Last night I watched the last in the series of Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood on BBC 2. I actually watched it on TV! You can watch it here on iPlayer:
I really enjoyed it and will be trying to see the first two episodes somehow. This episode chronicled the death of silent cinema, which Merton shows to be at the height of its creative powers when the technology for talkies arrived. Silent films starred ingenious performers, and were shot in inventive, imaginative and inspiring ways. They could afford to make classic escapism for the masses as well as experimental pictures, which also more often than not turned into hits by capturing the public’s lust for the cinema in new ways.
Talkies, Merton argues, brought the quality and the standards crashing back to basic levels. Yes audiences could hear the tinny voices of their beloved stars but they lost much of the magic of cinema when it was silent. They lost the live musical performances accompanying the pictures in theatres. They lost the moving camera angles, zooming in and out to visually dazzle and excite. They lost the cults of intoxicating mystery that grew up around actors, as soon as they heard their ordinary or often foreign accented voices. Instead there was wooden dialogue in front of static cameras. Imaginations were stifled and limited.
It’s impossible not to compare the arrival of the talkies with that of 3D films in the 21st century. In my view it’s obvious that the shift is not so dramatic. Sound is a far bigger leap forward than three dimensions. This seems an odd thing to say; when in theory 3D should mean the action literally happening in front of you. But we know the reality of 3D is mostly gimmicky after seeing the offers of studios in cinemas.
This might suggest that greater efforts are needed to improve the technology, so it’s truly as transformative an experience as listening to sound for the first time in a movie theatre. However Merton’s documentary focuses on the ability of good storytellers to adapt. Irving Thalberg, who died in his 30s, was the extraordinary man at the centre of last night’s episode.
A German immigrant, Thalberg grew up in New York, after being born with a weak heart. He spent long periods of his childhood mollycoddled and stuck in bed through illness. During this time he read classic literature, plays and autobiographies. And followed the fortunes of the film business.
Then he got his big break and headed to Hollywood as a secretary to the head of Universal Studios. He was unexpectedly promoted to Head of Production, because of the qualities he showed his employer, where he established a reputation in his early twenties, before moving to MGM in the same role. His influence transformed MGM‘s studios into a vast dream factory with all manner of storytelling resources on site. He handpicked films for suitable directors, mixing traditional stories with bolder projects. He ensured that before release all his films were screened to members of the public, which led to scenes being re-shot frequently. A modest man, his name never appeared on any posters.
Thalberg’s MGM was at the top of its game when talkies arrived, courtesy of rivals Warner Brothers. But before his death Thalberg oversaw a successful transition to sound, with that same focus on good storytelling. As a producer he called the shots, made decisions in the company’s financial interests, but never compromised a good story.
3D audiences have been declining and champions of the technology pin their hopes on Michael Bay’s third Transformers movie, Dark of the Moon. In press previews the 3D is said to be cutting edge, mind blowing and the best yet. But as this Guardian writer, Ben Child, points out, Bay’s films are so loud and bombastic that they simply become tedious. And the only real hope for 3D is that someone, a great individual of Thalberg’s ilk, can steer a truly great and inventive film project to fruition. One that makes the best of 3D‘s unique assets but one that, above all, tells an unbelievably good story.
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Before you read on: Spoilers sweetie.
The Guardian series blog, written by Dan Martin, has been my first port of call as soon as the credits roll after every episode of this series. The story arc is so layered and baffling, with the hints and in jokes so carefully hidden, that even after a second viewing it’s difficult to pick up on everything. Thankfully the Guardian blog has been there whenever I’ve really struggled to get my head together and form some thoughts of my own. And the comments section is the perfect breeding ground for theories about where things are going.
This week’s mid-series finale gets a rather bruising verdict on the Guardian website. Very rarely do I disagree with it but this week I definitely do. I see where they’re coming from. It’s certainly true that not a lot happened despite the build up and the scale. And the cleric characters on Demon’s Run, particularly the token gay couple, the thin/fat marines, are chucked into the mix briefly and rather pointlessly. It was undoubtedly disappointing that the Cybermen were waggled before us in the pre titles sequence and that the Doctor’s dark side, whilst brilliant, did not plumb any seriously shocking new depths. But I think Dan Martin is missing the point of A Good Man Goes to War.
In many ways it matters little that the standalone story element was lacking this week because this was an epic conclusion to the first seven episodes. Rather than a war, this was the climactic battle. After the weaknesses of the flesh based double bill, I actually thought the story was improved to a much greater level and it was a joy to get Moffat’s writing back. The Doctor’s dialogue was so much wittier, cleverer and funnier.
Indeed the most surprising thing about A Good Man Goes to War was just how funny it was. The variety of the humour on show really added to the cinematic and epic feel. Besides the usual comedy deriving from Smith’s performance, for example in the scene where he’s trying to work out how Melody came to have Time Lord DNA, there are laughs from the other characters Moffat brings in as the Doctor’s allies.
The Sontaran nurse was absolute genius and perfectly in keeping with what the Doctor would do. When he tells Colonel Runaway to keep his back straight so as not to damage his posture, I laughed, during my first and second viewing. However it was only on my second viewing that I noticed a filthy lesbian tongue joke between the mysterious Silurian detective and her female sidekick, after the Silurian asks “why do you ever put up with me?”. I can see an adult spin-off show, with the potential to be far better than Torchwood, for those two. There was also a jolly fat blue thing that we’ve seen before, who was a delightfully wise presence.
With all the grim seriousness and concentration required to keep up with the secrets and twists of the story arc, the laughs were absolutely essential to making A Good Man Goes to War enjoyable. After the endless tension that has been coiling and tightening over the preceding weeks, I thought that this seventh episode actually had merits of its own, by leaving the ongoing secrets for the dramatic and emotional final ten minutes. Even if it didn’t go as far as it could’ve done, this episode was a fascinating exploration of the Doctor’s character.
We get to see the theatrical, arrogant side of the Doctor as he pulls off his genius takeover of the base. Matt Smith is in his element here and the impact of his performance is all the greater because Moffat kept him off the screen during the beginning as the team assembled, using the TARDIS alone. Moffat has previously said he wanted to put the “who” back into Doctor Who, and he’s done that with his confused, overlapping timelines and references to off screen adventures. But in A Good Man Goes to War he asks the question more directly and the Doctor ponders his own legacy, just as he did at the end of the last series when the monster sealed within the Pandorica turned out to be him. River Song then delivers some home truths. This episode may have been light on story but all of the key characters are explored in greater depth than before.
To River then. Finally we know who she is! And at last we have substantial answers to big questions looming since the beginning of the series. I was genuinely more satisfied by the big reveal than I thought I would be. But at the same time I am left craving more. I want to see the next episode. Moffat has, predictably, left an awful lot of questions unanswered. With a title like “Let’s Kill Hitler” my mind is already in a whirlwind of excited anticipation about the next episode itself too, let alone the answering of more secrets.
People tend to focus on the big question of this series: the Doctor’s death. But I am still waiting for the unresolved events of The Big Bang at the end of Series 5 to be explained. Who manipulated the TARDIS? Who organised the coalition of baddies to imprison the Doctor? Surely they must have some sort of connection to this year’s big enemies? Why are the clerics anti-Doctor now after working with him against the Weeping Angels in the last series? Who is Madame Kovarian?
So many questions and so many throwaway lines I can’t dwell on, partly because it would be useless and dull for you if I asked questions forever and also because I am falling asleep. Stevie Wonder performed in 1814 London. Just remembered that. But we mustn’t tell him!
See you in the Autumn.
EDIT: Blimey forgot the Headless Monks completely. And not because they were bad. A good idea but underdeveloped. Worth it just for having new monsters and that wonderful moment when the Doctor disarms all the clerics.
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Here’s how I expected Jackass 3D to play out:
Annoying American Moron 1: You ready for this man?
Annoying American Moron 2: Yeah dude, ready as I’ll ever be.
Annoying American Moron 1: Ok man brace yourself.
Annoying American Moron 2: Oh Christ dude wait up…
Annoying American Moron 1: 1, 2…here it comes man…3
(Some form of speeding projectile crashes into Moron 2’s private parts)
Annoying American Moron 2: Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!
Annoying American Moron 1: Bulls-eye man!
Dimwit Onlookers: Hahahahahahahaha awesome!
(Close-up of throbbing impact area, rendered an unappealing, dangling reality by the magic of 3D)
Repeat scene to fill film.
This still isn’t a million miles from several scenes in Jackass 3D. Needless to say their painful, sickening stunts are more inventive and impressive than my example, but imagine my surprise when I didn’t find the American morons annoying. Imagine my even greater surprise when I left the cinema thinking of Jackass 3D as the finest example of 3D technology I am yet to see and a film that gets back to the exciting core of the genuine movie experience. My previous experience of the Jackass franchise had me fearing a series of painful experiments on the man vegetables, but this turned out to be so much more than that.
Firstly then the use of 3D. Jackass 3D’s title sequence is nothing less than a visual spectacular that leaves other films I have seen through the Elton John style magic shades in the dust. Avatar resembled a video game most of the time for all the ranting and raving about the uniqueness of the experience, and for me there was miniscule wow factor in watching a poorly conceived game I couldn’t even play. Similarly Alice in Wonderland was an arty, surreal cartoon and Toy Story 3, despite its brilliance in other areas, an animation. There’s still a feel of artificial computer generation to the wonderfully distinctive action sequences.
In Jackass however there’s no sense of fakery or techno tweaking to the visuals; just silly, outlandish, dangerous, exciting stunts, performed by real life humans, in exquisite, vivid detail in front of you. The title sequence is full of colourful and crazy costumes and sets. Best of all it’s a slow motion compilation of a series of outrageous set pieces that brilliantly use 3D. A ceiling fan is decimated, smashed to smithereens by the head of a flying moron. Paint balls fly out of the screen at you. It’s all obviously purely performed and crafted to justify the 3D of the title, but a film like Jackass, with no conventional requirements like plot, gets away with it. And the reason it all looks so spectacular is because someone could afford to just play with 3D for once, rather than make an ordinary film and chuck a few gimmicky effects in somewhere.
Whilst the rest of the film comes nowhere near to the 3D wizardry of the opening, apart from an explosive, debris strewn end, it has its own charms. And when 3D effects do occasionally pop up throughout, they are all the more impressive and appropriate for being shots of real things: plumes of water leaping from the screen, a party popper inflated by on-demand fart reaching out of the screen towards you. When the 3D effects aren’t deployed though this is still an enjoyable film, finishing just as you start to become mildly bored by it all. Well perhaps enjoyable is a poorly chosen word. Certainly watching a room full of men puking after drinking the “sweat suit cocktail” and a man propelled skywards in a porta-loo full of shit, is far from enjoyable. These scenes have the whole room collectively groaning and looking away, chuckling with embarrassment and suppressing the gag reflex.
Other scenes are genuinely enjoyable and funny, such as the opening “high-five” gag in which various members of the Jackass team are floored by a giant hand, and the “electric avenue” tazer gauntlet challenge. Again the entire cinema gasps and giggles at the pain. And much of the humour here comes from the irresistible on-screen camaraderie of a group of idiotic, thrill seeking guys having a good laugh. They’re rarely as irritating as I feared; you’re sucked in by their games and the sight of full grown adults clinging to the joys of childhood.
Frankly it seems stupid to dwell on what Jackass 3D isn’t. It obviously lacks the conventions of an ordinary movie. It won’t be for everyone. But by being different it gets back to the core of what movies are about. Going to the cinema should be a group experience in which rows and rows of people are provoked into a reaction; an ooh, an aah, a chortle or a scream. Good cinema sparks conversation afterwards. Jackass 3D shocks the audience. It ticks all the boxes and by properly exploring 3D technology, finds itself at the cutting edge of filmmaking. Most of all though, it’s damn good fun.
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Avatar; the highest grossing film of all time and the future of cinema. Yesterday I finally saw it in all its three dimensional glory. For me the film’s success rested entirely on whether or not the technical wizardry was simply a gimmick or a groundbreaking revolution in film making. Of course I had heard all about the clunky dialogue and transparent plotting but nevertheless people were telling me you had to see the eye popping visuals of Avatar to believe them, so along I went with others seduced by the hype.
Firstly was all that talk of a lifeless script, seemingly rattled off in a couple of summer afternoons by an idealistic hippy , actually true? Yes it’s all true. The script was heavily laden with painful voice over segments that are usually indicative of excruciating cinema experiences and certainly did not surprise the audience with any unexpected plot twists. The worst aspect of the story was its lack of subtlety and originality. It was as if James Cameron came up with the general idea of a 3D spectacular with an environmental message and then sketched out the narrative in five minutes, with the natives of Pandora residing in a giant tree called “Hometree” and refusing to budge as the nasty corporations move in with the bulldozers. After all, his name as director and the unique 3D element already ensured the project’s blockbuster credentials. The society of the blue skinned aliens is also an amalgamation of influences rather than a new creation, with much talk of a “flow of energy” connecting all things that sounded distinctly Buddhist. Even the creatures, hailed by champions of the film as imaginative, were merely colourful copies of animals like horses, dogs and perhaps a triceratops. All this mixing and matching of influences still might have been redeemed by some convincing acting performances, but sadly all of the lead characters were crudely drawn and never really make you care. In fairness to the actors the 3D elements involved in shooting must have made natural performances difficult, despite the cast’s praise of Cameron’s handling of the directing in recent documentaries. Add to this the atrocious dialogue they were working with (Unobtanium for God’s sake!) and it’s no wonder Sam Worthington’s voice over sounds so plodding.
It’s also difficult to connect with the blue aliens who basically look like savage, tribal cartoon characters; big nasty smurfs. This brings me to the big question of whether or not the 3D tech works. Well the giant Elton John style sunglasses certainly produced 3D visuals and for the first half an hour you are glued to the experience, which partly makes up for some of the worst sections of the film where the context is established and the deforestation to mine UNOBTANIUM is less than delicately explained. The opening scene in which Jake Sully emerges from a coma in a zero gravity hospital environment is quite jaw dropping; actors float in front of your eyes, steel surfaces glimmer and there is an incredible sense of scale and perspective. However after the initial wow factor fades, although there is now and again the odd fascinating visual flourish, you want more from the story. I think Cameron may have been like a kid in a sandbox with his 3D toys, so much so that he forgot the basic rules of storytelling. Avatar has an annoying habit of telling not showing the audience things and this seems even more inexcusable when you have 3D visuals to show off. The director also produced a dizzying number of similar action sequences so that when the film climaxes the final battle is a concoction of various elements already shown to us earlier in the film. The first chase sequence is quite impressive (although in my view too fast) but this is followed with lots of almost identical jungle running with replica slow motion shots of arrow shooting that scream CHEESY! Another problem is that all the money shots of floating mountains and hordes of blue aliens on flying creatures do not look nearly as amazing in 3D as a room of humans watching a speech. This meant that during the sequences intending to be riveting, edge of your seat stuff I found myself thinking this was all rather like the trailer for a disappointing video game.
Far more enjoyable as a cinematic experience was Guy Ritchie’s take on Sherlock Holmes. Avatar takes itself too seriously but with Robert Downey Jr in the lead role and a general light hearted tone this update has no such problems. All the actions sequences were great fun to watch and they rarely became repetitive as in Avatar. The running time was also pleasant rather than bladder busting. Jude Law, a surprising choice as Watson, works well in partnership with Downey Jr and some excellent elements are retained from the original stories. The script is also more skilfully crafted than Avatar’s in that it leads the audience to believe Holmes cannot explain the supernatural occurrences of the plot, only for the detective to unmask all the unexplained events as works of villainy at the end, to the great relief of myself as it would certainly have been against the empirical spirit of the original tales to have Holmes taking on groups with genuine spiritual powers. The setting of Victorian London is brilliantly evoked and I found it personally more engaging, despite money shots of Tower Bridge under construction, than the CGI jungles of Pandora. The score too was playful and matched the film’s tone and pace, in contrast to Avatar’s epic soundtrack with regular echoes of Leona’s I See You ballad which was difficult to sustain.
Personally then give me a Victorian gutter and an entertaining performance over a fibre optic forest any day. It’s a shame Cameron will probably scoop best director and best film at the Oscars for a film carried by its 3D technology.