Tag Archives: California

Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood proves that the likes of Transformers: Dark of the Moon won’t save 3D


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:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b011vmsd/Paul_Mertons_Birth_of_Hollywood_Episode_3/

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.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmblog/2011/jun/10/transformers-dark-of-the-moon-3d

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Donor Unknown: Adventures in the Sperm Trade


Sperm donation is an ethical and emotional minefield. It’s one of those sensitive issues with equally passionate and valid views on both sides of the debate. Even bystanders not directly involved or affected will have a strong opinion on its morality. The consequences and motivations of such anonymous, industrial giving of life can be dissected and analysed again and again, for positives and negatives. Endless reams could be written on the subject without resolving the issue one way or another.

It’s also one of those topics that often only interests people when looked at from monstrous and extreme angles. For example a few years ago a documentary called “The Sperminator” about a man running a clinic who provided all the samples himself, when he told prospective parents that there was an extensive bank to meet their specific requests and requirements, caused a lot of controversy and generated a lot of interest. People enjoy being shocked by grotesque scandals such as this, simultaneously intrigued and repulsed by the potential for ignorant incest. The human side of this relatively new phenomenon is usually overlooked.

Donor Unknown is almost exclusively about the very human effects of sperm donation. It’s an extremely admirable and accomplished piece of filmmaking. Over the course of its engaging and economical 78 minute runtime, this film gradually and thoroughly explores the sperm trade by maintaining a tight human focus. Hollywood blockbusters lack both the heart and surprising plot twists of Donor Unknown and it deserves a grander home than TV screens. With its editing and pacing and diverse locations across America, this is a film that shows off the art of documentary storytelling at its best.

Much of the film is seen through the lens of JoEllen, a girl on the cusp of pretty womanhood, who has come to terms with her lack of a father throughout childhood. Her mother has always been honest about the way in which she was conceived, with a little help from “donor 150”. But although she’s grown up with the affection of a loving family and lived a privileged, seemingly happy existence, there is always something missing. A great big “what if” is constantly nagging at JoEllen’s wellbeing and sense of identity. 

Meanwhile on Venice Beach in LA, Jeffrey lives with his four dogs and the occasional pigeon. He’s quite clearly a hippy, living a simple life in a RV, loving his dogs and being kind to those he meets. With his long hair and tanned, excess wearied face, it’s difficult to imagine he was once a muscular model in Playgirl who once made a living from stripping. He explains that he was asked by a woman he met at the hairdresser’s during those years of his prime, whether or not he’d like to donate sperm so she could have a baby. Obviously he was taken aback but after speaking to a close friend who was a loving mother, he decided to give this relative stranger the opportunity of motherhood and hope that fate rewarded him for his good deed.

Donor Unknown also talks to the staff at the Californian Cryogenic Centre, that aims to have the largest collection of sperm donors in the world. We see the specimens stored in huge vats and we have numbers like 200 billion fired at us. We’re assured that this centre alone could repopulate the world in the event of some disaster making such measures necessary. We’re shown the “masturbatory emporiums” with walls colourfully adorned to aid the donation process, with the more sample provided the better. The chambers increase in eroticism along the corridor, we’re told.

And so we are eased gently into sperm donation, with a balance of real human effects and the technology involved. JoEllen’s hole in her existence is contrasted with the motivation of mothers to turn to donors like Jeffrey, along with his reasons for helping out.

Then we’re hit with the bombshell of JoEllen finding a sibling. Her half sister lives in New York and they meet after discovering each other via an online register, where you simply register your donor number. Her identity issues are even deeper than JoEllen’s because she has been lied to until the age of about 14. She resents her parents for the deception and feels immensely confused and hurt. As a teenager it’s a lot to take onboard and extremely destabilising. Desperate for a link to a missing 50% of her, she finds JoEllen and then gets a story onto the front of the New York Times, without her parents’ knowledge.

At this point Donor Unknown becomes extremely uplifting, as more and more siblings come forward who were fathered by “donor 150”. Via the internet an unconventional patchwork family forms across America’s very different states, bringing absent intimacy, connection and love into the lives of more than a dozen children. JoEllen methodically keeps track of all her lost brothers and sisters, meeting most of them and forming attachments, filling in the missing side of her family tree slightly. The genetic quirks and likenesses are touching and fascinating to behold, as the screen flits rapidly through the faces and mannerisms of all the “150” siblings.

But then Donor Unknown changes gear to look at yet another aspect of the trade. After gently gaining your attention and emotional investment, we finally come to the really dark side of sperm donation. One of the siblings, Rachelle, expresses her constant doubts and worries about dating. She has specifically stuck to foreign guys or people that for other reasons definitely could not be related. An interview with the founder of the online register, a mother of a donor child herself, reveals that there are no limits on the number of children a donor can father, despite the claims of clinics.

The Californian Cryogenic Centre is also at pains to point out their range of choice and the extensive information they offer. But the answers of donor questions can be as misleading as they are informative. Jeffrey for example, said he was a dancer when he was a stripper and said he studied philosophy when he spent little time in college. His spiritual waffle won over scores of prospective parents but he is in reality something of a waster, an idealistic hippy and eccentric weirdo. He believes in worrying conspiracy theories and has an unnatural attachment to animals after a troubled childhood.

Beneath it all though he is a kind man and the ending to Donor Unknown is unquestionably back in the uplifting zone. Whatever the dangers and wrongs of the sperm industry, it has the power to create the amazing gift of life. Without the fakery of actors to bring it down, Donor Unknown soars to interesting and touching heights, telling the modern, interconnecting tales of real people.

No need for excessive force? Wii might as well not bother then


Proper funny people, that is to say comedians, often take the ordinary and un-funny happenings of everyday life, apply their own particular, wry comic twist and sit back satisfied as rows of audience members dissolve in laughter. I imagine that for them the knowledge that they took a dull occurrence which wasn’t at all humorous and made it so, simply by looking at it through their own bulging, witty eyes is the ultimate fulfilment of their “art”. I however have always been fairly satisfied with spotting something undeniably hilarious and jabbing a finger in the general direction of such an event, usually accompanying the gesture with subtle shouts such as “Oh my God that’s so funny!” or simply a worrying, wobbly intake of breath and my lips just about gasping “HA!”.

Take the apparently newsworthy and 100% true story of “Wii-type games linked to sprains” provided by the BBC today and the laugh out loud details that ensue upon closer inspection. The article begins by insisting the Nintendo Wii and other such motion sensitive games technology had started to produce its own “brand of player injuries”. By “own brand” we can assume that they mean someone has actually bothered to confirm what we all suspected; fat, unfit people buy the Wii, thrash around with it in their living rooms for a while and claim it to be exercise and the odd unlucky sod does himself a catastrophically embarrassing You’ve Been Framed style injury to himself in the process. To have your concealed fantasies of amusing, lardy louts unintentionally vandalising their own whopping plasma screens and yelping like puppies dangled from the Empire State building after pulling a muscle returning Mario’s serve, or something, is pretty damn funny in itself. But then you pause and consider the authority behind the article.

The BBC says that “doctors”, yes those highly trained professionals admired and trusted by society, have reported on this. They have not merely met a few times to discuss it or had a small handful of them examine the issue, but convened a ruddy conference in San Francisco on the subject! Or alternatively forced the information upon an unsuspecting, unrelated gathering. The enthusiastic medical professionals tasked with the job of investigating this “phenomenon”, apparently consulted the USA’s “National Electronic Injury Surveillance System”. I mean seriously? This database actually shows that in a five year period 696 video game related injuries occurred, of which, disappointingly, only 92 were caused by a Wii- type motion device. I say disappointingly because the other injuries are things such as chronic thumb ache in overzealous, spotty adolescents hunched over a button mashing session of Gears of War or Call of Duty. The Wii injuries have a more harmful and admit it, therefore more comic potential.

At this point I am reminded of my childhood and adults trying to impress caution on me whilst I wielded some sort of sharp object excitedly. “Careful, you could take someone’s eye out with that!” they would whine. Someone else’s, not my own. And so to the funniest sentence of this weird piece of news…

Wild swings of the console’s remote also accounted for dozens of “bystander injuries”.

Now come on that is funny right? Imagine all the possible scenarios; a husband who has just about talked his wife into a game of Wii tennis inadvertently smashing her in the face, a tottering old nan accidentally swiping away her opponent’s walking stick, sending them sprawling across the coffee table, GAME, SET, MATCH! But then I read to the end of the article. Most “victims” of bystander injuries are under 10 years old. I’ve never been a fan of the Wii anyway when I have tried it. It always struck me that it got away with poor quality games, nothing more than cartoons, in comparison to other consoles because of its gimmicky, futuristic tech. Now I have even more reason to shun it. Quite apart from the fact there is no need to get over excited for the controller to respond, you can just as effectively flick your wrist from the sofa as dive around the lounge, it was fun to lose control and pretend. Now “excessive” force is out of the question in case it becomes child abuse, which just isn’t permitted to be funny. Great.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-11455144

Zodiac


Today I rejoiced in the death of summer. Like a smug old miser I strutted contentedly amongst the pug faced, mourning proles, at once detached from and amused by their sodden gripes and moans. The streets were pelted a gloomy grey and everyone lamented the arrival of the dreary and the damp. I on the other hand basked in the murk and inhaled the invigorating moisture of decay. I smiled at the amber dying leaves on the trees through wet windows clustered with restless droplets. I watched the drones as they collided with other droids in the street and promised to meet up, both equally delighted at any sort of forthcoming event to disrupt the bleak routine, and felt satisfied with my own ongoing, indefinite ok-ness, which was somehow above the desperate need for meaning so evident here in their drizzle beaten faces. I would enjoy the death throes of autumn as they confined the summer to the past and await the renewal.

I suspect that this sort of contented and acceptable lonely misery is but a few misplaced steps from disaster. It’s not natural or healthy to find comfort in a puddle, joy in soaked litter or amusement in swaying, torturous supermarket queues. But such are the pitfalls of isolation and having too much time on your hands. Before you know it you’ll be getting such weird fulfilling highs and exciting kicks out of misery that you’ll be actively seeking out other people’s or worse dabbling in a little sadness creation.

So perhaps serial killers simply have too much time on their hands and so do the hacks that get fascinated by their exploits, like Jake Gyllenhaal’s character Robert Graysmith in David Fincher’s 2007 “lightly fictionalised” film Zodiac, of the Californian murders. Fincher’s latest project will star rising Brit Andrew Garfield and is a largely factual account about the creation of social networking site Facebook and the odd personalities behind it. Similarly Zodiac treads the ground of a true story and follows a number of insular, eccentric and withdrawn individuals who become consumed by the case and the need to break the code left repeatedly by the killer as the key to his identity. Indeed at times the film feels like a fly on the wall documentary following the investigation, flipping between various angles such as the police department and the journalists captivated by letters sent to their papers. The period detail is vividly executed and both Fincher’s direction and James Vanderbilt’s script must be praised for a striking realism. However the sizeable chunk of the movie that deals with the years in which the murders themselves takes place flashes by without focus, jumping rapidly through weeks, months and then years at a time, never quite deciding whether or not to follow the progress of the detective, the reporters or Gyllenhaal’s awkward, gifted cartoonist.

The disjointed nature of the first half of the film may not be Fincher or the script’s fault, as it may simply reflect events. The fact remains though that once Graysmith the cartoonist becomes properly fixated on the case the story is anchored and becomes far more engaging. During the first half of the movie Gyllenhaal’s character is introduced but then quickly becomes a periphery figure, only for him to become the much needed focus later on, with better opportunities for character development. Graysmith’s obsession drives a wedge between himself and his family, as he dredges up the past during a time when the Zodiac killer is not even active. He begins to piece together bits of the puzzle, bits the audience has already seen in the frenetic fast moving first segment of the movie. The film’s actors such as Mark Ruffalo, who plays his detective in a brilliant Columbo style, finally get the chance to act rather than simply move through events as Graysmith confronts them and tries to get them to confront their failures in the past investigation and to convince them of the importance of resolving the case. Robert Downey Jr also shines in this section after regressing to a failed drunkard from high flying crime reporter. If Fincher’s new Facebook biopic is as good as early reviews say then it is likely it follows the more focused approach of the latter part of Zodiac, as opposed to its wide ranging opening.

That is not to say there are not a number of good points about the first half of Zodiac, simply that it could have been better with clearer structure and better pacing. As I’ve said the film is always lovingly shot and the period sensually evoked, right down to the ear splitting rings of the telephones during high points of the crisis. There is also a piece of dialogue between police offers from different States over the phone that is at once humorous and sickeningly frustrating, as bureaucratic barriers and petty rivalry block an easy coordinated approach to handling the evidence. Mark Ruffalo’s Columbo lookalike Detective also forms a partnership with fellow investigator Anthony Edwards that is genuine and funny at times and makes the audience care, but sadly the film neither dwells on this relationship long enough for it become truly significant, whilst also lingering too long to damage the rest of the narrative.

The murder scenes themselves are perhaps not surprisingly some of the most gripping in the film and you sense Fincher had more creative freedom whilst shooting them, obviously due to the fact that these sequences had to be more “fictionalised” than others. The first murder is tense and creepy, with sexual undertones hinting at the killer’s motivation. The scene in which the killer kidnaps a mother and baby is distressing and chilling, with suspense hanging thick in the air. Not because you don’t know it’s the killer, the discrete camera angles and suspicious behaviour make this obvious, but because his reaction to the presence of the baby is surprising and what he does will prove just what a monster he is or not. Perhaps the most brazen murder and the one that truly kick-starts the investigation, the shooting of the cab driver in San Francisco, is filmed with a visual flourish reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto the computer game. Fincher has the camera follow the cab from a bird’s eye view as it passes through the bustle of the city, as the player views their vehicle in the early GTA games, with radio music blaring out and then interrupted abruptly by gunshots, and the slow motion splash of blood, followed by children’s screams and a 911 call.

All in all there is no doubt that Zodiac is a well made film full of decent performances and given the sensitive subject matter it was perhaps more important that it presents an accurate factual record than an entertaining story. However those looking forward to Fincher’s new fact based film will hope it pulls of the feat of both documenting history and making it exciting throughout.