Archive | October, 2014

Virgin America’s Blah Airways film: 5 good reasons to watch six hours of tedium

21 Oct

Virgin America’s epic new in-flight film is intended to be six hours of unremitting tedium, in order to demonstrate how dull any plane journey that is not with Virgin can be. Instead, Have you been flying BLAH airlines? is strangely fascinating. I’ve been mesmerised by it today, which is perhaps taking procrastination to new depths.

It’s filmed in real time, on a plane, with a cast of dummies. Mannequins, that is. Long periods of silence are interrupted by a meet-cute in-flight film-within-the-film with interminably banal dialogue on a communal screen too small to be seen, or by the ruminations of terminally dull fellow passengers, or by a passive-aggressive steward enquiring with hostility barely concealed beneath a veneer of politeness why a passenger hasn’t drunk the coffee he brought.

Here are five things that make it great:

— The blankness of the mannequins. It’s said that when Richard Burton first worked with Elizabeth Taylor on Cleopatra, he complained to the director that while he was giving it his all, she was doing nothing, and the film would be a disaster. The director agreed – but not in the way Burton expected. He showed Burton the rushes, and Burton saw that Taylor was wonderful, luminous, carrying a scene with a single raised eyebrow – while the stage-trained Burton seemed on screen a terrible ham.

Similarly, Clint Eastwood has said that his drama coach used to shout at him, “Don’t just do something, stand there!” Billy Wilder once made Jack Lemmon retake a scene 20 times, each time saying “That’s great, but just take it down a notch or two,” until Lemmon burst out, “If I take it down any more, I won’t be acting at all.” Wilder smiled, and said, “Finally, you’re getting the idea.” And a young actor working with Robert De Niro for the first time asked him for tips. The great man thought awhile, and said, “Try not to blink”.

The point is that, on film, less is more. Through the director’s use of lighting and music and framing, the audience will read onto a blank face an enormous depth of emotion. After a while, these mannequins start to seem like wonderful actors.

— The sinisterness of the implied. We are so used to periods of calm and banality in movies being juxtaposed with scenes of horror and violence, that I spent a lot of the film on the edge of my seat. It felt like something awful was always just round the corner.

— It’s totally out to Lynch. David Lynch is the master of the unsettlingly banal (click here to read my four-part interview with Lynch), but this tops him. I spent five minutes staring at a seat-back being rocked back and forth, back and forth, with squeaking noises. It later turned out to be a child – a rather grotesque grinning mannequin child – but had it turned out to be a backwards-talking dwarf I would not have been in the least surprised.

— It shows how powerful the score can be. At one point driving, energetic music begins, and it totally changes the mood of the film. It turns out to be from another passenger with leaky headphones, but you half-expect Harrison Ford or Liam Neeson to burst through with a gun.

— Boring dialogue can be really funny. Tarantino is the master of this: think conversations about foot-rubs, European burgers, or Madonna songs. My favourite bit in the Virgin film is the diatribe by the dullest passenger on how terrible it is there is too much choice in modern life – so many things on the Starbucks menu when you just want a coffee.

That’s one of my obsessions, too. There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit in Alex Cox’s Repo Man when they go into a corner shop, and on the shelves are rows and rows of tins all labelled “FOOD”, and in the fridge, cans all labelled “BEER”. Sometimes, when I’m feeling overloaded, I’ll go into a pub, and just ask for beer. They say what kind, and I say “beer”. Even as to whether it’s lager or bitter, I say “beer”. They eventually give me something. It always tastes good.

And maybe that’s at the heart of the movie’s curious appeal. With dozens of TV channels, endless programmes on demand, millions of videos on YouTube, and faster and faster editing in Hollywood films, all piling sensation onto sensation in the race to grab our precious eyeballs if only for a short few minutes, to watch something deliberately slow and pointless feels strangely refreshing.

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Gone Girl, and a blog about spoilers. With no spoilers

13 Oct
Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck star in Gone Girl -- which is all I will say

Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck star in Gone Girl — which is all I will say

I enjoyed Gone Girl enormously, and expect it to be a serious Oscar contender, though it’s mildly annoying a) for being basically a silly idea, brilliantly executed and b) because said silly idea is one I had independently dreamed up and filed in my “movie premises” folder and which now, obviously, I can’t use, grrr (see also Looper).

But I’m not going to review it or tell you about it, because the movie has already been written about too much. And that brings me onto the Extremely Annoying Thing about Gone Girl: that so many newspapers and websites have given the game away.

Movies have long relied on the element of surprise, and critics have a duty to safeguard their readers’ enjoyment. Hitchcock turned the secrecy over Psycho’s twist into a marketing campaign. So, too, did Miramax with The Crying Game: when I attended previews, we critics were handed a document forbidding us to divulge the twist that turned it into an unlikely Stateside hit. I worried about spoilers so much when editing Time Out that I would argue with the Theatre Editor over discussing the ending of Hamlet. It may be four centuries old, but some readers would be seeing it for the first time.

Editors, bloggers and even the odd critic seem to have forsaken this public duty in the race for circulation/clicks. With Gone Girl, even though I deliberately avoided the reviews before seeing it, the style magazine headlines alone were enough to tell me the big reveal.

So a plea, and a promise. Please, editors, don’t reveal too much, or your readers might stop consuming reviews altogether. And readers, you can trust me, in this blog, to be extra-careful about spoilers, as I always have been.

As to how this blog ends… well, I’d better not say.

Maps To The Stars: Cronenberg puts the hell into Hollywood

4 Oct
Julianne Moore

Julianne Moore, seconds away from screaming her head off, in Maps To The Stars

There’s a reason why Maps To The Stars languished unmade for 20 years, before being picked up by professional controversialist David Cronenberg: it’s not just structurally a mess, with a psychological-thriller jigsaw-puzzle plot whose pieces never quite properly fit together, it’s also a massive you’ll-never-eat-lunch-in-this-town-again f*** you to Hollywood. That it ends up being absolutely gripping, if not exactly enjoyable, is testament to Cronenberg’s steely command of mood and to his remarkable cast.

Julianne Moore plays a fading Hollywood star, literally haunted by her abusive childhood as she schemes to play the part of her late mother in a new film. She cries her way through therapy, squelches her way through a conversation on the toilet, smiles her way through insincere Hollywood conversations, and is gradually revealed more and more as a duplicitous, manipulative, spoilt, self-centred, narcissistic, charming bitch. It’s an Oscar-worthy turn.

Mia Wasikowska is excellent, as ever, as the enigmatic and occasionally sinister burn victim who returns to LA for reasons I won’t spoil, and so is 13-year-old Evan Bird as a child star with a substance-abuse problem who comes on like a hilariously vile amalgam of Macaulay Culkin and Justin Bieber. Robert Pattinson, who seems to be developing a relationship with Cronenberg like Leo DiCaprio has with Scorsese (the star gets to act, the director gets funding), plays a rather blank chauffeur – which was screenwriter Bruce Wagner’s first job when he arrived in Hollywood.

The different strands all connect eventually, after a fashion. But there are too many coincidences that aren’t logically tied up, too many different characters who see dead people, and too many events and revelations that seem there for sensationalist rather than character-driven reasons. It’s like a soap opera from hell: deliberately (at least so I hope) melodramatic and unrealistic, even if filmed in a downbeat way, and thus ultimately unengaging.

Even so, it’s something of a marvel. Bruce Wagner insists in interview that it is not a satire on Hollywood. In which case, his characters must be true to Hollywood life as an insider has seen it. God help us.

For my review of the David Cronenberg exhibition at Toronto’s TIFF Centre, including a look at Cronenberg’s brain, click here.

Luna: the UK premiere of Dave McKean’s new film

2 Oct

Luna

Finally, illustrator turned film-maker Dave McKean has unveiled his long-awaited Luna, which had its UK premiere last night as part of the Raindance Film Festival. I caught it with my son Sam, who loved it. The last time we saw a Dave McKean film together, which was the Neil Gaiman-scripted fantasy Mirrormask, Sam was a wide-eyed kid of nine. Now he’s 18 years old and making films himself. I say this by way of illustrating what a long and tortuous road it is to make an indie film in the UK: Luna was actually shot seven years ago, but it’s taken this long to raise the funding for special effects and post-production.

So – what of the film? I don’t want to say too much, as Luna is still on the festival circuit and not yet on general release (there will be screenings in Picturehouse cinemas across the UK). Let’s just say that it’s a The Big Chill type of scenario, where old friends meet after a long gap in a big old house with a dark past by the sea, and gradually buried secrets and long-held grievances are teased out. But, this being Dave McKean, you can also throw in fawn-antlered wood-children, origami crabs springing to life, and a naked eagle-man of the rocks.

At the Q&A afterwards, Sam asked Dave about a key dinner-table monologue in the film, concerning the blurring of fantasy and reality: how there’s no such thing as an objective, absolute reality when reality is only what we perceive it to be, and when the way our brains process information (particularly when under stress, or grieving) will be very individual.

“That’s my own manifesto,” Dave agreed. “I’m an absolute realist, I don’t believe in anything supernatural, but the way our brains interpret the world and deal with it is where all my stories come from.

“You see, this is real, right here, right now,” he continued, gesturing at the cinema. “But there’s a great, swirling wall of our imagination surrounding this little piece of reality in the centre. In an hour, we’ll all be elsewhere, and doing other things, and you’ll each have a different memory of what I said here, or your own different interpretation of what the film was about.”

Dave is a prodigious talent. He’s designed over 100 album covers; illustrated numerous children’s books as well as, in the last year alone, fat coffee-table books for Richard Dawkins and Heston Blumenthal; he’s written and drawn graphic novels and the covers for all the Sandman comics; he designed the British Library’s recent Comics Unmasked exhibition and the poster for their forthcoming Gothic exhibition; he’s made stamps, and adverts, and worked on Harry Potter films, and held art exhibitions. Oh, and he plays jazz piano and composes songs, including for Luna (though don’t think I didn’t notice the Douglas Adams steal/homage in the song Words!).

In film terms, he is perhaps best described as the UK’s answer to Guillermo Del Toro, though he is also very different. This is what Neil Gaiman has to say about him.

And still he has trouble getting his movies funded and distributed? Sometimes one despairs of the British film “industry”.