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.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Why Is Everyone So In Love With This Book?

I hate reviewing things. If you're not a trained and paid journalist then it comes across as a pretentious exercise. Nonetheless, I was writing an e-mail to someone who lent me David Nicholls' One Day and a brief exchange of thoughts became something denser and it got me thinking just how a book- not a movie or album- can become a significant cultural force. Most people I know don't read books but there are certain novels that really manage to extend their reach. One Day is most definitely that rarity: not just a novel but a story that readers' become possessive about.

I thought One Day was very well written and special in its narrative style. It is a modern epic about life and love. By epic I don't just mean it's a story spanning three decades, I mean that it's hugely emotionally epic. It runs the gauntlet of emotional representations; from the dizzying heights to the soul destroying defeats encountered in young adulthood. David Nicholls has an absolute understanding of his leading characters- Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morely. They are characters he has thought through entirely. You never get the sense he's trying to figure out his characters in the actual writing process; he knows them and he's aware of the exact trajectory of their lives. In that sense he's an author who has an impeccable understanding of the human condition and the individualistic failure of real people.

This brings me on to the fact that although the writing is masterful, I don't think One Day is quite a masterpiece. I have major misgivings about the story. I think the innovative trick of structurally focusing on St. Swithin's Day over 20 years to tell the story is an interesting narrative device, but merely a device. The idea may have been to use 15th July as a metaphorical light that glows intensely for 24 hours, the peripheries of this metaphorical light give shine on events of the previous 12 months. These giant ellipsis take a lot of getting used to and the author shoehorns too many implausible events into his strict time frame, which means you do at times struggle to suspend disbelief. I am also a critical of his depictions of Dexter and Emma. I feel that authors as clever as Nicholls should avoid cultural clichés such as people working in the media being personally and socially destructive while those in teaching being grounded and only marginally flawed. I am also of the belief that the story would have better resonance if it had been edited a little more judiciously. There are episodes that are tiresome and dragged out. I also thought the first 100 pages read like an episode of Friends. It's after this point the novel gets really good and remains really good till the last 50 pages which seemed less interesting than what had come before. I think the whole Dexter grieving thing became annoying and self-indulgent, though I'm willing to accept this may have been intentional. I also found both Dexter and Emma to be characters that are relatable and recognisable, but hard to admire. Once gain this may have been intentional. Still, having gone through this immensely immersive journey I think there is something inherently universal about the themes at play. Ultimately, it's a book about identifiable people and I suppose that makes this a story we can all relate to. Although I'm not entirely convinced by David Nicholls' take on love, he presents an image of fraught/ complex bonds that is hugely compelling. I guess there are many ways of loving someone and the love between these guys is so pure that it gets contaminated by their own emotional/ class/ intellectual repressions.

On the flipside, this is a novel packaged to be a bestseller. Nicholls is a fantastic storyteller and is giving the reader what they want. The emotional psychology of his characters is very matter-of-factly spelt out meaning it's not so much the reader who has to use their own emotional intelligence to try and figure where Emma and Dexter are emotively at. It's a novel that doesn't require work on the part of the reader other than to read what's written and empathise. There's hardly any moment where I was second-guessing if a character meant what they thought. I have found that the modern British way to sell stories is to make them rampantly safe and middle-class. I find this regressive as there was a time not long ago when writers like Alan Sillitoe and David Storey were writing great books about the emotional complexities of working people. They wrote stories that were seemingly parochial but travelled well internationally. That's not the case now as contemporary publishing in England has gotten as bad as the film and music industries in that everyone is looking for a safe bet. Sorry to say it, but One Day is a publisher's dream as it's a major safe bet, albeit a safe bet that's a good read.

I prefer the medium of cinema over any other. I realise that any producer worth their salt will jump on One Day because it's a very well told story with great characters and interesting situations. That's why Nina Jacobson optioned it immediately. The movie only finished shooting last week. Focus Features will release it this time next year and these are the first publicity stills released from the production. I know many British people don't like the casting of Anne Hathaway but I think she'll be brilliant. I'd hate to see Gemma Arterton or 'Ikea' Knightley play Emma Morely. None of those actresses can play believable 'everyday' characters whereas Anne Hathaway carries all her movies like an iron rod. I hope they keep Emma Morely's Yorkshire origins in tact because the North/ South divide is a major theme in the book. Then again after seeing Josh Hartnett's cringe-inducing rendition of a Yorkshire man in Blow-Dry I won't blame them if they decide to water down the character's provincialism. I'm more concerned about Lone Scherfig directing the film because I think she's dull and overrated. I thought An Education was a pretty looking film with some solid acting, but little else. I also hope they don't turn this into a high-concept romantic comedy and make a huge thing of the "One Day, Over Three Decades: Two People Find Love". One Day isn't corny but I feel a movie adaptation unintentionally may be.