Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Best and Worst of 2009

In previous years, I haven't done my best and worst list until the very end of December, but I've decided to call time on 2009 a little early this time around. I've also decided not to do my customary review of the year and to go straight to the Best Of lists, and this is because my review of the decade is just around the corner. Between now and the end of the year, I'm going to be looking back at everything that has happened on screen since the year 2000, and listing my own personal favourites, as well as announcing my take on the very worst the decade had to offer. Until then, consider this my final word on 2009.

Best Film

1 – Antichrist
A staggering work of art
2 – Love Exposure
Love Exposure may be twice as long as the average movie, but it's also twice as good

3 – Up
It is, quite simply, an astounding filmmaking achievement
4 – The Hurt Locker
Kathryn Bigelow takes control of this material and plays it out it in a masterly fashion
5 – The Class
There's hardly a single moment in The Class that doesn't feel completely authentic and organic
6 – A Christmas Tale
A Christmas Tale is bursting with ideas, incident and feeling
7 – Avatar

Avatar is a stunning film, and it deserves to be huge
8 – Wendy and Lucy
Everything about Wendy and Lucy feels natural and true
9 - The White Ribbon
Even by this filmmaker's intimidating standards, this is a stunningly well-made film
10 – Sugar
So superior to Boden and Fleck's previous effort, it's hard to believe that we're talking about the same filmmakers

Honourable Mentions
35 Shots of Rum
Bright Star
Fish Tank
Il Divo
In the Loop

Public Enemies
A Serious Man
Two Lovers

Worst Film

1 – The Spirit
The Spirit is empty of any logic, feeling or intelligence; it is visually and morally ugly
2 – The Reader
This is crass, manipulative bullshit

3 – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
This is, by any measure, rubbish
4 – Crank: High Voltage
A sequel few people really wanted, and nobody really needed
5 – The Taking of Pelham, 123

How bereft of imagination this boring, unpleasant film is
6 – Rage
A silly and self-indulgent cinematic experiment
7 – Observe and Report
Nothing more than an empty provocation

8 – Paper Heart
A horribly twee faux-documentary starring the irritating Charlyne Yi
9 – Hannah Takes the Stairs
Unremarkable and faintly tedious
10 – Watchmen

Watchmen is so concerned with matching the look and feel of the comic, it has no life of its own

Dishonourable Mentions

Just Another Love Story

Monsters v Aliens
Rachel Getting Married

Revolutionary Road
Sherlock Holmes
Tony Manero
Where the Wild Things Are

Best Director

James Cameron – Avatar
Lars von Trier – Antichrist
Kathryn Bigelow – The Hurt Locker
Pete Docter and Bob Peterson – Up
Arnaud Desplechin – A Christmas Tale

Best Actor

Jeremy Renner – The Hurt Locker
Sam Rockwell – Moon
Willem Dafoe – Antichrist
Christoph Waltz – Inglourious Basterds
Peter Capaldi – In the Loop

Best Actress

Charlotte Gainsbourg – Antichrist
Hikari Mitsushima – Love Exposure
Michelle Williams – Wendy and Lucy
Kim Ok-bin – Thirst

Abbie Cornish – Bright Star

Best Supporting Actor

Michael Fassbender – Inglourious Basterds/Fish Tank
Anthony Mackie – The Hurt Locker
Paul Schneider – Bright Star
Stephen Lang – Avatar

Gérard Depardieu – Mesrine: Killer Instinct

Best Supporting Actress

Mélanie Laurent – Inglourious Basterds
Rosemarie Dewitt – Rachel Getting Married
Marion Cotillard – Public Enemies
Sakura Ando – Love Exposure
Marisa Tomei – The Wrestler

Best Original Screenplay

In the Loop
The Hurt Locker

Bright Star

Best Adapted Screenplay

The Class
Wendy and Lucy
Let the Right One In
The Damned United


Best Cinematography

The White Ribbon
A Serious Man

The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds

Best Editing

The Hurt Locker
The White Ribbon

A Serious Man

Best Original Score

Bright Star

Broken Embraces
A Christmas Tale

Best Costume Design

Bright Star
Public Enemies
A Serious Man
Broken Embraces

Best Production Design

A Serious Man
The White Ribbon
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Public Enemies

Best Cinema Experience of 2009

The Red Shoes in a stunning new restoration at the NFT
Avatar in IMAX 3D
Antichrist at a raucous midnight preview screening
Barry Lyndon seen in a new print on the big screen for the first time
Love Exposure as the four hours absolutely flew by

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Review - Avatar

It has been almost twelve years since James Cameron brandished his Oscar statuette and declared himself "King of the World". It was a moment of remarkable hubris, but who could deny that the director has earned the right to make such an arrogant gesture? He had staked everything on Titanic, and won. The film looked certain to sink his career as the production ballooned beyond its original budget and schedule, and when it appeared in cinemas in December 1997 – a three-hour romance with no stars and a downbeat ending – it looked like the punchline to a bad joke. $1.8 billion and 11 Oscars later, Cameron had the last laugh. So it should come as no surprise to see Cameron confounding the naysayers once again with Avatar, his years-in-the-making adventure, which has been dogged by wild speculation and predictions of failure in the months leading up to its release. He has gambled and won once again. Avatar is a stunning film, and it deserves to be huge.

The King of the World has now become a creator of worlds, setting Avatar on the alien planet Pandora, which he has brought to life in amazing detail. It is a vividly realised environment unlike anything I have ever seen before, with every aspect of the planet's flora and fauna feeling like it has been clearly thought-out and is a key part of a gorgeous whole. From the floating mountain ranges around which the climactic battle takes place, to the tiny plants that spin into the air and glow when touched, Pandora is a visual feast from top to bottom, and Cameron lets us feel as if we are a part of it too, with the most immersive use of 3D I have ever experienced. You feel like you can reach out and grab what the onscreen characters are touching, and it plays a huge part in drawing the viewer into the story; a story that, despite all of the cutting-edge technology on display, is resolutely old-fashioned.

Pandora is home to the Na'vi, a peaceful race of blue, 10-foot tall creatures whose spiritual lives are deeply intertwined with the natural world around them. Their home is also the sole source of Unobtanium, a precious mineral that may provide the answer to Earth's energy problems, which is why a mining corporation and squadron of gung-ho marines have established a base there. Dr Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) has developed a programme that involves humans mentally controlling alien avatars, who can travel freely among the native population, learning from their culture and building bridges between the civilisations. This is the programme that paraplegic ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) signs up for, but Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) has other ideas for Jake. The corporation is getting impatient with Grace's diplomatic approach, and Quaritch wants Jake to act as a spy, gaining the Na'vi's trust and reporting back with information that will aid the inevitable attack.

Avatar's backstory is explained in the film's opening twenty minutes, although Cameron has to resort to some dodgy storytelling tricks in order to do so. Poor old Giovanni Ribisi suffers most in this regard, being forced to engage in an exchange with Weaver that acts as a laughably clumsy lump of exposition. Throughout Avatar, Cameron's writing – in terms of his storytelling and his political points – lacks a degree of grace and subtlety, and his penchant for cheesy dialogue is frequently exposed, but in his broad-strokes way he does quickly shape the film into a compelling and surprisingly thoughtful adventure. As soon as Jake makes his first trip to Pandora's surface, the film finds a momentum that Cameron rarely allows to lapse. When he meets Neytiri (Zoë Saldana), the beating heart of Avatar flickers into life, and between them, these two characters give the film an emotional backbone that pays dividends in the final hour.

That's the great thing about Cameron. He has all of this incredible technology at his disposal, some of which he and his team invented during the course of the shoot, but you never feel like he is simply showing off his new toys; every piece of equipment at his disposal is there to serve the narrative. He may be a fairly blunt storyteller, but he is also an absolutely sincere one, who doesn't lose sight of the fact that the characters are the key here, not the effects. The performance-capture technique has been taken to a new level as well, allowing the actors to breathe a real sense of life into the giant blue creatures they portray. Worthington is nicely grounded as Jake, while Saldana is marvellous as Neytiri, appearing to be far more animated here than the real thing was in the recent Star Trek. The strength of these performances and characterisations is vital to help us drop any scepticism we may initially have about their rather outlandish appearance, and to simply buy into the story. Avatar really makes us care about what is happening to the Na'vi and their world, which is an achievement that is beyond mere technology.

What happens to them is a "shock and awe" campaign led by Quaritch, a terrific villain who is played by Lang as a cross between Dr Strangelove's Buck Turgidson and Apocalypse Now's Kilgore. The stage is set for an almighty climactic battle, which once again proves that Cameron knows how to bring a film to a close like few other directors. There are numerous exciting set-pieces in Avatar (Jake's escape from a rampaging beast, or his attempt to tame a flying creature) but they are mere teasers for the extraordinary finale. Quite simply, Cameron is a master at directing action sequences, and his orchestration of Avatar's various battles is magnificent. These sequences are dynamic and thrilling, frequently occurring on multiple planes of action simultaneously, but there is never a hint of confusion in Cameron's work. He directs and edits with absolute clarity and maximum tension. I can't remember the last time I was as excited and involved in a Hollywood blockbuster as I was in the last 45 minutes of this one.

Ultimately, perhaps that's what I love most about Avatar, the fact that it is a massive, effects-heavy blockbuster movie that dares to be different. It is not a sequel or a prequel, it's not a remake or a reboot. This is something new; a genuinely ambitious attempt to push the boundaries of what is possible in cinema while still providing a mass audience with an entertainment that is both action-packed and politically and socially engaged. On almost every level, I'd say Cameron succeeds, and he has instantly set an intimidating new benchmark for blockbuster filmmaking, which few will have the imagination or the sheer audacity to challenge. Will Avatar change the face of cinema? Only time will tell, and right now I just know two things to be true – this is one of the best films of the year, and James Cameron is still King of the World.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Review - Where the Wild Things Are

Can you make a feature film out of a children's book that tells its slim story in less than forty pages, using only ten sentences of dialogue in the process? It's possible, sure, but maybe I should change the first word of that question to Should rather than Can. Not every work of literature needs a cinematic adaptation, and Maurice Sendak's seminal Where the Wild Things Are – which has delighted generations of kids thanks to the simplicity of its storytelling, its dark undertones, and the beauty of its images – has spent almost two decades being pushed and pulled through the Hollywood machine, as various parties tried to find some way of translating the magic to the screen. This poisoned chalice eventually fell to Spike Jonze, who began working with novelist Dave Eggers on the screenplay in 2005. Four years and $100 million later, the film has finally limped into cinemas bearing the scars of a deeply troubled production. There is little magic to be found here; the whole thing just feels so terribly tired.

The deflating disappointment of
Where the Wild Things Are rather crept up on me, as the opening sets the scene perfectly. There's a painful honesty to the sight of 10 year-old Max (newcomer Max Records) playing alone in the snow, being ignored by his sister and left in tears when a group of older kids gang up on him. With his intimate, handheld camerawork, Jonze captures the loneliness, the fear, and the need of a parent's embrace that defines so much of our childhood's most emotionally turbulent passages. It's a brilliant and affecting sequence, as is the subsequent scene in which Max is comforted by his mother (Catherine Keener), who is herself struggling under the pressures of work. These moments feel so honest and real that it comes as a genuine shock when Max's pre-dinner tantrum escalates into a physical confrontation with his mother, prompting him to run out of the house and into the night.

Max races away from suburbia, into the woods, and he stumbles upon an abandoned boat, which he uses to explore further. After get lost somewhere in the vast expanse of water he sails into, Max finally locates an island, and clambers towards the mysterious lights and sounds emanating from the island's centre. This, it appears, is where the Wild Things are, and Max initially watches from the shadows as the beasts lumber around arguing and smashing their surroundings. The Wild Things themselves are beautiful creations, and thanks to Jonze's use of puppetry rather than CGI, they have a real physical presence and weight. Jonze and his crew have done a wonderful job of bringing Sendak's creations to cinematic life; I just wish they had made them a little more interesting. The Wild Things all seem to have sprung from different aspects of Max's personality, so Carol (James Gandolfini) represents his destructive nature, KW (Lauren Ambrose) is his compassionate side, Alexander (Paul Dano) is the timid, nervous side of Max, and so on, but they're one-note characterisations, who struggle to hold the viewers' interest.

The other major problem
Where the Wild Things Are has is that, for over an hour, nothing happens. Sure, the Wild Things, having appointed Max as their king, spend a lot of time smashing trees and building a fort, before their idyllic existence is undermined by petty squabbles and jealousies, but there simply isn't enough content here for a 90-minute film. The story just plods along down its meandering, repetitive path, and I'm not sure exactly what Jonze and Eggers are trying to say with this oddly alienating picture. They even struggle to keep the film visually stimulating; the sight of Max and Carol strolling through a desert landscape is spectacular when we first see it, but less so on its subsequent appearances. After the superb and potential-filled opening sequence, the only other part of Where the Wild Things Are that truly resonates is its moving climax, but you have to slog through a lot of empty noisiness to reach this point. Where the Wild Things Are is ultimately a hodgepodge of ideas and conflicting agendas; it has been made with real love and care, but it's cripplingly unsure of its own intentions. It may prove to be simultaneously too strange for kids and too simplistic for adults to truly embrace, although I suspect viewers of all ages may find it similarly boring.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Review - Me and Orson Welles

Richard Linklater must have leapt for joy when he laid eyes on Christian McKay. The British actor, who makes his film debut here, is perfect for the part of Orson Welles, and without his remarkable effort Linklater wouldn't have much of a movie. As it stands, he still doesn't have much of a movie, because McKay's pitch-perfect impersonation is rather undermined by some stodgy storytelling and a disappointingly uneven collection of performances. It's the Me part of Me and Orson Welles that is the film's biggest problem, with erstwhile teen idol Zac Efron failing to convince in his step up to more serious roles. He plays theatre-mad Richard, who is wandering through the streets of New York one afternoon when he happens to find a crowd gathering outside the Mercury Theatre. Orson Welles is just about to stage his legendary Julius Caesar, and we get to see how it came together through the eyes of this awestruck 17 year-old.

If Linklater had chosen to focus
Me and Orson Welles solely on the Mercury production of Julius Caesar, then I would have been a very happy man indeed. After all, in Eddie Marsan (who plays John Houseman) and James Tupper (Joseph Cotton) he has two actors who are capable of going toe-to-toe with McKay's barnstorming Welles without looking like also-rans, and the story behind the production that helped cement Welles' reputation as a theatrical genius – as with most stories surrounding this man – is a fascinating one. There are times when the film manages to whip up some semblance of backstage magic, and these occasions normally feature McKay's Welles in full flow. As well as looking and sounding uncannily like the great man, McKay beautifully expresses the arrogance, charm, wit and rampaging ego of Welles. We see him capriciously altering stage directions and cutting scenes from the text; we see him telling various cast members that they're "God-created actors" one minute, and threatening to fire them the next. In short, we see him doing whatever it takes to bring his play, his vision, to the stage, and creating in the process an atmosphere of chaos, constantly teetering on the brink of destruction, which appeared to be a state that inspired him like no other.

So we've got Orson Welles directing
Julius Caesar – who the hell cares about the romantic longings of a soppy teenager? Yet Me and Orson Welles spends a considerable amount of time following Richard as he woos ambitious theatre assistant Sonja (Claire Danes), before facing the inevitable heartbreak. In the shadow of Welles, this storyline feels so insignificant that I was itching for Linklater to cut back to the main event every minute he spent away from it. Claire Danes is pretty and effective in a slim part, but Efron appears lost and incapable of registering any of the changes his character undergoes. Disappointingly, Linklater seems to take his cue from his young romantic lead rather than McKay, and his direction is uncharacteristically lifeless. Only in the depiction of Julius Caesar's nerve-wracking but triumphant opening night does he inject the film with some verve, and in these scenes the picture briefly captures just a hint of the electricity that must have filled the theatre that night. That's the only time Me and Orson Welles lives up to its subject, though. A potentially great story about burgeoning theatrical genius has been watered down into a dull coming-of-age tale – and dull is something that no film about this man, set during this period, should ever be.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Review - The Road

I started to fear for The Road almost as soon as it started. The film opens with sun-dappled images of content domesticity, which is as far from the post-apocalyptic landscape conjured by Cormac McCarthy as one could imagine, although my fears were largely misplaced. This deceptively upbeat introduction is nothing more than a dream of a life long lost, and the film abruptly cuts back to reality, as a traveller known only as The Man (Viggo Mortensen) awakes into a far more desolate and hostile environment. In truth, The Road is a fairly commendable adaptation of a difficult novel. John Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhall don't try to put a positive spin on the material, they avoid lapsing into sentimentality, they don't attempt to explain the cataclysmic event that lead to this point, and their atmospheric representation of the book's world is remarkable. Aside from the slight expansion of some pre-disaster scenes involving The Man's wife, the filmmakers stick slavishly to the source material, so we are left asking the puzzling question – why does material that was so vivid and engrossing on the page often feel so flat on screen?

The Road is a simple tale of love and survival. A man and his son (Mortensen and the talented newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee) wander through an ashen world, which has been forever altered by whatever disaster it was that bought mankind to the edge of extinction. All of their possessions can be contained within a single trolley, which they drag behind them as they move from one deserted location to the next, slowly heading southwards, towards the coast. The road they follow is fraught with peril, inhabited as it is by gangs of marauding cannibals, but the pair cling to the tiny sliver of hope that the coast provides, and to their own sense of humanity, in a world that seems to be without it. They're surrounded by darkness, but they're carrying the flame.

As written by McCarthy, The Road it is a harrowing experience, but thanks to the stark poetry of the author's language and the strength of the central relationship, it remains an oddly hopeful one. That core relationship is one thing the film gets unequivocally right, with Mortensen once again inhabiting his character – both physically and emotionally – with utter conviction. Bearded, emaciated and bedraggled, Mortensen plays The Man as a character who has gone past the limits of his endurance, but who is driven ceaselessly forward by the primal urge to protect his son, the only thing in the world he has left. Having been born into this world, The Boy has no knowledge of what came before, and he has retained a sense of innocence and naïveté. He is played in a refreshingly unaffected manner by Smit-McPhee, and between them, the two actors develop a powerfully authentic bond. In particular, Mortensen really makes us feel the unimaginable agony of a father who carries two bullets in his pistol, and who knows he may be forced to use one on his only son, to spare him from an even worse fate.

At one point, The Man holds the barrel of his pistol against The Boy's head and comes agonisingly close to pulling the trigger. This incident occurs during a particularly close shave with a group of cannibals, one of many set-pieces Hillcoat handles with confidence. In his previous film The Proposition, this Australian director proved himself skilled at establishing a richly involving atmosphere and at staging exciting, tense sequences; in fact, The Road is ultimately a collection of impressive standalone sequences. The filmmakers successfully portray The Man's relief when they stumble across a store full of supplies, or The Boy's perplexed delight at tasting a can of Coca-Cola (the first he has ever tasted). Likewise, there are great character turns along the way, with Michael K Williams giving appearing late on as a thief who is revealed to be every bit as desperate and vulnerable as the main protagonist, and Robert Duvall turning in an outstanding cameo as an elderly man they meet on the trail.

I can't help feeling that these moments never really cohere into a wholly satisfying film experience, though. In between those high points, The Road is sluggishly paced, and the flashbacks to The Man's past (in which Charlize Theron gives a perfectly fine, if superfluous, performance as his wife) are ill-advised additions that only serve to disrupt the film's momentum further. Other directorial choice are similarly counter-productive, with Mortensen's voiceover and the disappointing score failing to add anything of note to the package, and they all bear the hallmarks of a film that has struggled to find some way of expressing the depth and meaning of McCarthy's work in a truly filmic way. One always gets the sense that it's unfair to constantly compare a film adaptation to the book it has been adapted from, but what else can you say about a work that has not been made with enough imagination to allow it to take on a cinematic life of its own? It exists as a half-decent facsimile of a great novel, nothing more, and for all of its individually fine moments, Hillcoat's road ultimately leads nowhere.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

"I have treated myself as a commodity since day one and I made no bones about it" - An interview with Sasha Grey

Sasha Grey may be making her acting debut in Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience, but the 21 year-old hardly lacks experience in front of the camera. Since breaking into the adult industry at the age of 18, Grey has quickly emerged as one of porn's most popular stars, collecting a number of awards and shooting over 180 films in just three years. Now Grey is taking her first steps into the world of mainstream filmmaking with her impressive turn as a high-class escort in Soderbergh's low-budget experiment, and as I learned when I met her in London recently, she has no intention of stopping there.

One of the first things that's notable and perhaps surprising about The Girlfriend Experience is how little sex there is in the film. Was that a motivating factor for you, to make something that's a complete departure from the work you were doing previously?

I was just elated to have the chance to work with Steven, and when we met and he told me about the film, I just assumed there would be nudity, because it's a film about an escort. I thought, this is Steven Soderbergh, if I'm nude or if there are sex scenes they'll all be done in great taste and be done within the context of the film, so that was never a question for me, and had there been nudity then of course I would have done it. I didn't know even in the first few days of shooting, but as the shoot progressed I gathered that was the case, and I think he told somebody that he kind of decided that in the first few days of shooting as well.

How much of the story was on paper when you first read the script, and how much of it was developed throughout the course of the shoot?

The first time I met Steven was a year and a half before we shot, and all I knew was that this is a high-price escort who provides the girlfriend experience, she has a live-in boyfriend, and we know by the end of the film that she will leave her boyfriend. He compared it to the shooting style of Bubble, which I was a fan of, so it was easy for me to pull a reference from that, but we didn't get an outline until the evening before shooting, so each day was really different. It was really up to me to build a character journal, essentially, and share those notes with Steven, and say; "Do you think this is Chelsea? Does this sound like her?" But each day on set would be completely different, because the outline might say 'Chelsea meets with Client A', but exactly what we would talk about would be decided when we get to the set and look at the daily newspaper, to see what jumps out at you. I would always ask Steven before we shot a scene, "What is my objective here? What do I need to get across? Is there anything I must say in this scene?", and that's how it worked every day.

I have seen a quote from you in the past, when you said you are essentially being yourself during a porn shoot, and you don't distinguish between the person who's on camera and the person you are off screen. Here, you're playing a fictional character, Christine, who has herself created the persona of Chelsea, so what was it like to develop that?

That was exciting for me, because like I say, when I'm performing an adult scene I'm just a version of myself. You're never truly yourself, because I believe if you put a camera on somebody they're always going to act differently no matter what, so it's a version of myself, kind of like a hyper-me. I did theatre from the age of 12 to 18, so being able to step back into a role like this was a lot of fun for me. It was also great because we had so many people to talk to about the film, and a lot of the characters are actually based on real people that these escorts encountered on weekly or monthly basis.

So the escorts you met gave you a lot to feed into your characterisation?

Oh yeah, most definitely. Like you said, Christine has this persona of Chelsea, and both of the women I met said that when you meet these clients, you might not necessarily have the same opinions as these people, so they really have to adapt a new personality for each client. A lot of their clients are Republicans, so they have to find inventive ways to talk about politics or personal feelings and opinions in a safe way, essentially, so they don't offend anyone.

I found this whole idea of Chelsea's 'girlfriend experience' a fascinating one. It seems that buying that sense of intimacy is often more important to these guys than buying sex.

Right, and from interviewing the escorts and the people the writers interviewed, I think it's also the fact that these men are very wealthy and powerful, and they enjoy the fact that they can buy women, essentially. They can buy this time, and the fact that they can afford it and most people can't makes that special. It's really a status symbol.

The girls also have to offer that intimacy while remaining emotionally detached. In the film, we see Chelsea get hurt the one time she lets her guard down.

Exactly. Both of the women I spoke to had experienced cases like that and a lot of the women the writers interviewed had also gone through something like that as well.

I liked the voiceover inserts in which Chelsea talks about her encounters in a very clinical manner, and I saw that as being one of her methods of retaining a kind of distance from her experiences.

Yeah, and one of these women actually did that, she kept a detailed journal about each and every date. It also helps if you're pretending to be someone's girlfriend, because you need to remember what their cat's name is, what their kids' names are, whether they're married or divorced. She keeps details like that so the next time she meets them, there's a natural conversation like she's known them forever.

Could you empathise with some of the things Chelsea goes through, from things you have done in your own career? For instance, you have managed to promote yourself and get to the top of your industry, and we see Chelsea trying to make similar inroads in the film.

Well, I have treated myself as a commodity since day one and I made no bones about it, I told people that as I got into the industry because I planned for it for seven months. That's normal, it's just what you do in any type of entertainment industry, but Chelsea has to be careful because what she does is illegal. She wants to promote herself, but she's conflicted, thinking, how can she go out there and do an article, and still be safe and not get caught by the Feds? It's like the guy who wanted to be her manager, she says "How can I open up a boutique and sell clothing to women and their sixteen year-old daughters?", nobody's going to want to buy those clothes. So I guess it's a lot easier to market and self-promote in the entertainment world than it would be in Chelsea's world.

I loved the way Soderbergh put the film together. When you were shooting, did you have any idea how it was going to appear on screen?

No, not at all. You know, I don't like to watch playbacks. I'd look through the monitor occasionally, and it would look great on the set, but we shot the film chronologically, so I was expecting a chronological film. Going into the rough-cut screening was amazing, because it's really hard to watch yourself on screen when you know what's around each corner and each page, so I was kind of able to watch this with a little bit of mystery.

What did you know about the escorting world before making this film?

Well, I watch a lot of bad gossip shows [laughs]. You know, I knew probably as much as anybody does about that world via the media. It wasn't a subject matter I had been attracted to or interested in that much, unless you're talking about courtesans from Greece or Ancient Rome or something. It's funny, I do remember walking in and thinking "Oh, they're both very well dressed", and even though you know they're very sophisticated, I guess you have this image in the back of your mind about escorts.

How do you think that world compares to the porn industry? Do you think you need a different mentality or attitude to succeed in one rather than the other?

I think it goes back to the whole thing that these women need to adapt a different personality for each client and develop these emotional connections, so I do think that takes a different type of person. Depending on your morals and point of view, I guess it's the same thing, but the components and the work that goes into adult filmmaking and escorting are very different. Morally, are they different? No, depending on what you believe in, but it is something that's food for thought.

And yet prostitution is illegal in most countries and porn is a huge industry that has become a generally accepted part of our culture when, as you say, they're pretty much the same thing at a basic level.

Yeah, and I'm being paid to create a character for a film, so you could even say actors are the same thing as well. In the film, what I find very poignant about it is something Steven said, which is that everything in life is a transaction, you have to give something to get something in return. So if you open up those doors it's an entirely different conversation, which removes any moralistic or idealistic thoughts out of the equation.

Almost every scene in the film is a negotiation of some kind.

That's it, exactly.

After this experience, are you hungry to take on more acting roles?

Yeah, definitely. I'm actually going to New York tomorrow, and I'm doing a stage performance based on the novel Neuromancer, which is called Case. It's a six-hour deadpan reading, with all of the characters on stage with their scripts, so that should be fun, and we'll probably do the same thing in Rural Missouri next summer. In December I'm shooting an independent film in France called Life, and March I'll be shooting another film in California.

There have been a number of films in recent years that have included hardcore sex within a narrative, such as Shortbus, 9 Songs, the Catherine Breillat films, etc. Would you be interested in roles like that, or would you prefer to keep the two worlds separate?

I don't necessarily think they should have to be separate. Of course, if you put penetration in a film it will get an X rating, and that classifies it as pornography, essentially. With the films I'm directing now, I am trying to take a different approach, and I'm starting out with what I have, so while they're not necessarily narratives, they're metaphorically connected through visuals, and then I'll slowly move into narratives. My whole feeling on the matter right now is that I want to make erotic films that are cinematic, that are unexpected, so you can't sit down on the couch and know when to press fast-forward and play. So that's really my aim with directing right now.

You made a very conscious decision to move into porn at the age of 18. Can you believe how far your career has progressed in just three years?

It's definitely inspiring and it just makes me want to work even harder because of the opportunities I've had. I got into the business with a few goals just within the adult industry, and now I've been able to open it up and not look at it as something that's segregated from everything else.

As a porn star who has gained recognition in the mainstream media, do you feel as if you're an ambassador for the industry, that you have a responsibility to challenge people's prejudices or preconceptions about porn?

Yeah, it's nice to be able to disprove negative stereotypes when I'm doing interviews, but I wouldn't necessarily say I'm a voice for the industry. I'd rather be a voice for young independent women, and not just women from one group or one section of our world. I'd rather speak for everybody.

I did notice that a number of articles I've read about you have this kind of condescending tone of, "Wow, an intelligent and articulate porn star!" Is it frustrating to have to overcome that barrier before people take you seriously?

[laughs] Yeah, it is. I guess you can't really let those things bother you at all, because I can understand why that's done, but I know many smart and beautiful and talented women within the adult industry, who are very happy and have made their decisions without the influence of anyone else.

As well as performing in front of the camera, you mentioned that you are now producing and directing your own films, and you are also involved in music. How do you juggle so many different roles?

You know, that's life. I'm a creative person, and I just enjoy being and I enjoy doing. I try to look at life as a big canvas, and my thoughts, my ideas and my body are just the paint for that canvas. It's an age-old quote that youth is wasted on the young, and we make enough mistakes as human beings and we're learning every day, so while I'm still young I'm just going to let the mistakes be mistakes. I'd rather work hard now while I have the energy and vigour to do so, because I won't always get to do those kind of things. A couple of weeks ago I went diving with sharks and learned how to breathe on the regulator, and I might not have a chance to do things like that when I'm older.

Are these other projects part of establishing a long-term career plan? Have you given any thought to how long you would want to continue performing in front of the camera?

Well, I definitely want to retire as an adult performer gracefully [laughs]. Right now, I don't have any set goal in mind, so I'm really just building the foundations for everything else in the time being.

Review - The Girlfriend Experience

The Girlfriend Experience finds Steven Soderbergh in experimental mode once again, and that's a good place for him to be. I always tend to think he's at his most enjoyable when he has the freedom to play around with style and narrative, and this low-budget drama is the perfect way for the director to get back into his groove after the disappointment of his epic Che. The Girlfriend Experience operates on a much smaller scale than that double-bill, focusing on an eventful week in the life of a high-price New York prostitute. For $2,000 an hour, Chelsea (played by porn star Sasha Grey) will offer her clients a "girlfriend experience", which is as much about intimacy as it is about sex. In the film's opening sequence, we see her going to dinner and a movie with a gentleman, before returning to his hotel room, where they share a glass of wine and kiss on the couch. By all appearances, they look like a happy couple, and it's only in the morning that the true nature of their relationship is exposed, when the client hands Chelsea her payment.

Soderbergh has always had a fairly detached and intellectual approach to sex in his films – neither Sex, Lies and Videotape or Full Frontal have the kind of explicit content their titles might suggest – and in The Girlfriend Experience he is again interested in the act only as a means to explore wider ideas. Chief among these is the notion that life is little more than a series of transaction and negotiations, particularly for those who operate in the world Chelsea inhabits. Almost every conversation in the film takes this form, from the interviewer (journalist Marc Jacobson) who wants Chelsea to reveal more about herself than she's comfortable with, to the sleazy internet "erotic connoisseur" (a very funny cameo from film critic Glenn Kenny) who offers her a great review that would raise her profile, if she gives him a free trial of the goods. Even Chelsea's own relationship with her boyfriend (Chris Santos) is based on negotiation, with him having reluctantly accepted her choice of career, as long as she adheres to a number of ground rules.

By the end of the film, Chelsea will have broken one of those rules by allowing herself to get emotionally close to a client, and this trade-off between offering an intimate experience while remaining professionally detached is the film's most intriguing dilemma. After every encounter, Chelsea details the date in her diary, entries we hear in voiceover, with any sexual contact being catalogued in the same flat, clinical style as an account of the shoes she was wearing, or the food they ate. For Chelsea, this is strictly business, but for the men she meets, there's a real hunger for a sense of closeness, so much so that sometimes they won't even have sex, just being with Chelsea appears to be enough. There's an intriguing scene when Chelsea spots a former client out on the town with a new girl, and her expression is hard to read; is she concerned by the new competition, is she curious about their arrangement, or is she hurt by the snub? Her behaviour later, when she foolishly believes the promises of a married screenwriter, suggests she isn't as adept at avoiding the entanglements of intimacy as she thinks she is.

The Girlfriend Experience has been shot by Soderbergh in a stylish manner, and has been edited together in a non-chronological fashion that allows us to experience the film on a moment-by-moment basis rather than as a straightforward narrative arc. In line with his previous experiments Bubble and Full Frontal, much of the dialogue is improvised, and given the backdrop of the financial crisis and forthcoming election (the film was shot in October 2008), much of this dialogue revolves around money, with many of Chelsea's clients offering her investments tips during their dates (is that what counts as pillow talk these days?). To be honest, I grew tired of the endless financial chatter after a while, but I guess that's the currency that makes Chelsea's world go round, and even if the men she meets aren't always particularly engaging, Sasha Grey remains hugely watchable in the lead role. Some might question the limited emotional expressiveness of her performance, but Chelsea needs to be something of a blank canvas, for her clients to project their own fantasies onto, and Grey has an assurance and screen presence that always holds the audience's attention. It remains to be seen whether she can cross over successfully from the world of porn into the mainstream, but right now The Girlfriend Experience is a fine calling card.

Read my interview with Sasha Grey here.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Review - The White Ribbon (Das weiße Band, Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte)

Throughout the past decade, Michael Haneke has been operating at such a high level it almost seems redundant to comment on the flawless direction of his latest film The White Ribbon. However, even by this filmmaker's intimidating standards, this is a stunningly well-made film, perhaps the most brilliantly crafted of the director's career. Shooting in black and white for the first time, Haneke creates a haunting, hypnotic power in almost every sequence, with Christian Berger's pin-sharp cinematography, the impeccable production design, and the utterly convincing cast creating a completely authentic sense of time and place. The film is set in a small German protestant village in 1913, a period pregnant with significance, as the shadow of war gradually darkens the picture's latter stages. When one character goes to ask for his love's hand in marriage, her father puts him off, and asks him to wait a year before deciding if he really wants to go ahead with it. "Don't worry" the father cheerfully tells his daughter's downcast suitor, "the world won't collapse in that time," but we already know it will.

Any thoughts of global conflict are far from the characters' minds at the start of the film, however, as they are preoccupied with a series of unfortunate incidents. The first of these involves the local doctor, who is badly injured when his horse falls over an almost invisible tripwire. Is this a cruel, isolated prank, or the beginning of something more sinister? Later, a woman falls to her death in the sawmill, an incident that encourages her son to wreak his revenge on the local baron. As the film progresses, the acts of violence and vandalism continue: a barn is burned to the ground, children are abducted and abused. Nobody is identified as the culprit, although various villagers find themselves being eyed as suspects, and soon none of the inhabitants are free from the weight of guilt and suspicion.

This is familiar territory for Haneke. As recently as 2005, the director made the insidious, inescapable nature of guilt the theme of his gripping thriller
Hidden, and in The White Ribbon, we see how these emotions spread through the village like a sickness, exposing the corruption that lies under the idyllic surface. There are extra-marital affairs to be discovered, as well as sexual abuse within families, and Haneke charts this progression expertly, although he once again leaves himself open to accusations of misanthropy. The underlying thesis of Haneke's oeuvre is the cruelty man is capable of, and he renders it with his standard detached, clinical watchfulness. This coldness will be an obstacle for many viewers, particularly when Haneke is at his most blunt; such as the exchange between two characters – former lovers – in which one says, "You disgust me, why don't you just die?"

Surprisingly, however, I found this to be one of Haneke's warmest films, and there's a real tenderness present in certain areas of the picture that helps to offset the generally chilly atmosphere. This emotional vein can be found in the relationship between the schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) – an elderly version of whom narrates the tale – and Eva (Leonie Benesch), the shy young woman he loves. Elsewhere, touching moments are provided by the cast's younger members, like the young boy who offers a gift to his grieving father, or the child who asks his sister about death. These scenes are perfectly judged by Haneke and flawlessly acted by an ensemble that doesn't have a false note among it. The director has filled
The White Ribbon with unknown actors whose faces and demeanour feel just right for the era, ensuring the film's authentic evocation of this period never slips, and the performances he draws from the child actors are particularly notable. Among them, Maria-Victoria Dragus and Leonard Proxauf stand out as Klara and Martin, the pastor's children, who may or may not be harbouring malevolent thoughts behind their angelic Aryan features.

What part will these children be playing in Germany's turbulent decades to come? That's one of the ideas Haneke leaves us to toy with at the film's close, although I have to say
The White Ribbon hasn't burrowed into my thoughts in the same way this filmmaker's best work has. Perhaps it's simply the fact that many of these themes have been explored in a much more incisive fashion by Haneke elsewhere, and even though his latest effort is rigorous, intelligent and ambiguous, I'm not sure he finds any new depths in his ideas. Having said that, I found it an utterly captivating film to watch; beautifully designed and executed by an artist in complete command of his craft. On almost every level, The White Ribbon is utterly masterful filmmaking, even if it is telling us things we feel we've heard before.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Review - Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno (L'enfer d'Henri-Georges Clouzot)

So often in cinema, a revered director will be undone by a personal project that spins out of control, a project that becomes an all-consuming and never-ending obsession. For Henri-Georges Clouzot, the great artist behind Quai des Orfèvres, Diabolique and The Wages of Fear, it was a film called Inferno, which went into production in 1964, but never made it to the screen. The story behind the film's collapse is entertainingly told in Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno, a slickly produced documentary comprised of interviews with key collaborators and choice cuts from the 185 cans of footage the director left behind. Co-director Serge Bromberg discovered this footage quite by chance, when he found himself trapped in a broken elevator with an elderly woman for company. She turned out to be Inés, Clouzot's widow, and their discussion eventually turned to her late husband's greatest disappointment, the collapse of his much-cherished project.

The tantalising thing about Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno is that it shows us enough of the extraordinary film to suggest it may have been a lost masterpiece, while simultaneously suggesting that the project was doomed from the start, being directed by a man who had lost control of his vision. Clouzot had been inspired by Fellini's , and with Inferno, he intended to produce something every bit as groundbreaking, although one suspects he never really had the kind of genius for freewheeling invention that Fellini possessed. His story was essentially a simple one; the tale of a man (Serge Reggiani) who is obsessed with the idea that his flirtatious wife (Romy Schneider) is cheating on him. The film was to be shot in black-and-white, but Clouzot's plan was to interrupt the main narrative with fantasy sequences that expressed Reggiani's fears in vivid colour, and it was in these sequences that the director intended to dazzle his audience.

The most astonishing images in Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno emerge from the test footage he shot as he tried to find the perfect visual expression for his hero's jealousy. A number of contemporary artists were hired to lend their expertise as the director fiddled with innovative camera techniques, toyed with his colour palette, and filmed the remarkably game Schneider in scene after scene of psychedelic mania. In one of his most mind-boggling moves, Clouzot decided he wanted the water to be blood-red in a scene set on a lake, but the colour inversion required to achieve this meant the actors needed to be coated in various shades of grey, green and blue. But in all of this experimentation, what was Clouzot searching for? At times, it seemed even he didn't know, and the test shooting went on for months, with little sign of a completed film emerging, and the large budget draining away. Bromberg and his co-director Ruxandra Medrea do try to give us a sense of what the final project may have looked like, with inserts that feature two actors reading Clouzot's script on a bare stage, or edited-together footage with a soundtrack added, but these sequences tend to be the film's weakest. Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno is at its best when the footage is allowed to speak for itself, particularly when it focuses on Schneider, who positively glows in front of the camera.

A number of crew members offer their own perspective, and their candid recollections give us an idea of the mayhem that the Inferno shoot eventually became. Amusing anecdotes abound, from the insomniac Clouzot waking his crew members at 2am to discuss new ideas, or cinematographer Claude Renoir escaping through a bathroom window to avoid another interminable scouting trips. At one point, Clouzot had three different camera crews working separately, with each crew having no idea what the others were doing. It was chaos, frankly, and when an exhausted and frustrated Reggiani left the shoot, the game was almost up; a fact confirmed by the director's subsequent heart attack, which finally drew a line under the whole escapade. Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno ends on a sad, elegiac note, telling us sombrely that the director made one more feature film before his death in 1977; and while he is justifiably remembered as one of the great French filmmakers, he never quite recovered from the experience of so thoroughly losing his way inside his Inferno.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Review - A Serious Man

"But I didn't do anything!" an exasperated Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) cries at numerous points during A Serious Man. The central character in the Coen brothers' latest film is assailed by misfortune at every turn, but his only reaction is to wear a bewildered expression and to cry plaintively "I didn't do anything!" The endless passivity of Larry is one of the more unusual aspects of the Coens' funny, frustrating, brilliant and perplexing new film. A Serious Man follows the professor and family man as his life unravels around him. His wife (Sari Lennick) tells him she is leaving him for another man, the unctuous Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed, giving a beautifully judged performance); one of his students tries to bribe him for a better grade; a series of poison-pen letters are threatening his tenure; and his homeless brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is still sleeping on the couch. And yet, Larry remains a helpless victim as a series of indignities reign down upon him, seemingly unable to find it within himself to retaliate. Forget Ed Crane, Larry is The Man Who Wasn't There.

Perhaps Larry is simply cursed from day one, unable to alter the course of his fate. A Serious Man opens with a kind of Jewish folk tale, somewhere in 19th century Europe, involving a couple being visited by a man who may or may not be a dybbuk, or undead spirit. The brief, amusing intro is spoken entirely in Yiddish, and while it has no literal connection to the events that follow, it does set the tone effectively for the rest of the film. This is unquestionably the brothers' most Jewish film to date, a fact that – along with the late-60's Minnesota setting – has led many people to believe that it is also their most personal. Perhaps it is, although I suspect the Coens are unlikely to be so nakedly autobiographical, and A Serious Man may simply be an excuse for them to find ample humour in some of the more bizarre and obscure corners of Judaism.

As Larry's life collapses around him, he seeks solace in his faith, turning to a number of rabbis, each of whom flummoxes him with obtuse metaphors or parables that fail to illuminate his situation. One of these is the story of "The Goy's Teeth", a fantastical tale of a Jewish dentist who discovers a message engraved in Hebrew on the back of a non-Jew's teeth. This little segment of A Serious Man is a wonderful Coen touch; surreal, funny, and it builds to a great punchline. When the rabbi has spun his tall tale, Larry asks what happened to the Goy in the end; "The Goy?" the rabbi responds, "Who cares?" It's one of the film's highlights, but it also defines the film's problematic tone. It's ultimately a throwaway anecdote that doesn't take Larry – or us – anywhere, and such flippancy seems to undermine the film's assessment of grander themes such as fate and the meaning of life, or the ambiguously apocalyptic finale the Coens build towards.

That finale will cause howls of protest from some quarters, while other will laud the brothers' daring. Personally, I thought the ending felt a little off, failing to his the exact note that previous Coen climaxes – such as Barton Fink (the final shot being one of cinema's most perfect moments) or No Country for Old Men – have achieved. The narrative leading to this point is essentially a collection of loosely connected miseries for Larry to suffer, and the film's momentum is uneven as a result, but the Coens handle each of the picture's individual elements with consummate skill. It's nothing new to praise their filmmaking craft, and once again, there's hardly a moment in A Serious Man that isn't enhanced by their stunningly precise direction, or Roger Deakins' flawless cinematography. Naturally, the performances are pitch-perfect too, with the surprisingly unknown ensemble (Richard Kind, Adam Arkin and Michael Lerner are the sole recognisable names) all stepping up with memorable turns, even if many of them fail to turn their roles into anything more than rather broad caricatures.

"Why does God make us feel the questions is He's not going to give us any answers?" Larry asks one rabbi, and it's easy to see this line as the Coens pre-empting the complaints of baffled audience members. I'm a little torn about passing final judgement on A Serious Man, and so I'm going to hedge my bets slightly, in the knowledge that every Coen brothers film rewards repeated viewings. I found their latest film amusing and fascinating to watch, although it ultimately feels like a bit of a frustrating tease. Maybe in time I'll learn to "accept the mystery", and unlock whatever secret it is that's required to bring this unusual film into focus. Right now, all I know is that A Serious Man depicts life as being meaningless, random and cruel, and God – or possibly the Coens – will always have the last laugh.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Review - Bright Star

A thing of beauty is a joy forever, and Jane Campion's Bright Star is indeed a beautiful piece of filmmaking. With this touching romantic drama about the doomed love between John Keats (played by Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), Campion has found a number of ways to utilise a visual language that is as ravishing as the poet's words. In the opening shot of Fanny's needle being pushed through fabric, the director immediately establishes a mood of intimate sensuality, and some later scenes – such as Fanny's room being filled with butterflies, or a shot of her falling to her knees in a field of blue flowers – are intoxicating. The most gratifying thing about Bright Star, however, is the respect Campion pays to Keats' poetry, making it an essential part of her script. This isn't one of those literary biopics like Iris (from which you wouldn't have a clue that Iris Murdoch was a great novelist), as the director builds much of Bright Star around her subject's romantic verse.

It is Keats' poetry that initially piques the interest of his neighbour Fanny Brawne. She buys a copy of his critically derided Endymion, and tells the author bluntly that the famous opening of the poem was impressive, even if the rest was not. They are a well-matched pair; Keats appreciates Fanny's wit and spirit, and the way she stands up to his rude best friend Mr Brown (Paul Schneider), who makes frequent digs at her flirtatious nature and obsession with finery. The casting is Schneider is this part is a hugely imaginative coup on Campion's part. His teasing and wryly self-amused manner is so stylishly executed by the actor, it's easy to forgive the occasional slippage of his Scottish brogue. Brown proves to be a crucial figure in Campion's film, capable of shaking things up and injecting a note of humour into things when the picture slips into an occasional lull.

As impressive as Campion's direction so often is, Bright Star does feel a little stuffy at times. This is a conventional period romance at heart, with Fanny and John's yearning to be together denied by both the social strictures of the time – his impoverished state stands in the way of their marriage – and by the poet's premature death. The two leads bring enormous heart and vitality to their relationship, however. Whishaw's rendition of Keats is appealing and witty, if a little drab, but he has genuine chemistry with Cornish, who delivers an astonishing performance as Fanny Brawne. As the latest in the long line of Campion's strong female figures, Cornish shines as the intelligent and independent Fanny, capturing the all-consuming passion and ultimate pain of her love for Keats. It's a marvellous performance.

Her performance gets even stronger as the film progresses, and the inevitable fate of the severely ill Keats gradually becomes clear. The sense of impending death weighs heavily on Bright Star's heroine, and eventually it becomes something of a burden for the film itself to bear. There comes a period towards the end where the film falls into a state of stasis, with everyone seemingly standing around waiting for the poet to die. Some of the life drains out of the picture at this point, but Campion rallies magnificently at the climax, depicting the impact of Keats' passing as a hammer blow. Cornish's portrayal of Fanny Brawne's crippling grief is lacerating, and everything in the film from this point onwards – up to and including the superb closing credits – is sublime.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Running Man

A few months ago, I inexplicably signed up for the 2010 London Marathon. Anyone who knows me will understand this was a most uncharacteristic thing to do, and with only 164 days left until the big day, the reality of what I've let myself in for is starting to dawn on me, and making me feel a bit queasy. Nevertheless, I am committed to the task ahead, and the fact that I managed to complete an 8-mile run last month without actually dying has given me renewed hope.

Also, this madness is all for a good cause. The charity I'm running for is called Sense, and they support people who are both deaf and blind, which seems like a very good cause to me. So I'd really appreciate it if you would visit the below page and sponsor me.

The thought of raising a lot of money for charity will obviously lift my spirits when I start wishing for a quick and merciful death somewhere around the 20th mile.

Thanks for your support

"It's a film about good and evil, about what's right and what's wrong" - An interview with Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson

One of the most stirring and moving films from this year's London Film Festival was a British documentary called Mugabe and the White African, which detailed the extraordinary case of Michael Campbell, a white farmer fighting the Zimbabwean dictator's land reform policy. Shot covertly, in a country where filming is illegal, co-directors Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson have created a film which is both a story of remarkable individual courage, as well as an illuminating insight into life under Mugabe's regime. Now they have made the film, the next step is to get it seen by as wide an audience as possible, and I met the filmmakers during the festival to talk about their plans.

How did you get involved in this story?

Lucy Bailey We both worked together over several years, doing lots of stuff in Africa, most recently for Comic Relief, doing a lot of their appeal films. We were very aware of the Zimbabwe situation because we had spent time with refugees, and it was a story we felt needed telling, but we were looking for a way to do it. We read a tiny snippet about this man taking Mugabe to international court, and we looked at each other and thought that could be our story, one man takes on a president and that president is an evil dictator. So we had this intimate story with the family and through that family you get a much bigger picture of what's been happening inside Zimbabwe, so that's how it came about. We didn't have any connection to white farmers or the family at all prior to that point, and of course we knew it was crazy trying to make a film in a country where filming is illegal, but we were determined to try.

Were there points when you felt you might have to pull out, when you feared for your personal safety?

Andrew Thompson I think this film is perhaps the only glimpse the outside world has of what it's like to be living inside Zimbabwe now. We were always appreciative of how difficult it would be to film inside Zimbabwe, and actually half of the film takes place in Namibia where the hearing is, and we also filmed in South Africa and the UK; but inevitably there was going to be a point where we had to smuggle our way into Zimbabwe, and that was inherent with all sorts of risks. We have both worked in hostile environments before in our TV careers, so we took the experience from those shoots and applied it to Zimbabwe. It is obviously illegal to be inside Zimbabwe as British journalists, so we would smuggle ourselves in, we would use different border crossings every time, we would have cover stories, we would do short, sharp trips; it was always a case of being one step ahead of the police, the CIO and the Zanu PF militias. They were never far behind us, and inevitably once we left the country after one of our trips, there was always a knock on the door of Ben's house, Mike's house or the homes of the workers, asking if they'd seen a white cameraman and sound recordist.

But as well as your own safety, your presence was increasing the danger for those who were working with you. Was it hard to gain people's trust?

LB In terms of the family, their heads were already above the parapet because of the court case. We were quite limited in terms of who we could work with, because anyone who spoke out on camera was essentially putting their lives at risk.

AT There were a lot of people who didn't want to appear on camera. It's incredibly dangerous to speak out against someone like Mugabe. This is a man that still abducts and tortures his political opponents, so he wouldn't think twice about doing that to ordinary citizens. Mike and Ben have always courted publicity, and they say at the beginning of the film that if Mugabe wants to come and shoot us he can come and shoot us, but it will have to take place in front of the glare of the world's media. If they can use this case to shine a spotlight on what's going on in Zimbabwe, then that's how they want it to be used. Even if it's a great personal danger to themselves, it's a price worth paying if it tells the story of what's going on so the world wakes up.

LB Ben said very early on to us that he believes publicity is the very soul of justice, and by the fact that we've told their story, now you guys can write about the story, and we can make justice happen. As filmmakers, you have great power, and if you use that power well it can make a difference. We're trying to get some outreach with the film, particularly with the SADC (South African Development Community) nations so they can see what this human rights court is all about. It's critical in terms of developing a human rights culture in southern Africa, and the film can open doors because it lets people see what's going on. It's different to a news report that you read about, and the next piece of news replaces it, because the film stays with you on an emotional level and has an impact that resonates. We don't have the resources but we're hoping to get them, so we can really get the film out there and make a difference.

AT Obviously, it was always our ambition to make a good film, but it was always our promise to Mike and Ben and the farm workers that we would use this film, to the best of our ability, to effect real change in Zimbabwe. If we can get this film in front of the Houses of Parliament here in the UK, at the UN or in Brussels, we can alert the attention of policy makers who are in a position of power to make a real difference to those poor people in Zimbabwe. As filmmakers that's all we ever set out to achieve. Right now, we are really desperate for funds and for a third party partner to come on board and help us do that.

What do you think your chances are of getting a response from the government, given their previous record on Zimbabwe?

AT I think the west is in a tricky situation, and I don't think anyone really knows how to handle Zimbabwe. Other African leaders seem loathe to speak out against one of their own, and the west appear to be sitting on their hands, rather than being labelled racist or neo-colonialist if they attack the regime. Subsequently, nothing happens, and that's part of what drew us to Mike, Ben and their family, because they are the only ones who have drawn a line in the sand and taken Mugabe on, and it has cost them hugely.

That's what I found so inspiring about Ben and Mike, the fact that they are standing there alone with no support.

LB Exactly, and that's why the film is good, because it makes the audience question what would they do, and how far would they go for what they believe in. You don't have to be interested in Zimbabwe or politics for this film to appeal to you, because it's a film about good and evil, about what's right and what's wrong.

The other thing I found remarkable about them is how unflappable they are. No matter what happens to them, they just respond with the same quiet determination and strength.

LB It's just an incredible dignity. They're so proud, dignified and gracious, and they care so much for their country, because they're not doing it for themselves, they're doing it on behalf of everyone.

What is their current situation, both in terms of the court case and their living situation?

AT Mike is living in a safe house in Harare with friends, and Ben, the kids and Laura are also in a safe house with friends. I mean, all the clothes Ben was wearing last night were borrowed, and they have literally lost everything. They briefly managed to re-house the farm workers on one of the farms that was left standing after the fire, but now Mugabe's henchmen have burned that down as well, so these people remain homeless and every time they do go somewhere else, Mugabe catches up with them very quickly. They are all marked men.

And what about their case?

AT It has ground to a halt, legally.

LB It has been referred up to the SADC summit, but at the last summit they didn't discuss it, because everyone is turning a blind eye.

AT It has rather conveniently been swept under the carpet. That is why we are so desperate for support, because we ourselves funded Lucy to go out and do some private screenings in Botswana and South Africa ahead of that summit, to try and raise awareness of this serious issue. Of course, when the summit comes around, under the carpet it goes. No one wants to deal with the Mugabe question, which is why we would love this film have the widest release possible, to get it released across the fourteen nations of southern Africa, to get people insisting on real change.