David Campion on The Fighter: Raging O Russell

It all started on Three Kings. Supposed battles with crew, scrapes with extras, and a blow up with everyone’s favourite liberal, George Clooney; say what you will about David O Russell, but the guy has heart. Speaking of heart, it was his next project, existential comedy I Heart Huckabees, which really sparked debate, when a video leaked of him kicking off at veteran actress, Lilly Tomlin. Both artist’s are obviously having a bad day, Tomlin herself is irritable and stressed, but after remaining silent for some time, O Russell lets spew a volcanic diatribe, resulting in pure YouTube gold.

These heated confrontations seem to be sparked by what makes O Russell special. He works in a loose, semi-improvised manner, giving his work a sense of urgency and spontaneity. However, there seems to be a communication failure somewhere between the great man and his accomplices, and this is his downfall. It’s no mystery why it’s taken six years for his next film, The Fighter, to be released.

Now in his fifties, it would appear the director has calmed down and possibly developed a new work ethic. The evidence of this new ethic is apparent in The Fighter, which is a lean, perfectly staged, exquisitely acted and directed piece of cinema. With a modest budget [somewhere around the $35 million mark], an ensemble cast [including a scenery chewing Christian Bale] and a very tight schedule [33 days]; The Fighter looks and feels like an effortless film.

Taking a very typical, cliché ridden underdog story and trying to inject it with a sense of vitality and importance is no mean feat. In fact, the boxing genre is one of the hardest to excel in, being overshadowed by both the archetypal underdog story, Rocky and the artful triumph, Raging Bull.  These factors, along with long history of the film [four writers, two directors, endless star changes], should point towards cinematic disaster, so why does The Fighter work???

The Fighter is very much an examination, not only of character ambitions and family dynamics, but societal demands. First, the location. Lowell, Massachusetts is the perfect urban setting to raise a fighter, as it proves “livin’ ain’t easy”. The residents of this predominately working class community are vocal in their thoughts and opinions about the characters, giving Micky Ward [Mark Wahlberg] the ‘underdog complex’. He’s passive, which for a boxer, is a pretty useless quality. Now let’s examine the family. Mother Alice Ward has not only produced two fighters, but seven ‘monstrous’ sisters. Seemingly growing up in a grim fairytale, Micky has to deal not only with a firecracker mother, but a former glory, now-turned-addict brother, who still manages to soak up all of the family’s admiration. This lack of love and nurture has obviously had a negative effect on Micky’s confidence, which could be a direct reason for his ‘stepping-stone’ reputation in the ring.

Dicky Ward [Christian Bale] is like a vacuum, demanding all of the attention from almost every character in the film. Interestingly, outside the realms of the film, Christian Bale is doing the same, receiving award nominations across the board and being the cast/crew member most likely to pick up an Oscar. I like to think his performance is in retaliation to The Dark Knight, where Heath Ledger picked up all of the accolades for his supporting turn as The Joker, while Bale had to play it straight. Now in the ‘joker’ role, Bale relishes every moment he is on screen, perfectly playing a waster way beyond his prime.

Amongst all this chaos, O Russell keeps a tight handle over the script, never deviating away from the all important structure. However, unlike more ‘mainstream’ affairs, The Fighter has a sense of truth. The supporting characters aren’t mere obstacle blocks, but living, breathing people. Occasionally flawed, but always likeable, each actor takes the character to a place of familiarity, enabling the audience to not only identify with them, but to emphasise with them as well.

Stylistically, O Russell has always had plenty of tricks up his sleeve. He moves the camera with pace, never restricting the moving shots to dollies, but employing vehicles to give them speed and excitement. However, his genius comes within the ring. Rather than competing with the untouchable Raging Bull, O Russell chooses to shoot the fight scenes using ‘video footage’. He captures the brutality within the ring, but from a perspective everybody is familiar with. Even when it comes to using slow motion he doesn’t sell out by using 35mm for a smooth finish, but allowing the jerkiness of the ‘HBO’ style to shine through. The direction in the film is non fussy and kinetic.

Whatever your opinions are of David O Russell, past or present, you really can’t question his integrity. As a successor of the ‘Sundance Kids’ stable, O Russell has established himself as an auteur. Much like Aronofsky [the once director of The Fighter, now billed as executive producer], O Russell’s next project is distinctly ‘Hollywood’. He is in talks to direct a feature based on the popular video game, Uncharted. So, in two-three years time, will two of the better ‘indie’ artists be battling it out for summer box office? Personally, I’m looking forward to Oscar race between Brett Ratner and Michael Bay.

David Campion is the Co – Director of Patrol Men

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Ian Fielding: Black Swan Revisited, Mum’s the Word

Since I wrote my original review of Black Swan, which you can find through the link below, I’ve developed and modified my position on the film’s secrets and meaning, and I’d like in this article to expand on my reading of the film’s dark subtext. As I stated in my original review, implanting difficult themes below the story surface is fairly standard screenwriting practice within certain genre films.

A quick recap: the film is ostensibly about a delicate, naive and innocent but highly talented ballet dancer who must access an edgier, more domineering and sexual part of her persona in order to successfully embody the role that she has won, that of the black swan, in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

We know Nina is already something on the edge but this challenge precipitates an incredible transformation that initiates delusions, terrifying hallucinations, self harm and eventually leads her to end her life.

So why? Why does the adoption of this role generate such a terrifying psychological upheaval within Nina?

For this role Nina is explicitly requested to interrogate her sexual character, a domain she has repressed from herself for a reason – namely that she is suffering from past and possibly continuing sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of her overbearing mother. It is as if the friction of simultaneous belief and denial about what has happened gives rise to these harrowing episodes.

Where is the evidence? Actually throughout the film it is continually dispersed. Firstly, Nina’s character, before her psychological meltdown, displays characteristics of an individual who has been abused, she is isolated, reserved, seems to find it hard to communicate with her fellow dancers, has possible trust issues, assertion issues, self-esteem issues.

Also look at the excessive infantilisation that she is subjected to, the childish bedroom with the stuffed toys, being dressed and undressed by mother. No lock on the door. When her friend Lily shows up at the door she is turned away by Erica, her mother. Infantilisation is a common practice deployed by abusers to forestall the sexual development of their victims.


When the dance choreographer Thomas kisses Nina she responds by biting his lip and then running away, is this deeply unusual act not the symptomatic behavior of the kind of person who has had to learn to defend themselves sexually?

Importantly the parallels between Lilly and Erica are continually made. Could it be that when Nina sees Lily she sees a safe or legitimate outlet for the sexual feelings that have been implanted in her by her mother?

Further hints arrive when Nina attempts to masturbate. Once on her bed and a second time in the bath. In the bedroom, Nina turns during the act to witness the presence of Erica asleep in her room, the presence is physically nonthreatening but deeply unnerving. In the bath the image has become a potential danger, it stares straight into Nina’s eyes, looking like some demonic mixture of Lily, Nina and Erica, as if the lines between these three characters has become blurred. Monstrously, Erica has invaded Nina’s fantasy space.

The key event in Nina’s sex life during the film is the night of her drugged drunken debauches, when she apparently takes Lily back to her apartment after having fucked (as she puts it), two boys in the nightclub. The mother appears, in exactly the same way as Lily appears to Nina in an earlier scene at the dance studio. Erica proceeds to fiercely admonish Nina as if no one else where there, uttering the telling phrase ‘Shut your mouth’ Now Nina runs to her bedroom and sleeps with a woman, and we know that Lily emphatically denies having been there. So who was with Nina? The person who was there clearly utters the phrase, ‘my sweet girl’ before holding a cushion over Nina’s head. This is Erica’s trademark phrase. This is only really the beginning of this series of disturbing clues. There are, echoing through the film, many more reverberations on this theme.

A very common reaction is to brush aside the logic of the picture by diagnosing Nina with schizophrenia and leaving it at that, without considering the origin of our hero’s disturbance. Sadly, and I think in this case, a little uncannily, this pattern all too often repeats itself outside of the cinema, in the real world.

Further evidence of the importance of cinema in mobilising public debate.

Read my original article HERE

My name’s Ian. I’m a writer and Filmmaker from London currently shooting my second feature film – a detective thriller called Dead Unicorns

To see pics, a trailer and what’s currently happening with Dead Unicorns click here:

http://deadunicornsfilm.wordpress.com

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Ben Simpson on Angst: Portrait of a Serial Failure

We follow a psychopath as he finishes his term in prison. He has no ambitions in life other than to commit murder and return to jail. He’s been planning this ever since he first went in, four years ago. After a failed and pathetic attempt to kill a taxi driver shortly after his release, our killer quickly exits the car and leaves his master plan behind. Stumbling across a rural mansion, things don’t get any easier as he breaks in and hides, waiting for potential victims. Four years wasn’t enough time for this master plan.

The killer (played by Erwin Leder) speaks his mind, not communicating with the outside world, but talking in voice-over, directly to the audience. This method works perfectly, transporting us into the mind of a deranged and desperate killer. It acts as a running commentary to the real-time flow of the film, adding a different dimension to the piece, heightening the images that plaster the screen.

When the victims return home (an elderly woman, her mentally-retarded wheel-chair bound son and a carer) they look doomed from the outset. They should be easy targets for the killer, but he soon loses any romanticized vision of his killings as he panics and struggles desperately for an empowerment and dominance over his victims that he never achieves. The violence is quick, painful and exhausting. The camera latches on to the characters, never giving in to the quick cuts of modern cinema. What fascinated me most was the victims never cry out for help, they never really look threatened for their lives, just puzzled and waiting for the killer to make his next move as he stacks up his failures. This is a character that has no redeeming qualities and who keeps on getting worse scene by scene.

In this sub genre, especially in Hollywood, the killer will have a certain amount of charisma about him. Erwin Leder looks as if he stumbled straight out of a mental hospital and onto a film set, his gollum like face and darting eyes only add to his frantic performance. A far cry away from the James Dean-esque Henry (Henry: Portrait of a serial killer). The killer in Angst can’t even kill properly.

The greatest achievement is the style. For a film so vile and repugnant thematically, technically it’s a work of art and true beauty. The camera work in this Austrian film is unlike anything I’ve seen from the 80′s. Techniques aren’t used for show but sparingly, creating a fluid pace flowing organically from one scene to the next, which must be credited to director (Gerald Kargl) and Cinematographer (Academy Award Winner Zbigniew Rybczynski). It’s akin to the works of early Darren Aronofsky and Gaspar Noé, pre-dating them by many years.

I find it unbelievable and very sad that this team didn’t go on to do another feature. Who knows what boundaries they could have pushed next if they got another break, it’s better to burn out that fade away I guess. All this with an eerie, brooding, and at times electro score (performed by Klaus Schulze who was briefly in Tangerine Dream who scored the highly underrated ‘Strange Behavior’) makes for essential viewing. Angst will grow in cult status year upon year.

Ben Simpson is the Co – Director of Patrol Men

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Ian Fielding on Never Let Me Go: Lovers not Fighters

Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains, as Rousseau noted at some point when he wasn’t encouraging women to breastfeed. But sometimes the problem is not so much that we are in chains, but that we don’t even realise that we are in them to begin with.

That’s the problem with our trio of heros in Never Let Me Go, the Alex Garland adapted version of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 sci-fi novel. In a neat take on the wage slaves of the meaningless capitalist treadmill, our isolated stars are clones, born and bred to provide organs for those who require them to survive. After their first three donations, the majority of clones are dead.


Where does a clone find distraction? In affairs of the heart, with the backdrop of impending mortality amplifying the pitch of feeling. Kathy (Carey Mulligan) loves Tommy (Andrew Garfield) yet Tommy is with Ruth (Keira Knightley). The clinch? We know in an unspoken way that Tommy loves Kathy – but he’s quite happy banging Keira Knightley. (what’s he like eh?) Once that dynamic is established the film suspends itself on the constant knife edge of Kathy’s plaintive yearning. At all times we hear the soft thump of Mulligan’s heart in pain, it’s in there rests the film’s hidden force. I love scenes in films where people react to music and there’s a few nice moments of Kathy listening to the cassette tape ‘Never Let Me Go’ that Tommy has given her. The director Mark Romanek never seeks to deploy genre gimmicks or dazzle us with tour-de-force virtuosity and so steers for us a path of pleasant and subdued ambiance, that arches up gently to the occasional emotive swell.

The clones (a smart, sensitive, Carey Mulligan, territorial pisser Keira Knightley, and the shuffling softy with a burning anger within, Andrew Garfield) never quite rise to challenge the authority that will leave them dead in the gutter, instead they empower it with homespun mythologies. This is a backwards tribute to Hailsham, the bleak boarding school they grew up in, and its effective brainwashing.


Those who’ve seen John Carpenter’s ingenious They Live will know that Hailsham is all around us. The media gently manufacture a universal standpoint for us, and as the clones show, it can be all too easy to lap it up. Especially when the majority of voices that we hear are driven by the secret imperative to score some coins. Never before has the species been so focused on coercing itself to part with money as a central recipe for its life. As we slowly converge into a giant selling tool, the way we understand ourselves becomes increasingly superficial. The choice is yours: kick ass now or sit around and wait for the ‘next communism’ to arrive. It almost makes you want to bring back that ol’ blood-sport fav, religion. Thank god for science, art and Carey Mulligan.

Ishiguro knows of another exit through this gift shop, even as his clones lie back on the operating table while surgeons extract their vital organs, the film’s meaning does not turn towards fighting the power but finding the good and true within their controlled universe. They may have been trapped, but they did have love for a while, and that meant the world to them. Ishiguro fucking loves it.

My name’s Ian. I’m a writer and Filmmaker from London currently shooting my second feature film – a detective thriller called Dead Unicorns

To see pics, a trailer and what’s currently happening with Dead Unicorns click here:

http://deadunicornsfilm.wordpress.com

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David Campion on Humpday: Keep your friends close. How Close?

Humpday is a mumblecore film. Let’s get it straight; mumblecore doesn’t necessarily equate to mumbling. In fact, Ben and Andrew, the two thirty-somethings inhabiting director Lynn Shelton’s Humpday, are both articulate and verbose.

Mumblecore, the film movement, fits in nicely between true American indie and the alternative pathway to cinematic success known as Indiewood. With a recognisable aesthetic, usually distinguished by a tell-tale digital handycam look, Mumblecore is driven by a wave of filmmakers who aren’t waiting for the typical indie budget [indie does not mean cheap] and are opting instead to shoot ultra lo-fi dramas with very three dimensional characters at their heart.

Humpday feels like a broad comedy, not 100 miles away from an Apatow flick. Pairing mumblecore icon, Mark Duplass [who, along with brother Jay, recently directed the Sundance breakout Cyrus] and Joshua Leonard [one of the few faces from The Blair Witch Project still visible in the industry], Shelton deconstructs the male psyche and explores male friendship and, to an extent, sexuality. Plot wise, the film exists as a simple logline; ‘Can two straight best friends have sex for the sake of art?’ Wrap your head round that and try to write a 90 minute film.

Boasting a sense of naturalism lacking from mainstream comedies, Humpday takes a potentially silly concept and injects it with warmth, humanity and intelligence. Showing a savvy understanding of male relationships, Shelton’s camera remains almost invisible; never straying for style, nor using extreme angles for cinematic effect. Instead, the audience are given front row tickets to enjoy the complications of friendship, especially when sexuality and masculinity are questioned.

A key scene involves Andrew [Leonard], being offered a threesome involving two arty girls [one played by director Shelton]. As any freewheeling, warm blooded male would, Andrew jumps at the chance, spreading himself between the two desirable females. However, when a dildo pops up [literally] into the equation, Andrew is hesitant and eventually cowards away. Now, if Andrew can’t permit a dildo to enter a sexual scenario, how will he react to a real life penis?  Or, is it the circumstances of the dildo? Is he threatened by female sexuality, especially as he would be competing with a perfect version of the male sexual organ? Surely he couldn’t offer as much pleasure as a manufactured sex weapon?  However hard we try, we’ll never get our dicks to vibrate!

Some would say Humpday is a critique of the male specie. Whether it’s competition on the basketball court, or competition in the bedroom; the primitive desire to ‘one up’ one other is what urges these two straight men to have sex in the first place. However, maybe it’s less about being the ‘bigger man’ and more about the worry of slipping into real adulthood. Ben is in a stable marriage and trying to have a child. Andrew is an artist and a drifter [described as Kerouac by Ben], but both men are nearing middle age, something which affects everybody, however different their lives are. Is having a sex with your friend the ultimate way too say “FUCK YOU” to society? Will the profundity of the moment be enough to turn the hands of time back and unite them as the friends they once were? Take what you will from both the conclusion and the sentiment, but one thing cannot be denied; Humpday is an accurate representation of the timelessness of friendship. Heart-warming, natural and deeply affecting… Take that Judd Apatow!


David Campion is the Co – Director of Patrol Men

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Ian Fielding on Black Swan: Sexual repression, lesbianism and incest please, we’re British.

So Black Swan has performed gamely at the UK box office. Certainly much better than its cousin title, Aronofsky’s last film, The Wrestler. Why might this be? The high art of the ballet world certainly brings in the older audiences, but what else separates this film from the The Wrestler?

In many great films there is often something happening behind the scenes the audience is unaware of. In fact, it works better if the audience is not aware. What am I talking about? Sub-story – the dark and traumatic core that lies at the heart of certain films, creating deeper emotion, meaning, ambiguity.

But these are dark and bizarre waters. Their meanings are hidden, like dream time where the human mind seems unable to confront simple truths directly. Their truth needs to be excavated from below the innocent surface appearance. Just as fairy tales are disguised life lessons for children, these adult fairy tales take on mature dark themes and wrap them in a shroud of fantasy. If you think any of this is strange, I have two words for you, Michael Jackson.

Examples: much talk has been made of Ridley Scott’s Alien being an allegory of male rape. In Hitchcock’s The Birds, the birds are seen as a manifestation of the mother protecting her son from the amorous advances of his lover – a manifestation of pure incestuous rage. In The Exorcist Regan MacNeil’s supernatural convulsions are read not as demonic possession but as the violent aftershocks of sexual molestation at the hands of Burke Dennings, one of the films lesser characters.

So following this logic where does that leave black swan? I would say that the single great achievement of black swan is to double this logic back on itself. What do I mean?

Nina Sayers is a young, determined, hardworking and technically accomplished ballet dancer. Socially she is sexually naive, polite, subservient, and tentative in assertion, introverted, a loner.

Having landed her dream role as the Swan Queen she must delve into her dark side in order to draw out the qualities that are required for her to play the passionate chaos and dark sensuality of the black swan.

There are four other key figures in Nina’s life: the mother, the teacher, her rival and her predecessor. Her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey) is classically domineering; she must perceive herself as a failed trajectory, alone and painting cartoonish paintings, herself a failed dancer.

The rival, Lily (Mila Kunis) is the threat, both for the role and the affections of the teacher. Lily outwardly personifies the Black Swan, she sports a natural sexual maturity, candid frankness, the ability to get what she wants, and her proximity to Nina helps unleash these dimensions inside her.

The dance teacher, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) provides an interesting dynamic. We’re never quite sure if he’s trying to seduce Nina or just bring out the best in her dancing by provoking her sexually.

The predecessor, Beth (Winona Ryder) is the film’s store house for Nina’s feminine fear of aging and living up to the male ideal.

Now here is the critical point. Nina suffers from scratches on her back, possibly self inflicted night wounds. In a troubling piece of bodily dysmorphia these scratches eventually develop into the complete physical manifestation of the black swan.

The big question. Where did the unease that brought on the scratches originate? Simple answer: the sexual proximity of the mother, best typified by the masturbation scene where Nina discovers her mother is in the room with her. The mother has literally entered Nina’s fantasy space. At another point Nina licks icing off the end of her mother’s finger and later it is her mother’s phallic fingers that are slammed against the door when Nina finally rebels and shuts her out of her room.

There is passing resemblance in Lily to Nina’s mother. It is as if Nina’s lesbian encounter with Lily becomes a legitimate outlet for her repressed incestuous feelings. So here we arrive at the typical sub story reading of Black Swan. Very good.

So we could take this further and speculate that Nina’s mother has violated Nina in the past, but no, I think not, here I would suggest another reading. I think Nina’s mother is more or less the innocent here. I think she plays a complimentary role to the dance teacher. Erica sexualises her relationship with her daughter to fill a void in the dancer’s (and her) life, just as the apparently sleazy choreographer seems more interested in unleashing Nina’s dangerous sexuality, not for a cheap rustle in the sheets but a higher calling, for performance.

The theme of black Swan is sacrifice for art. Nina does not play the game of life; instead she opts to be the carrier of a sublime moment that gives meaning, the response to a mysterious calling, played to perfection.

Read my follow-up article on Black Swan HERE

My name’s Ian. I’m a writer and Filmmaker from London currently shooting my second feature film – a detective thriller called Dead Unicorns

To see pics, a trailer and what’s currently happening with Dead Unicorns click here:

http://deadunicornsfilm.wordpress.com

Follow FilmAche on Twitter