Tuesday, May 30, 2006

METROPOLITAN – John Hughes on the Upper East Side

METROPOLITAN is a cult movie originally released in 1990 and currently on limited re-release in the UK. It is a beautifully observed piece written and directed by Whit Stillman – a man who was nominated for an Oscar for this screenplay and then was barely heard of again. Similarly, the movie stars a bunch of unknown young actors who have largely disappeared from public view. This only adds to the mystique surrounding the film. It’s as though we had a glimpse of a usually hidden, and perhaps vanishing, world for a brief moment, and then it was gone. For the movie focuses on a group of young adults called the Sally Fowler Rat Pack. They are a bunch of “Upper Haute Bourgeoisie” (i.e. preppie) kids who attend a series of debutante balls and after-parties in New York over Christmas vacation. What is amazing about the film is that, because it focuses on a very specific social milieu, it can look at all the same concerns that we find in any John Hughes movie, but adds an another layer of dramatic intrigue.

As with John Hughes, the main concerns are unrequited crushes, how different social groups interact and the desperate need to succeed socially. Indeed, we get all the Hughes stock characters. Audrey Rouget is the classic sweet, innocent, confused heroine. She even has that Molly Ringwald short bob haircut, albeit atop couture ballgowns and strings of pearls. She spends her time reading Jane Austen novels and sympathises with the principled heroine of Mansfield Park, Fanny Price. She has a crush on Tom Townsend, the geeky hero of the piece. He is our “everyman” entrée to this society – the outsider who is adopted by the wealthier group of friends and who has to rescue our heroine from the evil clutches of Rick von Slonecker – the classic John Hughes Jock/villain nemesis of the piece – albeit in black tie. Of the other members of the group, the most notable is the cynical anti-hero Nick Smith – a viciously self-aware social climber who hides a heart of gold underneath his wry exterior.

The glory of this movie is the pithy dialogue and most of the memorable lines are delivered by Nick. Indeed, this must be one of the most quotable movies of all time – up there with WITHNAIL AND I, SWINGERS and GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS. A classic Nick-ism is: ‘Playing strip poker with an exhibitionist somehow takes the challenge out of it.’ However, the most ironic lines usually come from the less self-aware members of the UHP – such as when Sally Fowler sits in her gorgeous Upper East Side apartment in a ball gown, having drinks after a debutante party, and earnestly decrees that she is “not a snob, and I abhor all forms of snobbism.’ Or when our hero, Tom Townsend, intones that he does not ‘read novels. I prefer good literary criticism.’ This intellectual snobbery could have been lifted straight out of
THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, a WOODY ALLEN movie, or perhaps a Noel Coward play.

The key question is, I guess, why should you set such a movie in this specific social set? My response would be that the most biting humour, and the underlay of tragedy that gives the movie its depth, derives from its setting. For while the preoccupations of the Sally Fowler Rat Pack are mainly about how to get a boyfriend/girlfriend, occasionally they stray into the more serious. Nick and Charlie Black are painfully aware that the type of society they inhabit is on the wane, and that their type is doomed to failure. Society has evolved around them and they are dinosaurs. (Although it is interesting to note that sixteen years later, black and white tie functions are alive and well.) In fact, it is worse. A random ‘UHP’ they meet in a bar tells them that it’s not as easy as all that. They are not doomed to failure, but are active agents in their own failure. The early years of promise are replaced by a middle-age of mediocrity made all the more painful by the fact that one or two peers will succeed, throwing your own failure into relief. This seems to me to be tragically true. Most of us will under-perform our life goals, but the gap between intention and reality is all the greater for those who are told time and again in their youth that they have the world at their feet: that they are the Best and Brightest. I also found the depiction of the painful relationship that Tom has with his social standing to be incredibly true to life. Tom is part of the social set, albeit at the lowest echelon, but reacts against its superficiality. However, it is blackly ironic that he expresses this discontent by pretentiously declaring himself to be the disciple of an obscure French socialist.

Having said all this, the movie is not without its flaws. Thanks to the cast of inexperienced unknowns, most of the performances are unbelievably wooden, and it is testament to the quality of the script that the movies survives and is funny anyhow. Nonetheless, given its combination of straightforward teen-angst comedy and the more piquant observations about the future of the social set, METROPOLITAN deserves its place as a cult movie.

METROPOLITAN was originally released in 1990 but is on re-release in the UK right now.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

DOWN IN THE VALLEY - great performances, great movie

DOWN IN THE VALLEY is a fascinating movie that tackles issues of personal identity, contact between families and outsiders, and relationships across the ages. It does so in a manner that is far more convincing and affecting than recent movies such as THE KING, and (I am laughing at mentioning this in the same review) PRIME. Set in contemporary California, the movie tells the story of a thirtysomething drifter called Harlan (Edward Norton), who comes across as a throw-back to the days of the Wild West. By chance he meets a teenage girl called Tobe (played by Evan Rachel Wood), who causally invites this strange, other-wordly man to the beach. Despite the uneasiness we feel at the age gap, it is clear from the early scenes of the movie that it is Tobe who is making all the running, although it is telling about Harlan's grip on reality that he never thinks to check how old she actually is - at least on camera. In addition, it is a mark of Edward Norton's talent that while he can incite the audience's unease at much that Harlan does, we never think of him as a stock-sexual predator. In fact, in many scenes between Tobe and Harlan - riding on horseback, or just sitting in the bath together - they just look plain innocent and love.

The relationship between Tobe and Harlan reminds me of a current hit song in the UK, whose chorus plays: "Show some love, you ain't that tough: fill my little world right up, right up." Both Tobe and Harlan are characters who live is small, isolated worlds. Harlan has no friends to speak of, no job, and no real home. He spends his time play-acting old Western movies in his motel room and writing letters that serve as vehicles for defining his persona rather than actual attempts at communication. Tobe meanwhile has a kid brother who she loves but is faintly irritated by and an absentee father. So when these characters meet, with nothing to distract them from this new all-consuming love, things reach a pitch intensity that is almost bound to be unstable. The intensity of love where there once was an emotional vacuum is echoed in Harlan's relationship with Tobe's younger brother, Lonnie. Lonnie is a poor, lonely kid who knows that he is not his father's biological son, and also that he lacks "gumption" and other qualities that would make his father, Wade (played by David Morse), look upon him kindly. When Harlan shows him attention and tells him he is an okay kid, it is as though Lonnie suddenly has something to believe in, and that faith is ever-enduring.

Other than the universally fantastic acting, other things to note about DOWN IN THE VALLEY are the evocative sound-track and photography, by DP Enrique Chediak. He beautifully contrasts the "road to nowhere" rat-race of crowded highways, day and night, with Harlan's horseback rides on the edge of the city. The topography of the Valley is used to great effort - notably when Harlan's takes a vantage point on the traffic below, and in scenes at dusk near the end of the movie, when Lonnie and Harlan are walking near the camp-fire. At times, you can just sit back and just soak up the photography with the wistful score, and let the action roll on - almost as an afterthought.

Which is what some viewers may want to do. Some of the people I saw this movie with complained that the screenplay took the characters to extreme places that seemed not at all in keeping with what we knew about them. However, I have to respectfully disagree. I think the script is at pains to point out the conflicting feelings that Tobe has about Harlan, and also, given what we know, fully explains Lonnie's unswerving devotion to him. In addition, the movie opens itself up to criticism by referencing a number of cinematic greats, not least TAXI DRIVER. Referencing the greats is always risky, because you remind the audience of films which they are likely to think "better" than what they are currently watching. Worse still, it can just seem lazy. However, I think that these cinematic references are justified, as they throw up the pop-culture references that make up Harlan's psyche.

To my mind, DOWN IN THE VALLEY is one of the most original and interesting movies that I have seen all year. You have to buy in to the underlying concept but I believe that once you do this, everything that Harlan, Tobe, Lonnie and Wade do seems in character. Best of all, there is a certain thrill in seeing such an all-round quality product - from the acting to the sound to the photography to the editing. Go check it out!

DOWN IN THE VALLEY showed at Cannes 2005 and went on release in France in February and the US in May 2006. It is currently on release in the UK. I do not know of a release date for Germany, Austria or Australia.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

THE THIEF LORD - charming live-action kids flick

THE THIEF LORD is a charming live-action children's movie based on the popular novel by Cornelia Funke. Neither I nor my god-daughter have read the novel, but judging CURIOUS GEORGE a little too young, we opted for this flick instead. We went in with zero expectations but both found it captivating. The story takes all the familiar strands from classic children's fiction. We have two young brothers, Prosper and Boniface. They have been orphaned, and their evil aunt and uncle opted only to adopt the younger brother - six year old Bo. So, one night, Prosper helps Bo escape and they head to Venice, for no better reason than that their late mother always told them magical fairytales about the city. In Venice they are taken in by a group of orphans who hide out in a dis-used cinema (!) led by the enigmatic Thief Lord, Scipio. However, all is not as it seems. Scipio is desperate to become an adult, the evil Uncle and Aunt have hired a private detective to track our heroes down, and a shadowy Count wants the gang to steal a wooden wing from a kindly photographer. Much of the film consists in young kids outwitting mean and/or kindly adults and finding their way to a magical roundabout on a secret island in the lagoon. This fantastic fairytale is brought to life by a quite amazingly good cast of children. In particular, the little kids who play Bo (Jasper Harris) and young Ernesto (Zak Davies) are alternately heart-breaking and hysterical. We also have, somewhat bizarrely, Alexei Sayle and Vanessa Redgrave chewing up the scenery as a corrupt shopkeeper and a nun respectively. This movie is not rocket-science, but I am not sure why it has received such a harsh reception from the critics. I would strongly recommend it to kids (and adults) who love stories about magic and fantasy.

THE THIEF LORD was released in Germany and Austria this January and is now on release in the UK. There is no scheduled release date for the US, France or Australia.

Friday, May 26, 2006

LEMMING - Another day, another disappointing movie

It seems like all I watch these days are film that are not so much bad as disappointing. From X-MEN 3 to THE KING, I watch films with actors, directors and production teams that I admire, but which fail to engage or excite. Today's offering is a French supernatural revenge thriller called LEMMING. The movie is a four-hand piece set in contemporary France. We are introduced to a young couple called Alain and Benedicte Getty. They are a "model couple" living in a nice suburb. The husband works for a high-tech company that makes fancy kit for monitoring one's own house - little flying webcams to spot leaks and such. He finds a lemming in the drain. This being a moody French film, that is a Significant Fact. Alain and Benedicte become entangled with Alain's oleagnious, whoremongering boss Richard, and his veangeful wife, Alice. The film unfurls at length into a supernatural thriller which I found dull, dull, dull. It was never spooky, never scary. Neither the script nor the camerawork created any tension or paranoia. The symbolism - spy-cams and suicidal lemmings - was hamfisted. The nightmare scene elicited unintended laughter. As for the ending, we are given an attempt at a tantalising enigma. But it is not a par with the final frames of that outstanding movie, HIDDEN/CACHE. The film fails badly and this is all the more pitiful considering that is directed by French wunderkind, Dominik Moll, and stars four great actors. Alain is played by Laurent Lucas - the actor who played cabaret-singer Marc Stevens in the superb Belgian horror flick, CALVAIRE. His wife Benedicte is played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, who played JANE EYRE in the outstanding Zeffirelli production and also featured in 21 GRAMS. Andre Dusollier plays the lecherous old Pollock - an actor I'll always remember for his similarly creepy performance in UN COEUR EN HIVER. Finally, the iconic Charlotte Rampling plays his veangeful wife, Alice. What a waste.

LEMMING opened Cannes 2005. It is at the fag-end of its super-limited UK release and at the start of a limited US release. It opens in Germany on July 13th 2006. I do not know of an Austrian or Australian
release date.

Thursday, May 25, 2006


X-MEN: THE LAST STAND is the third installment in the wildly popular comic-book franchise. For anyone who doesn't know, the basic idea is that there are a bunch of people in the world who are mutants, with special psychic or physical abilities. These vary from the rubbish - Wolverine can extend knives from his knuckles - to the aweseome - Jean Grey/The Pheonix can atomise people. The world of "normal" people is understandably nervous at having such powerful people in its midst. The mutants react to this fear in one of two ways. The "good guys" try to control their powers and use them only in ethical ways. They are led by Professor Charles Xavier. But another group, led by Magneto, take a more Werner Herzog view of the world. They believe that the natural order of human-mutant relations is aggression and cruelty. The conflict between these two camps forms the back-bone of every X-MEN movie, usually triggered by some half-assed action on the part of well-meaning but feckless "normal" humans. In this case, the humans have isolated a child who carries a natural antibody to the X-gene. (Whatever. I have not read the comics - the "science" is a blur.) Close contact with the kid cures the mutation and the cure is free for all on a voluntary basis. The feckless part is where the government handily soups up some plastic guns with anti-body darts that disable mutants on impact. Nice.

As with any
X-MEN movie, THE LAST STAND is full of high quality action sequences. The final set-piece, where Magneto rips up the Golden Gate Bridge to form a path to the cure-centre on Alcatraz, is inspired. (Clearly, it would have just been easier to take a boat.) We also got some really fine acting from Sir Ian McKellan as Magneto, Anna Paquin as Rogue and Kelsey "Frasier" Grammer as Dr. Hank McCoy a.k.a. The Beast. He's a sort of bright blue Chewbacca character who can kick butt while quoting Churchill. This may sound ridiculous but it is fantastic casting. When Grammer plays McCoy, who is a Secretary of State, he has real gravitas. I also want to mention the inspired casting of Cameron Bright as the anti-body kid, for want of a better phrase. That kid has these amazing eyes and a way of holding his gaze on a person that is unnerving. He is perfect for the role, just as he was petrifying in the Nicole Kidman supernatural thriller, BIRTH.

However, despite the great set pieces and some fine acting, I found
THE LAST STAND to be a deeply irritating viewing experience. Why? First, Halle Berry, who plays Storm, is so wooden as to make my coffee table look postively animated. When a close friend dies, her tears are less convincing that a contestant in Big Brother. Second, the script is really trite. Take for example two senior clinicians at the cure-lab on Alcatraz who watch Magneto's army rip up the frickin' Golden Gate Bridge and launch a volley of assaults on their lab. About ten minutes in, one turns to the other and says, "they're coming after us." No shit. Similarly, when Magento unleashes a great evil on to the defenders of the lab, he utters the words "what have I done?" in an entirely unconvincing and out-of-character volte face. More generally, while the script raises some interesting issues about who we class as "normal" and the implications of scientific cures for the "abnormal" - it does so in a really ham-fisted manner. Dear lord, to have Rebecca Romjin sit there dressed up as the mutant Mystique, telling her interrogater that she refuses to answer to her "slave name" Raven Darkholme.....

Third, feminists will no doubt be fuming at the final scene featuring Wolverine and Jean Grey. I cannot tell you why this makes me mad without giving away the plot, but suffice to say that those of you familiar with the etymology of the word hysteria, and the phrase la petite mort (thanks to Katya for correction on spelling), will know why this scene undercuts the PC-ness of having Halle Berry as the chief
X-MAN. Finally, the last scenes are completely opaque in their meaning. So the anti-body kid is now a student at Xavier's academy? Has he lost his power to de-X the X-men? We're never told. And as for the very last shot of Magneto, what the heck is that meant to mean?

All in all, the plot inconsistencies, bad acting*, suspect social politics and sheer silliness of the script made this the worst episode of the franchise for me. One wonders if it is coincidence that this is the only one of the three to have been
helmed by Brett Ratner (the guy behind those Chris Tucker/Jackie Chan Rush Hour movies). Now here's the weird thing. Ratner took over X MEN 3 after the director of the first two movies, Bryan Singer, dropped out to work on the "troubled" Superman movie. Weird thing is, Singer was taking over from....Brett Ratner. So, if Ratner managed to de-X the X-MEN movies, does that mean that the Bryan Singer SUPERMAN RETURNS is gonna kick ass? Stay tuned to find out....

X MEN 3 is open global release. *Amazingly, I am NOT referring to Vinnie Jones here. Vinnie is actually remarkably good in his role as the Juggernaut. Indeed, he has some of the funniest lines in the film. Which means that not only have I praised Vinnie Jones' comic timing in this review, but I have also, implicitly, claimed that so far this summer, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE III is the block-buster viewing choice of the man of taste. Blimey.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

PICCADILLY JIM spits on the grave of Ian Curtis

As a god-fearing English(wo)man, I think cricket is proof of the existence of a benevolent god and that HP sauce is culinary genius. But, while Shakespeare could clearly take Moliere and Goethe in a straight fight, I'd rather read P.G. Wodehouse. For P.G. Wodehouse wrote novels that combine slapstick comedy, social satire, Byzantine plots and quintessentially English nonsense. I was, then, somewhat disappointed when I realised that a rare screen adaptation of Wodehouse's novel, Piccadilly Jim, was not going to be given a UK cinematic release. On paper, it looked like it couldn't fail. A frothy plot full of mistaken identity, love, hate, dynamite, fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles... It also features a script by Oscar-winning screen-writer Julian Fellowes and a cast of fantastic British and American actors. But, sad to say, this adaptation of PICCADILLY JIM is a failure on almost every level. Given the quality of the base text, and the writing and acting talent attached to this project, one can only assume that this failure is down to a horrific misinterpretation of Wodehouse on the part of the director, a chap called John McKay.

As I said, the source text is a light, frothy farce. There are two American sisters of immense wealth called Eugenia (Allison Janney) and Nesta (Brenda Blethyn). Nesta is a writer of salacious novels who is trying to cultivate a salon. To wit, she is harbouring a number of young artists in her house, not to mention her idiot nephew, Patridge (Tom Hollander) who is apparently concocting a new sort of WMD called Patridgite. Nesta is married to a mild-mannered financier called Mr Pett and has a loathsome, fat, spoiled son called Ogden. She also has a charming niece by marriage called Ann (Frances O'Connor). Ann wrote a book of poetry that was ridiculed in print by one "Piccadilly Jim" - a disolute dandy called Jim Crocker (Sam Rockwell). Now here's where the fun begins. Jim's dad, Bingley Crocker (Tom Wilkinson) is married to Nesta's sister, Eugenia. In typically Wildean style, when Jim falls in love with Ann, he pretends to be a clean-living man named Algernon, rather than the Jim Crocker she thinks that she hates. Then, in a turn of comic genius, pretends to be himself in order to pull off the "inside job" of kidnapping Ogden to make Ann happy. But of course, Ogden, being loathsome, is in on the act for 50%. At the same time, Ann's suitor, Lord Wisbeach (Hugh Bonneville), is being impersonated by a German spy who is after Patridge's WMD. Oh, and Crocker's dad (a failed actor) is pretending to be Nesta's butler.

Now, this is an awful lot of plot (and not even the half of it) for a movie that lasts seventy minutes, and the key to getting these sorts of films to work is to keep the atmosphere light and to play it *absolutely straight*. The plot is so ridiculous and convoluted - the characters so bizarre to a modern eye - that the only way to make it fly is if everyone involved has an absolute conviction that this Wodehousian world actually exists. That is the genius of the recent Stephen Fry-Hugh Laurie Jeeves & Wooster TV adaptations. The antics may be eccentric, but within the coherent 1930s world shown on screen, they make absolute sense.

It is here that I feel that the director made a complete pigs-ear of this adaptation. Instead of running with a straightforward period comedy - trusting in Wodehouse to make the audience empathise and laugh - he tinkered with the formula. So what we have is a design mish-mash - caricatured 30s costumes meet almost contemporary stylings. The hero, Jim Crocker, walks around in a cheap lounge suit that would not look out of place in a 1980s night-club in Essex. The music is also all over the place. We have glitzy cabaret singers crooning schmaltzy covers of 80s classics such as Joy Division's superlative lament, Love Will Tear Us Apart. Unforgiveable. And to cap it all off, there are lots of hysterical over-the-top performances by actors who should know better but have obviously been badly directed. It's a crying shame.

PICCADILLY JIM toured the festival circuit but was not released in the UK. It was released on DVD on Monday.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

THE KING - Frustrating, inexplicable, strange....

THE KING is an odd movie to review. I cannot say that I enjoyed my viewing experience or that this is a coherent or compelling movie. And yet I am somewhat reluctant to dismiss it as a “bad movie” that you should avoid. The difficulty for me lies in the script. The story is pretty hackneyed. There is a preacher who lives with his wife, son and daughter in contemporary Corpus Christi, Texas. They are depicted as the kind of right-wing evangelical Christian family that many people whose sole knowledge of the US comes from watching The Daily Show and reading The Onion might reflexively believe populates the entire US between LA and New York. The boys hunt deer and the girls clean up the entrails and cook the food. The young son plays Christian rock and is campaigning for Intelligent Design to be taught in his high school. The father preaches in the kind of Church that has a flashing electronic board advertising prayer times. Into this world steps a young man called Elvis, who has just quit the marines and now works as a pizza delivery boy and lives in a rented motel room. He is the illegitimate child of the preacher, and now, with his mother dead, has come back “home”. Unsurprisingly, the preacher’s first reaction is shock and denial, which pretty much breaks Elvis’ heart. His reactions to this rejection are bizarre and extreme.

Now, I started feeling uneasy at the caricatured picture of the preacher’s family at the start of the flick, but I thought, you know what, this could be a great chance to explore what goes on behind the scary clichés. (And yes, I do find the concept of teaching Intelligent Design in schools scary.) But the film never really does this. You get the idea that the family is made up of essentially good people, if somewhat conflicted, but despite some obvious set pieces involving the mother, I found it hard to empathise with their reactions to Elvis’ appearance. The real enigma, however, is Elvis. Having been rejected by his father, his actions take us into the realms of melo-drama or implausible daytime soap opera. There were storylines here that would make Sunset Beach look like an essay in narrative restraint. Crazy narrative arcs are not bad of themselves. Indeed, the outstanding western, THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA used a surreal storyline to bring home the emotional awakening of its key characters. The problem with THE KING is that I was no clearer as to Elvis’ motives or even mental health at any point of the film. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe we are meant to be left with an enigma. But it makes for an intensely frustrating viewing experience.

Having said all this, in a curious way, this film is worth seeing purely because it is very well put together. The actors are all high-class, not least William Hurt as the preacher, Gael Garcia Bernal as Elvis, and Pell James as the preacher’s daughter. In addition, I though the camera-work was outstanding – evocative, beautiful, sometimes spooky. There is a very nicely done scene (although perhaps not fantastically original) near the end of the film, where the camera tracks through the rooms of the preacher’s house, slowly and quietly, until it comes across a painful scene that we *know* is waiting for us. Stirring stuff. The key question is whether good acting and photography, not to mention a cool sound-track, can compensate for a story-line that strains credulity and empathy. For me, THE KING was still worth a look, but if you watch movies rarely, you can surely pick better films on which to shell out your ten bucks.

THE KING was released in France in January 2006 and is currently on limited release in the US and UK. I do not know of a release date for Australia, Austria or Germany.

Monday, May 22, 2006

THE PROMISE - More of that high flying mystical Chinese soap opera stuff

The Chinese sure love their cinematography. Few American movies can match the investment movies like THE PROMISE make in their dedication to color and cinematic beauty. Every scene a painting, every character ultra vivid, these movies are incredible to look at. Of course, the price you pay for that is enduring unbelievably corny dialogue and entirely ridiculous story arcs that strain your ability to remain in the cinema as they take place.

Yet THE PROMISE is very much worth watching, particularly if you're a fan of this kind of cinema or just fantasy in general. The characters are all in boldface; the doomed beauty, the brash and conquering general, the embittered villain, the mysterious assassin and most important, the slave who really isn't a slave. In terms of broad narrative, The Promise is actually really good, an epic and grand adventure with characters who have to discover themselves in order to come to terms with the world, others that rise and fall from glory and a resolution to the whole thing that is satisfying without being saccharine.

So the narrative problems don't occur in the broad story arc. They are credulity straining loose ends left unanswered that nag and annoy the viewer (and likely destroy the movie for most of the audience to be honest). The rationale of a certain goddess and her interferance is never explained, so unlike Greek mythology where you get a picture of the gods as petty and self interested, here you have a meddlesome goddess working to no particular purpose. Then the storytellers forget to explain how our villain is able to destroy a race of superbeings or why he is so unable to defeat a merely human general, and their explanation of his general bitterness is far from acceptable. One more major problem occurs in the first half hour of the movie, an entirely unrealistic war scene with iffy graphics and the worst potrayal of war strategy and battle I've ever had the displeasure of seeing in a movie. Oh and why on earth or any other world would a general go face his enemy without putting on his (near mythical) armor first? This movie has no shortage of flaws.

Despite these problems though, I find myself quite enamored of The Promise, particularly in retrospect. Part of the reason for that is that the movie picks up as it goes along, becoming more intriguing with the introduction of the assassin character and the development of the protagonist's back story (plot holes and all). There is also far humor in the latter half of the movie than at the beginning, where it takes itself too seriously. If you're the kind of movie viewer who is able to relax into a movie and look past its flaws, The Promise has much to offer. Aside of the gorgeous cinematography, the acting is top notch with wonderfully evocative actors. For a fantasy geek (my name is Flint and I am a fantasy geek), some of the ideas within it are totally thrilling and impossible to let go off when you leave the cinema. That's the Promise, flawed but entertaining. It can by no means be called a good movie but it isn't all bad.

THE PROMISE was released in China last Christmas and played Berlin 2006. It is currently on release in Germany, Austria and the US. I do not know of a release date for the UK or Aus.

WRISTCUTTERS - Slight but enjoyable slip of an indie movie

In some ways, WRISTCUTTERS is everything its name promises. It's a quirky and not very serious take on a very serious topic. Yet the movie does manage to challenge some of your expectations. For example, it isn't just about wristcutters. It's also about self electrocuting musicians, depressed kids with a fondness for rope and a whole range of other characters not so enamored of this little world of ours. As punishment, they all end up in a place that might be purgatory or something a lot like it. It's a depressed world where no one can smile and everything is even more miserable than the real world and it's populated entirely with people who have committed suicide. Imagine trying to fall in love in that screwed up world.

Our characters, quirky and endearing indie movie types, manage it pretty well. Our protagonists, Patrick Fugit (playing the befuddled introvert these movies insist on) and the very pretty Shannyn Sossamon play their parts well. There are more charming and memorable characters though, including the Russian with the admirably bleak worldview, a throat singing Eskimo girl and a mysterious chap that Tom Waits shows up to play. Yet the best part of Wristcutters is its hokey but fun initial premise. The world in which the movie is set is appropriately bizzare and taking in its contours and meeting its characters and anticipating the curves it throws out is the best part of the movie. The movie is mostly convincing in its initial conceit and there is a great deal of absurd humor to keep you engaged. Overall, WRISTCUTTERS is a slight but enjoyable little movie that says absolutely nothing about suicide even as it mines it for uncomfortable but real laughs.

WRISTCUTTERS played Sundance and many other festivals. It goes on limited release in the US in August 2007.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

WAITING - More painful than picturing John Prescott shag his secretary

It's hard to say *definitively* if WAITING is the worst film of 2006. Not because I am afraid of pronouncing on such subjective matters as though I were the oracle of cinematic Objectivity. Rather, because I have not yet seen CASINO ROYALE. What I can say is that despite featuring all the hallmarks of a Binatastic Low Rent night out, WAITING sucked ass. I set the bar pretty low when it comes to gross-out humour. I'll take Ryan Reynolds injecting a chocolate eclair with dog sperm and laugh my ass off. But this movie is just terrible. The basic premise is that a bunch of losers work in a crappy restaurent. To add purpose to their meaningless lives they adulterate the food. That's it! There is no humour, be it verbal witticism or just a chick slipping on some spilled pudding. I just give up. I cannot articulate how devoid of any entertainment value this movie is. And no, it is not so bad it is good. And it's not so "straight to video" that it will earn a cult following. So do yourself a favour, and Just Say No.

WAITING was released in the US last October and Australia last December. It opened in the UK yesterday and, I would imagine, will go "straight to video" everywhere else.

Friday, May 19, 2006

THE DA VINCI CODE - a game of two halves

I was all ready to love this film. Skulduggery, treasure hunts, pretty pictures of London....I had anticipated writing a spirited defence of the film as "glorious trash". It all started very well. Beautifully photographed, menacingly lit shots of the Louvre. The Curator, who also happens to be the Grand Master of a secret society, running for his life, observed by the mournful eyes of renaissance figures. The movie looked expensive, by which I mean well-made and lush. The old-fashioned orchestral score added to the tension, even though I had read the book and knew the plot. I loved the fact that periodically the current action would dissolve into a lavish recreation of ancient Rome or medieval London. As the film unravelled it got better and better. We had our dashing Symbologist (Tom Hanks) and the pretty French cryptologist (Audrey Tautou) in car chases through the French countryside, following a series of clues leading to the Holy Grail. Admittedly they were being chased by an Albino monk - a murdering member of a secretive Catholic prelature - but Paul Bettany somehow managed to portray this character as conflicted and threatening rather than ridiculous and camp. The high point was the introduction of the hero and heroine's helper, Sir Leigh Teabing, an expert on the Grail legend living in a conveniently close chateau. Teabing, as played by the ever-brilliant Sir Ian McKellan, is the life of the party. Despite this character having to impart a considerable amount of pseudo-religio-history to the Audrey Tautou character, Teabing hooks the audience with his child-like excitement at having a real keeper of the Grail in his midst. His enthusiasm for continuing to uncover the clues is contagious.

Now as far as I am concerned the movie, which is faithful in most respects to the novel, took a decided turn for the worse just over half way through, when a number of key characters were faded out. Tom Hanks was left to carry the film and, frankly, his bland looks and bland emotional response to what should have been Church-shattering events killed any enjoyment I might have experienced as the final meaning and location of the Grail was uncovered. Indeed, in the penultimate scene, when Hanks intones the true secret to Tautou, the audience at the screening I attended started to giggle. Which must rank as a bit of a failure on the part of the film-makers. The problem is that, in a world where everyone has either read the book or scene a TV documentary debunking its claims, The Big Bad Secret seems a bit of an anti-climax. In addition, there is zero sexual tension between Hanks and Tautou. Overall, I suppose I would sum up my reaction to THE DA VINCI CODE as "ho and indeed hum". It starts off like a rattling summer blockbuster and ends up as a damp squib.

P.S. For those concerned that the film may offend their Catholic sensibilities, I would argue that it is harmless hokum that would shake only the flimsiest of belief. Moreover, the script is at utter pains to distance itself from the radicalism of the novel. The murdering monk and nasty Bishop are described continuously as fringe elements acting without the authority of the Church. The Tom Hanks character is far more sceptical about the existence of the secret society and Grail, and then about its ability to destroy the Church, than in the book. Indeed, the whole film merely hints at prior crimes of the Church at large rather than damning the whole outfit as a misgynistic con. And the final conclusion is far less, well, destructive, in it airy-fairy conclusions. I feel that the director Ron Howard may have scored a bit of an own goal with this decision to shy away from the the radical anti-Catholic content. He still won't have appeased the kind of religious who hate any kind of criticism of their faith, whether real or imagined. And as for the die-hard fans who seriously believe all this hog-wash, the film may well feel like a soft-soaped compromise....

THE DA VINCI CODE is on global release.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

WOLF CREEK - horror that is actually horrifying

I watch a lot of horror movies that do not scare me. This is not because I am hard as nails. I am one of the most easily freaked out people on the planet. One of my friends said he was tired of seeing me describe new horror releases as 'another piss-poor 70s remake'. Well, if it walks like a duck and sounds like a duck. Anyways, the point is that there are deeply nasty movies out there. If you like gore and torture you can check out a Japanese flick called AUDITION. If you like psychological eeriness you can check out CALVAIRE. And seriously, you can rent all those fantastic 70s classics. However, the movie I most recommend right now is a low-budget Aussie horror called WOLF CREEK. The strength of the movie is that it ticks all the right genre-specific boxes without feeling tired and formulaic. Three teenagers are taking a road-trip through the Australian countryside. It's classic horror fare. They listen to bad rock music, get drunk, jump in swimming pools Spring-Break-style, and end up in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a busted car and a Backwoodsman. Newbie writer-director Greg McLean seems to understand that what is scary about horror is the slow build-up to the inevitable nastiness. Don't get me wrong, there is plenty of gut-wrenching violence in this film, but it is the slow build that gets to you. The cinematographer manages to take some fantastic footage (moreso considering it is shot on hi-def video) of the countryside that emphasises how isolated the kids are. Moreover, I have always thought it necessary for a good horror movie to be elevated by a sick sense of humour, and we get that here, with a now cult-ishly famous re-take on the Crocodile Dundee, "Call that a knife" joke, not to mention the "hero" doing a nice Darth Vader impression with a flashlight. Class. Of course, well over half way into the film, we realise that the stereotypical jovial farmer who has offered to help the kids out is two screws loose. From then on we get forty minutes of well-acted, imaginative, nasty, menacingly-lit horror. Which means, in simple terms, JOB DONE. Go see it, but don't say I didn't warn you.

WOLF CREEK premiered at Sundance 2005 and was released in the UK, US and Australia last year. It will be released in Germany on July 13th and in France on August 9th. It is also available on DVD.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


Let me start with the bad part. Like may other informative, compelling documentaries released of late and filmed on digital video, WALMART: THE HIGH COST OF LOW PRICE is not an exciting visual experience. This is not to denigrate the content or suggest that you should avoid it. It's just that you don't have to make a special effort to hunt it down at the cinema: DVD is okay. Now to the good stuff. To my mind, WALMART: THE HIGH COST OF LOW PRICE is the best of the recent crop of documentaries claiming to uncover corporate malfeasance, despite the fact that, on the face of it, ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM has the more spectacular story and McLIBEL has the most obvious narrative arc. To my mind, WALMART did everything a good expose-doc. does: it held my interest, it made me really think about my opinion on key issues, it will actively change my day-to-day actions and it made me want to go out and find out more. So let's tackle each of these in turn.

I actually didn't think I would be that interested. We all know that big corporations pay crappy wages and that it is hard to make ends meet on a full-time salary. Call me callous but this never really bothered me before. And we also know that when a big supermarket moves into a small town this decimates the small mom & pop local businesses. Again this didn't really worry me, even when Tesco (a big UK supermarket chain) moved in my parents little country town. It struck me as economically logical - bigger chains can buy in bulk and pass on negotiated savings to consumers. Consumers love this stuff! Why should the supermarket be punished for doing well? To me, this was just fair competition. The key word here is FAIR. Because over the 90 minutes of this documentary, the director, Robert Greenwald, laid out the numerous ways in which WALMART wasn't playing FAIR. From cheating local government out of subsidies, to cheating their own employees out of hours worked (literally changing the computer records), to spying on unionisers and obstructing employees' right to associate, to disregarding Supreme Court orders to clean up the environment they were so recklessly polluting, to exploiting Chinese workers. The whole thing was just an embarrasment. The director brilliantly brings this incendiary material alive with lots of interviews with real people in real surroundsings (something the ENRON doc missed). In addition, he brilliantly inter-cuts this material, much of which is just flabbergasting, with painfully greasy Walmart commercials and corporate videos featuring the CEO and clips from US satirist, Jon Stewart's Daily Show. Companies like WALMART and ENRON give capitalism a bad name and that makes me mad.

This documentary also made me reconsider my opinion about the way in which, geeky I know, local planning law works in this country. A big chunk of the doc. looks at how Walmart is able to gain local government subsidies to put up megastores, some of which go unused. Now, in the UK, as I understand it, if a supermarket wants to build, it has to pay local govt. and not the other way round. The local community should be a net receiver of schools and roads and doctor's surgeries. Never could I have imagined that I would come to the conclusion that the byzantine UK planning law was humane, but now I kind of get it. The documentary will actively change my day-to-day life, insofar as I will avoid ASDA (owned by Walmart). And I will research whether Tesco and Sainsburys, the two big UK supermarket chains, are guilty of the same things.

So, I urge you to check out this documentary, even if on DVD. It is thought-provoking, informative, and if entertaining is the wrong word, then compelling certainly fits.

WALMART: THE HIGH PRICE OF LOW COST was released in the US last November and in the UK last Friday. There is no theatrical release date as yet for Europe or Australia.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

UNDERTOW - There are some things we just don't need to see

Josh Lucas mud-wrestling a squealing pig, his pale ass-cheeks wobbling over the top of his muddy britches. No, sir. We also do not need to see inferior remakes of cinematic classics, no matter what the pedigree of the director. No matter how impressive David Gordon Green's first two films were, there is no excuse for this blatant rip-off of The Night of the Hunter. In this version, Dermot Mulroney plays John Munn, the father of two kids, living in the backwoods of Georgia in savage conditions. One day his younger brother Deel Munn, played by Josh Lucas, shows up. He's after some old Mexican coins that Mulroney inherited from his father. This being one of Green's trademark "Southern Gothic" flicks, the fight for the coins soon turns violent. So the two kids abscond, chased by their sinister, murdering Uncle. Now, despite my deep scepticism as to the point of remaking (broadly speaking) The Night of the Hunter, there is a lot to like about UNDERTOW. Apart from Josh Lucas, the cast is outstanding. In particular, Jamie Bell and Devon Alan are captivating as the two young Munn boys. The evocation of mood - from photography to Philip Glass' score - is also first class. However, whenever Josh Lucas appeared on screen I was totally taken out of the movie thanks to his hammy over-acting. He plays menacing by opening his eyes *really* wide and getting all shouty in the manner of Al Pacino's more hammy performances. And when he starts on his sinister rampage he just reminded me of Jason Lee in My Name is Earl. And that's about as menacing as the English pace attack. (i.e. not very.) To sum up, there are worse looking films out on DVD this week, but I doubt if any are more frustratingly mis-cast.

UNDERTOW screened at London 2004 and went on limited release in the UK last autumn. It was released on DVD yesterday.

Monday, May 15, 2006


RUSSIAN DOLLS is an amiable film. A lot of the scenes are played well, especially in the first half, and given that the movie is shot on Digital Video, Paris looks suitably dreamy. We should all live in such apartments! But, having said all this, ultimately, RUSSIAN DOLLS is a film that frustrates with its incoherent narrative structure.

RUSSIAN DOLLS is actually a sequel featuring a bunch of thirty-something Europeans, all of whom lived together in their
student days. I have to confess to not seeing the original movie, and the sequel does not make me want to rush back to it. As in the original, RUSSIAN DOLLS focuses on Xavier, a Parisian writer played by Romain Duris, and his complicated love life. Xavier claims that he is in love with is best friend, Martine, played by Audrey Tautou (soon to be seen in the Da Vinci Code flick.) She is a single-mother environmental campaigner. Yet while Xavier looks after her kid and claims love, he also shows her precious little empathy when she is going through emotional difficulties – unceremoniously kicking her out of bed to make way for his latest squeeze, Kassia. Meanwhile, Xavier is crashing with his friend, Isabelle (played by the marvellous Cecile de France) a gay financial news reporter. Desperate to cheer up his frail grandfather by introducing him to a non-existent fiancée, Xavier persuades Isabelle to put on – the horror! – a dress and pretend for an evening.

In all these intertwining relationships that make up the first hour of the movie, I felt engaged with the characters and emotionally invested in how things would turn out. There is a lot of oh-so-clever use of editing and fantasy sequences (Audrey Tautou dressed as a princess, explaining to her son about the seven Princes Charming she has dated etc) which I found got in the way of the drama rather than enhancing my enjoyment of the film. But a lot of people were laughing so what do I know?

However, in the second hour the movie takes a sharp right-turn into an entirely different story. The three key female protagonists are dropped and we enter a new world! Xavier is now torn between a screenwriter who loves him, played by the unimpressive
Kelly Reilly, and a supermodel whose memoirs he is ghost-writing. This whole segment seemed to me unrealistic, inauthentic and just plain bizarre. Moreover, I found the writer-director’s treatment of the Xavier character a little irritating. Here was a man who had been a bit of a shit to all the women in his life, but you know, he is charming and handsome and he can change, so that’s okay? In the final scene, we see a brief flash to the Audrey Tautou character, in a belated recognition that one of the key characters had been dropped. Frankly, the whole thing seemed stretched rather thin.

RUSSIAN DOLLS was released in France, Australia, Germany and Austria in 2005. It is currently on extremely limited release in the UK and US.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

NIGHT WATCH - entertaining Russian vampire flick

NIGHT WATCH is a film that has polarised critics and viewers alike, but to my mind it deserves neither the bulletin-board hype nor the scorn of the pretentious broad-sheet reviewers. It is a pretty entertaining, stylishly filmed but also fairly standard good versus bad, fantasy movie.

The movie is the first of a trilogy based on the novels of Sergei Lukyanenko. The idea is that there are a bunch of people who have a variety of special powers, such as the ability to see into the future, or to change form. These are the Others. Usually, people realise that they are an Other when a traumatic incident causes them to manifest “super-human” strength – such as a crash victim being able to pull a car off of another victim.

Back in the Middle Ages, a great battle was fought between the Dark Others (baddies) and Light Others (good guys). However, in a peculiarly Russian Cold War moment of perception, the leaders of each faction realised that as both sides were equally well-matched, there was no chance of either side winning the battle. The only outcome was Mutually Assured Destruction. So the Dark and Light Others agreed a truce. When a new Other became aware of his powers, he would be allowed to choose which side he would join without coercion from either side. To ensure the truce held, there would be a Night Watch made up of good guys and a Day Watch made up of bad guys.

Now, here’s where stuff gets tricky. According to legend, one day an Other will appear who is more powerful than everyone else. His choice of good versus evil will alter the balance of power forever. And that’s where NIGHT WATCH, the movie, brings us in. We see the discovery of the child who will change the balance of power, the Night Watch trying to protect him from vampires, and his eventual choice.

Clearly, if you don’t like films about magic, wizards, vampires and epic battles between Good and Evil, then NIGHT WATCH is not going to be the film for you.
But I have to say that, within this genre of Buffy-type extravaganzas, NIGHT WATCH is a good film. It has a suitably mythic story and the movie contains a narrative arc that scratches upon the surface of a richly imagined world that will no doubt be explored more fully in the second and third parts of the trilogy. In addition, there are a lot of “extras” that you don’t normally get in a film like this. For a start, the fact that it is set in contemporary Moscow already lends it a strange other-worldly feel. Second, there is a lot of attention to detail and the rugged reality of such a world. I find it hard to engage in movies that contain such ludicrous concepts as vampires, so this kind of gritty realism helps sucker me in. I particularly liked the scene where the hero, Anton, goes to a meat market to get a glass of pig’s blood to drink. You get a shot of the glass and the blood looks really nauseating. Nowhere in fantasy movies do you ever see the grim consequences of vampirism so well played-out. Third, as one would expect from a director with extensive experience in advertising, everything looks really slick and stylish. The way in which Others move from the real world into the Gloom and the impact of the Gloom on their bodies is brilliantly drawn. Kinda like CSI and Fight Club meet Ghostbusters.

All in all, while I doubt if NIGHT WATCH will be as revolutionary and influential as AKIRA or THE MATRIX, it’s still an enjoyable ride and definitely of superior cinematic quality.

NIGHT WATCH premiered at Moscow 2004 and, having become Russia's first bona fide blockbuster in that year, played in most European markets in 2005. It got a limited US release in February 2006 and is available on DVD. The sequel was released in Russia in January, and the final part is is pre-production.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

AKEELAH AND THE BEE - as dopey as it sounds, but not a total waste

This review is posted by guest reviewer, Tomiwa: I hate feel good movies. I always want art and storytelling, rather than Hollywood's string driven weepfests. There is no shortage of string instruments in this movie, it relies heavily on well mined formula and the last third of it is as cheese laden as the Quattro Formaggi at my local pizzeria. Nevertheless, it does have it's good points.

It's a far more thoughtful movie than something like this needs to be, dealing with race and class issues in generally more interesting ways than Hollywood usually manages. The one exception to this is a really weird Asian stereotyping in the form of Akeelah's major opponent who is made out as a little Asian robot whose father insists on perfection without humanity. It's kind of the succesful and hardworking Asian kid and parent stereotype pushed to the extreme and even some humanizing at the end of the movie does not excuse this weird intrusion into such a race conscious movie.

The little girl who plays Akeelah is really engaging and enjoyable and is also 100% less creepy than Dakota Fanning, so if you all go see this, maybe she can steal some of that little alien's roles. Angela Bassett plays a tough, black woman and Lawrence Fishburne plays Morpheus in a sweater vest (really difficult roles for them to pull off) but they are both absolutely excellent and as always, worth watching.

The movie does leave you with that "I believe I can fly" momentum and I wouldn't advise seeing it at the top of a tall building. Ultimately, that weird race thing and the excessive amounts of sap do draw the movie down, but if you're a geek who needs a fix or you need something family oriented to take your mom or kids to, you could do worse.

AKEELAH AND THE BEE was released in the US on April 28th 2006 and hits the UK on August 31st. No continental European or Australian release date to report, but I'll update the DVD release when I have it.

Friday, May 12, 2006

ENRON: THE SMARTEAST GUYS IN THE ROOM - great story, okay documentary

ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM is a documentary that does not excite cinematically. It tells a compelling and important story in a very pedestrian manner. There are no exciting revelations beyond the initial expose of the story in the pages of the financial press in 2001. There is no reason to see this at the cinema rather than on DVD or on TV. That is not to denigrate the subject matter. Like I said, this is an important story, and at 2 hours, watching this documentary is as good and as quick a way to get a handle on it as any other.

In a nutshell, the story is as follows. ENRON was one of the biggest and most successful companies in the US. It paid its employees largely in stock options - claims on stock that can be cashed in at some future date. What this means is that employees - especially those at the top who have the most options - have an interest in keeping the stock price high. How do you that? Well, in two ways. First, you publish quarterly results, which should be a clear record of historic performance. The stock price should therefore reward good past behaviour. Second, you can personally impress stock market analysts (essentially people who review companies), with promises of future good behaviour. In this way, they will recommend that investors buy your stock, further boosting the price.

Now ENRON systematically manipulated the share price on both counts. They manipulated the historic record of profitability shifting Enron's debt and badly-performing assets into little offshore companies owned by the CFO, Andy Fastow or by selling them temporarily to very very friendly investment banks. If you temporarily shift all the bad stuff out of the company during reporting season, no surprise, all that's left is the good stuff, and that makes for great profits reports! In addition, ENRON boosted actual historic profits by allowing its energy traders to exploit loopholes in the deregulated California electricity market. At one point, ENRON traders were getting ENRON power plants to shut down in order to force rolling black-outs and boost the price of power.

On the second count, ENRON talked large about Big Ideas that were going to generate the proverbial phat cash. Not only did this impress the stock analysts but, thanks to an accounting technique called mark-to-market, ENRON was able to report these hypothetical future earnings as real, actual, in the cash-register, money. When those ideas failed to bear fruit, it was only a matter of time before the house of cards would come crashing down. At this point, a number of senior executives starting cashing in stock options at the top of the wave, netting huge sums. At the same time, they kept telling ordinary working class employees to keep investing in ENRON stock, knowing full-well that that stock was likely to plummet in value when the truth got out. And that’s exactly what happened. ENRON went bust and employees lost their jobs and their pensions in one nasty hit.

Clearly this is an important story. I always understood why it made sense for companies to issue options – the theory is that they tie employees’ interests into the good performance of the company. But for the employee, who is already dependent on the company for their current earnings, it smacks of putting all your financial eggs in one basket. If times are tough, your company might sack you, so shouldn’t you be invested in an industry that is counter-cyclical to yours? And as the documentary makes clear, the collapse of ENRON had ramifications well beyond the financial markets or the pockets of the employees – whether or not you like Gray Davis, it’s hard not to feel sorry for a man who lost his job because of a bunch of out-of-control traders.

Like I said, this documentary is a decent primer on the ENRON scandal, and makes for compelling viewing if you didn’t know much about it before. But for those of us who have worked in the financial or professional services industries, and know at first hand the conflicts of interest involved in supposedly objective stock analysts, accountants, auditors and lawyers who are also reliant on fee income from broking, banking and consultancy, there isn’t much new here.

ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM premiered at Sundance 2005 and was released in the US and Australia last year. It is currently on super-limited release in the UK. I know of no release date for Germany, Austria or France.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

POSEIDON - What do I know?

What do I know about this movie? Nothing. But I know a man who does. In my experience this guy writes great reviews (being a professional n'all) and I usually agree with what he has to say. So if you are thinking of seeing Wolfgang Petersen's big-bucks remake of the classic 1970s disaster movie, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, you can check out Jabberwock's review here. Now, you may think that my refusal to shell out hard-earned (ahem!) cash to see this movie is itself implicit criticism of The Product. Well, it's not. I love trashy, big-bucks extravaga movies. However, having seen Basic Instinct 2 and MI3 I am pretty much over my Federal RDA of trash for the month. Moreover, while Philip Seymour Hoffman has never been in a bad movie, Josh Lucas, the star of Poseidon, has never been in a good one. This means that while I may well have enjoyed POSEIDON, the odds are stacked against it. Anyways, like I said, check out Jai's review, and if you think I am missing a trick, let me know.

POSEIDON was released in Australia yesterday, and is released in the US today. It hits the UK on June 2nd 2006, France on June 14th and Germany on 13th.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

BRICK - This film is so cool that Richard Roundtree is by far not the coolest thing about it

This review is brought to you by Tomiwa:

There are two kinds of people who will enjoy Brick: film noir fans who don't mind seeing the form explored in a new and unexpected manner, and 13 year old kids who might not know the form but will love the characters, the language and ultimately the very idea of film noir itself. Lucky for me, I'm fit right into both of these categories (old film noir fan and a 13 year old boy at heart). BRICK doesn't do anything too original to the basic workings of film noir, but it is a very fun take on the genre. All the stock characters are there, the twists (few of which a really clever viewer will find unexpected), the feel, even despite the sunny California setting, the claustrophobia.

The main problem with Brick is settling into the world it creates. There is a reason noir movies are made with grizzled, worn out men and set in dark alleys and bars. It gives instant credibility to the characters and the metaphoric darkness of their world. In a sunny California high school, one cannot help but wonder why our would be Bogey is so hard, what it is that drives him, how his instincts got honed or his worldview is so dark. One also has to wonder where the rest of the world as we know it is in relation to this place of vice and sin. The movie does a fine job answering some of these, revealing interesting details and back story that fill out the characters, but it never suceeds in merging the world it's created with the one we know. Hence, you have a movie that's internally coherent and completely engrossing if you just surrender to it's logic, but absolutely inane if you're the kind that can't let go of reality.

The acting is superb. Gordon-Levitt's take on the hard boiled detective steals liberally from Bogart (physical mannerisms and all) but opens it up wonderfully in some fresh ways. Everyone else is pretty great as well, except for the Pin, whose character is quite overdrawn and further let down by the acting. It's also a really beautiful movie in parts, with some clever cinematography and really fun shots. And the language... The language is nothing short of brilliant, the kind of stuff that makes you want to watch a movie over and over again. It adds to the oddity of the universe constructed, but it's just so much fun to hear and repeat. So I guess, I kinda recommend this movie. It's about the most fun I've had in a theatre this year.

And a few words from Bina007:
BRICK is very very odd film. Take a normal high school in modern-day California. Now, let’s give it a sort of antiquated film-noir feel. We’ll have people run to phone booths on abandoned street-corners or in empty car-lots rather than use cellphones. We’ll have the students speak in a stream of stylish one-liners full of almost impenetrable slang. We’ll have them hang out with drug-pushers and murdering thugs too. And then, we’ll populate this high school with the kind of characters who are capitalised. There will be a Femme Fatale, an Anti-Hero on the search for his missing girlfriend, who is herself kind of a Lost Soul. We’ll also have an Arch-Villain who may or may not be the real bad guy, a loyal but kooky Side-Kick. Finally, and here’s the real classy touch, we’ll cast an iconic bad-ass - Richard Roundtree – as the Assistant Vice-Principal. We’ll let these guys run around town for two hours, throwing punches and cute one-liners, and then we’ll end the film, not entirely caring whether or not the plot has been entirely wrapped up. In fact, it’s better if it isn’t – that adds to the whole noir-feel.

Like I said, BRICK is an odd film and it plays it absolutely straight. I have a feeling that whether or not you’ll enjoy it will depend on how far you are willing to just accept this odd world at face value. I went along for the ride and thoroughly enjoyed it mainly because it was just so out of leftfield, partly because it was, on occasion, hilarious, but also because Joseph Gordon-Levitt turns in another searing performance. But if you’re no fan of moody, mysterious thrillers and/or prefer your films full of nice cars, beautiful people and explosions, and there’s nothing wrong with that, then BRICK probably isn’t for you.

BRICK premiered at Sundance 2005 where writer/director Rian Johnson won a Special Jury Prize for originality of vision. BRICK went on limited release in the US in April. It opens in the UK this Friday.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

PRIME - fairly funny but ultimately forgettable romantic-comedy-drama-whatever

This review is posted by guest reviewer, Katya, who can normally be found here:

In a nutshell: David is 23 and Jewish. Rafi is 37, and not. They meet, they like, they get jiggy. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to all, Rafi’s psychotherapist is none other than David’s mum. Prime lasts an hour and three quarters, and it has enough to keep you entertained for the duration. Uma Thurman and Bryan Greenberg are both perfectly competent in the rôles of their respective characters, and, as is to be expected, Meryl Streep excels. Dialogue makes up much of the film– and in most cases, the viewer finds themselves genuinely interested in how each conversation is going to turn out. There are also a fair few moments of real humour – albeit of the “smiling wryly” variety, rather than the “falling off your seat” variety.

But all in all, this film disappoints, and feels empty and ultimately unsatisfying. It’s like a bag of popcorn when you wanted a steak, or at the very least a cheeseburger. First of all, while the acting is all quite adequate, the two main protagonists seem frankly thin and two-dimensional – while we may watch their individual interactions with curiosity, we find that we do not, in the end, much empathize with them, or care what happens to their lives. While both profess love and passion, I found myself utterly unable to believe it – there was no sense of the reality of those feelings for me – and when things went predictably pear-shaped, I was unable to stir up anything bar equanimity, if not outright apathy.

Far more interesting are the emotional and ethical ambiguities of Meryl Streep’s character – the inconsistencies and the double-standards which, as the film progresses, she begins to confront at least partially. Which rôle is closest to reflecting her true human values – therapist or mother? When does “help” slide into manipulation? How much do labels matter? None of this gets resolved, of course, and the movie hardly qualifies as any sort of profound exploration of the issues – but at least here we have a character that seems more than paper-thin.

In summary, this film fails any way you cut it: as a comedy, a love story, a tragedy, or a treatise on the human condition. You won’t be gnawing your own arm off to stave off the boredom, but you may be left with a hollow feeling that later crystallizes into a wish you’d spent your money elsewhere.

And a few words from Bina007:
PRIME features Uma Thurman (most recently Ulla in the remake of The Producers) as Raffi – a thirty-seven year-old recent divorcee. Raffi has the kind of life we see depicted in a certain kind of Woody Allen movie, or perhaps an episode of Sex and the City. She lives in a Manhattan where everyone is beautiful, works in fashion or the arts and has a fantastic apartment decorated with Rothko prints. But, again with the Woody Allen, she has never been happy. Her Upper East-side shrink recommends that she throw herself into life, even if that means dating a hot 23-year old wannabe artist – a relationship that clearly cannot go anywhere. Of course, this being a movie, the endearingly sweet* 23-year old turns out to be the therapist’s son. Which of course would be fine if the shrink applied the same “embrace life” attitude to her own family. But instead, the Meryl Streep character is not only horrified that her son is dating a much-older woman, but also that he is dating a non-Jew. So, there’s the set-up and the movie unravels in a fairly predictable manner. People have witty conversations while walking through perfectly lit streets in the Village or have dinner over Allen-esque noisy Jewish dinner tables. In an act of homage, they even meet in queues outside old playhouses (NOT cineplexes) showing difficult post-war Italian movies. None of this is a critique, of course. You can commit worse cinematic crimes that simply re-interpreting cinematic greats, but by the time we ended with the Annie-Hall-style montage of “best of” moments from Raffi and Dave’s relationship I thought the writer/director was digging a comparative hole for himself. This is because while PRIME is a perfectly harmless, often very funny movie it is never completely engrossing. And it certainly is not a Great Film, whatever that may be. The friend I went to see it with said that it was a signal that the movie had failed that she wasn’t more moved by the ending. I think that sums up the movie for me. Go see PRIME for Meryl Streep hamming it up. Go see it for the best-friend of the “hero” throwing cream pies in the faces of girls who have dumped him. Go see it for the grandma bashing her head with a skillet. Just don’t expect to remember much about it the next day.

PRIME has been on release pretty much everywhere but finally hits the UK on Friday.*If you want to see how sweet slide your cursor over the picture to read a quotation from the movie.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Overlooked DVD of the month - STONED

Last week, Family007 went to Marrakech to go crazy Brian-Jones style. This gives me the perfect excuse to recommend an interesting small-budget British flick called STONED, recently released on DVD. The movie is a biopic of Brian Jones, the founder Rolling Stone, and spends most of its time focusing on his untimely death. I found the story absolutely compelling, not least because, as a child of my time, I had never really understood how important and talented Jones was. He was basically a middle-class English schoolboy who also happened to be a brilliant Blues guitarist. Having knocked a girl up, he left home to travel, eventually ending up in London where he recruited Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. As the fame and money accrued to the band, the Stones' manager realised the money-making potential of the band writing their own songs, rather than covering old blues standards. As the manager promoted the Richards/Jagger partnership, Jones was edged out of his own band until he was finally, formally sacked. Of course, the rest of the Stones could claim that Jones had made it impossible for them to work with him. He took a lot of drugs, drunk a lot of milk(!) But then, it does seem a bit rich for Richards to sack Jones for doing some drugs, not to mention abandoning him in Marrakech, stealing Pallenberg in the process. Now, I know it's "just a film" but you get the feeling that for director Stephen Woolley (who produced the brilliant movie, The Crying Game) STONED is a labour of love. This lends the narrative a lot of credibility and, despite what I have just said, it never feels like it is made by a Jones-fan who is "out to get" the other Stones.

The movie gets it absolutely right in terms of casting, costumes and sets although it is hard not have a giggle at Paddy Considine's comedy wig and red neckerchief combo. Cleverly, Woolley only ever shows the actors playing Jagger and Richards from a distance or behind suitably flamboyant hair and clothes. This helps blur the lines between iconic faces and actors who actually look very little like them. There are nicely done cameos from David Walliams of Little Britain fame, and David Morrissey of Basic Instinct 2 is brilliantly sleazy as Jones' fixer, Tom Keylock. But for me, once again, it is Paddy Considine who steals the show. His character is a working-class builder called Frank Thorogood. Frank starts out running errands for Jones and is soon his crutch. The relationship works well for a while: the lonely Jones needs constant attention and Frank is just happy to be transported into a Bacchanalian world of hot European blondes and endless boozing.

For me, the movie becomes a little less credible when it focuses on one theory of how Jones' died. (No, not the obvious "he took a bunch of drugs and OD'ed in his pool theory.) I won't spoil the surprise other than to point out that while it is based on a death-bed confession I find the motivation a little weak. Anyways, for all that, this is a highly interesting drama and if you are interested in all things 1960s and/or all things conspiracy, you should check it out.

STONED played at the London Film Fest last November and is now available on DVD.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

A BITTERSWEET LIFE - Yet another work of cinematic genius from South Korea

The master then asked, 'Then why do you weep in such sorrow?' The disciple replied, 'Because it is a dream that will never come true.'Maybe it's a phase, or maybe it's because only the cream of foreign cinema ever makes it to our shores, but every time I see a new South Korean film I am blown away by how different it is from the one I saw before and yet the same startling combination of extreme violence, visual style and emotional pull. So, as the DVD was released this week, allow me to unabashedly and unreservedly recommend A BITTERSWEET LIFE, directed by the same guy who brought us the outstanding horror flick, A TALE OF TWO SISTERS.

The plot looks like something from a hackneyed gangster flick. Mr Kang is a top mob boss who hires slick goons in well-tailored suits to run a string of bars and hotels, dealing in whores and other such illegality on the side. Indeed, most of the film takes place at night, in beautifully appointed night-spots lit by neon. One of Kang's most trusted henchman is a ridiculously good-looking and utterly self-composed young man called Sun-Wu. When we first meet Sun-Wu he is enjoying a quiet gourmet meal in an empty restaurent. He is interrupted by a call to "deal with" some troublemakers in a private room of the bar. Instead of rushing off to see what is happening, he quietly takes another bite of his dessert. Almost resignedly, he walks down to the backroom where he kicks the shit out of the troublemakers. He is a killing machine, but a diffident one at that.

Kang appoints Sun-Wu to find out if Kang's much younger girlfriend, Hee-su, is being unfaithful to him. Moreover, Sun-Wu is to "deal with her" if appropriate.
Now, all jaded film-fans know that if an old man sends a young loyal henchman to guard his squeeze, the younger guy is going to fall in love with the girl, thus compromising his loyalty to his mentor. The twist in A BITTERSWEET LIFE is that Sun-Wu is not entirely sure what is happening to him when he meets Hee-Su. She is surely beautiful and elegant (it's the same chick from that crazy martial arts extravaganza Volcano High) and when he catches her in flagrante he cannot bring himself to pull the trigger. Instead, he asks her to forget about her boyfriend. She replies that you cannot just forget about love. At this point, Sun-Wu looks confused - as if amazed at the existence of such a thing as love while simultaneously struck by an inability to understand or feel it. Even at the end of the film, when asked why he couldn't pull the trigger, he remains inarticulate.

After this, the movie unwinds in the expected way. Mr. Kang feels betrayed by Sun-Wu's inability to carry out the punishment, and Sun-Wu is also caught in a plot concerning a rival gang-leader called Mr. Baek. We have all the "usual" stunningly-designed and stylishly-photographed extreme violence, including an unforgettable burial sequence and the most impressive close-range stabbing since CHOPPER. What elevates these plot machinations above the voyeuristic or just plain nasty is that we see Sun-Wu gain a real understanding of his feelings for Hee-Su and the life he has led. There are no sentimental last-minute Hollywood endings - just a painful and moving recognition of the cruelty of life.
Which is pretty amazing when you think about it - a thought-provoking meditation on the simultaneous beauty and futility of existence, coupled with shoot-outs that would make Tarantino jealous.

I love this film.

A BITTERSWEET LIFE was shown at Cannes 2005 and was on release for about a nanosecond in the UK in January. It is now available on Region 2 DVD.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

CONFETTI - Truly a Wasted Talent Production

CONFETTI smacks of a shameless cash-in on the back of the recent success of TV mockumentaries such as The Office and Nighty Night, and the more long-lived hackneyed schmaltz purveyed by Richard Curtis. This mish-mash of genres should be clear from the following short description of the "concept" of the film: a fictional British wedding magazine called Confetti is running a competition for its readers. Three short-listed couples are competing to stage the most original weddings they can imagine, followed by the film-crew that is producing this film. We get to see the run-up to the wedding day, the three weddings themselves and the aftermath of the contest.

Where the movie gets it right is in showing the hoop-la that surrounds a big wedding, and the way in which a couple can be forced into doing all sorts of stuff that they don't want to do. And, thanks to the lovely acting, especially from Martin Freeman and Stephen Mangan, I did find myself rooting for all the couples and being strangely moved by the wedding ceremonies themselves. In other words, the Richard Curtiss fans probably won't be too disappointed.

However, if CONFETTI succeeds in being "sweet" it fails in its mission to make us laugh. The main problem is that the improvised script is distinctly short on laughs - whether subtle and observational or just plain slapstick.
It is not hard to see where the film-makers have gone wrong. Why oh why dispense with a scriptwriter? Just because an actor can act well does not mean he can write his own material too. Ricky Gervais and Larry David are the exceptions, not the rule.

Another big fat problem is that the film completely fails as a mockumentary along the lines of This is Spinal Tap or The Office. These films work because the film-makers successfully create the illusion that they are genuinely photographing something that is actually happening. How do they do this? First, they use only the camera angles and shooting styles that would be available to a documentary crew. In The Office this is done to great effect - we are forever looking through windows, or around corners to catch characters doing things they would rather not see on tape. Most obviously, in the case of The Office, we never follow the characters home, or see them DELIBERATELY reveal a side of themselves that they would choose to keep hidden. The humour derives from the unconscious and unintended revelations of insecurity or arrogance. But in CONFETTI, the film-makers break all these rules again and again. So while we do have the straight-to-camera interviews and the hand-held camera observational shots, we also have a bunch of footage that couldn't possibly have been filmed had this been a real documentary. The most obvious error is including a lot of intimate scenes between various couples in their respective bedrooms. But we also get a lot of straightforwardly filmed shots that should have been shot in a voyeuristic, sneaky manner.

Like I said, CONFETTI may be "sweet" on occasion, but it fails in its central mission to make us laugh. With the benefit of hindsight, the only mild humour is derived from one of the opening credits, which informs us that Confetti is A Wasted Talent Production. Never a truer word said. Indeed, there is a sort of achievement in casting Martin Freeman, Jimmy Carr, Julia Davis and Alison Steadman in a film that DOESN'T make us laugh. However, it is not the kind of achievement you want to spend ten squid on seeing.

CONFETTI is on general release in the UK. It hits Australia with a damp thud on June 22nd 2006, squelches into Germany on September 7th 2006 and finally thumbs its nose at France on October 11th.