Tuesday, January 29, 2008

"I changed my life today, what did you do?"

The Verdict

A legal thriller that isn't based on a John Grisham novel - something of a rarity these days!

Sidney Lumet cut his directorial teeth on the tense courtroom thriller Twelve Angry Men in '57, before going on to gritty action flicks like Serpico in ‘73 and Dog Day Afternoon in ‘75. He returned to the legal genre in ‘82 with this highly acclaimed tale of medical incompetence and the fight for justice.

The Oscar-nominated script by David Mamet centres on the question of whether the parents of a girl who died in hospital should settle out of court without making a fuss, or whether to take the case to trial and force the doctors to admit that they were negligent. The drama, of course, is that the judicial system is so heavily on the side of the medical establishment (and, in this case, the Church who runs the hospital) that it doesn’t look as though there will be a fair trial. Should they cave in and take the money, or stand up for justice?

Paul Newman, pushing sixty when he made this, delivers a powerful performance as Frank Galvin, the cynical, hard-drinking, world-weary lawyer who finds he has a real case for the first time in years. (The quote at the start is, of course, from him.) A cliche of a character, sure, but well done. Think of Tom Cruise in The Firm crossed with Sam Spade and you’re about there. Newman lost out on the Best Actor Oscar to Ben Kingsley in Gandhi, which is, admittedly, hard to argue with.

James Mason plays the opposing lawyer, which he does in his usual suave manner. I like Mason, I like him a lot, but on this occasion he doesn't seem to quite come up with the goods. His performance is polished enough, but he portrays the character in such a fair and reasonable light that the result is bland rather than dramatically ruthless. A little more melodrama wouldn't have gone amiss. Mason got an Oscar nom as well, though it’s hard to understand why, until you look at the competition that year. For me, the real villain of the piece is Milo O'Shea as the judge who's obviously biased in favour of the defence.

Charlotte Rampling is at her most icily gorgeous as Laura Fischer, Newman's supportive lover who's playing both sides. (This was the last film she made before getting hitched to Jean-Michel Jarre.) Oddly, though, I kept on wanting Sigourney Weaver in the role; Rampling comes across as a bit of a scheming, unfeeling bitch, rather than the tough, powerful woman Weaver would have been. I wasn't really interested in the sub-plot with her, though. It was never really as developed as it might have been, and I couldn't really work up any interest in her character.

Where The Verdict really wins for me is the very elegant style. The camerawork is well worth a close look. It's not flashy or complex, but it's a very good example of how to use simple shots very effectively and economically. Some scenes are shot entirely with a single static camera in long shot, which works surprisingly well. Normally this technique only turns up in very early films or in arty movies like Werner Herzog's unremittingly bleak Woyzeck, but Lumet makes it work. The simplicity of the camerawork, combined with almost total absence of music, gives the film a very real feel that is quite different from the cinema verite style the directors of the Seventies were trying to ape.

The very few 'tricksy' shots are nicely constructed; there's one sequence where we look through a window at Newman and Jack Warden coming down the stairs inside the courthouse, and then the camera pans gently to pick them up as they come out through the door. This is very distinct from the more 'in your face' style of filming that Lumet picked up from movies like The French Connection, and it makes for easy viewing, allowing you to concentrate 100% on the story. Aspiring cameramen, editors and directors would do well to see how much you can achieve without ever drawing attention to the camerawork, moving the camera only when necessary, and cutting smoothly and efficiently to keep the viewer engaged.

Gene Hackman in The French Connection

On the whole, I preferred this to Lumet's earlier action films, and I'd undoubtedly rate it as one of Newman's best roles. In my view The Verdict isn't a great film, despite also getting Oscar noms for Best Picture and Best Director (did you count ‘em? That’s five noms, no wins, thanks to Gandhi) but it's very definitely a good, solid, well-made drama with an easy-going style that's well worth a couple of hours.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Silkwood, or how to make plutonium mundane

It’s odd to realize that this movie is now 25 years old. Even though it fits right into one of my sweet spots (loner takes on the evil bastard Corporation), I’ve managed to avoid watching it all this time, largely because I don’t like Meryl Streep. (Who, according to IMDB, is "considered by many movie reviewers to be the greatest living film actress". Bollocks. Lauren Bacall is still alive. And still acting.)

Even the DVD cover looks dated.

I decided to give it a go, after realizing that a lot of the actors and films I “don’t like” are actually rather good. Unsurprisingly, my opinions and tastes of 20 years ago aren’t the same as my opinions and tastes now. Humphrey Bogart is a case in point. I don’t like Bogart, except for Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The African Queen, which are two of my all-time favourite movies. And The Caine Mutiny, which is tense, well-acted, and gripping. And several of his film noir classics; Key Largo, Dark Passage, and The Big Sleep, which is just brilliant (and better than The Maltese Falcon, even though Peter Lorre isn’t in it). And High Sierra, which is a tight nailbiter of a film. And Sahara is a perfectly enjoyable war movie. Now how can I say I don’t like Bogey? What I really mean, I think, is that Casablanca is over-rated. But maybe I should give it another look soon and see if maybe it’s not that bad. Watch it again, Sam.

Bogey. Portrait by E. Smyth. That's not bad going - getting Bogey and Bacall into a review of Silkwood, and we're only two paragraphs in....

Yeah, Silkwood. Where was I? I hadn’t realized Cher was in it at all, let alone the fact that she was nominated for Oscars and BAFTAs and stuff, and actually won a Golden Globe for her performance. I thought her first major film role was Mask, which was a gobsmacking movie. I was going through my biker phase at the time, so any movie about bikers was pretty well guaranteed to get my attention, and I really liked the portrayal of bikers as human beings, not just stereotypical bad guys. I didn’t think she was that good in this, though. She was OK, but I wouldn’t have marked this as one of the great performances of 1983. Not that 1983 was a vintage year, or anything, but this really wasn’t anything to get excited about.

Kurt Russell plays Kurt Russell, as always

I’m finding it really hard to stick to the subject here, just like I found it hard to stick to the movie. I kept on going out and making coffee or finding a biscuit, or suddenly remembering that I had to make a phone call. Frankly, the movie just didn’t grab me. It was slow, and I wanted it to be far more like The Insider. Now that was a punchy movie. Silkwood just left me feeling like I didn’t really care. We’re talking true stories about plutonium here, folks, and I’m not caring that big companies are screwing around with it? That can’t be right. The whole sub-plot about Karen’s relationship with her boyfriend was tedious, and the film was far more focused on her attempts to organize a union than on the fact that the safety procedures were slipshod and frequently bypassed. Let’s face it, Karen Silkwood wasn’t exactly Jimmy Hoffa or Arthur Scargill when it comes to exciting, larger than life personalities in the union world. (Ah, bring on The Comic Strip presents… The Strike! That was a lot of fun.)

And the end was just limp. She died, and nobody knows exactly why. Not the writers, and not the viewer. That could have made a great start to the movie, though. Throw in some mystery, some confusion, a bit of conspiracy, and then take us on a journey to show how we got here. Then everything would have dark, ambiguous overtones, and it would have been a very different movie.

A high-tech nuclear facility run by the lowest bidder - should be much more scary than it is

I reckon it was a successful film only because it dared to tackle the subject it did, and not because it’s actually a good film. Meryl Streep was actually pretty good, though. But not good enough to make me re-watch Kramer vs Kramer or Out of Africa.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Animusic - music video extreme

One of the unexpected things I got for Christmas was a pair of DVDs from Animusic. These are, no question, the most amazing music videos since Peter Gabriel did Sledgehammer back in 1986. (Which was an early work from Aardman Animations, of Wallace and Gromit fame, collaborating with the Brothers Quay, apparently. I never knew that. Wonderful thing, the Internet. But already I digress, after a mere two sentences.)

Resonant Chamber: a truly baroque instrument, which sounds as wonderful as it looks
What the Animusic guys do is to create unbelievable virtual instruments. No, that’s not quite true. The instruments they create are all too believable. They’re so detailed, and they play so right, that you actually start believing in them and forget that what you’re watching is just CG. They’ve been doing this for about fifteen years, so the earliest of their videos are older than the first Toy Story movie. As you might expect, some of them look a little dated now – but only a little. Fair enough, the mid 1990s lighting effects are a little simplistic, and the shadows and reflections aren’t quite as perfect, but that’s about it. After all this time, they’re still jaw-droppingly good. And by the time you get to what they've been doing in the last few years - well, it's easily comparable to anything you'll see from Dreamworks or Pixar.
Whatever Jimmy Page can do, we can do better!
But these videos aren’t just impressive for their computer animation skills. To the musician, they’re quite simply mesmerizing. Animusic use MIDI to drive the animations, so every note is perfectly played – strings vibrate harmonically, cymbals wobble and tremble, and so on. It’s just like watching a real instrument. If you thought the piano animation in The Corpse Bride was good, you ain’t seen nothing. After spending much of the last few months working on the music video packs for Moviestorm, I really, really respect what they’ve done here. They use a proprietary bit of software called ANIMUSIC|studio that enables them to do stuff that nobody else can even come close to. This isn't just your standard music animation. This is artistry and sheer genius of the absolute highest order. This sets the standard that the rest of us should aspire to.
It's like having a musical fish tank - utterly relaxing
The music’s damn good too. It mostly has an 80s prog rock feel to it, very Alan Parsons, ELP, or Yes-ish, and you often get the feel that what they’re trying to do is out-Jarre Jean-Michel – and succeeding! These are the stage shows he’d have liked to have done, if only it were physically possible and he’d had the money. I’d love to see some of these videos on a huge IMAX screen – now that would be quite something. They have a fairly wide musical range: some of the pieces are pure percussion, others are acoustic strings, with styles ranging from jazzy to techno. There’s stuff on there which appeals to everyone from my retired mum to my teenage kids (one Goth, one metalhead) and even my youngest daughter, whose taste mostly runs to Andrew Lloyd Webber and novelty singles in the charts. That alone takes some doing!
Like Jarre in Docklands, but turned up to 11!
I’d be hard pressed to pick a favourite from the 15 tracks on the 2 DVDs, but for me, three in particular stand out. (Click for YouTube links.) Resonant Chamber features a stunning multi-stringed guitar thing. This was the first Animusic piece I found, and it made me go and hunt out the rest. Aqua Harp is another beautifully relaxing piece, most notable for the picks which swim lazily around like fish. And Pipe Dream is an Internet classic, featuring bouncing balls and a percussion kit that has to be seen to be believed. (There I go with the believability thing again!) Not only are these so beautifully executed it leaves me open-mouthed with the hairs standing up on the back of my neck, but the wonderfully warped creative vision that goes into each piece is like nothing else I’ve ever seen.
A truly steampunk percussion device
I spent much of 2006 and 2007 evangelising about the HPLHS Call of Cthulhu movie. Now that I’ve told as many people as I can about that (and persuaded several of them to buy it), I’m going to start babbling on about Animusic. I promise not to do this very often, but here comes the plug. Go to their site and buy their DVDs. No, really, do. Whether you’re a musician or an animator, it’s a very, very fine way to spend 35 bucks.

Monday, January 21, 2008

A famous Kelland!

"Kelland was one of the most widely read and highest paid authors in the world."

Sadly, they’re not talking about me. They’re talking about a guy called Clarence Budington Kelland (“Bud”), who was a hack writer of the early 20th century. Bud wrote literally hundreds of magazine stories and sixty-odd novels. Several were made into movies – most notably, his story Opera Hat was the basis for the classic 1936 Gary Cooper / Frank Capra movie Mr Deeds Goes To Town (and the 2002 remake Mr Deeds with Adam Sandler and Winona Ryder).

Although Bud was financially very successful, he never achieved lasting fame. He wrote, "When I am very old, people will begin to believe I was a greater man than I was, and that will tickle my vanity. There will even be people who will feel it a little distinction to be around with me, because a sort of tradition will have built itself around me, and legends and so on. None of which, probably, will be true, but they will be there and I shall benefit from them." Harlan Ellison used Bud as an example of “how easily a once famous writer could be forgotten".

According to The Wicked and the Banned, a 1963 book about the history of censorship in America, the stories Bud was writing in 1919 caused a furore and prompted a review of what was deemed acceptable in print, though I can’t find anything about this in the online sources. Now there’s a man I can relate to. Churn out the work, be happy to describe yourself as “the best second-rate writer in America”, get paid shedloads, and upset people.

Bud died aged 82, almost exactly when I was born. It’s an odds-on cert that he was a none-too-distant relative. There aren’t a lot of Kellands in the world, so we’re pretty well all related one way or another. I reckon I can even place him in the family tree, in the blank bit that says “went to America mid-19th century” about four generations back. He looks a bit like my Dad too. Next time I’m in the States, I might see if I can swing by Portland, Michigan, and go see the Kelland Memorial.

What makes a good story?

Heard on a podcast by Mike Jones about using CeltX.

"Drama is when somebody wants something and somebody else gets in their way."

Succinct, and dead on target.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Ginger Lincoln and the Antics of Evil

Sometimes I wonder how the QA guys at work manage to stop themselves going nuts. Testing bugs all day calls for a pretty special kind of individual - QA is possibly the most frustrating job in the entire world.

Well, now I know. They make movies like this. (To be fair, since we're building a movie-making tool, making movies is a fundamental part of the job description.) But does it stop them going nuts? Watch it and see for yourself.

I had to use VLC to play the movie, as WMP wouldn't give me any sound. But, technical issues aside, this is great fun. Abe Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, and Colonel Sanders fight the forces of Evil and try to discover who's stealing Christmas. It's got three Stooges style slapstick (which you don't often see in machinima) with more than a touch of Tarantino (which you do), snappy dialogue, and a wonderful "unmasking of the masked villain" scene - all it really needed was to end on a song and dance number.

I wish I hadn't suggested that, not with the new music pack going into QA this week...

Mmmm, looks tasty

Normally, when you think of pictures of food, you think of pictures in cookery books or tacky restaurant menus designed to make you hungry. Photographer Carl Warner has a different approach - he makes landscapes out of food.

Absolutely everything in this picture is food. The sea, for example, is smoked salmon...

There's more like this on his Web site. (Click Fotographics, second from left, then Foodscapes, second from left, and be amazed.)

Monday, January 14, 2008

Spawn of the Devil

"I know Outlook's evil," writes Emma. "But what, exactly, will it do?"

It grows black tentacles and strangles your teddy bears while you sleep. It emits noxious odours which infest your clothing and cause your friends to sit on the other side of the pub from you. In its spare time, it takes over small European countries and establishes megalomaniacal dictatorships and secret police with mirrored sunglasses that function equally well at the dead of a moonless night. It listens to Black Sabbath albums backwards and develops paranoid tendencies which it expresses through the gratuitous mutilation of endangered mammals. It translates every fourth word of all your critical documents into Ancient Church Slavonic, and turns all your photographs into reproductions of LP cover art by Andy Warhol. It sends out anti-Semitic hate mail under your name to the Elders of Zion, and it pours treacle into your favourite slippers.

Truly, there is no abomination or foulness of which Outlook is not capable.

Who is Jon Richfield?

I like reading New Scientist. It helps me convince myself that I have at least some grasp of modern technology and modern scientific thinking. OK, so I skip past all the physics and cosmology articles, and focus on the social sciences (or “wet science” as it was called back when I did my degree). But my favourite bit is The Last Word, the bit at the back where people ask bizarre questions, and I always jump straight to there.

One name pops up again and again: Jon Richfield, of Somerset West, South Africa. Doesn’t matter what the question is, there’s a good chance he’ll have a bash at an answer. For the last seven years, I’ve had a mental image of Richfield as a retired scientist of some form, who has nothing to do but gaze out at the veldt, dreaming of his glory days. Then along comes New Sci each week, and suddenly, his life has purpose. There’s a question that nobody seems to know an answer to. So, by careful ferreting out, diligent research, and lateral and logical thinking, he comes up with a plausible answer. While the rest of us spend maybe a few seconds thinking, hmm, that’s a good question, Richfield devotes fifty hours to the problem. Which makes him, IMHO, a real scientist.

I’ve always wished that New Sci would do an interview with him. The breadth of his knowledge is staggering, and I’ve often wondered what he’s really like.

It turns out my mental image isn’t so far from the truth. A quick Googling tells us that he’s a retired computer scientist, living in a retirement complex, spending his days on "anything to do with ideas, especially living things, and with reading and writing".

A true polymath for the 21st century, I salute you!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The plan is that the plan will go ahead as planned

Why does post-production and distribution always take so long, even in this digital age?

Over New Year, Phil and I recorded the first two episodes of our upcoming podcast, Making Better Movies. (It was originally going to be a cookery show, entitled Making Better Brownies, but the test shows didn't go down too well with the audiences, who kindly pointed out that (a) we knew nothing about making brownies and should stick to making funny foreign food, and (b) there's only so much you can say about brownies before you bore the pants off everyone. So we decided to talk about movies instead.)

The plan was to edit it in early January, and start releasing them fortnightly. However, what with one thing and another, the editing session planned for this weekend didn't happen. We're hoping to get something done this week, then you can hear us babble on about our favourite movie topics, and take part in the Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Rodriguez drinking games. Well, that's the plan, anyway.

For the time being, if you want to listen to my dulcet tones (albeit under the influence of red wine, brandy and Red Bull, and the aftermath of England beating France at rugby), you'll have to pop over to The Overcast and listen to Episode #25, recorded at last year's Machinima Festival. There should be another, more sobererer Overcast, where we talk seriously about Moviestorm, out soon once Overman has a chance to edit it.

Anyway, to answer my earlier question, it's because post is where the real work usually gets done. Pre-prod is just kicking ideas around, recording is fun, but turning all that into something half-decent - that's the tricky bit.

Here's a more difficult question. Why is everyone I do podcasts with called Phil? It's confusing.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The more wings, the better!

The Lost Squadron (1932)

I’ll lay my cards right on the table. I’m a sucker for anything with biplanes in. Or airships. Or any other form of vintage air travel. So a movie about a bunch of Air Force buddies who become Hollywood stunt pilots after the First World War is right up my street. Sadly, it's not available on DVD or even VHS, as far as I can see. I watched it on a tape recorded off TCM some years back, so finding a copy may not be trivial.

Four guys (three pilots and their mechanic) come back to America to find they have nothing waiting for them – one’s lost his business to a crooked partner, one’s lost his job, one’s lost his girlfriend to another man. So they decide to stick together and use their skills. Cue a fairly predictable plot about an unscrupulous movie producer who not only is sending his pilots up in dodgy planes, but is also the man who married our hero’s girlfriend. She’s an actress, and guess what, she now has to work with her ex. And her husband doesn’t even like her – she’s just a trophy wife. Suffice it to say, it’s about what you’d expect for this type of film. Strangely, although many reviewers refer to the movie as a comedy, it isn’t. It’s more like a Dick Barton thriller.

The opening sequence is really unusual. It sets the scene with an air battle. However, when all you can see is a helmeted head with goggles in a cockpit surrounded by rigging and machine guns, you have no idea who’s who, or even which side they’re on. If the movie were in colour, you could probably work it out; after all Flyboys and The Blue Max don’t seem to suffer from that problem. But in black and white they all look the same. So they superimpose a roundel or a cross in the corner of the screen so you know who’s on which side, which makes it look rather like a computer game. The aerial battle also looks very static. As is brought out so effectively in The Aviator, unless you have some background, you can’t tell that the planes are moving. Hughes had the luxury of delaying shooting until he had the right cloud conditions, even though waiting around for cloud in California was costing him a fortune: RKO obviously didn’t have that option, and the planes are shot against a dull grey background. Worth a look, though, just out of curiosity.

However, the rest of the flying sequences are wonderful. There’s a great range of different aircraft on show, which is enough to pique my curiosity. Some of the stunt flying is really quite hairy, particularly a sequence where they are strafing a village. And the great thing is that because the movie was made in 1932, they’re all real, genuine planes. No replicas, no models, and no CG.

(Quick aside, speaking of CG biplanes – have a look at Faith, Hope and Charity, by Wingmen Productions, which is a dramatized documentary on the air battle over Malta in 1940, where three Gloster Gladiators saw off wave after wave of the Italian air force. What makes this a special film is that it’s machinima. The entire thing is shot using a commercial flight sim game, and the quality of the models and the flying sequences is right up with the kind of stuff you’ll see on Discovery. Most machinima gets painful to watch after 20 minutes: this keeps you hooked for an hour and leaves you wanting more. It’s a free download, and if you like it you can make them a donation or buy the DVD.)

Anyway, back to The Lost Squadron. There are a few well-known names from the 1930s in the cast and crew, including Mary Astor (as actress Follette Marsh), David O. Selznick (producer), Max Steiner (music) and Herman Mankiewicz (dialogue). However, this isn’t their best work. The only really memorable performance is from Erich von Stroheim, perfectly typecast as the tyrannical producer. The character was clearly based on Stroheim himself – in fact, in the first draft of the script, the character was actually called "von Stroheim". The name was later changed to "von Furst" at Stroheim’s request. While I’d always thought of von Stroheim as a director, it turns out that while he only shot 12 films in 14 years, almost all silent, he acted in over 50 films in a career that lasted over 45 years, right up to his death.

While The Lost Squadron isn’t in any way comparable to Hell’s Angels, which is superior in just about every way imaginable, or Wings, which was the first movie ever to win an Oscar for Best Picture, it's an interesting look at an era of Hollywood where health and safety was a non-existent concept. It’s a fairly workmanlike run-of-the-mill story, with no particular flaws, but no nothing that makes it a must-see film for anyone except film buffs or biplane freaks. Which, I guess, is me, on both counts.

Here's what others have said about it:

And did I mention it’s got really cool contemporary footage of World War One biplanes in? Oh, OK.

Friday, January 11, 2008

What to do with a movie library?

One of my great joys, while growing up, was visiting my aunt and uncle in the holidays. Ted was a serious film buff (among other things), and the room where I used to stay was packed from floor to ceiling with books and magazines about movies, which I used to read voraciously. In fact, it would be fair to say that Ted's collection of movie books was largely responsible for me doing what I do today.

From as early as I can remember, I used to plough through magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland, and I knew my way through the canon of German Expressionist films before I'd seen any of them. I could tell you all about the making of Gone With The Wind or Wizard of Oz, I knew what the concept art for Fantasia and King Kong looked like, and names like von Stroheim, Eisenstein, Griffith, Pickford, Chaney, Fellini and Bergman tripped off my tongue with the fluency of a seasoned student of film. I used to read the screenplays and shooting scripts of all my favourite RKO horror films, and knew by heart the production notes of the masterworks of Welles, Hitchcock and de Mille.

This library was an absolute treasure trove of information. It was far larger and more expansive than anything my local library could offer me, and the best I was likely to see outside a film school. (In fact, I didn't seen anything to rival it until I visited the American Film Institute last year and saw what was on their shelves.)

Ted died just before Christmas, and left me his library, but sadly, I find myself wondering what to do with it. Aside from the practical issue of where to put a thousand or more books, I begin to wonder how many of those books I would ever look at now. The Web offers so much information that this enormous stack of books is no longer a collection of information you can't get anywhere else. And, what's more, the Web's easier to use. DVD extras also provide so much background material, in a more friendly form, that I'm less inclined to read a book about the making of a film than I used to be.

There's a side of me that would love to own such a library, but on the other hand, it doesn't seem nearly as useful or as interesting as it did ten or twenty years ago. Maybe it's one of those side-effects of progress, and books are, regrettably, becoming as obsolete as vinyl LPs, reel-to-reel tapes or slides.