Archive | February, 2014

Pride and prejudice: the Oscar link between Dallas Buyers Club and Twelve Years A Slave

23 Feb

Okay, so having now seen Dallas Buyers Club, it’s going to be a closer Oscar race than I thought for Chiwetel Ejiofor in Twelve Years A Slave. The Academy has loved a physical transformation ever since De Niro piled on the pounds for Raging Bull. Here the famously pec-tastic Mathew McConaughey slims down alarmingly to play a straight rodeo roughrider afflicted with HIV.

The two films are intriguingly similar, in that each uses a Trojan Horse to smuggle a minority subject into the hearts of majority film-goers. If Solomon Northup had not been a free man illegally sold into slavery, but born into it instead, it might have been harder for the audience to identify with his plight. If Ron Woodruff had been a gay HIV sufferer, he might not tug on the heartstrings of Middle America.

But apart from McConaughey’s gutsy, livewire, enormously affecting performance, Dallas Buyers Club is not half the film that Twelve Years A Slave is. The supporting characters, though well acted, are little more than stereotypes: from the drag queen with a disapproving banker father to the good ol’ boys who turn against their former friend when they learn he has the disease. There’s a battle with the FDA, but it’s sketchily developed; and the closing caption pretty much undercuts Woodruff’s mission throughout the film rather than supporting it as intended.

It is powerfully affecting, though, especially if you lived through that terrible period. The HIV drugs war was starkly illustrated for me at Time Out, in the late ‘80s: the much-loved receptionist/Gay editor was HIV-positive (though few knew at the time why it was forbidden to throw him into the pool at the party in Porchester Baths, and did it anyway), and he died before effective drugs were developed. The features editor, Tim Clark, one of the liveliest, cleverest, funniest, warmest people I have ever known, was initially given months to live, but science caught up just in time, giving him well over a decade.

And it’s important to have this reminder, as with 12 Years A Slave, just how recent are our sins as a society. While everyone is sneering at Russia for their backward laws forbidding the “promotion” of homosexuality, we should recall with shame that they are a carbon copy of Britain’s own Section 28 legislation, passed by Thatcher’s government just when gay people needed the most support.

Meanwhile, as I was waiting in Chicago on Friday for my delayed flight back to London, the TV news was full of the new Arizona bill which allows Christian business owners to discriminate against gay people. Is the US heading for segregation all over again, with gays instead of blacks?

Never were two Oscar contenders more timely, more needed, and more closely matched.

Experimenting with a new blog filtering programme, http://www.blogdash.com/full_profile/?claim_code=ec939413da13e0427871df185e1cb971

Anarchy in the UK! Exclusive: join the arty political party for a new Malcolm McLaren doc

19 Feb

A lot of you may know by now that the Sex Pistols were, effectively, the One Direction of their day: a boy band put together by Malcom McLaren and his girlfriend Vivienne Westwood from youths they met at their King’s Road shop for the express purpose of showcasing Westwood’s fashion designs; just as Adam and the Ants were after them. The story has been told before, but never better than in CHAOS!, Phil Strongman’s last documentary on the Sex Pistols.

Phil takes the story a step further in his wide-reaching new documentary Anarchist: The Malcolm McLaren Generation, which has a launch party at the Vibe Bar on Brick Lane on Thursday. There will be clips and stills, fund-raising for flak jackets for Kiev students, and Phil’s celebrated DJ brother Jay Strongman manning the decks. It’s free. Go! Details here.

The film has, bizarrely, yet to attract distribution. I know Phil from way back when, and so saw it at an informal screening in an East London warehouse loft a few weeks back, and it’s absolutely riveting. I realised when the lights came back up that a) I had filled eight pages of my notebook, writing down only the interesting stuff; and b) the screening had gone on for nearly three hours, but I’d never been bored.

Phil makes great use of a candid interview he conducted with Malcolm in Paris, not long before he died. There’s all the good Sex Pistols stuff in there, but also some extraordinary, never-before-heard stuff about Malcolm’s childhood and personal life, including interviews with close friends and Malcolm’s own son.

Born to a very young mother, Malcolm was brought up by his grandmother Rose – Alan Yentob describes her in the documentary, in Citizen Kane terms, as Malcolm’s ‘Rosebud’. She still had a foot in the Victorian era, and home-schooled her favourite grandson (as Malcolm’s brother describes him with evidently lingering bitterness) for greatness, drumming Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde into him. His art-school teacher was another huge influence, teaching him that “it’s better to be a glorious failure than any kind of benign success”.

But as the title of the film suggests, Anarchist: The Malcolm McLaren Generation also sets Malcolm within the arty-political framework of the time. He narrowly missed spending May 1968 in Paris with his friend during the student revolts, and was heavily influenced by the Situationist movement. As one friend recalls, “It was what you did at the weekend. You went to a party, but you went to a demo beforehand.” The creation of the Sex Pistols and the attendant birth of punk is contextualised in the documentary as a kind of giant anti-Capitalist art-school prank (their first gigs, indeed, were in art schools).

I could fill a thousand words with all the good stuff from the film, from what Vivienne got up to with her school class to Malcolm’s subsequent career as Bow Wow Wow Svengali and hip-hop pioneer, but I don’t want to spoil the surprises; instead, let’s hope someone picks it up for distribution so you can watch it for yourselves. If it has a fault, it’s that it’s perhaps too wide-ranging and therefore hard to categorise, almost three films in one: it’s a history of Anarchism in Europe; a personal biography of Malcolm; and a compelling exposé of the real birth of the Sex Pistols. (Sample: Malcolm originally wanted Sid Vicious rather than Johnny Rotten as lead singer, but, he says, “People didn’t have phones in those days. They didn’t have addresses. They didn’t even homes. Sid didn’t show up when I was anxiously looking, so John got the job… (fronting) a band who couldn’t play as a singer who couldn’t sing.”)

But then since when was being too packed full of good stuff a major flaw?

Despatch from Hollywood #4: Vivien Leigh meets the teenaged hit-man

15 Feb
Image

Tears: Juliet Stevenson in Penelope

Another day, another five hours of shorts at the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival. Again, the standard was exceptionally high, which makes me even happier that our film Dotty won an award. Here’s the best of the fest:

Penelope, written and directed by Dan Susman, stars Juliet Stevenson. So you know there’s gonna be tears. She’s given a part worth sinking her teeth to here, and invests with it an extraordinary dignity: a jilted wife meeting up for the first time with her husband’s mistress (Hattie Morahan).

Image

Beers: Ray Larkin and Jack Kehler in Last Call

Another terrific drama was Last Call, about two ageing guys (Jack Kehler and Ray Larkin) shooting the shit and having a few last drinks after one has been given two weeks to live. This won Best Student Film for writer/director Ryan Moody, and deservedly so. It’s a surprisingly mature work that never stoops to cliché or easy sentimentality.

Image

Cheers: Caitlin Harris as Vivien Leigh in Love Scene

Probably my favourite of all was Love Scene, which is about as near to perfect as a short film can get: fantastic script in which not one word is out of place; terrific performances; luminous cinematography; blessedly brief. It’s the screen test of one Vivien Leigh (a hard act to follow, but Caitlin Harris nails it), in which she confesses her determination to bag Laurence Olivier – that both are currently married presents no obstacle to her. It won an award for Best Comedy, which is weird, because it may be Best but it ain’t no Comedy. Writer/director Bethany Ashton Wolf has already won a clutch of awards at other festivals. Remember the name.

Image

Fears: Martha MacIsaac and Keir Gilchrist in Seasick Sailor

Of the genre films, the one that really stood out for me was Seasick Sailor. It’s hard to put your stamp on hit-man films; there are so many. This has a unique voice. It’s about a teenaged killer-for-hire who hates his job, until he realises that it’s no more boring and time-consuming than others. A romance offers hope of redemption… Writer/director Torre Catalano not only wrote a terrific script, he coaxed pitch-perfect performances from his whole cast – notably the young lead, Keir Gilchrist.

I met Gilchrist outside the Gents before the awards ceremony, which was about as disconcerting as bumping into Joe Pesci would be after watching GoodFellas. I told him he was terrific… not a very original thought, as it turns out. He deservedly walked away with the Best Actor trophy.

Despatch from Hollywood #3: the night I became Sadie Frost

15 Feb

ImagePhew! Yesterday was fun. I’ve picked up awards for magazine editing before, but never for film.

A couple of years ago, I stood on the stage of the Dolby Theater, where the Oscars take place, and yelled “You like me! You really like me!” over the empty chairs. I vowed to be back someday for real.

Okay, so it wasn’t actually my award, it was Sadie Frost’s. Her achievement in winning Best Actress in a Short is especially impressive given the competition, which, having watched ten hours of shorts at the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival, I can tell you was stiff. Sadie was up against not just Juliet Stevenson, but the ageless Lee Meriwether, as well as Caitlin Harris who is terrific as Vivien Leigh in Love Scene.

And okay, this wasn’t quite the Oscars. But it was still good to get up there, in Hollywood, in a rep cinema owned by Quentin Tarantino (the New Beverly), in front of a hundred-odd gifted film-makers and actors. I apologised for not being Sadie, since “I’m not nearly as pretty as her”, and on her behalf thanked Sadie’s son Rudy, the film’s producers, cinematographer John Hicks, and of course “the director, Ben Charles Edwards, who’s ridiculously young, handsome and talented – the bastard”. I hope the Californian natives understand British humour.

Set The Thames on FireAnd on that note, I’m delighted to draw your attention to today’s Hollywood Reporter article which officially announces that Sadie Frost will be producing Ben’s first feature film. It’s called Set The Thames On Fire, after a Tom Waits lyric, and he and the writer, the also hugely talented raconteur, flâneur, wit and songsmith Al Joshua, have been developing this project for a year or more. Last time I was with them, they showed me some amazing artwork for their modern-Dickensian, dystopian alternate London.

I had no idea till then that their buddy-movie project, which I always thought of as “Withnail And I in Shoreditch”, had spun off into fantasy. But with Ben, you always have to expect the unexpected. Fingers crossed they get the film – and the cast – they deserve.

More reviews from the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival tomorrow. Or maybe the next day, if I get distracted by the joys of LA and my feature deadlines!

Despatch from Hollywood #2: Finding the stars of tomorrow

13 Feb

ImageI spent five hours yesterday watching short films at the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival, looking out for the stars of tomorrow. There were quite a few writers and directors I’d want to get meetings with if I were a Hollywood producer.

A Killer Of Men stands tall here. A post-apocalyptic Western, it’s beautifully shot – I dug the camera following a rivulet of blood back up to a pile of corpses from underneath which the lead character heaves himself out. Gregg Meller is the writer/director, and it’s his USC School of Cinematic Arts graduate thesis film. The closing credits help explain why it looks so good: they are as long and filled with crew members as any feature, and he’s even managed to secure a David Bowie song over the top (“I count the corpses on my left/I find I’m not so tidy”). But it’s Meller’s script, concept and direction that really mark the film out. Give that man a feature.

Image

Mocha and Chai

Two comedy-tinged crime/ gangster shorts also stood out. Even more than the direction by Andrew Hines, it was Mocha and Chai’s oddball, Tarantinoesque script by Brit Matt Tilley (who also plays the lead) that grabbed notice. Terrific dialogue, immediately compelling characters. The same goes for Sunny Side Up, “a dark comedy about friendship, breakfast and the Russian mob”. It’s the first script by Tanner Bean, who’s worked as a production assistant for seven years, and it’s smart, funny, offbeat and more than a little lavatorial. Loved the line about “don’t come to me with your little dick… tionary lesson”.

Image

Joel and Joseph Harold

There were two strong comic webisodes, too. Living With Uncle Charlie, about two identical teenaged twins living with a guardian uncle who is even more immature than they are, is the pilot for a projected nine-webisode series. Joel and Joseph Harold are currently raising funds on Kickstarter, here. If you want to support young black actors, or just love good, goofy comedy, it’s worth your $$.

Out of the Closet, written and directed by Hunter Davis, is part of a web series called HELL.A about three delusional friends from Cleveland who move to LA. In this episode one of them gets into trouble when a married woman’s husband returns unexpectedly (hence the hiding in the closet). Zero marks for originality of concept, then, but it’s winningly acted, pacily directed, and fun enough to be worth a look. It’s viewable on YouTube, here.

There were more great shorts (The Interview and Dream Couch Sold Separately in particular had a distinctive voice), but those were the ones that looked the most Hollywood- or TV-producer-ready. All in all, the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival has made some terrific choices so far (well of course the programmers have good taste – they’re showing Dotty this evening!). I also loved the film Bulletproof… but that’s worth a separate blog at a later date.

I’ll let you know tomorrow how our short film Dotty went down!

Despatch from Hollywood: the day before the world premiere of our film Dotty

12 Feb
Image

Dotty, premiering at the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival tomorrow

So here I am in West Hollywood. The sky is as ridiculously blue as it almost always is – that’s partly why the first film pioneers chose this place. I’m staying with hospitable fellow film journo and screenwriter Steve Goldman. And tomorrow the short film I wrote, Dotty, is having its world premiere at the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival, with Florida, Australia, St Albans and New York so far to follow.

I’m really proud of the film. Ben Charles Edwards, with whom I collaborated on the hugely ambitious Animal Charm, did a superb job of directing. Sadie Frost is so good she’s being awarded Best Actress at the festival – despite Juliet Stevenson also being in the running. The specially composed score still echoes in my mind.

I can’t tell you too much about the plot of Dotty, as it would spoil the ending, but it’s a touching inter-generational friendship between a lonely, troubled boy and the eccentric woman (‘Dotty’) he finds in a colourful caravan plonked in the middle of the dusty Nevada desert. I had the cult 1971 film Harold and Maude half in mind when I wrote it. I’ve shown it to septuagenarians and nine-year-olds, and all ages in between, and it seems to strike a universal chord.

One great lesson when writing it: less is more. The first draft was 10pp long – half the length of Animal Charm. It was deliberately light on dialogue, since it stars a nine-year-old kid. And though that kid is Rudy Law, son of Sadie Frost and Jude Law and with acting clearly in his genes, you still can’t ask too much of children in the way of scripted dialogue.

I got one note back on the script: make it shorter, with less dialogue. It was a great note. The even more stripped-down 6pp version worked even better.

And now, tomorrow, The Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival gives Dotty its first showing to critical fellow film-makers, ones who aren’t cast or crew or friends or family. I’m not nervous. With my film critic’s hat on, rather than my insecure writer’s hat on, Dotty works. It’s good.

I’ll tell you on Friday how it all went…  

 

How 2,000 film-makers – and Chris Jones – made 50 Kisses

10 Feb

The London indie film scene has never been stronger. With digital cameras and Kickstarter funding, sharing resources via Facebook or networking in pubs, film-makers are doing it for themselves. I’m old enough to remember one other DIY period as exciting as this. It was in music, and it was called Punk.

Like all underground movements, the Britpic scene has no official leader. But if you were to choose the Svengali, the Malcolm McLaren of film, it would be Chris Jones. The charismatic founder of the Guerilla Filmmakers’ Masterclass and the London Screenwriters’ Festival has, through his courses, blogs and breakfast seminars, motivated and connected more film-makers than anyone in Britain.

And now he has Frankensteined together a patchwork feature film that unites all this untapped talent. I was the sole journalist to sit through a special preview with Chris last week, and I was blown away.  The film is called 50 Kisses, it premieres at the Genesis Cinema in Mile End on Feb 13 only, and it’s being billed as the world’s first crowd-generated film.

Chris Jones, director of 50 Kisses

Chris Jones, director of 50 Kisses

In the beginning was the word: Chris Jones let it be known he was looking for two-page scripts.

It also started with a kiss: the scripts could be in any genre, period or location, but they must be set on Valentine’s Day, and they must include a kiss.

Chris got 1,870 scripts back. He and his script editors selected the 50 best, and threw them open to directors and producers.

Some scripts were filmed several times over by different teams in different ways; you can see some of the alternatives on http://www.50kissesfilm.com. Says Chris Jones, “One script about a gay hitman got 11 films made, one about a robot got nine. A few, to be honest, didn’t attract any producers. I think if we do a follow-up project, I’d say to writers: take more risks. Go to the crazy, go absolutely bat-shit bonkers and see what comes out.”

In the end, 127 completed short films were submitted, from which 25 made the final cut, and were stitched together into the feature-length 50 Kisses.

There are two films about zombie romance; two about a robot. There is a suicide, a deadly disease transmitted through saliva, and a girl held in chains by an overprotective mother. Then there are all the everyday day tales of loss and longing: young love, first love, unrequited love, geriatric love, love in sickness as well as health. I teared up at several points; laughed more than once.

Perhaps the simplest way of describing 50 Kisses is that it’s like Love Actually, only much more real and affecting. If just some of this DIY talent can break into features, the future of British film-making is in good hands.

After the screening, Chris had one last surprise in store: on Valentine’s Day, directly after the film is shown not just at the Genesis but in 17 countries where film-makers have organised their own premieres, 50 Kisses is going to be put online. In its entirety. For free.

“We only decided to do this four days ago,” says Chris. “We were toying with Blu-Ray, or DVD, and then we thought, the whole point of this exercise was to launch careers, not to make a couple of thousand quid. And the best way to get it in front of powerful people is just to put it out there.”

It’s a lovely thought: the collective hopes and dreams of 1,870 screenwriters and 127 directors, distilled into 25 three-minute love letters to British film, whispering sweet nothings into the world’s computers on Valentine’s Day. That should give Spike Jonze’s Her, which opens the same day, a run for its money.

The 50 Kisses world premiere is at the Genesis in Mile End, www.genesiscinema.co.uk, on Feb 13. It will then be available to view on Feb 14 on YouTube or at www.50kissesfilm.com