Archive for January, 2013

The Oscars 2013 – Zero Dark Thirty (and Jack Reacher)

Posted on January 31st, 2013 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Every list of Oscar nominations brings its own themes. In 2013, the Academy seems to be favouring history (not for the first time), politics – (a little less typical), children adrift on a raft (wtf?) and tragic death (natch).

Zero Dark Thirty, like Amour, can hardly be called entertainment. Kathryn Bigelow follows up her astoundingly good The Hurt Locker (probably my favourite Best Picture winner of the last ten years) with this reconstruction of the tracking, finding and executing in Pakistan of Osama bin Laden.

Obviously, telling this story is fraught with political pitfalls, most of which Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal nimbly avoid. It’s telling that the film has been both criticised for validating torture since it shows that the “detainee program” under George W Bush’s presidency provided vital leads which led eventually to bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound; and praised for demonstrating that after suspects at Guantanamo had been subjected to “enhanced interrogation” for years, real progress in tracking the al-Quaeda leader was only made when torture was abandoned in favour of more traditional “tradecraft”.

In fact, the movie studiously avoids any such comment, it simply portrays the events which undoubtedly took place. Suspects were waterboarded by Americans, the programme was shut down and other methods were later substituted, following both of which bin Laden was located and eliminated. It’s impossible to say, based on the evidence presented here what might have happened if there had been more torture or less.

In fact the whole approach of the movie is simple, factual, procedural. There are moments of excitement – various life-and-death moments during the course of the investigation, not to mention the final approach and assault on the compound, presented in all its chaotic brutality – but the main meat of the film is simply observing how this kind of international police work is done.

Bigelow and Boal’s task is to take this history lesson and turn it into a movie, without it becoming a melodrama, and by and large they succeed admirably. By taking a single character (whose real-life counterpart has not been publicly identified) in the luminous persona of Jessica Chastain and threading her like a needle through every aspect of the story, they manufacture both a complete through-line and just enough human interest to keep the story watchable. As the baton is passed from Chastain to DC bureaucrats and finally to the officers of SEAL Team Six, the screenplay does an excellent job of keeping her an active part of the narrative without compromising credibility too much. The movie is also neatly divided into titled chapters, a technique I’ve always enjoyed (see also The Fortune Cookie and Pulp Fiction to name two favourite but utterly dissimilar pictures).

If anything, as with The Hurt Locker, Bigelow occasionally lets the demands of traditional movie storytelling get in the way. A couple of times, what should be a shocking surprise is telegraphed too much by the need to show the calm-before-the-storm. But film grammar tells a savvy audience that if we just see calm for too long, with no other obvious purpose, then it can only mean that a storm is coming. By and large though, this is clean, simple, urgent and distinctive filmmaking, with a forensically clear gaze, but enough taste not to dwell on the viscera and brutality of its subject matter. Although I did note that the actual events of 9-11 are deemed too shocking to reproduce through visual effects – instead we are just given an audio montage at the beginning of the film – whereas the 7/7 bombings in London are happily recreated with lots of black powder and gasoline.

William Goldman has observed that “audiences love ‘how’” and this film does test that to the limit. If your tolerance for patient detective work is limited and your appetite for political manoeuvring small then you might find the middle third of the film slow or even boring, but I was very happy to sit and watch events unfold. With a large cast, many of whom contribute only a few lines here-and-there, Bigelow is smart to cast familiar faces to help us keep track. Mark Strong shows up, in full-on Alec Baldwin Glengarry Glen Ross rant mode, not to mention fleeting appearances by James Gandolfini , Stephen Dillane, Harold Perrineau, Kyle Chandler and even Chris Pratt from Parks and Recreation, surprisingly effective as one of the Navy SEALs. More jarring is the handsomely incongruous presence of John Barrowman for two lines, not to mention my friend Jeff Mash. Hi Jeff!

Many have compared this to Lincoln, which apparently is much the same only with more beards and fewer suicide bombers, but – not having seen Spielberg’s no-doubt Oscar champ – my main point of comparison is with Argo, that other tale of do-gooding CIA heroes abroad. It’s a fascinating counterpoint. On the one hand, Argo is a far simpler tale, in which the good-guys are engaged in a purely humanitarian mission. And Argo makes it easy to streamline the narrative, since it gives itself far more licence with the facts. Zero Dark Thirty on the other hand, wades through much murkier ethical waters – the good guys here are on a revenge execution mission and are, at least initially, unafraid to torture their way to their goal. But, even though it’s a simpler story, Argo is actually more ambitious – delicately balancing the demands of being a political thriller, historical account, Hollywood satire and boys-own adventure. By giving themselves permission to bend the truth, and invent characters and situations, director Ben Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio have created a piece of cinema which possibly feels less important, but which is more entertaining, more satisfying and – yes – actually has more to say.

Zero Dark Thirty is thoroughly deserving of its place in the Academy’s top nine of 2012, but it’s not the best film on the list, and it won’t win the main prize. Even if Lincoln were suddenly disqualified, it would still be too divisive, too political and just not fun enough. Jessica Chastain has a shot, but she’s got stiff competition from all four other nominees, as does Mark Boal, up for Best Original Screenplay. Awards success aside, if you want to know what counter-terrorism is actually like, then this is definitely worth seeing, if only as a corrective to the demented antics of TV’s 24.

My other movie of the week – not nominated for best picture – also reminded me of the adventures of Jack Bauer. It’s the Tom Cruise vehicle Jack Reacher, based on the lengthy series of novels by Lee Child.

It’s somewhat of a mystery to me why this film exists, and an even deeper mystery why Tom Cruise is in it. No doubt scores of relatively unheralded sequences of thrillers exist in airport bookshops across the world. Any one of them might be purchased by a film studio hoping to mint a new franchise at any time. Make no mistake, the Ian Fleming books were popular and sold briskly (especially after JFK bizarrely nominated From Russia With Love as one of his favourite novels) but the James Bond phenomenon started with Sean Connery in Dr No and it’s the Eon-produced films which ensure that the character is still current sixty years after the first book was published.

Especially in the context of other movie heroes, the Jack Reacher of the books isn’t especially striking. And here, with some of the rough edges sanded away and in the compact form of Tom Cruise, he seems even less remarkable. Since Dr No in 1962, the standard action adventure hero has been composed of the same basic ingredients – only the proportions vary. From Die Hard to Batman, to Raiders of the Lost Ark to Lethal Weapon, you can see the same approach. Your hero needs to be a kick-ass, a smart-ass, be possessed of preternatural gifts of perception, deduction and luck, and to be just tortured enough to provide the illusion of depth. Not only does Jack Reacher add nothing new to the pantheon of cinema action heroes, it adds nothing new to the pantheon of cinema action heroes played by Tom Cruise, who already has a perfectly serviceable tortured smart-mouthed magic kick-ass to build a franchise around in the shape of Ethan Hunt.

But Jack Reacher would have been an oddity even without Cruise. Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie’s laudable goal was to create a more intelligent kind of action-thriller, but it’s easy to see why it hasn’t set the box office alight (so far $180m worldwide – in 1996 the first Mission Impossible film did $450m). Far too slow and talky for the Transformers crowd, it’s also far too dumb for those who would seek out Argo or Lincoln. The plot, involving a sniper who picks off five random strangers and is then beaten into a coma but not before scrawling “get Jack Reacher”, is effective enough (although the real reason for the quintuple murder was obvious to me almost immediately) but there isn’t enough of it to justify the running time. And while Werner Herzog has a ball as the panto villain known as “The Zec” who chewed off his own fingers to avoid gangrene, Rosamund Pike has a fatal lack of chemistry with Cruise, indeed she can’t seem to summon up any spark at all.

This is well-mounted, with exciting car chases and gun battles and some suitably pithy one-liners, and perfectly serviceable bank holiday weekend TV watching stuff, but it’s amazing to me that this utterly ordinary piece of movie-making was either Cruise or McQuarrie’s dream project.

The Oscars 2013 – Amour, Life of Pi

Posted on January 28th, 2013 in At the cinema | 2 Comments »

Of all the films on this year’s Best Picture list, the one I could have most happily have done without is clearly Michael Haneke’s Amour. I’ve not seen much of Haneke’s output, but what I have seen I have admired rather than enjoyed. Funny Games is ferociously original and extraordinarily confrontational, but it’s hard to believe that it could be anyone’s favourite as it’s such disturbing viewing. Caché seems designed to be deliberately frustrating. It contains some truly amazing moments, but by initially presenting a traditional mystery-plot and then providing very few coherent answers, it doesn’t play fair and it’s hard for me to know if it’s really about anything or not. I haven’t seen The Piano Teacher or The White Ribbon but after Amour, maybe I will.

The story is very simple and straightforward. Georges and Anne (apparently very many of Haneke’s protagonists share these names) are a dignified septuagenarian Parisian couple, living out their days in their spacious apartment and going to recitals given by their erstwhile pupils. Over the course of the film, Anne suffers a series of strokes which leave her progressively less able to look after herself, or to communicate clearly. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Georges and Emmanuelle Riva plays Anne.

That’s about it. Two people who love each other, who have loved each other for five decades, perhaps longer, who are losing each other, because – well, because that’s what happens. At first glance, Haneke’s chilly, detached style seems an odd match for such emotionally draining material, but actually his clear-eyed objectivity is exactly what is required to prevent this simple story from slipping into melodrama or mawkish sentimentality. When Georges snaps at his daughter (Isabelle Huppert) who tries to tell him how concerned she is about her mother “What good is your concern to me?” I suspect that’s the director’s voice in the narrative.

Time and again, Haneke simply places the camera and mercilessly observes as something awful, or simple, or banal, or appalling unfolds. Actors enter or leave the frame, are shot from behind, or wander away from the camera. Take after take is simply allowed to happen – at a rough guess there are maybe 50 cuts in the two-hour running time. There’s no room to hide, nowhere to go to evade the truth of what is happening. When Haneke does cut to a close-up, it seems shockingly intimate.

Trintignant is wonderful as the stoically dignified Georges but Riva is astonishing in her depiction of Anne’s pathetic decline. Partly because of the restrained shooting style, but also because of Riva’s skill and dedication, it’s almost impossible to believe that this is a relatively fit and able-bodied performer and not documentary footage of a real stroke victim.

The final scenes offer something a little more figurative, something a little less literal, without unduly sacrificing coherence, which provides a welcome additional note – ironically for a story about music teachers there’s almost no music and none of it is non-diagetic, not even over the credits. A key visual theme is that of intrusion or invasion. The first shot is of a door being broken down. The state of various doors and windows in the apartment – open or shut, locked or unlocked – is of perpetual interest. A pigeon twice flies in through the window and proves difficult to evict. A neighbour trying to be helpful lingers on the threshold a little too long. Huppert’s English husband is unwelcome company. Even the business-as-usual breakfast scene which precedes Anne’s first attack shows Georges cracking open an egg. This debilitation invades their loves, tries to destroy their love for each other and nothing they do can possibly get rid of it.

Far more complete, for me, than Caché, this is still an awfully hard film to love. I’m very glad I saw it, but there’s zero chance of me buying it on DVD and no time I can think of when I’d ever see it again. Since it is also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, I assume it is a shoo-in for that and has no chance at the main prize. Emmanuelle Riva is up for Best Actress though and that would be well-deserved, although she is up against stiff competition.

Seeking some respite in the world of fantasy, I also took in Life of Pi. The latest in a series of “unfilmable” novels which have somehow nevertheless found their way into cinemas recently (see also Cloud Atlas, Tristram Shandy, The Naked Lunch and so on). The problems with filming Yann Martel’s novel (which I haven’t alas read) are twofold. Firstly, much of the action takes place with a single human character adrift at sea in a small life boat. Secondly, the other major character is an adult Bengal tiger. So even if you solve the problem of a single-person narrative, you are left with the technical challenge of realising the actions of a large carnivorous mammal in close proximity with your leading actor, and in a watery environment. Even a handful of years ago, this would been utterly impossible to render convincingly. Spare us from the Jim Henson version of Life or Pi let alone the Ray Harryhausen incarnation.

What we get is so blindingly and stupefyingly convincing that I can’t even begin to speculate about how it was achieved. I’m sure a tremendous  amount of CGI has been deployed, as well as presumably at least some footage of a genuine animal, but the digital rendering of muscle and bone and whisker and fur is now so perfect that the join, if it even exists at all, is completely invisible. The version I saw was also in so-called 3D which added very little, if anything at all.

As far as I can tell, the storytelling is very faithful to the book. The adult Pi tells a visiting author his story, beginning in childhood with how he acquired his name, filling in details of his young life and the fateful decision by his father to move the whole family and their menagerie of animals from India to Canada. During a storm, all on board are killed, and only Pi escapes together with a zebra, and orang-utan, a hyena and the afore-mentioned tiger. When the tiger has consumed the others, Pi has to catch fish for it and train it to allow it to share the lifeboat with him.

Whereas Michael Haneke simply places the camera and lets the actors talk or make breakfast, director Ang Lee can’t even cut from one time period to another without some kind of visual flourish, but this richer cinematic language helps ground the fantastic imagery in a coherent artistic framework. He’s helped too by lovely performances, especially Suraj Sharma as the 16 year old Pi who carries almost the entire middle of the movie solo, and Irrfan Khan (familiar from Slumdog Millionaire) as the adult Pi, telling blocked novelist Rafe Spall his amazing story, with a genial twinkle.

If there’s an issue I have with the adaptation, it’s the use of this author character. He’s essential to assist in the delivery of the punchline, which provides both a welcome shot of vinegar in a world which threatens at times to become too sickly, too cloyingly fantastic, and which broadens the scope of the narrative to become a story about stories, rather than just a fairy tale. Just as the young Pi refuses to pick just one religion, just one way of interpreting the world, so the adult Pi won’t provide just one way of understanding what happened to him out on that lifeboat. But it’s clumsy that once the shipwreck occurs, Spall drops out of the movie almost entirely, only to pop up again at the end when we’d all but forgotten about him.

The penultimate sequence on the island is also a little hard to swallow. To be sure, much of what happens on the boat is unlikely, but none of it is actually impossible. What happens on the island seems much more like fantasy – maybe the shift is less noticeable in print, but in pictures it jarred for me.

Life of Pi is very, very charming and an amazing technical achievement. It’s an apparently simple story with something interesting to say about how we look at the world, but the two parts of the narrative are never truly braided together which makes the pseudo-reveal at the end feel almost like a footnote, or a scholarly commentary, rather than an intrinsic part of the narrative. It’s a fine piece of cinema, but it wouldn’t be my pick of film of the year. So far, that honour still goes to Argo, but I have Zero Dark Thirty, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Silver Linings Playbook and of course Lincoln still to go.

Oscars 2013 – Django Unchained

Posted on January 24th, 2013 in At the cinema | No Comments »

What is the point of Quentin Tarantino?

What is the point of a Quentin Tarantino film?

As a filmmaker he is in a truly enviable position. Able to write and direct more-or-less any movie he wishes, with scores of big-name actors of prodigious talent practically begging to be allowed to speak his dialogue, his films are relatively inexpensive to produce, virtually guaranteed to be profitable and he regularly wins awards for his cinematic creations. What is he doing with this power?

Much as I enjoyed the experience of sitting in the cinema watching Inglourious Basterds, it seemed to me to be a little hollow. It’s all tinsel and no substance. The void inside is filled partly by the raw power of some of the individual set-pieces, notably the agonising opening scene with Hans Landa and the farmer. It’s also filled partly by the elegant structure which avoids the frequent Tarantino trope of telling the story out of order, and replaces it instead with an approach which at first feels very disconnected, but gradually braids together its diverse strands. And the sheer demented chutzpah of the ending goes a long way as well. No other mainstream filmmaker would conceivably have adopted such an irreverent stance to such a dark period of human history.

His latest effort, Django Unchained continues this recent trend of revisionist historical revenge fantasies – probably too niche to be a true sub-genre. It also continues a longer trend of recycling material from earlier movies, but where Reservoir Dogs recycles elements of Hong Kong mafia and American seventies heist movies, or Kill Bill reproduces tropes from Shaw Brothers chopsocky films, Django Unchained is composed less of bits-and-pieces from spaghetti westerns (although it definitely does contain those elements) but, more troublingly, devices from Tarantino’s own previous movies.

So, here’s the historical revenge fantasy from Basterds, as noted. Here’s the singular character bent on revenge from Kill Bill from which is also derived the blood soaked finale where that revenge is first enacted on dozens of minor or non-speaking characters. Here’s the torture scene from Reservoir Dogs, only about a tenth as effective. From Pulp Fiction, here’s the pair of hired guns – one black and one white – who find time to discuss other less vital matters before executing their victims. And here’s Christoph Waltz, essentially playing an 1850s Hans Landa with a faceful of beard.

I also was constantly reminded of two other instances of prior art – neither of which I suspect were genuinely influences. One was the excellent FX tv show Justified which also recently featured an elegantly-dressed character with a Taxi Driver-style sleeve gun, and has two cast members in common with Django in the forms of Walton Goggins and MC Gainey. The other, less helpfully was Blazing Saddles, especially when Django rides in to town next to Schultz for the first time.

When not being distracted by these issues, there is plenty to enjoy here. If Waltz hasn’t many new acting tricks to show us, he certainly gets some choice lines to speak, and Django’s slow growth under his patient tutelage is accurately portrayed by a carefully restrained Jamie Foxx. There are laugh-out-loud funny moments, such as the exchange between Schultz and Django as they debate whether or not to shoot the last remaining Brittle Brother or the incompetent redneck hood-wearers who try and exact revenge on them for the same murder.

Following this fairly lengthy set-up, we arrive at last at Calvin Candie – possibly a career-best performance from DiCaprio who has enormous fun as this preposterous caricature of southern venality. But I dearly wish his plantation had not been called Candie Land which smacks to me of bad British sit-coms of the 1970s in which people called Teacup ran a café – that kind of thing.

Warning – here be spoilers. Watch the film before reading on.

When we arrive at Candie Land (ugh) we finally get the dose of Samuel L Jackson that the film has been missing. On first impressions, Stephen is a truly remarkable character, impressively bald, walking with a cane, laughing hugely at the master’s jokes and given enormous licence to joke himself, but mistreating the other black slaves with a confounding enthusiasm. This characterisation brilliantly turns out to be a Keyser Soze style front, behind which is a perfectly fit and shrewd man, Candie’s trusted confidante and advisor, who rapidly sees through Django and Schultz’s deception.

But after negotiations between Schultz and Candie fall apart, so does the movie. After an orgiastically blood soaked shoot-out (with a number of human shields in various states of health), Stephen produces Kerry Washington (wasted as Django’s wife in need of rescue) with a gun to her head, and forces Django to give himself up. It’s pretty hard to believe that these vile individuals who hold black life so meaningless don’t just gun him down for fun. It’s almost impossible to believe that, having taken him captive, they don’t just put a bullet through his wife’s head out of sheer spite. Keeping her alive has no purpose at all, except to ensure that if Django does evade their clutches, he will definitely have a reason to come back for them all.

Stephen’s character just collapses at this point too. Of the many things that made his earlier appearances so fascinating, the most interesting was his devotion to his master. Calvin Candie owns Stephen, and regularly has people like Stephen torn apart by wild dogs or made to gouge out each other’s eyes or beat out their brains with a hammer. And yet Stephen appears to love him – the animal howl which he lets out when Schultz puts a bullet through him is terribly affecting.

And yet, in subsequent scenes there is no grief, no sense of loss, no mourning. There is a certain amount of irritation, but in his scene with the captured Django, he seems more like a headmaster pondering how to reform an unruly child.

Anyone who has seen even a couple of his earlier films knows what Tarantino is capable of when bad men have sympathetic characters at their mercy. Officer Nash loses an ear before being casually blasted away by Nice Guy Eddie. Mr White cannot forgive Mr Orange his treachery and puts a bullet in his brain even though it means suicide-by-cop for him too. Maynard and Zed anally rape Marsellus Wallace and are promised torture by blow-torch for their efforts. On learning of her part in the plan to blow up the cinema, Hans Landa strangles Bridget von Hammersmark with his bare hands. Even Beatrix Kiddo removes Sofie’s limbs before sending her back to Bill.

Billy Crash certainly has Django at his mercy – trussed up and gagged, naked except for a Hannibal Lector style muzzle. He talks earnestly of his plan to castrate Django and approaches his scrotum with a blade when – in a particularly dreary movie cliché, Stephen interrupts at the crucial moment to announce that the white folks have a much better plan, which is essentially to let him escape, come back and kill them all. So Django gets to keep his balls, but I can’t help feeling Tarantino has lost his.

Drawing a veil over the director’s ill-judged cameo, everything that follow is by-the-numbers, almost perfunctory. Django returns, kills all the white people, kneecaps Stephen who continues to say and do absolutely nothing of interest, and then blows up the plantation before riding off into the sunset, with his bafflingly-preserved wife.

To be clear, I don’t harbour a deep and sadistic desire to see Jamie Foxx graphically parted from his testicles. It’s just that the writer has painted himself into a narrative corner and rather than stay true to the characters he has created, even if that means we don’t get the ending we want, he just abandons the rules of the world and has Django (as Jamie Foxx put it on Saturday Night Live) kill all the white people in the movie. I parted company from the story when Kerry Washington’s life was spared and didn’t believe a single thing that happened after Stephen sold Django to the mining company. It might even have been better if everything after that point had been a near-death fantasy as in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. A sudden cut back to Django bleeding out like a stuck pig would have been genuinely shocking.

And that’s another point. This is arguably the least complex narrative of any of Tarantino’s films, but it’s also presented in the most straight-forward way. There’s no cutting around in time, there are no multiple viewpoints, it’s entirely linear. It’s certainly possible to flatter a flimsy narrative by presenting it in an interesting way. With so much else recycled from earlier movies, it’s baffling to me why he didn’t also borrow the non-linear narrative. And it doesn’t even have Basterds hubristic irreverence to keep it afloat – this is much more respectful. Tarantino’s depiction of slavery is largely accurate and Foxx never becomes a one man Emancipation Proclamation backed up by dynamite and six-shooters.

This is a pretty harsh critique of a film which never bored me and which contains at least four outstanding performances, maybe more. But eight films in to the Tarantino canon (depending on how you count) it’s possible to view this prodigious talent as engaged in a fairly determined flight away from meaning, truth, insight or realism and into fantasy, fakery and trivia. Given how concerned with his own legacy Tarantino seems to be, I hope he notices this trend in time to arrest it.

The Oscars 2013 – Les Miserables

Posted on January 22nd, 2013 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

My Oscar quest begins in earnest with a trip to see Les Miserables.

Director Tom Hooper has come in for some stick in some quarters, with some grumps regarding The King’s Speech as too safe, too stagey and too limited in its scope to be a reasonable Best Picture nominee. But compared for example to the horribly TV-like An Education (also nominated, remarkably), Tom Hooper’s direction does I think elevate the material. A tyro in the Fincher, or Boyle or Tarantino mode he may not be, nor a true original like the Coens, David Lynch or Soderbergh, but he’s rather more than a plodding journeyman.

And he certainly made life difficult for himself here, taking on a beloved stage property – a musical no less – and then getting his cast to sing the whole thing live instead of miming to a pre-recorded track. (Not the very first time this has been done – among other obscurities, I believe this technique was used on Billy The Kid And The Green Baize Vampire which is worth putting on if you can bear to see yet another musical-snooker-horror-western.)

So let’s have a little chat about musicals. Once de rigeur, the form has fallen into disuse, if not total disrepair roughly since Hello Dolly and many contemporary directors are concerned that modern audiences won’t accept the conceit of characters suddenly bursting into non-diegetic song – possibly correctly. Various techniques are available to help sugar the pill. You can shoot the whole piece in a very stylised way, so that the scenario never seems to be taking place in the real world (Sweeney Todd, Moulin Rouge). You can relegate the song-and-dance numbers to a fantasy world and shoot the rest normally (Chicago). Or you can just shoot the movie like any other and hope no-one notices that people keep singing their thoughts (Mama Mia).

None of these options is really open to Hooper, shooting a story on film which is told almost entirely in song. There are a few snatches of recitative but no real dialogue to speak of. He should be thankful there’s (almost) no dancing. So, having got through the production company logos in tasteful silence, we are confronted with the absurdity of dramatic singing right from the outset.

It helps that the opening shots are absolutely spectacular, entirely cinematic and matching the energy and drive of the music perfectly. It also helps that the first person to do any real singing is Hugh Jackman, whose Jean Valjean is at first weakened and feral, slathered in grime, then genial and sleek in fine clothes, later pinched and haunted and finally emptied out by everything he has endured. It’s a masterful performance and Hooper’s approach is not simply to capture it but to let it pour out of the screen at us. The first big number, Valjean’s Soliloquy, is played out almost entirely in a moving close-up shot as Jackman flings himself in and around the bishop’s house. The live singing technique is incredibly valuable here, allowing Jackman to act with his face, body, voice and soul. Hooper hasn’t entirely rid himself of the visual tic of framing people in the lower left or right corner of the screen, but it’s less pronounced here than in The King’s Speech I’m pleased to report. He’s determined to have the actors sing to us, the cinema audience, and the huge close-ups in which so many of the big numbers are photographed mean that many performance subtleties are possible which would simply be invisible in a large theatre.

But this approach also leaves nowhere to hide, which is great if you are as accomplished as Jackman – or for that matter Samantha Barks as Eponine or lustrous Anne Hathaway who seizes this opportunity and in about 15 minutes of screen time creates an absolutely indelible version of Fantine, motivating everything Valjean does from that point on.

With Russell Crowe, it’s another matter. True, his singing can’t match those I’ve just mentioned, but to be fair to him, he never goes full Pierce Brosnan either. But although on paper Crowe is excellent casting as the relentless Javert, the liveliness of the score leaves him looking stiff and stolid. He somehow never manages to mate his own brand of driven intensity to the kinetic power of the music and his rendering of the part is amazingly limited for such a well-regarded actor. There’s so little depth here that when he eventually commits suicide by plunging himself into a weir (spoiler, but to be fair it’s a 25 year old musical of a 150 year old book) it looks less like the psychic collapse of a man whose moral framework has been shaken to its foundations and more like one of those robots in bad sixties sci-fi films who get confused to death when somebody gives them an insoluble riddle.

There are other problems too. I’m apparently in a very small minority when it comes to the performances of Borat and Mrs Tim Burton. Mrs Tim Burton, I suppose is bearable, but Borat has been allowed to indulge himself to a baffling degree, with constant face-pulling, demented gesticulations and a wandering accent which virtually makes him into a one man production of ’Allo ’Allo. I never found him funny and his mere presence undermined the drama of several key scenes.

But it’s in the barricade sequences that the wheels really come off. On stage, this is often when the production becomes most epic, but in the movie version, the art director seems to have gone off for an early lunch, leaving the second unit to shoot most of the footage in somebody’s back bedroom. It really does look cheap and poky and artificial, clearly a set, erected on a modest sound-stage and worlds away from the epic scope of the opening shots and the earlier location work.

By the end, of course, as Hugh Jackman’s life finally ebbs away, and Amanda Seyfried (fine) and Eddie Redmayne (fine) try and comfort him, I start to get a lump in my throat. The power of the story and the impact of the music are undeniable – save the new song “Suddenly” which is entirely inessential.

And that’s really the achievement here. This was never a project for a firebrand director to put his or her personal stamp on. Tom Hooper has been lucky enough to be given a beloved property which after 25 years of careful development is pretty much flawless. His challenge was to demonstrate that he had the skill, the care – above all the taste – not to fuck it up. By and large he succeeded. Crowe is limited, but no doubt his involvement helped get the film made. The revolutionaries look like escapees from a minor British public school, but making them a bit wet and spindly also makes their merciless execution in a hail of musket-fire all the more affecting. Borat and Mrs Tim Burton are apparently amusing to some. But Anne Hathaway’s rendition of I Dreamed A Dream, Hugh Jackman’s version of Who Am I and Samantha Barks singing On My Own are reason enough to make this film and reason enough to see it.

If you like that sort of thing.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Posted on January 17th, 2013 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

To The Hobbit last night, in the relatively luxury of a Vue cinema, where I found (as I generally do there) comfortable seats, ample leg room, a decent rake with good sightlines, a nice big screen with accurate masking and an enthusiastic sound system. This all compares very favourably to, say, the modest wardrobe with a small screen in one wall which whispered The Master at me at the Panton Street Odeon.

That aside, the big question of course is can you make a film version of a 250 page book run as long as the film version of a 1200 page book without major compromises? Well, it won’t be possible to definitely answer that until late next year when part three of The Hobbit is released, but on the evidence of the first instalment, An Unexpected Journey, my answer is… maybe.

While not a Tolkein scholar, I did think it worthwhile reading The Lord of the Rings before seeing the movie versions. I had enjoyed The Hobbit as a child (book and ZX-Spectrum text adventure game) but had never got through the first of the sequel’s six sections. Having read the literary version (except for all that doggerel poetry obviously) I actually thought that the movie versions short-changed two of the most successful elements of the books – the growing affection between Legolas and Gimli, overcoming their natural antipathy, a relationship which is in some ways deeper and more affecting than that between Frodo and Samwise; and the scouring of the Shire, without which the whole adventure has no context and few ramifications.

So if nine hours of screentime isn’t quite enough to encompass the whole of Rings, maybe, just maybe, it will suit the far more slender and simplistic Hobbit quite nicely. Certainly, after an opening 30-40 minutes which is a little on the sluggish side (two prologues?), Jackson never lets the pace slacken, throwing incident after incident at our merry band of dwarves. As they ricochet from trolls to orcs to goblins, the only potential problem is whether the film will ever stop and pause for breath. When it does, first in Rivendell and then, most successfully of all for the famous Riddles In The Dark sequence, it’s arguably at its most effective.

It helps that there’s a marvellous gang of character actors essaying the dwarves and managing to give each of them a distinct attitude and characterisation, while also providing them a unity as a pack. As well as Ian McKellan as Gandalf, we also have a host of Rings actors returning for an extended curtain call – reprises from Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Christopher Lee and Cate Blanchett are all fine I suppose, but none adds much to the story. The introduction of Radagast the Brown, played by Sylvester McCoy is more welcome, turning a brief mention in the book into a memorable character in the film (although McCoy needs to learn that his trick of going cross-eyed isn’t as amusing as her thinks).

Shouldering almost the entire burden of the film though, is Martin Freeman as fussy hero Bilbo Baggins. It’s a marvellous performance, drawing on all the actor’s strengths from his other famous roles in The Office and Sherlock but managing to find something new as well – a sort of unassuming steeliness which is absolutely fascinating to watch.

It’s not perfect. The humour is a little too broad at times, and the effects work is so effortless now – it’s so easy to transform a live actor into a CGI avatar seamlessly – that the temptation is to keep ramping the action up and up and up. I had my doubts as to whether anything made of flesh and bone could survive the ride on the stone giants, but that every dwarf could have escaped intact from the goblin’s hopelessly precarious underground city absolutely beggars belief.

It’s also worth mentioning that I watched the movie in the HFR 3D format. My thoughts on 3D are available elsewhere. Here it’s largely used fairly tastefully and it wasn’t a distraction. High Frame Rate is another matter entirely and this has caused a good deal of confusion, so let me try and clear things up…

When a movie is shot using a traditional film camera, film is advanced through the mechanism, brought to a stop so that one frame is behind the lens, then the shutter is opened to briefly expose that one frame, the shutter is closed and the film advanced another frame and so on. Clearly there are some physical limitations to how fast this can be achieved, since if you yank the film on too quickly and stop it too suddenly, you will start to shred the celluloid. The “shutter” by the way is usually a rotating disc with one missing section, generally 180 degrees.

When the movie is projected, a similar system is employed to show one steady image every 24th of a second. This is just about fast enough for persistence of vision to take over and for the succession of still images to be perceived as a moving picture, especially if each image is shown twice so that the rate of flicker goes up to 48Hz (48 times per second) which is standard.

Returning to the filming process, some of the time, when the shutter is open, the camera will be recording an object which is moving and this will result in a blurred frame. This blur is something we are used to seeing when watching a movie and generally we think nothing of it. In fact, we are more likely to notice it when it’s missing, as when footage is sped-up to give it more excitement or when stop-motion animation is combined with live action (think of those Ray Harryhausen skeletons fighting Jason and the Argonauts). Some directors will also create this strobing effect deliberately by using a camera shutter which is open for less time, 90 degrees, or with very fast film, even less. Think of the Normandy Landings sequence in Saving Private Ryan, shot with a 45 degree shutter.

Video is another matter entirely. Wanting a flicker rate of around 50Hz (which is also conveniently the usual mains electricity frequency, at least in the UK) but not having physical film which must be held still and then briefly exposed, standard video recording exposes a whole new frame fifty times a second, with the result that there is less motion blur – the images have a smoother and more fluid look. (This is a slight simplification which ignores interlacing, but we don’t really have to worry about that for the purposes of this explanation.)

Devotees of vintage television will remember that the standard model for filming both drama and comedy in the seventies and eighties was to shoot on location with 16mm film cameras, one set-up at a time. This allowed for better lighting, more dramatic angles and so on, but it was slower and more expensive and so tended to be kept to a minimum. This location footage would then be combined with studio footage, shot with three or four or five cameras all following the action as it unfolded like a play. This often meant blasting the studio sets with light to make sure that the actors could clearly be seen by all cameras and in all positions. This flat, over-lit, smooth video look became associated with cheapness. The bigger your budget, the more location filming you could afford and the more cinematic your show seemed. But switching between film and video created a jarring shift in image quality and texture which some viewers and some directors found offputting and so in the late eighties and early nineties, it became more and more common to take video cameras out on location too, to ensure that everything looked the same.

But the film “look” was still felt to be more prestigious, to have a more high-quality “feel” to it, so with digital post-processing it was possible to “filmise” video footage, artificially transforming footage shot on video tape to give it movie-like motion. At around the same time, researchers were discovering how to add extra computer-generated frames to make film footage look like video, in order to restore old episodes of – you guessed it – Doctor Who, which had been originally shot on video but now only existed as 16mm film recordings, back to how they would have looked on transmission.

So, when watching The Hobbit in 48fps, we are undeniably seeing more detail. Twice as many distinct images flash before our eyes watching the HFR version as opposed to the standard version. And there’s no lack of quality in these images, captured as they are with the very latest Red Epic cameras, shooting preposterously high resolution. So this way of shooting is far more like how our eyes perceive the world – there’s no celluloid in my skull and no shutter in my eye-socket, and so therefore no motion blur. But it’s also true that The Hobbit‘s smooth motion, lacking the motion blur associated with the prestige of film, tends to remind older viewers of video tape and younger viewers of video games. Indeed, during the first prologue I could have sworn the image was speeded-up, but of course I was just seeing the lack of motion blur.

This then is the crux of the matter. Is a preference for 24fps cultural, due entirely to decades of having been exposed to prestige material shot in this format, compared to less fancy material shot at higher frame rates? Or is there something about a lower frame rate which is intrinsically more appealing? My subjective response to The Hobbit at 48fps is that I didn’t hate it, but I did notice it and when I noticed it I found it distracting. But who’s to say that sixty years from now, 24fps footage won’t look like black-and-white does to us – or worse?

The Oscars 2013 – Part One

Posted on January 16th, 2013 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

It’s Oscar time once more. Seth MacFarlane has revealed the shortlist and once again it is my mission to watch all the Best Picture nominees – which in a way is disappointing as there are quite a few films coming out in the next few weeks which I am keen to see and which the Academy has not so blessed.

One of these was The Master which I watched over the weekend, which certainly has not gone unnoticed by AMPAS but which failed to get a Best Picture nomination. It is up for three acting awards however, and that’s pretty fair as this is an actors’ movie in every sense.

The story, such as it is, concerns Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an ex-Navy man finding it increasingly hard to adjust to civilian life and who falls under the influence of charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Both are nominated for acting awards and both fully deserve it – Phoenix seemingly in constant discomfort, his body bent and buckled under the weight of his frustration and confusion, dealing with his angst by imbibing paint-thinner or by finding things to hit. Hoffman is outstanding, grinning fatly behind a blond walrus moustache and genially attempting to crack open the psyches of his devout group of followers, through a technique which is part Freudian fantasising and part Meisner (the acting technique famed for its use of repetition).

Early on, the narrative is lean and sleek, cutting years at a time to propel Freddie into Dodd’s clutches, and throughout the camerawork is poised and careful, capturing the performances whole rather than creating them or amplifying them via cutting or framing. Amy Adams (also nominated) does well with very thin material and it’s nice to see Laura Dern, although she is criminally underused.

In the middle section, the details of Dodd’s environment and Freddie’s position within it are sufficient to sustain the interest, bar an ill-judged scene in which A Sceptical Onlooker confronts Dodd with The Voice Of Reason and gets a tomato thrown at him by Quell for his troubles. This scene didn’t work for me, not because it was didactic (although it was) but because it stopped me seeing Dodd through Quell’s eyes, and made his continuing support of Dodd more pitiable than relatable.

Like Dodd’s own bizarre crusade, the film itself fatally runs out of steam in the final third. The story design demands that Quell and Dodd continue to come into conflict, but Quell can’t be allowed to heal since that would imply that the cult healed him, which clearly would be unacceptable to writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (and probably me too). But if Quell becomes his own man and abandons Dodd then that also seems to give the cult too much credit, and so the two men are shackled together – Dodd obsessing over Quell on the flimsiest of pretexts – until suddenly they aren’t any more because it’s time for the film to end.

A very negative reading of the film is possible. From what we see of Dodd’s techniques, it seems that by confronting the subject with endless pointless tasks, often the same task over and over again, eventually the subject, rather than the cult, is forced to provide an epiphany to fill the void – and the same could be said of this story: if we watch these two people locked together in enough demented activities, eventually we will be forced to imbue the proceedings with meaning. I’m not quite ready to level that charge, but Anderson asks a lot of his audience when his story has so little in the way of a climax.

Meanwhile back to the Oscars. Once again, we have nine nominees (between five and ten is now the rule) of which I have seen only one – Argo. Here’s a quick note of what to look out for.

  • Amour – a film that definitely wasn’t on my list. Two old people clinging to their love for each other when one of them suffers a stroke. Clearly, the better-done this is, the less enjoyable it will be to watch. A total lose-lose situation.
  • Argo – as noted elsewhere, an extremely able piece of true-life storytelling, which may now find itself outgunned.
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild – very much the dark horse, although, as I understand it, one of two stuck-on-a-raft-with-wildlife movies out this year.
  • Django Unchained – who could resist? Tarantino’s assault on the Academy continues, although no nod for him as best director.
  • Les Miserables – I’m a sucker for a good musical, so of course this was on my list anyway, but Tom Hooper fails to capitalise on his success with The King’s Speech and like Tarantino is not nominated in the directing category.
  • Life of Pi – one of a recent spate of “unfilmable” novels which have recently made it to the screen. If they make a movie of Finnegan’s Wake I’ll be impressed and if it’s nominated for Best Picture, I’ll eat my copy.
  • Lincoln – this is it, the 800lb gorilla at this year’s awards. Expect it to carry off a fistful, including best picture.
  • Silver Linings Playbook – I watched the trailer for this before I knew anything else about it and for the first two-thirds I thought “ho-hum, standard issue quirky rom-com”. Then they started dancing and I decided this was a movie which had no idea what it wanted to be. To see it nominated for eight Oscars, tying with Les Miserables and behind only Life of Pi and Lincoln is utterly confounding. Clearly I’ve missed something.
  • Zero Dark Thirty – I’ve got a lot of time for The Hurt Locker. This movie could be half as good as that and still better than most of the films on this list (and all the films on last year’s list).

So, already a much more promising batch than 2012 offered, but I’ve got my work cut out to see them all, while hopefully also cramming in less-essential fare such as The Hobbit, Flight, Jack Reacher and Seven Psychopaths. If you’re the betting type, put your money on Lincoln to stroll off with Best Picture and probably win the night. Daniel Day Lewis, Steven Spielberg, Sally Field, Tony Kushner and John Williams all have excellent chances and it may very well pick up awards for things like cinematography, editing, costume and sound as well. Only Tommy Lee Jones, up for best supporting actor has got real worries, up against Alan Arkin, Robert de Niro, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Christoph Waltz. That’s a tough category to call this year.

So… What Did I Think About The Snowmen

Posted on January 15th, 2013 in Culture | 2 Comments »


I have neglected my post shamefully and will try and rewatch the episode soon to give some more cogent thoughts, but here are some quick observations…

  • New title sequence and music seem to lack focus and drive, although the glimpse of Matt Smith’s face is welcome and stylish.
  • Moreorless everything in the set-up is great – Jenna-Louise Coleman acquits herself splendidly, and Matt Smith is excellent as this darker, more lonely version of the Doctor.
  • The nods to the Patrick Troughton Yeti stories are lovely and to have Ian McKellan and Richard E Grant is almost spoiling us
  • Welcome returns too from Vastra, Jenny and especially Strax
  • Don’t like the new TARDIS much. Too small, too boxy. I thought the previous version was the best since the series returned and possibly the best ever. I remember hating the Eccleston version when it debuted and I got used to that, so maybe this will grow on me too (mind you, they did adjust the lighting when Tennant took over).
  • Fantastically bold to actually kill off Clara, although the storytelling was a bit wobbly there. If she’s dead, kill her off. If she’s not dead yet, then give her a line or two at least.
  • Resolving the plot with “tears at Christmas” is almost unforgivably nonsensical and rather makes me wonder if the resolution to the Sherlock cliff-hanger will be that Watson closed his eyes and wished really hard that Holmes wasn’t dead.

I’m shortly turning this blog over to movies and especially The Oscars, but before I do a quick word about the New Yes Prime Minister which began on Gold tonight. As a writer myself of a satirical play about the, and called Coalition, I was duty-bound to take in the recent stage version of the venerable 80s sit-com which I found very disappointing. Trapped in a single set and playing out in real-time did the storytelling few favours, but worse was the way that the elegant wit and supple characterisations had desiccated over time, becoming hack imitations of their former selves. Naturally, the new actors couldn’t help but be compared to their progenitors, but the writing never added anything new, while simultaneously failed to resurrect glories past, and the plotting was glacially slow, and rarely managed to raise the stakes appreciably.

Putting this new incarnation back on the television seems scarcely wise, but I was stunned to realise that the first half hour installment is essentially the first thirty minutes of the play, with all attendant faults and compromises, and several jokes made appreciably less funny in the minimal rewriting. Too see such good actors as Henry Goodman and David Haig struggle with this third-rate material, while spectres of Nigel Hawthorne and Paul Eddington loom over their shoulders is a very discomfiting sight. I shan’t be watching any more.