Thursday, August 31, 2006

THE WICKER MAN (2006) - like sending a three-toed sloth out to sieze turf from a wolverine

Significant plot spoilers follow......

At times of trouble I turn to the good Doctor. Hunter S. Thompson, that is. I quote from FEAR & LOATHING ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL - his record of the 1972 Presidential election: "The mood of the nation in 1972 was so overwhelmingly vengeful, greedy, bigoted and blindly reactionary that no presidential candidate who even faintly reminded Typical Voters of the fear and anxiety they'd felt during the constant sexual upheavals of the 1960s had any chance at all of beating Nixon." In that weird time - when the giant post-hallucinatory downer hit the free love generation - we got a movie for the times: THE WICKER MAN. Now, thirty-three years later, when one half of America thinks abortion should be outlawed and the other half is cheerfully celebrating gay marriages, THE WICKER MAN once more appears on our screens. But how the mighty are fallen.

The 1973 version of THE WICKER MAN is a bizarre British (oc)cult thriller, directed by Robin Hardy using a quality screenplay by Anthony Shaffer. Shaffer wanted to write a horror story without blood and he did that by messing with our heads rather than our spleens and by using the structure of a whodunnit. In the Hardy/Shaffer film, a virginal, fervently Christian copper called Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) is mysteriously summoned to an island off the Scottish coast. He is appalled by the licentious locals. At first, we like the locals more than Howie. After all, they're just having a good time, right? But soon the atmosphere turns nasty. The cute "rosemary and thyme" folksy songs cover up a more profound and sinister pagan cult, involving child abuse and human sacrifice. It's all presided over by Christopher Lee, who plays Lord Summerisle. The mood is sombre, sinister and slow-burning, and by the end we are presented with a provocative confrontation between dogmatic Christianty and pagan zealoutry. I have always read the ending as the cinematic equivalent of T.S.Eliot's THE HOLLOW MAN, but its greatness lies in its ambiguity. It could also be seen as powerful warning against moral extremism in all its forms.

THE WICKER MAN (1973) is truly a fascinating film, which is not to say that it's flawless. The folksy dancing and singing can be camp, and the sequence where the beautiful inn-keeper's daughter, Willow (Britt Ekland with an appalling dubbed Scottish accent and a body double) dances and rubs up against a bedroom wall, trying to seduce Howie is irredeemably kitsch. Still, the original movie is a really great film.

I had pretty high hopes for THE WICKER MAN (2006) too. It is written and adapted by Neil LaBute, who famously brought us IN THE COMPANY OF MEN - a movie so brutal it is rarely available on DVD. If anyone would be able to bring us a WICKER MAN for our times, surely it was LaBute? The thing is, this new movie is a 100% studio production. Think of it as a Nic Cage vehicle and nothing more.

To be sure, LaBute has kept the mechanical workings of the original plot. There is still a copper, played by
Nic Cage, who is called to a mysterious island to find a little lost girl. But he is no religious virgin - rather a nice, if introverted, guy. Indeed, the 2006 copper, rather than being aggressively seduced by Willow, was actually engaged to her, and comes at her request. And what a sappy, pathetic Willow Woodward (geddit?!) we are given - all hippy hair and pouty lips and about as sexless as a crash test dummy. Nic Cage's character doesn't seem morally outraged by the goings-on the island. He is not asked to question his beliefs or hold onto them against all odds. He ends the movie the same man as when he started - a decent, if introverted guy, who gets straightforwardly freaked out that some nutters might be about to torch a little girl just to ensure their organic honey harvest works out. The other bit of studio cyncism involves supplanting the Christopher Lee/Lord Summerisle character with a woman: horror icon Ellen Burstyn playing Sister Summerisle. I suppose that in a post-DA VINCI CODE world, everything has to be about the repression of the feminine.

Without the philosophical provocation and the slighly mad kistch element, THE WICKER MAN remake becomes a rather dull whodunnit. Except we know the ending. Which makes this movie nothing more than an embarrasing coda in the mythic history of the original movie.

THE WICKER MAN (2006) was released today in the Netherlands and in the UK. It opens in the US tomorrow and plays Venice on the 4th September 2006. It opens in the Philippines, Israel, Italy and the Ivory Coast on the 9th, and in Greece and Iceland on the 22nd. THE WICKER MAN opens in Belgium, Brazil and Spain in October and in Germany and Denmark in November.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

LITTLE MAN - wank, wank, wank

LITTLE MAN is a godawful gross-out comedy that is destined to take shit-loads of cash at the box office despite this fact, pace the execrable DATE MOVIE. It is brought to us by the miraculously in-work Wayans brothers - those cinematic prodigies that gave us SCARY MOVIE and WHITE CHICKS. The alleged comedy revolves around a CGI-Wayans-brother-dwarf who pretends to be a baby so that he can steal a diamond from a cute couple who find the baby on the doorstep. Obviously. The humour consists in people getting hit in the crotch.

LITTLE MAN has been released in Australia, the US, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Italy and Turkey. It goes on release in Germany, Iceland and the UK this weekend and in Portugal and Singapore next weekend. It opens in Spain on September 15th 2006, Egypt on September 20th, Brazil on September 22nd and in Argentina on November 9th.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

SEVERANCE - oustanding Brit horror/comedy

The concept of this movie is simplicity itself. A bunch of people who work for a nasty military defence contractor go on a team-building paint-balling exercise in Hungary. But they end up in an ex-mental institution where a bunch of crazed ex-Soviet soldiers are after them. Cue lots of running through woods, torture scenes and Hungarian strippers with machine guns. I don't know how newbie director Chris Smith pulled it off, but SEVERANCE is both very funny and very scary (in a sort of sub J-horror way.) And, no, this isn't a parody of horror in the manner of the SCARY MOVIE series. It's a genuine balls-cut slasher movie horror that makes HARD CANDY look like a walk in the park. And it's proper comedy too, anchored by great comic actors like Tim 'Lord Percy' McInnerny and Danny Dyer. Go check it out!

SEVERANCE is on release in the UK. It opens in France on October 18th 2006 and in Germany on November 30th.

Monday, August 28, 2006

YOU, ME & DUPREE is unfunny

YOU, ME AND DUPREE is a deeply disappointing romantic-comedy. It's all about high production values and good casting but low on actual laughs. Every bit of quirkiness from the Russo brothers' previous flick, WELCOME TO COLLINWOOD has been bleached out of this blander than blander date flick. But, just to go through the motions, (much like the movie) here's a plot synopsis. Molly (Kate Hudson) is a cute, primary school teacher (movie code for All Round Nice Gal) who happens to be the daughter of a property developer played by Michael Douglas (movie code for mean, greedy, scheming bastard.) Molly marries Carl (Matt Dillon) who is also a nice guy. But Carl is under pressure from the mean father-in-law and also from his best man, Dupree. Dupree is the kind of sad-assed loser who still lives for sports and has no job well into his thirties. He's the kind of guy who moves into your house and sets the couch on fire. But, here's the twist: Dupree is played by Owen Wilson, which means he will be a Love-able Loser. Dupree is sort of responsible for splitting Molly and Carl up (roughly sixty minutes) and then sort of gets them back together (forty minutes.) And then we all go home! Okay, so maybe that was a major plot spoiler, but seriously, I doubt you wouldn't have seen it coming a mile off. All in all, this is a pretty lame-ass excuse for a date movie and a real disappointment. You would do better by renting THE WENDELL BAKER STORY instead. It has basically the same central plot premise (Owen Wilson putting a fork in the path of true love) and also features a cameo from Harry Dean Stanton. Plus, it's really, really funny!

YOU, ME AND DUPREE is already on release in the US, Puerto Rico, Australia, the Netherlands, Thailand, Russia, Iceland and the UK. It opens in Argentina and Mexico on September 1st, Hungary on September 7th, Greece, Israel and Brazil on September 15th and in Germany and Latvia on September 22nd and in Finland on September 29th. YOU, ME AND DUPREE opens in Spain on October 11th, Turkey on October 13th, France on October 18th and Belgium on November 1st.

JOHN TUCKER MUST DIE - weak teen chick flick

JOHN TUCKER MUST DIE is a rather nasty teen chick flick in which three airheads con a cheating heart-throb into falling for a geek they made-over, just to break his heart. It's pretty formulaic and the marketing is especially cynical - heavily using Myspace. But, in it's favour, the tween market get to see Ashanti as the HEAD cheer-leader and Jesse Metcalfe (the buff gardener from DEPSERATE HOUSEWIVES) wearing nothing but a thong. There are a couple of weak laughs and of course a Moral (Be Yourself and Don't Lie to Sleep with Girls or Boys.) But on the whole, this is definitely one of the lamer offerings of the summer, and no way near as funny or feel-good as SHE'S THE MAN. Oh yes, and if you have a problem with your off-spring hearing jokes about STDs and oral sex, you should stage an intervention.

JOHN TUCKER MUST DIE is currently on release in Puerto Rico, the US, Sweden and the UK. It opens in Germany on September 14th, Hungary, Brazil and Finland on October 20th. It opens in France on November 15th and Germany on December 7th. JTMD finally rolls into the Netherlands and Norway in January 2006 and Belgium in February 2007.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

I detest OKLAHOMA! almost as much as I hate Indian weddings

I have been to the same Indian wedding (my cousin's) for almost a month now CONTINUOSLY. We are a big extended family full of opinionated, obstinate people and everyone (including me) is being mean to everyone else. So this morning I just upped and left for the Big City and wandered into the NFT to shake off The Mean Reds. At the moment, the National Film Theatre is showing OKLAHOMA! in an extended run. I'd never seen it before but I figured that something as wholesome and hopeful as a big old 1950s Rodgers & Hammerstein musical was bound to cheer me up. I mean, as far as I was concerned, all the movie consisted of was a cowboy persuading a farm-girl to marry him, while singing "Oh what a beautiful morning!"

For around the first twenty minutes I had this warm happy feeling that was entirely unrelated to the absence of loud bhangra music and cold greasy samosas. OKLAHOMA! is clearly a movie to be seen on the big screen. (In fact, it was shot simultaneously on 70mm to be shown on giant panoramic screens in an effort by the movie studios to stave off the increasing popularity of television - that must been something!) It opens with the camera looking up through swaying fields of corn and then pans out to a beautiful landscape - farmland, mountains and blue skies. Through this idyllic countryside rides a not-unattractive cowboy called (I know, I know) Curly, singing his heart out at the joys of life. Curly rides over to ask a young girl Laurey out on a date. He's clearly all about her and she's clearly all about him, and the whole movie would have wrapped in around 20 minutes if she'd just said "yes". However, a musical has to run over two hours, so she teases Curly by saying yes to a brooding farm-hand called Jud Fry (Rod Steiger) instead. Meanwhile, her best friend Ado Annie - a girl who just can't say no - is procrastinating over whether to commit to her sweet-heart, Will. Annie flirts with a Persian travelling salesman called Ali Hakim (I kid you not).

I entered the cinema worried that I might get bored by OKLAHOMA! It might seem corny after fifty-odd years. But, my goodness, I was glued to my seat for all the wrong reasons. It started off as faint unease with the two-dimensional character of the heroine, Laurey. She comes across as vain and immature and the fact that she accepts a date with Jud Fry just to make Curly jealous pissed me off. It's the
same sort of crap we see in modern movies - the pretty heroine can toy with as many people as she likes on the way to true love, but we still have to believe she is a good person who deserves happiness. As the movie progresses, her behaviour becomes even more self-absorbed. In an extended dream/ballet sequence it becomes clear that she is just scared of having sex. Eventually, Curly pawns all his worldly possessions to win a date with her at a raffle and she merrily dances a reel with him as if nothing had happened. And yes, they get married and Jud attempts a violent revenge. Laurey sits on the bed and wonders "Why did this have to happen when everything was so fine?" Bathsheba Everdine was never this unperceptive.

But all this is symptomatic of the frighteningly simplistic morality that runs through this musical. Jud is clearly a BAD person because he has pictures of nude women in his cabin. Clearly a man who has looked at porn can't treat a woman well in this universe: why, he is little better than an animal, pawing at Laurey in the cart on the way to the dance. And yet, throughout the movie he makes an eloquent case for meritocracy and pathetically wishes for a real rather than pornographic relationship. When the movie's icon of respectability, Aunt Eller, pleads for the same ("I'm no better than anyone, but I'll be darned if I ain't just as good!") that's homespun wisdom. But from Jud it's aggressive and to be frowned upon. I found the sequence where Jud bids all his worldly wealth for a date with Laurey only to be jeered by the entire crowd pitiful. And later, when Curly is accused of murdering Jud, Jud is not even afforded Federal justice. All he is deemed to be worth is a kangaroo court. Again, this mob justice is seen as homespun wisdom. Never mind that due process has not been followed - just so long as the vain Laurey and her man can get away on honeymoon.

Other stuff that made my cringe? Well, the portrayal of the Persian peddler, Ali Hakim, is the most crass and racist portrayal I have seen on screen since
Jar-Jar Binks.. Oh, and I also hated Agnes de Mille's choreography. It was affected and awkward and laboured. Give me THE RED SHOES or CABARET any day. Bah, humbug.

OKLAHOMA! was originally released in 1955. It is currently on re-release in London.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

FATELESS/SORSTALANSAG - one of the more sensitive treatments of the Holocaust

FATELESS is an outstanding feature film about the Holocaust. It is based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Nobel-prize-winning Hungarian author Imre Kersetz. He adapted the work for the screen himself and is responsible for a structure that some could find boring or unengaging. Instead of telling the story through flash-backs, or spicing up the narrative with melodramatic events, Kersetz keeps the story linear and simple. Over two hours we follow a fourteen year old Hungarian boy called György Köves. His father is sent to a labour camp and he is forced to work in a brick factory. One day he is rounded up by a kindly looking policeman and packed onto a train to Auschwitz-Birkenau. At every stage he is given small precious words of advice. He is told the German for "sixteen" so that he get himself out of Auschwitz and into a labour camp. There he grinds out the rest of the war. His tragedy is to have been born into an evil time and his punishment is to have to serve that time. To mark it, standing in a wet field all day until fainting from hunger.

This is what Kersetz wants to tell us. That there are no sweeping epic moments or emotional flights. There is dull perseverance and hatred. These are shown in tableaux form, one following the other with a kind of harrowing monotony. The impact is greater thanks to a universally good cast, a discreet score and some outstanding photography. Lajos Koltai may be a first-time director but he is a celebrated cinematographer and comes up with the ingenious method of slowly fading the movie from full colour in Budapest to sepia tints in the train to stark black and white as we reach the final camp. The changing colour is so slow you almost miss it, but hits you powerfully toward the end. It mirrors the slow change from little boy to ghost. Even when the camp in which György Köves is held is liberated and he returns to Budapest the film is still in black and white as if to signify that there can be no real return..

FATELESS is a profoundly painful and depressing film. The title itself refers to György Köves feeling that it is better to believe in nothing and to have no fate than to be a believing Jew who accepts the Holocaust as part of his fate of perpetual suffering. Every scene feels authentic, no doubt because Kersetz personally over-saw small details of the production design. I feel it is compulsary viewing in the same way as THE SORROW AND THE PITY and NIGHT AND FOG are compulsary viewing.

As an aside, I originally saw the movie back in January and recently watched the DVD for the first time - forcing it onto Doctor007 in the manner of a low-rent Woody Allen flick. I don't normally comment on DVD extras, but the DVD is well worth viewing because it contains an interview with Imre Kersetz in which he discusses why the film had to be structured as it was. But most interesting is his rant at the expense of Steven Spielberg's SCHINDLER'S LIST. I have always found SCHINDLER'S LIST to be problematic. Everything seemed so heavy-handed and emotionally manipulative. And finally, so optimistic! There is an anecdote I heard - I have no idea whether it is true - that Spielberg showed Kubrick a cut of Schindler's List eager for praise. Kubrick apparently told Spielberg that he had entirely missed the point: "The Holocaust was about 6 million Jews who were murdered. You chose to tell a story about 100 who were saved." Kersetz delivers one of the most articulate and scathing critiques of Schindler's List in his interview. He calls it inauthentic in its historical detail and imagined situations. But this is the least of its problems, according to Kersetz. The greatest charge is that it finds humanity in hell. You don't have to agree with him but it is fascinating to hear his critique....

FATELESS opened in Hungary, Germany and France in 2005. It opened in New York and the UK earlier in 2006 and was released on DVD this week. It opens in Denmark on September 1st, the Netherlands on September 7th and in Belgium on October 25th.

Friday, August 25, 2006

INNOCENT /VOCES INOCENTES - heavy-handed civil war flick

INNOCENT VOICES is one of those over-wrought political movies where no opportunity to tug at the heart-strings is left unexploited. The opening sequence of the movie shows young boys being marched, presumably to their death, by soldiers with guns. And then we flip back in time to hear the tale of cute eleven-year old Chava. He is a poor boy living in a village that happens to fall between territory occupied by the Communist rebels and the American-backed Salvadorean government. As a result, every night his tin shack is subject to gun-fire and every day he lives in fear of being forcefully recruited as a soldier for the Government. His father has abandoned the family for the US and his uncle has joined the guerillas. As a result, young Chava is the "man of the house", taking care of his two younger siblings and supporting his mother financially.

To be sure, this is a terrible and moving story and while it may be based on authentic memoirs, the suffering seems to be rather too perfect. Chava's mother is the picture of self-less beauty - and while it is a relief to see a Catholic priest portrayed as something other than a paedophile - he seems to be little more than a two-dimensional mouthpiece for the director's earnest political views.

Overall, it is hard not to be drawn into the story. There is a lot of action, a lot of high-pitched emotion, and the acting and photography are excellent. And, as this is a period of history of which I know next to nothing, I found the story genuinely interesting. (Judging by the internet chatter, viewers are divided as to whether the depiction of each side in the civil war and the US' involvement is 100% accurate.) Any movie that makes you want to read up on a subject has to be good, I suppose, but I wish INNOCENT VOICES had shown some of the restraint found in STRAY DOGS.

INNOCENT VOICES played Toronto back in 2004. It went on limited release in the US in October 2005 and is currently on release in the UK. It opens in Finland on September 8th.

Thursday, August 24, 2006


TO DIE IN SAN HILARIO is a warm-hearted but formulaic movie from Spanish writer/director Laura Mañá. The movie is set in a sepia-tinted version of World War Two-ish Argentina, where gangsters where pin-stripe suits, fedoras and two-tone shoes and trains still run on steam. One particular gangster is on the run from the law with a bag of stolen cash and ends up in a village so inconsequential that it's not even on the map. The villagers - who exist merely to provide elaborate funerals - mistake the man for a bohemian artist who is about to die and begin planning his funeral. Of course, this being a feel-good romance come comedy, the gangster goes through a redemption and brings joy to the villagers in the process. Altogether now: aaah!

There is much to inspire initial interest in TO DIE IN SAN HILARIO. We are in the sort of territory usually inhabited by
Almodovar - eccentric people preserving old rituals of village life. Just think how VOLVER opens with a scene of women polishing graves. The Almodovarian note is also struck by casting Lluís Homar as the gangster - he also played Sr. Berenguer in BAD EDUCATION. However as TO DIE IN SAN HILARIO grinds through its formulaic machinations all interest wanes. The director entirely fails to press home the advantage of this unusual setting. Finally, the film is entirely disposable, and certainly not worth going out of your way to see.

TO DIE IN SAN HILARIO/MORIR EN SAN HILARIO was released in Argentina, Spain, Canada and Brazil in 2005. It is currently on very limited release in the UK and opens in the Netherlands today. It is also available on Region 1 DVD.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

GARFIELD: A TALE OF TWO KITTIES - one for the ankle-biters alone

After the high-grade entertainment of MONSTER HOUSE it was a bit of a let-down to have to chaperone Kid the Second through GARFIELD 2. (And they call it "quality time".) But as my Godson is a bit too young for the high-amp scares of MONSTER HOUSE I had no choice. In fairness, he seemed to have a great time, as did all the other ankle-biters in the cinema. Unfortunately though, this is not one of those new-wave kids movies that provide as many laughs for the grown-ups, despite the fact that it was directed by the same guy who directed one of my all-time favourite kids flicks: MUPPETS FROM SPACE*

Anyways, back to Garfield. As in the cartoon strip, as any fule kno, Garfield is a smart-talking cat who likes to sit around the house, watch TV, eat lasagne, and kick Odie the dog. His owner Jon is the hapless butt of his jokes. In this movie, Jon is on the verge of proposing to his sweetheart, Liz, when she is called to a vetenary conference to be held in an English castle. Coz that happens. But then this is the kind of England that only exists in the movies - where every journey takes you by Westminster Cathedral and all castles are Howard Castle, famed location of BRIDESHEAD REVISITED. The plot revolves around Garfield being mistaken for his doppelganger, who has inherited the castle from his eccentric old owner. The evil Lord Dargis is plotting to kill the pampered kittie and get his hands on the castle and the related phat cash.

The problem with GARFIELD 2 is that while Bill Murray raises the odd laugh as Garfield there is precious little for the adults. This goes against the grain of the comic strip which satirised human behaviour as much as chronicling the foibles of our pets. I also think Billy Connolly and the rest of the British voice cast are pretty ordinary, perhaps because of the weak material. The US cast is also fairly mediocre, filled as it is with the likes of
Breckin Meyer and Jennifer Love Hewitt - actors neither talented nor attractive enough to star in proper movies. It also seems to be a pretty lazily made movie. I never normally spot continuity errors but even I clocked when Dargis switched suits between shots! Poor show.

GARFIELD: A TALE OF TWO KITTIES is on release in the US and UK. Worldwide release dates can be found
here. *To this day, in my select circle of friends you can use the line, "I am not a shrimp: I am a king prawn" and get a laugh on the thinnest of pretexts.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

HARSH TIMES - conventional LA crime drama

HARSH TIMES is a pretty disappointing movie. I had high expectations because it is written and directed by David Ayer, who also penned the spectacular TRAINING DAY. TRAINING DAY captured life in the rougher parts of LA with a seeming authenticiy that is rare and gave Denzel Washington a chance to play against type and shine. My expectations were also boosted by the fact that HARSH TIMES stars Christian Bale - an actor who seems to have a talent for picking interesting roles in challenging films.

But, to my surprise, HARSH TIMES turns out to be an incredibly conventional movie. Christian Bale plays to type as a psychotic Gulf War veteran trying to land a job with the LAPD. Burned for being too whacko even for the LAPD, Bale ends up being picked up by the Department of Homeland Security. Apparently, they will be accepting of his, 'I'm a soldier of the apocalypse, man!' attitude and some of the most darkly funny material in the film comes from this segment of the movie. I particularly liked the scene where Bale injects drug masking agents into his member with a turkey baster.

Naturally, the pyschotic veteran gets a more grounded but pussy-whipped best friend, played by
Freddie Rodriguez. As in all buddy movies of this type, the Rodriguez character wants to sort out his life and get a job, but is driven from the path of righteousness by his best friend's whining. It was like watching ROUNDERS all over again. Lucky Freddie gets Desperate Housewife, Eva Longoria, as his squeeze. She does well with a very stereo-typed character - she seems to exist solely to hurl clever one-line insults at the Bale character. Stuff like, "You're crazy and you're dangerous and my biggest nightmare is you with a badge!" How many times have we heard that before in cheap cop dramas.

While HARSH TIMES contains some mildly amusing stoner humour and some senseless violence, the plot is thin and the character development non-existent. Christian Bale is, as ever, superb at bringing this mentally damaged individual to life, but he is essentially a static character for the two hours of the movie. Anyone with a half a braincell will see the HARSH ending coming a mile off.

HARSH TIMES played Toronto 2005 and is now on release in the UK. It opens in Turkey on September 22nd 2006, the US on November 10th 2006 and France on December 6th 2006.

Monday, August 21, 2006

STRAY DOGS/SAG-HAYE VALGARD - a moving tale of Afghani orphans

STRAY DOGS is a film by Iranian writer-director Marzieh Meshkini. It is set in contemporary Afghanistan and in just over ninety minutes gives you a slice of life for two young kids - Gol-Ghotai and her brother Zahed. Their father has been imprisoned by the invading American forces, later to be shipped off to Gitmo. He is a Talibani. Their mother has been imprisoned by their father for taking another husband when she presumed the first was dead. In other words, she is an adulteress. As a result, the two children are effectively orphaned.

What I love about this film is that the kids, especially the girl, have plucky characters without being saccharine-goody-goody Disney kids. Their logical appeals to various prison guards, friends of their parents and market-sellers are heart-breaking without appearing too manipulative. I also think this is a remarkably even-handed film. The injustices of the Taliban rule are clear without being rammed down our throat. And while there is a bit of whining about the US invasion, the young kids have equal if not greater resentment for the Russians and the Taliban.

Similarly, the director has forsaken all formal attempts to manipulate the audience. There is no sweeping orchestral score - no flashy camera-work - no non-linear editing. The director relies on the power of the story to get the message across. At all times this is a highly moving, oftentimes funny, but never sentimental movie. If you can find it, I can strongly recommend it.

STRAY DOGS played Venice, Toronto and London 2004. It also played Paris where the little girl, Gol Ghotai, won the prize for Best Actress. STRAY DOGS finally got a cinematic release in France, Belgium and Turkey in 2005. It is currently on limited release in the UK.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

SNAKES ON A PLANE - scary (B) movie; dismal comedy

SNAKES ON A PLANE was a cult hit even before it was made. Reports began to emerge that badass and Jedi, Samuel L. Jackson, had signed up to a new movie on the strength of its title alone. When the studio threatened to change the title to something less unintentionally hillarious - Pacific Air Flight 121 - Jackson freaked out. "We're totally changing that back. That's the only reason I took the job: I read the title." Soon there were websites documenting the progress of the movie and every new trailer would attract mass viewing. The producers even sanctioned the addition of footage that originated in internet parodies of the flick, including the seminal line from Jackson: "I want these motherfucking snakes off this motherfucking plane." Almost Swiftian in its rapier-like subtlety. However, in the cinema spots I began to detect a little nervousness on the part of the studio. The risk was always that SNAKES ON A PLANE just wouldn't be as funny as everyone expected it to be. The ads focused on telling us that this was meant to be a SCARY MOVIE. Laughs were an added bonus.

At any rate, with audiences built in from the internet-hype, SNAKES ON A PLANE wasn't paraded to the critics in advance. I went to the early morning screening on Friday in London and the theatre was packed with fans. The key question is: did they get what they came for? The movie has a plot thinner than Victoria Beckham. It's clearly just a coat hanger on which to place the "concept" of snakes being let loose on a commercial airplane. The idea is that a mean and nasty Asian gang-leader is trying to kill a man who is going to testify against him. That man is being transported back to LA on a commercial jet, escorted by two FBI agents, one of whom is Samuel L. Jackson. Now this Asian gangster doesn't do ordinary, so he puts a carton of dangerous snakes on the plane.

Thin plot aside, the cast is mostly unknown, with the exception of Jackson and Julianna Margulies - the chick from ER. It's fine that there are no big names as the acting required is definitely of the AIRPLANE or NAKED GUN school. We don't have characters as much as stereotypes - the obnoxious rapper hooking on to the fit blonde with the chihuaha in her handbag; the homophobic, misogynistic rapper entourage; the horny couple having sex in the bathroom; the two plucky kids travellong alone. Similarly, when the snakes break into the cabin, the action is very much played for laughs. The snake that attacks the copulating women fastens onto her nipple. The snake that comes up the toilet fastens onto the man's penis. It's THAT kind of movie.

I have to say that for my money, SNAKES ON A PLANE just wasn't that funny - either intentionally or unintentionally. Jackson doesn't get to unleash whoopass in as extreme a manner as I would have liked. But where the movie did succeed for me was a straightforward horror B-movie. In fact, I found SNAKES ON A PLANE more scary than any other horror movie I have seen all year. But then I find snakes super-scary. So maybe my opinion doesn't count.

SNAKES ON A PLANE is on release in Israel, Iceland, Thailand, the UK, the US and Venezuala. It opens in the Philippines, Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Singapore on August 24th and in Belgium and France on August 30th. SNAKES ON A PLANE opens in Argentina, Brazil, Germany and Finland on September 8th an din the Netherlands and Portugal on September 28th. It opens in Lithuania on October 20th. Estonia on October 27th and in Italy on November 24th.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

WILDERNESS - derivative but entertaining Brit thriller

WILDERNESS is a stupid name for this film. It should blatantly have been called THE ISLAND, but I suppose that even low-rent Brit thrillers don't want to associated with Michael Bay. Speaking of which, one of the trailers for this flick was for the Michael Bay movie of TRANSFORMERS*. That's right. Robots in disguise. The mind boggles.

Anyways, back to the plot. WILDERNESS is a suprisingly entertaining revenge drama. The plot is very similar to the better acted, scripted and directed British revenge thriller,
DEAD MAN'S SHOES. A bunch of vicious murderers, sociopaths and rapists are taken by their prison officer for a team-building exercise on a deserted ex-Army base/island. Only problem is some vicious dogs and a sniper start to pick them off one by one for reasons that later become clear. It's not really a horror movie even though there is a lot of high-class gore. It's not really much of a thriller either because the reason for the murders is explained pretty early on. Still, the whole thing is well-made and skips along at a fast pace with a very liberal helping of gallows humour. The exercise gets a touch of class from an impressive cast, headed up by the not-unattractive Sean Pertwee and Toby Kebbell - who is consistently brilliant and deserves more notice.

All in all, despite its admitted predictability, WILDERNESS is a must-see British flick.

WILDERNESS is currently on release in the UK. It's out on Region 2 DVD on December 11th 2006. *Interestingly enough, the man voicing Optimus Prime also voiced Eeyore in the TV version of Winnie the Pooh. Hardly inspiring.

Friday, August 18, 2006

A SCANNER DARKLY - very funny, less profound

A SCANNER DARKLY is a new film from director Richard Linklater. To my mind, Linklater yo-yos as a director. DAZED AND CONFUSED and BEFORE SUNRISE & SUNSET are some of my favourite films, but BAD NEWS BEARS was one of the worst films I saw in 2005. A SCANNER DARKLY is a bit of a mixed bag.

It's based on a story by acclaimed sci-fi writer, Philip K. Dick, and, according to Doctor007, Linklater has managed the rare feat of adapting a Philip K Dick novel well. (I wouldn't know, as I haven't read the book upon which the movie is based.) At any rate, the movie is based in the near-future. California looks pretty much like it does now, just moreso. Government surveillance of its citizens is extreme and explicit and civil liberties have been eroded. Twenty percent of the population is addicted to a class A drug called Substance D and the Government is subservient to big pharma in the form of a company called "New Path" which may be peddling the drug as well as the cure. The only out-and-out neato sci-fi gadget is the "scramble-suit". This is basically an all-over body-suit that projects an ever-shifting array of faces and clothes to other people, totally disguising your identity.

In this world, we hang out with a bunch of junkies, played by
Woody Harrelson, Robert Downey Junior, Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves. Philip K Dick and Downey Junior clearly know whereof they speak and the resulting script and delivery is absolutely hysterical. The drug-fuelled paranoia and doped-out logic of the dialogue made me laugh so much I cried.

But the book and the movie are clearly not just there for laughs. There is serious matter to be considered. The role of the Government and Big Pharma in our lives; the severe medical damage caused by heavy drug use; the difficulty of keeping hold of your identity when you are an under-cover agent. I feel that Linklater is a lot less successful at getting a handle on the serious stuff, perhaps just because the laughs are so good and come so often that the thriller part of the plot is obscured. At any rate, Philip K. Dick's lament for his friends who died from drug over-doses at the end of the movie came as a hard slap to the face. It made me question whether I had missed something in what had preceeded it.

Anyways, despite that slight mis-step, A SCANNER DARKLY is still definitely worth checking out because it IS really funny and secondly it just looks so damn cool. The movie was shot on digital film and then, using a technique called roto-scoping, animaters sort of traced over the film images, colouring them and distorting them where necessary. What you get is a sort-of other-wordly feel. The characters all look like the actors but seem somehow at a distance. It's like watching a really well-made live-action comic. Awesome.

A SCANNER DARKLY premiered out of competition at Cannes 2006 and went on limited release in the US in July. It is currently on release in Brazil and the UK. It opens in Portugal and Australia in September and in Italy, Japan and Spain in October.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

MONSTER HOUSE - awesome kids horror flick

MONSTER HOUSE is a great new digitally animated movie for kids. It knocks the socks off formulaic bilge like OVER THE HEDGE and THE ANT BULLY. And while CARS may have more substance, MONSTER HOUSE has way more thrills and is shorter by about forty-five minutes, which sits nicely with the ADD generation. It was directed by a guy called Gil Kennan and is apparently his first film. Alls I can say is that for a newbie he has a great visual style. Kudos also the the script-writers, artists and actors who have come up with a genuinely funny and scary movie that has a definite Goonies vibe (one of my all-time fave flicks). I can highly recommend it, especially in 3D, which is always fun for kids and for those of us with a mental age of six.

But the big thing you have to remember is that this movie IS scary. Within the first five minutes the mean old man across the street who scares all the kids has a heart attack and dies on a kid. The kid in question - our hero DJ - believes that the old man's house is haunted and with his two friends sets off to investigate. The house swallows people whole, is genuinely creepy and the final sequence involves loud bangs as stuff is blown up with dynamite. Now, imagine being a young kid faced with all this and in 3D. So parents of really young kids, be warned. All others, buy your tickets today!

MONSTER HOUSE is currently on release in the US and UK. International release dates can be found


A YEAR WITHOUT LOVE is a moving film documenting a year in the life of a young, gay, HIV positive writer living in Buenos Aires. Unable to get his poetry published he resorts to writing a diary of his deteriorating health, response to meds and interaction with his crazy aunt and distant father. The movie is shot in a documentary style on Super-16 so often has a grainy quality, but this shouldn't be too much of a problem if you are watching it on DVD. The movie is also unflinching in its portrayal of the underground S&M scene. (It's a year without love, not without sex!) Not for the faint-hearted, but a fascinating and moving (if sometimes slow-paced) portrayal of the search for meaningful contact. (Thanks to Alistair for the tip-off.)

A YEAR WITHOUT LOVE/UN ANO SI AMOR played at Berlin 2005 and did a tour of festivals without ever getting a proper US release. It went on limited release in the Netherlands and the UK earlier in 2006 and was released on Region 2 DVD in July.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

LADY IN THE WATER - a deeply affecting fairy-tale for adults

I know I'm gonna catch all manner of crap for this, but I found THE LADY IN THE WATER to be an enchanting and deeply affecting movie. I wasn't even going to see it because the reviewers had universally panned it. But The Kid wanted someone to take her and, as I am also on vacation, I was roped in.

So, why have the critics panned this movie? I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that M. Night Shyamalan (the writer, director and supporting actor) comes across as an arrogant twat in most of his press coverage. "Night" as he styles himself, appparently sees himself as a visionary auteur who is misunderstood by an uncaring and insensitive world. In Night's personal mythology, mean studios and film critics embody all that is wrong with the world - cynicism, conformity, and (ironically) arrogance. Now, I am not for one minute arguing that film critics can't separate the work from the author - you can hate Wagner the man but love his music, after all. But it is very difficult to separate the two when Night creates a movie that really is just an elaborate representation of his personal mythology. To some extent, I have very little sympathy for Shyamalan. Would it really have been so difficult to cast an actor other than himself as the writer whose work will be so criticial to man's future that the sea-nymphs have sent one of their own to "awaken" him and ensure the work is completed, even at risk to her own life! Not content with casting himself as the saviour of the world, Night then goes on to depict as a film critic (played with suitable froideur by
Bob Balaban) as an arrogant false-god who comes to a violent and deserved end! I was all ready to hate a film that seemed such an extension of ego but.....

Why did THE LADY IN THE WATER weave such a spell over me? Maybe because I am still just a six-year old kid at heart, wanting to believe in sea-nymphs. Maybe because I like the idea that ordinary people can come together to achieve a great good. (Hokey, I know.) I think it is because this movie, like THE SIXTH SENSE and UNBREAKABLE before it, touches on two subjects that have pre-occupied me over the past year: the difficulty of grieving and the difficulty of knowing what purpose life has for us. That Shyamalan chooses to tackle these subjects by using elaborate metaphors and child-like fantasy may seem odd or difficult, but I found it worked really well.

If I look at things objectively, THE LADY IN THE WATER worked for me because first and foremost it created a fantasy world that was internally consistent and so credible. Second, the cast was universally excellent, from
Paul Giamatti as the world-weary Janitor/hero to the supporting cast that includes Jeffrey Wright. Maybe it's because the movie was shot by Christopher Doyle - a man who is known for capturing luminous, haunting images but who can also unsettle with his choice of what is in the frame and what isn't. So often in THE LADY IN THE WATER the camera focuses on the person reacting to dialogue rather than capturing both of the talking heads. Or we look through water, or around corners. There is a particularly stunning shot near the end of the movie where Paul Giamatti's janitor is saying goodbye to the sea-nymph as she is taken back to her world by the eagle. It would have been difficult to show such an event conventionally without breaking the magic. Doyle shoots it up through the swimming pool so that the action is just distorted shapes in the moonlight.

Like I said, THE LADY IN THE WATER has been much maligned by critics and I can see why. Despite being aimed at adults it's an out-and-out fairy-tale in the tradition of the Brothers Grimm (i.e. it includes a fair amount of sexual tension, some racial stereotyping and a lot of scary stuff.) But I have to tell it how I felt it, and for the
second time this year, risk losing any shred of credibility I had as a reviewer. This movie appealed to the little girl who believed in fairy stories in me. As a simple story of faith and hope in a world filled with terror and disaster it affected me deeply. So I would urge you to give it a shot.

THE LADY IN THE WATER is already on release in Thailand, the US, Singapore, India, Chile and the UK. It goes on release in Hong Kong, Iceland, Mexico, Egypt, France, Argentina, Spain and Germany in August 2006. THE LADY IN THE WATER opens in Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, Estonia, Australia, Hungary, Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Portugal and Italy in September. It opens in Japan on October 21st 2006.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

NACHO LIBRE - nowhere near as funny as other Jack Black flicks

NACHO LIBRE is the new movie from the guy - Jared Hess - who gave us the whimsical high school comedy NAPOLEON DYNAMITE. It also stars Jack Black, the comic legend from HIGH FIDELITY and, playing it more straight, KING KONG.

NACHO LIBRE has a deliberately infantile plot. Nacho (Jack Black) is a monk who has to cook food in a poor Mexican monastery cum orphanage. He cooks crappy food because he has no money. He fancies the new teacher, Sister Incarnacion and tries to impress her and give the kids better food by wrestling for money. However, the Church frowns on wrestling.

As one might expect given the plot, the humour in NACHO LIBRE is pretty infantile too. It consists in a really fat guy and a really skinny guy wearing "stretchy pants" getting seven shades of shit kicked out of them in a wrestling ring. When not wrestling, the humour consists in Nacho's afro, manic eyebrows and all the actors using pastiche Mexican accents. It's the kind of slapstick humour the British perfected in unsophisticated comedies such as 'Allo 'Allo.

NACHO LIBRE also has a deliberately infantile directorial style. There is little to no camera movement. Every scene is like a framed picture with all the action in the centre of the screen. Or else it is an aerial shot, usually capturing food that Nacho has arranged into a smiley face. When there is a proper tracking shot it is conspicuous and serves to a highlight a key moment - such as when Nacho has come out as a wrestler to the monastery and walks towards the village putting on his wrestling mask.

I have to say that I normally have no objection to this kind of simplistic, fake-naive comedy. I loved NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, after all. But, much to my surprise, I found NACHO LIBRE a bit weak. It's only ninetey minutes long, but that's a long time to fill if you only have "stretchy pants" and a silly accent. (Amazing, and nice to know, that you can still get away with such non-PC stuff!) So, much to my amazament, I have to give this movie a reluctant thumbs down. I suspect that fans of SCHOOL OF ROCK and other Jack Black fare will be a little disappointed.

NACHO LIBRE is already on release in the US, Puerto Rico, Singapore, Kuwait, Italy, Mexico and the UK. It opens on Agust 18th in Italy and Spain. It opens in September in Finland, Argentina, Australia, Iceland, Brazil and Turkey. It opens in October in Belgium and Japan and in November in France, the Netherlands and Germany.

Monday, August 14, 2006

TIDELAND - the best Gilliam since BRAZIL

TIDELAND is an outstanding new movie from director Terry Gilliam. It tells the tale of a young girl called Jeliza-Rose. A child of rare wit and imagination, Jeliza-Rose is the daughter of heroin addicts. When her mother dies, her father takes her to her grandmother's derelict house in the middle of the countryside. She prepares her father's injections, scrapes peanut-butter from a near-empty jar, and must amuse herself as best she can.

TIDELAND is not a pleasant ride. But, unlike most cinema, it delivers something new, challenging and genuinely disturbing. Not least when Jeliza imagines that she has a boyfriend in a dim-witted young man called Dickens. Or when, in the final ten minutes, you feel the urge to laugh darkly at a Pyscho-esque taxidermy moment. It is the sort of film where you desperately search for a toe-hold, so strange and plentiful are the disturbing and often random occurences. Think Alice in Wonderland re-imagined by Hunter S Thompson by way of the
Polish Brothers and then add that pure undiluted Gilliam visual style. Even the ending is not so much a resolution as a chance to breathe. The overwhelming tone of this film was, for me, sadness for this amazing but lonely little girl who is so desperate for interaction that she will make dolls and ghoulish strangers her best friends.

Kudos must go to Terry Gilliam for adapting the cult novel by Mitch Cullin so faithfully and for coaxing a quite breath-taking performance from Jodelle Ferland, who plays the young girl. This is perhaps the second film this year, after
TONY TAKITANI, to really stay with me long after the screening. And while both have very different stories and styles they are both centred on loneliness, abandonment, and the desperate need to connect.

To my mind, TIDELAND is the best and "most" Gilliam movie since BRAZIL. I strongly urge you to check it out if you are in the mood for something different.

TIDELAND showed at Toronto back in 2005 and has since been on release in Russia, the Netherlands, Greece, Portugal, Belgium, France, Switzerland, Poland, Japan and the Czech Republic. It is currently on release in the UK, Ireland and Iceland and rolls into Taiwan later this month. It opens in Argentina, Canada, Rumania, New York and Finland in October 2006.

Sunday, August 13, 2006


Man. I thought I was bored watching MIAMI VICE. If you choose to disregard my advice (rant) and see this movie you will get very little change from four hours. Of course, long isn't bad all on its own. THE SORROW AND THE PITY is one of the films I admire most and it clocks in at well over four hours. But why take four hours to say something that could easily be said in the regular ninety minutes?

The plot is insultingly simple and I'm going to go ahead and tell you what it is. Don't worry, this doesn't constitute a spoiler. There is barely any plot to spoil and what does happen can be seen half an hour before it actually happens. So, we are in contemporary New York and there is an embittered ex-pro soccer player* called Dev (Shah Rukh Khan) whose career ended after an injury. He resents his high-earning wife, Rhea (Preity Zinta) and is abusive to his young son. Also in New York there is a barren primary school teacher called Maya (Rani Mukherji) who has married a man, Rishi (
Abishek Bachchan) who loves her and settled for cotentment rather than love. They are sexually incompatible. An hour into the movie, Maya and Dev start hanging out and half an hour later they declare their love for each other. Then there is an intermission. After the intermission, Maya and Dev sleep with each other. Then they confess to their other halves who kick them out of their respective houses. Three years later (an hour and a half in movie time but it really does seem like three years) the other halves have moved on and found new loves. But Maya and Dev are alone and miserable because for some odd reason they didn't tell each other that they had been dumped. Rishi and Rhea tell Maya and Dev to get it together (such magnanimity!) and they do. The End.

Like I said, the plot is simple and does not need four hours. We have writer/director Karan Johar to thank for it. Karan Johar is a supreme hack with delusions of profundity. He wants to tell us that the only foundation for a successful marriage is love. Hmmm. Thanks for that, Mr. Johar, but I'm seriously not going to take any advice on adult relationships from a man who writes "I love you, mom" on a credit at the start of his film. And yes, I know that the concept of sanctioned marital infidelity is a novelty in mainstream Bollywood cinema, but KABHI ALVIDA NAA KEHNA is hardly an adult, insightful treatment of this theme. For all its pretensions, this movie is not remotely in the same league as PAGE THREE or SILSILA. I mean, come on, how can you tackle marital infidelity when you haven't got the balls to show two adults so much as kissing on screen?

So this movie sucks. The script and directing are superficial and hammy and Karan Johar cannot do discreet or subdued. Everything is egregious to the point where you want to vomit. At the key "declaration of love" scene between Maya and Dev, he says to her, tearfully: "I'll buy a blue car. I like blue. You like blue..?" She replies, tearfully, "I like blue!" (Audience laughs maniacally.) Everyone on the train platform is now miraculously wearing blue. And now Maya and Dev are wearing blue. I had this compulsion to do an Alan Patridge and keep shouting "A-ha!"

The over the top camera work and production design continue throughout. Someone should tell the photographer that he can use shots other than tight close-ups. Someone should tell the production designer that real houses don't look like pictures from the Heal's home catalogue. Real women don't wear fake eyelashes and hot curlers every day. And they don't go out in the rain without an umbrella. Someone should tell Karan Johar that great directors don't use Manhattan city scape as a vapid picture-postcard, but capture the energy and spirit of the city. They should also tell him that Burberry and Louis Vuitton aren't aspirational but
chav. And while they're at it, they should point out just how crass it is to have a couple about to embark on adultery singing to each other as they walk up the aisle of a Catholic church making the sign of the cross.

In fairness, KABHI ALVIDA NAA KEHNA is delivered by a competent but hamstrung cast. That is, with the exception of lead actor Shah Rukh Khan. Khan's apparent desire to be David Beckham and/or an MTV star is induldged to the hilt and his "acting" is absurdly over the top.

All in all, KABHI ALVIDA NAA KEHNA feels like a delusional attempt at profundity from a director best known for creating crappy, melodramatic B movies. It is the most expensive Bollywood movie ever made, apparently, and that will guarantee it some publicity. Maybe it will have a large box office taking. Frankly, the whole exercise looks like a shameless cash-in. Why else would Johar give small cameos to stars such as Kajol, Arjun Rampal and John Abraham if not to lure in their respective fan-bases? Oh yeah, and the music sucks. The dance numbers are derivative and sound like shitty Euro-house with the odd tabla beat and Hindi lyrics.

KABHI ALVIDA NAA KEHNA is on release in India, the US, the UK, the Netherlands and Australia. *I know, I fell off my seat laughing at that one, too.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

VOLVER - the genius of Almodovar

Ah the delight of having a new Pedro Almodovar movie to watch! Let me make no apology - Almodovar is by far my favourite contemporary film-maker and for many people, the fact that this movie carries his name is enough to ensure that they make the trip to the cinema. But how can I convince others to shell out that ten squid?

Almodovar is a Spanish director who grew up in La Mancha with his indomitable mother. As a result his movies delight in the colours, language, music, costume and food of Spain. But more than being great exemplars of Spanish culture, Almodovar's movies are full of life in all its glory. By which I mean that you are as likely to see a transexual or drug addict as a provincial grand-mother. All are treated with equal warmth and, unlike more preachy cinema, never need to be explained or made an issue of. Almodovar's films also feature strong female characters, and focus on the relationships between women. (BAD EDUCATION being the exception to this rule.) Men are often predators although even then they can be treated with empathy and sometimes sympathy. This means that unlike conventional cinema, these films are full of eccentric characters and deliver great opportunities for actresses to give impressive performances that combine humour and tragedy. Anything can happen in an Almodovar film but it is always grounded in authentic emotion.

VOLVER, which means "coming back" in Spanish, combines all those wonderful, familiar Almodovar traits. The film is set half in Madrid and half in a provincial town in La Mancha. The cast is almost entirely female and features a "coming back" to Almodovar for Penelope Cruz (ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER), Lola Duenas (TALK TO HER) and Carmen Maura (WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN). Penelope Cruz makes a triumphant and award-winning return to Spanish-language cinema, playing Raimunda. She is a feisty, curvaceous house-wife living in the crappier part of Madrid with her teenage daughter Paula and her unemployed sleazy husband Paco. Famously, Penelope wears a fake arse and a push-up bra for the role, allowing Almodovar to cheekily photograph her cleavage from above. Almodovar explained that this was not because Penelope had an unattractive arse or was too thin - but that to him a really fat arse represented optimism and passion for life. You've just got to love this guy! Raimunda has a quieter, aptly titled sister, Sole (Lola Duenas.) Sole is alone - separated from her husband and feeling the loss of her mother, whose ghost (Carmen Maura) returns with Sole to Madrid. Add to this supernatural plot, sexual violence, murder and a lot of really really good food, and you get your typically brilliant Almodovar movie.

For me VOLVER is about the importance of family and friends and helping each other out of those lonely times. Most of all it is about that instinct for survival that gets us through the worst of times. Not ground-breaking for sure, but delivered with so much good-humour and genuine pathos that it is deeply affecting. In particular, Penelope Cruz delivers an oustanding performance. Raimunda is at once self-reliant and no-nonsense but at other times incredibly vulnerable.

What more can I say? VOLVER combines the darker subject matter of recent films such as BAD EDUCATION with the technicolour out-landish-ness of movies such as TIE ME UP, TIE ME DOWN. It is a funny, moving, beautifully acted and photographed movie about eccentric people and events but very real emotions. It deserves all the praise it has received and then some. Go see it!

VOLVER played at Cannes 2006 where it won prizes for its script and female cast. It has already been on release in Spain, Belgium, France, Italy, Switzerland, Israel, Hungary, Germany, Estonia and Russia. VOLVER opens in the Netherlands and UK on August 25th, Finland on September 1st; Hungary and Portugal on September 7th and Poland and Sweden on September 29th. The movies opens in Argentina on October 2th and in the US (NYC & LA) on November 3rd. It rolls into Japan on 11th November 2006.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

THE ANT BULLY - inferior kids flick

THE ANT BULLY is an inferior animated kids movie that comes neither from Pixar nor Dreamworks. It features worse digital animation and scripting than we have come to expect, although still filling the celebrity voice-over quota - this time with Nic Cage, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep and Paul Giamatti. The movie is written and directed by John A. Davies, the cinematic powerhouse (!) that gave us JIMMY NEUTRON: BOY GENIUS. The idea is that a little kid is being bullied at school and he in turn vents his frustration by bullying ants in his garden. By a strange turn of fate, he himself becomes ant-size and learns all those valuable life lessons that we expect from a kids flick, like Communism is Good! Wait a minute....

If you're a desperate parent THE ANT BULLY might suffice, but if you can you should take your kids Iunless they're really small) to see MONSTER HOUSE instead.

THE ANT BULLY is on release in the US, Israel and the UK. It opens in France, Singapore, Argentina and Taiwan on August 10th; Portugal and Venezuala on August 17th; Greece and Iceland on the 31st; Egypt, Brazil, Spain, Hungary and Italy in September; Finland, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Belgium and Japan in October.

Monday, August 07, 2006

CSA - what if the South had won the civil war?

CSA - The Confederate States of America - is a mockumentary in the style of THIS IS SPINAL TAP. This time, the subject of the satire is American race relations. More specifically, CSA asks what US history would have been like if the Confederate South had won the American Civil War. It does this using a mock BBC documentary format, with fake talking heads, fake old news footage and even fake TV spots. The charm of watching this flick is to see how events would have unfolded through world war two to the present day, but some "highlights" include the Confederate government confining American Jews to a ghetto on Long Island and JFK being assassinated because of his dangerous views on anti-apartheid.

The scary part about this film is that it soon stops being funny. TV spots for products like Sambo motor oil and Coon Chicken are sickening. It's also salutory to see how little authentic TV news footage needs to be changed to make it seem like the South won the war. There is a particularly chilling scene which shows a presidential debate between JFK and Nixon. JFK is, in the parallel universe, arguing for the abolition of slavery. The editors use actual footage of JFK arguing that the emancipation proclamation should be a beginning not an end. Throughout the documentary you realise how far images of slavery are still used in society, apparently with little recognition let alone protest. But the larger point is that while the North may have won the civil war, in practical terms, this did not help the african-americans as much as one might have hoped.

So this is a provocative, if not funny, movie and deserves to be seen. My only reservation is that the neat concept and powerful argument have been hammered home long before the ninety minute running time is up.

CSA - The Confederate States of America showed at Sundance in 2004. It has just opened in the UK but comes out on Region 1 DVD on tomorrow.

Sunday, August 06, 2006


MY SUPER EX-GIRLFRIEND is a flaccid romantic comedy starring Luke Wilson and Uma Thurman. I say flaccid because it's not really that funny, but it is quite sweet and would serve as a mindless Friday night date movie. The deal is that Luke Wilson plays a nice, if slightly nerdy, architect who picks up a nerdy looking chick (Thurman) on the tube. It turns out that she's actually wild in bed and, more to the point, a super-hero called G-GIRL. (No ribald sub-text there, then!) Problems arise when the nice guy dumps the neurotic super-hero and she turns into a bunny-(well, goldfish)boiler. But, as the genre requires, it all ends up with everyone happy and loved up in their gorgeous designer apartments. In other words, this is a movie for those kind of dates wherein what is happening on screen is not of primary concern.....One final thing to mention is that a lot of the marketing for this movie focuses on the fact that it is directed by the man who gave us the seminal 80s comedy classic, GHOSTBUSTERS. This is a misleading signal.

MY SUPER EX-GIRLFRIEND is already on release in Australia, Puerto Rico, the US and UK. It opens in France and Singapore on August 9th 2006; Argentina on August 17th and Egypt on August 30th. The movie opens in Estonia on September 1st; Greece and Portugal on September 14th; Belgium, Hungary and Finland on September 22nd and in the Netherlands on September 28th. It finally rolls into Germany on October 5th and Spain on October 20th.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

This month's self-explanatory environmental doc.: WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR?

WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR? is another in the current trend for interesting high-quality consumer advocacy and environmental documentaries. Written and directed by newbie, Chris Paine, the clue is as ever in the title. To quote the tagline, "In 1996, electric cars began to appear on roads all over California. They were quiet and fast, produced no exhaust and ran without gasoline...........Ten years later, these cars were destroyed." The story is a chilling one. Back in the early 1990s General Motors developed an electric car, followed closely by a number of other car-makers. They were spurred to do so by the California state legislature, which enacted a law demanding that a certain percentage of cars sold in the state were zero-emmision. That percentage was going to be ramped up over the years until the old gas-guzzling, pollution-emmiting combustion engines were a matter of history. Paine interviews a bunch of people who had these cars and loved them - from ordinary drivers to the likes of Mel Gibson and (via Letterman?) Tom Hanks.

What happens next is the dark side of capitalism. A whole host of people from Big Oil to Big Autos to the Federal Government combined to squish the electric car. California withdrew their pioneering state legislation and soon all the cars had been withdrawn and just tossed on the trash-heap.

This documentary is a pleasure to watch, not just because it has structure and is well-filmed. It is one of the most balanced documentaries I have seen. Chris Paine is not afraid of presenting the opposing case - something that Michael Moore is often loathe to do - and even the website catalogues the pros and cons of each side's argument.

In short, watching WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR? may not be the most fun time you can have at the cinema, but it is definitely worth checking out, if only on DVD. And remember, this isn't some local dispute. California is the world's fifth largest economy. What happens there impacts on the rest of us.

WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR? showed at Sundance 2006 and is currently on limited release in the US and UK.

Friday, August 04, 2006

MIAMI VICE moved so slow it grew moss

I have to confess that I never saw a single episode of smash-hit TV series of MIAMI VICE back in the '80s. So to me, it will always be something to be parodied - those blond high-lights, white jackets with the sleeves rolled up - just a pop-culture reference from Adam Sandler's THE WEDDING SINGER. My lack of familiarity with the TV series may, however be an advantage in viewing the new movie, because a lot of fans have complained that aside from the names of the characters, not much is the same. Perhaps they were expecting a more cheesy Bad Boys style gag-fest.

What they get is a dark crime thriller with a great cast (Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell) and director. Michael Mann is the guy who directed MANHUNTER, ALI, THE INSIDER and perhaps most famously, HEAT. Even the minor characters are played by some of the finest character actors around: not least
Ciaran Hinds and Naomie Harris. And let's not forget that this movie is photographed by Dion Beebe - a truly great cinematographer - who also shot the lush MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA and Michael Mann's outstanding feature, COLLATERAL.

Am I boring you yet? The key point is that this movie has pedigree. Why then did I find my mind wandering during the screening? The thing is that the movie is very very long and moves at a very very slow pace. The plot is interesting, I guess. The acting is good. The script is intelligent and I can over-look the odd cheesy line. The action sequences are tense, the violence is high-impact and there are plenty of money-shots of fast cars and speedboats, But ye gods, MIAMI VICE moves slow. Humbly, I have the solution. The screenwriter could have axed the whole Isabella/Gong Li plot-line and saved the audience an hour of time and the more absurd plot contrivances. Seriously, am I really meant to believe that a hard-headed businesswoman is going to fall for Crockett's sly salsa moves?! My only other gripe is that the movie is shot on hi-def video and looks really grainy and washed out. In particular, check out a scene around 15 minutes in when Crockett and Tubbs are driving in their car at night and are called in by their chief. It looks like a worn out old VHS cassette.

Overall, MIAMI VICE is a mediocre thriller with above-average action shots but presented in a grainy print. For this reason, and so you can fast forward through the dull "let's-go-to-Cuba" sequence, it's probably one to rent on DVD.

MIAMI VICE is already on release in such disparate places as Puerto Rica, Thailand, the US, Canada, Uruguay, the Philippines, Israel, Portugal and Russia. It opens today in the UK and Mexico. In opens in Australia, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden on August 11th and in Belgium, France, Argentina, the Czech Rep., the Netherlands, South Korea and Estonia on the 17th. It opens in Egypt, Germany, Hungary, Brazil and Poland on the 25th August. It opens in Spain and Turkey on September 8th, Venezuals on September 15th, Japan on the 23rd, Greece on the 28th and finally in Italy on October 8th.

Thursday, August 03, 2006


This month's overlooked DVD is A TALE OF TWO SISTERS. It's a superb mind-bending movie from the South Korean director who made this year's stand-out gangster movie, A BITTERSWEET LIFE. In fairness, it's by far not a hidden jem in South East Asia - indeed in South Korea it's one of the highest grossing movies of all time. But it got a super-limited release in the UK and deserves a lot more recognition. So here goes....

A TALE OF TWO SISTERS is more of a psychological thriller than a typical horror movie, although it does contain flashes of gore and some truly frightening material. The movie is based on a truly Grimm fairy tale about two young sisters who go to live with their father and wicked stepmother in the countryside. Director Kim Jee-Woon knows how to scare an audience. He starts off with a scene is a sterile white room - perhaps an asylum. A girl is brought in. We cannot see her face and she will not respond to the doctor's questions or the photograph of a seemingly happy family. We then cut to the events of the story. The opening half hour has a slow, worryingly calm tone. The family move to the kind of claustrophic, colour-saturated countryside that evokes those menacing forests of Litte Red Riding Hood and Beauty and the Beast. But then little cracks start to appear. One sister starts acting up with the stepmother. There are arguments followed by a macabre dinner party. The father withdraws into himself and the colour-coding becomes even more heightened. The strange occurences come thick and fast now. What really happened to the girls' mother? How wicked is the stepmother? Why are there sounds coming from beneath the floorboards and the kitchen sink?

The first time I watched this movie at the cinema I had really no clue what was going on and when I got some inkling near the end it was a complete mind-explosion. I had to go back and watch it again. It's that kind of movie. I've since watched it a couple more times and always pick up more about the story but also appreciate more the detailed and deliberate use of colour, props and editing. Upon reflection this movie reminds me of a complex elegant puzzle that gives great intellectual satisfaction once you've worked it out but also pleases aesthetically. Not to mention the blood-curdling horror!

So, as far as I am concerned, this is the best horror flick I've seen since THE SHINING - but then I really go for the psychological stuff. It's beautifully put together, satisfies on many levels and never gets old.

A TALE OF TWO SISTERS was released in South Korea in 2003 and in the US and UK in 2004. It is now available on DVD including a deluxe two disc set that features extensive interviews with cast and director and full audio commentaries. Apparently there is going to be a Hollywood remake released in 2008, but as the South Korean has vowed to avoid it like the plague I suggest you do likewise!

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE - brilliant woman; brilliant movie

THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE is the latest film from the director of cult movie, AMERICAN PYSCHO, Mary Harron. The movie is a biopic of Bettie Page - one of the most famous pin-ups of the 1950s.

The first thing to say is that THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE is a beautifully produced film. Using black and white and colour photography, Harron creates a picture postcard nostalgic vision of the US in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. The sets, costumes and music are all perfect - and for those of us with a bent toward the music of Artie Shaw and Patsy Cline, this is a soundtrack to die for.

Against this background we have Bettie Page herself - brought to life by Gretchen Mol. It's a break-out performance. Mol conveys Page's complex mix of intelligence, religious fervour and sheer unabashed delight in her own naked form. The combination of Bettie's peaches and cream megawatt smile and the bondage gear is devestating.

I also love that Harron resists doing the usual melodramatic rise and fall of the tragic heroine schtick. Bettie does have a horrid upbringing in Nashville, but this is handled discreetly and with sensitivity. At the height of her notoriety she keeps a level, thoughtful head. And when she does give it all up for a life of preaching there is no shock conversion or melo-dramatic renouncement - she simply starts reading the Bible to passers-by. And no, she is not ashamed of what she did - she's just following a different path now. Best of all, Harron avoids the big-drama Congressional Hearing show-down that I feared we were building up to throughout the movie.

Overall then, THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE is a cracking movie. It's always a pleasure to see a strong, beautiful, in-control woman on screen. And it's great to see a textured view both of the religious South and the New York porn industry. Others may patronise Bettie for her apparently simple-minded belief in Jesus, but the movie never does. And while Bettie perhaps got into poses a little racier than she at first realised, there is undoubtedly more overt sexual exploitation in her wholesome childhood town than in the photographic studios of New York.

What more can I say? This is a beautifully produced, fascinating movie about an intelligent, beautiful woman who gains control over her life and happiness. And all without an ounce of Schmaltz.

THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE premiered at Toronto 2005 and went on limited release in the US & Canada in April 2006. It goes on release in the UK on Friday and comes out on Region 1 DVD in September.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

OMKARA - stunning Indian Othello

OMKARA is a stunning new version of Othello. It is set in a rural outpost of contemporary India where elections are determined by political hooligans - bribes, assassinations and threats. In this world of inverted morality, Omi (Othello) is a powerful man, second only to Bhaisaab (Brabanzio). These men wield so much power that Bhaisaab can have a public train stopped and run back to the station it has long since left because Omi needs to get off and perform a task. However, in a move as improbable as the Shakespeare play, Omi - the low-born, half-caste, thug, habitually dressed in black - attracts a young, innocent, well-born girl called Dolly (Desdemona). She leaves her family to live with Omi even before they are married much to eveyone's shock, not least Omi. Even his sister Indu (Emilia) laughs at his good fortune. Indu is married to Omi's second-in-command, the scheming bastard, Langda Tyagi. At least, Tyagi thinks he's second-in-comand until Omi complacently hands this role to the dashing womaniser Kesu (Cassio.) Kesu will deliver more rigged votes, and Omi foolishly believes that Tyagi will "understand". So begins the Shakespearian tragedy. The morally bankrupt Tyagi sets out to put Omi in a murderous, jealous rage - using his unwitting wife Indu to frame Dolly for sleeping with Kesu.

The movie is co-adapted, scored and directed by Vishal Bharadwaj and he deserves much praise. He has created a movie of rare intelligence and beauty. The camerawork is fluid without calling attention to itself. The production design is stunning - India is all rugged hills, dust, dirt and cell-phones. The music makes good use of Sukhvinder Singh's unique voice. Admittedly, I do not think the two "item numbers" featuring Bipasha Basu as the lewd dancer in a road-side inn can compare to last year's hit from BUNTY AUR BABLI, Kajra Re. However, the love song O Saathi Re is absolutely beautiful. I loved the script with its fiercely crude language and occasional flashes of dark humour. And most of all, I loved the acting performances. All these actors have form - appearing in small budget art movies alongside the bigger budget Bollywood hits. Ajay Devgan (Omi) was remarkable in RAINCOAT. Kareena Kapoor (Dolly) showed her range in CHAMELI. Saif Ali Khan (Tyagi) and Naseerudin Shah were hysterical in
BEING CYRUS. Finally, Konkona Sen Sharma showed her class in last year's PAGE THREE.

I have a couple of quibbles with the precise details of the adaptation of the ending, for which read on underneath the release date stuff. Other than that, if you have two and a half hours to spare and fancy a thorough work-out of heart and mind, you should check OMKARA out.

OMKARA is currently on cinematic release in the UK, US and India.

Spoiler alert.....

Okay, so there are two major departures from the source material. The first is that the Othello figure doesn't start off as a great and noble general with stories of the wars with which to dazzle Desdemona. He's a crook. This makes the already improbable love even more improbable. It also means the tragedy is not your classical fall from grace kind. I mean, Omi is no scumbag. He always intended to marry Dolly not just to have his way with her. But he is no Great Man fallen. I suppose his tragedy is that he only becomes noble after murdering his love: in leaving Tyagi alive. My other niggle is that while I loved that the female characters are a lot more feisty in Omkara than in Othello, why does Indu have to kill Tyagi? It makes the ending of the movie rather neater than the play, which to my mind contradicts the gray-scale morality of the piece. This should not be about apportioning blame neatly. In the Shakespeare, Iago stabs Emilia and then absconds, to be caught and brought back in by the Law. Othello has a swipe at him, but Iago is left to face the courts, vowing never to speak again. I rather liked that. The innocent is dead, the murdering husband a suicide, but evil exists still.