Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Lionsgate Feature

I wrote this feature during fun work experience at Lionsgate. They were trusting enough to let me write a feature on maths films for them, as part of promotion for the fifteenth anniversary release of Darren Afonsky's 'Pi', so that was pretty cool. The screenshots of the movies are remarkably similar, the maths movie is a genre that has repeatedly tread across familiar terrain.

A guide to cinematic mathematics

Films that revolve around numbers can usually be condensed into two types; the unstable genius movie and the maths thriller movie. We’re all familiar with the brilliant mathematical whizz manically jotting formulae on a blackboard. He’s (he is seldom a she) the one who is deeply damaged, socially inept or suffering from a severe mental illness. He solves something ground-breaking and influential, or simply shows his awe-inspiring skills. He is more often than not, working or studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, or has a disturbed parent that has studied there. He will not be a genius whilst being happy and stable, and if he has a mental illness minus some form of exceptional ability, he will probably be taken out of the equation.

The link between genius and mental disorder is one that has been hackneyed in films involving mathematics, and this could arguably be a critique of the genre. Regardless, many have been original and auspicious hits, worthy of celebration. To honour the fifteenth anniversary of 'Pi', the compelling debut feature from the prolific Darren Afonsky (Black Swan, Requiem For a Dream), in a definitive Blu-Ray package, we have taken a look at several films that feature numbers, including ones that do and don’t add up.

Rain Man (1988)
“Let’s play some cards.”

Callow Charlie Babbit (Tom Cruise) discovers his father has died and given his multi-million dollar estate to his other son, autistic savant Raymond Babbit, who Charlie was previously unaware of. The most memorable part of this Oscar winning film is the scene where Raymond (a wonderful Dustin Hoffman) counts the number of toothpicks that have fallen to the ground by just a glance. His photographic memory means he has memorised all numbers and addresses in the phone book, and he can work out complicated sums in his head. Although 'Rain Man' was a quality piece of film-making for its day and boasts a remarkable performance, it has clearly contributed to the notion that those with autism are generally gifted. This is a Hollywood, rose-tinted representation of one with the developmental disorder, and the most famous. The idea that autists are savants is one perpetuated by such constructions. The film has a positive reputation as a warming film, but from another perspective it is patronizing and assuming. Raymond is a nuisance to his brother Charlie until he discovers he can win him money in a casino.

Good Will Hunting (1997)
 “My boy's wicked smart.”

Modern American classic 'Good Will Hunting' is perhaps the most iconic maths movie. This feel-good psychological drama, co-scripted by and starring childhood friends Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, earned them two Academy Awards and was actually successful when 'Titanic' was sinking most of its competition. Damon plays 20 year old Will Hunting, a working class maths genius who works as a janitor at MIT. He is discovered and nurtured by award-winning maths professor Gerard Lambeau after anonymously solving a complex equation on a blackboard. His self-destructive nature and disinterest in excelling leads him to psychiatrist Sean Maguire (Robin Williams). What made this such a hit is the charisma and understated performances from Williams and Damon, and how they effortlessly conveyed one of the most emotionally involving friendships in cinema without being irritatingly sentimental. The conventional narrative and lesson in self-improvement could have created a saccharine and overly idealistic result. Yet, Gus Van Sant’s ('Milk', 'Elephant') treatment of Wills growth is organically developed and paced, as is the spark between him and Harvard student Skylar (Minnie Driver). A quality piece of enjoyable mainstream fare that was always bigger than the sum of its parts.

 The Cube (1997)
“I’m not dying in a fucking rat maze!”

Sharing the same math thriller sub-genre as 'Fermat’s Room' and 'Pi', The Cube is a gripping maths horror and the first in a series of three. The premise is a group of strangers who wake up in a cryptic structure with no knowledge of how or why they got there, an idea rather similar to the 'Saw' films. It won the 1997 Toronto Film Festival prize for ‘Best Canadian First Feature’. Quentin is the central protagonist, and along with six other unfortunate people, must use his ability to quickly work out how to get out of this maze of interlocking cubes, or they will all die from dehydration. There are traps set, as they soon discover when witnessing several gruesome outcomes. The acting is impressive considering the minimalist set, yet the dialogue and characters are a tad commonplace.

Pi (1998)
“Everything can be understood in terms of numbers.”

A striking debut feature from accomplished director Darren Aronofsky, ('Requiem for a Dream' and 'Black Swan.') 'Pi' proved his huge potential and his ability to portray madness in a riveting and original way. It focuses on Max Cohen (Sean Gullette, who helped the director and producer write the story), a haunted genius mathematician withdrawing from the world in the walls of his squalid NYC flat. He sees numbers everywhere and believes all matter in the universe can be explained mathematically. He is seeking out a pattern in man’s largest productions of ordered chaos: the stock market, and discovers a Hebrew number which may hold the name of God. Imminent discovery is interlinked with the loss of sanity, and the boundaries between psychosis and solved mystery become unclear. His pursuit leads to severe headaches, blackouts, hallucinations and tremors. Filmed using eery black and white cinematography and with a hypnotic, pulsing score, Pi is a successful vision of a paranoid nightmare.

A Beautiful Mind (2001)
“In competitive behaviour, someone always loses.”

Ron Howard’s rather syrupy and (highly) fictionalised biopic stars Russell Crowe as the real life mathematician John Forbes Nash. Nash did his revolutionary work on ‘game theory’ in his early twenties, and his schizophrenia cut his career short. The film condenses 50 years of Nash’s life into 135 minutes and focuses largely on his illness and his relationship with his devoted wife Alicia (Jennifer Connelly). It begins from his arrival at Princeton as a young arrogant maths graduate, and ends with him receiving the Nobel Prize aged 64 from an exuberant academic world. Paul Bettany shines as Nash’s quirky, alluring English roommate and Russell Crowe gives a solid but not staggering performance as a gibbering and nervy man losing his grip on reality. There is at least an attempt to explain his famous theory, albeit done so in a simplistic manner.

Proof (2005)
“Sometimes in my head I think it works, and then, sometimes I just think it’s crazy.”

One year after 'A Beautiful Mind' was released came this fair and familiar story told through the flashbacks of the central protagonist Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow). Anthony Hopkins plays her recently deceased father, who was an immensely intelligent but mentally ill figure. Catherine has inherited his skill and potentially his mental state. Talented and charming maths geek Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal) is her love interest, and is after her father’s papers that may reveal a precious mathematical proof constructed in a rare moment of lucidity. Catherine insists the work is hers and must prove it, as well as affirm her sanity to the audience and to her sister. An emotional drama rather than a study of science, where Hopkins was criticized for his sketchy performance and many took to be a less than satisfactory alternative to the David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize winning play that is is based on.

Moneyball (2011)
It’s about getting things down to one number. Using the stats the way we read them, we’ll find value in players that no one else can see.”

The stereotypical underdog tale was given a well-received, creative spin in this baseball statistics film that sports a rather incongruous yet winning cast of Brad Pitt, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jonah Hill. The ins and outs of baseball is as alienating to British audiences as another language, but luckily 'Moneyball' is about the sport the same way that 'The Damned United' was about the specifics of football managing, and 'The Social Network' was about web development. Whilst the aforementioned films focused on the drama between the lead protagonists, 'Moneyball' centres on the working relationship between Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane (Pitt) and young, inexperienced Economist Peter Brand (Hill), who Beane hired to reconsider the team's game approach. It's based on the true story of how the Major League Baseball team upset the game’s odds in the 2001-2002 season, and using statistical models, placed together a team of misfits to compete. With a razor sharp script and a great performance from Pitt, 'Moneyball' is a fine example of high class Hollywood fare.

Fermat’s Room (2007)
“Do you know what prime numbers are? Because if you don’t, you should just leave now.”

Spain is an expert on the horror and thriller genre, as most film buffs will be aware, leading America to frequently imitate its exports. There’s Guillermo del Toro who gave us 'Julia’s Eyes', 'Pans Labryrinth' and produced 'The Orphanage'. Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza Ángela’s frankly terrifying highlight of the found footage genre, 'Rec', Almodovar when he decides to dabble in psychological thriller ('The Skin I Live In') and the list goes on. 'Fermat’s Room' is a Spanish thriller that doesn't quite compare to the brilliance of the former films, but is sleek and stylish nonetheless. Maths experts are trapped in a room that is closing in on them, and they must quickly work out arithmetical conundrums to stop the walls moving, as sent by their kidnapper. Oddly the scenario reminded this writer of Indiana Jones trapped in a closing room with spikes stuck out of the walls in 'The Temple of Doom', but it’s slightly less ridiculous.

Knowing (2009)
“The Numbers are key to everything.”

Another to add to Nicholas Cage’s increasingly questionable filmography, this Sci-Fi movie received a low critical reception. Cage plays an astrophysicist, at MIT of course, whose son Caleb derives some horrific news about the state of the Earth when his school discovers a time capsule from 1959. It includes a series of numbers written by a young girl named Cassandra, and their patterns are indications to widespread calamities, both in the past and future. Knowing is an overly ambitious merge of maths, science, religion, and disaster films. If someone added together Pi, Signs, Deep Impact, Final Destination and The Twilight Zone, plus more absurdity, the result might look roughly like this.

The Number 23 (2007)

Jim Carrey has shown us how he can do drama just as well as comedy in 'Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind', but unfortunately this film doesn’t reveal such talent. He plays the obsessive, once sane Walter Sparrow who becomes hooked on self-published book ‘The Number 23’ by Topsy Kretts, which reveals how the number has a mysterious and deadly presence. Kretts plays with a concept first outlined by William Burroughs, focusing on the numbers frequent occurrence in historical and cultural happenings. It is far from Jim Carrey’s finest hour. It isn’t entirely his fault, considering it was brought to us by Joel Schumacher. Granted, he directed the hit 'The Lost Boys', but he also directed Batman and Robin amongst other forgettable features.

Populaire Review

I went to see this with my friend. She adored it. I didn't. I therefore endured playful mockery about how as a film critic I couldn't simply enjoy a film that wasn't trying to be anything except entertaining and a fun way to pass 90mins. I assuredly can. I flippin' love 'Notting Hill'. I even love 'Wimbledon', with all its English stereotyping and London porn. I liked 'Heartbreakers', the French Rom-Com starring Romain Duris and Vanessa Paradis. Rom-Coms are great. What would we do without them? 'Populaire' however, was just boring. It was a shame, I really expected to like it. 

‘Mad Men’ apparently meets ‘The Artist’ in this rather irritatingly fluffy retro Rom-Com. 

Leading lady Déborah François plays cutesy, ditzy country bumpkin Rose, who has dreams of becoming a secretary. During an interview with handsome businessman Louis she is almost turned away, until she sets her fingers on a typewriter lying on the desk and blows him away with her typing talent. He has an agenda. He is going to enter her into the national typing championships, and as part of the deal she is going to live with him and he will train her. This suggestion in itself seemed rather strange and old fashioned, as Rose plays at being a sort of live-in wife. Cue montages of Lisa jogging, falling asleep at the type writer, and so on. It’s all fine to have a fun, entertaining romance tale that intends to stay light and inoffensive, but this has the substance of candyfloss. Part of the problem is that the lead characters appear to be crafted out of wood. Romain Duris’ character is a clichéd 1950s sexist stereotype, and there are office innuendos aplenty. There is nothing distinctive about Rose. At one point she whimsically says “I’m too weird for anybody to love” when she couldn’t be further from the truth. Equally, the humour is off kilter, on numerous occasions there are theatrically swooning women cramming around Louis' office, a joke which repeatedly falls flat. The story itself also set issues from the start, as a typing contest seems an odd choice in an era where most of the population have their fingers permanently gelled to a keypad. The concept was never exciting enough to carry through a feature length film, and the result is as repetitive as the monotonous task of typing itself. A predictable, disappointing and forgettable experience.  


Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Sheffield Doc/Fest Twenty: Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington

A touching and emotional portrait of an extraordinary life.

There are many war photographers. There are photographers who go to the front line to capture the mechanics of conflict, the weapons, the fighting and the violence. Then there was Tim Hetherington, who took pictures of war yet wasn’t a war photographer. With his images he sought to capture all manner of human emotions crystallized. At the root of his work was intimacy and personalisation. He was deeply attached to his subjects and wanted to show the suffering of war on a closer, individual level rather than just the objective truths of battle.

This emotionally charged and enlightening documentary from HBO is an insight into the life and mind of this extraordinary man who was killed aged 40, while covering the front lines in the besieged city of Misrata, Libya, in 2011. He had recently received an Oscar nomination for his documentary ‘Restrepo’, which later went on to win an Academy award. He had co-directed it with his friend Sebastian Junker, who has also directed this reflective documentary. Its success is largely down to his insight and to the skilled editing by Geeta Gandbhir and Maya Mumma. Tim’s public life also helped aid the making of the film as there was a wide archive of interviews with him on the topic of his

We are also shown slideshows of his striking photographs, primarily in West Africa and the Middle East where he dedicated most of his career. Some of the most powerful images come from his ‘Sleeping Soliders’ series, which were taken of American soldiers asleep in Afganisthan on a rare uneventful day. He saw the potential for transforming established romantic ideals of bravery and honour, and exposed their vulnerability. He was fascinated by how men interact during war, how they view themselves in their role, and the depth of emotion felt in a war zone that cannot be reproduced in ordinary society.

After studying English Literature at Oxford, Tim travelled in China and Tibet for two years before studying Photojournalism at Cardiff University. According to his tutor he was the only “modern student, he embraced multi-media”. When given a project on hospitals, he was the only student to spend a whole 24 hours in A&E. In 2003 he was asked to photograph the conflict in Liberia, where he spent time with the Rebels who were trying to oust President Taylor and overcome one of the most severe regimes in West Africa. Tim said he wasn’t “interested in in photography per say”, but he was enamored with human nature and the theatrics of war. His father remarked ‘Tim seldom became a tourist”, and that he had a unique ability to connect with people.

 In one stirring moment, his friend recalls the time when Tim had risked his own life to negotiate another mans death. A medic helping the Rebel army in Liberia was almost executed as they were convinced he was a government spy. Rather than getting his camera ready, Tim stood in front of the gun and began making peace. Later that day, the medic was back helping people again. Tim stayed in West Africa for years acting as a mentor, teacher, humanitarian and investigator. Which way is the Front Line from here? is of course, not an enjoyable watch, but an educational and inspiring one. This film clearly came together organically and is the ideal tribute to a man of endless talents and virtues.


 This review was written for Front Row Reviews by Sarah Holland in connection with the Sheffield Doc Fest/ The original review can be found here

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Sheffield Doc/Fest Twenty: Project Wild Thing

Probably my highlight of the Doc Fest, and the first thing I saw. I left with a massive smile on my face, as did everyone, and the director David Bond received a huge applause. I tweeted the review to Green Lions (the company owned by Bond) and they put it on their website, which you can find here

A wonderfully witty and intelligent study of the effect our technology dependent culture is having on childrens fading relationship with nature. 

Project Wild Thing is the name of an ambitious scheme created by award-winning filmmaker David Bond to get children away from screens and back into nature. His intention is to promote nature as a product, just like Coca Cola or Volkswagen. This hilarious, entertaining and thought-provoking documentary charts the projects birth and progress. He brands himself as the ‘Marketing director for Nature’, stands in a squirrel suit handing out leaflets, and seeks out creative executives to help with the branding. He is also the films director, the producer is Ashley Jones, a colleague with whom he runs the film production company Green Lions.

With the right support, Bond managed to create an expensive marketing campaign free of charge. An image of his five year old daughter licking a toad was displayed on billboards and in shopping malls. The reasons for this idea stemmed simply from the fact that he has young children and wants to see them engage with the outdoors. Since the movement launched it has received support from 170 organisations. ‘The Wild Network’ is a group of charities and organisations including National Trust, RSPB, Play England, Play Scotland and NHS Sustainable Unit. Ideally, Bond would like to see wellies provided in schools and compulsory indoor wet play eliminated. He would like the importance of nature to be more widely featured on the school curriculum. However, as he acknowledged after the screening in the Q&A, government intervention is an area that is avoided on the documentary as it is unlikely the matter will be given the attention that it deserves.

It is a film about the power of technology and the negative effects it is having on family dynamics and the well being of children. Childhood obesity is on the rise, as we are all aware, yet this documentary also focuses on the importance of inventive physical play to a child’s intellectual growth and general happiness. The commercialization of games and play mean imaginations are left unchallenged. It is also a study of advertising, media sensation and the persuasive impact they both have on keeping us indoors. It is not just children that are becoming disinterested with nature that has led to this, it’s parental fear perpetuated by the horror stories of abduction constantly featured on television. Bond states at one point: “The chances of a child being abducted are as slim as being struck by lightening”. 

A conversation between him and his mother outlines the gulf between then and now, as she recalls her time outside playing from morning until night without her parents giving it a second thought. The distance that children play from their home has shrunk by 90%. The points made in the film are by no means presented in black and white terms. While PWT sheds light on the downsides of excessive technological consumption, it also embraces its potential. A ‘Wild Time’ app has been created for children to be used outside, one that contains different ideas for games to play depending on time constraints.

 Likewise, PWT could be seen as targeting the middle class families with the latest mod cons and the freedom to roam National Trust properties at the weekend, its message is actually encouraging anybody with children. Bond was challenged after the screening in the Q&A about whether he had considered the families who were too concerned with paying the rent to give nature the dedication required, and whether his middle class status had made him underestimate the difficulty for these people.  He acknowledged his privileged situation but argued there is always a way of getting into nature regardless of background or circumstance. In fact, he said, many rich families make little use of their surroundings whilst children on impoverished estates can’t get enough of the tiny amounts of green space on offer to them. At one point in the film, he visits the remote island of Eigg in Scotland, and discovers the children there are as attached to computers as those in London.

Project Wild Thing is appealing as all viewers can connect with the message that it carries, despite the main target audience being parents and children. With the ease of social networking and the rapid expansion of the internet, many people are guilty of being technology dependent. One of the most effective moments in the film is a question it raised during a survey: ‘Recall the days when you were the happiest’. The results were astonishingly similar, most responses involved being outside exploring and spending the day with family. Equally, it is enlightening, informative and engaging. It has purpose and something important to say. It is convincing, encouraging and motivating without ever feeling like a repetitive lecture. 

Bond is incredibly enthusiastic and dedicated to his worthwhile cause, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously and neither does the film, creating a fun and enjoyable experience worth watching for entertainment alone. The fact he carries around business cards with his new role printed on them, and a briefcase which holds nothing but a model of a felt field and rabbit has a tongue-in-cheek quality that acknowledges the initial absurdity of the idea. An incredibly anti-capitalist concept is presented in the style of a capitalist marketing campaign. PWT is expertly paced and edited, and is also uniquely uplifting and warming. It’s difficult to not fall in love with it and want to begin changing old habits straight away, to go for a walk in the rain in an anorak and wellies, with your phone left on the kitchen table.


 This review was written for Front Row Reviews by Sarah Holland in connection with the Sheffield Doc Fest/ The original review can be found here

Sheffield Doc/Fest Twenty: Salma

A well accomplished eye opener into the troubles of oppressed women in fundamentalist Muslim communities.

Internationally acclaimed British director Kim Longinotto has an extensive track record of documentaries that focus on the plight of the oppressed and discriminated, primarily women, in various parts of the globe. Her films have a sense of hope, seek to disclose issues to wider audiences, and advocate change and equality. She was instantly compelled to tell the story of her latest project when she heard of it for the first time. It tells the influential story of Salma, a woman who had her freedom taken away from her for twenty five years, and who until 32 had never crossed a busy road.

Her name is actually a pseudonym. She has been the first woman in South India to write poems that candidly speak about her experiences as an enslaved Muslim, and thus has become the most prolific female poet of her generation. She is from the fundamentalist Muslim community Tamil Nadu, and was locked away by her family from the age of 13 after she had started her period. It is the tradition of the village that once girls hit puberty they should be locked indoors. It is a powerful force that dare be denied by its inhabitants, and one that drives many girls to suicide.

During one powerful part of the film, it is uttered that one young girl had set herself on fire. Salma says, ‘that’s how it is for Muslim girls’. As children they are betrothed to a man to marry, sometimes as young as eleven. Upon marriage, for most conservative households, they are confined to their in-laws home and serve their husband as a domestic and sexual slave. They are taken out of education and forbidden to read or write. At thirteen, Salma was locked in a room with a small barred window looking out onto a dirty street, and for nine years lived in a basement when she refused to marry her suitor. She eventually caved when her mother tricked her into marriage, persuading her doctor to pretend that she was dying of stress.

Longinotto is usually known for an observational approach, filming her subjects going through events in their lives, and intervening minimally. Despite this film focusing on Salma’s past rather than filming her in her daily world, it still has the sense of close and natural intimacy as the action is not staged or scripted. The only narration we get is the occasional line of text appearing on the screen providing us with facts. After five or six years of being independent from the village, Salma comes back and interacts with her family, a family who she of course has a complex relationship with but a great love for regardless.

Longinotto and her crew stayed for three months in Salma’s home, living with her family and capturing them reflecting on their memories. The men in her life have a remarkably sexist approach that is perpetuated by the community values themselves. Her father claimed ‘she is a good girl, but too clever’. When married and living with her husband Malik, Salma was aching to read and would resort to the scraps of newspaper that came wrapped around the groceries. She began to write poems, which were often discovered and thrown away. She would hide them in tampon boxes and have to sit in the confined bathroom to write as it was the only place she could get any privacy. Longinotto praises her remarkable bravery, as at one time her husband threatened to attack her with acid if she continued. ‘He would get angry at hit me’ she said.

She wrote anyway. Eventually, with the help of her mother, her poems were smuggled out and reached a stunned publisher. One of the most moving parts of the film is a journalist recalling when he sought after her to interview and take her photograph for his magazine. He requested to take a photo of her, “because obviously, she’s gorgeous!” to which she agreed even though it meant people would be able to identify her as the owner of the poems. For once in her life a man had noticed and admired her, for her talent as much as for her beauty. Since her poems have been published, people have said her and her writing should be burnt.

She now lives with her two teenage sons, and it was saddening to see they were disinterested in her success. They turned away, bored and seemingly ashamed of her new status when she recited her poetry to them. In a comical but incredibly patriarchal speech, her son talks about the benefits of the burqa, which Salma refuses to wear. His reasons are apparently scientific. “Men get ten times more aroused than women, it’s science”. According to him, women should wear it for both society and Allah. He also condemns his mother from going to the cinema. “I tell her because it’s good for her”, he said. But Salma feels, as she stated in the Q&A afterwards, that her independence is her right. This independence was gained by running for village council leader. Four years on the council upset the village but made her popular with local women.

The film has a poignant ending. Salma is filmed sat peacefully on a wall, listening to the sound of the mosque prayer. It is a beautiful and reflective shot, as she seems content with her identity as a Muslim woman who has faced danger and set herself free. She could objectively observe the cruelty and absurdity to her life, and despite the danger ahead, strive for a new reality where she is free to challenge herself and her mind. Salma has set a remarkable example for the thousands of Muslim women who are unaware that they deserve better, and even though change is slow, it has to start somewhere.


Sheffield Doc/Fest Twenty:The Exorcist – The Fear of God

I covered the 2013 Sheffield Doc Fest this June for Front Row Reviews, which was actually shockingly impressive. I had no idea that it was such a huge festival, as despite being a student in the city I hadn't actually attended it before. It was the premiere for many documentaries such as the prolific and harrowing 'Act of Killing' which won the Audience award, and each documentary finished with a Q and A with the director, making each screening feel like a proper event. On one day I saw four documentaries, being out from 1pm to 10pm. That day I also dragged my friend around with me, who surprised herself by actually being immersed in it. The one I enjoyed the most was probably 'Project Wild Thing', it had the audience in hysterics and grinning ear to ear by the end.

This retrospective documentary marking twenty five years of The Exorcist and presented by Mark Kermode is entertaining and fascinating in equal measure.


The Exorcist made viewers faint, vomit and flee out of screenings. It also made audiences queue for hours in the snow for the chance to see it, and remained showing in cinemas for an astonishing two years. After watching this documentary I was keen to re-watch the film. As I did so, it became apparent to me why it has become one of the highest grossing films of all time and one of the most disturbing. As a young teenager my friend and I just wanted to see what the fuss was about. It was quite dull and relatively uneventful until heads were spinning round and vomit was sprouting out of possessed Regan’s mouth. I found the experience entertaining but underwhelming. At times it seemed comical, almost self-parodying.

Now however, it struck me what a well-made film it is, and how remarkably ahead of its time it was. It is well paced, incredibly well shot and there is an intriguing balance of different approaches to Regan’s state. He mother asks eighty eight doctors for an opinion, and one of them even suggests an exorcism, for psychological effect rather than religious.  Damien (Jason Miller), the priest who is asked to perform the Exorcism has studied medicine at Harvard, and initially tells Regan’s mother to “take her to the best hospital you can find, and leave her there for six months”. Rather than separate traditional Catholicism and more modern approaches, it merges the two together, and the outcome is more convincing and realistic for it. As the director William Friedkin remarks in the documentary: “It’s about a real street in a real town with real people living in it, and upstairs on the third floor is a real little girl who happens to be possessed by a demon”.

This BBC documentary from 1998, presented and produced by Mark Kermode, was made as a retrospective for the twenty fifth anniversary of the cultural movie phenomenon. Cast and crew give humorous anecdotes of the filming experience and recount how it was created, as well as examining the hysteria and controversy that surrounded it. There were rumours of a curse over the making of the film, as a fire broke out on set when nobody was there, an occurrence that is still a mystery. There were nine deaths of crew members and their families over the fifteen months it took to make it. This helped fuel publicity and the fear that surrounded the film, adding to the contention that it contained evil itself and should be banned.

The special effects may seem like nothing special now, but as we discover during the documentary, they took a remarkable amount of imagination and patience to construct. The director remarked: “Today it would be a piece of cake, today they can convince you that the Titanic is sinking. In those days with an optical I could not make you believe that a bed was thumping on its own. It had to happen on the set”. To create the breath in the room when it goes cold, a man had to be employed to refrigerate the room (a man who later died). Four large air conditioners were left on the set overnight, and when the actors arrived the room would be forty degrees below freezing. Conveying emotion was difficult as their faces would be frozen stiff. Ellen Burstyn, who plays Regan’s mother, recalls having to ring an ambulance after she had to be thrown forcefully to the ground repeatedly to create the desired effect. To make the projectile green vomit, a device had to be fitted in an actresses mouth, (who was actually a twenty five year old with the same frame as the twelve year old Linda Blair) full of hot pea soup. To make the penultimate scene where Damien sacrifices himself and plunges down 97 stone steps, a stunt man had to actually do this twice. Each step was lined with rubber. Miller recalls marvelling at this and asking the stuntman how he did it, to which he responded: “Zen. The complete, non-resistance of my body so that it becomes totally relaxed.” Local children had hired out the roofs of their homes and sold tickets so people could see the stunt performed.

Mark Kermode was giving anecdotes in a Q&A after the screening. Kermode speaking about horror film, particularly the Exorcist, seems as necessary to him as breathing. He was obsessed with the film from aged eleven and read all the related literature on it, but didn’t get to see it until he was seventeen, when he had an almost “out of body experience”. He has now seen the film an “unhealthy amount of times” and is friends with the director, an ever changing friendship due to Friedkin’s fiery character. Ellen Burstyn also says in the documentary: “My dear friend Bill Friedkin is a maniac”. Stories were told of him keeping guns on set, to fire when the actors had to look startled. His methods of motivating actors were unusual and created a lot of tension, but they were effective. Here was a man who had made the acclaimed ‘French Connection’ starring Gene Hackman and had his reputation was on the line, Warner Bros was taking an expensive gamble and he was taking a risk, both due to the daring subject matter and the large reliance on a child actor. Warner had approached Mike Nichols (‘The Graduate’) to direct, but he declined due to the latter reason.

Kermode recounted how, after investing $10m dollars in the making of the film and seeing it for the first time, Warner Bros suggested that perhaps they shouldn’t distribute it. After all the time and investment, perhaps it was best just shoved under the carpet. At the first public screening, many were repulsed, and after the credits had rolled the theatre was met with total silence. Initially, the makers thought it would be a complete failure. Of course, it then went on to be nominated for ten academy awards, and winning two. ‘The Exorcist: The Fear of God’ is a documentary that both celebrates a piece of timeless horror cinema but still poses the question of why exactly it provoked, and still provokes, such an extreme reaction. It is a revealing, fascinating and entertaining study. A must see.


Mathieu Kassovitz Interview: "I'm Dumb as a Fucking Duck".

I had the lucky opportunity to interview Mathieu Kassovitz (Amélie, La Haine, Munich), for Front Row Reviews. It was a bit of a gamble as I received an email from the editor the night before the screening of Kassovitzs' new film, Rebellion, in London, stating the possibility of interview later down the line. I couldn't interview  if I hadn't seen this film, and there were no other screenings we knew of. I might have not even been able to conduct the interview at all. But anyway, sod it, I thought. I wrote a university essay on La Haine and had an Amélie
poster on my bedroom wall for years, so I am taking this chance. I travelled down from Sheffield to London to see the film, and luckily it paid off. 

I got half an hour alone with him and he was lovely, and I was incredibly nervous. It also happened to be my birthday, which was strange. It was difficult to look at him without visualizing him riding on a motorbike with Audrey Tatou clutching his sides and grinning euphorically. He amused me when he was speaking about the professionalism of the French government soldiers who helped them make the film, recalling how he asked them why they didn't smoke and they responded that it simply distracts them from their work. Of course, what other reasons would there be? It's hard to imagine an English person taking that approach, more likely they will light up whilst mumbling apologetically about it being a disgusting habit, and they really ought to quit. I later took part in a group Q and A too, but that was rather brief. 

Mathieu Kassovitz is a politically engaged moviemaker. He gained global fame in 1995 for directing the hugely influential cult French classic La Haine, a work that sparked a genre of its own and has film critics and academics picking apart to this day. As an actor, Kassovitz is well known for playing the quirky love interest of doe-eyed Audrey Tatou in the adorable, whimsical romantic comedy Amélie (2001). The success of the film led his face to be in demand by Lancome, and he was asked to model for their scent Miracle, a request he initially thought was to be direct the advert rather than star in it. He has played parts inBirthday Girl (2001) alongside Nicole Kidman and Vincent Cassel and Munich (2005), alongside Eric Bana. Directing is his true passion, however. He “doesn’t enjoy acting” despite his obvious talent for it. He has made films spanning many genres, includingAssassins (1997), The Crimson Rivers (2000) Gothika (2003), and Babylon A.D (2008).

Kassovitz is known for speaking candidly in public. He referred to his Babylon A.D as having parts that were like: “a bad episode of 24”. He is disillusioned with the French film industry. After the Cesar awards where Rebellion only gained one nomination, he posted on Twitter: “Fuck the French cinema. Fuck your shit movies”. His latest film, Rebellion, is a thought provoking and revealing account of French military history set in 1988 on France’s New Caledonia territory in the South Pacific. It tells the real story of a group of Kanak separatists who seized 30 gendarmes in an attempt to gain independence. Kassovitz plays the lead role as Phillipe Legorjus, a negotiator that mediated with Alphonse Dianou, the leader of the rebels. The government resorted to drastic and violent measures, the details of which were kept hushed. The film took ten years to come into fruition.

Now aged 45, after such a huge project, he is taking it easy in LA. He loves the Hollywood industry and intends to continue working within it. Having given his everything to a feature, he fancies: ‘resting his brain and building some muscle tone”. Front Row Reviews were privileged enough to have a conversation with him. In person, Kassovitz is down to earth and exudes friendliness. He appears relaxed in the Odeon Covent Garden bar, with his beer and Rolos, of which he kindly points the bag in my direction. His press schedule is extremely busy but he seems unaware of the fact. I mention I will see him later at a roundtable interview, followed by a Q and A, he responds: “I have a roundtable interview? Oh. And another Q and A? Oh okay, I like Q and A’s.”

When you made this film you clearly felt strongly about making a movie that offered an alternative perspective on a political situation. Why did you choose this particular incident?

That story had a different perspective from the one that we knew about in France. I stumbled upon a book which told a different story, ten years later. The true story was amazing and it was not the one that the government had told us. That was the reason I wanted to make a movie about the different perspective. When you hear a story and discover there is another reality, that’s part of the reason you want to make movies, to show something that isn’t known. Movies can do that.

So the story was news to you also?

It was news for me too, I was surprised. I knew the official story, where nineteen guys were killed and got what they deserved. We didn’t know that story and it’s a very important part of our history. We didn’t know, because we had been lied to.

You play an incredibly passionate and dedicated negotiator. Did working directly with the real negotiator, Phillipe Legorjus, help kindle passion for the role?

It’s not so much passion, it’s more professionalism. These guys are very well trained, they are very professional. They put themselves in very dangerous situations on a daily basis, they don’t let emotions take over because they can’t afford them to. They have to make split second decisions and make the right one. They don’t smoke, when you ask them why, they say because it distracts them from what they have to do. Meeting him and talking to him about his profession and what he experienced gave me the tone for the character. Just seeing how he was a person, well-mannered and polite but doesn’t express much, helped me with the character.

Did you have special training?

Yes I worked with Legorjus and other military supervisors. We worked with other guys from the same team, also from the police and the military. To make it professional we had various people to help us create that reality. Of course, it was very important to be accurate as to how these people worked together so that we could understand what went wrong.

How do you choose your roles?

It depends on different things. The director, the script and the timing. My priorities are still about directing. Right now I have no movie that I have to do as a director, so I’m being an actor.

Amélie paved the way to be a romantic lead but you haven’t really gone down that road, even though that may have been the easiest route. Many actors may have been typecast. Do you like to seek out controversial topics?

Not really, as an actor I don’t care really. I’m not very much into acting. When I’m offered movies that are a little too good, I back off, I don’t want to work that hard. I love directing, but I don’t really like being an actor. I don’t enjoy it.

Did you enjoy acting in Rebellion?

It was part of the direction, it was one less actor to deal with. I could make sure that actor wouldn’t fuck with me as a director.

Woody Allen is famous for only watchi
ng his films once after production. Do you ever re-watch your films and think about how you could have improved?

I stumbled across La Haine the other day on TV. I was with a friend and we started to watch it, it was funny. But it is very painful to re watch films. I like to do it for the DVD and Blu Ray release, when you have to re watch the movie and give commentary, that’s usually the last time I see my films. You see it so many times before its finished, you’re a little disgusted by it. You don’t want to have to deal with it anymore. And it’s done. But it’s good to look over work, I don’t do it that much but I should.

La Haine was a massive success, do you still feel the pressure from this when making other films?

No, because La Haine was such a phenomenon by itself, which I’m not really responsible for. It was the right time, the right moment. Movies like that come along very seldomly, you cannot do it again. If it was just my genius then I would have done it again, but I can’t do it again. I could have done La Haine two. But I did science fiction, I did horror, so I don’t like to do things again. I like to try different things. It’s like being a romantic actor. If you know you are good at something, either you keep on doing it and enjoy it as much as you can, or you can challenge yourself a little bit. You can say if I can do it and have done it, perhaps I should do something else.

What would you say to people that compared Rebellion to La Haine, in terms of its ferocity and its rawness?

I’m proud of it because I think Rebellion is, for me, the follow up of La Haine. It’s not as immature and funny and because it’s a very serious matter and there were not a lot of things to joke about like in La Haine. It’s the same energy, the same kind of cinema, it’s from the same need to make movies. I’m very proud of it because for me it’s almost La Haine two.

You had hassle from the police and journalists after La Haine. Have you had hassle from anyone after Rebellion?

Well, we didn’t get help from the government or the military during the making of the film. I got some people who said the movie wasn’t true to the facts, which I had a couple of fights over. I had a discussion on TV in France with the two real generals and they told me that the movie was a lie, and when I asked them to explain to me where, they explained they hadn’t seen the movie. They hadn’t seen the movie but they know I was lying. Of course, it’s had some sort of negative reaction.

Who are your favourite writers? Would you ever do a literary adaptation?

My favourite writers? I’m going to tell you something. I’m dumb as a fucking duck.

I’m sure that’s not true. I’m sure all the academic writers who wrote about La Haine would disagree with you.

Yeah, but I cannot disagree with them because I didn’t read them. No, I’m not good, I haven’t read that much. I always told myself that I would read when I don’t have anything else to do. I stopped reading around 25, because these guys were way smarter than I was. If you want to read Plato when you’re 27/25, he wrote it when he was 25. I don’t want to change my life around this people. I want to live life as I intended to – dumb – I do it my way. When I’m 70 years old and I’ve done everything my way, I will read.

Okay, how about directors then? You’re a huge fan of Spielberg.

I’m a fan of hundreds of directors as I love that job and I love what they do. Sometimes you can love a director for ten minutes in one movie, for one scene, for one shot, for something he will not do again. But I have to admire the guys who can do it again and again and again. Those are the directors I really admire. It’s not just that you can do it once, if you can do it again and again, then that makes you a genius. Spielberg is one of them. He’s been doing it for 40 years. Others are the Cohen Brothers and Scorsese. There are very few directors who are that level of accomplishment. I believe that good directors make their best movies within the first 3 movies, as that’s when they give everything, and then it becomes a job. That’s why the guys who transcend that and continue making good movies are very impressive.

Do you ever struggle with self doubt when it comes to your work, and how do you push through it?

You have a schedule. Your first AD tells you ‘hey hey! Stop complaining! Go to work!’ You have doubts every day, all the time, 24/7. Tomorrow you have to shoot that scene, you don’t know if it’s going to work, you just do it, put it together.

And hope for the best?


You grew up in a film family. Your mother was an editor, and your father was a director. What was that like, did it set the path for what you were going to do?

That was great because my father came from Hungary in ‘56 when the Russian Revolution took over Hungary, and he escaped and came to Paris in the ‘60s. You could go to Café de Flore and there were jazz players and Jean Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir and the biggest intellectuals in the world. He came from a communist country and when he saw all that culture, he made documentaries and he became a director. Back in the 60s/70s these movies were hand held. He loved the craft and that’s what he taught me, he taught me that’s what movies are without any special effects, what you can do with a camera and what can you do with no money. I spent all my days in the cutting room with my mum or sometimes on the shoots with my father. I learned the craft, my father is a very good craftsman.

I interviewed Jake Scott, the son of Ridley Scott, and he compared growing up in the family to growing up in a butcher’s shop.

That’s what I always say. If my parents would have been butchers, I would have been a butcher. It’s not a romantic idea of film. I would have been a butcher if my father was a good butcher. He could have told me how to do it right if he could spend the time to transmit the passion with any craft, watch makers or shoe repairs or whatever, as long as your parents teach you the love of it then you’re golden, because all you need is passion. I could have been an astronaut.

If your dad was a good astronaut?


You obviously like to collaborate and you get much enjoyment out of different roles. As you co-edited Rebellion, was it hard to be objective about scenes you were in? Did your co-editor judge your best performance?

It wasn’t about best performance, it was about getting the message through. The character doesn’t act that much as such, the original character is a professional. They cannot let emotions take over. It’s more about, is the focus good? Is the timing good? that one is longer, so it’s better for editing. It’s not really about performance, so it wasn’t a problem. I don’t really see myself, you can’t.

Did you enjoy editing?

Oh I love editing, it’s the best part of making a movie.

As that’s when it all comes together?

It’s when you can really become proud of yourself, you can place all your ideas where you want them to be and see if they work. If it doesn’t, you need other solutions. Editing is where the movie is made, ask all the directors. I edited most of my movies, La Haine. If you are really invested in a project you have to do editing, it’s part of doing a movie.

Rebellion Review

La Haine director returns with a political thriller that fails to meet the standard of its predecessor, yet contains some thought-provoking moments. 

Mathieu Kassovitz earned a reputation as an auteur for directing the contemporary French classic La Haine (1995), which provided a refreshing change to from previous conventional French movies and provided a uniquely daring social commentary of police brutality. Of course, he is also instantly recognizable as Nino Quincampoiz, the eccentric love interest in the quirky romantic comedy Amélie  (2001). After a stint in making more mainstream Hollywood movies he is back to his roots with the controversial Rebellion, a project which has been ten years in the making. He has co-produced, co-written, co-edited in addition to starring in it and directing it.

As a director, Kassovitz seems to feel a certain responsibility to use the medium of cinema to inform and expose, to explore issues that would be avoided entirely otherwise. Rebellion is similar to La Haine in the sense it has been made with similar passion and extensive research, but whilst the latter depicts the chaotic clash of authority between police and lower-class individuals in the ‘banlieues’ outside of Paris, the former uncovers the French government’s brutal treatment of a hostage crisis that happened in 1988. An alternative perspective of the events is given, rather than the one that has been told previously.

Kassovitz adopts the central role as Phillipe Legorjus, the captain and negotiator of a counter-terrorism police unit sent in to settle the conflict on the island of Ouvéa in the French colony of New Caledonia. Kanek activists had seized a police post and 30 hostages in an attempt to gain independence. The film closely documents Legorjus’ gruelling efforts to communicate with the activists, and his ongoing dialogue with Kanek leader Alponse Dianou (Ibabe Lapacas). Legorjus’ work has to come to abrupt halt when he receives orders to abandon peaceful communication from Paris, as presidential elections are imminent and the government are concerned about appearing weak.

Although the performances are convincing and the drama well traversed, the film is not overly concerned with these aspects; the thoughtful message and tragic reality behind them is what dominates. Likewise, the violence exists to enlighten the viewer and provoke thought rather than exist for its own sake as a spectacle. The stylistic tropes feel far more Hollywood-like than in La Haine. The non-diagetic, threatening drum beats feel a bit unnecessary at times as the story itself is gripping enough without requiring such tropes to build tension. The climax also takes a while to be reached, however the finale skillfully resonates a powerfully subtle sadness.Rebellion delicately represents a brutal part of French history and reflects on how politics often reigns over moral integrity and compassion.