November, 2010

127 Hours

A new Danny Boyle film is always something to get excited about. 127 Hours closed the recent London Film Festival, and is Boyle’s first since he hit the serious bigtime with Slumdog Millionaire.
It tells the true story of Aron Ralston (warning: spoilers), an adrenaline junkie who careers around the wilds of Utah without a care in the world, canyoning, climbing and mountain biking. Then, one day, he slips up and gets him arm trapped under boulder down a thin gulley. He’s in the middle of nowhere, and essentially nobody knows that he’s there.
In some respects this is an incredibly claustrophobic film, with vast sections of it set in that canyon where he can’t move, has limited food and water, and only his video camera to keep him company. But in fact that’s not the case, and as much as anything that’s down to Boyle and his cinematography team.
The film opens with an incredibly kinetic sequence, which rivals those of Trainspotters or Slumdog. Set against a thumping soundtrack, Ralston (the excellent James Franco) bursts out of his van on his mountain bike. You get a good feeling for this in the trailer.
It’s important that we understand that Ralston loves life, because otherwise he could be considered incredibly selfish. I know that the first time I saw the trailer, I did wonder about his character. But in the film, he realises that he’s just a bit too free-wheeling and is a genuinely nice guy.
Once he’s trapped, Boyle’s really clever stuff begins. The dynamism doesn’t stop and clearly some very clever technology and tiny digital cameras have been used without causing any quality issues. When this film comes out on DVD, I’m really going to want to see a decent “making of” feature. The fast cutting technique, and using micro-cameras in his water bottle and Camelbak tube mean that there is always something to be looking at.
There’s also a degree of flashback involved, although in a non-traditional sense. In any event, the 94 minutes fly by despite so much of the film taking place in one location.
The other difficulty is that essentially you know the outcome of this film before you go in. The plot can be summarised in a single line, and the duration is right there in the titles. So we know what he does, and we know how long it takes him to get there. It’s the consummate skill of Boyle and co-writer Simon Beaufoy, that keeps you involved.
James Franco is great as the essentially very smart and level-headed Ralston. He doesn’t panic so much as logically consider all his steps and moves. And when the fear begins to overwhelm him he still remains pretty calm. Franco does carry this film by himself. There are other characters, like the two girls he meets and guides briefly towards the start of his excursion, his parents and girlfriend in flashback. But it’s really all about Ralston.
The special effects are excellent – including the ones you’re thinking about. Is the film for the squeamish? Probably not, but it’s not a horror film either.
The cinematography of Enrique Chediak and Anthony Dod Mantle must be acknowledged, and Boyle brings A.R. Rahman who he first used in Slumdog, to create the exceptional soundtrack.
In summary, this is unmissable!
By the way, the film is one big advert for the beauty of Utah. It makes you want to pack your bags and head there straight away (something that the current cold spell does nothing to stop), even if you take things a little bit slower when you get there.
I attended a bloggers’ screening of this film which I was delighted to attend because I was so looking forward to this film. You can follow the film on Twitter, and the film’s Facebook page is here.It’s out on 5 January 2011.

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest

And so we reach the third and final part of the Millennium trilogy. But before I get onto this film, a couple of things that irritated me in the cinema over the weekend. And neither were to do with the actual cinema (Vue in Islington).
Nope, I’m talking about trailers. Because we’re approaching the end of the year, we’re into awards season. And that means a glut of half-decent films – or at least films that Hollywood believes are going to win awards. On the upside, that means that during the cold (or even colder) winter months ahead of us, there are plenty of films to go out and see. On the downside, they come so thick and fast, that you miss some good ones, even though you have good intentions.
The only reason these good films get released at this time of year is because 31st December tends to be the cutoff release date for films to qualify in the Oscars et al. Yes – even though there are 12 months of the year to release films, voters of these awards are so forgetful that they can’t remember anything that was even released before October of the previous year. And that’s despite getting sent “screener” DVDs of the films to remind them (And those DVDs are actually the source of a significant proportion of piracy).
Aside from the actual release schedule, can we please call a halt to a couple of over-used trailer tropes?
1. Fade to black. You know what I mean, you see a snippet followed by fade to black, followed by snippet, followed by fade to black, and so on.
2. “Lost” style titles. Lost famously used a simple 3D-rendered version of the word Lost that came out of focus, into focus, and back out. This seems to be the new favourite technique to draw attention to the film’s name. It was clever when Lost used it, but we’re bored with it now thanks.
But the really dull trailer thing isn’t especially new, it’s just enormously prevalent at this time of year. It’s the habit of alerting viewers that this film doesn’t just star Colin Firth, it’s actually stars Academy Award Nominee Colin Firth, or Golden Globe Winner Coline Farrell, or whoever. Then we get into silly games where there are three stars, but only one is an Academy Award “Winner”, but the others have to have something to appear next to their names, otherwise they’re inferior actors somehow. I imagine that Hollywood agents are arguing over their star’s billing with the film’s producers.
Just because a film stars someone who won an award previously doesn’t actually affect my likelihood of seeing your film.
Anyway, onto the film. When I was visiting Sweden last autumn, this film was just hitting cinemas there (even though, after the first film, the second two were originally designed to form a TV miniseries). We’ve had to wait a year for it to come out here, following the other two.
If you’ve not already seen the first two parts of this film sequence, then you’re not going to want to start here. Again, the film follows the plot of the books closely, kicking off pretty much where we left off at the end of the last film.
Lisbeth Salander is in hospital, along with the man she has tried to kill. Meanwhile Ronald Niedermann is on the run. It’s probably not worth getting into the plot any more than that – especially if you’ve not seen the first couple of films. Suffice to say, that although in many respects this is a lower key film than the ones that have gone before it, the tension is ramped up appropriately.
The denouement, to a large extent, is a courtroom drama, and it’s played out well. Things get wrapped up.
Overall, it’s all very satisfactory conclusion to a series I’ve really enjoyed. So I’m left with a certain amount of trepidation about the Hollywood remake. Like the recent remake of Let The Right One In, I’m not sure why I’d want to go and see it, even though Fincher is a great director. Plus, his star Rooney Mara, is going to have to go someway to do better than Noomi Rapace.
Still – I will admit enjoying both the Swedish and British versions of Wallander – so it’s essentially the same thing happening here.
Finally, another aside: this morning as I was waiting at a cold station, I couldn’t help noticing the paperback editions of the three books being advertised as perfect Christmas gifts. The dragon tattoo of the protagonist seems to creep slowly up and over her shoulder over the course of the three books. See what I mean here:

Ofcom’s Broadcast Code Review

Sometime towards the end of the year, Ofcom should be reporting back on some changes it’s making to its Broadcast Code – the document that legislates what television and radio broadcasters are allowed to do on air.
The big news on the day it comes out will undoubtedly surround Product Placement on television. Will Simon Cowell et al have brand Coca Cola glasses on their desk in the next series of X-Factor? Will your favourite soap characters start drinking Stella Artois Black? Who knows. In the short term, we’ll find out what broadcasters can do, and then later on find out what they actually decide to do.
In radio, there are also likely to be substantial changes.
[Pause for a moment while I dash off to touch wood] To get an idea of what it might mean for radio, it’s instructive to go away and have a look at the final page of Ofcom’s radio consultation document. Ofcom outlined four different Options, starting with what we have today, and moving into what we might have. That page is indicative of what broadcasters can do.
Stephen Martin blogged about this subject the other day, and included a demo created by Alex Baker of Kerrang! which illustrated how the changes could sound.
And therein lies the decisions that radio executives will have to make in the early part of next year. It really is worth listening to that bit of audio. Go on. I’ll wait.
Overall it sounds pretty good – and pretty reasonable. There’s an oft-quoted example of radio stations not being allowed to run competitions to win a trip to the set of Harry Potter by asking competition questions about Harry Potter. At Absolute Radio, we’ve run into the same issues when promoting a James Bond film. Quiz questions couldn’t be about the film franchise, because that would give undue prominance to James Bond, and we’re not allowed to do that. This, despite the fact that the competition is only being run because the film distributor concerned has paid the station to promote the new film.
Anyway, back to that audio.
It’s all pretty standard until Baker says, “I was lucky enough to see an advance screening of the film, and it’s absolutely hilarious” when talking about the film Burke and Hare. Remember, this is a dummy piece of copy, and this didn’t air. But it’s the sort of thing a film company might like a DJ to say.
Now I’ve not seen Burke and Hare. It might be the comedy film of the year. I have my suspicions otherwise, but if it is a very funny film, then great. But just suppose it’s not: despite a top-class cast and a director who’s made some wonderful films in the past. Suppose this film sucks. Badly.
If a DJ at the station tells listeners that it’s “hilarious” and it really isn’t, how are listeners to respond?
And what damage does it do to that DJ’s credibility?
Yes films are always personal taste. You wouldn’t get me into a cinema to watch a Twilight or Harry Potter film, but I understand that millions love these film series. Films, books, music and the arts in general will never find universal agreement. But if a film’s really bad, and a DJ at your station says it’s good, where does it leave us?
To lesser or greater extents, we’re going to have to fight to maintain credibility with listeners. On the one hand, commercial stations are just that – there to make a profit. On the other hand, radio is a very personal medium. Survey after survey shows it to be one of the most trusted mediums. That’s we give up at our peril.
I should say that these proposed changes mean much more than just DJs saying giving personal testimonies about products. The term “Product Placement” shouldn’t even apply to radio, since it’s a visual thing and is largely only relevant to television. I don’t believe that listeners will hear anything too different on-air. There might be a few more outside broadcasts from locations that have paid to have the radio station’s presence there. Some advertising will be more seamlessly embedded into radio stations’ outputs. But overall, I don’t anticipate radio sounding enormously different.
The classes of products that are allowed to be advertised are unlikely to change. It’ll just be that some of the “harder edges” between where editorial stops and advertising starts will be smoothed off. But the proof will be in the pudding. And these only remain proposals until Ofcom publishes its new code. So we do still need to wait and see.
[As ever. these are my own personal views, and don’t necessarily reflect those of my employer. That said, I’ve raised exactly the same points there!]

The War For Late Night


Occassionally, when you delve into the non-Sky branded movie channels with names like True Movies or Movies 4 Men, you might have come across a TV movie called The Late Shift. It was a dramatisation of a book by New York Times television writer Bill Carter’s account of the hostilities surrounding the succession of hosts of the Tonight Show on NBC. Both the TV movie and book told the story of the shenanigans surrounding the retirement of Johnny Carson and the story of who would suceed him.
Jay Leno won out over David Letterman. Letterman moved over to CBS and created his own show there going up against Leno. And there, the two have been for the last seventeen years or so.
Fast forward to the last couple of years, and this book re-engages with some of those previous protagonists, as well as the new kids on the block. In particular, there’s Conan O’Brien.
For years O’Brien followed Leno’s nightly 11.35pm show with his own hour long 12.35am show. NBC, keen to avoid the mistakes they’d made years earlier when the Leno/Letterman issue became very ugly, decided back in 2004 to promise O’Brien that’d he take over the Tonight Show five years hence. Then, as those years passed by, they also realised that they wanted to hang on to Jay Leno, who’s numbers were still good, and who was number one in “late night”.
NBC’s solution was to bring Jay Leno forward into the 10pm hour where traditionally more expensive dramas such as ER had run. A talk show is much cheaper to produce, so they both hung on to Leno, avoiding the possibility that he’d end up on a rival network with a new show in the same time period, plus it saved the network a lot of cash. In the meantime, the new presenter of the Tonight Show was Conan O’Brien.
At least that’s what they’d hoped would happen. But as is the case so often in the entertainment industry, things didn’t quite turn out how all would hope.
Bill Carter tells a great story, and makes what are effectively internal wranglings between corporate executives a compulsive read. He’s spoken to all the key players and produced a very fair, and I’d say, pretty balanced view of procedings.
While in the UK we don’t have the history of these kinds of shows, despite over the years, various people trying to launch them, many of their traits are recognisable in shows like those of Jonathan Ross and Graham Norton. I do think it’s interesting that the most successful of the US late night shows is actually Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart – it’s permamently series-linked on my Sky+. ITV2 used to show David Letterman for a while, and CNBC still shows a couple of Jay Leno shows at weekends. But largely, the big players in US late night are unknown to us. In particular, I find Leno’s brand of humour actually painful to watch. He’s a so-so interviewer compared to Letterman, but the forced format of the monologue is not to my tastes. I think our topical panel games like Have I Got News For You or Mock the Week tend to work in gags more naturally.
The ending of the whole affair is no real secret, although it’s quite astonishing how deep the hole that NBC managed to dig for itself was. They ended up settling for millions. And in the end, nobody won.
There’s a question-mark longterm over the future of these shows in a world where perhaps the short-form video clip is becoming pre-eminant in younger demographics. The shows exist because they’re profitable. But how long will that remain the case?
Anyway, if you’re in any way interested in the wranglings of how US TV networks actually work, then this is well worth a read. Carter also wrote the excellent Desperate Networks back in 2006.

Stone

Robert De Niro can be an annoying actor. He’s made so many brilliant films in his career, and yet, so often these days, you feel he’s on autopilot. While I’m not sure that I need him to throwing his all into his films as he once did, I’d quite like him to try a little bit.
Fortunately, in Stone, he does try, and as a result he puts in a really decent performance.
De Niro plays Jack, a parole officer who’s nearing retirement. He’s able to determine the future of Stone (Edward Norton) who is facing his parole hearing. Norton plays his character with relish as he tries to ruffle the feathers of the very straight-laced Jack.
Jack lives at home with his wife Madylyn (Frances Conroy), but although all might seem nice and cosy, we know that in his youth as a young couple, Jack lost his temper in a terrible way. You have the feeling that this violent and dangerous side of Jack has left serious scars on his wife, who fears ever leaving him.
Throw into this mix Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), Stone’s vivacious wife. If you know Jovovich only as an actress who plays video games characters in a dull series of films that all seem the same, then this is a refreshing change. Stone effectively wants his wife to seduce Jack, and despite his straightlaced character, that’s never going to be an easy thing to resist.
This is a small film, but well-played throughout. And it’s never entirely clear what’s going to happen.
I’m not sure that this film is ever going to get a UK release, but it’ll no doubt show up on DVD at some point, and is definitely worth looking at.

What’s An Ad In Your Social Media Stream Worth?

It’s a Friday today, and for a few of my colleagues here at work, that means free coffee.
Let me explain.
Vida e Caffé is part of a chain of coffee shops, one of whose branches is placed right opposite the front door to our office. People here are as addicted to coffee as people everywhere. What’s more, our coffee machine is currently out of order.
To get your free coffee, you have to say something nice about Vida e Caffé on a social network site like Twitter. Prove that you’ve done it instore, and they’ll give you a free coffee worth somewhere around £2.50.
In fact, they use quite a relaxed mechanism to get people talking about their store. But you are effectively placing an ad in your Twitter or Facebook stream to get something free.
In this instance, assuming that the raw costs to Vida e Caffé are pretty low, this promotion is probably only costing them a few pence to drive some footfall. It probably helps promote loyalty – would you be willing to just go for the free drinks and never otherwise buy a paid for beverage?
But I’d love to know what people are and are not willing to do in their social media networks for free goods.
A more common way of giving away products is to get people to, say, Tweet a particular message. The winner tends to be drawn from those who either mentioned the “phrase that pays” or retweeted the original message.
In either case, you’re basically placing an advertisment in your social media network which your friends or followers will see. To what extent are people prepared to do this? Are some more likely than others to do it?
I don’t drink coffee, but even if I did, I don’t think I’d participate in the scheme above. If there was something I really wanted, but couldn’t afford, perhaps I would. If you got through my Twitter stream, I can’t say that you won’t find an occassional example. But for the most part, you won’t.
There’s almost certainly an experiment to be done to test how small a perceived value you have to give away before you lose take-up.

Exhibitions

Charing Cross Road
Here’s a picture that doesn’t feature the portrait of anybody at all, but that I took outside the National Portrait Gallery.
Over the weekend I went to two utterly unrelated exhibitions that have recently opened in London.
The National Portrait Gallery has the Taylor Wessing PhotographicPortrait Prize – an exhibition of around sixty photos from a variety of photographers (I will admit that I don’t quite know the entry qualifications, although just about everybody featured has some kind of professional element to their background). The range and variety was broad, and I really enjoyed looking around it. It’s modestly priced at just £2 to get in. I certainly wandered away thinking more about what kind of portrait photography I might do in the future. You’ve got until 20 February 2011 to see it.
I also happened to go into the British Library where their new exhibition, Evolving English, has just opened. I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t spend enough time there, and need to go back and read some of the exhibits in more detail – not a problem as it’s open until April and is free. I did, however, commit my voice to the Voicebank. You sit in a booth and having given a few details about where you’re from, your age and sex, you’re asked to read a passage into their microphone. The recordings will be saved by the library and made available for academics to study. So you can now hear me reading Mr Tickle by Roger Hargreaves, since that’s the passage you’re asked to read.
The other thing I saw at the weekend was England beat Australia at Twickenham including a fantastic Chris Ashton try that was essentially the full lenght of the pitch. So that’s my excuse for publising this.
Twickenham

Classical Music Downloads

Let’s revisit an issue from a few years ago.
In 2005, BBC Radio 3 presented the first in their now regular “Experiences” when they broadcast the Beethoven Experience. They broadcast, non-stop Beethoven for six days including pretty much everything he composed.
As part of the Experience, they made available as downloads, a new recording from the BBC Symphony Orchestra of the Beethoven Symphony cycle. This was an incredibly successful venture with 1.4m downloads. And remember that this was five years ago, when fewer people had broadband, and podcasting was in its relative infancy.
The record companies were not happy. Rather than perhaps considering that the BBC was using its own orchestra, playing out of copyright music (Beethoven died in 1827), might actually encourage more people to discover the works of one of history’s greatest composers, they were incensed that the BBC was killing the classical music recording industry.
Why would anyone buy classical music if the BBC was giving it away free?
Of course, nobody asked why someone would buy the premium price Berlin Philharmonic recording of piece conducted by Sir Simon Rattle rather than, say, the £4.99 Naxos recording of the same piece.
Anyway, the classical music industry got its way, and the BBC didn’t give away any more recordings (at least if you discount the “free” cover-mounted CDs each month on BBC Music magazine). And when the BBC Trust allowed the BBC to do podcasting, there was a specific clause inserted into the rules to which the BBC must adhere.
From the BBC Trust On Demand conclusions published in April 2007:
Classical music was a potential exception because it is largely out of copyright and classical broadcasts on BBC radio are often performed by BBC ensembles. This means the BBC faces fewer restrictions in offering classical music for download. The Trust proposed to exclude it after considering concerns raised by Ofcom’s Market Impact Assessment that offering downloads of classical music could harm CD sales. For the avoidance of doubt, it was not the Trust’s intention to exclude short excerpts of classical music when used as incidental music to programmes or as signature tunes in the context of a broader radio programme.
At the time of the BBC’s release of the Beethoven cycle, there were complaints from the record industry that Beethoven symphonies would be off the radar for the time being – there’d be no demand for them.
Interestingly, Amazon lists upwards of 400 releases of CDs including Beethoven symphonies in the last five years, including many packages of all nine symphonies. I bought the Dudamel recording of symphonies 5 and 7 myself.
But things have moved on, and I wouldn’t doubt that like much of the music industry, classical recordings have had a tough time.
Which is why two recent things have happened that I find really interesting and make this an issue to look at again. MusOpen, a site that gathers together free open source music, has raised $40,000. Aaron Dunn of MusOpen raised the cash so that he could pay to have a orchestra record some classical repertoire that could be given away free.
Exactly what music gets recorded and by who, has yet to be decided (they could go for a world-class orchestra and record a few pieces, or go for a less-well known collective and record more). Why would an orchestra do this? Well they already do. Orchestras are musicians for hire, and can do deals without “backend” remuneration beyond the original recording fees.
What will MusOpen choose? And will it take that piece out of the classical repetoire for the next few years? Or will it simply be judged on its own qualities, with people making their choices accordingly?
The other thing that’s happened is that Radio 3 is now trialling a new podast that includes full pieces of music. Since, for the most part, classical compositions are longer rather than shorter – the “full pieces” (up to 9 minutes) – will be movements rather than entire compositions. Yet this is clearly only happening because the classical recording industry has agreed to it.
From the Media Guardian piece:
Ginny Cooper, vice chair of the BPI classical committee, said it would “further enhance listeners’ ability to access the plethora of fantastic and innovative new recordings released every week”.
Now what, if anything, the BBC is paying for this privilige, we don’t know. But I think it’s interesting in light of earlier attitudes towards allowing music to be downloaded. It couldn’t be that giving away music might actually encourage and stimulate overall sales could it?