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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Let’s not muck about: this was the best episode yet. The first twenty minutes to half an hour in particular, were as gripping as anything on TV. The quality of the opening alone made this the highlight of a bold series.
What made the beginning so absorbing was the reveal of the much talked of, but never seen, Peter Glickman, and some superb writing and acting. Indeed it was the acting above all else that made this so good, especially when Stephen Rea’s Gatehouse squares up to Anthony Sher’s Glickman. Before that unbelievably tense encounter though, we’re treated to Sher’s portrayal of Glickman’s alter ego Paul Donnelly, who lives a simple life as a clock shop owner in Ireland.
The unlucky passing of an old business associate, an American flashing plenty of cash, transforms our Irish accented and mild mannered old chap devoted to his clocks into a slick and ruthless criminal. The script excels itself as we see Glickman follow the man from his shop, cleverly work out the number of his hotel room and then pull off a near perfect murder.
The conversation between Glickman and the American in his room is chilling and realistic. The moment Sher’s performance switches from one persona to another is astounding. Glickman is a quietly menacing character very much in the mould of Gatehouse but also somehow on another, less predictable level. The murder itself was surprisingly brutal, jumping out at you just as Glickman is showing a compassion Gatehouse seems to lack and contrasting starkly with the meticulous but unnoticeable preparation.
Accomplished ad hoc killing complete, Glickman slots seamlessly back into the shoes of an old fashioned and harmless shop owner. He has cultivated the last resort escape route of his alter ego for twenty years, making regular but short appearances in Ireland as Donnelly to flesh out the believability. Echoing all the talk of him dividing his life into boxes in previous episodes, he describes his double life as a room kept ready for him and where nothing looks odd when he moves in full time, because really, he’s been there all along.
Despite his calculating nature and devious credentials to match Gatehouse, Glickman nevertheless seems more human than Stephen Rea’s character. He claims to have genuinely loved his girlfriend and to deeply regret not having the opportunity to say goodbye. Later in the episode he meets Christopher Eccleston’s Joseph Bede for a dead drop on a bench, ignorant of the fact that he’s been banging the woman he misses. She has sought comfort in the arms of the florist/drug trafficker, somewhat predictably after last week’s flirtatious behaviour, because they both live in the “loneliness of the past” or something.
Anyway what do we actually learn when Gatehouse and Glickman have that awesome standoff? Admittedly I’ve been putting off an explanation because I’m not quite sure I’ve digested it all. But the big thing that surprised me, amongst the quick fire, back and forth dialogue was that Gatehouse is Glickman’s “controller”. I always assumed Glickman was the real big cheese and that Gatehouse was pissed because he’s the hired help, albeit a rather active, expert and efficient employee. But I guess a theme of the series is that people appear to have roles and responsibilities which they don’t, to protect the real puppet masters (e.g. Bede).
Glickman got Wratten out of jail because the two had been working together for thirty years. Gatehouse disapproved because Wratten was threatening to expose something massive, an extremely secretive operation called “Counterpoint”. Gatehouse implies he wanted the satisfaction of killing Wratten himself, rather than having him eliminated in jail. Glickman of course ends the conversation by trying to blow up Gatehouse, unsuccessfully, thus postponing the real showdown for a later date.
Crudely ejected from his cover life, Glickman tips off Gabriel about the drugs, kick-starting an unveiling of police corruption on a huge scale and taking us closer to the truth about Gabriel’s memory loss. The police are selling drugs from the evidence room (Honey and Gabriel discover UV codes; two sets from the police and one from customs) and even very top officers know about it. Gabriel, in trying to confront his superior, is confronted with his own apparent corruption and the extent of the rot. Blimey.
As if that wasn’t enough for one episode, Bob Harris pulls out of the deal to buy Bede’s drugs, only for his rent boy to bump him off and take his place. Someone must be backing him and this becomes one of the new mysteries, along with what exactly is “Counterpoint”?
As I’ve said before, this is a series that can infuriate as well as inspire, with some of the many references to “shadows” in this episode deflating the subtlety somewhat. But undoubtedly, The Shadow Line is now beginning to reward commitment in a big way.
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You can rely on Disney’s well known Pirate franchise for one of the universal laws of cinema. As sure as night follows day and the tide washes in and out, each successive film in the Pirates of the Caribbean series will be worse than the last. Like a basket of juicy fruit left to rot on a sunny beach, the individual ingredients that made the first film so fun gradually lose their enjoyment. You can also bet your house that in increasingly more desperate attempts to recapture the magic of the Black Pearl’s virgin voyage, the plots will acquire more baffling layers with each new instalment. And this film’s ending proves once again that there will always be room for yet another adventure.
However this film does break some new ground. For example for the first time ever, the title is as confusing and vague as the many competing strands of the story. The tides are certainly no more or less important than before and there is nothing strange about the film; within Captain Jack’s world at least mermaids and myths are pretty standard fare.
Things get off to a familiar but promising start. Our beloved scallywag Jack Sparrow is in London to rescue sidekick Mr Gibbs from a trial, which would be swiftly followed by a hanging if the bloodthirsty crowd had their way. After some costumed shenanigans and typically camp stalking about, Jack and Gibbs find themselves at the King’s palace. The crown wish to find the fountain of youth before the crafty Catholics in Spain and they’ve heard Sparrow knows the way.
Jack gets an audience with the King in a sumptuous room and Depp gets ample opportunity to showcase the physical comedy and wordplay audiences have come to love. The King is played by Richard Griffiths in a delightful cameo. Needless to say Jack manages an escape. Later in the film Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa takes the time to mentally plan an escape route, presuming that’s what Depp’s madcap Sparrow does, only for Jack to reply that he sometimes “improvises”. The running and jumping through an impressive CGI London in the film’s opening segment, is ad hoc Jack Sparrow action at its best.
Sadly the film simply cannot maintain the entertainment levels as chase follows chase and sword fight follows sword fight. Most of the action is surprisingly inventive, especially since we’ve had three films already but at times even Jack’s luck over judgment leaps of faith enter ridiculous territory. The stunts become monotonous by the end because of the film’s relentless opening barrage, tarnishing the drama of the finale. There are no explosive cannon battles for those who love their ships and nautical duels. Instead of boarding we get an awful lot of trekking through the jungle.
Having said this, two standout scenes are exciting and engaging. I’ve already mentioned Captain Jack prancing his way around London but the first mermaid attack scene is also terrific. Only the Pirates franchise could deliver such a scene. It’s got frights and bites, fangs and bangs. The mermaids are less interesting by the end, but here they are introduced in a lengthy scene as seductive and dangerous. The attack comes as a real shock and well managed change in pace after they are lured in to enchant some pirates left as bait.
The mermaid battle is an epic, long scene and the film is so long that it loses much of its epic feel. Sub plots like a half formed romance between a mermaid and clergy man could have been slimmed considerably or dropped altogether .The runtime is literally bladder bursting, as a friend of mine dashed from the room as soon as the credits rolled. I was content to sit and watch the names of the cast fly at me in 3D however, because of Hans Zimmer’s magnificent music, which remains the best thing about the Pirates of the Caribbean. There are some nice variations and new additions to the main theme in this instalment but I can’t help feeling it’s time he focused his talents on new projects, rather than continually recycling one stunning track.
Hang on though; surely this is still worth seeing just for another outing from Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow? Isn’t he the single most important pillar upon which the blockbusters are based? I always assumed, like many critics, that the romantic pairing of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley in the previous films was holding back Depp’s brilliance. But having seen On Stranger Tides, in which Depp must mostly steer proceedings alone, his performance is somehow less effective without them.
He is at his best in this film when dancing around other characters, making light of them. Penelope Cruz is suitably sassy and sexy as a pirate, albeit with an unrealistically attractive cleavage for a hardened sailor, and she and Depp have some fun exchanges, but putting Sparrow at the heart of a love story doesn’t work. Even the filmmakers realise this by backing out of it somewhat at the end. Captain Jack Sparrow is not the emotional type. And what made him so attractive to audiences, was the way he mocked the clichéd relationship between Bloom and Knightley. Making him part of the conventional storyline robs his performance of some of its power.
Depp is still fantastic fun at points though, rising above an overcomplicated script with a bizarre fascination for throwing in random and rubbish rhymes. This film may just go through the motions and it may be far too long, but it’s undeniably grand and fairly pleasing despite the odd yawn.
Rather than fork out for its occasional 3D gimmicks of a sword jutting out of the screen though, I would recommend ditching the high seas for inner city London and Joe Cornish’s critically acclaimed directorial debut, Attack the Block. I saw this just hours before Pirates 4 and without adding anything new to the chorus of praise around it, I will just say go and see it. It is funnier and more thrilling than Rob Marshall’s blockbuster and doesn’t deserve to sink.
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