Monday, April 30, 2007

BLACK SNAKE MOAN - crazy beautiful

 I think we’re fucked up. I know I am. But that don't mean what I feel ain't real, that I can't love somebodyYup, you saw right. Half-naked white chick chained up by a hard-ass black man. Writer-director, Craig Brewer is winking at us. He's pouring gasoline on the outrage that's smoking out the Message Boards and the Blogosphere. He's daring the judgmetal and hasty to find this flick racist and exploitative. Heck, he's enjoying it!

Because, as I see it, Craig Brewer's pulled a fast one. BLACK SNAKE MOAN's no more a serious treatise on race-relations than it is a GRINDHOUSE-style exploitation flick. Ricci and Jackson may be running around in white underpants and a wife-beater but this is actually a desperately sweet movie about unexpected friendship and redemption through the awesome medium of blues music. Redemption? Well, maybe acceptance. Jackson's character can't cure Ricci of her nymphomania - but he does prompt her to confront her demons and make a savagely honest declaration of love to her similarly afflicted boyfriend, played by Justin Timberlake. As emotional journeys go, Christina Ricci gives the performance of her career, and perhaps of the year.

This tricksy double-play - provocative exterior - humble feel-good interior - is the same mix we saw in Brewer's last film, HUSTLE AND FLOW. On the face of it, the central character in HUSTLE AND FLOW is absolutely abnoxious! A murdering, drug-dealing pimp whines about how HE has it hard! But underneath it all, the movie is a gorgeous-sweet story of a guy taking a shot at redemption through the medium of rap music. Except he doesn't quite get redeemed. Brewer's movies aren't Disney. The endings aren't that neat. People don't escape their fundamental natures. But they do end up channelling them better, and with hope of a sort.

BLACK SNAKE MOAN was released in the US in March. It opens in the UK on May 18th, in Belgium, France, Netherlands, Spain and Sweden on the weekend of the 30th May. It opens in Singapore on June 7th, Denmark on June 15th, Norway on June 22nd and in Australia on July 26th 2007.

Friday, April 27, 2007

THE PAINTED VEIL - as beautiful and vapid as Kitty before cholera

THE PAINTED VEIL is a handsomely produced adapatation of W Somerset Maugham's novel of the same name. Naomi Watts plays a spoiled English girl who marries a serious bacteriologist (Ed Norton) in a fit of pique and ends up in 1920s China having an affair with Liev Schrieber's charming vice-consul. In revenge, her husband drags her to a cholera-infested town in the interior; murder by another means. She goes, jilted by her lover, and learns her husband's true worth as she enters into his work at the local convent cum infirmary.

The production design and cinematography (Stuart Dryburgh) are absolutely top class. The acting itself is first class too although Norton and Watts are unconvincing in their English accents and Diana Rigg flits in and out of her accent as the French Mother Superior. I also found the orchestral score over-worked - all that echoing Satie! - but fans of soupy melodramas and Merchant-Ivory productions should be happy.

SPOLIERS FOLLOW. But for those who have read Somerset Maugham's novel, this adaptation will leave you feeling a little cheated. Because the novel is very firmly about Kitty Fane's journey from spoiled party girl to grown-up self-aware woman. Indeed, in the novel, Walter Fane is given very little time at all. He exists merely as an inscrutable engine of the plot, whose actions prompt Kitty into self-realisation. There is no soupy death-bed reconciliation - only the bitter realisation that he was delirious as she begged for forgiveness. We see her final humiliation at the hands of her ex-lover's wife and her declaration that she will raise her daughter to be a strong, independent woman - equal to any man. It is stirring stuff, and as much as BRIDESHEAD REVISITED, a novel about the operation of grace on a pretty, harmless, adulterous flapper, raised for nothing better than to marry well.

By contrast, this adaptation is at once more modern and more reactionary. It is modern because the film-makers feel the need to bring our post-colonial liberal angst to bear. The motives of the British, the Catholic missionaries, the Nationalists and the local warlords are all brought into question. The nuns can't just be good people doing good work. They buy babies from the poor and forcibly baptise them: the Mother Superior is in a crisis of faith. But the film is also more reactionary than the novel. We must have a romantic reconciliation between our leading couple. Walter's role must be beefed up to warrant Norton's interest - so there is a lot of time-wasting with local warlords and water-pipes. The death-bed reconciliation is a neat ending and while Kitty does meet her ex-lover in the epilogue, she is gracious and healed rather than angry and raw. Notably, her child is a boy called Walter. There are no dreams of female emancipation.

Poor show.

THE PAINTED VEIL was released in the US in December 2006 and in China, Singapore, Iran, Canada, Russia, Turkey, Lebanon, Belgium, France, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Greece, Latvia, Hong Kong and Mexico earlier this year. It is currently playing in the UK and opens in Italy and Iceland in May. It is released on Region 1 DVD in May 2007.

NEXT - Deja Vu

Like the film-makers who came up with the super-weak title, let's not waste too much time on this piss-poor sci-fi/action flick. Nic Cage is a bad Vegas lounge-act with a worse hair-piece. He can see two minutes into his future enabling him to snag Jessica Biel as a girlfriend. His ability also attracts the attentions of Julianne Moore's FBI agent. She wants to use him to track down nasty but ethnically diverse terrorists who've got a nuke in LA. She has the audacity to do this by forcing open his eyelids CLOCKWORK-ORANGE stylee and making him watch CNN. He just wants to rescue his chick.

It's all very predictable, poorly acted and replete with cheap-looking action sequences. It's also very derivative, although curiously nothing like the Philip K Dick novel on which it's apparently based. Presumably Dick's name was used, much like the Peter Falk cameo, as a shameless hook to draw in the crowds.


NEXT is on release in Belgium, France, Netherlands, Slovenia, Denmark, Finland, Israel, Norway, Turkey, the UK and the US. It opens in Sweden, Singapore and Estonia in May; in Egypt and Mexico in August; and in Australia and Iceland in September 2007.

TA RA RUM PUM - a movie as vacuous as its title

TA RA RUM PUM is an absurd title for this slick, polished Bollywood movie that is as vacuous as the MTV videos it emulates. Saif Ali Khan descends from OMKARA and BEING CYRUS to reprise his role as Bollywood romantic hero opposite Rani Mukherji. The first hour of the film sees Saif's character - a racing driver - woo and win Rani's music student against her rich father's wishes. Flash forward and they are a happily married couple with two jarringly cute kids. He's the best racer in the US until an accident puts him out of commission for a year and the debt collectors move in. Will the perfect family triumph over poverty? Will he over-come his traumatic memories and beat his comedically named teutonic rival, Rusty Finkelstein? Given the genre, there's no doubt!

As one would expect from a Yash Raj production, TA RA RUM PUM cannot be faulted on its production quality. Director Siddharth Anand (SALAAM NAMASTE) and DP Binod Pradhan (DEVDAS) handle the racing scenes well. For superficial, slick entertainment, Bollywood almost trumps Hollywood now. But it lacks the obvious hit songs of, say, BUNTY AUR BABLI; the humour of MUNNABHAI; or the touch of reality that graced HUM TUM. Definitely one to avoid.

TA RA RUM PUM is on release in the US, UK and India.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

AWAY FROM HER - watching a heart break

AWAY FROM HER is that rare thing - a love story featuring a retired couple - played by Julie Christie and Gordon Pinset. After the first flush of love and middle-aged marital infidelity they have settled into a profound emotional and physical relationship. This is snatched away from them when the wife is diagnosed with Alzheimers disease, enters a residential care facility and in forgetting her husband, falls for another man. Julie Christie gives a brave and touching performance as a women struggling to separate her current life from snatched memories that disturb her. But it is Gordon Pinset who quietly reveals a breaking heart as he watches his wife attach herself to another.

AWAY FROM HER is a beautifully written and acted film, based on a short story by Alice Munro and directed by debutante Canadian, Sarah Polley. I loved the graceful moving camera that slowly weaves its way through a cafe of sufferers and families, or moves through a house. It is a patient interrogator of emotions that are selflessly held back as the couple try to handle this tragedy with a touch of grace. However, the disadvantage of such a deliberately patient shooting style is that the film can seem a little dragging in parts. I also found the frequent inter-cutting between the past, the wife's admission to the care facility and the husband's subsequent friendship with his rival's wife (Olympia Dukakis) un-necessarily complicated. Nonetheless, AWAY FROM HER is an important film, and an acting master-class.

AWAY FROM HER played Toronto 2006 and Sundance, Berlin and Dublin 2007. It opens in the UK this Friday, in France on May 2nd, in Norway and the US on May 4th, in the Netherlands on October 4th and in Spain in November.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

THIS IS ENGLAND - powerful British tragi-comedy

THIS IS ENGLAND is a meticulously put-together tragicomedy from British writer-director, Shane Meadows. It's set in England during the early 1980s and the opening credits sequence is a montage of everything good and grim about that era: Roland Rat, Rubik's Cube, the Falklands War, the Miners' Strike and the Brixton Riots. It was a time of great economic upheaval and social unrest, but also of fantastic new movements in music and fashion. The movie channels all this contradictory nostalgia and repulsion into a single story set in a Midlands town among a gang of skin-heads. At first, Meadows implicitly argues that the movement as a whole and this gang in particular were a bunch of well-meaning kids who liked to dress a certain way and listen to a certain kind of music. But despite the no-nonsense urban look, it was at heart a multi-racial movement for working class white and black kids. This was especially reflected in Two-Tone music, some of which makes it to the movie's sound-track. In the film, the heart of this happy alliance takes the form of Woody (Joseph Gilgun), a love-able white skin-head who takes pity on a lonely, bolshie little 12 year old called Shaun. He buys him cool clothes, stops him from getting bullied and gives him someone look up to - something he's been missing since his dad died in the Falklands. Woody's also best mates with a West Indian skin-head called Milky (Andrew Shim). The first half of THIS IS ENGLAND shows the gang hanging out, having a laugh and indulging in the odd bit of casual violence. It's absolutely hysterical, laugh-out-loud cinema; excellently written and delivered with superb comic timing by the whole cast, but especially the young Thomas Turgoose.

But much as with the movement, the gang gets hijacked by a darker, nastier strain of violent racism when an ex-con called Combo (Stephen Graham) turns up. He sees a world of mass unemployment and social under-privelege and comes to resent the immigrant population for their apparent success - with appalling results. The second half of the movie ratchets up the tension, with tour-de-force dramatic exchanges. The only weakness is that the film has about three endings. What this means is that we get some provocative use of Falklands war footage. I'm not sure whether Meadows had any clear idea what he was trying to say with the juxtaposition of the domestic drama and these images. Moreover, we get a final shot that references THE 400 BLOWS and, to my mind, is a lot less powerful than it should've been because of this distraction.

THIS IS ENGLAND played Toronto and London 2006 and Berlin and Dublin 2007. It opens in the UK on Friday, in the US on July 27th and in Australia on August 16th.

Monday, April 23, 2007

GRINDHOUSE - exploitation-tastic-ish

GRINDHOUSE is the new movie double-bill from directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. I'm not going to pretend I had a clue what GRINDHOUSE was till I read the production notes. But grindhouse refers to the shabby adult cinemas that were found across America in the 70s until home video put them out of business. It also refers to the lo-fi exploitation flicks that were played back-to-back in these cinemas until the prints were scuffed and scratched and whole reels were missing. To the extent that Rodriguez and Tarantino have always riffed on schlock cinema - from exploitation flicks, to camp horror classics, to spaghetti westerns, to cheesy martial arts epics, GRINDHOUSE is a logical step. Because instead of just subsuming pop cultural references into a slick modern movie, GRINDHOUSE actually looks and feels like crappy worn-out 70s B-movies complete with scratches on the celluloid, missing reels and hysterically funny mock movie trailers. In fact, the trailers have pedigrees to match the main feature, being shot by Eli Roth of HOSTEL fame and the guys behind SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ. In particular, I liked seeing Danny Trejo as "Machete" - the vengeful hit man with a gun-wielding, Catholic-priest (Benicio Del Toro). (This may actually become Rodriguez' next feature - neat!) The trailer with the killer Nazi were-wolf women and Nic Cage as Fu Manchu also looked awesome.

First up in the double-bill is the Rodriquez zombie-flick, called PLANET TERROR. Rose McGowan is a go-go dancer called Cherry Darling, on the run from rampaging zombies in her ex-boyfriend (Freddy Rodriguez') car. Infected hicks turn up at Doc Block's hospital as Block (Josh Brolin) feuds with his wife, who's about to hook up with her lesbian ex(!) Meanwhile, sinister government agents, in the form of Bruce Willis and Naveen Andrews, are blowing shit up. I was mildly disappointed by PLANET TERROR. The sheer fun of watching a genre pastiche faded with repetition and the story was actually rather boring. It wasn't helped by the fact that Rose McGowan plays her role in very self-conscious camp style - winking at the audience as she goes. For the Grindhouse project to work, all the actors have to act like they are playing these roles for real - to keep the trick alive for the audience. Plus there's the highly subjective issue that I have never really liked zombie pics as a genre, so even a crazy pastiche isn't going to hold my attention for long. To that end, I'd love to know what real fans of these flicks make of PLANET TERROR.

Second up is the Tarantino stalker-slasher-action pic, DEATH PROOF. This stars Kurt Russell as a bad-ass retired movie stunt-man called, da-da-daa!, Stunt-Man Mike. He kills attractive young women by offering them rides home in his "death-proof" car. Sadly, the "death-proofed"-ness only applies to the guy sitting in the drivers seat. Let's be clear, people, this is BY FAR a superior film.* It's superior insofar as its not just a straight pastiche but a genuine reinvention with memorable characters, brilliant dialogue and just enough camp violence to be funny but not boring. The flicks falls into two halves. In the first half we see Stunt-Man Mike stalk and eventually dispatch a bunch of girls (Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd, Sydney Tamiia Poitier and Rose McGowan again) that are drinking in a bar. As in all Tarantino, the real joy is seeing these normal people talk normal shit but with that added twist that outlandish stuff is round the corner. In the second half of the flick we move to a different set of chicks (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Tracie Thoms, Rosario Dawson and Zoë Bell) driving round in cars. Cue more cute dialogue, crazy car-stunts and a bit of the old comedy violence.

The revelation is that while we all grew up on camp classics and lo-fi B flicks, not even Rodriguez can match Tarantino's genius in spewing out movies that can hold their heads up as genuinely entertaining outside of the pop-culture references that sustain them. Some of the fun of DEATH PROOF is picking up all the references to other QT flicks but, crucially, that's just an added bonus, not the whole deal. While Rodriguez' movie is an interesting exercise, DEATH-PROOF is a movie to watch and re-watch on its own terms.

*And I know Europeans are complaining the the double-feature is being split - so they'll have to pay double than Americans to see both films - but frankly, given what I now know, the wise move would've been to buy a ticket for the double feature and slip in at the 90 minute mark anyways.

GRINDHOUSE was released as a double-feature in the US in April 2007 and will be released as a double-feature in New Zealand on May 31st and in the UK on June 1st.

DEATH PROOF will be released in Estonia, Finland, Italy, Norway and Sweden on June 1st; in Belgium, France, Switzerland, Netherlands, on June 6th/7th; in Germany on June 14th and in Iceland on August 1st. PLANET TERROR will be released in Iceland on June 8th, Estonia on July 6th, the Netherlands on July 19th, Finland on July 20th, Germany on July 26th, Belgium on August 1st, in Norway on September 14th and in Sweden on September 28th.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

REIGN OVER ME - deeply affecting drama

I was surprisingly deeply affected by this post-9/11 drama, in which Adam Sandler of all actor plays a man suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Having lost his wife and three daughters in 9/11, he refuses to discuss his family, feigns memory-loss and retreats into a child-like world of take-out, video games and, bizarrely, kitchen remodelling. It is a desperately moving performance and triumphs over the fact that the character, Charlie Fineman, looks distractingly like a young Bob Dylan.

The triumph of the film is that writer-director Mike Binder approaches Charlie Fineman from a tangent. For much of the first hour of the film we are more concerned with Don Cheadle's character, Alan Johnson. Johnson is a fundamentally decent guy who loves his wife but hates his job and feels stifled by domestic bliss. It's a situation that many will sympathise with and gives us an "in" to the stranger Charlie-world. It's another stand-out performance from Cheadle. He strikes up a friendship with Fineman - an old college friend. Fineman helps Johnson have some fun; Johnson helps Fineman get therapy.

The movie proceeds at a measured pace, allowing the audience to enjoy the genuine chemistry between these two friends. Sensibly, the director shies away from a simplistic resolution - we leave Fineman pretty much as disturbed as when we meet him, although with more hope of recovery. But this is not a perfect film for two reasons. First, poor Saffron Burrows pilots a ridiculous sub-plot involving a traumatised women who deals with her suffering by making outlandish sexual overtures to Johnson. Second, there is a rather melodramatic denouement (saved only from a wickedly funny cameo from Donald Sutherland.)

Still, this remains a beautifully filmed, well-written and astoundingly well-acted movie.

REIGN OVER ME is already on release in Australia, the US, Argentina, Sweden, Italy and the UK. It opens in Malaysia and Serbia on May 17th, in Spain on June 29th, in Brazil, Belgium, France and Singapore in July, in Germany, Norway and Finland in August.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

UNKNOWN - taut tricksy thriller

In a week of mediocre to sub-par thrillers, finally we get a taught, tricksy little movie. The premise may not be wholly original but it is compelling and renders up 85 minutes of tight scripting, good acting and genuinely surprising twists up until the last line.

Five guys wake up in sealed up industrial shed. They've all sustained injuries. Three are untied. Two are tied up. They're all suffering from temporary amnesia. The superficial motor of the thriller is the question of which of them are kidnappers and which of them are victims. In whose interests is it to call the police? In whose interests is it to attack the remaining the kidnappers when they come back to the shed? Part of the fun of the piece is seeing the selfish survival instinct take over amid teasing flashbacks as their memories start to return.

The more profound issue is how far our actions are governed by an intrinsic sense of right and wrong or by the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Will a man make a different decision depending on whether he thinks he is a kidnapper or a victim?

Like I said, this is a wholly satisfying quick thriller that does exactly what a genre movie should do. Kudos to first time writer and director, Matthew Waynee and Simon Brand, and to the cast, which is a smorgasbord of outstanding character actors. We have Barry Pepper, Greg Kinnear, Joe Pantoliano, Jeremy Sisto and Jim Caviezel as the trapped five; Peter Stormare as the chief goon and Bridget Moynahan as the concerned wife.

UNKNOWN was released in Japan, the USA, Spain, Kuwait and Taiwan in 2006. It opened in the UK last week and opens in Belgium in May, in the Netherlands in June, in France in August and in Germany in October. It is also available on Region 1 DVD.

Friday, April 20, 2007

ALPHA DOG - Guns don't kill people, rappers do

You wanna' know what this is all about? You can say this about drugs or guns or bad decisions, what ever you like. But this whole thing is about parenting. And taking care of your children.You're a fifteen-year old boy living in middle-class luxury with a stifling mother. Your elder step-brother is neo-Nazi Jewish drug-addict with martial arts moves that would make Tarantino proud. He owes some local cocky wannabe-gangsta $1200, so the gangsta kidnaps you in a moment of spontaneous madness. But these gangstas are just middle-class kids with too much money and not enough parental control. So they take you to some cool parties, get you high on dope and get you laid. In short, you're having the time of your life! Problem is, while the stooge actually guarding you is a decent guy, these boys are already looking at life. They're too dumb to see another way out and, to quote a brilliant line from SHOOTER, their moral compass is so off whack they probably couldn't find their way to the parking lot. So they decide it's better to be hung for a sheep tham a lamb.....

Apparently all this really happened not so long ago in California. You have to cling on to that fact - indeed, writer-director Nick Cassavetes makes you cling on to this fact with documentary style talking-head interviews, captions and split-screens. Because without this belief, the whole yarn would look so ridiculous as to be incredible. The characters are so plain stupid, so intentionally and uninentionally funny, that the movie feels like a live-action version of whacky races.

The difficuly for Cassavetes is managing the tone. When he's capturing the absurdity of rich white kids playing gangsta he's very good - thanks to a good script and brilliant performances by Emile Hirsch (who looks like a young Jack Black in his goofier moments) as the gang-leader, Justin Timberlake as his love-able side-kick and Ben Foster as the kidnapee's elder brother. Foster's creation is a work of comic genius - channelling both Spud and Begbie fom TRAINSPOTTING. Cassavetes also manages to film some really affecting drama - not least when Timberlake's softy has to deliver the kidnapee to his fate.

But the shift in tone is not well handled. Neither is the social critique, which is bluntly stated but not explored. Essentially, Cassavetes seems to say that the whole fiasco can be blamed on 1) too many MTV videos and 2) parents who are so self-absorbed that they are barely parents at all. To quote the tatoo on Ben Foster's character's chest: let not the sin of his mother be blotted out. The film also contains one gigantic error of judgment, and that is to put Sharon Stone in a cheap fat-suit for her final monologue to camera. The viewer is distracted from her strong performance as a grieving mother by the cheap and unnecessary make-up effect.

ALPHA DOG played Sundance 2006. It was released in the US, Israel, Russia, Iceland, Italy, Panama, Turkey, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Austria, France, Portugal, Spain, Latvia and Denmark earlier this week. It opens in Finland and the UK today and in Belgium next week. Itopens in Hungaru on May 3rd an in the Netherlands on July 5th. Finally it opens in Argentina in November 2007. ALPHA DOG is released on Region 1 DVD in May.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Grisham plus Harris equals FRACTURE

FRACTURE is a sub-John Grisham court-room drama. Ryan Gosling gives a decent enough performance as the arrogant, Southern smart-ass lawyer charged with prosecuting a supposedly slam-dunk murder case. (In olden days, this role would've gone to Tom Cruise.) Trick is that while the murderer has confessed and was caught with the gun, the evidence trail has evaporated. (Turns out the unfaithful wife/victim was bedding the arresting cop.) Anthony Hopkins is on the verge of Lektor as he challenges the young lawyer to convict him. So unfolds a tricksy little "how-dunnit".

Benchmarked against director, Gregory Hoblit's, earlier work, PRIMAL FEAR, FRACTURE doesn't look that great. The whole corporate lawyer love-interest sub-plot is a waste of time, though providing the obligatory Hollywood eye-candy in the form of Rosamund Pike. And Fiona Shaw is wasted as the presiding judge, although perhaps after her disastrous performance in THE BLACK DAHLIA, this is no bad thing. And, it's a bit of a shame to cast Embeth Davidtz and then give her so little screen time. Still, compared to, say, PERFECT STRANGER, FRACTURE is one of the better thrillers on offer right now.

FRACTURE is on release in the US, Singapore and the UK. It opens in Israel, Iceland and Italy next week. It opens in Belgium, France, Denmark, Hong Kong, Norway, Argentina, Germany, the Netherlands, Finland and Turkey. It opens in Australia, Estonia and Egypt in August.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

SHOOTER - These people shot his dog!

I don't think you understand - these people killed my dog.SHOOTER is 50% hillarious Maguiver-like action movie. Marky Mark is a US sniper who's abandoned in Ethiopia by his own government. Back in the US, he holes up in a una-bomber shack with a big dog until impressive sounding high-ups (Danny Glover) call him back to help prevent a presidential assassination. But Marky Mark gets framed and is soon on the run with the help of a curiously Ruffalo-like FBI newbi (Michael Peña) and a cute chick who turns from third-grade teacher to Lady Vengeance with comic-book speed. This is all good clean fun and I liked the odd comedy one-liner from Wahlberg.

But SHOOTER aspires to be so much more than a meat-head Friday night multiplex filler. It wants to be *political* and provocative. But instead of the twists and turns of director Antoine Fuqua's TRAINING DAY we get a pretty heavy-handed critique of the neo-cons in general and Dick Cheney in particular. So anti-liberals should be warned. Personally, I've got nowt against the agenda, but I'd probably be able to take it more seriously if Wahlberg's character weren't avenging his exploitation as an unwitting stooge of The Man, if he weren't continuously shooting the crap out of other unwitting stooges....

SHOOTER is on release most everywhere bar Slovakia, where it opens April 26th, South Africa where it opens April 27th, Turkey where it opens May 11th, Japan where it opens June 2nd and the Czech Republic where it opens June 7th.

Monday, April 16, 2007

PERFECT STRANGER was so weak, grown men were walking up to cops on street corners begging them to shoot.

Fuck you. That's my message to ya: fuck you and you can kiss my ass and if you don't like it baby I'm going across the street.PERFECT STRANGER is a slow-moving, over-acted, under-written thriller. An unnecessary prologue shows Halle Berry's character, Rowena, to be an investigative reporter whose expose of a gay Republican Senator is axed by The Man. It also establishes the fact that she is willing to play the game when necessary - notably by writing under a white male pseudonym. Once the story gets underway, we see Rowena investigate the gruesome murder of her childhood friend, apparently at the hands of a powerful advertising mogul called Harrison Hill - played with bored indifference and not an ounce of menace by Bruce Willis. She happily flaunts her figure and flirts in chatrooms to ensare the supposed killer, abetted by Giovanni Ribisi's egregiously over-acted IT wizard, Miles. Miles is geeky and creepy of course, so clearly he's either an over-obvious red herring or a potential killer. And what about the veangeful Mrs Hill? It all trundles along in a harmless manner. It's nicely shot and handsomely designed. But the shifts from Willis' monotone performance to Ribisi's ticks is jarring and Berry is simply a nonentity. It's amazing to think that she once gave an emotionally brave performance in a mature project. And it's sadder still to think that James Foley once directed GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS.

PERFECT STRANGER is on global release.

Saturday, April 14, 2007


After RAISE THE RED LANTERN, HERO and HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, audiences expect certain things from a Zhang Yimou film. Namely, plots that are concerned with sexual oppression, rich production design, saturated colours, impressive camera-work and wire-fu action sequences. How does THE CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER stand up against this list?

First, not enough can be said about the rich colours, textures and detail of the production design. The sets and costumes all emphasise the decadent luxury and claustrophia of the 9th century Chinese court. Gong Li's Empress is weighed down by golden jewelry, elaborate head-dresses and richly embroidered robes. The thematic material also fits well with the rest of Zhang Yimou's oeuvre. The oppression of women is clear, from the restrictive bodices and outer garments to the Empress' inability to refuse taking her medicine. However, the oppression is spread to every member of society who serves the Emperor (Chow Yun Fat). In an absolute monarchy, we can see the comodification and objectification of the individual at every level of society. The impressive opening sequence of the film sees the female servants getting dressed as identikit automata, but even the royal Princes have to bow to their father when addressing him. The camera-work and sound-design emphasise the claustrophobia of court life. In scene after scene we see the Empress walking through maze-like hallucinogenic-coloured corridors.

Second, the action is of the highly stylised wire-fu variety than Zhang Yumou made famous. But there is less of it in this film than in Hero, for instance. Aside from a small sword sequence in the opening half hour, and a quick sequence with some flying assassins around half way through, martial arts fans have to wait for an enthralling battle sequence near the end of the film for a true martial arts fix. It was all too little for Doctor007 - a true wire-fu fanatic.

But I did not miss the lack of back-to-back action sequences in THE CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER. I liked the emphasis on, and juxtaposition between, the melodramatic Spanish revenge-style plot and the stylised, subtle, classical Chinese acting. In the opulent Tang court, a mighty Emperor sits. He has three sons. The first was born of the Emperor's beloved first-wife, now deceased. He is a callow young man who is having an incestuous affair with his stepmother, the Empress consort, and an abortive affair with the Imperial Doctor's daughter. The second son and third sons were born of the Empress-Consort. The elder of the two has just returned from exile, and will be forced to make a bid for the throne to protect his mother. The third and youngest son is largely ignored. The irony is that while the second son is forced to stage a coup, his father actually intends to make him the Crown Prince. And when all the fighting is done, the movie slips quietly away with an ambiguous ending. This has attracted some criticism, but I rather liked it. It's as if to say, look at this plotting - all this murder and revenge - what was it worth? What did it change? Fantastic stuff.

THE CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER went on release in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the US in 2006. It opened in Thailand, the Philippines, Greece, France, Poland, Mexico, Turkey, the Netherlands, Colombia and Argentina earlier this year. It is currently on release in Belgium and the UK and opens in Australia, Germany and Spain at the end of April. It opens in Italy on May 25th, in Brazil on June 15th, in Finland on September 7th and in Japan on October 13th 2007. It is also available on Region 1 DVD.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Two overlooked music docs of the month - BRASILEIRINHO and DAVE CHAPPELLE'S BLOCK PARTY

I hate this! I don't like it at all. I like beaches, and drinking and girls. In all the ads, they say Come to Brazil. We've got beaches and drinking and girls. They don't say, we've got vicious angry mobs that chase you into the jungle.Two very different music docs out on DVD. The first is a doc called BRASILERINHO from Finnish director (and brother of Aki) Mika Kaurismäki. For 90 minutes we get virtuosi Brazilian musicians playing choro - the prescursor of samba and the first truly Brazilian form of music. It combines European classical dance forms, complex inprovisation and counter-point, and African rhythem. At first we see small ensembles playing in concert halls - mostly guitars and mandolins. Slowly we add in tambourine players, brass players, singers and veen dancers, before a rousing big band finale. The documentary is evidently a labour of love and passion and the virtuosity of the musicians shines through. The quality of music is exceptional and the director has the good sense not to complicate matters with over-editing. What we do have is a very high quality sound mix (Uwe Dresch) and lensing (Jacques Cheuiche) that holds a steady close admiring view of the players. Because the doc does not spend too much time contextualising the music or imposing a narrative structure on the music, non music-buffs might be frustrated. For my part, this was a fascinating concert doc, and when it was over, Doc007 and I immediately went back and played our favourite tracks over. Perfect for a rare balmy London evening.

Attention Huxtubles. There is a Block Party down the street. Bring Yourselves. BRING YOURSELVES! And bring Rudy, Theo, and Denise.The second doc is DAVE CHAPPELLE'S BLOCK PARTY. This is a production that brims over with good-will - as befits a project wherein a super-rich comedian local-boy brings a bunch of world-class rap stars back home to Bed-Sty for a free street concert. There's enough of Dave Chappelle charming people into turning up and free-style riffing on stage for those of use who've never caught his Comedy Central show to realise what a good comedian he is. And there's enough concert footage for us to appreciate the musicianship. But the doc lacks the simple focus of BRASILEIRINHO - the sets are too short and the comedy too fleeting. I love Jill Scott and The Fugees and there simply wasn't enough of either! I'm also unconvinced by Michel Gondry and Ellen Kuras (DP)'s shooting style. The movie seems seems to unsettled - too choppy - and distracts from the musicians. Still, all of us waiting for that Fugees reunion will take what we can get.

BRASILEIRINHO played Berlin 2006 and was released in France and Belgium in 2005, in Finland and Hungary in 2006 and in the UK on March 23rd 2007. It is now available on DVD.

DAVE CHAPPELLE'S BLOCK PARTY played Toronto 2006 and Berlin 2006. It opened in the US, UK, Germany, France, Czach Republic, Greece, and Japan in 2006. It is available on DVD.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


THE LIVES OF OTHERS is a technically accomplished, well-acted thriller set in the Communist East Germany of the early 1980s. It is a world where the avowed mission of the state is, simply, to know everything, and where the ability of an artist to perform is governed by his or her willingness to please the State and its high-ranking officials. In this world, an oleaginous Minister is eager to bed a famous actress called Christa. In order to clear away her lover - a dramatist and loyal Party man called Georg - the Minister orders a 24 hour surveillance operation that will obligingly turn up something incriminating.

The set-up is dealt with quickly. As is the redemption of a loyal Stasi spy named Wiesler who is running the investigation. We are meant to believe that a man so imbued with the Party line - whose life is enmeshed in the State - would become the stalked couple's protector upon hearing a piece of classical music. In short, that good art can change a man - and that each man has the innate capacity to change for the better. After that event - marked by a melodramatic tear trickling down Wiesler's cheek around forty-five minutes into this two and half hour film, the movie is all police procedural with a little how-dunnit thrown in to string out the run-time into a mawkish 1990s reunion.

Some critics have knocked the writer-director for training his eye on the one Good Stasi operative, so giving a misleading impression of the horrors of the DDR. In their eyes, THE LIVES OF OTHERS is like the SCHINDLER'S LIST of post-war German film. Like them, my sensibility errs toward the grim majority case rather than to the optimistic exception. Nonetheless, an artist is free to tell the story he chooses - we can only judge him on the results. And, from an early conversation in the film, I conclude that the director specifically wants to make the point that while the Communist functionaries are cynical and believe in humanity's greed, the artists believe in humanity's capacity for good and for change and they ultimately triumph. The director of this film is then, by his hand, charged with making us believe this to be true.

Sadly, I found the prompts for Wiesler's change of heart rather glib. So that, despite an outstanding score, great acting and visual style, THE LIVES OF OTHERS was, for me, over-long and pat.

THE LIVES OF OTHERS played Toronto and London 2006, where it won the Satyajit Ray Award for best debut feature. This was presented to the director by Sir Richard Attenborough earlier tonight. The movie also won the Best Foreign Language Oscar, 2006. The film was released in Germany, Austria, Denmark, Finland and Sweden last year. It opened in the Czech Republic, Poland, Belgium, France, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Portugal, the US, Japan, Israel, Spain, the Netherlands, Singapore, Thailand, Turkey, Mexico, Slovakia and South Korea earlier this year. It is currently showing in Australia, Slovenia and Italy and opens on the UK on April 13th. It opens in Argentina on April 19th and in Iceland on May 4th 2007.

*Plot spoiler - moreover, why didn't the editor of Spiegel simply smuggle the typewriter out with him after the article had been written. It would have been risky, sure, but not more so than smuggling it in and infinitely less risky than leaving it in Dreyman's apartment.

Monday, April 09, 2007

THE CAIMAN/IL CAIMANO - subtle political tragi-comedy

THE CAIMAN is a fascinating movie from the Italian writer-director Nanni Moretti. It's also, I think, a deeply subtle and unconventional movie. As a result, this review will contain spoilers.

The central character is a charming and hopeful man called Bruno Bonomo who has little to hope for. His wife is divorcing him; he hasn't produced a hit film since the 70s; the bank is on the verge of reposessing his studio; and the director of his new film - a cheesy biopic of Christopher Columbus destined for TV - has walked out on him. So, out of desperate need for a project - any project - Bruno grabs a script by a young untried radical director called Teresa - and sells it to the TV studios before he's even read it. Only as he begins the production process does he realise that the film is an indictment of the corrupt regime of Italian president, Silvio Berlusconi.

Now, the fact that this is a movie about the difficulties of making a movie about Berlusconi, has led many reviewers and audiences to expect a political satire. As a result, they leave disappointed, and might perhaps be better directed toward the excellent doc, VIVA ZAPATERO! Of course, the film does sum up the reasons why, to quote a notorious Economist front cover, "This man is not fit to govern Italy." One of the film's most arresting images is of a suitcase full of lira falling through the ceiling of Berlusconi's office and a constant refrain is, "where did the money come from?" However, those looking for new revelations about Berlusconi should look elsewhere.

Because THE CAIMAN is not a film about how corrupt Berlusconi is. This is all public knowledge. THE CAIMAN is a film about how ordinary Italians deal with this fact - or more accurately, for the most part, choose not to deal with this fact. And to this end, the moral and political torpor is reflected in the crises engulfing Bonomo's life and the general venality of middle-class life.

For example, despite his financial, professional and familial woes, Bonomo spends an inordinate amount of time worrying about how his son is doing in junior football. Indeed, a lot of funny set pieces are centred on Bruno and his wife intrusively supporting their clumsy son from the sidelines. It's not hard to draw a parallel between this love of soccer and Berlusconi's use of soccer clubs to cement his power-base. Another interesting and comical scene is the one in which Bonomo realises that the young radical director, Teresa, has an unconventional lifestyle - pure conservative shock! But the venality of life is everywhere around. The actor playing The Caiman, for instance, is a lecherous hound, and he will, like others, back out of this radical project.

At other times, Nanni Moretti cannot resist drawing satirical parallels that have little to do with the central subject of the movie. For instance, his wife, and perhaps the viewer, criticises his habit of telling his young sons gruesome stories of a female vamp, Aidra, at bed-time. But then, in another scene, we have his kids watch a particularly vicious and scary scene from the critically acclaimed cartoon, SPIRITED AWAY. "What's the difference?", Moretti seems to say.

THE CAIMAN is by no means a perfect movie - there is simply too much going on - and the confusion of trying to understand how a man like the Caiman/Berlusconi can turn a nation into torpor spills out into the complex thematic structure and meandering narrative. But it is a fascinating response to current Italian politics and more subtle than another rehearsal of the crimes of Silvio.

THE CAIMAN/IL CAIMANO played Cannes and Toronto 2006. It opened in Italy, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Finland, Greece, Sweden, Brazil, Denmark and Australia in 2006. It opened in Norway in February 2007 and is currently playing in the UK. It opens in Germany on July 4th.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

LIGHTS IN THE DUSK/LAITAKAUPUNGIN VALOT - tragicomedy so deadpan it makes Droopy Dog look energetic

George Costanza: There is no bigger loser than me!Koistinen is a loser. He has no friends, no lover, his co-workers take the piss out of him and he is so evidently a patsy that a cynical bunch of Helsinki thugs set him up for a heist, by way of a femme fatale. The artificial courtship takes up the first half hour of this short tragi-comedy and it is replete with director Aki Kaurismäki's trademark strained conversation, stylised framing and quirky set pieces.

Take the way in which the femme fatale breaks it off with Koistinen. He tentatively places his hand on her shoulder. She removes it. "Are you trying to break up with me?" he asks. "I need to travel. My mother is sick," she replies. "When do you need to leave?" he responds, forlorn. "Immediately." She gets up. Comedy so deadpan it makes Droopy Dog look energetic.

The second half of the movie is heavier work. The audience wills the movie to its obvious pay-off but Koistinen's masochistic passivity feels uncomfortably like sadism on the part of the director, the audience now complicit. Just how much more punishment can we watch? And perhaps the most damning thing I can say about this otherwise charming, though slight, film, is that at 77 minutes it feels around 15 minutes too long.

LIGHTS IN THE DUSK played Cannes, London and Toronto 2006 and was withdrawn by the director from the 2006 Oscar noms. It was released in Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Greece, France, Poland, Russia, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands in 2006. It opened in Estonia, Spain, Italy and Hungary earlier this year. LIGHTS IN THE DUSK is currently on release in the UK and opens in the USA on June 13th 2007.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

THE LAST MIMZY - sci-fi thriller, ET rip-off

In a future sponsored by a certain well-known microchip maker, humans are becoming extinct. Thanks to our fondness for environmental degradation, our DNA has mutated and we need old-school unsullied DNA. So our future selves decide to send back emmissaries to the current world in the shape of........a stuffed rabbit. And they decide to send this important message not to a rocket scientist but to........a little girl whose elder brother happens to have a science teacher who knows kung-fu, I mean, meditation. Yes, yes, ladies and the gentlemen, when Whitney Houston told us that The Children Were The Future she was in earnest. So we all need to love our families, be nice to bugs and respect our holistic selves and all will be well.

Such is the message of this bloated, meandering children's film. It takes half an hour for the kids to move on from doing cool tricks with their alien toys and start doing plot-related shit like blacking out Seattle. At which point the movie morphs from a dull kids flick to a bizarre episode of 24, wherein the family are holed up by Homeland Security. And then, we have an ET-style rush to save the world.

This is all deeply odd and you get the feeling that the director, Bob Shaye, didn't really have a handle on the project. I would be interested to hear from parents as to whether their kids lasted the two hours - the ankle-biters I took were bored during the long build-up and rather adult middle section. From an adult point of view the story was just too baggy and too ludicrous to hold my attention (note, I actually like ARTHUR AND THE INVISIBLES so I am not usually averse to nonsense). Moreover, the adult actors were phoning in their performances.

Not, then, one for the DVD collection.

THE LAST MIMZY is on release in Canada, the UK and the US. It opens in Singapore, Belgium and France in April; in Iceland in May; in Finland and Argentina in June; and in Turkey and Germany in August 2007.

Friday, April 06, 2007

PROVOKED - sub-daytime TV drama

PROVOKED is a straightforward re-telling of the Kiranjit Ahluwalia case. Kiranjit was an Indian woman who was brought to England for an arranged marriage. She was convicted of murdering her abusive husband in the late 1980s. Because she had killed him two hours after he the latest occasion of domestic abuse, her lawyers could not argue that it was a matter of self-defence. At this point, the Southall Black Sisters - a non-profit support group for abused women - took up Kiranjit's case. They helped launch the appeal that established the British legal precedent of using "battered women's sydrome" as a defence.

The worthiness of the subject matter should not however detract from the fact that this is a poor-quality production. The abrupt cutting between scenes, the hackneyed dialogue, A R Rahman's melodramatic score and the pantomime characterisation and acting do not serve this important story well.

In the world of this film, people are either put-upon victims or evil villains. Kiranjit's husband is particularly one-dimensional, but the prison guards and rozzers are also thinly drawn. The acting is similarly unconvincing. A host of British day-time TV "stars" play versions of their TV characters. So "Phil" from Eastenders is back as a Nasty cop, and "Ash Ferreira" is back as a nice but rather anonymous lawyer. Rebecca Pidgeon, Robbie Coltrane and Miranda Richardson are all decent actors, of course, but the first two have little more than cameos and the the third inhabits a character so unlikely in a story-line so schmaltzy as to be literally incredible. And what of Aishwarya Rai in the starring role? She simpers. And simpers some more. The audience has no glimpse of the emotional life a woman who was driven to brutally kill her husband.

PROVOKED is on release in the UK.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

BLADES OF GLORY - lament for the hillarious cameo

, ANCHORMAN, DODGEBALL....and now BLADES OF GLORY. Identikit comedies, often born of SNL sketches, featuring a couple of crazy characters with 1970s hair-dos - under-dogs, odd-ball couples, or ego-maniacs that go through a redemptive narrative arc. In general, I get a kick out of these movies, but of late I've noticed a worrying tendency toward under-written scripts, lazy visual gags and lame cameos.

BLADES OF GLORY is a case in point. The film-makers assume that Will Ferrell and Jon Heder can simply stand in front of a camera in crazy hair-dos and induce laughter in the audience. And when Ferrell's rock'n'roll thowback and Heder's camp teen-idol start ice-skating - that really is funny. But as soon as we leave the ice-rink and enter into the actual story of the film, the witty one-liners are scarce and the whole project has the damp, mouldy smell of Formula and Star-Vehicle.

Heder and Ferrell's characters are champion ice-skaters and sworn enemies. Banned from competing in the singles competition after a televised punch-up, they are foreced to enter as the first all-male pairs couple - thus prompting a lot of odd-couple comedy and some funny training montages. A sub-plot has a sinister brother-and-sister skating team send their sweet sister to spy on the new all-male pair and to break up the new "couple" by sleeping with both of them. Naturally, we have a nice redemptive narrative arc for the obnoxious Ferrell character and a sweet romantic ending for Heder's character.

So far as it goes, BLADES OF GLORY is fine. The skating routines are funny, and the intervening plot is harmless if sadly unfunny. I just feel that film-makers are getting away with sub-par scripts by relying on audiences good-will toward the stars. For instance, this movie includes a cameo by Luke Wilson. He is not given a single funny line and his presence is, frankly, unnecessary. It's as if, just by having him there, the film-makers will remind us of cooler movies like OLD SCHOOL - making BLADES OF GLORY look funny by association. Similarly, the movie has a cameo of
Brian Boitano. Boitano doesn't SAY ANYTHING. But again, BLADES OF GLORY hi-jacks a little of the edginess of SOUTH PARK.

BLADES OF GLORY is on release in Canada, the US and the UK. It opens in Singapore, Argentina, Russia and Italy in April; in Belgium, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Denmark, Iceland, Mexico, Norway, Sweden and Brazil in May; in Australia in June; in Spain in July; in Finland and Turkey in August and in France on October 3rd.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

SATAN/SHEITAN - Teenage kicks!

Note to all spotty Chav teenagers, kicking it Ali G style in cheap clubs, sporting fake Burberry scarves and shoplifting from petrol stations. In no conceivable universe does the hot French chick in the little skirt fancy you. You are a spotty chav. If she invites you to her deserted country mansion to party, it's not because you are Da Bomb. If her horny peasant-chick friend starts masturbating your "dog", that's not hip urban slang for bedroom hi-jinks. She's really masturbating your dog. And if she acquiesces in a three-some, it's not because you're The Shit, it's because she's the side-kick of an insane-io French devil-worshipper with HUGE fake teeth. And, while you're at it, keep clear of all biting goats, decapitated plastic dolls and mad DJs in luminous pink ski goggles.

Such is the egregious world of the first feature length film from the Kourtrajme collective - a bunch of young, anarchic French artists who rose to fame on the back of some whacky short-films distributed virally through YouTube and their own website. In this case, writer-director Kim Chapiron unites with actor and money-man, Vincent Cassel to give us a flick that aims to be funny, sexy and scary in turn. It sort of succeeds.

Back in the day, horror films used to be scary and sexy but, when done properly, they were also satirical and political. Then, with the SCREAM movies, we got films that weren't so scary or so funny, but were satisfyingly clever in playing with the genre. At present, Hollywood horror doesn't bother with sexy, satirical, political or even imaginatively scary. It's just cost-effective mass-produced gore enacted by blandly good-looking teenagers, predicated on the belief that the teenage male demographic doesn't want anything more.

Where does SATAN fit into all this? It's at least honest in its base intent. If teens really just want hip-hop music, hot slutty looking chicks, Vincent Cassel with HUGE comedy teeth and gore without context, then this film is going to deliver without any pretence or any guilt. Pure, unadulterated campy trash that glories in its own excess and unwholesomeness. So, while I can take or leave this movie, bar the final five minutes which freaked me out, I'm simultaneously repulsed and impressed by the balls-out trashiness of the enterprise.

SATAN/SHEITAN was released in France, Belgium, Russia, Turkey and Mexico last year and in the UK at the end of February 2007. It is now available on Region 1 and 2 DVD.

Monday, April 02, 2007

BEYOND HATRED/AU-DELA DE LA HAINE - deeply moving French doc

In 2002, a young Frenchman called Francois Chenu was attacked by three skin-heads. They had gone out to "do an Arab", but this young "fag" did just as well. They pummelled his face and, infuriated by his unabashed declaration of his homosexuality, they beat him to within an inch of his life. Had they left him on the pavement he would have survived. But fearful of being caught, they dumped him in the river where he drowned.

The murder leaves his close-knit family - mother, father, three siblings - broken-hearted but determined to move beyond hatred. They want justice but not vengeance. And as their life of strong family values and liberal tolerance is brought up against alcoholism, child neglect and neo-Nazism, they demand not just justice but for French society to look carefully at the intolerance and violence that lurks beneath the surface.

There story is told with respectful and moving sympathy in an outstanding documentary by Olivier Meyrou. Filmed in a deceptively simple manner on 16 mil, the camera follows the family as they relive the day of the murder, prepare for the trial and react to the verdict. We also see the defence and prosecution lawyers ruminate on the task at hand. There are no fireworks or revelations. Just a dignified call to arms against liberal complacency.

BEYOND HATRED was shown on TV in France in 2005 and is currently showing at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. It won the Best Doc award at Berlin 2006.