Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Underrated: Kontroll

FilmFour often surprises me. Just when you think it has become an endless cycle of Mission: Impossible III and second rate Michael Douglas thrillers, it suddenly manages to recapture your attention and fly in the face of a ratings-driven industry. The recent Ingmar Bergman season was a particular example of this; Swedish meditations on death and morality will not exactly pull in audiences, but it was a complete treat for cinema fans. For those of us not blessed with satellite television or bottomless pockets, it was our reward for toiling through the meagre cinematic offerings of ITV2, BBC3 and FiveUSA.

Not long after the Bergman season ended, FilmFour proudly announced a M. Night Shyamalan double bill. I sighed in despair. However, in amongst its once again predictable listings stood Kontroll, a film that has intrigued me for a while now.

Though I was vaguely aware of the film and its setting and plot, I was far more familiar with its director, namely Nimród Antal. Antal strikes me as a man who has become a victim of the Hollywood machine; a talented and creative foreign director who becomes just another helmer-for-hire when they cross the Atlantic.

Kontroll was Antal's first feature film. It was well received and was in competition at Cannes 2003, the first Hungarian film to do so for twenty years. Much like Timur Bekmambetov and Oliver Hirschbiegel, he was identified as a cheap and crowd-pleasing option for helming mid-budget American productions. The three films he has directed since crossing the pond have ranged from the just-about watch-able (Vacancy) to the just-plain awful (Predators).

Most reviewers have expressed their disappointment with Antal's efforts, having seen undoubted talent and flair in his work on Kontroll. The questions that were being asked of Antal are ones that have always bugged me; how are talented international directors so easily sucked into Hollywood's talent vaccuum of mediocrity? Why do so many of them fail?

In Antal's case, you need only go back to his breakthrough film to get your answer.

Kontroll really is an excellent, unique film. Considering I went into it with high expectations, I was surprised not to suffer from any feelings of disappointment. It has so many features that would make an American producer sit up and take notice: a stylised look and feel, the dreaded 'quirky' cast of characters, a wicked sense of humour. However, it simply would not work as an American film; the tone is too cynical and the setting too drab (the film takes place entirely in a filthy underground rail network). The great strength of Kontroll is that, stylistically, the influence of American films is very evident, but the film is very much from a Hungarian, not American, perspective.

Kontroll centres on a team of ticket inspectors in a Hungarian metro station. We follow them, led by central character Bulcsú, on their daily duties and activities as they encounter a strange cast of characters, including threatening (and ticketless) passengers, a mischievous youth named Bootsie, and an eccentric woman dressed as a bear (Bulcsú's love interest). Meanwhile, a mystery figure is pushing passengers in front of trains and characters are engaging in a dangerous sport known as "rail running."

Like Bulcsú, we never see sunshine, but we become part of an underground world that does not seem entirely human. An unnatural, greenish glow lights filthy, graffiti-ridden seats and inspectors struggle with their sanity as they gain no respect or dignity from the vagrants and oddballs they meet. At the beginning off the film, the director of the Budapest Metro appears to assure us that the film is in no way representative of its workers or service, but any subway veteran will be able to recognise that the film is not entirely a work of fiction. There are certain people who you will only ever meet at night in a Tube train carriage.

Antal offsets the dreary setting with a cast of entirely likeable characters; ranging from a fatherly train driver with a drink problem, to an excitable, yet narcoleptic, member of Bulcsú's crew. Whilst we are presented with familiar movie personas such as the rookie, the wise, old head and snarky member of a rival crew, they never once feel like stereotypes. Each character has a freshness about them that belies the staleness of their surroundings.

So, what does all this mean for Antal in Hollywood? Simply put, to make a film like this on a decent budget would be impossible in America. Many of the themes are too dark and the characters too morally ambiguous to risk a considerable amount of money on and Antal is yet to prove himself worth the risk. Predators clearly demonstrated this. What should have been a hot European director breathing new life into a tired franchise became a series of clichés and predictable characters. Antal must take some of the blame for this, but it is clear, like many international directors, that he has had to curb the eccentricities and quirks that originally made Hollywood sit up and take notice, in order to make it in an already crowded scene.

At the moment, Antal is at a crossroads in his career. Predators was not the successful reboot that was expected and there are doubts whether he will be handed a budget like that again. This, in my mind, is a good thing. Antal needs to return to the talents that originally made him stand out; favouring strong characters and setting over driving the plot forward through exposition and set-pieces. Perhaps, even, a return to Hungary may be worth considering. For now, I urge you to hunt down Kontroll and give it a chance; the film that made (and possibly broke) Nimród Antal.

In the meantime, I would urge the powers-that-be to look again at Kontroll. This great film demonstrates strengths that, given the right amount of creative control and a producer willing to take a risk, could yet make Antal a star. After all, Kontroll will always be the film that made (and possibly broke) Nimród Antal.

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Wednesday, 6 July 2011

On Any Other Year: Gregory Peck vs. Peter O'Toole

Ah, Atticus Finch; devoted parent, defender of the oppressed and the American Film Institute's greatest hero in movie history. To Kill a Mockingbird was a peerless adaptation of one of the most ground-breaking books of the 20th century, and at the centre of it all was Gregory Peck as the saintly and crusading Finch. In an era when heroes were heroes, Atticus Finch was arguably the greatest of them all, and Peck had the role of a lifetime. He would never forget how lucky he was to be given the part.

At around about the same time of Mockingbird's release, a very different type of hero rode his camel into the limelight and attempted to steal Finch's thunder. That man was T.E. Lawrence or, rather, Peter O'Toole, a complete unknown who had just starred in the epic to end all epics - Lawrence of Arabia. 

O'Toole's performance is also on the American Film Institutes's list of heroes (number 10) but his actions are far more ambiguous in their virtue. Lawrence is portrayed as an egotist who, by the end of the film, actively engages in a massacre and is on the brink of losing all sense of perspective. However, O'Toole's endless charisma and gravitas leave the viewer remembering Lawrence for his bravery and bravado; the man who turned back to rescue Gasim in the desert, rather than the bloodthirsty avenger he becomes.

Charisma and gravitas are two great strengths that were also possessed by Gregory Peck, and he showed it in spades in his portrayal of Finch. Mockingbird's author, Harper Lee, once said of Peck that "Atticus Finch gave him an opportunity to play himself." Peck often compared his own childhood to that of Scout and Jem in the book and his love for the character and understanding of the film's themes and messages shine through in his performance. Firm and disciplined, yet tender and reassuring, Peck not only convinces as a caring father, but as a lawyer who does his utmost to defend an innocent black man from prejudice and injustice.

For Peck not to win the 1963 Oscar for Best Actor would have been a crime. In my view it is one of cinema's greatest ever performances and perhaps the most perfect piece of casting in a book-to-film adaptation. It is such a shame, then, that Peter O'Toole role as T.E. Lawrence happened to be in the same year.

Poor Peter O'Toole, a man with 8 Best Actor nominations to his name, but not a single win (honorary awards do not count). Lawrence of Arabia remains his best performance and the most deserving of those nominations. For an unknown actor to burst onto the scene in such an epic way is remarkable. The sheer amount of effort required for the role would make other actors balk at the task. The fatigue was genuine, the shoot was notoriously arduous and O'Toole was nearly killed when he fell of his camel. But what we got at the end of it was a film that will never be forgotten, despite its flaws, and a central performance that stands out among the miles of desert and thousands of extras on display. On any other year, O'Toole would have Oscar glory. Forty-Eight years later, he is still waiting.

On Any Other Year takes on the Best Actress category once more next time. Anne Bancroft, Katharine Hepburn (again!), and Faye Dunaway make a hell of a line-up, but how exactly did the Academy choose between them?

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Wednesday, 29 June 2011

On Any Other Year: Marlon Brando vs. Humphrey Bogart

Two very different actors. Two very different shows of masculinity.

As I have written about before, the 1952 Academy Awards saw The African Queen and A Streetcar Named Desire facing off against each other - great films with very different content and a great deal of parallels to be drawn, not least in the performances of the films' stars.

The Best Actress category had seen Vivien Leigh and Katharine Hepburn facing off for the top prize, but the remarkable thing about Streetcar and The African Queen is that their greatest strengths come from the interplay between leading lady and leading man. As strong as Leigh and Hepburn were in these films, their performances would have been diminished without a strong, male sparring partner to face off against, and vice versa. For both films to work, a very special chemistry was required between their stars. That is exactly what we got.

Just as Leigh had put in a landmark performance in Streetcar, Marlon Brando matched her as the repugnant yet compelling Stanley Kowalski. It is surprisingly rare to see a star born over the course of a single film, but for Brando, an unknown in one of his very first films, it was a performance that set him on the road to becoming one of the greatest actors ever to live. Brutal, manipulative and charismatic, Brando perfectly captured a deceptively complex character - a man that has an almost hypnotic hold over his mistreated wife Stella. His routine life is turned on its head by the arrival of the disapproving Blanche DuBois.

It is the chemistry between Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando that makes this film such a brilliant adaptation. The sexual charge behind their exchanges bubbles under the surface as they display their contempt towards each other - elegant femininity contrasted with raw animalism. In all their scenes, a sense of impending dread that something is going to go horribly wrong between the two of them builds. Those who know the play will, of course, know something will go wrong, but the tension developed by Brando and Leigh is a remarkable display of acting talent.

For Leigh, this meant Oscar glory, but Brando was to (unfairly, in my view) miss out. Standing in his way was the legendary Humphrey Bogart.

Bogart was a man in transition. He was, perhaps, two old to hold the role of traditional, dashing leading man. He always had a world weary air about him but, now in his 50's, Bogart was crying out for a role that took the idea of a mature, grizzled man who was been there and done that, and just roll with it. The African Queen  was just such a roll.

It is impossible for Bogart not to be charming, but the character of Charlie Allnut was a world away from Phillip Marlowe or Rick Blaine. The gin swilling and the cynicism are familiar character traits, but Allnut is Blaine without the hope or kindness; a slob who has all but given up on himself. Grumpy to the point of being cruel, Bogart pushes his traditional image to its limits in his early exchanges with Hepburn in the film. But, as with so many films from this era, it takes the love of a good woman to turn him around.

The chemistry between Hepburn and Bogart is perfect. Nowhere near as intense and combustible as Leigh and Brando, Charlie and Rose's chemistry is reluctant, moving slowly from intense dislike to mutual respect and, finally, to pure attraction. It could more or less write the rulebook for the love-hate relationship - something that Hepburn and Bogart were used to, but perfected alongside each other.

Brando should have won this particular showdown, but on any other year, Bogart would have walked this award without a problem.

On Any Other Year will return to examine the Best Actor category once again, and the 1963 competition between Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird and Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia.

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Wednesday, 11 May 2011

On Any Other Year: Vivien Leigh vs. Katharine Hepburn

The 1951 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire would live and die on the actors chosen to portray Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski. Plenty of stage adaptations have faltered by casting a Stanley who wasn't raw and animalistic enough. Many more have suffered with a Blanche who lacked a unique enigmatic and alluring quality. The film adaptation nailed its casting.

On Any Other Year will focus on Marlon Brando's Stanley Kowalski in the next post, but today Filmstubs is looking at the 1952 Best Actress category. Just a year after the award was presented with an extraordinary array of competition, two of the era's greatest actresses went into direct competition in the category. Vivien Leigh had perfected Blanche DuBois in Streetcar. In a film filled with career defining performances, hers was the most extraordinary. Blanche is incredibly difficult to get right, but Leigh's charm and fragility, along with her portrayal of a woman beginning to lose her sanity, was utterly convincing.

As remarkable as the performance was, Leigh's Oscar was no foregone conclusion. She was up against an acting titan who the Academy loved like no other; Katharine Hepburn had just put in one of her most memorable performances in The African Queen. Like Leigh, Hepburn was playing a woman who finds herself placed in a situation with a man she believed was beneath her; a classy lady stuck with a slovenly and unkempt alcoholic. Whilst the chemistry between Leigh and Brando is raw and destructive, the equally engaging combination of Hepburn's Rose and Humphrey Bogart's Charlie is reluctant and classically love-hate.

Charlie is not the brute that Stanley Kowalski is, nor is the initially frigid Rose a Blanche DuBois, so their relationship in far more restrained and slow-burning. The chemistry is there for all to see, however. The African Queen is made great by the interplay between Hepburn and Bogart, who spend long stretches of the film alone together on the boat. Only great actors can carry a film in such a way, and Hepburn and Bogart's charisma shines through.

Ultimately, we were left with two greats of the golden age, both Oscar winners already, competing for the ultimate prize again in 1952. Vivien Leigh won, I would say deservedly so, but 1952 was a ceremony that pitted two extraordinary women at the peak of their powers against each other. It was a rare and great moment for the acting community.

Tomorrow, I will look at the same ceremony, this time focussing on the Best Actor category and the two men who played opposite Leigh and Hepburn that year - Marlon Brando and Humphrey Bogart.

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Tuesday, 10 May 2011

On Any Other Year: The 1951 Battle for Best Actress

The performances of Bette Davis in All About Eve and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd. have been drawing comparisons for all of the 60 years since the films were released. Two classic films, each focussing on ageing actresses desperately trying to cling to former glories, make the parallels impossible to avoid. In reality, however, the performances were very different. The jealous outbursts of Margo in All About Eve have little in common, character-wise, with the dangerously deluded Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. Their eventual fate demonstrates this; Margo eventually reclaims her dignity, Norma Desmond only reclaims the illusion of dignity.

Where the two performances should draw parallels is in their brilliance. Some found Swanson's performance to be over-the-top but in the case of Sunset Blvd. it was perfectly fitting. A once-glorious and adored silent movie actress, used to over-annunciated and exaggerated gestures, Swanson's portrayal of Norma Desmond is exactly how I'd expect such an actress to behave. The same goes for Bette Davis in All About Eve; witty and talented, she is used to being adored. The transformation of Margo as Anne Baxter's Eve has an ever-increasing influence on her life is remarkable. Davis is brilliant early on as the effortlessly cool diva, but her increasingly confrontational style as her jealousy towards Eve grows is even better.

But enough about these two performances. They didn't win the Oscar after all. Anna Baxter also lost out for the titular role in All About Eve. She had proved more than a match for Bette Davis in the film, evolving from the picture of sweetness and innocence to a conniving and ruthless manipulator with remarkable and wholly believable skill. In fact, one could argue, if they had not effectively split each other's votes by appearing in the same film, either one of them would have deservedly walked away with the top prize.

They didn't, however. The honour went to Judy Holliday for her performance in Born Yesterday. It is a fine performance, with Holliday playing a former showgirl being educated to fit in with high society. At most Academy Awards in the era she would have won the Oscar easily but, of the four actresses, her role is perhaps the least well remembered. That is not because there was anything wrong with it, on the contrary, but because this was a particularly fine year for female actresses and time would look more favourably on All About Eve and Sunset Blvd. (though Born Yesterday is still a very good film).

If I were to choose a winner now I would probably go for Bette Davis, though her cause wasn't helped by the fact she had already won two Oscars at this point and been nominated many times. Baxter also had an Oscar to her name, though Swanson would never win, with this being her final nomination. All the roles have gone down in history, however, and this remains one of the strongest years for the Best Actress category in history.

On Any Other Year will return next time to examine the Best Actress category once more. This time, the focus will be on 1952, and Vivien Leigh's performance in A Streetcar Named Desire going up against Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen.

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Friday, 6 May 2011

On Any Other Year: The 1941 Best Picture Battle

On Any Other Year is a new series of short articles for Filmstubs covering the Academy Award moments when voters were faced with a dilemma worthy of Sophie's Choice. 

Often, from the moment the Oscar nominees are announced, we know the clear frontrunners. This is particularly true of the acting categories. This year, for instance, not many people were under the illusion that anyone other that Colin Firth or Natalie Portman would walk away with the top prizes. Very occasionally however, the Academy will be presented with two or more nominees so deserving of winning a certain category that it seems a sin to see one lose out.

Most (though by no means all) Oscar-nominees are good, but sometimes a year will throw together several works of greatness, be it in film-making or acting and force them to fight it out for top spot. Hence "On Any Other Year:" the nominees that would have cantered to the Oscar in a lesser year but lost out to greatness.

We start with 1941, and one of the strongest Best Picture fields the Academy has even witnessed. Then, like now, the Best Picture award was made up of ten nominees. In this particular year, the nominees were a mixed bag of neglected greats (Foreign Correspondent, The Letter) and so-so films that had gained popularity at the time (Kitty Foyle, Our Town). There were, however, four stand-out nominees: Rebecca, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Dictator, and The Philadelphia Story. All of these films occupy places in the IMDb top 250, 70 years after their release.

Rebecca would go on to claim the Academy Award. Few would argue that it didn't deserve it. This was a film that showed a different side of Alfred Hitchcock and the extent of his talent. It was a masterful film, superbly shot and acted. It remains, to this day, one of the greatest literary adaptations made on film.

However, pretty high on the list of great literary adaptations would the The Grapes of Wrath. John Ford brilliantly captured John Steinbeck's classic Great Depression tale and was graced with great performances from his cast. The themes of the film are the sort of thing the Academy loves, and it did, giving the film seven nominations. It says a lot about the quality on display that year that The Grapes of Wrath only gained two awards.

The Great Dictator was altogether something different. An incredibly enduring comedy and biting piece of satire, its timing, as America debated whether to enter the Second World War, was impeccable. As a satire of Nazi Germany it was more effective than any propaganda film the industry could produce. That is not to say it has not remained relevant; anyone with a passing knowledge of history can easily pick up on the themes. If not Charlie Chaplin's greatest work, it is certainly his most accessible.

Finally, we have The Philadelphia Story, probably my least favourite of the four, but perhaps the film that best captures Hollywood's Golden Age. The unbeatable combination of Cary Grant, James Stewart, and Katharine Hepburn give this the class and wit that so many romantic comedies of the era seem to ooze. It remains much loved, and is the only film that James Stewart would ever win an acting Oscar for.

So there you have it: four films, all of which would have richly deserved a Best Picture Oscar. They've all aged incredibly well, but it is only Rebecca that is a Best Picture winner. In my view, of the four, Rebecca was the film that deserved the prize, but I would certainly not begrudge any of the others winning.

On Any Other Year will return to examine the 1951 battle for Best Actress. 

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Monday, 2 May 2011

So when does Ben Affleck stop being the butt of the joke?

The Academy Awards, 1998. Two young best friends triumphantly hold their Oscars aloft, having come together to write the electric screenplay for one of 1997's most successful and critically lauded films. Before they were barely recognisable, now they stood with the world at their feet.

Fast-forward five years and one of those young men, Matt Damon, was well on the way to fulfilling that potential and becoming one of the biggest stars on the planet. He had just starred in The Bourne Identity, which would go on to be one of the defining franchises of the early twenty-first century. His acting career was taking off, but the creative promise he had shown as a writer for Good Will Hunting was yet to develop; his only other writing credit, 2002's Gerry, was far less impressive and successful than his Oscar-winning effort.

At the same stage of his career, Ben Affleck, co-writer of Good Will Hunting, was in trouble. In 2003 he starred in three films: Daredevil, Gigli and Paycheck. All of them were regarded as dismal failures, with Affleck getting a huge chunk of the blame. His high profile relationship with Jennifer Lopez and their abysmal performances alongside each other in Gigli had made him a laughing stock. That Affleck could be an Oscar-winning writer began to draw snorts of derision from his critics. A whispering campaign began that soon morphed into a common pop culture assumption: Matt Damon was the driving force behind Good Will Hunting and Ben Affleck was just along for the ride.

That assumption remains strong in 2011, and Affleck still retains an army of critics. However, the doubters and hecklers have started to be drowned out by the growing number of Affleck's defenders and supporters. For every film fan that feels Affleck has committed unforgivable crimes against cinema, there is one that feels he is a talented man that has made some bad decisions. Just as he had become a star off the back of work he had done off-screen, he has been rebuilding his reputation in the same way. Gone are the days of ill-conceived blockbusters and unfunny comedies, Affleck is now a writer-director whose first two films, Gone Baby Gone and The Town  have been brilliantly crafted, critically acclaimed and purely entertaining. Suddenly that whispering campaign seems far less credible.

Affleck has shown his eye for a story and maturity in delivering grown-up tales with challenging themes. He can draw great performances from his stars (both Gone Baby Gone and The Town received Oscar-nominations in acting categories). This maturity has seen his own acting ability develop dramatically, whether it be directing himself and convincing as a leading man in The Town, or offering great support in political thriller State of Play. The simple fact of the matter is that Ben Affleck just isn't a joke any more. The people that still feel he is are clinging to an image of Affleck that is half a decade old.

Half a decade is a long time in movies.

So, what about Good Will Hunting? Well the simple truth is that two young friends got together and co-wrote a great screenplay and lived the dream. Their careers may have taken different paths but the talent they showed has never gone away. Most people in the know see Ben Affleck as having a great future behind the camera. Matt Damon's future in front of it is assured but it would come as no surprise if he chose to have a crack at directing at some point in the future. He'd be good at it, too.

Maybe it's time Matt Damon and Ben Affleck collaborated again...

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Thursday, 31 March 2011

I'm still fairly sure this is an elaborate April Fool's joke

Credit: Karon Liu

I never trust a trending topic on Twitter, particularly when the first day of April is just a few days away. Indeed, on this very occasion when I was browsing the micro-blogging site, a topic was trending that claimed Jackie Chan was dead. He wasn't.

Just underneath this falsification rested Jennifer Garner's name. Apparently she had been cast as Agatha Christie's pensionable sleuth Miss Marple in a Disney reboot of the series. Pull the other one, I thought.

But here I am, two days later, blogging about this very topic because the story seems to have been picked up by every news agency going and we are facing the very real possibility of a 38-year old American playing Miss Marple. If this is actually an April Fool's joke, it's right up there with the BBC's spaghetti crops.

As someone who has never claimed to be a fan of Miss Marple or even Agatha Christie, I am not one of those people who is at the point of rioting over this news. Any Hollywood re-imagining of something so quintessentially quaint and British was never going to be a good idea. Even a sensible casting decision, Judi Dench for instance, would not convince me that this was going to be a great film. I'm more concerned with what this says about the way Hollywood is interpreting its audience.

The simple truth is that a film centred on an elderly spinster will not shift tickets, no matter how good it is. There have been plenty of successful films featuring older characters, yes, but they have relied on word of mouth and attracting a certain type of cinema goer to be successful. But the industry only really wants the attention of one demographic: the 18-30 year old.

When it comes to mining the classics for their rich reserves of characters and plot, we've seen producers stray from the original many times before. More often than not, this is to bring them "up to date" and make them palatable for a modern audience. Hence, Sherlock Holmes becomes a younger, all-action hero and Othello takes place at an American high school.

Some of these re-imaginings work better than others, but when they do work it is because they have stayed true to the heart and soul of the original piece of literature and framed it in a way that the 18-30 audience can relate to. Think 10 Things I Hate About You putting a modern twist on Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew. When it doesn't work, the point of the story is missed completely and a character is simply mined to make the film more marketable. I know a lot of people enjoyed Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes but the BBC's Sherlock proved you can bring the character up to date without completely changing him.

Sadly, Miss Marple is in the latter category. A completely original detective story starring Jennifer Garner just wouldn't sell, but by attaching the name of a famous literary character, regardless of how unrecognisable they are from the original, you might make some money.

Perhaps we could remake the Famous Five as a group of sexy college students who solve mysteries with their sassy talking dog, Timmy (not to be confused with Scooby Doo). Justin Bieber could star as Oliver Twist, an orphaned street urchin who becomes an international music sensation.

As someone who is in the 18-30 demographic, I like to think that Hollywood woefully underestimates us. That, if they treated us like adults and gave us some straight-up, faithful adaptations we'd flock to see it. That is what my heart says.

My head says we're getting what we deserve.

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Tuesday, 22 March 2011

So, you want us to change the nationality of our film's bad guys entirely? No Problem.

The people behind the Red Dawn remake really are geniuses. They spotted the potentially flawed logic of making China the evil, invading bad guys of their new film, realising that it doesn't necessarily pay to annoy around a billion potential customers in an increasingly lucrative commercial market. Wise reasoning indeed, the only problem being that they came to this decision after the film had actually been made.

So what to do? Scrap the entire project? $75m down the drain is a lot to lose. How about widespread reshoots? Costly, but the only real way to remove all references to China from the film. Or, you can just get it all in post-production like the Red Dawn producers chose to do.

According to the Los Angeles Times the film is having flags, symbols and dialogue digitally altered to turn the Chinese into North Koreans. As the article mentions nothing of any reshoots, we can only assume that the Chinese and Chinese-American actors in the film will miraculously become North Korean. This is hardly surprising - Hollywood seems to have no qualms about pushing the notion that all Asians look vaguely the same (just like people from the Middle-East).

As this Cracked article points out, Hollywood seems to be running out of reliable bad guys faster than you can say "regime change." It seems that the end of the Cold War was the worse thing to happen to action movie producers, which is ironic as so many of their films were about bringing down the Iron Curtain.

North Korea seems to be the frontrunner to become "the new Russia" so to speak, but I still feel uncomfortable about reducing an entire nation of people crushed under a tyrannical regime to a faceless enemy. The first action film to capitalise on the ongoing conflict in Libya will feel my wrath.

Personally, I have no problem with a fictionalised enemy. If I'm watching a film about people defending their American town from an invading foreign force, I'm not going to believe it any more if they're from North Korea, China or the evil Republic of Villainovia. The explosions and the the bullets are all the same. But for some people, the killing just isn't real if it involves those bad guys they've seen on the news. So North Korea it is.

By the way, I'm calling this now: Red Dawn will be the worst film of 2011.

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Friday, 18 March 2011

On African actors in Hollywood

Djimon Hounsou, from Benin (Photo by fashion photographer Anthony Citrano)
Do a Google search on issues surrounding African actors in Hollywood films, and you'll be met with a flurry of results, almost none of which are focused on actors who are actually from Africa. Unless you were wise enough to make use of quote marks, the issue you will be faced with is the plight of African-American actors. Whilst Hollywood is still not giving enough quality, non-generic roles to African-Americans, very little is being said about the native African actors, who are arguably getting a far poorer deal.

With the exception of Europe and the US itself, Africa is one of the most used landscapes by the movie industry. It's appearing more and more frequently too. Everything from Oscar-bait tales (Blood Diamond, The Constant Gardener) to schlocky blockbusters (Lara Croft: The Cradle of Life, Sahara) are making use of the vast continent. That's not to mention the biographical tales of heroic (Invictus) and villainous (The Last King of Scotland) leaders and the many, many films that have used Africa as an anonymous setting for alien or fantasy worlds (Star Wars included).

So surely that would present plenty of work for African actors? Not necessarily.

Though more and more films are being set in Africa, very few of the really juicy roles are going to actors from the continent. It is much easier for Hollywood studios to hire established African-American actors to put on an accent and top-line their movies. Hence we have Morgan Freeman playing Nelson Mandela and Forest Whitaker playing Idi Amin. Perfectly capable though those performances were, it is highly unlikely that an African actor was ever considered for either role because there simply aren't enough of them established in Hollywood.

One notable exception is Djimon Hounsou. For years now, he has been the most established black African actor in Hollywood since his breakthrough with Steven Spielberg's Amistad. Twice nominated for an Oscar, his ethnicity has left him typecast to some extent but it has not stopped him gaining roles in some major films over the last decade.

Hounsou's success is rare, however. There are black African actors out there but very few who were brought up in the continent. The likes of Idris Elba and Chiwetel Ejiofor were born to African parents but brought up in Britain, for instance.

Then, of course, there is Omar Sharif, the exception that proves the rule. The Egyptian actor is a true Hollywood legend. His ethnicity never hindered him in what has been a long and varied career.

It must be noted that is not necessarily a colour issue - white African actors, from South Africa or Zimbabwe, are fairly rare in Hollywood but the likes of Sharlto Copley and Oscar-winner Charlize Theron fly the flag.

However, with so many African characters emerging it seems strange that more African actors are not making their name. To any Hollywood producer, I would suggest taking a leaf out of Ridley Scott's book.

For 2005's Kingdom of Heaven, Scott cast little known Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud as Saladin, the general of the Muslim army. Syria may be a part of Asia, but a lesson can be learned for films set in Africa. Massoud was a respected actor in his home country, and though the role was a particularly key one, he was cast for his suitability, rather than his fame. As things turned out he gave the best performance in the film, portraying a wise and charismatic leader with ease.

Massoud's example is clear evidence, if any was needed, that there is plenty of untapped talent in African and Arab countries if someone were just willing to take a risk and cast African and Arab actors to play African and Arab characters. Instead, the roles are going to Don Cheadle, Jennifer Hudson and, perversely, Jake Gyllenhaal. It's time to widen your scope, Hollywood.

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Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Casting Julian Assange

From an unknown activist and journalist, to one of the world's most sought after people, Julian Assange (wrongly) became the focal point for the Wikileaks diplomatic cables scandal. All of a sudden everyone wanted to know more about this awkward-looking man - be it his allegiances, his motivations or, importantly, his private life.

Inevitably, the source of media fascination became the source of Hollywood fascination. The story of Wikileaks was a story that could make money.

I am in little doubt that the planned Julian Assange/Wikileaks project, scheduled for 2013, will be awful. A sensitive story that has already had its main focus (the cables themselves) distorted and skewed to become a media circus around one man will only suffer further when placed in the hands of Hollywood producers. It is also a story that is far from its conclusion - there are still plenty more cables to be leaked and the fate of Assange is yet to be decided.

But enough about all that trivial stuff, there's a movie to be cast.

Step forward Macaulay Culkin. Or Matt Damon. Or maybe even Tilda Swinton.

The Swinton idea is actually beginning to gain legitimate traction. The resemblance between the Oscar-winning actress and the androgynous Australian journalist is uncanny and people seem to be using Cate Blanchett's portrayal of Bob Dylan in I'm Not There as precedent (because, apparently, film casting works like the legal system). As good an actress as she is, a piece of stunt casting like that would give the film no hope of being anything other than dramatic exploitation of a serious event, so, fun as it is, let's rule out this particular idea for now.

Now, Culkin. He's been due a comeback for a while now, he's all grown up (30 years old!) and he can sort of act (watch Saved!). But, seriously, Macaulay Culkin enters back into the movie business to play Julian Assange? Slight resemblances apart, this screams stunt casting once again and there's no guarantee that Culkin could pull it off. It's a no.

Damon's a good actor, one of the few leading men who can more-or-less guarantee a box office draw and has that eternal youthfulness that, combined with a good wig, may make him have a passing resemblance to Assange. But why do I get a terrible feeling he'd butcher an Australian accent?

My choice? Guy Pearce. Far too craggy to play Assange, yes. But he's a incredibly solid actor, is an actual Australian, and will give the film a legitimacy that none of the other actors mentioned would. Also, to anyone who think he looks nothing like Assange, go and watch Factory Girl (though not all the way through, it's awful). Guy Pearce, in a blonde wig and playing Andy Warhol, looks more than a little like Assange. Lose the sunglasses and it might work. Not that the film necessarily will, but if we at least cast a decent actor it would be a start.

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Sunday, 27 February 2011

Filmstubs is still alive (and excited about the Oscars)

It's been almost a whole month, but Filmstubs has been on something of an enforced hiatus as I concentrate on my journalistic career (currently giving my time to the New Statesman, since you ask). Anyway, just to prove I still care deeply about this blog, I thought I'd point out that I am very excited about the Oscars tonight. This is partly because there is the strongest competition in at least five years, and partly because I cannot wait for the awards season to be over. Anyway, here's my personal favourites for this year.

Best Picture

The Social Network

Actor in a Leading Role

Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network)

Actress in a Leading Role

Natalie Portman (Black Swan)

Actor in a Supporting Role

Christian Bale (The Fighter)

Actress in a Supporting Role

Melissa Leo (The Fighter)

Animated Feature Film

Toy Story 3

Art Direction



The Social Network

Costume Design

The King's Speech


David Fincher (The Social Network)

Documentary Feature

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Documentary Short

I'll admit to having seen none of them so I won't comment.

Film Editing

127 Hours

Foreign Language Film



The Wolfman (Though I hate to see terrible films win Oscars)

Music (Original Score)

Hans Zimmer (Inception)

Music (Original Song)

"If I Rise" (127 Hours) - Really weak category this year

Short Film (Animated)

I've only seen The Gruffalo and I thought it was fairly poor.

Short Film (Live Action)

Seen none I'm afraid.

Sound Editing


Sound Mixing


Visual Effects


Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

The Social Network

Writing (Original Screenplay)


There you go. I'd give only one award to the King's Speech despite the fact it will probably sweep the board. Six for Inception and five for The Social Network. It reflects the fact I thought they were far and away the best films of last year. If Fincher misses out on best director this year it'll be a crime.

Anyway, I'll be posting again in the not too distant future. See you soon.

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Monday, 31 January 2011

Life After "The Wire:" What the Stars did Next

What more can be said about The Wire? A slow burner and never a ratings powerhouse, it was a show that gradually grained more and more respect and a loyal group of fans. Now, nearly 3 years after the show concluded it is more popular than ever, with many critics hailing it as the greatest TV series ever made.

You can see their point. The Wire showed an attention to detail and scope that was not only rare, it was unique. It took a pretty standard TV premise, that of cops tracking drug dealers in Baltimore, and turned it on it's head. Cases were spread out in to an entire series, the intricacies of detective work was shown in meticulous detail, as well as the politics and corruption of the police hierarchy. But this wasn't a police show, it was a show about the city of Baltimore and it's inhabitants. That is why, instead of showing the drug dealers as shallow caricatures, as so many cop shows have done in the past, equal importance was given to the lives and operations of criminal groups in Baltimore. We saw a world with complex politics, ingenious methods of avoiding capture, and incredibly vivid, and often sympathetic, characters.

It was these characters that made The Wire. Almost every major character was well developed and highly believable and the show was never about any one person with others acting as peripherals. For much of the cast, which was largely made up of relative unknowns when the show started, it was the best characters they'd ever get a chance to play. But The Wire had to end at some point, so three years on, Filmstubs is taking a look at some of the principal actors involved in The Wire and where they went after the show that made their name ended.

Dominic West (Jimmy McNulty)

McNulty was probably the closest to being the main character in the show (though many would argue there was no main character), McNulty was something of an anti-hero. Devoted to good policing and developing the best case, no matter who he screwed in the process, he also happened to be something of a hard-drinking, self destructive bastard. It never stopped you liking him though. It seems strange that a tough Irish-American detective would be played by a privately educated Englishman who went to school with none other than David Cameron but Dominic West is just that. In England at least, his work on The Wire has only recently begun to receive widespread recognition, leading to appearances at award ceremonies and on panel shows. His post-Wire career has ranged from bad films (Punisher: War Zone) to above average TV shows (The Devil's Whore). Expect an appearance in the upcoming follow up to Johnny English, which I'm not sure anyone actually wanted.

Idris Elba (Stringer Bell)

Another British actor in an unlikely place. The character of Stringer Bell defied all stereotypes about the drugs trade. Intelligent, articulate and ruthless when he needed to be, Bell was the real brains behind Avon Barksdale's operation and, despite leaving the show at a relatively early stage, remains one of the most memorable characters. Since leaving, Elba has worked at an incredibly prolific rate. Supporting roles in films such as 28 Weeks Later and American Gangster have been common and he has excelled in larger roles such as RocknRolla. He's even got a starring role in his own BBC detective series, Luther, which aired to positive reviews last year. Expect him in this year's Thor.

Michael K. Williams (Omar Little)

Arguably The Wire's most popular character, Omar will go down as one of the most memorable in television history. Baltimore's answer to Robin Hood, Omar is a shotgun wielding vigilante who answers to no-one. Recognizable by a huge scar across his face, Omar always distinguished himself from the rest of the criminal underworld. His complex moral codes always fascinated. Williams probably knew he wouldn't ever get a role as good as Omar Little (how could he?) but his work since has been solid, and as a member of the cast of HBO's new epic Boardwalk Empire he may well become a household name. Apart from that, Williams has popped up in the odd film and guested in several popular American TV shows.

Sonja Sohn (Kima Greggs)

One of several strong female characters in the show, Greggs is a tough detective and one of the few that likes McNulty's way of thinking. Sub-plots revolving around her home life and starting a family with her parter, Cheryl, were always strong but Greggs' police work made her a key character, particular her friendship with her CI, Bubbles. Since The Wire finished, Sohn has stuck to TV work, taking a recurring role in Brothers and Sisters and crime series Body of Proof.

Lance Reddick (Lt. Cedric Daniels)

Daniels is hardly a laugh-a-minute character but his commitment to the cause and willingness to stick up for his team stand him apart from the array of corrupt and self-interested cops on show in The Wire. That said, Daniels does have a mysterious past, but throughout the show he's the glue that holds the show's characters (the police at least) together. Lance Reddick must have a friend in J.J. Abrams as, not only did he have a recurring role in Lost, he is now a major character in Fringe. Just don't mention Jonah Hex.

John Doman (William Rawls)

Arguably the show's biggest bastard, which is impressive considering some of the characters that have shown up, Rawls may not have racked up bodies but he took no prisoners as a Deputy Commissioner for Operations trying not to make Baltimore police, and himself, look bad. Angry, rude, and often hilarious, Rawls is just about the worse boss you can imagine. Naturally, he hates McNulty. Doman has his very own starring role in upcoming series Borgia, a French/German production focusing on the famed Borgia family during the renaissance, one of the more interesting projects a Wire alumni has got involved in. Apart from that there's been the standard recurring roles in TV series (Damages) and supporting in films (Blue Valentine).

Wood Harris (Avon Barksdale)

The focus of the detail that started it all, Barksdale is a key player in the Baltimore drugs trade and heads a vast drugs network that McNulty and co. are determined to take down. Barksdale is known as particularly ruthless and often cruel character, one that preferred to go in guns blazing rather than talking. It's an attitude that would drive much of the conflict in season 3. Things have been steady for Harris since leaving The Wire, with the usual mix of TV guest roles (House, Hawaii Five-O) and film appearances. This year he will star in Sweetwater, a film chronicling the life of the first black NBA basketball player Sweetwater Clifton, played by Harris.

Wendell Pierce (Bunk Moreland)

Bunk could well be the show's funniest character, but that doesn't make him a clown. Cigar chomping, hard drinking and with a bitter sense of humour about his life and job, Bunk is one of the good guys; a homicide detective less concerning with numbers and more concerned with the case itself. Naturally, he is one of McNulty's closest allies. Pierce has been busy since The Wire ended but perhaps his most notable role since has reunited him with Wire creator David Simon, starring in HBO's Treme. A lot of Wire fans have been disappointed with Treme simply because it is not The Wire but the shows are similar in that they require patience and a willingness to immerse yourself in the environment. Pierce is strong as always. Somewhat disappointingly he's going to be in the next Twilight movie, but the less said about that the better.

Clarke Peters (Lester Freamon)

The wise old head of the show. Freamon is a skilled, meticulous detective who has been dealt an unfair hand for much of his career but gets a shot at redemption as part of Daniels team. Whilst Greggs and McNulty prefer the direct approach, Freamon prefers to stay in the office, finding ingenious ways to keep tabs on the team's target, imparting invaluable wisdom as he goes. Peters is another Wire alumni who has found his way onto David Simon's Treme. It's not really a surprise to see them working together again when things went so well with The Wire. Peters also had a stint in vaguely trashy British hospital drama Holby City, and for the life of me I can't figure out why he did.

Andre Royo (Bubbles)

Everyone loves Bubbles. Greggs' reliable informer, Bubbles was a character you really hoped could make it away from the grip of drugs and destitute housing. A low-level user who was effectively disregarded and ignored by dealers and hoppers, this made him a perfect man to study their actions and provide valuable information. Since The Wire ended Royo has kept busy with guest appearances on shows such as Numb3rs and Heroes. He's also appeared with Lance Reddick in Fringe and is set to make a number of film appearances in 2011.

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Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Filmstubs' 2011 Predictions - The Good

Another year, another long list of films that we hope and pray will be great (and some we'd really like to fail). Nothing marks a new year like making ill-advised predictions on what's going to happen over the next 12 months that will inevitably come back to haunt us so Filmstubs has decided to take a stab on which films will be great over the coming years. I decided to not cheat and include the films that are being released this year that we already know are good (sorry The King's Speech!). Also, this is a list based on quality, not box-office performance. It's too easy to predict that the latest Twilight film will make a hat-full of money, but it still won't mean it's any good.

Here's 10 films that I expect to be great over the next year, and if they're not I will be severely disappointed.

1. Paul

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost head stateside and befriend an alien named Paul. Expect pop-culture references galore and great support from some of America's finest comedians. This may not have Edgar Wright at the helm but when Simon Pegg and Nick Frost get together they've yet to let us down. Could be a sleeper hit and launch Pegg and Frost into the stratosphere.

2. Thor

There's a raft of comic book movies heading our way over the summer and Thor's probably the one I have highest hopes for. Hiring Kenneth Branagh as director is a left-field decision but it's crazy enough to actually work. If it takes itself too seriously it could suffer but if we get a dose of epic mythology mixed with popcorn fun it should be a hit.

3. Pirate of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Believe it or not, this could actually be good. The sequels were atrocious and there's a lot of people out there who would rather not see this franchise dragged out. But, gone are Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly and their insipid romance, and arriving are Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane. Now that's a good deal. Factor in a (hopefully) more focused storyline and some new locations and this might just make people love the franchise again. Either way it will be among the highest grossing films of the year.

4. The Tree of Life

It's taking a big risk to say this film will be great because we know so little about it. However, Terence Malick is always interesting if not always coherent and it has massive star power in Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. The trailer doesn't reveal much but it looks fascinating and it's refreshing to know so little about a film and to be incredibly interested in it at the same time. After all, it was around about this time last year that we saw the first footage of Inception and were scratching our heads as to what it was all about.

5. Cowboys and Aliens

When we first heard the title, it seemed like a bit of gimmick. I expected a tongue-in-cheek schlocky film to kill a summer evening and forget about. But Jon Favreau seems to be crafting something a lot more interesting than that. A proper, moody Western with James Bond and Indiana Jones acting side by side colliding head on with an old school alien invasion movie. This sci-fi western means business and combining the two might not be a gimmick and may just be a bit of genius.

6. The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Martin Scorsese is never afraid to try something a little bit different and this seems like an unusual choice for him to direct but I think it will work. A 3D adventure based on the best-selling book of the same name, the cast is simply outstanding. Ben Kingsley, Jude Law, Christopher Lee, Ray Winstone and Emily Mortimer are all due to appear and this could well be a big hit.

7. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Scorsese may have a good cast, but Tomas Alfredson's is better. Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Stephen Graham and Benedict Cumberbatch all appear in this adaptation of the John le Carre spy novel. The 70's mini series with Alec Guinness is a classic and an intelligent, well crafted spy movie is something we could do with more often in cinema and this could well deliver.

8. War Horse

Steven Spielberg's been quiet for a while now. With the disappointment of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull it seems like a long time since he worked his unique magic on screen. War Horse is familiar territory; you can trust Spielberg to deliver an emotionally charged war film. Expect dramatic scenes and a lump in your throat. Spielberg could be back with a bang.

9. A Dangerous Method

The last two collaborations between Viggo Mortensen and David Cronenberg have been great and there's no reason to believe this film, focusing on the relationship between Sigmund Freud (Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), won't be. We don't know too much about it but somehow Freud and Cronenberg seem a perfect fit.

10. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Swedish version of the pop culture phenomenon was a pretty good attempt and the casting of Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth was perfect. So, why do we need an American remake a little over a year later? David Fincher, that's why. Any other director and I would have had my doubts but this is well trodden ground for Fincher and he's sure to deliver and dark and atmospheric thriller that can surpass the original. It's difficult to tell if Rooney Mara will be well cast as Lisbeth but Daniel Craig as Mikael seems just right.

Special mentions: Hanna, X-Men: First Class, Super 8, Contagion, Your Highness, and Source Code. All of which I hope will be great.

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