Sunday, July 30, 2006

RENAISSANCE - visually stunning sci-fi animation

On the face of it, RENAISSANCE is a French sci-fi movie. It's Paris, fifty years from now and the world is much as it we know it. The iconic buildings are still in place as well as that typically Boulevard Haussmann architecture. The only difference is that everything seems amp'ed up. Buildings are suspended on iron girders under which run subterannean free-ways. Glossy corporate HQ's hang in suspension over motorway junctions. ICT is recognisable but more invasive. Instead of wearing bluetooth headsets the Parisian fuzz have implanted Motorola smart-chips. Of particular interest to your humble movie-goer is a mega-corporation called Avalon - a sort of Unilever of the future - with interests from hard-core bio-genics to consumer products.

This beautifully imagined future-present is rendered in animation of a kind I have never seen before. Instead of old-fashioned hand-drawn animation or Pixar-style CGI we have a kind of motion-capture based animation here. It's like the darkest, coolest cartoon strip you've ever seen - complete with pen-and-ink hand-shaded cells, but rendered very very lifelike. The movie has as definite and unforgettable a visual style as Blade Runner.

The black and white visuals give RENAISSANCE the feel of a gritty urban 1940s film-noir. The classic tropes are all in place. Ilona's kidnap is investigated by a hard-ass cop, voiced in the English version by the new Bond, Daniel Craig. It is also being investigated by Ilona's elder sister - a frequenter of shady clubs. The sad part is that as beautifully rendered as this movie is, it resembles classic film noir in one more respect: it has as shambolic and rambling a narrative as I have ever seen on screen. Seriously, it moves at a pace bordering on the necrotic.

I soon lost patience with the RENAISSANCE but I can see how for those with more of a fancy for dark and brooding animation, it might become a cult movie. Certainly it is worth checking out, if only on DVD.

RENAISSANCE was released in France and Belgium in March 2006 and is currently on release in the UK. It opens in the US on September 22nd.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

VIVA ZAPATERO! - Berlusconi is not fit to run Italy

Let's start with the irrelevant bad stuff. This movie is already short but could be way shorter. The documentary contains material that is often repetitive and is always badly organised. The quality of the camerawork is poor as it is usually shaky video footage of door-stepped interviews.

Like I said, all that is completely irrelevant because this is an important and fascinating movie. My mate Melvin reckons Western Europe is now decadent - too weak to have the balls to stand up for the values it supposedly avows. And here is a documenatary which proves him right....

When Berlusconi first stood for election in Italy, The Economist ran a front page with the caption, "this man is not fit to run Italy." Berlusconi was a man of questionable business practices under threat of legal action. He already had near-total control of the private media in Italy - an undoubted advantage in a political campaign. If elected, he would also gain control over the state media as well as being able to legislate himself out of his legal troubles.

Although promising to divest himself of his media interests, while in power Berlusconi has systematically stamped on critical voices in the press and on TV. The usual tactic is to threaten the organisation employing the critical voice with a huge lawsuit. As the Italian satirist, Sabina Guzzanti, points out in her documentary, Berlusconi has done this with the complicity of the centre-left.

Sabina Guzzanti decided to put on a satirical show on RAI-uno - the Italian state TV station. However, after just one show it was pulled from the air when Berlusconi threatened RAI with a number of lawsuits. She was then slammed in print. The documentary shows her challenging those that could over-turn this censorship - to no avail. She also interviews other famous censored journo's and celebrated radicals such as Dario Fo. It's great stuff.

Coming from a country where satire is alive and well - just look at The Now Show, Rory Bremner or Private Eye - the idea that you could be pulled off air for doing an impression of a politician is scary. After all, we are talking Italy not China. And given that I also live in a country dominated by the Murdoch media - which may be more subtle but.... - it contains some salutory lessons. All this makes VIVA ZAPATERO! compulsory viewing.

VIVA ZAPATERO! premiered at Venice 2005 where it received a twenty minute standing ovation. It has since been released in Italy, Spain, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Finland and the Netherlands. It is currently on limited release in the UK.

Friday, July 28, 2006

WARRIOR KING - awesome martial arts craziness!

WARRIOR KING is directed by the guy who did ONG BAK. For a lot of people that is going to be enough of a recommendation, because ONG BAK was a literally kick-ass Thai martial arts flick that was pure entertainment. WARRIOR KING is also a balls-out entertainment extravaganza. Some might say it's not quite as good as ONG BAK but I think that's just because it doesn't have that shock-value of seeing something so new and fresh from Thai cinema.

WARRIOR KING stars Tony Jaa as a guy who owns two elephants. Yes, yes. The elephants are missing. He must go to Australia and get the elephants back. He must beat lots of people up. He must ask them "Where the hell is my elephant?!" That's it. There is no in-depth characterisation or intricate plotting. But oh my word, those fight scenes! Those crazy-ass steady-cam shots! The old-school proper martial arts! Fight fans will be drooling over the longest (c.4 minutes) no-cut steadicam scene where Jaa just punches the crap out of people over four floors of a brothel. But it's not all mindless violence. There is also an environmental MESSAGE. So everyone's happy.

And no, I don't know why the movie is named after a bowl of hot and sour prawn soup.

WARRIOR KING/TOM YUM GOONG was released in South East Asia in August 2005. It has since been on release in France, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Germany and Austria. It is currently showing in the UK and opens in the US on August 25th 2006.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

ANGEL-A - utter tosh

I sent an Englishman, an Austrian and a Swede to report on the new Luc Besson flick, ANGEL-A. I called the Swede this morning and here is a summary of the conversation.

Bina007: So how was the movie?

Swedish Philip (laughing maniacally): Utter bloody tosh! The Danish girl was quite good looking. But as I said to Georg, just having a slutty-looking blonde is not enough to save a movie, Still, she was pretty-looking. It would have been better not to have subtitles because then we would only have understood 50% of the lines because our French isn't that good. Oh my fucking word! - the lines in it - seriously! It's like the guy says to her "you don't have a past, but let me guide you into the future." Maybe it's not the lines. Maybe it's the translater was just wacked out producing this bollocks translation.....Is the message coming across?

Bina007: At least you didn't have to pay to see it.

Swedish Philip: But I felt embarassed because Georg still had to pay to see it.

Bina007: True. I'm sorry about that. How did Movie Tom find it?

Swedish Philip: He decided not to go. I got this phone call at 5pm and he said he had done some research on the film and decided not to go, and as I was watching the movie I thought "Tom, you had a point!" But seriously, the movie was beautifully shot - all in black and white - and I really liked the first ten minutes. Up until the point where she said, "I'm an angel". Then it was utter tosh. But, it almost got me back into the tall blondes - into the whole Nordic look - but not quite. I think I'll stick to my R.I.A.C.s*

So there you have it folks. ANGEL-A is utter tosh. But if you still want to see it I should add that it is the latest film from Luc Besson, the guy who directed NIKITA, LEON and THE FIFTH ELEMENT and other movies starring Milla Jovovich. In fact he used to be married to her so he obviously has a thing for leggy models falling for less attractive guys. His films seem to be on a downward trend. In this movie, Jamel Debbouze (who starred in AMELIE) plays a loser who is about to throw himself off a bridge into the Seine. He is rescued by the tall blonde who sorts out his life. She is an angel, geddit?! That's it. And it's shot in black and white so it must be art. Plus it's only 88 minutes long so even if it sucks it's over quickly.

ANGEL-A was released in France last December and has since opened throughout Europe and in Japan. It opens in the UK tomorrow and in the US on September 29th 2006. *Random Inter-Changeable Asian Chick.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

ELLIE PARKER - shitty production values; mediocre content

ELLIE PARKER is a deeply disappointing movie. From the first ten minutes you think it's going to be a barbed satire at the expense of Hollywood. No such luck. It's an ultra-low budget flick shot by actor Scott Coffey on Digital Video. Seriously, I have seen better prodution values in my Unky Herb's holiday videos. Grainy print and shoddy sound aside, the substance of the movie is also mediocre. The plot consists of an actress named Ellie Parker going from audition to audition, interspersed with therapy, acting class and various encounters with her boyfriend. So much for a narrative arc. The actors do well with limited material. In particular, Naomi Watts turns in another good performance, despite the fact that she was filmed over a period of months and with radically different haircuts! In fairness, I should point out that ELLIE PARKER garnered a lot of critical acclaim for its "truthful" portrayal of the harsh realities of being an aspiring actress. Alls I know is that the "it's no biggy" scene in KISS KISS BANG BANG says more in less time and with more laughs. So perhaps fans of Naomi Watts' work or aspiring actors should check this out on DVD. But it's not worth a cinema trip.

ELLIE PARKER played Sundance 2005 and went on limited release in the US last fall. It is currently playing in the UK but it also available on DVD.

Monday, July 24, 2006

11:14 - rubbish

11:14 is a rubbish indie movie that was written and directed by Greg Marcks. It was made a long time ago and is only just getting a UK cinematic release. The concept of the movie is one we have seen many times before. We follow a lot of different characters doing their stuff around the critical time-code 11:14pm. For this is the time of the car accident that unites all the characters. For what it's worth the director manages the non-linear plot well and all the ends do tie up. Moreover, he managed to persuade a lot of A-grade actors to take part - Hilary Swank, Barbara Hershey to name a few - even if they are never asked to stretch themselves. But clever (derivative) concept aside, this movie has nothing to offer. The tension of figuring out what actually happened is undermined by an attempt at black humour. The humour fails to come off. Yes sir, Greg Marcks has made a film in which we, the audience, are asked to feel emotionally involved in the untimely death of a girl while simulataneously laughing at a pissed kid getting his penis severed. Now that's multi-tasking.

11:14 showed at Cannes *2003*! It has since been released in a variety of countries and is available on Region 1 DVD. It is currently on release in the UK.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

STORMBREAKER - camper than a row of soldiers

Let me say right at the start that this new James Bond for teens is enormous fun. It rips along at a fast pace with low-budget action sequences and iconic images of Blighty and you'd struggle to have an actively bad time. The big question is how seriously are we meant to take it? As someone who has never read the kids books by Anthony Horowitz, upon which this movie is based, my only clue was the trailer. This made the film out to be a straight-faced spy thiller for teens. The hero, Alex Rider is a fourteen year-old kid, whose uncle was a British spy. Upon the death of his uncle, Alex is recruited by MI6, fitted out with the requisite gadgets and sent off to stop an Evil Megalomaniac from killing lots of people. So far, so straight.

The weird thing is that while half the cast (notably Alex Pettyfer as Alex Rider) and, from what I can tell, the script-writer, seem to be playing it straight, all the British character actors are camper than a row of soldiers. They play the movie as some sort of sub-Austin Powers James Bond spoof but without the overt humour.
Bill Nighy is brilliant (again) as the M figure - playing it like a constipated civil servant with more tics than an impala. Sophie Okenodo is more straight-laced than Vanessa Kensington. Micky Rourke looks insane with all that make-up as the baddie, and he even has a shrieking Nazi Rosa Klebb style side-kick played by Missi Pyle.

Like I said, this is no bad thing. It just adds to the whole Doctor Who made-on-a-shoestring-budget vibe that we Brits know and love. Sort of like Benny Hill does Bond but for kids. It's about as classy as watching 'Allo 'Allo. I just wonder what the Yanks will make of it.

STORMBREAKER is on general release in the UK. It opens in Hong Kong and Israel on August 10th 2006, the US on August 18th, Iceland on September 14th, Australia on September 21st and Italy on September 22nd. It hits the Netherlands on October 12th, Finland and Sweden on October 13th, Belgium and France on October 25th.

Friday, July 21, 2006

THE BREAK-UP - not bad, just painful

THE BREAK-UP has been marketed as a romantic comedy but it’s really a relationship drama that happens to feature a character who is very funny. That character is Gary Grubowski, a tour-bus guide, sports-nut, slob and motor-mouth. He’s played by Vince Vaughn as a sort of grown-up and out-of-shape version of Trent from the brilliant dating comedy SWINGERS. Gary has a best-friend (Jon Favreau) and a younger brother who are also playing fifty-seven shades of Trent from SWINGERS, even down to replicating the “batting the bunny around speech” with a “feeding kitty some milk” speech. This is all good. The bent fork in the toaster is that Gary is in love with, and living with, a chick called Brooke, played by Jennifer Aniston. Brooke works in an art gallery and likes the ballet. She is pissed off with Gary for taking her for granted – which he does – and wants him to change. She reacts to this by being whiny and manipulative although clearly she is HURT so that’s okay.

The movie is sporadically funny – usually when Vaughn is doing his Trent schtick. But most of the time it is painful to watch. Not because it’s bad. It’s like if you’re out with two friends who keep arguing with each other, and you feel really awkward and just want to leave. Well, that’s pretty much what watching this movie is like. It also means that whenever the movie reverts to broader humour – notably in Judy Davis’ marvellous cameo as Brooke’s boss – the tone of the movie changes abruptly and jars. Also, a minor gripe, but why does every romantic comedy now have to have a scene where a family sits round a dining table and starts singing?

THE BREAK-UP was released in June 2006 in Singapore, Canada, the US, Australia, the Netherlands, Russia, Mexico, Belgium, France, Greece and Hungary. It was released in July in Portugal, Iceland and Thailand. It goes on release in the UK today. It opens in Argentina, Finland, Poland and Sweden on August 4th, Germany, Austria, Turkey and Venezuala on August 11th and Egypt on August 30th. It opens in Italy, Spain on September 22nd.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

DATE MOVIE - I repeat, what were you thinking?!

Back in February 2006 I shook an angry fist at the viewing public for pushing the god-awful spoof flick DATE MOVIE to the top of the UK Box Office charts. I didn't even review the movie - i just wanted to bury the traumatic experience deep within my subconscious. The whole torrid mess was brought to my attention, however, when Doctor007 rented the movie last night. Now, I appreciate that picking a date movie for a chick who watches a lot of movies anyway will present certain problems for your average guy. And, being a Man of Science, Doctor007 is a pretty literal-minded person - hence the choice of DATE MOVIE. But dear Lord, just how was I gonna break it to him?

In fairness, I approached the screening with an open-mind, not wanting to hurt the Good Doctor's feelings. I submerged my horror at finding that the DVD had a FREAKIN' LAUGH TRACK! I mean, Jesus Tap-Dancing Christ, a movie has to be pretty sucky for the frickin' production team to give you the option of artifically adding a laugh track to substitute for your own deathly silence. (Actually, it wouldn't be silence but the deathly gnawing sound of me hacking through my own neck with a blunt cheese knife.) And then I noticed that the DVD had an alternative commentary given by two movie critics. This seemed pretty perverse. After all, the DATE MOVIE studio had stopped critics seeing the movie before it opened precisely to stymie bad press. You've got to love the chutzpah of the marketing man who actively promotes the suckiness of a DVD by inviting the critics to throw brickbats at the screen. It's almost like the studio is trying to say that DATE MOVIE is so bad, it's good.

It's a scoundrelous move, no doubt. But the admirably weasle-like nature of the plan cannot alter the fact that DATE MOVIE is so bad, it's just bad. And when I say "bad" what I really mean is "a blight upon the landscape and perhaps definitive proof that evil exists in the world." The attempt of the studio to co-opt the opposition is particularly telling because it goes to the heart of why the movie sucked so badly.....

DATE MOVIE sucks primarily because it is too soft on its targets. All good spoofs should have some bite (preferably into the gelatinous ass of studio hackery). But DATE MOVIE clearly has a warm-hearted appreciation of the genre it is supposed to be excoriating. So we get a series of scenes that vaguely resemble the source material - but a bit more exaggerated - and that alone is meant to be funny. Well, boys, here's a newsflash, you need more than brand recognition to raise a laugh out of me. If you want to see a good spoof, just check out BAD SANTA - that sends up Christmas and family movies with a vengeance that borders on psychotic. Awesome.

The second reason DATE MOVIE sucks is because it is spoofing a genre that is already meant to be funny. (Although, people who were subjected to FAILURE TO LAUNCH may disagree.) Most of the time, watching scenes in DATE MOVIE just reminded me how much more fun I had watching genuine comedies, such as NAPOLEON DYNAMITE or WHEN HARRY MET SALLY. Successful spoofs such as the AIRPLANE films, or even the first SCARY MOVIE, are funny because they mock genres which take themselves seriously. Rom-coms are of their nature fluffy pieces of disposable pop culture. Spoofing a rom-com is like taking something that is already ADD and breaking it down into even smaller chunks - a complete waste of time.

Of course, the final and fatuous thing to say about DATE MOVIE is that it just isn't funny. This is a subjective thing, and as I said in my February post, it did well at the box office so maybe I am way off track here. But still, I didn't laugh once, and that is something of a first, considering the movie stars comedy greats from
Eddie Griffin to Fred Willard to Jennifer Coolidge. My only conclusion is that writer/director Aaron Seltzer is a numskull and should be hung, drawn and quartered for crimes against cinema.

Is there anything good that I can say about this steaming heap of horse manure? Well, hard as it is to believe, it could be worse. Doctor007 could have hired
DEUCE BIGALOW: EUROPEAN GIGOLO* instead... So, he is on reprieve for now, but another mis-step and it could soon be the end of a beautiful relationship...

DATE MOVIE was released globally from February 2006. It is now available on Region 1 and Region 2 DVD, but seriously, you would get more value for money entertainment by feeding your hard-earned cash a quarter at a time into a skee-ball machine. *The DVD not the hooker.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

NEIL YOUNG: HEART OF GOLD - when there is this much talent on screen you don't need pyrotechnics

NEIL YOUNG: HEART OF GOLD is one of those rare things - a movie where the audience sits right through to the end of the end-credits and then breaks into applause. This feels right because the movie is essentially like watching a music concert given by a truly great singer-song-writer and a bunch of his old-school collaborators. Sure, for the first ten minutes we have a bit of footage of everyone rolling up the to the auditorium in Nashville. There is some talk of how the different musicians first came to play with Neil Young. There is also some discussion about the Young's discovery that he had a potentially fatal brain aneuryism. But pretty soon we are plunged straight into the performance of the album - A Prairie Wind - that was written by Young in response to this news.

The music is performed by a large group of musicians - including ten guitarists at one point - a small-ish gospel choir, a horn section and string section, not to mention people like Emmylou Harris as mere backing vocals! The songs are acoustic and cover subject matter from 9/11 to Young's father suffering from senile dementia before he died, to Young's daughter leaving for college. In between we get classic songs such as Heart of Gold. When the concert is over, we have Young sitting alone on stage, his back to the camera, singing unaccompanied to an empty auditorium before packing up his guitar and stalking off. Meanwhile the end credits roll.

Although there is a definite feel that we are seeing some real old school high quality music, the concert is very definitely staged. The backdrops are a series of murals featuring sepia tinted prairie landscapes or prairie home interiors. The musicians all wear beautifully designed costumes. I also like the decision by director Jonathen Demme (SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and PHILADELPHIA) to shoot the concert with fixed cameras. Foregoing moving cameras draws less attention to the fact that this is a movie and makes it feel more like watching an actual concert. This is reinforced by the decision not to show the audience.

The resulting film is a wonder for fans of Neil Young's acoustic work. I have to say that I was pretty unaware of his music beyond the big hits but thoroughly enjoyed the film nonetheless. It's always a pleasure to see real artisty whatever the genre, and this movie makes a fine companion piece in tone and subject matter to Altman's wonderful
A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION. Unfortunately this movie didn't get much of an international release so it's worth checking for it on DVD. (Although, clearly, if you hate country music you should probably give it a miss.)

NEIL YOUNG: HEART OF GOLD went on limited release in the US in February 2006 and is now available on Region 1 DVD. It was released in Australia in May, Italy, Sweden and France in June and opens in Germany on August 17th. I do not know of a cinematic release date for the UK.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

LITTLE FISH - award-winning Aussie drama

LITTLE FISH is not a film for the attention-deficit-disorder generation. While the characters include drug-dealers and junkies and the plot involves scoring and deals turned bad, this is most definitely not a conventional crime thriller or gangster flick. Rather, LITTLE FISH is a slow-burning, intense study of six characters and their interactions with each other. It unfolds at a deliberately slow pace, allowing us to get to know the characters – their flaws and their strange nobility. This is especially the case with the Heart family (surely no coincidence in the choice of family name?) The lynchpin of the piece is Janelle Heart (Noni Hazelhurst) – a decent woman who is fiercely protective of her two grown children. Her daughter, Tracey (Cate Blanchett) is a former junkie who is struggling to get a business loan because of her “colourful” past. Tracey comes across as an essentially decent person with a lot of integrity – hard-working, loyal, straight-talking. She nurses her friend Lionel through cold-turkey countless times, and will not abandon him even in the most extreme of situations. Seeing her fall through computerised credit checks – unable to restart her life – is a painful viewing experience. Her brother Ray, (Martin Henderson) is also an ex-junkie who lost his leg in a car accident caused by Jonny. Faced with the same obstacles as Tracey he responds with acerbic wit, but doesn’t even try for a straight life – opting instead for the fringes of high-level criminality. Jonny (Dustin Nguyen) is Tracey’s ex-boyfriend and another ex-junkie, who got shipped off to Vancouver by his Vietnamese family after the accident, and has returned in a slick suit. The whole corrupt mess is presided over by Brad (Sam Neill) – a sleazy old criminal with a high maintenance vulgar wife and a gay lover that he has hooked on heroin. That lover is Lionel, an ex-Aussie Rules footballer (Hugo Weaving) who also befriended the Heart family and got Tracey hooked on smack. Dumped by Brad and denied free smack, he is reduced to selling off his old sports memorabilia to finance his habit.

Director Rowan Woods has crafted a film of rare subtlety and intelligence. Unlike conventional Hollywood films, the audience is left to infer the exact nature of the relationships between the characters. Key plot points unfold before us without being flagged up by the writers in a patronising manner. Woods has also coaxed performances that are against all expectations, notably from Hugo Weaving (who deserves an Oscar) and Martin Henderson. Henderson in particular is unrecognisable from his plastic performance in Gurinder Chadha’s romantic-comedy BRIDE AND PREJUDICE. It just goes to show how important good writing and direction is for any actor. Having said all this, I found the pacing a little too sluggish at times, and the final scene teetered into sentimentality. However, in a season of ever-more ridiculous block-busters, LITTLE FISH is something to be thankful for.

LITTLE FISH was released in Australia and New Zealand in 2005, and the USA earlier this year. It is available on Region 1 DVD. It opens in the UK on Friday.

Monday, July 17, 2006

THE WORLD'S FASTEST INDIAN - great story, great film

THE WORLD’S FASTEST INDIAN is a charming film about a guy called Burt Munro. Burt was a stubborn, mechanically-minded New Zealander who drove a modified “Indian” motorcycle. Even as an old man, this eccentric old duffer was dreaming of breaking the land-speed record for bikes of his class, but didn’t have the requisite cash to make it to the Salt Lake test track. Spurred on by his lover and his mates from the local motorcycle club, Burt eventually made it to Salt Lake in the late ‘60s. The first half of the movie shows his road-trip from LA to Salt Lake – and his encounters with similarly eccentric and charming people. The second half of the movie focuses on his struggle to persuade the powers that be to allow him race. After all, his cycle is so old it’s a joke, and it hardly passes safety regulations. Throughout his travels and trials, Burt comes across as a stubborn but disarmingly honest and open individual. And I defy anyone watching this movie not to get caught up in Burt’s attempt to break the land-speed record. Sir Anthony Hopkins delivers another stand-out performance, although I’d love to hear from any Kiwis as to whether he nails the accent. And the movie is all the better because the director, Roger Donaldson, pulls back from any Ron-Howard-style schmaltz at the end. He lets the story – and what a story! – do the talking.

THE WORLD’S FASTEST INDIAN premiered at Toronto 2005 and has been on releases in most countries since. It is available on Region 1 and 2 DVD. It opens in Poland on July 28th, Hungary on September 7th and Germany on October 5th 2006.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

ATOMISED - the castration of a novel that looks better by comparison

ATOMISED is a German adaptation of French author, Michel Houellebecq's, acclaimed novel. It focuses on two half-brothers - Bruno and Michel. Both were abandoned by their mother - a selfish hippie - and were raised by their repective grandmothers. Bruno had a horrific childhood, abandoned and sexually abused, he comforted himself with food. In this modern era, where beauty and youth are rewarded by sexual fulfillment, poor fat Bruno was condemned to a life of voyuerism and onanism. He is stuck in a dead-end teaching job, married to a physically unattractive woman, rejected even by students he lusts after and allowed only to vent his spleen in racist rants too politically incorret to publish. In the novel, Bruno finds a brief moment of happiness with a sexually adventurous woman called Christiane who, like Bruno, frankly appreciates that in modern society a woman of her age cannot hope for love - only one-night stands.

Bruno's half brother Michel had, by contrast, a happy childhood with his loving grandmother. A maths prodigy, Michel never brought himself to kiss the exceptionally beautiful young girl who was in love with him, Annabelle. In adulthood, Michel becomes a fantastically successful scientist, but one day he simply leaves his job and enters a funk - living on cheap meals from Monoprix and not quitting the apartment for days on end. Eventually, he too will make a connection of sorts with Annabelle, and conclude his scientific work in Ireland.

But this is just a sort of plot outline through character. The real meat of the novel is the subjects it tackles: the selfishness of the hippie culture; the tragedy of the modern free-market in sex where the old and ugly are perpetual losers; the alienation of man in modern society; the logical conclusion of the separation of sex and procreation; the difficulty of finding a connection with another person....

Like I said, I found the novel too nihilistic, self-satisfied and pretentious for my taste. But there is no doubting its scope, ambition and imaginative use of structure. The film, by contrast, is a petty and limiting affair. Where there was once an attempt at an incisive philosophical discourse, we now have a hackneyed love story. Where there were acres of badly-written sex scenes, we now have the odd shot of a chick in PVC boots. (ooh! How daring!) And don't get me started on the syrupy ending. It seems that on every level, German writer-director Oskar Röhler has neutered Michel Houellebecq's novel. ATOMISED may have been an bitter, angry, adolescent novel, but at least it had character and held your interest. Better an attention-seeking howl than this flaccid mess.

ATOMISED/ELEMENTARTEILCHEN opened in Germany in February 2006, Italy in April and is currently playing in the UK. It opens in France on August 30th and the Netherlands on October 5th.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

CARS - auto-porn for the under-twelves!

CARS is an almost perfect summer kids movie. The pedigree is flawless: it comes from the people who brought you TOY STORY, THE INCREDIBLES and MONSTERS INC. The execution is flawless: technically superb, imaginative, innovative. The characters are cute, funny and tug at the heart-strings. The jokes vary from slapstick to satirising Hollywood agents and 60s stoners to cow-tipping. The race scenes are exhilerating and will get your blood pumping. The plot - well, it actually exists and it really sucks you in. And while the movie has those usual earnest life-lessons we always find in kids flicks, it has some extra too: a narrative that is against the corrosive youth-culture of our times and which takes to heart the philosophy of Ferris Bueller: "life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you may miss it."

The story features a cute little red racing car called Lightning McQueen. He's a successful but selfish rookie racer on the verge of his first championship prize/phat endorsement cheque. On the way to his final race he finds himself stuck in nowheres-ville Doc Hollywood-style. Condemned to re-tarmacing Main Street road by the local fuzz, Lightning learns the real meaning of friendship, team-work and success. As cheesy as this stuff is, it's delivered with such good humour and by such endearing characters that I defy you not to get completely caught up in the final grand prix.

So, kudos to the animators and all of the voice cast, not least Owen Wilson who reprises his familiar role of charming but obnoxious frat boy who discovers he has a heart. Jeremy Piven is also especially hillarious as Lightning's sleazy agent, Harv, and as much as I love UK car guru Jeremy Clarkson, I hope it isn't the case that he is replacing Piven in the UK version.

I just can't say enough about how cool this movie is. The only very slight defect is that at 2 hours it's a bit long for really little kids.

CARS is already on release in Australia, Singapore, Canada, the US, France, Switzerland, Hungary, Netherlands, Israel, Aregntina, Brazil, Mexico, Japan, Belgium, Czech Republic, Spain, Hong Kong and Poland. It opens in the UK on July 28th 2006 and Italy, Finland, Norway and Sweden on August 23rd. It reaches Denmark on September 1st, Germany on September 7th, Greece on September 14th and Turkey on September 15th.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Smoking kills and Jesus loves me: what I learned from SUPERMAN RETURNS

Gosh, Mission Impossible III is looking better by the week isn't it? Actually, I don't really mean that. SUPERMAN RETURNS is brilliant in parts. Unfortunately those are all parts that are taken entirely from the Richard Donner classics starring Christopher Reeve as Superman, Margot Kidder as Lois Lane and Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor. The director of this new version - Bryan Singer - brilliantly uses the old footage of Marlon Brando as Superman's daddy to open the movie. It gives us that epic, mythic, inspirational feeling that we need. And then, when you get that opening orchestral score by John Williams, I defy even the most cynical of film-goers not to feel like a ten-year old kid again. The set pieces where superman saves a crashing plane, or has bullets bouncing off his body, or lugs a kryptonite continent into space - are outstanding. The CGI is great, the production design is amazing, and Brandon Routh certainly looks every inch the Man of Steel. To see him flying through space, almost for kicks, at the end of the movie as that iconic music starts up again, is a thing of joy. I was glad to have Superman back on the screen.

But the film is by no means perfect. SUPERMAN was always an odd super-hero. Updating BATMAN or SPIDERMAN for the modern age is easy because their pathologies match our own insecurities and cynicism. But SUPERMAN was never a conflicted soul. Sure, he wanted to protect Lois and could not be with her, but this was nothing compared to the angst of the Bat. So, in making SUPERMAN RETURNS the producers had two options. The first was to keep SUPERMAN 100% good, primary-coloured and battling easily delineated evil. Trouble is, in a world where the Evil Empire has been replaced by splinter cells and we have all read THE WATCHMEN, that option seems unsatisfying. The other option is to somehow "update" the franchise.

SUPERMAN RETURNS falls between two stalls. On the one hand, Singer keeps the iconic good versus evil stuff, ladelling on the Christian imagery until it sticks in the throat. On the other hand, he makes Lois a single mum balancing work and child-care, not to mention an inconvenient and ill-used fiance. These innovations seemed weaker than the narrative purity of the original movie. This isn't helped by the fact that Clark Kent (Routh) and Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) have remarkably little screen time together and no chemistry. Where are all those great screwball comedy moments from the old movies?! Kevin Spacey is a shameless ham as Lex Luthor, and poor old
Frank Langella has little to do as Perry White. Worst of all, Jimmy Olson is now just an idiot. Also, why cast an actor of such great comic potential - Kal Penn - as Luthor's henchman to have him say ABSOLUTELY nothing?!

Overall then, SUPERMAN RETURNS is a partial success. It's great to see Superman save the world, but you know, how about we save the preaching for church, and next time, let's hope for some actual character development. It's hard to believe that this film was written by the same people who gave us X2.

SUPERMAN RETURNS is on global release.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

HEADING SOUTH/VERS LE SUD - provocative French-language drama

HEADING SOUTH/VERS LE SUD is an intelligent drama set in a beach resort in Haiti. The resort attracts ageing lonesome women from around the world. The movie hits the ground running with a painfully tragic dialogue between a middle-aged Haitian woman and a Haitian man in the airport arrival hall. She approaches him – a stranger – and in a quiet, dignified voice, offers him her fifteen year-old daughter. Being poor and beautiful, the woman fears her daughter will end up on the streets unless she has this man’s “protection”. Immediately we are made aware that this is a chronically poor society in which poverty has made conventional morality impossible. The woman also offers the man, who refuses her offer, some advice. She says that all people wear masks – good and bad – and that it is not always possible to tell which is which. The message may seem trite, but spoken with such sincerity it attains a profundity and sadness.

The movie then changes its gaze to a run-down beach hotel. It attracts middle-aged lonely women who are more or less happy to pay for the services of a host of attractive young Haitian men. The alpha-female in this group is a French-speaking Englishwoman who teaches at Wellesley. Her name is Ellen and she is played by
Charlotte Rampling as a materialistic, cynical, bitter and imposing woman. Ellen commandeers the services of a young man called Lejba every summer. Ellen is put out when Brenda arrives also looking for Legba. It appears that three years ago, when visiting the resort with her husband, Brenda had an affair with Legba that she regards as the defining moment of her life. Brenda is mocked by Ellen for romanticising a commercial arrangement, but as the movie progresses we come to realise that it is Ellen who is the romantic and Brenda who is objectifying these young men.

I found this to be a fascinating but disturbing movie. The material seems to be handled sensitively, but by the end of the movie you realise that while many of the main characters have been given the opportunity to talk directly to the camera and explain their position, Legba remains an enigma. This, coupled with the way in which he is photographed, means that even the film-makers are to some extent objectifying him. One wonders if this is a deliberate provocation...

HEADING SOUTH/VERS LE SUD played Venice and Toronto 2005. It was released in France and Belgium at the start of 2006 and is currently playing in the US, UK, Spain, Netherlands and Italy. It opens in Germany on September 21st.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

JU-ON: THE GRUDGE 2 - satisfyingly creepy

First, a point of clarification. JU-ON: THE GRUDGE 2 is part of the teen horror franchise of GRUDGE movies created by the Japanese writer-director, Takashi Shimizu. The problem is that they all seem to have inter-changeable titles and plots. Basically, this version is NOT one of the US remakes starring Sarah Michelle Gellar. Rather it is one of the home-grown Japanese films, complete with sub-titles. What we get is ninety minutes of nicely done Japanese horror. Through a series of looping narratives, we follow a variety of characters as they are haunted by vengeful manifestations of a young boy and his mother. These two were violently murdered by the husband in a house that it will turn out is the setting for a TV show that the characters in the movie are filming. (Oh, how post-modern!) The movie is not so much jump-out-of-your-seat scary as unsettling and spooky. There are no slashers and very little blood and gore. However, the sense of unease is gradually ratcheted up to unbearable tension with the effective use of the old favourites – deserted corridors, scary noises from the other side of the wall, reflections of faces in windows. It’s nicely low-CGI and presumably low-budget. The only part that didn’t quite make sense to me was the ending, which seemed to exist merely to set up the next movie in the franchise. But that’s small beans. This is the most successful (i.e. freaks me out) horror flick I have seen since CALVAIRE.

JU-ON: THE GRUDGE 2 was released in the Far East in 2003 and on DVD is some European markets since. It is currently on release in the UK.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

DISTRICT 13/BANLIEUE 13 - guns, cars, violence, insults!

DISTRICT 13 takes its name from a super-rough Parisien suburb. We are asked to imagine that in four year’s time (the movie is notionally set in 2010, although it is resolutely NOT a sci-fi movie) the district will have become entirely over-run by a drug-lord called Taha. Taha keeps a private army and ammo supply big enough to march on the government should he so choose. The government decides that it is incapable of policing the area and builds a wall around i, literally making it a ghetto. The movie takes a look at what happens when an idealistic guy and his hard-as-nails sister mess with the drug-lord, not to mention an under-cover cop on the hunt for a missing bomb.

Clearly, DISTRICT 13 is not a “great film” whatever that may mean, but it does get a lot of the basics right. It has memorably eccentric characters – bent cops, dumb-ass gangsters and an especially colourful underground Casino owner. It has a tight, linear plot that uses all the conventions of the gangster-thriller but gives them a couple of cool twists. It has awesome fight scenes similar to those in ONG BAK – high-amp physical dexterity rather than too much CGI or wire-fu. And to cap it all off, the sound-track is kind of like a French version of the Chemical Brothers. At the best of times, it feels like the coolest video game you ever played. And if violent video games aren’t your thing, you should probably give this a miss.

In a summer of wanky over-blown dull-as-tooth-ache blockbusters it is nice to get back to some superficial slick violence at last. DISTRICT 13 delivers just that. Sure, it may pull its punch with a slushy final five, but at least it has the humility to get its bad bits over quickly.
Jerry Bruckheimer should take note.

DISTRICT 13/BANLIEUE 13 opened in France back in 2004 and has been on release practically everywhere since. It is available on Region 3 DVD and is also playing at cinemas in the UK.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Overlooked DVD of the month - INITIAL D/TAU MAN JI D - cars, vomit, tofu!

INITIAL D was overlooked in the UK largely because it was on release for 1 second in 1 cinema, but back in the Far East it was a mega-success. It's a Taiwanese production of an immensely popular Japanese franchise, which began with manga but spawned a TV series. The characters are largely young kids who race suped-up cars down Mt. Akina in Japan. The mountain road is full of hair-pin bends and the aim is to enter them so fast that you skid/drift through them. The racing scenes are fantastic especially when you consider that they are live-action (shot with cameras welded to cars) rather than CGI (as with the infinitely inferior FAST AND FURIOUS series). INITIAL D just has a lot more respect for drift-racing. You get to be up close to some fantastic driving by professional D-1 racers and there is a fair amount of exposition as to the mechanics of getting a car to the point where it can perform to the necessarily level.

Apart from the authentic racing scenes, the movie is also helped by some nice manga-ish touches. There's a lot of split screen, freeze-frame and some nice use of camera angles to resemble frames of animation. In addition, the movie is really funny despite having some fairly serious content. The hero of the picture, played by a Taiwanese pop-star apparently, is the shy son of a Tofu-man. His dad is one of the coolest, funniest characters I have seen on screen for a long time. He's an abusive alcoholic, but also a really awesome ex-racer. The hero's best-mate is also really funny and provides most of the puerile puke gags. Nice! There's also a mandatory love-interest which is handled with its tongue firmly in its cheek(!)

So, if you want fast cars, tofu, vomit gags and a cheesy 80s-style sound-track, check out INITIAL D. But remember, while it was directed by the same guys who gave us INFERNAL AFFAIRS this is NOT profound, stylish, intense etc. It's popcorn at its best.

INITIAL D was released in the Far East in 2005. Comically it took significantly more cash than STAR WARS III on the opening weekend in Hong Kong! It played Venice 2005. It's now out on Region 2 DVD with a hysterical commentary track from two random geezers.


DANIELSON: A FAMILY MOVIE or MAKE A JOYFUL NOISE HERE is a fantastic new documentary that is a must-see for all indie music fans and not a a bad watch for all us fans of more mainstream music. It is a two-hour doc. shot largely on digital video by J.L. Aronson. The movie is a linear re-telling of the story of an artist and musician called Daniel Smith. His parents were training to be a priest and a nun respectively when they realised that marriage was their vocation. They ended up having five kids who had what seems like a great childhood playing music. Daniel went to Rutgers and studied art, and part of his final year project was to express himself and find his identity as an artist. So, he went back to his childhood of playing music with his family and put on a concert for his finals. All his siblings were there including his 11 year old brother. They styled themselves the Danielson Famile (pronounced Family).

The style of music is sort of like the Brian Jonestown Massacre meets New Punk if that makes any sense. Really, you have to hear it, or best see it. Because the live act consists of all the brothers, sisters, and latterly, husbands, wives and old childhood friends, dressed in doctors and nurses outfits with big red hearts on their shoes. Oh yes! Check out Daniel's high-pitched shriek, the co-ordinated Supremes-on-speed hand gestures and the lyrics of Christian love. This is one unique act. I have to say that I'd never heard of the Danielson Famile before, but apparently they are quite well-known on the underground music scene. In the doc we see them play a festival in the UK and tour Europe, so they certainly have a following. And what can I say - I came home and bought the CD from iTunes!

The doc uses footage of the family just hanging out, live shows and some fantastic animation to describe how they ended up becoming a band. It also shows that they are that rare thing - a large family that really gets along and has a good time. No wonder so many "hangers-on" end up becoming part of the band, Eli-Cash style. With the pressures of day-jobs and family life kicking in, the Famile don't record or tour that much anymore, so Daniel records as a solo artist under the name Brother Danielson. Once again, his music has powerful lyrics about his relationship with God and his family - a profundity that stands at odds with the almost Sesame Street presentation. For a long while he dressed up as a gigantic ninee-fruit tree to represent the nine graces.

Overall, there were two running themes that I found fascinating. First, that my delivering their message in an almost cartoon-like way, the Danielson Famile had managed to gain acceptance among conventional Indie music fans. However, they have been ostracised by conventional Christian rock bands for being too out-of-leftfield. I think this says more a lot about conventional Christian rock. As Daniel says, the point is to play for everyone, not just Christians, and to take that message into the seedy bars of New York. Second, fans of Sufjan Stevens will dig the doc. because we see him well before he wrote one of the most acclaimed albums of 2005. What I find refreshing is that Daniel seems to genuinely not resent Sufjan's greater success as a musician. His view is that we all need to become the artist we were meant to be.

Anyways, like I said, this is a great doc about a fascinating bunch of people. Somewhat like their music, they come across as eccentric, warm, loving people and it's a pleasure to spend time in their company. Check it out!

DANIELSON: A FAMILY MOVIE is doing the festival circuit and was shown as part of the British Film Institute's Access All Areas season. No proper release dates yet but check out the
website for further info.

Saturday, July 08, 2006


The summer blockbuster season has been a wash-out, so I took myself off to the most avowedly art-house flick I could find. It was a low-budget Mongolian flick called THE CAVE OF THE YELLOW DOG. I reckon the Platonic ideal of a friday-night movie includes good-looking people shooting guns, preferably while driving fast cars. So as the opening credits rolled - all hand-drawn Mongolian script and ethnic music - the outlook wasn't good. But I have to say that this is a really charming movie that confounds expectations.

On the one hand, it plays as an intimate portrait of a real-life nomadic family living in contemporary Mongolia. We have mum, dad, and three little kids. They act naturally together and are caught on camera doing the most wonderful-crazy things. Some of it is charming because it is so different - for instance, the little girl complaining that the dog she has befriended is always asleep whenever she wants to play. She wonders if he was a lazybones in his past life. And some of it is charming because it's exactly the same stuff that went down in my house when I was a kid. There's not much superficially similar between my dad and this Mongolian chap, but both are really annoyed when their wives aren't stern enough to get the little girl to send the stray dog away.

If there is a flaw to this movie it is the rather hammy ending. It is probably also fair to warn you that it moves at about the same pace as life in the Mongolian outback! However, I never felt bored: it was a pleasure just to spend time with this family; the photography was stunning and I really appreciated the subtle handling of the sad conflict between town and country life.

THE CAVE OF THE YELLOW DOG played in Germany and Austria in 2005 and in France in February 2006. It is currently on release in the UK.

Friday, July 07, 2006


Let me state for the record that I loved the original PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movie. From the very beginning, when we see Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow sailing into Port on a sinking ship and bribing the guard, I knew I was in for a good time. A summary of the film reads like the memorable description of The Princess Bride: pirates, duels, fear, death, true love... In short, there was swash and there was buckle and there was rum. A good time was had by all. If you take all these characteristics and negate them, you have the essentials of the sequel, Dead Man’s Chest.

But first, let’s glory for a moment in the good parts of the film. First off, the production design is lavish and glorious. Pirates are grimy, locals are exotic, ships creak, waves roar, and the un-dead morph into sea-beasties. It’s everything we expect from a big-budget summer crowd-pleaser. The second good thing is the casting, which is at worst good and at best brilliant.
Keira Knightley is a good sport and brings her usual vim to the role of Elizabeth Swann – the Governor’s daughter who secretly wants to be a pirate. Admittedly, she is wearing less realistic hair extensions than in the first film(!) but I rather liked the development of her character into a horny teenager tempted by the scoundrelous Sparrow. Who wouldn’t find the flaccid goody-two-shoes, Will Turner, a turn-off? Poor Orlando Bloom reprises his role as the Elizabeth’s fiancé. His acting role is reduced to looking put-upon and being the good guy, cuckolded in spirit if not in fact. But he does his best. Indeed, all the British character actors - Tom Hollander, Jonathan Pryce and Jack Davenport, Mackenzie Crook - turn out sterling performances in what are often cameo roles with limited potential. Special praise must go to Bill Nighy and Naomi Harris. Nighy manages to be almost sympathetic as the villain of the piece, Davy Jones, despite looking like an octopus. And Naomi Harris is utterly convincing and captivating as the witch, Tia Dalma. Finally, of course, we have Johnny Depp reprising his role as Captain Jack – the scoundrelous pirate.

Okay, so now on to the manifold problems. To summarise: the film is too long; the narrative arc is confused; the movie rips off Star Wars; there is too much angst and too little piracy.

At two and a half hours, DEAD MAN’S CHEST is longer than any summer block-buster should ever be and could happily lose an hour. It’s full of little segments which while full of spectacular CGI do not advance the plot one iota. For instance, we spend about 15 minutes early on the movie on a segment where Will Turner is searching for Jack Sparrow on a tropical island. Will is captured by natives who are straight out of Peter Jackson’s
KING KONG. But the blatant rip-off doesn’t stop there. Turner is roped to a wooden pole, Luke Skywalker-style and taken before the natives new god-incarnate – Jack Sparrow. Now Jack, who is also a captive, must decide Will’s fate, clearly ripping off the C3PO and the Ewok’s plot strand in STAR WARS EPISODE VI: RETURN OF THE JEDI. The whole segment is meant to be fun, and there is the odd frame of visual humour. But apart from being a blatant rip-off, it doesn’t take the audience any further along the story.

And believe me, a bit of obvious plot signalling would have been nice, because this is one of the most confused and bloated narratives I have seen. The basic idea is that a lot of different people are after Davy Jones’ chest. Davy Jones is the un-dead spirit of the sea who captains a ship of the damned and commands the vicious sea-beast – the Cracken. The chest represents bargaining power over Davy – whether to rescue a loved-one, repay a debt or open up the Atlantic to trade(!) So we see people run after Jack’s compass, which will direct them to the key to the chest, or straightforwardly to the key, or indeed the chest, or its contents. The movie hasn’t just got one
MacGuffin – it’s got four! The sad part is that the characters don’t just get on with chasing after this stuff but get side-tracked doing other stuff, like ripping off King Kong. This leaves no time for anything as obvious as, say, hijacking a ship or being hunted down by the British navy. In short, there is not much actual piracy in the second movie.

But let’s get back to the blatant rip-off of Star Wars. The blatant stealing from Star Wars goes beyond the C3PO and the Ewoks segment. While on Davy Jones’ ship, Will meets his father, played brilliantly Stellan Skarsgård. Papa Turner has been condemned to servitude to the evil Davy Jones for staging the mutiny against Jack. Although he abandoned Will to go pirating, Will still sees “good in him” and vows to rescue him. Do you see where we are going with this? An evil slave master controlling the father who must be redeemed by the son. I swear that at the point where Davy Jones makes Bootstrap Bill Turner scourge his own son, Will, all I could think of was the Emperor telling Vader to destroy Luke on the Death Star. And it doesn’t end there. In the climactic scene, the Black Pearl is under attack from the Cracken and Captain Jack has abandoned his crew-mates to their fate. However, it classic Han Solo in Episode IV style he returns to the ship just in time to help Will and Elizabeth blow up the Death Star kill the Cracken. Could it get any cheesier than the bullet-time shot of his decisive stroke?!

Which brings me to my general point that there is too much angst and not enough swashbuckling. The original movie succeeded because Captain Jack was a devil-may-care rogue. Turning him into a nice guy subverts the pleasure of the franchise. There is too much soul-searching and not enough humour! Yes, humour. The humour, where it exists, relies on Captain Jack being ambushed my baddies and uttering “Oh, bugger” in a mockney accent. It’s funny the first time, less so the fifth, and anyway, haven’t we done that to death with

So to summarise, this movie combines a bloated and over-complicated plot with a subversion of the roguish nature of Captain Jack Sparrow. What we get is a beautifully rendered series of spectacles with no narrative drive and little emotional impact. I didn’t laugh. I was not entertained. I want my money back.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST is on release in the US, UK, France and Australia. It goes on release in Finland, Sweden and Israel on July 12th. It opens in Brazil on July 21st, Austria and Germany on July 27th and Spain on August 11th 2006.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

THE NIGHT PORTER - a reconsideration

In my recent review of HARD CANDY, I called the film trash. I accused it of exploiting themes of paedophilia in order to juice up a rather conventional revenge thriller. I compared it to Liliana Cavani's movie THE NIGHT PORTER, which was also famously accused of exploiting the Holocaust to "beef up" a rather sordid erotic thriller. In doing so, I realised that this might be a little rash. After all, I had only seen THE NIGHT PORTER once before - when I was fifteen - and hardly able to judge its moral, historical, cinematic or sexual content. I managed to track down a copy on battered VHS and so now can give a rather more considered judgement. Naturally, this will involve plot spoilers.

To those blissfully unaware of the brouhaha surrounding this film, THE NIGHT PORTER was released in 1974. It is a movie made by the Italian director, Liliana Cavani, perhaps best known to modern audiences as the director of RIPLEY'S GAME. The movie is set in post-war Vienna. It is in the 1950s and an ex-SS officer called Max (Dirk Bogarde) is working as a night porter is a swanky hotel. He lives a sordid life, procuring whores for rich guests, and even more sinister, injecting another guest with a tranquiliser or a stronge narcotic? The scene has under-tones of sexual abuse, made the more disturbing by the fact that the apparent victim is clearly paying for this "service." In flashbacks, we see that Max used to be one of a string of brutish, morally repulsive concentration camp guards, and that this hotel guest once danced ballet for them, practically nude. We also see SS officers raping the camp inmates.

The thematic material of the piece is thus established. We are to exist in a world where death is eroticised and sexual relations are abusive - where victims can appear to be oppressors. Fascinating, dangerous material. The odds are increased with the introduction of Lucia (
Charlotte Rampling.) Lucia is a beautiful young guest at the hotel, who recognises Max from the concentration camp. Her flashbacks show her as an emaciated, yet still stunningly beautiful, shockingly young girl, with cropped ginger hair - shocking colour in a morbidly grayscale flashback. What was their relationship?

Max is being investigated by a group of elderly Nazis. They gather up evidence and provide some - what is the word? - peace of mind - for other Nazis. Better to be accused and perhaps acquitted by a friendly, discreet panel, than exposed before the world. Best of all, the devil's advocate (in this case, the *prosecution*) will destroy all the evidence - killing any witnesses if necessary. Now, Max nervously asks the panel, having seen Lucia, if it is not possible to let the witnesses live? A bizarre act of mercy, until we find that Max and Lucia were in fact lovers in the camp. Lucia seeks out Max in the hotel and they have a reunion that is violent, passionate and finally a relief. Lucia laughs in joy. The lovers are reunited. As one of Max's Nazi guests responds - "What a beautiful romance!"

And so, we see their relationship unfurl - both as it is now and as it was then. The scenes are cut to melt between now and then. In one typical scene, Max feeds Lucia a spoon full of soup. He brushes some soup from her lip. She sucks on his finger and then moves to fellate him. The scene melts into Lucia fellating Max in the camp. But the most notorious scene is where Lucia, dressed in a soldier's trousers, braces, long leather gloves and officer's cap, sings a German song for the officers in the camp.
Finally, in order to save Lucia from the Nazi panel, Max and Lucia hole up in an apartment and literally starve to death, all the while continuing with their bizarre relationship.

How is the viewer supposed to react to such scenes -and such imagery? On the one hand, I rather like the idea of reflecting this period in history - when morality was inverted and events were at the limit of evil - with a story of a relationship which is also at the limits. However, there is something very slippery in the way in which the scenes are shot, cut and scored. Think of the rape scene in IRREVERSIBLE. Here, the rape scene does not show the woman as a sexual object or porn star - using close ups of her flesh. The camera is unrelentingly fixed with no cuts and no score. The experience is properly brutal.

By contrast, in your typical rape scene, the victim is fetishised by the camera, with largely the same shooting style used for a rape as for a love scene. And that is exactly what happens in THE NIGHT PORTER. Lucia is made into a sexual object. She claims that she is with Max, literally chained to the flat, of her own free will. And if this were genuinely so then perhaps Liliana Cavani's artistic choices would have some merit. If this were genuinely a plea for understanding on behalf of a sado-masochistic couple perhaps it would be okay. However, this is not a relationship freely entered into, even if Lucia thinks it is. After all, it is a relationship begun under extreme duress by a man who holds life and death in his hands with a young girl who is one move away from the gas chamber.

I suppose that what I am getting at is that I just don't buy Cavani's claim that this is simply a love story - one played out against a unique and taboo background - but a love story between two adults nonetheless. For me, this is simply a tale of a sick man who has brutalised a young girl. He has exploited her, and by filming her in an erotic manner, Cavani makes voyeurs and exploiters of us all. For that reason, I feel justified in calling this movie trash - no matter how good the acting. However, in one respect it is a superior product to a movie like HARD CANDY. For Cavani aimed high with this movie - judging from interviews her intentions evidently were to push the boundaries of art and understanding. By contrast, I fear that the makers of HARD CANDY were looking for an easy way to shock without any artistic pretensions. If the NIGHT PORTER is a noble failure, HARD CANDY is just re-casting the bunny-boiler.

Apparently, THE NIGHT PORTER is available on DVD in the US.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

REBECCA - a classic Hitchcock thriller

As part of its programme of rescuing old, withering prints, the British Film Institute has restored and re-issued the classic Hitchcock movie, REBECCA. Based on the best-selling novel by Daphne du Maurier, the movie is a dark psychological thriller, despite its veneer of Cinderella-ish charm. A pathetic young paid-companion is on holiday in Monte Carlo with a snobbish fat American. She meets a charming English aristocrat called Maxim de Winter, who proposes to her and takes her back to his country house, Manderlay, in Cornwall. There, she finds she is unsuited to the duties of lady of the manor and is paranoid that she is constantly being compared to Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca, and being found wanting. The housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, and Rebecca’s sleazy cousin, Jack Favell, play on this insecurity. Indeed, Favell goes further, accusing Maxim of murdering Rebecca, leading to a court case.

What works in the transition from book to screen is almost entirely down to Hitchcock. Few know better how to combine cinematography, editing and score to create an atmosphere of brooding tension, paranoia and, finally, evil. However, the movie is also notable for its superlative casting. Joan Fontaine is wonderfully insipid as the unnamed – I hesitate to say “heroine” – of the film. Laurence Olivier is suitably dashing although perhaps not quite dark enough. Judith Anderson gives an iconic performance, in no part thanks to an iconic costume design, as Mrs Danvers. And George Sanders pulls off the fine balance between dandy and threat in his portrayal of Favell. If there is any fault to be found in the film, it is in the two changes in plot from novel to screen. Both serve to increase the gushing-romance-quota. In the novel one feels sympathy for the second Mrs de Winter but never empathy. By contrast, I imagine that a large part of the movie’s success is exactly that women want to empathise with her: they want to become the pillar of support for the dashing Laurence Olivier character. This is a great shame and serves to remind us that Hollywood was imposing formulae on dark material well before plastic teen-horror was invented. However, for all of the studio’s tampering this remains a gripping and superbly executed movie. It is well worth viewing on the big screen.

REBECCA was originally released in 1940 and won a clutch of Oscars. It is currently on re-release in the UK.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

JUST MY LUCK - In which we are asked to believe that McFly are the hottest rock band in the universe

JUST MY LUCK is a weak romantic-comedy vehicle for Lindsay Lohan. The set-up is simple. Li-Lo plays a girl who has literally lived a charmed life. One day, at a masquerade ball, she kisses a guy who has been cursed with bad luck all his life. With that kiss, their fortunes change. The guy - played by Chris Pine (Anne Hathaway's squeeze in Princess Diaries 2) - becomes super lucky and Li-Lo becomes a loser. The movie then predictably follows the two of them as they fall in love with each other. That's it. Now, I'm not against the odd goof-ball teen flick that relies on an unbelievable premise. After all, I really liked She's The Man. But JUST MY LUCK fails on a number of levels. The movie contains not one single laugh, and depite being directed by the same guy who gave us Miss Congeniality, entirely fails to deliver a similar feel-good factor. I don't think the actors are at fault here - although the movie is stocked with more than its fair share of plastic OC rejects. Rather the mechanical grinding through the formula gives the whole production a rather sterile feel. The soul-less quality is magnified by the fact that the flick is a shameless merchandising tool for everything from the Hard Rock cafe to Tide washing up powder. And the biggest marketing ploy of all involves making Li-Lo's boyfriend the manager of, I kid you not, McFly. Frankly, it wasn't the fortune-changing-through-kissing plot line that had me incredulous so much as being asked to believe that McFly were about to kick off the greatest British invasion since The Beatles.

To summarise: you should not watch this movie unless you are a fan of McFly. In which case, you deserve what you get.

JUST MY LUCK is on release in the US, Australia and UK. It hits France on July 5th 2006, and Germany and Austria on August 17th.

Monday, July 03, 2006

CITADEL - Less of a review than an advisery note

CITADEL is a sort of home-video shot by the acclaimed indie director Atom Egoyan. It documents his visit to Beirut, Lebanon - the city where his wife Arsinée Khanjian grew up. They return after 28 years and the intervening civil war, along with their ten-year old son, to visit family and see what has happened to the city. The resulting documentary is full of funny little asides about the family but also a lot of insight to the current political situation in Lebanon. For instance, as Egoyan walks down the main street in the Shi-ite west Beirut we see large posters dangling from the lamp-posts. Each one shows the face of a different "martyr"/suicide bomber. This prompts an interesting discussion about how muslims view photography within the panolpy of the arts - how far photographers are creating an image or just "capturing light". The documentary is by turns funny and by turns grim - but always fascinating and I would heartily recommend it for its content. However, I do have to add a sort of health warning. The movie is shot on a tiny little hand-held Mini DV camera. There is no professional lighting or formal "set-up". After all, the movie just started out, literally, as a home-video and was never really intended to bear the scrutiny of a theatre audience. As a result, the footage is really jumpy and if you, like me, suffer from motion sickness, it can be pretty hard to watch. Indeed, I came out with a terrible head-ache.

CITADEL is, as far as I can tell, being shown at the odd festival or arts cinema here and there. It's definitely one to look out for.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

FORTY SHADES OF BLUE - beautifully crafted drama

FORTY SHADES OF BLUE is a beautifully crafted, lyrical movie. It unfurls at a languorous pace which I suspect some might find frustrating. However, the pace perfectly matches the emotional arc of the key character - a young Russian woman called Laura. Laura is in a relationship with an old, wealthy record producer called Alan James. He is not a bad man, and one suspects that he does love Laura and their young son Sam. But he is one of those personalities that dominates a room - successful, out-going and yet somehow like a bulldozer. Her attitude begins as one of stolid, uncomplaining contentment. As she says to Alan's grown-up son, she lives better than anyone she has ever known and feels that she has no right to complain. The movie traces her increasing self-awareness about what she wants from life and what she feels about her current situation, faciliated partly by a messy affair. As the movie closed out on a freeze-frame on Laura, I was reminded of Henry James' Portrait of a Lady.

The movie deals unashamedly with adult themes in an unflashy, unsentimental manner. It hangs on a script of uncanny insight; deft, intimate camera-work; and two lead performances of subtlety and conviction. Rip Torn - better known to most as Will Smith's boss in MEN IN BLACK - is a revelation as the ageing musician. Dina Korzun is outstanding - truly Oscar-deserving - as Laura. I should also mention that the sound-track is superb - particularly the title song. The upshot is that I heartily recommend this film - although it is clearly not for those Friday-night popcorn moments.

FORTY SHADES OF BLUE premiered at Sundance 2005 where it won the Grand Jury Prize. It has since been on release in the US, Austria and France. It opened in the UK yesterday. I have no information about the German or Australian release date.