Saturday, April 30, 2005

Overlooked DVD of the month - GARDEN STATE

GARDEN STATE is certainly not an overlooked movie if you ask anyone on the festival circuit. In fact, it was one of the most hyped movies of 2004. However, as it received a fairly limited release in the UK, I am taking this opportunity to big it up in advance of its DVD release next week. The movie is a pretty sweet, wistful romantic comedy starring and directed by Zach Braff, of SCRUBS fame. It also features Natalie Portman as his love interest, Bilbo Baggins as his dad and Peter Sarsgaard as his best friend.

The movie is worth watching for a number of reasons. First, it manages to create a wonderfully hopeful yet lamenting tone. This is because it balances some fairly dark material - medication, death, resolving family conflict - with the standard rom-com fare. It features a character called Andrew Largeman, played by Zach Braff, who is hitting that painful part of life when you realise that you are no longer in that cool post-college phase, where you still have stuff at your parent's house and can get away with goofy behaviour. He is now an adult. It's time to work out whether he is being correctly medicated and actually engage with life. These revolutionary thoughts are triggered by his decision to go back to Jersey for his mum's funeral, and the ensuing confrontation with his domineering father. This being a fairly conventional romantic-comedy, Largeman "meets cute" a resoundingly cheerful chick with lots of kooky eccentric Indie-movie habits, and she facilitates his return to real life.

The sound-track of the film is also central to creating the tragi-comic feel of the movie and has become almost more famous and admired than the movie itself. It showcases a bunch of indie bands like Remy Zero and The Shins, while revisiting cult classics like Nick Drake. Which brings to me to my closing point. GARDEN STATE is a neat film and you should be sure to check it out. I really liked it, but I don't think it is The Great White Hope that some have made it out to be. Indeed, it is fairly derivative of movies by Wes Anderson and often-times feels a little self-indulgent. Sometimes you just want to press the fast-forward button, and the final scene is just pure schmaltz and undercuts the earlier edgier tone of the movie. Moreover, the whole issue of taking/addiction to/mis-use of prescription drugs is treated in a fairly off-hand manner. For all these reasons, I don't need to see it again, but I do listen to the soundtrack all the time. And for that, I am happy to have seen the movie.

GARDEN STATE showed at Sundance and London 2004 and was released in the UK last December. It is released on DVD next week.

Monday, April 25, 2005

NATIONAL TREASURE - superior popcorn adventure movie

NATIONAL TREASURE is a whole bunch of harmless fun. Equal parts Indiana Jones movie and Da Vinci Code. The film rollocks along at a lively pace, delivering code-cracking, chase sequences, bad guys (Sean Bean), good guys (Nic Cage), and at a neat-O ending. Sure, it's not a work of art, but it handles itself with charm and aplomb - perfect for your Saturday night disposable date movie.

NATIONAL TREASURE went on global cinematic release in winter 2004 and goes on DVD release today.

Friday, April 22, 2005

BEAUTY SHOP - warm-hearted, mildy amusing rom-com

BEAUTY SHOP features a bunch of actors of considerable talent, charisma and charm, not least Queen Latifah, Alicia Silverstone, Kevin Bacon, Andie MacDowell, Mena Suvari and Djimon Hounsou. That this warm-hearted romantic comedy manages to entertain at all is entirely down to their performances. Because everything else about this film is cliched and/or ham-fisted. I put this down to the fact that the production team, as talented as they might be, have little experience of cinema behind them. The director has a background in music video, the writers have done some TV and, ominously, the suck-fest that was Mariah Carey's GLITTER. As a result we get a truly derivative and predictable movie with some blunt attempts at handling racial politics thrown in. The story is that Queen Latifah is a marvellous hair dresser who works for a pretentious (literally) salon-owner played by Kevin Bacon. One day, she decides to leave and open a Beauty Shop in her local neighbourhood. She takes with her a white hairstylist played by Alicia Silverstone. It's the kind of film wherein when it transpires that a hunky but sensitive handyman turns out to live above the Beauty Shop, we KNOW that he and Latifah will get together. Similarly, when the other black stylists give Alicia Silverstone's character a hard time at first, thanks to the magic of cinema, all will be harmony and love by the end. Perhaps I am being too hard on this movie. If it leaves you with a warm fuzzy feeling then isn't the genre-contract fulfilled? But I don't know. There is something deeply frustrating in seeing Queen Latifah et al pump out this unimaginative cinematic fare.

BEAUTY SHOP opened in the US in March and opens in the UK today. It hits France on September 28th 2005.

Monday, April 18, 2005

I HEART HUCKABEES collapses under the weight of its own eccentricity

I HEART HUCKABEES is a movie with so much chutzpah that you desperately want to like it, but in the end it collapses under the weight of so many kooky characters; so many superficial nods to philosophy. The sad truth is that no matter how many individually eccentric characters you throw up, no matter how many suitably indie cuts from Jon Brion you put on the sound-track, a movie has to be more that a kaleidoscope of cool. While HUCKABEES has something like a narrative arc, and some rather witty scenes, at times the whole thing just teeters over the edge of control into full on absurdity and brings the viewer out of the picture. But, in these sadly conventional times, I'd rather have a movie fail for attempting too much than retreading mediocre hits of the past.

Some of the complexity will be hinted at by my attempt at a summary of the characters involved. A young earnest man called Albert (Jason Schwartzman) spends his time campaigning against environmental damage by a Walmart-like chain of supermarkets called Huckabees. Afflicted by angst, he hires a couple of existential detectives (Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman.) What this means is that they believe that everything is inter-connected and fundamentally okay: they just need to spy on Albert's every move in order to find out the root source of his angst. Much of it lies in his interminable fight against Huckabees, personified in its ueber-smooth PR man, Brad (Jude Law), and his Barbie-doll squeeze, Dawn (Naomi Watts). However, life is not so green on the other side of the fence: Dawn is disillusioned with her brighter-than-bright image, and consequently making life hard for Brad. In the midst of all this we have a troubled fire-fighter (Mark Wahlberg) who wanders round in his dressing gown convinced that the world is going to hell on a high wind thanks to its addiction to oil. Tommy subscribes to an alternate philosophy proposed by a formidable French philosopher played by Isabelle Huppert, which is, shall we see more Herzogian. Life is cruel: get used to it.

I cannot really summarise the plot. Such as it is, it consists in these wildly eccentric characters interacting in a series of scenes that are alternately funny, funny yet strange or just plain strange. And then the whole thing sort of collapses under the weight of myriad ideas. There are wondrous moments: the conflict between
Jason Schwartzman's Albert and Jude Law's Brad is hysterical, and perfectly cast. There is something maliciously enjoyable in seeing someone who appears to be as suave as Jude Law undergoing a complete breakdown. Mark Wahlberg and Naomi Watts display real comic talent - superb timing and deadpan delivery. But what can have attracted an actress of the calibre of Isabelle Huppert to such a role? I mean, seriously, how does one go from The Piano Teacher to I Heart Huckabees unless you are sending yourself up? Similarly, I have seen Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin funnier.

On balance I feel that in the case of HUCKABEES, sheer
ridiculousness isn't enough to make the kind of film you want to see again, or tell your friends to see. It seems to combine one part Charlie Kauffman insanity with one part Wes Anderson eccentricity, shake them both together and put the results on screen without much disicpline or order applied. Perhaps this is the philosophical point of the movie? Either way, it doesn't leave much for the humble audience member to cling on to.

I HEART HUCKABEES played Toronto and London 2004 and is released on DVD today.

Friday, April 15, 2005

THE INTERPRETER - over-reaching ambition sinks this thriller

THE INTERPRETER is the worst of all things - an over-long, flabby, dull thriller that fails to excite, enthrall or build up any tension. The idea is that Nicole Kidman is a translator at the United Nations building in New York. One night she overhears a plot on the life of an African president. She goes to the police with this, but comes under suspicion herself. So the movie becomes a bog-standard whodunnit, albeit with pretensions at more overt political subject matter, which it largely manages to dance around. For me, this movie was a noble failure. Despite the great photography of the United Nations building, I kept being brought out of the movie by three things. First, Sean Penn's hammy acting (he seems to be turning into a parody of himself, much like Al Pacino). Second, Nicole Kidman's fluctuating South African accent. One cannot help but wonder how far the film's credibility would have been improved if they had cast Charlize Theron - a brilliant actress who is actually South African. Third, there are a number of plot points, which if not exactly plot holes, certainly stretch credulity. These include who has access cards to different parts of the UN, why a President at risk of an assassination attempt would be left alone, how come Sean Penn can get in the safe room with just a key....And don't even get me started on the ridiculousness of the ending. Nicole Kidman used to be a flag for a good film - I almost always trusted that if she had opted to be in a film then it had a good script and production team. But it seems that of late her radar has been off and THE INTERPRETER only confirms my view. So, as much as it pains me to say this of a Sydney Pollock movie starring Penn, Kidman and Catherine Keener, this is probably one to avoid.

THE INTERPRETER is on global release.

Friday, April 08, 2005


THE ASSASSINATION OF RICHARD NIXON is a movie about the psychological breakdown of a man named Samuel Bicke. He is decent working class man pushed to the limit by a series of misfortunes. His wife leaves him when he cannot provide for her and their daughters. The bank turns him down for a business loan largely because his partner is black. He is the butt of jokes and criticism at work. He feels denigrated and de-humanised at every turn, and comes to think of himself as a modern-day wage-slave. For some bizarre reason, which is never convincingly explained, he sees Richard Nixon as the ultimate cause of his downfall – the man who sold him a vision of the American Dream that turned out to be a lie. In a bizarre turn, Bicke decides to take a hold of his life, and become more than just another face-less nobody. He will hijack a plane and crash land it into the White House, thus killing the President.

Where the film succeeds in casting three great actors, Sean Penn,
Naomi Watts and Don Cheadle, in the leads. Each gives a technically pitch-perfect performance, although because of flaws in the concept of the story, I found their performances ultimately uninvolving. I also think that the film beautifully captures the absurdity of the man on the edge of society: Sam Bicke is a tragi-comic character. Nowhere is this shown more clearly than we he tries to join the Black Panthers, who are understandably mystified and insulted that he should want to join. Bicke argues his case for allowing white membership as follows: “Zebras. You see, they're black, and they're white. The Black Panthers become The Zebras, and membership will double.”

However, for me this movie ultimately fails. The title, the fact that it stars Sean Penn and the plot summary that references a suicidal terrorist mission, sell the movie as a tense political thriller with contemporary relevance. However, viewers may find themselves feeling short-changed. Terrorism and the corruption of Richard Nixon are never really discussed here. Instead, it is the process by which a man becomes dehumanised to the point of considering extreme action of any kind that is the real subject matter. The Samuel Bicke character could have expressed his frustration at society in any number of ways. For instance, he could have become a lone gunman like Michael Douglas’ character in the movie FALLING DOWN, hitting out at anyone who came across his path. To my mind, there is something crass in the current climate in using the hijacking a plane that is intended to crash into the White House as a sort of background, substitutable plot device.

Overall, I found that despite some technically brilliant performances by the leads and the rare flash of black humour, this movie had nothing new or interesting to say about the disenfranchisement of working men in corporate America. It certainly had very little to say about terrorism. And worst of all, because it re-treads old ground, it was a very dull movie to watch.

THE ASSASSINATION OF RICHARD NIXON showed at Toronto 2004 and is released in the UK today.

Friday, April 01, 2005

DER UNTERGANG/THE DOWNFALL - Hitler's bunker recreated

Director Oliver Hirschbiegel has created an amazing movie in THE DOWNFALL. It is a masterly recreation of the final days in Hitler's Berlin bunker just before the Soviet invasion. The movie is based on the seminal book by respected historian Joachim Fest, "Inside Hitler's Bunker", and the memoirs of one of Hitler's secretaries, Traudl Junge. These memoirs have also recently been shown as a "talking head" documentary - itself a film of great power.

These sources are interwoven by screen-writer Bernd Eichinger. Eichinger is perhaps better known as a
producer, usually of cheesy popcorn movies, but here he has come up with something insightful and emotionally impactful. His script focuses on myriad characters - from soldiers to secretaries - fawning aristos to bewildered servants - as they mill around the bunker. The atmosphere is claustrophic, thanks to a superlatively designed set and outstanding cinematography from Rainer Klausmann.

Much controversy has attached itself to Bruno Ganz' portrayal of Hitler. To my mind, it is faultless. He does NOT create a "sympathetic" Hitler. Rather he shows a man who alternates between relatively lucid resignation and the more extreme delusional haranguing of his staff. In his resigned state he speaks intimately to friends in a more measured language than we are used to from seeing archive footage of oratorical genius. He seems to know that all is over but - and here is the evil part - blames not himself but the German people for not having the balls to see it through. Hence, his slash and burn policy. In his ranting, savage state he becomes the foaming-at-the-mouth demagogue that we usually picture him as being.

However, strange to say, I found the most affecting parts of the movie to be those that focused on the incidental characters of the story. The reactions of the sane officers to yet more ridiculous orders - the automatic efficiency of the bewildered secretaries - Eva Braun's simple-minded commitment to have a good time. And, for me, the most chilling scene was seeing true believer Magda Goebbels killing her children out of a demented, inverted kind of love.

For all this film's authenticity and bravery, it is not perfect. I felt that in the final ten minutes it reverted to Hollywood-style schmaltz. Whether true or not, the decision to end this grim movie with an image of hope seemed hackneyed and entirely misplaced, despite the evident good intentions of the director.

DER UNTERGANG/THE DOWNFALL opened in Germany in August 2004 and has since been on release in France and Austria. It is on release in the UK.