Saturday 12 November 2011

Sound It Out review (The List, Issue 690)

The tagline for this affectionate record store documentary is ‘High Fidelity with a Northern accent’, and it is a rare case of the marketing being bang on the money. A labour of love for director Jeanie Finlay, who also produced the film and did most of the camerawork, Sound It Out is as low-budget as professional filmmaking gets, but Finlay’s passion for the subject is evident in every frame; the film resonates with the soul of a music lover.

The subject in question is Sound It Out Records, Teeside’s last surviving record shop, and something of a haven for Northern England’s record-lovers, music completists and social misfits. Through interviews with employees and customers, as well as plenty of in-store footage, Finlay builds up a picture of the community this store, and more specifically it’s devoted owner Tom, has cultivated and in many ways cared for for over 20 years in Stockton. It’s touching, at times very funny and also surprisingly moving. As well as crafting an insightful portrait of a specific place, Finlay effectively captures the moment of transition that record collectors worldwide are in, as the physical, tangible aspect of owning music gradually disappears. Highly recommended.

Showing at Glasgow Grosvenor on Weds 16th November, 6.30pm and Edinburgh Cameo on Thurs 17th November, 9pm, with a post-screening Q&A from director/producer Jeanie Finlay at both screenings. More info at This review first published in The List.

Thursday 6 October 2011

David Mackenzie - Perfect Sense interview (audio)

David Mackenzie on the set of Perfect Sense
Perfect Sense tells the story of a chef (Ewan McGregor) and a scientist (Eva Green) who begin to fall in love as the world begins to fall apart, when a series of inexplicable epidemics strike across the globe. Listen to my interview with the film's director David Mackenzie (Young Adam, Hallam Foe) from June this year at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. It's a fairly in-depth discussion of some of the film's themes, so probably best listened to after you've seen the film.

David Mackenzie - Perfect Sense interview by paulcgallagher

As I wrote on The List blog during the Film Festival, Perfect Sense is a uniquely ambitious work in which Mackenzie picks up some fascinating ideas and uncompromisingly follows them through, with the help of a solid cast, and a great lead performance from McGregor. It's a demanding film, but also thought-provoking and quietly moving. As Mackenzie says in the interview, ‘what I saw in the script was a poetic attempt to tell the story of a possible end [of humanity], and that felt interesting to me. It felt like a subtle and rather magical way of looking at these things as opposed to a bombastic and genre-led thing.’

And if you want more Perfect Sense goodies, check out the exclusive content in the player below from Sigma films:

The film features a haunting score by Max Richter (Waltz with Bashir, Shutter Island), and you can hit the green button to watch a featurette with Mackenzie and Richter discussing their motivations with the score.

Perfect Sense is released on October 7th.

Saturday 1 October 2011

Red State review (The List, Issue 688)

Outspoken filmmaker Kevin Smith hit a creative and commercial low with his last studio-backed production, the Bruce Willis-starring flop Cop Out, but before that film was even released Smith had shifted focus to this long-gestating personal project. Red State defies categorisation, but could, for some of its lean running time, be described as a political horror movie. Having independently raised funds, Smith shot the film entirely on digital cameras to allow for the quickest possible turnaround. The result is an uneven and often unpleasant film that leaves a bitter aftertaste, but despite its flaws suggests Smith has rediscovered his creative mojo, and is not beyond challenging himself yet.

The film begins with a class teacher in the unspecified titular state decrying the homophobic protests of a local fundamentalist Christian church. We soon see first-hand the horrific practices of this church, led by charismatic pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks, giving a creepily authentic performance), as three teenage boys get more than they bargained for after responding to an internet post seemingly offering no-strings attached sex. Smith refashions the traditional backwoods horror movie with Christian fundamentalists as the monsters, and while subtlety is clearly not on his agenda, this is an effective and scary first half hour, expertly put together and shorn of any of Smith’s usual wisecracking comedy. But the introduction of FBI agent Joe Keenan (John Goodman) signals a distinct change in tone, and Smith abandons horror in favour of an attempt at more nuanced political drama. While his ambition is admirable, Smith’s characters – with the notable exception of Keenan – are unsympathetic caricatures, and feel too much like convenient mouthpieces for the issues he wants to tackle. An inspired and bizarre final twist almost works, until Smith pulls the rug and backtracks for a West Wing-lite philosophising conclusion.

Red State was released on September 30th. This review originally published in The List magazine.

Wednesday 21 September 2011

Pearl Jam Twenty – not so much a review as a fan’s take

I’m a huge fan of Pearl Jam, and I’m a huge fan of Cameron Crowe (director of Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous amongst others), so there’s no point pretending I can offer an objective critical review of Pearl Jam Twenty, Crowe’s documentary of the band’s 20-year history so far. What I can tell you, having seen it at one of the worldwide one-day only screening’s last night, is that it is definitely one for the fans. Crowe's loosely chronological scrapbook-like approach offers up tidbits on the band's evolution over the years, inter-band relationships and songwriting processes; but ultimately this is a celebration, plain and simple, and taken on those terms it’s terrific.

Crowe has been a close friend of the band since before they were Pearl Jam, when they formed Mother Love Bone in the burgeoning early-90s Seattle grunge scene, and consequently he appears to have had access to every piece of film ever taken of the band. This means everything, from the band’s calamitous drunken performance at the wrap party for Crowe’s film Singles, to their tragic Roskilde festival slot in which 9 people were killed in a mosh-pit crush, is represented by on-the-spot video footage. There’s lots of good interview material with all the band members, as well as the scene’s other significant players, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell chief amongst them, but Crowe never dwells on a talking head for long when he has the pictures available to tell the story. His keen sense for comedy comes through too, with witty cutting between archive material and present-day reflections.

Predictably the first half of the film is more compelling than the second, as it contains so much fantastic footage from early performances and interviews, but even so, Crowe’s choice of live clips is never less than spot on, and he ends the film with a recent performance of Alive that is goosebump-inducing in its intensity. If you’re a fan of the band, you really owe it to yourself to see this movie as soon as possible.

Pearl Jam Twenty from Pearl Jam on Vimeo.

Sunday 18 September 2011

30 Minutes Or Less review (The List, Issue 687)

Reuniting Ruben Fleischer and Jesse Eisenberg, director and star of the hit comedy Zombieland (2009), this funny and silly diversion just about matches the previous film in terms of laughs, although it lacks the mix of invention and unique characterisation that made Zombieland particularly special.

Here Eisenberg plays Nick, a pizza delivery driver – hence the title – whose life consists of watching 80s action movies and refusing to get a ‘proper job’ like his best friend, schoolteacher Chet (Aziz Ansari). In a needlessly convoluted set-up, a pair of wannabe criminals (Danny McBride and Nick Swardson) kidnap Nick, strap a homemade bomb to his chest and threaten to detonate it in 10 hours unless he steals one hundred thousand dollars from a local bank for them. The reason they want the money is so they can pay a hitman (Michael Peña) to off McBride’s millionaire father (Fred Ward), but really the motives are irrelevant; Michael Diliberti’s script values laughs over logic, and fortunately enough of the gags hit their targets to make it easy to forgive the story’s shortcomings.

Realising he has no option but to rob the bank, Nick convinces Chet to help him, and Fleischer correspondingly kicks the film into action as they plan the heist, carry it out and deal with the increasingly desperate consequences. There’s some well-staged manic car chase action, nicely connecting with Nick’s love of 80s movies, while the cast have fun with Diliberti’s witty (and frequently potty-mouthed) observational dialogue. Ansari, previously seen in bit-parts and TV shows, is the stand-out performer, and he steals all the biggest laughs from under Eisenberg’s nose as the disapproving and incredulous ‘grown up’ friend. 

30 Minutes or Less is out now. This review also published at

Thursday 8 September 2011

Troll Hunter review (The List, Issue 687)

This monster movie was an unqualified box office hit in its native Norway, and has picked up dozens of rave reviews on the worldwide festival circuit, but aside from a couple of good jokes and a handful of impressive visual effects sequences, there’s nothing in André Ovredal’s film that hasn’t been done much better before.

It begins promisingly, with portentous opening text attesting to the veracity of this ‘found footage’, then a cut straight to handheld camera as three Norwegian media students document their pursuit of an illicit bear hunter. Their conversation is authentically mundane and the spectacular mountain scenery immediately atmospheric; it’s an aesthetic that’s been familiar since The Blair Witch Project so effectively rewrote the rulebook for modern horror. We seem to be on track for solid scares, but Ovredal abruptly gear-shifts to comedy once he reveals the trolls (fantastic CG creations that look like giant versions of Spike Jonze’s Wild Things). Not nearly scary enough to be a horror, but not consistently funny enough to be a comedy, Troll Hunter ends up somewhere in the middle.

Troll Hunter is on selected release from Fri 9 Sep. This review first published in The List magazine.

Thursday 1 September 2011

Weekender review (The List, Issue 687)

The do-it-yourself rave explosion in ‘90s Manchester is a moment of recent history ripe with storytelling potential – Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People demonstrated that wonderfully – but Weekender, Karl Golden’s brazenly shallow ode to the scene, offers less insight than a homemade video of a great night out. It’s the story of best mates Dylan (Jack O’Connell) and Matt (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), who start putting on club nights and are drawn into a world of great success and, once big-city drug dealers get wind of them, great danger. It’s a solid set-up, but Golden and writer Chris Coghill toss aside the moral, political and social issues inherent in the subject matter in favour of taking an hour and a half to say ‘remember the 90s? They were brilliant!’

Pelican Blood director Golden’s attempts at style – essentially using Dutch angles in every other scene – fail to distract from the script’s complete lack of tension, with every potentially dramatic plot turn clearly signposted, and a concluding piece of illogical storytelling that even Guy Ritchie would have reservations about committing to film. Thank the party gods then for Henry Lloyd-Hughes, whose excellent lead performance saves Weekender from being completely unwatchable.

General release from Fri 2 Sep. This review first published in The List magazine.

Sunday 14 August 2011

Project Nim review (The List, Issue 686)

It’s not surprising that director James Marsh has chosen to follow his Oscar-winning 2008 documentary Man On Wire by taking an approach often favoured by bands following up a hit album: don’t mess with the formula, just try and do the same thing again, but better. What is surprising, considering how good his previous film was, is how close Marsh comes to bettering it with Project Nim.

The titular project was an ill-conceived experiment in which Columbia University Behavioural Psychologist Herb Terrace took a baby chimp – Nim – and convinced Stephanie LaFarge, one of his ex-girlfriends, now married with children, to take the chimp into her home, and treat Nim as one of the family. ‘Only in the 70s,’ is how one interview subject aptly describes it. The theoretical aim was to teach Nim to communicate through sign language, but in practice the experiment was doomed from the start, and, of course, it was Nim who paid the highest cost.

Marsh’s film plays out through detailed interviews with everyone involved, alongside some amazing archive footage and dramatically charged reconstructions. It’s a very similar filmmaking approach to Man On Wire, but Marsh makes up for playing it safe stylistically by plumbing the subject’s thematic depths to pull out a deeply affecting story. Marsh’s storytelling instincts are good; he carefully withholds information to ensure viewers keep asking their own questions about the motivations of the projects’ architects. This is an animal story that’s populated by a fascinating cast of humans, and Marsh successfully draws out their considered and sometimes fundamentally contradictory opinions about what they did and were trying to achieve. What emerges is both a heartbreaking tale of the mistreatment of one ‘dumb animal’ and a complex meditation on the very best and worst aspects of human nature.

Project Nim is in cinemas on selected release now. This review originally published in The List magazine.
You can also listen to me reviewing Project Nim on BBC Movie Cafe here.

Wednesday 27 July 2011

Chris Weitz Interview: A Better Life (The List, Issue 683)

Chris Weitz began his career together with his brother Paul, first co-writing DreamWorks animation Antz (1998) then co-directing the hit teen comedy American Pie (1999). After another successful collaboration, the 2002 adaptation of Nick Hornby’s About A Boy, Weitz’s first solo attempt, The Golden Compass, was a disappointment, ending up as a heavily sanitized take on the challenging book by Philip Pullman. After a happier experience making New Moon, the second in the blockbusting Twilight series, Weitz has directed A Better Life, a much smaller story about a struggling Mexican immigrant and his son in contemporary LA. I sat down with Weitz to discuss the shift from blockbusters to smaller-scale filmmaking, as well as politics, producing and his thoughts on The Golden Compass debacle now.

You seem to have had a particular audience in mind with each of the films you’ve made so far. Was that also the case while you were making A Better Life?
No, I wasn’t thinking about a particular audience, as a matter of fact my sense of what the audience was going to be changed or developed as we made it. The aim was really to take this extraordinary script – which was extraordinarily written, the best I’d read in 20 years – and to do it justice. But that required a lot of research on my part; getting to know East Los Angeles, getting to know a bit about the gang life, the immigrant experience. And I started to realise that there were two audiences for the film, in America at least; one was the Anglo audience that profits from the work of illegal immigrants - in that the food they eat, the garbage that’s taken away from their homes, their cars being parked, their gardens being taken care of is really the result of very inexpensive labour. There’s been a story recently about how these fruits are rotting in Georgia because the price that the planters will pay to have them picked are so low that not even prisoners will pick them. So it’s that, and it’s also an Hispanic audience, that has never had a film that pays proper tribute to how hard the everyday working person works in order to make life better for his family. And now as I think about the international market, I suppose there’s the theme of love of family, but also the immigration question, which is actually global, between north and south, and wherever there’s a rich country and a poor country nearby, there’s going to be this problem. It’s not so much that the film takes a very liberal tack on it, as that the moment you turn a camera on somebody you humanise them, and you have to start talking about them as people instead of numbers.

So is there a particular sentiment that you’d like that first audience group, the employers of immigrant workers, to take from this film?
I think it would be interesting if they were able to understand the lives of their employees in a better way. And not just their employees, it’s really the human infrastructure of the lives they live; what makes it possible for us to lead these comfortable existences? Now, there are a lot of politicians in the United States who really think that if we could just stop the influx of any new ethnicity, everything would be hunky-dory, and there would be no white person out of work and we’d have a lovely country ‘the way that it used to be’. But there’ve always been immigrants in America from the get-go. Even the Mayflower families were a bunch of people who got told to bugger off because their religious views didn’t fit in with the prevailing ones.

The film is an interesting mix of quite indie-style cast and story, but very high production values in terms of music and cinematography – how did that come about?
I suppose that’s a bit perverse but what I wanted to do was make a film that wasn’t all about indie cred, you know? ‘Oh, we shot it in ten days with our camera phones and aren’t we great?’ I really wanted to be able to employ people like Javier Aguirressarobe (cinematographer) and Alexandre Desplat (composer) to give the story the proper amount of polish, and not to run on any received notions of how movies about poor people are supposed to be made. It’s a weird movie, but all of my movies are kind of weird in some ways! The people at Summit saw [the script] while I was making New Moon, which of course is an utterly different kind of film - so different that they almost belong in entirely different categories of medium - but they were willing to make this movie in spite of the fact that there was no quid pro quo of my making another vampire movie for them, or anything like that. And the budget they offered, which was perfectly sensible from what they knew and what their bean counters told them, wasn’t big enough for what I wanted. So we were able to get Lime Orchard, this new production company, to give us enough money so that we could shoot in 69 different locations without stressing the actors too much, and without rushing around so much that we could only have one take of every shot. The result is a weird hybrid between a film about poor people and their lives, and something with sort of a Hollywood gloss. I really wanted to make a film that people could appreciate for its aesthetics as well as for the story and the emotions within.

I hadn’t seen any of this cast before – how did you find them and decide on them as these characters?
We had two casting directors, Joseph Middleton, who my brother [Paul] and I had worked with many times before, and Carlo Hool, who’s a big Mexican casting agent who has come up to work in the States. She knew the vast reservoir of Mexican talent, and Demián Bichir is a big star in his own country – as is Delores Herdia, as is Joaquín Cosio – and the guys who played the people who came from Mexico, came from Mexico to perform in our movie. And so 35% of the movie is in Spanish with subtitles. Demián is an extraordinarily accomplished actor but he’s not known to American eyeballs, and really I suppose not known globally as much as he should be; I think it’s a role for which he deserves an Oscar nomination, and fingers crossed we’ll get one, because he has this tremendous bearing to him and delivers such a stoic and yet commanding performance. If it had been done by any of the more famous Hispanic actors who could deliver that kind of performance, like Javier Bardem or Benicio del Toro, I think there would have been a problem with audiences carrying baggage from their previous experiences of their other films, but with Demián I just had this double whammy of his appearing to be a newcomer and yet having these extraordinary talents.

It’s interesting that you’re very forward in mentioning an Oscar nomination – will you be campaigning for that?
Well he’s my guy! It’s forward, but inasmuch as it’s for my friend and for someone who carries the entire movie, I feel pretty good about that. Every year there is someone who is discovered in America – America suddenly realises that people in other countries make movies and that they’re actually good actors, and so the scenario opens up for them. I would like for this to be Demián’s year.

The film is, as you’ve mentioned, very different to your previous films – was there a personal connection to the material for you?
Yes. My grandmother is a Mexican immigrant; she came her when she was 17. She came under totally different circumstances; she was signed to a contract to be in silent films for Fox Studios. She still lives in America, and she’s now a hundred years old, but she’s still a Mexican national. She’s very proud; Mexicans are very nationalistic and proud. And my father was a refugee from Nazi Germany, so the immigrant connection is very close to me, closer than many people in America. So I felt some affinity for that, as well as for the fact that my wife is Hispanic, and most of my family speak Spanish except for me. So I thought this would be a good excuse to finally learn Spanish, which was in my list of New Year’s resolutions, as well as losing some weight. It was just a handy way to do some of my New Year’s resolutions really!

What was your experience of the immigrant community in LA before the film, and now?
There are so many immigrant communities in LA, and even when you’re talking about Hispanic LA, there’s Salvadoran LA, Honduran LA, Guatemalan LA, Mexican LA, and my experience is that there are these worlds within worlds, tiny bits of other people’s countries within our country. And they are fascinating and full of interest and life. I mean, there are restaurants in Los Angeles where you can get a cricket taco, if you want to! And even gang LA is surprising in its own way; these are not guys who live for violence and drug dealing; they’ve been pushed into these circumstances by a growing sense of nihilism and despair. But the moment you think you understand them, you realise that you don’t. I got into this state of mind where I was talking to all these guys in gangs and they were very friendly, and everything’s kind of cool, and then I was talking to my friend Hector who works in a gang intervention programme and is very much on the straight side of things. He started talking about what got him into jail, saying ‘one day, when I was firing my AK47 at somebody’, and I realised ‘wow, I’m dealing with people who’ve had quite different experiences from me! This is exceptional.’ But it’s all been to the betterment of my understanding of human nature, I think.

Something the film captures very well is the idea of learned behaviour among the gangs, with the younger boys awkwardly ‘trying on’ gang attitudes.
Yeah, I think that they’re not that way by nature; they’re on a sliding scale between the kid who is going to make it out of the neighbourhood and into college, and the gang members, and they are code-switching between these different systems of values and ethics. They know that to join a gang is a dead end in more ways than one, and yet they’re making a calculation in their minds about belonging, and there is a point at which they feel so down that that’s the way that they’re gonna go. And that’s actually contrary to gang life as it’s presented in gangster rap, where it’s something to aspire to and glamorous and all that kind of stuff. That’s not really the case.

A Better Life touches on many hot-button issues – gangs, immigration, education. Is it a political film?
I guess it is, despite the fact that I keep on trying to say that it’s not, because the moment that you a turn a camera on somebody a degree of sympathy is shown. The story that we’re telling is a bit of a thriller and an adventure in some ways, and the heroes are an illegal immigrant and his son, so in that way it’s political, inasmuch as people will hate it in some parts of America, because of that sympathetic eye on an illegal immigrant. But it’s not an overtly political movie in the way that, say, a Ken Loach film would be, or maybe the occasional Mike Leigh film, because there are no bad guys. Nobody’s wrong, not even the people who work at the immigration detention centres, they’re just doing their jobs. Everybody’s really just doing what they feel they have to do, and in that regard it’s apolitical. But it’s impossible, in America these days, to make a film which is sympathetic to an immigrant without it seeming to be making a political statement. Ironically, this was made with the aid of a Catholic priest, and some of the attitudes expressed towards immigration are shockingly un-Christian, and expressed by Christians.

You’ve experienced negative criticisms from Christians previously, with the issues around The Golden Compass, haven’t you?
Well The Golden Compass was fucked because of the Christian reaction in America. The studio had invested too much money to run afoul of the kind of Christian blacklisting that we suffered. Now I told them that it was going to happen no matter what, so we may as well have done an honest version of the film; I think the version of the film that came out was obviously not accurate to Philip Pullman’s vision, which is a particular pity. In Europe people didn’t care, because you guys have had your wars of religion, you’ve gotten over all that stuff, and people believe what they believe. But in America, we are still grappling with these issues; as recently as May this year, many people thought they were about to be raptured. It’s kind of mad!

So was the book’s original ending actually shot? And was there an intention to continue the series?
They had started [on the second one] in happier days, when we thought it was going to be a proper franchise, and we did film the ending of the book, all the way through Lyra’s friend [Roger] being killed and the bridge to the stars opening up. But eventually the top brass at New Line felt that it was too dark. They really had [wanted] Harry Potter or something, and it was devastating. As a director, to have gotten so close; to have filmed the scenes in which someone says “dust is sin”, and Mrs Coulter speaks about Adam and Eve, and then not to be able to deliver it to the public, and then to take it on the head for having done that, because the director is ultimately responsible for it: It’s the biggest failure of my career, and it haunted me for a long time.

Will that faithful version ever see a cinema screen?
It won’t. You can find a hatched-together version on the web, and I think they’ve done a really good job at it. But I did the research, because I really wanted to do a director’s cut, and I worked on my own, ripping dailies and DVDs and putting it together in Final Cut Pro, but it would have cost about $16million to do the visual effects which had been discontinued. And you can imagine the pain for a visual effects specialist who has developed these amazing algorithms for the cracking of ice and stuff like that, and to have that suddenly cancelled – tremendously painful. I’m sure winning the Oscar for visual effects softened the blow! But all the same, there was a lot of creative pain towards the end of that process.

It’s amazing that you came back from that and jumped into another big book adaptation, with New Moon.
Well yeah, but I new that with New Moon what they wanted was a faithful adaptation of the book. They wanted what the fans wanted, which was a movie experience of the book that they loved, and so I thought ‘okay, I’m gonna get back on the horse and prove that I can do this’. And that was the redemptive experience of doing New Moon, that’s why I did it. So that’s good; that made me feel better! And to go from a movie with over 2,000 effects to a movie with 800 was, like, easy-peasy pumpkin pie for me by then.

There’s a connection between these films and A Better Life, as they’ve all been scored by Alexandre Desplat. The music plays a key role in the storytelling of A Better Life; how closely do you work with Alexandre in your films?
Closer and closer. We’ve become really good friends and I have tremendous respect for him, and our families get along really well now, just from having traded visits. But in this case we had only a month between his having finished Harry Potter whatever-part-it-was and the next thing he was going to move onto; one month for him to write the music and record it. So my family and I moved to Paris for a month so that I could go and bother him in his studio, and it was really what you imagine the ideal scenario of a director working with a composer is. We sat around in his studio and had biscuits and espresso, and he had green tea, and he would play something and we’d talk about it for a bit, then he’d play it again; he handmade it while I was able to make my rather amateurish comments on it. But that’s one of the great creative experiences of my life.

And I assume you would hope to continue that relationship in your future films?
Absolutely. I would never want to work with anybody else in that capacity. Alexandre’s very in demand, however, and you’re often dealing with people’s availability when you’re getting a film together, so we shall see.

You have a lot of credits as a producer, by yourself and with your brother – how much of your working life is producing, and what do those credits mean?
Well, I’m not the guy who can tell you how much a crane costs per day, so I’m not a nuts and bolts producer, I’m kind of a creative producer. I can sometimes help people in the growing pains of making a movie, and because I’ve made money for studios, because they believe in my abilities, I can be a buffer between a filmmaker and the studio. I’m tremendously proud with what we’ve been able to do. For instance, to go from a movie like Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, which I really adored, to A Single Man, which is a completely a different sort of movie, and is really an art film – Tom [Ford] had final cut, even though it was his first movie – and to be of some help to him in the process, in these little moments where I can intervene, was tremendously useful. I mean, he’s an auteur, so my role is strictly limited, and should be, but I try and be the kind of producer that I would want, basically.

So do you have people looking for these kinds of films?
Yeah absolutely, we try to put together films as a boutique production house. We’re not like Imagine, where they’ve got x number of blockbusters and they’ve bought all these films and are adapting the most recent video game that just came out. We find scripts that we think are really good, and then we try to find the right directors for them and put them together as a package. They’re often very idiosyncratic, and so from movie to movie we don’t know whether we’ll be allowed to produce something, but we try our best.

You and Paul began directing together. Is that something you would ever do again?
I would love to do it again, it would take a lot of the load off my shoulders! It’s also good because there’s someone to talk to about what you’ve been through, at the end of the day. It’s really just that we got out of sync; I was too tired after About A Boy to work on the next movie, and neither of us wanted to prevent the other from doing what we wanted to do, if we were less interested in that particular subject or book. But we talk about it now, now that we’ve got some time.

What’s next for you?
That’s a good question because I don’t know. I feel like I’m going to have to spend the next few months of my life supporting this film through its run, because it really is a small movie that needs tender loving care. Also I’ve never had a bunch of projects waiting in the wings, I feel that’s like dating several girls at once and not telling them about each other. So I just wait until I find the next script that I feel I can risk my sanity over, and that can take years, so…

A Better Life is on limited release from Friday 29th July. This is an extended version of an interview from The List magazine.

Thursday 7 July 2011

Holy Rollers review (The List, Issue 682)

Released over a year ago in the US, this true-life drama about naïve young Hasidic Jews unwittingly smuggling Ecstasy into Brooklyn in the late 90s would probably have skipped UK cinemas entirely if not for the presence of Jesse Eisenberg, whose star status has increased considerably following his acclaimed turn in The Social Network. Here he plays Sam, a devout 20-year-old Hasid, beginning to see the cracks in his family’s sheltered religion. When rebellious neighbour Yosef (excellently played by The Hangover’s Justin Bartha) offers him the opportunity to make money importing ‘medicines’, Sam’s eyes are opened to a very different side of the world.

As a drug-smuggling drama, Holy Rollers is conventional, predictable stuff, but Kevin Asche’s film is compelling in its focus on Sam’s relationship to his faith; this element layers some much-needed complexity into the film’s formulaic coming-of-age storyline. It is not a simple case of Sam rejecting his faith and embracing a life of crime; his Judaism continues to define him, and that internal tension of living with inescapable religious conviction while trying to in some way break free is subtly and effectively given flesh in Eisenberg’s understated performance.

Selected release from Friday 8 Jul. This review first published in The List magazine.

Thursday 30 June 2011

Monday 20 June 2011

Bridesmaids review (The List, Issue 681)

Kristen Wiig (Adventureland, Whip It!) comes close to grasping the comedy crown from her Saturday Night Live colleague Tina Fey with this hilarious reinvigoration of the chick flick. As co-writer and star, Wiig disposes of traditional schmaltzy predictability, replacing it with the kind of frank raunchiness that’s led to success for blokey comedies like The Hangover and I Love You, Man. With the added oversight of gold-plated comedy producer Judd Apatow, Wiig clearly has her sights set on similar box office glory.

Wiig plays Annie, a 30-something singleton who has settled for less than her ideal, working as a shop assistant since her self-run cake shop went bankrupt, and occasionally falling into bed with commitment-phobic sleaze-bag Ted (Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, stealing every scene he’s in). When her newly-engaged best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) asks her to be chief bridesmaid Annie is delighted, until she meets Helen (Rose Byrne), Lillian’s new best friend; a beautiful, rich bitch who seems intent on driving a stake between Annie and Lillian.

Bridesmaids has all the hallmarks that the association with Apatow suggests: the main characters act in a refreshingly realistic and believable manner, the cast list overflows with comedy talent – Brit Chris O’Dowd is a stand-out – and the jokes are very funny, unapologetically resisting the boundaries of taste and decency (you won’t quickly forget the dress-fitting scene). The only flaw is that the film is let down by weak storytelling; the script fails to connect Annie’s personal journey with the overarching wedding story and, more problematically, director Paul Feig allows scenes that should be moving the story forward to outstay their welcome for the sake of dragging out a joke. Like a drunk wedding guest, Bridesmaids is very funny, but someone should really have kept it under control.

General release from Weds 22nd Jun. This review first published in The List magazine.

Thursday 9 June 2011

Life In A Day review (The List, Issue 681)

This film is the result of a massive YouTube project, directed by Kevin Macdonald and produced by Ridley Scott, that asked people around the world to make a film of their life on a specific day, 24 July 2010. From the 80,000 videos submitted (a mind-numbing 4,500 hours of footage), Macdonald and his army of editors have meticulously crafted this unique and entertaining hour and a half glimpse at one day as lived around the world.

A lot of the material flashes by in quickly-cut montages, throwing up some powerful stand-alone images - a cow being slaughtered is particularly shocking, as is footage of people tragically crushed at Germany’s Love Parade. Macdonald’s over-reliance on music to create mood and connect clips together occasionally feels manipulative; much more effective are the moments that he allows one individual’s story to develop and speak for itself, from a Peruvian shoe-shine boy, to an American cancer-sufferer, to a charismatic round-the-world cyclist. Interestingly, the perspectives offered on humanity are overwhelmingly positive, indeed joyful; audiences will find themselves laughing often out of a sense of recognition and connection with these disparate lives.

Life In A Day is in selected cinemas from Fri 17 Jun. This review first published in The List magazine.

Monday 23 May 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides & Win Win reviews (BBC Radio Scotland Movie Cafe)

Click the link above to hear me, along with Scotland on Sunday film critic Siobhan Synnot and the show's host Janice Forsyth, reviewing the new Pirates of the Caribbean film and the third film from The Station Agent director Tom McCarthy, Win Win. We also discussed the newly-announced Edinburgh International Film Festival programme and the reception in Cannes to Terrence Malick's Tree of Life (which went on to win the Palmes d'Or a few days later). Also on the show is an interview with Vidal Sassoon, the trend-setting hairdresser who is the subject of a new documentary. The programme is available to listen to until Sunday 29th May.

Both films are in UK cinemas now. Watch the trailers below.

Saturday 14 May 2011

Joe Cornish interview: Attack The Block (The List, Issue 680)

Brit sci-fi film Attack The Block has done a good turn for the asbo generation, by making aliens seem much worse. First time director Joe ‘Adam and Joe’ Cornish (pictured above right, with Edgar Wright) talks to Paul Gallagher about turning the hoodie horror genre on its head

These are interesting times for British film comedy. Last year Chris Morris’ suicide bomber farce Four Lions presented an intelligent reflection on a thorny problem, while earlier this year Richard Ayoade’s Submarine proved that British comedy could tackle peculiar and poignant as well as the best American independents. Now Joe Cornish, half of cult TV and radio duo Adam and Joe, makes his writing and directing debut with Attack The Block, a joyously exciting action sci-fi that imagines the outcome when a bunch of vengeful extra-terrestrials face off against a gang of teenage hoodies in an inner-city London tower block.

There are laughs on hand, but Cornish also has a serious point to make about his protagonists’ exclusion from society, particularly in the character of Moses, the gang’s hotheaded leader, played by newcomer John Boyega. Moses is the kind of character that has become shorthand in recent British cinema for pure evil, thanks to a spate of ‘hoodie horrors’, including the Michael Caine revenge flick Harry Brown and Paul Andrew Williams’s Cherry Tree Lane. It’s a perspective that Cornish hopes to counter with Attack The Block.

‘This is certainly a reaction to [those] often brilliantly-made and well-crafted movies that I think take a slightly inhuman approach to an issue that, actually, involves very young kids. I think that’s the easy option, to take something in the world that already is demonised and frightens people, and just make it even more scary and horrible.’ Cornish favours a more compassionate view: ‘I don’t think it’s an incredibly radical premise to try and have sympathy for someone who has made a mistake. I think you’ll find it in the Bible quite a lot, and in various faiths; for me it’s quite a simple dramatic premise, and I’d be alarmed if contemporary society decided that it could only have absolutely clean-cut, morally pure characters in its narratives. If you went through the history of art and literature doing that, you’d lose most of it!’

Cornish’s upbeat and engaging manner – familiar from the weekly 6 Music radio show in which he and co-host Adam Buxton frequently collapse in fits of giggles – conveys his positivity about humanity, which is both infectious and very welcome in the often bleak world of UK film. It’s an outlook he shares with his filmmaker friend Edgar Wright, and it is what enabled him to see the potential for science fiction storytelling in these unlikely characters and settings, just as Wright did for zombies in Shaun of the Dead.

‘I totally looked at all these amazing tower blocks that have been around me all my life’ enthuses Cornish, ‘and I thought “wow, these are like huge clapped-out spaceships, or they’re like Nakatomi Plaza [from Die Hard], or the Nostromo [from Alien]!”’ He saw similar cinematic potential in the street slang regularly used by London gangs. ‘I was excited by the language, it was another place where this scenario that’s usually used for downbeat depressing social realism could be taken in another direction, towards all the kind of escapist, joyful, science-fictional things that I love, and I think probably the kids who live in those places love too.’

To achieve authenticity Cornish, who admits to being ‘a tiny bit less “street” than Prince Charles’ spent months visiting youth groups in south London, telling them the story of Attack The Block and recording everything they said, ‘as if it was a linguaphone course and I was learning Italian’. The result of that investment is obvious on screen, with the kids’ sometimes-impenetrable dialogue sounding as far from Cornish’s own precise enunciation as possible. Meeting with those groups had a secondary value too, as it cemented Cornish’s conviction that these ‘hoodies’ were worthy of better treatment on film: ‘We did find some who were quite similar to Moses, who’d been excluded from school or got involved with bad stuff. And they’re not monsters. They’re very empathic, and when you spend a bit of time with them they’re normal and sweet, enthusiastic and bright. But they’ve just been cornered a bit by life, and I think that often the way they’re portrayed doesn’t help with that. Culturally, it makes the problem worse, not better.’

Apart from the imminent release of his debut movie there is another not-insignificant string to Cornish’s filmmaking bow; he is co-writer of one of 2011’s most anticipated blockbusters, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson’s The Adventures of Tintin, shot in motion-captured 3D and due for release this October. Cornish plays down his involvement (‘really you’re talking to the lowest person on the food chain’) but it raises the question, how did that happen? It was, he says ‘purely about being friends with clever people and sticking with them. Peter Jackson had called Edgar [Wright], because they needed some work done on the Tintin script, and Edgar knew I was a Tintin fan, and before I knew it I was sitting round a table with Mr Spielberg and Mr Jackson.’ And what was it like being slotted in beside the biggest cogs in the Hollywood machine? For Cornish it basically meant ‘very hard work; those guys are very clever and bright, and they don’t beat around the bush in terms of telling you what they think. In a very nice polite way, of course.’

For Tintin fans the prospect of Spielberg’s long-gestating film has been exciting and nerve-wracking in equal measure, but Cornish and Wright’s involvement is a promising indicator that this won’t be a mangled studio version of the beloved books. ‘In terms of the [film’s] world,’ says Cornish, ‘it’s pretty true to the books. There are things you have to do to the narrative just because of the way those books were written; structurally they climax on every page, and the characters take a while to get introduced throughout the series. So there’s stuff one has to compress a bit, to make work over a feature-length running time, but I think [fans] will be happy with how faithful it is.’

As for directing again, Cornish has ‘lots of ideas’ and seems firmly bitten by the filmmaking bug: ‘I loved it. It’s all consuming, but it’s really enjoyable. The lack of sleep is tough, but I feel I’ve spent so much of my life being lazy that I can deal with a couple of years of sleepless nights.’

Attack The Block is in cinemas now. Read my review here. This interview first published in The List magazine.

Wednesday 27 April 2011

Attack The Block review (The List, Issue 680)

Coming from the same production team as Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs the World, this confident debut from Joe Cornish (one half of duo Adam and Joe) is much less a comedy than might have been expected. Rather it’s a very accomplished sci-fi horror, and a properly exciting one at that, evidencing Cornish’s clear love of the genre classics from its atmospheric synth soundtrack to its flourishes of gory splatter.

Sitting between Aliens and Gremlins in terms of tone, the story straddles reality and fantasy as a gang of errant teenagers attempt to defend their inner-city tower block against an army of bloodthirsty alien monsters. Cornish’s breathlessly-paced script entwines thrilling action set-pieces with a gently provocative portrayal of urban youth, effectively challenging audience preconceptions while never letting up on the entertainment. It’s sporadically funny (most often when accurately skewering the attitudes of modern teenagers) but the science-fiction scenario is played straight rather than as parody, and as the body count rises Cornish generates palpable tension and scares. Despite shaky acting from some of the young cast, leads Jodie Whitaker and newcomer John Boyega are excellent, providing strong characters amidst the action.

General release from Weds 11th May. This review first published in The List magazine.

Wednesday 20 April 2011

Your Highness review (The List, Issue 679)

Before Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy heralded a resurgence of the ‘fantasy quest’ movie, this much-derided genre enjoyed a kind of golden age in the late 1980s, when Labyrinth, The Princess Bride and Willow captured the imaginations of thousands of young moviegoers. Danny McBride and David Gordon Green, respectively writer/star and director of Your Highness, were clearly front and centre in that bewitched audience, and in its best moments this film recaptures a hint of the magical, adventurous power that those films possessed. Unfortunately that is the only positive thing to be said about Your Highness, which is otherwise a vulgar, unoriginal, soulless, stupid folly, featuring a squandered cast of such quality that their involvement and co-operation must surely have been secured by means of dark magic.

McBride, recognisable from memorable bit-parts in Due Date, Up in the Air and Gordon Green’s previous film, stoner-comedy Pineapple Express, here steps up to leading-man duties as Prince Thadeous, the slovenly brother of the kingdom’s favourite warrior Prince Fabeous (James Franco, literally looking as if he could fall asleep any moment). When Fabeous’ bride-to-be Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel, vacant) is kidnapped by the evil wizard Leezar (Justin Theroux, actually quite funny), the King (Charles Dance, bored) sends the brothers off to rescue Belladonna and rid the kingdom of Leezar forever. Along the way they are first saved then joined by a mysterious female warrior (Natalie Portman, rigid) whose quest becomes entwined with theirs.

If you think the plot sounds slapdash, just wait until you hear what passes for dialogue. There’s barely a line uttered in Your Highness that doesn’t contain either the word ‘fuck’, a mention of genitalia or some reference to sex. Vulgarity is substituted for wit, and it’s conclusively not funny. Evidently, McBride and Gordon Green have forgotten that a key element of those aforementioned films’ success was their innocence, an epithet that emphatically does not apply to Your Highness. For Gordon Green, who began his career with the excellent character studies George Washington and All The Real Girls, this is surely as low as he can go. His Lowness, you might say.

Your Highness is out now on general release. This review first published at

Monday 4 April 2011

Monsters DVD review (

Released into cinemas at the end of 2010 to glowing reviews and lots of ‘next big thing’ talk, British filmmaker Gareth Edwards’ impressive debut feature failed to prove as big a hit with audiences as with critics, comfortably recouping its small budget at the UK box office, but arguably falling short of the peaks of success that some critics (this one included) may have expected. So the release of Monsters on dvd brings a twofold opportunity; firstly for the film to find a new audience in a more significant way, and secondly for a reappraisal: to ask if the film really is as good as we all thought on first viewing, and whether it stands up to repeat plays.

Monsters takes place in an alternate version of our world where alien life has made its way to earth, and the resulting titular beasts – massive octopus-like creatures hundreds of feet tall - are contained in what used to be Mexico, now known as the ‘infected zone’. This sci-fi scenario is the backdrop to a very simple story - part mismatched romance, part road movie – in which photojournalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is given the thankless task of escorting his boss’s stranded daughter Sam (Whitney Able) back home to America, preferably avoiding the infected zone en route. Of course, events conspire to force them through the zone, where they face attacks by the monsters, and ultimately discover a surprising truth about these alien creatures.

Writer/director Edwards’ real triumph with the film is his use of subtle visual effects in real-world locations, creating a wholly convincing alternate reality. Happily, this is just as effective on the small screen as it was in cinemas. ‘Subtle’ is the operative word when describing Monsters, as the creatures themselves play very much a supporting role in the film, always in the background apart from in one brilliantly realised attack sequence and at the film’s striking conclusion. Edwards is much more interested in what is happening with his human characters, and the film is possessed of a pensive, atmospheric mood, achieved in no small part thanks to the brooding score from Jon Hopkins, complementing Edwards’ dazzling photography very well.

On the downside, the flimsiness of the characters and story become much clearer on second viewing, and it is evident that the sci-fi scenario is actually much more interesting than the couple leading us through it. The performances are good - McNairy is really convincing - but Edwards doesn’t give them much of consequence to actually say to each other; the development of their relationship feels more like a conventional inevitability than a realistic occurrence.

This is not a major flaw though, especially in the context of what is an otherwise incredible achievement in budget filmmaking; Monsters looks and feels like a major studio film, and Edwards is clearly a talent to watch. The dvd/Blu-ray will also prove incredibly useful to anyone keen to follow in Edwards’ footsteps, as the exhaustive feature-length making-of - covering pre-production, shooting, editing and visual effects - shows in no uncertain terms how they pulled it off, as well as showing how important it is to get the right team in place. Editor Colin Goudie deserves particular praise, as it’s clear from the special features that without his tireless contribution, Edwards would have had a significantly harder time bringing his vision to the screen.

Monsters is released on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday 11th April. This review first published on Read my Monsters interview feature from December 2010 here.

Thursday 31 March 2011

Source Code and Sucker Punch reviews (BBC Radio Movie Cafe)

Two very different new releases this week; one a highly recommended sci-fi action drama, the other an ill-conceived and entirely unnecessary peek into the juvenile mind of Zack Snyder, the man currently entrusted with reviving the Superman franchise (shudder). Listen to hear my verdicts, and I've also posted my notes on the films here if you'd prefer to read than listen!

Source Code
Army captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up in the body of an unknown man and discovers he's part of a mission to find the bomber of a Chicago commuter train.

Hitchcock influence
North by Northwest-inspired credits sequence – skyscrapers, train running through town, music is basically an update of Bernard Hermann’s score. The way scenario initially plays out – picking up details of characters, camera moving around everyone, sense of something not right – it all evokes Hitch in a very compelling way.

One of the film’s greatest strengths is how well Duncan Jones handles the unfolding of the story. He, and Ben Ripley, writer, keep the audience interested by gradually revealing more about the truth of Stevens’ predicament, while also ensuring that the repeating scenario develops every time you see it again – you’re not looking at your watch. The question of what is real/simulated/imagined is well-maintained, and ultimately answered.

Gyllenhaal has a lot of info to convey through dialogue, but makes it work. When the necessary ‘what is Source Code?’ moment comes it is well-handled.

Like the best sci-fi (including Jones' previous Moon) Source Code uses its far-fetched scenario to focus on very human themes; there is depth, and sadness, to Gyllenhaal’s performance, and by the film’s end some audience members will be reflecting on the value of life – it’s moving stuff, but at the same time, lots of fun.

Gyllenhaal is excellent, holds the film together perfectly and carries the emotional stuff particularly well. He’s funny and likeable, and very easy to care about. Michelle Monaghan does a great job in a very limited character range – she is basically replaying the same 8 minutes over and over, but still convinces us why Stevens would feel so strongly towards her. Vera Farmiga is the other great performance – unravelling of her professional exterior as she connects with Stevens – also adds to the heart of the film. Jeffrey Wright is the odd one out – weird accent and a bit pantomimey.

Comparison with Christopher Nolan
I can definitely see Jones stepping up to the level of Nolan. He has a similar ability to make big ideas really compelling, mixed with exciting storytelling, but he has more heart: this is big-hearted sci-fi, with big concepts, thoughtfully played out.

Not sure I needed very end – tries to tie things up too much and in so doing upsets the balance of ‘levels of reality’ that had been quite well held. Not a big issue though, the strength of emotion carries the story.

Sucker Punch
A young girl (Emily Browning) is institutionalized by her abusive stepfather. Retreating to an alternative reality as a coping strategy, she envisions a plan which will help her escape from the mental facility.

Zack Snyder’s previous live-action films Dawn of the Dead, 300, Watchmen have all been good in part – visually amazing and well-directed action for sure, but lacking subtlety entirely, and based in a comic-book understanding of reality: everything grossly exaggerated and simplified. Sucker Punch basically sees him giving free reign to all his worst tendencies as a director. Whereas he has previously worked from someone else’s story, so in a way he’s been reigned in, this is his own story, and as such he’s let his mind go completely.

The result is like a parody of empty postmodern storytelling at its most ridiculously extreme. Like those Youtube mash-ups where someone cuts bits of Lord of the Rings into The Matrix for example, except feature length, and utterly meaningless. Incorporating LOTR, World War I movies, Chicago, I, Robot, Batman Begins, the list goes on. All populated by girls in sexy underwear, with big guns. And Nazi robots.

Female empowerment??
The depiction of the women is demeaning and close to pornographic in sensibility. Baby Doll is offered as this ‘ultimate male fantasy’ character, basically because she looks, and is dressed, much younger than her 20 years; and the other girls celebrate the fact that she can transfix men with her jaw-dropping erotic dancing. This is as far from empowering as is possible on film. These women are completely subjugated to a male gaze, and they act as if that is unavoidable.

Aside from the offensive sexism (and Snyder’s obvious self-loathing: every male character is a grotesque lech), the other main problem is the film makes no sense. It might have worked as a musical – it has the kind of illogical set-up with jumps in logic that works best as a musical. The ‘quest’ element is clunkily set up and feels like a computer game scenario. Dialogue is laughably awful – Showgirls-type scenes with girls trussed up in lingerie attempting to have serious conversations.

After getting My Chemical Romance to desecrate Dylan’s Desolation Row for Watchmen, here everyone from The Beatles to Queen to The Pixies has their best songs destroyed in asinine soulless airbrushed covers on the ‘slabs-of-meathead-metal’ soundtrack.

Ending has the gall to suggest that this was a story of personal empowerment all along – what a load of rubbish. Avoid, and hope that Snyder has some kind of mental growth spurt before shooting his Superman remake.

Source Code and Sucker Punch are in cinemas from Friday 1st April.

Monday 21 March 2011

Limitless review (

This slick thriller offers a diverting Friday night’s entertainment, but nothing more; that’s a shame given the potential of its concept. The one thing it does very well, though, is showcase the considerable screen talents of leading man Bradley Cooper. The Hangover star is the perfect choice to play Eddie Mora, a scruffy writer who transforms from an unmotivated layabout into a supremely sophisticated businessman with a razor-sharp mind after he takes a mysterious ‘clear pill’. It’s the kind of audience-winning performance that used to be Tom Cruise’s speciality; Cooper exudes effortless confidence in front of the camera, but also possesses a keenly intense dramatic ability that brings an audience immediately into his character’s moment.

But while Cooper shines, the story he’s in the middle of moves from promising beginnings to settle into generic chase thriller territory. The idea of a pill that can open up the untapped reserves of human brainpower is a fascinating one, and director Neil Burger initially seems interested in exploring it: the way the pill throws open Eddie’s mind recalls Tyler Durden’s system-subversion in Fight Club, and Burger’s Fincher-aping camera techniques encourage the comparison. But this central concept is not particularly explored by Leslie Dixon’s script, adapted from Alan Glynn’s 2001 novel The Dark Fields. Instead, once the film establishes how much power and status Eddie can acquire through the pill, it quickly shifts focus to the external threats to his situation – people who want to stop him, the problem of maintaining a supply, how to keep it a secret and so on – meaning that that the pill effectively becomes what Hitchcock called a MacGuffin; an object that the plot hinges on but is not important in itself. Once this happens, anything that was uniquely interesting or compelling about the story is superseded by simple ‘survive-at-all-costs’ thriller logic.

Burger peppers the film with a handful of impressive effects sequences that capture the effect on Eddie when he takes the pills. As he first experiences the drug, the visuals niftily explain what his brain is doing and where his new knowledge is coming from. Similarly, in a scene when Eddie fends off a huge group of attackers, Burger cuts between the sources of his newfound fighting ability – remembered moves from computer games and TV shows – and the practical application of it. It’s a brilliantly edited scene and works very well.

But the success of these sequences ultimately highlights the fact that there is nothing more to this film than flash and disposable thrills, a point further brought home by the negligible impact that Robert De Niro and Abbie Cornish make in their supporting roles. Once this script has laid its tracks for the plot to roll out on, it leaves no room for incidental details like characterisation or believable human interactions. Perhaps a better title would be Limited.

Limitless is released on 23rd March. This review first published on

Richard Ayoade profile interview (The List, Issue 678)

Richard Ayoade

12 June 1977, Whipp’s Cross, London

Best known for playing Moss in Graham Linehan’s hit TV comedy The IT Crowd, Ayoade first came to the notice of cult comedy fans as writer, director and co-star of spoof sci-fi series Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace in 2004. As well as featuring in The Mighty Boosh, he’s also directed music videos for Arctic Monkeys, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Vampire Weekend.

What’s he up to now?
Ayoade has written and directed his first film, Submarine, a darkly funny coming-of-age story adapted from Joe Dunthorne’s novel. It’s a work of sophisticated humour and depth, and a genuinely exciting British debut.

On turning the novel into a film
‘You can’t rely on literary fireworks, so it becomes more about behaviour; watching people and seeing how other people react. There’s no equivalent to a reaction shot in a book, there’s no way of instantaneously juxtaposing two views simultaneously. And films are good at that; they’re basically people just looking at one another! So you have to turn it into that – a series of looks.’

On casting the two young leads
‘Craig [Roberts] and Yasmin [Paige] were great and never felt like they were deliberately playing it like comedians. When you reach my age you just go: “I don’t want to do stuff with people I don’t like.” That’s the main thing: [finding] people you can talk to and enjoy two months of drizzle with. In Wales.’

On film as a key influence in lead character Oliver Tate’s life
‘Film seems to be the one area in the world where no one talks about films. Or, if they do it’s massively postmodern, like Tarantino, or Wes Craven’s Scream. To me it was always weird that film existed as a bizarre ghetto in which no one went to see films, or spoke about films, or behaved in a way that was influenced by films. Because people do, and this character particularly does.’

Interesting fact
Ayoade is developing a film based on Dostoevsky novella The Double.

Submarine, general release, Fri 18 Mar. This interview first published in The List magazine.

Wednesday 16 March 2011

Submarine review (The List, Issue 678)

Here is a rare thing: a British comedy debut that’s surprising, witty, hugely accomplished and fully capable of finding an audience worldwide. Richard Ayoade, previously best known for his TV roles in The IT Crowd and The Mighty Boosh, directs his own adaptation of Joe Dunthorne’s 2008 novel with confidence and style, suggesting a glowing film career lies ahead. It’s no incidental detail that Submarine is presented in association with Red Hour Films, Ben Stiller’s production company.

In a nameless Welsh village, at an unspecified moment of the late 20th century, we meet Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), a 15-year-old schoolboy with a briefcase and a tendency to be ridiculed by his peers. But in his mind – the perspective Ayoade most often presents to us – Oliver is a supremely intelligent outsider, the ultra-cool star in the film of his own life. Oliver has his sights set on two goals; to lose his virginity before he turns 16, hopefully with his gorgeously aloof classmate Jordana (Yasmin Paige), and to save his parents’ marriage after he sees his mum (Sally Hawkins) chatting up their neighbour, new-age motivational speaker Graham (Paddy Considine).

There’s a similarity to Wes Anderson’s Rushmore in the precisely crafted way that Ayoade shoots Oliver’s life, as well as his eye for comic details, but the film has a style of its own that keeps it from feeling like an imitation. Tonally, Ayoade treads a fine balance between poignant emotion and detached comedy, and his young leads serve him well in this regard. Paige is particularly good, equally convincing as the cool object of Oliver’s fantasy and the emotionally complicated, real girl he gets to know. The icing on the cake is the soundtrack, a surprisingly tender set of new songs by Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner. 

General release, Fri 18 Mar. This review first published in The List magazine.

Sunday 6 March 2011

Norwegian Wood review (The List, issue 678)

Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami has a unique voice in contemporary fiction, both hugely imaginative and intensely intimate. But with this adaptation of one of his most popular books, French-Vietnamese filmmaker Anh Hung Tran fails to find a way to successfully translate that voice into substantial and effective cinema. The story of directionless Japanese student Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama), and the relationships he pursues with Naoko (Babel’s Rinko Kikuchi) and Midori (Kiko Mizuhara) while at university in the late 60s is one of Murakami’s more straightforwardly accessible plots, but as retold by Tran it is ponderous, slight and, when stretched over two hours, painfully dull.

The director’s ability to create striking visuals is undeniable, and the film is graced with many beautiful, sensual moments, made all the more lovely by the fine soundtrack from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. But Tran’s willfully opaque screenplay means that enjoyment of the film remains at this surface level throughout. There are weighty themes to the story – death and love, the possibility of connection – but Tran’s determinedly contemplative approach, complete with sluggish pacing and intensely internalised performances, ironically only serves to keep the audience at arm’s length from the story’s emotional core.

Norwegian Wood is released on 11 March. This review first published in The List magazine.

Thursday 24 February 2011

Animal Kingdom review (The List, Issue 677)

This dark Australian crime thriller has had critics lining up to heap praises upon it since its prize-winning debut at Sundance last January, and it arrives on these shores fresh from a deserved Oscar nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category for Jacki Weaver. These endorsements should hopefully provoke discerning cinemagoers to look past the film’s lack of big-name actors and its rather misleading title (it’s not a nature documentary) and give it a shot. Those who do are in for a treat – if a rather grim one – because the film is a riveting drama that announces the arrival of a distinct filmmaking talent in debut writer-director David Michôd.

In the film’s opening moments teenager J (James Frecheville) discovers his mother dead from a drug overdose, then gets in touch with his estranged grandmother (Weaver) who insists that J comes to live with her. Michôd’s brutally unsentimental presentation of these events sets the film’s tone very effectively; clearly indicating that the world we are entering is one where self-preservation is everything. J initially falls in with his three uncles, all of whom are involved to varying degrees in lives of violent crime, but a local police officer (Guy Pearce) becomes aware of J’s situation, and urges him to escape his family’s criminal ways.

Michôd takes his time setting up the story’s various characters, elaborately laying the foundations in the earlier stages for some powerfully effective pay-offs once the plot’s momentum kicks in. He refuses to handhold the audience at any point, building up characters then killing them off without warning, creating an ever-present sense of danger. His casting is also spot-on; as well as featuring two knock-out performances from Frecheville and Weaver – his subtly shifting, hers fearlessly cold – the cast is a virtual who’s who of Australian character actors (Joel Edgerton, Ben Mendelsohn, Dan Wyllie), all on top form. It adds up to a potent Shakespearean brew that dramatises humanity’s kill-or-be-killed instinct with chilling conviction.

Animal Kingdom is released on 25 February. This review first published in The List magazine.

West is West review (The List, Issue 677)

East is East was one of the British box office successes of the late 90s, and found an even bigger audience on video and DVD, but it’s hard to believe that there is much, if any, anticipation for this belated sequel. That is probably for the best, as this plodding, bland drama has little in common with its predecessor, featuring none of the anarchically inventive comedy or keen social observation that caused that film to strike a chord with so many.

In 1976, five years after the events of the first film, Salford chip-shop owner George Khan (Om Puri) decides that he should take his unruly 15-year-old son Sajid on a character-building trip to Pakistan to discover their heritage. As played by newcomer Aqib Khan, Sajid is an irritating central character, charmless and constantly whining, and director Andy DeEmmony offers precious little else – save a blink and you’ll miss it Jimi Mistry cameo – to elicit audience sympathies.

Writer Ayub Khan-Din’s secondary focus is to have George face up to what has become of the family he left in Pakistan 30 years earlier. This theoretically fertile dramatic ground yields nothing fresh though, simply forcing the character to retread his emotional journey from the first film, as he once again confronts his shortcomings as a husband and his unreasonable attitude towards women. There are a few nice moments – a visually delightful wedding sequence stands out – but for the most part this is an uninspired and unrewarding sequel.

West is West is released on 25 February. This review first published in The List magazine.