Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Four days later....

Ever since I was a young boy, I've played the silver ball. From SoHo down to Brighton, I must have played them all....and I still can't find anything interesting at the cinema. That's the problem with the London Film Fest - you get through all the buzz movies for the next six months in a fortnight. I just can't quite bring myself to see SAW III or STEP UP. This weekend's a bit thin too. Satan vomits in my eiderdown with the UK release of DECK THE HALL. I won't be watching it as it falls foul of Bina007's first rule of Cinema but there's a proper review here. I have unabashedly prejudged this overtly "cheery" movie featuring Matthew Broderick's uptight suburban family man getting riled by Danny DeVito's vulgar neighbour's Christmas light display. Frankly, I find this picture of Danny Devito in a Santa hat vaguely sinister.

The only film I will be watching this weekend is
LONDON TO BRIGHTON, despite the fact that it looks a bit like a cheap Lilya 4 Ever. Ironically, I am on the London to Brighton train tomorrow although I doubt we'll get any grungily filmed violence, more's the pity. It's been four days since I ventured inside a movie theatre, which is something of a record for me. I'm starting to get the shakes.

In other random news, they're filming David Cronenberg's new flick outside my office. It's called EASTERN PROMISE which sounds like a gift box of Turkish Delight. However, it's apparently about illegal immigrants and organised crime in London. Viggo Mortensen is playing a slimy East End gangster with slicked back hair and Naomi Watts is also in it. All East End gangsters have slicked back hair. It gives the rozzers a fighting chance. The whole movie set thing is less exciting than annoying - the huge equipment lorries blocking the road make it the devil to get a black cab.

Eheu, o me miserum

Sunday, November 26, 2006

DHOOM 2 contains the most annoying character since Jar Jar Binks

Why'd you say that Ron? Why? You're my hero. And you say something dirty. Like poop. Poop mouth. I hate you Ron Burgundy, I hate you.The first DHOOM movie was a fantastic Bollywood popcorn flick. A charming buddy-cop movie in which Abhishek Bachchan's uptight policeman chases down John Abraham's motorcycle gang with the help of Uday Chopra's light-hearted buffoon-like street-kid. The movie combined some nice lo-fi motorcycle chase sequences, a pop soundtrack and some genuine chemistry between Abhishek and Uday. DHOOM 2 takes the basic ingredients for a successful franchise and amps them up to the point of stupidity. The feel-good charm of the original is lost in a sea of over-blown, poorly shot stunt sequences and slo-mo overload.

Unlike the original movie, DHOOM 2 has no narrative structure of character development. The producers clearly want us to judge it by the quality of the action and dance sequences. But even if we grant them this, the movie fails. The action sequences are a pastiche of John Wu meets The Matrix. They're edited to death - there is no fluidity or build-up of tension: the editing calls to much attention to itself. Moreover, even within the loose bounds of ridiculousness that we expect from stunt extravaganzas, the sequences have no internal logic. I *love* ridiculous stunts, but this movie was so absurd that even I couldn't suspend my disbelief. Worse still, every other shot is in slow motion! Seriously, if you just played this movie at normal speed it would be cut down from the over-long 3 hours to a more endurable 90 minute run-time. I half expected to see white doves taking flight. And don't even get me started on the quality of the Mission Impossible-style "wearing someone else's face" stuff....

Now back to plot and character or lack thereof. Actors are present to perform cool stunts and look buff to the point where Bollywood hero Hrithik Roshan has waxed his underarms. Sure, Hrithik and Bipasha look great and with this film, Hrithik has established himself as Bollywood's leading practicioner of Wire-fu and Hollywood-style stunt sequences. But you have to wonder at the self-respect of actors who exist merely as physical objects. Having seen Aish and Abhishek in UMRAO JAAN not two weeks ago and Bipasha Basu in OMKARA earlier this year, you can't help but feel that these actors are slumming it.

Aishwarya's character is especially annoying. She's meant to be a rebellious hip young MTV-watching kid. The writers achieve this by making her say, "like", after, like, every, word and like, making her, like, refer to herself, like, in the third person, like. Indeed, Aish's character may be the most annoying character since Jar Jar Binks. Abhishek Bachchan and Uday Chopra are cast into shadow by Hrithik. Of course they aren't helped by a script that turns their LETHAL WEAPON style sweet buddy-cop relationship into one of a grumpy critical superior and his idiot sidekick. And poor Rimi Sen gets about a nanosecond of screen time. It's obvious that the producers wanted to drop her for bigger female stars but couldn't quite write out the wife of the lead actor's character.

In the final analysis, DHOOM 2 is nothing more than a vulgar pastiche of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 3. The producers have taken a promising franchise and skewered it with their vaulting ambition. Next time, let's hope that they funnel their attempts at Hollywood special effects and production values through a filter of plausibility and narrative structure.

DHOOM 2 is on release in the US, UK, India and the Netherlands.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

FLUSHED AWAY - a very British comedy

For some strange reason, FLUSHED AWAY did terrible business in the US - at least relative to the huge budget. I say strange because Swedish Philip and I went to see it today and it was absolutely hysterical. I mean, laugh out loud funny throughout. I haven't had such a good time watching a comedy in ages, and it beats alleged adult fare like TENACIOUS D, and TALLADEGA NIGHTS hands down. That the movie is seriously funny comes as no surprise when you realise that, despite being CGI animated, it comes from the people who brought you WALLACE AND GROMIT: CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT. So you get the characteristic physical comedy, classic movie references and proper old-fashioned plotting and characterisation. The visual comedy is so rich that I suspect you’d have to watch FLUSHED AWAY a number of times before you’d even begun to recognise it all.

However, it has to be said that the movie has a peculiarly English feel, which may explain its comparative failure in the US. (The root cause of the English-ness is easy to identify - the movie was co-written by Dick Clement and Ian LeFrenais – veteran script-writers for classic British TV comedies, The Likely Lads and Porridge.) The iconography of Zone One London is used to full effect – it’s all Piccadilly Circus & London Bridge. The fish-out-of-water plot plays off Cor Blimey Guv’nor sewer rats with a pampered pet mouse from The Royal Borough of Kensington. The movie features the regulation Knight of the Realm (Sir Ian McKellan) camping it up luvvie-stylee. A good dollop of the jokes are made at the expense of the cheese-eating surrender-monkey French; vulgar American tourists; grannies who throw their knickers at Tom Jones and the English football team.

In short, if you think football is a game played with twenty-two men and a round ball in which England lose on penalties to Germany in the final, I can almost guarantee you’ll have a good time watching FLUSHED AWAY. What's more this movie has everything that a certain Bond film lacked: exhilerating chases; a smooth hero in a dinner jacket; wicked gadgets; cheesy pick-up lines; an evil megalomaniac threatening humanity; and a ticking clock counting down to devestation before the hero saves the day!

FLUSHED AWAY has already opened in Israel, Singapore, the US, Belgium, France and the Netherlands. It opens in Hong Kong, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Spain, Sweden and the UK next weekend. It opens in Germany, Bulgaria, Estonia and Norway on December 8th, in Brazil, Mexico and Turkey on the 15th, in Australia, Slovenia, Italy and Latvia on the 22nd. It opens in Argentina in January and in Japan in March.

Friday, November 24, 2006

A short essay on vomit-inducing cinema

Fortune vomits in my eiderdown once moreSANTA CLAUSE 3: THE ESCAPE CLAUSE should be prosecuted under the Competition laws for shamelessly exploiting a captive market of parents who have to take their kids to see a film over the festive season but aren't in one of the handful of towns showing THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS 3D. I haven't seen it and I'm not going to for a couple of reasons. First, even the trailer - the so-called highlights - was painfully unfunny. Second, I've seen the first two and I'll never get those hours back. Third, the reviews have been so universally grim that I can't see what I would add. I really don't enjoy bad-mouthing a movie for the heck of it, and how could I top Mark Kermode's description of the movie as the cinematic equivalent of tertiary syphilis? Anyway, as I have said before, Christmas movies featuring jolly Santas make me heave. It's vomit-inducing cinema and not in a good way. Still, in case you're erring on the side of evil, you can read a proper review here.

JACKASS NUMBER TWO is a pointless movie to review, if it's a movie at all. It's basically a poorly shot string of skits just like in the infamous MTV TV show. Johnny Knoxville and his gang of extreme sports miscreants do things to themselves involving bodily fluids and explosives that are designed to cause pain and nausea in the viewer. To fans of such real-life gross-out humour, JACKASS NUMBER TWO is vomit-inducing in a good way, and as a fan of consumer choice I'm happy they have an opportunity to get their fix. It's not my cup of tea, so I won't be watching it, but I am reliably informed by my teenage cousins who fall squarely in the target demographic that the movie did what all good genre-movies should: it did exactly what is said on the tin. But if you want a proper review, you can click here.

SANTA CLAUSE 3 has already infected Germany, the US, the Philippines, Australia, Singapore, Iceland, Italy and the UK. Japan gets infected on December 2nd, Turkey on Dec 8th, Argentina on Dec 14th, Belgium on Dec 20th and Spain and Venezuela on Dec 22nd.

JACKASS NUMBER TWO is on release in the US, Netherlands, Russia, Iceland, Finland, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Spain, Australia and the UK. It opens in Germany next week, in Sweden on December 8th, Estonia on December 29th and in Japan on January 13th. The Region 1 DVD is released on December 26th.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

LOULOU - still compelling after 26 years

LOULOU is a 26 year old French movie starring a young Isabelle Huppert as Nelly, a frustrated bourgeouis woman married to Guy Marchand's André. At a disco, Nelly meets Loulou - a physically attractive working-class yob played by a shockingly young Gérard Depardieu. Nelly leaves her rich but boring husband for a life of sexual satisfaction. The film plots the consequences of this decision, not least her continued sado-masochistic emotional relationship André.

Loulou is a complete layabout. He is content to sponge off Nelly and even when she falls pregnant and her kindly brother offers to set him up in business he shows no inclination to work. But there is nothing malicious in this. Part of the magic of Depardieu's performance is that Loulou is so charming - so funny, so attractive - that the audience can forgive him his inability to plan for the future. And besides, Loulou is no idiot - when he does occasionally reflect on his situation he is very perceptive and objective about what Nelly wants from the relationship. As for Nelly, this is another classic Huppert role. Her relationship with her ex reminded me not a little of her more recent role in GABRIELLE. The interesting part of both films is how the wife continues to torment the husband after the act of betrayal, and how both husbands are still addicted to their wives.

But in style, this film could not be further from GABRIELLE. LOULOU is filmed in a relaxed, intimate documentary style that suits the material. The camera seems to take on Loulou's freewheeling style, moving fluidly between characters. The lighting is naturalistic and in some cases non-existent, giving us a lot of night scenes that are almost entirely black. This and the seemingly improvised nature of the dialogue in the some of the group scenes gives the movie a relaxed intimacy. It really is a pleasure to watch.

LOULOU was originally released in 1980. It is currently in an extended run at the National Film Theatre as part of their Isabelle Huppert season.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

TIM BURTON'S THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS 3D - gorgeous

Chloe looked the way Meryl Streep's skeleton would look if you made it smile and walk around the party being extra nice to everybody.In general, I believe Christmas movies suck. I will not, for instance, be reviewing the US hit movie, SANTA CLAUSE 3: THE ESCAPE CLAUSE. For all I know, it's a Christmas classic. But then, even as a young kid, Christmas movies always made me spew and brought out my meanest Bah-Humbug! spirit. This might be why I get such a kick out of movies like BAD SANTA and TIM BURTON'S THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS - both movies that forego the saccharine gloopy Christmas goodness that infects the usual fare.

TIM BURTON'S THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS was originally released back in the early 1990s and has now been re-released in a new 3-D version. It's an absolutely cracking film and while there isn't much use made of the 3-D (unlike, say, MONSTER HOUSE) the kids I took to see this got a kick out of wearing the 3-D glasses anyhoo. So cutting to the chase, what we really have is a re-release of the original film, and even on those terms, it's well worth seeing.

The movie is a musical scored and largely sung by long-time Tim Burton collaborator Danny Elfman. It tells a sweetly ghoulish tale of an attenuated skeleton called Jack who lives in Halloween town. Every Halloween, Jack (Chris "Prince Humperdinck" Sarandon) and his vampires, witches, corpses and beasties keep the rest of the world entertained with tricks and mischief. But Jack is frustrated with the monotony of it all and wanders away from home. He stumbles upon Christmastown - a place he never knew existed! Dazzled at the lovely warm feeling he returns to Halloweentown convinced he can do a better job than Santa. So, with all best intentions, Jack and his friends set about making presents to deliver to all the kids but the presents can't help but turn out scary. The normal world of humans is scared silly and Christmas is cancelled until Jack saves the day. He may not be able to supplant Santa but he does at least get a beautiful re-animated Corpse Bride voiced by Catherine O'Hara.

The movie is astoundingly beautifully designed and is rendered in a technically impressive mix of stop-motion and cell animation with very very few CGI add-ins. For film geeks, it's great to see some fantastic double exposure special-effects, To that end, it has a more tactile "real" feel that most new CGI animated films. Like WALLACE AND GROMIT: CURSE OF THE WERE RABBIT, the movie benefits from having been lit and photographed as much like a live-action film as possible. What that means is that instead of having a super-bright Disney-like cartoon, NIGHTMARE looks more like a forties film-noir or THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER(!). Halloweentown is morbidly drawn in a near black-and-white palette and filmed largely in shadow. Even in Christmas-town, which has a Dr Seuss feel - the colours are rich and dark and warm rather than day-glo bright.

Because of the series of ghoulish (though largely well-meaning characters) and the brooding photographic style, NIGHTMARE is one of those kids films, like MONSTER HOUSE, that is not for the faint-hearted kid. For instance, there's a scene where the evil Oogie Boogie's body disintegrates into a mass of creepy crawlies. You need to make a judgement about whether your kid will handle that. But to my mind, the director handles it just right - giving us a few quick frights before moving on to the love story or the funnier characters.

A lot of movies get tagged as "instant classics" but I reckon NIGHTMARE is one of the few to whom this description actually applies. It's a great family Christmas movie - providing adults with a richly imagined world rather than cheap pop-cultural gags - and treating kids with more respect that, say, your average Santa movie. Two enthusiastic thumbs-up!

TIM BURTON's THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS was originally released in the early 1990s. It's available on DVD but is also on re-release in the UK in 3D format.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

PAN'S LABYRINTH/EL LABARINTO DEL FAUNO - Best film of 2006?

Innocence Has A Power Evil Cannot ImagineSometimes the hardest reviews to write are for the movies which you just know are a yard faster than anything else you've seen. For me, PAN'S LABYRINTH is the most memorable, inventive, emotionally and visually scarring movie I have seen in 2006. The (in)famous UK reviewer, Mark Kermode, stood up before the screening and called the movie "the CITIZEN KANE of fantasy cinema". This made me, if anything, more sceptical about the film. Not because I don't value his opinion but because I hate someone laying this amount of hype on the shoulders of a movie just as I'm about to see it. How on earth could the movie possibly live up to such a description?

Short answer: it does. And then some. The problem is that I can describe how amazing the production design is; how elegant the editing; how atmospheric the photography; but I cannot make you feel the sense of complete immersion in a world that is threatening and brutal and evil. And be very clear, this is no kids movie. It inflicts much cruelty on its audience - forcing you to flinch at scenes of torture, body-horror and death. The cruelty steps beyond the immediate violence, though - it manifests itself in what I interpreted to be an incredibly nihilistic central message: the world is barbarous and cruel and evil acts may be punished but the innocent will also die. Worse still, there is no real refuge in childhood stories of magic and fairies. Barbarous cruelty also dominates the fantasy world and its rules are arbitrary and demanding. Maybe I am taking this too far: there is a glimmer of hope at the end. We are, after all, moral agents: we are able to do the right thing. But to one interpretation, there is no tangible benefit to doing so.

But back to the nuts and bolts. PAN'S LABYRINTH is the new film by director Guillermo del Toro (HELLBOY, THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE). It is set in Spain just after the civil war has ended, but as World War Two is still raging. A young girl who loves fairy-tales is travelling into the countryside with her heavily pregnant mother. Her stepfather is a vain, misogynistic, sadistic Fascist army officer who sees her mother as a vehicle to deliver the son he desires. The step-daughter is tempted by a faun into thinking that if she can just carry out three dangerous tests in a fantasy world she will be acknowledged as an immortal fairy princess and be spirited away to live with her dead father.

Finally, as with all truly magical cinematic experiences, it's really hard for me to explain why this movie affected me so much. I can only urge you to try and catch it at the cinema even if you wouldn't normally go for fantasy cinema. It is rare to find a movie that is so engrossing, so horrifying and yet so beautifully rendered.

PAN'S LABYRINTH played Cannes and London's Frightfest, 2006. It is currently on release in Spain, Mexico, France and Serbia. It opens in Belgium, Italy and the UK this weekend and in Australia, Russia and Singapore next weekend. The film opens in Canada and the US on December 29th. It opens in Norway in January, Germany in February, Japan in April and Turkey in May.

Monday, November 20, 2006

STARTER FOR TEN - 80s nostalgia masks formulaic bilge

STARTER FOR TEN is woefully formulaic coming-of-age romantic-comedy. Decent but naive working-class boy makes it to pinnacle of academe (Bristol(!) and University Challenge TV quiz programme). On the way he falls for a supposedly sophisticated middle class girl who uses him shamelessly. He then realises he loves the more worthwhile but less fit activist chick. Blah blah blah.

What saves STARTER FOR TEN from utter mediocrity is the sheer likeability of lead actor,
James McAvoy who is suitably at right-angles with the in-crowd. But the biggest reason to see this film, and the only reason you might make it through with a smile on your face, is some class 1980s nostalgia. The movie is set in Britain in the early 80s - a time of deep political polarisation, mass unemployment and awesome pop music and the movie does well to capture the spirit of the times. This is achieved by means of an outstanding sound-track, some brilliantly well-observed production design and by giving Brian some mates who are stuck at home in Essex being indicted for dole fraud. Best of all, a lot of the drama is played out against the backdrop of the TV programme University Challenge. For non-UK readers, University Challenge is a British quiz show that pits teams of four from different universities against each other answeringly fiendlishly obscure general knowledge questions. The comedy part is that Oxford and Cambridge enter not as Universities but as individual colleges. Back in the 1980s the programme was hosted by cult-presenter Bamber Gascgoine, and part of the joy of this film is seeing Bamber Gascgoine brought back to the screen.

So, much like
SIXTY SIX, STARTER FOR TEN is a harmless and mildly entertaining comic drama, on its own terms. But I can only really recommend it for the generation that got drunk for the first time to New Order....

SIXTY SIX is on release in the UK. It opens in the US on February 16th 2007.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

REQUIEM - another deeply sad drama

This seems to be the week for powerful, intimate, deeply sad dramas. REQUIEM is a beautifully drawn, emotionally harrowing tale of a 21 year old woman called Michaela living in 1970s Germany. I say "woman", but young girl is more appropriate. Due to severe epilespy and an over-bearing mother, Michaela is still a rather innocent girl in her dealings with the outside world - although she has a strong and determined Catholic faith.

The movie opens with Michaela being accepted to university in Tübingen. She is desperate to gain some freedom and get her life back on track but her mother is sceptical that she can live away from home. In spite of this, armed with a new typewriter, some new tablets and her father's help, she goes to University. During her first term, she gets a rowdy best friend, a tentative sexual relationship and a considerable amount of academic stress which leads to an emotional crisis. Michaela believes she is being tormented by demons and turns to an initially sceptical Church for help. Her friends believe she needs to see a psychiatrist.

This is, essentially, the set up for the rest of this short, intense film. It is clear that the director - Hans-Christian Schmid - believes that Michaela is mentally ill, but he is absolutely faithful to her story in that he makes us believe that SHE believes she has been possessed. Both the Church and the rational explanation are presented in an even-handed manner: there is no prejudice and the movie is in essence a struggle between these two sets of belief. The director must also be applauded for stopping the movie before the exhausting series of exorcisms begin and before Michaela's death. To that end, this is not a conventional horror movie at all - there is nothing sensationalist here. Rather, it is, as the title suggests, an opportunity to remember and re-examine the painful experiences of this young girl.

It is important to emphasise that this is not a horror film. Several people who left the cinema with me were clearly disgusted by the movie's lack of shocks and horrors. But for what it is - a deeply sad drama - the movie is a complete success, in my opinion. The actors all do a fine job - notably, Sandra Hüller who plays Michaela. The script is tight, economical and discreet. And the handheld camera-work lends a documentary-style non-exploitative feel to the film. It could not be further from the CGI whistles and bangs of last year's THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE which was also based on the same true story.

REQUIEM premiered at Berlin 2006 and has already been on show in Germany, Austria, Taiwan, the Netherlands, Sweden and the US. It is currently on release in Italy and the UK and opens in Argentina on November 23rd. REQUIEM opens in Denmark, Belgium and France in December.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

TENACIOUS D: THE PICK OF DESTINY: awesome songs, okay story

There's a rack to hang the stockings on/We still have to shop for Genghis Khan/Michael Landon's hair looks swell/It's Christmas time in hell!TENACIOUS D is the cult rock band fronted by movie funny-man, Jack Black, backed up by lead guitarist Kyle Gass. For those who've never seen them, the joke is that they're a pair of out-of-shape middle-aged men channeling three parts Led Zep to one part Spinal Tap. Their feature length movie sits firmly in the canon of films like Wayne's World - where two unlikely ordinary idiots grapple with greatness after a training period reminiscent of movies like KARATE KID. In THE PICK OF DESTINY, JB and KG have to break into the Rock and Roll Museum to steal the aforementioned pick - apparently fashioned centuries ago from a tooth of Satan and capable of turning any idiot into a genius rock musician.

I had a fine time watching the film. At its worst, the film has a sort of low-level background hum of humour and good-will, even if that resides in dick and fart jokes and the odd superstar cameo. (Ben Stiller and John C Reilly are hysterical but Tim Robbins' part is seriously under-written/just not funny....) But whenever the movie gets off of the actual story and into the songs the humour ratchets up to an altogether higher level. The guys clearly know whereof they spoof - the songs are really fantastic and echo all the worst excesses of the rock genre. I loved the final rock-off with Satan and the homily on how Satan is inside of all of us was Pure Comedy Gold. So, I guess I have to give TENACIOUS D: THE PICK OF DESTINY a qualified thumbs up. It's patchy for sure, but when it works it really makes you laugh.

TENACIOUS D: THE PICK OF DESTINY opens in the US on November 22nd, Singapore on November 23rd and in the UK on November 24th. It opens in Argentina on November 30th, Finland on December th, the Netherlands on December 21st, and in Iceland and Norway on December 26th. It opens in Italy and Australia in January 2007, in Germany in February and Belgium in March.

Friday, November 17, 2006

SPECIAL - deeply sad lo-fi drama

SPECIAL is a fantastic little lo-fi drama that deserves far more attention than it's getting. It's a relatively short, low budget film with a simple premise. A not unhappy parking warden called Les lives a not unsatisfying life, reading comics, hanging out with friends, looking longingly at the pretty check-out girl at the grocery store. He's a bit of a patsy but he's also a nice guy. He volunteers as a tester for a new pharmaceutical anti-depressant called Special. Special is meant to act as an inhibitor of self-doubt but Les experiences side effects - he thinks he has super-powers. Of course, he is being delusional and his doctor and friends try to help him. At this stage the movie seems sweet and rather fun. But as Les' mental illness develops it becomes increasingly uncomfortable viewing. I felt desperately sorry for Les and started to rather resent the beating that the writer-directors were dishing out to him.

The success of the movie lies in its realistic shooting style that lends credence to a rather ludicrous plot and the touching central performance of Michael Rapaport. He's one of those Hollywood character actors whose face you recognise but whose name you might not know and it's great to see him get a chance to show his acting metal. I can honestly say that SPECIAL is one of the more memorable, sweet, sad and interesting films I have seen this year. And I know I'm preaching against the choir - and against all expectations - but I enjoyed it far more than this week's blockbuster offering.....

SPECIAL is on release in the UK.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

CASINO ROYALE - Whatever happened to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang?!

CASINO ROYALE has four good points: Daniel Craig (the new 007) is a good actor; the opening black-and-white assassination sequence is stylish, funny and hard-as-nails; the movie features a heart-stoppingly gorgeous cameo of an Astin Martin DBS; and the humour is genuinely witty rather than tongue-in-cheek.

Everything else sucks. Much as I hate formulaic movies, the Bond franchise is built on a bloody cast iron formula - hot chicks, fast cars, stuffy Whitehall bureaucrats, witty one-liners, evil megalomaniacs, oddball henchman and a handsome gentleman killer in a dinner jacket. CASINO ROYALE pisses on this heritage from a great height. There are no heart-stopping chase scenes, no random rumpy-pumpy, no cool gadgets, no Moneypenny, no "Q" at all. Craig's Bond is written as a man at odds with his Oxford education - the sort of man who doesn't give a damn if his martini is shaken or stirred and would have the audacity to dine on caviar in a restaurent without his tie. What "luxury" there is is distinctly second-class. We first see Bond driving a bloody Ford; the Casino is not in France but Montenegro and instead of playing Baccarat he plays poker. It's all a little pathetic. Even the sums of money seem inconsequential. £150million hardly seems like a sum on which the future of international terrorist finance hangs. In fact, the movie is downhill from about the fifth minute when the opening titles begin. This must be the most anonymous pathetic excuse for a Bond song and the most low-rent graphics ever seen in a Bond film - and that's saying something.

I can see perfectly well what the director and producers were trying to do. They wanted to inject a little grit and realism in the movie. Fine. It's rather nice to see Bond bleed and sweat, look exhausted and be the victim of an infamous homo-erotic sado-maschostic torture sequence (the nearest, by the way, that we get to sexual excitement in the movie.) But frankly, giving Bond a genuine love interest and some bruising will not turn the franchise into the Bourne Supremacy any more than giving Tom Cruise a wife in MI3 made Ethan Hunt an empathetic character. Instead, we get a half-way house - neither as popcorn-tastic as the usual Bond circus; nor as thrilling as Bourne and certainly not as emotionally affecting as your early John le Carre novel. CASINO ROYALE is actually rather dull.

I don't want post-modern touchy feely Bond. It's just not as entertaining. And actually, I don't think it's any closer to the novels: I always found Bond to be a callow, materialistic, whiny little sado-masochist who got into scrapes and had to be bailed out continuously by Felix Leiter. I wish movie reviewers would stop talking about "getting back to the novel" as being some kind of holy grail. Bond was only ever trashy materialistic entertainment - at its best it still is. I still remember the opening sequence of GOLDENEYE where Bond freefalls off a cliff and into the cockpit of a plane. Class! The audience applauded - here was the Bond we had missed during the sterile Dalton years. And to think it's the same director behind this damp squib! I fear we are headed for the desert once more.....

CASINO ROYALE is on global release from Friday. For a complete set of specific release date, click here.

For a video review of this movie from, Nikolai, click here.

Monday, November 13, 2006

GABRIELLE - brutal and brilliant chamber drama

GABRIELLE is a merciless depiction of a strained marriage, based on a novella by Joseph Conrad and brought to the screen by outstanding French director, Patrice Chéreau (LA REINE MARGOT). Brilliantly designed, photographed and acted - it is an intense and memorable costume drama complemented by a fascinating score. However, it will not be to everyone's taste. I loved it, but it left Nik cold.

The story itself is nothing new. it features a rich middle-class man whose social class and upbringing have taught him to value impassivity, propriety and respectability above all else. He is not a bad man so much as a limited man, and he chooses his wife by limited criteria. Will she prove an elegant hostess - faithful, stable, predictable - an ornament to his carefully appointed his? In these stories, the wife always marries the husband aware in some sense of the bargain she is making - a passionless life in exchange for comfort and dependability. But then comes the regret and the moment of rebellion. This is the story that forms the backbone of novels from Anna Karenina to The Forsyte Saga. In general, I have a great appreciation for this genre - Anna Karenina is my favourite novel after all. However, if you know that you don't have a taste for this sort of domestic drama, then you should probably avoid GABRIELLE, despite the fact that it is a superior example of the genre.

In GABRIELLE, the familiar story is situated in pre-WW1 Paris and is filmed like a Three Act drama within the confines of a sumptuous house. The husband is a rich financier who lives in this beautiful but claustrophobic house filled with classical busts under glass domes. We meet him as he walks from the train to his house. He has the fine clothes, confident swagger and cigar that denotes the self-satisfied man of property. But it is credit to
Pascal Greggory's nuanced performance that he does not appear odious - rather, in some way, pathetic. The husband buys a small newspaper and so his salon becomes wider in scope - he is suddenly entertaining radical journalists and less "safe" characters. With dizzying camera-work we see a typical Thursday At Home. The conversation is vapid, the people unbearable and yet the evening is a success! It seems insupportable. And so it is. For the husband returns home the next day to find a note from his wife, played by Isabelle Huppert telling him that she has left him. However, she returns some hours later.

The "second act" of the movie follows the husband and wife in their private space. He has to re-examine everything that he took for granted and come to a slow realisation about his feelings for his wife. She has to summon up the ability to tell him why she left him. These scenes - especially one over the dinner table - are absolutely excruciating to watch because the acting is so powerful and the characters so deliberately malicious and yet genuinely hurt. The "third act" sees the same couple navigate another public Thursday At Home and the consequences of moving beyond the boundaries of impassivity.

GABRIELLE is, for me, a misnomer. The movie is as much about the husband's emotional journey as the wife's and, perhaps surprisingly given some of his actions, I found him to be a more sympathetic character. The story may be familiar but the movie feels new because of its intensity and because of the daring camera-work. While structured in some ways like a theatre piece it is undoubtedly "cinematic" in its use of the camera, editing from black and white to colour, use of subtitles. The orchestral score in particular is very fine - and is used in an obvious and deliberate manner rather than as a subconscious manipulative device to underline the emotions we are meant to be feeling.

So, it should be clear that I think that GABRIELLE is a very fine movie. However, more than usually, the "genre warning" applies. But if you do like psychological domestic drama, then this is a superb example of the genre.

GABRIELLE played Venice and Toronto 2005 and opened in continental Europe and the US earlier this year. It opens in the UK on Friday and is available on Region 1 DVD on December 19th.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Late review - MA MERE

Why am I reviewing the French film, MA MERE, over two year's after its initial release? A number of reasons. First off, I watched the director's latest film, DANS PARIS at the London Film Festival and really liked it. It was a sweet, small film all about familial love with a mischievous, whimiscal shooting style. However, it stands in great constrast to Christophe Honoré’s previous film, MA MERE. Both have the same director and indeed the same star in Louis Garrel. However, I feel strongly that people who like one film will not necessarily like the other. In that sense, my usual trick of linking reviews to other films by the same director wouldn't be a good indicator of interest. The other reason to review MA MERE is that we are about to see the release of a movie starring its lead actress, Isabelle Huppert in the UK - a movie called GABRIELLE. I have always held Isabelle Huppert in high regard - ever since seeing her in AMATEUR. She is one of those few actors on whom you can count for a searing performance. She also tends to choose films which are trying to explore something new or interesting rather than the usual cineplex fare.

MA MERE is an adaptation of the controversial, post-humous novel by George Bataille - a French novelist writing in the first half of the twentieth century and famous for his erotic writing. The director sets the novel in contemporary Europe - specifically in a holiday resort in the Canary Islands - the sort of resort where young Europeans come for sun, sea, alcohol and casual sex. Contemporary European sexual morality is much less restrictive than in Bataille's era and much of the material in the film will not be shocking to the open-minded viewer - graphic nudity, masturbation, S&M, group sex...you may or may not indulge or approve, but surely they have lost the power to shock?

However, the novel and film go further than this. A young man, played by Garrel, has come from France to live with his mother, played by Huppert. He was raised by his grandmother because his mother is a self-confessed "slut". Upon the death of his father the teenager finds that his father's study is stuffed with porn and becomes depressed. His mother lifts him out of this funk by introducing him to a world of casual group sex with a number of young women, and finally with herself. Strong stuff.

While the production values of the movie - the visuals and editing - are pretty poor - you can appreciate the artistic intentions of the director and actors. The sex, while graphic, is not gratuitous - it is the entire point of the novel/film. The subject is how sexual exploration is part of feeling alive and what happens when you reach such a point where nothing is transgressive and everything is permitted. What is left then? Life or death?

My problem with the movie is not its graphic content but the fact that it doesn't really get a handle on the major issues it aspires to explore. And given this failure to locate its characters' actions convincingly in their psychological development - and the poor production values - the movie does end up feeling a little empty and shocking for the sake of it - which I know was absolutely not the director's intention. I am not sure if this is a failure of the underlying source material as I haven't read the book. For sure, there is a problem with the script. At any rate, the movie is far less well-made and far less impressive than, say, Michael Haneke's THE PIANO TEACHER - which also showed Isabelle Huppert in a shocking sexual relationship underpinned by a very specific psychological state. The sad verdict is that while both MA MERE and THE PIANO TEACHER are admirably fearless, only the latter is worth watching.

MA MERE opened in the summer of 2004 and showed at Toronto and London that year. It opened in the UK in March 2005 and in the US in May 2005. It is available on Region 2 DVD.

Late review - DEATH OF A PRESIDENT

DEATH OF A PRESIDENT is a 90 mockumentary film showing the fictionalised assassination of George W Bush outside the Chicago Sheraton and exploring the investigation and trial following this event. The subject matter has made the film controversial. The film-makers have been accused of being "sick" and politically motivated. This review is not here to convince you either way. You may find the staged assassination of a living person sick - fair enough. I probably agree with you, although I still appreciate living in a society where this sort of movie can be made.

But with regards to this specific film there are two key points I want to make. First, it's a technically brilliant film. The actual news footage of Bush, Cheney, protestors and police is masterfully blended with re-enactments, DV and video-phone footage. What makes this such an emotive film is exactly the fact that it does look so authentic. The editing and filming is astoundingly well designed to complement the stock footage and you get the feeling that the director also spent a lot of time researching the mechanics of how this kind of event would work. The talking heads - members of the Secret Service, the press corps, the forensics teams etc. - all seem to speak with great authority. So from a purely technical point of view - as an exercise in cinema - this movie deserves plaudits.

The second point I want to make is that, to my, mind, the detailed content of the film is not particularly anti-Bush or anti-GOP or even anti-war. Rather it is about examining the way in which current events have ramifications and the way in which they are portrayed in the media. To portray an assassin being provoked by Bush's war policy into an act of murder is not to condone it or to condemn the war policy - merely to show a credible event. Of course, you can still think the movie is "sick" in a macro sense, but in the detail, this is not a loaded film.

DEATH OF A PRESIDENT showed at Toronto 2006 where it won the FIPRESCI prize. It was shown on UK TV in October and opened in the US a fortnight ago. It opens in Belgium on Hanuary 10th 2007 and in the Netherlands on March 15th. DEATH OF A PRESIDENT was released on UK DVD this week.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

SIXTY SIX - definitely one for the domestic market

Should you watch the new British film, SIXTY SIX? Take a look at the picture on the right: does it give you a shiver of excitement? If so, buy your ticket and take a hankie with you. If not, stay well away. For SIXTY SIX is a movie that cashes in heavily on English nostalgia for the great day in 1966 when we won the World Cup. Full of fantastic period costumes, hairstyles and set design - pumped up with a sound-track of pop hits - and interspersed with heart-lifting footage of England's progress to glory - I am not ashamed to say that I actually had tears in my eyes in the final frames when we see the heroic team bounding up the stairs to pick up the trophy from Her Maj.

Who in this country was not moved when that great Englishman, Gazza, wept bitter tears at the World Cup last year?In fairness, the movie is a brilliantly acted drama, with a little humour, a lot of pathos and not a small dollop of schmaltz. A geeky kid called Bernie Rubens is obsessing over his Bar Mitzvah. Finally, he'll have a day when he's the centre of attention. But he's not going to get the big day he dreamed of thanks to his family's financial difficulties and the fact that it coincides with the World Cup final. It's a brilliantly observed drama - evidently a semi-autobiography from director Paul Weiland. The movie hangs on three lovely, subtle performances from young Gregg Sulkin as Bernie Rubens,
Eddie Marsan as his father and Helena Bonham Carter as his mother. And it is indicative of the depth of talent in the cast that actors like Catherine Tate (bothered?!) and Stephen Rea are "wasted" on essentially cameo roles.

Still, for all the universally relevant stuff about how growing up means loving your parents despite their flaws, I am not sure how a non-English audience would react to this movie, let alone an audience of, say, Scots. Indeed, the movie cheekily acknowledges this fact by having a miserable Scottish policeman as a fleeting baddie! This is an unashamedly sentimental film and I suspect that to get 100 per cent out of it you have to be sentimental about 1966. The only bizarre thing, then, is that the producers didn't try to get the movie into English cinemas before this summer's World Cup finals when they would have undoubtedly cashed in.....

SIXTY SIX is on release in the UK and opens in Australia on March 1st 2007.

Friday, November 10, 2006

THE HOST/GWOEMUL - Shut up and scare me!

It looks like Godzilla, but due to international copyright laws - it's not. It is a testament to how much fun it is to watch a bunch of people being chased by an obviously CGI mutant beastie that THE HOST manages to be mildly entertaining despite its haphazard attempt at social and political commentary. The movie opens in contemporary Seoul, with a evil American* telling a spineless but horified Korean to pour a bunch of nasty chemicals down the sink and straight into the Han river. A couple of years later and a nasty fish-lizard -beastyie comes bounding out of the river eating Koreans and tourists and doing impressive back-flips. Now, let's be clear. This movie is NOT a horror movie. The beast is so obviously CGI - so ludicrously blundering in its movements - that you simply cannot be scared by it. The comedy also under-cuts the horror. The sweet school-girl has just been swiped by the beast and supposedly killed and we should presumably feel horrified by this fact. But then we cut to a mildly funny slapstick scene in which her squabbling family are simultaneously wailing and beating each other up. This is shortly followed by a scene where the family are escaping from a detention hall that could come straight out of a cartoon - complete with kitsch music.

The point is that this movie is fun rather than horrifying - silly rather than scary. If it had stuck to this simple mission it would've been worth a look. Problem is, it has delusions of grandeur and wants to make some kind of point about - and here I'm guessing - America's malign power over client states such as Korea; the evil of polluting the environment; how governments lie to their citizens....I say I'm guessing because the movie never really takes aim at anything in particular. Rather it throws random accusations and motifs in the air like so much confetti - including a pretty major plot strand about how the evil monster is THE HOST of a nasty SARS-like virus. That plot strand - the one that gives the movie its name(!) - is just left to fizzle out. Overall then, THE HOST is a bit of a mess - mildly entertaining and worth catching on TV - but hardly worth a trip to the cineplex.

*At this point, having been warned of the movie's anti-American stance by the reviews, I thought: "Oh no!" If I go to see a mindless evil monster B-movie then that's what I want: not a bunch of agitprop. However, it turns out that this story - a story that I had assumed was just crass anti-americanism - is based in fact! Still, it's a big leap from saying one american was reckless to saying ALL americans have the environmental record of Dubya.

THE HOST/GWOEMUL played Cannes and Toronto 2006. It went on release in South Korea, Australia, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan earlier this year. It is currently on release in the UK, opens in France in a fortnight and in the US and Spain in January and February respectively.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

RED ROAD - powerful, intense Glasgow-set drama

RED ROAD is a powerful intense movie from first time feature-length writer-director Andrea Arnold. It focuses on a middle-aged woman living in contemporary Glasgow. She works as a CCTV operator - scrutinising footage of people walking passed shops and sitting in bus shelters. Her voyeurism slips into her private life by small steps - each recorded in this deliberately-paced, slow-building movie. The lack of orchestral score or staged lighting and hand-held camerawork adds to the feeling of claustrophobic realism. We are always looking at people on TV, or through windows and grilles. As the movie progresses, the motivations of the woman are slowly and subtly unfolded. Indeed, this is one of the movie's key pleasures and I don't want to spoil your enjoyment of the film by doing a conventional plot summary. Essentially, she starts following a man that she perceives to be linked to her past and a threat to the community. But her increasing obsession with the subject of her gaze means that she is simulataneously fascinated by and dependent on him - while also wanting to exorcise him from her community.

The success of RED ROAD rests on the director's patience with the material - drip-feeding the audience a little more information - a little more character motivation as the minutes unfold. It also rests on two stunning lead performances from Kate Dickie and Tony Curran - who tackle emotionally and physically brutal material. If there were any justice in the world - and if the Academy were a little less mawkish - Dickie would be receiving nominations.....

RED ROAD played Cannes were it won the Jury Prize. It also played Toronto and London. It is on release in the UK and opens in France on December 6th. It opens in the Netherlands on February 1st 2007.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

THE ASPHALT JUNGLE - heist-noir "classic" has weathered badly

Experience has taught me never to trust a policeman. Just when you think one's all right, he turns legit.  The conventional wisdom seems to be that John Huston's 1950 noir-heist movie, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, is a pantheon movie. Not only a classic, it seems to inspire reviewers to bring out the most florid superlatives and tortured metaphors. The BBC revierer calls it "a biting, bitter espresso of a movie"; Variety praises its "ironic realism"; in The Guardian, Andrew Pulver claims it is "a Brechtian ode to the urban wasteland"; Philip French calls it "possibly the greatest heist thriller ever." By contrast, Bina007 - a firm fan of film-noir, heist movies AND John Huston, declares THE ASPHALT JUNGLE more boring than a very boring thing. To put this in perspective, I like, nay, love, cricket, possibly the most boring sport ever invented, so I know whereof I speak.

Now, THE ASHPHALT JUNGLE is not a bad film. In fact, it's really well-made. It's an intelligent, talky movie, that rejects glamour and unrealistic capers for a gritty, crime procedural. Cinematic genius, John Huston, crafts a tight script full of twists, turns, double-crosses and snappy one-liners from the novel by W.R.Burnett (the guy behind the screenplay for THE GREAT ESCAPE.) The really NEW thing about the film when it was first released was that it dared to tell a story about criminals who looked and acted like your average boring old middle-aged men and who lived in depressingly ordinary dingy apartments. The movie DARED to just spend time with differing sets of people just sitting around talking in dingy rooms.

To that end, it cast character actors rather than big Hollywood stars of the Bogart variety. The movie stars Sam Jaffe (sadly best known for being a victim of McCarthy's Red Lists) as a criminal master-mind called Doc Erwin Riedenschneider. (Now that's a Gene Wilder character waiting to happen!) The Doc may look like just another sad old man, but he's planning one last audacious jewel heist before retiring to Mexico where he can fondle pretty young women. He assembles a squad of similarly anonymous-looking men to pull off the heist - a fence, a safe-cracker, some muscle...Louis Calhern plays the fence, Alonzo Emerich - an old man with a sinister relationship to his "niece" - a cameo debut for Marilyn Monroe. The muscle is provided by an improbably named man called Dix Handley. Dix is played by Sterling Hayden, probably best known to modern viewers as General Jack D. Ripper, the man who looks scarily like Dubya and was petrified that Communists were after his precious bodily fluids in DR STRANGELOVE.

The actors are all fine as is the editing (George Boehmer and deceptively simple, austere black and white photography by Harold Rosson. What little we hear of the orchestral score by Miklós Rózsa is also fine, but for the most part the realistic tone of the movie is maintained by having no formal score - just "natural" sound effects.

The problem is that everything is fine but pedestrian. To modern eyes and ears what little action there is is spread too thin and the supposedly ground-breaking psychological insights look a little out-dated in the wake of movies such as THE GODFATHER and INFERNAL AFFAIRS. Even the twists and turns look quaint compared to THE USUAL SUSPECTS - a movie that was evidently heavily influenced by THE ASPHALT JUNGLE. And this brings me to the rub. If you're an hnest punter looking for a good
night out, you probably won't enjoy THE ASPHALT JUNGLE. It's just too slow and too - well - obvious in its plotting - for jaded, modern viewers. Fans of film history aside, the movie has aged too badly to hold the general audience's interest. Its ordinariness was once its novelty - now it is its failing.

THE ASPHALT JUNGLE was originally released in 1950. It is currently on re-release in the UK. The movie is also available on DVD but be careful you're not getting the colourised version - unless of course you're delusional and actually WANT the colourised version.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Greedy Capitalist Bastard Box Office Update - BORAT REIGNS!

She is my sister. She is number-four prostitute in whole of Kazakhstan.  I don't normally take time out to comment on box office earnings, but I had to make a little victory dance on hearing the news that BORAT had topped the US box office. This is amazing when you consider that it only opened in a reduced 837 screens after the studio got worried that no-one had heard of Borat and/or that Americans might take offence. Well, it appears that our American chums LOVE Borat. The movie earned a whole $7million more than its nearest rival, the execrably banal SANTA CLAUSE 3: THE ESCAPE CLAUSE. The trouncing is even more extreme when you consider that BORAT opened on 837 screens to SANTA CLAUSE 3's 3,458 screens. That's a per screen average of $31,607 for BORAT versus a measly $5,640 for Tim Allen. What I suspect is that cineplex owners packed in the BORAT screenings - running day and night - to satisfy demand. Not only is BORAT raking in the proverbial phat cash but it's also establishing itself as a modern classic (horrible term, I know). It ranks at 116 in the IMDB Top 250 movies of all time. Looks like Borat is saved from being execute for some to come!


Monday, November 06, 2006

UMRAO JAAN (2006) - a truly beautiful film, though not without its flaws

Some people clamour for the release of the next Bond movie; for Nik, the coming of BORAT was The Big Event. But for my family, it was the news of a remake of the classic 1981 Bollywood movie, UMRAO JAAN that filled us with nervous tension. Not excitement. The whole project was treated with scepticism in our family - as if someone were remaking CITIZEN KANE. Why would you do it? How could you be so audacious? The news trickling in was a mixed bag. The movie was to be directed by J.P.Dutta, who had previously directed the over-long, over-blown military fiasco, LOC KARGIL. Aishwarya Rai - the stunning former Miss India - was cast as Umrao. Well, her acting in English language films is shocking but she has done some stunning work in Indian art movies and she IS trained in classical dance, so maybe she will do....Modern heart-throb Abhishek Bachchan will play the Nawab Sultan - okay, maybe.....Shabana Azmi - Indian acting heavyweight will play the Madam and the eighteenth century costumes will be designed by Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla - who also did the sumptuous costumes for DEVDAS - okay it looks better on paper at least.

Then the music was released. For any Bollywood movie, the soundtrack is all important as the flicks are glorified musicals. But for a film set in an eighteenth century brothel in Lucknow - the artistic capital of India - whose stock in trade is classical song and dance, the sound-track was crucial. At first listen, it seemed inferior to the original. The music by Anu Malik and lyrics by Javed Akhtar were beautiful, yes, but seemed to lack the pathos of the original. And Alka Yagnik's voice was simply too sweet - too bland - compared to the original version by Asha Bhosle.

The remake opens with an aged courtesan - UMRAO JAAN (Aishwarya Rai) - relating her life story to a poet called Mirza Ruswa - the man who in real life penned the tragic tale. We flash back to see a young girl called Ameeran in the kind of idyllic child-hood that begins all fairy-tales. But all is not as happy as it seems. Ameeran is taken to the wedding of a girl barely older than herself and barely out of her milk-teeth. The family of this bride will perhaps not see her again and are crying. A deeply sad song (ghazal) is playing - Oh Lord, in the next life, let me not be born a girl. The inference is that a woman's life is one of pain and disappointment. The foreshadowing is clear. And so it proves, as Ameeran is kidnapped by two scoundrels with a grudge against her virtuous father and sold to a brothel-keeper in Lucknow.

In general, this opening sequence is directed and edited badly. There are too many uses of the extended slow cross-fade and too many jarring camera movements that take us out of the story. At one point Dutta uses a hideously clumsy split screen shot with the elderly Umrao narrating the kidnap on the left and the young Ameeran being kidnapped on the right of the screen. This is hideous stuff which detracts from the beautiful locations and decent acting.

We then move to the nuts and bolts of the story in Lucknow. Shabana Azmi - as befits a classical actress - gives a performance of some subtlety. She is genuinely upset that this young girl has been abducted but argues that if she doesn't buy her someone else far less merciful will. The strength of Azmi's performance is that we always believe the brothel-keeper has a heart - she is not two-dimensionsal - and that makes the suppression of her humanity and the dominance of calculating greed all the more chilling. Ameeran is renamed Umrao, and though she tries to escape she is dazzled with jewels and an oppulent lifestyle and persuaded to stay. This makes an interesting counter-point to the original movie. Rekha's Umrao is always under suffrance. By contrast, Aishwarya's Umrao loves the limelight - she wants to dazzle and she does. The costumes are absolutely stunning. I cannot begin to describe the opulence - the decadence...Umrao's vanity shows in her different style of dance. She IS more demonstrative than the restrained Rekha but to my surprise I did not find this off-putting.

As in the earlier movie, Aishwarya's Umrao falls in love with an aristo, this time played by Abhishek Bachchan, who is destined to leave her and break her heart. I like his performance a great deal. He is no pure-hearted hero but a stubborn, proud, violent man - passionately in love but without the wisdom to be anchored in measured desicions. It was rather refreshing to see the supposed hero painted as a scoundrel. Conversely, the villain of the piece - Faiz Ali - is actually a rather decent guy. Dressed as a pantomime villain in black he does pester Umrao and his lust does take over, but his self-discipline saves him. Indeed, he is a more tragic hero than Nawab Sultan and only betrays Umrao when pushed to the limit by Nawab's immature, caste-prejudiced taunts. Definitely a new and interesting take.

Rejected by her lover and betrayed by Faiz Ali, Umrao also finds herself routed from Lucknow as the evil English put down the mutiny. There seems to be a strain in current Hindi cinema to vilify the British which is more or less considered depending on the film. I have nothing against it in principal but it seems a little forced here. However, it provides the plot hook that forces Umrao back to her home town where her humiliation will be complete. Rejected by her family she sings one last mujra which I defy all but the coldest hearts to sit through unmoved. The song is essentially a mea culpa. The lyrics speak of all the inquisitors enquiring why she did not do differently and admitting to all the tarnishes on her character and her soul. It is a plea for understanding for a young girl abducted, dazzled by wealth and flattery who loved innocently but will always be considered a whore. Quite stunning.

Overall, then, the remake of UMRAO JAAN is not perfect but toward the end it approaches a perfect tragedy. Aishwarya Rai's performace is superb - and I never thought I would say this - is as searing as Rekha's. However, their characters are rather different. I thoroughly enoyed every minute although I suspect that for some people, the three hour run time will seem like a drag, especially in the first half.

One final point for English-speaking readers who have trawled through the movie so far! The subtitles to this movie SUCK. You should wait for the DVD and hope they have been redone or watch with someone who speaks Urdu. Some times lines simply aren't translated. Whenever they are translated they are full of grammatical and spelling errors that make them look like they were spat out of Babelfish. More than a few times, they are so wrong as to obscure the meaning of the sentence.

UMRAO JAAN is on release in India, the UK and US.

UMRAO JAAN (1981) - an iconic Indian art film

UMRAO JAAN is a tragic love story that is as perhaps as famous for Indians as Romeo and Juliet. As such, there is no such thing as a plot spoiler. Originally penned by Mirza Hadi Ruswa, the story is a tragic tale of star-crossed lovers whose love cannot succeed in a corrupt and decadent world. It opens with a young girl called Ameeran, living with her doting father, loving mother and little brother in the small town of Faizabad, in eighteenth century northern India. She is abducted by ruthless men who have a grudge against her virtuous father and sold to a brothel in Lucknow - a town famed for its poets, classical music, and the dance form known as the mujra which unites the two in dance and song. This entertainment by courtesans takes place within a Muslim society governed by strict codes of honour.

Ameeran is given the new name of Umrao and trained to seduce with her poetry and dance along with other girls, not least the madame's own daughter Bismillah. As a young woman, Umrao is enchanting and captures the heart of Nawab Sultan - a young aristocrat. As such, she is now Umrao Jaan (beloved). However, he is forced to renounce her and marry another. Umrao Jaan is heart-broken but scorns the advances of another client, Faiz Ali. She returns to her old village but is scorned by her family for bringing disrepute on the family. She returns to Lucknow - the tragedy is that for one whose name is "Beloved" she has been abandoned by her lover and her family, to sing beautiful songs of heartbreak.

Not only is the original story iconic, but it was adapted into a highly successful film - both artistically and commercially. This iconic 1981 film of UMRAO JAAN was adapted and directed by Muzaffar Ali - a man born in Lucknow and steeped in its traditions. The production was fortuitous insofar as it captured the work of a number of artists at the height of their power - music by Khayyam, heart-breaking lyrics by Shahryar, playback singing by Asha Bhosle before age thickened her voice. The locations and costumes were sumptuous but the jewel of the production was the actress - Rekha. To watch UMRAO JAAN in its original version is to see an undoubtedly stunning and seductive woman who can enchant with a mere glance. Watching the choreography today, you are amazed by how little she does physically. This is especially the case when you contrast the film with contemporary Bollywood cinema - as often as not full of scantily clad women krumping. When decades have passed, if Rekha is remembered it will be for UMRAO JAAN. But even the minor roles have superb actors filling them, not least a young Naseerudin Shah as her young errand-boy in the brothel. In this version of the story, the tragedy of UMRAO JAAN is rooted in the fact that while the Nawab cannot marry Umrao, he does in fact marry her child-hood friend - the brothel-keeper's daughter, who was unaware her best friend was in love with the prince. Summoned to dance at their son's coming of age ceremony, she forgives her best friend, and sings her heart out.

To many, including myself, the original UMRAO JAAN is a classic. We always had the music in the house, on crappy cassettes, then on CD and one of the first replacement DVDs we bought was UMRAO JAAN - alongside the outstanding TV serial of the life of MIRZA GHALIB, starring Naseerudin Shah - a serial set in the same environs, also full of ghazals, poetry and mujra. It is one of those very few films where you wouldn't change a thing. One of a handful of true Pantheon movies......It is widely available on DVD and I would strongly recommend anyone looking for a way into Indian cinema - between the two extremes of Bollywood popcorn and austere art-film - to try and watch it. It is a beautiful film.

UMRAO JAAN was originally released in 1981.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

MISCHIEF NIGHT - very funny, highly recommended, deeply depressing

Gori slapper!Watching the new British comedy, MISCHIEF NIGHT, you can't help but have a lot of fun. It's just brimming over with uproarious anarchic life. Edited at a mad-cap frenetic pace, filmed in saturated colour, full of larger than life characters, and skirting with major social issues at a pace that would make David Cameron's head spin, MISCHIEF NIGHT packs in a hell of a lot into its 90 minute runtime. The story is ridiculously complicated and the movie feels like an old-fashioned caper movie. But at its heart there's a story about two families - one Pakistani immigrants - one English natives - living on an estate in modern-day Leeds. For non-British readers, this is a part of the world where racial tensions between the Pakistani (Muslim) immigrants and the English community are high. And in this film, they are played out against a background of drug use and poverty. One might think this was hardly the province of comedy but it is tribute to writer-director Penny Woolcot's script that the movie is very, very funny. We get gags about poverty, single mums, domestic violence, heroin addiction, Islamic fundamentalism, arranged marriages, paedophilia, homosexuality and more besides. This is truly one of the bravest treatments of modern British society seen on the big screen - far more gritty than movies like EAST IS EAST or BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM - and it comes as no surprise to find that the movie was produced by the guys who brought us the outstanding but similarly harsh British TV sitcom, SHAMELESS.

Like I said, I loved every minute of this movie, and I would thoroughly recommend MISCHIEF NIGHT to anyone looking for a good popcorn movie. But the more I thought about it afterwards the more depressed I became. Because despite the genre-satisfying happy ending, the underlying picture of modern British society is deeply depressing. This movie focuses on a slice of society in which drug use is endemic, children bring themselves up, going to school when they can be bothered and seeing mere burglary as the moral alternative to drug-dealing. It's a society in which the mosques that were built with the meagre savings of waiters and taxi drivers are being taken over by militants - and can only be taken back with the help of armed-up drug dealers. (Militants are bad for business!) I know that this movie is a caricature of society but if it contains grains of truth its a sad look out for us all. Interestingly, my mum and dad (who saw MISCHIEF NIGHT separately from me) also found the movie quite sad because they could relate to the adults in the film who were commenting on how race relations in the UK had changed over the generations. For them, the movie was acutely perceptive, not least in its assertion that England was more overtly racist and yet bizarrely more integrated and nicer to live in when they arrived back in the 60s and 70s and that it was sad that it had become more politically correct and yet more segregated today.

Anyways, you can take or leave the sociology. The key point is that this is a well-acted, brilliantly scripted film that will make you laugh. Highly highly recommended.

MISCHIEF NIGHT played the London Film Festival 2006 and is now on release in the UK.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

THE PAGE TURNER/LA TOURNEUSE DE PAGES - best served cold

THE PAGE TURNER is not a film of bloated ambitions - there are no pretensions to change our political views, the future of cinema or the world. Maybe because of this it feels like a cool refreshing glass of water after the rich food of the London Film Festival. For here we have a movie that is just 85 minutes long, contains no pyrotechnics or melodrama, and yet holds your attention and imagination throughout. The premise is simple but executed with an austerity and perfection that is arresting.

In the prelude, a severe imperious young girl called Mélanie Prouvost is practising for a piano exam. These scenes are intercut with the hanging carcasses of pigs and cows - a vogue in current cinema it seems. It transpires her parents are butchers. The tight-lipped intensity of Mélanie is brilliantly portrayed by the young actress and accomplished pianist, Julie Richalet. Mélanie begins her exam well, but catches the guest examiner - a famous concert pianist - discourteously signing an autograph for an acolyte. This breaks the young girl's attention and she fails the exam. In a telling scene, she deos not burst into tears or recrimination - she simply leaves the room with a tear on her cheek and slams a piano lid down almost trapping the fingers of another entrant.

Years later and Mélanie is a grown woman, now played by Déborah François (last seen in L'ENFANT). She no longer plays the piano but remains austere - speaking little, revealing less - an apparently impassive beautiful woman who wears perfectly correct yet unbecoming clothes. She is hired by a rich Parisien lawyer to be an au pair for his son Tristan and stay with them and his wife Ariane at their palatial country estate. Mélanie is confronted by her nemesis - the wife is also the discourteous concert pianist - brought low by a car crash and suffering from stage fright.

The plot now unravels in the manner often seen in cinema. The young girl makes herself trusted and irreplacable - maneouvring herself into a position of power without seeming to do anything. We have seen variations on this theme from ALL ABOUT EVE onwards. What makes THE PAGE TURNER special is the economy with which the plot unfolds - the perfect harmony between actors, set design and score - and the sinister ambiguity of the piece. It is never entirely clear at what point Mélanie begins to manipulate - at what point she becomes an active agent of Ariane's downfall. Watching the movie, I thought it began rather late - after the first concert, when she sees another autograph hunter - but looking back I realise it may have started much earlier....I also love the moral ambiguity of the piece. As we watch the family interact we realise that they are perfectly harmless. Pascal Gregory - perhaps best known to English speaking viewers as Anjou in LA REINE MARGOT - plays Jean Fouchécourt as a wonderfully supportive, if slightly clueless corporate husband. And Catherine Frot gives a marvelously nuanced performance. Her Ariane is certainly self-involved but ultimately well-meaning and incredibly vulnerable. These are not monsters who deserve to see their world crumble and yet there is a certain thrill in seeing THE PAGE TURNER'S plan being perfectly executed....

THE PAGE TURNER/LAS TOURNEUSE DE PAGES played Cannes 2006. It opened in France and Belgium this summer and is currently on release in the UK. It opens in Israel and the Netherlands later this month and in Finland on December 1st.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Overlooked DVD of the month - WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1992)

If I've done wrong I'm dying for it.  With the London Film Festival at an end, Doctor007 and I indulged in a bit of quality time with a classic romantic movie and dinner date. Watching the new Anthony Minghella flick, BREAKING AND ENTERING I was reminded of how much I admired the actress Juliette Binoche. So, I opted for an obscure remake of WUTHERING HEIGHTS from her back-catalogue. I was in the mood for a girly costume drama - a little bit of self-indulgence - but for the sake of Doctor007 opted for something with a little bit more fire and a bit less simpering. On paper, Emily Bronte's novel fulfils this criteria. It is framed with a chilling ghost story - with images of broken glass and blood - in a grim manor house on the moors. Instead of elegant courtship, we have a headstrong passionate girl called Cathy who is in love with a stubborn, violent young gypsy boy called Heathcliff. Heathcliff is abused by Cathy's elder brother to the point where she is tempted to marry a more genteel neighbour with better social standing - an act which becomes inevitable when Heathcliff leaves in a fit of pique to make his fortune. He returns to find Cathy married and pregnant and takes a slow revenge on successive generations of her family.

This movie version of the book is admirably condensed to under two hours by a screenwriter called Anne Devlin who seems to have done little else - a shame as she manages to capture the essence of the novel and leave little out. The only notable change is to make a notional character called Emily Bronte narrate rather than Ellen. This clarifies a notoriously complex structure and thankfully, Devlin does not cut down on Ellen's screen-time. The movie is less successfully directed by Peter Kosminsky who does a straightforward job capturing the suitably wild and rugged Yorkshire locations - nothing fancy but nothing terrible either.

The casting is interesting. In the secondary roles we see a young Jeremy Northam as Hindley Earnshaw and an outstanding performance by Janet McTeer as Ellen Dean. In the major roles, Ralph Fiennes is a very fine Heathcliff - combining ruthless sadism and vulnerability. The problem lies with Binoche as Cathy. Her looks are perfect and she and Fiennes have real chemisty. Her acting - when we consider her physicality and her face - is pitch perfect. The transition from playing Cathy to playing her daughter is beautifully done. Binoche even does a rather good job of supressing her French accent. But she does not finally succeed - and therein lies the rub. I recommend this movie as a sort of experiment - how far will fans of the novel forgive the hint of the French accent given the brilliance of Binoche's physical performance...?

My only other quibble is that this movie plays very much as a tragic passionate love story. But the chilling ghost story element is rather lost in translation to the screen. We are simply not haunted enough by it. Still, this is an interesting cinema adaptation and for all its flaws, tremendously enjoyable and tremendously romantic.

WUTHERING HEIGHTS was released in UK cinemas in 1992 but did not get a US release. It is now available on Region 1 and 2 DVD.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

BABEL: Let's challenge prejudice together

This review is brought to you by guest reviewer, Nik, who can usually be found here.

This is the last in the trilogy of films by Alejandro González Iñárritu starting with the Bafta winning
AMORES PERROS, followed by 21 GRAMS, and completed by BABEL - a film of interwoven characters and relationships spanning the globe, from the Mexican desert, to the sunshine of San Diego, the wastelands of Morocco, and the buzzing nightlife of Tokyo. The locations are exotic, the scenery and visuals are quietly stunning, and despite the sarcasm of the title of this review, this film doesn't think too much of itself, or withdraw up its own arse.

In fact, the beauty of the film is that it so carefully treads the thin line between being in your face, paint by numbers morality - and being so understated that it becomes arthouse wank. It makes a simple point simply - and beautifully - that it's not so easy to be prejudiced when you have to look a human being - crying, broken - in the face and in the eye. That it's not so easy to condemn when you see acts of self-less human kindness from those who are unlike you - of whom you are initially suspicious and judgemental. This film doesn't pretend to say anything greater - or anything more fundamental or groundbreaking. And it does what it does so well. The acting is powerful, the script is excellent and spans 4 different languages and 4 different cultures with ease. It's well edited - and put together in a seemingly natural non-chronological order - not to make the plot twist at the end, or to be clever, but because it needed to be that way.

That's not to say the film didn't have its downsides - it wasn't quite a work of genius. This may seem trivial, but the musical score - an incessant Spanish guitar - started to grate after a while. It was too heavy handed. And the film probably stretched the point out for too long - although I can understand why all the scenes are in there, and why they're so long - the plot in each story just wasn't substantial enough to justify the running length, and nor were the almost incidental crossovers of the stories. And Brad Pitt looked like he thought he was doing some great community and social good by starring in a film that was mostly in foreign, and wouldn't be screened outside of Canada. Although his performance was good, if slightly 2-dimensional.

Furthermore, I didn't actually identify with any of the prejudices. I like Mexicans, and think they probably do most of the work in California. I don't think all Arabs are terrorists. And I so would have fucked the deaf-mute girl. In fact, thinking on it, what a sweet deal. How's she gonna complain if it's bad? Write me an email? Send me a fucking text message? Imagine it, boning a chick from behind, and suddenly a little scrawled out paper note appears on her back: "harder. and down a little" - class. And anyway, what'll she have to complain about? It's not like she's gonna hear me shouting out someone elses name*.

Having said all that - it was a very good film, and very worthy - it passed the time and it ought to have been made. And while I almost certainly won't be buying it on DVD and have no particular urge to see it again, because it wasn't substantial enough for a second watch, I do happily recommend it to anyone who likes a thinking and sensitive film. My fear is, of course, that this, as with most good art, is only going to be seen by people who already agree with its central points. Sadly the most prejudiced are often the most ignorant - and have little or no access or inclination towards good art, which this film represents. In other words, the people that this film was meant to challenge will be too busy seeing the latest shock flick, or masturbating at home to old episodes of Baywatch.

But all that said, it was a fitting end to the trilogy, and indeed a worthy close of the London Film Festival. And I thoroughly enjoyed it, even though the free popcorn they gave us was so ludicrously undersized. Thanks to Bina007 for the ticket, and thanks in advance to the
Royal Association for Deaf People for settling out of court.

*Could all complaints from disability associations or disable people please be directed to nikolai.segura@gmail.com and not to Bina007, who does not endorse any of my jokes, however funny.


BABEL played Cannes, Toronto and London 2006. It opened in Denmark, Italy, Mexico, Sweden and the US last week. It opens in Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Poland, Turkey, wide in the US on November 10th. It opens in Belgium, France, Finland and Argentina later in November. BABEL opens in Spain, Germany and Australia in December and in the UK, Estonia, Latvia and Brazil in January 2007. It opens in Japan in March.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

OUR DAILY BREAD/UNSER TAEGLICH BROT - eloquent silence

George, the British Empire at present covers a quarter of the globe, while the German Empire consists of a small sausage factory in Tanganiki.OUR DAILY BREAD is a brilliant documentary by the Austrian film-maker Nikolaus Geyrhalter. For ninety minutes he takes us behind the scenes of industrial food production - everything from vegetable growing to arable farming to artificially inseminating cows and gutting pigs. There is no narrative and no deliberate dialogue - the only sound is incidental. The story is told by the beautifully and deliberately framed wide-angle shots of mechanised farming. I know this sounds a bit pretentious but the footage is mesmerising. The slow tracking of the camera as it follows a production line that literally has cattle or baby chicks or pig intestines in it is absolutely transfixing!

The overall effect of the film is to persuade us of the harsh reality - and sometimes the absurdity - of food production. Incidentally, by treating his human subjects in the same way as the cattle or machinery, the film-maker makes a point about the automated process by which we consume food - scooping up mass produced lunches in stainless steel canteens. From start to finish, the film seems to be saying, we have become alienated from our daily bread.

I have to say that this movie is a lot more engaging that a review can intimate - the conceit sounds so sterile and bizarre. But this documetary really is worth giving a go. Its silence is eloquent, and makes a superb if less main-stream companion piece to FAST FOOD NATION.

OUR DAILY BREAD showed at Amsterdam 2005 and went on release in Austria in April 2006. It played London 2006 and is on release in New York. It opens in the Netherlands and Germany in January 2007.

LOVECRACKED: THE MOVIE - so bad it's not even a movie

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

Let me tell you a story. I was once on a night-bus from Glasgow to London. I made the mistake of getting on first, a mistake because then you can't choose who you're sitting beside. An old guy, John, sat beside me on that bus, and proceeded to start touching my leg as he talked to me. I told him to stop, but then a few minutes later he would start again. The bus was full, I couldn't change seats. I told him to stop again. He then pretended to go to sleep, but every time there was a bump in the M6 his hand would jolt slightly closer to my thigh. I didn't sleep a wink. It became known as Big Gay John's Big Gay Busride by my friends.

But had I never met Big Gay John then LOVECRACKED: THE MOVIE would have been the gayest thing that ever happened to me. It is now second only to my Big Gay Busride. This movie is worse, yes worse, than Redneck Hillybilly Alien Abduction. The plot is non-existent. The script is abysmal. There are no characters. The acting is like week old smegma scraped off the wrinkly unwashed penis of a second world war veteran by a saggy prostitute's teeth. It got so bad at some points that I had to turn the sound down so that I could bear watching it. It's not a bad movie - not because it isn't bad - but because it isn't a movie. Rather it's a dried up crusty piece of dog-shit drying in the sun on a pavement that if you bit into you'd find a still liquid centre with some little pieces of sweetcorn that would pop as you chewed them.

That should teach you, never review random DVDs sent to you by companies called "Biff Juggernaut Productions" claiming to be horror comedy. Or any other genre. This was truly execrable. Not even home video quality. Worse than my video reviews for viewabilty and production value. Not even in the category of so bad it's good (like BAD TASTE, or BRAINDEAD). It was so fucking bad that I actually argued with Bina007 on the phone that we shouldn't review it, because even mentioning its name in public would give the film notoriety it didn't deserve - and anyway, wasn't even describing such an undisputed crusting white bead of cocksnot drying on the anal hair of humanity on a public forum a crime in this country? If not, it should be. Bina007 honey, next time, you're reviewing the strange DVDs you get sent. Peace out.