Tuesday 26 February 2013

Be Supportive To Fledgling Artists

It is SO EASY to be dismissive and condescending. It's the easiest thing in the world to be a critic, an angry tweeter, an armchair blogger.

But those people who create art; be it good or bad, you have no idea how hard it is, to put yourself out there.

It's why most people create nothing. The fear of ridicule and rejection is too high.

And guess what, when you create your script or film or whatever it is, you will be criticised, heavily. In obvious ways, "you suck", and in clever condescending ways "aww your little project is really nice, it's so good you are dabbling in film".

Being the critical type, the belittler, the one-who-thinks-they-know-why-it's-bad, it's the easiest thing in the world. I think it's part of human nature, to try keep people down. To jump to the negative first.

I've been that critic myself, despite how much I hate it. I think we all have at some point. We're always battling jealousy, insecurity, I-know-bestness. We've all been that guy because of how easy it is. You watch someone's work and your brain is given a ton of easy answers - but so many of them are negative. 

And I get what your excuse is, that people need to be criticised so that they'll learn and improve. I get that.

But criticism comes from all corners, every day. Being the one who says "hey, I really like what you're doing" makes you a rare kind. And that stuff makes people feel good, it makes them believe in themselves.

Artists want to connect. They want to inspire, they want to be loved through their work. It's important to know that; how deeply personal it is. It's life and death for the artist.

I'm not saying you need to feed egos or prop up the talentless.

I'm just saying maybe you could occasionally focus on the good dialogue rather than the bad lighting. Comment on the great bit of acting in the first scene rather than the fuck up in the sixth scene.

Every great writer, director, actor; they have a story of someone who supported them, believed in them, understood the context of their mistakes.

Nobody in the industry has more than a handful of these people, because everyone is too busy being the judgemental friend, the cynical co-worker, the sarcastic blogger.

People are capable of SO MUCH when they're believed in. When they're praised. When they're not pressured to immediately justify their right to be artists.

Go tell someone what they're doing right. I guarantee they need to hear it. 

Care to share?

Saturday 23 February 2013

RAINDANCE Courses - Are They Worth It?

Full Disclosure: A few months back Raindance offered me the chance to sit in on some courses, for free, in the hope that I'd write about them. And now, that's exactly what I'm going to do. I tell you this to be honest, because I'm not into writing puff pieces. Although, if Olivia Munn got in touch and said she wanted me to write a favourable review of one of her movies I probably would. But Elliot Grove, the founder of Raindance, is grey-haired and a lot older than Olivia Munn, so I'm not going to go out of my way to say nice things. 

But honestly, I do have a lot of nice things to say about Elliot Grove and the organisation he founded. Where else can you pay thirty quid to spend an evening learning the basics of lighting, or the ins and outs of contracts with an entertainment lawyer. Where else can you go for a weekend and come out the other side determined to make a feature film. And not just determined, but CONVINCED you can do it. 

Most Raindance course start in exactly the same way. You awkwardly shuffle into a room full of twenty or so other people. There's the film-geek-guy with his Coppola t-shirt, there's the pretty girl who used to act but now wants to produce, there's the guy in a suit and baseball cap, and there's the quiet but intelligent looking guy in the middle row. And then there's you, finding a harmless place in the corner where you can sip on your still-too-hot Starbucks cup. 

And then Elliot, or a Raindance intern, stands up and says something so painstakingly obvious that you feel immediately stupid. "The film industry is about who you know. Turn to the person next to you and say hello."

You fill up with fear. But five minutes later you're chatting to someone with the same dreams as you. The same passions. You're not sitting next to someone who will say "when will you get a real job?" or "but what are you really going to do with your life?" You're sitting next to someone who takes sick days just so they can catch up on DVD watching. You're sitting next to someone who reads the same autobiographies as you. You're sitting next to a potential collaborator, employer, and even best friend. 

So to begin with, Raindance scores points simply for being a place where creative people can exist. To feel understood. To meet like-minded people. And I know that's hard for those of you that are writers -- we're all too good at hiding away with our laptops, but you need to get out there and meet the people who are going to turn your projects into a reality. 

I don't love every Raindance course. And you probably won't either. It's important to do a bit of research and see who will be delivering the course you're doing. Many years ago, I did a foundation course on directing for film, it was a five week thing. After two weeks, I wasn't happy, I didn't think the teacher was delivering what was promised. But to be fair to Raindance, they said no problem, and let me choose another course. 

Which was the first time I took Elliot Grove's Lo-To-No Budget Filmmaking course. It is similar now to how it was then, and it's still my favourite of all the things on offer at Raindance. Grove is a masterful storyteller; weaving in tales of his personal history with anecdotes from his adventures in the screen trade. Sometimes you think they're not true, sometimes you think he's boasting -- but the end result is; you come out inspired. He demystifies the industry. He explains what a producer does. He breaks down what a budget is. He tells you why films get sold and why films don't get sold. He tells you why sometimes a big actor works for millions and why sometimes they'll work for £150 a day if it means they can pick their kids up from school. 

There are some courses that I'd recommend at Raindance and some that I wouldn't. But that's more a reflection on me than anyone else. I get grumpy when someone says to me, "this is how you write," or "if you want to make a film, you need to do this". I'm more interested in people who can tell a story, who can share who they are, and inspire you to believe it's possible. That's why I'd definitely recommend the 99 minute film school. It costs less than a decent meal, and it only takes up a couple of hours of your life. You'll hear the founder of Raindance share his story, explain the ins and outs of producing a film, and you'll get to meet a heap of people who are just like you. You can find details about the Raindance 99 Minute Film School HERE.

The main thing about Raindance is that it's affordable. Sure, £200 for a weekend course might feel like money you don't have. But if you want to be a professional filmmaker, or even; a more knowledgeable amateur one, it's a small price to pay for all the information you'll be loaded with.

What has always impressed me about Raindance is their accessibility. The Raindance Film Festival is notorious for promoting and supporting independent film. Don't get me wrong, some of the films at their festival last year were shocking. Atrocious. But others I absolutely loved, like 'The Lottery of Birth' and 'Heavy Girls'. The toughest thing about building a career in the film industry is that it's easy to feel like you're on the outside. That there's a huge party and you can't get a ticket. Raindance breaks that theory down - it demystifies the process and it gives you access to industry insiders who have been there and done it. And if you're still unsure about their courses; go to one of the free networking nights. 

The point, if you haven't noticed already, is that I'm a big fan of Raindance. They've done so much to support so many independent films over the past 20 years, it's the least I can do to write a kind blog about them. In fact; many of my most popular posts in recent years have been because Raindance have shared them on Twitter. 

You can read up about Raindance and their courses by visiting their website, right here.

Care to share?

Saturday 16 February 2013

JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI - Documentary - Review

I want to quote huge chunks of this documentary at you. I want to explain all the reasons why you have to see it. But to fully explain, I'd need to watch it five more times after I can find it on DVD.

If it happens to be screening at a cinema near you, go see it. This documentary knocked my socks off.

Jiro Ono owns a 10-seat-only sushi restaurant, hidden away in an underground station in Tokyo, Japan. It has the much coveted three stars from Michelin. To put it simply, Jiro's sushi is the best there is. They take bookings a month in advance due to the demand. And Jiro is still innovating, even at 85 years old. 

There's nothing fancy about his Sushi, but he's an expert. They get their rice from an expert rice dealer. This is a dealer who won't sell rice to someone if he doesn't think they'll cook it right. 

Just like when Jiro buys tuna or salmon or an octopus, he only buys the best. He's got trusted contacts who will only sell him the best stuff.

He has apprentices at the restaurant. He trains them up---- for ten years. It's just like in the movies, they learn from their master. It starts with mundane stuff and eventually, years later, they're allowed near the rice. Then if they work hard, they can touch the eggs.

In our society, we're slaves to money. Not only do we need it to survive and thrive, but we want more than everyone else. 

But Jiro just cares about making the best sushi. And if they lose profits because they keep chucking out tuna that doesn't make the grade, well that's just the way it goes.

No customer ever has a disappointing meal at his restaurant. The food is prepared individually for each visitor.

And if Jiro is away from work (which is almost never), his fifty year old son is there, and he's learned everything his father has to offer.

Jiro speaks eloquently at the beginning of the movie about how, once you've chosen a path of work, you have to dedicate everything to it. You have to constantly learn and improve your craft.

And of course I related it to filmmaking. I couldn't get over his simplicity. The sushi isn't a mystery, it's just done expertly. The most talented and experienced sushi maker, with the greatest kitchen staff, and the best rice and fish available.

And an endless dedication to getting it right.

Complacency is not an option where Jiro is concerned.

How often is the food we eat truly a labour of love? Even in the expensive restaurants, it's often just appearances, a nicer plate and a pretty looking salad.

Jiro has dedicated his life to his restaurant. To giving his ten customers an unforgettable experience.

Jiro shows us how to live, how to be a success, how to mean something. 

Care to share?

Sunday 10 February 2013

How Well Do I Know Myself? The Case of LARRY CROWNE

I remember being excited about LARRY CROWNE, a film written and directed by Tom Hanks, who also stars alongside Julia Roberts.

I saw it in the cinema, and hated it! Didn't believe the relationships, didn't believe the whole scooter bike thing. I thought Tom Hanks had totally lost his touch.

But last week I ordered it on DVD. Why?

My excuse is that I'm a Tom Hanks diehard. My passion for film began with tracking down all of his films and watching them again and again. I also ordered 'The Burbs' and 'Charlie Wilson's War' last week, two films that I don't particularly love either.

I re-watched 'Larry Crowne' and of course, I loved it.

Truth is, I still think most of it is unrealistic, but this time, that's why I liked it.

The film lives in a world where you make a new friend, and a day later they invite you to join a scooter gang. The day after that they give you a haircut and feng shui your living room.

It's a film with a lot of kindness and sweetness. A film where Tom Hanks is the Tom Hanks we love, like the 1980's Tom Hanks. The Sleepless in Seattle Tom Hanks.

'Larry Crowne' washes over you like a pleasant breeze. You need to turn your inner cynic off and go with it. It's heartwarming, but wonderfully so.

I hated this film the first time I saw it, yet for some reason I decided to buy a copy.

And now I love it.

What's at play here? Do I not know myself that well? Do I dismiss films too easily? Do I have deep buried neurons that need a Tom Hanks fix?

Who knows.

I remember at Christmas, sitting down with heaps of chocolate, laughing happily at 'Couples Retreat' on the TV, even though I disliked it in the cinema.

I guess as we watch more movies, we get more sophisticated and need more going on to satisfy us.

But deep down, maybe something simpler is at play.

For me, that something loves the broad humour of 'Couples Retreat' and the sweetness of 'Larry Crowne'. That side of me isn't always accessible, but I feel like it's an important part of me, that I hope to access more.

Have you ever experienced this? A complete turnaround on a second viewing? If so, why do you think it happened?

Care to share?

Monday 4 February 2013


Wow. I have not seen this performance from Denzel before.

Struggling, out of control, in denial, desperate.

I have always been a huge fan of Denzel Washington's work yet for some reason most of this has come from watching him on DVD.

But he's an actor you have to see in the cinema.

He's often in movies with gun fights and car chases, but he doesn't need them.

Actors, forget drama school. Forget reading books. Watch this man instead.

As his plane dives towards the ground, a shaky close-up sits on Denzel Washington's calm and collected face, and he's mesmerising.

The action happens in the first quarter of the movie. By that I mean, the stuff with the plane falling towards the ground. Don't worry, I'm not spoiling it, you've seen the name of the film and you watched the trailer.

Yet for once, the trailer for 'Flight' gives nothing away. The crash incident is just the tip of the iceberg. 

This is a film about a very personal battle that is crippling the life of Whip Whitaker (Denzel's character) and the friends, family and colleagues around him.

And only Denzel could do this role, in this way. He's truly a master of acting. Loved by most, yet often criticised for doing similar roles. This one is, without doubt, a lot different. Gone are the guns, the power, the wisdom.

Instead we have a broken man, struggling for survival. Struggling to get through the day.

This is a film about a broken man who had a heroic moment that he can't live up to. 

This is the type of performance that makes me LOVE the cinema. Sure, we want a good story. More than that, we want a human being we can relate to, and root for. Someone who reminds of the struggle of being alive, of getting through the day.

There is no-one better qualified to take you on that journey. 

Denzel Washington, thank you. 

Care to share?

Sunday 3 February 2013

Netflix Original Series - HOUSE OF CARDS - Review & Analysis

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you will know that I have been a constant advocate of giant changes to the way that Film & TV are distributed in the modern era -- and now it seems my prayers have been answered by none other than Netflix.

'House Of Cards' is a thirteen episode TV-series. Actually, it's more like a thirteen hour movie. Released solely on Netflix, through all of its worldwide territories, on the same day. Every single episode is available. Immediately.

That's why I'm loving Netflix right now, because they have their finger right on the pulse. Bringing back 'Arrested Development'? Yes please. The common myth in the world at the moment is that people have no attention spans -- we can't get our minds away from Twitter for more than four minutes at a time. But across the world this week people are staying glued to their screens all day, soaking up 'House Of Cards'.

And this isn't mindless junk, it's gripping drama. Expertly written in a way that's engaging yet fascinatingly mysterious. After ten episodes you know what's going on yet realise you don't actually have a clue what's going on. Exactly what is Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) up to? And why am I suspicious of Claire Underwood? (Robin Wright).

There used to be a clear line between film and television; the glory was all in the motion pictures. Then the best screenwriters began turning their backs on the big screen, to focus on the small one. It was where they could find the creative freedom to tell their stories. The actors rapidly followed. It's no surprise that people spend weekends on TV Box-Set Marathons; because they're created by the best writing, producing, directing and acting talent in America. They look just like movies, yet they last way longer and the characters are so much more developed.

With 'House Of Cards', you realise just how blurred the lines have become. David Fincher and Kevin Spacey took this on by choice, because it was the best medium in which to do this story. When you sign up with a TV Network, you have an hour a week, and depending on who the broadcaster is, you're liable to be have your show ripped apart by distracting commercials every five minutes.

Everybody hates the way TV works, it's just there's never been another choice.

But now that Netflix is funding and distributing its own projects, the future has truly arrived, and this might just be the death of television, and it'll affect movies too. If people have the time and inclination - they can watch 'House Of Cards' in one sitting. Block out a day, order some pizza, and sink into the story for thirteen hours. That's powerful. After seeing this, nearly every Film Director in Hollywood will be wanting a similar opportunity. The chance to do something intelligent and in-depth, online. The audience potential is huge. This thing is WORLDWIDE, and IMMEDIATE!

I've written a lot about how illegal streaming is growing because it gives the people what they want in the way they want it. And by that, I don't mean free stuff; I mean easy access, and complete control of how to absorb the content. We don't want the dumb commercials anymore and we don't want to be drip-fed content. We love nothing more than settling down with four seasons of our new favourite show.

That's why the simultaneous release of all thirteen episodes is genius. We're engaged more than ever when the content is GREAT, when a show is truly worth it. That's why 'The West Wing' has gone on to such legendary status, because people are still discovering it, staying up all night binge-watching, and then recommending it to their friends. Same for 'The Wire', and 'Lost', even 'Friends'!

This is one of Kevin Spacey's finest performances. His turn as Francis Underwood is immensely gripping--- you find yourself rooting for him despite his evidently evil machinations.  Robin Wright is unerringly cold and calculating as Francis' wife, Claire Underwood. Together they make a chillingly perfect team.

Another standout performance was given by Kate Mara, who I've seen in bits and pieces over the years, most recently in the film '10 Years', which I wrote about previously.  But this is surely her best screen work to date. She begins as an atypically ambitious young journalist, but the character develops in far more fascinating directions through each episode -- until by the end, you'd hardly recognise her from the Zoe Barnes we met at the beginning. To say too much more would surely be on spoiler territory, so I'll just say that I was hugely impressed with how Mara portrayed her character, and I can't wait to see more of her work.

Same goes for Corey Stoll, who plays Congressman Peter Russo. This poor character is completely controlled and ruined by Francis Underwood. Russo, already an alcoholic, fumbles through each episode desperately struggling for even an inch of control or self-respect. He's a riveting character, and feels all-too-real which is a credit to Stoll's great acting.
As you'd expect when David Fincher is involved, the show is stylishly shot. When Fincher directed the Aaron Sorkin penned 'The Social Network', the screenwriter often said, "He made scenes of people talking about typing look like bank robberies". That's what you get with Fincher - he makes the boring fascinating. 'House Of Cards' is thirteen hours of Kevin Spacey walking in and out of rooms, having small conversations and then walking out again -- yet it's all so atmospheric and compelling.

This is one of those shows where, in many ways, not a lot happens. But the characters are so absorbing that you go along with it, based on faith. Because you know this is all leading somewhere. 

WARNING: The next two paragraphs are potentially mildly spoiler-ish. Maybe best to skip over them if you haven't watched the show.
The unfortunate thing, from my point of view, is that come the end -- you are led absolutely nowhere. The final episode, which promises so much -- ends flatly. The end result, which you may have had an inkling of near the very beginning (or something close), begins to fall into place in the final few episodes. In the last three parts, once we get a sense of what Francis' intentions are -- the show flattens, loses its zip. The final episode, which promised so much, delivers exactly what is expected, in an almost casual manner -- offering no excitement, no intrigue, no sense of denouement. 

It seems likely that the final episode is designed to leave us wanting more, begging for Season 2, but to this end, it falls short. When you're gifted a thirteen episode story at once, when you watch a character weave his way in and out of situations in search of a goal -- to not deliver on that in the end, in a satisfying way, is majorly disappointing. You don't end watching this show excited and hungry for more, you end it flatly; wondering why it didn't deliver a killer punch. You don't feel satiated.

Spoiler alert over, you're safe. 

Netflix could really be onto something. Original content, delivered immediately and cheaply to the hungry consumer: this is exactly what we want. Will it become commonplace? Perhaps; but the material has to be excellent, and it has to be expertly put together. If not, there'll be tons of thirteen hour shows where nobody gets past the thirty minute mark. 

This time, they had Fincher and Spacey, they were in safe hands. And in 'Arrested Development', it's hard to imagine they could fail. But new and original productions will be more risky. Netflix could, potentially, revolutionise the industry, bringing us wildly creative projects from the best minds in the business. 

It's a risk that I hope they continue to gamble with. 

'House Of Cards' is, I would say, a big success. Hugely compelling, with fantastic performances from some of the top actors in the industry. As a model for how things can be done in the new world; online and immediately accessible, this feels like the future. In fact, it feels like where we're at, right now.

My personal opinion is that the first series ends poorly, that the audience are not given the ending they deserve after keeping faith for thirteen long hours. It will be interesting to see if other viewers agree with me. If I'm right, then the team behind the project may have misfired; because word of mouth will undoubtedly suffer. I think 'House Of Cards' is a great experiment with so much about it that is fantastic; but do I recommend you give up thirteen hours to watch it? Not necessarily. I'm not sure the journey will take you where you want to go. 

But the journey that Netflix is just beginning; I'm along for the ride.

Care to share?