Category: Hollywood

Sony’s non-Interview

did-north-korea-hack-sony-pictures-over-movie-the-interview

The media is full is of the withdrawal of this recently completed film by a major Hollywood corporation. It is an undesirable development. However, a few caveats are in order.

The accusations against North Korea are less compelling than official spokespeople suggest. Internet experts (there was one on Radio 4 yesterday) make the point that the evidence is tricky and difficult to pin down.And the complaints about ‘freedom of expression’ are somewhat hypocritical.

President Obama’s claim to end the boycott of Cuba provides one parallel – as Cuban cinema was one victim of this over the years. Moreover Hollywood is always happy to block films that do not fit with its interests. This Film is not yet rated (USA, 2006) provides a compelling case study of the operation of the Motion Picture Association of America’s rating system. This system regularly blocks access or restricts audiences for films that do not fit its values (though these are not actually available to the public).

In the UK the British Board of Film Classification operates a similar policy of restriction. Judging by the comments that accompany a certificate their major obsession is protecting us from the use of colloquial language – a protection from which Ken Loach’s films have suffered.

Sony Pictures commenting on the withdrawal of The Interview explained that this was due to pressure from exhibitors. A nice reversal of the norm, as it is usually the distributors pressurising exhibitors. You have probably had a similar experience to me at a multiplex on some occasion – the premier release occupying the major auditorium but with a smaller audience than in some of the minor theatres.

From its earliest days the cinema industry has been dominated by major firms largely sited in advanced capitalist economies. And they have consistently denied screen space to competitors, alternatives and especially films that deny their interests. It would be interesting to know if any major Hollywood studio has had a pitch for a tale about CIA plots against Fidel Castro – and what response they gave.

The Bishop’s Wife (USA 1947)

A Christmas Tale.

A Christmas Tale.

This was the Friends of the Hyde Park Picture House Christmas screening. It has been re-released on DCP by Park Circus for the festive season: a good transfer.

The film opens with snow on the ground and a helpful and handsome man spreading the spirit of Christmas by helping people in the shops and streets. Then we meet Julia, wife of Bishop Henry Brougham, buying a Christmas tree. At the shop she meets old friend and atheist (or at least agnostic) Professor Wutheridge (Monty Woolley). The helpful stranger re-appears, claiming to know the Professor.  Later we learn that he is an angel named Dudley sent down to answer the ‘prayer’ of Henry, currently obsessed with raising funds to build a new cathedral. As you might guess the answer to the Bishop’s prayer is not quite what he expects and as the title suggests much of the narrative is concerned with Julia rather than her husband Henry. The Bishop’s ‘real’ problem is his loss of contact with both Julia and older friends and parishioners from his first parish St Timothy’s.

As Time Out notes

Cary’s charm works as successfully upon audiences as it does on the film’s characters’

Bishop Henry appears the only one resistant to Dudley’s charm. Julia sports a new hat and the maid Matilda (Elsa Lanchester) and the secretary Mildred (Sara Haden) start to sport flowers in their hair. Daughter Debby (Karolyn Grimes) enjoys bedtime moral stories and the family dog, a Saint Bernard, forsakes his usual mealtime place by his master to sit alongside Dudley. However, in what is almost a Hollywood convention, this amiable pooch disappears about half-way through the film.

Clearly the film (directed by Henry Koster) owes a debt to earlier films, especially Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). The re-release would appear to aim to provide a companion film for that regular seasonal favourite. And the film has a number of references to the earlier classic. There is the Angel, like Clarence (Henry Travers) in the earlier film he is a ‘lower class’ angel (Henry Travers seeming to me to be a more convincing embodiment). In both films the main character has arrived at a crisis in his life which relates to a problem with money, or lack of it. Part of the problem is personalised in a wealthy but anti-social character – Mr Potter (Lionel Barrymore) and here Mrs Hamilton (Gladys Cooper). There are also parallel sequences. The Capra film has an early scene of a frozen lake: we have a frozen pond in the Koster film, and the leader of a gang of boys is the same actor who played the young George Bailey (Robert J. Anderson). There is an ethnic bar, Martini’s, in one film: an ethnic restaurant, Michel’s, in the other.

Both films open with the crisis in place. The Capra film then presents a flashback running almost half the film to fill in plot and character; in The Bishop’s Wife this is done through dialogue. This leads to a lack of intensity in the latter and there is no attempt at a world of noir, one of the impressive features in the Capra film. The lack of emotional intensity in the Koster film is re-inforced by the casting. The type of characters played by Niven and Grant means that they rarely display the sort of emotional intensity that Jimmy Stewart brings to George Bailey. On the other hand Loretta Young does provide a subtle range of emotions as the wife who is emotionally deprived.

It seems likely that none of Samuel Goldwyn, Frank Capra or Henry Koster actually believed in the existence of angel or miracles. And both films have contradictions in the plotting of the resolution. In It’s a Wonderful Life the major problem is that Potter retains his ill-gotten $5,000. The Bishop’s Wife ticks more boxes in this respect, providing a conversion of Mrs Hamilton. This is performed by Dudley going back into her past: the nearest this film comes to the flashbacks of Bedford Falls. And Henry, like George Bailey, does seem to realise what really matters in life. However, as the film ends with Henry delivering a sermon in St Timothy’s on Christmas night, the words of the sermon have been dictated by Dudley.

Besides intensity the film lacks the community dimension of It’s a Wonderful Life. That film offers a sense of Bedford Falls as a community which motivates George Bailey’s life and work. The Bishop’s Wife fails to develop a similar sense of community, offering rather a limited circle of characters. When the banks close, the Bedford Falls’ citizens besieging the Bailey Building and Loan offices are all familiar to us. A parallel scene in The Bishop’s Wife has the boy’s choir at St Timothy’s church, rehearsing for an appeal event, singing for Julia and Dudley. But the boys, as the minister, are all complete strangers to us.

The film is as sugary as that by Capra but lacks the dark tropes and intensity. It is very well played by the cast, including the many familiar supporting faces. It is finely photographed by Gregg Toland, with some notable mise en scène and deep staging. Early on, as Henry returns home in an ill-temper, Julia, holding the family dog, stands like a frightened school girl in a corner – speaking volumes about her emotional state. Later, as Dudley recounts a moral tale to Debby, other characters assemble and listen – the deep staging presenting the characters spread across the depth of field.

There is a fine skating sequence, though performed by doubles. And there are some nice and effective special effects, by John Fulton and Harry Redmond Jnr. The music score won an Academy Award nomination, as did the director and the film was nominated as Best Picture.

Produced by Samuel Goldwyn. Script by Robert E Sherwood and Leonardo Bercovici from the novel by Robert Nathan. Director Henry Koster. Cinematography Gregg Toland. Music Hugo Friedhofer. Distributed by RKO.

IMDB lists Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett as uncredited script contributors – I rather think the scene at Michel’s might be their handiwork.

Interstellar (USA 2014)

Interstellar

I saw Christopher Nolan’s new science fiction feature at the Hyde Park Picture House: where we enjoyed a fine 35 mm print of the film. Apparently Nolan used his clout to make sure that celluloid prints were available for the ‘few’ outlets that still provide this format. A couple of people from the Picture House has seen the film on the Imax screen at Bradford: they said it was really impressive. However, the screening alternated between the 70 mm format and the Imax format – I am not sure I would have enjoyed that, and I was uncertain if I could cope with what is essentially a narrative film on the Imax projection scale.

It is certainly a visually impressive film. Some of the sequences, like the far-away planets that the explorers visit, are awesome. The early part of the film has an intriguing dystopian plot which holds the attention. And the early part of the exploration is gripping. I found the later stages of the film lest involving. I found the plotting somewhat fanciful, and the film also intercuts between the ‘present’ and scenes in the ‘past’. I sort of understood why but I did not think it worked effectively.

The major problem with the film is the music score, not as reported some mumbled dialogue. The score is by Hans Zimmer, an experienced mainstream composer. But it struck me as fairly over the top, and increasingly so in the latter stages of the film. I found it the most obtrusive score for ages: and I do think contemporary films have a tendency to revert to the wall-to-wall scores of the 1930s: but then the form and music were rather different.

A friend afterwards reckoned that the theoretical model that the film bases its futurology on is good science, (based on the writings of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne). He also mentioned that the same ideas inform Contact (1997) and i could immediately see the connection. I found though that this film tended to melodrama, which dilutes the science. I did not pick up an explanation of the supposed science.

The other point is that Nolan appears intend on revisiting Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. We have the black obelisks, this time round computers of the Hal variety: recognisable vistas of the universe and galaxies: and the rather religious treatment of scientific theory: we were though spared the Apes.

The film’s basic premise definitely struck me as hard science fiction: however the treatment is sci-fi. Even so definitely worth watching, even at a 168 minutes. If you know the projectionist they might turn down the sound level for you.

Gone Girl (US 2014)

Amy (Rosamund Pike) and Nick (Ben Affleck)

Amy (Rosamund Pike) and Nick (Ben Affleck)

Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl was an immediate bestseller on its appearance in 2012, generating considerable discussion in mainstream and social media. Now she has written the screenplay for David Fincher’s film adaptation, her ideas about modern marriage and her presentation of an array of female characters – most of them perhaps unlikeable but nevertheless dominating the narrative – are again at the centre of public discourse.’Gone Girl the film’ is being hailed as one of the possible saviours of the 2014 box office in both the UK and US. It has also become the focus of a number of hostile reviews and claims that it is in some ways ‘anti-feminist’.

I decided to run a public event on Gone Girl on the basis of the initial interest in the novel. I’m not a David Fincher fan, though I respect his filmmaking skills. My reactions to his last two cinema features, The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo were not particularly positive. I’m aware that Fincher has many fans but I’m not really clear what it is that is supposed to distinguish his approach. His previous films have often been relatively expensive productions which haven’t always attracted audiences in the numbers that might be expected. Box Office Mojo suggests that Fincher’s second feature Se7en remains his most popular film so far (when adjusted for inflation). I wondered therefore if Gone Girl would be a box office winner and if Fincher’s style would suit the material. Given that most of Fincher’s films have been ‘action’ orientated, including the two with female leads (Aliens 3 and Panic Room) I did further wonder if Fincher was the most appropriate director for a film which is ostensibly about marriage.

Having watched the film twice (all 149 minutes of it!) in two days and discussed it with several regular local filmgoers, I’ve come to some conclusions. First, my overall opinion of David Fincher as a director hasn’t really changed. Gone Girl is well-made. It looks good, it moves at a good pace, the performances are very good and it provides genuine entertainment (although if you have read the book, the film narrative of course doesn’t offer the same level of surprise). For me, Gone Girl was a ‘clever’ book – and I mean that in a complimentary way. Gillian Flynn knows what she wants to do and she does it skilfully. It’s also a long book with many characters and several sub-plots. There is no way that everything in the book could arrive on screen – or that the central ideas in the book could be thoroughly explored in a film that wants to include all the exciting action. Fincher himself said this about the book in a Screendaily.com Interview (20/9/2014):

“The thing I thought was profound and has not been articulated in this way is that we construct a façade of ourselves, an image for people to deal with us and understand us and hopefully we learn from teachers, parents, siblings how to present the best version of ourselves.

“Then we go out into the world as adults and mate, couple and seduce people with this projection of ourselves. Often, completely oblivious to the fact that that person is doing that too, and there comes a point where one who enters into this contract says I can’t keep it up. I’m not interested in being the man of your dreams or the woman of your dreams anymore. I don’t know what to tell you. This movie was about the resentment that might engender.

“A marriage is hard and really hard under the glare of 10,000 watt magnified 24-hour a day news cycle. No one can survive it.”

I agree with him. This is an interesting observation and that should be at the core of the film. Unfortunately, I think it takes second place to the psychological thriller/noir mystery aspects of Fincher’s film. All the ingredients are there but they didn’t have the impact I expected. Overall, my small group discussing the film concluded that it was an entertaining film, but it didn’t really tell us much about marriage – and it didn’t project a sense of Fincher’s personal style (whatever that might be). It felt like it could have been made by any mainstream experienced Hollywood director.

I’ve purposefully not mentioned the plot so far since the film has been so heavily promoted. Let me just point out that it is a story about a married couple told throughout by each marriage partner in turn from the moment when the husband discovers that the wife is ‘missing’ with some evidence suggesting that she has been abducted. He is immediately under suspicion and a tabloid media storm ensues in which he is effectively accused of her murder. The narrative twist is that Amy (Rosamund Pike) tells her story through diary entries that start seven years previously when the couple first met – she disappears on their 5th wedding anniversary. Nick (Ben Affleck) tells his story starting from the day of her disappearance. Amy is an ‘unreliable narrator’ via her diary entries. Nick’s version is told in the third person in the sense that we watch him and his actions – but we also listen to what he says to the police and others.  A second and third part of the story are narrated in a similar style but with the time differences between the two narrations shifting. I won’t ‘spoil’ the narrative twists.

I suspect that our discussion group is not representative of the mainstream audience. Mark Kermode in the Observer offers a much better analysis of how the film might work with a popular audience. He links it to the popular/populist successes of Paul Verhoeven/Joe Eszterhas in the ‘erotic thriller’ stakes, naming Basic Instinct to go alongside Fatal Attraction and references to Hitchcock, Clouzot etc. I think he is probably right. I think he is also correct in this observation:

Shooting in handsome 6K digital widescreen, cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth keeps the visual tone cool and detached even as events heat up, eschewing the tics and flashes of yore. This is a picture-perfect world, presented with the untouched clarity of a crime scene, fine-tuned and framed by Fincher . . .

Gone Girl is a conventional American thriller that should please mainstream audiences. I think that in its presentation it comes across as more of Flynn’s film than Fincher’s. I’m not a fan of Ben Affleck but in some ways he was well cast and he played the role well. But he typifies a problem with American leading men. He’s so buffed up with bulging muscles in arms and thighs that he just doesn’t look or feel right for a man who seemingly does very little and eats badly. Rosamund Pike is just terrific in every way.

In the end the important debate about Gone Girl should be about the array of great roles in the film for female actors – and the debate about the importance or not of so many female characters who are presented in a ‘negative’ way. But then, apart from Nick’s sister Margo, the investigating detective Rhonda and the lawyer (played by Tyler Perry) almost every other character is there to be the subject of criticism. As a Guardian reader I’ve been taken aback by the ‘op ed’ pieces by Guardian journalists online and in the paper – they don’t seem to have seen many films and read this one in very black and white terms. I wish they would think a bit more before they submit copy.

Gone Girl won its first weekend in North America. Nothing is certain these days, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t still around in a few weeks time, going on to be Fincher’s biggest hit.