Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Sergei Bondarchuk's WAR AND PEACE (1968)

Sergei Bondarchuk's seven hour retelling of Tolstoy's WAR AND PEACE is how cinema should be: an all-engulfing total experience. Filmed with a budget that would be unthinkable today over five years in authentic locations, the movie simply feels real. Young Natasha Rostov ages before our eyes. When an abductor tries to tempt her away he is chased off through six foot high snow in the Russian winter. A royal ball sees real couples dancing the polonaise properly in a real palace. But where the film really benefits is in the battle scenes where Red Army units don histroric uniforms and essentially re-enact sequences. And by re-enact, I mean literally fire canon, mount cavalry charges and get thrown from horses. The smoke is intense, the feeling of organised mayhem overwhelming and when horses throw men they genuinely look spooked by the sound of the canon. The injury count must have been very high, and the movie certainly would not pass the animal cruelty lobby's critical eye.

And, of course, the film benefits from having time to breathe. This is not to say that the novel is not abridged. Prince Bolkonsky and Count Bezukhov's adventures with Napoleon get heavily reduced, which is rather sad. But the adaptation does succeed in picking out the major storylines and giving them enough room to develop. So, for instance, the scene where Natasha and Nikolai go hunting with their Uncle is shown in full - recreating an old-fashioned hunting scene which would not exist today. It is a glorious luxury. Or imagine the fact that the Battle of Borodino gets a full ninety minutes in Part Three! Fans of military history will be in heaven.

In broad terms, the movie focuses on battles and love stories rather than side-plots and political intrigue. (Plot spoilers follow so those familiar with the text can see what has been excised.) Part One sees the dashing Prince Bolkonsky - already bored with his pretty wife - leave Russia for the Battle of Austerlitz - where Napoleon routs the Austro-Russian alliance. His friend Pierre Bezukhov is transformed from a drunken illegitimate son to a Count and foolishly marries a beautiful but unfaithful woman. His friendship with the Rostov family, and their little daughter Natasha increases. In Part Two, a widowed Prince Bolkonsky falls in love with an older Natasha and embarks upon a long engagement before returning to the front. She is seduced by Bezukhov's brother-in-law in an act of revenge and is shamed in Bolkonsky's eyes. Pierre is sympathetic. Thus ends four hours of cinema! In part three, we see Pierre at the bloody Battle of Borodino and in part four, the storylines are rationalised.

(Spoilers over) Cinematically, apart from the epic scope of the film, it benefits from an outstanding cast, and ridiculously high quality production values. The battle scenes are shot with a real understanding of military history. However, the film rather presupposes that the audience know the story. Everything is very subtle - glances and whispers - rather than Hollywood spoon-feeding. If you are unfamiliar with the text you should probably watch the Hollywood version first! Jorim was rather lost - the motives for the malicious seduction of Natasha were, for example, lost on him. The other confusion arises from the rare but annoying bit of Soviet propoganda. This occurs after the Battle of Borodino where a marginal French victory is turned into a victory for the Soviet fatherland! Five minutes failure in seven hours, though, is perhaps excusable.

The filming style is beautiful - and you should really try and see this on the big screen if it comes your way. However, the cinematographer' strength is also his weakness. The camera is ever fluid, wandering through balls and soirees like an author noticing little occurences here and there. It brings a feeling of immediacy and intimacy. However, sometimes, the camera movements are simply too rough, too quick and disorienting - as though the cameraman lacked the right equipment.

Overall, though, this is truly epic, total cinema. No other film will ever quite match up to it. It becomes the benchmark - more than Citizen Kane, Dr Strangelove or any other pantheon film. An outstanding achievement.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

THEM/ILS - better than THE HITCHER, still not brilliant

French couple living in isolated cottage awoken by spooky things that go bump in the night. Film-makers sustain charmingly old-school sinister atmosphere through deft camera-work and sound design. This almost, but not quite, makes up for the lack of plot, character development, genuine suprise ending and standard-issue run-time.

THEM (ILS) was released in France, Belgium, Turkey, Spain, Sweden and Greece in 2006. It is currently on release in Romania and the UK and opens in Finland on February 9th.

Monday, January 29, 2007

THE HITCHER - Not another shite horror remake!

Sometimes it's interesting to see just how bad bad writing can be. This promised to go the limit.Moderately attractive, painfully hip couple incite the rage of a homicidal maniac (Auto-Bean) by hitting and running. The ensuing homicidal rage is neither original nor frightening.

THE HITCHER is on release in the US. It opens in Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Spain on March 1st; in Turkey on March 16th; Australia on March 29th; Belgium, France and the UK on April 4th; Norway on June 8th.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS - best doc of 2006

IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS is an outstanding documentary - probably the best I've seen in the past year. Produced, photographed, researched and directed by James Longley, it deserves to be seen and to be awarded the Oscar for Best Documentary in a couple of weeks time.

IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS is made up of three segments. The first segment focuses on a small boy living in Baghdad who is being viciously bullied by his guardian. The segment makes for extremely uncomfortable as we are forced to see a small boy reduced to tears by a jeering, snide adult. It's the most devestating cinema I have experienced in some time. It is worth pointing out that this segment is not overtly political. However, it is clear that the old Sunni men regret the fall of Saddam and believe that the USA was only interested in Iraq's oil wealth.

The second segment gives us a scary insight into the Shia militant uprising. But - scrupulously fair - Longley also shows some Shia Iraqis complaining about the arbitrary militia "justice" that is dispensed by Sadr's men. To them, the liberation has merely replaced one Sunni tyrant with another Shia tyrant. Finally, the third segment shows the Kurds. Even this community - which has had the most to gain from the US invasion and is - broadly speaking - pleased that it took place - has an ambivalent attitude towards the US troops still stationed in Iraq.

Unlike most documentaries, the film does not have a simple earnest liberal message. In fact, Longley resists any authorial comment, leaving the viewer to draw his own conclusions about the complicated social, political and religious issues facing ordinary Iraqi citizens. Again, unlike ordinary documentary films, this film is beautifully photographed and rewards a viewing on the big screen if you can possibly get to one.

IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS played Sundance 2006 and went on limited release in the US last November. It is currently on limited release in the UK.

Friday, January 26, 2007

DREAMGIRLS is uneven and problematic

DREAMGIRLS is not so much good or bad as uneven and problematic.

It's a thinly veiled musical biopic of The Supremes focusing on the story of how musical impresario Berry Gordy made Diana Ross the lead singer over Flo Ballard. He decided that the real money was to be made by featuring a softer, higher-pitched voice singing bland pop hits to the dominant white demographic. This required sacrificing Flo's soulful, powerful voice as well as the original R&B sound. It also required studiously avoiding "race records". As riots raged in Detroit and artists like Marvin Gaye were asking "What's going on?", the Supremes carried on singing about love. Flo tragically died at the age of 32 having been pushed out of the lead role, out of the band and into alcoholism. Diana Ross became one of the most successful recording artists of all time. Together they left a collection of outstanding pop songs.

This story was transformed into an award-winning musical called DREAMGIRLS in the early eighties - a musical few in my generation will have heard of, let alone seen. So unlike a movie like CHICAGO, I came to this film fresh. Judging it simply as a musical I have to say that it fails horribly. (And I am a big fan both of musicals and of the Motown sound.) Barring an up-beat soulful number called Move On at the start of the film and a heart-breaking power-balled called And I Tell You I'm Not Going around a third of the way through, the songs are largely bland and forgettable. The Supremes may have sung pop but it was great pop - catchy hooks, light, up-beat, singable. Their movie-doubles, The Dreamettes, sing anodyne pop songs that drift over the ear without making an impression. And worse than that, the movie drifts on and ever on with one inocuous power-ballad after another. I felt like I was trapped in a ghastly cruise ship. At one point, around two thirds of the way through, the crypto-James Brown character, James Thunder Early, sings a race song which is clearly meant to mimic Sam Cooke's A Change Is Gonna Come. It's so bland and uninspiring compared to the real thing that I was wondering why they just hadn't stuck to the originals in all humility.

So how does DREAMGIRLS fare as a film? There are a lot of positives. It's handsomely filmed and the sixties and seventies costumes and settings are brilliantly recreated. The camerawork is fluid and you get the feeling that writer-director Tim Condon really understands how to film a musical. I'd love to see him get his hands on a better subject. Eddie Murphy really does deliver a moving and subtle performance as one-time headliner who slips into drug abuse as he tries to suppress his soulfulness, and his vocal performances are impressive.

And what of Jennifer Hudson, the American Idol contestant who is now nominated for an Oscar? Here we have a woman with a voice of supreme power, control and emotional range. She is as good as everyone says and then some. Can she act? Should she be up for an acting award? I'd argue yes, although some of the message boards would say no. And the reason is that when you watch her singing "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going", this is acting. This is not simply rehearsing the lyrics of another song. This was the only moment of the film where I hand that spine-tingly feeling that you should get with the big number in a musical.

But there are a lot of disappointments.
Jamie Foxx, who was such a revelation in RAY and COLLATERAL, is on auto-pilot here and his voice is too weak for a musical. Beyonce Knowles is the inverse of Jamie Foxx - a great singer and stage presence and face but flailing rather with the actual acting.

So much for the Uneven. Now for the Problematic. The problematic part of DREAMGIRLS is that is sails so close to the truth of what happened - with characters, album covers and narrative arcs that exactly mimic the story of Motown. This means that as an audience member I (perhaps unfairly) want the movie to respect the memory of the people it portrays - most notably Flo Ballard. And frankly, the way in which this movie unfolds in the final third strikes me as sweetening up a tragic story that deserves to be told properly. Now, I normally hate people who want movies to substitute for history teachers. But I do feel that when you co-opt so much on one woman's personal history, you need to see it through.

Another irony is that this is a movie that accuses the Berry Gordy and Diana Ross characters of selling out on their race in order to achieve commercial success - of suppressing their true musical roots to produce a saccharine product more palatable to white America. But with a few exceptions, this is exactly what the movie does - delivering music Celine Dion would be very comfortable with. Some of this is and should be deliberate - the Dreamettes' hit "Cadillac" has to be lame because it's deliberately "dumbing down". But I was astounded that the songs that serve as dialogue or monologue off-stage were so, well, bland.

DREAMGIRLS is on release in the USA, Australia, Italy, Mexico and Spain. It opnes in Argentina, Chile, Germany, Israel and Italy on Feb 1st; in Iceland and the UK on Feb 8th; in Hungary, Thailand, Austria and Denmark on Feb 8th; in Brazil, Estonia, Sweden and Japan on Feb 16th; in Netherlands, Singapore, Finland, Turkey and Venezuala on Feb 23rd; in Belgium and France on Feb 28th. It opens in Hong Kong and Norway on March 2nd and in Russia on March 8th.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

THE LIVES OF THE SAINTS - three chavs and a baby

Six times seven is forty-nine!Maybe, just maybe, with an experienced and talented cast and crew, something as bonkers as THE LIVES OF THE SAINTS might have come off. But this low-budget British flick is badly acted, badly photographed, badly edited, badly scripted and lacking in coherent vision. The camerawork is replete with little tricks that destract from the tale and the editing (sound and visuals) is so rough it calls attention to itself.

Half the time, it's a low-rent Guy Ritchie-style East-End gangster flick. The other half of the time it's a sort of magic realist spiritual movie about a spooky little kid who can see into the future and makes everyone's dreams come true, sort of. Neither half comes off convincingly although the gangster theme plays better than the spiritual. That's thanks to an outrageous piece of acting from an unrecognisable James Cosmo as local boss Mr Karva. He makes bold choices and 90% of the time you're laughing with him rather than at him. The supernatural side of the film just had me praying for the end-credits. Gillian Kearney in particular has to sell a very difficult plot strand which sees a religious woman believe that a drunken adult is the reincarnation of her son. Her accent is uneven but not as cracked as the dialogue she is asked to deliver.

What a mess! And a great disappointment given that it was penned by man who gave us the screenplays for BROTHERS OF THE HEAD and TIDELAND. Still, there's a lot to be said for Chris Cottam and Rankin having the balls to bring something this ambitious, if flawed, to the screen as a first feature.

THE LIVES OF THE SAINTS played London 2006 and opens in the UK on Friday.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


STOMP THE YARD is a movie so mediocre that I can't even be arsed to review it properly. It's another one of those "Urban Off-the-rails Kid gets a New Chance at a Better Life through Premium Dance Moves" films. Think STEP UP, RIZE, TAKE THE LEAD, MAD HOT BALLROOM but without the engaging characters, (faux-)documentary authenticity, cinematographic stylings or basic underlying wit. Yes, the dancing is okay, but the dialogue and narrative arc are so simplistic and predictable as to be laughable. You just know that when the guy from the wrong side of the tracks comes to the posh college, Fresh-Prince-stylee, he's gonna fall for the daughter of the Provost and girlfriend of the Alpha Male. Similarly, you know the father is going to react by telling him to dump the girl or get kicked out. And you KNOW there's gonna be a final dance off. To make it even more ridiculous, a large part of the film centres on rivalry between college fraternities that seems utterly alien (and frankly sinister) to my British ears.

Still, what do I know? I'm clearly not the target demographic, and the movie is raking it in at the US box office.

STOMP THE YARD is on release in the USA. It opens in the UK on March 16th, in Australia on April 12th, in France on May 16th, in Brazil on May 18th, in Spain on May 25th, in the Netherlands on June 7th, in Germany on June 21st, in Argentina on June 28th and in Italy on July 20th.

Awards Season 2006 - OSCAR Noms

Oh, for crying out loud! Does the Academy actually watch any movies other than PR-hyped DVD screeners? Are they even aware of how good current cinema is? Will they ever stop giving knee-jerk nominations to anyone who’s spent half a year at the Royal Shakespeare Company and/or Clint Eastwood? More than usual I am saddened by the Oscar noms. It’s not that they’ve picked mediocre films: they’ve actually gone after actively bad films. On one hand, they’re easing their consciences with pretentious and portentious movies like Babel and on the other hand they’re going for stereotypical formulaic Hollywood junk like The Pursuit of Happyness, The Devil Wears Prada and Dreamgirls. Sure, some good movies are tucked away in there, but barring Ryan Gosling’s nomination, the real class is fobbed off with technical awards or ignored entirely. If the Academy had had any balls, movies like Apocalypto and Pan’s Labyrinth would have been in at the top rather than flailing around the bottom of this post. Normally I’d have a punt on who’s likely to win but frankly, I just don’t want to get inside the mind of The Academy for even a second. In the limited cases where a stand-out movie has been given a nod, I’ve put the flick in bold type. If you want to see my favourite films of 2006, you can check the drop down bar on the bottom right hand side of this screen.

Best Flick:
Babel; The Departed; Letters from Iwo Jima; Little Miss Sunshine; Alexandre Desplat for The Queen.

Best Actor: Leo di Caprio for
Blood Diamond; Ryan Gosling for Half Nelson; Peter O'Toole for Venus; Will Smith for The Pursuit of Happyness; Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland.

Best Actress: Penélope Cruz for
Volver; Dame Judi Dench for Notes on a Scandal; Dame Helen Mirren for Alexandre Desplat for The Queen; Meryl Streep for The Devil Wears Prada; Kate Winslet for Little Children.

Best Supporting Actor: Alan Arkin for
Little Miss Sunshine; Jackie Earle Haley for Little Children; Djimon Hounsou for Blood Diamond; Eddie Murphy for Dreamgirls; Mark Wahlberg for The Departed.

Best Supporting Actress: Adriana Barraza for
Babel; Cate Blanchett for Notes on a Scandal; Abigail Breslin for Little Miss Sunshine; Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls; Rinko Kikuchi for Babel.

Best Director: Clint Eastwood for Letters from Iwo Jima; Stephen Frears for
The Queen; Paul Greengrass for United 93; Alejandro González Iñárritu for Babel; Martin Scorsese for The Departed.

Best Original Screenplay: Guillermo Arriaga for
Babel; Iris Yamashita & Paul Haggis for Letters from Iwo Jima; Michael Arndt for Little Miss Sunshine; Guillermo del Toro for Pan’s Labyrinth; and Peter Morgan for Alexandre Desplat for The Queen.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham, Dan Mazer, Todd Phillips for
Borat; Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby for Children of men; William Monahan for The Departed; Todd Field, Tom Perrotta for Little Children; Patrick Marber for Notes on a Scandal.

Best Cinematographer; Vilmos Zsigmond for
The Black Dahlia; Emmanuel Lubezki for Children of men; Dick Pope for The Illusionist; Guillermo Navarro for Pan’s Labyrinth; Wally Pfister for The Prestige.

Best Editor: Douglas Crise, Stephen Mirrion for
Babel; Steven Rosenblum for Blood Diamond; Alfonso Cuarón, Alex Rodríguez for Children of Men; Thelma Schoonmaker for The Departed; Clare Douglas, Richard Pearson, Christopher Rouse for United 93.

Best Art Direction: Dreamgirls; The Good Shepherd; Eugenio Caballero, Pilar Revuelta for
Pan’s Labyrinth; Pirates 2; The Prestige.

Best costume design: The Curse of the Golden Flower;
The Devil Wears Prada; Dreamgirls; Marie-Antoinette; The Queen.

Best Original Score: Gustavo Santaolalla for
Babel; Thomas Newman for The Good German; Philip Glass for Notes on a Scandal; Javier Navarrete for Pan’s Labyrinth; Alexandre Desplat for The Queen.

Best Original Song: Melissa Etheridge for
An Inconvenient Truth; a bunch of unforgettable ballads from Dreamgirls; Randy Newman for Cars.

Best Make-up:
Apocalypto; Click; Pan’s Labyrinth.

Best Sounds:
Apocalypto; Blood Diamond; Dreamgirls; Flags of our Fathers; Pirates 2.

Best Sound Editing:
Apocalypto; Blood Diamond; Flags of our Fathers; Letters from Iwo Jima; Pirates 2.

Best Visual Effects:
Pirates 2; Poseidon; Superman Returns.

Best Animated Film:
Cars; Happy Feet; Monster House.

Best Foreign Flick: Efter brylluppet; Indigènes;
Pan’s Labyrinth; Das Leben der Anderen; Water.

Best Doc.: Deliver Us from Evil;
An Inconvenient Truth; Iraq in Fragments; Jesus Camp; My Country My Country.

Monday, January 22, 2007

THE FOUNTAIN - intriguing/frustrating

In short, Darren Aronofsky disappearing down a dead end is still more interesting than most Hollywood hacks getting it right.

Aronofsky is a challenging director – both in terms of content and visual style. And if I found his debut feature, PI, more intriguing than perfect, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is certainly one of my pantheon movies. Its bleak depiction of drug abuse and crass commerce was told in an innovative style and with uncompromising honesty. Not to mention the fact that Aronofsky managed to coax career-redefining performances from Ellen Burstyn and Jennifer Connelly. Where these movies succeeded was in scraping underneath the surface of a relatively closed under-ground world. Investigating the workings of mania and paranoia and addiction on a small group of individuals living in contemporary society – albeit a strand of society that most of us never interact with.

With THE FOUNTAIN, Aronofsky moves well beyond his (dis)comfort zone into the territory of 2001. He eschews contemporary settings to produce a more abstract, symbolic and richly stylised movie. At its heart is a man called Tom (Hugh Jackman) who is desperately in love with his fatally ill wife, an authoress called Izzy (Rachel Weisz). The crux of the story is Tom’s initial refusal to accept Izzy’s impending death. In the contemporary story-line, Tom chooses to spend time researching a cure rather than spending what time remains with Izzy. This choice will rack him with guilt in the futuristic story-line, which sees Tom living alone with his regrets in a sci-fi world of loneliness (another Requiem for a Dream of Eternal Love?) The film is also inter-cut with a further storyline which sees Izzy’s novel re-enacted. Tom is now cast as a Spanish conquistador on a mission from Izzy’s Queen of Spain to find a plant that can give eternal life.

The thematic content of the movie is thus profound, but also surprisingly simple, especially given the complexity of Aronofsky’s narrative structure and visual and audio stylings. The movie boasts an evocative sound-track from the Kronos Quartet and Mogwai and the production design features fairy-tale symbols and beautifully rendered old-fashioned visual effects. The problem is that at least half of it feels redundant. I am also unconvinced by the heavy-handed symbolism of the presumably deliberately under-lit opening scenes of the Conquistador? Of many examples, Christopher Nolan proved in BATMAN BEGINS that it is possible to create a dark, brooding atmosphere while actually allowing the audience to see what is going on.

The overall effect is that while powerful, the simple central question posed by the film drowns under the weight of the deliberately obscure production design, cinematography and editing. The over-complicated structure and design and abstract script also prohibit Jackman and Weisz from giving memorable performances - though they do their best with portentious dialogue. All this combines to make THE FOUNTAIN simultaneously one of the most intriguing and frustrating films I have seen in a long time.

THE FOUNTAIN played Venice and Toronto 2006. It opened in the US, Argentina, Brazil, Taiwan and France in winter 2006. It opened in Poland, South Africa, Germany and Estonia earlier this month and opens in Australia, Italy and the UK this weekend. THE FOUNTAIN opens in South Korea on Feb 8th and in Israel and Singapore on Feb 22nd. It opens in New Zealand on March 1st and in Hong Kong, the Netherland and Belgium on March 8th. It opens in Norway on March 16th, Spain on March 30th, Sweden and and Finland on April 13th and in Japan on July 7th.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

FACTORY GIRL - poor little rich girl

Lady, you don't know shit about shitDespite charismatic performances by Guy Pearce as Andy Warhol and Sienna Miller as his one-time muse, Edie Sedgwick, FACTORY GIRL is a mediocre film. Shot on every kind of film bar standard 32 mil and "benefiting" from heavy-handed inter-cutting of talking heads, flash-backs and conventional narrative, the film-makers try to give the movie a gonzo-energetic sixties documentary feel. They fail miserably because the film is otherwise so conventional. An underground scene of real energy and chaos thus becomes a conventional love-triangle story with a helping of poor-little-rich-girl thrown in for kicks. The love triangle features Andy Warhol indulging in a sort of asexual love affair with Edie Sedgwick, conveniently exploiting Edie's beauty and patrician connections. He drops her for the even more glamorous Nico as punishment for her love affair with a crypto-Dylan figure played by the hopelessly outclassed Hayden Christensen. This story strand is pure day-time TV. To wit, the sex scene between Edie and the crypto-Dylan is all crackling log fires and soft focus, pearl-lighting. And as for the poor-little-rich-girl storyline, don't get me started on the irony of a movie that portrays Edie partially as a victim of her father's incestuous attentions as well as Warhol's more conventional financial exploitation but then plays fast and loose with Dylan's reputation, presumably to spice up the recognisable headcount for the yoof-market. So, despite the chilling and memorable portrayal of Warhol of a man who confuses morality with beauty, FACTORY GIRL is sadly very, very ordinary indeed.

FACTORY GIRL is released in the US on Feb 2nd and in the UK on March 16th.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

A bipolar review of GHOSTS

In 2004, 23 Chinese illegal immigrants drowned while picking cockles on the English coast in 2004. It was an uncomfortable moment for the British public. No-one likes to think that the low, low prices in their local supermarket ultimately rely on indentured labour.

But as Nick Broomfield's documentary-style movie unfolded, I cringed. It was so ham-fisted. Subtitles telling us how poorly paid the Chinese workers are; footage of the immigrants being sealed in claustrophobic concealed apartments in trucks for six months from Beijing to London; the directorial choice to focus on a photogenic young Chinese woman as the protagonist; let alone the cute little baby she leaves behind to earn money doing hard labour in England.....the whole thing was incredibly patronising and emotionally manipulative. And this is where we find Nik at the end of the film. Standing on Shaftesbury Avenue and telling me that the movie was patronising liberal wank that made him so angry it actually made him feel less sympathy for the cockle-pickers.

Much to my surprise, while I can see exactly why Nik reacted in the way he did, I had a very strong emotional response to the film. It began when I started to really like the character of the leader of the gang: a harsh but rather funny man who likes to sing and make fun of the thuggish white landlord. The visceral impact of the film intensified during a scene where the Chinese immigrants are subject to racial abuse and thuggery on the beach at Morecambe Bay. It had been a bad day. British TV audiences had seen bullying and ignorant thuggery for real all week and in this film we had an another example of it on the large screen.

But whatever the reason, GHOSTS had a profound impact on me. It made me see the story and the people behind the headlines and it compounded my general disappointment with the ignorant mob culture that infects modern British life.

GHOSTS played London 2006 and is on release in the UK. It will play Sundance 2007.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

ROCKY BALBOA - Bina007's review

Earlier this week, Nikolai gave an emotional response to ROCKY BALBOA that fully encapsulated the emotional high I received from watching the flick. To that end, it's a brilliantly insightful review. But after a few days to come down off the high, I thought I'd chip in my thoughts. Bit first, a disclaimer. I love ROCKY. I had no beef with the decision of the Academy to give ROCKY the Best Picture nod in 1977 - over the heads of TAXI DRIVER, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN and NETWORK. To me ROCKY is just a brilliant film - great characters, great narrative arc, great emotional pull. Sometimes a pop. film just gets it right. Not every movie has to be BABEL.

To me, the Rocky movies are about an under-dog pulling himself up through sheer hard work and endurance. It is the American Dream. The exhileration we feel when Rocky wins a fight is down to the fact that we know how hard he has trained to get there. And it's not even about the winning: it's about staying the distance.

Naturally, after the farce of ROCKY V I was worried about the follow up but those fears were groundless. Sty Stallone proves once again that he is one of the unsung great screen-writers of our time. He places Rocky in an entirely believable situation. He's doing fine for cash, running a fancy restaurent and posing for cheesy pictures with his fans. But he's a lonely widower, estranged from his son, and feeling at loose ends without the boxing. To that end, ROCKY BALBOA is a movie about a man getting back to what makes him a man - rather than a shadow - and the movie is full of tremendous speeches about what it is to be a free individual and to have self-respect. Sly Stallone's skill is that they don't ever sound preachy - they always feel natural to the moment. The classic example is Rocky's speech to the boxing commission where he is asking for their permission to fight again. A moving and profound monologue springs out of a natural situation.

Fans will be sad to find Rocky's wife Adrian has died of cancer but I think will be satisfied with Rocky's shy courtship of an old neighbourhood friend. They will also, I think, find the relationship with Rocky's son nicely handled - providing the emotional heart of the film. Some of the narrative choices felt a little more forced. Rocky's new squeeze has a delinquent son who will be reformed by Rocky's patronage - this felt a little too DANGEROUS MINDS for me. Just too sickly sweet. And in terms of the new characters, I was a little disappointed in Rocky's opponent, Mason "The Line" Dixon. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that where once we had evil Communist robo-boxers, we now have a whiny, 2-D, largely untested champion and a far more politically correct ending. Shame.

Cinematically, where ROCKY BALBOA works is in pandering to the nostalgia of the fans. A lot of the old kitsch seventies sound-track is included and the basic narrative arc of the film is the same. At the end, we even have some crazy credits showing fans doing the trade-mark Rocky air-punching atop the stairs. This stuff was adrenaline-pumping twenty years ago and it still works, thirty years later. The weaker parts were the avowedly new shots. The fight features a lot of splicing between colour and black and white scenes with a little SIN CITY style colour high-lighting for fun. Frankly, this looks okay but ROCKY BALBOA just doesn't need it. It's an old-fashioned film with old-fashioned virtues: solid story, memorable characters. You don't need to be try to emulate newer shooting techniques. ROCKY was never RAGING BULL.

Still, this is all quibbling around the edges of my favourite movie of the year so far. I laughed, I cried, I punched the air, I felt exhilerated. Few movies can do that. Few movies provide a truly visceral and positive experience. And if it seems unthinkable that we will have another ROCKY, at least we can now end with a movie worthy of the franchise, rather than ROCKY V.

ROCKY BALBOA is on release in the US, Canada, Israel, Georgia, Australia, Denmark, Finland, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Italy, Norway and Spain. It opens in the UK and Sweden on the 19th and in France, the Netherlands, Estonia and Russia on the 25th. It opens in Belgium on Jan 31st, Iceland and Venezuela on Feb 2nd and in Germany and Austria on the 9th. It opens in Singapore on March 1st, Mexica on March 2nd, Poland on March 9th, Brazil on March 16th, and Japan 21st April.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

NOTES ON A SCANDAL ultimately disappoints

NOTES ON A SCANDAL is the sort of movie that one feels out to be impressive. Directed by Richard Eyre (IRIS) and adapted for the screen by Patrick Marber (CLOSER) from a novel by Zoe Heller: it is essentially a three-hander between Dame Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett and Bill Nighy. All three give tremendous and effortless performances. The orchestral score, by Philip Glass, is one of the best I have heard in a long while. In short, the movie is positively dripping in class.

Dench plays a psychologically unhinged closet lesbian called Barbara. She insinuates herself into the life of the beautiful, bohemian, but heterosexual woman called Sheba, played by Blanchett. Blanchett is married to Nighy but is sleeping with her fifteen-year-old student. Once she stumbles upon the scandal, Barbara holds it over Sheba, emotionally blackmailing her into social intimacy. In a superb coup, Barbara moves herself into the position of sole confidante and comes perilously close to her dream of a proper live-in lover.

The movie disappointed me with its rather tired cliches: the evil, vengeful lesbian and the predatory school-teacher. It's like a cross between a Daily Mail headline and Basic Instinct. This isn't helped by the fact that Sheba's motivation for seducing the schoolboy is never really fleshed out. Told in flashback, the affair seems literally incredible. I also didn't know whether the director wanted me to sympathise with Sheba or not. Certainly, the evident youth of the boy makes it clear that Sheba is a criminal. But then again, she gets treated in all other things like a typical Hollywood heroine - to be sympathised with....

All in all, NOTES ON A SCANDAL is a slight film that tries to explore in painful detail the psychological impact of a life of enforced loneliness. Sadly the incredible rendering of the scandal undercuts the attempted psychological realism. The odd spitefully funny one-liner doesn't make up for this.

NOTES ON A SCANDAL is already on limited release in the US. It opens in the UK on Feb 2nd, in Australia, Italy and Sweden on the 16th and in Argentina, Germany, the Netherlands, Finland and Norway on the 23rd. It opens in Belgium, France, Span and Venezuela on March 16th.

Awards Season 2006 - GOLDEN GLOBE AWARDS

The results are in and I am afraid to say that I agreed with few of the decisions. DREAMGIRLS, THE DEPARTED and THE QUEEN were all disappointing in their way. Still I'm pleased to see the jury had the balls to give BORAT a nod. Below is my original post on the noms with the actual winners in red. If I were playing roulette with a tenner on each punt, I would have staked £140 and lost £100. Abysmal.

.........The GOLDEN GLOBE nominations are out. Horrified to see THE DEPARTED, THE QUEEN and of all things, LITTLE CHILDREN feeling the love. And BABEL: I found this to be an overly earnesy, ponderous, sadistic film - full of sound and fury yet saying nothing breathtakingly original or incisive. Nice to see BORAT up there despite the recent backlash and Maggie Gyllenhaal getting props for SHERRYBABY as well as BOBBY..... Usual format: asterisks for who I think will win, bold type for those I think *should* win.

Best Drama: Bobby; Babel; The Departed*; Little Children; The Queen.

Best Comedy/musical: Borat; The Devil Wears Prada*; Dreamgirls; Little Miss Sunshine; Thank You for Smoking.

Best Actor Drama: Leonardo DiCaprio for Blood Diamond; Leonardo DiCaprio for The Departed; Peter O'Toole for Venus; Will Smith for The Pursuit of Happyness; Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland*.

Best Actress Drama: Penélope Cruz for Volver; Judi Dench for Notes on a Scandal; Maggie Gyllenhaal for SherryBaby; Helen Mirren for The Queen*; Kate Winslet for Little Children.

Best Actor Comedy/Musical: Sacha Baron Cohen for Borat; Johnny Depp for Pirates of the Caribbean 2; Aaron Eckhart for Thank You for Smoking; Chiwetel Ejiofor for Kinky Boots; Will Ferrell for Stranger Than Fiction.

Best Actress Comedy: Annette Bening for Running with Scissors; Toni Collette for Little Miss Sunshine; Beyonce Knowles for Dreamgirls; Meryl Streep* for The Devil Wears Prada; Renée Zellweger for Miss Potter.

Best Supporting Actor: Ben Affleck for Hollywoodland; Eddie Murphy for Dreamgirls; Jack Nicholson* for The Departed; Brad Pitt for Babel; Mark Wahlberg for The Departed.

Best Supporting Actress: Adriana Barraza for Babel; Cate Blanchett for Notes on a Scandal; Emily Blunt for The Devil Wears Prada; Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls*; Rinko Kikuchi for Babel.

Best Director: Clint Eastwood for Flags of Our Fathers; Clint Eastwood for Letters from Iwo Jima; Stephen Frears for The Queen; Alejandro González Iñárritu for Babel*; Martin Scorsese for The Departed.

Best Screenplay: Babel, Guillermo Arriaga; The Departed, William Monahan; Little Children*, Todd Field, Tom Perrotta; Notes on a Scandal, Patrick Marber; Peter Morgan, The Queen.

Best Original Song: Bobby; Dreamgirls*; Happy Feet; The Pursuit of Happyness.

Best Original Score: Babel*; The Da Vinci Code; The Fountain; Nomad; The Painted Veil.

Best Foreign Language Film: Apocalypto; El Laberinto del Fauno; Das Leben der Anderen; Letters from Iwo Jima; Volver*.

Best Animated Film: Cars; Happy Feet; Monster House*

Monday, January 15, 2007

SMOKIN' ACES - cheap thrills, yay!

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman?I was expecting cheap thrills: mindless violence, smart-talkin' wise-guys and 70s-style handle-bar moustaches that would make the Village People weep. And I got all of that, sort of. The kitsch wasn't quite as stylised as in LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN; the eccentric characters weren't quite as cartoon-funny as in SNATCH; the twisty plot was half guessable but not as irritating as, say, OCEAN'S TWELVE.

Still, in terms of bullets fired and curses uttered, SMOKIN' ACES delivered. You mix a bunch of FBI agents, a double-cross mafia hit and a handful of international assassins and there's just going to be tears before bedtime. And even if the humour wasn't quite up to scratch there were two scenes that made it all worth while: first off, an absolutely hysterical cameo from Jason Bateman as a sleazy burnt-out lawyer; second, Ben Affleck, sporting the aforementioned handlebar moustache, giving his greatest comedic performance while playing dead. There's a mean joke in that.

So, on the level of pure popcorn entertainment, SMOKIN' ACES does what it says on the tin. The Brucey Bonus is that - and I can't believe I'm writing this - SMOKIN' ACES has surprising depth. To wit, the central performance by Jeremy Piven as a Sinatra-style lounge act turned mafia snitch, Buddy "Aces" Israel. In any other movie, Piven would just've been a MacGuffin. The anonymous commodity that the assassins are trying to kill and the Feds are trying to protect. After all, all Buddy does for the flick is pace around his fortified penthouse suite in Taho waiting for the shit to hit the fan. But Piven actually gives a fairly sympathetic depiction of a guy selling out his friends and cracking up. I was surprisingly moved by it. Similarly, director Joe Carnahan (NARC) shows his quality in getting an emotional scene out of Ryan Reynolds.

Is SMOKIN' ACES as slick as it should be? No. Do a lot of people get brutally murdered? Yes. Is it worth checking out? Yes. But perhaps it'll work best for DVD and pizza night with the lads.

SMOKIN' ACES is on release in the UK. It opens in Russia on the 25th and in the US on the 26th. It opens in the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden on Feb 2nd and in Australia, Iceland and Norway on the 9th. It opens in Denmark on Feb 23rd and in Germany and Estonia on March 2nd. It opens in Belgium on March 7th Turkey on March 17th, France on March 28th and in Argentina on March 29th. It opens in Italy on June 15th.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

THE ILLUSIONIST - more seditious than romantic

THE PRESTIGE is a dark, psychological thriller of haunting emotional depth and stunning narrative complexity. THE ILLUSIONIST is interesting for different reasons.

Set in pre-WW1 Vienna, THE ILLUSIONIST is a story about class conflict and the legitimacy of political authority. I am rather surprised to be writing that sentence. All the PR hype suggested that it would be a love story between
Edward Norton's lower class magician, Eisenheim, and Jessica Biel's upper class Duchess Sophie. This sets us up for a love against all odds story in which the audience is rooting for the starry couple to get together.

But the movie is far more and far less than that. I was surprised at what little time was devoted to the love story. There is a touching prologue that shows a young Eisenheim (played by Prosper from
THE THIEF LORD) and Sophie falling in love as pre-teens. Fast forward twenty years, and Eisenheim returns as a celebrated magician and is reunited with Sophie, who is now engaged to the Crown Prince of Austria. They immediately rekindle their love and Sophie falls into bed with Eisenheim in a move that strikes against the mores of the time. But then, tragedy strikes and the love story gives way to a sort of Agatha Christie-style whodunnit and howdunnit, with Paul Giamatti's Chief Inspector Uhl trying to ferret out a murderer, while kowtowing to the establishment.

As an audience member, I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me, but not in a satisfying manner. Having bought into a love story, the movie then shifted away, and by the time it shifted back I realised that actually I hadn't been watching a love story at all but a deeply troubling almost political film. Because THE ILLUSIONIST is a remarkably seditious film. Overtly, Eisenheim undermines the authority of the Crown Prince
(Rufus Sewell), and while conceding that it is not up to *him* to topple the monarchy he is clearly aware of the way in which his illusions are whipping up dissent in Vienna. Implicitly, the movie is asking us to sympathise with a character that is responsible for the victimisation of a person who, while far from virtuous, is after all, unworthy of his fate. As a result, the final scene, in which a conventional Hollywood audience would find catharsis and a lovely warm feeling, actually sits rather uncomfortably with me. If this is what the director intended, then it is a bold and daring move, albeit one that pulls the emotional rug out from under the audience. If it was unintended then....

Sedition aside, what is there to like about this movie? In terms of production and costume design, the movie is absolutely ravishing. The use of locations in Prague, and the attention to detail of the costumes pays off. The cinematography is beautiful - a classic example is the way in which the love scene between Sophie and Eisenheim is filmed to be almost dream-like with a constantly shifting (and discreet) focus. The score by Philip Glass is evocative and despite the fact that the accents bear no resemblance to any of my Austrian friends (of which there are many), the consistent upper class English with a hint of Central Europe does succeed in creating a slightly foreign, exotic feel. And while Jessica Biel is anonymous, Giamatti, Sewell and Norton give strong performances.

Overall then, THE ILLUSIONIST is a handsome film, featuring strong performances and a highly seditious and thus challenging narrative arc. But audiences looking for an emotionally engaging love story or a mesmerising movie about magic should look elsewhere.

THE ILLUSIONIST is already on release the USA, Turkey, Mexico, Russia, Argentina, Russia, Portugal, Brazil, Spain, Finland, Israel, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands. It opens in France on January 17th 2006, in Singapore on Jan 18th, and in Belgium on January 24th. It opens in the UK on February 16th. THE ILLUSIONIST is also available on Region 1 DVD in the US, which was kindly sent to us here at Movie Reviews for Greedy Capitalist Bastards. Amateur magicians can enter a competition to win a trip to LA here until Jan 31st.

BLOOD DIAMOND succeeds despite the sentiment

That's a polite way of putting it, yea. Mum was raped and shot and uh... Dad was decapitated and hung from a hook in the barn. I was nine... boo-hoo right?From the director of THE LAST SAMURAI and the writer of K-PAX....! Not a great pedigree, but BLOOD DIAMOND works as a tolerably interesting thriller with strong performances, albeit overlaid with an annoying layer of liberal sentiment. Not that I'm against liberal sentiment: naturally, we should not buy diamonds that are used to finance civil wars. But as a reasonably well-informed adult I do not need Edward Zwick to tell me this. I especially don't need him to tell me this in such a heavy-handed manner, with a politican literally lecturing me from a podium.

The good news is that BLOOD DIAMOND succeeds as a decent thriller despite its clumsy attempt at agit-prop. It's fundamentally a chase story. Djimon Hounsou is outstanding in his portrayal of an African man who finds an enormous rough diamond of incalculable value. He wants to use it to leverage a better life in Europe with his family. Meanwhile, his young son has been captured by the rebel army and is being trained as a child soldier. This is by far, the most interesting and scary strand of the movie. Hounsou's character forms a sort of devil's pact with a white Zimbabwean mercenary played by Leonardo di Caprio. Caprio's character is an ultra-realist to the point of cruel cynicism. He doesn't give a rats ass about anyone, including Hounsou's character's family, but also wants to use the diamond as an exit route from Africa. To that end, he's willing to help the African. The third player is an idealistic American journalist played by Jennifer Connelly. She'll help out Hounsou and play along with di Caprio in exchange for a real story of corruption in a diamond company that is clearly meant to approximate De Beers.

I love the movie's exploration of the harsh reality of life in war-torn Africa. And I love that despite it's good intentions it still has a glossy, fast-paced Hollywood feel. I also think all three lead performances are strong, and from my limited experience, find Leonardo di Caprio's accent convincing. (He sounds just like the cricketer, Kevin Pietersen!) So it gets a marginal thumbs-up. The big minus point is that for a movie that claims to be harsh and realistic it has as saccharine an ending as you could want, reminiscent of the fairy-tale ending from THE CONSTANT GARDENER.

BLOOD DIAMOND is already on release in the US, Australia, Singapore, Thailand, Brazil and Taiwan. It opens in Hong Kong on the 18th and Belgium, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Estonia, Iceland, Italy, Norway and the UK on the 26th. It opens in France on the 31st, Hungary on Feb 1st, and in Finland, Spain, Sweden, Turkey on the 9th. It opens in Argentina on Feb 15th and in Japan on March 31st.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

TERKEL IN TROUBLE - Shameless for kids

TERKEL IN TROUBLE is what cult comedy, SHAMELESS, would look like if it were a CGI cartoon from Denmark. It's one part South Park and three parts Grange Hill. While the lead characters are kids, the movie is replete with swearing, mindless violence, unrequited love, blackmail, schoolyard bullying, suicide and kids slipping on their own piss in the bathroom. The main love song features the line "I think I've been blind until today, when you suddenly looked at me and said 'Fuck off and die - you're too ugly for me, and your mother goes for $100', you said it straight to my face."

To specifics. Terkel is a kid who is in manifest trouble. The local chav kids are bullying him: calling him "animal abuser" and "mummy's boy". The fat girl, Doris, is in love with him. His best friend, Jason, is an Ali G type from the council estate who carries an iron bar in his pocket and watches bootleg horror films that scare Terkel shitless. Terkel's mum is chain-smoking and indifferent; his father spends his whole time reading Page 3 in the same paper; and his uncle is an violent alcoholic. Worse still, Terkel is being sent threatening anonymous letters. The only hope is a new idealistic hippie teacher called Justin, who reminds the whining kids that they are still better off than little Thai prostitutes....

The movie is unflinching in portraying the brutality of school-life, and while not as laugh-out-loud funny as, say, South Park, it has a lot of perverse charm. I especially love the side-kick Jason and the psychopathic Uncle Stewart, voiced in the English language version by Johnny Vegas. Definitely an antidote to all those talking animals that Hollywood spews out.

TERKEL IN TROUBLE played in Denmark in 2004 and in London in 2006. It is now available on DVD.

Friday, January 12, 2007

ROCKY BALBOA - the man, the legend

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

Many of you have doubts. I know you think this franchise is over. You're wondering how he can pull it off at 50-something. You've been hurt by jibes about Rocky in a zimmer-frame. You've lost faith. But my friends, it's not about how hard you can hit, it's about how hard you can get hit, and still keep moving forward.

He used to be the plucky underdog from the mean streets of the big city. But he took on the champ and he beat him. He used to fight for America, but single-handedly ended the cold war. And now he's fighting age itself. Is he doing it for Adrian? Is he doing it to win the admiration of his prodigal son? No. He's doing it because fighters fight - because he's the Italian Stallion, the people's champion - and he has something to prove to the arrogant Champ, Mason Dixon: that the last thing to age on somebody is their heart.

My friends, it sounds cheesy. Hell it damn well IS cheesy. But I challenge you to sit through this movie and not have broad stripes and white stars pumping through your veins by the end. He challenges ageism and commercialism in sport. He tells us to be ourselves no matter what. He teaches his whiny son a lesson in fighting back when life knocks you down. He takes a kid from the mean streets and teaches him how to love. His genuflection and biblical references before getting into the ring leave us in no doubt that he's down with Jesus. And his big punches hit so hard, they rattle the Champ's ancestors, and teach him a lesson in pride and self-respect. The only type of respect that means a damn in this world.

This film is a love story. Not in weepy nostalgia for Adrian. Not for Rocky or his family or his washed out friends. Not for the city, or for the sport. But for the flag of the United States of America - and for the freedom to the pursuit of happiness that that flag represents. The winner of the fight at the end - as the camera work so finely shows us - is not Mason Dixon, or indeed Rocky Balboa or his fans - the true winner is determination against the odds; pride in the face of adversity; courage in the face of defeat: the American way.

I don't care what your preconceptions are - this is the franchise back at its very best. Yes it's simple. Yes, it's formulaic and predictable. Same music, same shots, same outcomes. But friends, this is the salt of the earth, and it's not lost any of its saltiness. I'm selling you more than a franchise today, more than a movie. I'm selling you a dream. A dream of a country where people are judged not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. A dream of a nation where upward mobility and making it are the rewards of hard work, respect for others and respect for yourself. The dream of the new world.

Put a statue of this man on Ellis Island. Put some flowers on Adrian's grave. God bless Rocky Balboa, and God bless these United States of America.

To read Bina007's review, click here.

ROCKY BALBOA is on release in the US, Canada, Israel, Georgia, Australia, Denmark, Finland, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Italy, Norway and Spain. It opens in the UK and Sweden on the 19th and in France, the Netherlands, Estonia and Russia on the 25th. It opens in Belgium on Jan 31st, Iceland and Venezuela on Feb 2nd and in Germany and Austria on the 9th. It opens in Singapore on March 1st, Mexica on March 2nd, Poland on March 9th, Brazil on March 16th, and Japan 21st April.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

STRAIGHTHEADS is an embarassment

STRAIGHTHEADS is a film that attempts to sit in the rape-revenge-thriller genre. It's a genre that features some of the most emotionally powerful, socially provocative and technically pioneering movies in cinema history. From STRAW DOGS to THELMA AND LOUISE to IRREVERSIBLE, movies in this genre have confronted the audience with brutal imagery, shaking us out of our comfortable lives. The implication of these films is that violence is random and that, in the final analysis, we can only turn to ourselves for justice. Most frightening: we are all capable of violence if forced to it. Given all this, a rape-revenge thriller should be a harrowing, depressing experience.

STRAIGHTHEADS, however, is a joke. Literally. You laugh when you should be outraged. It almost plays like a parody, and with Danny Dyer of SEVERANCE fame in the Dustin Hoffman/Vincent Cassel role, I found myself wondering whether it was MEANT to be funny. But a cursory perusal of the production notes suggests that, no, we the audience are meant to see this as some profound psychological drama. In fairness, Gillian Anderson does play it straight and is fairly convincing until she does a rather absurd thing with a shotgun.

So, who do we blame for this fiasco? First and foremost, the writer-director Dan Reed. His script is under-written and psychologically implausible. Would Anderson's character really do what she does in the final sequence given everything that has gone before? Wouldn't Heffer have simply driven off with Sophia rather than tell her to run off and then run back in? Why did Anderson's character have an austere change of clothes when she and Dyer's character were driving back to London? This raises an interesting point about the film's truncated run-time. I suspect that the film has been under the knife and that the character arcs have suffered as a result. At least, that would be one excuse.

Also, as a side criticism I wonder at the casting of Anderson and Dyer. Like I said, Anderson is great at playing trauma, but she is far less convincing as the sexually confident career woman who picks Dyer up. Playing these sorts of roles takes the devil may care confidence of a Sharon Stone or Monica Bellucci. Anderson falls short of the mark, and the sex-scenes with Dyer are embarassingly unerotic. There's simply no chemistry. And as for Dyer, perhaps the lad is just too funny for his own good. I am yet to be convinced of his ability to play serious drama.

So, a pretty crap movie, unless you watch it for laughs, which would be in pretty bad taste. Still, many thanks to Darkmatt for the invite!

STRAIGHTHEADS goes on release in the UK on April 27th.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


Sweetie, you wouldn't say that if you knew how much we owe to my chanting, darling. Lots of things in this house, this HOUSE wouldn't be here, darling. I chanted for this gorgeous house. Chanted to be successful and believe in myself... [aside] Please, let me make some more money so I can buy Saffron some more books and a car... ting, ting, ting... [to Saffy] In Buddhist, obviously, darling, when I do it properly.THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS is an astounding movie. It's being sold as this emotional tearjerker about a solid-gold dad who lifts himself and his cute little kid out of poverty through sheer hard-work and endurance. It's a real-life American Dream. We know the dad is a good guy because he's being played by Will Smith, whose whole public persona is of a good guy and solid father. And we know the guy is smart because he can solve a Rubik's cube. And hey, his kid really is very sweet. We see this guy suffer eviction, the IRS jacking his savings and even homelessness, but he makes it in the end. Excellent.

The subversive part is this: the character Chris Gardner surely wants to be a good father and put his family on a solid financial footing. But he also wants a fast car painted pillar-box red. In fact, the entire motivating force of the movie is summed up in a quick scene where Gardner sees a guy pull up to a skyscraper in a sweet convertible. He asks him what he does for a living, and decides that that's what he's going to do. Because, in this movie, The Pursuit of Happyness is actually The Pursuit of Cash. Pure and simple. Dress it up with cute kids and gritty cinematography all you want: the guy wants to be rich.

Ain't nothing wrong with that. I personally hope to be very rich all my life. But it's just funny to find that underneath the soft, cuddly, sweet, sentimental exterior of this movie (imagining dinosaurs in the train station: ye gods I nearly vomited) beats the cold, ruthless heart of a greedy capitalist bastard. The kind of guy who bilks a cab fare or pushes onto a bus in order or lies that he's in the neighbourhead or jumps the call list in order to get ahead.

Subversion aside, there are some other things to like. Will Smith does give a nuanced, quietly impressive performance, and his real-life son Jaden is highly impressive as his on-screen son. I also appreciate a script in which THE MAN isn't holding back the struggling worker. Gardener faces obstacles but they aren't the vicious injustices of an uncaring system.

Still, I can't honestly recommend a film that was at least half an hour too long, repetitive and nauseatingly sentimental in parts. I really don't need to see Will Smith running at break-neck speed across a road to get to get to a life-changing appointment so many times.....And don't even get me started on Thandie Newton's hysterical performance as Gardner's haggard wife. Poor direction or poor chocies on Newton's part? Who knows? And who cares? Because after an hour and a half I really didn't care any more.

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS is on release in the USA. It opens in Australia tomorrow and in Italy and the UK on the 12th. It opens in Germany and Israel on the 18th and in Japan on the 27th and France on the 31st. It opens in Argentina, the Netherlands, Brazil and Spain on Feb 2nd and in Belgium, Estonia, Finland and Venezuala on the 9th. It opens in Hungary on the 15th, Sweden on the 23rd, Singapore on March 1st and Turkey on March 2nd.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

BLACK BOOK/ZWARTBOEK - provocative war-time thriller

BLACK BOOK is a Dutch film that deals with the tricky business of Dutch collaboration with the Nazis. Much like the history of Vichy France, this is a vexatious issue, and BLACK BOOK does much to chip away at the image of the Netherlands as the country that attempted to save Anne Frank. There are no comic-book evil Nazis and brave heroic Resistance leaders: everyone is complicit to a greater or lesser extent. In this sense, it is a movie with a very important message.

The movie is at its best when it shows the real vulgarity and mob-violence of the Nazis. We see fat, decadent Nazis singing kitsch songs as prisoners are executed beneath them. And then, in the final act, we see so-called freedom fighters carrying out vicious punishment beatings and petty humilations on alleged collaborators. The Dutch are seen as sometimes heroic, sometimes anti-semitic - always self-interested.

It is full credit to Paul Verhoeven's instincts as a mainstream entertainer than despite it's flashes of sociological and political insight, BLACK BOOK never bows under the weight of its subject matter. Despite a run-time of two and a half hours, the movie rips along at a rollicking pace thanks to its structure as a thriller, or whodunnit. Our charming, beautiful heroine quickly moves from her hide-out with an ironically anti-semitic family, to a botched rescue attempt, to working for the Dutch resistance. She infiltrates the Gestapo headquarters and seduces the man in charge. She is stitched up by a Dutch traitor who is shopping rich Jews to the Nazis in return for a share of the loot. In the final act, she must clear her name with the aid of a certain lawyer's Black Book.

The film works well as a thriller, although the final half hour, with a chase through the countryside and a painful exposition of whodunnit seemed a little bit Scooby Doo. (If it weren't for you pesky kids....) The orchestral score is hammy and patronising and there are just a couple of scenes - notably the use of a pendant near the end of the film - that teeter over the edge into sentimentality.

In the final analysis, while this is a Dutch independent film, it is still a Paul Verhoeven flick, and to that end the best and worst of Hollywood are evident here. Slick production values, yes, but also that tendency towards emotional manipulation. Nonetheless, BLACK BOOK really is a thrilling thriller, featuring a great central performance and a provocative political agenda.

BLACK BOOK/ZWARTBOEK premiered at Venice, where it won the award for Best International Film, and showed at Toronto and London 2006. It has since been released in the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Israel. It opens in the UK on January 19th 2007. It opens in Italy, Spain and Switzerland on Feb 9th and in LA and New York on March 9th. It opens in Argentina on April 5th.

Monday, January 08, 2007


FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS is a film that spends a long time making a simple but important point: winning a war takes money, and raising money from the public takes a PR offensive and a PR offensive needs a good story of heroism and victory against all odds, the truth be damned. In this particular case, the war is against the Japanese and the PR men are three US marines who apparently helped hoist the US flag on a Japanese island called Iwo Jima.

There are many aspects of the film that deserve our time and our admiration. Director Clint Eastwood has created an intelligent film that looks with pained realism at the way in which war is carried out and the cost for all concerned. Unlike Spielberg, while he has a great deal of respect for the serving military and creates an authentic 1940s feel to the movie, Eastwood never slips into cheap sentimentality. Even more admirable is the fact that he does not descend into cheap cynicism either. When Ryan Philippe’s young Marine tells a grieving mother than her son is the soldier furthest to the right in the infamous picture, he knows it’s an out-an-out lie. But what would you do in the same circumstances? Rob a mother of her only comfort? After all, her son was there at the battle. This scene is typical of a film that does not rush to judge but presents each decision in its full moral complexity.

FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS is also to be admired for its superb ensemble cast, its convincing production design and its cinematography. The battle scenes in particular are deeply affecting: cast in grey-scale that has been almost entirely drained of colour. The framing of each shot is considered and effective – not least the fear-inducing shots from the point-of-view of the anonymous Japanese sharp-shooter hidden in pill-boxes above the landing beach.

My criticism of the film lies in its lack of emotional pull. To that end, its restraint and emotional discipline in comparison to, say, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, is also its downfall. The point that the film makes is important and true and needs to be told – especially to a Hollywood studio audience used to the schmaltz of your typical war movie. However, I doubt that such a simple message needed such a long run-time. Nonetheless, Eastwood has created an important film that deserves all the critical acclaim it has received.

FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS is on release in the US, Belgium, France, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Philippines, Greece, Italy, Israel, Finland, the Netherlands, Singapore, Denmark, Finland, Venezuala, Turkey, the UK, Iceland, Norway, and Portugal. It opens in Spain on January 3rd, in Hong Kong on January 11th and in Germany on the 18th. It opens in Brazil and Estonia on February 2nd and in Russia on February 15th 2007.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

WHITE NOISE: THE LIGHT - low-rent, no thrills

I'm the last of the tiddly-winking leapfroggers from the golden summer of 1914. I don't want to die... I'm really not over keen on dying at all, sirOnce upon a time there was a low-budget, vaguely SIXTH SENSE thriller starring Michael Keaton that made a comparatively large amount of money at the box office. Studios being what they are, it comes as no surprise to find another low-budget, vaguely SIXTH SENSE thriller following hot on its heels. However, people who liked the first flick should take note of the fact that Michael Keaton does not star in this follow-up - a signal of its weak script; poor production values; and lack of any real suspense; genuine jump-out-of-your-seat shocks; or all-pervasive spookiness. Instead, we get piss-poor CGI effects and a cast of anonymous unknowns with precious little acting talent. The only semi-big name - Nathan Fillion - is especially wooden. Just watch him NOT emote after his wife and child are shot in the pivotal opening sequence. British audiences will understand just how low the bar has been set for acting when I reveal that the bonkers murderer is none other than Dan Sullivan from Eastenders. If you want to watch a decent movie about how far we can escape our fate - whether if we know someone is about to die we can and should save them - check out DEJA VU instead.

WHITE NOISE: THE LIGHT is on release in the UK. It opens in Spain in April and in the Netherlands in May. No US release data, apparently, you lucky bastards.