14, August 2011

Empire Big Screen - Round Up (parts 1 and 2)

Whilst we've reached saturation point with music festivals in this country - film festivals are still a rarity and events such as Empire Big Screen are real treasures. If anyone knows how to construct a festival for film lovers then it's the institution that is Empire magazine, I only wish I had been able to clone myself to get round all the events, showcases, Q&As and film premieres that were crammed into the three days.

I wanted to start with a quick round up of some of the films I caught whilst there and then hand over to my colleague Delme Stephenson to give some more feedback on what he got up to at the festival.

Part 1 The films


Director: Gavin O'Connor

The first secret screening I caught was Warrior starring Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte and Joel Edgerton. The story surrounds a broken family and two estranged brothers looking for redemption and the approval of their drunken father. A cruel blend of tragedy and fate leads them both to compete in the mother of all mixed martial arts tournaments, but only one can win.

I don't want to give away any real spoilers about the plot so will stop at the above. I have to point out though that this film is probably the best of the year so far (Attack the Block aside) and the best sport/underdog movie since the original Rocky. It is hard not to mention The Fighter and Warrior in the same breath, and Warrior takes aspects of that film and adds the brutality and tragic bitterness of The Wrestler together in a melting pot of adrenalin and violence. What stands this apart from some of the 'Rocky' cliches (that are still to some extent present here) is the emotive family story that beats hard and fast at the core of this film. Add to that the intensity and heart wrenching performances of the three male leads and it's no suprise that this film already firmly sits in Oscar territory.


Red State

Director: Kevin Smith

I am not sure what Kevin Smith does or is anymore, it's a long time since he put out a decent stoner comedy and Cop Out and Jersey Girl haven't exactly covered the outspoken but often brilliant writer director in glory. Smith himself has now partially abandoned self distributing his latest effort - the more serious and horror inspired Red State. 

Firstly it has to be noted that I enjoyed this film a lot more than I expected, maybe because I really didn't know what to expect and if I am honest I didn't expect much.

The film centers around an American community and the twisted fundementalist religious group at the heart of it. The far right christians have been indulging in their own secretative and highly illegal holy war against sinners and more specifically gay men and they lure some teenagers into a honey trap though an online sex advertisement. The film isn't about the teens so don't expect stoner heroics or justice. In fact for all the head preacher Abin Cooper's (Michael Parks) long and borderline psychotic ranting and the superb acting from ATF agent Keenan (John Goodman) this film is not about individuals. Smith is only interesting in bludgeoning his audience with political and social messaging and doesn't allow you to get too close to the victims. 

The group themselves have been enthusiastically modelled on Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church, who strangely are themselves referenced in the film. The nods to the Waco siege and references to the US government's abuse of the terrorist act are quite heavy handed and the events that lead to the drawn out fire fight get out of hand surprisingly quickly. Also the torture elements don't quite mannifest themselves enough to justify this film's billing as horror. But despite all this and the criticism from some quarters of Smith's screen writing, the film is engaging and has enough suspense and interesting things to say about society to make it a worthy watching experience.


Troll Hunter

Director: André Øvredal 

André Øvredal and Glenn Erland Tosterud who played Thomas in the film were present to answer questions about this quirky found footage film, already a national phenomenon in its native Norway. They talked about the folk lore and fairy tales that influenced the film and the incredible CG and sound FX that give the Trolls their believable movement, behaviour and presence.

A college film crew are investigating some strange bear deaths and activity and are drawn to a lone hunter whose presence and intentions are at first unexplained. After several days of following him he reveals himself to be hunting Trolls, something they initially don't believe until they encounter one first hand in a forest.

Found footage films can always be a bit hit and miss, too much shaky camera work and situations that are just annoying and unbelievable. Troll Hunter however gets the balance mostly right, taking the best elements from Blair Witch, Cloverfield and Monsters (amongst others) and creating a beautifully weird and original take on the monster docu-film format. The film indulges everyone's inner child, giving credence to fantasy and a platform for those childish fears that coloured us as we grew up.

When I saw the first Troll I was a bit underwhelmed but as the movie progressed each new Troll that appeared looked more and more incredible, none more so than the behemoth final Troll who was a sheer pleasure to behold. The tension is broken by very dry humour which sometimes is welcome and other times derails the flow and pace, without giving spoilers there are a few moments which are frustratingly inplausible but overall the cold hearted deadpan brilliance of Otto Jespersen (in the titular role) makes this film an absolute joy.

André Øvredal spoke of a possible sequel being already under development (as well as a US remake) and I really hope he gets the chance to make that film as there is plenty more scope within this genius of a concept. 


UPDATE from Delme Stephenson

Fright Night

First and foremost Fright Night is a solidly enjoyable flick. It’s not pitch perfect but that’s entirely bedside’s the point. You’re not going to leave the cinema pondering the meaning of life and death once the credits roll. There are missteps. The story doesn’t really hold together under close scrutiny and it lacks depth, but betters the original. David Tennant does a Russell Brand impression, which although humorous doesn’t quite live up to expectations.  At times his character does seem like an afterthought. For what it’s worth though, Fright Night is a very well crafted piece of entertainment that easily balances comedy, action and horror with some great scenes.    
I admire the original. I miss those wonderful special effects and Roddy McDowall’s Peter Vincent, but this feature cleverly pays its dues and moves the show on. Let’s be honest with ourselves here, the original, as much as it is loved by some is dated. Even more so, let’s not get precious; there was always room for improvement. Fright Night has a wonderful concept and the remake doesn’t abandon those ideas, it embraces them. It does however successfully develop its characters and their relationships in a much more satisfying manner. The script is pretty sharp, and doesn’t try to be more than what it is, with a running time of just over 90 minutes it does what it needs to do well. The cast is excellent. Colin Farrell is wonderful as Jerry, the vampire. He gets the tone of the piece just right with a very self aware performance. He’s arrogant and darkly menacing but yet adds a wonderful comic touch. Surprisingly the 3D conversion is actually pretty darn good, while the vampire special effects are a tad disappointing.
In conclusion I have fond memories of the original Fright Night but this is not only a good remake, it’s a superior one. It’s a straight up crowd-pleaser even if the memory of it does start to fade come sunrise (or sunset...actually let me think about that...I really wouldn’t mind watching this one again!).


Conan the Barbarian (remake!)

Director: Marcus Nispel

I really didn’t walk into the screening of the re-booted Conan the Barbarian with high expectations, in fact I didn’t have any expectations whatsoever. It’s actually a rather good attitude to have before going to watch a film - that way you’re always fairly surprised when it isn’t a disappointing dud. Anyway it didn’t work with Conan. I was mostly bored and disappointed. It’s not an entirely bad feature, just mostly bad. It’s the type of film where your brain falls asleep but your eyes miraculously stay open. The audience sleep walked out of the cinema as the credits rolled. Some had to be woken up by cinema staff (ok so I made that up). 

To be honest it starts off with promise and quickly descends into dire tedium. Morgan Freeman (yes THAT Morgan Freeman) is on voice-over duty for about two minutes and sets up the premise. The story begins with Conan being born on the battlefield and then moves onto him as a young boy. It is here we discover that he is quite a vicious little savage, who is unworthy of wielding his father’s sword. His village is attacked and everyone is brutally murdered by Stephen Lang’s Khalar Zym. The film quickly moves onto the adult Conan played by Jason Momoa who begins to track down the evil Zym and swears revenge for the murder of his father and people. 

Conan is an undeniably violent film; our hero kills everyone and everything in his path with a solemn face. I actually admired some of the tongue-in-cheek action, which at times is laughably ingenious. None of the cast is particularly bad (sorry Rose McGowan you are…go stand in the corner). I didn’t mind Jason Momoa (I preferred the kid that played the younger Conan though). The story is just tiresome and predictable. The dialogue is poor. The amount of times people shout out ‘Conan!’ is just ridiculously funny. The Special Effects are bad and the 3D is extremely poor. I wanted a cup of coffee halfway through to keep me awake. What makes this film truly disappointing is that the original Schwarzenegger starring Conan the Barbarian is actually a really good film, with a great score and scenes that still resonate. I’d recommend watching the original any day of the week. Anyway it’s just my opinion, it’s your time. Fall for the hype! 


Real Steel - Showcase with Shawn Levy

I wouldn't normally include family orientated films like Real Steel on my list of 'must sees movies' but there is something about the lure of massive steel robots kicking the crap out of each other that you just cant ignore. In this showcase director Shawn Levy ramped up the interest levels as he spoke about working with Spielberg, Hugh Jackman whilst explaining how the fight scenes comprise of actual full scale models as well as CG.

The clips themselves shown were pretty darn cool also, especially a sequence that showed Jackman working with Sugar Ray Leonard on boxing technique. Levy himself did some quizes and giveaways which kept the audience invested and the manhimself seems like a really decent guy. Can't wait for this one to drop. 

Cowboys and Aliens

Director: Jon Favreau

I don't think I need to say too much about this film that hasn't been covered already, Jon Favreau's adaptation of the Fred Van Lente & Andrew Fole graphic novel is a big brash big budget all action Hollywood movie. What that means is that watching it is the equivalent of a sugar rush that leaves you gratified at first and then empty and a bit dizzy at the end. It's by no means bad, it just isn't that special. Olivia Wilde (Ella Swenson) smoulders po-faced and serious in clothes that are wet most of the way through the picture. Harrison Ford (the ridiculously named Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde) grumbles gruffly - wondering just why he isn't the lead male and why his family related sub-plot is so uniteresting. Daniel Craig (Jake Lonegran) has the same two expressions during the entire film as he gets beaten down, beats people down and gets angry..... and then confused and then angry again. 

If you are aged 8-12 then you should be all over this (I mean aliens AND cowboys = heaven), but most adults will find this a very souless and flat roller coaster ride with little suprises or plot. The aliens and their ships/tech are uninteresting and unoriginal (Falling Skies strength dull). Ok ok that s pretty harsh, it's a fun and original take on the Western genre but just like Super 8 before it - it just lacks something to make it above the paint by numbers Hollywood fayre.


Part 2 The Event!

By Delme Stephenson 

Empire presents Big Screen 

The Empire Big Screen event is worth every penny if you’re a film fan. I turned up on the Sunday and wish I’d kept the weekend free. Sunday was enough, but there is so much to do. Not only do you get to see advance previews of films that are yet to be released but there are loads of interesting panels, screening of old classics and interesting guests sharing their insight of the film industry.

I arrived at the O2 around about eleven and wandered around finding out where everything was. The event is set over 10 screens with an area near the the back being held as an exhibition for studios to showcase upcoming films and shops selling everything from film memorabilia to your favourite American food.

It was like being a kid in a sweet shop. What do I do? Where do I go? Damn it! I don’t have enough time...

I decided to miss a screening of a Dario Argento film and went into a Panel where several Empire magazine Editors were engaged in a heated debate regarding a recent poll conducted on the ‘100 Greatest Movies of All Time’, with the top ten displayed on a screen behind them. It was actually quite an engaging experience with an audience only too glad to participate. The Godfather was number one. However, I personally think The Godfather Part II is better than the original (just my opinion) and are ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘Goodfellas’ Tarantino’s or Scorsese's best work (in the top ten)? Personally, my favourite Tarantino is ‘Jackie Brown’ and Scorsese’s best is ‘Taxi Driver’ or ‘Raging Bull’. Yeah I love ‘Goodfellas’, like everyone else, but his best work?   

I actually caught one of the Editors outside and we traded some of our favourite films. Surprisingly we both rated ‘Miller’s Crossing’ as our favourite Coen brothers film and both down played ‘The Big Lebowski’. He recommended some upcoming films to watch and showed me his favourite films of the year so far on his IPhone. He said he would be shocked if I revealed his favourite film of the year so far (its ‘Season of the Witch’ BTW). In retrospect it was pretty cool, going toe-to-toe with a Senior Editor at Empire. I love a debate. Oh, one of his favourite films of all time is ‘Brazil’, which is pretty hard to argue against.   

I missed another screening and decided to go the Gareth Edwards Panel. Gareth Edwards is the guy responsible for making ‘Monsters’ on a very low budget and turning it into a massive international hit. He is now developing ‘Godzilla’ for a major Hollywood studio. It was extremely interesting to hear his interview with an Empire Magazine Editor. Edwards explained going to film school and following his passion. It almost didn’t work out. He was packing shelves in a local supermarket for a while. Eventually he realised if he was ever going to make a film he’d have to kick-start it himself. His self-determination was unbelievable and he came across as a really humble and passionate guy. Interestingly he had a bet with a friend that by the time he was 35, his friend would walk into a cinema and pay for a ticket to watch one of his films. If this didn’t happen he would pay his friend a £1000. Due to the slow release date of ‘Monsters’ he didn’t win the bet, but I think we’d all agree he’s won the war. An encouraging tale from the front lines. Here’s to a decent ‘Godzilla’!


I decided to walk and think about what I wanted to see next. I mean tough choices had to be made later. Did I want to watch ‘Fright Night’ presented by David Tennant, a screening of Nicolas Roeg’s, ‘Don’t Look Now’, or try to catch the secret screening (yesterday it had been the eagerly anticipated ‘Drive’) or catch Terry Gilliam in action? 

Decisions. Decisions. Decisions.

In the exhibition hall I got talking to a couple of business owners. is quite an interesting enterprise with T-shirts designs incorporating specific scenes or images from a film. The designs are very unique and unless you’re a fan of that particular film it might go over your head. It’s for diehard fans of particular films (I want the ‘American Psycho’ Tee). I also got talking to a lady from where posters created for special screeners and events are sold. You will find a lot of unique interpretations of classic films where print runs are extremely limited. So get in there fast! I also got speaking to the guy behind , who informed me that my X-Men comics were worth nothing because of their high print runs in the early nineties. Great stuff! Time to start a Bonfire!


Now there were two screenwriting events running at the same time and I was little baffled at which one to go to, but I made the right choice in the end with ‘Write Stuff – How to become a Screen Writer’. In attendance amongst others were Noel Clarke (Kidulthood, Adulthood, and Drew Pearce (No Heroics and with Marvel’s forthcoming Iron Man 3 and Runaways). It was really informative event. All the screenwriters talked about working in the system and their work ethic, which surprisingly involved a routine. Debunked was the myth of the crazy Hollywood hack drinking cocktails on a beach overlooking the Pacific. Screenwriting’s all about determination and hard work unfortunately. All agreed that the Coen brothers (yes them again) style of screenwriting is seemingly impossible as they themselves describe it. To state anything more might bring a possible lawsuit, so I’ll stop. Needless to say the whole audience was laughing. 

Not soon after this I had a couple of screenings to go to where I met a really passionate cineaste and decided to watch the same films... we both wondered what the secret screening was! I don’t want to know now. It could have been ‘Drive’ again!

If you are a film lover this is a must-go-to-event. Next year I think I’ll go for all three days. There’s so much to do, watch and discuss. Let’s hope it’s even bigger next year!!!