Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Arthur Penn: 1922 - 2010

In the space of ten years, Arthur Penn directed four films that were as good as anything being produced in America at that time. Penn, who died yesterday at the age of 88, is not as celebrated as other filmmakers from the golden age of the 70's, but he was largely responsible for kick-starting that brief period of freedom and creativity in American mainstream cinema. In 1967, Penn, who had previously collaborated with Warren Beatty on Mickey One, directed Beatty and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde, a film that stunned viewers with its uncompromising depiction of the outlaw couple. The jagged editing and explicit violence is still startling today, and in 1967 it marked a cinematic watershed, giving audiences something that the studio system was failing to do. As filmmakers revelled in the new parameters that films like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate and Easy Rider had opened up for them, Penn's next success came with one of the most unconventional films of the decade, Little Big Man, an odd western in which Dustin Hoffman excelled as a 100 year-old man recounting his eventful past.

Arthur Penn studied at the Actor's Studio, and his ability to draw strong and surprising performances from his casts later proved to be one of his greatest attributes. In 1975's Night Moves, Gene Hackman gives a magnificent performance as a private eye caught up in a nightmarish plot, and while Bonnie and Clyde is Penn's most widely acclaimed work, I think this film, one of the great films of the 70's, is his real masterpiece. A year later, Penn worked with two powerhouse actors, Marlon Brandon and Jack Nicholson, although he was eventually defeated by Brando's determination to act however the hell he liked and defy any attempts at direction. Still, The Missouri Breaks is a fine and terrifically entertaining film, and it's a shame Penn never really made a film worthy of his seriousness and talent after this. There were some failures and unsuccessful experiments in the years that followed, before Penn returned to television and theatre, the places in which he originally learned his trade. Nevertheless, Penn's place in film history is assured for the groundbreaking Bonnie and Clyde, and for his great mid-70's work which deserves to be rediscovered.

Sally Menke: 1953 – 2010

The name of Sally Menke might not be as widely known as that of Quentin Tarantino, but the director himself frequently acknowledged the enormous debt he owes to his editor, who died yesterday. Menke edited every one of Tarantino's films, from his blistering debut Reservoir Dogs to last year's Inglourious Basterds, and her influence cannot be overstated. While it was Tarantino who devised the dynamic sequences, wrote the crackling dialogue and selected the memorable soundtracks, it was Menke who took all of that material and shaped it into the finished product. She and the director seemed to click instantly, and her ability to express his vision on screen resulted in some extraordinary sequences. Think of Reservoir Dogs' opening and closing scenes; think of the way Vincent's ill-fated date with Mia plays out in Pulp Fiction; think of the pivotal mall sequence in Jackie Brown. Even when I disliked Tarantino's films, which I often did, there was rarely good reason to criticise the technical aspects of his pictures. I hated much of his Kill Bill diptych, but Tarantino's flair, Robert Richardson's cinematography and Menke's superb editing ensured both films were as vibrant and vivid as could be. Quentin Tarantino has lost a great friend and collaborator, while cinema in general has lost an editor who was truly a master of her art.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Review - Takers

The title Takers refers to the team of high-tech thieves at the centre of John Luessenhop's film, but it could just as easily refer to the filmmakers themselves. After all, every single aspect of the film has been taken from some crime movie that has gone before, with the work of Michael Mann being the most obvious source of inspiration. I was astonished when saw the credit that listed four screenwriters on this project, as it's hard to see how it could require four different people to fill a single script with so much clichéd dialogue and so many thunderingly obvious twists. But the film's most blatant act of thievery lies in its climactic heist, which completely rips off F. Gary Gray's 2003 remake of The Italian Job (there's nothing like stealing from the best, eh guys?). One of the characters even acknowledges the debt, but an honest thief is no less of a thief.

So who are these crooks? Well, the leader of the pack is Gordon (Idris Elba) and he has assembled a crack team that consists of Paul Walker (whose role is to stand around staring at things), Hayden Christensen (er...the designated hat-wearer and piano-player), and Chris Brown and Michael Ealy (playing brothers). Life is good for the gang, with every heist going of like clockwork and the police chasing shadows, and they are smart enough to leave a year between jobs, although that policy changes abruptly when Ghost (rapper and producer TI) re-appears on the scene. A former member of the crew, Ghost has just been released from jail, having been shot and left behind during a previous robbery, and he has a tempting offer for the Takers, an armoured car job that could pay off big time, but can he be trusted? Is he setting his former teammates up for a fall? And do they really need to take this risk with dedicated cops Matt Dillon and Jay Hernandez closing on their backs?

Of course, they take the chance, and throughout Takers, you are unlikely to be surprised by any of the plot developments. It's pretty easy to pinpoint early on which characters will be going out in a blaze of glory and which ones will be sticking around for a final showdown, and that sense of predictability drains it of tension. Luessenhop tries to juice it up with a slick visual style, but the film's camerawork is hectic to little effect, and some of his directorial choices – such as the attempt to stage a balletic, John Woo-style shootout – fall hilariously wide of the mark. Similarly, a chase involving Chris Brown late on is the first time Luessenhop injects a bit of life into his film, but he eventually loses his grip on the sequence and lets it run too long, with some poor editing gradually sucking the vitality out of it.

There's not much vitality in the performances either. Elba has considerable presence and TI has an entertainingly cocksure swagger, but the actors have nothing to work with (quite why Zoe Saldana accepted this pitiful role is beyond me). Matt Dillon's character is just one cliché after another (the non-nonsense, relentless cop who has destroyed his marriage and is neglecting his daughter in pursuit of his prey), and as hard as this talented actor works, he can't imbue the part with any sense of real life. But none of that ultimately seems to matter to Luessenhop. He doesn't seem to be particularly interested in any of his characters as people, and he is far more excited by the trappings of their lifestyle. Takers spends so much of its time fetishising the rewards reaped by the career criminal, with the camera endlessly admiring the fast cars, the gold, the suits, the cigars and the piles of money. This is a film obsessed with ostentatious displays of wealth, but all of that is meaningless when it is creatively bankrupt.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Review - Shooting Robert King

Did Robert King know what he was letting himself in for when he turned up in Sarajevo in 1993? The young American photographer entered the warzone full of big ideas, pondering his chances of becoming the youngest winner of the Pulitzer, and describing himself as messenger for the world. But Robert was also hugely naïve and unprepared, having no idea about the political context of the conflict he was stepping into, and with little sense of how to conduct himself as a wartime photojournalist. "The only thing I knew about war was what I saw on TV, and the only thing I knew about war correspondents was what I read in a book," he freely admits as he looks back on his experiences some 15 years later. For the other, more experienced photographers around him, Robert King is a figure of fun and curiosity. Few of them expect him to last long.

Robert King didn't just survive the war, he flourished, and his development from inexperienced nobody to acclaimed photojournalist is detailed in Shooting Robert King, Richard Parry's absorbing documentary which was shot intermittently over the years as Robert and his camera captured the bloody truth of wars around the world. The contrast between those who are visiting the frontlines for the first time and those who have lived through many is shown vividly in an early sequence, where Robert (a sniper's dream in his bright white shirt!) cowers in fear as bullets whizz past his head. His colleague Jeff Chagrin takes it all in his stride, telling the camera, "I've come to so many frontlines it's like taking a double-decker bus." Shooting Robert King offers a fascinating insight into the mentality of photographers at war, who have to put their lives at risk every day if they want to go where the action is, where they can get the only shots that count.

The film is full of startling, and often horrifying footage of carnage and bloodshed. Parry doesn't spare his audience the shocking sights that King himself often had face on a daily basis, but as such scenes of violence become a more frequent occurrence, the photographer gradually seems to develop an immunity to their effect. Casting his eye over the results of a bombing in Iraq, King explains that he has to see past the fact that the street is littered with body parts: "Yes, you know it’s a foot. Yes, you know it’s somebody’s face" he says, "but you have to look at it as a form and shape and compose those forms and those shapes." Robert is an amiable and honest character and he is upfront about both his achievements and his failings. Not only does he freely admit that he was recklessly unprepared for the life he chose, but he also discusses the way his life became sidetracked by the subculture of drink and sex that he was documenting in Russia.

Robert reminisces from inside a hunting tent in Tennessee, where he was filmed in 2008; older, wiser, more reflective and – by his own admission – far more cynical. Considering the manner in which Shooting Robert King was filmed, shot in various war zones over the course of 15 years, the finished product that Parry and producer Vaughan Smith (a fellow freelance journalist) have assembled is remarkably coherent. It works not only as a compelling portrait of an intriguing character, but in a larger sense, it gives us a unique vantage point on life in the middle of a war zone, and what it does to those who live through it. "How many nameless dead bodies have I stepped over?" Robert asks at one stage, and while it may be a question that is unimaginable for most of us, Shooting Robert King shows us that it's an everyday practicality for the war correspondent, for whom getting the story, and surviving to tell it, are the only things that count.

Shooting Robert King is released on DVD on September 27th. The disc includes an informative and light-hearted commentary by Richard Parry and Vaughan Smith, some deleted scenes and a number of documentaries on the background to the film.

Review - The Town

The Town is exactly the movie Ben Affleck needed to make to build upon his impressive directorial debut Gone Baby Gone. While this tale of Boston cops and robbers might lack the emotional resonance of his first film, it allows Affleck to widen his scope as a filmmaker, and to face the challenge of staging complex action sequences while keeping his hometown of Boston as a safety net. In The Town, Boston – or more specifically, the neighbourhood of Charlestown – is depicted as a breeding ground for bank robbers, with a life of crime being handed down along the generations from father to son, and Affleck undeniably has the eye, ear and feel for this environment. The film also gives him the opportunity to try his hand at both directing and acting in the same picture, with Affleck taking on the lead role of Doug MacRay.

Doug is the leader of an accomplished four-man team of bank robbers, and the film opens with their latest heist. Dressed in ghoulish masks they are swift and efficient, adhering strictly to a plan that has been worked out to the finest details, but there are two flies in the ointment. One is Doug's closest ally Jem (Jeremy Renner), an unpredictable hothead with an itchy trigger finger, and the other is Claire (Rebecca Hall), the young bank manager who they decide to take as a hostage after the heist. Later, as he stalks the only witness who can put his crew away, Doug falls for Claire, but this love story is The Town's weakest element. The development of this relationship is too rapid and it lacks the heat required for it to feel like anything other than a hackneyed plot device, giving Doug a glimpse of a better life and setting up the old "one last job" dénouement

So, The Town doesn't do anything that myriad crime movies haven't done before (it's hard to avoid thinking of Michael Mann's masterpiece Heat on numerous occasions), but it does what it does pretty well. Affleck directs with assurance and confidence, staging a number of excellent set-pieces, including a fine shootout and car chase, even if the action can become a little confusing at times (a situation not helped by the four crooks all wearing the same masks). I think Affleck's best attribute as a director is the attention he pays to his cast, drawing excellent performances from every actor, just as he did in his debut. Some members of the ensemble aren't given a great deal to do (rapper Slaine and newcomer Owen Burke seem to be there to make up the numbers), but all are convincing in their parts and some manage to spark fireworks with their brief appearances. Pete Postlethwaite is on great form as a nasty crime boss and Chris Cooper, in a single-scene cameo, gives an indelible performance as a lifelong criminal now waiting to die in jail.

In fact, a number of the supporting players manage to outshine the leading man. Affleck is solid in his starring role, but there are times when The Town requires something more, and he struggles to find it. We can sense the strain in his performance, particularly when he is acting opposite John Hamm (as a dogged FBI agent) or the electric Renner, both of whom make their turns seem so effortless. The fact that Affleck can't really bring off the torment that Doug is supposed to be experiencing means The Town never achieves the epic, tragic sweep he's striving for, and it means the film's running time eventually feels overextended. Nevertheless, The Town managed to hold my attention throughout and its climactic heist sequence is an outstanding piece of sustained thriller filmmaking. It's another commendable offering from Affleck the director, one that shows advancement in some quarters while displaying regression in others, and I've no doubt he'll make better films in the future, as his experience and ability grows to match his ambitions.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Review - World's Greatest Dad

Bobcat Goldthwait is carving out a career for himself as a filmmaker who looks for humour in the darkest subjects. His first film Shakes the Clown had an alcoholic lead character, 2006's Sleeping Dogs Lie built a surprisingly sweet and funny romantic comedy around an act of bestiality, and now he turns his attention to the subject of teenage suicide and its consequences. World's Greatest Dad stars Robin Williams as Lance Clayton, a failed author, a failed teacher and a failed father, although it would be hard for any father to cope with a son as obnoxious as Kyle (an excellent Daryl Sabara). The opening scene has Lance walking in as his son is engaged in an act of autoerotic asphyxiation, an early portent of the tragedy to come. Lance tries so hard to understand his son, to build bridges with him and make a connection, but Kyle is a real prick, seemingly uninterested in anything other than internet pornography and detested by the vast majority of his classmates.

Goldthwait's film explores how people's perception of Kyle suddenly shifts after one of his masturbations sessions goes tragically wrong and he ends up strangling himself. Lance returns home to find Kyle's lifeless body hanging in his bedroom, and mortified by the manner of his son's death, he tidies up the scene to make it look like a normal teen suicide. He even drafts a final note in his son's name, explaining why he decided to take his life, but Lance allows his writer's instincts to take over, with the resulting note proving to be far more eloquent and sensitive than anything Kyle would be likely to produce. It's enough, however, for Kyle to be recast as a misunderstood soul by those who formerly hated and ignored him.

World's Greatest Dad is a smart and smartly timed satire of the way contemporary society lionises and exploits the memory of the dead. As Kyle's former classmates display a hunger for more of his tender, poetic writing, Lance finally sees an opportunity to fulfil his own frustrated dreams of being a published author, suddenly unveiling his son's diary, and being invited on talk shows to discuss his grief. He even uses his new status to improve relations with his girlfriend Claire (Alexie Gilmore), who he was on the verge of losing to a more handsome, sensitive and successful colleague. Goldthwait's view of his characters could be described as overly cynical, if his writing wasn't so honest and perceptive in the way it punctures the disingenuous sentimentality that so often attaches itself to grief.

As a director, Goldthwait lacks a certain finesse, and World's Greatest Dad suffers from a rudimentary visual style and some clumsy tonal shifts. There are misjudgements, like a musical montage late in the film, and Goldthwait kind of fudges what should be Lance's big cathartic moment, but generally this is funny and clever stuff. The film has a cast capable of giving weight to characters that occasionally lack definition, and in the central role, Robin Williams gives his most committed and empathetic performance in years. World's Greatest Dad is a dark, dark comedy, but the straightforwardness of Goldthwait's approach and his refusal to yield to sentimentality or cliché makes it an oddly endearing and satisfying one. The film earns its occasional moments of touching uplift, most notably in its closing scenes, wherein a band of misfits and outcasts, all of whom have lost something, find solace in each other.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Review - Devil

Five people are trapped in a lift, and one of them is The Devil. That's the pleasingly simple setup to Devil, a new film burdened by the worrying tagline "From the mind of M Night Shyamalan," but one that thankfully doesn't suffer from the increasingly risible filmmaker's presence in the director's chair. Instead, Night has handed his premise over to screenwriter Brian Nelson and director John Erick Dowdle, who have done a serviceable job with it. In fact, Devil is a good deal more competent than the lack of press screenings – usually a bad omen – might lead you to believe, and I wonder if it's simply the Shyamalan association that has prompted the distributors to hide their product from the critics?

There are certainly worse films out there right now; but before you get the wrong idea, I should say that Devil isn't really all that good either. It suffers from a distinct lack of decent characters, some terrible writing and a frustrating lack of focus, but its effectively creepy moments and the intriguing weirdness of its story is enough to hold the audience's attention. That lack of focus is a problem, though. For a film about people trapped in a confined location, Devil spends an awful lot of time outside the elevator in question, which doesn't do a great deal to help develop the sense of claustrophobia such a film should thrive on. The first character introduced to us is Detective Bowden (Chris Messina), an ex-alcoholic cop still haunted by the death of his wife and son, who is called to the building in question when somebody jumps (or is possibly pushed) to their death from one of the upper floors. Also viewing the elevator from the outside are Lustig and Ramirez (Matt Craven and Jacob Vargas), a pair of security guards monitoring the unfolding situation via a security camera, with the religious Ramirez being increasingly convinced of The Devil's involvement.

Ramirez also provides an intermittent narration, detailing a story his mother used to tell him that conveniently reflects the events of the film. Devil trades in such storytelling shortcuts frequently, dropping lumps of exposition into the script whenever it feels like it, and giving its key players just a single character trait (if they're lucky). Inside the lift there are characters credited as Guard (Bokeem Woodbine), Mechanic (Logan Marshall-Green), Young Woman (Bojana Novakovic), Old Woman (Jenny O'Hara) and Salesman (Jeffrey Arend); a couple of them do offer their names at some point, but I can't for the life of me remember them. Is it really a wise idea to give all of your characters outside the lift more personality than the ones inside whose fate should be our chief concern? Devil ends up killing off most of its cast, but it all feels so empty and mechanical, with the viewer not being given a single reason to care as another anonymous soul is unceremoniously dispensed with.

Despite this, Devil is slickly put together and there's a certain compelling quality to it as we wait to see how the next poor victim will meet his end. Dowdle stages a couple of solid sequences even if he is often guilty of telegraphing the next twist well in advance, and there's a nice use of the lift's frequently failing lights, with the pitch-black screen and the sounds of panic providing Devil's most unsettling moments. It doesn't add up to much, however, and as the film progresses it simply gets sillier and sillier, with the identification of The Devil eventually proving to be completely arbitrary and nonsensical, as if the filmmakers had closed their eyes and stuck a pin into the cast list. Devil presents itself as the first of The Night Chronicles, presumably a series of tales conjured up by Shyamalan that he will then let other directors bring to the screen, and hopefully subsequent features will be step up from this watchable but mediocre and forgettable fare. In the end, all that lingers from the experience of watching Devil is the film's one truly startling revelation. You know how dropped toast always lands butter side down? That's the work of Satan apparently. Well, I had been wondering.

Monday, September 20, 2010

"I never get killed in dreams but I often kill in dreams" - An interview with Gaspar Noé

Gaspar Noé is one of the most daring and controversial filmmakers working in contemporary cinema. His three feature films to date – Seul contre tous, Irreversible and now Enter the Void – have each offered an unforgettable cinematic experience marked by the director's stunning technical ability and his willingness to explore the very depths of human nature. In every film he makes, Noé seems determined to see how far he can push both himself and his audience, and Enter the Void is his most audacious work yet, depicting death as the ultimate trip. I met the director when he was in London recently to talk about his extraordinary new film.

This has been a dream project of yours for so many years. Why has this film been such an obsession for you?

I would say it's because my favourite movie ever is 2001: A Space Odyssey. I saw it when I was seven years old and that was my first drug trip. I was with my parents and when I came out of the movie I was totally stoned. What was that tunnel of light? What was that weird baby with the big head at the end? They told me that the foetus is a baby before it is born and I was told by my mother that before I was a baby I was a foetus inside her belly, and that was because my father put his penis inside her vagina, so maybe I associate that movie to me learning about my origins. My whole life I was trying to reproduce the shock I had with 2001: A Space Odyssey, so when I started smoking marijuana at the age of 13 and taking acid at 15, it was because I wanted to go through the tunnel again, but you never get those images again. When I went to film school I said I wanted to do a trippy movie that could reproduce the vision and perception you have when you are stoned. The whole dream was to make another movie like the one I saw as a kid, and to put people in an altered state like I was put in when I watched 2001. You have been in the world of Oz and you want to become the Wizard of Oz years later.

And at what point did you make the decision to shoot the film from the main character's point of view?

Accidentally one day when I was 20, I was on mushrooms and I went home and saw The Lady in the Lake. I thought it would be great if the trippy project I had could be seen through the eyes of the main character so all of the distortion would be linked to his perception, and then I was reading books about out of body experiences. At that time I didn't know what the movie was going to be about but I started taking notes and I was obsessed with movies that were dealing with hallucinogenic things, like Easy Rider and Flatliners, and when I put all the pieces together I realised I should make a movie about someone who gets shot and then you follow his dream of coming out of his body. I thought I should also apply the structure of The Tibetan Book of the Dead so the trippy part of the movie with him outside of his body could be much longer. I had been doing lots of breathing exercises, inhaling every three minutes, because I read that it could lead to out of body experiences but it never happened to me. I studied hypnosis and tried lots of chemicals to come out of my body but it never happened, so I came to the conclusion that you cannot separate the soul from the flesh and the only way of coming out of my body is by making a movie. I can put a camera on a crane and film that, and that can be my only out of body experience ever. So it's a long process and I was also buying experimental music and watching experimental videos, and while I was working on other projects I kept on working on this one. It is like a collective dream. Maybe there's something you believe in and you want to procreate that collective dream. I don't know if Steven Spielberg believed that aliens and flying saucers existed when he made Close Encounters, but there's a collective dream that you want to portray.

What were the technical challenges that you faced as you set up those long tracking shots?

We had to rebuild all of the locations that were shown in the flashbacks, they were real locations but we had to rebuild them in the Toho studios in Tokyo. We were shooting from above on a crane, each crane scene took a whole day, and we were doing many different shots because we knew we could not cut those scenes. Thankfully, working in Japan is very different from working in the States. The people are so passionate; they can work 12-13 hours a day, six days a week. At the point where they get their salary they are not counting the minutes like they did in Montreal, because there are so many guilds, or whatever. So you pay the same salary in Japan, but you don't have all of the extras that you would have in many other countries. The thing I liked in Japan was that the team was very perfectionist and for a perfectionist director to have such a team is the ultimate dream.

The Japanese setting is hugely important for the film as well. Tokyo looks incredible on screen.

Originally the movie was to be set in France. I decided it would be better to film in English because it could be shown in most countries without subtitles, so I came to London and New York, but then somebody said the best country to move this story to would be Japan. It's far trippier and it looks like Las Vegas with the lights, and it has this psychedelic feeling.

Was it a challenge to get such an ambitious and experimental film financed?

It was hard convincing people to put money into the movie. I knew from the beginning that there would be a few explicit sex scenes, that I didn't want to use famous actors, that I wanted to shoot in Tokyo and that it would be very experimental – how can you convince people to put big money on that? What helped me was that Irreversible, which was a very violent movie, was commercially very successful, so the same people who sold that movie abroad ended up financing this movie. I don't know if they're going to get their money back. I'm sure in the long term they will but in the short term I think the film is too anguishing to be a hit. The script didn't show that it was an anguishing movie, it looked far more sentimental, but once you put the drums on the soundtrack and the effects of the bad trip, I was conscious that the film would be more anguishing than I ever told them. You don't tell your financers that, though, you always tell them, "Oh, it's going to be like Trainspotting mixed with Mulholland Drive and those movies made great money" [laughs].

I was interested in the different versions of the film, because I saw the cut that was presented at last year's London Film Festival, and I watched it again in a shorter version that was screened to the press recently.

When we first watched it in Cannes the movie was not completed. The very final cut of the movie was shown in Sundance, in January of this year, on a 35mm print, and there are just two versions of this movie. The official version, which was shown in France and some other countries, that is the 2 hours 35 minutes version and I had to sign a contract that said if it goes over 2 hours 20 minutes I would do a shorter version. Instead of re-editing the movie, to make it shorter for other countries, I decided to re-cut the reels, so you could just pull reel number seven out and you can show the movie with either eight reels or nine reels. I guess the version you've seen during the press screenings is the shorter version, where 17 minutes are missing, just a whole segment. During the London Film Festival they were showing the long version, but now they're going to be mostly releasing the shorter version and then they'll put both on DVD. I like them both. Maybe the people who really enjoyed the shorter version will see the longer one. They said they would show it at the Curzon Soho in the opening week, the last screening of Friday night and Saturday night, they will show the longer version.

How did you make the decision to lose that particular reel?

The scenes that are missing are mostly some astral visions and the moment in which the guy wakes up at the morgue and thinks he has come back to life, but people say, "No, you didn't come back to life, you are just a zombie, you can't even talk" or whatever. But I think both versions work, and weirdly, it is not a censored version, because the reel that is missing doesn't contain any explicit sex or anything that is shocking, so it's not because of censorship. It's mostly because they saw that the shorter version could be more comprehensible and more commercial, that's all. Maybe if someone liked the shorter version they will make sure the second time that they see the 17 minutes that were missing, like now they are re-releasing Avatar with nine more minutes, so why not? [laughs]

You seem drawn to melodramatic narratives...

Life is melodramatic, I cry very often. If I just think for one second of my parents' death I start crying and just by saying the words my eyes fill with tears. The moment you fall in love with someone you are already afraid of losing that person so you have these obsessions. There are aspects of the brain that are very universal, so if you put two kids in the movie who are losing their parents, that talks to everybody. I was watching Toy Story 3 and the moment you see all of the toys close to getting burned and they hold hands, I started crying, and I couldn't believe I was crying at a 3D cartoon, but anyway. Even if you want to make a movie that's as trippy as can be or as cool as can be, the thing that makes it closer to life is the fact that there is some melodrama inside.

You also enjoy challenging your audience and provoking extreme reactions from them.

We all enjoy playing spectators with our fears, and when you go to see a movie it's like a shamanic trance, you want to be scared by seeing things that you don't want to happen in your real life. It's like in a dream, I never get killed in dreams but I often kill in dreams, and I want to wake up because I'm so scared that I will be going to prison, but then I'm back in the safe world. When you see a movie that's a bad trip, you come out and your life seems so much sweeter compared to the bad trip. People say the movie is pessimistic, but you can say it has an optimistic secondary effect of people coming out and saying, "Whoa, my life is so sweet and I'm so lucky." Even with Pasolini's Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom that happens, seeing what torture is and what fascism is can turn into, "I'm so lucky we're living in a safe country and not living in wartime."

Now that you've finally completed this dream project, what are you planning on doing next?

There is one thing I was thinking of for many years, I have never seen the ultimate love movie. I suppose it would be a love story, a melodrama and a porn movie. When I fall in love, I have sex, and when you have sex in real life it's hardcore, so why can't you mix love and sex in a movie? In most erotic movies there are no feelings, and in life there are feelings, but since the beginning of the history of cinema nobody ever came close to what your everyday sexual life is. Sometimes an arty movie will include an orgy scene or a gay sex scene, or they will show a blowjob in the movie, but the point is not about showing the thing, the point is why can you not portray a loving sexual encounter between a man and woman on the screen without there being a scandal?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Review - Enter the Void

As much as I love the films of Gaspar Noé, I find it very difficult to recommend them to people because I know there's a very good chance they'll hate the experience of watching it. Noé's films seem designed to provoke extreme reactions from the viewers one way or another. His debut Carne featured graphic footage of a horse being butchered; his 1998 film Seul contre tous gave viewers 30 seconds to leave the cinema before presenting those that stayed with a scene of brutality that justified the warning; in Irreversible, Noé was responsible for an extended rape scene and a sickening act of revenge, sequences that were made even more unendurable by his swirling camera and droning sound design. He is a provocateur, no doubt about that, but he is also a remarkably gifted artist whose work is unlike anyone else's, a fact confirmed by his extraordinary new film Enter the Void.

Enter the Void might actually be the most palatable Noé film yet for those yet to be convinced by his talents, as it is less focused on confronting the viewer with shocking imagery (well, aside from the odd cumshot and dead foetus) and it instead showcases the director's incredible imagination and technical assurance. The opening credits sequence alone is packed with more invention and energy than many features I've sat through this year, and when the film finally begins, Noé enters the mind of his protagonist, allowing us to see the world through his eyes. Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) is a young American living in Japan, and we join him in his apartment just as he is about to take a hit of DMT, which provokes a long, hallucinogenic trip sequence.

It's a strange and beautiful interlude, and Noé takes his time about it, as he does in a number of these early sequences, which play out in real time. Oscar has conversations with his friend Alex (Cyril Roy) about The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the philosophy of which is key to Enter the Void, and then they make their way to a nightclub where Oscar is due to make a drugs exchange. Up until this point, everything has unfolded from Oscar's point of view, with Noé even incorporating the characters blinking into his image, but when the drug deal turns out to be a setup, Oscar finds himself cornered by the police. He is shot, he stares at his bloodied hands in disbelief, and then he slumps to the floor, at which point Noé's camera rises up and observes Oscar from the outside for the first time. His spirit is leaving his body, and for the rest of the film we will follow that spirit as it floats above the world Oscar is no longer living in.

If you've seen Irreversible, you'll know what Noé is capable of with a camera, the way he can imbue his film with an amazing sense of freedom and how he can utilise CGI and ingenious editing to create the illusion of unbroken sequences. Well, you ain't seen nothing yet. Enter the Void takes the techniques Noé mastered in Irreversible to a frankly incredible new level. His camera hovers over his characters, viewing them from above, and when Noé decides to move on somewhere else, he simply takes his camera through walls, or enters one object (it could be anything from a plughole to a bullet wound or a vagina) to emerge somewhere new. In one audacious move, Noé pulls back from a scene to take in a panoramic view of Tokyo at night, and then he continues to pull back, high into the clouds, where he suddenly meets a jumbo jet head-on.

Enter the Void is the most staggering display of filmmaking technique I have seen for a long time, but you might wonder if that's all there is to it. Certainly, the biggest disappointment I had with the film is that it never delivered the kind of emotional kick in the guts that both Seul contre tous and Irreversible successfully achieved. This is doubly disappointing because Enter the Void is essentially a film about loss, memory and regret. Noé intersperses the main narrative with a series of flashbacks depicting Oscar and his sister Linda's childhood, including the traumatic loss of their parents in a car crash. After they were orphaned, Oscar promised his sister that he would never leave her, and now, with her fully grown (and played by Paz de la Huerta) his spirit keeps that promise by watching over her.

There should be a powerful emotional pull to this material, but Enter the Void never gripped me on that level. This is partly down to the fact that Paz de la Huerta gives one of the most atrocious acting performances imaginable, constantly delivering her dialogue in a wooden and slurred fashion; if ever an actress was cast for her willingness to get naked rather than her acting ability, it's her. The performance turned in by Emily Alyn Lind as young Linda is a thousand times more powerful, with her grief at her parents' death and her separation from her brother being uncomfortably real. And yet, even if Enter the Void never really affected me in an emotional way, the film successfully hit me again and again with the visceral impact of Noé's direction. While I can't defend the director on most of the charges that his detractors bring against him (his reliance on shock tactics, his juvenile philosophy, his homophobic subtext), I find his films absolutely mesmerising for the way he pushes his own abilities to the limit every single time.

Enter the Void is a cinematic trip like no other, and at times it exerts a hypnotic effect. I've seen the film twice now, both in the version that played at last year's London Film Festival and recently in a shorter cut, and I found it even more transfixing second time around, when the loss of a reel (and the loss of an incident the film is better off without) gave it a greater sense of narrative shape without sacrificing its amorphous style. With Enter the Void, Gaspar Noé is trying to expand the boundaries of what is possible in cinema, he is genuinely trying to show us something new, and for all of the film's flaws, I found the experience of watching it utterly exhilarating. As ever with Noé, you're going to love it or you're going to hate it, and in years to come people will view this film as a self-indulgent folly or groundbreaking, epochal masterpiece. All I can say right now is that I have never seen anything quite like it, and I can't wait to see it again. Surely that in itself is all the recommendation you need.

Read my interview with Gaspar Noé

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Review - The Other Guys

I always enjoy watching Mark Wahlberg more in films where he gets the chance to flex his comedy muscles a little. Taking a look back at the actor's recent work, it's his turns in Date Night, The Departed and I ♥ Huckabees that stand out, rather than his more po-faced work in Max Payne, Shooter, The Lovely Bones or The Happening (OK, I'll admit The Happening did make me laugh). So it's great to see Wahlberg lining up next to Will Ferrell in The Other Guys, the new Adam McKay comedy which delivers a pretty successful gag ratio overall. Wahlberg plays Terry Hoitz, a frustrated cop assigned to desk duty after accidentally shooting Derek Jeter. Hoitz wants to get back out onto the street, but his partner Allen Gamble (Ferrell) is more than happy to stay inside the office, diligently filing reports and toiling away on the police department's accounts.

Instead, all of the crimebusting glory is stolen by star cops Danson and Highsmith (Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L Jackson), who are introduced in the film's explosive opening section. Danson and Highsmith are the kind of characters who will happily cause $12 million worth of damage in pursuit of a minor drugs bust, with the pair's macho posturing and self-regard recalling films like Michael Bay's Bad Boys. McKay, Johnson and Jackson clearly have a lot of fun spoofing such action movie excess, but The Other Guys really gets going when these two characters are out of the way (in a priceless fashion) leaving room for, well, the other guys to step up.

The pleasure of McKay's films with Ferrell generally lies in the loosely improvisational feel they possess, and the sense that the movie can spin off on a random comedic tangent at any time. The Other Guys plays it a little straighter than most in terms of narrative, but it still finds room for surreal interludes. Highlights here include a silent brawl at a funeral, Gamble and Hoitz cutting loose for a wild night of drinking and carousing, and a quieter pub scene that sees Gamble continually breaking of the conversation to recite a verse of a gloomy Irish ballad. The film also has a series of running gags that are neatly handled, like the central characters' unfortunate habit of accepting bribes from crooked banker David Ershon (Steve Coogan) or their chief's (Michael Keaton) weird tic of quoting lyrics of TLC songs repeatedly. Another theme that's developed throughout the film is Gamble's improbable attraction to beautiful women, with his wife Sheila being played by Eva Mendes. When Hoitz is introduced to Sheila, Wahlberg plays the reaction beautifully, his expression a mixture of lust, surprise and utter bewilderment.

Wahlberg is great in The Other Guys, with his best moments occurring when Hoitz is at his most exasperated with his partner's behaviour. Ferrell underplays his character's eccentricity nicely, and the pair's contrasting styles spark off each other extremely well. The Others Guys is flat-out hilarious at times, mostly in its first half, but there are periods in the second half of the film when the paper-thin and generally superfluous nature of the plot is exposed. The story has something to do with Coogan's character embezzling billions of dollars (it also has something to do with Anne Heche, who appears in a bizarrely truncated role), but it feels lazily stitched together and the film suffers for it when it needs to build some momentum towards the climax. Still, minor caveats aside, this is by some distance the most enjoyable mainstream comedy of the year, and it's worth sticking around for the closing credits, which offer a Michael Moore-esque edge that's most unexpected.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Review - Winter's Bone

Winter's Bone is an unusual thriller and it features a most unusual heroine. Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is a 17 year-old living in a remote Ozark community who is struggling to hold what's left of her family together. Her father is absent, her mother is catatonic, and it's left to Ree to raise and care for her two younger siblings. Money is tight and food is scarce, so Ree takes it upon herself to teach the two children how to shoot and kill for their dinner, skills they'll need in order to survive. Her brother balks when Ree tells him to pull the skin off a squirrel, but she is firm with him, saying, "Sonny, there's a bunch of stuff that you're gonna have to get over being scared of." Later, Ree's own courage will be tested to the limit.

Debra Granik and co-screenwriter Anne Rosellini adapted Winter's Bone from a novel by Daniel Woodrell, and while I'm unfamiliar with that writer, Granik's film evoked for me the work of another author, Cormac McCarthy. It has a beautiful feel for the bleak and often violent landscape its characters inhabit; the dialogue is sharp and spare but often lyrical; and it sends its lead character out on a grimly compelling quest that takes on mythic quality. Ree's odyssey begins when the local Sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) informs her that her father has skipped bail and unless he shows up for his court date, she and her family will lose their home and their land, which her no-good dad signed over as his bond. Ree resolves to find him within the week – she has no other choice – but finding him will involve digging into a part of the community that many dangerous people want to remain hidden.

The air of suspicion that pervades Winter's Bone gives it an extraordinarily unsettling atmosphere. There are few among Ree's neighbours and extended family that she can truly trust, and as she strides from one ramshackle home to the next, those who worked alongside her father cooking meth start getting nervous. Ree is intimidated and threatened (asking questions is a good way to end up "et by hogs, or wishing you were" she is told), and she is subjected at one point to an act of violence that is shocking in its abrupt brutality. She refuses to back down, though, and her determination to drive deeper into the darkness ahead of her makes Winter's Bone both nerve-wracking and utterly riveting.

Granik has a superb sense of pacing and Winter's Bone moves at exactly the speed it needs to. The director gives us time to take in the environment in which the story is taking place, with key details being picked out by Michael McDonough's outstanding cinematography, but when she needs to ratchet up the tension, she does so expertly. A stand-off viewed in a rear-view mirror and a chase through cattle market provide jolts of excitement, while Ree's climactic, gruelling night-time walk towards an unknown fate has a nightmarish quality. Winter's Bone is the kind of thriller that sneaks up on its audience; sucking them deep into the plot before they have even realised that there's a tightly wound narrative unfolding. Granik and Roselli's screenplay is brilliantly structured and succeeds in driving the story forward while also addressing a series of complex themes (the nature of blood ties; the way generations become trapped in a cycle of violence and poverty; the resilience of the human spirit in extreme circumstances) as well as developing a handful of strikingly memorable characters.

One particularly unforgettable figure is Merab, the wife of drug kingpin Thump, who is portrayed with a ferocious intensity by Dale Dickey, while John Hawkes also turns in a spectacular display, finding unexpected humanity and pain in the role of Ree's initially threatening uncle. Ultimately, however, this is Jennifer Lawrence's film. As Ree, Lawrence gives a commanding lead performance, bringing a quiet determination and no-nonsense forthrightness to every action and yet ensuring that we see enough of her fear and vulnerability to care about her as she marches ever deeper into the Ozark underworld. Ree is an ordinary teenager who has to become a hero for her family and who has to take on her whole community, and the brilliance of Lawrence's performance – and Granik's film as a whole – is that we completely believe in the transition. "I ain't going anywhere," Ree says as she comforts her brother and sister, and you know she means it.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Review - I'm Still Here

Is I'm Still Here real or is it a hoax? After viewing Casey Affleck's 'documentary' on his brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix's year of living strangely, I'm leaning towards the latter explanation, but perhaps a more pertinent question is, why does this film exist at all? If it is the real thing, and Phoenix really is cracking up in front of our eyes, then why did he agree to let Affleck film every stage of his breakdown? How does Affleck's wife Summer Phoenix feel about her husband exploiting her brother in this way? What exactly is to be gained from us watching it? If we agree that the whole thing has been some elaborate stunt then you have to marvel at Phoenix's Andy Kaufman-like immersion in a loathsome character – but to what purpose? It's unclear who or what exactly Affleck and Phoenix are targeting with I'm Still Here, and whether they're sending up Phoenix's image, our fascination with celebrities or the showbiz lifestyle he seems so desperate to escape from.

Whatever the truth behind the project is, I'm Still Here (which I keep typing as I'm Not There) is ugly, aggravating and boring, and any fascination the film has in its early stages is exhausted long before we watch someone take a shit on Phoenix's head, or see the wayward star vomit violently into a toilet. For most of us, all we've seen of Phoenix's eccentric behaviour has been his notorious appearance on the Dave Letterman show, where he reacted badly to the host's gags at his expense and incoherently mumbled his way through an excruciatingly embarrassing piece of television. I'm Still Here lets us see more than that, much more. We see Phoenix snorting coke and having sex with prostitutes, hurling abuse at his assistant (the frequently naked Antony Langdon), writing and performing terrible hip-hop records, and climbing into a tree in Central Park before breaking down in tears.

There are a number of starry cameos too, although it's unclear how in on the joke these participants are. Ben Stiller turns up to offer Phoenix the role of Ivan in Greenberg, provoking him into rant about how Stiller thought it was funny to put a "cat" in a full body cast in There's Something About Mary, with this sequence suggesting that there may have been some malice in Stiller's Joaquin impersonation at the following year's Oscars. The best scenes in the film involve Sean 'P Diddy' Combs, whose deadpan reaction to the terrible samples Phoenix plays for him at an audition is priceless (if he's acting, it's a fine comic performance), but such amusing moments are rare. Most of the time, Affleck just lets his camera run on as Phoenix raves and shouts, which grows incredibly tiresome very quickly.

At times, I'm Still Here seems to be critiquing the Hollywood machine that Phoenix has turned his back on. The film opens with clips from the actor's publicity tour for Walk the Line, where he had to answer the same questions again and again, and he complains about being treated as nothing more than a puppet, being told where to stand and what to say on set. Later in the film, a reluctant Phoenix is persuaded to take part in a press junket for Two Lovers (in which he gave an excellent performance), and once more we see him having to pose for pictures and answer inane questions from a succession of journalists. It actually makes you wonder why more stars don't retreat from such a soul-destroying routine.

But whether or not that's what Phoenix and Affleck are up to here is hard to say. The motives behind I'm Still Here remain murky and the purpose of it, the film's reason to exist, remains vague. I'm Still Here is either a painful portrait of a man falling apart or a self-indulgent joke played by two arrogant actors – either way, I found it almost unendurable and completely unedifying. Affleck's attempt to end his film on a note of pathos (during which he seems to give the fictional game away by casting his own father as Phoenix's dad) rings completely hollow because he hasn't given us a single reason to care about this man. Ultimately, it feels like the joke is on us.

Review - Tamara Drewe

Comic adaptations may be big cinematic business right now, but Tamara Drewe comes from a very different world to the various effects-driven blockbusters that have drawn inspiration from this art form. Posy Simmonds' story, which ran for two years in The Guardian, takes place in the genteel environs of the English countryside, in a small village that's whipped into a fervour by the arrival of the title character. She's played by Gemma Arterton, giving an appealing lead performance as the reporter returning to the quiet place she grew up in, armed with a new nose, some tight shorts and an ability to catch the eye of every man who crosses her path. Tamara Drewe follows the fallout from the various sexual entanglements that her appearance prompts, events that bear more than a passing resemblance to Far From the Madding Crowd, although Stephen Frears' light-hearted romp is far more frivolous than the Hardy comparison suggests.

Frears brings his customary sense of simplicity to the film, ensuring the film proceeds at a steady pace and that the various plot strands weave together without any hitches. Moira Buffini's screenplay keeps switching the film's narrative perspective between Tamara and the large cast of supporting players, which is a good thing for the movie, because many of those characters inhabiting smaller roles are a lot more interesting and fun than Tamara herself. Much of the film takes place on a writers' retreat run by philandering crime novelist Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam) and his long-suffering wife Beth (Tamsin Greig), who keeps believing her husband when he promises he won't cheat on her anymore. There's also a neurotic American writer (a funny Bill Camp) who is chronically blocked as he tries to complete an academic study of Thomas Hardy, and there are two bored teenagers (Jessica Barden and Charlotte Christie) whose sense of mischief is generally restricted to throwing eggs at passing cars, until circumstances offer them a more serious way to cause trouble.

What has always been consistent in Frears' films as he hops from genre to genre is the high level of performance offered by his cast, and once again in Tamara Drewe he benefits from a superb ensemble. Allam once again shows that nobody can play smug entitlement with quite as much relish as he can, while young Barden and Christie are outstanding as Jody and Casey. But it's Tamsin Greig who really impresses, giving an excellent and delicate performance as the put-upon Beth, with her slowly dawning realisation of her husband's repeated unfaithfulness being the most touching aspect of the film by a long way. Aside from that small hint of emotional depth, Tamara Drewe exists mostly on the surface, and for a film about people being ruled by lust it's a surprisingly passionless affair. The glib tone and the too-neat storytelling count against it, but Tamara Drewe can still be hailed as a success because of its genuinely funny moments and the uniformly fine acting. This may not be a film to live long in the memory, but you'll have a good time watching it.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Review - Cyrus

Cyrus has an intriguing premise and a first-rate cast, but Jay and Mark Duplass – who wrote and directed the film together – seem unwilling or unable to develop their film to its full potential. We're left with half of a decent movie, with that opening section seeming to set up a more compelling film than the one we're subsequently presented with. The film's most frustrating drawback is its failure to delve into its characters and their relationships in any kind of realistic way. For example, it's hard to understand why Molly (Marisa Tomei) is attracted to John (John C Reilly) at a party after hearing him make a drunkenly confessional speech and then crossing his path outside while he pisses into the bushes. Even John seems stunned by the development ("Why are you flirting with me? I look like Shrek!" he exclaims), but Molly is taken enough by him to end up sleeping at his apartment.

Left in a rut after learning of his ex wife's (Catherine Keener) forthcoming nuptials, John is delighted at this turn of events but also wary, and when he follows Molly home one night he discovers the big catch. Her son Cyrus is 21 years-old and very, very weird. He's played by Jonah Hill in a nicely modulated performance that finds the right note of ambiguity in Cyrus' too-earnest politeness and weird intensity. John is immediately unsettled by this odd character, even if he can't quite put his finger on what it is that feels off with him, but as he spends more time at Molly's house, the relationship he observes just gets stranger. Cyrus blithely wanders in and out of the bathroom when his mother is taking a shower, and Molly insists on sleeping with the doors open at night, as her son is prone to nightmare-induced screaming fits in the middle of the night. He's also jealous, possessive and devious, and the tension between John and Cyrus quickly escalates into a tit-for-tat feud.

All of which is very bad news for Marisa Tomei, one of the most beautiful and likeable actresses currently working in the movies, who is forced to take her practically non-existent character and spend most of the film as a passive observer while these two men squabble over her. Molly never questions the fact that John only discovers Cyrus after stalking her through the night; she never seems to notice that her son's behaviour is particularly odd; she never does much of anything, except smile sweetly and dimly and act as a catalyst for the central drama. The relationship (at times bordering on the incestuous) between Molly and Cyrus is not explored and her relationship with John never convinces. This is not the fault of John C Reilly either, who is as affable as ever in the leading role and whose befuddlement at the situations he finds himself in is the basis for most of the film's funny moments, but these fine actors have been given nothing to play.

Jay and Mark Duplass are making their first step out of the mumblecore movement with Cyrus, but they have retained their old filmmaking sensibilities. Shot in a scruffy fashion, with occasional quick zooms zeroing in on the actors, the film feels loose and shambling, and perhaps that's part of the problem. A film like Cyrus surely needed to be tighter, to drive its core conflict towards boiling point, but the Duplass brothers seem happy enough for it to drift and the film lacks the abrasive tension that one might expect it to possess. Instead of capitalising on the darker and more potentially anarchic aspects of its plot, Cyrus settles for a predictable narrative arc (will there be a big bust-up between John and Cyrus at the wedding? Will all of the characters learn lessons from this and become better people in the end? You bet). The filmmakers might make a token gesture towards an unconventional sensibility, but their picture actually grows less adventurous and less interesting with every passing minute.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The 2010 London Film Festival - Preview

After today's press launch for this year's London Film Festival, much of the discussion centred on films that didn't appear in the programme. I had certainly expected to see pictures like Love and Other Drugs, Somewhere and Rabbit Hole in the line-up; I had hoped to see Caves of Forgotten Dreams, Outrage and In a Better World; and I had clung on to the tiny possibility of a True Grit screening (and the infinitesimal chance of Tree of Life making an appearance). None of these pictures did appear in the 30 minute preview reel that played at the Odeon Leicester Square, but some very interesting features are in the programme (although the first three are all Surprise Film contenders), and here's my take on the programme for LFF 2010.

Opening and Closing Night Galas

I'm not a fan of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go, so this adaptation was an underwhelming choice for the opening film, and the brief snippet I saw this morning didn't excite me. The film is directed by Mark Romanek, making his first feature since the striking but sterile One Hour Photo, and it stars the three go-to British actors of their generation: Keira Knightly, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield. It's sure to be an awards contender, but this is not top of my list of films to see at the festival.

The closing night picture, however, is a much more enticing prospect. 127 Hours, Danny Boyle's first film since the runaway success of Slumdog Millionaire, is the story of Aron Ralston, a mountain climber who found himself trapped under a boulder in Utah and was forced to cut off his own arm to survive. It's an astonishing true story and will prove a demanding challenge for both Boyle and star James Franco, with the central character being alone and immobile for much of the picture.

Gala Screenings

Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, a psychological thriller about rival ballet dancers, is one of the films I'm very much looking forward to at this year's festival, with Natalie Portman reportedly giving a superb performance in the lead role. Aronofsky has been on an uneven streak, but at his best he is capable of creating vivid sequences that deliver a real emotional punch. I'm also intrigued by Biutiful, even though I've liked Alejandro González Iñárritu's films less and less since his outstanding debut Amores perros. However, a lot of that was down to the contrived screenplays provided by Guillermo Arriaga and this film marks Iñárritu's first feature since that pair went their separate ways. He remains a truly gifted director but he also has a weakness for melodrama and portentousness that may well be exposed by the story of a dying man (Javier Bardem) who can connect with the dead.

For his latest film Another Year, Mike Leigh has called upon a cast of familiar faces, including Jim Broadbent and Lesley Manville, in a story about ageing and loneliness, while Apichatpong Weerasethakul (thankfully, he also answers to "Joe") brings his distinctive Palme d'Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives to the festival. However, of all of the films that were announced this morning, The Great White Silence was the one that actually made me gasp with excitement. A documentary that details Captain Scott's fateful journey to the South Pole, it was shot by the Terra Nova's official cameraman Herbert Ponting and it has now been fully restored and will be presented with a live score at the Archive Gala. The images shown at the press launch were breathtaking, and I can't wait to see the rest of this invaluable documentary.

The Film on the Square

Despite a warning from a friend who saw the film at Cannes, I'm still looking forward to seeing Cristi Puiu's Aurora, in which the director himself plays a disgruntled man slowly drifting towards murder. The key word there is slowly, as I've been told that the picture's pacing makes it something of an ordeal, but having directed the brilliant The Death of Mr Lazarescu a few years ago, Puiu is a director who has earned my trust. Similarly, the enormous leap directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck made from Half Nelson to Sugar ensures I'm eagerly anticipating their third feature It's Kind of a Funny Story, which once again takes them in a new direction. Olivier Assayas is another director who constantly seems to be reinventing himself, and his biopic of Carlos the Jackal is surely his most ambitious film yet. It was originally made for French TV, but I'm looking forward to devouring all five and a half hours of Carlos in one sitting, even if it will take up the whole of my Saturday afternoon.

Other fine directors bringing their work to the festival include Errol Morris with Tabloid and Kelly Reichardt with Meek's Cutoff. I'm tentatively looking forward to Gregg Araki's Kaboom, even though I suspect this may be closer in tone to his earlier work (which I hated) than his recent Mysterious Skin and Smiley Face. I'm not really a huge fan of Jean-Luc Godard either, but the hugely divided opinion that greeted his latest film at Cannes has piqued my interest. Film socialisme is another of Godard's cinematic essays, with the director utilising a wide range of footage to say...well, what exactly? One way or another, it's sure to provoke much debate and a number of heated reactions.

I'll probably also try to make time for George Clooney in The American, Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling in My Blue Valentine, Jerzy Skolimowski's Essential Killing and 21 year-old sensation Xavier Dolan's Heartbeats. Richard Ayoade presents his directorial debut Submarine at the festival, while Thomas Vinterberg returns with, er, Submarino, and Jan Švankmajer is back (hooray!) with Surviving Life.

World Cinema

Of the French features at the festival, I'm glad to see another effort from Catherine Breillat, whose recent fascination with gothic fairy tales has resulted in an adaptation of Sleeping Beauty. Benoît Jacquot and Guillaume Canet are back with Deep in the Woods and Little White Lies respectively, while the ever-excellent Isabelle Huppert plays a prostitute in Jeanne Labrune's Special Treatment. Further afield, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu is a documentary telling the story of the Romanian leader's rise to power, Hunting & Sons is a Dutch feature exploring the breakdown of a marriage over an unplanned pregnancy, and Daniele Luchetti – director of the acclaimed My Brother is an Only Child – returns to the festival with Our Life. Eva Green and Matt Smith star in Benedek Fliegauf's Womb, Mars uses intriguing animation techniques to tell an unusual sci-fi story, and Lemmy is a documentary about the legendary Motorhead frontman. The clip shown from this film at the press launch drew big laughs, when Lemmy disputed the claim that sleeping with 1,000 women was a big deal ("I'm 63 years old. If you work it out, it's not that many a year").

To be honest, one of the chief pleasures of the LFF is always finding unexpected gems from all over the globe. After a quick glance at the programme the following films caught my eye: Southern District (Bolivia), Sawako Decides (Japan); Life, Above All (South Africa); Joy (Netherlands); Sandcastle (Singapore); The Magic Tree (Poland); Mysteries of Lisbon (Portugal); Cold Water of the Sea (Costa Rica); Orion (Iran); Revolución (Mexico).


This year's archives strand is tremendously exciting. Aside from the screening of The Great White Silence that I've already covered, there are restored versions of The Bridge on the River Kwai, Pandora's Box, Boudou Saved From Drowning, Man With a Movie Camera and Picnic. Above all, there will be a presentation of Edward Yang's 1991 film A Brighter Summer Day, which was recently restored by Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation. This is a film I've wanted to see for years, and I was delighted to see it in the programme.

In Person

There's an impressive line-up of actors and filmmakers appearing at the NFT this year for onstage interviews about their career and their craft. Peter Mullan, Hilary Swank, Mark Romanek, Javier Bardem, Olivier Assayas, Darren Aronofsky and Alejandro González Iñárritu are all scheduled to appear.

Surprise Film.
At this early stage, I'm putting my money on Somewhere, which would be both predictable and disappointing. I'd like to think it could be True Grit or The Way Back, but of course I'm still dreaming about Tree of Life. Yeah, I know it will never happen...but wouldn't it be the best surprise film ever?

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

"If you look at the news you can see what we are losing every single day" - An interview with Pedro González-Rubio

Ask Pedro González-Rubio if his new film Alamar is a documentary or a fiction, and you will receive a very simple answer: "It is a film." In fact, Alamar is much more than that. It's actually an extraordinary film in which the young Mexican director explores the bond between a father and son as they share a fishing trip together, and finds moments of great beauty and emotional resonance in their experiences together. Alamar is one of the cinematic revelations of the year, and when González-Rubio visited London earlier this summer, I took the opportunity to ask him a few questions about it.

How did you first meet Jorge and Natan, and when did you decide you wanted to make a film about them?

I have been living for seven years in the Mexican Caribbean, south east of Mexico, and I have seen how the city has grown very rapidly and has destroyed a lot of the mangrove and natural areas. I wanted to talk about the fragility of things and of nature, but also the impermanence of happiness, so in the beginning it was the idea of this man going to his place of origin and through very basic activities he would go back to his ancestral nature, and then he would die. When I was location scouting I found the first location and then I found Jorge, the young father, and it was an instant decision to include Jorge in the film, but he seemed very fit for someone who was going to die [laughs]. I just focused on the meaning of what I wanted to do, why someone would be spending his last days in this specific place, and by getting to know Jorge, his background, and people around him, I found out about Natan, so the story became about Natan spending his last days with his father and having this voyage of discovery.

Because Natan has this other life in Italy, we get the sense that it's particularly important for Jorge to pass down these traditions and this culture to his son, before he leaves it behind.

Yes, that's definitely the case. I mean, it's not the real situation, Natan still lives in Mexico with his mother, but I wanted to create a story of farewell and to make that more powerful I wanted to have the mother and the kid moving to Italy.

So how did you find that balance between the real relationship and the fictional story you wanted to tell?

It was not that hard, actually. I come from a documentary background and I had previously co-directed a feature documentary, but I have also seen the process of fiction filmmaking, because I worked behind the scenes on Babel, Iñárritu's film, so I saw the whole process of constructing a fiction there, and at film school as well. But my way of developing a story is through daily activities, so I put people with real relationships into these activities – like painting a house, cleaning the boat, sleeping and eating – and it's through these activities that I created the story.

Was the story something that came together as you shot it rather than having a clear plan from the outset?

There was an outline, and I described some activities that I wanted to include so I could talk about the bond between this father and son. In the beginning, I wanted them to be distant, and instead of through dialogue, I would portray how the bond grows little by little through activities, touching and the daily routine, and then I would end the film in Italy with his mother. On paper, it was a very abrupt ending, and it still is in the film but I think it works better in the film.

Both Jorge and Natan are very natural on screen. Did you have to spend a lot of time with them before they became comfortable with your presence and your camera?

Actually, the way I approached the process of filming Alamar was that I spent six weeks in total in this location, and in those six weeks my main activity was not filming, but was actually cooking or fishing. I did all of those things that you see on camera, and it was important to create a better intimacy with the characters and the situation.

You had to become a part of this community.

Yes, I had to feel comfortable living that lifestyle. I was a sleeping in my own hammock and the sound operator was also there, it was just a crew of two. So rather than arriving to this place and manipulating things for the film, it was the other way around, so it was about how these things would affect the film and the story. The pace of the film is the same as the pace of the lifestyle there.

Was your previous feature Toro negro created in a similar fashion to Alamar?

No, that was a pure documentary. It's similar in style, but it's 100% documentary. I think my next project will be very similar to the Alamar process. There are maybe some things I would like to change but I am comfortable with filming the way I did Alamar.

There's a great contrast between the calmness of life on land and the excitement and energy of the fishing trips, what was it like to shoot those scenes on the boat?

There is a lot of emotion involved in getting fish out of the sea and it's a very exciting process, but it was very difficult to handle the camera in those elements, with the movement and water spilling over the equipment.

I was interested to see Alexis Zabe credited as part of the underwater photography unit, because he shot Silent Light, one of my favourite recent films. How did he get involved in the project?

A friend of mine is also a very good friend of Alexis, so she told me to ask Alexis because I didn't have any budget for the underwater shots. I only had enough to pay for the gas to get to the place and the food for when we were shooting, but he's a very accessible person and open to new things, and when I told him about the project he had no doubts at all. He was great to work with and he was the perfect cameraman to take to Bancho Chinchorro, because for me it was such an intimate environment and we had managed to accomplish such a familiar dynamic during the film, that I needed somebody who would be peaceful and trustworthy for the kid, you know? Alexis is a very human and very spiritual person, and because we just had the bare essentials of equipment, I also needed somebody who wouldn't judge the project, like "What are these guys doing? Just a crew of two?" [laughs] I think a good cameraman is someone with great intuition about where they're filming, the pace, the characters, the framing and so on, and he got it right away.

Does your background as a photographer have a big influence on your filmmaking style?

Yes, as a cinematographer and a director, I am interested in what the images have to say rather than the dialogue. I want to know what the images mean.

You wrote, directed, shot and edited Alamar. Did you ever feel like you were taking on too much?

Well, I just had to do it [laughs]. I don't think I could have made this film with a different structure. I think I shot in total around 35 hours, and compared to the documentaries I did before, this is not that much. As I said, I mainly focused on other things rather than filming while we were there.

There are a number of moments in the film that are clearly completely spontaneous, like the bird suddenly arriving in Jorge and Natan's hut, which then becomes part of the story. Did you have to be constantly on your toes to capture unexpected moments like that?

Yes, definitely, I always had my camera next to me. When the bird came it was sheer luck. She came because she saw the bugs in the house, and the first images I have of her are of pure curiosity, but when she came the second day I realised she was an important character or factor for the film. I knew she wouldn't come back every day, so when she flies away it's like Natan flying away, and it's a perfect metaphor for Natan's own destiny.

At the end of the film there is a message emphasising the importance of preserving these locations. Has this aspect of the film received any reaction in Mexico?

It has been screened in Mexico but just at festivals, we don't have a commercial release yet. That was a big responsibility for me because I was allowed to go there with my camera even though it is a protected area. I think there needs to be more special consideration about how to protect these fragile environments, especially now with this oil spill [this conversation took place at the height of the BP oil crisis]. Today Obama said it was like 9/11, and if you look at the news you can see what we are losing every single day.