22 July 2009

TIFF announces Documentary Lineup

The White Stripes Under Great White Northern Lights (D) Emmett Malloy, USA (World Premiere)
An intimate look inside The White Stripes' cross-Canada tour, as Jack and Meg White touch down in remote northern communities and surprising city venues.

Real to Reel
The Art of the Steal (D) Don Argott, USA (World Premiere)
This art-world whodunit investigates what happened to the Barnes collection of Post-Impressionist paintings—valued in the billions—that fell prey to a power struggle after the death of owner Albert Barnes.

Bassidji (D) Mehran Tamadon, Iran/France/Switzerland (International Premiere)
For three years, Mehran Tamadon immersed himself into the very heart of the most extremist supporters of the Islamic republic of Iran (the Bassidjis) to understand their ideas.

Cleanflix (D) Andrew James and Joshua Ligairi, USA (World Premiere)
The Mormon religion preaches against the content of R-rated films, so several Utah-based entrepreneurs started offering "clean" versions of Hollywood movies at specialty DVD stores. But the thriving industry runs into legal problems and its own sex scandal.

Collapse (D) Chris Smith, USA (World Premiere)
From the acclaimed director of American Movie, this portrait of radical thinker Michael Ruppert explores his apocalyptic vision of the future, spanning the crises in economics, energy, environment and more.

Colony (D) Carter Gunn and Ross McDonnell, Ireland (World Premiere)
Several beekeepers around the U.S. cope with colony collapse disorder - the phenomenon that has caused millions of bees to mysteriously disappear - in this beautifully shot debut from a gifted directing duo.

Google Baby (D) Zippi Brand Frank, Israel (International Premiere)
In India, the latest form of outsourcing is surrogate mothers who carry embryos for couples who can't have a child. Director Zippi Brand Frank follows an entrepreneur who proposes a new service - baby production for western customers.

How to Fold a Flag (D) Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein, USA (World Premiere)
The makers of Gunner Palace follow U.S. soldiers as they create new lives post-Iraq—from a Congressional candidate in Buffalo to a cage fighter in Louisiana—set against the backdrop of the 2008 election.

L'Enfer de Henri-Georges Clouzot (D) Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea, France (North American Premiere)
Film archivist Serge Bromberg uncovers a treasure trove of imagery from an unfinished film called L'Enfer starring Romy Schneider and directed by the French master Henri-Georges Clouzot, known for Wages of Fear and Diabolique.

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (D) Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, USA (World Premiere)
Daniel Ellsberg was a valued strategist inside the American government until he leaked the Pentagon Papers and exposed the lies of the Vietnam War. This thrilling documentary chronicles this momentous chapter in history and how Richard Nixon's obsession over the case brought down his own government.

Presumed Guilty (D) Roberto Hernández and Geoffrey Smith, Mexico (World Premiere)
Two young Mexican attorneys attempt to exonerate a wrongly convicted man by making a documentary. In the process, they expose the contradictions of a judicial system that presumes suspects guilty until proven innocent.

Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags (D) Marc Levin, USA (World Premiere)
Veteran filmmaker Mark Levin (Slam) looks at the past and present of New York's garment district, from its heyday as a base for immigrant labour and unions to its recent decline.

Snowblind (D) Vikram Jayanti, USA/United Kingdom (International Premiere)
Rachael Scdoris, a blind 23-year-old, doesn't let her disability stop her from competing in one of the most gruelling endurance contests in the world: the Iditarod dogsled race traversing 1,100 miles of Alaska's most rugged terrain. But being blind is only the start of her challenges.

The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls (D) Leanne Pooley, New Zealand (North American Premiere)
Fun, disarming and musically provocative, the Topp Twins are New Zealand's finest lesbian country-and-western singers and the country's greatest export since rack of lamb and the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy.

Videocracy (D) Erik Gandini, Sweden (North American Premiere)
This penetrating look at the media empire of Italy's prime minister Silvio Berlusconi reveals how his reality TV shows full of bikini-clad women enriched his friends and beguiled a nation.

Special Presentation
Good Hair (D) Jeff Stilson, USA (Canadian Premiere)
Rendered speechless by his daughter's question—"Daddy, how come I don't have good hair?"—comedian Chris Rock embarks on a quest to understand African American hair culture.

Sprockets Family Zone
Turtle: The Incredible Journey (D) Nick Stringer, United Kingdom/Austria/Germany (Canadian Premiere)

Join a logger heard turtle on an extraordinary journey through the fascinating underwater world and witness how changes in the oceans are affecting marine life in this beautiful and spectacular ocean adventure.


TIFF Announces Midnight Madness Lineup

Midnight Madness Opening Night
Jennifer's Body (D) Karyn Kusama, USA (World Premiere)
Jennifer's Body tells the story of small-town high-school student Jennifer (Megan Fox) who is possessed by a hungry demon and transitions from being "high school evil"—gorgeous (and doesn't she know it), stuck up and ultra-attitudinal—to the real deal: evil/evil. The glittering beauty becomes a pale and sickly creature jonesing for a meaty snack, and guys who never stood a chance with the heartless babe take on new lustre in the light of her insatiable appetite. Meanwhile, Jennifer's best friend, Needy (Amanda Seyfried), long relegated to living in Jennifer's shadow, must step-up to protect the town's young men, including her nerdy boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons). Written and executive produced by Oscar®-winner Diablo Cody (Juno).

A Town Called Panic (D) Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, Belgium/Luxembourg/France
(North American Premiere)
An outlandish animation style captures the absurd wit and surreal adventures of plastic toys Cowboy, Indian and Horse.

Bitch Slap (D) Rick Jacobson, USA (World Premiere)
In this campy action comedy from the creators of Xena and Hercules, three hot-blooded women try to uncover some booty in the desert using feminine charms, fists and machine guns.

Daybreakers (D) Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig, Australia/USA (World Premiere)
Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe and Sam Neill star in this sci-fi horror about a future populated by vampires where humans are the minority.

George A. Romero's Survival of the Dead (D) George A. Romero, Canada (World Premiere)
Master director George A. Romero returns to his world of the undead, this time pitting two feuding clans in the middle of the fallout of a zombie epidemic.

The Loved Ones (D) Sean Byrne, Australia (International Premiere)
A troubled teen's prom dreams are shattered by a series of painful events that take place under the mirrored disco ball, involving syringes, nails, power drills and a secret admirer in this wild mash-up of Pretty in Pink and Misery.

Ong Bak 2: The Beginning (D) Tony Jaa, Thailand (Canadian Premiere)
Martial-arts superstar Tony Jaa stars in and directs this epic tale of revenge set hundreds of years in the past. Featuring a huge cast and hordes of elephants, this prequel takes Jaa's skills to the next level, showcasing him as a master of a wide range of martial-arts styles - while proving him to be a promising director as well.

[REC] 2 (D) Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza, Spain (North American Premiere)
In the follow-up to the acclaimed [REC], a SWAT team enters the old apartment to control an epidemic with terrifying results.

Solomon Kane (D) Michael J. Bassett, United Kingdom (World Premiere)
From Robert E. Howard, the legendary creator of Conan, comes this tale of a savage mercenary in sixteeth-century Century England who owes the devil his soul and seeks to redeem himself by fighting evil.

Symbol (D) Hitoshi Matsumoto, Japan (International Premiere)
Japanese comedy superstar Hitoshi Matsumoto (DAINIPPONJIN) stars in and directs this absurd and outlandish comedy about a man trying to escape a unique dilemma.


“Craven Pardon”

I guess you have all heard Wes Craven's pseudo- psychological justifications for what he does, particularly specious with regard to his position that the original “Last House on the Left” was an anti- Vietnam diatribe.

Please. Spare me.

I am inclined to believe he- as we- finds something cathartic in horror, as opposed to John Carpenter's motivation, which by his own admission is the cashola and the kudos. (No problem with that, BTW.)

As many of you edge toward equally specious (and unnecessary) justifications for your taste (I saw a reviewer only last night declare ‘I liked the movie “300”; so sue me!) I replied ‘no lawsuits coming from this neck of the woods. We live in (partially) democratic environments, for the time being. Let’s make the most of them by killing once and for all the term 'guilty pleasures'.

In a world with precious few pleasures, you are not obliged to preface your tastes with apologies, no more than a film maker should use questionable revisionism to justify his own lurid preoccupations; completely unnecessary. Don't forget, even the trashiest of horror films are attempting to do something most mainstream movies do not- to jolt us out of our complacency, and turn our thoughts to matters metaphysical; why are we here, what happens when we die, what are nightmares for, what place has 'fear' in our makeup, etc. Yes, even Sage Stallone’s clumsy gore fest.
Even he asks questions like ‘what is the shape of rage’, ‘what primal beast lurks in the heart of all man and what does it take to unleash it’, and ‘how does my Dad make his muscles look so ripped at 60?)

Chemicals account for our love of horror. As horror fans, we go places others fear to tread, because it gets our juices going. Try to remember that as horror fanatics, you are at odds with the critics- those who bleat 'how can you watch that crap'- on a conscious level because you feel at home in being jolted from your complacency, and on a subconscious level, your mind is stretching to satisfy some basic questions about life and death.

I don't know you any of you, and have no right to psychoanalyse you, but reading between the lines I sense you love horror films for the reasons I do; because they explore- often without meaning to- some fascinating philosophical questions. I don't differentiate between the 'good' and the 'bad', as these words have no meaning for me. I appreciate trash, as much as I appreciate boutique efforts like 'Jacobs Ladder' and 'Stir of Echoes', because they satisfy my desire to transcend this mortal coil, and seek out that which lies beyond.

And they are fucking good fun to boot.

But I digress; going back to Craven, I have the same reservations about the pseudo 'verite doco style artistic choices' of the original “Last House” as many others do, and I most certainly resent the fact that the primary author of the piece used the 'Vietnam bullshit' to justify his grunge drenched choices. My guess, based on the accounts of those who were there, is that the production values were not deliberate stylistic choices adopted to reference a certain US incursion into Indo China, any more than this harrowing film was a deliberate metaphor for that same incursion.
This is sheer revisionism. And it is bogus. Only Craven knows Craven’s mind, but the evidence at the time tells us without a doubt that Craven and his cronies were doing nothing more elaborate than grinding pulp (which is fine and no shame), and he spent the rest of his career justifying the style, the politics and the mythology of 'Last House' with his Johns Hopkins mouth.
Why?? The bottom line is he and Seany went from porn to grind house, (still fine) did his best with next to no dough and produced something for shock value. And it's pretty fucking good. The rest is bogus rationalisation, and we all know most humans can go days without water and weeks without food, but not one day without a healthy rationalisation.

Watching Craven in the accompanying doco on the “Last House” special edition trying to play this shit with a straight face was like watching an orang-utan high on mescal trying to jam a square block into a round hole; sad because you like the poor brute, but still sad.
Let me just say this; I admire Craven for his early film work. You probably know the ones I am talking about- perhaps we agree on the good ones, and perhaps even the bad. I must say I have a fondness even for the much maligned 'Deadly Friend'.

The thing is, I want to make it perfectly clear, and I call Craven on his 'justifications' for 'Last House'- not his work as such.

It is easy for me to sit back and criticise a working film maker, when I have only had one film made of a script.
Let's agree on one thing- it is fucking hard work making films, even bad ones- and I am very cautious about putting shit on someone else's work. I admire anyone who gets ANYTHING made, and I give them one star just for 'showing up'; getting off their arse and doing it, rather than talking about it.

I do, however, reserve the right to call bullshit when I hear it- whether it be Craven, myself, or anyone.
And reading an interview with him in an old issue of 'Total Film' again making the offending comment, I simply feel, as I have said, that Craven's revisionism of the thematic intentions of 'Last House' to be inauthentic, insincere, and not a little cowardly. He should be proud of what he has achieved, and stand by it for what it is rather than trying to justify it according to some very spurious socio cultural or political rationalisations.

I don't believe Gaspar Noe once held 'Irreversible' up as a critique of American military incursions into Iraq using the metaphor of skull crushing or forced rape. At least, it isn't in the disc commentary, and I did not notice it in any of the press. I will readily accept that it could be a comment on the dark side of masculinity, or power and repression over women, just as 'Last House' might similarly be, but I don't for a second buy the contention that they are anti war diatribes, any more than I believe 'Chainsaw' is a critique of urbanisation and the death of the small town America. They are horror films. Simple.

You can say otherwise, and you might have your own reason or agenda for saying it, but there are enough genuine political allegories out there without attaching meaning to every film that comes down the pipe with some higher meaning when they are simple, visceral, even primal entertainment.

They are what they are, period; and that is all they need be. Leave the politics to the 'politicians', and hope and pray they leave the film making to the sincere and the articulate.

When Craven or any film maker makes these rationalisations, he panders to the rank and file who question his work, when I think he would be better served simply telling them to 'fuck off'. He doesn't need to justify his films- he has nothing to justify. He has earned the right to do any film he wants; and when he feels pressured to back pedal and patch up the visceral impact of his films with bogus diatribe, he makes it harder not only for the rest of us in his pandering to the delicate minded pussies, but sets back the cause of freedom of speech by decades.

Craven was a damn fine film maker, and his early work needs no Vaseline before being rammed up our arses. 'House' and 'Hills', in particular, are classic examples of 'fuck you' film making of the first order, and he has the right- same as any of us- to do the viewing public dry and not pull out.

I suspect his edge has been softened over the years- partly because he has aged, and partly because the stress of the backlash surrounding 'House' must have been murder for him, and who wouldn't be tempted to knock off the sharp edges of their subsequent work. He is only human.

But 'Last House on the Left' stands as a testament to first class classic hardcore horror film making; it is unrivalled in it's impact, and if there are those out there with delicate sensibilities who cannot digest it in it's sheer raw simplicity without some post partum sugar coating- a la being assured it is a Vietnam allegory hence letting them 'off the hook' for watching such sadism and being a little self conscious of the fact that they might actually like it- then they can fuck right off and take their hypocrisy with them.

Stand your ground, Wes. 'House' is what it is, without the political commentary, and you know it.

And fans of Craven and horror?

Keep the faith- I know you will. You, like me, have probably been doing this most of your life, and will continue to seek out new worlds beyond this temporal plane-via the fine art of film.

Forgive they who judge, for they know not what they do...

Authorised by "The Society for the Eradication of Bullshit Artistry." (SEBA)


20 July 2009

IFN Video Podcast #24 - Michael Tronick (Editor) of Hairspray (USA)

Sue Lawson interviews with film editor, Michael Tronick, to discuss his career which includes such credits as Beverly Hills II, Less Than Zero, Midnight Run, Days of Thunder, Hudson Hawk, Scent of Woman, True Romance, Under Siege 2, Eraser, Remember the Titans, The Scorpion King, Hairspray, Mr & Mrs Smith and Bedtime Stories just to mention a selection of projects he has been cut in Hollywood.

Michael Tronick before he started his film editing career was an acclaimed music editor in Hollywood which boasts an equally impressive list of film projects.


15 July 2009

Trailer for "Creation" - Opening Night Film for Toronto International Film Festival

The 34th Toronto International Film Festival® opens September 10 with the world premiere Gala Presentation of Creation, directed by Jon Amiel (The Core, Entrapment, The Man Who Knew Too Little). Produced by Jeremy Thomas, the film tells the life story of Charles Darwin starring Paul Bettany (The Da Vinci Code, Wimbledon, A Beautiful Mind) as Darwin and Jennifer Connelly (He's Just Not That Into You, The Day the Earth Stood Still, A Beautiful Mind) as his wife, Emma.

"The tension between faith and reason is prominent in contemporary culture and this intimate look at Darwin puts a human face on a man whose theory remains controversial to this day," says Piers Handling, Director and CEO of TIFF. "We are pleased to open the Festival with such an impassioned look at Charles Darwin, especially on the year marking the 200th anniversary of his birth."

"We are honoured to open the Festival with Jon Amiel's latest feature," says Cameron Bailey, Co-Director of the Toronto International Film Festival. "By telling a story on many levels, weaving scenes from past and present, this depiction of Darwin promises to deeply move audiences by drawing them into the conflicted mind of a man who presented a concept that changed the world."

Part ghost story, part psychological thriller, part heart-wrenching love story Creation is the story of Charles Darwin. His great, still controversial, book The Origin of Species depicts nature as a battleground. In Creation the battleground is a man's heart. Torn between his love for his deeply religious wife and his own growing belief in a world where God has no place, Darwin finds himself caught in a struggle between faith and reason, love and truth.

The Darwin we meet in Creation is a young, vibrant father, husband and friend whose mental and physical health gradually buckles under the weight of guilt and grief for a lost child. Ultimately it is the ghost of Annie, his adored 10-year-old daughter, who leads him out of darkness and helps him reconnect with his wife and family. Only then is he able to write the book that changed the world.

Written by John Collee and based on the Randal Keynes biography of Darwin titled Annie's Box, Creation was co-developed by Recorded Picture Company with BBC Films and the UK Film Council.

14 July 2009


Some days, this reviewer is in the mood for a full blown essay.

And others, he feels like writing a Haiku.

However, asking me to stick to a Haiku is akin to asking the torrential Michael Jackson Internet downpourings to stop. Never happen. Unfortunately, I have the attention span of a tornado.

And yet, when you are contemplating a film like “The Machinist”, that plays something like a Haiku, it seems to be the only appropriate critical response. One almost feels obliged to assess the piece according to its own rules of expression.

Think back to the film; if you have it at home, take another look at it. This reviewer gives it a spin three or four times a year, and two things need to be said.

It is common to hear people say, ‘I see something new in that movie every time I watch it’. Well, that is nothing extraordinary; it can be the nature of the beast- the relationship between the medium and the viewer. I see something new in ‘Bridget Jones Diary’ every time I am forced to watch it by the women in my life- doesn’t mean it is a good thing, nor make it a good film.

But the ‘Machinist’…I’ll be damned if I don’t literally see a different film each time. Which is odd, especially given the second thing that needs to be said about the movie, which is that it is actually of fairly simple construction.
Its gift might well be its deceptive simplicity.

To see something new each time you watch ‘Memento’, for example, or ‘Usual Suspects’ is nothing amazing. They are complicated pieces that play with form, structure and narrative, but when you consider that the latter film is a merely a complicated labyrinthine maze populated by equally quirky and enigmatic characters, and the former is a cut and paste job not dissimilar to the cut up’s of Burroughs and Gysin- and when you also consider that they ultimately amount to zero in broad thematic terms- one can take a more considered view of ‘Machinist’.

I am not certain why I place these three films in the same neural category (along with others too numerous to mention here); is it because they all push the boundaries of cinema? Is it because they are seemingly elaborate psychological mazes?

Or are they cinematic sleights of hand- exercises in smoke and mirrors?

Since the days of the ‘Twilight Zone’ and beyond, anything now with a twist ending seems somewhat contrived- no matter how good the ‘twist’. But Brad Anderson’s film is so much more than the sum of its twist. It has a distinct, honourable, resonant climax- where the individual as God, in classical terms, must intervene in order to save himself.
‘Deus Ex Machinist’. Fascinating.

Rather than ‘Waiting for God’, acting in judgement of oneself. God as man. Man as God.

This notion is nothing new to students of Philosophy; but to the mass film audience, it serves as a crucial, probably unique, and- I am sorry to say- far too innovative message for our times, about the importance of morality, accountability, responsibility, and personal liability.

To my mind, this is what distinguishes the ‘Machinist’ from the mentioned, films (and others) when viewed over time, with benefit of hindsight. It is, as has already been observed, an elaborate journey into the mind, the psyche, of a man tortured by his conscience. It is in fact a simple tale, but seems more complex, given the lengths to which we human beings will go to deny our core being, our inner morality.

I saw this film when it first came out with my friend Mike Smith, and at the time I knew I was watching something extremely profound, and significant. But what I did not realise at the time- and only discovered after repeated viewings- was that I would be literally watching a very different film each and every time, albeit one that travels inexorably toward the same inescapable conclusion.

Without fail.

This would be my perfect ‘desert island movie’.

Is this me, or is it the film? Does it matter? The fact that one is even asking such a question says something about the power of the film.

Taken at face value, it has all the elements in place; engaging, utterly perplexing narrative, tremendous production value, excellent- and beautifully tight- script (evoking the suggestion of ‘Haiku-like’ essence and delivery rather than construct- perhaps more appropriately a motion picture Koan), and a range of incredible, haunting performances. Every time Christian Bale, in his paranoid delusion, challenges his workmates for example, I get a chill down my spine; every single time. And to be moved by a movie in such a primal, visceral, physiological way is extremely rare in terms of contemporary cinema.

Much has been said of Christian Bale’s performance; and as extraordinary as he is, and as miraculous his transformation, (an intriguing selling point for the movie) the hype and the larger than life ‘acting’- if you can call it that- can serve to distract us from the other more benign, subtle, less overt aspects of the piece.

This author confesses it took him some time to get over the shock of seeing Christian Bale with his shirt off- it took me at least four viewings to shift my focus from his physique in order to concentrate on the story; but in a way, this is not quite so bad as one might think, given that ‘emaciation’ is the story.

Moral emaciation; to be plagued by conscience, ravaged by guilt to such an extent that one literally wastes away.

Despite all that is going on in the film to distract us, this IS the story.

There is some suggestion that Bale took it upon himself to engage in this course of ‘extreme dieting’ to prepare physically and mentally for the challenge of the role. If this is true, then it was a master stroke. This is method, taken to new- almost life threatening- extremes. I’m not here to slaughter sacred cows (pardon the pun)- but ‘Raging Bull’ is an undeniable classic. Somehow, though, DeNiro as a fat LaMotta doesn’t have quite the same edge, the same truly unsettling and disturbing quality having seen Bale topless. A fat De Niro suggests being well fed, content, satisfied, even jovial; Bale evokes the sense memory of images of the POW camps, and Treblinka- which is appropriate, given the themes of guilt, and plague of conscience.

Except that this time, the wasted, withered protagonist is the guilty party.

And the most shocking thing of all, is that I can identify with this portrait of guilt; I have been that man in my life, perhaps not always in strict literal terms, but I know in my heart I have chewed some of the same dirt.

And my actions today reflect my sense of morality, and accountability accordingly.

I am reminded of this, time and again when I watch the ‘Machinist’. And even when I don’t’. Watching ‘Batman Begins’, filmed soon after, ‘Machinist’, one can still detect the effects of the diet- and possibly even the performance- on the Bale’s face. Indeed, watching any of his movies now evokes the sense memory of the images and message of ‘Machinist’ more often than I care to mention. And in these times of the rampant perversion of morality, and the dissemination of hate, fear, greed and cruelty on an unprecedented scale, this is a good thing.

We need to be constantly reminded of the message of ‘The Machinist’.

We need to take note of this modern day morality play; until we are able, finally to come to terms with ourselves and the consequences of our actions, account for those actions, and in the tradition of all the best endings of all the best films, move on.

Hopefully to bigger and better things, and much happier endings.

13 July 2009

"George Hickenlooper: American Subversive"

by John Warwick Arden

George Hickenlooper is a director not well known here in the Antipodes.

You would think with a name as unique as his, we might remember him better; but what is somewhat more mysterious is that his unique style of moviemaking is not distinctive enough to stick in our collective wild colonial minds.

Let me get one thing straight right now. This will not be a retrospective discussion of the man’s work; for the word ‘retrospective’ alone suggests an artist rapidly approaching the end of their career, at which time critics start scanning back catalogues and sending out little wheat grass shots of adulation, much like those honorary awards dished out by the academy when they realise they have overlooked someone.

Before long, these accolades begin to sound like premature obituaries. As if a film maker doesn’t have enough on his plate without critics wanting him dead!

This will not be that type of assessment; oh no; because dear friends, George Hickenlooper is a long way short of the end of the road. For my money, he is just hitting his stride. George is what I would call a steady, solid, reliable performer. In the language of the stock market, he would be one of those consistent companies, in for the long haul, with a firm foundation, integrity, honesty, and unlikely to go belly up in hard times.

He is not flashy with the visuals, self serving or mysterious- a la Terence Malick. George loves the story, and serves the story.

He could tell Robert McKee things about ‘Story’ that would make that carnival hucksters’ nose bleed. And he does it over, and over again, reliably. He is the ‘Fed Ex’ of cinema, delivering the goods ‘first class’ as promised, with the requisite skill and artfulness we have come to expect, and with a consistent reliability you could set your watch by.

GH is certainly distinctive; but there is something else going on- something behind the scenes that has less to do with his actual work, and more to do with the circumstances that surround it. And this is not readily summed up in words.

The first time I saw his name was in the press kit for ‘Slingblade’; mention was made of his involvement in the short film that later became the feature, directed by and starring the ever enigmatic (or completely bloody loopy) Billy Bob Thornton. To me, the only extent to which this film counts in George’s ouvre is that it has his name attached, and was the first time I decided to make that so often arbitrary decision to commit his name to memory. The other reason why this film is noteworthy, is that the circumstances surrounding the making of the film (Yes, this author is one who cannot separate the art from the artist, nor the circumstances under which a work was produced) are of particular interest; and largely because we know something went on in the course of the making of the short, right through to the production of the feature, but we have never been completely cognisant of all the facts. Nor, perhaps, would we want to be.

Which makes the work, and the mythology, even more fascinating. And it is this mystery that tends to make GH fascinating as well.

Contemplate this for a moment; GH took on the ‘Big Brass Ring’- the ‘in/famous’, long un-produced Orson Welles script. No one in his right mind would even contemplate doing that- nor did they- until George took a stab at it. Try to remember that this would be the industry equivalent of Woody Allen picking a fight with ‘The Rock’.


And in a serious match, the smart money would have to be on the ‘Scorpion King’.

But in this match of truly epic proportions- a match only true film buffs would remember- George took on the Dragon. And he kicked its ass.

As Captain Willard said in ‘Apocalypse Now’, ‘what balls’…

Indeed. Welles unfilmed script ‘untouchable’?? George H must have said ‘fuck that’; literally. In the same way Adrian Lyne took on the supposedly unfilmable ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, and made it work- brilliantly- GH decided to undermine the power of the Wellesian myth and deflate it ‘with respect’ (in itself a miraculous achievement). He screwed his courage to the sticking place, tore hisself off a slice of whup-ass old school style, and in the process, produced what was, and is, to my mind a cinematic triumph. An understated masterwork.

For the most part, the film was largely…tolerated? Listen; when you take on a legend and win, trust me, faint praise is the critical equivalent of a breathtaking triumph.

Bear in mind; critics are fickle beasts at the best of times. They want to see Samson take on Goliath, but they want to see Goliath win, too. It’s called having a bet each way; one on ‘old faithful’, and one on ‘the underdog’. Look at the finished product; George won the match. But not in the way one would expect. He did it with grace, style, skill, respect for the source material and with all the necessary adjustments to bring what was an ‘old dog’ of a screenplay (kicking around film schools for decades), into modern times.

The results of this match did not flare across the sky like a supernova. The film did its job in a dignified manner; the film maker bowed his head slightly, excused himself and went onto something else, rather than basking in his own brilliance.

And it is this story alone (for there are others), that gives us some sense of what makes GH tick. Presented with the opportunity to deliver the Wellesian parcel with fanfare, marching bands and military salutes, he opted for a ‘modest story well told’.

Let us delve a little deeper into this enigmatic man (Hickenlooper, that is!) as best we can by looking at his earlier work, from which we might see his inspiration; let us deconstruct the way in which he has attacked the medium, and indeed explore some persistent themes in his work and the way his style supports those prescient themes.

Take ‘Heart of Darkness’, for example. Don’t tell me assembling that film didn’t inspire George in some way.

‘Pocca’ is a subversive film. It sneaks up on you, over time, like Willard before the final attack on Kurtz. Henry Rollins may be right when he asked ‘did Willard go mad searching for his dark heart, or did he find his dark heart because he went mad’? GH asks a similar question, but he questions whether this is indeed ‘insanity’, or whether it is the normal human condition; hence rendering it less an aberration, and more a question of the ‘situation normal’- AFU.

And while we were revisiting all the thematic possibilities of ‘Pocca’ already clear to us- plus a few extra that were not- seen for the first time in the light of this rare glimpse ‘behind the scenes’- ‘Heart of Darkness’, reminded us once and for all, and quite simply, just how much we loved the original film; and why.

George reminded us that it was time to re-affirm our love for this movie, as we would a beloved long term partner. And in response I, and many fans like me, finally placed “Apocalypse Now” where it belonged, at the top of my list, where it stands to this day.

And I’ll be damned if all Georges'’ films don’t work the same way- in encouraging us to reaffirm our love for cinema. But he does so in a subversive way.

And subversive does not always mean bad.

It is ‘subtlety’- with more meat.

Let me put is another way, by quoting a great script with a great aphorism uttered by a great actor- Al Pacino- in the movie “Devils Advocate”. Pacino said to Keanu Reeves ‘never let them see you coming’- advice Keanu would probably do well to heed.

And I this is precisely one of George’s strengths.

Unlike PT Anderson, Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne and all the other figures easily identifiable with the indie film movement, George is similar, but not the same. Whether he cultivates this distinction, or whether it is simply the work of the Gods- for practical purposes- doesn’t much matter. In a parallel universe he might be such an ‘Indie darling’, but here, where we live now- and where the rubber hits the road- he simply doesn’t quite fit that bill.

George Hickenlooper is his own beast, not readily definable or easily categorized.

And this makes him fascinating to me.

He seems to want to be subversive; like a guerrilla, he wants to sneak in, and tell us about our society and the myriad ills, and he suggests to us artistic ways in which we might do something about it, but he does not want to trumpet his accomplishments in this endeavour, the way the Godfather of Indie with cash, Oliver Stone, might. For a director to resist this urge, he has to put his ego in the back seat; which tells us how much George cares about the work.

I have admired the man for a long time; a great director, whom I count amongst other unique voices in contemporary cinema, such as Tom DiCillo, Jim Jarmusch, etc. But unlike Tom and Jim, I had no idea what GH looked like until recently.

That’s because he is about as invisible as the medium of film making will permit him to be.

He holds a mirror up to society, but unlike some directors- who cannot resist leaning into shot- we seldom see George, because he does not really want us to. And in this way, he restores to cinema some of the dignity, the magic, and the mystery to such a degree that his films appear- at least to me- as they did when I was a kid; as though they just simply appear.

Is he a magician? No. He’s a quiet, almost old fashioned craftsman.

But he keeps up with trends and remains relevant in the persistent, diligent, passionate manner, tried and tested by those who went before him- to whom he pays respectful homage each time he shoots a frame.

He is an artisan, historian, unsung true heir to their throne.

And if you are new to GH, you are in for a real treat. You are just in time to see the man at his peak. By all means, take a look at his other work- my own favourites are Factory Girl (2006) Mayor of the Sunset Strip (2003) and The Man from Elysian Fields (2001)- and each deserve to be examined in more detail; and they would be, were this a retrospective of the man’s work.

But it is not. This is only the beginning. This is an already accomplished filmmaker about to deliver the greatest work of his career.

George is currently in the editing suite, polishing his new film ‘Casino Jack’, starring Kevin Spacey; and it stand to be an absolute bloody pearler. How can I say this, sight unseen? I have already explained to you; George cannot make a ‘bad’ film.

This is the ‘real shit’.


09 July 2009

IFN Video Podcast #23 - Kyle Patrick Alvarez (Director) of Easier with Practice (USA)

The final coverage from the Cinevegas Film Festival featuring Kyle Patrick Alvarez (Writer/Director) of Easier with Practice (USA) which collected the "Grand Jury Dramatic" prize at the Cinevegas and a week later picked up the "Best International Feature Film" at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Check out Kyle's production video blogs for more great stories and information behind this brilliant film on youtube.

01 July 2009

IFN Video Podcast #22 - Kerry Prior (Writer/Director) of The Revenant (USA)

Interview with Kerry Prior (Director) of The Revenant (USA) on the red carpet at the Cinevegas Film Festival were the film won the Cinevegas Dramatic Audience Award.

Kerry Prior makes his return to the director's chair after 13 years absence and delivers a brilliant cult film that will do for Vampires what Shaun of The Dead did for Zombies!

Kerry Prior's background in the Special Effects scene has seen him involved in such classic films as Phantasm III, Phantasm IV and Bubba Ho-tep.