Big Things Have Small Beginnings

It should be noted that if you haven’t seen ‘Prometheus’, you shouldn’t be reading this…at all.

By now, for most of you, the cat is out of the bag. Ridley Scott’s long-awaited return to sci-fi has well and truly landed and has thus far split critics and fans right down the middle. To be fair to Scott, I’m fairly sure that this reaction is exactly what he expected, and more to the point, what he had hoped for. There are always going to be haters. Some people even seem to like to hate, because it makes them seem cool, or whatever. Hell, I can almost guarantee that when ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ drops in six weeks time, the first people to turn their noses up at it will be the relentless Nolanophiles who have deconstructed every pixel of every photograph on every website. As discussed in my previous blog regarding ‘Prometheus’, the most anticipated blockbusters are becoming more and more succeptable to an almost unrealistic standard of expectation. While ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ will find it easier to tick people’s boxes for the simple reason that it is the ‘epic conclusion’ to a franchise that is only seven years old, the public reaction (so far) to ‘Prometheus’ can be partially attributed to the fact that this is Scott’s first venture into sci-fi since 1982. Let it be known, I am in no way using that fact as an excuse for anything. In fact, the last thing I want is for this piece to come across as defensive. I’m very much of the mind that the film does just fine speaking for itself.

prometheus

(more…)

Prometheus: A victim of it’s own hype?

I hate to refer to the economy to begin a piece, but, in the midst of this ‘double dip’ recession, it seems that more people than usual are turning to their friendly neighbourhood cinema for an experience to make them feel good about themselves. Ironically, this is one of the more expensive routes to happiness, but it has to be noticed that more and more people are going to the cinema regardless of the apparent lack of money that everyone is going on about.

‘The Hunger Games’ is approaching $700 million at the worldwide box-office. ‘The Avengers’ has recently cruised past the $1 billion mark and will only be slowed by a brief MIB3 shaped blockade, and will most probably be almost brought to a halt by ‘Prometheus’ next week. Saying that, the 12A certificate held by ‘The Avengers’ may mean it still draws huge numbers as opposed to the mass-appreciated ’15′ with with ‘Prometheus’ was bold enough to accept. Who’s to say? All I know is that come July 20th, ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ will leave all of these films in a very large, loud, Batwing sized wake. All of these massive films in just the first seven months of 2012.

In our efforts to embrace escapism wherever possible though, are these heavy-hitters becoming victims of their own hype? And whose fault is that?

Prometheus

(more…)

The Work of Sasha Baron Cohen: A Blurred Line Between Mockumentary and Documentary

SBC

Incredibly, the earliest notable uses of mockumentary conventions can be found only a few years after the term ‘documentary’ was coined. Going back as far as the 1930s, filmmakers were taking a medium largely used for the informative and ‘mocking’ it as a way of providing entertainment to a wide audience. Many would agree that the finest spoof-satire is that which fools a section of the audience into believing what they are seeing and hearing. This, of course, is virtually impossible in the modern era. Celebrity culture and the internet all but prohibits it. But in the earlier years of the 20th century, the moving image was still an exciting new development that found it easy to fool people.

Luis Bunuel’s ‘Land Without Bread’ was produced at a time when the word ‘documentary’ was barely a whisper, but Bunuel was bold enough to make a documentary about something entirely unfascinating (the poverty and culture of the Las Hurdes region of Spain). Coupled with a blasé yet somewhat sarcastically exaggerated narrative voice over and the use of Brahm’s 4th, Bunuel was able to entirely confuse audiences who could only have left screenings pondering the earnestness of the piece. So offended were the Spanish upon discovering the film’s parodical nature, they banned it for three years following the film’s release in 1933.

Almost 75 years later, documentary filmmakers were still causing a stir with the way they played on non-fictional situations. Sacha Baron Cohen in particular, has become a superstar as a result of his individual take on the documentary/mockumentary genre, for the paramount reason that the only entirely fictional element of his films is the central characters that he himself portrays. While his almost entirely improvised content is often funny in itself, the biggest laughs come in the form of the reactions of the ‘real’ people with which he interacts. The mockery of modern society is something that has been existent in comedy for decades, but Baron Cohen individually triumphs in the way that he toys with the comfort zones of others, often forcing members of the public into the most awkward conversational spots imaginable through a well-read use of sociocultural opinions and taboo violation.

The character of Borat and his skewed views of religion and politics was thrust into middle-America in the film, ‘Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan’ over the course of which he commits various solecisms; all caught on camera and all exposing of the stereotypical middle-American standpoint on God, homosexuality, and social status. So much so, that by the end of the the film it is difficult not to feel as if you have been somewhat educated to the ridiculousness of core groups of the American public, their beliefs, opinions, and the way they live their lives. It is this point in particular that forces one to consider Baron Cohen’s films as a credible form of documentary filmmaking as well as a box-office comedy smash.

Bill Nichols comments on documentary story telling in his book, ‘Introduction to Documentary’. He states that ‘to the extent a documentary tells a story, the story is a plausible representation of what happened rather than an imaginative interpretation of what happened’. While this statement separates documentary storytelling from other filmic forms, it isn’t able to define the sub-genre that Baron Cohen’s works belong to. ‘Borat’ cannot be lumped into the mockumentary genre based purely on the fact that the only thing fictional in the film is the central character; the definition of mockumentary being ‘fictitious events presented in the documentary format’.

A more definitive example of the true mockumentary format would be the works of Christopher Guest who over the years has created endless memorable, lifelike characters and realistically imagined worlds for them to reside in. As an esteemed artist himself, Guest has scripted, directed and starred in a variety of films that satire musicians (‘This Is Spinal Tap’, ‘A Mighty Wind’), dramatists (‘Waiting For Guffman’, ‘For Your Consideration’) and even proud dog owners (‘Best In Show’), all through what has become a trademark use of the mockumentary form. The difference between Guest’s mockumentaries and others though, is that he never intends to fool the audience into believing the film to be anything other than a form of entertainment that uses the documentary format as a comedic device.

Based on Guest’s firm grasp on the mockumentary and Nichols’ definition of what constitutes documentary, it almost humourously leads one to assume that the likes of ‘Borat’ (and more recently ‘Bruno’) lend themselves more to the documentary genre than any other. If we are to conclude this though, it cannot be without acknowledging the fact that Baron Cohen’s use of a deeply thought out but fictional central character is almost entirely individual to his films alone.
More so with Borat than Bruno or even Ali G, an entire biographical back story is given to these characters. Why this is so integral to Baron Cohen’s comedy is for two reasons. Firstly, by writing and then (in front of the camera) diligently living by the history of the character, it enables Baron Cohen (as an actor) to be able to form a continuous cohesion with regards to the humour of the character, committing the beliefs and practices of his comic creation to any social situation he might find himself in.

Secondly, when performing the character as a relative unknown outside of the UK, it made Baron Cohen dreadfully difficult to ‘catch out’. Though most of the people he found himself in contact with were more often than not less intelligent than he, on frequent occasions he was forced to defend himself with the sharpest of wit and most inescapable conviction. This mechanism is most evident in his portrayal of Ali G, a seemingly unintelligent character who would often interview politicians, clergy, and other intellectual figures. Baron Cohen, under the guise of ignorance, used his own intellectuality against his subjects who consistently took the ‘interviewer’ for granted. Just like the American public found themselves treating Borat like a toddler for the simple reason that he was ‘culturally different’, Baron Cohen allowed Ali G’s lack of intelligence to be taken advantage of until the point whereby he (Baron Cohen) could embarrass his subject into an awkward conversational corner from which there was no escape.

Should one not want to categorise Baron Cohen’s films as documentaries, it should be noted that these films draw parallels with modern reality programming; series such as ‘Jersey Shore’, ‘The Only Way Is Essex’ and ‘Made In Chelsea’. In programmes such as these, as impossible as it is to defend them, they are known for prefacing episodes with a caveat that reminds the viewer that although all the people in the show are ‘real’, some of what they do and say has been set up purely for entertainment. In a way, this is the artistic opposite of what Baron Cohen does, but in terms of realism probably the closest in comparison. The difference being that in films like ‘Borat’, all but one of the people on screen are ‘real’, and the scenes that are ‘set up purely for entertainment’ are only known to the actor portraying the fictional character while the rest of the cast (if you can call Baron Cohen’s unaware public that) are forced to partake and react in a way that is entirely unrehearsed and in no way predetermined.

The reason for the unprecedented success of films like Borat and Bruno may well be down to the same factor that makes these types of television series such massive hits. The viewing public enjoy watching a live reaction. Whereas reality programming has evolved from the likes of ‘Big Brother’ and now seems to predominantly focus on groups of rich youngsters and their playground romances, Baron Cohen has adopted and confirmed the notion that it is far more appealing to use this unrehearsed format as a means for comedic exploitation. Despite the fact that Borat is an entirely fictional character with an entirely fictional set of beliefs and opinions, if we are comparing this film to the likes of ‘Made In Chelsea’ et al, you would be hard pressed to argue that the former is in any way less real in its depictions of actual people. While the entire cast of a reality show are forced to enter certain predetermined situations and say certain things, Baron Cohen enters conversations as a lone wolf and uses his fictional portrayal to coax an honest reality out of his unsuspecting subjects.

In recent history, other satirists that have risen to popularity as a result of this type of reactional comedy include Chris Morris and Paul Kaye. Like Baron Cohen, they used the documentary format as a front to such an effective extent that over the course of the only season of ‘Brasseye’ (a nightly news parody) Morris was able to convincingly trick a range of respected celebrities into supporting varied causes such as a crackdown on a fictional drug from the Czech Republic and even a spoof charity organisation called ‘Nonce Sense’ that was ‘set up’ to protect children from paedophiles. Kaye similarly was famous for disguising himself as celebrity interviewer Dennis Pennis and crashing red carpets and press junkets at venues as reputable as the Cannes Film Festival where he managed to gain access to the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis.
It is probable that Morris especially was a hefty influence on Baron Cohen’s work. Morris’ willingness to destroy taboos at Channel 4 (where Ali G first appeared) tore the wall down in terms of what comedians could get away with presenting, and also highlighted a type of comedy that not only attracted viewers, but caused media controversy. Never one to shy away from controversy himself, Baron Cohen has used controversy to his ultimate advantage, using it to create a media buzz around his films before they are even released. Whereas controversy surrounded Morris following the airing of his content, Baron Cohen is known for using it as an advertising ploy. Most recently, he appeared on the Academy Awards red carpet as his newest character ‘Admiral General Aladeen’ where he proceeded to spill an urn onto television personality Ryan Seacrest which Aladeen said contained the ashes of form North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il.

While Sacha Baron Cohen is not the inventor of his specific comedic craft, he has certainly refined it in the last ten years. He would probably be the first to admit that he owes much to those that came before him, but through an informed and effective use of delivery tactics, improvisation and strategic situational positioning (Borat’s venture to middle-America being the best example of this), not to mention his brash, in-character advertising stunts, he has made a name for himself not only in the realms of modern comedy, but in the smallest sub-genre of amusingly exploitive documentary filmmaking.

Better Late Than Never: A Look Back At The 23 Best Films of 2011

title

Finally, an extensive look at my Top 23 Films of 2011 and why. ‘But it’s February?’, I hear you ask. I know, I know, I’ve been slack, ok! Better late than never I say. And besides, the list kept changing! Before we begin, I ask that you please forgive the fact that some of the writing will seem pre-dated. I began putting this particular blog together well over a month ago (yikes). Off we go then, Thisfilmisonners! (more…)

Academy Award Nominations Preview + Predictions

Usually, in this first paragraph I tend to waffle on about prediction techniques and voting bodies. In fact, I wrote a few paragraphs about just that last night, but tablets being tablets, somehow my draft wasn’t saved. Be thankful, faithful reader, as it really was just a load of fanboy/voting body waffle. I’m waffling, aren’t I?

I only ask that you remember what makes the Academy Awards so prestigious and so exciting. They are voted for by the most qualified of filmmaking specialists, all of which have either won or have been nominated for an Academy Award themselves. On top of that, they are peers to every nominee that will be announced tomorrow afternoon in Los Angeles. And as many acceptance speeches in February will acknowledge, there’s no greater honour in film than being recognised by your peers.

Before I unveil my (I’d like to think educated) predictions to you here, exclusively on Thisfilmison.com, I’d just like to raise the point that I personally feel it has been an especially exceptional year for filmmaking. In Hollywood, and as far as Iran, stories have been told in the most beautiful fashions throughout the last 12 months. So much so that my Top Ten list had to be expanded to a Top 25 just to be able to recognise the films that I felt were the best. Twenty-damn-five, which is part of the reason that I haven’t published it yet. It will surface soon, in depth, I promise you.

On to the serious business though. Deserved films and performances will be acknowledged tomorrow, and some will be left out. The ugly truth is that there just isn’t room for everyone, which sad as that may be, does make for an extremely tense and incredibly exciting ten minutes as the Academy prepares to unveil their annual nominations. Without further ado…

oscar
(more…)

Golden Globes Preview

Finally, the first big night of awards season is upon us. The critics associations have more or less had their say, and it’s been wide open. Even with ‘The Artist’ claiming the majority of the buzz at the moment, it’s still anybody’s award to win, in almost every category. Prestige that seemed secured only a month ago has been scattered to the wind as latecomers like ‘War Horse’ and ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’ have fought tooth and nail to find themselves smack dab in the middle of the tightest overall race in a fair few years. The latter providing an unexpected Directors’ Guild nomination for David Fincher and as a result thrusting ‘Tattoo’ into the Best Picture…erm…picture.

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association have included more than a fair share of heavyweight productions in their nominations for their two Best Picture categories, and also given true, quality comedies a chance to shine this year in the form of ’50/50′ and ‘Bridesmaids’. With all to play for, and excellence oozing in every category, let’s have a look at how things could prospectively pan out from 0100 GMT, a time of night familiar to all you awards buzz-heads.

gg
(more…)

“We just come from a bad place.” – a look at Steve McQueen’s ‘Shame’

Over the last few years or so, it seems that the meaning of taboo has gotten lost. For the most part, we have become desensitised to extreme violence and sexual content. Hell, violence is becoming forever sexualised, with sex being occasionally and manipulatively violencised (I’m not the first person on the internet to ever use that word before). And religion? You can pretty much say or depict it in any way you please without hardly offending anyone, it seems. That infamous scene in 1971′s ‘Straw Dogs’ has become entirely socially irrelevant. In fact, not only has it been all but forgotten about, it’s been remade this past year to the sound of little controversy. Where a certain film’s graphic scenes of torture once ignited conversation about how they made us squirm, we all now laugh at the many sequels that followed, praising the most creative ways in which a filmmaker can take a life. So what is left to shock us? What is left to challenge our principles and arouse what is left of our senses?

shame

(more…)

The Fighter: The Best Damn Sports Film Of The Year

One of the more interesting angles you can take when putting together a film that is intended for a wider appeal is that of a hard-hitting family drama. ‘The Blind Side’, anyone? That’s right. We all remember the 2010 Best Picture nominee that took white people and black people, football and family, threw them all into a Sandra Bullock powered mixer and ended up raking in over a quarter of a billion dollars at the US box office. That staggering figure was based purely on a wide appeal. Susie Homemaker-mothers saw the trailer and instantly bundled their tough-guy, Coach Carter of a husband and four strapping quarterback sons into the Town & Country, and it was off to the multiplex. ‘This will be nice,’ she thought. I can only imagine the increasing moisture in the corner of her eye as Leigh Anne ‘intimidates’ some ghetto hoods by threatening that if they were to be threatening her son they would in turn be threatening her also. Realistically, following her emotionally charged street outburst we would have witnessed a nine pressed firmly against her forehead as she began to cry and beg pitifully for her life. Now THAT’S hard-hitting family drama.

fighter

(more…)

Pete Postlethwaite 1946-2011

As the holiday season draws to a close, the only phrase that has been echoing in my mind since the news of Pete Postlethwaite’s passing is ‘the gift that keeps on giving’. Over the course of a career spanning 40 years, hard-hitting professionalism was as invented as it was redefined. Steven Spielberg called him ‘the greatest actor in the world’, and most would ponder intensely before dismissing that claim.

pete

Born in Lancashire in 1946 to Roman-Catholic parents, Postlethwaite trained as a teacher before briefly teaching drama in Manchester. He proceeded to train as an actor at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

(more…)

The Year That Comedy Dies And Drama Thrives: Golden Globes

It’s been too long, my dear friends. Firstly, let me briefly apologise for my lack of content over the last year. As important as my writing is to me, I just haven’t been able to find the time to keep my blog going with the consistency that it had this time last year. Saying that, it’s awards season.

Following the first few critics’ associations pitching in with their end-of-year awards, today brings the first real signs of spring. The Golden Globe nominations were announced this morning and let me tell you, there were some truly shocking inclusions as well as some pleasantly surprising (but half-expected) ones. Sitting comfortably? The Thisfilmison Road To The Oscars begins now…

    BEST MOTION PICTURE – DRAMA

BLACK SWAN
THE FIGHTER
INCEPTION
THE KING’S SPEECH
THE SOCIAL NETWORK

Four out of these five were no-brainers. ‘The Social Network’ has been cleaning up at the critics’ awards so far so will be regarded as the front runner by a whisker, but only because ‘The King’s Speech’ is yet to receive it’s general release. Early reviewers have been nothing short of astounded with Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush’s performances being hailed as ‘magnificent’, so expect a heavily contested race come January.

(more…)

Older Posts »