Saturday, November 17, 2012

Johnnie To, Wallace Chung and Gao Yun Xiang present 'Drug War' at Rome Film Festival 2012

Wallace Chung signing autographs at Rome Film Festival
Background (L-R): Liu Yanming, Johnnie To, Yau Nai-hoi and Gao Yun Xiang
The presence of legendary Hong Kong film director Johnnie To at this year's Rome Film Festival was announced late in the day, but once the news broke that the second of two “surprise” In Competition films from Asia would be To's latest thriller Du Zhan (Drug War), I was absolutely thrilled! I'm a huge Hong Kong cinema fan and have been a fan of Johnnie To since the early days of his long career and I'm delighted to report that I now own an autographed DVD of To's cult classic The Heroic Trio, which the director kindly signed for me on Thursday evening in Rome!

Johnnie To was joined on the red carpet by the impeccably dressed and incredibly handsome actors Gao Yun Xiang and Wallace Chung, as well as To's longtime collaborators screenwriters Wai Ka-fai and Yau Nai-hoi, and producer Liu Yanming, with their arrival heralded by the strains of a traditional Chinese erhu and pipa played by two glamorous musicians. The red carpet for this year's festival is decorated with props from film sets taken from movies filmed at Rome's Cinecittà studios such as The Gladiator and Gangs of New York - the Chinese delegation politely obliged when they were inevitably invited to pose for photographs in front of the Chinese Dragons set from the Italian movie Delitto al ristorante cinese (Crime at the Chinese Restaurant).

Inside Sala Sinopoli the atmosphere was charged with anticipation – clearly, the audience at this Gala World Première included many Johnnie To fans from the general public – and the arrival of the director elicited huge applause.

The very first of To's many films to be shot and set in mainland China rather than Hong Kong, Drug War tells the story of a complex police operation to trap a cadre of drug barons. It is chock full of the staples of the cop thriller genre - double identities, double-crossings and explosive action sequences – but it is the gritty realism, slow building tension, and the stand-out performances by lead actors Louis Koo as the drug boss Timmy Choi and Sun Honglei as the police captain Zhang that make this movie particularly effective and stay with the viewer long after the credits roll. I loved it!

To get a taste of the atmosphere at the Drug War premiere watch the video below (or click here to watch on YouTube).

Friday, November 16, 2012

Walter Hill Masterclass at Rome Film Festival 2012

Giona Nazzaro, Walter Hill and Mario Sesti at Rome Film Festival 2012
This year's recipient of the Rome Film Festival Maverick Director Award Walter Hill was back at the Auditorium Parco della Musica on Thursday afternoon to conduct a film making Masterclass with Mario Sesti and Giona Nazzaro in Sala Petrassi. Greeting numerous admirers along the red carpet on his arrival, he signed autographs and posed for photographs. I was fortunate enough to exchange a few words with the director whilst he signed my DVD of the wonderful Broken Trail.

The well attended masterclass opened with a long, violent sequence from Hill's 1981 movie Southern Comfort, but the conversation rather surprisingly began with the director mentioning poet John Keats, when asked about his own artistic imagination and the creative process. The director had visited the house where the poet died at the foot of the Spanish Steps earlier in the day, describing it as a melancholy place to die. This immediately set the tone of what would be a thoughtful, relaxed and extremely generous encounter with Walter Hill. Always modest about his own talents, yet quick to acknowledge those of his colleagues, the director also seemed to genuinely enjoy watching the selection of clips from his own movies, many of which he said he had not seen since they first came out in movie theatres. The Long Riders, Geronimo: An American Legend, The Warriors, The Driver, Red Heat and Crossroads were used as springboards to fascinating discussions about westerns, action sequences and music.

I love Walter Hill's westerns so was delighted to hear his thoughts on the decline in the popularity of the genre. He suggested that cinema audiences today were no longer in touch with their agrarian roots, and that of all the movie forms the western was probably the most subject to parody and self-parody, adding that he still tried to make them now and again.

Asked about the rapid pace and editing in his movies he admitted that he loved to keep things moving fast and tried to avoid overstatement in any of his films: I believe in brevity and economy in statement...I don't like long films, I certainly don't like my films to be long! He also added that the influence of television had made audiences more used to faster cutting these days.

Not a great lover of storyboards or excessive planning prior to shooting a scene, Hill has clearly always enjoyed the post-production scoring of his films. His love of music and the importance of putting his images to music is apparent in so many of his films, and the director talked with great affection about his working relationship with Ry Cooder, whom he described as the most talented person he had ever worked with.

A wonderful lesson in cinema!

Watch the video of excerpts from the Walter Hill masterclass below (or click here to watch on YouTube).

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Sylvester Stallone and Walter Hill attend 'Bullet to the Head' World Premiere at Rome Film Festival 2012

Several hours before Sylvester Stallone was due to arrive at the Rome Film Festival yesterday evening fans of the Hollywood legend had already started lining the red carpet, clutching Rocky posters and DVDs waiting for an autograph. The wait was a long one, with the star eventually arriving just in time for the world première Out of Competition screening of the new Walter Hill action movie Bullet to the Head. Whisked rapidly along the red carpet by festival security guards and organisers, there was clearly no time for signing autographs, but the star nevertheless made a point of greeting his adoring public, walking the whole length of the red carpet route, shaking hands with as many fans as possible along the way. Inside Sala Sinopoli the atmosphere remained as boisterous as the scenes outside, with the audience chanting “Rocky, Rocky, Rocky...” when the actor took his seat.

Before the screening of the movie festival director Marco Müller invited screenwriter Alessandro Camon to join him on stage to introduce the other major event of the evening – the presentation of the Rome Film Festival Maverick Director Award to director Walter Hill who expressed his gratitude to the Rome Film Festival, to Müller, and to Italian cinema audiences, adding that if you're an action director you don't tend to win a lot of awards.

The screening of Bullet to the Head, Hill's immensely enjoyable, fast paced and decidedly tongue-in-cheek action thriller, was accompanied by spontaneous cheers and applause throughout, with Sly's one-liners getting huge laughs. Both director and star received huge cheers as the credits rolled, with fans on their feet applauding. A fun evening!

To get a taste of the atmosphere at the Bullet to the Head premiere watch the video below (or click here to watch on YouTube).

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Guillermo del Toro on the Rome Film Festival red carpet for 'Rise of the Guardians'

Guillermo del Toro at Rome Film Festival
Film director Peter Ramsey collected the Vanity Fair International Award for Cinematic Excellence for the animated movie Rise of the Guardians at the 7th Rome Film Festival yesterday evening. He was joined on the red carpet before the Out of Competition screening by the movie's executive producer Mexican film director Guillermo del Toro, producers Jeffrey Katzenberg and Christina Steinberg, as well as three of Santa's elves from the movie!

I'm a huge admirer of the work of Guillermo del Toro so had arrived early along the red carpet armed with my Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy DVDs in the hope that I could get at least one of them signed by the man himself. The organisers of the event were clearly on a tight schedule and kept steering del Toro away from the public, but the director was clearly enjoying meeting his fans and broke ranks at every opportunity, going back to sign more and more autographs, laughing and joking the whole while, and signaling his exasperation every time he was dragged away for a press interview or photo call. At the strict admonition from one of the organisers that only one autograph per person was allowed I invited Mr del Toro to choose which DVD he would like to sign – with a big smile, and to my enormous delight, he graciously signed both!

To get a taste of the atmosphere along the Rise of the Guardians red carpet watch the video below (or click here to watch on YouTube).

Monday, November 12, 2012

Standing ovation for Feng Xiaogang's 'Back to 1942' at Rome Film Festival 2012

Adrien Brody joined Chinese director Feng Xiaogang, actors Xu Fan and Zhang Guoli, and screenwriter Liu Zhenyun on the Rome Film Festival red carpet on Sunday evening for the presentation of Back to 1942, the first of two “surprise” In-Competition films from Asia.

An often harrowing study of the 1942 Henan Province famine during which a staggering 3 million people starved to death, Feng's movie has all the hallmarks of an epic, with its sweeping cinematography, a cast of hundreds of extras trudging through a bleak snowy landscape during scenes of the refugees' exodus, as well as spectacular special effects to illustrate the devastating impact of the Japanese bombing raids on the refugee column. There is even a smattering of dark gallows humour to relieve some of the tension, used just sparingly enough to never appear even remotely disrespectful.

At the heart of the movie, however, are the intimate, personal stories of how the tragedy breaks down the social divisions between wealthy landowner Fan Dianyuan, (played by Zhang Guoli in a beautifully measured performance), his servant Shuang Zhu, and his tenant Hua Zhi (played by Zhang's real-life son Zhang Mo and Feng's wife Xu Fan) whose scenes together are some of the most moving in the film. Chen Daoming, best known to international audiences as the emperor in Zhang Yimou's Hero, is also very effective as the chillingly detached 'Generalissimo' Chiang Kai-shek, whilst Adrien Brody is highly credible as the passionate Time war correspondent Theodore H. White, the man who first broke the horrific news of what was going on in Henan in the West.

The film was extremely well received by the Rome audience and was met with long and rapturous applause and a standing ovation for the actors and director who appeared visibly moved by the warmth of the film's reception.

Watch the video of the final applause in Sala Sinopoli below (or click here to watch on YouTube).

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Paul Verhoeven and PJ Hogan at Rome Film Festival 2012

The Rome Film Festival has seen some big changes over the last year, with erstwhile artistic director of the Venice Film Festival Marco Müller taking the helm for this, the 7th edition, which opened at Rome’s Auditorium Parco della Musica on Friday. Whilst this year's festival may not boast the huge roster of Hollywood big names of earlier editions, the programme includes an interesting and eclectic mix of international stars, presenting movies both in and out of competition, as well as a new focus on Italian cinema, with actors such as Carlo Verdone drawing large crowds along the red carpet on Saturday afternoon.

Paul Verhoeven signing my copy of RoboCop!
The name I was most excited to see on the programme this year was that of Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch-born director best known internationally for his US movies of the late 1980s and early 1990s, all of which have achieved cult status – Total Recall, Basic Instinct, and my absolute favourite, the legendary RoboCop. In Rome to present and discuss his latest film Steekspel /Tricked  in the CinemaXXI - Out of Competition section of the festival, before entering Sala Petrassi the director took the time to greet his many fans and sign numerous autographs along the red carpet. I am now the proud owner of a RoboCop DVD signed by Paul Verhoeven!

The director was joined for the screening of Steekspel by his excellent cast - Peter Blok, Robert de Hoog and Jochum ten Haaf. A highly enjoyable, impeccably paced drama with shades of back comedy, the medium-length movie clocks in at under an hour, yet is as satisfyingly complete as far longer films, and was received with huge applause from the audience as the credits rolled.

After the screening Verhoeven then joined Mario Sesti and Giona Nazzaro on stage to discuss the rather unusual genesis and creative process behind the film. Starting with only the first four minutes, the director had invited contributions from his fans online in the form of scripts and videos, for ideas as to how the rest of the film should progress, admitting that he had completely underestimated the scale of the job. Expecting to immediately be able to select a couple of really good scripts, he found himself having to read hundreds, none of which were particularly good, but from which he was able to select a line or idea here and there. Nevertheless, he found the whole experience inspiring and one of rejuvenation, particularly enjoying the sense of unknown destiny. In response to a question from the public, however, he reiterated the importance of the author, or director.

In answer to the inevitable invitation to comment on the recent remake of Total Recall in another question from the floor, Verhoeven said he thought the remake didn't work so well because takes itself far too seriously, adding with a smile, that “Arnie” and he had received better reviews since the remake than they ever did at the time of the original movie's release!

PJ Hogan on the red carpet at Rome Film Festival
Later on in the evening it was time to see another favourite director with Rome Film Festival judge PJ Hogan's turn on the red carpet for the presentation of the Out of Competition film Mental. The director graciously chatted with admirers and signed autographs on the red carpet, where he was joined by actresses Kerry Fox and Caroline Goodall. Kerry Fox was even kind enough to pose for a photo.

The film is inspired by the director's childhood experiences and explores the difficulties of living with mental illness. Full of Hogan's trademark bitter-sweet humour and often surreal comedy, the film stars the always amazing Toni Collette, supported by a fabulous ensemble cast. The hugely enjoyable movie was extremely well received in Rome with thunderous applause and a standing ovation from the audience in Sala Sinopoli.

Kerry Fox at 'Mental' screening at Rome Film Festival 2012

Friday, November 2, 2012

Evgeny Kissin in Recital | Auditorium Parco della Musica | 1 November 2012

Concert dedicated to the memory of the pianist's father Igor Kissin

Less than a year after delighting audiences in Rome with Grieg's Piano Concerto Russian virtuoso pianist Evgeny Kissin was back at the Auditorium Parco della Musica yesterday evening for a solo recital in the Santa Cecilia concert hall. Kissin is a frequent visitor to the Auditorium, and as always there was an atmosphere of eager anticipation in the packed concert hall before he appeared. When Kissin stepped from the wings he walked briskly to the centre of the stage, graciously bowed to acknowledge the rapturous applause that greeted him, sat swiftly at the piano, and launched almost immediately into the opening piece, Sonata No.9 by Haydn.

If Kissin has, on occasions, suffered at the hands of critics who see him as technically brilliant, yet somewhat cold and detached, concerts with such astonishing playing such as last night in Santa Cecilia should put paid to any such claims, with the pianist wearing his heart on his sleeve in an utterly commanding performance of often moving intensity. The Haydn sonata was exquisite, with a lovely second movement, but it was during the second movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No.32 that his playing reached the truly sublime. The third variation was played with such joyous verve it felt almost ragtime, whilst the slower variations were filled with achingly beautiful moments. The applause was deafening at the close of the piece and he was brought out for two curtain calls before the audience would allow him to leave the stage for the interval.

The second half of the concert saw Kissin reining in the emotional intensity at first during his interpretation of Schubert's Impromptus, yet he would startle us again with the tenderness he brought to the Op.90 No.3 serenade. Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 was chosen as the bravura finale showcasing the pianist's prodigious technical skills and bringing the audience to its feet at the close in a hugely deserved standing ovation. Well-known for his generosity with encores, his adoring Roman concert-goers were rewarded with yet more Liszt in three enthralling returns to the stage, which included the Liszt transcription of Schubert's Die Forelle.

An astounding concert!

Full programme:
Sonata No. 59
Sonata No. 32 Op. 111
Four Impromptus:
Op. 142 No. 1
Op. 142 No. 3
Op. 90 No. 3
Op. 90 No. 4
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12
Sgambati - Gluck
Melody from Orpheus
Transcendental Étude No. 10
Schubert - Liszt
Die Forelle (The Trout)

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