Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Interview with Taika Waititi and James Rolleston

After his Oscar-nominated short Two Cars, One Night (2005), which swept awards on the festival circuit, New Zealand director Taika Waititi confounded critics and audiences with his debut feature, the super-oddball and darkly comic Eagle vs Shark (2007), which starred Jemaine clement (pre-Conchords fame. With His sophomore feature Waititi hits the mainstream, with a charming, big-hearted comedy that won the audience prize at this year's Sydney Film Festival, and has become the highest grossing New Zealand film of all time.

Filmed in New Zealand’s North Island in the small community of Waihau Bay where Waititi grew up, Boy is set 1984, at the height of Michael Jackson's Thriller-fever. As the film sees two young brothers- Boy (James Rolleston) and Rocky (Te Aho Eketone-Whitu) adjusting to their father Alamein's (Waititi) return home after a seven-year stretch in jail. For 11-year-old Boy this involves creating a vivid fantasy in which his father is a superstar of a war hero; the reality is a lot more disappointing.

Waititi, who describes Boy as inspired by both “true and imagined memories”, spent a few years writing the script; however after making a number of successful short films, decided he didn’t want to make Boy his debut feature. “I just felt like I wasn’t really ready to make my first film, in my home town”, he explains. Instead Waititi chose to focus the smaller-scale Eagle vs Shark. “I thought just make something really small and that I could sort of learn how to make a feature film on. Learn from any mistakes I would make on that and apply that knowledge to Boy.”

As with his earlier films, Waititi infuses Boy with his own unique blend of comedy and drama. Although he intentionally plays with tone in his film, he is concerned by how this mixed genre filmmaking is sold to audiences. Eagle vs Shark was really hard to market...Like in the States it was marketed as an all-out comedy and people went along and went- ‘ah it’s not that funny’- there are actually some really depressing parts to it. People go along expecting one thing and then it takes them a while to adjust, to figure out why it’s not as funny as the poster.”

One of Waititi's main challenges with Boy was finding the right actor to carry-off Alamaein's fundamentally immature character in a way that was also sympathetic. “I like that this character, who is obviously a dickhead, has got some really loveable parts to him as well. He actually tries, but it is just a really twisted way that he attempts to connect with his kids.”

After almost a year of struggles, Waititi decided to cast himself in the role. “I had recalled people probably 6-7 times and just wasn’t really getting something different, something I hadn’t seen before. I just felt it was kind of typical of what we are known for in New Zealand, that kind of acting, or that kind of portrayal of Maori men. I wanted the character to be obviously clumsy and kind of uncomfortable in his body. It just felt like most of the people who were auditioning they just tried to be tough.”

Rolleston was originally cast as an extra, rather than the lead. “I was in class and a lady came in and asked us if we wanted to do some auditioning for a feature film, me and my mates put up our hands. I got to the audition and I met Taika and I had to do a skit and I got cast as an extra. When I went to go have a wardrobe fitting I was just walking around introducing myself, saying hello to people and everybody was blown away and then three days before shooting I was cast [as Boy].”

Given the pressures on Waititi in the lead up to filming and given Rolleston’s late casting, there wasn’t much time to build up rapport between the film’s family unit; however Waititi suggests this inadvertently added to his character development. “I was so busy I couldn’t hang out with them [the child actors], so I actually felt like a bad dad right from the start because I wasn’t paying them that much attention.”

With Boy's success in his home country, one wonders how Rolleston has navigated the media attention. “I’m not really a fan of any of this [publicity]" he admits- "I get quite shy. I get shy as when people call out my name in the street, because everybody looks.” This hasn’t dented Rolleston’s interest in films though “I’m hoping to do more acting,” but he also adds “ I’d like to do other things as well, like marine biology, or have my own hunting show, or both.”

Meanwhile, Waititi’s next role is in Martin Campbell's comic-book adaptation Green Lantern (out 2011). “The casting agents had seen [Boy] at Sundance and asked if I would read for a part in the film. It seems quite preposterous to me that I even got into it but it was really enjoyable, seeing the whole Hollywood thing, just a new experience.”

With Waititi spending about half his time in the States at the moment, what is happening with his own filmmaking? “I am writing scripts some are set back home and some are set there [US], it is just a matter of whatever gets finished first and whatever gets funded first. It hasn’t been too hard getting interest in the States. Things are looking pretty good so far.”

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First published in The Brag 23/08/10

The Killer Inside Me

Anyone with even the vaguest interest in films is aware of the hoopla surrounding British director Michael Winterbottom’s (24 Hour Party People) first American film and the levels of violence it depicts. Unfortunately the discussions around The Killer Inside Me means that as a viewer you can never watch it without some prior knowledge and the influence of the strong opinions surrounding its content (consider not reading on if you have managed to avoid hearing anything thus far).

Based on a 1952 pulp novel by Jim Thompson (who also wrote The Grifters), the film follows Lou Ford (Casey Affleck), a sociopathic, small-town deputy sheriff, viewing the action from his perspective. With a loving girlfriend, Amy (Kate Hudson) and a seemingly contented life, Ford’s hidden nature comes to the fore when he is asked to run Joyce (Jessica Alba), a prostitute, out of town. When a blackmail scheme and the chance for revenge coincide, Lou’s psychotic behaviour is unleased on his unsuspecting friends and colleagues.

The thing that most film commentators have taken from The Killer Inside Me is its violence, which is graphically displayed and brutal to watch. There has been so much talk about this that you’re on tenterhooks watching the film. Ultimately anticipation robs the film of some of its power, dulling its confronting and shocking nature.

Winterbottom has defended his film against detractors, saying that violence on screen, especially realistically depicted, should disturb viewers. And he makes a good point, violence in films is rarely accompanied by any sense of its truly horrifying consequences. Perhaps more worrying to Winterbottom is the number of people who accuse the film of being misogynistic.

With a highly stylized noir aesthetic and impressive performances from the whole cast, including an excellent turn from Affleck, this is a good film, but really nothing more. It isn’t the profound look at human nature, or the unique take on the genre you might have expected from a director of Winterbottom’s calibre; but then again it isn’t the gratuitously violence, exploitation film that has been suggested either.


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First published in The Brag 23/08/10

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Four Lions

Chris Morris’ tv shows in Britain have caused outrage, controversy and hours of amusement. Whilst his ‘edgy’ humour isn’t to everyone’s taste, his scathing appraisals of the media, hipsters and celebrities has borne fruit in cult hits like Brass Eye and Nathan Barley. Now turning his hand to filmmaking, Morris has chosen a topic which seems completely inappropriate for comedy- terrorism. Four Lions follows the fortunes of a small group of British jihadists as they attempt to come up with a way to strike a blow against a country they feel alienated from. In the same way that This is Spinal Tap looked at heavy metal music, and In the Loop looked at transatlantic politics, Four Lions is a farce looking at the modern idea of terrorism.

Morris spent three years researching the topic speaking to terrorism experts, police, secret services, imans and members of the British Muslim community. What he found was there were plenty of comedy elements that already existed in the situation- like a terrorist cell that accidently overloaded their boat with explosives, so it sunk before reaching its US warship target or a terrorist mastermind who spend hours looking for a costume that wouldn’t make him look fat in his martyrdom video. A jihadist cell- like any other grouping of people- is full of misunderstandings, petty rivalries and bravado. Morris sums it up pretty succinctly-“Terrorism is about ideology, but it’s also about berks.”

Four Lions’ jihadist cell consists of: Omar (Riz Ahmed, Centurion), the unofficial leader of the group, who has an uncle in Pakistan with links to training camps; Waj (Kayvan Novak, The Fonejacker) who doesn’t have much going on upstairs, relying on Omar to do all his thinking; Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a white Islamic convert who is overly public about his views and really wants to be leading the cell; Faisal (Adeel Akhtar, Traitor) a quiet, sad man who worries about blowing himself up because then who’ll look after his sick dad. This group struggles to come up with a plan of attack they can all agree upon, with the ever antagonist Barry unilaterally recruits another member, Hassan (Arsher Ali) a university student/wannabe political rapper.

There are times when the humour in Four Lion slips into silliness, but for the majority of the film it is sharp thanks to the scriptwriting of Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show). At times it almost feels like you are being deceived by the comedy and wonder if you should be laughing at what you are seeing. This is the clever thing about this film- as it progresses you actually feel quite sorry for the men at the centre of the film. They are hopelessly inept and are confused about their grievances. Omar’s family scenes are particularly depressing- he explains jihadism to his young son using Disney’s Lion King as an analogy. Morris doesn’t allow his characters to escape responsibility just because the film is framed as a comedy, nor has he made his characters simply idiotic and sat back and poked fun at them, his purpose is to show how the whole situations has become a farce.

Four Lions is a film you expect to be funny given the comedic talent attached, but surprisingly it is also strangely moving as well.

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First published on Trespass

Monday, August 23, 2010

Interview- Ruba Nadda

Canadian-Syrian filmmaker Ruba Nadda has been receiving rave reviews for her film Cairo Time. An old fashioned romance, the film shows off the talents of Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig and the beauty of Egypt’s capital city. Ruba Nadda spoke to The Brag about working with her dream cast and the trials of filming with a censorship lady in tow.

In Cairo Time, Juliette (Clarkson) arrives in Cairo to find her husband has been delayed by work and has sent an ex-colleague Tareq (Siddig), a local, to meet her. As the film progresses a delicate romance plays out as Juliette discovers the delights of the city. This 'West meets Middle East' story has two unconventional romantic leads, a woman in her 50s and an Arab man. “I have always been obsessed as a filmmaker with trying to break down the misconceptions about the Middle East and Arab men in general”. But it was the age of Nadda’s female protagonist that caused the most worry-“I remember our financiers for the film trying to convince me to change the character and make her in her 20s or her 30s. I was really firm about having her being in her late 40s. In the movie she’s 50. For me it was really important to keep her at that age-I knew had it been a woman in her 20s, it wouldn’t have carried the same kind of weight.”

Cairo Time’s success is reliant on the central performers’ chemistry, and Nadda had an ideal cast in mind- “I wanted Alexander badly. I’d written the role for him, I’d been a huge fan of his over the years. And then I wanted Patricia. I just saw them together, I felt that they fit.” How did Nadda know these two actors who had never worked together would have the right energy? “the thing about romances is that it is all about the chemistry- either the characters have the chemistry or they don’t, and when they don’t they [romances] can be brutal. I winged it, I prayed that by casting these two people, and not having them audition in a room together, I prayed that they would have that chemistry. I remember filming the first shot and they were unbelievable, and so it worked. Making movies it’s kind of fate, it’s kind of like chance, sometimes you have to just go with it.”

Nadda can’t praise her stars enough- “the thing about Alexander and Patricia is that they are so experienced , they’re so amazing, so talented, when I had talked to them about their characters and the story, they really got it.... The thing about Patricia is that she is a powerhouse of an actress and so it was a lot of fun collaborating with her, she’s a very smart woman.”

Of course the other great character of the film is Cairo itself, a place that had captured Nadda’s imagination a long time ago “I always had Cario in mind. My parents are from Syria, they’re Arab. They took us [Nadda and her sister] on a visit when I was 16, to Cairo and it enchanted me so much that I just became obsessed with the city, and I basically pocketed the image of this amazing place, this atmosphere in my brain until many years later I thought I have to set a story here.”

Nadda’s script had specific famous locations written in, some of which had never been open to film crews before- the Pyramids and El Fishawis coffee shop. Nadda had to use her Syrian nationality to get access to these areas -“I would say ‘look I’m an Arab filmmaker, you have to give me permission, you can’t say no to me’”.

Nadda was similarly determined when it came to protecting her project against external pressures. “I was really committed to not altering the script because of the Islamic censorship. I was like ‘you’re not putting money into this movie, you’re not going to tell me how to shoot it’. My crew and I felt very strongly that if we got Cairo, we were not going to get pushed around. The script I wrote, I basically shot in the end. I am actually quite proud of that, because it was a real battle with the censorship woman, who was hired by the government and who literally signing every reel before they were being shipped back.” Nadda and her team had to come up with ways to circumnavigate their unwanted government tag-along- “for certain scenes I had to get rid of her because she wouldn’t have allowed us to film. So we had all these little ploys and plans for removing her when we needed to”.

Cairo Time with its lovely balance of visual wonder and character charm, has earned its director some long awaiting kudos at home. “I’ve been an outsider to Canadian film for many years, and all of a sudden with Cairo Time, it’s like I’ve finally been accepted into the kind of filmmaking clique here, it feels nice.”

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An abridged version of this interview was published in The Brag 16/08/10

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Everlasting Moments

Everlasting Moments/Maria Larssons eviga ögonblick comes from one of the great European auteurs, Swedish director Jan Troell, now in his late 70s he is known for films like Emigrants (1971), Bang! (1977) and Il Capitano (1991). Celebrated around the world, Troell’s films often look at the lives of Sweden’s working class, which is again the terrain he covers in this his latest film. Based on a real–life woman, Maria Larsson (Maria Heiskanen), Troell takes his audience into the landscape of early Twentieth Century Sweden weaving a beautiful narrative around his central character and her passion for photography.

Troell became aware of Maria’s story through his wife, Agneta Ulfsäter-Troell’s research into her family history (Agneta is a distant relative of Maria). Over a number of years Agneta interviewed Maja Öman (Maria’s eldest daughter) and found out about Maria’s photography; Maria had won a camera in a lottery as a young woman and despite constant financial troubles had kept hold of it all her life. Troell, realising the social significance of Maria’s story and himself a devotee of still photography, set about turning his wife’s research, along with Öman’s memoirs, into a script, which he co-wrote with Niklas Rådström.

Everlasting Moments examines the adult life of Maria, a working-class mother of seven, married to the often brutish drunkard Sigfrid (Mikael Persbrandt). The film looks at the family’s struggle to keep their heads above water, the changes in Northern Europe during the beginning of last century and Maria personal engagement with photography. This is a film that slowly entices you in, with its fantastically realised sense of place and time and excellent performances.

Although Maria wasn’t a leader in the field of photography or a renowned photographer, the film’s exploration of the burgeoning art form is absolutely absorbing. Under the kind tutelage of the delightful photographer Pedersen (Jesper Christensen), Maria’s nature gift for photography develops and she discovers this very powerful method for self-expression.

Troell wrote the script with Finnish actress Maria Heiskanen in mind for the central role, and watching the film you can see she was the perfect choice. Equal measures vulnerable and stead-fast, Maria is a fascinating character. The film balances Maria’s responsibilities and choices with her desires; although there is an inevitable sense of melancholy to the character, there is also a joy and determination making Maria more than just a put-upon wife and mother.

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First published on Trespass

Friday, August 20, 2010


On paper Salt sounds like an interesting film prospect; a spy thriller starring Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetal Ejiofor, all excellent actors who tend to pick good projects to work on, under the steady hands of Australian director Phillip Noyce (The Quiet American, Dead Calm). In the current climate of Islamic fundamentalist baddies, it is also a nice change to see a return of Communist Russians, determined to tear down the fabric of American society. Unfortunately the experience of watching Salt doesn’t live up to the hype. It’s not a bad film, it is even worse- it’s a boring film. This is a story of espionage that completely forgot to include any of the required intrigue and excitement – basically a thrill-less thriller.

Evelyn Salt (Jolie) is a CIA agent in the Russian department and apart from an unpleasant incident in North Korea, Salt seems to have a normal-ish life with her arachnologist husband. That is until a Russian defector names her as a long-time embedded Russian spy and through some rather inexplicable plotting she goes on the run, with her CIA boss (Schreiber) and Counter-Intelligence officer, Peabody (Ejiofor) on her tail.

Columbia Pictures must have been rubbing their hands with glee when the story broke earlier this year about the arrest of numerous Russian sleeper spies living in the US. The timing for Salt, which uses a similar set of circumstances as the basis for the film, is incredible. A piece of good luck, an insightful piece of scriptwriting or the most elaborate piece of film marketing ever (I’m not seriously suggesting Columbia Pictures embedded Russian spies in America just to increase the box office takings)- the coincidence probably suggests to potential film-goers that this film is a tapped on political thriller. It isn’t.

And what’s worse is the amount of talent squandered. The combination of an awful script (from Kurt Wimmer, Law Abiding Citizen) and lacklustre directing completely saps the life out of the film’s three stars. It is a hard task to make Schreiber (Definance) and Ejiofor (Serenity) completely uninteresting, yet somehow Noyce has managed it here. Jolie, who worked with Noyce on 1999’s The Bone Collector, is robotic in her performance and lacks any sense of being fallible, making her character rather inaccessible to audiences.

You can forgive the film’s ridiculous plotting- this is a genre reliant on certain breaks from reality and disassociates itself from the realms of what is humanly possible. But while there are a few good action sequences, these aren’t enough to combat the film’s monotonal performances and ultimately the film fails to generate any sense of exhiliration or charm- which is what you want and expect from a spy thriller. Salt had the potential to ignite and excite, sadly in the end it just fizzles.

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First published on Trespass

Thursday, August 19, 2010


Canadian director Vincenzo Natali scored a cult hit with his first feature film Cube (1997). Made on a small budget the clever sci-fi thriller involved strangers trapped in a cube-like maze. Sticking with the sci-fi horror theme, but with a vastly improved (but not astronomical) budget, Splice is a project that Natali and his producer friend Steven Hoban, have been mulling around since the late ‘90s. The story plays with tropes that have existed around scientific experiments for centuries and is in many ways a modern interpretation of the Frankenstein story. Using ideas of genetics and cloning that brings with it ready understood moral subtext, Splice is a mix of schlocky B-grade fun and borrowed Cronenberg-esque exploration (read: The Fly).

Splice introduces us to two celebrity genetic engineers (they make the front cover of magazines) Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley).They have been successfully splicing together DNA from different animal species, creating strange tongue/slug/phallic looking hybrid creatures that could hold the key to cures for animal diseases. Funded by an (evil) pharma corporation who want to see money returns for their investment, Clive and Elsa’s plans for more experimentation are halted to try and work up some pharmaceutical benefits from their research.

Driven by a higher cause- Science for humanity- Elsa and Clive, after some prodding, embark on a secret experiment splicing human and animal DNA- du-dun-dunnnnnnnnnnn. The discourses on the morality of messing with nature are as old as the hills, and as such we know from the beginning of the film nothing good can come from it.

Frankenstein’s monster of the piece, DREN (Delphine Chaneac) looks predominately human, but has some interesting faun-from Pan’s Labyrinth’s legs (thanks to executive producer Guillermo del Toro) and some peculiar additional animal anatomy. But of course the real monsters of the piece are the full-humans, who obviously failed Ethics 101.

Natali’s does make some interesting points looking at the current practice of delayed child-rearing by young professionals. Our two central characters are too busy to have their own children, yet inadvertently make one anyway whom they have to raise during the film. Canadian actress, Sarah Polley has been a fabulous asset to films since her breakout performance in Egoyan’s Sweet Hereafter, and teases the emotional aspects from Splice’s script. Brody is pretty good at playing cocky so sits well in his part of rock n’ roll scientist- getting to wear some of the most patterned suits ever made.

Splice is most enjoyable when it embraces and revels in its science-experiment-gone-wrong cheeky horror persona. Segments of this film are hilarious (hopefully intentionally) with completely over-the-top gore and general inappropriateness. But when the film tries to bring up its serious side, it is all too easy to think of films that tackle the subject matter with more inventiveness and original thought than this.

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First published on Trespass

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Special Relationship

From the writer Peter Morgan, who brought us The Queen and Frost/Nixon, comes The Special Relationship- a film that examines the close bond that grew between Bill Clinton and Tony Blair during their time in power. Using the established British cast from The Queen, and adding in some American players, the film covers Blair’s rise to power, Clinton’s sex scandal and the NATO bombing of Kosovo.

Told predominately from Blair’s (Michael Sheen) perspective, The Special Relationship charts his meteoric rise to power contrasting it to the decline and wane of Clinton’s (Dennis Quaid) popularity. Starting in 1993, the film shows how Blair learnt the art of spin from Clinton and then surpassed him on the international arena; the film finishes with Bush's election in 2001. Following the politicians and their wives, Cherie (Helen McCrory) and Hillary (Hope Davis), the film spends time behind the doors of 10 Downing Street and the White House and considers the genuine friendship that developed between the couples.

The script takes a bittersweet look at the two men that thought they were starting a universal centre-left political revolution, but instead got swept up in their own legacy making. Sheen and McCrory are old hands at playing the Blairs, with both actors creating their own characters, not simply impersonating their namesakes. Hope Davis is an excellent addition to the cast, taking on Hillary’s mannerisms with enough subtlety to make her performance believable. Dennis Quaid’s Clinton on the other hand feels mimicry; the voice he adopts is just plain distracting.

While for the most part the acting is excellent and the script, thoug not groundbreaking is funny and clever, the film is let down by its director, Richard Loncraine. He places way too much emphasis on guffawing and lingering looks between Blair and Clinton, taking the film dangeriously close to bromance territory (admittedly high-brow bromance). Watching The Special Relationship it’s hard not to think that the material is better suited to a TV show format. In fact in the USA it screened as a made-for-TV movie, scoring Sheen, Quaid, Davis and Morgan Emmy nominations.


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First Published in The Brag 09/08/10

Thursday, August 12, 2010

John Hughes Day

First published 06/08/10 at Trespass

Trespass has chosen to honour the late writer/director John Hughes today. Hughes was the man behind classics such as Pretty in Pink, Weird Science and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and as such a champion of Generation X. Sadly it was a year ago today that the 80s icon died of a heart attack at just 59. His premature death was a blow for the children of the 80s who had grown up with his teen films and his comedy movies. For most of us Gen-Yers, Hughes’ most celebrated film came out before we were born, or whilst we were too young to be the target audience, but thanks to older siblings his films filtered through, forever emblematic of that era.

Teenage experience
Hughes will forever be associated with Teen films. Known as the man who gave the genre creditability, Hughes changed the way teenagers are presented in films and in doing so his films became a part of the 80s pop culture influencing not just films, but fashion and music for a generation.

Hughes’ films that centred around the American high-school experience showed their tribal nature and the sense of alienation many teens feel. His films had the popular kids and the geeks, the jocks and the outsiders. Arguably Hughes then also defined teenagers, by giving them stereotypes to associate with, most viewers knowing they had a lot more in common with Hughes’ geeks than prom queens and rich pretty boys. Whether you felt a kindred spirit in Pretty in Pink’s Duckie or The Breakfast Club’s Allison, Hughes’ teenage audience knew one thing for certain, they didn’t want to end up like Hughes’ adults. The adult characters in these films were bullies who resented teenagers or clueless parents, completely out of touch with their children.

Racism and Classism
For all the praise that is being heaped on Hughes today, it is important to remember that not everyone is that enamoured by his films. Over the years suggestions that Hughes’ films are racist and classist have been put forward. The incredibly un-pc representation of an Asian exchange student- ridiculously called Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles and the overwhelming absence of major characters of colour in his films has caused some commentators concern. The elevated social standing of many of his characters has too been pointed at as a criticism of his film. If only writing about rich, mainly white characters was a crime, then poor Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach would be in serious danger. Sticking to writing about ethnic groups and social situations that you are familiar with, isn’t uncommon, or prejudice. Given that Hughes films often had (though not always convincingly) characters from the wrong side of the tracks, it is a bit unfair to cast him as a classist.

The charge of racism is a lot more complex and tricky to unlock. Personally it wasn’t something I ever noticed in Hughes’ films, but while they may be products of their time, jokes at the expense of someone’s race isn’t okay. While most commentators, whether they’re fans of Hughes films or not don’t see intentional racism in his films, it should be acknowledged that there are others who disagree, and unfortunately with characters like Long Duk Dong, Hughes gave them ammunition.

Here are some far more researched and articulate arguments on the topic of race in Hughes films;

Alison MacAdam’s article Long Duk Dong: Last of the Hollywood Stereotypes?

Kristi York Wooten’s article John Hughes Films Weren’t Racially Diverse, but That’s OK

Hits and Misses
Not everything Hughes touched turned to gold, and after his 80s heyday Hughes had his fair share of cinematic flops. While during the 90s Hughes did make Macaulay Culkin a star, writing all of the Home Alone films, it’s fair to say that despite the huge success of that series, Hughes work after the 80s was flimsy family film fodder, including the popular but overly sequelled Beethoven films and the box office bombs of Curly Sue (1991, the last film he directed), Baby’s Day Out (1994) and Flubber (1997).

While it is sad that Hughes film career petered out over the last decade, it is credit to his writing that people still love his films and still hold many of his characters dear.

"Life moves pretty fast. You don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."- the immortal words of Ferris Bueller

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Sunday, August 8, 2010

My, what big teeth you have- Film Interpretations of Little Red Riding Hood

The commonly told story of Little Red Riding Hood (LRRH) derives from the Brothers Grimm’s version and goes something like this- a little girl, who wears a red cloak with a hood, is on her way to visit her grandmother when she meets the Big Bad Wolf in the woods. Afraid to attack her in public, Big Bad sweet talks Little Red into revealing where she is heading and then buys time by suggesting she picks some flowers for her gran. Big Bad then rushes ahead to grandma’s house, tricks his way in and eats granny whole. When Little Red turns up with a freshly picked bouquet, Big Bad impersonates granny before also eating Little Red whole, then promptly falls asleep. In comes a hunter/woodchopper who slices Big Bad open and out pops granny and Little Red alive. They then help the hunter/woodchopper sew rocks into the wolf’s stomach, who upon waking goes to a well to drink and drowns.

Folk tale predecessors to our current sanitized version of LRRH played with themes far more disturbing than simply stranger danger. Interpretations of LRRH and it’s differing cultural variations have explored concepts of sexual awakening, sexual predators, sexual violence, cannibalism, the nature of men and the monster within.

"Alas! Who does not know that these gentle wolves are of all such creatures the most dangerous!"- Charles Perrault, creator the modern genre of fairy tales, is the first person known to have set the story to paper in 17th Century- giving it its title- Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (his version served as a morality tale, with no rescue for Little Red)

The sexual nature of LRRH has served as a warning to young women as to the sexual desires of men for centuries. However recent film interpretations of the fairy tale have added new dimensions to the story, often empowering Little Red instead of presenting her as defenseless and naïve whilst still playing with the story’s themes of gender, morality and sexuality. This article will look at The Company of Wolves, Freeway, Hard Candy and Hoodwinked!- all of which have taken a new spin on an old tale.

The Company of Wolves (Neil Jordan, 1984)

‘Little girls, this seems to say, never stop upon your way, never trust a stranger friend, no-one knows how it will end! As you’re pretty, so be wise! Wolves may lurk in every guise! Now, as then, it’s simple truth, sweetest tongue has sharpest tooth!’

Mixing fairy tale with horror and taking more than a pinch from Perrault’s telling of the story, director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) adapted the film from a short story collection by British author Angela Carter called The Bloody Chamber.

Set in modern times, the film’s action largely takes place in the dreams of the young protagonist Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson). In these dreams Rosaleen lives in a fairytale village unsettled by strange wolf attacks. Her grandmother (Angela Lansbury) knits her a bright red cloak and warns her to “never trust a man whose eyebrows meet in the middle”. But Rosaleen forgets this warning and one day as she travels through the forest to see her grandmother, she comes across a handsome Huntsman (Micha Bergese), whose eyebrows meet. The huntsman challenges Rosaleen to a race to see who can get to granny’s house first. When Rosaleen arrives she finds that the Huntsman, who is in fact a werewolf, has killed and eaten her grandmother, but her emotions are confused- she is angry, afraid and attracted to the huntsman. After a scuffle where the Huntsman is shot, Rosaleen cares for the huntsman and opts to join his pack as opposed to staying with the villagers.

Part nightmare, part coming of age story, The Company of Wolves is one of the best filmic interpretations of the LRRH story, exploring the traditional fairy tale in an original and exciting way. Jordan created a topsy-turvy world confusing dreams and reality, man and beast, fear and desire. Added to the central narrative, the characters tell additional fairy-like-tales, delving the film further and further into storytelling and questioning whether the true monsters wear their hair on the inside?

Freeway (Matthew Bright, 1996)

Set in 90s California- Freeway is a modern, completely over-the-top, R-Rated twist on the LRRH story. Mixing violence and black comedy- Freeway gives us a Little Red that can more than take care of herself.

Vanessa Lutz (Reese Witherspoon) is an illiterate, street-wise teenager, with a drug-addicted, prostitute mother (Amanda Plummer) and an abusive step-father. Eluding social services, Vanessa takes off in a stolen car to seek out her grandmother. On the road Vanessa encounters Bob Wolverton (Kiefer Sutherland), who appears to be a kind-hearted therapist; but Bob’s true nature is much darker and he turns out to be the infamous I-5 killer/rapist. However Bob has met his match with Vanessa, who manages to overpower him, robbing him and leaving him for dead. A disfigured Bob survives and due to the differing social standings of Vanessa and Bob and his wife (Brooke Shields), Vanessa is sent to juvie only to escape for a final showdown with Bob at her grandmother’s trailer.

Writer/director Matthew Bright’s film has been compared to Oliver Stone’s (who’s the executive producer of Freeway) Nature Born Killers more than once and this should be indicative of the tone for readers who haven’t seen the film. With its ironic dialogue, lurid depiction of American white underclass and heightened violence, Freeway is the Little Red Riding Hood story on meth.

Showing that you can have too much of a good thing, Bright followed this film up with Freeway II: Confessions of a Trick Baby, that from all accounts is a much seedier, less successful, exploitation rehash of the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale.

Hard Candy (David Slade, 2005)

Written by Brian Nelson (30 Days of Night) and directed by David Slade (30 Days of Night, Eclipse) Hard Candy takes the premise of sexual predator to its modern extreme of pedophilia and internet grooming. Turning the story of LRRH on its head, Hard Candy is a confronting, disturbing and provocative film designed to make audiences squirm.

Hayley (Ellen Page), a bright 14 yr old, meets Jeff (Patrick Wilson), a thirtysomething photographer, at a café after weeks of chatroom flirting. The power seems firmly placed in Jeff’s corner. After telling Hayley about a bootlegged Goldfrapp LP, the pair return to Jeff’s modernist house, where the walls are adorned with picture of the young models he has snapped. The balance of power shifts dramatically during their time together and as tension grows Hayley proves to be far from an innocent victim.

This film questions who is the predator in the scenario, giving us a story of vigilantly justice. Nelson, an admirer of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, wrote Hayley as a strong, intelligent and powerful character. The comparisons to LRRH seem incidental, with both the writer and director claiming the similarities are more coincidences of costuming (red hoodie) and post-production poster art then an intentional fairy tale revision.

Hard Candy is a film completely unafraid of vexing its audience, creating a pedophile that is human, not monster or animal and a heroine that is violent and cunning. Shot over just 18 day, with only the two central characters for the majority of the film, Hard Candy is an impressive character piece. With clever use of colouring to convey mood and an eerie found soundtrack this film is a marvel of small budget cleverness, excellent editing and incredible performances.

Hoodwinked! (Cory and Todd Edwards, 2005)

This animated film is the most light-hearted vision of the LRRH story, but by no means the least modern interpretation. Set in a fairy tale world with talking animals and sing-song moments, this version not only empowers Little Red, but her grandmother too.

Starting halfway through the story, the film begins with Red (voiced by Anne Hathaway) arriving at her grandmother’s house to find The Wolf (voiced by Patrick Warburton) in her grandmother’s bed, dressed in her clothes. Granny (voiced by Glenn Close), who is tied up in a cupboard escapes and all chaos breaks loose when The Woodsman (voiced by Jim Belushi) busts through the window waving an axe. Cut to the police on-scene and each character is questioned giving their version of events. Added to the plot is an evil recipe-stealing bunny (voiced by Andy Dick), and a subplot that takes a swipe at large corporations that dominate markets (seriously).

While the animation for the film has been widely criticised (it’s no Pixar), the novel approach to the material garnered praise for the children’s film. Hoodwinked! opened up the idea of multiple voices to the fairy tale, showing truth is purely perspective. The Wolf isn’t a maneater- he is simply a reporter after a juicy story. Granny isn’t a victim- she’s an extreme sports enthusiast. The Woodsman isn’t a hero, he’s a wannabe actor rehearsing for a part. And most importantly Red isn’t a pushover.

These film versions of LRRH range from the comical to the violent and tense. Whether maintaining the fairy tale world of the source material or grounding the plot in a contemporary urban environment, these films all have one thing in common, they have a strong female protagonist, who is no longer reliant on a burly man to save her. The villain of the piece has also changed- the Wolf is more than simply a hungry animal. In some cases he is a sexual predator, in others he is resurrected as a character misunderstood.

The next filmic version of LRRH being touted is Catherine Hardwicke’s (Twilight) gothic reimagining starring Amanda Seigfried, Lukas Haas, Gary Oldman and Julie Christie- lets hope it lives up to its filmic predecessors.

First published in Trespass


Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Possible Worlds- The Wild Hunt/Suck

Winning Best Canadian First Feature Film at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, Alexandre Franchi’s The Wild Hunt is an original examination of power, or probably more accurately- the lack of it. Centred around medieval re-enactments and the world of LARPers (Live-Action Role Players), the film was shot in Quebec in an actual rural LARPing facility-Le Duché de Bicolline, using real LARPers as extras.

The film follows Erik Magnusson (Ricky Mabe), a non-player, as he enters the ‘medieval world’ to try and patch things up with his girlfriend Lyn (Kaniehtiio Horn), who has recently been seduced by the game. Will Erik enter into the spirit of the place with its Knights, Elves,Vikings and maurading Barbarians in order to reclaim his lady?

This film makes a pretty serious statement about modern men’s feelings of impotence. Seeking power by adopting identities from by-gone eras and getting thrills from staged battles- the fantasy world of the LARPers, in the film, is part-history, part-Tolkien. This imagined reality allows people with status concerns in everyday life to take on personas of kings and warriors- giving them a sense of power and purpose. This deliberate departure from the mandane ‘normal world’ is best realised through the character of Bjorn (Mark A. Krupa, Co-writer and Producer), leader of the Vikings and Erik’s brother. Bjorn is so reliant on his created identity that he is unable to leave the fantasy world, staying constantly in character.

The female characters in this film are left largely unexplored- especially Lyn, who is far from sympathetic, so much so that you wonder why Erik wants her back. The story surrounding the brothers, Erik and Bjorn is however a compelling one- making The Wild Hunt an impressive debut. The film takes its audience into a fascinating and curious setting- as it considers the darker side of human nature and the need to feel powerful. The Wild Hunt has a real sense of menace that grows as the characters push the boundaries of their created world and identities. How far will the game go?

It was only a matter of time before a film combined vampires and rock music, because what’s cooler than the blood-sucking undead? The blood-sucking undead in a band! Suck is a rock musical that breaks with horror tradition, giving us vampires that aren’t all that pretty, or that broody; not concerned with eternal life, these blood-suckers are on a quest for eternal fame.

Suck tells the tale of a working band called The Winners. Touring bars in Canada and The States, the band has never had its ‘big break’. Living out of their tour hearse and with a truly crap manager (Dave Foley), The Winners seem to be going nowhere. That is until bassist Jennifer (Jessica Paré) has an unusual encounter with a mysterious audience member. Suddenly Jennifer’s stage appeal increases tenfold and the band actually gets a following. But at what cost?

Writer/director Rob Stefaniuk gives us a fun, at times absurdist, music-loving film with Suck. Along with the central band cast, the film also hosts to an eclectic mix of musician- including Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop and Moby. Suck plays for laughs not screams, with the more macabre moments twisted for comedic effect.

Using quirky special effects and with plenty of homages to the vampire genre and its musical influences this is a film with its tongue- firmly- in- its- cheek. Suck plays with a variation on the Robert Johnson and the Devil scenario, asking the question- how far would you go to be famous?

First Published in Trespass

Possible Worlds- Matt Ravier Interview

Possible Worlds- The Canadian Film Festival starts in Sydney on the 2nd August, for what will be its 5th year. Showcasing the diverse and exciting cinema of Canada the festival includes, features, shorts, documentaries and animations. Possible Worlds is the brainchild of Sydney based not-for-profit film festival organisation, The Festivalists, who also put on the Young at Heart and Access All Areas film festivals. On the 5th anniversary of the formation of The Festivalists (15th July) I caught up with one of its founders and its Artistic Director, Mathieu ‘Matt’ Ravier to discuss his passion for films, Canada cinema and Sydney’s Canadian Film Festival- Possible Worlds.

Matt’s interest in films was sparked at a young age, partially because of his limited access to them. His childhood bedtime meant that he only ever got to watch the first 20 minutes of films on television growing up- “this thing of having a curfew when I was younger and watching the first part of hundreds of films, really created this appetite because it felt like this forbidden thing that children didn’t have access to. You watch enough first half of movies- you just want to find out what happens to at least half of those”.

As a teenager Matt’s favourite pastime was going to the cinema, but it was a chance encounter with actor Harvey Keital, who was in Sydney promoting The Piano, that steered Matt towards a career in the industry. “Talking to Harvey Keital about his involvement with Tarantino, who was completely unknown at that time, producing Reservoir Dogs and acting in the film and just listening to him speak with such enthusiasm and passion… I think it was probably that day that I decided this is what I wanted to do- anyway possible, work in film. I had no idea back then what I wanted to do exactly within the film industry, but that was a key moment for sure.”

After school Matt returned to his native France to start a Business degree- “Both my parents are sort of lefty, ex-hippies and it was to get back at them. It was a rebellious move to go- look I’m going to become this really successful, really rich business man. Of course as soon as I started business school I realised I didn’t particularly enjoy it. But I did learn quite a lot of things that have been useful throughout the following years.” It was a last minute choice to study in Toronto that gave Matt his first exposure to the inner works of a film festival and Canadian Cinema- “I was really lucky to be able to do an MBA in Toronto, they have this amazing program there which is an MBA with a specialisation in Arts Admin. All your lecturers are Arts professionals and you get to learn a whole lot about how to run an Arts Organisation. As part of that I did an internship at the Toronto Gay and Lesbian film festival [Inside Out].” It was his experiences at Inside Out that propelled Matt into a career in film festivals. “That’s probably the year I thought wow, running a film festival is fun if you love films- because you get to watch a lot, you get to travel to film festivals, but it is also a cause in many ways. If you are working to showcase a cinema that is otherwise underrepresented then you are doing something beyond what say running a cinema entails- you are actually fighting for a cause. It is a cause I immediately recognised, it was something I believed in.”

The full interview can be read at Trespass