Film features

Monsters and Morons: Politicians in Film

Monsters and Morons: Politicians in Film

Politics has always occupied a world of its own, a world so unreal that it hardly seems to need further fictionalization. The daily drama of the US Presidential race and rivalries between British parties unfolds at the relentless pace of a low caliber soap opera. The events are repetitive and predictable, the dialogue clunky and unnatural, and the underlying sentiments ham-fisted and hollow. But worst of all is the acting; personalities are blown up to grotesque extremes and characters reduced to overdone stereotypes. By taking this exaggeration just a little bit further, ‘The Campaign’ makes a farce out of the stuff of horror movies. But behind the laughter, the fear remains; infinitely more terrifying than any monster or murderer is the realization that we do not know the people who rule our country.

This fear comes to the forefront in very different genre of political movie, the serious, historical drama. Not only do these films vividly recreate the larger than life personalities of leaders, but they attempt to reveal the private face behind the public mask. In ‘Frost/Nixon’, Michael Sheen plays David Frost, the interviewer credited with exposing the true self of Richard Nixon. When the Watergate scandal robbed the American people of trust in their government, David Frost, according to this movie, was just the man to give them the answers they needed. The movie depicts his interviews with Richard Nixon as a kind of modern day David and Goliath story, an epic battle of wits in which a lowly interviewer manages to overpower one of the most well protected and powerful men of all time. The turning point in the struggle is the moment audiences most remember, the moment when Nixon’s carefully engineered political persona finally cracks under the pressure. He utters the immortal line “when the president does it, that means it’s not illegal!” and the battle is won.

‘The Special Relationship’, released two years later, also sets out to uncover the truth about politicians, only this time from the inside out.  Michael Sheen reappears as the newly elected Tony Blair, full of hope and idealism at a time when the liberal, democratic New Left seemed set to take over the world. The camera follows him and Bill Clinton, played to the hilt by Demetri Goritsas, into the kitchen, the bathroom, the bedroom, and reimagines all of their most private and personal conversations. Despite the ease with which it penetrates every aspect of these politicians’ lives, the film ends on a far darker note than ‘Frost/Nixon’. It shows politicians alternately using and being used by the media, resulting in a public image at odds with the power struggles that go on behind the scenes. The final shot is of the handshake between Blair and Bush, an image with implications that the general public could never have known at the time.

These political movies follow in the footsteps of ‘The Manchurian Candidate’, the 1962 Cold War thriller that takes the fear of politicians to its most paranoid extreme. Unlike ‘Frost/Nixon’ or ‘The Special Relationship’, it has no time for moral shades of grey; malevolent politicians are stripped of their disguises and rooted out with all the vehemence of a McCarthy-era witch-hunt.  At the outset, Senator John Yerkes Iselin seems like just another Marty Huggins; good natured, well meaning, but profoundly unintelligent. He is ruled by his wife, Mrs. Eleanor Iselin, who snaps at him “I keep telling you not to think!” But what starts out as a satire of the American political scene quickly devolves into Cold War propaganda, when Mrs. Iselin turns out to be a communist agent with her eye on the White House.

But both ‘Frost/Nixon’ and ‘The Special Relationship’ recognize that dividing line between what politicians believe and what they say is rarely so clear cut. When leaders modify and control the image that they present to the public, they are often driven as much by idealism as by egoism. Self-promotion and self-creation, even when it is carried out at the expense of truth, is necessary to put their principles into action. For Cam Brady and Marty Huggins in ‘The Campaign’, the equation is even simpler; the truth, their ideals and their egos are all one. They play their parts in the national soap opera with the sincerity and determination of true comedy heroes, and the terrifying figure of the political monster is not allowed to intrude upon the scene. The audience is spared the fear of what goes on in politicians’ heads by the certainty that they would not have the intelligence conceal it.

PHOTO/Scott Wampler, SFG¿mystic ,K嘛, Rick Bowmer, Montag


Remakes: The good, the bad and the unnecessary

Even before David Fincher’s The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo came out, there were cries of outrage from cinemagoers everywhere. The Swedish version had already been made, what was the point of ruining it with an American version? It was going to have none of the original feel or the flair, and by the fact that it was American, Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth was going to be a shadow of Noomi Rapace’s. Obviously. When the film did eventually come out, the cries died down, but not entirely. And this is not an isolated case; the fact is that for some reason, remakes of foreign films simply do not sit well with a lot of people.

Remaking a film, foreign or otherwise, is a lot like adapting a book for the big screen. The plot and the characters are all there, the vision and the inspiration have already been created by somebody else. It then falls to the director to create it as a work of art; to visualize it and turn it into a film. When this is done with something like Lord Of The Rings, everybody is happy; they can’t wait to see Aragorn fighting the Nazgul, or Frodo crawling through Shelob’s lair. You could argue that the excitement stems from the fact that the original material is brilliant, and you would be absolutely correct, but then why on Earth are we allowing four Twilight films? The opposite is in fact usually true of remakes. The greater the original, the stronger the objection to anyone even thinking about touching it. The talk is always of ruining a masterpiece, but people never seem to imagine an attempt that would be better, or different or fresh. That would surely be inconceivable.

While not being able to read the subtitles is never a valid excuse for not liking a film, there are certainly disadvantages of having to constantly read them. Often, the best of the acting, the moments that define a film can come from the way that a certain character speaks or says things: sarcasm for example depends entirely on the tone of voice. When you watch foreign films in languages that are completely alien to you, following these vocal cues is difficult, and can detract from great viewing. The same can be said for the culture difference. For an audience to connect entirely with a film, they may need to understand a culture to realise why characters are driven the way they are. If you fail on this front, you can leave an audience confused and uninterested. And there are times where a film, its material and its story is simply too good to pass up: Scorsese won an Oscar with good reason for The Departed.

There is nobody who can say that they have never watched a film and come out with the words ‘I would have done that bit differently’. Everybody reads a book in a unique way, they imagine a scene to play out with a tone that only they understand, and they want that to be translated onto the big screen. Directors are no different, except for the fact that they have the power to make those changes. We shouldn’t begrudge them their desire to do just that.

By Prithu Banerjee

That Magic Lantern: Dickensian films

7 February 1812. In the seaside district of Landport, Charles John Huffam Dickens is born to an unremarkable Victorian family, the second of eight children. He will not only change the face of literature, but of all the arts. Two hundred years later, he is still one of the greatest and most recognisable names in the world. But how has film contributed to the spread of Dickens mania?

Even in the nineteenth century, the works of Dickens were superbly adaptable. After all, he himself was many things: author, journalist, husband, father, social reformer and boot-blacker, to name but a few of his faces. This was a man whose voice spoke not for one, but for many; a man whose protean personality seeped into every word and every page. His serial publications were routinely used in stage adaptations, sometimes before they were even finished — and without the help of a fully developed Copyright Act, which only came into force in 1842, he was forced to let well-meaning rascals run amok with his ideas, making not a shilling from their efforts. Doubtless he wouldn’t have liked The Pirate Bay. Nonetheless, my instinct tells me he would have been delighted to see his works reproduced in the ultimate modern medium: film.

The Victorians are well-known for their love of spectacle and image. In the pre-cinema days they used smoke and mirrors to create phantasmagoria and light shows. The idea of ‘film’ was understood primarily in the context of the Lanterna Magica, or magic lantern. This nifty bit of hardware is thought to have been developed by Dutch mathematician Christiaan Huygens in the seventeenth century. It was used to project a single image on a slide using light — usually from a candle — and a concave mirror. The quality of the image improved progressively with the invention of stronger light sources like the Argand lamp and the limelight. Mass production of slides was enabled by the copper plate process, which allowed the outline of an image to be printed directly onto the glass. Previously they had been hand-drawn. The first ‘motion pictures’ only appeared in 1879, when Eadweard Muybridge developed the zoopraxiscope. This worked like a flip book to create the impression of motion using rotating glass disks. By the end of the Victorian era, one of the first ever films, Sortie de l’usine Lumière de Lyon (1894), had been released by the Lumière brothers using the new cinématographe, and the world’s first cinéma had been opened in La Ciotat. By the time the first cinematographic screenings took place in Paris, however, Charles Dickens had been dead for over 20 years.

Living in the city, Dickens would have been constantly bombarded by the Victorian fascination with image; he referred to London as ‘that magic lantern’. His novella The Haunted Man (1848) was used in a lantern show, as was A Christmas Carol (1843). Dickens gave many public readings for which he edited his own stories, highlighting the most pivotal scenes, which were then used in lithographic lantern slides. After his death, adaptations of his novels filled the world of film. Around a hundred were made across the world during the silent era alone. The first full-length Dickensian feature film, David Copperfield, was produced in 1913, closely followed by Barnaby Rudge (1915), which has sadly been lost. The last silent adaptation was A Tale of Two Cities (1925).

Two centuries later, Britain is still in love with the inimitable Boz. From Carrey to Disney, Kingsley to Polanski, everyone seems to have dipped into Dickens — and this year, Helena Bonham Carter will fill the role of notoriously nutty Miss Havisham for BFI’s Dickens on Screen season. Let’s hope she meets our expectations.

SAG and DGA awards: The Artist needs no Help

As the awards season totters towards a conclusion, only the BAFTAs and Oscars now remain, it seems ever more likely that the Artist will go down as this year’s outstanding film. Recent weeks have seen triumphs for director Michael Hazanavicius and leading man Jean Dujardin in the annual Directors Guild of America (DGA) and Screen Actors Guild (SAG) awards respectively. The Help also prospered at the SAG ceremony, winning in the best actress, supporting actress and ensemble cast categories. Christopher Plummer rounded out the awards with a nod for his supporting role in Beginners.

The DGA hands out only one prize for feature films, and victory is a near certainty of Oscar success. Indeed, in the ceremony’s 64-year history, only six victors have failed to follow up with the Academy award. In taking home the prize Hazanavicius secured his 17th award of the year, he must be heavy favourite to be on the podium come Sunday 26th.

Dujardin’s victory was another in a successful season so far, and he will likely be vying with George Clooney for the biggest prize of them all. Despite having a role with only two spoken words, he has already scooped 9 awards and looks to be a strong contender for the Academy’s leading male gong.

Nonetheless, the biggest winner at the SAG awards was the Help, the civil rights drama taking 3 of the 5 acting prizes despite a mixed response from critics. Viola Davis was named best leading lady, while Octavia Spence was honoured for her supporting role. The Help’s cast has been widely acclaimed, even by those who have derided the film’s message. It would, however, still be a minor miracle were Tate Taylor’s adaptation to win best film come Oscar night; a successful £1 bet on the Artist would win you 20p compared to £35 for the Help.

Plummer’s reward was his first SAG success at the fourth attempt, and came for his performance playing a septuagenarian who finally comes out as gay after his wife’s death. The 80 year old, who debuted on screen in 1953, has acted in nearly 200 film or TV productions, but this has been arguably his most acclaimed role.

While the SAG and DGA awards are respected in their own right, they are arguably better known as barometers for the Academy awards. While the Help’s success may have been surprising, the Artist looks well placed to prosper at the Oscars.

Are the Oscars becoming irrelevant?

Well no, since you asked. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t deeply flawed.

The Oscars are the high watermark of film recognition. The red carpet trampling, lovvie love-a-thon that is the motion picture awards season starts in earnest with the Golden Globes in early January and extravagantly culminates every year in late February with the Academy Awards in which apparently “everyone is just thrilled to be nominated!” but in actuality hopes are realised, dreams are shattered and the presenters are almost constantly underwhelming. When it comes to the big night though it can all seem like a bit of game. A cynical, industry driven game in which awards are doled out by the sensibility load and Martin Scorsese can win an Oscar through sheer bloody minded persistence (and a superlative body of work of course).

The awards themselves essentially boil down to the artistic whims of a group of voters who are predominantly older, whiter and male-er than your typical movie audience, and your typical movie audience they most definitely aren’t. The 6000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are a venerable bunch of industry professionals who once inducted are placed into their various pigeonholes of expertise. Actors, directors, cinematographers and writers all have their place to name a but a few with the experts in each category having more sway when it comes to the tricky business of voting. In the first round directors nominate the work of directors, writers of writers and so on with each member providing a list of their top five choices. These feed the candidates for the second round of voting to the Academy as a whole who then all submit their top fives in most categories. The exception is of course the be-all and end-all award of Best Picture which everyone votes for.

Oscar voters are people sustained and venerated by their own artistic endeavours and as such they won’t be voting for any hack produced hokum any time soon. Added to this we don’t get many surprises either. We get them plumping for the worthy over the cinematic (think the choice of The Help over Tinker Tailor), the traditional over the innovative (War Horse over Drive), the heroic underdog over the perverted sex-addict (Brad Pitt’s average display in Moneyball over Michael Fassbender’s powerhouse performance in Shame). Way back when in 1989 we got the starkest manifestation of this we could ever wish for with the triumph of the comfortably middle class over the radical and intelligent with Driving Miss Daisy winning best picture over Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing – a film that set the tone of black-centric cinema for a decade to come and wasn’t even nominated. A case like that more clearly than anything shows how the mass appeal of the facile and one-dimensional can almost always triumph over the confrontational and original. This may seem like I am throwing The Help and Driving Miss Daisy together into some sort of race rights for dummies cadre and it kind of seems like I am. But Driving Miss Daisy cleaned up at the Oscars so of course it’s brilliant. Of course it is! Anyone who says otherwise is stupid, or a Hollywood Foreign Press member. So both.

Speaking of which when you compare the Oscars to the Golden Globes our gold plated, statuesque friend comes out smelling of roses. The Golden Globes are the sort of unashamed silly affair that keeps re-hiring a presenter to hilariously lampoon their inadequacies in some sort of devil’s pact for viewers. It’s like someone building a house on a cliff using stone from the cliff face. At some point the Golden Globes, I mean house, ahem, will collapse and all of the viewers will leave and Ricky Gervais will have to find somewhere else to live out the creative death of his career.

What the Golden Globes do have over their more respected counterparts however is timing. If something wins at the Globes it’s often a good indicator for things to come. By the time the Oscars swing round films like The Artist will have won so many awards that they’ll we struggling for something to say other than “OMG OMG OMG OMG the Oscars are the best it’s been my dream blah blah blah” that we’ve heard all before. There’s none of the surprise that there should be for indie flicks like The Artist when they win a huge award as their expectations are already so high come February that a Best Picture victory will seem more like a relief than anything.

So why will I be staying up into the wee hours of the morning waiting to get my Oscar fix for yet another year? Well it’s because they are just so bloody important and despite everything that I’ve said up until this point they still hold the requisite amount of artistic integrity.

More often than not the Oscars get it vaguely right and if they don’t it’s not usually that bad (apart from the Academy’s complete disregard for Senna this year which is ridiculous beyond parody). Yes, last year The Social Network should have walked off with Best Picture never to be refuted but that on the night it went to The King’s Speech wasn’t terrible. The Social Network would’ve been (and had been) a success irrespective of awards attention but The King’s Speech, high on the Oscar buzz it was getting – and Colin Firth’s repeated walk-ons at every awards show imaginable – carried the film through its January and February release period to a humongous (and thoroughly deserved) box-office. That an artfully inclined arthouse flick about a king with a speech impediment made $400 million worldwide is testament to the power of Oscar buzz. Without the Oscars such deserving films would get much less mainstream attention and I think cinema would be poorer for it.

Recently this also proved true for Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker, 127 Hours, Juno, Little Miss Sunshine, Brokeback Mountain and the masterful Sideways to name but a few. Oscar buzz is the real force behind the Oscars. What happens on the night happens and will be raked over in movie posters for eons to come but the real relevance of the Academy Awards is in the bridge they build between the artistic medium of film and the mainstream engine of the film industry.

If you love films and hate to see the wrong things getting top recognition come awards night then yes it may seem like the Oscars are losing their relevance, but as an industry force they are nevertheless a force for good. Even if we do have to put up with the occasional give me a bloody Oscar already! film like I Am Sam (featuring the now famous Sean Penn going ‘full retard’ performance) or Seven Pounds (in which Will Smith begs for an Oscar so hard that I’m surprised he didn’t actually grab his nearest box jellyfish and jump into a bathtub for attention come nominations), ultimately they bring (albeit a small selection of) lesser known gems to the masses.

So come February the 26th 2012 I’ll be sitting down to watch 4 hours worth of film industry back patting, self indulgent montage and lots and lots of hysterical speeches. But I don’t think I’d have it any other way. Oh and Billy Crystal’s back. Which is nice.

LOVEFiLM vs. Netflix

LOVEFiLM vs. Netflix

Despite the ubiquity of film streaming services available across the Atlantic, that specific market has, up until now, failed to transition successfully over into the UK. For recent years, owned LoveFilm has virtually held a monopoly on the UK rental scene. Despite also maintaining a considerable movie streaming presence in the US with their Prime service, Amazon has, understandably, been reluctant to move into a space wholly owned by one of their own subsidiaries. However, the arrival of California-based Netflix may finally provide some incentive to improve upon the rather lacklustre options currently available to UK consumers. Out of the two main providers, both provide streaming services not without issue and, despite theoretically catering to the same market, each has strengths and weaknesses that make it up to the buyer’s own personal preferences as to which would be the ideal choice.

In terms of overall breadth of content, LoveFilm can lay claim to a vast catalogue of films that vastly outstrips the offering currently available on Netflix. That being said, there seems to be little overlap with regard to which films are on both services so, in order to have access to everything at any time, neither provides the ideal experience. Although, if you’re willing to pay extra for film rental via post, LoveFilm offers up the best choice of the two with almost every film imaginable available in physical form. Neither service offers films released within the past year or so and, rather irritatingly, the more recent offerings on LoveFilm incur an extra surcharge on top of the monthly fee. I even ran across several older films (Reservoir Dogs, Fargo and Fistful of Dollars amongst others) which, inexplicably, also demanded a onetime charge of £2.49 for 48 hour access.

When it comes to TV content however, Netflix offers up the far superior alternative with content ranging from classic UK shows, stretching across all the major terrestrial channels, to huge US critical successes such as Arrested Development, 24, and Breaking Bad. Whilst the content is limited to the first few seasons of each series, it’s still a far better option than LoveFilm’s almost negligible TV section which is poorly organised and thoroughly outdated.

In terms of visual quality, there is no competition. Netflix (top picture – click to enlarge) offers most of its movies in 720p and, if you have access to a PS3, the Netflix app will allow full 1080p streaming at no extra cost. LoveFilm (bottom picture – click to enlarge) streams at almost DVD resolution (480p) but, due to their player, the image has poor contrast levels and is prone to heavy artifacting during scenes featuring fast motion. Each service loads quickly from the web browser, both employing Microsoft’s Silverlight technology. Lovefilm appears to buffer slightly faster although, due to the low quality, this is hardly surprising. Netflix will actually dynamically change quality the more it buffers to speed things up so don’t expect full HD quality straight away, but it doesn’t take long to get there. On the other hand, even on a stable connection, LoveFilm often goes in the opposite direction, suffering from occasional drops in the already mediocre resolution. For the sake of full disclosure, I should say that I tested this on a scorchingly fast university connection so can’t comment on what it would be like on less than ideal speeds. LoveFilm specifies a minimum connection speed of 2Mbps for smooth streaming whilst Netflix provides 720p and surround sound if you have access to 5Mbps and full 1080p at 8Mbps.

Subtitle support is also another area in which LoveFilm fails spectacularly. Only foreign language movies are subtitled. On the other hand, Netflix offers full subtitle support for every movie, in both the PS3 app or via their website. There are some issues with the latter as I experienced quite a few films with slightly out of sync subtitles (we’re talking less than a second though) and, in the case of John Woo’s Hard Boiled, no subtitles at all, regardless of chosen settings. As a result, I would easily recommend Netflix’s offering for those hard of hearing or whose native language is not English.

As a final aside, I’d like to briefly talk about the PS3 app for both services as, if available to you, this can be the ideal viewing experience. Although, admittedly setting them up proved to be a bit of a hassle (Lovefilm’s offering crashed my PS3 after install and, in order to find the Netflix app on the PSN Store, I had to reset my unit to default factory settings which, thankfully didn’t wipe any save files or profiles but was still somewhat annoying). Once you get them running though, the experience is on par with what’s offered on the web, although, in the case of Netflix, with a large qualitative difference visually due to the PS3’s support for full 1080p. The Netflix app is easy to navigate whilst LoveFilm’s offering is prone to hanging on page turns and after every letter entry when inputting film titles which can be maddening. Neither app features any way to add movies to a queue or favourites list which seems like a bit of an oversight. Netflix also allows you to stream across a wide variety of devices, ranging from iOS to Android as well as all 3 major consoles whilst LoveFilm is limited to the Xbox, PS3 and PC/Mac, with no option to stream on either iOS or Android as their apps only allow curation of your personal library.

Overall, neither company can claim to offer the definitive movie streaming service. That being said, I’d have to side with Netflix for pure streaming use in terms of both user experience and image quality. While the movie selection may not be as expansive, the TV selection is surprisingly hefty and I have more faith in their ability to strike new content deals than in LoveFilm’s willingness to rebuild their player and streaming technology from the ground up in order to provide a comparable experience. At the end of the day, don’t expect to be able to sit down and watch a specific film on either service. However, for the monthly fee of around £5, if you’re willing to just browse their respective catalogues until you find something interesting, it’s well worth the time and money to do so, especially as both are currently offering a one month free trial.

ed – The problem the author had with subtitles not appearing on Hard Boiled has since sorted itself out.

By Vitor De Magalhaes

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