Sunday, 12 December 2010

Can Black Creativity Escape Petty Feuding?

When the American television network ABC asked Ewan McGregor if he'd ever consider working with director Danny Boyle on another movie again the actor was quick to respond by saying: "I don't think so. Danny and I don't speak, we haven't spoken for years. There was a falling out of sorts over The Beach and that was quite a messy and hurtful time." McGregor told a journalist in a 2005 interview that, "Boyle and his people didn't treat me very well. It wasn't just about The Beach — it was that they were dishonest with me about it." McGregor's emotional wounds are understandable as the short lived but highly successful creative collaboration between the actor and filmmaker yielded cult movies like Shallow Grave and A Life Less Ordinary: the crowning middle achievement being Trainspotting.

With such noxious resentment spewing from McGregor's camp it seems baffling that Danny Boyle told Cinematical's Todd Gilchrist last Friday that the sequel to Trainspotting is now steadily taking shape. Boyle said: "The book Porno (Irvine Welsh's literary sequel to Trainspotting) is not a great book in the way that the original novel is genuinely a masterpiece. But we have been doing some work on it, and it's got potential. And when the moment's right, I think we will approach it." Boyle went on to say: "It will happen, I think ― I mean, we'll approach [the original cast] all again about it, but it will depend on what place they're all at."

A public falling out between two heavyweight figures like McGregor and Boyle may pique the interests of nerdy film aficionados, but film industry rifts aren't a patch on music industry rifts; and no one engages in quarrels the way black people in music do. Black people take things to heart in a way that disputes like the one between McGregor and Boyle can only be settled through punishing bloodshed. Take for example the Biggy & Tupac massacre of 1996 (around the same period Trainspotting was smashing it up in cinemas) when frivolous public spats between two powerhouse African American rappers, The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, culminated in the brutal execution of both artists. Neither Biggy nor Tupac were rivals, in fact, they respected each others' talents but due to rampant misunderstandings and egregious media sensationalising, things were pushed so far over the edge that a gangland bloodbath was the only adequate means of settlement. Conspirators insist, Nick Broomfield among them, that the antagonism between Biggy & Tupac was orchestrated by the head of Death Row Records, Suge Knight, in order to perpetuate the Eastcoast/ Westcoast mythos; and to ultimately shift more records.

In another example of black people holding sensational grudges, The Fugees have never been able to settle their disputes despite numerous attempts. Their 1996 album The Score (released same year as Trainspotting) sold 18 million units worldwide, eventually becoming a multi-platinum and Grammy-winning album. In 2007, MTV ranked them the 9th greatest hip-hop group of all time, thus highlighting that the Fugees mere two album output was enough to cement a profound impact on music history. The Fugees have tried but failed to get their shit together, having attempted to record a follow up album to The Score and even going on a European tour together, but nearly all of these creative get-togethers has ended acrimoniously. In a 2007 interview, Fugees band member Pras Michel set the record straight, saying: "Before I work with Lauryn Hill (lead singer of Fugees) again, you will have a better chance of seeing Osama Bin Laden and [George W.] Bush in Starbucks having a latte, discussing foreign policies, before there will be a Fugees reunion."

The rancour of old school hip-hop luminaries rears its ugly head again with the decades old disputes of members from A Tribe Called Quest. Though the group reformed in 2006 after disbanding in the late-90s, there has never been a believable sense of functioning modus-vivendi in their working practices. Michael Rapaport (yes, that Michael Rapaport from Mighty Aphrodite) has directed a new documentary on the band called Beats, Rhythms & Life, and leaked the trailer online this month much to the chagrin of band member Q-Tip who has now spoken out against the film on Twitter. Q-Tip's anger is understandable as the trailer shows Tip and Phife Dawg getting into a heated argument in front of the cameras; also showing a presumably joking alternate title for the film: 'Beats, Rhymes & Fights'. Q-Tip stated last week: "I am not in support of the documentary," adding, "The filmmaker should respect the band to the point of honouring the few requests that's made abt [sic] the piece. The filmmaker shld [sic] respect the band enough to honour our request regarding the film."

Just when you'd be forgiven for thinking all this ethnically black vexation was old hat, Leah Greenblatt reported in November's Entertainment Weekly about the progressively worsening relationship between 20th Century hip-hop ho: Lil' Kim vs. 21st Century hip-hop ho: Nicki Minaj. The two women have gone toe-to-toe about inane disputes concerning who is copying whom and some other bollocks most of us couldn't care about. But Nicki Minaj did make a seemingly legitimate point by saying: "When you see Gaga, you see Madonna — but Madonna never hated on Gaga." Minaj continued: "Why in the black community we got to hate on each other instead of saying, 'Thank you for showing me love, thank you for keeping my name alive?'"

In effect, Nicki Minaj is saying that such irrational and public disputes are endemic to black communities. It signals that perhaps black people are incapable of settling their arguments in a dignified and judicious manner. Yet I feel this is far from a simple black and white argument. No one looks at the hate filled dialogue between Morrissey and Johnny Marr as proof of white working-class Northerners not being able to get their shit together. The exact same thing can be said about both the Stone Roses and Oasis. No one is calling Keith Richards a typical English traitor for berating Mick Jagger as "unbearable" in his newly published autobiography Life; and no one ever says that the severe falling out between siblings Ray and Dave Davies of The Kinks reveals just how little white people value sacred family bonds. Christ, if any band can be deemed as vexatious and pernicious then it'd either be Van Halen or Guns N' Roses, but no one will ever say that either band is an exemplification of how the white creative community hates on each other. It's not that people of a specific race are belligerent as much as it proves that creative partnerships often bring out the worst in people of all colours. Collaborative creativity can, and often does, breed contempt.

So, despite trying to highlight how life is too short for petty creative feuding ― black or white ― Ewan McGregor is still telling The Scotsman newspaper that, "[Danny Boyle et al] can go ahead [with Trainspotting 2] if they want, but it will be without me on board."

Seriously, sometimes you just have to try and get along and make the best of things for the greater good: especially before anyone gets shot.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Aronofsky, Fox, ‘The Wolverine’: Commercial Disaster, or Genre Magnum Opus?

Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream was one of my 10 greatest movies of the Noughties: a parable on the horrors of addiction that should be mandatory viewing for every kid in Europe and America. Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain and The Wrestler are two of my worst films of the Noughties: self-indulgent exercises in interminable pretention that impressed no one but the snooty in society.

Darren Aronofsky's new film is Black Swan, which looks insane but still as portentous as his last two movies. The film premiered at this year's Venice Film Festival and received mixed reviews, though most critics agree that the usually dull and stiff Natalie Portman, who stars in the lead role, is almost guaranteed a Best Actress Oscar nomination next year. Fox Searchlight seems heartened by Black Swan; convinced that the film will be more than just a cult favourite. Perhaps that's why Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos ― joint co-chairmen-CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, and once voted by the now defunct Premiere magazine as the two most powerful people in Hollywood ― have signed Aronofsky to a new two-year overall deal under which his production company, Protozoa Pictures, will develop and produce films for both Twentieth Century Fox and Fox Searchlight Pictures. If that wasn't enough, Aronofsky will helm the next instalment of Fox's blockbuster X-Men spinoff, THE WOLVERINE.

Aronofsky is not necessarily the most obvious choice to direct such a lucrative superhero movie. Aronofsky's films are somewhat arthouse and play more leftfield as the stories he tackles are arguably challenging and confrontational. The Fountain was an expensive experiment that at one time had Brad Pitt attached to star, though he seemed to switch on to the fact that there was little substance to the story and negotiated a deal with Warner Bros. to star in Troy in exchange for dropping out of Aronofsky's film. Warner's agreed to restart production on The Fountain with Hugh Jackman replacing Brad Pitt as long as the $70 million budget was shaved to $35 million and production was moved from Australia to a sound stage in Montreal. The Fountain flopped: badly. A couple of years later Aronofsky came back with a project called The Wrestler that was to star Nicholas Cage in the lead role, but Cage left, though this time not so much because of lack of faith in the story but because Aronofsky really wanted former boxer Mickey Rourke to play the lead role. The Wrestler was made on a budget of $6 million and grossed $44.5 million: a success, but still a pretty average movie that failed to win Rourke the expected Best Actor Oscar at last year's ceremony.

Why then does Fox want Aronofsky to direct their special-effects charged Wolverine movie? When David Poland of Movie City News interviewed Aronofsky last week he said that it was a "gutsy" move for Tom Rothman to hire Aronofsky to direct The Wolverine. Aronofsky responded, saying: "[Tom Rothman] doesn't even know how 'gutsy' it is," and burst out laughing. Poland was keen to press on how Aronofsky's lack of commercial pandering may stand in opposition to what is expected from an established superhero franchise. Aronofsky said: "Every single film I've done so far, I've been the only person in the room who wants to make the movie, and I'm kind of excited about doing a film where actually everyone wants to make it. Just to see what the experience is like and see if I can do what I do in that world." The director confidently declared to Poland: "I think I'm being hired because of who I am. I'm not being hired to turn into someone. I'm being hired to do what I do." He added: "I don't know exactly if [Rothman] knows what he bought [because] we're definitely going to make something great. But it will be very different and that's what I do." Aronofsky concluded the interview by saying The Wolverine will be a standalone feature and will not interchange secondary characters or plotlines from previous movies featuring the clawed superhero.

It's good for a director to be balls-out and stand their ground regarding the vision they've got for the movie they're about to make. Confidence is one thing but Aronofsky seems to forget that Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos had similar intentions for last year's X-Men Origins: Wolverine by hiring Gavin Hood, the Academy Award winning director of South African film Tsotsi and helmer of New Line Cinema's Iraq war drama Rendition, to direct the superhero spinoff. Tastemakers were impressed by Fox's praiseworthy selection of Gavin Hood, but ultimately the director delivered a film that was less interested in action and more focused on character. Hood and Fox argued over the film's direction, especially in the depiction of Wolverine as an Army veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, with the executives arguing that audiences would not be interested in such heavy themes. The studio had two replacement directors lined up before agreeing to fly Richard Donner, director of Superman and Lethal Weapon, to Australia to shepherd the production away from Hood's existential mood piece. If anything, this goes to show that although Fox are feeling like groundbreakers for having hired Aronofsky to helm The Wolverine, his unconventional vision may be far from the digestible and marketable superhero film they're really wanting.

Some have argued against this, most notably American writer Brad Brevet of Rope of Silicone who responded to my criticisms by saying, "I understand your point, but I would never compare Gavin Hood and Aronofsky in this case, primarily due to their differing film backgrounds. Of course, if [Fox] doesn't like it they can always mess with it in the end, but I have a feeling they think they are going the Christopher Nolan/Batman Begins route here and going to go with it..."

Brevet has a point but a part of me thinks he may be leaning more towards wishful thinking as there are many commercial properties that attach auteur filmmakers only to discover they haven't delivered a saleable movie that meets audience expectations. In 2005, Warner's hired Spike Jonze to film Where the Wild Things Are which failed to meet multiple release dates as the studio was agonising over the film's non-kid friendly treatment and engaged in a series of tweaks and reshoots. The finished film was a masterpiece, but with a budget in excess of $100 million, Where the Wild Things Are couldn't even break even.

Aronofsky seems to have wanted to break into commercial features for some years now having previously been attached to Warner's reinvention of Batman before Christopher Nolan took over and was earlier signed to MGM's superfluous remake of Robocop that was recently cancelled by the studio because of ongoing internal business predicaments.

It's hard not to be cynical about The Wolverine but by stepping back and looking at the bigger picture it seems reasonable to be suspicious of Aronofsky, Rothman and Gianopulos' proclamations. To be fair, I don't hold Aronofsky's storytelling skills too high but he did direct one of my all time favourite junkie movies. There is hope that Aronofsky's edgy direction, and his regular creative collaborators in cinematographer Matthew Libatique and composer Clint Mansell, may create a superhero movie of distinct authorship: then again, Fox should still keep Richard Donner's number on speed dial just in case.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Television Killed the Radio Star

YUCK is a new indie band from North London comprised of awkward looking Jewish guys with mad hair who derive their inspiration from the alternative music scene of the very late 80s and early 90s. There is nothing revelatory about their sound but British radio is totally in love with the group. There is a retro quality to their latest song The Wall that transports the listener back to 1993 when The Pixies, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Lemmonheads, Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth were all popular indie acts. The Wall catapults you to a time when MTV had a flagship show called 120 Minutes that used to feature wall-to-wall songs like it and Alan McGee's (who is incidentally a Yuck fan) Creation record label was churning out 'shoegazing' melodies of similar ilk. The music press has immediately warmed to Yuck with the Guardian's Paul Lester praising them at a time when they still didn't even have a record deal. Radio 1's prognosticator of hip sounds, Zane Lowe, named The Wall 'the hottest record' of the month and XFM have ranked the single in a more than favourable position on the radio station's playlist.

The question is: Does anyone still care about what songs the radio promotes, or are young folk more receptive to the types of music they hear on television shows and therefore more likely to buy songs that feature on those popular programmes?

When Phantom Planet had their hit song California used as the intro to The OC it boosted the band's popularity but dented its credibility as a serious rock act. Those who are earnest about music called the band 'sellouts', but the last 5 years has seen a sea change in the way musicians approach their music appearing on hit television shows, especially in America where Dawn Soler, ABC's VP of TV and Music, told Variety: "Five years ago, we were still at the point where we were begging bands to be a part of television; you had to go through all these approval processes and make it worth their while, but in the last four years, television has really become the new radio. It is absolutely the way people are discovering new music."

It seems the increasing difficulty of breaking new artists, coupled with crowded online marketing, has resulted in communication clutter, meaning Coldplay wouldn't stand a chance of conquering the States like they did a decade ago, that is unless they signed up for an all singing and dancing stint on Glee, which the rumour mill suggests they are in the process of doing.

This new TV/ music relationship is being taken very seriously and bands are now coming on board in a way that would have been unimaginable a few years back. The American CW Network ― a joint venture between Time Warner & CBS Networks, and makers of hit shows like Gossip Girl, One Tree Hill, True Blood and The Vampire Dairies ― broadcasts programmes targeting women between 18 to 34 years of age. Their track record demonstrates that the CW Network is extremely successful at what it does and both new and old bands want a piece of the action. Leonard Richardson, VP of music at the CW Network, argues that "[Record] labels have always been interested in licensing, but the perception changed more so with artists than with labels. I think at one point artists felt like, 'Oh, I don't want my music used in this or that, and I want people to buy it just for the music as opposed to tied to a product or a TV show.' The industry squeeze made people re-evaluate that."

Leonard Richardson is obviously shit-hot at what he does. He came up with a promotion whereby information about artists and their albums would be shown on "ad cards" at the end of a show like Gossip Girl in exchange for a reduced licensing fee. This was so successful that they launched a "platinum series" for platinum-selling artists, showing a clip from their latest music video as well as album info. Last season, Kanye West and Green Day were featured and both yielded boosted sales in return. Even British acts like Nadia Oh got her relatively unknown track Got Ur Number on Gossip Girl and had a better response Stateside than what she ever got here in Blighty. Lady GaGa went one better by appearing on the show in person and justified her shameless promotion of Bad Romance as "performance art"; but Richardson is more honest in stating that every time GaGa's song was played it essentially resulted in increased song sales. Richardson is a genius at music placement, getting hold of Ke$ha's song Tik Tok before it went on sale and, based on sheer voice recognition, teenage girls were buzzing about the track on Twitter and Facebook before it had even been released. It's no wonder that Ke$ha is now one of America's best selling pop singers.

Now, neither Yuck nor their new song are looking to seek out Leonard Richardson's support, but is British television missing out by not actively developing the type of productive synergy American record labels have struck with U.S. television broadcasters? There are British shows like Skins and The Inbetweeners that are huge hits with the youth market but they often feature songs that have already become popular, thus they don't make an effort to explore new sounds that may connect with their audiences. There is a problem in that British television broadcasters have no idea of how to come up with ingenious systems like the Americans have developed. Last year the BBC made its Music FastClear service available online, allowing independent production companies to immediately clear music rights themselves, but that isn't going far enough. There is some great music coming out of this country right now and if producers were more proactive then a very beneficial symbiotic relationship between the two industries can be forged.

At least Britain's still got the good old national jukebox at the Eastenders cafe which continues to spew out nonspecific Top 10 hits. If it ain't broke then what's the point of fixing it.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Finding Fortunes

News came the other week that Roland Emmerich's next movie will be a severely low budget sci-fi flick called THE ZONE. Days later Borys Kit wrote in The Hollywood Reporter that Emmerich has decided to shelve the project, indefinitely. That seems such a shame because Emmerich is an interesting filmmaker who is now choosing projects outside the epic disaster blockbuster banner he has actively shaped for the last 20 years. Although The Zone was to be an alien invasion picture like Emmerich's Independence Day, its framework was more distinct as it was to be produced for a chicken-change $5 million and was to be entirely comprised of a 'found footage' narrative style.

What seemed like an atypical venture for Emmerich seemed far too typical for everyone else as The Zone would have been another addition to the whole 'found footage' technique that is ubiquitous in current genre filmmaking. Last month's record breaking arrival of Paranormal Activity 2; added with innumerable 'found footage' successes like Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, The Last Exorcism and the original Paranormal Activity; indicated the whole affectation of fake documentary style is being far too over-exposed. Even international cinema is cashing in on the faux documentary craze with Norway scoring major buzz with Troll Hunter, the premise being the Norwegian government has been hiding the existence of trolls of all sizes and a team of film students go about trying to capture the monsters on their handheld cameras. Most worrying for Emmerich must have been Timur Bekmambetov's Apollo 18, a space mission gone wrong thriller that also utilises the whole 'found footage' phenomena. Apollo 18 hits theatres next spring, a similar release date to what Emmerich's movie was aiming for. So annoyed is the world at Emmerich's decision to shelve The Zone that the Guardian's Ben Child contacted Emmerich's office in LA who issued a statement saying: "This is not a project [Emmerich] is pursuing at this time." It's a bummer because Emmerich was to commence filming on The Zone this very week. His last minute decision to cancel The Zone coincided with Warner Bros. announcement that they'd also be ditching their plans to make Dark Moon from a spec script written by Olatunde Osunsanmi, which uses the conceit that NASA's manned moon missions did not stop with Apollo 17, thus a black ops team is sent to explore previously classified lunar discoveries where they come in contact with scary aliens and it's all caught on camera. Though Warner's pulled out of Dark Moon, Joel Silver's fantasy shingle Dark Castle moved in to produce and will shoot this winter. Ironically, Dark Castle has an output deal with Warner's meaning the studio will distribute the finished film after all.

The documentary approach to genre filmmaking is being overused, but that is only because it's cheap to manufacture and young audiences respond mightily well to it. Roland Emmerich was gearing up The Zone with actors Peter Mackenzie and Brandon Scott ― who were cast as a journalist and a cameraman, respectively ― rehearsing the improvised script with the director in Hollywood and a production team was in place to start filming. Columbia Pictures had even purchased The Zone as a negative pick-up and were ready to cultivate a genius marketing campaign to promote the film's scheduled spring release. With a bargain price tag and such a brilliant director on board to helm the feature, one can't help but think this will go down as a major lost opportunity. Perhaps the most likely possibility is that whilst locked in rehearsals, Emmerich realised he could not add anything new to the 'found footage' tradition and thus decided to bail on the project. Therefore, this is a creative decision more than anything other.

The key is not to underestimate the documentarian storytelling method in genre films. Paranormal Activity 2 managed to have its cake and eat it by producing a film that's massively redolent of what came before yet still delivers a fitting story in an intensely creepy way. One of the most beguiling films of this season is Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman's CATFISH, which is a 'documentary' that follows Schulman's brother Nev, a New York photographer, as he meets a girl on the internet and develops an intense cyber relationship with her only to discover all is not what it seems. Suspecting that the said girl and her family are being deceptive, Nev goes out to Michigan to confront them and his eventual discovery is shocking; though not in a way you'd ever expect. Catfish screened at this year's Sundance Film Festival and was locked in a bidding war between Reliance Media and Paramount Pictures, the former winning out in the end and releasing the film through Universal Pictures. Momentum will release Catfish in the UK next month, hoping to capitalise on the $3 million-plus it's made at the U.S. box-office to date. What Catfish demonstrates is the power of watching a story unfolding through the cameras and lenses of real people capturing events in real time. Unlike Emmerich's project, Catfish isn't pretending to be anything other than an actual documentary. Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman stand by their claims that what they've caught on camera is real, but others have disputed this arguing that the documentary is highly manipulative and largely fictitious. In any case, Catfish is a film for our times, examining the psyches and relationships of a culture that's constantly wired in and often gets caught out because of that. This narrative style is massively cogent and speaks to young audiences in a way that traditional methods cannot.

Just the very notion of Roland Emmerich sidestepping his regular $100 million budgeted spectacles in favour of The Zone totally had me psyched, but alas, it wasn't meant to be. Still, if the current love for documentary style stories like Catfish remains then we may be living in a golden age of 'found footage' cinema.

Friday, 12 November 2010

From the ‘Brit List’ to the ‘Black List’

Last week saw the publication of 'The Brit List' – a reactionary response by the British cottage film industry to try and ape the American 'Blacklist'. Both of these lists are catalogues of the best unproduced indigenous screenplays voted for by industry people over the year. Whilst in the U.S. scripts for Juno, The Social Network and Mel Gibson's next movie The Beaver were all featured on the Blacklist and went on to become major films, one can't help but wonder if any screenplay included on the Brit List will go on to become hit films. For example, previous winners of the Brit List were Men Who Stare at Goats and Nowhere Boy, both being British films that got made but hardly generated the type of adoration some of the screenplays featured in the Black List have managed. Last year's Brit List winner was Good Luck Anthony Belcher which remains unmade and has the awful She's Out of my League's director Jim Filed-Smith signed on to helm. This year's Brit List winner with eight votes is Sex Education by Jamie Minoprio and Jonathan M. Stern who previously penned the very funny on paper I Want Candy and the very shitty on film St. Trinian's reboots – though they can't be entirely blamed for the latter as they only did script rewrites to Piers Ashworth's original draft. Oscar winning producer Christian Colson (Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours) fares best of all as three of the shortlisted Brit List scripts are optioned and developed by his production company Cloud Eight Films. While there are some high profile properties like On Chisil Beach and Jamaica Inn, and some interesting scripts like Shan Khan's Honour (having previously written the excellent Prayer Room which hinted that he may be Britain's answer to Spike Lee), there's nothing on the Brit List that makes you believe the featured works will go on to become major films. Chances are that all of Colson's films will go the way of his last British movie Centurion which on its release didn't even manage to penetrate the UK top 10. Sex Education will probably flop in a similar way to I Want Candy as the British are largely incapable of producing smart ribald comedies without infusing them with copious amounts of unfunny smut. Honour will probably fail to secure necessary funding because financiers will fear that the controversial subject matter about honour killings in British Asian communities will render the project un-commercial. Furthermore, for every On Chisil Beach there's an Enduring Love, and for every Jamaica Inn there's a Birds II: Land's End – not a good sign.

So while the British film industry polishes its own dick, we film enthusiasts look to America for movies worth watching. Not even British audiences can be fucked seeing British films as can be seen by the recent hyped up arrivals of Made in Dagenham and Tamara Drewe, both of which came on a flurry of publicity and neither attained love from punters who actually pay to watch films. You can't blame the British film industry for trying because the way things are going there won't be any industry other than what Hollywood creates by buying up cheap studio space for their own features to be filmed in. Warner Bros. announcement this week of buying Leavesden Studios where they will invest a further £100 million to redevelop the site seems like great news, but with volatile currency rates and the abolition of the UK Film Council there's reason to suspect Warner's commitment will not live beyond 2015. After all, American studios are in it for themselves and want a reliable base to shoot their own movies at cheaper rates. The purchase of Leavesden Studios doesn't signify a wanton desire for Warner's to make British stories as the studio's head of production, Alan Horn, has gone on record saying their commitments are now to develop tentpole DC comic book properties, practically all of which are American stories. Horn at this year's Showest convention said: "As we ease out of Harry Potter, we hope to bring you the excitement of the DC [Comics] Library," which pretty much affirms where Warner's emphasis will be focussed.

Truth be told, writing a quality screenplay seems like a very difficult task. Scriptwriting is a craft that requires amazing skill at creating characters, dialogue, structure, pace and atmosphere – all in the blueprint for a story that is to be told visually. A further truth is that no one has mastered the art of scriptwriting better than the Americans. We are now in awards season meaning that at this time of year you get some very good screenplays vying for Oscar consideration. No doubt the bulk of these scripts will be American, with a few British titles like The King's Speech thrown in for good measure. The Hollywood Reporter has begun its annual 'Awards Watch Roundtable' discussions where they gather as many of the best key talents they think will feature highly in this year's awards season and get them to engage in debates concerning their films and craft. On the subject of scriptwriting, they've started this year's debates by bringing together Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours), Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3), John Wells (The Company Men), Todd Phillips (Due Date) and David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole): all of them candidly discussing the highs and lows of writing movies. The video is over 1 hour in length but it's worth sticking to even if you're not verily into cinema as for the most part it's a bunch of seriously clever men talking about very interesting things. Though some may scoff at the inclusion of Todd Phillips in this debate, having watched Due Date the other day I was amazed at how well he managed to balance coarse humour with genuine heartfelt emotions such as the scenes in which Zach Galifianakis laments the passing of his father whist also doing something maddeningly buffoonish. These scenes in Due Date demonstrate Phillips' skills in both comedic precision and dramatic performance. Also, the video illustrates the contrasts between American writers like Phillips and Sorkin who seem to have a very anti-unionist attitude towards the Writers' Guild of America, whereas Yorkshire man Simon Beaufoy has a more socialistically sympathetic approach to what the union is there to do and wishes something similar existed for British scriptwriters. It is brilliant stuff and reminds us of why we love cinema so much.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

The World’s Gone GaGa

In 2008, less than 2 years ago, the British pop music landscape was familiarising itself with the arrivals of Katy Perry, Alexandra Burke, Diana Vickers, JLS and some others. What most people had no idea about was an artist calling herself LADY GAGA. It's hard to believe that until January 2009 Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta (Lady GaGa to the rest of us) was not even a blip on the radio waves and it was only last year that she acquired a degree of prominence with the introduction of her debut single Just Dance a track produced and co-written by hip Muslim dance producer ― and the key developer of GaGa's sound ― Nadir Khayat (aka: RedOne). Accompanied by a generically hipster music video directed by Melina Matsoukas, Just Dance stormed the global pop charts selling over 7.7 million units to date. Intellectually, Just Dance may have been interpreted as a two-fingered rebuke to the deepening credit crisis and rampant unemployment of the time: a statement of not getting bogged down by the hardships and dancing out of adversity; but in all honesty the single was a calling card signalling GaGa as the latest addition to the sorority of 20-something manufactured pop starlets who are as much about image and stylisation as they are about slick music production. In a time of music industries crashing and burning, GaGa is arguably the music industry's last stab at making itself important.

A surface admiration of all things GaGa is fine, but news came last week that the University of South Carolina has developed a sociology course dedicated to the life, work and rise to fame of Lady GaGa. The course aims to analyse the sociological framework of popular culture and music, specifically focusing on socially relevant elements in the rise of GaGa's popularity to her current status as a 21st Century pop music icon. The course will be taught by Belgian born sociologist, Professor Mathieu Deflem, whose research interests include counter-terrorism, international policing, crime control and internet technology: topics that seem far worthier than the analysis of a pop star who hasn't been around long enough to deserve this type of intellectual veneration. It seems far too premature to read so deeply into GaGa's 10 million followers on Facebook and Twitter as something more than a simple by-product of an incipient cyber fanbase that decrees its adoration through totemistic membership. When we distil the phenomena of Lady GaGa there's not much to praise other than masterful marketing and genius global positioning.

More disappointing is the amount of press coverage Lady GaGa has received from broadsheet newspapers that seem to think of her as a bigger cultural icon than what she actually is. GaGa has gone on record outlining her myriad of musically eccentric influences, citing everyone from Grace Jones, Freddie Mercury and David Bowie; though it seems she garnered the wrath of M.I.A.'s Maya Arulpragasam when she described the Sri Lankan as her "fellow hard working female art student," in turn comparing and identifying with her groundbreaking work ethic. M.I.A. was understandably none too pleased, stating, "People say we're similar, that we both mix all these things in the pot and spit them out differently, but [GaGa] spits it out exactly the same. None of her music's reflective of how weird she wants to be or thinks she is." M.I.A. added, "She models herself on Grace Jones and Madonna but the music sounds like 20 year-old Ibiza disco. She's not progressive, but she's a good mimic. She sounds more like me than I fucking do! That's a talent."

M.I.A.'s vitriol is now being echoed by others, with Grace Jones saying she was irritated by GaGa's imitation of her style, proclaiming, "I've seen some things she's worn that I've worn, and that does kind of piss me off." Camille Paglia in The Sunday Times, a newspaper that was originally appreciative of GaGa's style, now asserts that she "is more an identity thief than an erotic taboo breaker, a mainstream manufactured product who claims to be singing for the freaks, the rebellious and the dispossessed when she is none of those." Kitty Empire wrote in The Guardian that "[GaGa's music] allows the viewer to have a 'transgressive' experience without being required to think."

What Lady GaGa is isn't something to be scoffed at. She is an icon to millions of international audiences who at once want a safe sound to buy into, but also the artifice of it being something unique and special. Her 8 awards for Bad Romance at this year's MTV Music Video Awards was the most since a-ha's Take on Me in 1986, though not as much as Peter Gabriel's 9 wins for Sledgehammer in 1987. It was at this year's MTV awards ceremony that GaGa dedicated her historic win to her legions of fans, addressing them as her 'Little Monsters' ― a term she and they adorn with relish. By calling themselves 'Little Monsters' hints that both GaGa and her fans are a part of some counter-cultural movement, but that seems total nonsense when one engages in a critical assessment of her standardised sound and image. Lady GaGa has been crafted into a serviceable interpretation of what the current music scene is all about with acts like Christina Aguilera effortlessly aping the former's beats and aesthetics in her last album Bionic. Likewise, it can be argued that GaGa's breakout hit Just Dance was merely an imitation of Aguilera's promiscuous image and sound developed in her 2002 album Stripped. This really is the self-cannibalisation of modern pop music.

There isn't an issue in Lady GaGa being an internationally fashion and style icon. There is not even an issue about her music being designed to appeal to the masses without forcing them to demand more in terms of originality and scope. The problem is that of smart people who should know better ballooning GaGa's cultural importance into something it most certainly isn't. GaGa is not the panacea to homogenised manufactured music as her very own music conforms to those exact principals, demanding little exertion on the part of the listener. Her current fanbase comprises mainly of teenage school girls and middle-aged gay men, both of whom share bizarrely simpatico music tastes. Despite this, it's hard to think that Lady GaGa's music and celebrity status will carry the same resonance in 10 years time.

Friday, 29 October 2010

When Things Don’t Work out the Way You Hoped

Something strange happened last week in UK cinemas. A film called THE STONING OF SORAYA M. opened at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts with little in the way of widespread attention or elaboration. There was some coverage in the Times newspaper who gave the film a 4 star review: the Financial Times going one better in awarding it 5 stars ― full marks. Other than that the Stoning of Soraya M. cultivated little press attention and even less arthouse appreciation as its domestic box-office results are neither available in the UK Film Council nor Guardian's weekend box-office tallies. The Stoning of Soraya M. existed below the radar ― something that almost seems criminal considering the importance of the film's subject matter.

The Stoning of Soraya M. is an American funded film, adapted from French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam's 1990 non-fiction book, La Femme Lapidée. Set in Iran in 1986, it tells true story of Soraya Manutchehri whose husband concocted a Machiavellian conspiracy to frame her for adultery, which brutally culminates in Soraya being buried up to her waist and then pelted to death with rocks. The film stars Academy Award nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo as Soray's aunt Zahra; as well as James Caviezel as Freidoune Sahebjam and Mozhan Marnò as Soraya. The film is directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh and produced by Mel Gibson's long-time producing partner Stephen McEveety, who was passionate about bringing Nowrasteh's powerhouse screenplay to the screen. Having secured funding for what is a tough sell; production took place over 6 weeks in an undisclosed mountain village in Jordan, and had two prolific actors drop out in pre-production when they contemplated the risk they may court by appearing in a film that vilifies Iran's governance and its barbaric Shariah practices.

Having finally overcome the creative and logistical hurdles involved in making the Stoning of Soraya M., the film premiered at 2008's Toronto International Film Festival where it was Runner-up for the Audience Choice Award, losing out to Slumdog Millionaire. Realising that the film would be deemed too risky an acquisition for American distributors, McEveety's production company Mpower footed the bill for the U.S. release and hired distributor Roadside Attractions to book it in theatres. It still took British distributor High Fliers Films a further 2 years to buy the UK distribution rights. High Fliers rolled out a low-key UK release last week, failing to garner the press attention needed to increase the profile of such an important picture and attract the kind of buzz that gets British arthouse cinemas outside of London to exhibit it. Back in June 2010, Tom Stewart - Head of acquisitions at High Flier Films, told Screen Daily, "We're thrilled to bring such a powerful and evocative drama to UK audiences at last, showcasing such strong performances from a wonderful, international cast." Judging by last weekend's poor results, they failed to push it sufficiently.

There's no denying that the Stoning of Soraya M. is a hard film to watch, astoundingly directed in a way that you literally feel the impact of each and every rock thrown at Soraya during the harrowing execution scene. I can't begin to convey just how painful the scene is to watch. When asked by the Christian Broadcasting Network if he expected the film to come runner-up at Toronto Film Fest, Stephen McEveety said "I wasn't surprised. I was surprised that someone beat us actually." This response is understandable because the Stoning of Soraya M. is powerful experience; one that will stay with the viewer long after they have seen it. The images depicted are graphically disturbing; difficult to watch without turning away. Yet Lindy West's assertions in the Daily Telegraph that the film is "little more than boring racism [that] Christian extremists will love," seems unfair. By arguing the film is sensationalistic is unreasonable as the brutality Soraya incurs is presented in a manner that provokes debate; designed to encourage meaningful deliberation. The filmmakers have the intention of giving the audience a profound experience, one that is intentionally uneasy and arguably all the better because of it. McEveety stated, "[the execution scene] was essentially tougher than it is now ― trying to find that perfect spot without making too weak or too strong." Although there are elements of the film that may be perceived as convoluted, sentimental and one-dimensional; for anyone who has been to that region of the world will know that melodrama and overstated emotions is very much a part of the national psyche. Iran is neither Britain nor America as people often exhibit hyperbolic sentiments in uncomfortable ways.

The Stoning of Soraya M. is a hugely significant picture that tells a very simple story in an uncompromising way. What should have been a catalyst that sparks debate about the role of women in Iran seems to have become a footnote release that has either been attacked for ostensibly poor acting (God knows how the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw can say that), or as a lurid video nasty.

If films are meant to move the audience and put them in impactful situations, then the Stoning of Soraya M. does exactly that and does it well. Upon the film's U.S. release in June 2009, John Jurgensen in the Wall Street Journal asked Cyrus Nowrasteh to respond to criticisms about the Stoning of Soraya M. being inaccurate and sensationalistic, to which the director said: "A movie like this needs to be absolutely uncompromising in its approach. The subject demands it."

At a time when there is a wholesale aversion to challengingly dramatic adult cinema, the Stoning of Soraya M. is a film that stands out as the exception; though not so much in commercial terms as the production costs ran to £2.5 million and its worldwide gross stands at a paltry £627,807: but that seems to be tolerable as McEveety told the Wall Street Journal, "If [The Stoning of Soraya M.] doesn't succeed financially, I can live with that."

Despite living in a time of global crisis and war, it seems no one wants engage in thought provoking art that, I agree, is difficult to experience, but rightfully, very hard to shake off afterwards.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Staying in the Black

Earlier this week, DJ Nihal Arthanayake on his weekly BBC Radio One Review Show highlighted the precarious state of black music in the UK. He brought up the subject with Giggs ― an upcoming UK rapper from Peckham, London whose song Hustle On is getting good airplay ― asking whether the burgeoning fusion of dance music with hip-hop is killing black music's credibility. It's a good question and one that Nihal has raised with many UK rap luminaries. To a hardened hip-hop aficionado like Nihal it's a concerning topic because it may decimate the long-term integrity of UK hip-hop before it's really had a chance to establish itself as a genuinely important music movement.

The UK urban scene goes back decades with groups like S.L. Troopers, Cookie Crew, Wee Papa Girl Rappers and London Posse releasing songs around the same time New York hip-hop and LA gangsta rap were cementing themselves as formidable American music entities. The music they made was redolent of US hip-hop sound but was distinct because the rappers frequently rapped in patois and often rhymed about life in inner-city England. The music generated was rarely anything more than a niche activity, appreciated almost exclusively by urban listeners. The mainstream FM radio stations never played the songs and music video stations ignored them; although London Posse's videos for How's Life in London and Style surprisingly made it on to MTV Europe.

Flash-forward 20 years and things are quite different. About 10 years ago So Solid Crew released their famed track 21 Seconds that went straight to the top of the UK charts. A couple of years later Ms. Dynamite's album A Little Deeper won the prestigious Mercury Music Prize ― previous winners having primarily been white guys with guitars. A year on and Dizzee Rascal's Boy in da Corner clinched the same award. Acts like Oxide & Neutrino and More Fire Crew scored top 10 hits, signalling that UK rap music was now becoming accepted/ commercial.

The question here is should UK hip-hop cut its nose to spite its face as, much like Nihal says, the black music scene has gone country-wide, now featuring heavily on provincial FM radio drive-time shows. The problem is that the songs cultivating popularity are generic radio-friendly dance tracks containing lightweight rapping about frivolous things. For example, Roll Deep are a part of the UK Grime scene but their recent number 1 charting tracks like Good Times and Green Light share none of the hardened edge of earlier songs like When I'm 'Ere. The reason for this is because the latter failed to make the mercantile impact that recent songs have; songs inoffensive enough to be played in the mainstream pubs and clubs of middle-England where undemanding punters can bop around drunkenly to the generic sonic splendour of them. Even Dizzee Rascal's last album Tongue N' Cheek eschewed the sonic edge of his previous work and settled for a safer pop sound that catapulted it to certified platinum status with sales of over 300,000, making it Dizzee Rascal's best-selling album and generating four UK number 1 chart singles in the process.

The watered down sound of UK hip-hop shares some similarity to what's happening in America, albeit the American urban music scene has evolved over 30 years, firmly establishing its credibility before succumbing to postmodern US suburban 'wigger' culture ― innocuous white adolescents looking for an edgy cause and style that gives them a sense of identity. The eminence of Eminem woke America to the actuality that a white guy can produce good rap music about blue-collar poverty and strife. The arrival of Eminem struck a chord in Europe, especially in the UK where everyone from Plan B, Blazing Squad, Devlin and Professor Green has spread the word of Caucasian fronted hip-hop, and in doing so has arguably cheapened the authenticity of rap music: Professor Green turning it into a torpid joke. All these UK artists are the children of Eminem ― taking their cue from his successful style of marrying hip-hop with jokey discourse. (Maybe not Devlin so much, who seems to take his music more seriously than what it's worth.) If Eminem brought rap to the UK mainstream then maybe that is a good thing, but his legacy is less desirable. Likewise, UK urban acts of black heritage have done themselves no favours in combing inferior hip-hop sounds with Black Lace type novelty value, all in the aim of building an ephemeral fanbase and making some quick cash in the process.

I blame America. The recent trend of hip-hop stars like TI and Kanye West sampling Euro-pop beats ― and with everyone from Kelis to the Black Eyed Peas working with goodtime Euro-dance producers like David Guetta and Benny Benassi ― has damaged the authentic image of hip-hop. (Not to mention that only your dad will consider Black Eyed Peas to be hip-hop.) The cheapening of hip-hop is a phenomenon of our times and may have caused irreparable damage, the kind of damage that can seriously blemish its reputation for good.

As much as one can bemoan the state of UK hip-hop, there's much to be proud of in that visibly black talent like Dizzee Rascal, Chipmunk, Tinchy Stryder and Tinie Tempah are achieving a level of success their predecessors could only dream of. The actuality they've had to tweak their formula and whitewash their sound doesn't nullify the true success of what they've achieved. For example, at the opposite end of the same spectrum, the Kings of Leon have stormed the charts this week with Come around Sundown, already set to be the bestselling album of the year. Elitist music fans are protesting the band's descent into mainstream appeasement, but there's a counterargument to this in that the sound they developed in their first few albums ― which was most pleasing to Guardian reading middle-class British youth ― lacked the accessible pop gusto of radio-friendly tracks like Sex on Fire and Use Somebody. Today, you can walk down a street in Tottenham or Bradford and hear a British black or Asian person listening to those songs in their car; something that would never have happened 5 years back. If these songs are making people happy and crossing over then does it really matter so much? Is the pervasive multicultural acceptance of formerly ghettoised music actually cheapening the product, or merely giving people a good time?

Monday, 18 October 2010

To Ban or Not to Ban

There's a really good episode of Ricky Gervais' Extras that features Ben Stiller directing a fictitious film about a Bosnian guy called Goran whose family was executed in the War in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The episode smartly pokes fun at the notion of a privileged Hollywood star directing a dramatic movie about a very serious occurrence when there's nothing to suggest he's suitable for such a gig. In a case of life imitating art, Angelina Jolie is in production on her directorial debut UNTITLED BOSNIAN WAR LOVE STORY that tells the story of a Serbian man and a Bosnian Muslim woman who meet on the eve of the Bosnian 1992-95 war. UNTITLED BOSNIAN WAR LOVE STORY hit the headlines last week because it was claimed the story was initially about a Serb soldier raping a Muslim woman who bizarrely falls in love with her assailant . The outgoing culture minister of Bosnia's Muslim-Croat federation — Gavrilo Grahovac — cancelled Jolie's permit to shoot in the country because an association of female victims from the Bosnian war had objected to details of the plot. Reuters reports this morning that Grahovac has now approved filming after reading the script and talking to production representatives.

There's no denying that the War in Bosnia and Herzegovina is an abhorrent stain on modern European history, rightfully deserving cinematic interpretations that provoke international debate. The most recent research places the number of people killed during the war at around 100,000 to 110,000, and estimates that the numbers raped range from 20,000 to 50,000. If Jolie's movie gets people interested in knowing more about this modern genocide then that can only be a positive thing. Yet, there is a fine line between making films about horrific events and exploiting them in order to fuel promotion and generate money. That's exactly how I feel about Srdjan Spasojevic's monstrously controversial picture A SERBIAN FILM.

At the risk of sounding like Mary Whitehouse, I haven't seen A SERBIAN FILM other than the lengthy 'Red-Band' trailer. I hear the film is available to view online but I have no real desire to see it as I've read the plot synopsis and realise that it may be too extreme for me to gain any modicum of satisfaction by watching it. The story concerns a semi-retired Serbian porn star called Miloš who's lured back into pornography to score one last lucrative gig. He turns up for filming and is escorted to an orphanage where he's made to have sex with an abused woman whilst a kid dressed like Alice in Wonderland watches them. Miloš freaks out and is restrained by production personnel, who force him to watch footage of a woman giving birth and then a man aiding the birth proceed to rape the newborn baby. An angered Miloš is then drugged to carry out a series of brutal rapes and executions over a three day period, culminating in him raping his own young son while his own brother, on an adjacent bed, rapes Miloš' wife. Added to this are scenes of Miloš skull-fucking the eye socket of an injured production technician and other assorted sexually violent set-pieces, thus giving us a pretty good idea why people are calling A SERBIAN FILM one of the most shocking pictures ever made.

I'm being very succinct in my distillation of A SERBIAN FILM'S plot and more detailed outlines are available online should you wish to find out more. It seems obvious that the censor boards of many nations will not go easy on A SERBIAN FILM and perhaps they're right to do so. The film has been shown at some film festivals but plans to screen it at London's FrightFest 2010 were scuppered when Westminster Council intervened and blocked the screening. The Raindance Film Festival in London got around the blockade by screening the film as a 'private event' and showed it last week to the chagrin of The Sun newspaper who were up in arms at the BBFC for granting permission, although Westminster Council requested to monitor all invitations to the screening. The film's UK distributor is Revolver Entertainment, who has been informed by the BBFC that A SERBIAN FILM will have to undergo 49 individual cuts amounting to nearly four minutes of screen time in order to gain a British DVD/ Blu-ray release.

There's no doubt that Revolver will succumb to whatever the BBFC requests as there's enough built-in hype to capitalise on; many willing to watch even a heavily edited version just so that they can say they've seen it. Reviews for A SERBIAN FILM have been at times positive with Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool calling it a "dream film" and Scott Weinberg of Fearnet claiming the film is "intelligent". But dig deeper and it's clear that misguided internet adoration for A SERBIAN FILM mires the reality of what the film is. Alison Willmore of IFC is more critical, arguing that "[A SERBIAN FILM] comes from a country that's spent decades deep in violent conflict, civil unrest, corruption and ethnic tensions [making] it tempting to read more into the film than I think it actually offers — ultimately, it has as much to say about its country of origin as Hostel does about America, which is a little, but nothing on the scale its title suggests." Tim Anderson of Bloody Disgusting dissuaded all from seeing A SERBIAN FILM, arguing "You don't want to see [A SERBIAN FILM]. You just think you do."

It's good when cultural products spark healthy debate. It's good that a movie can get people thinking about what can be shown and what is going too far. While I may not wish to see A SERBIAN FILM, I don't believe in the censorship that's omitting 4 minutes from a film that can only be viewed by adults. A SERBIAN FILM should be released uncut, exactly the way its director Srdjan Spasojevic wanted it to be seen. Where I do take issue is with Spasojevic engaging in moral platitudes defending his film as "a diary of our own molestation by the Serbian government." Going on to say, "It's about the monolithic power of leaders who hypnotise you to do things you don't want to do. You have to feel the violence to know what it's about."

That's a lousy defence. A SERBIAN FILM is no more a metaphorical indictment on ethnic cleansing than what Cannibal Ferox was a metaphor for Western Imperialism — even though certain schools of film criticism argue it was exactly that. A SERBIAN FILM is gratuitous exploitation cinema designed to repulse many and entertain only few. The film business isn't known for its honesty but for the people behind A SERBIAN FILM to think of it as anything more than 'trash art' is about as ludicrous as Angelina Jolie making a film about the hardship of Serbian war victims: or even Ben Stiller for that matter.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Music To My Ears

THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS remain one of Britain's most respected dance bands. Whereas groups like BASEMENT JAXX and FAITHLESS have lost some of their leftfield respectability because of dull tracks or cynical synergetic corporate partnerships (FAITHLESS' last music video also doubled up as a Fiat car advert and their latest album The Dance was retailed via an exclusivity deal with Tesco), THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS have managed to maintain their serious music credentials. The CHEMICALS came to prominence at a time when the amphetamine-fuelled club scene was booming, with their 1997 album Dig Your Own Hole charting massively well in Europe and America — where the 'Electronica' scene came to prominence on the strength of that album. The current music scene has changed significantly and the CHEMICALS latest album Further failed to chart in the UK because the record label Parlophone decided that every purchase would enter the purchaser into a competition to win an iPad and British chart regulations strictly forbid prizes being used as enticements to buy albums.

THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS are a great electronic dance band and its catalogue of fantastic music defines the youth of many. If their album sales have been less than robust of late, their live shows remain a potent draw and now it's been announced they will be composing the score for Joe Wright's new action drama HANNA- released spring 2011. Wright claims to have known Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons (the guys behind THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS) since the early 90's when he used to drop acid and design lighting concepts at raves with the both of them. After seven notable albums, it's safe to say the CHEMICALS have produced music that's highly cinematic hence why music loving filmmakers like Cameron Crowe and Sofia Coppola have frequently used their tracks in many of their movies. Yet HANNA will be the CHEMICALS' first film score and it adds to a cool trend in Hollywood where studios are commissioning respected bands/ artists to score their movies. Along with the CHEMICALS doing the music for HANNA, Trent Reznor (with Atticus Ross) of NINE INCH NAILS has scored David Fincher's THE SOCIAL NETWORK, while DAFT PUNK has provided the music for TRON: LEGACY and PHOENIX is currently scoring Sofia Coppola's SOMEWHERE.

A band/ rock star scoring major motion pictures has been done before to brilliant results. Vangelis did Blade Runner, The Dust Brothers did Fight Club, Bob Dylan did Wonder Boys, Peter Gabriel did The Last Temptation of Christ, Wu-Tang Clan's RZA did Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, Three 6 Mafia did Hustle & Flow, and Karen O did Where the Wild Things Are — all to great cultural acclaim. One of the reasons why it may be better to commission a band to score a movie is due to the fact that unlike traditional film composers, bands aren't predictable in tying the music they create to the dramatic themes of the film they're creating music for. In that sense the music they make is refreshing and original. It also gives movie scores a cultural currency traditional composers lack. People are more likely to buy a film score if a notable band has composed it, therefore a band's association to a movie may make it more appealing to individuals who would ordinarily shun movies in favour of other pursuits like going to gigs or staying in and listening to albums.

Above all, the movie landscape of late is populated with creative visionaries who either cut their teeth helming the burgeoning music video scene, or are young enough to have been inspired greatly by the MTV craze of the 80s and 90s. For anyone under 35, the creative proposition of creating images to music and not the other way round seems a most palatable intention. They belong to a generation who comfortably marries the aesthetics of moving images with the melodic inventiveness of cool music. It only seems natural for contemporary filmmakers to seek the services of great bands to compose the score for their movies. After all, there's a fine line between movies and music with songwriters like Jim Morrison and Kelly Jones having been film students before becoming singers. Likewise, Spike Jonze and David Fincher are directors who defined modern music videos before going on to change the face of modern American cinema.

Joe Wright's decision to hire the CHEMICAL BROTHERS to score HANNA seems both brave yet in keeping with the zeitgeist. One can argue Joe Wright's portentous Dunkirk beach sequence in Atonement was essentially the best COLDPLAY music video COLDPLAY never used, nor asked for. Unlike Danny Boyle (who was previously attached to direct HANNA), Wright is not known to be a hip director; the sort of director a CHEMICAL BROTHERS score would seem a good fit. (One can't help but be reminded of Iain Softley's efforts to provide his 1995 movie Hackers with an ill-fitting hip soundtrack when the director was anything but hip and the end product felt awkward at best.) Still, the actuality that Joe Wright and the CHEMICALS go way back, added with the current trend of music superstars topping up their income by scoring big movies; this union of rockers and filmmakers actually seems very exciting. With the current inertia in British cinema it is prudent for directors to try and forge fruitful connections with esteemed musicians who themselves are also struggling to keep their heads above water because of rampant piracy, lack of interest in live music and declining music sales. This can be a productive trend that does both parties a world of good and helps boost the creative profile of both the movie and musician.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Backstory is Boring

John Carpenter has a new movie coming out next year called THE WARD. It premiered at last month's Toronto Film Festival to lacklustre response. That seems a shame when THE WARD is Carpenter's first film in 9 years. John Carpenter is an institution, the arguable pinnacle of US horror movie craft. He defined American horror in the 70s and spent subsequent decades destroying it with lousy feature after lousy feature. His former horror films were steeped in smart subtext whereas his last film Ghosts of Mars had nothing to praise about. Film fans were hoping his lengthy sabbatical from filmmaking may have reenergised Carpenter so that he could give us another picture comparable to something like his 1982 classic The Thing; a sci-fi horror movie that pushed the boundaries of storytelling and effects to unprecedented levels. Despite the movie not being a commercial hit when it was released 2 weeks after Spielberg's ET, and on the same day as Blade Runner; The Thing is now called "The scariest movie ever" by the Boston Globe, while Britain's Empire magazine notes it as one of the five best films of all time.

Universal Pictures made The Thing (oddly enough, they made ET too) and will release an all new prequel on 29th April 2011 confusingly titled, THE THING. The prequel has a production budget of $35 million and is directed by Dutch helmer, Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. THE THING concerns the Norwegian science team alluded to in the original film who come across a spaceship buried in the Antarctic and unthaw the frozen corpse of an alien organism that can absorb and duplicate itself into any life form it crosses. Producer Marc Abraham has given Movieweb some information about the direction this new movie will take, stressing how well the prequel and original link up. Abraham said, "You find the axe in the door in this movie, there's an axe in the door [in The Thing] and you see how the axe got in the door. So you see all of the rewind of that." This demonstrates that THE THING is simply backstory, a pointless retread of beguiling incidents that were cleverly conveyed through the power of suggestion and will now be played out in all the disheartening splendour a $35 million production can buy.

The argument that Hollywood is bereft of original ideas is old hat. It's boring to read another article banging on about it. Therefore, my point isn't so much with remakes but with prequels. The craze for origin stories is infuriating because all it's simply telling us is shit we know about in the first place, or shit we didn't need to see played out because it's superfluous. Filmmakers have forgotten the brilliance of watching a movie that has a narrative scope beyond the film presented. It makes a movie look well developed, a story with gravity and breadth, a tale that took place before any of us had a chance to know about it and will continue long after we see it. That doesn't mean we want to see it, especially not when it's backtracking and covering events that have happened, thus not moving the story on. The Godfather Part 2 managed to expertly combine a prequel and sequel in one movie, but now we're getting bollocks like X-Men Origins: Wolverine and next year's X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, which is directed by Matthew Vaughn and tells the story of how the characters got together in swinging-sixties London. It sounds useless and exploitative, especially considering how one journalist recalled Matthew Vaughn as having little knowledge of the X-Men universe when he was originally attached to direct X-Men: The Last Stand for Fox. Superhero movies are terrible when it comes to exploiting backstory, giving us endless repetitions of how the whole thing came to be. What's more, we're so thick we go and watch them when they're released.

One can't be too precious when it comes to John Carpenter's The Thing as that movie was itself a reinterpretation of Howard Hawkes' The Thing from Another World. Marc Abraham has assured loyal fans that the director is a die-hard fan of The Thing, claiming "[Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.] has [The Thing] on his laptop. Not only screen captures of it but the entire movie and there isn't a moment when he doesn't go back to the original. He's so careful about where the axe is in the door, what the ice block looked like, or the spaceship, where they stand when we see the spaceship. He knows and is respectful of every aspect."

That's good to know, but is there anyone who felt the world was a lesser place without a cinematic depiction of the events in the Norwegian camp where the original Thing was hatched? We know that Universal Pictures put THE THING prequel in development after Computer Artworks released their hugely successful videogame of The Thing in 2002, illustrating an appetite audiences still have for the brand. John Carpenter himself told Empire in 2004 that he had plans for a sequel to The Thing but was struggling to get the studio to take him seriously. In some respects I almost respect Marc Abraham for at least not remaking a perfectly good movie and instead choosing to make an alternative version that's connected to the original without being a wholesale rehash. Abraham was pretty honest in saying that the creatively inept executives at Universal Pictures were pushing him to make a remake of Carpenter's original, saying, "Every studio, every entertainment company; all they're trying to do is figure out the least amount of risk and the most brand awareness. That's the world that we live in now."

The origins craze will continue with Ridley Scott trying to get his ALIEN PREQUELS off the ground (having already botched up his origins of Robin Hood story) and Fox releasing RISE OF THE APES next summer. (That's the second Fox prequel out next summer along with X-MEN: FIRST CLASS.)

I do want to see what they've done with THE THING prequel and, shamelessly, will watch it regardless of quality because I guess I'm just thick.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The Minority Rules

The year was 2002. Staying in on Saturday nights was all the rage. Britain was in the grip of reality television hysteria. The joy of watching people of humble origins become overnight sensations through democratic programming had made the possibility of becoming a celebrity a tangible reality for all of us regardless of looks, skills and discernable talents. Some television shows revelled in their lowbrow brilliance while others made more of an effort by purporting to be talent shows in the search of credible singers. The BBC had its Fame Academy which had an audience of two-dozen; the ITV had its Pop Idol which had an audience of everyone residing in the British Isles. By 2002 the success of Pop Idol had spawned a one-off spin-off show called Pop Stars: The Rivals, in which two gender distinct pop bands consisting of five elected members were borne. The girl band became the beloved Girls Aloud; the boy band went on to become something none of us can remember. It was survival of the fittest and the best band won. Girls Aloud become the biggest girl band in Britain because they had all the right elements. The people of Great Britain had exercised their democratic rights and voted for Nadine Coyle, Cheryl Cole, Sarah Harding, Nicola Roberts and Kimberley Walsh to form the principal components of this fantastic new musical movement. And in doing so the British people had decided to eliminate the bookies favourite, Javine Hylton- the only black contestant left in the show. ITV declared it to be a fair contest but others were not so permissive. People claimed the show had been rigged and that when they had dialled the number to vote for Javine Hylton they were rerouted to a recorded message thanking them for voting for fellow contestant, Sarah Harding. ITV denied any vote rigging and the matter was soon settled by Girls Aloud going on to an amazing pop career, while Javine Hylton became an ad-hoc 'z-list' celebrity appearing on any number of pedestrian reality television shows.

Most ethnic minorities have a pretty good life in Britain and are pleased they're not living in the times of their parents' when blatant racism was de facto. Britain's minority groups go by the notion that anything is achievable if they work for it and demonstrate the talent to excel. We are told Britain is a meritocratic society in which ability is king. That's what I thought until I watched Sunday night's X FACTOR: all my notions of meritocracy and talent going straight out of the window as Cheryl Cole eliminated every single black finalist from the under 25s female group of this year's show. This wouldn't be a big deal if the aspiring black contestants had been poor in comparison to their Caucasian competition, but they weren't. They were, by and large, really fucking good. The white girls, on the other hand, were really fucking shite, with Madonna wannabe- Katie Waissel, and favourite to win- Cher Lloyd, getting through to the live shows despite both of them forgetting their lyrics during the final audition. Cher Lloyd gave up during Sunday's show, transforming into a mumbling wreck when Cheryl Cole asked her to sing for her and guest judge, The only finalist to have any trace of colour was Rebecca Ferguson, but she is mixed-race, thus ostensibly more palatable to Ms. Cole. Cheryl Cole's bizarre final choices meant the viewers' favourites, Gamu Nhengu, Anastasia Baker and Treyc Cohen, were totally fucked over. I scratched my head and so did thousands of others who have launched social networking sites proclaiming their loathing at the decision.

If something like this had happened in America then there'd probably be mass protests and all-out race rioting. There's a passivity to minority groups in Britain who are letting this slide when it really should be made into a big deal. I hate to say it, and may regret saying it, but what I saw on Sunday night seemed like abject racism. A kind of racism I abjure. What happened was not fair and totally wrong. Cheryl Cole has had a tough time of late with her marriage collapsing and suffering a bad bout of Malaria, but we all know these celebrity judges don't decide on whom the finalists' are- it's a bunch of executives calling the shots. Sure, Cheryl Cole did punch a black cloakroom attendant back in 2003 and allegedly called her a series of racist slurs, but I don't think the buck stops with her. Sure, is a black man who's been paid lots of money to pretend to be Cheryl Cole's friend and participate in selecting her finalists, but he doesn't really have any real say. This is a calculated move on the part of white, middle-class, largely male executives who know that the real support of middle-England will not be with women of colour.

Yes, Leona Lewis and Alexandra Burke are ethnic girls who have won X Factor but their success came at a time when they were the only few black people to make the finals. Believe me, both Leona and Alexander were working 50-times harder than any other contestant on the show that year and were 100-times more talented than the competition. This year was the first time I have seen a pool of black contestants who were head and shoulders above the competition and were potentially perceived as a threat because the number of ethnic finalists may have usurped the more accessible white talent. Could there have been a fear that audiences outside of cosmopolitan areas- meaning pretty much everything outside of London- would have shunned the show if there were not more Caucasian contestants to root for? I hope not because that would be a totally depressing thought. For any black kid watching last week's X Factor, the institutional racism demonstrated by ITV was despicable. It's an insult to think that young black people won't be shocked by the decision because many of them have been vocal in their anger at the X Factor. This is coming at a time when despite record investment in inner-city state schools, black pupils are still significantly underachieving, with 55% of 14-year old black boys having a reading age of seven or less. The problem is getting so much worse that this month's Prospect magazine reports on how a group of black boys were taken to Jamaica for a summer science camp in order to expose them to university lecturers, doctors and sundry professionals who looked just like them, thus instilling a sense of inspiration sorely lacking in their birth country. It's not easy being a black person in Britain and the covert racism of ITV exemplifies that.

It seems ITV is perturbed by the claims of racism and the other black contestants that didn't make it through will be given the opportunity to compete in the live shows as part of a new 'wild card' feature. To me it looks like somebody is feeling rather guilty. But this isn't good enough because even if one of the talented black girls finally makes it on a tokenistic wild card then that still doesn't repair the overall damage perpetrated by ITV. I say fuck the X Factor. I'm boycotting the bastard this year and watching Strictly Come Dancing with Brucie instead. Then again, Brucie is the same tosser who defended Anton du Beke when he called his dancing partner Laila Rouass a "Paki" in last year's show. Fuck that old coot Brucie as well. Fuck British television. I'd rather read a book.