Tuesday, February 28, 2006

WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?!

So, this week's Box Office is in, and to my shock and horror, the execrable pile of wank, DATE MOVIE is the new UK number one. Capitalism is about choice, and if people want to hand over 10 hard earned honest British pounds to see this crap what can I do? But, to all you 130,000 people who went to see DATE MOVIE last weekend, let me say this: Dear Lord, WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?! You need to go and sit in the corner and think very very carefully about what you have done.

PERFECT CATCH - perfect date movie

The first time I saw FEVER PITCH, marketed in the UK as PERFECT CATCH, I hated it. I thought it was a glossy, vapid, Hollywood chick-flick, lacking intelligence and wit. However, I was WRONG. It wasn't my fault: I had been a complete sucker. The marketing posters had sold me a remake of the British film of the same name, based on the novel by Nick Hornby. So, I had gone into the cinema expecting a movie about a middle-aged teacher struggling to come to terms with life as an adult: balancing his complicated relationship with his father and his first serious relationship with his fanatical devotional to Arsenal football club. Both the novel and the original film were trememdous: they were genuinely funny, and genuinely insightful about modern life and relationships. The movie even looked grey and gritty, and in case we were ever in any doubt, we even had the Hillsborough disaster to ground us. By contrast, the Hollywood remake recasts the story in America and instead of a Gooners fan, we have Jimmy Fallon as a Boston Redsocks fan, falling in love with career woman played by Drew Barrymore.

The key to enjoying the remake is to completely empty your brain of any fragment of the source material:
to take it as a stand-alone, original movie. Even better, ignore the marketing campaign that tells you it is a romantic COMEDY. Yes, yes, Drew Barrymore is a decent comedic actress and Jimmy Fallon (TAXI aside) is a decent stand-up comedian, but that is not what this film is about. If you look for belly-laughs you'll be disappointed. But if you adjust your expectations as instructed, what you'll get is a really sweet date movie, perfectly cast, that IS schmaltzy and glossy, but that gives you a nice warm feeling inside. Aaah! I love Asian ultra-violence as much as the next girl but, every now and then, it's lovely to inhabit a world where chicks don't mind when their boyfriends watch Match of the Day, and guys don't care when their girlfriends work late, and your team wins the The Ashes, I mean World Series.

PERFECT CATCH/FEVER PITCH is now available on DVD.

GUY X - what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.

There are lots of great films about the absurdity of war that combine black comedy with insightful social comment. GUY X is not one of them. GUY X is what happens when you take all that is wickedly funny, noble and true in M*A*S*H and CATCH-22 and then invert it. The film tells the story of a young soldier in 1979 who is posted to Greenland by mistake. Unable to resolve this clerical error he sets about writing the Base newspaper for the autocractic Colonel Woolrap while romancing Woolrap's chick. The movie fails to create the claustrophic, Kafka-esque atmosphere necessary and has NOT ONE SINGLE funny line or moment. The romance between Jason Biggs and Natasha McElhone is insipid. Worse still, McElhone and Jeremy Northam - two fine British actors - cannot do American accents. The final nail in the coffin is when the director lazily sticks "War (What is it good for?)" by Edwin Starr on the soundtrack. This is a brave move because as every funk fan knows, the response to the question is "absolutely nothing". Cue the inevitable title for my review....

GUY X played a bunch of minor Film Festivals including the oh-so-wittily named RAINDANCE festival in London in autumn 2005. It is currently on limited release in Canada and is available on Region 2 DVD.

Monday, February 27, 2006

McLIBEL - The point being?

McLIBEL is a straightforward documentary about two court cases involving two tree-hugging hippies. Back in 1986 these two helped put together and distribute a leaflet accusing McDonalds of five things: selling food that contributed to cancer and heart disease; deliberately manipulating children with advertising; exploiting their workers through low pay, poor conditions and restrictions on unionisation; damaging the rainforest through intensive cattle-rearing; and cruelty to animals. McDonalds decided to sue the hippies for libel in the UK, a country where the libel laws are notoriously favourable to the plaintiff and the defendants are not eligible for legal aid.

As is know well-known, the judge in the case decided against the hippies and in favour of McDonalds ON BALANCE but only because the hippies didn't have enough cash to fly in witnesses. Indeed, even without cash, they still managed to get the judge to rule that Maccy D did in fact exploit kids, pay low wages and screw over little fluffy bunny rabbits, I mean, cows. So, while Maccy-D won the battle they truly lost the war. Back in the day, the issues of epidemic obesity and environmental damage were not widely discussed in the mainstream media. But during the case, the hippies got free publicity for their cause and donations to find a website. Even better, in February 2005 they successfully took the UK Government to the European Court of Human Rights, where the judges found unanimously that the UK libel laws were an infringeing free speech. So, it really was a case of McDonald's scoring an own goal.

All this is well and good, but one does slightly wonder what the point of this documentary is. The issues raised by these two campaigners are now thoroughly absorbed into the mainstream, so that even to a greedy, capitalist bastard like myself, it seems self-evident that kids should not be exposed to junk food TV commercials. You can barely switch on the radio without hearing of some Government iniative to tackle obesity. I am grateful to these two courageous campaigners for refusing to be intimidated by Big Business, and for standing up for consumer rights. And while this story would make for a great article in Vanity Fair, it does not make for great cinema. Indeed, the director of this piece relies on the strength of the story to mask the fact that she has no understanding of cinema as a medium. Not only are the production values poor, and the re-enactments of the court-room drama ropey, but she relies entirely on bald statements of fact. To use the tired cliche - "a picture paints a thousand words". No scientist boring me with facts about cancer is going to make me forego my Chicken Nuggets as quickly as seeing Morgan Spurlock chunder his quarterpounder out of the window of his car. Evidently, the lard-buying public agrees with me. It is SUPERSIZE ME, not McLIBEL, that got Maccy D to change it's evil ways.

McLIBEL was originally released as a TV doc in 1996 and got a brief cinematic release in spring 2005. It is back on UK screens to coincide with the DVD release.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

CROSSING THE BRIDGE: THE SOUNDS OF ISTANBUL

CROSSING THE BRIDGE aims to do two things. First, it wants to show us the range of music being played in the vibrant Turkish music scene. Second, it wants to use this insight as a spring-board to a deeper discussion about Turkish culture and politics. Indeed, it starts off with a quotation from Confucius: "To understand a place you must know the music made there."

Where the film succeeds beyong all expectation is in showcasing the best of Turkish music. This is made possible by German prog-rock guitarist Alexander Hacke's close links with the musical community in Istanbul. This allows him to simply show up with a whole bunch of microphones and record what is happening. We go from progressive rock to hip-hop to traditional Romany and Kurdish music and back again.

We start of with Turkish prog rock played by Baba Zula and Orient Expressions. The music is great, rhythem-led, and sounds rather like the sort of stuff being put out by Sebastian Rochford's jazz fusion outfit, Polar Bear. Next, we move on to Istanbul's grunge rock scene, with bands Duman and Replikas. After that, we move on to the grand-daddy of Turkish rock - Erkin Koray - and lots of hysterical vintage footage of Erkin going Hendrix. Next, on to the hip-hop scene. For me, the music really kicked into gear when we got to the traditional Romany music from Western Turkey, using clarinets and ouds. The musicians Selim Sesler and Brenna MacCrimmon are outstandingly talented and it is a strength of the film that thanks to Alexander Hacke's friendship with Selim, we get a glimpse of traditional Romany jam sessions and weddings. Pure musical bliss.

We head back to Istanbul to meet street musician Siyasiyabend, who criticises people like Erkin Koray for romaticising the street. As one of his colleagues says, when you lay your head on the road to sleep at night you know that concrete is just concrete, nothing more nothing less. And then onto a series of rather poor eighties throw-backs in the shape of movie stars Orhan Gencebay and Sezen Aksu.

Clearly this movie is not for people who have no interest in world music. And, to the extent that the film is basically a series of jam sessions, whether you'll enjoy the film will depend on how much you like each of the acts.
While the movie does give us brief glimpses into the socio-politics of Turkey, the comments are never more than superficial and anyone coming to this purely for the politics will be sorely disappointed.

Having said all that, what social commentary there is in the film is rather cheering. In an age of trumped-up inter-civilisational tension, it is nice to know that angry teenagers are singing whiny rubbish lyrics the world over. It is great to see the Americanised Ali G type claiming that he is "keeping it real" despite the fact that he has just spent 15 million lire on rims for his car. I love the fact that we can have flash chavs in Turkey as well as Staines. And, in a rare success for the European Union, it is cool to see that Kurdish musicians now have the right to sing in their own language again.

CROSSING THE BRIDGE premiered at Cannes 2005 and went on release in France, Germany and Austria last summer. It is on limited release in the UK but there is no scheduled release date for the US.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

ONE NIGHT IN MONG KOK - over-rated Hong Kong thriller

2004 was a vintage year for Asian cinema, as one can tell from a brief survey of the runners in the Hong Kong film awards for that year. Wong Kar Wei's flawed masterpiece, 2046, was nominated in practically all the categories and won the Best Actor and Actress awards, as well as for Best Cinematography and Design. That work of cinematic genius, KUNG FU HUSTLE, also won a bunch of awards, including Best Film. One of my all-time favourite movies, OLDBOY, won Best Asian Film, with ZATOICHI also nominated. But neither 2046 nor KFH got the Best Director gong - that went to Yee Kung-Shing for ONE NIGHT IN MONG KOK. So immediately, I need to see this film, and now that it is out on Region 2 DVD, I finally get my chance.

The opening 15 minutes set up the movie in real style. We see two rival triad gangs going, literally, head-on, in a brothel-brawl that spills out into a vicious car accident. Apparently, this is every day stuff in Mong Kok - a district of Hong Kong teeming with mobsters, drug-dealers, whores and people flogging fake Rolexes. (So, sort of like Oxford Street, but without the mobsters and drug-dealers.) The action is shot in black and white with hand-held cameras. The whole thing has real energy and authenticity. You think you are in for the Hong Kong version of CITY OF THE GODS. Flip to the next day and the "middle" of the movie. Daniel Yu plays a provincial dolt who has been shipped in by one of the gang leaders, via the local "fixer", to kill the other gang leader. The key point is that Daniel Yu's character is not a professional assassin but a poor kid who fully realises that he is likely to be caught and serve time for murder. But he is still willing to go through with the assassination, secure in the knowledge that his family will be living off the phat cash he has earned. The police are afraid that a successful assassination will provoke full-scale gang warfare and try to prevent the murder.

There are two things wrong with the middle of the film. First, the attempt at realism in the first segment is undermined by the cartoon-like characters in the second segment. The fixer and his wife and dressed in the kind of mad, country club get-up last seen on a golf course in the 1950s. The fixer has "jingle bells" as his ring-tone, this being Christmas Eve. These characters ARE funny, but completely destroy the tension. The second major error is the introduction of a cliched "hooker with a heart of gold" character. By pure chance/fate, our erstwhile assassin saves the life of an annoyingly flaky prostitute called Dan Dan, played by Cecilia Cheung, who is also earning money by dubious means for her dear family back in Hicksville. Together these two skip through Mong Kok, eating obscenely large meals and buying gold chains with their new cash. The whole thing is rather irritating and dull and goes on for around an hour.

However, the final twenty minutes almost, but not quite, redeem the picture. We are back to gritty, urban, intelligent, ultra-violent thriller. We see how the police are conflicted between doing the right thing, and just keeping their heads down and staying alive: the pressures of making " a big bust" to get promotion versus the need to solve the actual case in hand. These are not the wholly corrupt police of Hollywood movies, nor are they whiter-than-white. Instead, they make wrong choices for the right reasons. Similarly, our assassin gets entangled both with the police and Dan Dan's angry trick. The whole thing is a chapter of accidents and mistakes and no-one comes out of it with much glory.

To sum up: the beginning and end of ONE NIGHT IN MONG KOK are stylish, substantially interesting, and tense. The middle is deeply deeply dull. Whether it is worth your renting the DVD anyways will largely depend on how fond you are of Asian ultra-violence. I have to say that I am pretty addicted to extreme cinema, but, on balance, I probably could have done without this movie.

ONE NIGHT IN MONGKOK was released in Asia in 2004, and had a limited release in UK cinemas in September 2005. It is now available on Region 2 DVD.

Friday, February 24, 2006

THE FOG - not scary

Well, I can't call THE FOG "this week's piss-poor seventies remake" because it is based on a movie that came out in 1980, but you get the drift. The 1980s version was directed by John Carpenter (of HALLOWEEN fame) and was a moderately successful horror film. As the title suggests, an American coastal town is enveloped in fog, out of which emerge vengeful ghost sailors. Oh yes. The movie wasn't fantastic but it looked great, the acting was fine, and Carpenter did manage to ratchet up the tension as the story progressed. I haven't seen it for a while, but I do remember a few moments that made me jump. The problem with the remake is that it looks fake, the acting is poor, and it is not scary AT ALL. While I was sitting in the theatre not being scared I had some time on my hands. I spent that time wondering: a) why remake THE FOG at all? b) why use CGI fog when it just looks fake rather than creepy, and you can make real fog easily enough? c) why is Tom Welling a.k.a Clark Kent in TV's Smallville not making harmless teen comedies? d) what the hell is Selma Blair doing with her career? I honestly think she is great actress, but with the exception of the Todd Solondz flick, STORYTELLING, how would we know? e) can we sue director, Rupert Wainwright, for crimes against cinema? So far, he has inflicted MC Hammer videos, STIGMATA and this god-awful remake on us. If we don't incarcerate him, he'll probably end up helming Deuce Bigalow 3. Answers on the back of a post-card please.

THE FOG went on release in the US in October 2005. It is now on release in the UK, Austria and Germany and hits France on April 12th 2006.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

PRIMER - Donnie Darko for grown-ups

PRIMER is a tricksy little movie, now available on DVD. Think of it as Donnie Darko for adults. What, you haven't seen Donnie Darko?! Okay, let me break it down for you. PRIMER features a couple of sci-tech geeks who spend their free-time cooking up cool gadgets with an eye on coining in the proverbial phat cash with a patent. Instead of creating a fridge they manage to create a time-machine! (Seriously, that shit happens to *my* scientist friends all the time.) So they do what every self-respecting capitalist bastard would do: they go back in time to gamble on the stock market. Of course, one of the two gets intoxicated on the power that time travel gives him over other people's lives and starts getting all uppity, and the other one tries to stop him, and you end up with all sorts of duplicate people running around town in bad suits. What's to like about this flick? It looks and sounds slick despite the fact that it was made for about fifty squid. The ideas, if not original, are passed off with conviction and credibility. So far this year, I have had to believe Gwyneth Paltrow as a genius Mathmo, and Jennifer Aniston as a seductress. Believe me, these boys actually make it look, well, real, when they talk about physics. (In fairness, I know nothing of science and I am sure the film looks shaky if you actually know math.) Anyways, this is a cool thriller - messes with your head a bit, makes you think, freaks you out - and gets you safely home after 83 minutes. You can't say fairer than that. And if you still don't understand the plot after listening to the Director's Commentary, some cine-geek with even more time on his hands than me has drawn up a handy wall-chart! I kid you not - all answers are to be found here.

PRIMER hit the big time at Sundance 2004, went on limited release in the UK in September 2005 and is now available on Region 2 DVD.


Wednesday, February 22, 2006

CAPOTE - Great performances but not a great movie

I am rather conflicted about the much-praised movie, CAPOTE. The movie attempts to give us the essence of the character and life of American author Truman Capote by focusing on the years 1959 to 1964. We meet Capote enjoying the success of the novella, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, holding court at the kind of jazz-and-gin-fuelled parties depicted in the movie starring Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard. Capote himself is an absurd figure. The victim of a troubled childhood, he escaped Alabama for the New York literary scene. He is over-weight, speaks in a high-pitched nasal whine, and is extremely camp. He hangs around with his childhood friend, Nelle Harper Lee, who is on the verge of astronomical success with her novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

One day, Capote reads of a seemingly random act of violence in small-town Kansas. A well-loved, upper-middle class family have been gunned down in their own home, all for fifty bucks and a radio. Capote persuades The New Yorker magazine editor, Wallace Shawn, to finance a trip to Kansas to investigate and write-up the impact of the murder of the Clutter family on a small town. His interest is not in “whodunnit”. However, once he meets the two boys who committed the murders, the magazine article turns into a full-scale “non-fiction novel” and the anti-“whodunnit” becomes a “why-did-the-do-it”. Four years later, he has formed a friendship of sorts with Perry Smith, one of the murderers, and has the majority of what he knows will be a revolutionary and brilliant book. Capote wants to contrast the parallel worlds within America – that of the prosperous, god-fearing folk of Holcomb – with that of the misfits and under-class, who had survived abuse and abandonment and for whom petty crime was the only option. Capote wants to humanise the murderers, with whom he undoubtedly empathises, and the title of his book, 'In Cold Blood' should be seen as ironic.
For Perry Smith, the book is also a chance to put his side of the story to the American public. The key point is that the murders were not pre-meditated, but part of a heist gone wrong. However, for Perry, son of a violent father and alcoholic mother, collaborating with Capote also brings what he thinks is friendship.

What the movie CAPOTE tries to do is show Capote’s conflicting emotions and motivations. At first, he finds Perry a better lawyer for the initial appeal. He needs Perry alive to pad out the novel. But more than that, he feels genuine empathy for the poor kid. But as the process drags on, he lies to Perry again and again about his progress on the book. This culminates in a scene of breath-taking cruelty where Capote essentially emotionally blackmails Perry into recounting the gory details of the night of the murders.

The movie gets a lot right: the acting performances are universally out-standing. Philip Seymour Hoffman has long been proving his ability to create characters of psychological complexity in movies such as FLAWLESS, MAGNOLIA and LOVE LIZA. He deserves the accolades he is currently receiving. Catherine Keener plays Harper Lee with a quiet strength, laughing off the misogyny of the New York literati and quietly screwing Capote’s courage to the sticking place. Contrast this with her quick-thinking hard-ball in BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, or her sweet, down-to-earth character in THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN, and you begin to appreciate her range. But the performance that really stood out for me was by Clifton Collins Junior as Perry Smith. He manages to convey the subtle wavering – how far and at what point does Perry realise that Capote is deceiving him? How far does he let himself believe in Capote’s friendship because he simply needs to feel that someone is there for him?

But while this is film of great performances, I do not think that CAPOTE is a great film. There are two key problems. The first is simply slow pacing which leads to periods of boredom. The screenwriter and director are trying to convey Capote’s frustration with the judicial appeals process. After four years of working on the novel, he simply wants to write the ending and be done with it. However, too often, the pace of the film itself slackens. The second problem is more fundamental to the project. In using the “In Cold Blood” episode to explore Capote’s personality and life, I feel the screenwriter is exploiting Perry Smith and his story in exactly the same way that Capote did. Perry Smith got used by Dick Hickock, his partner in crime, and got used by Capote, and now he is being used again. There is something ironic and hypocritical in Dan Futterman criticising Capote for exploiting a man, and then doing exactly the same thing himself.

CAPOTE premiered at Telluride 2005 and went on limited release in the US and Canada in the autumn. The film played at Berlin 2006 and opens in the UK on the 24th February, Germany on the 2nd March and France on the 8th March.

IN COLD BLOOD - Perry's story, well-told

On the back of the UK release of CAPOTE, the National Film Theatre is screening IN COLD BLOOD - the 1960s movie based on the Truman Capote "non-fiction novel." Unlike CAPOTE, IN COLD BLOOD is simply a straightforward re-telling of the Clutter killings. This movie achieves what Perry wanted, and what Capote himself wanted despite the exploitation shown in Capote: to show that Perry Smith was not a monster, but an unstable kid in need of mental help. IN COLD BLOOD is a great movie, and in sharp contrast to CAPOTE, it grabs you from the opening shots and keeps your attention fixed to the screen. The energy of the project is created by the furious inter-cutting of the stories of the Clutter family and their killers; the innovative and imaginative camera-work; as well as the fantastic score from jazz legend Quincy Jones. IN COLD BLOOD was photographed by legendary cinematographer Connie Hall. Hall shot BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID, COOL HAND LUKE, AMERICAN BEAUTY, ROAD TO PERDITION. Some shots are just so beautifully framed you want the movie to stop so you can take it all in. In particular, when Perry Smith pulls into the bus station in Hokum, we have the bus station in the foreground on the left hand side of the screen - dark, menacing, just like our first impression of Perry. On the right hand side of the screen is the "real world" - skycrapers glimmering in the sunshine. The cast is fantastic, especially Robert Blake playing Perry Smith. (Although, in the saddest irony since the cop from the Village People became one of America's Most Wanted, Robert Blake is currently being tried for murder.)

The British Film Institute is showing IN COLD BLOOD as a tie-in with the UK release of CAPOTE.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

DEATH IN GAZA - disturbing documentary: required viewing

DEATH IN GAZA is a fascinating and provocative documentary by British film-makers James Miller and Saira Shah. They both have an impressive resume full of documentaries shot for UK and US TV from the front-line of the "Global War on Terror". Many of their documentaries have won Emmys and BAFTAs, most noticeably their 2001 film, BENEATH THE VEIL. The original idea was to make two films, one showing the life of Israeli kids, the other showing Palestinian kids. Miller and Shah wanted to stand back from absract, large-scale investigations of the politics of the Middle Eastern conflict. By focusing on the real impact of the conflict, they hoped to get nearer to the truth.

DEATH IN GAZA
is the first of these companion pieces and shows life for kids in Palestine. The content is amazing because it picks up where the news reports end. So, behind the headlines of a car bomb and another Palestinian death, we see little kids mining the undergrowth for bits of flesh. They put these body parts into a plastic container so that they can be buried. We see the cute little kid Ahmed, so full of charm and life, playing scissor-paper-stone with a balaclava-wearing militant. In the play ground, the kids play a game called "Arab Jew". The aim is not to be the last man standing, but to be the first man dead - martyred. We see a world that is completely inverted in its logic and its morality. It is painful to recall that these are kids, just like the ones we fell in love with in MAD HOT BALLROOM. My friends and I winced when the little girls in Brooklyn spoke about their fears that all the cute boys would soon be loser dope-dealers. In Gaza, the boys are being groomed as suicide bombers. It's a whole order of magnitude more incredible, more despairing.

Sadly, there is no companion piece to this film, showing the impact of living in state of war on Israeli children. The director, James Miller, was killed by an Israeli officer during the filming of DEATH IN GAZA. You can find details of the murder here. Friends of the film-maker decided to go ahead and fashion a feature length movie from the footage despite the fact that Miller clearly planned for more. I was concerned that having an "unfinished film", without its counter-part, would make for an uneven debate. However, DEATH IN GAZA is too intelligent for that. Neither side comes out of this with much credit. From the Israeli officers in tanks firing on kids throwing stones; to the Palestinian militants who hijack the image of the murdered film-maker as a recruitment tool; to those of us who usually change the channel or turn the page when we read about yet another person getting blown up in Israel....

Right now, it is awards season, and you can walk into your local cineplex and see sanctimonious movies trying to teach you about the importance of freedom of the Press, the plight of Africa, the difficulty of dealing with terrorism, and pervasive sexual harrassment. These are all terrible things, but the movies about them say absolutely nothing that isn't superficial and a cliche. Here is a movie that does give us genuine new insight. I urge you to check it out.

DEATH IN GAZA premiered at Berlin 2004 and was shown on US and UK TV in 2004. It was not nominated for the Oscar that eventually went to BORN INTO BROTHELS. I haven't yet seen that film, but I do know that DEATH IN GAZA is better than TUPAC:RESURRECTION, which WAS nominated. Yet more grist for the mill. DEATH IN GAZA is now available on DVD.

Monday, February 20, 2006

A GOOD WOMAN - just when I had given up all hope, a romantic comedy that is a) romantic and b) funny

A GOOD WOMAN is a well-made, beautfully shot, superbly acted, rip-roaring romantic comedy. And not before time. Still, we would hardly expect less from a movie based on Oscar Wilde's "Lady Windermere's Fan" and starring actors such as Helen Hunt, Tom Wilkinson and eye-candy in the form of Scarlett Johanson. The plot has Scarlett and her new husband honeymooning on the sun-drenched Amalfi coast in the 1930s. They stumble upon Mrs. Erlynne, a woman of "a certain age" who makes a living spongeing off rich lovers. The husband befriends Mrs. Erlynne, much to the young wife's consternation. She is almost tempted to run off with handsome young Lord Darlington. Meanwhile, Mrs Erlynne has a new admirer in the shape of another aristo, played by Tom Wilkinson. In case this sounds a little contrived and pretentious, let me reassure you that the director and screenwriter handle it all with a light touch. This may be a costume drama, but it moves along quickly and with charm and wit. The dialogue is fantastic and beneath the dazzling wit, we see a deep understanding of the vulnerabilities and frailties of a happy and enduring marriage.

A GOOD WOMAN premiered at Toronto in 2004 and went in Europe in Spring 2005. It went on limited release in the US on the 3rd February 2006 and is available on Region 2 DVD
.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

THE LAST MITTERAND - fascinating, but only for politicos

New to Region 2 DVD is an interesting film from socialist-realist French director, Robert Gu├ędiguian. The film is based on a series of interviews conducted by a young journalist with the French President, Francois Mitterand. The film is largely a discourse and reflection upon the "meaning" of Mitterand, and indeed of French political history since before World War Two. As its lynchpin, the film is well served by the actor Michel Bouquet, whose physical recreation of the President is a marvel. The approach that the film takes is to explore the contradictions and frustrations surrounding Mitterand rather than to provide any answers. So, the controversies surrounding Mitterand's record during the Vichy regime; his betrayal of the right, and then of the left; the discovery of his love-child; are touched upon. Mitterand is evasive, enigmatic. Approaching death he justifies the French social-economic model and his own war record. "The Vichy government was not France", he says. The interviewer pushes him but with little success. It is a fascinating exercise for all those interested in recent political history, as I am. However, I wonder how far those with less than passing interest will find it. The sub-plot concerning the disintegrating family life of the interviewer is rather flimsy: this really is a one-man show. So, a bi-polar review: if you love politics, watch the film, but if you don't don't.

THE LAST MITTERAND/Le Promeneur du Champ de Mars premiered at Berlin in 2005. It is now available on Region 2 DVD.

RUMOUR HAS IT - enough with the Unfunny

What did I do when I wasn't laughing at this movie? I wondered why, if the movie is set in 1997, Jennifer Aniston is carrying a 2005 Cruise collection Gucci handbag. It turns out that I am not the only one not to be feeling the love for this movie. Costner apparently had the original director fired half-way through shooting. That director was replaced by Rob Reiner. Rob Reiner directed THIS IS SPINAL TAP, perhaps the funniest movie ever made. How are the mighty fallen.

RUMOUR HAS IT is on global release.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

CASANOVA - gorgeous but neither funny nor particularly romantic

CASANOVA is not a good movie. For a romantic comedy, too much of the comedy relies on physical slapstick and too little on verbal wit. There are no laugh-out-lines and some of the players are horribly mis-cast. Jeremy Irons, who plays the Catholic inquisitor, and so should have some of the best comic lines about the Catholic Church, simply cannot play comedy. The romance is there, but there is little chemistry between Heath Ledger and Sienna Miller, playing Casanova and Francesca Bruni respectively. For real romance, we must look to the marvellous and beautiful actress Lena Olin, who plays Francesca's mum - and of all people, Oliver Platt! Although Platt is cast as the fat lard-merchant that Francesca may be forced to marry, by the end of the movie, he is the closest thing we have to a romantic hero! And for real laughs, Omid Djalili steals the show. On a technical level, the faults are less obvious, but those with a sensitivity to these things will notice some ropey special effects when Casanova escapes over the roof-tops of Venice and later when he takes off in a hot air balloon. The foreground action has been "cut and pasted" onto a background and we can see the lines!

Having said all this, there are some good things in this movie which save it from being tossed into the trash-can of romantic-comedies, alongside Just Like Heaven and Bewitched. For a start, it looks gorgeous. Never has Venice looked so beautiful, so decadent, so scrumptious. Exterior shots have majesty, intererior shots are breathtaking, costumes are lavish. Still, visual flair is not enough and I found myself looking at my watch rather often during this flick. Worse still, I found myself comparing it to the infinitely better recent BBC adaptation - a common theme for today's reviews. The BBC had a fraction of the cash but produced a film of double the beauty, four times the comedy, and eight times the intelligence. So, if you want to see David Tennant and Peter O-Toole share the honours as Casanova, click here. And if you want to see a good romantic comedy, go rent THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN instead.

CASANOVA premiered at Venice 2005 and is already on release in the US, Austria and, as of yesterday, in the UK
.

OLIVER TWIST - a dull, disappointing Roman Polaski film

Let me say at the top of this review that I am soft on Charles Dickens. I really do think he is the greatest writer in the English language after Shakespeare and before Anthony Trollope and George Elliot. However, I find Oliver Twist to be one of the weaker novels. (This is relative, it's still so much better than 99.9% of novels out there.) My dissatisfaction lies in the fact that this is a novel written when Dickens was young, and so the balance is not so subtle between humour and social critique. In addition, the array of characters is not so socially varied as in later novels. Finally, I find the Oliver of the novel to be a cipher. He shows up the attitudes of the people he meets, but feels rather intangible in himself.

So, when I say that Roman Polanski's new adaptation of Oliver Twist is faithful to the novel, that is not exactly a compliment. But fans will find all the classic, mythic, scenes in place and untampered with. We see Oliver, a poor orphan in a Dickensian workhouse, draw the short straw and have to ask for more food. We see Oliver meet a gang of pick-pockets let by Fagin, and assisted by the wonderful Artful Dodger. We see the violent, evil Bill Sykes murder his soft-hearted girlfriend Nancy for trying to save Oliver. And we see Sykes shopped by his own dog! Finally, we see brave young Oliver try and convert Fagin to Christianity in prison - a raher unpalatable scene to modern ears.

The good stuff: the acting performances from British actors young, old, famous, new, are uniformly well-judged. The sets and costumes are wonderful. The movie is faithful to the source. The bad stuff: For all that, the movie is rather a dull walkthrough of familiar material. There is none of the cinematic vision and authority of previous versions. Whatever Roman Polanski told the cast, this will not be spoken of as THE Oliver Twist. Strange to say, but Polanski has created a rather, well, conventional and mediocre adaptation. Perhaps this is because he deliberately made a film for his kids, rather than a film for himself. Artists may often by egoists, but they serve their art better by following their instincts. If I were feeling mean, I could say that is more of a HBO special than a cinematic release. But even here I think it fails the test, and people who want to see a more authoritative, visually and dramatically inventive and emotionally involving version should check out the BBC's recent adaptation here.


OLIVER TWIST premiered at Toronto 2005 and went on global cinematic release in autumn and winter 2005. It was released on Region 2 DVD this week.

Friday, February 17, 2006

CINDERELLA MAN - archetypes are really dull

CINDERELLA MAN is a fictionalised account of the career of James J Braddock - an American boxer who survived the Great Depression by staging a famous boxing come-back. The movie opens with a famous quote from Damon Runyan, "In all the history of the boxing game, you'll find no more human interest story to compare with the life narrative of James J Braddock." Maybe that was true at the time, but since then the world has witnessed Mohammad Ali. Comebacks get no bigger than the Rumble in the Jungle: you can find the real thing here.

But I've started all wrong. Despite all appearances, CINDERELLA MAN is not a boxing story but an archetypal story about the importance of family, love and hope. It happens to feature a boxer. The theme is that James Braddock was a decent guy who went back in for the punishment of the ring in order to save his family from starvation and the children from being parcelled out. If Braddock has to be the archetypal rough diamond hero, then his historic opponent, Max Baer, has to be a leering, crude, proud monster. His wife has to be an upright, doughty, loyal matriarch.

The problem is that archetypes make for boring, simplistic cinema. Take the perfect hero that is James Braddock and compare him to Rocky - another washed-up boxer hustling for money in hard economic times. In Rocky II we see how success corrupts Rocky. To contradict F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous quotation, Rocky's "great American life" DOES "have a second act". By contrast, Braddock, we are told at the end of Cinderalla Man, fought bravely in the Second World War. He was a simplistic hero, start to end.

The strength of the Rocky series also lies in the fact that Apollo Creed is not an evil monster (if, in later pictures, Stallone does drift into cold-war steroetypes.) By making Max Baer an evil man, director Ron Howard avoids having to address the issue of how the defeated fighter must feel. He avoids tarnishing Braddock's victory. Personally, I prefer more nuanced films, such as the wonderful South Korean drama, CRYING FIST, that challenge the audience by making us want BOTH fighters to win.

So, what's to like about CINDERELLA MAN? It is photographed with all the lavish care that one expects from a $90 million picture shot by Ron Howard ("A Beautiful Mind"). The boxing scenes are well-shot and derived from the Raging Bull school of cinema. It is filled with the kind of acting talent only double-digit millions and a sure-fire chance at an Oscar can buy: notably Russell Crowe, Renee Zellwegger and Paul Giamatti. It features a great British actor, Paddy Considine, as a radical union-leader and Braddock's best friend. Moreover, while this is undoubetdly "an uplifting family movie" it is no way near as manipulative and saccharine as it could have been given the subject matter and its director. After the travesty of NORTH COUNTRY, we must give thanks for restraint wherever we find it. Having said all this, I found this an uninvolving and over-long film, that pales into comparison with Rocky for feel-good drama, and Crying Fist for intelligent drama.

CINDERELLA MAN went on cinematic release in the US in May 2005 and in Europe in Autumn 2005. It is available on Region 2 DVD. Bizarrely, while the DVD extras includes footage of Norman Mailor, Akiva Goldsman, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer watching the famous Baer/Braddock match, the producers didn't bother actually putting the footage of the whole match on the DVD. It's a real shame, but once again goes to show that this isn't actually a boxing movie at all.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK – Hagiography makes for bad cinema

QUICK REVIEW: A sadly disappointing and un-involving film about the journalist who took on McCarthy at the height of his anti-communist witch-hunt in the 1950s and won.

LONG REVIEW: George Clooney’s father was an anchorman and his aunt was the lounge singer, Rosemary Clooney. He clearly has a great deal of nostalgia for a “better time” when men wore snappy suits, women wore pearls, couples hung out in cool lounge bars drinking cocktails, and newsreaders were journalists with integrity rather than partisan spin-doctors. This nostalgia is evidenced in his Las Vegas hotel project, which as far as I can tell, aims to re-create the vibe of The Sands in its rat-pack hey-day. It is also evidenced in the choice of subject matter for his second directorial effort: GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK. Clooney tells the story of Edward R. Murrow, CBS anchorman in the 1950s, and according to Clooney, “the high water mark of broadcast journalism.” Murrow started out broadcasting from the rooftops of London during the Blitz, hence his wish for “good luck” in his famous signing out catchphrase and had been at CBS for almost 20 years when he decided to take on Senator Joseph McCarthy. Clooney clearly believes that what the US needs today are independent journalists capable of taking on Bush, corporate malfeasance and the war in Iraq. Murrow should therefore be an icon and an inspiration.

The good stuff: The central performance by David Strathairn is outstanding. He plays Murrow as conceived by Clooney – an icon of journalistic integrity, who never doubts that he is doing the right thing and can do nothing else other than the right thing. We believe in him implicitly. Strathairn has been working for a long time and created memorable characters such as Pierce Patchett in "LA Confidential”, but it is amazing what he does when finally gets a leading role. Strathairn got the Best Actor award at Venice for this role and I will be surprised if he is not nominated for an
Oscar* (although if there is any justice it will go to Philip Seymour Hoffman for Capote.) Secondly, Ray Wise (“Twin Peaks”) gives a superb performance as Don Hollonbeck, the CBS newsreader who is being harangued by a McCarthyite columnist for supposedly being a Communist. The music, provided by the wonderful jazz singer Diana Reeves, is also fantastic, but I cannot figure out why it is there other than to assuage Clooney’s fondness for all things Lounge.

The bad stuff: the script. Seriously, Grant Heslov, who co-wrote the script, is inexperienced and it shows. (Inexperience is not always bad, look at the genius script for upcoming “Capote” written by Dan Futterman.) Actually, scratch that, the problem is the entire conception of the movie, and the bad script is just the side-effect. Clooney holds Murrow to be an icon of all that is good and true. He resurrects this icon on screen. We are in no doubt that Murrow is an icon because we get an opening shot of Murrow receiving an industry award for being an icon. His iconic stature is hammered home by beautiful framed scenes in which the camera is in static and loving close-up. This degree of hagiography makes for incredibly un-involving cinema.

Moreover, Clooney is disingenuous about his intentions with the movie. In introducing it at the London Film Festival, he claimed that just wanted to raise questions about the role of the Fourth Estate in society. The film does not raise questions but bludgeons over the head with answers. It is not subtle, it is not hugely original, and it is not unmissable cinema. On balance, this is not a bad movie, but neither is it out-standing. It is hard to see who will gain from seeing it. Clooney isn’t telling the liberal left anything it does not already know and believe, and he is hardly likely to convert the FoxNews audience. And as Roger Ebert nicely put it, how many cinema-goers even know what habeas corpus is, let alone value having it? The fault of this movie is that if you didn’t know or care before you entered the cinema, you still won’t know or care when you leave.

GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK is already on nationwide release in the US. It goes on release in France on 5th December 2005 and in the UK on 17th February 2006. I’ll update the German release date when I have it. *This review was originally published in November 2005. I was right - Straithern was nominated for an Oscar - let's see if he gets it!

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Homage to OLDBOY - Tarantino wishes he were this good

With LADY VENGANCE on cinematic release, I thought I'd take the opportunity to review Park Chan-Wook's previous film, OLDBOY. OLDBOY is an intelligent but extreme South Korean revenge thriller. With a plot-line inspired by the Count of Monte Cristo and Kafka, we see a doofus middle-aged middle-class guy get arrested for drunken behaviour. The man is named Oh Dae-Su and in the first five minutes of this film we see the actor Choi Min-Sik giving one of the most convincing and hysterical portrayals of a harmless drunk. As his best friend comes to bail him out, Oh Dae-Su is abducted. When he comes to he is in a small bedroom with a TV set. This is to be his prison for crimes unspecified. 15 years later, again for no particular reason, he is released. We are still only twenty minutes into the film. Dae-Su has another hour and a half to find out who held him captive, and why, and to reap his revenge.

On a superficial reading, OLDBOY is the story of Oh Dae-Su's revenge on his captor and tormentor. But as his punishment has also been a "revenge" for a crime committed in his past, we find that we can identify with him as a victim of sorts. And even Dae-Su's tormentor is himself a deeply conflicted and sympathetic character. If we can find a "moral" to such an extreme and un-real set of circumstances, it is that human nature compels us to revenge, but we cannot find peace through it. We are condemned to a life of regret if we pass up the chance to avenge ourselves, and a life of torment if we follow through. This is the tragedy of man - essentially still a primitive creature, but condemned to live in a civilised world of his own making.

To the extent that this is true, OLDBOY covers much the same thematic ground as Spielberg's portentious and over-praised MUNICH. This comparison might seem a little facetious to people who have read about OLDBOY. How can I compare a movie that, while flawed, was at least serious and earnest, with a South Korean blood-and-gore horror movie?

But I think that the undeniably brutal violence in OLDBOY is in danger of detracting from the emotional veracity and subtlety of the movie. Choi Min-Sik's performance as Dae-Su is the key part of the movie's success. Due to styling, costume and choreography he can be incredibly menacing. But his soft features and expessive face mean that even when carrying out some vicious acts he looks vulnerable. (This is a facility he uses to great effect as the former boxing champion know fighting for cash on the side-walk in CRYING FIST.)
Yes, in the iconic shot, the octopus is eaten live on screen. No, this is not considered a crime in Park's native South Korea. Yes I am very happy to needle my cuddly vegetarian friends with this fact. But the key point is that when Dae-Su eats the octopus it is because he is so desperate to eat a "living thing" - to feel life - even in its most brutal and visceral format. This is, after all, a man who has not felt rain for fifteen years.

So, I highly recommend OLDBOY. Ignore the superficial similarities to the all-style, no-substance movies of Tarantino. This really is an emotionally draining and thought-provoking movie.


OLDBOY went on release in South Korea in November 2004. It won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2004, after extensive lobbying by Tarantino failed to get it the Palme d'Or. (The P'dO ended up going to Fahrenheit 9/11, proving that the Academy doesn't have exclusivity on pissing on true cinematic greatness from a great height.) OLDBOY went on release in Europe in winter 2004 and played Sundance in 2005. OLDBOY is now available on remastered DVD replete with a crazy-large amount of interviews with case ad crew. It has already been plagiarised by Bollywood in a piss-poor John Abraham/Lara Dutta flick called Zinda (Lock) and Hollywood isn't far behind.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

SYMPATHY FOR MR VENGEANCE - violent yes, but beautiful also

After the massive success of JOINT SECURITY AREA, South Korean director Park Chan Wook could have pretty much done anything he wanted to. What happened was that he took a giant step into left-field with a bizarre movie called SYMPATHY FOR MISTER VENGEANCE. At the time, the movie tanked at the Box Office. Little did anyone know that it would become the first in a trilogy of highly acclaimed "vengeance" movies. Upon the release of the final movie in the trilogy, LADY VENGEANCE, I am taking the opportunity to have a look back at the first two films in the trilogy.

SYMPATHY FOR MR VENGEANCE is, despite the title, a "sweet" movie. Why so? Because it features a lot of characters who are emminently charming and empathetic. Chief among these is a young guy called Ryu. His sister is chronically ill and in need of an expensive kidney transplant. When Ryu is sacked by his boss, his girlfriend convinces him to kidnap the boss' daughter in order to win a ransom to pay for the transplant. Ryu's position is deeply sympathetic and remains so throughout the kidnapping. This the genius of Park Chan Wook. There is a lovely scene where the little girl is watching TV, balancing on Ryu's knees - so intimate and caring. Mad props have to go to the actor portraying Ryu - a character who is a deaf-mute - and so must be made sympathetic by means of facial expression and physical comedy. Unfortunately, at the handover, things go wrong, largely because of the appearance of a tragi-comic figure played by Seung-beom Ryu - the fantastic actor from CRYING FIST and ARAHAN. At this point, it is the little girl's father who becomes Mr Vengeance and the movie spirals into extreme violence that is photographed beautifully - a hallmark of Park Chan-Wook's work. The final scene at the lake is haunting, and more recent movies, such as HOSTEL, which rip off some of its most horrific content, fail to replicate the beauty of the original.

Overall, SYMPATHY FOR MR VENGEANCE is a violent and horrifying film. The real brilliance is to make the characters funny, original, credible and genuinely sympathetic. The movie is at turns bizarre and ridiculous, and yet beautiful and memorable. It is an amazing combination to have pulled off - and a recipe that was honed and perfected in each following film.

SYMPATHY FOR MR VENGEANCE is available on DVD.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

LADY VENGEANCE - vicious and nasty, but in a good way!

Park Chan-Wook a.k.a Mr. Vengeance, is a man in whose pysche you would not want to get lost. He makes nasty, vicious, blood-drenched revenge thrillers that are an absolute joy to watch. He gets horror in a way that, say, the producers of Final Destination 3 do not. He knows that there is nothing more nauseatingly spine-chilling than seemingly normal, buttoned-up, vaguely attractive middle-class people taking to each other with axes. A lot of the time, due to deft editing, you don't even see the gruesome acts. You see the 'before' and 'after' and your brain does the rest of the work. Your imagination is going crazy with the most lurid, horrific visuals but at the same time your sympathy is with the perpetrator rather than the victim.

LADY VENGEANCE
is the third in Park's revenge trilogy, following on from SYMPATHY FOR MR VENGEANCE and OLDBOY. Thematically all three movies tread the same ground: the impossibility of reconciling the lust for revenge with the desire for a peaceful life. However, that is not to say that if you see one Park Chan-Wook film you've seen them all. LADY has a more muted colour palette than OLDBOY, almost to the point of using grayscale highlighted by Lady Vengeance's red eye-shadow. The use of violence is also more muted - the acts are more often off-screen, and people who felt grossed out at OLDBOY should give LADY VENGEANCE a try. And while we do see some of the surreal caricatures that we got in OLDBOY - not least in the rogue's gallery of inmates in the prison - in general, the characters "look" far more normal. To my mind, that makes the horror far more affecting - the stylistic balance has definitely tilted from Tarantino to Lynch and all to the good.

Reasons to watch LADY VENGEANCE: 1. Looks bloody amazing - every scene is like watching a well designed and choreographed ballet. 2. Wickedly complicated plot that sticks a finger in the eye (and indeed a pair of scissors in the back of the neck) of those who would dumb down cinema. Broadly speaking, Lady Vengeance went down for a crime she didn't commit, A-Team style, and is now out of prison and out for revenge on the actual perp. 3. Features the darling of Korean ultra-violence, Choi Min-sik, known to canny viewers as the all-out badass in OLDBOY and as the boxer with a heart of gold in CRYING FIST. 4. Despite endemic sadism, the movie manages to create a genuine emotional connection between the audience and Lady Vengeance. 5. Despite hard-core nastiness, the movie creates scenes of fantastically dark and piercing humour. 6. Best use of transparent plastic raincoats since AMERICAN PSYCHO.

Reasons not to watch LADY VENGEANCE: 1. If you are vegetarian, tree-hugging hippie, who might get traumatised knowing that a small dog is being shot at point-blank range just off screen, you should avoid this film.


LADY VENGEANCE played the 2005 London Film Fest. It opened in France in November 2005, and in the UK yesterday. It goes on limited release in the US on the
5th May 2006.

LEAVING ME LOVING YOU - kitsch but charming romantic flick

Chances are that wherever you are sitting right now, that town hosts a film festival. Sure, Sundance, Cannes, the Berlinale, Toronoto, London, Venice - these get the publicity and the high-amp premieres - but cinema feels the love on a daily basis. Obscure towns have shorts festivals, digital festivals, minority groups festivals. London has the official film fest., Raindance for indie projects, a Shorts fest., the LGB fest, Portobello fest....and now, "Shanghai on Screen" playing every day at the Vue West End, right on Leicester Square. The idea is not so much to exhibit new work as to bring a whole range of historic and contemporary Chinese movies to a grateful audience that has, up until now, been fed a very select diet of Chinese cinema. Most distributors will only buy flicks that star actors recognisable in the West, or movies that have garnered so many awards they cannot fail to draw the crowd. So we get 2046 and In the Mood for Love. But we don't get the sort of everyday fare that fills Chinese multiplexes.

Opening the fest. we get a bizarre romantic movie called LEAVING ME LOVING YOU. It is directed by Wilson Yip in 2004. It stars Leon Lai, who you may know from Infernal Affairs 3, as an out-patient doctor in Shanghai. As the movie opens he is breaking up with his girlfriend, played by Faye Wong, who also starred in the wonderfuly 2046, as well as Chungking Express. The rest of the movie is an off-beat romance which brings the two back together. There is a lot in this film that is plain odd. The whole opening sequence is rather random - showing a van loaded with farm produce driving through the night before getting to Shanghai - getting in a car crash and then that's it! The orchestral score is the kind of orchestral cheese you would associate with a 1970s American day-time serial or a Bollywood movie. Plus, cheesy cha-cha-cha versions of classic romantic song, Moon River, play on continuous loop throughout the movie.

However, there is also a lot to love in the film. There are lots of great comedy cameos, and for people who have never been there, the sheer joy of seeing Shanghai up-close. Sure, this is a very stylised Shanghai, but my god, it looks wonderful. But the best thing of all about this movie is the sheer belief in romance. This is an all-out romantic movie. It is cheesy, it is kitsch, but you know, by the end, I really cared that the protagonists would get it together. And when they do, there are fireworks over Shanghai! For that alone, in many ways, this is a better Valentine's Day movie than Brief Encounter.


LEAVING ME LOVING YOU is currently on limited release in the UK.
SHANGHAI ON SCREEN is at the Vue, West End,Leicester Square, www.myvue.com
Sat 11 Feb 3.00pm Nezha Conquers the Dragon King Sat 11 Feb 6.30pm Myriads of Lights
Sun 12 Feb 3.00pm Suzhou River Sun 12 Feb 6.30pm Shanghai Women
Tue 14 Feb 6.30pm Escape to Shanghai
Wed 15 Feb 6.30pm The Goddess

BEWITCHED - just not funny

I am not the first to say it and I won't be the last. There is only thing wrong with the re-make of the classic TV comedy, BEWITCHED: It's not funny. Everything else is fabulous: costumes, photography, Rat-pack soundtrack. The writer/director is Nora Ephron who wrote When Harry Met Sally. It stars comedy heavyweights, Will Ferrel and Shirley Maclaine as well as Nicole Kidman. It has cameos from the wonderful Jason Schwartzman, Steve Carrell and Michael Caine......

BEWITCHED is available on DVD, replete with extras, but still isn't funny.

Friday, February 10, 2006

BRIEF ENCOUNTER - pure class

86 minutes of pure cinematic class, and how lucky we are that it is back on UK screens across the UK for your viewing pleasure on Valentine's Day. In some ways, this is rather an odd choice for a date movie as it is not the usual self-indulgent mush where boy meets girl, they fall in love and they end up together. Rather, this is a story of unconsummated love. Fans of Wong Kar Wei's IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, will recognise the potent mixture of melancholy and moral correctness.


The film is based on a short story by that acerbic wit, Noel Coward - the last person we can accuse of being a delusional romantic. He tells us about Laura and Alec, both married to good but rather stiff people, who meet by chance at a railway station. They start to meet every Thursday and fall in love. But a combination of practical obstacles and old-fashioned respect for the married state prevents them from acting upon their passion. From such a simple but poignant tale, director David Lean creates one of the best-loved and most admired movies in British cinema history*. He perfectly evokes the "niceness" of small-town British life as well as the complete impossibility of conducting a clandestine relationship in such a community. The two lead actors - upon whom the movie rests almost entirely - are marvellous. And while their old-fashioned accents might sound odd to contemporary viewers at first, we are soon too engrossed in this quietly tragic affair to care about such superficialities.



BRIEF ENCOUNTER was originally released in 1946. David Lean won the Grand Prize at Cannes. Celia Johnson was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar but lost out to Olivia de Havilland in the soon-to-be-forgotten TO EACH, HIS OWN. It also lost the Best Directing and Best Screenplay Oscars to the also forgotten THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. It wasn't even nominated for Best Picture.

*And I have no doubt that part of the reason why Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto is played incessantly in UK concert halls is because it is featured heavily in this flick.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER - Skip MUNICH - watch this instead

MUNICH, about the moral and political implications of counter-terrorist missions. However, for those of us less well acquainted with recent history than we should be, MUNICH misses a step in telling us what actually happened at the 1972 Olympics. Kevin MacDonald's superb and Oscar-winning documentary, fills in that gap.

ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER is a straightforward retelling of the events of September 5th 1972. It combines TV footage and interviews with some of the key participants as well as relatives of the victims. We begin with the saccharine marketing for the Olympic games - the first held in Germany since the shameful Nazi Olympics of 1936, and a desperate attempt by the German nation to create a new, benign image in the eyes of the world. To these games came the Israeli team, one of whom had escaped the Holocaust by a whisker. One morning, Palestinian terrorists from an organisation later identified as Black September entered the Olympic Village with the help of the East German team and took 11 Israeli athletes hostage. A twelfth managed to run to freedom as the terrorists moved the hostages into one room. The terrorists' ostensible aim was to have over 200 Palestinian prisoners in various countries freed, but the real aim was to publicise their cause. Golda Meir, the Israeli Prime Minister refused to negotiate with the terrorists, and as deadlines ticked by, the terrorists, who had already killed two men, asked for an airplane to take them and their hostages away. The Germans planned an assualt at the airport but through a mixture of inexperience, bureaucratic wrangling and pure cowardice, failed. It ended in a shoot-out and all the hostages were killed.

No-one comes out of this documentary looking good except for the Israelis. Golda Meir, unable to send in a Mossad team, is only on-screen for a few brief moments, but the then-head of Mossad, who flew to Munich and was a horrified and frustrated on-looker gives some terrible testimony to the incompetence of the Germans. The lack of experience one can forgive, but the sheer idiocy of the planning is pathetic. Worst of all, the individual cowardice of some of the men who abandoned their posts is nauseating. But by far the most serious charge levelled at the Germans by this documentary is that the government staged the hijacking of a Lufthansa flight in order to have an excuse to hand over the troublesome surviving three terrorists. If true, this is heinous. Finally, and obviously, the terrorists receive no sympathy. It is galling to see their bodies receiving a heroes welcome on return to Libya, and to see the sole survivor - interviewed for the first time in this documentary - declaring how proud he still is for his part in the atrocity.

I found ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER to be the perfect substitute for the highly flawed and, indeed, over-rated MUNICH. To see the smiling, proud face of the real terrorist in the former allows us to question whether we would have acted as Golda Meir in the latter. How far was the retribution justified? Moreover, MacDonald's documentary, running at just 90 minutes, raises far more questions about the world in which we live. The Munich games continued for 6 hours after the hostages were taken, and resumed after the crisis ended. Would the same be true today? Were the IOC callous, or did they believe that they should not bow to terror? I suspect the former, but it is a good question. The documentary also questions how far the media cynically create a "show" from tragic events. All in all, for a less sentimental but highly emotional, and by far more intelligent account of the events and issues raised by the terrorist attack on the 1972 Munich Olympics, please rent ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER. I highly recommend this documentary.

ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER went on brief cinematic release in the US in 2000/2001. Since then it has aired on TV in many countries and was released on Region 2 DVD to coincide with the cinematic release of MUNICH.
In his review, Roger Ebert posits that ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER only won its Oscar because of shenanigans by the Producer. To quote from the review, "Cohn exhibits his Oscar entries at screenings peopled largely by those on his invitation list and to as few other people as possible. Under the academy bylaws, only those who have seen all five nominated docs can vote, and by limiting those who have seen his, Cohn shrinks the voting pool and improves his odds." If so, then that is pretty dicey behaviour. However, let's not take away from the fact that this IS a great picture and worthy of the Oscar award whatever the voting shenanigans may have been.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Just for Flint - a late review of FOUR BROTHERS

Let it never be said that I am not all about consumer rights. I must admit to having used my usual short-hand for mediocre flicks in describing FOUR BROTHERS as a "p*ss-poor seventies remake". It really isn't that bad. On the other hand, it really isn't that good. Let me break it down for you. Once upon a time, there was a talented black director called John Singleton who made movies that went beyond gangsta-rap stereotypes and were as emotionally engaging as they were slick. But it has been a long time since flicks like Boyz'n'the hood. Every time I see a Singleton movie lined up I get all hopeful, only to have my optimisim dashed on the rocks of tired cliche.

FOUR BROTHERS is another lazy film that aspires to break beyond the stereotype of the standard gangsta revenge flick but fails miserably. It tells the superficially politically correct tale of four adopted brothers - two black, two white - whose mother is shot down in a robery gone wrong. After her death, they set out to avenge her. The script was written by two guys who grew up watching spaghetti westerns and have supposedly ripped on the genre but what we really get is the standard buddy movie crossed with a very thinly plotted thriller. When a beloved cast member dies, you know his best friend is shouting "Breathe! Just breathe!" When one of the good guys goes of to war, you know his wife will tell the best friend, "Just bring him back to me in one piece". You can probably buy these pages by the yard at WalMart. And believe me, you'll have figured out who the patsy is, and who the real villain is, by around 30 minutes in.

The performances are fairly indifferent. In particular, Chiwetel Ejiofor, the wonderful lead actor in DIRTY PRETTY THINGS, is completely mis-cast as the gangster, Sweets. Wahlberg is on auto-pilot as big brother Mercer, and the other three brothers are largely forgettable. Terrence Howard - the tremendous actor from HUSTLE AND FLOW - has a small and powerful cameo as a copper, but for some inexplicable reason Singleton cast sometime-teen-idol Josh Charles as his sidekick. Another case of an actor being either horribly mis-cast or just not terribly good.

On a technical level there is nothing wrong with the flick. The photography is in typical "Western" style - lots of master shots with the good guys on one side of the frame and the bad guys on the other. However, I have serious issues with the soundtrack. The songs are all soul and funk classics from the late 1960s and 1970s. The songs evoke a certain era of film-making, namely blaxploitation flicks. This just adds another layer to the "genre confusion" within FOUR BROTHERS. Is it a thriller? A blaxploitation flick? An urban western? In the end, I think it falls through the cracks into the wide chasm of mediocrity below.

FOUR BROTHERS was on cinematic release in autumn 2005. It is now available on DVD.

Monday, February 06, 2006

DIRTY LOVE - insultingly bad

DIRTY LOVE may be the worst movie of 2005. It features US Barbie-doll alleged comedienne Jenny McCarthy and Carmen Electra. The plot, such as it is, is that the Jenny McCarthy discovers that her boyfriend is a cheat and has an emotional breakdown. "Jokes" include a skit where Jenny McCarthy is walking through a supermarket aisle looking for sanitary towels and leaving a trail of menstrual blood on the floor. Presumably, it is also meant to be funny that Carmen Electra spends the entire movie imitating an African-American accent and idiom. I found the whole movie insulting as a woman, as a woman of colour, and frankly, as an intelligent cinema-goer. That is was released at all, let alone at a festival like Sundance, is shameful to all involved in the production and the festival programmers. DIRTY LOVE went on to receive a host of Razzies - the anti-Oscars. But I feel that these anti-awards imply that it was so bad as to be funny. It wasn't. It was so bad as to be insulting. Avoid at all costs.

DIRTY LOVE premiered at Sundance 2005 and hit US screens last year. It went to straight to video in the UK and is released on DVD today.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

GRIZZLY MAN - Best Comedy of 2006!

WERNOR HERZOG is a slighly lunatic genius. He is also Bavarian, but I don't think the two facts are related. In a recent interview with Mark Kermode for the BBC, random kids with rifles started taking pot shots at Herzog and hit one home. Kermode asked if they should stop shooting - Herzog said "it was not a significant event." So, already we know that Herzog is hard as nails. He thinks being shot at is just part of life. It is what it is.

Now, contrast that with another undoubted kook, THE GRIZZLY MAN himself, Timothy Treadwell. Timothy is an extremely camp, self-mythologising, recovering alcoholic and failed actor who has reinvented himself as an ecologist and "kind warrior". Timmy loves Alaskan grizzly bears and wants to protect them. Not for him pragmatic objections such as a) they are already protected in the National Park and b) they might eat you! He prides himself on the fact that no-one has lived longer in the wild and in close proximity to the bears than him. He hates ineffectual park authorites and obese air stewardesses and "the people world" generally. He really does love the bears and gives them cute names like "Mr Chocolate" and "Melissa" and "The Grinch". Treadwell spends thirteen years taking wonderful pictures of these bears and worrying about how his hair looks on film. In order to increase the mythologised picture of himself he pretends that he is camping all alone despite the fact that his girlfriend is filming him on hand held camera. The documentary footage of the bears is great, but not quite as great as the sheer comic brilliance of watching Treadwell ponce around the Alaskan forest like "Big Gay Al" with all his "super little animals." I laughed so hard watching this movie I cried.

In the screening I attended, one women walked out in disgust at the rest of the audience, shouting "It is NOT a comedy." Now, clearly that statement is just pure silliness. The whole point of a work of art is that each person can have their own emotional response to it and each response is equally valid. I laughed my ass off, so for me, clearly, it IS a comedy. Moreover, I would lay good money on the fact that WERNER HERZOG *intends* to take the piss out of Treadwell. While HERZOG no doubt sympathises with Treadwell's untimely end, he delights in pointing out the absurdity and ridiculousness of Treadwell's stance. He edits the 100 hours of Treadwell's footage to give us ample examples of Treadwell's narcissim, and belief that he, alone among all men, was "strong enough" not to get eaten alive. He openly mocks Treadwell's utopian belief that the fundamental state of nature is of harmony and balance. Not only does he interview lots of people who say "I told you so", but he explicitly states in a voice-over that he believes the fundamental state of the world is one of disharmony - of brutality - of violence. He believes that as much as we might find animals cute, animals will view us with at best indifference and at worst hunger. While it is sad when an idiot hippie gets eaten by a bear - it is his own sweet fault. Therein lies the rich seam of black humour in the movie and the source of its greatness.

GRIZZLY MAN premiered at Sundance 2005 and is still on limited release in France and the UK. There is, perhaps bizarrely, no scheduled release for Germany or Austria
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Saturday, February 04, 2006

THE GENERAL - 80 years later, and we still can't touch it!

Not to be a one-note record, but when you watch a movie like North Country, you wonder whether in eighty years time, anyone will give a damn about it. Dear Lord, I wonder whether anyone will remember it a month after the Oscars. By contrast, in THE GENERAL we have a genuine gold-standard movie - a movie that has withstood eighty years of cultural change and critical assessment. Newly restored and furnished with a wonderful orchestral score by Colin Davis, this masterpiece is on release at London's National Film Theatre, and it is pure delight to see it on the big screen at last.

THE GENERAL is a silent feature starring Buster Keaton. He plays a decent but unassuming chap who "has two loves in his life" - his steam engine called "The General" - and his girlfriend. When the Civil War breaks out he isn't allowed to enlist for the South, much to his girlfriend's shame, because, unbeknown to him, he is considered of more value to the war effort as a railwayman. But one day, his engine and his girlfriend are hijacked by spies from the Union army. Keaton gives chase, eventually going behind enemy lines where he overhears the enemy's plan. The chase is on to get back to the South, warn the Confederates and win the respect of his girl and a place in the Confederate Army.

You can watch THE GENERAL for a whole bunch of reasons - not least because it is really really funny. In my screening we had a whole bunch of kids in the audience and it was wonderful to see them connecting with a movie made eighty years ago when CGI ogres were but a blink in the milkman's eye. The second reason to watch THE GENERAL is that, in the manner of KING KONG or an INDIANA JONES flick, it is an all-out action adventure epic. We see whole armies in pitched battle, railway chase scenes of which Spielberg would be proud, not to mention a steam locomotive driving onto a burning bridge and then crashing into the river below. You look at how well the movie is made and wonder just how they did it with the resources available to them at the time.

And remember, Keaton not only stars in but directed this flick - he is a real cinematic visionary - an auteur forty years before a bunch of jumped-up frenchmen coined the term. Which brings me to the thrid reason to see this flick - it is simply one of those films every serious film-lover should watch. Keaton is one of the three greats of the silent movie era along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. Although he achieved much less commercial success, he is now revered as the greatest of the three. Keaton's physical comedy is much more subtle than that of Charlie Chaplin. Rather than playing "the tramp" or "the great dictator", Keaton usually plays normal guys caught up in wonderful adventures. Moreover, while his comedy is delivered in a dead-pan style that earned him the nickname "The Great Stone Face". As a result, Keaton's work is much more accessible to the modern audience and worth a go even if you've found it hard to enjoy Chaplin or, say, Laurel and Hardy. Do you need another reason to see it? Go on, knock yourself out - books yourself tickets right now!

THE GENERAL has been restored, cleaned up and put back on release at the National Film Theatre in London. Older prints are available on DVD.

Friday, February 03, 2006

ME, YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW - Nutty, but in a good way!

ME, YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW is a gorgeous, whimsical, slightly nutty movie about cute people who think good things, want magic in their lives and refuse to be bowed down by all the emotional brutality we experiece on a day to day basis. It follows a genuine nice guy who "wants his kids to have magical powers". His wife has left him and he works in a shoe store. In walks a beautiful video installation artist who happens to drive a taxi to make ends meet. She falls in love with him - he needs to take a chance on her. Meanwhile, they are surrounded by the kind of kooky suburban goings-on that we'd expect from a Daniel Clowes comic. Somehow, when the guy's little kid starts talking dirty to an older women in an internet chat room, or when the guy's colleague starts leaving lewd messages for two hot teenage girls taped to his door - it all still seems sweet, innocent and magical. And yes, I know how that last sentence sounds, and I know why the MPAA gave this an "R" rating for sexual content involving kids, but really that rating does not reflect the feel and subject matter of this flick. In many ways, this is the modern day fairytale that SHOPGIRL was trying to be. But before I extoll you to "go check it out", I should fairly point out that if you find "cute" annoying in life - if you prefer films to feature guns, t*ts, explosions - then ME, YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW is not for you. And that's also fine. That's why god gave us Arnold Schwarzenegger.

ME, YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW premiered at Sundance 2005 where it won the Special Jury Prize . It also won the Golden Camera and three other awards at Cannes. The movie went on limited release in the US and UK in summer 2005. It went on release in the Netherlands yesterday and goes on release in Germany on the 23rd February 2006. ME, YOU and EVERYONE WE KNOW is available on Region 2 DVD.

WHALE RIDER - North Country wishes it were this good

WHALE RIDER is one of those films you should really try and watch, and now that it's available on DVD there is no excuse. To be sure, this is not ground-breaking cinema in either content or technical achievement. But in this era of heartless movies buckling under the burden of computer generated special effects*, it is nice to see a simple story well told.

WHALE RIDER is set in a Maori community where leadership has been handed down from eldest son to eldest son for centuries. For the traditionalist current leader, Koro, the problems start when his son becomes an artist and travels the world rather than take up the mantle. Worse still, when the son has twin children, only the daughter survives. Paikea, that daughter, breaks all the rules. She is named after a male - the legendary original ancestor - and clearly has all the aptitude, courage and interest to become the new leader. This movie is the story of her desperate quest to show her grandfather that she is up to the task.

Watching WHALE RIDER through the prism of a recent viewing of NORTH COUNTRY one is aware of the fact that these flicks have three objectives in common. First, both aim to give you insight into life in an isolated community. In both films, director Niki Caro successfully captures the faces of the real people of these areas - their concerns, hopes and fears. Second, both films aim to show these communities struggling to translate traditional beliefs and customs into modern life. Where the women go down the mines in NORTH COUNTRY, in WHALE RIDER, a young girl becomes a tribal chief. I feel that WHALE RIDER is far more successful in handling this issue than NORTH COUNTRY. The transition of the traditionalist grandfather in WHALE RIDER seems more organic and plausible than the sudden epiphany of the father in NORTH COUNTRY.

Finally, each film has to make us identify with the heroine and to feel her persecution and eventual triumph. Once again, I found NORTH COUNTRY confused and confusing. Yes, I cried for Charlize Theron but for the wrong reasons and at the hands of some pretty hard-core emotional pornography. There was no melodramatic trick that Niki Caro did not resort to in order to get us to sympathise with Theron. By contrast, in WHALE RIDER we have a movie of such subtlety and poise that when the big knock-out moment comes - Paikea's speech in the school-hall - it takes us by surprise and with the full force of emotion. The slights suffered by Pai at the hands of her grandfather are not anything as dramatic as Theron's rape in North Country, but they carry far greater dramatic weight. Looking back at the delicacy and honesty with which these issues are handled in WHALE RIDER, I can only hope that Niki Caro goes back to quieter movies in future.

WHALE RIDER is available on Region 1 and 2 DVD. *Ironically, Keisha Castle-Hughes next role after the wonderful WHALE RIDER was to play the Queen of Naboo in that crime against cinema, Star Wars III.