Tuesday, 29 June 2010

The Intermittent Sprocket

The other day, a friend of mine brought to my attention the fact that I have never explicitly stated what, exactly, the intermittent sprocket is. So here you go:

In 35 mm and 70 mm projectors, there usually is a special sprocket immediately underneath the pressure plate, known as the intermittent sprocket. Unlike all the other sprockets in the projector, which run continuously, the intermittent sprocket operates in tandem with the shutter, and only moves while the shutter is blocking the lamp, so that the motion of the film cannot be seen. It also moves in a discrete amount at a time, equal to the number of perforations that make up a frame (4 for 35 mm, 5 for 70 mm). The intermittent movement in these projectors is usually provided by a Geneva drive, also known as the Maltese Cross mechanism.

Here's what it looks like:

Clear? No? Well, allow me to elucidate: The intermittent sprocket is a barrelly-looking cog-thing that holds the film in place on the aperture (a peep-hole at the front of the lamp-house that the bulb peers out of to watch the film it is projecting). It is synchronised with a shutter which blocks the light from the bulb at regular intervals (supposedly 24 times per second). The sprocket waits until the light is blocked and slyly yanks the film through to the next frame. If you ever see a movie in the cinema and the image appears to be smeared up or down the screen, this is because the intermittent and the shutter have gone out of sync, and the sprocket is yanking the film while the shutter is still open.

The Intermittent Sprocket is basically an important part of a larger machine which, when fully operational, makes your viewing pleasure possible in an entirely unnoticeable manner. You'd only be aware of the sprocket's effect on your movie if it ceased to do its job properly. It's like a tiny mechanical entertainment-ninja.

All factual information in this post was cribbed from Wikipedia (of course) and the above image was nicked without permission from www.film-tech.com where they also have this rather nifty guide to lacing film through a projector. Not the same model as the dreaded machines at my place, but it gives you a good idea.

So, now you know. And knowing is half the battle.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Shrek Forever After: An Apology?

Shrek was, in his day, something of a pioneer. He showed the movie-related universe that Pixar were not the only ones who could knock out an entertaining CG-animated comic adventure that all the family could enjoy on their own level. With spirited digs at Disney and fairy tales in general, and featuring some high-tempo freestyling from Eddie Murphy as Donkey, the original Shrek remains an amusing an entertaining romp; but it has left us with a terrible legacy.

After the vim and vigour of the first installment, the sequels quickly descended into pop-culture reference-fests, repetitive in-jokery and celebrity stunt-casting; generally placing irritating smugness above actual comedy. The matinees became swamped with sub-par Shrek-wannabes, lining up their cast of celebrity-voiced comedy-sidekicks and clamouring for a slice of the big-money box-office pie.

Now, watch out, "Space Chimps", cos the big, green money-making machine is back! But not necessarily making that much money any more, according to the American box-office figures.

"Shrek Forever After" relays the tale of Shrek being turfed into a parallel universe where he never existed and a fella named Rumpelstiltskin has taken over the land. It's kind of like an animated "It's a Wonderful Life", or that episode of "Buffy" where Cordelia wishes that Buffy never came to Sunnydale and it comes true and then she gets her neck bit and Willow and Xander are vampires and Buffy has a cool scar. That was a good episode.

Anyway, if you've seen a Shrek film before, you pretty much know what to expect: Mike Myers does a shaky Scottish accent, Cameron Diaz doesn't do much, and Eddie Murphy and Antonio Banderas get most of the laughs. Where this film differs from the previous two sequels is in the tone of the film and the flavour of the comedy. The pop-culture references and spoofery are mostly gone, replaced by a much more laid-back, largely character-based gag quota, and the story stirs some admirably challenging themes - such as aging, responsibility and sacrifice - into the mix.

There are a few entertaining set-pieces, the animation is as vibrant and colourful as ever, and the film doesn't outstay its welcome. The ending does feel a little rushed, however, with the climax suffering slightly from "Is-that-it?" syndrome, and the whole exercise is little more than an afterthought for the series; almost an apology for the previous two sequels. It is an apology I am willing to accept, for now, but I'd be very surprised if this film isn't buried by Toy Story 3 in the coming weeks.

Did that seem like a short review? Feels like I should've said more, but there really isn't any more to say. Shrek 4: Better than 2 and 3, but not as good as 1. It's alright.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

"Handyman, Earl. We are Handy Men."

How many projectionists does it take to change a lightbulb?

This is a question that has been much on my mind today. Projectionism is not, as some seem to think, a vicariously glamourous role on the fringe of the Hollywood lifestyle, far removed from the menial work of the usher or the box-office attendant, where a semi-skilled individual can sit and watch movies to his/her heart's content. No, our duties are as diverse, lowly and occasionally degrading as any within the cinema's walls.

Unless your cinema has a technician on site (and, apparently, few do these days) your projectionist must take on the role of Handyman; Cack at all trades. In my nearly four-year tenure as a film-weaver, I have unblocked drains, conducted basic joinery, fixed toilets, fitted carpets and changed an endless array of lightbulbs.

Now, changing lightbulbs is supposed to be easy, hence the "how many _____ does it take..." joke, but legend has it that the cinema I work at is THE most complicated franchise in the country when it comes to the lighting plan. Pretty much every area in the place has a different light-fitting set-up, leading to endless journeys to and from the bulb-cupboard, various types of screwdriver or allen key (why are allen keys called allen keys? Why not Dave keys or Jeffrey keys?), much precarious step-ladder balancing and, in my case, many minor lacerations of the hands and a few small electric shocks.

"Oh, stop your bitching!" I hear you cry, and I take your point. But my problem isn't so much the having to change bulbs, so much as the rampant design flaws which hamper what should be a jocularly simple task.

Today, I had to change a couple of tube lights in the kitchen area behind the concession stand; no big deal. I toddled down there, assuming they would be the standard strips that we have elsewhere in the building - a simple clip-on/off system where you can ping the casing off the fitting with ease before simply twisting the bulbs out of their cradles - and I would be done in a matter of minutes. After about an hour's worth of fannying about with them, I realised I had been wrong.

These light fittings were designed by that bloke from "Saw".

I swear, there were bolts, chains, fucking razor-sharp blades; I kept expecting a little screen to light up with that fucking puppet on it. It was as if someone decided "Y'know, changing a lightbulb is too easy. Let's make things a bit more interesting!"

In order to gain access to the bulbs, you had to unscrew six bolts on the casing - which caused the entire fitting to swing down on two chains in an attempt to smash you in the face - then go into the newly revealed top of the casing and FORCE the entire fitting out. No pingy catches or snaps here, just heaving and grunting at immalleable metal.

After the fitting came free, there was just one more challenge to complete: Each of the two bulbs were nestled into what was apparently some kind of reflective metallic cradle, but seemed more like a pair of elongated razor-blades positioned at just the right angle to punish the unwary bulb-raider. Changing awkward light-bulbs goes from annoying to downright macabre when you're smearing bloody fingerprints all over the place.

So, rather than "How many projectionists does it take to change a lightbulb?" the question becomes "How long does it take one projectionist to change a lightbulb when said lightbulb is like a friggin Lament Configuration complete with chains and hooks and slicey things lurking in wait for those who figure it out?"

Friday, 18 June 2010

Wild Target: Hit and Miss?

Nope. Just miss.

"Wild Target" is this year's "Three and Out", it's "Confetti" for 2010. Don't remember those films? Exactly. In years to come, "Wild Target" will be little more than a blip on the CVs of some talented performers, a late night curio that'll make you go "What're THEY doing in THIS?".

The film is a remake of a French movie which deals with the familiar story of a Hitman developing a conscience. The man doing the hitting is Bill Nighy - delivering a performance which somehow manages to feel like a caricature of a Bill Nighy performance - and the hittee is played by Emily Blunt - foregoing her usual charismatic presence for a character who never takes her foot off the pedal marked "annoying". Nighy's assassin is hired to kill Blunt's art-thief, but changes his mind and ends up protecting her instead. Oh, and Rod from Harry Potter tags along for no particular reason n'all.

A sluggish and obvious caper-flick, an inert chase-movie and an unfunny comedy (not offensively unfunny, just... not funny) featuring directionless plotting and aimless characterisation, particularly for Nighy's Victor Maynard and his relationships with his reluctant entourage. You can't help but laugh when you've been watching two people bug the shit out of each other for the best part of an hour, only to suddenly proclaim that they've enjoyed the time they've spent together for no other reason than they've reached the point in the plot where they have to start forming a bond in spite of their differences.

Blunt - even saddled with a self-absorbed uber-irritant of a character - still manages to intermittently light up the screen, Nighy - even on some sort of bizarro autopilot - is still watchable, and Rupert Grint plays Rod from Harry Potter. With a beard. Martin Freeman shows up as a rival hitman and "reacts" to people saying stupid stuff, like Tim-from-The Office in a trenchcoat. It's a sad state of affairs when the funniest thing in your comedy film is the fact that a capable comedic performer such as Freeman has a set of hilariously buffed up and oversized gnashers, which he displays with an array of toothy grins. "MARTIN FREEMAN'S GOT STUPID TEETH! HA!" Yeah, what else you got?

If you haven't heard of this film before now, I wouldn't be surprised. It seems to be trying to sneak past audiences like a house-guest who shit the bed: Get out before they see what a mess you made. If you have heard about it; cherish this moment. You're probably never going to hear of it again.

Friday, 11 June 2010

The Late Review: How to Train Your Dragon

I had made my mind up about this film. I saw the trailers and made it as another twee, cutesy Dreamworks animation with wise-cracking characters and "knowing" comedy. I was quite surprised to see the wealth of positive reviews begin to roll in, and then the steadily accumulating box-office which could surely only be the result of strong word of mouth and repeat performances. I later watched a few bits of it, peering through the porthole, and saw some strikingly beautiful animation and a few glimpses of thoughtful and visual characterisation.

So, with the film showing on a matinee this weekend, I thought I would take this opportunity to actually give it a look.

I am very glad I did.

"How to Train Your Dragon" is the story of a weedy kid in a village of burly Vikings whose only reason for living is to fight and kill the various varieties of dragon which routinely attack their settlement. This kid, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), is your typical outcast underdog character; never strong enough or popular enough to stand out from the crowd. Can he make his mark on his people, impress his father and win the heart of the girl of his dreams? What do you reckon?

What "Dragon" lacks in originality of plot, it more than makes up for with some surprisingly poignant drama, a lot of heart, some truly breathtaking set-pieces and a blossoming Han/Chewie relationship between Hiccup and his newly discovered dragon-buddy, Toothless.

The dragons in this film may occasionally veer too close to "cute", more like Ricky Gervais' "Flanimals" than Smaug of the Lonely Mountain, but the characterisation of Toothless is one of the strongest points of the film. Apparently based on a cross between an axolotl, a house cat and Stitch the wacky space alien, I thought I would have a hard time warming to this "Dragon-in-name-only", but Toothless is imbued with such character and personality that it is impossible not to be won over.

The film is light and funny, but carefully builds a consistent world which you can invest in to such an extent that what could've been trite bollocks somehow becomes something simply beautiful.

There are frequent moments of unadulterated movie joy, mainly in the flying scenes, and I am not ashamed to say I actually had tears in my eyes at two or three points when image, music, sound and emotion merge perfectly to create indelible, transcendent cinema. I was watching it on my own in the auditorium with a massive hangover, so maybe I was just feeling lonely and fragile, but still...

As Hiccup uses his connection with Toothless to bridge the gap between their two species, the "can't we all just get along" message may become a little hackneyed for some, there are perhaps too many juvenile flourishes (characters named Snotlout, Ruffnut and Tuffnut? Really?) to capture every adult's imagination, and there will be a great many people with unanswerable questions (How come all the grown-ups are Scottish and the kids are American?), but this is, overall, a singularly enjoyable piece of family entertainment.

"Dragon" is much more in line with "The Iron Giant" or many of Pixar's stellar output than Dreamworks' usual celebrity-voice/pop-culture reference-fests. With this, "Kung Fu Panda" and "Monsters vs Aliens", Dreamworks are finally beginning to spread their wings; and "Dragon" is the highest they've soared yet.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

The Projectionist's Apprentice

A death match has been instigated in my place of work. Two people pitted against each other in a battle of wills, skills, thrills and spills. It's like Thunderdome up in here. Two men enter. One man leaves.

Due to the upsetting departure of one of our team , we had to advertise for a replacement. It ended up that the only people to make it past the interview stage where two chaps who already work at the cinema: our "Ghost" projectionist (meaning "part-time") and a lad who jockeys pop-corn downstairs.

In an arguably bizarre and sadistic managerial decision, my boss, The Man Who Knows, chose to split the available hours between the two of them for a training period and then see who is right, and who is dead.

Well, not dead, but whoever doesn't get the full-time position will be cast back downstairs to live among the cash-jugglers, broom-drivers and ticket-rippers which, after you've had a taste of the solitude of projection, is akin to being booted out of heaven into a really noisy and annoying hell. A fate worse than death.

This is all funny enough, but the worst part of it, for me (and what else matters?) is that I have to do some training. Training bothers me because I always feel like I'm patronising people. "You put this here, yeah? And then move that, right? And then do this, you see?" I just expect them to go: "It's not fucking rocket-science, is it mate?" and stomp me in the throat or summat.

There's also the tragic irony of me being asked to impart wisdom when I pretty much make up what I do as I go along. I can remember a training day when I was taken around the booth, being shown a large number of things which would kill me if I touched them or used them incorrectly. I remember the feeling of impending danger and imminent threat, but can I remember what the threats were? Can I recall where on the platter tower there is a switch or circuit or something just waiting to blast me across the room when I poke it with my ignorant finger? Can I bollocks.

So the combination of learning my bad habits and being made to compete in some macabre, low-rent, shadowy version of "The Apprentice" leaves me feeling a distinct lack of envy for my fellows. May the best man win?

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Sex and Escapism

A while back, when asked about the unprecedented success of "Mamma Mia!", Meryl Streep stated: "I knew it would do well because it was aimed at an audience that has been neglected in recent years in film offerings: women".

What follows may contain a great many sweeping generalisations akin to Meryl the Peril's claim.

Let us think about the phrase "chick-flick" for a moment. It sounds like a derogatory term; conjuring images of sappy, romantic cliches and happily-ever-after platitudes. Chicks don't want complex, challenging, thought-provoking cinema, do they?

To suggest, as Streep did, that Mamma Mia gave women what they wanted from cinema is a huge insult to the female populace. Women want insipid romance, flat karaoke versions of songs they know and the overall ambiance and emotional resonance of a drunken hen night?

But, of course, Mamma Mia is just a bit of fluff. Escapist entertainment. Not to be taken seriously.

Currently on release, "Sex and the City 2" is attempting to reach the same crowd, ploughing a similar furrow of "female-oriented" escapist entertainment. This film mainly consists of over-privileged, middle-aged white women suffering from man-trouble and blithering on about clothes and shoes and such. It's the cinematic equivalent of an aspirational magazine. People can watch it and go "I wish I had those shoes! I wish I had that man on me! I wish that was my life!". There's no real drama, these characters drift through their lives (and the film) with their heads crammed firmly up their arses and pretty much nothing ever changes for them. It's like watching a shopping channel for 140 minutes.

But surely, there is a "male" equivalent to these aspirational flights of fancy? "Dick-flicks"? An industry of gun-fights, car-chases, super-heroes, giant robots and explosions? Isn't that the masculine parallel? Boys and their toys?

So what is it that I personally find so reprehensible about the state of "female-oriented" popular cinema, whilst I can easily be entertained by a superficial action film? A common argument against the male judgement of "SATC" is that we are "intimidated" by a group of strong women living their lives independently; doing things their way in a world where men will always be sidelined by the more important relationships between women themselves.

Now, I'm sure there are certain corners of this patriarchal society where blokes are going "What are those "Sex and the City" girls doing out of the kitchen!?", but I don't think my personal issue is really to do with the sex of the characters at all. It's more to do with the fact that these characters, regardless of their gender, are lionised to the status of icons simply for having lots of money, wearing nice clothes and getting a lot of sex.

It's interesting to attempt to draw parallels with "dick-flick" characters - or male characters in general - and the leads of "SATC". The honest-to-god nearest example of such a superficial male character is Patrick Bateman. Bateman lives in New York, is obsessed with designer labels and accessories, likes to drink in the hippest bars, is independently wealthy and successful and has a casual and cavalier attitude to sex.

He's also (probably) a serial killer and exists to satirise the emotional detachment and downright loss of humanity that goes hand in hand with his vacuous lifestyle. He is not a character to be admired.

The most admirable masculine answer to the "SATC" ladies is obviously James Bond. A man who enjoys the finer things in life, something of a snob when it comes to clothes, food and drink, sees any hole as a goal, he is precisely the kind of chauvinistic dinosaur that the "SATC" crew are attempting to reflect on. But the motherfucker saves the world on a regular basis. What's Carrie Bradshaw's excuse?

Bond may be a complete wanker, and the films often portray him as such, but he has a strong, wilful morality underneath it all, and is continually putting himself in harm's way for the greater good. Even when he does bad things, it's usually with good reason and to people who deserve it.

You look at James Bond and say, "That guy's an arrogant, superficial dickhead but, boy, can he save the world and kill bad guys and stuff!".

You look at Carrie Bradshaw and say "That girl's an arrogant, superficial dickhead but, boy, that's a nice handbag!".

"Dick-flicks", juvenile and simplistic though they often may be, usually concern some sort of variation on the good/evil conflict, with a central character who must do the right thing, not just to benefit himself; but others as well. According to hollywood; men get their escapism by vicariously saving the world or kicking arse in the name of righteousness, whilst women aspire to having a nice apartment and the latest shoes and some good friends to bitch about men with.

To quote a recent "dick-flick": "thousands of people wanna be Paris Hilton and nobody wants to be Spider man?".

And, I think, therein lies my issue with "chick-flicks" such as "SATC": I see nothing admirable to aspire to in them, beyond the superficial and often selfish pursuit of self-gratification. I mean, even "Transformers" managed to squeeze a selfless "no sacrifice, no victory" message in amongst the pretty special-effects.

Oh, and there is a male version of "Sex and the City". It's called "Swingers" and spends the majority of its runtime pointing out how flawed, insecure, deluded, arrogant and pathetic it's characters are.

P.S. Doesn't this look like the outfit that Ace Ventura wears when he's pretending to be insane in order to gain entrance to a mental institute: