Saturday, 22 December 2012

Tony Scott: a tribute

I realise I haven't yet written anything about the late great Tony Scott. As the year draws to a close, let me say what a sad loss of a very talented director and superb chap. I first met Scott, briefly, in 1993, at the LA press junket for True Romance, probably my favourite of all the Quentin Tarantino-scripted films. Though it was a couple of years later, when I was living in LA, that I got to know him better. 

Scott was working on his excellent submarine flick, Crimson Tide. Introduced by Tarantino's then-publicist, the wonderful, and wonderfully named, Bumble Ward, Tony agreed to my doing a piece about him and the film for Empire magazine (at that time I was its US Editor). Instead of the usual interview/profile stuff, I had ventured whether we might do something a bit different — how about, for example, if I tagged along with him while he was editing the film? (This would have been in the Spring of 1995.) Given Hollywood's twitchiness about films in anything other than a finished condition, not to mention extreme paranoia about the press penetrating its inner sanctum, I didn't fancy my chances — they were under huge pressure to deliver the film on deadline only days before general release. However, I was pleasantly surprised when Scott got straight back and agreed for me to sit in the editing suite with him and his team for a couple of days at the post-production studios in Santa Monica. 

It proved not only an education but a highly entertaining encounter which got written up in full (I can't find the piece online, but if I do I'll post the link). This was no mere case of an inconvenient journalist being shoved in the corner — as so often happens — but of the director fully involving me, steering me through every detail as he put the final touches to the film. As if he didn't have enough on his plate. Featuring some great laddish humour, an unruly Great Dane and an impromptu drop-in by überproducers Simpson and Bruckheimer, who insisted on changing the movie's ending, it was quite an experience I can tell you ("Uh-oh, the fuckin' boys are here. I think there's gonna be a row" he warned, in that gruff and familiar Northeastern strain, instructing me to pretend to be someone from the sound department).

He was an absolute gent to the last thread of that battered old, omnipresent red baseball cap — which even then had faded to a pale pink — and was indulgent way beyond the call of duty. I had recently been sailing to Catalina, I remember — well, pulling a few ropes while the skipper shouted at me — and we talked about that. He was a keen sailor himself, a great outdoorsman, a lover of rock climbing in particular. Being a fellow Brit (as indeed is Bumble) certainly helped. In a candid moment, he did intimate that all "this" (Hollywood/films, etc.) was "bollocks"... Yes, I do believe that is a direct quote. And if it isn't, it's not far off the mark. 

Not long after that he agreed to pen the foreword to the Tarantino biography I was writing at the time. In some places online the book is even listed as by "Tony Scott and Jeff Dawson", which isn't strictly correct, but if one were to have a co-pilot, I could think of none finer.

Scott's suicide was a real shock and continues to be for my industry colleagues in Tinseltown. What a great bloke. Glad to have known him, however brief the acquaintance. Strangely enough, not long before his death, I had dug out Crimson Tide to watch again, the first time in many a year. A tremendous film. When he was on song, there were few entertainers to match him.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Les Misérables: George Costanza

Saw "Lay Miz" last night. Tom Hooper's flick is visually stunning and the performances by Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe and co. are absolutely terrific. A criticism? Whisper it quietly near Old Compton Street, but I don't think the songs are that great — brilliantly rendered but not grabbers; not ones you'll hum on the way home.

Seinfeld fans will know what I'm talking about here, but one ditty, Master Of The House, just kept reminding me of this...

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The Hobbit: A Review

I never read Lord Of The Rings but did do The Hobbit at school — "in days of old when knights were bold," to quote Robert Plant, who's rather embarrassed about such lyrics these days. "And magic filled the air" — long enough ago for me to have forgotten most of it. So, I'm judging The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on purely cinematic merit.

My principal criticism is one I level generally at such epics — that for all the technical wizardry and sweeping vistas, sometimes less is more, the obsession with detail coming at the expense of the dramatic staples of character and plot. We know how it goes — big bucks necessitates big return, big return means global mainstream audience, global mainstream audience requires visual shock and awe (or so the thinking goes). And thus does Tolkein's book about little furry people go Wagnerian.

Where I found the first LOTR film quite enchanting, the second and third outings, for me, became a bit "so what?" I mean, after the umpteenth battle between dwarves, orcs and blah-di-blah, who really cares? It's exactly the same gripe with The Hobbit, but all in one movie. It has slaughter on an industrial scale yet still pulls off the not inconsiderable feat of leaving one strangely detached from the action and, curiously, never once feeling that any of our heroes is remotely in peril.

Despite some fine acting, at nearly three hours, and with a damp squib of a pay-off, the "unexpected journey" feels more of an aimless potter after a liquid lunch. As ever with these things, the best bits are the personal moments, Bilbo's verbal sparring with slippery Gollum worth a hundred Orc-ish eviscerations.

And yes, the format. I have an issue with 3D generally in that the current system is a bolt-on — a techno-gizmo retro-fitted to a hundred-year-old system, that of projecting a 2D image onto a blank canvas. Until a new method of exhibiting a film comes along — sitting in a pod? wearing virtual reality helmets? — it will always feel like a weld-job. As has been reported elsewhere, the pin-sharp resolution of 48 frames per seconds makes some of the scenes, particularly the indoor ones, appear like workaday television.

More than that, I still have a problem with both foreground and background being in focus simultaneously, something that contravenes the laws of physics. I found myself actually shutting one eye for much of it (add joke here). But that's just me.

There was a general consensus among the broadsheet reviewers for this film, a feeling of deflation. I think they got it just about right.