Wednesday, 22 April 2009

An Inventor Biopic for our Age (that isn't The Social Network)

The still very much in-development Facebook movie was inevitable from the point the website took off. Three Harvard students work on limited resources to develop a modern cultural phenomenon, gaining fame and success in the process. There's certainly a film that can be made out of that story and the subject matter alone is likely to attract the coveted 18-30 market. It could well be the sort of feel good story so important to the industry in times of economic hardship; the 'average' guys who hit on a good idea and are successful against the odds. Its the sort of thing we can all dream of.

Except that's where the problem lies. Much like Tom from Myspace, Mark Zuckerberg and co. are too often portrayed as the 'average blokes who just got lucky' but try as I might I just cannot see them that way. As remarkable as Zuckerberg's achievements are, he is far from average. Much is made of the gamble he took in dropping out of university to pursue his dream but it was Harvard he dropped out of and he had already been courted by Microsoft and AOL. He may have stumbled on a very simple and brilliant idea but it was an idea born out of an incredible computing brain which knew exactly how to advance and spread the business. Don't get me wrong, this is still an underdog story, but not the sort the average cinema goer can dream of emulating.

So where am I going with this? Well I was recently struck by the remarkable success story of a company that was not just surviving in the recession era, it was thriving. It's a company that's main idea is remarkably simple but remains timeless. Born out of the most humble of beginnings its as universally recognised as it is iconic. It's Lego.

Yes Lego.

Its a story that deserves to be told and the type that a modern audience can really identify with and be inspired by.

You see, Lego arose from the ashes of the Great Depression. Its creator, Ole Kirk Christiansen was just a humble carpenter who in 1924 had seen his workshop burn down and had very nearly gone bankrupt as the world struggled in the early 1930's. He started making toys to get by and hit on a very simple, but very brilliant, idea in interconnecting building blocks. Its the sort of thing people look at and just think: "I should have thought of that."

The company's growth from such humble beginnings to what it is today is just as inspiring. With the help of his son, Godtfred, Christiansen set about building an empire, seeing the potential of the product and risking their livelihood on its success. There were setbacks along the way but Lego began attracting the attention, and the profits, to expand around the world.

Its hard to imagine a product that is so universally popular and so fondly remembered as Lego. Facebook may be phenomenally successful, but it's not universally loved. Does Lego create debates about a surveillance society? No. Is it criticised for its cynical policies on advertising? No. Is it accused of being hopelessly addictive and time consuming? Well yes. But the point remains its a company that everyone can get behind and a story that deserves to be on the big screen.

This is perhaps unlikely to happen. Details of the personal aspects of Christiansen are hazy, and of course personalisation is crucial in biopics. And then there is the fact that this is not an American success story, its a Danish one, and perhaps that is the only country where we will see such a biopic emerge from. I'd still watch it though because there are very few success stories that can beat the timelessness and true underdog quality of Christiansen's. Its a feel good, hopeful film we could all do with.

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Thursday, 16 April 2009

Considering the 'Chav' as Britain's New Movie Monster

The class divide and juvenile delinquency have traditionally been an area of focus in British cinema. Many, such as Ken Loach and Shane Meadows have used these themes as a platform for social commentary, introducing us to highly sympathetic and human characters in bleak and forbidding environments. British cinema has always given us images of the violent, criminal youth but it has often been with a sense of disillusionment; young people driven into their situation by an unsympathetic society and a Thatcherite nightmare. Even the more recent considerations on the subject, such as Noel Clarke's Kidulthood, born very much in the wake of the tabloid structured panic about 'chav' culture, seek to put a human edge on the Daily Mail nightmare unfolding in the film.

Last year's Eden Lake, however, followed a very different approach. The film does offer flashes of the human emotions of its young delinquents and anyone who has seen the ending can testify that upbringing has had a huge influence on how the children have turned out, but to a large extent they are horror movie monsters; caricatures of savagery that lack the boundaries of civilised society. One of the most striking things about the reaction to the film was alarmed international viewers asking "is Britain really this bad!?" to which many British viewers responded "yes!"

Eden Lake is a film of ultra-violence, torture and remorselessness, so it is rather surprising, and perhaps worrying that many saw this is an entirely plausible story. This is perhaps because the film satirically incorporates many of the moral panics surrounding modern youth culture into its storyline. One of the most evident examples of this is the filming of the torture with mobile phones, a heavily exaggerated example of the 'happy slapping' phenomena that gets so much press attention in Britain.

Although some will see the film as a satirical sideswipe at tabloid panic, it could be argued Eden Lake is not a healthy portrayal of youth culture in Britain. It may, however, be the first of many films to incorporate the 'chav' into the horror movie genre. In America the redneck reins supreme in horror movies. You know the drill; young, attractive city folk head off into a remote, backwater town and encounter a hostile bunch of lower class, uneducated and uncivilised locals. It reinforces any number of stereotypes but it has been done a million times before and the redneck will continue to be a goldmine for horror movie directors. They are the 'other;' vaguely plausible and a part of the cultural landscape but not one of 'us,' watching the movie in our middle class homes.

Britain, tiny island as it is, does not quite have a redneck equivalent. In Britain, a 'remote' town is an hour away from a major city so the concept of a cut-off society with no concept of the 'real world' seems implausible (only slightly more implausible, it must be said, then it is in America). However, chavs are increasingly being portrayed in the media in the same way rednecks are shown in horror movies; violent and aggressive, low on education and social etiquette and with a "we look after our own" mentality. The simple lifestyle and religious reverence is replaced with a streetwise, urban community that fits modern Britain and in the chav we have our 'other;' we know they are there, we've heard the horror stories and they are not one of 'us.'

Its a worrying concept. Films like Eden Lake can only serve to fuel the tabloid fervour surrounding youth culture and an examination of the cultural and societal impacts on young people must be considered before they are portrayed as evil incarnate.

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Thursday, 9 April 2009

Bring Back Chevy Chase

I'm not even kidding.

I may be in the minority in campaigning for a career resurgence for Cornelius Chase but I think people have become so focused on his post-80's status as a bad punchline that they forgot that this guy was actually pretty good once. I'm perfectly willing to admit that some of his later career choices were...unwise, and the phrase 'box office poison' does spring to mind but this guy was the star of Caddyshack and Christmas Vacation and that's two more classic comedy movies then you've been in. Probably.

Seriously, if you read over Chevy's C.V. and then got distracted at around about 1989 you'd think this guy was comedy gold (if you imagined Caddyshack II never happened, just like everyone else). But then it all went wrong. Catastrophically wrong in a way that makes it look like Eddie Murphy's career is going through a slight blip. The 90's had its fair share of disasters and the new millennium had Chevy pop in up in a few awful family movies but his career had basically been reduced to the status of television guest star.

But its time he got a break. He did once come close to a comeback when he was offered the lead in American Beauty; a role he turned down due to his commitment to family friendly films. That was the sort of facepalm inducing decision that half makes you want to weep for the man and half makes you want to let him commit career suicide and be done with it. But that was ten years ago and since Goose On The Loose didn't prove to be the huge success Chevy wanted, I imagine he wouldn't be quite so fussy if you offered him a third chance.

If it was well produced, I would be happy to watch a movie with Chase about getting old, sort of in an About Schmidt vein. He's in his 60s, so he's fairly limited to this type of film but he's got one of the best deadpan deliveries around and while he's got nothing on Jack, he has the charisma to carry a black comedy. Why else do you think they wanted him for American Beauty?

Of course, Hollywood isn't very likely to give Chase a lead role, especially when his star-power is virtually non-existent these days but comebacks are all the rage right now and if he can't get a lead role there should at least be an opportunity for him to snag a cameo in a film with the new kings of comedy and give his career a kick start. Playing Will Ferrell's dad would be perfect casting.

It makes perfect sense in the economic climate too, as Chase will probably work for less than the $7 million a movie he once reportedly earned. A lot less. And if the rumours are true and a new Ghostbusters film is going ahead that means Dan Aykroyd is getting another crack at the big time. And if Dan Aykroyd can do it...

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Monday, 6 April 2009

Underrated: 5 reasons why The Fall deserves your respect

Never before has a trailer for a film caught me so off guard as for The Fall. When I first saw it I had heard no buzz about the film at all but the trailer left me fascinated; why was such a sprawling, visually stunning movie creeping in under the radar? True, it had a no-name cast, a director who had only made one previous film, and a budget far smaller then its grand scope let on but this only peaked my interest and I made it my mission to see this film. This proved to be a more difficult task than I imagined, with the film being released in the U.K. almost 2 years after it had originally premiered at Toronto. The film has begun to get some love, with Roger Ebert in particular giving it an enthusiastic review, but it still remains sorely underrated, not least for the following reasons...

The Locations

Real, non-CGI, stunning locations from around the world. CGI may allow you to create any landscape you choose, but this was not an option for director Tarsem. He financed much of the film and over a period of four years took his actors around the world shooting scenes as they went. Its the kind of attitude a studio producer would balk at but The Fall is a labour of love. Tarsem's method may not have been the most time or cost effective but by shooting in the beautiful, hidden locations that the world has available, the film appears far more expensive then it actually is. Its all the more impressive that the film feels so surreal and stylised, much like 300, but without a green screen in sight.

Catinca Untaru

I'm really not a fan of child actors. They're either played up to be too cute or are molded by the industry to become far too self aware. Dakota Fanning is a good example. Catinca Untaru's was one child performance I did like. To date, The Fall, is her only screen acting performance and I would not be surprised if it was her last. She is not a product of Hollywood, she's a slightly chubby Romanian who can't really boast the child 'acting' ability of Dakota and co. But what is so good about her performance is that you never really think of her as acting at all. Every emotion she expresses seems genuine and heartfelt and rumour has it that she genuinely believed actor Lee Pace was a paraplegic rather than just his character. I can believe that; Untaru doesn't seem to be a character, she just seems to be acting herself, and is all the more believable because of it.

The blurring of reality

The fairytale-mirroring-real-life concept is far from new, and many narrative-within-narrative stories tend to over do it to the point that it becomes gimmicky but in The Fall its done with subtlety; reminding us that the epic story of revenge is the product of 2 people's imagination yet not requiring us to analyse the tiny details until we lose sight of the story. The characters cross over and the villain is inevitable but I love the little details. Watch out for the similarity between the henchmen's armour and the X-ray suits and the appearances of each of the revenge seeking heroes in very small, blink-and-you-miss-them roles in and around the hospital. Its not essential to the storyline, but its well thought out and demonstrates this film has far too much depth to be dismissed as a piece of eye-candy.

The Dark Themes

Every fantasy film that comes out these days seems to assume that darker is better but The Fall managed to trump them without even really trying. The film may be a story of a man telling a fairytale to a child but it is one of anger, revenge and death. The story reflects the ever changing mentality of its storyteller, suicidal and heartbroken, as he becomes increasingly desperate, so does the story. It doesn't take long to realise that he is not entertaining and gaining the trust of the child for her benefit and sets Untaru's Alexandria up as a symbol for hope and redemption. This is a grown-up and knowingly cynical tale that evolves with the characters to set up brilliantly intense climax.

And Finally, this guy...

'nuff said.

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