Monday, 26 May 2008

From Cheshire to Cannes

It must surely rank as one of the more surreal films to get a screening at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, but a little bit of Cheshire will be touching down on the French Riviera this year. A romantic comedy by the name of Barefooting will be shown on Thursday 22 May exposing unto the world a less-than-amorous market town landscape that makes Northwich what it is today. And it’d be lying to suggest that in the pantheon of great film locations – Los Angeles, Rome, New York, London – Northwich will not be getting filmmakers queuing for the first train out of Euston station for what is essentially a halfway house between Manchester and Wrexham.

If filmmakers, however, are willing to become less reserved in this country about the places they want to show off, can we not think of places with slightly more allure than Northwich? Otherwise we may as well open ourselves up to ropey dramas set in Ashby-de-la-‘effing-Zouch or renegade spy dramas based in the suburban crawl of Slough. Ok, so Ali G Indahouse has already propagated the luscious Staines’ sprawl around the world but really, are we doing ourselves any favours with this. Most of our towns in this country are soulless copycat wastelands in the image of each other, replicating Starbucks, Natwest and Maccie D’s all the way down the High Street until you reach the out-of-town Tesco’s sitting proudly, defiant on a grey roundabout uniting the microcosmic worlds of Hemel Hempstead and Aylesbury. Who wants to watch a film set there when you can normally open your front door and be exposed to the whole monotony on a daily basis? At least with American films, there is some degree of aspiration involved – the remotest of Montana townships has an intriguing quality about it hardly replicated this side of the pond, bound by endless A-roads that lead to nowhere. Fun it ain’t.

It’s a contributing feature of why Americans make better impassioned music than the Brits – well, at least since 1978. They have tales to tell of day-long trips to get anywhere. When you leave London and travel the whole length of the M1 to arrive in Leeds, you’ve done that in three hours and where’s the story there? A crap cup of coffee from Newport Pagnell services? Good grief! Who would ever give a second thought to putting that on screen (said without contemplating that a random search of YouTube will probably throw up something along those lines)? It’s possible to appreciate the sentiment behind such decisions to open up every nook and cranny of the world for our delectation at the film house but is it truly necessary to? Maybe it’s just the anodyne state of the nation that speaks, but at the same time it’s not hard to find a worthier place to set a Brit-flick. Oxford, Cambridge, London, Cardiff… all cities with a distinct appeal in one way or another.

It makes no difference if you trawl market towns of the Shires, if the film was made by an American company actors would still affect the accent of either upper-class pomposity or the working-class cockney even if you set up shop in Salford. A case in point if ever there were one - for so many reasons. And as for Northwich, hopefully it’s just a small cameo appearance in an everlasting global procession of great filmmaking locations.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Lives, Camera, Action

Soft cushions are being compiled en masse in Cannes at the moment with Steven Soderbergh poised to unleash his four and a half hour double header Guerrilla/The Argentine onto the waiting public.

Having been splattered across t-shirts since his death in 1967, red rebel Che Guevara will finally have his whole ascent captured on film. Benicio Del Toro takes the Argentine’s shoes in the two part relation, with Che having previously been captured by Gael Garcia Benal for the coming-of-age tale The Motorcycle Diaries.

Add to this the festival buzz accumulating around the documentaries Maradona, by Emir Kusturica, and and James Toback’s Tyson and the flavour of the festival can arguably be seen in the trials and tribulations of famous faces. But this isn’t a new trend.

Recent biopics (where an actor portrays a famous life) of note have immortalized Muhammed Ali (Ali), Edith Piaf (La Vie En Rose), Ray Charles (Ray) and Johnny Cash (Walk the Line) in film and this is just within the recent spectrum of cataloguing great lives. But who else is waiting in the wings to be shown on the 16ft screen in all their cinematic glory.

Four-score and not to long away in the future looms the stove-pipe and famous beard that was Abraham Lincoln, as portrayed by Liam Neeson. Al Pacino’s imagining of Salvador Dali and the rather ill-suited choices of Elijah Wood as Iggy Pop and Mike ‘yes, that’s right Austin Powers’ Myers as famed lunatic and sometimes Who drummer Keith Moon.

I don’t know about you but none of these exactly set my heart a flutter and I assume that they will be a mixed bag of irreverent choices. Myers is seemingly following Jim Carrey and Will Smith down Serious Acting Avenue, while mild-mannered Wood is simply too timid to capture Iggy Pop’s floppy beige skin.

Pacino is on the wane and I doubt Dali ever shouted manically at anybody in the way that Alfredo does so well, in fairness a modicum of promise can be attached to Lincoln. Neeson tends to play understatement and somewhat stoic in a very good, pensive way and I think Lincoln’s real-life grit and mental agility plays to that well.

There has been talk of James Gandolfini becoming the Old Man and the Sea in a recount of Ernest Hemmingway’s somewhat eventful life and Sylvester Stallone purports to be the foremost authority on Edgar Allen Poe, having gone so far as to draft a script of a biopic. Again neither are really that enamouring.

In my opinion, the well versed rags-to-riches via drug/sex/vice addiction, as seen in Ray and Walk the Line, is pretty worn territory and it is going to take something a bit leftfield to really capture people’s imaginations.

The better stories seem to be plucked from people out to the sides as well, such as the announced Fifth Beatle which will recount the Fab Four’s manager Brian Epstein. However, there has to be someone surely meriting such an honour?

Personally, Cesare Mori has always held something of a mild interest. For those of you scratching your head, he was a contemporary of Mussolini known as the ‘Iron Prefect’, who took on the might of the Mafia on Sicily using unconventional methods.

Sure he ended up a horrible fascist in cahoots with a contemptible man but the events of his single-handed, bullish attempts to curb the growing influence of the burgeoning Mafia in 1920s Italy would make a pretty damn good film.

But who else?

Chris Sloley - a rubbish biopic waiting to happen

Spike Lee judging mobile film competition and Day-Lewis joins Nines

The world of the media and how people access information is changing. The lines between broadcast, print and online mediums are blurring (you’re on the website of a magazine with a number of podcasts for you to feast your eyes and ears on). With fast internet connections and everyone seemingly having a fancy mobile phone, the boundaries of what is possible are shifting.

Films are no exception. Spike Lee, actor, writer and director has teamed up with Nokia to direct a short film made solely with mobile phone footage sent in by the general public. "You are seeing first hand the democratization of film," Lee stated to the press. "Aspiring filmmakers no longer have to go to film school to make great work. With a simple mobile phone, almost anyone can now become a filmmaker."

The theme of the film is how music can inspire acts of humanity and contains three separate acts, with the brief for each act being announced online. Aspiring film makers then have four weeks to submit their efforts which will be judged by Lee and a team at Nokia. Submissions are being accepted now and close on August 21. To send in your work, or to get more information go to the Nokia productions website

Lee was nominated for an Academy Award for best original screenplay for Do the Right Thing in 1990 and for best documentary for his 1998 effort, 4 Little Girls. As we proved at IndieNational with Double Deader, you don’t need great equipment (or even any acting talent) to make a film. The use of mobile phones make film making more accessible, and although the quality is not the highest it is a great medium to learn in. And who wouldn’t want to see Spike Lee direct something that you shot on your phone?

There are some films that just have a cast list to die for; think The Godfather: Part 2 with Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Robert Duvvall or the Royal Tenenbaums with Gene Hackman, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray and Anjelica Huston.

Add to this list the upcoming Rob Marshall musical Nine. Based on Italian directorial legend Federico Fellini’s 1963 masterpiece 8 ½, it centres on a middle aged director struggling to complete his latest film. None other than Daniel Day-Lewis is the latest star rumoured to have signed on, after No Country for Old Men anti-hero Javier Bardem dropped out. Although unconfirmed we can’t help getting excited - it would mean that Day-Lewis is acting again only a year or so after There Will be Blood. The actor is of course famous for taking long breaks between films, which sometimes includes buggering off to Italy to take up cobbling. Already confirmed to star are Penelope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Sophia Loren, Nicole Kidman and Judi Dench. If there’s one man with the acting chops to stand up that formidable cast of women then its Day-Lewis. IndieNational will keep you up to date with any future developments in what looks set to be one of the must-see films of 2009.

Andy Brown – still reeling over the sheer mediocrity that is 28 Weeks Later

Monday, 19 May 2008

The Rockwell Landing

Sam Rockwell has managed to illicit critical acclaim in pained independent efforts but soon he will be everywhere.

Actors, broadly speaking, can be split into two groups. Pearly-white-toothed perma tans intent on shining as bright as possible while their name carries a box office appeal and then those that, ya know, love acting, love the craft and would act in the dim light of their basement should the occasion call.

However, there are increasingly actors who can flirt between the independent periphery and still get people chucking out ticket money to see them don costumes in the height of summer. One big money blockbuster, then one labour of love and then back to the big studios. While this group may soon get a new member in the snarl-toothed shape of Sam Rockwell.

Not a new name by any stretch of the imagination but Rockwell is gradually gaining an untold credibility that could see him shot to the upper echelons of independent-honed talent. The announcement that Sony has just picked up the distribution rights of Moon, a story of one man and his replica on the loneliest planet, shows that Rockwell is no longer a fringe player. And it’s about damn time!

Having made his start as the erratic ‘Wild Bill’ Wharton in that Tom Hanks film that went on for three hours centring on one man’s moral struggle and journey...sorry is that too broad? (It was The Green Mile, by the by). Things looked to be taking a turn for the worse when Rockwell popped up in the less than auspicious Galaxy Quest, which, to be fair, wasn’t horrible and Rockwell certainly helped in that department.

Rockwell looked to have picked a more commercial path with the role as prime villain Eric Knox in the reborn Charlie’s Angels series and nobody would lament an actor who had been actively working since 1988 finally ‘making it’.

“I thought it did turn out okay,” Sam admitted about the less than critically appreciated Charlie’s Angels. “In fact, for the genre we were in, I thought we succeeded.” It was the next choice that would define Rockwell, when George Clooney – a founder member of those able to flitter between studio films and their own, smaller efforts – cast him as the irreverant and troubled spy Chuck Barris in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.

Leading certainly suited Sam’s charm and it was instrumental in his stock rising as a bankable star. “Ridley Scott saw the trailer and I got to do his next movie, Matchstick Men,” he told at the time. Turns came and Sam was able to show his class in the modern imagining of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy but has now retreated into somewhat more offbeat choices, where he has been able to really exhibit his ability and skill.

For those that are still scratching their skull thinking ‘who?’, you are going to struggle to miss Rockwell over the next year or so. Playing an alcoholic turned born-again Christian in missing-girl-drama Snow Angels, a self-involved sex-addict in the much anticipated adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s Choke, an aid to Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon and Moon. Phew!

It’s hard to begrudge such an easy-going guy and an obviously talented actor, as much as I am trying to avoid it I can’ would seem that all’s well that’s Rockwell.

Chris Sloley - in a somewhat sycophantic mood

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Troma still squelching their way to the top

There are some things that will never change. Blockbusters will continue to flop, my invite to Cannes will continue to be lost in the post year upon year and Troma head honcho Lloyd Kaufman will continue to be a thorn in the side of the filmmaking establishment.

The Kaufman produced Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead clambered to the top of the US indie charts on the back of Kaufman himself petitioning theatre goers whilst dressed as a giant chicken around the East Village cinemas of New York. Rumours that Harvey Weinstein is considering this for his next film at the moment are unfounded. The film gathered a screen average of $10,700 to nudge past The Cell director Tarsem’s much-hyped The Fall at the top of the charts.

Troma has a long, if not especially celebrated, history on the independent circuit and shows no signs of slowing down. Their trademark genre bending, gore splattered style has been invading the picket fences of America since 1974 and has had a hand in launching some of the most celebrated careers in the world of film. Samuel L Jackson (Def by Temptation), Robert De Niro (Greetings), Oliver Stone (Battle of Love’s Return) and Trey Parker and Matt Stone (Cannibal: The Musical) all got some of their first breaks from the New York studio. Peter Jackson also credited Troma with pioneering the schlock comedy that was perfected by Evil Dead 2 and with his own efforts Bad Taste and Braindead in the 1990s.

Schlock cinema is often overlooked in the indie world as little more than trash, but the number of directors and stars influenced by Roger Corman, Troma and the DIY horror of the 1970s and early 80s suggests that this attitude is ripe for change. Kaufman himself is passing on his wisdom by acting as an advisor to aspiring filmmakers on all aspects of low budget filmmaking. Troma now also hosts an annual Tromadance Festival in Park City, Utah. The festival runs at the same time as the Sundance festival and hosts submissions from the breadth of the schlock community both in the US and abroad. Troma has released many of the best submissions subsequently.

Kaufman was quoted in an interview with Tabula Rasa as saying, “I think that for every Crying Game or for every Piano the battlefield is littered with hundreds of wonderful movies that have gotten destroyed by the fact that they simply could not get decent distribution, by virtue of the fact the cartel is very very difficult to crack.

“Troma's been lucky because we have a Troma universe, we've got a brand name, and people see that Troma logo on a movie and they go, because they know what they're going to get.”

As an example of how commitment to the art of low budget filmmaking can breed success, Troma is still in a class of its own. The recent success of Poultrygeist is just further example of this unique studio's charm.

Huw Baines – Toxically avenging the surf Nazis of nuke ‘em high.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Three and Out - When 'comedy' just isn't funny...

London Underground (LU) are not a happy bunch of chaps. And for once, it’s not working conditions or pay issues that are at fault; rather it is the the latest Mackenzie Crook vehicle, Three and Out. LU have taken offence not least because of the contentious bad taste of the subject matter, but also because Crook claimed on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross that he learned to drive a tube train in a matter of minutes. Way to get them aboard Mackenzie…

Crook himself is disappointed with the reaction the film has attracted, particularly from the tube drivers’ union, ASLEF. But you can see their point. It’s hardly a glamorous profession trundling through the tunnels underneath a bustling London. And the film’s subject matter – a tube driver searching for a suicide victim to earn him a third ‘kill’ and a subsequent hefty payout is never going to be seen as anything else than a horrific tragedy for those drivers who have to deal with the reality of suicides in their working life.

No wonder it provoked a passionate protest from Union members at the premiere (link no longer active). The British public may abhor tube strikes, but there will be sympathy for the drivers on this occasion for whom tube suicides are no laughing matter. Judging by the almost universal panning the film has received from critics, however, it appears ASLEF are vindicated in their process. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian described Three and Out as “Another depressing, mediocre, muddy-looking British film that wastes an awful lot of talent,” while there have been few favourable opinions elsewhere; Channel 4’s Neil Smith saying “their levels of sensitivity being pretty much signalled by an early cut between a passenger tumbling onto the tracks and Crook squeezing ketchup on his chips.” Cynical and heartless are just two words that spring to mind if that’s really the juxtaposition producers are looking to offer up as ‘comedy’.

But you have to ask two questions; why did LU originally agree to allow producers to use their facilities? Producers are suing LU for their ‘derogatory’ comments alluding to poor taste despite LU apparently receiving £200,000 in location and advertising fees. And secondly, who has been writing the positive comments appearing on film posters around London? Including those posters so thoughtfully placed, arching across platforms around the tube network.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

From Xbox to IMAX

Film adaptations of computer games are traditionally the territory of big Hollywood production companies, but with so many ideas now making the jump from console to celluloid even the independents are starting to take interest. Unfortunately the change of format often leaves more than a little to be desired.

A sequel to the 2006 film Silent Hill, based on the survival horror game of the same name, is currently being developed by Warner Independent. The first instalment in the series received a poor critical reception, and IndieNational’s own editor walked out of the cinema after just 20 minutes of its nonsensical storytelling. Peter Bradshaw at The Guardian described its length, at just over two hours, as “testicle shrinking”, and gave it just one star out of a possible five. Arguably the most fun was had by vandals who defaced the sinister, mouthless girl on the film’s posters, adding smiley faces and vampire fangs to lighten the mood.

Back in the mainstream, 20th Century Fox are planning a film based on EA Games’s hugely popular The Sims. The project will be a live-action drama scripted by Brian Lynch, whose dubious credentials include a walk-on role as a shopper in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and dialogue for the unsavoury-sounding Aunt Fanny’s Tour of Booty.

With dozens of similar projects lined up for release in the coming years, we can look forward to plenty more mediocre offerings that fail to do justice to the games that inspired them. However, there is an obvious solution to this crippling problem. Rather than producing films based on best-selling games that leave legions of fans disappointed, why not start with a game that has no redeeming features whatsoever – a game that could not possibly be made any worse through translation to the big screen.

I refer, of course, to Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing – widely regarded as the worst game ever released due to its complete lack of story and a series of bugs that rendered it unplayable.

The film would be a disaster movie and would be perfect for a low-budget production as one of its two characters could be played by a mannequin (or, failing that, Hayden Christensen). After some ill-defined accident, our hero – let’s call him Mister – awakes to find himself strapped into the cab of a truck. Unable to escape from his bonds, he notices another vehicle alongside his and a line painted across the road. Clearly some kind of race is afoot, so he turns the key and steps on the accelerator. His opponent, however, fails to move and remains sitting perfectly still, hands on the wheel, dead eyes staring into the middle distance. Distracted, Mister veers off the road and directly into a tree. He braces himself for the impact, but nothing happens – his vehicle passes through the bark and foliage without a scratch.

By now our hero is really rattled. He decides to try talking to the immobile driver and puts his truck into reverse, only to realise that something is terribly, terribly wrong. Travelling backwards, his truck accelerates faster and faster until suddenly it shoots off the end of reality and hangs there, twisting uselessly in a gaping grey void.

Any interested producers shouldn’t hesitate to get in touch – this is going to be big.