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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If you’re not fed up with the circus yet, you soon will be. Every clowning performer, every newsreader, commentator and gushing crowd member, will be salt rubbed into your severely wounded mood. Gossiping and gawping at two rich strangers is irritating for half an hour, annoying for an evening and soul destroying after days and weeks. Wedding talk is a stressful and pointless nuisance. At the end of this week the womenfolk will be in an unstoppably riotous mood. It will be terrifying.
Your masculinity will be torturously chipped away. The usual refuge, the pub, will be hideously transformed into a paradise of bunting and delicate decoration. When the confetti and the cupcakes and the tiaras get too much, new escape routes will be needed. After the horrors of the day itself, you’ll need to rediscover your true self and chill out as a bloke again.
For the alternatives to the madness, the cures to wedding fever and feral femininity, keep it glued to Flickering Myth. We’ll remind you that there’s good honest entertainment worth living for after a monstrous marriage marathon.
Your first anti-wedding tip then is Kenneth Branagh’s (that’s right the thespian and national treasure, directing a comic book adaptation) eagerly anticipated Marvel epic Thor, in three dimensions courtesy of the now standard issue Elton John specs. After all what could be more manly than a hero with impossibly mahoosive muscles and a badass cape, whose principal superpower is a giant hammer for bashing stuff to bits? He’s a God-like handyman irresistible to women and the envy of lesser men.
I promised myself I wouldn’t resort to atrocious puns to describe the merits and failures of Branagh’s creation, as other reviews have done. But then I thorght, by Odin’s beard there’s no harm in saying that whilst this isn’t quite a thor star film, its plot hammers along with such thunderous gusto that it at least cracks the norse code of decent superhero movies for the most part. The critics are right to muck about with words and have fun with their reviews though; because Thor, whatever its faults, is a fun watch.
Despite the drawbacks of spending much of the running time in the CGI kingdom of Asgard, I found such a different setting mostly refreshing. Gleaming golden palaces, elaborate armour and impossible landscapes are ingredients unavailable to the likes of Batman and Iron Man, no matter how artificial the environment might sometimes seem. Undeniably at times the 3D CGI is visually dazzling and striking. There are even a number of good, thumping action scenes in the eternal realm. As some reviewers have pointed out, setting much of the film in Asgard ensures the audience becomes attached to it, whether they appreciate its over the top beauty or not.
There’s no doubt that the fun factor only truly kicks in when things literally crash down to earth though. There are a good number of gags, nearly all of which are LOL worthy. Thor amusingly thrashes about at the humans he interacts with, struggling to accept he is at the mercy of the mortals. He only really bonds with one of us human plebs, the beautiful and gorgeous (I do not have a crush!) Natalie Portman. She plays a scientist on the verge of some vague but momentous discovery to do with particles and space or something. Thor sees she is clever. And that she’s a woman too. Portman is by no means mesmerising as she is in Black Swan here, but she does the job asked of her by the story, as do Anthony Hopkins and even Chris Hemsworth as Thor, who looked so wooden in the trailer. No I don’t just think she did a good job because she’s hot.
You might like to know the basic thrust of Thor’s plot: Thor heir to throne, Thor seeks revenge on Frost Giants, Thor banished for breaking peace, Thor seeks to find lost hammer, Thor inadvertently falls for hot human scientist, Thor tries to return to save kingdom. I like to think he may have grunted it out bluntly like that. And yes you read that rightly, the bad guys in this are called Frost Giants. They are perhaps Thor’s weakest ingredient; childishly simple foes that are difficult to take seriously. But again they are at least different to standard superhero fare.
The best bits, besides the laughs, following Thor’s fall to earth are two stunning action scenes. The first sees Thor roaring like King Kong as he bashes a bunch of S.H.I.E.L.D agents. He’s trying to get to his beloved magical hammer, which is sealed off by awesome looking white tubes by the guys in suits that will link all Marvel’s superheroes together for the forthcoming Avengers film. The second climatic action scene sees Thor and his warrior friends fleeing from a fire breathing robot despatched by the traitor in Asgard’s camp to kill Thor.
This scene gets the best out of a small and dusty New Mexico town location; by smashing it to pieces with fantastic fiery explosions. The really impressive and surprising thing, especially given all the talk about Thor’s visual style, is the sound the killer robot makes every time it unleashes a fireball; it’s so piercing and deafening that you feel the impact of each blast. My friend violently flinched in surprise at one moment when the thing shaped up to slap something. Then in the aftermath of the destruction the soundtrack and the visuals reach suitably epic proportions for Thor’s big race against time comeback moment.
Thor is of course the God of Thunder, which is fitting given that most superheroes grapple with the stormy consequences of their own God complexes. Needless to say Thor predictably learns his lesson, to put others before yourself is truly heroic blah blah, but in engrossingly epic style. There is just something fun about this film, which makes you reluctant to dwell on its various faults and flaws. Thor ended leaving me wanting more from the character and more from his world, despite the silliness of some of the mythological squabbles. Branagh has not crafted the meaningful art he is accustomed to, but a fun and refreshing thorker of a blockbuster. He may be a prince, but Thor will easily sail your mind away from all things Royal.
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