Tag: Long Reads

In Conversation with Neville Pierce

Having seen the marvelous short comedy “Ghosted” (review here) at this year’s Lift-Off film festival we approached director Neville Pierce. His career consists of many facets, from journalist to screenwriter to director, and shares with us some very interesting and honest insight into the world of film journalism.

It was during his time at Bournemouth University that Pierce first developed his interest in journalism, and more so in writing about film. Being naturally good at storytelling, “spoken or written”, it is this that drew him to the art of reporting. Whilst studying journalism more generally, Pierce religiously read the now extinct magazine Neon which led to him to pushing himself to try, based on the mere logic that “Someone has to write for movie magazines – so why not me?”.

Starting off as the logical next step as a part of his journalism degree, a week’s work experience turned into two months working at the North Devon Journal. He recalls that the journalists there “were mostly only recent graduates themselves, but at the time seemed much older and wiser (and sexier) than I could ever aspire to be”.

Having been editor of the fortnightly paper The Nerve for a year, it was a natural question to ask what were his best and worst experiences in that position. To this, Pierce’s answer was an event that was simultaneously both, as he remembers “being shouted at by a columnist for editing his work – but he subsequently apologised, accepted the edit and we remain close friends, 20 years later”. If he could give his student editor self some advice, it would be to “admit your mistakes – even if only to yourself. Everything is useful – even the failures. Everything can be shorter – from articles to meetings”.

A journalist before the explosion of internet in the 2000s, his experience of journalism was quite different to that of film critics or any journalists today, the main problem being that beforehand, “People paid to read things. So YOU got paid”. A result of the use of internet for film criticism was the development of aggregated review sites such as Rotten Tomatoes, which Pierce recognises as a useful tool “if you want a barometer of critical opinion, though inevitably reductive”. He also points out that percentages will never replace an actual film review, as he might watch something a critic has not liked, depending on their taste.

As for him and his incentive to review films, he sums it up as a combination of “ego, enjoyment and earning” which I think can be said for the majority of film critics, as his response to what he wished to achieve through creating artistic content: “Buying a house”. His process to reviewing films is a unique one (this was before he was directing them), advising to “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you just told them. I was told that at school, about public speaking, but it applies to that type of writing too I think. Sometimes you can be more playful, especially if you’re writing a long, lead review – you can give more career context or make a point about theme. I always try to judge a film on what it is trying to achieve, as well as whether it is personally to my taste”.

Even critics have favourite critics. Pierce gave me this response when posed the question: “David Thomson changed the way I looked at film writing, with Rosebud, his biography of Orson Welles. His Biographical Dictionary of Film is wonderful, too. I can’t remember who said if you write about film then you get to write about everything, but that would apply to him. Peter Bradshaw (The Guardian) maintains a remarkably high standard. Robbie Collin (The Telegraph) is eclectic and insightful. Guy Lodge (Variety) has a delightful turn of phrase”.

He continued: “I am in awe of the breadth and depth of Kim Newman’s knowledge. Others who are less critics – though they do write reviews – than general film journalists would be Damon Wise (Neon and Empire), who was a big influence who became a friend. Matt Mueller (Screen International) is a fine editor and a fine man. Ditto Dan Jolin, who gave me my first bit of paid work, back at Total Film. It’s a long list, really. I’m impressed by what Joe Utichi is doing with Deadline’s magazine Awardsline. Chris Hewitt and co are very good on the Empire podcast. Jamie Graham is a very fine interviewer and informed critic – I value his opinion highly. The best all-rounder, broadcast and print, is Mark Kermode, for my money. Entertaining, informed, fluent on paper or on screen or speaker – superb”.

Getting more and more influential in his work, Pierce went from a staff position editing Total Film to being a freelance journalist for Empire. The transition from one job to the other was a noticeable one. “I didn’t have to manage people, I just had to manage my time. I didn’t have as much influence on what went in the magazine, of course, but I did have more freedom”, which lead to an obvious change of pace for Pierce and a much better quality of life.

Less of a transition of sorts and more of a variation in that field of work, Pierce described his experience in both radio and print journalism as quite different ones. “Print generally allows more depth (though not always). It also allows you to edit yourself more effectively and hide your incoherence. Radio is merciless in that regard”.

Pierce managed to obtain exclusive access as a member of press to the film sets of Fincher’s Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. “I had interviewed Fincher for a retrospective piece on Fight Club and we had got on, but when I emailed his assistant asking to visit the Zodiac set I expected to be told no – because he doesn’t generally allow journalists on set. So, really, I was incredibly surprised to be there. I also felt – and feel – he is one of the greats. So I was soaking up every bit of detail I could – for me, it’s like having the opportunity to go on set with Kubrick. I think the best set visit article – of the many I’ve written for Fincher films – was probably for Zodiac, because it was so fresh and exciting an experience for me”.

Now Pierce’s time is mostly taken up by screenwriting and directing, this did not happen over night and was a gradual shift in his career. The short version of why exactly he is in the filmmaking end of movies now is that he always “at least subconsciously, wanted to do it – and eventually the fear of failure was outweighed by the fear of not trying”.

In an industry where one’s work is constantly scrutinized, the fear of failure never dissipates. “Whether it’s articles or scripts or finished films, I don’t think you’re ever completely satisfied. You may look back years later and be able to say you think something was good – or, at least, close to what you had in your head”.

For my final question, I asked Pierce how he would describe the relationship between filmmaker and film critic. The answer was “carefully”. “I think Barry Norman probably said it best: ‘All critics are parasites – but parasites can be useful.’ So, yes, critics can’t exist without something to comment on. But great criticism can be beautiful – and definitely useful. Some critics are snide and ill-informed, of course, and that must be infuriating when you’ve worked hard to make a film (I’ve felt angry and frustrated upon reading ignorant reviews of the work of friends or filmmakers I admire), but a great many are dedicated, informed people who love cinema and work very hard for modest reward. I think I used to look down on film journalism, basically because I did it. Now I see its value much more. And it irritates the hell out of me when filmmakers are scornful of critics as a whole – especially filmmakers who are happy with critics when they love their work, then dismissive of them when they don’t. You have to take your lumps”.

You can find out more about his past, current and upcoming projects at nevpierce.com

2017 Film Challenge – May

May has been a bit of a slow month for movie watching sadly with only 15. We are now up to 142 though so well ahead of the pace needed to reach our target. A few low scoring months are to be expected but as we approach the summer I am sure we will jump greatly. In this post I will include a mini-review or comment about each film as I think a simple list is not as engaging as it could be.

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Films Watched

  • Superbad (2007) – A cult classic featuring one of the earlier performances of Jonah Hill. Packed with awkward moments and laughs and more emotional depth than you would expect.
  • 12 Angry Men (1957) – This film is sublime from beginning to end. A must watch for any cinophile. An extended review can be found here.
  • Ice Age (2002) – I watched this film to relive those childhood memories and I was left disappointed. While certainly a feat of animation in 2002, it just didn’t hold up well, nor was there much depth to the narrative.
  • Wedding Crashers (2005) – The duo of Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson are my biggest guilty pleasures. The charisma each possesses makes every film they feature in worthy of watching. Wedding Crashers also includes great performances by Christopher Walken and a fledgling Bradley Cooper.
  • The Handmaiden (2016) – The best cinematic experience I have had in years. Sumptuously erotic and gripping from the first moment to the last. If you watch one film from this list make it this. To read a full review of this film click here!
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) – There is not much to be said about this one. Part of my yearly Harry Potter rewatch. There is a definite improvement in this film after Goblet of Fire but the series follows an overall downward trajectory after Prisoner of Azkaban.
  • The Hangover (2009) – Another guilty pleasure of mine is The Hangover series. On paper this should be a truly awful film but the great cast and jokes make it very entertaining.
  • Robots (2005) – This is one of my favourite childhood animated film that did not fair well at all with critics. It had a unique style of animation which is seen best during the Domino scene (see here). A thoroughly enjoyable film which I heartily recommend.
  • Airplane! (1980) – This is a film I have been putting off for too long for fear I would not enjoy it as much as I hoped. After taking the plunge I can say it was hilarious. Silly, but hilarious. Will definitely be rewatching this again and eventually reviewing it.
  • Spy Kids (2001) – Taking a train back to nostalgia town once again with Spy Kids. It is somehow even weirder than I imagined but still holds up with the practical and special effects not looking too bad given the age of the film.
  • The Big Lebowski (1998) x2 – This is in my top 3 films of all time and for good reason. Incredibly quotable, relentlessly funny and with great performances by John Goodman and Jeff Bridges. A review of this film will eventually be done so watch this space!
  • The Lego Batman Movie (2017) – Whilst undoubtably an entertaining film it couldn’t achieve the same as its predecessor. There are many great jokes at the expense of other superhero films but ultimately the hectic nature caused its downfall. Read my full review of it here!
  • Hancock (2008) – In the modern euro of superhero films Hancock stands out as one of the best. A brilliant take on immortality and the negative issues that it creates. The special effects still look great as well considering how far they have come in the past decade.
  • In the Loop (2009) As a big fan of the tv show ‘The Thick of It’ that this film is an extension of, I had high expectations. Unfortunately those expectations were not met. This is by no means a bad film, it just felt strained and some of the actors (who in the TV show are fantastic) produced lifeless performances.

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Best Films of the Month:

  1. The Big Lebowski
  2. The Handmaiden
  3. 12 Angry Men
  4. Superbad
  5. Wedding Crashers

At some point, perhaps towards the new year, I will compile a list of my top 50, or 100 films. When I do, all of these will feature with each brilliant in their own right. The first three are simply works of art, every frame struck me as beautiful. The other two are just hilarious, continuously so.

Most Watched Films:

  1. The Big Lebowski (4)
  2. La La Land (3)
  3. Superbad (2)
  4. The Nice Guys (2)
  5. The Other Guys (2)

We now have a new leader in the form of ‘The Big Lebowski’. This is hardly surprising due to the incredible rewatchability of the film and I’m sure that by the end of the year it will have reached double figures, probably the only film to do so. Some films, like ‘The Handmaiden’ will be watched many more times, although there will be quite a wait for them to become available. All five of the films above are fantastic and are suitable for chill night in.

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To check out the months you have missed, click one of the following links:

Review: 12 Angry Men

12 men sit around a long table in a room. 12 men with different backgrounds, different upbringings, personalities and prejudices. They are tasked as jurors to reach a verdict on the case of a young man of which the charge is murder in the first degree. If found guilty his punishment would be death. On the surface this looks like an open and shut case, but not everyone is convinced.

Director Sidney Lumet creates something truly remarkable with this, his debut film. Despite fantastic reviews upon release, it could not find a following and was a box office disappointment. 60 years later and it is deservedly regarded as a classic, a case study of tension, claustrophobia and subtext.

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The jurors, united by their call to duty, do not share any common traits and it is because of this that they are most qualified to judge the case. Each saw their own version of the trial, noticing seemingly irrelevant details such as the indentations on a witness’ nose left by her glasses or the poorly concealed limp of another. Details so small most missed them, but the implications they have can change a person’s entire perspective.

We can summarise the film by five crucial moments, the first of which occurs at the beginning. Once settled down they decide to open with a vote, with some beginning to joke about how quick they will leave. As hands slowly raise up for the vote of guilty they soon realise one hand stayed down, that of juror #8 (Henry Fonda). Juror #10 scoffs ‘Boy oh boy there’s always one’. The reasoning behind his hand staying down was not because he felt the defendant was innocent, he admitted that may very well be so, but instead that they should not be so hasty sending a young man to the chair.

At this moment, as with most of the first third of the film, the camera is above eye level, looking down upon those seated at the table. The effect of this is that it makes them more accessible and easier to be understood. As we learn the facts of the case through their discussion, the mood is relaxed and open. Notice also here how the depth of each shot changes from this point. Initially the focal length is short, making the depth of view high and consequently give the room an airier feel. This combined with the above-eye camera level allow the audience to see large swathes of the room. All the factors point towards an impartial conversation between civilised men.

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As the discussion continues, Juror #8 raises interesting points on topics such as the knife, the ability to hear shouting as a train passes by, and one supposed eyewitness’s questionable version of events. The more logical jurors begin to rethink their decisions leading to the next two crucial moments: Juror #9 taking Fonda’s side making the vote 2-10, and the moment the vote becomes even, 6-6.

From this point on the camera is at eye-level with longer shots being replaced with mid-length shots. The room feels smaller and combined with the rising temperature contributes an increase in tension. Slowly but surely the more bigoted among them grow inpatient and resort to classist remarks as the amount of evidence supporting a guilty verdict decreases. An increased emotional intimacy as they open up about their true feelings is emphasised with the closer shots. Jurors #3 and #10 are taking the role of antagonists. The film depicted all 12 as civilised at the start, each as equals but as we learn more, both about them and the case, a positive light is cast upon the non guilty jurors.

The final two moments occur when the vote becomes 3-9 and 1-11. These I feel are the most powerful as they are immediately proceeded by explosive rants by the films two antagonists, Jurors #3 and #10. The remaining guilty voters are not choosing so out of reason, but out of emotion. Hatred towards a class of people viewed as lesser, or out of frustration from a strained relationship with his son. Stubbornness to admit you are wrong causes increased desperation among them, with both only conceding after becoming disgusted with their own actions.

The camera is below eye level now. We, the audience have gone from overseers of the discussion to sat at the table with every slur or hateful remark feeling equally spoken towards us as much as the rest of the jurors. The room is at its most claustrophobic too, as the depth of view is incredibly shallow and the ceiling can be seen in many of the shots making the walls appear to be closing in. Without exception each man is sweating, trapped inside the room until they reach a unanimous decision. The tension crescendos as Juror #10 erupts, peaking at the moment where he tears up a photo of his son and changes to the twelfth and last not guilty vote. Finally, 93 minutes in, we can breathe. The camera reverts back to the original state over eye level as the men get dressed to leave. Juror #8, the film’s hero, helps Juror #10 to put on his jacket. Regardless of what just transpired he remains neutral, working for the better wherever possible.

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The courage Fonda’s character musters to stand in non-conformity against the intense scrutiny of 11 other people is heroic but also unrealistic. In the event of an 11-1 split, how often will he turn the opinions of them all? The far more likely scenarios involve he himself changing his mind, or if he is relentless, a hung jury. A real life example to this is the case of Williams vs Cavazos (see here for more). When it was reported that one of the jurors stood alone against the decision of the rest, each was then cross examined in order. The defiant juror was then dismissed on the grounds that they were biased against the prosecution and, with an alternate juror, a verdict of guilty was reached. However the defence appealed that the sanctity of the jury’s secret deliberations was violated and as such the defendants rights were broken. Interestingly the appeal was successful and the decision reversed.

Where the film grounds itself in the realism of our world is in the blatant ageism, classism and racism of some of the jurors. The most powerful scene taking place after the vote becomes 9-3 in favour of a not guilty verdict. Below is an excerpt of the script that follows:

Juror #10: I don’t understand you people! I mean all these picky little points you keep bringing up. They don’t mean nothing! You saw this kid just like I did. You’re not gonna tell me you believe that phony story about losing the knife, and that business about being at the movies. Look, you know how these people lie! It’s born in them! I mean, what the heck? I don’t have to tell you! They don’t know what the truth is! And lemme tell ya: they don’t need any real big reason to kill someone, either! No sir!

Juror #10: [#5 slams the paper down, gets up from his seat] They get drunk! Oh, they’re real big drinkers, all of ’em – you know that – and bang: someone’s lyin’ in the gutter! Oh, nobody’s blaming them for it. That’s the way they are, by nature! You know what I mean? Violent!

Juror #10: [#9 rises and crosses to the window] Where’re you going? Human life don’t mean as much to them as it does to us!

Juror #10: [#11 gets up and walks to the other window] Look, they’re lushing it up and fighting all the time and if somebody gets killed, so somebody gets killed! They don’t care! Oh, sure, there are some good things about ’em, too! Look, I’m the first one to say that!

Juror #10: [#8 gets up and walks to the nearest wall] I’ve known a couple who were OK, but that’s the exception, y’know what I mean? Most of ’em, it’s like they have no feelings! They can do anything!

[#2 and #6 get up from the table. Everyone’s back is to #10]

Juror #10: [looking around, starting to decline in volume] What’s goin’ on here? I’m trying to tell ya… You’re makin’ a big mistake, you people! This kid is a liar! I know it, I know all about them! Listen to me… They’re no good! There’s not a one of ’em who is any good! I mean, what’s happening in here? I’m speaking my piece, and you…

Juror #10: [The Foreman gets up and walks away. So does #12] Listen to me. We’re… This kid on trial here… his type, well, don’t you know about them? There’s a, there’s a danger here. These people are dangerous. They’re wild. Listen to me. Listen.

Juror #4: [quietly and firmly] I have. Now sit down and don’t open your mouth again.

Juror #10: [the shock of being ignored and silenced sinking in] I’m jus’ tryin’-a… tell ya…

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At the beginning when 11 jurors thought the defendant was guilty, most either ignored the discrimination or timidly agreed due to the peer pressure from those much louder than them. They may not have believed in the content of those statements but by not taking a stand they were in silent agreement. This caused the bigots to continue, under the impression that everybody respected them and their ‘wise words’. Such prejudice is self-perpetuating and as a result very dangerous to society as a whole with the loudest voices often being the least knowledgable, driven by their emotions rather than reason. A quote from Plato reads ‘An empty vessel makes the loudest sound, so they that have the least wit are the greatest babblers‘.

When the room for reasonable doubt increases the jurors tolerance for this simultaneously diminishes, becoming disgusted. In the above scene, each juror slowly got up or turned away from him until just one was left, another guilty voter. It was he who put him in his place, saying not to utter a single more word. His remarks became so extreme that no-one could stand behind him, not even those who were on his side.

60 years on from the release of ’12 Angry Men’, such situations still occur. There are still those who believe themselves to be above others, whether that be due to wealth, skin colour or another reason. In the technological age, everybody has a voice and only those who shout loudest can be heard. The differences being now that more people will take a stand and those who feel such things are more hesitant about speaking.

The same cannot be said about the internet though. A veil of anonymity gives many the confidence to say things they would not dare in public, making discrimination online rampant. This takes place to such an extent that several major sites such as Vice and IMDb have blocked comments sections as they have become a hive of racism. Whilst groups of people standing up to bigotry does happen, mostly within the domain of politics, it rarely does in such a manner found in the aforementioned scene, with total disassociation from people of both sides.

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Upon the film’s release, only one actor (Henry Fonda) was considered a true star, however all twelve men gave fantastic performances, with no single person rising above the rest. Later four of the other actors beside Fonda would be nominated for Oscars (Lee J. Cobb, Martin Balsam, Ed Begley and Jack Warden) showing the wide range of talent amongst the group. The fact that they all were as impressive in their roles is representative of the film itself, with each of the jurors have the same, equally important role in deciding the man’s fate.

There is so little in terms of plot and diversity of environment throughout the film. Every little detail must therefore contribute to the progression of the narrative. The original playwright Reginald Rose, who co-wrote and co-produced this adaptation, made commanding use of the subtleties of his characters. The enunciation of the words, their body language as they spoke and the manner in which they presented themselves all demonstrated the jurors’ unique personalities.

Besides a small handshake conversation between the first and second not guilty voters as they leave the courthouse, there are no names are mentioned at all. The defendant referred to as ‘the boy’ and the witnesses as ‘the lady across the street’ and ‘the old man’. As the film progresses this keeps a shroud of mystery over all the characters, with the audience never fully knowing every detail of the case and making their eventual not guilty verdict impossible to completely agree or disagree with.

’12 Angry Men’ is an unsettlingly realistic look at the faults of mankind, with each person  under the impression that their vote was the correct one and for the greater good of their society. The issues raised transcend the screen and the message of impartiality has far ranging applications. Lumet purposefully tackles such controversial ideas in his films (see Fail-Safe or Dog Day Afternoon), doing so with the upmost respect for the audience’s intelligence. He is rightfully regarded as one of greatest directors of the modern era and this is, perhaps, his masterpiece.

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Cinematographer Boris Kaufman and actor Henry Fonda rehearsing during production

I would like to thank the ever-wonderful Eloise for introducing me to this film.

 

2017 Film Challenge – April

Welcome back for update four in the progress towards my film challenge. 25 more movies were watched this month taking us up to a grand total of 127, just over half of my target. This month’s entry will be longer than we have seen previously. As we progress through the year I aim to keep adding to the quality of this blog series to make it as interesting as possible. Enjoy!

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Films Watched

  • Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
  • Suicide Squad (2016)
  • Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) x2
  • Catch Me If You Can (2002)
  • Italian Job (1969)
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
  • The Martian (2015)
  • Sing (2016)
  • 21 Jump Street (2012) x2
  • Busking Turf Wars (Lift-Off 2017 Feature)
  • 22 Jump Street (2014) x2
  • War Dogs (2016)
  • Secret Life of Pets (2016)
  • The Big Lebowski (1998)
  • Kung Fu Panda (2008)
  • Hell or High Water (2016)
  • The Incredibles (2004)
  • Megamind (2010)
  • Rounders (1998)
  • The Other Guys (2010) x2
  • Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (2017)
  • Boss Baby (2017)

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After putting off watching Illumination Entertainments latest features ‘The Secret Life of Pets’ and ‘Sing’ for fear they would be as bad as I had heard, I finally forced myself to watch them. I don’t want to go into much detail about my reactions to those films, in case I decide to review them, but let’s just say that it took ‘Kung Fu Panda’, ‘The Incredibles’ and ‘Megamind’ to regain my faith in competent animation films. On the last day of the month I got around to another animation I was worried about, DreamWorks’ ‘Boss Baby’. Unfortunately no amount of nostalgic cleansing will help me get over the torture that was the film. To read my review of ‘Boss Baby’ and to learn why you should never watch it, click here.

Most Watched Films of the Year so far:

  1. La La Land (3)
  2. The Nice Guys (2)
  3. The Other Guys (2)
  4. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2)
  5. Tropic Thunder (2)

Now from the worst new film I have watched in a long time to the best new film I have watched in a long time. Whilst not cinema new, it was released in 2010, it is the first (and second!) time I have watched it. I’m talking about ‘The Other Guys’. Changing the buddy-cop genre with its satirical and self-mocking nature. This will definitely be a film you’ll see a review about soon, I cannot recommend it enough. Mark Wahlberg overemphasises his loud and aggressive attitude hilariously and his chemistry with Will Ferrell is simply electric.

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We’ve looked at badly reviewed films being bad and well reviewed films being good, it’s time to look at the others. Let’s begin with a poorly reviewed movie that I adore, Ben Stiller’s ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’. With only 51% of Rotten Tomatoes, it doesn’t look like much. Thankfully I saw it in the theatre with my family and was exposed to one of the most beautiful cinematic experiences in recent times. A wonderful feel-good plot, combined with a great soundtrack and incredible cinematography make this perfect for lazy morning.

Worst Films of the Month:

  1. Boss Baby
  2. Guardians of the Galaxy 2
  3. The Secret Life of Pets
  4. Sing
  5. Suicide Squad

Lastly we have a film that saw fantastic reviews which I found incredibly disappointing, Guardians of the Galaxy 2. Being a huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe the expectations were very high. Whilst this wasn’t an ‘Independence Day: Resurgence’ level of disappointment, it wasn’t far off. I don’t want to go too much into it as my review did a pretty extensive job, nor do I suggest you don’t go to see it, just don’t expect the same level of story, depth or humour that was present in the first.

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Best Films of the Month

  1. The Big Lebowski
  2. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
  3. The Other Guys
  4. Rounders
  5. Megamind

I won’t talk about numbers 1, 2 and 3 as I already have previously but number 4 is a film that has been on my radar for some time, Rounders. Stellar performances from both Jason Bou.. I mean Matt Damon and John Malkovich make this poker-based flick well worth a watch. A fun game to play whilst watching the film is ‘Guess the Accent’. Every scene in which Malkovich speaks you have to try and work out which Eastern European country his accent wanders into.

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Lastly we have Megamind, an animation by the same director as Boss Baby. This may not sound encouraging but trust me you will not be left disgruntled. It features all-star cast of Brad Pitt, Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Jonah Hill, Ben Stiller, JK Simmons and more. The premise, that a constantly failing supervillian finally defeats and kills his superhero counterpart, is highly original and explores the lack of meaning in a life without challenge brilliantly. If you have a child who wants to go see Boss Baby, stay home and watch Megamind instead.

To check out the months you have missed, click one of the following links: