Q & Eh?: When Asking the Audience Goes Wrong

For some reason, I always jump at the chance of going to a post-film Q+A, expecting an insight into the film-making process, a chance to unpack the themes and ideas behind their new creative work, and enjoy the company of those directly involved. But I struggle to think of one which has actually fully delivered on their promise. Of course, it works both ways – it’s a give and take scenario, and an uncooperative subject doesn’t help matters. However, more often than not, it is the questions from the audience that leaves the experience often being a squib of the damp variety.

It seems there is always one question, be it awkward, ill-judged or just bonkers, when you can hear the other cinemagoers groan, sigh, grit their teeth or bury their heads in their hands. Hey, I’ve asked dumb questions too, but I’m mostly of the camp that thinks “Hey, they’ve taken the time to come here, no one enjoys the press junket experience, let’s not bombard them with crap.” Sometimes it’s a non-sequitur or an attempt to be funny, and in some instances the line of questioning may even be justified, but it’s always better leaving the probing to the journos who actually have some weight behind them rather than Joe Anonymous.

So, here are a few examples of some memorable clangers I’ve bore witness to. Please excuse the paraphrasing and anecdotal nature, but hopefully the essence of squirm-inducing embarrassment has been successful transposed. And apologies to all concerned.

The League of Gentlemen – The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse – London, 2004

With a Q+A, you never know what kind of crowd you’re going to get, and in particular how primed they are for the film they have just seen. Naturally, you’re going to end up with some who have no expectations or prior knowledge, but sometimes that’s better than outright misinformation. For the big screen follow-up to the TV series The League of Gentlemen, three of the four members (Steve Pemberton was filming Lassie at the time) gathered to take the usual questions, including another run through of the Papa Lazarou character genesis story, which even back then they had told many times before. The highlight of the night though was one puzzled punter who, in a mixture of confusion and annoyance, enquired what this had to do with the previous film. You know, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Oh, to have been in their brain during the preceding hour and a half or so to see what on Earth they made of it all.

Park Chan-Wook – I’m A Cyborg But That’s OK – Barbican, 2007

The nature of a duff question can be as much about the timing as the content itself, and the necessity to ‘end on a good one’ was proven here. No doubt in response to scenes in which the ‘Cyborg’ dreams of spouting hidden gun barrels and opening bloody fire on the staff of the mental institution in which she resides, the final question of the night came in the form of asking whether he thought Oldboy had any part to play in the Virginia Tech massacre that had happened some months before (a link which was reported, but quite swiftly discredited). The awkwardness hung ever greater as it had to be translated into Korean, then his answer given, and then translated into English. It was unsurprisingly a diplomatic answer, saying it was a tragedy, but felt the link between violence in reality and in cinema was tenuous and his films had no part to play. But it was an ill-conceived debate to launch right at the end of the discussion.

David O Russell – Silver Linings Playbook – BFI London Film Festival 2012

David O. Russell and Bradley Cooper with London Film Festival Director Clare Stewart - audience out of the picture

David O. Russell and Bradley Cooper with London Film Festival Director Clare Stewart – audience out of the picture

The ‘Surprise Film’ at the London Film Festival in 2012 (and such a surprise that I didn’t even know the title of the film until it came up in the end credits) also heralded with it surprise guests, namely star Bradley Cooper and director David O Russell. Russell spoke eloquently and sensitively about how the story spoke to him personally and in particular with regards his son’s bipolar disorder. Now, Russell’s anger issues are well documented (notably on-set scuffles with George Clooney on Three Kings, and Lily Tomlin on I Heart Huckabees), but still one audience member’s question quite openly, though not directly, referred to his infamous indiscretions. Okay, so being that it was a surprise film, said audience member would not have known when he took his seat that in about two hours they would have a chance to needle Russell, and certainly those past transgressions are inexcusable, but the atmosphere in the room completely thickened as a result. Russell though was on good behaviour and deflected talk of anger issues back towards his son’s own problems and how that was channelled into the making of the film, but there was a minute or so where a previously jovial interview could have gone sour.

Rich Moore & Sarah Silverman – Wreck-It Ralph – BFI Southbank, February 2013

As mentioned previously, timing can make or break a question, and the first to come from the audience here was the perfect mix of nerd fury, unentitled indignation, and crippling nerves. It came from a young nerd who took the special guests to task about the wait between the US release and its eventual UK release, complaining that there were a lot of fellow geeks out there who were fans of games and they were cross they couldn’t see it – or at least that’s what could be made out from the sweaty stutters and clammy swallow-pauses. But when your question is targeted at Silverman and director Moore (previously of The Simpsons and Futurama, so no stranger to irreverence either), they’re not going to be overly sensitive to your needs. With mock sincerity, they sarcastically praised their courageousness in asking the question, and for a minute or two they pretty much ribbed him good. It culminated in them claiming that “they wanted to release it on your birthday, but Disney were like ‘Nooooo’”. It was pretty mean, but pretty funny too.

 

So, any more Q+A horror stories? Or have you been to a Q+A where the questions from the audience have actually been good?

FILM REVIEW: Stoker

Stoker

From Korea’s most prominent exporter of beautiful bloody revenge, Park Chan-wook’s first stab at Hollywood film-making loses nothing of his keen visual sense and oddball charm in its change of language and locale. Much like Shutter Island’s take on hardboiled detectives and paranoid thriller, or Black Swan’s giallo genuflections, Stoker revels in a fairly traditional tale of “the dysfunctional family with dark secrets”, but makes it its own. When India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) loses her beloved father in a car accident, his brother Charlie (Matthew Goode), whom she has never met, appears at the funeral, and stays with her and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). But India is less than enamoured with her uncle’s attempts to strike a friendship up with his niece, nor with his more successful and suspicious seduction of her mother.

Embedded in a Southern Gothic milieu with a hint of Hitchcock, Park’s outsider view of Americana adds to the detached feel that courses throughout. There is a timelessness to the look – the clothes, the props, the cars, the Stoker household, all feel like they’re stuck in the past (for instance, you get high school kids on motorcycles hanging out at diners), modernity only creeping in out of necessity.  The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, steeped in rich, deep colours, while quick cuts, crossfades and montage imprint the vivid imagery with real style. And Clint Mansell’s score (as well as piano pieces by Philip Glass) is bolstered by intensified ticks of a metronome or a clock, the constant echoes of nature emanating from the woods and grass, and all manner of impressive creepy, atmospheric sound work.

But much of Stoker’s heightened quality is also down to the performances, particularly from the three principals, which are mannered to the point of precision. Wasikowska could easily have played the part as the stereotypical world-weary mopey moody teenager with morbid obsessions you’ve seen dozens of times before, and while those elements exist here, she somehow makes it seem fresh. She has a presence that is delicate but with a brooding power bubbling under the surface, someone who could float like a butterfly, yet sting like a bee (and I’m just as surprised as you that I’ve likened her performance to Muhammad Ali). Goode is perfect as the devilishly charming Charlie, unflappable and filled with mysterious purpose, drinking in his new surroundings and worming his way into India and Evelyn’s lives. Speaking of which, Kidman nails her fractured post-mourning state, emotionally susceptible, trapped in a kind of delicious delirium. Though they are all individually distinctive, together they make Stoker a peculiar joy to watch.

What is a tad disappointing though is the tale itself. Sure, some lines may feel like you’re being hit on the head by the script (by Prison Break star Wentworth Miller, no less), but the slightly unnatural delivery makes it work, a film in which every sentence ends with a full stop and usually a tense pause for effect. Unfortunately, no amount of scenery-chewing can quite make up for the feeling that the script is more like a framework upon which to hang these performances, and to deliver the flourishes of a masterful director at work, than anything you can really sink your teeth into. Symbolism and themes abound, but the depth isn’t really there to back it up. That said, it is still capable of surprises, and still satisfying overall, but it is a shame the story is not as bold or inventive as the way in which it is executed.

Stoker is a peach of a film – ripe and juicy, with a hard stone at its centre. Subtle it certainly isn’t, but that’s where the fun of the film lies. For better or worse, it is very much in keeping with Park’s body of work (in that they are often stunning to behold, but not without narrative bumps), and indeed, by transporting his style to America, it makes you realise just how easy it is to take “ghettoised by virtue of being foreign language” arthouse-only-appropriate ‘world cinema’ talents such as his for granted when so few ‘Western’ directors have anything like his imagination. Here’s hoping it’s just the first in a new, and long-lasting, chapter in his career that bears even tastier fruit.

FILM REVIEW: I’m A Cyborg But That’s OK

Director Park Chan-Wook is perhaps seen as the leading figure in the new wave of Korean cinema which has struck a chord with audiences across the world, usurping both Hong Kong and Japan as the “go-to” nation for groundbreaking cinema in East Asia. With his “Vengeance” trilogy complete, Park’s venture into romantic comedy may seem a peculiar choice, but this film still carries over themes from his previous work and the style is still undeniably all his. I’m A Cyborg But That’s OK focuses on two patients in a mental hospital and the relationship that develops between them. Young-Goon (Im Soo-Jeong) believes she is of cybernetic origin and spends her time talking to vending machines and licking batteries for sustinence, while Il-Soon (Rain) spends his time wearing a variety of masks and has the ability to steal other people’s “powers” (or, in this case, mental handicaps).

Park is no stranger to flights of fancy and visual jiggery-pokery and such a premise as this lends itself perfectly to his aesthetic. With science-fiction elements mixing with a variety of eccentric supporting players, few scenes pass without a quirky characteristic played out to its full, often with the aid of CGI. The visualisations of the patients’ delusions give the film a sense that perhaps they aren’t crazy after all, even if they are exaggerated to the point of unbelievability. But in doing so, the potential darkness of such a situation is mostly avoided.

I say mostly, because it’s still a rather uncomfortable watch. Much of the humour is simply derived from the fact that the people on screen are basically mental, and while there are some very funny moments, I found it hard to give myself fully to the film’s lightness dealing with what’s in every other essence a somewhat bleak existence. Humour always played a factor in Park’s previous films in even darker areas of human nature (also when concerning the themes of entrapment and injustice that also appear here), but deriving jet black comedy from the more macabre or disturbing somehow rests easier on my mind. Perhaps that says more about me than the film.

And in much the same way as Takeshi Miike’s Zebraman was his idea of a family film, Park’s view of what might be suitable viewing for his young daughter (for whom he made the film) is unconventional to say the least. Before the screening at the Barbican as part of the London Korean Film Festival, he asked us to view the film from the perspective of the a 12-year-old, and while I would’ve probably got a kick out of this when I was 10 years younger (good God), this isn’t the kind of picture you’d get from the House of Mouse. One repeated manic hallucination of Young-goon’s is just about as violent as anything in Lady Vengeance.

However, there is much to like about the film. The leads are endearing and engaging, and the oddball assortment of fellow patients provide a colourful backdrop. And there is no denying the talent of Park, who appears to be just as comfortable shooting fantasy as much as reality, blurring the boundaries wherever he sees fit but not in such a way as to disorientate the audience. It’s plain silly in parts, but you buy into it. What on paper sounds like a cross between Amelie and The Terminator at first is ultimately far more inspired than its intial plot summary suggests it would be. In fact, its tone is more akin to Joon-Hwan Jang’s Save The Green Planet, another recent Korean film that flits between sci-fi thriller, gruesome horror and lowbrow comedy with gleeful abandon.

From a lesser director, this would be considered nothing short of their finest hour, but coming from the director of Oldboy, it’s perhaps not as assured as it should be, even if it’s not the kind of film he’s used to making. While its failure at the domestic box-office appears to have forced Park to return to the blood-soaked tales that made his name, it would be a shame if he didn’t hop genres again in his career. It’s not a masterpiece, but that’s OK.

7/10

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