Film in Detail
A deeper look at the films that matter - and more fantastic movies you might enjoy too.
You might not know the word, but you’ve seen hundreds of montages. If you’re watching a film about a sports team and see a couple of moments from each game, the opponents getting tougher and tougher, until at last we get to the day before the final and the music fades out – that’s a montage. Or it’s the last episode of an American TV drama, a song starts, and we see a few seconds of what each of the main characters are doing in their different homes, bringing everything that has happened that season together. That’s a montage, too. Or if you’ve put together bits of video and photos you’ve shot on your phone, stuck a tune under them and posted it on YouTube – that’s also a montage.
A normal scene in a film either happens in one place, or follows the characters as they move from one place to the next. A montage puts together shots or short sequences from different places or different times or both, often using music, sometimes a big speech, or just natural sound. It can let the filmmaker move time on quickly without skipping forwards. Or it can show us what cops and crooks are doing at the same moment. Or it can be used to illustrate an idea – cutting between a rich man wasting food and a poor family scraping together the tiny bit they have, for instance.
Montages date right back to the early days of film – they were by used by filmmakers including DW Griffith in the 1910s. In Russia in the 1920s, pioneering directors like Sergei Eisenstein in films such as October felt montages were the best way to show the radical ideas that they hoped would change the world.
In Hollywood, montages have more often been a way of telling the story without having the characters explain everything. They are great for showing a character going from tea boy to the top of a company using just a few shots. Or someone turning their life around: one of the most famous is the training sequence in Rocky: we see the title character, a boxer, struggling to run. He’s out of shape. Cut to him exercising in the gym. Then he’s running again, and all the time he’s getting fitter, and finally he’s racing up steps, and we know he’s ready to fight. We’ve learnt so much – and it’s taken less than three minutes.
But film directors often use montages in a lazy way. Bad imitations of the Rocky training segment turn up in almost every sports, martial arts or superhero film. Or how about the bit in a romantic comedy (Confessions Of A Shopaholic to name just one) when a character is given a whole new look, and we them popping in and out shop changing rooms trying on dozens of outfits?
For a perfect montage, it would be hard to beat the heartbreaking bit near the beginning of Up, in which the history of a long, happy marriage is told in just a few minutes with no spoken words. It’s almost a movie all of its own. And it shows why, used well, montages can be filmmaking at its best.
Ever since an atomic bomb was dropped over Hiroshima in 1945, the human race’s capacity to bring about its own extinction has had a massive impact on popular culture – not least in cinema.
In projects from the 1950s mutation movies, such as The Incredible Shrinking Man, to the 1999 comedy Blast from the Past and the Terminator franchise, filmmakers have repeatedly explored the themes of nuclear technology and its potentially devastating effects and abilities. While some use fact as a springboard for entertaining science fiction, others stick to sobering truths to educate and prompt debate. The latest must-see addition to the genre – the chilling documentary Countdown to Zero (2010) – belongs in the latter category, and has unsurprisingly created a buzz.
Delivering a history lesson-cum-wake-up call, it examines how the escalating nuclear arms race and the current, unstable world climate are making real-life nuclear disaster an increasing possibility. Not the easiest watch, granted, but a thought-provoking, eye-opener nonetheless.
Which is the same way you could describe two key films from the globally tense 1980s: the made-for-TV Threads (1984) and the heartbreaking cartoon, When the Wind Blows (1986). Categorized as kind of educational horror flicks by freaked out viewers at the time, they both imagine what would happen to ordinary folks in the event of a nuclear attack on Britain.
Back in the 50s, when nuclear peril first became a popular movie topic, this sort of graphic enlightening wasn’t necessary: after all, nuclear weapon tests were high profile, and memories of the atomic bombing of Japan were still relatively fresh. So what mainly hit the big screen was a wave of metaphorical fantasy flicks, merely drawing on nuclear reality. The original Godzilla (1954) remains a particularly enjoyable example of how public fear was exploited for fun, with its exciting narrative about an enormous, Tokyo-trashing reptile that’s been mutated by radioactive fallout.
Entirely realist movies were also released, however, among them the 1950 British drama Seven Days to Noon, in which an English scientist threatens to nuke central London if the government doesn’t stop its atomic weapons research. Later, iconic Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s I Live in Fear (1955) became one of the earliest features to deal with the psychological impact of the Nuclear Age, with its unsettling tale of a foundry owner so terrified of nuclear war that he ends up in an asylum.
This more serious approach can likewise be seen in 1961’s The Day the Earth Caught Fire – a convincing disaster yarn whose global warming-type scenario gives proceedings a contemporary relevance, as nuclear blasts knock the world off its axis and send it spinning towards the sun.
In fact, escalating Cold War tensions meant few Sixties moviegoers could escape nuclear issues. The savage satire of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1963), for instance, nails the era’s paranoia, with its hilariously twisted account of a frantic political attempt to avert total annihilation after a nuclear strike is launched against Soviet Russia (a similar plot to 2000’s ambitious thriller re-make, Fail Safe).
Other classic examples include the cracking James Bond adventure Goldfinger (1964), which sees a villain planning to detonate an atomic device; and 1968’s fantastic, futuristic nightmare, Planet of the Apes, depicting an Earth ruled by apes because of nuclear war.
Artier types should also check out 1962’s haunting, landmark short, La Jetée. Using a series of still photographs, this inspiration for 1995’s Twelve Monkeys tells a post-nuclear apocalypse story of a man sent back through time to save humanity.
Contrary to what you may now think though, not all nuclear technology films are about bomb-created catastrophe and threats: The China Syndrome (1979) is one of the most gripping accident-at-a-nuclear-power-plant dramas, and especially pertinent following this year’s events in earthquake-stricken Japan.
Oranges & Sunshine is a powerful drama about a shocking true story from Britain’s 20th-century history: 130,000 British children in the care system were sent to Australia without their families even knowing. We learn the truth through one woman’s battle to expose this inhuman policy and the government lies that covered it up.
Full of righteous anger but driven by the characters, it is the kind of film that could have been made by the legendary campaigning British director Ken Loach. In fact, it is the work of his son Jim (pictured). It is his first film – and it took him a while to realise that directing was what he should be doing. "I think fundamentally I always did want to make films, but I denied it in myself", Jim Loach has said.
It isn’t surprising that the offspring of a film director would take up his or her father’s profession – after all, there is nothing odd about father-son car mechanics or teachers. And while most of us can’t imagine what it is like being on a film set, for Jim Loach or Sofia Coppola, that was their childhood.
But there is something unusual about Jim Loach: he has made a film you could imagine his father having worked on. Sofia Coppola is more typical – her movies are almost the opposite of her father’s. Francis Ford Coppola, built his reputation on huge movies like the Vietnam war epic Apocalypse Now (1979) and his main characters are usually ambitious or obsessive men.
In Sofia’s dreamy films, like the brilliant Lost In Translation (2003), her characters are drifting through life. But even though Sofia is now an Oscar winner like her dad, her composer grandfather Carmine and actor cousin Nicolas Cage, it took a while for her to work up the courage to make a film. She’s claimed, "I didn't have the guts to say, 'I want to be a director', especially coming from that family."
Other members of Hollywood dynasties say similar things. "I’m not an idiot. I hear the way people talk about the children of famous people," explained the director Jason Reitman. "The presumptions are usually quite awful." Jason is the son of Ivan Reitman, who directed some of the 1980s best-loved out-and-out comedies like Ghostbusters (1984). Jason’s own films – including the excellent teen pregnancy tale Juno (2007) – are funny, too, but have a more serious edge and guaranteed no skyscraper-sized marshmallow men.
So it seems that although children from movie families often grow up thinking they would rather do anything than step behind the camera, once they give into their destiny, it works out pretty well for them.
Despite Wales being the smallest country in the United Kingdom it has given birth to some of the most respected actors in the world. From silent star Ivor Novello to 'face of the future' Craig Roberts, the past century of Welsh cinema has seen a steady stream of actors making their way to Hollywood.
Ivor Novello was the first Welsh screen idol with a starring role in Hitchcock's The Lodger (1927). However the first Welsh Oscar winner didn't come along until 1945 with Ray Milland and his outstanding performance as an alcoholic, on a binge-drinking session in The Lost Weekend.
The 1950s and 60s saw many more Welsh actors make it to the big screen as more British films began to be set in the regions. Films of this time also had a more realistic and gritty feel, earning them the title Kitchen Sink Dramas. One of the most famous films of this type was Look Back in Anger and its Welsh star perhaps the most famous actor of this era, Richard Burton.
Burton was to have a massive influence on the next great Welsh actor, Anthony Hopkins, as they came from the same town, Port Talbot. Encouraging a teenage Hopkins to apply for drama school. Hopkins, like Burton, had a very successful career in theatre before entering the world of film. His breakthrough came with The Elephant Man, playing the sympathetic and caring Dr Treves.
The 90s saw a new generation of Welsh actors hitting Hollywood: Christian Bale, Rhys Ifans, Matthew Ryhs and Catherine Zeta Jones. And our very own Welsh Ambassador Michael Sheen.
The latest acting star to come from the Welsh valleys is Craig Roberts. Craig stars in the very-soon-to-be-released coming-of-age comedy Submarine, directed by Richard Ayeode.
And if you fancy watching some Welsh films check out our Season of the Week
The term 'slow film' is usually a criticism. Generally, Hollywood films are preoccupied with telling stories as efficiently as possible. But some films have different aims. In Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which won the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 2010, filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul is more interested in exploring the environments his characters inhabit, and creating a particular atmosphere. As Boonmee comes to accept his imminent death, he is visited by the spirits of his deceased wife and his missing son (now taking on a quite extraordinary form). It’s a film in which a lot happens, but there is no sense of urgency in the storytelling. This style keeps the audience guessing as to the significance of the sinister red-eyed creatures lurking in the forest.
Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu is renowned for taking his time. What makes his films slow is that he seldom moves the camera, cutting infrequently from one shot to the next. In Hollywood films, the average shot duration is between two and three seconds, so we are constantly adjusting to new images on the screen. In an Ozu film, like Good Morning (1959), we are invited to observe each composition as if it were a painting. It’s a very simple story, about two boys who refuse to speak until their parents buy a television set. The gentle approach allows us to examine the characters and what the film says about them, while also enjoying the story.
Sometimes it is necessary for a filmmaker to slow down in order to really showcase something special on the screen. In 1968, when Stanley Kubrick made 2001: A Space Odyssey, the special effects used to depict spaceships cruising through space were at the cutting edge. The orchestral score dictates the pace of the editing and lets our eyes rest on the images, which are equally astonishing today.
A slow film needn’t be short on action. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) can be considered an adventure film yet, from its dreamy opening shot of soldiers traipsing down a misty mountain, to its surreal and ambiguous final moments, the pace is never faster than the sleepy river along which its characters drift, in search of the mythical City of Gold. The ‘something special’ here is the maniacal performance of Klaus Kinski as Aguirre. Director Werner Herzog only moves the camera very slowly, if at all, but always points it at something fascinating.
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