film feature

Thanks, but no Hanks: Why Tom Hanks is Hollywood’s dullest star

In 1994 and 95, Tom Hanks became only the second person to win and subsequently retain the Oscar for best actor. Not only that but he is one of Steven Spielberg’s favourite performers, has appeared in a number of the most successful films ever made and even has an asteroid named after him. That would be quite a return for anyone, let alone somebody so mediocre at acting. Indeed I would go so far as to deem it miraculous that a person who can only play one character, and quite a boring one at that, could become such a global star.

Tom Hanks plays the same person in every film; he is always the good guy, a trustworthy all American hero. He never plays a real anti-hero, and he never will. The Tom Hanks character does have its variations; he can be a little bit angrier, a bit stupider, a married man or a bachelor. Occasionally he’s a tad scared and every once in while he loses his rag. Sadly though, whatever the surface variation, it’s always the same guy on the inside.

Perhaps the best illustration of this is in Hanks’ new film, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Hanks plays a loving and doting father figure, a performance criticised as overly sentimental, bordering on unwatchable. Perhaps the critics today would be well served re-watching Road to Perdition. In that film Hanks plays a gangster and murderer but, the odd burst of righteous anger and machine gun fire aside, Hanks’ character is basically a predictable, safe, loving father figure. Despite initially appearing to be a total departure, it is a classic Hanks role.

Or again, in Saving Private Ryan, Hanks plays a military leader who ends up as a father figure to his regiment. He’s an honest, heroic, trustworthy sort of guy. What about Toy Story? Woody is an honest, heroic, trustworthy sort of guy. Catch Me If You Can? The same. Philadelphia? The same. Forrest Gump? You guessed it, the same again.

Indeed, looking back through Tom Hanks’ filmography, a pattern starts to emerge. Compared to other similarly acclaimed actors, one starts to wonder quite how he has made so much of so little. Where is the Travis Bickle, Jake Gittes or Vito Corleone on his C.V.? You’d expect that someone with such a long and successful history would try something new once in a while but, in this case, you’d be wrong.

In fact it is very easy to describe any Tom Hanks role. Firstly there is an archetypal character, a sort of virtuous good guy, honest, heroic, trustworthy and, the Terminal aside, American. Secondly there is a context, something like ‘he’s a soldier on D-Day’, ‘he’s a gangster in the 20s’ or ‘he’s a castaway on an island’. That’s it, really.

Perhaps it’s understandable then that Hanks has done so much of his work with Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. Both are excellent filmmakers, one could even call Spielberg a genius, but both are also both notable for their sentimentalism, emotional manipulation and distaste for moral ambiguity. By contrast Martin Scorsese, the master of the anti-hero, has eschewed Hanks throughout his career, preferring more versatile talents like Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro.

Fortunately for Tom Hanks, the character he plays happens to be the perfect one for Hollywood audiences. He is a very safe man to cast, he always does the same thing and it always makes money. In fact since his breakthrough in Big Hanks has been acclaimed as a great actor. If so, then he’s the dullest ‘great’ actor I’ve ever seen.

Bayhem’s Back: Michael Bay announces Transformers revamp

Michael Bay, director of Pearl Harbor and Armageddon, has admitted that his claim to have dropped the Transformers franchise — one of the most financially successful franchises ever — was a downright lie. Come 2014, Bay will be treating us to a fourth helping of supermassive mechanical mayhem. “Steven Spielberg and I are working on a whole new re-imagining of Transformers, the fourth installment,” he wrote on his website. “We have been working on the idea for a few months.  I’m excited about where it’s headed”.

An excited Michael Bay may or may not be a good thing. Over the five years spanned by the trilogy, Transformers became Hollywood’s version of cigarettes: addictive, profitable, but ultimately cancerous. It was a testimony to juvenile comedy, bad acting, and the dwindling influence of critics on the box office. Bay’s vision of the war between Autobots and Decepticons earned him several Golden Raspberry Awards and the hatred of the old-school Transfans — but he now has an estimated net worth of million. The lure of all those bucks can’t be easy to resist.

Rumours abound as to what the reboot will involve. According to most sources it will be a direct sequel to Transformers: Dark of the Moon, but will also mark a thematic divergence from the first three films: something darker, grittier and generally more adult. With Shia LaBeouf absent, we can assume the story will no longer be told through the eyes of teen hero Sam Witwicky. In fact, it seems the entire human cast will be discarded and replaced, wiping the slate clean for a brand-new plot. “I don’t think anybody’s doing it,” Josh Duhamel — who played soldier William Lennox in all three films — told E! Online. “I know Shia’s not doing it. I don’t think Tyrese [Gibson] or Rosie [Huntington-Whiteley] or anybody else is doing it”. Insiders claim that Bay aims to recapture the ‘end-of-days’ mood of Dark of the Moon, in which Earth is crippled by a massive Decepticon invasion. The toilet humour will also be trimmed out. No official announcement has been made, but fans suspect that Unicron — a vast planet-eating destroyer-god — will appear as an antagonist. Whatever the details, Bay has promised us something new — but as we’ve seen twice before, he has no obligation to keep those promises. He claimed Dark of the Moon would be more serious than its predecessors, but viewers were still forced to sit through an eye-scalding scene in which Ken Jeong unbuckles his trousers and straddles LaBeouf in a toilet cubicle.

If Bay were the only Transformers alum returning for number four, there would be less cause for alarm — at least there would be some new blood in the mix. But states clearly that the “movie will re-unite the filmmaking team from the hit franchise”. The boys are officially back in town: Murphy, DeSanto, Bryce, even Spielberg — yet the site insists that this will be “a new take” on the Transformers franchise. The chances seem slim. With the old crew reunited, the prospect of real change in the series is out of the window and onto the scrap heap. Doubtless there will be new actors and possibly even some new ideas, but like a tyrannical government that just won’t fall, Bay will always stick to his policies: the cheese, the models, the endless explosions. It will be a challenge for him to break his old habits, and there’s no guarantee that he is up to that challenge.

My hopes for the second arc of Transformers are low. We can only pray that Spielberg, after triumphing with his latest epic War Horse, will suddenly have an allergic reaction to Bay and insist, for the sake of global safety, that he takes the director’s seat.

Nazi Aliens Invade: Why Iron Sky is the talk of Berlin

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 itriotous 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.

Thumbs Up: A modern take on film criticism

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.

Buy Hard: Gifts for a film fan

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.

Making films the Emmerich-an way

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.