Archive | December, 2012

Salman Rushdie on adapting Midnight’s Children

30 Dec

It’s a truism that great books make lousy movies. Film is about economy of expression; novels (with some exceptions, such as Ian McEwan or Murakami) are about density of language. Salman Rushdie, who has adapted his own gloriously unfilmable novel Midnight’s Children for the screen, even admitted as much in the Screen Talk I attended at the BFI London Film Festival.

Rushdie began his surprisingly warm and funny talk with an old joke about two goats who break into a projection room and start eating reels of celluloid. “What do you think of the movie?” asks one. “I preferred the book,” says the other.

So why do it? Rushdie said he chose to write the screenplay himself so he would have no one else to blame if it all went terribly wrong. It’s to his credit that it doesn’t, quite: the film, like the book, is still critical enough of Indira Gandhi to have angered the ruling Congress party at the Kerala Film Festival, and it was only a few days ago that it finally secured a release date (Feb 1) in India. And to anyone who hasn’t read the original, it will still be an enthralling, colourful epic. But it doesn’t work as a film.

The sprawling narrative about the end of colonial rule in India and the problems of Partition requires way too much exposition, not helped by the late addition of a voiceover (narrated by Rushdie) which the director decided was needed to retain the flavour of the book’s prose. More problematic are the magic realist elements – a group of children, born at the stroke of midnight, August 15, 1947 when India achieved independence, grow up each with their own superpower – which just seem silly on screen. You half expect Ian McKellen to show up in his Magneto hat.

“Kill your babies,” William Goldman famously said of screenwriting. Rushdie is no King Herod. He did say he was proud of an extra scene he added at the end, where the two rivals confront each other; but he might more usefully have worked on his skills of subtraction.

Rushdie spoke movingly at the LFF Screen Talk of his long love of film, honed in a rep cinema while an undergraduate at Cambridge (just as I had the Penultimate Picture Palace and the Phoenix while at Oxford – that first taste of European art movie, Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God, lifted the top of my head clean off). Let’s hope Rushdie now turns his hand to an original screenplay.

Video

Merry Christmas from Terry Gilliam

25 Dec

My favourite Christmas ‘card’, by the lovely Terry Gilliam. Enjoy!

Is 48 frames per second our prrrrrecious?

24 Dec

ImageIs 48 frames per second the future? The Hobbit is the first film to be shown at twice the normal frame rate, meant to reduce the subliminal ‘flicker’ experienced at the normal 24fps. The sequel to Avatar will also be made at either 48 or 60.

I saw The Hobbit at the Ritzy, which isn’t equipped to show it at the faster frame rate, so I can’t tell you whether it enhances the experience or, as some critics say, improves realism so much that it makes costumes and props look tacky. But the fuss does remind me of a trip to LA in the early ‘90s with PR supremo Mark Borkowski to see Showscan in action.

Showscan is a process invented by Douglas Trumbull, the SFX wizard behind Terminator and many more. He discovered, after hooking viewers up to monitors and showing them the same film at different frame rates, that emotional response dramatically increased. He patented the discovery: anything shown at over 60 frames per second would have to pay royalties.

Due to the expense at the time, Showscan was never used on a feature film, only on the motion-simulator rides I tested out in LA which were, indeed, astonishingly hyper-real. But now, with digital, the extra expense is minimal.

Cinema has long been under threat, and had to fight back in new and inventive ways. In the ‘50s the threat came from television, prompting developments such as the super-wide Cinemascope and the first 3D revolution, as well as the cult-film gimmicks of Smell-o-vision, Emergo, Percepto and Illusion-o. In the ‘80s the threat came from VHS and in the ‘90s from DVD, producing a wave of explosion-heavy action flicks ideally starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, an actor simply too big to fit on most televisions. Now it’s from internet streaming, whether legally (Lovefilm, MUBI) or illegally, days or weeks after release.

The rise in 3D, championed by Dreamworks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg, was originally popular with studios for preventing piracy, but audiences have embraced it as well. The technology has improved radically: I now find the experience completely immersive, so that I forget I’m watching 3D until someone hurls a boulder towards me; and film-makers thankfully no longer feel the need to shove it in your face. (The old 3D films were the worst for this, though I still have a soft spot for the hilariously bad taste Andy Warhol-produced Flesh for Frankenstein, where someone is run through with a spear, on the point of which an internal organ dangles, still beating, in front of your eyes.)

So will 48fps become the new standard? Or will it go the way of Smell-o-vision? Anyone who’s seen The Hobbit at the higher frame rate, or has an opinion on 3D, do please leave a Comment.

Batman vs The Avengers

22 Dec

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Superheroes are currently locked in an epic struggle between the forces of darkness and the emissaries of light. I don’t mean good vs evil – I mean dark, depressing and dystopian, vs. primary-coloured escapist fantasy.

It was hard to imagine any superhero film topping Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series, which felt like the films we’d been waiting for ever since Frank Miller’s graphic novel appeared in 1986, and the last two of which made just over a billion dollars each. Then along came Marvel Avengers Assemble, with a staggering $1.5 billion ker-ching.

The reason for this blog? On the ferry to France, Batman and Avengers were playing simultaneously in the two on-board cinemas. I’d seen both before, natch. Which to choose for a second viewing? The culmination of a lifetime’s near-obsession, begun as a toddler, continuing with interviewing Adam West (http://www.dominicwells.com/journalist/west/) and then writing the first cover feature on the Tim Burton Batman? Or else the four-colour joys of Joss Whedon’s Avengers Assemble?

Slightly to my own surprise, Whedon won hands-down. To me, it’s an object lesson in screen-writing. It’s phenomenally hard to write a genuine ensemble piece which is generous to each character, but he pulls it off. We start with the Black Widow, tied to a chair and interrogated by sinister Russians. Then the penny drops for us, as well as the men, that she is interrogating them. The fight scene that follows, thrillingly choreographed as it is, is secondary to the message that this is a character with brains, as well as beauty and brawn. And that’s not all. Whedon piggy-backs on this scene to build up the next character: Bruce Banner, aka The Hulk. That this fearlessly able woman is patently panicked at the thought of meeting him gives us a terrific feeling of anticipation before Mark Ruffalo even steps on screen.

And so it goes on, the dialogue fizzing like Aaron Sorkin in a cape.  Even Pepper Potts, in her brief time on screen, is given zingers that show she’s more than a match for Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark. The Hulk has two bits of laugh-out-loud visual slapstick. As for Captain America, Whedon makes even his boringness interesting: “These guys are basically Gods,” he is warned of Loki and Thor. He replies: “There’s only one God, ma’am. And I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.”

And a special prize for sneaking the insult “You whingeing c**t” into a 12A movie – which is basically how Loki’s Shakespearean insult “mewling quim” translates. At Time Out, our Marketing Director once snuck the words “f***ing hell” past the censors in a radio ad for the magazine, when Victor Lewis-Smith spoke of the “four quenelles” in a restaurant. Call me immature, but this gives me a similar kick.

What’s all the more remarkable is that this was planned so long ago. Five years ago I interviewed Kevin Feige, President of Marvel Studios (see full interview at http://www.dominicwells.com/journalist/marvel/). Tired of franchising his best characters to studios who kept messing them up, or perhaps worse, succeeding with them (like Spiderman) and pocketing most of the profits, he staked the company on a $550 million loan to produce the blockbusters themselves. Avengers Assemble is the final pay-off for a bunch of movies, successful in their own right, that were effectively glorified marketing campaigns for this team-up.

So you can keep your dystopia. Even Alan Moore is bored of the angst-ridden heroes he helped create, as he told me in several interviews, and returned to the old-school fun of his boyhood in his series 1963. As for Superman being Nolanised next summer – the new trailer does look great, but I’m not sure I want a gloomy, introspective Man of Steel, all tarnished and bent out of shape.

…What do you think? Comments please!

How I became a hook-handed supervillain

14 Dec

Last week, shooting wrapped on a 15-minute short I helped write. Not only that, this was my first speaking role, at the insistence of director/co-writer Tony Errico, whose whole crazy scheme this film was. And me so shy and retiring 🙂

The premise is great: it’s a mockumentary about a retired supervillain. I played one of four supervillain friends. If the film turns out half as funny to watch as it was to shoot, we’ll be made up.

The day started badly, for me at least. Tony had decided overnight that the villains should all be of different nationalities: my German character was suddenly American. Luckily I had one of the writers on hand (me!) to rework my three passages of dialogue to an American idiom, but it was nerve-wracking to relearn the lines and practise a new accent at the last minute.

It was yet another illustration of the fluidity of film. It always seemed to me that The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where scenes change as Jim Carrey’s memory is rewritten, is on one level a metaphor for the script-writing process: characters that started out female become male; two become one; old becomes young. It was an eye-opener to be part of it happening during shooting.

The scene was a poker game. I had a hook for a hand, which made holding the cards interesting. And I got off lightly: Tony’s character was blind. I’ve played a $10,000 tournament in the Caribbean against world champions; in a mahogany-lined club a stone’s throw from the Arc de Triomphe; on the Mashantucket Pequot native American reservation; on a table suspended from a crane 40m above ground beside City Hall; against millionaires, gangsters, hookers and hustlers. This was definitely my strangest game yet.

I haven’t had so much fun since playing Toad of Toad Hall aged 12. Apart from a wordless cameo as Surprised & Disgusted Journalist in the last featurette I co-wrote, Animal Charm, I hadn’t acted since playing Chrysale in a French production of Le Malade Imaginaire in my teens. It’s a different skill, for film: working out what the framing is; performing actions (like poker) at the same time as speaking; learning new lines on the day; trusting the director when there is no audience reaction to guide you.

And always remembering the sagest piece of acting advice given by the screen’s greatest actor. Asked for his best tip, Robert De Niro once thought hard, and said: “Try not to blink.”