Wednesday, October 31, 2007

London Film Fest Day 15 - ANGEL is a fiasco

ANGEL takes the prize for biggest fiasco of London 2007. It's also the only movie I walked out of - after 90 minutes of its 135 minute run-time. I simply couldn't take any more.

Francois Ozon has adapted Elizebeth Taylor's novel about a head-strong, self-centred young girl who turns herself into a famous novelist almost by sheer will alone. Her novels are pure trash - romantic melodramas reminiscent of Barbara Cartland. She becomes rich, buys a husband, has a Sapphic personal assistant (his sister), and the country house of her dreams. But during World War One she turns pacifist, loses readers and her husband's love.

Ozon's movie is a vulgar pastiche of the genre of novel that Angel writes. This is no loving, gentle parody or sensitive reinterpretation in the manner of Todd Haynes' FAR FROM HEAVEN. Rather, it is a simple-minded send-up that sneers at the genre and raises cheap laughs from an audience complicit in its sneering. Sets are over-done; costumes are ridicuolous; the orchestral score is all soaring strings; the actors ham it up for all its worth; the dialogue is (presumably deliberately) absurd.

One does, of course, laugh at the deliberately ropy back-projection shot of Angel and her publisher riding in an open-top carriage past the Houses of Parliamnent. But after around 45 minutes the one-note humour and banality of the central conceit of this film become boring beyong belief.

This film is a sad waste of an admirable cast and the proven ability of Ozon. In 8 WOMEN he modernised and subverted genre cinema to great effect. By contrast, ANGEL is just a worthless piss-take.

ANGEL played Berlin, Toronto and London 2007. It opened in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Russia, Germany, Austria, Poland, Lithuania and Italy earlier this year. It opens in Turkey and Australia in November and in Japan in December. It opens in Singapore on January 31st 2008.

London Film Fest Day 15 - JUNO rocks my world

JUNO is another of those films that you feel wouldn’t have happened before Wes Anderson and Sundance took off and Napoleon Dynamite became a sleeper hit. You know what I mean. The faux-naif acoustic soundtrack featuring Kinks songs and Lou Reed. The quirky characters that say ever-so-slightly unrealistic things about life and love. The over-designed sets, crammed with bad-taste props and trashy clothes. The use of carefully designed credits with a hand-made feel – this time half-animated. The insistent campy visual motifs – in this case Michael Cera’s track-suit and the joggers who run across screen every now and then. I mean, Sweet Tap-Dancing Little Miss Sunshine, it even features a beat-up camper van.

For all that, JUNO remains a very smart, very witty and thoroughly engaging film. That’s largely down to a whip-smart script by new-comer, Diablo Cody, the good comic timing of director Jason Reitman (THANK YOU FOR SMOKING) and flawless dead-pan performances from Ellen Page (HARD CANDY), J K Simmons and Allison Janney. In addition, Michael Cera gives a stealth performance that is so quiet it’s easy to overlook how good he is.

Page plays an intelligent but, yes, fundamentally dumb, 16 year old girl called Juno, who gets knocked up by her best friend Paulie Bleeker (Cera). At first, she thinks she’ll just get a quick abortion but almost on impulse decides to give the baby up for adoption. Her parents (Simmons and Janney) are flummoxed but supportive, and while Juno gets odd looks at school she has enough moxy to front it out. The putative adoptive parents are played by Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner. Bateman is suitably slippery as the cool older guy. There’s a lot of sexual tension between him and the much younger Page – and I suppose it doesn’t hurt that viewers will partially read Page’s precocious, flirtatious character from HARD CANDY onto her portrayal of Juno. Garner is also fantastic as a slightly snobbish but fundamentally decent yuppie who’s desperate for a kid. She makes what could have been a rather cliché’d annoying character sympathetic. There’s also a hysterical opening cameo from Rainn Wilson as a clerk.

Performances and big belly-laughs aside, the great thing about JUNO is that it’s a proper story with characters that develop and change and events that take us by surprise but also seem plausible and credible. Moreover, instead of letting this become some day-time TV serial cliffhanger about whether the adoption will go ahead, Reitman/Cody rejig the focus to the love story between Cera and Juno. All this adds up to a movie that’s funnier than the already decent THANK YOU FOR SMOKING but which has more narrative drive and a more satisfying emotional pay-off. Instead of drifting in the third act, JUNO actually gets better. And while JUNO doesn’t quite pip SON OF RAMBOW at the post for best comedy at London 2007, it gives it a damn good run for its money.

JUNO played Toronto and London 2007 and goes on release in the US on December 5th. It opens in Australia and Sweden in January 2008, in Finland, Italy, Spain, the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands in February and in Germany in March.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


Notes on THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY from our Gmunden Correspondent, Georg:

THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY has the capacity to be a major success because it combines both artistic quality and accessibility. It has artistic quality because it was made by Julian Schnabel, a director who is also an artist and photographer. He has a great sense of visual style. Schnabel and the Director of Photography, Janusz Kaminski, manage to capture what it must be like to have “locked-in” syndrome. The opening part of this biopic takes place from the point of view of Jean-Dominique Bauby. He wakes from a coma and we hear his thoughts. We look through his one functioning eye and interpret distorted sights.

The movie is accessible because Bauby has a terrific sense of humour. Even though he has been struck by illness, his voice-overs are actually very funny. In fact, THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY is one of the funnier movies I have seen in recent time. Bauby shows us what his life used to be in flash-backs. Before the accident, Bauby was editor of French Elle magazine. He had a long-term lover and children. He also had a hot current girlfriend. He was a bit of a playboy. There is a dramatic tension because the current lover finds it too painful to visit Bauby in hospital.

This is really a great film and should be a big success.

THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY played Cannes 2007 where it won the prize for Best Director and Technical Achievement. It also played Toronto and London 2007 and was released in Belgium, France and the Netherlands earlier this year. It is released in Greece and the US in November and in Denmark and Australia in December. It is released in Spain, Sweden and Finland in January and in the UK in February.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

London Film Fest Day 12 - BEE MOVIE

BEE MOVIE is a new CGI animated flick from Dreamworks. It features a bee called Barry who decides to break out of the monotony of working in the hive and makes friends with a florist called Vanessa. Barry also discovers that big food companies farm hives for honey and get fat off the profits. So he sues them in the Supreme Court and duly wins back all rights to honey for the bees. Now drowning in the globe's honey stocks, the bees no longer need to make any more. So they kick up their heels. As a result, the flora and the fauna of the world dies out through lack of pollination. Barry and Vanessa must therefore make a last ditch attempt to pollinate the last batch of flowers on earth.

The movie is very smart and very witty as one would expect from a project created by, written by and starring Jerry Seinfeld. As a naive bee entering the world for the first time, Seinfeld can comment on all the craziness he sees. And yes, he is basically just Seinfeld as a bee. There is no other characterisation to the part. Luckily, just being Seinfeld is probably enough to give the audience its ticket-price worth of belly-laughs.

Problem is that other than the disposable one-liners, there's not much to this film. The animation is pretty basic - not a patch on recent Pixar efforts or indeed old-school stop-mo flicks like
MAX AND CO. Perhaps more seriously, the movie doesn't have much heart. Law suits and work-life balance are not the stuff of memorable films and BEE MOVIE lacks the emotional centre of a TOY STORY or RATATOUILLE. And this seems to me to be a constant complaint with Dreamworks animation films. They are all funny, more or less, but are technically weak and have no heart. The only real hit they've had was SHREK and that franchise has delivered diminishing returns. By contrast, films like TOY STORY, FINDING NEMO and RATATOUILLE have real stories, character development and emotional pull as well as the quick-fire wit.

So BEE MOVIE gets a qualified thumbs-up. You will, no doubt, have a good time. But I doubt you'll take it to your heart.

BEE MOVIE premiered at London 2007. It opens in Russia, the US, Singapore, Mexico Spain and Taiwan in November and in Argentina, Australia, Hungary, Brazil, Iceland, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Slovakia, Turkey, the UK, Slovenia, Italy, Denmark, Finland, Sweden amd Norway in December 2007. It opens in Japan and Egypt in January 2008.

London Film Fest Day 12 - SAVAGE GRACE

It's a story so delicious, you couldn't make it up. The suave heir to an industrial fortune marries a beautiful social climber. They lead a life of privelege and ease in the summer resorts of Europe. She is embarassingly over-ambitious for her delicate young son. All three have casual sex with alarming alacrity. No-one is off limits. Nothing is unexpected. And then, after an hour or two of bed-hopping, the young son and mother indulge in the only coupling as yet untried. The fuck each other. He kills her. He orders chinese take-out and waits for the cops.

All this is true. But so much is left out. We never learn of Barbara Baekeland's disgust at her son's homosexuality. We never see that she seduces him in an attempt to turn him heterosexual, rather than out of careless boredom. We never see Tony exhibit signs of mental illness - the murder is not foreshadowed in anything he says or does. As a result, the movie lacks momentum or narrative drive. It just drifts across the screen - one scene of boredom and casual sex after another. You never understand why any of the characters do anything, much less care. Even during acts of incest or murder, the dull tedium of their lives has infected the movie-goer to the point where we couldn't care less. Things aren't helped by the lack of context in the production design. Apart from one scene in the Stork Club we never see the Baekelands as social animals, living fast in glamourous parties or nightclubs. Maybe this was due to a budgetary constraint? The result is that visually, this is rather a dull film. There's also a sort of prudishness when it comes to the sex scenes. They are hinted at but never shown - certainly this movie has none of the balls-out bravery of Christophe Honoré's

All of this is a tremendous shame. I have great respect for all three lead actors - Moore, Dillane, Redmayne - and the subject matter could have been fascinating. But the movie had a listless, bizarrely prim feel to it. I was utterly unimpressed.

SAVAGE GRACE played Cannes, Toronto and London 2007. It opens in the US, Spain and Turkey in 2008.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

London Film Fest Day 11 - GRACE IS GONE

GRACE IS GONE is one of those quiet films that just steals up on you. It's a very simple story. Stanley is a decent guy. He has a wife, Grace and two young daughters, Heidi and Dawn, whom he loves dearly. He loves his country in a quiet way - not in the dumb, jingoistic manner often depicted in war films. Stanley cheated on his eye test so he could get into the army but was eventually discovered and kicked out. Which is partly why he feels so ashamed when his wife - an active soldier - is killed in Iraq. He can't bring himself to tell his daughters. In a desperate act of evasion he drives them to his mother's house, where they meet Stanley's brother, and then on to a theme park in Florida. The elder daughter, Heidi, is sensible and thoughtful and almost stumbles onto the truth. The younger daughter, Dawn, is wonderfully full of energy and fun, but she misses her mother and her home. Eventually Stanley breaks down and tells his daughters the truth.

The movie is affecting because the characters, situations and dialogue all ring true. In happier moments, the playful joshing between the two sisters is charming. In darker moments, Stanley's inability to deal with the situation also, tragically rings true. Credit goes to writer-director James C Strouse. I hated his earlier script for
LONESOME JIM. I didn't empathise with any of the characters or situations in that film. I was never sold on why I should spend time with them. But GRACE IS GONE is completely different - warm, moving, never manipulative, tragically believable. I also think the three lead characters do a sterling job. It's wonderful to see John Cusack getting a chance to move beyond his slick charmer role with a very modulated, still performance. But the real stand out is Shelan O'Keefe as the elder daughter. Admittedly the tech package is nothing special but that's not the point with this film. Instead, in a period where we are daily bludgeoned with portentious movies about the war in Iraq, it's refreshing to see someone take the time to look at the real, fundamental impact on ordinary people.

GRACE IS GONE played Sundance 2007 where it won the Audience Award and the Screenplay Award. It also played Toronto and London 2007. It opens in the US on December 7th, in Spain on February 1st 2008 and in France in April 2008.

LAGERFELD CONFIDENTIEL - fascinating fashion doc

LAGERFIELD CONFIDENTIEL is a documentary consisting largely of interviews with, and behind the scenes footage of the life of, Chanel's Karl Lagerfeld. The work of Rodolphe Marconi, the documentary looks pretty awful, especially in interior night scenes where the Super 8 footage looks grainy and unclear. Moreover, this is another of those docs that you could happily watch on TV. Having said all that, LAGERFELD CONFIDENTIEL is absolutely rivetting and not just for those with an interest in fashion. Yes, it satisfies a HELLO! magazine urge when you see him jetting around with Princess Caroline of Monaco or photographing Nicole Kidman. But the real interest is the brief one-on-one interviews. Here Lagerfeld reveals that behind the carefully cultivated look and megabucks lifestyle, he is a true original and a wonderful character. He comes across as very smart, very funny, intolerant of bullshit and people not following his precise instructions, but also rather humble. He acknowledges tha he has been lucky all is life. He grew up in post-war Germany, the son of an apparently fascinating, domineering, charming woman. When it became clear he was homosexual, this caused his mother no problems. After all, his half-sister was lesbian and his mother had been in Berlin in the 20s! So, Lagerfeld lived a rather spoiled, secure life in what could have been a very repressive situation, and eventually came to Chanel. I thought it was a shame that the doc didn't tell us more about the mechanics of what made him a great designer, but I suppose you can't have everything. We do have one scene where, aside from all the flashbulbs, with his trademark dark glasses taken off, he sits and draws a new outfit. It's amazing to think that behind all the merchandising and publicity, it still boils down to a person with a pen and a piece of paper and his or her imagination.

LAGERFELD CONFIDENTIEL played Berlin and London 2007 and is currently on release in the UK, US and France.

London Film Fest Day 11 - SON OF RAMBOW: A HOME MOVIE

Each year, one movie stands out as the great unexpected discovery of the London Film Fest. In 2005 it was CACHE and last year it was SHORTBUS. Far be it for me to prejudge the rest of the fest, but I have a feeling that for 2007, SON OF RAMBOW: A HOME MOVIE will be the stand-out movie. 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD and INTO THE WILD were all deeply affecting and beautifully shot, to be sure. And SON OF RAMBOW doesn't match them on the tech package or profundity of the message. But for all that, SON OF RAMBOW has some very unique features: it's laugh-out-loud funny, anarchic, touching, nostalgic, crazy and despite touching on deep emotional issues, never heavy-handed or manipulative. Writer-director Garth Jennings must be very pleased that he'll be remembered for something other than that disastrous HITCH-HIKERS GUIDE adaptation!

So, what's it all about? It's 1980s Britain. An era of Corona soda, fizzing sherbet, New Romantics, pirated VHS tapes and cassette mix-tapes recorded from the Radio 1 Top 40 on a Sunday night. Will is a straight-laced kid with a vivid imagination and a flair for drawing. He lives in a family with strict religious beliefs, including being banned from watching TV. He forms an unlikely friendship with the school trouble-maker, Carter, who also has issues with absentee parents and a distant elder brother who he idolises. Will watches a pirate copy of FIRST BLOOD - can you imagine a more crazy way to be introduced to video?! - and creates a fantasy world in which he's the Son of Rambow who rescues his father from the clutches of the Evil Scarecrow. So the kids start shooting the home movie and soon all the cool kids in school - including the insanely cool French exchange kid, Didier - are clamouring to join in.

In terms of production values, the movie glories in the "look" of the early 80s and the incidental props are spot on. Jennings seems to like very staged set pieces in the manner of Wes Anderson. This is particularly evident in the scenes with Didier and his acolytes. In front of the camera, the actors do a great job - especially the two kids in the lead roles. You really buy into their budding friendship. The relationship between Will and his mother, battling to preserve her religious beliefs in the modern world, is also very touching.

But the biggest sell is that the film is extremely funny. And not in an ironic, deadpan, oh-so-clever way but in a straight-from-the-gut belly-laugh way. A skinny little English kid dressed up as Rambo is just funny. But beyond this there's a silly joy at physical comedy as well as some classic one-liners. It's a world of practical jokes, pratt-falls and taking the piss out of all the stupid clothes we wore in the early 80s. Nostalgia-tastic!

SON OF RAMBOW: A HOME MOVIE played Sundance, Toronto and London 2007. It opens in the UK on March 28th 2008 and in the US on May 2nd.

Friday, October 26, 2007

London Film Fest Day 10 - INTO THE WILD

I always think of Sean Penn as making angry films about disaffected, lonely men: movies that feature alienated members of society but also movies that alienate the audience with their chilly, depressing picture of humanity. I often admire Penn’s performances and directorial efforts. I rarely find myself moved by them. So it came as quite a surprise to find that INTO THE WILD was an incredibly warm and touching movie.

It tells the real-life story of an American kid called Chris McCandless. At the turn of the 1990s, Chris McCandless was a bright college graduate with a fondness for poetry. He was destined for Harvard Law and a solid middle-class life. But he abandoned his car, gave his college fund to charity and burned his petty cash and headed for the open road. He deliberately kept his parents in the dark. With their abusive marriage built upon a tissue of lies, and their typically middle-class fondness for nice “things”, they represented everything he was escaping from. More cruelly, he also kept his little sister in the dark, and we hear her understanding turn to hurt in Jena Malone’s touching voice-over throughout the film.

Before the film, I was prejudiced about McCandless. I thought his decision not to get in touch with his parents was callous. But the film shows him to be a warm-hearted, generous man, capable of empathising with people and of really listening to them. He was a good friend and often transformed the lives of people he lived with. In turn, the world seems to have shown him a smiling face. From the wonderfully caring hippies called Rainey and Jan (Brian Dierker and Catherine Keener) to a an old lonely man called Ron (Hal Holbrook) who actually offers to adopt him. Even when Chris kayaks into Mexico, loses his boat, and then turns up at the border crossing without ID, the immigration guard seems faintly amused and let him through. Throughout his two years of travels McCandless picks up survival skills and starts training for his Big Alaskan Adventure. The loneliness of the Yukon proves the ultimate test of his mission to live a pure life in all of nature’s beauty. But, despite being infinitely less irresponsible than Timothy Treadwell, he falls foul of mighty nature in the end.

Emile Hirsch gives a wonderful portrayal of McCandless. He fills the screen with warmth and a sense of adventure and has genuine chemistry with all the people he meets along his journey. We can see that McCandless is foolhardy in his determination to follow an extreme course, but we are never allowed to judge him for it. But most of all, I think that Sean Penn deserves special praise here. As screen-writer and director, he discreetly shows the audience the home-life that Chris was escaping from and the wonderful beauty of the American landscape that lured Chris on. The visuals are absolutely stunning and are perfectly complemented by Eddie Vedder’s songs. I left the movie theatre grateful to have spent time with McCandless and all the people he had met on his travels. I was deeply moved by his epiphany and the journey’s end.

INTO THE WILD played Toronto 2007 and has already been on release in the USA, Canada and the Czech Republic. It goes on release in the UK today. It opens in Russia, Iceland, Australia and Denmark later in November and in Turkey and Brazil in December 2007. It opens in Romania, Japan and Spain in January 2008 and in Germany and Norway in February. It opens in Sweden in March.

London Film Fest Day 10 - BRICK LANE

We've heard a lot in this film festival about how liberty suffers in times of war. But with BRICK LANE we have a real life case study of political correctness and multiculturalism in Britain today. Monica Ali's book and Sarah Gavron's new film were both attacked by elements of the Bangladeshi community for being racist - for portraying the Bengali community in an unfavourable light. As a result, this movie was not actually filmed in Brick Lane - the heart of the Bengali community in London's East End. Prince Charles also pulled out of the planned Royal Premiere because the film was seen to be too controversial, which is why the movie ended up as a late addition to the London Film Festival. So much for being "Defender of Faith". His Royal Highness should perhaps consider his responsibility to be a defender of liberty and artistic freedom.

So much for political correctness gone crazy and on to the film. (I admit to not having read the incredibly popular novel on which the movie was based.) Monica Ali's story has two main strands. The first is a love story. Tannishtha Chatterjee plays a Bengali girl called Nazneen. At 16 she is married off to a man called Chanu (Satish Kaushik) and leaves her Bengali village for London. Whenever she thinks back to her time in Bengal it is depicted as a country of vivid colours and happy memories. I have to say that I am a bit tired of seeing this sort of slo-mo colour-saturated flashback, but heigh-ho, I suppose it does show how we idealise our past. 16 years later, Nazneen is the mother of two daughters and dissatisfied with her husband. He comes across as a fat pompous fool, fond of literature, sure of a promotion, and domineering. Nazneen takes in sewing when her husband loses his job and ends up having an affair with an attractive young man called Karim (Christopher Simpson). The dramatic tension rests on whether she will leave her husband for her new lover. The love story is decently acted but has absolutely no dramatic tension. From the first moment Nazneen claps eyes on Karim, we know they're going to fall in love.

The second, far less developed and yet far more interesting, strand deals with the politics of immigration. At first, the Bengali community is conciliatory towards the outside world - wanting to engage and feeling victimised by racism. By the end of the film, they have become more fervent and more aggressive. By far not enough time is given to this theme.

The character that really links the two strands in the husband Chanu, played by the brilliant Satish Kaushik. Again, he's not given enough time at the expense of the more photogenic love story. Chanu is fascinating because he puts his faith in the system. He is well educated and trusts that merit will be rewarded. But he is duly passed over for promotion because he doesn't look and sound the part. When the community starts to become more aggressive he makes a stand for humanism and compassion - a moment of real nobility that earns the audience and Nazneen's respect. And finally, he comes to the rather depressing conclusion that he cannot exist both as Bengali and English resident. Kaushik successfully brings off this complex character - both domineering and gentle; both ridiculous and noble. It is by far the best and most fascinating part of the film.

Both Georg (Our Gmunden Correspondent) and I left the cinema with mixed feelings about BRICK LANE. So much of the shooting style and central love story seemed predictable and derivative. But the character of Satish, and the hints of the deeper social and political changes, were very interesting indeed. So, we give it a mild recommendation.

BRICK LANE played Toronto 2007 and goes on release in the UK on November 16th.

London Film Fest Day 10 - MY KID COULD PAINT THAT

A couple of years ago in New York state, a four-year old girl called Marla Olmstead was painting abstract art that was being displayed in a private gallery and selling for thousands of dollars. The story was picked up by a local newspaper, then the New York Times and finally by chat shows around the country. It was the perfect story. Here we had a very photogenic family and a cute kid painting in her diapers. The pictures used lots of bold colours and were easy on the eye. Best of all, world-weary adults could read stories of child-hood innocence onto them. It intrigued a public that had always been fascinated by child prodigies. And it fascinated a public that had always been suspicious that all of modern art was basically nonsense. Marla became so famous that 60 Minutes decided to do a show about her art. They even filmed her painting. But when the show aired they insinuated that Marla’s paintings were, at the very least, being “directed” by her father, and at worst, being painted by him. Overnight, the family were perceived to be frauds, the bottom dropped out of the market and the hate-mail started pouring in.

As chance would have it, during this entire process was captured by a documentary film-maker called Amir Bar-Lev who had set out to make a film about the nature of modern art. What he actually got on film was a documentary about the nature of the media circus and the dangerous relationship between the people who sell a product and the product they are selling. One of the most intelligent people he interviews is a young mother and local journalist called Elizabeth Cohen. She is the first to pick up on the story and sees the capacity in it for the media circus, if unleashed, to be turned into a media backlash. After all, once everyone has the story of a cute kid painting they need to create a new story of fraud to feed the monster.

This brings us to the second issue of the relationship between the “handlers” and the “product”. Marla’s mother comes across as a really lovely, caring woman who never wanted her daughter to be famous and couldn’t care less about the money. But she is over-ruled time and again by Marla’s father and the art dealer who are evidently loving all the press attention, limos and art shows and, of course, the paychecks. There’s a sinister piece of footage in which the art dealer is trying to exonerate himself and distance himself from the 60 Minutes debacle. Significantly, he reveals that he never really understood how the abstract artists made so much money, but he did understand PR. And he found Marla he knew that he had a big “story” and would be able to sock it to the modern art establishment that had overlooked him as a painter.

The documentary is about a family trying to wrest a story back from the network media. I got the impression that the art gallery owner and father were trying to do so to protect their own professional integrity and capacity to earn. For the mother, it was about rescuing her family’s good reputation. The audience can judge whether or not they believe the family. (For my part, I think that certain paintings do look more “polished” than those painted under lab conditions. And in candid moments, Marla asks her father to "finish it". But then again, if the dad was committing fraud, why would he allow 60 Minutes to put cameras in the house in the first place?!)

MY KID COULD PAINT THAT played Sundance, Toronto and London 2007 and was released in the US and Australia earlier in October. It opens in the UK on December 14th 2007.

London Film Fest Day 10 - RESCUE DAWN

You're a strange bird, Dieter. A man tries to kill you and you want his jobA decade ago, Werner Herzog made an astounding documentary called LITTLE DIETER NEEDS TO FLY. It featured an extraordinary and admirable man called Dieter Dengler. Dengler was a small kid in Germany during WW2 and remembers locking eyes with a bomber pilot. From that point he had a passion to fly, and as Germany had no airforce, he became an American citizen and joined the Navy. He was shot down over Laos, taken prisoner, but made a miraculous escape thanks to his own ingenuity but most especially his ceaseless optimism and sheer obstinacy. The documentary was horrific, enchanting, moving, inspiring - everything a film can hope to be.

Ten years later, Herzog returns to this subject with his fictional account of the same story, starring the ever-brilliant Christian Bale as Dieter and Steve Zahn as his fellow prisoner, Duane. We follow them through their horrific experiences, filmed on location and with an authenticity that only Herzog can create. Bale is obviously great as Dieter - he picks up a lot of Dieter's vocal inflections and almost manic optimism. Zahn is an absolute revelation in a quiet, dramatic role, but praise is also due to Jeremy Davies who plays a slippery, hippie-ish POW.

This is a very fine film but I couldn't help wondering why it existed. It puts flesh on the bones of the story given in LITTLE DIETER NEEDS TO FLY but actually is only part of the story. The most affecting part of LITTLE DIETER is seeing the impact on Dengler years after the imprisonment. The fact that he sleeps better knowing that he has a fully stacked fridge and supplies under the floor-boards, for example. The first best solution is to watch both the movie and the doc, in that order, to see events re-enacted and then understand the aftermath. But if you are unwilling to commit so much time, I would actually go for the doc for its completeness of vision. This is not to under-sell the movie, but to acknowledge it's more limited field of vision.

RESCUE DAWN played Toronto 2007 and London 2007. It opened in the US, the Netherlands and Israel earlier this year and is currently on release in Finland. It opens in Australia and the UK on November 23rd and in Brazil on December 7th. It opens in Russia on February 21st 2008.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

London Film Fest Day 9 - IN PRISON MY WHOLE LIFE

IN PRISON MY WHOLE LIFE is a documentary about a Black Panther called Mumia Abu Jamal who was convicted of killing a cop and sentenced to death in 1981 after a trial that was condemned by Amnesty International as being unfair. The film is directed by Welsh helmer Marc Evans, known if at all, for the film SNOW CAKE. But really it is a personal story by a young Anglo-American journalist called William Francome, whose activist mother always impressed upon him the fact that he was born the day that Mumia was convicted. Hence, Mumia has been in prison for William's whole life.

The documentary is evidently highly personal and they do well to interview many famous activists. Through no fault of its own, the documentary does, however, suffer from lack of footage of Mumia or any of the people on the other side of the argument - namely the cops and lawyers who hold that Mumia was correctly found guilty. More gravely, the documentary suffers from an incoherent structure. It's starts of as a personal travelogue, mentioning Mumia's crime in passing. We then see a potted history of agitation. We then go through the nuts and bolts of whether the trial was fair. Then we flip back into modern day activism...and so on.

It seems to me like Evans/Francome et al didn't ever decide whether they were making a doc about one man or a history of activism and suppression. Given the scarce footage of Mumia or his detractors, I wish they'd done the latter. Moreover, I wish that they'd tried to give a bit more context about what the Black Panthers were all about. I'm as pro free speech, civil rights and democratic protest at the next guy, but I found the documentary to be a bit superficial in its position that all activists were noble and valiant and all rozzers were scumbags.

Finally, I bring out the two rules against which I judge any new agit-doc: first, does it need to be a feature film; second, is it worth the candle? On the first point, I think that this documentary would have been more powerful if it had been edited more tightly for, say, a sixty minute TV doc slot on BBC2 or Channel 4. It would also have arguably reached a wider audience. There are certainly no visuals that require an audience to see this on a big screen.

On the second point, I do fear that this really is just another agit-doc that will preach to the converted. I can't imagine many anti-liberals shelling out ten squid to see this at the cinema even if it is picked up for release. And as for promoting activism, I don't think it's good enough to rouse the sleeping masses in the way that Al Gore's AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH did. Sad to say, it seems to speak to a battle fought long ago. It may mention Katrina, but it captures none of the rage seen in Spike Lee's recent documentary, WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE, or Chris Atkin's documentary TAKING LIBERTIES. These documentaries made me furious. I mean, absolutely spitting furious and ready to actually agitate as a woman of colour and as a civilised human being. By contrast, IN PRISON MY WHOLE LIFE didn't tell me anything I didn't already know and didn't make me any more angry about them.

IN PRISON MY WHOLE LIFE played Cannes, London and Rome 2007.


EXTE – HAIR EXTENSIONS is a body-shock J-horror that is more spoof than scary. Playing heavily on the audience’s familiarity with hair-fetishist horror like the JU-ON flicks, the director creates a central character who also has a Grudge. Kidnapped by thugs who harvested her organs and cut off her hair, she’s now a zombie corpse, held hostage by a hair-fetishist morgue attendant. He is entranced by the fact that, even in death, lustrous hair is growing from every one of her bodily orifices. He harvests the hair and sells it as hair extensions that murder their new owner. The movie rambles on for ninety minutes, raising more than a few belly-laughs with its absurdist visuals of chicks pulling yard long hairs from their eye-lids. It culminates in a final show-down between the nut-job, the hair-spewing zombie, our heroine (a kind-hearted hairdresser) and the munchkin she has rescued from an abusive mother. I’m not sure the movie adds up to much in the end. It’s certainly nicely produced but, unlike SEVERANCE, fails to deliver both laughs AND scares. Finally, it’s little more than an elaborate in-joke. Passing fun, but probably not worth more than a DVD rental.

EXTE - HAIR EXTENSIONS played London 2007 and was released in Japan earlier this year.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

London Film Fest Day 8 - THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE

THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE is directed by the Danish helmer who gave us AFTER THE WEDDING, one of the most powerful movies that I've seen this year. AFTER THE WEDDING is a film about a charity worker who returns to Denmark apparently to negotiate a grant for an Indian orphanage. But he is ambushed by a series of revelations and thrown into an affluent world that changes his life. It is a quiet movie based on powerful performances, realistic dialogue and beautiful photography that often uses extreme close-ups to create a sense of intimacy.

On the face of it, Susanne Bier’s first English-language project shares much of the same emotional and narrative territory with AFTER THE WEDDING. Both concern the mourning process and what happens when people from very different social strata form relationships. They are also both films whose plot hinges on a major and unlikely turn of events.

Just as Mads Mikkelsen's former drug-addict was at the heart of AFTER THE WEDDING, the heart of THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE is a warm-hearted recovering heroin-addict called Jerry (Benicio del Toro). His best friend is an affluent property developer called Steven (David Duchovny). Steven is married to Audrey (Halle Berry) and has two cute kids and a solid successful friend called Howard (John Carroll Lynch). Although Steven's wife and friends are suspicious of Jerry - seeing him as a parasitic bum - when Steven is tragically killed they propel him into the centre of their world. Audrey takes Jerry into her house despite the fact that he's a recovering, then relapsing addict. Howard arranges for him to qualify as a mortgage broker. Jerry's good and frank nature helps them all and they in turn get him clean. It's a story of redemption and rebuilding a life in much the same way as AFTER THE WEDDING was. It's also well acted, with Benicio del Toro and John Carroll Lynch the stand-out cast members.

The problem is that THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE is a far less original and haunting drama than AFTER THE WEDDING. The shooting style is a watered down version of what we saw in AFTER THE WEDDING. None of the performances ever touch the raw emotion of Mads Mikkelsen in AFTER THE WEDDING. And even the zig-zagging time line seems derivative of other ponderous, self-important flicks like CRASH and BABEL. Overall, I came away unimpressed. It's all well done but slightly derivative. It never grabbed me by the gut and wrenched me out of my seat in the way that AFTER THE WEDDING did. And that is a great disappointment.

THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE played London 2007 and is on release in the US. It goes on release in Mexico on December 28th 2007 and in Belgium, France, Argentina, the UK, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands in January 2008. It opens in Finland, Iceland, Australia, Sweden and Turkey in February and in Norway in March.

London Film Fest Day 8 - SICKO - more polemic than substance

This review comes from El Capitain, who can usually be found here. El Capitain has extensive experience as a healthcare consultant and so is far better able to comment on this movie than I am....

Michael Moore does one thing well - and that is pulling at the heart-strings with (often factually questionnable) polemic. But the formula is getting old. His dumb stunts in Sicko are boring - his carefully staged interviews are predictable - and he fits in less "right to reply" than ever before. His analysis of the problems in the US healthcare system is incomplete and weak - his look at other healthcare systems (like France, UK and Cuba) is weaker - and he has no proposed solution to the problem he engages with.

Sicko will doubtless be a shock to the great unwashed of the USA - who don't even have a passport, far less having been abroad. Yes, socialised systems do exist in Europe, and yes, they do work better and cheaper than the (corrupt) American system. And in France, just about everything is socialised, and they have really employer unfriendly employment laws because of a really politicised workforce. That's why they have over 10% unemployment. But we all knew that, right? At least, I did.

And yes, the healthcare payment system is the USA is basically corrupt - with HMOs using any excuse to not pay for treatment - and penalising people living with long term conditions with co-pays, excesses and denial of service. Hence healthcare outcomes in America suck ass - and are in fact lower than many Cuban healthcare indicators. But is that news to anyone here? Don't our papers, civil servants, doctors, NHS employees and politicians already demonise the American system? Isn't "Americanised" just another word for "immoral and demonic" in the NHS?


Perhaps I'm being unfair. I'm an expert in healthcare - I've worked with the NHS my whole career. I've led up research projects on healthcare provision and payment worldwide, and benchmarked them to the UK system. I know more than the average Joe Bloggs in the street - and maybe that's why Moore's film was so yawnworthy and throwaway. Perhaps I was bored with references to the Cuban healthcare "miracle" because I already knew a whole lot about it - others may be surprised that Cuba is ahead in healthcare. It could be that I know too much about the foibles of the NHS and the French healthcare systems to be impressed by their positive portrayal. And maybe my wishing that Moore had investigated systems like Sweden and Denmark, where healthcare is localised, was just self-indulgent of me.

But then, isn't that what documentary making is all about? Investigating the facts from a broad viewpoint - looking in-depth at causes and factors and solutions? Moore cannot claim to have done that- and he's marred his work as a result. And that's a shame, because he has some good points. Cuba does have the best outcome to cost ratio out of any country - because they focus on preventative and community care - something US healthcare is sytematically misaligned to do. The UK does have far better health outcomes than the US for lower cost, because of its focus on primary care and health management - something a system with co-pays and excesses cannot hope to achieve. And yes, the French do benefit from more favourable employment laws - too favourable many might say - because of their militancy. But that isn't the whole picture.

The French healthcare system is on the verge of collapse because of patients being given too much choice, and electing to go straight into specialist care rather than through primary care. Healthcare in the UK is under considerable pressure because of overzealous financial reforms, stopping it from focussing on the basics. Cuba has excellent outcomes not just because they're socialised - but because they haven't the money to invest in acute care and therefore have no choice but to opt of prevention and community care - and because their population doesn't have the means to get fat on McDonalds. And not all French families are well off - as we saw from the La Haine style riots in the high density estates in the last year.

Not only that, HMOs like Humana and United Health aren't all bad. In terms of denying service, they are doing exactly what you'd expect from an insurer - trying to pay as little as possible. In countries with a less corrupt political system, where oversight is stricter, private provision and payment can work. Germany is a prime example - where a system of mixed provision and payment is in operation - yet the Germans have excellent health outcomes. Indeed, many UK health execs have been over to Kaiser Permanente to learn from them in terms of their approaches to care management. Humana and United are being invited over to work with NHS organisations to improve their processes, payment and use of data.


Moore doesn't investigate any of these points. He doesn't systematically deconstruct the problems with the American system, other than saying that it's "for profit" and therefore must be bad. He doesn't suggest an alternative, apart from saying that the USA should "learn from others", presumably those with socialised systems. And he even manages to get his favourite subjects of 9/11 and Guantanamo Bay in there, for no really good reason.

Yes, there are some tear-jerking personal stories that are genuinely tragic. And yes, the polemic works well most of the time, and you do leave the cinema believing (rightly) that there is something very seriously wrong with the US healthcare system. But this isn't a documentary. It's not quite fiction either - but it certainly isn't an honest or serious examination of the subject. And the problem isn't that I'm an expert - it's that I'm not completely ignorant.

This film is aimed at people who know nothing of healthcare systems abroad - or foreign economies and cultures. It is gimmicky, full of holes, and will doubtless be panned by powerful right-wing Americans who will gleefully point out its flaws, thus discrediting its message. That's a shame. In my view, universal healthcare is too important a message to fluff - to crucial to be left to Michael Moore's half truths and heavy-handed moralising. It's never a good thing to leave a cinema thinking you could have done a better job. But I could have. I would have. Another opportunity missed by so-called liberals - another piece of fodder for Guardian readers to feel better about themselves for having a social conscience.


SICKO played London 2007. It has already been released in Canada, Kuwait, Australia, Italy, Swizterland, Japan, France, Singapore, Argentina, Slovenia, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Germany and Greece. It opens in Hungary, Finland and the UK later in October and in the Czech Republic, Russia and the Netherlands in November 2007. It opens in Brazil on January 25th 2008.

THE LAST LEGION - more dodgy accents than a Pink Panther flick!

THE LAST LEGION is transparent nonsense, reminiscent of piss-poor toungue-in-cheek Saturday morning serials like HERCULES and XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS. So it comes as no surprise to find that its director, Doug Leffer, actually worked on those shows! This feature film transposes the same poor production values, clunky dialogue and hammy acting to the Arthurian legends of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae. Rome has fallen to the Goths and young Romulus Caesar (Thomas Sangster) flees to Britain with a trusted Commander (Colin Firth) and his band of loyal soldiers including the trickster who will become Merlin (Ben Kingsley). The young Caesar is also clutching the sword that will become Excalibur. The merry band also includes, somewhat absurdly, a Keralan swordswoman played by Aishwarya Rai. In Britain, Romulus hooks up with the remnants of the last loyal legion of Rome and fights off the tyrannical Anglian king, Vortigen at Hadrian's Wall. He then decides not to contest the Western Empire but to live in peace, siring King Arthur.

As I said, this is all good clean sword-swinging fun, and if done well, could have been as beloved as the LORD OF THE RINGS. Sadly, we are in porcine territory, with quality British character actors resorting to panto. Kevin McKidd is particularly ridiculous as a Goth assassin but Ben Kingsley is also excruciatingly awful as Merlin. His Scottish(?) accent hovers uncertainly and just check out the scene where he lands at Dover to see how NOT to act. Poor Colin Firth is ludicrously mis-cast in the Russell Crowe-style Roman Commander role. He looks faintly bored throughout and despite not shaving for a couple of days always carries himself like a barrister. Surprisingly, Aishwarya Rai is one of the better cast members despite her sorry history in English-language films. A long career in absurd Bollywood flicks enables her to utter hokey dialogue with complete conviction and no embarassment!

THE LAST LEGION is on global release.

RENDITION turns a serious issue into standard sentimental fare

As befits any glossy, Hollywood, issues-based drama, RENDITION weaves together three different plot strands on two continents and features an uncaring Senator in a three-piece suit. This is, I admit, a rather flippant opening sentence to a review of a movie that desperately wants to be a serious, intelligent, emotionally engaging drama. Sadly, it falls short.

The subject matter is certainly serious, but this film does not treat it with respect. The first segment of the film takes place in an un-named North African country. The young daughter of a police chief has run off with a young boy who tragically turns out to be a suicide bomber. His bomb does not kill her father but a CIA operative who happens to be in a passing car. This triggers the story of the second, inter-woven segment of the film, in which Anwar Il-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) is the victim of an extraordnary rendition to North Africa, where he is tortured at the behest of the CIA on suspicion of organising the bombing. The third segment sees Anwar's heavily-pregnant wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) lobby her friend (Peter Sarsgaard), his boss the Senator (Alan Arkin) and the CIA big-wig (Meryl Streep).

So, big issues all round, namely what is the optimal trade-off between security and liberty? And is it ever justifiable to remove one man's liberty to secure, (as cited here) 7,000 Londoners' freedom?

But, to my disappointment, director Gavin Hood turns what could potentially be a very intelligent film into a rather banal Hollywood drama. It starts with small choices. He and the script-writer give the victim of rendition a heavily pregnant wife to manipulate us into feeling more sympathetic for them. The exchanges between the wife and the politicians have none of the sparkle or profundity of the Streep/Cruise conversation in LIONS FOR LAMBS. Alan Arkin is wasted in a cameo as the Senator and Streep looks far less menacing than in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and far less interested in her role than in LIONS FOR LAMBS. In the North African scenes, I thought Jake Gyllenhaal gave a fine performance as the CIA operative who has to witness the torture. But his character's credibility is sacrificed to the requirement for a Hollywood ending. In fact, pretty much the only story that is universally well-acted and emotionally engaging without being manipulative is the love story between the police-chief's daughter and the jihadist. These two kids bring more commitment and transparent emotion to the film than the rest of the high-wattage cast put together.

RENDITION played Toronto 2007 and is on release in Canada, the UK and the US. It opens in Singapore, Slovenia, Denmark and Iceland later in October. It opens in Argentina, Greece, Australia, Germany and France in November. It opens in France in December, in Belgium and the Netherlands in January 2008 and in Norway and South Africa in February.

SPOILER FILLED FINAL COMMENT: It seems to me self-evident that the one thing a film about rendition should categorically NOT have is a happy ending. But even if the director decides he wants to go down this route, I still don't see how this film could have ended on such a note. The CIA know that Anwar has escaped and that he will go back to the US to be with his family. Furthermore, they know he can only enter under his US passport. So why don't they just "render" him again when he lands at Chicago? If only to save themselves from a PR stink? Douglas has no story if Jeremy doesn't turn up in the US, after all.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


TERROR'S ADVOCATE is a deeply disturbing and important documentary by Barbet Schroeder. Nominally, it's about French lawyer and terrorist-sympathiser Jacques Verges. More widely, the movie documents the history of post-WW2 terrorism.

The movie skips quickly over Verges' early life. As a mixed-race child, he experienced racism at the hands of French colonists in Reunion, but still fought for the Free French in WW2. He was fighting for liberty, he claims. He was an anti-colonial activist as a student. The movie then spends 45 minutes on Verges' first infamous case. He defended the pretty young women who planted bombs in the French quarter of Algiers and became folk heroes to a people hungry for independence. Not only did Verges sympathise with his clients, he actually married Djamila Bouhired, having agitated for her death sentence to be commuted. Verges does not apologise for violence or death or for creating a disruptive form of legal defence that subverts court cases into publicity events. He feels that if a terrorist group has the backing of a people, it is legitimate. The establishment are the traitors. His companions of this period are similarly unrepetentant: Abderrahmane Benhamida gives up bombing for a while because he regrets mutilating people. He doesn't mind killing them, you understand. In this period, Verges comes across as naive and more sympathetic than those he defends. And it is sinister to see them still free, often in positions of power, years later.

In the 1970s, Verges disappears for a decade. Maybe he was with his friend Pol Pot in Cambodia? Maybe he was in the Middle East? Or maybe he was just pissed off at being the lesser half of a famous couple, living in Paris, eating and drinking? He keeps his secret in this documentary, but the twinkle in his eye suggests that he loves the air of mystery he has created.

Verges reappears in the 1980s in France, hardened, cynical and apparently a gun for hire. He finds himself defending even more unsavoury people and having close contacts with Carlos the Jackal, the Baader-Meinhof gang, Palestinian terrorists, Nazi war criminals......Verges claims that he is still defending anti-colonial fighters but it is clear that money is more of a consideration. Even more despicable, he takes payment from Francois Genoud, a notorious Swiss Nazi to defend Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon. Now let's be clear: there's nothing despicable in defending a murderer. This facilitates the rule of law. But to profess political symapthy as opposed to professional courtesy is to cross a line into a shady world of violence, terrorism, murder and crime.

What is more horrifying or more fascinating than a calm, harmless old man who has spent his life consorting with and advocating the use of murder as a political tool? Perhaps the laughing voice of Carlos the Jackal on a telephone bragging about how he took back another pretty terrorist, Magdalena Kopp, after Verges screwed her in Strasbourg? Or reformed ultra-left wing German terrorist HJ Klein in Algeria being congratulated, "Hitler was a great man". This documentary is full of such horrific scenes. The men responsible for Munich and other attrocities are shown to be living, breathing men and women who believe that they are logical and right. This testimony alone makes TERROR'S ADVOCATE an important and pertrifying film.

TERROR'S ADVOCATE played Cannes, Toronto and London 2007 and was released in France, Belgium and the Netherlands earlier this year.

Monday, October 22, 2007

London Film Fest Day 6 - LIONS FOR LAMBS

It seems like Hollywood tries to tackle the fall-out from the Global War on Terror in a new film every week. But I didn't think I'd watch two movies in two weeks written by the same man, Matthew Michael Carnahan, and starring the same actress, Meryl Streep. The first one written by Carnahan was the subversive "CSI-Riyadh", THE KINGDOM. He follows this up with the new Robert Redfod drama, LIONS FOR LAMBS. LIONS FOR LAMBS also stars Meryl Streep as a liberal journalist. She morphs into a CIA neo-con in RENDITION, also currently on release. Added to this, Brian de Palma's Iraqi war drama, REDACTED, is also playing at the London Film Festival.

Of the GWOT films on offer, Robert Redford's LIONS FOR LAMBS has the most intelligence and the most honesty. It doesn't sugar-coat anything. There are no easy choices and no happy resolutions. Rather, it gives us a snap-shot of the US political debate through three inter-weaving scenarios.

The first segment is a conversation between Streep's liberal reporter, Janine Roth, and a presidential-aspirant neo-con Senator called Jasper Irving. (As befits the current Hollywood fashion, we know Tom Cruise's character is a Senator because he's wearing a three piece suit.) The scenes between these two actors are absolutely fascinating to watch. Both actors are on top of their game in this film and the dialogue is fascinating. I love that Carnahan doesn't make Irving the sort of imbecile gung-ho right-winger that liberals love to hate. Rather, Irving is a slippery customer, selling his "by any means necessary" theories with charm and wit. Most of all, he's reasonable. He's candid about the regime's mistakes but has a new strategy to "win the war" (and the presidency). Roth is unconvinced of course. She's heard it before, during Vietnam. But she is forced to admit the fourth estate's complicity in the Iraqi war. The question is, will she sell another story?

Even as Irving's giving Roth the exclusive on the new military strategy, it's failing in the field. Two idealistic young soldiers (Michael Pena and Derek Luke) are stranded in the Afghan mountains, under-fire from the Taliban. In flashback we see that they want to war in order to become engaged with the key issues of their day, and to return home college-educated veterans with a good chance of "being heard". I was convinced neither by their acting, nor by the special effetcs of this segment. Most importantly, I was unconvinced that anyone would join a war on such a pretext. The movie just didn't sell it to me at all. Moreover, I'm not sure you even needed this segment. The dilemmas of the film could have been as easily portrayed by the Senator-Journalist segment and the Professor-Student segment.

This final segment features Robert Redford's liberal college professor using the example of the two soldiers (his former students) to persuade a young privileged kid (Andrew Garfield) to stop being cynical about political engagement. The kid represents the person in all of us who wants to just put their head down, make the monthly mortgage payment, and let the corrupt politicians get away with murder just so long as it doesn't touch our lives. The professor is our conscience, which tells us that "all that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing". This segment is well acted but again the script fails to engage us.

And this is, I think, the whole problem with this film. It feels too dry - too much like we're eavesdropping on a college debate. It reminded me a little of reading Camus' plays, insofar as the characters and narrative are hostages to a philosophical exercise. The problem is that while a movie can instruct us, it will be far more successful in doing so if it engages with us on an emotional level. Otherwise, I can save my money and read the literature on the relevant issues. The power of cinema is, surely, that it can make us empathise with characters and play out our inner-debates? But LIONS FOR LAMBS did not allow me to engage with it. I was demoted to the role of eavesdropper.

LIONS FOR LAMBS played London 2007 and goes on release in Belgium, Australia, the Czech Republic, Germany. Hong Kong, Israel, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia, Singapore, Slovakia, Brazil, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Mexico, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, the USA and the UK on November 9th. It opens in Argentina, France and Hungary later in November and in Italy on December 14th. It opens in Japan on April 19th 2008.

ELIZABETH - THE GOLDEN AGE - absurdly anachronistic

Spain intends to place Mary Stuart on our country's throne, and I am to be assassinated. Does this sound familiar?  Shekhar Kapur's ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE is an unworthy successor to his original depiction of Elizabeth I.

It depicts the era in Elizabeth's reign (the late 1580s) where she ordered the execution of Mary Stuart for treason and faced off the Spanish Armada. But it plays fast and loose with history and has none of the narrative drive of its predecessor. The production design is handsome, of course, but almost everything else is off-key. The score is manipulative and repetitive - endless high-pitched violins. The photography consists of endless slow pans and tableaux. The high-class actors walk through their roles looking, for the most part, bored. This is especially true of Tom Hollander and Clive Owen. The following actors are uncertain in their accents: Samantha Morton as the Scottish Mary Stuart, Clive Owen as Sir Walter Raleigh (bizarrely, as he's playing an Englishman), and Abbie Cornish as Elizabeth Throckmorton. And other great British actors are wasted in small parts of no consequence, notably David Threlfal as the court astrologer, Rhys Ifans as a Jesuit conspirator and the interesting young Eddie Redmayne as an assassin.

Cate Blanchett is fine as Elizabeth but her talent is wasted on a meandering script with anachronist dialogue. For the first hour of the film she indulges in a faintly homo-erotic, voyeuristic relationship with Walter Raleigh and her lady-in-waiting. She says absurdly modern and whiny things like, "I would love not to be in control all the time." To which Walter Raleigh improbably replies, "You eat and drink control!" There's also a ham-fisted attempt at modern political relevance. The Catholics are depicted as dangerous religious fundamentalists. English politics is seen as a trade-off between the rule of law and safety. Very Global War on Terror.

The second half of the film picks up. Elizabeth frets about whether or not she should order Mary Stuart's execution. Mary steals the show with a melodramatic execution scene. And then we are on to the Spanish Armada, where Philip of Spain attempts a naval invasion of England in order to put a Catholic on the throne. Shekhar Kapur clearly cannot direct action sequences for toffee, which is especially sad in an era when CGI and directorial vision can combine to give us great naval sequences. See, for example, the MASTER AND COMMANDER film. By contrast, Kapur never quite captures the majesty and excitment of a naval battle and doesn't even succeed in getting across the basics of what actually happened when the Spanish attempted to invade. You get the fireships and you get the Tilbury speech but you never understand the importance of the weather; Sir Francis Drake's superior tactics despite the fact the he commanded the inferior fleet; or the importance of the Spanish cutting their anchor lines. The whole Irish coast disaster is also ommitted. Absurdly, it is Sir Walter Raleigh who is depicted as the hero rather than Drake. And most incredibly, Elizabeth is depicted as giving her famous Tilbury speech astride a horse in full armour!

Ah well, what can we say. Hollywood is not under obligation to give us historical truths. But the fantasy it substitutes for truth should at least be compelling. Instead, in ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE, we have a mish-mash of fact and idiocy that is neither intellectually satisfying nor emotionally engaging.

ELIZABETH - THE GOLDEN AGE played Toronto 2007 and is on release in the US. It opens in Portugal, Iceland, Italy, Norway, Sweden and the UK on November 2nd and in Finland and Spain on November 9th. It opens in Australia, New Zealand, Russia and Denmark on November 15th and in Egypt, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia and Turkey on November 23rd. It opens in Bulgaria on November 30th and in Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands in December 2007. It opnes in Singapore and Brazil in January 2008 and in Argentina and Mexico in February.

Sunday, October 21, 2007


you English with your boring trousers and your shiny toilet paper, and your ridiculous preconception that Frenchmen are great loversOh dear. There are some films that you feel that you *ought* to like as a self-respecting cineaste and reader of the New York Review of Books. As you find yourself shifting uncomfortably in your seat, looking at your watch for the third time in five minutes and opening another bottle of mineral water you wonder, "What is wrong with me? Am I not a sensitive soul?" Well, maybe I am a barbarian, but I found FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON as boring as Alistair Darling's first Pre-Budget Report, not to mention as lacking in substance and as dependent on nicking the only good idea in it.

Starting with the good idea, this is the visual motif of the film. Writer-director Hou Hsiao Hsien bases his 2 hour French-language film on a 1950s Oscar winning short-film called THE RED BALLOON by Albert Lamorisse. There's something evocative about a small boy whose only real companion is a large red balloon that follows him through the streets of Paris. Otherwise, the small kid is dragged from pillar to post by his ditzy mother (Juliette Binoche) and new Chinese nanny (Fang Song.) He fantasises about his sister Louise, who now lives in Brussels. He's genuinely like-able but he's tragically just a bit part in his mother's chaotic life.

Apart from this visual conceit we have little else of substance here. Hou Hsiao Hsien cheekily shows us how the floating balloon effect is created by making the Chinese nanny a film student who seeks to emulate the original short. How post-modern! But I think we need a little more than THAT. And as for the chaotic life of the mother, this does provide some comic interludes. Binoche is clearly having a lot of fun in her brash blonde wig, godawful clothes and absurdly OTT puppeteer's voice. But an eccentric character neither adds up to a plot nor to a meta-text. As a result, the movie is simply boring.

FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON/VOYAGE DU BALLON ROUGE played Cannes, Toronto and London 2007. It goes on release in France and Belgium in January 2008.

London Film Fest Day 5 - CLOSING THE RING

CLOSING THE RING is an almost entirely piss-poor melodrama that one would expect to find on Channel Five one afternoon rather than at a decent film festival. That it is playing London 2007 is, one suspects, largely the result of Lord Attenborough's close links with the BFI and his general status as beloved old codger of British Film.

The movie inter-cuts three stories. The first is a truly execrable World War Two romance set in the provincial backwaters of the US. Mischa Barton of THE OC fame plays a girl called Ethel who is
loved by three best friends. The one she marries, Teddy, gets blown up in Belfast and she is bequeathed by him to the second, Chuck. She marries Chuck but never loves him or their daughter. The second plot strand takes place in the 1980s. In the US, Ethel is now an old widow played by Shirley Maclaine. She wallows in grief for Teddy and is selfishly ignorant that the final friend, played by Christopher Plummer, is in love with her. The third plot strand also takes place in the 1980s but in Belfast. A charming young kid is being squeezed both by the Special Branch and the Republicans. He digs up Teddy's wedding ring and scampers off to the USA to give it back to Ethel, much to the consternation of her daughter (Neve Campbell) who didn't know she had been married before.

The WW2 plot strand is by far the weakest. The cast have been chosen for looks rather than acting ability, with Stephen Amell as Teddy Gordon (first lover) making Mischa Barton look out-standing by contrast. The script doesn't help. The first love scene contains lines so excruciating to watch I can't imagine what it was like to act them. I also detest the idea of Teddy bequeathing Ethel to Chuck. The concept that women have to be protected from bad news feels very out-dated to modern ears and eyes. The modern day American strand is slightly better acted but no better scripted. Old Ethel just comes across as insufferably selfish. One can't imagine why anyone, let alone three men, would have been in love with her. By far the best of the plot strands is the Belfast strand. Attenborough captures the barbarity of it, and is helped by exceptionally good casting in the form of Brenda Fricker, Pete Postlethwaite and Martin McCann who steals every scene as young, naive Jimmy Reilly.

Overall, we get a transparently manipulative tear-jerker that, rather embarassingly, fails to jerk any tears. I couldn't have cared less about any of these characters, except for plucky young Reilly. The conceit upon with the movie hangs seems unrealistic and if realistic then unsympathetic. One final criticism is that in his pre-screening introduction, Attenborough claimed, in a superior tone of voice, that the movie was free of gratuitous sex and violence. That's not true. We're not twenty minutes in before Barton has to get her tits out and there's a violent scene towards the end that exists not to make a wider political or philosophical point but merely to get two aged lovers together.

CLOSING THE RING played Toronto and London 2007.


Do you want to be like me? Or do you want to BE me?THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD is, alongside 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS, the best film I have seen at London 2007 so far, and one of the best films I have seen all year. And this comes from the reviewer who had read so many bad reviews that she was expecting to walk out after an hour and grab lunch with some friends. But to my surprise, I found myself riveted by this sprawling three hour contemplation of the final days of the infamous outlaw and the nature of his infamy. Every scene is a visual delight; every performance of the hightest quality. Casey Affleck establishes himself as one of the finest young actors in Hollywood; Brad Pitt's every glance spreads fear. And in its final scenes, writer-director Andrew Dominik of CHOPPER fame shows that he has a profound understanding of the nature of celebrity and the kind of mob culture that can turn Princess Diana into an icon.

To start at the beginning, how do you make a new and interesting film about one of the most notorious figures of the Wild West, when his life story has already been analysed and re-analysed, his corpse photographed, lithographed, and his name checked in rock songs, rap songs and more besides? Dominik confronts this head on with the style and structure of the film. For a start, we never see Jesse in his hey-day, robbing trains with his original gang. It is assumed that we are already impressed with his reputation, and Brad Pitt has so much charisma that he pulls this off. Dominik also subtly contrasts the scenes that flesh out the received wisdom with the "real" psychology of the story. We have a narrator and a series of scenes which could have come from a penny-comic or a stub on Wikipedia. These are shot with a convex lens that keeps the centre of the frame in focus but blurs the edges, analagous to a sepia tinted portrait.

But Dominik's biggest innovation is to place Bob Ford centre stage. Bob has that dangerous combination of arrogance and insecurity. He believes he is destined for great things but he's desperate that no-one will give him a chance to show his greatness. Much like Thomas Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf, Bob Ford is in love with his hero Jesse James to the point of wanting to BE Jesse James. But Jesse is in no position to return that affection. For a start, Bob Ford's hero-worship is creepy, putting Jesse's wife on edge. Ford is also the butt of everyone's jokes and hardly a serious contender for the role of "side-kick". For another, Jesse James is now at the end of his career and paranoid about being double-crossed. He wouldn't trust anyone, let alone a young pup whose love could easily turn to contempt, hatred and finally murder. Casey Affleck's performance as Bob Ford deserves an Academy Award. It's subtle. Every stifled grimace at humiliation shifts him one step closer to killing the man he loves. Brad Pitt is also good as Jesse James, but has less to do. The performance is one-note but is no less impressive for that. He has to show how a folk-hero can become so dogged by being on the run and mis-trusting his colleagues, that he can choose to lay down his weapons and offer his back to a man he knows will kill him. The supporting cast is more of a revelation. In particular, Paul Schneider and Jeremy Renner are very good as members of the gang.

Other than the performances, the other key reason to watch this movie is the superb cinematography by the Coen Brothers' regular DP, Roger Deakins coupled with the production design by Lynch regular, Patricia Norris. They combine to simulatenously un-do all the things we expect from Westerns. Rather than a classic Western fought in dusty scrubland and grimy saloon-bars, the modern exemplar of which is 3:10 TO YUMA, the majority of this film is shot in snowy fields and clean, stark, well-kept houses. The costumes are clean and spare, as is the crisp early morning light. Combined with the leisurely pace, the movie almost feels like a Terrence Mallick flick.

All in all, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD is a triumph of cinema. It's a movie in which I would change not one single thing: a pantheon movie in the making.

THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD played Venice, Toronto and London 2007. It is already on release in the US, France, Israel and Belgium. It opens in Germany and Spain later in October and in Australia, Denmark, Iceland, the Netherlands, Italy, Norway, Turkey, Brazil, Argentina and the UK in November. It opens in Singapore on December 27th and in Japan on March 15th 2008.

Al's RESIDENT EVIL:EXTINCTION 3 is more muffin than cake theory

I met your sister. She was a homicidal bitch.This review is posted by the target demographic, Al, who can usually be found here.

I remember playing those retro RESIDENT EVIL vid games back in primary school, when my eldest sis first introduced them to us younger siblings. At first we cowered, hiding behind pillows while reluctantly peeking out to see how the game progressed as whoever was playing courageously journeyed past armies of zombies, and along with the atmospheric music and special effects the game had, it was a genuinely scary experience at that time. It didn't take long before we took charge ourselves and soon after we were the ones gunning down the undead: as the extremity of the terror increased so did our immunity towards it.

Anyhu, let's get to the film. Extinction carries a wafer-thin plot mostly consisting of scenes where the surviving humans combat the zombies and nothing much else. The entire direction this movie adopts is transparently straightforward: no pretensions about what it's trying to do-unlike some other piece of exceedingly torturous garbage such as
TRANSFORMERS. In TRANSFORMERS the insufferable script was made worse with lame humour and annoying characters. It was a perfect case of a dumb kid pretending to be an adult: utterly oblivious at how badly he was humiliating himself. And it is in this respect,the RESIDENT EVIL trilogy succeeds..sorta.

It has many right things going for it - Milla Jovovich, probably one of the least talented actors around - dare I say the female equivalent of Josh Hartnett? Nah, not that bad - she manages to pull off the Alice character just o-k and doesn't annoy the hell out of me. It's a good thing the second movie turned the character into a half-robot of some kind, because Jovovich's stilted acting suits that level of starry-eyed emotionlessness the act requires, but when she tries to cry - kill me, kill me quick. Aside from that, they have all the essential ingredients in place - the zombies aren't too shabbily done, the cinematography's not bad - it's certainly nothing new, but occasionally it does unexpectedly impress with some nice desert landscapes.

Expanding on that, the RESIDENT EVIL franchise is like someone setting out to bake a cake, and after gathering all the right ingredients for it, the person decides to use all of it to make a muffin (okay, hold that thought). It's all out of order, objectives aren't met and the end result is distant from what was envisaged - it has crude chunks of details unobservantly picked out from the game, but just because you've inserted the Alice character, the Umbrella company, some vague virus and hoards of zombies and a script full of words like "infected", "cure", "hope"- it doesn't mean it's really RESIDENT EVIL. Really it's more of an excuse to put a hot chick in the lead, give her a couple of guns and knives and get her to do some real cool martial arts shit while occasionally making obligatory references to its origins. It might as well be titled Karate Blondie or Zombie Barbie, and it'll still retain the tiny amount of relevance it had to its content and existence. But-going back to the cake/muffin analogy: muffins most definitely have their own exquisite taste to offer, and biting into this one you get faint, weak traces of the cake it originally aspired to be. I feel slightly infuriated, but I wasn't promised a real cake in the first place and the accidental muffin's quite nice.

Characters are thrown into the story like slaves to a plot, each with one unambiguous function. Children are there to be protected; teen girl cries to show remorse at every possible chance; evil boss is the evil boss, complete with ubiquitous sunnies that never come off and assisted by blue-collared workers whose speeches are limited to supporting one-liners with no real purpose but to point out the obvious and attempt to make things more serious. e.g. "That's unbelievable". "This is not going according to plan". Like zombies, but more subtle. Anyhu,everyone but Alice gets killed off or shoved out of the story eventually and everything leading up to that point seems utterly pointless by then.

It's unremarkable and offers absolutely nothing new - you'd expect a franchise coming this far to take a few tips, maybe hire better special effects people (there was one scene when the skies filled with fire-which was particularly cartoon-y and unrealistic) and make better use of the supporting characters and leave out all the unnecessary jumpy scenes. Plus, it recycles a lot of things from the previous two installments. The main character doesn't evolve, just a change of clothes and hairstyle and much less talking. And,perhaps the most unforgivable - they used the flesh-chopping laser room in the first RE to finish things off (to seal the climax) -and things just abruptly come to a halt. The past two REs ended very well, this one does too I guess with this whole Alice clone thing revealed at the final part-but the battle between Alice and the crazy creature close to the end finishes off disappointingly,with some silly Poltergeist-ish I-move-things-with-my-mind schtick that should've been omitted completely.

But it's still fairly enjoyable-at the end,I thought "That's exactly what I came for" and unlike disposable, no-brainer flicks like Transformers or Fantastic 4 (both of them), this one has no grand delusions: it's just a story about a girl with too much bronzer on and some cannibalistic zombies and animals we don't mind seeing explode to bits or getting their necks hacked off. And it's not too bad, not too bad.

RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION is on release in Russia, Mexico, USA, the Philippines, Germany, India, Belgium, France, Hong Kong, Brazil, Estonia, Lithuania, Sweden, Argentina, Australia, Hungary, Singapore, Italy, Kuwait, the UK, Slovenia, South Korea, Iceland and Turkey. It opens in New Zealand, Portugal, Spain, Bolivia and Spain later in October. It opens in Bolivia, Slovakia, Finland, Venezuela, Japan, Denmark, Latvia, the Netherlands and Norway in November 2007. It opens in Egypt on January 9th 2008.

Saturday, October 20, 2007


THE VOYEURS is an unsatisfactory film. To be sure, it has some amiable characters, some good spoofs of Indian media culture and lecherous film directors, and a fascination with the hidden lives of ordinary people. But this is set against an over-long run-time, a lack of narrative pace, symbolism that seems to serve no function, and a plot twist that jars with the gentle, whimsical tone of the majority of the film. The film is set in Calcutta and shows two naive computer geeks installing a hidden camera in the room of the beautiful dancer next door. Despite the sinister nature of this action, it's actually rather innocent. They never watch her undress: they simply want to gaze at her image in the manner of gazing at a movie star poster. She is disenchanted by the cruel nature of the Calcutta film industry. They are done for being peeping toms with cruel consequences. In between we have wonderful vignettes exposing the reality of ordinary life in a poor Indian city - a refreshing change from laminated Bollywood super-hits. We also have some beautiful photography - lots of slow 360 sweeps of interiors and crane shots of the alleys of Calcutta. However, while THE VOYEURS adopts a ponderous pace, it has none of the drive or depth of a Madhur Bhandarkar film, or a meticulous drama like THE NAMESAKE. A disappointment.

THE VOYEURS played Toronto and London 2007.

London Film Fest Day 4 - MAX & CO - the kids flick that transcended the language barrier

MAX AND CO brought new faith in the power of the moving image. This French animated feature was played to an audience of small kids in French with subtitles and yet at the end of the flick all these illiterate rug-rats were enraptured! Tiny squeaks of "Dad, I loved that!" Amazing. The movie is about a teenage fox called Max who goes to St Hillaire to find his dad and stumbles upon a nasty business called Bzzz and Co. The company is simulataneously breeding mutant flies and letting them into the atmosphere AND getting rich by selling the townsfolk fly swatters. Naturally, Max saves the day. This being a French flick the moral of the story seems to be that all businessmen are corrupt parasitical exploiters; the workers are honest salt-of-the-earth types; and that direct action is best. But the Frenchness of the story also has its upsides, as manifested in the extremely un-PC, un-Disney attitude to sex. Max makes no bones about the fact that his dad, Johnny BeeGood, seduced his mum before abandoning her. The brilliantly drawn chair-frog of Bzzz and Co, Rodolfo, has a harem of chicks and leches onto Max's brief love interest, a sexy cat who dresses in a corset, short skirt and fishnet tights. The laughs come in quick succession both for kids and adults. The design and animation are all fasinating to watch. The characters are animals and rendered in a style which is sort of a cross between Postman Pat and those Comfort ads. And it's lovely to see the human hand in an animated flick rather than CGI. Banal but true: it makes the characters seem more real and warm. So, two definite thumbs up for the most deliciously adult and unusually drawn kids film I've seen in years.

MAX & CO played Toronto and London 2007 and is released in Belgium and France in February 2008.

Friday, October 19, 2007

London Film Fest Day 3 - INTERVIEW

INTERVIEW is another teeeeee-dious drama from actor-director Steve Buscemi. Once again, he features self-pitying, narcissistic people doing not particularly interesting stuff.

INTERVIEW is a two-hander between Sienna Miller's teen idol, Katya, and Buscemi's cynical journalist, Pierre. Sienna plays a character close to home, known more for who she fucks than who she plays. Buscemi is a failed Washington hack and failed husband nursing grim secrets and a superior attitude for all things Superficial. Pierre patronises Katya. She spends the next hour and a half running rings around him in her loft apartment. They both swing from fascination to hatred to contempt with alarming and incredible alacrity. And in the end we have seen some cutting one-liners, some apparent revelations, more proof that Miller can actually act, but nothing of any substance.

All of which left me wondering "Why?", as at the end of the LIFF screening of LONESOME JIM two years ago. Why was this film ever made? As a memorial to Theo Van Gogh, who directed the Dutch original, apparently. I don't see how translating his work into this insular little film does any good.

INTERVIEW played Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and London 2007. It has already been on release in the Netherlands, the US, Belgium, Frnace, Morocco, Tunisia, the Czech Republic, Greece, Israel, Slovenia, Turkey and Romania. It opens in Norway and the UK on November 2nd and in Ireland and Malta on November 9th. It opens in Spain on January 4th.

London Film Fest Day 3 - REDACTED - unexpectedly brilliant

After the fiasco that was THE BLACK DAHLIA, I wasn't anticipating much from Brian de Palma's latest flick, REDACTED. The movie is a fictional re-telling of the rape and murder of an Iraqi girl by two US soldiers stationed outside Samarra. As the title suggests, de Palma tells the story by combining a number of fictional sources - from a home DV by one of the soldiers to Iraqi news footage to Jihadi websites. In an of embedded journalists and partisan news coverage it's admirable that someone should try and give us a stripped away look at the reality of the US occupation. The location work certainly rings true. But for the first 30 minutes I couldn't get into the film because the characters were like caricatures. They were so pig-ignorant, vulgar and immoral that I couldn't believe that they actually represented real people. In fact, it plays a bit like a cartoon. The lead aggressors are actually very funny in a sort of tooled-up Beavis and Butthead kind of a way. But the film improves. De Palma has a lot to say about how far the media can convey "the truth" and how far journalists and film-makers exploit reality and are complicit in the acts they cover. He shows us in graphic detail what happens when a soldier steps on a land-mine and what happens when an Iraqi car drives too quickly toward a check-point. Finally he shows us what happens when immoral sadistic soldiers take their "spoils of war". At the end, de Palma pulls the rug from under us. He shows the actual news footage of the "collateral damage" that the film has portrayed in fiction. You realise just how close the movie is, in its consequences at least, to the Iraqi occupation. As I left the cinema, some of the audience members were in tears.

No doubt, de Palma will catch a lot of flack for depicting the US army in such a bad light. He seems to be saying that the rape and murder of the young girl was the logical consequence of a war in which young kids with no clear moral sense have been thrown into a war with no clear outcome and carte blanche. These kids know that if they shoot to kill at a checkpoint no-one will prosecute them. They can use the catch-all excuse - they suspected insurgents. In a regime where the fourth estate has been co-opted by a kleptocracy, all bets are off.

REDACTED played Venice, Toronto and London 2007 and goes on release in the US on November 16th 2007 and in the UK on March 7th 2008.