Sunday, April 05, 2009

Film Review - Che

Hailed by many critics as the first great film of 2009, Steven Soderbergh's epic study of the Cuban Revolution's poster boy is a welcome return to form for the director who has spent the past few years wrestling his indie sensibilities with more mainstream fodder. In Che Part One (Part Two is released in February) he presents a complex and relatively fast-paced account of the revolutionary leader, centring on the 1958 campaign to take Cuba with Fidel Castro.

Benicio Del Toro takes on Ernesto 'Che' Guevara in a performance of impressive restraint which showcases the actor's range considering he first came to most people's attention as the flamboyant Fred Fenster in The Usual Suspects. Fifteen years and one Oscar later and Del Toro portrays Che as an introverted intellectual who follows Castro to Cuba in the late 50s in the hope of spreading the revolution to Latin America.

Dedicated to the cause but never seeming entirely comfortable with a gun, Del Toro's Che is a mysterious and meditative individual around his own people, emanating quiet charisma as he busies himself with the organisation of Castro's grand plan.

Portrayed as a doctor first and military strategist second, his ideological passions are largely restricted to the UN where he picks verbal fights with assembly members in successive flash-forwards to the 60s.

As with Traffic, for which Del Toro won his Oscar, Soderbergh punctuates the film with impressively stark visual styles, the Cuba campaign intercut with scenes shot in grainy black-and-white of Che addressing the UN and facing penetrating questions from Julia Ormond's journalist, his answers to which double as a voiceover narration.

Soderbergh presents both a human drama, and, in the final act, a gripping war movie as the 1959 assault on Santa Clara is depicted practically bullet-by-bullet in an impressive sequence of tense street-fighting.

What's perhaps missing are more probing details on Che himself. While his ideology and personality are depicted with broad brushstrokes, attempts to form a greater understanding of the man beyond the front-line or the training camp are largely sacrificed for the wider view.

First published on InTheNews in January 2009.

Film Review - Max Payne

Let's get one thing straight. There has never been a good movie adaptation of a videogame. From Resident Evil through to Silent Hill and Tomb Raider, while the atmospherics are fairly straightforward to nail, the lack of audience interactivity leads to abject failure via paper-thin plotting and airy substance.

Still, audiences keep paying to watch them and the bottom line is enough motivation for the studios. Unfortunately Max Payne does nothing to break free of genre expectations. As a character, Payne is an almost laughably tough nut. While haunted by a periodic, sepia-toned flashback of his family's murder, he spends his downtime cleaning his guns and blows doors open with his cannon-sized six-shooter when he's chasing a villain. Although Mark Wahlberg does Repressed and Angry very well, probe a layer or two below his limited repertoire of scowls and furrowed brows and you'll be left wanting.

The support cast offers little back-up. Mila Kunis is essentially a poor man's Trinity, who has little to play with and has nothing to offer besides some extra firepower and a handy foil when the audience needs some laborious exposition. Then there's current Bond girl Olga Kurylenko who suffers the indignity of a slink-on, slink-off part in which she loses her clothes and then falls victim to one of the most embarrassing death scenes of the year.

Director John Moore (Behind Enemy Lines, the remake of The Omen) has a history of providing flashy visuals in place of any real substance, and he tries to pull the same trick here. Occasionally diverting action scenes will keep the teens happy but they're ultimately far too Matrix-lite to be truly effective. Of more interest is the look of the city itself, a frozen and barren New York which manages to make an impression throughout, while a series of impressive set-pieces marking the finale will produce an involuntary nod of satisfaction. Would've made a good ten-minute music video, perhaps... You'll find yourself wishing they'd paid as much attention to the screenplay.

First published on InTheNews in November 2008.

At first I thought: 'What am I supposed to do with this?'

Marc Forster reacted in much the same way as the rest of us when the producers of the biggest franchise in cinema history told him the name of the new Bond film. Only thing was, he was the one whose job it was to make it.

Hardly the obvious choice to help pick up where Casino Royale left off, Forster initially took some convincing to sign on the dotted line. He came from a more modest, albeit critically-acclaimed, filmmaking background with the likes of Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland and The Kite Runner on his CV. "Yes, I was surprised," he says, describing during a recent BFI interview the moment the offer came in: "My agent called me and said are you interested in the next Bond film? I said: 'No, not really'."

Despite being very comfortable making lower-budget films ("I could do whatever I wanted, I had final cut, pretty much most of the actors wanted to work with me"), the director set aside his concerns that a blockbuster flop would put him out of work for five years and decided to rise to the challenge of making his first action film.

Climbing onboard the Bond juggernaut with a firm release date but no locked screenplay, the film collected screenwriters, including input from acclaimed writer-director Paul Haggis, whose work on Casino Royale is widely considered to be one of the core reasons for its success. "Paul did a great job on the [Quantum] script and I was very happy but he was also working on his own movies, so what he gave us still needed more development," Forster says diplomatically. Forster and star Daniel Craig added their own input, as did at least one other writer who missed out on a credit, but the director admits the script "was sort of a work in progress" while the crew looked to the various exotic locations to inspire them into creating exciting action set-pieces.

Carrying the promise of even more action after the electrifying free-running opening of Casino Royale, the film starts as it means to go on, hurling audiences into a manic car chase within the opening seconds before launching into a bruising sprint across Sienna's skyline with barely a pause for breath between. "I thought, if I'm making an action movie I want to do actually a lot of action," he explains, adding: "Because that's sort of the challenge for me; I've never done that before."

Forster was also keen to develop the relationship between Bond and M (played once again by Judi Dench), by having "that verbal tension between them, sort of like a little bit of this mother-son thing going on" between the two characters. As a result, Dench gets more screen-time as Bond's behaviour starts to alienate him from both the British government and the Americans, in a series of tense and increasingly fraught scenes designed to give more insight into Bond's character and his motives. Forster had carefully considered elements of the previous film to get a feel for Bond's mental state and used this to inform Quantum of Solace. He says: "I was mainly interested in the last five minutes of Casino [Royale], where Bond was as a character and where we left him and what kind of emotional state we left him in."

Forster is philosophical about the mixed critical reception the film received, although of course its box-office success makes it easier to stomach. "You know, I like polarising people!" he says, adding: "I think there's a discussion happening. Some people seem to really love it and some people really hate it. I think discussion is always good and it's not the last Bond film ever made."

Despite its success, he won't be returning for Bond 23, despite being offered the job. "They did ask me to do another one, but at this point I need to do something smaller." He gives a sly smile, unable to resist: "But then you can say never say never again..."

First published on InTheNews in March 2009.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Milk filmmakers discuss awards-baiting biopic

James Franco, Gus Van Sant and Dustin Lance Black shed light on a new, Oscar-nominated biopic

Black is already bagging awards nominations for his screenplay recounting the extraordinary tale of Harvey Milk, who in 1978 became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the US. Milk was shot dead by fellow city supervisor Dan White (played in the film by a superb Josh Brolin) later the same year and, despite the obvious significance of his life and career, remains largely unknown by many even around San Francisco where he spent the last years of his life. "It's very common that people don't know who Harvey Milk is," Black said recently in a Guardian interview at the NFT in London. He added: "It's unfortunate because it means that gay and lesbian kids don't grow up with the sense that they have forefathers and foremothers - and they really do."

Black says that the writing process was a challenge, especially given that Milk's life personally inspired the writer. The story was informed by accounts from Milk's friends and from a variety of documentaries made over the years, although a degree of "telescoping" was needed. But Black explains that Milk's friends understood the process: "They sort of got it. I think they just really wanted to see their father-figure, this man who had been so inspirational to them, they just wanted to see his story told."

Black's script has been brought to the screen by director Gus Van Sant - whose CV includes My Own Private Idaho and Good Will Hunting - and is anchored by a stunning central performance from Sean Penn. In addition, James Franco co-stars as Milk's long-time partner, Scott Smith. The actor is still best known for his role as Peter Parker's best buddy Harry Osborn in the Spider-Man franchise, but Milk marks his most assured performance to date.

Born the year Milk was elected, Franco knew nothing of the man but was encouraged by Van Sant's involvement: "I heard that Gus was doing this movie about a guy named Harvey Milk and I'd known Gus a little bit before that." He adds: "Nobody had told me anything about Harvey Milk, and I grew up an hour away from San Francisco. They don't teach it in history class." Franco also relished the opportunity to work with Van Sant on an important project which the director was particularly enthusiastic about ("He'll be at the top of his game", he remembers thinking).

Figuring out how to interpret Scott was no easy feat for Franco. Smith died in the mid-90s and information wasn't abundant. "I did everything I could to find material on him," he explains, "but as most of the material is about Milk I had to get a lot of stories from friends." Scott was with Milk throughout most of the major events of his life, from coming out and leaving his career as an investment banker, through his first few election campaigns. Franco also tracked down some archive footage which helped him to realise the character and he's confident he's done Scott justice.

The film has received almost universally positive reviews and has tested well from the start, but Van Sant is quick to play down the buzz: "If you become too big a cheerleader for your actions and the actors and the presentation, and on the filmmaking side with the DoP's work and the lighting... " He trails off. Van Sant has had his fair share of critical mauling in the past (think of his ill-fated 1998 remake of Psycho, which came only a year after multiple Oscar success with Good Will Hunting), although Milk is likely to be justifiably remembered as one of his career highs.

Milk has also found further political relevance as its release comes only a few weeks after a law legalising gay marriage in California was abruptly overturned by Proposition 8 in the highest court in the state. Although the situation in America has far improved since Milk's death (the film depicts anti-gay campaigners routinely referring to gay people as paedophiles), Black hopes that the film will help gay and lesbian communities to take inspiration from history. "I wish it could've come a year earlier in a way so that the gay community could look to a time which was far more homophobic but see that we were winning these fights."

Milk's achievements centred on everyone being open and unapologetic about their sexuality, something that Black believes was lacking from the campaign against Proposition 8. "Harvey Milk had come up with this strategy of coming out, being upfront, outreach, education, shaking the hand of the guy or the woman who might vote against you on election day, and that was really lost." He also thinks that there is a danger in overlooking Milk's achievements: "You know, it's the old saying: if you don't know your history you're doomed to repeat it."

This article was first published on InTheNews.co.uk on 17th January 2009.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Q&A with director Daniele Luchetti

As My Brother is an Only Child comes to DVD, we talk to the Italian director about improvisation, surviving drive-by shootings and not caring about the audience.

Based on the novel Il Fasciocomunista by Antonio Pennacchi, My Brother is an Only Child tells the story of Accio (Elio Germano), a headstrong youth growing up in southern Italy in the 60s and 70s, and his turbulent relationship with older brother Manrico (Riccardo Scamarcio). When Accio is drawn to the local communist party, Manrico follows his parents′ leanings and becomes a communist. As the years rolls on, ideological differences further strain their relationship with each other and their family.

Future Movies: Considering that the chemistry between the two leads was so vital, how difficult was the casting process?
Daniele Luchetti: The most difficult thing was to find the main actor, for Accio, because he was described in the book and in the script as a thug, as an unintelligent boy, as a very muscular man. I looked at a lot of boxers for the actors and I wasn’t happy because every time I found the ‘right’ person he wasn’t so interesting. Elio Germano was the opposite of the character in the script. He’s clever and intelligent, and the idea of having an intelligent character doing stupid things is more interesting. [Accio has] a sensibility that pushes him into the idea of the radical, exaggerated, doing too much, too noisy. The antagonist to this character, the idea of Riccardo Scamarcio, is quite similar in Italy because he does a lot of teenager’s movies; he’s a big star. You feel excluded if your brother is a sex symbol, and he’s intelligent, he’s successful. That’s the character for me.

Neither of the leads lived through the events of the film, so was there anything you did to help them engage with that period of Italian history?
No, they are involved in politics, they’re very committed. In Italy there are still some slices of young people still involved in politics. I know it sounds strange that in Italy we have so much interest in politics, but it is true.

There’s a great sense of fluidity throughout the film. Was there a lot of improvisation on set?
It was very free, but only to do what I wanted! For me it was very important to work on the subtexts. Sometimes trying to reverse the apparent meaning of the scenes, for instance the scenes of fighting, I directed them as scenes of love, and when the brothers fight it’s a scene of love, non-expressive love, untold. Also, the scenes of love between Francesca, Accio and Manrico, are scenes of hate, scenes of fighting, scenes of pain, because Accio loves Francesca, but he cannot explain, so the subtext was pain. I didn’t care exactly to the lines [of the screenplay]. I kept them, but for me it was most important to keep the sensation that the dialogues are improvised.

Why did you choose to shoot so much using a handheld camera?
Usually when you shoot a movie actors are obliged to get positions, and for me [the handheld camera] gives a lot of lenience to the performance of the actor. The director of photography gave me absolute freedom of shooting using natural light, and I kept hidden to the cameraman all the scenes before we were shooting, and asked him to see the scene with the actors through the camera as a documentary. Sometimes we were shooting with two or three cameras, with two opposite angles at the same time, to keep the freshness of the dialogue.

Did you allocate rehearsal time to practice that style of shooting?
No, we didn’t rehearse at all, to keep the freshness of the performances. Sometimes after two or three or four takes I had to change lines because they were getting too precise, and to allow more material for the editing table afterwards. For example, the final scene between the brothers in the cafe I shot for two days, trying at least four different ways to do the scene; the first time with dialogue, the second time with different, political dialogue, the third time without dialogue, the fourth time just talking about stupid things as brothers do. That way, in the editing, I’ve found a thread, and you’ll see something that was similar to the script in the meaning, but not so literal.

What were the challenges in interpreting the original novel?
Yes, it was difficult because the novel is autobiographical and it has no plot, so we had to find one. That was actually the easiest thing because you have two brothers who we haven’t met, and so you have a story between them there. The most difficult thing was to return to the old political discussions, because the book was full of discussions, full of small parties that have now disappeared, and to return to this one, this idea of making the characters talk the whole time about politics – that was the most important thing. It turned out it was impossible to talk about politics and be interesting! Because, if you are real, and you make characters from the 60s talk [about politics] then you cannot understand anything because the cultural references are lost. If you try to make it understandable for today, you are fake, so we cut out a lot.

You sought out people who were politically active during the period as you researched and co-wrote the screenplay. How did that inform the writing process?
Well, the first source [of research] is the book, and the second source was my personal experience. In the 70s when I was in high school we had some political fights that were quite important, and I knew a lot of neo-fascists. Once I was in a bus-stop and I was shot at. They didn’t catch me; they got the wall behind me. It was all so fast, I didn’t understand anything. They passed me in the car and bang! I don’t know if they targeted me. Maybe it was because I was wearing a poncho, as it was a left-wing symbol. I tried to meet some fascist activists [during the writing stage], and usually they were working in the police or in personal security and as bouncers. It was funny and very tragic at the same time, because they believe in an illusion, in a very imaginative world, out of time.

The story has quite a light-hearted tone, despite the exploration of fascist and communist politics from the time. Were you ever concerned that the tone would alienate your audience?
No, not really. We had a lot of ideological movies in this era in the 70s where we had to not show a story but we had to demonstrate something, we had to demonstrate that fascism was a monster, but now we have more distance, we can tell a story about this era without giving judgement. You can just show their feelings. Sometimes you were fascist by chance because your best friend was another fascist, but you weren’t ideologically committed. In honesty I didn’t really care about the audience, because if you think of the audience before the movie you cannot have any sincerity and you cannot predict what the audience will like. The only audience you can reference is yourself.

(This article was first published on Future Movies)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

How the Superheroes Saved the Stars

It’s clear that Edward Norton decided to make the most of The Incredible Hulk. An acclaimed character actor who won an Oscar nomination on only his second film - 1997’s Primal Fear - his casting in Universal’s second stab at the Hulk franchise was a surprise to many. Not so surprising is that he effectively became a co-writer on the project, keen to explore Bruce Banner’s inner psyche and probe the complexities of the monster within. Unfortunately his efforts reportedly caused clashes with both director Louis Leterrier and a disgruntled studio, and the sole screenwriting credit ended up with Zak Penn.

The reality is that Norton needs The Incredible Hulk, just as the franchise certainly benefits from his thespian talents. Despite Norton’s early success, his standout part in David Fincher’s generation-defining Fight Club is nearly ten years old already, and a handful of gems aside - Rounders, 25th Hour, Down in the Valley - his subsequent CV has steered him ever closer towards the obscure. His projects haven’t found the audiences to match their quality, and his collaboration with Marvel signals a commitment to broaden his appeal.

Norton’s efforts to reclaim the mainstream echo the other Marvel release of the year. Jon Favreau’s Iron Man is an origins story that made the daring move of casting Robert Downey Jr as weapons engineer and metal-clad superhero Tony Stark. Production executives looked beyond the actor’s extensive list of high-profile drug misdemeanours collected over the past decade or so, and focused instead on his undeniable acting talent. He certainly delivers the goods, elevating the film above the mediocrity it would have suffered without his particular brand of breezy charisma. The actor fought for the role, and it’s not surprising given the career rebirth it has undoubtedly delivered with the film’s stunning success.

With perhaps the unfortunate exception of Eric Bana, the superheroes have generally been kind on their stars, acting as a launch-pad to new opportunities and a wealth of choice, courtesy of an expansive and eternally enthusiastic fan-base. In the same year that Norton won Academy recognition for Primal Fear, George Clooney became Bruce Wayne in Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin. The film would become a doomed addition to the DC franchise, with Clooney spectacularly miscast, but although rightly remembered with derision, the mere presence of ER’s Dr Doug did wonders for his career. He went from awkward caped crusader to bedding Jennifer Lopez as stylish petty thief Jack Foley in Steven Soderbergh’s impressive crime drama Out of Sight, although he was perhaps lucky to win the role before Batman & Robin opened. He may have apologised to fans for such a mauling of the Batman legend, but as a means to an end he’s hardly complaining.

Contemporary superheroes have come to be dominated by thespians since Tobey Maguire gave Spider-Man some credibility and cult favourite Sam Raimi agreed to direct the cinematic juggernaut. Despite his youth, Maguire’s CV was already peppered with thespian projects, from Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, through The Cider House Rules to Wonder Boys. All popular with the Academy, but largely unseen by Spider-Man’s core audience. His casting opened up the character’s appeal and introduced Maguire to the popcorn crowd. Comic-book rival DC has since responded by casting a former American psycho as Batman. Christian Bale has defined himself as an actor willing to go to extraordinary physical lengths in pursuit of character, something which suits both director Christopher Nolan and the darker political times that the franchise now aspires to address.

The calibre of talent shaping big-screen superheroes is perhaps finally doing justice to the frequently overlooked standard of writing evident in the Marvel and DC universes. Comics have never really escaped their stereotypical, snotty-teenager image, despite addressing such themes as alienation and adolescent confusion with undeniable insight. Whereas the big-screen versions may rely on thespian credibility to reach audiences beyond the fan-boys as the standard of writing sinks between the comic and the screen, it’s a two-way relationship that won’t run out of steam anytime soon.

(Thsi article was first published on Future Movies in June 2008)

Monday, June 09, 2008

Casey Affleck on Gone Baby Gone: Bit-Part Player to Leading Man

“I didn’t want it to feel like he could’ve gotten someone better,” Casey Affleck says simply, as he recalls pondering whether to take the lead in his brother Ben’s directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone. He adds: “He probably could’ve got someone better, and I think he tried!”

Affleck has lost his voice, leaving his tones even raspier than normal. He’s casually dressed in T-shirt, jeans and trainers, and frequently pauses long and hard to find the words he’s looking for, let alone the ability to say them in his current state. Still, at least he has a work to be proud of. He eventually agreed to play Patrick Kenzie, a Boston PI who, along with his girlfriend and PI partner Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan), is hired by the family of abducted four year-old Amanda McCready, when the police investigation draws a blank. The pair find themselves up against corrupt cops, child abuse, surprising moral questions and the murky world of Boston’s criminal fraternity, as they delve deeper into the child’s disappearance.

Ben has surprised many critics by directing and co-writing an impressive adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel, although its British release was delayed six months as a gesture of sensitivity to the ongoing Madeleine McCann case. “There’s always similarities to something, and there’ll be a family out there that’s dealing with a tragedy like that the weekend this movie comes out,” Casey sighs, although he adds that he believes the UK release delay was the right thing to do: “If there’s the tiniest chance that it might interfere in any way with the real investigation, then there’s no question.”

When asked about how he thought his work relationship would be with his brother, Casey responds with characteristic nonchalance. “I wasn’t trying to ensure… I wasn’t anticipating… a very friendly relationship on-set. I mean, when you’re trying to make a movie together, and if you both care about it, then you’ve gotta be passionate - if you’re gonna disagree, then butt heads and work it out. Why I’m so comfortable about Ben is that I knew he and I could fight comfortably, you know? We could fight and say exactly what we want, which was great if for no other reason than we save time.” He pauses for a moment, before adding: “He was always very open to me doing things… I mean, sometimes he’d be frustrated because, um…” He smiles to himself, as though concerned he’s being too candid, before laughing: “Next question!”

Ben and co-screenwriter Aaron Stockard (a childhood friend of the Afflecks) took Kenzie’s age down from 40 to 30, both to accommodate Casey’s youthful appearance and to leave scope for a more dramatic character arc. “If you had a 40 year-old private investigator, he’s presumably been working for some time,” Casey explains: “He’s probably used his gun before, he’s probably seen a dead body before, he’s probably been exposed to a lot of the moral, grey areas of his job… Making him younger means that all these things are happening for the first time and so have more of an impact on him, along with decisions that are harder to wrestle with.”

The film has drawn praise for an unflinching study of the ‘real’ Boston, one of which the Afflecks have firsthand experience, although Casey is bemused by many critics who have reacted with shock at such an unsanitised dose of social reality. “I think, you know, the faces look real, and Ben seems to really love the city and wanted to photograph the people who live there and wanted to photograph the streets where we grew up, and I don’t think it’s that harsh; it seems pretty fair,” he shrugs, adding: “Every city has corrupt police officers and crack-heads, and children are abducted everywhere across the world, so I’m not sure I see what’s so awful about it.”

The film marks Casey’s graduation from a decade of supporting roles in some 20 films (some, he admits, “phenomenally awful”), to leading man, although he’s riding a wave of critical acclaim for his portrayal of the vilified killer Robert Ford in Andrew Dominik’s stunning western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. “Well…” he begins. He pauses for several seconds before conceding: “I guess I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel nice!”

The critical success is leading towards greater choice for the 33 year-old, although his apparent physical pigeonholing has been demoralising in the past: “Very often the character description, which is usually on the first page [of the script], is something like, you know… ‘Joe Smith, early 30s… Attractive, but not so you’d notice’!”

All that should be about to change for Affleck the younger.

(This article was first published on Future Movies in June 2008)

Monday, April 21, 2008

[REC]: The Future of Horror Looks Shaky

It would seem that shaky cameras are cool. The release of Spanish horror [REC] is the latest in a series of horror films shot on a digital camera from the perspective of stressed-out operators who are themselves a character in the story. [REC] presents the ‘footage’ captured by a late-night news reporter and her cameraman as they follow a team of Barcelona firefighters on a routine call to a seemingly innocuous apartment block. A gruesome encounter with an apparently demented old woman quickly escalates out of control, and suddenly the lives of everyone in the apartment block are under threat. With the news team present, all the action is caught on camera, the images becoming increasingly wild and frenetic as the situation worsens.

The digital format is certainly highly suited to the horror genre, with low production-costs and increasing technical flexibility proving especially advantageous for independent filmmakers. Still, mainstream cinema has taken nearly a decade to catch up with the box-office phenomenon that was The Blair Witch Project. Meanwhile, words like ‘gritty’ and ‘real’ are bandied about in the press as critics and paying audiences alike respond to the stylish digital aesthetic. Where younger viewers hail the future of filmmaking, and in particular the horror genre, older critics grumble at the motion-sickness-inducing visuals and the lack of anything resembling a good old-fashioned tracking or Steadicam shot.

Whereas the Blair Witch style arose as much from necessity as from inspired editing on the part of the filmmakers, it seems that replicating the shaky-cam look on a mainstream studio production, where traditional techniques and equipment are well-practiced and readily available, can be just as tricky. It was the handheld, amateur style that provided the hook for the recent Cloverfield. Otherwise merely a bog-standard monster movie, director (and pal of Lost co-creator JJ Abrams) Matt Reeves decided to appeal directly to the YouTube generation by shooting the entire $30m film in a shaky-cam aesthetic, notably against the advice of his production team who didn’t relish the challenge of having to look like they didn’t know what they were doing. Reeves achieved the look by getting his actors to shoot some of the footage themselves, and, indeed, becoming a cameraman himself; “I qualified for the job by being, well…not qualified!” he told reporters on the press-circuit. Being a studio piece, however, the trick was also in ensuring his crack team of professional camera operators adopted an amateur style while still capturing the right shots necessary for both maintaining suspense and driving the story. The result is a riotous piece of filmmaking which, while failing to live up to much of the hype, shows the studios are finally paying attention to the massive cultural influence of multimedia viewing platforms, of which YouTube is the most recognised.

Digital shaky-cam filmmaking is seen by many as directly relevant to the everyday lives of the cinema-going public, a fact which big-budget Hollywood will doubtless be looking to on a larger scale now that Cloverfield has paid off handsomely at the international box-office (a sequel is already in the works). Matt Reeves has stated that his film was “made for an audience that does this daily,” as he refers to the quantity of online material depicting ordinary people simply filming their daily lives. With the lingering spectre of terrorism still very much at the forefront of people’s minds, converging the reality of modern media saturation with times of crisis has been a topical theme since images of the World Trade Center collapse were beamed to a live global audience. Cloverfield is at its best and most poignant early on when panic sets in across New York in scenes deeply reminiscent of amateur footage filmed on 9/11, while [REC] and George Romero’s own Diary of the Dead, an addition to his original zombie saga (and follow-up to Land of the Dead) seen through the eyes of a group of film students, explore the now-common theme of infection and viral threat. With the tragedy of 9/11 in New York, the fallout of 7/7 in London, and then the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina documented by both amateurs and professionals alike to be saturated across television and the Internet, firsthand experiences of a world in chaos are accessible at the touch of a button. Replicating this chaos in fiction filmmaking is therefore fertile filmmaking territory that suits the digital format and is a gift to the horror genre.

This isn’t to say that the character-as-camera-operator is limited to horror. Brian De Palma’s recent Iraq dram Redacted, addresses the media-saturated world head-on. Exploring the lives of a platoon of US soldiers on checkpoint duty in a provincial Iraqi town, the story unfolds primarily through the eyes of a young GI who films his experiences in preparation for a planned film-school application on his return home. The film uses this character facet to iron out the familiar shaky-cam aesthetic (the soldier has raw talent as a filmmaker, after all, so he knows how to use a camera), focusing on the content of the soldier’s point-of-view rather than the style in which he shoots it. De Palma also uses streamed Internet video footage, CCTV and even pinhole cameras to develop the story, in a marked difference from the frenetic style that increasingly characterizes the horror genre.

The problem comes when repetition kicks in. Although still a solid horror, [REC] suffers from a lack of originality, a frenetic zombie film following hot on the heels of both Diary of the Dead and The Zombie Diaries, all of which linger in the shadow of 28 Days Later The question remains as to whether the horror genre can evolve beyond the simple shaky-cam aesthetic, or whether multiplexes will be cursed with a continuous slew of cheap knock-offs. With Cloverfield arguably Blair Witch with a visual-effects budget and a more conventional visual pay-off, it could be that the next true innovation will be left to the shoestring creativity of the independents.

(This article was first published on Close-Up Film. Click here for a full review of [REC])

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

"Sly's seen it... Lovely to get his blessing!" Garth Jennings and cast discuss Son of Rambow

Mild motion-sickness isn’t perhaps the first thing you expect to feel in north London’s Holborn Studios. That’s until you realize that much of the office-space is actually located on converted barges, with a gently bobbing quay providing a walkway onto the snappily-named Eagle Wharf. This is the base of production company Hammer & Tongs, founded by director Garth Jennings and his producing partner Nick Goldsmith. Here Jennings awaits the press to discuss his second feature, Son of Rambow, along with his young stars Will Poulter and Bill Milner, and co-star Jessica Hynes (nee Stevenson). All are in good humour, as you’d expect given that the film has proved a hit on the festival circuit, and its long-awaited UK release is only a few weeks away.

Set in 1982, Jennings’ film tells the story of two ten-year-olds - the quiet and sheltered Will Proudfoot (Milner), and school troublemaker Lee Carter (Poulter) - whose discovery of Stallone’s classic action-thriller First Blood inspires them to shoot their own action-packed sequel. Jennings, dressed in casual jeans and T-shirt, reckons that his young stars are largely responsible for the film charming festival audiences and critics alike. “I think if people like the film, it’s normally because they like these two,” he smiles, “You know, you can do all the best writing and all that stuff in the world, but actually it’s very hard to find people of their age with that kind of confidence.” Lucky, then, that the boys showed up when they did, as the production team was coming to the end of a fruitless five-month casting period. “We had to sort of stop casting and start moving on with pre-production, and they were both - even though they’re in the room, I would say this anyway - exactly right for the parts,” says Jennings, adding, “It was one of those instant, easy-peasy decisions.”

While the boys snap up most of the attention, Hynes plays Mary, Will’s mother. As the Proudfoots are part of the strict Brethren religion, Mary has imposed a blanket ban on television and films, making Will’s accidental exposure to First Blood all the more potent. Hynes, perhaps still best known for cult TV favourite Spaced, which she co-wrote and starred in with Simon Pegg, describes her rare, non-comedic role in Son of Rambow as “a one-off”, adding, “To play a straight role in a film like this is a gift, I mean it’s a sort of career highlight, really.” Her enthusiasm for the role even extended to the costume, despite the Brethren’s conservative tastes: “I loved it!” she laughs, “It’s like Little House on the Prairie, with the button-up shirt.”

Jennings drew inspiration from his own childhood in writing the screenplay. “This was phenomenal!” he exclaims as he recalls his own discovery of the original Rambo. “We were playing in the forest everyday, and then here’s this guy with a knife and a stick who takes on two-hundred guys – he only kills one of them, and that’s by throwing a rock…” Even, however, after the success of his debut feature, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Jennings found the £3.5 million production-budget was still far from easy to secure for Son of Rambow, as it didn’t seem to track with industry expectations. “We weren’t making another loony space movie, or something with a robot,” he sighs, “No, seriously, people were saying, ‘Nice… but have you got anything with robots, or some puppets? Puppets would be great.’”

With the budget eventually secured, taking a step back in terms of production size was a relief for Jennings, who, having come from a background in music video production through Hammer & Tongs, found the big-budget studio experience to be sometimes cumbersome on Hitchhiker’s. “We [had] got to do it exactly as we wanted to, but we suddenly inherited all this studio stuff,” he explains, “We had a load of people, it means you’re a lot slower, it’s harder to get what you want, just the numbers… So it was rather nice to do Son of Rambow and go, right, you really don’t need all that stuff.” Cutting back on the studio fat meant Jennings could also pay more attention to his stars. Hynes describes how the production’s small scale helped preserve its charm: “They’ve solved problems with the film within their own sort of creative team, which has meant that it’s kept its heart.” As Jennings banters back and forth with Milner and Coulter in the Holborn Studios barge, they offer a glimpse of how much fun the shoot must’ve been. “It was an amazing thing for a director to have people who just, I mean when you say ‘Can you be dragged a hundred feet along the floor really fast by the kite there?’ (imitates the boys) ‘Yeah, cool,’” Jennings gushes.

The boys weren’t allowed to do their own stunt-work (“if something happened, that would be the end of everything,” Jennings grimaces), although Milner admits to a boyish rivalry with his co-star: “During filming we had like an ongoing competition who could do the most stunts, but they were always a bit petit!” Milner remains the only one of the two to have seen the original First Blood, strictly for research purposes of course. “It did help me, kind of, play my character a bit more,” he offers, thoughtfully. It turns out that Milner’s more into Spider-Man (“He’s a dangerous lad! And he goes to school! He’s doing his GCSEs, and he’s fighting crime at the same time!”), while Coulter’s cinematic inspiration is Ethan Hunt: “I remember when I was about ten years old coming out of Mission: Impossible and being generally convinced that I was a secret agent!”

Son of Rambow was originally scheduled for release last summer, but legal problems restricted it to the festival circuit instead. Jennings and Goldsmith had gone into production not knowing who owned the rights to First Blood (Son of Rambow uses clips of Stallone, and, of course, the correctly-spelt name), but discovered afterwards that, in Jennings’ words, “people own different parts of Rambo”, which complicated things. Jennings describes the production mentality, with a wide smile: “[We thought] we’ll just make it, and it’ll be good, and then they’ll see it and go, oh alright, and, er… that was unbelievably na├»ve.” Luckily, the legal issues have all now been sorted, and the film even has the seal of approval from Rambo himself, to Jennings’ obvious delight: “Sly’s seen it, and he gave me a very, very nice review, yes, he was very sweet. Lovely to get his blessing.” Lets hope Son of Rambow gets the box-office reception it so richly deserves.

(This article was first published on Future Movies)