Friday, June 30, 2006

REEKER - neat idea, terrible dialogue

REEKER is an odd sort of movie. It starts off with a promising five-minute prelude that shows a family pull over on a deserted highway and fall victim to truly horrifying events. But then, after the credits, we flip into a derivative, mediocre teen horror flick. Five idiots are travelling in a station-wagon on an empty highway. Slightly less stupid driver says to idiot boy – “You can’t travel with me coz you half-inched twenty grand worth of E from a psycho.” Guess what? They all end up in a deserted motel with the psycho dealer trying to reclaim his stash and a mysterious leather-face type who smells bad and is taking to people with a razor-sharp egg-whisk. The movie progresses in such manner for around about an hour in which nothing happens that it is not entirely predictable and there is very, very little gore. Seriously, it could have a U certificate. The only noteworthy factor are some nice visual effects – usually when the second of the psychos appears but also some fun montages of victims’ life flashing before them. However, in the final twenty-five minutes or so, REEKER enters entirely different territory as the concept underlying the movie is revealed. The acting and dialogue don’t get any better but I was highly impressed by the underlying engine of events. Here was a twist that not only genuinely surprised me but also hung together in retrospect. Even after I left the movie theatre and considered all those plot threads that were seemingly left hanging – somehow they all tied up. So, I am left with an ambivalent review. A lot of REEKER is tired and laugh-out-loud bad. (Presumably, the South African tourist board is freaking out at the lead character saying she isn’t afraid of psycho murderers because she’s “from Johannesburg. It takes a lot to scare me.” But then again, there’s a pretty interesting and intelligent idea underlying the apparently derivative action. So, maybe this is one to check out on DVD.

REEKER has been on release in France and is now on release in the UK. No clue as to if or when it will hit the US, Germany, Austria or Australia.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

THE WILD PARROTS OF TELEGRAPH HILL - Bina007 admires hippie, enters downward spiral of self-doubt

THE WILD PARROTS OF TELEGRAPH HILL is a documentary by environmental film-maker Judy Irving. It features a middle-aged guy called Mark Bittner who lives in San Francisco. Mark looks like a cliched ageing hippie - the faded denim and straggly pony-tale - and certainly lives an unconventional life. Instead of holding down a regular job he spends his time taking care of a flock of beautiful parrots that live on Telegraph Hill. Mark comes across as an articulate and intelligent man. He has a healthy awareness that what he is doing might be perceived as crazy. Judy Irving asks him: "What's the difference between you and the pigeon lady?" And he laughs back, "Nothing!" But he seems to have stumbled across an enviable work-life balance. He may not be paid, but he really does do something of value that requires skill and patience. He also has more freedom than the conventional desk-monkey and has been able to live out his philosophy in his daily life.

Indeed, I found Mark - and his ability to pull-off his lifestyle - far more fascinating that the parrots themselves - never having been one for the nature docs. Frankly, if I can't eat it or sell it, then I'm not interested. And while this doc. has not changed my life, or moved me to tears, it did sustain my interest. Moreover, on a purely technical level, the doc is full of great nature photography and the 16mil transfer is very good. So, if you have some time to spare, you should give this flick a go. Seriously, I am the last person who should like a nature doc., and this movie had me hooked.

THE WILD PARROTS OF TELEGRAPH HILL went on limited release in the US, Australia and UK last year and was released on DVD this week.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

SALLY GREENE'S RONNIE SCOTT'S - another shamess cash-in

Tuesday 27th June and I'm back at Ronnie Scott's for the first time under the new dispensation. Professor007 - the Austrian jazz fiend - and I were planning on some quality R&B time and I was all about seeing The God-Daughter of Soul, Carleen Anderson. I know that we she does isn't really jazz, but with a musician of that calibre, who's to complain?

Despite the quality of the entertainment, the pre-match vibes were distinctly off. A cursory inspection of the official website suggesting that old-skool haphazard charm was off the menu. Membership has skyrocketed as have the entry fees - £25 for a standard week-day night and the promise that it could double for the top acts. Worse still, you have to cast-iron book with credit-card details in advance. I guess this is fair-dos as you don't want empty tables from people who just don't turn up, but it does prevent those old late night spontaneous visits. But the inflexibility goes further than that. To guarantee getting food you have to pre-book for a two course set menu which pretty much doubles your spend. No more cheap-ass chilli (soaked up alcohol, kept you going till 3 am, job done!) but one of those trendy gastro-pub menus. I wasn't sure if were gonna get food at Bar Italia first, so I booked non-dining seats. From the website we also learn that the old club upstairs is gonna be switched to a chi-chi ultra-exclusive members joint serving, "rare vintage Dom Perignon." Yikes!

Still, there are some upsides - the main act now gets one set startng at 9:45. Last night it finished at midnight. This makes it a lot more feasible to go to Ronnies on a school night and not feel like you've missed out on half the fun by leaving for the last train home. I always used to feel sorry for the main act playing the second set at 1am to a dwindling group of earnest but sleepy fans.

Anyways, on the day itself, Professor007 was closing a deal in Canary Wharf so I was forced to rope in jazz-virgin, Nik or lose the up-front cash not to mention the chance to hear some great soul music. But it's all good. The old norms are re-established: meeting in Bar Italia to check the Spain-France score. The door-men are different - a lot more smoove than usual, but once you get iinto the club it's the same old shake-down at the coat-check.

I feel really old when I get inside the main room - lots of memories of the old place - sneaky visits when we were students, travelling back on the night bus from Marble Arch at 3am - the odd New Year's Eve with George Melly - the day James came up after finals in an Acapulco shirt and sub-fusc. But on the whole, the club looks good. Same old dim lighting, same old black and white photos of jazz greats on the walls. Pretty much the same configuration of tables except the bar has been moved from the left-hand side as you enter to the back wall opposite the stage. And this is where you start to notice the Little Differences, royale-with-cheese-stylee. 'Coz the bar isn't like a pub-bar anymore with waitresses in jeans and t-shirts pulling pints. It's like a bar in a Four Seasons hotel - all dark wood veneers and brushed steel. And then you realise that the staff are all in proper outfits and they don't look like they know who Stan Getz is. You could always get cocktails on the menu but know it looks like they might actually be capable of serving them. The tables don't have those kitsch red-and-white check table-cloths and instead of battered, fringed, table-lamps the new one look distinctly Designed. There are no beer-sodden in-house magazines advertising forthcoming acts scattered on the tables. You have to buy those for two squid fifty now.

We get to our seats are offered a choice of banquette. We can't do the first on account of the fact that it has less legroom than a charter flight. Sally Greene - the new owner - may have upped the seating capacity - but she's clearly counting on a short clientele. Next we order drinks from the all-new menu. It takes the waiter 45 minutes to bring them out and only after prompting. The guys sharing our banquette say the same thing happened to them.

We try to order food but are told that the kitchen is so busy we'll have to wait. So, despite the overt shameless cash-in they are actually restricting the clientele from spending money by a combination of tardiness and policy! The capitalist in me dies a little at the inconsistency. Anyways, after Nik threatens to eat the stage, we get menus and after another half hour wait try to order. Except no-one told us that they weren't serving a la carte - only the set menu! By this course, we'll order anything and do. The food comes after another hour-long wait.

Nik's green-lentil soup is bland, stone cold and came without a spoon! His main was also tepid and bland. My leek and mustard crumble on mash was scalding hot (microwave) and tasted of mash but nothing else. The apple tart was okay - very stodgy pastry and a bit odd to have it served with apple sorbet rather than someting with a complementary taste. Needless to say, this whole process took a long, long time. By this point Nik was fuming and the sheer ineptitude of the service was distracting us from the marvellous music. He called the manager out who cancelled the food and drinks bill and sent over two glasses of indifferent champagne. In fairness, she handled the situation well but it doesn't disguise the fact that the food and service were pitiful.

Overall, I'll go to Ronnies if the acts are good but not on a whim as I used to. We'll monitor the situation. But so far it seems that they've turned an authentic jazz club into a sort of five-star hotel bar with above average music, corporate prices and crappy food and service. Hardly a winning combination. However, I put my faith in capitalism and hope that customers will vote with their feet. I know I will.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Overlooked DVD of the month - MYSTERIOUS SKIN

This month’s overlooked DVD pick is MYSTERIOUS SKIN - a beautifully scripted and acted movie about two boys, Neil and Brian, who are the victims of sexual abuse by their little league coach. Brian suppresses the memories of the abuse; blacking out the two episodes and becoming almost de-sexualised. As he grows up he desperately tries to rationalise the physical symptoms of trauma – wetting the bed, nose-bleeds – and believes that he may have been abducted by aliens. However, a face in a dream leads him to Neil. Neil is fully aware of how both he and Brian have been abused. His relationship with the abuser is all the more complex because, as a small child he found the coach incredibly attractive and wanted to be “the special one” – the first-choice victim. As a teen, Neil becomes a hustler, landing himself in ever more extreme situations.

The subject matter of this movie is painful but it is handled with an admirable balance of realism and sensitivity. The director, Greg Araki, does not shy away from depicting the details of the abuse but manages to do so in a way that is not visually explicit – largely through using PoV shots. Moreover, strange to say, I found this a remarkably hopeful film. Neil’s mum – a single woman with a frenetic love-life – is actually very loving and far more in step with Neil’s life than Brian’s parents are with his. (Although this is relative – she clearly has no idea he is a prostitute.) Neil also has the unconditional love and support of his two best friends. Michelle Trachtenberg is particularly good as Neil’s best friend who is obsessive about his physical safety. Moreover, the final scene where Brian finally fully understands what he has been through is strangely peaceful. In addition, the movie has flashes of wonderful dark comedy to relieve the tension.
Joseph Gordon Levitt, in the lead role, displays an impressive range – from portraying the grittiest of drama to almost screwball comedy.

So, for the beautiful handling of painful subject matter; the delicate blend of grit, hope and humour; and the outstanding performances, I highly recommend MYSTERIOUS SKIN.

MYSTERIOUS SKIN toured the festivals in 04/05 to great critical acclaim. However, it was on release for just a nano-second in the UK and US in May 2005. The good news is that it is now available on DVD.

Monday, June 26, 2006

WASSUP ROCKERS - Larry Clark is off his meds again, good thing too

Purveryor of movies and photos about fucked up teens, Larry Clark, is back with yet another movie about teens, although this time, the kids are all right, at least to start with. Clark's kids in WASSUP ROCKERS are a group of Hispanic (six Salvadorean and one Guatemalan) teens living in broken and poor homes in South Central, LA. Skaters and punk rockers all, they are total outsiders, to the black kids they go to school with, who all want to know "why they wear their shit so tight?" and to an outside world that really doesn't care about their existence until they come knocking. Living the American teen dream, they hang out with a purpose; skating wherever they can, taking on the world together, trying to get laid and giving each other shit. The characters are fantastic, from Jonathan, lead singer of their band and heartthrob extraordinaire to Milton, who would no longer like to be called "spermball" and Kico, who is so cute he really ought to get laid but something keeps happening to fuck it up. The other characters are developed to varying extent but are interesting in their own right. Part of why the characters are so interesting and ring so true lies in the fact that they are all amateurs playing themselves basically. Half the characters share their names with the actors playing them.

The first half of the movie plays slowly and aimlessly, more like a paen to teen boredom than any attempt at storytelling and it's really good but really slow. If you've seen any of Clark's movies, you already know about his obssession with the world of teenagers and there is no shortage of material for him here. With racism, class conflict, teen sexuality, growing up in an urban environment all examined in such detail, this movie could have been titled "An ethnographic study of deprived Hispanic youth who live in the Los Angeles dystopia and the things they do for kicks." That is, before you get into the LSD inspired second half of the movie where the narrative really kicks in as our heros leave home and go skating in Beverly Hills only to be plunged into one insane adventure after the other. The movie develops a magnificently mean sense of humor, with cliches aplenty, a body count and twisted joke after twisted joke. After the slow buildup of the first half of the movie and the near documentary realism of it, adjusting to the zaniness and mischief of the latter half of the movie is both disconcerting and fun. This is kind of a must see.

Wassup Rockers is in limited theatrical release around the US. I don't know when, if ever it's coming to a country near you.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

OVER THE HEDGE - job done but no trimmings

OVER THE HEDGE is a new animated movie that will keep your kids occupied for 90 minutes. It's full of cute animals doing funny stuff. The idea is that there are a bunch of foragers who wake up from hibernating all winter. Instead of waking to the usual lovely field, they are faced with a giant hedge. For, over the winter, that field has been developed into a nice gated community filled with fat Americans who have super-stocked double-barrel fridges. The foragers are nervous of these new inhabitants and reluctant to look for food over the hedge, but they are egged on by a new arrival: super-smoove R.J. R.J. reckons he can outsmart the humans, the Verminator and the neighbourhood cat. What he doesn't tell the other cute animals is that he has an ulterior motive - if he doesn't replace all the food he stole from a mean bear by full moon, he's toast.

The movie is full of all those good moral lessons that you want your kids exposed to. Family is important, and it is better to be selfless than selfish. And like I said, the animals are really cute. But OVER THE HEDGE does nothing more than the basics. The voice cast is for the most part fine. Great comic actors such as
Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara are wasted on limited material. Avril Lavigne has about three lines and was no doubt recruited solely to boost the teen box office. Bruce Willis does his usual smart-ass schtick on autopilot. The only really impressive performances are by William Shatner as a Luvvie Possum and Thomas Haden-Church as the hysterically deluded pest-controller - The Verminator. Oh yes. As usual, Omid Djalili steals every scene he is in as the persian house-cat.

But the biggest let down is that there isn't more humour for the grown-ups. Normally I wouldn't sweat that too much. After all, if the kids are happy then the genre-box is ticked. But somehow, with OVER THE HEDGE, I expected more. That's because the flick is based on a cartoon strip that has real bite. The concept is that a bunch of cute animals look over the hedge at us crazy-ass humans and make biting satirical comments at our expense. Apart from one montage taking the piss out of our chronic food dependency, in this movie, cute wins out over satire.

OVER THE HEDGE was released in the US in May is on release in Australia. It goes on wide release in the UK on June 30th. It hits continental Europe the following weekend.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

THE LAKE HOUSE - waiting is dull

THE LAKE HOUSE is a romantic drama starring Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves. The lesson of the movie is that it is worth waiting for the right partner in life, even if you feel lonely and frustrated in the interim. Of course, having a movie about waiting is a lot less interesting than, say, watching a drama in which we have a tangible relationship between two protagonists. Imagine how much less interesting the movie is when it stars Sandra Bullock and Keanu "I know king fu" Reeves. Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against these actors in their respective genres of romantic comedy and action film. Just don't ask me to find them credible in a grown-up drama, playing it straight. Conflating these problems, the movie makes things even harder for itself by positing that the Sandra and Keanu are living two *years* apart - in 2006 and 2004. They communicate by writing letters to each other and leaving them in a bewitched mail-box. Fantastic. Of course, the screenwriters realise that this makes for dull cinema, so they contrive to have the two of them meet by chance in each other's time. Not only does this go against any kind of logic but it also proves how little chemistry they have when they do get together. Seldom have I felt so little emotional reaction to a hero and heroine finally kissing on screen. The upshot is that we have a movie that says that being with Sandra/Keanu is worth waiting 2 years. That may be. But when you are sitting in the audience with no hope of that particular pay-off what's the incentive? Your average Londoner can sooner learn patience by sitting on the Northern Line.

THE LAKE HOUSE is on release in the US and UK. It opens in Germany and Austria on July 6th 2006, Australia on July 13th and France on July 26th.
P.S. If you should ever desire to know what my ideal apartment is - check out Christopher Plummer's digs. The wine, the jazz, the books...Also, is Shohreh Agdashloo the new Omid Djalili? She's in everythng these days. Usually playing a doctor.

Friday, June 23, 2006

THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY - intelligent political drama

Ken Loach's new film, THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY, is set in Ireland just after World War One. The country is ruled by the English and the Irish population is brutally surpressed by the Black and Tans - English soldiers who have themselves been brutalised by the "Great War". In such a time, ordinary folk are politicised. The movie focuses on two brothers, Damien and Teddy, who join the Republican movement. They become what we might now call insurgents. They shoot English soldiers point black. Damien, played by Cillian Murphy, is the heart and soul of the movie. He is painfully aware of his slide into brutality and his ethical compromises. Hating the tasks he feels he has to perform in order to bring about a free Ireland, he naturally feels betrayed by the treaty that the Republican leaders eventually sign with the British. While Teddy sees the concessions to an Irish parliament as a start - a temporary holding position on the road to complete freedom - Damien cannot stomach the idea that Irish MPs should swear an oath to the British king. The idea of sitting and waiting for greater freedom does not sit well with him given that the Irish poor are literally starving to death. And so the fight goes on. But now, the Irish who want to enforce the ratified treaty and have some kind of peace are fighting the Irish who want complete political and economic freedom or nothing.

THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY is a wonderful piece of film-making. It tackles sensitive political material without feeling dogmatic or didactic or self-satisfied about its own intelligence. The movie provides genuine emotional and intellectual insight into the current political landscape. Best of all, it never sacrifices narrative for politics and the characters are never ciphers. Their actions and motivations may set up a fascinating political conflict, but they always seem genuine. So, while we have lengthy scenes in which characters simply sit in a room and debate politics, the audience' interest does not flag. For we are, by this point, passionately engaged in the debate because of our attachment to the protagonists. Credit for this must go to the screenplay by
Paul Laverty, who has worked with Loach on other political dramas, not least the outstanding flick, BREAD AND ROSES. The movie also has a uniformly excellent cast, of whom Cillian Murphy is perhaps the best known.

Overall, I cannot recommend this film highly enough. It is satisfying both as a historic drama and as a political meditation. However, in fairness, if you have no interest in politics you will probably be bored rigid.

THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY premiered at Cannes 2006 where it won the Palme d'Or - the highest honour. It is now showing in the UK and plays in France from August 23rd and Australia from September 14th.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

THE PASSENGER/PROFESSIONE REPORTER - a film to admire rather than enjoy

THE PASSENGER was originally released in 1975. It is an iconic piece of cinema, directed by Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni and starring Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider. Antonioni is probably best known for BLOW-UP. BLOW-UP is a truly remarkable movie because it manages to combine populism, entertainment and serious philosophical inquiry. Populism comes in the form of its portrait of a decadent fashion photographer who shags hot chicks and snaps Vanessa Redgrave topless. Entertainment comes in the form of a thriller. He takes some pictures in a park and as he develops them believes that he has captured a murder on film. Philosophy because the more he blows up these frames, the less he can see - questioning the nature of reality and perception. (Not to mention some bizarre mime artists running around London in a pick-up truck....)

THE PASSENGER attempts to combine all three facets once more. After all, by casting Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider (notorious after her appearance with Marlon Brando in LAST TANGO IN PARIS) the crowds would be drawn. There is also a certain thriller element. Nicholson plays a tele-journalist called Locke who is investigating an insurgency in a North African state, although he never seems to be able to get to the action. One day, he returns to his hotel to find the man in the next room - Peterson - dead on the bed. Almost as a spontaneous reaction, Locke decides to assume this man's character. It turns out that he has assumed the personality, passport and diary of an arms dealer. While once frustrated that he could not get near enough to cover the insurgency, Locke is now trafficking arms to it! Having taken money for a delivery of weapons he cannot possibly deliver, Locke/Peterson goes on the run from the middle-men, in the company of the Maria Schneider character - a vivacious student he has met by chance. Will they catch him? With what consequences? The philosophy comes in the form of a variety of discussions on the nature of identity and the possibility of reportage. In a chilling interview with the president of the African state, we see the president tells Locke that the interview is essentially futile. The questions say more about Western journalism than the answers say about Africa.

On paper, this sounds like my ideal movie - beautiful people; tense, dramatic situations; serious discussion of fascinating topics. However, I found that the movie lost my interest around half way through. Perhaps it was the lack of pace or the inevitability of the outcome, which nullified the thriller aspect. Perhaps it was the, for me, lack of apparent chemistry between Schneider and Nicholson that nullified the superficial entertainment. But, actually I think it was the rather depressing philosophical material. It is not nessecarily the case that a movie with such nihilistic content should be alienating, and yet somehow it was. A tremendous shame. So, overall, while THE PASSENGER is a must-see for all serious fans of cinema, it is a film I admired rather than enjoyed.

THE PASSENGER is currently on re-release in the UK to coincide with the DVD release.

Friday, June 16, 2006

DUMPLINGS/GAAU JI - abortions are yummy

I think it's fair to say that this film is all about eating aborted foetuses. Because it is. But it's not a gore flick, or a horror flick, or some awful and tasteless B-movie from the vaults of Japan. Rather director Fruit Chan, aided by a powerful and capable cast, has created a movie that challenges our preconceptions and our hypocrisies on several hitherto taboo subjects.

The basic plot follows Mrs Li (
Miriam Yeung Chin Wah), an ex-actress and glamourous star, who enlists Mei's (Bei Ling) help in recapturing her youthful looks to regain the (sexual) attention of her philandering husband Mr Li (Tony Leung Ka Fai) - who's fucking everything but the kitchen sink, because, put simply, he likes a fresh piece of ass.

Unfortunately, Aunt Mei's miraculous youth restoring therapy involves eating chinese dumplings made out of chopped up and stewed aborted foetuses. Mei herself was an abortionist in China, before her discovery of the healing properties her patented cannabalistic practice. Bai Ling is stunning as Mei - her performance is as witty as it is serious - she manages to inject comedy and drama where none seemed possible - give the girl an Oscar.

So the plot's a bit grim, and make no mistake about it, there's nothing hidden in this film. That's the wonderful thing about it, it's honest. It graphically depicts a second trimester back-street abortion - it shows the chopping up and preparation of food using first trimester foetuses - the sex scenes are as explicit as they need to be without erring into pornography. This film, cinematographically, is not for the faint hearted. And, just as Argentina's display today against Serbia and Montenegro was a masterclass in fluid, attacking football - DUMPLINGS is a masterclass in film-making. The shots are perfect - it's shocking without being overly graphic - it employs clever tricks like reflections in knives, subverted camera angles, and wonderful wonderful sound effects. The munching of dumplings. The cracking of bones. The plop of a baby into a bowl of water. Marvellous.

But as well as being graphically and thematically captivating and shocking, the film is also genuinely challenging. It passes social comment of the societal pressures on women (and men) to look young, and the lengths we will go to to achieve this goal. It shows us what we are spared by the closed walls of the termination of pregnancy centres - the full horror of a second trimester abortion. It deals with incest, rape, and cannabalism. And it does all these things realistically, without passing too much insulting or obvious editorial comment.

Is this an anti-abortion film? Not in the traditional sense, no. It shows abortion as it is, not as we like to think of it - and it does criticise the horror of the "one child, one family" law in China. But at the same time, it displays the reality of what can happen if we make abortion illegal, following tangentially the drama of a young mother seeking an abortion from Mei. It was a thought provoking experience, one that was moving and uncomfortable all at once. It elevates the debate on abortion above the level of crude, trans-atlantic bickering onto a plain of real intellectual debate. While we cannot deny the homologous nature of the second trimester foetus and the neo-nate and the tragedy of it's death, and the awful sterility of the Chinese abortion clinic - we are confronted with the equally tragic and horrifying notion of the back-street, black-market abortionist, and the tough moral challenges that are faced in some exceptional circumstances.

This really is a great film - one that I can wholeheartedly recommend. While it doesn't stir its audience the the heights of passion and back - or claim frights or adventure - it captivates the viewer in a story that it proves impossible to take ones eyes off. It will provide charming if inappropriate dinner-time conversation for afterward - and will have you chewing over the concepts late into the night, even after Match of the Day has ended. All in all, another fine flick from the far east. Go see!

DUMPLINGS/GAAU opened in South Korea in 2004 and in Germany and Austria in 2005. It went on release in France in April 2006 and is currently on release in the UK. I'd put good money on the proposition that it will never get a cinematic release in the US.

IMAGINE ME & YOU - derivative then daring then dull

IMAGINE ME AND YOU starts as a British romantic comedy firmly in the Richard Curtis style. It is set in aspirational London - beautiful young professionals who live in apartments furnished by Heals and The White Company with the odd choice "objet" from an auction. They live in Notting Hill or Primrose Hill rather the Chelski or Mayfair and work vaguely in The City or The Arts or beautifully quaint shops. They have lovely country weddings with quirky guests giving witty speeches in clipped upper class accents. I have nothing against this except the fact that having been done so many times before (often with great box office success) it all seems a little derivative. IMAGINE AND ME AND YOU draws in its audience thanks to this easy familiarity. It starts with a wedding - between a dull but sweetly in love couple called Hector (stock-broker) and Rachel (vaguely at work in trendy office). They are played by the charming and blandly good-looking Matthew Goode and Piper Perabo. Naturally they have odd, but vaguely funny parents (Celia Imrie and Anthony Head) and a loveably sleazy best man (Darren Boyd).

Now, after about twenty minutes the movie does something rather daring and I got radically more interested. It makes the extra-marital love interest gay. So Rachel finds herself attracted to a florist named Lucy, played by
Lena Headey - an older, more charismatic version of Keira Knightley. At this point I thought to myself, wow, this is really clever. They've suckered in Middle England with a cut and paste safe as houses British rom-com but now they're going to do something daring and brilliant. Sadly, I was wrong. There is a lot of long-winded trauma concerning whether Rachel can ditch her lovely husband for the lovely florist, but then the movie snaps back into Curtis mode with a typically absurd love scene at the end. It involves people declaring their love across traffic jams atop cars. Schmaltz to the max. And in case you were wondering, absolutely no graphic lesbian sex scenes of the kind that might shock your grandmother. In fact, this film is so safe it's actually disappointing and you could get a more moving treatment of similar material in KISSING JESSICA STEIN.

Still, for about 15 minutes IMAGINE ME AND YOU was brilliant, and for the rest it was a well-acted if derivative rom-com. There's also a very funny cameo from Ben Miles as Hector's greedy capitalist bastard boss, Rob. (Exchanges like: Hector to Rob: Fuck you bonus. Rob to Hector: I wish I could!)Perfectly harmless and fine for a DVD and a dinner date, I suppose.

IMAGINE ME AND YOU showed at Toronto 2005 and went on release in the US, Australia, Israel, Greece, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Belgium earlier this year. It is currently on release in the UK and opens in Italy later this month, in Poland in July, in Portugal in August, in Singapore in September and in France in November.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Movies I won't be watching this weekend

Over this side of the pond, we have this little thing called the World Cup which means that my attentions have been diverted to supporting England and trouncing all-comers in the Metro Fantasy Football League. However, here are a few movies that I would NOT watch this weekend even if I were at liberty to do so. I know it is unethical to review movies you haven’t seen but seriously, it’s a racing certainty that the following will suck ass:

AN UNFINISHED LIFE: Helmer Lasse Hallstrom specialises in these saccharine sub-
Ron Howard weepies. In this case we have J-Lo showing her range as a single mother who runs away from an abusive boyfriend. She seeks refuge with her father-in-law, played by Robert Redford. The Redford character blames the J-Lo character for his son’s death and has isolated himself from the world. However, he does have his trusty side-kick – Morgan Freeman – who once again trots out his tired act as the sage, wizened best friend. You know how this plot is going to unwind even before you step into the cinema. The young grand-daughter is going to revive Redford’s passion for life. He will come to form a relationship with his daughter-in-law. All things will be well. I have no doubt that this flick will be well-acted, well-shot and suitably lyrical. But seriously, what is the point of another movie that rolls off the head and heart like glycerine?

THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT. Believe me when I say that I am all about beautiful people driving around in fast cars. However, there is something a little bit hokey in the producers restaging the same move for the third time but in Japan just to cash in on the supposed cool-ness of the youth scene there. Indeed, I suspect that this flick is the cinematic equivalent of Gwen Stefani. Moreover, I also suspect that this flick falls into the same category as DOOM. Blowing shit up is fun, but I’d much rather do it myself. So, instead of wasting 100 minutes on TOKYO DRIFT, I faithfully promise all my readers to devote 100 minutes to playing Gran Turismo. Nice.

IMAGINE ME AND YOU: If I see another lame attempt to rip-off the success of FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL I may have to kill myself. People seem to think that any British romantic-comedy featuring well-heeled Londoners in morning dress will be a guaranteed hit: never mind bothering to do anything so obvious as to write an actual joke. The latest spin on the formula is to make the love interest Sapphic and I certainly applaud the fact that we can now have homosexual storylines as the central plot-line in main-stream comedies. However, I suspect that novelty aside, this movie will turn out to be another unfunny, unexciting damp squib.

Anyways, what do I know? Literally nothing as I have not seen these three films. If you’ve seen them and would recommend them, let me know.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

OFFSIDE - gentle but effective Iranian comedy

OFFSIDE is a small but beautifully formed gentle comedy from Iran. The movie focuses on the day when Iran beat Bahrain in Teheran, thus qualifying for the 2006 World Cup. The bite to the comedy comes from the fact that the movie follows a handful of young female fans. The problem is that in Iran in it is forbidden for women to go to football matches. With all that swearing and all those men, it just wouldn't be seemly! The great thing about the movie is that it never descends into polemic, despite the obvious injustice of the rule and the massive stakes. One girl - a repeat offender who has the balls to impersonate an Irani solider and sit in the VIP area - risks imprisonment. She jokes that if she had worn an officer's uniform she would have been executed. We are not entirely sure if she is joking. The other great thing about the movie is that it does not demonise men. Random guys who twig to the girls' plans try to help them out. Even the soldiers who sequester them seem more concerned with their safety than oppressive. One provides a ham-fisted commentary for them. I left the theatre with a warm feeling, a renewed sense of how lucky I was to be able to watch as much footie as I liked, and a profound admiration for director, Jafar Panahi. What an outstanding decision to argue his case simply by showing the absurdity of the Iranian set-up. I strongly recommend this film.

OFFSIDE showed at Berlin 2006 where it won the Grand Jury Prize and is on release in Austria and the UK. It hits Germany on June 29th 2006 and France on December 6th 2006.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

THANK YOU FOR SMOKING - brilliantly biting satire

THANK YOU FOR SMOKING is a hysterical satire on corporate spin-doctors, political correctness and Hollywood. It is an intelligent, adult comedy and the funniest movie I have seen since GRIZZLY MAN. If you like your humour dark and twisted then this is the flick for you, for while it may teeter on the brink of saccharine in the final five, it manages to stay on the right side of the divide.

The concept is brilliant. Our hero is a corporate spin-doctor for Big Tobacco called Nick Naylor. Nick hangs out with his chums who defend Alcohol and Firearms respectively. He promotes cigarettes because he is good at it and he has a mortgage to pay. Okay, Nick may feel bad when he has to give the real-life Marlboro Man a cool million to shut up about his cancer, but at the end of the day, Nick still gets an adrenaline rush from knowing precisely which buttons to press to get him to keep the phat cash. The genius of the script is that our hero is not an amoral aberration but by far the most sane and endearing man in a system that is full of hypocrisy and grand-standing. From puffed-up Senators to professional campaigners to journalists - everyone is in it up to their eye-balls.

For example, a good chunk of the movie features Nick trying to broker a deal with a major Hollywood agent to get stars smoking on screen again. This is, for me, by far the funniest strand of the movie, and its clear that writer-director Jason Reitman knows whereof he takes the piss. I love the spoof of the Japanese-style office building. I loved Adam Brody as the hipper-than-hip, personal assistant, and I thought that casting Rob Lowe as the evil agent was a master-stroke. In fact, Rob Lowe could well replace Alec Baldwin as my all-time favourite sleazy cameo actor. But then this is a cast chock-full of brilliant actors: Aaron Eckhart,
Maria Bello, David Koechner, William.H.Macy, Cameron Bright, Sam Elliott and Robert Duvall.

In fairness, this movie isn't perfect. Toward the end, there is a suspicion that it is slightly pulling its punches. But for political satire it's either this or TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE. And, to my mind, while TEAM AMERICA has the songs, THANK YOU FOR SMOKING has Katie Holmes suffering nationwide humiliation! Go see it.

THANK YOU FOR SMOKING showed at Toronto 2005 and was released in the US in April. It is currently on release in the UK and hits Austria on July 28th, Germany on August 31st and France on September 13th.

Monday, June 12, 2006

HARD CANDY - trash

It makes me laugh to think what little it takes for a movie to kick up a fuss in the western hemisphere. Take for example HARD CANDY. The content seems provocative. A 14 year-old girl meets a 32-year old fashion photographer in an internet chatroom. He takes her to his house and allows her to mix alcoholic drinks. He wakes up, having been drugged, tied up and threatened with castration as a punishment for his alleged paedophilia. Little Red Riding Hood (no obvious metaphor with the wardrobe there, then!) is now the avenger. The movie should have been a thriller played out literally and metaphorically on a knife edge. Is the man really a paedophile? Will the girl really castrate him? Will a passing neighbour catch her in the act? Who is she anyway? Is what she does heroic or psychotic? Can we justifiably feel sympathy for the man?

But it's just a tease. Well-acted, to be sure. Indeed, superbly acted. And cleverly scripted. We all love those on-the-nose popculture references. But finally, the movie fails to deliver anything other than a moderately engaging did-he-do-it, will-she-do-it thriller. Aside from the opening 10 minutes of the flick, when the protagonists meet for the first time, I never felt uncomfortable with proceedings. The movie entirely failed to play beyond the confines of the thriller-genre. My emotions and intellect were never challenged over how to engage with the character of the alleged paedophile.

Indeed, the makers of this flick should have checked out THE WOODSMAN to see how this sort of material can be crafted into a far more profound and honest investigation of this thematic material. Otherwise, it just looks like they've used paedophilia as a cheap hook on which to hang some pretty trashy, superficial material - in much the same way as the Holocaust was exploited as a backdrop for the similarly sado-masochistic material of THE NIGHT PORTER. And as for the script-writer's use of Roman Polanski's name, I would not be surprised if he is slapped with a lawsuit. Once again, it just smacks of lazy exploitation rather than honest engagement with the issues.

P.S. To any of you wondering if this movie is similar to, or a remake of, AUDITION, the simple answer is no. HARD CANDY has none of the originality, visceral impact or visual style of AUDITION. If you want something genuinely intellectually and physically provocative, you should check out DUMPLINGS instead.

HARD CANDY showed at Sundance 2005 and went on release in the US in April 2006. It is currently on release in the UK and hits Germany on June 29th, Australia on July 6th nd France on September 27th.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

SECUESTRO EXPRESS - exhilerating, but one for DVD

Just as many a duff British movie has tried to replicate the success of FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL, it now seems that every movie featuring Latin American urban crime is marketed as the new CITY OF GOD. (Not least the mediocre FAVELA RISING and LOWER CITY.) In the case of the new Venezualan movie, SECUESTRO EXPRESS, this comparison is somewhat misleading.

Where CITY OF GOD was a wide-ranging, hard-hitting analysis of poverty and crime, SECUESTRO EXPRESS has a far narrower focus. This is not bad thing, but merely a factual statement that you should not expect an "epic" but a closely observed blow by blow account of a single kidnapping. The movie opens with four guys going to work in the early hours of the morning. They have convenient captions in true Guy-Ritchie-style. You know, "Meet X: thief, rapist and model father." The guys are poor and desperate and at various points on that gray-scale of professional ethics. That morning they put into play their usual kidnapping operation, taking a rich young couple as they leave a nightclub. The movie then follows them blackmailing the hostages' parents, scoring drugs, threatening the hostages and finally making the handover.

This thin sliver of a plot is actually rather neat as it allows the movie to become very talky compared to other movies of this kind. Indeed, despite the odd flashes of violence, this is rather a nice black comedy wrapped around some authentic-sounding discussion of the situation in Caracas. For instance, of the hostages, the boyfriend is a spoiled rich kid who regards all poor people as potential criminals and wants to keep well away from them. By contrast, his girlfriend is a warm-hearted person who wants to give them a chance. Similarly, among the kidnappers we have a lot of discussion about why they do what they do, and the limits of their mission. Moreover, throughout the movie we get some fascinating material on the complicity of the police. I also love the fact that numerous times, the kidnappers are themselves threatened with or victims of theft.

Where the movie really scores is in presenting this this material with high energy thanks to performances of credibility and intensity and a gritty script. This is only a short movie but it really flew by and there were several set-ups where I was fearful for the characters on screen. That alone makes this a great thriller. In addition, while I know that this is not the only face of Venezuala, I did find the raw footage of Caracas and the issues addressed in the film full of insight.

However, for me the movie has two major flaws. First, in terms of the story, the final five minutes jumped the shark. I can't say more for fear of spoiling the plot. Suffice it to say that if it had ended five minutes earlier you would have had, to my mind, a far more balls-out gritty drama. Second, the use of digital video is both a blessing and a curse. Digital video has two merits - it is cheap and it is mobile. So if you are shooting a first feature with no budget and you need a fast-paced, in-your-face shooting style, it's perfect. However, it takes a really talented, experienced photographer to use DV in a manner that will translate well on to the cinema screen once it has been blown up. Unfortunately, that was not the case with SECUESTRO EXPRESS. At first I thought - hey! this is cool - the grainy, blurred images just emphasise the nastiness of the material. But after a while, it got distracting.

Overall then, while SECUESTRO EXPRESS is no CITY OF GOD, it is a fascinating, exhilerating crime caper, with some black humour, some tense moments and some superb acting. However, given how poor the print is, you may well find it a better viewing experience to watch in on the small screen.

SECUESTRO EXPRESS played in the US last year and is currently on release in the UK. It hits Australia on July 13th 2006.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

ELECTION/HAK SE WUI - when meaningless violence isn't enough

I never thought I'd say this, but ELECTION is a movie where meaningless violence wasn't enough to sustain my interest. Don't get me wrong. The violence quotient in this Hong Kong Johnnie-To Triad movie is liberal and scarily innovative. There's one scene involving the torture of gang bosses that brings new meaning to the punishment of Sisyphus. The problem is that the plot is pretty thin. Essentially, the movie charts a stand-off between two traid bosses - the ever-so-slightly out-of-control Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai) and the patient loyal Lok. Apparently, every two years, this particular gang of triads elects their new leader. (A surprisingly civilised injection of democracy!) The wise old "uncles" elect Lok, despite liberal kick-backs from Big D. On hearing the news, Big D throws his toys out of the pram and more importantly, tries to steal the Baton that signifies leadership within the gang. This chasing around fills up most of the film.

Now, the Baton is more than just a MacGuffin - a plot device that gets the action moving but whose content is meaningless. For if Lok does get the Baton, foiling Big D's attempt, he will have cemented his leadership and avoided a gang war that neither the triads nor the police want. And just in case we were in any doubt about the importance of the Baton, we get treated to a nice fifteen minute scene near the end of the movie where the triads pledge allegiance to the eventual winner of the election in an elaborate and historic ceremony. Still, as far as it goes, this is a movie about thugs trying to avoid a turf war, which is hardly anything new. I only wish To had developed the theme of police complicity further. My other minor quibble is that most of the film is photographed in a manner which has the faces of the actors in darkness, silhouetted against the sky/city/whatever. I assume that this is a directorial choice rather than just bad lighting or under-developed film. At any rate, I found it intensely frustrating.

All in all, unless you are an impassioned Hong Kong film fanatic, this is probably one to avoid. It is about a gazillion miles more superficial and dull than something like INFERNAL AFFAIRS.

ELECTION/HAK SE WUI showed at Cannes 2005 and is currently on release in the UK. It hits France in January 2007.

Friday, June 09, 2006

RV: RUNAWAY VACATION saddens the heart

RV: RUNAWAY VACATION is the latest in a long line of lacklustre family movies starring ageing Hollywood funny-men on auto-pilot. I am thinking of hack-repetitive movies like CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN and YOURS, MINE & OURS or even FUN WITH DICK AND JANE. In this latest offering, we have Robin Williams doing his tired act. He decides to pack his bickering family into a giant RV (that's a posh camper van to us Brits) and take them on a road-trip across America. Naturally, they come up against lots of obstacles, whence derives the obligatory slapstick comedy. They also pick up a stalker family led by Jeff Daniels. The whole exercise is well-produced and runs as clockwork. Too well. It's like Hollywood has a factory for family movies that produces this soul-less mediocre bilge. Indeed, I spent much of my time in the theatre musing on the career arc that took director, Barry Sonnenfeld, from photographing art-house classics like BLOOD SIMPLE to directing this stuff. Anyways, it's no longer half-term, so there's no real need for a movie like RV. If in doubt, take your kids to see THE THIEF LORD.

RV is on release in the US and UK and hits Germany on June 29th 2006, France on July 19th and Austria on September 22nd.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

WAH-WAH - beautifully crafted family drama

WAH-WAH is a beautifully crafted drama set in Swaziland at the time when the British handed over power. The stunning landscape made me homesick for Kenya, and the depiction of the alcoholism, adultery and class hypocrisy among the Country Club colonials seemed authentic judging by my flimsy knowledge of these matters. Certainly, the fact that the movie was written and directed by the actor, Richard E. Grant of WITHNAIL AND I fame, and is loosely autobiographical, helps establish credibility. The movie is a perceptive and closely observed chronicle of the British Empire in its dieing days as reflected in the life of a teenage boy called Ralph. His mother has left his father for a close friend’s husband in true Happy Valley fashion. He comes home to find that his father has hit the bottle and remarried a blowsy but kind-hearted American. Everyone in town seems to observe the most strict social standards in public, but play the field in private. When Ralph’s mother is cut by the wife of the Governor, she hisses, “I am not invisible.” Lady Hardwick replies, “No, you are a divorcée, which is worse.” The use of puppets and the theatre as an extended metaphor for this charade is inspired. Moreover, it allows some nice sending up of amatuer luvvies which provides much needed comic relief. In addition, away from the domestic troubles and Colonial issues, there is some coming-of-age material which seems a million miles away from the usual cliched script-fodder. I particularly liked the scene where Ralph sneaks in for an over-18 film.

This is not a movie of whistles and bangs, or melodramatic scenes such as found in OUT OF AFRICA. But it contains some masterful performances by the likes of Gabriel Byrne (the father), Miranda Richardson (the mother), Emily Watson (“The American”!), Celia Imrie (Lady Hardwick), Julie Walters (the friend) and young Nicholas Hoult (the kid from ABOUT A BOY) as Ralph. The script is emotionally involving without ever seeming mawkish and the Pierre Aïm’s photography is lushly beautiful. (A bit of a surprise as the last thing I saw of his was LA HAINE!)

I strongly urge you to see this movie.

WAH-WAH showed at Toronto 2005 and is on limited release in the UK and the US. It goes on release in Australia on July 22nd.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

THE OMEN 666 - It's official! The EU will destroy mankind!

You know what, I am all about the Omen remake. Not because it’s a great movie but because I have seen so many piss-poor un-scary ‘70s horror remakes of late that it’s a huge relief to see anything remotely competent on screen. And this version is competent. More than that, it fulfilled the genre contract of making me jump out of my skin around 5 times in the two hour stretch, despite the fact that I had seen the original and so knew the plot. I think this comes down to the fact that the central story of THE OMEN is fascinating and terrifying, and no matter how hard you try, it is pretty hard to balls it up. In addition, we get some nice character actors giving strong supporting performances – from Pete Postlethwaite, David Thewlis and Michael Gambon to the iconic Mia Farrow. It’s all good.

Except when it isn’t. Hard-core 70s horror fans are bound to find plenty to be disappointed by, not least the weak casting of the main roles.
Liev Schreiber – usually a fine actor – gives a bizarrely understated, or should I say comatose – performance as Robert Thorn. Schreiber has obviously made a choice to play Thorn as a hard-as-nails, bottled up kind of guy. However, it seems a bit unsatisfactory that his face barely ever registers emotion given that pretty much all Thorn does in this movie is get a lot of shocking and bad news, usually related to how people he knows and love have suffered agonising deaths and how his own son may in fact be the devil’s spawn. His wife, Katherine Thorn, is played by Julia Stiles – again a fine actor, but around fifteen years too young for the role. My final quibble is that while this seems like a fairly lush, blockbuster-stylee production there are one or two glaring errors. In the climactic car chase a character rushes through the streets of England only to pass buildings with conspicuously Central European signage. Nice.

Anyways, like I said, I have a fondness for this flick. It is what it is – an above-average remake of a horror classic that, despite its manifold flaws, still managed to scare me silly a couple of times. Job done.

THE OMEN 666 is on global release. P.S. The reference in the title of this review is to the assertion in the movie that one of the portents of Armageddon is the rising of the Roman Empire. David Thewlis' character interprets this as the signing of The Treaty of Rome.

Monday, June 05, 2006

36 QUAI DES ORFEVRES is a flawed French cop thriller

36 QUAI DES ORFÈVRES starts off as a slick, captivating hard-boiled cop thriller. The opening half hour is filled with dark, moody shots of motorcycles and cars screeching on wet Parisian highways and hard-core violence in basement rooms of smoke-filled nightclubs. Paris has never looked more sinister. The plot and characters are similarly intriguing, operating on a sliding scale of ethics. There are no heroes and villains – just a bunch of gangsters, molls and cops who are more or less in it up to their ears. However, grotesquely, there is honour among thieves, and justice is meted out summarily and in extreme terms. The movie is all the more gripping because it is underpinned by some gritty performances. The ever-brilliant Daniel Auteuil plays against type in his portrayal of a cop, Leo Vrinks. Vrinks has brutal strength and a mission to bring in a wanted gang of thieves by any means necessary. Gérard Depardieu also gives an outstanding performance as another cop, Denis Klein with an even hazier grip on the code of ethics. It is one of his quieter, more subtle performances – a welcome change from the Cheery-Gaul-For-Hire act that he usually subjects us to in his English-language films. Both are in competition to take over from their boss, played by André Dussollier, who seems to specialise in playing ultra-smooth amoral men.

As the complex plot unfolds we see both Vrinks and Klein bring in the gang of thieves in a set-piece shoot-out around half way through the movie. This sets in train a chain of events that are catastrophic for both cops and hoods. The nihilistic message of the movie seems to be that we cannot escape the cycle of violence. The set-piece shoot-out also sets off a chain of directorial choices that undermine the movie to the point where I wanted to leave the cinema. The project descends from hard-boiled thriller into soupy melodrama. You know the kind of the thing. One guy is shot and the director pans to his best friend who is now seen in slow motion shouting “Noooooooooh!” with a full-on sweeping orchestral score hamming up the moment for all it’s worth. This sort of lazy use of camerawork and score occurs with increasing frequency as the movie winds down to the point where it feels like a glossy version of a TV melodrama. And then the movie ends with all ends neatly tied up in incredible fashion, and a nagging feeling that the whole story rests on a massive plot hole. (If you want to know what I think that is, email me.) Despite my deep dissatisfaction about the second half of the movie, I still think 36 QUAI DES ORFÈVRES is a decent thriller – but perhaps one for DVD rather than the cinema. (And by the way, the significance of the title is that this is apparently the address of the French version of Scotland Yard - the HQ of the police.)

36 QUAI DES ORFÈVRES was originally released in France in winter 2004 and is currently on release in the UK.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

My perverse reaction to UNITED 93

I fully respect people, notably those who had friends or relatives die in the attack, who object to the making of movies about 9/11. However, I believe that there are no boundaries to what art can take as its subject. Moreover, if ever there were a director who could come to this material with confidence-inducing credentials, Paul Greengrass is that director. He has produced outstanding documentaries that approach controversial, politically-charged material with sensitivity and objectivity. This is notably the case with his Golden Bear-winning documentary about the Northern Irish troubles, BLOODY SUNDAY. Furthermore, interviews suggest that Greengrass was at pains to produce a movie without offending anyone and that did full service to all involved in the events. This was to be a faithful testament of the events of 9/11 rather than a blockbuster action movie.

Paul Greengrass has stayed true to his aims. What we have here is just under two hours of cinema that tries to document the unfolding events on 9/11 through the prism of the flight UNITED 93. For the first third of the movie we see the crew and passengers board UNITED 93, but most of the focus is on the air traffic controllers who realise that American 11 has been hijacked. We see them perform brilliantly under pressure – tracking the plane into New York airspace, and then lose it – only to look up and visually see smoke pouring out of the World Trade Center. The second third of the movie focuses on the reactions of the air traffic controllers and the military as they see another plane go into the World Trade Center and realise that they have a full-on attack on their hands. You get the feeling that while air traffic control worked brilliantly to track the suspected and actual hijacked planes, the military, despite all good intentions, were hamstrung by the lack of speed with which the rules of engagement were established as well as a shortage of armed fighter planes. In the meantime, UNITED 93 is hijacked. In the final third of the film, attention is focused on the events inside the plane. The passengers realise that the pilots are not flying the plane. They also realise that they are not in the midst of a conventional hijacking, where it makes sense to co-operate, but a suicide mission. Passengers make emotional goodbyes to their relatives and some of the men bravely storm the hijackers and break into the cockpit. Their aim is to get one of the passengers, who has some experience as a pilot, into the cockpit and to somehow land the plane safely.

The film is scripted, acted, photographed and edited in a manner which makes it feel like a docu-drama. There is no attempt to contextualise the events – to explain why the terrorists are doing what they are doing. There is no attempt to give background information to the characters or to create archetypal heroes. The air traffic controllers are just ordinary guys doing a great job under pressure. Ditto the military. Similarly, Greengrass knows that hearing people say goodbye to their families on a cellphone on a plane the audience knows is about to go down is visceral material. We don’t need it to be amp’ed up with conventional block-buster devices.

However, the movie is not the “pure” testament that some reviewers have alleged. There are subtle directorial choices that do “amp up” the tension. For a start, the film has a full orchestral score that is used to push our emotional reactions further and faster – especially in the final scene of the film. Where there is a lush chord at the end, I would have preferred a respectful silence. Moreover, while the movie is objective, insofar as it tells how communication lines broke down between the FAA, the military and the air traffic controllers, it is not neutral. After all, there is an explicit criticism there of the difficulty of getting through to the President for one. I have no problem with this, but I think it is worth mentioning.

Now we move to the more difficult part of the review: my own reactions to the film. I actually toyed with not writing this part at all, for my reactions were perverse, and I suspect, way out on a limb. They may say more about me than about the movie. However, for what it is worth, here is a summary of my reactions to UNITED 93.

First, does the movie work as a straightforward testament to the events? I think that the answer for most viewers is “yes”, and I largely agree. However, three things jarred. First, the use of an orchestral score, which I mentioned before, did not sit well with me, especially in the closing moments of the picture. Second, there is one line of dialogue, uttered by the guy in charge of air traffic which seemed to me a little bit of a Hollywood-epiphany “duh, duh, daaaah!!” moment. After the planes go into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, this guy takes the brave decision to ground all air traffic and to let no planes from other countries enter US airspace. This is brave because it will cost billions and is sure to get him into trouble with the airlines. However, he says he is justified in taking such an extreme action because “we are at war with someone”. Now, this seems a remarkably prescient and portentous line of dialogue. Maybe the guy really did say it. Either way, it felt a bit “Hollywood” and conspicuous to me. Third, in general Greengrass did well to cast a bunch of unknown actors in this movie, so that none of the passengers are “characters” played by famous actors. This adds to the docu-drama feel of the movie. However, anyone who watches a bunch of TV or cinema will immediately recognise the character actor playing the passenger who organises the counter-attack on the hijackers. Because I recognised this one actor as an “actor” he was conspicuous, and that brought me out of the movie.

Is it enough for this movie to be a straightforward testament? While I am convinced that UNITED 93 is as respectful a movie as one could hope for given the material, I found myself wondering whether it was enough for a movie to be a respectful memorial. Greengrass has made the decision not to contextualise or interpret or explain anything. I can understand this. For imposing a structure or an explanation is a hazardous task. However, what we are left with a move which I found to be an unedifying experience. Quite simply, as I had read the 9/11 Commission Report, it added nothing to my understanding of the events. Given the concept of the movie, we were never going to learn anything about the motivations of the terrorists, which for me, was the key question I wanted to know about after the attack. While one of the hijackers, Ziad Jarrah, looks nervous before the event, we never know why. To that end, I found the UK TV drama,
HAMBURG CELL far more incisive and compulsive viewing.

Which brings me to my final and most fundamental difficulty with this movie: by refusing to go beyond a straight re-telling of the events, Greengrass has made a movie that seemed to me to be voyeuristic. After all, 9/11 was the first terrorist attack that we saw unfold on live television. Part of my memory of that day – and perhaps of everyone’s memory – was watching the three planes go into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. We seemed to see the footage of the towers collapsing on continuous loop. What we did not have until the release of this film was a comparable visual image burned onto our retinas of the fourth plane crashing into a field. We have that now. What’s more we do not have a spectator’s view of the plane crashing but a cockpit view.

This made me feel deeply uncomfortable. What is it that compels us to watch such footage? To need to see these events explicitly re-enacted – to create the “full set” of images? And to that extent, one wonders not if it was “right” to make such a movie but whether it was necessary. I resent the implication of the marketing that we can’t feel something unless we see it. There seems to be some kind of masochistic hype surrounding this movie: it will help us feel/empathise with the horrofic events as they unfurled. Well, unlike many in the cinema, I did not cry and I did not feel any more empathy/sympathy with those poor people than I did before entering the cinema. Again, I am sure that I am in the minority here, and that for many this movie was cathartic. It just wasn't for me.

So, I would not particularly recommend this movie to anyone unless they feel that they have not got a clear understanding of the timeline of events of the morning or that they are in need of catharsis. Those of us seeking understanding of what drove the terrorists to attack the US would be better off watching HAMBURG CELL or THE ROAD TO GUANTANEMO.

UNITED 93 is already on release in the US, UK, Germany and Austria. It opens in France on July 12th 2006 and in Australia on August 17th.

Friday, June 02, 2006

TELL THEM WHO YOU ARE - fascinating doc about legendary cinematographer

Haskell Wexler, the subject of this documentary, comes across as a love-able scoundrel. Born into privilege, he started a school newspaper called “Against Everything” and later organised the workers in his father’s factory into a strike. He then burned through a cool million of his father’s dollars making movies before skulking off to Hollywood as a cinematographer for hire. Wexler quickly became one of the most admired Directors of Photography in the business. He won Oscars for WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? and BOUND FOR GLORY, and shot iconic movies like AMERICAN GRAFITTI, THE THOMAS CROWNE AFFAIR and more recently MULHOLLAND DRIVE and SILVER CITY. He also shot parts of Milos Foreman’s ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST and Francis Ford Coppola’s THE CONVERSATION before being fired for being “difficult”.

Despite the roll-call of famous movies in the first paragraph of this review, TELL THEM WHO YOU ARE is not a piece of hagiography. Rather, it is shot by Wexler’s son Mark, also a documentary film-maker, and avowedly “a son, not a fan”. Mark tries to explore, partly at his father’s behest, the man away from the camera and to try to stage a reconciliation through the medium of making a documentary. I am not sure if Mark succeeds, but we do realise that what made Haskell a difficult father is the same thing that makes him a difficult Director of Photography. Haskell Wexler is good at what he does; he knows he is good at what he does; and he suspects that he is better at what you are doing than you are. The fact that he is probably right, and delivers his rants in a style that is often hilarious, does not lessen the blow. Similarly, the fact that as a kid, Mark knew that when his dad called him “stupid”, he was also calling great directors “stupid” was of little comfort. If your dad tells you you’re dumb is it really any comfort to know that you are in august company?

The whole documentary is like a worked example of both Wexler’s genius and his flaws. He abrasively tells his son what he is doing right and wrong, both in terms of choices about photography, but also concerning content. These exchanges are really funny because Haskell is a funny, feisty guy. Moreover, he is usually right.

The question is whether this documentary has an appeal beyond the obvious audience of movie buffs. My view is that while Wexler is an intriguing and really like-able character, and the themes touched upon in this picture have an appeal beyond the world of cinema, I doubt if someone who really isn’t that interested in how cinema is made would be interested by this documentary. Similarly, viewers expecting famous talking heads recounting chat-show anecdotes are also likely to be disappointed.

TELL THEM WHO YOU ARE toured the festival circuit and went on limited release in the US in 2005. It is currently on release in the UK

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Overlooked DVD of the month - JOINT SECURITY AREA

JOINT SECURITY AREA is a fascinating, flawed but brilliant movie by acclaimed South Korean director, Park Chan Wook. Indeed, JOINT SECURITY AREA was the movie that catapulted Park Chan-Wook to fame in South Korea and persuaded the studio to give him licence to do pretty much anything that he wanted to for his next film. They must surely have been shocked to see him produce the baroque, visually beautiful, extremely violent revenge dramas: SYMPATHY FOR MR VENGEANCE, OLDBOY and LADY VENGEACE. To my mind, JSA is a far less successful film that these revenge movies, but it is still far better than most of the stuff you'll find at your local multiplex. Moreover, it is worth watching because it contains important techical advances for South Korean cinema, not to mention the fact that it bravely tackles the taboo subject of North-South relations.

JSA is a straightforward adaptation of a popular South Korean book called DMZ - De-Militarized Zone. It deals with the relations between Communist North Korea and capitalist South Korea. Despite the cessation of hostilities at the end of what we in the west refer to as the Korean War, North and South Korea are still at war. They are separated by the DMZ on the 38th parallel. This is literally a wide trench policed on either side by soldiers with the United Nations Neutral Nations Security Commission trying to keep the peace. The story revolves around a shooting incident. Each side blames the other, and the UN brings in Major Sophie Jean, a half-Korean, half-Swiss soldier, to investigate the matter.

Major Sophie Jean is played by the future Lady Vengeance. She does a serviceable job in a difficult role. Her ability to act the English speaking lines is limited by her strong Korean accent - a notable flaw in a character supposedly raised in Geneva. Moreover, I found the framing device of having an investigator try to work out "what really happened that night" is weak. It throws up a red herring. A lot of viewers get obsessed by the precise chain of events that night, as though this were a straightforward thriller. I suppose that, in defence of the scriptwriter, including the Major Jean character allows us to see how impotent the UN are in this situation. Cynics tell Major Jean that there is no such thing as neutral diplomacy - she will have to pick a side. Worse, to preserve peace she will have to hide the truth. Sadly, the film never really explores how she feels about her position as a designated investigator that everyone wants to fail.

For me, the real meat of the story is not the UN investigation, which looks a bit sub-CSI and severely bogs down the first half hour of the movie. JSA is great not because it is an effective thriller. It is great because it is a fascinating study of how people get to know each other in spite of the misconceptions they have about each other. In other words, it is a good old-fashioned character study that sinks or swims (I think the latter) according to how good the actors are. This is where director, Park Chan-Wook hits pay-dirt, because he has four great actors performing superb dialogue. The idea is that a low-level South Korean soldier, Sgt. Lee Soo-hyeok (played by
Byung-Hun Lee) meets a North Korean soldier, Sgt. Oh Kyeong-pil. Sergeant Oh has travelled abroad, and can see through the propoganda. He realises that one poor bastard on sentry duty in no-man's land is as fucked as another, no matter whether a Communist or capitalist. Soon, Sgt. Lee's sidekick, Private Nam Sung-shik and Sgt. Oh's sidekick, Jeong Woo-jin (Ha-kyun Shin, who played Ryu in SYMPATHY FOR MR VENGEANCE) are also meeting up. The four soon become firm friends - swapping candy, soft porn., and happily farting in each other's presence. The friendship even survives the first DMZ alert, when each side starts firing at the other. Suddenly the stakes are higher. What happens if it becomes a shooting war and they are ordered to kill each other? Or what happens if the southerners are shelled by their own side when the visit their friends in the north? Of course, this being a war-zone, pally chats about cookies cannot last forever and it all ends up in the bloodbath that Major Jean is sent to investigate. (I am not ruining the plot, by the way - the movie opens with the "incident" and works back to the start of the friendship.)

Despite the obvious technical achievements of the piece and the lush reconstruction of the Korean De-Militarized Zone, I found JSA to be a flawed work. The lighting is often poor, the editing rough, and there seems to be an awful lot of photography that is cliched. For instance, when Major Sophie Jean arrives on a plane from Geneva, we have one of those stock shots of the underside of the plane as it comes in to land. Most importantly, fans of later films by Park Chan-Wook should bear in mind that he was basically a director for hire on JSA. This, and the fact that he was just younger and had a less developed style, means that the movie looks more like a conventional picture than a classic crazy, extreme, beautiful Park Chan Wook movie. Similarly, the orchestral score is fine, but it is used in rather an obvious manner. In fact, at times, the movie is scored like a Tom and Jerry cartoon, with screetching violins at moments of high tension. There is none of the ironic juxtaposition of beautiful chamber music with horrific violence that we get in, say, LADY VENGEANCE. I only spotted two classic Park Chan Wook touches. First, near the end, when Major Sophie Jean is learning about her father in the pagoda, we have some nice dissolves from the ariel view of the padoda to the ariel view of her umbrella. Second, near the beginning of the movie, when we see the version of the shootings in the deposition, we see the nissan hut from the outside and a flashing light from behind the glass that is meant to represent the guns firing. Later, in sharp contrast, we have a scene where the guys are taking a group photo inside the hut. The camera cuts away to an outside shot, and once again we see the light flash from behind the glass. It's a great little motif, and emphasises the movie's message: that friendship and hostility are only a split-second away from each other.

JOINT SECURITY AREA was originally released in South Korea in 2000. It is available on DVD.