31-12-15 / NERDY NITPICKING ALERT : QUICK STAR WARS DISSECTION
Rey is obviously all set to become the franchise's first female lightsaber super-duellist, so there should be some visceral, sweaty sword scraps ahead (a recent interview on BBC 6 Music with JJ Abrams confirmed that they are attempting to attract female toy-buyers). So here's looking forward to an equally entertaining and hopefully less derivative Episode VIII, where Finn WILL NOT MUST NOT PLEASE NOT be revealed as Lando Calrisian's son. Oh, the horror.
Thought I'd close the year with some yap on Star Wars. If you can't be arsed with the franchise, have simply had enough of it, or if you still haven't seen The Force Awakens - stop reading now. Star Wars got me interested in films in the first place, yet it's also the reason I nearly didn't start making them. It's also the reason Kevin Smith does my nut in, and the cause of my pedantic, over-sensitive ear in an audio mix. I was mystified by the recurring Wilhelm Scream as a child, not to mention all the differences between the original film's mono soundtrack, as broadcast on television, and the now-standard stereo version. To this day I am thrown by the missing sounds and alternate dialogue takes in the standard mix.
My opinion of The Force Awakens shifted slightly on a second viewing, when it was far easier to relax. Some things that bugged me on the first outing suddenly didn't seem an issue, such as the brazen recycling of ideas from 1977's A New Hope. When you consider that the planet Jakku is essentially a rebranded Tatooine, Starkiller Base a rebranded Death Star, The First Order a rebranded Empire, and The Resistance a rebranded Rebellion, the self-plagiarising is flabbergastingly obvious.
But like most, I felt far less frustration and disappointment with this film than the misfired prequels, the first of which I crossed the Atlantic to see with other UK wait-haters. It was a drab film, and things only became worse with the subsequent Attack of the Clones (proving that Jar Jar was the least of problems). It's spirit was humourless and uninspiring, and this is where The Force Awakens triumphs.
Naturally, I have gripes, but most are nitpicky and generally outweighed by the good. The first thing I noticed when the film kicked off (apart from the absence of 20th century Fox's fanfare) was a very un-Star Wars handheld camera, bringing an instant fear which thankfully evaporated as quickly as it came. Five minutes later, a weak moment where Finn's helmet is smeared by a fallen comrade - actually a great visual cue to isolate him from the other troops, but slightly reminiscent of Marion Cotillard's unintentionaly funny death in whatever Christopher Nolan's third Batman film was called. I can only imagine it was considered too small a gesture to merit a convincing performance. I also thought Finn's still-helmeted stormtrooper (FN2187, in-joke alert) gave a heavy-handed performance. Too jumpy and over-reluctant, and basically far more suspicious-looking than it needed to be. Then I remind myself that it's a children's film, of course.
Force or otherwise, Rey's instant mastery of the Millennium Falcon sadly undermines the idea that Han and Lando were hotshot pilots of any stretch, and this was probably the first genuine no-no for me. I appreciate that she bumped it all over the place, but flying it through the labyrinthine innards of a dead Star Destroyer was a bigger hiccup than her taking on Ren with a lightsaber, which is what most doubters have trouble with (though the moment where she closes her eyes mid-duel for about 37 years while Kylo just watches makes little sense either).
In-jokes and winks to the original trilogy are thankfully more restrained than they could have been. Some are too subtle for the casual viewer, being camera composition and/or sound-based, while others come and go too swiftly to appear self-conscious. A Han Solo comment about the trash compactor is a groan-worthy step too far, and the Wilhelm scream is buried amongst explosions, but I still wish sound engineers would pack it in with this tradition. It's not funny or clever these days and just pulls me out of whatever film it's shoehorned into.
The stormtroopers are strangely stump-trooper-ish, chubby and looking short as a result. This would be fine if it didn't appear like a more convenient design decision, much like Palpatine's shitty make-up in the prequels compared to ROTJ - quicker to apply, but you get what you pay for. No wonder Finn was so sweaty when it turns out that beneath his armour he's wearing black trousers and sweater, but I imagine him running around for most of the film in a unitard might be a bit weird.
Captain Phasma did nothing to justify being in the film, and she would be my one concession to the moaners who write off Star Wars as an excuse to sell merchandise. Whatever you might think about Ren removing his mask, hats off (boom boom) to a bold decision. His villainy evaporates somewhat, yet he simultaneously becomes something unexpected. Where he got Vader's mask from is anyone's guess. As for his boss 'Snoke', perhaps his gigantic hologram will turn out to reveal a diddy dude in the next episode, but he still looks more like some naff prune-thing from Lord of the Rings to me.
I'm not entirely sure how Harrison Ford pronouncing "Falcon" incorrectly the first time he says it went unnoticed, and it got him off to a bumpy start before he became Han Solo again. Chewbacca appears to have stolen Han's comb, but more than made up for it with charisma, and we finally got to see his mysterious bowcaster in action (though I'm not buying the idea that Han never had a blast on it before now). The appearance of a McVillain with a Scottish accent was horribly distracting, but I imagine that's probably only an issue for UK viewers.
Leia surely should have been all over Chewie after he lost his best friend, instead of giving all her affection to Rey. Cold, man, cold.
For my money, the final moments are the weakest in the film, and almost felt directed by someone else. Specifically, Rey holds out Luke's lightsaber (pointing at him, which seemed odd to me) for a horribly contrived and frankly daft stretch of time. There are 2 close-ups too many here, and I can only guess they either wanted to give Luke more screen time, or allow the score to catch up. Daisy Ridley's performance, which I enjoyed through the whole film, seems to falter in her unnecessary close-up, before an ill-fitting drone shot stretches the wordless encounter even further, and bangs the nail in. A shame, but hardly the end of the world.
There is, however, a genuine insult for UK viewers in the closing credits. The UK's very own milksop Sith chancellor George Osborne gets his name up in lights and, after the elation of experiencing this new film, I left the cinema with the bitter taste of Tory scum in my mouth. Thankfully, the outrage hit the news the following day and learning that he was booed at the film's premiere made it ever so slightly less difficult to swallow.allow.
18-11-15 / BREST RETROSPECTIVE / FLENSBURG PROGRAMME / BRASS HEAVEN
Massive thanks to Massimiliano Nardulli for the invitation to present my 21st (!) retrospective at Brest European Film Festival in France. En route home I finally experienced lovely Dinard, spending a lucky afternoon with a smashing beach sunset. Considering the appalling terrorist attacks in Paris and subsequent closure of the country's borders, it was a surprisingly fuss-free departure the following morning, despite the nationwide security alert.
In other news, a programme I curated for Flensburg Short Film Festival in Germany screens tomorrow. The brief was to compile films specifically concerning British humour and/or aggression, with the playlist being Carolina Giammeta's Not Coming In, Johnny Barrington's Tumult, Sami Abusamra's Love Me Tinder, my own film Soft, Olly Williams' The Fly, Duane Hopkins' Twelfth Man, Christian Cerami's Black Sheep, and Joel Vietch's I Love You So Hard. Big thanks to all these filmmakers for taking part.
Brass Heaven has scooped more screenings, having just appeared at Interfilm Berlin and Leeds Film Festival, with Sleepwalkers Film Festival in Estonia imminent. Not too shabby for a film I'm only sending on request (the two exceptions, where I actually submitted, were rejected). I recently found a small write-up about the film on the BFI website here.
21-10-15 / MUSIC VIDEO FOR CJ MIRRA
This video spent too long sitting waiting to be finished, so it's nice to finally get it out there:
23-09-15 / EUROPEAN FILM COLLEGE / FLATPACK TALENT MODULE / ENCOUNTERS
So much going on just recently. Soon after Brazil it was off to North Wales for three days, filming for an ongoing documentary that I can't announce just yet. Suffice to say, I was in a factory for three days shooting the manufacture of an extraordinary product.
A few days later I visited the European Film College in Denmark's Jutland peninsula, for two days of guest lecturing. Quite the eye-opener, this one. To namedrop previous guests Thomas Vinterberg, Werner Herzog and Joshua Oppenheimer, my being invited to this fantastic place was clearly something of an honour. Arriving late at night to the sound of chirruping crickets, beneath a "ahhhhhh" blanket of brilliant stars, it wasn't until the following morning that I saw the surrounding hills and forest. One hundred and fifteen students board in these grounds for eight months, living and breathing filmmaking. Only two weeks into their year and the sense of community was already apparent. I can only imagine the spirit that develops as the course goes on.
My first lecture, unexpectedly energising for me, lasted three whole Earth hours. In the evening, I screened Jonathan Miller's 1967 version of Whistle And I'll Come to You and Mike Leigh's 1976 classic Nuts In May to mixed reactions. I love pairing these titles as they dovetail beautifully in terms of eccentric [British] character study, despite being poles apart in tone and intention. The following morning I presented a selection of some favourite short films, with further yak about said films' relevance, not without a dash of regret at running out of time. The EFC students are a bright and enthusiastic bunch and I genuinely can't think of a better option than this place for anybody considering a film school route.
After a quick stint in London's Pineapple Studios to cast dancers for an upcoming BBC job, it was off to Birmingham to speak alongside old pals the Blaine brothers at a Talent Module event hosted by Flatpack Film Festival and Creative England. The Blaines and I talked about career-type-stuff for a couple of afternoon hours, then everyone relocated to a nearby screening venue to have our films forced upon them. Lucky to have a good, warm crowd again. It was smashing to catch up with Ben and Chris, who I have only been in cyber-touch with for too many years, and who are now blazing a trail with their feature debut Nina Forever. Looking forward to seeing it.
Straight from Birmingham to Bristol, by which point I'm feeling proper Michael Palin (Birmingham to Bristol, Bermuda to Barbados, what's the difference?). Brass Heaven was to receive its UK premiere at regular favourite Encounters Film Festival, but before that, a smashing short chiller I recently edited for Andrew Brand called What The Dog Saw (just before Brazil, take that Michael Palin) was screening in Channel Four's Moments of Horror programme. People gasped in the right place so I was wholly satisfied. The following evening, Brass Heaven, amusingly categorised as 'Other' in the comedy programme, went down nicely too. Stephen Fingleton gave an excellent talk and I'm very much looking forward to his upcoming feature debut The Survivalist. Check his short films here.
02-09-15 / RETROSPECTIVE IN SÃO PAULO
I blame my fall into the Twittersphere for this page having become all but extinct. That and my still-unsuccessful attempts to migrate to a more functional Wordpress site (one that will actually work on mobile devices). It's also not particularly interesting to write about writing, which is what I've largely been up to these last few months, though I'm proud to report that the first draft of my feature script is DONE. As for short films, ongoing work on two documentaries is, umm, ongoing.
So I just returned from a hot winter in Brazil, attending São Paulo International Short Film Festival, courtesy of the British Council and Encounters Film Festival. My retrospective programme (10 titles) and masterclass session happened only one day after arriving, leaving plenty of time to soak up the rest of the festival, its films, and the city itself.
The first cinema I went to had leather seats with enough leg room to comfortably accommodate giants. Like the Dutch, for example. It wasn't until leaving that I noticed a glass-partitioned section at the rear of the auditorium, which turned out to be a bar (!) with its own incoming audio feed. The Brazilian shorts programmes had some of the freshest films I've seen in ages, with one screening particularly sticking in my mind. Excellent, energising stuff.
In no particular order, film highlights for me were Victor Lindgren's I Turn To You (Sweden), Truls Krane Meby's World Wide Woven Bodies (Norway), Ursula Meier's Quiet Mujo (France/Bosnia), Leonardo Mouramateus' The Party And The Dogs (Brazil), Vitor Medeiros' The Day I Remembered The Trip To Bicuda (Brazil - featuring the most painfully realistic sex I've ever seen on screen), and Isabel Joffily's Portrait Of Carmen D (Brazil).
There was a cracking child performance in Gala Sukhanova's Inspection (Russia) and I finally got to see Don Hertzfeldt's much-hyped World Of Tomorrow (USA) without being disappointed.
While roaming the city, I was photographing a beautifully decrepit and graffitied building which sat adjacent to a conversely plush glass construction, when what I had assumed was a female mannequin in an open window started to move. She turned out to be an underwear model, smiling and posing for us while being photographed from inside. All very bizarre.
Rua 25 de Março (March 25 street) was as edgy as they say, and while I managed to do some filming without incident, I'd say I was lucky. The marketplace was packed and the atmosphere quite literally electric with the crackle of tazers on sale (!), and depressing shouts of "Self! Self! Self!" as vendors thrust selfie sticks into my vicinity. Signs forbidding phones and cameras in the Metropoltian Cathedral didn't stop one vain little man from taking shameless pictures of himself. With one foot up on the step, using a big tablet because it wasn't on the forbidden list, he posed with Jesus right in front of a class of school kids. What is wrong with these people?
I couldn't get enough of the ubiquitous electronic tat stalls and probably could have filled a case. These are equivalent to a toy shop for my adult self (toy shops, also). I've been slowly accumulating footage in various international cities for a daft new short film using a GoPro attached to a rather heavy monopod, and in São Paulo I found the proper piece of kit for just over a tenner. Absolute bloody bargain, though it'll probably snap or something at a crucial moment.
The non-vomiting record was reset AGAIN, in a very public way, after a smack of food poisoning from a random lunch buffet. The less said about that the better, but it definitely compromised what would've been a brighter dawdle around the city's street art. A small kink in the grand scheme of things. A dismally uncomfortable flight home with British Airways, but Graham the attendant looked like Ferris Bueller's dad, so that was good.
Stopped by an airport security pawn at Heathrow after landing, I was probed with questions about the nature of my trip, who I was travelling with and blablablah. My sleepless disorientation while trying to answer what felt like an absurd line of enquiry was clearly arousing further suspicion. When finally asked to list the titles of my films that screened (yes, this actually happened), imagine the wee pawn's face when my first words were "Telling Lies...".
26-06-15 / PROJECTS UNDERWAY
Birthday. Smashing to finally have a story that justifies a feature script, and it's only taken my whole career so far to find it. Also working on several short docs. Masterclasses and/or retrospectives coming up in Brazil and Denmark, and I'm curating a programme of shorts that deal with British aggression and/or humour for a November festival in Germany. More details on all this as and when, just to prove I'm not sitting around scratching my nuts.
17-06-15 / 'WORLD WAR CUP' SHOOT / HAMBURG SHORT FILM FESTIVAL
Long gestating short documentary World War Cup is the second in a series of 'fly on the wall' films based on audio recordings (Brass Heaven being the first). In June 2010 I taped the aggression and outrage in a city centre pub as Germany knocked England out of the World Cup football tournament. It took some time to find the right way of illustrating the abuse, and a shoot on the UK's south coast in Kent with photographer Graeme Crowley might just have nailed it.
Hamburg was mint, as always. Plenty going on for me, with four screenings of Brass Heaven (learned the cost of featuring white text on white clouds for certain projectors), plus an open-air screening of Telling Lies and Stew & Punch. Managed a nomination as barman for a certain Russian's barmy karaoke party without my ears weeping. More images from Kent and Hamburg on Instagram, and for any Hamburgers out there, a Best of the Festival programme including Brass Heaven screens at St. Pauli FC's stadium on the 29th of this month.
Must mention the short documentary Symbolic Threats by Mischa Leinkauf, Lutz Henke and Matthias Wermke (Germany), which won both the Audience Award and the German Competition. In 2014 the filmmakers climbed up the Brooklyn Bridge in the dead of night and replaced the American flags with white ones, leaving the NYPD and the public bamboozled and paranoid. Well worth seeking out.