Sunday, 17 April 2011

‘Z’-Grade Film Industry

British terrestrial viewers finally got a chance to watch Frank Darabont's majorly hyped American zombie drama serial The Walking Dead on Channel 5. Nearly 1.5 million viewers tuned in last Sunday, which is actually a solid figure considering that the show had already aired last year on subscription television.

Zombie films are an acquired taste. After the eerie-to mordant-to eventually gory iterations of George A. Romero's classic zombie movies, the genre pretty much disappeared in the 1990s when horror films took on a cooler and more self-knowing guise. It was only with Zack Snyder's $30 million remake of Dawn of the Dead that the memento mori themed zombie subgenre came screaming into the 21st century and grossed in excess of $100 million internationally; influencing a slew of remarkably similar undead movies. In actuality the zombie craze started a little before Dawn of the Dead with Resident Evil and 28 Days Later being more identifiable precursors, though it can be argued that those films were more to do with infections turning people into rabid killers rather than the actual walking dead.

Zombie movies hark back to the 1930s with films like Victor Halperin's White Zombie being cited as Hollywood's first ever zombie movie. There were many more along the way, most notably Night of the Living Dead which rebranded the walking dead as ravenous cannibalistic ghouls ― a trend that lasted for nearly 50 years without much further advancement. There has been so little innovation in this particular subgenre that one struggles to comprehend why Hollywood continues to flog its dead corpse. Let's be honest, zombies are not sexy in the way that vampires or werewolves can be, nor are zombies capable of conveying any subtext other than the tired old 'mindless consumerism' metaphor that it's been saddled with for far too long. Other than the simple pleasures of watching etiolated zombies gruesomely devour living victims, there really doesn't seem to be any point in making these films anymore.

Try telling that to film executives at Paramount Pictures. Mike Fleming wrote an interesting piece in Deadline about the studio's fraught efforts to make a movie adaptation of Max Brooks' bestselling zombie apocalypse tome, World War Z. For the last 5 years Paramount has twice renewed its option to make the film, brought on a team of A-list writers to script it, attached an esteemed filmmaker to direct and even talked Brad Pitt into starring as the lead protagonist. Unfortunately, none of it has helped to get the movie greenlit. It seems that the studio eventually realised that this particular film about a zombie holocaust will set them back $125 million to produce and will likely incur an adult rating due to the fact that movies about zombies usually depict mass carnage and gore ― things you'd have thought they'd have figured back in the day when someone at Paramount read Brooks' manuscript and decided to option it.

There is actually a more interesting point to do with this story other than simply defining what a zombie movie is, and that is to talk about what a zombie movie ― or in fact, any other type of genre movie ― can be if you have faith in a project and are willing to take chances.

Max Brooks' source material for World War Z was mildly appealing at best, pretty pointless at worst. I started reading the book on holiday and finished long after I got back. It was fairly boring read and hardly a page turner. I then got hold of J. Michael Straczynski's screenplay adaptation of World War Z which re-imagined the disparate stories that feature in the book as a paranoid conspiracy thriller in the vein of Alan J. Pakula movies from the 1970s, with strong geopolitical and governmental corruption undertones. The studio then hired Matthew Michael Carnahan to redraft Straczynski's script, infusing it with more memorable set-pieces.

World War Z was not going to be some flash-in-the-pan zombie flick; this was going to be a mature horror thriller set against the backdrop of an epic zombie apocalypse. It was a smart script and presented a carefully constructed plot with strongly crafted characters. This is exactly the type of genre picture big studios should be falling over backwards to make, something that gives viewers more than they thought possible. Sure, it does feature standardised zombies, but the context of the story is remarkably fresh and exciting.

Alas, what all this boils down to is studios not wanting to break away from safe traditions. What they want is to hammer out benign movies that adhere to established conventions, like it would be some kind of cardinal sin to do otherwise. For me, World War Z is not about having the chance to see another zombie film, but rather more, a chance to see something that dares to be different and respects its audience. This is a zombie film that's more than the sum of its parts.

Fleming has since reported that there may be a chance that World War Z will ramp up production perhaps as soon as June of this year after hearing that hot and heavy talks are going on with David Ellison's Skydance Productions and as many as two other financiers to share the financial load on the movie. What's more, Movieweb stated this week that legendary cinematographer Robert Richardson is currently prepping the movie right here at Elstree Studios in London, something that his agency apparently admits to (it actually features on his official resume, though Elstree deny production being based there).

The fly in the ointment might be reports that Paramount Film Group president Adam Goodman told Vulture website that the studio has signed a deal with director Marc Forster that bizarrely assures them of a PG-13 final cut. Goodman eloquently proclaimed: "We're really committed to making a big, kick-ass giant [zombie] movie with Marc Forster and Brad Pitt."

It's a statement that rings rather hollow when you consider it wasn't that long ago under the creatively bereft headship of Sherry Lansing that Paramount had a policy to only focus on remaking their past properties in the assumption that they were safer bets than developing new ideas for production. It was this strategy that made Paramount focus on bottom-line costs rather than market share, preferring to take fewer risks and make lower-budget films than rival studios. It seems that these old habits have been hard to shake off. The studio, like most other American majors, has neutered creative risk-taking, favouring to cajole filmmakers into sterilising genre products so that they conform to expectations rather than revitalise things and give us something unexpected.

Somehow you get the sense that a lot of compromise and creative conciliation had to be made in order for World War Z to even get this far, which is not far enough because I still don't believe it will get an official greenlight, at least not in the way I was anticipating.

The problem in cinema, more so than in television, is that there are huge costs involved in making movies. A lot of money gets used up within a very short amount of time and the revenue streams can take a remarkably long time to come through, sometimes too long. Studios think that they know what audiences want to see in movies and they tailor them accordingly. This isn't the 1970s when the basic economy of the studios collapsed and radically new types of risks were taken with conventional genre films. Studios now know that bovine teenage boys are their main clients. Furthermore, with international markets becoming ever more important, studios don't want to make stories anymore complicated or original than what they need to be.

This argument isn't really about World War Z. It's not even about zombies. It's actually about the freedom to create commercial entertainment without undue limitations as long as what is being created justifies such liberty. Should World War Z start filming in London in 6 weeks time then I suppose that will be a success of some sorts. An even greater success will be if the creative forces behind the project get to make the genre defying picture they can, just as long as they make the right choices. That will be hard to do because we're not living in a time where big movies can embrace risk and originality. It would be great if the studios can realise that sometimes taking the most obvious route does not create the most edifying film experience.

Maybe Paramount Pictures will make their movie adaptation of World War Z into an outstanding zombie thriller, or perhaps there's greater chance of the dead coming back to life.

Friday, 8 April 2011

In God We Trust

The Kings of Leon may just be the most beguiling band in contemporary pop music. It's a group that I've come to like, initially finding them too esoteric for sake of being esoteric. The band is now five albums in to a relatively young career, with its sonic trajectory navigating away from esotery to a more arena-friendly sound, and in turn, cultivated a bigger listener base. In retrospect, it seems fair to say that the band's first few albums were its most sincere, especially their sophomore effort Aha Shake Heartbreak which is arguably one of the best albums of the last 10 years.

What is most astounding about the Kings of Leon is that this quintessentially American band of Christian Pentecostals actually found a following here in the UK before anywhere else in the world, including their own country. What's more astounding is that UK has the most secular mindset imaginable; the very thought of rocking to religious rockers benumbs us. Yet the Kings of Leon totally bucked this trend, with band's last three albums charting pole position in the UK charts.

On Monday director Stephen C Mitchell unveiled the trailer for his forthcoming documentary Talihina Sky: The Story of Kings of Leon, which will premiere at this month's Tribeca Film Festival in New York. The film documents the entirety of the band's career, from humble beginnings to eventual wayward rock n roll lifestyles. Mitchell told the New York Times that the film is a "fascinating insight for fans and non-fans about a group of musicians who will never forget their strict Pentecostal upbringing or rough-and-tumble back-country roots."

From watching the trailer it's obvious that the Followills' faith plays a crucial function in both their music and existentialist outlook. They are not explicitly puritanical bible-bashers (if they were then UK music aficionados would have never let them through the door), but they are, or at least seem to be, God fearing guys whose religious upbringing very much informs both their songwriting and music style.

The Kings of Leon are not the only ones with a proclivity for religion. Cage the Elephant from Bowling Green in Kentucky are also a group of Christian boys who have taken the alternative music scene by storm. The band's latest album Thank You, Happy Birthday charted at number 2 in the U.S. Billboard 200, and the first single from the album Shake me Down was heavily played on mainstream UK radio stations. Lead singer Matthew Shultz revealed in an interview that all the band members in Cage the Elephant were largely unexposed to rock music till their teens; in large part due to the fact their parents' religious views deemed such music ungodly.

Caleb Followill echoed a similar story about his upbringing, stating that it was only after his mother divorced his Pentecostal preacher father in 1997 and moved to Nashville that he and his brothers were introduced to the glory of rock n roll.

Even Armenian-American rock band System of a Down clearly demonstrate a sound that is heavily influenced by Islamic Sufi-mystical culture. The band are not Muslims, but with lead singer Serj Tankian and drummer John Dolmayan hailing from Lebanon, and guitarist Daron Malakian's parents immigrating from Iraq and Iran, the cultural trademarks of Sufi music are used to amazing effect in many of their best songs. It's important to note that Islam as a musical influence, and not necessarily a religious one, is very much embedded within the sounds created by System of a Down.

This brings us back to the role of religion in rock music, especially American rock bands who've managed to break into the UK market. Like I said, Britain does not do God: the very thought of it sends us into secular convulsions. Yet Britain has been hugely receptive to the likes of Kings of Leon who wear their Pentecostal faith with conflicted pride. We know that there are more obvious bands like Paramore and Evanescence who also allude to being of a Christian faith, though they've been clever enough to not make a big song and dance about it when promoting themselves in these shores because such a declaration is a major turnoff for British folk. You will never hear a British artist thank God when winning a Grammy award because it's not something that is a part of the mindset. The British have been largely suspicious of God and his followers.

I would argue that the principal reason why the UK market has bought into bands like Kings of Leon and Cage the Elephant is because, despite their faith-based backgrounds, they remain fundamentally flawed human beings. Cage the Elephant's Matthew Shultz was widely known to have had an addiction to methadone, not to mention some other illegal drugs too. The Followill posse have all sorts of vices that have endeared them to the decadent British public. In the case of System of a Down, well perhaps I'm clutching at straws by shoehorning them within some sort of religious paradigm, but just listen to either Memerize or Hypnotize to get a sense of the Middle Eastern Sufi splendour laced within its brilliantly produced head-banging beats.

To promote one's religion in music is absolutely fine as far as British are concerned just as long as it is complimented with an absolutely contradictory lifestyle that's rife with misdemeanours and fuck-ups. It is this acceptance that has perhaps encouraged bands like Cage the Elephant, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Scissor Sisters to abandon their U.S. homeland in favour of the fog and drizzle of the British Isles. Just look at T.S. Elliot and Jimi Hendrix for historical proof of liberal American artists relocating to Britain because of its unique cultural temperament.

Furthermore, while some American bands may bandy chastity rings with pride and extol a wholesome upbringing by pastor parents, that kind of discourse has never sat comfortably with the sex-loving and hedonistic British populace. American artists have learnt not to make a big thing of it when touring here because it often works to their detriment.

Maybe Britain affords an individual to be themselves. It doesn't ask profligate rock stars be role models. For example, when Glee creator Ryan Murphy became agitated at the Kings of Leon for refusing their song Use Somebody to feature in his television show, Murphy became aggressive and called the band a bunch of "self-centered assholes." Drummer Nathan Followill retorted by telling Murphy: "See a therapist, get a manicure, buy a new bra. Zip your lip and focus on educating 7yr olds how to say fuck." Murphy accused the drummer of homophobia and Followill was pressured into making a swift apology via his Twitter account. It's hard to think that Murphy could get away with that kind of homophobia accusation here in the UK.

Christ, Noel Gallagher of Oasis once wished that Blur members Damon Albarn and Alex James would die of AIDS, but he was never cajoled into apologising for his statement. Morrissey waited 20 years before feeling the need to repudiate his ostensibly racist musings in the N.M.E.

The British expect their rock stars to be bad and to say nasty things without fearing the threat of consumers boycotting their records. (Dixie Chicks, anyone?)

To be fair, Americans pretty much invented all the major music trends of the 20thcentury, including punk, house and gangsta rap. I guess the concept of rock n roll excess married with some form of religious following perhaps suggests that the U.S. is a more complex society than we acknowledge.

Still, doctrinal self-righteousness from musicians may be a cool personal trait in America, but self-destruction has always gone down better with British listeners. Amen to that brother.

Friday, 1 April 2011

British Urban Warfare

Adam Deacon's urban comedy Anuvahood did monster business at the UK box-office a fortnight ago. Despite a relatively slim 149-cinema rollout, the film achieved healthy debut takings of £537,000, delivering the top 10's highest screen average (£3,603). To date the Anuvahood has earned over £1.2 million and is still pushing on strong.

So, it seems that UK urban cinema is now a bonafide success story. British urban cinema has come a long way since Isaac Julien's Young Soul Rebels. Isaac's 1991 film was made at a time when releasing a British film that starred a predominantly urban cast was unheard of. Most executives would have told you there isn't an audience out there to justify such a thing. The chances are that a snooty panel of elitist posh commissioning executives would've shit their pants at the thought of a black person coming into their office and pitching an urban story about inner-city characters doing inner-city things.

Over the proceeding 20 years British urban cinema languished. Unlike British Asian films such as East is East and Bend it Like Beckham, urban cinema lacked the alluring draw that cute ethnic comedies about characters from the Indian subcontinent have for UK audiences, making it a wiser proposition for film producers to invest in. The last few years has seen movies like The Guru, Bride and Prejudice, Slumdog Millionaire and West is West deliver brawny results.

On the other hand urban cinema was not worth the attention. Even major American movies made for urban audiences were released directly on to video, the assumption being the British audience for such films was negligible.

Even up until 5 years ago most naysayers of British urban cinema had a valid point in dismissing the profitability of such films. Saul Dibb's Bullet Boy and Richard Laxton's Life and Lyrics died on arrival, neither one scoring more than a few hundred grand each. Then in 2006 came Menhaj Huda's Kidulthood, which was more importantly written by Noel Clarke. Kidulthood had a so-so cinema release but its saving grace was DVD. The results were good enough to prompt investors into greenlighting a low-budget sequel called Adulthood, this time both written and directed by Noel Clarke. Adulthood played like gangbusters despite only showing at 157 screens. Launched during summer 2008, Adulthood held its own against expensive summer blockbusters like The Incredible Hulk and Speed Racer and Iron Man, earning well over £3.2 million at the box office.

Since Adulthood the UK urban cinema canon has been rich in plenitude. There's been Shank,, Street Dance 3D and TV movies like West 10 LDN, most doing alright business. Indigenous production companies have been keen to get in on the act because these films are cheap to make and distributors are finally aware there's a keen young audience for them, the kind of audience that actually goes to the cinema on opening weekend. Furthermore, the British urban scene is exactly that: an urban landscape populated with numerous cultures existing within one setting. It is not simply a black and white situation.

With this in mind it would seem that British urban cinema is fertile ground for creating complex stories about a plethora of cultures bound together in the backdrop of poverty. Some of these stories could be funny, thrilling, romantic, horrific or dramatic. It offers a vast canvas of opportunities to present levels of storytelling plurality conventional British cinema lacks.

Unfortunately, this hasn't been the case. There is nothing that is compelling about contemporary British urban cinema. Take for instance Anuvahood, which is basically a low rent retread of F. Gary Gray's 1995 U.S. comedy, Friday. It explores no new ground other than taking the model of something that already exists and transporting it to inner-London. Even the films of Noel Clarke are lackadaisical interpretations of American ghetto dramas of the early-1990s. Rather than creating a distinct urban cinema the way in which France did with La Haine or Brazil did with City of God, the UK has produced a series of paltry products that fail to leave any indelible impression. The British urban film scene is a joke that will impress only the most undemanding audiences, primarily poorly educated inner-city kids who are in fact being insulted by the current films targeting their cash.

Cast your minds back 20 years ago when the U.S. saw releases like Do the Right Thing, New Jack City, Boyz in the Hood, Menace II Society, Juice, South Central et al. These were commercial hits yet were also recognised as works of distinction by critics and award bodies. Boyz in the Hood got an Oscar nomination and Menace II Society won the 1994 MTV Movie Award for best film, beating Spielberg's Schindler's List. American urban movies made serious statements about the worrying plight of its poor and black communities. They were serious bodies of work, challenging audiences and playing with notions of virtue. They were stylistically ghetto-fabulous but never lost sight of conveying a compelling story. The films often focussed on black characters but they channelled depth, presenting a misunderstood community that comes in many different guises. These movies were masterworks, viable stories, never failing to make you think about what it means to exist in such challenging circumstances.

The chances of anyone saying such positive things about British urban cinema in two decades time is pretty slim. The British urban scene is largely lacking in quality and integrity, meaning it will leave no lasting impression. That seems wrong when you consider that the kitchen-sink films of the 1960s were also about misconstrued characters coming from poor backgrounds, yet they were rich in humanity. Much like urban fare, the kitchen-sink tradition was very much of its time but remains important. Films like Saturday Night Sunday Morning, This Sporting Life and A Taste of Honey were amazingly well crafted stories that featured impeccably layered characters. I challenge anyone to say the same about British urban cinema.

There is something else that concerns me about contemporary British urban cinema and that is the lack of strong talent being discovered to act in and direct these pictures. Also, it's worrying that British urban films are not being made by filmmakers who come from urban backgrounds. Saul Dibb who made Bullet Boy is a university educated middle-class white guy and Richard Laxton who helmed Life and Lyrics is the same. The industry remains reluctant to invest in talent who come from the backgrounds better served to tell the types of stories being told. The American urban movies mentioned above were directed by the likes of John Singleton, Spike Lee and the Hughes Bros. – filmmakers that came from urban backgrounds. They were the most appropriate individuals to handle the material.

Americans have been hawkish in terms of protecting their stories and the types of filmmakers granted permission to tell those stories. For example, Norman Jewison was originally contracted to direct Malcolm X but he had to withdraw from the project when outside pressures demanded that the film be helmed by a black director. The gig eventually went to Spike Lee and resulted in a terrific movie. It was important to African Americans that one of their own is given the chance to tell an important story about the struggles and empowerment of a black icon. It made sense and the finished movie seemed all the more powerful and compelling because of it. It's hard to think that the British film industry would have presented comparable arguments when they were putting together director lists for Ghandi and Cry Freedom.

Britain does at least now seem to be trying to evolve the urban genre. Joe Cornish's sci-fi comedy Attack the Block will be released in next month and is attracting strong buzz. It's a story that ticks most of the boxes in that it's an urban set picture but produced with greater care and on a better budget. Nonetheless, Attack the Block has been put together by an almost entirely Caucasian team, most coming from backgrounds of great privilege. Joe Cornish was educated at Westminster School in central London which is one of the most expensive private schools in Europe. The producers are from equally comfortable backgrounds too. There is something inherently wrong about how British cinema is going about making these types of films and the way it selects advantaged personnel to create them. If urban cinema is such a viable entity then surely the British film industry has a responsibility to encourage and develop young creative voices that originate from the types of environments being depicting on screen.

This is a complex argument and I'm sure there are many out there who may accuse me of being anecdotal in order to present things my way, but we have to remember that "advantaged" filmmakers will always have greater scope in terms of crossing genres and telling varied stories. Filmmakers from more difficult beginnings will not get such opportunities. After all, Saul Dibb went from Bullet Boy to historical English drama The Duchess. It seems reasonable to assume that Joe Cornish's next project will be equally dissimilar to Attack the Block.

I would argue that Adam Deacon, Menhaj Huda and Noel Clarke will not go on to make anything other than what the industry perceives they are worthy of, and that will most likely be pedestrian urban shit. It can be argued that perhaps these filmmakers are not talented or creative enough to tackle anything else, but that isn't a good enough defence? Actors and filmmakers from urban backgrounds are already displaced by the panoply of period dramas Britain makes which has no room for such people. I can't see the British film industry doing anything to resolve this. Even the new Martin Luther King biopic Memphis is being directed by Paul Greengrass, though most will argue that he's a better choice than pretty much anyone else out there for such a film.

To counteract the claim that black filmmakers in Britain are relegated to insipid urban fare one only has to highlight the career of British filmmaker Steve McQueen who is making serious dramas starring high calibre white thespians, though he does seem to be a rare exception. Having one Steve McQueen doesn't really absolve the systematic failings of an entire film industry.

I am not an ardent supporter of hiring someone for the sake of creating a more level work force. It should always be based on talent and ability, but it's very unfair to exploit stories of a minority culture when the powers that be have no intention of nurturing the talent that is best positioned to tell those stories. There is the additional problem in that the current crop of apocryphal British urban fare is so crap that it will never make any profound impact no matter who tells the story. This is a quick cash-grab by the British film industry and nothing more.