Empire Big Screen 2011 Round-Up: Live Last Weekend!

Last weekend – sadly only Saturday and Sunday, as on Friday I was on my hands and knees scrubbing ovens and fridges – I ventured down to the Empire Big Screen (which some major critics are calling Comic-Con On Thames) hosted at the 02 arena in London. As a sidenote I’d like to inform readers that the last time I came to this iconic piece of skyline was for a Pokemon event in the early 2000s to be awarded with none other than the legendary pokemon Mew! Woo! Anyway if you haven’t heard of the near ubiquitous event by now you’ve likely been under a rock, or are pretty much the one die hard Total Film reader that exists on the planet. The tagline for the event, “Bringing Hollywood to London – The Live Movie Event” had set expectations high, as had the magazine’s name attached to it. Yes, all this hyperbole had got tongues wagging and hearts pounding, not least of all yours truly who had been primed for another film festival experience – despite the convention shorthand accompanying this – since June’s Sheffield Doc Fest. So it begins…

On reflection some claims were true about the event and some weren’t. And ironically one director characterised the event in so many ways, both for me and on a whole I feel. I set off to the 02 with three DVD’s clutched safely to my heart – GodzillaIndependence Day and Stargate – all Roland Emmerich masterpieces. I bring this up not as a personal point but because in truth Big Screen felt in a lot of ways like being on an Emmerich film set. First of all there’s the thousands of people (extras) just hanging about waiting for something, anything to slowly grind into action. Secondly there’s the sheer scale of the whole thing; with Empire having hired out in essence the entire 02 and its massive Cineworld complex. And third there’s that nagging annoyance at the ill-disciplined, ill-directed nature of the finished product. Indeed then Empire Big Screen was truly the direct film festival manifestation of an Emmerich film, and true to form I flipping loved it!

As soon as I got there I trotted along to the press room – something very reminiscent of a hidden chamber in a Bond movie – to collect my coveted press pass. Despite my anticipation I had heard rumours of, and soon found out myself, that it was pretty limp and ineffectual as symbols of authority go and trying to use it was a bit like trying to strike a match under water. However many times I flashed it I was met with dead eyes and perplexed faces from all involved. My initial enthusiasm and subsequent dismay was systemic of the general Big Screen population I discovered however. With as many different types of badges, passes, bands and entries as there are colours in the rainbow, door staff and punters alike were mystified as to why the hell I wasn’t allowed in that cinema when there are people walking in right by me!? Probably those I felt most sorry for were the Diamond ticket purchasers who in reality forked out more money than sense to come down here for a weekend of film and could effectively not see an entire film, only being guaranteed access to the Showcases – something I myself avoided like the plague, with the idea of a 20min showcase of a film being akin in my mind to withdrawing just before climax and taking a cold shower. Unsatisfying to say the least!

With all that negativity said though, I mostly experienced it vicariously. Overhearing entertaining but actually tragic conversations between high paying customers and exasperated members of the team putting on the event, who from what I could make out where actually genuinely lovely people whenever I conversed with them; I even shared a love ofThe Guard with one. And my nagging pathos for the staff hit a high point when I was stopped in line and when I turned with inquisitive eyes to enquire as to why I was waiting to this particular staff member his eyes had both fear and desperation in them as he exclaimed “I’m sorry, you just have to wait a minute, please.” Analysis over, but I’d say the team was as stretched as they’ve ever been before and overhearing their conversation on Sunday night about collapsing in Nando’s and attempting a lock in warmed my heart just a little. It’s to their credit that there weren’t more punch ups, illegal gambling for tickets and general muggings – we are on the south side of the river after all – given the hysteria surrounding the secret screenings and the coveted possession of a ticket; more on that later though.

After wondering vacantly for a while and dwarfed by the magnitude of the event I finally decided to wait sheepishly by the entrance – yes like I’d been summoned by one of those supermarket intercoms – till Film Clash co-presenter Ali Bianchi arrived. We headed back to the press den to pick up Total Film’s Simon Kinnear and headed off for our first catch of the Saturday which was one of the specially arranged panels, ‘The Film Critic Panel’. It was an interesting one and like many others didn’t totally address the question at hand but nonetheless was illuminating, jovial and a lovely way to start the event. Talent included Empire’s own Olly Richards, TheIncredibleSuit’s Neil Smith, bona fide film critic Karen Krizanovich and in-denial film critic Anna Smith. Enlightened points reached included, there’s a genuine difference between a critic and a reviewer and to attempt to find a critic / reviewer whose insights, wit and opinion you enjoy and just stick with them. Certainly this thought has crossed my mind before with myself being a particular fan of Trevor Johnston.

After this we stumbled around in an amateur fashion walking into the Optimum showcase late and walking out of the Sony one early but did get to see some magnificent Kill List footage (surely to be one of the best British horror films in recent years) and caught some video introduction by Guillermo del Toro – who’s seemingly ‘presenting’ a lot of films lately – for Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark which to be honest might as well just be called The Evil Borrowers for all the narrative difference there’ll be.

The tardiness continued as we entered David Arnold’s ‘In Conversation With’ a little late but his humour and relaxed nature put us right at ease. I’m pretty sure he was directing it solely at us anyway. Anyway look it’s a really small David Arnold.

His size here is in direct contrast to his almighty career. He’s been a key collaborator with the disaster master himself Roland Emmerich having worked on all three of the films I brought with me as well as many more including the Bondseries, Zoolander and the BBC’s brilliant recent adaptation Sherlock. Arnold himself holds a very special place in my heart, or to be more accurate his Stargate score does as without doubt it’s the piece of music I have most listened to in my small time on this Earth. I once – actually very recently – described my Stargate box sets as being raised in a totem pole esque formation, and in truth it’s a little religious. Here’s the music in full, honestly it’s just fantastic!

He proved to be a very humble presence on stage admitting admiration of many other composers and putting us onto other pieces of music he cherished but never his own. As well he entertained with some perceptive and outright laughable anecdotes about his own past career; including a particularly ridiculous one that saw him recounting what must have been some sort of LSD induced nightmare in which he played chess with Will Smith while watching cage fighting on the set of Independence Day…no words! Despite this phenomenal, life peaking moment he himself seemed to be a little overwhelmed by the event itself and constantly reinforced the flukey nature of his career, never attributing it to his own talent, giving it more of a right place right time feeling that is telling of the character of the man. He both confirmed and denied a few times that he was composing music for an untitled Bond project but despite this the smart money’s definitely on him.

Shock! Horror! Believe it or not after descending from the dizzy heights of David Arnold we arrived at our first screening, 30 Minutes or Less, a full 90 minutes before it was due to begin. Good thing too as it was full to the brim with legitimate customers and eager freeloaders (journalists). It was here that we witnessed the full force of the let down of the diamond ticket ‘experience’ but my sympathies were soon diverted by getting into the screening myself. Somehow Simon and I managed to bag two of the better seats in the house after being asked to move down, displacing a very disgruntled lady from her central seating she’d bagged some twenty minutes earlier. Ah shucks! 30 Minutes didn’t redefine the genre or anything like that but in a conversation with a friend later I maintain I very much enjoyed it as, and I quote, “I laughed a good eight times and I was never bored” – how’s that for a review? Something of the Empire talent and grandiosity obviously rubbed off on me! Indeed there’s no time to be bored anyway with the film’s running time shorter than an hour and a half it moves along at a zingy pace. Cracking.

We then had literally 30 minutes or less to get to the secret screening…ooooooo…which was very much no secret at all after Chris Hewitt’s nose touching and the general presence of the director, Nicolas Winding Refn, (seriously how cool is his name) in the gently undulating building. Drive it was then, and what a film it was. And funnily enough it revolved around a similar narrative structure to 30 Minutes; some fast driving, a heist and a girl that neither man was supposed to be with. But where they differed was their tone and their style. 30 Minutes looking like the Sloppy Giuseppe film equivalent compared to Refn’s sumptuous visual masterpiece. It quite literally oozed swagger and blew my little socks off. Refn’s control and use of visual and audio motifs to create deep running emotional resonance for me was reminiscent of Heartbeats earlier in the year, but this was in a whole new gear. A sublime film with the Cannes jury most certainly calling it right awarding Refn the prestigious Best Director Award. To conclude it joins my ever shifting top 5 movies of 2011 so far and I just can’t wait to see it again; I can’t recommend it highly enough. Gosling as the stoic stunt driver cum getaway extraordinaire produces a magnificently understated performance as a man out of touch with his surroundings. At once above it all and in the thick of things, he really is, in Refn’s own words, a “superhero”. What you might also not know is Gosling’s character is based on Refn’s own ability to getaway from any situation at high speed, here’s an example of him about to bolt away…I barely caught him!

My last screening of the day proved a lonely one, though someone I would make good friends with on Sunday I learnt had been there, Sam Inglis. To be honest I can’t be bothered to spend any more of my life speaking about the dismal and abysmal Red State. My initial analysis straight from the cinema was 1/3 beguling, 2/3 boooring, and that hasn’t softened any, if anything I’ve likely become further cold towards the film. Smith’s pre 2000 spate of greatness sadly remains unreturned to here. If Smith’s trying to make a point it’s been lost in translation and if he’s trying to be entertaining he certainly didn’t succeed either. And his liberal attitude towards killing of characters that could have garnered some amount of empathy in the film solidifies this is as utterly pointless filmmaking of the highest degree. Clearly my choice between Saturday night Cowboys and Aliens and Red State had gone horribly wrong. Maybe I should have taken David Jenkins’ suggestion and chosen death after all. Better luck tomorrow right? Let’s hope so.

Oh, that’s not before I encountered this sinister lot!

Which let me tell you after you’ve just seen a film about cult killings and middle-American white violence is a rather disconcerting sight indeed. Apparently they were there for a rave that finished at 7 the next morning, players got game, nuff said!

Sunday morning my alarm felt like teeth sinking into my skull after having stayed up way too long reading my Empire new subscribers copy of The Hunger Games. A book it took me three days to finish due to the overwhelming page turning nature of the piece. I’d highly recommend it, though it’s one-note heart on its sleeve profundity gets tiresome as does its thinly drawn genre standard love triangle. The strength of the world construction alone however outstrips these issues and it makes virtue of its own enthralling, epic structure. What’s that? Yes, you heard right, I signed up for a twelve month subscription of Empire, what of it? If you can believe it was only £20 for a whole year; plus I got a whole load of useless goodies that I periodically left around the 02 to rid myself of – aside from the book of course. It was too hard to resist, they had this ultra infectious montage of all the people they had interviewed and places they’d been in the name of film. That coupled with their hosting of the event was just all a bit too much to resist.

Sunday began in much the same way as Saturday, with a humorous if slightly divergent panel discussion. Titled ‘How To Become A Film Journalist’ there were lots of ears gagging for the insider tips and the quick fire sure route to the top of Empire Towers. Alas no such shortcut presented itself with the most the panel could offer was to start a blog and not to write for free. Great, well that’s one super easy thing to do and one super hard thing to do. With this in mind as a golden rule I’d like to make it known here that Pete, the site editor, has agreed to pay me £100 for writing this gargantuan write-up and you as readers are my witnesses. Here, I’ll copy and paste the email he sent me,

“Hi Alex, it’s Pete, I’m going to pay you £100 for that gargantuan write up you are doing.”

If he denies knowledge of this readers then we only have to turn here for cold, hard evidence. Now that’s settled, back to the immersive world I’ve been creating for you. Still tired I stumbled along to what might just be the most entertaining and heart-stopping four hours of my life. After the disappointment of Red State I bravely stepped back into Kim Newman’s Chamber of Horrors hoping to see something terrifying rather than actually horrifying. And I wasn’t disappointed. After hooking back up with Sam we treated ourselves to a showing of Dario Argento’s brilliant 1982 whodunit horror-thriller Tenebrae with an introduction from Alan Jones, of creative director of FrightFest fame. With lashings of gore and a rhythmic, pulsating electronic soundtrack layered over to hype up tension and nerves it’s both pristine and grotesque in equal part; with the implicit irony of its killers motivation being his dissatisfaction of what he calls the perversion of society. How about that for some deft 80s irony? Other highlights included the awesome moment in which the final killer gets disembowelled through being skewered with a bit of falling avant-garde art. Simply brilliant. I stayed on for The House Of The Devil, a great little 2009 throwback with a definitive retro feeling and a very old school pacing; trading in on recent fads with all out gore and superficial jumps for creating some serious atmospheric creepiness. As the camera stalks the empty corridors of the house young Samantha is minding every moment feels poised for an explosion of violence and fright but it keeps its control and constant tension high until the last reels where, despite a slightly at odds ending it doesn’t disappoint. One of the most nerve-wracking horror films I’ve ever seen and certainly the first time I’ve actually had to half cover my eyes in pure dread and anticipation of what’s lurking just beyond the camera.

Oh my god, well I guess it’s that time…

Holy fuck! This was surely the biggest screen I’ve ever witnessed. To be honest I cannot actually believe the people in the front row endured the 3D, or didn’t have some sort of audio / visual overload attack half way through CONAN THE MOTHER FUCKING BARABARIAN IN 3D (which is the official title by the way)! Again I was lucky with seating and if you can’t make out the sponsor for the event (I know it’s tactfully and gracefully placed in the bottom right after all) is METRO! Because you know they totally love movies and want to encourage them and their freaking evangelists for movies just like Jamesons who FLIPPIN love movies don’t you know. None of it has anything to do with money, they just literally want you to see films and you know hold your hand through the process. Ain’t that nice. Yeah, fuck you man. Aside from this perceptive rant I had other concerns in the screening. I did genuinely think the people on the front row might die when Conan bought his arcane blade down uponeth their puny civilised skills. Alas the showing wasn’t stopped at any point to escort a cleaved in two man, women or child from the auditorium. Also I have no idea where the hell Jason Momoa was when he was supposed to be introducing the film because someone let Robbie Coltrane in full Hagrid get up on stage and he just acted like he was Jason Momoa, it was all rather Freaky Friday and I didn’t like it one bit. The whole thing was a tad like doing a very elegant waltz with a chainsaw or come to think of it being fucked gently with a chainsaw also.

One last screening then, and to my surprise the secret screening tonight was wide open for the taking. Someone clearly knew something I didn’t, and I soon found out what. Despite the massive poster hung out side I failed to guess that it was The Debt on show. A film I feel you might have to be pathologically ill to sit through and enjoy although that’s unfair as I bailed after the first five minutes; but seriously I was already bored. I’m sure it will find an audience but it wasn’t for me. Instead I raced over to try and get into Fright Night where I was met with the most authoritarian, dictatorial door man in existence! I honestly think at one point he turned away David Tennant himself; he was certainly turning away members of his inner circle who were pretty fuming by the end of it. Luckily I buddied up with some insiders who had a lad in the know who got us into one of the reserve screens. And thank goodness they did as Fright Night was pure entertainment, as well as being one of the most convincing examples of 3D I’ve seen so far. All the cast were on top form and clearly having a good time and it was just good Friday (Fright) night cinema going. Get yourself down and watch it, I laughed, I jumped and it’s even a little bit frightening and sexy! Ooh La La!

What’s left to say? It was a great weekend; A* for enthusiasm from all involved if a B- for execution. Which is likely what I myself, and others, would rate this write-up as. Thanks for the memories and see you next year Empire Big Screen – be about time to renew my subscription then.

Cue slowly fading out montage and nostalgic tunes…

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