Category Archives: Movies

A portrait of The Artist

Well, my faith in cinema is gradually being restored. About three weeks ago we saw Hugo, one of the few 3D movies worth watching, and one of the even fewer that would still be a splendid film in 2D. Then last week we saw Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows; not quite in the same league but still jolly good fun. And tonight it was The Artist, which is quite fabulous.

For those who’ve missed the publicity and the reports of the plentiful standing ovations at Cannes, The Artist is a story set around the time when silent movies are being replaced by talkies. That’s hardly novel: so was Singing in the Rain. But what makes this different is that it is itself a silent movie. It looks at the transition from the ‘before’ side rather than from the ‘after’, as it were. And when was the last time you went to the release of a new silent movie?

So the sheer novelty value is a large part of what gets the bums on the seats. But very few of those bums’ owners will be disappointed once they get there, I think. I was delighted even before the film began: as the adverts drew to a close, the curtains on either side of the screen moved inwards, because this is shot in traditional 4:3 ratio, not widescreen.

The genius of The Actor is partly down to the bravery of those who had the nerve to try such a thing, and partly down to the skill of the execution. But what struck me as we walked home is that it’s unique. Nobody will be able to do this again. So I think it has found a place in the cinematic history books from which it is unlikely ever to be displaced.

And it’s also a great night out.

Proulx, Plutonium and a sense of Proportion

There’s a wonderful scene in the movie version of Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, where Kevin Spacey’s character, Quoyle, is being taught how to be a journalist by Billy, an experienced old hack on the local paper. They are sitting in a car on the Newfoundland coast.

    Billy: Now, have a look. What do you see? Tell me the headline.

    Quoyle: Horizon Fills with Dark Clouds?

    Billy: IMMINENT STORM THREATENS VILLAGE!

    Quoyle: But what if no storm comes?

    Billy: VILLAGE SPARED FROM DEADLY STORM.

I keep wondering whether this is an appropriate analogy for the reporting of the events in Fukushima. As far as we can tell on the best information available, this is not going to be anything like another Chernobyl, but even Chernobyl needs to be kept in proportion.

The worst disaster in the entire nuclear industry resulted in 56 direct deaths; a number comparable to a bad bus crash on a motorway. More serious, of course, were the after-effects of the radiation, and estimates of the effect vary widely, but the most-quoted figure suggests that around 4000 cancer victims can trace their illness back to Chernobyl. This is, of course, a disaster on a major scale, but it is also very close to the number of people who die in coal mines in China each year. The official government statistic in 2004 – a bad year – was 6,027.

I fear that whatever happens in Japan, the impact on the world nuclear industry will be huge, and we will not be seeing many articles contemplating the likely fate of coal miners in the vicinity of a tsunami. Or of what it might mean to oil rigs – we already know what can happen to them even without the help of a massive earthquake.

There’s a simple reason for this not being the line taken by the media: such articles are much less exciting than the headline-grabbing alternatives. I think it was Cory Doctorow who said, “You must never forget the fundamental business model of most newspapers: to deliver large numbers of readers to advertisers”.

We do not know what will happen in Japan – it may prove be a major disaster, or it may – rather literally – just blow over. But if it’s the latter, don’t worry – I bet we’ll still see some good headlines along the lines of Billy’s for quite a while afterwards.

Seeing the future?

One of the first DVDs I owned – indeed, I think, one of the first released in the UK – was ‘Contact’, which stars Jodie Foster in Carl Sagan’s story about the first communications with extra-terrestrial intelligence.

It’s a fun film, and I hadn’t watched it for a while. But I’ve just discovered that amongst the ‘special features’ are several full-length commentaries, something which was quite a novelty back then.

One thing that tickled me while listening to the Director and Producer’s commentary, apart from the nostalgic shots of Netscape in use and the fact that ‘Web’ was always prefixed with ‘World Wide’, was the moment when a flat-screen TV made its appearance.

‘Look at that screen!’, they say, breaking off from their discussions of intergalactic travel. ‘That’s a real TV… We aren’t overlaying those pictures… See how thin is is? You could hang it on your wall!’

Favourite movie quote of the day

    Are you one of these emancipated women we’re having so much trouble with at home?

-Kenneth More’s character to Lauren Bacall’s in North West Frontier

Living in the past

One of the great things about video rental services like Netflix and Lovefilm is the easy access to TV favourites from the past. Even better, you don’t have to buy a whole series if you find the first disk a disappointment.

Rose and I have always liked Ultraviolet, a modern vampire miniseries from the late 90s, and the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes adaptations from the 80s.

Now we’re going further back: we’re currently half-way through Danger UXB – wonderful stuff – and are looking forward to Wings, of which I have only the vaguest childhood memories beyond the good theme music. Actually, the end of the eighties was about when I stopped watching TV, so I have a lot of catching up to do. Any other recommendations?

Sometimes I wonder about the wisdom of revisiting these. Will Blake’s 7, a favourite of its time, and roughly contemporary with Star Wars, stand up to several evenings’ watching when the cheapness of the BBC’s special effects is viewed through modern eyes?

Ah well… if things prove disappointing in outer space, there’s always All Creatures Great and Small

Lingua Franca

Caught a bit of one of the Naked Gun films last night. Wonderfully silly stuff.

“Do you speak French, Lieutenant?”

“Unfortunately, no. I kiss that way, though.”

The Officers’ Ward

The Officers’ Ward

In general we watch almost no broadcast TV, and a very large number of movies, thanks to LoveFilm (the UK equivalent of NetFlix). When Rose told me last week that the film she had lined up was about “a guy who gets badly injured in WW1 and undergoes early reconstructive surgery”, I can’t say I was immediately enthusiastic. There seemed to be other, more fun, ways to spend a Friday evening after a long and tiring week.

But The Officers’ Ward was, in fact, absolutely superb, with some really beautiful moments. Yes, there are some slightly gruesome bits, as you would imagine, but remarkably few, and it asks some very important questions. It won several awards and nominations in France when it came out in 2001, and rightly so, but I hadn’t heard of it.

I’m glad I have now; highly recommended.

Compressed Dust

The Golden Compass

We saw The Golden Compass tonight. I’m a fan of the Philip Pullman books, and so was looking forward to this first instalment, but I knew it would have to be toned down somewhat and would be quite a challenge to bring to the screen, so I was also prepared to be disappointed.

In fact, I think they did rather a good job, and it would have been splendid but for one major problem: It should have been at least one and a half times as long. Everything, I felt, was exceedingly rushed. They had already simplified things for a younger audience — I really think the books are aimed more at adults — but an hour and three quarters was still too short for any detailed explanation of, or subtlety in, what was left. The Harry Potter films were given much more footage in which to develop infinitely inferior stories, and the second Pirates of the Caribbean was long enough for me to fall asleep at least twice.

Still, the effects here were impressive, the casting was good, and I certainly enjoyed it. Other young children will no doubt feel the same!

Perhaps the Lord of the Rings has spoiled me; Pullman is certainly no Tolkien, but New Line has shown what can be done with good stories if you have an extra hour or two to play with. In the end, I imagine, this was a more risky project, so the level of funding probably wasn’t the same, and there’s enough CGI that the costs must have been heavily dependent on the length.

But I hope they at least follow the LOTR model in producing a dramatically extended version for the DVD.

The fishing-boat-bobbing sea

A couple more shots of the boat used as the Venture in Peter Jackson’s King Kong. I wasn’t a huge fan of the film, but the boat made for interesting arty photographs.

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Most of the rust was painted on for the film, by the way.

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And now for some lights on the Wellington waterfront:

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Movie moments

There are some really beautiful woods just outside Wellington.

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I was on a tour visiting some of the sites used in filming the Lord of the Rings movies.
Fans should picture Frodo yelling “Get off the road!”:

Get off the road!

or me saying “Ooof! I think I broke something!”:

I think I broke something

Mmm. One of the good things about being on the far side of the world is that you don’t have to endure your friends’ pitying looks.

Others won’t have a clue what I’m talking about and should just enjoy the views of Wellington scenery:

Pinnacles

Or this fine bust of Arthur Wellesley looking out over the city that bears his name:

Wellington

This is Weta Workshop, where much of the LOTR magic was created:

Weta workshop

And the boat used in King Kong:

venturer

Lost in Translation

Rose found this nice report in the IMDB news:

Efforts by overseas film distributors to cut costs by outsourcing subtitle translations to such countries as India and Malaysia have resulted in creating dialog that makes little sense to local audiences, according to today’s (Monday) London Times. The newspaper observed that translators with little understanding of the nuances of English are taking the place of British subtitlers, many with long careers in the business. Kenn Nakata Steffenson, who translates English films into Danish and Japanese films into English, cited one film in which the line “Jim is a Vietnam vet” became “Jim is veterinarian from Vietnam” in the farmed-out Danish subtitles. In another film, the words “flying into an asteroid field” became “flying into a steroid field.” In yet another, “She died in a freak rugby accident” became “She died in a rugby match for people with deformities.” In My Super Ex-Girlfriend, Uma Thurman’s line, “We have a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment” was translated into Taiwanese as “We hold the highest standards for sexual harassment.” The Times said that Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro was so upset with the English subtitles for his 2001 film The Devil’s Backbone that he himself worked on the subtitles for last year’s award-winning Pan’s Labyrinth.

I remember watching one of the Die Hard movies in Malaysia, where the censor had been hard at work, especially on Bruce Willis’s stronger language, simply by cutting and splicing the film. I particularly recall one of the less subtle bits of editing where Willis turns to another character and says, “Yeah? Well I’ve got two words for you. Off!”

An ace up 007’s sleeve

I must confess I felt that the last Bond film was evidence that the franchise was in terminal decline, and after seeing it decided I probably wouldn’t bother with any future ones.

But then, through a slight connection with a charity of which Judi Dench is a patron, we had a chance to get early preview tickets for Casino Royale, and went to see it tonight. And I have to say that my faith has been restored. This is not just a significant improvement on the last couple of movies – I think it could qualify as one of the best of the bunch.

It’s rather more serious than most Bond films because they’ve cut much of the buffoonery. Fond as I am of John Cleese, for example, I always thought him a little out of place, and wasn’t sad to lose him. The acting is good and the script well above average; chiefly, perhaps, because it is remarkably close to Fleming’s original story.

Recommended.

As an aside, though, every time I’ve been to a film in the last few years I’ve found them almost painfully loud, with the exception of those in our local arts picturehouse. Does that just mean I’m getting old, or is the volume creeping ever upwards? I’m going to try and borrow a decibel meter from somebody next time I go. In the meantime, it’s just one more reason to watch things at home. Perhaps the cinemas think that demonstrating the power of their amplifiers is a way to emphasise their difference from home cinema. Well, it worked, but not quite in the way they wanted!

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser