Friday, November 30, 2007

HITMAN - now, if you were a super-smart assassin would you really walk around with a conspicuous bar-code tatooed to your skull?

If you don't stop talking, I'm going to put you back in the trunk.HITMAN is a surprisingly good action movie despite its genesis as a video game and the imbecility of the bar-code in the back of the head. Not that I have anything against video games: I've spent many a happy weekend kicking seven shades of crap out of the Parthians with my cataphract cavalry. However, in my experience it's much more fun to blow shit up yourself than to outsource the blowing up of shit. Added to that, a lot of VG adaptations make zero attempt to super-impose silly little things like...well...plot or character development onto the stylised violence of the source material.

In this respect, HITMAN is miles ahead of any other VG adaptation, though still a goodly mile behind the best of the spy/assassin genre. For a start, the violence is not as stylised and unrealistic as you sometimes get, and it's actually surprisingly discreet. Oftentimes the camera cuts away from the worst of it. Second, the production design is full of care, attention, atmosphere and, presumably, cold hard cash. Our protagonist, Agent 47, guns down a Russian premier in St Petersburg, before heading to Istanbul. All the while he stays in lush hotels and drives swankier cars than, say, James Blonde. A particular marvel is the creation of the FSB headquarters, which is all diffused light in baroque corridors.

But the biggest win is the script by Skip Woods, who also wrote the super-stylish SWORDFISH (one of the coolest opening scenes in cinema.) His Agent 47, portrayed by Timothy Olyphant, has a dry wit and a moral centre. But he never betrays his psycho upbringing in a sort of Catholic boarding school cum assassin training camp. I love the fact that the film-makers resist the temptation to have a teen fantasy sex-scene between Agent 47 and his Russian damsel in distress (Olga Kurylenko). I also invested in the relationship between Agent 47 and his nemesis, Brit copper Mike Whittier (Dougray Scott), as well as buddy cop relationship between Whittier and his side-kick, Jenkins (Michael Offei.)

Don't get me wrong. HITMAN is no work of genius. Any movie that has to tell viewers that London is in England or that Istanbul is in Turkey is playing to a low common denominator. And don't even get me started on the fictitious Russo-Turkish border! But I have to say that I had a good time watching this flick, and when they make the inevitable sequel, I'll anticipate it with more eagerness that I did its predecessor.

HITMAN is on release in Canada, Egypt, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, the US, Hong Kong, Hungary, Israel, Lebanon, Indonesia, Taiwan, Belgium, Greece, the Netherlands, Peru, Portugal, Russia, Singapore, Slovenia, South Korea, Colombia, Denmark, Estonia, Iceland, Mexico, Poland, Spain, Turkey and the UK. It opens next Friday in Australia, New Zealand, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Lithuania and Rumania and on December 13th in Bolivia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Brazil, Finland, Sweden and Chile. It opens on December 26th in France; on January 24th in Argentina and in Japan on April 5th 2008.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

SLEUTH (2007) - an alpha gamma movie

Kenneth Branagh's new adaptation of SLEUTH stands on the shoulders of a giant and boxes his ears. It is an adaptation that aggressively throws off the look, feel and subject matter of its original and fails and succeeds in large measures.

The original movie was adapted by Anthony Shaffer from his own play and featured an elegant, enjoyable battle of wits between an arrogant aristo crime writer called Wyke (Olivier) and a "jumped up pantry boy" who is sleeping with Wyke's wife (Caine.) Makiewicz' direction was simple and stagey - allowing the actors and the script to do their work.

In Branagh's version, the script has been written by Harold Pinter. It looses all lightness and malovolent wit and becomes a heavy-handed obvious clunking sort of thing. There is no needling - just a sort of simple play-ground bragging of the "my car is bigger than your car" kind. Highly unedifying. Michael Caine moves from the up-start to the older man character and replaces Olivier's bumptious arrogance with a sort of heavy brooding. It's not a lot of fun to watch. Jude Law takes over the Caine character and in that character is stiff and self-conscious and highly unconvincing. Which leaves the direction. Branagh has decided to gut out the tudor interior and replace it with an aggressively modern interior design powered by hi-tech CCTV. Unlike Mankiewicz, he is going to use the power that the medium of cinema gives him with odd camera angles. Much as the conch symbolised authority in Lord of the Flies, the iPod remote symbolises power here. I found the use of CCTV visuals and the extreme production design incredibly distracting and heavy-handed. It took me a good hour of this film's short run-time to actually focus on the action. I also disliked Branagh's cheap insider jokes. Do we really need Jude Law to ask Michael Caine, "what's it all about?" Do we really need him to appropriate the manic laugh of the wind-up toy in the 1972 film? And is Law in that black leather coat meant to be referencing Gigolo Joe from A.I.?

So, for the most part, this movie is an admirably grand failure. In other words, it fails because of too much ambition and too many new ideas, rather than because of laziness and indifference. (See GOOD LUCK CHUCK). But I did like two things very much. First, I thought Law, in a small section near the end of the movie, known to all those who've seen the original, was very convincing. Second, I very much liked the final twenty minutes. The sexual tension was palpable and for the first time I was genuinely intrigued and thrilled by the script and performances. So, an alpha gamma movie overall.

SLEUTH played Venice and Toronto 2007 and was released earlier this year in Spain, the US, Israel, Italy, Norway and Sweden. It is currently on release in the UK and opens this Friday in Denmark. SLEUTH opens in December in Turkey, Germany and Hungary and in January in Finland and the Netherlands. It opens in Australia on February 7th 2008.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

SLEUTH (1972) - Superlative British class satire

You're a jumped up pantry boy who doesn't know his place! The original 1972 version of SLEUTH is regarded by many as a cinematic masterpiece. It simply oozes quality. It's the last film of director Joseph L Mankiewicz, who also directed the undoubted pantheon flicks CLEOPATRA and ALL ABOUT EVE. It stars Laurence Olivier at the height of his game and the then upcoming actor Michael Caine - both of whom were nominated for Oscars, along with Mankiewicz for direction and John Addison for the score. The razor-sharp script was adapted by Anthony Shaffer from his own award-winning play. The set-up is simplicity itself. We are in a lush tudor country house crammed with tricksy toys and games and inhabited by a deeply prejudiced, arrogant old duffer called Andrew Wyke (Olivier.) He is meeting a young, handsome working-class-boy-made-good called Milo (Caine.) Wyke's wife is about to leave him for Milo and they are meeting to have a civilised discussion about the divorce. Wyke taunts Milo about his lower class origins and goads Milo into a robbery that will help finance Wyke's soon to be ex-wife's expensive lifestyle. As far as Wyke is concerned, Milo is another toy to play with and ultimately stitch up. The joy of Shaffer's play is watching the resilient working-class boy battle psychologically and intellectually with his self-appointed better. It's a wonderful indictment of class snobbery - a genuine tease and brilliantly acted and directed to boot.

I hesitate to call this a pantheon movie, though, because it always feels a little artificial. There is no attempt to soften the stagey-ness. The cast is small, the dialogue intense and artificial, and we are obviously on a set. I suppose in a way this could be seen a strength of this adaptation. Mankiewicz has the confidence to let the words and the actors do their job without too many forced visual whistles and bells. Indeed, the very crux of the plot twist relies upon the audience willingly suspending its disbelief and forgiving the production its inability to pull off a certain visual gag.

Despite this minor quibble, SLEUTH remains a social satire that is, to quote RED DWARF, Swiftian in its rapier-like subtlety. The battle of wits it embodies is thrilling to watch and has penetrated British culture to the extent that "you're a jumped up pantry boy who never knew his place" will be familiar to pop music fans who were born years after the flick was released. Definitely one to watch.

The original cinematic adaptation of SLEUTH was released in 1972 and is widely available on DVD.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

THE DARJEELING LIMITED should take its own advice

"Stop feeling sorry for yourself. It's highly unattractive."

I was non-plussed by THE DARJEELING LIMITED when I watched it at the London Film Festival. Because I had previously enjoyed many of Wes Anderson's films, I thought maybe my non-reaction was due to cinematic overload in the preceeding fortnight. So I decided to give the flick another shot after a suitably relaxing Thansgiving break had put me into a more receptive mood. Sadly, even after a second viewing, I have to report that Wes Anderson is, to my mind, a director offering diminishing returns.

His new movie, THE DARJEELING LIMITED, treads familiar ground. So much so that THE ONION spoofed his style brilliantly last month. The production design consists of interiors over-stuffed with meaningful objets and the characters wear tailor-made suits and carry bespoke luggage. We are in the ranks of the over-privileged and self-indulgent. The camera draws attention to itself by switching between static symmetric framing; sudden changes of focus; and the jarring use of slo-mo (usually to a vintage Kinks sound-track.) There is an absent father figure and a beloved but somehow distant mother. There are siblings who are struggling to deal with each other and their parents. There is a troubled boy, played by a Wilson brother, who attempts suicide.

In previous, better films, Wes Anderson used this set-up to create characters that were memorable and love-able. He brilliantly articulated the dynamics of family relationships but also provided light relief throught witty banter and improbable situations. His movies have always looked deliberately designed but pre LIFE AQUATIC, they also had heart.

THE DARJEELING LIMITED is, by contrast, a deeply boring, unengaging and alienating experience. Three self-obsessed, self-pitying brothers cross Rajasthan by train, feigning interest in spiritual enlightenment but skating on the surface of things. Anderson doesn't so much satirise the dumb, luxury-lined tourist as simply present him for our consideration. As a result, where we should have laughed at, and with, our protagonists, we find ourselves bored by their emotional ugliness. Surely, it must be possible to make a movie about superficial people on a dull journey that is not of itself superficial and dull?

As dull as this movie is, it might have been forgiveable were it not for one serious mis-step. This centres on Wes Anderson's use of a tragic event as a deus ex machina. His exploitation of an Indian tragedy to facilitate a change in the American protagonists is woefully exploitative, in that he never pays any attention to the impact of this event on the Indian characters. They are merely authentic background details. And this brings me to a wider inconsistency in the piece. For much of this movie, Anderson implicitly criticises superficial tourists who do not engage with the places they travel in and, specifically in the case of India, see it as a means to their own spiritual enlightenment rather than a worthy subject of study in itself. But, on the other hand, Anderson is guilty of exactly the things he is criticises. India is no more than a facilitator that is lightly skated over.

Finally, Anderson's sheer lack of humility is infuriating. Given how generally tedious, emotionally dry and morally vacuous this movie is - how completely unengaged with India - Anderson's musical nod to Satyajit Ray appears presumptuous in the extreme.

THE DARJEELING LIMITED played Venice and London 2007. It opened in Canada and the US earlier this year and is currently on release in the UK, Brazil, Denmark, Sweden, Australia and Norway. It opens in December in Denmark, Sweden, Australia and Norway and in January in Germany, Singapore, Italy, Spain, Russia and Iceland. It opens in Estonia, Turkey and the Netherlands in February and in Japan, Argentina and France in March. It opens in Finland in April 2008.

Friday, November 16, 2007

AMERICAN GANGSTER - handsome but heartless

Either you're somebody, or you ain't nobody.AMERICAN GANGSTER is a handsomely produced, engrossing police procedural. But it fails to create characters, dialogue and emotional story arcs that draw you in and capture the collective consciousness.

Ridley Scott and Harry Savides have created a movie that oozes authenticity with it's detailed rendering of 1970s Harlem projects. Real-life heroin dealer Frank Lucas, played by Denzel Washington, slips through these rough streets with a cool confidence that is magnetic. He eschews the super-fly pimp stylings of lesser black criminals such as Nicky Black (Cuba Gooding Junior) or his own younger brother (Chiwetel Ejiofor). This is because Lucas is smart, and less a gangster than a businessman. He supplies a product that is twice as potent than the competition for less than half the price, because he goes straight to the supplier and cuts out the middle-man. Naturally, this puts the traditional Italian mobsters out of business so he cuts them in. But they work for him. He controls the mob.

Lucas gets away with it because of his restraint, his self-control and the endemic corruption of the New York DEA, epitomised in Josh Brolin's sleazy rozzer, Detective Trupo. But he slips up when he wears a flashy chinchilla coat to a a boxing match and is seen to have better seats than mob bosses. This brings Lucas into the sights of New Jersey's one honest cop, Richie Roberts, played by Russell Crowe in a middling performance. Roberts is in many ways a more interesting character than Lucas. Lucas comes to us fully formed - fully in control - fully unquestioning. He is a family man. A business man. But also a ruthless killer. Roberts is more complicated. He clings to his honesty in police matters but is an adulterer going through a messy divorce. He is flawed, but driven, and yet, somehow, Crowe never really made him live for me.

AMERICAN GANGSTER is a long film but never drags. I was hooked on seeing the net close in on Lucas, and thrilled to see the good cop and smart dope dealer unite in the final frame to sit on the real scum - the rozzers. The production design and cinematography is excellent. But this is not an epic movie as the portentious title might suggest. The movie has no heart. There is no family treachery, no conflicted love story, no crisis of conscience, at the movie's heart. In fact, I think this film is slick but ultimately disposable.

AMERICAN GANGSTER is on release in the US, UK, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Canada, Estonia, Lithuania, Belgiu, France, Germany, Portugal and Iceland. It opens on November 23rd in Norway and Sweden. It opens in December in Russia, Greece, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain and the Czech Republic. It opens in January 2008 in Denmark, Argentina, Australia, Hungary, Singapore, Italy, Mexico, Egypt, Brazil, Finland and Turkey. It opens in Japan in February.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

I am Beerwolf and I am here to kill your Monst-AH!!!!

Tonight will be different! I am the ripper, the terror, the slasher. I am the teeth in the darkness! The talons in the night! My name is strength! And lust! And power! I AM BEOWULF!This new performance-capture version of BEOWULF is a noble addition to the genre of meat-headed sword-swinging action flicks, of which CONAN is the best example. It's transparent nonsense - wilfully sending itself up at every turn - and bears precious little resemblance to the Old English epic. It's laugh-out loud funny rather than noble and moving - but hey! there are worse ways to spend a couple of hours.

In this 3-D animated world, Ray Winstone - an old fat East Londoner - is transmuted into BEOWULF - a ludicrously buff sword-swing Hero with a capital "H". In fact, he looks more like Sean Bean in Lord of the Rings than anything else. He harrumphs around Denmark shouting stuff like "I am Beerwolf and I am here to kill your Monst-AH!" and "My name is strenff! And lust! And power! I am Beerwolf!!" He is in Denmark to kill an evil beastie called Grendel who is terrorising King Hrothgar's mead-hall. Unfortunately, he is then seduced by Grendel's mum and sires a dragon who will come back to haunt his mead-hall twenty years later. This all unwinds against a background in which the crumbling Roman Empire is giving way to Christian kingdoms and Heroes of old are giving way to feeble martyrs. Whatever intelligence there is in Neil Gaman and Roger Avary's script lies in its tackling the issue of hero-myths versus reality.

But let me be very clear. This is not a subtle, magical epic poem brought to life with sensitivity and pathos. No, no, no. It's full of swearing, jokes about deflowering virgins and blow jobs. There's a lot of nudity and a lot of violence. It is absolutely amazing to me that the movie got a 12A certificate in the UK. The acting is also completely hammy, with John Malkovich in particular having a lot of fun as a camp pseudo-villain. The accents are also all over the place. Robin Wright Penn and Alison Lohman decide to give their Danish characters accents that are sometimes English, sometimes Welsh, sometimes Scottish. Anthony Hopkins as Hrothgar has a pronounced Welsh lilt. Angelina Jolie does that bizarre thing she did in ALEXANDER as Grendel's mum and Beowulf is, as we said, from Aldgate East.

Still, for all its many flaws, Beowulf is a visual feast. The 3D works brilliantly and the performance capture has come on in leaps and bounds. The animation is magnetic. You have to see this, but just think twice before taking the kiddiwinks.

BEOWULF is on release in Indonesia, the Philippines, Germany, Hong Kong,Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, the UK, Italy and the USA. It opens next weekend in Belgium, Egypt, France, Argentina, Greece, the Netherlands, Russia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Spain. It opens on November 29th in Australia, Hungary, New Zealand, Slovenia, Brazil, Lithuania, Sweden, Turkey and Japan.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

KRRISH - state of the art Bollywood action flick

If you want to see the future of Bollywood, look no further than KRRISH - a slick, handsomely produced super-hero franchise that can rival anything Hollywood has to offer. Hrithik Roshan has watched Asian and Western action movies and sub-sumed the best of all worlds into a superlatively made movie that has the capacity to cross-over.

KRRISH is nominally the sequel to the sci-fi flick, KOI MIL GAYA. In that film, Hrithik Roshan played a disabled man called Rohit Mehra who is actually exceptionally gifted. Those gifts are unlocked when he and his love interest, played by Preity Zinta, discover an ET like alien called Jadoo. In KRRISH we fast forward twenty years. Rohit's son, Krishna Mehra, has inherited his special powers, but is living in seclusion with his grandmother (Rekha), after the death of his parents. He is lured to Singapore by a love interest (Priyanka Chopra) and creates a super-hero alter-ego called KRRISH. He battles against an evil super-villain, Dr Arya (Naseerudin Shah).

The first hour of the film is a classic, formulaic Hindi love story between Krishna and Priya. But the second hour sees the emergence of Krrish and wire-fu stunt choreography the like of which has never been seen in Hindi cinema. Hrithik Roshan has obviously been training hard and he has obviously hired the best technicians available, not least, Tony Ching Siu of HERO and THE CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER fame. The final hour is pure Superman style good versus evil stuff. Enormous fun and brilliantly executed.

KRRISH went on global release in 2006 and is now available on DVD.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

PARTNER - serviceable Hindi remake of HITCH

Girls like you see these macho stud-muffins, and go loopy over them... and leave simple-hearted and plain looking good guys like Bhaskar in the dust! And I help out these plain guys you can't be bothered with. I'm cupid, stupid!PARTNER is a loud, crass, unabashed Bollywood remake of the US Will Smith rom-com, HITCH. Directed and re-written by one of Bollywood's leading comedy directors, David Dhawan, the movie makes no concession to Westernised tastes or production values. This is old school Bollywood of the type since surpassed by movies such as KRRISH and OMKARA. It is entertaining in a sort of low mindless fashion and features a lot of popular dance tracks that ape a bizarre range of Western influences from hip-hop to salsa.

Salman Khan stars in the Will Smith role, playing a dating guru who helps losers win the women of their dreams. In his old age, Khan has become a pastiche of himself, bearing his be-muscled chest at every opportunity; constantly sporting stone-wash jeans c 1987 and wearing an ever more implausible set of hair pieces. Nonetheless, you can't help but admire the way in which he throws himself into one high octane dance number after another, wearing an ever higher quotient of sequins. The schmuck is played by Govinda - a Hindi comedy legend - and he is suitably goofy and sweet. He gets a far bigger role than in the US original. Indeed it takes forty minutes of the movie's two hour run-time for Salman Khan to agree to take his case. The object of Govinda's desire is played by Katrina Kaif, whose stilted English Hindi accent is a definite disadvantage in any movie in which she's meant to play a genuine Desi. Still, she's pretty enough to play the eye candy who falls for the loser with the kind heart. The Eva Mendes role goes to Lara Datta. In this version, instead of a reluctant feminist who's plotting against the dating guru, her character is a single mother, who needs to be convinced of Salman Khan's ability to be a father. Cue lots of standard Bollywood scenes with a cute munchkin.

Overall, the movie is not subtle but it does slide easily down the throat. The songs are classic Bollywood club hits - notably the Mambo No 5 rip-off, "Do U Wanna Partner" and the bhangra number, "Dupatta Tera Nau Rang Da". The only bit that went from "so naff it's amusing" to "so naff it's just naff" was the final scene in which the date doctor has to give the schmuck step by step instructions on his honeymoon night.

PARTNER went on global release in August 2007 and is now available on DVD.

Monday, November 12, 2007

THE LOOKOUT - weak plotting offsets decent performances

After stand-out performances in MYSTERIOUS SKIN and BRICK, I'll pretty much turn up to any movie that Joseph Gordon Levitt stars in. It's a shame, then, that he should have patronised this severely under-cooked small-town heist flick.

THE LOOKOUT is directed by Scott Frank - the script-writer behind the the flabby, implausible and ultimately tedious political thriller, THE INTERPRETER. THE LOOKOUT is, if anything, an even worse script. The set-up is hopelessly derivative. Our hero, Chris Pratt, is a privileged former high-school sports star who crashes his car, kills his friends, and gives himself crippling mental disabilities. As a result, he finds himself patronised and dismissed by friends and family. Who will even notice such a helpless boy, let alone conceive of him as a criminal? All this has echoes of THE USUAL SUSPECTS and THE SCORE, of course. Moreover, Chris Pratt's mental difficulties manifest themselves in his difficulty with putting events and actions into the right sequence. He also suffers from gaps in his memory and narcolepsy viz. MEMENTO.

The film doesn't really work as a thriller: it's never particularly suspenseful. It's all too obvious that when a hot chick and a cool older guy schmooze Chris, it's because they want him to help them rob the bank he works at. It's also pretty obvious that he'll be suckered in by them. But while the movie is not suspenseful, it does work as a character study, at least for the first hour. That's all down to a typically solid central performances from Joseph Gordon Levitt and Jeff Daniels, as Chris' blind best friend. The movie also contains a surprisingly good performance by British actor Matthew Goode in a flawless American accent. Kudos to him.

But as the film went into "heist" mode in the final forty minutes, my patience wore thin. All the hard work of establishing Chris' complex relationships with his girlfriend and best friend was flushed down the toilet by a script that either forgets about them completely or uses them as plot devices. As the emotional anchor of the film was cut loose, the structural flaws became obvious. Those wanting the plot spoiled can read more after the release information. Suffice to say, I left the movie theatre feeling peevish.

THE LOOKOUT was released in the USA, Spain, France, Iceland, Italy, the Philippines, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, Hungary, Portugal, Mexico, Belgium, Argentina, Norway and Austria earlier this year. It is currently on release in the UK. THE LOOKOUT Is also available on Region 1 DVD.

SPOILERS FOLLOW: Why is Chris even allowed to drive a car? Why does the gang contain an older member who looks like a pastiche of the Peter Fonda character in GHOST RIDER? (A pastiche of a pastiche, really.) Why don't the burglars make Chris speak to "Deputy Donut" the second time he comes round. That would have prevented the shoot out and all that followed.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

BUG - unforgettable, excruciating, unbelievably overlooked

Well, we're all from beaver, ain't we?Agnes is an alcoholic coke addict who hides from her abusive ex-husband in a seedy motel in an unspecified Southern state. The cine-literate will note her white-trash uniform: filthy wife-beater, greasy hair and cut-off jeans; abode: the sort of motel room that hides Psychos behind the shower curtain and voyeurs behind the air vents. Agnes drinks to mask a real, profound sorrow. She is retreating from life. When Peter appears, he seems almost too earnest...but in her loneliness, Agnes takes him in, relieved to find a companion by whom she is not threatened. These two form an unlikely bond despite the mocking, threatening visits from Agnes' ex. Agnes' desperation to have someone in her life, and to make sense of her grief, makes her pathetically susceptible to Peter's paranoid delusions of government conspiracy and experimentation.

If Agnes expresses our need to believe, even if we knowingly delude ourselves in that belief, then Peter is the extreme reaction of every sane, right-thinking human being to the travesties of justice and trust that we experience on a daily basis. Every time my government takes away a right I have had since Magna Carta; every time I bring home a DVD with an RFID chip; every second I inch closer to a compulsary ID card; my faith in the system is eroded. It may take severe mental illness to get to Peter's stage of paranoia and revulsion, but what makes his predicament so terrifying is that, on one level, I can sympathise with it. To that end, BUG is the movie that INVASION so desperately wanted to be - a perfect expression of angst in an era of twin fears; terrorism and counter-terrorism.

Tracy Letts' screenplay places these two characters in a claustrophobic motel room and watches them work each other up into a state of frenzied insanity. The trajectory is clear from the outset, but it is testament to the script and the performances that the audience is fascinated by their disintegration and fearful for them at every step. Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon are astonishingly raw in their roles as Agnes and Peter. The script and direction take them into the realms of the surreal. The movie flirts with a very black, dead-pan humour. Some of their actions and dialogue seems bizarre - maybe even laughable. But thanks to the conviction of their performances, the audience is not allowed to break the tension with a nervous laugh. Were it not for the extreme nature of the scenario and the fundamental cowardice of the voters, one could imagine both actors being nominated for Oscars. In smaller supporting roles, I was impressed by Harry Connick Junior who gives a very carefully modulated performance as Agnes' voluble but menacing ex-husband.

As for William Friedkin's direction and Michael Grady's photography, I can't praise them enough for managing to take the stock elements of a gothic horror and turn them into an entirely original, oppressive, psychological horror. A classic example of their art is the scene in which Agnes wakes up to find a fresh pot of coffee brewing. She takes a cup and wanders to the bathroom to thank Peter. The door opens and steam rolls out, elegantly obscuring a leaner torso thant we would expect from Peter. The head is obscured by steam, but the stance and voice are all wrong. Agnes' ex steps into the room and into the light. Her dream of a passive partner dissolves into the reality of a brutish husband. It's all so beautifully done

So, let us be clear. BUG is an amazing film. By turns emotionally engaging, excruciating to watch, impossibly to turn away from, frightening and fascinating. Why then, is it only playing on one small screen in the Odeon Panton Street in London? Why is there no publicity? Why was the screening near empty? This film has been done a great disservice by its distributors. This will no doubt fuel its status as Cult Movie of 2007.

BUG played Cannes, Toronto and London back in 2006 and Berlin 2007. It was released in France, the US, Turkey, Russia, Greece, Brazil and Thailand earlier this year and is currently on release in the UK. BUG is available on Region 1 DVD.

Friday, November 09, 2007

AIR GUITAR NATION - who knew?!

AIR GUITAR NATION is a hillarious and bizarrely fascinating documentary by TV producer/docu director Alexandra Lipsitz. It follows a couple of American air guitarists as they compete for the American title and, most importantly, a chance to compete in the Annual World Air Guitar Championships in Oolu, Finland. At first, the film feels like a mockumentary or a spoof in the style of SPINAL TAP or even WAYNE'S WORLD. But pretty soon, you're aware that this is a genuine counter-cultural movement. For every C-Diddy that wears an absurd costume and strutts the stage Tenacious-D stylee, there are scores of real-life, serious-as-Sarbox metal-heads who do NOT permit you to mock the "art" of air guitar. The ultimate example of this is two-time world champion, Zac Munro who talks with unerring belief in The Zen of Air Guitar and the difficulty of handling the pressure of fame.

You can watch this doc. on two levels. First, and most importantly, it's just a lot of fun. It's great to hear those classic rock-tunes blasting out and a bunch of guys with, for the most part, serious day-jobs, unashamedly rocking out in public. I defy even the most grinchiest of grinches not to leave with a smile on their face. On another level, I find it fascinating to see the audience's expectations subverted. I mean, here are a bunch of people that a lot of people would consider to be losers - blowing a bit of stupidity out of all proportion. The guy I went to see this with couldn't imagine anything more stupid than being a semi-pro air guitarist and thought that the competitors would all be spotty teenage metal-head oiks! In fact, the guys in this doc seem pretty normal and if anything, admirably ambitious. So, there you have it!

AIR GUITAR NATION played a bunch of festivals in 2006 and was released in Japan earlier in 2007. It is currently on release in the UK. AIR GUITAR NATION is also available on Region 1 DVD.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

SAAWARIYA - Sanjay Leela Bhansali needs to get a new schtick

Sanjay Leela Bhansali faces a huge weight of expectation, having previously directed the critically acclaimed Hindi films, DEVDAS and BLACK.

DEVDAS is a stunning period film based on an Indian tragedy as famous as Romeo and Juliet. A young poor girl falls for a rich young boy. When they grow up they want to get married but his family intervene. Slighted by the insult, her family marry her off to a rich man and she attains a high position, while his family are beset by disaster. Devdas turns to alcohol in order to forget his lost love. He attracts the love of kind-hearted prostitute, but cannot return it. Finally, he dies of a broken heart.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali filmed DEVDAS in a very particular way. He used ornate, elaborate sets that almost felt claustrophobic. Much of the film was filmed at night, and beautifully lit. Enormous attention was paid to the costumes, music and choreography. The final result was a film that felt incredibly artificial - almost surreal. However, on balance, I really liked DEVDAS.

Much of the thematic material and the shooting style carries over into SAAWARIYA - a loose adaptation of Dostoyevsky's White Nights. Once again, we have a young man in love with a girl who is unavailable to him. He is a nightclub singer with a heart of gold. She is a young girl who stands on a bridge every night waiting for her lover to return. Once again, our young man is favoured by a prostitute. The shooting style is also similar. The whole film is shot on an elaborate, beautiful set, that feels claustrophobic and surreal. The acting style is melodramatic, but the attention to the costumes and colour-coding is impressive. The music, sung by Shaan, Alka Yagnik and Shreya Ghosal, is also wonderful.

The problem is that you do feel that you are seeing an attenuated version of the themes and styles of DEVDAS. And the story is simply too thin to support the run-time. The dialogues are hammy and the characterisation of the young lover as completely good is really very incredible and dull. Moreover, apart from a captivating supporting role from Rani Mukherjee as the hooker with a heart of gold, the debutant actors just aren't good enough. Ranbir (grandson of Raj, son of Rishi) Kapoor over-acts fiersomely as the young lover and dances in a sort of pastiche of Hrithik Roshan. Sonam Kapoor (the girl, duaghter of Anil) is beautiful but given little to do but be beautiful. Salman Khan has a mere cameo role.

All in all, this movie is beautiful, but soon becomes boring.

SAAWARIYA is on global release.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

DEATH AT A FUNERAL - monumentally unfunny

DEATH AT A FUNERAL is a British farce blessed with a good director (Frank Oz) and a hansome cast of British actors - from Rupert Graves to Kris Marshall to Daisy Donovan. These are people we KNOW can be funny. Frank Oz is a funny man. Kris Marshall is a funny man. Daisy Donovan had her own comedy show, for heaven's sake. And yet the resulting ninety minute film is monumentally unfunny. I mean, I was sitting in the cinema, bored and unsmiling, thinking how much of an achievement it was to make a film in which Kris Marshall and Daisy Donovan are just NOT funny. Stupendous. Miraculous, even? Certainly, something which suggests a malevolent deliberateness rather than unfortunate cack-handedness. Screen-writer needs to go and stand in the corner and think very carefully about what he's done. This is arguably the worst film I have seen in the year to date.

DEATH AT A FUNERAL was released in Belgium, Israel, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, Finland, Norway, Italy, Denmark, France, Portugal, Sweden, Singapore, Brazil, Australia, Russia, Spain and Greece earlier this year. It is currently on release in the UK and opens in Hungary on November 22nd.

Friday, November 02, 2007

30 DAYS OF NIGHT - not so scary but suitably moody

Oh, Lisa! You and your stories! 'Dad, Bart is a vampire.' 'Beer kills brain cells.' Now, let's get back to that... building thingy... where our beds and T.V... is.30 DAYS OF NIGHT is an underwheming vampire flick based on the Niles/Templesmith graphic novels and directed by David Slade of HARD CANDY infamy. It's set in an Alaskan town so far north that every winter the town plunges into unbroken darkness for thirty days. This allows Slade to conjure up some arresting visuals, in which vampires are sillhouetted against dark grey skies, and blood spatters on snow-covered roads. It's a gloomy, sinister world. The vampires are somewhat less impressive. Their leader, played by Danny Huston in a buzz-cut, white shirt and dark black coat, looks uncannily like Neil Tennant. And in general, there's none of the sexual sub-text that we expect from our vampire flicks. In fact, this is an altogether subdued picture. For the first forty minutes or so, we see rather little of the vampires and the violence is rather discreet. Things do amp up toward the nicely off-centre ending, but it's never jump-out-of-your-seat scary. Josh Hartnett leads a cast of valiant townsfolk trying to hide until sunlight comes and he doesn't do a bad job. But the stand-out character is Ben Foster's psychotic human who wants to be a vampire. He spits out prophesies of death in a Southern accent and is infinitely more creepy than any of the actual beasties. Still, Foster's agent should warn him that he's in danger of becoming typecast after similarly brilliant but similarly, well, similar, performances in ALPHA DOG and 3:10 TO YUMA.

30 DAYS OF NIGHT is on release in the US, UK, Canada, the Philippines, the Czech Republic and Lithuania. It opens in Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia and Iceland next weekend. It opens later in November in Greece, Turkey, Brazil, Estonia, Egypt, Finland and Taiwan. It opens in December in Norway and Singapore and in January in New Zealand and Argentina.