Reviewed today: David Wasco & Sandy Reynolds Wasco Masterclass; Japan In A Day; Lawrence Of Arabia; Silver Linings Playbook.
A couple of years ago, the producers of a new documentary film called Life In A Day made a request to the general public. They asked us to film whatever we were doing on one particular day - July 24th, 2010 - and upload the results to YouTube, so they could compile the best bits into a single movie giving a unique snapshot of the planet. It turned out that my life was going to be particularly photogenic on that day - I was flying out to Doha for the very first time, and would begin and end the day in two separate countries. I started filming the various stages of the journey on my phone as I went, imagining they would cut together into an intriguing sequence. But an hour into the journey, a platform operator on the Heathrow Express yelled at me, because filming their train pulling into the station is apparently a security risk. I kind of lost interest after that, which is why I'm not in Life In A Day. Sigh.
Still, I think it's an intriguing idea for a movie, which is why we're in NFT1 at stupid o'clock for a more tightly focussed follow-up from the same producers. Directors Philip Martin and Gaku Narita have assembled a portrait of Japan from over 300 hours of footage shot by 8000 contributors, all on one very significant day - March 11th 2012, the first anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that knocked the living hell out of the country.
Japan In A Day follows the flow of the day perfectly across its 90 minute running time. It starts with the night people who are out and about at midnight, shows the rest of the country gradually waking up, and then follows them throughout the day. The meal times act as useful markers as to what time it is, with small montages showing what different people are having for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But after lunch, there's a palpable change in tone, and you realise that we're gradually approaching 2.46pm, the time when the quake hit. As people prepare to commemorate the event, the pacing visibly slows down, and the sequence of perspectives of the one minute's silence is a stunning piece of editing by Kristina Hetherington and her team.
But what makes Japan In A Day such a special experience is the balance of its contributions. Obviously, some of the people filming have a very personal connection to the tragedy: we see them revisiting the ruins of their homes, or hear their stories of the people they lost. But we also get to see people living their lives, trying to keep things together while acknowledging the impact of the tragedy on their country. There are plenty of sequences involving cute kids: one of them keeps stealing her dad's camera and annoying other people with it, another has got his dad to set up a terrific rig on his bike to film their movements for the day. But at the same time, we also get subtle little reminders of what happened a year earlier, such as the frequent shots of radiation meters.
It's the balancing act between all this material that makes Japan In A Day so impressive. It's a stunning technical achievement, particularly when you think that only a decade ago the number of people with video cameras in their pockets would have been much smaller. (Another technical achievement worth noting is the post-film Q&A with the directors and a couple of contributors, performed via Skype from the Tokyo International Film Festival, where the film had its world premiere just a few hours earlier.) But it's amazing how quickly you stop thinking of it as a technical achievement, and just accept it as a beautifully assembled set of human stories.
12.30pm: Lawrence Of Arabia [trailer]
This is something that makes me feel old: granted, I wasn't around for the original release of David Lean's Lawrence Of Arabia in 1962, but I can clearly remember the last time it was restored. It was in 1988, when a director's cut was released, putting back sequences that had been cut from the movie since its first outing. I've seen the director's cut a couple of times, always in a splendidly shiny 70mm print: but this new digital restoration is something else entirely. It takes the 1988 version as a starting point, and then gives it the digital scrubbing up of its life. (It's been cleaned up so much, you can clearly hear which were the lines that were redubbed for the 1988 release.)
Clyde Jeavons is obviously deeply chuffed to be presenting this film in his Treasures strand, and he's assembled a tremendous collection of guests to introduce it. First up, we have the traditional annual appearance by Columbia Pictures' restoration guru Grover Crisp, who gives a brief explanation of the process used to clean the film up. (He'll be giving an extended version of that explanation at BFI Southbank on Monday October 22nd, if you're reading this before then.) Legendary editor Anne Coates also pops up to say a few words, but the audience's biggest reaction is kept for the appearance of Omar Sharif, who tells a few entertaining anecdotes about his work on the film. He insists that all Lean was looking for was "an Arab actor that can speak English," and happily he fitted the bill thanks to a childhood of overeating , and his parents' attempt to fix this by sending him to an English school "where the food will be horrible and he'll lose weight."
There are quite a few Treasures films this year that are so well known, it seems ludicrous to have to provide a plot summary. (But it does worry you that these films have fallen into a state where they need restoration, despite being so well known.) Anyway, we all know the story: Peter O'Toole, 1962's most beautiful man, is sent by the British army from a desk job in Cairo, to be their representative in the Arab war against the Turks. He's been picked primarily because of his book-learnin' and knowledge of the region, and not because of any innate leadership skill that he may have. But that will come, eventually.
This is a beautiful restoration. I know I've seen a few of them this week, but Lawrence looks literally flawless, without being creepily so. The level of detail is perfect for Lean's brand of epic cinema, which involves setting up a huge canvas and then putting tiny figures in the middle of it. But all the other departments still impress fifty years on: a couple of star-making turns from O'Toole and Sharif, Freddie Young's spectacular photography, Maurice Jarre's majestic score (with overtures intact), and the surprising level of cynical wit in the script.
For what eventually turns out to be a four and a half hour stint in NFT1 (including intermission and introduction), it positively flies by. You could argue that the film's pacing drops off in its final act, but the dying fall that follows Laurence's victory is part of the point, and leaves you making comparisons with more recent uprisings in the region. It's a stunning piece of cinema, which should be reappearing at a theatre near you in a month or so: see it on the biggest screen you can lay your eyes on.
5.45pm: David Wasco & Sandy Reynolds Wasco Masterclass [unofficial Tumblr]
With just one day of the festival to go after today, it's nearly time to sit down and actually think about what this year's LFF has been like. And here's one surprise that's only just struck me: most years I attend a couple of the LFF's live interview events, but this year I've only booked for one. The names of David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds Wasco may be unfamiliar, but you almost certainly know their work. They're a husband and wife team - he's a production designer, she's a set decorator - who have been responsible for the look of films by directors like Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson and Michael Mann.
As is traditional with the LFF Masterclasses, the focus is on the technical craft. Mark Salisbury is interviewing the couple on stage at BAFTA, in a presentation that includes a number of showreel clips and PowerPoint presentations of sketches and photos. One of the interesting aspects of the Wascos is the fluid nature of the dividing line between what they do: broadly speaking David is responsible for assembling sets and finding locations, while Sandy is responsible for the detail work applied to both, although their roles can change quite a bit from film to film. David does the lion's share of the talking, but is always careful to make sure that the role of his wife isn't sidelined.
We start with a brief bit of history, that proves that part of the secret of success in the movie industry is being in the right place at the right time. David initially worked as a store designer in the late 70s, and counted Francis Ford Coppola's nanny as one of his friends. This led to him being offered a role as design assistant on Apocalypse Now - a role he eventually had to turn down, which he still regrets. (The friend who went in his place ended up getting a wee cameo in the finished movie - he's the surfer Johnny from Malibu.) But staying at the store meant that he eventually met and married Sandy. Rather than rely on a big break to get them into Hollywood, they worked on a variety of low-budget movies, preferring to take big roles in a small art team rather than small roles in a big one. As Sandy puts it, "you could always get a job as long as you were prepared to work for nothing."
Their big break was working on Reservoir Dogs in 1991, which marked the start of a long-running relationship with Quentin Tarantino. It's a good illustration of the sort of work they do: Dogs didn't have any money for sets, so their job was to find pre-existing locations in LA and customise them to get the look the director wanted. As Tarantino's budgets have increased, the balance between studio sets and location work has changed quite a bit - Inglourious Basterds started out as a location film that would be largely black and white, and over the ten weeks of its pre-production it evolved into a colour film shot in a mixture of studios and locations. The Wascos have fun revealing the sources quoted by Tarantino in his design notes: using the colour palette of a Thing comic for the decor in Mr Orange's apartment, or swiping elements from an Elvis Presley racecar picture for use in Jack Rabbit Slim's.
Tarantino's work is the main focus of this discussion, but the Wascos also talk a little about their work for Wes Anderson and Michael Mann. It's an interesting contrast, as they're both directors notorious for micro-managing the visual side of their films: whether it's the insane level of detail in the children's rooms in The Royal Tenenbaums, or Mann assembling the initial murder scene in Collateral from five separate locations. (Sandy's role became even more important in the latter film - as it was an early experiment in digital photography, she virtually became the lighting department, as there were no other lights on set apart from the practical ones she put there.) Tarantino's approach, on the other hand, seems a lot more collaborative - he's happy to give the Wascos the freedom to play once he's set up the basic parameters they need to work within.
This is a fascinating talk on a side of the movies we tend not to think about very hard. And the Wascos seem very humble despite their achievements, to the extent that it seems to frustrate the audience here a little. One audience member suggests that they're more facilitators for the director's ideas, rather than big showy art staff looking to impose their own ideas on a production, and David seems happy enough with that as a job description. Other art directors may have different ideas, obviously, but it's delightful to see how this particular pair approach the job.
8.30pm: Surprise Film: Silver Linings Playbook [official site]
A new LFF boss, and therefore a new set of Surprise Film rules to reverse engineer from her choices. So what would Clare Stewart pick this year? Initially the smart money was on The Master, although some inside gossip suggested that was unlikely given previous fallings-out between distributors Entertainment and the festival. If you were at this screening and heard someone mumble 'shit' when the Entertainment logo came up, that was The Belated Birthday Girl, whose antipathy to Paul Thomas Anderson has been duly noted. But no: it looks like the Entertainment jinx has been lifted under the new regime, and they were happy to provide David O Russell's new movie for our entertainment. (And to answer the earlier question on The Stewart Rules, Silver Linings Playbook is currently playing the festival circuit, but isn't due a full US release until Thanksgiving. Make a note of that for when we're trying to second-guess the 2013 surprise.)
Silver Linings Playbook seems to have been a popular choice, although that's a slightly difficult thing to measure in this case. Traditionally, the big audience reaction comes when the title of the movie appears on screen for the first time: and SLP is one of those films that modishly withholds its title until partway through the end credits, so that reaction simply didn't happen. It's the story of Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), a man who's currently living with his parents after eight months in a mental institution, triggered by the discovery of the infidelity of his wife Nikki. Although his mental condition may be partially genetic, looking at the evidence of his dad Pat Sr. (Robert de Niro) and his OCD tendencies when it comes to supporting the Philadelphia Eagles. Despite all evidence to the contrary, not to mention the restraining order, Pat is convinced he can win his wife back. But the recently widowed Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) may be able to persuade him there are other options.
Comic drama about mental illness is the sort of thing that picks up awards by the ton. Ooh, look at the tragi-comedy! For me, the most irritating thing about Silver Linings Playbook is the way that it plays with all the cliches, including the one about how mad people have special access to secret knowledge that you sane-os will never understand. It's like the Magical Negro idea, but it's a Magical Nutter instead. (Which gets all the weirder when Chris Tucker gets involved, as he's both.)
Nevertheless, it kind of works as a romcom with a twist, because the acting and direction are so strong. There's enough energy in the telling to get over the iffy spots, and keep an audience entertained all the way to the end. Bradley Cooper is perfectly fine in the lead, but it's the other two main performances that are really impressive: Jennifer Lawrence pulls off a terrific balancing act with the multiple layers of her character, while Robert de Niro is doing something other than simply coasting for the first time in ages. Don't imagine that Silver Linings Playbook will tell you anything new about mental illness, but as a Saturday night out at the movies it does the job just fine.