Saturday, June 30, 2012

"The message is just asking people if they're part of the problem or part of the solution, and I also include myself in that." - An interview with Bobcat Goldthwait

In Bobcat Goldthwait's new film God Bless America, an ordinary man is driven to breaking point by the shamelessness, ignorance and cruelty that he sees around him every day and decides to take matters into his own hands. The film is an attack on everything that Goldthwait sees as being wrong with modern society – from reality TV shows to extreme political commentators and people who talk in cinemas – and it is the latest in a series of pictures that have established Goldthwait as one of the most interesting and distinctive voices in American independent film. Ahead of God Bless America's July 4th UK release, I had the opportunity to speak with Bobcat Goldthwait.

You know, you were the first person I ever interviewed, for Sleeping Dogs Lie back in 2006.

And how did it go? Did it go well?

It did. I'm still interviewing people so you didn't put me off it or anything like that.

Oh, thank God. "I only ever did one interview. It was horrible!" [Laughs]

One of the things we spoke about back then was how many years had elapsed between the films you've directed, but since then you have released two more movies and I understand you have a number of scripts in the works. Has something changed in your attitude or approach that has made you more prolific?

The big change is simply that I started writing movies for myself. They were just movies I wanted to make and I stopped thinking about what would probably get made, what would make money, what would be a vehicle for myself, I stopped all that. I sat down and wrote five more screenplays.

Was God Bless America one of the scripts you wrote in this burst of activity?

Yeah, I wrote that just after World's Greatest Dad.

And was it a film written in anger, or was more a sense of despair at what you were seeing around you?

Well, the germ of it actually came when I was doing press for Sleeping Dogs in London. I was in a hotel room in London and there was a marathon of My Super Sweet Sixteen on TV, and I just thought, "Oh, these children should die." That was the germ of the whole thing. I don't think of myself as angry and fed up, but maybe I am. The other day my wife told me I don't like people and I was devastated. When I showed the movie the other night at a rock festival someone asked me if I had always been a misanthrope and I was like, "No, I like people!" [laughs] Maybe when I look back at the movie I can see that this character or that character is a certain person in my life.

In this film I think you've hit on a lot of themes or complaints that have been festering in people for a long time.

I think there's a zeitgeist right now of people giving up. There are all these movies about meteors hitting the world and the world ending and I think you can slide this movie in with those, except I don't see it as a meteor, I think the problem is our own behaviour. I was watching the movie Bonnie and Clyde and I realised that the counterculture people were very frustrated with the establishment, and that was behind the popularity of that movie, so I started to think about who we're mad at now and I think we're mad at ourselves. It's all these shows and as my wife called them these non-versations, so that was the idea behind the movie.

I had assumed that the film would play as an attack on the media but it's more about the society that breeds it. We seem to have an insatiable appetite for this kind of trash culture.

Yeah, I didn't want to do an attack on the media because that was what Natural Born Killers was, and it's exactly what you said, it's our appetite for this stuff. You know, years back, around the time I wrote this, I did make a decision in my life to not watch reality TV programmes and not click on the gossip sites on the internet. Now, do I slip occasionally? Sure, I mean, I'll watch RuPaul's Drag Race [laughs] and I'm not implying that we should all be having these heavy conversations about political and current events. What I'm saying is we should make an effort to connect.

It's interesting that you said you tried to opt out of trash culture because one theme of the film is how inescapable it is. Even when Frank turns off the TV and goes to work, every conversation begins with, "Did you see that guy on X-Factor last night?"

That's funny, because I sometimes see people saying, "Why didn't he just turn off the TV?" but it's exactly what you said. There's no reason why I should know that Kim Kardashian got married but I know she got married and I know she got divorced, and I never even asked what people were talking about. It's just shoved down our throats. I think that may be the thing that I'm really tired of and frustrated with.

Aside from the media and culture, your film is about behaviour in general. It suggests people have lost a sense of kindness and thoughtfulness for their fellow man, which is such a basic aspect of humanity to lose.

It's really strange. I think the digital age has really deepened our narcissism and entitlement, so you're not even aware of when you're ignoring someone, you're not even aware of when you're being impolite.

When you show this movie to audiences, do you get a sense that they are recognising aspects of themselves, or taking a message away from the film?

I don't know, I've seen the movie play differently. I've seen people just take it as a comedy and like it, and I've seen people be kinda shocked by it. For me the message is just asking people if they're part of the problem or part of the solution, and I also include myself in that. I don't think the movie necessarily works for everyone and if you lack empathy then you'll say, "Oh, it's just a one-joke movie" but if you're not a passive viewer and you're thinking about what's being said, then hopefully you'll enjoy it.

All of your films tend to have these attention-grabbing and taboo-challenging premises. Do you think it's sometimes hard for people to see past that layer and to engage with the ideas you're trying to express?

I'm sure, but the culture we live in is so shocking so that's why my gimmicks or MacGuffins are so bold, but it's funny this is a movie about kindness. It is kind of weird that these movies I make have these taboo subjects but they are very moral movies. I don't know if that helps or hurts the movie but they're just these weird little stories I like to make. If I had just made a non-violent movie about how we're losing touch with each other, I don't think it would have got the attention that this one has.

Shooting a baby is certainly one way to get people's attention.

[Laughs] It is fun to shoot a baby. You know what's funny about that? Normally I make these things and I feel that everyone is on board, but with that one I was kind of surprised that we just kept going along and I was thinking, "Wow...so we really are going to do this?" When we edited it together my editor and I just looked at each other and went, "Holy fuck..." [Laughs] "You've done it again, Goldthwait!"

When you're doing things like that it I guess helps to have a guy like Joel Murray doing it. He's the kind of actor who the audience can instantly like and empathise with.

Joel definitely has that, and Robin has that too. If I didn't have such strong leads these movies wouldn't work. Joel is an old friend and I had enquired about him being in my other movie but his agent at the time didn't send him the script, because I guess he thought it was offensive or too small or whatever. It was my wife who suggested Joel because she's a big Mad Men fan, and I thought yeah, he'd be great.

Was it hard to find the right tone in his relationship with Roxy? Films with serial killers on the run usually have a strong sexual aspect and Roxy actually flirts with that idea at one point, which makes Frank very uncomfortable.

I wanted it to be where the wheels start falling off, when Frank has these strong ideas about how someone should live there life and then he is contemplating briefly the possibility of running off and starting a life with this young kid. I didn't want it to be just a vigilante movie in which we kill a bunch of people that we all agree are horrible, you know, I wanted to show that nobody is perfect. The tone wasn't hard to find because of the casting. I didn't want someone who was a Lolita and I didn't want the clich├ęd goth kid thing, and although Roxy is a bit of a...I was going to say cunt [laughs] Tera actually has a lot of the same energy as the character. As soon as she came in it was clear that it would work if we got this kid to do the movie.

Did she have a different perspective on the material? Because she's of such a younger generation she has really grown up inside this culture you're attacking.

It's funny, because her perspective is almost like the other people in the movie's perspective. She is beyond of years and listens to a lot of 70s rock music and stuff like that and has her own politics, you know, she is actually very much against guns, but it was kind of funny that as soon as she started firing them her face lit up like a jack-o-lantern. She was a good match.

When you make a film like this and get these concerns off your chest, does it feel cathartic?

I found some of the stuff cathartic but what was really cathartic was when the movie appeared at the Toronto Film Festival. They didn't get a print and it was actually a digital tape we had been still been editing up to a couple of days before, and when Frank's rants started playing in the theatre and people started clapping, I was sitting next to Joel and we were both shocked, we were definitely shocked. You know, I wanted the character to say these things but I didn't know so many people would agree with them.

This film does seem to have already achieved a greater visibility than your previous pictures. I always felt that Sleeping Dogs Lie and World's Greatest Dad didn't receive the attention they deserved.

Well, thanks. I guess the more I keep making stuff the more I have a brand, but I guess it has something to do with having guns in the movie, I think that helps. This is the first time a movie I made has been sold to Japan, which is funny.

If Melinda Page Hamilton had shot that dog instead of giving it a blowjob you might have had a hit.

[Laughs] Or the dog pulls out a gun: "Back off, lady. You're going to regret this for the rest of your life."

You said recently that you would have probably just gone straight to filmmaking if you were a young person starting your career today, and would have skipped the comedy and acting route. Do you wish you had done that back in the 80s?

Maybe, I don't know. I was really into stand-up comedy as a little kid and that's why I became a comedian when I was a teenager, but I think it would have interested me a lot. If I had been making shorts that would have been invaluable to me and that might have got me on this path, but you never know. I might be an old guy now saying, "I wonder if I could do stand-up comedy?" The only thing I find frustrating is that I know I'll never get to make all the movies I've had ideas for. You know, I said to my daughter, "When I die, all these screenplays are yours" and she said to me, "Dad, you can't get them made, why would I want them?" [Laughs]

You seem to be doing OK in terms of working on a small budget and working with friends, and you seem to have carved out a little niche for yourself.

Yeah, but like a lot of people I'm not set. I have to go and do stand-up to help pay my rent, and I don't have a big financial cushion or anything, but the trade-off is that I get to make movies on my own terms which I'd much rather do.

Finally, I know the Kinks musical is the project you have been trying to make for a long time now. What's the status on that?

I have been trying to make that movie and I will make that movie, it's just trying to find the right cast. It's not like me just going out with my friends and it will be a much larger movie with sets, a big cast, rehearsing, and all that stuff. I will make it but it's a different way to go about it. I have a feeling the next movie will probably be my straight-up take on a horror picture, but I have written five screenplays since World's Greatest Dad so it's a case of whichever one will allow me to con people into giving me money. [Laughs]

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The London Indian Film Festival 2012

Now in its third year, the London Indian Film Festival was established with the aim of showing British viewers that there is so much more to the continent's cinema than the Bollywood spectaculars we most readily associate with it. The new features and shorts being presented at this year's event are violent, transgressive, amusing, challenging and socially aware, and they will provide an opportunity to see films that may otherwise never be shown here. I've already seen four of the features being screened at the festival, and my thoughts on them are below.

Necklace

Even though it begins with the odd warning Consumption of alcohol and smoking cigarettes are injurious to health, Shekhar Das' new film Necklace is not a cautionary tale about the dangers of overindulgence. Instead, it's an engaging and frenetic farce about a group of characters from across the spectrum of India's class divide. The plot is sparked by a robbery, as professional thief Keshtopada (Rudranil Ghosh) makes a disastrous attempt to break into the apartment of wealthy couple Biswanath (Rittwik Chakraborty) and Shikha (Rituparna Sengupta), which results in him falling from their 2nd floor balcony. As the thief is driven off to hospital, Shikha takes his hysterical wife Kanakchampa (Locket Chatterjee) into her home, in the hope of dissuading her from pressing charges or claiming compensation from the couple. It quickly becomes clear that Keshtopada and Kanakchampa are milking the situation for all it's worth, with the husband playing up the extent of his injuries while the wife starts getting used to the luxurious environment she finds herself in.

Working as both a spry comedy and a commentary on Indian social inequality, Necklace bounds along at an appealing pace, with Das only occasionally overplaying the gags in his pursuit of laughs. For the most part, Das and his cast strike the right note, and the performances from Locket Chatterjee and Rituparna Sengupta are particularly impressive, as the two women from starkly contrasting backgrounds, who gradually overcome their mutual distrust and form a bond in the film's most satisfying narrative turn. Necklace is an unusual comedy which is largely successful, but it does have a number of oddly discordant notes, with the rather offhand treatment of Chandrayee Ghosh's prostitute character being a misstep for the picture. I guess Das is attempting to show that comedy and tragedy, like extreme wealth and poverty, so often exist side-by-side, but this character would probably have been better served by being the focus of another film entirely.

Tooting Broadway

The bloody world of London-based Tamil gangs is the focus of Tooting Broadway, Devanand Shanmugam's confident directorial debut. The screenplay (from another first-timer, Tikiri Hulugalle) ambitiously attempts to tell a story that encompasses a number of years and involves numerous tangentially connected characters, and he opens with a bang, as a brutal attack on a prostitute kick-starts the narrative. Tooting Broadway's opening half is sharp and compelling, as it briskly introduces the major players in the drama. Karuna (San Shella) is the former gang leader trying to make it as a legitimate businessman while his former cohort Arun (Nav Sidhu) has returned to the area after an absence of four years, in order to pull his younger brother out of the criminal life he has been drawn into.

A sense of growing political unrest forms the backdrop to this drama, with a planned Tamil protest outside the Houses of Parliament dominating the thoughts of a few participants. Tooting Broadway poses questions of national identity and loyalty, but it doesn't always successfully mesh these ideas with the focus of gang violence that the film is primarily focused upon. Shanmugam's visual sense is impressive (if a little ostentatious at times, as in an overlong chase sequence) and he uses his locations well, while editor Ben Nugent shuffles back-and-forth between the film's multiple time periods in a slick fashion. In front of the camera, the cast acquit themselves with inconsistent results; Sidhu and Shella are solid but a couple of actors in supporting roles appear ill-at-ease, and as the film flits between its disparate storylines few of these characters are given an opportunity to make a memorable impact on the film. Nevertheless, Tooting Broadway is an commendable debut, which only lacks a sense of originality in its storytelling and emotional impact when it's really needed.

A Decent Arrangement

The decent arrangement in Sarovar Banka's film is a marriage for American-born Indian Ashok (Adam Laupus). He has returned to the country of his heritage in order to find a wife – or, to be more exact, to choose a wife from the contenders who have already been selected for him. His older cousin Preeti (Shabana Azmi) has taken charge of this situation and has already evaluated all of the eligible females in the local area, producing a thoroughly detailed dossier that ranks them for Ashok; all he has to do is pick one. Of course, it's not as simple as that, and Banka's film wittily explores the customs and traditions involved in this process, through the eyes of the beleaguered Ashok.

Ashok is essentially a passenger for much of the movie, following Preeti's instructions and barely uttering a word of dissent, despite his obvious misgivings. This performance suits the character's awkwardness but it can also make him a maddeningly passive protagonist, and a difficult guy to empathise with as he goes through this very taxing ordeal. Far better equipped to carry the dramatic load are the female performers, with Azmi giving a tremendously enjoyable turn as the woman coordinating Ashok's future, and the beautiful Diksha Basu bringing a non-nonsense practicality to her turn as Amita, the woman with whom Ashok is finally paired with. Amita makes it very clear from the start that she is doing this for her parents, and that love is not a consideration for her, which is a dismaying point of view for the western-raised Ashok to digest. This clash of cultures is played with perception and a light comic touch by Banka, a former playwright making his directorial debut here. He imposes a leisurely pace on the picture and is excellent at making the key conversations between the central characters count. He has delivered a very Indian story that should prove to be accessible, entertaining and eye-opening for all viewers.

Gandu

Gandu is the Indian word for asshole, and the fact that director Kaushik Mukherjee (going by the Bond-like pseudonym Q) has given his film this word as its title suggests the confrontational tone being adopted here. The director has said that his intention with the film is simply "to fuck up your mind" and the whole movie plays as a visual and aural assault on the audience. Your mileage may vary with this sort of thing, but I found it almost unendurably crass and juvenile, and while it has whipped up plenty of controversy and discourse on the festival circuit, I just wish it was worth the attention. 

The title character is a sexually frustrated wannabe rapper played by Anubrata Basu, who lives with his mother and spends most of his time masturbating, stealing money from the wallet of his mother's sleazy boyfriend, and performing his generally awful raps to the camera. Gandu is angry, obnoxious and not much fun to be around, so it's hard to get on board with a movie that indulges him as much as this one does. However, the biggest problem with the film is something that may be viewed by others as its greatest virtue; namely, Q's heedless and convention-busting direction. Gandu is screaming for our attention at every minute, with split-screens, captions and hyperactive editing, and while the luminous black-and-white cinematography is often very striking, we aren't given a moment to enjoy it before Q hits us with another example of his directorial verve. Late in the film, the picture shifts into an astonishingly vivid colour sequence for a frank sex scene, but by that point Gandu has already revealed itself to be a mess; the equivalent of being shouted at for 90 minutes, and not having a clue what was said at the end of it all.

The London Indian Film Festival runs from June 20th to July 3rd at venues across the capital.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Review - Prometheus


The world doesn't really need a prequel to Alien and, to be honest, Prometheus doesn't really need to be a prequel to Alien. Ridley Scott's return to the series he began with his classic 1979 film would probably work much better as a standalone feature, but as few studios fancy financing an original science-fiction blockbuster these days, we instead have a picture aimed at awkwardly shading in gaps that are surely better left unfilled. Many fans may be breathlessly excited about Scott's explanation of the mysterious "Space Jockey" creature whose remains were glimpsed in Alien, but surely the tantalising sense of the unknown was one of the most attractive things about it?

As a result, Prometheus feels like a film that doesn't really know what story it wants to tell, and it ends up saying nothing of value. Watching this picture crumble into incoherence in its second hour is an extraordinarily deflating experience, because the film begins promisingly and excitingly. Archaeologist couple Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover cave paintings in 2089 that are mirrored in numerous cave paintings and carvings unearthed across the globe. These images are read as a message or an invitation from the "engineers," an alien race understood to have created life on this planet, and so a team of scientists and mercenaries is recruited to answer their call.

However, If you think Prometheus is going to be a blockbuster of ideas, a mainstream film that will dare to explore such lofty notions as the genesis of mankind and the existence of God, then let me check your excitement right now. By its second half, Prometheus has descended into an increasingly dispiriting series of gruesome encounters and chases through corridors, with all signs of intelligent life having long been lost, presumably down one of the numerous holes that litter the plot.

It's hard to fully express how poor the screenplay provided by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof is. Simple, straightforward characterisation is no crime in movies like this – indeed, both Scott's original film and James Cameron's Aliens succeed by giving us just enough info on the players involved – but there's an astonishing crudeness and lack of consistency in these characters. The nominal lead is Shaw, who grapples with her own faith (signified by the crucifix she wears) and who we know is unable to have children – we know this because she drops it into conversation with laughable bluntness, simultaneously setting up a later event that we can see coming from miles away.

The film's characters only ever behave in the way the screenplay requires them to, even if it contradicts their nature; one minute, wimpy biologist Millburn (Rafe Spall) is running from the very idea of an alien life form, the next minute he is cooing at a snakelike creature as if it was a kitten. As various characters meet their predictably nasty deaths, none of it matters because none of them felt real in the first place. It's all a bit rough on the talented cast Scott has assembled. Michael Fassbender (the obligatory android), Charlize Theron (the icy onboard corporate presence) and Idris Elba (the devil-may-care captain) all bring a welcome sly wit and confidence to the film that partly makes up for Rapace and Marshall-Green's inability to do anything with their own characters.

But perhaps the most striking thing about Prometheus is how rushed it all feels. The film never takes a moment to breathe, there is no attempt made to slowly build an authentic sense of tension and drama, and this couldn't feel more at odds with the picture Scott is trying to draw a link with. Alien and Aliens are wonderful slow-burn pictures, films that allows us ample time to anticipate something awful happening long before it actually does, but in Prometheus everything feels forced and unsure of itself. The blaring musical score tries to direct our emotions as the action on screen fails to do so, and while the film exists on a much bigger scale than Alien did (Scott delights in sharing the planet's imposing landscape and the undeniably fine production design) it paradoxically feels so much smaller and less significant. Ridley Scott still knows how to enthral viewers with his keen visual sense (crappy 3D aside) and he can still stage a bloody death with icky effectiveness, but he is a shallow director and he is unable to elevate a terrible script through his own storytelling skills. I'm sure many people out there will be debating Prometheus and speculatively filling in the gaps in the story, but that's something the filmmakers should have taken the care to do for themselves, and I'm not really sure it's worth the effort.