Monday, 29 August 2011

Re-post: To recognise Bernard Herrmann in London

See the following article by Michael Beek:

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Tense times in the Middle East...

This time, I'm going to tell you about a night on Dubai Creek.

I was working on a film which everyone knew going in was terrible: The script was no good, and as we say in the business of show, "you can't polish a turd".

So, we were halfway through the 5 week shoot, tensions were high, and we were on the last of 10 days of night shoots before a turnaround. Our sleeping patterns were utterly kaput, and the bad relationship between the Director of Photography and myself had spread to the point that the director and producer weren't communicating with me particularly well any more either. Tensions were high.

We're setting up for one of the last few shots of the night, a stunt shot, of a drunk man committing suicide off Al-Makhtoum Bridge. The bridge is something of a landmark, throwing a motorway over the breadth of Dubai Creek as it does. We had half a dozen cameras set up to capture the stunt, including one on a little boat that had been firmly anchored to the middle of the river, about 15 yards away from where the stuntman was supposed to land.

We had locked off the road in both directions, and had a police cruiser boat at our disposal to patrol the waters and make sure that, when the time came for our stunt, there wouldn't be any unplanned vehicle activity in the area.

After 2 hours of setting up, we were finally ready for a take. We were pushing it for time, people were getting stressed. The actor takes his place on the edge of the bridge, I call for the cameras to set, and just before I call the roll, I hear the siren of the police boat blart to life.

"Bastard's going to hold us up," I thought.

Then I heard some worried shouts from the opposite side of the 6-lane bridge. I can't make out what's being said.

Something about a boat.

The police launch shoots out underneath us, tracing a figure of eight as a policeman onboard frantically waves and gestures.

Down the radio Khaled, one of my trainee Assistant Directors, laughing in apparent disbelief, says "Get ready for Titanic 2!" Khaled, I remember, is on the camera boat.

Almost before we can register what's happening, a fully laden dhow, hulking mass menacingly dark as all its lights are off, emerges directly underneath our lead actor, at considerable speed. It's heading straight for the little camera boat, and the laughing Khaled.

The camera boat is anchored. They have maybe 5 seconds. Not enough time. The dhow is slowly beginning to change direction, but it's not enough, not nearly.

The little boat, and the 4 people on board, disappear underneath the black prow of the massive ship, and everyone above watches, absolutely horrified, as the dhow ploughs a trench through the water, right over Khaled and the three others.

For a moment, no one can believe it, but as the dhow continues on and the police give chase, the little boat appears behind the dhow, bobbing left and right in the wake, straining against its anchor.

It appears undamaged. It's dark, I can't see. I call down the radio to Khaled. I call again. No reply.

The radiowaves go mental for a second, and I can't hear myself think, never mind a reply from Khaled, before I shout at the top of my lungs "WILL EVERYONE SHUT THE FUCK UP UNTIL I'VE ESTABLISHED WHETHER OR NOT EVERYONE IS OK DOWN THERE!"

Everything goes deathly silent.

A beat.

And then, cutting through the silence:

"Dude, there are women around. Watch your language." It's Khaled. "Everyone's OK on the boat".

65 people simultaneously breathe a sigh of relief, and as other members of the crew let out the tension exchanging a few jokes as they work, the Director of Photography and I re-engage with the job at hand: getting the shot.

The rest of the night was rough, culminating in the DoP telling me point blank to fuck off during the final shot, and I knew then that I would not last the rest of the shoot, and that this was the last film set I would ever work on.

Nonetheless, I knew that night that I'd dodged a bullet.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

New Cinematic Model

Briefly, then:
  • Attention spans are waning. The human brain is adapting to be less effective at processing or retaining large volumes of information, but more effective at filtering it:
  • Dumb, spectacular blockbusters generate massive returns. See the Transformers series, the Pirates series, etc.
  • The longer a film is, the less money exhibitors make. Simply put, there are only so many hours in a day. On opening hours of, say 11am to 11pm, a cinema could screen a 3 hour movie 4 times, or a 2 hour movie 6 times. Which do you think it's going to want to screen?
  • Ergo: movies are going to get stupid and short.
Not so briefly, then:

The logical extension of the first three points outlined above is that, at some point in the future, someone is going to blow £50m on a massive, hour long action sequence, topped and tailed with some rudimentary exposition and character work. The sell to distributors is that the film can screen 12 times in a day, thereby generating three times as much revenue as a three hour movie. Why wouldn't they go for it?

Ever since The Story of the Kelly Gang, feature length has been popularly thought of as any film with a duration of about 70 minutes or greater. In fact, AMPAS (the Oscar folks) define a feature as anything over 40 minutes, and so for the sake of recognition, the type of movie I describe in the previous paragraph would be perfectly valid.

The question remains, however, as to whether or not the audience would take to it. Perhaps Tarantino's and Rodriguez's Grindhouse debacle suggests that audiences are not ready for shorter features, although at 80 and 90 minutes respectively, Planet Terror and Death Proof were not short when packaged together, and they were both substantially fleshed out for their independent releases, meaning that the turnaround time on a seat was still above two hours.

In the modern pace of life, time is at a premium, and fewer and fewer people are willing to give up 3 hours mid-week to go to the cinema. I don't even know that many people who will watch a DVD in a single swoop any more. A short, one-hour fix of movie allows time for patrons to get a meal or some drinks in either side of the movie without it taking up half a day, so shorter films ought, by rights, to put far more bums on seats mid-week.

Simply, I think it's going to take a couple of adventurous first movers looking to break into the top flight - perhaps one of Avi Lerner's vehicles, who are not averse to exploitation and taking occasional risks. Their results will tell...

Sunday, 10 July 2011

If Zombies vote Conservative and Werewolves are Catholic, what are Vampires?

Yesterday I was watching the excellent trailer for Cuba's first horror movie, Juan of the Dead, which makes quite explicit links between political revolution and fighting zombies, and it got me thinking that as with westerns and sci-fi, the horror genre can (if properly employed) be a fantastic instrument through which to analogise aspects of society or human issues.

Westerns are a particularly useful tool for investigating internal struggles. The open spaces, guarded characters, slow-burn conflicts and lack of law provide the ideal landscape on which to build characters exploring conflicts of very primal nature. Most obviously High Noon, which explores how far people will compromise their own moral framework when forced to choose between two evils.

There are myriad examples of sci-fi doubling for social commentary: Silent Running and Wall-E for humanity's inherent avarice and attitude to the environment, Soylent Green exploring the theme of limited resources, Planet of the Apes exploring the nature of humanity, and so on.

So why should horror be any different? In the modern American studio horror output exemplified by the Saw and Hostel franchises, serious social commentary is pretty thin on the ground. This absence of humanity in horror has infected the independent sector as well: Can anyone tell me that The Human Centipede and its forthcoming sequel have opened debate about anything other than how depraved the movies themselves are?

Horror as a genre is older than either westerns or sci-fi. Stretching back to the great gothic horrors of literature, the centuries-old stories of Frankenstein, Dracula and the like are still being replayed in different iterations and guises to this day. What contemporary horror has largely forgotten is that these classic stories have stood the test of time because they address issues at the very heart of what it means to be human, and that true horror is in humanity's conflict with itself.

Zombies were popularised in the 60's by George Romero and are enjoying a revival courtesy of films such as Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later (much though Danny Boyle protests, the mindless nature of the infected gives the film the trappings of a zombie movie, and if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, well...). Zombie movies offer an easy homology between the status quo, as represented by zombies, and those who see something wrong with it. All of the best zombie movies are a more or less direct attack on a failing of society.

The majority of werewolf films have explored the nature of guilt. From my personal favourites, Dog Soldiers and An American Werewolf in London, to alternative takes such as The Howling and Ginger Snaps, all lycanthropes in film have addressed their guilty consciences in different ways, whether railing against the monthly transformations or surrendering to the id.

Vampire movies, tackling as they do the topic of immortality, all explore the fear of growing old, not letting go of childish things. Vampires are invariably depicted not with the wisdom one of expect of an immortal, but with juvenile greed. Thanks in no small part to Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyers, vampires are regularly imagined as thirsting not only for blood, but also for glamour and power. Occasionally vampires are as pure predators (Blade 2 and 30 Days of Night, notably), and in these cases, the vampires are rather more fun and less objectionable: I found it very hard to sympathise with beautiful immortals played by R-Pattz, Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise, frankly.

So, can anyone recommend me some good, modern horror films which have something to say?

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Not even popcorn.

I've been meaning to go and catch a film at the National Film Theatre (NFT) for a few years. It is something of a Mecca for UK film enthusiasts (which I consider myself), so I must admit to being somewhat ashamed that, having lived in London on and off for 5 years and on the South Bank itself for a year and a half, before last night I had never gone.

I even booked tickets once, to watch Jules & Jim, but never made it to the screening.

However, this one I was not going to miss.

You see, my girlfriend is a teacher, and yesterday was the last day of term. She is a very good teacher, if you will allow me that, but has been suffering something of a crisis of confidence and conscience recently. So when I spotted that The Browning Version (Redgrave version) was screening on the evening that term breaks up, it was too serendipitous an opportunity to let slip.

We were both famished when we arrived a mere 20 minutes before the screening, and Jen was making noises about snacks, at which point I had to refer her to the Wittertainment Code of Conduct. So we went to a little cafe round the corner and threw a couple of sandwiches down our gullets. Jen suggested we take the sandwich into the screening, at which point I had to explain that it was not "the done thing", and that there was in fact no eating of any kind to be had at this screening.

"Not even popcorn?"

"Not even popcorn."

The screening began with a single trailer, for The Last Picture Show (a movie I have yet to watch all the way through), and we both marvelled at how young and beautiful Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd were. Presently the Rank Organisation gong hove into view, and we were treated to one of the favourite films of my youth in the company of many other film fans. The theatre was almost full.

The print had been lent by the National Film Archives, and was in fantastic condition. The projectionist did a great job of keeping the projection crisp throughout, too, although the sound rather gave away the reel changes.

So I sat and revelled in Terence Rattigan's glorious screenplay, enjoying the superb performances, laughing at the humour, choking back lumps at the requisite moments, and chuckling at the occasional anachronism.

The film itself is not the reason I am writing the evening up, though. It was the experience. Going to a cinema at which everyone sat and watched the whole movie through, no-one was munching on loud food, or chatting to their friends, or texting on their mobile. No adverts for local curry houses, or for bloated Hollywood tentpoles. It's the closest I'm come to feeling like the cinema was a genuine treat since I went to see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when I was 9.

I recommend more people go and catch runs of old movies. The ticket prices are the same as for a new movie, but the experience is so much richer.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Good Genre Cinema - The Third Way

So, the old argument - Spectacle Vs. Story - rears its head once again.

The question - has the success of films such as Monsters, Hot FuzzKick-Ass and Let The Right One In shown that filmmakers who wish to make financially successful genre movies which are more than mere spectacle now ought to look outside of the Hollywood studio system?

Thoughts on a postcard...

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

On AD'ing.

Below is an extract from an interview I undertook as part of an abortive attempt to write a book about AD'ing, one of the most misunderstood departments in the film and TV business, and where I made my bones. I may post more of these excerpts in future.

Some interesting thoughts from Nicki Ballantyne, one of the best AD's in the business:


Ken: I've 1st'ed on smaller things, a few commercials and a few, well, about 6 or 7 now, actually, low-to-no budget features, and I've always felt it's a constant state of re-prioritisation. You've constantly got to assess where the various departments are at, and what's going on, and who needs a bit of pressure, and who's got more time to play with...

Nicki: Well, it's the classic thing: a director, especially if they're impatient, which a lot of them are, will sit there doing the Guardian crossword, and they realise that the DoP's maybe taken over his 20, 25, 30, 35 (or if it's Brian Tufano, 4 hour) lighting and they're going:

(adopts lofty tone)“Uh, Nicki, uh, why aren't we... why aren't we doing anything?” and I'll go:

They're just putting a flag in there, so-and-so's having their wig touched up, there was a bit of a problem on the throat mic, whatever” and you can literally go “bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, and when those three things, four things, ten things are done, my love, we'll go for it, you know? We'll have it, we'll get it.”

It is a matter of keeping... on everybody's case.

I've done a few commercials, years ago, with Tom Horne who now makes big movies, and I just couldn't believe it, because I'd done dramas with him, and then I went and did commercials with him, and everybody was just sitting around drinking cappuccinos! At midday! And we were on set for 8! And I was like that (drops jaw).

Guys, can we...” and they were going:

Nicki, just... There's a really decent magazine over there. Have a read.”

The thing is that, much as I love the money (on commercials), I'm not very good at just sitting down, not doing anything, because I'll want to sleep. I'll just go to sleep, you know. It's better if I'm up there doing something. The bigger, to be honest, the bigger the set-up for me, the better. I mean, I did a massive thing for Granada years ago called Island At War, and, in a way, it's one of the best jobs I've ever done, in that we sort of took over the Isle of Man!

It kept you busy.

Yeah! We had German Kübelwagens, we had loads of extras, and it was period, which is great. It looked so great. You get such a buzz out of period dramas anyway, but... And I was literally calling the shots, you know, and the director was a lovely, lovely man called Peter Lydon, who's done some lovely work as well. You know, he would just sit back and just say: “let me know when you're ready”. We had massive setups. Massive. Big cast, fantastic cast, you know, with Phil Glenister, and I just loved it.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Review: An American Werewolf In London (SPOILERS)

I must admit that I am prone to superlatives when it comes to early John Landis films. So take the following with a liberal pinch of salt.

Although it might not appear as such in retrospect, John Landis, Universal and Polygram took a terrific gamble with An American Werewolf In London. The film subverted genre conventions and defied audience expectations, and could well have missed its target audience altogether, if such an audience even existed in in 1981. The result was a seminal piece, accessible but with myriad layers of depth, which has informed and inspired countless horror comedy films since, and still gets the synapses firing a generation later.

AAWIL was the first successful melding of horror and comedy in mainstream American cinema (of which I am aware), and it remains the benchmark against which subsequent horror comedies are measured. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg have even gone so far as to say that they modelled Shaun of the Dead, arguably the most successful and well-loved horror comedy of recent years, on AAWIL.

Landis' knockabout script bounces two milk-and-cookies American youths and several dour British supporting players between London and the Yorkshire Moors. This dislocation, which plays such a key part in the comedy and the drama, is perfectly complemented by the offbeat banter of the central characters. The naturalistic tone that the American protagonists maintain throughout most of the movie has not dated but, if anything, become more enjoyable over the years; filmgoers today are much more attuned to fast and loose dialogue, and a tongue-in-cheek tone than they were thirty years ago.
The criticism I have most heard of this film (and one which, on first viewing, I also had) is that the ending is too abrupt, downbeat, and seemingly out of keeping with the rest of the film. However, building through the the film is a dark undercurrent of inevitability, and the finale is the logical resolution of this.

The high-water mark of this malaise takes place in a phone booth in Piccadilly Circus, the very heart of London: David, our lead, is in one of the busiest places in the world, surrounded by people, and yet he is completely alone. After he tries to contact his parents for the last time, only for his pre-teen sibling to pick up, alone in the house, we are left with the distinct impression that the parents will never in fact receive the message of love which David was trying to pass on. He pulls out a Swiss Army knife - a symbol of resourcefulness and the endurance of the human spirit - and prepares to cut his own wrists... Landis understands that it is not in Nazi warthogs and dreams of carnivorous lunar activities that true horror lies, but in lost hope and the absence of human connection.
If the film had been edited around Jenny Agutter's Alex, we would have a great modern tragedy. Watching it through her eyes is heartbreaking, as her dawning comprehension of David's condition, and of her own growing Florence Nightingale crush is always chasing actuality, finally a mere half-step behind where it might have needed to be for David to be saved.

I still remember the first time I watched this; it scared the pants off me. The second time I laughed my arse off. Every screening since then has left me with something different and new. This is a film that has already proven it can stand the test of time, and it only gets better with repeated viewings.

Did I mention the special effects...?

Musical Interludes

A few favourite musical itnerludes from films which are not, in fact, musicals:

Tiny Dancer by Elton John - Almost Famous
Cameron Crowe defined his formative years with music, so it is obvious that he would make an appearance somewhere in here. This particular beat is one of the most beautiful reconciliations ever made on screen, and even more remarkably, it was done without any dialogue. I don't want to spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen it, but this is possibly my favourite music-only scene.

Only You by Erasure - The Office Christmas Special (Not a film, I know...).
I wasn't old enough to be a romantic (not New Romantic, mind...) in the 80's, but if ever a synth track moved me to tears, it was this.

Blue Moon by Bobby Vinton (?) - An American Werewolf in London
Not only did they cram every known song with "Moon" in the title into the film (except for grumpy Cat Steven's Moonshadow), but they actually worked! The delicious counterpoint of Bobby's soft, slightly distant (yet somehow beckoning...) voice over the horrifically painful transformation... makes that scene stick in the darkest pits of the memory.

Louie Louie by The Kingsmen - Animal House
Yes, I have a bit of a Landis fetish (don't get me started on Blues Brothers...). As the Freshers are inaugurated, all hell breaks loose in Delta Tao Kai, the party as rowdy and 'narchic as the music.

Danke Schoen by Wayne Newton - Ferris Bueller's Day Off
Don't know many women called Wayne... Anyway. Forget Twist and Shout, that was too artificial; Danke Schoen is the sequence when Ferris busts out proper, unleashing his hypermagnetic ego.

Danny Boy by ??? - Miller's Crossing
As If Carter Burwell's score wasn't great enough, the Coen's combine a haunting old Welsh classic with a mesmerising hunter/hunted setpiece, to create something altogether mythical.

Save Me by Aimee Mann - Magnolia
Not so much the song or the scene, but the beat of the last image in the film. Just as the guitars kick the song from maudlin to fighting back, Claudia smiles for the first time in the whole movie... And then the screen goes black. Brilliant. People say this film is depressing? It's not - this single beat is one of the most uplifting, hopeful things I have ever seen.

I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel To Be Free) by The Billy Taylor Trio - Film '72 ->
Again, not really a film tune, per se, but I will forever associate this tune with the comfort of Bazza's "and why not"'s. A great tune that in instrumental form says "sit back and relax, for the next half hour you're with your best and oldest friend". Nina Simone's version is a classic, too.

The Self-Preservation Society by Quincy Jones - The Italian Job
Charlie and the lads look to be stretching away from the (not so long) arm of the Italian law. With millions of quid of gold bullion in their red, white and blue Minis, this cheeky, chirpy pub singalong pipes up, and you're celebrating with them before the finish line.

Layla by Derek and the Dominos - Goodfellas
Forget the coke-addled grunting of the first half of the song - the piano-driven coda complements one of the most beautiful montages of crime ever seen.

Enough of mine - does anyone else have any favourites they'd like to pop in here?

Monday, 21 February 2011

Best office film?

As I sit on the outer fringe of this cube farm, waiting for my boss to exit a meeting so that I can start working on the next job, I find myself wondering what the best film about office life is.

The obvious answer would be Mike Judge's excellent Office Space. The film which gave us Milton and his red stapler, this is a depressingly bleak and truthful look at all that is soulless about working for The Man, but within that bleakness, it manages to mine a surprising depth of humour and humanity.

However, there are other contenders. Glengarry Glen Ross, for one. In Pacino, Spacey, Lemmon, Harris and a rarely brilliant Alec Baldwin, we witness a phenomenal cast carving lumps out of each other with dialogue only David Mamet could dream up ("What's my name?" etc). The film is a sideways glance at how the 80's "killer" attitude to making deals didn't pan out for everyone as lucratively or glamourously as it did for, say, Bud Fox or that bloke who snorts coke off a prostitute's breasts in Robocop. Glengarry also manages to use its theatrical origins to its advantage, in that the limited scope of the settings (we seldom leave the confines of the office) push us further into the nightmarish, inescapable gloom of the lives played out within.

Perhaps the ultimate office epic is the inimitable Brazil. I have only ever watched this in chunks, however, and most often an altered state of mind, so I won't be offering any opinions, except to say that all films set in an office should culminate in a massive sword fight. Or was that my imagination?

Secretary. Ahem.

Being John Malkovich introduced Charlie Kaufman to the wider world, and remains his most bonkers film, thanks in no small part to John Malkovich's brilliant sending up of his own screen persona. Had Michael Stipe taken the role as originally intended, the film would have been shit.

The Hudsucker Proxy. If only offices really were how the Coen Brothers make them out to be. What fun.

Thoughts? Any contenders I've missed?

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Set slang

A collection of some of the more entertaining terms and expressions heard on film and TV sets across Britain, which might not mean much to the uninitiated, but carry weight on set.

teddy bear's arsehole - the felt ring around the eyepiece of a viewfinder. So called because it's made of felt, it's a ring, and it can get rather smelly.

to Spanish - to get rid of something or someone from shot or camera. This is after the Spanish archer, El Bow.

hobbit - a small runner secreted somewhere about the shot, positioned to catch some falling prop or hold a door, etc.

Magic Hour - the period before sunset (usually much less than an hour) when the shadows grow long, the light warms, and the shadows get softer. It can also be applied to the early dawn shot.

to ninja - to stealthily move some dressing/steps/etc. into or out of position during the course of a shot to facilitate a camera or artist's movement. Often requires the ninja in question to strip down to his socks and remove extraneous kit belts, or don black clothing.

D.F.I. - when a director, creative head of department, agency bod or other has a change of heart regarding some significant aspect of a setup. Acronym for "Different Fabulous Idea". More or less.

Numpty - While occasional in the wider world, this term is standard BBC slang for an ineffective or inadequate member of a production team.

Ten-One / Ten-One Hundred - Wee break.

Ten-Two / Ten-Two Hundred - Take a wild guess, Sherlock.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Great films you might not have seen

Some films I love, about which I hope to spread the word. Please recommend me some back.

(I apologise for not offering some visual appetisers for the movies below).

La Regle Du Jeu - Dazed And Confused for your grandparents' generation. Directed by Jean Renoir, the painter's son.

The Odessa File - sits right up there with the original The Day Of The Jackal in terms of classic 70's thrillers. Simply great.

The Day Of The Beast
 - I will sing Alex de la Iglesia's praises until the day I die, and this is possibly his finest hour. How this man is not known outside Spain I do not comprehend.

Ace In The Hole - also known as The Big Carnival, this became particularly poignant, even 50 years later, during the Chilean miners' crisis.

Vanishing Point - Most probably you will have heard of it, but have you actually seen it? Genius. The pinnacle of the 70's road movie, and puts Duel in sobering perspective.

Hard Times
 - The Walter Hill movie starring Charles Bronson and James Coburn, not one of the myriad adaptations of Dickens' novel. Classic B-movie stuff. You might have spotted by now that I'm a sucker for 70's genre flicks...

Capricorn One - read my rant/review here.

Soylent Green - As long as no-one is fool enough to give away the twist (as was done for me), and you can ignore the cardboard sets and other cheapnesses, a really good, underappreciated movie. You will probably never hear me say this about any other movie, but it is ripe for a remake.

The Browning Version - Going back a bit now, I mean the Redgrave version. I was first shown this by my English GCSE teacher, which in retrospect smacks of pityfishing. Quite moving, and quintessentially English. The academic cousin of Brief Encounter, if you will... EDIT: I have since rewatched this on the big screen - see the post about my first BFI experience).

Rant/Review: Capricorn One and the state of the modern media.

This was originally posted to the Empire Online website in 2006

WARNING - this is as much a rant on the state of modern media, and a call to arms, as it is a review. If you are in the least bit cynical, or have the attention span of a 3 year old, stop reading now.

Upon running a search of the review forum, I must admit to being rather surprised to discover that no-one had yet posted a review of this classic 70's movie. Simply out of ignorance, most people assume it is science fiction (as indeed did I before watching it), although some will have an idea of the central premise. That is off-putting to most, perceiving it as slow paced, pre-Star Wars hokum (as the majority of 70's sci-fi indeed was). It actually premiered the year after Star Wars, in 1978. A shame, as the shift in the market which that film brought meant that, however you marketed this movie, it was never going to receive the attention it ought.

In the modern era of overhype and overexposure, it's almost a given that you will know the "big" twist before going into a movie. You have to seek out little-known films from several years BI (Before Internet) to truly experience that thrill. Either that, or you have to be a 7-year old with a very conscientious film-buff Dad (or Mum). I did not have that Dad (though I hope to be him someday), and I am not 7; I tracked this film down myself, remembering whisperings of it being actually rather good.

The film kicks off as you might expect, with a thoroughly immersive and realistic portrayal of the long countdown to the launch of the mission Capricorn One. The real central conceit of this film, however, it's raison d'etre, only gears up about 45 minutes in. And it's a belter - I remember someone on this very forum totally ruining the main premise/big twist of Soylent Green for me (another oft-forgotten 70's classic) by quoting the crucial line in their signature. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I watched Soylent regardless, and still loved it, yet I couldn't help but wonder how much more I would have enjoyed it if I hadn't read that one quote from Big Chuck.

So, you'll have guessed by now that I'm not going to tell you much about this film. I'm really not spoiling anything, however, by telling you that this film is about Capricorn One, the first manned mission to Mars. There are many films which clearly owe a debt to this movie, from the obvious, say Apollo 13, to the downright surprising (I would argue that Clear and Present Danger owes as much in tone and pacing to Capricorn One as it does to the Tom Clancy novel). It is staggeringly broad in ambition, both thematically and in terms of genre, and yet does not stumble in the way that so many other grandiose 70's flicks have (I'm thinking Planet of the Apes which, although fun, is frustratingly trite). The film is also scarily actual in many aspects, which is remarkable considering it has just hit 30. It does, however, have a rather unsatisfying ending, especially given what the film has been building towards for the previous 90 minutes.

Elliott Gould, perfectly cast here, takes the lion's share of the good dialogue, and has several scenes of quick-fire banter with various characters throughout the movie, albeit a little stilted on occasion. OJ Simpson's breakthrough role is nary an extended cameo: The number of lines he delivers over the course of the movie does not break into double figures. Nonetheless, his performance is rather better than you might expect from an ex-American football player. I will also tell you that this film incorporates, in its closing scenes, some of the most staggering feats of stunt flying and arial photography I have ever seen.

I know this is a bitty commentary on the film, not really a review, but to break the film down in any normal manner would be to give too much away and ruin it. I hope only to encourage you to watch it, and in so doing recognise that voyage of revelation which you can only experience when you haven't been spoilt.

I used to be a great reader of online movie websites. AICN, EmpireOnline, Chud, Cinescape, etc. I signed up to the new version of this website within 15 minutes of it going live. My fellow veterans will have noted that my use has dwindled dramatically in the last 9 months or so. Why? Because I'd forgotten what it was like to enjoy a film, instead of pre-empting, or even worse, knowing the film before I even set foot in the cinema. I have been enjoying films so much more since I stopped.

And so it is that I urge you, my fellow fans/buffs/geeks. Turn away from the websites. Discover films from your friends, your parents, your local Videosynchratic. Go and watch the films which you wouldn't normally think were for you, but have been talked up by people you trust. Because there is nothing more satisfying and fantastic than being surprised by a movie. These sites aren't just spoiling the movies - they're spoiling your love for them. 

Review: Rambo

Get in, get out, no messing around.

As the rather contrived title of my review suggests, this film is rather like the mission which it portrays. It exists to serve one purpose: Deliver a level of (literally) visceral action we have not seen in 20 years.

There has rarely been a vessel better suited to this type of endeavour than Stallone as Rambo. Rambo has become the movies' definitive man of action over words. The history of the character (and of the actor playing him) imbue the entire film with the sense that once that low activation energy has been reached, a chain reaction is set in motion which cannot be stopped. Put a bee in Rambo's bonnet, and he doesn't so much shake it out as eat the fucking hat, bug and all.

Do not go in expecting a parable for modern American foreign policy, or any astute political observations on the Burmese situation. Do not expect award-worthy performances or dialogue. This film is here to punt your balls into your throat, and it does so with no mercy and no remorse.

The only reason it doesn't get 5 stars is because it's too damn short.

Review: Hell In The Pacific (Spoilers)

Hell In The Pacific

Released: 1968

Directed by: John Boorman
Written by: Reuben Bercovitch (story by), Alexander Jacobs, Eric Bercovici
Cinematography by: Conrad L. Hall
Original Music by: Lalo Schifrin

Lee Marvin
Toshirô Mifune 

[from the IMDb] A shot-down American pilot finds his way to a small, unpopulated island where he hopes to find provisions. He soon discovers that he is not alone; there is a Japanese officer marooned on the island also. Will they continue to fight each other to the death, or will they reach a modus vivendi?


Only Boorman's third film as a director, this film came hot on the heels of his seminal sophomore film, Point Blank. Snaffling that film's star, Boorman took quite a risk with a script devoid of any meaningful dialogue, relying entirely on the performances of the two actors.

While a little slow to start, the story is not short of exciting and amusing turns, and for the greater part manages to avoid mawkish predictability. There are a few bum notes, most notably the weakly painted finale, which undoes a lot of the good work done in the last act. Up until then, however, the film displays remarkable depth for such a limited narrative. In Mifune and Marvin, Boorman had two of the most magnetic stars cinema has ever known. Boorman extracts from them riveting performances that are almost theatrical in nature (by necessity of the serpentine script), and these elevate the material far above the potential pitfalls of its am-dram premise. Conrad L. Hall's typically brilliant camerawork allows us to forget that most of the movie plays out on a stretch of beach shorter than a post office queue, imbuing the film with a grander scale from the get-go. A restrained (read: non-jazz) but cleverly orchestrated score by Lalo Schifrin also serves to bring this small story into greater relief.

Marvin's portrayal of a nameless American bomber pilot thrives on have-a-go adventurism, undiminished (perhaps even reinforced) by the limited canvas within which his story plays out. Modern day familiarity with Marvin's usual persona renders his enthusiasm a little unbelievable on occasion, but the gruff strength and menace for which Marvin became iconic is carefully woven through the film in metered measure. He takes to engaging his uncomprehending counterpart in one-way conversations. By contrast, Mifune's professional Japanese Captain remains stoic and superficially unresponsive to these attempts, resulting in some in effective grating. Mifune's seeming immutability and occasional paroxysms of choleric illustrate well his quest for empowerment through control of his circumstances, and he too wrings as much as possible from what is essentially a mute performance - for there are no subtitles or voiceover, and when he speaks, which is seldom, it is in Japanese.

The two men's ways of dealing with this impossible situation are both treated with equal respect by director Boorman, and they are never drawn in predictable parallel. Certainly, the characters live and breathe the symbolism of their respective nationalities, Marvin embodying the American dream of risky endeavour, open borders and free enterprise, Mifune the unflinching work ethic, protectionism and sense of duty of the Empire of Japan.

For the most part, this plays well, but the game of "fetch" is a peculiar and somewhat unwelcome beat: The implicit cruelty of the game is completely undone by Mifune's blank refusal to play along, and Marvin seems to be almost more amused playing it himself than he would have been watching the bound Mifune play, as this sadistic streak is not displayed anywhere else in his portrayal. The whole scene sits uncomfortably with the social picture Boorman is attempting to paint, even if as a political statement it might hold a little water. The movie may have been better off without this particular scene.

*Spoilers ahead*

That said, the film manages to avoid any half-baked attempts at a simplistic meeting of the minds, for even on their shared enterprise, the building of the raft, they squabble and argue. It is only after the two set sail that the film finally suggests its broader outlook - that the world is populated by peoples of irreconcilable differences. In the closest proximity the two characters have shared, on the raft the men do not communicate at all, save to offer each other silent assistance. In so doing, the movie deftly illustrates that while it is compassion that makes us human and unites us, such compassion is born of a hardship of our own making. Equally, once they make land and find the abandoned fort, and in perhaps the most satisfying portion of the film, the two men share each others good fortune for a short while. Nevertheless, before long old grievances again rear their heads, and in so doing Boorman finally reminds us again of our irrefutable tribalism.

The war, a purely theoretical backdrop for most of the movie, comes home to roost in the closing beats of the film. In those final frames of the fort being blown apart as the two men's exchanges escalate, Boorman might then have made a timely analogy to the Cold War, perhaps. As the events of the last 40 years have shorn the film of that insulation, however, the ending now appears a rather weak and lazy, or even worse, clumsy piece of writing. Films ending on a simple downer aren't as acceptable as out-and-out tragedies these days, and the looming, pervasive sense of inevitability that would be required by a modern audience just isn't there.

*End Spoilers*

If you can disregard the few issues outlined above, however, you have a film in the greatest storytelling tradition - a tale of two contrasting people, which illuminates who we are and how we relate to each other. Perhaps the final aftertaste is a little sour, though, as Boorman invokes Sartre in the very title:

Hell, in the Pacific or elsewhere, is other people.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Review: The Motorcycle Diaries

This has been out in the UK for about a week (at the time of writing in September 2004), and I had the good fortune to catch it on a day off last weekend.

Walter Salles' (Central Station, co-produced City of God) new film tells the story of the young Ernesto 'Che' Guevara's voyage around South America with his friend Alberto 'Mial' Granado, and the discoveries and personal journey made during the 12,000km+ trip.

I'll start with the negatives, or negative (for there is only one). I haven't read Che Guevara's diaries, on which the film is based. Nor, indeed, do I know much about his life or his work as a revolutionary. Nonetheless as a 'Great Man's Origins' story, in which category this film definitely sits, the whole thing feels a little convenient; the influences too obvious, the references too direct. You know throughout this film exactly where it's heading. Having said that, maybe it was foolish of me to expect anything else from a biopic of such a passionately adored character.

But that is my only gripe. Set aside the above issue, and what you are left with is a beautiful, beautiful tale well told of two friends sharing an extraordinary experience. I was surprised at Salles' ability to differentiate the characters so clearly despite their almost identical reactions to most situations and events. I was half anticipating de la Serna's Mial to become the antagonist to Garcia Bernal's 'Fuser' (Guevara's childhood nickname) at some point in the film, but that never happened. Instead, Salles' chooses to use Mial as the engine, bouncing off Fuser's introspection to keep the story moving along. In doing so, Mial might be in danger of becoming little more than a plot device, but Salles carves him into a character of equal standing to Guevara, the oil to Fuser's vinegar. De la Serna's performance brings out the quality of the writing of his part; the vices and foibles of the young man, his humour, insatiable appetite for women, and silver tongue are all delightfully handled.

By contrast, Bernal's performance is one of introspection. The odd melodramatic asthma attack aside (I'm an asthmatic myself - if you were that hyper during an attack, you'd be dead in about 30 minutes), his performance is spot on. From his leaving his family behind at the start of the film, through his first moment of violent rebellion (throwing a rock at an abusive mining company truck), to his explaining to his friend at the end why he needs to spend a long while alone, Bernal is not overcome by the magnitude of the man he is portraying. He plays him as a kid on his first real adventure away from home, much like any pre-university teen in the UK on his GAP year. The beauty is in the subtleties, and through nuances he suggsts that what he witnesses and experiences over those thousands of miles will stay with him and shape him for many years to come.

Not much to be said about the rest of the cast. The supporting players do well, even if not a one of them is on screen for longer than about 5 minutes through the whole film.

The diversity of locations is astounding, Salles' giving a real sense of what South America might have been almost half a century ago. He finds indigenous Peruvians who still speak Quechua, he shoots in an unspoilt Amazon of timber huts and rafts, he even gathered a skeleton crew (I'm guessing here) and got genuine footage of his two leads in Machu Picchu. This is all ably, and at times beautifully, shot by Eric Gautier (Intimacy).

It being about a week now since I saw the film, it has had a chance to settle. The strongest feeling I have for the film now is wonderment. I want to read Che's diaries, I want to go back to South America, I want to meet all these extraordinary people. But above all I want to see the film again, see a young man to whom I can relate, not a revolutionary giant whose name perhaps holds more significance now than his deeds, whose face is emblazoned on more posters and t-shirts than James Dean.

Fuser is just a kid like any other. In this film we come to understand how he became Che Guevara, a man unlike any other. If this isn't a shoo-in for a best foreign film Oscar nom, I'll eat my hat. It's gorgeous.

The film.

Not my hat.

Review: Sunshine

Short version? 2001: A Space Odyssey meets Event Horizon.

I loathed Event Horizon, and I didn't particularly like the aspects of that film that Sunshine evokes either. But more later.

Long version? I quite liked most of it, but have some reservations.

The design, lighting and effects of this film are faultless, evoking Kubrick's 2001 quite loudly in places, as does some of the script. If this doesn't get nominated for best visual effects at next year's Oscars, I'll eat my montera.

The characterisation was a bit broad, but at least it was by and large believable. It was also great to see scientists portrayed as something other than social misfits, hermits or genii-on-the-edge. They (well, most of them) make life-or-death decisions with the clarity of judgment, coolness of approach and professionalism one would expect from the scientific crew selected to save the planet. The massive weight of responsibility on this mission (from an unseen Earth) affects almost every crewmember, and this creates is a tension remarkably well teased out through the entirety of the film. Remarkable because for 99% of the movie, you don't see the Earth at all.

There is no single standout performance because there is no clear lead, but I would have to say that Cillian Murphy is the one that left the slightest impression, which is surprising given the amount of screentime he has towards the end of the film. Chris Evans starts out with an unintentionally funny "Ron-Burgundy-on-the-skids" beard and mop, and he is quite unrecognisable until he shaves it off. Nonetheless, he puts in a solid, if typically alpha male, performance.

There were two actors whose performances perhaps wooed me more than the others, despite relatively brief screentime. The first was Cliff Curtis, as the officer with a toddler's quasi-spiritual desire to stare into the sun. The second was Hiroyuki Sanada as the dignified and measured Captain Kaneda, whose first thought is always for the mission, and then for his subordinates. There is a fantastically haunting moment between the two of them, which you will miss if you're not listening closely, just before the Captain parts ways with the rest of the crew.

Many people have started berating/defending the last act online already. This is the Event Horizon bit I was talking about earlier. Personally, I don't like it; it introduces an additional element of stalk-and-slash that lowers the otherwise intellectual tone of the film.

On the one hand, the "new element" is an extension of the spiritual theme introduced earlier in the film. On the other hand, it is not a natural extension of said theme, and it's a little stretched. It feels like an all-too-convenient plot device which reeks of laziness on Alex Garland's part, given how well the film was motoring through crises and deaths before the introduction of the "new element". I can think of a dozen ways for the third act to have followed a similar or identical arc without adding a "new element" so late in the game. Sure, it might have taken a bit of graft to get it to fit, but it can't have been a greater contrivance than what is there now. Furthermore, the "new element" has no part in the resolution, whether spiritually or emotionally; The way the film ends, the "new element" might as well not have been there.

A quick aside, if I may... I am glad to see that once again the British are once again getting to see British films before anyone else. Between Danny Boyle's movies, Children of Men and Edgar Wright's films, I no longer feel short-changed about our tax-dodging cousins getting to watch our films on the same day as we do, while we often have to wait months to watch theirs. The current trend for massive simultaneous rollouts for blockbusters on a global scale has gone some way to redressing the balance, but I am glad that we have something to gloat about over this side of the pond beyond the superior standard of most of our films.


Review: There Will Be Blood

It is difficult to know where to start when reviewing a film such as There Will Be Blood, for there are no standout elements, no suitable comparisons, and no single person responsible. Nonetheless, at the risk of sounding trite...

Director Paul Thomas Anderson demonstrates total patience and absolute trust in the story, in every element thereof, from the characters to the setting to the themes. The result is a film which is best appreciated not as a film, but rather as an experience: something to privately carry with you, to ruminate on, to learn from. Accordingly, it is perhaps not the seeming miscarriage of justice that No Country For Old Men won Best Picture over There Will Be Blood, for although the two share many trappings, the structuring, pace, and characterisation of the former are more in line with contemporary cinematic tastes.

There Will Be Blood
represents a standard of storytelling, taste and craft that has not been seen since Kubrick's work of the 60's and 70's. Indeed, in certain aspects, the piece feels like Kubrick's lost Western. The actors and technicians on this film do exemplary work at the peak of their ability, and many of them have been rightly applauded for their contributions. Ultimately, however, the film transcends the medium, and it is Paul Thomas Anderson who steps away from the confines of what one would normally consider a cinematic director's role into something more significant. Beyond the mere process of creative decision-making, through this film PTA has become a modern-day teller of parables. His mission is not merely to make a enthralling film, but to lay down universal truths and human laws, to educate, to elevate.

With this film, PTA has granted Hollywood a grace with which to redeem itself. If the studios can step up to this challenge, he may eventually be proven the saviour of modern American cinema.

Review: Harry Brown

(written on film's release, hence the opening line)

I've just come back from seeing one of the most disturbing films I have seen in a long time. Maybe the body count is in the single figures, but some of the characters portrayed onscreen are so believably nasty (I live on an estate in South London, so I see people a bit like them living on my block) that each and every act of violence hit home like a sledgehammer.

This film might be marketed on Michael Caine, but it absolutely belongs to director Daniel Barber. Apparently this is his first film, but apart from the odd dry angle here and there (especially the graveyard scenes), you really wouldn't know it. A bravura pre-credits sequence, shot as if through a mobile phone, sets up the tone for the whole film. This opening scene, although staggeringly accomplished and immediately unsettling the viewer, is stylistically out of keeping with the style of the rest of the movie, and almost feels like it was tacked on at the last minute. Indeed, nothing in the sequence bears any relation to the rest of the plot, or even the characters.

Caine's performance is every bit as solid as you would expect, unshowy, and with the occasional wink towards some of his past characters. Of particular note is a scene in which he tells a dying victim an anecdote from his days as a marine in Northern Ireland. It is the first time we meet Harry Brown the cold-blooded killer, as removed from Harry Brown the chess-playing pensioner, and the scene sets up his moral and psychological stance with such alarming impact that it never needs to be referenced again. Indeed, a septuagenarian pensioner wielding knives and multiple firearms on a rampage of torture and death seems completely logical from that point on.

And that's the movie's biggest trick. That's how it hoodwinks you. This is not a cartoon or wish fulfilment, like Rambo or Taken, or any number of other ageing revenge/vigilante movies. The film feels so immediately, intimately real that you are in every minute of it: for a revenge drama, it's bloody scary.

Which leads me onto my next round of shout outs: the baddies. With the exception of an underwritten and possibly miscast Liam Cunningham, most of the lowlifes in this movie are brilliantly played. Obviously Ben Drew as Noel, the film's teenaged antagonist, gets a mention for his embodiment of everything that plagues the thousands of crumbling estates across Britain. Vicious, amoral and smiling, he is a fantastic counterpoint to Michael Caine. Across the board, the gamut of bit players impress, whether as thugs, junkies, or hoodies. However, particular mention must go to Sean Harris as Stretch, the drugs 'n' guns dealer Harry goes to to acquire his arsenal. Harris blew me away with his reptilian, unblinking take on the character. Itchy but controlled, seeping menace from every pore, he delivers more impact in his 5 minutes of screentime than Ben Drew does in the entire movie. As I remember from a few years ago, even under copious makeup and, again, given very limited screentime, he was the best thing in Creep. But then, no-one saw that, did they? I hope someone gives him a decent role soon.

On the downside, Emily Mortimer is weak, her subplot as good as redundant. This is unfortunate, as the director seems keen to spend as much time as possible following her limping character all the way to a pointless conclusion. Allowing an element of police procedural into the movie might pave the way for the brilliantly staged riots in the closing act, but as the almost comical character of her boss jars with the tone of the rest of the movie, this particular strand is an unwelcome sideline.

I suppose you could argue that there is a moralistic side to the movie, a statement on modern society in the British underclass, but I'd be hard pressed to identify what that statement might be. This film works best as a revenge thriller, pure and simple.

I look forward to Barber's next film, and am interested to see what Nolan gives Caine to do in his next few movies, now that old Mickey has revealed he still has a few teeth left to bare...

Review: Let The Right One In (Spoilers)

Oskar, a bullied 12-year old, dreams of revenge. He falls in love with Eli, a peculiar girl. She can't stand the sun or food and to come into a room she needs to be invited. Eli gives Oskar the strength to hit back but when he realizes that Eli needs to drink other people's blood to live he's faced with a choice. How much can love forgive? (from

Review (***Spoilers***):

The title of "genre film" is a peculiar, treacherous mistress: Whatever genre the picture in question, by mere dint of the moniker, it will inevitably draw preconceptions. The very name means that it can be easily pigeonholed. Most genre films are therefore perceived as formulaic, low-brow examples of the cinematic form; a reassuring but unoriginal mix of thrills and chills, maybe some laughs, some possibly even unintentional. Indeed, most offer little more than a temporary distraction, devoid of original ideas and warranting no contemplation once the viewer has left the darkness of the screening room. Because of this prejudice amongst more "serious" filmgoers, few movies are better placed to confound expectation than genre films, especially those in the harder genres, such as horror.

Let The Right One In is just such a film. Right from the stark white, small, block capitalised title cards, it is clear that this is something other than a compendium of cheap parlour tricks. It is also uniquely, unmistakeably Swedish. It does not open with a jolting scare or kill, as might be usual for the genre, but rather with a measured and near wordless introduction to our two leads: the gawky, awkward Oskar, who harbours a disturbing fantasy of violence which runs counter to his innocence, and the sickly Eli, rendered intriguing by the nature of her relationship with Håkan, her guardian.

The film does come to its first kill in short order. An almost casually efficient setup at home leads into an objectively shot scene of a simple, methodical bloodletting. Alfredson maintains this non-judgmental, "stand back and watch" approach to violence throughout the film. As a result, all of these scenes serve the story and advance the characters, rather than pandering to any trivial concepts of right and wrong or good vs. bad.

In this first instance, the killer is all too human, and when unable to handle interruption by a not remotely threatening poodle (he ineffectually throws a handful of snow at it and tells it to "shoo"), he quickly gathers most of the essential tools and flees before the dog's owners reach the grisly aftermath. The scene closes with the dog lapping up the spilt blood, and with that Let The Right One In has set out its stall: This is a film which defies the usual trappings of the vampire film: the life of a bloodsucker is not glamourous, but grounded in a world of disgust, social exclusion and remorse.

This first murder also reveals two of the film's greatest tools: a fantastic score and truly Oscar-worthy sound design. The composer, Johan Söderqvist, makes sparse but effective use of piano and strings, resulting in a soundtrack which is equally haunting and moving. By opting to show little by way of stunts or gore in the movie (except for a few standout prosthetic appliances), Alfredson allows sound to become a key player in the storytelling.  He uses it to phenomenal effect, whether it be a perfectly timed lorry thundering overhead as tension rises beneath a bridge, or feeling the sting of birch on flesh as Oskar is dealt the swipe of a cane by his bullies.

This in turn means that the audience is incited to indulge their own imagination, a concession rarely afforded in the modern climate. Most studio filmmakers these days have the arrogance to assume either that our creative minds aren't up to much, or that their CG-addled visions are more powerful than our own, private ideas of horror/magnificence/extasy/etc. It is therefore gratifying and immediately endearing to watch a film which encourages us, the audience, to fill in the blanks for ourselves. Even the infamously violent swimming pool scene is remarkable for its visual restraint and composure (and also its witty reversal of Jaws' opening gambit): the muffled sounds of what is happening above water and fleeting glimpses of the carnage tell us all we need to know, our imagination telling us what we would probably do better not to.

let-the-right-one-in-2.jpg (800×344)

Much has been made of the two central performaces by the kids. Certainly, these are very strong, but given the spartan emotional style and stereotypically Scandinavian bleakness (if you saw the Wallander TV series over the winter, you'll have an idea of the tone), one is left wondering if perhaps the minimalist performances are a directorial result of the children's obvious lack of acting experience. Very sensibly, Alfredson never asks too much of either of his leads.

That is not to say that this film is devoid of emotional content, however. Far from it, this film speaks centrally of the most powerful of all the emotions: Love. And not just the joyous promise of romantic love discovered, as the young Oskar finds with Eli, but love in all its forms, whether unrequited, mutual, or lost: The brotherly love shared by two men coming home from the bar, soon to be rended by death, which the tragic figure of the wife cannot replace; The inevitable sadness of the love of partners unilaterally expired, leaving the love of a disciple, as that of Håkan for his ward Eli, who is demonstrably willing to give up absolutely everything for her; The love of a parent for their children, notable chiefly for its near absence from Oskar's life.

So we come to realise that the title may not solely allude to the old convention that, on pain of death, a vampire can only enter a home when invited. Alfredson might also be telling us, in fittingly Swedish guardedness, that we should be careful to whom we open our hearts, for the wrong one might just ruin them.


Right, so...

I love films.

So I thought it would be cool to work in them.

I worked in film and TV for the better part of a decade, as an AD and occasional producer, and so discovered that films may be fun to watch, but they are hell to make.

I shall be kicking off with some old reviews, as and when I dredge them up. I'll occasionally throw in an anecdote about my time in film, some Kermodian thoughts about the status of the film industry going forwards, and other stuff.

Hope you enjoy...