Monday, August 29, 2011

Review - The Inbetweeners Movie

Not every film deserves to be seen in a cinema and movie versions of television shows rarely do enough to justify their place on the big screen. The history of British cinema is littered with dismal attempts to give much-loved sitcom characters a movie platform, and the latest programme to make this difficult transition is The Inbetweeners. It is the culmination of a meteoric rise for the show, which began life on E4 in 2008, and after two often hilarious series (followed by a much more strained and patchy third), it has been deemed worthy of a big screen send-off. Sadly, despite its title, The Inbetweeners Movie isn't really much of a movie.

The film has been directed by Ben Palmer, who was responsible for many episodes of the TV show, and he hasn't done much to adapt his style for this new medium. The most ambitious shot in the movie occurs right at the start, as the camera swoops across the show's suburban setting and glides in through an open window, settling on the now-familiar sight of Jay (James Buckley) having a wank (complete with glove, snorkel and fistfuls of ham). Some things never change, and many fans of the series will be cheered by the prospect of watching the characters they love doing the things they've laughed at so many times before. Simon (Joe Thomas) is still hopelessly besotted with his on-off girlfriend Carli, who dumps him in the movie's opening moments, while Neil (Blake Harrison) is as cheerfully oblivious as ever and the studious, sensible Will (Simon Bird) is looking forward to putting his school days behind him and moving on to university. This is the one major change in the boys' lives; the fact that their exams are now over and they're leaving the school environment that bound them together. To mark this end of an era, the four decide to take a holiday in Crete – making use of Jay's inheritance from his dead grandfather – a holiday they presume will be a sex-filled free-for-all, but one that we know will offer nothing but the series of excruciating humiliations we've come to know and love The Inbetweeners for.

The question is whether any of this is different enough from the TV show to justify the greater length and expanse of a cinema feature? "Sending everyone on holiday" has been the basis for TV-to-movie translations from Holiday On the Buses to Kevin and Perry Go Large, with the idea perhaps being that the extra exoticism of a foreign location suggests that the filmmakers are actually giving the core audience something different for their money, something that's worth a trip to the cinema for. The essential problem with so many of these films, however, is the fact that characters who can support a half-hour sitcom between them can rarely survive the demands of carrying a feature. The actors and the writers appear to have wilted under the pressure in this case, with gags and situations that might have passed muster on TV feeling so feeble on the larger canvas.

The actors do give it their best shot. Bird, Buckley, Harrison and Thomas remain a likeable quartet, sharing a natural chemistry and repartee, and our affection for their characters carries this movie an awfully long way. It's not really their fault that they have been lumbered with a script that repeats jokes from the series (Will complaining about a reserved seat and inadvertently insulting a disabled child) or handles some set-pieces in such a laborious fashion (the shit-on-nose comeuppance is a dismal misfire). The boys appear more naïve and downright stupid than ever, which might be an easier way to get laughs but it takes them one step further away from the core of truth that characterised the best episodes, and the female counterparts who have been created to give each inbetweener a love interest are just as poorly written. Sure, there are funny moments scattered throughout, but only enough to fill a single TV episode, and when that many gags are stretched over 100 minutes, it leaves a lot of long, dry patches.

Whether anyone actually cares about The Inbetweeners Movie's value as a film is another matter entirely. Within a week of its release, the picture has broken the record for a comedy at the UK box-office, which proves that familiarity really is the biggest draw for today's cinemagoers. Let people know that they'll get exactly what they expect – with no surprises, no ambition and no attempt to shake up the formula – and they'll turn up in their droves. Of course, it's hard to argue with the box-office returns for The Inbetweeners Movie, but it's disappointing to see them being rewarded so extravagantly for such a cheap, unimaginative and lazy endeavour, and I can't help wishing they'd stayed on the small screen, where they clearly belong.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Review - The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito)

When talking about Pedro Almodóvar recently I referenced Volver as his last film. It was only afterwards that I realised that his 2009 feature Broken Embraces had completely evaporated from my memory, which perhaps suggests that the director was in dire need of a change of pace. Broken Embraces felt like little more than a recycling of themes, motifs and ideas from his earlier work; in short, it felt tired, which is why The Skin I Live In feels like such a bracing surprise. The director's latest film is a liberal adaptation of Thierry Jonquet's novel Tarantula, and after a couple of female-centred pictures from Almodóvar, this is a film very much concerned with the male gaze and one man's obsessive control over his female subject.

The film takes place in Toledo in 2012, where Antonio Banderas, reuniting with Almodóvar for the first time in twenty years, plays renowned plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard, whose experiments drive the film's plot. In his remote mansion he holds a young woman captive, using her as his guinea pig while he attempts to develop a new type of synthetic skin, resistant to pain, bites and burns. Her name is Vera (Elena Anaya), and we first see her contorted into a yoga position, clad in a figure-hugging body stocking, in the sparse room that doubles as her prison cell. Only one other person knows she is there, Ledgard's Mother Marilia (Marisa Paredes), the Igor to his Dr. Frankenstein, who keeps an eye on Vera throughout the day, communicating with her over an intercom and supplying food via a dumb waiter. Who is Vera? What is her relationship to Ledgard? And for how long has she been trapped like this? All will eventually be revealed.

But it won't be revealed here. Ignorance is bliss when it comes to a film like The Skin I Live In, so I'm going to tread carefully around the film's narrative. This is Almodóvar's darkest and most psychologically twisted film for some time and he piles on plot developments that drive his story into increasingly disturbing territory and simultaneously test the boundaries of his audience's credulity. He leaps back and forth in time (acknowledging the excessive nature of his time-shifts with an exasperated-sounding "back to the present" caption near the end) to reveal the family trauma that has prompted Ledgard to play God, and he introduces supporting characters who will fit into the drama in unusual ways. There's Vicente (Jan Cornet), a young man infatuated with his lesbian co-worker and then there's Zeca (Roberto Álamo), who appears dressed in a full tiger outfit, which might seem ridiculous were it to occur in any other film.

The brilliance of Almodóvar's filmmaking here lies in his ability to keep us riveted even as the story grows increasingly absurd. His direction is impeccable throughout. His meticulously controlled mise-en-scène, combined with José Luis Alcaine's gleaming cinematography and a surging, Hitchcockian score from Alberto Iglesias, creates an intoxicating effect. His work seems so much more invigorated here than it was in Broken Embraces, effortlessly transfixing the viewer as the narrative corkscrews towards its climax. The director also seems to have revitalised Banderas, who gives his best performance in years as the tortured, unhinged scientist. Both he and Anaya expertly portray characters who withhold much of their true nature from us for the majority of the film's running time.

Ultimately, what The Skin I Live in lacks is an emotional undercurrent to complement the film's gorgeous presentation. The film feels clinical and sometimes bloodless, and while the revelations Almodóvar has in store for us are shocking and gripping, they don't really possess a deeper impact. The beauty of The Skin I Live In is only skin deep, but how can I complain when it has offered me one of the most surprising, aesthetically stimulating and exhilarating experiences I've had at the movies all year? Almodóvar's latest film might exist only on the surface, but what a surface it is.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Review - One Day

One Day takes place on St. Swithin's Day, July 15th, but this isn't one of those films that plays out over the course of 24 hours. In fact, the story One Day tells unfolds over something closer to 24 years, dropping into the lives of Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess) on the same date each year to see how their lives are progressing. Sometimes they're together, often they're apart, and as we watch them grow older, we – and they – wonder if these long-term friends are actually made for each other. It's a smart literary device and one that certainly worked for author David Nicholls, whose bestseller has become something of an instant classic, eliciting tears and superlatives from most readers.

The film adaptation might not reach audiences in quite the same way, but it does have plenty to commend it. Nicholls (who wrote the screenplay) has stayed true to the distinctive structure of his book, with the movie opening on July 15th 1988, as Emma and Dexter meet for the first time in the aftermath of celebrating their university graduation. They spend the night together, but in a platonic fashion, and that's the state they remain in for many years: just good friends. Emma, an aspiring writer, takes a dead-end job in a Mexican restaurant and begins a relationship with stand-up comedian Ian (Rafe Spall). Meanwhile, Dexter enjoys a more decadent and rootless existence, becoming a TV presenter on an outrageous late night show (obviously modelled on The Word and its ilk) and making a dubious name for himself as "the most annoying man on television." The pair appear to be drifting apart, but there's a deep connection there that ensures they keep returning to one another. She never seems happier than when she's with Dexter, while he finds a sense of stability and understanding with her that he can't find anywhere else.

Thus, the ingredients for a classic romantic tearjerker all appear to be in place, with the obstacles that lie between Emma and Dexter only piquing our anticipation of the moment when they will finally fall into each other's arms. One Day doesn't really hit those big emotional peaks that we might be expecting, though, and part of the problem lies in that narrative structure. The film moves fluidly enough between scenes, with each new sequence marking another annual leap, but this technique is sometimes disruptive to our engagement with the story, as we continually readjust with the characters each having suddenly moved on with their lives. The result is a rather uneven piece of storytelling that occasionally skips whole years in a flash (and even drops the odd period clanger, suggesting the premiere of Jurassic Park took place in 1994); but even if it never quite delivers the (heavily telegraphed) emotional sucker punch that it promises, One Day does manage to find moments of emotional resonance through a number of skilfully crafted individual scenes.

The film has been directed by Lone Sherfig, who does the same polished and subtle job with this material that she did with 2009's An Education. She can't do much with the conundrum of her central couple being kept apart for much of the film, but she is a fine judge of tone and she consistently hits the right note in their individual stories. I particularly liked Dexter's relationship with his parents (Ken Stott and an underutilised Patricia Clarkson), whose worries for their son as his drug-fuelled lifestyle goes off the rails is touchingly portrayed in a couple of short but impactful scenes. Likewise, I enjoyed Rafe Spall's performance as an unsuccessful comedian with whom Emma shares an unfulfilling period. Sherfig has always been an excellent director of actors and she draws sharp turns from the whole ensemble here.

Of course, the success or failure of the film depends largely on the strength of the two leads. Hathaway is unlikely casting as an awkward, frumpy, northern lass (unglamorous outfits and big glasses can't dim her radiant beauty), and her accent only occasionally reminds us of the city she's supposed to be from, but she gives a warm and intelligent performance nonetheless. However, it quickly becomes obvious that Emma is the less interesting of the film's central characters, with Dexter's two decades being markedly more turbulent and compelling. Dexter has to be alternately arrogant and charming, loving and selfish, and Sturgess handles the complexities of his character with real adroitness, making him feel more like a fully-fledged human being than Emma is allowed to become. It's his tale that ultimately feels like the true narrative thread of One Day, and while the film may not be the grand love story it has been presented as, it is a rather astute and thoughtful examination of the way life takes us down unexpected and often painful paths, leaving us wiser and more complete for the experience.

DVD Review - Our Day Will Come (Notre jour viendra)

The Film

"We have no language, no army, no country!" Vincent Cassel shouts in Our Day Will Come. The oppressed minority group that he is issuing this rallying cry on behalf of is that of redheaded people, whom Romain Gavras identifies as an often humiliated and discriminated against group in his feature debut. Gavras has already built one piece of work around the idea of prejudice against redheads with his 2010 video for MIA's single Born Free sparking controversy over its scenes of ginger people being beaten, shot and blown up by the police. Our Day Will Come essentially expands upon and reinterprets that theme, but whereas the 8-minute video was rife with provocation, Gavras' ideas seem diluted when asked to support a feature running ten times that length.

What Our Day Will Come has in its favour is plenty of energy, and Gavras moves his story forward at a fair pace early on. His film is a road movie featuring two redheaded characters who decide to fight back against a world that is unfair and unkind to their people. Rémy (Olivier Barthelemy) is a young man who is the victim of bullying among his own teammates on the football team and demeaned by his mother and sister at home. Patrick (Cassel) is a disillusioned psychiatrist (he is shown early on being more interested in the crisps he's eating than the patient crying in front of him) called in to help Rémy after a violent outburst against his family but who instead joins him on his strange odyssey. The older man – Cassel is greying but with flashes of tell-tale red in his hair – teaches his young companion to stand up for himself, and he tries to help the sexually confused Rémy with women, and at some point the pair coalesce into a revolutionary team, leading the rebellion for gingers everywhere.

There are parallels to be drawn here with any society in which a minority has terrorised the majority (the slogan "our day will come" appears to have been lifted by Gavras from the IRA, and Ireland is seen throughout the film as a utopian safe haven for redheads), but the director's ideas don't appear fully formed, and neither do his characters. It's never clear what drives Rémy and Patrick beyond a vague sense of being wronged and ostracised by the world at large, and Barthelemy's performance doesn't bring much to the film. At least Cassel is on fine form, imbuing Patrick with an intensity that anchors the film at crucial points, with this excellent actor denoting changes in mood and intention with just his eyes, and the film as a whole should have taken its cue from him more often. Our Day Will Come needed to be darker and more daring to really make an impact on the audience; in short, it needed more of the focused maliciousness that characterised the MIA video. Instead, all we have is a series of overlong scenes in which Rémy and Patrick engage in various forms of antisocial behaviour before the film escalates into silliness in its final moments, with Gavras having given himself nowhere to go but over the top.

The Extras

The infamous video that inspired Our Day Will Come is viewable as a DVD extra, and there are two other Gavras-directed videos as well, for Justice's Stress and DJ Mehdi's Signatune. The 18-minute "making of" film goes behind the scenes on the shoot and talks to a few of the minor actors.

Our Day Will Come will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on August 22nd.

Buy Our Day Will Come here

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Review - The Guard

"I can't tell if you're really motherfucking dumb or really motherfucking smart." So says FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) as he ponders the Irish police sergeant he has been partnered with in The Guard. Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) responds to the American's statement with an enigmatic smile and reveals nothing, keeping the audience similarly in the dark regarding his true nature. Is Boyle good cop or bad cop? Is he slow on the uptake or simply playing it that way? Sergeant Boyle is not averse to pilfering drugs from a crime scene or doing shady deals, and he enjoys the company of prostitutes on his days off, but he might just be the only honest cop in the county. He is a mass of contradictions, and the perfectly cast Gleeson keeps his cards very close to his chest.

The question posed by Everett is easier to answer when considering the film itself, however. The Guard is very motherfucking smart, having been written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, whose brother Martin made In Bruges, which shares a similar tone and sense of humour. The film takes place in Galway and when we first meet Boyle, we quickly see him as a feckless and eccentric soul, who amuses himself in quiet moments by teasing eager new recruit Aiden (Rory Keenan) and his desire to do things by the book. Boyle's brash demeanour is certainly startling to Everett, who has arrived in Ireland following a lead on a major drugs shipment, and they get off on the wrong foot almost immediately. "I thought only black lads were drug dealers." Boyle suggests as he watches an FBI presentation of the three white suspects. "I'm Irish" he protests, apparently startled by the angry reaction his comment has provoked, "racism's part of our culture."

McDonagh has some fun setting a tale of drugs, murder and corruption against the incongruous rural backdrop. One scene finds Everett walking the country roads alone, with the locals eyeing this stranger suspiciously and refusing to cooperate with his enquiries ("There's a black man at the door!" a woman shouts in subtitled Gaelic when he knocks), which is the kind of sequence that's recognisable from so many fish-out-water comedies. McDonagh follows the familiar narrative template of the buddy cop movie too – a straight-up detective and his unconventional sidekick having a relationship that develops from mistrust and animosity to camaraderie – but he gets away with the unoriginal format thanks to some sharp writing. The Guard puts a sly spin on numerous scenes; after one tense confrontation with the chief villain of the piece (Liam Cunningham), Boyle ends up with his head in his hands – not through despair, but a headache induced by drinking his milkshake too fast. Amid the humour, McDonagh also crafts some fine dramatic scenes too, such as a couple of warm and witty exchanges between Boyle and his ailing mother (Fionnula Flanagan), or the compassion he shows to a young widow.

The director can be guilty of overwriting, however. The three drug dealers (Cunningham, Mark Strong and David Wilmot) are given dialogue that feels a little strained, with Cunningham discussing philosophy while Strong bemoans his dissatisfaction with the business he's in and Wilmot is stuck with the thinnest role as the most psychotic of the trio. Still, complaining about a film being a little overwritten seems churlish when it arrives in an era of comedy films that barely seem to be written at all.

And whatever the minor flaws in The Guard (McDonagh's direction can be a bit slack, failing to sustain a sense of momentum at crucial moments) it's worth seeing for one very big reason – Brendan Gleeson. In a performance that's rich in comic timing, subtlety and complexity, Gleeson provides us with a vivid and memorable characterisation – Ireland's own Bad Lieutenant – and he brilliantly shifts our perspective on Gerry Boyle, moving from feckless joker to heroic figure; an unlikely Gary Cooper standing for what he believes in and facing down the crooks. He does all of this while retaining that essential mystery at the centre of Gerry Boyle. Smart or dumb – who can say for sure? Either way, he's a fascinating and hugely endearing character to spend time with.

Blu-ray Review - Kind Hearts and Coronets

The Film

Few comedies are blacker than Kind Hearts and Coronets, and few are better. This is a film about a serial killer coldly and calculatingly dispensing with various members of a single family, but it is carried off with such effortless grace it keeps us impossibly charmed and smiling throughout, even as we are witness to such dark acts being committed. One reason for the film's beguiling nature is the casting of Dennis Price in the role of serious social climber Louis Mazzini, who dreams of obtaining the dukedom that he feels is his birthright by getting rid of the eight D'Ascoynes who stand in his way. Price's boyish demeanour and reserved manner makes Mazzini a fascinating and oddly beguiling protagonist, and his coolly detached narration is perfectly pitched. "Sometimes the death column brought good news, sometimes the births column brought bad," Mazzini observes as he examines the family tree. "The advent of twin sons to the Duke was a terrible blow. Fortunately, an epidemic of diphtheria restored the status quo almost immediately, and even brought me a bonus in the shape of the Duchess."

Although Kind Hearts and Coronets is justly celebrated today as one of the finest achievements of Ealing Studios (and, by extension, British cinema), Price's performance is often undervalued. This is partly due to the subtlety and understatement he brings to the part – never drawing attention to himself – but it's chiefly because he is co-starring with one of the greatest actors in cinema on peak form. Alec Guinness plays all eight members of the D'Ascoyne clan in an astonishing feat of acting, but there is no showmanship on Guinness' part. Instead of turning his multi-part performance into an ostentatious display of mimicry and comic skill – as Peter Sellers and Eddie Murphy would later do – Guinness disappears into his characters. He was a young man then, but look at how convincing he is as both the sprightly photographer his own age and the doddery old vicar; as the blustering General and the arrogant young heir. For Guinness, it was never about showing off his talents, it was simply an opportunity to slip into eight different roles and convince us that they were each a unique and distinctive member of the same family.

So much of the work Guinness puts in is slight and fleeting – the way he adjusts his glasses, or carries his cane – and such deft touches only become apparent on repeated viewing, with Kind Hearts and Coronets being a film that yields fresh treasures every time I watch it. The film was directed by Robert Hamer, who tells the story with an elegance and bite that is appropriate for this most refined tale of murder. His shots are beautifully composed and Douglas Slocombe's cinematography is particularly well served by this new restoration, with his gorgeous use of shadows looking richer and more darker than ever. But it's the screenplay – by Hamer and John Dighton – that continues to sparkle brightest of all more than sixty years after it was first written. The film is full of cutting dialogue and sly observations, with beautifully turned phrases such as, "I shot an arrow in the air; she fell to earth in Berkeley Square," to describe an archery-related murder or the telling line, "It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms."

That second line encapsulates the curious sense of a very English politeness and class-consciousness that distinguishes Kind Hearts and Coronets from any other study of a murderer. It is something of a miracle when a film attempts to blend comedy and tragedy in such a fashion and traverses that difficult territory without ever putting a foot wrong. Kind Hearts and Coronets is a flawlessly told joke that builds to a brilliant punchline – although that wasn't the case when the film was first released in America. Hard as it is to believe now, the panicky US censors modified the climax to make it neater and more easily moralistic, which hardly seems fitting on the end of this particular movie. This is a film that can't be sweetened or diluted, and the original ending remains perfect, leaving the conclusion hanging tantalisingly in the air and inviting us to speculate if the slippery Mazzini will find some way to wriggle free from yet another tight spot.

The Extras

John Landis offers a short introduction to one of his favourite films and there's a vintage, 25-minute Channel 4 documentary on Dennis Price that features some great clips from Price's career and tells a rather sad tale. The best extra on the disc is a commentary track featuring Alec Guinness' son Matthew, Peter Bradshaw and Terence Davies. Guinness offers some interesting stories from the set (including how close his father came to drowning during one scene) while Bradshaw and Davies highlight their favourite moments, although all three are sometimes guilty of going quiet when the temptation to simply watch this masterpiece becomes too strong. Davies seems to take particular delight in watching "the finest comedy film ever, ever, EVER!" and he has an amusing habit of squealing, "It's so delicious!" whenever some aspect of the film has tickled his fancy (which is a lot).

Kind Hearts and Coronets will be re-released in cinemas by Optimum Films on August 19th. It will subsequently be released on blu-ray and DVD on September 5th.

Buy Kind Hearts And Coronets here

Sunday, August 14, 2011

"We haven't been in a position where a country has fallen apart while being in possession of nuclear weapons, but there's really nothing to prevent that happening" - An interview with Lucy Walker

Lucy Walker has had quite a year. In February, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Waste Land and a few months later her latest documentary Countdown to Zero was released to widespread acclaim. This alarming and eye-opening film about the nuclear threat has had an impact beyond cinemas too, sparking a debate about the possibility of total nuclear disarmament. I spoke with Lucy Walker about her film recently ahead of its DVD release.

The topic of nuclear weapons is such a vast and complex one. How did you get to grips with the subject when you first embarked upon this project?

I had to try and figure out what were the most important things to include. I'm not an expert and I was left to my own devices to figure that out, but I'm pleased with the balance of the film and I believe it covers the most important aspects and issues. I learned a lot through my research, because I didn't really know much. I mean, I'm a regular concerned citizen, I read the newspaper and all that stuff, but I quickly realised that my A in physics A-level didn't mean anything and I had a lot of catching up to do. So I reached out into the various scientific, NGO and government communities and consulted all the experts I possibly could about what they thought was most important for people to understand. I encouraged them to educate me and point me towards other people who would be good interviews or other important stories. I spoke to something like 125 people off camera as well as all of the people you see on camera. I just phoned people up and asked for their help and they were all really generous in helping me figure out what to include.

The range of interviewees you have in the film is remarkable. Was it a challenge to get access to them and persuade them to speak on camera?

It was a real challenge across the board. For example, sometimes politicians are so used to delivering established lines, which is fine except it's not very interesting because you're just going to end up with something safe and boring, and that's not screen dynamite, so you had a problem there. On the other hand, I found the opposite problem with people who weren't media-savvy or were too alarmist, so there were a lot of different challenges in getting people to speak from the heart but to be accurate, informative and interesting. The goal was never to be alarmist and exaggerate the threat but to explain it as clearly and as humanly as possible.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is how ignorant most people are of the nuclear threat and how apathetic a lot of them are too. I guess you had to make the film as accessible and easy to digest as possible so viewers with that lack of knowledge could be educated by it.

Yeah, I really did. I wanted to make a film that, if people watched it, they'd feel really empowered, like there would be nothing in the newspaper that they couldn't really grasp. Look at the Fukushima incident just now in Japan, hopefully that story demonstrates how important it is that people do understand the issues and what's at stake. The thing we have to understand about nuclear material is that when something goes wrong it can go way that's hard to control or predict. I was actually just filming in Fukushima in the wake of the tsunami and I also filmed in Hiroshima on the same trip, and I was very much reminded of what can happen with a nuclear explosion, when a whole town can be instantly destroyed. Nothing I saw in Japan made me thing that anything in the movie was wrong. If anything, unfortunately, it all felt very current with what I learned and put in the movie.

It's almost as if people saw the Berlin wall come down and that era of communism end and thought that was the end of the nuclear threat.

I think that's exactly it. I think we all thought that the Soviet Union went away, and with it all of the terror we had in the 80's, so surely the nukes must have gone or we would be doing something about it. I was a very enthusiastic and keen student at school, and I remember when I was very young my teacher showed me these articles about climate change, but I kept saying, "If there's a problem they'd be doing something about it," so I didn't believe her! Unfortunately, some problems are so complex you realise it's easier to deny that there's a problem, but I think the film demonstrates that we'll be in worse trouble if we do ignore it than if we try to deal with it now.

One of the major changes that has occurred since that era is the emergence of new countries that have nuclear capabilities outside of the traditional superpowers.

Think about Pakistan, for example. Pakistan is really interesting. We showed in the movie that it's the headquarters of Al-Qaeda, and I think we weren't wrong there, and think about how many nuclear weapons that country has and how unstable it is in many key ways. What could happen there if any number of different destabilising events might occur? There's so much tremendous anxiety in the world and so far we haven't been in a position where a country has fallen apart while being in possession of nuclear weapons, but there's really nothing to prevent that happening.

Particularly as you show in the film how easy it is to cause a catastrophe by accident.

That's right, it's important to understand that you don't even need someone to intentionally set one off and there have been far too many cases where they have almost gone off. By definition, most of the states that have nuclear weapons are sophisticated ones with the organisation and resources – North Korea would be the exception to that rule – but this idea of accidents not being preventable is very interesting. You just can't plan for every eventuality. The people of Fukushima didn't plan for the extremity of that event, but who does? As time goes on, these very unusual circumstances will always arise once in a while, and the consequences of these things are so off the charts it's important to anticipate that accidents are an inevitable part of these things.

What kind of reaction have you had from politicians?

We've had very encouraging words from Hillary Clinton who gave it two thumbs up, and I think it's considered to have made a big impact. I've never had it confirmed that President Obama has seen it but he has quoted from it at certain points, so I think it has been impactful. I don't know if they've changed the ending for the UK version but the ratification of the star treaty happened and that was terrific, because we emphasised that as the first real step.

Do you really think complete nuclear disarmament is feasible?

That's the big question. Hopefully the movie shows that the alternatives are worse, you know? People will tell you that having no nuclear weapons in the world is a naive position, but I think you have to turn it around and say that the idea of feeling safe with many more states active with nuclear weapons is way more naive. Whatever you once thought about whether nuclear armament or disarmament was a good or bad thing, we're now living in this changed world where there's no technological bar to entry with this stuff anymore. In the future it's going to be much quicker and easier, and as technology advances it proliferates. Look at Libya, for example. I was actually supposed to go and interview Gaddafi and also Sayeef Gaddafi, who was just killed, for the film, but they cancelled at the last minute. They had nuclear weapons, they had the whole kit, but then they voluntarily gave it all up in 2003. Now Imagine a situation where Libya in its current state had nuclear weapons; it wouldn't be pretty. In the future, we will be in a situation, inevitably, where countries will have nuclear weapons and grow unstable. I don't know about you, but I'd feel very unhappy about living in a big city in such a situation. If one nuclear weapon got into the hands of a terrorist organisation that had a beef with Britain, I'd feel very worried living in London.

You mentioned that you were shooting in Japan recently. Is that for a new project or is it related to this film?

Yeah, I'm filming a new documentary in Japan but I don't want to talk about it too much yet. This is quite hot off the press, because you're the first person that I've spoken to about the film in a while. I was just filming in Japan, in the area where the tsunami hit Fukushima, so it's a new project about those recent events.

I was commenting to somebody recently about how most of the best films I've seen this year have been documentaries. Do you feel it's an exciting time for documentary filmmaking?

Yeah, I really do. I feel like fiction filmmaking is in the doldrums right now, if you ask me, apart from a few very exciting filmmakers. There's a lot more dynamic work going on around documentaries, and there's a couple of reasons for that, which are quite easy to point to. One is the fact that camera and editing equipment is so accessible now. The cameras are so portable and affordable now you can shoot some high-quality stuff, and in documentaries it is so important that you can edit a lot of material and really build the story in the editing room. I also think that it's a really interesting time when we're trying to find out how the world works, and we have this opportunity to look directly at the world and understand really important, fundamental, exciting things that are going on in our world using state of the art film equipment. I just really exciting, so yes, I feel like documentary filmmaking is where it's at right now and that's why I enjoy it so much.

DVD Review - Countdown to Zero

The Film

Countdown to Zero opens with members of the public from various countries being asked how worried they are about the threat of nuclear weapons. Most show little concern over the subject, with this probably being the first time that some of them have even given the matter any thought. Later, another group of people is asked how many nuclear weapons they think are in the world and which countries are currently in possession of them. Their answers are vague and varied, and complete stabs in the dark, with none of those asked in a position to make an informed guess. For these people – and, by extension, for a large proportion of the population – the nuclear threat is not a danger that is currently on their radar. With Countdown to Zero, Lucy Walker has identified that ignorance and apathy as a threat in itself, and her film is a passionate call for action against a catastrophe that may be closer than we think.

To help tell this story, Walker and producer Lawrence Bender (who has crusading documentary chops, having produced An Inconvenient Truth) have marshalled an extraordinary group of interviewees. Former heads of state, scientists and even criminals who have smuggled plutonium out of worryingly insecure facilities. Their testimonies are urgent but measured, laying out the facts of the matter in clear and accessible terms, and what's so terrifying about Countdown to Zero is how easy they make it all sound. As the world becomes increasingly destabilised and rogue states emerge, the risk of nuclear weapons falling into dangerous hands is greater than ever. Countdown to Zero depicts the possibility of nuclear disaster as a Sword of Damocles hanging over us all and, in its scariest segment, it suggests that the sword may be dropped by accident as easily as design. A series of anecdotes from the past few decades suggest just how close we've come to a nuclear attack through human error. In 1995, someone from the US military failed to inform Russia of a nuclear test they were conducting, and the film suggests that only the clear thinking of a thankfully sober Boris Yeltsin prevented them taking immediate retaliatory action.

Countdown to Zero is a departure for Walker, whose previous films have seen her follow a group of people and watch as a story emerges. This is a far more journalistic piece of filmmaking, compiling interviews, archive footage and montages into a coherent, persuasive whole. The film is slickly produced, with Walker making effective use of some troubling imagery (recent terrorist attacks in Madrid, London, Bali, New York) and computer graphics that show how easily nuclear weapons can be smuggled into the United States (one does fear that an aspiring terrorist could get some handy hints from this picture). Walker can be guilty of being a little too literal and alarmist in some of her directorial choices, but she generally does a fine job of ensuring the film flows smoothly even as we are being asked to digest a lot of information.

The title Countdown to Zero has a double meaning. Of course it refers to the idea of a bomb ticking down to disaster, but it also signifies the target for complete removal of the world's nuclear weapons. It might be a futile dream but Countdown to Zero makes an impassioned case for the urgency of striving for that goal.

The Extras

The main extra feature is a 50-minute panel discussion recorded after Countdown to Zero's UK premiere at BAFTA. Lawrence Bender, Bruce Blair, Valerie Plame Wilson, Margaret Beckett and Queen Noor take part in the conversation, which comprehensively covers whatever subjects the film itself might have overlooked. There are also trailers for a number of other Dogwoof releases.

Countdown to Zero is released on DVD on August 15th

Buy Countdown to Zero here

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Review - A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin)

The full title of title Asghar Farhadi's new film, Nader and Simin: A Separation, gives us the characters of and their current situation but it doesn't hint at the complexities and revelations that will be revealed over the course of the following two hours. Initially, the film seems content to focus on this central relationship which is on the brink of falling apart. Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are first seen sitting next to each other and talking directly to the camera as they address the judge considering Simin's divorce appeal. She wants to leave Iran and take her daughter abroad but Nader refuses to relinquish custody of Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) and insists that he must stay with his father, who suffers from Alzheimer's and requires constant care. However, Farhadi's film quickly makes us aware that it is less interested in the rights and wrongs of this decision than it is in the unexpected fallout from it.

The separation of Nader and Simin introduces us to some new characters, who will eventually become embroiled in the complex drama the writer/director weaves. After Simin leaves to live with her parents, Nader hires the devoutly religious Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to take care of both the house and his father while he's at work, and she arrives with her young daughter in tow. Razieh needs this job for the money but must keep her new role under wraps from her unemployed husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), knowing that he would fly into a rage at the thought of her working in a single man's home. Razieh constantly struggles with the conflict between her duties and the strictures of her faith; when the old man soils himself, she has to ring her imam to find out if it would be a sin to change and wash him.

The whole of A Separation is driven by conflicts, both large and small, and Farhadi makes it extremely difficult for us to know whose side to take. Our perception of what we see is constantly shifting as Farhadi withholds vital information from us before dropping it like a grenade into the centre of the drama, causing us to completely re-evaluate the characters and their behaviour. All of the figures involved in A Separation are real, complex, multi-dimensional characters, all of whom have their reasons for behaving the way they do and who are alternately in the right and the wrong. It is so rare to see a film that treats its characters and its audience with as much respect as this one does and a film that turns its viewers into active participants, as we piece together the opposing stories presented to us and search for the truth. Farhadi is a director in full command of his material, and this is a marked step up from his previous work.

I make that statement as someone who thought About Elly (which won Farhadi the Best Director prize at Berlin) was one of the best films of 2009. That picture was similarly built upon a web of deceit, as a series of lies gradually spun out of control, and through his brilliantly written screenplay Farhadi explored the tensions and complications of Iranian society. A Separation pulls the same trick, but in a richer and deeper fashion. The contrast here is between the old and new Iran, as the traditional, religious couple of Razieh and Hodjat clash with the more liberal and progressive middle-class pair of Nader and Simin. Theirs is a conflict of both faith and class, with the hotheaded Hodjat raging at his inability to speak as eloquently in front of the judge as the educated Nader. All of these factors come into play, but Farhadi's focus is always on the human drama, allowing his wider points on life in Iran to resonate in subtle ways.

Farhadi is a wonderful director of actors and there isn't a weak performance in A Separation. The Berlin jury awarded its Best Actor and Best Actress prizes to the entire ensemble, but there are a couple of standout performances that I really want to highlight. As Razieh, Sareh Bayat creates a heart-wrenching portrait of a woman desperately trying to compromise between doing what's right and doing the best thing for her and her husband; her emotional breakdown when faced with the dilemma of swearing a lie on the Qur'an is agonising to watch. Also worthy of praise is Sarina Farhadi, as Termeh, who finds herself being pulled between her parents and forced to make choices that compromise her own moral integrity. She's a quiet, watchful presence at the start of the film who becomes increasingly important as it progresses, finally being asked to make perhaps the most telling decision of all as Farhadi's devastating drama reaches its tantalising cliffhanger of a climax.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Review - The Referees (Les arbitres)

When The Referees made its debut on the festival circuit in 2009 it appeared under the title Kill The Referee. While it's easy to understand why the filmmakers have subsequently opted for a less lurid title, the film's original name does emphasis the serious consequences that football referees' decisions can have. In the 2008 European Championships, the English referee Howard Webb gave a penalty against Poland in the last minute of their match with co-hosts Austria. Replays showed that the decision was justified, and many praised Webb for having the courage to penalise the kind of offence that often goes unpunished, but viewers in Poland were less impressed. Death threats immediately appeared on the internet in videos comparing Webb to Hitler, and even the country's Prime Minister said he felt like killing the referee.

All of which is an undeniably absurd reaction to the decision of one man in the midst of a sporting contest, but little about football these days is rational and referees have had to become accustomed to abusive tirades, as players, managers and supporters use them as a convenient scapegoat for failure. Theirs is a lonely, singular profession, and few can understand why they put themselves through such a thankless task, so a film like The Referees has plenty to interest football fans. This documentary by Belgian filmmaker Yves Hinant makes the most of an all-access pass behind the scenes of Euro 2008 to shows the tournament from the perspective of the men in the middle. We join the anxious referees and their assistants inside the dressing rooms as they prepare for the match, we eavesdrop on the running conversations they have during play, and we stay with them throughout the often painful and humiliating aftermath, as the split-second decisions they have to make in the heat of the moment are analysed from multiple angles.

The access to the microphones the referees wear is perhaps The Referees' most enlightening aspect. The officials are constantly double-checking their calls with each other and often appear wracked with self-doubt ("We are not Gods, we make mistakes," one tells a complaining player). When Webb's linesman Darren Cann fails to spot an offside in the build-up to a goal, he immediately begins to question the validity of his decision, but it's too late; the goal has been given and play has restarted. All Cann can do is try to see out the rest of the game without incident and wait for the inevitable inquest the following day, both from the media and from the refereeing panel that goes over the previous day's match with the individuals involved.

This is intriguing material for fans who have rarely been allowed such a detailed glimpse into the world of referees (though I remember with fondness an 80's experiment in which David Ellery wore a mic during an Arsenal match and had Tony Adams screaming abuse at him for 90 minutes). The film isn't all that revelatory, but it does provide small nuggets of insight. I was struck by the sense of competitiveness that exists alongside the referees' camaraderie, with all of them desperate to be awarded the final (one is extremely upset when his last chance passes him by), and the divided loyalties on display when their own nations are in action is also notable – defeat, of course, would increase their own odds of staying in the competition. If the film's aim is to put a human face on the match officials then it's a success. Seeing the pride they and their families take in a job well done and seeing how emotionally involved they can get with their role does provide us with a fresh context for men who are usually cast all too easily as the villains of the piece.

How interesting The Referees will be to non-football fans is open to debate, though. Hinant has cut his film down to its essence, excising any commentary or captions that might provide context and instead letting the footage he captures tell its own story. This means the film can feel formless and occasionally confusing (even for someone like me who watched almost all of the games at that tournament), but for the most part Hinant uses his 77 minutes well. Refereeing is a strange business, as emphasised by a quote towards the end of the film that states the officials did a good job because "nobody is talking about the referee." To err is human, but we often seem to forget that referees are only human, always noticing the mistakes they make and quickly forgetting whatever good work they have done during the 90 minutes. Bearing that in mind, it's hard to begrudge a film that attempts to show these much-maligned figures in a different light.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Review - Zookeeper

The animals in Zookeeper have the ability to talk to humans. This is a skill they have secretly harboured for years because humans can't handle such a seismic revelation, but after daring to spark up a conversation with zookeeper Griffin Keyes (Kevin James) what do they do with their amazing gift for interspecies communication? They try to order pizza over the phone, they persuade Griffin to take them to dinner at a TGI Fridays restaurant, and above all, they focus their attentions on helping Griffin rekindle his relationship with materialistic bitch Stephanie (Leslie Bibb). Aren't there more pressing and interesting things the animals could be doing with their time? If there are, Zookeeper certainly isn't interested in them.

For Zookeeper is only interested in following the predictable template of the Kevin James vehicle. Yes, Mr James now appears to be a bona-fide movie star (although how and when this was allowed to happen, I'm not sure) and therefore we have to watch him carry a movie, which means we have to watch him fall over a lot. In Zookeeper, James gets hit by a tyre swing and falls over, he attempts some acrobatics at a wedding and falls over, he runs into a signpost and falls over. As an actor, James is a bland, unimaginative presence, who only appears animated during his many pratfalls. Despite his lack of any discernible personality and propensity for bungling, Griffin ends up having the pick of two women; the aforementioned Stephanie, who will only be with him if he gives up his career, and his co-worker Kate (Rosario Dawson), whom everyone knows he will ultimately end up with. Before Griffin settles on the right girl, however, we have to sit through an unspeakably tedious farce in which the animals give him various tips on how to secure a mate.

An idle thought crossed my mind as I watched Zookeeper – this is the second film I've watched in which Kevin James gets caught pissing outdoors by a group of women. Is this some weird fetish James has managed to smuggle into both his new film and Grown Ups? I'd like to think so, just because I was desperate for any hint of subversion in this dismally idiotic fare. All of the animals are voiced by celebrities, but to grating effect; Sylvester Stallone and Cher play a bickering lion couple, Adam Sandler is a monkey and Maya Rudolph is an extraordinarily annoying presence as a sassy giraffe. The star turn among the animal voices is Nick Nolte as a gruff, lonely gorilla who strikes up a friendship with Griffin. Imagining that Nick Nolte is really sweltering inside that cheap gorilla suit (and therefore doing something to earn his fee) rather than simply providing his voice is a thought that's a whole lot funnier than any of the 'comedy' Zookeeper serves up.

It's a bad sign when an audience is imagining things more entertaining than the film they're watching. Zookeeper has no wit, intelligence or invention, but perhaps the most dispiriting aspect of the whole picture is the presence of Rosario Dawson in this worthless endeavour. She plays a sweet, unassuming zookeeper who is offered a position at a sanctuary in Nairobi, which necessitates the predictable last-minute dash to the airport by Griffin, but aside from her general 'niceness' she has been given no personality traits whatsoever. Has the paucity of decent roles for women in Hollywood reached such endemic proportions that a genuinely talented, charismatic actress like Dawson is reduced to playing barely-there love interest to Kevin James? The imbalance between this romantic pair is so laughable that there can be no satisfaction seeing her end up with such a buffoonish jackass. "Why didn't she go to Nairobi?" a confused little girl sitting near me at the screening asked as the credits roll. There is no answer that makes sense.