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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“Shall we do something different?”
Yes please. Different is good. Different is a much needed break in routine, a relief from the crushing weight of the same-old-same-old cycle and an antidote to incoming insanity. Different is the much missed friend putting an end to the loneliness, at least for a while. Different is a reminder that life is full of innumerable things to make your heart leap and your mind spin excitedly.
Most of the time though I’m a useless person to ask for something different to do. It might be because I’ll be perfectly content in your company doing something mundane. Or it might be that no matter what we find to do, I’ll be unmoved by your presence and wishing you into someone else.
I’d like to think it’s because I think and dream too big. “Different” whisks my imagination off to alternative, culture rich lives in majestic European cities, seedy exploring and wandering in the downtown sprawl of Tokyo or star gazing from the core of the Big Apple. “Different” means a totally new me, another identity in another world; sitting in sleek sci-fi surroundings or standing at the corner of a glamorous Hollywood set from yesteryear. Maybe a different me would be knuckling down to a novel, screenplay or acclaimed biography.
Whilst I do spend too much time conjuring these far from feasible fantasy scenarios in my head, in reality I am narrow minded and imprisoned by the familiar. We all know what it’s like to be bound to the events of a set cycle and the trick to fulfilling lives is packing your itinerary with interesting and varied activities. Or perhaps it’s not. Perhaps it’s all about character and personality.
Everyone has a carefree friend and they’ll probably tell you to be spontaneous. They’re the ones who come up with the different ideas. My organisation fetish is perhaps incompatible with this zest for life and ability to not just put on a brave face or forget your worries, but forget you have the capacity to worry. These are the people that will pluck two random and achievable everyday things out of the air to create an enjoyable, “different” experience.
And so I come to the point: last night I watched a film with a friend on a laptop on a rural hill. She won’t be offended if I say that she’s not exactly carefree and laidback, so we were both rather surprised when she suggested such a random idea. It was a regular local beauty spot “with a twist”. It was different. Wonderfully and refreshingly different.
It some ways it hardly matters what the film was. The novelty was the important thing. Even having a laptop in my car, combining two things that I use everyday for the first time, provided inexplicable satisfaction. It might have been simply that a portable computer was truly mobile and that in theory we could watch a film or play solitaire anywhere my petrol tank could take us. I think I overcame most of the technological thrills to be gained from a laptop a while ago now though, so all I can really say, once again, is that it was different, it was new, and that this is what was so pleasing.
We watched Flight 93, a drama about the fourth plane to crash on the 11th September 2001 and the only one not to hit its target, due to the bravery of the passengers onboard. It was a rather heavy and “emotionally harrowing” thing to watch in the dead of night on a blustery hilltop. But we’d been meaning to watch it for AGES and maybe the delay deserved a grand, a different, setting.
I’m not going to review Flight 93. It has its faults, from dodgy CGI to flimsy characterisation, and felt like very melodramatic TV drama, but its aims in telling such a story were admirable. If this is a review it’s a review of a location.
So transforming a sweeping vista of a countryside valley into a personal cinema experience was easy – but was it worth the relatively minimal effort?
Well the “wow factor” of having stunning scenery casually in the background to the action of the story, was almost non-existent, because it was pitch black. We both agreed, obviously, that it was a more beautiful and stunning sight in daylight. However the dots of light twinkling below, decreasing in number as the film progressed, were a more interesting backdrop than the usual living room picture or bedroom clock.
What about the atmosphere? I think this was definitely enhanced in some ways by our elevated location. Given the film’s subject matter, the height of our position went a tiny way to making us feel in the air on a plane, certainly more than sitting at home. I guess we were also in a vehicle and the handbrake groaned a couple of times, so we may have felt a fraction of that helpless dependency on machinery.
The most atmospheric thing was probably the howling wind. Wrapped in darkness, I could feel the isolation of the people on Flight 93, separated from their families and loved ones by deadly danger. I felt I could imagine their intense loneliness a little better, filtering it through my own memories and the solitary surroundings of my car. And the sound of that wind rocking us was just a hint of the noises that would have terrified them.
Perhaps the best thing was the privacy. It’s great to watch films as part of an audience, each person reacting in their own individual way and passing on part of their experience to those around them, but films like Flight 93 are built on the personal. Our very different auditorium allowed us to digest our own reactions to Flight 93 in comfortable darkness, whilst also sharing our thoughts with the very best company, not just strangers or any old popcorn muncher.
I live in England and the drive-in cinema is an American phenomenon but even stateside it’s something that has largely become cultural heritage. What I learnt this weekend though is that getting out there to watch films definitely has its merits, particularly with the right friends.
Forgive me if I got overexcited about this. I’d love to hear the best and strangest places you’ve watched films. I know it’s possible to take the cinema anywhere these days, so go on, surprise me. Or surprise yourselves with a cinematic excursion.
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My review of Ironclad can be found here – http://flickeringmyth.blogspot.com/2011/03/movie-review-ironclad-2011.html – over at the always fabulous Flickering Myth. I’ll also post it here for my archives. Along with some photos I took in Soho, where I went to De Lane Lea studios, for the screening. It was incredibly exciting and inspiring to be sitting in their waiting room, with signed photographs from most famous actors you can think to name. That’s cliche, and I’m not bitten by the fame bug like some. But you just felt like you were somewhere talented people gathered to make things happen, for the world to see. As a Bond fan, it was exciting to see Quantum of Solace posters and know the sound for the film was mixed there. Waiting for the time of the screening allowed me to discover that Soho itself was fascinating. It’s the hub of London’s film industry, with studio HQs everywhere. Also a wide range of Bloomsbury publishers inhabited the smarter buildings, near various TV production companies, such as Tiger Aspect, which I found in a corner of Soho Square, opposite a house the black, celebrated nurse of the Crimea, Mary Seacole, used to live in. All of this upmarket, swanky, creative establishment stuff, nestled side by side with posh restaurants and seedier strip joints. A diverse place for sure. A mini London – a place I could easily love to see everyday.
A party raged at The Soho Theatre (see above) to Rihanna music on a trendy London balcony. My camera struggled with the light to capture a shot down Dean Street of Post Office Tower.
Anyway here’s my review of Ironclad in full, it’s worth seeing:
The King’s Speech ruled at the Oscars and did so because of and despite of, three core ingredients. It’s a film that’s independently financed, based closely on historical events and proudly British. It proved that independent films could be both critically acclaimed and box office smashes. It brought to life even stuffy costumed history in a dramatic and engaging way. And it highlighted the world’s appetite for thoroughly English storytelling.
Director Jonathan English is aptly named then in the film industry at this precise moment. His latest project, Ironclad, is out on the 4th March. It shares many of The King’s Speech’s potential handicaps. It took eighteen hard months to raise the money for its ambitious scale and according to the earnest production notes, is a tale “torn from the pages” of English Medieval history. All those involved with the Ironclad team will be hoping that their film also shares some of the success enjoyed by this year’s big Academy Award winner. Producer Andrew Curtis certainly believes that like Tom Hooper’s Royal epic, English’s gritty medieval battle drama will prove that Britain is more than “this little village of filmmakers”.
It’s very hard to find anymore comparisons between Ironclad and The King’s Speech. Yes there’s a Royal involved, but Paul Giamatti’s megalomaniac King John in 1215 is poles apart from Colin Firth’s stuttering Bertie. He’s just been forced to sign the Magna Carta, a vital document that would go on to form the foundations of common law in England. This much is well known history, but the film claims the untold story is what John did next; hire an army of Scandinavian mercenaries to kill those behind the drafting of Magna Carta. It’s a piece of paper that concedes too many of John’s powers over his citizens, a humiliation, that he’s pretty damn pissed about. In a rage John sets out to retake his kingdom, only to be blocked by a handful of opponents at strategically important Rochester castle. From the very start Giamatti plays John, a historical villain we’re all very familiar with, as a man having an endless strop with catastrophic consequences. Revealingly Giamatti comments in the production notes that “I play Hitler, basically”.
Ironclad’s impressive cast is undoubtedly an asset for the film and most of the actors are likeably convincing in their roles. But just as there is a vast gulf between the characters of King John and King George, there is a chasm separating the performances of Firth and Giamatti. In the trailer my expectations for the film were drastically lowered by the sight of Giamatti’s unavoidably ridiculous face barking angry orders; adorned with a silly beard clogged by drool and drizzle. To my pleasant surprise he was better as John than the trailer makes him appear. This however does not change the fact that the American’s accent regularly has the odd wobble and that his scenes are generally the least enjoyable in Ironclad. There’s something about his portrayal of the King that just failed to convince me. Admittedly I do think a lot of this doubt was down to my unease at his weak, unintentionally comedic appearance, obvious from the very beginning and before he had opened his mouth.
I was astonished to read a quote from Rick Benattar, one of the film’s producers who had worked with Giamatti before on Shoot ‘Em Up, that said: “We got him (Giamatti) signed up to play King John and cast the movie around him. That’s how it really started.” Now as I’ve said, Ironclad’s cast is genuinely impressive. British heavyweights like Brian Cox, Derek Jacobi and Charles Dance, star alongside established actors Mackenzie Crook, Jason Flemyng and Jamie Foreman. One of Giamatti’s better scenes in the film is so good because he’s trading insults and witty jibes with the formidable Brian Cox, manning the ramparts of Rochester Castle with his soldiers. There’s also impressive young talent on show in the form of Kate Mara as the central love interest and Aneurin Barnard as a youthful, idealistic and inexperienced squire. I found the concept of a Medieval Magnificent Seven intriguing and those actors within the castle walls pull it off. But Giamatti’s John is Ironclad’s single biggest flaw and I find it incomprehensible that he was the starting point for such a diverse, quality cast of Brits. More than anything else, he just doesn’t look right as King John.
Enough negatives then, let’s start talking about the good Ironclad has to offer. Perhaps the main reason I was so surprised by how integral Giamatti was to the creation of the project, was that James Purefoy seemed to have the far more pivotal (and praiseworthy) role. He plays an initially mute Templar knight called Marshall, which is an interesting background for the hero of any movie to have. Marshall’s characterisation in the script may not all be remarkably subtle but it is for the most part original and Purefoy’s performance captivating. He more than capably handles the physical side to Ironclad’s action and apparently enjoyed wielding an authentic 5ft sword.
As producer Benattar says, Purefoy made his name as a “spectacular leader and lover” in HBO TV series Rome. Whilst he again plays the man that rallies those around him and falls for a woman in Ironclad, his restrained Templar knight battling a crisis of faith, is very different to arrogant, swaggering Mark Anthony and demonstrates Purefoy’s range of ability. Looking back at his career it’s a real shame that Purefoy hasn’t had more opportunities to completely inhabit a central figure in the narrative as he does here. Before Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, Purefoy was talked of as 007, and he certainly would have looked the part and had the acting chops coupled with a distinctive style. He is the heart of Ironclad and that’s saying something given the rest of the cast.
Aside from assembling such a well known, talented cast, director English was keen to make Ironclad stand out with visceral, realistic and gritty action. From the point of view of historical accuracy, Ironclad feels authentic, whatever liberties it probably took with actual events. The variety of weapons and the set all tend to convince, with the exception to the realistic feel being some dodgy CGI of the castle and surrounding area during otherwise good action set pieces. At times the desire to be hard hitting and true to the reality of Middle Ages gore also went too far, with some blatant green screen shots of limbs being cleaved off or bodies hacked in two. But again generally the filmmakers’ attempts to show “what it’s really like to kill someone with an axe” translate into gripping action.
What picking such fine actors allowed English to do was really ramp up the violence, action and drama and then count on his performers to lighten the sombre mood now and again. An interesting side plot of love between Derek Jacobi’s character’s young wife, played by Kate Mara, and Templar Marshall, is slightly different and a touch more interesting than your conventional diversionary romance, due to the knight’s vow of celibacy. There are also flashes of genuinely amusing, and very British humour, I wasn’t expecting from such a dreary looking film shot in rain battered Wales.
Vibrantly realised characters deliver one liners, which could be terribly bad, with attractive style. Asked whether the French will really come to the rescue, Charles Dance’s kindly Bishop of Canterbury, wryly quips “God knows”, glancing to the heavens. And Cox’s Baron D’Albany warns his companion as he makes him hold his sword, that “We may need protection” as they enter a brothel. Only such screen legends could deliver these lines in a way that doesn’t deflate the drama but enriches it with humanity and sprigs of light.
I cannot help but applaud Ironclad for what it proves; that British cinema can compete with the world and produce well acted, exciting action movies. It feels real and very English and director Jonathan can be proud; he deserves his film to succeed. But I can’t help but have reservations. Apart from the occasionally disappointing visual effect, Ironclad’s Achilles heel is Paul Giamatti. He is not terrible but feels out of place with the tone of the rest of the story. It’s a shame the producers felt the need to recruit an American star as an integral part of a very British project. For me his casting undermines the aim of a successful, British and independent film somewhat. That uneasy feeling I regularly got during his moments in the limelight was the only real disappointment of Ironclad; otherwise I found it a good and engaging film.
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