Review: Guardians of the Galaxy 2

Who needs a headline, just listen to an 80’s song instead

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Director James Gunn returns to the helm in the second entry about the escapades of the Guardians of the Galaxy. After the unexpected success that was the original, the audience’s expectations were very high. An overload of pop culture references could not cover up the flaws however and the result is a film that is inferior in almost every way.

My primary issue was the soundtrack. I want to make it clear that this only covers the licensed songs used in the film. Tyler Bates’ original soundtrack maintained the same impressive quality as last time, complementing the on-screen action seamlessly. The problem lies in the promotion for the film. Far more emphasis was put on the continuation of the Awesome Mixtape series than the Guardians of the Galaxy series. Whilst the integration of music was organic previously, this sadly did not continue. Some of the songs felt unnecessarily shoehorned in, others lacked the emotional punch the scene required and a couple, namely Cat Steven’s Father and Son spoon-fed the audience how they should feel in the scene, making it an incredibly emotionally narrow experience. Ultimately the film felt more like the music video to the Awesome Mixtape Volume 2 album.

It is hard to call the story of Guardians a story in the traditional sense, a soap opera would probably be the most apt comparison. All the main characters go off to pursue their own little emotional journeys reuniting in some grand finale. All we are missing is for Pratt and co to come out on stage and do it live. The opening scene is the galactic avengers fighting a giant octopus-like creature. Instead of keeping the camera on the battle we watch an adorable Baby Groot dancing to Mr. Blue Sky (arguably the only well implemented song throughout the film) while giving glimpses of what goes on behind him.

From this, you would imagine the core ideology of the movie is to feature action solely as a vehicle for the comedy elements. Immediately after this though the comedy is relegated to the cracks between each mini-film. In an attempt to hide the lacklustre writing there is an overabundance of pop culture references ranging from David Hasselhoff to Pac-Man. This felt like a cheap attempt to deceive the audience, making them believe the wave of nostalgia they are feeling for said reference is actually appreciation for the film.

Once you have left the theatre there is nothing to ponder, no ideas to mull over. You won’t notice any subtext you missed the first time. What you see is very much what you get. Whilst this is partially true for volume one it was at least a feel-good film that can be watched on a rainy day. Gunn tries to deliver so many emotional blows during the 138 minute runtime that, aside from the climax, they became repetitive, stale even. The only reason to watch this again is in anticipation of it’s sequel.

guardians-of-the-galaxy-2-movie-rumors-spoilers

The humour was the only aspect that built upon the existing foundations. Gunn does deserve high praise for this, especially the fact this is the first film since 1999’s The Iron Giant where Vin Diesel has not been utterly unbearable. Each character’s unique idiosyncrasies were developed further and all of the best scenes stemmed from this. My personal highlights include every scene involving Drax and an adorable scene where Baby Groot keeps fetching the wrong item to help an imprisoned Rocket and Yondu escape. The only comedic missteps came from Rocket. There are only so many times I can listen to Bradley Cooper yelling before it becomes worn out, but aside from this the humour does hit the mark.

Had it not been for the comedy elements this film would have been a huge drop in quality from the other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There is still a noticeable drop, but not enough to make any noticeable dent into Disney’s seemingly endless box office revenue stream.

In a preview screening of the film, James Gunn called it ‘a film about outcasts, for outcasts’. I disagree. This film represents the increasing commodification of geek culture. Things previously considered nerdy and would result in you being exiled form ‘popular’ circles are now mainstream. But not entirely. Pink Floyd and Nirvana are not widely popular, but the association to them is. While music sales of their albums may not have increased, t-shirt sales with their logo have skyrocketed.

Bringing this back to Guardians, I feel that most of the effort has gone into the branding rather than making a high quality film. Attempting to make it fashionable to like the 70’s/80’s ‘outcast’ music accompanying the film rather than the film itself. This is a smart tactical move by Disney. It won’t change the box office revenue. Fans of the genre, myself included will still want to see the next instalment. Their gain is in the merchandise and album sales, which will easily surpass the box office gross.

Leaving the theatre, my disappointment was palpable. I did not expect a cinematic masterpiece, but I hoped to lose myself in more outlandish adventures of the lovable misfits. Instead I simply lost interest.

In Conversation with Nicholas Connor

A nice and short, perhaps even brief chat with Nicholas Connor

Director Nicholas Conner came to Lift-Off on Day Two to present his film Northern Lights. Before the showing took place I managed to interview him about his film and his opinions on filmmaking in general. The ‘quick five minute’ interview ended up being a 43 minute conversation about his films, plans for the future and IMDb. If you would like to read my review of the film before reading our conversation then click here.

First of all congratulations for getting your film into lift-off, are you hoping to win an award here?

Thanks! Hopefully, I think it’s all off audience vote and if you do well you’ll go onto a ballot for the next one. We’ve got quite a good turn out so it’ll be nice to see the reactions. That is what it’s all about for me, see how the audience feels about it. The venue (Texture) is a really great space, I’ve not been here before and it’s a different experience to the typical film festival. I would love to have another screening here in the future, it’s perfect for my current film too because of the red brick. It is set in Manchester and all about retaining the traditional lifestyles.

The setup of the festival is really useful for filmmakers, the scorecard the audience fills out along with the notes section must be incredibly useful for you to learn from?

Yeah, it’s quite intimate as well. You don’t often get to sit this close to the audience and be able to see their reactions. I’ve not watched this film (Northern Lights) in a few months now, the last time was probably at the premiere.

So have you been trying to avoid it?

Well I have just finished my next one so the focus has really been on that. Northern Lights has been on the back burner for the moment as a result.

When you rewatch the film are there things you think ‘Oh I should have done that better?’ or vice versa?

Yeah I mean the budget was a lot lower than the film we just finished. So I’ve just been looking at it thinking ‘What could I have done with a bigger budget?’. That said I do like it as it is. There are little things there, things critics have picked up on that I actually really do appreciate that shows they understood the film. I have learnt a lot from this. There are so many things I wish I could have improved on from Northern Lights. Pacing is a problem I’m sure you’ll spot, the dialogue is also a little long at times. It’s nice because you don’t always expect that they will understand it. As well the audience seemed to understand it which is perfect for me. I’m happy with the feedback both positive and negative. All I want is a response, if people don’t know how they feel about it then I haven’t made a good film. There is nothing worse than a review that says absolutely nothing either way, it doesn’t help me to progress as a filmmaker.

I agree, a well-writen negative review is preferable over a neutral review as it help you understand what areas you need to work on.

Exactly and I think this (Lift-Off) is a really great platform for that purpose. It doesn’t feel too capitalised, rather it is audience centred which is nice.

I read that you went through over 20 rewrites of the script before you got to the final version, was that difficult for you or was it preferable as you could keep evolving it as you went along?

It was lovely because I got a sense of what I was making through so many drafts. There were characters that were cut. There were whole scenes that were shortened or lengthened. As a result of having such a long preproduction stage which we didn’t have with the film before it, I really benefitted from being able to analyse and make the dialogue richer with meaning. It’s something to learn from as well, similar to writing a novel actually because it was more about writing a story than writing a script. It took about 5/6 months to write the script so kind of a long time I suppose.

How long after the last draft was it before you began filming then?

I think the last draft was about a week before. I’m always in contact with my crew, not so much in my next film but in this one particularly because I was friends with the crew and knew them really well. I would just send them a draft and the communication would be very direct, no going through agents or anything like that. It was a friendly process. There wasn’t really a stress so much as we all want to make a good film with the very short time we had to shoot. I don’t think I’ve heard of a 55 minute film being short being shot in 6/7 days before. It was crazy.

Why did you choose 55 minutes as the runtime? It’s half way between a short and a feature length film. Was that purposeful or how it ended up being?

It ended up being that way. I am one of those people that just makes a film the length it should be rather than the length that festival would want. It’s not necessarily a good thing, I should probably be looking at festivals and going ‘this is the time restraint’ but Northern Lights shouldn’t have been any longer. If it had been longer it would have felt too pacy and it already is a little too long. In hindsight I would have cut 10 or so minutes. If I had made it longer it wouldn’t have been right for the narrative and if it was shorter I wouldn’t have been able to build up the characters.

I think that is preferable though, making it the length that is right for the story you are telling rather than needlessly adding or cutting from the film.

On other films I’ve had to cut like 37 pages to 30 pages just because of the shooting ratio which is so annoying. You don’t want to cut stuff that is precious. I like to film something anyway and then have the option to cut it in the edit. There has been times where we had to cut something on the set due to time constraints.

Is that painful for you as a director?

It painful but it’s the evolution of making a film. It is never going to go entirely smoothly. You sign up for that at the beginning and you have to understand that it will happen at some point.

The budget of Northern Lights is around £12,000, has the budget of your next film gotten larger as a result of the positive reception of this one?

Definitely! We wanted to step up the actors in terms of the weight behind their names I guess. Getting a great set of people involved and up the ante because we didn’t want restrictions this time. We did have restrictions in terms of days to shoot. I was privileged to have a really beautiful crew where they all understood what I was doing. There is nothing more painful than people not understanding or sharing your vision. It will be about £40 thousand including distribution for this one through the funding of Cherwell Productions which is based in Oldham. They have been funding me personally and I have been very very lucky with that.

If this film you have just finished gets the same positive reception, will you step it up again?

Well I’m currently writing a feature, which will be a feature, it won’t be a 55 minute film. I know that one is going ahead but it depends on the reception of this film how large the funding will be. The future of what I do will always depend on the how well the films do. I just love directing so hopefully with recognition from festivals like this one I can continue to make films. It’s hard to get good actors if they have never seen any of your previous work and when they have seen some of my films it really helps me to boost myself. The script isn’t always enough I don’t think to get someone to sign on.

Is your ultimate goal to become a blockbuster director or do you want to remain an independant film director?

I love making independant films, I don’t think I would ever go into Hollywood. British cinema is my thing. I could potentially see myself making a Hollywood film if it had heart to it. There is something lacking at the moment that I might be able to bring. At the moment I am just loving working with actors who aren’t say Leonardo di Caprio. British actors from the north (of England) is what I am about right now. Most of the actors I cast I’ve sort of nicked from Ken Loach. So like Crissy Rock or Kate Rutter. Great actors, they’re not Hollywood actors. I go for talent over the name power.

If you had the budget to make a biopic on any person of your choosing who would it be?

Can I say two?

You can say as many as you’d like

Well there are two biopics I have always wanted to do.

One is about Florence Lawrence. Not many people know about her. She was the first ever film star and the stardom killed her. She ended up committing suicide. There is a big story there about her and who she is as a person. It’s something I really want to do and it would be set in America in the early stages of Hollywood. It is interesting to look at someone like her and compare her to a modern day movie star and see how stardom begun.

The other biopic that I want to do is that of my Grandad who passed away before I would be able to understand who he was. He has a great war story, I don’t want to give too much away but it would be set in a prisoner-of-war camp and it’s a very touching story that I feel needs to be told. That would be the big budget one.

Touching on the first one, would you shoot that in black and white? Using only the filming technology from the era to make it as real to that period of time as possible?

That is a really great question that I haven’t actually considered. I’ve always wanted to shoot it on 35mm or 16mm, definitely some sort of celluloid. Not sure about black and white but I definitely want that grain structure. I love black and white and I love contrast so I may decide to go with that. I think strong reds come through that pre-depression, pre-Gatsby era. I think it would be interesting to film. But yeah that really is a great idea.

Thank you very much, I’ll be sure to ask for a little thank you in the credits when it is released.

With that film as well I think it would be an independant production. I don’t think I would want any big names…well I say that it would depend. It is definitely a great role for someone. She actually killed herself with ant poison and it was a very horrific event.

Still in the real of fantasy, if you had to pick one or more actor that you really wanted to work with who would it be?

Actor-wise I would probably say Michael Fassbender or Eddie Redmayne. I think both are very diverse and they are just strong yet fragile actors. One second you can see them weep and the next second they are just so strong. There is something really beautiful about that. For women I would say Alicia Vikander or Marion Cotillard.

Marion Cotillard is actually my favourite actress

That is amazing! I just think she is so powerful. The variety of roles she, and Alicia Vikander, can do is just so incredible. Like Rust and Bone is one of my favourite films. Also I didn’t mind her having a french accent in Lady Macbeth, I love that film too and just everything she does really. She is an artist of a actress and you don’t see that often. I’m glad you like her too. All of the actors I mentioned too are all European so maybe there is something currently going on in Europe that has a realistic edge in comparison to Hollywood.

Hollywood at the moment seems more mechanical, churning out very formulaic, similar films. This is the opposite of your films which feel a lot more real.

For me it’s about making real characters with real stories. Marion Cotillard in La Vie En Rose is almost like how I would do Florence Lawrence. It’s a great tragedy. Amy Winehouse as well is a great biopic to do. Her life is almost Shakespearian in ways. I also loved the Steve Jobs biopic.

Which one? As there was two

(Laughs) Not the Ashton Kutcher one. The Fassbender one. Aaron Sorkins way of writing is so Shakespearian, it’s all about fatal flaws. It sounds pretentious but I want to be like him in that way. I feel he’s actually quite European in his style. There is something to be said about realism in cinema. I strive towards realism but it’s a representation of realism. It’s not about filming a tree and letting the tree’s leaves fall, it’s about watching a tree and making it interesting. I feel as though I need to add a little bit of surreal into my films too to make it interesting for the audience. Full realism can tend to get quite boring unless done by someone who has mastery in that like Ken Loach. I would love to be Ken Loach and Fellini at the same time, merge them both together. Show real stories in new and interesting cinematic ways.

So what would be your top 3 or 5 favourite or most influential films? Would Ken Loach feature?

I would actually move away from Ken Loach. For starts I would say Xavier Dolan’s Mommy. There is something so beautiful about this film and Dolan’s cinema. Next I would have to say Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso.

Isn’t there a poster for Cinema Paradiso in your film?

Yes! Also there is a poster for Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love, which is another of my favourite films.

I saw that as well on the IMDb connections page too. It is surprising how much detail there was about the film, was that done by you?

That was done by me. IMDb is actually one of the things that got me into film. I was honoured the other day to have met Col Needham the founder and I completely fanboy’d and went up to him saying ‘Can I show you how many films I have rated on your site?’.

How many may I ask?

1301 I think. It is such an amazing platform for filmmakers. I used it for casting mostly and showing the audience connections in my films that they may have missed. I literally almost cried when I met him and he’s from Manchester too it’s crazy. Sorry for going on another tangent but I just love IMDb.

On the topic of IMDb, I’ll keep it over here, the page for Northern Lights mentions two goofs. One was a visible microphone and the other was a script on the bed. How do you feel about those mistakes?

I think it is very hard not to have mistakes in a film. The general audience can’t tell that it’s a script on the bed but I can tell it is. As it was a rushed filming period these things will happen, it’s part of my journey as a filmmaker. I have learned to be careful. Even in major films like The Godfather I think you can see the DoP’s (director of photography) eyes reflected in a scene. I love mistakes like that, it reminds the viewer that this is a film. I don’t think any film should be perfect, too crisp digital annoys me, I like to soften my images a bit. For the film I just finished I shot a scene on 35mm which I was very lucky to do.

What is your next film about?

So it is called Cotton Wool and it’s about this young boy who’s mother suffers a stroke and he has no help caring for her especially from his older sister who should be helping him. He has to take the role of a child carer at the age of seven. The actor, Max Vento is fantastic. He questions everything and he is only seven. it’s an emotional film with a heartbreaking story inspired by lots of real life stories. We had a wonderful crew too including a BAFTA winning cinematographer shooting the film. It was a big step up from Northern Lights and I will never forget the people that got me who helped me on this film. It was such a group effort to make it.

What are some of the difficulties working with an actor who is only seven?

I don’t mind it, in fact I loved it. There is a little bit of me inside which is still a child so I can relate to why he says some things or worried about some things. I find easier working with child actors sometimes because they do question things and they ask stupid questions. Stupid questions usually cover the things that matter though. I worked with another child actor on Northern Lights called Megan Grady who was also fantastic. It’s a comedic role for the most part but at the end of the film she cries her heart out in a tragic scene. She was just so diverse. Sorry I went off on a tangent again, I love tangents.

What is the length of the new film?

It is about 30 minutes, so a normal short’s length. We are trying to put it into BAFTA qualifying because Leanne Best’s performance as the mother is in my opinion Oscar worthy. That isn’t anything to do with my directing I want to make that clear she was just phenomenal. That’s why we are trying to push it. We also made the film in relation with the Stroke Association to make it as accurate as possible. Child carers is a topic that isn’t really seen on film which is surprising as there are around 250,000 child carers in the UK. I’m hoping it will get onto television at some point. Festivals first of course, would love to come back to Lift-Off and have another screening here.

Going back to the hypothetical, what is your dream festival to be accepted into?

I love Edinburgh, went there once and it was beautiful. BFI of course. I do love Cannes. What is the one I keep aiming for? Oh Leeds. I got into Leeds Young Film Festival.

I saw you won an award there in your IMDb biography section.

I think it’s quite important to push myself in that way to get myself out there and known. I haven’t written everything about myself and my films but most I have.

I think you know you’ve become popular when other people begin to write about you.

It’s weird that with critics. When you didn’t know that they have written a review or an article about you. I love critics even if they are horrible.

What current film critic would you like to review your films? Whether they would like it or not

I would say Mark Kermode, I really respect his opinion. There is a youtube called Grace or Beyond The Trailer who I like a lot too. I do like Robbie Collin and Peter Bradshaw as well. Mark Cousins is kind of a critic and he gave me a short opinion on Northern Lights and he was my idol.

Was it positive?

Yeah it was. He said ‘Touching and Moving’, something like that. We used that on one of the advertising poster.

Taking it back to Northern Lights, what is the meaning behind the title? Obviously it’s set in the north so that is part of it

Chris Cyprus is a pretty well known painter and he paints the north using the orange glow of streetlights. They’ve recently changed to LED’s now which is a sterile colour. He used the orange glow of the old style to give light his paintings and called it the Northern Lights. He inspired me to use that in my film. It’s a play on words a little bit. Some people have come up to me and said the northern lights, aurora borealis, are boring. I tell them they should look at the streetlights in Manchester. It’s a film about the mundane, everyday life and people. About looking at something you wouldn’t even consider and making it magical. That’s what I love about cinema.

Well we should probably wrap it up there as your film is about to start but thank you very much for this and I can’t wait to watch this film and Cotton Wool as well.

Click here to go back to the Lift-Off Homepage to check out more reviews and interviews

Review: See No Evil – The Moors Murders

An unsettling insight into the horrific Moors murders

How do you get inside the minds of the horrific Moors Murderers? The 2-part television series See No Evil does just that, giving us a chillingly accurate insight into the lives of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley during the time they kidnapped 5 children aged 10-17. They savagely abused them and buried the remains on the Saddleworth Moors in England between 1963 and 1965. The body of one victim, Keith Bennett, is thought to still be up there and remains unfound to this day.

The production was fully backed by the families of the victims, based on extensive research, interviews and Hindley’s brother-in-law, David Smith (Matthew McNulty). If not for Smith, the missing children would probably have never been linked back to Brady (Sean Harris) and Hindley (Maxine Peake), each murder leaving no trail whatsoever. Only after their confessions and the forensic analysis of the bodies did we find out their recurrent pattern for killing these children. The children were always alone, and always asked to help look for a lost glove of Myra’s. Ian would reportedly proceed to rape and then strangle the child with a cord or a shoelace. We never see this happen, only through David’s time spent with Ian do we start to see red flags that indicate Ian’s perversion and twisted mind.

In an attempt to include David into their secret, Myra and Ian arrange a live murder for David to witness. This is the only gruesome shot of the 2 episodes, in haunting red lighting Ian wields an axe fourteen times into his last victim, seventeen-year-old Edward Evans. Somehow keeping his cool, David does as he is told and helps clean up the mess. In the early hours of the morning he finally gets home, a total wreck, to his wife Maureen (Joanne Froggatt). Through a mixture of heaving and sobbing from shock, he tells her everything. Maureen coils at the idea that her own sister (Myra), that she knows so well, could be capable of such atrocities. Nevertheless, at the break of dawn the pair rush to the police station. This experience will destroy their lives forever, and is only the beginning of a painful “concatenation of circumstances”.

see no evil (moors murders film)

Once denounced, the trail of evidence comes together incredibly fast. The discovery of Evans’ body in Brady’s flat along with the axe. Soon followed a suitcase, containing tape recordings and photographs of the sexual abuse of missing ten-year-old Lesley Ann Downey. The sound is not heard and the photographs are not exposed, mercifully so. Including the sound of the tape recordings of the young child or the obscene photographs taken of her would have been unnecessary to the depiction of the story. The mere knowledge of their existence is enough and was a card the director did well not to play.

David Smith is initially questioned by the police, as Brady and Hindley attempt to include him in the rape and murder of the children. Public opinion of Smith is convinced he is the third Moors Murderer, and this will follow him and Maureen for their entire lives.

Finally, Brady and Hindley are charged with three counts of murder and concurrent life sentences. It is only in 1985 that Brady confessed to the killings of sixteen-year-old Pauline Reade and twelve-year-old Keith Bennett, of which only the body of Pauline was found in 1987 on Saddleworth Moor. Ian Brady remains imprisoned today, in the high-security Ashworth mental hospital since being diagnosed as criminally insane in 1985. Recently, Brady remorselessly explained that his actions were simply in pursuit of the ‘existential experience’ of it all.

Intended for television in 2006 on the 40th anniversary of the pair’s conviction, this was a remarkable effort in bringing this unsettling story into the light once again. A very well cast, tasteful production that I recommend watching to anyone interested in true stories or the psyche of criminals.

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Cineworld’s IMAX Film Festival 2017

Rich Purnell is a steely-eyed missile man

Today, on the 8th of April 2017, Cineworld is hosting its 2017 edition of the IMAX Film Festival. A chance for movie fans to experience the immersion of the IMAX 3D format for half the price of a standard ticket.

There were four fantastic films to choose from:

  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  • The Jungle Book
  • The Martian

Unfortunately, and this is a large criticism of the event, the films were spread in such a way that it was impossible to see all four, at least at my local cinema. This meant that you could only see two maximum – which is still wonderful don’t get me wrong -but watching all four during the day would have been perfect. The two films that I chose were Star Wars: The Force Awakens over The Jungle Book and The Martian over Fantastic Beasts.

The first was Star Wars, a film that watched far better on the big screen than on a television or laptop. There was not a single empty seat which made the entire experience truly special. An issue about this screening in particular I found was how overwhelmingly full of young children it was. The film is a 12A so that was to be expected but there were many far too young to be present. Another further issue was the amount of people on their phones. This one irks me far more than children. I understand that parents want to see the movies and want to share the experience with their kids, but not going on your phone during the film is just common decency.

The Martian was the second film of the day for me. One that I was far more excited for as it is in my opinion one of the best Sci-Fi films of the 21st Century. It is also the second time it has featured in the festival as it was shown during the 2016 edition alongside Gravity, Jurassic World and Mad Max: Fury Road. Overall this was the best IMAX cinema experience that I have ever had bested only by my first, Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Now I’m not saying that it’s a masterpiece but it was a film tailored for IMAX and is the film I lost my IMAX virginity to. The visuals in The Martian were phenomenal and the scenes utilising the 3D aspect worked seamlessly. An example of how to get it right.

After I arrived home from the last showing I found out there was a last minute fifth addition to the festival. My heart sank as soon as I heard the news: Deadpool. One of my most memorable cinema experiences of 2016 and surely one of the most memorable of 2017 had I been there. Nevertheless it was great to see two brilliant films at the cinema for the low price of £5.40. I totally recommend this event next year and can’t wait to see the next selection.

 

 

 

2017 Film Challenge – March

Where does the time go?

March has been a wonderful month for me film-wise as I have attended two film festivals as a journalist, Manchester International Film Festival and Manchester Lift-Off Film Festival. As a result the monthly total is a record 52, 32 of which were shorts but I’ll be including them nonetheless. This takes us over the three digit milestone for a grand total of 102! For this month I’ll be including a Top 5 Features and a Top 5 Shorts section.

Films Watched:

  • Office Space (1999)
  • The Internship (2013)
  • Josephine Doe (MANIFF 2017)
  • Hunter Gatherer (MANIFF 2017)
  • Across the River (MANIFF 2017)
  • Creedmoria (MANIFF 2017)
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
  • The Nice Guys (2016)
  • Interstellar (2014)
  • Moana (2016)
  • Jackie Brown (1997)
  • Whiplash (2014)
  • Foxcatcher (2014)
  • Life Itself (2014)
  • Dr No (1962)
  • Lo and Behold (2016)
  • La La Land (2016)
  • The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011)
  • The Last Laugh (Lift-Off 2017 short)
  • Layby 52 (Lift-Off 2017 short)
  • Strongboy (Lift-Off 2017 short)
  • The Track (Lift-Off 2017 short)
  • Nan’s Army (Lift-Off 2017 short)
  • Faustine (Lift-Off 2017 short)
  • The Wolves Beyond the Timber (Lift-Off 2017 short)
  • Hope (Lift-Off 2017 short)
  • Body Language Zone (Lift-Off 2017 short)
  • Retriever (Lift-Off 2017 short)
  • Spaceman (Lift-Off 2017 short)
  • The Botanist (Lift-Off 2017 short)
  • Happy Tuesday (Lift-Off 2017 short)
  • Northern Lights (Lift-Off 2017 feature)
  • Enemies Within (Lift-Off 2017 short)
  • Found (Lift-Off 2017 short)
  • Wanderlust (Lift-Off 2017 short)
  • Pazzo and Bella (Lift-Off 2017 short)
  • Hipopotamy (Lift-Off 2017 short)
  • Heathen (Lift-Off 2017 short)
  • The Cyclops (Lift-Off 2017 short)
  • A Battling Body (Lift-Off 2017 short)
  • Relentless (Lift-Off 2017 short)
  • Where the Windmills are (Lift-Off 2017 feature)
  • Soldier Bee (Lift-Off 2017 short)
  • Meat on Bones (Lift-Off 2017 short)
  • Duke’s Pursuit (Lift-Off 2017 short)
  • Lost in Spring (Lift-Off 2017 short)
  • Ascension (Lift-Off 2017 short)
  • Cabby (Lift-Off 2017 short)
  • The Sedate Escape (Lift-Off 2017 short)
  • Return of the Hat (Lift-Off 2017 short)
  • Ribbons (Lift-Off 2017 short)
  • Ghosted (Lift-Off 2017 short)

Perhaps a little too wacky for some, especially in it’s climax, but undoubtedly my favourite film of all time Interstellar got it’s first showing of the year. Repeat watches for Whiplash, La La Land and The Nice Guys saw them back in the Top 5 once again. The best debut watch came in the form of Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, lesser known but equally fantastic.

Here are my Top 5 Features for March

  1. Interstellar
  2. Whiplash
  3. La La Land
  4. The Nice Guys
  5. Jackie Brown

Very special mention goes to Northern Lights, Foxcatcher and Life Itself

Top 5 Shorts for March

  1. Enemies Within
  2. Found
  3. The Botanist
  4. Retriever
  5. Spaceman

Very special mention goes to Hope, A Battling Body and Ghosted

There will be full coverage of the Manchester Lift-Off Film Festival within a week for those interested in the shorts mentioned above so stay tuned.

Wes Anderson: An Exception to the Rule of Hollywood

An exploration into how Wes Anderson made indie mainstream

After the Oscars ceremony fiasco overshadowed the deserved victory of Moonlight, it became all the more relevant to investigate the rise of independent filmmakers in Hollywood’s domination of mainstream cinema. The independent film directed by Barry Jenkins and its triumph illustrate the increasing popularity of non-mainstream content, or what is often referred to as ‘indie’ cinema. In order to understand the process leading up to the respect we attribute to film auteurs, I will be using filmmaker Wes Anderson as a case study. Simultaneously an independent and ‘indie’ filmmaker, his successful career illustrates just how much he has been able to transgress Hollywood filmmaking norms, but also how in some ways he meets the criteria of a Hollywood director.

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When discussing filmmaking and ‘indie’ films, we must make the careful distinction between independent and ‘indie’ cinema. Media reception studies professor Janet Staiger defined independent film by the way those films were financed and distributed, in the sense that they were not affiliated with a major studio, such as Paramount Motion Pictures or Walt Disney Studios. As she understands it, ‘an independent production firm was a small company with no corporate relationship to a distribution firm’. The confusion is frequently made that calling a film ‘independent’ implies that it possesses textual qualities of an ‘indie’ film. These textual qualities can be identified as a particular variety of emotional storylines, uncommon or unusual characters and aesthetically intricate settings – all contributing factors to what makes a filmmaker an auteur.

It is no secret that traditional filmmaking favours a pre-determined method that splits the narrative into three parts. The first, introduces the main protagonists and the goals they will attempt to achieve throughout the film. In the second part, the protagonist attempts to achieve goal, but will be stopped by an antagonist, ending this part with the ‘low point’. The third and final part consists of the final dramatic conflict where the main protagonist fights to achieve their goal, either succeeding or failing horribly. This method has persisted as it is what seems to “sell”, which makes producers hesitant to stray from the formula. ‘Indie’ film tends to be more playful and creative, unlike the mindless succession of events that occur in traditional film.

This is one of the main ways Anderson transgresses classical Hollywood filmmaking norms, as he always breaks up his films into episodic chapters that necessitates the viewer to make connections that they typically wouldn’t with a mainstream Hollywood film. Made to be widely and easily consumed by a large mass, a great deal of Hollywood films and other products of the entertainment industry are stillborn and easily forgotten. Their formula installs within the audience unconscious automatic expectations for a clear linear progression of events with some heated fights, amusing jokes, romantic interests, or stereotypically the rise and fall and rise again of the main character, overcoming fears and facing their problems. Wes Anderson doesn’t follow this formula, instead creating complex, fast-paced stories that revolve around an atypically detailed plot. For example, his latest film The Grand Budapest Hotel has a cast of thirty roles that each add to the narrative, twelve of which were already well-established actors, such as Ralph Fiennes or Léa Seydoux.

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The core cast group of amateur actors he began with are now equally mainstream, especially when considering The Grand Budapest Hotel’s cast, as much of the marketing centred on the long selection of eminent actors. Before this, with the exception of Fantastic Mr. Fox using the voices of already renowned actors George Clooney and Meryl Streep, Anderson’s film cast were positively ‘indie’. Since The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson fans will have an expectation for notorious actors in his films, resembling Hollywood directors dependable safety net of basing much of their film’s marketing on the weight of the actors’ names in the industry.

Where most traditional Hollywood productions are focussed on appealing to a particular demographic such as the Twilight Saga (2008-2012) that had a mainly female teenage audience, Anderson’s following consists of a wide array of demographics. Particularly his films Moonrise Kingdom of which the main protagonists are children, and Fantastic Mr. Fox that is based on Roald Dahl’s children’s book of the same title. The relationship between the two children in Moonrise Kingdom is of a surprising maturity, as they both understand the adult world around them and have an uncharacteristic cynicism about them that is gripping whether the viewers are children, teenagers or adults.

Concerning Fantastic Mr. Fox, children will most probably enjoy the different style of animation to what else is on the market, as the detail and work that has so blatantly gone into the creation of this stop-motion feature is all the more appreciable by adults. Anderson’s talent for scriptwriting is also a major key to the positive reception of a story intended for children, with popular culture author and expert Bob Batchelor asserting that ‘Anderson excels at pulling together the threads of what transforms a film into an object of cult affection. [..] as a writer/director, he creates a narrative that appeals to the audience’s intelligence and aesthetic sensibility.’

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Prior to The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson’s films marketing process was what is considered as independent. Hollywood films tend to have large funds with an equally large marketing budget to match. Going through ‘Indiewood’ studios, such as Sony Pictures for Bottle Rocket in 1996 or Fox Searchlight Pictures for The Darjeeling Limited in 2007, the funds supplied for his films were a direct result of the uncertainty of the ‘indie’ content. With no reassuring backing on best-selling novels, major film studios would not feel comfortable spending copious amounts of money on the marketing of an already low-budget movie. Film critic Dwight Macdonald noted that scholars of the Frankfurt School Adorno and Horkheimer pinpointed the reason Hollywood was dying lay in the fact that ‘The machine rotates on the same spot. While determining consumption it excludes the untried as a risk. The movie-makers distrust any manuscript which is not reassuringly backed by a best-seller’.

This explains the foundations of ‘Indiewood’, which is in fact an amalgam of the acquisitions of arthouse studios by Hollywood conglomerates, as a profitable plan in sight of taking over the independent film industry and consequently creating independent studios of their own. The one film so far of his that was distributed by a major film studio was Fantastic Mr. Fox in 2009. Destined to be a stop-motion picture, the budget required was quite large compared to his other creations, due to the amount of detail and work that goes into stop-motion productions.

Since Anderson has increased his following and audience, he has gained a more mainstream status as a director. For The Grand Budapest Hotel, his already-established ‘world’ of ornately detailed settings and elaborate dialogue and accumulated consecutive box office success was enough to justify the film’s distributor Fox Searchlight, owned by conglomerate 21st Century Fox to advertise the film a great deal more than Anderson’s older films. In addition to this, The Grand Budapest Hotel generated a significant level of fascination and desire to acquire the memorabilia of this world created by Anderson, such as copies of The Society of the Crossed Keys, a selection of Stefan Zweig’s writings which inspired the film.

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The key narrative in most Hollywood film is the protagonist’s attempt of achieving various goals, most commonly being finding love, becoming rich, or saving the world. It is impossible to find one film by Wes Anderson that copies that particular formula of pursuit of happiness. Anderson’s characters seem to roam around in their own unique world of complex problems and unusual scenarios, often involving disappearances, theft, and dysfunctional families. Whilst Fantastic Mr Fox is perhaps the most simplistic of Anderson’s films, Fatherhood is the main theme. It explores how it is only after becoming middle-aged that the character of Mr. Fox only begins to appreciate his role as a father to Ash, now a teenager, along with some life-changing realisations that his actions have an effect on the well-being and security of his family. With a more specific attention to a dysfunctional family dynamic, The Darjeeling Limited follows three brothers who rekindle their relationship ensuing the death of their father. Moonrise Kingdom features Billy Murray as an emotionally detached father figure who realises how much he cares about his daughter when she goes missing.

As a part of Hollywood’s formula for films, an almost consistent element is the often-unnecessary sexualisation of women’s and men’s relationships, which Anderson diverges from in Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel especially. The rare times romance is seen during his films is face paced and adds to the building of the character. Moonrise Kingdom features a scene of both children on the beach where actress Kara Hayward has few clothes on but it comes across as completely non-sexual. The relationship between Zero the lobby boy and Agatha the patisserie maker in The Grand Budapest Hotel is also portrayed from a purely sentimental angle. Traditional Hollywood film has installed within the audience an instinctive anticipation for the protagonist to have a romantic pursuit or a general goal of happiness, to the extent that it is often forced into a narrative that does nothing to further the plot. Anderson avoids this by concentrating on family dynamics more than romantic ones, or even exclusively in The Darjeeling limited for example.

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On a more technical note, Anderson is known for his unconventional camera-work, with every shot seeming to silently add meaning to the narrative. In this respect, Hollywood editing is relatively predictable, an amount of footage often feeling redundant. This is ironic as Major production studios encourage films to avoid what they consider as unnecessary detail that detracts from the main point of the scene. Often, the result is that the film is more inclined to be forgotten due to its soporific production for the masses. Once again Anderson is the opposite. As has been stated previously, each plot device and shot is purposeful with no time to waste on such needless endeavours. Not having the budget to spend on special effects, Anderson takes care to avoid artificial, computer-generated effects and prefers to make use of practical effects to create a realistic, believable world, in order to fully immerse his audience. Furthermore, he takes more risks than the average director with some trademarks of his being stationary pans where the camera moves from left-to-right between two people, drastic zooms, and a great deal of non-diegetic sound, or sound that doesn’t belong in the character’s world. These elements add a vintage aspect reminiscent to the sixties era of New Hollywood. The patterns of the progression of his stories may be the same, however the content of each is extremely diverse and unique strengthening his status as an auteur.

Any director that has found mainstream success will struggle to remain a purely independent auteur. Initially ‘indie’ films were an unpopular genre, Anderson lacked the cult following that he has today allowing his creations to stand out as unusual, or even experimental. As this type of film became a trend, the last decade has seen ‘indie’ films develop a following significant enough to attract big studios and Hollywood conglomerates. Anderson has remained loyal to his filmmaking roots and continues to control his creations, yet releasing his films through major distributors.

The greatest benefit Hollywood permits for ‘indie’ directors is the distribution upon a far larger audience that was previously possible. This, in essence, is the reason Anderson’s career has flourished.

Manchester Film Festival 2017: Jury Select Panel

An honest insight into the inner workings of a film festival

Away from all the incredible feature-length and short films on display, there is a chance to get a behind-the-scenes look at how Manchester Film Festival is organised and ran. The Jury Select Panel offered a unique insight for filmmakers and cinema goers alike and was chaired by film critic Tom Percival and featured festival co-ordinator Al Bailey as well as several of the jurors.

How do you decide which films go into the program? The key word is objectivity. We are trying to attract a wide range of people for all demographics. Something for everyone. There is a team of 6 who watch all the films to choose which will make it to the festival. It’s a very long process but we feel it is necessary to give every film a chance.

How do you plan the opening night? We want the people who come here to know they are in Manchester and know what we are all about so all the films have a North-West (of England) theme. A divisive set of films is key too, we want to start debate.

How do you go about selecting jurors? I absolutely hate the word alumni but I guess it’s the right word here. People who have come before and entered films are generally the right type of people. We want people that will get involved. The idea is to get a range of film industry roles such as writers, casting directors, actors etc. For each category we want jurors who have strengths in that area, animators in the animating category for example.

How many jurors are there and what is the process in choosing the winner of each category? There are 18 jurors altogether that are split into teams of 3, with each team getting the same set of 3. Each juror has their own method of critiquing. Some for example use a points system, breaking the films down into categories such as writing, structure, characters, direction, editing etc. We usually advise each film be watched more than once as different moods when watching can provoke a different reaction. Then when the individuals have voted we pool the results together to decide the winner.

What happens in the event of a tie? If a tie occurs then Gareth (head juror) would ultimately decide.

Is there any ‘X-Factor’ qualities you look for in the films? Usually we (jurors) have a gut instinct on the film within the first 10-15 minutes. From that we usually gather whether it will hold our full interest. There are 2 main factors that go into making a great film: script and performance. The best actors in the world can’t make a bad script good, and conversely the best script in the world won’t make bad actors good. More often that not a film will just do one well, or both mediocrely. A great film nails both. You also want to get immersed into the film, that’s a sign of quality.

Is there a difference between watching the films on a laptop where judging and on the big screen here? Oh definitely, this a major reason why we strike to have the jurors present at the festival rather than just watching them remotely. A film is always better on the big screen. The indie film scene is incredibly tough at the moment and getting distribution is so hard. So to see a small film on the big screen is really a big gift.

What is the run time limit on the short films? This question has been a bit of an issue for us over the past couple of years. This year the rule is anything under an hour but previously we weren’t sure how long was too long. A prime example of this was a 32 minute short that we received in year one. In the end we decided to include it and it was a great decision looking back as it ended up being nominated for an Oscar.

How many films are submitted? In year 1 we had 650, year 2 just under 1000. This year is over 1500 with around 75% of those being shorts. From May to November we wind down that number to the 92 you see in the festival.

How much does it cost to enter a film? There is an early bird which is around £30 and the last possible entry is around £100. As each filmmaker is paying considerable money to enter we make sure to watch every single film. From speaking to people at other film festivals I learned that they don’t watch all the films that the receive, opting to watch ones featuring acclaimed actors or directors. This is a completely dishonest way of running a film festival as some of the best films we see are by first time directors. For example we have an incredible debut student film that just wouldn’t have been watched let alone considered at other film festivals. At the Manchester Film Festival we try to be as transparent and honest as possible, something that we feel sets us apart from others.

In summary this was a surprisingly honest look at the inner workings of the the festival. Co-ordinator Al Bailey emphasised the need for transparency in what he called ‘the murky world of film festivals’. There was no doubt that everyone involved was driven by the intense passion that they shared for films and filmmaking, something that was conveyed not just at this panel but throughout the whole of the festival. It was a genuine pleasure to be involved with such a wonderful event and there was not a single negative moment to mention.

If you enjoyed this article click here for another on the Screenwriting Panel