Tuesday, 21 August 2012

When Disney Met Pixar

I haven't yet seen Brave and judging by the trailers and reviews I probably won't see it for a while. These are just some general thoughts following the claims that Disney's acquisition has finally taken its toll of the seemingly invinceable Pixar.



In 2006 it was dramatically announced that The Walt Disney Company bought Pixar Animation Studios, and the animation film world, which was largely made out of those two companies, gasped and anxiously waited to see what would happen to Pixar.
The merge between Disney and Pixar was surprising considering the history of bitter rivalry between the companies, made worse when Disney, who handled distribution and marketing for Pixar before the merge, had a disagreement with Pixar following the release of Toy Story 2, and Disney's first attempt to buy Pixar in 2004 ended with Steve Job announcing that Pixar would no longer release films with Disney and that they were looking for another partner to work with. However, in 2006 with Disney's new CEO Robert Iger and a different approach, Disney and Pixar finally came together. 

It was expected that Pixar would change and trample under Disney's regime, but Disney needed Pixar, quite possibly more than Pixar needed Disney, so they can step into the world of computer animation and breath some life into their increasingly flopping films. Therefore, Pixar, which was always with the finger on the pulse technology wise and paraded a row of excellent and successful films both critically and financially, became precious and almost untouchable. It's as if the almighty Disney is tip toeing around Pixar, just as long as they continue to do what it is they're doing to bring in the crowds. 

And indeed Pixar delivered with fantastic and exceptional films like the brilliant Wall-E, Ratatouille and Up. And while I personally don't go crazy for Toy Story films, no doubt I don't know what I'm talking about and am a minority if not the only one. Even Cars and Cars 2, which received mild reviews was forgiven by critics, and made up for for with box office and merchandising success. Disney-Pixar seemed like a match made in heaven. 

What interested me at the time was that no one wondered what happened to Disney. Not only did they buy Pixar, a relatively small company at the time, for a crazy sum of money and the kind of conditions that makes you wonder who actually bought who in this marriage, but it Disney must have put a lot of eggs in that Pixar basket, because it seemed as if Pixar was not affected by the merge at all and only grow stronger. Disney practically made Pixar its animation department and the company that brought us classics like Bambi, Jungle Book, Lady and the Tramp, Aladdin and the only other animation film nominated for Oscar as best film, Beauty and the Beast, almost abandoned animation altogether in favour of a bizarre collection of live action films. Previously talked about hand drawn animation project got lost in between High School Musical and Pirates of the Caribbean films. Disney's own unique animation faded until it almost completely disappeared. With the exception of the lovely Tangled and the charming Enchanted, which while not animation is very much Disney in character, it feels like the animation giant is nearly swallowed by little fish Pixar, and I, for once, miss a bit of Disney.
 
It feels a little wrong writing any bad word about Pixar. I do love many of their films with a passion and there is no doubt that when it comes to animation technology the company who started as a part of Lucas studios and then was owned by Apple, have no competition, but then again that's kinda what always bothered me about Pixar. Their films are always so slick, smooth and shiny, it's like they are too perfect and daring to think that the Toy Story films are not all that is blasphemy. However, it looks as if Brave is the first film from Pixar to cause a big enough disappointment amongst critics to raise the question has Pixar finally changed following the evil Disney acquisition. 


I don't think Pixar has changed at all during its time with Disney, and I believe the drop in quality of Brave is a result of complacency and the comfortableness that come with the kind of critical and financial success Pixar has been enjoying and not a 'Disney effect'. From what I saw in the trailer as well as the reviews I read, nothing about Brave looks non Pixar-esque, and Pixar kept its own identity after the acquisition with such zeal that I find it hard to believe that things suddenly changed, Brave simply looks tired and banal and doesn't have the kind of originality one would expect from a Pixar film, but it doesn't feel like a Disney film, good or bad, either. It's been a while since any animation film felt like a Disney film.
 
I'm not an animation expert, I don't even like Anime, which until not long ago I was still referring to as Manga, I have a soft spot for DreamWorks animation, even when they are rubbish, I liked the first Toy Story and the other two bored me and I preferred the first and second Shrek and How to Train your Dragon to all of them, I like Wallace and Gromit, The Fantastic Mr. Fox and I love the Pixar shorts, sometimes more than the film they precede. Most of all I prefer my animation to look like animation, even the most primitive one, and not like an imitation of live action. So really what do I know? Only that maybe Pixar needs a little Disney magic right about now.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Conversation with David Shore


David Shore, creator of House, recently went on a holiday to Israel and visited a school to discuss with the students about TV making in the US. The event was hosted by Yair Rave, an Israeli film critic, editor, academic and scriptwriter. Some of the conversation was advertised in Mr. Rave’s blog and since I found it very interesting I thought it was worth translating to English and publish on my blog so others could read as well. For you Hebrew readers out there here is the original post. My few interjections will be in Italic. There is but a minor spoiler for season seven of House, for which I shall give warning.


David Shore was responsible for every word and every shot of the series House from the first episode to its last, 177 episodes later. For eight seasons he was the creator, executive producer in charge, the show-runner and on two episodes he was also the director. He created the series as homage to Sherlock Holmes stories that he loves so much - developed it and took it from its beginning to its very end. This week, two months after the series finale, he came to Israel to participate in some family celebrations: weddings and Brith [circumcision] (Shore has two twin brothers who became religious and live in Jerusalem and teach at Yeshiva Esh HaTorah). On Monday he came with his parents, wife, brother and nephew to "Maale" school, to talk with students about making television in America. I [Yair Rave] hosted the event.

So what is this credit, "Created by"?
"It’s the credit for the screenwriter who wrote the pilot. Even if I was wrote the pilot for House and then left the series, I would still get credit for creator. This credit is also our, screenwriters’, revenge against directors for their A Film By credit in movies. Director directs a film and it becomes immediately his film, so we, screenwriters, have the writers' creator credit on TV”.

There have been cases of people who wrote the pilot and moved on, but still got "creator" credit, even though someone else took over.
"True, but it became less common in recent years. You create a series that you want to see through. This is why I suggested House to the networks only after I was a show-runner of another series. If I offered them a series as a junior scriptwriter, they just might do it, but would not let me be in charge of it. American television is heaven for scriptwriters. They are in fact the big bosses of drama and comedy series. Directors work for them” (Shore says with venom, and suddenly you realise where House brings his cynicism: "I have a friend who works on another series, not ours, he told me that they call directors behind their backs, the people we give half of our money to"). 
 

Each episode of House was filmed in nine days. The director would arrive a little bit before, preparing, filming, editing and leaving. Shore and his team would give the director a finished script, which he wasn’t allowed to change, and after the director is done, Shore and his team would go into the editing room to correct what the he missed or ruined in their view. Though Shore, in moments humility, admits that the directors did come up with good ideas of their own here and there, they know how to manage the production professionally and on time, and a good director knows how to break up the pace and tone right, in the same breath he also says that the director on a TV series is almost the most superfluous about it. The show - runner makes almost all the decisions before and after the director. "Europe is a bit different," he says, "There the producer is the main boss."


Israeli TV series’ are a bit like very long features. Screenwriters finish writing and pass the scripts to the directors and pretty much are out the picture at this stage. The series’ are filmed across chapters. I mean you take a scene from Chapter 2 and then a scene in Chapter 13, that both happen in the same location, and not like yours, every episode filmed as a separate work.
"Perhaps your system has certain logic to it. If the series is pre-written, maybe it's the right way to shoot it. The American system, in which writers are running the show, didn’t happen because producers and networks love scriptwriters so much, but because over time they discovered it’s not possible otherwise. This train is so long, 22 episodes per year, and the longest part of this process is the writing, so if the writers did not run the business it would get stuck. That and the fact that the Writers Guild in Hollywood very strong. "

If you were to return to the US after your holiday and start working on season nine, tell me how would you start?
"I work a little differently from most other series’. Most series’ have an active writers’-room that works all year round and they develop ideas together. I gather the writers'-room a few times each year and then work with each writer personally. One reason for this is that we had twelve screenwriters. This is twice as many as most series’. I convinced Fox that I need twelve writers because our scripts need a lot of research, which is true by the way. We would meet at the beginning of the work, after the holiday, and first of all discuss what the main plot lines of the upcoming season would be. Although, each episode stood on its own, the series had seasonal plot lines. For example, [ when House and Cuddy become a couple, we debated how long would it hold, one chapter, half a season, full season? Once we decided on a complete season's story line, we were doing the rounds of the writers and everyone would make a pitch for two - three ideas at times. Each episode should contain a single medical mystery, and a story involving House. Sometimes I would see that one medical story fits a different story of House then I would suggest uniting the plots. We would finish the sessions having initial ideas for half a season, and every idea had a screenwriter assigned to it. Then each writer goes and writes a one page outline for their episode and sends to me. I would send them notes and they developed a three pages outline, then a fourteen pages outline, then the script. From idea to script is a process that takes several weeks. 
With twelve screenwriters, how you ensure that the language of the characters and their character will not change from episode to episode?
"We have talented writers. And besides, I am rewriting all the scripts myself."

Shore is not necessarily the best example for the average Film & Television student. He studied law and began working as a lawyer. He never learned writing for films, but writing for television interested him. So he left Canada where he was born, raised and educated, and moved to Los Angeles. There he wandered for two years, wrote sample script for agents and never saw a penny, until he found a job on Canadian series’ of all things, including the television series created by Paul Haggis Due South. From there he joined the screenwriting team of The Practice and Law & Order and in 2003 started work on developing his idea for House, under Paul Attanasio’s production company (Homicide: Life on the Street). That's the lesson he teaches students: Slowly. It took him ten years to work his way from a junior writer to have his own show. Ten years in which he went through all the jobs of the writing and production team of a US TV series and in which he learned from some of the top TV makers in America.

Now Shore has his own production company, which, just as it finished House, moved from NBC-Universal to a three years developing contract with Sony, which guarantees Shore an eight-figure sum. So he sits and develop. What? He doesn’t say, but promises that there is nothing specific he is working on now.

When you wrote House, what would you start the script with: the disease or the drama?
"We have three doctors who advised us, if you ask them this question they'll give you the opposite answer from me: that everything started with the ideas of diseases and symptoms they brought us, but usually we started with the drama. There was something we wanted to say, or a dramatic situation we wanted to achieve. Sometimes we started with a symptom: someone who wants to tell only the truth in an episode where House talks about the benefits of lying, then we went to our doctors and asked them to find us diseases that can match these symptoms. "
 

The opening titles of House lasted forever. Many people are credited as Executive Producer. What does it mean? All of these people have an input in series?
"You could say that the credit, Executive Producer (producer in charge) is more a matter of honor than of an actual role. Bryan Singer, for example, directed the pilot, and he got himself a contract that guaranteed him an Executive Producer credit for the whole of the series, same thing with Paul Attanasio, who was the man who closed the deals with the networks for us at the outset. The rest are people from the series that in their negotiations to continue with future seasons asked for this like Hugh Laurie and several veteran screenwriters. Scriptwriters can request a credit that specifies their seniority in the series. It starts from Staff Writer in the roller and can move to Executive Producer for the opening titles. "

What about changes in the script during filming? Would you allow?
"We have no such thing. First of all, improvising is not allowed. Actor should say what is written in the script. If an actor has a suggestion to improve, or if they have a problem with something, it's their job to come to us before the shoot so we can find a solution and put it into the script. But we do not work on the script during filming. Sometimes, in the middle of shooting, an actor tells me he has a problem with a line and I tell myself 'This is really annoying! We work weeks on these scripts, and work really hard. The can actually be some problems or it's not perfect , but we worked on it, then at least have the respect to be prepared, and if you have a problem with something in the script, you have enough time to discuss it in advance. "


This is a great answer. But what do you tell the actor?
"That we will do it twice. Once as it is written in the script and the second time as he thinks it’s ought to be, and decide to edit. In recent years, Hugh Laurie became sensitive to that and he actually stopped people trying to change a scene or dialogue in the middle of filming and told them that a lot of work was put into these scripts and that next time they should come more prepared for their role.

One of the things I loved House is the fact that quite a few of the episodes have a moral debate around an issue, and the episode presents various aspects of the matter and breaks down the issue into its constituent parts. Now when that I meet your brother, a yeshiva student, I wonder if he would send you discussions from the Talmud to turn them into dramatic ideas?
"No, it never happened. And a lot of people told me that there were scenes that reminded them of Talmudic discussions. It just goes to show that the Talmud has no exclusivity on moral debates.”
"One exercise I liked doing with my writers - I used to do this a lot, but towards the end I was too lazy - is to ask them to write a paragraph about a subject that matters to them. Then write a paragraph presenting the opposite position to theirs. The idea is that when House says something, whoever stands in front of him, usually someone in a guest appearance, would present a strong opposing argument that would be convincing. If everyone in front of House were idiots it wouldn’t be interesting. The thing is, that although we don’t like to think so, most people who think opposite from us have good intentions as we do - Well, maybe not everyone, but some smart people with good intentions, and the drama becomes more interesting when the debate is between two strong people. Otherwise it's just my preaching on my philosophy and not TV series. "

The conversation went on for over an hour and Shore talked about many more things. Some of the questions that appear in this post were asked by students and not necessarily by me [Rave]. There were quite a few specific questions related to the series, House himself and the finale, but I preferred not to present them here and focus on describing the work process of writing the series instead. The meeting was recorded on videotape, but we had sound problems. If they can be solved, I hope I can post later in the full meeting between the bull and the students.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

A Vertigo High


“Are you watching closely?”
“Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called "The Pledge". The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called "The Turn". The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn't clap yet. Because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call 'The Prestige'." (The Prestige, 2006) 


Recently Sight & Sound magazine caused a stir when it announced dramatically that Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo has booted Orson Welles’ long serving Citizen Cane, which reins (or perhaps reined) almost all lists of this kind,  from the first place in the top however many critic’s poll list the magazine carries out annually. While I agree that Vertigo is a better film, in my view Citizen Cane is not even Welles’ best film, and I’m always happy to see a Hitchcock at the top of lists, these type of lists are usually quite meaningless to me, and I use them as a check point for how many films have I seen and what films I still need to see. Choosing a favourite film of one filmmaker is difficult enough, having to choose between Wells and Hitchcock, Felini and the Cohen brothers or Woody Allen and Steven Spielberg and declare one as the all time best film is inconceivable. 

Luckily I never had to face this choice, but the critics who took part in the Sight & Sound poll chose, for the first time, Vertigo. The result of this polls came at the height of the Hitchcock season following the amazing restoration work the BFI have done on some of his older films and with the genius' birthday on August 13th (I'm sure conspiracy theorists would find this timing suspicious). I have decided to ride this wave of hoopla around Vertigo and while I shall not attempt to rank it on any kind of list, I would like to take a moment and point out why Vertigo is indeed a masterpiece.

A while back on another kind of list (alas it is for Hebrew readers only) I was asked, as a renowned Hitchcock obsessed, to write a few words about Vertigo, which made the ninth place together with seven other films (amongst them Citizen Cane). I chose to use the above quote from the opening monologue from Christopher Nolan’s brilliant film The Prestige for I could not have written anything better sum up Vertigo in a few words. Indeed what is Vertigo but an astonishing magic trick and Hitchcock its conjurer?

I have read so much about Hitchcock and Vertigo in particular, I’ve studied and discussed the film to death and back, yet trying to write about it, I find myself unable to express the effect this film had over me and its importance. Everything I have to say seems so redundant when you can just watch the film and experience its magnificence. Or perhaps it’s because Fran├žois Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock himself have already said it all, and so passionately, from Truffaut no doubt, and beautifully, in Truffaut’s brilliant book Truffaut Hitchcock.

In Truffaut’s book, Hitchcock tells how he explained to his leading lady Kim Novak that the visual impact was more important to him than the story, which is one of the reasons for his obsession with her clothes and hair. Apart from being still relevant today, when the story worship trend often tends to push cinema aside, Hitchcock statement is radical and one of the things that sets him apart as a genius of filmmaking.

Indeed, after exhausting the discussions about necrophilia, the dressing and undressing of Hitchcock's latest blond and the comparison between Hitch and his leading male characters, you are still left with such a powerful visual experience its images have become so iconic. 

It's funny, Hitchcock says in Truffaut's book that he was always bothered by a flaw in the story: how could the husband be sure that Scotty wouldn't make it up the stairs? It seems quite a gamble for someone who plans to murder his wife. This never bothered me, nor did it seem to bother Truffaut, because the murder story is almost insignificant. Instead Vertigo offers two very thrilling, yet quite different films within one. 

The first is a romantic film with added ghost story flavour and a tragic ending that makes it almost mythic. Hitchcock’s preference of suspense over surprise meant that he deviated from D’Entre les Morts, the book Vertigo was based on, and reveal the twist at the beginning of the second part of the film, and made it, quite suddenly, into a different kind of film, which at the same time changes and strengthen the nature of the story that preceded it.

Scotty, his vertigo and consequently his inability to prevent the falling of the people around him, are the thread that goes through the film and tie it together into the powerful masterpiece it is. While it is true that Scotty repeatedly fails to stop the people close to him from slipping away from him, quite literately, it is a different Scotty at the beginning of the film hanging to dear life, having to watch his colleague fall to his death as he tries to save him, to the Scotty who couldn't save the woman he loved and has to live with the loss for the rest of his life, perhaps he was trying to redeem himself for that first incident through her, to the Scotty who watched the woman who damaged him fall into her death at the end.

So much has been written and said about Scotty's obsession with turning Judy in to the dead Madeline and various meanings of it, all interesting and generally add even more value to this film. However, if I put those aside for a moment and go back to the first time I watched Vertigo, to my instinctive fist reaction to the reappearance of Madeleine on the screen, I felt, in correspondence to the opening quote from The Prestige, like I watched an unbelievable magic trick. Knowing and seeing how it was done made it, all the more astonishing, because as a great fictional character once said: "The fun is in knowing [...] If the wonder is gone when the truth is known, there never was any wonder." And for me Vertigo is a cinematic wonder.

    

   

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The Legend Ends.

SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! 
WHAT YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE DARK KNIGHT RISES YET??? SHAME ON YOU!

Writing about The Dark Knight Rises proved more difficult than I imagined. It should have been easy since I love all of Nolan's Batmans with great passion and I consider him to be a present day Hitchcock, but it’s Christopher Nolan! I feel like I should take the time to carefully choose words to write about my favourite film trilogy.

I’ve never had much interest in Batman, or any other superhero, as a child, and my interest in them as a grownup was mild and superficial. I went to see Batman because it was a Tim Burton film and I loved it because of that rather than its Batman-ness. Similarly, it was because of Christopher Nolan that I went to see Batman Begins, however, this time I've developed an interest in The Batman outside the film and the wish to explore the character.

Batman placed the Batman and the Joker in a predetermined Burton-esque universe and they fitted in it beautifully. Christopher Nolan, on the other hand, built Batman and his world slowly, with a great deal of care and attention, from the beginning, as if there was never any Batman before. I almost wish that Nolan’s trilogy would have come first, then the Tim Burton films, with an added wishful thinking that he would have finished his own originally planned trilogy.

Risking controversy, I am going to make the dramatic statement that I think The Dark Knight Rises may be my favourite of the three films. Since I consider all of them to be nothing less than extraordinary, it says a lot. However, because I am crazy like that and oh so changeable, I should add that my outrageous above declaration may have a little something to do with the current nurturing of my obsession with The Dark Knight Rises and every time I watch the other two films I am still in awe of them and my favourite can alter at any time, which only makes this trilogy that much better. 

I think the love for The Dark Knight Rises is not quite as obvious and sweeping as it was with the other two films, especially The Dark Knight. Maybe it is one of the things that made me love it that tiny bit more. Batman Begins was the film that set the tone, recreated the hero and put Nolan on the map. Its impact is still so strong. The Dark Knight destroyed that hero and recreated a loved villain. It made The Joker one of the best onscreen villains of his time and Heath Ledger a legend. 

With great masterpieces like The Prestige and Inception in between, The Dark Knight Rises had a lot to live up to both within the Batman sphere and within the Nolan one. The eagerness and anticipation sky rocketed. Such build up, The Dark Knight to follow, the fact that most trilogies have a history of disappointing third parts and the general scepticism and antagonism that box office popularity and critical acclaim brings, could have lead to a disaster were it any other filmmaker. But Nolan rose to the challenge and delivered an ending so thrilling that I found myself, once again, wishing that all films would be a little bit more Nolan.  

I won’t discuss, well not at length anyway, how wonderfully brave it was to make a Batman film with such hype and such budget and have so little Batman actually in it, because many have done so, but it’s not just that Batman’s presence is little, his significance and his role changed. On the one hand Batman’s absence is so strongly felt it hurts Gotham, Nolan took his time as we watched the downfall of Gotham city into real despair before he brought Batman back, on the other hand, Batman’s return involves emotional as well as physical pain to himself. Alfred, damn you Michael Cane for making me cry every time, sees the return of Batman as the inevitable death of Bruce Wayne. And indeed Bruce Wayne went through his own decline, so masterfully portrayed by Christian Bale, and quite literally broke. He had to decide he wanted to live before he could go back and fight Bane.

The comparison between Bane and The Joker is irrelevant and to say either one was better or worse is moot. They were both the right kind of villains for the film they were in. The Joker was the perfect 'agent of chaos', with no background or clear motivation apart from his urge to destroy, and as such he was brilliant. Bane is an enhanced and extreme version of Bruce Wayne and as such he too was absolutely brilliant and Tom Hardy managed to convey so much not just through his eyes, but his presence, his body language and the way he fought, I witness the transformation to anger, pain and sadness with every punch that echoed louder than any word could. 

The common ground between Bane and Bruce goes deeper and further than the League of Shadows, of which they were both part of at one point. As a child, Bruce fell in to a well and spent several hours facing his worst nightmare. His dad was his mentor and helped him overcome his fear with love and care. Bane spent the better part of his life in the pit from hell facing the kind of torture that makes Bruce's nightmares seem like child play. The closest thing he had to a father, Ra’s Al Ghul, turned his back to him. Unlike Batman, who left the woman he loved for dead, Bane saved the love of his life. 

Bane turns Batman back into Bruce Wayne even when he is wearing the suite, which is why, unlike The Joker and Commissioner Gordon, he never refers to him as The Batman, he strips him from his superhero identity and exposes him for who he really is, which is why Batman’s/Bruce’s secret identity becomes redundant as the film progresses and the line between them becomes blurry. Bane is physically stronger and essentially intellectually superior, neither Batman nor Bruce figured out who the real villain was until it was too late. If it wasn’t for Catwoman he probably would have died. 

Just like he reinvented The Joker, Nolan reinvented Catwoman. I love the fact that not once in the film, nor on IMDB for that matter, is Selina referred to as Catwoman, I never really liked that name, but at the same time it is clear that she is Catwoman. Though her body outfit did not differ much from that of Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns, or that of Scarlett Johansson in The Avengers Assemble, there was something about the gorgeous Anne Hathaway that made her look elegant as well as sexy in it, like a career woman wearing a beautiful work suit. Her fight scenes were fantastic, not because they were sexy or that it's cool that to see a girl in a leather suit kick some ass, but because you can actually see the work she puts into every kick and punch on her face and body when she fights. Her fight scenes, even the small ones, are handled with the same care as those of Batman's and it’s superb to watch. Selina and Bane were the characters I missed most when they weren’t on screen.

Another new character was introduced in this film, John Blake and his development was a clever one. Blake is the heart and conscience of the film, pointing the finger at Bruce and Commissioner Gordon when no one else will. I don’t think anyone had any doubt that he is Robin, only in the end he actually skips being Robin to take over from Bruce and become Batman, like one of the many directions in which the comic books developed. Unlike Batman, Selina and even Commissioner Gordon, Blake has not been had a brush with darkness, his heart is still pure and he handles his personal tragedy better than them, it makes his disappointment of the people he looked up to so sincere and strong, but it also makes him possibly a better Batman.

Across the Dark Knight trilogy, Christopher Nolan created a hero and destroyed him only to rebuild him as a symbol. Anyone can be Batman can also mean anyone can create Batman. Of course there will be cynics who would see this ending paving the way for WB and DC to go back and milk that cash cow, and why shouldn't they? The choice is in the viewer's hand. Christopher Nolan, the one man who stands almost alone against 3D pressure from Hollywood (you didn't think I would leave that out did you?), the one who insists on film even when projecting and gets it, and the man who makes a Batman film which tells the story of Bruce Wayne, doesn’t exactly strike me as a man who would compromise on the ending of the trilogy that made him. Whether it's a calculated ploy or the ending Nolan always envisioned, in my view it fitted with the direction of the films beautifully.   

The Dark Knight Rises is the film in which I felt the Nolan most strongly, not that he wasn't present in the other films, but perhaps like Batman, he took his time and made us wait until he rose bigger than ever. The taking pleasure in telling the story and savouring it, the physicality and grittiness of both the phenomenal action on screen, which I think every action filmmaker should learn from, and the look of the film (in those few cinemas that still project film), which makes you feel like you can almost touch it especially in the enhanced experience of the right kind of IMAX, and most of all the structure, for Nolan’s dedication to structure is that of a fine architect and like no other filmmaker today, reached a stupendous climax in a fitting ending for this genus' groundbreaking trilogy.

The individual films are built with such consideration that they work separately, but when you put them together, they lean on each other to make a cinema Pantheon where I want to live. 

Monday, 25 June 2012

Cosmopolis - The Urge to Destroy...

Contain very minor thematic spoilers

Nothing like a colonoscopy to make me like a Pattinson 

 
When I first came out of Cosmopolis I knew that I needed to watch the film again. Not only to try and get a decent screening without the moronic audience that made it its mission to ruin the film for me, but also because the film left me perplexed and pensive, which is not amongst the many feelings I usually associate with watching a David Cronenberg film. 

I knew I didn’t hate it, if only because of Robert Pattinson, who left quite an impression over me, but that's perhaps not difficult considering I haven’t seen any of the Twilight films and his role in Harry Potter has completely gone over my head. Cosmopolis refused to leave my mind and I found myself preoccupied with this film for a long time after I moved on with my life.

After the second, much more pleasant, viewing I could confidently say that I loved the film very much. More so, I loved that it haunted me so. I am willing to agree that perhaps it is more likely to be Pattinson’s best film than Cronenberg's (no I am not going to watch any of the Twilight films to find out if I’m right) especially for a Cronenberg fan, but this might be because, while it still have a strong Cronenberg flavour to it, within the Cronenberg universe it's quite a mellow, moderated and controlled film. 
Knowing Cronenberg’s films adds to the anxious feeling of pending doom that shadows the film from the moment Pttinson’s character, Eric Packer, goes into his sexy limousine from space. Pattinson portrays magnificently the self made billionaire, who once was a wonder boy but his wonder is gone. Packer decides he needs a haircut and he must have it, as billionaires often do, at the other side of town in the worst day to do so, in more ways than one. Thus begins Packer’s journey of deterioration.  

In addition to the clinically cold look of the film, superbly cinematographed by Cronenberg’s regular, Peter Suschitzky, the troubling silence and the claustrophobic setting of the limousine, in which most of the film takes place, the dialogues and the language seems weird and unnatural[1], the cameo casting and the almost randomly episodic structure, contribute to the feeling of detachment. As a friend pointed out, it feels like theatre.

At the same time as being an adaptation of Don Delillo’s novel, a satirical and bleak prediction of the collapse of capitalism from 2003, Cosmopolis also had an air of Cronenberg's self reflection. Some of the stops throughout the journey, felt as if they were an examination of his previous film. 

On his first of many limo meeting of the day, Packer's associate/adviser asks why they are not meeting in the office. He replies by asking “how do you know we are not in the office?” which could have been the kind of question asked in any of the body addiction trilogy: Videodrom, Naked Lunch and eXistenZ. I should say that I haven’t read any official claim that these are indeed trilogy and it is my own interpretation that they are. Later Packer stops at a night club and his body guard starts a small talk with him about drugs. Packer’s insistence that violence must have a purpose and meaning is echoing of History of Violence and Eastern Promises and the car and the eerie atmosphere that's attached to it, of course, are reminiscent of Crash. And so, in the same way that Eric Packer examines his life, it seems Cronenberg examines his career through him. 

I suddenly realised that perhaps what was difficult to digest with Cosmopolis is that its focus is emotional rather than physical. Of course all Cronenberg's films deal with both aspect, however in his other films it is usually the physical that points to the emotional. In Cosmopolis it is the other way around and it is Packer's emotional emptiness and deterioration that leads and point to the physical.

The more I think about it, the more I love Cosmopolis. That it preoccupied me as much as it did and still does, is telling. There is a lot more I can and would like to discuss, but unfortunately this is as far as I can go without major spoilers.




[1] From what I understand they are often taken directly from the book from which the film is adapted.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Mad Men - No Resolutions


This post contains some spoilers, I give plenty of warning before the big ones come.

An article about Mad Men has been, much like the series itself, slowly brewing within me for quite a while. Now that the series reached its wonderful fifth season finale, I think I may be ready to write some words about this beautiful series.

Though its aesthetics is the first thing that comes to mind and it is a fundamental part of Mad Men, when I say it's beautiful I don’t only refers to its visuallity. The series’ unique structure, the painfully subtle moves and the overall feel of the show are as beautiful as its cinematography, costumes, actors and design.

Mad Men is famously and sometime excruciatingly slow, moreover, it often has a cold and detached air to it. The characters are not there for us to hang on to and/or relate to on a deep emotional level like in most TV series', because, contrary to common belief, Mad Men does not tell the story of Don Draper, nor does it tell the story of Joan Harris, Peggy Olson, Pete Campbell or Roger Sterling, Mad Men tells the story of the 60s, more specifically America’s 60s, and so Joan, Peggy, Pete, Roger and even Don are just passers by, whose stories don’t lead to a big dramatic climax and don’t always have a third act, resolution, they’re stories are there to tell the bigger story of a time and a place.
This concept is hard to grasp and difficult to accept, because it means that everything about Mad Men, including the story, is secondary to something that you can’t really see onscreen: a sense of, a mood of and an atmosphere of an era and an area, which are the heart and soul of Mad Men. Secondary, however, doesn't mean non-existent. Mad Men has an array of brilliant characters, some of the best female characters I have seen on American television in a long time, and they all have plots and developments, only they are transient, like time.This also means that essentially nothing that happens, however big or dramatic, lasts and specific occurrences don't necessarily have an impact straight away, but rather they add up to bigger gloomier picture.

Being so used to three act structure, getting used to a series that plants a gun but systematically avoids firing it in the third act, and often simply avoids the third act altogether, episodically or seasonally, is not easy and quite demanding, but, for me at least, makes watching Mad Men most rewarding.

Spoilers galore up to season five including.

Being a series about an era, Mad Men touches many different themes in different varieties and levels of depth. One of themes, which appeals to me in particular, is of course the women of the time, their feminist and other kind of development and of course how it affects the men.

As I mentioned, Mad Men is one of the few American series’ I know that has such a great variety of different type of women and not only do none of them make me want to punch them, or their creator, but I find each in her own way compelling and wonderful to watch.

Betty Francis, previously Draper, who is perhaps the hardest woman to like or relate to in the series, is a complex and interesting character to me. She was the perfect housewife, who was gorgeous and like a good wife had nothing of her own to say. She accepted her role with complete surrender, yet she failed.

In the first season, Betty was in effect forced to go to therapy and her doctor called her husband at the time, Don, after their session to report what she said and give his opinion. To me this was a shocking moment, and while, like all other plot lines, this moment never developed further, it stayed with me as a defining moment for Betty, who seem to exist for men, and it accompanies her character and influences how I see her, even now in her miserable state of the fifth season. 

She replaced the husband who didn't want the perfect wife, with one who did. Only now she doesn't want and perhaps can't be the same perfect wife, not since her first husband and her daughter replaced her with a younger, ambitious woman who has opinions, a woman who is more than just a mother and a wife.

In parallel, but almost complete contrast, Peggy Olson has developed as an independent strong woman who became a pioneer career woman and flourished until she finally left for a better job. This is the same Peggy, whose defining moment was in season one when she discovered she was pregnant only when she was in labour, whose baby was seen only once after birth and whose fate, four seasons later, is not quite clear. Peggy hasn’t got an ounce of motherhood within her and men, while she is interested in them, are not her top priority.

She has transformed, from a silly secretary, to a valuable copywriter, from sexually naive and ignorant to open minded and progressive, and eventually from dependant to independent. On their own, all these life changes are almost, and I emphasis almost, meaningless within the Mad Men splendour, but they all come together in the backs of our minds to paint an elaborated profile of a certain kind of woman, inseparable from the time and the place.

While Betty doesn’t evoke much compassion and Peggy makes us proud, Joan Harris’ development is the one that is probably most difficult for a viewer to deal with. She is the most beautiful and sexy of the Mad Men women and, at least on the surface, the most powerful, perhaps as a result.

It infuriates me when I read or hear people, usually men, say that it isn't believable that a woman as gorgeous and confident, because if a woman is beautiful and as one of the sentences I read said: 'all eyes of the office are on her', that of course means she must be strong, would marry a man who raped and abused her. Not only is it a delusion to think these things don’t happen today and even more in the 60s, but to assume a strong woman, or a woman who is perceived as strong, and beautiful is immune to pain, suffering and insecurities, is not only ignorant, but in my opinion dangerous.

However, before Joan was raped, something else happened, which for me captured Joan’s tragedy, which reached a new kind of low in the latest season. Somewhere, I think in season one, Joan was asked to go over scripts for TV commercials, give an opinion and help choose the right ones. Not only was she good at it, she enjoyed it and wanted to do this on a regular basis. Unlike Peggy, she was denied. Unlike Peggy, Joan, in the eyes of almost all men in the office, is decoration, sexual object and finally a sexual instrument and never a person with thoughts and feelings. True, this is not as violent as rape, nor is it as depressing as what happened to Joan this season, but the pain of that moment stuck with me and hasn’t let go since. It is telling that a small moment of pain has such a strong impact.  

Because Joan is such a loveable character, by women and men alike, it is much harder to accept that all the drama in her life turns into echoes. It is almost unbearable that her rape, like her abortions, motherhood, divorce and the tragic circumstances in which she gained partnership in the company are so intangible and once again transient. You could make an after-school-special out of any of these and most TV series’ would and have done, but not Mad Men. Mad Men expect its viewers to carry this burden with them like Joan does, without dwell or, yes you know it, resolution.

On the other hand there is the story of the almighty men. Only they aren’t, and the fifth season is where they slowly start their inevitable decline. Most pathetic of all, Roger Sterling. He is a typical man child, deciding on a second divorce following an LSD epiphany, chasing Megan's mother in the crudest of ways and having childish power games with Pete Campbell. Pete, on the other hand, who seemed like he had it all, at least all that Don had in the first season, a wife who came from money a legitimate child and the illegitimate one safely tucked away somewhere, and a promising career, yet he still feels the need to prove himself and is generally unhappy. He is turning to Don Draper of season one.

Don Draper, who previously dazzled women and clients with his commanding presence and irresistible charisma, is gradually losing his mojo during season five. He's in love, which distracts him from his job and soon enough he's upstaged by a younger, talented and brassy new copywriter. Moreover, all the important women in Don's life not only let him down one by one on a personal level, but damage his career, which for a while seemed untouchable.   

Major season five spoiler alert! 

Joan's decision to whore herself hurts Don after he alone defended her honour. He respected her and was the only one who never treated her like a sex object, and her action disappoints him. But it also compromises his work and shakes his confidence. It wasn't he who swooped in charmed the clients with his speeches, nailed the account and saved the day. Then Peggy's resignation doesn't only hurt Don, who nurtured and mentored her, but leaves him and his team without a woman’s perspective, which now may cost an account. Finally, his second wife, Megan, who he loves (or possibly loved?), supported and tried to be a better husband to, eventually chose a path not so different than that of Joan. This too can't reflect well on his professionalism. And so, in the course of the season the dashing, smooth and almighty Don Draper got old and tired in front of our eyes and became a part of and not beyond a generation that has no place.

Of course the ultimate and final decline is of the men who never belonged, the most compelling Lane Pryce. His suicide, like all other dramatic events on Mad Men, will, if it didn't already in the final episode that followed, become another trauma that will be pushed aside. More than that, his death was the push for the company's expansion, for isn't this what America's capitalism is built upon? The death of the old British empire and, well, sex.
    
This season of Mad Men was full of drama, which is probably why so many declared it the best season so far. It portrayed a grim yet glamorous picture of the 60s in the US, where women liberation is an illusion, a beautiful packaging, just like peace, love and happiness. Yet, despite all the drama, the final episode was almost mundane in comparison, reinventing the understatement and reinforcing the general feeling of time passing by and "things happens" and they do, like people, not but a fleeting moment.   

      



       

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Dear Mark Kermode,


My dear friend and occasional contributor to this blog, Simon Overton, has read Mark Kermode's latest book and wrote this open letter to him. While I have my reservations of Kermode and haven't read the book myself, I still, as always, had a lot to say. So this is a part letter a part theoretical discussion between Simon, myself and hypothetically Mark Kermode. To distinguished mine and Simon's thoughts I use colour (I'm in Gray) and different fonts (I'm Times New Roman). You are welcome to join in on this discussion or leave us be.

Dear Mark Kermode,


I've just read your book, "The Good, The Bad and the Multiplex: What's Wrong with Modern Movies?", and wanted to give you my thoughts on your thoughts, chapter by chapter. I am a BA Film Studies graduate and I have worked in a cinema. I have written a lot, and I hope you will find time to read it.

Chapter One - Why you got the service you did, and why it's not like that in
Hong Kong

For many years after completing my film degree I worked in the kind of jobs you describe. In a way, you can't blame the staff for being moronic and adversarial. The job does that to people. Furthermore, there is a culture in the service industry of working at a minimum staffing level at all times (or even, just below the minimum). This means that staff get sent home (and their wages docked) and those that remain have to do the work of 1.5 or 2 people. This is probably the reason why the cashier was (a) visibly pissed off, (b) trying, and failing, to serve way too many people and (c) not caring about either (a) or (b).

I worked in Muswell Hill Odeon (just down the road from the
Phoenix, in fact) and I had this experience. When I was new to the job and desperately poor I was always sent home as soon as the manager thought it was just barely possible (and legal - fire regulations and all that) to do so. This was infuriating as I was struggling to pay my rent. Then, when I knew the ropes this changed and I frequently worked 10 hour shifts there, sometimes longer, doing the work of two or more people. We had to sell tickets, clean and open up screens and keep an eye out for little swines letting their friends in the fire exits with just a single cashier and a single usher for the whole cinema (and sometimes just one person, if the other was on a break). All this just to save a bit on staff wages.

I live in
Hong Kong now and things are different. Asia is more customer service oriented generally. At the cinema there are always at least two ushers per screen and plenty of staff selling tickets and popcorn (and I'm sorry, as much as I agree with you on many things, popcorn is one of the pleasures of going to the cinema, just as hearing music is a pleasure of eating in a restaurant, and drinking alcohol is a pleasure of seeing live music). What this tells me is that it *is* possible to have a properly staffed cinema with average ticket prices and still make a profit (and the overheads in Hong Kong, where retail space is very expensive, must be at least as big, if not bigger than in England). Any cinema chain that says otherwise is lying, and is exploiting their staff and customers.

English people don't complain enough. In HK, people would boycott a cinema that didn't have such basic levels of service as short queues and friendly staff (who are tri-lingual), and rightly so. I think diminished expectations extend beyond the content of the film and go right out into the auditorium and into the lobby.

(I would also point out that in HK adverts, trailers and notices last for a maximum of about 5 minutes before a film, again proving that things can be done differently without adversely affecting profits - mind you, I'm more scared of missing the beginning of a film in HK than I ever was in the
UK).

Hi Mark. I’m Aya, a friend of Simon and also a former employer of Odeon cinemas. I also worked as a camera assistant and have a BA in films and TV. I currently write, a lot. I haven’t read your book and wasn’t going to say anything, but here I feel I must. (It’ll probably happen more often than not). 

Unlike Simon I continued to become a supervisor at Odeon Leicester Square and a manager at the Odeon Covent Garden and I have discovered several things that I think many people either don’t know or choose to ignore, but has a significant input on why things are the way they are within the film exhibitors side of this industry. 

What a lot of people don’t realise, and I can’t say I blame them, is how little the profit is that cinemas actually make out of tickets sale. Cinemas that are not funded by charities or the government are basically slaves to the film distribution companies, who, as I found out, are this industry’s bully.

Even with a smash hit film that breaks records, the income for cinemas out of ticket sales is almost non existent. Most of the profit from ticket sales is divided so production earns most of the money, of course, and whatever % is left is divided between distribution and the cinemas. Only the distribution companies hold all the cards and negotiate impossible conditions and take most of the money. The bigger the film the less a cinema will see of its profit. While filmmakers get funded by the government and/or special funds to make a film and then go one to make a profit or loss from the finished film, most cinemas, those who are not BFI or Phoenix, have to find more creative way to make money, which is why the retail prices, for example, are so high.

Moreover, the negotiations with distribution companies don’t stop at money. They can and do dictate what film will go in what cinema, what screen inside the cinema and how long for. I have worked in Odeon Leicester Square when we showed The Village to an empty 2000 seat auditorium for months, because the same distribution company holds Harry Potter for ransom. All these months of empty screen are time in which the cinema doesn’t earn any money, but often loses it. 

There is a very low if any part of the overall UK film budget that is dedicated to developing cinemas. More importantly, there is no kind of legislation to put distribution companies under control. 

Taking all this into account and the fact that a cinema manager at the Odeon earns less than a £1 an hour more than a member of staff at the BFI for example, working at a cinema becomes, sadly, not very different than working at McDonalds, and I've never met a happy McDonalds employee. It's not suppose to be like this, but it is and the sad truth is that cinemas are not a way for people to make money. Franchises, like Odeon, are taken over by companies who use it either because they can, the owner of Terra Firma the real estate agent company that took over Odeon, likes films or because it's good to invest in for tax purposes. Cinema is the last thing that interests them, because they need to be event cinemas like the Odeon Leicester Square to actually make profit, and many smaller Odeon that weren't listed buildings were demolished and/or converted when Terra Firma first took over. 

I don’t know what the situation is in Asia, Simon, but I don’t think many cinema goers, even the precious one like us, really know the full situation. I wrote about this in this blog before.

I had a dream once to open my own cinema, which would have been my kind of cinema I would want to go to. This is why I started working in a cinema in the first place. However, realising just how little control the cinemas actually have over their own establishment, I have pushed this dream to the back burner.

Chapter Two - I agree with you


Yes, it is baffling why bad films get made. OK, we can't all be Christopher Nolan with a brother like Jonathan Nolan churning out excellent scripts all the time. But films could at least be coherent and have some basic respect for story-telling. I imagine that the problem is micro-management: producers trying to justify their existence by tampering with things unnecessarily.

I am not sure what this section is about. I’m not sure who and how should a good or bad film can be evaluated. I think that as someone whose job is to review/critique films and as a result get to watch all of them for free, there isn't much you could or should do about it. 

I don’t think everyone should make films and I have worked in too many films who couldn’t get the money to make the film and ended up mortgaging producers and directors houses in order to complete. I think it's wrong and if you haven’t raised the money there is a reason for it. However, if they do, let them. There are other kind of bad films, made by big production companies, and those are made because they have an audience. It might not be you, me or Simon, but it exists. I as a viewer, don’t have to watch them. You as a reviewer do, it’s your job! Stop complaining. I hardly think too many bad film made is a genuine problem of the film industry and find it hard to relate to.

Chapter Three - Why depth of field proves that 3D is incompatable with the medium of cinema


What for me you didn't quite nail in this chapter was that 3D is a different pleasure from cinema. It is a pleasure more associated with, as you mentioned, computer games (ie: interactive entertainment), where having direct control over your surroundings is what makes the experience immersive, and therefore having a sense of distance would be an enhancement of the game. Significantly also, in computer games there is no depth of field, or rather depth of field is unlimited, so the alien standing right in front of you is as sharply in focus as the one on the far side of the moonscape. The computer doesn't know which one you're going to shoot at next, so they both have to be in focus. So, with infinite depth of field (as in a computer game) where everything is in focus, the appearance of distance might be quite nice (personally I'm in no rush to buy a 3D TV, but I can imagine many would enjoy that). With cinema, however, there *is* depth of field and it's an important part of the cinematographer's (and director's) palette. It's what draws your attention to... whatever it is you're supposed to be looking at for the purposes of telling the story, which (unlike a computer game) you cannot choose for yourself but that you have entrusted to the director to chose for you (therefore, a pleasure unique to cinema).

I like looking around the frame when I watch a film - to capture all the details and sometimes to spot boom mikes and other gaffs. I have found that trying to do this in a 3D film is quite a painful experience (I found this during Avatar, actually, not even a retro-fitted 3D film). Your eyes want to focus on something in the background but can't. I find it tiring - physically tiring - to keep staring at the point of focus. Strictly speaking, depth of field should be eliminated from 3D films so that they are properly 3D (like a hologram) and your eyes can rove around wherever they want. But removing that element of story-telling is changing the pleasure of cinema. The next logical step would be to allow audiences to choose what happens in the film (you hinted at this with the red-eye blue-eye alternate ending of... whatever film it was).

As it is, you're forced to look at the point of focus *only*. I've found that the point of focus can be viewed without the 3D glasses, so I will often just take them off when I get a headache. Unfortunately, HK people like a gimmick, so 3D is quite popular over here. So, let's imagine that 3D films become properly 3D and you can look anywhere in the frame you want. What then of cinema? That wouldn't be cinema, it would be more a hologram show or something. Removing depth of field would be like removing characters or locations or sound or music. It would be a pleasure, for sure, but a different pleasure.

As it happens, I don't even think surround sound necessarily enhances the pleasure of cinema. I think 2.0 stereo is fine for all films, and many films would be fine in mono. Often it irritates me to hear a surround sound artist struggle to make a car sound appear behind the audience, and then switch it to screen left as the shot cuts and the position of the car shifts. Many
DVD re-releases of pre-surround sound films suffer greatly from this (just as many great albums suffer from shonky stereo work on CD re-releases - but thank God for Dylan and the Beatles leading the way back to good old mono in recent times).

Not a lot for me to say. With the exception of Hugo, which is a one of a kind event, I think 3D is the root of all evil.

Chapter Four - I agree with you, again

I don't have much to say here except that, when I read some reviews of Avatar (which I didn't like very much), many people gave it ten stars while conceding that the story was a bit naff. 10 stars and it still has problems? Surely 9 stars, then, or 8? I think you're quite right to not give star ratings for films - they are entirely meaningless.

Here is my review of Avatar, which include my hatred towards 3D. 

Chapter Five/Six - Why, with film distribution, the micro is as important as the macro

I think a major problem that you touched on, but could have developed more, is distribution. And I mean on a cinema-by-cinema scale. When I was working at the Odeon in Muswell Hill, I suggested to the manager that people in the area might be interested in the film 2046 (Wong Kar Wai's film). OK, I mostly said this because I really wanted to see it for free (and I wanted to nab the lobby poster), but still. The manager told me this was impossible and then explained why. Distributors distribute multiple films during any one deal with a cinema. It might go something like, "We'll let you have Harry Potter, but only if you take New Years Eve, Sex Lives of the Potato Men and What To Expect When You're Expecting as well". Now, how can a cinema refuse a deal like that? They've
GOT to take Harry Potter because it will pay for most of the rest of the year's expenses by itself, but in doing so they are - unwittingly, perhaps - accepting all the other bilge too. (And then there are deals that are cut on ticket price percentages...)

Muswell Hill Odeon has a huge Screen 1 with balcony seating and two little screens downstairs (2 and 3). 2046 didn't even make it into the little screens. Instead, we got Scooby Doo 2 for two whole weeks in Screen 1 and nobody went to see it. The locals in Muswell Hill couldn't understand why the films they really wanted to see were being shown in little screens and were therefore sold out, and the biggest screen with the most seats was sitting empty.

I refer you to my first comment.

Chapter Six - Local films for local people, international films for National Geographic readers, and what's left


I don't completely agree with what seems to be your overall theme in this chapter, ie: that Hollywood blockbusters predominate and this is bad and more foreign films should be shown in UK and US cinemas. I think that American blockbusters fill a need - a need for American-style blockbusters - which is a very real need. The
US film companies have the money to make huge exciting films and that's fine. Nothing wrong with that. These days, China is trying to make its own huge big blockbusters (did you see Red Cliff?) and generally producing a load of expensive-looking crap. I think US-made blockbusters should be encouraged so that local film makers can concentrate on making local films, for local people.

Yes, this sounds a bit like The League of Gentlemen! But it rings true. Having lived much of the last 10 years outside of the
UK, I've experienced a lot of "local cinema". In general, it's pretty dull unless you are a local. And that's how it should be. I know you're a fan of HK cinema, but I suspect you've mostly seen the universally-appealing films like those of Johnnie To (the bullet ballets) and kung fu films. Here in Hong Kong there is a still quite active industry producing films that are chock full of Cantonese verbal gags, references to local celebrities and news figures and local customs that are at best incomprehensible to anyone other than local HK-Chinese, and at worst rather alienating (I doubt you've seen All's Well Ends Well 2012 or Summer Love Love, right?). I would not recommend these films for international distribution, but I'm glad that local film makers don't feel the need to make huge Sci-Fi epics all the time and can concentrate on providing this kind of film for local people.

But there are "international" films out there too, right? Yes, but I've fallen completely out of love with them. I went to see Maria Full of Grace a few years ago at the Curzon and that was the last nail in the coffin for me for this kind of film. I realised that these international films have their own tropes. Their own tropes? What's happened to the world when you can say that? The tropes are:
1) Non-professional actors
2) Wobbly "documentary-style" camera work
3) Very long takes
4) Realist narrative (often a quite miserable story)
5) A certain National Geographic view of the world, where rat-infested hovels are as aesthetically pleasing as beautiful landscapes (and plenty of both those things in the film too, please!)
6) A certain liberal left wing middle-class sensibility, like "this is the film we should be watching - let's go out and buy the Guardian and feel outraged about the injustice of the world while we eat falafel and drink South African chardonnay" - which I think objectifies and glamorises the issues that are presented, sort of the equivalent of going backpacking with a copy of Lonely Planet and an i-Pad.

Again,
China is getting in on this too (ever see Lost in Beijing?). These films are hugely popular at European film festivals, but don't seem to be watched much by locals. What do the local Chinese prefer? Blockbusters, of course. And quirky local films that make them feel GOOD. With these two types of international cinema in mind, it's hard to think of films that genuinely cross over from the local to the international. You mention Infernal Affairs, Cinema Paradiso, Il Postino and a few others, and I can scarcely think of more.

Oh, and I've seen Il Mare and it is, like 50% of Korean films, a vomit-inducing slush fest of romantic sentimentality and soppy piano music (the other 50% is vomit-inducing flag-waving war propaganda).

Conclusions - More complaining is needed - The ticket price should include the whole experience

Overall, you're probably right that the best way to improve cinema is to patronise the right kind of cinemas and the right kind of films. I think also that people should complain more, a lot more. There should be website set up to name and shame specific screenings of specific films in specific cinemas. If the cinema companies realised that people were concerned with the entire night out at the cinema (everything from booking, to refreshments, to the screening and leaving the cinema), then perhaps they wouldn't lean so much on gimmicks like 3D to draw people in. 3D is arguably a means to separate the cinema experience from the TV experience, much as widescreen and surround sound both were (although I'm inclined to think that Hollywood doesn't really feel threatened by TV any more and just cares about maximising profit), but if that's true then a better way to go would be to make the entire experience memorable, with truly knowledgeable and caring staff (this would mean giving them the full wages they were expecting when they were given their schedules - not sending them home early - and letting them see all the films at their cinemas for free, all the way through - something which Odeon dropped while I was there), and generally improving the experience. Having adult-only showings to get rid of seat-kicking teenagers, etc. Bringing back cartoons or short films before films. I think that a lot of films are too long these days because people want to get their money's worth and for some reason feel cheated by shorter running times. Why not have short films shown after the main feature, if the main feature is less than two hours? That way people could get their money's worth (if they directly equate "time spent" with "money spent"), and just leave if they don't. What a great way to showcase new talent that would be! People could take a toilet break during the end credits.

You mention that music piracy actually reinvigorated the music industry. In
Korea, where there is a lot of film piracy, it worked for DVD sales too. All Korean DVDs are nicely packaged and loaded with extras - just as they should be. There are no vanilla DVDs in Korea. (Unfortunately, people in HK are famous for their miniscule attention spans, so all DVDs are vanilla over here, but there is a healthy rental market and we have the Film Archive and plenty of film festivals, so it kind of balances out). Again, piracy should lead the way for cinemas to up their game and provide a truly better experience for their patrons. Once the 3D bluray code has been cracked (maybe it already has), then they will have to think of another way to get people to pay to watch films.

I think the damage will be hard to reverse. Diminished expectations mean that people expect to see crap on the screen in a crap cinema with crap service, and they feel annoyed from the outset because of paying through the nose for all that crap. But British people never complain about things, so it just gets worse. A quick trip to almost any Asian country will show you that you don't have to accept crap from any retail company, and they can still turn a profit whilst providing good service. Mark, it's up to you to lead the way!

Sincerely,
SCC Overton

PS from Aya: I just want to add, and I think Mark and I may disagree on this, but I think the cinema experience is not only the visual, audible, special effects one, but something more basic: the togetherness. You’ve mentioned Cinema Paradiso, one of my favourite films, and a film that shows going to the cinema as a social experience. No 3D, HD whatever D can compare with the fun of a full house watching The Muppets, laughing together, crying together and clapping enthusiastically together. Alternatively, I went to see Inception four times at the cinema and in four different cinemas, including the Wood Green Vue, which is renowned for its rough audience, and in all of them the tense silence and the collective gasp at the end was like no other experience, popcorn or not. This is also the only thing cinema can offer that home entertainment can't compete with, and shouldn't.

I also think it is wrong of us to expect everyone to be the same cinema goers as we are. A lot of people go to the cinema to just pass the time, get a laid or cause that’s what everyone else do, and they are not better or worse than us “film educated” snobs, and not everyone care that much, that is the honest truth. Yes there should be better cinemas, yes there is all sorts of change needed, but we should also know where the problems are and what causes them, and that very few people, even amongst those of us who care, are willing to bother with.

Most importantly, like the French film critics of the 50s, who didn’t like the French films of their time and decided to make their own, perhaps instead of complaining, like Simon suggests, offer an alternative: open the cinema you’d like to go to. That was my dream and to a certain extant it still is.