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Solo: more Star Bores than Star Wars (spoiler-free)

25 May
A young Han Solo and an already ancient Chewbacca in Solo: A Star Wars Story

A young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) and an already ancient Chewbacca in Solo: A Star Wars Story

Oh dear. This is the origin story of one of the most iconic characters in cinematic history? One that Lawrence Kasdan (who co-wrote Solo as a duo, with his son) has had 40 years to prepare for?

It’s by no means a bad film, despite the ill omens of the original directors leaving due to “creative differences” to make way for the solid, dependable but seldom inspired Ron Howard. But it is the worst so far in the Disney-era Star Wars franchise. I can’t think of a single stand-out scene that would make me grab a friend by the lapels and say, “you gotta see that!” It also returns uncomfortably to a past action era of “no consequences” – when a character suffers a tragic loss, it’s all forgotten by the next scene.

If, like me, you’re a Star Wars die-hard, you’ll see it anyway, so I won’t detail any of the plot – not that there are too many surprises to spoil. But here’s a thing that strikes me as curious. It has been said for some time that actors can get cast to some degree for their social media presence. But the casting of Solo: A Star Wars Story takes brand synergies to a whole new level. Look at it this way:

–Woody Harrelson (typically good as a cynical, “trust no one” adventurer) brings in the Hunger Games crowd.

–Thandie Newton (magnificent, if underused, as his partner in crime) adds a dash of Westworld appeal.

–Emilia Clarke (Han Solo’s love interest) brings in the fanatical Game of Thrones fan base.

–Paul Bettany (the bad guy) adds a dash of mighty Marvel.

–And Phoebe Waller-Bridge (great as an independent-minded robot)… well, she’s no franchise star, but Fleabag made her the coolest and edgiest woman on screen since Lena Dunham, so she brings Solo a hip transplant.

–As does the multi-talented Donald Glover (as Lando Calrissian), currently tearing up social media with his new Childish Gambino video.

A recipe for success, then, you’d think. Sadly, you’d be wrong.

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Disney and diversity: Thandie Newton on the BFI trainees with Solo: A Star Wars Story

24 May
Thandie Newton as Val in Solo: A Star Wars Story

Thandie Newton as Val in Solo: A Star Wars Story

With diversity the current buzzword in Hollywood, there is one major studio that is actually walking the walk. Disney, previously pilloried on social media for churning out pretty princesses who need saving and villains whose inner ugliness is telegraphed through physical deformity, has undergone a radical change of philosophy: making inclusive animations such as Moana, and even feature films with black leads such as Queen of Katwe and, having acquired Marvel Studios, Black Panther. These are the films which, watched by children now, will shape the global citizens of tomorrow. The importance of Disney using its enormous influence for social good can hardly be overstated.

The Star Wars franchise was desperately in need of such a makeover from its new parent company to banish the shuddering memory of Jar Jar Binks. The latest, Solo: A Star Wars Story, always had to feature Lando Calrissian (played by the multi-talented Donald Glover), since one of the few canonical pieces of Han Solo’s back story is that he won the Millennium Falcon from Lando in a card game. It also throws in the magnificent Thandie Newton as partner in crime to Woody Harrelson’s cynical, “trust no one” adventurer.

Even more impressively, Disney is also seeking to effect change behind the camera. At a special preview at BFI Southbank last night, Disney fielded an impressive panel composed of Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge (of Fleabag fame, playing an independently minded robot) and producer Simon Emmanuel, together with the BFI’s Ben Roberts and Gaylene Gould. They were there to talk about the BFI Film Academy Future Skills programme, which aims to counteract decades of under-representation by attracting trainees who might otherwise never have considered a career in film: 75% of their intake last year were women, 45% BAME, 68% from outside Greater London, and 36% from poor households that received free school meals.

“If you live in the North of England,” said BFI CEO Amanda Nevill in her opening speech, “the notion of working in the film industry is quite fantastical: in fact it’s far more than a galaxy far, far away.”

“Diversity always has a huge impact,” said Waller-Bridge. “We instantly grow from a diversity of voices. It results in less stereotyping, better characters, and the truth can sing.”

Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Thandie Newton with BFI trainees Nathan Lloyd and Maria Moss at the preview screening of Solo: A Star Wars Story

Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Thandie Newton with BFI trainees Nathan Lloyd and Maria Moss at the preview screening of Solo: A Star Wars Story

Thandie Newton brought her own personal experience to bear on the subject: “Growing up in Cornwall, I didn’t see other people like me anywhere. I grew up deeply insecure as a result. My sense of self-worth was crippled by not seeing other people like me, because the characters of films and television are our heroes, they are a way of feeling less alone.

“I have three children,” she continued, “and they’ve always played with dolls, and when they do it’s important they are exposed to diversity. I will go in with felt-tip pens and change the colour of characters’ skins in story books!”

There was an emotional moment when Newton mentioned Oola, “one of the few people of colour” in the original Star Wars trilogy: Oola was a Twi’lek slave who was killed by Jabba the Hutt when she resisted his advances. “She’s here in the audience!” someone shouted out. “I know,” Newton shot back. “I invited her!”

It transpired the actress, Femi Taylor, had also played Newton’s mother in her debut movie, Flirting. (Newton was so good in that 1991 Australian drama, incidentally, aged 16, that I insisted on running an interview feature with her in Time Out at the time).

But starry as the panel was, the greatest applause was reserved for two young trainees in the BFI Film Academy Future Skills programme. Neither had known during their interviews, indeed not until they walked on to the set, that the film they would be working on was not some indie drama but the latest behemoth in the Star Wars franchise.

Nathan Lloyd, a black youth from Birmingham, was inspired at being put to work as a camera trainee for Bradley Young, only the second black cinematographer ever to win an Oscar, and has since worked on Sky One’s Bullet Proof and Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light. Maria Moss, a half-Filipino girl from Manchester who said how surreal it was to take tea to “Chewbacca” and have him respond in a Liverpudlian accent, will be working as assistant director on the Wonder Woman sequel over the summer.

It was an inspiring evening. And following the success of the pilot scheme, in which 28 trainees were put to work on Solo, 30 more youths are to be given a new hope (see what I did there?) by working on the next main Star Wars film, Episode IX, from July.

Change won’t come about through talk and good intentions. It will come about through training a new generation with the necessary skills. Big up the BFI, and Disney, for starting the ball rolling.

The 10 films that changed my life

21 Apr

the-rocky-horror-picture-show-1975I was asked to do this Facebook thing of “In no particular order, list 10 all time favourite films, which really made an impact on you. Post the poster and nominate a new person each day.” But a) I’ll only forget each day and b) I imagine it all started as a way to harvest data on sharing and friends. So here it is as a blog instead.

NOTE: this about impact, not objective quality. The dates are when I saw these films, not always when they were released. Inevitably, they are concentrated in my formative years. I have seen many brilliant films since, but nothing can rock your world and change your life like films you see in your youth.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). When I won a scholarship to Winchester, my dad said he would take me to London, where I could do or have anything I wanted. I chose to see this. I had never laughed as much. But mostly, it’s here for the father-son bonding thing. And the Black Knight. And the questions three. And the shrubbery. And the farting in your general direction.

Star Wars (1977). Blew my head clean off and made me swear to be involved with film in some way for the rest of my life (leading me to Time Out, and later to write shorts of my own).

Aguirre: Wrath of God (1979). My first art-house film in a rep cinema. Realised belatedly there was a whole world of film out there, which I spent my uni years devouring.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1979). Any film you’ve seen 40+ times has got to be on this list. This was in the early days of call-and-response and dressing up at midnight screenings. I’ve shown it to people since, and they’re like, “Nice songs, quite fun, but what’s the big deal?” People forget, now, how liberating and transgressive and attitude-changing the film was at the time. I’ve since been sung to by both Richard O’Brien and Patricia Quinn (now Lady Stephens) 😊

Apocalypse now posterApocalypse Now (1980). I saw this loads of times at the Towne Cinema midnight screenings in Ottawa, with bongs being passed up and down the aisles. Epic sweep that never loses touch with the human drama; very much of the drug culture but with a coherent plot; horrifying and hilarious and equal measure.

Napoleon (1983). I saw the restored version at the Barbican with, if memory serves, triptych screens and a live orchestra. I’ve seen it in cinemas twice since, as well as on TV. I studied the French Revolution for my degree, but more than that, it is astonishingly modern for a film made in 1929 – and started me off on a whole silent movie kick.

Blue Velvet (1986): Because obviously. I mean, imagine seeing it on first release, with no expectations or preconceptions about what David Lynch was capable of. It was, to quote Colonel Kurtz above, “like I was shot… like I was shot with a diamond… a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought, my God… the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that! Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure.”

Akira (1988). My gateway to the astonishing world of anime.

The Lion King (1994). It amuses me that the plot is filched from Hamlet, but really this is here because it makes me think of my boys. I took Theo to the premiere at the Odeon Leicester Square when he was seven months old! Start ‘em out young. He slept through much of it, but we watched it a gazillion times subsequently on DVD. My mum would take me to films when I was young, and I’ve extended this to the next generation. Sam’s even made two excellent shorts of his own, one a nominee for student film of the year.

animalcharm-posterAnimal Charm (2012). The idea for this 20-minute featurette came to me in a flash in the gym: a fading fur fashion designer kidnapped by animal rights activists, with a grand guignol horror twist ending. Sadie Frost and Sally Phillips starred, with Michael “Ugly Betty” Urie and Boy George in small roles. It was really good. Kate Moss came to the premiere the W Hotel and sat in the aisle as there were no seats left. Director Ben Charles Edwards (who also co-wrote) has since gone on to make two feature films, while I have gone back into paid journalism, but it was still the culmination of a life-long dream to see something of mine up on the big screen. Thanks, Ben. You’re an extraordinary film-maker.

 

 

R.I.P. Stephen Hawking, and what he teaches us about the little things rather than the big

14 Mar

Stephen_Hawking_picIt’s sad to hear of the death of Stephen Hawking, but how extraordinary that he lived to the age of 76: a testament to his strength of will. In 1963, when diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of 21, he was given just a handful of years to live.

I met Stephen Hawking once, on the set of Errol Morris’s documentary about him. This was in 1991, when Eddie Redmayne, who would later win an Oscar for playing him in A Theory of Everything, was not yet 10. What struck me most was that however much Hawking’s mind was focused on the great mysteries of the universe, he still made time for the little things in life. Though he could “speak” only by laboriously tapping out the letters one by one by twitching one finger on a toggle of his wheelchair, he would still say “please” and “thank you” to the assistants who helped him. That’s more than can be said of many able-bodied stars I have seen on film sets.

No one who ponders such things can fail to reel in terror at the thought that the universe is so vast and its epochs so long, while we are but a mote in the blink of a cosmic eye. Hawking knew this better than anyone. But he knew, too, that the reaction to this should not be to despair at our unimportance and impermanence, but to seize every precious moment and savour the warmth of every human interaction as though it was your last. I found his example inspiring, then and now.

One thought haunted me for years after my encounter with Hawking. Here he was, wrestling within his planet-sized brain with the problem of uniting conventional physics with quantum physics – the Grand Unified Theory. What if his disease progressed, and he became unable to communicate at all? What if he discovered the ultimate secret of the universe but, unable to move or speak, trapped within a failing human husk, he could not communicate this to the outside world?

By the time of his death, the only muscle left in his body that he could consciously move was a tiny twitch in his cheek. It was still enough to send signals to his computer – but for how much longer?

So farewell and R.I.P., Stephen Hawking. And if the theory in the final chapters of his bestselling book A Brief History of Time prove correct, and the universe ends in a Big Crunch after which time winds backwards all the way back to the Big Bang again in an endlessly recurring cycle, then he and I will meet again, in a billion billion years.

Hawking will have blinked into life and consciousness as an old man in a wheelchair, trapped in a body which could twitch only one cheek muscle. He would then have slowly recovered the use of certain muscles until he could move his fingers; appeared (talking backwards) in episodes of The Big Bang Theory, Simpsons and Futurama; and then we would meet as he reversed his chair towards me on a film stage.

The next year he would start to live with the love of his life. The relationship would at first be fractious and bitter, but would grow more loving with time. Their children would get younger and cuter until they disappeared with a gurgle and a giggle back into their mother’s womb. And Hawking himself would get stronger and more mobile, eventually stepping up from his wheelchair to stand proudly at the altar with his bride.

The surprising link between Black Panther and X-Men

14 Feb
black-panther-reasons-watch-pic1

Welcome to Wakanda: the key cast of Black Panther

Black Panther has tapped into an audience normally uninterested in superhero blockbusters. It was striking how, at the first night’s screening at the Brixton Ritzy, the usually overwhelmingly white crowd was majority black.

For my part, I went with my young niece (actually first cousin once removed, but that’s a bit of a mouthful, so we’ll just go with niece). She doesn’t know her Marvel from her DC, and thinks she might have seen Thor but on second thoughts maybe it was Troy, so you can safely say she’s not usually first in line for such films. Black Panther is different. Black Panther is a cultural event, the first mainstream, massive-budget superhero film to feature a largely black cast. As the joke circulating Facebook goes, the only other actors are Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis, who both featured in The Hobbit, which makes them the Tolkien white guys.

Does it work? As a film, not altogether. There are huge gobbets of exposition shoved into the first act, all of it daft – a crashed meteorite has left a deposit of “vibranium” in the small African nation of Wakanda, a metal which somehow accelerates technological development and even heals wounds, creating a highly advanced civilisation hidden from view of the wider world. The special effects are occasionally hokey. The filming feels excessively studio-based. The pace lags in parts, as origin stories tend to.

On the plus side, the performances are top-notch, notably Letitia Wright as Black Panther’s sassy scientist sister, and Michael B. Jordan as Black Panther’s rival – more on that in a second. The production design, too, is magnificent. Some of the set pieces and battles are thrilling. Four stars, if I were to reduce it to a score.

But as a seismic cultural event, it’s a very big deal. It shows (hopefully!) that a black cast can find a mass audience. It presents a futurised ideal of African culture, without any attempt to dilute it for a Western audience: from the superb music curated by Kendrick Lamarr, to the fighting styles based on African martial arts, to the set design, costumes, hair and accents. It even has strong (if a tad one-dimensional) female roles.

Before the film, my niece pondered the irony that Hollywood, the biggest propaganda machine for the Western capitalist system, now seemed to be selling revolution. But notwithstanding Black Panther’s huge cultural impact, it seems to me to have a much less radical message.

The central conflict in the film turns out not to be between Black Panther and Andy Serkis’s pantomime villain with a plasma gun for a hand, but instead with a figure from Wakanda’s past who challenges Black Panther for the throne. Black Panther wants peaceful rule, perhaps opening up his kingdom slightly in order to help the poor and the oppressed in the outside world. His rival wants to smash the system, arming the disenfranchised with Wakandan technology to slay and overthrow their rulers across the world. The film clearly presents this as A Bad Idea, and a benevolent, non-democratically-elected king as A Good Idea – so not so revolutionary after all.

As my niece said, one is effectively Martin Luther King, while the other is effectively Malcolm X – which, intriguingly, is the same dynamic that powers all the X-Men films, by pitting Professor Xavier against Magneto.

 

Beauty in the beast: Guillermo del Toro on The Shape of Water

13 Feb
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Sally Hawkins, as the mute cleaner in a military facility, makes contact with a creature from the deep in The Shape of Water

Pan’s Labyrinth was so exceptional, so unique, you’d think Guillermo del Toro could never again make a film that was its equal. You’d be wrong. The Shape of Water is every bit as beautiful, strange and idiosyncratic, but in tone shows the mellowness of del Toro’s middle age. While Pan’s Labyrinth was primarily about the monstrousness of men, The Shape of Water is more concerned with the humanity in monsters.

I saw the film at a BAFTA screening a few months ago, capped off by a Q&A with del Toro. He said that when he was young, he had terrible waking nightmares in which he would lie frozen in his own bed, seemingly conscious, watching monstrous hands clawing at his bedclothes. He made a pact with those monsters: if they didn’t hurt him, he’d be their friend for life. It’s a relationship he has been investigating throughout his film-making career.

With The Shape of Water specifically, he said the inspiration came from watching Creature From the Black Lagoon as a boy: he loved both monster and damsel in distress, and was heart-broken when they didn’t end up together. The Shape of Water is his attempt to rewrite that history.

As such, it’s not merely about the beauty in the beast, but also a love letter to old Hollywood: that’s one reason why the Academy, which notoriously loves films about itself, has given it 13 Oscar nominations – wildly unusual for a genre film. Sally Hawkins’s character, who is as mute as a silent film star, even lives above an old cinema. There are scenes which nod to old Hollywood song and dance, without quite breaking into outright musical, and its bright colour palette could have been filmed in Technicolor.

As the mute Elisa Esposito, who cleans in a top-secret military facility of the early ‘60s which takes possession of a monster from the deeps, Sally Hawkins is extraordinary. She says more with gesture and look than most actresses manage from screeds of dialogue. In any other year she’d be Oscar’s hottest contender, but Frances McDormand, surely, will take the highest honour for Three Billboards.

The creature is beautifully realised, Richard Giles provides touching support as Esposito’s best friend, Octavia Spencer provides energy and comic relief, and Michael Shannon gives this essentially feelgood tale a heart of darkness as the xenophobic military man obsessed with the Red Menace, his severed fingers rotting along with his soul. But it’s del Toro’s film, and he will surely win best director.

The crew with del Toro at the Q&A clearly loved him: they say he is obsessively knowledgeable about every area of film-making, from cinematography to production design, giving them fully formed ideas which then allow them to concentrate on the extra 10% that would transform a film from great to genius. He even came up with a long-forgotten method for simulating underwater movement which would require no CGI or fancy effects.

Released in the UK on Valentine’s Day, The Shape of Water makes the perfect date movie – because if your partner doesn’t love it, you’ll know they’re probably not the one for you!

A ‘Big Night’ for food and film with Bompas & Parr

30 Jan
big-night-e28093-1996

Bompas & Parr’s inaugural London Food Film Festival opened with Big Night, starring (left to right) Minnie Driver, Stanley Tucci, Tony Shalhoub and Isabella Rossellini

Bompas & Parr are the Willie Wonkas of London. For ten years now they have been staging elaborate food- and drink-related events for any brand that cares – or should that be dares? – to commission them. You want a cityscape made of jelly? A lake of Courvoisier punch large enough for people to row across? Or perhaps you merely want to launch some coffee beans into the stratosphere to create the world’s “Space Coffee”? You know who you’re gonna call.

Already this year Bompas & Parr have created a Cryptozoological Haggis Workshop for Burns Night, a Seismic Sound Bath in Christie’s Gallery, and, now, this week, the first annual London Food Film Festival at the Curzon Mondrian cinema on the South Bank. I went to the opening night last night: a screening of Stanley Tucci’s Big Night (1996) chosen and hosted by Evening Standard food critic Grace Dent.

It was a lovely film, only slightly marred by the eccentric decision to show it with Malay (I think) subtitles: the Italian sections of dialogue were expressive enough that you got the sense of them anyway! About a struggling restaurateur whose chef brother refuses to compromise his art for the philistine clientele, Big Night was funny and not a little heartbreaking. As Dent said, “Restaurants are giant money pits and they will take you under, both financially and emotionally. In this film we see the struggle between authenticity in cuisine and being profitable.”

I feel Bompas & Parr may have missed a trick by not combining food with the film: after watching the great Italian feast that dominates the final act of the film, we hungrily repaired afterwards to the nearest Italian restaurant, the Gourmet Pizza on South Bank – as did at least one other table of diners. A few years ago, by contrast, I went to a terrific event in the basement of Gordon Ramsay’s Union Street Café which combined a screening of GoodFellas with Italian dishes and cocktails appropriate to the action. Ah well, maybe next year.

Before the screening, Sam Bompas explained how the festival was all part of their attempts to put together a Museum of Food: “Four years ago we were trudging around the Design Museum thinking, who gets excited about chairs? But everyone gets excited about food. So we went to lots of brands, to government bodies, and said we need a British Food Museum. And they all told us to get lost. So we thought we’d do it anyway.”

Their first attempt took the form of a three-month pop-up at Borough Market in 2015. “We had this interactive exhibition called ‘Be the Bolus’ in which you become a bit of food being eaten. You sit on a modified massage chair that vibrates and expands around you like you’re going down a digestive tract.”

The London Food Film Festival, too, falls under the Museum of Food umbrella. “We’re on the verge of a permanent home in London,” he says tantalisingly, “and in February we will release a programme, but this is the first thing we’re doing.”

At time of writing there were still tickets for the rest of the festival. Tonight (Tuesday) writer and Psychogourmet Geoff Nicholson presents La Grande Bouffe and Jiro Dreams of Sushi; on Wednesday, director Jamie Jay Johnson and comedian Seb Cardinal present “A culinary ramble through the very best in Food and Film” (excerpts from their favourite food moments on screen) and Tampopo; and on Thursday, Sam Bompas himself takes over the reins. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

“I was worried we’d run out of great food films for next year,” he confessed, “so I thought I would look at cannibalism in cinema [of course, as you would!], and show The Descent.

“I did want people to taste human flesh in some way,” he continued, “but I got an email from the human tissue organisation saying ‘stop what you are doing, it’s incredibly illegal’. But we will have a skull to drink from.” So that’s all right, then.

Bompas & Parr, you crazy geniuses, we salute you. Of course there should be a Food Museum. And as long as they’re behind it, I’ll be first in line