Wednesday 25 March 2009

Liam Neeson, Actually.

I am sure I'm not the first person to notice this - but yesterday I was watching 'Love, Actually' (Dir. Richard Curtis) and it was heartbreaking to see the parallels between Neeson's character in the film and in his real life. In the film he plays Daniel - a man who has to face up to life having lost his wife at a very young age, leaving him to bring up a child alone. In real life - he has two teenage children.

I'm not sure of the point of my blog actually. It was just a strange viewing experience - it's hard to imagine ever being able to watch the film again objectively, because now it is loaded with meaning due to Liam Neeson's real life situation. Very sad.

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Monday 23 March 2009

In the Shadows Of Shawshank: Rising From The Mist

So, I finally got around to seeing 'The Mist'. I wanted to see it when it was on the big screen but due to a variety of factors I never did. I've been looking forward to it for a very long time. Why? Because It's Frank Darabont. But I've also been concerned about it. Why? Because It's Frank Darabont.

As a Director, Frank Darabont made one very big mistake - that mistake was making 'The Shawshank Redemption'. The problem with doing so is that he Wrote & Directed what is, quite possibly, the greatest film of all time - the type of film that he will forever be judged against. The impossibility of this situation is that no film will ever come close. Except, one film did. While many worried that it was going to be too similar to Shawshank, Darabont returned to action five years later with the wonderful 'The Green Mile' - a film that would probably be deemed as one of the finest movies of all time if Shawshank hadn't come before it.

As a Director - having those as your last two films is going to put you under a lot of pressure. You can't go from making two masterpieces to Directing mediocre Eddie Murphy flicks. Luckily, Darabont didn't do that. He followed 'The Green Mile' quite promptly with the low-key but enjoyable 'The Majestic' - a film that was charming enough to please his fans but certainly not as big an achievement as his previous efforts.

Some years passed. Now, I'm not sure about everyone else - but I had certainly been strongly anticipating whatever was to come next from Frank Darabont. When it was announced that he was adapting another Stephen King novel I was over the moon. But 'The Mist' was unlike anything Darabont had tried before. It's a genre piece. In fact, very Stephen King-like (which Shawshank and The Green Mile really weren't).

Tonight, I finally got around to watching it.

What it would be like to watch this film objectively, I don't know. I couldn't help but be aware that Darabont was at the helm. So I was disappointed right from the beginning - when Thomas Jane and his family's acting was rather wooden, which was unexpected as there is NOT A SINGLE moment that isn't authentic and true in 'The Shawshank Redemption'. That alone is strange - how can a Director get absolutely flawless, groundbreakingly natural performances in one film, but then below-average performances in another?

'The Mist' is mildly entertaining throughout - but there's no tension, at least not in the manner that Darabont no doubt intended. It tries for a similar mood to 'Signs' (M. Night. Shyamalan) or 'War Of The Worlds' (Steven Spielberg) but falls way short. It's not helped by really poor CGI. The Monsters are embarrassingly unrealistic.

The characters are not believable, often diving headfirst into cliché - and many of the events seem entirely unrealistic. Of course, John Coffey's magical powers in 'The Green Mile' were not realistic for a second -- but as an audience we BELIEVED IN THEM ENTIRELY because of the journey Darabont led us on. Unfortunately, 'The Mist' was merely a genre piece - and one without a scare, without surprise and without notable characters.

For any other filmmaker an average film every now and then is to be expected. But seeing one from the man who up until now dealt only in masterpieces, it's almost a little heartbreaking to see. According to IMDB, Darabont has no films in pre-production (not counting films he's Producing) - I can't help but wonder what is next for him. I do hope he Directs again, and I hope even more that it's a masterpiece.

Care to share?

Sunday 15 March 2009

The Defining Character - The Audience.

When you go to see a stand-up comedian the role of the audience is crucial. Whether the night is good or bad is often completely dependent on the quality of the audience. If they're up for a laugh and energetic, that will help the performer. It's the same for a band. When Counting Crows played Brixton Academy in 2002 they said they 'Blew off the roof' -- the perfect fusion of a band on form, in a great venue with thousands of fans who were full of energy. But you assume a film is just a film, It'll play the same anywhere. But in my experience, that is anything but true.

I remember when I saw 'Superbad' in the cinema - we all thought it was absolutely hilarious, a wonderful comedy that all us twentysomething guys could relate too. But a few months later when I watched it with my girlfriend, that magic wasn't there. It wasn't just that my girlfriend at the time didn't like it, but I didn't either - as I watched it, nothing seemed funny. It was as if I had seen the film performed live for me twice, but the second performance wasn't as strong.

Is a good movie always a good movie? When I first watched 'Funny Ha Ha' and 'Mutual Appreciation' I thought they were works of genius, but when I watched them with someone else they lost all of that magic.

Sometimes the reasons are due to technical things - for example, 'Cloverfield' is going to be a lot better in a cinema packed with eighty people than at home with just you and your DVD player. But more often than not - it seems like the energy of the audience can dictate how the film performs. It's entirely possible the same film never plays twice. A strange concept.

I have noticed this as a Director, too. I have screened my films in many different places -- and I've come to learn that it's not just about demographics and finding the right audience, it's also about how well the film plays. There have been times when I have sat there proudly as my work of art plays on the screen, everyone has been mesmerisesd and completely taken in by my work. The actors look great, the jokes are hilarious, and my writing glistens. But on other occasions, within seconds of the credits starting I have sunk back into my seat just wanting to hide from everyone. The scenes are long and boring, the comedy is predictable and stupid and my writing seems amateur. This is just based on how I feel when watching it, but my fears are usually confirmed afterwards when people tell me what they think. I've never had the same reaction twice.

So I don't know, it's a bit of a weird theory - and I don't want to get all hippy on you with metaphysics and 'energy' -- but I'd be interested to know your thoughts on the subject. Is a film just a film? Does it play the same wherever it goes?

Care to share?

Friday 13 March 2009

The Magic Of Music

The power of music in films is probably nothing new to you. Certainly, anyone who's ever been in an editing room has seen the difference a piece of music can make - turning a rather average scene into something full of energy, or full of emotion. Famously, Quentin Tarantino uses music to pull in the opposite direction of what you're seeing. 'Son Of A Preacher Man' in Pulp Fiction springs to mind.

On those rare occasions that I find a film that has truly become one of my all time favourites; it's usually a piece of music that clinches the deal. I remember seeing 'Juno' for the first time; and I absolutely loved it. But the real clincher was that last scene, as Juno peddled her way to Bleekers house. As they sat on the wall and sang 'Anyone Else But You' together - that was when I knew it was one of my favourite films.

I guess that's the most powerful point for a song, right at the ending. In a second you can change the meaning or feeling of a film, with the audience leaving the cinema a lot different to how they expected. One of the most powerful ways I've seen music end a film was with 'Harold And Maude,' a movie that I actually didn't love that much - but the last ten minutes were subtly touching and beautiful. For those of you that haven't seen it or don't remember; the last five minutes or so see Harold losing Maude to the tune of Cat Stevens' 'Trouble'. It's truly heartbreaking. The scenes of her passing away and Harold in the waiting room struggling to comprehend it are juxtaposed with him speeding away in his car. It ends with his car flying off a cliff and crashing to the ground. Up until this point it is a very sad yet very moving end to the film. But then the camera tilts up to reveal him on the edge of the cliff, Banjo in hand. What happens next is truly sublime.

He begins plucking away at his Banjo. And he picks out a bit of 'If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out' -- and then the real version by Cat Stevens plays - Harold walks away from the camera, dancing about on the hillside whilst playing his Banjo as the credits begin to roll. Not only is it very moving, but strangely inspiring and uplifting - a complete reversal of the scenes before it. It's a true piece of movie magic.

Similarly, the film 'Rushmore' has an inspired ending. The film ends with the song 'Ooh La La' by The Faces, and it seems to inform the whole movie; it adds a different flavour to the film, right at the very end.

What fascinates me about these great examples is how they're not just great cinema or good choices, they transcend that.. they're examples that have stuck with me long after I saw them, there's something a little magic about them. Can filmmakers do this on purpose; can they KNOW how perfect a Cat Stevens song can fit, or can they only hope?. I always found Cameron Crowe to be incredible at hitting the right tone with music in his movies. Who can forget Paul McCartney's 'Singalong Junk' in Jerry Maguire when Jerry is fixing Dorothy's strap on the front porch, or perhaps more famously -- the band-in-the-bus sing-along of 'Tiny Dancer' in 'Almost Famous' or the elegant score of Nancy Wilson when William runs back to his Mother's car after agreeing to go to Morocco with Penny Lane.

But then Crowe made 'Elizabethtown'.

In interviews everywhere he kept talking about the importance of music in his movies, he even had a podcast explaining his music in the film. He flaunted this great skill he had everywhere -- take a look at this documentary, where he has that smug look on his face, - feeling very proud of his work - but the problem is, it doesn't work. I mean, sure, it works. The scenes have the effect he wants as a Director. But they don't reach the viewer in the way Springsteen's 'Secret Garden' did in 'Jerry Maguire' - they're simply functional. It was too much of a conscious effort by Crowe, and it just seems self-indulgent.

So I guess it only really works when it's by accident, or at least not as carefully executed as with the previous example. And I guess it's a really personal thing as well. Maybe the ending to Rushmore isn't all that great, it's just that 'Ooh La La' by The Faces happens to be one of my all time favourite songs. But sometimes things just fit - like all the 80's music in The Wrestler. The writer put those in the script, they were intended - apart from 'Sweet Child Of Mine' which Mickey Rourke wanted to use. And funnily enough, when you hear that tune in the film it is incredibly apt and moving-- more so than was probably expected.

Anyways, I'm going to carry on watching movies in the hopes that a piece of music moves me when I least expect it - because on those rare occasions that it happens, it's more powerful than any piece of dialogue. I leave you with a clip of my all time favourite scene with my favourite piece of film music. The film is Dito Montiel's 'A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints' - a film that throws its energy and ideas in a million different places (I mean this in a good way) -- but it's not until this scene that you realise what the film means to you. The beautiful piano music is unlike anything in the film up to that point, and along with the deceptively simple Directing and the astonishingly pitch-perfect acting performances; it's a scene that has always struck me as being perfect.

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