Friday, 28 May 2010

4.3.2.1 (The List, Issue 657)

The shadow of Quentin Tarantino looms large over Noel ‘Adulthood’ Clarke’s ambitious second film, in which four girls (Emma Roberts, Tamsin Egerton, Ophelia Lovibond and Shanika Warren-Markland) have the weekend from hell. Clarke and his co-director Mark Davis aim admirably high, pushing against British drama traditions, telling interconnected stories with a cast of oddball characters spouting quirky dialogue via a narrative that playfully keeps reality at arms length. But while the resulting mash-up of conflicting tones and styles is entertaining and features moments of bizarre inspiration, 4.3.2.1 is ultimately less than the sum of its parts.

The set-up is promising – the girls’ parallel stories play out one after another, with the film rewinding to the same initial point after each one – but Clarke’s script is undisciplined, overflowing with ideas and not focused into a coherent and meaningful whole. A constant stream of attention-grabbing cameos adds to the patched-together feel, and the more dramatic story elements aren’t developed enough to hold much weight. The four actresses are great though, and their strong performances do a lot to carry the film through its weaker moments. Ophelia Lovibond (pictured) is particularly impressive.

3/5

4.3.2.1 is released on 2nd June. This review first published in The List magazine.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Profile: Matt Harlock & Paul Thomas (The List, Issue 656)


Background
Having individually produced various shorts and television features, Paul and Matt joined forces for their feature debut American: The Bill Hicks Story, an innovative documentary combining animated photos with interviews and stand-up clips to tell the story of the late great comedian.

On Bill Hicks’s comedy

Matt: ‘[He could] turn a subject on its head in a very short space of time, and distill something which you’d seen as a very big, complex issue so you take away this new understanding. He had really good dick jokes as well.’

On being the ones to tell Hicks’ story
Matt: ‘I had some contact with Bill’s family, because I’d been doing events in London, where we were showing his material, and there seemed to be a lot of footage that I just hadn’t seen. Paul and I started talking about whether we might be able to make it into a new telling of Bill’s story.’
Paul: ‘Hicks is getting pitched all the time, so we needed to come up with a different approach, and it was this device of animated photos – we knew that there was a huge photo archive, and that there was potential in that. So we did some tests and boom, channels jumped straight at it.’

On putting the film together 
Matt: ‘The first time that we watched the assembly of Bill’s life, onstage, in chronological order, it was a really moving experience, watching him go from 16 to a very ill person at the age of 32. That powerful reaction was something that we felt was worth maintaining, and that’s where the chronological approach came from.’
Paul: ‘The first half really builds the idea of who this guy is [through] his friends and his family. Thirteen years had passed when we did the interviews, but the vividness and the clarity of the recollections were astonishing. Then [the stand-up clips] had to reveal Bill the person at the same time as the comedy. That’s where the second half really took on a power.’

On the role of the film

Paul: ‘He should be somebody that everybody knows. He is a key cultural cornerstone.’

American: The Bill Hicks Story, selected release, Fri 14 May. This article first published in The List magazine.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Robin Hood (futuremovies.co.uk)


Ridley Scott’s timing couldn’t be better. In a week that’s seen a new Prime Minister assuming power thanks to a political system that has failed its people, it’s strangely appropriate to be reminded of England’s most famous outlaw. From the film’s opening scrawl citing a ‘time when kings were tyrants’ to the story’s central theme of individual liberty and the importance of rulers listening to their people, Scott’s take on the legendary figure offers plenty of moments to provoke chuckles of contemporary recognition, and perhaps even hopes that we had our own Robin Hood in action today.

But whether we would want this Robin Hood, or Robin Longstride, as he is renamed here, is debatable. The trailer promised a version of the story that we’d never been told before, and Scott and writer Brian Helgeland make good on that claim; this story ends where most previous tellings have begun, with Robin declared an outlaw and hiding out in Sherwood Forest. But Scott’s film also inadvertently makes plain why this part of Robin’s life is usually confined to backstory; it’s not that interesting, and Robin himself doesn’t actually do much in it. We’re used to seeing Robin Hood as a decisive leader of men and a dashing romantic hero, but here he is redrawn as a man carried along by the tides of circumstance, a small pawn in a much bigger political game.

This may well be a truer historical depiction of the real Robin Hood, if there ever was one, but it’s not the stuff of enduring cinema. For all his drawling Americanisms, Kevin Costner’s version of Robin, in 1991’s great fun Prince of Thieves, earned his place in movie history by firing that flaming arrow in slow-motion and making that heroic roof-top dive through a stained-glass window. The Robin that we meet here (Russell Crowe, excellent as always) has none of that heroism or heart. That’s intentional of course; Scott is trying to show us what made Robin change from a man living only for himself to a man willing to live and die for his woman and his people. The problem is that, in the larger historical context that Scott offers, Robin’s story just doesn’t seem like such a big deal.

Unsurprisingly, it’s in creating that larger context that Scott really succeeds, because he is a truly great film director, and given a big enough canvas he can bring a whole world to life. He has that canvas in 12th Century England, and he establishes the world with the same structure as he did in Gladiator; a huge, brilliantly depicted battle, followed by a mass of scenes that set up the fraught political situation in the country and skilfully introduce us to all the story’s main characters. There’s a lot of drama and intrigue to enjoy, and a host of great actors, including a fantastic Max von Sydow, playing it out. 

Ultimately though, all this compelling background can’t make up for the gaping hole at the centre of the movie. Robin is a bystander in his own film: both Matthew Macfadyen’s Sheriff of Nottingham and Mark Strong’s villainous Godfrey are hardly aware of Robin’s existence, giving him no great enemy to conflict with, while his courtship with Marion (Cate Blanchett) is forced – literally – and fledgling, giving him no passionate romance to pursue. In their efforts to do something new and different with the Robin Hood character, Scott and his merry band of filmmakers have robbed him of everything that made him great.

6/10

Robin Hood is out now. This review first published on futuremovies.co.uk.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Lebanon (futuremovies.co.uk)


After a few brief credits, Lebanon begins with a porthole opening and a soldier climbing into a tank. We’re watching from inside, along with the three other young and inexperienced men that make up the crew. Apart from one notable exterior shot, our perspective will be limited to what can be seen and heard from within this tank for the duration of the film. From this simple and restricted set-up, Samuel Maoz, who nearly 30 years ago was a gunner in an Israeli tank just like this one, builds a compelling, intense and surprisingly layered film experience.

If the prospect of being stuck for 90 minutes in a tank with four guys, none of them particularly conversational or charismatic, doesn’t have you beating a path to the nearest cinema you’re certainly not alone, but this is a film that is worth the effort; it rewards investment. Maoz doesn’t use this limited perspective as a gimmick or a merely interesting concept, but rather he uses it to build a very effective case against war as a reasonable human endeavour. From this perspective, it is difficult to see how any war can have any result other than disaster.

The film begins at nighttime, and text on the screen tells us it is 1982, the first day of the first Lebanon war. This is all the information we get, and it soon becomes shockingly clear that this is pretty much all the information that anyone on the front lines of this army has. A commanding officer comes into the tank with a seemingly clear set of orders, but as soon as an engagement begins, and we see glimpses of the chaotic conflict through the terrified gunner’s crosshairs, it is intensely apparent that there is no plan, just people being killed.

Maoz structures the film episodically, subtly shifting his focus around each of the four men to gradually add layers of development and place us firmly in each moment, provoking us to think and feel at all times. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the most powerful moment comes through the eyes of the gunner, as he watches a distraught Lebanese woman step out of a burning building that he has just reluctantly pulled the trigger to destroy. We are watching through the same crosshairs, strongly feeling the powerless rage of injustice on both sides of the gun.

The fact that Maoz gives virtually no context is both a strength and a weakness; it allows his film to be about war in general, and means that an audience with no prior knowledge of the Lebanon war can immediately grasp the issues being addressed. By the same token this approach leaves Maoz open to criticism, as his film doesn’t actually shed any light on the wider political reasons for this fight, arguments that remain unresolved today.

With its confined location and small cast the film feels at times like a play, and this feeling is borne out in Maoz’s dialogue; when characters speak there is meaningful weight to their words. Equally significant are the recurring extreme close-ups of the tank’s various dials and metal surfaces, which crumble along with the minds of the men the deeper they become entrenched in chaos. Maoz’s skill in marrying technical and compositional skill to thematic intentions belies his film’s micro-budget, and Lebanon is arguably as insightful a portrayal of men in war as the considerably more costly Oscar-winner The Hurt Locker. This film is a significant anti-war statement, and one that deserves your time and attention.

8/10

Lebanon is on limited release from 14th May. This review first published on FutureMovies.co.uk.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Sara Foster on Psych 9 (futuremovies.co.uk)

 
Sara Foster is most recognisable for playing ├╝berbitch Jen in the so-bad-its-hilarious guilty pleasure 90210, but the two films that she has coming out this year were in the can before her career took a step to the small-screen. You might have seen her in a few movies before she found that regular home on TV but, by her own admission, none of them would have been worth remembering. The first chance to see her in the cinema in 2010 is in director Andrew Shortell’s spooky - and at points just plain bonkers - chiller Psych 9, where she plays admirably against her TV image as Roslyn, a troubled young wife who takes up a night-job in an abandoned hospital, with predictably unsettling consequences. We spoke to her about the film and her career so far. 

How would you describe Psych 9?
I would say it’s a psychological thriller; you’re on a journey of her mind. You’re trying to figure out who the murderer is, but all the while watching this woman, my character, just be as damaged as you can imagine. This girl had a horrific childhood, she was abused mentally and physically, in any which way you can be abused, and she is trying to come to terms and solve the puzzle to her past in order to move on. 

Roslyn’s backstory is certainly heavy stuff. How did you end up getting this part?

It all happened so fast. It was one of those things where they had another actress and she fell out last minute. My agent suggested me, I came and auditioned, they saw my audition tape and I got the role. And then I stopped and said “you know what? No thank you”. The truth is, I wasn’t up to the challenge. I knew it was going to be hard, I knew it was going to be emotionally draining and taxing, and I didn’t know if I could pull it off. And everybody in my life said “you’re crazy. Because you’re so afraid of it, you’ve got to do it!” So I was talked into it, I talked myself into it, and I got on a plane three or four days later. 

How did you approach playing the character?

There’s a lot to a human being and you don’t get it all from the script, so I had to go and fill in the blanks. For me, I decided Roslyn had a sibling who died. So I tried to make her as whole a person as possible, and after that I completely isolated myself; I became Roslyn and I was her morning, noon and night. I didn’t talk on the phone, I didn’t surf the internet, I didn’t socialise. I went to work and I went home, and sort of stayed in that depressed state all the way through. 

That’s intense. What do you think 90210 fans will make of it?
Well, the first time anybody saw me I was 19 and I was a host on MTV. And then my first big break was a movie called The Big Bounce, which I wasn’t that great in, and it wasn’t a great movie. And I think when you’re involved in such a big film and the film doesn’t work, you get pigeonholed as the girl that isn’t very good. And you don’t get the opportunities to show that, actually, you are! So I think people will be surprised, I don’t think anyone would think that I would have the chops to be able to jump in and do a film like this. Definitely, my Jen fans from 90210 will be surprised. I mean, forget the type of character I’m playing, just aesthetically I’m different, with the black hair and very white make-up. But that’s why we do this, we do it to have the opportunity to play very different people. So I feel grateful that they trusted me to do it. 

So once you had jumped into it, what was the process of making the film like?
It was really hard. It was really taxing on my soul. Like I said, I was pretty depressed the whole way through, because I only knew how to work that way. I didn’t know how to go back and forth between Sara and Roslyn. I wanted to, but I tried and then the next day at work it was really hard for me to get back into the zone, so I just tried to stay with it the whole way through. 

Your co-stars Cary Elwes and Michael Biehn play more conventional ‘horror movie’ characters, so were they somewhat more relaxed on set?
I think there was maybe less pressure on them. I mean, given that they’re both real pro’s, they’ve been doing it for a long time and they probably handle the pressure differently. I had to go to some real extreme places in this movie, but Cary did as well, he had some really emotional scenes as my therapist. But as much as we got on we kept to ourselves a lot, because the mood on set was reflective of what was happening in the scenes, there was just a very dark mood throughout. 

What was the director Andrew Shortell like to work with?
He and I worked well together. I knew he expected a lot from me, I knew that he knew I could do it, but at the same time I think he was a little bit nervous that maybe I couldn’t. He was really hard on me, but hard on me just the right amount! So it was a really good balance. He knew what he wanted out of every scene but at the same time he’d let me do my thing, and give me the freedom to just go for it. And in a movie like this you have to feel free, or it’s not gonna work. 

What was the toughest part of the shoot?
Well (laughing), every day was pretty tough to be honest! We never had a short day, I never got released early, we worked six-day weeks and Sunday was our only day off. The therapy scenes were pretty tough, those were really draining. 

At the end of a day like that would you consciously stay in that moment, or would you try and switch off in any way?

No, I watched a lot of film. But I watched Stanley Kubrick, some Hitchcock, The Ring. I watched Sybil, with Sally Field, where she is like a total lunatic, just to kind of keep me in that place! And if I wasn’t working or sleeping I was listening to my iPod. There was really no winding down. I think I got one manicure the whole time I was there, one Sunday I treated myself! 

What do you think is the appeal of movies that centre on a character we can’t fully trust?

I love movies where I’m solving the puzzle as I go along, I don’t like movies that spell it out for you, that’s totally boring for me. I think these stories where you get lost in people’s minds are interesting. 

Obviously this film is a piece of entertainment, but do you think in its own way it’s bringing mental health issues to the fore?

Yeah, it’s that thing we don’t talk about. One of the tag-lines of this film is ‘the abused become abusers’ and that’s like, pretty much always true. Listen, I think anytime a film can send a message or get you thinking, in a positive way, I like that. 

This film was shot a couple of years ago – how did you get from there to 90210?

Well I finished this movie and then I went into a very hilarious comedy called Demoted, which is coming out this year. I’m really proud of it, it’s laugh-out-loud the whole way through. So that was nice – it was a fun set and we had a lot of laughs. And then I went from that straight into the show, and I’ve been on there for almost a year and a half now, which is crazy. 

What’s the experience of shooting the show like, compared to making films?

It’s a totally different rhythm, it’s definitely more by the book. In film you have a little more freedom to put your own stamp on it, and in television it runs with what’s on the page. So it’s a little more regimented, but I like the schedule, I like that it’s an ensemble and I like that I get a lot of days off! And I like that I get to be a nasty evil villain! Parts like that are not easy to come by, so I’m having a lot of fun. I’ve created this character from scratch, and people have really responded to her, which obviously makes it all the more worthwhile. 

Are there particular actresses that you look at and think ‘that’s the kind of career I want to have’?

The women that I think all of us girls [look up to] are all the same ones: Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet, even someone like Cameron Diaz, she’s had an amazing career. People think that the women who do comedy are kind of talented and women that do drama are geniuses, but it’s just not true. Comedy is freaking hard, and it takes a real pro to pull it off. And then you see her in films like Gangs Of New York and In Her Shoes with amazing directors and I guess that’s the ideal thing, to be able to kind of do it all. 

So is it very competitive, being an actress at your level?

Well I’m certainly not competing with those women, you know, Scarlett Johansson and I are not brawling over a script, that’s for sure! I’m probably number five thousand on the list after she’s passed. But wherever you are in your career it’s competitive, so there’s always someone glaring at you from behind you trying to take your spot. It’s cut-throat, but I don’t really engage in all that nonsense, I just try to work hard and do my thing, and that’s it. I’m a homebody and I just want to steadily work. 

What is the most important thing you’ve learned in your acting career?

I’ve learned that it’s pretty simple, you work hard and you’re gonna do well, and there are no shortcuts. Okay, there’s stories of someone who just gets really lucky and is catapulted into stardom and offer after offer, but that’s not the real world. If you want something you’ve got to really fight for it, because no-one is going to come after you. You have to have thick skin, because you’re gonna be rejected way more than not! Also, we’re not curing cancer here, so probably we should just not take ourselves so seriously. At the end of the day we are very blessed to be doing what we’re doing and getting paid for it.

Your dad is a very prolific composer. Do you have any musical side-projects up your sleeve?
I wish. I unfortunately don’t have a musical bone in my body, which is probably good, because that would be crazy nepotism, wouldn’t it, if I were to get a record deal? No, that’s not in my cards. Maybe in another life!

Psych 9 is on selected release in the UK from 7th May. This interview first published on FutureMovies.co.uk