Archive for The Hill

Tintin ambulation

Posted in Comics, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2011 by dcairns

My cinematographer friend Scott Ward (hire him — he’s excellent!) likes to stress the importance of getting The Look right. Once you have decided on The Look of your film, your job gets easier, or at least possible, because you have a Plan to guide you through the multiverse of creative decisions awaiting you. One of the reasons Sidney Lumet’s book Making Movies is so useful is he clarifies and expands on this with examples from his own career, and he shows that The Look is not a static thing imposed flatly over the script, but a dynamic, evolving process. A simple example would be his film THE HILL, which starts on a wide-angle lens, progresses to a very wide-angle lens, and finishes on a very very wide-angle lens. The distortion and confrontational quality created by the actors thrusting their faces out of the screen is progressively amped up. Likewise/contrariwise, TWELVE ANGRY MEN starts wide-ish and moves slowly to longer and longer lenses, flattening perspective so the walls press with the claustrophobia of a Fu Manchu death-trap as the film goes on.

So big, global decisions about The Look are helpful — Lumet would never have to worry about what lens to use after making that call — but they’re also important. It’s  very hard, possibly impossible, for a film to recover after going with the wrong Look. Which brings us to THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN: THE SECRET OF THE UNICORN (or TAOTTSOTU).

It was obvious to me from the first screen-grabs posted, and progressively more obvious with each trailer released, that the Look of this film was rotten. This is to some extent a subjective opinion, but I’ve noted that those defending the visuals tend to say things like “What’s wrong with making it look like the comic strip?” So I win, because the film doesn’t look anything like the comic strip, as Spielberg is good enough to make clear by opening with a beautifully graphic title sequence which DOES look like the comic strip. It’s so stylised and simple that everyone involved probably thought “There’s no way we could make the whole film look like this.” And yet, as Scott says, “You get rewarded for bravery, always.” If Spielberg and Peter Jackson and WETA had gone with an actual Hergé visual surface, 2D in 3D, it would have been gorgeous, just as the titles are (for another suave Spielberg credits sequence, see CATCH ME IF YOU CAN).

Instead we get these grotesque, over-textured walking waxworks, blinding us with microscopic detail just because they can, brought to us by the horror of mo-cap. Now, the mo-cap characters in LORD OF THE RINGS or RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES need to have pores and individual hairs and so on, because they’re interacting with flesh-and-blood actors and have to match. But if you’re creating your own world entirely in the computer, the most boring, cowardly choice is to make it look exactly like the world outside your window. Plus these porous, shambling, dead-eyed fleshwads are disgusting to the eye, as any cartoon character would be if he sprang from the page and shrugged on a suit of protoplasm.

Mo-cap at its worst (ie Zemeckis) combines all the limitations of live-action (the bodies are constrained by anatomy & physics) with the limitations of animation (the micro-body language and facial language can never be as subtle and expressive as a real person) — whereas in the right hands, it could combine the best of both. But this would require the involvement of talented animators to manipulate the mo-cap info, bringing in cartoon exaggeration as required. Up until the big action set-pieces, TINTIN suffers from horrible animation: when characters fall over, they abruptly transform from weighty, clodhopping corpuses to inertia-less balloon animals, floating to the ground at a constant speed, obeying the laws of neither actual gravity nor its Loony Toon equivalent.

Happily, in the big action set-pieces, actual animation of reasonable quality dominates, and the film starts to work. As always with Spielberg, the visual gags are ingenious and clearly presented, and the form allows him to get away with all sorts of business that would be too silly in an INDIANA JONES (and which indeed were too silly in the last INDIANA JONES). The wild chase through a fictional North African city actually suggests a valid use for mo-cap, and calls to mind the motorbike-and-sidecar antics of Wallace and Gromit and THE ARISTOCATS, as well as 1941 and Spielberg’s admiration for the hairy chases in Miyazaki’s CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO.

Of course, Miyazaki’s master criminal is a much more colourful character than Hergé’s, and TINTIN suffers from a bland lead, leaving Andy Serkis as Captain Haddock (with a non-canonical Scots accent) to bring on the fun. The screenwriters (including the Scottish Steven Moffat) seems far more interested in Haddock than in the film’s nominal hero, which is understandable but problematic: Tintin is relegated to the position of bystander in the action climax, which is really an anti-climax coming so soon after the bigger and wilder bike chase. And this is followed by a ten-minute set-up for the next film, surely something the writers should have fought against given Spielberg’s post-SCHINDLER’S tendency to allow his films to drivel on and on through multiple endings.

TOP MO-CAP FACTS

1) Andy Serkis gets a lot of work in motion capture because his body is covered with evenly-spaced moles, making the technicians’ job easier. These moles are removed by CGI on those few occasions when Serkis acts in a non mo-cap role.

2) Robert Zemeckis’s fascination with the mo-cap process is explained by the fact that he experienced his first sexual awakening while gazing upon the animatronic Lincoln at Disneyland. Since then he has contrived to fill his films with marble-eyed, plastic-faced mannequins, and when Michael Douglas and Tom Hanks couldn’t give him what he wanted, he turned to CG.

3) A special feature on Peter Jackson’s KING KONG allows you to “turn off” the mo-cap and see Andy Serkis in a leotard for the whole movie. It also turns Jack Black into a sock puppet. Some scenes actually play better that way.

4) Cheapjack exploiteer Charles Band pioneered an extreme-low budget version of motion capture by smashing some old computer monitors and gluing the spilled pixels onto Brad Dourif. It still looked better than THE POLAR EXPRESS.

“Uh-oh, the reviews are out!” 

BACK TO TINTIN

So the news isn’t all bad. Some of the writing is deft and funny (although I was surprised Tintin had to be told that Marlinspike Hall belonged to the Haddock family, then discovered this fact in the library, then went there and noticed a coat of arms and realized in amazement that (gasp!) Marlinspike Hall belonged to the Haddock family. Exactly the kind of thing that can but shouldn’t happen when you have three writers.

Asides from the ever-mo-cap-ready Mr. Serkis, none of the actors really make an impression through their layers of digital wadding, and the intriguing Daniel Craig is particularly dull as the sinister Sakharine, with a sub-Dick Dastardly reading that’s a stock villain devoid of any individuality. I did realize how well thought-out the character is in graphic terms, though. Consider:

Older-than-adult as contrasted to Tintin’s younger-than.

Where Tintin has a pure white dog, Sakharine has a shit-brown hawk.

There Tintin has a peak of hair on the crown of his head, Sakharine has one on his chin. He’s nitniT, the inverse Tintin.

The film’s Look is very slightly redeemed by nice colour co-ordination, with a frequent recourse to cerulean blue which recalls the strip. The lightness of tone gets John Williams working in a less bombastic mode than usual, which is nice just as a change, and Spielberg creates some beautiful scene changes exploiting the particular nature of the animated image, it fluidity and flexibility, in a way I haven’t seen much of since the terrific overture of Disney’s THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME.

Maybe best of all is the 3D, which isn’t vulgar or needlessly intrusive, allowing itself to barely register at times, but popping out at moments of drama or for little dramatic flourishes — one shot, where a torch beam sweeps into the audience and illuminates a cloud of silvery dust motes, drew appreciative gasps from Fiona and I. Maybe this is just like the Victorian audiences who stared in autistic fascination at the blowing foliage in the background of Lumiere home movies, a novelty which will pass and which has comparatively little to do with cinema’s real power or charm. But it seemed powerful and charming to us.

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Bligh Hard

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2011 by dcairns

Am I punning on “blow-hard” or DIE HARD? I’m doing both! And nobody can stop me,  nyahahahaha!

Ahem. Regular Shadowplayer and font of generosity Randall William Cook sent us a copy of the 1962 MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, urging us to give it a shot. He’s right — it’s a pretty terrific film, undeserving of its lousy rep. But any consideration of the film’s good qualities must take into account the negative stuff accumulated around it, lest it founder on the shoals of skepticism, so here goes —

Reasons MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY has a bad rep —

1) It was an expensive flop.

2) It was a famously “troubled shoot”, losing its first director, Carol Reed, and acquiring another, even older one, Lewis Milestone. The set was plagued by bad-boy antics from star Brando, and word leaked out.

3) It’s not as much full-blooded fun as the original Laughton version, and the ending in particular is a downer (the epilogue, had it been included in the release, would have helped this). It’s still strange to see a flamboyant performance in the Fletcher Christian role and a restrained, realistic one (from Trevor Howard) in the Captain Bligh role.

4) It’s a three-hour epic, with a certain lumbering quality that often accompanies films of this size. Apart from an amazing tracking shot under the rigging as the Bounty sets off, there’s not much filmic energy to fill its sails.

Against all that, the film has a terrific, witty script by Charles Lederer, great support work from Richard Haydn and Richard Harris and a remarkable muted Hugh (“I play the role of a bearded Welshman”) Griffiths, and the stars are really remarkable. I think it probably helps if, like Fiona and I, you have somehow managed not to see the earlier version. Judged on its own merits and according to the goals it sets itself, the ’62 BOUNTY is an artistic success.

As Lederer writes him, Bligh could still be played as a lip-smacking sadist, but that’s not how Howard sees him. Bligh is obviously a deeply insecure man and a terrible captain, and his one resource is cruelty, so he uses it unsparingly. “Cruelty with a purpose isn’t cruelty,” he claims, and Howard chooses to interpret this as a perfectly sincere belief. The result is terrifying — the Laughton villain (whom I have seen clips of) is wonderfully colourful, and you don’t get that from Howard, who isn’t quite into his Rawlinson End phase yet — what you get instead is horrific conviction.

Brando is perhaps more problematic: his choice to play Mr. Christian as a somewhat ineffectual fop is clearly cued by the script, and seems perfectly legitimate. His English accent is very extreme, but quite accurate. The difficulty is that it’s not the kind of voice one expects to hear emerging from a man like Brando. Maybe his body language doesn’t quite match, I don’t know. So there’s a certain discomfort, which audiences are often inclined to react against and blame the performance, but I’m not sure that the discomfort isn’t appropriate. Christian has within him the possibility of heroism, but he holds back on it too long. Seeing he-man Brando imprisoned within this accent, these ludicrous clothes, sets up a slow simmer of unease that ultimately will explode.

There’s a very interesting take on class in the film, with Bligh resentful of his high-born second-in-command. He hates the guy so much, on first sight, that he simply can’t bring himself to listen attentively to anything his subordinate says, with fatal results. The scene where Bligh is finally rebuked by the high command (melting waxwork Henry Daniell), the argument given is that they made a mistake not recruiting a gentleman, which seems entirely beside the point. It’s hard to know if this is Lederer being snobbish, or ironic, or what, but it’s curiously fitting that the movie sours what should be a triumphant moment for justice — this is a film which does seem to wantonly deny us many of the expected pleasures of the first movie.

“Listen to me, you remarkable pig: you can thank whatever pig god you pray to that you’ve not quite turned me into a murderer.”

It’s all leading up to a desperately unhappy ending, with death and disaster for the mutineers. This is like Sidney Lumet’s THE HILL at sea, or Why Revolutions Fail. There’s a spectacular climax, with the ship burning and all, but what with Christian being horribly killed, there’s no joy in it. Brando always excelled at death scenes, though, so you still get showmanship, above and beyond the impressive special effects. The actor lay on a bed of ice to get good and uncomfortable for his big scene (simulating the numbness of the laudanum he’s been given), and the dialogue builds up an image of gruesome third-degree burns which we never see… but when we finally see Brando’s face (the rest of him concealed by a blanket), a bit of grit on his face and his hair slathered down, plus his expression, create a vivid and strange impression of disfigurement.

In many ways this would make a fine, if rather long, double-bill with THE ISLAND OF DR MOREAU. Both movies have Brando, shipwrecks and islands, and are remakes of Laughton films. Both films lost a director early on (one scene in BOUNTY has Brando noticeably wearing a different nose, so must have been part of the original Carol Reed shoot) and continued with an aging veteran acting largely as traffic cop. And both films take a gloomy view of what happens when you depose a dictator — you get score-settling, fractiousness and social disintegration. If history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce, MOREAU is the farce version.

Buy BOUNTY, UK:  Mutiny On The Bounty (1962 Special Edition). [DVD]

Buy BOUNTY BluRay USA:  Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) [Blu-ray]

OK, Connery!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2008 by dcairns

Sir Sean Connery, pictured at Edinburgh Filmhouse where he engaged in a brief but tasty discussion with TV’s Mark Cousins, ahead of a screening of Sidney Lumet’s searing THE HILL.

Fiona and I arrived good and early, as befitted the importance of the occasion, and immediately encountered my ex-student Jamie Stone in the bar (with current student Tali Yankelevich). Jamie, who had been presented a Connery Honorarium (or Connerarium, for short) at the recent Edinburgh International Film Festival, had turned up in hopes of grabbing a spare ticket, but there were non to be had. However, he had the edge on me in another respect, since he was newly returned from Mark Cousins’ and Tilda Swinton’s own film festival in Nairn, the Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams. He had driven up with filmmaker Robert Glassford, who brought a gigantic tent capable of sleeping eight. After taking in a film, they drove about looking for a quiet spot to pitch their canvas. Nothing. Deciding to bite the bullet and pay for a spot in a campsite, they then discovered that Robert, a brilliant but erratic talent, had forgotten to bring the tent-poles.

Fortunately Mark Cousins himself came to their rescue and offered them space in a camper van, and the following night they actually spent in the cinema itself, a ballroom equipped with beanbags in lieu of conventional seating. This sounded considerably more comfortable and practical than my own occasional fantasies of living full-time in a cinema, which usually involve burrowing into the popcorn like a rat and spending the night there, or else climbing into the screen like Buster Keaton on SHERLOCK, JR (or Mia Farrow in THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO) and discretely bedding down in the background of a scene. That big crane shot of all the wounded soldiers in GONE WITH THE WIND — I could lie down there and nobody would see me. I wouldn’t be bothering anyone. WHY CAN’T I?

Of the Film Fest experience itself, Jamie reported: “It was wonderful,” with a sort of magical glow about his face.

Grabbing seats in the auditorium, we found ourselves next to John Reid, who had brought his camera along. He gracefully supplied the snaps for this post. Confusion set in as we joined him, as Fiona initially thought he was the boyfriend of a friend of ours’, then thought he was the boyfriend of a different friend, before we realised that he is in fact the identical twin of the second boyfriend. I was in a state of pre-Connery anticipation and unable to help much.

The show began with Mark C informing us that it was the day before Sir Sean’s birthday, so we welcomed him to the stage with what I believe they call a “rousing chorus” of Happy Birthday To You. Some slight confusion at the end as to whether to sing “Happy Birthday Dear Se-an,” or “Happy Birthday SIR Se-an,” or possibly “Happy Birthday Sean Connery,” which scans better but just sounds funny.

Sir S. was in fine fettle, particularly relaxed and amusing in front of an Edinburgh audience and talking to Mark, whom he knows quite well. He spoke of his long-term relationship with director Sidney Lumet “nothing sexual, though,” and the fact that he has stayed friends with probably more directors than actors. THE HILL was filed with ROBIN AND MARIAN and THE NAME OF THE ROSE as films which did not reach a wide audience upon release but which have enjoyed a long afterlife with intense admiration from devoted fans. “This film was made before half of you were probably — oh, there’s some old buggers here too.”

(The use of the B word, a Scots favourite which isn’t even considered particularly obscene here, reminded me of Connery’s work in CUBA, and his response to Brooke Adams’ angry “I see,” — “Well I’m buggered if I do!” That’s one of the best lovers’ quarrels ever filmed.)

While Mark sometimes prodded and guided The Great Man’s memory, Sir Sean clearly had vivid recall of the heat of the Spanish location, with the suffering that entailed for the cast, and the way Oswald Morris’s cinematography transformed it into a convincing North Africa, blowing out the sky into a white scream of nothingness. Of the stunning images, Connery also added, “It’s in black and white. Ask for half your money back now.”

Spoken like a True Scot.

Photos by John P. Reid.