Celebrating Great Films

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Films I've Made (and other films)

OK, this boast - I mean post - is just me showing off. Cope.

Did you know that I've made a few of my own films?

Not proper films, but the kind of films you shoot on a Casio Exilim (best automatic cameras on the market) and edit in Windows Movie Maker.

This is the one of which I'm proudest. If you think watching a video of someone else's holiday is dull, I challenge you to be bored by this. Mind you, it was the best holiday of all time, so not surprising it's a great video.

My family and I made a few videos for my little brother as a Christmas present when he was away in the USA during his gap year (back then we didn't know he would end up living there for good). Ferris Bueller's Day Off in 3 minutes has broken the 10,000 views barrier on You Tube - which is great, until you read all the nasty comments about the "actors" (that's my sister you bastards!). And I'm so glad I did A Day in the Life - it makes me dead nostalgic for the wonderful first year I had living in London.

What else? I had a lot of fun making this as a task for an artsy game community called SFZero.

And loads of people have made short films inspired by my short stories. Search for "Death by Scrabble" on You Tube and you get, like, 40 different adaptations.

And now I have to write a screenplay. No, I haven't started yet...

Friday, January 30, 2009


Casablanca#11 at time of writing.

I don’t know how it’s possible after so many years of being addicted to films, but – believe it or not – until yesterday I had never seen Casablanca. I think I am instinctively wary of canonical old films; perhaps I have been disappointed a few times in the past by a purported classic that felt dated, wooden, slow, contrived...
And, well, Casablanca might be guilty of some of those faults too, but it easily transcends its faults with pace, witty characterisation and sheer cleverness. Yes, I loved it.

Also, watching it for the first time 66 years after its release allows me to enjoy it on an unusual level: Thanks to its immense influence on popular culture (and thanks to dozens of parodies) I already know what to expect; and it is gratifying to see that the source is deserving. Like reading 1984 for the first time in 2004.

I was fascinated to learn that at the time this film was made, the studio was churning out 50 films a year, and this one was not thought to be special. The lead actors switched around at the last moment, the gaggle of scriptwriters barely kept up with the production (During filming Ingrid Bergman asked them which man she would end up with and they had to admit they didn’t yet know), the release was rushed to coincide with the real-life invasion of Casablanca, and the film had a tepid reception at the box office.

Yet this film stood out, winning three Oscars and growing to be one of the world’s favourite films. Makes you think, might there be other gems among the 50 films per year which have been overlooked? Maybe if fate had twisted slightly differently, instead of “Here’s looking at you, kid” we would be quoting from Gentleman Jim (“Fine way for a gentleman to behave”), or Kings Row (“What's the harm in a little kiss”)?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Man on Wire

Unranked at time of writing.

A couple of months ago I went to the cinema, and I was treated to one of the most inspirational films I’ve ever seen. It’s a British film about the Twin Towers; it swept the board of awards for documentary films; yet I wouldn’t be surprised if you hadn’t even heard of it. (Why doesn't IMDb include documentary films in its Top 250?)

The film follows the story of a charismatic and headstrong young circus artist. His name is Philippe Petit, a Frenchman with a particular fondness for tightrope walking. His signature act? Breaking into world landmarks, illegally rigging a highwire, and dancing his way across. In 1974, he turned his attention to Manhattan’s newly built World Trade Center.

Man on Wire

The story is told by Phillippe Petit himself, now 59 years old. We see his motivation, his meticulous planning, and his friendships that were sacrificed to achieve the “artistic crime of the century”. It has all the tension of a Hollywood heist story, enriched by breathtaking photography, and an yet it has an underlying poignancy. The film itself never mentions the sad fate of the Twin Towers, but it is somehow deeply moving to know that Phillippe Petit and his friends managed to break into the beloved towers not to destroy them, but to celebrate them.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Screen Play

I'm currently studying screenwriting as part of my MA in Creative Writing.

To up the stakes, I've accepted two offers from production companies to write a screenplay for them. (That makes me sound pretty cool, huh? Well, I think so.)

One is a German production company that previously adapted one of my short stories into a short film called Ja Ich Will - which is effing brilliant. And the other is an Australian production company trying to break into the feature-length market.

Meanwhile, I've asked my boss if I can go down to four days a week so I can give over more time to writing. She was, in her own words, "sympathetic but unenthusiastic" - but I think we'll manage to reach an arrangement.

All of this adds up to some great opportunities. The planets are aligning.

This is the kind of shit I will seriously regret if I fuck it up.

I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Wrestler

The Wrestler#57 at time of writing.

Breathtaking. Desperately sad. Brutal and beautiful. This is Darren Aronofsky's most mature piece yet, full of subtlety.

Mickey Rourke deserves an Oscar for his performance as washed-up wrestler Randy "The Ram" Robinson. Nicolas Cage and Sly Stallone were considered for the part, but I doubt the film would have been as memorable with one of them in the lead - Rourke's real-life history as an ageing big-time boxer makes it personal.

This film is full of great set-pieces - from the quiet (Randy playing himself as a Nintendo character) to the hardcore (the match with the razor wire and the staples).

The most effective aspect of Randy's character is that no matter what mistakes he might have made in the past his sense of regret is so strong and genuine that it is impossible not to forgive him. As beaten down and alone as Randy gets, he never loses his fighting spirit.

Don't dismiss this film because of its subject matter. If you're inclined (as I was) to dismiss professional wrestling as laughable fakery, you will come out of this film with a new perspective. These guys are tough nuts. With emphasis on the nuts.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Brief Encounter

Brief Encounter#158 at time of writing.

I saw Kneehigh Theatre's adaptation of Brief Encounter at the Haymarket - it was the best piece of theatre I saw in 2008. In fact, I'd rank it in my top three or four favourite shows of all time. (In case you're curious, the others would be Masque of the Red Death, Avenue Q, and The Woman in Black.) They're still touring the show - see it while you can.

After the stage show, I felt like I'd seen the film - like I'd laughed and cried and fallen in love with it. So when I finally did see the film last week it felt warm and familiar, like sitting in front of an open fire at Christmas. The film didn't blow me away (like the play did), but it was quiet, and sad, and beautiful, and nostalgic.

Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard's performances are restrained and realistic, far from the stagy melodrama I tend to expect from golden oldies. This film is like a precious museum exhibit, a glimpse into the mores of 1940s life. It seems almost comical now that it was banned by the Irish censorship board on the grounds that it portrayed an adulterer in a sympathetic light.

It’s thoroughly British, with occasional comic touches, and it’s so rooted in the 1940s that a film will never be made like it again. People were brasher then, accents were stronger, and social attitudes to affairs quite different. The period of the film gives it much of its charm.

Brief Encounter is based on a short play by Noel Coward, and it earned director David Lean his first Oscar nomination.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Taste of Hollywood

I am a writer. I want to be a successful writer. So, naturally, my heroes are writers. As a film enthusiast as well, my biggest heroes are screenwriters. And probably my biggest hero of all is Terry Rossio, whose writing credits include Pirates of the Caribbean, Shrek, Aladdin, and - most inspirationally for me - Wordplay.

Back in September, I went on an epic road trip across Western USA with nine friends. Before we left, I sent Terry Rossio an email about an unrelated matter, and mentioned in passing that we were visiting the States. So he INVITED US TO A HOUSE PARTY. Now, technically, we weren't available. According to our itinerary, we would still be in Las Vegas when the party was happening in LA.

Screw the plan.

My wife and I decided to temporarily leave the group behind and fly to LA, returning the next morning - and damn the cost. Getting flights and a hire car would have cost two dollars more than a package that included flights, hire car and a room at what turned out to be The Worst Hotel In Los Angeles. That's right, they actually paid us to stay there.

But nothing took away from the nerves and excitement we felt that day. It felt surreal driving through Santa Monica, knowing that we would be here again in three days with eight other people, and turning off into the beautiful Topanga Hills.

We found the address and crawled up the winding two-mile driveway. (At least it felt that long.) And there it was. In Terry Rossio's own words, "the house that Pirates built." My heart was racing. I felt thrilled, intimidated, proud, nervous...

The best possible thing happened: we were too early. Terry and his partner Jocelyn (top of her field as both a surgeon and a film producer - some people are just... more, aren't they?) were still setting up. So we helped them lay out chairs and canapés, and we chatted to them about how they were still in awe of this beautiful house after more than two years of living here. We chatted to them as normal people about normal things.

Terry Rossio

People started to arrive, so we let Terry act the host and we snooped around the house a bit. There was no-one there more famous than Terry - it was a launch party for Turbo Dates so there were lots of writers and publicists and distributors.

A few things about the house stuck in our minds. The plaque commemorating the $960,000,000 box office gross of At World's End. The handwritten note of gratitude from Gore Verbinsky (just lying around - Terry is a trusting man!). The mix CD from Johnny Depp. The Upper Hot Tub (yes, there was more than one hot tub).

The party passed its peak and eventually we said our goodbyes, asking Terry for a photo before we left. We went to sleep that night with glorious satisfaction.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire#34 at time of writing.

A blaze of colour, great music, endearing characters, and compelling themes - this explodes onto the screen. Its jagged mix of Bollywood schmaltz, gameshow capitalism, and Danny Boyle grit is like nothing you've seen before.

An impoverished Indian teen becomes a contestant on the Hindi version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, and is arrested on suspicion of cheating. The police interrogation reveals that the tragic events of his life provided the answers, as if it was fated.

It falls just shy of a 10/10 for me, at least on the first viewing. Why? I think it's because you know exactly how the film is going to play out after the first five minutes. Which, I guess, is appropriate in a film about destiny. But it didn't stop me from feeling a little... impatient for the first half-hour or so.

Still, undeniably, a masterpiece.

Some fun trivia:

The production company has arranged for a rickshaw driver to take the three child actors (who, by the way, are flawless in this film) to school every day until they are 16 years old.

And Chris Tarrant, host of the original Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, featured in Danny Boyle's debut film Shallow Grave as the host of another TV quiz show 'Lose A Million'.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Departed

The Departed#49 at time of writing.

Martin Scorsese's remake of Hong Kong gangster flick Infernal Affairs is epic, powerful, and only occasionally indulgent. There's a terrific cast (although it's tempting to imagine an alternative universe in which Pacino and De Niro 20 years ago starred), and a fantastic set-up: a gangster mole in the police force and an undercover cop in the gang are both trying to find each other out.

The tension is kept sky-high, the plot has more twists than a candy-cane, and the acting is second-to-none. Both the critics and the box-office loved it: It won the Best Picture Oscar (the movie with the most uses of the F-word to do so), and it's the highest-grossing Scorsese film.

A small gripe - I don't normally spot continuity errors, but it is hard not to in this film; there are little bits of sloppiness everywhere.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

You've Been A Long Way Away. Thank You For Coming Back To Me

Well, it's been nearly two years since my last post. In that time, Britain got Brown; London got Boris; America got Obama; and I got married.

I've been quite busy really. I don't think I've had a free evening since Ratatouille. And now - on top of my full-time job, writing group, Film Club, Go Club, prison volunteering, and keeping up with friends and family - I've started an MA in Creative Writing.

Well, busy-ness begets busy-ness, so it's high time I added something else to my to-do list and started blogging again.