Category Archives: Features

Sharks, Bond and Cousteau: Diving Deep on Film

THE Father of Diving’, Jacques Cousteau, is the subject of Jerome Salle’s biopic The Odyssey – out in cinemas now.

It is a film well worth watching if only to remind us that Cousteau was the Neil Armstrong of the oceans who cared more for self-publicity than protecting the world’s oceans from man’s destructive influence (an issue his son Philippe was far more passionate about).

As Salle’s film highlights, Cousteau was no stranger to the big-screen having won a Palme d’Or for his underwater documentary The Silent World (1956). Handsome and self-confident, he was as comfortable with a microphone in his hand as he was on board Calypso arranging dives.

So, with Cousteau’s return to our cinematic consciousness, it is a fitting time to reflect on the theme of diving in films over the years.

Just this past month, Netflix released environment-focused documentary Chasing Coral. The film takes cameras deep in our oceans to shine a light on the tragic effect climate change is having on coral life (an issue touched upon towards the end of The Odyssey when Philippe takes his wife to the waters he learnt to dive in as a child, only to be horrified by the depletion of the coral).

Images of colourful and diverse marine beauty are juxtaposed against the spreading desolation of coral life – enough to fuel anyone’s outrage. It is the type of filmmaking I imagine Cousteau (late to conservation) would be driving if he (and Philippe) were still alive.

Chasing Coral’s striking message also takes the viewer back to Courtney Barnett’s lines in her harrowing song Kim’s Caravan: ‘The Great Barrier reef it ain’t so great anymore/ It’s been raped beyond belief, the dredgers treat it like a whore.’

More underwater tragedy was on display last year in Juan Reina’s documentary Diving Into the Unknown. This told the redemptive story of a group of Finnish drivers. After losing two of their teammates in caves 130 metres below the surface, the survivors return to embark upon an illegal and hazardous dive to recover their bodies.

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As well as painting a fascinating portrait of hardened and stoic Scandinavian males, Diving Into the Unknown captures the risks taken by these brave explorers. The resources of cinematographer Tuukka Kovasiipi were also pushed to the limit as he attempted to capture the beauty of these tight and labyrinthic underwater caves through GoPro cameras.

Diving, with all its associated dangers, has long been a feature of horror films. Steven Spielberg’s iconic killer-shark film Jaws (1975) scared people out of the water. Yet one of its most frightening scenes is shark-less. When Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) dives to find Ben Gardner’s boat, a ghostly white and decaying head appears out of the murky darkness – a moment of terror that is arguably Jaws’ finest.

In 1989, a few filmmakers looking for a change of scenery from space-based science-fiction horror decided to go underwater. This aquatic setting offered many of the same scare and tension-friendly attributes as space – darkness, the unknown and an unlikely rescue. With this, divers in big clunky equipment, not too dissimilar visually from spacesuits, were up against the same type of alien creatures movie characters had been running from in space.

Among these films was George P Cosmatos’ Leviathan, which borrowed from the mutating alien plot of John Carpenter’s The Thing, but failed to recreate the same paranoia-filled tension. Likewise, Sean Cunningham’s amusing creature feature Deepstar Six and, most lasting, James Cameron’s The Abyss.

Ten years later, star-studded movie Sphere saw diving and science-fiction horror cross paths once again – albeit with disappointing effect. With its failure, in-water horror edged away from science-fiction and back towards shark flicks.

Low-budget films like Open Water (2004) and The Reef (2010) saw idyllic holiday settings turned into nightmarish survival situations. Holidaying divers are left isolated in the middle of the ocean while night comes and ominous fins circle.

Meanwhile, Dark Tide (2012) and 47 Metres Down (in cinemas now) see thrill-seeking divers jump into shark-infested waters with terrifying consequences.

Sharks are not the only worry for diving couple Sam (Jessica Alba) and Jared (Paul Walker), in rightfully ridiculed movie Into the Blue (2005). The couple have to contend with a violent drug lord as they dive for $6billion worth of treasure. Deep sea treasure is also on the agenda for Ben (Matthew McConaughey) and Tess (Kate Hudson) in equally dismissed romance-comedy Fools Gold (2008).

More thoughtful comedy is served up in Wes Anderson’s The Life of Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Starring Bill Murray and Cate Blanchet, Anderson pays homage to Cousteau in his typically eccentric style.

Speaking of style, the world’s most famous spy James Bond goes diving to combat the baddies in Thunderball (1965) and License to Kill (1989). Thunderball’s opening title sequence sees a silhouetted feminine figure swimming away from a harpoon-wielding diver, while Tom Jones belts out the theme song.

Heroes of a different kind have also donned diving gear on the big-screen. George Tillman’s Men of Honour (2000) tells the true life story of Carl Brashear – an African American diver looking to overcome discrimination and adversity in the United States Navy.

The film’s most memorable scene, however, takes place outside of the water. Brashear (Cuba Gooding Jnr), dressed in full diving gear and burdened with a tragic injury, attempts to prove competency by walking 12 steps across a courtroom.

Less memorable is 2012’s box-office flop Big Miracle. Greenpeace volunteer Rachel (Drew Barrymore) secretly dives below the ice to get close to the whales that are perilously trapped.

It would be a remiss not to mention Disney’s 1954 ground-breaking film 20,000 Leagues Under the Ocean – based on the book by Jules Verne (which gets a sighting in The Odyssey). Abroad the Nautilus, our diving team famously battle against a giant squid.

In this science- fiction classic, James Mason shines as inventor Captain Nemo. His name inspired the title of Disney’s 2003 animated film Finding Nemo where young fish Nemo is taken from the ocean – and his father – by a screen-engulfing human diver. The goggles the diver leaves behind provide a vital clue for Marlin and Dory to track down Nemo.

A recent favourite is The Shallows (2016) where surfer Nancy (Blake Lively) has a frightening encounter with a Great White. Nancy’s swimming and diving skills become her greatest weapon against her gigantic nemesis.

Indeed, sharks are a big theme in The Odyssey as Cousteau’s divers search the shark infested waters of the Persian Gulf in pursuit of oil. In one beautiful – but frightening scene – the fearless Philippe is circled by sharks but continues to film despite the protestations of his fellow divers.

As The Odyssey proves, our fascination with the oceans of the world – and what lurks within – remains unsated. It will continue to supply film directors with a rich vein of cinematic themes, especially as the fragility of the planet’s marine life (belatedly acknowledged by Jacques Cousteau) becomes increasingly evident.

Thank you for reading. Please like, share and comment!

Also read: 15 Rounds With The Real Rocky – The Bleeder (DVD Review)

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Dude, That Song Really Tied the Film Together: Songs That Make Movies

Thank You for Six Months of Prestridge²

Prestridgesquared.com has just turned six months. It has proved an enjoyable debut as we have immersed ourselves in the best film, theatre and live music that the country has to offer.

We have reviewed the latest films, attended numerous Q&As with eminent directors and watched some of the best theatre – both in the west end and fringe – and listened to great live music. It has been a privilege and a joy. We hope you like what we are trying to do – write with knowledge and where possible with wit.

It has given us immense enjoyment to absorb ourselves in the arts and tell you how we see it – on occasion warts and all.

Below we give you our favourite 10 reviews so far. You may well beg to differ. If so, please let us know.

In the months ahead, we intend to  continue reviewing the best of the arts scene – in London and when possible elsewhere across the country.

We love what we do. We hope you do too.

James and Jeff Prestridge

James’ 5 Picks: Kristen Stewart: Back from the Twilight

Glorious Gloria – A Killer of a Play (Theatre Review)

Cinematic Poetry: An In-Depth Reading of Jim Jarmusch’s Film Paterson (2016)

Late Company – The Destructive After Shocks of School Bullyng (Theatre Review)

Q&A with Raw director Julia Ducournau

Jeff’s 5 Picks: Grief and Isolation in Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea

Full Metal Jacket Q&A with Producer Jan Harlan

The Levelling – Family Turmoil Amid the Floods (Film Review)

An Arthur Miller Gem – Incident at Vichy (Theatre Review)

All Our Children – Children. Our Wonderful Children (Theatre Review)

 

 

Dude, That Song Really Tied the Film Together: Songs That Make Movies

THE Big Lebowski’s Dude wisely said that a rug can really tie a room together. Well I believe the same applies to music and films. In other words, a great song – or piece of music – can really tie a film together.

Today (August 11) A Ghost Story drifts into cinemas with its poignant ponderings, breath-taking imagery and absorbing performances from Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. Yet, at the centre of this unique cinematic experience  is one of the beautiful ‘rugs’ I have come across – Dark Room’s song I Get Overwhelmed.

Contemplative and affecting, I Get Overwhelmed perfectly fits A Ghost Story’s tone and appears in different incarnations throughout the film. The impact of the song got me thinking about my own favourites in films. The type of tunes that, if removed or substituted out, would leave a noticeable void and – possibly even – knock the entire film off-kilter.

The first film I thought of – still fresh in my mind from multiple viewings – is La La Land (2016). With its odes to old school Hollywood musicals such as Singin’ in the Rain (a film that would not be out of place on this list), music is at the heart of director Damien Chazelle’s vibrant and dazzling film. But it is the song City of Stars that acts as the film’s beating pulse.

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We first hear the faint sounds of City of Stars when Mia (Emma Stone) and Seb (Ryan Gosling) are walking through the movie studio lot together. As the two connect, we can hear their love song beginning to formulate, perhaps in Seb’s head.  This is, after all, a film about love inspiring art.

Once their ‘date’ is over, Seb walks out on the pier and under romantic purple moonlight sings City of Stars for the first time. The song appears throughout the film whether it is to signal cohesion and love (as Seb and Mia sit at the piano and sing it together) or tension– as a sped up version faintly plays during the dinner argument scene. The music comes to an jolting end with some cruel words from Seb.

Speaking of Chazelle, his relentless and fierce 2014 film Whiplash is driven by Don Ellis’ jazz tune of the same name. The sharp sounds and up-tempo nature of Whiplash – the song – create the ideal atmosphere for creatively foul-mouthed jazz instructor Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons) to torture his students in rehearsal.

Rocky Balboa puts his body through torture in preparation for fights with Apollo Creed. Those iconic Rocky training montages, which I am sure have motivated many of us to finally get up and go for a run,  are fuelled by the building trumpets of Bill Conti’s Gonna Fly Now. Conti’s inspirational piece of music plays as Rocky runs through the streets of Philadelphia and, to triumphantly complete the uphill struggle, up the stairs of the Museum of Art.

Big money franchises – such as Rocky –are often accompanied by a signifying piece of music. The one that still strikes a chord with me, multiple movies later, is Star Wars’ Binary Sunset by the great John Williams.

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Whenever I hear Binary Sunset – in whatever manifestation – it brings me back to that mythic image of Luke Skywalker looking out at the horizon of double suns in A New Hope. This Star Wars theme carries Luke’s image of wonder, hope and endless opportunity across the entire franchise.

Denis Villeneuve’s enchanting and genre-defying alien invasion film Arrival (2016) is bookended by one of the most moving songs I have experienced in a cinema. Max Richter’s soul-piercing song On Nature of Daylight drives home the emotional depth of the film, particularly when those beautiful violins come in at the two minute mark.

In a film about the power of language and human achievement, it feels fitting that such a powerful – and wordless – piece of music ties together the film’s circular narrative.

I view On Nature of Daylight on a level to that of  Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra which opens Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey (1968). Strauss matches the awe-inspiring and timeless visuals of Kubrick in a way that few could.

From Kubrick’s spectacular visuals to the crude animation of South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999). Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone cheekily start the movie with an innocent sounding song about small town America, which parodies Belle’s Song from the opening of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Mountain Town, with its playful lines, is a great entry point to South Park’s clever commentary before the swear words start flooding in.

On a more romantic note, I always welcome being swept away by the delicate sounds of Moon River in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). The film opens with the song as Holly (Audrey Hepburn), dressed in classy clothes and pastry in hand, peers at jewellery through the Tiffany’s window.

This contrasts with later on when Holly sits out on the window ledge with a guitar and sings Moon River in full. We – and George (Paul Varjak) who is watching from above – witness this charming, intimate and natural scene with dreamer Holly who has a more stripped back appearance than the opening scene.

Moon River also appears in the final scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. When Holly finds her cat in the pouring rain the sad strings playing suddenly transform into Moon River.  It is a euphoric moment mirrored by the surging music which culminates in Holly and George embracing in a passionate kiss.

Perhaps my favourite is the simplest. Just like City of Stars in La La Land, Hans Zimmer’s You’re So Cool gives a recognisable sound to leading couple Clarence (Christian Slater) and Alabama (Patricia Arquette) in True Romance (1999).

You’re So Cool, with its soothing wooden xylophone sounds, seamlessly speaks to the innocence and clarity of Clarence and Alabama’s love, amid the violence and chaos surrounding them.

My list could be longer but maybe I will leave the rest for a sequel.

Be sure to check out A Ghost Story and Dark Room’s wondrous song this weekend or in the next few days. Sublime.

What is your favourite irreplaceable movie song? Do let us know in the comments.

Also read: ‘Meaningful, Surreal and Ethereal’ – Director David Lowery Talks A Ghost Story

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Lost In Headphones: Many A Movie Moment

‘Meaningful, Surreal and Ethereal’ – Director David Lowery Talks A Ghost Story

DAVID Lowery’s latest film, A Ghost Story, is a quietly spellbinding and poetic study of time, grief and legacy. Yet the film explores these themes through the rather unexpected figure of a bed sheet wearing ghost.

‘It’s ok to laugh’, the film’s well-spoken and clear-thinking director assured the audience at a Curzon Soho screening of the film last Thursday (August 3). Lowery continued: ‘I knew the image [of a bed sheet ghost] itself was funny. That’s one of the reasons I liked it because it was very funny, but also very naïve, childlike and sad.’

This idea, Lowery revealed, had been floating around his head for many years. It was only last spring, at the end of filming Disney’s Pete’s Dragon – a different project in every imaginable way – that he finally decided to pull the trigger.

After writing the first draft in one sitting – albeit a mere 30 page script – Lowery had to find two actors willing to take on such an audacious and abstract high-concept.  He turned to Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara who he had previously worked with in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013).

As Lowery told the audience, their reactions were welcoming but contrastingly measured. He said: ‘I texted Casey and said: “Hey I’m going to make a weird movie this summer. Do you want to be in it? You have to play a ghost.” And I sent him a picture of the costume a little while later.

‘Maybe he would say otherwise, but I don’t think he read the script until he got to town. I think he was just down to make something.

‘With Rooney, she did read the script and we had some conversations about it. But again, she trusted me. She didn’t necessarily think it would end up being feature length. She thought it might be a short.’

In A Ghost Story, Mara and Affleck play a young couple living together in a small Texas home. When Affleck’s character dies in a car accident, he returns home as a ghost to watch over his grief-stricken girlfriend.  From then on, the film expands out – although staying in the same place – to tackle deeper perceptions of human existence that go beyond the individual.

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Still the relationship between Mara and Affleck’s characters, wonderfully grounded in an authentic early scene of them kissing tenderly in bed, remains an emotional anchor of the film.

Lowery commented on the two: ‘One of the reasons I asked them to do it was because we already know each other and trust each other. So there’s that built in working relationship. The other reason is that they are great together on-screen. I realised that on my first movie [Ain’t Them Bodies Saints]. It wasn’t meant to be as romantic as it wound up being. They have an amazing chemistry together.

‘In this film, knowing that one of the characters is going to die and be covered in a sheet within the first 10 minutes of the movie, I wanted to make sure we made the most of the initial screen-time they had together. And I knew that with the two of them you would really get a sense of their relationship because they do have such great chemistry together.’

He continued: ‘They get along really well together and have a lot of fun together on-screen. I think they genuinely care for one another. I would love to make a movie with the two of them where one of them doesn’t die or go to jail, because I would love to watch that relationship develop.’

Mara and Affleck are not the only trusted Lowery forces behind this project. Daniel Hart, who has done the music for every Lowery film, plays a particularly pivotal role in A Ghost Story.

Lowery explained: ‘I always share the script with him very early. In this case, it was kind of reverse. While we were doing the score for Pete’s Dragon, he played a song for me called I Get Overwhelmed [Dark Rooms] and I was literally overwhelmed by it.

‘I got very obsessed with it and wrote it into the script.  And it became a key component of the story, the crux of their relationship in many ways. That song had the tone and feel that I wanted the movie to have. So from there, Daniel used that as the bedrock of the entire score. So every piece of music you hear in the movie is based on some part of that song.’

This remarkably moving piece of music perfectly fits the film’s poignant meditations. But this reflective tone would have been broken had Lowery included scenes of Affleck racing around the house as an energetic ghost trying to escape the house.

Fortunately, as Lowery explained, they decided a more gentle hand was needed. He said: ‘Gradually we realised less is more. If he just turned his head very slowly that was all we needed. And once we figured that out the tone started to emerge.

‘We had that perfect blend. You do laugh but then it turns into something else. It has a gracefulness and elegance that goes beyond the initial childlike humour and becomes something far more meaningful, surreal and ethereal.’

With this approach, A Ghost Story becomes a quiet and contemplative experience. Even when the car accident occurs, the camera slowly pulls around to show a rather mundane aftermath. The result is something that feels more striking than actually seeing the incident.

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Likewise, Lowery’s thoughtful filmmaking – reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (2011) – sees him go from the cosmic image of a galaxy of stars and planets to a few strands of hair hanging from Mara’s head. As a result, we are left for extended – and at times silent – periods to ponder the simple, yet rich images on-screen.

In a month when audiences will flock to see the expansive CGI vision of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, the crudity of the Emoji Movie and the fast-paced stylised violence of Atomic Blonde, Lowery believes A Ghost Story offers a welcome change of pace.

He said: ‘I like that as an audience member. When I go to see a movie that allows me time to think, when I’m not worried about when the next cut will occur. I don’t have to think about what is going to happen next. I can just exist in a moment and regard an image for a given period of time.

‘That is really valuable to me. I haven’t made a movie prior to this where I have been able to indulge in that, but I was excited by the possibilities present in this movie.’

Of all these understated moments, the most memorable sees Mara’s grief stricken character sitting on the floor to eat a pie. Lowery’s camera stays still and fixed on her as she fervently stabs away at the pastry, before rushing to the toilet to be ill.

Lowery gave his insight to the scene, saying: ‘We [me and Rooney] talked about it in advance, why that pie scene was there and what I wanted out of it. We talked a lot about the grieving process and bereavement. And wanting to do justice to that and not just being manipulative or using grief in an exploitative way.

‘Then we shot it and we didn’t talk about it much. She knew what it was there for and why it was included in the movie. She knew what she had to do and we all understood the weight that scene would have if it worked. The hope was to get it in one take so she wouldn’t have to eat too much. It was all in one take.’

He continued: ‘We all knew it would be an important scene and it would be talked about if we pulled it off. I find that doing the things that are that simple are really challenging because there is a tendency to get fussy about everything and micromanage.

‘Being that simple and restrained was really challenging but also really refreshing. It’s probably my favourite of any scene I have ever directed. Just because there wasn’t much that I had to do, but also because it worked. I just had to stand back.’

Lowery is clearly proud of his work on A Ghost Story –  and he has every right to be. Next up for him is a film called The Old Man and the Gun, starring Robert Redford and, once again, Casey Affleck.

Although Lowery seemed excited by this film paying homage to Redford, he is all too aware his work on A Ghost Story might not be topped. He said: ‘I like having this movie as a high bar for myself personally because it reminds me how important it is to do things that really matter to me. To be personal and sincere in what I do.

‘I’m really happy and proud of it. It’s the one movie I’ve made that I feel I can keep watching  and enjoy as an audience member as well as having made it. It’s a nice signifier for me and a memento.’

A Ghost Story will enrapture and enchant many cinema goers. Wondrous, penetrating and lasting – a film even the most obstinate viewer should take a chance on and experience. It sucks you in and once you are in you will not want to get out.

A Ghost Story arrives in cinemas on 11 August

Thank you for reading. Please like, share and comment!

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Netflix Originals All Stars, No Substance – The Circle and To The Bone (Film Reviews)

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Lost In Headphones: Many A Movie Moment

HEADPHONES play a big role in my life.

They give me the freedom to listen to music and podcasts in public without disturbing others. They allow me, at any time, to escape boredom, silence or unwanted interaction. Sometimes, more pressingly, they distract my mind from creeping feelings of insecurity and upset.

In many ways, headphones have become my comfort blanket. I am wearing them as I write this, and will probably wear them tonight as I go to sleep. But I am not alone. In Edgar Wright’s recent exhilaratingly fun film Baby Driver, our protagonist, Baby (Ansel Elgort), also has a dependency on headphones.

His need, which is founded upon a severe case of tinnitus, means he craves a constant flow of music to drown out a piercing ringing sound. If the music stops, the painful ringing returns along with haunting memories of the crash which caused his condition.

As we see in the playful opening credit sequence of Baby Driver, headphones give Baby the freedom to escape these problems and enjoy his music on the move. He can dance around the streets as carefree and goofily as Kevin Bacon in Footloose.

There is a similar scene in Guardians of the Galaxy when we first meet Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) as an adult. Peter’s headphones blast Redbone’s Come and Get Your Love as he dances through a cave kicking around pesky womp rats.

As Guardian progresses, we learn that Peter’s Walkman has deeper emotional weight – like Baby, it is attached to memories of his mother. So it is no surprise Peter gets protective when a prison guard puts on his headphones and starts listening. For Peter, this represents an invasion of his privacy.

Later on, we see the opposite side of this as Peter opens up to Gamora about his mother. It leads to Peter trusting her to wear his headphones and listen to Elvin Bishop’s melodic tune Fooled Around and Fell in Love – an intimate moment between the two which nearly ends with a kiss.

Headphones also act to spark a romance in Garden State. Enthusiastic and engaging, Sam (Natalie Portman) attempts to spark a conversation with a zoned-out and evasive Andrew (Zach Braff) in a hospital waiting room. The conversation is rather one-sided until Sam offers her oversized headphones (any wearer would be engulfed in sound) to Andrew, saying: ‘You gotta hear this song. It’ll change your life.’

It does and, as Andrew is awakened by the sounds of The Shins, the camera cuts to Sam’s bright and smiley face. This moment of clarity, brought to him through headphones, puts Andrew back on a path to reconnect with the world and find love.

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Speaking of sharing, Dan (Mark Ruffalo) and Gretta (Keira Knightley) wander the New York streets together at night wearing a headphone splitter in John Carney’s Begin Again. With songs like Frank Sinatra’s Luck Be a Lady Tonight and Stevie Wonder’s For Once in my Life, it is an irresistibly romantic scene (even though the two share a love for music, not each other) which demonstrates the power of music to transform a setting and its mood.

At one point, Dan and Gretta enter a nightclub to dance to their own music. This leaves the two out of sync with the frantic moves of their fellow clubbers. It is a moment mirroring 1980’s French film La Boum (The Party/Ready for Love), in which schoolgirl Vic (Sophie Marceau) deals with the struggles of moving to a new school and having a turbulent home life.

At the big party, Mathieu (Alexandre Sterling) –  Vic’s love interest – sneaks behind her and puts his headphones over her ears. Upon hearing the soothing sounds of Richard Sanderson’s Reality, she immediately turns around and embraces him. The two continue to slow dance in direct contrast to the up-tempo movement surrounding them. With her troubles at home, headphones provide a moment of comfort and control for Vic.

There is no splitter on hand in underappreciated Mexican film Güeros. Instead, the characters huddle around one set of headphones to catch the sound of enigmatic rock singer Epigmenio Cruz.

Interestingly, the audience is excluded from hearing the music. The silence we are left with fuels the mystery behind Cruz and forces us to focus on the characters’ wonder-filled facial expressions.

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Headphones can also signal internal turmoil. Take Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. At work, he plays jovial tunes such as Katrina and the Wave’s Walking on Sunshine and Chris De Burgh’s Lady In Red. Yet no amount of cheerful music can cover sick thoughts we know run through his monstrous mind.

In Joseph Ruben’s horror flick Step Father (1987), Stephanie (Jill Schoelen) puts on big blood red headphones to mask the sounds of her mother and Jerry – whom she suspects of being a murderer – having sex upstairs. In this way, headphones can be a way to pull the plug on the world outside.

But just as headphones can be used to block out they can be used to listen in. Stasi officer Gerd (Ulrich Muhe) is hired to do this in thriller The Lives of Others as he spies on suspected Communist traitor and playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch).  Likewise, surveillance police officers are rarely without headphones in Hong Kong crime thriller series Overheard.

The isolation that headphones provide can give space for creative thinking. In 8 Mile, headphones allow B-Rabbit (Eminem) to write raps on the bus. As he does so, the camera cuts back and forth between Marshall scribbling away and the decayed streets of Detroit which help fuel his lyrics.

In the more sanitary setting of Pitch Perfect 2, Beca (Anna Kendrick) dons Beats headphones to work on new music and arrangements. The Beats are a sign of her extra responsibilities and, perhaps, an individual and burgeoning talent that goes beyond the Bellas.

Fellow music lover Rob (John Cusack) talks about the influencing capability of music in the opening scene of High Fidelity. The big headphones he wears and the spinning vinyl record are immediate indicators that Rob is connected to his music

The liberating effect of headphones can sometimes result in comical moments. In Demolition, Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal), like Baby, unleashes some extravagant dance moves on his commute to work. When he arrives at the investment bank, his aura has seemingly changed so much that an employee does not recognise him at first.

Both Vivian (Julia Roberts), in Pretty Woman, and Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), in About a Boy, get caught singing aloud with their headphones on. Tellingly, neither gets particularly embarrassed by these amusing situations.

In Coen Brothers film The Big Lebowski, the Dude (Jeff Bridges) lays on his rug (which really ties the room together) relaxing to the sounds of a 1987 Venice Beach ten pin bowling play-off. He opens his eyes to Maude (Julianne Moore) and two goons standing over him, one of which knocks him out with a punch.

An elaborate and brilliantly choreographed dream sequence ensues that involves bowling – the sounds of which were playing on his headphones when he got knocked out – and Bob Dylan’s Man In Me which is playing when he wakes up. In some ways, this iconic sequence is grounded in the Dude’s use of headphones.

Even in 1963’s Charade, headphones could help set up a joke. As Reggie (Audrey Hepburn) is in the midst of translating a meeting for political leaders, she gets distracted by a kiss from Peter (Cary Grant). The room of politicians, all reliant on Reggie’s words through their headphones, turn around simultaneously to see what is happening.

As seen in Spike Jonze’s Her, we may all soon be wearing wireless headphones. More freedom or more detachment?

Headphones. Big in my life – and a musical tool used in many a film to brilliant effect.

Thank you for reading. Please like, share and comment!

Can you name another iconic moment in film involving headphones? Comment below

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Risk Producer Brenda Coughlin talks Assange, Censorship and Criticism

WE live in tense, volatile times. Trump, Brexit, Venezuela, artificial intelligence, North Korea, internet privacy, ISIS. Need I say more?

For many of us, the cinema can provide a space to escape to, at least momentarily. Currently, the riotous fun of Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver gives us this (go and watch it, please). Conversely, cinema can be a place where we confront and engage with difficult worldly issues.

Last Friday (June 30), London’s Bertha DocHouse (located at Curzon Bloomsbury) hosted a screening of Laura Poitras’ latest extraordinary documentary, Risk. This is the final film in her post 9/11 trilogy which features My Country, My Country (2006) and The Oath (2014).

The film’s showing was then followed by a Q&A with producers Brenda Coughlin and Yoni Golijov. It rounded off a challenging, enlightening (on a personal front) and, at times, hostile evening.

Poitras’ controversial film paints a fascinating portrait of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange over a six year period –  2010 to 2016. Thanks to access gained by Piotras through her connections with Field of Vision co-creator Charlotte Cook, audiences are privy to some remarkable and revealing moments involving the controversial Australian – episodes that tell the viewer a lot about his image, ego and fame.

They include the time Assange attempted – and failed  – to get in contact with Hilary Clinton from his hideout at Ellingham Hall, Norfolk. Also, the visit from pop-star Lady GaGa at the Embassy of Ecuador in London where he remains a virtual prisoner.

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Yet, it is the film’s focus on Assange’s handling of sexual assault allegations – made by two Swedish women in 2010 – that has provoked the most intense reaction. More worryingly, as far as Poitras is concerned, the wrath of WikiLeaks’ legal team.

This recently included cease and desist letters sent to US distributors. A tactic that Coughlin expects to see more of as the film is released in individual countries.  As she pointed out at the Q&A, the actions of WikiLeaks’ legal team are devised not only to discredit Risk but to prevent the film from reaching a wider audience.

Speaking defiantly on the eve of the film’s UK release, Coughlin explained her team’s position. She said:  ‘We showed cuts to many people in the film, not only WikiLeaks. We took their notes and took them very seriously. Some of those notes were insightful, some were points of correction or fact and some were, from our perspective, very much about image management.

‘Assange wanted the specific scenes in the film removed where he talked about the Swedish case. That was obviously not something we were willing to do. I do not think most directors would be willing to censor their film. We find it sad and obviously quite contradictory for an organisation that is dedicated, as we believe it is, to press freedom and additionally to transparency.’

Not everyone in attendance at the DocHouse was in agreement. One audience member voiced his dissent by stating the film and Coughlin’s words  amounted to a ‘hatchet job’. When Coughlin responded by asking for examples of the hatcheting, the individual struggled to articulate his answer (a genuine shame for those who wanted to hear the issue properly debated).

Coughlin still went on to rebut the claim by discussing Poitras’ cinema-verite style – an observational approach unlike on-screen documentary filmmakers Michael Moore (confrontational) and Louis Theroux (conversational).

She explained:  ‘It is a 90 minute film and Assange is in almost every frame. He speaks for himself. Those are his words and he is the one who says how he feels about the case. We followed aspects of the case, but as Laura has said publically, it wasn’t the film she set out to make – she set out to make one about journalism.

‘But that was what was happening. Assange didn’t think it was a ‘hatchet job’ when I showed it to him on April 1 [how ironic] at the embassy. It is a portrait that allows him and others to speak for themselves.’

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Picture via @Dogwoof on Twitter

The WikiLeaks’ legal team and hatchet job claims have not been the only hurdles that Poitras and her team have had to overcome. Just two weeks after a version of Risk was screened at the 2016 Cannes film festival, sexual abuse allegations surfaced surrounding another prominently featured character in the film – Jacob Appelbaum.

Coughlin admitted the Appelbaum allegations came as a ‘bombshell’ and threw the film’s future into doubt. She said: ‘We were either going to have to shelve the film or we would have to address it [the Appelbaum allegations].’

Of course, they opted for the latter and pushed back the film’s release. Coughlin continued: ‘How to address it [the Appelbaum situation] then became the struggle of the next year. Then the US election story happened and WikiLeaks was back on the front-page of the New York Times.’

Poitras and the Risk team ended up deciding on a technical tweak to address the Appelbaum allegations and the drastically shifted world context – a change that goes against Piotras’ cinema-verite style. Coughlin explained: ‘We went to the formal device of narration at a very late stage. It was something we really wrestled with.

‘It goes from production journal to very personal revelations. And it does change the film, but we felt the audience needed some outside observation to what is a very tight, closed and claustrophobic film. Which is obviously the experience of Assange. He was under detention and to this day remains in a very tight atmosphere. In the film this was some way to bring us out of that.’

Even with the addition of Poitras’ faint narration, Risk does not hand the viewer neatly drawn out conclusions. We are left to decipher scenes, to trust or not to trust and, in many cases, search beyond the film itself.

A few vocal participants at the DocHouse screening voiced their concern about this ambivalence – perhaps cautious of more sinister intentions. One man went as far as to question the film’s accessibility to ‘unsophisticated’ audiences.

Coughlin was quick to disagree: ‘For me, audiences are sophisticated. I think audiences, all audiences, always have incredible insight into films, into theatre, into poetry. I don’t think it’s a question of the sophisticated audience against the other.’

She then followed this by revealing what she believes willing viewers can obtain from Risk:  ‘I hope people come away from this film thinking seriously about the questions that we all face about information. What journalism means in an age of mass leaks, possibly with state actors involved.’

She added: ‘I was very interested to read about the role of the Chaos Computer Club, a hacker company based out of Hamburg in Germany, and their role in hacks for the upcoming German elections. Those are the kind of things we hope our film will address, but also we don’t want to lose sight of the story about abuse of power and sexual dynamics in organisations we work in as political activists, social movements and other kinds of work places.’

Risk is a challenging and stimulating film which I urge you to go and see. It will polarise audiences as it did at the Q&A.

It is also a risky and courageous film which Poitras, Coughlin and Golijov should take great credit for. Risks that maybe, in his more sanguine moments, Assange will secretly acknowledge and admire. After all, he is the ultimate risk taker.

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Click here for more info on the brilliant Bertha DocHouse

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Rules Don’t Apply Q&A with Warren Beatty

Rules Don’t Apply, out in cinemas this Friday (April 21), sees Hollywood legend Warren Beatty play the role of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes.

Those present at a sell-out Picturehouse Central screening of the film in London may be forgiven for believing Beatty, who also wrote and directed the film, had forgotten to slip out of character when he turned up for a Q&A with knowledgeable and enthusiastic host Edith Bowman.

Without much prompting, Beatty covered Ronald Reagan, Greta Garbo, Richard Nixon, Stanley Kubrick and pornography in a bizarre 40 minute discussion that ranged from aimless storytelling to uncomfortably abrupt responses.

Most of the audience were well past nervous laughter by the time Beatty had answered ‘I don’t know’ for the fifth time.

Through all this, there were still glimpses of charm that made Beatty one of Hollywood’s most desirable figures – and even left some fans chasing his car down the road when he was whisked away. Beatty clearly has the Hollywood aura which Rules Don’t Apply shows Hughes to have had.

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The film takes place in 1950’s Hollywood as the beautiful and virginal Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) arrives in Tinsel town with the promise from Hughes of big-screen stardom.

Along with her God-fearing chaperone mother (Annette Bening), Marla is assigned a handsome young driver called Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) who also dreams of making it ‘big’ with the help of Hughes – albeit through the less glamourous route of buying real estate in the Mullholland valley.

As the title implies, Frank and Marla defy the strict driver-actress rules and begin to develop a close relationship. But the young dreamers’ mutual desire to impress Hughes puts a strain on their burgeoning romance.

An interesting layer to Frank and Marla’s relationship is their sexually repressed Christian upbringings. This transition, from embracing Bible belt values to indulging in the overt sexuality of Hollywood is something many actors of the time, including Beatty, had to deal with.

He told the audience: ‘I had always wanted to make a film about a romantic relationship at the time when I first went to Hollywood in 1958. The ludicrousness of American puritanical sexual hypocrisy and how much it was in conflict with Hollywood, who were trying to sell sexiness all along.

‘I grew up in Virginia as someone who was very influenced by all that Bible Belt guilt. I asked a very famous person (who I won’t identity) who went through the same thing as a southern Baptist because the consummation of that horrendous act happened late. I asked how long it had taken to get over that and he said “about twenty minutes”. I’ve always found the subject sad and funny.’

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Once this romantic ‘obstacle’ is played out, Frank and Marla take a backseat to the antics of Hughes for much of the second half of the movie. Beatty, whose last film was Town and Country (2001), clearly revels in this outlandish and comedic part, which bar a few entertaining moments is largely exhausting.

He explained his decision to include Hughes in the film: ‘I did think he would be a terrifically funny character to cause things to happen and not happen. I never met him but I like to think I knew everyone who had met him. The people who knew him did like him a lot.’

After mentioning his long-held lusting for Garbo once again, Beatty got back on track: ‘There was a sort of fictitious mystery that would not be possible today with the technology we deal with today. There is so much information that is so distracting from the attempt to find depth. I’m talking about the news which is now entertainment.’

Funnily enough, Beatty’s dominant performance distracts from fine efforts by Lily Collins and Alden Ehrenreich (set to play a younger version of Harrison Ford’s Star Wars character Han Solo next year). The film certainly suffers as a result.

When asked about the duo, Beatty did offer praise and some insight into his approach to casting.

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He said: ‘I believe in something called the blink. That the unconscious knows a hell of a lot more that the conscious because it’s had a lot of years to be there. Sometimes the more you study a situation the less you know. Particularly when it comes to your concept of a character.’

‘A lot of people say character is plot but then casting is character, so then casting becomes plot. It didn’t take a long time to cast Lily and Alden. I was very struck by their level of integrity and that they were both good actors.’

Another actor he cast for the Rules Don’t Apply is his wife Annette Bening. After praising her fantastic film 20th Century Women (read my review here), Beatty endorsed the prospect of her moving behind the camera.

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He commented: ‘I feel she should direct. We are seeing a real breakthrough now with female directors. What would I say to try to be impressive? I think it’s the biggest thing happening in the world right now is the liberation and empowerment of the female. Next question.’

As for Beatty, he expects to make more films with his four children soon to fly the nest.  He compared the process of making films to vomiting: ‘It’s not that I like vomiting, I really don’t like to vomit and I don’t vomit very often but sometimes I’ll feel better if I just throw up.’

Rules Don’t Apply certainly is not Beatty’s prettiest pile of vomit – indeed, it left me feeling underwhelmed.

I put it  down to rustiness – and hope this Hollywood icon will  throw up something cinematically special in the future.

Thanks for reading. Please like, share and comment!

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Director Mark Craig talks about the last man on the moon

EUGENE Cernan, the last man on the moon, passed away in January.

The death of this American hero, Commander of the Apollo 17 mission, came as sad news to anyone aware of his incredible achievements, especially those with a passion for space history.

So it is no wonder an audience packed into The British Interplanetary Society (BIS) Headquarters in London to celebrate his life by hearing from a man who got to know Cernan well in the final years of his life.

Director Mark Craig, who has made a documentary chronicling Cernan’s life titled The Last Man on the Moon, spoke for nearly 100 minutes on his relationship and experiences with the great astronaut.

Craig’s film, released in cinemas in 2014, is a brilliant personal study that even the most novice space fan (like myself) can be enthralled and moved by.

It was a project Craig set his sights on after reading Cernan’s autobiography back in 2007.  He revealed the book had awoken a passion for space that he possessed as a child of the 1960’s – a time when the moon was an exciting new frontier.

Space missions were frequent and televised. Space technology was rapidly evolving and astronauts were considered by many as demigods.

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Craig soon discovered a film based around Cernan would not be the easiest to get off the ground. Years of frustrating negotiations with lawyers and the usual struggle of finding financial backers left him exasperated. Cernan also needed to be sure he could trust this English filmmaker with his legacy.

Fearing the project may never get approval, Craig emailed Cernan with an emotional plea about the film’s potential to inspire future generations of space enthusiast.

He also received an unexpected endorsement from Cernan’s friend – and Hollywood megastar – Harrison Ford. The actor supposedly gave the astronaut some sound advice: ‘it is not about you, it is about your story.’

The sentiment was enough to get Cernan on-board who then invited Craig and producer Gareth Dodds (a fellow Brit) to his ranch in Houston, Texas.

Here, the two Brits were exposed to Cernan’s lifestyle – the classic Texan cowboy attire, the rodeos and the cattle, admittedly kept for show more than anything else.  Inside his home were artefacts from Cernan’s varied career, including his time as an aviator. Alongside the astronaut paraphernalia was a burnt helmet from a near fatal helicopter crash.

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Surprisingly, it was in Cernan’s garage that the duo made their most important discovery. A treasure trove of family photos, professional photos and rolls of home movie film which Craig described as ‘gold dust’ for a documentary filmmaker.

He is right. This collection gives the film an incredible life that many stock-footage-heavy documentaries simply cannot capture. It also allowed Craig to give the film a distinct personal quality.

The Last Man on the Moon narrows in on Cernan as a person without getting bogged down in heavy science – an approach which Craig says favours ‘heart over head’.

As part of this personal tone, they decided to take Cernan back to important locations in his life – such as a launchpad , his home in Nassau Bay, an aircraft carrier and Arlington Cemetery.  Cernan, shown in the documentary to be a great storyteller and charismatic individual, then evokes his memories of these places in a way which would not have been possible had he been interviewed from the comfort of his ranch.

He was also given the courtesy of cinematographer Tim Cragg’s powerful camera (a focal lens of 18-290). Cragg and the crew set up the camera at a distance to allow Cernan plenty of space to reflect and act naturally . This non-intrusive approach is something that Craig believes gets interviewees to speak more freely and openly than being followed around by an in-your-face camera.

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For those in attendance at the BIS, Craig showed a few clips that did not make the 97 minute final cut for the theatrical release (the original cut was over three hours).

One clip that ended up on the cutting floor featured an amusing exchange between Cernan and Dick Gordon who were in competition to command the Apollo 17 crew. It had the audience in stitches and hungry for more.

For the time being, The Last Man on the Moon remains on UK Netflix until its licence runs out next month. Terrestrial television will then likely be its next destination.

But what is next up for Craig?

He revealed he wants to make a film about the tragic Apollo One incident with a similar personal touch. The rapport he built with Martha Chaffee – a widow of one of the three Apollo One astronauts and former neighbour of Cernan – during the shooting of The Last Man on the Moon makes such a project feasible.

Let us hope he can make it happen. It would be fitting tribute to the three who lost their lives so young: Lieutenant Commander Roger Chaffee, aged 31, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Gus Grissom, 39, and Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Ed White, 35.

On the evidence of The Last Man on the Moon, Craig would see to that.

Check out: The British Interplanetary Society

The Last Man on the Moon (available on Blu-Ray)

Thank you for reading. Please like, share and comment!

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