Sunday, 4 December 2011

The Microbudget Conversation

Earlier this week, a piece I wrote for Filmmaker Magazine's Microbudget Conversation was published ( Taking my cue from the use of the word 'conversation' in the series' title, I decided to base my piece on my personal responses to some of the other posts. This led me into a discussion of some of the ideas behind the making of Life Just Is, my belief in the importance of striving for a synthesis of form and content, and the advantages I believe are offered by working from a finished screenplay.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Quote for the Week

'A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips;–not to be represented on canvas or marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself' - Henry David Thoreau in Walden.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

London Film Festival 2011: A Short Round Up

For a number of reasons, I only got the chance to see 25 films at this year's LFF. That small sample, though, was enough for me to realise what a strong programme it was this year (and general consensus among friends seems to suggest I'm not alone in thinking this). A fitting send off, then, for Artistic Director Sandra Hebron, who's done such a brilliant job at the helm over the last nine years.

Among the films I was disappointed to miss were The Kid with a Bike and The Descendants – two new works from directors I admire very much. Of the films I did see, I thought that this year, rather than reviewing them all, I'd do a simple round up of some of my personal favourites. Despite falling into this category, I've excluded The Artist because I've already written about it here.

Starting close to home, there were four films on show which proved the diversity and talent currently on offer in British cinema: Two Years At Sea, Wild Bill, We Need to Talk About Kevin, and Weekend. Perhaps of them all, Will Bill was the biggest surprise for me: council estate crime films are not necessarily a favourite genre of mine. And yet there's something incredibly compelling about Dexter Fletcher's tale of a father reconnecting with his children after being released from prison. The guns and the drugs may be there for those who want them, but at its heart the film is a family drama – and a very good one at that. Making his directorial debut after over 35 years as an actor, Fletcher bringers a visual panache to the proceedings, while also drawing pitch-perfect performances from his outstanding cast.

Wild Bill

Despite being a wildly different film, similar accolades can also be levelled at Lynne Ramsay, whose We Need to Talk About Kevin is also a drama about a parent-child relationship. Beginning with flawless poetic flourishes, I did think the film flat-lined slightly in its middle section, before building to its shattering dénouement. The film went on to win best film at the festival, and although it may not have been the perfect piece I was hoping for, it certainly doesn't feel like an unjustified award given that the film offers further proof of Ramsay's singular directorial vision and confirms her status as one of Britain's most interesting directors. Special mention must also surely be made of its superb sound design.

Poetry of a different kind was also on offer in Ben River's Two Years At Sea, in which a long-take aesthetic builds to sublime moments. Hypnotic though it is right from the off (thanks in no small part to its beautiful black and white photography), it's true that the film's minimalism perhaps works against it amounting to any true sense of profundity. But in its careful observation of man and nature the film does provide a glimpse into the true nature of man.

Two Years At Sea

Andrew Haigh's Weekend, meanwhile, arrived at the festival with a lot of buzz, due in no small part to the fact that it scooped the audience award earlier this year at SXSW. It's not hard to see why. In its story of a one night stand developing into something more in the day(s) that follow, it recalls the former SXSW hit Medicine for Melancholy, though here the focus is on being gay in modern Britain (Nottingham to be exact) rather than being black in modern America (San Francisco). Like Medicine for Melancholy, Weekend is charming, tender and touching, and manages to explore wider social issues cohesively through the relationship of its central characters.

Elsewhere in the festival were new films from José Luis Guerín, George Clooney and Richard Linkater, all of whom regular readers may recognise as being personal favourites of mine. Early reports about Linklater's latest, Bernie, had me worried, but thankfully these worries proved to be unfounded. In its weaving of fact and fiction, interviews and dramatic reconstruction, to tell the story of murderer Bernie Tiede (a career-best from Jack Black), the film manages both a formal and a moral complexity among its deceptively simple and humorous exterior. Clooney's The Ides of March likewise exceeded my expectations. Ever since From Dusk Till Dawn Clooney has been, for me, one of the most enjoyable actors to watch on screen, but as early as his directorial debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, he showed an equally-great confidence on the other side of the lens. This confidence turned into perfection with Good Night, and Good Luck., but the seeming misstep of Leatherheads and the reviews out of Venice seemed to suggest Ides wouldn't match his earlier foray into the political landscape of America. And perhaps it doesn't. But its tightly woven drama still made it one of the most engrossing, complete and satisfactory pieces I saw at the festival.

Correspondence: Jonas Mekas – JL Guerín

I wish the same could be said for the whole of Correspondence: Jonas Mekas – JL Guerín, but unfortunately it's only half true. A serious of video letters between the two eponymous directors, Correspondence shows Guerín to be the true poet of cinema I suspected him to be, but Mekas' sections remain intermittently interesting at best, much like his Sleepless Night Stories, also screening at the festival. Perhaps seeing Correspondence so close to Sleepless Night Stories simply made for Mekas overkill, but it was certainly true that whenever his sections came on I was wishing for a return to Guerín's perfectly crafted images. Still, there are moments within Mekas' material which border on brilliance, but nothing in them comes close to Guerín's scene near the end with some struggling ants, which is undoubtedly among the most beautiful and exciting thing I've seen in a cinema all year.

Over in the archive section was another film from a favourite director: Roberto Rossellini's The Machine that Kills Bad People. An atypical foray into comedic fantasy, the film tells the story of a photographer whose camera kills the subjects of his photographs when the images are re-photographed. While it may not be as great as the masterpieces which surround it in Rossellini's oeuvre (coming as it does between Francesco, giullare di Dio and Europa '51), it certainly doesn't deserve to be as little seen as it is: most of the comedy hits home and the film raises plenty of moral and philosophical questions to churn over. The screening was preceded by a restored colour print of A Trip to the Moon, which, as visually striking as it is, remains, for me, a tad too long to sustain interest. Méliès was both a great innovator and a great filmmaker – I'm just still not convinced A Trip to the Moon is actually his greatest achievement.

The Machine That Kills Bad People

Two films which I feel deserve a special mention here, even if they didn't totally work for me, are Martha Marcy May Marlene and the much-lauded Miss Bala. Martha Marcy was superbly crafted and among the best directed films I saw at the festival, but although the narrative drew me in and pulled me along, I wasn't as taken with it as I was with the technical aspects of the film. Miss Bala, meanwhile, proved to be a little too oblique for its own good: I couldn't quite decide if it was genuinely complex or just a bit of a mess. Neither the story nor the character motivations were ultimately very clear. However, the film was definitely an interesting exercise in restricted point of view, while the long takes and constant shots from behind the protagonist's head were reminiscent of a computer game, thereby implicating the viewer in the film's events in a very clever way.

Silver Bullets

Also something of a mess, albeit this time all the more interesting for it, was Joe Swanberg's Silver Bullets. Those who have been following Swanberg's career will no doubt have certain expectations of his work, but Silver Bullets is something else entirely. Two and a half years in the making, it moves away from low-fi 'naturalism' of Hannah Takes the Stairs et al, in favour of something more along the lines of an expressionist tapestry. There are elements of horror, but if anything it feels more like a return to the experimental mode of filmmaking found in Kissing on the Mouth and LOL, Swanberg's first two features. Whether the film truly works is something which, if I'm honest, is up for debate: the music is too overbearing and there's a slight lack of overall cohesion which may well be the result of the film's torturous production process. But while it may not be Swanberg's most successful film in some respects, I can't help but feel that it may well be his most engrossing, fascinating, original and rich. As I've discussed previously, I think of Swanberg as an 'ideas based' filmmaker, and I think the ideas found in Silver Bullets are among his most interesting yet: there seems to be a genuine probing of the filmmaking process, and an almost-scathing, self-depreciating look at his own approach to it (it seems, at times, like the film is picking up on the autobiographical elements of Alexander the Last and peeling back the layers of metaphor to revel in an even more revealing attempt at self-understanding). I would say that it would be interesting to see where Swanberg goes from here, but since completing the film Swanberg has already completed a further four films. One of these, Uncle Kent, screened back-to-back with Silver Bullets at LFF. It was a charming and endearing film, if a little slender when viewed against the weight of Silver Bullets. If he continues at this rate of output, keeping up with his films may prove something of a challenge, but on the strength of the two on show here, it'll definitely be a challenge worth taking on.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

A Blog Posts About Blog Posts...

Over the last few days I've written and filmed a few blog posts for other places, so thought it might be worth doing quick round up here...

First up, here's a piece I wrote on what I learnt about the art of screenwriting from the recent BAFTA and BFI Screenwriters' Lecture Series, while here's a piece on the cancellation of the 2012 Birds Eye Film Festival.

Next, here's a Vlog of a short talk I wrote on transmedia. A text version of the Vlog can be found here, and I've also embedded the video below.

Finally, there's also a new Life Just Is Postproduction Vlog, which you can watch here.

Friday, 21 October 2011

The Artist (LFF 2011)

Anyone who's ever spent even a tiny bit of time reading this blog will know that I'm more than a little partial to cinema from the silent era. So it's only natural that I'd get a little bit excited when buzz started emanating from Cannes earlier this year about a silent film. Even more tantalising, though, was the fact that this buzz was not focused around a film from before the invention of the talkies, but the world premiere of a brand-new film: The Artist, directed by Michel Hazanavicius. To some, the idea of a modern-day silent might seem like madness, but as someone who still believes that many of the most interesting, imaginative and exciting films predate the 1930s, I started to wonder if this could be the rebirth of a glorious, and unfortunately all-but-lost, form of filmmaking. The fact that it's not the only silent film made in the last year supports this hope.

So, naturally, when the film received its UK premiere at the London Film Festival earlier this week I jumped at the chance to see it. I'd been worried that the film's subject and setting – it's the story of a silent film actor chewed up and spat out by the invention of the talkies – might prevent the film from ever rising above the level of parody, and it's true there's a definite element of this. The film also never lets you forget that it's a silent work in a sound age, with repeated intertitle jokes about 'not talking' ultimately proving a little too knowing for the film's own good. But these minor grumbles aside, the thing that struck me about the film is just how well it will play to a number of different audiences...Serious film fans will love it by default (or, at the least, the idea of it) while more general film fans will revel in its gorgeous visuals, its light-hearted humour, its warming romance and its superb performances. For all its supposed-boldness, it's an incredibly accessible film destined to no-doubt win over any viewer willing to give it a chance. Yes, it's far from perfect and at time strays a little close to cliché and sentimentality, but it's also a damn good ride by any standards, and the fact that it's silent only serves to make it all the more loveable.

Whether it will have the desired effect of opening the floodgates for more modern-day silents remains to be seen. The fact that it plays so well will encourage good word of mouth and (hopefully) a good box-office will follow. However, its subject matter and continued flirtation with knowing parody means that it's impossible to take it too seriously as a precedent for how further modern-day silents would fare. It's also true that, as perfectly crafted as it is, the filmmaking never enters truly exciting territory (compare, for instance, the cinema-going scenes here with the one found in
Anthony Asquith's A Cottage on Dartmoor).

Still, whatever its ultimate impact on the world of film, The Artist remains one of 2011s most enjoyable and interesting films so far. Let's hope it finds the success it deserves.

Monday, 12 September 2011

London Film Festival Previews

Well, it's that time of year again: one month today the 55th BFI London Film Festival begins. I'm not sure how much of the festival I'll be able to do this year due to other commitments, but I have written two previews of what looks like an excellent programme. The first was for Film Pilgrim, and can be found here. The second was for the SFFL blog, and can be found here. Based on the lineup, I'm sure it'll be a great festival, and a fitting send-off for departing artistic director Sandra Hebron.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Quote for the Week

'Can anything be more idiotic than certain people who boast of their foresight? They keep themselves officiously preoccupied in order to improve their lives: they spend their lives in organising their lives. They direct their purposes with an eye to a distant future. But putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune's control and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately' - Seneca, On the Shortness of Life, page 13 of the Penguin Great Ideas edition (trans. C.D.N. Costa).

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Quote for the Week

'Conceived as a partner piece to the David, Bandinelli's Hercules and Cacus (1534) was designed as a personal emblem of Cosimo I and a symbol of Florentine fortitude. Benvenuto Cellini described the musclebound figure as looking like "a sackful of melons", and it's a sobering thought that the marble might well have ended up as something more inspiring. In the late 1520s...Michelangelo offered to carve a monumental figure of Samson to celebrate the Republic's latest victory over tyranny; other demands on the artists time put paid to this project, and the stone passed to Bandinelli, who duly vented his mediocrity on it' – The Rough Guide to Tuscany & Umbria, page 88.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Quote for the Week

'Today's almost hysterical, show-you-everything, keep-the-camera-moving, handheld, cutting-every-second style deprives the viewer of our trust in them' - Todd Haynes, quoted in All That the Miniseries Allows by Isable Stevens in Sight & Sound August 2011.

Student Film Festival London / Dominic Allan Interview

Alongside working on the postproduction of Life Just Is and shooting a music video for the Ginger Wildheart Mutation project, I have also recently started working as a programmer at Student Film Festival London. Last week, as part of my work there, I did an interview with Dominic Allan, director of Calvet (which I reviewed here). The interview, conducted over Skype, has become my first podcast. You can download it from the SFFL blog, here, or listen to it on MUBI, here.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Quote for the Week

A notice posted on the box office of the Avon Theater in Stamford, CT.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Quote for the Week

'No, that would be a shocking waste of an opportunity' – Sergei Eisenstein to Thorold Dickinson, in response to Dickinson asking Eisenstein if he ever edited in such a way as to make the cut 'invisible'.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

The Anxiety of Identity

A few weeks ago a friend and fellow film-lover turned 44. To celebrate the occasion he arranged a little shindig, which I duly attended. As so often happens when film-obsessives get together, the conversation soon turned to what we'd been watching recently. I explained that since the start of the year I've been slowly working my way through the history of British cinema, starting in the late 1890's (I'm currently slowly approaching the 1950's). As a British filmmaker, I explained, I can't help but feel it necessary to have an understanding of British cinema – for, whether I like it or not, this is presumably one of the main contexts in which my films will be judged (although I think my reason for wanting to watch these films does go beyond it an interest in gaining a better understanding of my own national filmic identity, perhaps? I mean, it can't really all just be kitchen sink dramas, romantic comedies and stuffy period pieces can it?).

After I'd finished saying all this, a friend of my friend asked me some interesting questions, such as: 'Will your films really be judged in that context?' and 'Even if they are, is it really necessary for you, as the filmmaker, the artist, to understand that context anyway?'.

For me, the first question was easy to answer: yes, it's inevitable. Films are nearly always judged in the context of their national cinema, albeit, of course, amongst other contexts too, such as, say, genre (a notion I'll return to in a minute). The second question, though, was more complicated.

I suppose, in a way, it opens up wider questions about authorship and audience reception, such as the clash between auteur theory and the poststructuralist murdering of the author (for if a text is rendered authorless then the author's knowledge of context surely becomes irrelevant), but the question also reminded me of a conversation I had with another filmmaker a few years ago. Unlike me, this filmmaker wasn't particularly passionate about cinema. In fact, he told me he didn't really watch films. Whether out of embarrassment or genuine belief I don't know, but the reason he gave me was that he didn't want to become 'contaminated': by not being influenced by other filmmakers, he claimed, it would be easier for him to hit upon something original in his own work.

I've written on here before
about the anxiety of influence and the impossibility of being original, so perhaps, in his own way, he's on to something. But I can't help but feel that if you don't know what's already been done you also don't know what hasn't already been done: so surely it's just as hard to be original? And besides, a love of cinema history hasn't exactly done Scorsese's work or career any harm, has it?

But back to the point. Earlier on I mentioned genre, which might be a useful context to examine here. By definition, genre films work by playing up to – or, on occasion, subverting – a familiar set of tropes. When films do this well they are often bold new takes on the familiar, when they fail they are often formulaic and cliché-ridden. The point, though, is that, more-or-less, the audience knows what they're getting: a comedy will make them laugh, a horror will frighten them, etc. In order to make a genre film, therefore, surely you have to understand the genre, the context, in which your film will be judged? And surely this understanding requires a knowledge of previous works in (previous entries into) that genre?

Although national identity may not be as strong a set of codes as genre, it does none-the-less still come with its own set of expectations (see, for instance, the joke I made at the start of this post about 'kitchen sink dramas, romantic comedies and stuffy period pieces', which, of course, references standard conceptions of what British cinema is supposed to be).

I'm still not sure that I've come up with a satisfactory answer to that second question, so unfortunately I can't end this post with a concrete argument. But I suppose the point that I'm trying to make is that, like genre filmmakers, national filmmakers surely need to know the context in which their films are made so that, whether they conform or subvert (consciously or unconsciously) their national traditions, they can none-the-less at least understand how the film will be perceived by audiences...and surely that is the responsibility of all filmmakers, regardless of nationality or artistic ambition?

Thursday, 31 March 2011

Quote for the Week

'It's the margin that holds the book together' – Jean-Luc Godard to Agnès Varda, as quoted in Sight & Sound, April 2011, page 10.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

The Turin Horse

Back in December 2008, I posted a blog inspired by the 'sublime' trailer for Béla Tarr's The Man from London. Well, the Hungarian maestro has done it again: it's been a long time since I've been as excited by a trailer as I am by the trailer of his new film, The Turin Horse, embedded below. I suspect a lot of people will scoff, but I honestly think this is brilliant. Early reports out of Berlin, where the film has just premiered, suggest it's excellent, if extremely bleak. I've stated before on this blog that I consider Tarr to be the greatest living filmmaker, and, hyperbole aside, it does seem that he's in a league of his own... I'm not exaggerating when I say I literally can't wait to see this. If I'd taken in that it was screening in Berlin a little earlier I may well have flown out especially. Let's just hope it hits the UK soon.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Quote for the Week

'"Theatre is based on the assumption of its own falsity...and through that falsity you can express truth. In cinema, the raw materials are always fragments of reality. Whether you shot a person, a stone or a tree, it has a real material existence in the world. But cinema also enables you to make the audience aware of hidden spiritual energy in the material things that you shoot"'. Eugène Green, quoted in Spirit level by Mar Diestro-Dópido in Sight & Sound February 2011.

Monday, 3 January 2011

My Top Films of 2010

Just over a week ago Directors Notes published my Top Ten Films of 2010. As in previous years, however, I decided to wait until 2010 was well and truly over before posting my list here. Since the DN list was published I've been able to catch up on some of the much-loved films from 2010, so I'm glad I waited...even if only one of them penetrated my top ten (it really does appear to have been a year of overrated, mediocre work – and certainly a much weaker year than either 2008 or 2009, at least judging by what I've seen: even with my last-minute catch up there were still a number of films I didn't get to see which I wish I had, including I Know You Know, City of Life and Death, The Social Network, Carlos and The Arbor). As well as containing my original top ten list, the DN piece also includes my comments on nine of the ten films I've included in my 2010 list below, so swing by and check it out.

As with
last year, I have also included a list of 'The Best Films from Previous Years that I Saw for the First Time in 2010'. This time round I decided to limit myself to one film per director, so in a way Mamma Roma also stands for Oedipus Rex, and The Circus also stands for The Kid. I should also point out that I've included Metropolis as I'm considering the restoration a new film in its own right - hence it can take the number one spot even though I've seen previous versions of the film before. Maybe this is cheating, but it's my blog with my rules so I don't care...

Where applicable titles link to pieces I've written on the films, while all director names link to their IMDb profiles.

My Top Films of 2010
01) The Days of Desire (dir. József Pacskovszki)
If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle (dir. Florin Şerban)
03) Lion's Den (dir.
Pablo Trapero)
My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (dir. Werner Herzog)
05) Agora (dir.
Alejandro Amenábar)
Shutter Island (dir. Martin Scorsese)
07) Kick-Ass (dir.
Matthew Vaughn)
08) The Island (dir.
Pavel Lungin)
09) Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (dir.
Craig McCall)
Undertow (dir. Javier Fuentes-León)

Special mention: Revolución. Even though the majority of this portmanteau film failed to impress, it gave
Fernando Eimbcke the chance to once again prove himself as one of the world's best young directors.

The Best Films from Previous Years that I Saw for the First Time in 2010
01) Metropolis (1927, dir. Fritz Lang)
02) Mamma Roma (1962, dir.
Pier Paolo Pasolini)
03) The Leopard (1963, dir.
Luchino Visconti)
04) The Beekeeper (1986, dir.
Theodoros Angelopoulos)
The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928, dir. Germaine Dulac)
06) The Bride of Glomdal (1926, dir.
Carl Th. Dreyer)
07) The Circus (1928, dir.
Charles Chaplin)
08) A Man Escaped (1956, dir.
Robert Bresson)
Private Road (1971, dir. Barney Platts-Mills)
The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (1958, dir. Karel Zeman)

Special mention: Bridge to Terabithia (2007,
Gabor Csupo), for being a kid's film with enough intelligence and emotional pull to outshine most 'grownup' fantasy dramas being made these days.