Monday, December 31, 2007

If Bina007 ruled the world...or at the very least, the Academy Awards....

Enough of all this negativity! Let's raise a glass to the best and brightest and celebrate all the truly wonderful achievements of cinema in 2007. (An remember, I haven't yet seen NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR, THERE WILL BE BLOOD or SWEENEY TODD.....

Best Motion Picture of the Year
How far would you go for your best friend?Winner: 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS - searing drama about a young woman getting an illegal abortion in Communist era Romania. Outstandingly well-scripted, acted and produced. Drips quality and integrity from start to finish. An instant pantheon movie, for which writer-director Cristian Mungiu won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Breath-taking cinema - reminds you how powerful this medium can be.

Other Nominees: THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD - Oz director Andrew Dominik's lyrical, handsomely produced, heart-breaking story. A young man's hero-worship takes him to the edge of murder, but it's the hero's tacit complicity in his own death that breaks our heart. A film of which I expected very little but once again was frozen with awe when the lights came up.

HOT FUZZ - too often, august award ceremonies overlook the deceptively simple-looking movies that make us laugh. HOT FUZZ is spot on with its referential humour but, unlike so many weak spoofs, underpins it with a neat plot, a genuine puzzle to solve and real cameraderie between the protagonists. Kudos to Brit director Edgar Wright.

BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA - another genre that is rarely patronised by the Academy, but h children's movie that is never patronising and tackles harsh subject-matter with grace and imagination. Two young kids make a fantasy world that is shattered by a nasty accident. Beautifully made, grabs you by the heart - a movie that should be watched by adults and kids alike.

THE SINGER - Gerard Depardieu reminding us just how good he can be in a May to December romance that surprises us with its insight, sensitivity, emotional bravery and the genuine sexual chemistry between the two leads I can't wait to see what writer-director Xavier Giannoli does next.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role
How far would you go for love?Winner: Casey Affleck as Robert Ford in THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD. A break-through performance that perfectly articulates the slightly psychotic nature of being a "super-fan". Affleck never allows us to judge Ford harshly - he takes us with Ford into his guilt and regret.

Other Nominees: Richard Gere in THE HOAX - a jaw-droppingly good performance from Richard Gere, who I'd never particularly respected before this, as author Clifford Irving. Gere as Irving fools everyone into thinking he is writing Howard Hughes' biography. Gere conveys the slippery nature of Irving's psyche.

Irrfhan Khan in THE NAMESAKE proved to a Western audience what a subtle and profoundly good actor he was, portraying an Indian expat with a romantic heart struggling to deal with modern American life. He has that thing that all actors should aspire to: he makes us happy to spend time with him and he makes us care about what happens to him. What astounds me about Irrfhan Khan is his range - he's also brilliant in light comedic roles.

Tim Roth in YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH Tim Roth has always been pure class - just check out a very early role as a hyper-intelligent skin-head in MADE IN BRITAIN. In Coppola's come-back he handles complex material in a script that stretches credulity. He plays a young man an old man and everything in between. It's simply an acting masterclass.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

How far will you let yourself fall?Winner: Ashley Judd in BUG. All these performances are raw, brave and on the edge. All these actresses deserve praise for exploring painful territory and making the extreme seem believable and sympathetic. Ashley Judd wins out because her performance was so convincing and the material was the most difficult: she plays a woman holed up in a motel room with a conspiracy-theorist wacko. They both simply go mad.

Other Nominees: Maggie Gylenhaal in SHERRYBABY. Gylenhaal excels as a drug addict ex-con who comes back to claim her daughter and has to face the demons from her past. A typically strong performance from one of the most impressive actresses of her generation.

Angelina Jolie in A MIGHTY HEART. Jolie reminds us how good she was in GIRL, INTERUPTED - before TOMB RAIDER. A quiet, modulated performance that portrays Marianne Pearl's immense bravery in the face of her husband's kidnap and execution by Muslim fundamentalists.

Julie Christie in AWAY FROM HER. A heart-breaking -performance by Christie as a woman who suffers from Alzheimer's, makes the brave decision to leave her husband and enter a nursing home, forgets her husband and then falls in love with another man.

Marion Cotillard in LA MOME. A charming performance that conveys the complexity of Edith Piaf's character and holds together a biopic that threatens to crumble under its unnecessarily complex non-linear narrative structure.


Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role
How do you stop yourself from losing hope?Winner: Steve Zahn in RESCUE DAWN. A surprisingly honest, moving performance from funny-man Zahn as Dieter Dengler's fellow escapee from the Cong in Werner Herzog's fictional recreation.

Other Nominees: Eddie Redmayne for LIKE MINDS LIKE MINDS is a slight British thriller which will be remembered purely as being Eddie Redmayne's first flick. He is an immensely impressive young actor, even in dreck like SAVAGE GRACE.

Satish Kaushik in BRICK LANE. Kaushik manages to make a comic villain - fat, over-bearing husband - into a figure of symathy and indeed nobility. A truly great performance in a mediocre movie.

Ben Foster in 3:10 TO YUMA Foster is magnetic as a mentally unhinged outlaw in this Western remake. You can measure the brilliance of his performance from the fact that he steals scenes from under Christian Bale and Russell Crowe.

Chris Cooper THE BREACH A performance that perfectly transmits the contradictions of a CIA mole and under-pins a much under-rated spy thriller.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

Winner: Tilda Swinton in MICHAEL CLAYTON. A performance that conveys perfectly conveys the moral dilemma of modern capitalism: how far do these companies recruit insecure over-achievers who will identify with the brand and sacrifice their social lives and indeed their moral integrity for its survivial. In a solid film full of strong performances, Swinton stands out.

Other Nominees: Romola Garai in ATONEMENT. The British actress who should be more feted than Ikea Knightley - in the scene where she apologises to Knightley and McAvoy's thwarted lovers she acts them off the screen.

Saiorse Ronan in ATONEMENT. A confident, intense and assured performance from a young actress as the confused, spiteful little sister who deliberately does something grave and wrong but for what she thinks is the right reason.

Meryl Streep in LIONS FOR LAMBS. Just for the sheer delight of watching two actors at the top of their game (Streep and Cruise) having a war of words over the War on Terror. It was what cinema rarely is these days - a delicate balance of intellectual substance and belly-laughs.

Cate Blanchett in I'M NOT THERE. In a cast of mostly men trying to interpret the life and myth of Bob Dylan, Blanchett gives the most convincing and scarring performance of Dylan in his caustic electro- phase. A far better performance than in ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE, certainly.

Best Achievement in Directing

A pantheon directorWinner: 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS What more can I say? If any movie from 2007 survives the test of time, it will be this one. This movie shows us how great cinema can be. Kudos to Cristian Mungiu.

Other Nominees: Susanne Bier for AFTER THE WEDDING If I could nominate an ensemble cast, this movie would win, but at the very least one has to praise Susanne Bier was a scalding tricksy script about a dysfunctional family, riven by secrets and ruled by a manipulative father. This is what Dogme was all about wasn't it? Not some adolescent rant against technical artifice but a desire to strip cinema back down to bare emotional truth.



Sarah Polley for AWAY FROM HER An impressive directorial debut from this actress - and more impressive for the fact that she tackles an unfashionable but increasingly important subject - how Alzheimer's destroys relationships. She elicits career-redefining performances from her cast but also conjures up stunning visuals.

Julie Delpy for 2 DAYS IN PARIS Who knew that Julie Delpy would turn out to an auteur?! A confident directorial debut and a rare movie that combines belly laughs with insight. I also love her confidence in depicting a romantic comedy that is fundamentally cynical about the possibility of love.

Sean Penn for INTO THE WILD Finally Penn finds material that matches his own concerns, rather than taking someone else' film and over-stuffing it with heavy earnestness and pretensiousness. As with Sarah Polley, Penn elicits great performances from his cast but also masters the visuals.

Best Writing, Original Screenplay

Winner: Julie Delpy for 2 DAYS IN PARIS. Funny, smart, unpredictable!

Other Nominees: Michel Gondry for THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP. Funny, smart, unpredictable!

Aki Kaurismaki for LIGHTS IN THE DUSK. Another wonderfully absurd, off-beat, and yes, that most dirty of dirty words, quirk, script from this Finnish director. A hopeless security guard almost wills his own downfall at the hands of a femme fatale and a caper gone wrong.

Shane Meadows for THIS IS ENGLAND Yet another strong film from Britain's most authentic writer-director. Meadows perfectly conjures up the early 80s and all the thwarted hopes of the working classes. Once again he deftly combines profound subject-matter - racial violence, social deprivation - with a good ear for the absurd and comic in even the worst situations.

Nanni Moretti for THE CAIMAN A superlative film not so much about the scandalous Italian Presidency of Silvio Berlusconi but about how ordinary Italian let this happen. A film that depicts moral complicity on a small scale but did so in defiance of Berlusconi himself. Subtle, clever, funny, moving.

Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay

Winner: Sooni Taraporevala for THE NAMESAKE. Another great script from the women behind MISSISSIPI MASSALA and SALAAM BOMBAY!

Other Nominees: Ron Nyswaner for THE PAINTED VEIL. A sensitive adaptation that opened out this novella and made it seem relevant to modern eyes.

Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman for STARDUST.
Matt Greenhalgh for CONTROL


Michael Goldenberg for HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX - an impressive script that condenses down a baggy monster into the most focussed of the Potter flicks.

Best Achievement in Cinematography

Winner: In a great year for cinematography, Harry Savides just edges out the competition for ZODIAC, with his moody visuals of the West Coast in the seventies. Possibly is best work since Se7en.

Other Nominees: Martin Ruhe stunning black and white photography for the Ian Curtis biopic, CONTROL, which one suspects was heavily directed by Anton Corbijn.

Edward Lachman for his technical mastery of black and white, colour, composites and immitation in Todd Haynes' Bob Dylan movie, I'M NOT THERE

Coen-Brothers collaborator Roger Deakins for the stunning landscape photography in Andrew Dominik's THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD.

Philip Robertson for his stuning use of DV to depict Morecambe Bay in Juliet McKeon's FROZEN.

Best Achievement in Art Direction
Winner: Ann Chakraverty, Pierre Pell and Stephane Rosenbaum for THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP

Other Nominees:Suttirat Anne Larlarb for THE NAMESAKE

Nick Ralvobsky for FUR: AN IMAGINARY PORTRAIT OF DIANE ARBUS

Isabelle Guay, Nicolas Lepage and Jean-Pierre Pacquet for 300

Aradhana Seth and Adam Stockhausen for THE DARJEELING LIMITED

Best Achievement in Costume Design

Winner: Milena Canonero for THE DARJEELING LIMITED

Other Nominees: Jenny Beaven for AMAZING GRACE

Mark Bridges for FUR: AN IMAGINARY PORTRAIT OF DIANE ARBUS

Ruth Myers for THE PAINTED VEIL

Gabriele Binder for THE LIVES OF OTHERS

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song
Winner: Theme from St Trinian's, Girls Aloud, ST TRINIAN'S

Other Nominees: Rule The World, Take That, STARDUST

Barso Re, A R Rahman, GURU

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score
Winner: Alexandre Desplat for THE PAINTED VEIL - a score heavily inspired by Satie

Other Nominees: Alexandre Desplat for THE GOLDEN DOOR

Elliot Goldenthal for his arrangements of Beatles classics in ACROSS THE UNIVERSE

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis for THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD

Nitin Sawhney for THE NAMESAKE

Best Documentary, Features

Winner: TAKING LIBERTIES. Chris Atkins articulated better than I ever could the revolutionary nature of Tony Blair's regime - anti-liberal to an extent that most right wing Home Secretaries could never have dreamed of. Should be required viewing in schools, along with....

Other Nominees: TERROR'S ADVOCATE - Barbet Schroeder's important and chilling documentary about Jacques Verges - a lawyer who has defended terrorists and war criminals with an alarming lack of moral qualms.

BLUE BLOOD - Steven Riley's low budget British documentary about the Oxford-Cambridge varsity boxing match. Funny, engaging, worth seeking out on DVD.

JOE STRUMMER: THE FUTURE IS UNWRITTEN - Rock doc maestro Julien Temple's hommage to Strummer. Rich in interview footage, the movie captures everything that was exciting about punk and the sad hangover of the late 80s and 90s.

ZIZEK! - I can't get enough of Marxist theorist Slavok Zizek. He lectures with imense passion and comedy about movies, life, the universe and everything. Astra Taylor's documentary is a wonderful companion to Zizek's PERVERT'S GUIDE TO CINEMA. Is he sending himself up, or us?!

Best Foreign Language Film of the Year

Winner: 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS


Other Nominees: AFTER THE WEDDING

THE SINGER


CLIMATES - emotionally raw Turkish drama

THE FAMILY FRIEND - creepy, surreal Italian film about a manipulative grotesque who blackmails a beautiful young girl. Deeply bizarre but memorable.

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year

Winner: RATATOUILLE - showing that CGI can have heart, rather than just snappy one-liners.

Other Nominees: SURF'S UP - a handsomely drawn movie that also displayed heart rather than post-modern in-jokes.

MAX AND CO - an old-fashioned stop-motion film from France that has a zany story, real visual imagination and even works when the young viewers don't understand the language!

TERKEL IN TROUBLE - a filthy, irreverant animated film about a young kid fighting school bullies. Despite the toilet-humour, spot on on the neuroses that bedevil young kids.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Crimes Against Cinema: The Ten Most Piss-Poor Movies of 2007 OR Why Danny Dyer Should Be Tried as a Serial Offender

Piss-poor cinema is typically lazy, formulaic, badly produced and lacking in ambition or artistic integrity. In previous years, the chief aggressors were studio hacks pumping out weak franchises aimed squarely at the lowest common denominator. But in recent years, we've seen the co-option of the American independent cinema movement, with a certain style of "Sundance" movie feeling as jaded and derivative as the studio fodder it seeks to replace. Hands up all those sick of quirky characters, faux-naif camera-work and self-conscious music choices. So this year's Worst Of List eschews the usual commercial crap that harbours no ambition of greatness. Instead, we focus on movies that really were trying to be good but failed.

My first two picks are both low-budget British erotic revenge thrillers that reach for profundity but stumble into cheap exploitation. Both also star Cockney geezer Danny Dyer in performances that demonstrate his limited range. The first offender is STRAIGHTHEADS - in which a women is brutally raped by a couple of slack-jawed yokels in deepest darkest Worcestershire (from the look of it.) She turns into a psycho-killer and exacts a revenge that will be familiar to readers of Marlowe's Edward II. The second movie is called THE GREAT ECSTASY OF ROBERT CARMICHAEL. In this flick, a young man desensitised by popular culture and political violence brutally rapes and kills a random middle-class woman. We know this is meant to be a "serious" movie about "issues" because the psycho-teen rapist listens to classical music, just like Alex in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. The problem is that neither film has the intellectual gravity of ORANGE or STRAW DOGS. As a result, they just feel like crass exploitation flicks.

Britain's Most Wanted: Is this man the most annoying Cockney since Dick Van Dyke?The third film in this year's list is yet another low-budget British revenge film featuring Danny Dyer! The only slight difference with
OUTLAW is that the pscho-revenge-killings are not prompted by rape. But everything else is depressingly familiar: from the incredible dialogue to the insufficient character delineation to the weak performances. Grim.

The definition of irony: the cop from the Village People on America's Most WantedAs we move away from the low-budget revenge thriller, you might think we'd be leaving territory besmirched by the inappropriately smirking face of cinema's equivalent of Victor Willis. You'd be wrong. Still, in fairness to Dyer, his typically one-note performance was by far not the worst thing about low-budget British comedy THE ALL TOGETHER. He was trumped by the arid wasteland where Comedy Used To Live.

Speaking of which, the fifth item on the list is, you guessed it, a low-budget British flick called MAGICIANS. I'm not sure how it happened but this flick took two of the funniest guys on British TV - Mitchell and Webb - and put them in a feature length film that was almost entirely devoid of laughs. There's a PhD for some poor film student in working out what goes wrong when TV comedians fail on the big screen.

Venturing outside of the UK, we had plenty of examples of formulaic American movies in the faux-naif genre.
YEAR OF THE DOG is a case in point. Quirky characters up the wazoo; a cast-list stuffed with darlings of independent cinema; this film has Sundance ooozing from its pores. It's also faintly patronising toward its characters, unfunny and unable to engage its audiences in it protagonist's emotional crisis. These directors need to realise that if quirk is not balanced with genuine comedy, it's just irritating. Moreover, it's a barrier to the audience relating to the protagonist.

The seventh movie on the list proves that the Spirit of Sundance is infecting cinema as far away as New Zealand, and that Mitchell and Webb are not the only successful TV comedians to suffer an embarassingly laugh-free transition to the big screen. In
EAGLE VERSUS SHARK, Jemaine Clement of the hysterically funny duo Flight of the Conchords plays a quirky geek who pisses off his long-suffering quirky geek girlfriend. Then he fights a disabled guy, which is quite funny. Then the movie ends. Weak beyond belief.

The eighth movie on my list is
THE DARJEELING LIMITED. Wes Anderson is the director who can most clearly take credit for inventing the Sundance style, despite the fact that he actually makes studio films. But as his characters have become more wealthy and his reputation has become more august, his films have delivered diminishing returns. Where we had genuine emotions and love-able characters in BOTTLE ROCKET, we now have ever-more flowery production design and ever-more vacuous characters and thinner plots. I don't care about the characters in THE DARJEELING LIMITED. They are as indulged as this film is indulgent. I despair of Wes Anderson.

Ikea Knightley buys furniture from Ikea. Too Perfect!The ninth movie on my list is a genuine all-out fiasco called ANGEL. It's a French-produced melo-drama set in Edwardian Britian called Based on a sappy sub-Mills and Boon novel by Liz Taylor, the movie is about a wilful authoress who manipulates everyone around her. Director Francois Ozon will no doubt argue that the over-acting, absurd dialogue, fantastical costumes and sets, are all intentional. But a pastiche is interesting for only so long, and this film certainly does not sustain our interest. I only hope that talented actress Romola Garai's reputation survives.

Note that, despite their failure, I still have more respect for these nine movies than piss-poor studio films that don't even try to do anything different. A noble failure is better than a mediocre, banal auto-flick. Having said that, I can't help mention a string of uninspired shameless cash-ins from our friends in the West - namely HOSTEL PART II, HANNIBAL RISING, BECAUSE I SAID SO, GOAL 2 LIVING THE DREAM or the most piss-poor studio films of the year: PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD'S END and SPIDERMAN 3. Of all these movies, PIRATES 3 must take the biscuit as the example par excellence of all the traits that characterise flabby, over-busy franchise films. Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, I give you: Ikea Knightley's and Orloondo Bland's* wooden central performances; a plot so convoluted you could catch fish in it; the indulgence of Johnny Depp's ego; the inability of the screen-writers to stick the rules of the fantasy genre that they set up in the first film; the reliance on running and shouting rather than genuine chemistry between the romantic leads or genuine tension in the adventure story plot. *TM BBC Radio 5 Live, Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode on film.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Twelve Most Spine-Tinglingly Awesome Moments of 2007

It may be hard to believe when you read an excoriating review, but every time I sit down to watch a movie I do so in joyful hope. I can't explain how much I love cinema. Ever since I was a little girl there seemed to be something magical about a beam of light that transformed a negative into a living and breathing story. I also love the idea of shared experience. I grew up in a small town with a large Italian population and a larger cinema. When the Rocky movies played, the cinema manager, a suave Roger-Moore wannabe who wore a dinner jacket(!), opened up both the stalls and the circle. A thousand Italians cheered for Rocky as though they were watching a live bout. Outstanding! Later on I studied cinematography so as to disabuse myself of my obsession with cinema. I thought that if I knew the nuts and bolts, I'd forget about the magic. It didn't work. I became more obsessed than ever, except that now my infantile fascination was girded with a respect for the technical expertise underlying every movie - even the cyncical cash-ins.

So in a rare annual moment of warmth and optimism, here follow those flashes of brilliance that reminded me - amidst the sequels, threequels and hopeless failures - just how wonderful cinema can be. Note that this list is significantly different from my Best Films of 2007 list (found in a drop-down box in the side-bar). Even piss-poor flicks can have moments of inspiration - which is a faintly hopeful thought.

The first moment is totally juvenile and comes from the Danish animated kids flick, TERKEL IN TROUBLE. I knew I was in insane place - a cross between SOUTH PARK and GRANGE HILL - but I didn't realise how shamelessly brilliant the movie was until the sidekick sang the following love song: "I think I've been been blind until today, when you suddenly looked at me and said 'Fuck off and die - you're too ugly for me and your mum goes for a hundred dollars,' you said it straight to my face". Pure Comedy Gold.

The second moment is the hysterical cameo from Jason Bateman in SMOKIN' ACES. Altogether, this was a much better caper flick than we had any right to expect but Bateman really stood-out in a great ensemble class. He really suits those sleazy, frayed at the edges roles.

From the ridiculous to the sublime, at the end of January I got to see Sergei Bondarchuk's WAR AND PEACE for the first time, and not just to see it on DVD but on the big screen at the Barbican. The battle scenes, where the Red Army don period costume and literally fire canon, were outstanding, as was the entire film. In fact, for all sorts of reasons, Bondarchuk's WAR AND PEACE is my favourite movie of all time.

Next, as a confirmed anti-vegetarian, there was something mischevious and delicious in seeing a camera segue from a cute little piglet to a nice thick slice of bacon sizzling in a pan. And in a children's film no less! Thank you CHARLOTTE'S WEB.

For sheer beauty, you can't beat the shots of Shirley Henderson running on the beach at Morecambe Bay in Juliet McKoen's film FROZEN. The colour palette, the texture of the sand, and all on DV. A real technical and artistic achievement.

Next, proof that even weak movies contain moments of joy, we have Jessica Stevenson's dance routine in Mitchell and Webb's disappointing cinema debut, MAGICIANS. Absolutely bloody hysterical!

The seventh stand-out moment restored my faith in big budget action flicks and Hollywood franchises. It's the tunnel chase scene where McClane crashes a truck into a helicopter in DIE HARD 4.0. It just reminded me how good 80s action flicks really were. And how guiltlessly egregious. Thrills and spills-tastic.

Eighth up, we have Nikki Blonsky's opening number in HAIRSPRAY. It was just so full of energy and fun that you wanted to spend more time with the character and bought into the musical. She's one of 2007's great finds.

Ninth up, I give you two words: Spider Pig. Yes yes, as disappointing as THE SIMPSONS MOVIE was, Spider Pig is now an iconic cinema moment.

Next, we have Richard Gere, who's not someone you'd normally associate with stand-out acting performancs. But in THE HOAX he really got to flex his muscles. There's a scene where he's creating fictitious tapes of himself as author Clifford Irving interviewing Howard Hughes. In reality, he's playing both Irving and Hughes. The impression is superb, but what's more captivating is the fact that Gere can convey how comfortable Irving feels in Hughes' shoes. He's almost better at being Hughes tham himself.

Eleventh, and back to juvenilia, the utter ridiculousness and brazen absurdity of the opening scene of SHOOT 'EM UP. Clive Owen as a pissed off British nanny fighting off gangsters, chomping on a carrot, and still managing to hold the baby. Who needs to be Bond anyways?

Twelfth, a fight scene as homo-erotic and breath-taking as any you've ever seen. Viggo Mortensen in a butt-naked knife fight with some Russian hoods. Once again, David Cronenberg takes us to the edge of voyeurism and exploitation-violence and then calmly walks over that edge. EASTERN PROMISES: flawed movie; iconic fight scene.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Best of 2007 and worst of 2008?

You probably shouldn't be digging in your assSorry folks! No Best Of lists till I've seen the much-lauded NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, SWEENEY TOOD and the latest Paul Thomas Anderson flicks (all first/second week of Jan.) However, in true Grinch like fashion I will shortly be posting my Ten Most Piss-Poor Flicks of 07 list and also the 10 Most Spine Tinglingly Awesome Scenes list.

Looking forward to 2008, I hear that Madonna, who I would gladly try for crimes against cinema, has had her debut directorial effort selected for Berlin 2008. This is depressing news. Try as I might to be free from prejudice, probability suggests that this is not going to be a work of artistic genius. Which leaves us with the suspicion that the Berlin programmers have succumbed to the need for publicity. Poor show from one of the world's premier film festivals.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

ST TRINIAN'S - clearly leery, but still rather fun

ST TRINIAN'S is a movie that is sure to provoke outrage and rightly so. After all, there is something leery and pervy about getting a bunch of teenage girls dressed up in mini-skirted, suspender-ed school uniforms. Added to this, half the jokes are about fellatio and the other half are about illegal substance abuse. Against such a backdrop, the script-writers lame attempts to throw in a one-liner about how "clever is cool" seems a pretty thin cover. More admirable and endemic to the plot is the idea that ST TRINIAN'S is the last bastion of free thinking in a country of league tables, SATs and the National Curriculum. Laudable stuff.

The key point is that, as politically incorrect as ST TRINIAN'S is, it's also a lot of fun. Indeed, far more fun than I had expected. The script is genuinely funny, the visual humour and witty one-liners well observed. The film has a lot of energy and the caper is engaging. The ends all tie up and a good time is had by all. The plot sees the infamous girls fight off a twin threat to their beloved school. First, the government is sending in a ruthless Minister, Geoffrey Thwaites (Colin Firth) to reform Britain's most anarchic, under-performing school. At the same time, the headmistress is in danger of losing the school unless she can repay the Bank £500,000. So the girls decide to nick The Girl With The Pearl Ear-ring from the National Gallery and fence it the headmistress' scoundrelous brother - a Mayfair art dealer - via their shifty mate Flash Harry (Russell Brand). They do so by cheating their way to the final of a school quiz, which is held in the National Gallery.

In particular, I loved Rupert Everett in drag as ST TRINIAN's headmistress. There is something simply delicious in seeing him camp across the grounds in a lurid pink jersey-suit topped of with a Hermes scarf. And the way in which he/she vamps at Colin Firth's stuffy New Labour Education minister is pure joy! Jodie Whitaker (VENUS) is also fantastically fun as the school's chav secretary - just watch her dancing to the final song from GIRLS ALOUD. Stephen Fry, Celia Imrie and Toby Jones (INFAMOUS) are all good value in very small parts as are the very under-used/under-rated Fenella Woolgar (BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS) as the gun-toting PE teacher and Lucy Punch (BEING JULIA) as the Minister's daughter and Cheltenham Ladies College hockey captain.

In such a busy, riotous ensemble piece many actors fall by the wayside. Lena Headey (300) is worst served as the geeky new teacher. Mischa Barton is perfectly fine in her cameo, but the cameo seems utterly redundant to all but those marketing the film to US distributors.

Still, all-in-all, and despite the suspect sexual politics, ST TRINIAN'S is a good solid piece of light entertainment. My final observation is that, given the content, the BFI's 12A rating seems a trifle generous. Parents of young teens might want to vet the movie before letting their younger offspring loose on it.

P.S. Did I forget to mention the awesome two-tone score?

ST TRINIAN'S is on release in the UK.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

BALLS OF FURY - quite depressingly piss-poor

We went to see BALLS OF FURY on the grounds that in our fragile state (the variety of the wine) we couldn't handle anything too cerebral. On the other hand, as we were soon to discover, there's a level of brainlessness that can exert its own special kind of pain on the poor hapless cinema-goer.

BALLS OF FURY is brought to you by the cinematic gurus (sarcasm) behind the altogether dismal
RENO 9-11: MIAMI. This time, writer-director Ben Garant and writer-actor Thomas Lennon try to spoof martial arts and under-dog sports movies. Trouble is, this is territory that has been mined with greater success by recent classics such as DODGEBALL or even BLADES OF GLORY. Dan Fogler plays a washed up ping-pong player called Randy Daytona. Daytona is recruited by the FBI to bring down a sinister triad and ping-pong fanatic (Christopher Walken).

The jokes are weak - alternately sexist or racist. The plot is entirely predictable. And I spent most of the movie feeling embarassed for the actors - especially Walken. And as for Aisha Tyler, she loses all credibility as a guest reviewer on Siskel and Ebert given her choice of script.

BALLS OF FURY was released in the US, Singapore, Russia, the Philippines, Ukraine, Iceland, Slovenia, Australia, Kuwait, Greece, Spain earlier this year and is currently playing in the UK. It opens in Argentina on January 17th 2008.

Monday, December 24, 2007

9th COMPANY/9 ROTA - Full Metal Jacket in Afghanistan

9th COMPANY is a worthy Russian addition to the genre of film that takes a mixed bag of raw recruits, hurls them into basic training and then watches them grow up in a futile war run by incompetents. In this case, our band of soldiers come from Siberia and they have been shipped to Uzbekistan to prepare for the Afghan war, already in its tenth year. The film is notable for its honest script (no shortage of vulgarity and barracks humour) and the fact that this is maybe the first time Western audiences will see what the harsh Uzbekhi landscape (which also stands in for Afghanistan) looks like. In addition, there is a chilling training meeting where a hardened officer attempts to explain to his recruits what it means to fight in an Islamic country and against Islamist fundamentalists. Lessons that have not yet been learned. Geo-politics aside, viewers will empathise with the lads - their camaraderie is infectious - and enjoy the lavish photography of the battle-grounds and some really first class special effects. Director and actor Fyodor Bondarchuk (son of Sergei) handles the choreography of big artillery and planes well. I could, however, have done without the manipulative score and the over-use of slo-mo and extreme close-ups in the opening sequences. Apparently there are doubts about the historical veracity of the final battle, but I think the movie works equally well as a metaphor for the way in which ordinary soldiers are used by their commanders.

9th COMPANY was released in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine and Estonia in 2005 and in Finland and Poland in 2006. It played Canned 2006. It was released in the UK and Belgium in 2007 and is available on DVD.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

WE ARE MARSHALL - self-consciously manipulative TV drama

We're not honoring them, Jack, we're disgracing them.In 1970, a small US town called Marshall suffered a tragedy. Its much-loved varsity team and many other townsfolk died in a plane crash after an inter-state match. In the wake of the tragedy, the university's first instinct was to close down the football programme for practical and emotional reasons. But the few remaining players decided that the best way to honour the deceased would be to continue fielding a team. So began a battle to recruit a coach and a new set of players, and to turn those raw players into a proper football team. In addition, the university had to lobby the ruling body for special dispensation to play.

Out of such a tragedy, one might fashion a truly uplifting redemption-through-sports drama that also served to honour the memory of the deceased. Sadly, this film is not it. Director McG, of CHARLIE'S ANGELS fame, chooses to drench a fundamentally moving story in unnecessary schmaltz. It's all there: sepia tones, stirring sound-tracks, and sports-scenes that are shot and edited like a music video. The actors do a decent job, for the most part, but simply cannot withstand the wave of emotional manipulation. The exception is Matthew McConaughey, who plays the new coach. Without a stern director to temper his natural instinct to ham it up, he camps up his role for all its worth and at times seems to be pastiching the sports movie genre. Definitely one to avoid.

WE ARE MARSHALL was released in the US last December but was not released in the UK. It is available on DVD.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

GRIDIRON GANG - perfectly respectable sports flick

GRIDIRON GANG is a perfectly respectable, uplifting and engaging biopic about a chap called Sean Porter. Porter tooks listless, warring kids in a juvenile detention centre and turned them into a disciplined, united sports team. There are no bangs and whistles here. This is as straightforward as a redemption-through-sports flick can get. Thera are no artificial obstacles or attempts to get down with the kids. But the whole exercise is well shot and well acted, not least by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, who proves that there's more to him than the muscle-head image.

GRIDIRON GANG was released in the US in autumn 2006 and in the UK in spring 2007. It is available on DVD.

Friday, December 21, 2007

AUTUMN SONATA/HOSTSONATEN - Bergman meets Bergman

It may be becoming a little boring for regular readers, but I make no apology in talking about another pantheon movie by Ingmar Bergman. I recently watched AUTUMN SONATA again and was struck once again by its austerity and perfection. I say austerity because it has a small cast, a narrow field of interest, a rather claustrophobic single set and a shooting style that does not draw attention to itself. The whole of the viewer's focus is therefore angled in to the central emotional drama. In her final film role, and her only role under this director, Ingrid Bergman plays an incredibly successful concert pianist called Charlotte. She has lived a life in the lime-light, her every need catered for, flying across the globe. But when her current husband dies she retreats to her daughter Eva's simple country parsonage. Where Berman is all elderly elegance and wreaks of money, Liv Ullmann looks homely, even plain, as her frumpy middle-aged daughter Eva. A Strindberg-like play unfolds with the two women slowly unburdening themselves of all their dissatisfactions with each other. Eva resents the fact that her mother neglected her domestic duties - most poignantly rendered in a mentally disabled sister called Helena. Charlotte despises, or maybe feels threatened, by her disabled child and had her committed to a home, from which Eva has rescued her. Helena is almost a badge of moral superiority for Eva.

So begins a traumatic, transfixing chamber drama focused on two fine actresses allowed to let rip with a raw, brave script. Amazingly, Bergman was nominated for, but did not win, an Oscar for her performance, losing out to Jane Fonda for COMING HOME. The screenwriter of COMING HOME, Nancy Dowd, also beat Ingmar Bergman for an Oscar! Well, I suppose we have come to expect such travesties. (This was also the year of Woody Allen's superb Bergman-homage INTERIORS, and that too lost out to COMING HOME.)

AUTUMN SONATA was released in 1978 and is widely available on DVD.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

GOODBYE BAFANA - earnest but superficial and dull

Every famous nigga that gets arrested is not Nelson Mandela! Yes, the government conspires to put a lot of innocent black men in jail on fallacious charges. But R. Kelly is *not* one of those men!Much like the insanely over-hyped biopic THE QUEEN, GOODBYE BAFANA attempts to give us intimacy with an icon. Also like THE QUEEN, we are left with a rather plodding, predictable film that would be better suited to day-time TV.

Director Billie August and writer Greg Latter fashion an earnest, plodding friendship story out of James Gregory's autobiography. Gregory was Nelson Mandela's prison guard and was charged with censoring his letters. As the film progresses and the years roll by, Gregory is awakened to the plight of black South Africans, and comes to respect Mandela. Fiennes, Haysbert and Kruger give decent performances as the prison guard, the future president and the prison guard's wife. But the script lacks any innovation. For a start, they might have tried to take a more holistic view of the relationship between the two men - after all, Gregory's memoirs are not uncontroversial.

GOODBYE BAFANA played Berlin 2007 and was released in Spain, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the UK, Kuwait, Turkey, Hungary, Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Portugal, Israel, Lebanon, Argentina, Poland and the US earlier this year. It is also available on Region 2 DVD.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

BRATZ - THE MOVIE - better than you might think; still not particularly good

I am constantly at a loss to understand popular culture's obsession with audition shows and talent contests. It seems as if we've all reverted into a pre-modern era of entertainment. Before irony and Woody Allen we had vaudeville and freak shows. Now, we can have both at the same time thanks to X FACTOR, POP IDOL, STRICTLY COME DANCING et hoc ad nauseam. If HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL perfectly captures and exploits this trend, BRATZ: THE MOVIE is a weak parody of it. The story arc is pretty similar to HSM1 and HSM2. Four aggressively fashion-conscious friends turn up to their new high school to be confronted by extreme segregation between the different cliques. As the girls all fall naturally into a different clique, they soon find themselves hanging out in different crowds. When they want to hang out together, their new friends make them feel guilty. Then, pace HSM2, we get a classic haves versus have-not situation. The control-freak alpha-female who's running the school is also stupidly rich, and she's throwing an amazing Sweet Sixteen party to cement her popularity. Part of her schtick is to embarass one of the Bratz who is from a poor family. Of course, everyone is healed by the Power of Music a.k.a. a big song and dance number where we learn that we should move beyond cliques and stand united. But if that were to happen, what would Hollywood teen comedies do for plot devices?!

BRATZ has a far weaker cast, script and score than HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL and is as predictable as the Huckaboom turning to a Huckabust. God knows what Jon Voight is doing here - cashing in his pension presumably. But for all that BRATZ isn't a complete pile of pants. It has a certain slickness and professionalism that one might expect from a production team schooled in American kids TV shows, from That's So Raven! to Boy Meets World to Home Improvement. And, given how obnoxious the dolls that inspired the movie are, its painfully politically-correct, saccharine message is arguably something to be thankful for.

BRATZ went on release earlier this year and is now available on DVD.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Random TV review - HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 1 & 2

In a totally unexpected move, the Disney Channel has done what most studios would kill for - they've created a bona fide money-spinning franchise. And as this blog is all about following the proverbial phat cash, a review was sure to follow.

The set-up for HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL is basically GREASE without the unwanted pregnancy. Troy (Zac Efron) is a cool jock and Gabrielle (Vanessa Anne Hudgens) is a maths geek. By the rules of High School Cliques, established in THE BREAKFAST CLUB, they are destined never to meet. However, by a quirk of movie fate they end up successfully auditioning for their high school musical. In the process, they alienate their respective jock and mathmo friends and severely piss off the incumbent musical leads, Sharpay and Ryan. But, as this is a relentlessly up-beat, optimitistic, feel-good movie, it all works out for the best.

The original movie is surprisingly good fun. The dance numbers (choreographed by director Kenny Ortega) are really well done and the kids are all hugely talented. The story is hokey but the cast members are so earnest you can't help getting involved with it. The production design is all primary colours and bright sunshine, and that's basicslly how you feel when the curtain comes down.

Given the whirlwind success of the original show, Disney was always going to be under pressure to come up with a sequel to justify all that merchandising. The big problem is that the stories tied up neatly at the end of the first installment. So, with everyone already living happily ever after, the screen-writers needed to inject an artificial obstruction for Troy and Gabrielle to over-come. We find ourselves in summer vacation. Rich kids Ryan and Sharpay are staying at their parents' luxurious hotel, which conveniently has an end of summer talent show. The other high school kids take summer jobs in the resort. Sharpay arranges for Troy to be talent spotted by a University sports team. If he turns his back on his friends, he's guaranteed a hefty sports scholarship. Of course, Sharpay is also keen for him to dump Gabrielle and sing with her at the end of summer talent show.

As hokey as the Geeks versus Mathmos storyline was, at least its founded in truth. High School really is cliquey. By contrast, the lines of attrition in High School Musical 2 seemed utterly fake to me. Choosing universities inevitably means parting from some high school friends, but it seems ridiculous to accuse a kid who's taking an opportunity of being treacherous. The movie seemed to have a severe case of tall poppy syndrome. There's also a bitter irony in Troy asking Sharpay whether she just sings for fun rather than for fame! So, the storyline is much weaker in the sequel, but what of the all-important song and dance numbers? I found the songs less catchy than in the original show, but you just can't fault the kids talent and energy. In particular, Lucas Grabeel as Ryan trumps Efron and Hudgens as the stand-out cast member.

Overall, then, HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL comes across as a genuinely fun teen romance that could easily have warranted a theatrical release. The sequel is, however, better suited to its DVD release.

The original HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL aired in 2006 and the follow-up aired in 2007. Both are available on DVD.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Pantheon movie of the month - A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS

What is a Pantheon movie? A movie whose every component is perfection; the combination of which is greater than the sum of its parts; and whose perfection is untouched by the intervening years. A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS is not just a Pantheon movie; it's a deeply relevant, deeply personal film for me.

The subject matter is the bedrock to its greatness. A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS is one of those films that perfectly articulates a rupture in a nation's intellectual and political life. More particularly, it has that rarest of things as its protagnists - a hero who is also a warm, loving, witty man. We are in Tudor England and Henry VIII is desperate for a male heir. His desperation leads him to betray the Church of which he was a staunch Defender. The nobles, Bishops and Universities all assent to a parliamentary decree making Henry supreme governor of the Church in England. That Church gives him a divorce and then marries him to Anne Boleyn. This is not simply a sacrifice of principle to statescraft. After all, one might rightly have criticised the Catholic Church for its corruption. However, Henry's Cardinal Wolsey makes it clear that English political expediency trumps all.

Against such turbulent times, step forward Thomas More, an honest lawyer. ("When was there last a Chancellor whose possessions after three years in office totaled one hundred pounds and a gold chain?") While friend to the king, his integrity prevents him from publicly assenting to the Act of Succession or approving of Henry's marriage to Anne. But as a loyal subject he will not publicly denounce Henry. Instead, he aims to tread a tightrope of silence and absence from public life. More is clever and witty but he is also naive. His wife, Lady Alice, points this out. The establishment will not allow More to sit quietly. "His silence bellows" because he is known to be honest. Thus we see a slow grinding of the wheels of state - More is thrown in the Tower of London and, when Richard Rich perjures himself, More is executed.

Screen-writer Robert Bolt (LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO) crafts a brilliant drama out of this superb material. He captures More's bizarre mix of intellect and naivety. He is careful to show Henry's close relationship with More early in the film, but equally careful to keep Henry absent in the latter half. Henry is too careful - too squeamish - to prosecute More directly. I also like what he does with the minor characters - essaying their character quirks very quickly. There's a great scene where Henry meets More's daughter Meg for the first time. More is known for having eccentrically educated his daughter. Henry tests her on her latin and she responds in fluent, eloquent latin. As she rattles on, Henry loses interest and actually turns away. His ego has been piqued. He turns back, showing off his fine calf! Pure machismo!

My dear Norfolk... this isn't Spain. This is England.But for me, the best innovation is Robert Bolt's handling of the relationship between More and Richard Rich. Rich is a poor boy of ignoble birth but he knows that his intellect can propel him to greatness, Wolsey-style. He begs More for employment, because he knows that he is of weak character, and will be tempted by worse men. More seems fatally dismissive, and casually suggests that Rich becomes a teacher, so putting himself out of temptation's path. But Rich wants power, and eventually will sell himself for a rich position, Attorney-General of Wales. This prompts two of the more profound but also most witty of More's exchanges:

Sir Thomas More: Why not be a teacher? You'd be a fine teacher; perhaps a great one.
Richard Rich: If I was, who would know it?
Sir Thomas More: You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.
-----------
Sir Thomas More: Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world... but for Wales?

The subject matter of this film is, then, of the highest importance: moral conscience versus state expediency. But there is also an exchange in this film that speaks more loudly to contemporary audiences, especially those who do not watch the film as hagiography. Even for me, as a Catholic, the following exchange is the most resonant and personally affecting in the film. Richard Rich has just left More and More's family are desperate for Rich to be arrested. They are right. Rich s a dangerous, traiterous man and will eventually do for More. But More refuses to arrest him. So follows an exchange that defines for me the battle between "security" and "liberty" and comes down firmly in favour of the latter. It is the exchange that defines my views on this issue to this day, especially in the context of the War on Terror.

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
William Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!

The story and script make A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS a Pantheon film but it takes great direction and acting to breathe life into an intellectual, abstract film. Fred Zinnemann (OKLAHOMA!, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY) knows better than to distract from the script with flashy camera angles or over-wrought emotional displays. He also assembles a perfect cast. Zinnemann had the balls to eschew higher-wattage actors (Charlton Heston, Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness) in favour of class British thesp Paul Schofield in the role of Thomas More. He surrounds him with exeptional character actors - notably Wendy Hiller as Lady Alice More and Leo McKern as Thomas Cromwell. In the minor parts, he casts actors who would go on to be great, showing his eye for talent. So we have John Hurt as Rich, Susannah York as Margaret More, Corin Redgrave as William Roper and Vanessa Redgrave as Anne Boleyn. Robert Shaw is also fantastic as Henry VIII. Where Zinnemann does go for a big name, there is no sense of compromise. A bloated, domineering, insidious Orson Welles embodies the realpolitik of Cardinal Wolsey. Apart from the casting, the technical aspects of the film are well-handled, with nicely photographed colour shots of the river and costume design all winning Oscars.

All in all, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS is one of those films that engages you on an emotional and intellectual level and has the capability to change the way in which you think about the bed-rock issues of life. It's a shame that it sometimes gets cast as a movie for Catholics or history buffs. After all, the battles between Church and State; private and public morality; state security and individual liberty; remain painfully relevant today.

A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS was originally released in 1966. It won the Oscar for Best Film (Fred Zinneman), Best Director (Fred Zinneman), Best Actor (Paul Scofield), Best Cinematography (Ted Moore), Best Costume Design (Elizabeth Haffenden, Joan Bridge), Best Screenplay (Robert Bolt.) In addition, Robert Shaw and Wendy Hiller were nominated for their supporting roles. The film is widely available on DVD.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

A COMEDY OF POWER/L'IVRESSE DU POUVOIR - thin

Here we have another collaboration between veteran French auteur, Claude Chabrol, DP Eduardo Serra and acress, Isabelle Huppert. I am a little tired of seeing Huppert playing these demanding, emotionally frigid, manipulative women - but then again, she does it so well! In this movie she plays a stern magistrate investigating corruption at the highest reaches of French corporate and political life. It is wonderful to see her cut these macho businessman down to size. Naturally, she has a devoted but wounded husband, who is becoming tired of the nocturnal studying and bodyguards. The emotional drama is well played, as are the occasional razor-sharp dialogues between the magistrate and her victims. However, the movie lacks a coherent narrative drive or any sense of the scope and gravity of the corporate malfeasance under the microscope. Screen-writer Odile Barksi fails her cast.

A COMEDY OF POWER played Berlin 2006 and was released in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Argentina, Slovenia and Italy last year. It opened in the US, Mexico, Singapore, Mexico, Sweden, Denmark and Spain earlier in 2007. It is currently playing in the UK and is available on Region 1 DVD.

Early review from Al - I AM LEGEND

28 DAYS LATER rip-off anyone??!!This review is brought to you from Al, who can usually be found here.

Just got back from Kuantan couple hours back - still recuperating. It was raining pretty much every second I was there, but turned out quite a therapeutic experience if you take the nightmarish weather aside. Anyhu, managed to catch I AM LEGEND while I was there - a film I wasn't particularly excited about, but finally decided to watch (it was between this and ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS) knowing how in the past, the charismatic Will Smith was the only good thing about movies like
PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS and HITCH that were otherwise massive stinkers.

Oh wow, looks it's Will Smith trying what he does best - saving the world!*Applause* But alas, Smith looks fatigued and reluctant in this movie - out of his usual energetic self, from start to end he's pretty much moping around and by the time a pedantic attempt at an emotional climax arrives, it's evident that nothing can save this movie from the self-destructive monotony it's chosen to pursue. I understand where it intends to go - to try and construct that magnificent 28 DAYS LATER effect - relying on the sights of a usually chaotic city (in this case, NYC) now disturbingly quiet & inhabited only by overturned cars, rubbish and a main character who seems to have lost hope in mankind and lost his soul along the way. But here, it's just dead monotonous and dreary as fuck. It just doesn't work on any level. Oh,and it probably didn't help that the "Dark-Seekers" were as scary as Spongebob.

Possible SPOILER ahead. As if it weren't bad enough that for an entire three quarters they put all this weight on this bloody dog I really wanted out of the picture from the get-go: not that I hate dogs, but you could see from the start the way they established the man-dog relationship in this tacky, superficial dog-food commercial way that they were eventually going to USE the dog for some exploitative purpose. Oh,and once they're done with the dumb disposable dog as a plot-driving tool - suddenly this pile of dung about Bob Marley Being A True Inspiration and Survival Philosophy and Where is God pops out of NOWHERE - no,seriously, the film walks miles just him and his bloody canine, talking about nothing specifically, then without any build-up or the slightest hint this random mother-son pair show up and before you know it they're having THAT argument about The Human Race and Fate. At this point, I felt like choking myself on popcorn.

It's just so damn stupid and ridiculous-I can't put it any better than that.Think movies like Transformers,The Day After Tomorrow-movies with really one-dimensional,self-important characters with laughably shallow motivations at the center,where the writers have this EPIC movie in mind and they take everything so goddamn serious the final film turns out some sort of banal mockery of itself.There's always a cheap family-related backstory,a whole proud bunch of unfunny jokes and the action scenes seem lavishly done but are flatly disappointing.There is absolutely nothing to salvage from this film.

Spoiler-free: I went in hoping for a half-decent post-apocalyptic film with mildly scary devolved humans, and I also read beforehand they were showing a 7-minute Dark Knight preview before I Am Legend in US theatres and also, I vaguely remember seeing online a screenshot of the making for this film featuring Charlize Theron. Well,obviously none of those materialized.

I AM LEGEND is on release in the US, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the US. It opens next week in Spain, France, Belgium, Israel, the Netherlands and Denmark. It opens in Christmas week in Denmark, Egypt, Iceland, Norway and the UK. It opens in January in Greece, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Estonia, Turkey, Germany, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Italy, Brazil, Russia and Sweden.
Bina007 adds: If we were gonna get a remake of The Omega Man, then wouldn't it have been cooler to get a Ridley Scott/Schwarzenegger remake as originally intended? Apparently Gulliermo del Toro also turned Smith down which is how we ended up wih relative newbie Francis Lawrence (CONSTANTINE). I also have a soupcon of suspicion about any flick that's green-lit without a script in place.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

WE OWN THE NIGHT - exceptional cop thriller cum family drama

WE OWN THE NIGHT is a solid, well-made crime thriller set in late 80s Brooklyn. But at heart it's a story about two very different brothers and how they come to the point where they can finally admit that they love each other. That's what makes it exceptional. The first brother is Joseph, played by the much under-estimated Mark Wahlberg. Joseph is a decent family man and conscientous cop who followed his father into the force. Joaquin Phoenix turns in a searing performance as the second son, Robert, who has become a night-club manager with connections to Russian drug-dealers. Through the film, we see Robert forced to choose between the police and his adopted friends. Both brothers are deeply affected by the events: both make sacrifices. There are no pat happy endings, but there is genuine character development. Kudos to writer-director James Gray.

I really loved every aspect of this film. The production is flawless. The film-makers perfectly recreate the look and feel of the late 80s and the sound design is exceptional - particularly in the wire-tapping scene and the car chase scene. But the best part is that no character's actions or words ever seem out-of-character or sacrificies to plot exigencies. Kudos to writer-director James Gray.

WE OWN THE NIGHT played Cannes 2007. It was released in the USA, Canada, Norway, the Philippines, Brazil, Greece, Denmark, Bulgaria, Belgium, France and Romania. It is currently on release in Finland and the UK and opens next week in Iceland. It opens in January in Estonia, Russia, Sweden and the Netherlands. It opens in February in the Czech Republic, Argentina and Germany and in Spain in March.

Friday, December 14, 2007

YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH reminds us how good Tim Roth really is

Ah, come on Sam, you know my philosophy. If you can't say something nice, say it about Diane.Francis Ford Coppola is a fascinating figure of cinema history - and through his story one can see refracted the rise and fall of the studio system but also the rise and fall of the first Indie movement. He is, no doubt, a director of great talent who has made pantheon movies. But he's also a director who tried to radically alter the way in which movies were financed - gambled everything - and lost. There followed a period where he was a director for hire, making mainstream films that dulled his vision. Now he returns as a successful viticulturist with a self-financed avowedly art-house movie.

YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH has some of the hallmarks of great cinema. It may have been shot on a low-budget but it looks handsome. DP Mihai Malamaire Jr creates lush, honey-toned images of WW2 Hungary, Rumania and Switzerland that let us slide into a glamourous world of Nazi spies, spa-town casinos and private banks. We are following our protagonist, a 70 year-old philosopher called Dominic, played by Tim Roth. Dominic is about to attempt suicide - his life's attempt to write his only book a failure. But instead he is struck by lightning and - miraculously survives. Not only is he alive, but he is thirty-years younger and blessed with the ability to absorb knowledge from books instantaneously and even to bend matter to his will. Thanks to his friendly doctor (Bruno Ganz) Dominic escapes both the clutches of the Nazis and the lures of the Americans (Matt Damon) both of whom want to claim his as a freakish prize. All is well until, a decade later, he stumbles upon a girl (Alexandra Maria Lara) who looks just like the woman he loved and lost in his youth.

The film moves like a series of surreal dreams, with sounds and images tumbling over one another. The opening credits are wonderful, and this magical tone continues. The calm centre of this strange world is Tim Roth's Dominic. Roth's performance is outstanding: he is able to play a seventy year old and a regenerated forty-year old who still has the stiffness of an old man. He has genuine chemistry with Maria Lara. I think this is the kind of the film that you have to let yourself go with, rather than trying to join up every plot point. I was absolutely riveted by the imagery and by Dominic's bizarre journey. I only lost faith in the film in the final act where Dominic meets his lover again - the story became a little too contrived and absurd for me to believe in it. Nonetheless, the beautiful visuals and compelling central performance make this a must-see movie, and I look forward to seeing Coppola's new brand of art-house movies in future.

YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH played Rome 2007 and was released in Italy, Belgium and France earlier this year. It is currently on release in the UK and the US.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

PARANOID PARK - accessible, derivative

Gus van Sant is the master of capturing disaffected teenagers struggling to keep the real world at bay. In his movies, kids slouch around with such a lack of energy they can usually be perfectly captured in slo-mo. They are unshackled by parental authority, and drift through his films toward uncertain doom. PARANOID PARK picks up on the vibe of ELEPHANT and LAST DAYS. The cast of unknowns hang out at school and at the skate park. Our protagonist - if that isn't too strong a word - is a well-meaning but almost comically apathetic kid who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. He circles the ramifications of this event like the nervous, guilty schoolkid that he is. Gus van Sant's peculiar talent is to mirror the kid's avoidance techniques with a choppy, non-linear structure and a rather directionless camera that belies the thought and care that must have gone into the filming process. DP Christopher Doyle creates images whose aching beauty adds profundity where there really isn't any to be found. I also loved the odd flashes of high comedy: the girlfriend harrassing her apathetic boyfriend to have sex with her; the kid brother rehearsing Napoleon Dynamite. But I have to say that after about 45 minutes of this meandering nothingness I felt a bit bored by it all, not least because I'd seen this sort of thing before. It may sound harsh, but I wish van Sant would try something different. That doesn't belittle his achievement in movies like ELEPHANT. It's just that he so comprehensively covered these moods and themes there that I don't particularly need to see it again.

PARANOID PARK played Cannes, Toronto and Vienna 2007. It was released in Belgium, France, Luxembourg, South Korea, Portugal, Russia and Italy earlier this year. It goes on release in the UK on Boxing Day; in Taiwan on December 29th; in Sweden on January 18th; in the Netherlands on February 28th and in the US on March 7th 2008.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

London Film Fest Day 12 (late review) - SILENT LIGHT/STELLET LICHT

A still, patient camera captures the sounds and images of a sunrise in the Chihuahua region of Mexico. I'm always amazed by how loud nature is once you get out into the countryside, and these opening shots are incredibly intense. The wide canvas is contrasted with the buttoned-down, scrupulously neat home of Johan, Esther and their many children. The family are Mennonites of German heritage, living by customs and ethics and speaking a dialect that can seem antiquated and strange to modern sensibilities. But behind the well-ordered exterior, Johan's crisis seems utterly contemporary and as mammoth as the landscape in which he lives. Johan has fallen in love with a woman called Marianne and now faces an unbearable choice: either he betrays his wife and his religion or he betrays his true desires. Cornelio Wall Fehr gives a measured and moving performance as Johan. Miriam Toews is desperately sympathetic as Johan's wife, suffering mostly in silence. But the real star of the movie is the patient, unflinching camera of DP Alexis Zabe.

My experience of SILENT LIGHT changed radically as the film progressed. At first I was fascinated to experience an insight into a totally foreign way of life. By the middle of the film I was started to feel bored by the endless scenes of domestic minutiae. But the film built into a highly charged denouement that confounded all expectations.

SILENT LIGHT/STELLET LICHT played Cannes 2007 where Carlos Reygadas won the Jury Prize. It also played Toronto and London 2007. It was released in Mexico, Belgium, France and the UK earlier this year and is released in the Netherlands on February 14th 2008. The movie is Mexico's nomination for the Oscars.

Monday, December 10, 2007

THE KILLING OF JOHN LENNON - cruel chance

Last year's London Film Festival brought us a pretty straightforward documentary that reminded us just how radical, important and charismatic John Lennon was. In a Festival full of films lamenting the lost soul of the United States, THE US VS. JOHN LENNON reminded us of the power of protest and good intentions.

This year, we get a documentary of an altogether different kind. Andrew Piddington has re-created the killing of John Lennon from the point of view of his assassin, Mark Chapman. The film isn't really interested in Lennon at all - he remains a shadowy figure -a plot device rather than a protagonist. This is as it should be. After all, Mark Chapman's selection of Lennon as his victim was, apparently, a matter of cruel chance rather than personal grudge. Accordingly, despite the movie's title, the subject of this film isn't John Lennon but Chapman's slide into murderous insanity.

In a series of impressionistic flash-backs and telling moments, we see Chapman three months before the assassination. The product of a broken home - living through a breaking marriage - he feels out of place and disenfranchised. He has a history of mental illness and a previous entanglement with Scientology. He's already off-kilter, but apparently still in touch with reality, when he picks up a copy of Catcher In The Rye and finds himself identifying with Holden Caulfield. By chance, he then picks up a book of photographs of John Lennon and, on the strength of Lennon's swanky New York co-op, condemns him as a "phoney".

Writer-director Andrew Piddington handles this part of the story with economy and visual flair. We are barely half an hour into the film when Chapman has purchased a gun with laughable ease and travelled to New York. Over the next half hour he stalks the Dakota building and the film reaches an unbearable pitch of nervous tension. The use of authentic locations and period costumes adds to the feeling of horrible reality that is rooted in Jonas Bell's magentic central performance. For a moment, it seems as though the sane part of Chapman will triumph, but finally, tragically, he is pulled back toward the act that will make him a "somebody".

The murder is shown explicitly. It's not filmed sensationally but the very fact of having it re-enacted made me feel uncomfortable. I didn't know whether to admire the film-makers' bravery in tackling it head-on, or whether to condemn them for being exploitative and making me an accessory in their crime. But we soon pass on to the aftermath of the act. There are no trite revelations: Chapman's motives are as thin as ever. Yes, he does have moments of tangible insanity but sometimes he just seems like a spoiled child desperate for attention.

Overall, this is an accomplished movie, whose look and feel belies its small budget. Moreover, any doubts one might have about the film-makers intentions are allayed by their commitment to authenticity in the script and production design. Yes, the movie made me feel uneasy and left me questioning my motives in seeking it out. But I think that's a good thing.

THE KILLING OF JOHN LENNON is on release in the UK and goes on release in the US in January 2008.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

I WANT CANDY - bizarrely panned Brit comedy

I WANT CANDY was absolutely panned by the British press when it came out in March - so much so that I didn't bother watching it until it came out on DVD. Clearly, it's not a work of comedy genius, but it's not that bad either. In fact, I had more fun watching I WANT CANDY that I did during two hours' "festive fun" with FRED CLAUS. The basic idea is the same as THE MOGULS aka THE AMATEURS (currently playing in the US): a bunch of small-town middle-class nice guys decide to make a porno. In this case, the protagonists are two like-able film students (Tom Riley and Tom Burke - both talented & amiable) and their side-kick (Michelle Ryan aka The Bionic Woman or Zoe Slater depending on which side of the pond you're from.) The kids manage to hire the infamous Candy Fiveways (Carmen Electra) on the strength of their unusually cogent film script. They also get funding from a dodgy distributor played by the brilliant Eddie Marsan. As is the case with all these comedies that wring laughs out of normal people doing faintly transgressive things, there's a lot of scenes in which the kids' shocked parents discover what they are up to. Far more successful are cameos from Miranda Hart as a sarcastic secretary and Jimmy Carr as a video-store worker/porn expert. I also liked Mackenzie Crook as a Brent-ish Film Professor who's desperate to appear "down with the kids". Like I said, this ain't Citizen Kane, but it's harmless, unpretentious and like-able. It's probably not worth seeking out, but if you catch it on FilmFour it's worth a look.

I WANT CANDY went on release in the UK in March 2007 and is now available on DVD.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

FRED CLAUS - great cast undone by lazy script

You're all fired, in the morning you'll all be on a bus back to Elfistan!I think Vince Vaughn is really funny. I've thought this ever since my best friend at college, James "Fast Jimmy" Gibbons introduced me to SWINGERS. Suddenly it became clear where Jimbo's fast-talking, charming, fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants routine came from. Since then, Vaughn's career has been hit and miss. He's been hired as the light relief in a bunch of genre movies (such as MR AND MRS SMITH) and made a disastrous lead in the horrible PSYCHO remake. I think the problem is that he's usually cast rather lazily: film-makers think his innate charm will enliven weak, derivative scripts. What this means is that Vaughn, like Ryan Reynolds, is usually the only saving grace in the mediocre movies he stars in. Up till now, the one exception to this rule was DODGEBALL - a truly hillarious movie.

I'm afraid that FRED CLAUS falls solidly into that cumbersome middle ground of weak comedies in which Vaughn fans find themselves scratching their heads wondering why he didn't demand a re-write. In general, the plot is predictable and derivative, the characters are two-dimensional, and the movie is painfully thin on laughs. Worst of all, the movie is way too long for a kid-friendly Christmas flick, no matter what the quality of the picture.

Just to fulfil the basic requirements, I should clue you into the big Concept. Fred Claus is a nice kid who becomes embittered when his brother Nicholas gets all the attention. Eventually, Nick becomes Santa Claus, and as part of the deal, he and his family become immortal. Fast forward several hundred years and Fred (Vaughn) is forced to go cap in hand to the North Pole and make up with his brother Santa (Giamatti). He teaches the elves to loosen up, they fall behind on their schedule, and the big bad corporate man (Spacey) threatens to close them down. As one might expect, it all turns out for the best for the characters, which is more than can be said for the honest ticket-buying public. One can only wonder why the producers spent so much money on a high-octane cast and so little on the script.

FRED CLAUS is on release in the US, Canada, Australia, Italy, Singapore, Japan, the Philippines, Germany, South Korea, Denmark, Italy, the UK and Japan. It opens next week in Belgium, Greece, the Netherlands, Iceland, Spain, Sweden and Turkey. It opens in Christmas week in Russia, Slovenia, Estonia, France and Bulgaria. Finally, it rolls into Egypt on January 16th.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

THE MAGIC FLUTE is shoe-horned into a clumsy conceit

I have seen three movies by Kenneth Branagh this year - AS YOU LIKE IT, SLEUTH and THE MAGIC FLUTE. In all three, Branagh has taken well-known texts and transported them into radically new environments. In all three I found the new environment to be distracting and forced. The radical new interpretation doesn't seem to stem organically from the source text. It doesn't seem to strike off from a daring new insight to the material. Rather, it's just a big flashy conceit into which everything else must be shoe-horned. All three films fail not for want of new ideas but because of Branagh's inability to truly master his new whizz-bang creation. His productions seem indulgent and chaotic rather than sensitive and thoughtful.

THE MAGIC FLUTE is a wonderful fantastic opera in the literal sense of those words. It's filled with magic, love at first sight and a grown man dressed up as a bird! Behind the whimsical, comic facade lies nothing less important that a battle between Truth and Falsehood. Our hero, Tamino, is rescued from a serpent by three cronies who take him to the Queen of the Night. She begs him to rescue her daughter, Panmina, who has been captured by the wicked Sarastro. Tamino falls in love with Pamina's photograph and goes to rescue her, armed with a Magic Flute. He is abetted by one of the most beloved light characters of opera - Papageno the bird catcher - who comes armed with magic chimes and a desire to find his Papagena. Together they rescue Pamina but discover that the Queen has deceived them about Sarastro's true nature. So begins a philosophic quest and a battle between the Enlightenment (Masonic ritual is hinted at) and Obfuscatory dogmatism.

Branagh chooses to transpose the opera to World War One and to conceive its struggle as one between war and peace. Hmmmm. So we get the warmongering Queen of the Night astride a tank and Sarastro pleading for peace at the most politically correct cemetary outside of a Benneton ad. Any claim to be updating the opera or making it relevant is belied by the highly stylised production design and photography and the misinterpration of the central text. The battle between the Enlightenment and Obscurantism is bang on the nail of contemporary politics. A sentitively updated MAGIC FLUTE would have been a powerful reminder that we should never take the victories won in the Enlightenment for granted in age of fundamentalism. Sadly, THE MAGIC FLUTE dodges the issue as much as THE GOLDEN COMPASS.

So what's left? Papageno should be good for a laugh but I found his gee-whizz Americanisms grating. The cast is pretty thin aside from Rene Pape as Sarastro and Lyubov Petrova as the Queen of the Night. Very few great singers can also act and we haven't found any here. Branagh seems incapable of just shooting a singer singing an aria. Instead we have a relentlessly and conspicuously cart-wheeling camera. A particularly clumsy metaphor is to shoot Der H├Âlle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen as an extreme close-up with the Queen spitting out the words as tanks fire in the background.

And, can someone explain to me why having a libretto translated into English (this time by Stephen Fry) makes an opera more accessible? Frankly, most of the time the sopranos are singing you can't make out the words anyway. Far better to have the libretto in German with sur-titles.

THE MAGIC FLUTE played Toronto, Venice and Seville 2006. It was released in France and Belgium in 2006 and in Norway, Spain, Serbia, Israel, Denmark, Italy, Sweden and Japan earlier in 2007. It is currently on release in the UK and opens in Germany on January 3rd and in Argentina on February 21st 2008.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

THE GOLDEN COMPASS aka The Gutless Cop-Out

What does it say about the times we live in that writer-director Chris Weitz has no qualms in having Jason Biggs masturbate on-screen with a warm apple-pie, but doesn't have the balls to depict an atheist's response to Paradise Lost? I don't know what saddens me more: the anti-liberal tyrannical response of my own Church to this movie, or the self-censorship of a studio too timid to respect Philip Pullman's profound artistic achievement. The upshot is that THE GOLDEN COMPASS is a rather feeble film. It looks pretty enough but it lacks the intellectual bravery of the source material. As a result, the viewer has to jump through the hoops of the complicated narrative without the concommitant emotional pay-off. In fact, the bizarre decision to cut short this adaptation before we have reached the final harrowing scenes of the book makes this film a deeply unsatisfying, unengaging experience indeed.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

In 1995, Philip Pullman published the first novel in a trilogy called His Dark Materials. It is that book - called Northern Lights in the UK and The Golden Compass in the US - that we now see brought to the screen. Pullman's trilogy is nominally a set of books for children, filled with fantasy adventure elements and set in a world that shares many characteristics with our own. A plucky young girl called Lyra Belaqua sets off for the North Pole to rescue her friend Roger from the mysterious Gobblers with the help of a truth-telling golden compass that once belonged to her guardian, an Oxford don called Lord Asriel. On the way, she escapes the clutches of the devestatingly charming Mrs Coulter and benefits from the help of a Gyptian king, a beautiful witch called Serafina Pekkala, an aeronaut called Lee Scoresby and an armoured bear called Iorek Byrnison.

The book works well as an adventure story. The "baddies" are suitably sinister, the good guys are wonderfully drawn, and we really believe in the strenth of the friendship between Lyra and Roger. But there is so much more to the story than that. In Pullman's version of the world, a tyrannical ideological Authority is stamping out free will and free thought. It is true that in the novel this Authority is explicitly religious and adopts some of the terminology of the Catholic Church. However I firmly believe that the Authority can be read as a symbol of all intellectual repression and anti-liberalism rather than any particular set of beliefs. Lyra and her guardian are thus battling for freedom and against tyranny - for truth against self- and imposed censorship.

It is, then, ironic, as well as tragic, to find this film refusing to speak plainly and to defend the intellectual freedom that Lord Asriel seeks to defend. Furthermore, having shorn the movie of its intellectual substance, Chris Weitz might at least have left us the searing emotional climax of the novel. But even here he chickens out - and leaves us with just another wishy-washy luke-warm Hollywood ending.

THE GOLDEN COMPASS is on release in the UK, Belgium, Finland, France, Israel, Norway, the Philippines and Spain. It opens tomorrow in Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia and Singapore. It opens on Friday 7th December in Canada, Denmark, Sweden, Taiwan, Turkey and the US. It opens the following weekend in Serbia, Argentina, Hungary, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Estonia and Italy. THE GOLDEN COMPASS opens in Italy, South Korea, Greece, Hong Kong, Brazil and Australia later in December and in Egypt on January 16th 2008. It opens in Japan on March 1st.