Phil on Film Index

Friday, April 30, 2010

"You've got to learn a lot from every script you write" - An interview with J Blakeson

With his debut feature, British writer-director J Blakeson has proven that limited means are no obstacle for inventive filmmaking. The Disappearance of Alice Creed takes place mostly in a single location, and the film features just three characters, but through his taut screenplay, slick direction and the outstanding efforts of his cast, Blakeson has crafted a first-rate thriller. The Disappearance of Alice Creed is released in the UK this week, and I met J Blakeson during last year's London Film Festival to discuss it.

Having just three characters and placing most of the action in a single location seems like a very restrictive setup for a writer. How did you negotiate the obstacles this premise involved?

I started with the restrictions before I really had a story, because I knew I wanted to write something that I would be able to direct myself, and if nobody gave me any money I could just do it on my own in my flat with people I knew. There was a bit more in the back of the van for a while, because I thought a flat and the back of a van were very findable locations, so I restricted myself to them for the main body of the script before I came up with anything else. I thought of doing a kidnapping film because it's automatically a tense story, and I wanted to do a thriller because I like those "situation to the limit" films, like Panic Room, Phone Booth or... what was that other one with Jodie Foster?...Flight Plan. There's one situation and one location, and you have to get as much out of it as you can, you have to try and out-imagine the audience and wrong-foot them at every turn.

I quite enjoyed it to be honest, because the thing with being a writer is that you can go anywhere. Look at Adaptation, that Charlie Kaufman script, where he starts at the beginning of time and goes all the way through evolution before beginning his story. You can go anywhere your imagination will take you, and sometimes the hard part is just pulling it in and keeping it simple. The film I was working on before this was The Descent 2, which was an assignment I was writing with a friend of mine, and there were restrictions in place there. Not only are they down in the cave, where everything looks the same, but they've already been there before and done it all before, so we really had to out-imagine our limitations there, and I enjoyed that because it's kind of a neat puzzle to be solved. So once I knew I was doing something that could be achieved on a low budget, the limitations didn't scare me, in fact it's quite good because within those limitations you can do as much as you want, because you have this kind of border around you.

And once you have moved past the writing stage, what are the challenges of directing a film like this?

Well, you're in the same locations again and again, and shooting the same interiors again and again can make it seem like a soap opera, when they're always in the shop, the pub or somebody's front room. I knew we had to try and make it cinematic, because three people in one set can feel very much like a stage play, and I knew I didn't want to do the shaky-cam, faux-verité style. My touchstones were more people like David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick and the Coen brothers, people who have a very deliberate style.

Did you storyboard the film before shooting?

We storyboarded some of the sequences that would be more complex to shoot because we didn't have a lot of time. It was anything with quite a lot of setups, really, just to make sure we could build the sequence in the time we had, and the scenes where it's just people talking we didn't have to storyboard because you want to give the actors as much freedom as possible. We storyboarded before we had seen any locations as well, as the preparation time on this film was really quick, so sometimes we had storyboarded something that didn't work on the location, and we had to make something up on the spot. So, the opening sequence was storyboarded, and the bit where they're eating soup, and we storyboarded some of the wood sequence as well.

Speaking of the wood sequence, was there a very deliberate Miller's Crossing reference in there?

It was, it's a heart-on-sleeve Miller's Crossing reference. I think if someone's begging for their life in some woods, you just have to throw in a Miller's Crossing reference. There are little references to other films all the way through, but most of them are very small and obscure. What happened there was, we storyboarded a version of that, but it was the same shot as when we're over their shoulders, so we just let it run for a bit and it turned into a Miller's Crossing shot. We were looking at the monitor and we thought, "Hmm...I've seen this somewhere before" [laughs].

The film has so many twists and surprises. Did you plan the whole story out first, or was it something that simply developed as you wrote the script?

I started on page one, and I didn't know where it was going to go. It was quite exciting because I've been writing assignment work where you have to go in and pitch for it, then write a beat sheet, and a first draft, but here I was writing for myself, so I didn't have to worry about that. I had a list of things that could happen – what if she needs to go to the toilet, what about making a video for the father? – and a list of scenes you sort of expect, like escape attempts, and questions about who is really in charge. So one was a list of active questions and one was a list of moments, just two hand-written A4 pages I had done very quickly that I stuck up on the wall in front of me, and that was all the prep I did, I wrote it very quickly.

When you have just three characters, the relationships and the dynamic between those characters is really what your film will stand or fall on. Did you have to put a lot of work into getting that aspect of the script right?

I really just had to do a lot of thinking, and I'd sometimes have to go away and watch other films and do other stuff before coming back to it again. So by the time I came to it, I didn't know exactly what these characters were, but I sort of knew what I wanted them to be and where I wanted them to go, although sometimes you would plan to go one way and the characters would take you somewhere else. Sometimes you'd think that's slightly more interesting than what you had imagined, so you can always take them back if this road doesn't go anywhere, but you just follow it and then you end up at the midpoint of the film...which I won't reveal.

That's the problem with this film. It will be a nightmare to review because there's so much you don't want to give away.

I know, and try cutting the trailer [laughs].

Let's talk about the casting, because all three actors are perfect for their roles. How did that come together?

We were incredibly lucky, because this came together really quickly, in less than a year. I first spoke to the company who made it around this time last year, October 2008, and it was about a month later when they said they wanted to do it. Then we hired Adrian Sturges to produce it and we set about trying to cast it in six weeks, but it was over Christmas, which takes two weeks out, so we really had around four and a half weeks to cast it. It actually made the casting process it a little bit easier, because we had a start date in February, and if people weren't available they were knocked off the list. The first person to come in and read was Gemma, who had been suggested to me by the casting director, who had cast her in St Trinian's and had followed her career. I had only seen Gemma in St Trinian's and Quantum of Solace, and they were both very different roles from this one, so I thought, she's good in what I've seen her in but this isn't the kind of thing I'd immediately think of her for. I thought she looked great and she's obviously talented, but can she bring the intensity and emotion that the part requires? She came in and read, and within about five minutes I just thought, OK, she's insanely talented, let's hire her [laughs]. She had just finished making Prince of Persia a week before, which was a massive shoot, I don't know how many weeks or tens of millions that took, and this was a four-week shoot, low-budget, on the Isle of Man. She was going to be in it all the way through and a lot of the dramatic moments fell on her, so it was a real showcase for her talent and a real test for her talent.

That opening sequence in particular must have been a real test for her. It's a difficult scene to watch, what was it like to shoot?

That was my second day as a film director. Obviously, I'd done all of the preparation, but it was my second day on set, and that was the day I was dreading the most. What I wanted to show was that when you commit a crime against somebody else, you're doing a horrible, horrible thing. Sometimes you see crimes on TV and people get over it very quickly, but when you get mugged in the street you spend weeks getting over it, you wake up with nightmares, you can't leave the house. There's no such thing as a victimless violent crime, and they're doing a horrible, terrorising thing to this girl, so I wanted to show it as that. I didn't want it to be glamorous, I certainly didn't want it to be exploitive, and I just wanted it to be very uncomfortable to watch. I also wanted to show how meticulous it was and to show that they didn't have any interest in who she was, she's just this object they're bundling around.

Obviously, Gemma read the script, and I explained that there would be nudity on certain pages, and she was fine with that. I had a long discussions with her about how we would shoot it, I showed her storyboards, and I asked her if anything was going to make her uncomfortable. On the day, we had a closed set and the crew was very sensitive, so as soon as I said cut we all left the room, the prop guys covered her up and untied her, and we just gave her some time to gather her thoughts until she told us she was ready to go again. She had the freedom to cut the camera at any time, and I just wanted to make her feel as comfortable as possible, basically, because she's a collaborator. You know, as cool as it sounds when you're growing up and you read stories about Friedkin letting off shotguns on The Exorcist, or Herzog and Kinski, I'm not like that. I really value actors and they're great actors, so they don't need me to manipulate them into giving a scared performance. I know that Gemma knows how to act scared, so I don't have to really make her scared, and I want her to feel like a collaborator with me, that she's creating with me rather than being put through the mill. Cinema is very important to me but it's just a film and that's her life, so it's not worth messing with her head when I could just shoot it a different way. It was tough, though, and I worried about it an awful lot, but on the day I think everyone else was more freaked out than she was. We were all like, "God, this is horrible," but as soon as I said cut, she'd ask "Was that alright?" and start giggling. She's such a fearless actress, and she's certainly stronger than I am.

I think my favourite performance of the three came from Eddie Marsan. He's an actor who can be ferocious but also incredibly vulnerable, and you really exploit both of those extremes with this role.

When Eddie was first suggested to me I was slightly cautious, only because he has so much humanity in his face, he brings with him so much empathy, and I didn't know if he could do that pure, hard-as-granite character. As he was written on the page he was very much a one-note hard man, but Eddie bought so much more to it. He's got that kind of small man complex, he's like a ferocious dog, and obviously he has worked with people like Mike Leigh, so he's very focused on his character. He likes to get into his character's emotions and stay there, so for the first week I was quite scared of him! [Laughs] He was very serious and focused, and if I gave him direction, I would just go up and whisper, "Do you mind just doing it like this?" and he would quietly say "OK," and I'd go off and leave him to do it. By the second or third week, because his character relaxes a bit, and because we all got to know each other a bit, we could have more of a laugh and a joke. We had a great time making the film, and it's really weird when you watch Eddie being so hardcore in a scene, and you know that he cracked up immediately afterwards.

Was it a challenge to sustain the film's tension while simultaneously making sure you didn't push things too far and go over the edge?

I've been a writer for a while now, and when I first write a script for people to read I want the tension to be there on the page. We set things up in the first reel, and from there I basically wanted it to be sequence after sequence, so by the end of each sequence we would know a little bit more about the characters, and the story would be moved forward. In editing, it was somewhat irritating when we were running over length because we couldn't just take a sequence out; you need the gunshot to get the bullet in the wall, you need the bullet to get to the toilet, and so on. We just had to keep tightening it, so hopefully it feels relentless in a good way. I likened it to a balloon dropping, and we have to almost let it hit the floor before we tap it up in the air again, so the editor and I worked really hard on maintaining the pace and keeping things moving. Of course, when you're in a flat all you can do is talk to each other, and I didn't want that, I wanted stuff to happen. I had a rule that if I was going to use something I would make the most it – so if I have a gun I'll use it a lot, if I have a set of keys I'll use it a lot, if I have a bullet I'll use it a lot – and it will hopefully mean something different every time.

You have been writing for a couple of years now and working in short films. Was directing features always your goal?

Since I was 19, when I made my first actual film, the goal was to make features. I moved to London to become an internationally successful film director when I was 21, but I had no money, was unemployed and didn't know anybody, so I started writing. I thought it was better to have some work than to have no work, and maybe if I keep writing then they'll let me direct one, and eventually it worked, ten years later [laughs]. In a way, I'm glad it took that long, although I was attached to make a film three or four years ago and I got very close to making it, but it didn't happen.

Is that a project you could resurrect now?

I think scripts I wrote that didn't get made are a bit like ex-girlfriends; I was obsessed with them at the time, and I still have real affection for them, but it would probably be a mistake to go back. People still own them, so who knows? If my currency gets higher then perhaps somebody will try to resurrect them, but I won't be going back to direct them. That was me then and I think I'm a much better writer now, and I've become much more focused on the type of films I want to make. It's the old cliché that in your 20's you're kind of looking for yourself, and by the time you're 30 you know who you are, and that's where I am right now. You've got to learn a lot from every script you write, and I've written some really bad scripts, but in every bad script I've written I have learned something, and hopefully I haven't written many bad scripts in the past five years. I wrote my first script when I was 17, and it was awful, and when I read it now it's horribly embarrassing, but the next one was a little bit better and so was the one after that.

So what are you up to next?

Right now I'm writing a script which I owe to somebody because they gave me time off to make my film, so I'm doing a re-write on that, and I'm also working on the next script I'm going to direct. At the same time I'm reading other people's scripts, because I'm signing with a US agent, I haven't decided which one yet, and they send a lot of scripts. So we'll see what happens, because I want to direct a lot, and if I just direct my own scripts then I can only make something every two years, and that's if it goes well. I really admire people like Soderbergh, you know, he makes so many films and has his stamp all over them. I haven't read anything that has blown me away yet, but if a script comes along that's really amazing then why not?

Well, I'm looking forward to the next J Blakeson film, whatever it might be.

So am I! [Laughs]

Review - The Disappearance of Alice Creed

In the opening moments of his feature debut The Disappearance of Alice Creed, J Blakeson directs with a brutal efficiency. Two men (played by Eddie Marsan and Martin Compston) are hard at work in a sparsely decorated flat – soundproofing the walls, securing the doors, preparing the bed – and they wordlessly go about their business with a methodical and exacting sense of purpose. Their ultimate goal quickly becomes clear, when the pair sit patiently in a van and wait for a young woman (Gemma Arterton) to innocently walk into view. They grab her, tie her up, gag her and mask her. She is driven back to the flat where the two kidnappers coldly ignore her terrified screams as they tie her to the bed and leave the room, locking her inside. This is Alice Creed, and her ordeal has just begun.

Watching a young woman being stripped, bound and terrorised seems to set The Disappearance of Alice Creed up as a nasty exploitation film. This sequence is arresting and expertly assembled, but it's also troubling and horrible to watch, as the two men coldly ignore the terrified screams of their vulnerable prisoner, and bundle her about in such a rough fashion. Fortunately, Blakeson's film is better than that, and it quickly develops into a taut thriller, with the resourceful Alice proving to be far from a helpless victim. The daughter of a millionaire, she seems like the perfect prey for the ransom plot hatched by these ex-cons, but Blakeson loves to turn the tables and pull the rug out from under the viewer, and his clever screenplay continually manages to surprise. To say much more about the plot would be an error, as The Disappearance of Alice Creed is full of twists – including two that completely alter our perception of the characters and their relationship – and the less one knows about the film before viewing the better.

Instead, let's just admire the things that Blakeson does so well with his first film. The vast majority of The Disappearance of Alice Creed takes place within the cramped confines of the flat, and only three characters appear onscreen, but Blakeson uses these conditions to create a tense atmosphere. His direction is supremely confident, opting for carefully composed camerawork that brings a cinematic flair to his limited surroundings. The film is superbly cut together as well, with Blakeson and his editor Mark Eckersley developing a rapid, gripping pace and drawing maximum impact from the various set-pieces the director has built his screenplay around. It's a fine balancing act, to string a sequence out until the audience is on the edge of its seat, without pushing things too far, and this film manages to strike that difficult balance almost perfectly. The Disappearance of Alice Creed is a near-textbook example of how to construct a good thriller.

Blakeson also does fine work with his actors. With just three performers on show for the film's entire running time, the strength of the cast is naturally of paramount importance, and all three actors respond with exceptional displays. The relationship between kidnappers Vic and Danny is brilliantly portrayed by Eddie Marsan and Martin Compston, with cold hard man Vic domineering and bullying his young partner, until their characterisations and motives are upended by Blakeson halfway through. Marsan is an endlessly watchable actor and he is superb here once again, but the revelation of The Disappearance of Alice Creed is Alice herself, Gemma Arterton. A far cry from the world of James Bond or the Hollywood blockbusters she suddenly appears to be the go-to girl for, this role gives her the chance to really stretch her acting muscles, and she doesn't waste the opportunity. Playing Alice Creed allows her to be simultaneously vulnerable and a bold, courageous protagonist, and she brings a remarkable conviction and emotional weight to her acting.

The Disappearance of Alice Creed is not flawless, and Blakeson occasionally ties himself in knots with his complicated plotting, which often leads to Alice, Vic and especially Danny behaving in a manner that forwards the plot rather than one that naturally fits their characterisations. The film frequently stretches credulity as well, but Blakeson's fleet direction and lively pacing ensures such flaws don't really register. Even if we might be able to anticipate what lies in store for each of the characters in the end, it's still fascinating to see how many twists and turns the narrative manages to wind through before we get there. I can't recall the last time I was so gripped and thoroughly entertained by a British thriller, and it certainly marks its debutant writer/director as a talent to watch.

Read my interview with J Blakeson here

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Review - Lourdes

Every year, millions of people descend on the tiny French town of Lourdes praying for a miracle. Ever since the Virgin Mary apparently appeared there in front of Bernadette Soubirous, this location has become a place of hope for people suffering from debilitating illnesses and disabilities. They travel there on pilgrimage, clutching to the belief that praying at the shrine or washing in the sacred Lourdes water can result in miraculous cures, and most of them, needless to say, return home disappointed. Still they make the journey, led by blind and unyielding faith in God's benevolence, and every few years, a miracle is reported. Jessica Hausner's Lourdes follows a pilgrimage during which such an unlikely event does occur, and her film is one of the most remarkable studies of faith cinema has produced for many years.

What makes Lourdes so strangely riveting is the director's tone. She takes an observational approach, watching her subjects as they experience every odd aspect of the Lourdes experience. Her chief subject is Christine (Sylvie Testud), a young woman confined to a wheelchair by Multiple Sclerosis, who is paralysed from the neck down and completely dependent on the care of others. Despite her disability, Christine maintains a perky, optimistic outlook, enjoying herself on a rare excursion, and not giving a lot of credence to the notion that she may experience a miraculous recovery. "I'd rather go to Rome," she tells one nurse, "I prefer the cultural trips". Hausner's careful framing follows Christine's group as they are shuttled from one round of treatments to the next, via church services, photo opportunities and meals, all under the watchful eye of the stern Cécile (Elina Löwensohn).

Hausner is afforded plenty of opportunities to mock Lourdes, and others filmmakers would have undoubtedly found snarky humour in the crass commercialism of the place, or the often-forced sense of gaiety exhibited by the nurses, who provide an award at the end of the trip to the "Best Pilgrim." In one scene, we find a group members of the Order of Malta telling a joke about God and The Virgin Mary making holiday plans, and Mary says Lourdes is a great idea because she's "never been there before"; but Hausner simply takes this all in her stride and approaches it with the same objectivity, refusing to pass judgement on what she sees, allowing the audience to develop our own take on it. Her patient, ambiguous style even extends to the depiction of the miraculous event that does occur halfway through her narrative. As she is being wheeled through a grotto, Christine reaches out and brushes the wall with her hand. She withdraws the hand so quickly nobody even notices – even the viewer might wonder if we saw what we think we saw – and she is wheeled out of the frame with an inscrutable look on her face.

Given her situation, the actress playing Christine needs to do a great deal of performing with her face alone, so it is fortunate that Sylvie Testud is such an expressive figure. This is a masterpiece of contained, minimal acting. Testud's visage draws the eye effortlessly; she looks so fragile, but her face reveals her curiosity, thoughtfulness and wit. Her brief flirtation with a handsome male volunteer is portrayed in a touching and sweet fashion, and she plays her tentative reaction to her miraculous recovery beautifully. Her small, hesitant movements reveal Christine's nervousness at the unimaginable new life that has now opened up before her, one that is both exciting and fearful. All she has ever wanted is a "normal" life.

It is the reaction to Christine's transformation that most interests Hausner. As some of the pilgrims fawn over the miraculous figure in their midst, others snipe with petty comments that betray their jealousy – why is she the chosen one? Why not me? Hausner doesn't even give us the satisfaction of confirming the veracity of her protagonist's cure. She has to subject herself to testing by the an official medical committee, and in the stunning climactic sequence, she leaves Christine's fate hanging up in the air, inviting us to speculate on this enigmatic young woman's future. Lourdes is a beguiling and tantalising film, and Hausner's cool and wry filmmaking style proves to be the perfect approach to draw out the compelling mysteries at the heart of this tricky subject matter. Few films tackle issues of faith today and fewer still do so with genuine inquisitiveness. Lourdes deserves to be seen for that reason, and also for a central performance that is some kind of small miracle in itself.

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

It started last summer as a challenge made in jest, and yesterday it became a reality. I can still remember the conversation at work last year that led to this madness, when a discussion of the London Marathon led to sarcastic comments of the "I'd love to see Phil doing it" variety. In a fit of pique, I decided to prove them wrong by signing up for the 2010 run, despite my rather unimpressive physical condition. I haven't engaged in any kind of regular exercise since I played football as a teenager – and even then I was a goalkeeper – so I had some serious work to do in order to get myself in shape for this. Last August, I bought some running gear and trainers and set out on my first run. I returned half an hour later, completely knackered and out of breath, and having failed to master a 2-mile jog. This truly was going to be a long, long road.

Gradually, however, I began to find my feet. The runs slowly got longer as the weather conditions got worse, and when I completed an 8-mile run in October I felt for the first time that I might be on track to accomplish my goal. It was hard to maintain the motivation and dedication required to keep my training up as the harsh winter weather set in, the snow and ice meant January was almost a complete write-off, and the half marathon I completed in Brighton in February was the absolute nadir of my whole experience, with atrocious conditions from start to finish. At least, I thought, this is as bad as it can possibly get.

Ultimately, that proved to be the case, and the rest of my training went relatively smoothly. I have suffered some minor injury worries along the way, mostly with my hip and my calves, which have provided constant niggles, but some careful stretching has helped me minimise those issues. When the day itself finally arrived, I was feeling oddly sanguine about the prospect of running 26.2 miles. The weather predictions were totally wide of the mark, and the anticipated scorching heat didn't materialise as the race started in chilly, wet conditions, but having trained in such weather for months, that probably suited me better. I breezed through the first half of the marathon with relative ease, maintaining a steady pace throughout and feeling pretty good about it all. The second half of the race, however, was much more of a challenge.

Miles 15 to 20 took us around the Isle of Dogs/Canary Wharf area, and that's where I first started to feel the heat – literally, in fact, as this was where the sun finally started to break through the clouds. I was holding up a lot better than some competitors, though; it's an unsettling sight when you run past people lying on the ground in agony, or being carted off on a stretcher and wearing an oxygen mask. To be honest, the marathon is as much a mental challenge as a physical one, and when my fatigued legs started telling me that they wanted to quit it took every ounce of my determination to force myself onwards. All the while, I was terrified of one thing – The Wall. Runners talk of "hitting the wall" in the same hushed, haunted tones as a war veteran recalling terrible events, and now I know what they mean. I ran straight into that wall at the 22-mile mark, and I honestly feared that I would have to throw in the towel. I simply had nothing left to give, and I could see people dropping out around me, but I had promised myself that I would keep going unless I completely keeled over. I couldn't let my charity down; I couldn't let my friends and family down; I couldn't let myself down.

The other thing that carried me onwards was the magnificent support of the spectators who lined the entire route. Their cheers and shouts of encouragement gave the runners a huge lift just when they needed it most, and when I got into the last two miles, I somehow found a second wind. The last 400 metres was like nothing I've ever experienced, when I could see the finish in front of me and was being spurred on by the crowd. I looked at the clock and realised I was so close to beating my 5-hour target, which gave me the motivation to really push myself in that final stretch, crossing the line in 04:53:42.

Throughout the past few months, people having been telling me that this won't be my last marathon, and that I would inevitably get hooked on running. Alas, it hasn't happened, and I have never really enjoyed the whole process as much as others seem to. Every training run has felt like a chore, and now it's all over I'm just looking forward to getting my life back. Having said that, it was ultimately worth it for yesterday's experience. Running the London Marathon might have been the toughest thing I've ever done, but feeling of finishing it was incredible – I don't think I can sufficiently describe the overwhelming sense of relief, elation and pride that I felt stepping over that line. It was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life, and one I'll never forget. I'm now rather sore – well, to be more accurate, everything hurts – but I'm comforted by the knowledge that while the pain will eventually go away, the memories and sense of achievement will last a lot longer.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Review - Whip It

Making a sprightly directorial debut that reflects the bubbly persona she has displayed on screen for nearly three decades, Drew Barrymore's Whip It has an infectious sense of fun. Adapted by Shauna Cross from her own novel, the film is a portrait of female independence and self-realisation, with teenager Bliss (Ellen Page) rejecting the pageant lifestyle so beloved by her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), and embracing the rough-and-tumble world of the roller-derby. Here she finds an exhilaration and camaraderie with her teammates that eclipses anything her humdrum life can offer, and without her parents' knowledge, Bliss becomes one of the league's biggest stars. The drama that subsequently occurs is entirely predictable – Bliss falls in and out of love, rows with her parents, and has her dream threatened just as her team's final game approaches – but Whip It proves that the manner of a story's telling can compensate for any amount of clichéd plot elements.

Whip It largely succeeds because Barrymore knows exactly where her strengths lie as a filmmaker, and she exploits them effectively. Although she occasionally overreaches (an awkward underwater love scene, for example) her handling of the material is usually confident and appealingly vibrant. The roller-derby scenes are directed with an energetic rush, and I was often caught up in the action even though I'm not sure I ever fully understood the rules of this rather hectic and baffling sport (the tutorial sequence Barrymore includes didn't really help). Generally, however, Barrymore is smart enough to trust her cast. She has filled the film with good actors and she lets them provide the story with its motor. The ubiquitous Kristen Wiig shines as one of Bliss' teammates, while Alia Shawkat enjoys some fine moments as her best friend and Juliette Lewis is much less annoying than usual as the closest thing this benign film has to a villain.

But for the more emotional sequences, Barrymore leans heavily on two performances in particular. As the mother who initially comes off as something of a caricature, Marcia Gay Harden gives an outstanding performance, full of nuances and textures that only become visible over the course of the movie, and she shares some extremely touching scenes with Ellen Page, creating a mother-daughter relationship that feels complicated and real. For her part, Page delivers another fine display; she's capable of portraying both the guts and vulnerability that go into her well-drawn character, and it's easy to cheer for her as she makes the right choices about her future towards the end of the picture. We also cheer for her because Bliss is an all-too-rare figure in contemporary cinema. She is a female character who follows a specific path not because of a man, or because it's the accepted thing to do, but because she is good at it and it makes her feel great. In a couple of months, Sex and the City 2 will be released in cinemas, and I wonder how many of the millions of women who flock to that picture will care that they are watching characters who seem to be defined solely by their clothes and their relationships? The lack of decent female representation in cinema is a regular lament, so when films like Whip It come along, please make an effort to seek them out.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Running Man: Final Update

There is now less than a week to go until I finally run the London Marathon. Part of me is excited at the prospect, while a considerably larger part of me is terrified (26 bloody miles!), but I'm mainly just looking forward to getting it done. Training for this thing has been extremely hard at times, but hopefully it will all be worthwhile when I finally run – or limp, or crawl – across that finish line.

I've raised over half of my target for Sense so far, and many thanks to everyone who has sponsored me. There's still time to support this very worthy cause here.

I'll be writing about my marathon experience here as soon as I've recovered from it...but that may take some time.

Review - The Ghost

The Ghost is being sold as a thriller, which is likely to cause a sense of disappointment in many viewers. That's not to say the film isn't good – far from it – but it doesn't fit with the contemporary perception of what a thriller should be. There are no shootouts, punch-ups or explosions, there's only one car chase (in which no destruction is caused), and the film moves at a steady, patient pace. The latest Jason Bourne film this is not. The pleasure we get from watching The Ghost is the pleasure of knowing that we are in safe hands throughout. From the unsettling opening image to the brilliant closing shot, this is the work of a man who knows exactly how to direct a great thriller.

That man is Roman Polanski, and The Ghost is one of the most accomplished and purely entertaining films he has made in the past twenty years. An adaptation of the novel by Robert Harris – who shares a screenplay credit with Polanski – The Ghost is the story of a controversial ex-Prime Minister (an outstanding Pierce Brosnan) whose forthcoming memoirs contain information that some are willing to kill for. One man has already died in the process, the former ghostwriter, whose body was found on a beach having "accidentally" fallen from a ferry, and the publishers are on the hunt for a replacement. The man they eventually settle on is never named in the film. He is simply referred to as The Ghost, and he is played by Ewan McGregor, whose slightly naïve charm is perfectly suited to the role. McGregor's character is a hack writer who admits to no interest in politics, but the publishers bring him on board because he claims he'll be able to bring a sense of heart to Adam Lang's story.

It's a major and lucrative break for The Ghost, but he has no idea what he is getting himself into. Lang is currently residing on a reclusive island retreat off the American East Coast, where he can hide away from both the press and the protestors who accuse him of war crimes and insist he faces justice at The Hague. Fearing the consequences if he returns to Europe, Lang is sheltering under the protective wing of Washington, and perhaps the depiction of a life being lived in exile was what attracted Polanski to the project. His depiction of such a life is certainly bleak; the Langs' current residence is like a prison, with its imposing brick walls on the inside and a constantly grey, wintry pall hanging over it on the outside, and Polanski uses this setting to create an air of constant menace and unease. The director's control of this material is absolute. His mise-en-scène is always precise and artful, and The Ghost allows him to stage a series of set-pieces that are pulled off with consummate aplomb. The act of retracing a dead man's journey through his pre-programmed sat-nav is a pleasingly idiosyncratic touch, while the climactic revelation – in which a note passes across the screen leading to a beautiful reaction shot – is masterfully handled.

Directorial touches like this help to raise The Ghost far above the generic origins of its screenplay. The film's plotting occasionally suffers from the clanging obviousness that plagues novels like this – one character's secret CIA affiliation is uncovered by a quick Google search, and I sometimes wondered if burying a coded message in a manuscript was such a smart course of action – but the handling of the drama is smooth enough to forgive such awkward spots. The Ghost is also surprisingly funny, shot through with a dry wit and a number of perfectly played comic moments. With odd asides like a gardener's attempts to rake leaves on a windy day or a strangely attired hotel clerk, Polanski brings a pleasingly off-kilter sense of humour to the film, and the script has a series of terrific lines. "He can't drown two writers. You're not kittens!" was a personal favourite that made me laugh out loud, but I also liked the response Lang's wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) gives when McGregor's Ghost asks her if she ever wanted to be a proper politician; "Of course" she retorts sharply, "Didn't you ever want to be a proper writer?"

The brilliance of the ensemble acting here is perhaps Polanski's finest achievement with The Ghost. When she's on screen, Olivia Williams acts everyone else off it, giving a dryly caustic but occasionally vulnerable turn as the long-suffering wife. Everyone is terrific, though, with Brosnan giving arguably his best performance as Lang, and the fun that the actors appear to be having with their roles is matched by the fun I was having watching them. With each scene, Polanski ratchets up the pleasure a little more, to the point where The Ghost becomes one of the year's most satisfying pieces of filmmaking. Given his current situation, this may be the last Roman Polanski film we will ever see, and that's a shame, because whatever you think about this strange and fascinating man, it's impossible to deny that he is still a master filmmaker.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Review - Cemetery Junction

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant have spoken of their desire for Cemetery Junction to be seen as a film that deserves to reside on the big screen, one that isn't simply TV or DVD fodder masquerading as something more. Their film hardly lives up to such expectations, though. While Remi Adefarasin's cinematography gives the picture a superficially cinematic sheen, this is essentially small-minded fare, unimaginative in its ambitions and clumsy in its execution. When Gervais and Merchant introduce their principal characters, it's far too easy anticipate how their stories will be resolved, and the filmmakers never manage to confound our expectations. Their depiction of life in 1970's Reading may have its roots in personal experiences, but it feels like all-too-familiar territory.

Played by an appealing cast of unknowns, the characters are familiar types. Freddie (Christian Cooke) is our hero, a good-looking nice guy who wants to better himself, taking a job as an insurance salesman in the hope of avoiding a life as a factory worker, which is the life his bigoted father (Gervais) is living. For Freddie, rising through the ranks of the insurance firm, under the tutelage of boss Mr Kendrick (Ralph Fiennes) and his obsequious underling Mike Ramsay (Matthew Goode), is the only way to escape this dreary, dead-end town, until the arrival of Julie (Felicity Jones) – Mr Kendrick's daughter and Freddie's fiancée – opens his eyes to something new. She's a childhood friend of Freddie's, whose desire to travel the world as a photographer is at odds with the expectations of her father and husband-to-be, both of whom view a woman's place as being in the home raising her children.

That theme of escape and of self-improvement is one that runs through Gervais and Merchant's work, from their excellent The Office to their less impressive follow-up Extras, but they can't find any new angle or insight here. The writing is often crass and two-dimensional, with the depiction of Freddie's home life, in which his father, mother (Julia Davis) and grandmother (Anne Reid) trade racist banter around the kitchen table, being particularly risible. This lack of subtlety is mirrored in scenes from Julie's home life, with Mike and her father being portrayed as an appallingly chauvinistic pair and her meek mother (Emily Watson) acting as a kind of warning for the character, showing what a life living under these conditions can do to a woman (the climactic tea-pouring sequence is absurdly heavy-handed). We know that there's no way the beautiful and sensitive pairing of Freddie and Julie belong here, and Gervais and Merchant have fallen into the trap of making their characters' choices for them, by giving them no real choice at all. Other characters are written with a similar lack of finesse. Freddie's friend Bruce (Tom Hughes) is a feckless rebel from a broken home while Snork (Jack Doolan) is a fat and stupid loser whose sole purpose is to be the comic relief. Both actors are fine, but they are given very little to play, and Snork in particular is an implausibly clueless creation, whose eventual relationship with an equally simpleminded woman feels like a cheap and condescending move.

As a production, Cemetery Junction looks the part, with the decent production design creating an evocative portrait of the 70's in a small town, but Gervais and Merchant don't do anything interesting within that setting. Cemetery Junction doesn't have an original idea in its head, with the filmmakers employing a bland directorial style, writing clichéd dialogue for their actors, and making lazy choices from the decade for the soundtrack. The big comic set-pieces – notably a major embarrassment at an awards dinner – are laboriously set up and, when we finally reach the punchline, they tend to fall horribly flat. There's hardly a single laugh in the picture, which is the biggest surprise, as that's the one aspect of the film you'd imagine Gervais and Merchant could be relied upon to get right. Cemetery Junction is as dreary and lifeless as the town its characters are trying to escape from, and when they finally do break free, in the film's romantic conclusion, the effect is nullified by the feeling that we've seen it all before.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Review - I Am Love (Io sono l'amore)

Beautiful. That's the word that most appropriately sums up I Am Love – the film is a portrait of beautiful people in beautiful surroundings, and it has been beautifully made. The story is the stuff of old-fashioned romantic melodrama, but it's the style rather than the content that catches the eye here. Luca Guadagnino's film is unashamedly grandiose in its cinematic approach, with the elegant cinematography and strident musical accompaniment creating a visual and aural feast for cinephiles to enjoy. I Am Love references directors such as Michael Powell, Max Ophuls, Lucino Visconti and Alfred Hitchcock among others as it sweeps us forward with its vivid cinematic brio, but there are times when the film's script struggles to keep pace with the direction.

At these uneven moments, Guadagnino is fortunate to have Tilda Swinton on hand, as she provides I Am Love with a rock-solid centre. Giving yet another mesmerising display, Swinton plays Emma, the Russian-born wife of an Italian businessman. She has married into the Recchi family, a powerful dynasty that has made its fortune in textiles, and the film opens on a night of celebration, with the clan convening to celebrate the birthday of their dying patriarch, Edoardo (Gabriele Ferzetti). He chooses this night to announce his successor, although his decision to hand the reins of power to both his son Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and his grandson Edoardo Jr. (Flavio Parenti) raises eyebrows. "It will take two men to replace me," he announces, although the surprising twist has clearly injected a sense of tension into the hitherto convivial atmosphere.

Guadagnino will occasionally return to the affairs of the Recchi business empire throughout I Am Love, but to tell the truth, it is not particularly interesting. The film is far more engaging when it is dealing with the affairs of the heart, particularly those experienced by Emma, who is much taken by her son's friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a working-class chef. Surprisingly, her first scene of rapture occurs not in a sexual context, but in a sensual one, with Emma being enchanted by the taste of the food Antonio has prepared in his restaurant. The rest of her dining companions fade into shadows and the camera moves in close as Emma, illuminated by a spotlight, savours every sumptuous bite of her meal. It's a transcendent moment, and a wonderful example of the director's ability to convey emotions and sensations through his imaginative camerawork, editing and musical choices.

This ability comes into play again later, when Emma and Antonio finally consummate their passion in a sun-drenched field, although it's really the lead actress who sells her character's sexual reawakening. I Am Love has been a passion project for Swinton, who has developed the film with the director over the past decade, and she is fully invested in the part. When Emma begins her affair she appears as a woman revitalised, loosening her chignon and becoming freer in her actions, and Swinton finds stunning moments of honest emotion in her portrayal. After she first makes love with Antonio, Guadagnino cuts straight to the aftermath, with Emma rushing home and into her bathroom. As she cups her hand over her mouth, Swinton's face is aglow with mixture of disbelief, desire, fear and wonderment – it's a superb piece of acting.

At its best, I Am Love hits impressive emotional peaks, with editor Walter Fasano cutting inventively and effectively to the marvellous soundtrack, consisting of pieces written by the composer John Adams. Too often, however, the film is stalled by its subplots, and I was exasperated by Guadagnino's decision to sit in on a dull board meeting involving the fate to the Recchi organisation while passions were raging at home. I Am Love is unbalanced and often feels rather thin, and it will undoubtedly be accused of being little more than style over substance, but style is breathtaking and when the obviously talented Guadagnino finds the right note, both the style and substance meld beautifully. This is never more apparent than in the film's breathtaking finale, during which he choreographs the action to the bombastic score, allows the music to drown out the dialogue, and lets his characters' glances and expressions – each pregnant with meaning – tell the story. If Guadagnino had unleashed the full force of his operatic reach earlier and more frequently, I Am Love might have achieved the overwhelming emotional impact it is obviously striving for.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Desert Island DVDs

Imagine if you were shipwrecked on a desert island with no sign of rescue, how would you pass the interminable days and nights? I suppose you could grow a beard and start a relationship with a volleyball, or perhaps you'd like to get naked and hang out with Oliver Reed. To be honest, neither of those options sound particularly appetising, so I'm just going to watch a load of DVDs instead. Andy from Fandango Groovers has come up with a project called Desert Island DVDs, and he has invited a bunch of fellow bloggers to compile a list of eight films that are essential enough and re-watchable enough to be our constant companions on the island. The rest of the selections will be here, but my list is below.

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

Hopefully I'll be washed up on this island with a decent-sized TV and a Blu Ray player, so I can get maximum enjoyment from this selection of films. Certainly, Kubrick's sci-fi work of art deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible and in the most spectacular format. It is a truly unique and truly magnificent piece of work, and one that casts a spell over the viewer again and again thanks to Kubrick's peerless direction, superb musical choices and audacious imaginative leaps. It is as impressive today as it was forty years ago, and it will remain so for many years to come; a vision of life beyond this earth that remains unmatched in cinema.

The Big Lebowski (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1998)

I don't feel The Big Lebowski is the greatest film the Coen brothers have ever made, but there's something irresistible about it. I can watch this one again and again and, in contrast to most comedies, this one actually gets funnier and more satisfying on repeated viewings. With career-best performances from Jeff Bridges and John Goodman leading a flawless cast, the film gives every character, no matter how minor, their moment to shine, and the film is a collection of brilliant individual sequences that add up to a hilarious whole. If I'm ever feeling particularly lonely on my island, it will be good to know that I can pop this into my DVD player and hang out with The Dude, Walter and Donny down at the bowling lanes.

Fanny and Alexander (Ingmar Bergman, 1982)

I adore this film more than anything else Ingmar Bergman ever made, but rarely do I get the opportunity to enjoy it. It's hard to find the five hours required to sit down and watch this sprawling masterpiece, but on my desert island, with no distractions, I'll have plenty of time on my hands to do just that. It will also give me a chance to dig fully into the extras on the sumptuous Criterion edition, which offers both the 3-hour theatrical cut as well as the magnificent 5-hour TV version. This is the kind of film that displays what cinema can be – a film that completely transports the viewer, and allows us to share in themes and emotions that are timeless and universal.

Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)

David Lynch's Mulholland Drive remains as enigmatic and puzzling now as it did when it was first released in 2001, but it also remains as beguiling as ever, and I'm frequently drawn back to it. There are certain sequences here that are charged with such an erotic rush, or are so vividly nightmarish, they never fail to move me. Being alone on my island would allow me ample time to unpick the complex mysteries in this one-of-a-kind movie, and by the time I finally get off the island, perhaps I will have discovered the key to clarifying Lynch's film once and for all (alternatively, maybe I'll just be more baffled than ever).

The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005)

Mulholland Drive was my second favourite film of this decade, and it finished just behind this. Both films have a lot in common; they forgo familiar narrative structure, they are both films made by brilliantly singular artists, and they are films that can touch emotions other pictures can't reach. In a perfect world, I'd like to have a Blu Ray box set of this magnificent film, containing each of the three different cuts that Malick has produced to date, but I'll happily settle for the extended version alone on Blu Ray. It is a gorgeous film, and one that gets under the skin and sucks me into its lush world, which is a place I'm happy to spend many long hours.

North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)

This film is pure entertainment. As the adman who finds himself on the run after a case of mistaken identity, Cary Grant proves that nobody made being a movie star look so damn easy. It's a glorious performance from Grant, who gets so many great lines ("Obviously they've mistaken me for a much shorter man") and so many iconic moments to play with. The great James Mason is the villain of the piece, Eva Marie Saint is The Blonde, and the film is simply one great scene after another, culminating in that terrific Mount Rushmore climax. North by Northwest has it all, and it's a film that simply doesn't get old.

The Red Shoes (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1948)

Now more than ever, this is an essential picture. Seeing the breathtaking new restoration was one of my cinema highlights of 2009, and the spellbinding new Blu Ray disc is an utter dream. Jack Cardiff's cinematography is the finest use of Technicolor imaginable, and the imagination displayed in Powell and Pressburger's direction of this ballet melodrama never ceases to amaze. The whole film is wonderful, but I'd be happy just to have that extraordinary central dance sequence, which is unquestionably one of the greatest artistic achievements in the history of cinema. A truly extraordinary work of art.

Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

Finally, I've gone for a film that has everything you could possibly want in a classic movie. Kurosawa's hugely influential adventure has great characters, a strong storyline and some of the most exciting action sequences ever filmed. This director's greatest strength was his ability to strike a perfect balance in his work, knowing exactly when to give us moments of humour or quieter interludes amid the intensity of battle, and this epic is the best example of his remarkable judgement. I'll be happy on my island with the extras-stuffed Criterion edition of the film, although it is a bit frustrating to have to get up halfway through the picture to change DVDs. Perhaps I'll find a Man Friday to do the dirty work for me.