Don’t be boring

Last night, I saw Alfonso Cuarón speak at the Science Museum about Gravity. It was a great insight into a film I found incredibly powerful.

I remember seeing Gravity at the cinema in 2013. Soon after handing in my master’s dissertation, I was hyper and happy and buzzing with joy. Two hours later when I walked out of the cinema, I was quiet, reflective, and hugely impacted. It’s an immersive and, at points, overwhelming film. The movie industry often tells us that the cinema experience provides so much more than watching something on DVD at home six months later and, in Gravity‘s case, I completely agree with them.

From the opening shots of space that fill your peripheral vision to the radio dialogue of the characters that buzzes around you in glorious surround sound, you cannot help but feel you’re there with them, in orbit. As beautiful long tracking shots follow Sandra Bullock through space stations and into capsules and away from fires, you’re right there with her. And so, when she’s thrown into a spin or plummets to earth, you feel it too. Or, at least, I did.

So, as host Samira Ahmed asked Cuarón about his background, his inspiration and his choices, I was fascinated to understand more about the movie. “It’s about rebirth”, the director said, confirming the not-too-subtle yet wonderful imagery. From the foetal position of astronauts in a womb-like capsule, to the umbilical cords connecting their suits to their shuttle. As Bullock’s character stands up to walk off at the end, it’s about more than one human’s birth, but about humanity. “Not in an intellectual way. I mean the species,” explains Cuarón. That’s all well and good, sure. But I don’t love the film for a metaphor. I love it because it look and sounds and feels so…much.

Cuarón’s creative choices made it so. He resisted studios trying to add in scenes of Mission Control in Houston, to show the ‘other side’. In fact, even George Clooney’s character was a later addition, it was originally about just the single woman in space. But, it had to work, and it had to be interesting.

As a filmmaker, Cuarón is unapologetic about compromises made to make the film more interesting. Though technically accurate down to the sort of wire cutters used on a space walk, there are some elements that deviate from documentary reality. But why not? “I’m not stupid!”, Cuaron exclaimed, acknowledging that, yes, Bullock’s character would have been wearing a nappy beneath her space suit, and Clooney’s veteran astronaut would not be chattering away in space without a focus on the mission. But a film’s got to be interesting. “That would be boring,” Cuarón kept saying, of dimissed alternatives to the finished product. For example, Bullock’s final scene in space, where she undocks the Chinese capsule and addresses Houston that her descent to earth ‘could go one of two ways’, was initially attempted without a score, but that version was abandoned. Though music was used minimally on the film, and always without percussion – a Hollywood rarity – it had to be there in this case. Without it, the scene was too boring. End of.

It’s also relevant to why the film ends abruptly – Cuarón hates the trend, that grew in the1980s, of prolonging an ending to assure audiences that everything’s alright. Films like Robert Zemeckis’s Cast Away, which he loves except the ending, should finish when the story finishes and the lead character makes it to safety – not add on a postscript about the life after the climax. I think this is good advice too. Finish telling the story you’re telling, and leave something to the imagination. I’m a fan of a short-and-sweet film, and at 91 minutes Gravity doesn’t outstay its welcome for a second.

So, full credit to Cuarón. And to his visual effects teams. And to Bullock, who underwent gruelling training for four months to get into the shape needed to act within the demanding rigs used on set. They’re necessary for the long tracking shots I love, but exhausting. Still, Bullock thought it was preferable to riding in a ‘vomet comet‘ to film in actual microgravity (Cuarón, on the other hand, loved having that opportunity – cashing in on the fact his many advisers on the film worked in an industry he’d admired since a child. Why wouldn’t you take up Nasa’s offer?).

It was amusing to hear in the Q & A after the main interview that a number of audience members asked Cuarón if key creative aspects of the film were done ‘on purpose’. I wonder how irritating this question might be to a director, or any artist. You might as well as a chef if his use of ingredients were deliberate. Still, Cuarón took the opportunity to explain how he came to his decisions. Like the choice, despite the movie featuring all current and accurate technology, to put the characters in older space suits, as the latest real ones looked too futuristic. The details like that matter – so the audience is not distracted or disconnected. Gravity is not a fantasy, like Star Wars, nor is it a science fiction about future or hypothetical technology and its consequences, like Interstellar. It’s a drama, about a person, in space.

Cuarón’s message of ‘don’t be boring’ was the notable takeaway from the night. You can be as arty, moving, accurate as you like, but if you bore audiences you’ve lost them. It’s food for thought, from beginning to end. Watching Bullock’s final escape scene brought it all back to me – how Gravity was a film you couldn’t turn away from, and I was emotionally impacted even just watching a two-minute clip out of context of the rest of the film. That’s Gravity‘s power.

Samira Ahmed interviews Alfonso Cuarón

Samira Ahmed interviews Alfonso Cuarón

Thanks so much to the Science Museum for hosting the night. There’s still a few weeks left of their Cosmonauts exhibition, to which the event was linked, and if our journey into space at all interests you, I’d definitely recommend a visit.

2015 in movies

I started keeping track of the films I watched in 2015. It started off with a desire to organise the list of films I wanted to watch, and a way to keep track of the ones I had. I was recommended Letterboxd as a means to this end, and have found it to be superb.

So, I can tell you that in 2015 I watched 113 films – 77 of them for the first time. This included 9 films featuring Alan Rickman, 6 films directed by Richard Linklater, and one terrible movive entitled The 12 Dogs of Christmas: Great Puppy Rescue.

A lot of the films I watched were from a few years back – catching up on classics, the big films of the last couple of years that are now kicking about on DVD, and other recommendations and TV movies. Amongst these, and indeed amongst all the films of any age I saw this year, my favourite has to be Magnolia. Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 masterpiece of interwoven stories, long brooding shots, superb rhythm and captivating characters living contrasting city lives. Despite being over three hours long, I didn’t want it to finish a single minute early – and that’s saying something.

Amongst the year’s cinema releases, Birdman was my favourite. I have a thing for long, unbroken steadicam shots – and this film is essentially one extended shot of this type. Combined with a fascinating glimpse behind theatrical scenes and a powerful performance from Michael Keaton, then the film is not just one-of-a-kind, but darn good as well.

Closely following on the heels of Birdman are the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road (beautifully audacious action movie with fresh characters, minimum annoying exposition, and no apologies) and Whiplash (superb tension for such a character-driven movie, thanks largely to J K Simmons) – while the latest Bond and Mission:Impossible installments left me underwhelmed. In terms of older movies then I’m glad to have finally seen superb titles such as Captain Phillips, Drive, and 12 Angry Men. It’s good to play catchup.

I also made a start on watching old Hitchcock movies at the end of the year, and I’m sure that will continue into 2015. One of the most enjoyable film series of the year, though, has to be Richard Linklater’s Before… trilogy – I watched them back-to-back in a single day and loved the dialogue, the characters, and the realism of the simple settings. I’ll be back to see them plenty, I’m sure.

You can see my full 2015 in film review over at Letterboxd – including ranked lists, reviews and ratings for all the films I saw last year. For now, though, I’m off to grab a DVD.

Movie life

Films are a thing, aren’t they? I’ve been playing catch-up recently, ploughing through loads of films that ‘I’ve been meaning to see for aaaages’. The list is a long one, hard to prioritise, and by its nature limited. How do I prioritise the films on it, and where do I turn when I want to give something ‘off-list’ a try?

I mention these rhetorical questions by way of introducing two things in the world of film that have brought joy to my life recently: Letterboxd and 20th Century Flicks.

Letterboxd is a free website that lets you keep a diary of the films you’ve watched, build up lists of films you want to watch, and connect with friends to see what they’re watching. It’s been great to finally consolidate my ‘notes-to-self’ into proper online lists that I can access anywhere, and have instant access to the recommendations of friends. There are various ways to tag, rate, and review films and to share these views with friends in your social network (or strangers in the wider world) and the whole site is clean, attractive and simple to use. Give it a go!

20th Century Flicks, on the other hand, is at the other end of the ‘recommend me a film’ spectrum – real-life humans in a real-life video shop. I became a member earlier in the year and have enjoyed chatting with the staff when choosing or returning DVD rentals ever since. They’re friendly, they know their stuff, and they’re extremely helpful when you want to pick their brains on what to watch. As great as the internet and the growth of pretty data-crunching websites can be, there’s surely no substitute for that.

You’ll find 20th Century Flicks on the Christmas Steps in Bristol, and they recently ran a competition to design a film poster for that delightful little alleyway of shops. Flexing my nascent design skills I gave it a go one evening with the below effort – the eventual winner was much more deserving, but I got a runner-up prize. Thanks, 20th Century Flicks!

Christmas Steps movie poster

Just a little something I knocked up.

Of course, you can always let me know your own film recommendations by getting in touch. I’ll try anything once.

2014 – places I’ve been, things I’ve seen

Countries visited: 6
Currencies used: 2
Flights boarded: 0
Trains taken: God knows

I was quite a busy guy in 2014 – and I’m sure I spent more weekends away from Bristol than in it. Without an efficient app to track these things, I’ll just have to rely on my memory and photos.

There have been plenty of trips around the UK, including fun days and nights in Norwich, Bury St Edmunds and London amongst others. I even managed a couple of trips up north to Leeds – the first of which featured the annual Eurovision gathering. Good friends The Bentleys played great hosts to a night of Eurofun, and the fourth iteration of my ever-improving Eurovision spreadsheet got another outing. It turns out we thought Iceland should have won based on their whole performance, although Denmark had best visual show. Stats are fun.

In wider travels, one four-week period in the summer saw me roadtripping across Europe, visiting the Edinburgh Fringe and camping in Wales. The roadtrip, originally planned as a weekend in Portsmouth, took in five cities over seven days and saw us drive through France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and the Netherlands. This last one was particularly pleasing – despite having driven through the southern tip of the country in 2011, a year when I also changed flights in Amsterdam, I never felt I could say I had been to the Netherlands. Now, having wandered round Maastricht, taken photos and bought lunch there, I can finally tick it off my list. The European countries I’ve visited now form a visually pleasing contiguous group with no holes – if you ignore the pesky principalities.

Map of Europe

Sweden would be a satisfying next step

My trip to Edinburgh I have covered elsewhere, and was very fun. On getting off the train from Edinburgh back in Bristol, we were picked up from the station and headed straight to the Brecon Beacons for a few days of camping and the great outdoors. Scotland, England and Wales within 24 hours – it was mighty tempting to find a flight to Belfast that evening, I tell you! But stay in Wales we did, and it was a jolly lovely trip, made all the more exciting by a fire which completely destroyed the garage of the property in whose fields we were staying. Thankfully nobody was hurt, but it was an eye-opening time as teams of us campers passed buckets of water from a duckpond and threw them over the roaring inferno. I have to admit, I see the burn holes in my hoody as quite the souvenir from the weekend. Huge respect to the fire service and the job they did when they showed up and put the thing properly out.

Earlier in the summer, I also attended my second Glastonbury, serving as a steward again with Oxfam. It’s a great way to do the festival – meeting new people and getting fed, whilst plenty of time remained to take in all the sights and sounds the week had to offer. With a couple of extra days off for events like my graduation – it’s safe to say that by the end of the summer I was both skint and out of annual leave allowance. Still, I’d saved up enough by the autumn to visit a log cabin in Hampshire for a weekend with uni friends – now an annual tradition which includes hot tubs, games, and plenty of food and drink. Long may it continue!

As if the cabin excitement wasn’t enough for November, I also got to visit Manchester to take part in University Challenge! Sadly, my episode won’t be broadcast, as it merely served as a full dress rehearsal for the series of Christmas specials, but it was still huge fun. Real Paxo, real Roger Tilling saying my name, and a real victory of 205-15. We even got to stick around to watch the celebrity shows being recorded. Huge thanks to my team captain Paddy for letting me take part in the day, and introducing me to some great new people!

Of course, on top of all this, there have been plenty of weekends in Bristol – visiting the cinema or theatre, or curled up watching a DVD. Highlight of the filmic year was probably Boyhood – although The Lego Movie and ’71 also both standout in my mind. Interstellar felt like something that would make a good 5-series TV show, but in my opinion tried to fit too many things to suit a single movie. I’ll keep better track of films this year thanks to signing up to Letterboxd  – a good service to check out if you haven’t already. As for TV – I watched all of Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, and finally finished the last few seasons of How I Met Your Mother. I also bought a new phone which supports the iPlayer and 4OD apps, which has made catching up on things far easier for a guy who spends ten hours a week commuting. Special mention to Grayson Perry: Who Are You? – a great 3-part series released this year, and one that made a couple of days of commuting much more interesting.

I made relatively few trips to the theatre (besides Edinburgh) in 2014, but have made the step of getting involved with the Bristol Improv Theatre, which is great fun. I hope before the year is out I’ll appear on stage doing something creative – though I did pop up doing the occasional talk on stage for Science Showoff in 2014. If you know of live any act you think I should see – whether acting, singing, joking or dancing – please let me know!

So, what for 2015? Perhaps a TV appearance? Perhaps visiting a new country. More Eurovision, more tootling across the UK, and who knows where else? Here’s to the next adventure!