Sunday, September 30, 2007

On Samuel Huntington and RATATOUILLE

A lot of modern CGI animated films are top heavy with post-modern self-referential jokes. They are too light on old-fashioned story-telling and winning characters. Against such a back-drop of depressingly formulaic and lazy movies, RATATOUILLE comes as a welcome relief. It's a movie that feels a little bit old-fashioned in its willingness to spend time with its characters and watch them develop. And while it does have some funny movie references and witty one-liners, it's more of a relationship drama than an all-out comedy.

The movie has three main themes. The first is a clash between our hero, a small rat called Remy (Patton Oswalt), and his dad. The dad is a Huntingtonian who believes that rats and humans can only live in a state of war. He thinks Remy should stop apeing human ways and being snobby about the food he eats, and stick to his roots. Remy, on the other hand, believes that there has to be an alternative to conflict. To that end, Remy takes a chance on a poor talentless kitchen-hand called Linguini (Lou Romano), helping him to become the most celebrated chef in Paris. Linguini by turns throws off his prejudice against rats and takes Remy into his home.

This brings up the second big theme of the film: "anyone can cook". In other words, who you are and where you come from don't matter. Talent can come from anywhere and should be acknowledged regardless. This theme is embodied in the character of the late Chef Gusteau - a wonderfully warm, comic creation, voiced by Brad Garrett. Gusteau is nicely contrasted with Chef Skinner (Ian Holm) - a mean little elitist who tries to foil Linguini and Remy's plans.

By far my favourite character was the scary food critic, Anton Ego, voiced by a brilliantly condescending Peter O'Toole. Ego allows the movie to nicely comment on the relationship between critic and artist and brings a strange maturity and intelligence to a children's film. I quote his final speech, with which I heartily agree: "In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new."

RATATOUILLE has heart and intelligence and patience. Rare qualities indeed. But it is not without its longeurs. I also question the necessity of featuring so much gun violence early on (you could have made similar visual jokes with the old women throwing things at the rats). I was also rather surprised to find a major plot point in a kids film revolving around DNA testing. Perhaps I am too naive about what kids can handle?

RATATOUILLE opened in the US, Chile, Russia, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Belgiu,, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Israel, Mexico, Paraguay, France, Japan, Peru, Uruguay the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Hong Kong, Hungary, Spain, Taiwan, Venezuela, Estonia, Australia, Iceland, Indonesia, Kuwait, Portugal, Malaysia, Slovenia, Egypt, India, Turkey, Lithuania, Singapore and Slovakia in summer 2007. It is currently playing in Norway and opens in Germany and Denmark next week. It opens in the UK on October 12th and in Italy, Finland and Sweden the following week. RATATOUILLE will be released on Region 1 DVD on November 6th 2007.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

MICHAEL CLAYTON - innovative, intelligent morality tale

I am Shiva, God of Death.Let me be clear: MICHAEL CLAYTON is one of the best films I have seen this year. Every facet of the film drips with quality, intelligence and integrity.

George Clooney goes into unfamiliar territory, thankfully miles away from the self-consciously cool Danny Ocean. He plays a one-time litigating attorney called Michael Clayton. Clayton now spends his time cleaning up behind big clients. He's been cleaned out by gambling debts and a restaurent project that failed. He's a divorced father and he has an uneasy relationship with his family. Indeed, in all but the denouement, Clooney spends his time looking bewildered and borderline disgusted with himself and the pathetic hoops he has to jump through. It's an impressive performance, not least in the final scene where the camera holds on a close-up of Clooney's face as he digests the events of the film. There's no dialogue and no let up: just the opening credits rolling over the end of the film.

The bones of the film concern Clooneey's character dealing with a leading litigator who's seemingly lost his marbles in court. His only job is to get the litigator back on his meds and back defending a big corporate client from a $3bn class action lawsuit. The corporate client is particularly ruthless about ensuring a beneficial outcome.

But the real business of this film is to show how each of the main characters comes to a brutal realisation about the nature of the corporate world and their part in it. Michael Clayton is a man who realised that he has been bought and for a cheap price, at that. The litigator - played by Tom Wilkinson - realises that he has wasted six years of his life defending a case he doesn't believe in - and that this is representative of corporate America. Perhaps the most intriguing character, though, is Tilda Swinton's corporate council, Karen Crowder. She begins as a nervous businesswomen, eager to impress and to look the part. Her imperceptible slide from conscientious legal advice to protecting the firm at all costs is deftly portrayed thanks to assured editing and a subtle performance.

Every member of the cast gives a subtle and authoritative performance, from Austin Williams, who plays Clayton's kid, to Sydney Pollack who plays the leading partner of the firm. Behind the camera, I loved the way in which the shots were framed, usually looking through doors or windows and around corners. I loved the misty, gloomy lighting contrasted with the guiltless wealth of rich corporate interiors. And I love that Tony Gilroy's script never over-explains and doesn't hope to see every plot strand to a neat conclusion. Most of all, I love that MICHAEL CLAYTON is not another slick but tired court-room thriller but a patient and brilliantly put-together character study. We need more cinema of this calibre.

MICHAEL CLAYTON played Venice and Toronto 2007 and is currently on release in the UK. It opens in Italy and the US next week and in Argentina, Hong Kong, Denmark, wide in the US, in France, Australia and Iceland the following week. It opens in Belgium, the Netherlands and Norway on October 25th and in Turkey, Germany, Spain, Finland, Russia in November. It opens in Egypt on January 23rd 2008 and in Japan on February 23rd 2008.

Friday, September 28, 2007


Writer-director Xavier Giannoli is to be congratulated on making a film of rare patience and emotional intelligence and of drawing a breath-taking and career-redefining performance from Gérard Depardieu. In THE SINGER, Depardieu has a wonderfully multi-faceted character to play and he matches a subtle and beautiful script with his most delicate and charming performance. His character, Alain Moreau, is an ageing lounge singer who was very famous in France in his youth but is now reduced to singing at tea-dances and in provincial nightclubs. He is over-weight and dies his hair in a vain attempt to stay young and please the crowds. He dresses in a vulgar fashion and sings old-fashioned songs. But Alain is disarmingly honest. He knows that women only sleep with him to make their husbands jealous and realises that his commitment to the old standards is rather ridiculous. Nonetheless, he takes pride in the fact that he makes people happy and still plays with a live band. He seems happy in himself despite his somewhat lonely existence.

One night, Alain encounters and beds a much younger, beautiful, enigmatic woman called Marion (Cécile De France). She cuts and runs the next day. The rest of the film is a protacted dialogue between the two. He likes her, feels he understands her previous hurt, and that he can help. She is fascinated by him but also repelled by him. After all, she could easily have the good-looking younger man in her office.

At times, I found THE SINGER frustrating because the constant cat and mouse game was so stubbornly resisting a resolution. But I also believe that this is the strength of the movie. Giannoli resists all the conventions of the romantic drama. We feel that these are real characters - quirky, irrational, capricious, warm-hearted. To that end, THE SINGER is a wonderful mix of charm and astringency.

THE SINGER/QUAND J'ETAIS CHANTEUR played Cannes 2006. It was released in France and Belgium in 2006 and in Germany, Australia, Argentina, Turkey and Spain earlier this year. It is currently on release in the UK.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

FEAST OF LOVE - surprisingly moving

I can see why some critics have labelled FEAST OF LOVE contrived and saccharine, but all the same I warmed to the lead characters and was genuinely moved by it. I think it's because the lead actors have such warmth and charm and play it so straight that this trumps the somewhat obvious script.

The movie is a slice of life from a small university town in America. Morgan Freeman plays a happily married man called Harry Stevenson who's grieving for his son. He's friends with an open-hearted coffee house owner called Bradley played by Greg Kinnear. Bradley will be deserted by a sapphic first wife (Selma Blair) and a calculating adulterous second (Radha Mitchell). It's not that he's blameless, but he does end up battered by love. Bradley also employs a young kid called Oscar (Toby Hemingway) who finds love at first sight with a girl called Chloe (Alexa Davelos). Greg Kinnear and Alex Davelos in particular are great in their roles. We really believe in them and want them to be happy. And I totally bought Harry's quasi-paternal relationship with Chloe.

Now I realise that these sort of inter-linking can narratives can be a bit too cute and neat. And I think that if you're going to see FEAST OF LOVE you have to make a decision to go with that. But there is some grit and grime. I love that the writers don't shy away from the sexual component to love, and it's nice to see a movie celeberate loving sex as opposed to just lust. It's also nice to see a mature relationship. I also like the fact that we do see the highs and lows of love. Altogether, this is a strangely realistic and yet sweet movie!

FEAST OF LOVE is on release in the US and opens in the UK on October 5th. It opens in Portugal on October 18th, in Israel on October 25th, in Spain on October 31st, in Germany on January 24th and in Norway in February 2008.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

New Wes Anderson Film Features Deadpan Delivery, Meticulous Art Direction, Characters With Father Issues

LOS ANGELES—Fans who attended a sneak preview Monday of critically acclaimed director Wes Anderson's newest project, THE DARJEELING LIMITED, were surprised to learn that the film features a deadpan comedic tone, highly stylized production design, and a plot centering around unresolved family issues. "What will he think of next?" audience member Michael Cauley said. "And who could have foreseen the elaborately crafted '60s-era aesthetic, melancholy subtext, and quirky nomenclature—to say nothing of the unexpected curveball of casting Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Bill Murray?" In a recent review, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott also expressed surprise at the film's cutting-edge soundtrack, which features a Rolling Stones song and three different tracks by the Kinks.

Copyright: The Onion 2007

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

YELLA - I see wet people!

YELLA is a tightly constructed, austere German thrller co-written and directed by Christian Petzold. Fans have praised its glacial atmosphere, stark framing and convincing central performance by Nina Hoss as the eponymous heroine. They have also forced profound meaning onto a slight film. Some say it's a metaphor for the corruption of West German capitalism. Yella makes her journey into moral ambiguity when she leaves her loving father in a rural East German town. She is undone in an anonymous business park in Hannover.

While I appreciate the creation of a sinister atmosphere, I wasn't entirely convinced by this film. The parable about the journey from East to West will be lost on anyone who does not have an intimate knowledge of German geography. And the spare script has its longeurs and improbabilities and a denouement that is derivative, predictable and entirely unsatisfying.

YELLA played Berlin 2007 where Nina Hoss won the Silver Bear. It is currently on release in the UK.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

I NOW PRONOUNCE YOU CHUCK AND LARRY - an equal opportunities offender

Well, I'm Catholic. I don't want to piss Mel Gibson off.The box-office success of Adam Sandler is proof of sinister forces at work. MR DEEDS, LITTLE NICKY, HAPPY GILMORE, CLICK.... These are all juvenile, piss-poor attempts at comedy in which a dick-head offends a bunch of people but is redeemed in the final reel, thus winning the heart of the hot chick. THE WEDDING SINGER is the exception to the rule: the genuine warmth of Drew Barrymore offset the Sandler curse. And, of course, PUNCH DRUNK LOVE brilliantly channelled Sandler's infantile aggression into a pathological rom-com. But, in general, to paraphrase the great George Costanza, I never feel the urge to get down on my knees and thank God that I know Adam Sandler and have access to his dementia.

No sir, Adam Sandler is not my bag. But I never thought he would produce a movie that would actually be offensive. Evidently, I was wrong.

I NOW PRONOUNCE YOU CHUCK AND LARRY is an alleged comedy in which two heterosexual men pretend to be gay partners so that if one dies the other can inherit his pension benefits. The movie affects politically correct intentions. It wants to show us how two straight guys become more sympathetic to the gay cause by experiencing bigotry first hand. But in reality, the only thing that's politically correct about I NOW PRONOUNCE YOU CHUCK AND LARRY is the fact that it's an equal opportunities offender. Straight men are misogynistic, reactionary bigots. Gay men are flamboyant fairies who listen to musicals and sing Gloria Gaynor songs. There's nothing cuter on a woman that a play-boy bunny outfit. Naturally, we leave the most offensive scene to serial offender, Rob Schneider, who hasn't even got the balls to be credited on this flick. Schneider dons fake teeth, a wig, face-paint and a hokey accent to do the most offensive impression of a Japanese man since Mr Yunioshi in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S.

I NOW PRONOUNCE YOU CHUCK AND LARRY is already on release in the US, Greece, the Netherlands, Taiwan, Australia, Egypt, Belgium, France, Portugal, Thailand, Hungary, Russia, Brazil, Italy, Turkey, Hong Kong, Slovakia, Lithuania, Spain, the Philippines, Argentina, the Czech Republic, Singapore, Iceland, Poland and the UK. It opens in Germany, Slovakia, Denmark, Estonia, Mexico, Norway and Sweden next weekend. It opens in Israel on October 4th, in Bulgaria on October 12th and in Finland on November 16th.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

AS YOU LIKE IT - I love you, "Bob"!

First, some context for this review. I have some limited experience of Shakespeare, having attended a school where our literary education consisted of little else from the age of eleven. I even took specialist Shakespeare examinations to enter University and before my Masters degree, even though I was applying for a different discipline in each case. I would also count myself as a great admirer of Kenneth Branagh's adaptations of Shakespeare, and I consider his Hamlet and Henry V amongst the best films of the past twenty years. So it was with increasing dismay that I realised how much I disliked his new adaptation of AS YOU LIKE IT.

AS YOU LIKE IT is, in his defence, a particularly problematic play, and not in the same way that, say, HAMLET is problematic. In the latter case, Shakespeare gives us such complex and fascinating imagery and action that we can pick out differing interpretations. AS YOU LIKE IT is problematic in the same way as COSI FAN TUTTE - it has such a frothy, convoluted plot that depends on conceits so alien to reality that it is difficult to know how to present it to a modern audience. On top of this structural complexity, I simply do not think it is one of Shakespeare's better plays. The comedy is not as broad as in his best and most vulgar comedies, the strain of melanocholy is not as integral and developed as in his darker plays, and, simply put, the language is not as beautiful.

The play opens with two sets of warring brothers and closes with four weddings. In between we have a pastoral comedy reminiscent of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM and TWELFTH NIGHT. Duke Senior has been usurped by his brother Duke Frederick and banished to the Forest of Arden. Soon after, their daughters Celia and Rosalind also flee the court for the forest, accompanied by the fool, Touchstone. Meanwhile, young Oliver is feuding with his younger brother Orlando, who has also fled to the forest. Orlando loves Rosalind, and she tests his love in the guise of a young boy called Ganymede. Phoebe, a young shepherdess falls for Rosalind/Ganymede, and scorns the love of Silvius. Oliver will eventually be redeemed by his love for Celia. Phoebe will eventually content herself with Silvius when she realises that Ganymede is a girl. And Touchstone will eventually marry a doltish goat-herd called Audrey.

Such a plot is testing for a cinema audience. Watching this sort of gender-bending from a distance in the theatre we can just about suspend our disbelief. But celluloid close-ups demand that the actress roughs herself up and takes on the physicality of a boy. I think the most successful example of this that I have seen is Felicity Kendal in the 1980 TV adaptation of Twelfth Night, but Sienna Miller is also convincing in Lasse Halstrom's CASANOVA. In Branagh's film, there is no attempt to make Bryce Dallas Howard look convincing as a boy and she certainly makes no attempt to alter her voice or physicality. Indeed, I didn't much like the way she performed the Shakespeare at all. It seemed very deliberate and self-consciously theatrical and, like Kevin Kline's performances as Jacques, arguably better suited to the stage. I found Alfred Molina (Touchstone), Adrian Lester (Oliver) and David Oyelowo (Orlando) gave the most natural and therefore the most convincing performances.

So, I don't particularly like the source text and I found the performances of mixed quality. But I was most surprised by my complete dislike of Kenneth Branagh's directorial decisions. In particular, I thought the device of staging the play in 19th century Japan utterly contrived. It added nothing to my understanding of the text and seemed motivated by the desire for novelty in the costume department. (I also hated the staging of the songs and the cheap Busby Berkeley ariel shots of people dancing in formation.) The Japanese conceit led Branagh to stage an Ang-Lee-esque opening action sequence involving samurai taking over the court. This proved that Branagh cannot choreograph an action scene and that his DP does not have the requisite skill to create depth of colour and contrast in a night scene.

AS YOU LIKE IT was released in Italy and Greece in 2006 and in Hungary in 2007. It was premiered on HBO in August and is currently on theatrical release in the UK.

Friday, September 21, 2007

A MIGHTY HEART - good as far as it goes

A MIGHTY HEART is based on Mariane Pearl's memoirs about the kidnapping and murder of her husband, American journalist Daniel Pearl, in Pakistan in 2002. Director Michael Winterbottom and DP Marcel Zyskind perfectly capture the chaos of Karachi on hand-held DV. Winterbottom also gives Jolie a chance to show off her acting skills for the first time since GIRL, INTERRUPTED. However, the director chooses not to examine the causes and motivations of the terrorists and only hints at the complex politics of US-Pakistani relations. What we are left with then, is simply a police procedural, and one is which we already know the tragic outcome at that. Moreover, aside from Jolie and Irrfan Khan in a supporting role, I thought the supporting cast was pretty weak.

A MIGHTY HEART played Cannes 2007 and was released in the USA, Germany, Portugal, Denmark, Spain, Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Slovakia earlier in the year. It opens in the UK today. It opens in Mexico on September 28th, in Singapore, Norway, Australia, Turkey, Brazil, Estonia, Sweden in October. It opens in Italy and Japan in November.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

THE SERPENT/LE SERPENT - mediocre French thriller

Yvan Attal (RUSH HOUR 3) plays a fashion photographer called Vincent. He's in the midst of a messy custody battle with his super-rich wife Hélène. A lingerie model accuses him of rape and then dies in his studio. At the same time, an old school-friend, Plender (Clovis Cornillac) turns up and helps Vincent hide the body. It soon transpires that Plender is a mentally unstable, professional black-mailer who holds Vincent responsible for the death of his mother. So begins his perseuction of Vincent.

Why do I call this movie mediocre? Well, it's not a disaster. It looks suitably grim, moves at a swift pace and is sufficiently interesting that you want to see how it all turns out. My problem with it is that it does nothing new with the genre. Moreover it lacks the threatening paranoia and isolation of, say, TELL NO-ONE. (Not that I especially liked that movie either.) Perhaps this is because Vincent is never really alone in his persecution. His lawyer and his wife always believe him and help him prove his innocence. Because of this, I never truly believed he was in danger.

LE SERPENT/THE SERPENT was released in France, Belgium, Greece, Sweden and Finland earlier this year. It is currently on release in the UK.

Friday, September 14, 2007

SHOOT 'EM UP - more laughs than SUPERBAD

Guns don't kill people! But they sure help.Proving that I'm not a completely pretentious old fogey after my bad experience of SUPERBAD, here's a positive review of SHOOT 'EM UP. Now SHOOT 'EM UP is a vacuous, derivative, implausible, puerile, borderline misogynistic piece of glorified video gaming. But it sure blows out the cobwebs after a hard week in the office! The violence is so stylised and hillarious - how many ways can you kill a guy with a carrot? - that the movie feels more like a live-action cartoon than a real movie. You just HAVE to admire the balls-out ridiculousness of it all! The plot is simple. Clive Owen semi-spoofs his standard role as an ordinary sort of guy who gets swept up in larger events. He's a bum who likes carrots and whores and has a previous life as a crack-shot special ops agent. One day he happens across a heavily pregnant woman who's being hunted down by some nasties and does the right thing. There's no point getting into an involved critique of this film. You just have to decide early on whether you're going to go with or not. I did, and I had a great, if utterly forgettable, time.

SHOOT 'EM UP is on release in the US and UK. It opens in France, the Philippines, Germany, Iceland and Singapore later in September. It opens in Belgium, the Netherlands, Argentina, Australia, Finland, Spain and Sweden in October. It opens in Brazil, Norway, Estonia and Slovenia in November.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

SUPERBAD - 'nuff said

 be like the Iron Chef of pounding VagI thought I was going to LOVE Superbad. Puerile humour, geek gags - it's my thing. But to my surprise I found this teen gross-out comedy deeply deeply unfunny, implausible and occasionally offensive. The basic plot is that three high school students need to get their hands on some booze in order to impress and therefore score with hot chicks at a party. This is all fine - it's practically the staple of the teen comedy - geeks desperate to score. But what irked me was that none of the lead characters was remotely likeable in the way that John Hughes leads were always sympathetic. Michael Cera's Evan is weak-willed and ineffectual. Jonah Hill's Seth is just a selfish vulgarian: Cartman without the redeeming humour. Christopher Mintz-Plasse's Fogell has neither the comic timing nor the capacity to inspire sympathy in the way that Anthony Michael Hall's geeks always did. I don't particularly mind all the swearing either, except that it is to no effect. Seth wears a Richard Pryor T-shirt early on in the film and it just served to remind me how when Pryor swore it was because he was really really angry! Not just whining. I also found the menstrual blood gag to be plain unfunny and borderline offensive. So what can I say? I just don't understand the hype about this film.

SUPERBAD is on release in Canada, the USA and the UK. It opens in Australia, Portugal, Denmark, Italy, Sweden, Israel and Iceland later in September. It opens in Germany, Russia, Latvia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Brazil, Hungary, Singapore, Estonia, Spain, Belgium and France in October. It opens in the Netherlands, Finland, Turkey, Argentina and Norway in November.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

3:10 TO YUMA - outstanding Western

Just remember, it's your old man that hauled Ben Wade to that station... when nobody else wouldAfter GIRL INTERRUPTED, COP LAND and WALK THE LINE, here's another great film from director James Mangold. This time it's a remake of the 1957 western, 3:10 TO YUMA, itself based on a short story by Elmore Leonard. There's nothing pioneering or rocket-sciency about this movie: it's just a gripping story, really well-told.

The ever-brilliant Christian Bale plays an indebted Arizona rancher who commands no respect, even in his own eyes. In a last ditch attempt to raise some cash and do something heroic, he escorts a notorious thief (Russell Crowe) to the train station in another town, where he will take the 3:10 to Yuma prison. The small posse gets eliminated one by one as Crowe's charming but immoral villain takes them out en route. And all the time, they are being followed by the villain's gang, not least a nasty but dandy-ish side-kick, played by Ben Foster in a truly break-out performance. The drama of the piece is in the confrontation between a deeply moral but pathetic man and an amoral swaggering anti-hero. The tension builds to a thrilling final shoot-out from the town-hotel to the train station. Will Bale's character get the villain to the train? And how far will the villain, who now has a grudging sympathy for the hero, collude in his own arrest. It makes for a brilliant character play, with the added bonus of some superb action sequences and handsome design and photography. Not to be missed.

3:10 TO YUMA is already on release in Russia and the USA. It opens in the UK on September 14th, in Iceland on September 28th, in Norway on October 12th, in Italy on October 19th, in Singapore on October 25th, in Turkey on November 2nd, in Argentina on November 8th, in Estonia on November 20th and in Finland on January 11th 2008.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

MR BEAN'S HOLIDAY - against all odds, charming!

When MR BEAN was first released I avoided it. I had never enjoyed the TV series. How could Rowan Atkinson - a man best known for verbal comedy in its highest form (BLACKADDER) r- educe himself to a near-mute buffoon making pratt-falls and getting his tie caught in elevator doors? I viewed it as a sad day in a sad business hotel when I was forced to rent MR BEAN'S HOLIDAY. But once again the cinema gods laugh at me - I actually enjoyed the film! Thankfully, the sort of weak gross out comedy featured in the trailer (snorting coffee etc) was kept to a minimum. Instead we had some really very funny physical comedy - especially in scenes where Mr Bean either dances or mimes to music. I particularly liked the O Mio Babbino interpretation. Critics can get awfully snotty about this sort of physical comedy, and clearly Bean has none of the social profundity of Charlie Chaplin. Still, in a world of cynical studio productions there has to be room for this sort of light-hearted feel-good comedy.

MR BEAN'S HOLIDAY opened in the UK in March 2007 and has since been on global release. It is released on DVD in December 2007.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Oslo's so nice my enjoyment of it has been completely unimpaired by watching THE BEST MAN

Norway's a great country, especially when contrasted with the malfunctional war-zone that is Heathrow Terminal 4. Everything is well designed and built of solid wood by people who had a degree of professional pride. There's some beautiful architecture, a thriving jazz scene, and money to be made (hence my trip.) But there are also a bunch of cinemas. Now, the only film I hadn't seen of the many that were playing was THE BEST MAN. It's only when I got back to my room and onto IMDB that I realised the reason: THE BEST MAN went straight to video in the US and UK. No surprise. This is a truly lame-ass romantic-comedy. Seriously, it makes RUN FATBOY RUN look like WHEN HARRY MET SALLY.

The script is shite. Pure unadulterated cliche. Sweet girl is getting hitched to slimy yuppie. His best mate is a nice sensitive guy. The bride to be and the best mate fall for each other. The wacky side-kick engineers funny situations in which the bride realises what a sleaze-bag the yuppie is. Oh, and she also has a spiky best friend so everyone can couple up at the end. Unbelievable, unfunny. Just the worst. So, when I say that the actors are largely uninspired this is no real criticism. Still even here, we have a scale. Steve John Shepherd is at one end with a truly wooden performance as the yuppie. Amy Smart and Stuart "Coulda Been Aragorn" Townsend are fine as the bride and best man respectively. But the only actors displaying any real comic timing are Kate Ashfield (SHAUN OF THE DEAD) and Seth Green - who we all knew was a comedy genius anyways.

What else remains? Well, it's nice to see a London-set film where people hang out in Soho and drink lager rather than poncing round the Swiss Re tower.

THE BEST MAN opened in Germany, Austria, Italy, Russia, Spain and Israel in 2006 and went straight to DVD in the US. It is currently showing in Norway.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

ATONEMENT - showy and weighty where it should have been slippery and elegant

ATONEMENT is handsomely designed and photographed film. But the design is so insistent as to be distracting. The classic example is the much-praised 5 minutes tracking shot of Dunkirk, which looks stunning, but advances the film not one jot. Another example is the incredibly obvious and self-conscious sound design that incorporates typewriter keys into the orchestral score. The worst example is a scene in a tea-room that Joe Wright directs as a pastiche of BRIEF ENCOUNTERS. And here we come to the heart of my criticism of ATONEMENT - Keira Knightley's mediocre performance in the central role. If it is possible, her accent becomes even more strangulated than usual - standing in sharp contrast with the more natural cadences of Benedict Cumberbatch, Saoirse Ronan et al. The limits to Knightley's range are most clearly shown in a scene between herself, James McAvoy, Romola Garai. Garai in particular, and McAvoy to a lesser extent, act her off the screen.

So what is left to like? A very impressive supporting cast, including Brenda Blethyn, Gina McKee and I thought I detected a cameo by Tobias Menzies? Most importantly, Ian McEwan's intelligent and genuinely affecting story is left almost untouched by Christopher Hampton's faithful script. I won't give a synopsis because I think it's important that you see the key events fresh in the cinema and unaffected by reviewer's interpretations. This goes to the heart of the story. Suffice to say that this is a movie about class difference, thwarted love, misperceptions, a lifetime of regret and the impossibility of narrative.

Apparently, some reviewers have hailed ATONEMENT as an "instant classic". Let's be clear. It's no FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN. Nor is it BRIEF ENCOUNTERS. It is a well put-together if highly self-conscious WW2 drama in which a better than usual script offsets a weaker than usual leading lady. As such, it justifies a viewing but not hysteria.

ATONEMENT played Venice 2007 and is currently on release in the UK. It opens in Italy and Finland later in September and in Turkey in October. It opens in Argentina, the Netherlands, Germany, Hungary, Norway and Sweden in November. It opens in the US, Singapore, Slovakia and Australia in December and in Belgium, France, Denmark and Spain in January 2008. It finally rolls into Mexico in March.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

RISE OF THE FOOTSOLDIER - strangely good

RISE OF THE FOOTSOLDIER is a loose autobiography of a real-life East End gangster called Carlton Leach. He makes the transition from vicious football hooligan to vicious doorman and muscle for hire by way of serious steroid abuse, narcotics abuse, wife abuse, torture and at the very least being an accessory to murder. Given that the movie is about a bunch of mindless, vulgar, misogynistc thugs, it's full of mindless, vulgar, misogynistic language and sex. This had less some reviewers to criticise the movie as vulgar and misogynistic. I think that's to miss the point spectacularly. What the movie does is depict a very real and very petrifying slice of British life. I actually don't think the film glamourises the lifestyle. In fact, the central characters come across a bunch of stupid wankers and are dispatched accordingly. What I did like was the attention to detail that added a touch of reality and authenticity. For instance, when the anti-hero starts taking steroids to add muscle he gets a craving for nutrient-rich baby-food. It's not the kind of film in which you can praise performances. Pretty much all the actors have to do is look thuggish, swear and kick the crap out of people. But I will praise the cinematography and production design which is suitably grim, grimy and gritty.

RISE OF THE FOOTSOLDIER is on release in the UK.

Friday, September 07, 2007

RUN FATBOY RUN - save yourself 10 quid and just watch the trailer...

....coz all the laughs and the entire plot of this schmaltzy rom-com are contained therein.

True, Simon Pegg did co-write and star in RUN FATBOY RUN but his mojo has evidently been diluted by the writing "talents" of Michael Ian Black (Reno 911 - 'nuff said) and the incipient directing "talents" of David "Ross" Schwimmer. The story is derivative and stretched thin. Pegg plays a loser who walked out on his pregnant fiancee (Thandie Newton) five years ago. In the present day, he enters a marathon in order to win her back from her new rich American boyfriend (Hank Azaria). The only saving grace is Dylan Moran in a Black Books'esque role as Pegg's best friend. Cameos by David Walliams and Stephen Merchant are utterly wasted. Also, why is it every London-based investment banker in a US financed movie works in the Swiss Re tower?

RUN FATBOY RUN is on release in the UK and opens in the US on October 26th 2007.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

BREACH - intelligent character-driven drama

Pray for meRubbish poster, great film.

Chris Cooper is outstanding in capturing the enigmatic and contradictory nature of FBI lifer and Soviet-run mole, Robert Hanssen. On one level, Hanssen is an eerily straight-laced man. He attends mass daily, hates women who wear trousers and homosexuals, and loves his country. But Hanssen is running a seamier double-life, where he sells porn films starring his own wife and harbours ludicrous fantasies about Catherine Zeta Jones. He has also been giving the Soviets highly sensitive classified information for the past twenty-odd years. My theory - after a life-long fascination with the Cambridge spies - is that all moles are driven by frustrated arrogance - and Hanssen, as depicted here, conforms with that view. At bottom, their decisions seem less to do with ideology than with vanity and the belief that their own superior intelligence gives them the right to break the rules. In Hanssen's case, he feels his career has been stunted by office politics, and that he is almost doing the US a favour by exposing the weakness of their security systems. And after all, isn't it fun playing a game in which you have everyone fooled?

As foils for Chris Cooper's brilliance, we have Ryan Philippe playing Eric O'Neill, the young wannabe agent who was assigned to keep tabs on Hanssen and eventually brought him in. Philippe plays a similar sort of role to those in FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS and CRASH. He is always convincing as the quiet young man of integrity who has to face up to the fact that the institutions he grew up believing in are not as peaches and cream as he thought. Laura Linney and Dennis Haysbert are little more than age-appropriate delivery devices.

What I love about this film is its patient expositon of all the facets of Hanssen's character and its unwillingness to trim everything down to a clear answer. This adult attitude is evident even in small choices. Early on, the usually grim-faced Hanssen walks past a car in a parking garage and gives a wry smile. The name plate above the car is of Louis Freeh. There is no attempt to explain to the audience who this is. It's assumed that we've all read a newspaper and get the significance.

It's also a real triumph that although we know how the story ends, BREACH is always suspenseful and tense. Writer-director Billy Ray has done a great job.

BREACH went on release in the USA, Israel, Hungary, Singapore, Iceland, South Africa, Poland, Turkey, Australia, Italy, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Kuwait, Russia, Greece, Brazil and Mexico earlier this year. It is currently on release in the UK and opens in Spain on October 11th and in Germany on October 18th 2007.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Overlooked DVD of the month - THE UPSIDE OF ANGER

THE UPSIDE OF ANGER is an interesting and original adult drama. (I refrain from calling it a rom-com). It's original because writer-director Mike Binder dares to feature a romance between two mentally and physically out-of-shape middle-aged people. This means that a great "character" actress like Joan Allen can get a starring role as a woman whose husband has apparently left her for his younger PA. She hits the bottle pretty hard and starts an affair with a has-been baseball player called Denny (Kevin Costner). She also has four teenage daughters who have various issues. It's not one of those laugh-out loud movies, although it does contain some wry laughs. And it doesn't have the typical formulaic plot arc where the happy couple meet, argue, get back together. It moves at a patient pace and creates interesting characters. I just think it's lovely to see a mature film for a change, and in some ways, the less epic plot creates a more cohesive and successful film that Binder's later work, REIGN OVER ME.

THE UPSIDE OF ANGER played Sundance in 2005 and opened in the US that year. It didn't open in the UK until May 2007 and is available on DVD.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

2 DAYS IN PARIS - scarily observant, hysterically funny rom-com

2 DAYS IN PARIS is a truly funny, scarily observant film about the impossibility of relationships. Poly-functional film-maker Julie Delpy plays a 35 year old photographer called Marion who's in a relationship with Adam Goldberg's American Interior Designer, Jack. After 2 years together, 2 days in Marion's home town convinces Jack that he doesn't actually know anything about Marion and that she could well be cheating on him. For her part, Marion doesn't get why Jack is so uptight about her ex-boyfriends, nor why he prefers to take photos of everything rather than stay in the moment with her. Neither have any affection for France, nor any sex, thankfully undermining the city's reputation.

2 DAYS IN PARIS has rightly been compared to Woody Allen. It's a movie about real people in a real relationship having real conversations, albeit in a heightened state of neuroticism and with wittier one-liners. The observations ring true but are not laden with forced profundity. (Although I could have done without the twee drawing on the screen, I rather liked Marion's voice-overs.) But most of all, I love the ambiguity of the ending. Sure, the lovers end up dancing the night away, but are they in love or in a state of compromise? Are they enjoying a few moments before an inevitable break-up? You could watch a thousand Hollywood rom-coms and never find an ounce of such authenticity.

2 DAYS IN PARIS played Berlin 2007 and was released in Germany, Austria, Hong Kong, France, Norway, Finland, Taiwan, Belgium, Spain and the US earlier this year. It is currently on release in Thailand and the UK. It opens in Sweden on September 7th, in Italy on October 5th, in Australia on December 26th and in Turkey on December 28th.

Monday, September 03, 2007

CRIES AND WHISPERS - a masterclass in colour photography

The more Ingmar Bergman films I watch, the more I'm convinced he is the premier horror director of the modern era. But this is no simple blood and guts slasher nonsense (although there is a horrifically disturbing scene of self-mutation.) Rather, Bergman explores the horrors of the human condition: loneliness, isolation, sexual incompatibility, fear of death and loss of faith. While these themes are ever-present in his work, in CRIES AND WHISPERS they are raised to a sort of fever pitch of (quite literally) hysteria. A woman called Agnes (Harriet Andersson) is dieing. But it's not a typical sentimental movie death. It's fierce and painful and frought with the kind of shrieks that alienate her two sisters. Although they are living with Agnes to care for her, in fact they are more scared than caring. Her death forces them to confront the inadequacies of their lives. Outwardly cold, if not frigid, Karin (Ingrid Thulin) has to resort to self-harm to show her husband how much she resents him. Maria (Liv Ullman) is a superficial flirt. She and her husband have retaliatory affairs. Only the servant, Anna, comforts Agnes.

The script and performances are outstanding. But the unique feature of CRIES AND WHISPERS relative to the rest of Bergman's cannon is DP Sven Nykvist's use of colour, and specifically the colour red. The interiors are drenched in it, creating a claustrophic, hysterical feel. It's no less that a technical masterclass in colour photography and deservedly won Nykvist an Oscar and the movie the Technical Grand Prize at Cannes.

CRIES AND WHISPERS was originally released in 1972 and played Cannes 1973. It is available on DVD.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

YEAR OF THE DOG - neither romantic nor funny

Peggy (Molly Shannon) is a lonely middle-aged woman. Her sister-in-law (Laura Dern) is smug and self-centred; her boss is materialistic and selfish; her best-friend (Regina King) is callous and deluded. So Peggy finds solace in her relationship with her dog, Pencil. When he dies she transfers her attention to a similarly psychologically stunted dog-trainer called Newt (Peter Sarsgaard). Rejected once again, Peggy has what can only be described as a nervous breakdown.

This is not the stuff of romance nor comedy, and I was astounded at just what a relentlessly depressing film this was. From the trailer, one might have thought this would be another indie rom-com about quirky characters finding love, EAGLE VERSUS SHARK stylee. Instead, this is simply a long-drawn out tragedy in which a potentially normal woman throws away her life. To that extent, it reminded me of Mike White's previous script, THE GOOD GIRL, which left me similarly ambivalent about the central character and similarly depressed, despite the odd witty one-liner. Definitely one to avoid.

YEAR OF THE DOG played Sundance 2007 and was released in the US in April. It is currently on release in the UK.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

DEATH SENTENCE suffers from bipolar disorder

DEATH SENTENCE was a potentially great movie but suffered from a change of concept half way through. The first half is a well-acted and deeply moving tale of loss. Kevin Bacon and Kelly Preston play a middle-class middle-aged couple who lose their elder son in an unmotivated gang assault. The father decides not to testify against the gang member responsible. Instead, after some procastination, and before the self-disgust and sinister pride, he takes revenge.

I really loved this half of the film. It was told with economy (viz. the opening montage of home videos) and I really liked the washed out look of the film. Kelly Preston and Kevin Bacon acted their grief convincingly and Bacon was especially good at showing the different stages by which an apparently normal guy becomes a vigilante. Best of all, it seemed as through the movie was going to have the balls to fling out the conventional vigilante movie ending with something much darker and realistic.

Of course, that would only have given the flick an eighty minute run-time. So director James "SAW" Wan tacks on a 30 minute coda that is pure video-game mindless shoot-em-up violence. The whole look and tone of the flick changes. Not that this isn't a lot of fun. John Goodman's cameo as the gang leader is Pure Comedy Gold. But it just felt like between the reels we'd been sucked into a COMPLETELY different film.

DEATH SENTENCE is currently on release in the UK and USA. It opens in Germany on September 13th, in the Netherlands on September 27th, in Turkey on October 5th and in Belgium on November 21st 2007.