Wednesday, 28 July 2010

The Top 5 Romantic Comedies For Guys.

The rom-com, it's fair to say, comes under a lot of unfair scrutiny these days. Probably because movies like The Ugly Truth (Robert Luketic, 2009) and Leap Year (Anand Tucker, 2010) have regressed the hybrid-genre into a cliche ridden, sappy sick-fest with no new stories and horribly flawed character arcs. Indeed the rom-com has somehow morphed into the 'chick flick' (simply defined by 2D women who are so hollow they can't be happy until they're married) leaving no trace of the classics that I highlight here. Indeed the romantic comedy is a genre that should appeal to everyone - it should be easy-going, sweet and funny. But over time, possibly due to shifting audiences, possibly due to critical receptions (that would demand another article) it has lost a lot of charm and appeal, and become a lazy production line of features to aim at, it has to be said, the female demographic. Many men look upon the rom-coms of today (The Back-Up Plan, Alan Poul, 2010, for example) with deflated uninterested... they dread being dragged along to the next saccharine fantasy. But there are plenty of rom-coms in cinema history that will appeal to men in one way or another. I searched through my DVD collection in search of a definitive Top 5. My first stop off was two recent releases, (500) Days Of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009) and Adventureland (Greg Mottola, 2009) - both very honest and sweet natured dramas with plenty of humor along the way - and the leads (Joseph Gordon-Levitt/Zooey Deschanel and Jesse Eisenberg/Kristen Stewart respectively) have great chemistry. Adventureland especially will have a sense of nostalgia for those who encountered first love in the 80s. Ultimately though these are films for a younger audience and I think there is a film in this list that serves the youth in a more romanticized and time-specific way. Say Anything... (Cameron Crowe, 1989) would be a solid candidate for the young-people-in-love movie but I chose another of his movies, one that rang much more true with me and doesn't indulge in as much of his sickly style. Other recent contenders were Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007) - sharp as a razor, totally unsentimental, strong male and female characters and a debate about who is the better horror maestro - Dario Argento or Herschell Gordon Lewis? Ultimately though it's indie-spirited, cutesy approach may be a little too much for audiences of any gender to swallow as plausible. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (Charlie Kaufman, 2004) was another strong contender - a movie purely about love with some brilliantly subtle humor - and it's really, really smart. But it also has strong sci-fi and surreal elements and it is about the end of love - in fact, it's pretty sad. Personally I would nominate the wonderful Bridget Jones's Diary (Sharon Maguire, 2001), but I think that, as a guy, i'm pretty alone on that front. The 80s movies of John Hughes may hold fond memories for both males and females - Sixteen Candles (John Hughes, 1984) and Pretty In Pink (Howard Deutch, 1986) especially. But they didn't make the list. Nor did, sadly, the greatest multi-sex-appeal romance movies of all time, Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2006). Mainly because they contain no comedy. Of course everyone will have their own choices and I encourage readers to leave their Top 5 male-orientated rom-coms in the comments section. But until then, we countdown from 5...

5. City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931)
This may be a somewhat controversial choice, seeing as it could be argued that most modern audiences would be put off by it being a silent movie. But I hope that Chaplin still holds appeal for the masses - male or female - and there's a lot of laughs to be had in City Lights. Chaplin understood slapstick like very few comedians and the fantastic pace and likable characters instantly give this one appeal. What people really underrate about the mustached mime however, is his heart. The central romance between The Tramp (Chaplin) and a blind girl (Virginia Cherrill) is what really holds attention and provides such a sweet core to the movie. Being a silent film the actors have to convey emotion through actions and gestures... which we all know speak louder than words. It's been uplifting since the moment it started but the final scene where The Tramp and the blind girl recognise each other, after being forced apart, is one of the great moments in movie history. There's rarely a dry eye left... prepare your manly cough.

4. Singles (Cameron Crowe, 1992)
This is the youth movie (well, mid-twenties). Everything from the fashions (just see the picture above) to the music (Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins) is pure 90s and this tale of love between friends is period perfect. Easily Cameron's most underrated film it has an honesty and sweetness that the genre rarely hits today. Its rooted in music culture (Cameron was once a writer for Rolling Stone) which will appeal to many males, as will its nostalgic 90s feel and lack of saccharine contrivances. The characters feel like they may have existed and most important for men... they feel like people you'd hang out at the pub with. Bridget Fonda, Campbell Scott, Kyra Sedgwick and Matt Dillon are all perfect in their roles (especially Dillon in a perfectly comic role) and the script sparkles. "I was just nowhere near your neighborhood".

3. Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977)
This was a tough one to choose but no list of male movies is complete without Woody Allen. His movies appeal to women too, sure, but the voice of his films is distinctly male. His insight and honesty about women and relationships has always been valuable and he has always done it with razor sharp wit and cunning one-liners ("That sex was the most fun i've ever had without laughing"). Manhattan may be the better film but Annie Hall set up a formula that would influence decades of rom-coms. Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) is charming and likable, her innocent bouncy-ball persona at perfect odds with Allen's anxiety ridden complainer Alvy Singer. It speaks volumes about the complexity of love and its honesty (no happy ending y'see) very rewarding. Plus, it has this Christopher Walken moment: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BGPcSd7DDLk.

2. When Harry Met Sally... (Rob Reiner, 1989)
Arguably the greatest rom-com of all time, this classic 80s romance features career best turns from Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal. Nora Ephron wrote one of the best scripts of all time (rightfully nominated for an OSCAR, wrongfully beaten by Dead Poet's Society, Peter Weir, 1990) with the story of Harry and Sally, two strangers thrown together who learn to hate, like and eventually love each other over the period of a decade. The best thing about the movie is that it's equally pitched - neither Harry or Sally are stereotypes, they both feel real and form emotions in the way real people do. The appeal for guys? Well, watching meg Ryan fake an orgasm in her prime is worth the admission, but it's really Harry we can relate to. All his fears, all his desires, his humor and his heart - he's a guy we'd all love to know. And he knows how to chat up the ladies... "I love that you get cold when it's 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you're looking at me like I'm nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you are the last person I want to talk to I go to sleep at night. And it's not because i'm lonely, and it's not because it's New Year's Eve. I came here tonight because when you realise you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible". Perfection.

1. High Fidelity (Stephen Frears, 2000)
Yes ladies and gents, this is the one. The No.1 rom-com for guys is the story of Rob Gordon (John Cusack), owner of a record store and connoisseur of lists - including his "desert island, all-time top-five most memorable breakups". His life revolves around music, girls and making lists about music and girls - in fact, it's all he talks about. Directly to camera at times. Based on the brilliant 1995 novel by Nick Hornby, Rob is the guy we all wish we could be. Dressed like he doesn't give a damn, yet still managing to look cool. An encyclopedic knowledge of music, which gives him the ideal opportunity to chat up pretty girls that may wander into his store. His apartment is perfectly organised (alphabetically) and he's insightful, honest and very, very funny. Cusack has always been something of an everyman and here he's perfectly cast in a role that at some point all men have projected themselves into. High Fidelity is, to quote the tagline, 'A comedy about fear of commitment, hating your job, falling in love and other pop favorites'. It may be about music and the nature of obsession (particularly concerning men) but it's also a real love story. The film starts with Rob ending a relationship and then taking us on a wonderfully reassuring journey through his history of relationships. He shows us how to exercise old demons and win back the love of your life... and he does it all with foppish good looks and an awesome soundtrack. "Hey, i'm not the smartest guy in the word, but I'm certainly not the dumbest. I mean, I've read books like 'The Unbearable Lightness Of Being' and 'Love In The Time Of Cholera', and I think I've understood them. They're about girls, right?" As long as you say so Rob. As long as you say so...

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Suspect: Genre


Walter Neff: Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money - and a woman - and I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty isn't it?
- Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)

Dixon Steele: I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.
- In A Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950)

Genre. noun. A category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.

First of all, lets establish the ground rules. Is Film Noir a genre? Many would say yes. Some would say no. I'd wager that the majority would swing in the favor of the former. Just type Film Noir into Google and be met by articles, definitions and essays. Type it into Amazon and be met with a plethora of books and DVD Box Sets. It's one of the most popular genres in the history of cinema; its twists and turns thrill mainstream audiences and its complex antiheroes and aesthetics fuel the fire of film academics. IMDB also has it listed as a genre and many critics would (and have) acknowledged it this way. The people who answer no would likely tell you that it isn't so much a genre as a mood, style or tone of a film. But doesn't that fall under the definition of genre anyway? Don't those little elements of familiarity in a film determine its genre? Would shadows projected across alleyways, femme fatales puffing on a cigarette, a suited hero running for his life and a voiceover of anxiety and despair not be the codes and conventions of the grand American genre Film Noir? I think they would. When you write your essay on Noir you may choose to categorize it differently but for now Film Noir is a genre. Now, allow me to disprove it...

The problem lies in definition. If we were to take Film Noir under its literal translation, which would be 'Black Film', we would be entering a whole other world of connotation - think of the cinema of Spike Lee or Tyler Perry for example. The fact is that the term 'Black Cinema' in relation to the crime and gangster movies of the 1940s and 50s is a very lazy grouping which proves inaccurate with todays film theory, readings and the attitudes of modern society. It's true that these films work in a collective sense and can be studied as a body; the aforementioned femme fatales, sharp suited heroes and voiceovers are their conventions. So it's easy to see why people would want to label them for study. 'Black Film' just isn't the right term. The crime, mystery and gangster genres (which are true genres and all fall under the inappropriate label in discussion) were influenced in design by the films of the German Expressionist/Weimar Film period (which ran from approximately 1920-1929). Themes of the movement involved sexuality, psychology and changing technologies/attitudes but it's really the visual style that informed 'Noir'. Weimar Film (which takes in filmmakers like F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang and Robert Wiene) was all about light and shadow. Consider the scene in Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) where Count Orlok (Max Schreck) creeps up the stairs to the bedroom of Ellen (Greta Schröder) and his shadow projects across the wall (http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_5wKqzXKfVsY/SuIKeHlR56I/AAAAAAAAAJc/DhqhGGfsmOo/s400/nosferatu1922.jpg) - the use of darkness and shadows and the emphasis on a fearful image (normally the antagonist) can be traced all the way back to this movement. There is a very specific design to those films that 'Noirs' like Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944) echo perfectly (http://www.cinepad.com/filmnoir/bigclock.jpg). So how do I propose we label this fine body of cinema? Simple. Expressionist Crime Cinema. It's not catchy, I know - but since when was it about being catchy? We're all using wrong terminology anyway. 'Film Noir' or 'Black Cinema' doesn't exist; it's a false grouping for an excellent collection of crime orientated pictures that deserve better. Taken individually their own genres apply but as a body of work, for academic purposes, we must refer to these films properly as Expressionist Crime Cinema.

So what, you say, of Neo-Noir? Literally translated as 'New Black', this is another false label for a collection of Post-Classic crime/gangster films that employ colour and have updated themes to reflect their society. The connotations are, again, questionable at best and seeing as Noir never existed in the first place this label exists on a whole other plane of incorrect. Films like Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974) and Brick (Rian Johnson, 2005) are of the same genres as Expressionist Crime Cinema, they have gumshoe detectives, compelling mysteries and femme fatales. Films like Se7en (David Fincher, 1995) (which arguably comes under the label) literally uses a form of light and shadow descending from Weimar Cinema. So what do we call that? Simple again. The New Crime. Now that is catchy...

So, is there weight to the theory or are we too stuck in our ways and too far into academic dissection to turn our backs on 'Film Noir'?

Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974) is part of The New Crime.

Monday, 26 July 2010

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Niels Arden Oplev, 2009) Review

Noomi Rapace stars in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo...

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the first in an already-filmed Swedish trilogy based on the books by the late Stieg Larsson, landed in UK cinemas this March to major critical acclaim. Hailed as one of the best thrillers of the year with a strong heroine and a dark, consistent tone, it seems everyone has fallen head over heels for the tale of Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), an introverted, tattooed computer hacker who aids disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) in his search for a girl who disappeared 40 years ago - and is presumed by everyone but her Uncle to be dead. The DVD, released today, will likely sell many copies before follow-up The Girl Who Played With Fire (Daniel Alfredson, 2009) hits cinemas this summer. Sadly, upon my much anticipated viewing of the story starter this morning, this critic won't be onboard the hype train.

The plot, very clearly adapted from a novel as thick as a door-wedge, has many strands, themes and character arcs. Problems begin in the first 30 minutes, which are dedicated to establishing character. Mikael is perfectly fine - his arc is an outward exploration, juxtaposed against the introverted depths of Salander. He's facing a prison sentence following a scandal in his journalistic career - everybody knows who he is and nobody trusts him. So when a stranger comes out of the blue and places 40 years worth of secrets on his shoulders, his arc becomes one of redemption. He solves the case and his personal journey is complete. Because of the nature of the trilogy Lisbeth's arc feels much more uncomfortable and this is the film's biggest downfall - its baggage. One of the first things we learn about Lisbeth is that she's on probation and attends meetings with a guardian whenever she needs money. The officer is a misogynist pervert (in fact, misogyny is a theme that runs through the film and provides parallels with the main missing person plot) and in one dark scene he rapes her. Lisbeth takes her revenge by torturing him, threatening him with legal action and then the arc is never mentioned again. Very little is revealed about Lisbeth and her motives and the excuse given is that her character (and indeed this arc) plays a bigger part in the sequels. Such is the nature of adaptation. But ultimately I shouldn't have to sit through three movies to feel comfortable with one, and the way in which the filmmakers abandon such a grueling and affecting scene is infuriating. Indeed, The Girl Who Played With Fire has a lot to answer for.

The rest of the cast do reasonably well in their roles and the film isn't without merit. It's at times contrived and way, way too long (Zodiac, David Fincher, 2007, is roughly the same length and spans a crime story over decades) but it's a well put together piece of cinema with an atmospheric score and cinematography that sets a pretty bleak tone. The central theme of the film is also interesting and may have played better under its alternative title; Men Who Hate Women. The aforementioned parallel between Lisbeth and Harriet (the missing girl) and the circumstances in which they have been mistreated are quite compelling but incidental as the film never really makes anything of them. Strangely this is a film that would have benefitted from shaving a half hour from the running time and playing as a straight thriller as the plot revelations and suspense set-pieces are truly gripping. But it plays on several different planes and ties nothing together. It could be that when the pieces fall together in the trilogy finale and the jigsaw of Lisbeth is complete I will look back on this film more fondly. But I also get the feeling that after a further four and a half hours of viewing I simply won't have the energy or patience to look at this in a different light. And why should I? The constant gearshifts and uneasy approach to sexual abuse will likely still feel out of place in a thriller that, for once, was begging out for formula.

DVD Extras: Interviews, including one with Rapace which, while revealing nothing interesting about the film, shows exactly how good her performance is, sharing no traceable connection to her onscreen character. The original UK trailer and sneak-peek at sequel The Girl Who Played With Fire are also included.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010) Review


Every so often a film comes along that is so utterly perfect it reminds me why I love cinema in the first place. Even when I don't particularly need reminding, it's a film so special that it transcends everything else and just inspires. Toy Story 3 is exactly one of those films. Arriving 11 years after the much-loved Toy Story 2 (John Lasseter, Ash Brannon, Lee Unkrich, 1999), the hype and critical praise surrounding this summers mega sequel had me hoping for the best. There's nothing worse than being built up just to be knocked back down... especially by a series I have my childhood invested in. So how, when I went in so aware and so expecting, did Toy Story 3 catch me off-guard and secure the coveted position of Film Of The Year? Lets start at the beginning...

Well, to start at the beginning we'd need to discuss Day & Night (Teddy Newton), the new (and now customary) short that accompanies all of Pixar's features. This time two characters, animated personifications of day and night, attempt to get along against a black stage. They are classically animated whereas their insides (yes, they're see-through) are CG animated and reveal all the positive aspects of their cycles - a sunny day on the beach or a night in Vegas for respective examples. It's an odd little experiment that works surprisingly well - it lacks the humor of a short like Presto (Doug Sweetland, 2008) but makes up for it with invention and a strong message - no matter where you come from, colour or creed, we are all the same. It may be saccharine but if there's one studio that can pull it off with style, it's Pixar.

The main feature begins in the same vein as Toy Story 2 - a fake set-up action sequence. Mr & Mrs Potato Head (Don Rickles, Estelle Harris) are train robbers in the Old West, but Sheriff Woody (Tom Hanks) is hot on their trail! A fight between hero and villain ensues with Woody eventually being knocked off the high-speed locomotive - only to be caught by cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack) and loyal steed Bullseye. The evil potato heads blow up the bridge ahead and leave Woody to make a decision - apprehend the villains or save the train of orphans (trolls with multi-colour hairstyles). Woody boards the train and slams on the brakes but it's not enough as the train hurtles off the collapsed bridge. But it's Buzz (Tim Allen) to the rescue! He places the train back to safety and heads off, with Woody and Jessie in tow, to apprehend the bad guys. After a Slinky (Blake Clark)/Rex (Wallace Shawn) showdown a spaceship appears - but it's no ordinary spaceship. It's in the shape of a piggy bank and it's carrying the dastardly Pork Chop (Hamm, voiced by John Ratzenberger). A horde of monkeys are unleashed on the heroic trio and as they are trapped by the chimps we suddenly cut - to a home-video. It turns out this whole adventure is taking place in the imagination of a young Andy - the Andy we recognise from the first two films. This is the beginning of an opening credits sequence that takes us on a journey through Andy's childhood to his teenage years. He's now 17 and preparing for college. After a mix-up with some boxes (and an excellent action sequence recalling Woody accidentally being put out for the yard sale in Toy Story 2) the toys get sent off to a daycare center called Sunnyside.

This perfectly designed, brightly coloured playpen is split into two districts - Butterfly for the older kids and Caterpillar for the pre-schoolers. Our favorite toys are designated to the Caterpillar zone by residents Lotso (Ned Beatty, relishing his finest role in years) and Ken (Michael Keaton, also relishing the part). Woody wants to go home and, in a very affecting moment, leaves to be reunited with a college-bound Andy. To say any more about the plot would be to ruin laughs, excitement and drama but as you can probably tell from the trailer, the cuddly Lotso isn't all what he seems and the daycare may turn into a nightmare locale...

The locals of Sunnyside are not what they seem in Toy Story 3...

There are many things to tackle in the reviewing of Toy Story 3 and very little space in which to do it. Firstly the visuals. Pixar have always been masters of design - their attention to detail and focus on atmosphere has been staggeringly effective even in their weaker efforts and while they have yet to beat the first 40 minutes of Wall-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008) in this department (the echoing loneliness and desperation haunts me to this day) Toy Story 3 certainly comes in at a confident second. There is also something to be said for Unkrich's direction and the way he lets us absorb every location. The sweeping opening shot of the movie, which swoops over a high valley to focus on the train speeding through the canyons, is marvelous and the early shots of the beautifully lit (and incredibly detailed) Sunnyside are amazing to behold. The lighting is exceptional, the sense of space and the weight of the characters in their environment... Unkrich and his team have perfected the animation technique they brought to life with the original Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995) all those years ago. One scene sees Woody in the house of a child named Bonnie (Emily Hahn) - along with new toys Trixie (the wonderful Kristen Schaal) and Mr. Pricklepants (an underused Timothy Dalton). The young girl plays with the toys, sending them careering around the room on her own adventure - the toys are flung into the air and in slow motion, against an almost angelic lighting, fall with her onto a plush bed. As well as being beautifully cinematic it perfectly recalls the feelings of childhood innocence and, well... fun. The most visually impressive section of the film though is in the latter action sequences. I won't reveal the circumstances in which the toys come to be in danger by a giant melting pit but as they lunge over a fiery death pit (so wonderfully animated and lit you can literally feel the heat) they all join hands. Unkrich moves from close up to close up as well-worn hands come together in a union almost as heart-rendering as the ending itself. The metal underneath the toys shimmers, the bright light reflects off their anxious, fearful faces - the fire bubbles and the dark night projects its shadow into the pit. If I weren't so invested in the characters and their situation I would have had time to step back and look at this composition as a work of art - and that's about the highest compliment I can give.

The voice-acting is, as ever, top-notch. Hanks and Allen sound as youthful as the day they started, so perfectly cast, they nail every line. Cusack is also tremendous as ever and newcomers Beatty, Keaton and Dalton add new and totally believable flavor into the mix, bringing with them menace, comedy and drama. Even the young Hahn, who could easily warrant her own movie, is perfect. Of course their talents are given room to shine by the smart, funny and heartfelt screenplay by Michael Arndt (a masterful writer, the scribe behind 2006s Little Miss Sunshine, Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris). He balances the characters and situations perfectly, forming comedy out of drama and drama out of comedy, also setting-up a tremendous pace and some inventive set-pieces (the toys break-out of Sunnyside is brilliant).

A final shout must be given to the original music supplied by Randy Newman, who has gone some way to defining the tone and flavour of the Toy Story films. His music here goes from pulse-pounding (the opening and closing action scenes) to just plain lovely (the final goodbye). What can I say? Everything about the movie is crafted with total care and passion. Every frame holds a thousand wonders - watching it once simply isn't enough. I may hold a more personal connection than some - having grown up with Andy and recently having to throw away old toys of my own, the ending struck a particularly powerful chord. More than one tear was spilled and it would be a cold heart that felt nothing at all. Pixar have struck gold with perhaps their finest film yet (remember, it's only the first 40 minutes of Wall-E that count) and certainly, certainly the best film of the year. Honestly, it's about as perfect as cinema can get. To infinity and beyond indeed...

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Whatever Works (Woody Allen, 2009) Review

"Let me tell you up front, I'm not a likable guy." Whatever Works (2009)...

It seems like every other year that Woody Allen is making a 'return to form'. After the misjudged London-set drama Cassandra's Dream (2007), the sun-soaked flourish of Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) made a refreshing change of pace, and featured a glorious firecracker turn from an Oscar-winning Penélope Cruz. But, true to formula, Whatever Works finds Allen off-form in an overfamiliar regression which signifies not so much another dry patch as a full creative drought.

The story follows grumpy old man Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David) as he bemoans the world and falls in love, despite his better judgement, with a young runaway named Melody (Evan Rachel Wood), whom he finds living rough outside of his apartment. There are some inspired lines dotted throughout the screenplay ("botanically speaking, you're more of a venus flytrap") but they're few and far between, and usually wedged between endless monologues, like the opening rant in which Boris drowns himself in hyperbole and reveals that this "won't be the feel-good movie of the year." No kidding. This level of narcissism was funny when somebody as naturally anxious as Allen took the lead, but David's obnoxious tone (perfected on Curb Your Enthusiasm) soon becomes tiresome. His voice is too distinctive for Allen's specific dialogue, and the tone always feels more HBO than Manhattan. Yellnikoff is about as appropriate as monikers get.

The emotional tone is also off. Allen's 70's work had real heart and feeling, and something to say about the nature of relationships (they're like a shark), but the message of Whatever Works sounds distinctly like a man giving up: "Whatever love you can get and give, whatever happiness you can filch or provide, every temporary measure of grace. Whatever works." It's an amusing sentiment, especially when Melody applies it to sheep (Allen nodding to his own Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex..., 1972), but it's too lazy to really connect, and matters aren't helped by the creepiness of the central relationship. Melody is a genuinely sweet-natured character (can this be the same actress who played Pretty Persuasion's devilish Kimberly?) so what she's doing with a cold, misanthropic, intellectually aggressive cramp, decades her senior, is quite the mystery. Boris even describes her, after they've been married (yes, that's just one of the contrivances) as a "sub-mental baton twirler." Lifts the heart, doesn't it?

As if all of this wasn't tedious enough, the introduction of Melody's mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) as an uptight religious fanatic who transforms into a sexually liberated artist is frankly absurd, and falls miles over the wrong side of parody. She wears her hair down in a bandana, occupies ménage à trois' in her (probably café-topside) gallery, and discusses with complete strangers the profound nature of art. At this point, you might have guessed, the film is beyond redemption. It frequently looks back to Annie Hall (1977) for inspiration, but too often just descends into another mean-spirited tirade against Melody.

There are moments of interest, notably in Allen's camerawork, but a few tracking shots can't make up for dialogue this ear-splitting. The supporting cast (bar Clarkson) are all effective in their roles, and allow for a break from the audience berating waffle of Boris, but the whole production just feels too old hat for us to care, and when a character breaks the fourth wall to tell the audience they're "idiots" it's hard to think of reasons not to leave. Oh, and considering that Allen has spent the last decade or so frequenting London, the appearance of an Englishman named Randy is just unforgivable.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Predators (Nimród Antal, 2010) Review

"All of a sudden, there was a light. And then, I was falling".

Predators begins with professional hardman Royce (Adrien Brody) freefalling into the dense, hostile jungle of an alien planet. He's soon joined by Cuchillio (Danny Trejo), Nikolai (Oleg Taktarov) and Isabelle (Alice Braga) among a variety of mercenaries, revolutionaries and criminals. They all have one thing in common: they're dangerous. But next to the jungle's regular inhabitants, the fearsome predators, they're easy prey. This is a bleak world with only a doctor by the name of Edwin (Topher Grace) to ease the tone with some likably jokey material. For a summer sequel seeped in expectations and formulaic design Predators feels brilliantly refreshing. It's not in 3D. It makes great use of practical effects. And it's paced 80/20 in favor of character development and survival. Despite what the trailer would have you believe Antal's fourth feature film isn't another all-out actioner. It's suitably dark, violent and surprisingly engaging. In fact it's probably the best Predator movie there's ever been.

That may be a controversial statement to make but what the original Predator (John McTiernan, 1987) had going for it was macho appeal and special effects. It's about as deep as a puddle and the butch, one-liner strewn tone feels very dated. Of course a franchise with its eye squarely on setting pulses pounding doesn't exactly need to be character-driven but Predators is compelling in its approach of making the characters interesting and allowing them to develop over the course of the film. By the mid-way point you really feel like you know them and when the film does reach the fiery, blood-letting finale there are emotions invested. It's also vital to note that none of the characters are especially likable. At one point Edwin gets injured in a trap, disabling his leg. An argument ensues between Isabelle and Royce as to whether they should take him with them; they both know he'll slow them down. In any other film it would be a moment of morality where the hero reflects and, in the end, saves the helpless victim. But in Predators there are no heroes. "They expect you to be human" says Royce. The land of Predators is full of killers, human or inhuman. Morals don't even come into it. And it's a good job the film has this card to play because despite everything it's mind-blowingly unoriginal. The characters are picked off one by one as they wade through a stilted script full of exposition, a key exchange being "How do we kill them?", "However you can". For all its focus on character and exploration of team mechanics and primal instincts Predators can sometimes grate on the ears. Which is why Antal and producer Robert Rodriguez (Planet Terror, 2007) had the sense to hire some real actors.

The main point of interest is of course OSCAR winner Adrien Brody (The Pianist, Roman Polanski, 2002), notoriously thin in appearance and intense in his craft. He's one of our finest actors and to find him in this kind of material is initially confusing. But that's exactly why he's here. Not only has Brody significantly beefed up for the role (he's not Schwarzenegger, but you wouldn't take a swipe at him), he also invests Royce with psychological depth and a believable world-weary attitude. Watching him take on a predator in the films final stages could have been laughable but instead it's exciting, dramatic and very, very cool. As an actor he didn't need to prove his range to anyone but with Predators he confirms the obvious; Adrien Brody can do no wrong and his presence in a film always assures a level of interest. The rest of the cast do well in their roles but are predictable choices. The least effective character is Hanzo (Louis Ozawa Changchien) who doesn't speak for most of the film but does engage in some Crouching Tiger Hidden Predator towards the end, in an uninspired set-piece.

The whole thing feels remarkably assured too. Antal, while not the greatest director in the world, has a clear vision for this 15 rated outing and the bleak tone, careful unfolding of plot and pumped-up action are perfectly balanced. The photography and score offer nothing groundbreaking but work effectively in the piece as a whole. It's perhaps not as good as a 20 year wait would suggest (the last official Predator film was released in 1990) but it's better than we had any right to expect. With as little CGI as possible (the predators look awesome) it has a very old-school feel and the ending leaves open the possibility of another installment. In a world of Transformers (Michael Bay, 2007) and 2012 (Roland Emmerich, 2009) quite frankly i'd go freefalling for another Predators film. And a blood-soaked trek through the jungle, as it turns out, wouldn't be such a bad place to land...

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Interview With A Film Critic

In response to my interview last week, casual moviegoer Jason Birbas has accepted my proposal of a reverse interview. Here I tackle his questions on why I love film and my thoughts on directors and the industry...

JB: Okay. So lets just start off nice and light by talking about cinema that you enjoy. In recent times you cited Magnolia (P.T. Anderson, 1999) as one of your favorite films. What makes this film stand out above all others?
ME: Firstly a correction. I have stated that I think Magnolia is the greatest film of all time and I've said that since I first saw it five years ago. And as for why? Film is a directors medium. Anderson is a brilliant storyteller and I think Magnolia would be the best film of all time even on a technical level. The music, the editing, the photography... it creates an incredible mood and atmosphere and I think the mastery behind the camera is stunning. But it also works on a much more intimate, emotional level. Every character, even if I don't relate to them, I feel for them. Every time I re-watch the film it's like meeting up with old friends still in the same dislocated pit of despair and I want them to get better. It's such a complete vision and just overpoweringly emotional, filled with great scene after great scene. The ending has me in floods of tears.

JB: One of the things I felt about Magnolia was that if a standard audience that was used to seeing your standard family film blockbuster saw this, they would very much not enjoy themselves. Is this true in your eyes? What are your thoughts on the matter?
I think it's very untrue and I would argue that you're projecting your negative response to the film onto a presupposed audience, which is always unwise. I think as a three hour melodrama it would be tough to adjust to but people need variety. What better break from family friendly spectacle than a gritty, emotional character piece? It's all about investment. If you don't invest in Magnolia you won't like it. It doesn't matter about colour or religion or background; film is universal. I think Magnolia is a work of art and no matter what you're used to or where you're from if you invest in this story you have the possibility of being rewarded. It's an incredibly affecting piece of work.

JB: What are the films that really get to you? Shed a tear or two maybe? What are these films and why did they make you react in that way?
ME: Well obviously Magnolia. I think the last scene is a beautiful moment; the joining between two lonely and broken souls who need each other so desperately. It's a confession of love in a film that has been unrelentingly bleak and every time it makes me cry and gives me hope. The films of Lars von Trier make me cry often. The Idiots (1998) and Dancer In The Dark (2000) especially. To say why would be to spoil moments in those films but I felt strongly for the characters and their circumstances. The Idiots actually made me sad for days, it took a while to get over. The ending of Let The Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008) lifts my heart. I wept like a child at the swimming pool scene. I don't shed a tear for Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater, 1995) because it's not that kind of film, but it's my second favorite film of all time and it fills my heart with joy and sadness equally. The feeling of innocence, love and hope and uncertainty in that conclusion (and equally in the sequel Before Sunset, 2004) is incredible.

JB: There has always been a divide to what the critics think and what audiences feel when they watch a film. Do you think this is because of a different mindset or because of the circumstances of the two audience types?
ME: It probably is down to mindset but this is hard to answer. A critic still enjoys a film, they still experience it because they are an audience member. It's just that they have a more detailed knowledge and point of reference to back up their opinion. So this is always acting subconsciously (or consciously) when looking at the mise-en-scene etc. I've never known how not to watch a film that way, so I can't speak for the public. But I find it hard to believe a mainstream audience member doesn't notice differing quality of direction or coherency in a film, or doesn't feel offended by certain morals that are present in 'light' entertainments or even artistic works.

JB: There are many types of film genre. What are your favorites and why?
ME: I think science fiction and westerns are extremely interesting as they can work in both an entertainment and artistic sense, as well as being existential and elegiac respectively, which are interesting themes to present technically and emotionally. They're both very accessible and popular genres for exactly that reason. Most people can kick back to Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) or Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969) and those are great films. But the genres also pivot off into fascinating dimensions such as The Ninth Configuration (William Peter Blatty, 1981) and The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007). Action is also lots of fun to kick back to, when it's done well. Horror is also a big one for me, I love being scared by a film and taken into the dark depths. This is a hard question to answer as a critic because i've seen amazing films from every genre. Magnolia is a drama so how can I not say that? A character study will always appeal to me. The genre I like least is comedy but there are films in that genre that I think are masterpieces.

JB: I think it's more obvious that audiences today would like something more action packed or glamorous compared to say an arthouse film that inspires thought and creativity. How do you think the film industry needs to overcome this problem? Or rather do you think they plan on correcting this 'mishap' at all?
ME: I don't think they plan on fixing anything as long as the films they distribute widely are popular. If something makes money Hollywood assumes people like it, so they make another one. And people keep going to see it because it's there and they don't have the time to look outside of the listings for their local multiplex. They have lives to live. Most people want to go to the cinema after work or at the weekend to have a good time and invest into something, so it has to be easy. If you make the art easy, if you put it in the cinemas there's a 50/50 chance that people will give it a try. And if that makes money we'll get more of that. Hollywood just needs to be more adventurous. America makes great films like they always have, it's just that they get released for three days in an underground theatre because Transformers 2 (Michael Bay, 2009) is on general release. And it's as simple as that.

JB: Lets see what you make of certain directors. John Woo has made several masterpieces in both the western and eastern markets of film. Which would you say are the best and why?
ME: The only difference between his Eastern and Western work is tone. There are stinkers and masterpieces in both. The Eastern work is slightly more stylised and cheesy, but they are also products of their time. The Killer (1989) is his best Eastern film. It may be very silly and has no continuity but the action is relentless and brilliantly directed. His worst work in this market is the early musicals he directed, which he really didn't want to be making; subsequently the direction is uninspired. As far as his Western work goes Paycheck (2003) is rubbish and Broken Arrow (1996) is formulaic but fun. Face/Off (1997) could make a claim for the greatest action movie of all time; it's absurd, sure. But the character relationships and psychological aspects are great, the performances are spot-on and the action is just exhilarating. But his best film is M:I-2 (2000) which is his cheesiest and silliest piece of work, but for that reason I adore it. Everything from Tom Cruise's hair to the Hans Zimmer score and the gunfights is pure popcorn pleasure. There are very few films I can re-watch as often as that one.

JB: How about a star this time. Tom Cruise. A man that's been in many films with many themes. What are your favorite scenes that this actor has performed in and how do you think his style has changed over the years of his A-List Hollywood career?
ME: He's managed to balance the action movies and intense dramas perfectly. You have to ignore his personal life as it has nothing to do with his art and he excels as an actor. I've already expressed love for Magnolia and M:I-2 and they show the full extent of his range. Magnolia is an ensemble drama but Cruise stands out because his intensity and the qualities of his character are at odds with his grinning star image. The scene where his character, Frank Mackey, is sat at his fathers bedside and begins to break down, equally saddened and resentful, is some of the best acting i've ever seen. M:I-2 is a more physical performance and in this area he succeeds as well. It's hard to determine what makes somebody a convincing action hero but Cruise has done it time and time again. His style hasn't changed that much, he's just learnt to challenge himself in a variety of roles. You could argue that Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999) is more accomplished than War Of The Worlds (Steven Spielberg, 2005) but he brings the same dedication to every role. That smile may have won over many people but it's the steely glare that got him accolades and an OSCAR nomination as an actor. Basically he has it all.

JB: We've recently watched Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001). What was it like watching a film that had a non-linear storyline with a very surreal body compared to your standard family film i.e. the latest Harry Potter.
ME: Watching a film with a non-linear storyline is always interesting, when used effectively. Lynch delves into dream worlds and fantasies and he blurs realities so it's perfect. For me it's an instantly engaging experience because it just demands more attention. Fundamentally the difference is that one is a work of art and one is a mainstream product. I really like the Harry Potter films, they have great production values, talented directors, a great British cast and it feels like a really coherent vision with passion behind it. As franchises go I think they've just got better and better. But it's aimed at the kids. There's simply no point straying into surrealism and non-linear narrative in that kind of movie. It works for what it is but it's a throwaway product. Mulholland Drive is something to take with you. It's layered and endlessly fascinating. No matter how much effort goes into a Harry Potter production it won't be a David Lynch film.

JB: Do you think this film could have been marketed better during its day so that it was brought to mainstream audiences? Possibly giving them a better insight into what film can do?
ME: I think Mulholland Drive is an excellent film for mainstream audiences to watch because it has elements of noir, mystery and romance, also referencing popular films like Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950). It's surreal and complicated but it has a familiar point of access and you can market that quite easily. Ultimately I think David Lynch films are easy to promote, just put all the genre convention into the trailer and you'll lure in an unsuspecting crowd. Again, it's all about investment. Unless you don't give a film like Mulholland Drive a chance from the start and instantly write it off as pretentious you can't help but be drawn into it. No matter the product I think people like to talk about films after they've seen them and Lynch knows how to provoke discussion.

JB: Lets pan outwards now. Cinema as a whole can have many uses. It can portray a simple moral or argument. Or it can comment on an entire era and society. What makes you so passionate about cinema? What keeps you watching films and not drifting on to new pastimes?
ME: It would be too easy to say a fascination with the moving image, but that's what it comes down to. The composition of a piece of cinema, the way a story unfolds is just endlessly interesting and exciting to me. Every film is a new experience, it'll take you somewhere new and because of the range of cinema; genre, country, decade - the possibilities are endless. I think it has a lot to do with retaining a sense of wonder too. I opened myself up to films when I was young, I didn't go out very much and every day held a new story. There is something almost childlike about cinema fanaticism. Watching an auteurs body of work is a treat for all the senses. It's visual, aural, it gets the brain working and the heart pumping. Take Alfred Hitchcock for example, and Psycho (1960). I think that's the best example of storytelling in cinema history, nothing unfolds the way that film does. And it has all you could want. Complex story, interesting characters with psychological depth, mystery, horror, excitement. It's perfectly made too, as with most of Hitchcock's films. The shower scene is a great example of what cinema can do - it's when a master storyteller turns his tale on its head in a powerful moment of sex and violence, perfectly directed, edited and scored. And most of the themes in that moment and many of his stylistic flourishes, reoccur in his body of work. The way cinema explores dreams, space, history, fantasy, relationships, crime, sexuality, religion, nature, addiction, music, architecture, violence... nothing else compels me in the same way. Cinema makes me laugh, cry, jump out of my seat and think hard about issues and themes not just in the past, not just in the present but also in the future. The depth of cinema is profound beyond all other art forms. The beautiful scenery of Manon Des Sources (Claude Berri, 1986), the wit of Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979), the pure thrill of Evil Dead II (Sam Raimi, 1987). I owe my life to cinema. It's the most important thing in the world and I say that with absolute sincerity.

JB: Think about what we discussed about audiences being passive and watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FXttqg0RWU8 (Clash Of The Titans, Louis Leterrier, 2010, trailer). Perhaps do the more emotive, provocative films have an impossible task in trying to get the audiences attention and non-passive time when they have films like this to go up against?
ME: Hard, but not impossible. When I look at the trailer for Clash Of The Titans I see what everybody else sees - an action-packed piece of popcorn entertainment. And it's a pretty good trailer in terms of representation of its product so I understand why people would want to kick back to that on a Friday night. But they, as well as I, must know that it's just popcorn entertainment. We have to remember that not everyone who sees these movies which make millions of dollars actually like them. I'm sure many people leave the cinema wanting more. The problem is that the cinemas which screen blockbusters like this one only show trailers for the next big blockbuster so people simply aren't aware of the diversity they could have. The two big releases this week are Predators (Nimrod Antal, 2010) and The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (David Slade, 2010) and they'll be filling multiplexes all over the country. But there are also films like Frownland (Ronald Bronstein, 2007), Leaving (Catherine Corsini, 2009) and London River (Rachid Bouchareb, 2009) finally getting releases over here, the latter of which I think is an important film for audiences to see. But they'll never hear of it until they stumble across it on television in four years. If the task is impossible it's only because of Hollywood marketing. If you advertise these films in the cinema, if you play these films in the cinema, audiences will embrace the ability to choose.

JB: Now watch this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-egQ79OrYCs (The Last Airbender, M. Night Shyamalan, 2010, trailer). Perhaps certain film studios have become so confident in their money making schemes that the actual products they are releasing to the public no longer fit the bill. Would you agree?
ME: Yes and no. Yes because you're talking about blockbuster season and as long as a movie has a target audience or a demographic that Hollywood can aim at, they'll release the movie. No because the quality of the product is down to the people making the film. Unless something is literally so bad it's unwatchable I think Hollywood will meet its release dates - it's bad publicity if they don't and the movie has a bigger chance of flopping. In this case it's an M. Night Shyamalan film so the chances of a masterpiece are slim nowadays. But it has an audience. And on the other hand there are movies like Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) and Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010) being released this summer which have got some of the best reviews of the year and they look brilliant. And it's because they're being made by a visionary filmmaker and an animation studio with five OSCARS behind them. Filmmakers believe in quality; Hollywood believes in quantity.

JB: Last one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CvUxdQ4q-Lg (Taken, Pierre Morel, 2008, trailer). We have often disagreed on how good this film is. But could it not be said that a simple message of the power of love between family is all that needs to be portrayed in a film to get a point across? And the more flamboyant the way this message is put across can only reinforce the message and make it stronger to its audience? Surely that's a satisfactory role for cinema that has the passive audience but at the same time that moral value?
ME: Sure, but you're assuming that Taken has all that when it doesn't. Any message the film was trying to make (and i'm not sure it has one) is lost in the fact that Taken is such a stupid and racist production. These moral values of an audience you talk about should be able to pick up on that. There are many films about the love between family, many of them dramas, some of them action films, but none that spring to mind involve killing every cliched sex trafficker in Europe (which seems to be what their non-specific population consists of). It's not a satisfactory role for cinema, as long as you're packaging it in this kind of product. Taken is the most basic level of a long-established genre and it says nothing interesting about its central theme - the love of a father for his daughter. I don't think anyone left Taken with a sense of accomplishment or a stronger sense of values.

JB: So overall what puts you off a film? The story? The themes? The messages and feelings it tries to promote? (if there are any!)
ME: As a cinema fanatic and critic i'll watch pretty much anything but you get to a point where you know certain things will hold nothing of value for you. Catherine Breillat is the most horrid, stupid hack of a filmmaker and i've seen five of her films. She's made quite a few more but at this point I know they'd do nothing but make me angry so I avoid them. Same goes for these football hooligan films starring Danny Dyer etc. Because those films are really stupid and lacking in morals. A lack of morals will always turn me off a film; if something is racist or sexist for no reason other than being that way. This Is England (Shane Meadows, 2006) has a lot of racist content and themes but it's making a point about them and it's a very affecting drama and a fascinating time capsule for our country. Context will always be the deciding factor for me I think; the context in which a theme or idea is displayed. I also don't like films that preach to me, that can be annoying. But I think it's important to have an open mind and embrace as much of the medium as you can. Because cinema is a very special thing and the stories it holds are endless...

Interview With A Casual Moviegoer

On the 4th July 2010 I, Michael Ewins, conducted an interview with casual moviegoer Jason Birbas, to understand his views on films and the film industry. The idea of the interview was to get a grasp on what a member of the public wants from a film and their knowledge and opinion of the workings of an industry. This is what he had to say...

ME: Okay, lets start on familiar ground. You've quoted The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994) as your favorite film. What is it about that particular film that raises it above all others?
JB: Essentially the characters and the situation they're in. You may think "oh really, you don't say" but the situation appealed to my sense of black comedy and the characters seemed to bring the film to life in a way that went beyond genre (not black comedy of course) and into a real struggle. It's not that I could relate to the characters, I just really sympathised with them. I think the narration by (Morgan) Freeman helped but even that wouldn't have as much effect if the feeling of desperation in Dufresne (Tim Robbins) didn't come out as the film went on. It's the only film where i've really wanted the hero to succeed in a serious way (Antichrist was not serious).
ME: One of the most interesting things about The Shawshank Redemption is the fact that it flopped on release (it didn't even earn back its $35 million budget) and now it's one of the most popular films of all time, and No.1 on IMDB's Top 250 movies. As a casual moviegoer what do you think is the deciding factor in what an audience member sees (star? genre? based on a familiar product?)
JB: Ultimately everyone is different with different circumstances that affect them at different times, but on the whole it has to be something that makes them enjoy themselves. Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994) did that so it would have stolen audiences from everywhere. People don't watch films to think, they watch them to have fun (due to whatever reason, the end is the same). So really it could be genre with a certain star that appeals to big themes depending on the country. With America i'd say Forrest Gump fit the bill.
ME: The Shawshank Redemption is also one of two movies to make you cry. The other, rather unconventionally, is Transformers 2: Revenge Of The Fallen (Michael Bay, 2009). Talk us through that experience - what emotionally engaged you enough in this critically panned robots flick, to cause a physical reaction?
Before I say anything it must be stated that I had one pint of Beck's before I went into the screen. However, emotional music always gets to me, just like the opera song in Shawshank. As Michael Bay is good at this kind of thing he pretty much got me. (editors note: Michael Bay isn't good at anything; praise should be attributed to original score composer Steve Jablonsky). I would also say due to the fact that i'm not really sporting a critical mindset when I watch a film I am more able to connect with the characters whether they be CGI or otherwise (in fact I genuinely think I liked the robots more). So when Optimus Prime died I just felt a tear welling in my eye. I didn't break down and start sobbing but tears fell down my cheeks. It was also the way he died; as in he might just survive and then all hope is lost. Again, the way the sword comes out of his chest - you just know it's over.
ME: Many critics look down upon films that cause a viewer to undergo a physical reaction (comedy, horror, melodrama) but these seem to be most popular with audiences. Why do you think there is such a divide between what the critics and audiences respond to, and do you think people really listen to critics in todays world?
JB: I've always thought that's because they are poles to each other. People watch films because they want to have fun or because they are interested due to an advertising campaign. Critics see films because they are a art form and they take pleasure out of dissecting what it is and what specific parts mean etc. On the whole critics aren't widely acknowledged but Mark Kermode has a large following and people are influenced by what he says so i'd say he was the odd one out. But even then only to people who have a stronger interest in film than most. The average Joe will not really subscribe to people like Kermode so on the whole i'd say a resounding NO, and that's unlikely to change.
ME: Horror, comedy, drama, musical, western, sci-fi - cinema is a broad medium that spans countries and decades. What is your favorite film genre, your favorite films within that genre, and why?
JB: Genre would have to be comedy. This is really because I (like most people) love to laugh. I'm also a black comedy fan as I was born with a boundless imagination that favoured the warped side of things. It's very much a part of my whole outlook on life as a whole. Favorite films from that genre would be Very Bad Things (Peter Berg, 1998) and Heathers (Michael Lehmann, 1989). Forgetting the fact that both films star Christian Slater they just take standard events (one last night with the lads before a man is married and a girl going through the social teenage pressures of high school), and blow them out of the water whilst not losing complete control of the plot and giving it a 'fairly' reasonable and quite funny ending. There is a third film from none of the above genres that stayed with me, it was called King Rat (Bryan Forbes, 1965) and I remember watching about 90 minutes of it. It was set in a Japanese POW camp where a US and a British soldier become friends. It just seemed to stick with me, its simple comic touches and intricate characters built a plot that interested me.
ME: I think it would be fair to say that mainstream audiences want films that are 'easy' as opposed to something 'challenging'. Do you think there could be a meeting point between popular entertainments and a more cerebral art, and would audiences accept it?
JB: Yes, i'm with you there. It would need to be something that people like at surface value and something that holds a powerful message. The obvious example is The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) but these are few and far between. Audiences can't be made to accept films, I think it all depends on the current circumstance of modern society and what certain events resonate with the population of these societies.
ME: On countless occasions you've said to me that the cinema industry is "about money". Do you think this has always been an existent problem, directly affecting the quality of the products that are in multiplexes, or has a decrease in audience demand over the years resulted in studios taking cash-happy advantage?
JB: Bit of both. The rise of DVD would have something to do with it I imagine. I think in western culture money is more dominant. I'm not the most educated on Asian cinema but i'd say the money factor was a lot less over there than here. In terms of affecting products I think there's definitely a sense of opportunism that certain trends and events that create films that have certain stars that will simply take big money.
ME: Lets discuss a filmmaker we both know well; Quentin Tarantino. There seems to be a clear divide between people in the Jackie Brown (1997) and Death Proof (2007) camps, for reasons of artistic integrity. What do you think audiences respond to in his films, and why is he so loved and loathed in equal measure?
JB: He's always been someone you either love or hate. I am on the former myself. I'd say it's because Jackie Brown had a decent plot which took audiences along a journey whereas Death Proof is about a psychopathic ex-stuntman who likes to kill women in the most bizarre of circumstances. In terms of getting that cult-like audience reaction it has to be the style which he writes. Making very clear points with such complex wit has to be a winner in my books.
ME: After Jackie Brown flopped Tarantino returned to a more accessible popcorn entertainment in Kill Bill (2003/2004), which I also think marks a significant step down in his writing and directing skill. Do you think he sold out, or do these films hold equal importance to his body of work? If the latter, why?
JB: I loved the Kill Bill films however there is a clear difference to what came before. Sold out is the wrong word. It's more of a subtle change with the same writing. The only difference is that the story is much more cliched and action packed. As for comparing them to his older films, they're just as good. Characters like Pai Mei (Chia Hui Liu) and the two people in the restaurant with the General, and the snake scene - these are still showing that Tarantino magic that you just don't get anywhere else.
ME: I recently made you watch Antichrist (Lars von Trier, 2009) which falls into the cerebral/art department. What did you think of the film (good/bad), and how did you feel about the more 'graphic' scenes?
JB: I loved that film. Willem Dafoe was brilliant as was his counterpart (Charlotte Gainsbourg). It was an intricate blend of cinematic wonder backed up by two rock solid and emotional performances. In short the film was nothing short of a masterful experience. Of course when I began to watch it I felt the pretentious factor was ranging on the moronically high but it calmed down when the graphic scenes came into play. These were pretty graphic indeed and as a man I shuddered many a time.
ME: Do you think that sort of film has a place in mainstream cinema, alongside Prince Of Persia (Mike Newell, 2010) and Sex And The City 2 (Michael Patrick King, 2010)?
JB: No and yes. No because it would be sidelined to films like The Unborn (David S. Goyer, 2009) and other B movie trash due to the way audiences would interpret the film. And yes because it is one thousand million times more superior to Prince Of Persia and Sex And The City 2.
ME: The 'mainstream' audiences we discussed earlier generally stay away from anything too contemplative or 'difficult'. Personally would you take a more active interest in cinema if it stimulated you intellectually, or you could study a directors body of work? Does cinema history hold any interest to you whatsoever?
JB: In terms of cinema history being interesting to me the answer is a very big no. As would be studying a directors body of work in detail. I could watch all of a directors films but as for sitting down and thinking about them, I could only do that in the company of friends and even then it would be an intense experience which would tire me out very quickly. However it has to be said people would benefit from films that were more stimulating than films which simply demand utter submission to a screen for 96 minutes. However I doubt this will be happening anytime soon.
ME: Take a look at this clip from Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5PAdQ5anhZE. Do you find it surprising that such a visionary piece of cinema existed as early as the 1920s and that the effects look so good (perhaps even better than the CGI today)? Would you be interested in watching the film?
JB: It looked brilliant. I guess the way we've used effects over the years may be a bit wasteful and mind numbing. I'd be interested in seeing it though I have a feeling the whole film contains no dialogue whatsoever so it may take a little more convincing.
ME: Film can, of course, also be seen as a historical document, especially of Britain (This Is England, Shane Meadows, 2006), (Of Time And The City, Terence Davies, 2008). Do you think cinema is an important medium in this regard, as a time-capsule?
JB: Yes, absolutely. I mean just imagine what people will think of the noughties when they see Wanted (Timur Bekmambetov, 2008). However the masterpieces do tend to shape a picture of what went on in certain eras and film is important in that respect. I think it can serve as a collective reflection on certain parts of history that can make people think whether or not mankind got it right or not.
ME: Among the 'classics' such as It's A Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946), 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) and Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976) how many have you seen? Do you have any desire to watch any of them?
JB: I've seen a bit of The Godfather and I own 2001 on DVD but haven't seen it yet. I have no real open desire to see any of these films but I am sure that if I did I would be very entertained and intellectually stimulated at the same time. The Shawshank Redemption was a classic in my eyes and I would happily watch that film again.
ME: Personally what would make you take a more 'active' interest in cinema and learn about waves such as German Expressionism/ Weimar, The French New Wave, The Movie Brats? Do you think you'd be more inclined to watch these films if someone lent them to you, and would you be more active in film discussion if you had seen these classic/artistic films?
JB: Not really, I would happily delve into them for a short while only to retreat to my own interests. As for any long haul analysis of cinema i'll have to take a rain check i'm afraid. However in terms of a little bit more discussion into certain things, I would be open to that.
ME: Finally, what turns you away from a film? What elements would decide for you that a film is not worth seeing, or would not be enjoyable to you?
JB: I must say not that much can put me off a film. Unless it's a mundane film set in a suburb in America where nothing happens. If you take one of my favorite films, Taken (Pierre Morel, 2008) then the opposite of that is something i'd hate to see. I don't mean any film that hasn't got a gun. But a film without determination with characters that have real urges and real goals. A film with action isn't necessarily violent but passionate. In short something that engages me. In other words anything with emotive music. So to answer your question (to turn me off) ultimately it would have to be something like a non-speaking foreign film about everyday crap like parking tickets and arguing who left the bedroom door open...