May 31, 2011

23.05: LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (catch-up classic)

David Lean’s celebrated epic played at the Embassy Theatre a few years ago, and I passed up the opportunity to see it there. Perhaps that was for the best, as I wonder if my cinematic tastes were matured enough. So, when it made a recent welcome return to the (rather smaller) Paramount cinema I made sure I got along. And though it was wonderful to be seeing it in a cinema at all, on a restored 35mm print, I only wished I’d seen it on the huge Embassy screen and preferably in a 70mm print as Lawrence of Arabia is one of the few films shot in that massive format. Still, it was... well, I think I'm still absorbing it. You can see why Mr. Spielberg admires it.

I honestly cannot see a film like this being made today. It is epic in length and epic in the breadth of themes and ideas. Most films made to a similar length today have considerably more whiz and bang crammed in. With a film like this, I barely feel qualified to offer my opinion on it. Lawrence of Arabia is one of those giants of cinema; a film that has been discussed, critiqued and celebrated by pens mightier than mine. I shall do what I can.

Quite possibly the most fascinating aspect of the story for me was the overall arc; Lawrence tells the story of a man, an army clerk, who becomes a fierce hero and legend to a disparate group of peoples. But it doesn’t just stop at elevating him to hero status (usually where these types of films end off) but also goes on to show Lawrence struggling with that status. He is visibly coming apart at the seams, yet is forced back to the desert; forced back to his duty. He begins his hero’s journey jaunty with British oddity and eccentricity and as he moves farther away from that and deeper into the desert and desert life, you see that oddity giving way to something entirely different. Arrogance, perhaps. Stunning self belief for one. I know nothing about the real T. E. Lawrence, and from what I understand not many people do; the man was something of an enigma. Within the film, he is a contradictory character, larger than life but recognisably human and Peter O’Toole grasps with the role with hands, feet and teeth. His blue eyes stare out from the desert, piercing you. You can see, from his eyes alone, when he has snapped; when his great boy's own adventure gives way to ugly, bloody real life.  

Make no mistake, Lawrence of Arabia is a huge film. The landscapes are vast; the sandy dunes stretch for miles and strand the tiny figures of people within them. Accordingly, it's influence matches. Not only is Spielberg a fan (reportedly watching it each time before he makes a new film, to comfort himself that he will never make anything as great) but you can see where Lucas grabbed some shots for Star Wars and, because I'm a sci-fi nerd, I'll throw in Frank Herbert and Dune. Herbert's seminal sci-fi novel/series drew on many influences but I couldn't help but see the parallels of a white, middle to upper class white man coming to the desert and becoming a warrior saviour to a disparate group of desert people. 

Lawrence of Arabia swept me up into the journey; I all but forgot the rather exhausting run-time (intermission was a well timed and much needed respite). I am a stickler for film prints over digital projection, especially when it comes to classic films. But, for the first time, I really craved that crisp, clear picture you get with digital. It was an amazing print, especially for being over 20 years old, but there were marks and scratches all through the sweeping desert shots. I'd recommend seeing it on the biggest screen possible, in the best image quality possible.

May 26, 2011


As those of you speak French (or read, or have access to Babel Fish) would know, Honour Among Thieves is not the literal translation of the title for this classy 1950's French noir. No, the literal translation of Touchez pas au grisbi is more along the lines of "Hands off the loot". Both, however, are fairly apt descriptors of the shadowy plot.

This is a film, decades before Tarantino and Reservoir Dogs, that is not about the heist but rather what happens after. Of course, Dogs was concerned entirely with the fallout of a heist gone wrong and Tarantino made liberal use of flashbacks and violence. This is a much slower affair. Director Jacques Becker set everything up at his own, measured pace; we're given time with tired (and semi-retired) gangster Max and his best friend Riton. They're old buddies and old schoolers and, after pulling off a 50 million franc heist (I think - the subtitles seemed to keep getting the denominations mixed up) are getting ready to call it a day. But Riton, the poor sap, mentions it to his young showgirl girl-friend. She in turn tells Angelo, her beau and a drug pushing gangster on the rise. Angelo, being a young and greedy son-of-a-gun decides he wants the gold loot for himself. 

And here's one of the things I loved most about the film: we don't see Angelo plotting and scheming with his underlings. No, he just starts moving in on Max and Riton and Max really only cottons onto things by sheer luck. Within the film, events are moving along hunky-dory at first and then bam! Max is being tailed, there's tension, there's gunfire and urgent telephone calls... I haven't experienced much else in the realm of French noir, but Touchez pas au grisbi is quite different to the American noir I've seen.

Touching on the work of Tarantino again, Max is almost a template for that ultimate cool cat Tarantino character, the Wolf. Max, like the Wolf, is caught in nothing less than a suit, keeps his head under pressure (unless someone needs a slapping around) and is generally an all over smooth operator and badass. He’s also got something of a soft side, with his concern for Riton being genuine. Of course, this doesn’t stop him from playing all the angles in his attempt to get his friend back and keep the gold.

This has been one of the most enjoyable films at Film Society so far, even given it’s slow pace. Not much of the plot was surprising (in that, once it gets going you can guess at where it must inevitably end up) but the way it played out with such panache and wit made it a fine time at the cinema. It's one I would recommend any lover of noir, cinema or French films to seek out.

May 20, 2011

48 Hours (not starring Eddie Murphy or Nick Nolte)

Final entry: I just wanted to point you towards my friend (and fellow team-member) Chris' blog and his wrap-up of not only this year's 48Hour weekend, but all of our 48Hour entries. You can find his surprisingly well written (for a Sunday night after a weekend with little to no sleep) entry here.

Sunday 8:02pm: well, some technical issues with the export to tape aside (aren't there always? Yes. There are) there were absolutely no problems with finishing our editing. This was a bizarre feeling.

Even stranger was handing our film in at 6:30pm a full half hour before the end of the Challenge. So three team members, a fairly carefree attitude and a DSLR camera lead to a successful weekend.

V48Hours Filmmaking Challenge: job done. 

Sunday 7:45am: due to technical computer issues I have no hope of understanding, I had to select all the takes I wanted last night and have them render overnight. Am now about to head off and begin the actual editing. 

Damnable computers.

Saturday 9:45pm: principal  photography finished. Is this the earliest we've ever finished filming for 48? Possibly. Am just glad to have my pants on. To the edit!

Saturday 7:15pm: no Rapture. Still filming

Saturday 5:50pm: only a few minutes left until the Rapture comes along to spoil our filming.

It's been a great reminder, so far, of how much I love making short films. From the initial scripting stage; those minutes or hours worrying and fretting over what the hell is about that moves so quickly and silently into a free flow of outrageous, crazy and great ideas. And then the next day trying to realise those insane moments and images you conjured up the night before. All with a crew of two.

Saturday 1:10pm: first scene shot! We are a go! It's somewhat strange being in front of the camera, rather than behind it. We'll see the extent of my acting abilities when I have to deliver some actual dialogue. Ruh-roh.

Feeling pretty good about our day so far - two man crew and we're taking it pretty cruisey. We'll see how that's working out for us in 12 hours time. My bet? We'll be fine as! It's all about having a bit o' fun, right?

Saturday 8:37am: Good morning. Breakfast. Coffee. Coffee especially. A decent sleep (and coffee) is necessary for a full day's filming, followed by a full night's editing. 

And it looks like I'll be acting in this film too. This should be... interesting. The last significant bit of acting I did was in this. We'll see how it goes...

Friday 11:52pm: script completed. Time for bed. Yes, sleep time!

Friday 10:30pm: the competition has begun! We have our assigned items and genre and we are off! The things we have to include this year are a Character by the name of Bobby/Bobbi Young, an ex-bully; a bent piece of wire; the line of dialogue "What have you got?" and all films must end on a freeze frame. Genius! Our genre for this year is Mystery. There was another good selection of 12 genres this year, and I'm only sorry we missed out on getting something like the Quest film, or One Room Setting (mixed with another genre from the list). 

We have our idea (after a particularly good brain-storming session) and it looks like it could be a corker. I won't spoil anything here but I'll say I'm quite looking forward to seeing how it all comes together. 

Right. On to writing the script. Wooo!

Friday 5:00pm: am about to head off to the Launch of the competition. The day didn’t start with the best signs: had an awful dream last night about the 48Hour.

I was on my way to the Launch location when I decided to meet my teammate, C, at his work. There he showed me the finished Team Intro we had to have and he had edited. He had completely cocked it up. Instead of being a short, snappy piece it was slow, turgid and filled with weird shots we hadn’t actually shot. I didn’t say anything but we ended up faffing about and talking. Looking at my watch I saw it was 6:15pm. We had missed the Launch!* We were panicking. I was freaking out. We were trying to work out a way to fix this; contact the Wellington organiser and get our genre, check the website, PANIC AND FREAK OUT?!

Thankfully, like a cop-out ending, it was all a dream. I awoke shaken, heart palpitating, but thankful it was still Friday morning. This hadn't actually happened. I can only hope the weekend is nothing like my tortured subconscious.

*You have to make it to the Launch location before 6:00 as the doors are then shut no-one in or out, ‘til 7:00.

May 19, 2011

09.05: WENDY & LUCY

Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy & Lucy (that played as part of the Wellington Film Society programme) is not an easy watch. Nothing gut wrenchingly awful or grotesque happens. In fact, the story is deceptively simple: Michelle Williams is Wendy; a young woman escaping from, or running to somewhere. She’s living pretty close to the line, sleeping in her car and washing in service station bathrooms. Her only companion is her dog, Lucy. The entire film takes place in a small no-name American town the two stop in and the plot consists of Lucy going missing and Wendy’s search for her. Wendy & Lucy is a tough watch because it’s so unrelentingly downbeat.

I don’t if you could call what Michelle Williams does here acting, as she just seems to be Wendy – skinny tomboy on the skids, a down-and-outer on the road, her only companion a dog named Lucy and poverty breathing down her neck (that almost sounds like Bruce Springsteen lyrics). She’s a difficult character to root for; the film takes place over a small period of time, with little back-story given. Wendy is something of a blank presence, quiet and with minimal facial expression as Williams internalises almost all of her emotions. There aren't too many other characters and those that are there drift in and out, offering unlooked for advice and commentary. The most sympathetic character turns out to be the old security guard who himself was initially unhelpful. And the wonderful Will Patton as a mechanic aside, there are no other recognisable actors.

Everything in the film is fairly muted, from the cinematography to the soundtrack. But it’s also a pretty harsh commentary on modern America, as Wendy is initially punished for a minor bit of shoplifting by an uptight and small minded young man. It's no accident he prominently wears a Christian cross but has no interest in leniency or forgiveness. Once Lucy goes missing almost no-one offers assistance to Wendy and when they do, it's not much more than the bare minimum.

Which is not to say I wouldn't recommend it. It’s a quiet film, comfortable taking things at its own pace. It's not a laugh-a-minute, nor does it have explosive special effects to wow your eyes, but you might take something more from it. Granted, you may find there isn't actually much else going on below the surface; that the whole film is exercise in indie bleakness and not much else. But, I feel, it's worth a chance.

An Epic Weekend

In 24 hours (or so, depending when you're reading this) I and my team-mates in ICW Productions are gearing up, once again, for the utter madness that is the V48 Hours Furious Filmmaking Competition.

A quick explanation of the Competition: each year teams across NZ are challenged to write, shoot and cut a short film (of 1 – 7 minutes in length) over the course of a weekend. On the Friday night each city’s worth of teams are given a character, line of dialogue and prop that must appear in the film. Each team is also assigned a genre to work in. Come 7pm on Friday you are released out into the night to brainstorm, write, argue, shoot, collapse, act, explode, import, edit, argue again, crash, re-edit, race and finally, deliver, your short film. They must be handed in at 7:00:00pm on the Sunday night. One second late is too late.

In previous years we’ve worked in Musical, Buddy Film, Based on a True Story and Time Travel. Each has offered up its own challenges and frustrations. But I think, every time, we’ve come out with a pretty decent little film. Yeah, they haven’t been perfect – you only have 48 hours after all! We’ve not made it past the initial Heats but, frankly, that’s not why we do it. We don't do it for the fame or the prizes or the glory. Nah, we just do it for fun. And to make a movie like this: 

Adding to the challenge this year is that we are somewhat bereft of most of our usual collaborators: they’re all out of town or otherwise unavailable. So we’re down to a core team of three; the Indian, Chinaman and White Guy of our team name. We’ve lucked out in getting a couple of wonderful actors in to help us, but the rest of the weekend will be down to us. I think it’ll give us the chance to perhaps be more flexible and hopefully lead to quicker turn-around in set-ups and shooting. For the first time we’ll be shooting on a DSLR camera and, also for the first time, the preferred hand-in method is on a USB stick.

It should be a fun, exhausting and challenging weekend and I’ll also be adding an entirely unnecessary extra challenge for myself: live blogging. I can't promise up-to-the-minute updates, but when I can I will!

And as if all that wasn’t enough, the Paramount cinema begins its David Lean season this weekend! Over the coming weeks they’ll be showing Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter and A Passage to India. I’ve taken Monday off work to recover from the 48Hour and I’ll be getting along to Lawrence of Arabia in the afternoon. I understand they’re all prints as well.

Perhaps I should finish it all of with a pint of suitably Epic beer

What about you? Are you involved in the 48 this year? Have an epic cinema weekend planned? Or just fixing on having an epic weekend of epic proportions?

May 17, 2011


I'm just pleased to finally be posting this ace
poster by Olly Moss
I am a big fan of Duncan Jones’ debut feature, the Sam Rockwell starring Moon. It was a low-fi effort, more interested in tackling ideas than explosions and helped to kick-start the low budget intelligent sci-fi mini-golden age we have going on (see also Monsters and the forthcoming Another Earth). It was one of my favourite films of 2009 and I was intrigued to see what Jones would do with a more Hollywood styled film. Off the bat, you can see he has an obvious love of the old, 70’s sci-fi films with the opening music putting in my mind of the great, atonal Planet of the Apes score. The film manages to be a step up for Jones, while offering a different flavour than Moon but losing none of the intelligence.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Colter Stevens (awesome name), a US Air Force helicopter pilot who finds himself aboard a Chicago-bound train and sitting across from a beautiful woman he doesn’t know, but knows him (…sort of). Stevens has actually been jumped into the body of teacher Sean Fentress in the last eight minutes of his life; Stevens is in “the source code”. The source code deals with quantum wave functions and other techno-sci-fi waffle that serves to get us into the plot: Stevens is part of an experimental US Air Force programme and his mission is to find and identify (not stop; it's already happened) the train bomber. He is sent back to relive the same eight minutes again and again and again; the bomber has threatened to detonate a dirty bomb in Chicago and time outside of the source code is running out. It doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense if you think about it for too long, but the science is hardly the point of it; it’s like a more intense Quantum Leap, if each episode ended in an explosion.

In the course of his leaps back Stevens falls for the woman across from him, Michelle Monaghan's Christina. So he not only tries to identify the bomber, but save her too. As he is repeatedly told by his Air Force liaison (Vera Farmiga) and the crack-pot source code inventor (Jeffrey Wright), this is impossible; the source code is not time travel but “time re-assignment”. Events have happened and cannot be changed. Or rather, it is the outcome that cannot be changed as Stevens is altering the environment just by being there. Ok. I’m starting to bake my noodle thinking about this; writing about it I feel like my brain has set itself into some sort of continual loop. I’ll try simplifying it: source code TIME TRAVEL BODY JUMPING! Gyllenhaal GOOD! Monaghan GOOD! Farmiga CLASSY! Wright SCIENTIST DOUCHEBAG! Jones AWESOME! Source Code WELL MADE INTELLIGENT POPCORN SCI-FI FILM! Watch now pleasethankyou.

Ahem. Its interesting watching as the central relationship between Colter and Christina develops over the course of the film; in relative terms it happens in a very short space of time. But we experience it as Stevens does, linearly, over the course of the film and we can see it changing and growing. That’s an achievement in of itself really, but Jones tops that by making the final eight minute trip (the nth repeat of the same timeframe) no less thrilling, perhaps even more so, than the first time.

I get the feeling that Source Code is a film that could have easily been something a lot less interesting, a lot less intelligent, with another director. Jones quite handily steps up his game and proves himself with a more commercially minded, but no less smarter, film. Source Code isn’t faultless but it’s a fun, thrilling ride with a sci-fi taste and made by people who actually give a damn. Not to get all grumpy old man on you, but we need more films based on original concepts, and made by directors with a personal vision. I look forward to Duncan Jones' next.

May 16, 2011

01.05: THOR

It's taken me awhile to get to this, with finishing up my write-ups for the World Cinema Showcase, and launching my Quest for the Fest but I've been looking forward to writing up my thoughts on the latest Marvel Movie. I'm sure you've read one of the plenty of reviews out there, or even seen it for yourself but for what they're worth here are my impressions. 

First up: I'm a Marvel comic-book guy. Much is made of the difference between those who read DC comics (Batman, Superman, Green Lantern etc.) and those who read Marvel comics (Spider-Man, X-Men, Captain America etc.). I'm not really sure what that difference is, but it's there. I really dig a lot of the DC characters but they can (and this may sound strange when talking of comic-books) tend towards the more outlandish, whereas the Marvel characters have been a little more... down-to-earth. 

And then, I guess, there's Thor. Thor is, not to put too fine a point on it, a god. The Norse god of thunder, storms and the protection of mankind to be exact (I am also something of a myth geek). In his time, he was a very popular god. The Marvel comic-book version of the hammer wielding deity is somewhat different (though, surprisingly, with a lot of similarities). And as much as I appreciate and dig the very human-ness of the rest of Marvel's stable, I wanted something otherworldly with this film. Quite frankly, I was expecting Flash Gordon with a grandiose, Shakespearean twist. And Thor delivers.

It hasn't been given away much in the advertising, but Branagh and co. have really embraced the balls-out ridiculousness of the realm of Asgard (home of the gods) while grounding it in (and introducing it to) the Marvel Movieverse. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) begins the film as a prince of Asgard and first in line to the throne, although he displays an arrogance and hot-headedness that gets him into trouble. After a particularly foolish and brash act that threatens to begin anew the war against the Frost Giants, Thor's father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) tosses him out from Asgard to learn humility on Earth. Thor's brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) schemes and plots to take the throne for himself while Thor runs into beautiful astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman).

A fairly simple set-up really, and what I appreciated was the fact that this was not an origin story; this is not how Thor becomes the thunder god as he always has been. This is Thor learning what it takes to be a hero. And Hemsworth (formerly of Aussie soap Home and Away and Capt. Kirk's ill-fated dad in the new Star Trek) carries the role with bravado. His arrogant braggadocio of the first act Thor doesn't tip over into him becoming an asshole and he's a lot of fun to watch, especially in the first major action set-piece as he laughs and twangs Frost Giants about. He's so much fun, I actually came to miss him once stripped of his powers and humbled. And as much as the film is the development of Thor into a hero, it is equally a film of Loki becoming a villain. Hiddleston was an unknown quantity to me going in; as new as Hemsworth was I felt he'd done much with his little screen-time in Trek. Thankfully, Hiddleston is a fine young actor, and knocks the role of Loki outta the park. He's scheming and mischievous; the trickster god. But you can see, thanks in no small part to Hiddleston, that he's not purely evil. And the now obligatory end credits sting gives us a hint of what's in store for the Avengers.

Portman, after her Oscar win, has little to do here as Foster other than look stunning and be smart; I guess it helps if you want a beautiful scientist love interest to cast someone who is similarly gifted (I'm lookin' at you Denise Richards. Dr. Christmas Jones indeed). Anthony Hopkins as Odin is, disappointingly for me, dialling it back some. I was hoping for the Hopkins from The Wolfman; crazy, powerful and unhinged. His Odin in Thor is instead an old man, tired of war and destruction. Stellan Starsgard is there to lend some Nordic gravitas and not much else, while Kat Dennings is the fabulous comic-relief sidekick of Jane Foster, Darcy. Dennings shines as the political-science undergrad, displaying some fine comic timing. For all of the furore that kicked up (from, let’s face it, ignorant racists) about Idris Elba’s casting as Heimdall the naysayers should be suitably shut up. He’s quite the presence, especially for a character that generally just stands around. Thor’s Asgardian buddies however, The Warriors Three, are not entirely necessary as characters. On a fan-boy level, it’s great to see them there and they do the business as brothers-in-arms of the hammer-twirling one, and perhaps help to make Thor feel more like a leader. But I feel the same could have been achieved with Sif alone; she’s a warrior goddess and, in the mythology and comic-books, a lover of Thor which could’ve been an opportunity for romantic tension.

Speaking of fan-boys, the crow-barring in of Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye in one scene is fan-pleasing of the worst sort. It’s perfunctory at best and distracting at worst; the character does nothing and the scenes were obviously shot after the fact. The appearance only serves to slow down the action; if they really wanted to do this, they should’ve done it quick and moved on. It’s not the only SHIELD related bit that makes little sense within the story. It’s a shame, because SHIELD (and Clark Gregg’s wonderfully understated Agent Coulson) have become a neat common thread through the Marvel movies. And frankly, it looks like they ran out of money for some of the effects shots. There's some general untidiness, including a rather terrible ice monster chase, and one or two shots that just seemed to be... missing.

Thor does well in introducing a potentially silly and risible character into the Marvel Movieverse, while also managing to have a great deal of fun with it all. It was a good idea to not take the whole exercise too seriously, while also carrying off some great emotional moments (mainly to do with Hiddleston's Loki). It's big blockbuster fun that, with a few tweaks here and there, could have rivalled Iron Man. And I'm sure there was a large part of me that enjoyed it so much just for the fact that I was sitting in a cinema, watching Thor! Frankly, it's a film that could have gone Masters of the Universe but instead comes out a success. Bring on Captain America.

May 14, 2011


The Way Back is Peter Weir’s own journey back to the cinema screen, having been absent since 2003’s Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World. And even then, his last big “hit” was 1998’s The Truman Show. I find it somewhat interesting that this is the first Weir film I’ve ever seen in the cinema; he’s hardly the most prolific film-maker and his last two, for one reason or another, just didn’t appeal at the time. With his new film, he purports to tell the tale of a group of men who escaped from a vicious Soviet gulag and walked thousands of miles to freedom. There has been some doubt cast on the “truthiness” of this tale, but when has the truth ever stood in the way of a good story?

What does, however, get in the way of a good story (or, at least, one’s enjoyment of it) is having to sit next to a Movie Talker. Yes, the woman I was sitting next to was someone who talked throughout the film – not to a friend or anyone, as she was sitting on the end of a row by herself. No, she was either a) talking to herself or b) the movie. Actually conversing with the film. And I didn’t feel like I could tell her to shut it as I don’t think she realized what she was doing. Ah, problems such as these…

The film itself is solid enough, with the required beautiful landscape photography from cinematographer Russell Boyd and fine performances from the entire cast (including Weir regular, the non-more grizzled Ed Harris). Jim Sturgess, who’s been popping up in a fair few films lately, is Janusz; a Pole who is sent off to a Siberian Gulag after a “confession” of his guilt is forced from his wife. He’s your typical unflagging hero, and Sturgess carries the weight of the film admirably. As mentioned, Harris is grizzled and ornery as Mr. Smith; he's the veteran survivor of the Gulag, carrying a tragic history. Colin Farrell is the ruthless and petty thug Valka, who loves Russia despite being tossed in a Gulag and just wants a man to lead him. One of the few actual Eastern Europeans in the film, Dragos Bucur (Police, Adjective; The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) is the comedian of the group, Zoran. And Saoirse Ronan is a young girl who joins up with them on their trek, melting Mr. Smith’s exterior and helping all the men to learn more about one another. Yes, they’re all largely types serving a story purpose more than anything, but they all work so well together and, oddly perhaps, help to lend the film its old school feel. 

This is not an escape film, like The Great Escape. This is not about planning and building up to the big break-out; this is about what happens after. This is a film that focuses on the plodding determination of a group of men fleeing though no-one is chasing them (though, yes, they have to avoid the authorities), across vast tracts of land. It's an interesting approach to the "escape film" and it becomes something of an endurance to get through, just as it is for these men (and girl). You know that not everyone is going to make it and part of the expereince becomes guessing who's going to fall by the wayside first. Some characters become easier to relate to and care about, with a lot of the early deaths coming when it's hard to distinguish between them.

The Way Back is a solid film, with an incredible story and stunning vistas at its centre. It begins to drag in places, not helped by an emotional distance to the journey but Jim Sturgess, on the strength of this alone, deserves to be getting more leading roles.

And that marks my final film of the World Cinema Showcase for 2011. Apologies for the delay in the write-up, but I hope you've enjoyed reading these. Coming up soon: Thor, Duncan Jones' sophomore film Source Code and the insanity of the V48 Hours Furious Filmmaking Competition!

May 10, 2011


Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney once again takes aim at a high profile American institution/figure; charting the meteoric rise of New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, his attempts to rein in Wall Street and his fall from grace when Governor. Gibney is not a documentarian that uses charming and humorous info-graphics and nor does he directly attack interview subjects, preferring something more subtle and intelligent. He may use narration to point out details, or to highlight certain events on the timeline but for the most part, this is a documentary with talking heads. He has gained access to a number of the power players in the drama and, for the most part, just lets them talk. And just like his previous financial world related doco, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, it’s fascinating.

I’m not sure what it is about American politics and political figures but they have an intriguing pull on me and, I imagine, a lot of other people. Perhaps this is merely just another symptom of the cultural influence that America holds over the rest of the world – they control a vast amount of the entertainment business after all. Most people know Eliot Spitzer, if they know him at all, as one of a rash of American political figures brought low by an extra-marital sex scandal. Before that though, he was the “Sherriff of Wall Street”; a take-no-prisoners Attorney General whose strategy consisted of Attack! Attack! Attack! Gibney takes his time in setting up this Spitzer, the relentless crusader fighting greed and corruption on Wall Street, in part to show us just how far the Attorney General has to fall. Spitzer himself proves to be an intelligent and engaging interview subject, as you might expect from someone as well practised at public speaking as he would be. But Gibney doesn't just focus on Spitzer in the first part, instead widening his focus to include the Wall St. power figures and the online "escort service" that Spitzer was caught frequenting. These are peppered throughout, to give you a hint of things to come.

Spitzer, seemingly bucking the trend, fully owns and acknowledges that no-one was responsible for his downfall except himself. While the documentary more than suggests there were other forces at work - from Wall St to the FBI - the ex-Governor does not indulge in shifting the blame. It's obvious he made enemies in his time; powerful, vindictive enemies that are certainly out to get him. Spitzer was no angel, but he seemed to actually want to do the right thing; he wanted to fight for the regular guy on the street.

There are interviews with Spitzer, his political and economic enemies and various people on both sides – including Spitzer’s actual favourite escort, Angelina (more specifically, an actress reading her interview answers) – but there is no appearance from Ashley, the escort he was caught with. But then Gibney doesn’t seem too concerned by that; portrait of Ashley is built up through snippets of public interviews and appearances. Parts of her story are disputed by others (including fellow escorts) but Gibney sidelines her; she’s not the story or focus. The most cringe inducing moment comes when Ashley, who came to be known as "Spitzer's girl" by the media, appears on a Fox news show to sing a Christmas song. It's terrible, awkward and cheesy and is a small amount of further proof showing how far American TV news has fallen as well. Gibney takes a wide focus on the events and history but always, the focus is on Spitzer.

A documentary like this, looking back on recent events but with the advantage of hindsight, can properly contextualise events and their timeline that contemporary news reports might not. In the midst of a story the media can easily be whipped into a frenzy and Gibney uses this to his full advantage. News reports and documents are hauled out, poked at and scrutinised for bias. It is made fairly plain that the Governor was made a target by someone; he had no shortage of enemies. But Gibney, as much as is possible, sticks to the facts. Client 9 is an impressive, wide-ranging documentary that demands you pay attention and keep up. Gibney might be carrying his own bias, known as he is for being no fan of Wall St himself, but given recent events you can see why.

May 7, 2011


I found the experience of We Are What We Are to be similar to that of Rubber, in that it didn't deliver the B-movie thrills I was half expecting. It instead was a family drama about a family unit dealing with the recent death of their bread winner father. The family just happen to be cannibals. The expectations I had for it were something more along the lines of Romero’s Day of the Dead: a message or theme within the horror.

Please don’t mistake that for criticism of the film, I’m merely trying to give the context within which I viewed it and am now discussing it. As a family drama, it works quite well. We open with the father stumbling through a high end shopping mall, being shooed away by shop assistants as he stares at the mannequins. He's obviously on the lower end of the social and economic spectrums. He promptly collapses, vomiting up blood, all but ignored by the shoppers around him but promptly tidied away by the cleaners. Heaven forbid we let a little thing like a corpse disturb the shopping nirvana! 

Once the already high strung family discover the fate of poor papa, the wheels slowly but inexorably start to come off this tight family unit. And they're not tight because they're so close to one another, no they're forced together in an "us vs. the world" mentality. This is a dysfunctional family with a dark secret, hiding out in the slums of a Mexican city. With the death of the patriarch, it's up to his two sons; the elder, quiet, over-thinking and closeted Alfredo and his short-tempered, violent younger brother. Quietly pulling their strings is their sister Sheila, as their mother works herself up into hysteria, berates all her children and locks herself in her room. The boys are sent out on a couple of failed hunts; it's tough being a growing young cannibal in the city. Mishaps and violent hijinks ensue. 

The film is obviously shot on digital and director Jorge Michel Grau and cinematographer Santiago Sanchez really make it work. This is a dark, dark film not afraid to go into the shadows. And while some things become difficult to make out, it really serves to make the whole work (especially scenes in the family's house, made to feel like a wild animal's den) that bit creepier. Grau gives the film a measured pace, giving us time with all of these characters and it doesn't usually slow too much. He's obviously taking a firm aim at Mexican social inequality, in between the family drama and tension. It's a film that dares to be something different and original and I applaud it for that. It's far from perfect, and didn't deliver on either the messy horror or black comedy I was expecting.

May 6, 2011


This documentary, following a US Army platoon (Battle Company 2nd of the 503rd Infantry Regiment 173rd Brigade Combat Team) for 15 months in the Korungal Valley, has added poignancy with the recent death in Libya of co-director and photojournalist Tim Hetherington. And now, since seeing it, Osama bin Laden has also been killed. It's an interesting historical context within which to watch and consider Restrepo.

The doco itself is quite something, and I can guarantee there won't be a film that gets as close to the action and truth of being a soldier in wartime as this one. I don't profess to knowing the first damn thing about it myself but through this film, you get a sense of it. Hetherington and co-director Sebastian Junger must have had balls of steel to embed themselves this far in to an active unit. They're there, capturing every moment from flying in with the boys, to leaving with them. The title refers to "Doc" Restrepo, a popular man among the men and one of the first casualties once reaching the valley. After establishing a forward Operating Post, they name it after him: Restrepo O.P. The majority of the film takes place in this hastily constructed frontier outpost of the American military and sticks with these boys (and they are largely boys) as they take fire from the surrounding hills and attempt to hunt down Taliban guerrillas and (conversely) smooth things with the elders of the various villages.

This is a largely experiential documentary, told in a mainly linear fashion but not being afraid to jump around a bit. There is some context given to events with interviews with the soldiers interspersed with the documentary footage. But aside from those, you're largely left to keep up; there is no narration and no interviews or views from outsiders. This is all about these men, during this operation. There is no commentary offered or intended on the larger issue of the "war on terror". The aim of the filmmakers is not to lionise or demonise these troops, but rather just to show them. You get a sense of some more than others, as we spend more time with them and some figures rise to the surface. There's the kid who wasn't allowed sugar, let alone toy guns, when he was growing up. And now he's sat behind huge guns firing off massive rounds, killing at a remove. There are the various leaders trying to talk with the village elders, trying to keep their men alive, trying to push forward.

This is visceral filmmaking that doesn't shy away from much while managing to never becomes voyeuristic though. There is the fear, boredom, camaraderie, loss, adrenalin and frustration that I can only imagine is what active service is like. What Junger and Hetherington have achieved here is nothing short of astonishing and I can only assume there is some small consolation in the fact that Hetherington died doing what he evidently loved so much.

May 5, 2011


Hoo-wee, now this is a kung-fu film that knows how to have a little fun! As you can tell by the poster, this is an action fung-fu flick desperately hearkening back to the 70's golden age of the genre; which is no bad thing.

The first minutes of the film are aggressively stylised and quickly become a challenge to keep up with. But boy did I have a big grin on my face. Our nominal "hero" is Cheung, a weedy, curly-haired hipster of an office worker. As a kid, he stood tall as "Super-Cheung" and bullied another kid remorselessly. Now though, he's on the lowest of the low rungs at the real estate office and after once again screwing up is sent off to a remote village (without pay) to secure some property rights. Once there he finds himself mixed up with bullies, warring dojos and a catatonic Grand Master. But whatever, right? This is all just guff to get us to the chop-socky action.

And this is some pretty damned fine, non-CG, non-wire assisted ass-kickin'. And I was a little surprised at just how much I appreciated that fact; it isn't often in modern movies where there isn't even a little bit of CG or wire assistance. It helps to have someone like Siu-Lung Leung as Tiger, one of the first Masters and introduced with a neat little title. Leung was one of the biggest stars of kung-fu films back in the 70's and 80's, but you're more likely to recognise him from the recent Kung-Fu Hustle. Kuan Tai Hen as Tiger's fellow Master, Dragon, was also a leading action star of the golden age. These guys may be past their prime, but boy can they still move. They lend a certain sense of history to proceedings and really show these young punks how it's really done.

In addition to Tiger and Dragon, our young hipster hero comes into contact with their Master, Grand Master Law, who has been in a coma the last couple of decades. Thankfully, just when things are starting to slow down he wakes up and there is a brief period of the old "placate the recently awoken coma guy" shenanigans. Master Law is a Yoda-like figure: a tiny, ancient master. But, y'know, if Yoda smoked cigars, drank brandy and went to strip clubs. It's possible the film-makers had a little too much fun with the character of Law though, as things begin to wander before getting back on track.  

While the film may move at it's own strange pace, with an off-kilter rhythm, and feel constrained sometimes (fight scenes shot only in medium close-ups against walls and the fact that we never see the tournament) it carries a great, infectious, sense of fun. Gallants has more than enough character moments and good ole' fashioned kung-fu fight scenes to leave you smiling and remind you that the best action, is physical action.

May 3, 2011

An Announcement

You may notice the big widget at the top right of this blog; this is my announcement. As you know, I love films and I do dearly love those weird, genre and off-beat films. So, as part of making 2011 awesome I have decided to try and realise a long-time dream of mine: Fantastic Fest. Fantastic Fest is THE annual event to see weird, genre and off-beat films. It is one of the top film festivals in the world and is held at one of the leading lights of cinema exhibition, the Alamo Drafthouse.

It is also in Austin, Texas. And, as you may know, I am some 7,000 miles away in Wellington, New Zealand. 

Getting there isn't cheap and I've decided to raise the necessary funds to realise this dream. I have set up an IndieGoGo campaign (the previously mentioned widget on your right) and I need YOUR help. Please, donate (if you can) through IndieGoGo (all amounts are in US!) but more importantly get the word out on the street, the information superhighway, anywhere you can. Tweet it, blog it, facebook it, whatever you can do... it's appreciated, truly.

Attending the week long Fantastic Fest and cramming my wee cranium with explosive cinematic goodness would be a dream come true. And, of course, I would be blogging the ENTIRE FESTIVAL; the complete experience. Please, help me get there. It's all explained on the IndieGoGo campaign page.


What am I in awe of? FANTASTICNESS

16mm film course: week 5 - 7 (that's a wrap!)

So I know my updates on my 16mm film-making class have dropped off in the last few weeks. Apologies for that. In the weeks since last updating you all (and I'm sure you were all waiting with breath that was baited) we've filmed, filmed, filmed. I've done everything from sound to lights to continuity (the clapper guy). Being someone who wasn't specifically assigned (or volunteered) to an area has meant I've managed to jump around a fair amount and have counted myself quite lucky in that respect.

A couple of weekends ago we had a massive schedule of filming. I had foolishly booked myself in for three Showcase films on the Friday night (this one, this one and, oh yes, this one) before a 13 hour day on Saturday. It also rained. No, sorry. It didn’t rain: it pissed down; big, fat raindrops falling incessantly. I was not in the best of moods come 6:30am Saturday. But y'know what? It was a hell of a lot of fun. On Saturday alone I managed to have a go at pretty much everything on set: lighting assist, clapper, 1st AD, sound and camera operator. On Sunday I worked in a cameo performance as a drunk (yes, yes. No acting required. Har-de-har).

Seeing as how it were pissing down on Saturday, we had to change up the schedule a wee bit. The scene that I was filming, that I was camera operator for, went from the first scene shot after lunch to the final scene of the day. By this time of the night – some 12 hours after we had started and with only 4 hours sleep behind me – I was absolutely shartered. We were also nearing the end of the roll of film and the final shot; of my shoot, of the day, was a mildly complicated camera move: a 180 degree POV swing, ending on a character square in frame with a line of dialogue. Ok, so I was paranoid enough about shooting – I was in constant fear that what I was looking at through the eye-piece would have no relation to what was actually shot – and now I couldn’t even see through the damn eye-piece! The Arriflex SRII, being a film camera, has no display monitor; you have a single eye-piece. To see through it, you have to close one eye because otherwise your brain is attempting to interpret two different visual signals and gets confused (also depending on which eye is more dominant). Unfortunately, due to my body just starting to shut down by this time, I couldn’t keep one eye open/one eye closed for the length of the shot. My closed right eye kept popping open and my open left eye kept shutting. Did I get it? I hope so. I’m pretty sure I did. But I’m also 100% paranoid that I totally screwed it up.

I am utterly confident in the camera crew that was assisting me though. Those blokes seemed to know what they were about. And, of course, we had Mr. Alex Funke on set guiding us. It became a tight crew, with absolutely everyone seeming to get along with everyone. Laughs and jokes were had and everyone was keen to muck in and just work to get things done; sound helped with lights, lights helped with traffic control etc. Come the final couple of set-ups on Sunday night, things began to get a little weird (of course). I found myself working up some sort of theme song for the film between takes, seamlessly blending show-tunes with hip-hop (still working on that). Trust me; it was brilliant at the time.

So, come tonight we’ll be watching our rushes from that weekend, as well as previously shot stuff, all synched up with sound. I’m intrigued (and frightened) as to how the stuff I shot is going to come out. Will it be any good? Will it even be in focus? I can’t wait to find out. And it’s gonna be aces seeing everyone and what they’ve shot as well.

May 2, 2011


Cold Weather is a low budget, low-fi indie sort of noir film about a deadbeat guy, living with his sister in Portland. You could possibly describe it as a slow-burn, but it's really more of a slow meander where things occasionally (but not often) happen. If this is a noir film, it's a noir film with no known noir characters or archetypes and doesn't hit any of the regular beats you might expect from a genre film.

For the first quarter of the film nothing much of note happens. The guy, Doug, is a bit of a loser. He's a forensic science drop-out, with not much going on in the way of ambition or anything else; he gets a job in an ice factory because, well, he doesn't seem overly keen on anything in particular. He the kind of guy who barges in on his sister at work and convinces/demands her to head out to the coast with him to watch whales. There are no whales. Just a shitty grey beach, where they sit at a picnic table and eat sandwiches. This is the content of a good 10-15 minutes of run-time. Doug's ex-girlfriend Rachel turns up in town for a conference. They meet up and... not much happens. Until she disappears.

And there, for a few moments, is a real sense of motion to the film, of forward momentum as Doug and his Star Trek-lovin' work buddy Carlos try and find out what's happened to Rachel. Doug gets the chance to stretch himself, to become the Sherlock Holmes he's always wanted to be. And then, goddammit, the very next day he sleeps in. He sleeps in, goes to the library and buys a pipe. So he can be more Sherlock Holmes-ey. Instead of running down the clues left by Rachel, he buys a pipe! Now, I know there is likely a decent part of my brain that has been hard-wired by years of Hollywood story-telling and film-making convention and it's rebelling against the more gentle pace and seeming futzing about by the characters. But Cris Lankenau's Doug barely manages to convey that he gives a shit that his ex has mysteriously gone missing and may be mixed up in some shady business.

You might be surprised after reading the preceding two paragraphs then, that I didn't hate this film. I've certainly detested others like it, but there was something about it; perhaps just that there were moments that really, truly worked. For one thing, although it was shot on digital there are often really beautiful shots, the most notable being Doug and Rachel on a bridge in front of a waterfall. While the characters themselves might be frustrating, their interactions with one another feel genuine and well-played. Although, while the dialogue might be natural for real life - with stops, starts, ellipses etc - in the context of a film it feels stunted and unnatural.

While it might not be for me (especially after watching three films in a row previously), there is a part of me that is glad this film is out there. That the film world can be so fluid now, you can actually make this kind of film. 

May 1, 2011


Distinct lack of Superman on this poster.
This new film from the director of An Inconvenient Truth has proven to be just as controversial. Though, perhaps not in the way you might expect. In Truth Guggenheim took aim at climate change, documenting a convincing presentation by Al Gore. The environmental Left praised it, while the conservative Right decried it (this, it could be said, was also because of Gore himself). Now, with Waiting for "Superman", Guggenheim seems to have succeeded in pissing everybody off. The reason being the teachers' unions do not come off in the best light in Waiting for "Superman"

Guggenheim is, this time, taking a look at the American education system trying to find out the how & why it went from one of the best in the world to one of the worst. Frankly, the picture painted of the modern American school system is frightening. And things that are so desperately needed, like change and new ideas, are stifled and tossed aside by the system. Some of this blame is placed squarely on the teachers' unions, and there has been criticism from some quarters because of that. But the unions aren't the only ones laid at fault here: the whole system and those who administer it come in for some hard criticism. Guggenheim offers us the system through the eyes of various families, usually on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum who, generally speaking, have no option but the public school system. We are offered alternatives through some of those who are working hard to change, or offer change, to the system.

I am not anti-union in the slightest. They are an important part of working society, crucial for the protection of employees. But a union, just like any other large, bureaucratic organisation, can become a lumbering beast that hurts more than it helps. And to be to the point: the teachers' unions (there's two in the US) are not there to protect the students. They are there for the teachers. Which is rightly so, as they are the teachers' unions. However, this focus is one of things harming children. One of the union tenets that comes in for the strongest criticism is the notion of automatic tenure; once a teacher has been teaching for two years they get tenure. Which means it becomes all but impossible to fire them, even if they are awful, nonperforming and even abusive teachers. To me, that is fundamentally wrong. I don't necessarily believe in performance-based pay for teachers, as is raised by Michelle Rhee a Washington D.C. reformer, as the ways that can be measured can be easily manipulated and abused but when you cannot get rid of obviously awful teachers... then something is broken.

Guggenheim's strongest focus though is on "school lotteries". These people who have set up publicly funded alternate choices to the public school system, known as charter schools, are too popular; they cannot possibly accept everyone who applies. So federal law dictates that they have to have a lottery. These families we have been following, who are all struggling and who all have bright and personable kids, have entered the lotteries. When you have to fundamentally gamble on your child's future, when you cannot trust the public school system that much, the system is broken. The scenes of the families desperately awaiting the lottery results - all with different atmospheres but all held in massive auditoriums or halls - are emotionally wrenching.  

Waiting for "Superman" is a downbeat, sobering film because the subject it covers is so vast, conflicted and busted it can't not be. But there are moments of hope that shine through: a couple of the kids "win" their lottery's, there are people out there fighting the good fight trying to either change the system or offer up enough great alternatives. It's a fairly clear-eyed, informative and easy to follow exploration of a labyrinthine issue and system. I'm not American and likely won't be putting any future kids through the American education system, but this is a fascinating watch and will perhaps have you taking another look at your own country's education system. Quality education should not be a privilege, but a right.