Archive for February, 2009

The Oscar victories of Slumdog Millionaire – especially as Best Film and in the category of Best Cinematography – are a huge leap forward for the Los Angeles filmmaking establishment.

There are specific reasons: Slumdog Millionaire, winning both Best Picture and Best Cinematography, acknowledged a revolution: this was a movie shot on digital video. This is not to say that a movie shot on digital video is a better movie than one shot on film. It is only to acknowledge that a movie shot on digital video certainly looks different to one shot on film, but, more importantly, it costs a whole lot less than one shot on film. You can cover more.

Slumdog Millionaire MIGHT have been able to have been shot on film. But there is no way it could have been shot on film on its budget. Indeed, its budget would have been exponentially blown sky-high: the very scenes that thrill us in that wonderful movie – the chase-scenes through the slums, for example – would have cost as least as much as the whole picture if shot on film.

Those amazing sequences were composed of many cameras (sometimes as many as thirty) recording directly to hard-disk drives – not dissimilar technology to a consumer camcorderist recording directly to their own HDD. Indeed, it is understood by FILM MAFIA that most of the many camerapeople on SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE were carrying laptops on their backs in special backpacks – specifically, Macs.

In other words, the winner of BEST PICTURE at the OSCARS was made using technology that is completely available to all of us. The alchemy, the mysteriousness, the “magic” – and therefore the “sacred knowledge” of filmmaking – which has always relied on the fears of such elements as emulsion, shutter speed, dark rooms, processing, sprocket holes, bulbs, clapper boards and the like – has been erased.

There is no reason not to make a beautiful film. But, in Hollywood terms, it is now okay not to make a beautiful film. So, there can only be one message: filmmaking is no longer for the chosen few. Filmmaking is democratized; filmmaking is achievable, for all. Like the writer with their typwriter, the modern camera has reached the hands of anyone who wants to use it. You just have to know what you want to say.

The new Swedish Vampire film Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in), from director Tomas Alfredson and based on the 2004 novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, is one of the most remarkable films I have seen in recent years. Using all the classic and archetypal Vampire / Vampyre tropes (sunlight kills them, wooden stakes can kill them, they need to consume human blood to survive, they can turn into bats and fly, they live for long periods / are essentially invulnerable to dying of old age, and, most importantly here, they need to be invited in – the film completely reinvigorates the genre. For a start, our Vampire is a twelve-year-old girl. Secondly, she is alone (not new in regards to Dracula but in contrast to the “pack of Vampires” asthetic of The Lost Boys, Near Dark, Interview With the Vampire, True Blood, Thirty Days of Night et al). Most importantly, she is the daughter of a mere mortal, who must, to keep her alive, feed her: he must provide her with human blood.

This last aspect is of fundamental importance to the film and gives it a lot of its emotional resonance. Most Vampires in movie history are self-sufficient: realising the need to feed, they find victims, feast on their blood, and thus continue to survive. They recognise killing – or creating new Vampires (as a “blooded victim” who does not die becomes, themselves, a Vampire) – as a means to the end of survival, and have made their peace with that. But in the case of this particular twelve-year-old Vampire, her father provides her food – as any parent provides their offspring with a school lunch. The difference in this case is that this girl’s father can’t cut her a sandwich – he needs to slice her a throat. He would prefer her to maintain her innocence – to be provided for – than to let her seek blood on her own (something she is more than capable of).

The intrinsic problem here is that Dad is commiting terrible – indeed despicable – illegal acts to maintain his daughter’s life, and is thus a deeply troubled soul. His fatherly instincts are in direct opposition to his duties as a responsible member of society. He should not kill – but he does, to feed his daughter. When this internal crisis reaches a crescendo, his daughter is forced into self-sufficiency, and her instincts, versus her own, deeply private, sense of morality, become a major theme of the film. Free from parental care (and thus, responsibility), she comes of age fast: knowing her powers, she uses them; knowing her weaknesses, she succombs to them; knowing her desires, she acts on them.

Completely unsurprisingly, an English-language remake has already gone into pre-production as a US / UK co-production. Forgive me for being a cynic, but there is a style to this film, and at least three moments of unbelievable emotional intensity, that I simply do not believe will make it into the new version. Do yourself a favour: see the original the moment it enters the cinema. It is totally original, and it is a modern masterpiece. It will be released in Australian cinemas in March 2009.

New films reviewed by Film Mafia on Tony Delroy’s Nightlife on the ABC radio network throughout Australia.

THE READER ****
Academy Award Best Picture nominated film from Stephen Daldry stars Kate Winslet as an ex-SS Guard who starts a strange and one-sided affair with a fifteen year old boy. Old-fashioned, intelligent and thought-provoking adult entertainment; David Hare’s script, from Bernhard Schlink’s novel, raises extremely delicate and thought-provoking questions concerning sexual obsession and forgiveness, morality and legal versus personal ethics. Newcomer David Kross is excellent, playing young Michael Berg from 15 into his late twenties; Ralph Fiennes makes delicate and full use of the hardest part, Michael Berg as as older man looking back, and dealing with, his simultaneously traumatic and thrilling youth). Kate Winslet steals the show in a supporting part; her Hanna Schlink is unlikable, unintelligent and potentially monstrous: her bravery in the role really gives her right to claim the mantle of the “New Meryl Streep”, and I suspect she’ll beat her older rival (nominated for Doubt) for the Best Actress Oscar this year. Going against her: She plays a Nazi. Unlikely to win Best Picture against Slumdig Millionaire, this is nonethess a very fine film indeed, and likely to cause a lot of thought and discussion afterwards.

ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO **1/2
Kevin Smith’s latest film is certainly racy and revels in sexual freedom (and four-letter words) but unfortunately it corrupts itself by ultimately copping to a schmaltzy and formulaic structure. Kevin Smith has betrayed, and insulted, his very loyal audience with this one: the same people who will love the first two-thirds of the film will really dislike the last, which buys into Hollywood formula and cheap sentiment unashamedly and, disappointingly, in a misguidedly ambitious way: why does Smith want to be want to be Nora Ephron or Penny Marshall as well as Kevin Smith? And if he wants to be the Judd Apatow of Knocked Up, he needs to spend more time on his scriptwriting: this one is shallow and lazy in comparison to that, very well constructed, “rom-com for all”. That said, the first half is spirited and there are some very funny moments (Brandon Routh and Justin Long have a great scene as a gay couple); Seth Rogan brings as much as he can to a role that feels tailor-made for him; and Elizabeth Banks continues to be delightful: she is a great contender for the mantle of “comedy beauty queen”. Ultimately, a good Friday Night date movie, but nothing more.


MATHER ZICKEL, who plays Kieran in Rachel Getting Married, discusses the process of the film following the potted reviews below.

Latest potted reviews (hear full reviews on Tony Delroy’s Nightlife on your local ABC radio station, 11:20pm Tuesday night):

(Stars out of *****)

GHOST TOWN **

Unfortunately, Ricky Gervais’ first Hollywood feature in a starring role is a disappointment. Ricky himself is great (as is Greg Kinnear), but his persona gels badly with what is a very traditional and uninspiring Hollywood rom-com. It’s like he’s in a different, much edgier and more interesting, movie. Tea Leonie flounders in an underwritten role. I look forward to Gervais / Hollywood product, but this first outing starts strongly then fizzles its way towards mediocrity and formula.
RCHEL GETTING MARRIED ****
Jonathan Demme’s “little picture that could” is a lovely, moving, often funny family drama that is engaging and truthful throughout. It focuses on Kim (Anne Hathaway), a troubled addict who comes out of rehab for her sister Rachel’s wedding at their family homestead in Connecticut. The family portrait is fully realized and extremely involving, but the film is also a strong depiction of the sort of natural multicultural acceptance we should look forward to seeing more of under Obama’s America. The finely observed script by Jenny Lumet is performed with gusto and great naturalism by an extremely smart ensemble of actors, led by Hathaway in a performance that could (and probably should) get her the Best Actress Oscar (she is nominated); Rosemary DeWitt, feisty and strong, as the titular Rachel; Bill Irwin as their doting and well-meaning but ultimately confused father Paul; and Mather Zickel, who shines in a breakout role as the sweet-natured and intelligent Best Man Kieran, a fellow addict who might just harbour the strength Hathaway’s Kim so desperately needs.

Film Mafia asked Mather Zickel (pictured, from the film) about the way the film was created, and was especially interested in the multicultural aspects to the film. His comments are here (answering Film Mafia’s questions):

What was the process? Some of your lines in the big scenes, such as the rehearsal dinner, appear improvised. And I reckon that we see the actual cameras sometimes (perhaps masquerading as the wedding videographer(s)). How free was the set / the dialogue? How long were the takes for these big set-pieces?

MATHER ZICKEL:

It was an extremely free working environment. It was important that the characters had considerable history together as family and friends. The script absolutely reflected this. When I first read it, I was struck by how specific these people seemed. Their manner of speaking, private jokes they had between each other, etc. were really of a certain place. I could see immediately that these were educated, artistic, economically comfortable, Metropolitan Area people. The film was shot and took place at a nice old house in Stamford, Connecticut. That’s about half an hour from Manhattan, depending on traffic. I really felt the dialogue reflected their education and their neuroses.

So, we did about 90% of the scripted dialogue and maybe 10% improvisation. The rehearsal dinner scene was a great example of this. I seem to remember it being no more than 5 pages in the script but we shot it in two 45 minute takes. As an actor, I found this exhilarating. We were passing food, and joking around, and flirting, and doing everything people do at such an affair. Some of the toasts and exchanges were scripted (Keiran’s toast, Emma’s, Kym’s) but then, Jonathan Demme would shout out “Bill! Make a toast! Beau, say something!” and so these things would be incorporated. We never rehearsed. These things would be done on the fly, so they were remarkably fresh and they also helped to quickly bond us as a cast. There was little to no camera rehearsal so we never knew what would be caught on film. It kept us really engaged and awake. There were always two or three cameras going plus the wedding videographer and smaller hand held cameras used by the guests. All this different footage was incorporated into the movie.

The film depicts an almost utopian comfort with multi-ethnicity: a white family and a black family in happy union, other ethnicities represented throughout, and a constant musical reference to multiculturalism. A few critics have worried that it’s a liberal dream, but I found it a powerful and hopeful message: this is what we all could be. How much of that was in the script and how much came from the director?

MATHER ZICKEL:

I think it came from both. But the multicultural aspect came about in a much more organic way than I think people know. Jenny Lumet’s original title for the movie was Dancing With Shiva. And there was no reference to the race of any of the characters, although it seemed that the family was white. However, the wedding ceremony and reception were very elaborately described and took up about the last quarter of the film. And this wedding was always Indian themed. I personally found that amusing because there are no Indian characters in the story. It was clearly an aesthetic cooked up by Rachel and her maid of honor, Emma. But the script always denoted saris and Nehru jackets and all that stuff. Then, of course, Kym makes a reference to herself as Shiva the Destroyer during her toast.

With regard to Sydney being black, that came about during casting. I originally auditioned for the part of the groom, so I don’t think there were many pre-conceived notions about this being a bi-racial wedding. Jonathan had seen Tunde Adebimpe’s work before and certainly knew him from his band TV on the Radio. Tunde has such a gentle centered presence that he seemed a perfect antidote to the craziness of Rachel’s family. Many of the actors cast as Sydney’s family were people that Jonathan met in New Orleans while making his documentary about Hurricane Katrina. A lot of these people lost their homes in the flood.

The main corps of the musicians are from the Middle East. Zafir Tawil who played the violin is Palestinian and Jonathan met him while working on a documentary about Jimmy Carter’s diplomatic efforts in that region called, The Man From Plains. Basically, the entire guest list was comprised of people Jonathan met while working on other projects. He is very passionate about music and has many musician friends so it was not a big stretch to see people like Robyn Hitchcock and Donald Harrison Jr. and Sister Carol East. And since both Tunde and Bill Irwin’s character work in the music industry I think it makes sense that all those people would be at the wedding. But it did feel a bit like Jonathan was planning his own dream wedding.

I find it interesting that so many people respond to the film as a statement about multi-culturalism. I think it’s a beautiful film because it really just tells a story about a family, it’s difficulties, and it’s healing process. The fact that there is a marriage of a black and white couple and attended by their friends of various ethnic origin is really rather secondary. And although this is a cosmopolitan family that lives very close to New York, I think they represent what is happening, quite naturally and inevitably to the world in general. There are so many people in the world today living quite close together and we are joined by media, technology, art, education and commerce. It’s simply a matter of consequence that racial barriers are breaking down. I don’t think it will be very many years until audiences won’t find anything unusual about the relationships depicted in movies like Rachel.

How much of your backstory was defined by the creative team, and how much was known by you alone? I’m thinking about the nature of your history with the Groom, why your characters lived in Hawaii, what the nature of your addiction was, and, again, the nature of your multicultural friendship?

MATHER ZICKEL:

It was scripted that Kym meets Kieran in a Narcotics Anonymous meeting and that he has been clean about seven years. It was also noted that he is business with Sydney and that they both live in Hawaii. The nature of his work was a bit vague. He is a bit of a mysterious character.

Tunde, Zafir, myself, and Beau Sia (who played Norman Sklear), all went out one night for a bit of drinking and male bonding. We decided that all these guys had met in college and had formed a crappy art rock band called Bad Tomorrow. Bad Tomorrow and some of their friendships were eventually scuttled due to us all having a fatal attraction to the band’s super sexy female bassist. Typical university guy nonsense. It was clear that Sydney(Tunde) was the coolest and most level-headed of us all and the only reason we ever stayed in contact was because of him. I decided that Kieran partied pretty hard in college and this just increased during the post-college years. I think this probably was due to his own social awkwardness and his close interest in the rock/club scene. I believe he wished he could be a rock star but didn’t have the talent or the self-confidence and was also smart enough to realize this. But booze and pot quickly evolved into coke, ecstasy, and eventually heroin sniffing and whatever else was available. I think he kidded himself into thinking he was just a weekend partier, but the weekend was coming earlier and earlier in the week. He had a false-start as an entertainment lawyer and then really just got lost fast. Eventually his life was a pitiful mess and only Sydney remained a close friend. I believe Sydney let Kieran crash for long periods of time, lent him money he never returned, and probably wiped some puke off his face. Finally Kieran became serious about his sobriety and started pulling his life together. Humility became a saving grace for him. As Sydney became a successful music producer, he was able to give Kieran work as a business manager. Kieran is very devoted to Sydney and happy that Sydney has a studio in Hawaii.

By the time Kieran meets Kym, he is in a place of relative clam and ready to have a real relationship. He knows exactly where Kym is in her recovery and is sympathetic. He kind of screws up by having sex with her because he knows that you’re not supposed to become involved with a fellow addict during their first year in recovery. She is obviously in no place to have a serious relationship with anyone. But he does truly care for her and hopes that someday they reconnect and have a chance at being together. One of the things I always loved in the script was that this future was kept deliberately vague. We don’t know what will happen and Kym has to live her life one day at a time. But if they do manage to have a life together, what better place to do that than Hawaii?

Posted: February 4, 2009 in movie reviews

I am now reviewing two films weekly on the ABC radio network, throughout Australia, on Tony Delroy’s Nightlife. My reviews go to air around 11:20pm on Tuesday nights. In Sydney you can tune in at 702AM.

Films reviewed so far, with their star rating out of five, and a very short summary of what I thought:
GRAN TORINO
*** 1/2
The poster makes it look sombre, but Eastwood’s cheap quickie is very very funny – if you’ve been a long-time follower of his acting career. He goes to town with his portrayal of a ridiculously tough late-70something veteran – and lampoons, with love, his tough guy persona in the process. The down side is that his two main co-stars are first-timers and not yet any good at acting for the screen. But the film is relentlessly entertaining.
REVOLUTIONARY ROAD ***
Extremely well made – but who wants to see a perfect portrait of a terrible marriage? Leo and Kate play unlikable spouses in this depressing argument-fest. Sam Mendes directs a beautiful adaptation of Richard Yates’ 1961 book – a scathing indictment of 1950s American suburbia – but to what end? Almost certainly better as a book.
THE CLASS ****
Very engaging portrait of a year in the life of a junior school class in a multi-racial part of Paris; a realistic and moving slice-of-life.
MILK **** 1/2
You couldn’t make a better biopic of Harvey Milk than this. Gus Van Sant, at the peak of his form, directs Sean Penn at the peak of his. Brilliant.
CHANGELING ****
Clint’s “big” movie from 2008 is an incredible story – because it’s true. Angelina Jolie proves her chops in this very involving look at what must be one of the most bizarre incidents in the history of the Los Angeles Police Department. Long, but worth it: old-school, disciplined film-making at its finest. Great period detail and a classic turn from John Malkovich as a crusading preacher. Very good indeed.