Tuesday, October 31, 2006

I can't believe I'm saying this, but ROMANZO CRIMINALE is in desperate need of a montage

The cold is God's way of telling us to burn more CatholicsROMANZO CRIMINALE (Crime Story) is an Italian mafia movie directed by a long-time actor and relatively new director called Michael Placido. It is based on the book written by Giancarlo de Cataldo. The movie is loosely based on the true story of a mafia gang that rose to prominence in the 1970s - using the proceeds of a kidnapping to sell heroin in Rome, before becoming an arm of the Italian government - planting bombs and carrying out assassinations to frame the Red Brigades and shore up the established powers. Naturally, it all ends in tears before bedtime.

Apparently, the book is rather good. By contrast, the movie lands on the screen like a big, dead fish. It goes through the motions of a classic crime movie. Indeed, all told it is little more than a loose collection of cheap references to better films - from THE GODFATHER to SCARFACE to ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. But thanks to pedestrian editing and writing - a style of storytelling that has no energy - the movie creakily unwinds over two long, long hours. The only life centres on the character of Patrizia - a prostitute purchased for one of the gang members, played by Anna Mouglalis - better known as the face of Chanel. Otherwise, the decent cast of actors are left floundering by weak, derivative material.

Part of the problem may be that the rise of the gang never seems credible. One minute we see them talking about taking on Rome - the next minute they're hoovering up cocaine, driving limited edition sports cars and buying hookers houses. I never thought I'd say this, but ROMANZO CRIMINALE is in *desperate* need of a montage showing the gang beating up some incumbent hoods or generally kicking ass Joe-Pesci style. Otherwise it all seems like Disney does mafia: "Make me a Don!" Admittedly, ROMANZO CRIMINALE does get a bit more violent later on but it follows a rather Michael Corleone avenging The Godfather sort of a pattern, except with less good actors, script etc. Very disappointing.

ROMANZO CRIMINALE is available on Region 2 DVD.

Monday, October 30, 2006

HOLLYWOODLAND - great performances mask a structural mess

HOLLYWOODLAND purports to be a movie about the truth behind the apparent suicide of George Reeves. Reeves was TV's first Superman. The problem with the movie is not so much that it doesn’t tell you who did it. After all, it’s touted as one of Hollywood’s great unsolved mysteries. The problem is that actually, bluntly, I just didn’t give a shit. And the reason why I didn’t give a shit had nothing to do with the acting – which varied from fine to brilliant. It was to do with the way in which the writer and director had chosen to frame his story.

Ben Affleck has won awards for his performance as George Reeves, both as Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. I think that this confusion as to whether or not his character is at the centre of the film is indicative of the fact that the writer and director really haven't made up their minds as to what the focus of the movie is. Is it on the charismatic and tragic George Reeves? It’s certainly a compelling story. We meet him as a slightly out-of-shape actor – a real gent – but down on his luck. He aspires to take on serious parts in quality films but he can’t get a break. He ends up starring in a cheap kids serial just to earn some cash. But, almost to his embarrassment, the serial turns out to be a huge success – to a nation of kids, he is Superman. Reeves drinks heavily and rues his cheap fame. Typecast, he can’t break into serious films. He’s also railing against the possessive hold of his sugar-mama – the wife (Diane Lane) of the VP of MGM (Bob Hoskins) – and takes up with a young brazen actress from New York – “to make him feel young”. It’s a tragic story of a man who, despite success, is not satisfied that he has lived up to his potential – and Ben Affleck portrays his inner turmoil well. It’s his best performance in years – not because Affleck went through a phase of being a lesser actor, but because he chose terrible parts.

Thing is, as fascinating as this story is, we never get a handle on it because it’s essentially a partial story told in flashbacks – little vignettes uncovered by a private detective investigating George Reeves’ alleged suicide. Half of me wishes the director had just used a conventional biopic format and let Reeves’ story have some time to breathe, but the problem is that the over-laid detective story is in some ways the movie's greatest asset. This is because as much as it destracts from George Reeves it contains the stunning performance of Adrien Brody as the private detective, Louis Simo. Simo is hired by Reeves’ mother to investigate the alleged murder. Brody’s performance is pure charisma – he plays Simo as a guy with intelligence, charm and an eye to the main chance. But he’s more than just a natty line in sports-coat and smart line for the press: he’s a good man. Although he starts off on the make – drumming up a little press to keep the mother’s cheques coming, he is genuinely aghast when he realises there might be some truth to her claims. He genuinely wants to protect his girlfriend from the mess and seems to have a real need to get some closure on the case. You sense that the director wants to make a big deal about Louis’ relationship with his young son as well. I can see why the director wants to do this – it helps flesh out Louis’ character as well as show the modern audience just how popular Reeves was with the kids and just how much his death affected them. This plot strand is interesting and well acted – but once again, it just distracts from the main story and further confuses the issue of just who’s story this is.

One final point brings me back to the issue of the unsolved crime. Like I said, this didn’t bother me too much, but it certainly makes HOLLYWOODLAND a different kettle of fish to, say, CHINATOWN and LA CONFIDENTIAL, both of which have Byzantine plots that do eventually resolve themselves. By contrast, in HOLLYWOODLAND, the alleged murder is more of a MacGuffin to allow the director to explore two interesting characters and the impact of Hollywood’s latent corruption and greed on their lives. Of course, CHINATOWN and LA CONFIDENTIAL are also brilliant examinations of the cruelty and decadence at the heart of LA and they do this stuff far better than HOLLYWOODLAND, which deals with corruption on a domestic rather than systemic level.

I am pleased to have watched Hollywoodland and can recommend it purely on the grounds of production design, Adrien Brody’s outstanding performance and some decent play from Diane Lane and Ben Affleck. But Brody aside, I can’t quite understand the Oscar buzz. This week alone I have seen more impressive performances in movies like SHORTBUS, INFAMOUS and BUENOS AIRES 1977. Moreover, performances aside, in terms of narrative structure I think this movie is a real mess.

HOLLYWOODLAND played Venice 2006 where Ben Affleck won Best Actor. It opened in the US in September and in Italy in October. HOLLYWOODLAND opens in the UK on December 1st and in the Netherlands, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Belgium and France in February 2007. It opens in Australia and Germany on March 15th.

BE WITH ME will appeal to more than the usual art-house crowd

To begin with, BE WITH ME – the new film from Singaporean director Eric Khoo - is a serious test of patience. It has precious little dialogue and the visual style is deliberately simplistic and functional – using DV and minimal lighting. The content of the film could be a series of statements: old man buys food; old man puts food in compartment of motorcycle; old man cooks food; old man puts food in tiffin; old man goes to hospital; old man walks along corridor; old man feeds wife; old man sits with wife; old man goes to store; old man serves customer….This is not all, though! For there is an inter-weaving plot - again with no dialogue. Fat man goes to diner; fat man eats noodles; fat man eats oyster omelette; fat man drinks tiger beer (maybe this is why he has a pot belly, thinks Bina007); fat man goes home; fat man eats braised pork; fat man works at surveillance officer; fat man ogles beautiful executive; fat man buys nice writing paper; fat man struggles to tell girl he loves her; fat man stalks girl in shopping mall. And yet, there is more! There is another plot strand. Again, no dialogue but a series of close-ups on instant messenger screens, text messages and caller IDs. Two teenage girls have a fling, to the sound of corny day-time TV music, but one deserts the other for a boyfriend. The jilted girl is so crushed she attempts suicide.

What binds all these stories together and lifts them above the painfully artistic is the narration of a deaf and blind woman. I say narration but actually her story is related through close up’s of what she types, very occasionally through what she says, but mostly by observing her day-to-day routine while subtitle run at the bottom of the screen. This seem fitting to her condition. It is a remarkable and true story about a young girl whose parents hardly care when she looses her senses and who loses all hope of ever going to school. But a series of kind people rescue her and she ends up on a scholarship to a prestigious American school for the disabled. Now in old age, she teaches at a school for the disabled back in Singapore and her autobiography affects each of the main characters in the other plot strands.

This is not an easy film to approach and at first can seem willfully obscure. But as you settle into the rhythm of the movie it becomes captivating. The central story of this remarkable woman definitely lifts the film out of the “one for the art-house crowd” category.

BE WITH ME is on limited release in Singapore, France and the UK.

THE PRESTIGE - Christian Bale is ENGLISH!

This review is posted by guest reviewer, Nik, who can usually be found here.

Some people have accused me of being gay for Christian Bale in the past, and chief amongst the accusers myself. And yes, it's true, I am bent for Bale - but there's a jolly good reason. This man simply doesn't get himself involved in anything less that a great movie - his acting performances are always superlative - and the dynamic range of his skills is nothing short of breathtaking. And he has a fucking great body.

That said, I cannot claim that any of these things attracted me to see THE PRESTIGE. In fact, not a single factor in the film's favour weighed on my mind as I collected my ticket from Bina007 at the Odeon West End, since the screening I attended was the "surprise film" of the 2006 London Film Festival, and no-one knew the film title until the opening credits. Before the film, an organiser of the Festival came on stage and asked for suggestions as to what the film might be. A few people did shout "The Prestige". I shouted "Debbie Does Dallas - or am I in the wrong cinema?" That anecdote has nothing to do with this review, I just thought I'd tell you it so that you could fully appreciate my gutter comedy, and how I added to the audience's cultural experience that evening.

But back to the point, it came as no real surprise to me that the surprise film was THE PRESTIGE, and that it turned out to be as good as I'd hoped. After all, a surprise film has to meet the highest standards of excellence so as not to disappoint or alienate a broad cross-section of the audience. And I can assure you, no-one was disappointed.

THE PRESTIGE was, as the magic and illusions it portrayed, captivating from the get-go. The all-star cast including Scarlett Johansson, Michael Caine, Hugh Jackman, and even David Bowie wove a magic spell around a talented script - and had the audience on tenterhooks awaiting the next twist, turn, and pitfall of the plot. The musical score, often overused in such dark and sexy thrillers, was subtle as it added to the tension - barely noticeable but used with great impact just as any good accompaniment is.

The plot itself was tense and thick and thrilling - allowing you to suspend disbelief over those aspects that were genuinely counter-historical or a-scientific - because such aspects were genuinely incidental next to the personal tragedy of the two main characters. Two magicians, played by Bale and Jackman respectively - the former twisted by and prisoner to his art - the other equally twisted and darkly obsessed with a past tragedy in his life, and by the jealous rage and anger at his illusionist counterpart whom he blamed for causing it. There is a tangible homoerotic tension between the two - as their obsessions with their art and with each other tear them and their families and their relationships with women apart. One has the impression of an almost Shakespearian pair of star-crossed lovers taking their lives. The passage of their death marked love being the two hour traffic of the film.

And it is the power of the performances of these two, Bale in particular, that makes the movie. It is astounding, looking back at the movie once the final twist has happened, just how incredibly hard Bale's character was to play to make the scenes believeable. His relationship with his wife was characterised by a struggle between loving his art more than her some days - and loving her more his art on others. Imagine the task for an actor to have to say "I love you" and mean it in some scenes, and the same line but not mean it in others - and each time communicate emotionally which it is to the audience. The subtley of that insincerity - and the finesse with which it is portrayed in THE PRESTIGE - is awesome.

This is a very dark movie. It is a world where obsessive love and obsessive hatred meet in equal quantities - a world of illusion where we are constantly left wondering what is real and what is not. Such a world will not be to everyone's tastes - and if you're looking for comedy or a light touch entertainment, go and see BORAT instead. But if you're looking for superlative acting performances - drama, plot, production values and score that is second to none - and a movie experience that will make you want to come back for more - then this is the only show in town. I cannot recommend it any more highly than that, my friends.

Oh, and there's something I should add. Christian Bale is English!!! It's amazing, he speaks like a bloody cockney in this movie! I think it may have been that that finally exorcised the ghost of Patrick Bateman, a ghost that haunted me when I saw BATMAN BEGINS.

THE PRESTIGE played Rome and London 2006. It opened in Singapore, the US, Hong Kong and Malaysia earlier this month. It opens in Brazil, Serbia, South Korea, Thailand and Venezuala on November 2nd, the UK on November 10th, and in France and Australia on Nov 16th. It opens in Finland and Italy on December 22nd and in Estonia, Belgium, Germany, Iceland, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Russia and in the Netherlands in January 2007. Finally, it rolls into Japan on April 21st.

Bina007 adds: Christian Bale has, to my mind, made some shocking movies, not least SHAFT and some mediocre ones, most recently - Harsh Times. But for every mis-step there are a handful of absolute diamonds. THE PRESTIGE is definitely one of them.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

BUENOS AIRES 1977/CRONICA DE UNA FUGA - tense thriller

BUENOS AIRES 1977 is a new movie from the Uruguayan writer-director, Israel Adrián Caetano. It is based on the autobiography of a goal-keeper called Claudio Tamburrini who was abducted by Argentine para-militaries in 1977, tortured, held captive for over 4 months and eventually escaped. It is an unpretentious movie. It does not lift its eyes from the decaying colonial mansion in which the alleged terrorists are held. Those seeking edification on Argentine history will be disappointed. But in a way this is the secret of the movie's success. By showing us only the experience of the prisoners, it maintains a feeling of claustrophobia, fear and tension. Indeed, despite the fact that we know the prisoners escape because the movie is based on their testimony - the final escape scenes had me literally on the edge of my seat.

The director achieves this tension by using an outstanding sound design and photographic techniques that pump up the contrast and drain the colour - creating a surreal disconcerting visual and audio environment. But the success of the movie is really down to an outstanding central performance by Rodrigo de la Serna. He is probably best known to European audiences as the guy playing opposite Gael Garcia Bernal in THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES. Here he has to show the shock, outrage and fear of a normal man being tortured for information he cannot give. Most of the time he has to act with a scarf covering his eyes - and it is a physical performance rather than one resting on the delivery of dialogue. What's really impressive is that Caetano doesn't show any graphic torture. He relies on the way the actors look and act to convey what they have been through.

All in all, BUENOS AIRES 1977 is a great thriller if not overtly political. Well worth checking out.

BUENOS AIRES 1977 a.k.a CRONICA DE UNA FUGA a.k.a CHRONICLE OF AN ESCAPE went on release in Argentina in March 2006 and has since played Cannes (where it was nominated for the Golden Palm), Toronto and London 2006. It opened in Brazil and Mexico earlier this month and opens in France in February 2007.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

FAST FOOD NATION - the agit-doc is dead! Long live the non-fiction fiction film!

I am getting a little bit tired of earnest liberal agit-docs that usually have little visually to do with cinema, could equally well be shown on TV, and tend to preach to the converted. Michael Moore may have increased the sale-ability of documentary cinematic releases and part of me is happy about that but the other part bemoans the seemingly homogenous product now flooding arts cinemas across the land. I've written too many reviews starting: "this week's self-explanatory documentary..." or "the point being...?" That's not to say that I don't agree with everything these docs are trying to say. I do. I just wonder how effective they are. Clearly no nasty evil polluter is going to slap down ten squid at his local cineplex to say a movie called "Nasty evil capital bastards are raping the rainforest!"?

So it was with real interest that I watched Richard Linklator's new movie, FAST FOOD NATION. And appropriate since I just watched INFAMOUS - a movie about how Truman Capote invented a new form of novel - non-fiction fiction. Capote's idea was to "bring alive" the facts of the case by applying fiction techniques such as emotional insight and inter-cutting narrative structures. Richard Linklater is pretty much following the same logic here. He takes a popular non-fiction book by Eric Schlosser that tackles the murky, hidden world of the industrial food industry in the USA. Linklater opts not to make another earnest documentary out of this material. Instead he gives us a feature length movie.

So, FAST FOOD NATION is not a documentary. It's also not a comedy or satire, although it contains the odd funny line. Rather it is a straight movie that contains three inter-twining stories.

The first story is about a group of Mexican illegal immigrants, including Wilmer "Fez" Valderamma and Catalina Sandino Moreno, who are helped over the border by Luis Guzman's pimped-out van driver and taken to a meat-packing plant in Colorado. There, watched over by the sleazy Bobby Cannavale, they earn a pittance which feels like a fortune to them and put their lives at risk in horrific jobs, turning live cows into frozen meat patties. This strand is brilliantly acted - showing for instance that Valderama and Canavale can play it straight. But be warned, the footage is not for the weak of stomach.

The second story is about some teenagers - played by Ashley Johnson and Paul Dano who work in a fast-food joint in the same Colorado town. The strand shows Ashley's character becoming politically aware thanks to her hip uncle, played by Ethan Hawke and, I kid you not, Avril Lavigne.

The final story is about a Vice President of Marketing at the same fast food company played by Greg Kinnear. He is sent to the same Colorado town to find out - quite simply - why there is cow shit in the meat patties. It's not hard to find out why. Everyone in town knows - from Kris Kristofferson's wise old rancher, to his maid, to the morally-challenged realist who brokered the deal - played in a chilling cameo by Bruce Willis.

The advantages of the non-fiction fiction structure is that it gives the viewer some emotional engagement with the issues. I know we should care as much about employees losing limbs at a meatpacking plant in real life, but thanks to the way our brains are wired, it's easier to care and to "get it" if we have some charismatic characters on screen. The other advantage is that we get a proper movie with proper production values, visual style (which in fairness is not that spectacular in this particular film) and sound-track. The disadvantage is that on occasion characters say stuff which is just not credible, because they are basically making a speech. It doesn't happen often but it does happen, especially when the Ethan Hawke character is on screen or when a radical student says, "The patriotic thing to do at this point is to break the Patriot Act". A gloriously seditious sentiment. Similarly, there is an extended discussion between the students as to why the cows won't leave their pens even when the fence is broken - a rather clumsy extended metaphor for humans who know fast food is made from shit-infused meat but still eat it.

Still, for all its flaws and clumsiness, I think FAST FOOD NATION is far more successful in conveying its message and simply entertaining its audience than the usual agit-docs. To that end, it's a noble experiment and hopefully one that will be influential.

FAST FOOD NATION played Cannes and London 2006. It is already on release in Australia and Germany and opens in the US and France at the end of November. It opens in Israel and Belgium in January 2007 and in the Netherlands in March.

DANS PARIS - charming family drama

The not unattractive Romain Duris and Louis GarrelDANS PARIS is a movie written and directed by the young French auteur, Christophe Honoré. It is a quiet, lyrical, low budget film set in contemporary Paris, with a beautiful shooting style that owes a little to the nouvelle vague and an outstanding score that veers between free jazz and new punk by way of a virtuouso scene set to 80s pop princess, Kim Wilde's Cambodia. (I really need to get a copy of the soundtrack.) Style aside, the film is refreshing because it takes time to capture the intimate relationship between a father and his two sons. The father is caring but slightly misses the point with both of them - he cooks the elder son chicken soup as if this will cure his clinical depression. The elder son is played by Romain Duris. If not quite playing against type, he certainly shows a different side to his acting - more interior and at times playful. It is another interesting performance to chalk up on the board. He is joined by the Louis Garrel - best known to British film-goers as the French kid in Bertolucci's THE DREAMERS. Jonathan is a young University student who runs around town is a state of simultaneously detached and concerned brother-hood but also a sort of adolescent erotomania. It is a charming and effervescent performance.

DANS PARIS is essentially a day in the life of this family - a normal loving family that occasionally gets on each other's nerves and that is bound together in its grief for a dead sister. It's a tremendous film - nothing like the director's previous outing - the disturing and high impact MA MERE - but offers something genuinely insightful, touching and tragi-comic nonetheless.

DANS PARIS played Cannes and London 2006 and is already on release in France and Belgium.

BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN - Jagshemash - Borat hits the ground running

This review is posted by guest reviewer, Nik, who can usually be found here:

Sacha Baron Cohen is a funny funny Jew, and he's sent up America perfectly in his latest movie:
CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GREAT NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN. His fictional character, Borat, a TV reporter and unintentionally homo-erotic anti-semite from Kazakhstan with his catchphrase "Jagshemesh" - is sent on a mission to the "US and A" to bring back valuable cultural learnings for the improvement of his beloved homeland. Only he's not really a reporter, he's a British comedian - and between very funny scripted scenes of Borat and his producer arguing and wrestling nude - we are treated to some of the best real-life send-up comedy ever seen.

Cohen's genius in this film is to spread his criticism and humour evenly across the spectrum of American socio-politics - from offending a group of stuck up feminists in New York by asking them if it was a problem that women had smaller brains than men - to exposing the ludicrous nature of a Pentecostal service in Texas. From coast to coast, from Republican to Democrat, from liberal to conservative - Borat reveals and satirises every prejudice and idiosyncrasy - from a Rodeo manager who wants to string up gays, to a bunch of drunken "wigger" frat-boys and their unseemly views on women.

The sheer variety of types of humour is also refreshing - it varies from Charlie Chaplin type slapstick to very politically aware satire to good old fashioned stereotyping - and throughout Cohen retains an excellent comic timing, especially noticeable in the unscripted "real-life" scenes. It also goes far further than Borat or any of Cohen's characters have ever gone before - into areas where arrest and/or lynching is a real possibility. It's also incredible to note how famous and how well connected Cohen has become when even Baywatch Babe Pamela Anderson herself - who Borat falls in love with during the movie - is in on the gag. This guy is obviously a hot hot property in Hollywood would now.

But the best characters, as usual, are the American people themselves. From the hysteria of the Pentecostal Church, to the uneasy politeness of the middle-American dinner party (Pastor and all), to the sharp unfriendliness and in-your-face attitude of New Yorkers towards Borat's approaches and kisses - the whole gamut of attitudes and personalities are included in this film. It really is a people watcher's delight. The film does well to depict America as it is - a diverse land with diverse people. It warms the heart to see the friendliness of the little Jewish household that Borat stays in and the politeness of the people who meet him - it shocks us to see the petty prejudices and casual racism of so many - and equally it chills us to see the mainstream evangelical movement as it generally is in the States: sad, insular, peer pressured, anti-scientific, and scarily well connected politically and judicially. The film has as many serious sides as comic moments.

Unfortunately, there's also a serious side to this review. Sadly, many of my American friends will be unable to watch this great film when it is released, even though it has recieved massive critical acclaim thus far, and is being well recieved on both sides of the ocean. That's because the initial release is being slashed from 2,000 to 800 cinemas in the USA - apparantly due to the fact that so few Americans have even heard of Borat, other than in the big cities, especially on the coasts. Or could it be that, this close to an election, noone wants Missouri to be influenced with the cynical connection between evangelical nuts and Congressman? Whatever the case, it is absolutely imperitive my trans-atlantic friends that you and your friends go to see this excellent movie - to encourage a wider release, better publicity and a more educated and aware populous!

If you're an American, this is as essential viewing as Bill Bryson is essential reading - it holds a mirror up to the USA in the funniest and most diverse of ways - treading a wonderful and humorous middle ground from sea to shining sea. It will only further compound the dim view held in Europe of central and mountain America as a place of cultural and social backwardness if it were, through its distaste or obliviousness, to miss such a great great movie about the very country it is part of. Seriously, such a gem shouldn't only be enjoyed in Los Angeles and New York - not only because these places have quite enough culture - but because Kansas needs some love. Borat style.

It opens on November 3rd - my advice is to pre-book your tickets, stock up on popcorn, and prepare to laugh solidly for one and half hours. Until then, Jencooie!

BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN played Toronto and London 2006. It opens in Belgium, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Slovenia, the UK, Denmark, Estonia, Finalnd, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Sweden and the USA on the weekend of November 3rd. BORAT opens in Singapore, France, Norway, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, Russia and Portugal later in November. It opens in Argentina and Brazil in February 2007.

Bina007 adds: More on the slashed screenings: screenings in the US have been slashed because the studio is worried that Middle America will not be able to deal with a Brit taking the piss out of it. You can see why they are worried from the messages on IMDB. One poster named
William G Boykin cries out: "We saved Europe from Hitler, and we are repaid with mockery!!" Mr Boykin also is very pleased with his little wordplay in coming up with the following: "A lie-beral elitist who graduated from Cambridge like Sacha Cohen is not qualified to judge me or any of my friends and family members." I only hope Boykin does not speak for the average American. A culture that cannot laugh at itself or take humourous criticism, whether from an insider or outsider sounds more like the Soviet Union than the America we (used to?)know and love.

Friday, October 27, 2006

BREAKING AND ENTERING - Minghella bites off more than he can chew

Anthony Minghella's new film, BREAKING AND ENTERING is not quite up to the grand subjects and aspirations it sets itself, but is a compelling relationship drama nonetheless. That drama is set resolutely in London - the London of immigrant crime, prostitutes and that dirty of dirty words, "regeneration". And Minghella must be praised for rendering the back alleys of London's King Cross with as much menace as the back alleys of Venice in THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY. The score is also brilliantly judged.

In this world,
Jude Law plays an architect called Will whose long-time partner is a beautiful Swedish woman (Robin Wright Penn). The relationship is crumbling because she cannot quite trust Will to look after her autistic daughter and resents his feelings of neglect. Will works at an architecture firm in Kings Cross whose computers keep being nicked. He follows one of the thieves - a young Bosnian kid - and ends up seducing his mother, played by Juliette Binoche. He does not tell her he knows her son is a thief.

Where this movie works is in its depiction of complex modern relationships - long-term partners with step-children. Jude Law is fine but he is acted off the screen by Robin Wright Penn and Juliette Binoche. The movie also has a deep vein of deadpan humour, supplied by
Martin Freeman in a cameo re-run of his character in THE OFFICE. Better still, Vera Farmiga - who I hated in THE DEPARTED - is astoundingly good and wickedly funny in her role as a prostitute. She really elevates the movie and it is a shame when her character drops out of focus.

But the movie fails almost everywhere else. Accents aside, the immigrant story does not feel anchored in fact and minutely observed cultural details. The love story between the white architect and the african cleaner is picked up and tossed aside - as if Minghella's knows this is an interesting contemporary story but has neither the time nor the familiarity with the subject matter to flesh it out. The entire final 40 minutes is a mess - and badly needs a script doctor. The characters do things that seem contrary to their personalities - and the denouement seems - SPOILER ALERT - cobbled together in order to give closure to the protagonist with not a care for the treatment of Binoche's character. This makes the final scene of happy families in the architecture firm stick in the throat.

Finally, what we have is a relationship drama that sort of works surrounded and obscured by bigger social issues that are never convincingly portrayed. If you want a document of social life in London - check out DIRTY PRETTY THINGS - a far better movie all round.

BREAKING AND ENTERING played Toronto and London 2006. It opens in the UK on November 10th and in the US on December 8th. It opens in Australia, Denmark, Belgium, France, Spain, Argentina, the Netherlands, Germany and Brazil in January 2007. It opens in Italy in March 2007.

HALF NELSON - quiet brilliance

HALF NELSON is a movie that has the courage to turn those Hollywood conventions of an uplifting high-school-teacher-as-mentor story. In these movies an idealistic teacher - usually white - turns up in a violent inner city school usually populated by ethnic minorities. The teacher uses quirky teaching methods to get the kids' attention. One kid usually does really well; another does well but is held back by getting knocked up or an abusive parent; and the rest slide into a morass of happy, thankful sprites. Movies like that - all rose-tinted depictions of the under-privileged - make me sick.

Like I said, HALF NELSON is nothing like these movies. Writers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden do have an idealistic white teacher - played by Ryan Gosling. But he is as much in need of help and mentoring as the kids: he has a raging drug habit. He forms a friendship of sorts with a thirteen year-old student called Drey when she catches him after basketball practice smoking crack in the girls locker room. She nurses him and gets him home. So the friendship is not about him helping her out but about both of them helping each other. Despite or perhaps because of his habit, the teacher is able to caution Drey against becoming a dealer for a family friend. I also love that despite the vogue in recent films, the writers never let the relationship between the two of them become "inappropriate".

The movie is well-directed by Ryan Fleck. He gives it room to breathe - the pace is gentle (some might find it too slow) and slowly builds to a quite dazzling closing segment. HALF NELSON is also brilliantly acted by Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps - indeed, the movie is arguably an expansive two-hander between the two of them. They deserve all the plaudits they are receiving.

HALF NELSON was released in the US in August 2006 and played the Sundance and London Film Festivals.

IN THE PIT/EN EL HOYO - laughs not social commentary

IN THE PIT is a documentary film about a bunch of Mexican construction workers building a new flyover in Mexico City. The work is filthy, dangerous and ill-paid. It is also ill-lit, badly photographed and badly organised. The only - and by far sufficient - reason to watch this movie is that it features a bunch of brilliant characters. The workers have a fantastic sense of humour, if filthy, and there ruminations of life, money and love are funny and occasionally insightful. To that end, the doc probably falls short of its aspirations to social commentary. It's also the sort of doc that can be happily seen on DVD. Barring a bravura helicopter shot of the flyover for the last five minutes of the doc, there is nothing that requires a big screen. The only final thing to say is that the doc has an awesome sound design with dance music and new compositions mimicking the sound of the construction site.

IN THE PIT played London 2006 and opened in Mexico in Summer 2006.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

SHORTBUS - the best flick at this year's fest

You've got to get on to get off  SHORTBUS is by far the best film I have seen in the London Film Festival and one of the better movies I have seen all year. For sheer originality of vision, honesty of content - drama, emotional engagement, humour - it's hard to beat. It's one of the few films that I would urge you to hunt down, even if you do not normally like to see graphic sexual content.

The movie is written and directed by John Cameron Mitchell - the guy behind HEDWIG AND THE INGRY INCH. True to the spirit of that movie, SHORTBUS is a frank and warm-hearted look at contemporary life, love and sex in New York. In this review I am going to deal with the controversy first and the real issue of whether this is a good movie after that.

SHORTBUS has attracted a lot of column inches because of the extremelely graphic sex scenes, some of which are apparently unsimulated. Frankly, I find this not an issue at all. I find it more demeaning and degrading to see the usual soft-core Hollywood sex scene where the woman is often more revealingly dressed than the man. These scenes are designed to titilate and the use of a strategically placed bed-sheet is just coy and infantile. The whole thing smacks of hypocrisy. Genuine and honest depictions of sex in Hollywood are few and far between - DON'T LOOK BACK and the more recent A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE are notable exceptions. This leaves sex to the porn industry - which hardly leads to healthy expectations of what real sex is like. I am more than happy for movies like SHORTBUS to fill the gap. Sure, some of the sex is hardly main-stream but I was over-joyed to see a happily married couple (Sook Yin Lee and Raphael Barker) having a lot of real sex. Finally! Of course, some people will object to the graphic sex because it is gay sex or group sex, which frankly speaks more to the fact that homophobia is still prevalent in large sections of society than the merits of this film. I suspect that behind cries of "we shouldn't see this on screen" lurk feelings that "we shouldn't see this in real life either." Well, sadly, there is not much we can do about such prejudice and artists certainly should not make concessions to it.

What irks me most about the controversy about SHORTBUS is that it obscures the fact that SHORTBUS has a truthful emotional core - which is that people want to be respected, loved and included. We see happy relationships and we want something like that too. So, for instance, the happily married couple come to SHORTBUS - a night-club come sex-club presided over by the glorious Justin Bond - because they want to have a better sex life and cement their marriage. Ironically, the wife, Sofia, has never had an orgasm despite the fact that she is a sex therpaist. Another couple comes to SHORTBUS - James and Jamie (Paul Dawson and PJ de Boy). James wants Jamie to experiment with another lover - Ceth (Jay Brennan) - but his motives are far from superficial thrill-seeking. Finally, Sofia is helping a young girl called Severin (Lindsay Beamish) come to terms with her self-hate.

The emotional heart of the movie is counter-balanced by a truly wicked sense of humour, and dear lord, isn't it wonderful to see sex depicted with humour that is not of the sleazy Carry On! (nudge, nudge) kind. In particular, having watched this movie, you may never view the American national anthem in the same light again.

The other great thing about SHORTBUS is its visual style. From the magical production design of the SHORTBUS club, scattered with candles during the black-out to the beautiful animation of New York. Animator, John Bair does the impossible - he makes that hackneyed opening shot where the camera swoops up over the Hudson and pans to the Manhattan skyline look fresh.

So, all in all, I love this movie on evey level - ambition, visuals, music, acting, comedy, emotion - it's all there.

SHORTBUS played Cannes, Toronto and London 2006. It opened in the US, Israel, Germany and the Netherlands earlier this month. SHORTBUS opens in Belgium, France, Australia and Finland in November and in the UK in December. It opens in Russia in January 2007.

INFAMOUS - Capote as genuinely tragic

So you think your book is worth a human life? Another year, another film about Truman Capote which features strong performances but is flawed nonetheless.

The story is the same. Truman Capote is a famous author who mingles with ladies who lunch in New York, leading a pampered existence. One day he reads about a well-respected farming family that has been brutally murdered in its home in rural Kansas. Capote journeys there to write a magazine article on how the murders have affected the town but soon realises he has enough material for a new kind of book - a non-fiction novel. In order to flesh out the novel, he partially feigns friendship with one of the murderers - Perry Smith. The relationship has a slim core of genuine empathy but Capote exploits Perry. And by the end, he has sold his soul. Capote knows he can only publish his perfect novel when his friend hangs for murder. Capote didn't write anything substantial again.

The films, however, are rather different. In last year's CAPOTE, Truman is portrayed as chillingly calculated. He is mean to his best friend, Nell (Harper) Lee and resentful of her success with To Kill a Mockingbird. He shamelessly manipulates Perry Smith. I found that movie over-long though beautifully shot and acted. Most of all, I resented the fact that Perry was again exploited - a mere mirror to reflect back the emptiness of Capote.

By contrast, this new movie, INFAMOUS, is not well-shot. It's not well put-together. I hate the device of having big-name actors playing big-name socialites. Sigourney Weaver, Isabella Rosselini, Hope Davis, Juliet Stevenson, Peter Bogdanovich and Gwyneth Paltrow look like they are participating in a cheap version of STARS IN THEIR EYES. It's even worse that instead of simply telling the story and allowing us to infer the message, the director has these famous people make like they are in a documentary, talking to the camera about Truman in front of a New York cardboard backdrop.

The bizarre thing is that while I find the purely technical aspects of cinema were better used in CAPOTE, INFAMOUS is, to my mind, the better film. For for the first time we see something of Perry Smith, played with the right mix of strength and vulnerability by Daniel Craig. The movie does not see him as merely a person to throw-up the ruthless ambition of Capote. And this touches on the real strength of the film - which is the nuanced performance of each lead actor.

Sandra Bullock's Harper Lee is a revelation and proves that Bullock is a far better actress than the roles she takes on. And Toby Jones is a fabulous Capote. He captures Capote's love of ease and his own eccentricities - his spitefulness and love of gossip. But in sharp contrast to CAPOTE, Jones' Capote is a man with a heart and a soul. He really does fall for Perry Smith and at once sees the unbearable contradictions this has thrust upon him. There is a tremendous scene after Capote and Smith have kissed where Capote goes back to his hotel room and looks in the mirror. He is giddy with joy at first. But then, without uttering a word, you see his face crumple. Because he can foresee the cruel dilemma facing him - to love a man and yet need that man to die because you cannot live without writing. In other words, instead of Philip Seymour Hoffman's monster, Toby Jones gives up a genuinely tragic figure.

INFAMOUS played Venice, Toronto and London 2006. It opened in the US earlier this month and opens in he UK on January 19th 2007.

BOBBY – a love letter to the America that no longer exists

The BOBBY of the title is Senator Robert Kennedy, the 1968 Democratic presidential candidate who was assassinated in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

Before the London film fest screening, writer-director (and for a whole generation, Young Gun) Emilio Estevez declared that BOBBY was his love letter to America. He noted that in test screenings in Europe, people told him that the movie reminded them of what they used to admire in America and how much we miss that America. He declared that “he misses it too.” The America he misses is the America that Kennedy referred to: the America of compassion and civil liberty – of redistributive social policies, the rule of law, environmental concern and peace. It is the America that embraces the poor and the ethnic minorities.

The main thing to say about BOBBY is that it is not an old-style Oliver-Stone-political thriller. Estevez does not spend his time delving into the murky under-world of big business, politics, spies and conspiracies. Indeed, we are never told who shot Bobby or why. Estevez is far more ambitious than that. What he is attempting to do is express the hopes and fears of liberal America in 1968 as his camera wanders round the Ambassador Hotel and homes in on different characters.

We have a young high-school graduate (
Lindsay Lohan) who is marrying her class-mate (Elijah Wood) to keep him from being posted to Vietnam. We have the widowed ex-hotel manager (Anthony Hopkins) who lingers in the lobby because he has no home to go to, playing games of chess with his best friend – an African-American (Harry Belafonte.) We have the current hotel manager (William H Macy) who is cheating on his wife (Sharon Stone) with the operator (Heather Graham). We have the drunk lounge singer (Demi Moore) who is frightened at getting old commiserating with the hair-dresser (Stone). We have a sweet rich couple (Helen Hunt and Martin Sheen) re-discovering their love for each other. And in the kitchens, Christian Slater’s racist manager is making Freddie Rodriguez work a double shift and miss his baseball game. And finally, to leaven this mix of good people struggling through, we have a couple of campaign staff dropping acid with Ashton Kutcher’s hippie. This is a judicious piece of writing – at once showing the counter-culture of 1968 but also giving us some laughs amidst the pious politics.

As you can see from that little summary this movie is stuffed full of big name stars and none of them disappoint. Sharon Stone and Demi Moore in particular give nuanced performances and their scene together is the heart of the movie. In addition to being beautifully written and acted, the period costume design is also superb. I also want to draw attention to the brilliant directorial decision not to cast an actor as Bobby Kennedy but to let archive footage and selective framing take his place. The blending of the two is seamless.

My quibbles are minor. First, on occasion the movie straddles the fine line between the emotional and schmaltzy. And while
Laurence Fishburne acts all bar Stone and Moore off the screen, his wise old man routine is a little grating to my cynical English ears. My only other quibble is in Estevez’ presumption that the audience is American. Estevez betrays this presumption in the opening titles, when he speaks of the hope that Bobby Kennedy brought to “our” country. This is a little alienating for European audiences,

For all that, BOBBY remains an astutely judged directorial effort for Estevez.

BOBBY played Venice, Toronto and London 2006. It opens in the US on November 17th 2006. It opens in Belgium and France in January 2007, the Netherlands in February 2007, Spain in March and Japan in May.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

LITTLE CHILDREN - four reasons why this film is a fiasco

Let me be clear that when I go into a movie I really do want to enjoy it, especially when it comes with cast credentials as high as this. I hear all the Oscar buzz for LITTLE CHILDREN but I have to say that I just don't get it. I sat through this film waiting for that light to turn on - for the insight, the originality, the flair of vision or the emotional epiphany to happen. It didn't. I feel like I am missing out on this amazing movie experience that everyone is having.

So for what it's worth, here's why I didn't like LITTLE CHILDREN. First off, the film is based on a novel and the screen-writer/director, Todd Field, has opted to keep an intrusive, fairy-tale type narration of the kind I saw deconstructed in STRANGER THAN FICTION. The narrator has a voice like something out of Doctor Seuss. It seemed grossly out of place for a purportedly adult movie about marital infidelity and the re-introduction of a convicted sex offender into a conservative suburban community.

Second, the primary plot strand is dull. The film is basically the story of a bored suburban house-wife (Kate Winslet) and a disillusioned house-husband (Patrick Wilson) who have an affair. She, like Madame Bovary (a painfully over-worked metaphor in this film) hopes he will leave with her. The adultery story is handled in a workmanlike manner. It features a fairly explicit and yet completely unerotic and rather, well, ungainly, sex scene. It also features Winslet's character defending Madame Bovary as a heroic proto-feminist with a hunger for "options". There is nothing heroic about Winslet's character's struggles.

Third, the other inter-secting plot strand is handled in a clumsy and exploitative manner. The strand has the unhappy couple living in a community in an uproar because a convicted child abuser has moved in. The theme of sexual predators in suburbia has been handled with credible emotional authenticity and sensitivity by Kevin Bacon in the astounding movie, THE WOODSMAN. Watching THE WOODSMAN you got the feeling that everyone involved in the movie took a genuine interest in the emotional life of the molester. In this movie, he just seems like a conveniently shocking and "interesting" plot strand. The film-makers are as brutalising as the people in the community they are depicting.

The fourth reason why I didn't like LITTLE CHILDREN is that the whole thing was drained of energy and interest by bland cinematography, pedestrian editing and an over-long run-time for the subject matter. The plot meandered, skirting around larger issues that it never quite got a handle on. The director lingered on scenes that propelled the action and the character development (such as it was) not one iota. Sometimes the director's choice of focus is just plain odd. For instance, the cuckolded wife (Jennifer Connolly) is a two-dimensional character. We never learn much about her and it is hard to empathise with her. But all of a sudden she does get a scene editing footage for a documentary she is making. The footage shows a small child - far too young to string together the pretentious sentences he is uttering about his father's death in the Iraqi war. Does the director think that just by placing a small child in front of a picture of a dead soldier and a flag he will strike a chord? A movie is not something wherein you pack in random references and hope a meaning will fall out.

As a result, the film runs for over two hours and you feel every minute. This could be the most badly directed film playing the London Film Festival.

LITTLE CHILDREN showed at Toronto and London 2006. It is already on limited release in the US and opens wide in the US and in the UK on November 3rd. It opens in Australia in December, Turkey, Germany, Belgium, France and the Netherlands in January 2007 and in Spain in February.

DIXIE CHICKS: SHUT UP AND SING - great story, badly organised

I can honestly say I'd never heard of THE DIXIE CHICKS before seeing this doc but apparently they are the biggest selling female band in US history. They are three thirty-something country musicians from Texas who dress conservatively, play their own instruments and have kids and husbands and a really close relationship. In 2003 they played a gig in good ole' London where the lead singer announced that she was with "you guys on the Good Side" and further more that she was ashamed that the President was from Texas. This got a huge roar of approval as the UK was and still is largely anti-war. The comment was picked up by the US media and before you knew it, US country music stations had dropped the Dixie Chicks like a hot brick. CD sales plummeted, merchandise was burned in public Beatles-stylee, a death threat came in and corporate sponsors started getting worried. The Chicks retreated to LA to write a new album with Rick Rubin, have babies and lick their wounds. But there were no apologies and no compromises. If country wouldn't have them, they'd play to the rock crowd. If the South wouldn't have them, they'd play to Canadians and Europeans. They recorded a triumphantly angry and emotional album that topped the charts and went on tour again in 2006.

The story is great because it proves the old adage that no-one survives going against an American president in a time of war. To those of us in the UK it will seem obvious that the Dixie Chicks did nothing wrong - that to criticise a President's specific policy is not to be unpatriotic but to be part of the democratic process. (It was funny to see that the biggest round of spontaneous applause in the London audience came when the lead singer made an off-the-cuff remark that the President was a dumb-fuck. I guess that wouldn't happen in Texas!) But I am sure that there is a big pile of country music fans who'll want to burn these DVDs too.

But can people who don't agree with their stance or who aren't interested in politics get anything from the documentary? Well, the documentary-makers do get astoundingly good access so you get to see Rick Rubin at work (awesome) and the publicists and spin-doctors go way beyond SPIRAL TAP when they forget the cameras are rolling. It's pretty damn funny. You also get a charming tale of how one member of a three-member band put the band's careers on the line, and the other two stood by her and never once blamed her for it. That's pretty honourable.

So there's lots to see in this doc. and I would recommend it. My only reservation is that it is not the best put together piece of work. The structure is haphazard with a non-linear narrative that adds nothing by its choppiness. The material - as compelling as it is - is just badly organised. In addition, there is no reason why you couldn't get as much enjoyment out of this by watching it on DVD. The only other thing to say is that the draconian, non-transparent and politically partisan Motion Picture Assocation of American has given this film an R rating. That's the rating usually saved for explicit sexual material and hard-core violence. Which basically proves all the accusations made in the documentary,
THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED - because only political bias could explain such a ruling. I would put good money on the British Board of Film Classification giving it a PG certificate at most.

THE DIXIE CHICKS: SHUT UP AND SING goes on release in the US on Friday and in the UK in March 2007.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

ANGOSTO or LA NOCHE DE LOS GIRASOLLES - what's Spanish for "yawn"?

ANGOSTO takes the move out of movie. It's apparently a Spanish thriller but it contained no thrills. Just a laborious, semi-clever but rather predictable plot, some nice photography on location among deserted Spanish villages and some fair acting. The story is that a raped woman's avenging husband skewers the wrong old man. A bent local cop agrees to get them off but his aged father-in-law is a hound-dog for the truth. This story is eked out over two hours and artificially split up into different segments. We see the story from the point of view of different characters, getting a little more back story each time and sometimes circling back over the same time code. I assume this narrative structure was designed to give us insight into the specific local customs and build up our sympathies with each of the characters. I just lost patience. This is one festival-circuit favourite that came across as more hype less substance.

ANGOSTO or LA NOCHE DE LOS GIRASOLLES opened in Spain in August and played Venice and London 2006. I have no clue if it will get a cinematic release any time soon in the UK.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Norman Lamont and THE US VERSUS JOHN LENNON

On a single day in September 1992, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Norman Lamont, lost £3.3bn trying to keep the UK inside the Exchange Rate Mechanism. Later that night, when the pound had been forced to devalue despite this massive intervention, Lamont appeared on the news looking insouciant and said, "It has been a bad day." A characteristically British under-statement. I've had a bad day too insofar as I am sick. The kind of ill that requires you to leave five shillings for the scout on the mantelpiece. The kind of ill that requires you to hand back piles of unused cinema tickets. I'm not usually melodramatic about being ill but isn't it just typical that it happens during the film fest? Anyways, the reason for me blathering on about this is that it shows just how much I enjoyed the two films I watched today i.e. I had a good time despite the variety of the wine.

John Lennon was a born enemy of those who control the United States, which I always say was admirable. Lennon came to represent life, while Mr. Nixon... and Mr. Bush... represent death. The first was a new documentary by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld - veterans of the rock-documentary game. THE US VERSUS JOHN LENNON doesn't really do anything revolutionary with the genre - indeed, it's not especially visually stunning and you could happily just watch it on your TV. Neither does the documentary uncover any new facts or insight. Any Beatles fan will know the basic facts. Love-able mop-top strains at the image - gets political, meets Yoko Ono, stages a sit in. Gets involved with radical political activists, gets wire-tapped by J Edgar Hoover, gets threatened with deportation by the INS. Actually nothing bad happens because the gruesome nightmare that was the Nixon Administration explodes in the middle of it all. The other thing is that this doc has Yoko Ono's approval which means that basically you date the birth of Lennon's political consciousness to the date when he meets her. Which may be the case. What do I know?

The reason why I had such a good time watching this doc is threefold. First, Lennon is just very bright and a lot of fun. It's fun to watch him take down The Man on live TV. Second, it's great to re-live or imagine what it must have been like to live in an era when political protests had bite. When kids really did think they could change the world as opposed to the channel. Third, it's great to see the hideous relics of Liddy, Nixon et al get skewered in the end. Malicious, I know.

The only other point I want to make - and this is the Key Fact here - is that if you want to see this doc, despite what I said about it being un-cinematic visually - you should really try and see it in a movie theatre - and preferably a packed one. Because this movie is perfectly timed to co-incide with the fear and loathing of the current Bush adminstration and there were four moments when a satirical swipe by Lennon or a particularly apposite comment by Gore Vidal got the audience spontaneously applauding. And that's why we go to the movies rather than watching stuff on DVD. For those rare moments when we can feel part of a shared reaction. Great stuff.

THE US VERSUS JOHN LENNON played Venice, Telluride, Toronto and London 2006 and opened in the US in September. It opens in the Netherlands and in the UK in December.

David Ricardo and THE GRUDGE 2

Not even horror films can escape the law of diminishing marginal returnsBetween viewings of THE US VERSUS JOHN LENNON and STRANGER THAN FICTION I nipped into a neighbouring cineplex with a quart of Lemsip to catch an hour of THE GRUDGE 2. I don't know how to review this film except to say that it's more of the same and after seeing the Japanese versions and the US re-makes it's just not that scary anymore. It just seems like a series of stitched together scenes loosely connected by the fact that a spooky-ass woman with black eyes, a chalky white face and long hair is making sounds like a geiger counter. For variation, sometimes it's her son. And sometimes the people she is scaring are Japanese and sometimes it's Sarah Michelle Gellar and Amber Tamblyn. I suspect that the key to enjoying the franchise is just to pick one strand - the US or Japanese and stick with it. To be sure, I admire the industriousness of director Takashi Shimuzu who has directed all the Japanese Ju-on movies, the straight-to-video versions and the US remakes, you've got to wonder when he'll get bored of this increasingly boring series. Far from a grudge that will not be sated, this is turning into a franchise that simply won't die.

THE GRUDGE 2 is already on release in Brazil, Latvia, Lithuania, the US, Israel, the Netherlands, Russia, Estonia, Turkey and the UK. It opens in Australia, Thailand, Denmark and Sweden next week. It opens in Singapore, Finland, Norway, Germany, Italy and Iceland in November and in Venezuala, Belgium and France in December.

STRANGER THAN FICTION - Charlie Kaufman-lite but enjoyable nonetheless

Finally, I hunkered down in the Odeon for STRANGER THAN FICTION, which bites the ass of Charlie Kaufman and Woody Allen rather obviously, but is a rather sweet romantic tragi-comedy nonetheless. For the movie is at heart a sweet (if obvious) love story between Will Ferrell's buttoned-down IRS auditor and Maggie Gyllenhaal's bohemian baker. I haven't seen Will Ferrell give such a quiet, sensitive performance before - he's truly a joy to watch and convinces as this odd-ball leading man. The fly in the ointment is that Will Ferrell's character keeps hearing voices. Or specifically A voice - the voice of an English female author who is narrating his life and alerts him to the fact that he is about to die. With the help of Dustin Hoffman's whacky literary theory professor, Ferrell manages to track down the reclusive author who is, naturally, somewhat shocked to find her main character standing in front of her. Emma Thompson excels in this role of the straight-talking decent author who can either kill a man and create a work of art or settle for the okay novel with the happy ending. In this choice, she is aided by Queen Latifah who is utterly wasted in a small role.

STRANGER THAN FICTION is consistently irritating, with it's smarter-than-smart CGI graphic effects that echo the IKEA-condo scene in FIGHT CLUB but less good. In fact, the whole post-modern storyline is just Less Good than all the movies that have gone before it. For this I suppose we should blame the script-writer, Zach Helm and director Marc Forster (of FINDING NEVERLAND and MONSTER'S BALL fame). But the movie somehow triumphs over all of this because it has a fantastic cast and, pretentious bull-shit aside, a very lovely story at its heart. As I said, I have never seen Will Ferrell so convincing as he is here. Sure he'e funny - but it's unintentional deadpan funny, which is, actually a lot funnier than TALLADEGA NIGHTS.

STRANGER THAN FICTION played Toronto and London 2006. It opens in the US on November 10th and in the UK, Brazil, Argentina, Iceland, Finland and Sweden in December 2006. It opens in Australia, France, the Netherlands and Belgium in January and in Estonia, Germany, Austria and Portugal in February. It opens in Slovakia in May 2007.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

MARIE ANTOINETTE - Versailles goes Top Shop

Many reviewers of MARIE-ANTOINETTE have criticised writer-director Sofia Coppola for two things: first, her avoidance of actual history and second, her use of young American actors and a 1980s New Romantic sound-track. To deal with the second first, I have no problem with the cast. I think they all do a manful job. It is nice to see young people play even younger characters. One of the key points about Versailles during this period is that is changes from a court of a grand-father to one of three young couples. It would be a-historic not to see them drinking champagne, gambling and living it up with fine clothes. I don't even mind the accents. The acting transcends these. Kirsten Dunst is a delight as Marie-Antoinette - capturing her graceful nature, love of children, hopeless position and short attention span. Similarly, Jason Schwartzman ably captures Louis XVI's shyness and ungainliness. I would have liked to see more of him and his motives for not consumating the marriage.

As to the 1980s sound-track - in fact, these songs are used far less than you might expect on the sound-track and I think work rather well. I also love the costume design and the way in which Coppola has captured the beauty and the oppressiveness of Versailles. The scenes filmed with Kirsten Dunst and her young daughter at le Petit Trianon are also beautiful and touching.

But, as much as I loved the first forty-five minutes or so of this film, I came away feeling bored and frustrated. And this stems from the way in which Coppola has chosen to tackle history. Of course, I do not side with critics who argue she has a *duty* to show the facts and stick to them. It is an artist's prerogative to do as she likes. But Coppola's approach has two ramifications both of which damage the film.

First, this rendering of Marie-Antoinette's life skims over the surface, quoting heavily from the celebrated biography by Lady Antonia Fraser, but never really grasping its essence. For instance, we see two twittering aunts (one of which is played by the brilliant Shirley Henderson poisoning Marie-Antoinette against Louis XVth's (Rip Torn's) mistress, Madame du Barry (the fabulous Asia Argento). We see Marie-Antoinette snub her but we do not feel the deep consequences of this. Similarly, we understand that Empress Maria-Theresa of Austria and the Emperor Joseph of Austria (Danny Huston) write or visit Marie-Antoinette, but never feel the harsh pressure they put her under to act in Austria's interests. Again and again, where events are shown their meaning is skated over. But more often than not they are not shown at all. We have no affair of the necklace, no crying over the vicious lies of the libelistes. I understand that Coppola wants to show us that Marie-Antoinette is just a young girl out of her depth at court - but to disembody Marie-Antoinette's story from the political machinations is to neuter it. It loses half its punch and half its poignancy.

Second, there simply is not enough narrative meat to this film to sustain its 130 minute run time. To put this in context. Coppola takes 100 minutes to get us to a point where she has not yet given birth to a son. This equates to roughly 200 pages of Antonia Fraser 570 page book. We have yet to have the affair of the necklace, the imprisonment and "punishment". Very little of this is dealt with in the film and what there is looks like a cod-pastiche of EVITA - itself hardly an example of artistic brilliance.

So, MARIE-ANTOINETTE does what it wants to do well - it shows the fast set at court living it up and isolated from the wider world. It does this with style, imagination and conviction. But the movie's ambitions are slight and all too slight to maintain the run-time. This film is no fiasco - it did not deserve the booes it received at Cannes - but neither is it worth seeing.

MARIE ANTOINETTE has already opened in Belgium, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the US, Portugal and the UK. It opens in Germany, Finland, Italy, Denmark and Sweden in November and in Australia and Israel in December. It opens in Russia, Mexico, Spain, Japan and Brazil in January 2007 and in Estonia in February.

BAMAKO/THE COURT - Africa versus the World Bank

BAMAKO/THE COURT is a fascinating movie set in the court-yard of a house in Mali. In this court-yard African society - represented by witnesses from writers to mothers to economists - is trying the international financial institutions who have saddled Africa with onerous debt repayments and the hated Structural Adjustment Programmes. They are supported by professional lawyers on each side and heard by a be-robed panel of judges. The arguments presented are not particularly well-presented and will be familiar to anyone with a smidgeon of knowledge of this issue. I remember reading about the disaster of the SAPS twelve years ago and more recently in Joseph Stiglitz' book on the IMF. However, it is moving to hear these arguments being made by ordinary men and women in Africa rather than dessicated old white men (although there are one or two of those as well.) Where BAMAKO is more successful is in capturing the rhythems and every-day occurences in a small town in Mali - from the women dying clothes to the child rocking a baby to sleep to the men drinking coffee and complaining about how long the trial is taking. There's even a surreal sequence showing the Malian kids watching an odd western starring Danny Glover and set in Timbuktu! So, while some will go to see BAMAKO for the polemic, this is probably not the best means to get educated on this issue. However, for a fascinating and moving slice of Malian life - BAMAKO has to be recommended.

BAMAKO played Cannes and London 2006. It is currently on release in France and opens in Belgium on November 29th and in the Netherlands on February 8th 2007.

BIG BANG LOVE/46-OKUNEN NO KOI - dull homo-erotic J-thriller

All this useless beauty!And now from Takashi Miike - the acclaimed director of cult horror and social satire AUDITION and ICHI THE KILLER, we get BIG BANG LOVE - JUVENILE A. Catchy title that. And yet that's about as acccessible as this homo-erotic J-thriller gets. BIG BANG LOVE is set far in the future - a future that looks like a Tate Modern sculpted version of today and features a cast almost exclusively populated by beautifully sculpted young Japanese men, moodily lit in ochre and red and shot intimately on Super 16. The plot has more than a hint of noir. Two men are put in prison for unrelated crimes. One is a gay bartender whose frenzied attack on a sexual predator was too gruesome to be classed as self-defense. He forms a crush on another inmate - an ueber-violent youth who raped the prison warden's wife. The rapist is found strangled and the bartender confesses. But who really did it and why? The plot may be simple, if not entirely comprehensible - check out the final murder motive! - and moves in circles around itself. The dialogue is similarly eliptical to the point of obfuscation. Added to this you have the odd sequence of modern dance and a lot of the prison scenes look like they have been blocked out on a theatre stage. In short, this is not a movie designed to be accessible and as much as I enjoyed the surreal visuals and sheer beauty of the framing, after a while I grew bored. The 85 minute run-time seemed like forever.

BIG BANG LOVE opened in Japan this summer.

Friday, October 20, 2006

VENUS - Brit comedic drama at its best

Another wicked comedy at the London Film Festival courtesy of Hanif Kureighi (MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE) and Roger Michell (NOTTING HILL). In just 90 minutes you get laugh-out-loud comedy and serious emotion - a great cinema experience. The story focuses on a bunch of ageing luvvies played by the still scoundrelous Peter O'Toole, Leslie Philips, Richard Griffiths and Vanessa Redgrave. Into their world of cash-in-hand bit parts, solid drinking and cursing stumbles a pot-noodle-eating, mini-skirt-wearing, Alcopop-guzzling chav. She's Leslie Philips' character's grand-neice and is meant to be helping him out while lookin for a job. He can't stand her and the joy of the movie is that it confronts our prejudices about her. As the movie unravels and Peter O'Toole takes her under his wing we see that she is a decent if conflicted girl. At least, no less decent than O'Toole's lascivious old rogue.

This being a script by Kureishi, the humour is course though literary, the emotions seem real and sexuality is dealt with in a head-on manner. That - in combination with the fact the older people are treated as "normal" - not made into wise old women, or grumpy old men - is refreshing. The acting is tremendous - especially from O'Toole and Jodie Whittaker - the girl playing "Venus". The photography is rubbish, of course - but that's probably the point. London - filmed on super-16 with no attempts to hide the damp grey grimness of it - looks rubbish as does Whitstable. If there is any point to this film it is that underneath surfaces that look rough, worn, low you can still find friendship, love and vitality.

VENUS played Telluride, Toronto and London 2006 and opens in the US on December 15th. It opens in the UK on January 26th 2007.

THE BOSS OF IT ALL - Lars von Trier is back to his comedic best

Lars von Trier is BACK BACK BACK with a movie so funny, so clever, so brilliant that I can almost forgive him MANDERLAY. Leaving behind all the ludicrously pretentious stripped-down super-didactic nonsense of the past few years, Trier goes back to his crazy-comedic KINGDOM HOSPITAL days. He even announces at the start of the movie that we are simply in for a good time - a bunch of laughs at the expense of the arty-farty crowd. But of course, as ever with Trier, the movie is not as simple as all that. You can take it as a light-hearted comedy and that's fine - but it is also a very funny and sharp satire at the expense of the movie-director/actor relationship and the restrictions of the comedy genre.

The movie is filmed in a near Dogme style - all natural settings, minimal lighting, zero production design and unpolished photography and deliberately jumpy editing. Given all this, in combination with the deadpan humour, it feels a lot like a more brilliant Danish version of the hit UK comedy series,
THE OFFICE. Coz what we have hear is a fly-on-the-wall look inside a small Danish IT company. The actual owner of the company is a loveable teddy-bear of a man called Ravn. Needing a scapegoat for the unpopular management decisions he's forced to make, he invents a "Boss of it all" who works in the US and forces Ravn to do all the bad stuff. Now, Ravn wants to sell the company to a hysterically anti-Danish Icelander and rake in the proverbial phat cash. So he hires an an ueber-luvvie actor to play the role of the boss of it all. There follows a lot of situational comedy around the mistaken identity and the actor going off message and off-script.

What can I say? This is funny - it's clever. I have no idea when it will get released in the US or UK but you absolutely HAVE to check it out!

THE BOSS OF IT ALL goes on release in Denmark on December 8th 2006. It just played London 2006. It goes on release in the UK on February 29th 2008.

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Thursday, October 19, 2006

TAXIDERMIA - insane Hungarian body horror

I had a technique of vomiting named after me!TAXIDERMIA makes DUMPLINGS and JOHANNA look like mild, main-stream movies. It's outrageous, out-landish and very clearly out of its tree. You might tear you hair out in frustration with it, but I can pretty much guarantee you won't see anything more original, more memorable or more visually stylish this year. It's getting a near-zero release but if you can, you should definitely keep an eye out for it on DVD or at your friendly local film festival.

But let's get back to basics. TAXIDERMIA is a low-budget independent flick from Hungary by way of the Sundance institute. The first half hour introduces us to a young soldier charged with servicing (ahem!) a portly mama and her two daughters who live in a farm-house in the middle of nowhere. There's a lot of masturbation and some butchery which culminates in our hero siring a little boy with a pig's tail. The segment focuses on every hair and bump of cellulite on the human body. This is no Hollywood-waxed-and-nipped representation of the human body and all the more refreshing for that. That being said, one bravura technical shot aside, I found this segment the least interesting. I was just clinging on for dear life in this sea of bizarr-O images, with nary a plot point or character development to cling on to.

The second half-hour segment is Pure Comedy Gold. Our little piggy is all grown up and, in 1960s Hungary, represents his country as a professional sport-eater. The segment is a wicked satire on professional sports films and TV coverage as well as our obsession with the body beautiful. There is much chundering, much scoffing of sausage and beans and formation dancing from lots of little Soviet kids with balloons. The attention to production detail is akin to a Wes Anderson movie. The vomiting techniques are not.

The final half-hour sees the film take off into even more surreal territory. It is modern-day Hungary and our sports-eater is a morbidly obese lard-bucket kept alive by his skinny taxidermist son. All I can say is that this segment is pure body-horror. Worse than any mainstream horror movie you are likely to see. It is unflinching in its close-up footage of the body and the gruesome sound effects. The ending is bleak but also blackly comic. The director cocks a snook at all of us critics who would try and read meaning into the depravity.

What can I say? This is the most memorable film I have seen in a year of strong contenders. Go with a strong stomach and some patience and don't bother buying any popcorn....


TAXIDERMIA played Hungary, Cannes, Toronto and London 2006. It opened in France and Belgium in August and in the Netherlands in October and opens in Hungary next month.

CANDY - sex, drugs, uneven tone

Another day, another distinctly underwhelming movie at the London Film Festival. Today's offering is a low-budget independent Australian flick starring Heath Ledger as a junkie poet married to a young painter turned junkie-hooker played by Abbie Cornish. The first third of the movie - entitled Heaven - shows them getting high and getting laid - lots of delirious graphically-shot sex. The second third of the movie drifts from loved-up drug use to bored married drug use. It's almost as though the writer has transposed the bickering of Men Behaving Badly to Australia, except that Caroline Quentin's responsible nurse is now a junkie-hooker who puts the meals on the table and Heath Ledger is the layabout boyfriend. Despite dealing with horrific subject-matter, this middle section of CANDY is - bizarrely - *funny* in tone. Ledger and Cornish are aided in this by the casting of Geoffrey Rush as a Chemistry Professor and part-time cook. It's very odd.

The final third of the movie contains harsh subject matter and the shift in tone is hard to get a handle on. I found it impossible to take these characters seriously in their pain when I had sat laughing with them on a sofa while they injected heroin into their arms a couple of scenes beforehand. And this uneven-ness of tone is what skewers the film in the end. It is no REQUIEM OF A DREAM - it does not make great technical leaps or have an interesting visual style or challenge us with its narrative and performances. And it is no TRAINSPOTTING - it does not successfully blend black humour and the grim reality of drug use. It's just a couple of decent performances in search of a more coherent script and more ambitious direction.

CANDY played Berlin, Toronto and London 2006. It has already been on cinematic release in Greece, Australia, Russia, Portugal and Italy. It opens in the UK on November 3rd and in the US on November 17th. It opens in the Netherlands in January 2007.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND - well-acted but...

THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND is a much-hyped first feature from acclaimed documentary film-maker, Kevin MacDonald. It features Forest Whitaker (GHOST DOG, PANIC ROOM) in a fantastic performance as the Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin. Set in the 1970s and filmed on location in Uganda, the movie uses hand-held documentary style photography, editing and vintage tunes to bring Amin's reign to life. For the first time on film we see how bloody charming Amin was - what a popular demagogue - and the full extent of his bizarre love of the Scottish people.* We get far less of a feel for what a menace he was - even in a grotesque scene of violence near the end. It is filmed in such a way as to seem almost like an exploitation flick - it seems disembodied from the rest of the film - surreal rather than anchoring the drama of the story.

Come to think of it, there is quite a lot I didn't like about this movie, performances aside. I didn't like
the insertion of the early love interest with Gillian Anderson's perfectly pitched upper class Brit. Perhaps it really happened, but it just held the narrative up. I didn't like the orchestral score. It was over-worked and manipulative, even resorting to the dreaded high-pitched violins at a moment of gruesome horror. I didn't like the Kay Amin story-line. Again, it may have happened that way but it was something I had seen in a million different films, notwithstanding the exact rendering of the denouement. And finally, I didn't like the protagonist. This is not a comment on James McAvoy's performance - which is A-okay. Rather on the character itself. Nicholas comes across as a wilfully naive, callow, self-important man in over his head. He turns his nose up at his father's quiet propriety and at Simon McBurney's scene-stealing oily diplomat, but these are the better men. In particular, Nicholas takes the diplomat's insistence on "clarification" as obfuscation - but they are fateful words. I realise that it's usually praise-worthy for a director to allow a protagonist to be unlikeable, but I found it a great bar to my empathising with his situation and his downfall. And isn't that a point of a film like this? There but for the Grace of God go I? After all, there is little else to it. Kevin MacDonald has not lifted his eyes up from this human morality tale to look at the political or social context behind Idi Amin's story.

Overall then, THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND joins that roll-call of London Film Fest gala films - SYLVIA, THE CONSTANT GARDENER, GOOD NIGHT & GOOD LUCK - with worthy intentions, compelling central performances - and yet no real bite.

THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND played Telluride, Toronto and London and has been on limited release in the US. It opens in the UK and Sweden in January 2007, in Germany, the Netherlands, Brazil, Belgium, Argentina, Italy and France in February 2007. *Not bizarre because Scots are inherently unloveable but bizarre insofar as he goes around dressed in a kilt, naming his kids Campbell and Mackenzie and offering to liberate Scotland from the English!