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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There are a number of high profile British projects to look forward to in the coming months, with some of them already making waves at film festivals and generating Oscar gossip. Perhaps the biggest and most widely anticipated of the coming releases is unlikely to win masses of critical plaudits but shall delight and tease the expectant masses…
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
Release Date: 19th November 2010
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Bill Nighy and endless others!
Director: David Yates
Synopsis: In the first of a two part adaptation of the final, seventh book in the Potter series, Harry embarks on a quest to destroy the Hoxcruxes that preserve Voldemort’s immortality, as the Dark Lord tightens his controlling grip on the magical world and the country as a whole. Familiar friends are menaced as Harry’s psychological connection to his nemesis helps him learn more about both the past and the destiny awaiting him.
Will it be any good?: Whilst David Yates clearly convinced the money men behind the movies that he had mastered the magical recipe with his previous Potter films Order of the Phoenix and Half Blood Prince, and a sizeable chunk of the critics too, I have always felt that his offerings were weak additions to the series and disappointments following Goblet of Fire and the inspired Prisoner of Azkaban, helmed by Alfonso Cuaron. To my mind Cuaron has been the only director to successfully inject exactly the right dose of the magical and fairytale, whilst also creating a gripping narrative that worked independently of the book. Goblet of Fire too was a solid entry to the series, but Yates has failed to up the level of threat and drama sufficiently as Voldemort emerged from exile, with set pieces such as the climactic battle between Dumbledore and Voldemort at the Ministry of Magic in Yate’s first Potter picture disappointing fans of the books. Ralph Fiennes has tried his best as the sinister wizard but we’ve now seen so much of him being frankly less than scary that his supposed all conquering power has lost its fearful mystique and he often appears on screen as a pale and camp vampiric skinhead, prancing around like a pantomime villain. The decision to split the final book into two films was perhaps inevitable given the irresistible revenue guaranteed by such a move and also the abundance of action in the novel. It will be interesting to see how artificial the cut off point for this first instalment feels and whether or not the best action will be reserved for the finale, leaving this feeling an empty affair, a mere prelude to the real deal. The quest nature of the story shall take the action away from the formulaic comfort of Hogwarts that was the foundation of both the books and movies successful appeal. Yates will have no excuse this time round for a lack of exciting set pieces and fans will take heart from a promising and exciting trailer. It really is time these films delivered something special that does both the original stories and talented cast justice, but it does seem that this entry may be simply an elaborate teaser before Part 2.
The King’s Speech
Release Date: 7th January 2011
Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham-Carter, Timothy Spall
Director: Tom Hooper
Synopsis: Taking to the throne due to his brother’s abdication, King George VI is both reluctant and unfit to lead the British Empire at the dawn of a shifting new world order. Hampered by a terrible stammer he enlists the help of eccentric Aussie speech therapist Lionel Logue to improve his expression and find his true voice.
Will it be any good?: This film came away with the big prize at the Toronto Film Festival and has all the necessary ingredients for Oscar glory, including another mammoth performance from Colin Firth that looks certain to earn him a second consecutive best actor nomination, following last year’s for A Single Man. Indeed this is a film with an incredibly strong cast and one bound to be full of pitch perfect performances, with much praise already being heaped on Geoffrey Rush’s amusing and inspirational therapist, and Timothy Spall seeming a natural choice for Winston Churchill. Add in the lavish and meticulous period detail and the focused, character driven nature of the narrative at a time of enormous historical importance and this could have critics drooling and writhing in the aisles with pleasure. Of course even with the magnetism provided by awards buzz a film needs to be watchable to be a commercial success and the blend of humour and moving emotional drama promised here, set against a fascinating backdrop of national crisis and relevant media issues, looks set to ensure The King’s Speech is a hit with the ordinary cinemagoer and not simply a finely executed but essentially lifeless and dull costume drama. One to look forward to.
Never Let Me Go
Release Date: 21st January 2011
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield
Director: Mark Romanek
Synopsis: An adaptation of the dystopian novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go tells the story of three children whose lives are interlocked by love and friendship at a seemingly harmless rural boarding school. However as they grow up they must learn to come to terms with their fate and their conflicting feelings for each other.
Will it be any good?: The trailer looks incredibly moving, beautifully shot, acted and scored, and it’s been chosen to open the London Film Festival but so far this film has divided critical opinion. It may simply be that expectations were disproportionately raised by a tantalising combination of Romanek’s directorial return, an acclaimed novel being adapted and three of the brightest young stars in British film taking the lead roles. Or the film may actually be a letdown that fails to transform something vital from the book, an essence of emotion impossible to replicate in a condensed screenplay tying together all the elements of a well crafted novel. Your enjoyment of the film is likely to rest on how well you know the book. Regardless of the success of the adaptation Carey Mulligan looks set to deliver another commanding performance that could be in line for recognition come Oscar time and Keira Knightley may enjoy a return to form, despite looking flat in comparison to Mulligan in the trailer. In one of a number of upcoming high profile roles, new Spiderman Andrew Garfield will also raise his status as a capable male lead with this picture and the performances of the stars alone ought to make this more than watchable.
Untitled Sherlock Holmes Sequel
Release Date: December 2011
Starring: Robert Downey Junior, Jude Law, Stephen Fry, Russell Crowe/Brad Pitt (rumoured)
Director: Guy Ritchie
Synopsis: Holmes returns after exposing the supernatural plots of Lord Blackwood, reportedly to do battle with the elusive Professor Moriarty in this anticipated sequel.
Will it be any good?: Stephen Fry seems the perfect casting choice as Sherlock’s lazier and more brilliant older brother Mycroft. Fry himself announced the news this week in a radio interview, confessing the role would be fantastic fun to play and his personality does seem perfectly suited to the light hearted tone of Ritchie’s first film for the Victorian sleuth, whilst simultaneously lamenting a lack of meatier roles for him to get his teeth into as an actor. Of course it’s too early to pass judgement on many other crucial aspects of this sequel. If it can retain the chemistry between Holmes and Watson and Hans Zimmer’s delightful, inventive soundtrack then it will have a strong foundation for success, only improved by the announcement of Fry joining the cast. A suitably adventurous and clever caper shall have to be devised to justify the return of Moriarty. Big names such as Crowe and Pitt being linked to the role alone will not ensure the film’s blockbuster success in a difficult Christmas release slot. And with the BBC’s own well received modern adaptation set to appear again before Ritchie’s second effort, will the public still have enough love left for Sherlock, particularly one still grounded in Victoriana?
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With no Doctor Who to look forward to on British television screens each Saturday I have been despairing that there is no serial drama in which to immerse myself. A good weekly show with a strong, engaging narrative arc can allow me to escape the troubles of life for an hour, completely losing oneself in the characters and then having something to look forward to through the mundane disappointments and lows of the next week. With the return of the ever reliable and amusing New Tricks on Fridays to BBC1 my cravings were eased, but now the MI5 spy drama Spooks returns to our screens, starting this Monday at 9pm. Whilst New Tricks is well acted and comforting it is rather samey TV. Spooks has that rare dusting of glamour and exciting action for a British series, as well as being bold enough to reinvent itself each time it returns. In Spooks no character is safe from being killed off and the tense action usually plays out against tantalising shots of the sophisticated London skyline. Tonight’s opening episode of the ninth series takes place in Tangiers however and as ever introduces a raft of new characters and plotlines.
Richard Armitage, who played Guy of Gisbourne in the BBC’s Robin Hood series, has taken well to the spy drama playing Lucas North, a mysterious figure who returned from the cold of Russian imprisonment to effectively replace Adam Carter, Spooks’ long term leading man played by Rupert Penry-Jones. Replacing Jones was no mean feat but in the last series Armitage managed it, convincingly playing the disturbed, Bond like key man of Section D. This new series looks set to focus on the character of Lucas and may represent an interesting new direction for Spooks more focused on the personal story of one man, as opposed to new, distinct terrorist threats being dramatically thwarted each week. The exotic location of the first episode sets a more James Bond like tone of action and isolation for the spies, with Armitage saying in interviews that this series will delve into the questions of identity surrounding the operatives. The new series is also stripped of Hermoine Norris, who played Ros, a character I always found slightly annoying, and especially so by the end. Norris’ version of a spy always seemed a cold, uninteresting caricature. Constants like Ruth and Harry, and Harry’s relationship with his political masters are welcome leftovers however. Below is a trailer for the first episode, I hope it lives up to expectations!
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