Latest from Michael Leader

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TIFF 2016: Top Ten

19 Sep, 2016 Posted in: Toronto

Film4.com Editor Michael Leader runs through ten standouts from the Toronto International Film Festival…

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The Oath

I’d already seen three of the four Film4-backed films screening in Toronto (including Free Fire, which picked up the Midnight Madness People’s Choice award) before the festival. The fourth, Baltasar Kormákur’s The Oath, was high on my most-anticipated list, and not just because I was interviewing the actor/director/writer/producer while out there. Kormákur is one of the most versatile directors working today – and after the starry adventure movie Everest, he’s returned to his native Iceland for a chilly, existential thriller that sits comfortably alongside his 2006 detective gem Jar City, and his recent TV serial Trapped, as the best the Nordic Noir genre has to offer.

My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea

Animated over the course of 5 years in Brooklyn, this feature debut from erstwhile graphic novelist Dash Shaw bears all the hallmarks of the artist’s distinct visual style – bold washes of colour leaking across the frame; intricate scribbles and paper collage; playful line art that takes inspiration from Hergé and Charles M Schulz. It certainly looks nothing like your typical animation, but Shaw’s offbeat storytelling voice – not to mention the literally distinctive voices of Jason Schwartzman, Lena Dunham, Susan Sarandon and Maya Rudolph – brings to mind the esoteric tone of 90s animation. Best to think of this as Daria’s droller, disaster-movie cousin.

Heal The Living

Simply recounting the plot for this devastating French drama makes me choke up, so I’ll be brief. Katell Quillévéré’s powerful medical drama is essentially a procedural, deep-diving into a single heart transplant case. What would be a minor story thread in an episode of ER is here handled with incredible care, clarity and humanity, as Quillévéré foregoes the tension and twists of conventional drama to trace the invisible threads that unite an ensemble of characters via the miracle of modern medicine.

The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography

There’s a temptation to label this film as something of a B-Side itself, coming out while documentarian Errol Morris toils away on his upcoming Netflix series. But don’t underestimate this generous, quietly complex documentary about Morris’s friend, photographer Elsa Dorfman, whose large-format Polaroid pictures possess a unique, unadorned power. What starts as an entertaining introduction to the woman’s life, work and personality works up tremendous poignancy as Dorfman gently touches on her life-long friendship with poet Allen Ginsberg, the undimmed magic of portrait photography, and the insidious, institutional processes that threaten her reputation and legacy.

Raw

I was gutted to miss Julia Ducournau’s French cannibal horror (much-hyped by my colleague Catherine Bray) at Cannes – but I can’t think of a better place in the world to have seen it than at the Ryerson Theatre, in TIFF’s legendary Midnight Madness strand. The MM crowd are smart and savvy genre diehards, and they took to Raw perhaps too well – if you believe the stories that ambulances were called to the cinema to tend to passed-out cinemagoers. To some, that’s testament enough – you can judge for yourself when Raw plays at the London Film Festival in October.

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Prevenge

Another must-see at the LFF, Alice Lowe’s directorial feature debut is a revenge-themed black comedy with a twist. Lowe stars as Ruth, a heavily-pregnant woman on a killing spree inspired by the voice of her unborn child. Darkly humorous, Prevenge jabs at the heart of the presumptuous and patronising culture that surrounds pregnancy. A cult classic in the making. Plus points for a strong supporting cast, featuring Jo Hartley, Kate Dickie and Kayvan Novak – and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Tom Meeten (who’s also appearing at the LFF, alongside Alice Lowe, in The Ghoul).

Blue Jay

One for fans of the Duplass brothers’ HBO series Togetherness, this black-and-white two-hander directed by seasoned cinematographer Alex Lehmann stars Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson as middle-aged friends meeting by chance after two decades. Your mileage may vary based on how much you like either of those actors, or the prospect of storytelling as a metaphorical onion – where character relationships, personalities and histories are slowly revealed, layer by layer, through dialogue. That’s precisely the sort of film I love – and after appreciating her supporting turns in Carol, 12 Years A Slave and Martha Marcy May Marlene, I’m now a paid-up member of the Sarah Paulson fan club.

A Monster Calls

Based on Patrick Ness’s best-selling ‘low’ fantasy novel, about a troubled boy and his nightly visits from a wise, if fearsome, oak tree, A Monster Calls sees director JA Bayona returning to the gothic mould of his Guillermo del Toro-produced debut, the Spanish chiller The Orphanage, bringing with him a few of the tricks learned from Oscar-friendly disaster drama The Impossible. This is a new entry in that small canon of allegorical reality-meets-fantasy stories, joining the likes of My Neighbour Totoro, Coraline, and del Toro’s own Pan’s Labyrinth – although remarkably honed-in on working through one specific, complicated emotional conundrum. Props to Bayona and casting director supreme Shaheen Baig for discovering young Lewis MacDougall, whose versatile performance ably matches the heavyweights on screen (Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones) and carries the complex emotional drama in scenes with the CGI, Liam Neeson-voiced Monster.

The Limehouse Golem

A compelling, full-throated gothic murder-mystery adapted from Peter Ackroyd’s novel by screenwriter Jane Goldman, The Limehouse Golem is dripping with London lore – from raucous music halls to the grime of the Victorian East End. There’s a strong, contemporary feminist undercurrent running through the twisty-turny investigation, as Bill Nighy’s detective is led through a deeply patriarchal society in pursuit of the identity of the Limehouse Golem, as well as the evidence that will clear the name of a famed actress wrapped up in the case (Me And Earl And The Dying Girl’s Olivia Cooke). But, frankly, this is delightful dress-up – the sort of chilling page-turner that will play perfectly as the nights draw in.

Sand Storm

Elite Zexer’s Bedouin drama picked up awards in Sundance and Locarno, and was the last film I saw before returning to the UK. Sand Storm tells the story of a teenage girl and a love affair that puts her at odds with her mother, father and the traditions of her community. On the face of it, Sand Storm is not too dissimilar to 2015′s Turkish crowd-pleaser Mustang, but substitute the thrill of seeing young women rage against the boundaries imposed on them by the older, patriarchal generation with tougher social questions, and even tougher compromises. It might prevent Zexer’s film from capturing the international crowd – but the film is all the more powerful for it.

Baltasar Kormakur on The Oath

16 Sep, 2016 Productions Posted in: Festivals, Toronto

As his Film4-backed Icelandic thriller The Oath premieres in Toronto, director/writer/actor Baltasar Kormakur speaks with Film4.com editor Michael Leader about making films in Hollywood, returning to Iceland, and the danger of tyranny.

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After making a series of films in Hollywood – Contraband, 2 Guns and Everest being three of them – you’re now back in Iceland for The Oath. What brought you back?

It’s where I grew up. It’s where I feel most true. It’s the landscape, it’s the weather – it’s who I am. When you live on an island that’s full of volcanoes… We’re living on a planet that’s alive. We are constantly reminded of that. And I need to make films in other places, but it seems like I’m drawn back – the more opportunities I get, the more I want to come back. Maybe it’s Stockholm Syndrome!

Your first film as director, 101 Reykjavik, was a very spirited portrayal of Icelandic nightlife and drug culture – now, 16 years later, The Oath takes a darker look at that lifestyle. In that time, has Iceland changed, or have you changed?

I’ve changed probably more than Iceland. It’s not that I want to be a moraliser, saying that kids shouldn’t have fun, but it’s different. Iceland didn’t used to have this culture of criminals, at all. And they weren’t celebrated in the media they way they are now. You cannot turn a blind eye because you have a nice house, and you live in a nice neighbourhood. These problems occur in every home.

But I try in the film not to take sides. It’s almost the anti-American movie. If you take all these movies where fathers go and save their kids, and bring them home still a virgin – like Taken or something – if you think that’s what you can do, and you go into that criminal world, this might be the outcome. There’s only one shot fired, and the consequences of that one shot are so great. 2 Guns is the opposite of that. You can shoot and shoot and you never see the consequences of it. I’m interested in the consequences of violence.

But at the same time, it’s a thriller. It’s about a man who’s built up the perfect life. He’s a heart surgeon, he has a beautiful wife, he has a beautiful home. But there are still some cracks, if you look deeply into it.

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The character you play in the film, Finnur, tries to assert control over every aspect of his life. Power over his patients as a surgeon, power over his family, even power over his body with his intense exercise routine. You are the director, producer, co-writer and star of The Oath – is that theme of control relevant to you off-screen as well as on?

Yes, I might be directing with some big stars in America, and you’re like God and people do what you tell them, but then you come home and you can’t control your kids. You can’t control your private life.

As a producer, director, writer, owner of the company – and I built this all up – the danger of tyranny and that behaviour is everywhere. So what you have to do is let go of control. Part of that is to let the projects come to you, and not to force your style on it. I’ve heard directors talk about themselves in the third person, and it’s weird. The film will ask for what it needs – it doesn’t mean you don’t do the homework, but don’t over-prepare yourself.

It’s as simple as listening to your cast and crew. As soon as you listen to somebody, they’ll be empowered to tell you something again. And to be able to do that, you’ll need to have a lot of self esteem, so you can listen to people but then go and make your own decisions.

What did you learn from going to America and making films there? And what was the appeal?

When I did it I didn’t have a plan. I wanted to break out of Iceland, I was suffocating a little bit. I wanted a bigger market. Better financing, and stuff like that. And then you do two films like that – Contraband and 2 Guns – and then you start asking ‘what is the purpose of this? Is it only money?’

And that’s when I did Everest, which is a much more serious movie, and challenging on many levels, technical levels. And then I was offered a lot of franchises – $250 million movies. And I thought… How many steaks can you eat? It doesn’t really make that much sense to continue on a path that, yes, may make you a lot of money, but it’s not necessarily the life you were seeking. So I go home and make The Oath which is far more personal.

I’m the first Icelandic guy to have done this – so there is no path. Most of the Scandinavians before, they went there and came right back home after one or two films because they flopped. There are a lot of stories like that. On those terms, I’ve been successful – I’ve had box office hits, and each one has been bigger than the others – but where’s that going to lead me?

So what I did was, I went to Hollywood, brought some Hollywood money back, I built a studio in Iceland, and I’m now bringing Iceland to the world.

Michael Leader’s picks for the London Film Festival 2016

05 Sep, 2016 Posted in: London Film Festival
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Free Fire

First, some score settling. My colleague Catherine and I fought over a few of our picks, so let me add my voice to the close harmony of recommendation for Gareth Tunley’s impressive debut psychological drama The Ghoul, as well as express my anticipation for the likes of Prevenge, Raw, Manchester By The Sea, Elle and Toni Erdmann. Now, with that out of the way…

The LFF is so packed with gems this year that, frankly, you could blind-buy a ticket and odds are you’ll hit upon a hotly-tipped festival favourite, cult classic in the making, or delightful deep cut from one of the festival’s expertly curated strands and selections. There’s much to see and enjoy, but to get you started here is an alphabetical handful of my suggestions…

After The Storm, dir. Hirokazu Koreeda

If you ask me, Hirokazu Koreeda is the most consistent filmmaker working today, and After The Storm – which reunites Kirin Kiki and Hiroshi Abe, who previously played mother and son in his 2008 masterpiece Still Walking – continues the director’s winning streak of winsome domestic dramas, joining I Wish, Like Father, Like Son and Our Little Sister.

Certain Women, dir Kelly Reichardt

Movie maths time: Kelly Reichardt + Michelle Williams = something very special indeed. A reunion of the director and star of both Meek’s Cutoff and Wendy & Lucy would be inviting enough, but throw in both Laura Dern and Kristen Stewart, and we have Reichardt’s most formidable ensemble to date, gathered to tell perhaps her most ambitious story, which interweaves the lives of three women in smalltown Montana, taking inspiration from the short stories of American writer Maile Meloy.

City Of Tiny Lights, dir. Pete Travis

After offering strong support alongside Jake Gyllenhaal in 2014’s Nightcrawler, Riz Ahmed is making 2016 count. Star Wars spin-off Rogue One will no doubt catapult him to a new level of stardom, but for now he’s appearing in two films at the LFF: Benedict Andrews’ Film4-backed drama Una and this London-set neo-noir, directed by Dredd’s Pete Travis. Riz fans, rejoice!

David Lynch: The Art Life, dir. John Nguyen / Blue Velvet Revisited, dir. Peter Braatz

It’s not long until David Lynch is back on our (small) screens with the long-awaited third season of Twin Peaks, so LFF are whetting our appetites with a double-dose of documentaries about this one-of-a-kind filmmaker. Blue Velvet Revisited is an archive feature of behind-the-scenes footage from his 1986 masterpiece, while The Art Life is a reflective, intimate bio-doc narrated by the man himself. Don’t make me choose. See both.

Ethel and Ernest, dir. Roger Mainwood

The most personal work of illustrator and bona fide national treasure Raymond Briggs (The Snowman, When The Wind Blows), Ethel And Ernest is a social history of 20th century working class Britain disguised as a gently moving biography of his mother and father. This long-gestating adaptation finally makes it to the big screen, with Brenda Blethyn and Jim Broadbent giving voice to the title characters. A recently-released trailer suggests that it has been worth the wait.

Free Fire, dir. Ben Wheatley

After High-Rise’s skyscraping ambition, Free Fire is a single-location thriller with laser-sharp focus on recreating the shoot-em-up cinema of Sam Peckinpah – with a gun-toting ensemble of glittering contemporary stars, including Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Cillian Murphy and Wheatley regular Michael Smiley. Don’t miss Wheatley’s Screen Talk the day before Free Fire’s premiere for a chance to hear directly from the straight-shooting, and refreshingly candid, filmmaker himself.

Further Beyond, dirs. Justine Molloy & Joe Lawlor

This curious essay film, screening in the Experimenta strand, stars Aidan Gillen as an actor recreating the journey of an Irish-born Spanish colonialist from Ireland to Chile. Mister John, the last collaboration between Gillen directors Justine Molloy and Joe Lawlor, was something of a cult gem on release in 2013 – Further Beyond seems destined for similar status.

Lake Bodom, dir. Taneli Mustonen

Fans of extreme Finnish metal band Children of Bodom will already be familiar with the enduring urban legend surrounding the grisly, unsolved murders of a group of teenagers at Lake Bodom in 1960. Taneli Mustonen’s film takes inspiration from this cultural touchstone, as a gang of modern-day teens visit the infamous lake to get to the bottom of the mystery. What sounds like a great riff on 80s slashers, though, might in fact be more surprising; BFI Cult strand programmer Michael Blyth writes that Lake Bodom ‘delights in slaying expectations and slicing up conventions’.

Mifune: The Last Samurai, dir. Steven Okazaki

Possibly the most recognisable Japanese actor in the world, thanks to his ongoing collaboration with director Akira Kurosawa, Toshiro Mifune is the sort of cinematic titan who surely should have had a career-spanning bio-doc by now. So, in steps director Steven Okazaki – a filmmaker with a certain heft, better known for documentaries grappling with Japanese and Japanese American experiences in the Second World War – to tell the story of this unique and formidable talent. I suspect this will be a little more nourishing than your standard talking-head fare.

A Monster Calls, dir J.A. Bayona

J.A. Bayona may now be ‘the director who brought you The Impossible’, but I’ll always remember him for the Guillermo Del Toro-produced Spanish gothic horror The Orphanage. Before he goes off to direct the next Jurassic Park movie, Bayona might have just made his Pan’s Labyrinth – an adaptation of Patrick Ness’s best-selling fantasy novel about a young boy who befriends a monstrous yew tree, voiced by Liam Neeson.

My Life As A Courgette, dir. Claude Barras

A serious contender for my film of the year, this French-Swiss stop-motion animation, adapted from a children’s novel about an orphan adjusting to life in a group home, is guaranteed to melt the coldest of hearts. If you see one film at the LFF this year, I’d recommend this one.

The Red Turtle, dir. Michaël Dudok de Wit

If you’re still in mourning over Studio Ghibli’s production hiatus following Hayao Miyazaki & Isao Takahata’s retirement from feature filmmaking, here’s the perfect tonic. The Red Turtle, the feature debut from Oscar-winning Belgian animator Michaël Dudok de Wit, not only shares some of Studio Ghibli’s pet themes (chiefly, man vs nature), it also features the names of co-producer Toshio Suzuki and ‘artistic producer’ Isao Takahata in its credit block.

Trespass Against Us, dir. Adam Smith

An assured and accomplished feature debut from Adam Smith, Trespass Against Us is by turns a thrilling crime caper and a melancholic portrait of a waning way of life, as a generation gap forms between father and son in a brood of outsider outlaws. The starry cast – Michael Fassbender, Brendan Gleeson, Sean Harris – may be the draw, but this is a showcase for Smith, who skilfully balances volatile family drama and hair-raising car-chase set-pieces.

The Wailing, dir. Na Hong-Jin

Part crime procedural, part supernatural nightmare, this genre-bending thrill-ride from director Na Hong-Jin (The Yellow Sea) is an exhilarating and exhausting exercise in cinematic gaslighting. Nothing in the LFF lineup is like this: prepare yourself for 156 minutes jam-packed with creepy goings-on, cacophonic shaman rituals and bizarre narrative twists. Oh, and wailing. So much wailing.

We Are X, dir. Stephen Kijak

I bang on about the LFF’s superlative selection of music documentaries every year, and 2016′s most eye-catching offering in the Sonic strand is Stephen Kijak’s intimate dive into the extravagant and tumultuous history of glam rockers – and visual kei pioneers – X Japan. Expect this to sit perfectly in a double bill with Sacha Gervasi’s Anvil! The Story of Anvil in years to come.

Your Name, dir. Makoto Shinkai

Japanese animation is often given short shrift by the UK theatrical scene, but you can always trust the LFF to give anime a much-deserved big screen showcase. Director Makoto Shinkai now joins the likes of Studio Ghibli and Mamoru Hosoda in the LFF anime canon, but with a welcome and remarkable twist: this emotionally-charged tale of boy-bodyswaps-with-girl is the first animated film, period, to appear in the festival’s Official Competition selection.

Hiromasa Yonebayashi on When Marnie Was There

06 Jun, 2016 Posted in: Directors, Interview

As Studio Ghibli’s latest animation, When Marnie Was There, hits UK cinema screens, Michael Leader speaks with director Hiromasa Yonebayashi…

There are so many emotional aspects interweaving throughout the film, about growing up, friendship, being adopted, about being an outsider to the mainstream culture. But then you also have the time-slip plot and the genre workings of fantasy-tinged melodrama. What was the essence of the film for you?

The central theme of this film is Anna, who closes herself outside of the world. Her gradual change was very important. At the beginning she is expressionless, but through her interchange with Marnie and beautiful nature you gradually see her expression coming back. By the end of the film she’s almost a different girl. To depict that change in one film was very important.

It’s the influential moments in friendship and relationships that create that change.

At first, she closes herself off to others. Anna didn’t notice but her stepmother Yoriko loved her but she didn’t realise. When she moved to the countryside with her auntie and saw Marnie, all the beautiful nature and her peers, she gradually realised that actually the people around her love her.

This and your previous film, Arrietty, are both adaptations of English-language children’s books from half a century ago. I’d like to know what it was that you saw that was relevant about these books to modern day children, and what excited you about retelling these stories.

I think that’s because we depict human beings, not just children, as having to struggle with interaction is relevant through time and people. With Marnie, she is isolated and she hates herself because she has closed herself off from the world. Children these days are connected to friends and others through SMS, they can connect with them anytime, anywhere. Some children feel isolated and tired of it as well though. So for girls like that we wanted to make a film that gives them a enough courage to step forward.

On the other hand, Arrietty is a very outgoing and adventurous child, so I was wondering what was relevant to today’s children from Arrietty?

In Arrietty they were borrowers – they borrow things to live. I saw myself in Arrietty when I was making it because she and her family lived under the house and had to borrow things from big people. In the end her family move out from that hiding place under the house and sail to a different world, into the unknown with hope and looking into the future. I’m not really sure if that was relevant to today, but at the time that I was making it I definitely saw Arrietty in me.

When Marnie Was There is in cinemas from 10th June 2016…

Cannes 2016: Gimme Danger (dir. Jim Jarmusch)

19 May, 2016 Posted in: Cannes, Cannes, Documentaries, Review

Michael Leader catches the Cannes premiere of Jim Jarmusch’s documentary chronicling the career of The Stooges…

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What a treat! Not one, but two new films from independent cinema deity Jim Jarmusch in the Official Selection at Cannes. The first was Paterson, which Film4’s Catherine Bray reviewed earlier this week, and here’s the flip-side, a rousing documentary about proto-punk pioneers The Stooges.

Formed in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1967 by former jobbing drummer James Osterberg (aka Iggy Pop), brothers Ron and Scott Asheton (guitar and drums, respectively), and bassist Dave Alexander, The Stooges perfected a chaotic, caterwauling subgenre of garage rock that proved impossible to market in both the psychedelic late-60s and the more commercially-driven early-70s, despite the efforts of Elektra Records and, later, David Bowie and his MainMan management firm. Perhaps best known as the incubator that birthed the serpentine, shirtless behemoth Iggy Pop, The Stooges’ three LPs only grew in stature as time passed, greatly influencing many key musical moments in the years since, from punk to alternative rock to grunge.

Jim Jarmusch – clearly a rock ‘n roll nut as evidenced by his soundtrack choices, casting decisions and recurring thematic obsessions – has only flirted with the music documentary genre once before, with the rarely-revisited Neil Young tour movie Year Of The Horse, and those expecting that Gimme Danger will match the tone of the director’s feature films may be somewhat disappointed – for this is, unavoidably, a conventional, largely linear rock-doc, chock-full of talking heads and archival footage. Happily, however, it’s an absolute riot.

If you look, you’ll find Jarmusch’s fingerprints all over Gimme Danger, from the odd bit of off-camera chatter (“We are interrogating Jim Osterberg…”) to a soundtrack cut from his sludgy, Stooges-influenced side project SQÜRL, but the director clears the stage to tell the story of this highly influential, mythologised band. Having an avowed mega-fan behind the camera brings not just the expected energy in revisiting the highlights of the band’s short recording history, it also balances the film’s outlook, imbuing the dreaded back-half of any retrospective with an infectious curiosity. Take, for example, the retelling of the band’s late-game ‘reunification’, as told by bassist Mike Watt (Minutemen, fIREHOSE), who plots a path from Todd Haynes’ 1998 glam-rock pseudo-biopic Velvet Goldmine (featuring a character based on Pop), through a debilitating illness that prevented him from playing music, to his recovery covering Stooges songs live with various musicians (including Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis and the Ashetons), to the eventual revival of the band’s initial lineup, with Watt filling in on bass, at Coachella in 2003.

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Also key is the incredible story of James Williamson, guitarist and songwriter on scuzzy 1973 classic Raw Power, who dropped out of the music industry to become an electrical engineer and, eventually, vice president of technical standards at Sony, only to rejoin The Stooges in 2009, sounding as ferocious as ever, while looking like someone’s retired uncle had won a competition to be a rock star for the night.

It would have been all too easy to cash in on Iggy Pop’s boundless charisma and inexhaustible store of anecdotes (from hanging out with Nico to inventing, and botching, the first stage dive); it’s trickier to shift focus to the band behind the frontman, some of whom, including Scott Asheton and saxophonist Steve Mackay, passed away after being interviewed, yet before the finished film’s premiere. To many they may have been known as ‘Iggy & The Stooges’, but Pop asserts throughout that the band were philosophically, if not politically, Communist. In Gimme Danger, Jarmusch has crafted a loving, detailed documentary that perfectly reflects this musical ideal.

 Click here for more Cannes coverage on the Film4 blog

by Michael Leader

Michael Leader is editorial director of Film4 Online. As a freelance writer he's written for Sight & Sound and Little White Lies. Before joining the Film4 team, he worked for BAFTA.

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