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l e t ' s g e t to o l e d u p, b l u d !
at ta c k t h e b lo c k J o e
C o r n i s h a d d s r o c k e t - f u e l l e d r a z z l e - d a z z l e to t h e r e n a i s s a n c e o f B r i t i s h s c i - f i .
Directed by Joe Cor nish Star r ing John Boyega, Alex Esmail, Jodie Whittaker Released May 13
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irst came the ad men – Parker, Scott, Lyne – with their shimmering reflection of the 1980s: dazzling, opulent, American movies that put Britain on the map in Hollywood. Then came the television directors – Winterbottom, Greengrass, Yates – the mainstream mavericks reshaping the new century with subversive and paranoid blockbusters. Now it’s the turn of a new generation – the pop-culture kids raised on videogames and Star Wars, the arrested developers who lost their shit to George Lucas and never got it back. They grew up with ET and The Goonies, Marty McFly and Ghostbusters. Hollywood may have been a galaxy far, far away, but they absorbed the impact and imagery of American filmmaking and assimilated it into a new kind of international British cinema. The likes of Matthew Vaughn and Edgar Wright have taken
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genres that weren’t considered part of our filmmaking identity and refashioned them into something quintessentially British. Now Joe Cornish has joined the gang – and in style. It’s not as bold as Scott Pilgrim, nor as brazen as Kick-Ass, but Attack the Block is a triumphant fusion of British values and Hollywood magic. Ever since War of the Worlds was relocated from Croydon to California for Byron Haskin’s 1953 adaptation, Britain has sacrificed sciencefiction spectacle to concentrate on the genre’s existential outer limits. Aliens invaded more meaningful places while Blighty sat back and watched. But not any more. From the moment Attack the Block announces itself with a crane shot of Oval tube station it is anchored by an unmistakably British milieu. From here we follow trainee nurse, Sam (Jodie Whittaker), as she makes her way home through the kind of unlit streets that will be instantly familiar to any south Londoner. On one of these streets, close to the estate where she lives, Sam is stopped by a gang of hoodies and, in another scene that will be familiar to many, is ‘merked’ for her wallet and ring. Just as your heart sinks at the tone of gritty urban realism, a fireball explodes, an alien appears, a beat-down follows and a full on invasion kicks off. As nightmare visions of iridescent teeth and gut-knotting growls come looking for blood, the hoodies – Pest (Alex Esmail), Dennis (Franz Drameh), Jerome (Leeon Jones), Biggz (Simon Howard) and ringleader Moses (John Boyega) – retreat to the block and prepare to fight for their lives. It’s inner city versus outer space, but it’s more than that, too. It’s idealism, ambition and audacity versus the can’t-do parochialism of British-funded film. It’s Cornish versus the cynics. The result? Bare slewage.
"It’s inner city versus outer s p a c e , b u t i t ’ s m o r e t h a n t h a t, too. It’s idealism, ambition and audacity versus the c a n ’t -d o pa r o c h i a l i s m o f British-funded film. It’s Cornish versus the cynics."
Actually, the fight was rigged. Cornish is a first time director, but he’s not straight off the bus. He cut his teeth as the co-creator of Channel 4’s Adam and Joe Show before pitching up in Hollywood as one of three British writers on Spielberg and Jackson’s Tintin. With those kind of friends it’s no surprise that Attack the Block is slick, smart and full of geek-friendly nods and winks. But where it really makes a mark is in realising the hidden potential of the genre. The gang’s reaction to first contact is a superbly orchestrated and darkly comic riposte to Close Encounters. There are no flashing lights, no François Truffaut. “It’s raining monkeys!” shouts Jerome. They’re not interested in social allegory – these aren’t aliens as asylum seekers, “They’re fucking monsters,” says Biggz. “Bare aliens,” agrees Moses. “Let’s get tooled up!” concludes Pest. It’s in this collision between the enormity of the event and the simplicity of the response that Cornish locates many of the film’s best moments. That these moments work is due in no small part to the cast – mostly non-professional first-timers themselves. They helped Cornish develop the dialogue, an inscrutable south London vernacular that’ll need subtitles in some parts of Britain, never mind the US. It’s peppered with references to Call of Duty, rap music and exactly the kind of movie they’re in, blurring the already fuzzy boundaries between the recognisable and the unthinkable. The effect is like seeing the film’s own audience up on screen, not just playing along but playing a part. Attack the Block may be scarcely 90 minutes long, but if there’s one thing Cornish has learned from Spielberg it’s to use action as character. Yet there’s a subtle development of personality, too. At first, the gang are little more than sketches. And why not? You think you know these people from a thousand headlines. “They’re fucking animals,” as one old lady puts it. But as they’re shaded, real people emerge – characters worth caring about because they go beyond the clichés. The sympathy and affection that the director has developed for them is unmistakable, and as the film takes a sharp turn from comic to horrific, you’ll find yourself nervously willing them through. Because none of them are safe – as Moses is reminded, “Everywhere you go, bad things happen.” Cornish has cited American Werewolf in London as an inspiration, and he earns comparisons to John Landis’ film through blood as well as laughs. Like American Werewolf, there are stabs at satire – “She’s a nurse, they don’t get paid nuffin’,” Pest complains to Moses when they find Sam’s hospital ID. But other efforts at infusing the film with a political subtext are more even, with the kids’ easy access to knives a particular sticking point.
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Later, though, Pest will convincingly explain to Sam why they’re able to take events in their stride – walking around in fear of your life is like any other day on the block. At one point, Moses suggests that the aliens are a weapon introduced by the government to wipe out black boys, but just when you think that Cornish is getting carried away, the rest of the gang burst into laughter. The most important character of all is the block itself. Lit from above and shot from below, it’s the most alien element of the film. To the people who live there, it’s more than just a place; it’s an idea, a symbol of safety, security and home. However ambivalent the residents themselves are to those concepts, it’s an extended family and tribal bond; the only time the boys show any remorse is after they realise Sam lives there too – that she is, however tenuously, one of them. But Cornish never quite injects the block with enough personality. As a cinematic space it feels underused – strangely sterile and empty where it should bloom with life to invest the alien threat with its proper dramatic impact. The few people who do inhabit it are movie stereotypes – drug dealers, gangsters and comic white boys – rather than the flesh and blood people who could have invested it with real feeling. And yet personality is the thing that Attack the Block has in spades. Cornish has successfully channelled some of that Spielberg stardust to create a film whose roots are impossibly exotic even while the action is tantalisingly close to home. It exudes a sense of destiny, of irresistible energy. As a filmmaker, Cornish isn’t yet in the same league as friend and exec-producer Edgar Wright, but alongside Wright, Vaughn, Duncan Jones and Gareth Edwards, he’s part of the bright future of genre filmmaking in Britain
Joe Cor nish is a cult hero from h i s T V d ay s , b u t h e ’s a l s o p a r t o f a n e w B r i t i s h f i l m s c e n e t h a t ’s s e t t o t a k e ove r H o l l y wo o d .
Balancing big laughs and big shocks, Attack the Block is a brilliant first film b y a ny b o d y ’s s t a n d a r d s.
In Retrospect. D e s t i n e d f o r a l o n g l i f e o n D V D shelves. Introduce people to this film and they’ll love you forever.
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Creative Brief build a rocket Back in January, we invited you to build a rocket ship out of whatever odds and ends you had lying around and send us a picture. We had, quite literally, several entries. Frankly, none of them were as good as our heater-powered rocket, which you can check out on YouTube. Still, thanks to everyone who entered and congrats to the winners. Cool shit is on the way.
Cups Rocket Azziah and Reggie and Sam, Year 7 Bredinghurst School
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Butternut Squash Rocket Lou Macleod
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T-SHIRTS AND OTHER APPAREL INSPIRED BY THE LOVE OF GREAT FILMS • MADE BY FILM LOVERS FOR FILM LOVERS.
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merican science-ﬁction sparks memories of robby the robot, pod people, clashing lightsabers, terminators and bright blue avatars. But what of British science-ﬁction on screen? rather than space operas and special effects, Britain seems to excel in Blue peter spacecraft, whimsical caperings in disused Welsh quarries, and cosy catastrophes featuring the end of the world and a nice cup of tea. although Britain has produced a major body of sF ﬁlms since the 1930s, few have captured the public imagination in the same way as the quirky absurdism of television, from Quatermass and the avengers to red Dwarf, Blake’s 7 and, of course, Doctor Who. those that did, like hammer’s the Quatermass Xperiment (1955), often started out as tV series or, like 2001: a space odyssey (1968) and alien (1979), didn’t seem very British at all. nevertheless, Britain’s forgotten history of science-ﬁction cinema boasts rock-solid classics (things to come, 1936), cult masterpieces (a clockwork orange, 1971) and enough spaced out trash – think 1954’s Devil Girl from mars or 1976’s Queen Kong – to delight the most discerning cinephile.
British science-ﬁction goes back to the birth of British cinema itself. in the early years of the last century a handful of silent ﬁlms played on fears of invasion and war in the sky, such as the airship Destroyer (aka Battle in the clouds, 1909) and aerial anarchists (1911). But the landmark of early British sF was things to come, hG Wells’ retort to the Germanic gloom of metropolis a decade earlier. Wells’ utopian vision of rule by scientiﬁc elites makes for stiff and talky drama, but the ﬁlm is memorable for the stark white futurism of its set design and for spookily prophesising the Blitz in scenes of london under aerial bombardment. it wasn’t until the 1950s, when the genre took off in hollywood, that British sF production began in earnest. this ﬁrst wave included some
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outstanding ﬁlms – insular black-and-white scare stories about post-war threats to the British way of life. the best were Val Guest’s 1957 Quatermass 2, in which aliens take over the establishment, and the documentary-like the Day the earth caught Fire (1961), which imagines the planet plummeting towards the sun. they were joined by 1960’s Village of the Damned, whose happy ending, uniquely, requires the mass murder of schoolchildren; and Joseph losey’s the Damned (1963), a bleak, masterly nuclear fable made for hammer, whose theme of gang violence presaged a clockwork orange. these ﬁlms show British sF at its best: sober and unsensational in style, yet rife with subversive ideas and allegorical subtexts about the changing social landscape.
a deliciously camp tale of an interplanetary dominatrix on the prowl in rural scotland. after Quatermass, in which a contaminated spaceman morphs into a giant fungus in Westminster abbey, and hammer’s resuscitation of the horror genre with gory Gothic romances like Dracula (1958), most British sF ﬁlms of the late ’50s and ’60s evolved into monster movies and other hybrids of sF-horror. unlike science-ﬁction, horror would prove a reliable money-spinner for cash-poor British producers. two plot lines predominate – alien invasion and urban disaster. the earth Dies screaming (1964), directed by terence Fisher, is typical: a handful of cheaply costumed aliens invade a village, whereupon a cross section of social types retreat to the pub and react with variously stiff upper-lips to these symbols of modernity and ‘otherness’.
“BRITISH SF LOOKED A N X I O U S LY B A C K W A R D S R AT H E R T H A N I N TO T H E FUTURE, NERVOUS ABOUT THE EMPIRE’S LOSS OF PRESTIGE, POWER AND INFLUENCE.”
a signiﬁcant number of these ﬁlms were adaptations of radio and tV hits, like Guest’s the abominable snowman (1957), the strange World of planet X (1958) and the trollenberg terror (aka the crawling eye, 1958). the heroic auteur of the period was manx writer nigel Kneale, who wrote the tV Quatermass serials and the abominable snowman. his 1958 tV show Quatermass and the pit, adapted by hammer in 1967, is a superb 2001-like story of alien interference in human evolution, whose pessimism and irony bracingly contrast the gung-ho tone of most american sciﬁ. it also offered a contrast to those cheap, luridly titled exploitation movies like stranger from Venus (1954) and Fire maidens of outer space (1956) that imitated and often tried to pass themselves off as american productions. cult favourite Devil Girl from mars is the pick of the bunch –
one bafﬂing aspect of the invasion ﬁlm is why any self-respecting alien colonist should bother with post-war Britain at all. annihilating Washington or new york made sense in american ﬁlms like 1951’s the Day the earth stood still, but why launch the conquest of earth from scottish pubs and sleepy villages? in fact, British sF tended to look anxiously backwards rather than wonderingly into the future. classic american ﬁlms of the 1950s like invasion of the Body snatchers (1956) channelled paranoia about the communist threat and subversion from within. British sF was nervous about the empire’s loss of prestige, power and inﬂuence after the war and the humiliation of suez in 1956. the recurring theme of invasion tapped directly into memories of the Blitz and the threat of fascist conquest – aliens tended to resemble nazis rather than communists, most famously those nazi pepper pots, the Daleks. the Day the earth caught Fire, for example, looked back to the war as a time of purpose and resistance and asks whether ‘the Blitz spirit’ – the pluck and resolve londoners showed during the bombing – could survive the new realities of the nuclear age. indeed, the enemy in British sF would prove to be that classic alien archetype, the shapeshifter. it morphed from fascism into the bureaucratic establishment behind the emerging Welfare state (as in Quatermass 2); dangerous youth (like the super-intelligent aryans in Village of the
clockwise from top left Quartermass II; 2001: A Space Odyssey; Village of the Damned; Devil Girl from Mars; Doctor Who; The Crawling Eye
S P A C E M AY B E A M E R I C A ’ S F I N A L F R O N T I E R , B U T B R I T S P R E F E R T H E I R S PAC E M E N TO P O S S E S S H E R O I C E C C E N T R I C I T Y R AT H E R T H A N T H E R I G H T S T U F F.
Damned and its 1964 sequel children of the Damned); or those aliens closest to home, housewives and career women. ever since the perfect Woman in 1949, in which a male scientist tries to make an obedient female robot, an abiding theme in British science-ﬁction has been an eroticised fear of assertive, independent and uncontrollable women. in the strange World of planet X (1958), unearthly stranger (1963), invasion (1966) and the Body stealers (aka thin air, 1969), women were literally creatures from another world; alluring threats to normality and the British way of life. their erotic threat would be overt in sexploitation ﬁlms like Zeta one (1969) and the sexplorer (or the Girl from starship Venus, 1975), where luscious alien femmes fatales seduced earthmen and whisked them off to repopulate their dying planets.
the late ’60s saw a new seriousness in screen sF with the release of two major hits in 1968 – in the us, planet of the apes; and in Britain, stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a space odyssey, which is the greatest of all British sF ﬁlms, even if its co-author and director was american. its focus on space travel was unusual in British scienceﬁction. in the 1950s, a few British ﬁlms such as spaceways (1953) and satellite in the sky (1956) chirpily assumed that Britain would lead the space race, but their Dan Dare fantasies didn’t survive Britain’s loss of power and esteem. since the 1960s few British movies have been interested in the idea of space travel, with notable exceptions like spaceﬂight ic-1 (1965), hammer’s ‘space western’ moon Zero two (1969), and Danny Boyle’s sunshine (2007). otherwise, the only Britons who make it to inﬁnity and beyond are kidnapped by aliens, as in they came from Beyond space (1967). imagining John Bull amongst the stars is usually left either
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to nostalgic adaptations of Victorian novels such as First men in the moon (1964) or comedies mocking the very idea, like nick park’s 1989 a Grand Day out with Wallace and Gromit. space may be america’s ﬁnal frontier, but Brits prefer their spacemen to possess heroic eccentricity rather than the right stuff – think of arthur Dent in the hitchhiker’s Guide, patrick moore, colin pillinger and the mercurial Doctor Who. Despite 2001’s mystical explorations of inner space, nor was there much exchange between British sF cinema and the psychedelic ‘new Wave’ of sci-ﬁ writers in the 1960s such as michael moorcock and JG Ballard (although Ballard did write the original treatment of hammer’s somewhat inaccurate prehistoric fantasy When Dinosaurs ruled the earth in 1970, which he later described as ‘the worst ﬁlm ever made’; and moorcock’s novel the Final programme became an amusingly colourful campfest in 1973, which moorcock, predictably, loathed). But there is an authentically groovy vibe to space oddities like moon Zero two and the sF musical toomorrow (1970), which was supposed to launch olivia newton John’s eponymous pop group as the new monkees.
most sF production still consisted of tV spinoffs or horror ﬁlms adrift in a waning exploitation market. those masterpieces and cult classics that emerged in the 1970s were art movie one-offs from auteurs like nic roeg who, in an inspired move, cast David Bowie as the alien brought low by human pleasures in the man Who Fell to earth (1976); or John Boorman, who put sean connery in a nappy for Zardoz (1974); and Kubrick, whose controversial and prescient a clockwork orange was withdrawn from circulation after death threats to his family. commercially, the most successful British
contribution to sF continued to be the James Bond ﬁlms, whose fascination with gizmos lapsed into outright science-ﬁction with the star Warsinspired moonraker (1979), in which roger moore swapped his safari jacket for a space suit. science-ﬁction production pretty much dried up from the mid-1970s, which was a low point for British ﬁlm production in general. after the release of star Wars in 1977, Britain’s main contribution was as a base for international co-productions such as saturn 3 (1980), scripted by martin amis, and alien, directed by ridley scott, who later made Blade runner in the us and is consequently one of the very few British directors responsible for two great sF ﬁlms. Fans of the bizarre, however, should hunt down the indescribably bad Queen Kong – unreleased because of copyright problems – in which robin askwith of the confessions… ﬁlms leads the women of Britain in defence of a giant love-sick feminist gorilla. since the 1980s, science-ﬁction production has mostly consisted of occasional one-offs along the same lines as before – tV spin-offs (the hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 2005), trashy exploitation (roy ‘chubby’ Brown’s uFo, 1993) and literary adaptations (children of men, 2006). While the dominant trend continues to be the horror hybrid, from 1997’s event horizon to shaun of the Dead (2004) and the Descent (2005). But even today, as James cameron ushers in a new era of mega-budget 3D sci-ﬁ, the backyard British way survives. as a new generation emerges, spearheaded by the likes of Joe cornish, Duncan Jones and Gareth edwards, home-grown sci-ﬁ continues to ﬂourish and inspire because of (not despite) its modest means and outsized ambitions iQ hunter teaches Film studies at De montfort university, leicester. he edited British science Fiction cinema (routledge) in 1999, and is currently writing British trash cinema for BFi/palgrave.
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oho is full of secrets. It’s a strange maze of narrow alleys and unmarked doors. Through one of those alleys, behind one of those doors, Joe Cornish is working frantically to finish his debut film. Attack the Block is due out in three months and it’s still looking rough around the edges. The clock is ticking, but if Cornish is feeling the pressure, it isn’t showing. The edit suite is a place of calm intensity. With its fruit basket, giant screen and blinking control panels, it looks like a cross between an opulent home cinema and the bridge of the Enterprise. Captain Cornish has cooked up around 15 minutes of footage for us to watch. He’s excited, but a little nervous. This is the first time anybody outside the production has been allowed a glimpse, and the raw footage lacks a final spit and sparkle. Set on an inner-city estate in Stockwell, London, Attack the Block is like ET, only instead of making friends with a lost alien, a gang of hoodies kicks the shit out of one, then gets tooled up when its intergalactic mates come looking for payback. Actually, it’s not like ET at all – it’s more
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att u a p
Close Encounters meets The Football Factory with a liberal dash of The Warriors and a hint of Predator. What we can say right now is that it’s very smart and very funny. Ungraded and unfinished it might be, but Attack the Block has the look of a true British original.
This story of outer space and inner city has very down to earth roots. “I was mugged in 2001 by a gang of kids and it was a very unreal experience,” says Cornish after the lights have come up. “The kids seemed very young – you could tell that they were frightened and not really into it. I knew they lived nearby, I knew I’d seen them before and I knew I would see them again. I knew we had shared interests – they were probably on a similar level on Call of Duty, we probably liked the same TV shows, we could probably have the same conversation about films, and yet here we were in this weird ritualised situation standing in the street. Then the idea struck me of what would happen if a little alien landed at the same time.”
That touch of fantasy breaking through the surface of the mundane is typical of Cornish. Alongside Adam Buxton, he made his name in the late ’90s with The Adam and Joe Show. It was a frenetic mash-up of satire and sketches, informed by a shared love of pop culture and movie trivia. Cornish was one of those kids whose mind was seduced by Star Wars in the ’70s. And while Attack the Block isn’t an homage to any one film per se, it is a throwback to the classic science-fiction films of Cornish’s youth, when the impossible seemed so effortlessly within reach. “It’s important to me for stories like this to be set in a recognisable milieu,” he says, “not on spaceships or in the future or in the past. As a kid, Elliott holding the thermometer to the light to get off school in order to spend the day with ET was something I could connect to on such a lovely combination of levels. It was realism and fantasy beautifully blended. I wanted to try and do something that would give the same excitement to a kid that lived on one of the estates round the corner from me.” And that’s the thing. It’s all very well ET landing in some picket-fenced American suburb – he might as well still be on an alien planet. Cornish wanted to make science-fiction local. “I wanted to make a fantasy film that was relevant to certain values and questions that are more modern and more British,” he admits. “There is a huge tradition of British sci-fi: War of the Worlds is all set in Croydon. Britain – and London in particular – has a massively rich history that isn’t really addressed in movies. TV’s getting much better at it but cinema seems to have neglected it in favour of royalty or stuff that’s completely divorced from reality.” To Cornish, the thing that defines British sci-fi is its resolute ordinariness. “We’re back-room tinkers,” he says. “Like in Roobarb and Custard when he goes and builds another invention in his shed. We just like a bit of practical magic.” He points to friend and collaborator Edgar Wright, whose willingness to do special effects in-camera, rather than relying on digital imagery, marks him out in modern cinema. “Computer generated imagery is obsessed with realism in a very counterintuitive way,” he insists. “If you look at a lot of the digital creatures in Harry Potter, you couldn’t go home and sketch them – you’d need a draughtsman’s degree. They’re hyper realistic. They’re so realistic they’re unrealistic. The charm is to go home and feel that it’s possible to figure out how they did it. When I was a kid, I’d go and see Ghostbusters and spend the next day trying to draw the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, or trying to get the logo right. They had a graphic simplicity that was much more infectious and warm and authored than a lot of the stuff now.” That’s not to say he’s a Luddite. Along with Wright and Steven Moffat, Cornish is part of the all-British trio that wrote the script for Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson’s motioncapture Tintin. Seeing that process first-hand has given him an understanding of why some directors prefer CG to practical effects. “You think as a consumer that film is this considered art, but it’s not – it’s really kick-bollock-scramble. It’s like a trolley dash. You spend three years planning and then you have to execute it in the blink of an eye. Things fuck up and you’ve got three minutes to solve it or you’re fucked,” he explains. “So anything that can get accidents out of the equation is massively valuable. That’s why motion-capture is so attractive: no surprises. But, personally, it doesn’t have an aesthetic that I like that much.”
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Given how dominant CG is becoming, is Cornish just another English eccentric – part of a dying breed hanging on to a halcyon era that maybe never really existed? It’s telling that Attack the Block finds itself sandwiched between computer-generated behemoths Battle: LA and Cowboys & Aliens, both of which will inevitably outmuscle it at the box-office. “Audiences are now more sophisticated and they do have higher expectations, so you’ve probably got to be better – you can’t get away with certain things,” Cornish admits. “But then again, I was watching the un-fucked-up version of The Empire Strikes Back the other day and checking out Yoda, and sure the tips of his ears boing about the place, but it’s still amazingly good. I have faith that people still appreciate that.”
Cornish’s approach to his own film was suitably hands-on. “When I was at film school, so many people were more interested in wearing the baseball cap than they were in actually doing the work,” he says. “The moment you start feeling like that, your twat alarm should go off and you should just get the fuck on with it and apply yourself.” The young cast were recruited by Nina Gold, who discovered Katie Jarvis for Fish Tank, and they all contributed to finessing the dialogue that Cornish had compiled from interviews with kids at youth clubs. “I thought the language those kids speak might as well be Klingon for a lot of people,” he says, “so I built the dialogue out of real quotes, and then that was filtered through the kids who rewrote it and brought it up to date. That was hugely important because I might have grown up in Stockwell, but I was ferried off to a quite nice school everyday [Cornish attended über-posh Westminster School] and I’m 40 so it was very important to fully involve them. “Plus it made it really exciting and really fun to turn up every day for work,” he continues. “I was a first time director, and when you’re a first time director everybody is more experienced than you, so you’re surrounded by these people that know more than you, waiting for you to fuck up, waiting for you to lose your authority. The kids were this island of first-timers as well, so actually I felt like we were going on a little adventure together.” The clock is still ticking. There’s work to be done and Cornish is getting restless. He’s talking about a film he’d rather be working on, especially now the end is in sight. Does he think that Attack the Block will be part of the renaissance of British science-fiction? “I’d be wary of saying that because as soon as you say something like that, it’s peaked and it’s time for it to be over,” he replies. “I certainly think there’s a lot of potential that’s been ignored for a while, so it feels like quite a fresh thing to do. There’s a lot of really good telly but it would be nice to see it done on a bigger canvas. I just remember myself as a kid, and if I was 15 now I would love to see this kind of film.” Does he see himself as a genre filmmaker, then? “I’d love to be a genre filmmaker,” he says. “I don’t think there’s enough genre filmmaking in Britain. I love genre. I absolutely love it. Genre films can do more than any other, can’t they? They can mean something, they can be exciting, they can be funny. I love it. I’m not interested in anything else, really.”
“You think as a consumer that film is this c o n s i d e r e d a r t, b u t i t ’ s n o t – i t ’ s r e a l ly k i c k bollock-scramble. It’s like a trolley dash.”
“It must be, I thought, one of the race’s most persistent and comforting hallucinations to trust that ‘it can’t happen here’ – that one’s own time and place is beyond cataclysm.” t would be hard to dispute that John Wyndham’s early life proffers little to write home about. Born in a Warwickshire village in 1903 to middleclass parents who would later separate when he was eight-years-old, and privately educated at Bedales School in Hampshire, the writer’s childhood presents a somewhat prosaic portrait of relative privilege offset by mild domestic discontent. His sister, also a writer, sums up an upbringing of normality in a précis of enviable familial harmony, recalling as an adult, “We loved our mother and each other and we were as close as it is possible for a family to be.” The everydayness of his life was no more apparent to anyone than the author himself, who late in life reflected, “My life has been practically devoid of interest to anyone but myself – though I have quite enjoyed it, of course, in those moments when I did not seem to have been sent to occupy a largely lunatic world.” And yet for Wyndham, this acquaintance with the ordinary, the pedestrian and the seemingly innocuous became the foundation of a literary oeuvre that would redefine the parameters of science-fiction, transforming the genre from a galactic-gangsters-in-space opera to something strikingly, terrifyingly close to home. After leaving Bedales School in 1921, Wyndham’s initial efforts at careers in law and advertising were succeeded by more literary pursuits. He began selling short fiction to American pulp magazines before having a novel, The Secret People, published in serialised form in 1935. During this time, Wyndham, known then by his nom de plume John Benyon, enjoyed moderate but unmemorable success, until the Second World War interrupted his career and he was required to serve as a censor in the Ministry of Information. In the years immediately after the war’s end, the science-fiction market languished and Wyndham’s own fortunes dipped. But as the Cold War revived concerns about the rise of communism and the threat of nuclear apocalypse, science-fiction assumed a new resonance, simultaneously voicing and allaying the snowballing anxieties of the national unconscious. Wyndham’s writing exploited to delicious effect the new and frightening plausibility of impending disaster, placing the threat of catastrophe, mutation and difference in stifling proximity to the familiar.
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His articulation of otherworldly occurrences within the realm of the logical – now so recognisable to contemporary readers but unfamiliar at the time – ushered in a new era in science-fiction, displacing fantastical visions of time and space travel with rational extensions of the everyday. Wyndham himself viewed the term ‘science-fiction’ with slight contempt. With their focus on character development and emotional authenticity, his novels leaned towards realism. The Day of the Triffids, arguably Wyndham’s most popular and best-known work, imagines a world in the aftermath of a meteor shower, in which mass blindness sweeps through the population and a species of monstrous mobile carnivorous plants terrorise the planet. So influential was the 1951 novel that Wyndham recalled sitting in the pub one day and overhearing two gardeners describe their weeds as the novel’s eponymous man-eating creatures. Four years after The Day of the Triffids came The Chrysalids, where, in a future world devastated by nuclear war, pious survivors embark on a ruthless mission to stamp out mutations from the true image of God. The Midwich Cuckoos followed in 1957, locating the disaster theme within the family, and placing a small English village under attack from mysterious aliens who impregnate the entire female population. The novel spawned three film adaptations, most notably Wolf Rilla’s Village of the Damned (1960) and John Carpenter’s 1995 remake, which transported the story from its sleepy English milieu to America, and ramped up the quiet creepiness of the novel with lashings of gratuitous violence, earning it the Worst Remake accolade at the 16th Golden Raspberry Awards. Wyndham has been criticised by some for the insularity and imaginative conservatism of his work. Brian Aldiss, another British science-fiction writer, disparagingly labelled his novels ‘cosy disasters’, while Christopher Priest dismissed Wyndham as the master of the ‘middle-class catastrophe’. The challenges are undone by their failure to comprehend the political and philosophical weight of a writer passionately concerned with the frightening closeness, interiority and inevitability of disaster. The author himself seemed perfectly at ease with the alleged unadventurousness of his outlook, and his life ended as quietly as it had begun – in a house in Petersfield, Hampshire, where he lived with his wife, Grace Wilson. They had no children but were as close as it is possible for a family to be
n 1953, the BBC drama department was faced with an unexpected gap in the schedule. In need of a quick fix, Michael Barry, then head of television drama, put his faith in a promising young staff writer. In an unprecedented vote of confidence, 31-year-old Nigel Kneale was given the go-ahead to produce The Quatermass Experiment, a six-part series of high-concept thrillers derived straight from his imagination. Kneale’s dystopian vision of tomorrow became the era’s event television. His fee was £250. An ‘over-confident year’ he later wrote with the diffidence of a true BBC man. Inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, The Quatermass Experiment followed Victor Carroon (Duncan Lamont), the sole survivor of a lost rocket ship that crash-lands in Wimbledon. At first, Carroon seems a normal, discerning, compassionate human, but then he starts to act strangely. He’s been infected, Professor Quatermass (Reginald Tate) discovers, by an alien life form with a thirst for human blood. Gradually, painfully, Carroon begins to mutate into a giant fungus-like monster who, compelled by his all-consuming thirst, rampages through London committing horrifying murders before
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ending up in Westminster Abbey, his humanity facing a hopeless battle against the alien within and suicide the only escape. As BFI National Archive curator and British science-fiction expert John Oliver explains, “There wasn’t really any science-fiction on British TV. Quatermass set the ball rolling. It went out as a live transmission so no one ever recorded it. It’s now considered one of the Holy Grails.” The 1950s was Britain’s last age of austerity and, in comparison to the blowouts of today, Quatermass was crude. When it came to special effects, Kneale just worked it out as best he could. “The appearance of the monster in Westminster Abbey was my two hands stuck through a blow-up still of the interior of the Abbey with my hands suitably dressed with gloves which I’d covered with a bit of vegetation and leather,” he recalled years later. Quatermass went out to an audience still recovering from the Coronation. This was the embryonic TV generation, their belief effortlessly suspendible, their sensitivities not dulled by saturation. To use a modern term, Quatermass went viral, screening on more than half of Britain’s TVs and sending unprepared kids – the filmmakers of today amongst them – scurrying behind their sofas. From Stanley Kubrick to Ridley Scott, David Cronenberg to John Carpenter, it’s impossible not to recognise Kneale’s influence in the great sci-fi works of cinema’s modernism movement. Think of the body-horror, the remorselessness of alien life or the struggle to retain our humanity in the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Fly and Alien.
Some filmmakers have gone further in their deference. In an overt homage, John Carpenter once used the pseudonym ‘Martin Quatermass’ for one of his own scripts before later persuading Kneale to co-write Halloween III: Season of the Witch. Ever the staid Englishman, Kneale asked for his name to be taken off the credits after producer Dino De Laurentiis went back and ramped up the violence. But while the man who created popular TV may be a legend to those in the know, he remains an obscure figure to the public at large. And for all that Kneale was celebrity averse, that low profile still stung. As such, he was a dramatist uniquely capable of summing up the irony of British science-fiction – our reliance on the safety of understatement mixed with the abandoned creativity of imagining the future. Later in his career, Kneale grew to hate the tag ‘science-fiction writer’. He saw Quatermass as just a different way to express the social concerns of the world around him. Rationed and hobbled by the war, Kneale’s Britain simply looked on as two new superpowers raced into space. Quatermass, with its toxic blend of high and low culture, tapped into that buttonedup fear of star wars, creating Saturday night TV that was acute and prescient and deliberate but completely undemanding in its ability to entertain. “It’s the seriousness with which the subjects are approached that makes him stand out,” Oliver says. “Most science-fiction in the 1950s featured bug-eyed, tentacled monsters and that sort of thing. It’s pulp. Nigel Kneale took a pulpy story and told it in an intelligent and thought-provoking way. He was unusual for his time.” In an interview years later, Kneale said of Quatermass: “There was dread in the real world in the 1950s. The forces of annihilation were in the hands of fallible, panicking men, yet official propaganda was still jaunty. The BBC didn’t have any special effects then. My stories had to be told through characters, and were better for it.” Kneale died in October 2006. Mark Gattis, The League of Gentlemen actor who was cast in the BBC’s 2005 remake of Quatermass, wrote in his obituary: ‘He is amongst the greats — absolutely as important as Dennis Potter, as David Mercer, as Alan Bleasdale, as Alan Bennett. A true pioneer has passed – and the light of Mars will shine a little brighter tonight.’ Projecting the Archive will be screening a special double bill of British science-fiction films from 1958 – Fiend Without a Face and First Man into Space – at the BFI Southbank in May. bfi.org.uk/southbank
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merican by birth, Terry Gilliam’s contribution to British science-fiction was born somewhat inadvertently out of his disillusionment with living in 1960s Los Angeles, a society torn apart by Civil Rights unrest. In 1965 Gilliam was offered a route out of America when Help! – the magazine he had worked on as a fumetti cartoonist (that is, a cartoonist who works with photographs rather than drawings) under Mad founding editor Harvey Kurtzman – folded. Desperate for a change of scenery, Gilliam relocated to England where he found work animating features for the children’s TV series Do Not Adjust Your Set, which introduced Gilliam to Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin. It was during this formative period that Gilliam first began to hone his idiosyncratic cut-out style, a process that was not so much about boundless self-expression as pragmatism. “I only had two weeks and £400 to make my first animated film [for DNAYS], so I just started cutting up images and moving things around,” he reveals. “To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have chosen that style if I’d had more time or money, but it stuck because it was different and no one had really done anything like that before.” By the time Gilliam had assumed British citizenship in 1968, Monty Python was poised to explode, introducing Gilliam’s work to a new and much wider audience. Yet despite the abstractness of the Flying Circus dovetailing so eloquently with his zany collages, Gilliam’s heroes at the time were not comedians but writers, painters and fellow animators. “My primary influences were people like [cartoonist] William Heath Robinson, filmmakers like Stan VanDerBeek and illustrators like Aubrey Beardsley. I’ve always been fascinated by surrealist
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art and its ability to show you subject matter that you know has no foundation in reality and yet it still arouses such vivid ideas and emotions.” Life after Python afforded Gilliam the creative freedom he now craved, having by his own admission become ‘jaded’ by the ‘stagnant and restricting’ animation style that had become the gang’s signature. Building on the co-directing experience he had acquired on the set of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, as well as his 1977 solo effort Jabberwocky, Gilliam quickly established a new generation of fans with the first instalments in his ‘Trilogy of Imagination’. Time Bandits and Brazil were two sci-fi/fantasy hybrids that captured the essence of Gilliam’s vibrant and peculiar ideology.
The latter, an Orwellian sci-fi noir that served as a vitriolic allegory of western society’s bureaucratic ills, borrowed heavily from the industrialised, expressionistic aesthetic of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a film that Gilliam cites as one of his earliest influences. “At a young age, Metropolis was a real eye opener; not just visually and cinematically, but thematically. The most important thing about sci-fi to me is the imagining of new worlds and future societies, and that’s what Metropolis is all about. It’s scary, but at the same time totally seductive.” Turning to the current state of science-fiction cinema, he continues: “A lot of sci-fi writers write about technical, mechanical things, and that doesn’t interest me as much as the effect on people and how life might be in the future. Futuristic projections of the human condition are where sci-fi is at its most engaging. Today
there’s too much emphasis on special effects and CGI and not enough on telling a story that will be analysed and cherished by future generations. I think we’ve lost a lot of the enigma of what makes good science-fiction. Movies now are more like fantasy films; they’re spectacular to look at and full of beauty and technical skill and imagination, but we’re getting to the point where we’ve seen it all so many times. We don’t ask questions any more because we don’t have to; we’re just told to sit down and watch something spectacular.” For Gilliam, science-fiction is fuel for the eternal discourse of the world we live in, and it is the flame of this philosophy that is now being carried by the next generation of sci-fi pioneers. While Gilliam is candid about his own legacy, he admits that he does take great pride in seeing up-and-coming British filmmakers like Duncan Jones follow in his footsteps. “I think Moon is a really brilliant example of contemporary sci-fi because it has a message; it has strong visuals but it also has a proper science-fiction core. It’s the closest thing to a modern-day 2001 I have seen.” As technology pushes cinema towards new horizons, the workshop craftsmanship championed by Gilliam is in danger of becoming redundant. But regardless of the way things are heading, Gilliam remains buoyant about the continued need for the DIY techniques that shot him to fame. “It’s easy to get caught up with the idea of something having to look advanced or perfect, but in fact the Python stuff only worked because it was organic and rough around the edges. Technology is at such an advanced level now, but that doesn’t give sciencefiction more value. You can still make something resonant and enduring out of glue and mud.”
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t 67, with wild untamed sideburns and a thick Bristolian drawl, Colin pillinger wouldn’t look out of place propping up the bar in a West Country pub. But pillinger is no ruddy-faced bar fly; he’s the man who, in 2003, coordinated a shoestring budget, media attention and celebrity support to launch the Beagle 2, a British-led craft tasked with answering the most pertinent question about our galaxy: is there life on Mars? With the nation behind him, pillinger was supposed to make contact with Beagle 2 on the surface of Mars on Christmas Day, 2003. However, it was with a mounting sense of disappointment that attempts to reach the probe by radio transmission proved unsuccessful. Exactly what went wrong remains a mystery to this day, as does the question of whether or not life exists on Mars. As Blur guitarist Alex James (who, along with Damien Hirst, was one of the more unlikely celebrity champions of the project) puts it in his autobiography, ‘Beagle was a triumph of aspiration, if not a victory for science.’
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Since the flurry of media attention around Beagle 2, Pillinger has remained at the Open University campus in Milton Keynes – a place not exactly synonymous in most people’s minds with space travel – working on projects for the European Space Agency (ESA). Given his reputation for being somewhat cantankerous or even combative, it’s with some trepidation that the issue of Alex James’ comment is broached. “Well, you’d just have to ask Alex what he meant by that, not me,” says Pillinger tartly. But although he’s the first to point out that he doesn’t suffer fools gladly, Pillinger most readily comes across as a man of immense practicality. A spade, to him, is most definitely a spade, Having being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005, he now relies on crutches and a mobility scooter to get around, but none of this has done anything to diminish the sharpness of his mind. Pillinger has just finished a project proposal for ESA in which he and his team have suggested using technology and expertise from the Beagle project to locate the best place for a habitable space station on the moon. “If you were going to put a human back on the moon in a permanent base, one of the ideal places to go is the pole, the south pole in particular,” he says. “There may be resources like ice and volatiles, and you can turn water into rocket fuel by electrolysing it and making hydrogen and oxygen.” Sending probes to the moon must have seemed an unreachable fantasy for the lad who grew up in a working-class household in Kingswood, just outside Bristol. “Like every boy my age, I was a fan of Eagle comics,” he recalls. Published in the
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’50s and ’60s, Eagle featured Britain’s answer to Buck Rogers, Dan Dare, ‘Pilot of the Future’, along with a host of essential information for inquisitive boys, like how to bowl in cricket or what’s under the bonnet of Sterling Moss’ car. But it wasn’t these typically British ‘Biggles in space’ stories that sowed the seeds for his eventual career. No, the real sci-fi influence in his life was Journey into Space. “It was the last great radio series before television took over and it was definitely the thing that motivated me the most,” he explains. “Charles Chilton [the show’s creator] was told by some TV producer that there was nothing he could write that couldn’t be done better on television. So Charles wrote an entire episode of Journey into Space set in the dark and said, ‘Right, you do that better on television, sunshine.’”
The path to an interest in otherworldly things that Journey into Space illuminated was by no means a direct one. After discovering a natural flair for project-based science work at school, Pillinger went to the University College of Swansea where he obtained his PhD in Chemistry. “There’s just something about chemistry that I find very logical,” he says. “Some people find things like Latin logical, but for me you learn a few rules in chemistry and you’re set.” He began working with instruments in the geology department, analysing samples of space rock, including ones collected by Neil Armstrong on the Apollo 11 mission. “I am where I am today because of pure serendipity,” he says. “One of these
things that has been a philosophy of life for me has been if somebody offers you the chance to do something, don’t refuse because it might go wrong. So what? If you don’t do it, there’ll always be the chance you’ll think, ‘I should have done that.’ I never wanted to be in that position.” For Beagle 2, Pillinger drew on all aspects of his scientific background. “I didn’t build the thing myself,” he explains, “I was just the pied piper.” But as the project’s figurehead and inspiration, he has a lot in common with a generation of British scientists and engineers from the past – men who weren’t afraid to dream big, like Isambard Kingdom Brunel. “‘Last of the Victorian scientists’ is what I’ve been called,” he laughs. “There are still a few around in Britain. You’ve got your [James] Dysons and you’ve got the guy who broke the land speed record [Richard Noble] but they are few and far between because projects like this are so huge. You can’t really be a one-man team building a Typhoon Fighter.” There’s an even more irresistible label, one that’s often applied to a certain kind of British scientist: ‘eccentric’. “That’s just one of the fun things about being a professor,” Pillinger says. “When you become a professor you’re immediately classed as being slightly off the plot. There are people of other nationalities who are just as bad as us, but we have more than our fair share. Some people get bees in their bonnet about something, and I suppose the British are just quite good at it.” Despite his recent focus on the moon, you can tell that Mars is still firmly embedded in Pillinger’s mind. He’s particularly frustrated with the delays in getting another probe back there to look for life. “Everything we did on Beagle 2 could be done again
now, and it could still be done now if somebody could give us the go ahead,” he says. “It would be like getting the Magnificent Seven back together. If I was to write an announcement saying we were going to do it, everyone involved would be back. I don’t doubt for a second they would.” That determination to stick to his guns has seen Pillinger get closer and closer to sending another probe – but not until 2018. “We’re going to combine with NASA and go then, but the problem is there are too many other countries involved. We could have gone straight back to Mars in 2007 for a fraction of the money if there had been one country organising it. That was Britain’s fault. It’s the usual story: we invent something and we don’t follow up on it. We invent the hovercraft, we invent Concord, but we don’t follow up.” You won’t find Pillinger feeling sorry for himself, however. He will go about his business until he finds himself vindicated and proves that there is or once was life on Mars. But even if he is to be proved right, don’t expect anything Spielbergian about the extraterrestrial life he hopes to find. “I don’t think of science in terms of science-fiction,” he says. “I have a very strong suspicion that if you find life on Mars, it will be different, but not in the same way that Darwin discovered. Darwin knew about life in Europe and by going around the world he found life that was basically the same but subtly different. My view of life is that it was not a unique accident on Earth.” Colin Pillinger’s autobiography, My Life on Mars: The Beagle 2 Diaries, is available now, published by the British Interplanetary Society.
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orn in the twilight of Victorian respectability, Val Guest took a crack at acting in the 1920s before falling into journalism for the London edition of The Hollywood Reporter, but was soon writing scripts for Gainsborough Pictures. His work included a spell on Hitchcock’s 1938 The Lady Vanishes, but most of his graft was for the kind of Will Hay comedies where furious petty officials get poked in the backside or lose their hats to hilarious effect. When he finally made director, a knack for finding himself in the right place at the right time saw Guest in at the birth of Hammer films. Nothing escaped his curiosity; he churned out musicals, romances, comedies, gangster pictures and war films, not to mention that exposé of London youth run wild, Expresso Bongo. But if the best you could say about Val Guest was that he covered a lot of ground, well, so did the Mongol hordes. No, Val Guest earned his spurs as a writer, producer and director on some of the best British sci-fi ever made, from BBC TV play The Quatermass Xperiment in 1955, to 1961’s gripping anti-nuclear disaster movie The Day The Earth Caught Fire. Like his thrillers and gangster flicks, both films were disconnected from the puns and
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knockabout comedy that would define his later years. Here was Guest the documentarian, Guest the realist, plugged in to the anxiety rattling around the public imagination about science and atomic weapons. Day in particular drew on Guest’s time as a magazine hack, with a pair of cynical newspapermen cast as heroic whistleblowers when simultaneous Russian and American atomic tests tilt the earth from its axis and send the planet on a trajectory towards the sun. The scenes shot around the Daily Express building in Fleet Street depict a journalistic world now long gone, but at the time they lent an authenticity to the fantastical storyline, carrying audiences along in a vision of collective madness and violent social breakdown. Grey London has never looked so believably stifling on screen, providing the opportunity for the kind of sweaty tension and steamy passion usually reserved for LA noir.t It was, Guest later said, his ‘number one’, the film he ‘dreamt of making’, and he proved his commitment by financing it himself in the face of rejection from every studio he approached. His reward was the 1962 BAFTA for Best Screenplay, which he shared with writing partner Wolf Mankowitz.
The BAFTA was a curious achievement for a man who claimed that he’d had no interest in sciencefiction when Quatermass was offered to him six years earlier, and he was very probably telling the truth. Quatermass only really interested Guest
for the chance to bring a documentary style to something so apparently unsuited to the method. It was a chance to push the boundaries and find new ways of showing old stories. Guest wanted to shoot Quatermass as a news story, capturing the hand-held look of the live TV broadcasts that were then in their infancy. He was some way ahead of the available technology, and though the film remains very much a cinematic feature, the urgency of that documentary style is ever-present. Following the success of Day, Guest got himself mixed up in Columbia Picture’s Casino Royale debacle, which involved six different Bonds and as many directors. That did his reputation no favours, but it was small beer to the reception given to 1970’s When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth. A fur bikini epic for which Guest created a wiggedout caveman language, it’s widely regarded as the worst film ever made. Guest dipped into sci-fi once more in that period, but we’ll probably never get to see a home entertainment release of Toomorrow, the rock musical vehicle for Olivia Newton John involving aliens infiltrating the London College of Arts and crashing a ‘happening’ at The Roundhouse. It skimmed London’s cinematic consciousness for two days in the summer of 1970 before being consigned to oblivion, unable to shake off the feel of a movie about The Kids made by an irredeemable square. Today, in its inevitable incarnation as a fuzzy YouTube flick with Japanese subtitles, there’s an innocent charm to the self-conscious hepness and godawful songs, but for Guest it was proof that he had reached his event horizon. Let’s run Val’s credits there, in the fuzzy afterglow of Technicolor idiocy and before the Confessions… films brought us Robin Askwith’s horrifying derriere. Let’s remember the good times, because for a glorious while there, we were all guests in his imagination
e was the architect of Metropolis and Gotham City, but he also destroyed the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge. He balanced untold devastation with International Rescue; took us off to faraway planets and back to The Land That Time Forgot. To say that special effects luminary Derek Meddings could turn his hand to anything is something of an understatement. In the current climate of specialisation that holds sway within the SFX industry, his career stands as a quaint throwback to a time when effects on even bigbudget blockbusters were collaborative, muckand-bullets, string-and-sealing wax affairs that required right-first-time precision, battlefield mettle and a pinch of good fortune. The success of Meddings’ effects may have had little to do with luck, but he was fortunate that his particular skill-set was eminently suited to the film industry of his time. Born in London in 1931, he was an artistic child raised in a family with both feet in the film world. His mother was secretary to director/producer Alexander Korda, and had previously been Wuthering Heights actress Merle Oberon’s stand-in; while his father and stepfather were both technicians at Denham Studios. It was here that Meddings got his start, working under
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the spectacularly named Les Bowie, producing matte paintings for the Hammer horrors, and then as an effects tyro on such early Gerry Anderson TV whimsies as Torchy the Battery Boy and Four Feather Falls. Impressing with his imagination and technical prowess, Meddings was soon designing, building and filming models and effects for Anderson shows Fireball XL5, Stingray and, ultimately, Thunderbirds. “Derek designed and conceived all the major vehicles for all the series and came up with the idea for, and designed, Tracy Island,” recalls Alan Shubrook, who worked under Meddings as a model-maker at Anderson’s Century 21 Productions. “The real creative genius behind those shows was Derek.” By now equally at home on the studio floor as the model shop, Meddings’ switch to the bigscreen was uncommonly smooth – especially considering that his first engagement was 1973’s Bondsploitation epic Live and Let Die, for which he designed the loopy climax that sees Yaphet Kotto’s super villain Kananga inflate and explode above his shark-infested bunker. It started a long association with the Bond franchise that saw his effects revitalise the flagging series. The films he worked on may have varied in quality – from 1977’s excellent The Spy Who Loved Me (featuring the Meddings-rigged underwater Lotus Esprit that still causes men of a certain age to go weak at the knees), to the sinfully dull For Your Eyes Only (1981) – but Meddings’ effects leant even the most outrageous sequences an air of credibility. Moonraker (1979), for instance,
might be a hodgepodge of clueless sci-fi rushed into production to cash-in on Star Wars, but the Oscar-nominated effects – all of which were done in-camera due to a budget that didn’t stretch to optical effects – are exemplary. Oscar gold duly arrived for his work on another franchise – 1979’s Superman. Meddings allied his technical precision to an artist’s eye for many of the film’s most memorable sequences, including the destruction of the Man of Steel’s home planet, Krypton. Miniatures, forced perspective, full-scale effects, matte paintings and huge sets were all seamlessly integrated into single shots for moments as epic as the bursting of the Hoover Dam and the destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge. If anything, Meddings outdid himself – despite wearying behind-the-scenes machinations – with the super sequel, where he got to really let rip in demolishing the smug airbrushed utopia of Metropolis during Superman and General Zod’s climactic smackdown. There were some misfires along the way. Supergirl (1984) was a mess, while the similarly under-funded The Land That Time Forgot (1975) – a film which Meddings was loath to be reminded of – featured dinosaurs straight out of a cereal box. But his reputation within the effects world was by now cemented to the extent that he could escape the disaster of 1985’s Santa Claus: The Movie with his stock still high enough to be headhunted by Tim Burton for 1989’s Batman. The antithesis of Superman’s pastel-hued swish, the cantilevered grime of Batman’s Gotham City allowed Meddings to delve into the darker end of the spectrum, borrowing from Fritz Lang and Ridley Scott to create a cankerous, spluttering city that looks like an infernal snow-globe on the verge of implosion. Derek Meddings died of a heart attack in 1996, but he has left behind an astounding body of work that represented some of the most iconic films and images of the past 50 years. If you’ve ever believed a man can fly, bellowed ‘Thunderbirds are go!’ or dreamed of an undersea lair, then Derek Meddings is half the reason why
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ravity can’t hold Duncan Jones. And no wonder he finds himself pulled towards outer space – the son of the man who fell to earth almost has a cosmic birthright to discover if the truth is out there. Fitting, then, that Jones’ cult hit Moon reminded everyone that ‘British sci-fi’ isn’t one of cinema’s oxymorons. northern men swearing at their wives in dank kitchens. Hugh grant bumbling around posh London flats. Mockney gangsters shanking each other in the street. Isn’t this British cinema? So what exactly is British sci-fi? It’s long been a bleaker and more frightening place than the dazzling, distant worlds of Spielberg, Lucas and Cameron. our dystopian literary heritage has served up the likes of Terry gilliam’s masterpiece Brazil, adaptations of The Day of the Triffids and nineteen Eighty-Four, along with kubrick’s brace of Brit-based sci-fi immortals A Clockwork orange and 2001.
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“I don’t want our film to take all the credit for it, but when Moon came out I think there was a sense that just because you’re doing a small British independent film doesn’t mean you have to restrict yourself to kitchen-sink dramas,” explains Jones. “you can actually try and do something a little bit more ambitious and unusual. I think that is a more recent development. British creative people have always been at their best when they’ve managed to achieve things that no one expected from them.” Some unique space oddities – from cult B-movie krull to cheese-fest Flash gordon – have occurred when talented Brit filmmakers like peter yates and Mike Hodges have taken a swing at the genre. But then every so often comes a real classic, like ridley Scott’s haunted-house-in-space Alien and cyber-noir dazzler Blade runner. or, indeed, like nic roeg’s surreal mystery The Man Who Fell To Earth, starring Jones’ father David Bowie as an extraterrestrial refugee. “I like to believe that we tell bittersweet stories seriously,” says Jones, “and there’s always something darkly sardonic to them. That’s just the British nature.”
now it feels as though British sci-fi could be on the brink of a renaissance, with a new wave of filmmakers reaching for the stars. Jake gyllenhaal courted Jones to direct him in scifi thriller Source Code and Hollywood has handed Monsters director gareth Edwards the responsibility of bringing godzilla crashing back onto the big screen.
“I was brought up on sci-fi. I was a huge Judge Dredd and 2000 AD f a n , a n d t h e r e w a s all the Ridley Scott I used to watch when I was younger.” Alex Garland, still watching his Halo script gather dust, adapted Kazuo Ishiguro’s sci-fi flavoured romance Never Let Me Go for Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are riffing Spielberg in Paul; while writer/director Joe Cornish’s Brit indie debut Attack the Block pits inner city against outer space. The question is, why now? “I think it kind of happened bottom up,” says Jones. “I think lower-budget sci-fi films – films like District 9, Moon and Monsters – have given encouragement to indie directors who are early on in their careers and who aren’t getting vast amounts of money. There’s this excitement that they can achieve things that maybe they were told they couldn’t achieve.” It’s perhaps the most exciting development in twenty-firstcentury cinema – you don’t need a $100 million budget to set your film on the moon or have 40-foot aliens wreaking havoc. “CG and visual effects have become far, far less expensive,” says Jones. “They can be done by a couple of guys on their PCs at home. So there really is a huge power shift in how effectsheavy movies can be made. “You can approach a film like Gareth did: you go on holiday, you take a couple of actors with you, you film them with your home camera and then you stick the CG in on your own when you go home. And you do it for 50,000 quid. Brilliant. The whole problem at that point is, how do you market your film? How do you get your film out there?” One British director who doesn’t have that problem is Christopher Nolan. Having made the most ambitious and technically breathtaking sci-fi movie in modern cinema, the Inception director could be the star around whom everyone else orbits. “He’s already been up Mount Everest while the rest of us are Sherpas!” laughs Jones, who believes it’s Nolan’s vision
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and invention that typifies what sets British sci-fi apart from Hollywood’s work in the genre. “The fact that Chris Nolan uses so many practical effects and tries to do so much in-camera is incredibly impressive,” he says. “It’s the kind of work Kubrick was doing in 2001 when he built the centrifuge for the set. It’s all inspirational. He’s at a level where he gets the money to do that, but you have to have the brains to put it together.”
Jones came close to teaming with Nolan on one of Hollywood’s biggest upcoming projects (“I was on the Superman shortlist when Chris was deciding on directors for that,” he reveals) and the filter-through effect could mean British directors are the ones ruling the sci-fi genre in the next few years. “Absolutely,” nods Jones. “Gareth made one film for 50 grand and now he’s making Godzilla for $100 million. Those are the kinds of people Hollywood are looking for: people who can shoot something for very little money and make it look like more money.” Jones sees his first studio outing as a slight departure from the genre (“I would say that Source Code is more of a thriller with a couple of sci-fi trappings”) but he’s already planning his return to pure sci-fi “I love sci-fi – I was brought up on it – I was a huge Judge Dredd and 2000 AD fan growing up, and obviously there was all the Ridley Scott and Philip K Dick that I used to read and watch when I was younger,” he enthuses. “I’ll be shooting another sci-fi film from a script I’ve written with a terrific writer out here. It’s gonna be proper, proper kick-ass action sci-fi. I’ll tell you more when I can… I’m excited.”
paris 2011 tHe CUstoM-MADe tRADesHoW FoR tHe CReAtiVe CoMMUnitY bY
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image: GARetH PUGH d&ad: seestUDio.CoM
From 12 pm to 9 pm, palais de Chaillot, 1 plaCe du troCadéro, paris 16ème
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hursday, April 26, 1984. PC 657 is on duty at Edgware Police Station in Harrow. At approximately 10.20pm, a telephone call is received from a woman we shall refer to as 'Mrs Tindale', 29, residing in the Stanmore area of Greater London. Mrs Tindale states that she and one other, a neighbour we will refer to as 'Miss Pimley', 21, have seen an object of an unusual nature in the sky above her back garden. Upon arriving at the premises, PC 657, PC 541 and SC 118 observe through the use of binoculars an object circular in the middle with what appears to be a dome on top and underneath with flashing blue, red, green and white lights. PC 657 watches the object for an hour, during which time it moves erratically from side to side and up and down but never ventures from its original position. Then, in a flash, it vanishes. This UFO sighting is just one of the thousands of case reports from the Ministry of Defence’s ‘UFO Project’ that have been released to the National Archives. The incident at Stanmore is one of the five per cent of the 300 or so sightings reported every year that remain unexplained to date. “That five per cent usually fall into three categories,” explains Nick Pope, former Chief Investigator for the UFO Project at the MoD. “One: where UFO incidents occurred where there were multiple witnesses. Two: where the witnesses were trained observers such as police officers or military personnel; and three: incidents which were backed up by photographic or video evidence, where technical analysis found no signs of fakery.”
The roots of the UFO Project lie in an initiative set up by the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Henry Tizard, in the 1950s. Tizard believed that UFO sightings shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand without some form of proper scientific study. “The Americans
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had Project Blue Book [a 20-year study starting in the 1950s that determined whether UFOs were a threat to national security] and Britain had a department with arguably the most marvellously named committee in the history of the civil service – The Flying Saucer Working Party,” explains a chuckling Pope. You’d imagine that the man leading the investigation of UFO sightings in Britain – a man dubbed ‘the real Fox Mulder’ by the UK media – would himself be a believer in the paranormal, but nothing could be further from the truth. “Before I was posted to the UFO Project I certainly had no belief in extraterrestrials,” confesses Pope. “As part of the job I had to keep an open mind for all my investigations, but if I’m honest my start point was broadly sceptical. Strangely, though, in my time I certainly changed my mind about the UFO phenomenon and I admit that I’m far less sceptical nowadays than when I first started.” One of the incidents that contributed to Pope’s diminishing scepticism is DEFE 24/1923. The report, produced by a Lieutenant Commander of the Royal Navy, describes how two UFOs were picked up by military radar at the Royal Naval Air Station in Culdrose, Cornwall, on September 13, 1985. The senior air traffic controller at the base noted that the objects were travelling at 1NM per second; equivalent to 3,500mph, which was, at the time, much faster than any known aircraft. “When we were informed, we immediately ran tests and although certain factors can generate a false return on a radar system, the controller assessed the unit and it had a solid return. When that happens, it’s very difficult to explain it, especially when they’re moving at speeds way ahead of even the most advanced aircraft at the time,” says Pope. “Ultimately, I still believe most UFOs can be explained as misidentifications, hoaxes, or even people seeing secret prototype aircraft - but that’s about all I can say about that because the Official Secrets Act binds me for life. But I’ve investigated enough cases and seen sufficient government files to convince me that there’s certainly more to the UFO phenomenon than this,” he admits.
"My experiences are ones I haven’t been able to tell most people for fear of ridicule. They won’t believe m e b e c au s e , f o r t h e m , s e e i n g is believing, but they haven’t seen what I’ve seen."
Bridget Grant, a close friend of Nick Pope, would certainly agree. The British housewife claims to have had at least 17 encounters with UFOs, including five up close, “Why me?” asks Grant. “I don’t know. I just can’t understand it, but I need some answers. I’m very happy that I’ve witnessed what I have, but at times it can be frustrating because my experiences are ones I haven’t been able to tell most people for fear of ridicule. Many people just won’t believe me because, for them, seeing is believing, but they haven’t seen what I’ve seen.”
It’s not just farmers and housewives who are on the look out for ET and his little green friends. The SETI Institute in California is, as the name suggests, at the forefront of the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. Using the Allen Telescope Array, a large cluster of small dishes able to simultaneously scan conventional radio astronomy projects alongside the Institute’s own observations, SETI is able to look for signals and frequencies between 1,000 and 10,000Mhz to detect intelligent life in outer space. “Basically, if they can build a transmitter or laser so that they can signal us, then they’re intelligent and that’s it in our book,” explains Dr Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute. “Even though we’re mainly concerned with SETI research and, more recently, astrobiology, I still get about five or 10 emails and phone calls a day from people who have seen UFOs,” confesses Shostak. “I’m sure that 99 per cent of the people that get in touch with me have seen something, but the question is, 'What have they seen?' I honestly think that if Earth was being visited, no matter what the government of the United States, the UK or even Belgium might do,
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there are 150 other countries, and I find it hard to believe that all of them have managed to cover up the evidence; and yet the average guy in the street sees it all the time. It’s like thinking that the British postal service is covering up that one per cent of the workforce are actually aliens. You’ve got to think as well, if we’ve been having these visitors ever since the war, and the planes still take off from Heathrow with no interference or danger, why would governments keep it quiet? They seem perfectly benign, they don’t cause any trouble; they’re the best houseguests you could ever have, I think.” Even now, having left the MoD in 2006, Nick Pope still finds himself at the centre of controversy. Several individuals approached for this feature refused to talk after learning of Pope’s involvement, claiming that he was a ‘disinformer’, who ‘believes in ETs and UFOs, but will never admit it publicly’. “Ufologists and conspiracy theorists get somewhat obsessed with me,” admits Pope. “On several occasions I’ve been accused of being part of an official cover-up or being a disinformation operative, but none of these criticisms bother me. The MoD is being as open as it can by releasing its UFO files, but because the files don’t tell people what they want to hear – that we’re being visited by extraterrestrials – they think we’re holding back the really interesting files. The thing is, if people believe that, there’s really nothing that the MoD or I can do about it because any assurances we give will automatically be dismissed as lies.” “If people in the UK truly believe in extraterrestrials then maybe they should be encouraging more SETI research in Britain,” adds a clearly frustrated Shostak. “With the exception of the Italians, the Europeans don’t do much SETI at all. And that’s a shame, especially when they’ve got plenty of antennas sitting up there near Manchester which could be used.”
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Fair Game Directed by Doug Liman S t a r r i n g S e a n P e n n , N a o m i Wa t t s , To m M c C a r t h y Released March 4
raq. Bush. Al-Qaeda. Three things that a post-9/11 America is probably sick to death of hearing about. Mainly because, aside from the persistently hyperbolic headlines, Hollywood has spent the last decade or so wrestling the tricky subject of the Iraq War into cinemas. The result? Some good movies (The Hurt Locker). Some rubbish (Badland). Do we really need another? Director Doug Liman thinks so. Except he’s no longer interested in breakneck action (The Bourne Identity), colossal explosions (Mr. & Mrs. Smith) or, uh, extravagant knitwear (Jumper). Instead, he’s taken a cue from emotion-inclined dramas The Messenger and Brothers, choosing to trace the war’s insidious influence as it creates rifts in family kitchens, at dinner parties and in office high-rises. That those offices happen to belong to the CIA is par for the course in this story based on the real-life scandal of undercover agent Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts). Leading a double existence, Plame’s involvement in the Iraq investigation between 2001 and 2003 exposes deep-seated corruption and a government that is feeding erroneous raw data to the press as fact. But when things get nasty, hubbie Joe (Sean Penn), a former
diplomat embroiled in the scandal, won’t go down without a very public fight. Splicing shot footage with real-life clips of Bush and his administration (the latter, naturally, often played for laughs), this is Liman keeping it real. Intimacy is key, as hot topics are debated over dinner and human drama is pushed to the front line. Watts and Penn are more than up to the material’s demands, the former extraordinary as a woman who just wants to do right, the latter striving for the same with all the subtlety of a bulldozer. Just as Watts and Penn’s performances are typically focussed, so is their director’s purposeful framing. When Liman loosens the leash – such as during a brief Baghdad bombing scene – he does so with a heart-hammering, terrifyingly intimate approach, showing the action entirely from the POV of a man and his son trapped in a car. He’s also unafraid of fun visual flourishes, among them a nifty view of Penn writing an email from inside the screen. Unlike previous effort Jumper, these are mere garnishes for a taut tale that is never frivolously showy. Fair Game only trips in its attempts to harmoniously marry searing government condemnation, domestic strife and a more action-
flavoured Baghdad plot. The outcome is a film that never quite cranks the tension up enough, especially if you’re already familiar with the upshot of the real Plame’s plight. Still, if all of the Iraq dramas that Hollywood crafts in the future are this entertaining, we’re game if you are. Josh Winning
Not the ’90s Cindy Crawford thriller, but a back-to-basics Doug Liman w h o ’s r e e l e d h i m s e l f i n a f t e r the CG-overloaded Jumper.
Fact and fiction s n a k e t o g e t h e r , b u t w h e r e ’s the real tension?
In Retrospect. Wa t t s a n d Pe n n a r e f i r s t r at e a s a married couple divided by their desperation to do right, w h i l e s t y l i s t i c a l l y i t ’s t o p n o t c h . Could’ve done with more meat on its bones, though.
Directed by Ken Loach S t a r r i n g M a r k Wo m a c k , Andrea Lowe, John Bishop Released March 18
magine Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah with less laughs and more shouting and you might come close to the dour experience that is Ken Loach’s Route Irish. Fittingly, it begins at a funeral. In Liverpool. It’s where Fergus (Mark Womack), a Scouse SAS officer-turnedmercenary, discovers a mobile phone containing video of an atrocity in Iraq. It suggests that the death of best friend Frankie (John Bishop) while working as highly paid private security contractor in Baghdad was no accident. What follows works neither as a Get Carterstyle mission of self-imploding vengeance nor an emotional detective thriller like Haggis’ heartbreaking 2007 movie. Shot in blank, blunt style by Kes cinematographer Chris Menges, Route Irish never looks better than an ’80s TV movie and Loach fails to crank any narrative drive into the plodding drama.
Twisted with guilt and violence, Fergus goes on the warpath to find the truth, hauling in Frankie’s widow, Rachel (Andrea Lowe), and an Iraqi refugee (Talib Hamafraj), while doggedly pursuing the security firm reps (Jack Fortune, Geoff Bell). The most surprising disappointments are the desperately weak performances, with journeyman actor Womack failing to etch any pathos or complexity into a lead character who does a lot of shouting and little else. To be fair, screenwriter Paul Laverty hands out more clunky exposition than meaningful dialogue. Even a brutal waterboarding scene – apparently performed for real on actor Trevor Williams – is hard to care about. After The Wind That Shakes the Barley’s Palme d’Or, and the delightful whimsy of Looking for Eric, it seemed Loach could be on a Mike Leigh-
style resurgence. But if that Cantona-powered oxymoron (Ken Loach comedy?) appeared to have lifted his rep as the master miserablist of home-nations cinema, this bolts it back into place like never before. Crushingly bleak it might be, but what’s really depressing about Route Irish is just how poorly made it is. Jonathan Crocker
After Looking for Er ic, is Loach on a roll?
Crushingly bleak anti-drama erodes your interest with ever y scene.
In Retrospect. S o u l - s a p p i n g and, well, just not ver y good.
Killing Bono Directed by Nick Hamm Starring Ben Bar nes, Pe t e Po s t l e t h wa i t e, Martin McCann Released April 1
he ponytail, the jerkin, the meaningless moniker, the preposterous quotes or the grand-standing, empty lyrics – there are plenty of reasons to dislike Bono. Music critic and former wannabe rock star Neil McCormick had a better reason to resent him than most. In any other city, at any other time, McCormick’s arrogance and charisma would have carried him to super stardom, but he grew up friends with a man twice as arrogant and charismatic, supported the guy’s band only to hear the girls scream louder when he came on stage and then watched as Bono and U2 went from a silly-sounding Dublin joke to the world’s biggest, hoariest rock band. “He rises, I fall. He just gets bigger and better,” whines McCormick in the opening minutes and his self-pity only intensifies as his band takes knocks and Bono’s gets hits.
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Ben Barnes plays this essentially unlikeable character with enough wide-eyed passion to sell him. Robert Sheehan as his less gregarious brother, Ivan, has a tougher job, but he’s superb, flicking between bawdy co-conspirator and betrayed ally. Among the supporting cast, Martin McCann is uncannily similar to the subject of McCormick’s ire and Pete Postlethwaite takes a tired, but classy turn as the boys’ archly lascivious gay landlord in his final film before his death from cancer. The role isn’t worthy of him, but then he rarely found ones that were. Nick Hamm shoots the film as a romp in a style strangely reminiscent of the Britpop era – think Stefan Schwartz’s Shooting Fish or the Channel 4 series The Young Person’s Guide to Being a Rock Star – but it’s all power chords and no intricacy. You sense there’s a quieter, more interesting story behind the bombast – that of McCormick now and how
youthful ambition shapes us as we age. ‘One of these men is not a music legend’, runs the caption beneath the photo of David Bowie, Brian Eno, Bono and Guess Who? prominently displayed on his website. It’s a joke, it’s a dig, but on the evidence of Killing Bono, it’s also a cold, hard truth that this film just doesn’t address. Henry Barnes
Even better than the real thing?
In Retrospect. We s t i l l h a v e n ’ t found what we’re looking for.
Meek’s Cutoff Directed by Kelly Reichardt S t a r r i n g M i c h e l l e Wi l l i a m s, Wi l l Pat t o n , B r u c e G r e e n wo o d Released April 15
small convoy of homesteaders wades single file through a deep river in north-eastern Oregon, navigating their wagon train with the greatest care to earn safe passage. Once across, they pause briefly on the parched bank to catch a breath and fill a few pails before forming rank and riding out. They travel light, trusting that the next source of fresh water should be no more than a pinch past the next horizon. Where others have found their fortunes in pockets of this seemingly infertile landscape, these would-be prospectors – chaperoned by a crusty local sage named Meek (Bruce Greenwood) – have caught the tail end of the Gold Rush in the blind hope that they might also strike it rich. As it happens, it is the aforementioned liquid life-giver that will prove most precious on this trip. Days pass before mother hen Emily (Michelle Williams) spots an indigenous scout, who’s duly captured but spared from execution after it’s decided that his regional knowledge will unearth a nearby wet spot. Campfire propaganda sees tall tales of redskin savages scalping in cold blood split the group, but it’s a risk they’ll have to take together. The real Stephen Meek was an unsung custodian of the American Dream; a fur trapper by trade who guided scores of emigrants through an unchartered
corridor separating colonised Oregon and the remaining Indian Territories. Bruce Greenwood’s wonderfully immersive performance emphasises the callous, pragmatic temperament that kept Meek a hair’s breadth ahead of the flock, but Reichardt’s readiness to paint him as an uncouth panto villain undermines both character and actor. Indeed, despite initial deftness in character texturing, Meek’s Cutoff reduces all three of its protagonistic couples to broad clichés – rash evangelicals, po-faced conservatives, compassionate liberals – leaving the film’s fading enigma in the bound hands of their Cayuse captive. Again, Reichardt’s toning is so transparent that regardless of the fact that his near-silence and solemn demeanour upholds Meek’s vicious intimation that he is the devil in moccasins, he might as well have some ancient native proverb tattooed across his naked torso. There are moments – when heavy footsteps and wagon sighs fill the endless, empty space of the Oregon outback – where Meek’s Cutoff exudes an existential aroma. This is a film that broods lengthily over the insubstantiality of mortality and faith. Like the last specks of gold dust along this lonesome trail, however, these moments are a false promise that something illuminating lies just beyond the next vale.
As America continues to lick its wounds from the second worst economic crisis in its history, the pioneering steps that preceded the boom culture of the early twentieth century are treated with a fond and proud sense of nostalgia. Yet while the western may be firmly back in fashion, Meek’s Cutoff fits neither the contemporary or revisionist subgenre moulds, instead straying loosely between indie minimalism and artsy ennui. Reichardt’s boldness in eschewing a sprawling retelling of how the West was won should be applauded, but she hasn’t yet earned the right to take this long saying so little. Adam Woodward
Anticipation. W i t h
a top cast assembled by the director of We n d y a n d L u c y , t h i s c o u l d b e something ver y special.
Enjoyment. W h a t
about that e n d i n g ? M e e k ’s C u t o f f , i n d e e d .
In Retrospect. H e r e ’ s h o p i n g Reichardt rediscovers her golden touch.
D i r e c t e d b y W i m We n d e r s Starring Pina Bausch Released April 22
here are some things in life that leave you speechless. This is how the late dancer Pina Bausch described the human impulse to dance. As her dedicated troupe makes serpentine movements across the stage, Bausch’s presence in Wim Wenders’ film is like that of a silent snake charmer. Her followers hypnotically fling themselves through movements; transforming bodies into endless expressions. Having known Bausch for 20 years, Wenders waited almost as long to make a film that would dutifully pay homage to the founder of Germany's Tanztheater Wuppertal. With the second coming of 3D, Wenders finally found his format, lending Pina the depth it was crying out for. Although this isn’t the first film to combine dance and 3D (step forward StreetDance 3D), it’s the first that isn’t tailored exclusively for popcorn poppers and teenie boppers. With the potential to turn highbrow critics’ and arthouse aficionados’ frowns upside down, Wenders’ delicately provocative film could give 3D
the My Fair Lady moment it’s been yearning for. The expressive dance of the Tanztheater is, in actual fact, anything but prim and proper. Energised by Bausch’s mantra – ‘dance, dance, otherwise we are lost’ – the dancers pulsate in tribal movements across both the stage and various industrial locations around Wuppertal. It is in these instances that Wenders makes the most of the 3D; superimposing indoors onto outdoors with a sort of tracing paper editing. Watching a dancer from his partner’s point-ofview is a spectacular experience in itself – one that not even live performance can offer. In other words, Pina is a film that doesn’t simply profit from 3D, but one that needs to be seen in 3D. Elements of the surreal may make Pina memorable – a woman dancing with a hippopotamus will provide some much-needed relief – but while some of the performances in the film take their inspiration from the circus, unlike other 3D
adventures, this one doesn’t simply clown about with technology. With Pina, Wenders invites you to take a closer look at the beauty of the flower, without squirting water in your face. Zara Miller
3D lovers and snobs alike are sure to raise an eyebrow on hearing about Pina.
Enjoyment. We n d e r s
proves that, when handled with care, the technology can reach a whole new dimension.
In Retrospect. H o p e f u l l y Pina will be the first of many to build a bridge between 3D and arthouse cinema.
Directed by Kevin Macdonald S t a r r i n g C h a n n i n g Ta t u m , Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland Released March 25
hanning Tatum, dripping chain mail with a tousled Toni & Guy haircut and a chin you could use to barge down a portcullis, surveys the descending pack of Scottish savages and commands his Roman legionnaires. “Prepare to defend The Eagle!” Good luck with that, Channing, because this film is wide open for a pasting. It’s AD 140. The Roman Empire stretches as far as Hadrian’s Wall. Marcus Aquila (Tatum), a young Roman centurion stationed in England, is tarnished by the disgraced legacy of his father, who led the only legion beyond Hadrian’s Wall 20 years previously and vanished without trace, losing the legion’s eponymous sacred eagle standard. Determined to rediscover the eagle and restore his father’s lost honour, Aquila travels with a British slave, Esca (Jamie Bell), beyond the
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Wall and into the Scottish wilderness to confront the barbarous tribes that lurk there. Kevin Macdonald, Scottish born and BBC bred, is an established name. Touching theVoid began a wave of commercial feature-length docu-dramas. State of Play, based on a BBC mini-series, was a smart, testing ensemble thriller, while 2006’s The Last King of Scotland helped to usher in the kinetic-mosaic style – that gritty, hurried form of editing on digital cameras – that became de rigueur for so many ‘based on a true story’ movies of the era. But here Macdonald has fallen down, and hard. His visceral style is very much in evidence, yet now it seems distracting. When the film is allowed to breathe, the hazy vista of the Scottish Highlands leads one to reflect on the feral beauty of our isles. But dramatically, it’s schematic and unconvincing, weighted by a visibly middling budget and some truly deadwood acting from
Tatum and Bell. Only Tahar Rahim, Jacques Audiard’s muse in A Prophet, injects intrigue and danger as a pagan-worshipping Celt. This is a sword and sandals epic downsized for the age of austerity; an over-extension of ambition scorned by the absence of tools. The Eagle uncomfortably straddles a line somewhere between Gladiator and Countryﬁle. Tom Seymour
Macdonald brings his brio to the epic...
B u t i t ’s n o t e n o u g h t o l i f t t h i s d e a d w e i g h t s t o r y.
In Retrospect. A b o r i n g R o m a n To p G u n .
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Filmography Richard Ayoade S u b m a r i n e (2010)
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ichard Ayoade’s Submarine first surfaced at last year’s London Film Festival, prompting everybody to go berserk. Ever since, critics, bloggers and upstarts have been falling over themselves to appear cool, credible and supportive. Submarine has been ordained as that rarest of things: a film that floats above the pondweed; a contender surrounded by pretenders. Ayoade (and just in case you’re wondering, it’s pronounced ‘Eh-oh-a-day’ with the stress on the ‘a’) himself has been a pop-culture fixture for several years now, accompanying students through sofa-ensconced hours as Dean Learner in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, Moss in The IT Crowd and Ned Smanks in Nathan Barley (“It’s good because it looks like it’s good because it’s rude”). Somehow, he still found time to direct music videos for Vampire Weekend, The Arctic Monkeys and YeahYeahYeahs. Cut the geek open and, you suspect, he’d bleed chic. Maybe because it’s too early for a Friday, or because Soho is pewter grey and dog wet, or because we’ve caught Ayoade while he’s still media-green, but the man we meet – accommodating as he may be – is quiet and hesitant. He may be wearing NHS glasses and a blue polka dot shirt, he may have made a debut movie that everyone is competing to compliment, but he seems, of all things, a little shy. There’s a skit on YouTube where Ayoade is interviewed by Armando Iannucci. At the start of it he says, “Do you mind if I look away from you, like, pretty much 80 per cent of the time. I just find it difficult to think of words and take in your face at the same time.” On second thoughts, maybe it’s not a skit at all. After an initial exchange of platitudes, we put it to him that, as a debut director in this country – maybe in general – it makes sense to start your career with a safe bet. Submarine may be making film fans fall over each other like foals on ice, but it also makes a lot of commercial sense. It’s a smart-aleck teen romance relocated from Orange County to Swansea. Was that a consideration?
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“It didn’t feel like this was a commercial proposition at all. The book seemed very unadaptable; it’s very literary with lots of… I suppose… plot mechanisms that can turn on letters. Things are very internal, so it didn’t feel like doing a crime film or a horror film or something that is particularly genre led. “I just liked the book a lot, really. There was no particular plan, other than that. I’ve always liked Catcher in the Rye and Harold and Maude and I always liked teen dramas when I was young, but it feels that so many of them are American – it seems a more American subject matter. I don’t think there are that many films of that genre in England, really, and I don’t think there is much of a commercial track record for them.” What helps Submarine stands apart from its transatlantic competitors, and what makes it feel so fresh and tart to an audience lobotomised by thoughtless rom-coms, is Ayoade’s embrace of a phoney. His reference to JD Salinger is pointed; for Holden Caulfield, see Oliver Tate. “It’s very much based on the testimony of an unreliable narrator, and so much of what works about the book is his testimony juxtaposed with your idea of what occurred, and when you start translating that you have to solidify a lot of things. His school, for example, has to appear in reality rather than just how he describes it. He never describes the way he looks. There is no reality set out in the first-person so all that has to be, I guess, firmed up and decided upon. “You always think about what effect a voiceover will have and what kind of voiceover you want,” he continues, “whether it’s entirely retrospective or a voiceover that’s happening in real time. Clockwork Orange is telling you a story from the perspective of the end of the film in a way. Taxi Driver works more through diaries. Badlands is very interesting; the voiceover is almost like a court deposition. I became slightly
obsessed with voiceover and how it works. Those films I’ve mentioned somehow felt internal, and I found that very interesting.” But beyond the confines of Tate’s irreverence, Submarine does have depth, striking you with a drama that retains, at all times, a phlegmatic and melancholy Britishness. Did Ayoade feel he had to balance the humour with that heart? “I didn’t really need to,” he replies. “The tone of the character felt like it was very strong in the book. His somewhat ridiculous way of looking at the world was the main thing in the film, so the idea was to preserve that rather than worrying this bit was serious or this bit wasn’t. You stop really thinking about that and it’s just what feels like fits or doesn’t fit. You don’t try and atomise it.” These seem like the words of a filmmaker confident enough to go with his gut and lingering anxiety be damned. But Ayoade, despite making a film that plays with the fourth wall like a cat with a mouse, remains defiantly unwilling to see beyond himself. “I don’t know,” he says, almost shrinking, when asked how he knew he was ready to make a movie. “You don’t tend to have a perspective on your trajectory, or any sense that it is a trajectory in any way. It would feel quite hubristic to feel that you are deciding when things happen at a certain time in a certain order, when they are appropriate. Normally you’re just trying to make things and working out whether people will allow you to or not. There’s no Napoleonic control. “I’m not involved in the industrial process of films, so I don’t have a particular perspective on it at all. I suppose you don’t really have a third-person view of yourself. You’re just trying to get showered in time, and that’s sort of it, really. Maybe my brain is wired wrong.” Check out the full interview transcript in the week of the film’s release.
Submarine Directed by Richard Ayoade S t a r r i n g S a l l y H a w k i n s , Ya s m i n P a i g e , C r a i g R o b e r t s Released March 18 ubmarine is a coming-of-age drama set in down-at-heel Swansea in what looks like the 1980s. The hero of the film is Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), a lonely teenager who wears a duffel coat and sometimes pretends to have Cotard’s syndrome: a type of autism, his dictionary tells him, that convinces people they are dead. His parents are barely talking and on the edge of divorce. His girlfriend Jordana (Yasmin Paige), a dumpy girl with a Lego haircut and a Don’t Look Now coat, is sad; her mother has life-threatening cancer. Feel free to roll your eyes at another gritty British ode to how tough it is in a sink estate somewhere outside London. But Submarine is directed by The IT Crowd’s Richard Ayoade, adapted from a novel by Joe Dunthorne, produced by Warp, exec-produced by Ben Stiller and scored by Arctic Monkey Alex Turner. It was the ticket at last year’s London Film Festival. Soon after, the rights were sold to the Weinstein brothers for a million dollars. British cinema isn’t good at being cool. Submarine has bucked that trend; defiantly so. While Oliver’s dad (Noah Taylor) plummets into depression and his mum (a lovely Sally Hawkins) considers an elicit affair with a mullettopped mental well-being guru (Paddy Considine), Oliver fixates on losing his and taking Jordana’s
virginity. He anticipates the event by wearing one of his dad’s old suits and, to Jordana’s horror, covering his bed in rose petals. After he talks her round, she leaves him with a single piece of advice: “Don’t get cocky.” It sums up the film witty, gentle, self-deprecating, unsentimental and strung together with a panache wholly unworthy of a debutant. Like Jon Bon Jovi dreaming of the movies they won’t make of him when he’s dead, Ayoade has made a virtue of self-consciousness. While this film is about a self-absorbed, over-analytical teenager, Ayoade has mimicked Scorsese’s relationship with Travis Bickle - we seem to observe Oliver Tate directing his own movie. Oliver, rejected and depressed, wishes for a slow-dissolve to darkness before a cut to a later, happier scene. And so we witness it. From the gentle irreverence of The Graduate to the high-end angst of Rebel Without a Cause, the hormone-pit of a teenager’s mind has always worked on screen. Michael Cera grasped the marketability of kookifying heartbreak, and in the process became the most iconic Canadian export since Terrance and Phillip. Ayoade is a confessed Ceraphile and this film could, in the blink of an eye, so easily have succumbed to Youth in Revolt cutesy or Juno quirk.
Occasionally, very occasionally, Ayoade allows it to – with an overly long voiceover or baggy duologue. But he has crafted a movie so nakedly in love with the diversities and absurdities of cinema, and so allergic to the modernist pretence, political subtext and forced resolutions of our indie industry, that Submarine never feels trapped in the whims of the here and now. Indeed, with the minutely crafted Super 8 videos of Oliver and Jordana cavorting on the beaches, with the firework parties, with Alex Turner’s crooning melodies, Submarine makes you crave for a romance you only ever imagined. Tom Seymour
Few debut films have attracted such an insistent buzz.
A s hy, b r i g h t , wonderfully appealing film.
In Retrospect. H o w b i t t e r s w e e t for the UKFC that this heads a pack of strong and diverse British films in 2011.
The Company Men
D i r e c t e d b y J o h n We l l s Starring Ben Affleck, K e v i n C o s t n e r , To m m y L e e J o n e s Released March 11
ollywood’s relationship with the global financial crisis was always going to be uneasy. As an industry based upon obscene amounts of wealth it would seem rather hypocritical to start decrying the mechanisms which have kept the dollars rolling in for so many years. Even a film like Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps was determined to side-step the core issues at the heart of the crisis and instead concentrate on the devastating fact that some rich people would become slightly less rich. On the surface, The Company Men would seem to buck the trend. But on closer examination it does nothing more than reinterpret the recession as a perfect opportunity for self-improvement. Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) is a high-flying executive brought down to earth by redundancy – his world of five-figure bonuses and expensive living replaced by financial worry. As he attempts to find a new job, he finds himself working for his brother-inlaw, proud blue-collar builder Jack (Kevin Costner). And then there’s the question of his former colleagues, who are going to find out just how expendable they are. The Company Men buckles under the weight of its own lofty ambitions – it strives to be an incisive portrait of American capitalism and masculinity in crisis but ends up as a rather toothless and obvious slice of melodrama. The characters are all broad and predictable stereotypes (the arrogant rich man brought down a peg or two, the honest labourer,
the supportive but tough wife) and many of the film’s conclusions hinge on a glib conservatism – pull your socks up and everything will be fine. The revelation that some men find redundancy emasculating ranks up there with clichés about popes and Catholicism. The likes of Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper do their best with the material but even their good performances can’t make up for a staid script and rather flat direction from Wells (whose background is in TV – and how it shows). The Company Men is a rather dull character study and a failure as social commentary. You’d be wise to save your money for something else. Laurence Boyce
An emotive subject should hold the interest.
Enjoyment. T h e r e
are a few good moments – largely thanks t o t h e p e r f o r m a n c e s – b u t i t ’s all ver y predictable.
In Retrospect. T h e r e w i l l b e plenty of good movies about the recession. This isn’t one of them.
Directed by David Keating Starring Aidan Gillen, Eva Birthistle, Timothy Spall Released March 25
ndebted to the likes of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and Robin Hardy’s folk horror classic, The Wicker Man, Wake Wood represents a welcome change in a genre too often entrenched in outdated extremes. The comparison to Roeg’s iconic work is well earned, as Wake Wood more than once doffs a cap in recognition and respect. And yet beyond a point, the referencing feels unnecessary. Still, though invested in conjuring atmosphere and a growing sense of unease, the film doesn’t exactly skimp on the blood and guts quota, either. Picked up by the re-established Hammer label to showcase its new brand identity and output, this lowbudget chiller offers a positive indication of the new studio’s intentions. Starring Aidan Gillen, Eva Birthistle and Timothy Spall, the exploration of mystical folklore and pre-Christian religious rites makes it a distant cousin to Outcast (another recent Irish production) and Christopher Smith’s Black Death.
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Director David Keating uses these devices in an almost fairy tale fashion, enabling him to counter the horror aspects rather well. This story of the resurrected dead is as poignant and sorrowful as it is fantastical and weird. Patrick and Louise (Gillen and Birthistle) lose their young daughter Alice after a dog attack and relocate to the sedate village of Wake Wood to piece together their broken lives. Quite by accident they discover a hideous but beguiling secret – the townsfolk can bring back the recently deceased, but for three days only. Spall’s country-gent farmer makes the most unlikely necromancer imaginable and the actor does a fine line in being both sinister and avuncular. The narrative works, by and large, because of the lead characters’ emotional weaknesses and their understandable selfishness. The community isn’t what it seems but it doesn’t automatically follow that they’re threatening or evil. Wake Wood is packed with rich ideas and
symbolic imagery of life and death. Some elements feel laboured but mostly it succeeds. It’s a distinct and fresh piece of work – even if it is about reanimated corpses. Martyn Conterio
Anticipation. T h e
second feature under the new Hammer label arrives.
A beguiling and inventive work which lets itself down by occasionally overreferencing Don’t Look Now.
In Retrospect. A c r e e p y , poignant story of life and death which surprises with the strength of its ideas.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger D i r e c t e d b y Wo o d y A l l e n S t a r r i n g J o s h B r o l i n , N a o m i Wa t t s , A n t h o n y H o p k i n s Released March 18
oody Allen – the Nottingham Forest of the movie world. The heritage you can’t deny but where’s the consistency? Allen’s own Brian Clough era (Annie Hall, Manhattan) might have long passed but there’s still the occasional Championship play-off (Vicky Cristina Barcelona). It’s the unpredictability that kills you. The fact that You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger – his fourth London-set film – is getting released 10 long months after its Cannes debut doesn’t bode well, but at least it’s getting a theatrical release. Scoop, his second, debuted on BBC2. Things begin flatly. ‘Shakespeare said that life is full of sound and fury,’ states the voiceover, ‘and in the end signifies nothing.’ Nothing? Great. Combined with Allen’s own frequent assertions that his films don’t add up to a whole hill of beans, it’s hardly an enticing start. Painful exposition doesn’t help. Characters forgo profundities in favour of just explaining what they’ve done, what they’re doing and what they’re about to do. On the plus side, it makes the antics of the ensemble cast incredibly easy to follow. Roy (Josh Brolin) is a frustrated novelist,
his wife, Sally (Naomi Watts), a wannabe gallery owner. He spies on his glamorous neighbour (Freida Pinto), she flirts with her charming boss (Antonio Banderas). Sally’s mother (Gemma Jones), meanwhile, becomes obsessed with psychics in the aftermath of her ex-husband (Anthony Hopkins) marrying a younger woman (Lucy Punch). It’s all told with the simplicity of a Ladybird book, and shows none of the narrative fluency of a filmmaker who once elegantly riffed on Dostoyevsky in Crimes & Misdemeanors. That’s the main problem. This is the film of a man who’s lost his mojo. There’s no distinct style, no especially vibrant performances, no fresh takes on those age-old Allen themes of fate, voyeurism or old blokes obsessing on young women. If going to Spain to shoot Vicky Cristina Barcelona fired up his love for metropolitan architecture and dramatic passion, then London has snuffed it out. The stiff upper lips of posh British thesps enunciate each line without the easy-going New York (or Mediterranean) swagger that his dialogue relies on, while the settings are drab and nondescript.
Hopkins copes best. Awkward nerviness has consistently been Allen’s best way to get a laugh and, despite his Hannibal Lecter infamy, the former Welshman is a great ditherer (see Remains of the Day). But he’s part of a random gaggle of neurotics who seem utterly disconnected. Character backgrounds haven’t been thought through, classes mix that never would in real life, Anna Friel (in cameo) is inexplicably Irish. Like many of Allen’s recent outings, it feels surprisingly slapdash. Even in Vicky Cristina Barcelona he forgot that locals spoke Catalan not Spanish. In a story as lightweight as this, those annoying distractions are the last thing you need. James King
Anticipation. We ’ r e
Hopkins can only take you so far.
In Retrospect. F r o t h y b u t uninvolving. Again.
Tran Anh Hung
Filmography Tr a n A n h H u n g N o r w e g i a n Wo o d I Come with the Rain Ve r t i c a l R a y o f t h e S u n Cyclo T h e S c e n t o f G r e e n Pa p aya
(2010) (2008) (2000) (1995) (1993)
Inner Magic Interview by Martyn Conterio
rench-Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung’s career got off to a flying start with festival wins at Cannes (The Scent of Green Papaya, Camera d’Or, 1993) and Venice (Cyclo, Golden Lion, 1995). He was hailed as the most exciting voice in Vietnamese cinema, with a style of filmmaking whose drama, intensity and philosophical nuances came with the kind of exquisite imagery and movement only cinema can achieve. After a near-decade-long hiatus, Tran returns with two very different projects in quick succession. First out of the post is NorwegianWood, an adaptation of a bestselling novel, while the second is I Come with the Rain, a detective story set primarily in Hong Kong and starring Hollywood actor Josh Hartnett. The former proved a great artistic joy; the latter was a post-production nightmare that involved court proceedings and was later distributed against the director’s wishes. The claim that Haruki Murakami’s novel is unfilmable clearly didn’t put Tran off pursuing the project. The friendly and soft-spoken director explains that he carried a torch for the book since reading it in French translation back in 1994. “It was this idea of first love and also the death of somebody you love. It works in a very deep way and it’s something very deep inside of us. The book brought this out. From that moment I wanted to make the movie. For the longest time I kept saying, ‘I want to make it’, but nobody responded until five years ago.” A major obstacle presented itself before securing a budget and the circus of film production. Murakami had previously rejected all other inquiries regarding Norwegian Wood’s film rights, but listened to Tran and his proposal. “He wanted to read the script and I showed it to him. We communicated in English. I wrote the screenplay in French then translated it into English, then into Japanese for the producer. After reading it, he sent me notes. There
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was a lot. It was like he was looking back on this book he wrote a long time ago and came up with all these ‘ideas’. He offered me a lot and I kept a lot. After that I felt free to do the film.” The director’s intense connection saw issues move beyond merely translating the complex material from page to screen. Capturing the thematic concerns and nuances were equally as important as narrative. “It’s not just about adapting the story, you’ve got to adapt the feelings and the ramifications the book suggests. It’s really personal to me,” Tran says. His approach to filmmaking is based on what he describes as a form of intuition. Tran calls it ‘the music inside me’ – he rarely bothers with rehearsals and never storyboards. It’s a deceptive approach, however, as there’s a precise but aesthetic daring evident in composition, framing and scene structures. One of the chief highlights of Norwegian Wood is a one-take tracking shot following the lead characters pacing up and down in a field of long grass. Rinko Kikuchi’s Naoko here confesses her deepest feelings to Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama). “I always want to find the picture on the set with everybody. We see the location and think about how we can work with it. Step-by-step we find the right frame. The idea with the tracking shot was to do with the confession of Naoko. It’s the moment Watanabe discovers her problems and what she has to say is very violent and tough. I wanted the audience to feel something really physical. That’s why I had them walk fast. It added to the feeling of something very tense.” If Norwegian Wood proved a satisfying achievement for the director, his second feature this year, I Come with the Rain, developed major issues during the editing phase. Tran explains that the film is not truly his own. “Right now I would not advise people to see it,” he confesses. “It’s not my picture. It has wonderful scenes but the movie as a whole is not there. I spent a year at the courts against my producer. It is something really sad for me. Please write this. It was a very
important project and unfortunately it was not the right producer.” The plot revolves around a young policeman (Josh Hartnett) who becomes disturbed after encountering a serial killer who takes Thomas De Quincey’s famous ‘murder as art’ proposition to gruesome lengths. After quitting the force, he becomes a private eye and arrives in Hong Kong to track down the missing son of a pharmaceutical magnate. The serial killer/artist’s macabre and surreal pieces – made from his victims’ bodies – recall Gunther von Hagens’ work, but a British artist provided the major influence. “Francis Bacon was the main inspiration. Once you see those works they are inside you forever.” Such is the feeling against the producers, Tran hasn’t seen the film they’ve surreptitiously marked for release the same month as Norwegian Wood in the UK. It’s as if the pain is too raw. He does hope one day he can regain control of the picture and re-cut it to his own specifications. “Yes, I would like to if it’s possible because I’m sure there’s a very good movie in there. But everything, like the grading, was not well done and the sound, too. If they want to release the DVD, they don’t have the right materials to do it. The mix they have is the mix for the theatre and they’d have to reduce it and stretch it, then you’d lose the power of the music and sound.” After the legal tangles and disappointment of one picture, the sense of accomplishment with Norwegian Wood makes him smile. “It was a really normal process and with a producer who is a producer, you know?” Tran is already plotting his next movie and mulling over three different ideas, one of which could be set in contemporary France. There is, however, hesitance in announcing a definite project. “Each time I’m talking about that kind of thing it becomes something else.” Check out the full interview transcript online in the week of the film’s release.
Norwegian Wood D i r e c t e d b y Tr a n A n h H u n g Starring Rinko Kikuchi, Kenichi Matsuyama, Kiko Mizuhara Released March 11
ran Anh Hung’s take on Haruki Murakami’s classic novel, Norwegian Wood, is a slowburning affair where turbulent emotions and narrative events haunt and simmer rather than explode. If it’s catharsis and fireworks you’re after, you’d be better off looking elsewhere. It would be easy to label the film depressing and pretentious given the extensive lovelorn moping about and soul-searching, yet it manages to rise above such accusations by being superlatively crafted and laser-focused. Norwegian Wood proudly wears its melancholy heart on its sleeve. The director is clearly fascinated with the process of grieving and the pernicious effects it can bring, but there are problems. The meandering pace may bore some as much as it captivates others. Whole scenes go nowhere and at times it feels a bit too ponderous. Its sensibility feels more aligned to French arthouse cinema than Japanese. This adaptation is a respectful piece but Tran is unafraid to stamp his own personality on the material, marking it as the work of an auteur. Although possessing nostalgic and period traits, what we have here is a case of an outsider looking in, finding points of interest and exploration with great care and attention.
Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama) and Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi) cannot let go of the past and instead allow it to define themselves and their future. Even sex scenes between the pair are shot in a cold, deep blue hue, as if to suggest not even physical intimacy can provide solace. Their mutual passion is part of their malaise rather than an escape. Watanabe’s other love interest, Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), could be the answer to his problems but he’s so tied to the past he treats her interest with caution. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood supplies an eclectic score ranging from the suitably dissonant and moody to jangling guitar numbers and full-blown orchestral pieces. It works very well. The true star of the film, however, is the knock-out performance by Rinko Kikuchi as the disturbed and fragile Naoko. Her portrayal of a heartbroken lost soul is excellent. Incredibly, Tran Anh Hung didn’t initially see the actress as right for the character. The same cannot be said of Matsuyama as Watanabe. Though he is our conduit to the story, his general blankness acts instead as a barrier. Why should we care about him and his experiences if we’re presented with such a dullard?
The novel’s political backdrop is muted in order to focus on the complicated lives of the fragile pair. The use of the Beatles track which gives the book and film its title is somewhat extraneous, and doesn’t possess the same Proustian quality as the original source material. Yet there is something heroic in this depiction of loss and despair without sentimentality. Norwegian Wood feels at times more like a grand map of ideas and emotions in limbo between two mediums. It is a searching piece of filmmaking with no particular arrival. Martyn Conterio
Anticipation. W i l l
a classic novel produce a classic film?
N o r w e g i a n Wo o d isn’t to be enjoyed in the usual sense of the word.
In Retrospect. H a u n t i n g , heartbreaking and gorgeous to look at, but a tad overlong.
Directed by Renaud Bar ret, F l o r e n t d e L a Tu l l a y e Starring Ricky Lickabu, Roger Landu, Cubain Kabeya Released March 18
aire, 1974. James Brown brought Afro-American soul back to Africa as Muhammad Ali and George Foreman prepared for their infamous Rumble in the Jungle. There that day was a young ‘Papa’ Ricky Lickabu, who contracted polio and was confined to a wheelchair. But polio wouldn’t stop the funk. Thirty years later, Lickabu’s band, Staff Benda Bilili, tour the world preaching James Brown’s commandments, fusing relentless African rhythm and dance with infectious soul. But the band from Kinshasa, in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), have a story that leaves even the most happily-ever-after of fairy tales in the shade. We find the band living in a ramshackle shelter, riding through the dusty streets of the capital on hand-powered tricycles and playing their songs to passers-by. This is where, in 2004, French filmmakers Renaud Barret and Florent de La Tullaye stumbled across them by chance while making short films about music from the Congo.
Directed by Lance Hammer S t a r r i n g M i c h e a l J S m i t h S r, J i m M y r o n R o s s , Ta r r a R i g g s Released March 18
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The filmmakers’ love for the music and dedication to the band over the years saves the film from worthiness or condescension: the most striking thing about Staff Benda Bilili is their self-sufficiency. In a country where basic survival is a daily struggle for many, with no welfare or charitable support for the disabled, the story of the group of musicians who formed around Ricky is uniquely inspirational. They discover Roger, an intense, serious street kid busking with his santonge, an instrument he invented himself. It’s the film’s defining moment. When we first meet him, Roger plays a haunting, spectral melody that belies the base materials of his device – a single guitar string stretched between a tin can and a wooden stick. He is invited to join the band and we see him grow into a confident and hip young man in sportswear and braids. A recording contract, album and budget problems follow, before Benda Bilili embark
nmistakably a labour of love, there is precisely nothing on Lance Hammer’s CV that would’ve led you to expect he’d write and direct a bruised, painfully sober art movie like Ballast. His past credits include visual effects art designer on witchy Sandra Bullock hokum, Practical Magic, and digital design associate on Joel Schumacher’s nippled neon turd, Batman & Robin. From the opening, washed-out shot of a young boy tramping across a field as birds swirl over the glassy horizon, this feels like a movie by someone out to exorcise demons and recalibrate his own artistic sensibility. That it partly fails to cohere can be chalked up to the fact that Hammer is still a pup in this game, but he does manage to make you want to like his film, and the loving fashion in which its crafted invites you to search harder for its endearing elements. Its oblique story unfolds on the mussy shores of the Mississippi Delta whose mainly black denizens, we discover, exist way below the poverty line. The boy, Jim (JimMyron Ross), is a spiritually untethered and isolated lad, who finds solace in drugs and the warm embrace of a pistol he’s pinched from a meek gentleman who’s attempted suicide. Jim’s mother is dragged into the fold when a band of drug dealers
on a tour. Their excitement and trepidation are touching and, although it is unlikely they would have reached such heights without the filmmakers, it is wonderful to enjoy their journey with them. Prudence Ivey
Anticipation. T h e r e ’ s
certainly scope for a good documentary about life in the DRC.
A great introduction to a brilliant band and an interesting doc about life on the streets of Kinshasa.
In Retrospect. A l e s s o n in making the most of what you’ve got.
drive the pair off the road, and the film then goes on to flesh out the relationships between these three central characters while offering a bracing portrait of hardscrabble living. With its docu-realist settings and rough, naturalistic performances, this is not a million miles away from something like David Gordon Green’s George Washington (though less impressionistic), or even a Dardenne brothers movie (though less narratively rigorous). It’s never in doubt that Hammer has made a mightily impressive debut, and if he can tie up the loose ends to form a more robsust drama, his second film should be one hell of a hot ticket. Alan Mack
Good buzz from the festival circuit.
Sags in the final third, but the impeccable craftsmanship keeps matters afloat.
In Retrospect. A n a m a z i n g calling card movie, but no more.
Oranges and Sunshine Directed by Jim Loach S t a r r i n g E m i l y Wa t s o n , H u g o We a v i n g , D a v i d We n h a m Released April 1
earing its social conscience well and truly on its sleeve, this theatrical debut from esteemed TV director Jim Loach (son of Ken) hardly breaks the family filmmaking mould. But that’s not to disparage the director’s talents in bringing this extraordinary tale to the screen with a measured and very subtle approach. Oranges and Sunshine tells the personal stories behind the apologies issued by the British and Australian governments to thousands of British children in care who were systematically shipped to Australia and other Commonwealth countries over nigh-on a hundred years until the 1970s. It was a shady little secret until the 1980s, when a Nottinghamshire social worker began to make contact with the victims, some of whom were as young as four-years-old when they were told their parents were dead before being shipped out, alone, on a boat to a ‘better place’. Not only were some of the children’s parents very much alive, but the institutions in which they were placed were more often than not physically, mentally or sexually abusive. All this in the name of saving a few pounds. Of course, taking inspiration from real life on such an emotive issue as forced child
migration has its downfall in the fact that a pre-existing story must be adhered to, lest the filmmaker upset those involved in the real world. Apparently, social worker Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson), took eight years to acquiesce to her shocking story being given the screen treatment. And not only does the film have to remain faithful to her version of events, but to those still dealing with the consequences of being robbed of their childhood. Although packing emotional clout, the story is sometimes stretched thinly across the film’s 102 minutes and at times lacks the drama that more fiction would produce, especially in relation to Humphreys’ own family versus the amount of time she had to devote to helping others trace theirs. Sure, her husband and children were saint-like in dealing with her absence in the name of a very good cause, but at times there’s a certain lack of friction, which would have helped shape the film into something more cinematic. Perhaps this story would have been better suited to television rather than the cinema, but for his biographical screen debut Loach has at least secured some top-notch acting talent. Watson is on understated, dignified form as Humphreys,
with Hugo Weaving giving a particularly affecting turn as a victim who may never escape the childhood he was forced to endure. There’s a lot to be said for such heart-wrenching drama that doesn’t fall into the easy trap of mawkishness or manipulation – Loach has cast actors capable of dealing with raw scenes in a spare yet deeply moving way. Laura Bushell
Loach by name and, looking at the stor yline for t h i s o n e , L o a c h b y n a t u r e , t o o.
Enjoyment is a funny word to use in this context, ‘emotional absorption’ might be better.
In Retrospect. Ve r y w e l l p u t together and no doubt a story needing to be told. This is a solid debut, but the hangover f r o m L o a c h ’s T V p a s t l o o k s large on the big screen.
How I Ended This Summer
Directed by Aleksei Popog rebsky Starring Gr igor y Dobr ygin, Sergei Puskepalis, Igor Cher nevich Released April 22
leksei Popogrebsky’s icy slow-burner is an education in the shifting tide of Russian cinema. Playing out over the course of a long, cruel Arctic summer, where the sun incessantly circumnavigates the horizon, this valentine to Andrei Tarkovsky and Aleksandr Sokurov deals in reflexivity and metaphysics. But while haunting time-lapse sequences and aging long shots capture the bleak solitude of a bygone era, the film’s chief protagonist is the personification of twenty-first-century Russian ideals. He’s Pavel (Grigory Dobrygin), a wiry upstart stationed at a remote meteorological research facility with a hardened Soviet throwback named Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis). While the latter rarely looks beyond continuing the work pioneered by his ancestors, his fidgety apprentice is well versed in MP3 and FPS procrastination. But Sergei’s not entirely blind to the unceasing tedium of their circumstances, and so in a gesture of paternal compassion he leaves his post and sets out across the crisp ocean waves for a spot of trout fishing. On his three-day trip, Sergei will land a handsome catch, but in this time he will lose something much dearer to him. During a scheduled transmission with the mainland, Pavel receives a distressing radiogram: Sergei’s family have been involved in a fatal accident. It’s his duty to relay the message, but before Sergei’s return the weight of the world will bear down on
Pavel’s already fragile mind. It is here that Popogrebsky switches focus away from the whitewashed panoramas of the Arctic wilderness to the utilitarian cabin the pair have shared for several months. In closer quarters we feel Pavel’s dilemma thrash and fester inside him. Clock hands mock with their metronomic conviction. Radio static becomes increasingly deafening. This is Russian cinema in the traditional mould, yet in its final third How I Ended This Summer will concede its subtle, visceral atmosphere for more full-blooded dramatic tricks. In ratcheting up the suspense and embracing contemporary Russian cinema’s mainstream sensibilities, Popogrebsky has turned a potential modern classic into a US remake in waiting. Adam Woodward
Anticipation. Vo t e d
Best Film at the 2010 London Film Festival.
An exquisitely composed tale marred by mainstream aspirations.
In Retrospect. P o p o g r e b s k y ’ s film eloquently typifies Russian c i n e m a ’s c u r r e n t f r a m e o f m i n d .
Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski S t a r r i n g Vi n c e n t G a l l o, Emmanuelle Seigneur Released April 1
he War on Terror is defined by ambiguity. It’s a conflict in which the enemy has many faces, nationalities and motives and in which the ultimate aim is tantalisingly obtuse. Even the phrase ‘War on Terror’ contains very little that is tangible when you take away the emotiveness of the words. Much of recent cinema has attempted (and often failed) to understand the myriad reasons as to why we find ourselves in the situation that we are in. Resurgent Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski takes a different tack by showing how a person can be driven to extremes and how – underneath the ideology and social conditioning – we are all subject to the same primal instincts. After being captured by the US military in Afghanistan, Mohammed (Vincent Gallo) is being transported to a mysterious detention centre somewhere in Europe. When his transport crashes, he makes a bid for freedom through the forests and frozen landscape of a country he doesn’t know. With
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an international taskforce on his tail, our protagonist must go to extreme lengths to survive. Just how far is he prepared to go? This is very much Gallo’s movie as he gives a breathlessly intense and physical performance. With no dialogue he effortlessly portrays the desperation and determination of a man on the edge aided by some wonderful landscape cinematography that highlight his isolation amongst the snowy wastes. Despite the fact that we know nothing about Mohammed (he’s only named in the end credits) we can’t help but relate to him on a human level. Yet the ambiguity also proves to be the film’s downfall. Skolimowski is adamant that the film is not about the conflict, but the setting and constant flashbacks would indicate otherwise. While they serve to highlight how differently we relate to people on a visceral and primal level, they also pose too many nagging questions that
aren’t answered. Similarly, the drifts into fantasy throughout drip with heavy-handed symbolism which threaten to tip the film into the realm of the ridiculous. Laurence Boyce
Skolimowski received numerous accolades f o r h i s f i l m Fo u r N i g h t s w i t h Anna. Is he on a roll?
Gallo is brilliant, bringing an intensity that is both riveting and disturbing.
In Retrospect. T h i s i s b o l d filmmaking that never theless fails to become more than that sum of its par ts.
“Suggesting Londoners go to Brum for a weekend doesn’t come naturally. But Flatpack Festival might make us break the habit of a lifetime” – Time Out London Featuring: a psychotic tyre, a man playing cello with an angle-grinder, vintage mobile movie-house, 16mm rarities, bunker installations, live scores, archive cut ups, headphone cinema, turntable zoetropes, shadow shows and shedloads of good ﬁlms.
23-27 March 2011 Birmingham, UK www.ﬂatpackfestival.org.uk
The Way Directed by Emilio Estevez Starring Martin Sheen, James Nesbitt, Deborah Kara Unger Released April 15
atching Martin Sheen in the early scenes of The Way, it’s difficult not to recall the opening of that other gentle journeyman movie, Apocalypse Now. “Saigon… shit. I’m still only in Saigon,” Sheen’s delirious Willard grunted in 1979, to a backdrop of chopper blades and Jim Morrison, his fist bloodied by a shattered mirror. It’s fair to say Sheen has left Saigon behind. Directed by and co-starring his son, Emilio Estevez, The Way offers a change in mood. Here, he plays Tom Avery, a kindly American doctor who chides an old woman for not wearing her contact lenses before heading out for a spot of relaxation on the golf course. But this quiet life is interrupted when Avery learns that his estranged, free-spirited son Daniel (Estevez) has died on the Camino de Santiago, a thousand-year-old, 800-kilometre pilgrimage for spiritual chancers and hopers across northern Spain. Avery decides to complete the journey his son began, wheezing his way through the Pyrenees with a paunch poking through his North Face and Daniel’s ashes in his backpack. The Way is a shamelessly sentimental, perfect curve of a movie – audacious enough, even, to include a Coldplay score. But what the film
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lacks in intrigue or edge it atones for with subtle gradations of emotion from its leading man. An early scene sees Sheen speeding through France in the throes of grief as he recalls the last conversation he shared with his son. “This is the life I chose,” he says of his easy, closeted existence. “You don’t choose a life, dad, you live one,” Daniel retorts. As Estevez crosscuts between this memory and the present, Sheen reacts as if his son is right there, sat in the carriage with him. It’s a cliché that shouldn’t work, but Sheen owns it, his loss writ large in the wrinkled lines of his face. But as the film matures, Sheen retires from reprising such a private moment of grief, withdrawing into himself with eyes only for the way ahead. Each of the fellow pilgrims he grudgingly acquires, from the Falstaffian Dutch fool Joost (Yorick van Wageningen) to the elusive, damaged Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger) to a jabbering Irish poet (James Nesbitt), try to pierce this morose shell and gradually Avery allows them to sustain him, in the process discovering the serendipity his son craved. “Film is an illusion. Fame is ephemeral. Faith and family are what endure,” Estevez has
said. Fittingly, The Way has the feeling of a joint tribute; an acclamation from son to father and back again. A slightly excessive love-in, you might say, when most would head down to the pub for a pint. And yet this also feels ephemeral. It’s a film of foothills, not peaks. It’s pseudo-spiritual without ever really saying anything about faith. It’s kind-of meaningful without ever facing up to the harder dynamics of its early scenes. It falls back on false dawns and mini-epiphanies when confronted with complexity. But it’s saved by an actor of iconic proportions; a man uniquely capable of sharing the journey ahead. Tom Seymour
Martin Sheen g r o w i n g o l d g r a c e f u l l y.
Reaction. E s t e v e z i s s t i l l to come of age. Retrospect.
Pe r h a p s h i s n e x t film should be about a certain Carlos Estevez.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams D i r e c t e d b y We r n e r H e r z o g S t a r r i n g We r n e r H e r z o g , C h a r l e s F a t h y Released March 25
ontinuing a personal quest to bring us the most unforgettable images from incredible and seemingly inhospitable landscapes, Werner Herzog surpasses himself with Cave of Forgotten Dreams by capturing the earliest recorded visions of humanity. Triggered by an article in The New Yorker by Judith Thurman, the maverick German director travels to southern France to film the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave art. Discovered in 1994, the paintings are roughly twice the age as those at the Lascaux cave complex, which were themselves a source of fascination for the 12-year-old Herzog. Some 35,000 years ago, artists journeyed into a huge, crystal-encrusted limestone cave in what is now the south of France, where they painted hundreds of pictures of animals, depicting different species including horses, cattle, lions, panthers, bears, rhinos and even hyenas. The artists used techniques rarely seen in cave art, making the Chauvet cave an important record of Palaeolithic life in all of its savage detail. From today’s perspective, they not only created works of art, but seem to have created art itself. These artists continued to produce their unique works for over 10,000 years until the collapse of a rock face sealed the cave off from humanity, thus preserving the paintings in near pristine condition for countless generations.
Since Chauvet’s discovery, access has been extremely restricted due to concerns that overexposure, even to human breath, could damage the priceless drawings. High levels of carbon dioxide and radon make it impossible to work inside for more than a few hours a day and only a small number of researchers and scientists have ever seen the art in person. Herzog being Herzog, he somehow manages to gain unprecedented access, securing permission from the French government to actually film inside the caves using specially constructed lights that emit no heat. Having previously professed himself to be agnostic about the capabilities of 3D, the director performs an astonishing volte-face, embracing the potential of the format in collaboration with director of photography Peter Zeitlinger (who made radical adaptations to existing cameras) to capture the works in their three-dimensional splendour. Ably communicating the contoured surfaces on which the charcoal figures are drawn, Herzog’s unique responsiveness to landscape and the elements is fully in evidence as he captures the monumental cathedral-like stalagmites and the intense natural beauty of the region. Forget Avatar, this is the first truly essential 3D experience of the modern cinema age.
Interviewing a number of the scientists and experts who act as gatekeepers, Herzog’s philosophical bent is also very much present as he quizzically probes for the answer to questions such as ‘what constitutes happiness?’ There’s humour too; the director gently chiding an ancient history expert for repeatedly going to retrieve the spear he has thrown in the middle of an interview. An intensely spiritual experience, Cave of Forgotten Dreams authentically replicates Herzog’s infectious sense of awe and wonder whilst conjuring a special magic all of its own. Jason Wood
A We r n e r H e r z o g d o c u m e n t a r y. I n 3 D.
Enlightening, entertaining, technically brilliant and profound.
In Retrospect. G e n u i n e l y a w e i n s p i r i n g a n d o n e o f H e r z o g ’s most startling and startlingly achieved visions.
R u n a w a y Tr a i n Interview by Zara Miller
ere’s a riddle: you’re waiting for a train, a train that will take you far away. You know where you hope this train will take you, but you can’t be sure. But it doesn’t matter. How can it not matter to you where this train will take you? This riddle, uttered by Marion Cotillard in Inception, epitomises the joie de vivre attitude the actress has towards her own career. “I’m not trying to control things because I don’t feel I have to,” she says in caramel French, “things are happening, beautiful things are happening, and I just live what’s happening and try to live it entirely.” In 2007, La Vie en Rose director Olivier Dahan handed Cotillard the ticket that would ferry her from France to global recognition; casting her in the role of tragic heroine and national icon Edith Piaf. At the cost of losing distribution funds on an actress who, Dahan was told, would not be ‘bankable enough for Hollywood’, the director chose his protagonist before they had even met; detecting a glint of Piaf in Cotillard’s beguiling blue eyes. This seed of similarity erupted on screen into a glimmering replication and Oscar-winning performance. Bringing back to life the pop-eyed singer with the posture of a broken puppet and an alarming vibrato that once shook a war-torn nation, Cotillard has become a cultural touchstone for the twenty-first-century’s memory of the chanteuse who regretted nothing. “I think actors are tunnels,” Cotillard muses, “and I like to be a link, in a way, between the story and the people – something that can take you from one point to another. It goes through you, you have a story, you have a character, and through you, you reach people.” Hollywood was quick to reach back, placing their newfound belle on a pedestal and offering blockbuster roles as if they were bonbons. To add to the lustre, she was made the new face of Dior. After playing many supporting roles in her early career – as the cherry-cheeked girlfriend to both
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on-screen boyfriends as well as off-screen partner, director Guillaume Canet – it was with Piaf that Cotillard could finally take centre stage. Following in the tracks of Bardot, Binoche and Tatou, Cotillard soon became one of the handful of French actresses to cross the sea and charm the world. But while she could readily evoke that butterwouldn’t-melt look that her fellow countrywomen had perfected, it soon became clear that Cotillard also had something unique – more reminiscent, perhaps, of American actresses Sissy Spacek or Mia Farrow. Cotillard’s eyes harbour a mysterious kind of beauty; a kind that scares as it stares. When, in 2010, she played the unblinking Medusa trapped in her husband’s mental basement in Christopher Nolan’s Inception, it was this she used to haunt both dream world and audience alike. From skipping girlfriend to scorned wife, Cotillard’s roles have mirrored her maturing process as an actress. Starring alongside some of the biggest names in Hollywood she has, nonetheless, managed to retain an umbilical connection to France. For her new role in Canet’s Little White Lies, Cotillard has rubbed the stars from her eyes, appearing with an all-French ensemble. Marion plays Marie; the name alone being an indication of the transformation expected. But it is precisely this lack of fantasy that the actress found bewildering at times. “It was very different because for a few years I had travelled: from the ’20s to the ’60s with Piaf; and then to the ’40s with Public Enemies; then to the ’60s with Nine; Inception was… out of time,” Cotillard explains. “Then, suddenly, I can wear jeans, I can talk my own language. So it’s at the same time relaxing and really scary. Sometimes I had to take me back in. I didn’t have to create a world for Marie because I know this world, I live in this world. So sometimes I was kind of lost because I didn’t know exactly how to create my structure. This was someone I could have a beer with,” she laughs.
Select Filmography Mar ion Cotillard /L i t t l e W h i t e L i e s (2010) Inception Nine Public Enemies La Vie en Rose A G o o d Ye a r Fa i r P l a y Cavalcade L o v e M e I f Yo u D a r e Pretty Things Ta x i 2 Ta x i
(2010) (2009) (2009) (2007) (2006) (2006) (2005) (2003) (2001) (2000) (1998)
Witnessing herself in a world that she couldn’t imagine, but one that was uncannily her own, had a recoiling effect, she admits. “When I saw the film for the first time it was horrible,” she blushes, “because I could see things of myself that I can’t usually see, but something that I could feel was mine: a little expression; a way to move my head; and it was horrible! It was horrible!” This is the face of Dior, ladies and gentlemen, watching herself through slitted fingers and making sick gestures. The camera, by nature, is unforgiving. But for an actress whose beauty and age is continuously being manipulated, the impression she acquires of herself must forever be intertwined between screen selves. So, in 2009, when Cotillard once again played ‘the wife’ in star-spangled musical Nine, what must it have felt like being cast alongside an actress in whose tracks she seemed to be following? Sophia Loren plays Cotillard’s mother-in-law and, being the first actress to win an Academy Award for a non-English speaking performance in 1962, the fact that Cotillard became the second in 2007 must have called for some comparisons to be made. When asked what she hoped to achieve by the time she reaches Loren’s age, Cotillard replies, with no hesitation, “simplicity.” A simplicity, perhaps, that can only be detected when the camera turns a blind eye; something that lies silent beneath the cabaret and the Botox. “Oh, and to be able to cook pasta like she does,” Cotillard adds. How can it not matter where this train will take you? Inception offers an answer to this riddle: because you’ll be together. Having recently announced her pregnancy with Canet, it is possible that this is what’s kept Cotillard so grounded, too. Then again, with three films due for release this year, it would seem the actress is still a million miles away from simply cooking pasta for three. Check out the full interview transcript online in the week of the film’s release.
Little White Lies Directed by Guillaume Canet Starring Mar ion Cotillard, François Cluzet, Benoît Magimel Released April 15
laiming the dog ate your homework is a lie. So is telling Harrison Ford that Indiana Jones 5 is a good idea. They’re little by name and harmless by nature (as long as Ford doesn’t insist on doing his own stunts). But pretending your girlfriend hasn’t dumped you? Or that your best friend didn’t confess to having homoerotic feelings towards you? Or convincing yourself that it’s okay to go to the seaside for the weekend while your friend lies terminally ill in hospital? Now those little white lies sound like several big black ones. These are just a handful of untruths spun by a group of bourgeois friends in Tell No One director/ actor Guillaume Canet’s latest film. But a lie is a lie, and whether it’s white, black or a pale shade of grey, the truth will out in the end; or so Canet’s film suggests. For this group of friends it is the unspoken guilt each feels following their friend’s motorbike accident (revealed in a bold Touch of Evil-style opening long shot) that serves as a catalyst for personal confessions and breakdowns. Audiences on this side of the Channel may be reminded of The Big Chill, a 1983 American
dramedy with a similar coming-to-terms-withtragedy storyline. But where Lawrence Kasdan’s film humorously exposed the cracks between a group of thirtysomething baby boomers, Little White Lies deals with the modern-day fickleness of their thirtysomething kids. On the surface, these twenty-first-century troubles may seem as trite as having to figure out the etiquette of the flirty text message or finding time to join a yoga class, but Canet’s film reads between the lies. Beneath the vanity and the gay jokes lurks the age-old fear of growing old, as well as that outdated fear of sexuality. Above all, however, is the unenviable fear of losing a friend who is the same age as you. And it is this sense of impending tragedy that Canet skilfully holds over each of the characters’ heads as they hide behind their self-made veil of lies. That his film achieves a tasteful balance of doleful humour can be attributed to laudably authentic acting. These friends and lovers are credible enough to ease the 154-minute run time, even though we could do with a couple more Chandler-esque one-liners, or the quirkiness of
a Phoebe to ease the way. Still, Little White Lies is sure to touch a nerve. In fact, by the end, a little white handkerchief might come in useful. As for the elephant in the room? Canet’s film might just be the second best thing pulling off that title. Zara Miller
Anticipation. An unconventionally long bourgeois lifestyle drama set in the South of France? Mon dieu!
Enjoyment. W h i l e
it may lack the preposterous pace of your favourite sitcom, the characters will still hook and draw you in.
In Retrospect. A f t e r t h e t h r i l l s o f C a n e t ' s Te l l N o O n e , t h i s i s a bit of a soft follow up from the director.
Set on the scattered Isles of Scilly, Archipelago explores, in quietly domesticated scenes, the expanse that exists between each member of a typical family, but also the ties that bind them. Director Joanna Hogg is highly literate in the unsaid decrees and subtle gradations of manners that define affluent middle England. She communicates these with the observational faculties you’d expect of the arthouse, like a Leigh for posh people fused with a gentle Haneke. In the hands of a less sensitive director this film could feel small and thin, but Archipelago is calm, attentive and conscious of overstaying its welcome. Yet a bite remains; an acute, intimate and searching frustration. Again and again, in scenes full of humour and strain, Hogg invites her audience to dismiss these people as fundamentally different from ourselves. But sat in a dark auditorium, we are merely watching our own reflections. Tom Seymour 4 5 5
Filmed during performances at the Royal Opera House, Georges Bizet’s lascivious game-playing Carmen is transformed into 3D. The dangerous gypsy (Christine Rice) sets her sights on good man Don José (Bryan Hymel) only for jealousy to erupt when bullfighter Escamillo (Aris Argiris) muscles in. The impressive cast demonstrates astonishing vocal power, while the predominantly subtle 3D enlivens the depth of field, intensifying Rice’s wild-eyed temptress. This is more likely to appeal to music lovers and the opera connoisseurs already acclimatised to livestreaming events at cinemas – unless the specs offend (opera in 3D? What next? Champagne in a space pack?) – than it is to tempt the uninitiated. Opera is designed for an extravagant experience and while these camera angles and close-ups perch you close to the action, the stage begins to feel claustrophobic and the impact of the spectacle is diluted. Sophie Brown 4 3 2
Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer
Directed by Joanna Hogg Starring Tom Hiddleston, Christopher Baker, Kate Fahy Released March 4
Directed by Alex Gibney Starring Eliot Spitzer, Hank Greenberg, Joseph Bruno Released March 4 It begins as a New York story, but Client 9 soon morphs into a twenty-first-century moral fable. In 2008, Eliot Spitzer was the self-proclaimed ‘Sheriff of Wall Street’ who took on vested interests in finance and politics. But his world fell apart when Spitzer was ensnared in a Federal investigation into prostitution and the media – somehow – got hold of the story. Those are the facts, but Alex Gibney’s slick documentary offers us the story of a pugnacious kid from the Bronx who put his nose in some powerful people’s business and wasn’t afraid of getting it broken. The picture that emerges is of a renegade white knight battling the forces of evil, but what Gibney gains in dramatic texture through affinity with his subject, he loses in perspective. Client 9 is a liberal polemic with an eye for conspiracy, offering Spitzer a Wall Street-style bail out. Matt Bochenski 3 4 3
078 T h e A t t a c k t h e B l o c k I s s u e
Directed by Julian Napier Starring Christine Rice, Bryan Hymel, Aris Argiris Released March 5
Directed by Aaron Katz Starring Cris Lankenau, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Raúl Castillo Released April 15 In this hipster delight, Sherlock Holmes-loving slacker Doug (Cris Lankenau) is roused from an aimless round of night shifts at the local ice factory when his exgirlfriend abruptly disappears. Warming to the puzzle, he forms an unlikely HolmesWatson duo with Carlos (Raúl Castillo), a part-time DJ and fellow ‘ice professional’ – not that his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn) is content to be Mrs Hudson. Truth to tell, it’s the sort of conundrum the great pipe-smoking detective would solve over breakfast, but writer/director Aaron Katz uses it as an occasion to muse engagingly on the way in which life’s curveballs can galvanise time-dulled relationships. An easygoing movie in the vein of Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery, Cold Weather offers understated chuckles, relaxed interplay from the leads, cosily gloomy Oregon locations and a tenderly mocking score by Keegan DeWitt. Julian White 3 3 4
His & Hers
Life Goes On
Directed by Ken Wardrop Released March 11
Directed by Sangeeta Datta Starring Sharmila Tagore, Girish Karnad, Om Puri Released March 11
In this whimsical and touching documentary by Ken Wardrop (The Herd, Undressing My Mother,) 70 Irish females ranging from near-toddlers to venerable nonagenarians talk about the men in their lives – fathers, boyfriends, husbands, sons. The verdict is, on the whole, unexpectedly positive, as their menfolk mature over the decades from sources of annoyance, dirty washing and irritating television choices to much-loved (and much-missed) life partners. What saves this from slightness is the impassioned testimony of some of the older contributors. While the youngsters obsess over the trivialities of their relationships, these women lovingly describe shared routines that have become steeped in meaning and tenderness. Definitely more for her than for him, if you’re a bride with wedding-day jitters you can watch this film and take heart from its message that the groom will shape up by the time he’s 80. Julian White 2 4 3
Life Goes On documents the grieving process of a close-knit Hindu family after the untimely loss of their matriarch. Although set in London, the film adopts a distinctly Bollywood tone. Besides bereavement, the film addresses alcoholism, sexuality, the dominant role of the patriarch, premarital pregnancy and divorce. This range of topics unfortunately results in dilution and underdevelopment, with the majority left unresolved. The Bollywood influence adds little more than a few dizzyingly saccharine moments, such as a confusing montage in a wood full of flowers, and nostalgic images of the deceased in soft focus wandering singing through an endless spring holding a leafy branch. The only edge the film manages to maintain is through the all-encompassing topic of Diaspora, a dramatic device that simultaneously holds together and pulls apart this family, which is a representation of the wider Hindu community. Dominic Radcliffe 3 2 1
Louise (Yolande Moreau) is an illiterate ex-con, transvestite and general misfit who likes nothing better than to be left alone to skin a pigeon of an evening. When the factory where she works is closed down without warning, she persuades her colleagues to pool their redundancy payout and hire a professional to ‘whack the boss’. Cue the most incompetent button man in all of Picardy and a wild goose chase that takes the ill-matched pair first to Brussels and then Jersey as they murder their way up a seemingly endless corporate ladder. Directors Gustave de Kervern and Benoît Delépine lump together a ragbag of absurdist skits, bleak observations on life’s banality and Farrelly brothers-style bad taste gags involving the terminally ill, but the comedy is hampered by the taciturn lead and the film sighs to its knees in the third act. Julian White 3 2 3
A chameleon with an identity crisis (elastically voiced by Johnny Depp) is launched into the scorching heat of the Mojave Desert. He arrives in Dirt, a gun-slinging town stuck in Old West times and facing a mysterious drought. Spotting an opportunity to be the hero of his own story, Rango woos the townsfolk with tall tales of impossible gallantry, which sees the Hawaiian-shirted scamp promoted from outcast to sheriff faster than a duck on a Junebug. What begins as a treacherous quest for truth, however, will culminate in a transformative moment of self-discovery. Despite ostensibly following a well-trodden narrative path, Rango distinguishes itself from mainstream CGI fare by mixing a conspicuous sociopolitical subtext with an array of dizzyingly quirky characters – sumptuously rendered by the FX whizzes at Industrial Light & Magic. Adam Woodward 3 4 4
Directed by Gustave de Kervern, Benoît Delépine Starring Yolande Moreau, Bouli Lanners, Benoît Poelvoorde Released April 1
Directed by Gore Verbinski Starring Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Timothy Olyphant Released March 4
For full-length reviews of these films head to littlewhitelies.co.uk on the week of theatrical release. 079
Back Section The
ILLUSTRATIONS BY Matthew The Horse
082 T h e A t t a c k t h e B l o c k I s s u e
Dean Stalham was born in 1963 on north west London’s toughest council estate, Clitterhouse. He left school aged 15 with no qualifications but is now about to see his first short film get a n a t i o n w i d e r e l e a s e . I n a p e r s o n a l e ss a y , h e e x p l a i n s h o w i t h a p p e n e d .
Coming Up / Getting On W o r ds
n 2003, I was sentenced to four years for handling a collection of contemporary art that included four Warhols, 13 Chagalls and 33 Dalis. In prison I saw a play that changed my life forever. The play was called Country Music and it starred the actor Lee Ross. I left prison in 2006 with the words, ‘Get a reality check, mate, you’re a gangster from Cricklewood, you’ll never make it as a writer’ ringing and stinging in my ears. Six plays later – not to mention a ninepage poem featured on 40 reclaimed timber columns in the 2008 Chelsea Flower Show – and I’ve just seen the first edit of a half-hour film that I’ve written called Geronimo that will be on Channel 4 this summer coming. Here’s how and why. In 2010 I was told about a Channel 4 initiative for new writers and directors with a desire to break into films. It was called Coming Up. I threw my shirt into the ring alongside the other 1299 hopefuls and waited for the postman to come a-calling or the phone to start a-ringing. Luckily for me, the calling came. In July 2010 I was invited to join 13 other writers and 14 directors at the Sands Studios in the rough and tumble that once was Rotherhithe for three days of workshops. Even though I was the oldest
d e a n
S t a l h a m
swinger in town, I certainly didn’t feel like it. I was over the moon. Cock-a-hoop. Sweet. All this and the most memorable fry-ups. I must have been in heaven, surely? I met and talked to legendary theatre, TV and film director Jonathan Lynn. He told me what makes a star: simple, stars take chances.
I listened intently to Simon Nye, the writer of Men Behaving Badly. I accused him of being a fly on my wall. We learned about editing from one of the most talented men I’ve ever met, Nicolas Chaudeurge, whose thirst for words is endless. Needless to say, all our passions were stoked and our appetites whet. Sad thing was, only seven writers and seven directors would make the final cut.
Waiting for that call was a killer, and when it came I nearly lost my breath. I never realised until that moment just how much I really wanted this. It truly elevated me and my work to another level. I felt bad for those who never made it through, some were and are now friends. As anyone will tell you, it’s a tough business – and them’s the breaks. I was called into a meeting at Touchpaper Television (I arrived an hour early) to discuss the 23-minute idea for a film that I had. I sat in a red leather chair in front of producers John Chapman, Emma Burge and Thomas Nash and was soon told, ‘Your idea’s great but it’s a feature – we need something new from you.’ ‘When do you want it?’ I asked. ‘In three days time,’ I was told. No pressure, then. On January 17, 2011, filming began on the sixth draft of Geronimo. It is directed by the brilliant German director Nele Hecht and stars – wait for it – Lee Ross, Benjamin Smith and the gorgeous and talented Tanya Franks.
This is the first part in an ongoing online/ offline series following the making of Geronimo. artsaveslives.co.uk
R o y A n d S w e d i s h f i l m m a k e r R o y A n d e r ss o n i s best known for an unfinished trilogy of lugubrious comic work that so far includes 2007â€™s You, The Living and Songs f r o m t h e S e c o n d F l o o r ( 2 0 0 0 ) . As S o n g s prepares for its DVD debut, we caught up w i t h A n d e r ss o n t o t a l k a b o u t i n s p i r a t i o n , Swedish cinema and Ingmar Bergman.
084 T h e A t t a c k t h e B l o c k I s s u e
d e rs so n INTERVIEW
p h o t o g r a p h y
LWL i e s :
Describe your style to someone who’s never seen one of your films.
A n d e r ss o n :
My philosophy is to make pictures that are very cleansed; purified, condensed and easy to see. They are very clear. They are similar to cartoons. Like Matisse, you take away everything that is not necessary to the picture. What influences the colour palette of your films? I want to have a so-called monochrome colour scale, not strong colours and not contrasts which are too strong because that style is irritating to me. There is more intensity, in my opinion, in a picture without too many contrasts. I want light that does not cast too many shadows, I want a light that people cannot hide in; it is light without mercy. Why have you only made four feature films in four decades? It’s not much of a work rate. My first feature [A Swedish Love Story, 1970] was a fabulous success, and my second [Giliap, 1975] was a fabulous flop. I went over budget – I was a scapegoat for that so I was out in the cold for many years amongst the producers in Sweden.
D o m i n i c
R a d c l i f f e
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I couldn’t work. It was a very hard period. I started to make commercials and it was a very big success, and other people called and these movies were also successes. The period with commercials was much longer than that I thought it would be. What skills do you need to be a good commercials director? Seriousness, patience and above all you should not try to fit into what people expect – be true to yourself. Many commercials directors have used it as a stepping stone to make feature films. Do you think people don’t appreciate making commercials as a skill in its own right? I don’t like the situation today because people don’t work hard and well for commercials. It is not well respected nowadays. The directors are afraid of the client, they are slaves. They are afraid to lose money. So it is more business than art nowadays. What’s your take on Ingmar Bergman? It’s hard to say, but in my opinion he was a little overrated. At the beginning of the ’60s there were four good movies with good cinematography, but there
were so many bad movies. He was also very right wing politically, he was almost fascist, he was a Nazi sympathiser and even growing up he was coloured by this. He never left this himself, it coloured his person; he was not a nice person. He was a so-called inspector of the film school – each term we were called and we had to go to his office and he gave some advice and even threats. He would say, “If you don’t stop making left wing movies,” because a lot of us students were left wing at the time due to Vietnam, “you will never be able to make features.” For real? So Swedish cinema is perfectly healthy without him? At the same time I must say there are no others that can take over his status, so even if I do not like him and he is overrated, in spite of that he is still the top filmmaker in Sweden. Will you carry on making features for the next few years? I am already planning a new one, I see the two last movies as drafts for the new one – a third enormous, deep, fantastic, humorous, tragic, philosophical movie similar to Dostoyevsky.
Songs from the Second Floor is available on DVD from March 14.
Words by Henry Barnes, James Benefield, Anton Bitel, Jake F Brookman, Jenny Cusack, Adam Lee Davies, Jason Goodyer, Zara Miller, Dominic Radcliffe, Tom Seymour, Jonathan Spatz.
Directe d by Dar io Argento ( 1985 ) Several mysterious decapitations around an Alpine boarding school. A sleepwalking teenager (Jennifer Connelly, pre-Labyrinth) with psychic power over insects. A wheelchair-bound scientist (Donald Pleasence) with a chimpanzee assistant. A thundering metal soundtrack. Just admit that you’re already salivating, and surrender to Argento’s singular, exquisitely over-egged giallo. AB
And Soon the
Darkness M ar cos E fr on (2010)
Directe d by
Two freewheeling nubile girls on vacation – what could possibly go wrong? This remake of Robert Fuest’s 1970 British film of the same name is set in Argentina and tells of two American teens, replete with dental floss bikinis, on a remote bike trip in kidnapper territory. The usual spurious sex-slave subtext is inserted, but this avoids the worst excesses of some of its straight-toDVD cohorts. Contains a decent turn from the underrated Karl Urban. TS
at the Door Directe d
Bizarre psychedelic horror about a pair of serial killers who somehow travel forward from the 1970s to torture a group of drug addled medical student teenagers with an enormous penis. Neurotic American shock cinema at its most primitive. DR
086 T h e A t t a c k t h e B l o c k I s s u e
Ip Man 2 Directe d
Directed by the son of the legend himself, this is the second film about Ip Man – Bruce Lee’s mentor, Wing Chun grandmaster and martial artist extraordinaire. When everybody was kung fu fighting, it was Ip Man’s moves that were fast as lightning, and the back-to-back fight scenes here unarguably do the legend justice. ZM
Directed by John Carney, Kieran Carney (2009) John and Kieran Carney follow the success of Once with a remastering of their 2003 short Zonad. Set in 1950s Ireland, Zonad tells the story of an escaped alcoholic convict mistaken for an alien in the quiet village of Ballymoran. Initially welcomed by the villagers, a series of incidents places his alien identity under threat. JC
Fink! Directe d
Songs from the Second Floor
If it’s not directed by Guy Ritchie or doesn’t star Michael Caine, the British jack-the-lad gangster movie usually ain’t worf ’avin a butchers at. An Australian movie trying to rip off Lock Stock is no exception to that rule. Released in 2005 and unable to make a dent then, it’s being re-released now to cash in on Sam Worthington’s rising star. ZM
The first film in an unfinished trilogy (the wonderful You, the Living is the second), Songs from the Second Floor presents a series of disconnected vignettes that interrogate the whims of modern Swedish life, each punctuated by quotes from the Peruvian poet César Vallejo. Glacially paced and with a largely static camera, this absurdist comedy has the feeling of someone else’s dreams. TS
Directe d by Roy Ander sson (2000)
The Diplomat Directe d by P eter And rikidis (2009)
Originally broadcast as a two-part TV movie in Australia, The Diplomat stars Dougray Scott as a British diplomat arrested for allegedly helping Russian mobsters smuggle drugs into the UK. As the film’s many interwoven plots unravel, Scott battles to clear his name on a wild chase involving everything from nuclear threats and personal tragedy to his former wife. JC
Directe d by Sa lvador Gar cía Ruiz (2010) Group sex turns sour in this drama set in 1980s Spain. As three art students experiment with each other’s bodies and try to, like, broaden their minds, they realise that the world doesn’t work like this when shit gets real. DR
Empire State Directe d
( 1987 )
A British film that tried to kick against social-realism, this is a high-camp gangster flick set in the swinging ’80s. The Empire State nightclub in London’s newly developed Docklands pits the muscle of salt-of-theearth East End against the racketeering playboys of the Square Mile. This is hard-edged and pretty hardheaded, but there’s a clear and vital message here about the impact of endless gentrification. JS
Early Kurosawa C o l l e c t i o n
Directe d by Aki ra Ku rosawa ( 1943 -194 7 ) Released on DVD for the first time in the UK are six films from legendary Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa, made at the formative point of his career between 1943 and 1947. They serve to demonstrate the emergence of a profoundly influential directorial vision, whose admirers range from Fellini and Bertolucci to Spielberg, Lucas and beyond. TS
The Inner Life of
Directed by Michèle Hozer, Peter Raymont (2009) This Canadian documentary relives the career of the eponymous twentieth-century concert pianistturned-pioneering recording artist. Full of archive footage, from home movies to TV appearances, it attempts to uncover an eccentric and mysterious ivory-tinkler who, amongst other things, played Russia in the ’60s, performed with Leonard Bernstein and was thought to have suffered from Aspergers syndrome. JB
S u m m e r
Directe d by Hosoda M amoru (2009) Hosoda Mamoru follows up 2006’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time with another multi-awardwinning anime, in which maths-obsessed highschooler Kenji finds his summer almost ruined by elusive teen romance, family dysfunction and an online apocalypse. Prepare for Paprika-style visuals as the virtual world invades reality. AB
Empire Directe d
If kung fu, vengeance, magical samurai swords and referring to Earth as ‘the human realm’ are your cup of Oolong, then Demon Empire will serve you pots full. A martial arts fantasy set in Limbo, the visual displays are pushed to the limits. ZM
n d r e i Football ATarkovsky Fa b l e s C o l l e c t i o n Directe d
Directe d by And r ei Tar kovsky ( 1962-1986)
African football has a higher profile and more global stars than at any other time in its history. But what does it take to make the transition from a rural African field to a top European club? Through Francis, a talented teenager on the brink of a dream transfer, Football Fables lifts the lid on the inner workings of football migration. His talent is undoubted, his desire immeasurable, but will that be enough to secure his future? TS
“Tarkovsky, for me, is the greatest director, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.” So said Ingmar Bergman. Here, each of the Russian master’s major films – Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Rublev, Solaris, The Mirror, Nostalgia, The Sacrifice and, of course, the seminal Stalker (which some say led to his death) are brought together for the first time. TS
The Molly Dineen
The Man Who
Home from the Hill
A p r il
Fell to Earth Directe d
Nic Roeg brings his eternal outsider’s eye to bear on the most extreme of his many studies of alienation in 1976’s woozy cult chimera starring David Bowie as a stranded alien on a pitiless Earth. Fragile yet epic, impersonal yet powerfully human, it synthesises awkward shards of narrative to shattering effect. ALD
A p r il
Lovely, Still Directe d by Nichol as Fackler (2008) Most of us get socks for Christmas. But not elderly bachelor Robert (Martin Landau) who, one lonely festive eve, comes home from his job at a grocery store to find a beautiful woman (Ellen Burstyn) hanging out in his kitchen. And, just like that, they’re old boyfriend and old girlfriend. Cue dissolves, montages and soft-focus slow-motion waltzes in falling snow to endless Christmas tunes. “Is this what love is?” he asks her. This is the kind of guff that induces senility. JFB
Collection Vol 1: Directe d by Molly Dineen ( 1985 -1995 ) The first of three DVDs featuring the work of award-winning British documentary maker Molly Dineen opens with Home from the Hill (1985), which follows the charming Colonel Hilary Hook, faced with leaving his Kenyan home to return to an England that is completely foreign to him. Vol 1 also includes My African Farm, Heart of the Angel and In the Company of Men. TS
Lunch Hour Directe d
J am es
( 1961 )
Shirley Anne Field and Robert Stephens star as colleagues embarking on an illicit lunchhour rendezvous that gets out of control. This BFI Flipside release is accompanied by three of director James Hill’s shorts – including the Oscarwinning Giuseppina – that were regularly shown on BBC Two as ‘Trade Test Transmissions’. TS
Joanna Directe d
Another Flipside release, Joanna sees a stylish 17-year-old embarking on a new life as an art student in swinging ’60s London, enjoying casual sex and colourful daydreams. Then she falls for Gordon from Sierra Leone and her life begins to get complicated. Co-starring Donald Sutherland. TS
Airline Disaster Prostitute Directe d by John Willis III (2010)
A newly developed plane rendered in early ’90s graphics is hijacked by a group of mid ’90s terrorists. Originality aside, the plot develops into an emotionally turbulent drama in the sky and, partially, in a city. What will come of the innocent civilians? Will the courageous pilots land the plane? Will everyone die? DR
Gar net t
As the title suggests, this is a gritty, frank and controversial drama. It’s the directorial debut from one of British TV’s best-known figures (Garnett is the man behind This Life and Ballykissangel) and is presented uncut and uncensored for the first time. TS
DireCteD By greyDon ClarK Starring Joe Don BaKer, leif green, Jim greenleaf tagline ‘more fun than gameS!’ trailerS ChumP Change, iVory PowerS, the oCeanograPher’S nieCe CherryPiCK “he’S got PaC-man arthritiS anD BlinKy SynDrome?!”
088 T h e A t t a c k t h e B l o c k I s s u e
W o r ds
t would be remiss to steam into any review of a film as far-reaching as 1983’s mammary-minded button-jabber Joysticks without first checking the fingerprints of the clown school rejects that somehow scavenged together the fears and obsessions of the video generation into a pixelated zeitgeist that gifted the era its Altamont; a dark and kaleidoscopic prism through which the videovisual ’80s could rewind a splintered decade. Produced and distributed by the dubiously monikered Jensen Farley, purveyor of superannuated bongo flicks and thirdtier schlock horrors – as well as Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann, which, for ERH’s money, is the greatest film title since 1897’s Children’s Toilet – Joysticks would appear to have skin and shock credentials to burn, but little feel for the beat of the street. Enter director Greydon Clark, a cinematic ambulance chaser who had already proved he didn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing with such à la mode polemics as Satan’s Cheerleaders, Black Shampoo (literally an all-black version of Warren Beatty’s Shampoo) and Skinheads. Together they would come to do for the neon Valhalla of the video arcade what Harpo Marx did for the telephone. Essentially an itchy-trigger showdown between the nerds, jocks, Pasadena punks and bleach blonde Valley Girls that make up the console community of some jerkwater Californian ’burg, and local busybody/mob bagman/boiling-point puritan Joe Don Baker’s
a d a m
attempts to shut down their gilded palace of sin, this is the underdog story writ large. It’s Footloose for four-eyed Freddies; Amistad for Amstraders. The kids are funning it up and City Hall wants to drop the curtain on their good times. We’ve heard this song before, but Joysticks is a lament, not a hymn. But we get ahead of ourselves, for every Kong needs his Mario, and our guide through the arcane netherworld of arcade life is one Eugene Groebe (Leif Green) – an entry-level Poindexter complete with bow tie, three-pleat chinos and brutal horn-rims. Drafted into the food counter of his neighbourhood video parlour – a facility whose WIC (Wiener into Cleveage) count stands alone in modern cinema – Eugene is our pratfalling Passepartout around the world of cabinet chaos, breasty bi-play and internecine intrigue that threaten to take the unwary viewer’s eye off the ball. We would, however,
l e e
d a v i e s
do well to remember that this was the American ’80s, where nothing was as it seemed… Not only was the Cold War raging, but American heavy industry was buckling under the yoke of the Rising Sun as Japanese corporations employed inscrutable long-game business plans in order to break the back of US manufacturing. And where better for the Asian appeasers to psychically feed and water the armies of disenfranchised American worker drones while they flooded the market with cheap electronic gee-gaws and efficient automobiles than the inescapable 8-bit Matrix of their own fiendish video ‘entertainments’. The battle for American industry would not be fought in the boardroom or on the picket line but on the breaking grounds of Galaxian and Pac-Man. The irony, of course, is that the vanquished foe would be paying a quarter a time for the privilege. Thus Baker is ultimately revealed as the hero of the piece. The big-boned barbarian at the gate becomes an unheeded saviour; the herald of economic collapse and societal malaise destined to be forever shunned and ridiculed by the silicone sybarites raining outsize barrels down upon him from atop the city walls. Never mind that Joysticks is episodic, crass, prurient, boneheaded, rudderless, baffling and groans under the production values of a Central American snuff movie – it is also a wake-up call to a goggle-eyed nation blasting away at the wrong kind of space invader. This is cinema as smuggler: subversive, slippery and – to paraphrase Hunter S Thompson – stupid enough to be totally confident.
W o r ds
o Hayao Miyazaki, master of twenty-first-century animation, he’s a great artist; in Russia, he’s considered the finest animator in the world; in France, he’s a Knight of the Order of Art and Literature. Yet more than 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the name ‘Yuri Norstein’ barely registers in the English-speaking West. If you’ve seen any of his work at all, it’s likely to have been a 10-minute short that crystallised the emancipating power of intellectual curiosity through the story of a hedgehog getting lost on his way to share some jam with his friend, a bear. Norstein adapted 1975’s Hedgehog in the Fog from a much-loved Soviet children’s book, infusing it with a menace and otherworldliness that both elevated it above the level of kiddie cartoon and allowed it to fly beneath the censor’s radar. In the countries of the former Soviet Union, it remains one of the most beloved films around, as any visitor to Kiev, with its ceramic and wood statue of Hedgehog, can testify. Not that Norstein has ever fitted the mould of a typical Soviet dissident – unless you count the Solzhenitsyn beard he sports these days. His path was obsessively artistic with little room for overt political comment. Born in the cauldron of World War II, and raised in a provincial capital whose main
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claim to fame was a giant computer named after the Ural mountains, Norstein initially seemed destined for a life turning out coffee tables in the local furniture factory. Fortunately, he made it into another kind of factory work: the vast artistic assembly line of the Soviet film academy. Being a filmmaker offered Norstein unprecedented levels of artistic freedom; in the Soviet Union of the 1960s and ’70s, an artist could prosper provided he kept politics – at least as the censors could understand it – out of his work. Like McCarthyite Hollywood a decade earlier, clever self-censorship and a willingness to play ball on obviously subversive matters could allow the smart filmmaker to engage creatively with politics and philosophy in a way that a writer never could.
It isn’t just Norstein’s artistic vision that marks him out as one of the great interpreters of animated film. He’s also an obsessive craftsman and problem solver, and an inventor of revolutionary techniques that gave depth of field to 2D animation. His design of a series of glass plates and sliding cages allowed characters and scenes to merge and emerge, seamlessly melting between the dreamlike and hyperreal. The technique allows an almost photographic
foregrounding and pulling of focus, and the creation of disconcertingly convincing light – candles, fireworks, explosions, the ambient glow of the sun and the moon. Norstein works with chalk, dust and soap to conjure his unique atmosphere and his cutout figures – made from acetate, the same material as the film itself – are painstakingly animated. Norstein has made just a handful of delicate, poetic films, of which 1979’s Tale of Tales is undoubtedly his masterpiece. The film brings together childhood visions, folk songs and an impressionistic sepia palette to achieve a work that’s the closest any filmmaker has ever come to putting memory on screen. An international jury in Los Angeles in 1984 named it the greatest animated film ever made, an accolade that has been repeated around the world many times over. Norstein’s perfectionism is central to his achievements, but it also means his work proceeds at a pace that’s glacial even for an animator. Ironically he was suspended from the Soviet Film Union just a year after winning his Los Angeles prize for the very un-Soviet crime of lingering too long over the film closest to his heart. That was, and, incredibly, still is, an adaptation of Gogol’s The Overcoat. Back then, it had already taken him four years; today, 29 years after beginning, Norstein has completed perhaps 25 minutes of the feature length film. No wonder they call him ‘The Golden Snail’.
You either love Miranda July or you hate her, and from the sounds of things The Future won’t change your mind. ‘Quirky’ doesn’t begin to cover it – it tells the story of a childlike couple for whom time stops when the girl (July) begins to have an affair. Oh, and it’s narrated by their pet cat. Sundance viewers lapped it up.
The Hangover’s Ed Helms stars as a repressed insurance salesman led astray by party animal and work rival John C Reilly. The trailer is worth watching for a laugh-out-loud injoke about The Wire, courtesy of co-star Isiah Whitlock Jr – who you might remember as Senator Clay Davis from the HBO show.
Directed by Miranda July ETA Summer 2011
The Dictator Directed by Larry Charles ETA May 2012
If you thought Sacha Baron Cohen had run out of controversial material, think again. The Borat creator will adapt a novel by none other than Saddam Hussein for his next project. It’s the tale of a benevolent dictator who rescues a peasant woman from an abusive husband.
Directed by Paul Greengrass ETA 2012 At last, Greengrass has chosen his follow-up to Green Zone – a biopic of Martin Luther King in the days and hours leading up to his assassination in 1968. The Bourne director has a script, and Scott Rudin is attached to produce.
Directed by Miguel Arteta ETA 2011
Take Shelter Directed by Jeff Nichols ETA Winter 2011
Expect to see Boardwalk Empire star Michael Shannon on plenty of awards shortlists next year for his performance as a mentally imbalanced blue-collar father driven to build a tornado shelter in his backyard. Sundance viewers were left agog.
Captain America: The First Avenger Directed by Joe Johnston ETA July 2011
America saw the first trailer of this new take on its namesake superhero during the Super Bowl, and it seems at first glance like more of the same old crap. That said, Chris Evans has charisma, and a World War IIera comic-book adaptation is a novel twist on the formula. Could go either way but we’re not excited.
The Hunger Games
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn
This adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ young adult sci-fi novel now has a release date, and a director in Gary Ross (Seabiscuit). What it doesn’t yet have is a star to play 16-year-old heroine Katniss Everdeen. Might we suggest True Grit sensation Hailee Steinfeld?
Early screenshots of the animated movie make it seem more like a Pixar flick than a Robert Zemeckisstyle mo-cap disaster. Which, along with a script by Steven Moffatt, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, spells good news in our books. Expect a teaser trailer in the near future.
Directed by Gary Ross ETA March 2012
Directed by Steven Spielberg ETA December 2011
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X-Men: First Class
Directed by Matthew Vaughn ETA June 2011
British director Matthew Vaughn seems to have turned this one around in epic time – it seems like only yesterday that Kick-Ass was on our front cover. Production photos suggest Vaughn’s 1970s-set origin story will be full of Mad Men-style period touches. Just as well January Jones is in it, then.
Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr ETA Oct 2011 Well, this one came out of nowhere. A prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 chiller rather than a straightforward remake, this tells the story of the Norwegian scientists who attempted to tackle the shape-shifting killer in the hours leading up to the events of the first film. Animal Kingdom’s Joel Edgerton and Scott Pilgrim star Mary Elizabeth Winstead are the leads.
Directed by Rian Johnson ETA 2012 Okay, so The Brothers Bloom wasn’t great, but we’re still excited about Brick director Rian Johnson’s next project. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Jeff Daniels and Emily Blunt lead the cast of timetravelling assassins in this sci-fi pic. Did we say time-travelling assassins? Hell yes we did.
Prometheus Directed by Ridley Scott ETA June 2012
Sorry, Alien fans. Scott has scrapped plans for a prequel to the xenomorph saga in favour of making an original sci-fi movie with Lost creator Damon Lindelof, starring Michael Fassbender and Noomi Rapace. What happened, Ridley? Worried you couldn’t match the dizzy heights of Aliens vs Predator – Requiem?
Directed by Barry W Blaustein ETA Summer 2011 Starring the cream of US TV talent – Sarah Silverman, Michael C Hall and The Office’s Rainn Wilson – this family-oriented black comedy seems like a cross between Arrested Development and The Royal Tenenbaums. Beware – the very funny trailer gives almost too much away.
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Directed by T Sean Durkin ETA Autumn 2011 This Sundance hit was quickly snatched up by Fox Searchlight, and boasts a star-making performance from Elizabeth Olsen as a teenager who escapes from the clutches of a cult. The fact she’s sister to former tween superstars Mary-Kate and Ashley can’t hurt, either.
Superman: Man of Steel
Directed by Zack Snyder ETA Summer 2012 The casting of The Tudors star Henry Cavill as Kal-El means that Superman, Spider-Man and Batman are all currently being played by Brits. Take that, America! Can Snyder avoid the self-indulgence that marked Watchmen? Don’t bet on it.
The Dark Knight Rises
Directed by Christopher Nolan ETA July 2012
Christopher Nolan brought an end to over a year of gossip by casting Anne Hathaway as Catwoman in his third and, so he claims, final Batman film. We would’ve preferred Cher, frankly. Tom Hardy will play Bane, the insanely muscle-bound villain who breaks Batman’s back in the comic-book. Filming starts in May.
The Devil’s Double
Directed by Lee Tamahori ETA Winter 2011 Lionsgate has picked up this indie drama about the man forced to become the body double of Saddam Hussein’s son Uday. Dominic Cooper sheds his Mamma Mia! persona with a reportedly incredible performance as both the unlucky double and the thuggish Uday.
The Perfect Sense Conspirator Directed by David Mackenzie ETA Summer 2011
Directed by Robert Redford ETA July 2011
Director David Mackenzie’s reunion with his Young Adam star Ewan McGregor also premiered at Sundance. Its world-gone-mad scenario, which sees a bizarre pathological disease grip Britain, was described by one reviewer as ‘a bit like Sam Raimi meets George Orwell and Michael Crichton.’
Robert Redford’s account of the trial of the plotters behind the assassination of Abraham Lincoln now has a trailer, and very bombastic it is too, coming off like nothing less than an 1860s version of A Few Good Men. James McAvoy stars in the ‘you can’t handle the truth’ role.
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Directed by David O Russell ETA 2012 Russell, a hot property once again thanks to The Fighter, may reunite Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson in this comic-book adaptation. The Wedding Crashers it ain’t – more a pulpy, Italian Job-style heist movie. Could be fun.
The Tree of Life
Directed by Terrence Malick ETA 2011 Malick’s long-delayed epic finally has a release date, some years after filming finished. If the sublime trailer is anything to go by, it will be a life-affirming work of art unlike any other film released this year. At the very least, it’ll be better than Benjamin Button. Brad Pitt and Sean Penn star, and we hope to see it at Cannes.
My Week with Marilyn Directed by Simon Curtis ETA Autumn 2011
Filming has finished on what we judge to be 2011’s awards bait of choice: an adaptation of the tempestuous relationship between Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) and Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) on the set of 1950s drama The Prince and the Showgirl. Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi and Emma Watson round out the impressive cast.
“I don’t believe in trees.”