Chicken – the brilliance of this British debut

Chicken_stillDirector: Joe Stephenson
Title: Chicken
Production: B Good Picture Company Ltd.

This film was screened in the official selection at Edinburgh International Film Festival 2015.

Fiona is the chicken. She belongs to Richard (Scott Chambers) who lives in a caravan with his distressed elder brother Polly (Morgan Watkins). There is also a privileged girl who lives ‘next door’ called Annabell (Yasmin Paige), but she comes later. It is correct, Polly is a dude and the chicken has a name, but these are positively not the only measurements of individuality in the film. Richard has learning difficulties. I do not want to diagnose Richard, and the film is wise not to ask this of us. Richard is able to live out his life with the idiosyncrasy defined by his own actions, rather than any pre-described definition being attached to his being. This is perhaps the most beautiful thing about the film: its evenhanded approach and ability to make the audience live alongside Richard’s curious sensibility. We are able to laugh through the eyes of Richard and equally handle his heartfelt and enriching emotions.

Joe Stephenson, the debut director with a vision to behold, is effortlessly tailored towards the uncensored and picturesque world of Richard. Richard really has a stronghold over this picture. He is utterly compelling. The majority of this traction comes from his love-hate relationship with Polly. They are both victims of each other, victims of genetics (“born wrong” as Polly cries in a pivotal scene), and victims of their own poverty. Polly knows this and it frequently causes him to lose his cool and release the fire of a most austere temperament. He blames Richard for their world of monotony and is desperate for a new chapter in his life. Polly no longer wants to look after Richard, but the irony is that Richard does a very good job of looking after himself. He is seemingly content with very little: he has chickens, fields to play in, and baby tigers to catch!

Richard_chickenThe most touching scene in the film takes place between Richard and his unlikely new friend Annabell, a lively young lady with plenty of charm and pretty looks. They warm to each other as Richard shows her the forest where his adventurous imaginings of nature take place, hence the baby tigers and other similar conceptions. The relationship dynamics are reminiscent in spirit of Before Sunrise or The Spectacular Now, but unfortunately without the promise of love blooming. There is no denying Richard’s charm, but can he really fit into Annabell’s world? There is a harsh truth running under the surface, it fills the picture with incessant sadness.

The film does a powerful job of crosscutting between the innocent daily activities of Richard and the more corrupt habits of Polly, which include a sidesplitting attempt at stealing a motorbike from the local scrapyard. Unfortunately for Polly, he is not well versed in the art of manipulation and will land himself in frequent scenes of difficulty. While moments of laughter are allowed, the film is adamant not to shy away from the realities of such situations. It is a hard life and heartbreaking conclusions will be reached. Richard is merciful and Polly utterly merciless. A scene of impermeable strain shows the two brothers come head to head in a ferocious battle that is instantly a memorable piece of drama. At times, the dramatics can come close to overcooking, the theatrical context rather explicit, but the ingredients are just so fine and authentic that the latter can easily be forgiven.

Polly_chickenAdapted from a play of the same name by Freddie Machin and written for the screen by Chris New (known for his lead performance in Andrew Haigh’s breakout LGBT drama Weekend), the script is sealed impeccably with every beat pushing the audience deeper into the conflicts of its characters. The story is simple and almost too efficient in structure for its own good, but the many layers of intention and the inevitable complexity of such characters is munificent and suffice to say, enough to keep our thoughts alive and stirring. Regardless of formatting and any other rubric, Scott Chambers is so unreservedly unique in his performance as Richard that one feels he could hold the floor by himself without any direction whatsoever. A film made up of these observations could reap great reward, and the viewpoint of Stephenson’s filmmaking fits perfectly into this mold.

It is a formidable challenge for a play to be adapted onto the screen, retain its core in a plausible manner and still be original. Chicken goes beyond these expectations, everything from impulsive performances to bottomless shades of green are presented with the utmost distinction. It is an astonishing piece of work that stands all alone. The film has no companion piece and doesn’t aim to make comparisons. It treats cinema like gold dust and shares a rich profit. 5/5

Watch a clip from CHICKEN below:

The Drop – There’s enough to play with

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The Drop (US/2014)

UK Release by 20th Century Fox – 14th November 2014

Directed by Michaël R. Roskam

Brief Synopsis: Everyone in the neighbourhood works together to make a living. The past can be haunting and the future must be sourced at any cost, law abiding or not. Bob Saginowski finds himself entangled right at the centre after a string of unfortunate events. 

There is an assuring sense of dread, morbid humour and a fine American setting for a simmering thriller: the deep of Brooklyn. This weighted tale from Dennis Lehane (we know the work must be formidable coming from the guy who wrote Mystic River and Gone, Baby Gone) is deliberately paced with a natural development of cause-effect. However, it can feel all too similar at times, and the plot can certainly dwindle depending on your viewpoint. I think the key to this film is that it is character driven, the dialogue is intriguing through its disparate layers of meaning, and that it has Tom Hardy approaching the material with absolute sensitivity and an extraordinarily convincing Brooklyn accent, especially for a born Londoner.

Although, it is not quite the memorable James Gandolfini performance I was hoping for, perhaps Hardy is too impressive; it is certainly exciting to see Hardy rise to similar heights as Gandolfini and even beyond. Whilst great actors pass, new generations continue to bring their organic insight to the field; there are more great stars in the making today (and certainly more actors lingering for the near future) than, I believe, there ever have been.

Directed by Michaël R. Roskam, in what is only his second feature, it is great to see more European sensibility come to the screen. The mood is tinged with uncooked sadness, but there is a contentment to be found in the Brooklyn low-life. Roskam directs with hope, he captures even the smallest acts and moments that give purpose to Hardy’s life. These moments creep up on us and draw to a riveting conclusion, but a conclusion that still has plenty of room left for reflection and doesn’t defy the depth of mystery under the veil of Hardy’s character, Bob.

3.5/5 stars

Mr. Turner – Impressive, but not quite worth it

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Mr. Turner (UK/2014)

UK Release by Focus Features – 31st October 2014

Directed by Mike Leigh

Brief Synopsis: A portrait of J.M.W Turner’s life that chronicles various exploits and artistic endeavours. 

Scene by scene Mr. Turner is exquisite in portrait and admirable in context. However, this does not make it compelling, rather the steady pacing and acts are underwhelming in their progression and execution. The drama is not as thirsty as one feels it should be; the cog driving the machine seems to be missing. To be even more disparaging, it could come under the category of a bit messy and predictable. Whilst many elements of the filmmaking process (design, costume etc.) are flawless and no doubt award winning, the character of Mr. Turner does not express the emotional range, which I’d hoped for from an artist, to carry this great spectacle. The performance by Timothy Spall is clearly engrossing of certain behaviours but only adequate in whole.

This is not a critique of Turner’s works of art, which are glorious and formidable, it is a critique of the non-apparent flexibility and miscellany of occurrence that should be prevalent in a mans life. It is not an easy film to pull apart, for it is most likely very accurate indeed and Mike Leigh, of course, has the masters’ touch. Yet, at two and a half hours long, the virtuosity and steady pacing run to the end of the line. I struggle to find another way to express my dissatisfaction, it is perhaps just one of those films you expect to be wholly great, but turns out just to be good.

Timothy Spall as Mr. Turner is grumpy, methodical and plain rude. This is not surprising of an artist, who must have their ups and downs, yet it ends here; there is no further insight into the man, he doesn’t let us in and perhaps that is more powerful for this picture. But, what about the touching spirit that brings out those raw brush strokes? Where is the life of this man who finds such inspiration? This critique may be more suited to Turner himself than Leigh’s film; I obviously cannot know this fact. What I do know, is that film is fortunate enough to be accepted and advantageously allowed to explicitly dramatise into fiction, and therefore I want to see an altogether noteworthy and enthusing character up there on the screen.

Turner’s fellow artists (Haydon, Constable, Eastlake, Soane et al.) bring together the most prosperous and exciting scenes with great wit and thought on display. Mark Stanley as Clarkson Stanfield is particularly amusing in his perceptive mode of sheer aristocratic persuasion. The vibrant lifestyle of the artists is eminent, yet once we are back with Turner it is only desolate, solemn and sexually frustrated. The housemaid is the primary asset of Turner’s desires; she is submissive and disarmingly played by Sandy Foster. The rest of the supporting cast rightly deserves a nod and Lesley Manville is noticeably in full swing to continue her extensive work with Leigh.

The cinematography by Dick Pope can be breathtaking and masterful; in particular the shots of Turner walking the hills at dawn with his little sketchbook. If only there were more of these intimate sequences with nature, which so dearly express where Turner’s vision lies and which showcase the beauty of the United Kingdom. Admittedly, they must have been very time-consuming shots, the weather being as unpredictable as it often is in the UK! The framing and composition is indeed flawless, but it is not always as powerful as one should hope. There just isn’t the reticence of cinematic language I feel could have been reached. It is another impressive work by Leigh, but I am sure he could have sharpened his brushwork.

3/5 stars

The Riot Club – It is controversial and uncertain, but not to be missed either

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The Riot Club (UK/2014)

UK Release by Universal Pictures International – 19th September 2014

Directed by Lone Scherfig

Brief Synopsis: It is all about reputation and worth in this destructive depiction of two first-year students at Oxford University falling under hard times.

It is almost an edge of your seat thriller, but perhaps for all the wrong reasons. I moaned, clutched my churning stomach and even felt like spitting across the room at one point (in disgust that is). There was even the occasional glance down at my watch, never a good sign. Yet, this is certainly evidence of Lone Scherfig provoking a significant response, for the actions are fatally immoral, preposterous, and unfortunately, pretty funny by way of disgustingly indulgent acts. The characters all distill an air of oddball humour, distaste and intrigue. It is, in fact, a compelling mix of attributes for the once entertained viewer.

What do these students really believe about society? Is it all a mask? Of course, but need the mask ever be broken? Not if money is in the equation. Yet, is Scherfig being irrationally exploitative of Oxbridge and overtly indulgent for no apparent reason? Well, yes, but then lets drop the context and focus on the individual; we have all met a similar character to those in The Riot Club. The film is highly relatable on a singular theme of the enslavement of power and money, the latter the contributor to the former!

Of course, these rich individuals do not have to be public schoolboys, although public schoolboys clearly attribute a higher ratio of this addiction, so it is clear that Scherfig has latched onto this welcomed state of class in Britain. It is inevitable, therefore, that this film will greatly offend those who are part of the institution, it may even make others decide on Durham instead, or it may make the alienated and yobbish youth of our society (again a generalisation, but this is largely a generalised film we are talking about) work harder so that they can go to a good university and partake in unthinkable acts with rich friends. Not too good either!

I believe that Scherfig is highlighting the obscene acts that the youth of today often feel compelled to get involved in; it is that vile term that is so infectious: the ‘lad’ culture. Here things may be spiced up for dramatic effect, but such similar imprudent acts can be witnessed on the sidewalk in any town (and more often than not, by the youth of today). So, buckle up for disagreement or settle in haste for a noteworthy film with impressive performances from a young and promising cast of British male actors.

3.5/5 stars

Magic in the Moonlight – It is Woody Allen

magic-in-the-moonlight

Magic in the Moonlight (US, 2014)

UK Release by Sony Pictures Classics – 19th September 2014

Written and Directed by Woody Allen

Brief Synopsis: A profound romantic comedy about a pessimistic yet largely successful magician sent to unmask a likely fraud in the South of France.

Woody Allen manages to dispel a number of his perilous qualms surrounding mortality and the meaning of life into this loveably quotable and highly imaginative little picture. My favourite line from the film being: “You’re born, you commit on crime, and then you’re sentenced to death.” It is simply a delight for fans. There is ample intelligence to be sourced beneath the dialogue and turn of events in this film; it is a lesson in existentialism and it will open up a wonder of insightful queries for your mind to dwell on (but, don’t dwell for too long!). There are illustrious characters in tasteful dramatic conflict, elegant costumes, classy music, amiable and warm cinematography and just about whatever else you’d expect from Allen. However, if you aren’t a fan of Allen’s work, forget it, you will hate the film!

The plot is straightforward and the twist is undeniable, but this is no reason not to seep with enjoyment. In this case, one can know what to expect from Allen and that be the pure reason for the enjoyment. The charm and wit of his filmmaking is on show and it is an admirable trait, so thoroughly grounded in his vast body of work that we can forgive the odd slip-up and count it for bonus points.

Colin Firth plays the pessimistic magician who acts as we imagine Allen himself would; the character evidently explores Allen’s feelings and beliefs, as every good writer hopes to achieve through their characterisation. Firth is cast well and acts with the clear self-loathing and doubt that is needed for the typically unfriendly hermit. Although, I continue to struggle with his persona, the sly appearance that finds its way into all his films. However, it fits the character here, so the traits merge rather uncannily. Every turning point for Firth is leaps and bounds and one might feel a gurgle of over-acting, yet in the world of this hopeless world, the latter becomes manageable and a flamboyant image of the 20s. At times, I would have found the film more appealing if Allen had taken on the role, no doubt he would have been flapping all over the place, but he might have carried off the part with greater conviction (because he would be playing himself). This reminds me of Kenneth Branagh’s performance of an Allen archetype in Celebrity, which was spot-on; unfortunately, with Firth that isn’t the case so you have to give him an alternate epitome.

Emma Stone, dare I say, is somewhat divine in her portrayal of the young socialite spirit seeker. She is the perfect gauge of timid and alluring. Every subtle gesture can be read a number of ways, and it becomes clear that everyone is falling head over heels for her intriguing ways. There is the comedy that Stone brings to the character that excels; one can imagine a young woman travelling away from America in the 20s to be having just as much fun and commotion. Her obsessive admirer and the rest of his family are catastrophically ludicrous and provide much amusement in the way of tantalising prose and burlesque behaviour. Allen’s characters always sound wildly fictitious, yet they frankly resonate in conveying the truth behind certain ways of human beings and thus implement profound meanings. This makes a film special, and for me it is what makes Allen’s so enthralling.

There is a curious substance in Allen’s films that is hard to expound, it is neatly wrapped up in his pictures; the ingredient might be a direct belief explicated to the audience but without the bite; it is a piece of an artists integrity. Allen’s genius has not wavered despite what many critics say; the Allen that many of us know and love is still there to enjoy and explore further, as every new picture entails. I believe audiences get lazy when an artist grows old; I say stop reminiscing over Annie Hall and view each picture in the light of a fresh or, rather, more refined soul. Magic in the Moonlight explores the meaning of life and its inexplicable possibilities more head on than ever before; one way of looking at it is that the poor man still has no answers to life and its multifarious frustrations!

4.5/5 

BAFTA and The Next Generation

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BAFTA do a great job of hosting attractive events. They make sure the tables are round and lined with clean white linen and that there is plenty of water to go around, but more importantly, they bring in a wealthy host of professional talent to share their experiences. This weekend they held a “Generation Next” day for TV at Salford, MediaCityUK. It was a packed day covering five one-hour panel sessions from production management to building an audience beyond TV. Certainly, a vast number of industry professionals walked in and out the door, all pretty much concluding with the same advice: “it’s really hard to break in”, “be passionate” and “be persistent”.

However, as the day was home “to the best minds in the industry” I do want to share a few pointers that don’t necessarily float explicitly around the web, but more than knowledge, it is no doubt the stimulus that such a day gives you that is worth holding on to. Also, meeting fellow generations can be hopeful, you all exchange cards in the confidence that one-day you will be sitting in a position to give them a call and chat about your great jobs. Of course, there is the person who goes a little overboard and throws a pile of cards at everyone; it isn’t the most appealing form of communication. I have decided I need a business card holder on my desk; otherwise the bin jumps at the opportunity. I’ll stop being cynical; as it was encouraging to see many talkative and enthusiastic contemporaries, and after all, 10 years down the line we will all be in the sinking boat together.

So, I’ll talk about some of the positives from the day, be they areas of encouragement from the panel or general insights, and then I’ll mention a few rebuffs, all though they pretty much boil down to “it’s really hard to break in” and “everyone has a different way in.” It almost became a rather depressing day; the talks and atmosphere fuel you with inspiration but subsequently act as a quilt of disguise into the actual industry.

Judy Counihan, head of drama and film at Objective Productions, came up from London to talk about the hit show Fresh Meat on which she is executive producer. She was joined by one of her writers, Tony Roche, to discuss the “anatomy of a TV hit.” They went into an interesting amount of detail regarding the process for writers in TV and their relationship with the actors, director and producer. Though, I want to mention a few things Judy said about developing the writing team. She talks about bringing on quite a few new writers for the show, she reasons new writers to have an authentic voice and looked for writers with experience in stage plays. She also went on to add that she likes actors who turn to writing their own material, perhaps this could be a question for a deeper understanding of character or action. Whilst she didn’t elaborate further on her recruitment process, she was clear to inform: “the craft of writing is about re-writing.”

Colin McKeown, head producer of LA Productions in Liverpool led the next panel and he certainly had character, he gave the freshest approach of the day, explicitly telling everyone to make the most of the day and ask ample questions even if they are dumber than dumb, after all, “you’ve paid for it!” It was much needed laughter to keep everyone fully engaged; the 7am train and lack of breakfast was beginning to settle in for me and my friend sat next to me. Notwithstanding Colin’s entertainment, the panel was the most interesting for me, discussing production management from a perspective that clearly crosses over all genre and modes of production. Nadia Jaynes who is a freelance Line Producer (Bedlam, Exile, Red Riding) and also manages her own company (Strawberry Films) said she loves people who make short films and take the getting out there and doing it yourself approach, which is encouraging as some panel speakers hinted at such endeavours as futile and regarded getting your foot in the actual door, as a runner, more beneficial. It clearly depends on ones aspirations, but what has been made explicit is that you can either spend 15 years working your way up the floor and AD (assistant director) department to a PM (production manager) or do it yourself and build a team (albeit not easy with no money, but as they all say, “persistence” and “passion” will get you through).

Regarding CVs, Nadia looks for exact comments or words that match the project or job advertisement – the solution seems simple: copy and paste in and around the words of the advert. Similarly, only state relevant experience in your CV that exactly matches the role. I can remember putting everything from gaffer to boom operator on my CV, simply because I set up a light when I was running and worked the sound on a two man shoot. It isn’t exactly lying but it doesn’t suggest you have specifically crafted skills and as a panellist later on said, “quality is better than quantity”. It puts Nadia off and rightly so, you wouldn’t employ someone who wasn’t clear about his or her intentions. (I say as I currently edit my CV).

The next panel was a battle between the soaps: Emmerdale’s Crew Manager, Hollyoaks’s Head of Production and Coronation Street’s Production Manager. They provided some light entertainment that included trying to prove who carries out the biggest stunt each year (factors including budget and level of danger) and generally disagreeing on some methods of production. It was nevertheless (in fact, as a consequence) invaluable insight. Key pointers I took away from the discussion include “never say no” when you are working, you always find a way to do what you can collaboratively, that across the industry the Assistant Directors are generally underrated at what they do and there are more positions opening up in this department, and finally, that one should be punctual on set and respect the discipline. One speaker mentioned (to paraphrase) that they had a runner slouched over for most of the day looking in the other direction – it is pretty obvious what you should do instead.

After the clash of the continuing dramas was over it was time for the specific discussion relating to career strategy. Whilst most of this was chatter you’ve had drilled into you for the past few years, there were some refreshing opinions on the matter. Primarily, Daniell Morrisey, the Head of Talent at BBC Comedy, gave a snappy and conclusive speech on how to do your CVs once and for all – call it a mini-masterclass. There is the obvious, but there is also the little test of holding your CV out in front of you and applying the “two-second rule”, can you get a clear picture in two seconds? By having a significant design (perhaps indented margins or columned bullet points) and a short and snappy bold mission statement with punchy words and straight to the point, Daniel believes you can. Another panellist, Sumi Connock, Creative Director for Entertainment at ITV Studios, adds that you must do your research (we have all sent our CV to a company from our desperate spreadsheets of future employers, without really knowing much about what they produce or their goals). Sumi wants actual opinions when she interviews people, you must be interested in the content. It is common sense, but it is also easily forgotten when all you want is your “foot in the door”. It circles back to being respectful, someone won’t do you a favour unless you show them reverence by watching their work – at least this is how our world works most the time.

The final panel discussion of the day was surrounding the rapidly expanding digital era and what this is changing for TV. Interesting presentations were given around digital media’s ability to reach audiences beyond the TV, either featuring use of online servers and social media connectivity or utilising the new platforms (smart phones and tablets) for games and other incorporated merchandise. Dave Eccles, Founder and Director of Numiko Digital Agency, talked about a fantastic multi-platform project for Channel 4 and Windfall Films in which they mapped urban foxes using GPS collars and den cameras, allowing for audiences to call in what they really think about foxes and even check in the urban foxes they spot themselves via the network. They are doing some really cool stuff and it makes you realise how vast and expansive the world of digital media is becoming, not to mention its profitability (I imagine so); a question I wanted to ask Dave but I got a bit too apprehensive. In fact, no mention of money or moneymaking was discussed all day, not a single panellist mentioned their income or lives outside of the workplace, I suppose we must all be to infatuated with the industry to care about these factors of life. Whilst that is true, I regret now not getting a gauge on their various incomes. The tension between continuing drama may have turned sticky.

“Thank you BAFTA.” (Unfortunately, I am not collecting an award this time around).

Keep up with what’s happening at BAFTA here.