Phil on Film Index

Sunday, January 30, 2011

DVD Review - The Lovers' Guide 3D

The Film

Ever since we first discovered the ability to record moving images, sex has rarely been far from the thoughts of those holding the camera. I remember with some fondness a film released a few years ago called The Good Old Naughty Days, which was an eye-openingly explicit compendium of pornographic films from the earliest days of cinema, and sex has been a driving force behind other technological developments; becoming a key factor in the VHS vs. Betamax war, for example, or the internet boom. With that in mind, we shouldn't be surprised that 3D has now been put to use capturing the ins and outs of sexual intercourse, but the resulting film is not the salacious, sensationalistic work you might expect. In fact, one of the most notable things about The Lovers' Guide 3D is how un-erotic it is, for all of its explicit content. As the title suggests, this film has been made for education rather than titillation, and it does its job perfectly well.

The Lovers' Guide is taking this leap into the third dimension on its 20th anniversary. Since its first instalment in 1991, the series has been an enormous success, with its various sequels exploring every aspect of sex, but with this one the filmmakers appear to be getting back to basics. It feels like something of a beginners' guide, with chapter headings such as Flirting, Touching and Kissing introducing us to very first steps of a sexual relationship, and everything is laid out in clear and simple terms. Each section of the film unfolds in a similar fashion, with an attractive couple on screen slowly going through the motions being described in the voiceover narration, which is provided by Gemma Bissix and Jeremy Edwards. They take turns reading from the script but both employ the same flat, passionless tone throughout.

Having never seen one of the Lovers Guide films before, I wasn't sure what to expect when I was invited to a special screening of this new feature. The film is shot in a pleasingly frank manner, with the composed and well-lit cinematography leaving little to the imagination as it shows a variety of couples having sex. The use of real couples is one of the film's better points, as they display a real sense of intimacy and actually seem to be genuinely enjoying each other. Although the advice offered by the film is simplistic throughout, the script Edwards and Bissix read from does appear to be detailed and well-researched (there's a great aside about Victorian doctors manually inducing orgasms in female patients to cure hysteria). That's not to say the voiceover doesn't drop a couple of amusing clangers, however, and the matter of fact way in which a line like, "You may want to get an all-clear from him before sticking your finger in his anus" was delivered prompted a few laughs among the preview audience. Another memorable tidbit was, "A bruised testicle is a sure-fire way to get a man out of the mood" – Amen to that!

The biggest problem with The Lovers' Guide 3D is the pacing. Every single scene in the film plays out at the same languid pace and with the same style and tone, and this lack of variation ensures a sense of tedium eventually sets in. The film is only 65 minutes long but it has a tendency to drag, although at least the 3D is a little easier on the eye than it has been with some features I've seen recently. Apart from one startling erection shot, the film generally avoids thrusting things at the audience, and instead the 3D is used to give each sequence a sense of depth and focus. The Lovers' Guide 3D is a curious film that might have a limited audience, but you have to say that it achieves everything it sets out to achieve, delivering a straightforward guide to sex that's very easy to watch. Viewers looking for something a little more thrilling may be advised to look elsewhere, or bide their time waiting for a more adventurous director to take the plunge and explore the sexual possibilities of 3D filmmaking. Gaspar Noé, I'm looking at you...

The Extras

The Lovers' Guide 3D will be playing for a limited time at the Apollo Piccadilly Circus, but most people will see it on DVD or Blu-Ray, where it will be available in both 2D and 3D versions. The disc contains a 17-minute behind the scenes feature that details some of the difficulties involved in the 3D production, as well as interviewing key members of the cast and crew.

The Lovers' Guide 3D will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on February 7th


Buy The Lovers' Guide 3D here

DVD Review - Open House

The Film

There's nothing new in Open House, the feature debut of writer/director Andrew Paquin, with the film suggesting a lifetime spent watching horror movies and learning very little from them. All of the action takes place in a house being put on the market by Alice (Rachel Blanchard) following her split from husband Josh (Stephen Moyer), and the film opens with an estate agent showing a pair of prospective buyers around the property. While he does so, a mysterious figure slips into the house unnoticed and hides himself away in the basement. This is David (Brian Geraghty), one half of a serial killer duo, whose MO is to invade open houses and kill the inhabitants, before treating any unfortunate visitors to the same treatment. For reasons that are known only to himself (and are never satisfactorily explained), David decides to let Alice live, instead locking her away in the basement and letting her join him upstairs when his ruthless partner Lila (Tricia Helfer) leaves for...work, I guess? We never really find out what she does either.

As you may have gathered, a cloud of vagueness hangs over Open House, which rarely gets into any specifics regarding its plot, its characters or their motivation. The picture quickly settles into a very repetitive pattern, with David revealing a more vulnerable side to his character by allowing Alice to sit with him, before quickly stashing her away again when Lila turns up. This is supposed to be the prime source of tension for the film, but Alice's character is so underwritten we never care about her even in her state of extreme peril. The same could be said about any of the victims who turn up to be sliced and stabbed by David and Lila throughout the movie; they're just victims, and there's no sense of suspense as they are summarily despatched.

Brian Geraghty is good at playing unsettlingly quiet characters and he has some effective moments here (although his dress and manner is sometimes reminiscent of the superior Funny Games). Helfer's performance as the cold-blooded seductress is a little more strained, and while a sense of family loyalty obviously persuaded Anna Paquin to sign up for a cameo, it's a shame she only gets a couple of minutes of screen time. Even at just over 80 minutes, Open House is a surprisingly dull affair, which struggles to hold the viewers' interest between murders, and a sustained frenzy of stabbing late in the day can't energise the picture before its abrupt and unsatisfying ending.

The Extras

The only extra on the disc is a trailer, but a spot of googling suggests that the US release contained an audio commentary and some deleted scenes. What gives?

Open House is released on DVD and Blu-ray on January 24th


Buy Open House here

Preview - The Birds Eye View Festival 2011


March 8th 2011 is International Women's Day, and – in a neat bit of symmetry – it also marks the start of the 2011 Birds Eye View Film Festival. This festival, which celebrates and promotes the work of female filmmakers both past and present, continues to grow in prominence and it is now enjoying its seventh year. The programme for the 2011 festival was announced this week, and it once again features an eclectic collection of films and events, with new films from around the world lining up alongside classic, female-centred fare from cinema's past.

The highlight in the 2011 programme is the presence of Meek's Cutoff, the latest film from the ever-excellent Kelly Reichardt. It is an extraordinary film, beautiful and strange, and I can't wait to see it again. Another great auteur showing her latest film at the festival is Susanne Bier, whose In a Better World has recently won a Golden Globe and been Oscar-nominated, while Lena Dunham's much talked-about Tiny Furniture is one I'm very curious about. Other films in the lineup that have caught my eye are Night Catches Us and Grown Up Movie Star, while there are some equally interesting offerings in the very strong documentary strand this year. Lucy Walker, an Oscar nominee for her fantastic Waste Land, presents her new documentary Countdown to Zero, while I'll be hoping to catch Guilty Pleasures and Women of Hamas too.

Contemporary cinema is only half of the Birds Eye View programme, however, and there are real gems to be found every year in its archive section. The Sounds and Silents strand is always exciting, with female musicians being commissioned to write and perform new scores to classic silent movies. This year they will be presenting Victor Sjostrom's masterpiece The Wind, the John Barrymore-starring Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and one film I've never heard of before, Sparrows from 1926, starring Mary Pickford. Other classics will be on view in the month-long What a Woman's Gotta Do retrospective at the BFI Southbank. There are some brilliant films showing here – The Night of the Hunter, Fargo, Johnny Guitar, Aliens – as well as a couple, like Stella Dallas and Stage Door that I'm very much looking forward to seeing for the first time.

The 2011 Birds Eye View Festival runs from March 8th to 17th at the BFI Southbank, the ICA and the Southbank Centre. Tickets will be on sale from mid-February. Check the website for further updates.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Review - Hereafter

Clint Eastwood famously likes to shoot his screenplays as they are written, making no revisions, and that may be where the problems began with his new film Hereafter. Peter Morgan's script feels like a first draft, with plot points and characters merely sketched in, and the narrative held together by strained contrivances, as if they were put down as markers with Morgan intending to come back and add some finesse and depth at a later time. It seems he never got the chance, and Hereafter now appears onscreen as a bewilderingly half-cocked load of nonsense, and the work of a director who seems patently unsuited to this material. This film, with its analysis of death and the afterlife, and its reliance on curious twists of fate, required the light, otherworldly touch of a Kieslowski (admittedly, directors like that are in short supply), and Eastwood's typically pragmatic, workmanlike approach feels horribly at odds with the material. Hereafter bleeds vitality and potency from its first scene onwards. What on earth can you say about a movie that begins with a tsunami and climaxes at a book fair?

That tsunami does provide the film with a startling opening, though. It's a spectacular recreation of the 2004 disaster, with one of the film's three main protagonists getting caught up in the chaos. French journalist Marie (Cécile De France) is on holiday with her boyfriend when the wave hits, rushing terrifyingly through the streets and destroying anything that lies in its path. Marie is engulfed by water and she comes close enough to drowning to experience a brief glimpse of the other side, a glimpse that haunts her as she recovers from her traumatic experience back in France. She gives up on the book she has been commissioned to write – an explosive biography of François Mitterrand – and instead begins to pursue her newfound interest in the other side, following a path that will eventually bring her into contact with the film's two other lead characters.

This is one of those movies in which the narrative focus hops between separate narrative strands before they are eventually pulled together. In London, we meet twins Marcus and Jason (George MacLaren and Frankie MacLaren), the 12 year-old sons of a junkie mother, both of whom are appalling actors whose flat delivery suggests they're reading their lines for the very first time, although the pain of listening to them is at least halved when Jason is killed by a car. Meanwhile, in America, Matt Damon plays George, a reclusive individual who possesses the power of contacting the dead, but who hides his gift, believing it to be more of a curse. Damon's performance is the picture's most successful, as he brings a sensitivity and emotional weight to the role, but his character is as one-note as the film, which Eastwood shoots in shadowy tones and paces lugubriously.

Some of Hereafter's weird tangents are just baffling. There's the Swiss scientist (Marthe Keller) and her big box of evidence for the afterlife, the rather cheap inclusion of the July 7th London bombings, and an amusing cameo from Derek Jacobi (never knowingly underacting, even as himself). Morgan ties everything together in a clumsily laborious fashion, and the picture never appears to have anything worth saying about the afterlife, or any sense of purpose behind it. Why did Eastwood make this film? It is another lumbering misfire from a director who, just a few years ago, seemed incapable of putting a foot wrong. Since his hugely impressive World War II double-bill in 2006, the only Eastwood picture I've really enjoyed has been Gran Torino, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that he brought his inimitable presence to the leading role. I can't help feeling that Hereafter could have used a similar onscreen boost, perhaps with Clint playing an old man coming to the end of his life and facing the truth of what lies on the other side. It's a ridiculous notion, of course – after all, it would have required a rewrite.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

"Don't animate what the character is doing, animate what the character is thinking" - An interview with Glen Keane

A legendary figure among Disney animators, Glen Keane began working at the studio in the 1970s, where he learned his trade from Walt's original artists. He has subsequently been responsible for some of the most iconic Disney characters of the modern era, with Ariel, the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas and Tarzan all coming to life under his pen. Now Keane has helped bring Rapunzel to cinemas in Disney's Tangled, and when he came to London last week to promote the film, I had the opportunity to talk to him about it.

I wanted to ask you about your background with this film because you've been involved with it for a long time. Could you talk about how it has evolved from the time you first began working on it in 2002?

I actually started it in '96, so it has been 14 years on this film. It was while I was working on Tarzan, and when you're animating you're always thinking about what's next. I was thinking about this story that had always fascinated me, the story of this girl with this potential inside of her, born from a magical flower and with this creative gift. I started to develop it, I did drawings, I did an enormous amount of work from '96 all the way up to 2002, while I was doing Tarzan and Treasure Planet, and then 2002 was when I started work on it full time. I did a whole presentation for Michael Eisner and told him that I wanted to do this movie, and he said, "Yes, let's do it! But Glen, I want you to do it on a computer." I said to him, "Michael, don't you like these drawings?" and he said, "I love them," so I said, "But you can't do that on a computer!" He said, "Glen, I don't want you to leave behind what you love in hand-drawn, but I want you to find a way to bring that into the computer." I mean, he may not have been saying that for artistic reasons, it may have been because Shrek just made a bunch of money [laughs], but nevertheless, I felt that the challenge was honest, and I can't really say no to that. Every time the computer has crossed paths with me, I felt like it forced me to draw more in dimensions, to draw better. John Lasseter and I actually started the first computer animations in the mid-80s with the Wild Things test after seeing Tron. He animated the backgrounds and I did the characters by hand, because the computer couldn't do organic forms at that point. I realised that now I had to stop saying that a computer can't do what the hand can do, and instead I needed to start asking "Why?" What is it specifically that I don't like about the computer, and how can I change that? What tools do we need?

So we started off on this adventure and I realised the studio was pretty much split. There was a group of CG artists and hand-drawn artists, and they weren't really talking. So we had a retreat called The Best of Both Worlds where we bought both groups together and we realised that there were a lot of things that computer animation just wasn't doing, because it had never been asked to. For example, the computer does things perfectly symmetrical. Symmetry is easy, and typically the way you would design a CG character is that you would model half of it and duplicate it. It's done and it's perfect, but what you've done is you've created create this robot and everyone goes, "Ew, something's weird." With Rapunzel I did an enormous amount of drawings and I wanted to keep a sense of asymmetry in her. I read a book about feminine beauty and it said the key to beauty is strangeness in a woman's face. There needs to be something slightly off, some element; it might be her nose, her lip, her tooth, or one eye higher than the other, but something. Even in Rapunzel's teeth, the way she talks, there's something a little bit wonky in the placement of her teeth, and things like that were designed so that she was more real, true and appealing. We also had the characters breathe more so they weren't just CG figures, they were actually... [takes deep breath]...they have lungs inside them. There were so many different things like that and we started developing them and...I'm sure I've gotten so far off your question [laughs].

Don't worry, that's fine. How was it when you came back to the project in a different capacity then? Did it allow you to have a fresh perspective on the film you'd worked on for so long?

Yeah. In 2008, I had a heart attack and I stepped back. For six months, I took off and I just spent time with the family. My daughter had a daughter, so we have a granddaughter, and it was wonderful, absolutely wonderful. My first day back at work was...it was difficult because something I had been driving for so long was now in somebody else's hands, and that's never easy. You watch somebody else make their own choices and Byron and Nathan needed to make it their own, to direct a film you have to make it your own. One of the first things I noticed was that the dog was gone and a horse was there, and I said, "You took the dog out! That was my family dog, I loved that dog!" [laughs] Then I realised that they had replaced it with a horse but now the horse was acting like a dog, and it was even better. They were adding things but the structure and architecture was still there, and all the elements I loved were deep-rooted. The ideas all have their roots in the original fairytale, so I learned that in a new role I could just focus on what I did best, drawing and animating. I could take all of the principles I had been taught by Frank Thompson, Ollie Johnston, Eric Larson and the nine old men of Disney, and I could spend my time teaching. In dailies, when we worked with the animators it was like passing the baton onto a new generation.

That's why it still retains that classic Disney feel.

Yeah, there were these lessons. When I would go into Ollie's office in my early 20's, he would say things and I realised that I was hearing stuff no one else in the world was hearing, and the reason he was telling me wasn't just to be nice, he was giving me something that I needed to pass on. I would go back to my room and write it down because there were some profound ideas, and I found myself repeating them to this group, because they were so clear. I would say, "Don't animate what the character is doing, animate what the character is thinking," and it makes a world of difference, because suddenly it's not just a robotic action, it's an emotion that's happening up on the screen. Another one is, "Look for the golden poses, look for the golden moments, and spend time on that," craft that pose as if it was a painting in the Louvre and you only had one image to tell the whole story, sculpt that, don't move them all over the place. We were really teaching people to value a pose and have confidence, don't feel you have to move everything, spend time on the subtle things. Most of the artists were from other studios and they didn't know the Disney heritage, but they needed to know the roots that they were now part of, so I was constantly passing those things on and felt like that was my role. Stepping back from directing really gave me something I wouldn't have been able to do if I had been the director.

You have been responsible for so many iconic Disney characters. When you're designing one for the first time, do you have a particular way in? Is there an aspect of them that you try to capture first, so the rest of them will fall into place?

I have this strange belief that the character exists before I draw them, like it's already there. Everyone has heard about Michelangelo sculpting and releasing the figure inside the marble, and it's bizarre but it's true. It has been that case for every character I have designed, there's a moment when I recognise them and say, "Oh, there you are." I did hundreds, thousands of drawings of Rapunzel, but none of them were her, and hearing Mandy's voice helps too. She's adding something that gives it a certain irrepressible nature, and then the design locks in and you say, "There she is!" I also base it on people I know, it's not just out of my head. In this case, a big part of Rapunzel was my daughter Claire. I remember when she was a little kid and she always wanted to paint the walls and ceiling in her bedroom, she was an uncontainable little ball of creative energy, and constantly clashing with my wife Linda; "No Claire, you're not going to paint the walls." By the time I was doing this movie, Claire was going to art school and had become a really talented painter, so I hired her to create the look of Rapunzel's room. There was a lot of Claire in Rapunzel, and I think there's a lot of me in that character too – of course, I'm not a girl – but the qualities I really admire in Rapunzel are her irrepressibility, a desire to share the gift she has got with other people. To me it's a spiritual thing, that's why you want to do a story. I believe we have something to give to others and I connect with that.

Have you had to adapt your style in the age of 3D animation?

Not really. I think of drawing as sculptural drawing, so I've always thought in terms of 3D. Having it be 3D with the glasses is just a step closer to the way I do it. I love the idea of having this character in space and it doesn't need to be gimmicky or anything, although there are a few places where we take advantage of it, when we throw the hair straight towards the audience or the lanterns float out into the audience and the kids reach out to touch them. Those elements are fun, but the best thing is that Rapunzel feels like she's in space, in this environment, the tower is real, and we don't want the 3D to overpower the character.

How do you feel about the future of 2D animation? When films like The Princess and the Frog don't do as well as expected, it seems people are very quick to write off that art form. Do you think 2D still has a place alongside 3D CGI animations?

Well, I know Ron and John are working on another hand-drawn film right now, but that isn't to say that there aren't new directions for hand-drawn to go in as well. I think the traditional look of hand-drawn Disney animation is a medium in itself, just like CG animation, but that traditional Disney look is there because of the technical limitations of having paint on cells, and we don't have to do that anymore. When you draw, there's an energy in that drawing, and the computer can celebrate hand-drawn animation and help it be free on the screen. I'd love to see us use more of that.

Finally, you mentioned that you worked with John Lasseter in the 80's. Now he's back overseeing the entire animation operation at Disney. From a filmmaker's perspective, what impact has his presence made on the studio?

John has really brought his love of hand-drawn with him, because those are his roots. It's nice to see someone come back to the studio with that and honestly give people a choice. On his first day at work he came down to my office and said, "Glen, there's nothing more important at the studio than this movie, but you have a decision to make. Do you want to do it hand-drawn or CG?" If he had asked me three years earlier I would have said hand-drawn for sure, but now I had this goal and I really believed there was something to strive for and I wanted to do it CG. It was really wonderful to have that support all the way through the film because we were constantly reinventing and challenging the way things were done at Pixar. We wanted to do them in new ways down here and he wasn't saying, "Well, no, we always do it this way," he was allowing us to reinvent an approach for CG animation in our own studio. Allowing Disney to just be Disney was a really important step for him.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

"The thing I realised from directing is, nobody's to blame but you" - An interview with Byron Howard and Nathan Greno

Being responsible for Disney's 50th feature animation may be a heavy burden of responsibility, but directors Byron Howard and Nathan Greno seem to take that pressure in their stride. Their new film Tangled is a hugely entertaining picture that imbues the Rapunzel fairytale with a sense of wit, romance and adventure, and the result is one of the most accomplished and satisfying Disney films in years. The two directors were in London earlier this week, and I met them to talk about finally bringing Rapunzel to the big screen.

Before discussing Tangled, I'd like to ask you about Bolt. You made your directorial debuts on that project, both on the feature and the Rhino short, so what lessons did you take from that experience that you could bring to the Tangled production?

Byron Howard Well, one of the great things about Bolt was that it was really Lasseter's first film with us, and because it was his first film at Disney, we kind of got exclusive rights to him for about a year and a half. He spent a lot of time on that film with us, so for Chris Williams and I, it was a great mentorship programme and we learned a lot from John, as did Nathan, who was our brilliant head of story on that film. We got to spend a lot of time around John, learning his likes and dislikes, and he would communicate what he had learned from others, you know, he would talk about Lee Unkrich, who had taught him screen direction tricks and editing tricks, because he was an editor. We absorbed all of this stuff from John so when Nathan and I made this film we were very familiar with his bag of tricks and preferences, and we were able to go out on our own and play a bit more, because John wasn't able to be around nearly as much on this film as he was on Bolt. So that was a great experience for us. If you have to make your directorial debut on a film it's great to have John as a mentor, because when you graduate and go out on your own you're in much better shape. And Nathan, do you want to talk about your short?

Nathan Greno Yeah, sure. I really learned a bunch of things doing that. I had been at the studio for a dozen years or something, but I had only been in the story department and there was a whole other side of that studio that I didn't know, so I learned a lot just from working with these other departments and that kind of thing. You know, Disney has had its great years and its lean years, and even if I've been working on a project in the past that's not working and everyone's complaining, Byron and I are two people who would always give 100% and think, "We can turn this around." If at the end of the day it doesn't turn around, you sit back and say, "Well, the director didn't listen to the story department, or he didn't do this, he didn't do that," but the thing I realised from directing is, nobody's to blame but you. If the film works then you'll get a pat on the back, but if the film doesn't work, then your name is coming up first, like, "Here's who to blame!" [laughs] There's no other finger-pointing you can do at that point, and you realise you have to bring your A-game every single day. There's no going back too, because in story you can redo it and redo it, but once you're in production it's incredibly costly to animate it and then throw that out, so you'd better have that story in your head and you'd better have that direction in your head. I guess the pressure of directing is what I really learned.

I guess that's the benefit of having two directors, you can share the pressure and also share the blame if it goes wrong.

BH That's true, we can do a little finger-pointing at each other [laughs]. It's a really good point because your brain is being used at such a level that the demands are incredible, and it's great to have fresh eyes once in a while. Sometimes I might be tired and he'll be really sharp and it's great to be able to balance it in that way.

Is that why co-directors are so common in animation, because of the sheer workload involved?

BH It is massive, and you're with it every step of the way. We're there with the blank page and the story outline right through to choosing how many lashes Rapunzel has on each eye. It's crazy the detail that goes into these films and you wonder how they ever get done.

NG The other thing is that you can really challenge each other to be better, which we do a lot. We also encourage our crew to speak up and push back on us, and there are parts of our crew who have no problem throwing rocks at us if they don't like something, but there are others who are like, "Oh, it's the directors" and they get intimidated and won't speak up. So at least Byron and I have each other to say, "You know, this could be better." Because we came up through the ranks in different ways – Byron is an awesome animator and I came up in story, like I said – our minds work in different ways, so at least you have two people beating up the product as you go along and you come out with a stronger product because of it.

The idea of a Rapunzel movie has been floating around at Disney for a very long time. When you finally got involved in the project, how did you find a fresh take on the material?

BH
You're right, the idea for Rapunzel had been around since the 40's. It was actually on Walt's original list of things to explore along with Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Peter Pan and it's amazing that it has been at the studio for 60+ years and it's only now getting to the screen. The original story was a very tough nut to crack because it's just about a girl who's very passive, just sitting alone in a tower for the whole movie waiting for someone to come and rescue her – I don't want to go and see that movie! [laughs] So we had to give people a reason to come and see the film and give them a heroine who is applicable to the 21st century. We really had to find a dynamic female character who is intelligent, quirky and real, someone you can relate to. We loved the fact that she runs around in her bare feet, she gets muddy and she's out rolling around in the forest like a crazy person. The joy and genuine emotion packed into that character was something we were really attracted to. So that was a big part of it, just finding her character, and once we had her we had to have a complement for her, which was this Flynn Rider character. When Flynn was first invented in our minds we thought it would be a movie like Cinderella, where you have the main female character and once in a while this prince guy would come in, but he'd remain a lesser character. But as we worked on the story it became this very strong duo and that's one of the reasons we changed the title to Tangled rather than focusing it on Rapunzel. It was great, because for a lot of the movie you're relying on these two people interacting as the main source of entertainment, so if that chemistry's not working you're in trouble.

Although you have given Tangled a contemporary spin, the film also manages to retain the feel of classic Disney fairytales. Was that a difficult balance to maintain?

NG It was something we had talked about. When we first started on the movie, we went out to lunch and we were talking about the nostalgia for the great Disney films of the past – and we love them – but we couldn't make a movie that was just like, "Doesn't this feel like a 1950's movie, everyone?" I don't think anyone would show up to see it. It has to be a movie that will compete with other contemporary movies, and up until this point, I don't think you've seen a fairytale with the kind of blown-out action sequences we have in this movie. That was something we were really interested in, we wanted to know how far we could push it. How far can we maintain what's great about Disney, and make it recognisably Disney, but surprise the audience and take it a step forward for Disney at the same time. Byron was talking about changing the title and it was a struggle in many ways for us to do that, because it was like, "The tradition! The tradition!" When we first had Flynn Rider be a thief there were some very traditional people in our building saying, "Why isn't he a prince? What are you guys doing in there?" We also didn't want Rapunzel to act like a soft, traditional Disney princess, so everything we were doing was to flip it on its head and do something new, fresh and different, but at the same time relating to that classic library.

Part of the classic feel comes from Alan Menken who has contributed to so many Disney films over the years. How did you work with him to incorporate his songs into the story?

BH Nathan and I liked the idea of having songs in the film, but we didn't so much like the idea of giving it a Broadway-style treatment, because we've seen that before in the films of the 90's, and that had been done to some success, but we felt we'd seen it enough times before. What we really liked were the films of the 40's and 50's like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Lady and the Tramp, you know, there are songs in those films but it doesn't feel like a Broadway musical. We thought, that's great, and if we're going for the 50's look for this film then why don't we use that template as well? Let's make the songs really meaningful so that all of the songs are very emotional and there's something important story-wise about every song, but it's not really in the format of a stage musical. When Alan Menken came in, he knew we were trying to go for a more bohemian, girl-next-door, intelligent, artsy type of girl, and he said it would be great if Rapunzel's songs had a more handcrafted feel, more like a Cat Stevens or Joni Mitchell song, and he played us Chelsea Morning, which we really loved. Then he took those influences and he worked them into Rapunzel's opening song and the lantern song, and you feel that great contrast to Gothel, who is very traditionally stagey, and she's got this big, trained actress personality, and you feel like she may have been on the stage 400 years ago when she was a young woman for the first time. We thought that was great. Alan didn't want to do the same thing that he had done before and we did want to repeat ourselves, so any chance we had on the film we tried to flip expectations and do something new.

When you're working out how sequences are going to look on screen, how much of an impact does the 3D factor have on that process?

NG Quite a bit. There are places back in the states where they won't have the option of 3D, so it was very important to us that it works just as well without the 3D. However, as we also knew that we had 3D as one of the tools in our toolbox we decided that if it's going to be 3D, let's have our 3D be there for a reason. Byron and I have been to 3D movies, and I'm sure you've seen the same thing, where you walk out of the theatre and say, "Why did I pay extra money to see that in 3D?" Sometimes when those movies are made it's like an afterthought to add 3D and make extra money, and there's just too much of that out there. When we were making the movie we thought that every single scene in the movie, every single shot, even the things we were doing with the story, we should always have 3D in mind. What is that going to look like in 3D? When we got to things like the floating lantern shot, part of the evolution of that was the fact that we had 3D at our disposal and we could have these lanterns flying around people's heads, so it enhances your storytelling if you use 3D in a smart way. So yeah, it was something we always kept in mind, because if audiences are paying extra money you have to give them more bang for their buck.

Finally, is it too early to ask what you're going to be working on next? And will you continue to work together on projects?

NG Yeah, we'll definitely keep working together.

BH [To Greno] Oh, do you think so? [laughs] No, we love working together and it's actually very hard to find a directing partner you're so in tune with. It's funny, because you work so hard on these movies for years at a time and when they're over a lot of directors go through this almost post-partum depression, where you feel anxiety and feel like you need something to do with yourself. In order to combat that, and because the production schedules are so long, Nathan and I actually pitched our next project to Lasseter about six months ago. We pitched six ideas and he picked two of them and said, "Why don't you take these two and just mash them together?" He came up with something that's very wild and different and exciting, and it's a very different type of movie to Tangled. What it will share is that it will have all of the things we love about films, great action, great characters and emotional relationships, and a world that I think – from the research we've been doing – hasn't been explored before, and that's exciting because it really helps to push the boundaries of what animation is capable of. You know, people ask us if we're interested in doing live action and we're really not. We love the medium we work in and there are so many tools available to us now that you're just going to see animated films getting better and better, and it's great to see other studios upping their game as well.

Review - Tangled

Disney's Tangled is an inspired blend of the old and the new, a film that uses cutting-edge animation techniques to produce a classical look and feel, and one that revitalises a familiar tale with a contemporary sensibility. The story is that of Rapunzel, the young woman with the abundance of hair who is imprisoned within a tower and must await the arrival of her handsome prince before she can be rescued. Directors Byron Howard (who co-directed the entertaining Bolt) and Nathan Greno, along with scriptwriter Dan Fogelman, have retained some elements of Grimm's fairytale while junking others. The prince is no longer a prince, but a crafty thief, and instead of spending the whole narrative cooped up in her tower, Rapunzel is quickly released to embark upon an action-packed romantic adventure. That the filmmakers can deliver such rousing entertainment while staying true to the conventions and traditions of the fairytale is Tangled's great achievement.

There are moments of clumsiness, but they are rare. One occurs right at the start, when the expository voiceover sets up the narrative in an inelegant fashion. Rapunzel (voiced by Mandy Moore) is a princess whose golden hair has magical properties that are coveted by the villainous Gothel (Donna Murphy, excellent). She snatches the infant from her cradle one night and whisks her away to an isolated tower, which is where Rapunzel remains for the next 18 years, unaware of her heritage, and exploited by the woman she believes to be her mother, who draws age-defying energy from the girl's tresses. Rapunzel is trapped not only by the tower, but by the overwhelming fear of the outside world that Gothel has instilled in her. With her only companion – a small chameleon named Pascal – Rapunzel gazes at the outside world, curious, lonely and unfulfilled. As she asks in one of the fine songs Alan Menken has written for the film, "When will my life begin?"

Enter Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi), the thief who inadvertently ends up as Rapunzel's guide when she gets her hands on his stolen loot and blackmails him into leading her towards the mysterious lights that appears in the distant sky on her birthday every year. Flynn is cocky, selfish and vain (a running gags centres on his dismay that the Wanted posters bearing his image can't get his nose right), while Rapunzel is a neurotic mess when she first ventures into the outside world, with one of the film's funniest sequences showing her flip-flop between joy and despair as she is overwhelmed by her newfound freedom. The narrative is straightforward, with Flynn reluctantly leading Rapunzel towards her destiny while Gothel pursues them, but the filmmakers augment the storyline with clever twists, maintain a breathless pace that allows them to segue neatly into the musical numbers, and find room for a couple of memorable supporting players, with the determined, dog-like horse Maximus a particular highlight.

Above all, however, the most memorable aspect of Tangled is simply how gorgeous it is. The whole film has a rich, painterly quality throughout, and the visual style pays homage to earlier Disney fare while imbuing every shot with an enticing warmth and splendour. Anyone who knows how hard it is to animate hair in a CGI production will be suitably impressed by the manner in which Rapunzel's flowing locks have been rendered; her hair looks spectacular whether the heroine is swinging from it, using it to hold Flynn captive, or simply letting it drag behind her as she wanders through the forest. There's an effortless quality to the way Tangled displays its aesthetic beauty, and at times it outdoes itself, with the sequence of floating lanterns offering a heart-stoppingly ravishing interlude that elevates the film's most romantic moment (and is one of the finest uses of 3D I've experienced). It's at times like these that Tangled rekindles some of the Disney magic we remember so fondly from the 49 features that have gone before, while also establishing itself as a satisfying fairytale that's fit to stand alongside any of the studio's films.

Read my interview with Byron Howard and Nathan Greno here

Read my interview with Glen Keane here

Review - Neds

It would have been very easy for Neds to be just another grim tale of adolescent violence, but with Peter Mullan behind the camera, you're guaranteed something out of the ordinary. Mullan's two features to date – the pitch-black comedy Orphans and his passionate drama The Magdalene Sisters – have shown him to be a filmmaker with an eye for realistic detail but one with the imagination to let his material take off in unanticipated ways, and that sense of adventure energises Neds. His film is a vibrant portrait of a young man's attempt to carve out a decent future for himself, and it's also a study of the class consciousness and social constraints that thwart his aspirations, forcing him to become the Non-Educated Delinquent that everyone expects someone from his family and background to be. "You want a Ned?" John McGill roars before committing one act of vandalism, "I'll give you a fucking Ned!"

At the start of the film, however, John looks set for a bright future. Still in primary school when we first meet him, John (first played by Gregg Forrest) is bright and hard-working, determined to make the most of his opportunities at school and make his mother proud in the process. His only brush with youth violence occurs when he is threatened by a bully, but the intervention of his older brother – a much-feared presence on the Glasgow streets – ensures his protection. Mullan depicts education as a way out for working-class kids like John, but he also shows us John being viewed as a swot for desiring promotion to a better class, or being singled out and embarrassed by his teacher, in a mortifying scene, for getting a perfect score on his test. The key turning point for John appears to come a couple of years later, when he (now played by the imposing figure of Conor McCarron) befriends a middle-class boy at school. He is taken home to meet the boy's parents, but his mother spends the whole lunch snobbishly looking down her nose at John, and after this painful rejection, John spends the subsequent summer months veering towards a life of wayward rebellion.

Neds simmers with violence throughout, and it feels constantly ready to explode. When it does so, Mullan ensures it is swift and damaging; the numerous skirmishes between knife-wielding gangs carry a savage edge, and one particular attack, in which Conor gets revenge against his childhood tormentor, is one of the coldest and most unsettling depictions of a brutal assault that you'll see on screen. McCarron, making his acting debut here, has the hulking presence of a young Ray Winstone, but he can play both anger and vulnerability, and he is equally adept at depicting the moments in which Conor looks lost and scared. Throughout Neds, Mullan draws outstanding performances from the young non-actors he has cast in key roles, with all of them giving authentic and compelling displays, while the older members of the ensemble give riper turns. Gary Lewis has a terrific cameo as a blustering headmaster who delights in humiliating any tardy students, while Mullan himself plays John's father, a drunken boor who stands at the foot of the stairs howling threats at his timid wife.

Mullan's cameo is just on the verge of being cartoonish, and the director always appears to be running the risk of pushing things too far. That's part of what makes Neds such a fascinating picture to watch, though, and it's what makes it such an absorbing experience. The director isn't scared of imbuing his gritty social realism with vivid flights of fancy, and he successfully takes Neds in some unexpected directions in its final third, with a Bad Lieutenant-style vision of Christ or a nightmarish sequence in which John becomes a tooled-up avenger. As outré as such decisions may appear, Mullan makes them all feel part of the same consistent vision, and while the blend of fantasy and reality may alienate viewers left unbalanced by such abrupt tonal shifts, this director is not someone who is willing to compromise.

That lack of compromise will probably mean Neds will never find the audience it deserves to, and I wonder if it's the reason behind the egregious snubbing of the film by BAFTA, who completely overlooked it when they announced their awards contenders recently? That the British Academy (who nominated American imports Black Swan and The Social Network 12 and 6 times respectively) have failed to offer any support to such a bold piece of homegrown filmmaking is a travesty, and a prime example of what's wrong with the film industry in this country. People can crow all they like about the success of The King's Speech, but while that picture might be hogging the attention and hoovering up awards, the public needs to know that this is British cinema at its most daring and exciting.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Review - Black Swan

At times, Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is a gripping and hysterically entertaining experience. Most of the time, it's simply hysterical. The director's flipside movie to his highly acclaimed The Wrestler examines the fragile mental state of a young ballet dancer as she takes on the role of a lifetime and crumbles under its weight. Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is perfect for the role of the White Swan in the new production of Swan Lake that impresario Thomas (Vincent Cassel) is preparing to stage. He doesn't quite see her as the Black Swan – she's too pure, too uptight, too frigid – but he sees potential. To successfully embody the dark half of Swan Lake's leading role, Nina will need to unlock the darker, stormier impulses that lay untapped within herself. Basically, in Aronofsky's rather simplistic vision, Nina really needs to get laid.

Darren Aronofsky has always had a rather limited view of his female characters. They're usually either princesses or crazy/slutty bitches, and in Black Swan we have a princess who needs to transform into a crazy/slutty bitch in order to fulfil her artistic potential. Surrounding the delicate Nina is a cluster of cartoon demons, all of whom play a part in her forcing her into a downward psychological spiral. Her mother (a shrill Barbara Hershey) is a domineering figure who gave up her own dance career when she fell pregnant, and Nina is following in the footsteps of another fading star, with Beth (Winona Ryder) on her way out of the company (it's a sad piece of casting, and Ryder's performance is an embarrassment). Nina's chief antagonist, however, is Lily (Mila Kunis), a sultry young dancer for whom the sexiness and sense of danger that Nina is striving for comes as easily as drawing breath.

Is Lily after Nina's role, or is it all in the tormented ballerina's head? As Nina begins to crack under the pressure, Aronofsky attempts to express her psychosis in a variety of ways, but he possesses a dispiritingly limited box of tricks. She starts falling apart physically, her flawless skin developing mysterious cuts and lesions, and her fingernails are subjected to some horrific abuse. She starts catching glimpses of a doppelganger in the streets, and the director takes every single opportunity to use mirrors as a lazy shorthand for his central character's dichotomy. It's all very silly, but Aronofsky's actors give it everything and their conviction is enough to keep the whole rickety enterprise on track. Portman, with every muscle tensed and every nerve on edge, finds a note of quivering anxiety within her character and plays it brilliantly, matching her character stride for stride as Nina's paranoia goes into overdrive and her 'Black Swan' begins to emerge. The work offered by Mila Kunis is also crucial to the picture. With just a smartly pitched line reading or a wicked smile, she often manages to breath a sense of life into a film that frequently threatens to grow overbearing.

There's little anyone can do to prevent Black Swan careering towards disaster in its lezzed-up, face-stabbing, feather-sprouting second half though. I found myself laughing at events onscreen more often than not as the picture rapidly imploded, its early intensity and dramatic pull completely dissipating in a sea of hysterical nonsense. Aronofsky wants to make something sexy, fucked-up and operatic, but he's too literal-minded a director with too limited a range to pull it off without losing his way. Black Swan does have some vivid moments (nothing but credit to DP Matthew Libatique), but when looked at in any kind of objective light, it is a very stupid film.

Is it an entertaining one, though? The answer to that question is undeniably yes. I don't think this is anything like a cohesive piece of filmmaking, and it displays as many of Aronofsky's flaws as his virtues, but I did have fun watching it. Black Swan has a reckless momentum and its sheer nuttiness ensures it holds the viewer rapt, just to see how Nina's psychological trauma will manifest itself next. The film's climax is an absolute mess and the last of its many laugh-out-loud moments, but I grudgingly admired the movie's commitment to its melodramatic story and its refusal to take the foot off the accelerator at any point. Black Swan might ultimately make a spectacle of itself, but at least it is a distinctive spectacle, and it remains weirdly fascinating even as it finally topples off the stage.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

DVD Review - The Reef


The Film


The setup for The Reef couldn't be more straightforward. Four friends find themselves stranded off the Australian coast when their boat capsizes, and as they attempt to swim towards land a great white shark stalks their movements, picking them off one by one. They might be simple ingredients, but that's all writer/director Andrew Traucki needs to construct an unnerving and gripping thriller. Traucki doesn't waste much time on developing his characters. Luke (Damian Walshe-Howling) and Kate (Zoe Naylor) have an on-off relationship to play with, but the other couple, Matt (Gyton Grantley) and Suzie (Adrienne Pickering), barely have any distinguishing or memorable traits. It doesn't really matter, though; Traucki knows as well as we do that these people exist primarily as bait.

The Reef only really gets into its stride when its cast gets in the water, but when that happens (their boat having been damaged and upturned) the film slowly develops into a thoroughly absorbing experience. Traucki is smart enough to keep the shark out of sight for as long as possible, and much of the tension in the film's opening half is developed through the group's fear of what might be joining them in the water, as they hear suggestive splashes in their vicinity or think they see something breaking the surface nearby. The director skilfully exploits their anxiety and allows more than 45 minutes to elapse before he actually gives us our first glimpse of the creature hunting them down. After that, it's simply a matter of anticipating who's going to be next on the shark's menu, and the lack of big names among the cast list certainly keeps us guessing in that regard.

Throughout The Reef, I was constantly reminded of two other movies: Jaws and Open Water. That the film fails to live up to Spielberg's masterpiece is hardly a surprise, and not really something we should criticise it for, but it is a markedly superior picture to Open Water, with which it bears strong similarities. The Reef's success is almost entirely down to Traucki, whose manipulation of the tension and ability to keep the film moving is hugely impressive. Aided tremendously by Peter Crombie's sharp editing and Rafael May's suspenseful score, Traucki has put together a taut and efficient thriller, wringing every ounce of excitement from his slight premise.

The Extras

Aside from a trailer, the only extra feature on The Reef disc is a short "making of" entitled Shooting with Sharks. This extra tries to encompass various aspects of the film's production in just 24 minutes, leaving it feeling a little shallow and unfocused, but there is some interesting material here. Unsurprisingly, the most intriguing footage involves the sharks themselves (one of whom very nearly eats the camera filming it), and I would have liked to have had more background detail on what must have been a logistical nightmare of a production.

The Reef is released on DVD and Blu-ray on January 24th


Buy The Reef here

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Review - Blue Valentine

In Blue Valentine we witness both the birth and decay of a relationship. One half of the film is buoyed by the burgeoning passion of two young lovers, the other sags under the weight of a marriage that has gone stale. The film's director Derek Cianfrance, who spent over a decade trying to bring this story to the screen, cuts back and forth across the six-year time span his movie covers, creating a compelling dialogue between the past and the present. We see how the characters have changed in that period, both physically and (more powerfully) on an emotional level. Showing us both the initial joy and ultimate despair of this couple's relationship gives Blue Valentine a vivid sense of the messy, emotional complications of real relationships. We can tell that Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) really did love each other once. They have just reached a point where there's no love left.

The six-year gap that lies out of sight between Blue Valentine's two halves leaves us with a lot of room to draw a line between the happy young couple and their older, disillusioned counterparts. The rift that is gradually growing between them is not the result of any one incident, but instead it is an accumulation of details, frustrations and petty resentments that have been allowed to fester over time. We can see how the things that made Dean such a charming proposition when he and Cindy first met – his carefree attitude, his immature demeanour – are exactly the same things that now make him so insufferable as a husband. There's a hovering tension in their opening scenes together, as Cindy tries to get ready for work while Dean joins their daughter Frankie in playing with her cereal. "I don't need to clean up after two kids," she complains.

This is only the start of the movie, and things will get much worse between them. An argument is sparked when Cindy runs into an old flame, the death of the family dog stirs the increasingly tumultuous emotions between them, and things reach a nadir during a misguided attempt to rekindle that old spark. Dean checks them into a cheap and tacky motel, suggesting they should, "get drunk and make love" but there's very little love on display as they get under each other's skin and eventually wind up fucking in a scene of aggression and resentment that's painful to watch. Despite the controversy over Blue Valentine's (stupid and indefensible) NC-17 rating in the US, the sex in the film is no more explicit than you'd find in many other pictures. Instead, it's the frankness with which Cianfrance depicts these encounters, combined with the strong emotional undercurrents, that makes them such uncomfortable viewing. The director's camera is always positioned for maximum perception and impact, and while he sometimes threatens to push the drama a little too hard, his unflinching observation of his troubled characters is absorbing.

Wallowing in such misery might be too much, however, were it not for the moments of lightness that occasionally break through the gloom. Most of these occur in the film's flashback scenes, where we see Dean and Cindy at their best. She's a bright and funny medical student; he's a sincerely romantic removal man. There's a wonderful tenderness and playfulness in their initial scenes together, most memorably when he prompts her to dance on the pavement for him while he strums a tune on his ukulele. The scene has a natural spontaneity about it, and after seeing the older Cindy wearing such a look of resignation and disappointment, it's a joy to see the smile that breaks out across her face at this moment. Does she think of these memories later on when she looks at her husband and wonders why she ever married him?

Blue Valentine doesn't take sides and it doesn't apportion blame. It simply observes a pair of complicated individuals as they fall in and out of love and negotiate the stormy waters of their relationship. Cianfrance has two of the best actors in America at his disposal here and he gives them everything they need to give the most detailed, believable performances possible. Gosling is marvellous at capturing Dean's arrested emotional state and still-strong love for his wife and daughter, but Williams is simply astonishing, expressing so many unstated emotions through her expressions and gestures. They are incredible together, and by closely observing their performances we can understand both why their characters are right for each other and why they're not. Blue Valentine charts a relationship in seemingly terminal decline, but it doesn't quite sound the death knell, always leaving the door ajar for possible change and reconciliation. One of my favourite moments occurs towards the end of the film, after a particularly blazing row, when an angry Dean tosses his wedding ring out of the car window. After a brief pause, he gets out and forlornly starts searching for it in the grass, hoping he hasn't thrown his last chance away.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Review - The Green Hornet


Superheroes take themselves far too seriously these days. So often we find them brooding alone, contemplating the great responsibility that their great power has burdened them with, and maybe a film like The Green Hornet is exactly what we need to redress the balance. With Seth Rogen taking the central role in a film that he co-wrote with fellow Superbad screenwriter Evan Goldberg, this was never going to be anything but a comical venture; a film that's unafraid of embracing the fun side of crimefighting. It intrigues for other reasons too, most notably the presence of Michel Gondry, a director known for his ability to infuse magic into his pictures with ingenious handcrafted effects. If nothing else, the team behind The Green Hornet promises us something different in a genre that desperately needs it.

The film occasionally does feel like something different too, but the moments in which we can sense Gondry's inspiration taking hold of the picture are sadly few and far between, and while there's some fun to be found here, it's only fleeting. At two hours, The Green Hornet eventually feels like an interminable comedy sketch with no punchline, and the screenplay cooked up by Rogen and Goldberg is horribly exposed at such an unnecessary duration. Having only the vaguest notion of The Green Hornet as a TV series, I'm not sure how faithful this film is to the original style and tone of the character, but the joke in Rogen's version is that the eponymous hero is not actually very heroic at all.

Rogen plays Britt Reid, the son of a newspaper tycoon (Tom Wilkinson), who has no interest in the family business, instead enjoying a life of feckless hedonism. After his father has died, Britt becomes acquainted with Kato (Jay Chou) – an absurdly skilled mechanic who also happens to be a deadly fighting machine (plus he makes a mean cup of coffee) – and after some laborious exposition, they decide to team up as a crime-fighting duo. The chemistry between Rogen and Chou (a pop star in his native Taiwan) is perhaps the film's biggest asset. Rogen is the loudmouthed dope who cowers during confrontations but hogs the glory nonetheless, while Chou is the quiet, focused sidekick who actually gets the job done, and the pair have a few funny scenes together in between the explosive action sequences. When there is some fighting to be done, we are treated to the sight of Kato-vision, one of the film's more imaginative gimmicks, in which the action slows down while Kato analyses the imminent danger before springing into action.

That feels like a Gondry touch. Another example of the director's inventiveness can be found in a superbly orchestrated split-screen sequence, but such opportunities are limited. I guess it's not easy for an idiosyncratic filmmaker to impose his personality on a blockbuster budgeted somewhere north of $100 million, and I couldn't help wishing he had simply been handed a fraction of the budget and given free rein to put his own spin on the superhero genre, Be Kind Rewind-style. Instead, The Green Hornet feels duty-bound to deliver the incomprehensible plotting, meaningless deaths and stock characters we expect in a film like this. Those stock characters include a bent DA (David Harbour) and a vapid female character (Cameron Diaz, barely there), while Christoph Waltz seems unsure of how exactly to play the villainous Chudnofsky. He's a little bit camp and a little bit menacing, but he lacks any sort of presence.

Nothing in The Green Hornet really coheres. The film occasionally hits the mark in a "throw enough shit at a wall and some of it will stick" kind of way, but generally it's a mess that finally outstays its welcome in the relentlessly loud climactic twenty minutes. It's also pretty ugly at times, thanks to the astonishingly shoddy 3D post-conversion that makes the image blurry and murky, and makes it appear as if the characters are all existing on different planes of action. Not for the first time, I left a 3D screening wishing I had seen the film in just two dimensions. It wouldn't have made The Green Hornet any better, but it might have made it marginally more watchable, at least.

Monday, January 10, 2011

"I basically wanted this kid to have everything to have that I didn’t have as a kid" - An interview with Diego Luna


With over twenty years of acting experience under his belt, Diego Luna has now moved behind the camera for his directorial debut Abel. His film is the amusing and poignant story of a confused young boy who assumes the role of patriarch in his family, and it is a highly accomplished piece of work. Diego Luna was in London last week to promote the film and I was invited to ask him some questions via email. His answers are below.

How long have you had the desire to direct, and why did you choose Abel as your first film?

I have had the desire for many years. I believe it was after Y Tu Mamá También that I started thinking about it. Abel is a story I have been planning to make for the last 6 years. It’s a very personal story so it sounded right for my first film.

How did you work with Augusto Mendoza to develop the screenplay?

Basically we wrote a storyline together then he wrote the first draft. After that we wrote everything together. It’s great being able to work with someone else. It made the process easier.

Was it difficult to strike a balance between the finding comedy in this situation and respecting the dramatic consequences of Abel's mental problems?

It was the big challenge of the film. I really wanted people to laugh but I didn’t want them to laugh too much so that they wouldn’t be touched by the story of the mother. While we were editing we were working on that until the last day.

What was the casting process like? What qualities were you looking for in the child who would play Abel?

It was a long process. I needed to be sure the kid had everything that Abel needed. I was looking for someone that would enjoy interpreting as much as playing football.

You started acting as a child. Did you draw on these experiences to direct the young actors in your film?

Yes. I basically wanted this kid to have everything to have that I didn’t have as a kid. I tried to design a perfect place for him to come and play Abel. It needed to be a fun ride for him. I did not want to remind him that he had to be there.

You have worked with a wide variety of filmmakers in the past decade. Which directors have you learned a lot from?

I believe every director I have worked with has taught me something. But when I was doing the film I was thinking a lot about Alfonso Cuarón. He is a huge influence.

Has the experience of directing a film changed your perspective on acting?

Definitely. Not just acting but film-making.

You also recently directed a short segment in the film Revolución. How did that experience compare with making a feature film?

It’s a completely different thing. It’s difficult to tell a story in 10 minutes. The biggest mistake you can make is to try and make a feature film in 10 minutes.

Many actors who turn to directing also appear in the films they've made. Is this something you will consider doing in future, or would you like to keep the roles separate?

I would like to work with actors and make sure the actors have a director. Today I would say no but who knows in the future?

Along with Gael García Bernal you have helped produce a number of Mexican films in recent years. How would you describe the current health of the film industry in Mexico?

There are amazing voices telling stories. There are feelings of hope today in terms of the connection our films are having with the audience so these are good times.

Do you have plans to direct again in the near future?

Yes. I can’t wait to do it again.

Abel is currently playing at the Curzon Soho, VUE Shepherd’s Bush, Bristol Watershed, Showroom Sheffield and Edinburgh Filmhouse.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

DVD Review - The Hole


The Film

The Hole is an 80's throwback in all the best ways. With Joe Dante in the director's chair, this hugely enjoyable family adventure recalls much of the spirit and invention exhibited the director's Gremlins, Explorers and The 'burbs, and although its final act can't quite live up to the promise of what went before, this is still a cut above most of what passes for live-action family entertainment these days. It begins in Bensonville, Oregon, where a single mother (Teri Polo, forgettable again) has moved with her two children for what we understand is the umpteenth time. Teenager Dane (Chris Massoglia) is a particularly sullen presence who takes out his frustration on younger brother Lucas (Nathan Gamble), but he perks up a little when he spies next-door neighbour Julie (Haley Bennett). The first thing we notice about these characters is how well-drawn and believable they are, particularly in the relationship between Dane and Lucas, with Dante's ability to work well with young actors once again paying off.

The plot revolves around an apparently bottomless pit located in the house the Thompsons have just moved into. Rather inconveniently, it turns out to be a gateway to Hell, and as soon as the curious kids have opened it, strange goings-on begin occurring all over the place. Dante has a lot of fun with this portion of the film and there are some great touches, like the footage captured on a video camera lowered into the pit, or the presence of a (very creepy) clown that keeps popping up to scare Lucas. The Hole might be billed as family viewing, but Dante isn't afraid of giving the kids a good scare. He delivers some unsettling scenes, including a small girl crying tears of blood, and he controls the rising tension expertly. The Hole is certainly a lot smarter, wittier and better constructed than many adult horrors of recent years.

Everything in the film's opening hour is terrifically entertaining, and Mark L. Smith's screenplay does a skilful job of balancing humour and scares, while developing the central theme of the characters' need to confront and defeat their own fears. Only in the final twenty minutes does the picture begin to wobble. The Hole's climactic sequence is its most spectacular, with some imaginatively warped production design, but it lacks the focus of the more tightly controlled opening hour. Still it doesn't do too much lasting damage to the film as a whole, which is a satisfying reminder of Dante's unique gifts as a filmmaker. Bizarrely, aside from a couple of festival screenings (one of which was in 2009!), The Hole still hasn't received theatrical distribution in the US, so we should consider ourselves lucky to have it.

The Extras

The Hole disc will contain a 'Making Of' feature, interviews with the cast and crew, and some behind-the-scenes footage. Unfortunately, my review copy had no extra features.

The Hole is released on DVD and Blu-ray on January 17th.


Buy The Hole here

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Thoughts on Francis Ford Coppola

This is a contribution to the Large Association of Movie Blog's LAMBs in the Director's Chair feature

"Tetro is the kind of film I might have been making 35 years ago, had my career not taken an abrupt and sudden turn as it did with The Godfather ... I hope you wish me well on this new career of mine. It was the one I always wanted from the beginning, to be an independent filmmaker, writing stories and making personal films. God knows what will come next!"

Francis Ford Coppola made the above comment just before Tetro was released in 2009. The director has been in the business over forty years, and he is responsible for some of the greatest films ever made, but it seems that he has only now become the filmmaker he always imagined he'd be. Coppola has tasted extraordinary success and failure in his career, and as well as attempting to make personal films with Hollywood's money, he has tried funding some ambitious artistic ventures himself, which eventually resulted in his bankruptcy. So if Coppola is now in a position where he can put his vision on screen with his own money and work independently, far outside the studio system, then who could begrudge him such a luxury? His career has been a tumultuous one, and yet he may be about to enter his most creatively rich period.

When looking back at Coppola's career, we must start in the 1970's, the decade in which the director could seemingly do no wrong. His output in this period consisted of one of the greatest American films ever made, a sequel that somehow topped it, a small-scale masterpiece of tension and paranoia, and an epic war picture that almost finished him. Coppola began the decade with an Academy Award already in his possession, having won for his co-written Patton screenplay, and when he was offered The Godfather, his initial impulse was to decline. After all, as we have already noted, Coppola had a very different career planned, but he took the job and succeeded in adding his personal stamp to the material, with the exploration of family relationships being a key theme in his oeuvre, although the battles he fought with the studio set the tone for much of his later work.

Coppola fought for his (then mostly unknown) cast and he resisted the pressure to sensationalise the material, defying studio heads who wanted big names and an exciting, sexy mob blockbuster. His instincts proved correct, and the Oscar-laden The Godfather became a critical and commercial hit. Even if he didn't want to be, Coppola was now a major player, and he followed The Godfather with both an enormously ambitious second instalment in the story (one that acted as both a sequel and prequel) and The Conversation, a more intimate drama from his own original screenplay. Both films established him as a master filmmaker, in complete command of the style and tone of his films, a wonder with actors, and a skilled storyteller. He seemed capable of anything, but with his next two films, he almost bit off more than he could chew.

Did Coppola ever really recover from the one-two punch of Apocalypse Now and One From the Heart? The first film may now be considered a classic, but it was a notoriously nightmarish shoot, beset by myriad disasters ranging from typhoons to a heart attack suffered by Martin Sheen. The second was a smaller production, but no less problematic, with Coppola's decision to shoot his musical entirely within an elaborately constructed studio and to utilise innovative filming techniques, escalating the budget for a picture that, as it turned out, nobody wanted to see (although I like it very much). At this point in his career, Coppola was bankrupt, having staked everything on Apocalypse Now and One From the Heart, and he spent much of the subsequent twenty years taking on studio assignments to pay the bills. There are flashes of brilliance in almost every Coppola film – even when the picture as a whole doesn't work, as with his ill-advised The Godfather Part III – but he was getting further and further away from the independent artist that he aspired to be.

In some ways, Coppola is suited to a career as a gun for hire, as his respect for old-fashioned storytelling and his gift for drawing excellent performances from his cast elevated material like The Rainmaker, Peggy Sue Got Married and Rumble Fish. There was talk for many years of a passion project, a sci-fi epic called Megalopolis, but after The Rainmaker in 1997, Coppola set down his directing tools for a decade, focusing on his other ventures (producing, winemaking), before returning with a seemingly rejuvenated spirit. Youth Without Youth and Tetro are deeply personal, idiosyncratic films shot on a low budget and as you watch these pictures, you can sense Coppola revelling in the freedom that he now enjoys as a filmmaker. This is how Francis Ford Coppola looks set to spend his remaining years as a director; making small films that allow him to experiment and throwing all of his passions into a project, without worrying too much about the film's ultimate box office fate. The thought of a great director enjoying such a late renaissance is a heartening one, and while we may never see Megalopolis, we may yet be in store for some of his most diverse and interesting work yet.

Review - The King's Speech

There's a scene in The King's Speech in which Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth) is encouraged by unconventional speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) to use language most unsuitable for a future king as part of his treatment. Lionel asks the Duke to let off some steam and try swearing, the idea being that the use of taboo language and bursts of passion will help him overcome some of the inhibitions that cause him to stall and stammer in his speech. At first, the Duke is understandably reluctant, forcing out a meek "Willy" or "Tits", and when Lionel asks him to try "the F-word," he responds with "Fornication!" Within moments, however, Albert is roaring the word "Fuck" at the top of his voice, and blasting his way joyously through his linguistic blocks.

It's a great sight, but it's one of the few scenes in The King's Speech that allows a sense of life and passion to explode amid the stuffy surroundings. No wonder Firth and Rush seem to be enjoying themselves so much; they're like a pair of naughty kids who have broken ranks from their own film. I started longing for more sequences to display such a spark, but alas, for most of its running time, The King's Speech is stiff, conventional and unimaginative filmmaking. It strikes me as a picture that would be more comfortable on the BBC one Sunday night than it is on the big screen, but here we are seeing The King's Speech winning rave reviews and awards, although in some cases, it is easy to see why.

Colin Firth certainly merits all the praise he has been receiving for his technically proficient and sincere portrayal of Albert. No actor since Anthony Hopkins in his mid-90's heyday has proven as skilled at playing repressed characters, uncomfortable in their own skin and tormented by their unspoken emotions. In the opening sequence he is already wracked with self-doubt. We meet him behind the scenes at Wembley, where he is due to make a speech in front of a large and expectant crowd, but his crippling stammer stops him in his tracks. The agonising awkwardness and embarrassment is shared by everyone, with director Tom Hooper using off-centre framing to decent effect, even if he resorts to this visual motif too often for it to remain effective.

In desperation, having seen a number of doctors with increasingly wacky remedies, Albert's wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter – so nice to see her playing a real person again) tracks down speech therapist Lionel and asks him to help. He agrees, but on his terms; "My castle, my rules" is his line. Lionel is a failed Australian actor whose down-to-earth attitude creates an instant odd couple dynamic with Albert (whom he scandalously refers to by his more intimate nickname "Bertie"), and everything that's fun about The King's Speech exists in this relationship. There are amusing montages of Lionel putting Bertie through his physical paces, scenes of bonding in which Lionel challenges the future king to confront the root emotional cause of his affliction, and subsequent scenes of tension when he pushes too far. Their exchanges might be simplistically written, but at all times Firth and Rush looks like they're having a terrific time with these characters, and their interplay is extremely entertaining throughout.

But where's the drama in The King's Speech? Albert reaches a critical juncture when his father (Michael Gambon) dies and his brother King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce on decent form) abdicates after declaring his love for divorcée Wallis Simpson, all of which forces Albert to assume the throne as King George VI. Derek Jacobi (obviously suppressing a severe case of stutter-envy) pops up as an officious Archbishop to preside over his coronation, and a bit of faux-tension is created when he reveals Lionel's lack of qualifications, before being quickly resolved. However, the real story of the film's second half is the looming threat of the Second World War (complete with the sudden presence of Winston Churchill, played by a comically awful Timothy Spall), with the King being required to address the nation in its hour of need.

It's the perfect note for The King's Speech to end on, and Hooper finishes in rousing style, with this final set-piece being edited together skilfully to the accompaniment of a soaring Beethoven symphony. As the director cuts between the King and Logue carefully negotiating the pitfalls of the speech, the Queen and their aides nervously listening in, and the hope-filled faces of the British public, he builds a sense of momentum that can't fail to lift the audience out of their seats and send them from the cinema on a high. I wonder if this climax has hoodwinked audiences into thinking The King's Speech is a better movie than it actually is, though? The whole film seems to be designed around its final scene, but its impact fails to disguise how pedestrian so much of the movie is, and how little it has to say.