Sorcerer (1977), a thriller which reworked the basic premise of Henri-Georges Clouzot‘s The Wages of Fear (1953).

The premise sees four criminals from around the world (Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal and Amidou) accept a highly dangerous job transporting explosives across Nicaragua.

What gives the journey extra tension is that the dynamite they are carrying is highly sensitive and can easily be detonated if subjected to shock or vibrations.

The production was an unusual collaboration between two major studios, with Universal taking domestic rights and Paramount international.

After an arduous shoot on location in the Dominican Republic, it died an absolute death at the US box office, grossing a measly $12m on a reported production budget of $24m.

Coming just a month after the release of Star Wars (1977), its failure seemed to symbolise the death of the New Hollywood era and the rise of the tent-pole blockbusters that would take over.

But how does Sorcerer hold up today?

Whilst not exactly a lost masterpiece, it still contains some brilliant set-pieces and is definitely worthy of a restored version.

The audacious opening is remarkable: taking in several countries it explores the backstory of the four leads and how they came to end up on the run in South America.

But the film really kicks into gear when the perilous truck journey begins.

Two sequences are outstanding: one involving two trucks on a suspension bridge is a master class in tension, whilst another involving a blocked road is a brilliantly assembled set-piece.

There are also other things to savour: a hypnotic electronic score by Tangerine Dream, great use of real locations, some fine, world-weary performances and a memorable ending.

Part of the ongoing mystery of this film is why it failed so badly: did the studios effectively kill it before it had a chance? Did Friedkin upset powerful people in Hollywood?

Perhaps its pessimistic view of mankind at odds with the elaborate fantasy George Lucas had just unleashed on the world.

Roger Ebert said at the time that it was one of his favourite films of 1977 and wondered why it didn’t get a better release.

One aspect that puts people off to this day is the bizarre title, which is especially strange given that Friedkin’s previous film was called The Exorcist.

Some audiences might have been forgiven for thinking that this was a film along similar lines, especially as the credits shared the same font and the opening of both films feature creepy stone carvings.

Friedkin has said that the title came from a scout visit to Ecuador (where he had originally planned to shoot), where he noticed that trucks that were given names, including Sorcier (French for ‘Sorcerer’) and Lazarus, which he wrestled with for the title.

Both were better than his his original choice of ‘Ballbreaker’, which prompted the head of Universal Lew Wasserman to say: “are you fucking crazy?!”

Perhaps rights issues have also got in the way of a decent home release, with neither Universal or Paramount willing to devote the necessary time or money for a restoration.

The last official DVD release is from 1998 and it is unfortunately cropped to 4:3, even though it was originally shot in 1:85.

This is a hangover from the VHS era where some directors – such as Friedkin – preferred their widescreen films to be shown ‘full-frame’.

Earlier this year in a Q and A at the American Cinematheque, Friedkin hinted that he might do a Blu-ray release after he’s finished working on his latest film Killer Joe (2011).

It certainly is a film which has its admirers, most notably Stephen King who wrote an Entertainment Weekly column in 2009 singing its praises:

“Desperate men with nothing to lose set out in a truck convoy through the South American jungle. Their cargo is rotting dynamite sweating nitro, stuff so unstable the least bump may set it off. The original, Wages of Fear, is considered one of the greatest movies of the modern age, but I have a sneaking preference for Sorcerer, William Friedkin’s remake. Roy Scheider had two great roles: Chief Brody in Jaws and Jackie Scanlon in Sorcerer. These films generate suspense through beautiful simplicity.”

Screenwriter Josh Olsen is also a big fan of the film, as he describes in this Trailers from Hell video and hosted the aforementioned Q and A with Friedkin back in January.

With widescreen now ubiquitous in the home, perhaps it is time for a proper release of Sorcerer.

> Sorcerer at the IMDB
> William Friedkin at Wikipedia and MUBi

Categories
Thoughts

Senna and Social Media

F1 documentary Senna has used the web in interesting ways as it continues to impress audiences around the world.

Like many modern day organisations with something to sell, film companies have embraced websites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

After early doubts, the major studios seem particularly in love with it as the feedback on these platforms helps them build buzz and gauge feedback from audiences.

Big Hollywood stars like Russell Crowe, major producers such as Jerry Bruckheimer and directors like Jon Favreau regularly use and communicate via the service.

But whilst big studio releases still largely rely on traditional marketing techniques like TV advertising and outdoor posters, how can social media help out smaller releases?

Senna offers a particularly interesting case study.

A documentary about the life of legendary Brazilian motor-racing champion Ayrton Senna, it faced considerable commercial challenges.

After getting permission from Senna’s family, director Asif Kapadia faced the prospect of sifting through hours and hours of archive footage.

He had access to the F1 archives but also used the biggest video library on the planet: YouTube.

Much of the film consists of TV footage of Senna’s races from broadcasters like Brazil’s Globo or Japan’s Fuji TV.

Obviously, the production had to eventually get official clearances from those channels, but Kapadia has admitted that the concept for the documentary came as he researched YouTube footage in pre-production.

Speaking to David Poland in a recent interview he says:

“I had eight months to look at footage on YouTube and that’s when the idea came about, well, I don’t think we need to shoot talking head interviews – I don’t think we need to see them – we may well do research, we may well talk to people and hear their voices but actually it’s all there. The rushes, the dailies, are so amazing, I don’t know if there is anything I could shoot that would improve what’s already in existence”

YouTube was not only an invaluable research tool that helped shape the aesthetic of the film, it also helped it get greenlit:

“We cut a short film that came purely from YouTube material, which was 12 minutes long, to show this is how the movie could work. And that’s was how we got greenlit by Working Title and Universal”

The film benefits enormously from consisting entirely of found footage, as it makes it stand out from more conventional ‘talking head’ documentaries.

There is also the neat effect of seeing video technology progress as Senna ages, from the grainy 16mm footage of his early days to the sharper video images of the early 1990s.

Once the film was finished, the filmmakers and distributors faced the challenge of opening it around the world.

The F1 hotbeds of Japan and Brazil were obvious places to start and it premiered in October 2010 at the Japanese Grand Prix before opening in Brazil a month later.

Next stop was the festival circuit and the film played to rave reviews and awards at Sundance, SXSW, Los Angeles and Adelaide.

When it opened in the UK, it achieved a terrific screen average of £5,600 from 67 cinemas and an opening weekend of £375,000.

Over that weekend it was fascinating to watch Kapadia use Twitter to communicate with people who had seen or were thinking of seeing his film.

Before he appeared on a national radio station, he was already fielding questions and interacting with other users.

When you think of the tweets under the official movie account (@SennaMovie) and Kapadia’s own account (@asifkapadia), it provided the filmmakers and distributors with an amazing amount of direct feedback.

This was augmented by a Facebook page and an amazing YouTube channel which is a terrific video archive of interviews and other related material.

After a month on release – including a special day where it screened at multiplexes across the land – it had outgrossed the Justin Bieber film Never Say Never, and is currently the third highest grossing documentary ever at UK cinemas, behind Fahrenheit 9/11 and March of the Penguins.

For the US release, the movie faced the challenge of opening in a country where F1 is nowhere near as popular.

Given that Universal acted as the UK distributor, one might have expected their indie arm Focus Features to have picked it up at Sundance.

Cinetic Media were the film’s sales agent at the festival and decided to opt for the same approach they took with last year’s Exit Through The Gift Shop.

Released through upstart distributor PDA (Producers Distribution Agency), which Cinetic boss John Sloss co-founded with his partner Bart Walker, the Banksy documentary had surfed the buzz from a Sundance premiere, to gross $3.3m and get nominated for an Academy Award.

The innovative faux-documentary even outgrossed Kick Ass at the Arclight cinema in Los Angeles on its opening weekend.

Senna producer James Gay Rees had also worked on the Banksy film and seen the grass roots approach reap rich rewards.

Last weekend in the US it achieved the best opening this year for a documentary with a pre-screen average of $36,749 and rave reviews.

So far it has scored 80 on Metacritic, 93 on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 8.8/10 user rating on IMDb.

It will be fascinating to see how much it ends up making in America as word of mouth spreads.

But what lessons can be learnt from Senna and its clever use of social media?

Here are a few:

  1. A great movie is the best marketing tool: Ultimately the movie has to be good, but if it plays with an audience (and Senna really does) then social media can be a great amplifier for positive feedback.
  2. Direct, passionate engagement works: Seeing a passionate director communicating with any audience member on Twitter is kind of infectious. Kapadia didn’t just tweet ‘go see my movie’, he really embraced the platform and interacted with users, which is often what some people fail to do. I saw one tweeter complain about a cinema’s projection and Kapadia wanted to know details and also answered all sorts of questions about the film. At times watching his feed was like a permanent online press conference. His genuine passion for the film was evident and if anyone sees that on Twitter, the infectious enthusiasm transmits to other users. They in turn pass that on to their followers, and so it goes.
  3. Efficient screening information: With an indie release like Senna, the biggest question is usually ‘where can I see this film?’. Mainstream media often overlooks people who don’t inhabit large cities like London, New York or Los Angeles. So a rave review of a film in limited release is no good to someone in the provinces who can’t actually see it. However, the @SennaMovie twitter feed and Facebook page provided a wealth of detailed screening information that traditional media can’t or won’t supply. As social media grows, perhaps traditional movie listings may morph into specialised feeds which, thanks to modern smartphones, can be personalised to local areas.
  4. Think global: F1 truly is a truly global sport, only surpassed by football (a.k.a soccer) in terms of its reach around the world. Senna is not a blockbuster by any means but when the final grosses and ancillary profits are added up, it looks like there will be a nice spread of box office from around the world. Partly this comes from the hero at the heart of the film, but also because inspirational figures translate into any language be it Japan, Brazil or Europe. Its success in the US also disproves the doubters who felt Americans just wouldn’t get it. Not all subjects can be as popular as the F1 legend, but certain figures can translate into more cultures than we might initially think.
  5. The drama of documentary: Some of the raw footage in Senna is truly remarkable and reminds you of the challenges faced by biopics. Will Smith is really good in Ali (2001) but is not a patch on the real fighter in When We Were Kings (1996). Even if a crack team of Hollywood A-listers wanted to make a drama of this, they just can’t compete with the raw materials. The drama is embedded in the documentary form.
  6. The power of YouTube: Many traditional Hollywood types curse YouTube for the way it has essentially reshaped copyrighted material. Google (who own the site) remove copyrighted material on request, but the sheer amount that is uploaded means that it is still a haven for illegal sourced video, which studios don’t see any money from. But whilst they should bite the bullet and cut deals with Google for legal streaming of their movies, it remains an incredible research tool for filmmakers. Not only is it the biggest video library in the history of the world, it can lead to ideas, inspiration and – as the Senna team have shown with their dedicated channel – can be an effective way of spreading the word about the movie.
  7. Small can be beautiful: There is something fantastic about what PDA have done with Exit Through The Gift Shop and Senna. By adopting a grass roots approach they have shown that there is an alternative to the big ad spends of the major studios and the kind of distorted thinking that inflated the indie bubble which popped loudly in 2008. The marketing and release is truly driven by the actual films and the social media tools have connected the filmmakers with audiences in new and exciting ways. In a terrible financial climate for independent filmmaking maybe PDA have shone a light which others can follow.

> Official site and the film on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube
> More on Ayrton Senna at Wikipedia

Categories
News Thoughts

The London Riots of 2011

Over the last few days London has been ravaged by severe riots which have unleashed carnage on the UK’s capital city.

I write this as someone from the South East who has worked in and around the city for years and I still regularly commute there for work.

It is a city where I’ve seen films since I was a young boy, worked with friends and colleagues in radio and I was in North London on Saturday night when I first got an inkling that something was wrong.

Twitter lit up with reports of violence in Tottenham, initially triggered by the earlier death of a 29 year old man.

Since then it has escalated at an almost unbelievable rate as packs of looters have spread around London and other parts of the UK.

Although there have been riots before in the 1980s, the scale of this is truly something else.

For anyone outside the UK, who wants to know more about why parts of a modern Western nation have come to resemble a war zone check out the Wikipedia entry for the London Riots 2011 – it isn’t perfect, but is a good introduction.

In time there will be consequences for what has happened as the public, politicians and media debate the causes of what has gone on.

There is a lot of media available on the web, both social and traditional, so I thought I’d include some here in order to try and make sense of what’s gone on and to function as a running archive for what is still a developing story.

There is this Google Map which shows the scale of violent incidents across London and the UK on August 8th:


View Initial London riots / UK riots in a larger map

A more up to date map at The Guardian can be found here.

This AP report shows how the riots first kicked off in Tottenham on Saturday:

The Boston Globe have posted a series of images from the carnage of Saturday night.

This Flickr group from The Guardian has pooled hundreds of photos shot over the last few days:

This video of an injured man being mugged in Queens Road, Barking surfaced on Facebook and quickly went viral:

This video of a Hackney woman raging against the rioters was filmed and uploaded to TwitVid, and so far her impromptu speech has been viewed over 1.4 million times:

Earlier this morning, Leana Hosea of the BBC World Service spoke to looters in Croydon and the resulting audio soon became the second most popular audio/video piece on the BBC News site:

Leana Hosea speaks to Croydon looters on @bbcworldservice (mp3)

This video shot in Woolwich of rioters charging the police sadly became a symbol of the night as the forces of law seemed bewildered and outnumbered:

The Sony Distribution Centre in Enfield was set on fire and in one night dealt a devastating blow to numerous independent film and music labels who had stock there:

Richard Bacon on 5 Live did this interview with Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of the charity Kids Company, and the interview provoked a lot of response from listeners:

On a similar note, Mary Riddell wrote a must-read column in the Daily Telegraph (a conservative newspaper) which analysed why this explosion of violence took the media and political establishment by surprise.

Matt Burgess used Storify to gather various images and videos from social networks like Twitter and YouTube:

The violence has spread to other cities including Birmingham and Manchester.

One can only hope that order is restored soon.

> More on the London Riots of 2011 at Wikipedia
> Get the latest updates on BBC News, The Guardian, Telegraph and NY Times

Categories
Thoughts

The Spielberg Influences on Super 8

How much of Steven Spielberg’s early work is referenced in Super 8?

If you’ve seen the film you’ll know that writer-director J.J. Abrams draws deeply from the era of Spielberg’s early blockbusters, with the famous director even coming on board as co-creator and producer.

But in terms of specifics, here are a list of Spielberg films that seem to be particular touchstones for Super 8.

JAWS (1975)

Spielberg’s mainstream breakthrough was about a shark terrorising a small town and featured a law enforcement officer (Roy Scheider) struggling to maintain order.

In Super 8 there is also a small town deputy (Kyle Chandler) and although he isn’t the main character, he plays a similar role in uncovering the mysterious goings on in the town.

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977)

Perhaps the most influential film on Super 8 is Spielberg’s second blockbuster, which explores what happens to two everyday families who discover that the US military are covering up the existence of UFOs.

The overall plot of Super 8 also involves two families, a military cover-up, a key scene involving a truck by a rail road, and characters empathising with strange forces.

In particular, the presence of the US military plays a big part in each film.

There are other references, which you should consider after watching the film.

E.T. THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL (1982)

Arguably Spielberg’s most famous film, the coming-of-age tale about a young boy (Henry Thomas) who befriends an alien has close parallels with Super 8.

In J.J. Abrams film, the protagonist is also a young boy (Joel Courtney) from a single parent family who grows up in a small town.

Like E.T. the forces of law and order are frequently sinister and are contrasted to other beings in the film.

POLTERGEIST (1982)

Although directed by Tobe Hooper, Spielberg was very closely involved with this 1982 horror film as a producer.

So, closely in fact that a rumour persisted for years that Spielberg had indeed directed some of it.

It bore the hallmarks of his early career: threats to a suburban family; fantastical forces and a child at the centre of the drama.

Super 8 certainly ventures into this territory, but for particular references look out for a blonde girl being central to the action and something under the ground being important to the film.

THE GOONIES (1985)

This adventure-comedy was directed by Richard Donner but was another example of Spielberg producing.

The screenplay was adapted from his own story by Chris Columbus (one of his many one proteges in this period) and the basic premise revolves around a group of kids who go on an adventure.

Super 8 has obvious parallels, with a group of young filmmaker friends trying to get to the bottom of a mysterious train crash that they have unwittingly captured on film.

Did you notice any other Spielberg references in Super 8?

> Full review of Super 8
> More on Steven Spielberg at Wikipedia

Categories
Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Whilst pushing boundaries in visual effects, the latest instalment of the Planet of the Apes franchise is less successful at old fashioned elements like story and character.

Pierre Boule’s 1963 novel about a world where apes are the dominate species inspired a franchise of five films from 1968 to 1973, the most notable being the original Planet of the Apes (1968) starring Charlton Heston.

After an unwise big-budget remake from Tim Burton in 2001, 20th Century Fox have decided to revive the series by going back to the present day and exploring the early origins of intelligent apes.

The story begins when a San Francisco scientist (James Franco) develops a possible cure for Alzheimer’s Disease and over a period of several years notices the remarkable effects of his new drug on a chimpanzee named Caesar (Andy Serkis), who gradually begins to rebel against his human masters.

Essentially a prequel very loosely based on the original films, the main aim here was to create a summer blockbuster in which the main attraction is not a movie star or character but the visual effects.

Employing Weta Digital, the main effects company behind The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Avatar, the film does indeed break ground in the field of performance capture technology.

Having Andy Serkis play the lead ape via performance capture technology certainly gives his character a sense of believability and depth, that a purely digital version created from scratch would not.

Not only do the faces of the apes feel more authentic but their movement and interplay with live action characters is about as impressive as the current technology will allow.

The basic storyline of the apes rising also builds on the powerful metaphor that has made the franchise endure over several decades as a kind of riff on Frankenstein and the arrogance of mankind.

However, the film also cuts corners in vital areas, with the human drama weakened by undercooked writing and an overreliance on digital effects.

The main actors are woefully underwritten and simply going through the motions: Franco walks through the film in a haze (much like he did whilst presenting the Oscars), Frieda Pinto as his partner is merely a cipher, John Lithgow is only intermittently engaging as Franco’s father and David Oyelowo is given an utterly ridiculous role as the token corporate villain in a suit.

Also popping up in curiously underdeveloped roles as ape-keepers are Brian Cox (who is shamefully wasted) and Tom Felton, who appears like he’s on a sabbatical from the Harry Potter franchise.

This all makes the interaction between the two species less effective because it is hard to care about apes rising when the humans are such one-note dullards.

The visual scope is also limited by director Rupert Wyatt using a lot of interior locations: houses, labs and cages dominate much of the film and even when it ventures outside for the big finale, one of the most iconic locations in America is clearly an alternative bridge augmented by green screen effects.

As a studio Fox has become very fond of shooting major releases on an efficient budget in places such as Canada, like The A-Team (2010), or Australasia, such as X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009).

This obviously pleases the studio accountants but reduces the scale and overall visual feel of films on the big screen and Rise of the Planet of the Apes does not benefit from this penny-pinching approach.

Given that the main selling point is the visual effects, the film also suffers from an intriguing paradox – in that as they get more detailed and realistic, they become more noticeable to the human eye.

The most impressive aspect are the close up shots of Caesar’s basic interaction with human beings, but when they try to do flashy ‘one take’ shots of him swinging around the house or climbing trees, the realism is diminished.

One of the supposed advances in this film is that advanced visual creations are seen in real life locations, but that is actually part of the problem.

Watching this on an unforgiving big screen, one can see the digital joins in certain scenes which make the technically ‘inferior’ old school approach of ape make-up – as used in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or the 1968 and 2001 versions of The Planet of the Apes – seem more believable.

But whilst the film is a decidedly mixed bag, there may be a strong appetite for a big release that isn’t an animated feature or a film based on a comic book character.

Fox have been keeping this film under wraps until the last week, which they claim was a result of working the visual effects up to the last possible minute.

I suspect it was part of a more carefully planned marketing strategy, as the selling point of this film is that the creepy Frankenstein narrative gives it a different tone to the good versus evil stories that have littered the multiplexes this summer.

This film could mark the resurgence of a franchise whose apocalyptic atmosphere may chime in with current fears of an economic collapse, but it also shows the limits of even the most advanced visual effects, if traditional elements are found wanting.

Aside from having one too many the’s in the title, the film is almost a metaphor for itself: advanced technology (CGI) is used to create super apes (on screen) but only ends up showing how shallow humans are.

> Official website
> Reviews at Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes
> Find out more about the Planet of the Apes franchise at Wikipedia
> Popular Mechanics interview Andy Serkis about the motion capture process

Categories
Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Cowboys and Aliens

An uneasy blend of Western and science fiction is another reminder of the dangers of pandering to the Comic-Con mentality.

Based on a 2006 graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, the story begins in 1873 when the enigmatic Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the Arizona desert with no memory and a mysterious device around his wrist.

On entering the local town he discovers a local lawman (Harrison Ford) is after him, but when mysterious alien forces attack, people soon realise this stranger might hold the key to their salvation.

The easiest way to describe the premise of Cowboys and Aliens is that it plays like an unholy mix of Unforgiven (1992) and War of the Worlds (2005), although it never really works as a western or an alien invasion movie.

Ultimately the biggest problem is that it never rises above its goofy high-concept premise and simply lurches from one set-piece to another, whilst scrambling to find coherence in half-baked clichés.

It’s a difficult film to fully analyse without giving too many plot spoilers away, but the twists range from the predictable to the ridiculous and the presence of five credited screenwriters is revealing.

The huge gaping holes in the story are compounded by thinly written roles: Craig is uneasy as the mysterious loner; Ford hams it up as the cranky lawman; Wilde is utterly wasted in a curious role; and the supporting cast (including Sam Rockwell) is treated little better.

This is not to say that the film is a total write off.

Director Jon Favreau shoots the Western elements with some skill, making great use of the New Mexico landscapes and, in some scenes, cinematographer Matthew Libatique brings the same visual pop  that made Iron Man (2008) so vibrant.

The look of the period is convincingly realised with the production design by Scott Chambliss and costumes by Mary Zophres, whilst the visual effects by ILM (supervised by Roger Guyett) are generally first-rate.

Whilst the cowboys are watchable, the aliens are walking clichés that we’ve seen before in many movies, with the same physical attributes, spacecraft and vague motives that characterise the sci-fi genre.

Although the opening is intriguing, by the end there is very little audiences haven’t actually seen before, including: token memory flashbacks, gruff characters learning to become nice, and traditional enemies joining forces against a common enemy.

At one point, there also appears to be a deeply questionable visual reference to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.

After a protracted development history over fourteen years, it bears the hallmarks of an idea that has been prodded and embellished with the sole intention of getting geeks excited at Comic-Con.

In fact, a quick look at the history of this project reveals that’s exactly what happened.

After the success of Iron Man, perhaps Jon Favreau felt he owed something to the fans that went nuts about the project at Comic-Con in 2007 as that film worked and gave a boost to his career.

But Iron Man 2 (2010) and Cowboys and Aliens are casebook studies of the perils of pandering to the fans: both surfed a wave of pre-release hype, but were proved inferior films when they finally came out.

Last year may have marked a watershed for the major studios and Comic-Con: both panels for Cowboys and Aliens and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World got people excited in the fevered atmosphere of Hall-H, but baffled mainstream audiences.

Scott Pilgrim bombed and although it is still early days for Cowboys and Aliens, which opens in the US this weekend, the early signs aren’t good and it may even suffer the ignominy of being beaten by The Smurfs movie this weekend.

One of the early marketing problems it faced was that some people mistakenly thought the premise was comedic, which although not true, does actually speaks volumes about the deficiencies of the film.

The final film feels like the result a studio pitch-meeting that geeks were invited to (“Cowboys and aliens? Awesome!”).

But the Comic-Con mindset is all bout celebrating what a movie could be, rather than what it actually is: in recent years list of Comic-Con flops grows ever longer (Sucker Punch perhaps being the ultimate example) as the hype of Hall H fades into the reality of the multiplex.

Maybe its time for the studios to allow filmmakers to focus on making better films rather than whipping up hype at conventions several months before it has even been released.

There is a director who has managed to do this very successfully. His name? Christopher Nolan.

> Official site
> Reviews of Cowboys and Aliens at Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes
> More on the original graphic novel at Wikipedia

Categories
News Thoughts

The Saddest Movie Scene of All Time?

The Smithsonian magazine recently reported that The Champ (1979) contains the saddest movie scene of all time.

Although you might think that such a claim was the result of a reader poll or a subjective list by journalists, it turns out to have a basis in science.

Franco Zefirelli’s boxing drama starring Jon Voight, Faye Dunaway and Ricky Schroder has a special place in the hearts of scientists, who have used a scene from the film (spoiler alert if you click through) to gauge subject’s emotions.

Richard Chin writes in the current issue:

The Champ has been used in experiments to see if depressed people are more likely to cry than non-depressed people (they aren’t). It has helped determine whether people are more likely to spend money when they are sad (they are) and whether older people are more sensitive to grief than younger people (older people did report more sadness when they watched the scene). Dutch scientists used the scene when they studied the effect of sadness on people with binge eating disorders (sadness didn’t increase eating).

It dates back to research conducted by the University of California in 1988, when psychology researchers were looking for movie scenes that triggered a single emotion at a time.

The emotions and films used to trigger them were as follows:

After numerous tests it was found that the pivotal scene in The Champ triggered sadness exclusively more than any other film they screened (Bambi was second).

Since then the three-minute clip has been cited in hundreds of scientific articles and even been used as a humane way to make test subjects sad in other studies.

But of course, emotions triggered when watching a film can be acutely personal and sad scenes can easily lapse into sentimentality.

With that in mind, here are some of the saddest movie scenes I can think of which don’t fall into cliché.

There is the montage sequence from Up (2009):

This scene from The Elephant Man (1980):

I’ve Tried So Hard to be Good
The Elephant Man at MOVIECLIPS.com

Then there is this scene from Terms of Endearment (1984) – spoiler alert if you haven’t seen it:

Emma’s Goodbyes
Terms of Endearment at MOVIECLIPS.com

Then of course, there is the pivotal flashback scene from Sophie’s Choice (1982), which deserves a category all of its own (major spoiler warning for that one).

Any other suggestions?

> Original article in The Smithsonian
> The Champ at the IMDb
> PDF of the original study ‘Emotion Elicitation Using Films’ by James J. Gross and Robert W. Levenson in ‘Congition and Emotion’ (1995)

Categories
DVD & Blu-ray Reviews Thoughts

Blu-ray: Conan the Barbarian

The film that established Arnold Schwarzenegger as a box office star stands up surprisingly well on Blu-ray.

It is one of the great mysteries of modern cinema: how on earth did an Austrian body builder become one of the biggest movie stars on the planet?

The answer lies in Conan the Barbarian, a sword and sorcery epic which came about at just the right time for the former Mr Universe.

After an illustrious career in bodybuilding Schwarzenegger gradually made the movie into movies by appearing in The Long Goodbye (1973), Stay Hungry (1976), the docudrama Pumping Iron (1977) and The Villain (1979).

Meanwhile, a screenwriter named Oliver Stone was struggling to get people interested in a movie of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories and when he and producer Edward R. Pressman eventually sold the idea to Dino De Laurentis, the famed producer subsequently hired John Milius to re-write and direct.

Milius was, and remains, an interesting figure: although he was coming off the commercial failure of his personal surfer movie Big Wednesday (1978), his writing contributions to classic 1970s cinema were considerable.

Not only did he come up with some of the most memorable ideas in Apocalypse Now (1979), including the classic helicopter attack set to Wagner, but he also made telling contributions to Dirty Harry (1971) and Jaws (1975).

A self-described ‘Zen anarchist’, he also went on to join the board of the National Rifle Association and inspire the character of Walter Sobchak (played by John Goodman) in The Big Lebowski (1998).

Conan the Barbarian represented an opportunity for Milius to indulge his passion for medieval fantasy and Nietzschean ideas about the will to power, and for Schwarzenegger was a perfect role for someone of his physique.

Set during a fictional prehistoric age, the story is about a young boy named Conan who witnesses the death of his parents at the hands of sinister warrior Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones).

Later as a grown man he embarks on revenge, along with two fellow warriors Subotai (Gerry Lopez), Valeria (Sandahl Bergman) and the wizard Akiro (Mako), when a King (Max von Sydow) recruits him to rescue his daughter from the clutches of Doom.

I hadn’t seen Conan in many years and was surprised at how well it holds up as a fantasy romp, even though closer inspection of its underlying ideas might lead one to suspect that Milius identifies with the politics of Genghis Khan (the Mongol leader is even loosely quoted by the lead character at one point) .

Opening with an introductory quote by Nietzsche (“That which does not kill us makes us stronger”) we are quickly thrust into a world of beheadings, slavery, killer dogs, gladiatorial combat, orgies, cannibalism and people who worship large snakes.

By modern standards, it is refreshingly dark for a mainstream film and would probably struggle to get financed today in an era where major studios favour PG-13 entertainment.

Schwarzenegger fits the title role like a glove and his relative inexperience as an actor actually works in his favour, as the character of Conan feels more authentic due to his striking physicality and one-note acting.

Apparently on set Arnold told Milius that he would take directions like a trained dog and this actually makes perfect sense – not only did allay his worries about being a lead actor but it allowed him to focus on becoming a convincing medieval warrior.

The actors who play his cohorts (Lopez and Bergman) also suit their roles well and the presence of Earl Jones and Von Sydow in more intimidating roles lends a certain gravitas to proceedings.

Perhaps most memorable of all is the stunning use of various locations in Spain, using locations in Andalusia favoured by spaghetti westerns, which are augmented by some splendid production design, the centrepiece being a giant staircase built on a mountainside.

Then there is the enduring score by Basil Poledouris, which provides a rousing and wonderfully rich audio backdrop to the film – it proved so influential that it was subsequently used in many trailers for other movies.

It looks surprisingly sharp on Blu-ray (despite traces of grain) and although I don’t think the film has been fully restored, this is almost certainly the best it has ever looked.

There has been some controversy over how the BBFC have cut the film in the past.

The UK censor has a low tolerance policy for scenes showing animals getting hurt and Conan is an example of a film shot before more stringent production standards were adopted regarding the welfare of animals on set.

Some sequences where horses fell for real were cut by the BBFC for the home video release but fans of the film feel this screws up the continuity of some scenes, especially during one of the climactic fights.

However, UK viewers can access the uncut French version of the film by simply selecting that version on the root menu of the disc.

The commentary track featuring Milius and Schwarzenegger (originally recorded for the DVD release) is hilarious and filled with wonderful rambling anecdotes about the production and the ideas behind the film.

The extras are as follows:

  • UK Theatrical Version (triggered from English Menu’s only)
  • Commentary by Director John Milius & Arnold Schwarzenegger
  • Deleted Scenes Sequence
  • Conan Unchained: The Making of Conan
  • Conan – Rise of the Fantasy Legend
  • Special Effects Split Screen Video
  • The Conan Archives
  • Theatrical Trailers
  • New Extra: Art of Steel: The Blacksmith & Swordsman: Examines the making of and significance of Conan’s Sword. (10mins)
  • New Extra: Conan; From the Vault: Newly discovered interviews shot in 1982 with Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Milius, James Earl Jones and Sandhal Bergman. (10mins)

> Buy Conan the Barbarian on Blu-ray or DVD from Amazon UK
> Conan the Barbarian at the IMDb
> Find out more about the Conan character at Wikipedia

Categories
Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Captain America: The First Avenger

The latest Marvel character comes to the big screen in a period fantasy which has its moments but is ultimately diminished by being part of a wider comic book narrative.

Ever since 2008, Marvel Studios has been on something of a roll.

Previously, major Hollywood studios had licensed Marvel properties such as Spider-Man, X-Men and Fantastic Four and reaped huge commercial rewards in the resulting movies.

With Iron Man (2008) the comic book company decided to finance a movie themselves – with major studio just distributing -and monetise their properties more effectively than they had done before.

The resulting film was significant as it was not only a huge hit which rejuvenated the career of Robert Downey Jnr, but the beginning of a connected franchise of films involving Marvel characters.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (it has its own Wikipedia page) includes: The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) and The Avengers (2012).

Captain America’s story begins with a present day discovery in the Arctic, before flashing back to the 1940s when a plucky Brooklyn weakling named Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is recruited to be part of a secret program headed by expatriate German scientist (Stanley Tucci).

He becomes part of a ‘super-soldier’ program under the command of a Colonel (Tommy Lee Jones) and British officer (Hayley Atwell), whilst in Europe his evil German counterpart Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) has a contrasting transformation into the villainous Red Skull.

What follows is a standard superhero origin story, but the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely deftly pokes fun at the patriotic origins of the character whilst at the same time largely delivering the action movie goods.

Unlike Iron Man, it is hard to imagine a modern incarnation of Captain America in an age where US foreign policy has angered so much of the world, but the period setting is a smart move, as it allows us an ironic distance from the character and the story.

Director Joe Johnston was presumably recruited because he made The Rocketeer (1991), another period superhero film set around World War 2, and to a degree that pays off, as the old fashioned look, witty dialogue and romantic angles are well realised.

But there are some underlying problems to this version of Captain America, which stem from the underlying blandness of the character, the uneasy mix of period design and CGI, and the creeping familiarity of the Avengers universe.

Steve Rogers is still a fairly one-dimensional hero and although there are nice recurring motifs (such as his use of a shield), he’s still the archetypal loner surrounded by characters who initially doubt and then come to respect him.

The actors do their best: Chris Evans has a steady, innocent charm in the lead role and Hayley Atwell and Tommy Lee Jones are also good value, but the underlying material doesn’t really provide them with anything truly substantial.

The production design by Rich Heinrichs features some good use of sets and real world locations (with various UK places standing in for Brooklyn and World War 2 Europe) but for many of the more expansive action sequences CGI is used in a distracting way.

This is a problem that plagues many modern action films and in crucial sequences the mix of real actors and CGI enhanced backgrounds just doesn’t look right.

The 3D compounds the problem as it not only reduces the brightness of the film, but the post-conversion process used here doesn’t provide images of sufficient depth or detail.

In contrast, the sound design supervised by Howell Gibbens is first rate and gives the action sequences a real kick, especially in the action sequences and the moments involving Captain America’s iconic shield.

Alan Silvestri’s old fashioned score also adds the appropriate lift to the proceedings.

But the wider Avengers universe is always hovering in the background: we see Tony Stark’s father (Dominic Cooper) and there’s a climax involving the now obligatory cameo from a certain S.H.I.E.L.D agent, along with a post-credits scene for hardcore fans.

This is all part of leading up to next year’s Avengers movie, which will combine the characters of Iron Man, Thor, Hulk and Captain America, but the whole approach of the franchise so far has made the Marvel films up to this point feel like watered down prequels rather than standalone movies.

Captain America: The First Avenger has its moments but ultimately makes you pine for a superhero movie which has a proper resolution and doesn’t feel part of some brightly coloured, never-ending franchise.

But don’t panic: The Dark Knight Rises is out next summer.

Captain America: The First Avenger opens in the UK on Friday 29th July

> Official site
> Reviews of Captain America at Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes
> Find out more about the Captain America character at Wikipedia

Categories
Box Office Thoughts

The Inflation Adjustment

Should box office grosses be adjusted for inflation?

With the Harry Potter film franchise coming to an end this week there is a dispute about whether or not it is the most successful film series in history.

Wikipedia says it is:

But The Economist report that another British icon, James Bond, remains the box office champ:

But who is right?

It would seem to depend on which information you choose to include or accept.

When people talk about the highest grossing films of all time, there is often a debate about whether or not Gone with the Wind (1939) is still the biggest film of all time.

When Avatar broke Titanic’s record Forbes published an article making this point.

Why?

It involves the magical words ‘adjusted for inflation‘, but how exactly is inflation adjusted?

Over at Box Office Mojo they describe their process:

Inflation-adjustment is mostly done by multiplying estimated admissions by the latest average ticket price. Where admissions are unavailable, adjustment is based on the average ticket price for when each movie was released (taking in to account re-releases where applicable).

Essentially what they are saying is that a simple bit of guesswork maths comes up with the following equation:

(estimated admissions x latest average ticket prices)

There is a certain logic to that, but what about the era before home entertainment really exploded in the 1980s?

Films such as Gone with the Wind were re-released at cinemas because there was no home entertainment ‘afterlife’.

Until the advent of television in the 1950s, VHS in the 1980s and DVD in 1990s films like this could only be seen in cinemas.

Box Office Mojo further describe how they account for this in their ‘adjusted for inflation’ box office chart:

* Indicates documented multiple theatrical releases. Most of the pre-1980 movies listed on this chart had multiple undocumentented releases over the years. The year shown is the first year of release. Most pre-1980 pictures achieved their totals through multiple releases, especially Disney animated features which made much of their totals in the past few decades belying their original release dates in terms of adjustment. For example, Snow White has made $118,328,683 of its unadjusted $184,925,486 total since 1983.

So Gone with the Wind and classic Disney movies hugely benefitted from re-releases over the years, simply because there was no home entertainment market.

Dig further and it gets even more complicated.

According to Box Office Mojo weekend box office data was primitive at best, even well in to the 1990s:

many movies from the 80s to mid-90s may not have as extensive weekend box office data and many movies prior to 1980 may not have weekend data at all, so the full timeframe for when that movie made its money may not be available. In such cases (and where actual number of tickets sold is not available), we can only adjust based on its total earnings and the average ticket price for the year it was released.

Still, this should be a good general guideline to gauge a movie’s popularity and compare it to other movies released in different years or decades. Since inflation adjusted sales figures are therefore not widely publicized by the film industry, inflation adjusted sales rankings and ticket sales comparisons across the last 100 years are difficult to compile.

So although we can get a rough idea of the popularity of a particular film, is it really so sensible to claim Gone with the Wind is a bigger film than Avatar based on a series of calculations?

If you go down the mathematical adjustment route, more things have to be factored in and that leads to even more questions.

What do changing ticket prices really say?

Whilst it is true that the cost of seeing Gone with the Wind in the 1930s was less than Avatar in 2009, there are other issues that come in to play.

The most obvious is the fundamental differences of two eras: films were released in a gradual way up until the 1970s and there were no computers or any of the data tracking tools studios now take for granted.

There is also the slippery nature of inflation itself: do the changes in ticket prices over several decades vary?

Inflation is used as a catch all term, but the rate of inflation may be different in 1950, 1970 and 2000 (is your head exploding yet?).

So, the equation which links ticket prices and inflation are on shifting sands.

Even if you compared the number of tickets sold, rather than the amount they sold for, you’ve got the additional problem of older machines and the retention of data from eras that weren’t using computers or keeping any detailed records.

(I would assume that grosses for films in the early 20th century were either reported in trade journals, newspapers or studio records)

What about the last decade? How do we measure the impact of 3D and IMAX prices, as you might argue that the grosses for Avatar and The Dark Knight were ‘artificially inflated’ by these newer formats which have in-built higher prices.

But what happens when you don’t adjust for inflation at all?

It would seem that over the last decade major movie studios have pushed this line, with wider releases on more screens so that they can use the term record-breaking as part of their marketing strategy.

If you look at the current top 10 grossing films of all time on Wikipedia, the list is dominated by big franchises from the last decade.

The only exception is Titanic (1997) at number 2.

But what this list really reveals is that modern marketing and distribution systems are more advanced than ever before.

If you want a different perspective, consider the following films: The Birth of a Nation (1915), Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929), The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), Rear Window (1954), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), The Godfather (1972) and Blazing Saddles (1974).

What do they have in common?

The answer is that they were the most successful films of their respective years, which Wikipedia have usefully listed under another list of the highest-grossing films by year:

After Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) the list is mostly filled by action or fantasy tent-pole releases, with the 2000s being dominated by pirates, wizards and hobbits.

Wikipedia explains the normalizing of data to individual years:

Normalizing this to the reference year normalizes all social, economical, and political factors such as the availability of expendable cash, number of theater screens, relative cost of tickets, competition from television, the rapid releases of movies on DVDs, the improvement of home theater equipment, and film bootlegging.

For example, in 1946 the per capita movie ticket purchasing rate for the average person was 34 tickets a year. In 2004, this average rate had dropped to only five tickets per person per year, in response mainly to competition from television.

There is a lot to be said for this approach as captures what films meant in a particular social and historical context.

I think it also brings us back to the central question of whether or not we should even attempt to adjust for inflation.

The modern day film industry is structured around newly released films, so they have a vested interest in not doing it.

After all 20th Century Fox don’t exactly want to promote Avatar on billboards as:

“The biggest film of all time – apart from Gone with the Wind!”

At the same time, there is some value in trying to account for different eras and the impact particular films had.

Theatrical box office can sometimes be a little misleading.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994) initially failed at the box office, but was the most rented film on video in 1995 and now regularly tops the IMDb 250 (it is currently ahead of its perennial rival The Godfather).

The Bourne Identity (2002) was a decent hit at the box office, but went on to become the most rented film in America on VHS and DVD in 2003, thus paving the way for the greater success of the following sequels.

These are exceptions but show what impact word of mouth can have in an era of home entertainment.

Perhaps a more useful way of measuring the box office over time is a combination of considering what films made the most money in the current era, along with checking what was successful in a particular year.

It isn’t perfect but shows the complications that can lie under what seems to be simple facts.

> Box Office Mojo’s list of the highest grossing films of all time (adjusted for inflation)
> Wikipedia’s list of the highest grossing films of all time
> Forbes article from 2010 on Avatar vs Gone with the Wind

Categories
Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

The final chapter of the highest grossing film franchise in history will delight fans and presumably break box office records, even though the final book shouldn’t have been split in two for the big screen.

Opening with a brief snippet of the climax to Part 1 (intriguingly before the studio logo), the final Potter extravaganza deals with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) finally confronting his destiny and taking on his wizard nemesis Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) as the forces of darkness surround Hogwarts.

For those that aren’t Potter experts here is a brief summary of the film series so far:

  • Philosopher’s Stone (2001): Harry enrols at Hogwarts, a school for wizards headed by Professor Dumbledore, where he makes friends with Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. We learn Harry’s parents were killed by the evil Lord Voldemort, who wants to become human and kill him too.
  • Chamber of Secrets (2002): Returning to Hogwarts, Harry learns about a series of attacks on students and a secret chamber where he has to kill a large serpent and defeat Lord Voldemort’s ‘memory’, which is in an enchanted diary.
  • Prisoner of Azkaban (2003): Harry hears an escaped murderer named Sirius Black is after him but realises Black was framed and is actually his godfather.
  • Goblet of Fire (2005): Harry enters the Triwizard Tournament at Hogwarts and witnesses the return of Lord Voldemort to human form.
  • Order of the Phoenix (2007): Harry forms a secret student group after Hogwarts comes under the influence of a new teacher and ends up having to fight Voldemort’s followers (Death Eaters) at the Ministry of Magic.
  • Half-Blood Prince (2009): Harry learns how Voldemort has been using special artefacts (‘Horcruxes’) to become immortal and sees his mentor Dumbledore killed by Severus Snape, a teacher at Hogwarts who Harry has had suspicions about.

In the The Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010), Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) followed clues left by the late Dumbledore and went in search of Horcruxes  (magical artefacts) to help them kill Voldemort, whilst avoiding the clutches of his followers.

Part 2 opens with Voldemort in possession of Dumbledore’s wand, whilst Harry and his gang have to get back to Hogwarts to destroy more Horcuxes and fight off the forces surrounding their school.

Now, did any of these plot details make your head spin?

One of the problems in writing anything about the Potter films is that it’s like reporting from a large foreign country – people know it exists but can get confused by the local details.

In many the Harry Potter phenomenon is the Star Wars of its generation – a franchise which recycles previous tales of good and evil, repackages them with special effects and places them within a detailed fantasy world.

When the films began in 2001, there was already a generation of children obsessed with the books (by then the fourth had been published to record breaking sales), so there was already a built-in audience.

But Warner Bros were smart to preserve J.K. Rowling’s vision and even if you are not a fan, these films are faithful to the books and technically well made.

Since David Yates started directing the films with The Order of the Phoenix (2007), there seems to have been a ramping up of the films in terms of scale and effects, even though they weren’t exactly small to begin with.

With this, the decision to split the final book in two was presumably made because the source material was longer than before and the studio was getting two blockbusters for essentially the price of one (albeit large) production.

Although this story is fast-paced, it feels like the third act of a previous film spread too thinly and perhaps the correct way for fans to see it is to experience it as a double-bill with Part 1.

Experienced in isolation, this film moves a bit too fast, whereas the previous film was a bit too slow.

At a running time of 131 minutes, Part 2 is essentially a war film in the wizarding universe as Hogwarts is under siege from Voldemort’s hordes: this means some key developments (especially involving two major characters) don’t really get the screen time they deserve and are drowned out by the clash of magical armies and characters brandishing wands.

Voldemort isn’t as scary now either, which is a bit of a let down considering the whole series has been leading up to this confrontation.

The best narrative pay off involves Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), who has a flashback montage that shows new sides to his character.

By coincidence I happened to see this on the same day as watching Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and was struck by certain bizarre similarities: there is an extended flashback sequence involving trees, flowing water and an idealised red haired woman, plus there is also a sequence which touches upon issues of mortality.

Despite obvious differences with Malick, it is unusually bold territory for a children’s franchise to venture.

But part of the main appeal of the film franchise over the past decade is how they have provided a showcase for the latest in visual effects and cutting edge CGI.

The Yates films have been especially impressive at spectacle and here DP Eduardo Serra, the VFX crew under John Richardson and production designer Stuart Craig all work wonders in integrating CGI with real world locations and sets.

One of the more positive by products of the Potter series has been the growth in UK effects houses such as Double Negative, MPC, Cinesite and Framestore, who all sign off the franchise with absolutely sterling work.

The decision to make this 3D is a nakedly financial one that adds little to the visual impact of the film and the 2D version may be preferable for general  audience (For the record, I saw it in 3D).

A final coda suggests there is room to expand the franchise if Rowling and Warner Bros wanted to, although whether that would be wise is another question.

With each new film over the last decade, the series has become something of a slog to those not addicted to the books, as you try to recap previous events and characters, so there is something satisfying that it is all finally over.

So, the final chapter is doubly satisfying: for fans it delivers the visual spectacle and reverence to the books, whilst for general audiences it is a last chance to experience the franchise before getting sick of the boy wizard and his pals.

Official site
Find out more about the Harry Potter series at Wikipedia
> Reviews at Metacritic

Categories
Cinema Reviews Thoughts

The Tree of Life

UK cinemagoers can now finally see Terrence Malick’s latest film but how does it hold up after all the buzz and anticipation?

Ever since his debut Badlands (1973) screened to acclaim at the New York Film Festival nearly 40 years ago, a Terrence Malick film has become something of an event.

One of the most audacious directorial debuts in US cinema was followed five years later with Days of Heaven (1978), a troubled production which fortunately yielded one of the most visually remarkable films of the 1970s.

Then there followed a twenty year period where Malick didn’t make any movies, a time which stoked his legend and made people revisit the extraordinary beauty and craftsmanship of his work and cemented his place in the canon of American cinema.

Just when it seemed he would become the J.D. Salinger of US cinema, in the mid-90s it emerged that he was actually returning with an adaptation of the World War II novel The Thin Red Line (1998), which has the distinction of being one of the greatest and most unusual war films ever released by a major studio.

Six years later he made The New World (2005), a retelling of the Pocahontas story which contained the same slow-burn ecstasy as his previous work along with some breathtaking use of imagery and music.

Malick remains an enigma as his refusal to do any publicity or play by conventional Hollywood practice is matched by an extensive network of admirers and supporters throughout the very system he flouts.

Up to this point his forty year career has been highly singular.

Not since Stanley Kubrick has a filmmaker achieved such creative control nor inspired such reverential awe amongst his peers and true cineastes.

Financing for this film was presumably a bit trickier than his last two, but River Road Entertainment and producer Bill Pohlad managed to raise the reported $32 million budget and followed the recent Malick formula of casting a big star alongside talented newcomers.

The production was three years in the making, with the bulk of photography taking place in 2008 and various other elements stretched out until it eventually premièred at Cannes back in May.

One of the most hotly anticipated festival screenings in years, it seemed to divide initial reaction at the festival (it was both booed and cheered at the press screening in the morning), but with high praise from experienced trade critics, the film was rapturously received at the evening premiere and went on to win the Palme d’Or.

Malick was actually spotted at the festival, but the producers accepted the award on his behalf and there was a wonderful symmetry to The Tree of Life winning a trophy of golden leaves.

Over the last few weeks Fox Searchlight have given it a platform release and amongst discerning film goers it has become one of the must-see events of the summer.

After all, this is a work by one of America’s most revered directors featuring one of the biggest movie stars on the planet.

But exactly is The Tree of Life all about?

It charts the memories of an architect (Sean Penn) as he remembers his childhood growing up in 1950s Texas, with two contrasting parents: his stern father (Brad Pitt), loving mother (Jessica Chastain) and two brothers.

At the same time, there is an extended sequence which explores the beginnings of creation and the development of life.

But the surprising aspect of the film is how these seemingly disparate strands do actually mesh.

Whilst it may divide opinion, there is nothing here that should perturb anyone with a genuinely open mind.

It is difficult to discuss specific story points without spoilers, but this is not some kind of art house indulgence but an inspired meditation on human existence and memory.

The signature Malick motifs are here: internal monologue voiceover, magic hour visuals and elliptical editing, and it follows themes he has previously explored, such as life, death and the nature of man.

Here Malick explores how life began but also asks the more pressing question of how death affects how we live our lives: should we embrace the selfish instinct to merely survive or a more compassionate approach to appreciate the present?

These two ways are embodied in the characters of the father and mother but also relate to any living thing in the history of the world, which is why the inclusion of Malick staples such as creatures and plants is not only appropriate but significant.

That the film relates these to the story of Penn’s character and his memories of childhood is part of its particular wonder: it is almost as if Malick was born to make this.

Parallels have been drawn to the director’s own life story and there is no doubt that this is an acutely personal film which I suspect has been brewing inside of him for a very long time.

Some viewers of a particular experience may find certain sequences hit home with an almost unbearable emotional intensity.

But the lasting power of The Tree of Life is how manages to find the universal within the particular.

Viewers may be jolted by the juxtaposition of the cosmic with the domestic, but aren’t experiences of childhood and our later memories filled with such existential questions?

Is there a creator? Why are we born in order to die? What happens in the afterlife?

These are pretty big questions and the fact that Malick tackles them head on with an admirable lack of detachment is actually amazing in this day and age of recycled narratives and endless sequels.

Cinema is a medium wonderfully suited to getting inside people’s thoughts and feelings and Malick is a past master at capturing both the internal and external landscapes of the human experience.

That he does so again here with his impeccable artistry is to be richly savoured as the technical achievements of The Tree of Life are extraordinary.

For the Texas sections, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki creates stunning images with a fluid intimacy that captures both the wonder of growing up and the internal emotions and memories of the major characters.

He used natural light and Steadicam to amazing effect in The New World (2005) and here he repeats the ecstatic brilliance of that film with photography that is appropriately transcendent.

The actors respond with considerable distinction: Pitt captures the simmering frustration and deep love of a stern but loving father; Chastain is magnetic as the ethereal mother; whilst the child actors – Hunter McCracken, Tye Sheridan and Laramie Eppler – fully convince. (Incidentally, Eppler looks uncannily like Pitt, although they aren’t related).

Pitt is cursed with a celebrity that often overshadows his acting work, but his performance here is quietly brilliant: his changing moods and inner conflicts are powerful to watch and this is his best work since The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007).

Penn has a much smaller role but he is a key presence and powerfully depicts a haunted, introspective man reflecting on his life. His role is brief in terms of screen time, but he is an important lynchpin for what happens.

Malick fans may like to note that Penn’s sequences are the only one Malick has ever set in the present – all of his previous films have been period pieces and there is a weird jolt at seeing mobile phones and skyscrapers here.

Past vs. Present
The Tree of Life at MOVIECLIPS.com

As for the scenes involving the rather large subject of the creation of mankind, they not only convince but provide something of a master class in the visual effects work of the last forty years.

Supervised by Dan Glass, they are genuinely awesome blend of high-resolution optical photography, modern CGI and unspecified trippy stuff which looks like nothing I’ve ever seen on a cinema screen.

The presence of VFX pioneer Douglas Trumbull on the effects team is obviously going to invite comparisons to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) but I suspect his own film Brainstorm (1983) may have also been an influence in hiring him (although a forgotten sci-fi thriller it has sequences which visualise similar themes).

There is a grand sweep to the creation sequences which involves spectacular footage of natural phenomena, both in space and on earth: planets, meteors, volcanic eruptions, waterfalls, microscopic cells, jellyfish and even dinosaurs are all used.

Careful viewers may actually notice how they link to the Texas story, as there appear to be subtle visual and thematic clues between the creation of life and the individual lives depicted on screen.

Some stunning sound work throughout the film also helps anchor two seemingly disparate worlds, as the rumblings of nature and space are contrasted with the carefully constructed scenes of the family at home. (Malick aficionados might want to listen carefully for a particular recurring sound that also appears in the The Thin Red Line).

Although Alexandre Desplat worked on a score, Malick has opted to go for a score filled with classical composers, such as Bach, Berlioz, Smetena, Mahler, Holst, Górecki and John Tavener.

Again there may be comparisons to Kubrick, but Malick has his own style and edits to music like no other filmmaker working today, including some exhilarating sequences as the young boys grow up.

The period feel of 1950s small-town Texas is expertly captured by production designer Jack Fisk and the costumes by Jacqueline West give it a vivid period feel, which neatly evokes the power of childhood memories.

The Tree of Life is not a film that will be embraced by everyone and I suspect some may resent the fact that this is pure, distilled Malick with no compromise to conventional Hollywood storytelling clichés.

It is unashamedly ambitious and emotional, which are two qualities that put some audiences immediately on the back foot.

But there is a compelling story here, which is clearer than one might initially think – it just happens to be told in an unconventional way.

Malick has always made films built to last, even if recurring themes and motifs have vexed some viewers of his most recent work.

But the mere existence of this film in 2011 is almost as miraculous as the mysteries depicted within it.

A sublime work in the truest sense of the word, its beauty, vastness and grandeur make it quite something to behold.

It will probably be debated and thought about for a long time, which is entirely appropriate as it both reflects the questions and feelings of life itself.

> Official site and Tumblr blog
> Reviews of The Tree of Life at Metacritic
> Find out more about Terrence Malick at Wikipedia

Categories
Thoughts

Is Michael Bay a Coen Brothers Fan?

Michael Bay is a very different director compared to The Coen Brothers, so why does he keep casting actors from their films?

It was during the latest Transformers film, as Chicago was being destroyed by intergalactic robots, that it struck me that its director might have a thing for America’s leading fraternal auteurs.

When John Turturro (perhaps the quintessential Coen actor) and Frances McDormand (another Coen regular who also happens to be married to Joel) appeared in the same scene, it was hard to ignore the weird sensation that the spirit of the Coens had entered into the most commercial blockbuster of the summer.

If you take a close look at the films of Bay and the Coens, there has been a lot of crossover in terms of the actors who have been in their films.

Examine this chart:

[Click here for a larger version]

The pattern seems to be that Bay casts actors who have established themselves in the Coen universe.

With The Rock (1996), Nicolas Cage was cast in his first blockbuster lead role after appearing in Raising Arizona (1987). A coincidence? Then why does William Forsythe crop up in exactly the same films?

John Turturro is the wild card.

Perhaps the actor who embodied the Coens early period – with key roles in Miller’s Crossing (1990) and Barton Fink (1991) – he has also carved out a parallel career in Adam Sandler comedies such as Mr. Deeds (2002) and You Don’t Mess With The Zohan (2008), as well as the Transformers franchise.

Actors and directors often like to mix commercial pay cheques with more personal projects, but it seems Turturro is on a one man mission to create the most interesting acting CV in American history.

This is a man who’s acting career begins with Raging Bull (1980) and takes in such films as Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Do the Right Thing (1989), Quiz Show (1994), The Luzhin Defence (2001), Collateral Damage (2002), The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) and Cars 2 (out this summer).

Steve Buscemi is just below Turturro when it comes to paying his Coen dues, with roles alongside him in Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink, as well as a fantastic turn in Fargo (1996).

But he has also been a quirky presence in Bay’s spectacular’s such as Armageddon (1998) and The Island (2005).

These last two movies expand the Coen-Bay matrix further still, as Peter Stormare starred alongside Buscemi in both but only after notable appearances in Fargo and The Big Lebowski (1998).

He also squeezed in a role in Bad Boys II (2003) for good measure.

Billy Bob Thornton somewhat bucks the trend as he appeared in The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) and Intolerable Cruelty (2003) after a supporting turn in Armageddon.

But things get back on track with Scarlett Johansson – cropping up in The Island after her role in The Man Who Wasn’t There – and John Malkovich, who appears in the new Transformers film after his role in Burn After Reading (2008).

So, what does this all signify?

When it was announced that Turturro and McDormand were cast in Transformers 3, Matthew Fleischer of Fishbowl LA highlighted a comment on Deadline that joked about Bay making a Coen Brothers movie.

Movieline recently had a post titled ‘5 Coen Brothers Stock Players Who Haven’t Appeared In a Michael Bay Film, But Should‘ and Row Three also chipped in with some thoughts on this odd phenomenon.

So, when he isn’t shooting high-octane action movies, filming Victoria Secret’s commercials and driving around in his Ferrari, is Bay logging on to Criterion’s website to see if they are releasing The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) on Blu-ray?

Well, it turns out Bay is actually is a big Coen Brothers fan, as he revealed in an interview back in 1998, which can be found on his website:

I’m a huge Coen Brothers fan, and I’d love to find some dark, quirky comedy or some thriller. Nothing to do with special effects or explosions.

Perhaps this will be his next film project?

> Michael Bay and The Coen Brothers at Wikipedia
> Reviews of Transformers: Dark of the Moon at Metacritic

Categories
Cinema Thoughts

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

The latest Transformers film is almost precisely the hollow exercise many were expecting. But will it save 3D?

How do you really ‘review’ a film like Transformers: Dark of the Moon?

After all, this is a tent pole release that gives a huge middle fingered salute to the critics who loathe them and revels in the mindless thrills it serves up to audiences eager to part with their cash.

For two and half hours, we get the same template: alien robots transform before beating each other up, military people debate what to do (before deciding to blow up stuff anyway) and a young man (Shia Le Beouf) is caught up in all the action with his girlfriend (the fact that he has a new one here really makes no difference).

At times, the story didn’t entirely seem to make sense but involves the evil alien robots (Decepticons) tricking the decent ones (Autobots), after an important discovery which the US government has kept secret since 1969.

So in essence, this is just an empty retread of the basic elements of the series and whilst not quite as bad as the previous film, still provides precious little in the manner of genuine excitement or emotion.

But there is another side to the third Transformers movie which makes it an interesting case study, as it contains many elements (expensive visual effects, 3D) that typify the modern Hollywood release in 2011.

As we speak, an army of regular critics are desperately trying to pen anguished words on why a film like this even exists, why Michael Bay is Satan and that they got a headache from all the noisy action.

But we all kind of knew that going into this didn’t we?

It’s not like he hired Bela Tarr to do a page one rewrite of the script because of the negative reactions to the last film.

However, this release may have interesting implications for mainstream cinema going, coming after two blockbusters this summer (Pirates 4 and Green Lantern) were judged to have disappointing returns on 3D tickets.

Bay and Paramount have spent a lot of time and money trying to make this not only a big summer blockbuster, but one that gives an extra lift to the 3D format, which some see as vital to Hollywood’s long term future.

So instead of writing a ‘regular review’, here are 10 points that struck me after watching it.

BAY PUMPED TO THE MAX

This film almost plays like an extended tribute reel to the director.

At times it feels like that self-deprecating commercial he did for Verizon:

All of the signature Bay touches are here: swooping helicopter shots, an ‘inspirational’ musical score, fast cars, women filmed like models (he’s even cast one in a lead role), bright colours, men walking towards the camera in slow motion and – of course – slick, hyperactive editing.

And let’s not forget the choppers at sunset:

THE 3D DOESN’T REALLY WORK

Whatever side of the 3D camp you are on (and I’ve been very disappointed with the mainstream releases over the last 18 months) there is no doubt some are looking for this to inject new life back in to the format.

Previously a sceptic, Bay has admitted producer Steven Spielberg and James Cameron persuaded him to use the special 3D cameras invented for Avatar.

Bay and Cameron even recently had a lengthy sit-down together at a preview screening in order to build excitement for the film (which judging by the early geek reaction largely worked).

Paramount has gone to great lengths to combat the traditional (and accurate) complaint that 3D films are just too dim.

This resulted in the studio coming up with enhanced prints and Bay has even penned a letter to cinemas urging them to set the brightness levels correctly.

After watching this at one of the best cinemas in London (Odeon Leicester Square), it still looked too dark.

An inherent flaw with 3D films (as technology currently stands) is that they lose up to 80 per cent (!) of their brightness.

Here some sequences have shots which utilise depth well, but Bay’s natural tendency for quick cuts and frenetic action isn’t really suited to the format.

Bay also admitted that he shot faces with 35mm as he wasn’t happy with the conversion process, which sounded like a lot of time and money was spent on it.

But was all this effort worth it? When I looked at the spectacular action scenes, part of me just wanted to see them with proper levels of brightness and colour.

The bottom line is that when I go to the cinema I want that extra visual pop, because that’s part of what makes the medium so special and visually superior to home entertainment.

As it stands, 3D is hindering and not helping cinemas.

GOOFY COMEDY CHARACTERS

The silly comedy characters are now just annoying: in the first film Sam Witwicky’s parents were an acceptable supporting act, whilst in the second film they had become a serious nuisance.

Here their screen time is mercifully brief but weird, comedy supporting characters appear seemingly at random.

John Malkovich crops up as a boss with a weird voice who has an unexplained fetish for yellow, whilst Ken Jeong is a strange, hyperactive office worker and there are some dumb ‘pet’ robots thrown in for good measure.

I guess the point is to provide comic relief but it just ends up as distracting.

THE FINAL SECTION

The final battle sequence is epic but drags in the context of the overall film.

Lasting over over an hour, it contains some impressive scenes (such as live action skydiving stunts) but the curious side effect is that you become numb to it the longer it goes on.

That said, a lot of paying audiences are going to eat up he sky diving scenes and the bit where a building is being squeezed.

A-GRADE VISUAL EFFECTS

Lazier critics might just assume the visual effects on these films will be good given their budgets.

But treated separately, the work ILM and Digital Domain have done in bringing these robots to life has been stunning.

The level of detail in some of the set pieces (especially a collapsing building, complete with reflective glass) is extremely impressive, whilst the integration with the lighting gives it an extra kick.

Although the first film was robbed of the visual effects Oscar in 2007 (to The Golden Compass!), it is now the clear frontrunner for this category.

NASA INVOLVEMENT?

It seemed that this film was done with the co-operation of NASA (you’ll see why if you watch the first teaser trailer) and it even features a surprising cameo from a certain astronaut.

Only the most deranged viewer would believe in the fictional events depicted here, but could this film help stoke the popular mistruths about the Apollo missions that Capricorn One (1978) helped usher in during the 1970s?

WEIRD WORLD WAR II METAPHOR?

A significant plot development (which is firmly in spoiler territory) appears to be some kind of weird metaphor for World War II and how certain nations collaborated with an occupying invader.

This plot line also features the obligatory scene where the villain explains everything. Maybe Bay was getting nostalgic for when he shot Pearl Harbor

These films also have a fetish for the military running right through them, so maybe it stems from that.

Watch out too for a bizarre reference to Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, which I certainly never expected from a Michael Bay movie, although his DP Amir Mokri is Iranian, so possibly its some kind of in-joke.

THE GENERATIONAL DIVIDE

This franchise exposes an interesting divide between the discerning critics who almost universally loathe them and the younger, paying audiences that lap them up.

Although even some fans of the first film didn’t like the second, it still grossed an enormous amount (over $800m worldwide), which suggests that despite their obvious shortcomings they provide the kind of action spectacle mainstream global audiences enjoy watching during the summer.

At the screening I attended, sections of the crowd were visibly excited and even cheered at one scene.

Despite the lack of interesting characters and story, their financial success seems to be because they mix elements of computer games (all shoot ‘em up and fighting robots) with a fairground ride (bright colours, quick movement).

Plus, we shouldn’t forget that an influential group of geeks grew up with the TV show and toys during the 1980s.

KILLER SOUND

Employing Dolby’s new 7.1 surround system Bay’s sound team have really surpassed themselves here. This Soundworks video explains how the many sounds were achieved:

The range of sounds is fantastic and although they sometimes go overboard with the levels, it gives some sequences a real lift. As with the visual effects, this is a likely contender in the sound categories come the awards season.

INFLUENCE OF NOLAN?

This might sound odd, but for stretches of the film I got the feeling that Bay is a big fan of the Christopher Nolan Batman films.

Not only does the climactic battle take place in the same Chicago locations as The Dark Knight (especially Wacker Drive) but there are little music and sound beats that seem to echo that film.

Shia LeBeouf has revealed that Bay wanted to play him some ‘Batman orchestral’ music (presumably Hans Zimmer and James Newton’s score) before a key sequence.

One wonders if the director secretly craves to make an action movie that is embraced by both audiences and critics in the way the Batman films or Inception were.

Of course there are major differences (in quality as much as anything else) but in the last hour Nolan popped into my head more than once.

So where does this all leave us?

Pretty much where we began, as critical opinion and commercial success will follow the usual Bay formula.

Whether it can save the current trend for 3D is the really interesting question.

> Find out more about the Transformers movies at Wikipedia
> Reviews of Transformers: Dark of the Moon at Metacritic
> Hilarious GQ profile of Michael Bay featuring input from people he’s worked with down the years
> Variety on the 3D release of the film