Bernard Herrmann at 100

One of the greatest film composers of all time would have been 100 today.

Bernard Herrmann is best known for his long term collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock, but his career was a remarkable one that saw him score for directors such as Orson Welles, Fred Zinneman, Nicholas Ray, François Truffaut, Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese.

After working in radio with Welles at the Mercury Theater company, he joined the precocious director for his debut feature film Citizen Kane (1941).

Groundbreaking in so many ways, Herrmann’s distinctive score marked him out as a composer to watch and he won an Oscar for his second film, William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941).

He also composed the memorable score for the sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) using a theremin to great effect.

His work with Hitchcock began with The The Trouble with Harry (1955) and was followed up when the director remade his own movie The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) – Herrmann even makes a cameo appearence as the conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra during the sequence at the Royal Albert Hall.

Arguably the most famous director and composer team ever, Herrmann’s scores for Vertigo (1958), North By Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960) are gold-plated classics and on The Birds (1963) he created an innovative sound design instead of a traditional soundtrack.

The 1960s also saw some fine work with Cape Fear (1962), Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Fahrenheit 451 (1966).

His later years saw him move to London, but in the final year of his life he worked with Hitchcock devotee Brian De Palma on Obsession (1976) and Martin Scorsese on Taxi Driver (1976).

The latter film provided a fitting epitaph with its brilliant use of percusion, strings and saxophone. Scorsese dedicated the finished picture to him.

Since his death, his reputation has continued to grow with directors like Quentin Tarantino (theme from ‘Twisted Nerve’) and even pop stars like Lady Gaga (main theme from ‘Vertigo’) using his music.

Back in 1988, KIOS-FM broadcast a 2 hour radio documentary on Herrmann’s life and career by Bruce Crawford and Bob Coate, and you can listen to it in three parts here: www.bernardherrmann.org/articles/present-celebration-broadcast

You can also watch part of a documentary on him here:

NPR also broadcast an interview with Professor Jack Sullivan about his book Hitchcock’s Music back in 2007:

And finally, this photo is a classic:

> The Bernard Herrmann Society
> Find out more about Bernard Herrmann at Wikipedia
> Herrmann Marathon Blog which looks at each score one-by-one

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

The latest Transformers film is almost precisely the hollow exercise many were expecting. But will it save 3D?

How do you really ‘review’ a film like Transformers: Dark of the Moon?

After all, this is a tent pole release that gives a huge middle fingered salute to the critics who loathe them and revels in the mindless thrills it serves up to audiences eager to part with their cash.

For two and half hours, we get the same template: alien robots transform before beating each other up, military people debate what to do (before deciding to blow up stuff anyway) and a young man (Shia Le Beouf) is caught up in all the action with his girlfriend (the fact that he has a new one here really makes no difference).

At times, the story didn’t entirely seem to make sense but involves the evil alien robots (Decepticons) tricking the decent ones (Autobots), after an important discovery which the US government has kept secret since 1969.

So in essence, this is just an empty retread of the basic elements of the series and whilst not quite as bad as the previous film, still provides precious little in the manner of genuine excitement or emotion.

But there is another side to the third Transformers movie which makes it an interesting case study, as it contains many elements (expensive visual effects, 3D) that typify the modern Hollywood release in 2011.

As we speak, an army of regular critics are desperately trying to pen anguished words on why a film like this even exists, why Michael Bay is Satan and that they got a headache from all the noisy action.

But we all kind of knew that going into this didn’t we?

It’s not like he hired Bela Tarr to do a page one rewrite of the script because of the negative reactions to the last film.

However, this release may have interesting implications for mainstream cinema going, coming after two blockbusters this summer (Pirates 4 and Green Lantern) were judged to have disappointing returns on 3D tickets.

Bay and Paramount have spent a lot of time and money trying to make this not only a big summer blockbuster, but one that gives an extra lift to the 3D format, which some see as vital to Hollywood’s long term future.

So instead of writing a ‘regular review’, here are 10 points that struck me after watching it.

BAY PUMPED TO THE MAX

This film almost plays like an extended tribute reel to the director.

At times it feels like that self-deprecating commercial he did for Verizon:

All of the signature Bay touches are here: swooping helicopter shots, an ‘inspirational’ musical score, fast cars, women filmed like models (he’s even cast one in a lead role), bright colours, men walking towards the camera in slow motion and – of course – slick, hyperactive editing.

And let’s not forget the choppers at sunset:

THE 3D DOESN’T REALLY WORK

Whatever side of the 3D camp you are on (and I’ve been very disappointed with the mainstream releases over the last 18 months) there is no doubt some are looking for this to inject new life back in to the format.

Previously a sceptic, Bay has admitted producer Steven Spielberg and James Cameron persuaded him to use the special 3D cameras invented for Avatar.

Bay and Cameron even recently had a lengthy sit-down together at a preview screening in order to build excitement for the film (which judging by the early geek reaction largely worked).

Paramount has gone to great lengths to combat the traditional (and accurate) complaint that 3D films are just too dim.

This resulted in the studio coming up with enhanced prints and Bay has even penned a letter to cinemas urging them to set the brightness levels correctly.

After watching this at one of the best cinemas in London (Odeon Leicester Square), it still looked too dark.

An inherent flaw with 3D films (as technology currently stands) is that they lose up to 80 per cent (!) of their brightness.

Here some sequences have shots which utilise depth well, but Bay’s natural tendency for quick cuts and frenetic action isn’t really suited to the format.

Bay also admitted that he shot faces with 35mm as he wasn’t happy with the conversion process, which sounded like a lot of time and money was spent on it.

But was all this effort worth it? When I looked at the spectacular action scenes, part of me just wanted to see them with proper levels of brightness and colour.

The bottom line is that when I go to the cinema I want that extra visual pop, because that’s part of what makes the medium so special and visually superior to home entertainment.

As it stands, 3D is hindering and not helping cinemas.

GOOFY COMEDY CHARACTERS

The silly comedy characters are now just annoying: in the first film Sam Witwicky’s parents were an acceptable supporting act, whilst in the second film they had become a serious nuisance.

Here their screen time is mercifully brief but weird, comedy supporting characters appear seemingly at random.

John Malkovich crops up as a boss with a weird voice who has an unexplained fetish for yellow, whilst Ken Jeong is a strange, hyperactive office worker and there are some dumb ‘pet’ robots thrown in for good measure.

I guess the point is to provide comic relief but it just ends up as distracting.

THE FINAL SECTION

The final battle sequence is epic but drags in the context of the overall film.

Lasting over over an hour, it contains some impressive scenes (such as live action skydiving stunts) but the curious side effect is that you become numb to it the longer it goes on.

That said, a lot of paying audiences are going to eat up he sky diving scenes and the bit where a building is being squeezed.

A-GRADE VISUAL EFFECTS

Lazier critics might just assume the visual effects on these films will be good given their budgets.

But treated separately, the work ILM and Digital Domain have done in bringing these robots to life has been stunning.

The level of detail in some of the set pieces (especially a collapsing building, complete with reflective glass) is extremely impressive, whilst the integration with the lighting gives it an extra kick.

Although the first film was robbed of the visual effects Oscar in 2007 (to The Golden Compass!), it is now the clear frontrunner for this category.

NASA INVOLVEMENT?

It seemed that this film was done with the co-operation of NASA (you’ll see why if you watch the first teaser trailer) and it even features a surprising cameo from a certain astronaut.

Only the most deranged viewer would believe in the fictional events depicted here, but could this film help stoke the popular mistruths about the Apollo missions that Capricorn One (1978) helped usher in during the 1970s?

WEIRD WORLD WAR II METAPHOR?

A significant plot development (which is firmly in spoiler territory) appears to be some kind of weird metaphor for World War II and how certain nations collaborated with an occupying invader.

This plot line also features the obligatory scene where the villain explains everything. Maybe Bay was getting nostalgic for when he shot Pearl Harbor

These films also have a fetish for the military running right through them, so maybe it stems from that.

Watch out too for a bizarre reference to Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, which I certainly never expected from a Michael Bay movie, although his DP Amir Mokri is Iranian, so possibly its some kind of in-joke.

THE GENERATIONAL DIVIDE

This franchise exposes an interesting divide between the discerning critics who almost universally loathe them and the younger, paying audiences that lap them up.

Although even some fans of the first film didn’t like the second, it still grossed an enormous amount (over $800m worldwide), which suggests that despite their obvious shortcomings they provide the kind of action spectacle mainstream global audiences enjoy watching during the summer.

At the screening I attended, sections of the crowd were visibly excited and even cheered at one scene.

Despite the lack of interesting characters and story, their financial success seems to be because they mix elements of computer games (all shoot ‘em up and fighting robots) with a fairground ride (bright colours, quick movement).

Plus, we shouldn’t forget that an influential group of geeks grew up with the TV show and toys during the 1980s.

KILLER SOUND

Employing Dolby’s new 7.1 surround system Bay’s sound team have really surpassed themselves here. This Soundworks video explains how the many sounds were achieved:

The range of sounds is fantastic and although they sometimes go overboard with the levels, it gives some sequences a real lift. As with the visual effects, this is a likely contender in the sound categories come the awards season.

INFLUENCE OF NOLAN?

This might sound odd, but for stretches of the film I got the feeling that Bay is a big fan of the Christopher Nolan Batman films.

Not only does the climactic battle take place in the same Chicago locations as The Dark Knight (especially Wacker Drive) but there are little music and sound beats that seem to echo that film.

Shia LeBeouf has revealed that Bay wanted to play him some ‘Batman orchestral’ music (presumably Hans Zimmer and James Newton’s score) before a key sequence.

One wonders if the director secretly craves to make an action movie that is embraced by both audiences and critics in the way the Batman films or Inception were.

Of course there are major differences (in quality as much as anything else) but in the last hour Nolan popped into my head more than once.

So where does this all leave us?

Pretty much where we began, as critical opinion and commercial success will follow the usual Bay formula.

Whether it can save the current trend for 3D is the really interesting question.

> Find out more about the Transformers movies at Wikipedia
> Reviews of Transformers: Dark of the Moon at Metacritic
> Hilarious GQ profile of Michael Bay featuring input from people he’s worked with down the years
> Variety on the 3D release of the film

UK DVD & Blu-ray Releases: Monday 27th June 2011

DVD & BLU-RAY PICKS

Never Let Me Go (20th Century Fox Home Ent.): Although it died at the box office, the film adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian novel was a hauntingly beautiful drama about love, loss and time. Directed with considerable skill and taste by Mark Romanek, it features excellent performances from Carey Mulligan (especially outstanding), Andrew Garfield and Kiera Knightley. [Buy it on Blu-ray or DVD] [LFF Review and some longer thoughts on the film]

Akira (Manga Entertainment): Katsuhiro Otomo’s landmark animated sci-fi epic set in futuristic Japan is about a biker who learns of a secret government project involving the title character. Released on Blu-ray in a limited Collector’s Edition pack it has been remastered and comes with special 40-page booklet exclusive to the UK. [Buy it on Blu-ray or DVD from Amazon UK]

The Andrei Tarkovsky Collection (Artificial Eye): Although we recommended it a few weeks ago (the release was delayed by a few weeks) this DVD box set features several classic titles from the Ruassian director, including: Ivan’s Childhood (1962), Andrei Rublev (1966), Solaris (1972), The Mirror (1975), Stalker (1979), Nostalgia (1983) and The Sacrifice (1986). [Buy it on DVD from Amazon UK]

The Paolo Sorrentino Collection (Artificial Eye): Another DVD boxset from Artificial Eye features the first four films of Italian director Paulo Sorrentino, one of the most dazzling directors to have emerged from Europe in the last decade. This set includes the masterful political drama Il Divo (2008), the absorbing tale of a moeny lender The Family Friend (2006), classy psychological thriller The Consequences of Love (2004), and his breakout film One Man Up (2001). [Buy it on DVD from Amazon UK]

ALSO OUT

Coeur Fidele (Eureka) [Blu-ray / with DVD – Double Play]
Cold Fish (Third Window) [Blu-ray / Normal]
March of the Dinosaurs (Fremantle Home Entertainment)[Blu-ray / Normal]
Miracle at St. Anna (Revolver Entertainment) [Blu-ray / Normal]
No Strings Attached (Paramount Home Entertainment) [Blu-ray / Normal]
Pigs and Battleships/Stolen Desire (Eureka) [Blu-ray / with DVD – Double Play]
Season of the Witch (Momentum Pictures) [Blu-ray / Normal]
Siren (Matchbox Films) [Blu-ray / Normal]
Tenebrae (Arrow Video) [Blu-ray / Normal]
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy: Extended Versions (EV) [Blu-ray / Normal]
The Tourist (Optimum Home Entertainment) [Blu-ray / Normal]
Tron (Walt Disney) [Blu-ray / Normal]
Yogi Bear (Warner Home Video) [Blu-ray / Normal]

UK Cinema Releases for Friday 24 June 2011
The Best DVD & Blu-ray releases of 2010

Letters to Projectionists

Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, Terrence Malick and Michael Bay form an unlikely quartet of directors who have written letters to cinema projectionists.

This year has seen some interesting correspondence surface between filmmakers and projectionists about showing their film correctly.

Recently Glenn Kenny published a letter given to him by former Time critic Jay Cocks found a letter Stanley Kubrick wrote in December 1975 about the correct way to screen Barry Lyndon:

That also triggered a debate about the aspect ratio of the recent Blu-ray release from Warner Bros.

Recently, Ray Pride published a 2001 memo David Lynch wrote to cinema ‘projection departments’ in order to remind them of the aspect ratio, sound (‘3db hotter than normal’) and slight tweaks to the ‘headroom’ for screenings of Mulholland Drive.

(By the way, Lynch has also announced plans to open a themed nightclub in Paris, inspired by the film).

Last month the San Diego Reader reported that Terrence Malick penned a ‘fraternal salute’ to projectionists showing his latest film The Tree of Life in which he asked them to:

  1. Project the film in its proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
  2. The correct fader setting on Dolby and DTS systems is 7. Malick asks that faders be kept at 7.5 or even 7.7, system permitting.
  3. The film has no opening credits, and the booth operator is asked to make sure the “lights down cue is well before the opening frame of reel 1.”
  4. With all the recent talk of “darkier, lousier” images, operators are asked that lamps are at “proper standard (5400 Kelvin)” and that the “foot Lambert level is at Standard 14.”

At the other end of the directing spectrum, the Facebook page of American Cinematographer has posted a letter from Michael Bay in which he outlines to projectionists how to screen the ‘Platinum 6’ version of Transformers: Dark of the Moon for the ‘ultimate 3D experience’.

Interestingly Paramount, who are releasing the film, are the only major studio not to embrace the controversial pay-per-view plans which caused such a stink with theater owners back at Cinema Con in April.

After some high profile disappointments (3D versions of Pirates of the Carribbean 4 and Green Lantern grossed less than expected) this tentpole release will be keenly watched by Hollywood.

One recent complaint has been that US cinemas are not changing the 3D lenses for 2D screenings, which dims the brightness levels on the latter.

The letters are also timely as projection in multiplexes is often poor, with multiplex chains skimping on bulbs and often showing a movie with the incorrect aspect ratio.

With the advent of digital projection systems these problems were supposed to be addressed, but it seems that some cinemas are still cutting corners and shortchanging audiences and filmmakers.

This video demonstrates how modern cinema projectors work:

Back in 1998, Paul Thomas Anderson spoke to Mike Figgis about the old saying that the ‘projectionist has final cut’ and how he witnessed a bad Fuji print of Boogie Nights at an LA cinema (relevant part starts at 6.24):

To some this may seem like technical trivia but if cinema is to survive in an era of digital downloads and shortening windows, then projection standards must remain high.

> More on Movie Projectors at Wikipedia
> Wired on how modern 3D projectors work
> Guardian article on the life and work of a cinema projectionist
> How Stuff Works on movie projectors

Countdown to Zero

Lucy Walker’s campaigning documentary is an absorbing warning about the dangers still posed by nuclear weapons, even though its optimism blurs the wider issues.

Did you know that the world teetered on the brink of a nuclear apocalypse in January 1995, when Russia mistook a Western weather satellite for a US strike?

This is just one of the startling facts in Countdown to Zero, produced by Lawrence Bender and co-funded by Participant Media and the World Security Institute, which explores how the nuclear threat has stayed with us ever since the Cold War ended.

Interviewing a variety of political leaders (Mikhail Gorbachev, Pervez Musharraf and Jimmy Carter) along with experts in the field (Joseph Cirincione) it paints a sobering portrait of a persistent, yet still largely hidden, menace.

Since the dangerous days of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 or the Able Archer incident in 1983, it seemed that the collapse of the Soviet Union signified a new era where the superpowers relented from their deadly game of brinkmanship.

The film shows through inventive graphics and research, the newer threats have emerged over the last 20 years: how states such as Pakistan and North Korea have acquired nuclear capability; the problems of enriched uranium on the black market; the near-miss incidents caused by human error and the prospect of terrorists using a dirty bomb.

Aside from the aforementioned incident in 1995, there are documented cases involving shocking lapses within the US military and the elusive figure of Dr. A.Q. Khan, the shadowy scientist mostly responsible for Pakistan (and maybe others) getting the bomb.

Director Lucy Walker didn’t originate the project, so it perhaps lacks the personal touch of her other recent film Waste Land, but she handles the information and interviews with efficiency and intelligence.

Where the film falls down slightly, is in the campaigning edge which creeps in too often: we sees pointless vox pop interviews where members of the public around the world are asked about nuclear weapons.

Is it really a shocker that most people aren’t experts on this?

There is also a disconnect between the premise of the film, which is the noble aim of reducing global nuclear stocks to zero, and the dark side of humanity which it reveals.

After watching it you may be more convinced than ever that zero nuclear weapons is necessary but virtually impossible, so long as nation states continue to have them or pursue them.

In the last decade US foreign policy in the Middle East has probably helped accelerate proliferation, with states such as Iran seeing it as a necessary deterrent to what they regard as Western aggression (Tony Blair’s presence in the film only accentuates this point).

The example given in the film of South Africa dismantling their programme is misleading, as it remains hard not to conclude that the racist Apartheid regime simply didn’t wanting the incoming ANC government to have it.

The fact that Israel officially deny the existence of their nuclear weapons program (which conveniently allows them to opt out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) shows the extent to which even developed countries are literally in a state of denial about them.

One of the paradoxes of a nuclear arsenal is that countries feel safer with deadly weapons that they cannot use, as to do so would trigger their own destruction.

This dilemma still haunts governments today and even though President Obama has in theory pledged that zero is an option for the US, the current state of world affairs suggests it may remain a distant dream.

Speaking of which, at one point we see Osama bin Laden on screen and watching this film just days after his death was an interesting (if chilling) experience, which highlighted a pressing problem documentaries face in depicting current affairs.

This film premiered at Sundance in January 2010 and screened to acclaim at Cannes later in May of that year, but has taken over a year to reach British cinema screens.

In that time we have seen such seismic global events as the Wikileaks revelations, the Arab Spring and the death of the world’s most wanted terrorist (the latter may indeed have grave implications for US/Pakistan relations).

As it happens the core of Countdown to Zero is still relevant, but in this day and age why does it take so long for a documentary like this to come out and risk being out of date?

Perhaps a multi-platform release around the buzz of opening at festivals might be an option for more arthouse films like this.

That being said, despite the ambitious optimism of the film’s campaign, this is still one that demands to be seen as it is an alarming reminder of the dark, self-destructive impulses of mankind.

> Official site
> Reviews of Countdown to Zero at Cannes 2010
> Find out more about countries with nuclear weapons at Wikipedia