Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Making of Harry Potter tour, Warner Bros. studios, Leavesden

HarryPotterTourI’ve got to say I don’t really get the appeal of theme parks built around big Hollywood movies and I think I’ve reconciled myself to never visiting Euro Disney without excessive soul-rending but despite initial misgivings I ended up really impressed with the Harry Potter tour that’s currently running at the Warner Bros. studios at Leavesden in Hertfordshire. This is where they shot the eight films and a couple of the hangar-sized buildings have now been given over to recreations of many of the sets containing literally thousands of the props, models and costumes as well as rooms containing fascinating conceptual art,  architectural diagrams and animatronic (and often unnervingly convincing) creatures and false heads. The tour begins with a couple of short films setting the scene and some slightly toe-curling attempts to whip up enthusiasm from the guides (“Whoop if you love Harry Potter!”…err, would it be all right if I just looked vaguely bemused instead?) but this doesn’t last long and once you’ve gone past the Great Hall you’re let off the lead and allowed to wander at your own pace through the wonders on show.

It’s all pretty overwhelming, particularly when you get up close and get the chance to appreciate the sheer artistry and care that’s gone into things like paintings and tapestries and artefacts that hardly get any time to register when you see them onscreen. The potions classroom for example contains about five hundred glass jars all containing different, and carefully labelled, exotic ingredients and the vast “Magic is Might” sculpture that’s glimpsed briefly in the films after Voldemort’s forces have taken over the ministry is truly monumental: a graphic depiction of ordinary working people being crushed by superior force that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Mussolini’s Rome. I was surprised at how many of the effects in the films were achieved by physical rather than digital means – the snakes on the door to the Chamber of Secrets pictured above are articulated and can actually move! Most of the exhibits are set out museum style with explanatory texts and links to an optional audio guide but there are interactive opportunities too with a virtual wand tutor and a green screen room in which you can get a photo of yourself apparently riding a broomstick. The tour’s sensibly broken up halfway through with a refreshments pit-stop where you can sample the incredibly sweet butterbeer (a sort of cream soda I think), walk along the wobbly school bridge or get yourself photographed outside what might be the single strangest thing in the whole exhibition – a completely convincing mock-up of 4 Privet Drive, essentially nothing more than a standard suburban terraced house. Nearer the end of the tour you come to what are probably the two highlights: the beautifully shambolic and inviting shop fronts of Diagon Alley and the enormous 1:24 scale model of Hogwarts that was used for long-shots in the films.

This tour’s not cheap but it’s difficult to argue that it’s not value for money for any fan of the series or anyone half-interested in film-making. I spent three hours in there and it felt like I was only skimming the surface of what was on show. I could easily have been in there all day, and may even go back for another look sometime as one of the guides said that they were hoping to refresh the displays with new exhibits periodically.



Elysium: head off for paradise

ElysiumIf you prefer a side order of dystopian grime with your summer sci-fi shoot-em-ups you’re not going to do much better than Elysium, written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, whose previous film District 9 was a rare and successful blend of satire, body horror and military hardware that also managed to comment insightfully on the plight of the disenfranchised in South Africa. His new one’s not quite as distinctive – with the increased budget a Hollywood studio brings comes an obligation not to stray too far from the standard action movie template – but to his credit he still manages to get over the bones of a Marxist message about elitism in a piece of work that’s significantly earthier, punchier and (hooray!) shorter than your average “things explode” blockbuster.

Elysium extrapolates the accelerating inequalities of today’s society into a future where the Earth is so over-populated and under-resourced that the richest 1% have physically re-located to a fabulously opulent orbiting space station where their every need is attended to by robots and they can devote their attentions to keeping the great unwashed beneath them in their place. It’s not exactly a subtle allegory but the top-notch rendering of both the luscious environment on the wheel-shaped satellite (all verdant lawns, villas and swimming pools spread over the inner surface of the wheel and depicted on screen in shots that play clear tribute to 2001 A Space Odyssey) and the horrendous slums that comprise the future Los Angeles help distract one’s attention from the well-worn premise. Our identification figure is Matt Damon’s Max, a reformed car thief who’s content to toil away in a demeaning manual labour job until an accident at work compels him to find a way to get to Elysium by any means necessary. The trials and indignities he suffers in pursuit of this end leave you wincing as he’s opposed both by the callous administrators above (Jodie Foster is really nailing the Ice Queen thing these days) and some highly unsavoury mercenaries below.

That Blomkamp is clearly fascinated by guns and vehicles and bio-technology is not that unusual in itself but his skill in making the hardware on the screen feel convincingly practical and worn in is definitely notable, as is his unflinching dedication to showing the sometimes gruesome bonding of man and machine. At one point Damon’s character is required to wear a pretty inelegant metal exo-skeleton and the sound of the bolts being screwed into his body is so effective that gory special effects aren’t needed. Which is not to say they’re not deployed with gusto elsewhere – it’s never dwelt on, but when people get shot in this movie it’s with particularly high impact bullets and they tend to end up in several pieces. This David Cronenberg-like emphasis on the abuse of the human form marries well with an underlying strain of black humour and makes Elysium worth watching despite its by-the-numbers plot and surfeit of gun battles. This is no classic, but it sure delivers on its promise of spectacle and action and gets extra respect for not extending its climactic scenes beyond the point of endurance (see pretty much every superhero movie made in the last twenty years).

Guest blog! Nicola reviews the live “David Bowie Is Happening Now” event


Back in June I went to the much talked about David Bowie Is exhibition at the V & A (after rediscovering my fascination for the man a couple of years ago. Here’s guest blogger Nicola’s take on the screening of the event that was held to mark its closing in London:

I didn’t see the Bowie exhibition at the V & A, making me, it seems, one of only a few Bowie fans for whom it didn’t appeal. The live event ‘David Bowie is happening now’, transmitted live to cinemas across the UK, however did.  The chance to hear the curators talking about the exhibition pieces and explaining why particular artefacts from Bowie’s archive were considered representative of its themes was the draw.

The event got off to a shaky start with the presenters directing their opening words to the audience members at the V&A and not to camera.  With the presenters turning their heads in every direction other than straight ahead it looked like they couldn’t find the right camera.  And nerves got the better of one presenter who couldn’t wrestle them into submission for the best part of the show.

As one might expect, we were guided around from the beginning of the exhibition with live commentary and pre-recorded footage from guest commentators and members of the public, before the focus returned to the stage with the first of a series of special guests being invited to talk, setting the format for the evening as we were slowly led around the various rooms.

Guests included Hanif Kureishi, Kansai Yamamoto, Jarvis Cocker, Sir Christopher Frayling, Paul Morley, Terry O’Neill and Michael Clark, providing plenty of added value.  When clothes designer Kansai Yamamoto took to the stage the event really took off.  He was clearly moved by the recognition of his talents via the inclusion of his iconic pieces.  By his own admission, his English hadn’t improved much in the decades since he created the Aladdin Sane outfit, but there was a power in his delivery even as he struggled to find the next word.  He managed to raise a ripple of laughter when he revealed that  the first time he met his future muse Bowie was wearing an outfit he had designed to be worn by women.  All the invited guests spoke well and interestingly and had something different to say – there was only one fawning appreciation of Bowie but this inclusion was to represent the fan.

Standout moments included the shared amazement that Bowie had the foresight to keep EVERYTHING: every doodle, every scribble, every scrap ensuring a comprehensive archive; Bowie’s vision: he thought BIG from the outset and refined his ideas on paper; his skill at finding the right collaborators; Paul Morley and others commenting on Bowie’s naive handwriting on scrawled lyrics, which make Bowie’s genius appear to be mere child’s play, belying the enduring power and magnificence of the songs they became; members of the public impressing on today’s audience the impact of Bowie singing Starman on TV; the colour and flamboyance of every new persona he invented, many represented by beautifully tailored outfits; and the photographic images taken throughout Bowie’s long musical career that, in Nicholas Coleridge’s words, somehow remain timeless.

Michael Clark discussed Bowie’s legacy which the exhibition successfully conveys.  The live event covered much of what one would expect, yet the production team were wise not to gloss over the rich seams captured in the details that lead one to a better understanding of the subject, thus also retaining the exhibition’s inspirational quality. One pre-recorded voice in particular struck a chord: a young visitor to the exhibition said that, having seen Bowie’s hand-written lyrics, she was going home to have a go.

Sir Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, wanted to make the Pompeii exhibition accessible to as many people as possible.  Hence, he brought the exhibition to the UK’s cinema screens.  With the Bowie exhibition being the fastest selling sell-out exhibition in the V&A’s history, the screening of the live event meant that anyone who wasn’t lucky enough get a ticket could still get a taste of what they missed, which has got to be a good thing.  Although, for anyone who would still like to see the Bowie exhibition in person, I am pleased to report that it is a travelling exhibition, ending in Paris in 2015.

A Field In England: historical field trip


Teatime over lads, back on your heads…after a brief time out to take in the antics of the frivolous Mr Partridge, it’s heads down and straight back into the realm of the strange and the difficult. And surely there won’t be a British film released in arthouse cinemas this year that’ll be on the surface stranger and more difficult than Ben Wheatley’s fourth film A Field In England? This one’s notable straight away for the unusual way it’s been unleashed on the world: on the same day that it opened in theatres it was also released on DVD, blu-ray and on-demand services and was even given a free-to-air screening on TV courtesy of Film 4. This is a bold marketing strategy to be sure but could also be interpreted as the film’s distributor hedging its bets with a thorny product (“quick, flog ’em the DVD before they’ve had a chance to see the thing!”) – Field ticks an awful lot of the boxes that qualify a film as a hard sell, being low-budget, grimy, bleak, violent, kind of druggy and presented in black and white to boot. It’s also a period piece, which isn’t necessarily a turn-off, but it probably doesn’t help that there are no female characters and that the whole thing takes place in one field (at least nobody can be accused of false advertising in that respect). Clearly, as anyone who’s read my ramblings about Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr will understand, this is the kind of film that sails instantly to the top of my much-watch list.

Personally I didn’t bother watching the TV showing as my signal reception on Film 4 is so dodgy, and I couldn’t make it to any of the few showings at my local picturehouse, but I did manage to borrow a blu-ray (thanks Alan!) and I was in the end glad that I waited to see it in a high definition format. This is actually a highly accomplished piece of work – difficult and strange to be sure, but also disciplined, literate, funny and affecting. It concerns an ill-matched set of deserters from a chaotic skirmish during the Civil War who find themselves forming an uneasy alliance for the purposes of survival and finding a good alehouse. One of them, Reece Shearsmith’s Whitehead, is an astrologer who’s been charged with locating and bringing to justice the maverick O’Neil (a highly sinister turn by Michael Smiley), who has stolen valuable papers relating to alchemical practices from Whitehead’s master – when the group eventually encounter O’Neil however he turns out to have very different plans and some disturbing psychological manipulation, mushroom assisted mental dislocation and much much worse ensue.

The impression I’d formed of the film based on descriptions and reviews was that it was a sludgy, hand-held, semi-improvised, impressionistic sort of thing which only goes to show I need to work on my speed-reading: A Field In England is stunning, both visually (the high contrast widescreen cinematography is just beautiful) and in terms of its spare, subtly-layered soundtrack. It’s also, despite some of the baffling and unsettling mayhem that comes more and more to the fore as the film proceeds, a carefully written and structured piece of work that has the feeling of a proper stage play about it, what with its small cast and single location. Characters develop, form bonds, make choices and reap consequences as they should in any intelligently worked out drama, and even if some of the specifics about what’s going on remain opaque the film never devolves into random weirdness, even during the tour-de-force hallucination sequence which features the fastest cutting between shots I can ever remember seeing (seriously: this is like heavy duty strobing). It seems to make emotional sense, even if you’d struggle to explain all the how and whys. And despite reminding me a bit of quite a lot of things (the folk horror of Blood On Satan’s Claw, the cruelty of Witch Finder General, and in its beautifully austere and uncluttered look, the 1960s films of Ingmar Bergman) it feels in many ways like a genuine original.

So, A Field In England. Wouldn’t want to live there, but surprisingly interesting to visit.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa

Alan Partridge in the studio

Aha, that’s better. I’d been beginning to wonder whether exposure to too many high-minded slow-moving arthouse confections had eroded my sense of humour for good (the much hyped The World’s End raised barely a wry smile a few weeks ago) but after seeing Steven Coogan’s latest outing for his enduringly hapless Norfolk DJ my confidence is restored that it’s not me, it’s them. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is a hoot from croissant to nightcap. The notion of Partridge on the big screen may seem a bit questionable at first given the character’s status as a Z-list celebrity who can’t even get on the telly these days but this works a treat, possibly because the film’s creators largely ignore the siren temptation to open it up and waste their budget on distracting and expensive shooting in exotic locations. Instead they stick to what works best by dropping Alan into a delicate situation in a definitely parochial setting (a presenter at a local radio station takes hostages after he’s sacked by the new management) and letting him wreak havoc with his weirdly perceptive tactlessness and fragile over-confidence. In terms of plot everything’s kept as simple as possible but in its sheer density of killer lines, awkward stand-offs and sheer physical hilarity this is as packed as any comedy film I can remember – there’s stuff coming at you continuously, with virtually no time at all wasted on laboriously setting any situation up. It pretty much demands to be seen again and I’m sure there’ll be details popping out you hadn’t noticed before even at the tenth viewing. Apart from anything else it’s worth watching for the skill with which Coogan and his team manage to give Partridge a distinctly heroic edge, despite him remaining in most scenes as self-centred a buffoon as he ever was. You find yourself positively rooting for this vain and deluded man…which is not to say you feel guilty about laughing like a drain when he loses his trousers or finds himself intimately involved with the waste disposal system on a recreational vehicle. It’s also nice to see the return of his under-appreciated and repressed personal assistant Lynn and the cheerfully indecipherable Geordie handyman Michael. A brilliant continuation of the Partridge legend, and barely a catchphrase in earshot.

From Up On Poppy Hill


From Up On Poppy Hill, the latest UK release from widely adored Japanese animation maestros Studio Ghibli, has had some slightly lukewarm reviews but I really loved it. Ghibli’s best known for the brilliant, imaginative and often morally complex fantasy films of Hayao Miyazaki, with Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke in particular appearing frequently on those “movies you must see before you die” lists, but the studio has also produced a number of much more grounded coming-of-age tales set in painstakingly well-realised towns, cities and rural areas of Japan and for my money Poppy Hill is a worthy successor to the gentle but powerfully affecting Only Yesterday* and Whisper Of The Heart. Directed from a script co-written by Hayao by his son Goro Miyazaki (whose previous effort Tales Of Earthsea was a rare Ghibli misfire, although as ever beautiful to look at) it’s set in the early sixties when the Japanese government was using the attention and resources gained by hosting the 1964 Olympics as a mechanism for proving itself as a fully modernised society comfortable with concreting over elements of its culture both honourable and dubious. Our lead character is a bright and resourceful teenage girl called Umi who has taken on the running of a boarding house from her absentee mother, a duty she’s been able to calmly discharge while still keeping up with her schoolwork right until she happens upon the handsome and mysterious Shun, a student activist with whom she has a bit more in common than is immediately apparent. Meanwhile a campaign to save a charming but rundown clubhouse and social centre from demolition is underway and some surprising connections are made.

It’s impossible to imagine any Western studio putting money into any live action film as low-key and subtle as Poppy Hill let alone an animation as rich and gorgeous and detailed as this. Both main plot lines are allowed to develop organically and at a pace that allows you to appreciate the value of the relationships and institutions that are being questioned and the characters for all their elegantly line-drawn and pastel-shaded appearances feel like real, vulnerable people. While the first half an hour or so seems a bit slow, leaving you wondering a little where it’s all going, the set-up scenes turn out to be well worth it, paving the way for a moving drama that’s all the more successful for not featuring any villainous, or even unsympathetic, characters whatsoever. Even the two or three scenes of conflict dodge the bullet marked melodrama by being undermined by some excellent comic touches. I’ll confess I didn’t see where the storyline would end up and found myself feeling decidedly teary when the big cards got laid on the table.

But even if you don’t feel you have to visit the cinema to get emotional scenes of family revelations (you can get all that in Eastenders, surely?) I’d still recommend Poppy Hill for it’s visual sumptuousness and the care and taste with which backdrops and effects and the smallest of incidental bits and bobs have been put on screen. There are some beautiful and haunting flashback and dream sequences here, but just as lovely are the bits where people prepare meals (in how many films have you seen the correct procedure for measuring out a portion of rice?) or mop floors or re-plaster walls or just have a bit of a laugh. This is a film that’s likely to get overlooked in favour of flashier productions when folk are investigating Ghibli’s back catalogue, but really in a lot of ways it’s right up there with the best of them.

* this sensitive portrayal of the choices faced by a troubled young woman isn’t very well known, mainly because the American studio refused to sanction an English language dub due to a reference to menstruation in the script. Enlightened, huh?