A low-budget independent film from Finland has become the talk of the prestigious Berlin Film Festival this year. Sigh, I hear you all say, what’s it about? Love? Politics? The unbearable lightness of being? Er, not quite.
Iron Sky imagines that, as World War 2 came to an end, a remnant Nazi government, using secret Nazi spaceships, escaped to the dark side of the moon. When in 2018 an American moon mission discovers a suspicious swastika-shaped compound on our nearest satellite, it sets off a series of events that leads to the invasion of Earth. Yes, that’s right. The film that has so absorbed the film-making elite in Berlin is about Space Nazis attacking Earth.
And Iron Sky truly has Berlin gripped in its iron fist. The film became one of the biggest hits of the festival, outsold only by Bollywood movie Don: The King is Back. Jolie and husband Brad Pitt are said to have caught a screening, and the film has been snapped up distribution in the UK, Germany and Israel.
Not a bad start for director, Timo Vuorensola, who divides his time between directing and singing in a heavy metal band, and for whom this is his first feature film. He cut his teeth on online Star Trek parodies, before starting production on Iron Sky back in 2006. An early internet teaser caught the attention of the online community, who helped supply funding. Armed with this, the production team were able to attract the attention of co-financiers 27 Film Productions (Germany) and New Holland Pictures (Australia), giving it some international clout and, crucially, extra funding (it ended up costing a mere $10 million, of which $1 million was raised online).
But what’s really causing a stir in Germany is the subject matter. Even almost 70 years after the end of World War 2, Nazi-themed comedy is still considered taboo in Germany. Wearing a Nazi uniform or giving a Nazi salute in Germany is illegal unless done for the purposes of art or performance, and films about Nazis have to be very careful in how they are depicted – it’s only a few years ago that Downfall, despite being much praised around the world, was criticised in Germany for ‘humanising’ Hitler.
In truth the Nazis in Iron Sky are comic-book affairs who are unlikely to keep anyone up at night – the worst parts of Nazi history, such as anti-semitism and the Holocaust have been largely excised, although one African-American character does find himself, eh, Aryanised. But this is part of what is bothering some German critics, who feel that it is still too soon to be making light of Nazi atrocities. Even lead actress Julie Dietze not only found it difficult to wear a Nazi uniform, but was troubled by a scene in which she teaches Nazi ideology to a class of school children. “I kept telling the children during the filming breaks, ‘It’s just play — please don’t believe it!’” she said at a press conference in Berlin.
In truth though, most people in Germany see Iron Sky for what Vuorensola meant it to be: “a stupid joke”. It seems many ordinary Germans are enjoying the chance to finally have a bit of harmless fun at National Socialism’s expense.
The key question though: is Iron Sky any good? Well, reviews have been mixed. The Independent called it ‘riotous and enjoyable’, while the Guardian called it ‘a giant damp squib’ that is ‘not nearly as funny or cruel as its killer premise suggests.’ Still, that won’t stop plenty of people (including me) lining up to see it when it opens here on April 4th.
François Truffaut — filmmaker, actor and controversial critic — was born in in 1932. This year, had he not died prematurely of a tumour, he would have been eighty years old. On 6 February, Google marked the occasion with a doodle. It showed three slides, one for each of three Truaffat films: The 400 Blows, Jules et Jim, and Bed and Board.
Truffaut fully deserves a tribute. To this day he is considered one of the most important figures in the history of French cinema. But seeing it, I couldn’t help but wonder if any of today’s professional film critics will ever get a Google doodle. I wondered if any of them were original, knowledgeable or even well-known enough to merit special recognition. Inevitably, that led me to consider that timeworn question: is the art of criticism dying out?
There are many kinds of film criticism, broadly divided into journalistic, academic and online. You have the option to read this article in The Oxford Student or on its website, where you can cast your judgement on my writing in the comment box. The Internet has certainly become a major impetus behind the creation and consumption of criticism. It allows anyone and everyone to dissect the latest blockbusters at will. But although we’re obsessed with the threat of SOPA and PIPA, not everyone agrees that limitless freedom of expression is a good thing for the quality of criticism. Two years ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education released an article panning the so-called “democratization of opinion” caused by the blog endemic. “In the viral salon of bloggers and chat-roomers, the finely tuned turns of phrase crafted by an earlier generation […] have been winnowed to a curt kiss-off,” Thomas Doherty writes bitterly. “In cyberspace everyone can hear you scream. Just log on, vent, and hit send”. He refers, presumably, to the sort of ‘reviewers’ we see roaming unchecked around YouTube, who spend their days stabbing the dislike button and offering the elaborately crafted opinion that “this film sucks”.
Those who defend the blogosphere argue that independent filmgoers have no attachment or obligation to the industry. Their opinions, therefore, must be more reliable. The other major camp believes in the supremacy of the old guard: educated film critics who have devoted many years to the study of film and its history, who are able to insightfully compare, contrast and criticise new releases. Their intellectual approach has led some to dub their area ‘film studies’ rather than ‘film criticism’. Others, however, might just call it ‘film snobbery’. Who, after all, wants to read a lengthy dissertation about the structure of a film when you could read the Filthy Critic or watch Jeremy Jahns?
Doherty identifies a divide between young, Web-savvy critics, who speak for ‘the people’, and the desperate cinephiles of the twentieth century, who couldn’t make a dent in the Box Office if they smashed it in the face with a sledgehammer. To survive these harsh times, the more willing professional critics have started to leap between platforms. David Bordwell, who has written such insightful volumes as The Poetry of Cinema (2007), is one of many theorists to have done this successfully: he and his wife now run the blog “Observations on film art”. It’s still pretty heavy, but it reaches out to a far wider audience.
So is criticism really dead? Of course not. There is still value in all spheres of criticism. Admittedly I have to be biased — if not for “democratization of opinion”, a student journalist wouldn’t have the authority to write film criticism. I have no degree in Film Studies and have written no books on film; I have only experience and a lifelong love of cinema to recommend my work. Doherty and other print-bound critics are feeling the heat of the blogosphere, but that doesn’t mean their work has lost value: all it means is that they’re going to have to work a lot harder to earn their bones and keep their readers.
Film criticism is not dead. It is no longer a lecture, but a dialogue — and absolutely more alive than ever.
Christmas is days away, the decorations are up and the presents are under the tree. Well, almost all the presents. You’re still searching for the perfect gift to give your movie mad mum/dad/sibling. Well, you’ve stumbled across the right place; the OxStu is here with festive cheer and hopefully some inspiration too.
Why not buy a membership to the BFI? For any film fans within easy reach of the Southbank the BFI is a treasure, and nothing says ‘Happy Holidays’ more than a ticket discount and monthly brochure. But the BFI gives you so much more; where else can you watch classic Woody Allen on a cinema screen this January? Where else can you see The Godfather or 2001 in the glorious panorama afforded by a full size auditorium? And, what’s more, the seats are wonderfully comfy. This gift also gives the recipient access to Sight and Sound magazine, the BFI’s classic DVD collection and the London Film festival; be warned though, it will set you back £40.
If that doesn’t take your fancy, or if your relative doesn’t live in London, you may choose instead to purchase a box set; after all, what greater gift is there to a film lover than film itself? Amazon’s top seller right now is the complete Harry Potter, but your film aficionado will probably want something a bit more sophisticated. A 14 film Hitchcock collection will set you back about £30, but that’s a bit cliché. Get the complete Michael Haneke instead. It’s £50, I know, but he is the most acclaimed European director of the last decade. The White Ribbon won the Palme D’Or, Hidden is viewed as one of the best films of recent years, Funny Games and The Piano Teacher both won huge acclaim and there are six more movies to boot. Just remember, they’re probably not the best family films to watch on Christmas day.
But let’s face it, box sets are pretty dull. What your relative would rather have is a holiday to France. Go ahead, take a punt and book them return flights to Nice in May. Cannes film festival is a sun, sea and celebrity extravaganza, and you could send them there. Of course if you’re buying someone a gift you can’t book them in on Ryanair, it’s got to be BA – just the right mix of plush and affordable. Book now to go on May 14th and come back on the 28th and it’s a meagre £234. Not cheap, I know, but a pretty awesome Christmas gift.
Sadly your gift recipient may not be free in May. Don’t worry: if you’ve got cash to spend, splurge it on some genuine movie memorabilia. Did said movie fan enjoy Gladiator? Of course they did. So buy them an actual sword from the movie. Did they like Tropic Thunder? Buy Jack Black’s helmet. Did they like The Terminator? Yes, they did. So buy them Arnie’s genuine costume from Terminator 3. You know you want to, and it’s only £10,000. Actually, scrap that, they’d probably prefer a car.
And now for the budget option. Maybe you could get them a single DVD. Perhaps you could splash out and book them a cinema ticket in advance. But why do that, when you could get them some film themed lego? That’s right, lego is officially the best thing to come out of Denmark since Hamlet, and he was just a character. Film buffs love film, and everyone loves lego, so go ahead and combine them into one incredible package. Sadly you can’t buy a lego Michael Corleone just yet, but Star Wars, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean and Pixar are pretty well covered. And before you ask, there is a lego Death Star, it does look awesome but it also costs more than the Cannes tickets. A simple pirate Captain’s Cabin will probably suffice, and cost you less than £10 to boot.
Let’s be honest, buying presents is a bit of a chore, but hopefully this list will give you a touch of seasonal cheer and optimism in the face of your collapsing bank balance. It’s probably best to avoid the Terminator costume, but I hope the rest of the suggestions have piqued your interest and maybe, just maybe, helped sort out a last ditch gift dilemma.
At first glance, Anonymous seems like a strange choice for director Roland Emmerich. What is a man who made his name depicting the end of the world in films like Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 doing getting himself involved with the question of the true authorship of Shakespeare’s works? But hearing him defend his actions as he comes under a barrage of accusations in The Oxford Union’s debating chamber, it starts to become apparent why so many of his cast and crew refer to this film as his “pet project”. He clearly isn’t exploiting the setting for some cheap publicity, but because he has a real interest in the story.
The film is a departure from form in more ways than just the subject matter. This is a distinctly less financially viable venture than his previous movies, and it is commercialism that defines Emmerich. As he recounts his formative film education: “When I came to the film school it was like 1977 and that was the year when Star Wars came out. And it was quite interesting because everyone in my film school wanted to be the next Fassbinder [one of the most important figures of New German Cinema] and I was actually so taken by Star Wars and Close Encounters of The Third Kind and I was more into that. I was very open about it and it was kind of quite strange how at that time it was immediately “ah, he wants to make commercial movies” and commercial movies at that time, at least in Germany in my film school, was a bad word.” He set out his commercial intentions early in his career. When it came time for his film thesis, he shunned the typical short film route that most of his cohort would go on to make because he “didn’t see quite the need for short film”, also knowing that creating a feature would provide “a much better launch impact for your career”. Because of his ambition he convinced his film school to present his script for Government funding and took on two producers to raise 450,000 deutsche marks. And then during filming he “went exactly 100% over. Which was very, very bad. We had to refinance, we had to sell the video rights, we had to sell the TV rights, it was two years of one bad news after another.” But the story has a happy ending; his debut film The Noah’s Ark Principle went on to open the Berlin Film Festival, providing a huge splash for such a young director.
Since then he shot up the studio system in Hollywood, grappling with bigger and bigger budgets (2012 had a budget of $200m). But those films might not reflect his real passions. He describes action shoots as “tedious”, and confesses to “looking forward to the days when I would shoot only dialogue.” Anonymous is a considerably smaller project than he is used to, with a budget in the region of $35m. Emmerich has said that “one day, visual effects will make movies cheaper” and brags that it “wouldn’t have been possible to make this movie a few years ago”, and it certainly features a staggering amount of special effects for a period film. But then, this is the man who once sailed a Russian cargo ship through New York and obliterated the White House. Recreating Tower Bridge is pretty tame in comparison. He is clearly a fan of visual effects, believing that they can make films “come to life”, especially historical ones.
It might seem odd that Emmerich, who in 10,000 BC built the pyramids with the help of woolly mammoths, should come under attack for questions of historical accuracy. But with Anonymous he seems to have managed to piss off every Shakespeare academic in the country. There have been protests in Warwickshire crossing out Shakespeare’s name on signs, and famous scholars such as Columbia University’s James Shapiro have clamoured to denounce the film. A list of historical inaccuracies is meticulously updated on Wikipedia. With all of this criticism, it’s little surprise that Emmerich feels defensive about the film. Addressing questions as to its authenticity at the Union he fought back against the perceived wisdom being repeated in schools, saying that “teachers have a responsibility to tell the whole truth”, and that in education about Shakespeare we have “guesses presented as facts. This is not a responsible way to teach.” In the interview after his speech I asked him if he felt this standard applied to him as well. He acknowledges the implications of these statements and says, “with a movie like this comes responsibility. So you want to really be sure that you’re right. And it led us to take the whole theatre scenes and how we present the works of William Shakespeare really importantly. Throughout filming the theatre scenes became more and more a bigger part of the film and we’re actually really quite proud of it.” He acknowledges that there are inaccuracies in the film but believes that the tone and mood of the film are what are important, and cites the many examples of other films based on real life that have been held to less scrutiny, from Amadeus to The Social Network.
Anonymous is a step forward for Emmerich from simply making entertainment to using his movies to say something. Talking about the protests he says that, “I am seeing the whole controversy and it promotes the writer, right? Whoever he was. When people see the movie, most of them come up to you afterwards and say “gosh, I have such desire to revisit William Shakespeare’s works” and that’s what we wanted, and that’s what’s happening.” It will be interesting to see if he continues this approach in his future works. When I spoke to him he was excited to get to Montreal and start filming his next project, a science-fiction film called Singularity about the emergence of artificial intelligence greater than our own, but this week Sony Picture halted the film in pre-production to rework the script. Regardless, it’s unlikely to faze the director. Relentlessly commercial and fascinated with visual effects, Roland Emmerich is the perfect embodiment of modern Hollywood.
One of the universal laws: Hollywood loves nothing more than an easy sell. With the eye-watering sizes of modern investments, studios need reassurance regarding profits, and look to the “easy sell”: films with guaranteed audiences. While far from a new idea, in the 21st century this has attained new highs/lows, encouraged by ready-made franchises and a certain pesky credit crisis. Everybody wants to be the next big – and profitable – thing, and sequels theoretically avoid risk. Regardless of feedback, if money is made, so will a sequel. However, recently this has got out of control. Automatic sequels have never been respectable, but traditionally they did acknowledge release dates. No more, it seems. The gap between original and subsequent commission has been steadily decreasing until reaching zero…and going out the other side.
Which brings us to some news from the previous week: Warner Bros.’s announcement that they have commissioned a script for Clash of the Titans 3.
For those of you incapable of recalling the 2010 3D boom after losing your retinas, the first Clash of the Titans was a remake best-known for being a casualty of the post-Avatar world. Like every other movie in its slot, Clash suffered delays and a hasty conversion into 3D which drew less than complimentary reviews, hardly helped by the film itself. Nevertheless, assisted by 3D prices, it made money – more than $500 million worldwide – meaning an inevitable sequel. However, this sequel is not released until March next year, so why another one already? Why now? Keep in mind that even ignoring mixed reviews, Sam Worthington, the star, actually apologised for the original, albeit promising the sequel will be better. When sequels – AKA follow-ups – are second chances, not rewards, something is wrong.
“Threequels” are not so unusual in Hollywood nowadays – see The Matrix or Pirates of the Caribbean – given the sequel hooks and franchise hunts everywhere. For the studio, Clash seems a safe, reasonable “gamble”, with all Greek mythology to mine and (some) credibility from seasoned actors playing the Greek gods. Clash 3 is notable in this sense more because Warner Bros. waited until 2’s post-production to consider a third instalment rather than alongside the second. So why remark on this in particular?
The answer: timing. A third film might well make “sense”, but why mention it specifically now, without prompting? Such a “delay” draws attention, both to greenlighting films based on monetary interest and also how little studios think of audiences. Clash 3 seems an afterthought; a realisation of missed opportunity. It is optimistic, cynical and presumptuous. Announcing both sequels together might have actually been better, because this only highlights Hollywood’s unspoken truth.
Will Clash 3 be made? Possibly Clash 2 will bomb sufficiently to prevent it, but with a sequel script commissioned before reviews it will have to do very badly indeed. Either way, the idea is still festering away in Hollywood.
Some may recall Mel Brooks’ 1987 spoof Spaceballs, where a character mused “hopefully we’ll all meet again in Spaceballs 2: The Search for More Money”. A warning from the past indeed.
The recently released Contagion depicts the spread of a pandemic caused by an extremely virulent and deadly disease, and the devastating effect it has across the world, through both the death toll and society collapsing. Thus it bears some similarity to the first third of Stephen King’s 1978 novel The Stand. The book takes the death of 99.4% of the global population (due to an outbreak of a government-designed superflu) as the backdrop for an epic tale about good versus evil, as represented by two groups of survivors. Development hell had long been the fate of The Stand’s movie adaptation, but Warner Bros revealed in January their plans to make a trilogy based on the book, and this week it emerged that the studio’s current first choice for adapting and directing is Ben Affleck.
It seemed inevitable that The Stand would make its way to cinemas. After all, this is one of King’s most acclaimed books, and he has a very strong history with Hollywood; his work was the basis for Jack Nicholson’s axe-murderer in The Shining, Morgan Freeman’s sagacious jailbird in The Shawshank Redemption, mysterious Lovecraftian monsters in The Mist and many more besides. Yet The Stand presented a certain challenge as regards to being transformed into a screenplay. The book is fairly long and dense, so making a single 2‑3 hour film that does it justice could be almost impossible. King himself came to the latter conclusion after originally planning to write a screen treatment for The Stand in the 1980s – between him and his partner on the project, George Romero (who would have directed), they found themselves struggling to cut content. A TV series was considered as an alternative, but in King’s own words, “the networks don’t want to see the end of the world, particularly in prime time. Advertisers don’t want to sponsor the end of the world”. In fact a TV miniseries was eventually made in the 1990s, but many fans were disappointed with it, largely on the grounds that it was limited by its budget, and that darker content had been watered down to get it on air.
It wasn’t until the Warner Bros announcement at the start of this year that serious plans for having another go at The Stand surfaced. Certainly making a trilogy could mitigate the problem of fitting so much narrative into the adaptation, but nevertheless scepticism about this project seems justifiable. The team of director David Yates and writer Steve Kloves, who last collaborated on the final four Harry Potter movies, were at one point attached to the project; the fact that their deal fell through at a late stage is surely cause for a degree of concern. So is the information that King himself had not heard about this newest attempt to film his tale until it was publicly announced. One can only hope that The Stand, having been initially inspired in part by The Lord Of The Rings, eventually gets adapted with the kind of enthusiasm, reverence and talent that was directed at that book’s film trilogy.
- Sam Collingwood
Andy Serkis made his breakthrough to near universal acclaim as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings, and this week he returns as Captain Haddock in Spielberg’s Tintin adaptation. However, despite Serkis’ deeply idiosyncratic style, you’d be hard pressed to spot him in either role. Why? Both films use motion capture technology, converting actors’ real movements into animation. Motion capture offers seemingly endless possibilities, allowing directors to shoot real actors and place them in fantastical scenarios. Indeed it prompted both the revered critic Philip French and Time magazine into lauding Avatar, despite its shaky plot and dialogue, as amongst the most important films of the last decade. In short there is only one question to ask. Where did it all go so wrong?
Perhaps you don’t understand what I just said. Surely my description of motion capture contained all the ingredients of an unmitigated success story. People flock to see the films, the critics are backing it to succeed, and to a degree it already has. The harsher reality is that motion capture technology has spawned a string of utterly mediocre movies, Avatar was a two hour visual rollercoaster relying almost solely on impact and novelty and that, much like CGI, the technical wizardry all too often descends into an unwatchable mess.
Take this list of films: Polar Express, Mars Needs Moms, Tron: Legacy, Avatar and A Christmas Carol. They have three things in common, firstly that they all make use of motion capture, secondly that each film cost a bomb to make and thirdly that each one has a script which could generously be called disappointing. Evidently points one and two are related; motion capture is mind bogglingly expensive. Avatar’s budget alone could have gone a decent way to ending world poverty, saving Greece and paying my student loan. And when studios spend a ton of money they like to earn it back hence point three, bad scripts.
The need to make big profits results in films as intellectually dire as they are visually spectacular. Studios who throw money at fancy technology want the world to know, and the best way to show it off is to make every shot a glamorous one. No more low key openings, the way to guarantee big bucks is through lavish, mindless spectacle.
You may wonder whether I think all big budget Hollywood movies ought to be rubbish then. I don’t. Studios have made, and will make, expensive and brilliant films. I just don’t think many of them will be motion capture. And here’s why. The best films are made by directors like Spielberg, Fincher and Nolan, a small handful who have earned their right to originality. The rest will only get big funding if they do what the studio wants, and studio executives tend to prefer flashy action flicks to Brecht adaptations. So most motion capture films will probably look great, sound great, and be forgotten by the time you’ve finished your popcorn.
Motion capture is, in the same way as CGI or 3D, a bit of a gimmick. On one hand you can use it to make Gollum, and Gollum was a great character. His eerie movements, unnerving facial expressions and menace were perfect. Gollum is the good side of motion capture. Unfortunately, for every Gollum there’s a Mars Needs Moms, a film intended as nothing more than a vehicle to show off a new technical process. That’s motion capture’s bad side, people making movies that should never be made, just because they can. If a plot sounds stupid or a line doesn’t work then painting the characters blue and putting them in space isn’t going to help. It’s time someone realised.
I expect that Tintin will be an excellent film, indeed I hope it is because I intend to watch it. But even if it turns out to be Citizen Kane 2 I won’t be cheering. I’ll be sitting at the back, clasping my head and counting down the seconds until Michael Bay jumps on the bandwagon.
- Alexander Lynchehaun
It’s a genre that few men know, and fewer still appreciate. But this genre is heard by millions of people every day, every time they log onto YouTube, glance at the TV or sit down in a cinema — they just don’t realise what they’re hearing. Such is trailer music: the dark horse of the film industry.
A subdivision of so-called ‘stock’ or ‘production’ music, trailer music is perhaps the most underappreciated element of film promotion. It has the uncanny ability to make something as banal as brushing your teeth or walking your dog seem like an epic trek into the fires of Mordor. Its composers work quietly and diligently in their studios to produce vast numbers of 2-3 minute scores with the most important job in Hollywood: to leave us gagging for more. They must leave us feeling both overloaded and frustrated. They must provoke an emotional reaction. Composing them is not, therefore, a job for the faint-hearted. But while you’ve heard of Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman, you’re probably unfamiliar with such trailer music giants as John Beal and Thomas J. Bergersen.
A trailer is a miniature film. It needs its own narrative and its own score. Contrary to popular belief, however, these quick-fire rounds of music are delivered not directly from the film’s actual soundtrack, but from a number of other sources. Original scores, when they are required, are commissioned by production companies (often with a license fee of up to $50 000) through trailer houses, which produce the final cuts. Composers then painstakingly create a score to compliment the pictures, sometimes with the help of a live orchestra. The score is then repeatedly cut, checked and test-marketed. Beal, a veteran of the industry, commented: “Every time we do something, it goes out for a test. They say make changes, we make the changes, it goes out for another test, and this goes on and on right up until the very last minute. Times have come when I’ve been given a project at midnight for a 6AM dub next morning”.
Nowadays only about one in four trailers will have an original score. To save time and money, production houses might use music from the score of other films (look up the main themes from Dragonheart, Aliens and Come See the Paradise), classical music, pop songs (and knock-offs of those songs) or ‘library’ music. Library music is perhaps the most prolific type of trailer music. Those of you that have seen the full-length trailer for Breaking Dawn: Part 1 might have noticed that its score — ‘Love and Loss’ by Two Steps from Hell — somehow managed to do the impossible: make the film look exciting. Two Steps from Hell is one of several library companies that produce volume after volume of pre-composed production music. Other such companies include Brand X Music, X-Ray Dog and City of the Fallen. These companies have traditionally developed music exclusively for motion picture studios, but in the age of Internet piracy, their work has inevitably been shared online. The biggest trailer library is Immediate Music, based in LA, whose track ‘Lords of the Realm’ trumpeted the arrival of the final Harry Potter. Immediate received an Emmy for Outstanding Music Composition in a Sports Program in 2007, is one of the only libraries to have released a commercial album (Trailerhead), and has even made it to the stage: its orchestral tie-in band Globus performed at Wembley Arena in 2006.
Now that library companies have started to go public with their music, we might just see trailer music go mainstream. So this Christmas, say “no” to the charts and pick up a copy of Trailerhead. Trust me: your life will be ten times more epic.