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Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Interstellar

A film of enormous ambition and stunning technical accomplishment, director Christopher Nolan’s space epic dares to dream big and mostly succeeds, even if its reach occasionally exceeds its grasp.

Set in a dystopian future where Earth’s resources are running dry, widowed farmer, engineer and ex-test pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is confronted with a dilemma when offered the chance to lead a last-ditch mission to save humanity by the elderly NASA physicist Professor Brand (Michael Caine).

This involves using custom-built spacecraft, advanced theoretical astrophysics and travelling to the far reaches of space and time. Apart from the obvious risks, he will have to leave his family behind: young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and son Tom (Timothee Chalamet), who are both devastated to see him go.

Joined by Brand’s own scientist daughter (Anne Hathaway), two other NASA (Wes Bentley and David Gyasi) and a multifunctional robot called TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin), the team venture into the unknown, searching for potentially habitable worlds.

To say much more about their mission would be entering dangerous spoiler territory, suffice to say that what they experience in deep space is truly a sight to behold.

Nolan’s own challenge was to blend real-life theoretical science (with the help of world-renowned physicist Kip Thorne), interstellar space travel grounded in a semi-plausible way, and finally to explore the emotional toll this takes on human beings.

It is a tall order and using a blend of practical and digital effects, and a scientifically literate script, the writer-director weaves a patchwork of influences which he just about pulls it off.

The twists and turns of the story may be too much for some on first viewing, but this one where you have to strap in and embrace the ride into other worlds.

Dust-filled Earth and chilly deep space are realised with stunning clarity and imagination: cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Let The Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) shoots the dark wonders of space and other worlds with a piercing intensity.

Visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin complements these with seamless digital transitions, working from stock NASA imagery and Thorne’s theories, the work he and his team at Double Negative have achieved here is truly exceptional.

Editor Lee Smith also brings a wonderfully brisk pace to an epic that lasts 166 mins, whilst utilising the crosscutting technique that Nolan used to such great effect in his Batman trilogy (2005-12) and Inception (2010).

The production design by Nathan Crowley, costumes by Mary Zophres and sound design by Richard King all create a rich, immersive and at times even tactile quality, which is surprising for a film as expansive as this.

Given all the technical brilliance at work here, and perhaps because of it, the performances of the actors are occasionally dwarfed by the sheer scale, but McConaughey, Foy, Hathaway and Irwin are the standouts.

McConaughey especially delivers the goods as the engineer burdened with courage and a seemingly impossible inner conflict and Ellen Burstyn burns brightly in a small, but critical role.

Surprises abound in Interstellar, and although the obvious sci-fi influences are here – 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) – perhaps less expected are traces of Reds (1981), Field of Dreams (1989), The Abyss (1989), Solaris (2002) and Sunshine (2007).

Like Nolan’s other films it will almost certainly repay repeated viewing, but it bears all the hallmark of his very best work: smart, technically accomplished and leaving the viewer with a desire to experience it all over again.

> Official website
> Reviews at Metacritic
> Interstellar at the IMDb
> Roundtable interview with Nolan and his cast with THR (26 mins)

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Festivals Reviews Thoughts

LFF 2014: ’71

A riveting portrayal of a young British soldier on the run in early 70s Belfast provides the backdrop for this stunning feature debut from director Yann Demange.

When a young English soldier (Jack O’Connell) is sent to the streets of Belfast in 1971, he is quickly plunged into a nightmarish fight for survival in a city that has erupted along sectarian lines.

Left wounded and stranded by his regiment, he encounters various characters: a young streetwise boy (Corey McKinley); a Catholic (Richard Dormer) and his daughter (Charlie Murphy); two contrasting IRA members (David Wilmot and Killian Scott); and some shady British army agents (Sean Harris and Paul Anderson).

After some preliminary scenes which sketch out the protagonist in his home town, we are soon introduced to the bitter and dangerous streets of the time.

Straightaway the film does something clever, with DP Tat Radcliffe employing a grainy 16mm newsreel look for the daytime sequences and gradually shifting towards a digital palette for the night, which allows us to see more of the unfolding horror.

It is also blessed with some terrific widescreen framing, reminiscent of John Carpenter at his best, which elevate the film far above the usual bland visuals that often plague British films like a virus.

Gregory Burke’s screenplay intelligently weaves a story of survival within a powerful, almost one act structure, with some dark underlying issues which still resonate today.

The cast who help bring this to life are equally impressive: O’Connell in the demanding lead role will inevitably take the lions-share of the plaudits, but supporting cast also shine in what could easily be cliched roles.

Demange, French-born but British-based, this is an audacious leap from TV into feature films and comparisons will inevitably be made with Paul Greengrass, who was also propelled into the mainstream after his TV movie Bloody Sunday (2002).

You could also make career comparisons with director Steve McQueen, whose feature career launchpad was with Hunger (2008), a searing drama set around the Maze prison in the early 80s.

It is interesting that such difficult and controversial events have provided fertile ground for more recent film-makers, when it had previously proved such a minefield, with disastrous films like A Prayer for the Dying (1987) and The Devil’s Own (1997) being prime examples. But over time, things changed.

Gone were the tone deaf, ham-fisted efforts and in their place were works of greater style and substance: Greengrass used a documentary style to depict the seismic events of January 30th, 1972; McQueen realised the horrors of the 1981 hunger strike with a chilling simplicity.

Now Demange has added to this modern tradition, with a film that functions as a gripping thriller but also is an unsentimental reminder of the senseless brutality of warfare.

’71 played at the London Film Festival on October 9th and 10th

> LFF official site
> Facebook page for ’71
> Read more about The Troubles at Wikipedia

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Cinema Festivals Reviews Thoughts

LFF 2014: The Imitation Game

The story of World War Two codebreaker Alan Turing is brought to the big screen with class, compassion and a standout performance from Benedict Cumberbatch.

Based largely on Andrew Hodge’s biography, it employs a well-worn but effective flashback device which sees the maths genius (Cumberbatch) relate his story to a police officer in the early 1950s.

As the story unfolds we see how a seemingly odd bachelor in Manchester, with a fondness for electronics projects, was in the previous decades a maths prodigy who would become crucial in defeating the Nazis, and in the process help lay the blueprint for modern computing.

The real life events that inspired this version are both extraordinary and complex, but screenwriter Graham Moore has wisely woven them in to his nicely honed screenplay, with only a handful of overwritten moments (most of them involving his childhood).

Norwegian director Morten Tyldum also brings a compelling pace to proceedings, whilst juggling the complexities of Turing’s life and work with how it affected those around him.

Production designer Maria Djurkovic impressively recreates three time periods (1930s, 40s, 50s) and is aided by some sharp camera work which results in a subtly altered visual sheen for each.

In key supporting roles, it is Mark Strong who stands out as a shadowy MI6 agent, bringing an enigmatic gravitas to his role. Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode, as fellow codebreakers, also do solid work in fairly underwritten parts.

This is a far superior film to Enigma (2001), the Michael Apted film which covered the same story with a somewhat hackneyed thriller premise, which seemed to turn away from the goldmine of the central protagonist.

Perhaps the shrewdest thing this film does is to embrace the puzzle of Turing himself: war hero; rebel; math genius; autistic savant; and finally a victim of the British society he had helped to save.

That the final film works as well as it does, is in large part down to Cumberbatch’s performance.

Although at times it borders on being a little too mannered, it nonetheless feels like we’ve been in the presence of Turing for the duration of the film.

Convincing whether he is answering back to his superiors or colleagues, fragile when worrying about his emotions, and belligerent that his vision will work no matter what, it is the range of emotions on display that make this his best screen performance to date.

Ultimately, the wider story is a bittersweet one, with a war hero unable to see what profound impacts his ideas had on World War II and the development of the computer and the field of artificial intelligence.

The Imitation Game does not seek to sugarcoat Turing’s legacy, nor is it an ‘issue film’ about Britain of the time.

Instead, it acknowledges the complexities of both the man and the times, whilst wrapping it up in a accessible narrative that acknowledges the profound impact he had on the world.

The Imitation Game opened the London Film Festival on Wednesday 8th October

> Official website
> Find out more about Alan Turing on Wikipedia

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Gone Girl

Director David Fincher has been a long-time devotee of Alfred Hitchcock and his latest work seems to be the ultimate love letter to the ‘master of suspense’.

Although no stranger to dark crime dramas – such as Seven (1995) and Zodiac (2007) – Fincher has never really explored the mind of a killer, instead opting to craft impeccable procedurals, filled with dread.

His latest, an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel, explores what happens when a marriage turns particularly sour: Nick and Amy Dunne (Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike) have relocated to recession-hit Missouri and when the latter goes missing things really kick off.

To say much more about the plot is tricky because the narrative is filled with startling developments and many hidden pleasures. Even those who have read the book will savour the many twists, turns and dark humour that Fincher puts on screen.

It is some achievement that the director and novelist, adapting her own book, manage to juggle so many plot strands and characters, who include Nick’s loyal sister (Carrie Coon), a local detective (Kim Dickens), Amy’s rich ex-boyfriend (Neil Patrick Harris) and a superstar attorney (Tyler Perry).

That they do so with such precision and skill, will delight fans of the director and the book, but it also marks new ground for one of finest directors working in Hollywood. Previously his films have mainly explored male points of view, but here he delves into the dynamics of men and women.

The institution of marriage, especially the notion of a ‘perfect couple’, is by the end of the movie so prodded and pulled apart that by the end it feels like one of John Doe’s victims in Seven.

Modern, tabloid news coverage is also dissected with a knowing, penetrating wit. Often, the media circus surrounding the case of Nick and the missing ‘Amazing Amy’ resembles the climax of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951), another example of a master auteur and satirist.

However, all roads seem to lead back to Hitchcock. There are so many of his tropes on display here: a ‘wrong man’ setup; an icy blonde; carefully controlled dolly shots and pans; an important shower scene; even sections that resemble the wilder elements of Vertigo (1958) and Marnie (1964).

Unlike some of Brian De Palma’s work, this is more than an elaborate homage: the flashbacks and shifts in perspective provide a solid foundation for the cast to do some of the best work of their careers.

Affleck is perfectly cast and pulls off a role that is trickier than it might appear at first; Pike reveals hidden depths after a recent run of supporting turns; Tyler Perry is a deeply unexpected delight, whilst the rest of the cast all fit neatly into the world Fincher has sculpted.

Trent Reznor’s haunting electronic score adds a rich aural flavour to proceedings, whilst DP Jeff Cronenweth helps provide the customary dark palette that Fincher is so fond of.

Gone Girl is the kind of film that needs to seen again and perhaps demands another review with spoilers, for a full discussion of its many qualities. But for the moment, it is a film you should definitely see, one of the best of the year so far.

> Official website
> Reviews at Metacritic

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Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Nebraska

Will Forte Bruce Dern and June Squibb in Nebraska

Director Alexander Payne returns to his native state for another wry look at the American midwest and the characters who populate his goofy, desolate cinematic landscape.

In a marked change from the picturesque setting and vibrant colours of his last two films, The Descendants (2011) and Sideways (2004), here we go back the grey Nebraskan skies of his earlier work Election (1999).

Even more than that, Payne has opted for black and white, an unusual visual choice these days and one that invites comparisons to films like The Last Picture Show (1971), with its depiction of things ageing and slowly dying.

This central theme drives the story which revolves around Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a grumpy and partially senile old man who seems convinced he has won a million dollars, just because he has received a certificate in the mail.

Despite trying to convince him that the letter is a scam, his son David (Will Forte) decides to accompany him on the long trip from Billings, Montana to their home state of Lincoln, Nebraska where they meet family and old friends, some of who believe his story about the $1m.

All of this unfurls in classic Payne fashion: there are shrewd observations about family dynamics; a lingering sense of comic frustration and some truly memorable supporting characters, including Woody’s wife Kate (June Squibb) and an old work partner (Stacey Keach).

Working from Bob Nelson’s original screenplay, this marks the first time the director hasn’t had a hand in writing one of his films. But the material is a nice fit and the road movie structure and odd-couple dialogue has parallels with Sideways (2004).

Although the backdrop couldn’t be more different, there is an acute eye for detail and the bittersweet nature of relationships, especially the effect time and money has on our lives. In its own way, this is a sly parable about the illusory nature of the American Dream.

At the same time there is a lot of heart beneath the surface of these lives and one suspects that Payne sympathises with Woody’s plight, whilst not being too precious about his shortcomings, as evidenced in comic scenes where he visits Mount Rushmore or loses his false teeth.

The decision to use black and white (it was shot in colour and converted in post-production) whilst creating an elegiac tone, also allows cinematographer Phedon Papamichael to indulge in different lighting choices, which are interesting for such contemporary material.

Dern has often been cast in secondary roles, but here at the twilight of his career he gives a wonderfully nuanced performance. He’s cranky and unpredictable, yet somehow manages to paint a sympathetic portrait of a man sliding into the fog of old age.

Forte provides an effective foil as his adult son trying to understand his father better, Bob Odenkirk is nicely vain as the other son (a local TV newsreader), whilst Squibb gets the most belly laughs as the dominant matriarch.

The musical score by Mark Orton, with its use of guitars and strings, also sets a distinctive mood throughout.

> Official site
> Reviews at Metacritic

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DVD & Blu-ray Reviews Thoughts

Heaven’s Gate

Isabelle Huppert and Kris Kristofferson in Heaven's Gate

One of the most infamous commercial disasters in Hollywood history gets another re-release, but at the correct length there is much to admire in Michael Cimino’s 1980 western.

Heaven’s Gate has a formidable legacy as the film that bankrupted United Artists, virtually ended the high flying career of its director, and led to the major studios taking fewer risks as the sun finally set on the auteur-driven New Hollywood era.

Although the truth may be more nuanced, it certainly came to symbolise the worst excesses and indulgences of the era, whether that was deserved or not.

But how does it hold up now?

Part of the problem is that ever since its New York premiere in November 1980 (when it clocked in at 219 mins), Cimino and the studio decided to pull it from release after just a week and then issue a drastically recut version later that April (148 mins).

This makes it somewhat difficult to judge, given that most audiences haven’t seen the longer version, but thanks to this new re-release on Blu-ray and DVD, we can see the version that has been personally approved by the director himself.

There are numerous sequences that have been restored and one can finally say this is the version that should be seen.

Set in Wyoming amidst the Johnson County War of 1892, it depicts the brutal struggle of Russian immigrants, as the local cattle barons gradually try to exterminate them.

Amidst this backdrop unfurls a fictionalised story involving a U.S. Marshal (Kris Kristofferson), his Harvard class mate (John Hurt), a French bordello madam (Isabelle Huppert), a hired killer (Christopher Walken), a local bar owner (Jeff Bridges) and a ruthless landowner (Sam Waterston).

When revisiting this film at the proper length there is much to feast on: Vilmos Zsigmond’s stunning cinematography, the incredible use of the Montana and Idaho landscapes; and Tambi Larsen’s epic production design, which along with Cimino’s meticulous attention to detail creates a vivid depiction of the West.

For fans of the western genre there perhaps has never been as grand a vision put on screen.

The central love story doesn’t quite match up to the visuals, but the social and political themes are refreshingly bold for a mainstream American film.

Although films such as Shane (1953) had featured an avenging angel character, Cimino’s script delved deep into the class aspects of the American West.

As Jeff Bridges’ character says at one point:

“It’s getting dangerous to be poor in this country.”

Now there is a line that rings down the decades to the present day.

The central love triangle mostly works with Kristofferson and Huppert making a convincing couple, and although Walken and Hurt are basically miscast in their roles, there is enough realism in the rest of the supporting cast to create a compelling atmosphere.

Watch out too for the recurring motif of circles, from the opening graduation dance at Harvard, to the skating rink, the final battle and the wider theme of the overall story.

Despite its many qualities though, there still remain flaws, the biggest of which is not length but pace.

It may have been designed to show off the extravagant visuals but instead clogs up the narrative of the film and is arguably why opinion is still split on it today.

But it remains worth seeing on its own terms and as a kind of lament for both the Western genre and the filmmaking of the 1970s.

SPECIAL FEATURES

  • New Video Interview With Jeff Bridges
  • New Interview With Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond
  • Extracts From ‘Final Cut: The Making And Unmaking Of Heaven’s Gate’ – Michael Epstein’s acclaimed documentary based on Steven’s Bach’s book

> Buy the Blu-ray or DVD from Amazon UK
> Find out more about Heaven’s Gate at the IMDb and Wikipedia

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Cinema Reviews Thoughts

The Counsellor

Javier Bardem and Michael Fassbender in The Counsellor

The screenwriting debut of novelist Cormac McCarthy sees him team up with director Ridley Scott for a bleak tale set amidst the drug trade of the US-Mexican border region.

When a shady lawyer (Michael Fassbender) gets caught up in a transaction gone wrong, he starts to fully realise that his world may be a cesspit of corruption of murder, endangering not only him but his fiancee (Penelope Cruz).

Employed by a flamboyant Mexican dealer (Javier Bardem), who has a strangely sinister girlfriend (Cameron Diaz), he is warned by a business associate named Westray (Brad Pitt) that Mexican cartels can be ruthless and unforgiving when crossed.

Although an original screenplay, we are firmly in ‘McCarthy-land’, where human suffering is seemingly around every corner and harsh punishment is meted out in remorseless ways.

Ridley Scott has long been interested in bringing the novelist’s Blood Meridian to the screen and he’s admitted that when the option to make this film came up, he jumped at the chance.

The result is a dark and strange film, defiantly going against the grain of conventional studio filmmaking, with its sordid scenes of sex and violence marking it out as a rarity in the current climate of animation and safety-first blockbusters.

It may have one of the most in-demand casts of recent memory, but it largely plays them against type – Fassbender is a naive protagonist, Bardem a surreal supporting act, Diaz a wild femme fatale and Pitt a larger-than-life cowboy, with only Cruz playing it straight.

None of them are untainted by their world (although some are more tainted than others) and initially life seems good for the title character as he indirectly reaps the rewards of the drug trade before foolishly succumbing to his greedier instinct, although ironically it is a benevolent act that triggers the main events of the film.

Although the characters are distinctive, the real stars here are the writer and director: McCarthy has managed to create his grim but often disturbingly plausible visions intact, whilst Scott can do this kind of drama in his sleep as the plot unwinds with clockwork efficiency.

Scott has often been accused of being more interested in visuals than characters, but that makes him a perfect fit for this material, where humans really are pawns, and whilst McCarthy’s screenplay will undoubtedly enrage screenwriting gurus, this is no bad thing.

An early scene involving rabbits being chased and hunted by cheetahs is a forewarning of what is to come: shootings, beheadings, strangulation by weird devices.

This is a brutal world in which we see people in over their heads, affected by forces out of their control.

The oddness of the material extends to the quality — parts of the film are highly effective and stay with you long after the final credits roll, but there is also a strange familiarity here.

This may be because Cormac McCarthy has been such a cultural influence on the border region of Mexico and the US: after Breaking Bad (2008-13) and the Coen Brothers’ masterful adaptation of his own No Country for Old Men (2007), there seems to be a sense of déjà vu running throughout the film.

Despite this, there is something to admire in how it boldly defies conventions and stays true to the spirit of the screenwriter’s vision.

Some audiences will be repulsed by aspects of The Counsellor but like a fine wine may be more appreciated in the years to come.

> Official site
> Reviews at Metacritic

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Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Upstream Color

Upstream Color

The long-awaited second film from Shane Carruth is a mind-bending puzzle filled with striking images and sounds.

Back in 2004 Carruth startled audiences at Sundance with his ultra low-budget time travel drama Primer, which has since become a significant cult film.

He quickly became something of an enigma – apparently one long cherished project was stuck in development hell – prompting questions about when and what his new film would be.

But earlier this year he was back at Sundance (nine years after his debut film) with Upstream Color, which prompted eager anticipation.

Suffice to say, Carruth has lived up to expectations with a film that is both absorbing and uncompromising.

When a young woman (Amy Seimetz) is involved in a bizarre series of events after being drugged, she forms a connection with a man (Carruth) who has had similarly surreal experiences.

Although that is a very basic outline of the story, part of the pleasure is seeing how it veers into surreal realms encompassing roundworms, pigs, flowers and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.

Just trying to describe the film in words feels futile as this is one that should be experienced on a audio-visual level.

The sound design by Pete Horner and Chad Chance is a huge part of the film and the seemingly omnipresent synth score is hypnotic.

The visuals too have a strange, sinister beauty as most of the time Carruth and his co-editor David Lowery cut in an interesting way, cramming a kaleidoscope of images into the 96 minute running time.

Such specificity of vision is probably due to Carruth’s array of talents: he serves as actor-writer-director-producer, cinematographer, composer, co-editor and one of the camera operators.

In a time where too much information is poured out before a film’s release, he has been refreshingly enigmatic in interviews promoting it.

What is it really about?

You could say the film is about recovery and reconnection, but it is intentionally ambiguous and presented with a sense of mystery at almost every turn.

The way images, both urban and rural, are blended with sound is hypnotic, putting us into an almost trance-like state.

Because the film is so unconventional in its approach, some might dismiss it as pretentious or incoherent.

It isn’t a mainstream film by any means, but in an era of manufactured franchises it is heartening to see such singularity of vision in US cinema.

Like Memento (2000) and Mulholland Drive (2001) it keeps the audience in a state of suspense at what may happen in the next sequence, which is quite a feat in an era noted for its adherence to more rigid forms of storytelling.

If Primer explored time travel and engineering, Upstream Color delves deep into the mysteries of identity and human connection.

The best compliment I can pay it is that as the final credits rolled in the cinema, I immediately wanted to experience it all over again.

> Official site
> Reviews of the film at Metacritic

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Cinema DVD & Blu-ray Reviews Thoughts

Plein Soleil (Purple Noon)

Alain Delon in Plein Soleil

Although later adapted in 1999 by Anthony Minghella, the first film version of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley was a French adaptation, directed by Rene Clement.

It follows the adventures of Tom Ripley (Alain Delon), hired by the father of rich playboy Phillipe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet), with instructions to bring his wayward son home from Italy.

But Phillipe, his fiancee Marge (Marie Laforet) and Tom decide to stay in the Mediterranean, divisions start to arise.

Clement made his name as a director just after World War II, with Beyond the Gates (1949) and Forbidden Games (1952), both of which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

Plein Soleil a.k.a Purple Noon (1960) came at an interesting point in world cinema, just as the French New Wave was taking the world by storm with Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and Godard’s Breathless (1960).

Some of the younger directors were critics who had derided Clement, most famously Truffaut in his famous diatribe “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema“.

Although at that time he was seen as part of the establishment, this could be seen as something of a bridge between the old guard and the up and coming autuers.

Ironically, Plein Soleil was enriched by cinematographer Henri Decae, who had shot Truffaut’s landmark debut film the year before.

Here he basks in the vivid colours of the Mediterranean and visually the film is a treat, with Bella Clement’s ultra-stylish costumes adding to the mix.

But the really big deal with this film was that it cemented the arrival of Alain Delon as a bona fide movie star, with his smooth charm and young good looks.

He would swiftly become an icon of European cinema with appearances in Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1962), and Melville’s Le Samourai (1967).

The comparison with Anthony Minghella’s 1999 version is fascinating because although Clement arguably captures the spirit of Highsmith’s novel better, he fudges the ending (Minghella’s was more ambiguous), incurring Highsmith’s displeasure.

That said, there is much to feast on here and this UK disc features some notable extras.

BONUS FEATURES

  • Interview with Alain Delon: A new interview wih the French actor in which he discusses working with Clement and the importance of Plein Soleil in establishing his career. (19 mins)
  • Rene Clement at the Heart of the New Wave: A documentary by Dominique Maillet focusing on Clement and his legacy featuring interviews with director Jean-Charles Tacchella (Cousin Cousine), actress Brigitte Fossey (Forbidden Games), Alain Delon, film historian Aldo Tassone, director and producer Dominique Delouche (L’homme de désir), assistant cameraman Jean-Paul Schwartz (Purple Noon), producer Renzo Rossellini (Don Giovanni, Death Watch), and costume designer Piero Tosi (The Leopard, The Damned). (67 min).
  • The Restoration: A short video showing selected scenes in split screen comparing the old footage alongside the new 4K restoration. (5 min).

Plein Soleil is re-released at selected UK cinemas from Friday 30th August and is out on DVD & Blu-ray on Monday 16th September

> Pre-order the Blu-ray at Amazon UK
> Get local showtimes via Google Movies

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DVD & Blu-ray Thoughts

Blu-ray: Pi

Sean Gullette in Pi

Darren Aronofsky’s debut feature about a troubled mathematician is a reminder of his precocious gifts as a writer-director.

Shot in black and white on location in New York, it made a big impact at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998 and fifteen years on still holds up very well.

When the obsessive maths genius Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) becomes involved with a numerical pattern which may or may not explain the patterns of the stock market, he soon attracts the attention of a shady Wall Street firm and a Kabbalah sect, both of whom take an interest in his work.

But his frequent headaches, obsessive nature and paranoia all conspire to drive him to the brink of madness despite the best efforts of his former professor (Mark Margolis) to reign him back.

Made for just $60,000, it heralded the arrival of a precocious talent, who would go on to direct Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), The Wrestler (2008) and Black Swan (2010).

But there is something special about Pi in the way it completely rejects indie movie clichés to create something distinct and memorable as the protagonist pursues the meaning of an elusive number rather than a one dimensional villain.

It isn’t everyday you see a film featuring the Fibonacci sequence and the board game Go, but whilst the subject matter is unusual the film is successful blend of genres (Wikipedia describes it as a “surrealist psychological thriller”) which Aronofsky somehow ties together.

Mixing black and white film stocks, unorthodox angles and camera rigs, as well as an excellent sound design by Brian Emrich, we are plunged into Max’s neurotic world of migraines, computers and numbers.

The urgency of Clint Mansell’s high-tempo electronic score is also brilliantly effective and would mark the start of a long collaboration with the director.

As for the acting, it is on par with the fine work behind the camera: Sean Gullette manages to capture the magnificently tortured soul of Max – a man whose brilliance is only equalled by his mental and physical torment.

In key supporting roles, Mark Margolis as his mentor and Ben Shenkman as a rabbi stand out, whilst Aronofsky makes clever use of extras in exterior locations – especially Chinatown and the New York Subway.

It won the Directing Award at Sundance in 1998 and during the following summer grossed over $3 million, more than making its money back.

More importantly it established Aronofsky firmly on the filmmaking map, although he has kept mainstream Hollywood at an intriguing arms length.

Despite being attached to big studio tentpoles such as Batman: Year Zero (which eventually became Batman Begins) and The Wolverine (later taken over by James Mangold), he has always been drawn back to passion projects like The Wrestler and Black Swan.

Whilst studios such as Fox Searchlight have distributed his recent films films, he has always retained a degree of control on the fringes of the system (his upcoming biblical film about Noah will be interesting as it is co-financed by Paramount, perhaps the most cautious of the major studios).

The roots of that creative defiance can be seen in this 15th anniversary release of his first film, which combines unconventional ideas with technical flair.

SPECIAL FEATURES

  • Commentary with Darren Aronofsky: A very detailed audio commentary which describes many aspects of the production from set design, camera moves and a whole host behind the scenes info.
  • Commentary with Sean Gullette: A more considered audio commentary from the lead actor, describing his role and the experience of playing the tortured Max Cohen.
  • Deleted Scenes: Include a scene where Max gets confronted outside his apartment and one with a slinky that ironically became one of the press images despite the scene not making the final cut.
  • Behind the scenes montage: An 8-minute featurette shot in colour showing how some scenes were filmed, including one inside Max’s apartment and another with the Hasidic Jews, as well as some footage from Sundance 1998.
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Original Trailer
  • Music Video

> Buy Pi on Blu-ray at Amazon UK
> Official site from 1998
> Darren Aronofsky at the IMDb

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Blu-ray: Dressed to Kill

Dressed to Kill Title

One of the best and most controversial films of Brian De Palma’s career is this macabre erotic thriller.

When a sexually frustrated housewife (Angie Dickinson) meets a tall, dark stranger in a museum, she sets off a series of events which involve a prostitute (Nancy Allen), her psychiatrist (Michael Caine) and her son (Keith Gordon).

Throughout his career De Palma was often accused of misogynistic violence and ripping off Hitchcock and this probably represents the apex of that period.

The debts to Hitchcock are clear: the shower scenes and narrative owe a debt to Psycho (1960) and the museum sequence is a straight homage to Vertigo (1958).

Despite this, I’ve long held the view that De Palma, at his best, is much more than just a Hitchcock imitator.

Although he channels the master of suspense, he adds his own signature touches and – at his best – the end result was different enough to justify accusations of mere imitation.

There are several memorable scenes: the bravura dialogue-free scene in the museum, a murder in an elevator, and a cat-and-mouse chase in a subway all provide ample evidence of the director’s skill.

He also manages to elicit some fine performances from his cast: Dickinson brings a glamorous, flawed grace to her part, Caine is suitably enigmatic, Gordon has a geeky, sly charm and Allen is excellent in what could have been a token prostitute role.

The only supporting performance that rings a little false is Dennis Franz (a De Palma regular at this time) as the seen-it-all New York detective, but even his character has an enjoyable twist.

This new UK release from Arrow Video is the full uncut version, which means the graphic opening showering scene and some of the violence and offending language is back in.

Although this was De Palma’s intended cut you can see why it triggered controversy at the time, principally amongst feminists and the gay community, as the film is a provocative mix of sex, killing and suspense that is artfully rendered.

When it was released in the UK it had the misfortune to open around the time of the Yorkshire Ripper killings, thereby increasing the backlash against it.

It still has a lurid atmosphere, though not a creepy one, and the stylised cityscape and shadowy interiors are all part of the way in which De Palma pushes the buttons of an audience. For some he pushed too hard.

Pino Donaggio’s lush score adds a rich texture to the film, with strings and piano cleverly offsetting some of the sleazy horrors on screen.

Dressed to Kill in some ways is the quintessential De Palma film: full of carefully constructed suspense, Hitchcock references and a sly gallows humour (what long time devotee Pauline Kael called the “alligator grin” in his work).

Although he would continue in this vein with Blow Out (1981) and Body Double (1984), he opted for larger scale crime dramas such as Scarface (1983) and The Untouchables (1987).

But there remains something distinct about this point in his career when he was allowed the creative freedom to put his vision on screen.

BONUS FEATURES

  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of the feature.
  • Optional original uncompressed Mono 2.0 Audio and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround Sound.
  • Symphony of Fear: Producer George Litto discusses his working relationship with Brian De Palma.
  • Dressed in White: Star Angie Dickinson on her role in the film.
  • Dressed in Purple: Star Nancy Allen discusses her role in the film.
  • Lessons in Filmmaking: Actor Keith Gordon discusses Dressed to Kill.
  • The Making of a Thriller – A documentary on the making of Dressed to Kill featuring writer-director Brian De Palma, George Litto, stars Angie Dickinson, Nancy Allen and Dennis Franz.
  • Unrated, R-Rated, and TV-Rated Comparison Featurette.
  • Slashing Dressed to Kill – Brian De Palma and stars Nancy Allen and Keith Gordon discuss the changes that had to be made to avoid an X-rating.
  • Original Theatrical Trailer.
  • Gallery of behind-the-scenes images.
  • Reversible sleeve with original and newly commissioned artwork by Nathanael Marsh.
  • Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic and author Maitland McDonagh, and a new interview with poster designer Stephen Sayadian by Daniel Bird, illustrated with original archive stills and promotional material.

Dressed to Kill is out today from Arrow Video

> Buy it on Blu-ray from Amazon UK
> Brian De Palma at the IMDb and Wikipedia

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DVD & Blu-ray Thoughts

The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation on DVD

One of the landmark films in cinema history is D.W. Griffith’s controversial Civil War epic, which still has the power to startle and shock nearly 100 years since it was made.

As cinema crawled out of the era of novelty and nickelodeons at the turn of the 20th century, it gradually began to embrace more sophisticated visual techniques.

One of the foremost pioneers of these new techniques such as the close-up and the pan, was D.W Griffith, whose film Judith of Bethulia (1914) was one of the earliest features ever to be produced in America.

But it was with his next film, an adaptation of Thomas Dixon’s play and novel The Clansmen and the result was a three hour epic set during the US Civil War.

Depicting the relationship between two families, the Stonemans of the North and the Camerons of the South, it explores the bitter divides that opened up during the abolition of slavery and the subsequent era of Reconstruction.

The film itself has continued to generate controversy: the use of white actors in blackface, the presentation of the Ku Klux Klan as heroic and the Northern armies as villains (remember they were the ones against slavery) looked appalling then and now.

Added to this was the real life rise in KKK membership and lynchings in the South due to the film’s massive box office success. (Another strange bit of trivia is that director John Ford made a cameo as a Klansman.)

So given all this horrendous back story, why should you see it?

The principle reason is that, despite all its odious qualities, the film dared to imagine that cinema could be something other than moving pictures on a screen.

More than that, Griffith managed to synthesise visual techniques into a coherent whole.

Like that other great pioneer Sergei Eisenstein, who directed cinemas’ next great landmark Battleship Potemkin (1925), he managed to lay the foundation for what we regard as modern cinema.

With the famed Russian director we got the power of editing to elicit emotion, but it was built on the tracks laid down by Griffith.

It is ironic that two cornerstones of the film industry were either racist (The Birth of a Nation) or communist propaganda (Battleship Potemkin) when it is associated with Hollywood and a global industry worth billions of dollars.

The Director’s Guild of America for a long time named their prestigious honourary award after Griffith, but in 1999 changed it because it had “helped foster intolerable racial stereotypes”.

One of the last winners of the award under Griffith’s name was Stanley Kubrick in 1997, who mentioned him in this speech:

The phrase ‘inspiring and intriguing legacy’ is an apt one.

Despite being lauded by directors such as Welles, Renoir and Hitchcock he ended up dying alone in a hotel, shunned by the industry he had partly helped create.

The Birth of a Nation retains that curious duality: it is a film that has to be seen despite itself.

> Buy The Birth of a Nation on Blu-ray or DVD from Amazon UK
> Find out more about D.W. Griffith at Wikipedia
> The Birth of a Nation at the IMDb

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DVD & Blu-ray Reviews Thoughts VOD

VOD: Arbitrage

Richard Gere in Arbitrage

A highly impressive drama about a rich hedge fund manager explores many unpleasant truths about the nature of Wall Street.

In a clever twist on ‘the wronged man’ genre, writer-director Nicholas Jarecki depicts the struggles of Robert Miller (Richard Gere), a billionaire head of a company on the brink of bankruptcy.

Only a trusted few know the truth and matters escalate when his daughter and chief accountant (Brit Marling) begins to suspect wrongdoing.

Things get worse when he flees from the scene of a car crash involving his mistress (Laetitia Casta) and is pursued by a dogged detective (Tim Roth).

In Hitchcock films such as Saboteur (1942) and The Wrong Man (1956), innocent protagonists struggle to clear their name after they are wrongly declared guilty of something.

Jarecki inverts that trope here by making his character guilty of many things (infidelity, fraud and perverting the course of justice) and still making us root for him as his tries to extricate himself from crisis upon crisis.

The casting of Gere was clever: in what is his best screen performance in years, he somehow manages to elicit our sympathy whilst engaging in some despicable acts.

But the cold truths this story digs into have any number of real life parallels in the US financial sector over the last few years.

The basic theme is that for the super-rich denizens of Wall Street anything is a deal that can be negotiated, even if that comes at a heavy cost for others.

Complicit are investors ignoring false accounting and his wife (Susan Sarandon), who ignores her husband’s mistress in exchange for an opulent lifestyle.

In the wrong hands, Arbitrage could either be a ponderous, moralising drama or an overblown thriller, but Jarecki gets the balance just right.

He is aided by some fine supporting performances from Marling (following her impressive writing and acting turns in Another Earth and The Sound of My Voice) and Nate Parker, who excels in a key supporting role.

For his first feature Jarecki has wisely recruited some solid behind-the-scenes talent: composer Cliff Martinez lends the film a tense, atmospheric score and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux gives the film a highly impressive visual sheen.

Shot on a budget of just $12 million, it has currently has made close to $50 million with a pioneering simultaneous release on cinema and VOD.

Although not the first film to take this approach, its substantial earnings on multiple platforms may be seen as a landmark, as the new release model for mid-budget indie films like this takes shape.

In the UK, it was available on iTunes two weeks before the DVD and Blu-ray, suggesting that Apple and the distributor (Koch Films) were monitoring this as the kind of canary in the coal mine.

If the US video-on-demand performance ($12 million) is anything to go by, then things look promising.

Arbitrage is out now on DVD, Blu-ray and iTunes

> Official site
> Reviews of Arbitrage at Metacritic
> Richard Gere talks to Thompson on Hollywood about the film

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DVD & Blu-ray Reviews Thoughts

DVD: Mea Maxima Culpa – Silence in the House of God

Mea Maxima Culpa

A haunting and frequently shocking expose of child abuse in the Catholic Church, Alex Gibney’s latest film explores an insidious web of corruption and cover up.

Gibney has explored corruption in institutions before (e.g. Enron, the US military) and here he examines the story of four deaf men who were abused by priests in the 1960s before travelling higher up the church.

Interweaving it with other stories, a devastating portrait quickly emerges of a bankrupt institution that has not only shattered people’s lives, but actively sought to conceal wrongdoing at the highest levels.

Intriguingly, Pope Benedict XVI stood down in February around the UK theatrical release and in doing so he became the first Pope to resign in 600 years. Many have speculated that the abuse scandals (that this film partly explores) gave him a good reason to retire.

When he took over in 2005, he immediately had to deal with a situation that led to an explosion of abuse claims and law suits against the church and accusations that the Vatican was complicit in the cover up.

Although films such as Deliver Us From Evil (2006) have covered this subject by focusing on a single figure, Gibney’s film adopts an unusual approach in starting out with Father Lawrence Murphy abusing his pupils at the St John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

It then gradually follows the trail of abuse into the wider world, which included Tony Walsh, the notorious Irish priest who was also an Elvis personator, Father Marcial Maciel, who was ‘punished’ by being sent out to Florida, and on to the Vatican.

Perhaps worst of all is that the Church not only denied and covered-up many of the cases, it also delayed in punishing paedophile priests and even adopted the policy of posting them to other communities.

At one point there is the utterly surreal revelation that at one point the Vatican suggested putting all the offending priests on a dedicated island.

Despite the dark subject matter, this is an important historical work and has a interesting stylistic touch: whilst watching the deaf interviewees, we hear actors such as Chris Cooper and Ethan Hawke voice their words.

Although such a device may have sprung from necessity, it adds an extra layer to their testimony, literally giving them the voice they were denied as young boys.

There is also some remarkably powerful home video footage towards the end of the film as it comes full circle back to St John’s School for the Deaf.

An important document of a massive scandal, it is also a stark reminder of the emotional destruction wrought by a large, unaccountable institution.

> Buy the DVD at Amazon UK
> More on the film at the IMDb

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DVD & Blu-ray Reviews Thoughts

Blu-ray: To the Wonder

Ben Affleck and Rachel Adams

Terrence Malick’s latest film premiered last Autumn to largely mixed reviews but whilst it is the most extreme film he has made in his trademark style, it has a refreshing boldness to it along with some beautiful sequences.

Malick’s work has frequently eschewed conventional notions of filmmaking with their sparse dialogue, dreamy visuals and obsession with nature.

This has been amplified since his return to Hollywood in 1998 after a self-imposed 20 year exile, where films such as The Thin Red Line (2005), The New World (2005) and The Tree of Life (2011) have gone even further than his earlier work Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978).

He has never been afraid to tackle big themes such as love, death, nature or even the creation of life itself.

In doing so he has also established certain stylistic flourishes: hushed interior monologues; shots of plants; and use of classical music.

With To the Wonder he has taken his trademark elements and turned them up to the nth degree, but whilst the end result falls short of his best films, it is by no means the unintentional work of self-parody that some have suggested.

The story centres on a man (Ben Affleck) torn between two women: Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a European he has met in Paris who comes back to the United States with him, and Jane (Rachel McAdams), the old lover he reconnects with from his hometown in Oklahoma.

In addition, there is a priest (Javier Bardem) struggling with his faith and lack of hope in the world.

They are the basic building blocks of the story but Malick does something much more radical with the narrative, stitching together what appears to be highly improvised sequences in which characters say little or no conventional dialogue.

If this was any other director then we could be in serious trouble, but with Malick he somehow manages to keep things interesting as the characters thoughts and actions wash over us in a kind of cinematic reverie.

It helps that he is one of the great visual stylists in the history of cinema and aided by his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, puts some remarkable imagery on-screen.

As the characters walk around, often tracked by a seemingly ever-present Steadicam, we get to see them engage in a loose and fluid way that not only suits the narrative approach but after a while becomes hypnotic, seeming imitating the pace of everyday existence.

There is also Malick’s trademark use of magic hour, stunning use of natural light and interesting use of locations, which include Paris, Normandy and Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

Plenty of viewers will balk at the methods of To the Wonder but the sheer audacity of the execution is something to behold.

> Official site
> Buy the Blu-ray or DVD at Amazon UK
> Reviews of To the Wonder at Metacritic

Categories
Cinema Reviews Thoughts

World War Z

Brad Pitt in World War Z

The buzz surrounding this expensive zombie-apocalypse movie has been largely negative but it turns out to be agreeable genre fare, laced with some spectacular set-pieces.

Brad Pitt plays a UN troubleshooter who has to escort his family to safety after a virus turns Philadelphia (and the rest of the world) into bloodthirsty, rampaging zombies.

From there he is recruited to find the source of the disease and his journey takes him to South Korea, Israel and Wales, all the while avoiding infection himself.

Although this is essentially a big budget, apocalyptic disaster movie – reworking elements of 28 Weeks Later (2007), Contagion (2011) and Independence Day (1996) – Pitt has the screen presence to keep our attention hold as the film shifts rapidly around the world.

At times it moves too fast, but the action is competently handled and there are some interesting ideas laced amidst the chaos, notably the real world hotspots such as South Korea and Israel making their way into the mix.

Though those traces remain the novel upon which it was based was apparently much more political (exploring the issues from a global perspective and having the disease begin in China), which meant they were trimmed for the demands of the global marketplace.

Whilst this is a shame, the central set piece set in Israel is visually stunning: when crazed zombie hordes attack a walled Jerusalem, they resemble a biblical plague of insects.

The false safety the Israeli survivors feel perhaps reflects real world anxieties and the visual effects are blended in well with the live action.

Just before Pitt lands in Israel we see a nuclear explosion in the distance and when he lands his contact there seems to have too much faith in the city wall keeping the zombies out.

It is left up to the audience to decide what these images might mean by audiences can infer parallels with contemporary strife in the Holy Land.

The film’s final third has been the subject of much speculation, with reported rewrites and re-shoots ballooning the budget, but whatever the cost it just about works.

A scene involving a drinks machine is the only jarring moment in a tense climax in which Forster and his sound editors load on the tension.

The casting of relatively unknown actors in supporting roles (Mireille Enos as Pitt’s wife and Daniella Kertesz as an Israeli soldier) is also a nice touch for a film of this scale.

Ultimately it may not make a huge profit for Paramount and its multitude of producers, but for a summer blockbuster it is refreshing to see one not based on a comic book.

World War Z opens in the UK on June 21st

> Official site
> Reviews of World War Z at Metacritic

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Festivals Thoughts

Sundance London 2013

Sundance London 2013

DAY ONE (April 25th)

Sundance London 2013 – Day 1 from Sundance London 2012 on Vimeo.

The Look of Love (Dir. Michael Winterbottom): After 24 Hour Party People (2002) Michael Winterbottom reunites with Steve Coogan for this biopic of the late Paul Raymond. The self-styled ‘King of Soho’ made his fortune with gentleman’s clubs, erotic magazines and property but his great wealth was underscored by personal tragedy.

Coogan brings a huge amount of charisma to his role, but he is backed up by a fine supporting cast including Anna Friel, Tamsin Egerton, Chris Addison and especially Imogen Poots, who excels as his troubled daughter. Winterbottom deftly manages to balance humour and the film makes good use of real life locations in Soho.

DAY TWO (April 26th)

Sundance London 2013 – Day 2 from Sundance London 2012 on Vimeo.

Blood Brother (Dir. Steve Hoover): An enlightening and at times harrowing documentary about a filmmaker following his best friend (Rocky Braat) as he returns to a hostel in India for young children with HIV. Whilst it doesn’t break any new ground stylistically, the engaging central figure and rawness of the story makes for compelling viewing.

It is rare to see filmmakers adopt a such an extreme verite approach, but what initially starts off as a traditional narrative soon becomes something more unexpected. One scene in particular during the final third may raise questions about the moral line between documentarians and their subjects.

DAY THREE (April 27th)

Sundance London 2013 – Day 3 from Sundance London 2012 on Vimeo.

The Kings of Summer (Dir. Jordan Vogt-Roberts): One staple of US indie films, is the coming of age tale. This one follows three disaffected boys (Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso and Moises Arias) in a rural Ohio town as they run away from home and try to settle in the woods.

Despite the over familiar setting – and a considerable debt to Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me (1986) – it manages to effectively capture the humour and frustration of those teenage years. This is mostly down to Vogt-Roberts nice eye for location and a solid ensemble cast, which includes a stand out turn from Nick Offerman from TV’s Parks and Recreation.

DAY FOUR (April 28th)

Sundance London 2013 – Day 4 from Sundance London 2012 on Vimeo.

Mud (Dir. Jeff Nichols): Interesting US directors outside the LA/New York axis have been rare in recent years. A notable exception has been Arkansas native Jeff Nichols. With his first two films, Shotgun Stories (2007) and Take Shelter (2011), he has firmly established himself as a distinct voice.

His latest comes soaked in the storytelling tradition of the Deep South, mainly Huckleberry Finn, as two young boys (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) come across a stranger named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) who is hiding on an island in the Mississippi river. Strong performances abound from McConaughey, Sheridan, Reese Witherspoon and Sam Shepherd, but it is the confident writing and directing that really mark this out as another chapter in the career of Nichols.

Upstream Color (Dir. Shane Carruth): Ever since his remarkable debut Primer (2004) scooped the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, people have been wondering what had happened to its writer/director Shane Carruth. The answer appears to have been a period of long development hell, but his second feature is well worth the wait. If you were baffled by Primer then be prepared for this film.

Just describing it is hard as it eschews conventional notions of plot but the basic premise revolves around a woman (Amy Seimetz) who comes across a man (Shane Carruth) who may or may not have the answers to a recent trauma she’s undergone. Imagine if David Lynch and Terrence Malick remade Memento (2000) and you might get some idea of the haunting puzzle box Carruth has crafted. The performances, visuals and score all combine to dazzling effect, and it is hard to recall a more mysterious and original film.

Sundance London
> Connect with them on Facebook (facebook.com/SundanceLondon) and Twitter (@sundancefestUK)
> More on the history of the Sundance Film Festival and The O2 at Wikipedia

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Box Office Thoughts

The Critical Average

2012 Critical Consensus

Can review aggregators give us a true picture of the year in film?

In April 2011 I wanted to get a critical snapshot of the first three months of that year by combining three major review hubs: MetacriticRotten Tomatoes and the IMDb.

Using roughly the same methods this time around, the goal was to get a similar picture for a whole year.

Data from the aforementioned websites was analysed again using all the US releases listed on the Wikipedia entry for 2012. (To do global releases would have been a logistical nightmare).

There were a few films we didn’t include, such as 3D re-releases like Titanic and Finding Nemo, along with some that didn’t appear on all three of the review hubs.

We added the Metacritic, Rotten Tomatoes (for the latter we used the average % score) and IMDb user rating, which was then divided by three to get a final score.

The five bands which corresponded to each score were: Excellent (100-80), Good (80-60), Average (60-40), Bad (40-20) and Awful (20-0).

Here is a chart showing the overall picture. Overall Critical Picture 2012 Chart

Here are all the films and their scores in ascending order.Critical Average List of Films Released in 2012
> Wikipedia on 2012 in film
> US Box Office Figures for 2012

Categories
Awards Season Thoughts

The Oscar Horse Race

Oscar Horse Race

With the most interesting and unpredictable awards season in years drawing to a close, it seems like a good time to reflect and speculate on what might win on Sunday at the 85th Academy Awards.

How are Oscars won and why exactly do some films become frontrunners early on only to triumph (or not) on the big night?

The simple answer is that the 6,000 members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences are balloted and then vote for what they think is ‘the best achievement’ in a particular category.

By this point, contenders will have emerged and then nominees are announced.

It all culminates in a globally televised ceremony in which the winners are announced and the famous gold statuettes are handed out and the arguments begin over who deserved what.

But how are they really won?

The months leading up to the ceremony are often more interesting than who wins and also provide a useful snapshot of a particular year – the book ‘Scenes from a Revolution’ by Mark Harris examining the 1967 Oscar race is fascinating and one of the best film books in recent years.

A lot of words get written about famous snubs, such as when Ordinary People beat Raging Bull for Best Picture in 1980, why the Academy took so long to honour Martin Scorsese and the lack of Best Director trophies awarded to cinematic giants like Welles, Kubrick and Hitchcock.

But there can be interesting years like 1974 (when The Godfather II was up against Chinatown and The Conversation) and 2007 (when No Country For Old Men was competing with There Will Be Blood and Michael Clayton) when an unfortunate surfeit of quality leads to classics losing out.

Amidst all the glamour and hoopla, it isn’t just the perceived quality of the films that determines winners.

Perhaps the biggest change since around the early 90s has been the aggressive behind-the-scenes campaigning, which is filled with the kind of stuff you’d expect to see on-screen: suspicion, intrigue, heroes and villains.

Of course the latter depends on who is campaigning for you and whether or not you win.

Generally speaking, the ‘awards season’ really heats up with the Telluride, Toronto and Venice film festivals at the end of August and beginning of September, although other major festivals can be important – Beasts broke out at Sundance 2012 and  Amour won the the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May.

Plenty of factors have distinguished winners since the late 1920s: box office, how an actor or director was (or is) perceived by the Hollywood community, PRs, awards consultants, and (lest we forget!) excellence in a particular category.

It doesn’t always work out, and there have been some infamous snubs, but generally when the nominations come around each year there is a lot to chew on in terms of quality, unless it is a really bad year.

How is the buzz then channelled into Oscar victory?

It often starts when a movie is green lit by a studio or financier as they assemble the package, although at this stage and during production, it would be foolish to assume anything.

Other features of a potential Oscar winner might include: a period setting, heavyweight acting talent, a name director trying to make a serious or issue film, often featuring a major character with some kind of disability.

As the films go through the cogs of the awards cycle, the various critics groups and guild awards give their verdicts, and this is where the punditry and guessing games kick in.

Traditionally, this was a more restrained affair, with the studios taking out ‘For Your Consideration’ ads in the two major trade journals: Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

But as both publications have lost their influence in the rapidly advancing online world, the vacuum has subsequently been lost to websites such as Deadline, Awards Daily, Hollywood Elsewhere, IndieWIRE, The Wrap, Gold Derby, Movie City News and In Contention which offer more in-depth and often better coverage via social media, podcasts and long-form video interviews.

Some of these sites measure the Oscar odds through statistics, getting out in the real world and talking anonymously to voters, and just generally gauging what they think is the pulse of the Academy mind.

There are also a raft of people with years of experience at schmoozing voters such as Harvey Weinstein (arguably the king of Oscar campaigning, first at Miramax and now at The Weinstein Company) and Cynthia Swartz (the awards strategist behind The Hurt Locker and The Social Network).

What makes this year’s race interesting is the spread of nominees in the major categories and the way in which the introduction of online voting may have affected the process – even though BAFTA have been doing it since 2003 – and members still had the option to mail them instead.

Voting opened on December 17th and the fifteen branches that make up the Academy (actors, directors, costume designers etc.) are then asked to vote for members of their particular branch, from which the final nominees are then selected.

Argo is currently the favourite for Best Picture, but Lincoln and Life of Pi are very strong contenders, and there could be a three-way split amongst the vote, mainly due to Ben Affleck’s weird absence from Best Director, which has only happened a handful of times in Oscar history.

Affleck’s omission is not the only anomaly.

It is very rare for the director of a foreign language film to get nominated, let alone his leading actress, but Michael Haneke and Emmanuelle Riva have managed to achieve recognition for their outstanding work in Amour.

The presence of 85-year old Riva and 9-year old Quvenzhané Wallis (for Beasts of the Southern Wild) in the Best Actress race is mind-blowing and testament to both their work and the unusual nature of this year, which could be the result of the change in the balloting date or just chance.

Ah, yes. Chance.

That factor we like to forget because we can’t quantify the unknown and it can make us look ignorant of things we might have missed, underlying trends and the basic fact that each year is a different collection of films voted on by 6,000 human beings with their own unique tastes and quirks.

Given the new online voting system introduced this year and the insanely eclectic list of nominees, this year’s lineup is harder to call than ever.

With that in mind here’s my take on the three frontrunners and the rest of the pack:

  • Lincoln: Daniel Day Lewis gives a remarkable performance as the iconic US president and the film marks a big return to form for Steven Spielberg, with a lucid script by Tony Kushner. For whatever reasons, The Academy has had mixed feelings about Spielberg down the years, but this is his best work since Minority Report (2002) and Munich (2005).
  • Life of Pi: Yann Martel’s novel about an Indian teenager stranded in the Ocean with a tiger was considered unfilmable until visual effects reached a certain level. That day has now come and the resulting adaptation an extraordinary technical achievement for Ang Lee and his crew. Featuring no big stars, it has been a big hit at the global box office. A definite dark horse.
  • Argo: An extremely well-constructed thriller about an unlikely true life tale, Ben Affleck’s third film as director was set against a tricky subject (the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis). Produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, Affleck also stars and despite some uneasy comedy in places, the pacing, tension and Affleck’s awards campaigning make it a well liked film.

And for the rest:

  • Amour: Michael Haneke’s outstanding drama about an elderly Parisien couple is a surprising but welcome addition to the Best Picture category. It is rare for a foreign language film to get recognition in a major category but since winning the Palme d’Or in May, has ridden a wave of richly deserved acclaim. Look out for Emmanuelle Riva to cause an upset in Best Actress on her 86th birthday even though Jennifer Lawrence is favourite for Silver Linings Playbook.
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild: Another remarkable achievement with young director Benh Zeitlin becoming the toast of Sundance with his debut film. It won’t win anything but its four nominations (including director, actress, screenplay and adapted screenplay) are a stunning achievement for both the film and Fox Searchlight, who acquired it back in January 2012.
  • Django Unchained: Tarantino’s ‘slavery spaghetti western’ may get a screenplay nod and Christoph Waltz is definitely a possibility in Best Supporting Actor, but a combination of the violence (extreme even by the director’s standards) and unnecessary last 25 minutes is likely to have put voters off.
  • Les Misérables: Working Title teamed up with Cameron Mackintosh to finally bring his blockbuster musical to cinemas with mixed results. Director Tom Hooper assembled an impressive cast (Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway) but musicals are a divisive genre (generally speaking, I can’t stand them) and early on this lost momentum. However, Hathaway is red hot favourite for Best Supporting Actress.
  • Silver Linings Playbook: A romantic comedy about bipolar disorder might seem an unlikely contender but David O’Russell’s film shouldn’t be counted out. Not only does it contain two contemporary stars (Cooper and Lawrence) and a former legend (De Niro), but it features in all the major categories and has had the formidable machinery of The Weinstein Company behind it.
  • Zero Dark Thirty: Just three years after winning Best Picture, screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow teamed up for their second ‘war on terror’ movie. Arguably superior to The Hurt Locker, this focused on the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, but it’s awards season chances were damaged by the ‘torture controversy’ that blew up before its wide release. It could get a screenwriting award for Boal as a counter blast to all its critics.

There is a strange duality to the Oscars that mirrors Hollywood’s wider mix of commerce and art: red carpet glamour is mixed with backstage whispers; careers can be boosted (or even strangely derailed) by wins, people are snubbed for years and sometimes the planets align for no particular reason.

Some years a large portion of the global TV audience is wondering why they haven’t even heard of the nominees, let alone seen the films.

Whilst all the media attention will be on who does win, remember not to take any awards ceremony too seriously.

The Academy Awards can be a useful snapshot of a particular year, but the ultimate judge of any film’s importance is time.

> Official site
> More on the 85th Academy Awards at Wikipedia

Categories
News Thoughts

The January Catchup

January Backlog 2013

For US and UK audiences, January mostly represents a barren month where studios dump their bad films as the awards season heats up.

It can also be a strange time at the multiplex, as distributors of Oscar and BAFTA front-runners (which this year include Lincoln, Life of Pi and Zero Dark Thirty) seek to get a publicity boost from the nominations.

Meanwhile, a film like Texas Chainsaw 3D is showing in the screen next door.

I always feel like I’m playing catchup given the end-of-year rush to get the contenders out to voters.

On the more commercial side, it is also a salutary reminder that life is too short to waste on bad films (unless there is an interesting angle) and how quickly the hoopla surrounding Best Picture fades into the ether.

At the end of every year I try to watch as many as possible in order to compile an end-of-the-year list, but for various reasons that didn’t happen in 2012 – a shame since this is probably the most interesting set of Oscar nominations in years.

However, I’ve now seen most of the awards season heavy hitters and nearly completed my annual list of the best DVD and Blu-ray discs, both of which will be posted soon.

> Oscar Nominations
> The Best DVD and Blu-rays of 2011

Categories
Technology Thoughts

Rewind 2012: YouTube

YouTube Rewind 2012

YouTube has come a long way since its birth in April 2005 and since people learnt how to get more views on Youtube, but what does its meteoric rise mean for the worlds of film and television?

When a young man posted a video of himself in a San Diego zoo in early 2005, no-one could have predicted it was the beginning of a revolution in on-line content.

Whilst what would become YouTube had antecedents (such as iFilm) it was a combination of timing and Silicon Valley connections that really sent it into the stratosphere, culminating in its acquisition by Google in October 2006.

Its explosive growth over that year and the sheer amount of copyrighted content being uploaded led to speculation that it would be sued out of existence.

That didn’t happen, largely because Google had the money to legally defend itself, but also because the first media corporation to take legal action (Viacom) had their claims of copyright infringement struck down in 2010.

Although they can still appeal, it looks like YouTube’s official takedown policy and their large legal budget will cover them on this front.

Perhaps more interesting is the partnerships that the site has engaged in with more traditional media organisations like the BBC and CBS (the latter who are owned by Viacom).

YouTube has become like a default TV station for the entire web.

As of January 2012, Reuters reported that it was:

…streaming 4 billion online videos every day, a 25 percent increase in the past eight months,

…According to the company, roughly 60 hours of video is now uploaded to YouTube every minute, compared with the 48 hours of video uploaded per minute in May.

A lot of this is copyrighted material, but a newer generation are growing up with the site as a regular outlet for films, television and music, but also as a launchpad for memes, funny animals, activism and all kind of weird and wonderful stuff.

Their review of the most popular videos of 2012, featured a neat interactive timeline.

The collection shows the sprawling nature of content on the site, which is now so vast that it boggles the mind to think where it will be in another seven years.

More importantly, what are the future implications for longer form content?

Will our collective attention span gradually reduce as we get used to more short-form content on mobile devices?

And what effect will this have on professionally produced shows and films?

Live sports and music won’t be immune either as the site has already made headways into streaming live cricket and concerts.

Is it conceivable that in the next few years (as broadband speeds really increase) YouTube could buy the English Premier League football rights? I certainly think so.

For the film business it represents crisis and opportunity. At a recent Hollywood Reporter round table discussion, several studio executives held forth on the state of the business.

But it was long-time veteran Jeffrey Katzenberg of DreamWorks Animation who perhaps had the most interesting things to say.

The full discussion is below but click here to go directly to his answer about the future (i.e. next ten years) of the industry:

Katzenberg’s analogy with sports is astute and the discussion of the release window also hints at the underlying tensions that are still ongoing between studios and exhibitors.

Whilst the conversation about home entertainment and video on demand is often dominated by Netflix and local sites such as Lovefilm (UK) and Hulu (US), YouTube is perhaps the most fascinating VOD platform for the future.

The sheer scale of content, infrastructure and legal bills paid by Google, are likely to make it an interesting barometer for the state of the film and TV business over the next decade.

> History of YouTube
> Time Magazine article from 2006

Categories
Digital Thoughts

The Death of 35mm Projection

The end of the analogue processes that have been with cinema since the 1890s is now in sight.

Regular readers of this site will know that a revolution has been taking place in projection rooms around the world.

Over the last few years, multiplex and arthouse cinemas in the US and UK have been switching to digital projection rather than shining light through celluloid.

But because many audience members don’t notice a discernible difference, it perhaps gets less press coverage than it should.

Make no mistake we are now firmly in the digital era and the old analogue one is about to expire.

How soon?

Last November Fox Searchlight, one of the major suppliers to US independent cinemas, wrote a letter saying they would stop supplying 35mm prints ‘within 18 months’.

By my estimate, that’s a Spring 2013 deadline.

After that costs will exponentially rise as the ‘analogue film market’ (i.e. celluloid prints shipped to cinemas and threaded through a projector) will essentially expire, apart from a rarefied circle of specialised institutions.

But how long before the other major US indie distributors – such as Focus Features, Sony Pictures, The Weinstein Company – begin to stop sending out 35mm prints of their movies?

If they aren’t already, I suspect it will be sooner rather than later.

For the past several years the major studios have long wanted to make the jump to digital because of the cost savings.

Getting exhibitors on board was tricky as the digital upgrade was a costly process which still needed the battering ram of Avatar (2009) to convince sceptical cinemas.

Ironically, some independent chains embraced digital before multiplexes and helped form the DCI standard (Digital Cinema Initiatives).

Projection had to be at least 2K resolution, the file format was JPEG2000, and a key system was designed to prevent piracy by authenticating screenings to the projectors authorized to show it.

To help fund this transition the studios helped subsidise exhibitors with what is known as a Virtual Print Fee.

This made the transition smoother than it might have been and allowed them to make long term savings on shipping digital cinema prints (instead of cans of celluloid) and screening 3D movies.

Just because the air has seemingly come out of the 3D balloon doesn’t mean there is any rolling back the wider digital revolution.

The enormous success of Avatar and Alice in Wonderland – which both earned the bulk of their money in early 2010 – convinced studios that 3D was the future in which they could charge higher ticket prices.

That reality hasn’t come to pass mainly due to the inherent limitations of the current version of 3D (still too dim) but it was the tipping point which helped persuade reluctant exhibitors to adopt digital projection systems.

But it is not the multiplex chains who will be affected in the short term but independent cinemas, for if they can’t get access to archive film prints then they will go out of business.

This is why head of John Fithian, head of the umbrella group NATO (North American Theater Owners), said last year at CinemaCon:

“I believe that film prints could be unavailable as early as the end of 2013. Simply put, if you don’t make the decision to get on the digital train soon, you will be making the decision to get out of the business.”

In their 2007 study titled The Digital Dilemma, the Academy found the cost of storing 4K digital masters to be:

“enormously higher – 1100% higher – than the cost of storing film masters.”

This report was something John Bailey talked about when he spoke at CineGear Expo last year:

Earlier this January the Academy published the sequel, The Digital Dilemma 2.

If you care about the moving image on a cinema screen I would strongly advise you read it (click here to register and download a PDF).

In the 136 page report there is one sentence, among many, that sticks out:

“analog recordings made more than 100 years ago are more likely to survive than digital recordings made today.”

The paradox is that digital capture formats can become obsolete much sooner than celluloid prints.

This was an issue explored in depth by David Bordwell in his recent essay on films that are ‘born digital’ (i.e. shot on digital cameras), such as David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

The digital future for both projection and capture is inevitable.

But has anyone grasped the archival consequences of a truly digital world?

> From Celluloid to Digital
David Bordwell on From Films to Files
> Ivan Radford on why there is life after 35mm

Categories
News Thoughts

Women on Film

It’s International Women’s Day today (Thursday 8th March), so here’s some of my favourite examples of inspiring female movie characters ranging from silent pioneers to animated superheroes.

This PBS special on Mary Pickford shows how she became one of the biggest stars of the silent era before being one of the founders of United Artists:

Several generations of female icons in one scene: Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe and Anne Baxter in All About Eve (1950):

A strikingly different kind of performance was given by Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann in Ingmar Bergman’s classic Persona (1966).

A few years later, Bergman would a film about the relationship between three sisters, played by Harriet AnderssonKari Sylwan and Ingrid Thulin, in Cries and Whispers (1973).

Ripley’s last stand in Alien (1979) was not just a key scene for Sigourney Weaver but showed that female characters could survive without the  help of men (interestingly the ship’s computer is called Mother):

Ripley’s Last Stand
Alien at MOVIECLIPS.com

Obsession isn’t always a bad thing in a young journalist…:

Future News People
Broadcast News at MOVIECLIPS.com

…especially if they grow up to be TV producers like Holly Hunter’s character in Broadcast News (1987):

Then there’s the moving scene of female friendship in Babette’s Feast (1987) and cooking for a real reason – not just because men want their food on the table:

Anyone who has put up with sexist ‘banter’ in the workplace will appreciate this scene from Working Girl (1988) as Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith) gets revenge on her boss (Oliver Platt) who has tricked her into a date with his boorish colleague (Kevin Spacey):

Concerned about Hollywood’s reluctance to create female superheroes?

Pixar and director Brad Bird did their bit with The Incredibles (2004):

Any others you want to add?

> International Women’s Day
> More female performances at Movie Clips
> IMDb list of female icons

Categories
Thoughts

Autism and the Movies

Do the recent spate of movies dealing with autism and Asberger’s syndrome present a shift in a wider understanding of the condition?

Wikipedia define it:

Asperger syndrome, also known as Asperger’s syndrome or Asperger disorder, is an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction, alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. It differs from other autism spectrum disorders by its relative preservation of linguistic and cognitive development. Although not required for diagnosis, physical clumsiness and atypical use of language are frequently reported.

NHS Direct say:

Autism and Asperger syndrome are both part of a range of related developmental disorders known as autistic spectrum disorders (ASD). They begin in childhood and persist through adulthood.

ASD can cause a wide range of symptoms, which are grouped into three broad categories, described below.

  • Problems and difficulties with social interaction, such as a lack of understanding and awareness of other people’s emotions and feelings.
  • Impaired language and communication skills, such as delayed language development and an inability to start conversations or take part in them properly.
  • Unusual patterns of thought and physical behaviour. This includes making repetitive physical movements, such as hand tapping or twisting. The child develops set routines of behaviour, which can upset the child if the routines are broken.

Last Friday, actor Brian Cox was on The Review Show on BBC2 as a panellist to preview the films up for consideration this year.

He vigorously defended Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, which features a central character with the condition.

As I wrote last week, Stephen Daldry’s film was the subject of an unusual amount of venom from some critics.

It is fair enough to criticise the film (and I would echo some of those criticisms) but was there something revealing in the more negative reviews?

Many seemed to focus on the central character’s condition as “annoying”, which could have been reflective of a lack of understanding and tolerance regarding the condition of autism and Asperger’s.

One person who can’t be accused of ignorance is David Mamet, who wrote an interesting chapter about it in his 2007 book, Bambi vs Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose and Practice of the Movie Business.

He makes the claim that it may have played a key role in the shaping of Hollywood:

I think it not impossible that Asberger’s syndrome helped make the movie business.

The symptoms of the developmental disorder include early precocity, a great ability to maintain masses of information, a lack of ability to mix with groups in age-appropriate ways, ignorance of or indifference to social norms, high intelligence, and difficulty with transitions, married to a preternatural ability to concentrate on the minutia of the task at hand.

This sounds to me like a job description for a movie director.

He goes on to say:

Let me also note that Asberger’s syndrome has it’s highest prevalence among Ashkenazi Jews and their descendants. For those who have not been paying attention, this group constitutes, and has constituted since its earliest days, the bulk of America’s movie directors and studio heads.

Referencing Neal Gabler’s book An Empire of Their Own, he points out the fact that key early Jewish pioneers of Hollywood – Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, Joseph Schenck, William Fox and Carl Laemmle – all came from an area of Europe within a 200 mile radius of Warsaw.

Mamet goes on to note that many prominent Jewish directors share this Eastern European lineage, from Joseph Von Sternberg right through to Steven Spielberg.

In 1999, just a few months after Kubrick’s death, Spielberg gave a lengthy and fascinating interview about his friend, in which he talked about his mastery of technique:

“Nobody could shoot a movie better than Stanley Kubrick in history”

In their book Asperger Syndrome: A Gift or a Curse?, Viktoria Lyons and Dr. Michael Fitzgerald have a whole chapter exploring the notion as to whether or not Kubrick had Asberger’s.

They note his obsessive interest in photography, all aspects of the filmmaking process and exhaustive research.

(It is also worth noting that Charles Darwin, Bertrand Russell and Patricia Highsmith also appear in the book as case studies)

In a comment on a blog about Kubrick’s Napolean project, for which he conducted industrial amounts of research but never actually made, someone says the key may lie in his films:

“The best evidence for Kubrick being an Asperger is not perfectionism,it is the recurring themes of his films.
Aspies see themselves, or think the world sees them as robots, computers, or aliens. In A.I. Artificial Intelligence, the main character is a robot who thinks he is human. HAL, in 2001 is also a piece of artificial intelligence, a human-like computer. The definition of “A Clockwork Orange” in the first page of the book “a clockwork orange-meaning that he has the appearance of an organism but is in fact only a clockwork toy”

His preference for enormous numbers of repeated takes might also indicate something: a simple line by Scatman Crothers in The Shining (1980) was reputedly shot 148 times, a record for the most takes of a single scene.

But that attention to detail and exhaustive research pays off in the final films, even if they took a number of years to be fully recognised for what they are.

Asberger’s was the subject of Adam (2009), a drama about a young man (Hugh Dancy) and his relationship with his new neighbour (Rose Byrne), which won the Alfred P. Sloan prize at the Sundance festival – an award that acknowledges films that focus on science and technology.

In the film Dancy’s condition and interest in science, specifically the cosmos, is presented with tact and sensitivity.

All of which is a welcome contrast to the ‘mad scientist’ archetype that’s been so pervasive in pop culture since the “It’s alive!” scene from Frankenstein (1931):

Given that scientists in are usually the most sane and rational people whose discoveries and inventions have helped save countless lives, it begs the question as to why this notion persists.

The irony is even richer if we accept Mamet’s theory about Hollywood’s founders – a system created by people who may have had Asberger’s, actually perpetuates the stigma surrounding it.

Films like Rain Main (1988) seem to be the exception that proves the rule and even that film’s legacy is still debated.

But could that be about to change?

David Fincher – like Kubrick, a meticulous director of rare talent – has recently been attracted to projects with two lead characters who appear to show traces of Asberger’s and autism.

Animal welfare expert and autism advocate Temple Grandin recently talked to George Stroumboulopoulos about the portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network (2010):

(For anyone doubting the accuracy of the book or film check out this interview with Aaron Sorkin, this one with producer Scott Rudin, this intriguing Quora thread and this /Film article here).

Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) is another computer hacker with limited social skills, but her character is arguably a key reason why the book caught on in the way that it did.

Not only does it reverse the gender stereotype seen so often in Hollywood – e.g. man saves ‘the damsel in distress’ – but it possibly reflects a generation of women not only comfortable with computers, but capable of using them as a tool to fight their various battles.

In the same way that Zuckerberg uses his coding skills to outwit the entitled Winklevoss twins, Salander utilises her hacking skills to get revenge on various sleazy and sexist men.

Let’s not forget that the original title of Steig Larrson’s novel was “Men Who Hate Women” and that the female protagonist was partly inspired by the author witnessing the gang rape of a girl, which led to his lifelong hatred of violent abuse against women.

Her position as an outsider is thus cemented by her endurance of abuse as well as her distant personality – the fact that her character has resonated so strongly in pop culture, surely suggests something about the sexism and intolerance that is still prevalent in the modern world.

On the official site for the original Scandinavian production, there is even a whole section devoted to whether or not the character has Asberger’s, but it isn’t presented necessarily as a flaw – it is just who she is and in some ways works to her advantage.

After all, she is described by her employer (Goran Visnic) in Fincher’s film as “one of the best investigators” he has but “different”.

She is the latest in a long line of obsessive loners in Fincher films: there is the disillusioned, library-dwelling cop in Seven (1995), the coldly distant financier in The Game (1997), the split-personality at the heart of Fight Club (1999), the determined mother in Panic Room (2002), the outsider-cartoonist in Zodiac (2007) or the old-man-getting-younger in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008).

All feature some special gift, which can often be both a blessing and a curse.

If this sounds like a superhero movie, you might be interested to know that Fincher was offered the first Spider-Man movie but this extract from a Q&A session at the BFI Southbank in Febraury 2009 reveals why that never happened:

Q4: You’ve made films where improbable things look realistic. Did you ever consider making a superhero movie or fantasy, where things are bit more difficult to make believable?

Fincher: I was asked if I might be interested in the first Spider-Man, and I went in and told them what I might be interested in doing, and they hated it. No, I’m not interested in doing “A Superhero”. The thing I liked about Spider-Man was I liked the idea of a teenager, the notion of this moment in time when you’re so vulnerable yet completely invulnerable. But I wasn’t interested in the genesis, I just couldn’t shoot somebody being bitten by a radioactive spider – just couldn’t sleep knowing I’d done that. [audience laughs]

But if you think about it, The Social Network is a kind of superhero movie where geeky outsiders (like Peter Parker or the X-Men) use their special talents to create something bigger than themselves – its just in this case its a website that connects millions of people rather than a symbolic crimefighter.

If you want to take that analogy further, Michael Chabon’s 2000 novel The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, depicts Jewish outsiders working during the ‘Golden Age‘ of comics, which is loosely inspired by the lives of real people including Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

Like Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin falling out over Facebook, Spiderman creators Lee and Steve Ditko had some disagreement over the character who would become famous – essentially, Lee did the writing whilst Ditko did the drawing.

People I discussed The Social Network with seemed divided about the central character: older viewers perceived him as a jerk who betrayed his friends, whilst younger one saw him as a hero for sticking it to the privileged Harvard elite and building a website that has become a huge part of their lives.

In fact, the film works as a brilliant metaphor for Hollywood itself – brilliant Jewish upstarts defy the East coast establishment (represented by the Winklevoss twins) to find their nirvana on the West Coast (Silicon Valley).

Although many see the final scene as a Rosebud-style comeuppance for Zuckerberg, they seem to forget the small matter of him not only becoming a billionaire, but having an unusual amount of control of the company he founded.

The geek really does inherit the earth.

The photo the Zuckerberg character he keeps refreshing is that of a former girlfriend played by Rooney Mara, the very same actress who plays Lisbeth Salander, reinforcing the connection between the films.

Mara was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar and was on the red carpet last Sunday.

It was the very same carpet where Sacha Baron Cohen poured ‘the ashes of Kim Jong Il’ over Ryan Seacrest (a stunt which spread like wildfire on Twitter and already has 7.2 million views on YouTube):

What does this have to do with Asberger’s or autism?

Sacha’s brother is Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge and director of the University’s Autism Research Centre.

Wikipedia have more details:

He is best known for his work on autism, including his early theory that autism involves degrees of “mind-blindness” (or delays in the development of theory of mind); and his later theory that autism is an extreme form of the “male brain”, which involved a re-conceptualisation of typical psychological sex differences in terms of empathizing–systemizing theory.

Here he is giving a lecture in Stockholm:

In a recent interview with the broswer he was asked about books and films he’d recommend.

Among his choices were The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-time by Mark Haddon, the 2003 bestseller which featured a narrator with Asberger’s, and Werner Herzog’s film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974).

The central character is famous in Germany for being – as the title might suggest – one of those real-life enigmas who has inspired endless debate.

He appeared in a Nuremberg village in 1828 with no language, he was taken in by the local doctor who tried to help assimilate him to normal society.

Part of the fascination with central character and Herzog’s film are the underlying questions it throws up, but Baron-Cohen thinks it is significant for other reasons:

Kaspar Hauser might be the first well-documented case of autism in literature, or even in history.

Some people wonder whether autism is just a modern phenomenon, but here we have a very early account. The film (and the original book) raises very similar issues to those raised in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and shares a main character who is somehow detached from humanity.

Like The Curious Incident, Kaspar Hauser also suffered neglect and abuse (of a different kind – he was reportedly chained up and isolated for the first 17 years of his life), so this by no means represents autism.

Indeed, it could be more similar to the case of Genie, a so-called feral child who was also reared in isolation and never properly developed language or social skills.

It taps into the same fascination that anthropologists have with other cultures, but in this case it is a fascination with someone who is not part of any culture.

There’s a sort of mirroring that goes on, because the character is so detached he is observing other people. Some people with Asperger syndrome describe themselves as feeling as though they came from another planet: they watch human interaction and they don’t quite understand it. They don’t feel that they can participate in it.

Baron-Cohen has hit on something here about autism and the power of cinema.

It is a medium which presents us with an immersive ‘second reality’ on screen and that rare chance to escape from our sense of self (as long as the film isn’t really bad).

‘Escapism’ is often used as a derogatory term for disposable entertainment, but surely any film that achieves a sense of escape from ourselves is successful on some level.

For people suffering from a sense that they can’t participate in ‘normal society’ (which by they way, isn’t so normal these days), it may come as a welcome relief.

The spectrum of autism – of which Asberger’s is a part – is something that the mainstream media and general public finds hard to grapple with.

Perhaps because the stereotypes perpetuated and recycled through the media, only increase the social taboo, prevent discussion and increase the sense of isolation.

But it is heartening to know that one of the UK’s leading experts finds something of real value in a Herzog movie.

The German auteur has carved out a unique career in both features and documentaries, and Kaspar Hauser was his international breakthrough – it is ironic that a film about isolation should connect internationally.

Perhaps the recent spate of films dealing with autism can have a similar connection, not just with people who have the condition but with the wider public too.

Asberger’s and autism is much more than the ‘annoying kid’ in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close or Dustin Hoffman’s autistic savant in Rain Main (1988).

It may be embedded in the very DNA of Hollywood and some cinemas greatest filmmakers.

>; More on Asberger’s Syndrome at Wikipedia
>; Extremely Loud and Autism
>; Review of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
>; Wrong Planet on ‘Asberger’s Movies’

Categories
Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Handsomely made but problematic in places, this drama about a young boy’s grief is likely to provoke wildly differing reactions.

Adapted from Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel, it explores how a 13-year old boy named Oskar (Thomas Horn) deals with his own personal tragedy the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

After becoming obsessed with a mysterious key in a vase, he embarks on a journey that takes him around New York and  various inhabitants of the city including his mother (Sandra Bullock), a mysterious neighbour (Max Von Sydow) and a divorced woman (Viola Davis).

Given the kind of talent producer Scott Rudin usually assembles for his movies, you might expect this to be an end-of-year Oscar contender furnished with positive reviews and respectable box office.

Whilst it ended up snagging a Best Picture nomination some of the hostility – if not outright venom – directed towards the film suggests it struck a nerve in all the wrong ways.

The twin subjects of autism and 9/11 would prove difficult for even the most talented writers or filmmakers and ultimately proves a stretch too far for Foer and this adaptation.

Some images (especially one towards the climax) are dramatically misjudged and the film falls into the trap of many literary adaptations by being too literal.

Eric Roth’s dialogue is too respectful of Foer’s prose and whilst it may have been tempting to use voiceover to duplicate Oskar’s internal thoughts, over the course of the film it becomes too much.

Ultimately the film never really finds its own way into the material and the considerably weighty themes.

But there are stretches of the film that are undeniably moving, and some of the acting on display is both heartfelt and highly accomplished.

Thomas Horn in the lead role has the hardest part: not only is the film shot almost entirely from his perspective, but essentially rests on his shoulders.

His depiction of the obsessions and particularities of Asberger syndrome is remarkable, especially for a non-actor who came to the producer’s attention as a contestant on a US quiz show.

What many have found ‘annoying’ about his performance, seems to me an authentic depiction of a condition that is recognised as being on the spectrum of autism.

Not liking a performance is one thing, but the casual threats of physical violence (even in jest) suggest an ignorance and intolerance that is disquieting.

Although billed above the title, Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock have supporting roles and nicely play against their usual star personas with performances of quiet dignity.

Max Von Sydow brings his usual gravitas to his role as ‘the Renter’, which bears interesting similarities to Jean Dujardin’s role in The Artist, and is a reminder of his considerable acting skills.

The best performances are Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright, who demonstrate impeccable emotional precision in their small, but perfectly formed roles.

Even though the narrative is a journey around New York (specifically, an unofficial ‘sixth borough’ Oskar’s father had created for him) much of the drama takes place inside apartments, offices or houses.

Like his British contemporary Sam Mendes I’ve long harboured the suspicion that director Stephen Daldry instinctively prefers theatre to film.

Perhaps that is why so many of his films contain scenes with actors in confined spaces.

Positive side effects of this include powerful performances and the fact that he surrounds himself with talented crew members.

Alexandre Desplat’s musical score is just one of the emotionally affecting elements, even if at times it is almost too rich and smooth for the material.

But the real star of this film is cinematographer Chris Menges, who shoots with piercing clarity on the new Arri Alexa camera.

He has always been a master at lighting and watching the range of images delivered here via 4K digital projection was remarkable.

Along with recent films such as Hugo, Anonymous and Drive it will undoubtedly be used as a demonstration of how far high-end digital cameras have come.

What’s interesting is that this is more of an intimate, character-based drama and not the kind of material that you might benefit from using digital capture over 35mm.

Whilst people debate other aspects of this film, they are overlooking something technically profound: lighter digital
cameras are enabling directors like David Fincher and Stephen Daldry to create new working environments with their actors.

Just three years ago, Danny Boyle was telling Darren Aronofsky that although he used digital cameras for certain sequences of Slumdog Millionaire (2008), he’d still shoot close ups on film.

His DP Anthony Dodd Mantle won the Oscar that year, becoming the first cinematographer to win using a digital camera.

It is a sign of how far digital capture has come in that time, that the Alexa has caught on in films like this to the point where directors and cinematographers raised on film can feel comfortable making the jump to digital.

On the subject of ‘Oscar-bait‘ films, there is no doubt that Scott Rudin is the David O’Selznick of his generation, an ‘auteur producer’ of rare taste and talent.

In the current landscape of movies based on toys and boardgames, is aiming for Oscars really such a crime if it gives us movies like No Country for Old Men (2007) or The Social Network (2010)?

As with any prestige film released in the Autumn, it was expected to be in the running for awards contention.

But when the first reviews spilled out, especially the New York Times, it was clear that it wasn’t going to be the heavyweight contender its makers hoped.

The shock that it landed a Best Picture nomination was testament to how far it had fallen short of expectations.

But despite having some awkward moments this isn’t an exploitation movie and I imagine it was a sincere and personal movie for both Daldry and Rudin.

There is much good work here, both in front of and behind the camera.

It doesn’t ‘exploit’ 9/11 anymore than television or news coverage has done since terrorists murdered nearly 3,000 people and scarred a city for a generation.

But it does raise the question that came up in 2006 as the first wave of movies to deal with September 11th hit cinemas.

How soon is too soon?

> Official site
> Reviews of the film at Metacritic
> More on the novel, Asberger Syndrome and the Septmber 11th attacks at Wikipedia
> LA Times article on 9/11 movies
> Tuesday’s Children

Categories
Thoughts

Indie Film in 2012

It began as a question to Kim Voynar on Twitter and she replied:

She has since written a thoughtful post over at Movie City News.

Given that in the last year I’ve written about studios thinking about eroding the theatrical window, the shift from celluloid to digital and Kodak going into bankruptcy, I thought it was worth pondering this question at some length.

Its obviously one of those large subjects to which a range of people are going to have differing perspectives (feel free to comment below).

However, three words popped into my head when I considered it further: Sundance, digital and distribution.

  • Sundance: It has been and still is the mecca for indie films for over 30 years, both in their lab programs and festival.
  • Digital: The seismic revolution that is shaping how all films are shot and projected is also affecting the indie world, especially in reducing costs and potentially raising money.
  • Distribution: People still need the exposure of festivals and risk-taking distributors but social media (if used correctly for the right film) can be a powerful tool.

Like the term ‘indie music’, ‘indie film’ can be a slippery phrase.

To keep focused, let’s define it as how films are funded, shot and distributed.

But even if we define an independent film as something from outside the major studios, in 2011 that could mean films as diverse an indie ‘inside the system’ such as The Tree of Life or a documentary like The Interrupters.

In the UK, two of the three highest grossing films of 2011 (The King’s Speech and The Inbetweeners Movie) were genuine independents.

Whilst it is often a major studio who distributes these types of films, they seem very reluctant to take on the risk at the beginning of the project.

When they do, mostly because a big star or producer has clout, it leads us to fascinating studio films like Moneyball or The Social Network.

But in the modern movie business they are the exception and not the rule.

The paradox of the term indie is most glaringly apparent at that mecca of indie film, Sundance.

When a genuine low-budget discovery like Another Earth gets acquired and released by Fox Searchlight, can we really call the dependent arm of a major studio ‘independent’?

Yet, it still feels like an indie film.

Just because the film now has a chance at reaching a wider audience doesn’t mean the writers and stars have sold their creative souls.

In most cases the film is the same before the deals had signed.

But to reach a fuller definition for 2012 we have to go back to the origins of Sundance.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF SUNDANCE

The modern indie movement grew out of the ashes of the New Hollywood of the 1970s, with the birth of the Sundance film festival coinciding with the financial disaster of Heaven’s Gate (1980).

That was the end of an era but also the slow beginnings of a new one.

Although there were indie directors during the 1980s like Jim Jarmusch, The Coen Brothers, Sam Raimi that became established during that decade, it wasn’t until 1989 that the notion of what we might inelegantly call the ‘modern indie’ movie developed.

Peter Biskind attempted a definition in the preface to his book ‘Down and Dirty Pictures‘ :

“Independent film brings to mind noble concepts like ‘integrity’, ‘vision’, ‘self-expression’ and ‘sacrifice’. It evokes the image of struggling young filmmakers maxing out their credit cards to pay their actors and crews, who work long hours for little or no compensation because they believe in what they’re doing.”

It is a pretty good attempt to define the kind of films he was writing about, even if – as he discovered – the image didn’t always match the reality.

The term independent can reflect genuine DIY productions like Robert Rodriguez’s El Maricahi (made for $7000), Kevin Smith’s Clerks (made for $7000), Ed Burns’ The Brothers McMullen (made for $23,800) or Christopher Nolan’s Following (made for $6000).

All of those directors are examples of industry outsiders who managed to carve out a career via the independent route.

There are more expensive independent projects which have raised more money and come with known actors and agents attached, but they are still looking for the buzz and artistic kudos that the indie world provides.

Biskind uses the parallel growth of Miramax and Sundance from the late 1970s to the early 2000s to form a sequel of sorts to his book on the New Hollywood, Easy Riders Raging Bulls.

This means it leaves out a few notable gaps, but nonetheless provides a solid framework to looking at the indie movement over the last 25 years.

A watershed moment was Steve Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape premiering at Sundance in 1989, then winning at Cannes later that May.

Here was an intelligent film in which characters sit around, talking a lot into video cameras but famously don’t engage in that much sex.

But Miramax – who acquired it – cleverly sold it to multiplexes on the back of a suggestive poster, thus proving that marketing was just as important in this newer indie era.

In some ways it was to indie film what Jaws had been to the major studio – a trailblazer that would prove influential in all sorts of good and bad ways.

Fast forward three years to another watershed Sundance in 1992 and the spectacular arrival of Quentin Tarantino and Reservoir Dogs.

Tarantino’s first film was funded by Live Entertainment, although he later to go on to have a very productive relationship with Miramax and the Weinsteins.

People forget just how appalled some early audiences were by the violence, but it was a canny fusion of Asian and French crime movies sprinkled with his own devilish humour.

It wasn’t the immediate hit it could have been, but its slow-burn cult success was testament to its raw power and style, laying the ground work for Pulp Fiction in 1994.

Although his second feature was the much bigger hit, Reservoir Dogs captured for me the indie ethos of the time.

This was a heist movie in which we never see the heist and the audience is enjoying the dialogue so much they forget they are watching characters talking in a room together.

Like Soderbergh, Tarantino cleverly wrote around its budgetary limitations – people who saw it didn’t talk about it being low budget because there plenty of clever distractions.

In 1994 Kevin Smith arrived with perhaps the ultimate DIY film – an ultra-low budget comedy he shot in the convenience store where he actually worked.

The triumvirate of Soderbergh, Tarantino and Smith probably inspired a generation of filmmakers to give Sundance and indie film a shot.

Obviously this almost certainly inspired a legion of imitators who submitted bad films to Sundance, but it still proved that it was possible.

Is that spirit still alive today?

To a degree it is.

Part of that is down to Redford’s own ethos, forged when he had just become a star and was still struggling trying to get Downhill Racer (1969) made.

In 1990 he said to Premiere magazine:

“I knew what it was like to distribute a film that you produced. In 1969, I carried Downhill Racer under my arm, fighting the battles that most people face. [I came to understand the] filmmaker who spends two years making his film, and then another two years distributing it, only to find out he can’t make any money on it, and four years of his life are gone. I thought, that’s who needs our help.”

After the heady days of the late 1990s when people were overpaying for films like Happy, Texas and post-Lehmann Brothers, it seems Sundance has come full circle back to its original ethos.

It is a spirit that fuels recent Sundance breakouts like Beasts of the Southern Wild, Martha Marcy May Marlene and Winter’s Bone.

Although Miramax is now just a legacy brand, a new generation of distributors like Roadside, IFC along with established ones such as Focus Features, Sony Pictures Classics and Fox Searchlight are hungry for new voices.

THE RISE OF DIGITAL

As filmmakers utilise the emergence of digital cameras, which began in the late 1990s and gradually gathered pace over the coming decade.

The first digital film I saw projected inside a cinema was Gary Winick’s Tadpole in early 2003 in London.

Or rather it was digitally captured on a Sony DSR-PD150 and then projected on 35mm prints, as there was no widespread digital projection at the time.

It looked grainy and although it had been acquired by Miramax a year earlier, the image quality was far from perfect.

Although I’d heard digital cameras were going to make shooting features more affordable to the indie filmmaker, it was very unusual at the time to see a UK release (even an art-house one) shot on digital.

Fast forward several years to the same building and in September 2011 I was watching Another Earth, which was one of the hot titles out of Sundance earlier that year.

Shot on a Sony EX3 camera and projected digitally, it showed how far the cameras had come.

Obviously the fundamentals (script, direction and editing) need to be there, but in just a few years it showed how rapidly technology had lowered the barrier to entry.

Almost twenty years previously Tarantino has shot Reservoir Dogs on 35mm, nearly ten years passed before a digital film could find its way out of Sundance and into regular cinemas in the UK.

Here was Another Earth looking almost identical to any other film at the multiplex.

Experienced cinematographers could still tell the difference, but a general audience couldn’t.

Certainly not in the same way they would’ve noticed the grainy Tadpole back in 2003.

Also that month Drive hit UK cinemas (interestingly a kind of indie movie in itself after a major studio put it into turnaround).

It is probably a compliment to DP Newton Thomas Sigel and the engineers at ARRI that the high-end Alexa camera used to shoot it wasn’t really talked about outside cinematography circles.

Audiences just accepted the images as though they were film.

Many of them probably didn’t know that movie was digitally shot and projected, which is perhaps the ultimate compliment.

The digital dream (or nightmare depending on your view) had become the new reality.

Although the majority of movies are still shot on 35mm, when a cinematographer like Janusz Kaminski (a die-hard proponent of photographic film) admits Drive looked very good and that celluloid is on the way out, it’s worth listening.

Even a veteran like the late Sidney Lumet was saying digital was superior to film in 1999 and later expanded on this topic at the New York Film Festival in 2007:

I’ve written previously about the transition from celluloid to digital and audiences, studios and distributors are right in the thick of that now.

In the UK and US, by the end of 2013 celluloid projection will essentially be over.

The production of film cameras by Panavision, Arri and Aaton (traditionally the big three) stopped last year.

We are living though a digital film revolution that has already dramatically lowered the barriers to entry.

But whilst there are numerous positives, should critics and audiences be concerned about degradation of the moving image?

In the action genre haven’t we already seen digital tools influence the rise of chaos cinema and lead to visual shortcuts that wouldn’t happen under film?

Obviously digital or celluloid is just a tool for realising a filmmakers vision but maybe there are long term consequences for the seismic shift cinema is currently undergoing.

Preservation is just one pressing issue for ‘digitally native’ films (e.g. Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) and perhaps the surfeit of viewing choices in the home will also have an effect.

Let’s not forget, earlier this year all the major studios (with the exception of Paramount) were essentially sanctioning a VOD experiment which could have taken audiences further down the road killing the theatrical experience.

Although it ultimately failed it could be a warning of what was to come.

In the future, if there is no window for mainstream releases, where does this leave the indie world?

Let’s imagine like Margin Call came out in the mid-1990s.

Relatively low budget, filled with fine acting talent and a promising director.

I’m pretty sure it would have been showcased and snapped up at Sundance by Miramax or another specialty arm of the major studios.

However, we now live in a different world (ironically, caused in part by the very people Margin Call is about).

Films like this – which simply can’t afford the enormous P+A cost of the major studios – have been forced to innovate.

VOD (Video on Demand) was presumably part of the plan from the beginning – that is in places where it can’t be shown theatrically, it is made available

So does this mean it is a friend for indies as much as it is a foe for studio releases?

I asked Cassian Elwes (one of those closely involved in the film) about the rough percentage of people who saw it on VOD in their homes:

And later on I asked him if he thought a combination of theatrical and VOD was the future for indie releases:

So, the future for indie films is uncertain, but then maybe it always was.

In a strange way, it could be this very uncertainty that sustains it.

But despite all the enormous changes in technology that have happened since Sundance began, it still comes down to finding the money to tell a story and letting people know about it.

As a term indie can be difficult to define, but maybe that is why it’s so resilient as an ideal.

Year after year, some admittedly better than others, we see a Reservoir Dogs, Catfish or Beasts of the Southern Wild born from this desire to swim against the tide of Hollywood.

The desire to make and see something different from the mainstream is what has fuelled the indie movement up to 2012.

It can’t be measured on a spreadsheet or tailored to fit a demographic.

But whenever someone comes up with a film that blows people’s minds at the Eccles or Egyptian, it keeps the flame burning.

> What is Indie Film in 2012? by Kim Voynar at Movie City News
> Peter Biskind on Miramax
> More on Independent Film at Wikipedia

Categories
Awards Season Thoughts

When BAFTA Got It Right

There were rumblings of discontent when the BAFTA nominations were announced but let’s celebrate the times when the voters got it spot on.

Before we do this though we should have a moment of silence for:

On Sunday, the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden will play host to some of the world’s A-list film talent, including Brad Pitt, Martin Scorsese and George Clooney.

It wasn’t always the case.

Growing up watching the awards in the UK could be an odd affair as many of my childhood memories are of BAFTAs being won and the recipient not actually being there.

Until the early 2000s it was held after the Oscars, which frequently meant that A-list talent didn’t turn up as they saw the Academy Awards as the end of awards season.

You could almost hear the agents in LA say to their clients: “why fly all the way to London to be pipped by a Brit?”

But the UK and US have always had a strangely symbiotic relationship when it comes to films – many American productions film over here and utilise British studios and crews (e.g. The Dark Knight, Harry Potter).

The career of Stanley Kubrick almost embodies this duality – he so resented studio interference on Spartacus (1960) that he came to film every one of his subsequent productions in England, utilising our crews to create his extraordinary visions.

At the same time members of the Academy have always had a sweet tooth for English period fare (e.g. Chariots of Fire) and no-one has exploited this more than Harvey Weinstein, both in his days at Miramax and last year with The King’s Speech.

More generally, it is very rare to find a Best Picture winner that isn’t a period film, so the Academy’s tastes naturally align with the British addiction to period costume dramas.

But whilst BAFTA has suffered in the past from a ‘vote-for-their-own’ syndrome, they have also pulled out some corkers.

So, let us salute the worthier winners of the mask designed by Mitzi Cunliffe.

BEST PICTURE

Dr. Strangelove (1964): In the year that the Academy gave Best Picture to My Fair Lady, the members of BAFTA went with Kubrick’s Cold War masterpiece. Ironically, the British set musical was filmed entirely on sound stages in Los Angeles, whilst the War Room in Washington was recreated at Shepperton Studios in England.

Day for Night (1973): Truffaut would have been 80 this week, so its worth remembering that in the year the Academy awarded The Sting Best Picture, BAFTA was rewarding one of cinemas great directors. Given that his comments about British cinema were often misquoted it was perhaps a surprise that BAFTA should salute him in this way.

But then again perhaps not. They were of the filmmaking generation that been affected by The 400 Blows (1959) and Jules et Jim (1962) so Truffaut’s masterful depiction of movie making was probably too much for them to resist. (The parallels with the Academy awarding a French film about movie making this year are interesting to chew on).

DIRECTORS

Stanley Kubrick for Barry Lyndon (1975): The Academy maye have never honoured Kubrick with a Best Director honour but BAFTA did. From Lolita (1962) onwards all of Kubrick’s films were shot in the UK, where he made his home and utilised the various studios just outside of London.

With his 1975 adaptation of Thackeray’s novel, Kubrick utilised the countryside in the UK and Ireland and even used lenses created by NASA for the impeccable interior lighting. No wonder this is Martin Scorsese’s favourite Kubrick film.

The 1970s are often talked of as a golden age for Hollywood, with The French Connection (1971), The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part II (1974), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Annie Hall (1977) all winning Best Picture, as well as the many other classics that got nominated.

But check out the BAFTA winners for Best Director during the 1970s – it reads like a slightly more daring version of the Oscars.

(N.B. Butch Cassidy was 1969 but got to the UK a year late, as was the case with some films in the 1970s)

Peter Weir for The Truman Show (1998): The big Oscar battle in 1998 was between Shakespeare in Love and Saving Private Ryan. But BAFTA wisely chose the most prescient film of that year and rewarded a director who is still without an Oscar. It not only predicted the onslaught of reality TV during the 2000s but also managed to showcase Jim Carrey’s considerable acting chops (can someone please get him to do more dramas?).

BEST ACTOR

Peter O’Toole for Lawrence of Arabia (1962): O’Toole still hasn’t won a Best Actor Oscar and there was a minor kerfuffle when he initially wanted to turn down an honorary Oscar in 2003 (so he “could win the bugger outright”) before relenting. BAFTA was awarding them to O’Toole in the early 1960s.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Samuel L Jackson for Pulp Fiction (1994): It was at the infamous ‘Letterman Oscars’ that Jackson was caught mouthing a four letter word as the Oscar went to Martin Landau for Ed Wood. When Barry Norman caught up with Jackson during a post-show interview Jackson responded with a cool “we’ll take care of that at the BAFTAs”. They certainly did.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Sigourney Weaver for The Ice Storm (1997): Whilst the Academy went with Kim Basinger for LA Confidential, BAFTA selected one of Weaver’s best performances. Ang Lee has always been a fine director of actors and this bittersweet drama was filled with great acting from Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Tobey Maguire and Christina Ricci.

CINEMATOGRAPHY

Geoffrey Unsworth for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): Such was Kubrick’s mastery of all aspects of filmmaking – and so total his control over his productions – that his DPs tend to get overshadowed. But Geoffrey Unsworth’s work in making outer space believable, just as the Apollo program was doing it for real, was fully deserving of a BAFTA.

Jordan Cronenweth for Blade Runner (1982): Its initial commercial failure didn’t deter BAFTA voters from rewarding the pioneering visuals in this sci-fi masterpiece. As Ridley Scott has noted the rainy city look appeared on a regular basis on MTV in the 1980s. Anecdote alert: at a London screening of the film I overheard someone who actually worked on it (almost certainly a BAFTA member) tell editor Terry Rawlings that he still thought there were ‘problems’ with it. Bollocks to that. It continues to dazzle, which is a miracle when you think that the original financiers almost ruined it (at one point they even fired Ridley Scott and producer Michael Deeley). Jordan sadly passed away in 1996, but his son Jeff is nominated this year for David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011).

SCREENPLAY

Luis Bunuel and Jean-Claude Carriere for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972): It was good to see that awards for European masters weren’t just confined to the ghetto of a foreign category.

This surrealist masterpiece has some pretty wild ideas in its script, which are executed brilliantly. The screenplays that the Academy honoured that year were The Sting (Original) and The Exorcist (Adapted).

EDITING

Sam O’Steen for The Graduate (1967): Whilst this was a landmark film and a gigantic hit, it wasn’t justly rewarded at the Oscars that year. Nichols won Best Director, whilst In the Heat of the Night got Best Picture. But it remains a masterclass in editing, with the pool scene being an often quoted highlight.

Steen’s wife Bobbie even wrote a book ‘Cut to the Chase‘ based their on conversations. Incidentally, Nichols’ film was pipped for the editing Oscar that year by In the Heat of the Night, which edited by future director Hal Ashby.

SOUND

Art Rochester, Nat Boxer, Mike Ejve & Walter Murch for The Conversation (1974): In the days when this award was still called ‘Sound Track’, BAFTA recognized one of the most influential of all sound movies. Coppola was on a roll in 1974, managing to squeeze in The Godfather Part II that year, but it was the amazing sound design that was integral to this film’s story and power.

Murch had already done pioneering work on American Graffiti and would revolutionize sound on film further with Apocalypse Now. The Oscar that year went to Earthquake, which may have been its use of Sensurround.

BEST SHORT FILM

Mark Herbert and Chris Morris for My Wrongs 8245-8249 and 117 (2002): Before he unleashed Four Lions on the UK, Chris Morris made this short starring Paddy Considine as a mentally disturbed man taking care of a friend’s Doberman.

Morris didn’t collect the award as he was – in the words of Herbert – “at home watching 24“.

UNITED NATIONS AWARD

The War Game (1966): Believe it or not, back in the Cold War when there was the persistent threat of nuclear annihilation there was actually an award for films that raised global issues. Although Dr. Strangelove (1964) had won it two years before, Peter Watkins’ The War Game was rewarded two years later for its chilling recreation of what a nuclear strike would like in 1960s Britain.

In fact it was so good, it also won the Oscar that year although it wasn’t shown on British television until 1985.

If you have any BAFTA winning films worthy of note, just leave a comment below.

> BAFTA Nominations
> More on past BAFTA ceremonies at Wikipedia

Categories
Thoughts

The Work of Truffaut at 80

Francois Truffaut would have turned 80 today and this was celebrated with a Google Doodle.

The fact that the world’s largest search engine chose to honour the famous French New Wave director with drawings from The 400 Blows (1959), Jules et Jim (1962) and Bed and Board (1970) is really rather cool.

If we could somehow hop in a DeLeoran time machine and inform him of this current celebration, he probably would have been puzzled just by the words ‘Google Doodle’.

But surely he would have been thrilled to learn not only are they saluting his films but that today many thousands (millions?) of people will be exposed to them for the first time.

Xan Brooks captures the mood correctly at The Guardian:

“Softer than Godard, warmer than Chabrol, and more meaty than Rohmer, Truffaut was the man who brought the nouvelle-vague to the mainstream; who took cerebral film theory and made it sing”

You know something is up when the sour comments that can lurk beneath posts on The Guardian website suddenly melt into warm appreciation:

“Sometimes it really is nice to read an article about a “luminary” by someone who can, one: write, and two: is a true fan. Xan, this brought a smile to my face on a Monday morning, thank you. When I go home tonight, I think I might mark today by watching one of Truffaut’s films.”

Only on Friday I was watching – via the magic of bootlegged French television on YouTube – a clip of Truffaut talking to Bernard Pivot and Roman Polanski about his book on Alfred Hitchcock in 1984:

That clip is all the more poignant because it was recorded just months before his untimely death.

The fact that Google and YouTube are currently hosting affectionate and intelligent tributes to his work says a lot about his influence (and the sorry state of arts coverage on UK television).

His published interviews with the master of suspense still stand as one of the best ever documents on the craft of cinema.

Both were going through a creative purple patch at the time of recording – Truffaut had just made Jules et Jim (1962) and Hitchcock was making The Birds (1963) after his extraordinary run of films from Rear Window (1954) to Psycho (1960).

If you want to understand or explore the work of Hitchcock it is still the book to beat because of the depths and insights of two master filmmakers in conversation.

One of the many interesting things about listening to them now is how revealing they are of Truffaut. He doesn’t shy away from asking the difficult questions (he admits to not liking Rear Window on first viewing) and the discussion of failures like Under Capricorn (1949) are as illuminating as the success of Psycho (1960).

In an age of where some critics still think there is some nobility in worshipping at the contrarian altar of Pauline Kael, there is something refreshing in Truffaut wanting to understand failure rather than condemn it with a witty one liner.

Although Truffaut was a tough, controversial critic in his days at Cahiers du Cinema – attacking the ‘certain tendencies’ of French cinema – he became perhaps the most humane and heartfelt of filmmakers.

The 400 Blows (1959) was a film that channelled the pain of his childhood into a work of genuine beauty that has inspired people as diverse as Akira Kurosawa, Harvey Weinstein and the writers of The Simpsons.

Shoot the Piano Player (1960) followed, a film which was emblematic of the New Wave, with its mix of European style and American genre elements.

But the relative commercial failure was mirrored by mixed reactions in France, including one that would come back to haunt it: that it was too intellectual and boring.

For the generation of audiences and filmmakers that grew up in the shadow of the New Wave, it was a shorthand that French black and white films would become synonymous with a kind of cinema to be either deified or rejected.

Jules et Jim (1962) perhaps became the archetype of this ‘New Wave’ movement of critics turned filmmakers.

A hauntingly beautiful depiction of two friends (Henri Serre and Oskar Werner) in love with a mercurial woman (Jeanne Moreau), it cemented Truffaut’s reputation around the globe and seemed to predict both the sexual and cultural turbulence of the ensuing decade.

Ask any cinephile what the first thing they think of when they hear the phrase “French New Wave”.

Although Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless might be the film that they see in their head, Jules et Jim is the one they’ll feel in their heart.

His subsequent career was a case study in appealing to as wide an audience as he could whilst never compromising his art.

He once said:

“To make a film is to improve upon life, to arrange it to suit oneself, to prolong the games of childhood, to construct something that is at once a new toy and a vase in which one can arrange in a permanent way the ideas one feels in the morning.”

Like his idol Jean Renoir, Truffaut was able to mine the drama inherent in everyday life without resorting to cheap sentimental tricks.

His following films work never quite had the bombshell impact of The 400 Blows or Jules et Jim, but nearly always contained the emotional heartbeat and creative drive that made his work so special.

A lover of books as well as movies, he created his own personalised version of Balzac’s Human Comedy with a series of autobiographical films stretching over twenty years.

Constructing the alter ego of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud), The 400 Blows began a cycle which continued with Antoine et Colette (1962), Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970) and Love on the Run (1979).

Perhaps unique in film history – Harry Potter is perhaps the only comparable example of an actor literally growing in a role – this series isn’t just autobiography.

But Truffaut said his on-screen alter-ego:

“The fictional character Antoine Doinel is, therefore, a mixture of two real people, François Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Leaud”.

In making films about himself, he really made them about us, as the viewer has probably gone through the same trials and tribulations as Antoine.

He was also important as a critic in cementing the reputation of Hollywood directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and Orson Welles.

It is hard to imagine a time when these icons of cinema weren’t venerated, but look at the damning Observer review of Psycho from 1960 and you’ll see the hostility that greeted the UK release of that film.

Now he is a rightly venerated director, or – to use a phrase that Truffaut advocated as a critic – he was a genuine auteur.

The only difference was that he was an auteur who worked inside the system.

Speaking of the UK’s oldest newspaper, when Day for Night (1973) was re-released last year, their current critic Philip French had an emotional moment watching it again.

One of the greatest movies about filmmaking ever made, it eschews the brilliant darkness of Sunset Boulevard (1950) or satire of The Player (1992).

As French says:

It is a Pirandellian affair, an elegiac celebration of a dying kind of cinema, a meditation on the connection between film and life by Truffaut, who plays Ferrand, the film’s constantly troubled yet dedicated director, a man much like himself.

Le mépris (Contempt) is arguably a better, more trenchant film and has a commanding performance by Fritz Lang as the director of the film within the film. But Day for Night is the one I love, and among its many delights is the brief appearance as a British insurance adviser of Graham Greene, credited as Henry Graham. His real identity was unknown to Truffaut who cast him for his distinguished appearance, believing him to be a retired English businessman living in the South of France.

The film has a special moment that always makes my heart leap. It occurs when Truffaut receives a parcel of books, which he eagerly cuts open and tosses them one by one on to the table in front of him. They’re monographs on directors, all in French except for two – Robin Wood’s Hitchcock and a symposium on Jean-Luc Godard to which I contributed the chapter on Une femme mariée.

In a way, this sums up the appeal of Truffaut’s films.

They have a playful, but sincere love of humanity in them that often provokes a personal response.

His love of American cinema would find an outlet in a memorable supporting role a French scientist in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

Notice how this scene with Richard Dreyfus and Bob Balaban actually sounds like the audio version of Hitchcock interviews:

 

Speaking at the AFI in 1978, Spielberg said:

“He loves movies than anyone I’ve ever met in my life. You can take all this New Hollywood bullshit, get all of us sitting in a room together, and he puts us away. He knows more about movies than any of us ever will.”

He even edited Small Change (1976) on the set of Close Encounters in Mobile, Alabama and its marvellous depiction of childhood and school days was a subsequent influence on Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982).

It was an appropriate passing of the baton from the high priest of the New Wave to the young prodigy of the New Hollywood.

Just before his death from cancer at the age of 52, Truffaut was preparing a variation of The 400 Blows called The Little Thief, which would be completed by his protégé and collaborator Claude Miller.

Although one can only speculate what would films he would have made had he lived, his influence lives on.

It is hard to gauge how many directors have read his interviews with Hitchcock, but given that it subsequently became a text book in film schools, any figure is probably an understatement of its influence.

Citizen Kane (1941) was a film which owes much of its deserved canonisation in the pantheon of cinema to Truffaut and his colleagues at Cahiers du Cinema.

In the same way that younger audiences reject Welles’ film because they have been repeatedly told of its greatness, the New Wave has in a sense become the establishment it sought to tear down.

A newer generation of audiences and directors are sometimes put off by its very impact and influence.

This is an irony as Truffaut’s use of filmmaking technology (real locations, lighter cameras, low budget, natural light and jump cuts) has many parallels to today’s digital revolution.

In an age where cinema is struggling to process enormous technical and social changes, it was heartening to see Google pay such a genuine tribute.

It was a digital salute to a high priest of celluloid.

His optimistic quote about the future of film is perhaps more relevant than ever in today’s uncertain environment:

“The film of tomorrow will not be directed by civil servants of the camera, but by artists for whom shooting a film constitutes a wonderful and thrilling adventure.”

> Francois Truffaut at IMDb, Wikipedia at TSFDT
> GreenCine on the French New Wave
> Buy a 6-film DVD box set of Truffaut’s work at Amazon UK

Categories
Thoughts

How We Watch Films

Plenty of words are written about what people think of movies but less attention is devoted to how we actually see them.

This week on BBC Film 2012 Danny Leigh did a piece where he analysed himself watching Blade Runner (1982).

With the help of cognitive scientist Tim Smith at Birbeck College in London, his eye movement (‘gaze behaviour’) was recorded and the dissected (UK viewers can watch the episode on BBC iPlayer by clicking here – the piece starts around 23:06)

Smith has previously written a guest blog for David Bordwell’s site which accompanied videos showing computers tracking an audience’s eye movement as they watched There Will Be Blood (2007) – a good film for this kind of study with its interesting visual style and editing rhythms.

The article is a fascinating example of science being used to explain how we process art and covered such topics as why we don’t always notice continuity errors, how a viewers gaze can be directed and the importance of motion contrast.

Audience behaviour whilst watching a movie is a key part of how we first process a film.

Yet most reviews don’t actually tell you about the circumstances in which they were first seen.

On the one hand, why should they?

I don’t particularly want to read about the sandwich Peter Bradshaw had before he saw a film at a Soho screening room as that probably has little bearing on the film.

Yet, if critics are honest they are probably influenced by things they never write about.

For example, I once witnessed the late Alexander Walker (film critic for the London Evening Standard) get angry at a PR person right before a screening of Moonlight Mile (“If there’s no press notes, there’s no review!”).

Are you telling me that for at least the first ten minutes of that film, his overall judgement wasn’t affected by this outburst?

The default justification given for a critical verdict on a film is that it is a ‘matter of opinion’, but there are deeper factors that contribute to that opinion in the first place.

The following areas are worth considering:

  • Bias: Most critics wouldn’t admit to having a bias before seeing a film, but it surely exists to some extent. The latest film from a director they admire is going to excite them more than one they don’t. How much does this bias shape perceptions during the running of the film and our final verdict when its over? With reviews available online immediately after its festival premiere, how much does this reaction shape (even indirectly) what other critics say?
  • Venue: Most critics (certainly on national newspapers and magazines) see films in screening rooms with dedicated projectionists. Yet the public often have to deal with such distractions as the glow of mobiles and the eating of food. Do these different environments create a disparity between critical opinion and wider audience opinion?
  • Big Screen: We all know the differences between cinema and home viewing (bigger sound and vision) but how exactly does this manifest in terms of our brain activity? If you go at the right time, cinemas are one of the few darkened rooms where you can escape the distractions of the modern world. Its like a church mixed with a Victorian opium den.
  • Wide Screen: Widescreen was an innovation of the 1950s as cinema tried to counter the effects of television. But with almost everything in widescreen now does that shape how we view films shot in 2:35 or 1:85? Has it lost its novelty? Do films like Elephant (2003) or Fish Tank (2009) deliberately use the 1:33 aspect ratio to stand out in a world dominated by widescreen?
  • IMAX: The most extreme form of cinema is natively shot IMAX, projected at 70mm. The Dark Knight (2008) was the first major release to pioneer this. When I saw the opening shot of the film at the IMAX Waterloo the audience gasped and some actually reached towards the screen. A similar thing happened during the Dubai sequence of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (also shot and projected on IMAX). Does seeing and hearing films at this gargantuan size and resolution supercharge the already potent effects of cinema?

In 1943, George Orwell wrote about the “drug-like pleasures of cinema and radio” in a book review for The Listener.

In 1968 audiences used the star-gate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey as a backdrop to taking LSD (which someone even did for real back in 2010).

In 2010 people were reportedly depressed that they had to return to the real world after seeing Avatar.

Gaspar Noe did the most trippy opening titles for his film Enter the Void – a sequence which Quentin Tarantino described as “one of the greatest in cinema history”:

Compared to painting and theatre, cinema is still a relatively new art form but its unique blend of quasi-religious ritual (the act of watching a film in a darkened room) and the intensity of the very best works do indeed make it drug-like.

Blade Runner was based on the book ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ but perhaps a more relevant Philip K Dick work was A Scanner Darkly, subsequently turned into a film by Richard Linklater.

The story involves a highly addictive psychoactive drug that causes “a dreamy state of intoxication and bizarre hallucinations”.

Sounds an awful lot like cinema itself.

Maybe further ‘clinical trials’ like the ones run by Tim Smith are needed.

> David Bordwell’s original post
> Danny Leigh on Twitter
> Birbeck College

Categories
Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Haywire

The most eclectic director working in Hollywood tries his hand at a spy thriller.

Steven Soderbergh is the resident chameleon of US cinema, who thrives on jumping between genres and styles.

Since his mainstream creative rebirth in the late 1990s he has mixed mainstream commercial success (the Ocean’s trilogy) with more challenging fare (Solaris, The Good German, Che) and digital experimentation (Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience).

Most recently he made an all-star disaster movie Contagion and now he employs a similar trick here with an illustrious supporting cast recruited from his impressive contacts book.

But the real surprise here is the casting of mixed martial arts star Gina Carano in the lead role.

She plays a hired government ‘contractor’ (a veiled reference to Blackwater) who we learn in flashback has been set up by her bosses after jobs in Barcelona and Dublin.

The impressive supporting cast includes Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Bill Paxton, Channing Tatum and Michael Fassbender.

There aren’t many directors who could pull off this trick – casting a former American Gladiator in a spy thriller alongside some of the most recognisable actors in the world.

But Soderbergh has become highly proficient in navigating the fringes of the mainstream, with occasional leaps right into it.

This on the surface is a very mainstream subject story – essentially a Bourne movie by way of the Ocean’s trilogy.

Old-school action is blended with a knowing globe-trotting humour and a smart script by Lem Dobbs.

There’s nothing too heavy here as it is basically an experiment to combine the breezy style of 1960s spy thrillers like Charade (1963) with the pulp literature of something like The Baroness series from the 1970s.

But a closer examination reveals a more interesting formal experiment to subvert the action genre from within.

Not only do we have a female lead in a movie that isn’t about weddings, but she regularly outsmarts and beats the crap out of every man in sight.

(Mysteriously, the global locations – Ireland, Catalonia and New Mexico – also coincide with places that offer generous tax rebates).

Whilst the basic narrative owes a lot to Bourne (US government assassin goes rogue) there is a deliberate attempt to avoid the ‘chaos cinema’ that has been so influential on the modern action genre.

Serving as his own cinematographer and editor (under his regular pseudonyms) quick edits are rejected and the fights are refreshingly reminiscent of those in 1960s thrillers, when killing another human being didn’t involve slow motion.

Going for a more realistic approach, it rejects the post-Matrix wire ballet or frenzied editing style of the later Bourne films in favour of a more composed and leaner approach.

Keep an ear out too for more believable slapping sounds you actually hear in fights, rather than the overcooked punching effects so beloved of Hollywood.

Soderbergh also apparently altered Carano’s voice in post-production, which makes it an intriguing project from an audio perspective – was the lead actress his very own creative ‘recruit’ to mess with the action genre down to the last detail?

It remains to be seen if she can make the breakthrough into acting full-time, but here she impresses with her imposing physicality and easy charm.

As for the supporting cast, it is something of a slam-dunk for all of them as the screenplay gives each of them plenty of dry humour on which to feast.

There has always been a James Bond influence on the Ocean’s films (e.g. casinos, smooth charm, glamorous locations) and it is here too, although the neat trick is having what essentially amounts to a female 007.

At times the groovy score by David Holmes is a little too close to the vibe he established on those films, but it largely proves a good fit for the material.

In many ways it is reminiscent of The Limey (1999) – another Soderbergh film scripted by Dobbs – which also dealt with revenge, a father-daughter relationship and villains who got beaten up or killed.

Over the last few years Soderbergh has been at the forefront of the A-list directors using digital cameras (others include David Fincher and James Cameron).

Here he has gone for a slightly different look, going for a digital version of the rich anamorphic look beloved of certain ‘classical’ action movies since the 1960s.

The digital workflow used by the production again set new boundaries in producing imagery for relatively low cost, prompting a colleague to say:

“If digital cinema had its own country, Steven would probably be President”

In the week Kodak announced that it had entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy, this feels significant.

It should also be noted that Soderbergh has essentially created a crafty commercial film from inside the system.

With financing from Relativity Media he has managed to make a more audience-friendly counterpart to his artier experiments like Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience.

It is this range that makes him one of the most interesting directors working inside the system.

> Official site
> Reviews of Haywire at Metacritic
> Lengthy Box Office Magazine interview with Soderbergh
> Detailed post on the digital workflow used by the production

Categories
News Thoughts

British Film 2012: DCMS Report

The publication of a recent policy report into the UK film industry sparked kneejerk headlines but is actually a detailed blue print for the future.

This post is a general introduction to the report which was titled A Future for British Film: It Begins With the Audience.

It will explore who was involved in it and the wider context of British film as it stands in 2012.

But it will also be the first of several dedicated ones around the different sections, which break down into the following areas: growing the audiences of today and tomorrow, the digital revolution, exhibition, how films are developed and distributed, the role of major UK broadcasters, international strategies, skills and talent development, our screen heritage, research and knowledge and the expanded role of the BFI after the closure of the UK film council.

Aside from “what is your favourite film?” amongst the questions I am most frequently asked is:

“what is the state of the British film industry?”

Or:

“Has it been a good year for British films?”

At this point I try to gauge whether or not they are actually interested in the state of UK film or more concerned about whether British actors are going to win an Oscar.

But if they are serious it remains a question that deals with the complex interplay between art, commerce and business.

However, there is no doubt in my mind that historically as a culture the British have tended to favour theatre (going back to Shakespeare) and television (which still dominates pop culture in this country).

Attitudes have changed since the advent of home video in the 1980s and a generation who have had access to DVD and YouTube, but there still lingers a sense that film is somehow inferior or less respectable.

This isn’t to say British audiences dislike it as a medium but if you compare this country to the US or France, cinema is embedded in their cultural DNA in a way that it hasn’t been in the UK.

Even now, releases tend to be viewed through the prism of low-brow (“Hollywood blockbusters”) or high-brow releases (“Art house”).

Media coverage of this very report repeated a lot of the old line about “commercial” vs “obscure” and whilst these distinctions do exist they actually reveal a lot more about deeper cultural divisions in the UK.

This is then fuelled by mainstream media coverage that can often focus on the trivial (e.g. celebrity gossip or obsession with the BBFC certificate) over the substantial.

It doesn’t help that the very term “British film” can be a slippery one, which is why I wrote about the three types of British film back in September:

  1. Home grown productions financed by British companies (e.g. Slumdog Millionaire)
  2. International co-productions financed from two or more countries (e.g. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)
  3. Iconic franchises which are essentially funded by US studios (Harry Potter, James Bond).

Often the media coverage gets a little over the top when quality British films either win awards (Chariots of Fire, The King’s Speech) or flop badly (Sex Lives of the Potato Men and Lesbian Vampire Killers).

That is because UK films are to varying degrees reliant on public money and this creates extremes of opinion: it seems every year there is an article in which British films are utter crap or totally brilliant.

This is accentuated around awards time, when Oscar success is unhealthily equated with the overall state of the wider industry.

Which is why this report is so interesting.

It is probably the most in-depth look at the British film industry in well over a decade and is actually backed up by research, hard data and facts.

Not that you would know this from some of the initial reports in the mainstream media.

INITIAL MEDIA REACTION

The immediate headlines that pre-empted the actual publication were along the lines of BBC News: “UK films urged to be more ‘mainstream’ in new report”.

So before many people had even read it, the general media framing of the argument was ‘Cameron wants British films to rival Hollywood‘ or about the danger of losing our recent art house success.

There were more measured and insightful pieces by the likes of Maggie Brown in The Guardian, an experienced media reporter who probably had taken the time to read the whole thing.

Main UK industry publication Screen International reflected a range of views with key UK organisations, such as the FDA, PACT and Film4 mostly giving a positive response (I suspect this was because they had been listened to in the consultation process).

Of course it was a canny, if questionable, political tactic of Cameron’s spin doctors to leak the review with the angle of “PM wants more successful films” because what director, producer or exhibitor could disagree with that line?

They were hardly going to say they wanted failures.

There was a lot of instant reaction on Twitter (hashtag: #FilmPolicyReview) but the whole report was pretty long, so instead of just regurgitating media angles I thought I’d read all 37,708 words and comment on the bits that stood out.

N.B. It is available as a Word Document or PDF file on the DCMS website – I would strongly suggest you read it if you are in any way involved with the industry.

BACKGROUND

Back in May, the coalition announced that former Culture Secretary Chris Smith would head a panel of eight film industry experts to review the Government’s film policy.

This came in the wake of the closure of the UK Film Council and questions over public finances during a recession.

Their broad remit with the report was the following:

  • Provide greater coherence and consistency in the UK film industry
  • Determine how best to set policy directions for the increased Lottery funding
  • Identify ways to develop and retain UK talent
  • Increase audience demand for film, including independent British film.

THE PANEL

Who were on the panel?

A pretty good selection of people as it turns out.

I personally would have liked to see a representative from one of the major UK art house chains (like Curzon or Picturehouse) but overall there was a wealth of experience at all levels on the review team.

  • Chris Smith, former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Chairman): Experience of a relevant government department and by no means a Coalition stooge as one of the culture ministers from the early Blair era.
  • Will Clarke, Independent film distributor, founder and former CEO, Optimum Releasing: Founded leading UK indie distributor Optimum in 1999 before selling it to French company Studiocanal in 2010. Now a producer in his own right with Attack the Block and the upcoming Embassy and Filth.
  • Julian Fellowes, writer and actor: Experience of working as an actor (Baby, Secret of the Lost Legend, Tomorrow Never Dies), screenwriter (Gosford Park), director (Separate Lies) and of creator of ITV hit series Downton Abbey.
  • Matthew Justice, UK film producer and Managing Director, Big Talk: His company has been involved in producing that rare British thing: genuine critical and commercial successes such as Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007).
  • Michael Lynton, Chairman & Chief Executive Officer, Sony Pictures Entertainment: The big US studio angle was represented by a man who has worked at Hollywood Pictures (Disney’s live action arm), Penguin, AOL and now heads up Sony Pictures Entertainment.
  • Tim Richards, Chief Executive, Vue Entertainment: Former Warner Bros executive who started one of the leading UK cinema chains in the late 1990s. Has overseen stadium style seating and the digital upgrade to cinemas up and down the land.
  • Tessa Ross, CBE, Controller of Film and Drama, Channel 4: After the demise of the previous version of Film Four in 2002, she has helped spearhead a remarkable run of critical, commercial and Oscar successes including The Last King of Scotland, Slumdog Millionaire and most Shame.
  • Libby Savill, Head of Film and Television, Olswang LLP: The legal/producing/finance angle (often an overlooked area by the national media) is covered by someone with extensive experience of film financing going back to the early 1990s with various Miramax productions and most recently The King’s Speech.
  • Iain Smith, OBE, film producer and Chair of the British Film Commission Advisory Board: Experienced producer whose credits include British films like Chariots of Fire (1981), Local Hero (1983) and later on major studio fare like The Fifth Element (1997), Spy Game (2001) and Children of Men (2006). He’s also on Twitter: @iainsmith

It isn’t clear who exactly did what but there’s a lot of insight of both production and exhibition that could be gleaned from this group.

It actually looks like civil servants did their research in finding the right panel.

But what did did they actually come up with?

The final report contains 56 recommendations to Government, industry and the British Film Institute (BFI) which can broadly be summarised as:

  • Audience: The audience must be at the heart of film policy (which has been misinterpreted by some media outlets)
  • Digital: A commitment to combat piracy but also to unlock the potential of the digital age
  • Cinemas: A scheme to bring digital screens and projectors to village and community halls across the country.
  • Development: The investment in skills for the next generation of filmmakers.
  • Broadcasters: A (surprising but welcome) call for ITV and BSkyB to invest more in independent British films.
  • International: Continuation of tax relief and a partnership with BBC Worldwide to invest and promote UK films
  • Skills: To build on the current skills base and encourage more diversity and an entrepreneurial approach.
  • Heritage: UK archives should be preserved, digitised and made accessible to a wider audience.
  • Research: The establishment of a research and development fund to both navigate and exploit the current digital ag
  • BFI: Build on the current work being done but make it less London-centric

Each of the above themes are pretty vital (and will be explored later in individual posts) but it is worth examining the wider context of the time in which this report has been published.

A GOLDEN PERIOD OF BRITISH FILM?

The introduction states:

British film is going through something of a golden period. A run of really good, successful, British-made and British-based movies has been taking not just British cinema audiences but many others around the world by storm.

As someone who has experience of watching a lot of British films on a regular basis since the late 1990s, the last three years have indeed felt like a golden age.

Perhaps the current era seems so shiny because the previous one was so disastrous.

There was optimism in the mid-to-late 1990s surrounding previous home grown British hits such as Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) Trainspotting (1996) and The Full Monty (1997).

With some notable exceptions what followed was largely a lottery-fuelled sea of crap, which reached an absolute nadir for me with The Principles of Lust (2003) and One for the Road (2003).

Parochial, wildly indulgent and imbued with a peculiar naffness, they were sadly typical of the worst British cinema of this period, which often it seemed like bad television projected on a big screen.

But slowly the tide began to turn.

Around the mid-2000s films like Shaun of the Dead (2004), Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) and The Descent (2005) showed that British films from different genres could connect with audiences.

This was then followed by Hot Fuzz (2007), Hunger (2008), Man on Wire (2008), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Son of Rambow (2008), Fish Tank (2009), In the Loop (2009), Another Year (2010), Four Lions (2010), The King’s Speech (2010) and Never Let Me Go (2010).

Again this was a variety of films of real distinction that connected with both critics and/or audiences.

In the last year Submarine (2010), Attack the Block (2011), The Deep Blue Sea (2011), Jane Eyre (2011), We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) and Shame (2011) have followed this path.

Certainly not all have been box office hits, but the sheer range and quality has been stunning.

In the early 2000s this would have seemed unimaginable when – if I’m really honest – I approached a British film with the expectation that on some level it would be at least a bit rubbish.

But in August 2009 when Jason Solomons published an article in The Observer bemoaning the state of British films, it prompted mixed feelings.

For critics who see a lot of films on a weekly basis – and not just the good ones – the trip to a Soho screening room to yet another British misfire could feel like a cultural death sentence.

Solomons wrote that the Edinburgh film festival was often an alarming bell weather for the mediocrity of British film:

…years of covering Edinburgh have depressingly demonstrated that actually, the deeper you go inside the British film industry, the thinner the pickings, the slimmer the plots, the ropier the ideas. In truth, there’s always a decent winner (Moon this year, or Control in 2007, or My Summer of Love in 2004), but it’s often a lone star, so far ahead in a competition that is, for the most part, embarrassing in its lack of professionalism and quality. Many of the films in the line-up will never see a paying audience, and neither, indeed, are they worthy of taking people’s hard-earned cash on a night out. Their very meekness seems to acknowledge this within the first, fatalistic 10 minutes.

It was hard to disagree with him, but on the other hand things were improving.

Emerging directors from different backgrounds like Edgar Wright, Steve McQueen and Andrea Arnold were making contrasting films of quality and distinction.

The last 18 months have been astonishing, with not only home grown blockbusters (The King’s Speech and The Inbetweeners) but also a wide range of challenging fare (Project Nim, Senna, Tyrannosaur, We Need To Talk About Kevin, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Shame).

So good in fact, that I’m concerned that there will be the inevitable downturn as the combination of art and commerce can be inherently unpredictable.

The main change has been the transfer of power from the UK Film Council to the British Film Institute.

Although it caused a stir at the time the report acknowledges the opportunity of having a public funded body under one roof:

The Film Council had accomplished a lot during its decade or more of existence, and The King’s Speech stands as a rather fitting tribute to its achievements. But there is now a real opportunity for the sole, focused leadership of British film – cultural, creative, commercial, educational and representative – to be brought together in the single entity of the BFI. The challenge is for the BFI to use its new-found clout to inspire and nurture and strengthen British film, and we set out some ideas in our Report which we hope will help in this.

With that in mind, they received over 300 submissions of evidence, interviewed hundreds of people involved in all aspects of the industry.

The final report is encouraging because it is wide ranging diagnosis of the UK film industry, that also offers potential solutions and a solid ground work on which to build.

> Official DCMS website (where you can download the full report)
> BBC News, The Telegraph and The Guardian with their take on the report
> Splendor Cinema and Bigger Picture Research with their take

Categories
Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Margin Call

J.C Chandor’s portrait of a modern Wall Street bank is a slow-burn acting master class.

With a narrative loosely modelled on the extraordinary events of September 2008, when the collapse of Lehman Brothers gored a huge hole in the global economy, it paints a bleak but compelling portrait of financial meltdown.

After a risk analyst (Stanley Tucci) at a large Wall Street bank is fired, his underling (Zachary Quinto) soon realises the entire company could go under within 36 hours.

We then see various managers struggle with the crisis: a salesman (Paul Bettany), the head of sales (Kevin Spacey), the head of securities (Simon Baker), the head of risk (Demi Moore) and finally the CEO (Jeremy Irons).

What is so impressive about the film is that it takes us right inside the den of greed and manages to convey the enormity of the crisis through acting and atmosphere.

It doesn’t ask us to sympathise with the various employees, but instead depicts a haunting, dread-filled portrait of a society crumbling from the top down.

In the quiet specifics of a bank, amidst humming computer screens and late night boardrooms, Chandor finds a wider cultural malaise.

That this is his debut film is remarkable – he not only shows a shrewd grasp of the Wall Street culture but shows a sure sense of atmosphere and tension.

Shot in just 17 days for around $3m and mostly set inside a single building, he has cannily used the limited time and resources to his advantage.

His screenplay thrives on disbelief and confusion – characters frequently express the desire to hear things in plain English – which mirrors society’s wider shock that Wall Street could be getting away with this for so long.

The wider point seems to be that successive governments and voters were only too happy because they too were part of the problem, happy to buy into what was essentially a giant Ponzi scheme.

What is brilliant about the narrative is that it continually takes us up the corporate ladder and depicts with startling eloquence how everyone is essentially powerless to stop what’s coming.

It was presumably this underlying intelligence that attracted actors like Tucci, Spacey and Irons, all of who give some of their best performances in years.

There are also small but perfectly formed turns from the likes of Quinto, Bettany, Baker and Moore who neatly round off one of the best ensemble casts of the year.

As any decent dramatist knows, silence can be as crucial as dialogue – in some cases the faces here depict more than words ever could – but where the film gets really fascinating is the exchanges towards the end as the higher ups debate the final course of action for their firms.

They may or may not be the kind of words that Richard Fuld used in the weeks after Lehman Brothers died but they give a plausible insight into the pathological nature of the state-subsidised capitalism of the past few years.

When Margin Call was premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 25th it coincided with an organised day of protest in Egypt, which formed a key part of the Arab Spring, and its US release in October neatly coincided with the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon.

There is a certain irony that Arab nations have influenced American protest, given that part of the reason the US economy is in trouble is the trillion dollars squandered on invading that region of the world.

But we live in strange times where there is a growing sense of despair and anger amongst a generation of people expected to suffer because of the poisonous actions of the actions of the Wall Street-Government nexus.

Part of what makes it so effective is that it doesn’t offer simplistic solutions and infects the audience with a sense of looming dread at what is still to come.

By the end it is hard not to feel like you’ve just spent time with criminals who will keep re-offending unless brought to justice.

Three years on there is still no solution to the overall crisis as the Obama administration still employs people who helped caused the crisis, whilst the Republicans seem to have descended into a state of collective insanity.

What makes the film so chilling and effective is that there appears to be no solution in sight.

Aside from Charles Ferguson’s documentary Inside Job the global financial crisis hasn’t really given us a good drama until now.

Part of the reason is the surface complexity of the related issues although the fundamental problem was simple: a lack of proper regulation led to Wall Street destroying the wider economy whilst avoiding suitable punishment or regulation.

The fact that banks like Goldman Sachs not only benefited from the demise of a major rival, but also got bailed out by the taxpayer was a perversion of capitalism that caused widespread anger across the political spectrum.

So seismic are the problems facing Western societies that it may take a new generation of political leaders to remedy the deep problems – and even then it could be too late.

The film industry has not been immune to these events, with the ‘independent’ market for films crashing in sync with the wider economy.

So it feels appropriate that the first serious drama to deal with the Wall Street meltdown is this reminder of what the US system can produce when it takes chances.

Margin Call is a daring film in many ways as it seeks to explore the mind-set of the very people who still inhabit the halls of finance and government.

This has been reflected in the funding (name actors attracted by a decent script), shooting (on a Red One digital camera) and distribution (a mixture of limited theatrical and VOD download in the US).

Here in the UK it is being released by Stealth Media (in the US it was distributed by Roadside Attractions after being acquired at Sundance) and is being given an encouragingly wide release.

The current harsh climate for independent movies may see distributors embrace innovative release strategies.

In the US Margin Call’s release raised a few eyebrows with its combination of VOD and theatrical, which goes against industry wisdom that one will cannibalise the other.

Cassian Elwes was the producer and agent heavily involved in the film and when I asked him on Twitter what the rough percentage of people who saw it at US cinemas versus those who downloaded it, he replied that it was probably one to one.

Indie films might need to embrace release strategies such as this if they are to survive.

Like the wider economy the future is still uncertain, but films like Margin Call can give us hope.

> Official site
> Reviews of the film at Metacritic
> Find out more about the Late-2000s financial crisis at Wikipedia
> Listen to our interview with Charles Ferguson about Inside Job

Categories
Cinema Reviews Thoughts

War Horse

Steven Spielberg’s latest film is a simultaneous reminder of his undoubted filmmaking skills and weakness for old-fashioned sentimentality.

Adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel – which later became a huge stage hit in London and New York – it follows a young horse named Joey as he gets caught up in World War I.

The resulting equine odyssey we explore his various owners: a Devon farm boy (Jeremy Irvine); an English soldier (Tom Hiddleston); two German troops (David Kross and Leonhard Carow); a French farmer (Niels Arestrup) and the effect he has on the them.

As you might expect from a filmmaker of Spielberg’s vast experience, there are sequences here which are staged with his customary taste and skill.

The rural English locations are beautifully realised through Rick Carter‘s production design and skilfully adapted for the wartime action, which is impressive in scope and detail.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the film is one which audiences may take for granted: the acting and handling of the horses used to represent the title character.

Although there are precedents for an animal as lead character – notably Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard, Balthazar (1966) – it is highly unusual to see a mainstream live-action film built around a horse.

The main trainer was Bobby Lovgren and several were used to create the central illusion, which Spielberg pulls off, especially in the latter stages of the film.

Unfortunately, the screenplay by Richard Curtis and Lee Hall appears to have been tailor made for a ‘Spielberg Production’, which means that stilted stereotypical characters and frequent doses of lachrymose sentimentality get in the way of the drama.

By trying to match the ideal of what they think are the directors strengths, the screenwriters have misunderstood that his best work (Jaws, Close Encounters, Schindler’s List and Minority Report) comes when he operates outside his usual comfort zones.

Thus we have an array of great acting talent (Mullan, Watson, Arestrup) along with current casting-director favourites (Hiddleston, Cumberbatch, Kebbell) forced to read awkward lines which undercut the dramatic impact of their scenes.

Visually the film is also mixed bag.

Spielberg and DP Janusz Kaminski are a formidable partnership but here their approach to lighting seems odd.

Filming in the ever-changing climate of England poses challenges for any production, but here the lighting choices are distracting – at times bordering on the avant-garde – with characters faces being lit up like they were on stage.

That being said, the battle scenes are composed with impressive precision and the use of wide-angles and Michael Kahn’s graceful cutting seems like a breath of fresh air in the current era of chaos cinema.

There is also a lot to be said for a film that tries to genuinely appeal to a wide family audience in an era where comic books and animated films rule the multiplexes.

For some – especially those who have had close connections with horses – there are moments that will be undeniably moving, but overall the material doesn’t naturally translate to screen in the manner the filmmakers presumably hoped.

Although the aim here has been to channel the visual style of John Ford on to the battlefields of Europe and to pepper the film with noble anti-war sentiments, the overall effect is underwhelming.

There are frequent touches of brilliance, such as a devastatingly simple shot to conclude a particular battle sequence, but there is little in the way of narrative urgency.

Another negative is the fact that French and German characters don’t speak in their native language – a commercial decision which undercuts the expensively assembled realism of the set-pieces.

The film reaches a nadir of sorts during the final battle when Spielberg reverts to his favoured ‘why can’t we all get along?’ position which feels as predictable as it is redundant, especially when delivered via clunky lines of dialogue.

This is accentuated by the John Williams score which contains all the soaring strings and melodies and beats you might expect – but like the film it is too much surface and not enough substance.

I suspect that there was part of Spielberg that couldn’t resist the lure of War Horse – after the enormous success of the stage production it seemed pre-packaged project for him, with its built-in family appeal and worthy subject matter.

But ever since the beginning of his astonishing career he has been a director who has achieved his very best work in adversity rather than the dangerous comfort zones he finds hard to turn down.

Whether it was the tortuous production of Jaws (1975), the desire for redemption with Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) after the folly of 1941 (1979), or the compulsion to depict the brutality of the Holocaust in Schindler’s List (1993) after the misfire of Hook (1991) – all these triggered a kind of magic inside of his artistic soul.

For a director who achieved career and financial security so young, the greatest risks have always creative ones and he seems to thrive when making risky leaps of faith.

It was there during his innovative use of the Panaflex camera in The Sugarland Express (1974), his exhilarating framing and cutting during Jaws (1975) and the awesome sights and sounds in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

As his career progressed, he became so successful as both director and producer that he even reached the giddy heights of owning his own studio, even if it often had to partner with the majors on the big productions.

Yet despite all this ‘extracurricular activity’ he has maintained an impressive focus on his films, even if they have been of varying quality.

War Horse is ultimately not a film that stretched his creative muscles enough.

Perhaps the upcoming Lincoln – a project that he’s been circling for years – could prove to be more challenging?

> War Horse
> Reviews of the film at Metacritic
> Find out more about the book and stage play at Wikipedia

Categories
Cinema Reviews Thoughts

The Iron Lady

Despite a masterful central performance this political biopic ends up caught between hagiography and melodrama.

Adopting a flashback structure, it sees the ageing politician (Meryl Streep) looking back on key episodes of her life: her humble origins in Leicestershire; her early years as an MP; her rise to power and the key episodes from her lengthy tenure as prime minister from 1979-1990.

The highlight here is a typically brilliant performance from Streep, who uses the full arsenal of her acting repertoire to create a striking portrait of Britain’s first female leader.

Her physical and vocal work is uncanny, which is no mean feat considering the years covered by the film, which sees   newcomer Alexandra Roach play the younger version with considerable poise and presence.

These early segments of the film depict the cosy, sexist world of both the Tory party and Britain during the late 1950s (she became an MP in 1959) which almost certainly fed into her later assault on various British institutions.

Director Phyllida Lloyd has an extensive background in musical theatre and it shows here in the heightened zig-zag sweep of the narrative, which is a curious mixture of feminist biopic and political opera (minus the music).

The central device is both a blessing and a curse – it captures the irony of a frail Thatcher needing help (when her whole philosophy was built on a ruthless self-reliance) but the clunky use of her late husband Denis (Jim Broadbent) gets ever more  comic as the story progresses.

At times it feels like that most curious of things: an interesting mess that is filled with fascinating contradictions.

Lloyd and her DP Elliot Davis frequently use distracting compositions and in some sequences Justine Wright’s editing is frenzied to the point of incoherence.

Yet there is also much technical work here to admire in bringing Thatcher to life: Marese Langan‘s hair and makeup design is the real standout, with Consolata Boyle‘s costumes not far behind.

In fact they are almost as impressive as the job Gordon Reece (played in the film by Roger Allam) did for Thatcher.

This duality feels weirdly appropriate for a film about a prime minister who was so hated that she ended up getting elected  three times.

It says a lot about the conflicted mental state of the United Kingdom that Thatcher is so loathed and revered, which is appropriate for a nation still thoroughly divided about its social and cultural identity.

(If you are in any doubt just ask yourself about the differences between the United Kingdom, Great Britain, England, Scotland, Wales and that’s before you even get to the long and complicated history with Ireland)

This film tries to have it both ways, by depicting the downward vulnerability of her old age whilst contrasting it with the ambitious vigour of her political career.

Whilst this could be seen as avoiding the thornier issues of her reign, the director, screenwriter and star are all women in an industry dominated by men – presumably they saw this as something of a feminist fable of a female leader taking on male institutions.

That Thatcher routinely preferred the company of men and barely promoted women seems only to have piqued their interest in exploring the personal motivations lay behind her political ideology.

It is surprising but appropriate that the most effective relationship in the film is between Margaret and her daughter Carol (a brilliant Olivia Colman who is almost unrecognisable) in contrast to her absent son Mark, whom she clearly favoured.

There are traces of sneaky subversion in Abi Morgan’s screenplay, which appear to draw from Carol Thatcher’s 2008 memoir, which offer some intriguing glimpses into the private person behind the political persona.

For a leader who had so little time for the poor and dispossessed during her time in office there is something dramatically effective in seeing her suffer the uncertainties of old age.

Tory supporters hoping to enjoy scenes of Thatcher at the Commons dispatch box will be given pause by the scenes between mother and daughter – no wonder current PM David Cameron sounded genuinely uneasy when asked about the film.

It will be interesting to see how audiences react in Britain as this is traditionally the kind of heritage filmmaking that conservative broadsheet newspapers lap up, whilst their liberal counterparts have commissioned endless think pieces on it too.

But when audiences get to see it, they may be surprised at what unfolds in front of them, which speaks to both the uneven qualities of the film and Thatcher’s legacy as leader.

She was the heartless destroyer of trade unions and the slightly saucy headmistress who bewitched a generation of voters to either buy their own council houses or shares in privatised industries.

There was also the lower middle class voting block – from the kind of towns where she herself came – who kept re-electing her.

Tellingly it took the public schoolboys like Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head) and Michael Heseltine (Richard E. Grant) in her own party to bring her down.

One area the film fails to illuminate is her relationship with key media organisations: notably Rupert Murdoch (with whom she formed a lasting and mutually beneficial alliance) and the BBC (an organisation with who she has a complex and fascinating relationship) were key to her electoral success.

The late Christopher Hitchens once lovingly spoke of an encounter in the late 1970s where Thatcher smacked him on the bottom and called him a “naughty boy” with a twinkle in her eye.


Although sadly this episode isn’t in the film, there is a moment when the elderly Thatcher is asked about the current PM and describes him as a “smoothie”.

This is not only funny but also highlights the public school mind set of the British ruling elites and their unlikely infatuation with a woman who they’d previously dismissed as a grocer’s daughter.

Meryl Streep is perfect casting, as she is to modern Hollywood as Thatcher was to Parliament in the 1980s – although politically a liberal she has defied industry wisdom to maintain a healthy career as a female star.

Furthermore, Streep’s astonishing ability to do accents serves her well and her outsider status as an American in a very British cast also dovetails with the former PM’s outsider status.

Warren Beatty once said that her political soul mate Ronald Regan once told him:

‘I don’t know how anybody can serve in public office without being an actor.’

The Iron Lady reflects this idea of politician as performer – a great performance which nevertheless masks key deficiencies in other vital areas.

Given the recent implosion of the free market principles Reagan and Thatcher championed, the film functions as a curious epitaph for an era which there seems to be a strange nostalgia for.

> The Iron Lady at IMDb
> Find out more about Margaret Thatcher at Wikipedia
> Reviews of The Iron Lady at Metacritic
> Guardian data blog on how Britain changed under Thatcher

Categories
News Thoughts

Kodak on the Brink

The news that Kodak is preparing for bankruptcy protection signals another chapter in the death of celluloid.

It was one of the most iconic companies and brands in the world, synonymous with the photographic image, but in recent years profits have declined and costs risen.

Once a hub of innovation that attracted America’s most talented engineers, it was essentially the Apple or Google of its day.

But in the digital era processing film stock is a much more expensive business than manufacturing SD cards.

Last November, Kodak said that it might not even survive 2012 if it couldn’t secure $500 million in new debt or sell their digital imaging-patents, rumoured to be worth between $2bn and $3bn.

In a report for the Wall Street Journal, Mike Spector and Dana Mattioli describe the current situation:

The 131-year-old company is still making last-ditch efforts to sell off some of its patent portfolio and could avoid Chapter 11 if it succeeds, one of the people said. But the company has started making preparations for a filing in case those efforts fail, including talking to banks about some $1 billion in financing to keep it afloat during bankruptcy proceedings, the people said.

A filing could come as soon as this month or early February, one of the people familiar with the matter said. Kodak would continue to pay its bills and operate normally while under bankruptcy protection, the people said. But the company’s focus would then be the sale of some 1,100 patents through a court-supervised auction, the people said.

The reversal is a notable one, especially as Kodak invented the modern digital camera in 1975.

In this interview Steven Sasson describes how he invented the camera in the midst of an era that was decidely analogue.

Inventor Portrait: Steven Sasson from David Friedman on Vimeo.

But like Xerox – which failed to capitalise on essentially inventing the modern computer interface – the company declined to build upon this innovation, presumably because it was seen as a threat to the then core business of film processing.

Gradually over the last decade their efforts to diversify into printers were also hit by the rise of digital images being stored on devices (like smartphones) and the web (through sites like Flickr and Facebook).

But where does this leave the motion picture business?

Projection on celluloid is effectively going to be over by the end of 2013, but how long has film-based capture got?

Kodak and Fuji are the two primary celluloid manufacturers who supply the actual film stock from which most major movies are still made.

Although the past year has seen many notable productions (e.g. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) shoot digitally, there still is a reluctance amongst some cinemtographers to go fully digital.

Kodak’s No Compromise campaign over the last few years has been bullish about the merits of film based capture as opposed to digital.

Rob Hummel spoke at the Cine Gear Expo earlier this year and described why film was still a superior medium for capturing images.

But if Kodak don’t stave off bankruptcy, then who will actually make the stock on which movies are shot?

One wildcard suggestion was that noted film adherent Steven Spielberg could buy the company:

Whilst I think this is highly unlikely, there are people who want to help Kodak anyway they can.

On the recent audio commentary for his film The American, director Anton Corbijn stated that he wants to support Kodak as long as they are still going because Tri-X film was the still the gold standard for stills photography.

The late Sydney Pollack once said that Stanley Kubrick used to give him Kodak Tri-X film to use for taking still pictures.

At the aforementioned Cinema Expo, cinematographer John Bailey highlighted the future archival problems of movies that are ‘born digitally’:

When it comes to cinema, perhaps Kodak could spin off its motion picture arm?

Despite the march of digital pioneers like David Fincher and James Cameron, I suspect that a large portion of cinematographers still want to use film.

If Kodak goes into bankruptcy does photochemical filmmaking as we know it just die?

> WSJ report on Kodak’s financial troubles
> More on Kodak at Wikipedia
> From Celluloid to Digital

Categories
Thoughts

Action Movie Cliches

A recent video montage identified signature clichés in mainstream action movies over the last 30 years.

Edited together by Jacob Britta, it shows how several tropes seem to recur throughout the genre.

Perhaps this is because films and directors naturally influence one another and that certain conventions evolve over time.

Action is perhaps not something you would immediately associate with film school analysis.

Paul Thomas Anderson once told the story of how he left NYU after just 2 days when a teacher pompously declared the screenwriting students should leave if they wanted to write Terminator 2:

But action is worthy of analysis, especially as it has been with the cinema almost since the beginning of the medium.

It has been used to excite and dazzle audiences ever since 1895 when the Lumiere Brothers decided to project a train hurtling towards an audience, right up to 2010 when Christopher Nolan pulled a similar trick in Inception.

In between there was Douglas Fairbanks swashbucklers, classic Westerns, the crop duster sequence in North by Northwest (1959), the Bond franchise, thrilling crime dramas like Bullitt (1968), The French Connection (1971) and Dirty Harry (1971) and the testosterone-fuelled action era of the 1980s with Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis.

Since the early 1990s CGI has allowed action films to go in to ever more fantastical realms with The Matrix (1999), the last decade of comic book movies and Avatar (2009).

A recent video essay by Matthias Stork explored the recent phenomenon of ‘chaos cinema’ which may or may not be tied to modern cameras and digital editing systems.

Like anything else it has been done badly, but when films get it right there are few other art forms that can match cinema for the pure visceral thrill of an action scene.

By looking closely at Britta’s video we can see them:

So, what are the ingredients going on in these action movies?

  • The Hero Head Turn: This is where the main character is dramatically framed whilst turning his head. It’s mostly used as a tool of realisation, when our hero considers something big and important, as if to say “wow, there’s some heavy s**t going down”. But it also gives an audience an expectation that something exciting is happening soon. The swooping pan (or sometimes tracking shot) that often accompanies a ‘hero head turn’ increases the sense of disorientation and excitement in the viewer.
  • The Run Amongst Cars: If someone walks across the street in a movie you can almost guarentee that a car will appear from nowhere and screech to a halt. The ultimate example is perhaps Midnight Cowboy where Dustin Hoffman screams at a New York cab. But in an action movie it would be dull just to have them walk across the street, so to ramp this up they have the hero run into speeding traffic, thus increasing the drama and tension.
  • The Walk at the Camera: A tracking shot used to focus on the character’s movement and intention. There is often a frission of drama when we see a character walking at or near the camera as it provokes an instant curiosity about where they’re going. The pay off when they reach their destination, is usually some kind of confrontation or decisive action.
  • The Staircase Run: Stairs often play a role in horror movie because they provide an interior exit point for someone being chased by a villain or creature. But in action movies they can work both ways, as an obstacle for our hero as he chases a scum bag on the subway or as a stumbling block for a protagonist trying to escape from something.
  • The Hit to the Head: In real life head injuries are a serious business that can result in brain damage or death. But in movies they are often used to demonstrate that our hero really can be hurt. Blows to the body are often shrugged off, but in a fight where someone is hit on the head it has got serious. However, it is rare to see repeated blows to the face disfigure the hero in any way.
  • The Weapon Pull Out: Unsurprisngly this often signifies that guns are about to be used, but there is almost something fetishistic about how weapons are depicted. Think of Schwarzenegger movies like The Terminator (1984) or Commando (1985) where guns are assembled and loaded with almost loving care. It is an immediate sign that action is around the corner, villians are going to die and justice will be served.
  • The Car Swerve: Car chases often form an essential part of any self-respecting action movie from Bullitt to The Bourne Supremacy. But look closely and you’ll see it’s not just a matter of a high speed chase from A to B. One recurring motif is the dramatic swerve out of danger, whether its avoiding a pram crossing the road (The French Connection, Speed) or a plane on a runway (Face/Off). It reminds us of the danger and keeps the adrenaline flowing until the climax of the chase.
  • The Helicopter: One way to inject a bit of sizzle in to any action movie is to include some helicopters. Whether they are used in the actual chase or just as a place to shoot from (or both), they give an aerial aspect to a chase or sequence. Michael Bay has become infamous for his use of helicopters, but Apocalypse Now is perhaps the most famous use of the aircraft, with the famous attack sequence set to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. Notice how Coppola is especially inventive in that film at synchronising the sound of the blades with the rhythm of the score.
  • The Slow Motion Fall: Slow motion has become a cliche in the action genre, but like cliches it exists for a reason. If you saw someone jumping in real-time, the scene would be over in 1-2 seconds. So to mine the drama of a hero jumping into the sea (e.g. Face/Off) or a villain falling from a building (e.g. Die Hard) the camera slows down and milks the scene. A particularly inventive use of slow-motion occurs in Inception to signify the different time scales in different dream states.
  • The Quick Drive By: Often this is a simple stationary shot of a vehicle driving from one side of the screen to another. But the vehicle usually passes by in a flash to indicate speed and excitement, which can form part of a chase or a race against time. If the director is really up for it, then he does a tracking shot which pans on to an oncoming vehicle, showing the car coming at and past the camera in one go (essentially this is the vehicle equivalent of the “hero head turn”). Go back to the Lumiere Brothers film of the train and you’ll a nascent version of this.
  • The Vehicle Smash: What good is a car chase if there’s no carnage to show for it? This is a logical extension of the car swerve, in that it shows what happens when a car can’t get out of the way of another vehicle. They often end with a particular flourish, like a car flipping over in a spectacular way. Or my personal favourite, which is a car crashing in to some yellow bins filled with water (Speed, The Matrix Reloaded).
  • The Mayhem Explosion: There’s explosions and then there are mayhem explosions, which are designed to let you know that some s**t just got real. Often major explosions are used within in a scene to indicate the death of expendable goons. But primarily it is because the sight of bright orange flames and the sound of a loud explosion on the soundtrack is a feast for the eyes and ears. Often ‘The Camera Walk’ is blended with a ‘Mayhem Explosion’, where the hero casually walks away from a explosion. This is completely impractical in real life, but as used in the movies (in slow motion!) it indicates how cool the hero is as he dispatches another villain (e.g. Man on Fire).
  • The Climactic Scream: Film is primarily a visual medium but since the invention of movie sound in the late 1920s, filmmakers have used it to tap into our primal senses (e.g. The Wilhem Scream). A good example of this is the “climactic scream”, which indicates some kind of terror and/or release at the end of an action sequence. It could indicate danger or pain, but is designed to cut through and viscerally affect the audience. Whether it is the Alien Queen at the climax of Aliens or Wez at the end of Mad Max 2 a climactic scream can be a cherry on top of the action movie pie.

[Original video via Urlesque]

> More on the Action Movie genre at Wikipedia
> Chaos Cinema and the Rise of the Avid

Categories
News Thoughts

Earth 2

The discovery of an Earth-like planet coincides with the UK release of a film about …an Earth-like planet.

Back in January a film called Another Earth debuted to considerable surprise and acclaim at the Sundance film festival.

The central premise involves a student (Brit Marling) and music teacher (William Mapother) whose fates intersect amidst the discovery of another planet identical to Earth.

It was one of the most acclaimed titles of the festival, winning the Alfred P. Sloan Prize and getting acquired by Fox Searchlight Pictures for distribution.

Then in February, astronomers announced that the advanced Kepler Space Telescope had helped them identify around 54 planets, five of which were “Earth-sized” and where conditions could possibly sustain life.

Yesterday, NASA revealed further developments at the first Kepler Science Conference, where they confirmed the existence of an Earth-like planet.

Named Kepler 22-b, it lies around 600 light-years away, is about 2.4 times the size of earth and is the closest confirmed planet to our own.

Although it is unclear if it is made mostly of rock, gas or liquid, the main reason it has been dubbed an “Earth 2.0” is because it revolves around a star and circles around it every 290 days.

The Wikipedia entry does the numbers:

The planet’s radius is roughly 2.4 times the radius of Earth; it is 600 light years away from Earth, in orbit around the G-type star Kepler 22.

If it has an Earth-like density (5.515 g/cm3) then it would mass 13.8 Earths while its surface gravity would be 2.4 times Earth’s.

If it has water like density (1 g/cm3) then it would mass 2.5 Earths and have a surface gravity of 0.43 times Earth’s.

The distance from Kepler-22b to its star is about 15% less than the distance from Earth to the Sun, hence its orbit is about 85% of Earth’s orbit.

One orbital revolution around its star takes 289.9 days.

The light output of Kepler-22b’s star is about 25% less than that of the Sun.

Another Earth opened in the US at selected cinemas during the summer and got released on Blu-ray and DVD there last week.

It opens in UK cinemas this week and in an age where online agencies are desperately trying to drum up interest with phony virals, here is a genuine one that has fallen right into their lap with perfect timing.

IndieWire recently hosted a deleted scene from the film which shows a news clip of the discovery and there is another scene where Brit Marling’s character looks up the website for a chance to travel to Earth 2:

This isn’t possible in real life yet as 600 million light years presents a challenge for even the fastest rocket.

That said, this year did see the basic foundation of modern physics rocked by two experiments at CERN, which appeared to demonstrate that neutrinos may travel faster than light, even though some later cast doubt on that.

What this shows is that life can imitate art, as our technical realities catch up with our creative fantasies.

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey seemed to predict the iPad and Siri, The Truman Show predicted the rise of reality TV in the 2000s and Minority Report foresaw multi-touch computing and the Kinect.

In terms of timing Another Earth seems spooky, but there are other films which had news stories dovetail with their release.

The China Syndrome (1979) – a drama about an accident at a nuclear power plant – was released on March 16th 1979, just 12 days before the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania.

In the film, someone actually says that the China Syndrome would render “an area the size of Pennsylvania” permanently uninhabitable.

John Frankenheimer made two political thrillers in the early 1960s – The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964) – which had creepy parallels with the Kennedy assassination and the Cuban missile crisis.

Wag the Dog (1997) – a satire about a spin doctor trying to cover up a presidential affair – opened just one month before the Lewinsky scandal blew up in January 1998.

Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, which opened earlier this year, also featured a premise where there was another planet heading towards earth.

So whilst there are precedents, the news of another ‘earth’ in the same week Another Earth actually opens in the UK seems like viral marketing from a superior alien intelligence.

> Another Earth
> More about Kepler 22-b at Wikipedia
> Follow director Mike Cahill and actress-writer Brit Marling on Twitter

Categories
Thoughts

The Review Which Broke The Embargo

The recent flap about The New Yorker running an early review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo reveals the perils facing studios in the modern age.

I realise that with the global economy in meltdown and news of an earth-like planet being discovered this is relatively unimportant in the wider scheme of things, but it does shed light on how big films get released and critical conversations are ‘managed’ in the age of 24/7 media.

Outside media circles the concept of a news embargo is likely to be met with confusion or perhaps a yawn, so let’s go to Wikipedia for a quick definition:

“In journalism and public relations, a news embargo or press embargo is a request by a source that the information or news provided by that source not be published until a certain date or certain conditions have been met. The understanding is that if the embargo is broken by reporting before then, the source will retaliate by restricting access to further information by that journalist or his publication, giving them a long-term disadvantage relative to more cooperative outlets.

They are often used by businesses making a product announcement, by medical journals, and by government officials announcing policy initiatives; the media is given advance knowledge of details being held secret so that reports can be prepared to coincide with the announcement date and yet still meet press time. In theory, press embargoes reduce inaccuracy in the reporting of breaking stories by reducing the incentive for journalists to cut corners in hopes of “scooping” the competition.”

So, let’s remember that embargoes aren’t unique to the film industry.

If you’ve seen the documentary Page One, you’ll see the extraordinary spectacle of the New York Times newsroom debating what do when the US government effectively embargoed the news that (most) US troops were pulling out of Iraq.

NBC got the TV scoop, whilst the Times decided to run nothing the next day – prompting the existential news question, ‘does story really exist if the New York Times ignores it’?

Think about the daily news cycle.

Stories in broadcast, print or online outlets rarely just magically appear, there are normally placed (via press release, background leak or interview) and processed (by editors and journalists) for a specific reason.

When it comes to mainstream film releases, studios or distributors usually have screenings for different outlets in the run up to release so they can run features and reviews.

In the UK, these screenings usually break down into three kinds: long lead (for publications that need more time due to publishing constraints), broadcast and online (often nearer the release date) and a national press show (often the Monday or Tuesday before release).

Generally speaking, the distributor will adjust the number of screenings depending on the type of film release and in the last decade as the web became more pervasive, more stringent measures were employed to stop the leaking of advance reactions.

For a big budget release there will be a couple of big screenings and a national press show; for a lower budget film (which needs media attention and awareness) they may screen it more in order to drum up interest; whilst for a real stinker they may not even screen it at all and just rely on marketing.

Which brings us to embargoes – which is when a studio gets a journalist to sign a piece of paper saying they will not run their review until a certain date.

From the studio point of view they have invited someone to view a film for free and want to be able to control the media message.

Why do journalists agree to this?

For the critic or outlet it is seductive because they usually want to see the film in question and are prepared to pay the small price for honouring what is essentially a “gentleman’s agreement”.

Most go along with it because they reason that they could just refuse to see the advance screening or that they could be refused future screenings from that studio or distributor.

My personal take is that if you make a promise, you should stick to it. If you don’t want to sign an embargo, then don’t attend the screening.

But this is not to say that the whole business brings up valid questions.

Is it just a simple case of honouring a simple agreement? Or are big companies controlling the media message too much?

And what about those cases where critics have broken an embargo with a positive review, only to have the studio effectively wink at them and do nothing?

Recently Christopher Tookey published a review of War Horse, even though other critics aren’t allowed to do so until December 25th.

Is there consistency on which outlets get to publish before others?

Let’s go back to that Wikipedia entry for a second:

“News organizations sometimes break embargoes and report information before the embargo expires, either accidentally (due to miscommunication in the newsroom) or intentionally (to get the jump on their competitors). Breaking an embargo is typically considered a serious breach of trust and can result in the source barring the offending news outlet from receiving advance information for a long period of time”

This gives you an idea of the grey area that exists as both parties can benefit (or not) depending on the situation, which brings us to the case of The New Yorker’s unofficial early review of David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

This is one of those occasions in Hollywood where a major studio (Sony Pictures) has recruited A-list quality talent (producer Scott Rudin and director David Fincher) to make a movie of a bestselling novel (Stieg Larsson’s dark tale of conspiracy and murder).

But this isn’t a usual mainstream release by any means – it is dark material for a big studio and will almost certainly be R-rated due to the sexual content and violence.

Generally studios shy away from making expensive R-rated films as the potential audience is limited – the only R-rated blockbusters in recent times were 300 (an action film made for a reasonable budget), The Passion of the Christ (a complete one-off made outside the studio system) and The Hangover (a dark horse comedy made for relatively low price).

You would have to go back to 2003 for a comparable R-rated film, when Warner Bros released The Matrix Reloaded and even that had the safety blanket of being a sequel to a suprise hit.

On the face of it, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo seems like a slam-dunk: killer talent behind the camera, enormously popular source material and a massive global release on December 21st.

But now is exactly the time studio executives get nervous as they start to get the early audience research in, tweak their final marketing push and ponder everything that could possibly go wrong.

What if it’s too dark? Will audiences want to see rape, murder and Swedish conspiracies (in English accents!) for their Christmas trip to the cinema?

A marketing campaign for a film like this can be enormously expensive and is almost like a military operation, with print ads, TV spots and online elements that have to be co-ordinated months in advance.

Nearer to the release, the most expensive element is often TV spots which carry one line (or sometimes one-word) reviews of the film in question and these have to take into consideration the first wave of positive reviews.

Which brings us back to the question facing the studio and producers: how do you handle the media screenings?

After all, once a couple of reviews hit the web, others will expect to follow suit.

So far the screening strategy has been selective, in order to build buzz and screen it to critics groups so as to possibly make their end-of-year lists.

Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere was one of the chosen few to see it and wrote recently:

“Dragon Tattoo was screened last Monday for the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review and to a select group of Los Angeles-based Fincher fanboys. It was then shown to a small group of critics and columnists (including myself) last Friday morning at Sony’s L.A. lot.”

So far, so normal.

Then a review went live and broke the embargo.

Was this a rogue blogger who tweeted his negative review, before doing a YouTube video that then went viral on Facebook?

No, it was a positive review from that most august of old media institutions, The New Yorker.

On Sunday Deadline – a site read by most movers and shakers in Hollywood – published a post titled “So What If David Denby Broke Sony/Scott Rudin’s ‘Dragon Tattoo’ Embargo? Fuck It!“, which laid out the gory details including the letter Sony had sent out to other journalists reminding them not to review early:

Embargoes are dumbass, and even more so when they involve matters of no consequence like showbiz. And still more so when the movie review at issue was positive like David Denby’s critique of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo in The New Yorker. In my opinion, no film reviewer should ever agree to embargoes because doing what the studios want is a slippery slope. It’s just a short hop to becoming part of Hollywood’s publicity machine. In this case, producer Scott Rudin is the biggest baby on the planet. (Remember how, when The Social Network began losing to The King’s Speech last awards season, he stopped attending every honoring ceremony including the Oscars? No class.) And Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Amy Pascal on the phone just now told me the studio has been “wrestling” with this since Friday night. Yet she couldn’t explain why these embargoes are even necessary or this villification of Denby, who happens to be my favorite film critic, is even warranted. I asked if the review is good. She answered that she’d heard it was. So what’s the problem? Heaven help us when the studios finally succeed in controlling all media… Here’s the letter which Sony sent out at 2 AM:

Dear Colleague,

All who attended screenings of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo agreed in writing to withhold reviews until closer to the date of the film’s worldwide release date. Regrettably, one of your colleagues, David Denby of The New Yorker, has decided to break his agreement and will run his review on Monday, December 5th. This embargo violation is completely unacceptable.

By allowing critics to see films early, at different times, embargo dates level the playing field and enable reviews to run within the films’ primary release window, when audiences are most interested. As a matter of principle, the New Yorker’s breach violates a trust and undermines a system designed to help journalists do their job and serve their readers. We have been speaking directly with The New Yorker about this matter and expect to take measures to ensure this kind of violation does not occur again.

In the meantime, we have every intention of maintaining the embargo in place and we want to remind you that reviews may not be published prior to December 13th.

We urge all who have been given the opportunity to see The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo to honor the commitments agreed to as a condition of having early access to the film.

Thank you in advance for your cooperation.

Sincerely,

Andre Caraco, Executive Vice President, Motion Picture Publicity
Sony Pictures Entertainment

The Playlist then published an email exchange between Denby and Rudin, which shed more light on the affair:

—–Original Message—–
From: Scott Rudin
Sent: Sat 12/3/2011 12:08 AM
To: Denby, David
Subject:
You’re going to break the review embargo on Dragon Tattoo? I’m stunned that you of all people would even entertain doing this. It’s a very, very damaging move and a total contravention of what you agreed. You’re an honorable man.

From: Denby, David
Sent: Saturday, December 03, 2011 11:19 AM
To: Scott Rudin
Subject: RE:

Dear Scott:
Scott, I know Fincher was working on the picture up to the last minute, but the yearly schedule is gauged to have many big movies come out at the end of the year.
The system is destructive: Grown-ups are ignored for much of the year, cast out like downsized workers, and then given eight good movies all at once in the last five weeks of the year. A magazine like “The New Yorker” has to cope as best as it can with a nutty release schedule. It was not my intention to break the embargo, and I never would have done it with a negative review. But since I liked the movie, we came reluctantly to the decision to go with early publication for the following reasons, which I have also sent to Seth Fradkoff:

1) The jam-up of important films makes it very hard on magazines. We don’t want to run a bunch of tiny reviews at Christmas. That’s not what “The New Yorker” is about. Anthony and I don’t want to write them that way, and our readers don’t want to read them that way.

2) Like many weeklies, we do a double issue at the end of the year, at this crucial time. This exacerbates the problem.

3) The New York Film Critics Circle, in its wisdom, decided to move up its voting meeting, as you well know, to November 29, something Owen Gleiberman and I furiously opposed, getting nowhere. We thought the early date was idiotic, and we’re in favor of returning it to something like December 8 next year. In any case, the early vote forced the early screening of “Dragon Tattoo.” So we had a dilemma: What to put in the magazine on December 5? Certainly not “We Bought the Zoo,” or whatever it’s called. If we held everything serious, we would be coming out on Christmas-season movies until mid-January. We had to get something serious in the magazine. So reluctantly, we went early with “Dragon,” which I called “mesmerizing.” I apologize for the breach of the embargo. It won’t happen again. But this was a special case brought on by year-end madness.

In any case, congratulations for producing another good movie. I look forward to the Daldry.

Best, David Denby

From: Scott Rudin
Date: Sat, 3 Dec 2011 13:04:32 -0500
To: David Denby
Subject: Re:
I appreciate all of this, David, but you simply have to be good for your word. Your seeing the movie was conditional on your honoring the embargo, which you agreed to do. The needs of the magazine cannot trump your word. The fact that the review is good is immaterial, as I suspect you know. You’ve very badly damaged the movie by doing this, and I could not in good conscience invite you to see another movie of mine again, Daldry or otherwise. I can’t ignore this, and I expect that you wouldn’t either if the situation were reversed. I’m really not interested in why you did this except that you did — and you must at least own that, purely and simply, you broke your word to us and that that is a deeply lousy and immoral thing to have done. If you weren’t prepared to honor the embargo, you should have done the honorable thing and said so before you accepted the invitation. The glut of Christmas movies is not news to you, and to pretend otherwise is simply disingenuous. You will now cause ALL of the other reviews to run a month before the release of the movie, and that is a deeply destructive thing to have done simply because you’re disdainful of We Bought a Zoo. Why am I meant to care about that??? Come on…that’s nonsense, and you know it.

The immediate question hanging over this is who deliberately leaked this email exchange?

But aside from that it also reveals some interesting points.

Although it’s slightly – if not completely – off-point, Denby brings up the problems posed by the end-of-year crush of movies looking for awards season consideration.

Meanwhile there’s something magnificently ballsy about Rudin fighting his corner and principles.

He’s arguably the producer of his generation, with an unmatched record for making quality films inside the studio system, and there’s something admirable about him going to bat for his film and the studio who stumped up the cash for it.

A little part of me suspects this could all be part of a cunning strategy to get the media elite talking about this film.

Think back to last year and the masterful marketing campaign Sony and Rudin ran for The Social Network.

No-one from Sony publicly complained (to my knowledge) when Scott Foundas broke the embargo with a positive review then, so how is Denby any different?

In a strange way, the marketing challenge for this Fincher film is reversed: with The Social Network it was getting a mainstream audience to go and see a film about Facebook, whilst with Dragon Tattoo mainstream interest is assured and maybe the challenge is getting upscale audiences convinced of its artistic merits for awards season consideration.

Did Denby and his editors run the review for attention?

Given that it was only available in the digital edition of the New Yorker, was it a cunning ruse to drive more traffic to their iPad subscriptions? (Even though it has already been duplicated online here)

Did Rudin deliberately pick a loud fight to drum up interest as part of an ingenious marketing campaign?

Let’s also remember the brilliant first teaser trailer was rumoured to be leaked from the studio before being pulled after a few days (and thousands of views on YouTube) – in order to add to its viral ‘authenticity’.

Let’s not forget the Tumblr production blog Mouth-Taped-Shut, which has been nothing short of genius.

My personal theory is that Rudin is genuinely angry as he wasn’t expecting The New Yorker (of all places) to break the embargo and this could screw up the latter stages of the campaign, which can be so crucial and financially costly (although the kerfuffle could actually work to the film’s benefit).

A director who has made two films with Sony once told me that an overlooked part of studios greenlighting a film is the basic question:

“Is your marketing department excited about selling the movie?”

But whatever the truth or final box office numbers of the film, it highlights the tensions between media and studios in the Internet age.

Are embargoes realistic in an age of social media and endless duplication of digital chatter?

Or are they part of a game which both parties feel they have to play in order to drum up interest in their respective businesses to the wider public?

I’m not sure anyone has definitive answers to these questions, but let’s finish with another open question.

If studios never screened any films for critics – with outlets covering the cost of tickets – how would this affect reviews?

> Official site
> Deadline on the leaked review
> The Playlist on the leaked email exchange
> Mouth Taped Shut

Categories
Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Hugo

The latest filmmaking technology provides Martin Scorsese with the tools to create a passionate love letter to the early days of cinema.

Adapted from Brian Selznick’s illustrated book, the story explores what happens when a young orphan (Asa Butterfield) living in a 1930s Paris train station comes across an older man selling toys at a stall.

That man (Ben Kingsley) may literally have the key to the mysterious robotic automaton Hugo’s late father (Jude Law) left behind before perishing in a fire.

With the constant threat of being taken away to an orphanage by the local police inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) Hugo finds out more about ‘Papa Georges’ by befriending his granddaughter (Chloe Grace Moretz).

Although best known for his masterful explorations of the American male (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Departed) he has long shown an interest in stories involving martyrs and redemption.

His most controversial film (The Last Temptation of Christ) and perhaps his most overlooked (Kundun) were both about spiritual figures of major religions.

Now the director turns to the religion of film and one of its key pioneers, Georges Melies, who for many years was largely forgotten after World War I.

Despite Hugo being something of a departure for the director in that it is suitable for family audiences, it is also one of his most personal works.

It isn’t a stretch to read the central character as the young asthmatic New Yorker who fell deeply in love with cinema or even Melies as the director who represents his fears (rejection) and dreams (longevity).

In order to achieve this vision he has recruited a glittering array of world class technical talent.

Dante Ferretti’s detailed production design offers us a fantastical recreation of 1930s Paris, which is skilfully augmented by Sandy Powell’s costumes and Rob Legato’s visual effects work.

The blending of all these design elements is dazzling, filled with detail and depth, which provides a solid basis for Robert Richardson’s stunning 3D photography.

Using the new Arri Alexa camera with a Cameron-Pace 3D rig it provides Scorsese with a new tool for executing his vision with longer takes and immersive shots.

The wonderful irony is that these cutting edge digital tools – which involved pioneering lenses and an on-set data system – are used to pay tribute to one of the founding fathers of ‘celluloid cinema’.

Visually, this is done with recurring motifs: wheels turning, trains, clocks and objects coming towards the camera, which are brought to life by a use of 3D which enhances, rather than distracts from them.

Although Scorsese has talked about the adjustment he and Richardson had to make coming from the world of 35mm film, the end result is a master class in digital cinematography, filled with stunning compositions and rich layers of detail.

The performances don’t quite match the visuals, but Butterfield and Moretz do enough to convince in their roles, whilst Kingsley paints a convincing picture of a man haunted by regret.

In supporting roles Sacha Baron Cohen’s mannered comic performance is somewhat overshadowed by his dog, but Helen McCrory and Christopher Lee are both touching in key minor roles.

John Logan’s screenplay manages to blend the traditional storytelling elements of the book, whilst also providing a neat framework for Scorsese to explore his own inner passion for movies and film preservation.

Without going into spoiler territory, there are numerous references to the Lumiere brothers, the silent era and 1930s French cinema.

The beauty of these hat tips is that – like the 3D – they do actually serve the story rather than function as a commercial indulgence.

Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing also skilfully blends key flashback scenes, numerous chase sequences in the station and archive footage of classic cinema works which brilliantly concentrated down to their essence.

It is also refreshing to see a family film is respectful to audiences of all ages and not a pat morality or coming-of-age tale filled with lazy in-jokes.

Unlike many contemporary films, it actually rewards patience and curiosity, before climaxing with a moving ode to both the art and experience of cinema itself.

Beneath the fantastical surface there are serious emotions and one can sense the ghost of Michael Powell – a neglected director Scorsese helped revive interest in.

Perhaps the most surreal aspect of Hugo is that a $150 million advert for film preservation is going to be screened digitally in multiplexes around the globe.

Like the early work of Melies, it seems like a form of magic that this film even exists.

> Official site
> Reviews of Hugo at Metacritic and MUBi
> Find out more about George Melies at Wikipedia and Senses of Cinema
> Martin Scorsese discussing 3D

Categories
Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Another Earth

A low-budget drama with a big sci-fi premise offers us a startling blend of genres.

Although the science fiction is frequently associated with gigantic effects-driven spectacles, the debut feature of writer-director Mike Cahill offers us an intriguing alternative.

The central premise involves a student (Brit Marling) and music teacher (William Mapother) whose fates intersect after a car accident.

After four years pass, they gradually get to know each other properly and whilst the discovery of another planet identical to Earth lingers in the background.

Beginning with a major plot development right up front, it is hard to go into to details about the plot without significant spoilers, except to say that the narrative is consistently surprising and enjoyable.

Part of that is because Cahill and co-writer Marling don’t go for the obvious sci-fi tropes that have been done to death, as they have fashioned a story that’s like an episode of The Twilight Zone scripted by Kryzstof Kieslowski.

Despite the sci-fi elements, a large part of the drama is given over to themes of grief, regret and secrets, but it skilfully avoids being a signature, self-indulgent indie movie.

Part of this is down to the tantalising backdrop of an identical planet, skilfully evoked via news clips, reaction shots and recurring images of the sky.

But it is also a surprisingly powerful study of loss, regret and possible redemption.

In an age where seismic news events seem to be experienced through ever more unbelievable news updates on television, the film had a tangible resonance.

Despite the fantastical premise, emotions and events are wisely kept grounded in a believable reality.

Essentially this boils down to two actors who really deliver the goods: Marling has a natural screen presence and pulls off a difficult part with some aplomb.

Her confident delivery of dialogue was probably due to the fact that she co-wrote them, but there are some difficult scenes here which she handles extraordinarily well.

Likewise Mapother, who for most of the film has to make his grief-stricken character interesting but, to his credit, he convincingly rebuilds his inner and outer life.

The production makes highly effective use of his low-budget, shooting with a handheld HD camera in such a way that doesn’t call attention to itself, but feels organic to the story.

Visual compositions are also impressive, with characters often tastefully framed through an appropriately chilly palette that’s heavy on the blues and greys.

News footage, often done so badly in bigger budget films, is very convincing here and a couple of scenes are brilliantly effective through ideas and execution alone, rather than expensive graphics.

The electronic score by Fall on Your Sword is perhaps the joker in the pack – a pulsating melange of beats and hooks that fits the film perfectly, giving it unexpected shifts in mood and pace.

Shot in and around New Haven, Connecticut for a reported budget of under $200,000, this represents a significant commercial and artistic achievement, which was why it was one of the big breakout hits at Sundance earlier this year with Fox Searchlight swiftly acquiring the rights.

Since the collapse of the indie film bubble in 2008, Sundance in recent times has rediscovered its original spirit by providing a welcome platform for films like Winter’s Bone, Exit Through The Gift Shop, Senna and Martha Marcy May Marlene.

All of these didn’t come off the studio production line, nor were they vanity projects looking for faux-indie credibility or a bidding war studios would later regret.

Another Earth is a good example of a modern Sundance success – a genuine independent that has broken through to the mainstream by force of its ideas and execution alone.

In an age where genre movies are designed to please carefully targeted demographics, this feels suitably fresh.

I’ll close by mentioning that it features one of the most effective closing shots of any film in recent memory.

> Official site
> Reviews at MUBi and Metacritic