Thursday, May 31, 2007

The cinema of Nagesh Kukunoor.

My recent post on the Madhur Bandharkar's Mumbai trilogy, led me to reconsider my experience of Indian art-house cinema and prompted this post on the recent cinema of writer-director-actor Nagesh Kukunoor. They are two complementary directors. Bandharkar's cinema seeks to expose corruption at the very heights of Indian society. He uses fast cuts, hand-held cameras and the brash confrontational structure of investigative journalism. The over-riding tone is angry. By contrast, Kukunoor's cinema deals is more quiet, more personal, more sentimental and less polished.


Kukunoor's first film was his incredibly lo-fi 1998 feature, HYDERABADI BLUES. He plays the protagonist - a young Indian man who returns home after a decade in the US and finds himself bewildered by the traditional process of wooing a wife. Kukunoor shows his flair for comic dialogue and for creating authentic emotional dilemmas. But the film falls down for its ridiculous denouement and the rough-and-ready technical spec. So this is arguably an interesting movie for fans of his later work, rather than a must-see for general audiences.

Kukunoor's next movie was the 1999 coming of age tragicomedy, ROCKFORD. It's about pre-teen boys in an Indian all-boys Catholic boarding school. Kukunoor captures the dramas of growing up in a strict environment, friendship and first love with candour and wit. But this is a less successful film that HYDERABADI BLUES. Although filmed on a larger budget, the editing and framing still have a haphazard feel. The plot was a bit random too. Big issues, such as sexual abuse, are introduced and then neatly dismissed. And the lead actors, young Rohan Dey and Nandita Das give mediocre performances.

Next up is the 2001 satire on Bollywood, BOLLYWOOD CALLING. Pat Cusick plays himself - a failed Hollywood actor who decides to take bit part in a Bollywood movie directed a has-been played by the legendary Om Puri. Once again, the technical package ratchets up a notch in this flick, though far from perfect. Still, it was a testament to Kukunoor's increasing success that he managed to cast Om Puri. The script is especially good on the culture clash between East and West and in lightly mocking the intrinsic ridiculous of the Bollywood masala movie. But there is no rage and no anger - no exploration of the darker side of an industry with mafia links and a bad track record on sexual abuse. Instead we get a very schmaltzy denouement where, once again, all loose ends tie up neatly and in the best of all worlds. I mean, you don't have to make a movie as fierce as PAGE THREE, which is less a satire than a rant. But, BOLLYWOOD CALLING isn't half as perceptive, accomplished, visually inventive or tragicomic as Merchant Ivory's 1970 classic, BOMBAY TALKIE, for instance.

2003 brought a turnaround in Kukunoor's career, as far as I am concerned. With the dark thriller 3 DEEWAREIN (3 WALLS) he made a movie of real emotional depth and political importance. It is powered by surprisingly good performance from mainstream Bollywood actors - Jackie Shroff, Juhi Chawla and Gulshan Grover - as well as a typically brilliant performance from Naseerudin Shah. The movie opens with a no-nonsense depiction of three murders. We then move forward in time. Chawla plays an abused housewife who is interviewing three convicts on India's death row. They are played by Shroff, Shah and - in an absurd lack of humility on his part - Kukunoor. The thriller aspect arises from why exactly the woman is so interested in these men. The tension builds - there are no silly songs to destract from it - until a powerful and uncharacteristically dark denoument. The result is an accomplished and powerful film that breaks the Bollywood mould and is definitely worth trying to watch. Indeed, the only real flaw is Kukunoor's reluctance to cast a better actor than himself in a lead role.

After such a promising film it is disheartening to say that in 2004, Kukunoor released a flimsy cash-in - HYDERABADI BLUES 2. The least said about this mediocre feel-good nonsense the better. But things went from bad to worse with the admittedly critically acclaimed 2005 schmaltz-fest IQBAL. This is a polished, emotionally manipulative, hackneyed underdog/sports movie. Picking up from the plucky young things in LAGAAN, here we have a deaf-mute boy who triumphs over his family's objections to play for the Indian cricket team having been talent-spotted by no less a legend than Kapil Dev! Seriously.

But before we can write off Kukunoor as a Bollywood Spielberg-lite, he flip-flops back to form with this 2006 flick, DOR. Ayesha Takia plays a naive and kind-hearted Hindu girl called Meera who marries her childhood sweetheart. She lives with his highly traditional (for which read patriarchal and oppressive) family while her husband leaves home to look for work in a factory. But soon they receive the news that the husband is dead. He was apparently pushed from a balcony by his room-mate, a Muslim man from north India. Meera is now a young widow - at the lowest rung of the social ladder - and kept as a quasi-slave in her husband's house. Still, she does not object to this until she meets a North Indian woman called Zeenat (Gul Kirat Panang). Zeenat is a feminist Muslim who teaches her to have some fun and think for herself. However, Zeenat has a hidden agenda. Her husband has been convicted of killing Meera's husband and the only way she can save him from the death sentence is to persuade Meera to pardon him.

The movie is beautifully filmed and shows the difference in landscape, culture and customs of Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. DP Sudeep Chatterjee does excellent work. The script and the two lead performances are also praise-worthy. In particular, Meera's awakening is subtle and convincing. All in all, DOR is a quiet, patient, lyrical film that, along with 3 DEEWAREIN, makes Kukunoor a director that it's hard to dismiss.

All these films are available on DVD.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

CONVERSATIONS WITH OTHER WOMEN - stylish adult drama

CONVERSATIONS WITH OTHER WOMEN is that rare thing - an intelligent, witty, perceptive drama. Even more rare, it is a movie with a technical conceit that adds to its emotional weight, rather than simply being a gimmick.

The plot is simple. Two people who once had a relationship meet by chance at a wedding many years later. They start flirting, have sex and then part.

The technical conceit is that the movie is shown in two separate vertical panels. Even when the protagonists are having sex, they are shown on separate screens. Sometimes, they speak to each other in one panel, while the other panel shows the people they are talking about or flashes back to their previous relationship. Other times, one of the protagonists will play out two responses to the same act in each panel.

The editing together of the two panels - by director Hans Canosa - really makes you think about the interior lives of the protagonists. We become highly conscious about how much they have changed since they first met - physically and emotionally - and the impact their meetings have had on each other. The conceit also serves to deliver one of the most imaginatively shown sex scenes in cinema.

I love that the film uses the split screen to explore the nature of memory, missed chances, and ageing. I love that the script is truthful rather than sentimental. I love the occasional flashes of comedy from Olivia Wilde as an uptight bridesmaid and Thomas Lennon as the wedding videographer. But at its core, this movie is a showcase for the actors, and Helena Bonham Carter and Aaron Eckhart deliver performances that are brave, incisive and thought provoking.

CONVERSATIONS WITH OTHER WOMEN went on release in France, Canada, the US, and Israel in 2006. It opened in South Korea, Japan, Turkey, Singapore and Belgium earlier this year. It is currently on release in the UK. The movie is also available on Region 1 DVD.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

FLYBOYS - less Flash, more Heart

FLYBOYS is a war movie so old-fashioned, earnest and two-dimensional it brought a nostalgic tear to my eye. It's a no-nonsense, patriotic, sentimental true story about Americans who flew fighter planes for the French before the US joined World War One. The American heroes are clean-cut handsome men who wear nice uniforms. That is, unless they're the quirky, weedy soldiers who are bound to get shot down by the evil Hun and provide the movie's pathos.

On the down-side, the handsome young things are led by James Franco, who once again does that handsome brooding thing that he sub's for acting. The inevitable romance between Franco and a young French peasant-girl is pure sugar and lengthens the movie's run-time from a manageable 90 minutes to well over two hours. There's a hamfisted attempt to explore the racial politics of the time. Plus, the dialogue is pretty dire. (Suprising given that one of the writers penned SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE.)

But despite these manifest flaws, FLYBOYS is not a complete waste of time. First and foremost, after revisionist movies like FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS it's quite nice to remember that sometimes there are simply young men who display courage fighting for what they believe in with no hidden agenda. But second, let's not under-estimate how much fun it is to see handsome men in nice uniforms have brilliantly rendered dog fights. Because, if there's only one thing that director Tony Bill gets right, he REALLY gets the battle sequences right. And by "right", I don't mean historically right - I'm sure you could pick apart the exact types of planes used - but exhilerating. Pure and simple. DP Henry Braham and the CGI boys should be proud.

So, for those of you who enjoy watching pilots shoot at each other in rickety planes - who love lovers kissing at sunset and tales of derring-do - this is your film. For all its flaws, by not trying to be too clever, it retains a certain charm.

FLYBOYS was released in the US, Philippines, Greece, Estonia, Latvia, Turkey, Slovenia, Russia, Brazil, Hungary, Thailand, Iceland, Hong Kong, Romania and Singapore in 2005. It opened in Mexico, Australia, Poland, Germany and Belgium earlier this year. It opens in the UK on June 1st and in Italy and Spain on June 29th. FLYBOYS is available on Region 1 DVD.

Monday, May 28, 2007

WEDDING DAZE - stealth comedy

There's something about WEDDING DAZE that defies the ludicrous premise. The idea is that a grieving fiance, prompted by his best friend's pleas to start dating again, asks the next girl he meets to marry him. Ridiculously, she says yes. And so they set off for a wedding chapel in Atlantic City with some kooky best friends, a jailbird dad and some cops in tow. Jason Biggs and Isla Fisher are just so darned likeable as the goofy lovers that you can't help rooting for them. Michael Weston and Ebon Moss-Bachrach are so quietly funny as their respective best friends that you can't help chuckling. In fairness, the whole Jewish toy gag and Joe Pantoliano/jailbird storyline left me cold. But what's not to like about Edward Herrmann and Margot Martindale playing Biggs' sexually voracious parents?

I'm not pretending that I laughed myself silly, but anything that makes you smile at the end and chuckle more than a couple of times has its merits.

WEDDING DAZE aka THE PLEASURE OF YOUR COMPANY played Toronto 2006. It opens in the UK on June 1st, in the US on September 17th, in Belgium on September 19th and in the Netherlands on September 20th.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

JOE STRUMMER: THE FUTURE IS UNWRITTEN - electrical shockers!

JOE STRUMMER: THE FUTURE IS UNWRITTEN is another astoundingly well put-together, passionate yet balanced, music documentary from Julien Temple. He tells Strummer's life story in straight-forward chronological order, but he's blessed with archive family films; art-school cartoons and drawings; archive concert footage and Strummer's own humourous and unfailingly honest narration. He tells about his early life - the son of a left-leaning British diplomat incarcerated in an austere public school. He describes himself as a gobby little git and bully. Later, when The Clash have become world-famous and are playing stadium gigs, he's scathing about their self-destructive ego-mania. Finally, when he becomes a champion of world music and a doting father, he mocks himself for becoming his parents.

The assembled friends, family and colleagues take their cue from Strummer himself. They speak with great love but most importantly with the blinkers off. His early friends from the hippie squats in West London speak of him as charismatic, sincere, maddening and finally heart-breaking when he leaves them to join The Clash. The story of the "creative differences" and multiple sackings in The Clash are well known. Strummer comes across as a master lyricist and not interested in money. He was, however, liable to nab your girl, sack you when you became a drug addict, and ruthlessly pursue fame. The more he sought fame as an iconoclast, the more he became uncomfortable with his own iconic status. The doc. then moves through the "wilderness" years, when Strummer drifted through Spain and the US looking for a new sound, battling his record company and his fans' desire for the old classics. He even resurrected The Clash, populated with some bland young men better suited to a boyband. Finally, we see Strummer move into a sort of benevolent middle age as a BBC disc jockey and band member. He seemed happiest when sitting round camp-fires with all manner of people talking about life and making music.

The genius of the documentary is in the editing. Despite being over two hours long it never loses pace and keeps the viewer riveted. Animation is cross-cut with archive footage, TV ads and movie clips for commentary and context and the footage of Strummer's mates sitting round camp-fires all over the world and reminiscing. The use of the camp-fires is a fitting emblem of what Strummer was all about. It's also a pretty nifty cinematic device because they look great and make the interviewers feel at ease, lending an intimacy to their conversations. Julien Temple also makes the inspired decision not to have little subtitles telling us who all the talking heads are. This adds to the feeling of intimacy. It was great to see people as varied as Scorsese, Bez, John Cusack, Bobby Gillespie and Roland Gift chatting about Strummer. The only false note was, curiously, Johnny Depp, who seemed to be immitating what he thought a rock legend should look like. With the other famous talking heads, they mentioned working with Joe or seeing him live. With Depp you got the feeling that he was just being interviewed to look cool by association.......

JOE STRUMMER: THE FUTURE IS UNWRITTEN played Sundance and Dublin 2007. It is currently on release in the UK and Germany and opens in Australia on September 13th.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

LOVEWRECKED - weak but harmless teen rom-com

Doctor007 and I were going to take The Kid to see the exceptionally brilliant BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA, but being a chip off the old gene-pool she whined until we caved in and went to see LOVEWRECKED instead. Secretly, I wasn't unhappy. I have a weakness for teen romantic-comedies and let's face it, Chris Carmack a.k.a. Luke from The OC is not unpleasing to the eye even in my frail dotage. Doctor007 however, was looking distinctly peeved.

The plot is suitably ridiculous. The heroine of LOVEWRECKED is a clever high-school girl called Jenny Taylor. True to the formula, she has a hapless best friend called Ryan who's secretly in love with her. She also has an enormous crush on a rock star. When Jenny finds herself shipwrecked on an island with the aforementioned gorgeous rock star she's excited that he'll have the opportunity to get to know her and hopefully fall in love with her. So much so that she forgets to tell him that they actually washed up round the corner from the beach resort.

The movie started out well. Our young heroine is played by the amiable Amanda Bynes - one of the few Hollywood starlets to have genuine comic timing. We also get a nice cameo from the inimitable Fred Willard as her painfully hip (and insanely old) father. But as soon as the action moves to the Caribbean the movie becomes hopelessly mediocre. We get a severely unfunny cameo from Alfonso "Carlton from The Fresh Prince" Ribeiro as an uptight hotel manager. Jason Masters arrives at the resort with an entourage that's basically not as funny as anything in ENTOURAGE. It's especially painful for a British audience to hear Joey Kern's attempt at a cockney accent. I mean, it's not as bad as Dick van Dyke, but that's hardly the benchmark. The central romance rolls along painlessly enough, largely thanks to Bynes' charm and Carmack's looks, but the denouement is not just ridiculous but actively dumb.

It's all a bit rubbish really, and a shame because I keep championing the teen rom-com as good old-fashioned pop entertainment and then this sort of bilge let's me down. It's even more disappointing when you realise that this flick was directed by the same helmer responsible for the cult classic, GREASE!

LOVEWRECKED opened in Russia, the Ukraine, the Philippines, the UAE, Singapore, Thailand and Norway in 2006. It was a TV movie in the US and is available on Region 1 DVD. It's also on release in the UK.

Friday, May 25, 2007

DVD round-up 4: DEAR FRANKIE****

Talented British actress Emily Mortimer shows her full range in the challenging role of Lizzie, a single mother who tries to protect her son Frankie from the grim horror of an abusive father. She does this by telling him that his dad's actually a gallant merchant seaman. When Frankie works out that his dad's ship is about to dock in his home town, Frankie naturally expects a visit. In desperation, Lizzie hires a stranger, played by Gerard "This is Sparta" Butler, to pretend to be the kid's dad for the weekend.

It's an unreal premise, but the wonder of Andrea Gibb's intelligent and sensitive script is that it throws up all sorts of real emotional problems. Lizzie and the stranger are attracted to each other, but this is threatening to a woman so used to protecting her son and herself from any new powerful influence. It is also testament to director/DP Shona Auerbach that she manages to coax such powerful performances from her cast.

DEAR FRANKIE played Cannes, Edinburgh and Toronto 2004 and went on global release in 2005. It is available on DVD.

DVD round-up 3: NINA'S HEAVENLY DELIGHTS*

It says a lot for the advance and acceptance of the gay rights cause that we can now have queer cinema that's as formualic, trite, saccharine and basically piss-poor as your average Richard Curtis flick. The Nina of the title is an Asian twenty-something lesbian who left her family back in Glasgow. She returns for her father's funeral to learn that he gambled away the family restaurent. Her only hope is to win a televised national cooking contest. The movie wears its PC credentials on its sleeve: there's an Asian kid-sister who yearns to be a highland dancer, a Bollywood-aspirant transvestite, and of course the central Asian-Scottish lesbian love affair. The dialogue and love scenes are stilted and awkward, the humour weak and sporadic, and the denouement as ridiculous as that of NOTTING HILL. The acting - from a largely unknown cast of Brits - is uniformly wooden. The most shocking thing is that this glib rom-com was penned by Andrea Gibb, the writer behind the infinitely more challenging and mature Scottish drama, DEAR FRANKIE.

NINA'S HEAVENLY DELIGHTS opened in the UK in November 2006 and opens in the US in November 2007. It is available on DVD.

DVD round-up 2: GLASTONBURY****

GLASTONBURY is a really entertaining documentary about the famous British music festival. Julien Temple combines archive footage, interviews with the organiser, artists who've made their mark over the years and devoted attendees. We start out with hippie counter-culture, which all looks hillarious to the modern eye, until you become a bit envious of how naive and earnest it was. Things get more politicised in the 80s with Billy Bragg et al - but then that was a fair reflection of the times. We see the rise of the Baggies and Ravers in the 90s, including the iconic Pulp "Common People" gig, and move into the modern era. It's fascinating stuff for festival fans as well as people who are simply interested in cultural history. The only thing I'd say is that, as with many other documentaries, you wonder why it got a cinematic release and whether a BBC2 docmentary slot wouldn't have worked just as well.

GLASTONBURY played Berlin 2006 and was released in the UK in 2006 and in the US in 2007. It goes on release in France in July 2007 and is available on DVD.

DVD round-up 1: SCENES OF A SEXUAL NATURE**

SCENES OF A SEXUAL NATURE is a mischieviously mis-titled movie. There is no rumpy pumpy on show. What we DO have is a number of couples on a sunny day on Hampstead Heath - a large park in North London with commanding views of the city. The couples are young, old; gay, straight; in mature relationships, blind dates, or being paid for their company. All of life is here, struggling to make a connection and be happy: the ultimate indulgent concern of the developed world's middle classes. The vignettes are alternatively funny, sad or awkward. But they are universally populated with well-known and high-class British character actors plus Ewan MacGregor for the marketing campaign. The vignettes are also, more unhappily, midly interesting to watch, but instantly forgettable. Still, it's considerably less contrived and twee than your usual Richard Curtis flick, and I look forward to seeing what writer Aschlin Ditta and director Ed Blum do next.

SCENES OF A SEXUAL NATURE was released in the UK in November 2006, is currently playing in Russia, and is available on DVD.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

You can tell they started filming PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD'S END without a finished script

Unlike director Gore Verbinski, I am going to keep my review of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD'S END short, structured and to the point.

Positive aspects:
1. Handsome production values;
2. Plentiful funny sight gags;
3. Occasional witty dialogue;
4. Admirably restrained handling of the Keith Richards cameo;
5. Acc. to Nik, an ending that "twisted and turned so much, and was so laughably stupid", it was rather fun.

Negative aspects:
1. A labyrinthine plot that is near impossible to follow and therefore to care about;
2. A plot so full of random shit and plot lines that the film-makers don't have time to take each strand to fruition;
3. Johnny Depp slipping into self-parody;

4. All other actors wooden or on auto-pilot;
5. Chow Yun-Fat's incomprehensible English;
6. Misplaced political allegory in opening scenes and in Keira Knightley's absurd "I have a dream" speech near the end;
7. A bloated, indulgent run-time;
8. Markedly less light-hearted and funny than the original movie;
9. Absurdity of Jerry Bruckheimer peddling a movie wherein the audience has to sympathise with renegade freedom-loving pirates (who are bound by an iron-clad Pirate Code, by the way) as opposed to the capitalistic, "big business" Hollywood studio, I mean, East India Company!

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD'S END is on global release.


APPENDIX: An email exchange.

Bina007: You're remarkably positive about your experience given how shite it was.

Nikolai: Well, you see, somehow the film retained a charm. Probably because it was so unpolished. It was like being at a dress rehearsal. You don't expect the play to be good, and you feel for the actors personally when they get their lines wrong and shit. You think, awww, Johnny Depp, you're making it up as you go along aren't you? And then at the end of the film, and I mean the last 5 - 10 minutes, they'd almost recaptured what made the first one great! And it's like - fuck - why couldn't the last 2.4 hours have been like this? And what happened in dead man's chest? Why did they have to embellish a simple formula that worked with all this dumb-assed CGI and stupid baddies and unbelievably intricate plots sub-plots double-plots and wank. So yeah, I had some sympathy for the film - in the same way as I have sympathy for a lame beggar trying to walk down the street to get to a better begging station. Capiche?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA - the best children's film I've seen in years

BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA is an outstanding film whether you're a child or an adult. It immediately catapults into my list of Best Films of 2007 if not all time.

So much of what I hate about big summer blockbsters aimed at the "family market" is their complete lack of respect for the audience. Kids films are often patronising and formulaic. They tend to be over-populated with smart-talking animals and oh-so-smart pop-cultural references. They tend to be light on tight storylines, engaging characters and some similarity to real life.

BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA bucks the trend. For a start it's based on a proper story by Katherine Paterson that has structure, character development and real emotional pull. It focuses on a young boy called Jesse who's having a hard time. He's being bullied at school, he feels his father holds him in contempt, and his parents have no money. His life is changed when the new girl in school, Leslie, befriends him. Thanks to her vivid imagination, they turn a deserted wood and an old tree-house into a fantasy world called Terabithia. The friendship helps both kids to gain in self-confidence. This self-confidence helps Jesse to cope when the darker aspects of real life.

Director Gabor Csupo deserves praise for filming the movie in muted tones and for showing the real strains of life on the bread-line. This is no sugar-coated un-real Hollywood movie. The director also deserves credit for using the beautifully-imagined CGI effects sparingly. At all times, the emphasis is on the fact that the kids are using their imaginations. To show too much of their fantasy on the screen with CGI would defeat the point. Indeed, the only time the director really lets rip is at the very end of the film when, arguably, the audience needs a positive feel-good visual to compensate for the emotional beating beforehand.

And the film does have a profound emotional impact. So much so that I would recommend parents of small or particularly sensitive childrent to watch it first to check whether it is suitable. However I have to say that at the right time in a child's life, seeing such a film, followed by a parental discussion about the subject matter, could be an important way of recognising that life is not all about fun and games.

The only thing that remains is for me to highlight the strong performances by all members of the cast, not least from Josh Hutcherson as Jesse, AnnaSophia Robb as Leslie, Bailee Madison as Jess' little sister and Lauren Clinton as the school bully. In the adult roles, Zooey Deschanel has a small role as a sympathetic teacher and Robert Patrick, aka the T-1000, gives a suitably steely performance as Jess' stressed out father.

BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA is on release in Germany, India, the US, the Philippines, Hungary, Russia, Iceland, Germany, Poland, Spain, Malaysia, Thailand, Brazil, Turkey, Belgium, France, Italy, Taiwan, the Netherlands, Serbia, the UK, Singapore, Estonia and Latvia, It opens in Hong Kong next week, in Egypt, in Denmark and Norway on June 8th, in Australia on June 14th, in Bulgaria on June 22nd and in Finland on August 3rd. BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA is released on Region 1 DVD in June 2007.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Pantheon movie - SHOAH

In 1985, French documentary film-maker Claude Lanzann released a 9 hour documentary about the Holocaust called SHOAH. It remains a monumental work. Rather than use archive footage or fictional recreation, Lanzmann "simply" interviews survirors, witnesses and perpertrators in Poland, Germany, Israel and other countries. He questions them with a probing calm insistence, searching for specific details that can convey the horror and reality of such a monumentally evil event. In doing so, he helps the modern viewer to move from an abstract sense of horror to some kind of understanding of the grim daily routines and outrages that made up the Holocaust. Because of this, watching the four films that make up the whole is a harrowing experience. I could only manage to watch it in smaller portions and found it to be a profoundly depressing experience. There is no sugar-coated Hollywood monologue, as in SCHINDLER'S LIST.

It is impossible to give a conventional review of such a film. My only role here is to publicise, in a small way, that the film is now available on a new DVD in the UK. It is required viewing as a historical document. I am actually amazed that school children aren't required to watch this as part of their modern history studies.

What I will do, however, it to share one or two of the scenes that, in 9 hours of bludgeoning sickening detail, stand out.

First, there is a scene where a Holocaust survivor returns to his old village in Poland. He stands outside the church where the Jews were rounded up. The villagers come up to him, their vanity stoked by the cameras. They happily tell him and Lanzman how pleased they are to see him again and how horrible the events were. But then, as their vanity is puffed up further, and their comfort in front of the cameras increases, their prejudices re-assert themselves. An old man states, quietly at first, that the Jews brought it on themselves by rejecting the Christ. And so it goes on.

On a similar theme, another scene shows Lanzmann interviewing Polish women. Yes it was horrible what happened, but no they could not have done anything to stop it. Slowly, as their guard drops they reveal that they were always jealous of the Jewish women who lived in better houses, wore more expensive clothes and were coveted by their husbands. So, for them, life is "easier" now that the Jews have gone. But it might have been "nicer" if they'd gone to Israel rather than being killed....

A third scene that amazed and shocked me was footage that was taken by stealth of a Nazi sitting comfortably in his German flat. He explains to Lanzmann the process of extermination: the lay-out of the camps, the time-tables, the routines.... There is no remorse. No acceptance of responsibility. If anything he is rather proud of the efficiency of it.

The fourth scene, and the interviewee that most sticks in my memory is a Jewish historian who is now living in the US. He holds in his hand a train timetable. He talks us through the significance of the timetable - how many carriages would be on such and such a train, the train routes, how the rolling stock was marshalled. And then, after this very objective, calm rehearsal of the historical facts he stops. He says that this single sheet of A4 - this actual document - contains within it the death of thousands of Jews. Here is the banality of evil: such a common item as a rail timetable.

SHOAH is available on DVD. It is required viewing.

Monday, May 21, 2007

FUNNY HA HA - sweet, lo-fi romantic drama

Before the self-indulgent stylings of MUTUAL APPRECIATION came writer-director-actor Andrew Bujalski's critically acclaimed debut feature FUNNY HA HA.

The movie is shot badly on 16mm with a notable absence of deliberate sound design or clear visual style, although there is a certain reverse snobbery to the hand-written closing credits. To its champions, the lo-fi look of the movie cements its indie credentials. To detractors, this simply shows lack of technical accomplishment. (If you want to see how lo-fi can still look great, look at Lars von Trier's work or the astoundingly good
AFTER THE WEDDING.)

The characters are a bunch of aimless, socially retarded post-grads. They go on awkward dates and have meandering, half-assed conversations about nothing. Central to the group is Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer). She's blown about by life - working as a temp, attracted to her friend Alex who isn't interested in her, and vaguely unnerved by the geeky but somehow charming Mitchell (Bujalski) who clearly adores her.

The unpolished and meandering nature of this conversation-driven film has been embraced by its champions as truthful and well-observed. And I certainly admire Bujalski's intent to tell real stories about the sort of people he knows. But to my mind, the dialogue lacks the emotional hook or clear structure of a film like BEFORE SUNSRISE. As such, it is, as Paul Varjack said in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S, "that dirtiest of all dirty words - promising." That is, until you see MUTUAL APPRECIATION.

FUNNY HA HA was originally screened in 2002 and eventually got a limited release in the US in 2005. It went on super-limited release in the UK in March 2007 shortly before the release of follow up movie, FUNNY HA HA. It is available on DVD.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

SHREK THE THIRD - Pop will eat itself

There is no love between us any more.SHREK THE THIRD is about as funny as its lame tagline, "the wait is ogre". The screenwriters simply cannibalise the fun characters and gags from the first two flicks, but without the novelty the impact is attenuated. And as for the oh-so-clever pop-cultural references, the lunatics have taken over the asylum. SHREK used to be a clever kids flick with the odd gag for the old folk. Now it's a whole-sale satire. Watching horror spoof turn into teen-comedy spoof turn into whiny Zach Braff spoof turn into musical-spoof, I couldn't help hankering for the old days. You know, when a SHREK movie had proper messages for the young'uns: it's character rather than superficial appearance that matters; and hey, women don't have to be passive princesses rescued by swashbuckling princes. By contrast, SHREK THE THIRD is as whiny and over-long as your standard whiny indie thirty-something drama.

We find Shrek reluctant to inherit the throne of Far-Far Away and become a dad. He wanders off to find the next in line to the throne - a whiny young teenager called Arthur. (Do you detect a theme?) But in his absence, the previously thwarted Prince Charming has staged a coup and is going to kill Shrek by singing Andrew Lloyd-Webber songs. (Scary). That's pretty much it. Mike Myers voices Shrek with a diminished Scottish accent - a sop to global audiences perhaps? Rupert Everett plays his role as evil Spidey, sorry, Prince Charming, with some elan. Eric Idle has a passably funny cameo as Merlin. But all the other voice cast are on auto-pilot. And are Led Zep handing out music rights to any old rubbish, now?

SHREK THE THIRD is on release in Russia, the Philippines and the US. It opens in Malaysia and Singapore next weekend. It opens in Egpt, Slovenia, Australia, New Zealand, Estonia, Latvia, Turkey on June 8th; in France, Argentina, Hungary, Slovakia, Brazil, Mexico, Taiwan on June 14th; in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Iceland and Spain on June 22nd; in Hong Kong, Israel, Austria, the UK and Japan on June 29th; in Poland on July 6th; and in Denmark, Finland, Italy, Norway and Sweden on August 31st.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Beyond Bollywood - PAGE 3, CORPORATE & TRAFFIC SIGNAL

Madhur Bhandarkar is one of the best independent Indian directors currently working. He eschews the glitzy escapist froth of standard Bollywood fare and focuses on exposing the brutal reality of life in modern India. His films, PAGE 3 and CORPORATE exposed the corruption, venality and crass materialism of Indian high society and big business respectively. With TRAFFIC SIGNAL, Bhandarkar turns his attention to the life of street vendors who hawk goods and scam passers by.

PAGE 3 was originally released in 2005 to great acclaim thanks to the bravery of the subject matter, the outstanding central performances, the fast narrative pace and the accomplished hand-held camera-work from Madhu Rao. The movie focuses on an idealist young journalist (Bhandarkar regular, Konkona Sen Sharma) who gets assigned to writing the society gossip column of a major Mumbai newspaper by her editor (Boman Irani). She becomes a proxy for the audience as we are dazzled by the immorality of the film moguls. This is especially ironic in an industry that won't typically show kissing on screen. However, the most interesting strand of the film is seeing the impact of the corruption on the journalist herself - whether her own professional ambition will allow her to cross the paths of the powerful people she threatens to expose. It's a terrific film - one of the best Indian movies I've seen in the last ten years. It deservedly won the Filmfare Best Screenplay award for Nina Arora and Manoj Tyagi and Bhandarkar won India's Golden Lotus award.

Bhandarkar followed PAGE 3 with CORPORATE, released in 2006. Once again Bhandarkar teamed up with Manoj Tyagi to work up a fast-paced tightly plotted script exposing government corruption, corporate dirty tricks, chemical pollutants and sexual discrimination. Unlike PAGE 3 and TRAFFIC SIGNAL, the central female protagonist is played by Bispasha Basu, who looks rather unlikely as the ambitious young executive but turns in an okay performance. I also think the more conventional camera-work of Mahesh Limaye saps the film's energy. Still, CORPORATE is well worth checking out, though less accomplished than PAGE 3.

In 2007, Bhandarkar produced his latest film, TRAFFIC SIGNAL. Homeless kids, prostitutes, drug addicts, people who are simply poor....all pay protection money to a smart young man called Silsila, who in turn pays off a sinister mafia boss. At the top level, corruption stretches to "removing" an honest planning officer who refuses to move a fly-over that to suit the business needs of the local gang. TRAFFIC SIGNAL has the ring of truth and Bhandarkar adds authenticity by shooting mostly on location on the streets of Mumbai. Moreover, with the exception of Konkona Sen Sharma, most of the cast will be unfamiliar to audiences.

Is the movie up to the standard of PAGE 3? Arguably not. I don't understand why art films have to have music tracks that are badly lip synched by dancing cast members. More fundamentally, TRAFFIC SIGNAL lacks the underlying current of outrage and the narrative pace of PAGE 3. But then, PAGE 3 had an earnest, crusading journalist at its heart, and her outrage set the tone. By contrast, while TRAFFIC SIGNAL does feature a decent charity worker as one of its many characters, the central figure is the mafiosi middle-man Silsila. So it follows that the movie feels more like a hands-off documentary. Still, I must confess that the movie - structured around vignettes - meanders a little, and an hour in I wandered if anything really would happen. Having said that, for an audience unfamiliar with the harsh reality of street life in India, narrative weaknesses be damned: this is powerful viewing.

Friday, May 18, 2007

ZODIAC - frustrating on purpose...?

In the late 1960s a serial killer shot and stabbed random people in the San Francisco area. He then sent letters and encripted messages to newspapers and police departments taunting them to catch him. The self-appointed Zodiac killer was a fan of publicity. He must have been pleased to see himself portrayed in DIRTY HARRY. He may well have appropriated murders that weren't his own to boost his twisted kudos. The police didn't solve the murders but a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle started an ad hoc investigation that resulted in a paperback book. He posits a theory as to the killer, but a quick google search will show you that there are still several theories as to who committed the crimes.

All of which brings us to the central problem: how can a director film gather together the fragments of a serial killer story with no resolution and fashion an engaging linear narrative? David Fincher addresses this problem byruthlessly organises his material into three acts, signposted clearly with timelines, and by throwing people who absolutely need to have closure a bone.

The first third of the movie is the most like a conventional serial killer flick. Victims are off'ed in tense tableaux;
cryptic letters are sent into the newsroom; and the cops and reporters go through their procedures. In the second act, fatigue and frustration sets in. The only real suspect is cleared; the cops are moved onto other cases and the lead journo gets the sack. Even the Zodiac himself seems fatigued: the killing and the letters stop. It's a stand-off. At this point, even the viewer might feel frustrated and tired of the story - I gave Fincher the benefit of the doubt and decided that this was a deliberate attempt to have us empathise with the bewildering...slipperiness of the case. If this really is Fincher's aim, I think it's rather brave in facing the difficulty of filming the case head-on.

The final act puts us back into classic Fincher territory. The newspaper cartoonist picks up where the coppers left off and starts tracking down old witnesses and suspects. There is almost unbearably tense confrontation with a suspected murderer in a basement and a final confrontation with the suspect he chooses to believe is the Zodiac. The ending of the film is, however, slippery indeed. On one level, the viewers have been presented with a hypothesis as to the killer's identity and the text at the end of the film suggests that we should walk out of the theatre happy that the whodunnit has been solved. But there are too many important threads left hanging - and at least two very strong suspects still out there. So, the viewer can choose to leave the film unsatisfied and frustrated - having truly experienced the manifold evasions of the Zodiac. Clever stuff.

So right about now, you know that I found this movie to be frustrating but strangely gripping nonetheless. It's also worth pointing out that in terms of pure cinematic technique, this is a must-watch movie. The production design and visual style of the film is mesmerising. It's all warm claustrophobic browns and greens. Often-times, the camera seems to record an atomsphere - an oppression - rather than document movement. (Perhaps this is just me reading the lack of progress with the case onto the film.) ZODIAC is also pioneering in that it's the first feature film in which the entire shooting process took place without film OR video but completely digitally. In other words, the images were shot with digital cameras and the data was sent to directly through cables to the editorial suite. The images were backed up digitally and loaded into the Apple FinalCut Pro programme for editing. The hard drives were then reused. In other words, the only time the film was put on video or celluloid was for distribution to conventional theatres. Truly a feat.

Set against this, the casting is sometimes weak, othertimes under-used. Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards are serviceable as the two investigating cops, but their motivations are unclear. In particular, it is not clear why the latter should drop the case in favour of a normal life. It's also not clear why a hitherto down-to-earth honest cop could have become so mesmerised by fame as to have faked fan letters to Amistead Maupin, leaving him open to accusations of faking Zodiac letters. Elias Koteas and James Le Gros are just fine in cameo supporting roles as provincial cops but I couldn't help feeling that more could've been made of the Brian Cox role. Cox plays a famous pyschologist who is called by the Zodiac live on air. The film-makers start to investigate the corrosive relationship between fame and crime, but leave that strand hanging.

Robert Downey Junior chooses to play his role as a brilliant but strung out investigative reporter by swallowing half his words and becoming no more than a handful of physical ticks. I remain to be convinced that Jake Gyllenhaal can act as opposed to look put-upon. And that's a major problem because when Downey Junior's character fades into alcoholism and the cops get reassigned it's Jake's character who fills the screen. He plays the boy scout-cartoonist turned investigator who runs around the Bay area like one of the kids from Scooby Doo, reading old files, re-interviewing suspects and generally running great risks. Moreover, in a two and half hour film spanning twenty odd years Gyllenhaal neither alters his physical presence nor gives a satisfying account of why such a "boy scout" would become so obsessed with a serial killer.

Still, it's a testament to the fascination of the case and the virtuosity of the production that ZODIAC remains a gripping and memorable thriller.

ZODIAC was released in Canada and the US in March and played Cannes 2007. It is currently playing in France, Argentina, Australia, Denmark, Egypt, Israel, New Zealand, Serbia, Denmark, Iceland, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, Turkey and the UK. It opens in Slovenia and Finland on May 24th, in the Philippines, Germany, Singapore, Brazil and Estonia on the weekend of May 31st. It opens in Belgium on June 6th, in Hungary on June 7th, Latvia on Juune 8th, Japan on June 16th, Hong Kong on June 21st and Russia on August 2nd.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

MAGICIANS - way weaker than Peep Show

Mitchell and Webb are very funny British comedians best known for their bleakly comic TV series PEEP SHOW and more recently for the British version of the Mac versus PC ads. Sadly, their transition to the big screen is weak beyond belief. The laughable* premise is that they were two magicians who stopped performing together when one caught the other in flagrante delicto with his wife and then chopped off her head accidentally on purpose in a stage act. They reunite four years later out of sheer desperation to compete in a Magic competition that yields a £20k cash prize. This competition is set in Jersey for no apparent reason other than to allow a few weak jokes about the fear of flying. Don't get me wrong - there are some funny scenes. But no more than you'd get in your usual 30 minute TV episode. It's as though the writers have taken the regulation quota of funnies and filled in the other sixty minutes with an entirely predictable lame "plot" that could've been bought by the yard on Drury Lane. Towit, there's a half-hearted attempt to satirise "mind-monger" magicians like David Blaine and Derren Brown, but the writers don't make enough of it. Another interesting fact is that by far the funniest person in the movie is a magician's assistant played by Jessica Stevenson. So Mitchell and Webb have created a star vehicle in which they are not even the stars! Craziness.

THE MAGICIANS is on release in the UK. Do yourself a favour and just watch Peep Shown on Channel 4 for free.*At, not with.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Pantheon movie - THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS/LA BATTAGLIA DI ALGERI

We live in a world where armed conflict is more likely to be fought against urban guerillas than against sovereign armies on battlefields. Accordingly, THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS is a frighteningly relevant movie, despite being originally released in 1966. The movie is a two-hour black and white documentary-style retelling of the French suppression of the Algerian Nationalists. In a brutally straightforward police procedural, we see French Colonel Mathieu torture Algerian prisoners without compunction in his mission to systematically crush the rebellion. Played by the only professional actor in the film, Jean Marin, Colonel Mathieu has a chilling logic, which will no doubt resonate with contemporary audiences raised on 24 and Fox News: "Interrogation becomes a method when conducted in a manner so as always to obtain a result, or rather an answer. In practice, demonstrating a false humanitarianism only leads to ridiculousness and impotence. I'm certain that all units will understand and react accordingly."

As one might expect from a movie commissioned by Algerian nationalists though directed by an Italian, Gillo Pontecorvo, the sympathies lie firmly with the FLN. However, this is not propoganda. Pontecorvo is careful to show the brutality of the nationalists' methods. In particular, we see a pretty young girl plant a bomb in a cafe in the French quarter. The camera takes a chilling long look at the people who will soon be killed. Later, a journalist will quiz the nationalist leaders about their methods in a news conference.

THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS is then a remarkable war movie in that it shows war as it is, rather than as it was in the days of cavalry charges and shiny uniforms. The technical achievement in creating the documentary-like footage is impressive, as is the fact that the director questions the methods of both sides. The movie deservedly won both the Golden Lion and the FIPRESCI prize at Venice, but did not win any of the three Oscars it was nominated for. It lost out on Best Screenplay to THE PRODUCERS and for Best Foreign Language Film to Sergei Bondarchuk's WAR AND PEACE - both of which are also Pantheon films. Pontecorvo also lost out on the Oscar for Best Director to Carol Reed, for OLIVER! - an absurd result, especially when you consider that Stanley Kubrick was also in the running with 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.

Despite the international acclaim, THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS was banned in France for years. More recently, the movie was apparently shown in the Pentagon on the eve of the Iraqi war. It would be fascinating to know what message those present took from the screening.....

THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS is on re-release in the UK. It is also available on DVD.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

WEDDING BELLES - Trainspotting for girls

A break from the norm today: WEDDING BELLES is actually a TV movie that's now available on DVD. It's worth a look because the movie is based on a script by Irvine Welsh. It's a world of poverty, crime and drug abuse relieved by black comedy and strong friendship. The lynchpin of the group of friends is a hairdresser called Amanda (Michelle Gomez) who wears too much make-up, is maniacally planning an enormous wedding, and has had plastic surgery to achieve perfectly symmetrical labia. Her best friends include Kelly (the ever-brilliant Shirley Henderson) who is suffering from emotional trauma that manifests itself in alopecia. Their friend Rhona (Shauna Macdonald) is a drug addict mourning the death of her fiance. The quartet is completed by Shaz (Kathleen McDermott) - who seems the most together until you realise she's having an affair with the local priest. It's your classic Irvine Welsh schtick: heightened reality exposing the seediness of the Edinburgh behind the tourist facade. You'd have to look hard to find a movie with a more original script or better acting.

WEDDING BELLES was shown on UK TV in March 2007 is available on Region 2 DVD.

Monday, May 14, 2007

LIFE IN A...METRO has its cake and eats it

LIFE IN A...METRO is not your typical escapist Bollywood froth. It's subject matter includes adulterous marriages, sex before marriage, closet homosexuality and winning promotion through patronage rather than merit. To that end, it begins with the crusading energy and refreshing honesty of recent art-house hits PAGE THREE and CORPORATE. The movie is set in the new Indian metropolitan middle-class and tells the inter-locking tale of affluent young professionals.

Shilpa Shetty once again shows her willingness to take on taboo-busting roles. After playing an HIV positive career woman in PHIR MILENGE, she plays a woman who has sacrificed her career to become a bored, cuckolded housewife, herself tempted into adultery. Her husband is a lecherous call centre manager, sleeping with an emotionally unstable girl called Neha. Neha in turn is the object of the affections of an ambitious young man played by Sharman Joshi (RANG DE BASANTI.) He is getting ahead by hard work, but also by lending his flat to his managers for their adulterous flings in return for guaranteed promotion. Neha is also the flatmate of Shilpa Shetty's character's sister. The sister is played by the ever-brilliant Konkona Sen Sharma (OMKARA). She is being used as cover by a closet gay co-worker, but is also spurning the advances of a sweet but shambolic colleage, played by Irrfan Khan (THE NAMESAKE.)

Each of these characters has to face a choice between duty, money and love. Some will choose duty and money. Some choose love, inspired partly by an old couple that were reunited briefly after unhappy arranged marriages. The most delightful of the interlocking stories in the Konkona Sen Sharma/Irrfan Khan love story - arguably because this strand contains the best actors. It also contains the most soupy, melodramatic, Richard Curtis ending, which is what I mean by the headline that LIFE IN A...METRO has its cake and eats it.

It wants to be taken seriously as a no-holds barred state of the nation movie, but it can't help giving the audience the emotional ending it wants. To my mind, the film just about pulls it off - feeding both heart and mind. The only thing stopping me from giving this movie a more ringing endorsement is the poor quality of the subtitles. They are often inaccurate - both mis-spelt and mis-translated - and I suspect that this would substantially impair the enjoyment of a non-Hindi speaking audience.

LIFE IN A...METRO is on release in the UK, US, Australia, the Netherlands and India.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

THE ALL TOGETHER shite

Shite comedy from debut writer-director Gavin Claxton. Stars Martin "The Office" Freeman as exactly the same character he always plays - the bewildered straight guy amidst a sea of kooks. He's out for the day producing shite TV for people with no sense of humour (oh, the irony!) Meanwhile, his hapless house-mate, Bob, has randomly let in a couple of gangsters along with the estate agents. Corey Johnson plays Mr Gaspardi like he's spoofing Liotta, badly. Although, in fairness, his entire role consists of emptying his bowels while whistling The Star Spangled Banner. Danny Dyer sinks even further into self-parody as his foul-mouthed spivvy side-kick, Dennis. The whole thing is weak beyond belief, with the exception of Velibor Topic, who plays the housemate with genuine comic timing.

After STRAIGHTHEADS, OUTLAW, THE GREAT ECSTASY OF ROBERT CARMICHAEL and this piss-poor alleged comedy, one wonders what further cinematic crime Danny Dyer will be inflicting upon the British public this year. Frankly, his only hope for career rehab is persuading someone to make SEVERANCE 2.

THE ALL TOGETHER is on release in the UK, god help us.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

MON MEILLEUR AMI/MY BEST FRIEND - thin

Patrice Leconte is a director of whom I expect better. His 1996 period piece, RIDICULE was a quirky love story and a tart dissection of the superficiality of society. But with time, Leconte's ambitions have narrowed. This is not a problem per se. L'HOMME DU TRAIN, for example, was a small quiet film but unusual and affecting nonetheless. Quite simply, it told of two very different men who met by chance and tacitly decided to swap lives. But in MON MEILLEUR AMI, Leconte's sets the bar lower and still fails to meet it.

Leconte's basic point is that we have commodified relationships: we network more easily than we make friends. Contrasted with the Greeks' idolisation of friendship, pace Patrochlus and Achilles, modern-day "contacts" seem rather thin indeed. This modern fault is embodied in an antique dealer called François who isn't above the odd scam, but is short of any true friends. Challenged to produce a best friend by his colleague or forfeit an expensive vase, he sets about trying to become amiable. To do this, he engages a cheery taxi driver with a passion for trivia, called Bruno (Dany Boon). Auteuil plays François like a less loathsome version of David Brent. He's congenitally awkward - guaranteed to empty a bar even as he offers to buy everyone a round. By contrast, Boon's Bruno is a delightful creation and genuinely sympathetic.

It doesn't take a PhD to work out that Bruno and François will form an odd-ball friendship. Nor was it utterly surprising given the mawkish build-up that we'd end with a televised high-drama denouement with all the subtlety of the Julia Roberts declaration of love at the end of NOTTING HILL. What's missing is the wry understatement of L'HOMME DU TRAIN. Or indeed, a sustained comic element. In other words, MY BEST FRIEND may be nicely photographed and well-cast but it is also thinly written, patchy in its comedy, and obvious in its plotting and character development.

MON MEILLEUR AMI/MY BEST FRIEND played Toronto 2006 and opened in Italy, France and Belgium in 2006. It is currently playing in the UK and opens in Australia on Mat 24th and in the USA on July 13th.

Friday, May 11, 2007

LIKE MINDS - silly plot, outstanding central performance

LIKE MINDS is a curious new thriller set in a British public school. Weird new kid Nigel has a fondness for dissecting dead animals in his dorm room. He also believes that he and his room-mate, Alex, are descendants of the Knights Templar and have an obligation to well - the film isn't entirely clear on this but I think it boils down to screwing corpses. That the film manages to hold our attention for quite as long as it does is down to the moody cinematography and direction by debut helmer, Gregory J Read and powerful central performances by Eddie Redmayne as Alex and Patrick Malahide as his father, the Headmaster. That the film ultimately fails boils down to, I think, three things. First, Tom Sturridge is weak as Nigel. He spends the first half of the film looking indifferent and stoned rather than murderous and mad. Second, Richard Roxburgh and Toni Colette, who play a copper and a forensic psychologist respectively, do not hold onto their English accents, which brings us out of the moody boarding school atmosphere. Third, the final twist seems to come out of nowhere and does not ring true. Still, as thrillers go, you could do worse, and the movie is worth seeing for Redmayne's performance alone.

LIKE MINDS was released in Australia in 2006 and is currently on release in the UK.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

28 WEEKS LATER - wickedly brutal horror, but a plot with holes you could drive a horse and cart through

Day One. A mutant infection turns humans into slavering cannibalistic vicious Beasties. 28 DAYS LATER, Cillian Murphy emerged from St Thomas Hospital and wandered onto an empty Westminster Bridge, down the Strand and Fleet Street and up Ludgate Hill to St Paul's Cathedral. In Danny Boyle's cult horror hit of 2002, much worse carnage was to follow. But nothing was so frightening as seeing London - specifically the London streets outside my house - decimated by disease.

When a small British movie takes six times its budget at the US box office, you can bet a franchise has been born. The first installment opens as the last film ends with Robert Carlyle's character giving in to the survival instinct and abandoning his wife to the infected. It's a truly horrific, shocking, emotionally brutal and bloody opening to a movie that uses handheld 16 mil and quick editing to keep the adrenaline up.

28 WEEKS LATER and the character works as a janitor in the Isle of Dogs - a secure area run by the US army. He has also been reunited with his children who were conveniently on holiday in Spain when the outbreak began. Cue a lot of traumatic equivocation about why mum didn't make it. There then follows a chain of events involving this family that provokes another outbreak of the infection. Cue lots of genuinely scary chase scenes in which Beasties and Britons are gunned down by US troops, the Isle of Dogs is firebombed and North London gassed. The pace is unrelenting, the score loud and monotonous and the effect exhausting. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (INTACTO) certainly knows how to scare the willies out of us with a bit of sleight of hand and a night-vision scope.

As far as it goes, this all makes for a decent horror movie. You have the genuine blood and guts and scares that are often missing from modern horror flicks. Best of all you have real acting and real emotional payoffs. Carlyle is of course brilliant, but the two kids, the delightfully named Imogen Poots and Mackintosh Muggleton, are also good. What it doesn't make for is a complex political allegory as I had been led to expect by some reviewers. This hardly matters. Sure, the US army runs the "camp", but frankly, given the storyline, you'd have to have a foreign power sorting stuff out. Britain is, after all, decimated.

But when the dust settled and I looked back on the film, I felt dissatisfied with a number of character and plot implausibilities.* As a result, while I had a brilliantly bad time watching 28 WEEKS LATER, it falls short of the originality and brilliance of the first film.

28 WEEKS LATER is on release in Australia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, New Zealand, Russia, Singapore, Philippines, Taiwan, the UK and the US. It opens in Malaysia on May 17th, in Estonia on May 18th, in Brazil and Mexico on June 1st, in Argentina and Bolivia on June th and in Spain on June 29th. It opens in Germany on July 19th, in Finland, Italy and Norway on September 7th and in Belgium, France and the Netherlands on September 19th.

*SPOILERS FOLLOW.........Why do apparently sensible kids decide to disregard common sense and orders to go into London? How come Janitor Dad has access to even the most high-level secure parts of District 1? How come Beastie-Mum has no guards? Did Beastie Mum allow Janitor Dad to kiss her deliberately. If so, it was pretty dumb considering she was bound to be his first victim. How did Wembley get built? Why in a movie previously so scrupulous about London topography do the heroes go from Regents Park to Wembley by way of Charing Cross Station? How come Beasties couldn't cross the channel first time round?..........

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Pantheon movie of the month - REDS

What makes a pantheon movie? Quite simply, that I find nothing in any of the parts of the film that I would alter. Perfection of directorial vision, performances and technical mastery of the medium. Finally, that the combination of all these factors should render a whole that is innovative, ambitious and affecting.

REDS fits the bill. It is Warren Beatty's masterpiece. He began the project in the early 1970s, when his struggle to reconcile his immense fame as an actor with his left-wing politics led to him to the example of the Greenwich Village radicals of the 1910s and 20s. In particular, he focused on the figures of John "Jack" Reed and Louise Bryant. Beatty began interviewing famous artists, journalists and political activists who had known the pair, and formented the idea of an epic political and romantic movie starring himself as Reed and his then lover, Julie Christie, as Bryant. It is testament to Beatty's star power than he managed to shake down the ultra-capitalistic studio system for $35m to finance his epic.

Beatty was truly the father of the project - raising the money, co-writing, directing and starring in it. He shot the film over a year and released it in 1981. It was a difficult shoot. Beatty was uncompromising about his vision for the film, shooting multiple takes that exhausted his actors and crew and coming into conflict with the pantheon cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro (LAST TANGO IN PARIS, APOCALYPSE NOW.) For the record, the static framing at the start of the film is Beatty's vision. The dynamic camera movements in the latter half are all Storaro - not least the iconic scene where Beatty rides alongside the train.

The resulting film vindicated Beatty's faith in the project. REDS received Oscar nominations in all the major categories, and remains the only film to be nominated for all four acting gongs. In the end, Beatty won Best Director, Storaro won for Best Cinematography and Maureen Stapleton, who plays the ballsy political activist, Emma Goldman, won Best Supporting Actress. Otherwise the film lost out to ON GOLDEN POND (unfairly) and to CHARIOTS OF FIRE (another fine film). Most absurdly, Jack Nicholson, who plays Bryant's lover and playwright Eugene O'Neill, lost out to Sir John Gielgud for ARTHUR.

Since then, the movie has rather slipped out of the general public's consciousness in contrast to other epics like DOCTOR ZHIVAGO. Perhaps this is because viewers are put off by what they perceive will be Beatty's polemical left-wing stance. Or perhaps they are put off by the length per se - the movie is best shown in two parts of an hour and a half each. Part of the reason may also be that Beatty did not allow the movie to be cut down in length for TV. At any rate, the film is available on DVD now, and holds up perfectly well.

So who are these people that they should provoke such an epic movie? Jack Reed was a privileged Harvard man who scorned the establishment for a life as a radical journalist. He was a man of great personal charisma, with a talent for putting himself where the action was and reporting back to the American literati. Reed is famous, if at all, for documenting the Bolshevik Revolution in a piece of outstanding journalism, Ten Days That Shook The World. Upon his return from Russia, however, he got enmeshed in factional struggles within the emerging American Left. He returned to Russia to bid for his particular party to be sanctioned by the Comintern and, by way of a Finnish prison, eventually died in Russia. He was buried in the Kremlin walls - the only American to have achieved this (dubious?) honour.

Warren Beatty plays Reed as a sincere, earnest, charismatic playboy turned radical. The charm comes from the fact that Beatty plays Reed as well aware of the difficulty and often the ridiculousness of his position as a Rich Communist and American in Revolutionary Russia. Beatty's Reed has an energy and excitement about him that is contagious, whatever your political views. Indeed, as someone who professes political beliefs on the right, I was pleasantly surprised by just how restrained Beatty was. There is very little polemic in REDS. Rather, we are presented with a more complicated character study, of which politics is only one part.

If REDS is a character study rather than a political tract, it is a study not just of Jack Reed but also of Louise Bryant. Reed's character is rather fixed throughout the film. We meet him as a fully formed radical, confident of his place in the liberal intelligentsia and on the world stage. By contrast, Louise Bryant is a work in progress. She begins the film as an aspiring journalist in Oregon. She escapes her conventional marriage thanks to Reed's attentions and joins him in the Village. She finds herself way over her head, patronised and dismissed by all Reed's friends. In fact, while Reed is clearly in love with her (these scenes are some of the most wonderful I have seen depicting a free and frank adult relationship) he has no illusions about her talents and her ambitions.

As the Village de-camps to New England, Bryant finds herself abandoned by the ambitious Reed as he begins organising left-wing politicos around the US. She begins an affair with Eugene O'Neill, before abandoning him for Reed. The scenes between Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty respectively are brilliantly acted and emotionally brutal. There is a candour and authenticity that is breathtaking. Even later in the movie, when O'Neill and Bryant meet again, the conversation is as violent as a the lyrics to LIKE A ROLLING STONE. That Keaton and Nicholson did not get Oscars is an absolute crime against cinema.

The small steps by which Bryant becomes a fully-fledged wartime journalist in Europe and then Russia are all documented here. She finds her confidence as a writer and as a more equal partner to Jack. It's an utterly compelling character arc and a love story populated with real, complicated, flawed people. And what a backdrop! As the second half of REDS unfolds we find ourselves witnesses to the Bolshevik Revolution, in conversation with Lenin, Trotsky and Kerensky, and at the very edge of political action where theory becomes practice. In particular, there is a startling cameo from Jerzy Kosinski as Zinoviev.

As the movie unfolds, Beatty intersperses the action with his talking heads, or "witnesses". This helps keep the movie grounded and stops it from feeling too self-consciously "epic". As a result, unlike the more mannered melodramatic epics of the studio era, REDS does not feel dated to the modern viewer. In fact, in its depiction of the conflict between the art and politics; between career and marriage; and between sexual liberation and the need for commitment and companionship; it is as relevant to modern working men and women as it ever was.

REDS was originally released in 1981. It is available on DVD.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

THE LAST KISS - unamiable people whine

With Zach Braff's latest film, THE EX, on release, I am reminded that I haven't reviewed THE LAST KISS. This was due to a feeling of indifference and apathy as the end-titles roled. It's a decently acted film, but under-written and ploddingly directed. A bunch of young adults broach that part of life where you finally stop pretending you're still a carefree student and face up to the reality of marriage, children and mortgages. They are written as callow and self-absorbed, which is in some respects a brave choice. For instance, Zach Braff plays a weak-willed man who ditches his earnest pregnant girlfriend (Jacinda Barrett) for a good time with a young university student (Rachel Bilson) and then abandons said student when he gets an attack of conscience. Even the adults in the piece act with a self-obsessed flakiness. Viz Blythe Danner's middle-aged wife who leaves Tom Wilkinson's husband, only to mooch around for a bit and then return

Yes, these characters may be true to life and genuinely unlikeable. Sadly though, they are not written to be interesting. The blame, I suppose must be shared between Gabriele Muccino, who wrote the Italian source film, and Paul Haggis of CRASH fame, who rewrote it for the non-subtitle reading world. Still, Tom Stern creates a memorable visual mood, as one would expect from the DP of FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS and LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA.

THE LAST KISS was released in 2006 and is now available on DVD
.

Monday, May 07, 2007

MUTUAL APPRECIATION - amiable people talk rubbish

MUTUAL APPRECIATION is a rather rambling self-indulgent film in which amiable slackers make inconsequential small-talk for two hours. Filmed in black and white with no attempts at visual style, plotting or character development, the movie aspires to the stripped down truth of Cassavetes but falls far short. The writer-director Andrew Bujalski seems to be pitching the central character Alan (Justin Rice) Alan is a slacker musician who moves from Boston to New York in search of the in-crowd and a record contract. He hangs out with his school-friend, Lawrence (Bujalski) - an apathetic college lecturer - and meanders towards an uncomfortable love for Lawrence's girlfriend Ellie (Rachel Clift.) These twenty-somethings bumble along with an infantile passivity and narcissism. The humour is patchy and any sharp insight to human relationships lacking. So ignore reviewers who speak of Important Indie Credentials and Enchanting Quirkiness. That'll take you through 20 minutes, but the next 60 are like being trapped inside a Cat Stevens song with the needle stuck.

MUTUAL APPRECIATION played a bunch of festivals and is currently on super-limited release in the UK. It's also available on Region 1 DVD.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

SPIDERMAN 3 - in which Spidey jumps the shark

SPIDERMAN 3 was a big event in Bina-world. I'd arranged a posse of like-minded individuals to go see it at the big fat Odeon in Leicester Square. There's nothing like a packed house of fans cheering the opening credits and laughing at all the gags - it's popcorn entertainment at its best.

The opening hour was fine. Peter Parker was back, even more nerdy that usual and a little self-satisfied at Spidey's popularity among New Yorkers. Sure, his best mate Harry wasn't speaking to him, believing Spidey had killed his dad. And his girlfriend Mary-Jane was getting panned by critics in her new Broadway show. Oh, and there was that annoying photographer, Eddie Brock, trying to muscle in on a staff job at the Daily Bugle. But basically, Peter was okay, the film zipped along happily and the higher quota of comedy was fun. In particular, there was some broad physical comedy in a restaurent scene where Peter attempts to propose to MJ.

But around half way through bad things happen. And I'm not just talking about the meteoric slime that attaches itself to Spidey and brings out his aggressive nature. Sam Raimi - a man whose judgement has previously been impeccable, simply lets Spidey jump the shark.

By which I mean that the ueber-confident "black" Peter Parker strutts down the street spoofing Saturday Night Fever. Raimi makes Spidey look bad-ass by making him wear his fringe forward and givin him black eyeliner! He dances with Gwen Stacey in a jazz club spoofing Jim Carrey in The Mask. The humour is broad and it really works. I laughed myself silly. But I was laughing AT the movie, and worst of all, I think Raimi et al were laughing at the movie too. They were sending the Spidey iconography up. Going for cheap laughs also totally destroyed the emotional credibility of the franchise. By the time we'd been through Tobey Maguire's moody teenager impression I was in no mood to hear him pontificate about moral choices and forgiveness, and I certainly wasn't emotionally invested in the movie's ending. An ending which, by the way, rivals LORD OF THE RINGS for its inability to pull down the curtain.

So, SPIDERMAN 3 still has all the cool CGI stunts, and some decent turns from Kirsten Dunst, J K Simmons and Bruce Campbell. Thomas Haden Church is perfectly cast as the Sandman - he has such sympathetic eyes you can't help feeling for him. There's also a woefully brief cameo role from Topher Grace as Venom. Venom is such a great character - a complete bastard - and Topher Grace gave such a fantastic performance that he should have had more screen-time or a movie where he was the only villain. Tobey Maguire proves he can play comedy. I just wished he hadn't proved it in this film. And I remain unconvinced about James Franco's ability to pull off a serious dramatic role.

Overall, I was highly disappointed. As were Nikolai, Movie Matt, Richard and Alan, who'd come all the way down from Edinburgh for this, the first Yippee-Kay-Yay Meet Up. (Although Matt thought it would be a fun night out for kids.) Swedish Philip also gave it the thumbs down. He makes the brilliant point that he expected Spidey 3 to be the most dark and psychologically penetrating given that it featured the Black Spidey. He was expecting the mood to be more BATMAN BEGINS than Broadway Musical. Swedish Lizzie thought it was "utter crap" (although she's so generally amiable and looked so happy I mistakenly thought she liked it). Ken and Graham thought it was okay (see comment below), John kind of enjoyed it, but John thought it ripped off SUPERMAN too much. (I agree. Over-wrought religious imagery up the wazoo, let alone a ridiculously cheesy shot of Spidey in front of the Star-Spangled Banner.) Rav liked it but thought it ripped off THE MASK and Stoogy actually thought it was better for the first one! So out of 12 "votes", we have 7 Nays and 5 ayes.


SPIDERMAN 3 is on global release.

Friday, May 04, 2007

DISTURBIA - Hitchock meets The OC

Oh, the marketing genius that combines the conceptual hook of a Hitchcock film with the pop-cultural references and hormonal teen angst of The OC! As distasteful as this REAR WINDOW remake may seem to us old cinephiles, Grinch-like critics are missing the point. Even as diluted and dumbed-down as this teen-thriller is, isn't it better that teens are getting their rocks off to Hitchcock-lite than to woeful spoofs like EPIC MOVIE?!

Clearly not one for adults or people who have any familiarity with the original, DISTURBIA is a reasonably well put together movie for the target demographic. Shia LaBeouf plays another troubled teen - he witnessed his father's accidental death and punched out a school teacher. As a result, he's under house arrest and resorts to spying on his suburban neighbours when mum (Carrie-Anne Moss) cancels cable. Lucky for him, the neighbours include hottie, Sarah Roehmer and for the first hour DISTURBIA plays like a goofy teen dating movie, complete with a charmingly inept side-kick played by the scene-stealing Aaron Yoo. In the final furlong, the screen-writers wake up to the fact that DISTURBIA is meant to be a thriller and put in some mildly tense scenes involving David Morse's serial killer next door.

Director D.J.Caruso handles the project with competence but no memorable visual signature. Christopher Landon's script may be derivative, but he is convincingly "down with the kids". Overall, a slick, undemanding movie that is not as completely dumb as most teen fare.

DISTURBIA is on release in the US, Australia, Argentina, Mexico and Russia. It opens in Icelasnd on May 18th; Malaysia, Singapore and Bulgaria on July 26th; Norway and Turkey on August 3rd; Denmark on August 10th; Germany, Italy on August 16th; Belgium, France, the Netherlands on August 23rd; Spain and Hungary on August 31st; the UK on September 7th; Brazil, Estonia and Finland on September 14th and in Sweden on September 21st.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

GOYA'S GHOSTS - less than the sum of its parts

Another day, another Pantheon director disappoints. Today it's the director of the truly great films ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, AMADEUS, MAN IN THE MOON and THE PEOPLE VERSUS LARRY FLYNT - Milos Forman. In each of these films, Forman brought a great character from history or fiction to life. The enigmas were explored and memorable cinema was created. In GOYA'S GHOSTS we have neither. Indeed, Goya remains a rather shadowy and frustrating character - naive, flaky, rather on the outskirts of the great events he is witness to. If the brutality of the Spanish inquisition, Napoleonic invasion of Spain and subsequent English invasion find their way into his work, we do not feel this emotional experience through the film. Indeed, were it not for the brutal sketches shown in the opening credits, one might be left wondering what all the fuss was about. What we are left with is a sort of watered down version of the dilemma of the artist, as shown to devestating effect in AMADEUS. We see Goya crawl to Royal patrons while simulateneously depicted them with unflattering truthfulness. But Forman handles this theme with a heavy-hand, self-consciously spoofing the relationship between Mozart and Joseph II in AMADEUS.

With Stellan Skarsgard's Goya an insubstantial and peripheral figure, where does the movie find its intellectual and emotional centre? The aim is surely to situate it in the relationship between Natalie Portman's Ines and Javier Bardem's Brother Lorenzo. Ines is a victim of the Spanish Inquisition and Lorenzo takes advantage of her in prison. Fifteen years later he has quite forgotten her in his success as a Napoleonic bureaucrat. When Goya drags in the now quite physically and emotionally disfigured Ines, Lorenzo packs her off to an asylum and tries to pack his illegitimate and politically embarassing daughter (also played by Portman) to America. This plot has more than a little in common with the Villefort plot in The Count of Monte Cristo.

I found this storyline rather unsatisfying. It is too fractured and pushed around by the political turmoil in the foreground and the frantic covering of so much thematic material. First we have the venality of the Church. Then the battle between science and religion. Religious fundamentalists are clearly bad. Torture is even worse - and the political allegory with Abu Ghraib is obvious. The invading Napoleonic troops are promised that the Spaniards will greet them with cheers and embrace freedom. This is clealy meant to mirror the American mission in the Iraqi war. Political regimes tumble over one another - yesterday's leaders are today's prisoners. There doesn't seem to be much meaning in any of it - and perhaps that is Forman's point.

He did apologise for the Spanish Inquisition. He said it was far too inquisitive. Supposed to be the Spanish Casual Chat.Whatever Forman's ultimate vision for the film, it remains a confused and baggy monster whose many themes and plot machinations cannot disguise the lack of charismatic central character or tight plotting.

GOYA'S GHOSTS was released in Spain, Germany and Austria in 2006 and in the zech Republic, Poland, Israel, Sweden, Greece, Finland, the Netherlands, Serbia and Italy earlier this year. It is currently on release in the UK and opens in Slovenia, Norway an d Belgium later in May. It opens in the US on July 20th, in France on July 25th and in Brazil on Septeber 7th.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Justifiably overlooked DVD of the month - SNUFF MOVIE

The first ten minutes and I'm thinking, "Okay, this is a really cheesy, low-budget horror movie set in spoooky Middle Europe in the eighteenth century, starring Joroen Krabbe." But just as it becomes irredeemably kitsch and gory but, natch, NOT scary, it flips into another movie starring the same actors. So then, for the next ten minutes I'm thinking, "Okay, this is a really low-budget, badly acted, poor-taste re-enactment of the Manson family murder of the pregnant Sharon Tate." But then the movie flips into a modern-day documentary about the murders, being narrated by, of all people, Nick Broomfield. The doc explains that after the murders, the bereaved husband went into hiding and never made another horror movie again. But then the movie flips AGAIN, and the director is casting for a secretive little hi-def movie re-enacting the murder of his wife. To which end he gets the actors alone in a house that is wired up like a reality TV show and taunts them with pictures of their respective murders. But is it really a reality TV show? Is it a provocative, incisive, social commentary? Or is this all just an over-blown, twisty, ridiculous, poorly shot pile of wank?

Frankly, SNUFF MOVIE is one of the most grotesquely misconceived movies I've seen since THE GREAT ECSTASY OF ROBERT CARMICHAEL and similarly hypocritical in that it seeks to criticise society's love of exploitation while simultaneously exploiting the female cast. It's also one of the most poorly shot movies I've seen since TOP SPOT. Worst of all, it's never intellectually challenging, perceptive or even downright scary.

The most disappointing part is that Bernard Rose has directed some astoundingly good films - from horror movies CANDYMAN and PAPERHOUSE to the modern tragedy ivansxtc. In ivansxtc. Rose perfectly matches the medium - grainy, shallow hi-def video, to a story about narcissistic Hollywood types. He is in perfect control of the medium and creates a visually captivating, emotionally damaging movie. Rose was clealy all loved-up by HD video after this experience. He's on record as saying how happy he is that video has freed auteurs from the vulgar constraints of the studio system. But the fact is that no studio supervision can sometimes be as damaging as too much. No-budget movies have no-one to answer to but the director's better judgement. If the director exercises no judgement, we are in dire straits indeed.

SNUFF MOVIE UK played Edinburgh 2005 and London 2006. It is now available on DVD.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Overlooked DVD of the month - THE WOODLANDERS

THE WOODLANDERS is a beautifully acted and produced adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel. The plot is deceptively simple. Mr Melbury is an ambitious timber merchant who hopes to raise up his beautiful daughter Grace by education and a good marriage. To that end, he breaks off her childhood engagement to a simple cider-maker, Giles Winterbourne, and marries her off to the charming local doctor, Fitzpiers. Fitzpiers soon becomes ashamed of his in-laws' low society and has an affair with the seductive Mrs Charmond, leaving Grace to regret her former love for Giles. The story ends in a typically Hardy-esque fateful and sombre mood, reminiscent of James Joyce's THE DEAD.

Cal Macaninch is suitably attractive and cold as Fitzpiers and Rufus Sewell smoulders honourably at a distance. Emily Woof beautifully catches the innocence of Grace Melbury and her confused status between humble Woodlander and society woman. But there is a quite chilling scene where this naive girl gives her husband to his mistress, willing Mrs Charmond (Polly Walker) to feel as wretched as she does. But the real star of the film is the romantically shot woodland itself. Ashley Rowe, who shot the recent hit
HOT FUZZ, successfully evokes both the beauty and the twisted claustrophobia of that world.

THE WOODLANDERS was released ten years ago and is now available on DVD and through Channel 4's new video on demand service.