Thursday, March 31, 2011

Review - Hop

Is there a correlation between the fact that the two Russell Brand film performances I've enjoyed most have been the two in which we don't have to look at him? I enjoyed Brand's vocal turn in last year's Despicable Me and – against all odds – I enjoyed his new family comedy Hop. Believe me, I'm as surprised as you are. The film might look like a lazy rehash of old Santa Clause movies hastily cobbled together for the Easter holidays, but it just about manages to get away with it thanks to a couple of individually strong elements that make up for the various flaws and general lack of imagination. Brand voices EB, the teenage son of the Easter Bunny (Hugh Laurie) who has no desire to inherit the family business, instead dreaming of stardom as a drummer. He flees to Hollywood, where he causes havoc in the life of slacker Fred (James Marsden) while a malevolent chick (a reliably terrific Hank Azaria) back on Easter Island plans a coup d'état against EB's father.

Hop's screenplay is perilously thin, with both EB and Fred having to resolve standard-issue daddy issues (Christ, Hollywood, let's give that motivation a rest, eh?), and EB's sidetrack into an America's Got Talent-style contest is a waste of everyone's time (including David Hasselhoff, who is excruciatingly awful as himself). But Hop is lively and intermittently amusing, and alongside the fine voice work there's a disarmingly goofy performance from James Marsden to enjoy. I've got a lot of time for Marsden, who throws himself into comic roles with unflagging energy and a complete lack of vanity, and his charming central display buoys Hop along almost single-handedly in its weaker moments. All in all, this is passably entertaining family fare for Easter, even if you'll barely remember it by the time you've polished off your chocolate eggs.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Review - Source Code

Source Code is a film that manages to squeeze around 88 minutes of entertainment out of a sequence that lasts eight minutes. I say 88 rather than the film's running time of 93 minutes because its sloppy final five minutes constitutes a major misstep, but before it falls at the final hurdle, Source Code intrigues and grips more efficiently than most Hollywood thrillers manage to do these days. The setup is clever and a little complicated, but screenwriter Ben Ripley and director Duncan Jones ease us into the action skilfully, disorientating us at first before laying out the complexities of the plot in a way that rapidly draws us into the drama. We can forgive the late lapse in the face of such sharp, enjoyable filmmaking.

Source Code opens on a train with a man named Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wondering how he got there. The woman sitting opposite him (Michelle Monaghan) seems to know him, but she's addressing him by a different name, and when he stumbles into the toilet and glances at a mirror he sees a different man's face. Moments later the train blows up, bringing the curtain down on an arresting opening sequence. The truth is that Colter is a soldier plugged into a simulation/recreation of a terrorist attack that took place earlier that morning. The US military has designed a programme that can transport someone into the last eight minutes of a person's life, and they need Colter to use that limited time to find out what the bomber's next target is, sending him right back again every time he fails to do so.

As in his debut film Moon, Duncan Jones has a knack for making the most of his confined surroundings, and I was impressed with the way he made each trip back into the train feel fresh and exciting, while Ripley's multi-faceted script is something of a marvel. He finds neat ways to slip important nuggets of information into the picture, developing both Colter's train-based mission and his slowly dawning realisation of his situation in the real world, without disrupting the narrative's flow. He also manages to work a little emotional resonance into a film that barely seems to have room for it, with great credit for that also going to the actors. Gyllenhaal is a superb lead, sympathetic and versatile, and he shares a genuine spark with Monaghan, who works wonders with a character that essentially only exists for eight minutes at a time.

In a crucial supporting role, Vera Farmiga brings a nurturing sensitivity to her character and makes the expositional nature of the role work smoothly, but the disappointment among the cast – surprisingly – is the usually excellent Jeffrey Wright. I'm not sure what exactly he thought he was doing as Machiavellian scientist Dr Rutledge, but he's certainly serving up a slice of prime ham with his hobbling gait and weirdly mannered speech patterns. It's a rare false note in a film that generally hits the spot, driving forward with a sense of confidence and purpose, and stimulating the brain as well as the nerves. Jones has negotiated that difficult second picture with an ease that suggests he is a natural-born genre filmmaker, even if he does on this occasion blow a perfect ending.

Monday, March 28, 2011

DVD Review - Skyline

The Film

In 2010, two ultra low-budget films attempted to make an impact in the usually big-budget world of science-fiction. One of these films was Gareth Edwards' Monsters, which suggested its young director as a potential heir to Steven Spielberg; the other was Skyline, which seemed to herald the arrival of the successors to Roland Emmerich. The filmmakers behind this ambitious but fatally flawed picture are the Strause brothers, Colin and Greg, who made their directorial debut with 2007's Alien vs. Predator and are here making their first feature from scratch. The entire film was put together for a reported budget in the region of $10 million – and that in itself is a commendable feat – but it means nothing when the film is worthless at the level of story and character.

Frustratingly, it starts rather well. The opening scene sees mysterious lights being dropped onto Los Angeles as the city sleeps, and the film's central characters are awoken by the bright glare shining through their windows. They are attracted to this phenomenon like moths to a flame, with purple marks appearing around their eyes as they are drawn inexorably forward. This is the alien invaders' modus operandi; to bewitch humans with a dazzling light show before sucking them into the mothership and devouring their brains. Unfortunately, this opening scene is as interesting as Skyline ever gets.

The Strause brothers have a background in visual effects and their depiction of a large-scale alien invasion is certainly impressive in its scope, if not its imagination. A number of sequences feel lifted wholesale from Independence Day, War of the Worlds and others, while the invading force itself is poorly defined. The mothership appears to house a whole army of smaller ships, or it in itself consists of these ships – it's hard to know for sure, and all that's certain is that this alien race appears to be indestructible as it devastates the human race. However, for all of their incredible power, they have a devil of a time breaking into one guy's apartment, which is where Skyline's central group of characters is holed up.

Skyline's narrative has myriad flaws, but its biggest obstacle is that most of the action takes place within a single apartment block. While the action rages outside we are forced to spend time with a group of people who, to be blunt, are not worth spending time with. The performances from Eric Balfour and Scottie Thompson (as a couple expecting a child), Donald Faison (as Balfour's wealthy friend) and David Zayas (as the building superintendent) are stiff at best, and the dialogue they are forced to spout is woeful, with one cliché after another falling pathetically from the actors' lips. All in all, it's a crushing bore, with one character after another being subjected to a predictable demise while we wait for the main couple to make a defiant last stand – but as I started to doze in front of Skyline, the ending suddenly roused me from my stupor. In its final couple of minutes, Skyline, for the very first time, shoots off in an unexpected direction for a senseless and rather insane climax that is enjoyable purely for its sheer strangeness. Skyline appears to consider itself a prequel for a much more ambitious and interesting movie, but by the time the film shows some signs of life, the damage has already been done.

The Extras

Stop saying "literally"! That was my initial reaction to the Strause brothers' commentary track, but grammatical irritations aside, they're actually an interesting pair to listen to. They're clearly proud of their film and blind to its flaws, but I enjoyed hearing them talk about how they negotiated the problems imposed on them by the tiny budget, and sharing anecdotes from the shoot, which took place in one of the brothers' apartment. They're a likable pair and they almost endeared me to the film through their enthusiasm. A second commentary track (which I haven't listened to) is offered by co-writers Liam O'Donnell and Joshua Cordes, while there are some deleted/alternate scenes that don't add much to the movie and a fun pre-visualisation clip that allows the directors to explain how they planned some of the most complex visual effects sequences in the film.

Skyline is out on DVD and Blu-ray now

Buy Skyline here

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Blu-ray review - The Man Who Fell to Earth

The Film

Released in the year before Star Wars redefined our perception of the genre forever, The Man Who Fell to Earth is a science-fiction film built upon atmosphere, tone and mood rather than action and plot. It is the story of an alien who comes to earth disguised as a man named Newton in the hope of retrieving valuable water for his dying planet, but while that might sound like a regular sci-fi premise, director Nicolas Roeg – true to form – doesn't play it straight. We don't learn the reason for Newton's visit until we are deep into the movie, and by the point Roeg has already blown open the narrative to the point where it has become a disorienting kaleidoscope of images and ideas. These ideas don't always cohere, but it is a ceaselessly bracing and stimulating experience.

Roeg's first masterstroke came with his casting of the alien protagonist. There has always been something slightly otherworldly about David Bowie, and with his pale skin, elongated figure and androgynous appearance, he couldn't be a better fit for Newton. He cuts an entrancingly strange character throughout, remaining detached from the humans around him at first before slowly finding himself drawn into their emotionally complex world. Newton forms three key relationships in the film – with lover Mary-Lou (Candy Clark, wonderful), lawyer Farnsworth (Buck Henry) and womanising professor Bryce (Rip Torn) – but it's through these relationships that he slowly becomes corrupted by the human desire for sex, power and alcohol, and by the all-pervading influence of the media and corporations. The Man Who Fell to Earth is not about a creature who fell from the skies, but about an innocent who fell from grace.

The Man Who Fell to Earth is a challenging film to watch. Roeg and his great collaborators (cinematographer Anthony Richmond, editor Graeme Clifford) have assembled a movie that plays like nothing else, unfolding with a rhythm and visual grammar that is entirely its own. Roeg habitually drops key junctures in the plot – sometimes even bypassing years, decades – in favour of developing sensory collages that often juxtapose scenes of sex and violence (a display of Japanese swordsmanship, a gun firing blanks). Sex is central to The Man Who Fell to Earth, not just in the frank explicitness of the acts depicted in the film, but in the way Roeg films and edits these sequences; few other filmmakers have captured the aggression and animalistic fervour of human sexuality as vividly as Roeg.

Of Nicolas Roeg's four 1970s masterpieces, The Man Who Fell to Earth is not his most fully realised (that's Don't Look Now) or the one with the widest appeal (Walkabout), but it is his most ambitious, both formally and thematically. Perhaps inevitably, the film lacks cohesion at times and it feels a little baggy around the middle, but it is such an extraordinary, singular piece of work you simply can't take your eyes off it. Science-fiction is a genre that is particularly prone to dating quickly, but The Man Who Fell to Earth doesn't seem to have dated at all, perhaps because it never really was a product of the time it was created in. Like Newton, it remains ageless and fascinating; always current, always vital, and a true original.

The Extras

This gorgeous new Optimum Blu-ray comes with a ten year-old documentary called Watching the Alien, which packs a lot into its 24 minutes. All of the key members of the production team are interviewed about the film's genesis, creation and reception, and they all speak with passion and candour about a film that clearly means a lot to them. There are also lengthy, wide-ranging interviews with Nicolas Roeg, Candy Clark, Tony Richmond and Paul Mayersberg, all of which are well worth your time. The package is completed by a short excerpt from an audio interview with Walter Tevis and a trailer, with the only real disappointment being the lack of any contribution from Bowie himself.

The Man Who Fell to Earth will be released on Blu-ray on April 11th

Buy The Man Who Fell To Earth here

Review - Cave of Forgotten Dreams

If the idea of Werner Herzog making a 3D feature has you perplexed or fearful that this iconoclastic figure is simply hopping aboard a technological bandwagon, worry not. While Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the first film Werner Herzog has shot in three dimensions, it retains at its core everything we love about this man's films. It's an exploration of a world few of us will ever have the opportunity to experience for ourselves, and Herzog once again displays just as much (if not greater) interest in the humans who exist in this environment as he does in the environment himself. Werner Herzog is a filmmaker who has always enjoyed taking the road less travelled, and while most 3D productions are focused on action and spectacle, there's something perversely satisfying about the way he has applied this cutting-edge technology to the oldest artworks imaginable.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams takes us into the depths of the Chauvet caves in France. In 1994, a collection of astonishingly well-preserved prehistoric paintings was discovered in these caves, and then the cave was promptly sealed to ensure they remained in that impeccable state of preservation. A brief period of access is only granted to scientists twice a year, which makes it all the more remarkable that Herzog has managed to persuade the French government that he and a small camera crew should be allowed to venture into the darkness and capture these valuable images. Maybe they realised that this filmmaker – the man who pulled a steamship over a mountain, walked from Berlin to Paris, and filmed in the vicinity of a dangerously active volcano – is the only man who could do justice to such a discovery.

For all of the extreme locations Herzog has found himself in over the years, 3D may be the most alien territory yet for a director who has always had such a straightforward, low-tech style. At first he appears to be struggling to find his feet with this new aesthetic; there's a distinct wobbliness to the handheld image in some of the introductory sequences, and Herzog's uncharacteristic decision to spin the camera unprompted doesn't help matters. When we finally enter the Chauvet caves, however, the reasons behind the choice of 3D for this project become clear and instantly begin paying dividends. Aided by his invaluable collaborator Peter Zeitlinger, Herzog uses the third dimension to detail the shape and contours of the rock formations that these prehistoric tribes painted various animals on. He gives us a real sense of the presence and physicality of the inner caves, and allows us to get as close as we will ever get to seeing these paintings for ourselves.

"Is this the birth of the modern human soul?" Herzog asks in his customary voiceover, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams gives him plenty of opportunities to speculate on the stories that existed behind these images. Did the prehistoric artists dream? Is a collection of rocks, seemingly carefully arranged, evidence of some primitive ritual? Did shadows from their fires dance on these walls like an early form of cinema? When we see a young boy's footsteps running parallel to those of a wolf, Herzog wonders if the wolf was tracking the boy, if they were walking side-by-side as companions, or if the tracks were in fact created years apart. These musings on the human aspect of his subject are typically Herzog, and when he's in danger of running out of material from within the cave (his shooting time was severely restricted), Herzog enjoys introducing us to some eccentric characters on the outside. You can almost hear him jump for joy when a scientist he's interviewing reveals a past life as a circus performer, and who else but Herzog would find a perfumer who claims to be capable of identifying caves through their odour alone?

There's a sense of both reverence and fun throughout Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The carefully composed camerawork and haunting choral score (provided by another Herzog regular, Ernst Reijseger) seeks to fill us with awe as we observe these precious artworks, but the director also has fun with the 3D technique, including a spear-throwing lesson just for the chance to jab things at the unsuspecting audience. He even finds time for a bizarre – and tenuously connected – late sidetrack involving nuclear crocodiles, and while all of this footage in the hands of any documentarian would have been fascinating, only Werner Herzog could have brought such a strange, distinctive and engaging edge to it. The employment of 3D has not changed Werner Herzog one bit and he remains one of the most inquisitive and adventurous artists in cinema. May he long continue to seek out such wonderful and strange stories in the places where few others have the determination or imagination to go.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Review - Submarine

The hero of Submarine is a precocious/pretentious 15 year-old schoolboy from Wales called Oliver (Craig Roberts), who is about to embark upon two daunting adventures. The first is win the heart of (and lose his virginity to) classmate Jordana (Yasmin Paige), who is as mysterious, confusing and entrancing to Oliver as all females are to boys of that age. His second mission is to repair the cracks that have appeared in his parents' marriage. Oliver tells us that they haven't had sex in seven months – he knows this because he has been keeping track of the dimmer switch level in their bedroom – and he's concerned about the possibility of his frustrated mother (Sally Hawkins) leaving his meek father (Noah Taylor) for the smooth-talking mystic next door (Paddy Considine).

Submarine's central themes of first love, adolescent awkwardness and family problems, along with its nostalgic recreation of a half-remembered past, place it in familiar cinematic territory. Many films have covered similar ground in the past, and Richard Ayoade's first feature wears its influences (from Wes Anderson and Woody Allen to the French new wave) on its sleeve, but the director manages to distinguish his film by investing this potentially clichéd material with enough wit, feeling and imagination to make it feel fresh.

The first hour in particular skips along with a thoroughly engaging sense of energy and confidence, with Ayoade displaying an assurance behind the camera that suggests a genuine cinematic sensibility. He uses his visual and editing tricks judiciously, and he plays with Oliver's constant voiceover too, with the narration musing on the fact that his life doesn't have the budget for a crane shot as the camera slowly pulls away. All of this could easily come across as mannered and self-conscious, but Ayoade gets the balance just about right, never letting the quirks overwhelm the film's characters. In fact, he finds a near-perfect match between the form and the central protagonist, with film-obsessed Oliver requested fade-outs and dissolves at awkward or painful moments, and announcing a super-8 montage of happier times. Haven't we all, at some stage, desired the ability to direct our own life story? Oliver is a ridiculously affected character – he carries a briefcase to school, reads the dictionary, has Jean-Pierre Melville posters on his wall and takes his date to The Passion of Joan of Arc – but Roberts' soulful and endearingly naïve performance quickly wins the audience's affections.

Ayoade is so sharp when tracking these growing pains, it's a shame other areas of his film don't quite feel as tight or fully realised. Despite excellent, subtle work from Hawkins and Taylor, the scenes focusing on the Tates' failing marriage are markedly less compelling than Oliver's coming-of-age story, and matters aren't helped by the fact that Considine's sleazy lothario is a caricature in a film of sensitive characterisations. The pacing drags somewhat in the final third, and for all of his keen observations of the emotional turbulence of teenage life, the film lacks any real emotional impact when all is said and done. Submarine does get so many details right, though, and the feeling it leaves as the credits roll is one of warm affection rather than disappointment. Ayoade, I'm sure, will do stronger work in the future, but this is an impressive and promising calling card.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

DVD Review - Babies

The Film

The title of Thomas Balmès' film promises us babies, and by God, it sure does deliver them. This documentary is wall-to-wall babies, the cameras closely following four infants as they experience their first year of life on earth. We see them playing, sleeping, crying, crawling – you know, baby stuff – and as Balmès cuts between his four subjects, we see that kids are essentially the same no matter where they are from. Two of Babies' stars are from poor parts of the world, while two are from much more affluent backgrounds, but whether they are given high-tech gizmos or sticks and rocks to play with, the babies display a similar level of curiosity/boredom/confusion/frustration with the world around them.

Whether that insight is enough to justify a whole feature – even one that's only 79 minutes long – is another question, and one that depends entirely on how you feel about babies. If you have babies, want babies or just really, really like babies, then the film may be right up your street, and even the most hard-hearted viewer must admit that the four chosen stars are an engaging bunch. From Namibia we have a little girl called Ponijao and from Mongolia there's Bayarjargal, the two children who have to make do with the simple things in life, although those things prove to be perfectly sufficient in most cases. Meanwhile, Mari lives in Japan and Hattie lives in San Francisco, and they have to endure sessions of baby yoga and being carted around brightly lit supermarkets. Balmès occasionally appears to be making a point by cutting between the children in similar situations, and observing the differences between their rich and poor lifestyles, but for the most part there doesn't seem to be any real plan behind the film's editing pattern as it hops from one baby to another.

Personally, I found the first half-hour or so of Babies comfortably fulfilled my infant quota and after that the film was something of a drag, even if the kids are consistently cute, and there are plenty of moments that do raise a smile. I was greatly amused by a sequence in which Mari struggles to get to grips with a puzzle and repeatedly throws herself to the ground, wailing with despair after every failed attempt. The film also gets plenty of mileage out of Bayarjargal being tormented by his older brother, but it's American Hattie who offers the film's most telling comic highlight. We see her sitting with a dozen other babies in a circle while their mothers raise their arms and chant, "The Earth is our mother." Hattie, sensing her opportunity, makes a break for the door, and who could blame her?

It's hard to argue too much about the virtues and flaws of Babies, because it is exactly what it sets out to be. The parents and the rest of the world surrounding these kids are incidental – this is just babies, babies, babies, and the film makes no apologies for it. For some viewers, Babies will be a constant delight...others may empathise with the intrepid Hattie and feel the sudden urge to escape.

The Extras

A couple of short montages give us the opportunity to catch up with the stars of the movie two years later, as the toddlers and their families watch the movie, and the parents are interviewed about their reasons for participating in the project. Bruno Coulais discusses his work on the film's catchy musical score, and finally director Thomas Balmès (the longest interview by far) and producer Alain Chabat (who had the original idea) each talk about this unusual documentary.

Babies will be released on DVD on March 28th

Buy Babies on DVD here

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Review - Ballast

Lance Hammer's Ballast opens with a death, and then it follows the ripples caused by this event, seeing how they impact upon the lives of the deceased's family. Darius has already succumbed to a drug overdose when the movie begins, and his twin brother Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith) almost follows him, attempting to commit suicide when his sense of grief and loss becomes overwhelming. Lawrence is a large man but a quiet, gentle one. When he has recovered from his self-inflicted wounds and returned home, he shuts himself off from the world, sitting inside his house and contemplating his suddenly empty life. Ballast follows Lawrence as he sinks into despair, and then we watch as he gradually returns to life.

He achieves this with the help of his family, but the healing process is a slow one. Darius' estranged wife Marlee (Tarra Riggs) still bears an old grudge against Lawrence, and she has her own problems to deal with anyway. Her 12 year-old son James (JimMyron Ross) is getting involved with crime and drugs. Moving him away from these dangerous influences means moving into her husband's old home, which exists side-by-side with Lawrence's house.

Hammer watches these three broken characters as they find the strength in themselves and in each other to move past their grief, but he never forces the issue. Ballast unfolds with the rhythm of life not the rhythm of movies, and Hammer shows extraordinary confidence in his untested cast, letting scenes to unfold organically, often with minimal dialogue. He never explains the characters or their situation, he just allows us to observe them as their story develops in front of us, his camera following them as they move through the bleak surroundings of the Mississippi Delta. There are scenes that invest a sudden sense of urgency into the picture – guns are drawn, and there's a kind-of car chase – but these scenes feel of a piece with the tone and mood of the picture, and Hammer doesn't use them for sensational effect. In fact, there is very little in Ballast that feels extraneous; the disciplined editing ensures that the film is full of moments that reveal something about the characters or the story, often in unexpected ways.

If it sounds too grim or something of a chore, it isn't. There is great beauty here too. The film opens with one of the most astonishing shots of the year, as James runs towards a flock of birds and then watches with open-mouthed wonder as they fly off and fill the grey sky. Grey is the film's dominant colour, with cinematographer Lol Crawley utilising a washed-out palette that creates a haunting, wintry atmosphere, and Hammer creates some striking compositions. The look and feel of the film instantly brings to mind the films of the Dardenne brothers or Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, but Hammer is very much his own man, and Ballast is a story being told by a distinctive filmmaking voice. The director's choices will undoubtedly frustrate many viewers, with his resolute refusal to give the film a familiar narrative structure or give his characters any major epiphanies, but he's just asking his audience to pay closer attention and dig a little deeper for the film's meaning. There are epiphanies here, they're just quiet ones, and not the kind we anticipate.

Hammer's preference for understatement comes through in the performances too. The three actors who play Ballast's principal characters had never acted before being hired for this film – and there are inevitable moments of awkwardness – but they give displays that feel honest, lived-in and authentic. Ballast is a film about real people simply learning to get on with their lives, and perhaps that's why it has taken three years to gain a theatrical release in this country. A story about three poor, black people struggling to cope with grief is a tough sell, and Hammer's bold attempt to self-distribute the film in the United States proved just how difficult it is for a picture like Ballast to find an audience. Now that the film is finally here, however, it deserves your attention. Ballast is an audacious work of great subtlety, intelligence and humanity, and it is a remarkable debut.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Review - You Will Meet a Tall dark Stranger

As Woody Allen's career has progressed over the past decade, I have found it increasingly difficult to tell his films apart. In the past, Allen has made wry spoofs, intelligent romantic comedies, visually stunning odes to the city he loves, homages to a bygone era rich in period detail, inventive experiments that played with his own persona, and even the odd emotionally challenging drama. In recent years, however, Allen has churned out an annual variation on a familiar morality tale, or a trifling comedy, with little evident joy or enthusiasm in his work. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is the fourth film Allen has made in London and it's yet another recycling of themes, ideas and characters from earlier, better films.

The one aspect of Allen's films that has remained at a consistently high standard has been the calibre of cast he has been able to attract to each project. Here, some fine actors do some solid work in roles that don't really stretch their abilities. Josh Brolin has a rumpled, cranky air as a struggling American writer married to Londoner (Naomi Watts), who is distracted by the beautiful woman (Freida Pinto) he spots through the window of the opposite flat. While he's occupied with that, Watts takes a job for a suave art dealer (Antonia Banderas), leading to some inevitable sexual tension, and her recently-divorced parents are both coping with their separation in different ways. Her mother (Gemma Jones) has taken solace in the words of a sham psychic (Pauline Collins), while her father (Anthony Hopkins) has married a dizzy prostitute (Lucy Punch).

Although Lucy Punch successfully brings a welcome energy and sharp sense of comic timing to her role, these characters are thin and shallow creations, existing only to be prodded down unconvincing and uninvolving plotlines that illuminate Allen's favourite themes. Of course, there's nothing wrong with a filmmaker exploring the same territory repeatedly, but they need to have something new to say on the matter, and I see nothing fresh in Allen's tale of obsession, cruel twists of fate and the meaningless randomness of life. Some characters do stupid things and get their comeuppance, some don't, and it's impossible to care about their fates either way.

Has Woody Allen actually forgotten how to make films? You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is so full of stilted conversations and awkward compositions it's embarrassing, and one scene – a locker room fight – is one of the mostly ineptly staged sequences I've seen in years. The whole film feels aimless and sluggish, with Allen letting his various plot strands drag along while relying on an omniscient voiceover to tie things together, and he shows little interest in the city surrounding his characters – You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger could take place in London, New York, Paris, Rome, The Moon or wherever else the Allen travelling road show will pitch up next. This might not be the worst film Woody Allen has ever made, but I think it might be the most tired-looking, and each new release seems to take an increasing toll on this once vital filmmaker. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger unwisely opens with Shakespeare's line that life is, "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Allen is no idiot, but his films these days do signify nothing, and when he no longer has the energy to muster up anything like sound and fury, what else is left?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Review - The Company Men

The latest American film to examine the harsh economic realities of the current recession risks alienating its audience from the start. The Company Men's central character is Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), a high-flying executive at a shipbuilding firm, who finds himself unexpectedly out of a job when the company begins making cutbacks. Bobby and his family must face up to some serious belt-tightening and a new, more affordable way of life; but while Mrs Walker (Rosemarie DeWitt) thinks about their children and the cost of putting food on the table, her husband is more concerned with the loss of his golf club membership, the repossession of his car, and the emasculating humiliation of being "just another asshole with a résumé." And we're supposed to sympathise with this guy?

That The Company Men largely succeeds in making its characters well-rounded and worthy of our empathy is down to some perceptive writing and strong performances, and even if John Wells' movie doesn't quite have the resonance it is striving for, it's a satisfyingly thoughtful and mature drama nonetheless. The film considers what it means for men whose lives are so defined by their career and their status when all of that is taken away from them, and although we may scoff at the "humiliation" of Bobby's predicament – going for round after round of interviews and joining a job-hunting workshop – Wells and Affleck do successfully manage to make us empathise with a character who is having to adjust to a whole new way of life. Two other key players in the drama stand at a similar crossroads. Tommy Lee Jones plays Gene, one of the co-founders of the company (along with Craig T. Nelson's Salinger), who is increasingly appalled at the firm's ruthless downsizing and lack of principles, while Chris Cooper's Phil is the most tragic figure of all. He knows that the future for an unemployed man of his advancing years is a bleak one, and few actors are as perfectly suited to play a man staring into the abyss as Cooper.

The performances across the board are top-notch. As the only blue-collar, working class voice in the story, Kevin Costner's carpenter is painted as a little too good to be true (selflessly working all hours to ensure his crew gets paid), but Costner's gruff and earnest portrayal really works for the character. It's great to see this undervalued actor now finding his groove again in down-to-earth supporting roles.

It's a shame that the female characters are so short-changed. DeWitt is strong as ever playing the voice of reason, but that's about all she gets to do, while Maria Bello is wasted with a poorly defined character and an affair with Jones that I didn't buy for a minute. This unbalanced perspective harms The Company Men, but I guess the clue is in the title after all – this is a film about men at work and men out of work, and it examines its subject with intelligence and sincerity. Unfortunately, Wells doesn't seem quite sure about how to bring his film to a close, and the method he chooses falls horribly flat. The attempt to graft a happy ending onto his film is The Company Men's biggest misstep; it feels false and contrived, and it threatens to undermine all of the good work Wells and his fine cast has put in to make us care about these men. He provides his characters with a safety net, and to the unemployed masses who have no such easy way out, The Company Men will suddenly feel like a fairytale.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Blu-ray review - Empire State

The Film

In its attempt to depict a wide cross-section of London society and to capture the spirit of the city at a particular period in time, Empire State inevitably feels a little dated in places. The fashions, hairstyles and interior design may prompt giggles from viewers today, but when you look beyond those surface details, Empire State is actually a fascinating picture, and one that has inexplicably slipped through the cracks in the two decades since its release. Directed by Nighthawks director Ron Peck, the film is an ambitious portrait of the changing face of London in the 1980's, following a group of characters driven solely by money and status, and exploring the shifting dynamic between the old and new powers in the capital.

The screenplay, by Peck and Mark Ayres, offers us no central protagonist, instead introducing a numbers of characters whose stories will run along parallel lines, and occasionally interweave. Key players in the drama include a low-grade crook with money troubles (Jamie Foreman), an investigative journalist (Lorcan Cranitch), a cynical rent boy (Lee Drysdale) and an American businessman (Martin Landau). Landau's character is in town to invest in the redevelopment of the docklands area, and one of the intriguing aspects of Empire State is the opportunity to see the derelict wasteland that now houses Canary Wharf and City Airport. All of the characters in Empire State are upwardly mobile and desperate to get their hands on whatever cash is up for grabs in Thatcher's Britain.

Aside from Martin Landau and one or two other familiar faces (including Ray McAnally as a shady nightclub boss), the cast in Empire State is filled with performers who were either total non-actors or young and inexperienced at the time. Some, like Elizabeth Hickling, betray their lack of experience (she was a model rather than an actress, and it shows), but the ensemble generally works well, with the charismatic Drysdale and fiery Foreman standing out. Peck does a fine job of juggling the disparate storylines and keeping the film on the move. Although there are slight question marks against some of the plotting and a few strands are left hanging, it remains absorbing viewing as he builds to a climactic showdown at the East End club from which the film takes its name.

Empire State comes to a close with an extended scene of violence orchestrated by two men who represent the opposing codes of the movie; one is an East End gangster from the old school, the other a flash yuppie with delusions of grandeur. Some viewers may balk at the Empire State's lurid tone and occasional swerves into camp territory, but there is much to admire here, including Tony Imi's vibrant cinematography and the excellent production design. Empire State is an adventurous and energetic piece of British filmmaking that also functions as a time capsule of this country in the late 1980's, and it deserves to be rediscovered.

The Extras

Peck and Ayres provide a commentary for the film, but there's a bit too much describing what's on screen and little in the way of revelatory content. They do serve up a few interesting nuggets of information, however, and they have nothing but praise for Landau, particularly the way he worked with his non-professional co-stars to aid their performances. There's also one of the audio interviews Ron Peck conducted for research purposes, a couple of deleted scenes and some mildly worthwhile audition/screen test footage. The most interesting extra is a clip from Channel 4's Right to Reply that was aired after the station's screening of Empire State prompted numerous viewer complaints. In it, Peck patiently defends his film against a misguided viewer who seems shocked that the film wasn't fit for "family viewing," the poor lamb.

Empire State is released in a Blu-ray/DVD set on March 14th.

Buy Empire State here

DVD Review - Confessions of a Dog (Pochi no kokuhaku)

The Film

When he made Confessions of a Dog in 2006, Gen Takahashi touched a raw nerve in Japan. His epic exposé of police corruption and brutality was so incendiary the film was immediately banned in his country, failing to gain any kind of theatrical release until 2009. Watching the film now, one can see why it proved so controversial; Takahashi doesn't pull any punches in his portrayal of the police force's misdeeds, openly accusing them of violence, entrapment, drug-dealing, harassment, bribery and more. We witness all of this through the central protagonist Takeda (Shun Sugata), whose gradual decline from honest cop and family man to corrupt, lying crook provides the film with its compelling central narrative.

Sugata's Takeda is an optimistic young recruit in the film's opening scene, whose commendation for kindness and tact when dealing with a young woman – whom his horny partner had pulled in for "questioning" – brings him to the attention of his superiors, and sets up his quick promotion to detective. Being a loyal, gullible sort of character, the kind of man who always follows orders and never asks questions, Takeda is ripe for manipulation by his corrupt bosses. Confessions of a Dog shows in stark details how ingrained these tactics are at every level of the police force, and he accuses the Japanese press of being implicit in this corruption too. A couple of scenes depict a police spokesman handing out prepared reports to a roomful of reporters and essentially telling them how to write their stories, while they react with nodding obsequiousness. One renegade reporter is the catalyst for the Takeda's downfall. Kusama (Jun'ichi Kawamoto) is determined to expose the truth about Japan's law enforcement, but he hits a wall of silence with his fellow journalists and faces intimidation and threats of violence from the police.

Confessions of a Dog is hard-hitting, serious stuff, although I must confess that I found it something of a slog at 195 minutes. The film is far more concerned with the detail and realism of its drama than it is with the cinematic potential of its story, and although Takahashi does work some effective expressionist camerawork into the film, it can often feel quite static and sluggish. It's well worth sticking with for the extraordinary climactic scenes, however. Sugata, who gives a towering performance throughout, is magnificent as his character is finally hung out to dry by the bosses; a scapegoat for all of their crimes. He finally delivers a lacerating monologue, directly addressing the audience and laying bare the themes the film has explored for the preceding three hours. It's a mesmerising ending to an impressive and courageous piece of filmmaking.

The Extras

Third Window's new two-disc DVD set boasts some interesting extra features. There's forty minutes worth of behind the scenes footage that shows Takahashi working on set and features a couple of deleted scenes. The rest of the second disc mainly comprises of interviews with the director in a variety of contexts. First, we see him having a 10-minute one-on-one chat, then there's an extract from a panel discussion at the Shinsedai Festival in 2010, and finally an audience Q&A following a screening of Confessions of a Dog at the same festival. Through these conversations, Takahashi distils plenty of background detail and context for the film, and it's interesting to hear him talk about the reaction to the film from the police, politicians and distributors in Japan. Finally, there are a lot of trailers to enjoy for this film and Third Window's other releases.

Confessions of a Dog will be released on DVD on March 14th.

Buy Confessions of a Dog here

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Competition - Win Sofia Coppola's Somewhere on DVD or Blu-ray

Somewhere, the fourth film directed by Sofia Coppola, will be released on DVD, Blu-ray and download by Universal Pictures on April 4th. This study of disaffected movie star Marco (Stephen Dorff) is reminiscent of her Oscar-winning Lost in Translation as its lead character drifts through a series of hotels and unsatisfying encounters, and the film features a lovely, touching performance from Elle Fanning as the 11 year-old daughter who unexpectedly comes to stay with him, forcing him to re-evaluate his priorities.

This competition is now closed.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

"It’s a form of self-inflicted torture for me" - An interview with Lola Perrin

One of the highlights of the Birds Eye View Film Festival each year is its Sounds & Silents strand, in which silent films are screened along with specially commissioned scores from female musicians. Yesterday I took the opportunity to watch Victor Sjöström's great 1928 film The Wind for the second time, and I was amazed once again by one of the true masterpieces of the era. It's a stunning film, blending thrilling, imaginative camerawork and bold imagery with a powerhouse of a central performance by Lillian Gish, to tell the gripping tale of a woman being driven mad by the elements. What made this screening even more memorable was the contribution of composer and pianist Lola Perrin, whose live performance of her excellent new score perfectly captured the high drama and fluctuating emotions of Sjöström's film. Earlier today, Lola Perrin kindly agreed to a few questions via email about The Wind and her other upcoming projects.

How was the experience of accompanying The Wind on Wednesday for you?

I always forget that I’m about to be tortured. I love composing, and I love playing the piano. Writing to an old silent film is a very special experience, I feel privileged to be in the situation where I have a direct relationship with talented dead people. It’s strange. There are moments when I cry during the composition, or when I’m practising; for me there’s a type of communication with something from the past that is deeply, deeply moving. However, the film starts and then I feel, "Oh no, I’m trapped now for an hour and a half." I can’t sneeze, stop, get a dry throat etc. You have to control your body so you can play without taking your hands away from the keys. It’s a form of self-inflicted torture for me, and something I always forget about until the show starts. This happened yesterday – the film I love started and I deeply regretted being there in that situation and a form of claustrophobia momentarily set in, but after a few minutes I got into it, and found some new music on the spot as well as the score I’d prepared. It was a good show for me in the end.

Before receiving the commission to write this score, how familiar were you with The Wind and with silent cinema in general?

I didn’t know the film. I’ve worked with the 1912 film War of Independence. This was made before panning, in other words this film is a really difficult experience for anyone who watches it. I did that show on a piano that should be at the bottom of the sea. The keys were so stiff I damaged my arm muscles, and that was just horrible, horrible torture for me. But the composition sowed the seeds for one of my piano suites so I am glad I’ve had that experience. Then I did Germaine Dulac’s The Smiling Madame Beudet and The Seashell and the Clergyman at the Barbican cinema. Pure heaven. I loved every single minute of the preparations. In performance, the first film went very well. Then in the second, The Seashell, it became evident after a few minutes that the score I’d carefully prepared would have to be dumped as I was watching a very different edit to the film on the DVD they’d sent for me to work from. That was a surreal experience to go with the surreal film. I was out with the fairies for a while on stage – but it worked out OK, no one realised.

How do you approach the task of writing music to accompany a piece of film? What are the biggest challenges you face?

I just watch the screen and move my fingers on the keys. I connect pretty well with what I see and transfer the feelings I get from external triggers into music. I spend my life doing this.

When composing for a film, do you find yourself being inspired by the narrative, by the imagery, or by something else?

I think it’s the people, watching the people acting out a story, and also knowing the story of the making of the film. There are so many tales behind these old films, these tales drive me in my compositions, I feel inspired by knowing what the actors went through. And I find elements that mirror experiences I’ve had, so sometimes the music might be autobiographical – like in The Wind, there was so much there that I feel I’ve been through in my own life. I’m pretty sure this particular music just came to me; every time I sat down for the next composing session I didn’t have to re-write anything, I couldn’t get it down fast enough. It was like a form of channelling. I’ve never had that experience before. As I said before, this work on this particular film has deeply moved me, maybe even changed me.

I understand you were classically trained from childhood. When did you start to move away from classical playing and develop your own distinctive style?

I got into university to study music, but within a few months I’d started composing and then began to realise I felt quite uncomfortable being in a music department. I felt out of place and couldn’t connect my newfound love for music on the ECM record label with being on that music course. For that reason, and some others, I decided to leave the course. I did TV soundtracks on an Atari for a while but they weren’t very good in my opinion. With a sinking heart I realised I had years of work ahead before I could really find my voice, so I worked in admin and composed in private on a piano for over a decade until I felt I’d found my own unique style. In all that time I listened to as little music as I could get away with, as I was terrified of subconsciously copying other composers.

You seem to seek out an interesting range of artists to work with, including non-musicians like Hanif Kureishi. How do you choose your projects and collaborators?

On a whim and also luck. I wrote to a few writers when I was seeking to work with the written word as a device to create composition. Hanif is very open and a genuine artist, he responded and was encouraging towards me for a couple of years before we actually met and collaborated. As an artist, you know instantly I guess which path is the next one; you just feel you’re in your right skin. It’s instinctive.

Your next performance will be in the Purcell Room at Queen Elizabeth Hall, when you'll be accompanying a film by Hazuan Hashim and Phil Maxwell and playing with a number of other artists. How did this show come together?

I felt it was time to go back to Southbank. Phil and Hazuan and I discussed a 45-minute film last year, and so I developed a programme around it. I’m starting with quiet solo piano works then building to a piano duet with my jazz specialist brother, pianist Roland Perrin, where he improvises to my minimalist patterns. After that it's my new band, Nimuch Ensemble, and a collaboration with writer and actor Jonathan Bonnici and electronics composer Alexis Kirke – joined by Kate Shortt on cello and Sarah Watts on bass clarinet. The project is called Intertitles I, inspired by my experiences with silent film intertitles. I’m working with different writers who are creating narration to punctuate episodes of music, the way intertitles punctuate episodes in a silent film. The effect is supposed be cinematic, without any visuals. Intertitles II is planned with Stockholm-based prose poet Rolf Hughes.

This will be the fourth time you've worked with Hashim and Maxwell. Has the way you work together changed over the years?

Yes, in this new film we thought we’d try to be closer together so they are more in the music process and I’m more in their filmmaking process. The film is called Going East, and it is like a portrait of humanity across from the East End of London all the way to Cambodia. It has beautiful, dramatic stills shot by Phil Maxwell and moving imagery by Phil and Hazuan Hashim, who edited it. We did a 15-minute version at the Forge last September, and then expanded it. It’s too soon for me to comment more, I’m currently preparing for the premiere. I knew I must stretch myself in the score as the filmmakers have done, so we decided to add in vocals and I’ve invited Natacha Atlas to sing on this. We’ve rehearsed and so far, so good. She is an amazing talent.

Looking further ahead, what other projects have you got lined up in the future?

I’m launching Lola Perrin’s Seven Fridays on April 8th, presented by Markson Pianos (all details at my website). This is a seven date concert series at St Mary Magdalene, NW1, where I will be performing my collection of piano suites written between 1992 -2009. Each of my piano suites are from different triggers, and we’ve invited guest speakers to introduce the concerts, taking their own inspiration from my triggers. We have scientists, artists, poets and Sue Hubbard is doing the final concert. Each concert coincides with the second edition of the piano suite being released as printed music books. I’m excited by this series; it’s hopefully giving me a real chance to get my work into the repertoire. I’ve just been asked by International Piano magazine to contribute a diary this year to their pages, a behind-the-scenes look at the concert series, the piano books and also at a new piano competition I’m launching in colleges around the world. I also have a lot of piano students, I give primary age children private piano lessons, something that has kept me going financially and been very rewarding as a composer – there’s nothing like witnessing the blossoming of a child’s creativity to drive you forward in your work.

Lola Perrin will be performing in the Purcell Room at Queen Elizabeth Hall on March 19th at 7:45pm. For more information and to purchase tickets, check the Southbank Centre website.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Review - Benda Bilili!

I recently watched a documentary about the Democratic Republic of Congo, which focused on the country's widespread rape and brutality, and it was depressing beyond words. For years, the country's inhabitants have been mired in unimaginable violence and poverty, but a new film this week brings us a much-needed tale of hope from that troubled region. Filmed over the course of five years, Benda Bilili! is a documentary that follows a musical group as they leave the streets of Kinshasa, venture into the recording studio to produce their first album, and finally embark upon an international tour. These are no young starlets with dreams of fame, however; the members of this group are homeless, crippled by polio, and far from the first flush of youth. Theirs is a most unlikely success story.

It's an undeniably rousing one too. Benda Bilili! (their name translates as "Look beyond appearances") presents us with people coping in the worst conditions, paraplegics living in abject poverty, and shows them finding ways to overcome the obstacles life has placed in front of them through their love of music. They sing with humour and heart about their own lives and their own problems, and the film's directors, Renaud Renaud Barret and Florent de La Tullaye, give us an insight into their living conditions as they chart the group's progress. We only really meet a couple of the musicians on an individual basis during the course of the film, with band leader 'Papa' Ricky being our guide for much of the early part of the movie, but the real star of the movie is Roger. We first meet him as a scrawny, meek 13 year-old who constantly carries with him a homemade satonge, which he has constructed out of a tin can, a piece of wood and a single string. When Ricky discovers him and asks him to join the band, it's obvious that he has detected something special in this kid, and one of the joys of Benda Bilili! is watching the way Roger grows from a boy into a man on this journey, coming out of himself and getting to grips with the breadth of his talent.

As a piece of filmmaking, Benda Bilili! is a little rough around the edges. It feels like it has been shot and assembled in a rather ad hoc fashion, and as its narrative progresses quickly over the years, it occasionally seems to miss key stages in the group's story. The film is driven by its sense of humanity and its optimism, however, and by the infectiously enjoyable music produced by Staff Benda Bilili. The scale of their achievement is made clear when we see two local children speculating on what lies in that mythical land known as 'Europe', and then later see this group delight festival audiences in various European cities. They are homeless, disabled, and some of them are playing on homemade instruments, but as the large crowd roars in appreciation of their energetic performance, they look like they truly belong on that stage.

Benda Bilili! will be released on 18th March 2011. On Friday March 11th, there will be a special preview screening at Union Chapel, Islington, which will be followed by a live performance from Staff Benda Bilili.

Review - Rango

At a time when mainstream Hollywood product is becoming ever more homogenous and unimaginative, the very fact that a film like Rango has been released should be a reason for good cheer, regardless of the quality of the film itself. Clearly taking the opportunity to cash in some of their Pirates of the Caribbean chips, Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp have come up something genuinely adventurous and distinctive; an animated film, ostensibly aimed at children, which draws its inspiration from Sergio Leone, Chinatown, Hunter S. Thompson and Dead Man. Having played Thompson and starred in Dead Man, Johnny Depp feels like a natural fit for the title character, a domesticated chameleon who finds himself stranded in the desert and fighting for his life. He ends up in a town called Dirt, ruled over by a Noah Cross-like turtle, and after a few contrivances, he is appointed sheriff and must "become the hero of his own story," as the band of mariachi owls that occasionally comments upon the action informs us.

It's hard to define exactly what tone Verbinski and his screenwriter John Logan are going for here. The movie simultaneously offers us a hefty dose of dry humour, existential angst and large-scale action sequences; an unusual brew that often leaves the film feeling rather lopsided. The central narrative, in which Rango must become a hero, solve the mystery of Dirt's missing water supply, and win the heart of Beans (Isla Fisher) is the film's single weakest element and the story unfortunately runs dry – no pun intended – long before the movie comes to a close. Aside from that central flaw, however, Rango is something of a demented delight. It is a triumph of design and animation, with the visual work provided by Industrial Light and Magic making this one of the most aesthetically astonishing animated films I've ever seen. The level of detail in the characters and their photorealistic surroundings is consistently staggering, and the muted palette Verbinski opts for – again, taking the animation road less travelled – is quite beautiful.

There has clearly been a great deal of attention lavished on Rango, and the performers hired to give voice to their characters all pull their weight too. It's starry cast, but I hardly recognised most of them as their voices are such a natural fit for their roles, and top marks go to Isla Fisher, Ned Beatty, Abigail Breslin and Alfred Molina. Rango is funny, strange and rather bold, and those qualities outweigh its less well-developed aspects, but it does pose the vexing question: just who is this movie for? I fear it may bore/confused younger viewers, and some adults may be nonplussed by its inconsistent nature and sense of humour; after all, it's a rare family animation that dares to deliver a line like, "I once found a human spinal cord in my fecal matter." Nevertheless, I'd implore audiences to give it a try. Rango is not the kind of mainstream film that instantly appears to be playing for a sequel or franchise (heck, it's not even in 3D), and for that reason alone, it deserves our attention.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

"They were really brave in agreeing to just go for the ride and experience the film from moment to moment" - An interview with Joanna Hogg

Joanna Hogg's debut film Unrelated suggested that she is a filmmaker with a distinctive sensibility, and her second feature Archipelago confirms that. It's another study of an unhappy family suffering through a tense holiday, with the director's striking compositions and acute grasp of family dynamics making for an absorbing and fascinating experience. I saw the film at last year's London Film Festival, and I met Joanna Hogg a few days after the screening.

How did the experience of making Unrelated affect the way you approached Archipelago?

Well, I think learned a lot from my first film. One of the main things I realised during the process of making Unrelated was that, while I wrote a pretty conventional script, when I was shooting the film I was resistant to referring to it too much. I had this big, 100-page script in my hands, but when words are on a page, it sort of becomes a bit dead for me. Something I really enjoyed, and was so different to when I was working in television, was to be much more spontaneous and open to what was going on in front of me. Obviously, it was brilliant to have written the script, but when it's under my skin, so to speak, I could work without it and develop things as I went along. I also shoot in story order so I have the freedom to do that. When I came to Archipelago, I thought I won't put myself through the writing of a 100-page script again, because I realised how much of that was useful and how much of it wasn't. I thought I would do a much more concentrated version of it, so I wrote something more like a short story, and I took photographs of the island where we filmed to illustrate the story with those photographs. In the story I'm describing a lot of the psychological levels of what's going on with the characters, what they're feeling, which I know that's not going to be visible when you make the film, but it works like a kind of map for me as I'm shooting. That's really important for me, actually, more important than describing the visual details of what you'll see. I think of it as an emotional map.

As you visited Tresco before shooting, did the location help you define what the story was going to be?

Very much, but then I knew the location already. I'd known it for many years and it was already very familiar to me, so while I visited again when I realised I wanted to make the film, so much of it was already in there.

It's a great location and it's surprising that we haven't really seen it on film before.

I know, I'm really surprised that it hasn't been used more, but I'm rather delighted to have discovered it, in a sense. I love the rather strange juxtaposition of landscape you get there. You've got a lot of palm trees and amazing sub-tropical gardens, and then you've got a bleaker, barren landscape coexisting with that, but they really are feet apart from each other. You can walk around the whole island in an hour and a half, I think, but it's brilliant for filming.

The one actor you've brought with you from Unrelated is Tom Hiddleston. Do you create the role of Edward with him in mind?

I did, actually, that was one of my early decisions, to create another part for Tom. I really liked working with him on Unrelated and I saw potential for him to play a different type of characters, so I took great pleasure in thinking of the almost antithesis of Oakley. Although I'm actually noticing that people are observing him as different sides of the same character, which is interesting.

I guess you can see it that way, as if Oakley has matured and grown out of the kind of shallow, narcissistic character he used to be and is wondering what to do with his life now.

It's interesting because I did think after Unrelated that I'd like to see what happens to Oakley ten years on. I think some of that fake confidence Oakley had would still be apparent, and he would have got into more difficulties in life than Edward, even though Edward does have his own difficulties and anxieties. I don't think Oakley quite has that sensitivity that Edward has, so while I there is potential for a look at Oakley ten years on, I think he'd be a very different character.

Alongside your professional actors, you have cast two non-professionals in the role of the cook and the painter. Why did you make that choice?

I was interested in the family being professional actors, but because I like working with non-actors as well, I decided to make everyone who's not in the family, every 'outsider', a non-actor. I also wanted to use people I had met there, so the fisherman and the gamekeeper both live on that island. The character of the cook and the painter both came about in different ways. I have been having painting lessons for seven years, so I'd known Christopher and I'd been observing him, wondering if his brilliant teaching ability could translate into a performance, because teaching is a sort of performance, in a way. When I first thought of the idea, I didn't think he would be in this precise story, but that gradually emerged and I wondered what would happen if I put him in this setting. With Rose, the cook, I knew I wanted to cast a professional cook rather than an actress, so I went out looking for cooks.

Do you have to direct people like that in a different way to the actors who are more experienced? How do you approach that?

I did have a different approach, actually, you're right. I didn't tell Christopher or Amy very much about the story, I didn't want them to know what was going to happen, and I didn't even tell them much about the setting either, really. So they were really brave in agreeing to just go for the ride and experience the film from moment to moment, because they were pretty much in the dark. They both had enough to work with because unlike the family, they were both occupied with something, the cook is cooking and the painter's painting, so that they have those things they're already familiar with, which makes it easier, in a sense. The family are away from home and completely out of their comfort zone.

How much of an impact have Christopher's painting lessons had on your visual sense as a filmmaker?

That has been an inspiration. I have certainly found that painting has forced me to look at filmmaking in a different way, and that was one of the starting points, actually. Christopher was talking about how it related to my filmmaking, and I wanted to put his comments into the film on a sort of Meta level, describing the filmmaking process. He's also commenting on the family too, so he has a dual role as an observer.

A number of scenes, particularly interiors, are shot in a very dim light. How did you develop that look for the film?

Well, talking about painting, one of the inspirations was a painter called Hammershøi, whose work was shown at the Royal Academy a couple of years ago. His paintings are really extraordinary and quite dark, so that was a sort of visual influence. I also thought it would be interesting for the house to be in contrast, and to use shadows that have quite a rich feel to them. The cinematographer Ed Rutherford, whose first film this is, wasn't using many lights and was using a lot of available lights. I don't like to spend hours waiting around for lighting, I like to keep the momentum up, and we were also quite a lightweight crew. But it's surprising that in some scenes where you think it's natural light, he has actually lit the scene in a very subtle way.

One of the intriguing links between Unrelated and Archipelago is this idea of characters being on the other end of the phone and their absence being felt throughout the film. What's the thinking behind that?

It's interesting, because obviously those two films have that in common, but I don't think I consciously thought that I would have this character absent in the same way Alex was absent in Unrelated. Do you know, I haven't really analysed it. I think there must be something deep and dark in my past that has inspired it [laughs]. First of all, I don't like having phone conversations in films when you hear the person on the other end of the phone, because that always seems fake to me, and I'm interested in suggesting things rather than spelling them out. I just like that air of mystery.

I thought it was much more potent in Archipelago because while it was only the main character who had to deal with her husband being away in Unrelated, in this case the father's absence seems to hang over the whole family and is the catalyst for a lot of the subsequent tension.

You're absolutely right, because his absence forces his family to look at their relationship with each other, which is obviously very fraught. Absence is one of the main themes, I suppose, because it also connects to Rose, who has lost her father. In a way, she has the biggest absence of them all, but she's able to articulate it a lot better than they are.

Edward is the only family member who attempts to listen to her and understand her feelings.

Well, I just thought that was very Edward, to have those concerns. I wanted him to always have those concerns about other people but to be at a loss himself. I thought it was a key part of his character and I really liked the tension in that.

Finally, do you know what your next film is going to be?

Nothing fully formed yet. I'm playing around with the idea of setting something in London for my next film.

That will be nice, to be working on home turf for a change.

Absolutely, and it's about time, actually. I've lived here more than thirty years.

"I hate artist documentaries, because they always feel very fake" - An interview with Vik Muniz

Throughout his career, Vik Muniz has created art from unlikely materials, using substances such as sugar, dirt and chocolate to produce remarkable images. In Lucy Walker's Oscar-nominated documentary Waste Land, we follow the Brazilian artist as he embarks upon an extraordinarily ambitious project, collaborating with workers from the world's largest landfill to create portraits from the rubbish they collect every day. It is an eye-opening and moving film, and I met Vik Muniz when he was in London for last year's London Film Festival to talk about it.

Where did the initial idea for the Jardim Gramacho project come from?

I had wanted to work with garbage for ten years, because when you're dealing with garbage there are all of these indiscernible things and your eyes keep wandering about. Your gaze doesn't seem to stop anywhere when you're looking at garbage, and these objects don't seem to have a clear identity, so it's a very interesting environment from an artistic perspective, and a very weird visual environment. I couldn't do it before, because I had been to São João, another very large dump, and the drug traffickers were protecting heaps of garbage with machine guns, so me and Fabio said, "OK, this is not going to work." I went back to working with junk and discarded goods, but garbage is something else, because it's more complicated, you know? Also, garbage is something you are always trying to hide, and to work with material you normally try to avoid, it would be very interesting to make people come closer to a picture to look at this substance, when they are trained from the beginning of their lives to be away from it.

There's a line in the film when you say, "The moment when one thing transforms into another is the most beautiful moment," and there aren't many transformations bigger than a piece of garbage into a work of art.

Yes, it's really true, and garbage sort of dictates the proximity of the viewer too. There is a natural prejudice and when we look at garbage we are inclined to pull back, it's repulsive, so you have something that is pushing you away but you also want to be closer to see what it is made of.

At what point did you get involved with Lucy Walker?

When I met Lucy in Newcastle to discuss the possibility of making of the film, she mentioned that she had been to Fresh Kills in New York and she had this interest in garbage too. I said that I hate artist documentaries, because they always feel very fake. I mean, I love the art of Richard Long, but I saw a documentary where he was just walking by himself through some desert, and we're supposed to forget that there's a film crew and a catering cart right behind him [laughs]. At the same time, you also get documentaries where people are saying eulogies about the artist, "Oh, he's a genius," and I hate that crap, I can't stand it. I had even done one before that was a little bit like this, but I had seen Lucy's films, especially The Devil's Playground, and I liked the way she films, she almost disappears. I told her that I wasn't interested in doing a documentary on my work, but doing a documentary that focused on the process of a single work, from beginning to end. It would be interesting for me to be outside of the movie and see the whole process with me in it, to see how I go about things. It was very organic, the way we did it. I had worked with several social projects in Brazil, and that project was something I had been thinking about, but it was only when I went to Gramacho and saw the human potential that I decided to bring the subject into the process itself.

That human potential is the real reason the film works so well. Did you quickly find the characters who would become so integral to the story?

It was straight away, but I'll tell you something else. If I had to pick another 5, 6 or 7 characters, I could just go like this [points in random directions] and I would come up with five equally interesting stories, because it's the environment itself that creates those people. It's hard, but they create survival strategies that are very effective in that environment, and once shared, it's a positive dynamic, it's very strange. You're in the middle of mountains of garbage, in the heat, rubbing elbows with people all the time, and there are hardly any fights, nobody ever steals. Ethically, they are so clean.

There is a great sense of community among them, and they have created a little society for themselves.

There was this guy in Brazil who studied prisoners, and when they had thirty prisoners in a cell that could only fit eight people, they had very strict rules and organisation. You always see organisation from people who are forced into very tough situations. Just look at this case with the miners in Chile, once the panic is gone you get very effective ways to organise, and that's what happens in Gramacho. Because it's organic and self-organised, it resonates very deeply in the way people carry themselves, and it's not imposed on them like they're working in a public office. In Brazil, you go to an office to get documents sometimes, and the people are so nasty! They have such a horrible work environment, they hate each other and they hate everybody who comes in, but in Gramacho people are very cordial from the minute you arrive, and you don't feel threatened. They have a real camaraderie and a feeling that's very positive.

Were you surprised by the sense of pride they took in their work? They keep saying that at least they have their dignity and they haven't turned to drugs or prostitution.

Well, it's true that they are proud of what they do because what they do is very hard. They work night and day, they work 14-hour shifts, and it's a really harsh environment. But I also think a lot of it is denial, it's the way they actually manage to get through it. They keep repeating, "This is good," like a mantra until they believe it. Thankfully, this film is not a scratch and sniff film [laughs], but the smell of that place is incredible. It was tough to be there, it was tough just for the 15 days we spent filming there before we started working in the studio. Even in the studio, there was such a stench. After a year and a half, we still couldn't get that smell out of the studio.

How has this project and this experience affected the way you approach your art?

The test for me was that you get to a point where you have done this for twenty years, and you have to admit that you do a lot of it automatically. You're an artist, people tell you you're a good artist, they buy your work, and it becomes like a routine. When you feel that you have done it without thinking once or twice, you have to stop and ask yourself the question: what is this that I'm doing? Is this art thing real, or is it a job like any other job? A lot of artists don't know much about politics, or the economy or recycling or things in real life; we live an odd kind of life without really living a life, you know? For me, if this project had an effect on their lives, it would prove to me that this thing was real, and it did. The most beautiful spark in the film for me is when Magna holds the picture and she says, "You have no idea what this means to me." I never cried during the film but when I watch that I really have to hold it in, because when she says that, in my mind I'm repeating to her, "You have no idea what that means to me." It's so sincere, she's telling me that this is real, this is part of the rituals and behaviour that makes us better people, and what we do has value. I believe that it has made me a better human being and a better teacher. I like to teach, but do it in a very organised way that can be too didactic, so I'm always trying to pull this back and let the work take its own form.