Tag Archives: Robert De Niro

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.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: this is Andy’s Serkis, and these are his monkeys

18 Jul

Caesar, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

There’s a useful Polish expression currently doing the rounds on Facebook: “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” It means, “Nothing to do with me, mate.”

Having seen Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, however, this is very much the Andy Serkis Circus, and boy, are these his monkeys. His portrayal of the ape leader, Caesar, is one of the wonders of the modern age. There are a very few films which hit you as a step-change in cinematic special effects: the first rumble of engines and long slow pan across a great spaceship in Star Wars; the liquid-metal morphing technology of Terminator 2;  the 3D animation of Toy Story.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, so much more than Avatar or even Andy Serkis’s star turn as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, is digital film-making’s breakthrough moment: the first moment a computer-generated character has truly emerged from the “uncanny valley” to appear fully real. It’s the eyes, famously the windows to the soul, that usually give the game away. Caesar’s are brooding, expressive, filled with wisdom and pain. The final shot, which zooms in on them, is one of the great climactic close-ups in film history: up there with Robert De Niro’s smile in Once Upon A Time In America.

It helps, perhaps, that the human cast are (deliberately?) so godawfully dull, aside from Gary Oldman’s obligatory blockbuster turn. The apes can’t help seeming more alive in comparison. But huge plaudits go not just to the special effects boffins, but to Andy Serkis’s mo-cap (motion-capture) performance. His Caesar, head permanently cocked to one side to indicate thought, is noble in restraint, terrifying in anger. When he speaks, it sends shivers up the spine.

Serkis’s reward is to direct a mo-cap movie of The Jungle Book, and to spark a debate about whether mo-cap actors should be eligible for an Oscar. How long before they get their own special category, as the Academy has now done with animated films?

Academy Awards 2014: the winners and blingers of an Oscar night with no grouches

3 Mar

Image

That was actually a pretty great Oscar ceremony. Jennifer “J-Law” Lawrence took a little tumble before it even began this time, back on the red carpet. Any more trips and she’ll get sponsored by Expedia.com. As for the compere, Ellen Degeneres was never going to sail too close to the edge – a blessing, after the Seth McFarlane “boobies” embarrassment of last year – but she did bring a breath of fresh air.

She broke Twitter, briefly, by organising the most celebtastic selfie of all time (above), and, surreally, ordered in pizza. Chiwetel Ejiofor took the first slice; Harrison Ford looked at his dubiously, as though inspecting an archaeological relic. Ellen’s Oscars seemed to break down the barriers between celebrity and public, toppling the screen icons from a pedestal that most of them never wanted to be on in the first place. Though of course J-Law toppled from hers first.

Most of all, though, it helped that this was the strongest year for film in ages: there was never a moment where you thought, “the Oscar went to whaaaat?” And so, without further ado, the winners are…

Best Film: 12 Years A Slave. Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! So happy to see justice done. It is an extraordinary film. Chief producer Brad Pitt nobly and sensibly turned the speech over straight away to co-producer/director Steve McQueen, who was a sweet mess of nerves. He read out a long list of thanks, saying “I’m sorry about this” in a very British way for taking so long about it, and when he had finished, bounced up and down across the stage like a cuddly pogo stick. Brilliant.

Best Director: Alfonso Cuarón. I loved loved loved Gravity, but I wish Steve McQueen had won for 12 Years A Slave. Still, a worthy winner. Great to have two foreign art-movie directors vying for Hollywood’s most glittering prize.

Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey. Gutted that Chiwetel Ejiofor didn’t win this, but he’s unlucky to have come up against one of the strongest fields in ages. McConaughey is one of Hollywood’s own, and he was extraordinary in Dallas Buyers Club: a complete transformation. And he did say “all right all right all right” in his speech.

Best Actress: Cate Blanchett. Well of course. Always the bookies’ favourite, and it really couldn’t be otherwise. She absolutely carries Blue Jasmine, and what’s more, she’s about the only person ever in a Woody Allen film not to sound exactly like Woody Allen. “Julia hashtag suck it,” Blanchett said to Julia Roberts in her speech, continuing “The world is round, people!” Love her.

Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto. He didn’t win me over. He was maybe as good as he could be in a part that was just a rainbow coalition of clichés, but I would rather have seen Jonah Hill win for his gutsy, literally balls-out performance in Wolf Of Wall Street.

Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o. Yay!!! J-Law was fantastic in American Hustle, but we already know she’s that good. Lupita, however, is a new, fresh, raw talent, and so elegant and dignified off screen and in her speech: “When I look down at this little statue, may it remind me and every child that no matter where you are from your dreams are valid.” Somehow she makes this utterly heartfelt and charming, not hokey as you would expect.

Best Original Screenplay: Spike Jonze. Oooh, good for him! Her was a fresh, quirky, thought-provoking script, but I’m still surprised that the American Hustle bandwagon petered out quite so comprehensively as not to win this.

Best Adapted Screenplay: John Ridley for 12 Years A Slave. Fantastic to win this, I’m all for 12 Years winning as many as possible, though as Ridley himself said in the speech, the main credit goes to Solomon Northup. Scary speech by presenter Robert De Niro, incidentally: “The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing,” he said. “Isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination, and consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.” Thanks, Bob! Mostly, it’s scary because it’s true.

How I became a hook-handed supervillain

14 Dec

Last week, shooting wrapped on a 15-minute short I helped write. Not only that, this was my first speaking role, at the insistence of director/co-writer Tony Errico, whose whole crazy scheme this film was. And me so shy and retiring 🙂

The premise is great: it’s a mockumentary about a retired supervillain. I played one of four supervillain friends. If the film turns out half as funny to watch as it was to shoot, we’ll be made up.

The day started badly, for me at least. Tony had decided overnight that the villains should all be of different nationalities: my German character was suddenly American. Luckily I had one of the writers on hand (me!) to rework my three passages of dialogue to an American idiom, but it was nerve-wracking to relearn the lines and practise a new accent at the last minute.

It was yet another illustration of the fluidity of film. It always seemed to me that The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where scenes change as Jim Carrey’s memory is rewritten, is on one level a metaphor for the script-writing process: characters that started out female become male; two become one; old becomes young. It was an eye-opener to be part of it happening during shooting.

The scene was a poker game. I had a hook for a hand, which made holding the cards interesting. And I got off lightly: Tony’s character was blind. I’ve played a $10,000 tournament in the Caribbean against world champions; in a mahogany-lined club a stone’s throw from the Arc de Triomphe; on the Mashantucket Pequot native American reservation; on a table suspended from a crane 40m above ground beside City Hall; against millionaires, gangsters, hookers and hustlers. This was definitely my strangest game yet.

I haven’t had so much fun since playing Toad of Toad Hall aged 12. Apart from a wordless cameo as Surprised & Disgusted Journalist in the last featurette I co-wrote, Animal Charm, I hadn’t acted since playing Chrysale in a French production of Le Malade Imaginaire in my teens. It’s a different skill, for film: working out what the framing is; performing actions (like poker) at the same time as speaking; learning new lines on the day; trusting the director when there is no audience reaction to guide you.

And always remembering the sagest piece of acting advice given by the screen’s greatest actor. Asked for his best tip, Robert De Niro once thought hard, and said: “Try not to blink.”