Friday, March 31, 2006

HOSTEL - not scary, occasionally amusing

HOSTEL is a movie written and directed by Eli Roth, but "presented by Quentin Tarantino". I have no problems with friends bigging up each others work, but Tarantino should be aware that he risks devaluing his "brand name" by attaching it to this deeply inferior horror movie. Believe me when I say that I have a very low tolerance for horror: creepy, gory, nasty stuff freaks me out. But I was not scared once by HOSTEL. Worse still, I had a vague feeling of having watched a lot of the scenes that were meant to scare me before, and done better. (I am not accusing HOSTEL of ripping these films off - just of not being terribly innovative.) In particular, people who have seen the wonderful Japanese horror flick, AUDITION, or more recently, SYMPATHY FOR MR VENGEANCE will find HOSTEL very very weak indeed.

All of this is a bit of a shame because the story is actually pretty neat. Two American backpackers are travelling through Europe with an Icelander they just met. Their two main preoccupations are getting laid and getting high. A dodgy Dutch pimp recommends a hostel near Bratislava where there are willing chicks on-tap thanks to the fact that all the guys in Slovakia are away at war (huh?). So they go to the hostel, get laid, get high and then bad things involving torture chambers start to happen. For me, the problem is in the execution. Eli Roth just completely failed to build up any tension, or any sense of threat to the key protagonist. That's not to say that the movie is a complete waste of time. Certainly some of the early scenes have a degree of comedy value, not least when they feature Eythor Gudjonsson as Oli the Icelander a.k.a The King of Swing. Rick Hoffman also has a hillarious cameo as a sinister, hyper-active Yuppie in search of gothic kicks. However, any movie wherein a bunch of bumble-gum chewing eight-year olds with koshes are the key menace, is not to be taken seriously.

HOSTEL is on release in the US, UK and France. It hits Germany and Austria on April 27th 2006.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

THE SQUID AND THE WHALE - if Wes Anderson and Woody Allen made a movie...

I really like THE SQUID AND THE WHALE. Despite the somewhat hammy ending, to my mind, writer/director Noah Baumbach has delivered a charming, often hillarious, often painful movie. Despite the similarity in feel to a Wes Anderson or even certain types of Woody Allen movie, the subject matter of the film feels really fresh and interesting. There have been films about flawed people with fractious relationships before, but rarely one that explores with such honesty, authenticty and good humour the impact of divorce on young kids, and how learning that our parents can be wrong is the first step in growing up. Every member of the cast turns in a great performance, from Jeff Daniels as the narcissistic, judgmental academic father to Owen Kline as the absurdly cool, cute but messed up kid brother. Anna Paquin is always fantastic, but I also liked Hailey Feiffer as the elder son's girlfriend. When he says something cruel to her, you can feel her teenage heart breaking. All in all, this film wears its indie heart on its sleeve, but, with the exception of the final few minutes, is never pretentious or manipulative. And as an added bonus, the movie is set in the mid-80s so there is plenty of opportunity to get nostalgic about Jimmy Connors, skinny black jeans and Short Circuit. I still have a smile on my face thinking about it and I can't ask for more than that.

THE SQUID AND THE WHALE premiered at Sundance 2005 where Noah Baumbach won the Best Director and Best Screenplay awards. It opens in the UK on April 7th 2006, in Germany on May 11th and in France on May 31st.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

WAR OF THE WORLDS - the greatest B-movie ever made?

In the wake of the over-blown quagmire that was MUNICH, my friend Nik suggested that Spielberg "stick to dinosaurs". It was a good suggestion - after all, JURASSIC PARK is the last genuine blockbuster movie that Steven Spielberg directed, at least in terms of box office success. However, the purpose of this review is to stake a claim for WAR OF THE WORLDS as one of the greatest B-movies ever made. The opening of the movie is high-class, with some nicely-observed modern family dialogue between divorced parent, Tom Cruise, his moody adolescent son and his precocious daughter, played by Dakota Fanning. And then, without wasting too much time, the aliens start attacking the earth and the whole thing just goes popcorn-tastic. Roads are ripped up, burning trains hurtle through railway stations, airplanes fall out of the sky. It's just a giant disaster movie with all the best bits rolled into one. Of course, this is Spielberg so all the whistles and bangs and explosions work well, especially when they ape scenes from Jurassic Park. (Just compare that scene where the tripod tentacle is sniffing round the basement with the raptors stalking the kids in the kitchen.)

But the great thing is that this movie also has some great dialogue that allows the characters to show "real" emotions. Tom Cruise is not a simple action hero - he is often more freaked out than his kids are and while this is clearly not the kind of iconic performance that he gave in Magnolia, it is leagues above the kind of cock-sure twit he usually plays in action movies. Dakota Fanning does what she does well too - she looks cute, is scared and screams a lot. For some reason the costume designer decided to give her the kitsch on-acid wardrobe of a seventies muppet, but that only adds to the charm. There are even some nicely handled patches of humour. "They came from somewhere else. Like Europe? NO, ROBBIE, NOT LIKE EUROPE." And we get the added bonus of seeing the always slightly creepy Tim Robbins as a loon.

Of course, the film does have its flaws, but even these are rather endearing. As we all know, the movie is based on the famous novel by H.G.Wells, wherein a bunch of super-intelligent aliens attack the earth and start exterminating humans using tripods that were buried underground millenia ago. Back when H.G. was writing I bet that spindly-legged tripods seemed really scary, but now, well, they just don't cut it. I reckon Spielberg would have done better to either redesign or show the devestation caused by the tripods rather than the tripods themselves. In addition, while the ending is true to the novel, and made a new and interesting point about evolution back in the day, to me, a contemporary viewer, it seemed a little bit weak. But you know what, this is WAR OF THE WORLDS, and I think you just have to go with it. Ditto the moment where I thought the movie really jumped the shark - when Cruise starts singing a "lullaby" to his daughter. I mean, it's painfully cheesy, but even here there is a certain charm in Cruise being willing to do something quite that ridiculous outside of Oprah.

WAR OF THE WORLDS is available on DVD.

Monday, March 27, 2006


To my mind, THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA is the most compelling and extreme film that I have seen since HIDDEN. Not extreme in terms of violence, alhough there is plenty of that, but in the way in which a Park Chan-Wook film is extreme. There is an absurd internal logic that is carried out to its demented conclusion, and because of the surreality of the events, the film is often extremely blackly funny.

The first half of the movie is set in a Texan border town inhabitated by the kind of washed-up, hopeless individuals that we found in Steven Soderbergh's BUBBLE, but treated with a lot less condescension. Tommy Lee Jones plays a rugged but warm-hearted rancher called Pete, who is mourning his good friend, an illegal Mexican immigrant called Melquiades Estrada. The story of Melquiades' death is told in flash-back, in an award-winning script by Gulliermo Arriaga. Arriaga used the same non-linear narrative structure in 21 GRAMS but I feel he does so to greater effect in THREE BURIALS, partly because the inter-cutting is less extreme and so feels less like an exercise in technique. We see layers of their personalities peeled away as we become more and more engrossed in the plot.

Around half way through the movie, it takes a right turn into altogether starker, more philosophically absurd territory that will be familiar to fans of Sam Peckinpah. Tommy Lee Jones' character, Pete, and Barry Pepper's character, Mike Norton, take a journey into Mexico. For Tommy/Pete, it is a journey to the logical conclusion of his personal code of honour and friendship.. Flashes of madness mingle with flashes of absolute clarity and humanity. For Barry/Mike, it is a journey that involves gaining empathy with the Mexican illegal immigrants that he once treated with such cruel indifference.
Both actors turn in absolutely compelling performances and Tommy Lee Jones fully deserves his Best Actor award at Cannes.

If I had to find a flaw with this film - and I am struggling - it perhaps lies in a single scene where Barry Pepper's character casually forces himself onto his wife. She is not so much raped as too bored to object. I couldn't help but think of those lines from The Waste Land: "Exploring hands encounter no defence; His vanity requires no response, And makes a welcome of indifference." It is not that the scene is done badly, but that it is done at all. I feel that we would perfectly understand the character of Mike Norton, and the choices Luanne Norton goes on to make, without it. Moreover, in the wake of MONSTER'S BALL and the visceral scene starring Choi Min-Sik in LADY VENGEANCE, it seems like so much cinematic shorthand.

Like I said, THREE BURIALS is not for everyone, and not for every occasion. We all have times when we want fast cars and guns, or something a bit more obvious with a clear beginning, middle and end. But I really do think this is a great film, if you catch it in the right mood and just go with it.

THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA premiered at Cannes 2005, where Tommy Lee Jones won the Best Actor award and Gulliermo Arriaga won the Best Screenplay award. It has since been on release in the US and France and opens in the UK on March 31st 2006. You can read a fascinating interview with Arriago here.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

THE BIG WHITE - so bad, it went passed cult-status and back to bad

What did I do when I wasn't laughing at alleged black-comedy THE BIG WHITE? 1. I wondered how it could be that British director Mark Mylod could come up with such hysterical stuff for TV (Shameless, The Royle Family) but on the big screen had saddled us with cinematic stinkers such as ALI G IN DA HOUSE. 2. I applauded Robin Williams for trying to do something a bit left-field. 3. I wondered whether the Coen Brothers were going to sue script-writer Collin Friessen for biting their style so badly. Seriously, not only does he set this "comedy" in Fargo-like snow-drenched nowheres-ville, but he tries to replicate all those eccentric quirky characters. The casting director even managed to con Tim Blake Nelson and Holly Hunter into participating. 4. I wondered if Collin Friessen's directorial effort FARM SLUTS was available on DVD, and if so, whether or not it would be more entertaining that this shambolic enterprise. I actually looked up FARM SLUTS on the internet while I was waiting for England to win the Third Test match. The guidance warned that it contained "partial nudity, language and untimely random acts of perversion." I sadly have to report that FARM SLUTS was probably even less funny than THE BIG WHITE and certainly had no other entertainment-related merits. So, overall, the whole BIG WHITE experience was fairly disappointing.

THE BIG WHITE got an indicatively small release in the US at the fag-end of 2005 and is now on release in the UK. The Germans get the pox on April 20th 2006, and the Austrians on June 2nd 2006.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

TRANSAMERICA - like CAPOTE and TSOTSI - a great central performance in a mediocre movie

There's not a whole lot I want to say about TRANSAMERICA. By now, with the Oscar hoopla over with, pretty much everyone knows that the movie contains a fantastic central performance from Felicity Huffman. Huffman plays a pre-operative trans-sexual who, on the eve of "her" gender re-assignment, discovers that she fathered a child. Posing as a religious worker, she picks up her son in New York and drives him cross country. Felicity Huffman's performance is one of subtlety and authenticity. I took a person who has never seen Desperate Housewives(!) to see this flick, and he did not twig that the trans-sexual, "Bree", was being played by a woman. However, I found the rest of the film chock-full of road-movie cliches, and something of a paint-by-numbers Indie film. It's all here: junkie, hustler teenage drifter son; wise Native American; mean and nasty middle-American mother....Perhaps the director felt that with such challenging core material, he had to situate Bree's story is a conventional genre movie. Alls I know is that while Huffman's on-screen persona is an act of award-worthy transformation, the movie itself was pretty mediocre and left me unimpressed and largely unmoved.

TRANSAMERICA premiered at Berlin 2005 and is currently on release in the US and UK. It hits France on April 26th 2006.

Friday, March 24, 2006

BEING CYRUS - truly funny, very bizarre, Bollywood thriller

So, this movie came out of left-field. BEING CYRUS is a fantastic new movie made largely by members of the Hindi film industry. It combines hysterically, typically Indian humour with Western production values and has a style all of its own. There are no dancing girls, "item numbers", or hackeneyed star-crossed lovers storylines. We also do not have that particularly sickening aspirational unreal depiction of ex-pat life that so many Bollywood multiplex films contain. (I am thinking here of HUM TUM, KAL HO NAA HO etc.) Instead we have an odd-ball thriller. Yes, yes, here we have that rare thing: a Hindi movie that has us crying with laughter, but also requires some intelligence to figure out the plot, and is all wrapped up within 90 minutes!

Cyrus Mistry is a young man who, together with his sister, had a miserable childhood as an abused orphan. In adult life he becomes an apprentice to a sometime celebrated, but now pothead recluse sculptor, named Dinshaw Sethna. This crumpled romantic is married to a fading and frustrated beauty called Katy, who dreams of quitting their "bhoot bangla" ramshackle country villa in Panchgani and returning to life in Bombay. Katy sends Cyrus on a mission to Bombay to sweet-talk Dinshaw's rich but ill-treated father, Fardounji Sethna, at which point he also comes into contact with Dinshaw's fat, capitalist brother Farouk and his young bride, Tina, not to mention, through twists and turns of the plot equally absurd and hillarious, Police Inspector Lovely.

The film has an outrageously funny script penned by first time writer-director Homi Adajania. I usually hate voice-overs but Cyrus' narrative is sharp, witty and memorable, and much praise must be given to Saif Ali Khan, up till now a conventional Bollywood heart-throb, for pulling off such a role. In addition, the supporting cast is superb. We have Naseerudin Shah - a class act - playing Dinshaw with such subtlety. With a flick of his eyes in an interrogation room he can reduce us to hysterics. Dimple Kapadia sends herself up as Katy, Honey Chayya is wonderful as Papa Fardounji, and best of all, we have the Peter Sellers of Indian cinema, Boman Irani, as the explosively bad-tempered Farouk.

But this is not just a funny, well-plotted movie. The depiction of Indian life is also spot on - from the people sleeping on park benches or on the road side in practically every frame; the road-side arguments between residents in the apartment building; to the way in which as you sit down in the cafe you immediately get served a cup of warm chai. Small details, but rarely seen in the glammed up dream-world of Bollywood movies. The director also uses the camera with imagination and fluidity to great comedic and dramatic effect - everything from bizarre Lynch -like dream sequences to dog POV shots. Finally, the film is greatly enhanced by Brit, Jon Harris, and has a faint air of the comedy freeze-frame stuff we saw in SNATCH.

What it all boils down to is that you should not dismiss BEING CYRUS because it is a Bollywood movie. The best way to think of it is as an English-language black comedy/thriller that is set in India. TRANSAMERICA may be more worthy, but I'd be hard pushed to recommend anything funnier on UK screens this weekend.

BEING CYRUS opened in India, Dubai and the UK on March 24th 2006.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

ROMANCE AND CIGARETTES - crazy beautiful

I have a feeling that ROMANCE AND CIGARETTES is one of those films that you either find pretentious and indulgent or love to pieces. I am firmly in the latter camp. Written and directed by John Turturro (the actor featured in many a Coen Brothers movie) we are firmly in that kind of weird and wonderful world, populated by odd-ball characters and capers.

The movie focuses on a family headed up by a fat fireman called Nick (James Gandolfini.) He is married to a wedding dress-maker called Kitty (
Susan Sarandon) and has three daughters. His wife pines for a former lover and his daughters are obsessed with a hilarious wannabe rock-star called Fryburg (the brilliant Bobby Canavale.) To add to the complication, Nick is attracted to a dirty-talking red-head (Kate Winslett) and is being egged on by his lewd best mate Angelo (Steve Buscemi). The subject matter of the movie is therefore all the messy stuff that happens in life - mid-life crises, weary marriages, obnoxious teenagers, first love. And the down-and-dirty texture is built up with brilliant suburban locales, costumes and a whole cast of eccentric supporting characters - notably Christopher Walken as the Elvis-loving vengeful friend of Kitty.

I've seen the movie described as a musical, not least by the producers. But I think that's a bit misleading. It's not a full on musical where the action periodically stops and the movie breaks into a staged musical number. Rather, at certain points in the story, the characters sing along to kitschy songs of the '60s - Englebert Humperdinck, Tom Jones and the like. It's rather like the camera follows the characters into their little day-dreams before spinning back into the reality of the flick. I guess it really is a matter of taste, but I thought the music was used brilliantly to add to the sense of whimsy and wonder. Plus, any chance to see the crazy genius that is Christopher Walken doing his dance schtick is a bonus.

I can perfectly see how some will find the project indulgent or
eccentric for the sake of it, but to my mind, ROMANCE AND CIGARETTES is one of the most touching, funny and genuinely crazy movies I have ever seen and I would strongly urge you to give it a try.

ROMANCE AND CIGARETTES showed at Venice 2005 and is now playing in the UK. I don't know if it will get a US release.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

SHOOTING DOGS - another sop to liberal guilt

Where to begin with SHOOTING DOGS? Perhaps with some fundamental questions about how we expect film-makers to deal with historical subjects. My view is that artists are under no obligation to stick religiously to the truth, if there can be "a truth". I am not the kind of person to have a fit when we see Americans winning the Second World War single-handed. I am saddened that for many people movies are their only source of historical education, but hey, Hollywood is not here to compensate for shortfalls in the education system or man's reluctance to pick up a history book. Having said all this, while I do not require that a movie treats history with respect, I find it hard to take a movie seriously that claims to educate/remind/show us *what really happened* and then messes up. Think of it as consumer-oriented movie-going. I don't ask for anything more than guns and car chases, but if the director wants to go all high-brow, he sure as hell should get his facts straight.

All of which is a long lead up to my first criticism of the movie SHOOTING DOGS; it plays fast and loose with the admittedly complex history of the Rwandan genocide despite claiming to treat a serious subject with sensitivity and respect. Let me break it down: if your only knowledge of the Rwandan genocide came from watching SHOOTING DOGS you would think that the Hutus were the murderers, the Tutsis were the victims, the UN were a bunch of racist cowards and that the BBC were marvellous, gallant, brave etc. In reality, while Hutus did murder Tutsis, similarly Kagame's Tutsis murdered Hutus. The UN may have withdrawn but this was because among others, the US did not allocate any troops. And before you think I am having an anti-US moment, this was, as I understand it, partly because Kagame refused to co-operate with a UN army sent in to protect his own people! As for the role of the BBC and other journos, and the motives of the BBC in funding this piece of hackery, you can find further information
here. Suffice to say that this is all complex stuff, and I am sure that I am also simplifying horribly. Then again, I have no pretensions to bring this issue to the forefront of the media.

Anyways, if we take it as read that this movie bears no more resemblance to what actually happened in Rwanda than U-571 resembles how World War Two was actually won, we are left with the following key question: Is SHOOTING DOGS any good as cinema? If you just watch it as a fictional drama, does it hold your interest? On this score, I have to give it a qualified thumbs up. First, the flaw. The movie focuses on a nice young Englishman played by pretty-boy, Hugh Dancy. Dancy is the decent everyman character through which we are meant to experience the extreme and frightening unfolding of the genocide. Over the course of the film we see his romantic optimistic nature frozen into hopeless cynicism. The problem is that Dancy's character arc is one that we have seen in many a "fish-out-of-water" movie and Dancy's limited acting talent brings nothing extra to the part. Of course, the film more than compensates by giving us the wonderful John Hurt as a world-weary priest. His character has plenty of nuance - although I am not sure the screenwriter intended that to be the case. Although he is fundamentally a morally upright individual who looks upon the massacre with horror, he is still one of those missionaries whose charity is for the convert alone. At any rate, Hurt brings the kind of weight and seeming authenticity that a film like this requires. In addition, I liked the photography very much and while I strongly believe that it is part of the "magic" of cinema that any location can be made to seem like any other with the right "bag of tricks", there was something eery in knowing that the movie was shot on location in Kigali. The combination of the great photography and John Hurt's performance sucked me into the picture, and I found myself carried away by just those simplistic emotions that the film-makers were presumably aiming for: outrage, guilt, but finally the feeling that, well, we did go see the film after all, and we felt really BAD, so that means we are okay human beings, right?? Right?

SHOOTING DOGS premiered at Toronto 2005 and is currently on release in France. It goes on limited release in the UK on March 31st. There is no reported US release date which I guess you could read something into: either US distributors think there is no market in the US for this kind of liberal, internationalist material about Africa and/or they simply think the film is no good. Answers on the back of a postcard, please....

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

KIDULTHOOD - flawed but fascinating

One of the things I love about living in Central London is the sheer social and racial diversity of the place. It's not that you *can* meet people from all walks of life, but that you *have* to. It is pretty hard to live in an isolated camelot when next to every wide avenue skirted with townhouses you have a hard-as-nails council estate. This is apparently what drove a young British actor, Noel Clarke, to write the script for KIDULTHOOD - a new low budget British movie. Clarke grew up in the council estates bordering the streets of NOTTING HILL - the underside of the fantasy London made famous in the saccharine luvvie-fest movies of Richard Curtis. He claims that he was tired of seeing his home depicted on screen in a manner that was so far removed from the reality as to be laughable.

I applaud the intent of the script-writer, and clearly a lot of care has been taken to re-create the language, behaviour and environment of the council estates. The movie is at its best when we simply sit back and observe the kids interacting with each other. There is a bravura opening segment where we see the kids flirt, punch and fuck each other in the school playground, followed by a disturbing scene of brutal bullying in a classroom.

The movie is fascinating as a social document but I feel it is less successful as a straightforward drama. The decision to collapse all the (melo-)dramatic events into a single day undercuts the movie's authenticity. It just seems a little too neat that all the plot strands should culminate in a particular party. Having said that, KIDULTHOOD really is a gripping movie and the minutes flew by. And I have to say that any director/editor who can create such a slick, fresh visual look on such a low budget has to be admired, not to mention the outstanding sound-track featuring British urban sounds. This is definitely a movie to check out.

KIDULTHOOD is on limited release in the UK. No global release dates at present. I suspect you'll have to wait for DVD for this one, but it really is worth a look.

Monday, March 20, 2006

FAILURE TO LAUNCH - I smell something bad

FAILURE TO LAUNCH is a slick, big-budget romantic-comedy starring the highly buff Matthew McConaughey and Sex and the City's Sarah Jessica Parker. Sadly, the newbie director and writers fail to deliver a movie that lives up to the names on the posters. The big problem is that the central premise of the movie is really rather sleazy and has no place in a straightforward romantic-comedy. McConaughey plays a thirty-something man's man who loves the ladies but still lives with his mum and dad. His parents are exasperated and resort to hiring Sarah Jessica-Parker's character. SJP plays a chick whu dates men who have "failed to launch" from the family home. She suckers them into feeling good about themselves and then gently dumps them when they are confident enough to leave home. The movie is at pains to point out that the SJP character doesn't actually sleep with the men, but I just thought the whole thing was ridiculous and icky. But even if you can swallow the central premise, the movie still suffers from a wildly uneven tone. At some points, it goes for broad physical comedy: there's a running gag involving McConaughey getting bitten by wild animals. Then it flips into trying to be serious - as when we learn WHY McC. is so scared of commitment. Finally, it goes for deadpan black humour. This is by far the most successful strand of the movie and centres around the glorious Zooey Deschanel, who plays SJP's room-mate. Deschanel has real comic ability and serves to show up how bad the rest of the movie is. Overall, despite the likeability of all the main actors, FAILURE TO LAUNCH is definitely one to avoid.

FAILURE TO LAUNCH is already on release in the US, France, Germany and Austria. It opens in the UK next week.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

V for VERY SILLY but still some good whistles and bangs

Reactions to V for VENDETTA seem poles apart: in general, the respected critics hated it but movie-goers are loving it. I guess I fall somewhere between the two poles. My first reaction was huge disappointment. In an Orwellian future, the UK is controlled by a fascist government, headed up a Big Brother-like Chancellor played by the marvellous British actor John Hurt.* Hugo Weaving plays "V", a terrorist who blows up Government buildings. V saves a young girl called Evey, played by Natalie Portman, (the stripper in CLOSER and Queen Amidala in Star Wars I thru III) and she eventually joins his cause. So far, so fantastically interesting. You have to love any movie that sends up an authoritarian "Chancellor", and attacks a fascist government that infringes upon our civil liberties. I never thought that a Hollywood that cannot quite bring itself to give a gay movie the Best Picture Oscar would make a movie that portrays terrorists as heroes! I'm loving the controversy and the honest exploration of the duties that fall on a citizen in the face of a repressive society.

However, the depression kicks in when you realise that the convoluted plot has more holes in it than Rab C Nesbitt's string vest. In addition, the film is populated by a bunch of high-class British character actors. Now, this is, of course, a good thing for international audiences. But for us Brits it can jar when we are expected to accept establishment boffin Stephen Fry as an instrument of sedition. He hosts the BAFTAs!

Anyways, I watched this movie again yesterday with altered expectations and realised that I had been way too harsh. If you just want a large dollop of popcorn-style trashy entertainment, you could do worse than see V. It has all the requisite whistles and bangs, as you would expect from a movie written by the guys who gave us The Matrix and the directed by the First AD on The Matrix and Star Wars II. In addition, the whole thing is wonderfully camp, and teeters on the brink of BATMAN AND ROBIN kitsch-tastic status. I can't take it remotely seriously, but then I do not think I am meant to. (Unlike Syriana, which wanted to be taken seriously but was still hillariously twee in its rendering of the Middle-East conflict.)

V for VENDETTA was shown at Berlin 2005 and is now on release in the US, UK, Germany and Austria. It hits France on April 19th 2006. *Amusing that Winston Smith has been resurrected as Big Brother. Kind of like when the People's Republic of Sheffield's David Blunkett turned up twenty years later as the most repressive Home Secretary in post-war British history.

Friday, March 17, 2006

KEEPING MUM - Alleged comedy about an axe-wielding au-pair that is significantly less funny than you might think from that description

KEEPING MUM is a movie made in the “British Nanny” genre. This includes many movies which are not in fact British and do not feature British characters, or even a nanny. But you know what I mean. They are movies like Nanny McPhee, The Sound of Music or Don’t tell Mom, The Babysitter’s Dead. There is a family that is troubled – the kids are unruly, the parents in difficulty – but nothing actually dysfunctional. In walks the nanny figure, who may or may not actually be a nanny. He/she starts cooking, cleaning and sorting out the local bully, and before you know it, everything is hunky-dory again. Generally speaking, I don’t mind these movies. They plug a gap in the market for safe kiddie-friendly films, and leave you with a generally warm feeling – as if all of life’s problems could be solved with some home-made scones and a cheery tune.

However, in order to bask in the audiences collective good-will, these movies need to get two things right. First, they need to have genuinely engaging and sympathetic characters. I don’t need to find the characters plausible, I just need to be happy to spend two hours in their company. Second, there have to be some good gags.

All of which brings me round to telling you why I think KEEPING MUM is a cinematic stinker. In features a bunch of great British character actors being self-absorbed and mean, even after the Nanny arrives. We have Rowan Atkinson as a vicar who is too busy with work to pay attention to his wife, and then post-nanny, too busy with his wife to pay attention to his parishioners. His wife, played by the usually marvellous Kristin Scott Thomas, is having an affair with a lecherous golf-pro, played by Patrick Swayze. She decides to chuck in her husband almost on a whim and post-Nanny undergoes a highly ridiculous conversion into…well, that would ruin the alleged plot-twist.

The second problem is that the script does not contain enough funny material. Somewhere out there there’s probably a great film about an axe-murdering au pair, but this just isn’t it.
Even Swayze in a posing pouch doesn’t raise a titter, and while he does languish in sleaze, this isn’t as blackly funny a role as the one he took in Donnie Darko. Even when Rowan Atkinson gets transformed into a “funny” vicar, and is supposedly packing in the audiences with his side-splitting homilies, I could still not detect a joke. Sucks.

KEEPING MUM is now available on Region 2 DVD. But then again, so is CATWOMAN, but you don't see me renting that either.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Overlooked DVD of the month - DEAD MAN'S SHOES

So, a friend of mine gave me a copy of DEAD MAN'S SHOES to watch because it is filmed in his home town of Matlock. I was not entirely thrilled. I have a well-known aversion to parts of the United Kingdom that lie outside Zone One of Central London, and it's not like I don't have enough movies to watch every day. I couldn't have been more stupid.

First off, the countryside surrounding the small town of Matlock looks stunning, and comes complete with a castle. It is captured in all its drama and sinister quietude by cinematographer Danny Cohen. Second, this movie takes the conventional revenge story and gives it a really novel re-telling. Paddy Considine, an outstanding actor, plays Richard. While he was in the army, his mentally retarded kid-brother Anthony (Toby Kebbell) fell in with a bunch of local goons who abused him terribly. Back from the army, Richard decides to take his revenge: "God will forgive them. He'll forgive them and allow them into Heaven. I can't live with that." He starts off pulling pranks, but soon the violence escalates. In a much shorter space of time, and with a fraction of the cash used to make that over-blown wreck MUNICH, director Shane Meadows and actor Paddy Considine show us the ravages this necessary revenge unleashes on Richard. In one tiny little scene, we see Richard alone in a bus shelter and he simply closes his eyes. It is hard for me to describe how powerful such a simple action is in the context of this drama.

Another thing I like about DEAD MAN'S SHOES is that the reactions of the goons seems so plausible. These aren't hardened criminals but dumb, weak-minded small-time crooks. And when they aren't being scared shitless, they roam the country in a comedy 2CV and use the kind of jargon we'd expect from our mates down the pub of a Friday night. This sort of familiar environment makes the brutal and casual violence even more dramatic.

If I have any criticisms of the film they lie in the fact that, presumably due to lack of cold hard cash, a lot of the special effects look a bit ropey. The old cine-film used to show Richard and Anthony as kids is authentic and looks it, but the black and white recreations of "time past" are rather poorly done. Sometimes the poor make-up can detract from the unfolding drama. However, if these unfortunate lapses in production quality prevent DEAD MAN'S SHOES from being a great film, it remains a fascinating piece of British drama, and well worth checking out.

DEAD MAN'S SHOES premiered at Edinburgh 2004 and played at festivals throughout 2005. It goes on limited release in the US on May 12th 2006. It is also available on Region 2 DVD complete with the superb bitter-sweet comedy short film, NORTHERN SOUL.

NORTHERN SOUL - Funnier than The Office; shorter too!

NORTHERN SOUL is a 30 minute film by director, Shane Meadows, the man behind the fantastic British movies A Room for Romeo Brass, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands and Dead Man's Shoes. It is a great little comedy, displaying the same kind of dead-pan uncomfortable humour that we find in Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's TV series, The Office and Extras. The film features Toby Kebbell as the gloriously named Mark Sherbert. (Sherbert rhymes with Herbert, and I'm not sure if this also applies in the Midlands, but where I grew up, to call someone a "Herbert" was a great insult.) Anyhoo, Mark Sherbert is a skinny little short-ass who dreams of being a pro-wrestler. In a sort of Timothy-Treadwell-like state of delusion, he brushes aside the reality of his situation. He couldn't care less that he has never actually practiced wrestling with, like, a real opponent. After all, he tells the camera, Bruce Lee practiced on himself. And what's good enough for the Fist of Fury is good enough for Sherbert. Alls I can say, is that I have never laughed so much as when watching Sherbert run around in a tarzan outfit, nor felt so pained as when I watched him fight his first match. British humour does not come more black than this. All fans of Gervais and Spinal Tap should check this out.

NORTHERN SOUL is included as an extra on the DVD version of Meadow's movie DEAD MAN'S SHOES.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE - breath-taking beauty

I love Howl's Moving Castle. This is not a surprise as I have loved every other movie by director or Hiyao Miyazaki and all the basic elements of those films are present in this incarnation. HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE is an animated movie of such breath-taking originality, beauty and wit that in ways, for those with acute appreciation of the visual arts, nothing more is necessary. Added to the lush hand-inked animation we have an evocative, "old-fashioned" orchestral score by Joe Hisaishi and Yuomi Kimura, which adds to the sense of mystery and wonder. Because let me be very clear about this, HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE is no ordinary fairy tale. As with any other Miyazaki story, there are no goalposts, simply anything can happen, and there is always a very dark and nasty side to the story.

This disturbing mixture of fairy-tale and sinister politics stems from the fact that the movie is set in a place that looks a little like the Central Europe of Grimms' Fairy Tales crossed with Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Soldiers wear old fashioned uniforms with epaulettes and handle-bar moustaches, and poor unloved little girls work in hat-shops. But at the same time, there is a vicious war being carried out against an unspecified enemy. It is fought in futuristic looking bomber planes that raze whole cities. No-one really understands why there is a war and no-one really knows when it will end. Towns are bombed indiscriminately - maybe by our side, maybe by theirs. Mixed into this weird backdrop, the monarch enlists the help of witches and wizards to win the battles.

In such an uncertain world, our heroine, Sophie, perfectly voiced in the English version by Emily Mortimer, is subject to a random act of violence. She is cursed by the Wicked Witch of the Waste - and changes from a confused, insecure teenager to a haggard old woman. She goes to work for the beautiful young wizard, Howl, in his moving castle. Underneath the beautiful blonde exterior, Howl is just a scared, petulant teenager who has no heart. He is so frightened of the summons by the king that he sends Sophie in his place, and when his blonde hair is accidentally dyed black he really throws his toys out of the pram and announces that "there is no point in living if I cannot be beautiful". By contrast, Sophie, now transformed into an old woman, is strangely relieved to be free of the burden of looking "pretty". In many ways, the journey taken by Howl and Sophie in this movie is one of self-acceptance, self-knowledge and self-acceptance. When this movie first came out at the cinema, I took my eleven year old cousin to see it. The sinister politics washed over her, but she got a lot out of this story of insecure self-image and the pressures of being a kid. She also really liked the character of Howl's best buddy, the fire demon, Calcifer. Calcifer is voiced by Billy Crystal in the English language version of the film, and his wise-cracking New-York accent clearly had the kids rolling in the aisles. However, his voice was the one false note in the film for me. His heavy accent is conspicuous and seems somewhat at odds with the Central European surroundings and the rest of the voice cast. This may sound like an odd criticism in a movie in which literally anuything can happen, but Crystal's voice broke the spell cast by the wondrous animation every time I heard it.

HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE premiered at Venice 2004 and is now available on DVD.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

TSOTSI - superb acting lifts banal story out of mediocrity

Sometimes I wish I just weren't so cynical, because then I would get more from a movie like Tsotsi. Tsotsi is a movie whose plot is so obvious and predictable as to almost, but not quite, eradicate my viewing pleasure. We have a young, murdering brute called Tsotsi living in Jo-burg. One day he nicks a car and finds a little kid inside. Guess what?! He cannot bring himself to kill the kid, instead threatening a young single mother into helping him take care of it. Through her and the child, he sees some point to living a decent life.

What lifts this tale out of the truly banal and trite is the power of the acting by the entire cast, but especially Presley Chweneyagae who plays Tsotsi and Terry Pheto who plays the single mother. They give performaces of such subtlety and elegance - essentially you can take Al Pacino in any of his extravagent, shouty "hoo-ha" roles and inverse it, and you'll have what I mean. And I guess that if the performances have a quiet strength we must also praise the director, Gavin Hood, whose next picture I await with interest. Clearly Tsotsi is not the best foreign language film of 2005. This was a year that gave us HIDDEN, THE BEAT THAT MY HEART SKIPPED and KUNG FU HUSTLE. Nevertheless, Tsotsi is worth viewing, even if you just wait to rent it out on DVD.

TSOTSI premiered at Edinburgh 2005 and went on limited release in the US on February 24th 2006. It goes on release in the UK on March 17th 2006, in Germany on May 4th, in Austria on May 18th and France on July 19th.

THE PINK PANTHER - Probably not the worst movie of 2006

Look. This movie is not the worst movie ever made. It has the odd laugh. It's just not brilliant. And it's even more obviously not brilliant when you compare it to the original Peter Sellers' Pink Panther movies. But you know what? Let's cut it some slack. The original Panther flicks were Pure Class. Saying these remakes are not as good is like saying that Tsotsi is a worse film than Kung Fu Hustle. It's a meaningless statement beacuse every movie is worse than Kung Fu Hustle.

What we have here is Steve Martin as bumbling French idiot, Inspector Clousseau, playing the Sellars part with an Allo Allo accent and happily tripping over furniture and into women with gay abandon. He is commissioned by the Chief of Police, Kevin Kline in the Herbert Lom part, to catch an infamous thief. As his right-hand man, he has "Ponton" - a new character played by Jean Reno. The eye-candy is Beyonce and no, dear reader, there is no Burt Kwouk replacement. NO KATO. I was sad to realise that Jackie Chan had not finally taken up the role. I love KATO. I used to go to restaurents in Chinatown just because Burt Kwouk had recommended them in TIME OUT. Burt Kwouk was the only reason I used to tune in to Harry Hill. But you know, upon reconsideration, I am pleased that the memory of Kato is unsullied.

You get a lot of slapstick comedy, some of which works, most of which doesn't. You get some jingoistic comedy at the expense of the French. We Brits have been doing this for centuries, and believe me, we can come up with better stuff. Clearly all these actors are far better than the material they have been given, although I have to say that after the crimes against cinema that were Cheaper by the Dozen and Shopgirl, I am starting to have my doubts about Steve Martin. Alls I hope is that they were paid a whole lot and can now "afford" to do some nice low-budget indie films as atonement. As I said, this is a harmless movie. But if you have one ounce of respect for Peter Sellars you'll put your money back in your pocket and rent A SHOT IN THE DARK instead.

THE PINK PANTHER opens in the UK on Friday 17th March 2006 and is already release in much of continental Europe and in the US.

Monday, March 13, 2006

TWO FOR THE MONEY - A diabetic's nightmare

This review has been written by Nik, who can usually be found here...

I didn't expect much from TWO FOR THE MONEY, and by matter of coincidence, I didn't get much either. It's hard to describe this film, because it doesn't easily fit into any one genre - not due to its depth or variety - but rather its chronic failure to set out its stall and nail its colours to the mast.

The story follows the life of Brandon Lang (aka Matthew McConaughey), who due to a career-ending injury as a professional footballer, ends up becoming a small time 1-900 number sports pundit. As his punditry proves successful, he is recruited by Walter Abrams (Al Pacino) to work in the big time, New York, high pressure, fast talking, amoral, slick and stylised world of big money gambling. Pacino's character is given just enough depth for his natural talent to shine through - and plenty of witty and cutting one-liners besides to keep the audience amused. But that's really where my praise has to end.

The rest of the characters were 2-dimensional at best - from Abrams doting wife (Rene Russo) - to the small town country-boy who lets fame go to his head (McConaughey) - to the rest of the mediocre cast who no sooner do they chip in their lines than they are instantly forgotten. Given that the film relies almost entirely on one line gags and remarks to entertain, it is sadly poorly written towards the end, loosing the audiences interest quickly as it starts to rely on its vapid plot in the second half of the film. The moral messages contained within this effort are trite, hollow, obvious and condescendingly delivered - and the ending is so sugary that your pancreas will wish you'd never have been born, or that you'd seen Lady Vengeance instead.

But the main problem with this film, as I alluded to earlier, is its lack of defined genre. Maybe it was mis-sold to me - I was expecting a violent gansta epic about a farm-boy getting in over his head in a world of gambling, pr*stitutes and organised crime - but while the film threatened to turn nasty, it was all foreplay and no org*sm. The closest we got was our hero getting held down and given an impromptu golden shower by one of his clients - hardly Japanese ultra-violence. But the film wasn't particularly funny either, it certainly wasn't a thriller in that it's wasn't thrilling, it weren't a sports movie as the opening titles threatened, the romance was contrived and it wasn't very dramatic. So if it's not a drama, not a RomCom, not a thriller, and not a gangster movie - then what the f*ck is it?

The answer is - not particularly good. This film promised little, and delivered in proportion. I'm not trying to pan it - it more than capably passed two hours I might otherwise have been touching myself or other people - and it's certainly not a "SPHERE" or an "ANALYSE THAT" where the only highlight was brevity. Some of the one-liners alone justified the entrance fee - or would have justified it had I not been mugged for £12.50 by the Leicester Square Vue. It's just that this film wasn't very good. It had very little to it.

It failed totally as a morality play - it had too little sex and violence to deliver any thrills and spills - it was only funny in parts - and the ending was so happy and clappy that I left the cinema wanting to kick the shit out of a helpless little puppy just to redress the balance of the universe. I also left the cinema with the awful feeling that had I been walking out 40 minutes earlier, I'd have been in a better mood, and been more fulfilled in general. I already know that happiness can't be bought, and that love and family should be put before money, I don't need to be force fed it by some asshole in LA who now has £12.50 more of the latter and has probably experienced neither of the former.

There's plenty on at cinema's these days, and this addition to the playlists is mediocre at best. Go see LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN if you want a cool gangster movie - or KIDULTHOOD is you want something "street" - or LADY VENGEANCE if you like asian movies about child cruelty. Or, if it's a really rainy day, you need to get somewhere warm to escape the elements, the price is low and there's nothing else on - go see TWO FOR THE MONEY. I cannot seriously recommend it in any other circumstances.

TWO FOR THE MONEY is currently available on Region 1 DVD. It is also on cinematic release in the UK and hits Germany on April 13th 2006.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

REVOLVER - You are not as clever as you think you are, Guy.

You know what? REVOLVER really is not an execrable pile of cinematic wank. I regularly see movies that are far less interesting, well-made and compelling. To name but a few, REVOLVER is significantly better than Rumour Has It. Things that we think are good? As with all Guy Ritchie movies, REVOLVER benefits from a wonderful display of visual style, some decent Tarantino-goes-cockney one-liners, and some cool editing. I am always happy to hear the phrase "Jog On" in any high-budget flick. Notably, a lot of scenes get spliced, and messed up in terms of the time-line. A lot of critics have complained that this makes the movie impossble to follow. Not so, the movie is perfectly comprehesible. The problem is that the BIG IDEA that Ritchie thinks is frickin' clever and radical is actually fairly banal and, for any cineaste worth their salt, possible to crack in around the first fifteen minutes of the flick. Basically, the movie features Jason Statham as Mister Green, a sometime cardster who has spent seven years in solitary. He emerges with the perfect gambling strategy courtesy of the chess master and arch conman in the adjacent cells, and proceeds to take on his enemy, Macha, played by Ray Liotta. Meanwhile he is befriended by a couple of zen-like loan sharks, who help him face up to Liotta's mafiosi, a bunch of random Yakuza and the mysterious "Mr Gold." Stuff happens. There is, it turns out, a point to Statham's incessant and alarmingly Frank Butcher-like internal monologue. However, the cinema-goer does not reach a state of enlightenment at the end of the movie. Ritchie clearly think he is laying The Knowledge on us, but frankly, his visual and narrative metaphors are way too obvious as is his blatant ripping off of the infinitely better flicks, Fight Club and The Usual Suspects. Lars von Trier made a film called The Idiots, to which the tag-line was, "you are not as clever as you think you are." Sobering thought, and one that Guy Ritchie should contemplate.

REVOLVER premiered at Toronto 2005 and went on release in the UK and France in September 2005. It is now available on DVD.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

FAVELA RISING - like RIZE but for real, in Brazil and worse

Another week, another documentary about under-priveleged minorities escaping poverty and violence through organised youth groups specialising in music and dance. Here we have newbie documentary makers, Matt Mochary and Jeff Zimbalist, focusing on the work of Anderson Sa. Anderson is a good guy who escaped from drug-dealing in the favela/slums of Rio to become the leader of the Afro-Reggae band, and also the wider Afro-Reggae movement. Broadly speaking, he is the Tommy the Clown of Rio, luring kids from the camaradery and coolness of being a drug-lord (oh, yes!) into being part of his respected musical crew.

As far as it goes, that is a moderately interesting story. But you should not be suckered in by marketing claims that this is a companion piece to CITY OF GOD. It is far thinner on substance and social analysis, clearly much less technically accomplished, and far more manipulative. The quality of the transfer from digital to 35mm film is horrible. The contrast is so off that it really distracted me from watching the film. At first, I wondered if this was a deliberate effect but not so. The co-director, Mochary, boasted in an after-screening Q&A that film-makers should not be so obsessed with production values but find a good story. While I agree that substance is important, style also matters. Paying a little more attention to lighting in the sections filmed by the professional documentary-makers would have paid dividends. Granted the DV footage shot by the favela inhabitants themselves is going to be bad, but does the rest of the footage have to comply with this lowest technical common denominator?

But my really big objection is to the credulity of the film-makers. They bought into Anderson Sa's mythic status without questioning it one iota. Anderson Sa clearly is a very good man, but also a good self-publicist. He pumps up the Christian imagery, portraying himself as a "saviour" of the slum. When he suffers an accident that renders him a paraplegic, we are supposed to believe that he made a MIRACULOUS recovery. Both myself and my colleague, The Professor, turned to each other in disbelief. Were we really expected to swallow the idea that a spoooooooooky woman had visited Anderson in the night and promised him that the frickin' Sea God would make him walk again? Or were the documentary makers being disingenuous? After all, Mochary admitted after the screening that he had deliberately let certain implicit misdirections slide. Maybe it doesn't matter whether or not Anderson was miraculously cured - the key point is that this is what the people in the favela believe. But the documentary-makers could have made that more subtle point. What FAVELA RISING needs is someone like Werner Herzog, who subverts the Timothy Treadwell/"Kind Warrior" self-image in GRIZZLY MAN. All we got was a shameless cash-in on the CITY OF GOD hype that looked like a promo-reel.

FAVELA RISING premiered at Tribeca 2005 where it won an award. It is currently on extrremely limited release in the UK. Apparently HBO have bought it for the US market.FAVELA RISING premiered at Tribeca 2005 where it won an award. It is currently on extrremely limited release in the UK. Apparently HBO have bought it for the US market.

Friday, March 10, 2006

A PRAIRE HOME COMPANION - Li-lo in decent performance shock

A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION is the story of one of America's most famous and best-loved public radio programmes. Broadcast out of Minnesota, then New York and then Minnesota, the programme was conceived by Garrison Keillor and combines country music acts performing in concert and adverts for fictional products. The show has all the ingredients for a classic Robert Altman movie, and the director essentially apes all his previous greats, such as GOSFORD PARK.

First, Altman finds a milieu in which a bunch of eccentric, fascinating characters can interact. So, where Gosford Park had an English country house, we now have the theatre where the final radio show is about to be recorded.

Second, Altman assembles a fantastic ensemble cast, largely on the strength of his reputation as a world-class film-maker. We have Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin - perhaps the finest actess and comedienne of their generation - as two country singers, plus Streep's on-screen daughter Lola, played by Lindsay Lohan, in what may be her break-out performance. I have always thought that Lohan had a great on-screen presence. She has the ability to make you want to spend time with her and, HERBIE: FULLY LOADED aside, has made some fantastic good quality comedies. (And yes, I AM being serious here.) We also have Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and the fantastic John C Reilly) as two cowboys who sing crude songs and tell fantastic off-colour jokes. My personal favourite, "Why do they call it PMS? Because Mad Cow was already taken." A special shout-out has to go Kevin Kline - the shambolic PD who provides the solid centre around which the ensemble cast turns. (How odd and sad to see him in this marvellous flick, and then the execrable new PINK PANTHER movie in the same week.) True to cliche, Kline gets hooked by an enigmatic blonde, in the form of Virginia Madsen.

Finally, Altman just follows these guys around. It's as simple as that. There are no big melodramatic moments, no epiphanies, but an authentic rendering of the little amusements, tensions and wonders of every-day life. With a cast this good, and a script this charming, you really don't need much else. The audience feels like it is part of the action thanks to the mobile camera-work of Edward Lachman, apparently using hand-held Hi Def cameras.

Is this a great film? Maybe. It is surely a sweet and funny film with some great performances and great lines. Some film-makers are shooting for worthier things, and a very small portion are succeeding. But you know what? I'll take a film-maker who can make me laugh over one that can educate me any day of the week.
A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION premiered at Berlin last month, where it did not win the Golden Bear. It lost out to a great and worthy film about the aftermath of the Balkan War. Now, I am not saying that worthy films shouldn't win anything but sometimes you have to wonder why the "academy" does not praise comedies enough. Making someone laugh is, to be facetious, a serious business, and there is no lesser talent involved in playing it for laighs as in playing it straight. Anyways, PHC goes on release in the US in June. I'll add European release dates when I have them.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

UNION CITY - brings new meaning to the term "art movie"

UNION CITY is a bizarre little (by which I mean comparatively short) film-noir made by the artist Markus Reichert and released back in 1980. Today it is notable for the surreal, tense atmosphere achieved on zero budget and the screen debut of Debbie Harry. On the release of a shiny new DVD edition, I am here to plead its case for viewing outside the cultish band of noir-film-makers and David Lynch fans.

The movie features Dennis Lipscomb as Harlan, a paranoid, repressed accountant, living in Jersey, with his beautiful wife, played by Debbie Harry. Lipscomb becomes obsessed with the mystery man who keeps stealing the milk bottles from outside his house and concocts elaborate plans to entrap said thief. Meanwhile, his neglected wife starts pleasuring herself, not to mention carrying on with the super, played by Everett McGill. The plots sounds absurd, but somehow Reichert manages to maintain a serious tone to the piece. This is partly thanks to his use of small sets and odd camera angles. It always feels like the camera has been squeezed into a small corner, and that the viewer is a voyueur. The creeping sense of claustrophobia lends credibility to Liscomb's inceasing paranoia. Kudos to cameraman, Edward Lachman, who made this possible. In this low budget flick we have a small taste of the kind of work we'd later see in movies such as The Virgin Suicides, Far From Heaven, and the marvellous new Robert Altman movie, A Prairie Home Companion. In addition, praise is due to the score by Chris Stein.

I should make it clear that, even after being cleaned up, the DVD print does look pretty dated, and one suspects that this is just because the production values on the original shoot were constrained by lack of hard cash. In addition, the acting performances, dialogue and substance of the film are highly stylised: this is an art movie in a true sense of the term, and closer to, say, Eraserhead than Blue Velvet. I have to say that technical defects and obvious absurdity aside, the film does suck you in. You want to know who is stealing the milk, you want to know what Lipscomb will do, you want to know if Debbie Harry will finally break out of her stultifying marriage. Why? Like I said, the tone of the piece is right. But secondly, artifice aside, UNION CITY is one of the most honest portraits of a bad marriage that I have seen on screen. It resonates. And that makes it, for me, a successful film.

UNION CITY is available on a newly cleaned-up DVD complete with Debbie Harry's original screen test and previously unseen deleted scenes.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

BROKEN FLOWERS - beautiful, bitter-sweet comedy

I have to say that I was pretty much guaranteed to love BROKEN FLOWERS. It is directed by one of my favourite film-makers, Jim Jarmusch, and stars one of my favourite actors, "Bill Groundhog-Day, Ghostbustin'-ass Murray!" Throw in some nice support work from Jeffrey Wright (last seen in the flaccid Syriana), Sharon Stone, Jessica Lange, Chloe Sevigny and Tilda Swinton, and you have a recipe for an engaging, bittersweet comedy.

Bill Murray reprises his role as the professionally successful, world-weary, cynical romantic from the infinitely inferior flick, LOST IN TRANSLATION. His girlfriend leaves him on the grounds that he has commitment and emotional issues. He also receives a letter from an unidentified ex-girlfriend who claims to have fathered his child. Murray barely reacts to these events - his ennui prevents him from doing anything more positive than drifting to his neighbour's house for morning coffee. Indeed, Murray spends much of the film reacting obliquely to increasingly strange things happening to him. Therein lies the comedy. When a butt-naked teenage girl called Lolita walks past him, he wears a bemused smile. The "WTF?!" reaction we have is distilled into a slightly raised eyebrow. Brilliant.

Luckily for Murray, his neighbour Winston, played with great comic dash by Jeffrey Wright, is on hand to play amateur detective*, and sends Murray on a road-trip to visit all his ex-es and find his son. Wright's character, Winston, is the kind of stand-up family guy who reassures his kids that he isn't smoking tobacco but 'cheeba, and who always has a magnifying glass to hand. He genuinely cares that Murray should get ot of his funk. Anyhoo, Murray goes travelling; strange stuff happens. Maybe he meets his son, maybe he learns something about himself, maybe not. This is not the kind of film where you get trite answers. At the end of the movie, all that Murray's character can cobble together from his experience is that: "The past is gone, I know that. The future isn't here yet, whatever it's going to be. So, all there is, is this. The present. That's it."

What does Jim Jarmusch bring to his mix, apart from his genius in writing the part for Murray and the wry dialogue? Every single inch of every frame of this flick is wonderfully cosntructed. The production design, the positioning of the props, the camera angle - everything is just right. For instance, there is one scene where Murray is sitting alone looking mournful on a chi-chi designer couch in his well-appointed house. On the coffee table in front of him is a bottle of Moet and a full glass. Marvin Gaye is playing in the background. You don't get more tragic.

BROKEN FLOWERS may not be all bangs and whistles - and it may not have answers to all the key questions of life - but it does make you smile an awful lot. You can't say fairer than that

BROKEN FLOWERS won the Grand Prix at Cannes 2005. It went on cinematic release in Autumn 2005 and is now available on DVD.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

THE MATADOR - Brosnan is superb; the film is not

THE MATADOR is an odd film but not a successful one. There are so many factors that should turn me on and yet somehow the finished product left me unengaged. We have Pierce Brosnan, the only Bond who ever compared to Connery, playing against type as a sleazy hitman on the edge of a nervous breakdown. He meets an all-american stand-up guy called Danny (Greg Kinnear) in Mexico. He appreciates that Danny is a nice guy who loves his wife, and feels sorry for Danny's bad luck in business and the accidental death of his child. Danny finds Julian, the hitman, fascinating, enigmatic, charismatic, but slightly nerve-wracking. The story charts their friendship, Julian's journey back to some kind of mental health, and Danny's move towards a more fulfilling life.

So far, the story sounds intriguing: unusual and amusing. A sort of buddy movie, crossed with a fish-out-of-water story, crossed with a thriller. But this genre-confusion is ultimately THE MATADOR's downfall. The production designer has tried to give us the heightened-cool of movies like Once Upon a Time in Mexico or Ocean's Twelve; the score is chock-full of iconic hits like A Town Called Malice. But we don't have the visual style or wit of a Paul McGuigan or a Quentin Tarantino movie. The use of the camera is pedestrian.

Occasionally the script breaks into crazy humour - and the hitman does have a lot of crude, off-colour, one-liners - largely similes involving Thai brothels and under-age girls. But these laugh-out-loud moments are relatively sparse. The best moment by far is when Pierce, drunk, dishevelled, almost butt naked, strutts through the hotel lobby in cowboy boots and a pair of Y-fronts. This is a genuine little sliver of Pure Comedy Gold. But the comic tone is under-cut by the serious matter of Pierce/Julian's nervous breakdown. Sadly, writer-director Richard Shepard seems unable to manage the tonal shifts in this movie. Forced to make a choice between which "half" of the movie I would engage in, I opted for the drama. Pierce Brosnan is outstanding in the role. His physical mannerisms, the facial expression, the vocal inflection. It is the stuff of awards, were the film not tagged as a "black comedy" (and an unsuccessful one at that). But with the comedy and thriller facets of the movie crowding out any real in-depth character development I left the theatre feeling unsatisfied. Somewhere in this movie there is a really great psychological thriller OR a great Robert Rodriguez flick. At the moment, we just have a flawed film, which is not quite redeemed by a great performance by Brosnan.

THE MATADOR premiered at Sundance 2005. It is currently on release in the UK and will be released in Germany and Austria on April 20th.

Monday, March 06, 2006

STAY - visually stylish but frustrating psychological thriller

STAY is a psycholgical thriller. It is set in modern-day New York and stars Ewan MacGregor as a psychiatrist, Dr Sam Foster. When Foster's colleague suffers a nervous breakdown he takes over one of her patients - a twenty-year old art student called Henry Letham. Letham is threatening to commit suicide on his twenty-first birthday and Foster is desperate to stop him. The problem is that the more Foster investigates Letham's life the more he feels he is losing grip on reality.

The movie is visually stylish and uses jarring edits and dissolves in a clever manner to unsettle the viewer and convey Foster's increasingly tenuous grip on reality. The movie also features a talented cast, including
Naomi Watts, Ryan Gosling and Bob Hoskins. It is directed by the man who helmed FINDING NEVERLAND and written by the man behind 25th HOUR. But despite the incredibly impressive look and pedigree of the film, I found STAY to be a noble failure.

I love movies that rely on a clever twist or have an unsettling tone, but in this case so few pointers are given to the audience that the viewing experience becomes frustrating, alienating and finally, plain dull. When the final twist is revealed everything does make sense, but short of going back to re-view the movie it is hard to see what the cinema-goer will gain from the overall experience.

STAY was released in the US in October 2005 and is currently on release in Germany, Italy and the UK. It opens in Austria on April 28th 2006 and in France on July 26th


So, the Oscars are done and dusted and as usual we have some well-deserved awards (Philip Seymour Hoffman for CAPOTE) and some errors (Rachel Weisz for THE CONSTANT GARDENER over Amy Adams in JUNEBUG; George Clooney in SYRIANA over William Hurt for A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE; Tsotsi beating SOPHIE SCHOLL for Best Foreign Film). KING KONG cleaned up all the special effects awards and MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA got anything to do with costume, sets and cinematography. I called all the acting awards correctly as well as the Script, Director and most of the technical categories. On "red at roulette" rules, if I had staked a tenner on each prediction, I would have staked £210 and won back £240, so a small, but not oracle-like, success. The only really big upset was that BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN was beaten by CRASH for BEST FILM. But really, I can't get too excited about a set of awards that effectively barred the two best films of the year: HISTORY OF VIOLENCE and HIDDEN; and the best docs., GRIZZLY MAN and MAD HOT BALLROOM. Here is the full list of winners, with the ones I thought would win marked with an asterisk. The full list of nominations can be found here.


Sunday, March 05, 2006

LAST HOLIDAY - charming weepie romance flick

LAST HOLIDAY isn't exactly a romantic comedy. At least, there aren't many laugh-out moments. But it is a feel-good romance in the best traditions of the genre. It stars Queen Latifah - an actress who has that rare quality of making you want to spend time with her when she is on screen. She projects a warm and straightforward personality. You want nice things to happen to her. That's exactly what you get in this flick. Queen Latifah plays a hard-working, sensible sales assistant in a department store. When she discovers she has only three weeks to lives, she cashes in her life savings and goes on one final hoorah at a fancy Alpine hotel. While there, she straight talks sleazy businessmen and politicians, earns the love and respect of the hotel staff (not least Gerard Depardieu) and eats some damn fine food! This being a weepy rom-com, I do not think I am spoiling any surprises to say that she gets to live happily ever after with her new boyfriend, played by LL Cool J. Overall, LAST HOLIDAY is clearly not a work of art, but it is awfully sweet and made me shed a tear or two near the end. The operation is carried off by Queen Latifah's charm, and while the opening segment could have been cut by twenty minutes, I really didn't want the movie to end. Aw, shucks!

LAST HOLIDAY is on release in the US and UK.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

SYRIANA - pretentious, yawn-inducing and inaccurate

SYRIANA is an over-hyped alleged thriller that attempts to explore the politics of the oil business. Featuring a star-studded cast, and the kind of lush photography that you get in advertising, here is a movie that repackages politics for the HBO generation, and fails miserably. While the movie looks great and the acting performances are all fine, the real faults lie in the conception of the movie and the script by Stephen Gaghan. Gaghan is the man behind the infinitely better flick, TRAFFIC. Like TRAFFIC, SYRIANA has a script that inter-cuts three plot strands that are loosely related. This has led some critics to claim that the movie is complex and hard to understand. Actually I had no problem following the story here. Incomprehension was not my problem.

The first major problem is that the movie tells us nothing that we did not already know about US politics, the Middle East or big business. There are no flash-bulb moments, and in many ways, the issues here are "dumbed-down". I found it a really fantastically facile, trite script by someone who clearly has very little cultural or political feel for the material he is addressing. If you want an expose of US politics, check out John Sayles' SILVER CITY. If you want insight on the Middle East go read some history. If you want to see how "everything is connected" - the platitudionous tagline to the film - go see CRASH.

The second major problem is that the movie is just plain yawn-inducing. I LOVE cinema; I love Middle Eastern politics; I love Clooney, Damon and Cooper; but even I could barely keep my eyes open. I do not ask that movies educate me - although when they claim they are going to it is nice if they live up to that promise - but I do ask that they entertain me. I want my intellectual or emotional interest to be piqued. I want laughter, tears, or provocation. SYRIANA did not deliver.

So, now the broad-brush gripes are over, here are some minor geeky gripes. 1. Why do the Pakistani muslim terrorists speak in Hindi? Granted there are Muslims in India but they speak Urdu. And while many Pakistanis do not speak Urdu as a first language, they will most likely speak Pushto or Punjabi instead. It is frickin' ironic that a movie that attempts to get under the skin of Middle Eastern politics, and establish a credible stance on these issues, can mess up on something so basic. I was, frankly, insulted. 1b. What language is George Clooney speaking when in Beirut? He is complemented on his good Arabic, and claims to be speaking Farsi, but the accent is impenetrable and unless this is some dialect, sounds nothing like Farsi. 2. It is absolutely incredible that anyone would address the an Emir in the manner in which Matt Damon addresses the Prince just after the "Marbella incident".

SYRIANA is on limited release in the US, Germany, France, Austria and UK.

Friday, March 03, 2006

MURDERBALL - impressive people; unimpressive film-making

MURDERBALL is a documentary focusing on the US and Canadian wheelchair Rugby teams in the run up to the Athens Paralympic games. It is an examination of life as a quadriplegic and the misconceptions the able bodied have about such people. By focusing on Olympic level sportsmen, the documentary makers show us that quadriplegics are just as, if not more, competitive and successful in their chosen field as the able-bodied. As one athlete says on the eve of the paralympics, "we didn't come here for a hug, we came for the gold medal".

MURDERBALL has attracted a lot of critical acclaim, a large part of which, I believe, is unjustified. The people featured in the documentary are no doubt impressive, but once I had heard the back-story of the players and seem them in action once, I lost interest. Worse still, I felt that the documentary-makers created a false villain in Joe Suares - the ex-US player who defected to become the Canadian coach. Cue lots of absurdly melodramatically edited shots of young players saying to Joe, "how does it feel to betray your country". Moreover, Joe is portrayed as an evil man because he is occasionally short-tempered with his kid. And then, post heart-attack, Joe supposedly is frightened into becoming the perfect parent. I am sure that neither extreme is true. Similarly manipulative is the fact that the documentary makers' goaded Chris Igoe to appear in the film. Chris Igoe was responsible for the drunk-driving incident that put Mark Zupan - the poster-boy of US wheelchair rugby - in a chair in the first place.

I think that when documentaries work it is because they throw us into an aspect of life of which we know relatively little, and carry us away with the story. That is exactly what happened in the wonderful documentary MAD HOT BALLROOM. MURDERBALL struggles to come up with the same intensity and sense of building to a finale - the US/Canada match in the Olympics. Perhaps it is because the DP cannot shoot sports matches for shit - it is a particualr and under-rated skill. Perhaps it is because the film-makers caricatured their participants through editing. Whatever the reason, MURDERBALL held my interest for about 30 minutes and then left me cold. And while it probably is the better of the Oscar nominees, that is not saying much. Both GRIZZLY MAN, and MAD HOT BALLROOM are not on that list, but are far more satisfying on a cinematic and emotional basis.

MURDERBALL premiered at Sundance 2005 where it won the Audience Documentary Award and a Special Jury Prize for the editing. It went on limited cinematic release in the US in summer 2005 and in the UK in November. It is now available on DVD and has been nominated for the Best Doc Oscar.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN - slick, funny, gun-totin' awesomeness

LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN is not a pantheon movie but it has an awful lot going for it. Those looking for above-average Friday night pop-corn entertainment would do better to see this than the god-awful alleged satire, DATE MOVIE.

LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN has a fairly convoluted plot, but it is by no means as opaque or incredible as some reviewers would have you believe. Slevin Kalevra is the oddly-named hero of the piece. He comes into New York to stay with his friend Nick Fisher, but finds an empty apartment and a kooky neighbour in the form of Lucy Liu. It turns out that Nick was in hock to two warring underworld chiefs: The Boss and The Rabbi. Each brings him in and asks for a “favour”. These favours are not of the borrowing-a-cup-of-sugar variety: they are of the Don-Corleone variety. The movie then follows Slevin paying off “his” gambling debts with the police and a hitman on his tail.

The first good thing about LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN is that it has a genuinely funny script, with the kind of word-play and love of a quick one-liner that you find in Tarantino movies pre-Kill Bill. As an added bonus, cine-literate viewers will love all the movie and TV references – which flip from Hitchcock to Columbo by way of the Schmoo. The movie is full of the kind of conversation you have with your mates in the pub. First time screenwriter Jason Slimovic is clearly one to watch.

The second really good thing about LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN is that despite being really very funny, especially in the first half hour, it does then flip into darker territory. It is not afraid to show the good-looking hero do bad things, and despite the re-shot ending, has a more noir-ish feel than the standard Hollywood guns’n’ass fare.

The third super-cool thing about LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN is that it looks awesome. This is not simply because Josh Hartnet spends the first forty minutes in a towel, although I am not complaining about that either. It is because the production designer has taken the heavily patterned wallpaper and kitsch chandeliers from Soho House New York and painted the town with it beyond all sense and taste. If I ruled the world, this is what it would like. Like a seedy seventies nightclub the morning after too much scotch.

The fourth wicked thing about LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN is that it is really well acted and for the most part by people playing against type. Josh Hartnett partially redeems himself from the travesty that was PEARL HARBOUR as Slevin. Lucy Liu, hard-assed lawyer in Ally McBeal and gang-land warrior in Kill Bill, plays the charming, ditzy GIRL NEXT DOOR. I loved her in THREE NEEDLES and I this, and wonder she isn’t getting/taking on more work. Morgan Freeman, all-round cool, good guy in countless flicks, plays a vengeful mob boss. And best of all we have SIR Ben Kingsley as opposing mobster, Schlomo. Kingsley morphs together his role as Jewish thief, Fagin, in Polanski’s OLIVER TWIST and Cockney psycho Don Logan in SEXY BEAST. The performance is restrained and absolutely convincing. In one especially devastating scene, where he hears some terrible news, just look at his face. It’s an acting master-class all if its own.

The final awesome thing is that the director, Paul McGuigan, of GANGSTER No. 1 fame, really knows how to make a visual impact. The way in which he uses the camera brings so much style and energy to the screen. Guy Ritchie wishes he were this cool.

LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN is currently on release in the UK and opens in the US on March 31st. There are no scheduled release dates for Continental Europe.