Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Q&A with Universal Pictures UK Sales Director, Andy Leyshon/3-free-DVD-giveaway!

Andy Leyshon is a major player in UK film distribution. Working for Universal Pictures as their UK Sales Director, he has overseen some very successful film releases over the last few years, including the runaway hit 'Mama Mia'. He is also a really nice guy. So nice in fact that he agreed to answer a few questions about his work for my blog:

You're the Sales Director for Universal UK. Can you explain a little bit about what it is you are responsible for?
Basically dating our films in cinemas. In consultation with other senior members of the team, I help plot out where the best release dates for our titles are; then ensure the films get booked into the best cinemas; negotiate with exhibitors what we get paid for them; and finally aim to secure each title its maximum playability. Sounds a little dryer than it actually is!

What career path did you take to get to where you are today?
I did a Degree in Cultural Studies, which then led to a Masters in Cinema Studies, which in turn had a work placement option. All of the previous work placements had been in exhibition, but I thought I'd try distribution and did a brief stint as a runner with a company called Electric Pictures. Then, Masters passed and various temp jobs under my belt a job for a full-time runner position came up at Momentum (who had taken over and re-branded Electric). After that I moved from Runner to Print Manager to Sales Assistant to Sales Manager to Sales Director over the course of 8-9 years. Then when Universal decided to go it alone in the UK in 2006 I got the gig as Sales Director and have been here happily ever since.

I'm told you made the decision to distribute 'Mama Mia' in the UK, which was obviously a huge success (until 'Avatar' it was the highest grossing movie in the UK). Which other films have you decided to distribute that have gone on to be runaway success stories?
I wish that decision was solely mine as I'd be singing it (in an Abba-stylee) from the rooftops! Despite initially feeling that Mamma should be an Autumn release (ala previous big female hits) we took a collective punt that it could be the ultimate feelgood Summer film, obviously repeat viewing astonished us and the rest is history. Much like Avatar and Titanic such runs are incredibly rare, but a joy when they do happen. Its very hard to single out specific others, but ones I'm proudest of would include Hot Fuzz, Inglourious Basterds, Lost In Translation, Amelie, The Bourne Ultimatum, Atonement, O Brother Where Art Thou, Eternal Sunshine, Downfall, A Serious Man and Kick-Ass currently.

With hindsight, have there been any films in your time at Universal that you would not distribute given a second chance?
No comment!

You live in Brighton. Is that a good place to work in the film industry? Do you work in London mostly? Or is your job possible at home (via the phone/internet)?
I love living in Brighton and have done so for my entire career in the film industry. I wish the commute was better, but am now very used to it after so many years. Its easy enough to travel between Brighton & London. I could feasibly do a lot of my work from Brighton (via phone/internet), but I'd lose the personal touch of being in contact with my team and exhibition partners, so London it is, though I do miss the sound of seagulls & waves hitting pebbles during the day.

'Nanny McPhee 2' is currently top of the UK Box-Office and 'Kick-Ass' is also getting some postive write-ups: what other films do Universal have coming up this year?
Nanny is a terrific success already and will hopefully go on to be the biggest family hit over Easter. Kick-Ass also looks a winner and I can't recall having seen a film play so enthusiastically, so with a fair wind it should become the most talked-about release in April. Other than that, its another eclectic year for us with releases including Robin Hood (Ridley Scott & Russell Crowe team-up again for the origins story); Get Him To The Greek (Russell Brand & Jonah Hill comedy); Scott Pilgrim V The World (Edgar Wright's latest masterpiece with Michael Cera); Greenberg (the new Noah Baumbach); Step-Up 3-D (oh yes its back and even better in 3-D); Despicable Me 3-D (the first of many films to come from a great new partnership with Chris Meledandri - the man behind Ice Age & Horton Hears A Who); and The American (new Anton Corbin starring George Clooney) amongst a bunch of others.

You were at the Empire for the Kick-Ass premiere and it's a lovely cinema. What is your favourite cinema in the UK?
The diplomatic answer from a distributor would be that I love all of the my children equally...however, the Dukes Brighton clearly has a very warm place in my heart. From the building to the staff to the great mix of programming to the fantastic cakes it is definitely my fave venue. Also, it is 1min from my door.

As a lifelong film fan, do you still have to pinch yourself when you get sent scripts or when you are talking to directors and the like?
Absolutely. Its always interesting to meet any talent on any project and to see their perspective on things. As for scripts, the train journey is ideal reading time for me, so I get through them pretty voraciously. Every day is different in this industry which is what makes the job worthwhile.

I don't know if you're allowed to tell me, but what has been the most odd/funny interaction you have had with a movie star or filmmaker
No comment as I have a mortgage to pay and had better try to keep my job for a while yet!

On the subject of Universal Pictures: readers have the chance to win a trio of brand-new, recent Universal Pictures DVDs: Ang Lee's 'Taking Woodstock' (trailer below) aswell as the Vince Vaughn/Jon Favreau comedy 'Couple's Retreat' and 'Vampire's Assistant' directed by Paul Weitz (whose brother Chris also directed a vampire film last year: 'Twilight: New Moon'). All you have to do is e-mail me a piece of Universal Pictures related trivia. The most interesting or suprising e-mail will win the DVDs. E-mail your factoid to me at: I look forward to hearing from you.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Competition time!

Just a quick entry here to say that the latest podcast is up on iTunes and should soon be available on the Picturehouse website and on this blog (literally within hours of this post). It's a really good episode as Jon and I discuss 'Kick-Ass', both the premiere and the movie itself. We also talk about Jon's time in Toulouse at the Latin American Film Festival.

Most exciting is the fact that we are offering our first giveaway! It's a copy of last year's disaster-porn-fest '2012' and it's on sparkling, HD Blu-Ray disc for your viewing pleasure. To "win" the film just e-mail me (, or Jon, and give us some feedback on the podcast. The best comment wins the Blu-Ray. Enjoy!

Monday, 29 March 2010

'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' review: On men who hate women...

The original Swedish title for this film (and for Stieg Larsson’s original novel) is perhaps more appropriate than that given to English language version. ‘Men Who Hate Women’ is almost an understatement here as we are shown scene after scene of violence (both sexual and non-sexual) towards women and perpetrated by a number of men (young and old).The films titular girl, Lisbeth (played by Noomi Rapace), has her own personal reasons to be hostile towards men, whilst the plot itself centres on the search for a man suspected of brutally murdering a number of young women. But apart from the frequent graphic scenes of rape, nudity and realistic violence the film bears a striking resemblance to a well-made TV detective serial rather than to a feature film. This isn’t because the film looks cheap, as it looks fairly expensive from a technical point of view, but it just feels as though it has a televisual style to it rather than a cinematic one, and so I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that the production team behind it (Yellow Bird) is behind TV’s ‘Wallander’: a detective show staring Kenneth Branagh.

The plot is contrived and conventional by TV whodunit standards: Mikael, disgraced investigative Journalist (played by the sincere and compelling Michael Nyqvist) teams up with Lisbeth (a “punk” computer hacker with a criminal past) to form a mismatched detective duo. They are called upon by an ailing old man to solve the disappearance and suspected murder of his great-Niece, which took place back in the 1960s. Along the way they encounter a number of suspicious, humourless relatives who gather around in plush drawing rooms and say things like “This is preposterous! You have no business being here!” and generally refuse to co-operate with the investigation. I don’t know if/how any of the story plugs into the next two films of the trilogy (which has already been shot and is awaiting release), but the film, as it stands, operates as if it were a standalone story in an episodic television series. Next week: an unrelated murder in another small parochial town of upper-class twits, and so on.

This isn’t to say that ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ is bad, however. In fact, it is quite good television. Danish TV director Niels Arden Oplev has done a decent job with the material, even if he is over-reliant on montage during the scenes where evidence is being examined. In fact, for a 2 ½ hour film it is fairly tightly put together and held my interest reasonably well. Refreshingly, the violence is not mined for slickness or cool and is always suitably jarring and grisly, whilst Noomi Rapace isn’t fetishised as the girl and the scenes of sexual violence are allowed to be truly awful. The film presents a seedy and disturbing picture of modern Sweden as a place full of corrupt officials (to put it lightly), little public order (Lisbeth is brutally attacked in a public subway by a gang of young males early on in the film) and of ageing Nazi sympathisers. It’s a far cry from the usual image of an efficient and well-run, if bland, modern Sweden and whilst I can’t vouch for its authenticity, it is interesting to see. Indeed, last year’s much-lauded ‘Let the Right One In’ gave a similarly bleak representation of Sweden as a place full of disconnected alcoholic people, nasty school children and equally appalling weather.

If you are in the mood for a solid crime thriller (and you don’t want something a bit mad like the superior ‘Shutter Island’) then I would recommend you go and see ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’. However, I’m not sure how this film will play to the ITV 3 crowd as it is less cosy than your average hour with Angela Lansbury or David Suchet and involves considerably more rape and a less clean picture of murder. However, women who hate men are in for a real treat!

'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' can still be seen in cinemas across the UK (and indeed the world) including the Duke of York's in Brighton where it continues its run until Thursday. It is rated '18' by the BBFC and a heavily censored version will be airing on ITV 3 next week (if there is any justice).

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Some more trailers...

I don't have the time to properly update my blog today, so I'll do what I always do when that happens... post a couple of trailers!

Please Give
Jon of Splendor Cinema saw this back in Berlin and really liked it. Based on this trailer I am looking forward to it too:

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

I know nothing of the comic book (yes, this is another comic book movie) but based on this trailer, 'Scott Pilgrim' looks like it could be really funny and rather unique:

Again, Jon saw this Mexican film at a festival (Toulouse this time) and said it was an early contender for film of the year. If for no other reason, this makes me excited. Check out the beautiful trailer below:

Friday, 26 March 2010

'The Wraith': It's so bad... it's funny!

Everyone has seen a film that was absolutely terrible, but brilliantly so. They have to be really awful though: a slightly bad film is just boring, to be funny-bad a film has to be really, really terrible. I posted an article about Empire magazine doing a top 50 worst movies a little while back and some cult “funny bad” movies featured in that list (‘Showgirls’ and ‘The Room’ as examples), however my favourite bad film didn’t feature. ‘The Wraith’ stars Charlie Sheen and is written and directed by a chap named Mike Marvin who (thanks IMDB) also directed ‘Hamburger: The Motion Picture’ and produced ‘Hot Dog... the movie!’ (if anyone has seen either, please let me know!).

Basically, this film isn't listed in any version of the 'Variety' film guide, but it plays fairly regularly on TV (I've seen it twice within six months previously and a friend tells me it was on just the other week). The story is about... well I hate writing synopsis, so here is what a chap called 'KGF Vissers' wrote about it on the IMDB:
Packard Walsh and his motorized gang control and terrorize an Arizona desert town where they force drivers to drag-race so they can 'win' their vehicles. After Walsh beats the decent teenager Jamie Hankins to death after finding him with his girlfriend, a mysterious power creates Jake Kesey, an extremely cool motor-biker who has a car which is invincible. Jake befriends Jamie's girlfriend Keri Johnson, takes Jamie's sweet brother Bill under his wing and manages what Sheriff Loomis couldn't; eliminate Packard's criminal gang the hard way...

'The Wraith' is just hilarious in every way: bad acting (yes); bad visual effects (yes); cheesy 80's soundtrack (yes); fantastic plot holes that make no sense (yes). The editing, the shot choices and the lighting of the film all work together to add hilarity to every possible moment. In other words: it's a masterpiece in the funny-bad movie genre. I love that it isn't self-aware, though. It isn't one of those films that is taking the piss out of itself. 'The Wraith' doesn't know it's bad. In fact, it thinks it's awesome, which only hightens the sense of joy I feel when I see it. The tagline at the end of the trailer (posted above) says "If you've done nothing wrong... you have nothing to fear", well be afraid Mike Marvin. Trust me: watch it next time it's on. And it will be on, probably right now.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

'Kick-Ass' review: Does exactly what it says on the poster

As I mentioned yesterday, I was lucky enough to attend the UK premiere of Matthew Vaughn’s ‘Kick-Ass’ on Monday night and I had a really great time. Some of this was down to the atmosphere of being part of a big and enthusiastic audience watching a yet-to-be-released film with its stars (and on a massive screen to boot), but most of it was down to the fact that ‘Kick-Ass’ is a brilliantly entertaining film. Probably the most entertaining film I have seen so far this year.

I have not read the Mark Millar comic book on which the film is based, so I couldn’t possibly comment on whether the film remains true to its source material, but I can say that this film is a damn sight better than the last film I saw based on one of his books. ‘Wanted’, which starred James McAvoy and Angelina Jolie as a couple of arsehole assassins, was a truly hateful movie and has some parallels with ‘Kick-Ass’ in that both are ultra-violent and depict a world in which violence is morally fine, so long as the people you are killing are deemed “bad”. Both also have a central character who is basically a weedy outsider (McAvoy in ‘Wanted’ and Aaron Johnson as the title character in ‘Kick-Ass’), but whereas ‘Wanted’ seems to preach that physical weakness is contemptible and has its hero using violence as a way to put himself above others in society (by the end of the film he is superior to his old workmates), ‘Kick-Ass’ is less troubling, as its central nerds are celebrated by the film. In fact in ‘Kick-Ass' the title character is more often the one whose ass is being kicked and, whereas ‘Wanted’ seems to have a nihilistic hatefulness about it, ‘Kick-Ass’ celebrates its naive heroes who are basically determined to protect people and right percieved social wrongs.

Now, even though I found it a lot less distasteful than 'Wanted', there are all sorts of problems with ‘Kick-Ass’ from a political point of view (none of which are too dissimilar from last year’s horrid ‘Harry Brown’ which Vaughn produced). The film has an uncomplicated view of crime (bad people commit it) and an equally uncomplicated view about how to deal with crime (the mass murder of criminals), not to mention that the film’s hoodlums are pretty much all played by ethnic minorities and are of low social class. British actor, Mark Strong, plays his villain as a prototypical Italian mob-type, whilst Nicolas Cage (an Italian-American actor) plays his hero as an ethnically “white” everyman figure. But everything in ‘Kick-Ass’ plays out like a Warner Brothers cartoon (with ‘Kill Bill’ levels of violence and swearing) and is injected with a lot of humour. Whereas ‘Wanted’ is self-consciously “cool” (in a way aimed at pubescent boys, with leather jackets, guns and sexy women belonging to socially retarded geeks) and promotes a violent attitude towards society (not necessarily physical), ‘Kick-Ass’, with its geek heroes, is always more self-effacing - with one of the vigilante’s portrayed by McLovin’ from ‘Superbad’ (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) - and somehow ultimately better natured.

Now I’ve catered for my conscience I can get to writing about the things I really enjoyed about the movie, which was one of very few recent films in which I didn’t check my watch (it packs a lot of great stuff into just under two hours), as it held my attention throughout. For starters, whilst Mark Strong, Aaron Johnson and Christopher Mintz-Plasse are pretty good in their respective roles, Nicholas Cage and the thirteen year-old Chloë Moretz give brilliantly funny performances as the films two stand-out characters: the father and daughter pairing of ‘Big Daddy’ and ‘Hit-Girl’. Nicolas Cage displays suburb comic skills (previously seen in ‘Raising Arizona’ back in 1987 and, more recently in 2002’s ‘Adaptation’) whenever he’s onscreen, with his character (a softly-spoken, gentle father who turns his daughter into a violent, gun-obsessed killer) switching to an Adam West impression when adopting his ‘Big Daddy’ persona. This is not only a playful nod towards Batman of the 1960s, but also possibly a humorous take on Christian Bale’s much-derided change of voice when he dons the armour of the Dark Knight in Christopher Nolan’s films (whatever it is in homage to... it is hilarious).

The action sequences also remind me of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Of course, they are formally more similar (as is the film's visual style and design) to Tarantino’s ‘Kill Bill’, but they remind me of ‘The Dark Knight’ because that film represents the last time I really enjoyed action sequences in a cinema. The set-pieces are played out like the very best Warner Brothers cartoons in that they are imaginative and funny in the way they choose to deal pain to all involved (the dispatching of a key villain literally caused me to burst into spontaneous applause). I don’t want to spoil any of the set-pieces themselves here, but they are really impressive and varied (unlike ‘Wanted’ or ‘The Matrix’ in which all the sequences blur into one burst of slow-motion, bullet-time gunfire). The champion of these set pieces is, unquestionably, Moretz’s ‘Hit-Girl’ who really does kick ass whenever she is onscreen (in a manner recalling a miniature version of ‘Kill Bill’s ‘Gogo’).

The Daily Mail will no doubt continue to hate ‘Kick-Ass’ for it’s bad language (the ‘c-word’ coming from the mouth of a thirteen year-old girl will do that) and over the top violence, even though the film’s politics aren’t altogether incompatible with that paper’s own. But putting those issues behind me, I have to admit that ‘Kick-Ass’ was terrifically good fun and I highly recommend it to anyone who likes to go to the movies, sit back and get entertained. It is equal parts funny and exciting and (if it performs at the box-office) may provoke a new wave of independent movie blockbusters.

'Kick-Ass' opens on Friday nationwide and will be played at the Duke of York's in Brighton (where I work). It is (somehow) rated '15' by the BBFC (even though a little girl says 'cunt' and kills almost everyone onscreen in a tidal wave of bloody violence). Jon and I will podcast on it soon, so stay tuned for that.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

'Kick-Ass' premiere special: I done went to the fancy movie show

Thanks to my Splendor Cinema Podcast co-host (and boss at the Duke of York's cinema) Jon Barrenechea, I had tickets to last night's premiere of Matthew Vaughn's new comic book adaptation Kick-Ass (a movie which is both an independent and a blockbuster). Jon (who is currently in Toulouse for a film festival) couldn't make it, so he sent the lovely Felicity Beckett of Flick's Flicks (also a boss of mine at the Dukes!) and I in his stead and missed out on a wonderful night with (or at least near) the stars. I haven't been to a glitzy Leicester Square premiere before, so I was very excited by the whole thing, which took place at the Empire Theatre. It is a really lovely cinema inside and out, boasting a terrifically large screen (it looked to me to be the size of an IMAX!) and seating many hundreds of people. I was in awe of the surroundings the whole time from my seat in the third row.

On our way in we walked down the red carpet and between the fans on one side and members of the press on the other, who had come to see Brad Pitt (one of the film’s producers) as well as its stars Aaron Johnson (recently seen in ‘Nowhere Boy’ as a young John Lennon), Mark Strong (the film’s villain), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (McLovin’ from ‘Superbad’) and the young Chloë Moretz (who is slated to play the vampire girl in the remake of ‘Let the Right One In’ later this year). As well as these fine chaps I saw: ‘A Single Man’ star Nicholas Hoult standing by the popcorn kiosk; the reality TV pop star Lemar; 90’s comedian David Baddiel and Jaimie “school dinners” Oliver posing for photos with his adoring fans. My only brush with celebrity in any concrete sense came in the form of telling Sam Taylor-Wood (fiancée of Aaron Johnson and pictured above) that I liked her debut feature ‘Nowhere Boy’, to which she replied with a polite “thank you”.

My favourite moment of the night (other than the film itself, which I really enjoyed and will review later this week) came during Matthew Vaughn’s (extremely) brief introduction to the movie, during which I could see a nervous Chloë Moretz (only 13 years old) mouthing to her co-stars that there were lots of people in the cinema. It was really nice to see that she was impressed and excited by (what I assume) is her first big film premiere, not yet disinterested or jaded by what was going on.

Anyhow, thanks go to Jon and his contacts at Universal (who supplied the tickets) for allowing me to go and have a great night out at an exciting movie event! And, of course, to Flick for keeping me company. I really hope the chance to do this comes along again in the future. For a taster of the film, watch the (foul mouthed and ultra-violent) 'Hit-Girl' trailer below, although be warned that it does show some of the films very best moments:

'Kick-Ass' is on general release from Friday the 26th and can be seen at the Duke of York's where a superhero-themed fancy dress premiere is taking place on the evening of the release. My review will be up here before then, so please check back and read my thoughts here!

Monday, 22 March 2010

'Crazy Heart' review: Wrestler lite

In one of the very first shots of 'Crazy Heart' Jeff Bridges tells us that he hates bowling. As good as it is to see him revisit the bowling alley here he is, of course, being "very un-dude" and making it clear from the outset that his Oscar-winning turn as an alcoholic, down-on-his-luck, country singer known as Bad Blake is different from his now iconic turn in ‘The Big Lebowski’. Indeed, Bad Blake is not so easy going and, more importantly, he is less content with his lot in life, harbouring bitterness that he is poor and playing to small crowds whilst the younger Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) enjoys far greater success.

Much like other recent films about musicians (such as ‘Nowhere Boy’, ‘Dreamgirls’ or ‘Walk the Line’) ‘Crazy Heart’ is at its most effective when conveying the energy of live performance, with Jeff Bridges and Colin Farrell impressing greatly as singers. I am not a fan of country music by any means, but ‘Crazy Heart’ manages to convincingly show us country music as something approaching white blues music rather than Billy Ray Cyrus-style cheese. Credit for this must go to T-Bone Burnett, who wrote many of the songs in Bad Blake’s repertoire, all of which convince as the memorable country standards we are told they have become within the film. Bridges is an electric presence as Blake on stage, and a duet with Tommy Sweet at the film’s midway point is arguably the film’s highlight (I wanted to cheer at its conclusion as though I were at a real concert).

The second half of the film, which concerns Blake’s relationship with a young, single-mum called Jean (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), is much less appealing as it pulls us away from the stage and into movie cliché territory. Jean castigates Blake at one point by saying that he’s let her down like every man has before, which made me cringe, whilst (potential spoiler) Blake easily overcomes his years of alcoholism within two scenes late in the film. ‘Crazy Heart’ also presents Jean as a typical Hollywood movie single mum, in that despite the fact she has a fairly low income job (as a local journalist) she owns a pretty nice house and has no problem juggling a career with providing for her son (in a way reminiscent of Rene Zellweger’s character in ‘Jerry Maguire’). Blake’s poverty is similarly non-existent as, despite the fact that he tells us early on that he has ten dollars to his name; he also seems to get along fairly comfortably. America, it seems, is a good place to be poor.

This lack of any social realist elements is perhaps the film’s main problem, as whilst Aronofsky’s ‘The Wrestler’ deals with many of the same themes and issues as ‘Crazy Heart’ (right down to the detail that both include a plot thread about an estranged father begging for redemption), it does so with a cynicism and a seedy, gritty edge, which is lacking here. One interesting scene cuts between Blake’s fairly simple abode and the glamorous home of his LA agent, as they speak on the telephone, but whilst the contrast raises interesting questions about Blake’s exploitation (again like ‘The Wrestler’) none of these are really answered.

In the end (major spoiler) Blake gets sober, writes a big song and makes a ton of money, with one of the films closing scenes featuring Blake in happy conversation with his agent, who it seems has the right idea about life: in ‘Crazy Heart’ Blake’s lack of success is his own fault and when he changes his outlook, he becomes free to set about living the American Dream which is (as always) purely financial. Mickey Rourke’s wrestler is spat out, exploited and abused by American society which lets him down just as much as his own messed-up personality. ‘Crazy Heart’ is the more palatable film for audiences, but it is arguably a less honest one for it.

In fairness, the first half of ‘Crazy Heart’ was one of the most enjoyable times I have had in a cinema this year so far. Whatever its flaws, the film boasts a great soundtrack, some stunning performances and has provided one of my favourite actors with a plethora of well-deserved awards. If you are a fan of Jeff Bridges or country music and want to watch a lighter, less socially conscious version of ‘The Wrestler’, then ‘Crazy Heart’ is the film for you!

'Crazy Heart' is still playing across the country and until this Thursday at the Duke of York's in Brighton. It is rated '15' by the BBFC.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

'The Father of My Children' review: Film Un Certain Regard

This review may contain a SPOILER for those who don’t know the story on which this film is loosely based.

'The Father of My Children' is a new French drama by the promising young director Mia Hansen-Løve. The film won the Un Certain Regard award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, which is (apparently) granted to "recognize young talent, and to encourage innovative and daring works by presenting one of the films with a grant to aid its distribution in France" (thank you Wikipedia). The film itself is loosely based on the life and tragic death by suicide of the producer Humbert Balsan, who, in his last years, struggled with depression and the threat of bankruptcy. Hansen- Løve was given her directoral break by Balsan and possibly due to this decides to tell his story at a respectful distance: all the specific details have been changed with this account being presented as completely fictional. Yet, to anyone who knows about Humbert Balsan, many figures and events from his life have obvious analogues here.

‘The Father of My Children’ is certainly an accomplished piece of work. The performance of Louis-Do de Lencquesaing as Grégoire (the producer and titular father) is everything it must be. Afterall, it is said (more than once) within the film that his character is charming and charismatic, which he certainly manages to be. He is also warm and funny in the scenes with his children (the eldest of which is played superbly and with real intensity and intelligence by his real life daughter Alice), and this is perhaps the most crucial part of the film. But he is also equally adept at getting across the sense of depression and desperation crucial to understanding the character's eventual suicide.

However, the real stars of this film are the two actresses who play Grégoire’s two younger daughters, Alice Gautier and Manelle Driss. These girls are really natural on screen and provide some really great comic moments as well as helping to ensure the film accurately captures the atmosphere of a family at play. My favourite scene involved these two staging a play in the living room for their parents (in that way little children do) which really captures a sense of pure joy. The film gets things like this absolutely right. Another scene I loved sees the eldest daughter (Alice de Lencquesaing) ordering a coffee in a cafe, only to get embarrassed by all the choices and revert to hot chocolate. It was a wonderful moment that seemed familiar to me, and also said a lot about the character as a girl on the verge of being a gown-up with choices to make and coffee to drink.

The film also manages to tell a story that often goes untold in cinema: that of the sympathetic producer who cares deeply about cinema and wants to make films of artistic worth. Unlike many on screen money men, Grégoire is not brash or calculating and instead we are placed in the position of feeling that his directors, who fail to work to budgets and ultimately cause him to face bankruptcy, are exploitative and often unsympathetic characters.

The pivotal sequence that leads up to Grégoire’s suicide is truly inspired, with the event itself serving as the film’s most poignant image and as a memorable visual highlight, as we see him shoot himself whilst walking away from the camera. As he drops to the floor unceremoniously it is clear that there is nothing romanticised about the act, which is desperate and futile. It is also interesting as it builds to this moment at about the half-way point and then the film re-centres itself around Grégoire’s grieving loved ones. Prior to the suicide Grégoire’s wife promises not to leave him in the tough times ahead and I was choked by the realisation that he in fact leaves her. She is forced to deal with the inevitable bankruptcy he couldn’t bear to face himself as well as a future without a husband and father to her children. But although we are shown the void his death has left in their lives, we also glimpse, in another warm and funny scene of family bonding which involves a black-out, how he is really missing out on his life with them.

If I have a strong criticism of ‘The Father of My Children’ than it is directed at the films cheap sounding musical score which becomes prominent in the film’s second half and sounds like something from a terrible TV movie. The film, at almost two hours, is also a little overlong, with too many scenes involving the future of the bankrupt production company when the human drama is the real draw here. It is also true that Louis-Do de Lencquesaing is so successful at being charismatic as Grégoire that the film misses him just as much as his on-screen family do during the second half.

Overall though, the film was touching, warm and poignant with great attention to detail with regards to its portrayal of a happy family. Something which is too-often cheesy and cliché in the cinema (for some reason the opening of ‘Commando’ (five minutes in) comes to mind here). It also manages to get underneath the skin of an interesting set of characters and takes a mature and considered look at the roots of suicidal depression as well as its ultimate selfishness and futility, and without being judgemental. I recommend this film and eagerly await the next feature from Mia Hansen-Løve.

'The Father of My Children' can be seen at the Duke of York's in Brighton until Thursday and is rated '12A' by the BBFC. You can also currenly catch Jeff Bridges in 'Crazy Heart', which I intend to see tomorrow before going up to London for the premiere of 'Kick Ass'.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

'Shutter Island' review: After due consideration...

I usually review a film the same day as I watch it and I tend to form my opinions pretty quickly. But there was something about Martin Scorsese’s ‘Shutter Island’ (an adaptation of a popular Dennis Lehane novel and his fourth film in a row staring Leonardo Di Caprio) that made me want to take a couple of days out and gather my thoughts. Now that I have done that, I am able to write this review. However, I should probably start by talking about my initial feelings whilst watching the film, as to some extent they differ from my conclusions.

I should preface all my comments by saying that I happened to have four guys sitting in front of me at the cinema, and they kept talking throughout the film. They used their phones and when people asked them to stop making so much noise; they just got louder and louder. To make matters worse, the film was projected quite badly and was out of focus. These things definitely harmed my experience of ‘Shutter Island’, which started to drag in this atmosphere. However, the film must share some of the blame for my discomfort, as I was also disconnected from events by the director’s choices. I find some of Scorsese’s work to be heavy handed (the slow motion shot of a bible falling into water in ‘Gangs of New York’ has always stood out as an example of this in my mind). In ‘Shutter Island’ Scorsese overuses slow-motion and seems to be more interested in creating iconic cinematic images (worthy of an awards show spot, as in the clip above) than in servicing the story he is telling. I felt this most during the film’s many flashback and dream sequences, some of which slow the film down unnecessarily.

I was feeling this mixture of discomfort at my surroundings, irritation at some of the film’s style and boredom at its length, when I was snapped back into consciousness as the film reached its terrific final act and had me completely captivated. The final scenes are superbly executed and shed a new light on everything that has come before. Many reviewers have suggested that the plot is flimsy and that the plot twists are obvious, but I really never knew (and still don’t know) what to think about the truth on Shutter Island, which I can’t go into here. There is a pleasing ambiguity to much of the film and a real sense that everyone is supremely unreliable (including the filmmaker), more so than in any other film I can think of.

There is also a palpable sense of dread for much of the movie. The cast are generally pitch-perfect, with the possible exception of (the usually decent) Michelle Williams, who slips into horror movie cliche in her role as the protagonists deceased wife. Leonardo Di Caprio is perfect in the central role, injecting all the required intensity and hysteria into every scene, whilst Ben Kingsley is perfectly cast as the Asylum’s doctor. Robbie Robertson’s work as music supervisor also helps provide an atmosphere of foreboding, whilst early shots of the island, shown from the point of view of an approaching ferry, recall all the dread of arriving at Skull Island in ‘King Kong’.

The film is as much homage to Scorsese’s influences as anything Quentin Tarantino has directed, but with more sincerity. Many reviewers have noted that there are references to the films of Powell and Pressburger, Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock, whilst the film also owes a sizeable debt to “guilty pleasure” cinema in the form of B movies. But whilst Tarantino’s invocation of the exploitation genre is knowing and almost kitsch, Scorsese manages to invoke a wide range of these “low-culture” movies, whilst still making his movie in complete earnest.

Overall, my current feeling on ‘Shutter Island’ is that it is a very decent film which does a really good job of leading the viewer into questioning the nature of memory and reality. It is often heavy handed and probably overlong, but the more I think about it the more I am convinced that it is an interesting piece of work about madness and the threat of violence from a director whose best work specialises in that subject matter. Whilst it is always tempting to take a recent film from a “great” filmmaker in their twilight years and dismiss it as “minor” work, I feel ‘Shutter Island’ may yet become a key film in the Scorsese canon.

I know am sure my appreciation for the film will grow on subsequent viewings (especially when I can watch it in a more comfortable environment) and I can’t wait until I get to see it again. I will certainly post here when I have done so, should my feelings on the film change. Perhaps it is ultimately fitting that my opinion of this film seems to be changing over time, with my opinion on it about it about as certain as its protagonists fragile grip on reality.

'Shutter Island' is still playing nationwide and is rated '15' by the BBFC. For an almost opposite view to mine, head over to Wrapped in Brown Paper.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

My favourite moguls!

For no particular reason, I've been looking at videos of my favourite fictional (usually cigar-chomping) movie moguls and I'm sharing them with you here!

The 1986 John Landis comedy, 'The Three Amigos', which stars Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short as the titular Amigos, features on of my all-time favourite fake movie moguls. Joe Mantegna is superb as Harry Flugleman. "Take the Amigo's clothes!" is my favourite line in the entire film and I really like how this scene seems to sum up the way stars were used in the old studio system days. Brilliant.

'Barton Fink', the Coen Brother's 1991 film about an East Coast Jewish, intellectual writer (John Turturro) struggling to write a screenplay in 1940s Hollywood, features another fine fake mogul. Here Michael Lerner is great as Jack Lipnick. I like how the image of the movie mogul in this 40s set film is not too dissimilar to the portrayal of the silent era mogul in 'Three Amigos'.

For some strange reason, I'm not allowed to embed this clip of 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit?' here. However, go to this link and skip to the 5.35 mark to see Alan Tilvern as R.K. Maroon (pictured), the head of the fictional Maroon Cartoon studios. I love how he sort of looks like Nixon.

'Singing in the Rain' features Millard Mitchell as R.F. Simpson, an altogether different screen mogul from the rest shown here. Simpson (shown briefly in this trailer, heralding the end of silent pictures) is a kindly and withdrawn figure who generally acts in his star's interests and stands by them. I haven't really seen any other sympathetic film studio heads portrayed in the movies.

Finally, here is a clip of Preston Sturges classic 1941 movie 'Sullivan's Travels'. In this wonderful scene, the studio bosses keep insisting that the worthy movie Joel McCrea's character is trying to pitch contain "a little sex". Sturges is a big influence on the Coen Brothers ('The Hudsucker Proxy' is basically a love letter to him and Capra) and so it is interesting to see how this image of the mogul is similar in some ways to that shown in the Coen Brother's film above, especially as this film was made the same year as that one ('Barton Fink') is set. Jack Lipnick is much more brash than the two seen below, but equally crass.

Hope you enjoyed that! I did anyway...

On a seperate note: I have now seen 'Shutter Island' and I am still mulling it over. I'll post a review in the next couple of days...

Monday, 15 March 2010

Reasons to be cheerful - part 1

I haven't seen any new films since 'Alice in Wonderland' last week (though I may have to go and see 'Shutter Island' today), so I haven't really had anything to write here for since last Wednesday. So, to rectify this, I'll do what I always do when I have nothing to write about... I'll post up some trailers. So here are some trailers for upcoming films to look forward to this year, in no particular order:

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps: I'm not a huge Oliver Stone fan; however I am always interested in him as a chronicler of modern American history. Over his career he has made movies about American wars, presidents and sporting events, which (however flawed) will probably stand the test of time. He made ‘World Trade Center’ just five years after the tragedy, and made ‘W’ whilst George Bush was still in office. ‘Wall Street 2’ is doing the same thing with the recent (current?) economic crisis and, with Carey Mulligan in a supporting role, should be interesting at the very least. This trailer seems to focus on the family drama, but one hopes the film will be a little more about Wall Street.

Inception: I am a big Christopher Nolan fan, so this one is a no-brainer for me. I can't wait to see this movie. I have next to no idea what the hell is happening in this trailer, but I'm sure it's going to be good ('Memento', 'The Prestige' and 'The Dark Knight' weren't bad, afterall).

Tron Legacy: I love how faithful this film looks to be to the 1982 original,which simultaneously advanced computer effects whilst setting them back, due to its dissapointing box office. I can't wait to see Jeff Bridges return as Flynn (with CG work done to make him look like he did in the original!).

Toy Story 3: Another obvious one. I haven't seen a bad Pixar film yet, so I have complete faith in 'Toy Story 3', even though it is the first in the series not to be directed by John Lassester. I'm sure it's in good hands... even if this trailer suggests the humour maybe a little broader this time around.

Cemetery Junction: I still haven't seen Ricky Gervais directoral debut 'The Invention of Lying', which had quite average reviews. However, I am really keen on his second feature from what I've seen. I especially like that Ricky Gervais has seemingly (from the looks of the trailer) cast a lead who understands how to deliver his dialogue in the same way he would himself (much like Woody Allen has done in the past).

Greenberg: I'm not too sure about this from the trailer, but I am a huge fan of Noah Baumbach's 'The Squid and the Whale'. So I remain optimistic about 'Greenberg'.

Four Lions: One of my all-time heroes, Chris Morris (TVs 'BrassEye', 'The Day Today', and ‘Nathan Barley') has followed his frequent collaborator Armando Iannucci (who directed last year’s brilliant ‘In the Loop’) into cinemas, with this satirical comedy about British wannabe suicide bombers. I really, honestly, can’t wait. A friend of mine saw it at Sundance and liked it, so I expect it to live up to my (huge) expectations.

And finally... The Expendables: This looks stupid and will probably be politically offensive in about fifteen million different ways, but it also looks like a lot of 80s-esque action fun. I expect it to be a quotable load of tosh, and from the looks of this trailer it won't disappoint.

I am also looking forward to a number of films which don't seem to have trailers yet, so I'll give a few "shout outs" here: The Coen Brothers have a re-make of the classic Western 'True Grit' coming out this Christmas, staring Jeff Bridges in the role that won John Wayne an Oscar back in 1969. 'Let Me In' maybe interesting: it is the (inevitable) American re-make of the Swedish vampire film, 'Let the Right One In'. It could surprise people. Who knows? 'The Social Network' is also coming out this year. It is directed by David Fincher (who I don't really like) and written by Aaron Sorkin (whose TV work I like, but whose film work always stinks) and is about the founders of Facebook (which sounds like a stupid idea), but I am interested in it against my better judgement.

I'm sure the films which eventually feature on my top ten at the end of this year are ones which are unknown to me at the time of writing. A lot of the best films take you by surprise. But this lot will entertain me for sure.

Also, if you haven't already checked it out, there has been a new edition of the Splendor Cinema/Duke of Yorks podcast up since last week. Jon and I are joined by a special guest to analyse last weekend's Oscar results. Enjoy!

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

'Alice in Wonderland' review: Of with its head!

I would consider myself a Tim Burton fan. Not a massive fan, as he’s made a few films I’m not so keen on, such as the ‘Planet of the Apes’ re-make, ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and ‘Corpse Bride’. But he has also made some films that should be considered classic modern fairytales, such as ‘Beetlejuice’, ‘Edward Scissorhands’ and ‘Big Fish’. He is often dismissively referred to as a visual director, but I take issue with this criticism on two levels. The first is that film is a visual medium, and a director like Burton (or Terry Gilliam, or Guillermo Del Toro), who has a unique visual style and paints with ambition and on a large canvass, should be regarded more highly than they perhaps are. The second is that I usually feel Burton’s visual style is carefully considered and becomes part of the characterisation and emotion of the film. The set direction is part of the acting in Burton. For example, Selina Kyle’s apartment in ‘Batman Returns’ was specially designed to seem claustrophobic and restrictive, which was chosen, to reflect something about the character – and not simply because Burton is obsessed with the visual at the expense of the story.

However, I would agree that Tim Burton has not been at his best this past decade. Whilst his last film, ‘Sweeney Todd’, was by all accounts a sound screen adaptation of the source material, the rest of his output over the last ten years (with the exception of ‘Big Fish’) has been a shadow of his former glory, with most of his time being spent as a hired gun on a number of big studio projects. You could be forgiven for thinking that the interesting director of those early works had disappeared. Unfortunately, this decline has not been halted by his latest film, ‘Alice in Wonderland’, a sort of sequel to Lewis Carroll’s original tale (and possibly to the 1951 animation by Burton’s paymasters at Disney who produced this film).

What little of a plot there is a riddled with holes that I probably shouldn’t go into here (especially with regards to the film’s final act) and many of the action scenes feel shoehorned in and fail to excite in any way (well the film is in 3D, and I’m discovering that 3D loves chases!). The story concerns a young-adult version of Alice, portrayed by the interesting and engaging Mia Wasikowska, who is possibly the only positive thing in this mess of a film. Alice stumbles back into Wonderland (or Underland, as we are told it is really called) whilst trying to avoid making a crucial decision about her future. Once there, Alice again meets, and fails to remember, all the familiar characters from the original tale, among them the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Matt Lucas) and the Mad Hatter, portrayed by Johnny Deep at his most excruciating.

Since his star-making turn in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, this once interesting and versatile actor has become a self-parody and seems to restrict himself to increasingly miss-judged and wilfully bizarre character roles. Whilst he could once be justly considered an impressive emerging actor, he is now just an over actor, and his formerly fruitful partnership with Burton, which has seen him take some of his career best roles (in ‘Edward Scissorhands’, ‘Ed Wood’ and ‘Sleepy Hollow’), has now become a tiresome and predictable bore, with this latest performance being reminiscent of his turn as Willy Wonka in 2005s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’.

Depp’s star power sees the Mad Hatter rise to an undue prominence in this telling of the story this time around and even sees him becoming an unlikely and uncomfortable love interest for Alice. He also switches from a slightly fey, camp accent, to a Scottish one, seemingly at random, throughout the film to my extreme irritation. To make matters worse he breaks into some kind of terrible dance at the films climax, which reminded me of the mid-battle wedding performed in the last ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ film, in that it was another moment where my jaw dropped and I was forced to ask the question “has this film just gotten worse?”. Helena Bonham Carter, who probably gave her best performance for her husband in ‘Sweeney Todd’, is as perplexing as she is embarrassing in ‘Alice’, as she blatantly steals Miranda Richardson’s “Queenie” character from the second series of TVs ‘Blackadder’ to distracting and unsettling effect. It is all as terrible as it sounds, I promise you.

The films main problem lies in its complete lack of engagement with the audience. It is extremely boring and a packed cinema didn’t laugh more than twice during the entire film. I suspect its record opening grosses will not lead to potential “highest grossing ever” figures, as poor word of mouth should sink this film after the first few weeks of business. Maybe this is part of Disney’s thought process behind trying to cut short its time in cinemas and hurry it onto DVD. Probably not, but it should be the reason. I wanted to leave with scarcely half an hour gone and I know I wasn’t the only one (as my girlfriend confirmed for me afterwards).

In Jan Švankmajer's 1988 part stop-frame animated version of the tale (video clip below) the characters and the setting are given an unsettling and dark edge which Burton, freed of the Disney brief, may well have sought to replicate (especially as he has often decried to the Disney original for lacking that same edge). However, the version we have been given in this latest adaptation has no weight to it, with its CGI characters and locations looking like so much visual bubblegum and lacking all required grandeur and wonder. Terry Gilliam had the same problem last year with ‘The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus’, which lacked the usual visceral quality of his work in its imagination sequences, and so Wonderland has the same problem here in terms of tangibility. The tone and feel of the movie is not dissimilar to some beloved 1980s family adventures, like ‘Labyrinth’ and ‘The Dark Crystal’, but without that visceral (almost dirty) quality, and without any charm, it is perhaps not destined to find the same cult audience. It is also the case that 3D, which has worked so well for ‘Up’ and ‘Avatar’, has not been kind of ‘Alice’, which adds an unpleasant eye-strain to the crushing boredom.

Worst of all, none of Carroll’s trademark wit and wordplay is evident in Burton’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’, which is an especially great shame, as that is clearly the highlight of the original stories. It seems that when Burton starts re-imaging older properties, such as Wonka, ‘Planet of the Apes’ and this ‘Alice’ film, he invariably diminishes them. I very much hope his next film is smaller in scale and harkens back to his earlier days, when he seemed like a relevant (possibly even great) filmmaker. For now we can only sit back and mourn his artistic decline, whilst he and Disney laugh all the way to the bank.

'Alice in Wonderland' is playing at multiplexes throughout the UK (despite weeks of grandstanding) and is rated 'PG' by the BBFC. If you want to hand Disney some money, check out 'The Princess and the Frog' which is far better.

Monday, 8 March 2010

'The Princess and the Frog' review:The triumphant return of the Disney animated musical

Not since 2004’s ‘Home on the Range’ has Disney theatrically released a traditional, hand-drawn animated film. You have to go even further back, to 1998’s ‘Mulan’, to find the last musical entry into the Disney “animated classic” canon. Recent years have seen Disney make their own, in-house computer animated films, with mixed results. These have included average films like ‘Chicken Little’ and ‘Meet the Robinsons’, as well as really awful films like ‘The Wild’ and last year’s ‘Bolt’. None of these have been able to match Pixar’s animations in terms of quality or box-office success and they have seen the studio, which of course pioneered the feature-length, animated motion picture, lose their position as the market leader for the first time in their history. As a fan of the classic Disney of yesteryear, and of animation in general, I take great pleasure in welcoming the old Disney back with the hand-drawn, animated, musical ‘The Princess and the Frog’.

‘The Princess and the Frog’ is directed by two heroes of renaissance-era Disney: Ron Clements and John Musker. These co-directors were key figures in a major reversal of fortunes for the Mouse House in the 1990s, with such films as ‘The Little Mermaid’, ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Hercules’. However, they also directed a film that would ultimately contribute to Disney abandoning hand-drawn animation: 2002s ‘Treasure Planet’, which failed to recoup its massive production budget and became a notorious flop. Happily, ‘The Princess and the Frog’ is closer to the folksy charm of those earlier films, than it is to the miss-judged, high-octane antics of that more recent, CG-heavy film.

Like many of the oldest Disney classics (‘Snow White’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Cinderella’), ‘The Princess and the Frog’ is based on an old, European fairytale (The Frog Prince), which in this case finds itself relocated to New Orleans, probably in 1913 (judging by a newspaper declaring that Woodrow Wilson has been elected President), with a hint of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ about it in its depiction of a band of characters on missions of personal fulfilment. Much has been made of its lead character, Tiana, being the first African-American “Disney Princess”, with some commentators finding the film racist, whilst others have accused it of cashing in on fashionable African-American culture. In this area, Disney are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Make Tiana and her family too well-to-do and you’ve ignored centuries of black history, whilst making Tiana poorer than the average Disney “Princess” and you can be accused of reinforcing negative stereotypes. Understandably, Disney have choson to try placing the black characters somewhere between the two extremes, and for my money they have carried this off rather well.

The house in which Tiana’s family live is not squalid or impoverished, yet it is also markedly smaller than that of the wealthy white family for whom Tiana’s mother works as a seamstress. As Tiana and her mother leave that extravagant setting, they walk almost mournfully into the shadows, as the wealthy, white father showers his spoilt daughter with gifts. It is true that there is no obvious sign of racial tension, but the disparity of wealth is not ignored. It may have been sugar-coated, but this is a children’s fairytale and not social-realist drama, after all. My point is, the film does not ignore racial issues altogether.

In fact, some lines exist which do reference Tiana’s ethnic background, such as in the moment where the white realtors (who are denying her a property) tell Tiana that someone of her “background” might be better off staying where she is. There is also a playful line in one of Randy Newman’s excellent songs (and Newman has a history of lyrics which discuss racism, such as 'Rednecks' or 'Sail Away') in which the black voodoo villain, Dr. Facilier (pictured below), asks a white character whether he has a soul (an obvious reference to that black music in inherently soulful). Tiana is also demonstrated to be the hardest working Disney Princess, working two jobs, to save towards her dream of owning her own restaurant, she doesn’t have it easy, but at the same time, there is no explicit reference to underlying social-economic problems. In other words: ‘The Princess and the Frog’ doesn’t ignore social problems, even if it (understandably) chooses not to make a feature of them.

As mentioned, Randy Newman (a frequent Pixar collaborator with scores for ‘Toy Story’ and ‘Cars’) provides some excellent Jazzy songs into the mix, creating a delightful atmosphere reminiscent of ‘The Aristocats’ – a personal favourite of mine – rather than the Broadway-style popular songs that characterised the Ashmen/Menkin era. The fine music compliments the beautiful animation, influenced by the Disney films of the 1950s-era, specifically the look of ‘The Lady and the Tramp’, an influence which is felt most in the films depiction of New Orleans at night. The animation of all the characters (especially the male frog) is superb and performed with a charm and refreshing subtlety. The film also reminded me of Brad Bird’s superior 1999 Warner Bros animation, ‘The Iron Giant’, in the way it discloses the passing of Tiana’s father through the subtle detail of a bedside photo featuring him in military uniform (in Bird’s film you can suppose the father has fallen in Korea, whilst here it seems more likely that the father has been killed during the First World War – another nod in the direction of racial/social politics, as Tiana’s poor, black father is killed, whilst her friends wealthy white father is still very much alive).

There are some awkward moments, as I felt uncomfortable hearing Tiana’s father sermonise about the value of effort and hard work in achieving success (especially as we are told he works triple shifts whilst never achieving his dream), but whilst the film is a little too “American Dreamy” for my tastes, it is ultimately hard to fault the moral: that you have to work hard if you want to fulfil your dreams. In live-action, maybe I would dismiss this movie the way I have dismissed the last few Will Smith vehicles, about upwardly mobile, hardworking believers in the American way of life. But as a handsome 2D animation, with a fantastic score and a delightful cast of characters - who exist on just the right side of “wacky” – ‘The Princess and the Frog’ is a charming and essential new Disney film, and the studios best since ‘Lilo & Stitch’.

'The Princess and the Frog' is rated 'U' by the BBFC and can still be seen in cinema's nationwide, although it must be nearing the end of it's run. Watch this clip, that I'm not allowed to embed, to get a taste of the film. See it whilst you still can. The same goes for the equally terrific 'Ponyo'. If you are interested, below is a 2007 Goofy short Disney made in order to test paperless 2D animation techniques used to make 'The Princess and the Frog'.

'Exit Through the Gift Shop' review: A Wanksy Film (see what I did there!)

I won’t detail my feelings on the “urban artist” Banksy here, due to the fact that they are basically the same as those voiced (in a much funnier way) by Charlie Brooker about four years ago in his Guardian column. I will say that, for me, Banksy is perhaps the ultimate example of the contemporary culture as he exists in a state of ironic detachment, always unaccountable and with an emphasis on style, not simply over, but instead of substance. Banksy is also, paradoxically, famous for being anonymous (an anonymity which he has arguably sort to maintain in order to attract more publicity and greater renown to his art).

Therefore, it came as no surprise watching a documentary titled ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’, billed as “A Banksy Film”, to find a something so intent on being enigmatic, that it is in fact just totally narcissistic (Rhys Ifans narration frequently goes to great lengths to tell us just how vital Bansky is to modern culture). The notion of “A Banksy Film” is also a purposefully vague description as no director has been credited, either in the credits, or on the film’s IMDB entry. Is this satirical comment on the redundancy of auteur theory, or merely a post-modern pose? I suspect the latter, but then am I now falling into a trap by taking this film seriously? The level of detached insincerity on show, for me, constitutes the films major problem, whilst for others it will no doubt be the films crowning achievement.

The "story" is as follows: We learn early on, in a comic twist, that this is not going to be a film about Bansky. Rather we are given a look at an artless pretender to Bansky’s throne as ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ is, (at face value) a documentary chronicling the life and times of Thierry Guetta, a man (who we are told) is obsessed with recording every second of his life on camera. Thierry, from the outset something of a comic figure, somehow bumbles his way into being an insider on the urban art scene, where he eventually meets and befriends Bansky, before becoming an artist in his own right, under the pseudonym “Mr. Brainwash”. How seriously you take any of that is really up to you.

It seems convenient to me that everything "Mr. Brainwash" comes to represent in the film is thrown into stark contrast with the films version of Bansky: "Mr. Brainwash" is all about the money, whereas Bansky (if the mysterious hooded figure even is Bansky) tells us his art is not about money; "Mr. Brainwash" is an overnight sensation, whereas Bansky tells us that he spent years finding his style and perfecting his craft. Essentially the film seems to be telling us one thing: "Mr. Brainwash" is a sell-out and Banksy is not. The whole exercise seems cooked up to legitimise and further mythologize the Banksy business (and it is a business, whatever he says, with this film adding to the books and the Blur album cover). A great deal of time and effort is spent presenting Bansky as the genuine article alongside the delusional, faker that is Thierry Guetta.

However ‘Exit’ is frequently a funny and entertaining film if you are prepared to see it not as a documentary, but as this year’s ‘Le Donk’ or ‘Spinal Tap’. Afterall, the character of Thierry Guetta ticks all the classic mocumentary character boxes, the most obvious one being his lack of self-awareness. He says preposterous things with the appearance complete earnestness. When he begins to market himself as a street artist, it is with the delusions of grandeur common within that comic genre. Of course, reading it as a straight up comedy finds it lacking a little in the laughs department, but it is far more effective as a comedy than as a documentary: containing laughs but no solid documentary data, or even an accountable point of view.

The thing I enjoyed most about the film was its lampooning of art culture. In many scenes, those who think they are in the know demonstrate the vapidity and the falseness of modern art consumption by so-called experts (basically posers). ‘Exit’ shows similar people at Bansky’s own LA exhibition (which boasts celebrity fans and mass-media coverage) to the people it later ridicules at the "Mr. Brainwash" exhibit, prompting the film’s most interesting question: Is Bansky taking a pop at his own fame and his place within the art establishment? Is he bringing down the whole deck of cards with this film (if indeed it is even ‘his’ film)? But to read any of this into ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ may just be playing Banksy’s game. I feel that the truth is that the film, like Bansky’s art, says nothing but that which cultural commentators ascribe it. Maybe as an exercise that sort of thing is fine and valid, but it doesn’t work for me. I feel that for me to analyse this thing too hard is to in some way validate it. And I don’t want to do that because it’s a load of (quite entertaining) toss. Maybe I just don't get it, and he's a genius. But I doubt it.

'Exit Through the Gift Shop' is rated '15' by the BBFC and is currently playing at the Duke of York's Picturehouse in Brighton. Read my Splendor Podcast co-hosts impressions of the film from the Berlin film festival here, whilst another colleague looked at the film way back at Sundance. What glamorous lives they lead...

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Up on the air...

Update: Due to illness the show didn't go out this Thursday. However, I have been told it will be going out next Thursday, and hopefully every Thursday from then on.

Just a quick post to plug my new radio show, which is airing on Thursday mornings at 11 o’clock on Radio Free Brighton starting tomorrow, and can be streamed online. I was very pleased to have two friends of mine as guests on the first show, which was recorded yesterday afternoon. I was lucky enough to be joined by my friends Arabella Stanger and Adam Whitehall (both of whom work with me at the Duke of York’s cinema), who joined me to discuss the 2006 film ‘Juno’, more specifically the idea that it contains conservative themes within the formal trappings of quirky indie comedy. I don’t know that we covered everything we wanted to on this topic within our 30 minute time slot, but we gave it a go and hopefully can provoke some more discussion!

The idea of the ‘Beames on Film’ radio programme is that people from the local community can come on and discuss anything film-related that they feel strongly about. I don’t want this to be a review programme, as I review films on this blog, as well as with Jon Barrenechea in our Splendor Cinema podcast. Rather, I want a forum for in-depth discussion on a range of topics. I have already had some suggestions for future program ideas and I encourage more. In fact I would urge people to visit the Radio Free Brighton facebook page (or e-mail me personally) and make comments on past episodes as well as making suggestions for the future, especially if anyone wants to come on air and dicsuss anything in person. I would love this show to involve the local community as much as possible.

In the mean time, I hope you listen to the show and leave comments here. As I say, the first episode was imperfect due having to get used to how fast a half-hour can go by. But the show will certainly find its feet in the coming weeks (with your help).

Monday, 1 March 2010

'Capitalism: A Love Story' Review: Michael Moore takes aim at the banks

There is a tendency in documentary criticism to laud the films which seem most honest and objective, the films which seem to show you the “truth” of a place or a person, seemingly from a distance, unedited and without judgement. Of course, this is always an illusion, as all film is manipulative to lesser and greater degrees, but films like last year’s mesmerising ‘Sleep Furiously’ do their level best to seem as though you have just been taken to a place and are having a nose around. The same cannot be said of the Michael Moore documentaries (which include ‘Roger & Me’, ‘Bowling for Columbine’, ‘Fahrenheit 911’ and ‘Sicko’), which clearly present a subjective argument and a point of view. This sort of documentary is usually more polarising and less well received, so it goes.

Over time I had allowed naysayers to lead me to doubt whether I had ever liked Michael Moore in the first place. I had seen (and enjoyed) his movies, but the popular feeling amongst my peers seemed to be that he was merely populist, simplistic and brash. There seems to be an embarrassment about Michael Moore, especially from people who share his politics but don’t like him as their spokesperson. It was with this feeling that I went into ‘Capitalism: A Love Story’, expecting to find fault with it. However, it completely sold me on Moore all over again.

‘Capitalism’ is at its strongest when it plays it straight, with most of the comedy falling a little flat, notably in one scene where a Bush speech is given a zany, animated background which just distracts from what is being said (maybe it is intended as a clever device to show literally how we are being distracted by fear... but I doubt it). However, to his credit Moore decides to play it straight most of the time with this film and with quite excellent results. Archive footage of FDR speaking about a planned “second bill of rights” is played in full without any voice-over or music, and is quite something when seen projected in a cinema. Likewise, statistical data is always presented entertainingly, yet delivered earnestly and with clear passion, which is refreshing to see in our increasingly apathetic culture.

The weakest element with ‘Capitalism’ is a familiar one from across the entire Moore filmography, as he has a tendency to allow his films to become quite mawkish. My favourite example of this is in ‘Bowling for Columbine’, as Moore feigns upset and indignation at Charlton Heston’s LA home, demanding he look at a picture of a young girl killed by a gun and *touchingly* placing said picture on the steps of Heston’s house so the camera can find just the right level of poignancy. In this latest film, Moore does seem to linger a little too long on weeping family members being evicted and in one ill-advised scene tells a window that her husband is referred to as a “dead peasant” in a legal document (what is the point here? It is obvious that the term is insulting when we first hear and we gain nothing from making a widow cry about it). Yet, despite a few such moments, ‘Capitalism’ is easily the least mawkish Moore has been and is therefore his most likeable and effective film to date.

However, to focus on this criticism of Moore, is really to sell the film short. There are so many bits where it completely works, and entertains whilst being really informative and persuasive. For example, the documents that Moore highlights relating to a corporate life-insurance scheme (relating to the aforementioned “dead peasants”) are astounding, as is the leaked memo from one giant corporation, which openly speaks of the US as a “plutonomy”, a nation controlled by the wealthy for the benefit of the wealthy (and suggests how to keep it that way). There is also a fantastic sequence that links the rise of Reagan to product placement and advertising, and suggests he was brought in (and controlled) by Wall Street after Jimmy Carter went off-message in regards to consumer culture. I’m sure there are a great many who would contest this theory, and I’m sure the truth is less simplistic, but Moore makes a really compelling case for his argument here. It is also a particular joy to see Moore take the two of the biggest tools in justifying the status quo in American politics – Christianity and patriotism – and to turn them against capitalism, interviewing a Bishop who sees capitalism as a sin, and looking at the constitution to show how un-American capitalism really is, and how the document seems socialist.

It is great to see a film like ‘Sleep Furiously’ (one of my favourite films of last year) and to be given an objective, patient and mannered look at a time and place. But it is equally good to see something this argumentative, which is clearly passionately engaged with its subject. I left the cinema feeling invigorated, feeling I should be more politically active (as with age the apathy has already slowly started to set in) and that must be a good thing. ‘Capitalism’ is a fiery essay, delivered by a master propagandist and manipulator, but it is never less than compelling and exciting, and is a skilful piece of documentary filmmaking. Even if you come away unconvinced or even angered by Moore’s opinions, I for one am very glad he is airing them in this way. Especially on this subject which usually goes un-discussed, yet has such total and invisible control over our everyday lives. The fact that Moore can turn this discussion into populist entertainment is his unique gift and I for one applaud him for it.

'Capitalism: A Love Story' is rated '12a' by the BBFC and can be seen at the Duke of York's Picturehouse in Brighton everyday up to Thursday the 4th of March.