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DVD & Blu-ray Festivals London Film Festival

The London Film Festival 2015

This year’s London film festival featured many high profile films primed for the awards season, yet many other delights were to be found.


The opening night gala Suffragette (Dir. Sarah Gavron) was a solid portrayal of how English activists fought to secure votes for women. Carey Mulligan was impressive in the lead role of Maud Watts, but there was all too brief cameo by Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst and the direction by Sarah Gavron from Abi Morgan’s script felt a bit pre-packaged at times.

The effective tension of the climatic scene at Epsom Derby was somewhat lacking throughout the rest of the film. Although the core issues of this film are still undeniably vital, it doesn’t ultimately do them justice and feels too much like an undercooked BBC television drama.


A superior issue-based film was Trumbo (Dir. Jay Roach) which managed to deftly combine history and politics of a later era, namely the blacklisting of Hollywood screenwriters during the 1950s through the figure of Dalton Trumbo. In the title role Bryan Cranston does an excellent job, bringing charisma and a surprisingly comic edge, given the travails Trumbo and his family had to endure during the Hollywood blacklist period.

It also takes risks (which mostly pay off) by showing iconic Hollywood figures of the period, like Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) and John Wayne (David James Elliott), which along with Jay Roach’s intelligent direction make this one to look out for.


One might suspect a documentary about British comedian Russell Brand’s rise to fame might be a PR exercise, but Brand: A Second Coming (Dir. Ondi Timoner) was anything but. Charting his early life and later rise to fame, from UK TV shows to moderate Hollywood success, radio infamy with the Sachsgate affair and later YouTube political activism, this is a fairly riotous affair, skilfully weaving news footage and more intimate interviews.

Surprisingly, Brand has distanced himself from the project, saying he was uncomfortable watching it when it premiered at SXSW in March. Perhaps it was the raw depictions of his personal life that he didn’t like. But this is far from a hatchet job, rather a skilful portrait of a media figure, balancing his somewhat  with a raw honesty and a wry wit.


Since the advent of digital cinema and smartphones, the possibility of shooting an entire feature film with a camera in your pocket has felt tantalising close for indie directors. That dream now seems to have fully arrived with Tangerine (Dir. Sean S. Baker), a low-budget film shot on iPhone 5S, with special lens adapters. It is the tale of a transgender prostitute (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), just out of jail, who discovers from her friend (Mya Taylor), that her boyfriend/pimp (James Ransone) has cheated on her.

The resulting film is an energetic romp around nocturnal LA which uses the limitations of its budget wisely to create a film which made a splash at Sundance and the festival circuit. Performances are good all around and actually helped by the use of non-professional actors, which lend it a lot of charm and authenticity. The next challenge for director Baker is whether he will be able to repeat this winning formula on a bigger canvas.


One of the most extraordinary films of the year, perhaps the decade, was Beasts of No Nation (Dir. Cary Fukunaga) – a devastating portrait of child soldiers in war-torn West Africa. It follows the young Agu (an astonishing Abraham Attah) on his journey from innocent boyhood to gradual brutalisation as he comes under the sinister influence of a self-styled ‘Commandant’ (a brilliant Idris Elba).

Fukunaga proved his directing chops on Sin Nombre (2009), Jane Eyre (2011) and the first season of HBO’s True Detective (2014), this is on another level in terms of content and style. Shot with a stark realism – aside from a few memorable deviations – this is a highly absorbing piece, layered with stunning technical work and horrific sequences shot on location in Ghana. Although it bears some similarity to Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s Johnny Mad Dog (2008), this is essential viewing.


There can often be interesting talks and events at the London Film Festival and for me the highlight this year was Screen Talk: Christopher Nolan & Tacita Dean & 35mm: Quay Brothers Meet…. A two-part event at NFT1, the first section was a lengthy discussion about the merits of shooting and projecting on celluloid film (especially 35mm and 70mm). As you might expect, Nolan gave a passionate and convincing case for the format he loves, going into detail about the benefits of shooting on film.

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Dean was equally effusive, as an artist who has worked in film her whole life. The panel could have benefitted with a digital advocate, perhaps Tangerine’s director Sean S. Baker, but nonetheless was an absorbing experience. The second part, three avant-garde shorts by the Quay Brothers introduced by Nolan, was more curious. One in particular sounded like a 10 minute loop of a helicopter exploding.


Sometimes it is easy to forget the simple pleasures of a solid, well-made documentary and Hitchcock/Truffaut (Dir. Kent Jones) didn’t disappoint on this score. An admirable compression of the lengthy interviews the two iconic directors conducted in 1962, it also managed to include sterling contributions from contemporary directors such as Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Wes Anderson, David Fincher, Arnaud Desplechin, and Olivier Assayas.

A feast for cinephiles, both the choice of archive material and editing were all excellent. It would be fascinating if Jones could somehow make a series for pay TV or VOD platform that utilised the full interviews. Although the original interviews go into considerable depth about Hitchcock, the choice of questions by Truffaut are also revealing about the French director, who had only made three films at this point in his career.


The success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) prompted a mini-boom of graceful martial arts films (also known as ‘wuxia’) such as Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004). The Assassin (Dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien) is part of this tradition of filmmaking, telling the story of a female assassin (an excellent Shu Qi) recruited to kill a key member of a rival dynasty.

It subverts the genre by introducing a slower pace with longer edits, minimal dialogue and a square frame (1:37 aspect ratio) which often makes characters look surrounded by the landscapes of 8th century China. A gorgeous film to sink in to with stunning costume work and production design, director Hou Hsiao-Hsien has created a sensory feast. A polite warning: ignore anyone who says this film is ‘boring’ or ’too slow’. It richly deserves the prizes and praise it has collected since premiering at Cannes in May.


Although partly inspired by grim real life events Room (Dir. Lenny Abrahamson) is a brave and incredibly moving film. Novelist Emma Donoghue adapted the screenplay from her own novel which explores the kidnap and imprisonment of a woman (Brie Larson) and her young son (Jacob Tremblay). Potentially difficult themes are sensitively handled, with director and writer providing a solid platform for the main actors to do some terrific work.

Larson and Tremblay are both extraordinary, bringing a range of emotions to their roles: the former builds on her excellent work in Short Term 12 (2013) whilst the latter gives one of the best child performances in years. It is amazing how several sequences wring out such tension in enclosed spaces and seemingly regular locations. A tough watch, but a rich and rewarding one that shows that smaller, independent films can still pack a real punch.


Among the film-related documentaries to show at the festival was Listen to Me Marlon (Dir. Stevan Riley), a startling portrait of acting icon Marlon Brando. In form and content this film is impeccable, brilliantly blending Brando’s own personal audio tapes with archive footage and stylish recreation of locations. For those who only remember Brando as the sad, reclusive figure of his later years, this film is essential viewing.

Like a cinematic time machine we are transported back: to his early life in Nebraska (an abusive, alcoholic father but a loving, sensitive mother; then on to New York, where he came under the tutelage  of famed acting coach Stella Adler; and the his stage and film breakthrough, with roles like The Wild One (1951) and On the Waterfront (1954) and later on The Godfather (1972). His seismic impact on acting and culture is well conveyed and the later tragedies of his life are handled with sensitivity and tact.


In a world of overblown franchises and dark arthouse material, audiences hungry for more elegant fare are often left feeling empty handed. However, the virtues of simplicity are evident in  Brooklyn (Dir. John Crowley), a skilfully crafted tale of immigration and love. Set amidst the contrasting landscapes 1950s rural Ireland and the New York borough of Brooklyn, screenwriter Nick Hornby and director John Crowley powerfully bring to life Colm Toibin’s novel with care and affection.

This is aided by some convincing production design by François Séguin on a relatively low budget and the excellent costume work by Odile Dicks-Mireaux. But the real heart of this film is the acting, most notably Saoirse Ronan in the lead role as a woman torn between two lives but, also from Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent and Emory Cohen. A polished jewel of a film and one of the highlights of the year, let alone the festival.


Horror is a genre that has badly lost its way in recent times, from the endless slew of torture-porn to more smarty pants hipster work. But a new and striking wakeup call was The Witch (Dir. Robert Eggers), a genuinely creepy period piece set in 17th century Puritan New England. When a family is banished from their home village they are forced to survive in a sinister wood where mysterious things start to happen.

Although there are shades of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968) and Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009), this retains its own distinctive flavour. What makes this debut from Eggers so interesting is that it eschews obvious cliche and instead uses suggestion, soundscapes and realistic touches. Grounded performances and excellent location shooting also made this another festival highlight.


An interesting hybrid of drama and comedy Youth (Dir. Paolo Sorrentino) is another fine example of the the kind of delicious cinematic banquet served up by Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino. The setting is a Swiss health spa, where a famous conductor (Michael Caine) contemplates his life, amongst a variety of fellow guests (including Harvey Keitel, Paul Dano and Rachel Weisz) and the backdrop of the Swiss Alps.

In a way this is a departure for the director, with none of the masterful intensity of Il Divo (2008) or the boozy magnificence of The Great Beauty (2013). However, the more muted and elegiac tone here is offset by some terrific performances (Caine in his best role for years) and the usual technical excellence Sorrentino and his crew provide. Whilst the film may divide audiences, alienating those who want a quick hit, this felt like something that may grow in stature as the years go by.


Stop frame animation got a new jolt with Anomalisa (Dir. Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson), screened in this year’s surprise slot. The problem in describing this marvellously inventive work is that there are few comparisons to turn to. As someone who generally agrees with the ‘Every thing is a remix’ idea (i.e. that no film can be 100% original, this stretched that notion to breaking point. The story depicts the stay of a successful but melancholy writer (voiced by David Thewlis) at a motel in Cincinnati, where he meets a woman (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) who he connects with.

From the first frame to the last, one is struck with the craft and inventiveness on display. The dialogue, voice acting (including one treat I won’t spoil) and overall look of the film is stunning. In its own way this is ambitious as Kaufman’s last film – Synecdoche, New York (2008) – but perhaps Duke Johnson has helped add a slightly lighter tone to proceedings. There are scenes in this film which are as funny and truthful as any in recent memory.


Sometimes a film can be so audacious in content and style that it leaves you mentally exhausted. This one-take film Victoria (Dir. Sebastian Schipper) is just that, a heist movie which gloriously upends the genre. When a young woman (Laia Costa) is approached by a group of men as she leaves a Berlin nightclub, she doesn’t realise the long and eventful night ahead of her. Although, the narrative takes time to build (and hinges on on some implausible moments) it is well worth the ride.

Although there is no conventional editing, cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen and director Schipper constructed a fluid shooting style that not only works like editing but also feels true to the story. It goes without saying the actors and crew all contribute to this exercise, but Costa here is the standout. A lot rests on her shoulders as the main character and she delivers with flying colours in what is a remarkable achievement.


The closing night gala Steve Jobs (Dir. Danny Boyle) was a mixed bag – a technically impressive work, undermined by a  misguided and flawed screenplay. It presents the life of Steve Jobs in three acts: the launch of the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT system in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. Each segment in shot on different formats (16mm, 35mm and digital), which gives them a distinctive flavour, and a neat way of showing how technology progresses.

However, Aaron Sorkin’s script is the elephant in the room. Not only does it have a highly selective approach to Jobs personal and professional life but is so littered with outright inaccuracies that the whole enterprise comes crashing down. The lead actors all do their best but sequences involving Jeff Daniels and Seth Rogen border on the utterly ludicrous and there is no mention of cancer (the disease which killed Jobs) or Apple’s most iconic product, the iPhone. Of course screenwriters must compress, but here Sorkin took several liberties and in doing so wasted a golden opportunity, because the material he omitted was much more interesting.


> Official website for the 2015 London Film Festival
> Past winners of the Sutherland Trophy at Wikipedia

Categories
Interesting Technology

Steve Jobs PBS Interview from 1990

PBS have posted a a rare 1990 video interview with Steve Jobs.

With news that another interview with late Apple boss has surfaced in a garage in London, it makes for fascinating viewing.

Filmed during his time at NeXT, he talks about his early experiences with computers at NASA, network computing, the desktop publishing revolution of the 1980s and his vision for the future (which, as we now know, was prescient).

Although regarded as a costly failure at the time, in hindsight NeXT was essentially research and development for Jobs’ second stint at Apple.

Watch An Interview With Steve Jobs on PBS. See more from NOVA.

A transcript of the interview is here.

The video is taken from unedited rushes for the PBS series The Machine That Changed the World, which aired in five parts in 1992.

> Steve Jobs 1955-2011
> More about computing at Wikipedia

Categories
Interesting Technology

Walter Isaacson on 60 Mins

Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Steve Jobs came out today and 60 Mins did a recent interview with the author, which included sound clips of the late Apple boss.

I’ve already started reading the book and although some of it has been leaked, there are some incredible insights and details.

Here is Part 1:

Part 2:

Overtime segment:

> Buy the Walter Isaacson book in Hardback or Kindle
> Steve Jobs 1955-2011
> More on the history of Pixar

Categories
News Technology

Steve Jobs 1955-2011

The co-founder and former CEO of Apple died yesterday at the age of 56.

It says much about the impact of Steve Jobs on technology and culture that news of his death made headlines around the world.

Last night as the news broke my Twitter feed lit up with tributes (including the above logo by designer Jonathan Mak) and perhaps his true legacy lies in the fact that many of those tributes were written on devices made by his company.

When he stood down as CEO in August, Apple lost an inspirational leader who helped create it in the 1970s, save it in the late 1990s and then engineer one of the most remarkable corporate turnarounds in history.

As one of the key players in the computer revolution of the last forty years, he has played an instrumental role in how we use technical devices, listen to music and watch entertainment.

His first period at Apple (1976-1985) saw him co-found a company which helped introduce the idea of graphics based computing into the mainstream.

The three-part PBS documentary Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires (1996) gives some background to the revolutionary industry of which Apple was a part:

After being fired by the man he hired to run the company, he founded NeXT, a company which aimed to produce workstations for businesses and higher education.

This demo video featuring Jobs from 1987 shows how it pioneered many things we now take for granted:

Most significantly, a NeXT Computer was used by Tim Berners-Lee in the early 1990s to create the first web browser and web server.

Around the same then bought part of the computer division of Lucasfilm and relaunched it as Pixar in 1986.

One of the most significant entertainment companies to emerge in the modern era, they used computers to make animated blockbusters such as Toy Story (1995) and Finding Nemo (2003).

In 1996 Jobs and John Lasseter described the history of Pixar on the Charlie Rose show and what they were trying to do with the company:

This profile of Jobs from the same year focuses on his career up to that point and features a particularly obnoxious news presenter (note the key quote from Jobs when he says: “Apple still has a future”):

After paying Lucas $5m for it in the mid 1980s, he eventually sold it to Disney for $7.4 billion after an unprecedented run of critical and commercial hits.

This alone would have made him a key figure in the entertainment and technology worlds, but in 1997 he made a dramatic return to Apple, which was then in dire trouble.

Restoring the core computing products to their former glories he made bold moves into the music and film industries with the iTunes store, revolutionised how we listen to music with the iPod and reshaped mobile computing with the iPhone and iPad.

Since 2005, Apple’s revenues have grown enormously, to the point where this summer it surpassed oil giant Exxon Mobil as the most valuable company in the world.

In recent years health issues have cast a shadow over Jobs, as he survived pancreatic cancer in 2004 and a liver transplant in 2009.

After his first bout of cancer he gave this memorable commencement speech to Stanford University in 2005:

In January of this year he embarked on an extended leave of absence, despite making key public announcements and being involved in key strategic decisions.

His last public appearence was this proposal to his local city council for a new Apple Campus on Tuesday, June 7th:

When the news was announced back in August about Jobs resigning, it made headlines around the world and was the end of an era.

Obituaries have been published at the New York Times and Wired, whilst Laughing Squid and Walt Mossberg have nice tributes.

> Steve Jobs at Wikipedia
> Details on the forthcoming authorised biography of Jobs
> Bloomberg video profile of Jobs (48 mins)

Categories
Interesting

The History of Pixar

This 2005 discussion at the Computer History Museum gathered together some of the key figures behind Pixar.

Moderated by Michael Rubin, author of Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution, it features:

  • Ed Catmull (Co-Founder and President, Pixar Animation Studios)
  • Brad Bird (Writer/Director, The Incredibles)
  • Alvy Ray Smith (Co-Founder of four centers of computer graphics excellence: Altamira, Pixar, Lucasfilm, New York Tech)
  • Andrew Stanton (Writer/ Director, Finding Nemo)
Running at 1 hour and 41 minutes, it is a great discussion about the history, ethos and working methods of the company.

These days it is perhaps easy to overlook the extraordinary developments in computer animation over the last 30 years, but listening to these guys is a reminder of the hard work and application that went into the studios work.

With all the news and commentary about Steve Jobs stepping down as Apple’s CEO, it is worth remembering how visionary he was in buying a computer graphics division of Lucasfilm and helping it become a major animation studio.

Understandably, he will always be remembered more for Apple but the history of Pixar is also a fantastic story which encompasses how the digital revolution in computing shaped how we see movies.

It is worth remembering that Jobs first became a billionaire because of Pixar, not Apple.

The roots of what would become Pixar began when George Lucas was having problems with visual effects on the original Star Wars films – for example, the opening shot of Star Wars (1977) took eight months.

Visual effects were traditionally done using methods that involved models and optical printers, but Lucas wanted to hire people who could use the power of computers to help make the process easier.

This episode of Horizon from 1985 shows how visual effects were done on the original Star Wars films:

Lucas hired Ed Catmull, who was in charge of the computer division at Lucasfilm and Alvy Ray Smith became head of the graphics project there.

In the early 1980s they worked on films which were either produced by Lucasfilm or involved the effects arm of Industrial Light & Magic, most notably Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) which both featured ground breaking use of computers in specific visual effects shots.

When Jobs purchased the company in 1986 and renamed it Pixar, he was essentially buying the most advanced computer animation research group in the world.

One of the founding members was John Lasseter and in 2009 he told me what the goal was in those early days:

“Pixar originally was not an animation studio but a computer company. But we did computer animation research and our goal was to one day do a feature film using this technology. But were were developing – inventing – much of computer animation at Pixar. So we then got a deal with Disney to develop a feature film, which turned out to be Toy Story. It was a huge hit and ushered in an age of computer animation.”

Production on the first Toy Story began in 1991, which was a landmark year for visual effects and animation as both Terminator 2 and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast both made heavy use of advances in computer technology.

Four years later when Toy Story eventually came out in 1995, it was the world’s first full-length computer 3D animated and rendered motion picture.

It began a decade of incredible critical and commercial success with films such as A Bug’s Life (1998), Toy Story 2 (1999), Monsters, Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003), The Incredibles (2004), Cars (2006), Ratatouille (2007), WALL-E (2008), Up (2009) and Toy Story 3 (2010).

The final Toy Story film last year became the highest-grossing animated film of all time.

Part of the genius of the company has been to match technical innovation with high standards of writing and storytelling.

In early 2006 Disney officially acquired Pixar for $7.4 billion with Steve Jobs becoming the largest single shareholder, whilst John Lasseter became Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Feature Animation.

The $10 million investment Jobs made in Pixar back in 1986 had yielded a profit of $7.3 billion, but also a priceless legacy for animated film.

> Pixar
> The Pixar Touch by David A Price at Amazon UK
> John Lasseter on the history of Pixar in 2009
> Angus MacLane on WALL-E in 2008
> Emotional story about Pixar’s Up
> CNN story from 1995 about the release of Toy Story

Categories
News Technology

Steve Jobs resigns as Apple CEO

It says a lot about Steve Jobs that his resignation from Apple has sent waves throughout the worlds of technology and entertainment.

As one of the key players in the computer revolution of the last forty years, he has played an instrumental role in how we use technical devices, listen to music and watch entertainment.

His first period at Apple (1976-1985) saw him co-found a company which helped introduce the idea of graphics based computing into the mainstream.

The three-part PBS documentary Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires (1996) gives some background to the revolutionary industry of which Apple was a part:

After being fired by the man he hired to run the company, he founded NeXT, a company which aimed to produce workstations for businesses and higher education.

This demo video featuring Jobs from 1987 shows how it pioneered many things we now take for granted:

Most significantly, a NeXT Computer was used by Tim Berners-Lee in the early 1990s to create the first web browser and web server.

Around the same then bought part of the computer division of Lucasfilm and relaunched it as Pixar in 1986.

One of the most significant entertainment companies to emerge in the modern era, they used computers to make animated blockbusters such as Toy Story (1995) and Finding Nemo (2003).

In 1996 Jobs and John Lasseter described the history of Pixar on the Charlie Rose show and what they were trying to do with the company:

This profile of Jobs from the same year focuses on his career up to that point and features a particularly obnoxious news presenter (note the key quote from Jobs when he says: “Apple still has a future”):

After paying Lucas $5m for it in the mid 1980s, he eventually sold it to Disney for $7.4 billion after an unprecedented run of critical and commercial hits.

This alone would have made him a key figure in the entertainment and technology worlds, but in 1997 he made a dramatic return to Apple, which was then in dire trouble.

Restoring the core computing products to their former glories he made bold moves into the music and film industries with the iTunes store, revolutionised how we listen to music with the iPod and reshaped mobile computing with the iPhone and iPad.

Since 2005, Apple’s revenues have grown enormously, to the point where this month it surpassed oil giant Exxon Mobil as the most valuable company in the world.

In recent years health issues have cast a shadow over Jobs, as he survived pancreatic cancer in 2004 and a liver transplant in 2009.

After his first bout of cancer he gave this memorable commencement speech to Stanford University in 2005:

In January of this year he embarked on an extended leave of absence, despite making key public announcements and being involved in key strategic decisions.

His last public appearence was this proposal to his local city council for a new Apple Campus on Tuesday, June 7th:

When the news was announced earlier today about Jobs resigning, it made headlines around the world.

> Steve Jobs at Wikipedia
> Details on the forthcoming authorised biography of Jobs
> Bloomberg video profile of Jobs (48 mins)

Categories
Amusing Technology

Steve Jobs introduces the Death Star

If Steve Jobs introduced the Death Star, then it really would sound like this video mash up.

The George Lucas connection here is that Jobs bought the computer animation division of Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light and Magic in 1986, renamed the new company Pixar and the rest is history.

[Link via Adam Buxton]

Categories
Animation Interesting

Steve Jobs and John Lasseter discuss Pixar in 1996

Back in October 1996 Steve Jobs and John Lasseter went on The Charlie Rose Show to discuss Pixar and the future of animated film.

A little bit of background: Jobs bought the animation division of ILM from George Lucas in 1986, renamed it Pixar and in 1995 their first feature length movie Toy Story began an incredible run of acclaimed animated blockbusters; Lasseter was the creative chief who directed A Bug’s Life (1998), Toy Story 2 (1999) and Cars (2006) whilst also serving as executive producer on Monsters, Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo(2003) and The Incredibles (2004), Ratatouille (2007) and WALL-E (2008).

The interview is fascinating in retrospect because it was only a few months before Jobs returned to Apple (the computer company he had co-founded in 1976) and began the great renaissance that gave the world the iMac, the iPod and the iPhone.

Just a decade after the following interview was recorded, Pixar was bought by Disney in early 2006 for $7.4 billion – Jobs became the largest individual shareholder and Lasseter was appointed Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Feature Animation.

Watch it in full below:

Categories
Amusing Random

Lookalikes: Steve Jobs and Michael Haneke

The man on the left is the co-founder & CEO of Apple and Pixar, whilst the man on the right is the director of The White Ribbon.

Both are very talented and share a penchant for black turtle necks and mean beards.

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