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Category: Editorials

Read the latest editorials and opinion pieces from Big Picture Film Club.

Editorials

Questioning Our History

November 26, 2018
Hacksaw Ridge Screenshot

“History is written by the victors.” The irony of this quote from Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister who led Britain through one of the most documented wars, isn’t lost when it comes to historical accuracy and how Hollywood’s depictions of historical events can shape our understanding of the past.

It is crucial that history is documented and Hollywood re-tellings can make previously unknown historical events accessible to a wider audience. However, issues arise when an artistic license is taken to a new level and scenarios can be changed in order to heighten drama or, a more damaging reason, to portray events from a particular bias.

The popularity of period dramas is undeniable; let’s face it, good period dramas are one of the main reasons the BBC can justify the TV license – not that I’m complaining as it brought Tommy Shelby into my life! Now other platforms are jumping on the historical bandwagon – or carriage – with series three of the Netflix original ‘The Crown’ now in production.

Audience numbers for ‘historical fiction’ films have peaked and dipped over the years. There was a huge increase in 1998, with 16.63% of overall tickets sold being for this genre (Titanic had been released the December before!) while the 2011 rise could be put down to the film adaption of The Help. However, ticket sales have declined rapidly in the past year, from 6.98% in 2017 to just 2.61% this year. So why the drop?

Perhaps the issue is the historical accuracies, or rather, inaccuracies which has caused audience numbers to dwindle. Perhaps it is the whitewashing of historical events which has been prevalent in Hollywood. Perhaps it is the lack of diversity within period and war dramas.

There is a clearly evident issue of harking back to the “good old days”, particularly in older war films. This is often the case with films told from a British perspective. Graham Dawson refers to this as “the pleasure culture of war”; films providing a nationalistic perspective. Although this is to be expected as the winners tell the story, this only provides a very limited narrative to audiences. The issues caused by this “revisionist” history can be incredibly damaging. On a small scale, it might infuriate historians to see a plane being used in a film which wasn’t commissioned until two years after the events it is portraying. But, on a more damaging scale, stories can be told which present people and even social groups in an unfairly positive or negative way.

Zack Snyder’s 2006 film 300 faced a huge backlash; both historically and socially. The film gave the Spartans all the credit when they were actually supported by around 7,000 other Greeks. More worrying is the film’s portrayal of the Persians. The Persians were one of the most advanced cultures within the ancient world while the film depicts them as savage killers who held people as slaves. It was, in fact, the Spartans who held the most slaves in Greece while the Persians had outlawed the practice. The film received a great deal of negativity in Iran due to this factually inaccurate and damaging depiction of the Persians.

Although issues can arise in the making of a film, it is still vitally important that these events are documented, albeit accurately and with fair representations. As  the old adage from George Santayana goes; “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But we still need to remember the actual past, not a fictional one created for heightened drama and box office sales.

World War Two is possibly the most documented war in modern cinema. There have been all sorts of perspectives told on the silver screen; from the battle in the air to the trials and tribulations of those left behind when their loved ones went off to fight. Stephen Spielberg has done his fair share of big budget war movies, most famously Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. (He also directed War Horse – a British story about British soldiers directed by an American – think that’s one for another post!) Both films mentioned have been heralded as incredibly accurate representations of the events they depict. Although Private Ryan wasn’t, in fact, a real person, the artillery used in the film most certainly was. In fact, the opening scene, the storming of Omaha Beach, was so accurate that WWII veterans had to be escorted from screenings. Schindler’s List is another Spielberg film which has been praised for its accurate telling of the harsh realities of Nazi Germany.

Perhaps that is what historical films need in order to be able to fully tell their story: harsh reality. 12 Years a Slave was incredibly difficult to watch because of the brutal violence shown. It has also been deemed one of the most accurate accounts to date by historians. The film was based on the actual experiences of Solomon Northup, a man who was forced into slavery and was able to share his narrative after he regained his freedom. It was a narrative that I was unfamiliar with until the Hollywood adaptation, at which point I read the book. This is why historical re-tellings are important; they provide the opportunity to learn about the lives of people which might otherwise have been lost. However, it is vital that these stories are told with the accuracy they deserve.

Editorials

Pixar and the Story of Toys

November 21, 2018

We can’t talk about Pixar without talking about George Lucas. For those unfamiliar with the name, maybe you’ve heard of Indiana Jones? Surely you’ve heard of Star Wars? Well, both of these iconic franchises are George Lucas creations. Some of the many strings to his bow include writer, director and producer but perhaps his biggest strings are visionary and futurist. THX38 was his first movie. Kanye West would’ve been proud of this beautiful dark twisted fantasy, which gave us a glimpse of a dystopian Earth set in the 25th Century.

In the late 1970s, Lucas gave us Star Wars, which turned out to be a very special space fantasy. Star Wars – A New Hope was released at around the same time that George Lucas’ company (Lucas Film) was beginning to focus on computer technology. Lucas gave us the Indiana Jones franchise in the early 1980s and during that time Lucas Film also developed the first computer-animated sequence in a feature film. This was for the movie Star Trek II.

Star Command

In 1986 Steve Jobs (the founder of Apple Computers) bought the Computer Division, a subsidiary of Lucas Film, and re-established them as Pixar. This is when the collaboration with Disney began, resulting in the revolutionary Computer Animation Production System (CAPS) technology. 1988 sees the usage of Pixar’s rendering software (RenderMan). The 3 short films they released utilizing their cutting-edge animation technology had been critically acclaimed. Tin Toy went on to win the Academy Award for Best Short Film (Animated). Lucas Film movies dominated my childhood in the late 1980s. This George Lucas influence was set to sail into the 1990s, but with a new captain and with a whole new way of telling stories.

Reach for the Sky

Toy Story is the world’s first computer-animated feature film. This ground-breaking film became the highest grossing movie of the year (1995) making $362m. With numbers like that it’s needless to say the movie was a resounding success. It gathered several Oscar nominations and took home the prize for Special Achievement. Several Pixar movies followed Toy Story’s formula and everything Pixar touched turned to gold.

Everything about Toy Story was special. The main characters were played by A-List actors (Tom Hanks and Tim Allen). It was the directional debut of John Lasseter (also Director of A Bugs Life and Cars) who was a Senior Creative at Disney that went on to become one of the most successful filmmakers of all time.

Lasseter was involved in writing the story for the movie that captured the hearts of children and adults alike. It was innovative, funny and endearing. A true landmark in cinema, which became the blueprint for how to make animated movies. Another notable thing about this movie is that one of the greatest minds of the time; Steve Jobs was one of the Executive Producers.

In the year 2000 Pixar moved to a new building in Emeryville, California. By 2006 Disney decided to buy out Pixar Animation Studios. In 2018 The Incredibles 2 marked their 20th Computer Animated Feature Film which has grossed over $1.2bn worldwide. With Toy Story 4 due to be released in 2019, Disney/Pixar looks set to have another big year on the horizon.

You are a child’s plaything

So now that we’ve got an appreciation for what Pixar has accomplished, let’s take a brief look at how they did it. These are the Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) basics that go into in every Pixar movie:

Storytelling, Illustration, editing, colouring, modelling, rigging, set building, animation, simulation, texturing, surfaces, lighting and rendering. It’s not easy being an animator. Watch this short video for a cool explanation on how these movies get made.

A big help to the animators is Pixar’s Render Man. This rendering software has been at the forefront of CGI in movies since it’s inception in 1988. Key features include 3D modelling, animation, lighting and of course rendering. The latest incarnation is version 22, which boasts a redesigned architecture, improved workflow and various tech that allows for creating more photorealistic graphics amongst other things.

In 2D animation, you must draw every frame. So if you draw a character and you want it to move, you then have to draw every single movement. Like drawing a flipbook.

The difference with 3D animation is; you would draw your character, rig it and record it moving. Rigging a character is like creating a skeleton with joints, in CGI software. This is a tedious process that needs an understanding of geometry, physics and anatomy to pull it off. But when a character is properly rigged, it enables an animator to move a character like a puppet, which gives it an amazing sense of realism.

Although rigging may seem like you get one up on 2D animation because you don’t have to draw every frame, one of the challenges in 3D animation is controlling what happens when a character isn’t in motion. This is known as moving hold; when a 3D character looks completely dead if it isn’t moving. There’s definitely a lot of skill involved in 3D animation and an animator will need some good tools to achieve a polished end product.

Let’s go home and play

Thankfully, there are a number of 3D animation software packages out there and animators may use something like 3DS Max or Blender to do their character rigging. All3DP have a pretty cool list, which shows some of the many options available.

(An exported image from the photorealistic Render Man software used in the production of the Blade Runner 2049 motion picture)

Pixar’s own RenderMan software is now available for non-commercial use. This is exciting news because so many of those incredible looking movies that we all know and love are made using this software and we can now get our hands on it for free! If anyone ever wanted to get into Visual Effects, the Khan Academy has partnered with Pixar and are offering a free on-line training course too. George Lucas and his team of pioneers didn’t have it this good! It’s amazing to see how far the animation industry has come over the years. Maybe you’ll be the one to take it further? How much further can it go? To infinity and beyond.

Editorials

Who Did It Better?: How The Grinch Stole Christmas

November 15, 2018

Christmas is fast approaching and to celebrate, Illumination Entertainment has released their take on the classic Grinch story. The original Dr. Seuss book about a reclusive grump who wants to steal Christmas is just as inseparable from the modern identity of Christmas as Santa Claus and Scrooge.

The story has received three high profile adaptations over the years. The 1966 Chuck Jones cartoon starring horror legend Boris Karloff as the titular green menace. The Ron Howard directed live-action retelling in 2000, starring Jim Carrey, and 2018’s animated offering with Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead. But with so many different versions which one is the best?

Today I will compare the different grinch films by breaking them down into categories and analyzing which version did the best job with their portrayal of the Grinch and Cindy Lou. As well as which version had the better music, the best production value, and which version tells the story the best? With that said, let’s dive into this festive feast.

Who is the best Grinch?

The Grinch, of course, gets the star treatment in all three films and it is hard to choose between the players. Karloff’s Grinch is an angry, mischievous trickster. Carrey’s version is a bombastic ball of energy. The child in all of us that never quite grew up. And Cumberbatch is a modern-day cynic who just wants Christmas to stop getting so big. Since we must choose though, I would say Karloff’s version is the best of the three.

Cumberbatch’s version is just too nice to accurately represent the character of the Grinch. His social interactions are too awkward and his kindness to animals over people makes him seem like a lonely single guy resentful that his date never called back, rather than the antithesis of all thing’s holly and jolly. And Carrey’s version, although fun, is just Jim Carrey, playing Jim Carrey. Karloff being a horror star makes the Grinch feel imposing and hateful, but he also manages to excel with the softer side of the character during his transformation and makes it all feel genuine. Karloff feels like the truest representation of the character as he was intended to be.

Winner: How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

Who is the best Cindy Lou?

This category is interesting because in the original story Cindy Lou Who is not a pivotal character. She is merely emblematic of childhood innocence at Christmas. As such her part in the 1966 short is minor. But with subsequent adaptations, Cindy Lou has become as important to the narrative as the Grinch himself.

In the 2000 version, Taylor Momsen does a good job at being the voice of reason to the grownups old-fashioned outlook. She even saves the day in the end, convincing the Grinch and the rest of Whoville that Christmas is about people, not presents. Meanwhile the 2018 Cindy Lou is trying to help her family through a tough time in their lives. Her mum is working hard to provide for her and her brothers, and she only wants her mum to be happy. All three versions are interesting or narratively fitting, but Cindy Lou in the 2000 version is the clear winner.

Unlike her 1966 counterpart, she is actively involved with the plot, being the audiences primary POV. And unlike the recent version, her character arc is integral to the proceedings. Going from disillusionment with the commercialism of Christmas to having her faith restored when everyone realizes, she was right after all. The new version is an interesting reflection of the attitudes of children in single-parent families. But her story feels like padding because without it the story would have largely remained the same. Giving the 2000 version the clear win.

Winner: How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

Which version has the best music?

A part of the Grinch’s legacy that goes underacknowledged is the use of music. All the films use music to effectively place us in the characters heads, give a sense of place and help set the general mood of a Christmas tale. However, the 2018 version fails instantly because of its persistent use of gimmicky pop music throughout the film. This instantly takes the audience out of the experience as the setting ceases to be fantastical. Instead becoming a merchandising exercise. The presence of classic crooner hits like Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” attempts to win us back but unfortunately, it comes too late. The 2000 version also has a few modern songs in there, but it feels less egregious, as commercialism is a central aspect of the story. As well as this the updates to the songs “You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch” and “Welcome Christmas” are pleasing to listen to and the addition of the song “where are you Christmas?” for the character of Cindy Lou nicely compliments her character’s arc. But I would trade all of that for the subtlety of the 1966 soundtrack. Sometimes simplicity is best. There is no pop music to take you out of the fantasy, no overblown production, just charming lyrics, the smooth tones of Thurl Ravenscroft and the MGM chorus; simple melodies that make the story feel like a folktale passed down from generation to generation. It’s timeless and has yet to be beaten.

Winner: How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)    

Which version is better made overall?

This one really comes down to personal preference. None of the Grinch movies are badly produced. Chuck Jones’ version has the charmingly lucid animation one expects of old Looney Tunes shorts. The Ron Howard version has impressive (if slightly creepy) makeup work and impressive production design courtesy of Michael Corenblith. And the new film being from Illumination contains slick modern animation and very pleasing character designs. But again, since I must make a choice while both animations look nice, the 2000 version just edges them out for me.

Not only for the sheer gall it took to try and realize Dr. Seuss’ drawings in live action but also for the imagination on display in the set design. The Grinch’s lair looks straight out of a 1920’s German expressionist horror film. The muted colours give Whoville a tinge of melancholy despite the festive trappings, perfectly fitting with Cindy’s, feelings. And the minutia that mixes the fantastical with just enough modern that it isn’t distracting makes for a film that feels very much in tune with our world while also being nothing like it. And for me, that just gives it the edge.

Winner: How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

Which version tells the story the best?

And now we must decide which film delivers its narrative more effectively. All the films use a narrator to deliver the story. But all the films do different things with the source material. The 1966 version is a straight adaptation of the story with Boris Karloff providing the narration and voices for the characters. The 2000 version mixes in social commentary about the modern worlds disillusionment with Christmas; the voice of Sir Anthony Hopkins. While the new version aims itself at modern children who have grown up with the continual expansion of Christmas and had to contend with its impact on their families. Accompanied by Pharrell Williams voice over. So which film does it best?

The 1966 version is as stated a faithful adaptation. No side plots or updates, just an animated version of Dr. Seuss story. And Karloff’s grandfatherly voice gives the special an extra layer of warmth. However the special is on the short side because of its adherence to the text. With some of the slower animated sections feeling like padding to fit the necessary time slot. The 2000 film focuses on the Grinch’s backstory, explaining his hatred of Christmas and taking jabs at how overblown the Christmas season has become. Which is surprisingly relevant today. And Anthony Hopkins is a fine compliment to Karloffs original narrator role. Even surpassing him in some regards, particularly in dramatic flair. But the backstory takes away from the simplistic mystery of the Grinch.  His heart was two sizes too small was all the reason we needed for his hatred of Christmas. The adage of childhood bullying turns the Grinch into an antihero rather than a villain and makes most of the humans unlikable as a result. So the final revelation never quite rings true. These people have spent most of the preceding film tormenting the Grinch, yet he instantly forgives them. In summary, the story is a little confused and feels too mean for what the story is supposed to teach. Lastly, in the new version, the folktale vibe is subtly diverted. Pharrell’s voiceover sounds more like a friend than an elder. And the decision to deal with themes of neglect and generational doubts is an effective choice for this moment in time. But it never feels like it amounts to anything. Pharrell’s voice is a distraction due to his status as a musician, not an actor and the themes as previously mentioned feel like window dressing more than anything.

So, in the final analysis, all of the stories have flaws and their strengths but the only adaptation where I would argue it’s merits outweigh its flaws is the short version. Due to its concise nature, lack of painful extraneous diversions and focusing simply on telling a charming story in a way that appeals to all, not just to misanthropes or single parent families.

Overall Winner: How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

Final Thoughts

This article was not intended to discredit of the new Grinch movie. Illuminations the Grinch has some good aspects to it. The voice cast all do their jobs well, with Benedict Cumberbatch being the best part of the film. The visual design is pleasing and some of the story updates are a nice change of pace. But ultimately what it comes down to is the new Grinch movie never entirely justifies its own existence.

For an entertaining movie, with lush production design, modern social commentary and a well-rounded female character, with Cindy Lou, stick with the Carrey version. And for the purest representation of the original story, with perfect music, charming animation and the best version of the Grinch go with the Karloff animation.

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Editorials

Breaking out of Typecasting

November 12, 2018

Steve McQueen has just released a heist thriller called Widows. This felt like quite a departure from his usual films and it piqued my curiosity immediately. McQueen normally makes “serious” films, they are about heavy topics with great dramatic performances from people like Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan and Chiwetel Ejiofor. A heist film, quite frankly, seems too fun for a McQueen film. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy his previous films, they’re great, but you don’t always enjoy them – 12 Years A Slave is full of genuinely harrowing scenes. Directors, like actors, often get pigeonholed for the things they can do e.g. Steve McQueen wouldn’t have been at the top of my list for a heist film. So what attracted McQueen to this project? Was part of it just to stretch his directing muscles by trying something new? Will we see a slew of McQueen action films? I think not, whatever else Widows is, it is still a Steve McQueen film.

Unbelievable Transformations

It must be very frustrating for people in Hollywood when they feel typecast and in recent years there have been some startling transformations as actors move away from what they’re known for. The two most striking being Liam Neeson and Matthew McConaughey. Not very long ago Liam Neeson was seen as a serious dramatic actor, Oscar-nominated for his role in Schindler’s List, taking on difficult roles like pioneering sexual behaviour researcher Alfred Kinsey or Irish revolutionary Michael Collins. And then Neeson’s career pivots and he becomes one of the biggest action stars on the planet. Neeson, a man in his fifties, is suddenly cast in Taken and The A-Team. Neeson might have actually jumpstarted a recent genre in “old action heroes”.

Matthew McConaughey in Killer Joe (IMDb)

Matthew McConaughey’s rise to Oscar-winning critical acclaim is even odder than Neeson becoming an action star. McConaughey was once a punchline, synonymous with starring in bad romantic comedies, and thought by many to be only getting by purely because he was a stunningly handsome man (this is literally a joke on Family Guy). Then came a transformation when McConaughey started taking on more serious roles and in a few short years became not only successful but one of the most respected actors working today. McConaughey’s change seems to have started around Killer Joe, a small indie film where he took the title role. I have not seen this film – partly because I derided it because it starred McConaughey – but it was well received by critics. McConaughey’s performance of what I’m reliably informed is a despicable and appalling character seemed to reinvent him and seemingly that’s all it sometimes takes.

The Rom-Com Trap

Women often find themselves trapped in romantic comedies. Jennifer Aniston and Katherine Heigl are seemingly cursed to repeat the same role over and over again in indistinguishable romcoms, like some modern Sisyphus endlessly pushing a rock up a hill, despite being talented and likeable actors. Will Zooey Deschanel ever not be the epitome of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl? Many of these actors seem to be looking for their Killer Joe role where they can break out of this pattern; Cake, and to a lesser extent, Horrible Bosses seemed to be Jennifer Anniston trying to change her image.

Cake (IMDb)

Decent Americans and Girls-Next-Door

Then there are actors who while not exactly typecast do have a type. Tom Hanks has taken on Jimmy Stewart’s role of decent American and Julia Roberts was the Girl Next Door and both of these actors seem to revel in roles that play against this type, Tom Hanks as the intellectual criminal mastermind in The Ladykillers or Julia Roberts as the sinister spy in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. I am borderline obsessed with the career of Ben Mendelsohn who has carved a career out of playing dirtbag villains. He has even been cast of the Sheriff of Nottingham in the new Robin Hood film; one of the classic villain roles. I can only presume his George VI from Darkest Hour is a dirtbag villain version of this king.

Directing Differences

There are seemingly some people who have always resisted the urge to do the same thing. The Coen Brothers’ career jumps from violent crime drama to knockabout comedy and back again easily and you never know what they will do next. Stanley Kubrick seemingly built his career on wanting to make the best film of every genre – 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining and Full Metal Jacket are often cited as the best sci-fi, horror and war films ever made. Some directors are so successful and consistent in their own films that they create their own genre – J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 was held up as a film belonging to a “Spielberg” genre. Many eyebrows were raised when people realised recent horror hit A Quiet Place had Michael Bay as a producer, a director who has as much as a distinctive style as Spielberg, and “quiet” is not part of that style.

For me, the greatest director changeup has been the career of George Miller. Miller made his name directing the Mad Max films, brutal Australian exploitation films, and then seemingly got bored of this and decided to direct the sequel to Babe (yes, that Babe about the talking pig) and the two Happy Feet films (yes, with the dancing penguins) before returning at the age of seventy to his Mad Max roots. The questions this creates are endless – what were the motivations behind these choices? Why did a producer hire Miller for Babe: Pig In The City? Is there a violent director’s cut of Happy Feet?

Mad Max (IMDb)

For most people in the film industry, you don’t have too much choice, there are very few people who can truly be picky about what jobs they accept and it would take a strong person to turn down a lucrative role just because it’s another ditzy best friend in a rom-com or megalomaniacal sci-fi villain.

Editorials

Marvel vs DC: The Bitter Divide

November 8, 2018

I recently rewatched Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy and I consider this to be the high watermark of superhero films. My opinion is The Dark Knight is the best of the trilogy by a clear margin which I know is hardly controversial. The car chase scene of the Joker trying to get to Harvey Dent might be the best action scene in all of cinema. Batman Begins is the first superhero film where they really explained the origins of a superhero in a satisfying way. The Dark Knight Rises had an almost impossible job following The Dark Knight but is still an amazing film and added Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Anne Hathaway and Joseph Gordon-Levitt to a superhero franchise.

The Dark Knight (IMDb)

 

Divided Society

 

This leads me to what may be the most important and bitter divide in society today: Marvel Vs DC. On average Marvel films are better but the high point is Nolan’s work (which technically doesn’t belong to DC’s Extended Universe). It is certainly true that each has their own style. Marvel adopting a more fun and light-hearted take whereas just about every review of DC films uses the words “gritty” and “dark”.

Both have competed in making their own universes – Avengers: Infinity War has around thirty characters that could be called “superheroes” and just trying to keep track of them makes me dizzy. Again, of the two I think Marvel has been more successful in managing their own universe. The DC Justice League films have been widely panned by critics so much so that conspiracy theories exist that critics are all on Disney’s payroll. Rotten Tomatoes critic score for the first Avengers film is 92% compared to Justice League’s dire 40%. Personally, I not a big fan of interconnected universes as I think it becomes very convoluted and the weight of all the characters and storylines is crushing but admittedly seeing all the characters together can be really fun.

 

Successes

 

DC’s big success has been Wonder Woman; a film so good that I put aside my vendetta against Chris Pine. Gal Gadot is sensational as Diana who took one of the least plausible superhero origins and made the film work. Wonder Woman was not just good as a superhero film but dealt with the tragedy of the First World War surprisingly well (even touching on a character dealing with PTSD), the horror of war, even the inevitability of humankind’s own destructive tendencies. These are big things for any film to deal with. Diana’s charge across No Man’s Lead was an unforgettable scene and I cannot praise it enough.

Wonder Woman (IMDb)

Marvel’s high point for me is probably Guardians of the Galaxy Vol I. My knowledge of comic-books is not very deep and I had never heard of this before the film and I remember watching the trailer for the first time thinking “this is going to be a disaster”. It has a talking racoon. And a talking tree. And a professional wrestler playing one of the main parts. I thought not even Chris Pratt’s innate and irresistible likeability could save it. And what happened? Rocket and Groot are amazing characters and despite a limited vocabulary, Groot is surprisingly emotional. Dave Batista, the professional wrestler, was hilarious. I think Guardians of the Galaxy’s strength was in its emotional side, Peter/Star Lord has an amazing journey from scared child to well…a guardian of the galaxy. Perhaps this gives away my age but how can you not be charmed by a film that centres around lovingly put together mixtape?

Guardians of the Galaxy (IMDb)

Failures

 

So, those are the high-points, what are the disasters? Personally, I don’t think Marvel has really made a bad film, not all of them are great but all the ones I’ve seen I’ve enjoyed. The same cannot be said for DC. Man of Steel is that most frustrating of films in that parts of it are great but it ended in the obligatory but increasingly dull city smashing. Batman Vs Superman failed completely despite using whole sections from the fantastic graphic novel and animated film The Dark Knight Returns (which if you want to see a proper fight between Superman and Batman watch this).

But the award surely goes to the Suicide Squad. Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn was the film’s only redeeming feature but even then DC did not get a good handle on the admittedly very problematic Harley Quinn-Joker relationship. What every superhero film needs is a good villain, it’s perhaps more important than a good hero. I can’t tell you the name of the villain in Suicide Squad or even what they were trying to achieve or what they wanted. Captain America: The First Avenger is one of the poorer Marvel films but I remember Red Skull and what he was trying to do. Why is The Dark Knight so great? A huge part of that is Heath Ledger’s performance.

Suicide Squad (IMDb)

 

So In Conclusion…

 

Overall I think I have divided loyalties between DC and Marvel but I know what both could do better. First, too many films come down to the bad guy wants to destroy the whole world, so obviously they’re bad and anyone fighting them is good. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a great film in part because it was actually about something – order versus freedom, there were discussions about how far you can go to protect people and the bad guys could put their case forward. Secondly, the tone of the film should match the character and not the branding of the whole universe. The TV show Daredevil is one of the very few dark Marvel properties and benefits from that enormously; DC should be able to make fun films and Marvel can make dark films. Marvel next has the very promising looking “dark” and “gritty” Captain Marvel and DC has the very light-hearted Shazam so maybe they have already taken my advice.

Editorials

A Screaming Good Time at Celluloid Screams

October 26, 2018

The Celluloid Screams horror festival has just wrapped for another year and it was a privilege to be at this year’s show. Ever since I first became aware of the festival back in 2014 I have wanted to go. Unfortunately, due to prior commitments, I have always been unable to attend. But this year I finally got to see what Sheffield’s answer to FrightFest had to offer.

Whilst there I was enthralled by the friendly atmosphere and pervasive sense of fun. Horror fans are always a delight to be around. Every screening was packed, almost every audience member was well behaved and the ability of horror audiences to jump, laugh and squirm at the right time makes experiencing each film a true communal bonding experience. Supported by friendly organizers who were always happy to engage with the audience and a myriad of extras. Including a DVD, Blu-ray, book and merchandise stalls, Q&A’s with film directors and stars, novelty drinks and karaoke at the bar. With the heart-warming cherry on the cake being how everyone came together and donated money to help the wife of a friend of the festival after her tragic loss. It was a remarkable display of solidarity. And everyone should be proud.

But the atmosphere of a film festival is only half the experience. Films are of course also needed. So here are my thoughts on all the feature films I managed to see. All kept at 50 words or less and ranked from worst to best. This is by no means a comprehensive overview of the festival as I was unable to see everything. But I hope this gives you an idea of some films to check out in the run-up to Halloween.

You Might Be The Killer premieres at Celluloid Screams

You might be the killer– A cinematic eye-roll, that thinks it’s too cool for its genre. Content to point out slasher clichés and nothing more. It’s nice seeing Alyson Hannigan again and Scream fans may enjoy it. But this makes me miss the days when slashers were fun and funny without being glib and self-effacing. Verdict: 1.5 out of 5 stars (1.5 / 5)

What Keeps You Alive– A movie that substitutes unrelenting building tension for lesbian exploitation and torture yarn, because it does not know the power of subtlety. The first half is a tense build but once the twist happens it swiftly falls as a steady pace gives way to cartoonish over the top villainy. Verdict: 2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5)

Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss By Passing Through the Gateway Chosen By the Holy Storsh– Making shouting funny, is hard. The thick of it can do it. It’s always sunny in Philadelphia can do it. This movie cannot do it. Despite Taika Waititi’s presence and the cult plot providing great opportunities for dark comedy, the film is too light and undisciplined to fulfil its potential. Verdict: 2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

Nightmare Cinema– Subpar slasher satire, plastic surgery horror and catholic demon slaying, a terrifyingly surreal odyssey through depression and a survivor’s guilt ghost story make up this uneven anthology film. The final two films, however, elevate it into the realms of watchable. Verdict: 2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich directors Q&A

Puppet Master: The littlest Reich– Welcome to your new guilty pleasure. The Puppet Master reboot features a silly plot, subpar CGI and very politically incorrect jokes. But has charming lead characters, impressive practical effects and if like me, you have a twisted sense of humour, Puppet Master will have you laughing till the end. Verdict: 2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

Assassination Nation– A gonzo, violent and righteously angry middle finger to Trumps America, that at times is very annoying and is nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is. But never the less it is worth the price of admission for sheer entertainment value. Verdict: 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Mandy– The artiest excuse to make a Nicolas Cage movie ever. The first half is a visually beautiful but narratively boring excuse for when Cage goes full blood-drenched psycho. If you want Nic Cage insanity this delivers. And the visual inventiveness may make up for the lack of dramatic engagement. Verdict: 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Introducing Halloween (2018)

Halloween (2018)– Everything a Halloween sequel should and shouldn’t be. The Laurie Strode/Michael Myers story gives you everything you’ve wanted since the original. But the time in between that is padded with high school dope comedy that becomes obnoxiously overbearing. Tension and character work make it a must-see despite its flaws. Verdict: 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Summer of ’84– A great example of a fantastic ending saving an otherwise by the numbers nostalgia trip. This fun mixture of Stranger Things and The ‘Burbs starts as a fun distraction but at the end reveals itself to be a lot more thought-provoking and unnerving than expected. Verdict: 3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

Cam– This film began by giving me unfortunate flashbacks to Unfriended, but soon turned into an intriguing look into the world of online cam girls that deals with themes of identity, female empowerment and sexuality in the digital age in a mature, non-judgemental, and intensely gripping way. A welcome surprise. Verdict: 3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

A friendly Q&A with the producer and director of Wolfman’s Got Nards

Wolfman’s got nards– This documentary about the sub-cultural impact of The Monster Squad is an affectionate analysis of fans, cult movies and their effect on the creative forces behind them. Although occasionally self-aggrandizing and waffly, its subjects’ humanity always shines through and will even have Monster Squad newcomers and haters shedding tears. Verdict: 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Knife + Heart– A psycho-sexual, magical realist, giallo seed-fest, with no shame and the power to enrage “moral” and storytelling puritanical’s but to those who can get past that, they will find a beautiful, frightening and often darkly hilarious mood piece which although it explains a bit too much, feels like pure cinema. Verdict: 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Tigers are not afraid– An unrelentingly grim coming of age story that pulls no punches regarding the impact of the Mexican drug war on children. A magical realist edge, reminiscent of Devil’s Backbone helps to underline the tragedy of a tale that was undoubtedly the best film of the festival. Verdict: 4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

So ends my personal retrospective of Celluloid Screams 2018. It was truly wonderful to share a cinema screen with so many likeminded people for four days. Even when the films let me down, a smile was never far from my face. I definitely hope to return next year. Until then I hope I have given you guys an idea about some upcoming releases that you can check out and hope you enjoy them as much as I did. Happy viewing.

Editorials

Top 5 Movies That Don’t Need a Sequel, Reboot or Remake

October 17, 2018

In the age of franchises and name recognition, every day another sequel, remake or reboot seems to be announced. From cinematic royalty like A Star is Born to the obscure reaches of Maniac Cop, no brand is too high or low profile to be used to get bums in seats on opening night. Not that all these films are bad. Blade Runner 2049, Creed, Star Wars VII & VIII, the retellings of A Star is Born and Stephen Kings IT and even soft reboots like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, prove there is still room for new artists to put their spin on other stories. However, some upcoming film updates just seem like a bad idea. And I’m going to list 5 movies that, in my opinion, do not need to be updated in any way.

Before we begin I’d like to clarify three things. Firstly, with so many updates coming, it would be easy to just list movies within a certain category or genre and call it a day e.g. the Disney live-action remakes. So, to keep this list interesting I will limit myself to one entry per genre and they will be presented in no particular order. Secondly, just because I express trepidation in this list I do not automatically think these upcoming movies will be bad. Like any film goer I love being surprised and if any of these movies turn out to be great I will gladly retract my words. This is merely a speculative piece, using available information to inform my reactions. Finally, this list is just my opinion. If you disagree with me, that is fine. But let’s keep this civil and constructive. With that out of the way, let’s begin.

1) Halloween (Horror): By the time you read this article the new Halloween movie will already have hit theatres and the horror community is alight with anticipation. The problem is, Halloween is a movie that never needed a sequel. Like it’s contemporaries, the original Black Christmas and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween thrived on using the unknown to terrify audiences. Michael Myers was scary in the original film because there was no explanation for his murderous rampage. He stalked and killed those he came across, for no reason. The problem is that many of the sequels and reboots focus too much on giving Michael a motive for his actions. The new movie brings back Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode and retcons Halloween 2’s (1981) revelation that she is Michael’s sister. While Laurie Strode is the quintessential final girl, and it’s nice to see Jamie Lee Curtis return to the franchise, the revenge motive still gives too much reason for Michael to be around. And this retreads the themes already explored in Halloween H20: 20 years later. Making the film seem like an uninspired cash grab that does not understand what made the original great. Not saying that the new film won’t be entertaining. But, for the scariest Halloween experience, watch the first movie as a standalone. You will never feel safe going out on Halloween night again.

Halloween Opening  (IMDb)

2) The Lego Movie (Children’s Animation): The Lego movie is a victim of its own success. When it came out in 2014 it was a breath of fresh air. A Lego branded kids movie that was not a low effort to scrape money from brand recognition. Instead, it was a smart satire on consumer culture, fandom, and genre tropes while also being an entertaining and heart-warming action film that was suitable for all audiences. Since then the spinoffs prove that the Lego movie formula really was lightning in a bottle. With the new films not understanding the essential ingredients. Continually trading on brand recognition and glib self-referential dialogue without the interesting characters, social commentary or sense of pathos that made the Lego movie great. So now they have decided to continue the Lego movie with a direct sequel. But the Lego movie worked better as a self-contained narrative. It told its story in a way that felt conclusive and this made the film unique. Therefore a continuation of a story that has already told everything it needed to, is sure to become tedious fast. Which is a sad state of affairs for arguably the best-animated movie of the decade.

The cast of the lego movie (IMDb)

3) The Crow (Comic Book Action): The crow is a rare beast. Not only a good action film in its own right, but it also stands as a memorial to lead actor Brandon Lee, who died in an on-set accident during filming. With that history behind it, continuing or retelling the story is both futile and in poor taste. As proven by the low effort sequels. No one will top what director Alex Proyas and star Brandon Lee did in adapting the crow. So doing a crow movie at this point is only being done to exploit the fondness a whole generation has for the movie and the source material. Other movies on this list have the potential to, at least, entertain audiences, but this is one property that won’t work with anyone else. So, stop trying to make it happen.

The crow poster (IMDb)

4) West Side Story (Musical): In today’s climate of racial tensions, constant violence and the degradation of the younger generation, it is understandable why West Side Story would be remade. It is a film that perfectly fits into modern times. It addresses all the above issues in an entertaining and thought-provoking way. But the original film still exists. And is not only a classic, which deals with the aforementioned topics in ways that are as heavy as they need to be without becoming preachy, but includes performances, songs, and scenes that have passed into film legend. So why remake it? It smacks of the same logic that brought us the Psycho remake. A movie made solely to remind you of how great and ahead of its time the original was. With Steven Spielberg as director, the film will be technically flawless. But this seems like a waste of his talents. Especially when he could be creating the next underappreciated Oscar gem or the next generations childhood touchstone.

The sharks and jets (IMDb)

5) Avatar (Science Fiction): Avatar is the highest grossing film of all time (not adjusted for inflation). Its imagery was beautiful, its production technology revolutionary and blockbuster cinema to this day owes a lot to it. But once you get past the technical aspects, Avatar is kind of boring. It tells the same story we have all heard a thousand times before about not judging and the destructive powers of colonialism with no nuance or subtlety. Its characters are all broad archetypes buoyed by Sam Worthington’s boring performance. And its mammoth runtime makes getting through it a chore because it stretches its runtime to show us visually pleasing but thematically irrelevant spectacles rather than trying to engage us through relatable characters or unique storytelling. And the prospect of watching more movies with these flat characters, when the original’s plot was stretched beyond breaking point, does not excite me. No matter how beautiful the visuals are.

The classic Avatar poster (IMDb)

Thus, concludes my list of remakes, reboots, and sequels that do not need to happen. But I would like to know what you guys think. Are there any upcoming or hypothetical continuations to movies you do not want to see? Do you agree or disagree with any of the choices on my list? Then please let me know and let’s get a discussion going. And while all these movies are on a negative list, like I said at the beginning I always hope to be proven wrong. So here’s to hoping that these updates do just that.

Editorials

Unsane and the iPhone Revolution

September 4, 2018

Steven Soderbergh (Director of Traffic, Ocean’s 11,12,13, and Magic Mike) won an Oscar for Traffic in the year 2000. Recently the Academy Award rated Best Director decided to make a new movie. It’s called Unsane. Genre wise this is a bit of a thriller and stars Claire Foy who won a Golden Globe for Best Actress with her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in the 2016 Nextflix show; The Crown. Back to Unsane; where Claire plays the main protagonist (Sawyer Valentini) who gets committed to a mental institute. This is full-blown spoiler territory now so I’ll stop here, but to be fair, the title is a dead giveaway and did I mention this movie was filmed on an iPhone?

Why would an A-List Hollywood Director, film a movie on an iPhone? Well because Steven Soderbergh (SD) is not your typical A-Lister. In an interview with Hey U Guys Steven Soderberg said it was a creative choice, as he saw the iPhone 7Plus as being a small capture device which gave him a flexibility he couldn’t get from a bigger device.

It seems the iPhone was instrumental in pulling off certain shots in this movie. So instrumental, that Soderberg also said he’d use the device again in the future! Well if It’s good enough for him, it must be good enough for us, right?

iPhone vs Arri

So now that we’ve realised we have a Hollywood capable film camera in our possession right now, it kind of begs the question: What do we actually need from a movie-making machine and what’s the difference between the iPhone and a proper film camera? There are actually many things to consider when choosing your capture device for video production: resolution, frame rates, audio bit-rate, sensor, lenses, how the camera reacts to light.

At the time of writing, a popular film camera used in Holywood is the Arri Alexa. This camera could be considered an Indusrty Standard and has been used to film movies like The Avengers, Drive and a million other huge titles. Let’s take a brief look at how that compares to the iPhone used to film Unsane.

iPhone 7Plus Vs Arri Alexa
Resolution: 4K (30 fps)  Vs 2K (60 fps)
Frame Rates: Up to 60 fps Vs Up to 120 fps
Audio: 44.1KHz Vs 48 KHz

Potato Jet did a video review which shows that although the iPhone can produce good pictures, it really doesn’t compare to the might of the Alexa. You’ll lose something in terms of quality, but then you’ll gain in terms of mobility and It’ll be great for your budget.

iQuality

With filmmaking being an art, it’s always difficult to debate whether the increasing pixel count of the new technically superior digital cameras are actually producing better images than those of analogue film cameras. Does sharper and more crystal clear actually mean the story will look better? We’ve gone from grainy black and white pictures, to full-colour Standard Definition, all the way up to 4K and beyond. But someone out there will tell you they prefer the way a vintage Alfred Hitchcock movie filmed on a Mitchell BNC looks, compared to the sharp and polished 4K look you get from a modern Red One.

iMovies

Rage (2009) may have been the first major theatrical release shot on smartphones and there’s been a number of notable smartphone movies since. #STARVECROW is the world’s first selfie movie and Tangerine was filmed completely on the iPhone 5s. This iMovement has picked up pace since it’s inception in 2010 and now the iPhone Film Festival judges received over 2000 submissions in 2017. IndieWire has some interesting movies in their iMovement list if you want to find out more about this sub-culture.

iGear

Dougal Shaw (Senior Video Journalist at the BBC) decided to delve into iPhone videography himself and his kit list included the following: iPhone 6S Plus, Filmic Pro App, some sort of rig to stabilize the phone, a collection of lenses, a tripod, a microphone and a computer with video editing software. All of this is so much cheaper than getting a pro Arri Alexa setup!

iMoney

The fact that Steven Soderbergh did shoot a movie on an iPhone, is proof that you don’t need a huge budget to film a movie. Having said that, there’s a lot more involved in shooting a movie then just having a camera and pressing record. Also, the budget for Unsane was pretty low for a Hollywood movie, at $1.5m. But that’s astronomical in terms of a low budget indie production. Unsane only made $10.7m in the Box office, which is Soderberg’s lowest grossing movie by far. I wonder if a better camera would have equated to better box office sales?

iDirector

If iPhone’s are so great, do you need to bother buying a camcorder or DSLR? This is where personal preference comes in. Me personally I know how things can go wrong with technological devices and I prefer to have separate bits to do specific jobs. The thing is sometimes we’re short on space (so we buy a printer and scanner 2 in 1). Sometimes we’re short on budget (so I bought an all-rounder DSLR instead of a camera excellent at taking stills and a separate video camera). Using your iPhone all day to film movies will drain your battery and constant charging will shorten the lifespan. Steven Soderbergh has years of experience, a team of professionals and a million dollar budget. His iPhone movie would be awesome but I doubt you could get the same results. If you’re asking me could I film a movie on an iPhone? The answer is yes. Would I? No. But Steven Soderberg did.

Check out the trailer for Unsane. The full movie is available to purchase on Youtube now.

Editorials

Understanding Violence in Film

August 22, 2018

“He’s just eaten that dog, hasn’t he?”

My child’s reaction to her first viewing of Jurassic Park 2, when the T-Rex has a kennel hanging out of its mouth, and my first foray into dealing with violence in a film which I definitely should not have let my 3-year-old watch. That particular film was rated PG – parental guidance – but I was looking at it through the rose-tinted haze of nostalgia, not the more sensible reasoning that live-action, carnivorous dinosaurs might not be the best viewing for my pre-schooler.

This particular incident didn’t have any long-term damage, as far as I can tell, there were no nightmares and she still says her favourite dinosaur is a T-Rex. But what of the claims that violence in films and television is having a detrimental effect on young people who are ignoring the age rating and watching? Can on-screen violence lead to deviant behaviour in the real world?

In Britain, film classification is decided by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). During this process, several factors are taken into account such as discrimination, imitable behaviour, language, drugs, nudity, sex, sexual violence, theme and violence. However, public opinion is also taken into consideration and, as this changes, so does the classification of certain films. This means that as certain topics become less of a taboo, then they are less likely to shock audiences and so require a less severe age rating. However, the group is aware that younger audiences are more likely to watch age-inappropriate movies at home when they are released on DVD or streaming services. They provide descriptions of the issues found in films in a bid to educate people before watching.

So what is meant by “violent imagery”? When classifying a film, the BBFC lists the following as issues which will be put a production into a higher categorisation:

  • the portrayal of violence as a normal solution to problems
  • heroes who inflict pain and injury
  • callousness towards victims
  • the encouragement of aggressive attitudes
  • characters taking pleasure in pain or humiliation
  • the glorification or glamorisation of violence

If films are seen to pose a risk to audiences they can be asked to cut certain parts out or, in some cases, be refused classification.

Although it is clear that extremely distressing scenes could pose a risk to audiences, particularly to those too young to fully grasp the context within which the violence is set, can individual acts of violence be directly attributed to movies?

In 1993, movie violence and its potential impact on young audiences were highlighted in the James Bulger murder trial. Initially, the Judge, Mr Justice Morland, claimed that exposure to violent videos might have encouraged the actions of the two 11-year-old killers. The film in question was Child’s Play 3. As a result of its link to the trial, the title was withdrawn from shelves and removed from television schedules at the time. Police refuted any link between the film and the actions of the two boys. But this isn’t the first and only time that connections have been made between violence on screen having a direct link with violent actions.

In a study conducted by Dr Nelly Alia-Klein of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, and posted in the science journal PLOS ONE, it was found that watching violent images does make people more aggressive – but only if they are of a violent disposition, to begin with. The study focused on two groups of men – one group was inherently more aggressive with some having a history of physical assault, while the other group was much calmer. When shown the violent imagery, the group that was predisposed to aggression showed less activity in the area of the brain which controls emotional reactions to situations; basically, they were showing signs of less self-control. However, aggression is a trait that develops from childhood so if media does have an impact on people then this is something that is part of their nature from a young age rather than suddenly being impacted by what they see on screen.
So what about the filmmakers themselves? Should they take more responsibility for what is shown to audiences or should they be allowed to produce whatever they want in the name of “creative license”? Quentin Tarantino has been described as one of the most violent filmmakers of this time and he is unapologetic about this. Tarantino does not see himself as responsible for the actions of those who watch his movies and sees screen violence and violence in reality as two separate entities. In films such as Django Unchained, Tarantino argues that he is showing the brutality of reality at the time, something which he feels people need to be aware of. The same argument could be applied to 12 Years a Slave. Tarantino mentions that in his films the victim often becomes the victor. But it is argued that, where a character’s use of excessive violence is seen as a positive thing, this can create negative role models for young people. Rambo, Terminator, the list goes on. The characters are predominantly male and this type of role model can only feed into toxic masculinity which makes boys and men feel that violence and aggression are the only acceptable ways of expressing themselves.
But is all violence the same? In a word, no. Let’s face it, animated characters fighting one another is never going to compare to that head popping scene in Game of Thrones (I can still hear it sometimes!) but the animated violence is still going to have some sort of impact on younger audiences. The important thing is to educate younger audiences about violence in films and their own emotional intelligence to deal with what they see. This is difficult in a world which is becoming more and more desensitised to images due to things being shared constantly via social media and children now having easier access to things they should not be viewing at a young age.
The most important thing we can do to educate audiences is to talk about the issues. Focusing on media literacy in schools is a massive step in helping make topics less frightening. Being aware of fake news is something that children need to learn and it’s surprising, as a teacher myself, how many false ideas students believe to be true because of what they have heard or read in the media. My daughter recently asked why a man had put a bomb on the tube in London. A question which caught me very much off guard but my job was to answer her in a way that wouldn’t frighten her.
We can shield our children as best we can but banning these things is not really the answer – this often gives a violent film cult status. We just need to answer their questions and educate ourselves. Or, as the Index on Censorship puts it; “tackle actual violence, not ideas and opinions.”  Maybe just keep the 18 films on the shelves that are out of reach too!
Editorials

Hollywood & The Military: A Special Relationship

August 14, 2018
Independence Day - Will Smith & Jeff Goldblum

What do the headquarters for the United States Department of Defence and Shia LaBeouf have in common?

Not a great deal actually apart from the fact that the above-mentioned department, also known as The Pentagon, worked closely with Michael Bay on 2007’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which LaBeouf also starred in. The term “worked closely” might be a slight understatement as, in exchange for the use of military grade weapons and real personnel as extras, the Pentagon had a huge influence on the final script.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, the Pentagon and US Military have been backing productions since the beginning of Hollywood itself. The very first Academy Award in 1929 was won by Wings, a movie heavily supported by the Pentagon. But is this influence a positive one? Despite the fact that production companies are paying for the use of military equipment and locations, the Pentagon still gets the final say on which films get the go-ahead. Dr Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, unsurprisingly, did not get Pentagon approval. Perhaps they had an issue with the General’s “unorthodox” way of getting a nuclear attack organised!

When you consider that military provisions are technically “owned” by the tax-paying public, surely the military should not get this level of control and a degree of impartiality should remain?

Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case. In David Robb’s book Operation Hollywood he highlights both the humorous and disturbing elements of the military’s special interest within the film industry. One such instance is the nationality of an Admiral in the James Bond Movie GoldenEye changing from American to Canadian because he was perceived as too incompetent. Laughable, right? However, this level of influence gets more sinister as Robb shows when he discusses the film Thirteen Days. This movie focused on the Cuban missile crisis but was rejected by the Pentagon due to its depiction of Generals being in favour of invading Cuba. The issue? This depiction was based on actual taped discussions from within the White House at the time. In this instance, the director, Kevin Costner, refused to make the changes but it is frightening to consider how many directors have accepted the Pentagon’s ‘revised’ version of events simply to get their movie made.

With the development of special effects, directors are not as reliant on the military backing as they used to be. Independence Day was denied Pentagon funding because Will Smith’s character was dating a stripper, something that was simply unacceptable for a member of the military (*cue eye rolls*) The production company’s response? They just did it themselves; technology had developed to such a point that the backing was not needed.

So what does the military get out of this financial backing of Hollywood blockbusters other than a mention in the end credits? It is said that recruitment in the Navy went up by 400% after the release of Top Gun (another backed film). Yet, now the films being given funding are largely aimed at children (Transformers, Iron Man and G.I Joe.) Is this an attempt to make war look fun? A new way of upping those recruitment figures? It is alarming and does not present the idea of special interest groups in a positive light.

Perhaps it is interesting to note the positive outcomes from the lack of involvement from a particular interest group. Gabriela Cowperthwaite intended to document why SeaWorld was so successful and how it kept families returning time and time again. However, when SeaWorld refused to be involved in her project so began their downfall as it led to her uncovering ‘the dark side of SeaWorld’ in the hugely successful 2013 documentary Blackfish. Many positive changes have occurred since the release, most recently top UK travel agent Thomas Cook have said they will no longer sell tickets to the park.

Of course, there can be positive outcomes from outside influences in the film industry. Slowly, but surely, there are more LGBTQ+ voices being heard in Hollywood, along with people of colour. Gay rights activist, Ronald Nyswaner wrote the 1993 film Philadelphia which was seen as groundbreaking at the time in its portrayal of the homophobia surrounding HIV/AIDS. Oprah Winfrey, who can be considered an institution in herself, became involved in the 2014 film Selma as producer and Ava DuVernay, a woman of colour, as director who had to allegedly rewrite 90% of Paul Webb’s original script.  Although these aren’t outside ‘groups’, their influence and experience had a positive impact on the productions.

Special interest groups tend to want a particular image to be projected, the military is an apt example of this. Unlike product placement which aims to reach new audiences but not necessarily influence their viewpoint, the involvement of special interest groups can have a suffocating effect on the creativity that the film industry should ultimately inspire. While the influence of activists and minority groups can definitely bring a positive contribution to a production, perhaps the military should stick to what it knows rather than wading into Hollywood. But don’t expect them to loan anyone their fighter planes!

Editorials

Time To Rethink The Box Office Film Charts?

August 8, 2018
Box Office - http://thetoweronline.com/

Last week news broke that the Andy Serkis directed Mowgli was acquired by Netflix and won’t see a large scale theatrical release and will be on the streaming platform in 2019 (not later this year as originally intended). This decision marks two important changes in the film industry: major film companies becoming more risk-averse with theatrical releases, and the ability for streaming services to now take on would-be “blockbuster” film releases.

Earlier this year Sci-Fi horror Annihilation suffered a similar fate, going directly to Netflix for its international release. And with 11 million viewers in its opening 3 days the Netflix original Bright, starring Will Smith, was a glimpse into what a big budget feature film can do while still being premiered on a streaming service. So, how does the rise in straight to Video-On-Demand platforms change how we should view the film charts? When can a VOD movie be considered a commercial success? And what does this mean for the film industry?

Where do they stand?

The basic cinema experience hasn’t changed in the last 100 years. Major film companies like Warner Bros & Paramount Pictures have primarily worked on the basis of a theatrical release of a film. This has meant we’ve had a fairly consistent measure of what the current popular films are as a measure of revenue generated at a cinema’s Box Office on any given week. For the UK cinema Box Office, this information has been collated by analytics company ComScore since 1991. Cinema admissions in the UK have remained fairly stagnant over the last 10 years, with most annual admissions in this timeframe being between 165 million – 170 million. Therefore the growth in domestic ticket revenue has been driven by higher ticket prices and premium cinematic formats such as IMAX & 3D cinema.

On the other hand, by the start of 2018 over 11 million households in the UK held a subscription to Netflix, Amazon or NOW TV, up 25% from the same period the year before. This represents just over 40% of UK households signing up for a Subscription Video-on-Demand service. More notably, streaming revenue is expected to overtake traditional Box Office revenue in the UK by 2020.

Gnarls Barkley (Danger Mouse & CeeLo Green)
Gnarls Barkley (Danger Mouse & Ceelo Green)

Although both industries have their differences, comparisons can be drawn from the music industry. A key watershed moment in the U.K music industry landscape was in 2004 when digital downloads were included in the charts, which saw Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” land the number 1 spot from digital downloads alone in 2006. 10 years after the introduction of digital downloads, the UK’s Official Charts Company incorporated streaming data into the charts for the first time in 2014. While the music industry has arguably had a tougher time monetizing its music and avoiding piracy, it has in recent years been more receptive in changing its measures of success to better reflect how people are consuming music. Although the Box Office remains the gold standard for measuring commercial success of a film, the growth of Netflix, Amazon Prime and others will surely begin to question how we measure success within the film industry.

A measure of success

As part of the eligibility criteria for feature-length films, both BAFTA (British Academy of Film & Television Awards) & Oscars require films to have a commercial theatrical release, with films that have had their first exhibition on streaming platforms ineligible for consideration. Smaller, more niche film awards like the Streamys & The Webbys have emerged in an attempt to fill this void. This resistance of the ‘old guard’ to acknowledge new media is nothing new in arts and entertainment. The recent banning of Netflix at the Cannes Film Festival is further proof of this. Despite opposition, The Venice Film Festival is bucking the trend and will screen 6 Netflix films this year. Whilst it’s a risky move for the festival, ultimately it is one that would see it on the right side of history in years to come.

In a world shifting towards Netflix & Amazon, great talents within the filmmaking industry are still not properly being acknowledged for their work on those platforms. A large part of this issue is what our measure of a successful film is in this day and age, an intermediate solution might a secondary industry-recognised film chart based on streaming. Or maybe we should look into adopting a version of the music industry model?

In the immediate future expect the Box Office chart based on cinematic ticket sales to remain. However, in an industry where money talks this discussion will continue, particularly as the revenue and influence of subscription streaming platforms continue to grow. If the music industry has successfully amalgamated digital, streaming and physical retail sales into a chart to accurately reflect the most commercially successful films of the moment, surely the movie industry can too?

Editorials

The Ingredients Of A Cult Classic

July 27, 2018

Take a huge helping of interesting, often strange, characters. Add a dash of quotable dialogue and a sprinkle of marketable merchandise. Mix it all together with an audience dead set against the consumerism taking over Hollywood and you should have the makings of a cult classic. But is that really all you need to create a film which will be passed down through the generations? Films that can often spawn their own sub-cultures, festivals and even religions?

The Oxford Dictionary definition of a “cult classic” is; a film which has “enduring appeal to a relatively small audience” and exists outside of “mainstream” cinema. Cult films consist of an eclectic collection; there is no set genre which these wonders stem from.

During Hollywood’s formative years, there was not a great deal of opportunity for films to reach cult status with the quick turnover of productions. However, this began to change with the introduction of Midnight Movie screenings. These often featured films which were considered too shocking for mainstream audiences. “Freaks”, the 1932 MGM production, was one such controversial feature of the midnight screening.

However, the status of the cult film gained momentum with the development of distribution. Whereas before, low-budget, non-confirmative films had to rely on midnight screenings to reach viewers, home cinema allowed potential cult movies to reach a wider target audience. Television channels began to provide their own form of the “midnight movie”, showing films that didn’t cost a lot. (This is actually where I remember catching my first glimpse of The Rocky Horror Picture Show – a cult classic which is firmly cemented as one of my favourites!)

This access to films only increased with the creation of VHS. Now fans could pass on the treasures they had discovered to other, like-minded potential fans. If a movie had been banned then this only added fuel to the cult film fire. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange gained such notoriety when it was withdrawn, meaning that any rare copies of the film added a particular magic for the cult following it amassed.

Much like A Clockwork Orange, the success of the cult classic seems to lie in it having some sort of controversy attached to it. As previously mentioned, these films often appeal to a small, niche audience and tend to challenge the typical conventions instilled by Hollywood. Many productions have reached the dizzying heights of cult status due to their focus on extreme, and often taboo, subject matters. The aforementioned Clockwork Orange had such graphic depictions of violent acts that it was withdrawn in the UK for  27 years after comparisons were made in high profile crimes.

Another way that a film can become a cult classic is by being so bad that it’s good. Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 film The Room is one such offering- it has been described by critics as one of the worst films ever created.” As a result, it has gained a massive cult following. So much so, that another film was created just last year, The Disaster Artist, to celebrate just how bad it is!

But what of those hugely successful films which have followings around the world? The Star Wars and Harry Potter franchises have gargantuan fan bases and have stemmed a multitude of sub-cultures such as festivals, conventions and even theme parks. Do these productions warrant the title of cult classic? Or do they fall short somehow? And if so, why?

Perhaps it is because these films have become so commercialised that they cannot be given the title of cult classics. Those films deserving of the title do so because of the microcosm that is their fan base; that “have you heard of this film?” moment. Whether you have watched the big blockbusters or not, you’ve definitely heard of them which is not always the case with those movies that are deemed cult films.

Some critics argue that the term has lost its value with it now being attached to any production which seems to break away from convention or challenge the mainstream. But the real cult classics will stand the test of time; that’s what makes them a classic after all.