Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Accountants in film

Thanks, Hollwood. Thanks a bunch.

I spent the better part of a decade on the front lines of film as an assistant director/producer, loving the work and collecting anecdotes of remarkable places, people and experiences. I considered myself fortunate to have one of the most interesting jobs going.

And then, for fairly standard reasons, I decided I needed to get out. Uninteresting twists of fate meant that I soon began training as an accountant. A few years on, here I find myself still.

There is a marked difference between the responses you get from telling someone you're a filmmaker, and telling them you are an accountant. At parties, where there used to be expectation, now there is pity. Because of Tinseltown, we accountants are variously perceived as pedantic, idealistic, immoral or (worst of all) boring. Maybe Hollywood just doesn't like accountants. Given that Hollywood has produced some of the most dubious figures this side of the Sarbanes-Oxley act, I'm not surprised.

Did you know, for example, that according to Paramount Pictures, Forrest Gump, the most successful film of 1994, with a box office of $677m worldwide, did not make a single penny of return for its investors? Or that My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which took almost 50 times its production budget of $5m in the United States alone, somehow made a net loss of $20m? The one which  really blows my mind is that The Lord of the Rings, the most financially successful film trilogy of all time at $2.9 billion worldwide,  made "horrendous losses" according to production company New Line. The mind truly boggles. So does the taxman.

Thus Hollywood is more creative with numbers than scripts - all but one of the top ten films of 2012 and 2011 were sequels, remakes, or direct adaptations, and the last was The Smurfs - so it is understandable that accountants are sometimes painted as the bad guys. It is therefore worth pointing out the few films in which accountants are a bit more colourful (beware of spoilers):

The Untouchables

Al Capone gets put away for tax evasion by bean-counter Oscar Wallace, aided ably by Kevin Costner and the inscrutable Sir Sean Connery. The Mounties may not approve of the Untouchables methods, but the audit approach managed to get done what the Bureau could not. True story, too.

Midnight Run

So, the funny one in this film is the bookkeeper. Charles Grodin is as acerbic and withering as they come, playing a mob number-cruncher who has jumped bail, being brought in by bondsman Robert De Niro. Upstaging De Niro takes some doing, and it is a rare treat to see Grodin carving acid lumps out of the erstwhile Don Corleone as they trek across the country in trains, planes and automobiles.

Stranger Than Fiction

Will Ferrell is a metronomic IRS investigator, who refuses a gift of cookies from baker Maggie Gyllenhaal, whom he fancies but is obliged to audit, lest it be misconstrued as a bribe. He does, however, start a relationship with her, so perhaps his ethics are not so exemplary. Also, he may in fact be mad.

Lethal Weapon 2

Joe Pesci is Leo Getz, possibly the most annoying character in movie history. Nevertheless, he observes some of his obligations as an accountant, having blown the whistle on his former employers, some moustache-twirling South African types claiming "diplomatic immunity" as if it were "bagsy" rules on the playground. Getz also pops up in Lethal Weapons 3 and 4, although mercifully he gets shot in one, and has an uncomfortable trip to the dentist in the other.

The Shawshank Redemption

The crowning glory for accountants in film. Long ranked as the greatest film ever made on the  IMDb, our hero is Andy Dufresne, a bank clerk unjustly condemned to life in prison for the death of his wife. Andy's first big moment comes when he cuts his fellow prisoners a big break, and a few bottles of ice cold beer, by giving the guard some sound tax advice while teetering on the edge of a very high roof. He finally gains his freedom and gives the tyrannical warden his comeuppance, by exposing the prison's systematic corruption and embezzlement, while making off with most of the proceeds. Personally, I choose to overlook this final little peccadillo; Andy has suffered a lifetime of unwarranted hardship, so I'm cheering as much as the next man by the time he sees Red on the beach in Zihuatanejo.

However, almost all of the above films are works of fiction. The truth, when spectacular, is often much more sinister. For a look into the heart of darkness, see Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, the story of  one of the most cataclysmic Chapter 11 bankruptcies in history, and how "The Big 5" became "The Big 4". Or check out Margin Call, ArbitrageRogue Trader. While these are certainly investment-driven stories, it was the accounting that nurtured the beast...

Seriously. Accounting: not that boring!

Review: Leon (aka The Professional) ***Spoilers***

La Femme Nikita, the film which introduced us to Jean Reno as 'The Cleaner', is a very different beast to Leon / The Professional. Although they share a character and a few bits of backstory, they don't share anything else. Not even the language. So I shall disregard Nikita entirely to avoid muddying the waters of this review.

If you can get your hands on it, the extended cut of Leon elaborates on the intended driving theme of the film, a burgeoning romance between a ruined, 13 year old orphan and an exploited 40-ish hitman. The excised scenes demonstrate that romance to be merely a dramatic crush from Matilda, sternly rebutted by Leon. However, a few beats here and there, such as Matilda's frank proposition that Leon take her virginity, make for uncomfortable viewing, and the film is better off without them.

Unfortunately, in cutting most of these scenes the baby has rather gone out with the bathwater, as most of Reno's nuance, and the core of the characters' arcs,  were here. What we are left with is a succession of comic scenes between the protagonists which, although well performed, paint Leon as a plant-loving innocent with lethal skills.
A simpleton Bourne, if you will.

So thank the heavens for Gary Oldman.

Three years after Leon, Gary Oldman would walk away with The Fifth Element as Jean-Baptiste Zurg. Besson gave Oldman that opportunity after his turn here as Stansfield. Oldman's performance is driving and unpredictable, a man poking at the bleeding edge of sanity, fuelled by drugs and protected by office. Besson puts obstructions in Stansfield's path, both physical and logistical, to frustrate his deluded machinations, so Oldman's parting, storming and swatting become a handy signpost of the villain's disregard for those around him, as well as giving rise to a few brief moments of dark humour.

The henchmen who surround Oldman are, in retrospect, redolent of the stock baddies Besson would carve out for the many B-actioners he would produce in later years. In this film, however, they are given enough to do to keep them distinct and interesting, if occasionally a little clownish.

The decidedly French, subversive vein of comedy running through Leon suggests Besson had total confidence in his ability to weave self-defeating humour into the film without undermining tension. Either that or he was oblivious to the possibility of jarring incongruence. The former seems more likely though, given his more overt, but less successful tonal play in his next film, The Fifth Element.

It is not unreasonable for him to have such boldness, however, as the action sequences in this film are some of the very best committed to film in the 1990's. The opening attack on Fatman's penthouse (yes, that is the character's name) introduces Leon brilliantly as an unseen, unstoppable angel of death. The attack on Matilda's family is pure carnage: disorienting, messy and brutal. The protracted final assault is a masterclass in geographical action direction, showing us a string of firefights and flights through an entire apartment block and the streets outside, without ever confusing our sense of orientation.

That is not all to commend the action. Note that at Fatman's, Leon wants to be efficient, unseen. At Matilda's, Oldman just wants to murder everyone and tear the place apart. In the final assault, Leon employs his superior knowledge of the environment to take the fight to his enemy. So Besson managed to marry the style of each action setpiece exactly to the mindset of the active parties, which is no mean feat.

Eric Serra's standard "string and ring" score sounds fairly indistinguishable from his Goldeneye score, and does little to enhance any sense of tension or heighten any emotion. Besson's fleeting views of the jagged but familiar Manhattan skyline were vaunted at the time of the film's release for evoking a jungle. However, contemporary overexposure to New York in action films, especially those of a superhero bent, has worn this originality thin. Coupled with the nondescript soundtrack, Leon is left without a distinctive stylistic identity. Besson would emphatically address this problem on The Fifth Element.

What the viewer takes away from Leon, therefore, is based entirely on the characters and motion of the movie. The action alone would be enough to make this film memorable, but Reno and Oldman, committed as they are to the extremes of their roles, elevate the film something almost mythological.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Is the era of the cinema trailer drawing to a close?

I've just read the following article on Deadline, about US cinemas fighting with the big
studios over trailer lengths and scheduling:

Studio Pushback Forces NATO To Rethink Shortened Trailers For Theaters

The argument essentially boils down to theatre owners wanting more control over what they run before a movie, and the studios aggressively defending the current agreement.

The force with which the studios are fighting the proposals (two of the seven major studios approached offered an instant, flat "No"), suggests they are no longer in touch with the average cinemagoer. Outside of the studio system, production and distribution models are changing fast in response to increased two-way communication with audiences (note recent leaps made by Kickstarter, Netflix, and HBO), and tastes beyond the geek comunity are no longer adequately catered for by the big players.

Major studios are entrenched in a supply-push mindset, i.e. they like telling us what to watch. This is why they still put so much store by cinema trailers. As a means of reaching potential audiences in the age of social media and internet, trailers on the front of a “comparable” release offer a scattershot return at best.

In 2013, the volume of user data generated every day, the advances in demand algorithms and the proliferation of social media mean that marketers in all industries can target ever more, smaller and more specific segments. Even before the era of social media, intelligent marketers were looking beyond cinema trailers and T-sides on every bus in Zones 1 and 2. In one of the back streets of the historic centre of Oxford, England, you can still find 12 Monkeys graffiti, almost 20 years after that movie came out. It was that edginess, totally in keeping with the tone and themes of the film, and not the rather feverish trailer campaign, which got this reticent teen into the theatre.

Distributors need to recognise that the long tail approach is here to stay. It is more effective and efficient to employ the technology of word-of-mouth than to keep throwing obscene spends at blanket ad campaigns. Over-inflated marketing budgets are the single greatest reason why major studios are becoming risk-averse and fixating on mega-budget franchise builds.

To paraphrase Jason Lee in The Incredibles, when every movie is a tentpole, none of them will be.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Review: A Matter Of Life And Death/Stairway To Heaven (minor spoilers)

In 1946, when they made A Matter Of Life And Death (Stairway to Heaven in the US), Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were at the cutting edge of cinema. They were arguably the most innovative directors working out of the United Kingdom, at a time when Alfred Hitchcock was finding his voice with such films as Lifeboat and Notorious, and David Lean was working on that more humble beacon of Englishness, Brief Encounter.

Powell and Pressburger's previous film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, had been heralded for its special effects make up and model work, which still holds up well today. Whether they felt the weight of public expectation, or whether they felt the urge to themselves, Powell and Pressburger pushed the envelope again in service of the story; The set design, use of stock, and in-camera trickery in A Matter of Life and Death came only 13 years after King Kong, but are light years ahead of that film. Thanks to Powell's and Pressburger's mastery of these techniques, and the enduring work of a young Jack Cardiff, on only his second major feature, Life and Death stands apart from other films of the period.

The directors used these techniques to create the quintessential depiction of the afterlife in movies, which has informed popular interpretations of Heaven ever since. The imagery is so familiar to modern audiences that first time viewers may wonder whether they are having déjà vu.

However, some concepts explored in the film may seem quaint by today's jaded standards. The nature of love at first meeting, the debate over the value of a human life, and an utterly non-cynical depiction of God and his angels: all are explored without irony or reservation. The audience's enjoyment depends largely on whether they can see beyond their misgivings on these topics, and view the film as an allegorical poem.

Roger Livesey gives a generous performance as the doctor fighting to save David Niven’s life, but his mannered style does not work as well as it did in Blimp. Marius Goring stands out as the deliciously French Conductor 71; charming, mischievous and petty all at once. Kim Hunter does passable work in a thankless role, but the soul of the film belongs to David Niven, with a portrayal of wonderment and hope that glints through the stoicism which is the stock of his Britishness. It is also worth keeping an eye out for a very young Dickie Attenborough in one of his first film appearances, as a recent casualty of war.

Gentle mockery of our French and American allies runs through the film. Raymond Massey plays a grumbling, recalcitrant Abraham Farlan, sour at the British for being the first casualty of the American War of Independence. Young American airmen stepping through the pearly gates head straight for a Coca-Cola dispenser. A French pilot whitters away at ten to the dozen about the unfair circumstances of his death, to which his British counterpart responds with a pat on the shoulder and "bad luck, old boy". It is Niven's central performance, married to these details, which makes A Matter of Life and Death one of the most quintessentially British films ever made.

The choices made by Powell and Pressburger in direction also mark this film out. Most notably in the earliest days of colour film, which was then a modern marvel, one world was in glorious Technicolor, the other in drab black and white. The stroke of genius was to shoot the realm of the living in colour, and Heaven in monochrome, reversing the expectations of the day.

Of course, now that contemporary audiences are so unused to black and white, it is the scenes in Heaven which feel dislocated and fantastical. In 1946, however, Europe was reeling from the end of the second world war. The vibrance of colour in the movie reflected the keen feeling of the time that life is the most precious thing we have, and that we should revel in it. The only element of the film which hints at the melancholy of death is the metronomic chiming of the piano score in Heaven. Other than that, the film is broadly very hopeful.

My recommendation is to give yourself over to the tone of the film. If you can allow for the ebbing pain of postwar Britain, and you should find this film every bit as charming, warm, and ultimately life-affirming as those who first watched it almost 70 years ago.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Review: Splice (SPOILERS)

Rather like the two scientists played by Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley, Splice is not as clever as it thinks it is.

There is some interesting creature design, if not entirely plausible. This is where Guillermo del Toro's hand is most apparent. Unsurprisingly given his pedigree, this element works very well, but it highlights how short of the mark the rest of the film falls.

The film is particularly gunshipped by a script which confuses a plethora of themes. Even the one-sheet poster (see right) falls prey to this, combining the familial warm fuzzies of Cocoon or Ghost with the pointy-tailed threat of Alien, and the scuzzy, aggro font of a million and one spatter horrors. The visuals are better, under the capable eye of Tetsuo Nagata, although far from the heights of his work on Ma Vie En Rose and Micmacs.

All too often Splice tries to plug thematic leaks by asking the actors to ram a square peg into a round hole; Sarah  Polley suffers bipolar swings between maternal angst and emotionless laboratory genius, which highlights the writers' fumbled attempts to draw out the moral conflicts between science and parenting. If The Godfather had to spell out that "it's not personal, Sonny, it's strictly business" to show just how much of a lie Michael Corleone was selling, then it is remarkably brave of Natali to rely on performances alone to render abrupt character shifts. Even Adrien Brody, doing his utmost to keep the film plausible, cannot pull off a moment that sees him spontaneously decide to have sex with Dren.

"I won an Oscar, what the hell am I doing here?"

Speaking of whom, Delphine Chaneac's performance as the adult Dren brings absolutely nothing beyond stage directions such as "Dren looks hurt", "Dren giggles like a schoolgirl", or "Dren snarls". The whole farrago leaves me wondering if the director actually offered his cast any notes at all.

Finally, this film relies on characters explicitly choosing to pursue or ignore scientific method, as one of the main motivators. Now, I'm no scientist, but from the very first scene it is clear that is underpinning is laughably weak.

I struggled for a while afterwards to understand what the film set itself out to be in terms of genre and aims. I suppose that the only genre which might get away with showing this much contempt for its protagonists is contemporary horror, but even by these meagre standards Splice fails, as it tries to introduce "issues" to build tension, but then handles them incompetently. The result is boredom and so the scares, when they come, are anaemic.

So we have characters who struggle to achieve two dimensions, a shoehorned script and ineffective performances from the two female leads. There are many more flaws besides, but for me, these were the most significant. While I didn't hate the film, it felt like a woefully missed opportunity.

The only people I can see enjoying this film might be genre addicts, whom the visceral creature/horror elements may be enough to satisfy. It is certainly the only aspect of the film which I will remember beyond today.

Weak, weak, weak.