Archive | January, 2013

They shoot, she scores! Soundcheque’s movie music

31 Jan
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Soundcheque founder Laura Westcott makes it Big (as in Tom Hanks)

Music and film. Or, as Bowie sang, “Don’t you wonder sometimes/About sound and vision?”

You may not notice it consciously, but soundtracks have a powerful effect on your emotions. Try watching a horror movie, or even a romance, on mute with subtitles. Or imagine Jaws without the cello, Star Wars without the strings. It’ll leave you cold.

Not every film-maker can afford to commission a brand-new composition. Not every musician knows how to get in touch with directors. So welcome, please, www.soundcheque.com, a brand-new website, launched today, that aims to bring the two together. Don’t expect bells and whistles, not yet anyway, or a refinable Search facility. Do expect the personal touch.

“I’m not doing this for the money,” says Laura Westcott down the phone from New York, where she now works as an online content editor for News Corporation. “I’m doing this for love, to help musicians. When someone posts their project, I and my small team of Soundcheckers will try to match it to the right music.”

The site takes 20% commission from any transaction. Fees are negotiable, depending on the size and budget of the project. Laura will even allow student and no-budget film-makers to advertise no-fee projects, assuming one of her musicians is hungry enough for credit.

There are other sites you can go to: www.Scorerevolution.com, for instance, or www.Magnatune.com. SoundCheque has a way to go before it can match the range of their catalogues. But it is free for film-makers to register their projects, while musicians get a no-win-no-fee deal. And Westcott appears to have the nous, the contacts, and, most importantly, the passion to build her site up for the future.

Before spending three years as a recruitment consultant and then pitching up at News International, she got a degree in Music, and spent eight years with the London Philharmonic. Having crossed the Atlantic, she has just got into the New York Choral Society, which will mean singing at Carnegie Hall (she’ll have to “practise, practise, practise!”).

In fact music is, quite literally, in her skin.

Westcott confides: “Peter Brookes (the Times cartoonist) gave me a drawing of a musical butterfly, joking that I should get it tattooed… and I did!”

Soundcheque welcomes project synopses from film-makers, and uploads from musicians, at http://www.Soundcheque.com

Nearly a year after I wrote this, Soundcheque relaunched with a new-look website and 1,000 composers. Read about it here.

 

Steven Soderbergh: not shy, but he is retiring

28 Jan
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Sex, Lies & Videotape: made when Steven Soderbergh was just 26 —
the same age I was when I put it on Time Out’s cover

Steven Soderbergh has just confirmed his retirement from directing, having celebrated his 50th birthday. In early 2011 he denied the rumours, blaming them on a drunken conversation with Matt Damon and calling him “about as discreet as a 14-year-old girl”. Then that summer he semi-confirmed them, calling it a sabbatical. Now, in a forthcoming interview with the New York Times (http://bit.ly/WvVXay), he says he is putting down the camera for good, and picking up a paintbrush instead.

“The tyranny of narrative is beginning to frustrate me,” he explains. “Or at least narrative as we’re currently defining it.”

I feel proprietorial about Soderbergh. Sex, Lies & Videotape, made when Soderbergh was just 26, was I think the first Time Out cover I ever did. I too was just 26, and filling in while the Editor was away (Simon Garfield it was, now a prominent author of non-fiction books). It was bold to put an unknown, low-budget indie on the cover, in the days before indie films were a powerful force (Sex, Lies… was instrumental in making them so), but we all loved the film.

To be honest, it helped when the film company unearthed some Greg Gorman pics of Laura San Giacomo lounging on a bed in black leather boots (above). The title helped, too. “Sex” sells, of course. With “Lies”, you’ve got your conflict. “Videotape”, well, how better to win over the home rental market once the theatrical release is over? There’s a lesson there still for aspirant film-makers. A great title is worth millions in marketing.

That early commercial nous explains, in hindsight, how this indie auteur can have forged a parallel career as one of Hollywood’s most successful mainstream directors, balancing the likes of Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, Ocean’s Eleven and Magic Mike with Schizopolis or The Girlfriend Experience – and, in Traffic, fusing the two worlds. Not all his films are brilliant, but they are never dull.

He’s clearly a funny guy, too. Take this from the aforementioned New York Times interview, on his frequent collaborator George Clooney: “He inspires people. He listens. He’s generous. He’s loyal. He’s funny, which is crucial. He solves problems better than anyone I know. That’s why people keep telling him to run for office, but he’s too smart for that. If there were 500 of him, you could take over an entire country—but of course three weeks later you’d lose it again because of all the parties.”

The film world will be the poorer for his departure.

Soderbergh’s final film, Side Effects, opens in the UK on March 15

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Princess Bride fan a terrorist? Inconceivable!

25 Jan

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A T-shirt slogan caused a security scare on a Qantas flight this week. The passenger’s T-shirt read: “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

Film fan, terrorist. Easy to confuse. Not.

The growing cult of The Princess Bride is a wonderful thing. Screenwriter William Goldman reckons it’s his finest work, though it took 14 years to reach the screen after the novel’s publication (when the first Fox exec who greenlit it was fired, Goldman writes in Which Lie Did I Tell?, he cared so much about the project that he bought back the rights with his own money). I’ve seen it ten times, and still tear up at the ending: “As you wish.”

The hero and heroine, though stereotypical by definition (it is the paradigm of a fairtytale romance), also have real character. So: the hero is not just dashing, he’s brilliant. He passes a test of swordsmanship, a test of strength, and a test of cunning. And yet, the obstacles to true love are made to seem near-insurmountable throughout, so that we’re on tenterhooks as to whether he will succeed. Brilliant.

As to Buttercup, she could easily be a wet blanket, with her shampoo-ad hair, but it’s interesting at first how she treats the boy, and is despite herself drawn to him; and then as the film progresses she displays considerable courage and perseverance. Gotta root for her too.

And the lines… the best example of their hold on film-goers’ psyches is an American Football game where the ESPN commentators shoehorn in as many references as possible. Watch the YouTube compilation; it’s just a minute and a half, and hilarious: http://bit.ly/RWbQXl.

As the Volkswagen “See Film Differently” campaign shows, memorable films have memorable lines: Taxi Driver’s “You talkin’ to me?”; Jaws’ “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” The Princess Bride has that T-shirt slogan, but also “Life is pain”, “The Cliffs of Insanity”, “The Pit of Despair”, “I am not left-handed”, “mostly dead” and, of course, “Inconceivable!”.

Wallace Shawn has starred in over 100 films and TV shows but still, 25 years on, that’s the word that gets shouted at him wherever he goes.

The Princess Bride is on C5, Sun Jan 27, at 16.20.

Hollywood Costume: why clothes maketh the man

22 Jan
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Animal Charm: great costume design for our terrorista fashionistas

There’s an old expression that, to understand someone, you need to walk a mile in their shoes. This is what many actors do. Literally. They find the character through the clothes.

That’s why the V&A’s Hollywood Costume exhibition, which closes on Jan 27 (tickets sold out online but still available on the day), is such an eye-opener. “There’s no doubt costume is character,” says Martin Scorsese in a video interview. “You can feel the transformation.”

There’s Matt Damon’s grey clothes from Bourne: simple, utilitarian, designed to blend into a crowd. They made 25 identical outfits due to the abuse received in the action sequences. At the other end of the scale, there’s Marlene Dietrich’s exquisite dress for Angel, on which a score of embroiderers worked for two and a half weeks.

And, best of all, Indiana Jones’s outfit. “A cultural icon is born when the character can be instantly recognised in his silhouette,” says costume designer Deborah Landis. The designer has to bear in mind practical as well as aesthetic considerations: the famous beaver-felt hat was given a specially short brim to allow the cameras to see Harrison Ford’s eyes.

My own revelation came on the featurette I co-wrote with director Ben Charles Edwards, Animal Charm, starring Sadie Frost, Sally Phillips and Boy George. In the opening scene, Frost’s character is kidnapped by terrorista fashionistas objecting to her promotion of fur. (See trailer here: http://bit.ly/y78KML.)

We wrote the scene as “three women in balaclavas”. But when it came to filming, it was decided that these ex-models would wear something more daring: knitted balaclavas by Piers Atkinson were procured, with full make-up and attached wig. Stylish, provocative, more than slightly sinister, they became a defining image of the film.

It’s a timely reminder that even character, as Joaquin Phoenix pointed out in his gracious London Critics’ Circle Award speech this week (bit.ly/10D8sra), is a collaboration. Critics sometimes write as if the director is the only person who matters. They are the person responsible, of course, and it’s their vision, ultimately, that is being served. But they are only as good as their team: costume, lighting, cinematography, sound, score, editing, actors and, yes, writers.

One reason I predict great things for Ben Charles Edwards (talent, youth and fearlessness apart), is that he knows how to get the best from that team. When last we met, he was a whisker away from getting funding for his first feature, written by the brilliant musician Al Joshua of Orphans & Vandals. If so, it will be one to watch.

Django Unchained: how not to cook a Spaghetti Western

20 Jan

ImageIt pains me to say it, but Django Unchained is a mess. Now I love Tarantino. I’ve seen every film he’s made or written, and made sure I ran the first UK cover on Pulp Fiction (shot by Rankin, left). But I’m baffled as to why Django is currently ranked on IMDB.com as the 39th best film of all time.

Where is the narrative economy of Reservoir Dogs? The quotable dialogue of Pulp Fiction? The intricacy of Jackie Brown? The visual panache of Kill Bill? The sheer chutzpah of Inglorious Basterds, with its ending that dares defy history itself?

I’ll steer clear of describing Django’s plot, for the sake of those who haven’t yet seen it. But I will say that, to its detriment, Django is two separate films: one starring Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington, the other starring Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L Jackson. The first is a harrowingly acted and searing tale of slavery and retribution; the second is an arch, deliberately over-acted, almost camp piece of stylised hokum. The combination is not merely jarring but faintly nauseating, like salt sprinkled on breakfast cereal.

Other disappointments include the lack of a strong female character, which Tarantino usually delivers. Kerry Washington is given nothing to do here but suffer, snivel and, at the end, simper. You might also wish that, having borrowed the famous doorway shot from The Searchers for Inglorious Basterds and the music of Ennio Morricone for Django, Tarantino could have used more of the wide-screen Spaghetti Western cinematography that we glimpse in a few snowy mountain sequences.

Perhaps it was too much to hope that Tarantino could revivify, let alone reinvent, the Western. Leaving the cinema, my underwhelmed son said: “I don’t get Westerns. Why are they important?”

Sigh.

They’re the creation myth of modern America. They’re a Cinemascope symphony of space and light that cannot be reduced to the small screen. They’re an existential test of honour in the face of death, a chance to see if a man’s really gonna do what a man’s gotta do.

The Western gave Star Wars its format, and with it the elevation in the last 35 years of science-fiction from a low-budget cult genre into one of the dominant forms of mass entertainment. And what was Avatar, the highest-grossing movie of all time, if not a Western with blue skins rather than red?

Django, sadly, won’t be rebirthing any genres. To use a cooking analogy, Tarantino is usually a master at combining unexpected ingredients. But whereas Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were hardboiled to perfection, and Kill Bill was sharp as a sushi knife and tangy as wasabi sauce, Django is a thoroughly overcooked Spaghetti Western: soggy, limp and hard to stomach.

Agree? Disagree? Leave a Comment below.

Django: where Tarantino meets the Countess of Oxford

17 Jan
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Don’t say the ‘D’: Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained

Tarantino’s Django Unchained, which opens in the UK on Friday, has a great tagline to go with its iconic scene: “The ‘D’ is silent; the payback won’t be.” But in common with Quentin’s gift for recycling old songs, scenes from old movies, and even old movie actors, this tagline is recycled from an old dinner party.

Let me explain.

In 1934, Margot Asquith, who was the Countess of Oxford and widow of the British prime minister, hosted a dinner party. Among the guests was the young actress Jean Harlow, the original Blonde Bombshell. Bubbly, brash and informal, the Hollywood starlet insisted on being called Jean, not Miss Harlow, and tried to do the same to Lady Oxford.

Only Lady Oxford, Margot Asquith, wasn’t having any of it.

It wasn’t just a stiff English aristocrat’s obsession with Old World formality. The problem was that Harlow was mispronouncing her host’s first name, loudly and often, as “Mar-gott”, emphasising the ‘t’, instead of as “Mar-go”.

“No dear,” the aristo corrected her at last. “The final ‘t’ in ‘Margot’ is silent. As in ‘Harlow’.”

Ouch.

Tarantino could learn more from Margot Asquith than a tag-line. As a put-down, this is a little more eloquent than “I’m shutting your butt down” (to C4 News). And, wonderfully, it appears not to be apocryphal: http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/01/13/t-is-silent/.

Asquith got as good as she gave, however. Dorothy Parker, reviewing her books, noted scathingly that “The love affair between Margot Asquith and Margot Asquith will live as one of the prettiest love stories in literature.”

There’s a lovely final twist to the story. David Bowie’s recent single release Where Are We Now? (read my blog on it at http://bit.ly/Vs6C9s) caught journalists off guard; so much so that some of those wheeled on to discuss it hadn’t boned up on the correct pronunciation of his name. Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones, now one of Hollywood’s brightest directors (MoonSource Code), decided to clear things up.

Under his Twitter handle @ManMadeMoon, he Tweeted: “For those asking, the name is Bowtie… the ‘t’ is silent.”

Teen suicides: the messages in a bottle

14 Jan

When writing about Amanda Todd (read that blog first, if you haven’t already, at http://bit.ly/X1wO6Z), I found it was part of a whole sub-genre of teen confessionals: haunting little five-minute shorts that distil a lifetime of pain on to a few handwritten cue-cards. They make for heart-breaking and, sometimes, inspirational viewing.

They bring to mind messages in a bottle, cast onto the virtual sea of the internet, hoping someone will pick up their S.O.S. They do. But sadly not always in time.

Before Amanda Todd there was 19-year-old Olivia Penpraze (above). She was bullied, but her chief affliction was the psychosis she believed developed as a result. She describes the evil hallucinations and voices she experienced as a “LIVING, BREATHING NIGHTMARE”. Think about that for a second: she means the phrase literally, not metaphorically. She warns that she usually tries to commit suicide on May 1st, and that this time she would succeed. She didn’t even last that long.

Her father discovered her messages in a bottle only after her death. They included hundreds of disturbed posts on Tumblr, as well as a final video apologising that she couldn’t hold on any longer, and saying just when she would kill herself. “We are now finding out there are kids on her Facebook who actually know her on the Tumblr account,” her father said. “Why are they not getting in touch? If she said she was going to do something on this date they could have told us.”

There’s worse. As well as those who did nothing, there were those who posted comments egging her on.

Before that, there was Hannah Novak’s My Suicide Story (above). She tells how she had no friends because she was abused: “You don’t want to bring a friend to your house… Who has bruises covering her body L. I felt ugly… worthless… forgotten. So a few weeks ago… I tried to kill myself.”

This, at least, has a happy ending. She gets the medical attention and counselling she needs; learns to talk about her problems; makes new friends; and now uses her story to tell other lonely, suicidal teenagers that they are not alone, that suicide is not the answer.

She now has her own YouTube channel, making videos with titles such as You Won’t Ruin My Life, and Message for the Bullies: “160,000 kids miss school a day… because they are afraid of being bullied.”

Many of the videos in the cue-card genre are called “Secrets” or “If You Really knew Me”. One of the most affecting is Cassie’s (above), because of the range of emotion that flits across her face in five short minutes. She flinches as she holds up each card documenting the taunts: “Go cut your wrists some more… Everybody hates you… GO DIE.”

Then the child in her resurfaces: she holds up another card with a big thumbs-up and a huge grin. “No cuts! J” it says, proudly. She’s delighted that she stopped self-harming. For a while.

This story, too, does not end in suicide. It ends with Cassie finding help and support from a loving boyfriend, and she also now runs a YouTube channel offering support and advice under the user-name XcmfhX. “I’m still broken though,” she admits. “I still cry a lot… I still feel worthless… Honestly, I’ll probably feel like this forever. I’ll just get used to it… Eventually. But I try… and that’s what matters.”

And that’s the thing. Depression feels like a deep pit with unscalable walls where no light penetrates. But there are millions more who’ve been in that pit, and got out, and are ready to reach down a hand.

The Police song Message in a Bottle could have been written for these videos. It ends: “Walked out this morning/ Don’t believe what I saw/ A hundred billion bottles/ Washed up on the shore./ Seems I’m not alone at being alone/ A hundred billion castaways looking for a home.”

Video

Bullied to death: the last testament of Amanda Todd

12 Jan

amanda-toddI cry easily at movies. Not just Schindler’s List or the ending of Titanic, but Lord of the Rings or The Lion King. But I’ve never cried at a short, not until today. The story of Amanda Todd will break your heart in nine minutes flat.

Her death, and the video she made six weeks before her death, were reported three months ago, but they passed me by until I read about them just now on cult musician Amanda Palmer’s blog. The video is stark, and beautifully simple: a 15-year-old girl tells her story by holding up hand-written cue cards, in the manner of Bob Dylan on Subterranean Homesick Blues. Fixed camera, black and white, no frills. Yet it’s had 25 million views on YouTube.

She tells of the adult cyberstalker who duped her, aged 12, into flashing him in a video chat, and then blackmailed her with the pictures. Of how her whole school found out, and bullied and ostracised her for it. Of how, when she moved, the whole of her next school found out. And then…

Well. Watch the video. It’s even more heart-wrenching to know that it is effectively her suicide note. The opening cue-card reads, “Hello. I’ve decided to tell you about my never-ending story.” In fact her story ended six weeks later. (Blog continues under the video.)

The manner of filming is as powerful as the message. There is no distraction; the cards demand your concentration. Crucially, Amanda’s full face is never seen: only her mouth and her ringleted hair. By not putting a specific face on her suffering, she becomes the Everywoman of bullying victims. This story is not just hers, but that of anyone who has ever put on a brave face in public and cried alone.

It would be nice if Amanda became Malala, the Pakistani teenager who narrowly survived being shot in the head by the Taliban for daring to attend school; or the unnamed 23-year-old victim whose horrific rape and murder in Delhi has stirred India to action; or the Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire to protest persecution in south Vietnam or the Chinese occupation of Tibet. It would be nice if her death were not wholly the futile, senseless, tragic waste that suicides are. It would be nice if something positive were to come of her suffering. If in death she had the power to change minds that in life she lacked.

We should all try to make it so.

Hatred can only survive without empathy, and it’s a hard heart who could not feel for this lonely, persecuted girl. And all the millions out there just like her.

Her mother has said, “I think the video should be shared and used as an anti-bullying tool. That is what my daughter would have wanted.” It should be required viewing for all teenagers, hard as it is to watch. And if in future they see someone being bullied, or reaching out in any way for help, I like to think they will not so easily turn aside.

There are, tragically, many other stories like Amanda Todd’s. Read my second blog on the subject here

And the Oscar winners are…

10 Jan
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Daniel Day-Lewis, riding to Oscar glory. Again.

The Oscar noms are out! I love the Oscars. Even as a child, since I grew up in Canada, I would stay up late to watch the whole unedited splurge of ballgowns and orchestras and boom-tish jokes, hardly knowing who half the people were but fascinated by the ritual. It’s the closest thing America has in pomp and pageantry to a Royal wedding.

So believe me when I say I know already who’s going to win:

Best Picture: The nice surprises here are the lovely Beasts of the Southern Wild, and the extraordinary Amour – rare to have a foreign picture get the nod. Les Miserables will have a bucket-load of good will, Pi looks ravishing and there’s even an outside chance for Silver Linings Playbook, but really there’s just one possible winner: Lincoln. America feels bad about itself. Spielberg keeps reminding it of its racist past, through The Color Purple, Amistad and, if you will, E.T. Now he is eulogising the end of slavery.

Best Actor: A heavyweight line-up here. Hugh Jackman is well loved in the industry, and Hollywood loves a musical. Joaquin Phoenix was mesmerising in The Master, but does himself no favours with the Oscar committee (Anthony Hopkins has been pointedly snubbed for dissing the Awards a month ago). Denzel Washington also has a chance for a subtle, career-best performance in Flight. But who can stop Daniel Day-Lewis in full flow, accent and all?

Best Actress: Conversely, no heavyweights at all here. Jennifer Lawrence won’t win again, so soon.  It’s cute to nominate nine-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis, but good acting at that age is more down to director than performer. Emmanuelle Riva, at 85 the oldest ever nominee, has a very good chance at getting Amour deserved recognition, but then so does Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty, which received fewer noms than expected. It’s a close call, but I think sentiment will triumph over jingoism (plus the Academy voters have a median age of 62, so like an older actress).  The name in the envelope will be Riva’s.

Best Director: Can Spielberg win a fourth Oscar? Does the Pope say Hail Marys? Do bears eschew sanitary facilities in favour of the woods? It would be nice for Michael Haneke to win, and voters might just mistake technical accomplishment for direction and honour Ang Lee again, but Hollywood loves nothing more than an epic with a heart: Spielberg it is.

Best Screenplay: The voters in this category, ie fellow screenwriters, are a more discerning bunch. So best original screenplay will confound American expectations by going to Amour rather than to Django Unchained or Zero Dark Thirty. Best adapted screenplay could just go to the wonderful David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook, since it’s so rare to find a genuinely great rom-com, with a brain as well as a heart. But Tony Kushner’s Angels in America was one of the great works of the 20th century, and if Lincoln‘s winning the other big awards, he’ll have to win this one too.

See you back here on Feb 24 so I can say “told you so”… or else to see photographic evidence of me eating my hat.

Now read this… When I stood on stage at the Oscars: http://bit.ly/WjCnhI

Never mind the BAFTAs: here’s the DAFTAs

9 Jan
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Skyfall, HAFTA Award winner

 

The BAFTA nominations were announced today. But it’s a long month till we find out the winners, so I’m taking it upon myself to hand out awards instead:

DAFTA Award: The daftest movie of the year is always a hotly contested category. The crowd-funded Iron Sky, in which Nazis return from a secret base installed in 1945 on the dark side of the moon, must have thought it had the DAFTA in the bag. Then along comes FDR: American Badass, which upped the ante with Nazi werewolves pitted against a President Roosevelt in a pimped-out wheelchair.   

GAFTA: The 2012 movie with the most gaffes is, officially, Avengers Assemble, with 22 bloopers spotted by www.moviemistakes.com. Or maybe there are just more trivia-obsessed geeks watching it than any other film.

HAFTA: For the movie that you just have to see. The Hobbit might have won if Peter Jackson hadn’t bloated the film to three parts. Instead the clear winner is Skyfall, which broke UK records to take over £100 million (and £1 billion worldwide).

LAFTA: Ted will be on many people’s lists for funniest film of 2012 (and, I know, on a lot of people’s least funny list). But I’d like to give it to Sightseers, as a serial-killing caravannist is mildly more out there than a beer-swilling teddy bear. And it’s British. So there.

NAFTA: Naffest film of 2012? Rock of Ages. No other contender comes close. It’s toe-curling to see major stars in such drek: Tom Cruise jumping the sofa on Oprah was less naff than his performance here. Mediocre songs, cliched storyline and witless dialogue are all delivered with toothpaste-ad enthusiasm that make it all the more tragic.