Sunday, 31 January 2010

The Invisible Projectionist.

"A stage actor acts on a stage. But a screen actor doesn’t act on the screen. The stage actor just walks on by himself, but the screen actor is put on by a projectionist." Christoph Waltz.

As if his unprecedented performance in "Inglourious Basterds" wasn't enough to draw my attention to Christoph Waltz, he goes and gives a shout out to projectionists in his quite-hard-to-follow Best Supporting Actor acceptance speech at the Screen Actors Guild awards. If I ever meet him, we may have to kiss.

Very early on in my projection career I was told that, if the job is being done properly, no one should know that the projectionist even exists. This is, in my experience, true. The only time anybody talks to projection is when something has gone wrong. Nobody approaches a member of staff and says "That film remained in sharp focus for its entire duration! Well done!" or "The sound levels in your auditorium are perfect! My compliments to the projectionist!" No, we just get a crackly voice over the intercom demanding to know why "Saw VI" is playing to thirty families in screen two who were expecting to see "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa". Ungrateful.

I have taken the notion of the invisible projectionist to heart, however, and have begun cultivating a mysterious ninja-style image, living in the shadows, creeping through the darkness and sneaking into and out of the building with as little interaction with staff and customers as possible.

Well, I was going for "Mysterious Ninja", but I think it probably comes off more like "Hunchback of the Multiplex": skulking around in the upper echelons of the building, rarely seen and exhibiting very bad posture. I also think some of the staff believe me to be a tramp who sleeps in the back stairwell or summat.

Projectionists exist in a strange half-life, between night and day, living by lamp-light and shunning the world of the day-walkers.

Either that, or we're just a bunch of anti-social nerd-boxes who took the job because it gets you as far away from the paying public as is possible in the service industry. Our only interaction with the public consists of glaring at them from behind a foot-square pane of glass in an advantageous elevated position.

So spare a thought for the projectionist next time you watch a film at the cinema. Get a member of staff to pass on a positive message, leave a bouquet of flowers or some chocolates behind the concession stand, staple some nude pictures of yourself to the projection booth door. Just make sure you don't make too much noise, as the projectionist is probably sleeping. Or busy. Yes, that's it. Busy.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Pirates, Ye Be Warned

If you live in the UK and have visited the cinema recently, you may have been witness to an impassioned plea from a young, attractive lady, standing in front of a white background, asking you to not record the film.

My fellow projectionist, upon seeing this clip, enquired: "Who is that and why is she whingeing about piracy?" To which I replied, aghast, "That's Jaime Winstone! Her dad's The Daddy! You philistine!" "So why is she so bothered about piracy?" "Well, presumably because she won't get paid as much money if people keep copying films. It's a personal request, kind of like emotional blackmail. Jamie Winstone's young and pretty and seems like she might be a bit dirty, so you wouldn't want to upset her by copying a film, would you? And her Dad would fucking massacre you if he found out you'd cost his daughter a paycheque."

This straight-to-camera, honest approach is the latest in a long line of Public Service Announcements espousing the dangers of movie piracy (you may have seen Martin Freeman or Matt Horne's versions - both slightly less appealing/threatening than young Ms Winstone on many levels). This "impassioned plea" represents a change in direction from the usual "piracy is bad Mmkay?" histrionics we have become accustomed to.

Up until recently, most anti-piracy promotions preoccupied themselves, first of all, with scaremongering - trying to make piracy as dramatically intimidating as the AIDS epidemic when that first kicked off (see above) - and then with attempting to ridicule/satirise counterfeiting via the medium of comedy songs, or that one with the fat dude in his undies, watching films on his computer while a disembodied, godlike narrator asks "isn't downloading movies just a little bit... SAAAaaad?" in a voice like Dan from Alan Partridge. I was fully expecting to see one that simply announced "MOVIE PIRACY IS GAY!" Or "IF YOU DOWNLOAD FILMS, THEN YOU HATE YOUR MUM!"

According to the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT):

"The word ‘pirate’ originates from the latin ‘pirata’ meaning ‘to attack’, which reflects precisely what criminals are doing to both the film industry and their communities when they appropriate and reproduce original films for personal, and often wider, criminal gain."

Isn't it more like stealing than attacking, though? Surely, if "to attack" reflected "precisely" what pirates did, they'd be rushing at movie screens with hammers or storming film-sets with nunchucks. Calling counterfeiters Movie Pirates automatically lends them an unintentional level of cool. You might as well call them "Cinema Ninjas". They should be called something a bit less mysterious and exotic, like Film-Robbers or Flick-Nickers or summat.

But the big question is: Does piracy really have an impact on box office takings? We are currently witnessing the unstoppable onslaught of Avatar on every concievable box office record. This is of course, a film with grossly overblown ticket-prices due to the cost of hiring some 3D specs, but isn't the fact that people are still willing to pay for a purely cinematic experience evidence that piracy will always be a phantom menace?

Obviously, part of the "Avatar" experience is the breathtaking 3D effects, which are being championed by many on the business side of Hollywood as Pirate-proof, presumably because pirates all wear eye-patches, so they can't see 3D.

The example that my cinema chain always use when whispering piracy horror-stories is that of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which was apparently recorded in one of our cinemas on the day of its release and was on the internet within 24 hours. That film was the second highest grossing film of 2002, behind only the behemoth that was "The Two Towers". So what impact did the fact that it was available online REALLY have?

According to FACT:

"[piracy] is also estimated to cost the British film, broadcasting and associated industries billions of pounds a year in lost revenues and jobs."

Estimated? How are these numbers worked out? Every download/counterfeit sold does not necessarily equal a lost cinema ticket. People who buy/download pirate copies are unlikely to be going to the cinema anyway. They are the parents at the market who would rather spend a fiver on a shitty copy than 30 quid on taking their kids to the pictures, they're the internet user who would rather watch films in the privacy of their own home than venture out into the real world. Or they are the person who doesn't want to spend money on every film they watch, so they choose their cinema attendance carefully and watch pirate copies of things they aren't that fussed over. This doesn't mean that, if they didn't have internet access, they would've gone to see all those films at the cinema, it just means they would've watched a lot less films.

There are of course, exceptions to this (largely unfounded) theory: There are times when those audiences mentioned above collide with the major audience for a film. Director Eli Roth blamed the box-office failure of Hostel 2 on the fact that a good quality work-print was leaked online before the film even hit theatres. Being that the main audience for Roth's movies are gore-hound horror nerds - internet savvy and down with the file-share forum fun - it is plausible that the vast majority of his public had already peeped at his film by the time it was released, so nobody went to see it. Maybe this proves the debilitating potential of piracy on cinema, or maybe Eli Roth should've made a better film.

This is a good example, however, of what could be claimed to be the genuinely dangerous side of piracy: The leaking of rough edits/promo copies by people WITHIN THE INDUSTRY ITSELF. Everyone knows that the best pirate copies are not the ropey cam-jobs, but industry screeners; straight DVD rips with "Property of Universal" or whatever stamped on them. These are sent out to promote films, for review or award consideration, and (you would imagine) would only be sent to people who the studio would trust. An early cut of last years "Wolverine" film was rumoured to have been leaked by someone working at one of the special-effects companies for christ's sake! These high quality copies pose a much greater threat to the film industry than some out-of-focus, muffled effort that someone filmed on a camera phone, but the vast majority of anti-piracy measures seem to lean a lot more toward stopping the cam-job cad.

Having said that, even though the rough cut of "Wolverine" was online well in advance of the cinema release date, the film still broke $200 million at the US box office - leading Fox to greenlight a sequel - so, again, what difference did the leak make?

Of course, as the ads tell us, piracy funds terrorism and organised crime, right? Sure, it's possible the geezer on the corner with a table full of dvds kicks up to somebody bigger and badder, but how can this be claimed of online file-sharing? Anonymous, non-financial exchanges of files can't really be claimed to make money for anybody and surely only damage the film industry as much as the music industry is damaged by people taping their favourite songs off the radio, instead of buying the single.

All of this wave of copyright terror leads to an air of paranoia in the cinema industry - not always unfounded, of course - but much of it seems like overcompensating. By initiating bag-searches, sending ushers sneaking into screens wearing night-vision goggles, creeping up and down aisles, looking like cosplayers with a Splinter Cell fetish, are we not simply making things a whole lot less enjoyable for the great many people who do still come to the cinema for the "real experience"? Sure, you might catch a wrong doer one time out of a hundred, but when the "real experience" includes a cavity search at the ticket booth, even I might consider going home and firing up Utorrent.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

My Cinema Pet-Hates #2

#2: People who complain that the movie is too loud.

As a projectionist, the vast majority of my job is done for me by programming and machines. This includes the sound levels in the auditorium, which adjust to a pre-programmed level when the film begins to roll. The level we actually have our volume set to is a little lower than the supposed industry standard, because we genuinely care about our customers' ear-drums and don't want to blast their heads through the back of the theatre.

This does not, however give certain members of the public the license to come stumbling from said auditorium, clutching their ears and pleading for the volume to be turned down even further. The volume of the show is a part of the immersive experience, and just because your ears are too damn sensitive doesn't mean we should sabotage the enjoyment of the people who like their explosions LOUD!

Would you go to a rock concert and ask the band to keep it down? Would you go to a nightclub and tell the DJ to lower the volume? If you can't hack the noise, go home and watch a cocking DVD, then you can put it on fucking mute if you want to.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Avatar and 3D: The Magician's Assistant?


As I write this, James Cameron's 3D blue-cat-person extravaganza "Avatar" just won best motion picture (drama) at the prestigious Golden Globe award ceremony. Cameron himself was awarded the globe for best director, setting him on the path to potential Oscar glory. The film has made over a billion dollars worldwide and is climbing ever closer to the box-office gross record set by Cameron's own "Titanic". "Avatar" is a monster.

We have been relentlessly informed that "Avatar" would "revolutionise cinema" and be "like nothing seen before", that somehow our tiny minds were not prepared for the journey James Cameron had booked us on and, like a bad batch of acid, we would be forever altered by this trip.

But, settled in to the stadium-seating with the Eric Morecambe-style 3D gegs perched on my nose, as the beautiful world of Pandora spread out before me; a sense of familiarity begin to seep in. Cameron's world was lush and detailed, and the 3D helped to immerse one's self in the experience, but still I remained unmoved. Why could this be?

Well, it could be because Cameron has repeated his "Titanic" trick of Paint-by-Numbers Storytelling, going for the obvious and easy over the interesting or challenging.

The human villains are pure pantomime cliche (oily, selfish business-man more interested in chewing his breakfast bagel or practicing his putt than in the genocide that his actions cause. Macho, growly, heavily scarred military man who speaks like a cowboy reject from the A-Team and is just waiting for an excuse to blow up anything that he considers foreign.), while the aliens are the epitome of syrupy, idealised "noble savages", all "at one with the earth" and understanding nature and that.

The love story is facile and simplistic, the hero bland and impersonal, and the plotting predictable and laden with clumsy foreshadowing and leaps in logic. Why would the chief of the tribe, upon hearing that a human was amongst them in the guise of one of their own people, order his own daughter (who is betrothed to someone else) to spend every waking hour with said intruder in order to "teach him our ways"? The only reason I could think of is simply because Cameron needed Jake (the intruder) to be accepted into the tribe, and Neytiri (the chief's daughter) to fall in love with him, so logic and motivation is substituted with forced plot mechanics.

I think it was the overall predictability of the plot that muted my enjoyment of this film. A film should not strive to dissatisfy the audience, but it should try to give them what they want in a way they don't expect. Cameron's set-ups are so obvious and familiar that fifteen minutes into "Avatar", I knew how every story-beat was going to be hit, leaving the rest of the two-hours-forty to wash over me in a haze of emotional uninvolvement and surprise-free mild-interest.

A friend of mine compared this film to another big hit alien flick of this year: "District 9", claiming that they had basically the same plot (stupid human sent by greedy corporation to deal with aliens, learns his lessons, ends up fighting with the aliens against his own people), so how can one be predictable and unoriginal and the other not?

To answer this, let us look at the momentum, the narrative-drive, the DRAMA of the story in each. In Avatar, Jake's journey to understanding the aliens is basically like a frigging beach holiday. He larks around with a hot blue chick, looks at some luscious scenery, flies a dragon through some luscious scenery, gets welcomed into the tribe at very little cost and gets it on with the blue chick in some luscious scenery.

It's plain sailing for Jake, even when he gets booted from the tribe and has to risk his life to make a grand gesture by taming a massive dragon so he can bring all the aliens together. You might think, "He's really going to struggle to tame that massive thing! Only a few of the aliens have managed it in thousands of years!" But no. He just jumps on its back in a ten-second sequence - with voice-over, mind! - and then it's off to do a supposedly rousing speech that is more like Morpheus at the Cave Rave in Matrix 2 than the Braveheart/Gladiator/Aragorn vibe they obviously wanted.

The reason that "District 9" tells a similar story more successfully is that the transition for Wikus is greater than that of Jake (Jake: Human Soldier/Noble Na'vi Warrior. Wikus: Feeble Beaurocrat/Self-sacrificing Action Hero), and - crucially - it's NOT EASY. Wikus is put through the wringer to such an extent that our initial disdain for his smug, self-satisfied demeanour soon turns to pity, and then we are rooting for him to come good and do the right thing by the end.

"Avatar"'s plot remains unengaging simply because there is no real sense of jeopardy or pressure until towards the end, and by then we have assessed the tone of the film and know precisely how things will turn out. "District 9" keeps turning on expectations and producing surprises right up until its climax.

The fact of the matter is, however, that many people enjoy familiarity in their films. There is something comforting in a film unfurling in the way we expect (consciously or subconsciously) that many find emotionally satisfying. So perhaps it is this that keeps people returning to the cinema to watch "Avatar" again and again, like a bunch of horny "Twilight" fans. Or, more likely, it is the unmatched immersion in a fantasy world that Cameron offers.

The 3D technology is used to great effect here, with very few gimmicky shots of spears pointed at your eye or summat, instead the technique is utilised in giving depth and texture to the neon jungles of Pandora on a scale not seen before. Does it look real? No. Does it look cool? Hell yes. Is it the future of cinema? Hard to tell. Used in the un-intrusive manner apparent here, 3D could become the standard for all films, but there is still the tendency for in-your-face fairground attractionism which can detract from any genuine emotional reaction and replace it with "Wow! I thought that was going to smash me in the eye!"

So, "Avatar": The legitimate future of cinema? Or simply a caveman dressed in a Star Trek outfit? There is no doubting the technological advance this film represents, but will the technology forever be used to distract people from weak writing, like a cinematic version of the Assistant in a sparkly leotard, drawing the eye away from the Magician's sleight of hand?

Monday, 11 January 2010

Belated Films of 2009 List.

Here are nine films that I liked in 2009. Not necessarily the best, just some good ones that I reckon you should watch if you haven't already. If you have seen them: WEREN'T THEY GOOD?


Along with "Star Trek" and "Let the Right One in", this is a contender for the "best film I done see this year" award. A whimsical tale of a grumpy old geezer who decides to fly to South America by tying a load of balloons to his house. Moving, exciting, funny, quietly profound and perfectly structured; this might even be Pixar's best film yet. Sheer belter.

Quote of the Year: "It's like America... but South!"

Let the Right One in

A teenage vampire-romance with more guts and heart than a thousand instalments of the Twilight "saga". Grim and grisly, but ultimately warm and optimistic (in a bloodthirsty way), this is an inspired take on the vampire mythology and a tenderly touching story of two lost, lonely souls finding one another. If you haven't seen it, do so before the American re-make comes out.

Quote of the Year: "You stay under water for three minutes. If you can do it, I'll just nick you. But if you can't, I'll poke one of your eyes out."

Sherlock Holmes

Rip-roaring buddy-adventure yarn. Downey is a perfect Holmes (apart from not being tall enough), and Law is a surprisingly sturdy Watson, but together, they are one of the most consistently watchable screen pairings since Zig and Zag. What is essentially a fairly standard caper is elevated onto this list by a few inventive flourishes from Guy Ritchie, some brilliantly exciting set-pieces and, primarily, the bromantic flirting between Downey and Law. It's a Victorian "Lethal Weapon"!

Quote of the Year: "NUT HIM!"


It's "2001" with heart, it's "Logan's Run" without jumpsuits, it's the best lo-fi sci-fi in many a long year. Rockwell is relentlessly awesome, deftly balancing comedy and tragedy as called for, the home-made special-effects are surprisingly effective, and the initially familiar plot soon becomes an original and powerful human story which achieves an existential beauty not seen in sci-fi since Roy Batty chatted some shit about tears in the rain.

Quote of the Year: "I just want to go home..."

Inglourious Basterds

Tarantino's return to form after the slightly drab "Death Proof". The performances are uniformly excellent, especially Michael Fassbender and the movie-mugging Cristoph Waltz. Perhaps a little long, but the episodic narrative never feels overstretched, and the tension is ratcheted to stratospheric levels. QT seems to have realised that his digressive dialogue works best when tempered with dramatic subtexts, and runs with this in several grandstanding set-pieces which involve little more than apparantly irrelevant conversation and suffocating dramatic irony.

Quote of the Year: "That's a bingo!"

Paranormal Activity.

Scariest film I've seen in a long time. Won't have much impact on those looking for cheap scares and jumps, but delivers a creeping dread which actually pays off with a few big shocks and haunts the imagination for a long time after the lights come up.

Quote of the Year: "I think we'll be okay now..."

Star Trek

Fast-paced, rollicking space-based action-adventure. Expertly reintroduces characters in a manner easily accessible to those unfamiliar with the Trek mythology, yet remains loyal to their established personality traits. Nerds will cry over the plot's wilful distancing of itself from established Trek history, but the changes are well integrated into the time-travel/parallel universe plotline and the film attacks the prospect of a "Franchise Reboot" in a brave and interesting way. Genius casting and performances pitched at just the right mixture of light and dark make this true to the heart of the original Trek, being more about the human element and its dealings with the extraordinary, rather than techno-babble and pontifications about interstellar politics. The first Star Trek film in years that can actually be called "A Good Film", rather than "Good, For a Star Trek Film". Bring on the sequel.

Quote of the Year: "I may throw up on you."

(500) Days of Summer

Romantic comedy built on a refreshing combination of cynicism and optimism. JGL kicks arse as the downtrodden everyman pursuing his dreamgirl, and Zooey Deschanel makes said dreamgirl believably earthy and human despite her ideal status. Whimsical without being twee or patronising and featuring an unusually eclectic and fitting soundtrack, where most indie films would settle for self-conscious cool. Fun times.

Quote of the Year: "Darling, I don't know how to tell you this but... there's a Chinese family in our bathroom."

District 9

Barnstorming debut from Neill Blomkamp which establishes both him and star Sharlto Copley as forces to be reckoned with. The film is inventive, hilarious, exciting and surprisingly moving, with the minimal budget utilised to great effect. Plus, it has guns what make people properly explode and that. If there's any justice in the world, Copley will at least get an Oscar nomination for his nuanced performance which convincingly covers pretty much every conceivable human emotion, and never once seems forced or rehearsed.

Quote of the Year: "I would never have any kind of pornographic activity with a fokkin' creature!"

And that's it. This is by no means a definitive list of the years movies, but these were the ones what I liked. Or the ones I can remember, anyway. And to finish, here's some I'd rather forget:

Fingers crossed for this year, eh?