Cinema Festivals London Film Festival

LFF 2013: Gravity

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in Gravity - Image courtesy of Warner Bros 2013

Director Alfonso Cuaron returns after seven year absence from cinema with an exhilarating journey into outer space that sets new standards for visual effects.

When a seemingly routine US mission to fix the Hubble telescope goes disastrously wrong, two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) find themselves floating alone above the earth.

Like his last film, the dystopian drama Children of Men (2006), Cuaron and his crew have come up with a highly inventive approach to story, using a stunning blend of camera work and visual effects to create a chilling plausible dystopian world.

Whilst his latest doesn’t have the thematic depth of that film, it remains a gripping thrill ride, utilising cutting edge technology to elicit human emotion and create a powerful tale of survival.

For most of the film we are with a stranded Bullock as she struggles to find a way back home and this is her best role in years. She makes a convincing astronaut but also channels a wide range of emotions from panic to resolve.

As for Clooney, his character is cleverly used and he brings his usual charm and screen presence to his role as a veteran spaceman. An off-screen voice cameo from Ed Harris is a tip of the hat to his famous role in the last major space drama, Apollo 13 (1995).

For Cuaron this is another step in his chameleon-like career, which has included genres such as fantasy, Charles Dickens, the road movie, Harry Potter and sci-fi. Here he takes a bold step into the world of digital cinema and 3D and the result is as impressive as his previous work.

To describe Gravity as science fiction doesn’t feel right quite right.

For most of its lean 87 minute running time it feels terrifyingly realistic, even if in retrospect some of the narrow escapes feel a little bit too last second.

But make no mistake, this is a truly groundbreaking film with highly innovative camera work from Cuaron’s regular cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and stunning visual effects supervised by Tim Webber of Framestore (a previous collaborator).

The extraordinary long take that begins the film sets a marker for what is to come with shots of the various space craft and earth below that are a marvel to behold on a big screen.

Using a complex mixture of camera rigs, LED lighting panels, groundbreaking CGI and even puppeteers from the stage version of War Horse, the zero gravity of outer space is brilliantly realised, with the earth below just as convincing.

Cuaron and his team have wisely opted to use technology in service of the central story, which was perhaps the reason they opted for such a lean premise, and the result is a pure fusion of technology and emotion.

Sound, silence and a dramatic score by Steven Price also play a critical role in creating the extraordinary atmosphere of the film.

Although time will inevitably lead to more advanced visual effects, Gravity will still represent a landmark in modern cinema.

In a time of great uncertainty and opportunity for the medium, it represents how more traditional directors can utilise digital tools to tell a spellbinding story.

Gravity screened at the London Film Festival on Thursday 10th and Friday 11th October

(It opens in the UK on Friday 8th November)

> Official site
> Reviews of Gravity at Metacritic

Awards Season Interesting

The Hollywood Reporter’s Actor’s Roundtable 2011

The Hollywood Reporter have posted the full video of their awards season round table with various actors in this year’s Oscar race.

It includes George Clooney (The Descendants and The Ides of March), Christopher Plummer (Beginners), Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Christoph Waltz (Carnage), Albert Brooks (Drive) and Nick Nolte (Warrior).

As you can imagine this kind of gathering makes for a pretty fascinating discussion, especially as it lasts just over an hour:

It zig and zags across various issues but here’s a mini-breakdown of the highlights:

  • Oldman on being asked to play Charles Manson, the influence of his mother and the Bryan Forbes film that inspired a
  • Plummer on playing King Lear on stage, the most challenging role he’s played, being 80 and what makes actors great.
  • Clooney on becoming an actor, the career of his aunt Rosemary Clooney and making challenging films.
  • Nolte on getting old, 48 Hours, not finding work, repertory theatre companies and a great story about Barry Lyndon.
  • Brooks on the psychology of stardom, why Jack Benny was his idol and the overall social value of acting.
  • Waltz on finding success relatively late in his career, his roles after Inglourious Basterds and the nature of acting.

The Hollywood Reporter
> Latest on the awards season at Awardsdaily and In Contention

Cinema Reviews Thoughts

The Ides of March

A wonkish but highly efficient political drama provides George Clooney the chance to pay tribute to his favourite era of filmmaking.

Adapted from Beau Williams’ stage play Farragut North, the basic story is a cocktail loosely inspired by the skulduggery of recent US presidential primaries.

It focuses on a young, ambitious strategist (Ryan Gosling) who is assisting his campaign boss (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in getting an inspirational Democratic candidate (George Clooney) elected.

With the Republican field bare, the primary takes on extra significance, especially when a rival campaign manager (Paul Giamatti), a journalist (Marisa Tomei) and an intern (Evan Rachel Wood) start to pose ethical and moral dilemmas.

With a script credited to Williams, Clooney and Grant Heslov, it seems to be a deliberate attempt to apply the weary but wise tone of classic 70s cinema to recent times.

It offers up an approach that seems to draw on the best work of directors such as Alan Pakula and Sidney Lumet, with moral ambiguity, composed framing and a considered use of long takes all adding to the atmosphere.

Clooney has admitted that he delayed making this film until the brief tidal wave of hope that got Obama elected subsided and there is no doubt that this is trying to capture the dynamics of modern politics with an eye to the past.

It even appears to draw from some of the drama of the 2008 Democratic primary campaign, as well as its 2004 predecessor in which Williams worked for presidential hopeful Howard Dean.

Throughout the film is peppered with neat little political references, be it the Shepherd Fairey Obama poster, Eisenhower’s campaign slogan (‘I Like Ike‘ crosses party lines to become ‘I Like Mike’) and there is a great line about an ‘unofficial rule’ for Democratic candidates (which I wont spoil here).

It seems the writers and crew have been absorbing documentaries as D.A. Pennebaker’s The War Room, reading dishy campaign books such as Race of a Lifetime by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, whilst blending them in with current disillusionment about the US political system.

For non-political junkies, this occasionally veers into territory that some might consider arcane, with operatives discussing strategies, insider websites and how a story might be killed or resurrected (then killed again), which might leave some audience members cold.

The original title of the play refers to a Washington metro station near to where veteran campaign operatives ‘retire’ to create lucrative political consulting firms.

But Clooney has opted to widen the scope of the material: the new Shakespearean title (which both refers to Julius Caesar and Super Tuesday) and the emphasis on themes of loyalty give it a relevance beyond a particular campaign or country.

One of the most immediately pleasurable aspects of the film is the pacing of the narrative, which starts off brisk and then sucks you into the unfolding drama, courtesy of the script and Stephen Mirrione’s brisk, efficient editing.

Shooting on location in Ohio and Michigan has paid off handsomely, as the bleak wintry landscapes not only feel realistic but seem an appropriate backdrop for the actions of the central characters.

This is probably one of the most dazzling Hollywood ensembles in quite some time: Gosling is believable as the brilliant but naive protagonist; Clooney exudes the charm and ambition of a serious candidate; Seymour Hoffman and Giamatti excel as the weary but wise campaign managers and Wood and Tomei are convincing in small but key roles.

If there is a flaw with the casting, it is that actors of the quality of Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Ehle are limited to very minor roles.

Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael skilfully channels the desaturated look of 70s dramas like Three Days of the Condor, The Conversation and to create a strong visual palette for the movie.

One particular influence appears to be Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate, which starred Robert Redford as a hopeful Democratic candidate: it would make an interesting double bill with this film.

As an actor-director making serious movies inside the Hollywood system, Clooney is in some ways a modern day Redford and both films present fascinating depictions of ends justifying the means, both in politics and art.

Another film that offers an interesting comparison with this is Michael Clayton, a 2007 corporate thriller which itself was heavily indebted to Pakula’s conspiracy trilogy of the 1970s, only in The Ides of March it is Clooney in the Sydney Pollack (or maybe Tom Wilkinson?) role and Gosling in the Clooney part.

This isn’t quite on the same level as Tony Gilroy’s film, let alone its 70s forebears,  but it nonetheless offers us a darker-than-usual depiction of power, politics and the reality of grasping the White House from your ideological enemies .

The score by Alexander Desplat is suitably brooding and atmospheric, without ever overpowering the action on screen and combined with some clever sound editing, makes for some highly effective moments.

If The West Wing represented a fantasy of what the Clinton presidency could have been (and oddly predicted the Obama candidacy), The Ides of March perhaps represents a more realistic depiction of where American politics is at on the eve of the 2012 presidential election.

After Obama’s historic win of 2008, the country is more bitterly divided than ever: tea party lunacy fuelled by internet nonsense jostles with Wall Street occupiers feeling betrayed by the faith their Baby Boomer parents put in the governments of the last 30 years.

With both political parties and the current system seemingly paralysed by an inability to reform the financial system, a drama like this feels weirdly appropriate for the current times in which we live.

By showing the compromises and skulduggery on the campaign trail, it mirrors the bleak reality of politicians once they are in actually in power and the crushed dreams of the present era.

> Official site
> Reviews from Venice and Toronto at MUBi and Metacritic
> More on the play Farragut North at Wikipedia (Spoilers)

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Reviews

LFF 2011: The Descendants

A comedy-drama set in Hawaii marks a triumphant return for director Alexander Payne after a seven year absence and provides George Clooney with arguably his best ever role.

Adapted from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemming, it explores the thorny emotional dilemmas facing landowner Matt King (George Clooney) after his wife is involved in a serious boating accident.

He also has to deal with his two young daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) and the lucrative sale of ancestral land but when secrets emerge about the recent past he is forced to reexamine his life.

It seems odd that after all the critical and awards success of his last film, Alexander Payne should take seven years to make another, but the late 2000s indie collapse may have played a part.

I’m happy to report that The Descendants maintains his remarkable run of films that begun with Citizen Ruth (1996) and continued with Election (1999), About Schmidt (2002) and Sideways (2004).

Like those it masterfully blends sharp wit with heartfelt emotion, exploring the nuances of family relationships with an intelligence rarely seen in mainstream US cinema.

This has been a Payne trademark but the setting here provides a distinct visual flavour as well as an integral feature of the story, whilst the ensemble cast is outstanding.

Clooney in the lead role gives arguably his best ever performance, dialling down his natural charm to convey the confusion of a husband and father confronted with some harsh emotional truths about those he loves and – most importantly – himself.

Reminiscent of his best acting work in Out of Sight, Solaris, Michael Clayton and Up in the Air, he conveys a certain vulnerability whilst delivering the comic moments with consummate skill.

He is ably supported by what is one of the best supporting casts in recent memory.

The young actresses who play his immediate family members are terrific.

Woodley is a convincingly tempestuous but wise teenager, Miller as her younger sister is believably innocent and Clooney’s familial chemistry with them form the bedrock of the film.

There are also memorable turns from Robert Forster as a gruff father-in-law, Beau Bridges as a relaxed relative (seemingly channelling his brother Jeff as a Hawaiian Lebowski), Nick Krause as one of the daughter’s boyfriend, Matthew Lillard as an opportunistic real estate agent and Judy Greer as his loving wife.

None of these finely tuned performances would be possible without the screenplay by Payne (with credited co-screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) which laces the gravity of the central situation with some brilliantly executed humour.

The way the central dramatic scenario is blended with the characters and the wider themes of inheritance and time feel like a masterclass in screenwriting.

Payne’s directorial execution is exemplary.

He has always demonstrated a keen eye for small, revealing details: the ballot papers in Election, the letters in About Schmidt or the TV clip of The Grapes of Wrath in Sideways.

Similarly, The Descendants is also filled with wonderful, human flourishes.

Payne sprinkles them throughout the film with relish and without giving away spoilers, particular highlights feature a swimming pool, a black eye, a sneaky kiss and a farewell speech.

Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography is reminiscent of his work on Sideways, creating interesting interior compositions and contrasting them with some gorgeous widescreen exterior work.

Hawaii isn’t always presented here as a picture postcard paradise – an opening monologue shrewdly debunks its glamour (“Paradise can go f**k itself”) – but nonetheless it forms a beautifully telling backdrop to the narrative as the climax nears.

Payne has admitted that he spent months editing the film with Kevin Tent and it pays off as the comic and dramatic beats are timed to perfection, whilst the Hawaiian flavoured musical score gives the film a distinctive mood and texture.

It is also an interesting depiction of the Aloha state, drilling deeper into the heart of the place than TV shows which have used it as a backdrop (e.g. Hawaii Five-O or Magnum P.I.) and even more recent movies such as Punch-Drunk Love (2002), which was partly set there.

His early work often focused on his home state of Nebraska, but he has always managed to find universal truths within particular locations.

This is the case in his latest film as the family dilemmas are at once specific and yet embedded within the culture of America’s newest state.

Mainstream cinema often can’t resist cliché whatever the genre, so it is doubly satisfying to find a filmmaker who excels in combining light and shade whilst using intelligent humour to enhance the gravity of the central narrative.

Strangely, it also plays like a reverse Michael Clayton: both lead characters are lawyers with relationship issues, but have to deal with very different financial circumstances.

Payne has long been a fan of classic 1970s cinema and where Tony Gilroy’s film channelled the spirit of Alan Pakula, this goes for a more bitter-sweet vibe reminiscent of Hal Ashby.

With strong reviews on the festival circuit and the marketing skills of Fox Searchlight behind it, The Descendants is likely to be a major player in the end of year awards season, but it is much more than just token Oscar bait.

In what happens to have been a year filled with remakes and sequels from the mainstream studios, this shows that Hollywood can still produce work which appeals to the brain as well as the heart.

The Descendants screens at the London Film Festival on Sunday (23rd) and Monday (24th) before opening in the US on November 18th and in the UK on January 27th

> Official site
> Festival reviews of The Descendants at MUBi


Trailer: The Descendants

A new film from director Alexander Payne is a pretty big deal, especially since he hasn’t made one since Sideways (2004).

The new trailer has now surfaced for The Descendants, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings about a land baron (George Clooney) trying to re-connect with his two daughters after his wife slips into a coma.

It also stars Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges and Robert Forster.

Fox Searchlight will be hoping for awards season action when it gets released stateside in December and although a UK release is TBC, I would imagine it would open around January or February.

> Official site
> The Descendants at the IMDb
> HD versions of the trailer at Apple

Cinema Reviews Thoughts

The American

Anton Corbijn’s second film as a director is a stylish, existential drama about an enigmatic American hiding out in a remote Italian town.

Beginning with a prologue in wintry Sweden, we first see the titular character, Jack (George Clooney), as circumstances force him to relocate to the Abruzzo region in Italy.

There we slowly learn more about him: he makes a rifle for an assassin (Thekla Reuten) under the orders of his handler (Johan Leysen), befriends a priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and falls for a local prostitute (Violante Placido), as he begins to think about changing his life.

Although The American appears to be channelling the minimalist crime dramas of Jean-Pierre Melville (especially Le Samouraï), the form and structure resemble a Sergio Leone western, with its story of a stranger arriving in a new town, extended silences and widescreen visuals.

Careful viewers may note that Leone’s Once Upon A Time in The West can be seen on a television in one sequence and that some of his westerns were shot in the same region back in the 1960s.

Despite the crime elements, this is not an action movie and is essentially a suspense drama revolving around Jack’s gradual construction of a gun and his relationships with various characters, who may or may not be trusted.

It is also deliberately ambiguous about various elements: Jack is a gunsmith but could also be a hit man; a group of characters are simply referred to as ‘the Swedes’; and there is the mystery of why the gun is being constructed.

As a vehicle for Clooney, this is an unusually European film – despite being a US/UK production – and the slow burn pacing and gradual revelations will probably limit its appeal to a mass audience.

The trailer and TV spots have misleadingly sold it as an action thriller (Corbijn recently said that he directed the film ‘but not the trailer’) but its respectable opening in the US probably meant the box office ends were justified by the marketing means.

But there is much to appreciate and right from the opening sequence Corbijn and his cinematographer Martin Ruhe, working together again after Control, demonstrate their considerable visual abilities.

The snowy landscapes of Sweden and the misty, old world charms of rural Italy are captured with exquisite clarity and the artful compositions are often stunning.

Rowan Joffe’s screenplay appears to have some key differences with the novel it’s based on (A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth), but the sparse dialogue provides a neat fit for Corbijn’s visual approach.

Clooney is in downbeat mode, but like his performances in Michael Clayton and Syriana it plays against his usual charming screen persona and he convincingly conveys the weary solitude of the central character.

The supporting characters tend to fit in to types: the impossibly soulful and glamorous prostitute, the wise old priest and the impatient boss, but the actors who play them are convincing.

Their chemistry with Clooney also works well, be it in the unusually frank sex scenes, chats in the graveyard, gun tests in the forest or sinister conversations in a restaurant.

Another captivating aspect is how the rifle is actually constructed. Corbijn depicts Jack’s handiwork in detail as each part is assembled with a loving care that contrasts with its ultimate use as an instrument of death.

There is also an effective sense of unease that is gradually teased throughout the film, as everyday events gain a sinister edge due to the danger and mistrust involved in the business of killing people.

This atmosphere is enhanced by Herbert Gronemeyer‘s minimal, atmospheric piano-and-percussion score which, like the poster, evokes the tone of similar films from the 1970s.

As with his debut feature, Corbijn has crafted another considered and tasteful film.

Although the cool, European flavour won’t be for everyone, it bodes very well for his future career as a director.

The American opens in the UK on Friday 26th November

> Official site
> The American at the IMDb
> Reviews of The American at Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes
> Interview with Violante Placido about The American

Cinema Interviews Podcast

Interview: Violante Placido on The American

The American is a new suspense thriller about a mysterious American named Jack (George Clooney) who arrives in a small Italian town after problems with a job in Sweden.

Whilst waiting for orders, he befriends a local priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and falls for for a local prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido), whilst taking on a new assignment to construct a new rifle for a professional assassin (Thekla Reuten).

Directed by Anton Corbijn, the film is a stylish, existential drama that harks back to the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, Michelangelo Antonioni and Sergio Leone.

I recently spoke with Violante Placido about her role the film and what it was like working with Corbijn and Clooney in the Abruzzo region of Italy.

You can listen to the interview here:


You can also listen to this interview as a podcast via iTunes or by downloading the MP3.

The American is out at UK cinemas from Friday 26th November

> Violante Placido at the IMDb
> Official site for The American

Events News

Up in the Air premiere on Livestream

The red carpet action at the US première of George Clooney’s new film Up in the Air was shown on Livestream earlier (above is a repeat).

Clooney plays a man employed to fire people, who spends most of his life at airports and on planes.

It is the third – and so far best – film directed by Jason Reitman with Oscar and BAFTA nominations a very strong possibility.

Clooney seemed to be getting into the spirit of things on the red carpet.

UITA Premiere on Livestream

Read my full thoughts on the film here.

> Official site for Up in the Air
> An interesting official Tweeting site for the film
> George Clooney and Jason Reitman at the IMDb

[Image via Rachel Sterne and Twitpic]

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Thoughts

LFF 2009: Up in the Air

Natalie (Anna Kendrick) and Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) in Up in the Air

The recession, human relationships, jobs and travel are just some of the issues explored in this smart, funny and thoughtful adaptation of Walter Kim’s 2001 novel.

When we first meet Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) in Up in the Air we discover that his job is to inform people that they no longer have theirs. Employed by an Omaha based company, his life is spent flying around the US firing people in a smooth and efficient manner because bosses want to outsource this awkward process.

Free of human relationships, he has become attached to frequent flyer miles and the buzz of being a master at living out of a suitcase. But when his boss (Jason Bateman) informs him that he must train a new recruit (Anna Kendrick) who is advocating firing people via video-link, things begin to change.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Up in the Air is how it makes you ponder gloomy subjects whilst you laugh at the jokes. Much of the film is a breezy, observational comedy with finely honed lead performances and sparkling dialogue. It feels like a road movie set amongst airports (a ‘plane movie’, in a sense) as the characters go on a literal and emotional journey across America.

Underneath the witty, often hilarious, surface lies a more serious and perceptive exploration about losing work and finding love. The script even updates the themes of the book to the current era (one sequence is dated as happening in February 2010) by having recently fired workers essentially play versions of themselves.

This potentially clunky device is weaved in skilfully (some audiences may miss it first time, although subconsciously it will register) and sets us up for the latter stages, which show an admirable restraint from the usual Hollywood resolutions. But before we reach that point, there is much to feast on.

Up in the Air PosterOne of the key selling points is George Clooney, a Hollywood star with the charm and wit of a bygone era. Given his commendable passion for doing different kinds of films (some behind the camera) it is easy to forget what a magnetic presence he can be as a screen actor.

With its one liners, speeches and sly underbelly of emotion, this is a role he was almost born to play and he delivers the goods in spades. Not since Out of Sight has he been this Clooneyesque. One line in particular (actually scripted by Reitman’s father) is an absolute zinger delivered to perfection, which you’ll know when you hear it as the whole cinema will be laughing.

In the key supporting roles Anna Kendrick (who first stood out in 2007’s Rocket Science) shows excellent timing as the peppy graduate keen to prove her worth whilst Vera Farmiga is a superb foil for Clooney as his air-mile obsessed love interest. Jason Bateman adds some sly touches as Clooney’s boss and there is a nice cameo from Sam Elliott (which may or may not be a reference to the 1988 thriller Shakedown – released in the UK as Blue Jean Cop – which also involves a plane and Elliott).

The technical aspects of the film are first rate across the board; with Dana Glaubetman‘s editing worthy of special mention as it helps keep proceedings ticking along beautifully. Jason Reitman co-wrote the script with Sheldon Turner and directs with an energetic but delicate touch. Compared to his previous films, it has the delicious wit of Thank You for Smoking and the unsentimental emotions of Juno, but actually surpasses both in terms of mixing up the light and heavy elements.

Unlike a lot of book to screen transitions the film arguably improves the central drama by throwing more profound doubts at the protagonist. I won’t spoil the final movement by revealing key details (because that would be silly) but I can’t help feeling it will provoke an interesting kaleidoscope of reactions.

When I saw it, an audience member in front of me was laughing loudly at some of the firing scenes (presumably unaware that the people on screen were drawing on recent painful experiences) and it raised some interesting questions. Is this a comedy or a drama? Is their laughter in pain and sadness in humour? How will mainstream audiences in a recession – for whom cinema is traditionally an escape – react to such a film?

Perhaps the human experience of life, work and relationships is bitter-sweet, no matter how rich, employed or happy you consider yourself to be. But that a film from a major Hollywood studio would probe such areas in such an entertaining way is refreshing, particularly as the laughter here provokes genuine thought rather than providing simple relief.

One idea that some audiences will possibly mull on as the end credits roll is that human relationships are what really counts in an increasingly impersonal and technology driven society. But I am not so sure that is the case, even if it is what the filmmakers intended. Wisely, the film leaves out the pat focus-group approved resolution.

Finally, if you actually stay until the very end credits (which audiences often don’t) you’ll hear something unexpected. I won’t reveal what happens but it sounds like the essence of the film, that of connections trying to be made in a world where they are increasingly drying up.

Like the movie, it is funny, sad and makes you think.

Up in the Air screens tonight, Monday and Tuesday at the London Film Festival and opens in the US on December 4th (wide release on Dec 25th) and in the UK on January 15th