Tag Archives: montage

Page and Screen: The static and cinematic in Beginners


In previous Page and Screens I’ve referred to the book How Fiction Works by James Wood. Last night, after returning home from seeing Beginners, I immediately plucked it off the shelf. Despite all the quirkiness of Mike Mills’s indie rom com, trying so hard to make it stand apart as a unique creation, it was a rather familiar filmmaking convention of montage and voiceover that lodged itself firmly in my mind, because it reminded me of a passage in Wood’s bible for book lovers.

The story, though distinctive, was overshadowed in my mind’s eye by thoughts of the way this film was structured, the way it unravelled. It frequently featured rapid slideshows of sometimes random, sometimes nostalgic images, accompanied by Ewan McGregor’s sometimes melancholic, sometimes profound voiceover. These sections usually provide background information on characters which could be expositional but rarely feels as though it is. They also weave a symmetry and structure through a narrative that jumps around in time.

Beginners begins with McGregor’s character Oliver clearing out his father’s things. We then follow Oliver as he reflects on the last years of his father’s life, his childhood and other regrets. After his mother died of cancer his father, played with relish by Christopher Plummer, reveals that he is and always has been, gay. For the first time in his life he can finally freely embrace his true identity in retirement. Oliver watches on with a mixture of confusion and happiness, feeling his own sense of self compromised by years of deceit and his own deeply rooted trust issues.

Then of course a woman arrives on the scene. They tend to be pretty and this one, a French actress, is no exception. Just as his father had to wait for his moment to truly begin living, Oliver now let’s himself feel that he might not be alone, that someone is there who just gets him. The pair meet at a party, Oliver dressed as Freud jokily analysing people to cover his sadness and she totally mute due to laryngitis. She sees right through his act and a believable, amusing relationship organically forms before our eyes.

So this is a film with colourful characters and plenty of quirky humour that might be too much for some. But what makes these characters come to life? This movie could easily become overshadowed by the issue of repressed homosexuality and older people in love but it does not. Instead all its characters are intriguing, with Oliver himself a particularly strong window onto events.

We come back to James Wood and his chapter on character. He says that there is “nothing harder than the creation of fictional character”, citing the telltale sign of debut novelists describing photographs of the protagonist’s family members; “the unpractised novelist cleaves to the static”. Good and great novelists know how to “get a character in”, to get them moving in a story, keeping obvious and ugly information dumps to a minimum.

In Beginners however montages of still images successfully get characters “in”. This got me thinking about the use of the static by filmmakers. In the cinema we are used to immediately seeing characters on the move but that does not necessarily establish them. In books we often see them just thinking and not moving. Perhaps by going against expectations in either medium we gain a refreshing perspective on character?

Certainly Beginners takes a minimalist approach, stripping away much of what we’re used to from a film at times. Much is made of Oliver’s relationship with his father’s dog, which is given some hilarious subtitles. Oliver’s meeting with his French actress is mostly gutted of dialogue. He also never truly reacts passionately to his father’s homosexuality, never choosing to fully support or fully disagree with it at any point, never really showing outrage or annoyance. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian hits the nail on the head when he singles out Oliver’s passivity as a factor holding the film back, not allowing audiences to truly love the film.

However Bradshaw also points out Beginners’ most interesting element, describing it as “literary” and likening Oliver to a “novelistic narrator”. This film really does blur the boundaries between the page and the screen. It might be a sign of unimaginative weakness to rely on weighty sketches of the static on the page but in the cinematic universe Beginners proves that still pictures really can speak a thousand words. Coupled with well written voiceover (hard enough in itself) and placed at the right points, a series of pictures can flick the narrative pace up a notch or scale it down for a profound pause.

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BlogalongaBond: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service


“FAR UP! FAR OUT! FAR MORE!” reads the poster. As a youngster I would have scoffed at this. I would act superior to my friends whenever a Bond film happened to be on TV. I would dazzle them with my knowledge of the films. And if I was ever asked what the worst film in the entire series was I would always reply – “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, obviously”.

Why was this? There was only really one reason; George Lazenby. It was his only Bond film, he did less than everyone else and therefore it was the worst. OHMSS (as I shall refer to it from now on) was an unwelcome aberration before the jolly rebirth provided by Roger Moore. As I grew up I was taught to love and treasure Roger’s cheeky eyebrows. But now, just as You Only Live Twice has slipped since childhood from one of my favourites towards the bottom of the pile, OHMSS is one of the very best in my personal Bond canon.

This is because the dated but charming slogan on the poster was spot on for a change; you really do get far more from OHMSS than any other Bond film. Not in every department of course; the range of locations is European and perhaps ordinary by modern standards, the gadgetry is minimum and the action less frequent than some would like. But for Bond fanatics, particularly those familiar with the Bond of Fleming’s books, this is the most faithful adaptation. A film with a storyline that really lets us get to know a little of the man behind the agent, the icon and the image.

As the excellent review from Kinnemaniac (which says everything I’m going to say more amusingly and precisely) points out, it is perhaps inevitable that diehard fans pounced on the instalment least popular with the general public. OHMSS is rarely picked for Bank Holiday TV schedules like other outings from Connery and Moore. Again as Kinnemaniac points out though, OHMSS attempts a tone not seen in the franchise again until the Dalton films and then properly in Casino Royale with Daniel Craig’s Eva Green love interest. Indeed perhaps Lazenby has Craig to thank for a new generation falling with renewed vigour for his solitary outing as 007.

Producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman no doubt fretted over replacing Sean Connery. For cinemagoers of the sixties he was THE embodiment of James Bond. Unlike audiences of today they were unaccustomed to the regular replacement of the actor playing Britain’s top secret agent now and again. The way in which they chose to tackle the casting and the whole creative process of the sixth Bond outing was bold and experimental.

Lazenby was nothing more than an Australian model, director Peter Hunt had been an editor for the early films. Or perhaps OHMSS was a safer bet than it appears. Saltzman and Broccoli might have gone back to the books through caution rather than ambition, and the whole project delayed the business of thinking about Bond’s future properly until Connery could be lured back for Diamonds are Forever. In any case the special features of my Ultimate Edition DVD reveal the bitchy arguments and distrust on set that never looked likely to form harmonious or long lasting foundations, despite frequent praise for Lazenby’s surprising ability.

Lazenby of course unavoidably remains the film’s defining feature. Nowadays I am more than happy to overlook his occasionally dodgy acting. The reason many fans of the books take to him is that he simply looks like James Bond. Rather than acting out aspects of his character, he is simply being Bond and our selective imaginations can iron out the creases in his portrayal. Re-watching OHMSS this time I noticed just how good Lazenby’s acting is on occasion though. He pulls off subtle little looks as well as the more obvious love scenes.

You hope to discover something new each time you watch a film and I found out that I like OHMSS best when Diana Rigg is on screen as Tracy with this viewing. I knew I loved the opening scene with Peter Hunt’s teasing direction of a mysterious driver, John Barry’s sublime soundtrack to the seaside action and Lazenby’s fourth wall breaching line; “this never happened to the other fellow”. And indeed I rank the scenes until Bond heads off to Piz Gloria in the Swiss Alps (surely the only base of villainy to match YOLT’s volcano?) as some of my favourites in the whole franchise. But then things simmer down with Bond undercover as Sir Hilary Bray. There’s occasional hilarity, an interestingly un-mysterious Blofeld and lots of girls, but not that same look at Bond as a man in love. When Rigg turned up again my interest was ignited again and turned up a couple notches.

Lazenby and Rigg’s chemistry is important, indeed vital for Bond’s first true love story, but the main reason I enjoy her presence on screen is because of what it does to the story. And the creative execution of the storytellers must be praised when talking about OHMSS. It’s evident for Bondians familiar with the whole series that the reins are looser here. They are telling a story rather than following a formula.

The two key architects are John Barry and Peter Hunt. I’ve already mentioned my admiration for the scene that introduces us to Tracy and reveals Lazenby as Bond. It just might be my personal favourite out of all the films. But aside from my preferences it’s the perfect illustration of Barry’s musical talent and Hunt’s ahead of his time direction.

The OHMSS soundtrack was one of the first that I bought. Its got a brilliant title theme, along with a gorgeous mix of thrilling synthesised ski chase accompaniments and romantic themes inspired by the sublime We Have All the Time in the World by Louis Armstrong. And then there’s Hunt’s evident ambition as both an editor and director.

Supposedly Lazenby got the role as Bond after he demonstrated his aptitude for fight scenes. The punch ups in OHMSS swing between the comical and the innovatively magnificent. Long before the creators of the Bourne films would claim that Craig’s Bond copies their style, Hunt and Lazenby filmed frantically paced and edited brawls in hotel rooms and the froth and spray of Portuguese waves. There may be the odd inadvertently funny grunt or strange bit of camerawork but Lazenby’s exciting physical Bond foreshadows Craig’s by almost forty years.  If Hunt were working today his action scenes would be hailed as visceral and hard hitting. But back then change wasn’t embraced.

Even this fresh, frenzied approach to fisticuffs came back to underlining OHMSS’s USP; Bond is a man! He may still be a dapper chap with a trio of ladies actually making appointments to pull his trigger but now and then he’ll need to smother a man into submission rather than K.O. him with a single swipe. And his heart is as prone to silly somersaults as the rest of us male apes. Haters of Lazenby’s emotional depths though will not have long to wait for Bond to haul his armour back on. Within two years he’ll be protected by a 70s haircut, pink tie and drawling Scottish accent.

DVD Review – Max Schmeling: Fist of the Reich


Nazi Germany is a historical setting we are all familiar with. Films set within the Third Reich often have similarities; good natured people trying to help persecuted Jewish neighbours, informers, political intimidation, concentration camps and the striking red background of the swastika. Equally there are areas often overlooked. The boxing rings for example.

Max Schmeling is a German film directed by Uwe Boll which tells the story of one of the 20th century’s greatest boxers. He became world champion in the early 1930s, getting his big break by beating the title holder by default after an illegal “low blow” from his opponent. The film begins by following Max as a paratrooper for the German army in Crete, where everyone seems to know his name. During a conversation with a British prisoner he recalls how his fame started, flashing back to his regret at being denied the world championship outright. The rest of his career became a struggle to prove he deserved that title.

Schmeling wanted to prove himself outside of Germany as well as within it. He wanted to be the best in the world. He was already a national hero but he wanted to win other countries over with his ability. He frequently flew to America for huge matches at iconic venues such as Madison Square Garden. He was beginning to win admiration around the globe until his task became a lot harder with the rise of the Nazi party. As Germany’s image was soured so was Schmeling’s. One of the interesting themes in this film is that Schmeling saw himself as a boxer first and a German second. And that Nazism would simply pass as though it were an adolescent phase.

Hitler wanted Schmeling to be a symbol of the Aryan race and Germany’s might. As Schmeling sought to arrange fights with the formidable black American boxer Joe Louis, an opponent with an unbeaten record and extraordinary number of KOs that would enhance his boxing credentials should he somehow beat him, the Nazis tried to portray the clash as a battle between races and ideologies. Schmeling was naive in one sense but extremely brave in another, to carry on regardless of this manipulation and insist it was just a boxing match. Through his honour he simultaneously became a political pawn by refusing to recognise the wider significance, and rose above the Nazis by continuing with his dream.

So this film is an epic historical drama, encompassing wide areas of German life before and after the Nazis took power. We see both the glitz of the Weimar era and the race riots of Kristallnacht on the streets of Berlin, when Jewish shops and residents were viciously attacked. The period detail, particularly the costumes, and the variety of locations, are impressive. It is also a story of the rise of a sporting great, with Rocky style montages as Schmeling trains for his big fights and moments of tactical deliberation. And there is a love story, when Schmeling meets his soul mate in actress Anny Ondra and manages to marry her.

The love story gives this film something extra. There are, as I said, a lot of stories set in Nazi Germany, often with romances, sometimes with sporting heroes trying to avoid the control of the regime. But this romance is particularly convincing. Henry Maske gives an Arnie-esque performance, as a simple man falling for a beautiful woman. And Susanne Wuest is believable as first a teasing woman suspicious of a brute pursuing her affections and finally an actress frightened by what the Nazis are doing to her profession.

A short but enlightening “Making of” feature on the DVD reveals the reason for the authenticity of this relationship on screen; Maske is not an actor but a boxer. Therefore, as Wuest puts it in an interview, we have a boxer playing a boxer and an actress playing an actress. Director Boll was impressed with Maske’s performance and put it down to his ability to effectively play himself, identifying with Schmeling to inhabit the character.

Overall this might not be the most original film experience but it is immensely enjoyable. All of its various elements are superbly executed, from the production standards to the acting, from the music to the exciting and raw boxing matches themselves. This feels like an incredibly real snapshot of history and it’s a story that deserves to be well told about a remarkable man.

Up/The Other Guys


I saw both Disney Pixar’s Up and the latest comic offering from Will Ferrell, The Other Guys this week. Needless to say these two films are poles apart in many ways, but they are also both funny, entertaining and worth a look.

Up first is Up, then. I was keen to see this simply for the renowned beauty of Pixar’s animation. I had absolutely loved the look and style of The Incredibles, a Pixar picture based upon ordinary humans as opposed to toys, or fish, or cars. I liked seeing ordinary suburban objects vividly rendered in marvellous colour, as well as the wonderful expressions upon a human, animated face. Up follows elderly widower Carl Fredricksen from the very ordinary start point of his home on a varied, beautiful, unpredictable adventure to South America. At first Up really does dwell on the perfection of its visuals, with a dialogue-less montage depicting Carl’s entire married life feeling like a work of art; a mini-film in itself showing off the talents of the team at Pixar. However as always with these films there are dollops of sentiment that wedge lumps firmly in the throat and bring tears to the eyes. As with The Incredibles the action sequences are also genuinely gripping and jolting as well as visually stunning. Perhaps most impressively these action set pieces fit into a unique and original story and don’t feel out of place. Carl steers his house, elevated by numerous multi-coloured helium balloons, all the way to Paradise Falls, the destination of his and his wife’s childhood dreams, negotiating bruising storms and encounters with strange creatures along the way.

For a children’s film, Up is incredibly touching and engaging. It is not surprising that the film is often funny given its intended tone and audience, but it is impressive that the gags roll alongside a heart-warming story of an elderly man looking for purpose in life and not expecting to find it. The whole thing uses the nostalgia of its central character and the soundtrack often sounds like the sort of thing you’d hear on a ride at a classic, retro fun fair, with clever variations on a repeated main theme for sad or happy, wondrous moods. The film rarely drags, despite there being few actually hilarious moments and this may be due to the overall gloss of the visuals, as well as some excellent voice acting. There is a point where you fear the narrative may fizzle out, but some superb climatic action sequences resurrect things. Overall Up is a tender tale, with some occasionally insightful dialogue and a healthy sprinkling of originally executed ideas, such as the stream of consciousness talking dogs. And of course it looks marvellous.

The Other Guys is not heart-warming and indeed relies more upon cringe inducing humour at times, but it shares with Up a feeling of originality in its storytelling, along with some riveting action scenes. For me the strongest point of The Other Guys was its ability not to take itself too seriously. It was simultaneously a cop movie, an action movie and a comedy movie, as well as aiming piss taking swipes at all these genres and more with some brilliant gags. I cannot usually tolerate the onscreen presence of Will Ferrell and I do my best to avoid his films like the plague. But alongside tough guy Mark Wahlberg, brilliantly embracing a comic role, and outside of a sports setting, I bought into the guy as a comic genius at times. I cannot remember all the successful jokes in the movie but amongst the best was a silent fight at a funeral, a hilarious, not at all subtle exchange about a mug with the label; “FBI-Female Body Inspector” and a “bad cop-bad cop” routine. All of these moments and more had me and others in the cinema laughing loudly.

Unusually for such a film the plot to The Other Guys doesn’t feel completely redundant either, which is an added bonus for a film brimming with hilarious moments and ensures it is something more than a collection of comedy sketches. Admittedly lingering flashbacks on both Wahlberg’s character mistakenly shooting a star baseball player and Ferrell’s college career as a pimp do feel a little like detached sketches, but all in all they just about masquerade as relevant back-story, especially when funny. The action sequences are either big, brash and completely ridiculous, as with the car chase at the beginning featuring “the guys”, Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson. Or they are big, brash and slightly less ridiculous, vaguely fitting into the plot and wowing the audience, for example a climatic, clichéd gun fight is followed by a “grand theft auto” inspired car chase with an impressive, destructive collision. A somewhat baffling credit sequences detailing the excess and waste of the world’s bankers belatedly aims to give The Other Guys a moral compass. Steve Coogan’s amusing financial swindler was certainly not treated as some evil tycoon within the film, but simply as an idiot. In many ways The Other Guys is an idiotic film, which idiots and those who enjoy the mishaps of fools alike will be able to enjoy and find hilarious. However I think it’s a cleverly composed piece of stupidity.