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: 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?



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


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.

The Oscars – Predictions

It’s here, that day in the Hollywood calendar when Eddie Murphy finds himself with yet another day off. Yes, the 84th Academy Awards is this evening, and after last years Hathaway/Franco debacle, Billy Crystal is back as host for the ninth time. Chances are it’ll be a more familiar affair with less singing and less slurring than in recent years.  Of course, the reason you’re reading this post is you want to know who the winners and losers will be so I’ll crack on quickly so you can shoot off down to Ladbrokes for a last minute flutter. If you’ve been keeping abreast (yes Owen, a breast), of movie news lately you’ll know that The Artist has been picking up awards like Eddie Murphy picks up transvestite prostitutes. It’s difficult to see tonight being any different but there may just be one or two surprises. At least there might be in the categories where Michael Hazanavicius’ film isn’t nominated.

Crystal Gold

TV to Watch: Friday Night Lights

Sky Atlantic had its first anniversary last week, and in that time the channel has shown a wide range of critically acclaimed US shows such as The Sopranos, The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, Six Feet Under and Game of Thrones. Starting on Sky Atlantic tomorrow (14th) is probably my favourite US show of all time (bold statement I know), and that is Friday Night Lights. The show previously aired it’s first two seasons on ITV4 but now you will be able to watch the complete series for the first time in the UK (outside of watching the Region 1 DVDs as I did). Spanning five seasons Friday Night Lights explores the world of high school football in Dillon, Texas; a small town that thrives on football and worships the teenagers that play for the Dillon Panthers. So why should you watch it?

First of all it doesn’t matter if you have zero knowledge or interest in American football. I knew very little about the sport when I started watching the show, and five seasons later I know not much more about the rules of the game. Take it like this; you don’t need to be an expert in drug distribution or police surveillance work to enjoy The Wire and the same goes for the American football backdrop in FNL. It is part of the fabric of the show but it isn’t necessarily the real focus; the community, the kids in the team and family life is what matters here.

Friday Night Lights began as a book that tells the story of a high school team in Odessa, Texas in 1988 that was then adapted for the big screen by Peter Berg in 2004. The film scored an impressive five stars from Empire Magazine but didn’t even make $1 million in the UK (it made $61 million in the US). This is likely through poor distribution thanks to the American sport centric theme and a similar pattern can be seen with the recent baseball movie Moneyball, which despite awards buzz and a big name star with Brad Pitt, only made just over $1 million in the UK (and $75 million in the US). Sports themed movies are a hard sell if the sport isn’t popular, and this is probably why it has taken so long for FNL to properly hit UK screens at primetime. The show struggled for ratings in the US even, despite being a critical darling. It was only in its fifth and final season that the award nominations finally starting coming in, with Kyle Chandler (Super 8, King Kong) winning Best Actor at the 2011 Emmys for his role as Coach Eric Taylor.

At the centre of it all is Coach Eric Taylor and his wife Tami Taylor (Connie Britton -Spin City, American Horror Story) who are one of the best representations of a married couple to grace the screen, big or small. They fight, they laugh, they talk like real people and they also care about their jobs and the kids that they work with. Connie Britton played the role of the coach’s wife in the film Friday Night Lights and didn’t want to initially take the TV role, as her part in the film had been cut to shreds. Creator and director Peter Berg assured her this wouldn’t happen again, and he was correct as Tami Taylor is one of the strongest female characters that TV has ever seen. Coach Taylor is often a man of very few words, but when it comes to inspirational speeches he is king, and they will possibly leave you a little misty eyed.

The show is shot in a somewhat documentarian style, with the first episode really evoking this method. It’s not all shaky cam though so don’t worry about that. It is just something that adds to the realism. Shot on location in Austin, Texas, you get the sense of what this community is like and several of the minor speaking roles are played by non-actors; including the pastor and a jewellery shop owner adding to the authentic Texan feeling.

As it is set in a high school, you would expect a roster of stereotypical characters; the lead quarterback douchebag, the head cheerleader bitch, the bad boy, the arrogant one, the arty one, the one who doesn’t care about football, the slut and the nerd. While elements of all these characters exist, they play on these stereotypical elements; turning them on their head rather than having it as a central characteristic. Certain high school experiences are featured such as first loves won and lost, as well as social issues such as racism, financial woes and abortion. Don’t worry, it’s not an after school special and doesn’t lean towards the preachy.

Will you be watching? Have you seen the show before and want to watch it all over again? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

Friday Night Lights begins on Sky Atlantic Tuesday, February 14 at 8pm and you can watch the trailer here.

“Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose!”

Sundance 2012 Round Up

The Sundance Film Festival has the honour of being the first major festival of the New Year and also lands in the middle of awards season, when the conversation is focused on last year’s most important films. This could be considered a blessing, especially for those who are promoting new material whilst getting lauded for previous work, but it could also be quite distracting as the Oscar nominees proceeded to land in the middle of the festival diverting attention away.

So, let’s take a break from the awards season fare and look at what might feature in next year’s race or what either way will be hitting screens later this year. The nine films that I have chosen to showcase stood out for a variety of reasons and include comedy, drama and documentary. I have not seen trailers for any of these movies and was drawn to them because of the cast, the story and from festival buzz.


On Roman Polanski & Carnage

It’s hard to fathom that Roman Polanski has been making films for 50 years now. His early output was a revelation, making a name for himself with a unique brand of taut claustrophobic thrillers (See Knife in the Water/Repulsion). Seething with a palpable sense of anxiety, Polanski pushed his subjects to psychological breaking point with the enclosed surroundings amplifying the tension to almost unbearable levels. In short, they were bad places to be, especially if you happened to advocate bourgeois values. Downton Abbey, had it been made in 1960′s Poland probably would have had the entire cast holed up, soiled knickers and all, in the study with wolves roaming the corridors. It was in its mockery of the Bourgeoisie that European cinema was in its element. While never overtly political, Polanski revelled in using them as fodder. Even through visions of the American dream in Rosemary’s Baby & Chinatown, widely considered all-time greats, many of the hallmarks of his previous work shine through.

Blu-ray Preview: 30/1/2012

Unlike last week’s parade of mostly bland box office dead weight, this week sees a number of highly anticipated new Blu-ray releases. With numerous quality titles for your delectation, the end of January could bring with it some financial difficulties for those of us with a pathological need to ‘collect’.

First up this week is Nicholas Winding Refn’s 70’s throwback Drive.
Ryan Gosling - Poster boy

Blu-ray Preview: 23/1/12

Only those closest to me know that my full name is actually Bernard Lewis Raymond Swift. So, when Sony offered to name their latest technological leap after me, I was incredibly flattered. After a brief market scrap with the boringly titled HD DVD, B-Lew-Ray became the dominant HD home entertainment format of choice ,and as prices drop, the format is threatening to overtake DVD as the new standard.

Of course, fifty percent of that last paragraph was bull shit but I promise that what follows will be a combination of facts and personal opinions that will hopefully allow you to optomise your spending in this period of economic crisis. As you might expect, the weeks directly following the festive period tend to be a little thin on the ground regarding big releases but there is at least, this coming week, a vast cocktail of titles coming your way.

Five to watch out for in 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

The summer big noises speak for themselves;
Early glimpses of The Dark Knight Rises and Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien universe with Prometheus in IMAX & 3D respectively, look certain to be the years most complete cinematic experiences.
Elsewhere, you have a bumper fix of Marvel comic book action as the superhero equivalent of The Breakfast Club finally arrives in the form of The Avengers ,as well as a reboot of the oh so profitable Spider-Man franchise. Autumn/Winter will bring us Sam Mendes’ contribution to the Bond series in Skyfall, Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth in The Hobbit, ‘Tarantino does a western’ in Django Unchained and Baz Luhrmann’s intriguing 3D take on The Great Gatsby. There is plenty more to be excited about in 2012, but here are my ones to watch in the coming year:

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