Movie of the Day

Little Miss Marker

Shirley Temple’s small part in Stand Up and Cheer! won her a overnight fame. Variety christened her the “unofficial star” of the otherwise unremarkable film. That sent producers scrambling to find larger roles for her. Although she was under exclusive contract with Fox, director Alexander Hall persuaded her to audition for the best kid roles in years in a script adapted from a Damon Runyon story. Legend has it that Hall approached the Temple family at the Brown Derby restaurant and the very next day Fox executive Winfield Sheehan called Gertrude Temple to his office to warn her never to do anything behind his back again. But he did agree to loan out the young star, charging Paramount $1,000 a week while continuing to pay Shirley $150 per week and $25 to Getrude to do her daughter’s famous curls.

Adolphe Menjou, the nominal star of the film, disliked working with children. It probably didn’t help that when he forgot a line his 5-year-old costar reportedly asked the director “is it too late to replace Mr. Menjou on this picture?”  As shooting progressed, it became clear that the little girl was not only going to steal all the scenes she shared with Menjou, but she was going to steal the whole movie. Eventually she won over Menjou, as she would with his character, a hard-nosed gambler, and later costar Lionel Barrymore and director John Ford. She did in fact steal the film, which became a big hit. Paramount offer Fox $50,000 to buy out her contract. Sheehan, recognizing a good thing we he say it, said “nothing doing.”

Although this is the film that made the young actress a star, it a pretty atypical Shirley Temple film. Although Temple would soon become the face of wholesome entertainment, a few minutes into the film I realized I was watching a racy pre-code film. Sure enough, Little Miss Marker was released June 1, 1934, exactly one month before the strict enforcement of the production code went into effect. The script would have been subject to revisions if it had been released later. It is based on a story by Damon Runyon, who populated his literary world with gangsters, bookmakers and gamblers, many of them based on people he rubbed elbows with in real life. As the title character, Temple is left as a “marker” or collateral for a bet on a fixed horse race by her father. She is orphaned when he dies before returning, not by wandering out in front of a truck, but by committing suicide. The girl is taken in by Menjou and her babysitters are an assortment of thugs and nightclub sirens. They’re a bad influence on the pure little girl, who give up fairy tale daydreams in favor of gangster slang. There are also a number of zippy one-liners in the script that probably wouldn’t have survived the censor’s pencil under the code. In the final scene, she is laying on hospital operating table on the brink of death. The hardened gangster Big Steve (Charles Bickford) has been coerced into giving a blood transfusion. “Your blood is giving her life,” the doctor explains in some pretty flimsy film pseudo-medicine. “Does that give you a kick? Giving life?” “Giving life?” Bickford ponders, implying that he is more used to taking life. It is a line that surely wouldn’t have been allowed by the code, which dictated that all crimes, seen or implied, have to be punished. Instead, Big Steve is redeemed by the end of the film, having saved the life of the innocent girl.

Shirley clowns with Harpo Marx.
Shirley clowns with Harpo Marx.

So despite having Temple in the title role, this is by no means a family film. And yet Little Miss Marker establishes the template that would be used again and again in her subsequent films. An orphan girl is boundlessly optimistic, in spite of dire circumstances she finds herself in. Her sheer adorableness soften the heart of a cranky old man (or occasionally haughty old spinster), who wants to give the little girl a home. Characters competing for the right to adopt her pop up again and again in her movies. In Bright Eyes her character is even named “Shirley” so that when Charles Sellon says from his wheelchair “I am starting legal proceedings to adopt Shirley,” he is verbalizing the secret desire of every man and woman in the audience in 1934, whether they had children of their own or not. Indeed, it was not always such a secret desire. Many moviegoers in the ’30s believed Shirley was an actual orphan. Women wrote to the actress’s father, a banker, pleading with him to father “another Shirley” with them. Harpo Marx met child actress before her widespread fame when she visited the set of Duck Soup, most likely when she was lent by Education Pictures to Paramount for the Randolph Scott Western To the Last Man. Harpo did more than pose for pictures with the little girl. He reportedly offered her family $50,000 to adopt her. It sounds a bit creepy today, but Harpo was just one of the first of many to be charmed by the little girl, both on screen and off.

A sad footnote to the film is the early death of its other female lead, Dorothy Dell, who was killed in a car accident just one week after its premiere. She was only 19 years old. Dell is a fine actress in her role as the gangster’s moll who bonds with the little girl. She reportedly got along well with the girl on the set, and encouraged Menjou to get on her good side. In the film she is given the heartbreaking task of preventing the little girl from finding out that her father has died. Shirley’s real parents would do their best to delay the news of Dell’s death reaching their daughter.


Movie of the Day


I never thought I would sit through a movie about cockfighting. But after seeing Dillinger and Two-Lane Blacktop last year, I now count Warren Oates among my favorite actors. And, as with Two-Lane Blacktop, I had the chance to see one of his films on the big screen, at a cinema here in Tokyo that has been re-releasing all of Monte Helman’s films.

Cockfighter is indeed about illegal cockfighting, and the men that pit roosters against each other to the death in barns, riversides, hotel rooms and the governor’s mansion. Even before the film was released, is garnered controversy, with activists petitioning then governor Jimmy Carter to stop the filming. The finished film was banned in the UK, where it still can’t be shown. Steps were reportedly taken to prevent the animals from hurting each other too much, and none of them actually died in the filming. But today, the bloody fight scenes are difficult to watch, especially one composed of slow-motion close-ups.

Every scene either shows a brutal cockfight or the preparation for the next one. But the film is about more than the outlaw sport. Oates plays a man obsessed. He refuses to speak a word, although he does talk in his sleep. He was once certain that he would get the medal for cockfighter of the year, which comes directly from the governor, despite the sport being illegal.  He consented to a warm-up match in a hotel room and lost his prize rooster and his only chance for the medal. His opponent, played by Harry Dean Stanton, tells him “you got two problems, Mansfield, you drink too much and you talk to much.” And just like that the decides not to utter another word until he does get that medal. Although Oates does provide voice-over narration, he has to act the entire film without speaking. The challenge creates a perfect role for him, and he crooked grin and soulful eyes go a long way.

Stanton is as good as always here, and there is an appearance by a very young Ed Begley Jr., and character actor Richard B. Shull is enjoyable as the partner who takes care of the business side of the bets. But the film really belongs to Oates. In one scene, his character is forced to go back to his hometown after losing his car and trailer on a bad bet.  Before long an old girlfriend comes to pay a visit. They stand on the front porch.  She talks, pleading with him to finally make a commitment. He only gives her pained squints. When her mother, waiting in the car, gives an impatient honk, Oates explodes in a ball of energy, dancing across the lawn, jumping onto the roof of her car and pounding on the windows by way of a greeting. This one little not only captures the title character of this film, but also Warren Oates’ range as an actor.

Movie of the Day

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I started off 2013 the same way I started off 2012, by watching a movie at Toho Cinemas in Roppongi Hills, one of the few cinemas in Tokyo which is open on New Year’s Day. I wasn’t particularly interested in the new Hobbit film, but there wasn’t a whole lot of choice and after covering a press conference with Peter Jackson and company, I was interested in seeing the high frame rate projection for myself. Reportedly the film is only being played in the high frame rate on 400 screens around the world, and it appears a big chuck of them are in Tokyo, so I thought I would take the opportunity while I could.

I was told that this film wouldnI never got around to seeing Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I was the only member of my group of friends in high school and college who wasn’t into J. R. R. Tolkien’s novels. As such, I don’t know the difference between a hobbit and an dwarf, an elf and a troll, a wizard and a necromancer. The film assumes the audience knows all this, and the story was not intrigue enough to make me want to learn or even care. I found myself trying to recognize actors beneath all of the latex noses and scraggly wigs and waiting for the next sweeping shot of the New Zealand countryside, which were indeed stunning. I am a big admirer of Andy Serkis’ work, both in his traditional roles in Burke and Hare and Brighton Rock and his performance capture role in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. But it seemed like I was waiting for three hours for his Gollum to appear. Since Tolkien’s novel is being stretched out over three films, now I feel locked into watching the next two installments just to have a since of closure.

At the press conference in Tokyo, exactly one month ago, Jackson was very happy to talk about the film’s 48-frame-per-second high frame rate, complaining that the 24-frame-per-second standard that was set with the introduction of talkies was only barely good enough at the time, and has been dragged out for over 80 years. His enthusiasm made me interested in the technology and the film. But that was before I tapped into the seemingly endless stream of negative publicity on HFR projection.  New York Magazine’s Vulture site has compiled a categorized list of opinions from film critics. What they are saying is not exactly complimentary, and audiences have been less kind, going online to say the movie caused headaches or nausea. It was enough to make me wonder what I was getting myself into when I slid on my 3D glasses.

Many of the complaints about the high frame rate are valid. It makes the film look like a video game, a soap opera on HDTV, a making of featurette on an actual film, or a nature documentary. It also makes imperfection in the sets and makeup obvious. All of these are true. At its worst, the technology makes scene of Bilbo and company walking through a wood in broad daylight does look very much like a HD nature documentary of modern-day explorers of looking for a cave-dwelling bats. But high frame rate works very well for the epic battle scenes and the CGI shots featuring Gollum. This made me think that the cause of the problematic scenes was a lack of proper color correction which would have lent the entire film more visual unity.





Movie of the Day

Mrs. Miniver

I spent the afternoon of the last day of 2012 the same way I spent the afternoon of the last day of 2011: watching a classic film at a theater in Tokyo that specializes in screening classic films. Last year it was the Astaire-Rogers lighthearted romp The Gay Divorcee. This year it was a rather more serious film.

I remember watching Mrs. Miniver a few years ago, before starting this blog, but I must not have been following it very closely because I didn’t remember just how good it was. It is obvious that the film was intended as wartime propaganda. Director William Wyler wanted to use the film to portray the plight of ordinary British citizens, who were being bombed almost nightly by the Germans, and win the sympathy of America, which hadn’t yet entered the war when the film went into production. Everything changed when America did enter the war. The script was revised, scenes were reshot and President Roosevelt even got involved, ordering that post-production be sped up so the film could be used to boost morale on the American . When the film was finished, Roosevelt co-opted the vicars moving speech which closes the film, asking that it be broadcast on the Voice of America radio program and having it translated into a variety of European languages and air-dropped over the enemy. As a work of propaganda, Mrs. Miniver lauds the heroism of ordinary English people, in historical events such as the Evacuation of Dunkirk, which I hadn’t known about, and I guess the average American in 1942 wouldn’t have known much about.

But the film is still powerful today, long after its propaganda purposes have ended. The power of the film comes from the focus on a single village, where the biggest news before the start of bombings is that there is a new contender to the trophy in the annual flower show. The handful of characters that are introduced are painted in detail, making their sacrifice clearer. Combat is never shown, except for a brief scene of  fighter plane crashing into a tree. Heroism comes from the home front. The scene of the Miniver family huddling in their bomb shelter as shells explode overhead, shaking tinned food to the floor is truly frightening. This is because those thrown into harm’s way are not pilots and soldiers, but mothers and children.

There are weaknesses in the film, mostly because it was set in England but produced in Hollywood. At the time the Hollywood community was suffering a shortage of British actors, many of whom had gone back home to “do their bit” for the war effort. Walter Pidgeon, a Canadian, plays the head of the family and doesn’t even attempt a British accent. Teresa Wright, an American, tried, but not very successfully. On the other hand, we have Greer Garson, who deserved the Best Actress Oscar she won for the title role. Dame May Whitty is just as entertaining as she is in Gaslight and The Lady Vanishes, and her role has a little more dramatic depth than anything else I have seen her in.

Movie of the Day

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Since the end of the year is upon us, I was thinking of compiling a short list of my favorite films of 2012. But I realized that I haven’t actually seen too many films that were completed this year. Most of  what I watch is at least 30 years old. I loved Hugo and The Way, which I saw in theaters earlier this year. But they were actually first released in 2011 and 2010 before very delayed arrivals at theaters in Tokyo. With only two days left in the year, I thought I had better squeeze in another film from 2012 and it was either For a Good Time Call.. or The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Set in a suburban high school in the early ’90s, this film adapted by Stephen Chbosky from his own hit novel, draws obvious comparisons with John Hughes’ 80s high school dramas such as The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles. While those films always focused on socially awkward teens or kids from the wrong side of the tracks, they did so mainly for for comedic value.  Perks, which distances itself from its era by 20 years, takes a much more somber approach. The wallflower of the title is a freshman who is more than awkward. He has serious psychological problems, having survived the death of his favorite aunt and the recent suicide of his only friend. When he bonds two misfit seniors, high school seems bearable for a while. Although Emma Watson, as the girl he develops his first crush on, is the only box office draw in her first major role after Harry Potter, her American accent is inconsistent at best, and she is doesn’t come across on screen as beguiling as the central character sees her. The real star of the show is Ezra Miller as the gay teen Frank, who suffers through a relationship with the schools closeted quarterback who will sleep with him but not acknowledge him in public.

Miller’s performance is wonderful, and the whole film is beautifully, poignantly shot. Joan Cusack is great as the psychiatrist at the mental hospital where Charlie winds up, and it was nice to see special effects master Tom Savini in a rare acting role as a shop teacher.  But large chunks of the second act where a bit boring for me, probably because I was in high school at the same time and had many of the same experiences. Listening to The Smiths and Cocteau Twins? Check. Saturday night screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show? Check. Mixed tapes made and received from girls. Check and check. The trio of misfits take themselves very seriously, as do most high school students. When Charlie saying “at this moment we are infinite,” would be enough to make me roll my eyes, if I hadn’t felt the same way when I was in high school.

Movie of the Day

The Man with One Red Shoe

I really enjoyed the French comedy The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe when I saw it two years ago, and thought would never have to bother with the American remake starring Tom Hanks. But news came yesterday yesterday that actor Charles Durning had died. Although I have already seen literally dozens of his films, I wanted to remember him by watching one of his films that I hadn’t seen yet. And this is one of the many, many films Durning appeared in.

This remake follows the original story very closely. Some scenes are almost shot-for-shot copies. As in the French film, an innocent man is tapped as a red herring as part of games between two fighting factions of the intelligence agency. Durning plays the corrupt head of the C.I.A., who schemes to defend his position from an even more corrupt agent played by Dabney Coleman. I think there was a law in the early ’80s that a film couldn’t be made in America without offering a role to Dabney Coleman. What is so enjoyable about the French film is how oblivious the man with mismatched shoes is, not only to his footwear, but to the fact that secret agents have combed over every inch of his apartment. Pierre Richard does a wonderful job of of playing the daydreaming, hopelessly romantic concert violinist. Tom Hanks, whose career was just really starting to take off at the time, didn’t have the same quality and just comes across as a bit dim-witted. But even at that stage Hanks was obviously a hard working actor, and convincingly pantomimes playing the violin as clearly does some of the stunts in the big bike versus car race at the climax. The depiction of spies is cartoonish, probably intentionally so. But overall the film lacks the silliness that made the original so entertaining. Lori Singer plays the love interest,  the spy who falls for the man she is spying on. Although she conforms to the 80s concept of beauty, her performance as a cool headed spy looks more like sleepwalking.

Not surprisingly, the best scenes in the film are between Charles Durning and his underling played by Edward Herrmann. They don raincoats and umbrellas to talk under the lawn sprinklers, the only place where the bugs do not pick up their conversation. Herrmann’s character is the moral voice, feeling guilt over the fact that the person he chose at random from the passengers at the airport might be killed. No one else at the C.I.A. seems to mind.


Charles Durning

Charles Durning has died. It should not come as a surprise for a man of 89 to die of natural causes. But Durning seemed to already be old when he started his career and continued it for decades and decades.  He even has one upcoming credit in Scavenger Killers, which is due out in 2013.

Most obituary headlines have dubbed him “the king of character actors.” Although he was one of the most recognizable in that brand of actors which are not supposed to be easily recognizable, he had a versatility which surpasses the designation and its somewhat negative connotations.  The earliest of Durning’s films I have seen is Brian De Palma’s 1973 thriller Sisters (pictured above) which has him as a private investigator who is the only one who believes a young reporter who claims to have witnessed a murder through her apartment window. Durning had not yet developed the white stringy hair that  later so quickly identified him when he would pop up in a movie, but he was already burly and gruff.

Durning often played gruff, occasionally corrupt, detectives or officers of the law, from a jaded vice cop (Sharky’s Machine) all the way up to the director of the CIA (The Man With One Red Shoe). Two of his most family roles are as cops, in The Sting and Dog Day Afternoon. His paunch, bulbous nose, and world-weary demeanor made him perfect to play a cop who has seen it all. But he could do much more than that. Some of his role required him to do little other than shout at the top of his lungs (North Dallas Forty). But he could always do it with a glint in his eye that said “I hate to do this to you guys, but you need to be bawled out.”

The penultimate scene of Tootsie has Dustin Hoffman meeting Durning at a small tavern. Durning’s character had courted Hoffman’s when he thought that he was a woman. Seeing him for the first time out of drag, he is humiliated and agree, but also able to accept Dustin’s apology. There is a fine line between the scene and the kind of soapy melodrama the movie parodies. But the two master actors are able to keep it realistic. It is a wonderful scene.

As a child, I knew Durning from his role as Doc Hopper, the entrepreneur who is desperate to get Kermit the Frog as a spokesman for his frog leg restaurants. He is fun and obviously having fun with a cast that is largely made of felt. That is what he was—a versatile actor who did not take himself too seriously and was not afraid to have fun with a role. More recently he voiced Peter Griffin’s father on “Family Guy,” a hard-working Irish Catholic man with ear hair hosting an enchanted forest. Although it was only a vocal role, Durning was terribly funny with it. Two of his roles were so funny they earned him Oscar nominations. One was as a buffoonish Nazi officer in Mel Brooks’ To Be or Not To Be. And the other was the Governor of Texas in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. It features Durning doing something he no one ever thought they would see Charles Durning doing—singing and dancing. And he also delivers what I think is one of the funniest lines I have ever heard in a movie just before he breaks into song. Video below.

Movie of the Day

Les Misérables

I’ve never seen Les Miz, as I am not very interested in stage musicals in general. I don’t even know any of the songs from the show. But I am somewhat familiar with Victor Hugo’s novel from college.  I thought I might as well see this new film adaptation, as I am not likely to see it on stage any time soon. The film is being relentlessly promoted here in Tokyo. The director and main cast came through Tokyo in October, holding a press conference at a massive venue that normally serves as a concert hall. Originally the Japan release was announced for December 28, three days after the US and the UK. That was brought up to December 21, so it could be marketed as something to see at Christmas. That decision turned out to be a wise one, as the 12 screenings today at Toho Cinemas Roppongi were completely sold out two days in advance. That is likely the case everywhere else it is showing in Japan. It’s a rather dark film to watch at Christmas, but marketing is a powerful thing.

Much has been made of the live singing used on the film. Rather than record in the studio and lip-sync to playback on the set, the actors all (supposedly) sang every take live for the camera, as a pianist off camera played into the actor’s hidden earpieces. In featurette which I I have sat through at least a dozen times as it plays before films in cinemas, the film’s creative team insist this is the first time this has ever been done. That is not strictly true, as live singing was used for the very first musical films in the 1930s, when overdubbing was not possible, and has been used in more recent films. I also suspect that some of the vocals may have been re-recorded later in the studio. Could a child actor sing a song while riding on the step at a back of a horse carriage through a chaotic street and produce a take clean enough for the final film?

Although it is not as revolutionary as claimed, the approach works well for Hugh Jackman, who is a fine singer, and especially for Anne Hathaway. Her solo “I Dreamed a Dream” alone is enough to win Hathaway an Oscar nomination, if not a win. The same method is less than successful with Russell Crowe and Amanda Seyfried, who don’t have the same vocal chops. Crowe seems to be putting all of his effort into looking menacing as the ruthless inspector who never forgets or forgives a crime. He is good in this regard, but his singing comes out in mumbles. I often found myself reading the Japanese subtitles to understand his lines. Seyfried looks to be putting every ounce of her powering into her fluttering vibrato, which grows wearing very fast.  Not knowing the musical, I did not know what to expect of the songs. While a few of them were beautiful and moving, some of Crowe’s song seem to be at odds with the tragic content of the story.

Although Seyfried and Crowe’s singing form the weak links in the film, there are plenty of other highlights in the cast. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter a good fun as the unscrupulous inn keeper and his wife, and once they were introduced, I kept waiting for them to reappear. The British child actors who plays Gavroche and the young Cosette are wonderful. Samantha Barks, one of the few performers to carry their role over from the stage show is, not surprisingly, probably the best singer in the film.

Computer effects shots are usually used to make well-known buildings blow up. They are put to good use in this film, where they transparently blend together sets and location shots, as well as creating dramatic transitions between the various periods of the story and pulling the camera far back to give an overview of Paris. It is hard to imagine how the final, epic shot across a giant barricade was even filmed. But it is effective because it looks real, rather than drawing attention to itself, as effects shots usually do.

Press Conferences

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Press conference at the Hotel Okura, Tokyo, December 1, 2012

Peter Jackson: Hi everybody. Thank you very much for coming and I am really glad you just had a chance to see the movie trailer. I think you saw it at 48 frames a second, the high frame rate, too, which is a great way to see it. And thank you for the fantastic welcome here in Japan. Thank you. We’re really happy to answer any questions you have.

Martin Freeman: Yes, it’s lovely to be here. I love Tokyo. I love Japan generally. And we hope you like it. We hope you liked the trailer earlier. And we are looking forward to sharing with the Japanese public this film that we have worked on with so much love, care and attention. And finally being able to see it tonight should be very exciting.

Andy Serkis: Ohayo Gozaimasu (“good morning” in Japanese). Or as Gollum would say, o-ha-yoo go-zai-masuu. We are really happy to be back in Japan. We have had great time here with the Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong. And it is just fantastic to come back and finally share The Hobbit with you.

Richard Armitage: Konichiwa. I was here in Tokyo back in 2000, and I am so proud to come back in 2012 with these amazing people, and with this film, which I think will really appeal to a Japanese audience. It has so many big themes like honor and loyalty. It is just something huge for me. But I think it will be very well received here. And I am very proud to bring it to you.

Elijah Wood: Yes, we have had some pretty incredible experiences bringing the Lord of the Rings films here. It was always extremely special to come to Japan. I love Tokyo. I love Japan. And we are happy to bring this earlier part of the journey to you. We really want to thank you for having us.

Question: In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, there is a lot of violence, battles and fighting. This one seems to be more about life, pity and mercy. Could you comment on that?

Peter Jackson: It is interesting talking about pity and mercy, because there is a sequence in The Hobbit. It is actually a sequence—because The Hobbit takes place 60 years before the Lord of the Rings—it is a sequence which we have already seen the result of what happens in the Lord of the Rings films. In The Hobbit, Bilbo has an opportunity. He has Gollum in front of him. It is invisible. He has a sword. And he could at that stage decide to kill this creature who has tried to kill him. And he doesn’t. There is a sense of decency inside that character that prevents him from doing that. And that ultimately pays off inside the volcano, in the Lord of the Rings. The fact that Gollum was saved and didn’t die, that enables the ring to be destroyed. And so I thought that would be interesting after 12 years, after we originally shot the first film, to show the reason why that was possible.

Martin Freeman: Yes, the sort of pivotal scene I think you are alluding to, between Bilbo and Gollum, when Bilbo chooses not to take Gollum’s life, and in Bilbo’s ears are ringing Gandalf’s words “true courage is knowing not when to take a life, but when to spare it.” I think that says something about Tolkien’s humanity. I think it is true. I hope it is true, just as a general adage. And also when you are hearing Ian McKellen saying it to you, that kind of helps. I think it helps and audience, but it also helped me carry that through. I think it is a lovely moment. It tells you a lot about Bilbo, that this responsibility does not sit lightly with him. He takes it very seriously. He is not a person who is quick to anger, or violence, or aggression. It wouldn’t suit him to kill a defenseless being anyway. Even in fear, even if it is a life and death situation for him. It wouldn’t sit well with him. So I think it is a good indication of Bilbo’s view of life.

Question: I would like to ask Peter Jackson what he was most aiming for with this film. And I would like to ask the others what it was like to join this big project after 8 years.

Peter Jackson: The aim of making the movies really for me, with any movie I make, is escapism. I love the mystery and romance of going to the cinema. I always have since I was a child. And there are many different types of films to suit different people. The type of film I like to watch and therefore the type of film I like to make, are ones in which you are transported into an adventure. There are characters with emotional depth, but beyond all of that, it is an escapist experience, which is why I love fantasy films. And Tolkien’s books really are the ultimate fantasy. They are stories that transport you into a world that is familiar. It has characters that are familiar. It seems familiar. And yet, it has the exotic, fantastical elements with the creatures and the Gollum and trolls and things. For me it is an extension of a fairy tale. That is what I love about films. They are fairy tales for everybody, really.

Andy Serkis: It has been an incredible experience coming back to New Zealand and shooting The Hobbit. And a wonderful time to get together with very old friends, and meet crew that were on those films. I come back and everyone is slightly older and have more children. Then, of course, welcoming the new cast, who were phenomenally dedicated, really hard-working, great fun to be around. For me, I had a wonderful time because not only was I reprising the role of Gollum, but Peter asked me to direct the second unit. And I had the opportunity to experience the great work that all these actors did, and to learn a lot from Peter as well. He was incredibly generous with enabling me to move into an area I am interested in. For a year and a half, we became a brand new family and went on a brand new adventure. It was brilliant and immensely challenging. Logistically, mentally and physically challenging. But when you got great people around you, and amazingly talented team, who are all working 150%, it is a joy.


Elijah Wood: As Andy just said, it was so extraordinary. The experience of making The Hobbit very much echoed the experience of making The Lord of the Rings. The incredible effort and passion amongst the actors and filmmakers and crew was beautiful to see. The scale of The Hobbit seemed much larger in a way. But the intimacy and connection among the people working was very much the same. It was an absolute gift to come back. I had certainly felt that that chapter of my life had been closed, but certainly not my connection to those people and to New Zealand. But to be asked to come back and briefly reprise the role of Frodo was a gift. Mainly to be able to go back to New Zealand and to see Ian McKellen as Gandalf again, and to work with Ian Holm again, and to see old family and friends. It was a joy for me to meet the new cast, who were deeply entrenched in a very similar journey as we had gone through. It was a joy to spend time with them, and sort of vicariously live through this new journey that they were on. It was a beautiful thing to witness.

Richard Armitage: Having been a big fan of the Lord of the Rings books, and absorbing myself in the film trilogy, one thing you realize is that Peter’s work is very, very unlikely ever to be remade in the future. So when you are given the responsibility to take on a role like Thorin, you understand that I will probably be the only person ever to play this. So to have that responsibility and come to New Zealand with all of those fears, will probably be the most memorable thing about this whole event. It was probably the best year of my life, and the best 18 months I ever spent working on any piece of work, regardless of the end product. The experience of sharing that with Peter and his team will be there in my heart forever.

Martin Freeman: It has all been said really by the others. I think it is no coincidence that all of our answers seem to be encompassing things about how it was to be part of the group, the word “family” keeps coming up as well. That is how the Lord of the Rings cast and crew spoke of their experience, and that is how we speak of ours. It is a relatively small country, a stone street to the studio. I keep saying this and it is not meant to be in anyway a backhanded compliment, but it seems like the biggest student film ever made. It is a cottage industry, and I mean that in the best possible way. It’s the biggest film being made on the planet earth, but it still feels like we are making jam or something. It had an ad hoc feeling, it had an informal feeling, which definitely suits me. It makes us do good work, hopefully, because it is not scary, it is not frightening. You are encouraged to have a good time, which is the whole reason you get into acting in the first place, or anything to do with the arts or entertainment business. You are not doing it because you have to. You are doing it because, please God, it is going to be fun. And so 18 months of these films, I can honestly report were fun, almost regardless of how it is received. Of course we would rather that people like it. It was worthwhile for us, whether people do or do not like it. As Andy said, it is always hard work, but there was a goal in sight which made it worthwhile.


Question: I would like to ask Peter Jackson what made him decide to cast Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage, and also what made you think you made a good decision.

Peter Jackson: My feeling when we are casting films, I want in the film a sense of truth. I can say certainly with Martin and Richard, and with everyone else in the cast as well, there has to be an element of truth in what they are doing. It is not pretend or pretense. I think that is even more important in a fantastical film. Whether you are playing a hobbit or playing a dwarf, essentially there is a little bit of an alien creature there. They are similar to us, but they are not human beings. So I think that we have to empathize with them is absolutely critical to the film. And Martin is a fantastic dramatic actor, and at the same time it is important that in the character of Bilbo. There is a lot of heart and humor, which comes from the fact that he is essentially a very unlikely hero. He is someone experience danger who would rather not, being in the company of dwarves, he would rather not be in the company of. And there is a lot of social comedy, if you like, social humor, which comes from the situation that he is in. And not a lot of dramatic actors understand the way to play humor. It is a very, very rare skill. And Martin is superb at that. And another thing about Martin that, as a director, is a huge gift to me, is that we could shoot maybe 6 or 7 takes, and every take would be different. It would be fresh. Martin would be continuing to experiment with the scene, but every single take was great. I found myself in the cutting room with enormous choice, spoiled for choice. You see Martin exploring the scene, but there is a truth in every single take.

In many respects, I look at the characters of Bilbo and Thorin as the heart and soul of the story, really. If Bilbo is the heart, then Thorin is the soul. We auditioned the role with many, many actors, and Richard managed to capture for us the very important sense of nobility, because he is essentially playing a king. Also the question of whether he has the ability to lead these dwarves on a very difficult task, to reclaim their homeland. It is a very noble thing he is trying to do. But he doesn’t really have the resources, if you like, to do this. With the character, there is a sense of honor, which Richard carries, which I think is absolutely superb. As an actor, Richard is one of those very rare actors, he uses stillness to draw your attention, and draw your eye. A lot of things are happening on the screen, there are many characters on the screen, and yet Thorin in his stillness, draws your attention. It is a very rare skill. Your eyes go to him on screen as something you want to watch.

Question: For Peter Jackson, why did you decide to make The Hobbit after making the Lord of the Rings trilogy?

Peter Jackson: The answer to that really is that we didn’t want anybody else to do it. Having done the Lord of the Rings, we felt a pride of ownership, in the world Middle Earth, with New Zealand being part of that. We were proud of what we had achieved. We didn’t know whether The Hobbit get made for a long time, because the rights were split between two different studios. It wasn’t a certainty that it would happen. But we knew if it did happen, we wanted to be a part of it. It took a long time to get the film going, but it was a terrific experience. Probably the most fun that I have ever had shooting a film.

Question: My question is for Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage. What was it like for the two of you to work together?

Martin Freeman: It was very easy, actually, working with Richard. What Peter said about what he brings to Thorin, is partly what he is as a person. He respects himself and others. He respects other’s ways of thinking, but he also have this very strong core of himself. And he is the least arrogant person you could wish to meet. And he is always up for what you are going to bring to the scene. I went to the gym with him once. There were a few of us there. And we had to do these circuits around the gym with this insane psychopath of a gym trainer. And I was busy dying about halfway around. I was genuinely ready to pass out. And Richard had sort of quietly completed the entire circuit without breaking a sweat. He admitted it had found it hard. What I really admired about that was he wasn’t being macho, but he just kind of quietly got on with it. And that is how he treated the job, really. The trials and tribulations of making a film—it is tiring, you miss home, et cetera, he was very stoical about it, which is a good thing for Thorin. So there is a good marriage of Richard and Thorin there. What I think about Richard is he is essentially a decent person. And I can offer no higher praises. He is a good human being, and I like being around him.

Richard Armitage: I always felt guilty that I did not socialize enough when I was working on this film. Particulary with Martin, because he is really one of the most entertaining people I have ever worked with. The prosthetics are removed with alcohol, so if you consume too much alcohol the night before, the face falls off about half way through the day, and you feel really rubbish. But in terms of what I gained from Martin as an actor, but in one scene. It was my first day on the set, but Martin had been working with Andy for about two weeks on the Gollum scenes. And I watched Martin improvising in the way that a jazz musician would riff on a theme. It is actually quite a brave thing to do, because you expose your process to everyone as you do it. And I remember going away and thinking that he had set the benchmark for me, and the way I would like to work on the rest of the film. And that set everything in motion. I have so much admiration for what he did on this film. And I think that the character will let him get into people’s hearts.

Question: I’d like to ask Peter Jackson about the high frame rate.

Peter Jackson: In 1927, movies became sound films. In the silent movie days, cameras were cranked by hand, and the speed would vary depending on how the cameraman would crank it. But when they put a soundtrack on the film, it was very important that it moved at a constant speed. And yet, 35mm film stock was very expensive. And so they arrived at 24 frames a second as the cheapest speed that they could come up with that consumed the least amount of this expensive film stock, but was just fast enough for the fidelity of the soundtrack. And for 85 years, that has become the industry standard, and only because thousands and thousands of projectors were built, thousands of cameras were built. They were built and installed when that was what the industry used, and they have remained for decades. In recent times, a couple of things have happened which were influences on me. Obviously digital cinema has come in. There are now digital cameras and projectors, and the frame rate can be changed. Unlike the big old mechanical projectors that were installed in so many cinemas around the world, you now can increase the frame rate. For me, increasing the frame rate gives a greater illusion of reality, like cutting a hole in the back of the cinema and taking the screen out and you are looking into the real world. For a filmmaker loves taking audiences and immerse them in a story, the higher frame rate is very good for 3D. It makes the 3D smooth and very gentle on the eyes. The high frame rate combined with 3D is a wonderful combination of technologies. And the other thing that has happened is, there is a sense around the world that it takes more to get people to go to the cinema. There are so many choices. Home entertainment, iPads, iPhones. I don’t want kids to watch The Hobbit on an iPad. I like to give reasons to make a trip to the cinema, for the romance of the movies. I think for filmmakers, it is up to us to look at the technology and look for ways we can enhance the cinema going experience. Make it bigger, better in the cinema. For me, there is no better place to see a film, then to be strangers in the dark and being transported into another world.


Movie of the Day

Christmas in Connecticut

I had never heard of this film until I Googled “Christmas films of the 1940s.”  It is not nearly as well-known as other holiday fare from the decade such as It’s a Wonderful Life or The Bishop’s Wife, but judging from the IMDB message boards, Christmas in Connecticut does seem to have a small, solid fan base.

Barbara Stanwyck is always best when she is playing a conniving, manipulating femme fatales, such as her character in Double Indemnity. Here she is once again a deceitful woman, but one with her heart in the right place. She plays Elizabeth Lane, a sort of proto-Martha Stewart who writes her wildly popular column on keeping the perfect home from her farm in Connecticut. Only she lives in an apartment in New York, and her idea of cooking is opening a can of sardines.

Two of the most interesting supporting actors from Casablanca turn up in the cast, and really make the movie. Sidney Greenstreet plays a powerful publishing magnate who requests, or rather demands, that she open up her non-existent farmhouse to a returning soldier who was stranded at sea after his transport vessel was sunk. S.Z. Sakall, who has a small but memorable role as the bartender at Rick’s Place, appears as a Hungarian chef who provides Elizabeth with meals and recipes to run in her column. He is very entertaining in this film as the mastermind who makes sure the couple that should be together gets together. Rounding out the cast is Una O’Connor, who was so funny in The Invisible Man, and is just as hilarious here as the cook who spares with the Hungarian who encroaches into her kitchen.

When it becomes clear that she will lose her lucrative job if you doesn’t produce a Connecticut farm, she agrees to quickly marry a bore of an architect who just happens to own one. When the handsome young soldier, who has no family to spend Christmas with, shows up before the quickie wedding, she falls in love at first sight. The woman taken with a somewhat younger man is another type of role Stanwyck excelled in, maybe because the actress herself had a long relationship with the much younger Robert Wagner. Since every detail of her life is known to her publisher and the general public through her articles, she is forced think fast and make one lie after another to present the idyllic country life that everyone thinks she lives.

Although things work themselves out at the end of the story, as a Christmas film this avoids veering into the sickly sweet and sentimental.

Movie of the Day

One Hundred and One Dalmatians

The first few minutes of One Hundred and One Dalmatians completely bowled me over. Since I have been watching all of the Disney films in chronological order, I have been able to see the evolution of the studio’s animation style. The roughness of movement and line apparent in Snow White were soon smoothed out. By the time of Bambi, the background paintings were works of art in the own right. By the time Cinderella was released, the Disney style was, in my opinion at least, too clean. This was even more so in Sleeping Beauty. The title sequence and opening shots of Dalmatians are of an entirely different style, which I find much hipper and jazzier. A little checking online quickly revealed why.

As Disney animate featured became more refined, they also became more expensive. Sleeping Beauty was released in 1959 as a 70mm, widescreen, stereo film. Although the format was designed to impress, it was expensive. The production cost $6 million, or more than twice the budget of each of the studio’s previous three animated films. Although it just barely made back its production costs, its poor performance at the box office resulted in the company posting its first loss in a decade in 1960.

This is when Ub Iwerks stepped in. Iwerks was Disney’s oldest friend, and was the technical genius at the studio, usually credited with “visual effects.” Iwerks was like Steve Wozniak to Walt Disney’s Steve Jobs. With the studio in financial difficulties and Walt considering shutting down the animation department completely, Iwerks began experimenting with the new technology of Xerox photography. He found that animator pencil sketches could be photographed and printed directly onto cells, bypassing the labor intensive inking department. Cutting out the hand inking process reduced the animation staff from 500 to less than 100. Jobs were lost, but it allowed the studio to continue with animated features which Walt was regretfully about to abandon.

The result of the new process was a rough style which clearly showed pencils lines and sometimes allowed colors to spill out past their boundaries. Although this was style that caught my eye after watching so many Disney films, Walt himself hated it, thinking it destroyed the fantasy of animation. He reportedly held a grudge against the film which he relented only during his very last visit to the studio shortly before his death. Despite his feelings about it, the style was new and would influence not only animation in the ’60s and ’70s, but also magazine and advertising illustration.

The animation style has a more mature feel to it, and the story does as well. It is still about anthropomorphic dogs in love, much like The Lady and the Tramp,  but this film is more about the struggle to find, and to keep it once you have found it. The London setting probably does a lot to help make the story more sophisticated. The only thing that is odd about it is that two dogs with British accents have puppies with American accents. But I guess if you are willing to accept talking dogs, you have to also accept that they might talk differently than their parents.

Then, of course, there is Cruella De Vil, the greatest of the great Disney villains, and clearly modeled after one of my favorite actresses, Tallulah Bankhead.


Movie of the Day

Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away

One of the many odd things that film distributors do when promoting international releases in Japan, is to appoint some random Japanese celebrity who has nothing whatsoever to do with the film to act as its “ambassador” is Japan. The duties of such a position might extend as far as narrating the Japanese version of the trailer, but are usually limited to making an appearance at the Japan premiere of the film. Aya Ueto, one of the most popular celebrities in Japan, became the representative of the new Cirque du Soleil film, which also opened this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival. The fact that she would appear for a few minutes to announce the film guaranteed that tickets would sell out instantly and be resold for many times their face value on Yahoo auctions. The fact that I wasn’t able to see the film in the festival probably made me more interested in seeing it than I would have been otherwise, and I decided to actually go so far as to buy a ticket to see it after it’s general release in Japan, which still ahead of the rest of the world.

I am not one of the (literally) 200 million people who have bought a ticket to a Cirque du Soleil show, and I know almost nothing about the troupe save that they started in Canada and are wildly popular in Japan.  The “original story” of the film is basic, and almost completely free of dialogue. Starting appropriately enough at a traditional big top circus, a girl meets a trapeze boy and it is love at first sight. When noticing her in the stands makes him fall from the rafters, they are cast into an alternate world where everything conspires to keep them apart. The girl, played by the lovely Erica Linz, is treated to beautiful diversions that she cannot take part in, while the boy is forced to sweat and toil.

The acrobatic performance by the countless secondary characters are very impressive and beautifully filmed. This was the first time in the age of digital 3D that I thought the technology was put to good use. But glimpses of spotlights and stage scaffolding at the edges of some of the larger-scale numbers really worked to break the continuity of the story. It was only when I sat through the closing credits that I realized that the original story was largely made by stringing together routines from Cirque du Soleil shows in Las Vegas. This was a bit of a disappointment, but it was still an enjoyable viewing experience.