Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Accents, fights, car chases and animation – the things today’s film-makers do better

1. Accents 

Mind you, things hadn’t improved much by 1985, when Denziel Washington battled manfully but unsuccessfully with a Lahnd’n accent:

And, if Keanu Reeves is anything to go by, they’d got even worse by 1992 (this clip is mercifully short):

But things have got much, much better of late. For instance, I caught the last half hour of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (2010) a few nights ago. It’s a slice of Arabian Nights hokum in the fast-action tradition of The Mummy trilogy, and barely worth watching. But Jake Gyllenhaal’s slightly downmarket London accent was extraordinarily accurate. Why a Persian prince should sound like a junior sales executive from Raynes Park is neither here nor there (maybe it was simply to fit in with all the English actors on board). The point is that, if I didn’t know Gyllenhaal was an American, I wouldn’t have been able to tell he wasn’t English.

Robert Downey Jr managed the same trick in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows.

And, of course, English actors have been successfully “passing” as Americans on TV and in films for the past decade. English actors’ attempts to sound American used to be hilariously duff: no longer!

50 years ago, the only American actor who’d managed a convincing English accent was Marlon Brando (Julius Caesar in particular) – and his version of toff-speak teetered on the brink of parody:

There's nothing parodic about Gyllenhaal's efforts: he does a better classless London accent that most RADA-trained privately-educated Englishmen could manage.

2. Animated films 

Yes, the Disney classics still hold up well – but, by the late ‘60s, animated films were in a downward spiral, whereas, with Up, Toy Stories 1, 2 & 3, Finding Nemo, Wall-E, Spirited Away, the Shrek franchise, the Ice Age movies, Belleville Rendezvous, Monsters vs Aliens, The Adventures of Tintin, and Rango, we are plainly living in an animated Golden Age. It’s not just a result of technical improvements (Miyazaki and Chomet use traditional methods) – the scripts, the plots, the characterisation and the voice-overs tend to be massively impressive these days.

3. Car chases 

Of course, the Bullitt car chase is still in a league of its own, especially given when it was filmed (1968), and the auto action in Vanishing Point and The French Connection (both 1971) was thrilling – but great car chases have become standard-issue of late. The problem is that we often don’t care enough about the characters involved in those chases to feel fully engaged these days – but I’m here to praise modern film techniques, not to bury them.

4. Fight sequences

Oh dear! Just think - that was considered pretty damned cutting edge in its day, and now stiff-arsed, pudgy Roger Moore looks like he couldn't fight his way out of a crêche. And the handy balsa-wood chair being smashed across someone's back - oh, please! 

But, since then, fight sequences have reached new heights – the Bourne films raised the bar, and the Bond films have scrambled to catch up.

Of course, if we'd seen a fight scene like that back in the '60s, we'd probably have suffered an epileptic fit or fallen about laughing at the cartoonish speed and the protagonists' ludicrously high levels of expertise (remember, those were the days before Bruce Lee). 

Naturally, I still prefer old movies. But credit where it's due: modern Hollywood is still good at some things. The problem - inevitably - is that it has become mesmerised by the technology on offer: with the exception of Pixar, the tail really is wagging the dog.


  1. We Southrons are still waiting for the accents to get better...hell, we're still waitin' for Southerners to be cast as Southerners.

    1. Here (and in Hollywood) it's geographically the other way round: it's the hiring of non-Scottish actors to play Scottish folk that has really annoyed me over the years. There are so many great Scottish actors, and so few English actors can even get close to an authentic Scottish accent, that it simply shouldn't be allowed. (This has got a lot better recently - but Hollywood still hasn;t caught up.) English country folk have been annoyed by countless urban actors deploying a silly thick-as-two-planks all-purpose "Mummerset" accent for decades. And the crimes committed against the Cockney accent over the years (Marlene Dietrich, for God's sake!!!) are legion.

  2. You make interesting points about American and English accents. Great actors cannot always master accents. I once had to sit through an interminable Eugene O'Neil play ["The Meatman Cometh, Hold the Veggies" or something like that?] with Laurence Olivier and his accent was terrible. It was even worse in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "The Betsy".

    Brando just about managed it in JC - he was coached by Gielgud. But he sort of lost it in "Mutiny on the Bounty"
    [do you remember him lying in his cabin in his night-cap with a clay pipe?] and "Queimada".

    Steiger could only do one non-American accent which was his own peculiar version of Irish. He employed this in "Waterloo" when he portrayed Napoleon which has confused many people ["Sodgers, Frainchmain, my Chidren etc"]. The directors of "Queimada" and "Waterloo" spoke hardly any English [Pontecorvo and Bondarchuk]so they were in the dark.

    1. "Long Day's Journey into Night" at the Old Vic, I suspect. I sat through the same production - well over three hours, or it may just have seemed that way. I wonder if Olivier simply couldn't do accents, or if he simply couldn't be bothered, given that no one else could at the time. I have never recovered from his Franche Cannahdienne trapper in "49th Parallel", zut allors.

      Throughout "Mutiny on the Bounty", Brando sounded as if someone had just vigorously inserted a poker up his bum.

      Oddly, Steiger's various accents were quite good in "No Way to Treat a Lady" - but I suspect we'd need an expert to tell us how good or bad his Mississippi accent was in "In the Heat of the Night".