Monday, December 15, 2014

ANNIE (2014)


I love big Hollywood musicals - everything from the deeply sinister OKLAHOMA! to the modern glitz of CHICAGO via the genius that is CABARET.   I have a fundamental respect for hoofers - old fashioned song and dance entertainers right back to Vaudeville.  Nothing pleases me more than seeing a musical theatre artist in their prime - not least Ann Reinking in pretty much everything she did, and Liza Minelli in Cabaret.  So despite my reverence for the original 1982 John Huston ANNIE - I was really looking forward to this remake. I didn't quite see the point of it, but I figured the original Strouse-Charmin-Meehan musical could take the reinterpretation. All the best texts can.

I guess I realised something was off with this new movie with the opening number - now, as then, "Maybe" - a song that should be poignant and emotional.  Instead it was delivered by a bunch of apparently well-fed and well-dressed kids doing this kind of finger-snap dance ripping off the "Cups" song from PITCH PERFECT.  Worst of all, I'm not sure if I'm right, but it felt like the lead actress Quvenzhané Wallis didn't have a strong voice and/or was being heavily auto-tuned.  Worse still, her lip-synching was off.  Things got worse with Cameron Diaz' outsized but somehow messy performance as the modern-day Miss Hannigan - now a drunken foster mom - and the STOMP rip-off choreography for "Hard Knock Life."

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Overlooked DVD of the month - HEIDI FLEISS: HOLLYWOOD MADAM

I thought I'd pretty much seen every Nic Broomfield documentary - this despite the fact that I'm not a fan of his style of putting himself in front of the camera lens - until I saw this old TV movie on my  streaming service.  Being obsessed with all things seedy and sordid and Hollywood confidential I couldn't resist.  

The movie was shot in the mid-1990s at the height of the Heidi Fleiss scandal.  She was a young attractive woman who'd apparently been making millions running a string of high end prostitutes in Hollywood.  She herself would get involved, charging $40,000 a night for fantasy scenarios where she'd talk dirty.  And she has a certain professional pride. When quizzed by Broomfield about whether the service was really worth it, she says "it takes some skill to keep that up for a few hours."

The first half of the film is a kind of investigative journalism hunt for Heidi, complete with hidden cameras to prove that "off-screen" negotiations for an interview are actually happening. The money shot is the final half hour of an apparently very candid, sympathetic and charming interview. Heidi comes across as smart witty and remarkably self-aware. She thinks the business she's in is horrible and full of sleazy people but she has not qualms about the true needs of people and servicing them.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

THE WOMAN IN BLACK 2: ANGEL OF DEATH


Two years ago, the rejuvenated Hammer studio put out what became the most commercially successful British horror movie in history: THE WOMAN IN BLACK. It starred Daniel Radcliffe as a Victorian lawyer, terrified by a vengeful ghost in a haunted house. My review at the time suggested I was none too impressed by the film  although I seem to remember it more fondly. At any rate, I was sufficiently interested to watch the sequel, ANGEL OF DEATH.  Wisely, the studio has gone with a new production team taken mostly from the British TV show Peaky Blinders, including director Tom Harper and cinematographer George Steel. They have created a genuinely scary movie, with a sinister, menacing style, psychological depth, and a satisfying emotional core. It feels like this is exactly where the WOMAN IN BLACK franchise needs to be, and I hope the studio sticks with this set-up for the inevitable threequel.

This movie is set during the Blitz with two schoolteachers taking their class of evacuated schoolchildren to the now deserted Eel Marsh House on a barren island cut off from the mainland by a perilous causeway. Helen McCrory's headmistress represents the British stiff upper lip: determined not to admit that something is horribly wrong in the dilapidated house but her young colleague Eve (Pheobe Fox) is immediately on edge.  It's her relationship with the haunted child Edward (the deliciously named Oaklee Pendergast) that anchors the film, as well as her incipient romance with pilot Harry Burnstow (Jeremy Irvine).  As the horror builds and the death toll mounts, the film - as all the best horror - begins to deal with very complex psychological issues around motherhood, grief, trauma and guilt, culminating in a really satisfying ending. Not only do we feel thoroughly scared but also that we've got to know fully rounded characters rather than stock horror tropes. This is also one of the most beautifully shot, dreamily misty haunted house horror movies since THE OTHERS. Overall, a beautiful, petrifying and deeply moving film and a massive improvement on the original.

THE WOMAN IN BLACK 2: ANGEL OF DEATH has a running time of 98 minutes and is rated PG-13 in the UK. It will be release in the UK, Ireland and USA on January 2nd 2015, in France on January 14th, in Greece and Singapore on January 15th, in Spain on January 16th, in the Czech Republic, Malaysia and the Netherlands on February 12th, in Argentina and Germany on February 19th and in Brazil on March 12th.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY - PART 1

The late Philip Seymour Hoffman as show producer Plutarch Heavensbee
and Julianne Moore as rebel President Coin.


MOCKINGJAY is a dirge of a film. Two hours of hackneyed dialogue, J-Law stumbling around debris with PTSD interspersed with the occasional attempt at a rousing speech for rebellion.  The movie has no pace, no flow, no excitement, largely because it's basically pre-amble to the final showdown between the oppressed masses and the ruthless President of this dystopian future dictatorship.  I'm not sure how the young fans of Suzanne Collins' wildly successful books will react to the style and content of this film but I found the shift in tone from the gladiatorial action of the first two films to the attempt at earnest commentary on war jarring.  Which isn't to say it isn't an honourable attempt at engaging with contemporary politics, but my god it isn't entertaining either.  


As the movie opens, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has been rescued from the Hunger Games and wakes up traumatised in District 13 - an austere military bunker run by the sinister President Coin  (a typically steely Julianne Moore).  Coin decides to pimp Katniss out in much the same way as her nemesis President Snow (a 2-D villain played with mustache-twirling glee by Donald Sutherland) did.  Instead of schmaltzy TV interviews for the state, Katniss now does supposedly impromptu Churchillian speeches urging the rebels to rise up - all of which have been expertly stage managed by Coin and her on-the-ground director Cressida (Natalie Dormer).  The movie cruises toward the inevitable showdown contrasting the "propos" with the terrorist/freedom fighter acts in various districts. And all the time, in the background, there's Katniss' demand that Peeta be rescued, culminating in an extraction that is clearly inspired by the Navy SEALS raid on Abbotabad.  All of this is fine, except that it gets undercut by the hokey dialogue and plot turns.  Of COURSE, when Katniss rescues her sister's cat we just now there's going to be some perilous plot moment when rescuing the cat places Katniss in jeopardy.  And the scenes near the end when President Coin commands her troops against a state bombing campaign reeks on the final scenes in STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE.

Overall, I'm not sure whether they really needed to cut the final book into two films. This first part could easily have been much shorter - just one propo - just one montage of the people rising up - because what we want to get to is the final fifteen minutes of Part 1 and then all of Part 2.  I applaud the good intentions to get gritty and real but once again, I'm just not sure how this constitutes any kind of credible storytelling in a world of such outlandish fantasy costumes and hokey dialogue and cartoon villains. 

MOCKINGJAY has a running time of 123 minutes, is rated PG and is on global release.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

FURY - LFF14 - Day Twelve


FURY is a movie that probably gives us the most realistic depiction to date of what is must have been like to be inside a tank in World War Two - the claustrophobia, dirt, fear, and almost obsessive need to trust in your fellow soldiers to get you through.  It's because of this realism and grit that you remain captivated despite the somewhat hyperbolic set-up of the film, in which a single US tank attempts to hold off of an entire Nazi regiment.  

The set-up of the film is hackneyed through and through. Brad Pitt plays the war-hardened, uber-experienced tank commander, "Wardaddy" contrasted with Logan Lerman's nervous rookie Norman Ellison. This is exactly the set-up we've gotten from director David Ayer's own TRAINING DAY as well as movies like GRAVITY. The other three members of the tank crew comprise Shia LaBeouf's religious Gunner Swann, slack-jawed yokel Travis (Jon Bernthal) and dips driver Garcia Michael Pena.  In Act One we see our boys and their Yankee brethren retake a German town.  Act Two sees our boys share a dinner with a pair of German ladies.  I think the director wanted it to be full of menace and tension and unsaid meaning but instead it just feels too contrived, patronising and ultimately getting in the way of the real story - which is the relationship between the men and their tank.  In Act Three, the men are sent behind enemy lines by their commander (Jason Isaacs) and we get into the claustrophobia and extreme peril of tank warfare.  This is what we've paid to see - the utter commitment of the production to show us the horror of war in genuine World War Two tanks with the highest quality of military advisor. 

The resulting film isn't perfect but it is affecting and gives us something genuinely new in war films.  It also gives us Shia LaBeouf in his most winning performance in quite some time - a hopeful thought in a film so devoid of hope. 

FURY has a running time of 120 minutes.  The movie played London 2014 and is on release in the Bahamas and the USA. It goes on release on October 22nd in Belgium, France and Singapore; on October 23rd in Australia, Hong Kong, Croatia, Hungary, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal and Thailand; on October 24th in Estonia, the UK, Ireland, Iceland, Cambodia, Lithuania, Latvia, Norway and Sweden; on October 30th in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Ukraine; on November 13th in the Czech Republic, Denmark, Italy; on November 14th in Spain, India and Vietnam; on November 29th in Greece; on December 5th in Kenya; on January 1st in Germany; on January 15th in Argentina; and on February 5th in Brazil and Peru.

3 HEARTS / 3 COEURS - LFF14 - Day Eleven


3 HEARTS is a rather dull French romantic comedy featuring a meet-cute, a surprise re-meet and many other cliches of Hollywood banality.  The fact that it's a French movie has somehow elevated this workmanlike film into the realms of being selected for the London Film Festival. Don't be fooled. There's nothing to see here.

Benoit Poolverde (COCO BEFORE CHANEL) plays a dull tax inspector called Marc who misses a train home and meets a charming woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg's Sylvie) with whom he walks the streets of a provincial town in the manner of BEFORE SUNRISE.  No matter, they separate, their planned meeting never happens.  Later, Marc meets a lovely antiques dealer called Sophie (Chiara Mastroianni) and they marry and start a family.  They never meet the enigmatic sister, because hey, she lives in the US and they just never get round to skype-ing. These contrivances continue until the the necessary confrontation of all three lovers as supervised by Catherine Deneuve's matriarch.  

The resulting film is banal, predictable and oddly uninvolving.  Charlotte Gainsbourg's trademark froideur just doesn't work in a movie where we're meant to sympathise with all three sides of this thwarted love triangle.  A misfire on all counts.

3 HEARTS aka 3 COEURS has a running time of 90 minutes.  The movie played Venice, Toronto and London 2014.  It opened earlier this year in Belgium and France and opens in the Netherlands on November 6th and in Italy on November 27th.

HONEYTRAP - LFF14 - Day Eleven


HONEYTRAP is a British film based on the true story of a gang murder in South London.  15 year old Samantha Joseph was labelled a honeytrap killer by the tabloid press for having lured a boy called Shakilus into following her into a cup de sac where gang members killed him.  She's now facing life in prison.

Writer-director Rebecca Johnson's film has changed the names of the lead characters in her film out of respect, but the set-up is clearly the same.  A young girl wants to impress her gangster boyfriend by offering up a sacrifice.  What's different is that the film is shot from the perspective of the girl - in this case called Layla and played by Jessica Shula.  Layla has come from Trinidad to live with a mother who is clearly uninterested her in a community that is savage in its bullying and gang affiliations.  Initially a shy conservative girl, Layla quickly becomes obsessed with Troy, a handsome gang member, perhaps to the point of delusion once he sleeps with her, dumps her and moves on.  Shula is an enigmatic actress and perhaps frustratingly so - we never really understand what Layla is thinking in allowing herself to be so used, and for sacrificing her sweet best friend Shaun, but Johnson makes plenty of subtle arguments.

The world of South London inner city black teenagers is portrayed as one of parental neglect, educational impoverishment, crime and bullying.  The value system is so far out of whack - so misogynistic, so corrupt in every sense - that it's no wonder that Layla loses her anchor and ends up a complicit murderess.  One wonders quite whether the real Shaun's family will see it this way, and what reaction the film will provoke.  To my mind, it's an affecting and fascinating film - because it's a type of life that I have no experience with and to which most people in England only read stories mediated by low-rent tabloids like the Daily Mail. It's fantastic to see someone actually try and show the story from the inside. I've got no way of knowing if it's nearer the truth of that particular story, but as a comment on the kind of pressures facing kinds in contemporary London it's tragic and important.

HONEYTRAP has a running time of 90 minutes.  It played London 2014 and does not yet have a commercial release date.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

THE WHITE HAIRED WITCH OF LUNAR KINGDOM - LFF14 - Day Eleven


I felt really sorry for the director of THE WHITE HAIRED WITCH OF LUNAR KINGDOM, who was in the audience for this screening at the LFF.  In his own country, this film must be seen as a stunning and lavish depiction of earnest myth - much in the way that the LORD OF THE RINGS films might be watched here.  But to Western eyes and ears, while much of the costume design and martial arts was fantastic, some of the hokey dialogue (no doubt not helped by poor translation) as well as the cursory if not arbitrary way in which plot is handled, was at times laugh out loud funny.  It's the big budget lavish version of watching that old MONKEY TV show where everything is just ridiculous and entrancing at the same time.

So the movie is based on Liang Yusheng’s apparently classic novel ‘Baifa Monü Zhuan’ and stars Fan BingBing (a massive star in China) as the White Haired Witch of the title.  She's an awesome warrior and called Jade Raksha who stands against the corrupt rulers of the late Ming dynasty and finds her reputation and fortress under threat from armed factions too numerous to keep a track off.  When the movie sticks to beautifully choreographed fight scenes it's impossible not to love it.  But when it switches into high romance, it simply loses its grip on us.  And there were so many armies showing up seemingly at the snap of a finger, and plot twists on a hairpin, I pretty much lost interest after the first half hour.

THE WHITE HAIRED WITCH OF LUNAR KINGDOM has a running time of 103 minutes.  It opened earlier this year in China, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Singapore and Cambodia.