Thursday, January 31, 2008

LA Diary Day 4 - CLOVERFIELD - cinema verite my ass

No LA Diary on Day 3 - the closest I got to the flicks was dinner in the excellent restau. Blue Velvet. But on Day 4 a somewhat ill-advised trip to Mann's Chinese Theater at Hollywood & Highlands. Ill-advised because we turned up half way through the Clinton-Obama debate live from the Kodak theater which is part of the same complex. The mall was filled with anti-war protestors, a dog on a skateboard, and a good handful of outside broadcast TV trucks. There were also a scary amount of tooled-up rozzers* as well as two bedraggled musicians vainly trying to whip up some attention atop a Rock the Vote van. Among this motley crew were a goodly number of ordinary shoppers and voters standing in front of the large outdoor screen watching the debate live and cheering every soundbite. They were cheering on the possibility of change. They were standing amid the dying embers of a failed administration, a disastrous war in Iraq, fear of foreclosure, unemployment and uninsured illness. The Fear and Loathing was upon us.

In such a sickly political environment, horror and disaster movies have historically thrived. They allow us humble movie-goers to face our fears, embodied in randomised acts of terror and impotent protection agencies. CLOVERFIELD is a perfect exemplar of this. A big beastie stomps through Manhattan, knocking the head off the Statue of Liberty, chewing up Brooklyn Bridge and generally indulging in Godzilla-like craziness. The film-makers don't attempt to explain how the beastie came into being - and they wisely choose to show it only fleetingly. They do, however, skirt very close to the line in echoing iconic and disturbing 9/11 imagery. In an early scene, New Yorkers are seen stumbling through wreckage, white with plaster dust, scraps of paper tossed by the wind. Later, a heroine will be trapped in twin towers. Note that as daring as the film-makers are in echoing 9/11, the beastie remains considerate enough of studio financing schedules to terrorise beautiful people. Despite this, you have to give credit to the film-makers for spending some time to let us get to know the protagonists and to believe that they care enough about each other to risk danger to come to each other's aid.

CLOVERFIELD works fine as a post 9/11 update of the Godzilla story. Producer JJ Abrams and director Matt Reeves create a real sense of menace and fear if not outright scares. But the movie has a flaw: it gave me motion sickness
. Now I get that director Matt Reeves was going for a gonzo hand-held reportage look. It's a laudable aim. But all this crap about "authenticity" and "credibility" is under-cut by his America's Next Top Model casting decisions. So, dear film-makers, cut the pretentious filming style already. Make a great movie that feels authentic and credible by all means. Cast people who look real, use a grungy shooting style, but you don't actually need to make me ill.

CLOVERFIELD is on release in the US, Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Russia, Singapore, Thailand, the Netherlands, Peru, Portugal, South Korea, Estonia, Iceland, Latvia, the Philippines, Germany, Israel and Canada. It opens in Bulgaria, Denmark, Italy, Mexico, Poland, Spain, the UK, Belgium, France, Argentina, Brazil, Norway, Sweden, Hungary and Finland in February. It opens in Turkey on March 21st and in Japan on April 5th.
*Giuseppe from EC2 asks, via e-mail, what "rozzers" are. They are policeman, but the implication is, corrupt policeman. Also known as The Fuzz, Pigs, The Filth and The Sweeney.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

LA Diary Day 2 - RAMBO - a short film about mutilation

Back to the Arclight for the fourth movie in the iconic and wonderfully mindless RAMBO franchise. Actually, that's a little unfair. The first Rambo movie was a rather moving, if violent, drama. A Vietnam vet called John Rambo is haunted by memories of war and cannot adjust to civilian life. He's picked up as a drifter by hick police, tortured and then hunted to (apparent) death. Rambo may have been a ridiculously tooled-up McGuiver figure, but he was also a credibly angst-ridden war hero. There was real substance to the film. The second and third films in the franchise were very meagre affairs by comparison. The ridiculous body-count went up and the movies almost parodied themselves. I grew up watching Rambo as a cheap thrill - a B-movie classic, if you will.

This new installment follows the sad trajectory of the earlier two movies. The plot is practically non-existent, and the run-time is almost insultingly short. Rambo is a cynical snake-catcher and boatsman in Thailand (I kid you not!) He's hired by a bunch of American evangelists to take them into Burma. Rambo refuses at first, but changes his mind when an inadequately pretty woman flutters her eyelashes at him. As if by magic (or the power of the Holy Spirit, for all the movie tells us) Rambo becomes a caring sharing do-gooder. Unless you're a Burmese pirate, in which case he's going to strangle you with his bare hands until blood oozes between his fingers and the flesh is ripped from your throat.

Yes yes. There may be no actual plot, character, credibility, production quality but there is CRAZY violence. Not crazy as in Tarantino or Korean extreme, cartoon violence but crazy as in multiple realistic-ish shots of bullets tearing into flush and bombs ripping off limbs. It's relentless and filmed in a straightforward manner that it is rather disturbing. It's all the more disturbing because Stallone chooses to use real footage of Burmase attrocities to open the film.

So, RAMBO is not a great action film and it doesn't return to the quality of the first movie in the franchise. Perhaps the best thing I can say about it is that it skips along at a rapid pace so you're unlikely to be actively bored. In addition, Graham McTavish does a good impression of a moaning London taxi driver, which is quite diverting.

Fans of lurid violence will be pleased to see a whole bunch of people get mutilated, not least Sylevestor Stallone, whose old, pumped-up body, throbbing with rip-cord veins, looks like a grotesque act of self-mutilation.

RAMBO is already on release in the US, Oman, the Philippines, Croatia, Greece, Israel, Kuwait, Russia, Singapore, Indonesia and Norway. It opens in Estonia, Iceland, Spain, Belgium, France, Argentina, Germany, Australia, the Netherlands, the UK, New Zealand and Denmark in February. It opens in Poland and Sweden in March; in Venezuela in April and in Japan in May.

Monday, January 28, 2008

LA diary day 1 - THERE WILL BE BLOOD

There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking. I want to earn enough money that I can get away from everyone. Right now LA is sunny but cold and I'm in town for a few days on business. It's a perfect chance to check out some historic cinemas and some new releases that haven't made it to the UK yet. It's perfect testament to the almost visceral impact of THERE WILL BE BLOOD that I was transfixed by it, despite the fact that I'd just come off a 13 hour flight and was running on nearly 24 hours without sleep. (In fairness, the fact that the Arclight on Sunset Boulevard is super-plush, has killer hot dogs and great coffee also helped, and I was pleasantly surpised to see I was paying just $12 as opposed to $25 in London! Seriously, thanks to the dollar depreciation stuff in LA is basically free now.)

Paul Thomas Anderson's new film is, like 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS, a movie that leaves you breathless with its completeness of vision. Every single aspect of the movie has been carefully thought out and the complete work fills you with renewed excitement about the power of the medium. The cinematography, by long-term collaborator Robert Elswit, is great. Just look at the scene where Day-Lewis is silhouetted against burning oil wells at dusk. The production design places us authentically in the grit and grime of the California oil rush of the early 1900s. More than all of this, technically, the supreme achievement of this film is it's sound design. Jonny Greenwood of RADIOHEAD fame provides a score that feels like Ligetti or Bartok. It's insistent, dissonant and jarring, and almost replaces dialogue as the explanatory aural medium for the film.

Daniel Day-Lewis lives and breathes the enigmatic oil man Daniel Plainview. He advertises himself as a plain speaking family man bringing riches to the poor farmers. In reality he is a misanthrope and arch-manipulator. He speaks with an accent from a history book - some say modelled on John Huston. He is mesmerising. The first fifteen minutes of the film see Plainview find his first mineral mine, and then bringing his first wells on-line. There is little dialogue. Plainview seems to succeed by pure force of will, and brutally brushes of any accidental deaths inherent in the dangerous business of prospecting.

After this prologue we meet Plainview in 1911 as he charms his way into ownership of vast oil reserves. He meets his nemesis in a young kid with delusions of being a faith healer. Paul Dano plays Eli Sunday as an irritating over-confident nuisance. Some critics have complained that he doesn't provide a meaty enough foil for Plainview but I disagree. It's fascinating that Plainview is too mean to allow this small irritant to persist and thrive. His sense of reason bristles at the ludicrous church services. But more importantly, his ego cannot cope with another man absorbing the people's interest. The feebleness of Eli Sunday also makes the scene where Plainview beats the crap out of him even more powerful and pathetic.

As for Paul Dano, maybe he was thrust into the role of Eli Sunday with too little preparation time. Maybe his scenes preaching aren't quite convincing. Does he really have the charisma to make us believe that he would found a church? But for every weak scene there's a great scene. One of the best is when the bullied preacher turns on his own father and becomes a bully himself.

If Dano's casting is one problem, I can imagine the final episode of this film striking some as over-the-top and ridiculous. By that point, I was so suckered into this world that I bought every second of it. And I think that is Anderson's real achievement here. He has created a world that seems alien and brutal and that is filled with characters from the Inferno. And yet, it is depicted with such conviction you can't help but take it to heart.

THERE WILL BE BLOOD played Toronto 2007 and will play Berlin 2008. It opened in the US in 2007 and opens in February 2008 in Austrlia, Germany, Portugal, Austria, Brazil, Estonia, Italy, Norway, the UK, Belgium, Argentina, Greece, Portugal, Russia, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, France and the Netherlands.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Outstanding drama marred by mis-judged ending - No! Not NO COUNTRY but IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH!

IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH is an obscure title for a deeply impressive and relevant film. It is about the impact of the Iraqi war on the boys fighting there and the families they leave behind. To that end, it covers similar ground to Brian de Palma's brutal, gonzo movie REDACTED and James C Strouse's delicate, mournful GRACE IS GONE. I think it's interesting that all of these films try to diffuse accusations of liberal bias by featuring characters who would call themselves conservative and pro-war. They are all forced to re-assess their attitudes to the Iraqi war by being pushed up close to it.

In IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH, a retired military officer called Hank Deerfield investigates the disappearance and then death of his younger son near a military base. He guilt-trips a local police officer called Emily into helping him. The movie has the superficial appearance of a police procedural but writer-director Paul Haggis isn't particularly interested in crafting a thriller. The investigation is a means for Hank and Emily to see first-hand how young men are transformed by their participation in a war being fought with only the trappings of traditional rules of engagement. They return home brutalised, their moral boundaries blurred. Formerly clean-cut young men become drug users; women are commodities. Despite self-medication, violence is only ever just beneath the surface.

Haggis' script is patient, well-observed and discreet. He never over-plays the situation. Charlize Theron's police officer deals quietly with sexual discrimation. Susan Sarandon's grieving mother is angry but not hysterical. Tommy Lee Jones' grieving father starts to crack with infinitesimal movements. It's a devestating performance.

The only problem with the film - but a fatal one - is the final set-piece. Haggis can't resist forcing a simplistic message onto his audience. It's a message that throws the careful balance of the rest of the film off kilter. And it's a gesture that seems quite out of keeping with the buttoned-down character of Hank Deerfield, despite the journey he's been on.

IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH played Venice and Toronto 2007 and was released in the US, Greece, Taiwan, Israel, France, Turkey, Italy, Romania and Singapore in 2007. It is currently on release in Latvia, Estonia, Mexico, Lebanon, Fiji, Finland, Spain, Portugal and the UK. It opens next week in the Netherlands and Russia. It opens later in February in Belgium, Denmark and Norway and ppens in Argentina and Germany on March 6th. It opens in Japan on April 12th.

Friday, January 25, 2008

I just don't get why everyone's raving about THE SAVAGES

Wendy and John Savage are self-involved middle-aged siblings, estranged from their father. When he's diagnosed with dementia, they put him in a nursing home. Wendy suffers from guilt and sentimentalises everything. John is more rational, on the surface at least.

This film was sold to me as bleakly comic, bravely unsentimental, a showcase for two outstanding performances from Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Well, I found the script superficial, irritatingly earnest, dismally slow-paced and basically boring. Writer-director Tamara Jenkins' treatment of the impact of mental illness on close family is a very poor relation to Sarah Polley's infinitely superior AWAY FROM HER. Comedy? What comedy? Philip Seymour Hoffman in a neck brace? Please. Which brings me to Laura Linney's apparently Oscar-worthy performance. All I can say is that there was nothing exciting here. Nothing that moved me. Nothing that will stay with me. Even Philip Seymour Hoffman, an actor to whom I ascribe generally god-like status, is lacklustre here. The production values are also terrible. Just look at the lighting and picture quality when they're filming scenes in ill-lit bedrooms or on motel balconies at dusk.

I just don't get what all the fuss is about.

THE SAVAGES played Sundance, Toronto and London 2007. It opened in the US in 2007 and is currently on release in Singapore and the UK. It opens in Sweden, Belgium, France and Spain in February. It opens in Norway in March and in Italy and Germany in April.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Overlooked DVD of the month - 1408

In age of tired torture porn and CGI ghouls it's nice to be able to kick it old school with this psychological horror from maestro Stephen King and director Mikael Hafstrom. John Cusack carries the movie as sceptical writer Mike Enslin. He checks into room 1408 at New York's fictional but suitably gothic Dolphin Hotel. Enslin hopes to experience the terror that has haunted the room since 1912. Hotel manager Samuel L Jackson tries to hold him back - and if SLJ is scared you know bad shit is just around the corner. Soon enough, King/Hafstrom start unleashing old fashioned hauntings, poltergeists and general spookiness. There are a couple of decent twists and some nice scope for the audience to interpret events as they wish. True, the movie could easily have been around 20 minutes shorter, but it was wonderful to see a horror film that had been designed with care and intelligence. The production design is exceptional - amazingly I never tired of the fact that all the action boiled down to one guy in a hotel room. I also loved Gabriel Yared's score.

1408 was released in summer 2007 and is available on DVD.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Pantheon movie of the month - THE LADY VANISHES

THE LADY VANISHES may be less well regarded than PSYCHO and VERTIGO, but for my money it is Alfred Hitchcock's most entertaining film by far. It's equal parts thriller, romance, social comedy and political allegory. Hitchcock packs more into ninety minutes, and with more art and skill, than most film-makers can shake a stick at.

The movie was originally released in 1938 and comes from Hitchcock's English period. The story will be familiar to those of you who watched the recent Jodie Foster thriller FLIGHTPLAN. A beautiful young woman called Iris is travelling back to England from an unspecified Central European country. She is befriended by a little old woman called Mrs Froy. Iris wakes from a nap to find that Mrs Froy has disappeared. She wants to stop the train and have it searched, but none of the passengers recall seeing Mrs Froy. Is Iris delusional, or is she the victim of a sinister conspiracy?

The surprise is that, in sharp contrast with FLIGHTPLAN, the movie isn't really about whether or not Iris has imagined Mrs Froy. It is made very clear early on that Mrs Froy exists. There are three other things going on with this movie that take it beyond a simple thriller. First off, we have a brilliant romantic-comedy that pre-dates WHEN HARRY MET SALLY and all those films where two beautiful people can't stand each other so much they fall in love! Michael Redgrave, in his debut film role, is absolutely charming as the dashing hero, Gilbert, and Margaret Lockwood is suitably pretty as his reluctant lover. Better still, they have real chemistry and the dialogue, from Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, is wickedly funny.

Gilbert: Come on, sit down, take it easy. What's the trouble?
Iris Henderson: If you must know, something fell on my head.
Gilbert: When, infancy?

Gilbert: Can I help?
Iris Henderson: Only by going away.
Gilbert: No, no, no, no. My father always taught me, never desert a lady in trouble. He even carried that as far as marrying Mother.

Second, Hitchcock uses the concept of the Englishman travelling abroad to satirise English attitudes to foreigners, causing a fuss, drinking tea and, most dear to my heart, cricket! It's wonderfully funny to modern ears to hear British people exclaim, "They can't treat us like this: we're British subjects!" Or for Michael Redgrave to exclaim at an Italian's garlic breath.

Finally, one can read the movie as a profound political allegory. A cosmopolitan group of Europeans are presented with a pressing evil. A few choose to act upon the knowledge because they think it's right and damn the consequences. Most know exactly what's happening but refuse to act for petty personal reasons. Even in extremis, when most are stirred into action, there is still a man who claims it's pointless to resist such overwhelming force and wants to surrender to the enemy. It does not take a wild leap of imagination to see this as a comment on appeasement.

So you can watch THE LADY VANISHES for all sorts of reasons. It holds up well - it's fast-paced, it's got thrills and spills, and it's got depth. But the best reason to see it is that it's Hitchcock's funniest and most entertaining films Indeed, the movie spawned a comedy duo called Charters and Caldicott - the acerbic cricket-loving Englishmen - that went on to star in other movies and even had their own radio show!

THE LADY VANISHES was originally released in 1938. It is currently on re-release in the UK. It is widely available on DVD.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

ACADEMY AWARDS 2008 - they messed up the Best Foreign Language nominations as badly as Bernanke is fucking up US monetary policy

'Oscar winner George Clooney, sexiest man alive 1997, Batman, died today in a freak accidentThe Oscar noms are out. Glad to see ATONEMENT and SWEENEY TODD kicked back a notch, but will someone please explain to me why anyone playing Queen Elizabeth I gets an automatic nod? Shame not to see Josh Brolin get a nod for NO COUNTRY and CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR not get a screenplay nod. On the upside, it's great to see some love for SURF'S UP. On the whole, no really glaring errors until we get to the Foreign Language Oscar. The flawed DIE FAELSHER gets nominated but not 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS?! The voters need to beaten in the stomach with heavy branches so that they piss blood for the appropriate period for that one. For what it's worth (hardly the candle) you can see my picks here.

Best Motion Picture: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Paul Webster, ATONEMENT; Sydney Pollack, Jennifer Fox, Kerry Orent, MICHAEL CLAYTON; Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Scott Rudin, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN; Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Lupi, JoAnne Sellar, THERE WILL BE BLOOD; Lianne Halfon, Mason Novick, Russell Smith, JUNO.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture:

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Drama:
Julie Christie, AWAY FROM HER; Cate Blanchett, ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE; Marion Cotillard, LA MOME; Laura Linney, THE SAVAGES; Ellen Page, JUNO.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture:

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture:
Cate Blanchett, I'M NOT THERE; Ruby Dee, AMERICAN GANGSTER; Saoirse Ronan, ATONEMENT; Amy Ryan, GONE BABY GONE; Tilda Swinton, MICHAEL CLAYTON.

Best Director - Motion Picture:
Julian Schnabel, THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY; Paul Thomas Anderson, THERE WILL BE BLOOD; Joel and Ethan Coen, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN; Jason Reitman, JUNO; Tony Gilroy, MICHAEL CLAYTON.

Best Original Screenplay:
Brad Bird, Jan Pinkava, Jim Capobianco, RATATOUILLE; Tamara Jenkins, THE SAVAGES; Tony Gilroy, MICHAEL CLAYTON; Nancy Oliver, LARS AND THE REAL GIRL; Diablo Cody, JUNO.

Best Adapted Screenplay:
Joel and Ethan Coen, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN; Christopher Hampton, ATONEMENT; Sarah Polley, AWAY FROM HER; Ronald Harwood, THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY; Paul Thomas Anderson, THERE WILL BE BLOOD.

Best Cinematography:

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Crimes Against Cinema 3: THE GOOD NIGHT

It's not that I don't appreciate what you've done, but in this business, it's not courage that counts. It's nepotism that's important.Debutant writer-director Jake Paltrow pisses on the memory of the Ealing Comedies from a great height with his alleged rom-com, THE GOOD NIGHT. Paltrow audaciously chews up great movies like VANILLA SKY and THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP and spits out an uneven, mis-judged movie filled with insufficiently drawn characters. Martin Freeman of THE OFFICE fame does his usual schtick as a disenchanted middle-aged sell out. In this instance, he's bored by his long-time squeeze (Gwyneth Paltrow) and fantasising about a perfect women in his dreams (Penelope Cruz.) Before you get all excited, the movie takes a left turn at WEIRD SCIENCE and ends up in dulls-ville. Freeman meets the women who inspired his sub-conscious fantasies and, guess what, she's not so perfect in reality. Gee whiz, who knew?! And as for Simon Pegg's supporting role, after RUN FATBOY RUN and BIG NOTHING, he needs to go and stand in the corner and think very carefully about what he's done.

THE GOOD NIGHT played Sundance 2007 and opened in Russia, Greece, the US and Israel in 2007. It is currently on release in the UK and opens next weekend in South Korea.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Crimes Against Cinema 2: WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY

Please stop that! That was the worst number you could've started out with!WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY is a deeply unfunny spoof of portentious rock-star biopics like WALK THE LINE, RAY and DREAMGIRLS. Instead of intelligently ridiculing the genre, it lazily re-creates key moments and relies on audience recognition to raise a chuckle. And if all else fails, why not resort to something as crude as full frontal male nudity? The only sketch that is remotely funny is when the Beatles, here played by Jack Black, Paul Rudd, Jason Schwartzman and Justin Long, have a punch up in the Maharishi's tent. Other than that, the sketches are pretty obvious and lame. How funny is it to hear Dewey's dad say "the wrong kid died" a million times? The only thing that saves this flick from the seventh circle of hell is the music. The lyrics are spot on and John C Reilly is absolutely brilliant in his pastiches of everyone from Cash to Dylan.

WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY is currently playing in USA, South Korea and the UK. It opens in Australia later in January and in Iceland, Singapore and Germany in February. It opens in Belgium, Sweden, Spain, Turkey, Russia and Italy in March and in Norway, Argentina, Estonia and Finland in April.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Crimes Against Cinema 1: P.S. I LOVE YOU

Woefully unfunny, cringeworthy when it attempts to be romantic: P.S. I LOVE YOU defines all that is piss-poor in the rom-com genre. Hilary Swank is hopelessly miscast as an uptight American widow who travels to Ireland on the say-so of her dead husband and finds a new love. The concept of a woman being directed by her dead lover is plain weird for a start, and when it's not being creepy it's being irritatingly mawkish. Just because you can play drama does not mean you can play comedy, and Swank is unsympathetic in a role that even Jennifer Aniston might have made something of. Gerard Butler of 300 fame may well have been fine in his role but I was too busy feeling embarassed for him to notice. This movie is to heart-warming feel-good movies what salmonella was to Edwina Currie's political career.

P.S. I LOVE YOU was released in the Czech Republic, Hungary, the Netherlands, Ireland, the USA and Australia in 2007. It is currently on release in South Korea, Brazil, Estonia and the UK. It opens in Greece, Germany and Norway in January and opens in Finland, Belgium, Egypt, France, Sweden, Russia, Singapore, Slovakia, Turkey and Argentina in February. It opens in Italy on March 7th 2008.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

DAN IN REAL LIFE - Two words: Pig Face

Love is not a feeling, Mr. Burns. It's an ability.Peter Hedges is a screenwriter who has an uncanny ability to write about real life and real relationships in a way that you can relate to, that touches you, but isn't mawkish. After brilliant adaptations of WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE? and ABOUT A BOY, and a really great indie drama called PIECES OF APRIL, he returns to the screen as writer-director of DAN IN REAL LIFE.

This new movie is a far more conventional, mainstream effort than his previous work. The story is familiar to rom-com fans, not least to those of us who sat through the vastly inferior THE FAMILY STONE. Basically a man falls in love at first sight with the one woman he can't have - his brother's new girlfriend. Watch them squirm through the family weekend! Watch true love win despite the initial anger of the betrayed! In this case we have Steve Carrell playing an earnest, heart-broken widower and father of three called Dan Burns. He's basically just a warm, funny, messed up guy - who wouldn't fall in love with him?! And so he meets-cute with a woman called Marie, played by Juliette Binoche. Marie is basically apparently a 100% Peaches and Cream wonderful women. Problem is, she's dating the younger brother, Mitch, played by Dane Cook.

The script has a few problems. I don't understand why these two seemngly perfect people would be alone in the first place. I also don't really buy into how quickly Dan's parents, kids and brother forgive him in the end. And as for the production, I thought Juliette Binoche was mis-cast. It's not so much that she can't play comedy but that she, Carrell and Cook make such odd pairings. There's simply no chemistry.

Set against all of this, DAN IN REAL LIFE is refreshingly real, occasionally very funny, and features a wonderful cameo from Emily Blunt. Most of all, Steve Carrell really has the sympathetic loser character down pat. He's totally infringing on Greg Kinnear's territory, but he's so winning you just have to forgive him! So, on balance, I guess I'd have to recommend DAN IN REAL LIFE. It's not as good as ABOUT A BOY but if I stumbled upon it on TV I'd find it hard to switch channels.

DAN IN REAL LIFE opened in the US, Iceland, Russia, Greece, Israel, Russia Greece, Israel and Slovenia in 2007. It is currently playing in Singapore and the UK. It opens in Australia next weel and in Norweay amd Spain in February. It opens in Sweden, Belgium, France, Germany and Italy in March and in the Netherlands in April 2008.

Monday, January 14, 2008

GOLDEN GLOBES 2008 - Voters pick superficial luxe over profundity shock the results are in without the usual fashionista hoopla. No wardrobe malfunctions, gushing acceptance speeches or interminable TV shows. Am I the only one who thinks it was all rather more civilised? As far as the results, obvious concerns about the hype surrounding ATONEMENT and lack of gongs for NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and the undoubted film of the year, 4 MONTHS, 3 YEARS and 2 DAYS. Seems like the voters have picked a movie dripping with superficial class (period costumes, country houses, showy single-take shot) over movies with more profundity and genuine directorial vision. Also, slightly puzzled to see the mis-directed SWEENEY TODD win out over JUNO in the Comedy gongs. Still, I am very pleased to see Julie Christie, Marion Cotillard and Cate Blanchett get recognition in the Best Actress categories. For what it's worth (hardly the candle) you can see my picks here.


Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy:

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Drama:
Daniel Day-Lewis, THERE WILL BE BLOOD; George Clooney, MICHAEL CLAYTON; James McAvoy, ATONEMENT; Viggo Mortensen, EASTERN PROMISES; Denzel Washington, AMERICAN GANGSTER.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Drama:
Julie Christie, AWAY FROM HER; Cate Blanchett, ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE; Jodie Foster, THE BRAVE ONE; Angelina Jolie, A MIGHTY HEART; Keira Knightley, ATONEMENT.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy:

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy:
Marion Cotillard, LA MOME; Amy Adams, ENCHANTED; Nikki Blonsky, HAIRSPRAY; Helena Bonham Carter, SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET; Ellen Page, JUNO.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture:

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture:
Cate Blanchett, I'M NOT THERE; Julia Roberts, CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR; Saoirse Ronan, ATONEMENT; Amy Ryan, GONE BABY GONE; Tilda Swinton, MICHAEL CLAYTON.

Best Director - Motion Picture:

Best Screenplay:
Joel and Ethan Coen, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN; Christopher Hampton, ATONEMENT; Aaron Sorkin, CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR; Ronald Harwood, THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY; Diablo Cody, JUNO.

Best Original Song - Motion Picture:

Best Original Score:

Best Animated Film:

Best Foreign Language Film:

Sunday, January 13, 2008

BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD - superb performances wasted on a thin script

Director Sidney Lumet of SERPICO and DOG DAY AFTERNOON fame returns to the screen with an emotional melodrama centred around a caper gone wrong. Two brothers - both in debt, resentful of each other and suffering failed marriages - decide to rob their parents store. The heist goes wrong, the mother dies and they are threatened with blackmail. Andy, the elder, dominant brother, decides to rob his drug-dealer in a last-ditch attempt to set the accounts straight but, this being your typical caper gone wrong plot, he only escalates matters. Pretty soon, we're sinking in murder, betrayal and seven shades of shit-creek.

The plot structure of this film is predictable and thin. Writer Kelly Masterson tries to make it seem more interesting by using a non-linear over-lapping Rashomon type structure. It's all gimmick, no balls. The production quality is pretty lousy too. DP Ron Fortunato doesn't light the interior scenes properly and the DV print is of poor quality. Pretty much the only thing I liked was Carter Burwell's score. But all this is just about offset by some particularly fine perfomances in front of the camera, not least from Philip Seymour Hoffman as the impotent, smack-addict, thieving cuckold. He deserves gongs for this performance, CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR or both. It's just a shame that the story couldn't have been as credible and fresh as his performance.

BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD played Toronto 2007 and was released in France, the US, Taiwan and Russia in 2007. It is currently on release in the UK and opens later in January in Belgium and Sweden. The movie opens in Portugal, Argentina, Spain and Norway in February and opens in the Netherlands on April 3rd.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR - funny/scary morality tale

You know you've reached rock bottom when you're told you have character flaws by a man who hanged his predecessor in a military coup.CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR is whip-smart, viciously funny and scarily based in fact. Wilson was the Republican Congressman who channelled monumental sums of money to the Afghan militias fighting the Soviet Union in the 1980s. In doing so, he forced the Soviets to retreat ignominiously and precipitated the fall of the USSR and the end of the Cold War. But as Wilson realises in the moment of his greatest triumph, "we fucked up the endgame." By pulling funding as soon as the fighting stopped - y refusing to rebuild Afghanistan - the US left a power vacuum that was filled by all those CIAl-trained Islamists, armed to the teeth by Charlie. They went on to wreak havoc in Afghanistan, and later, the world.

The movie is brilliantly funny, thanks to an incisive, ballsy script from Aaron "West Wing" Sorkin and the fundamentally scoundrelous subject matter. The paradoxes abound. Wilson is a Republican Congressman from Texas, expert at wheedling favours out of Committee-men, but he's also a womanising, cocaine-snorting, whisky-swilling good-time boy. Wilson has the private morals of a skunk but he's curiously good to his word when it comes to the big stuff. He does what he promises and he's intelligent enough to feel the tragedy of his Committee's refusal to fund a reconstruction. That's why Tom Hanks is perfectly cast here. He's made a career out of being charming and decent, so that even when he's sleazing around a hot-tub you still love him. Wilson is matched pound for pound by all-time scoundrelous CIA agent and bad-ass Gust Avrakotos. Philip Seymour Hoffman's is on top form as the angry, devil-may-care but politically astute CIA fixer who finds his ultimate sugar daddy in Wilson. The only down-side is that, chaps aside, the women in this flick get short thrift. Julia Roberts is magestic and menacing as the Christian fundamentalist fund-raiser Joanna Herring but you never really understand why a Texan socialite would become obsessed with Asian politics. Amy Adams and Emily Blunt are wasted in small roles as Wilson's PA and mistress.

Some critics have complained that there isn't enough politics in this movie. Specifically, that the script does not explicitly show the impact of Wilson's war on the Soviets occupying Afghanistan, or the way in which the arms and training fuelled Jihadists that ended up in the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Iraq. Frankly, I think they're missing the point. We all know the grim repurcussions of the Afghani war. We're living with them. It's far more incisive to see how that sad misadventure began. And frankly, it's a lot more entertaining.

CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR was released in the US in 2007 and is currently playing in the UK, Greece, Kuwait, Japan, Portugal and Greece. It opens later in January in Belgium, France, Iceland, Argentina, Australia, the Netherlands and South Korea. The film opens in February in Estonia, Italy, Mexico, Norway, Sweden, Venezuela, Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland, Turkey, Slovakia, Spain, Egypt, Singapore and Brazil. It opens in Russia on April 24th 2008.

Friday, January 11, 2008

SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET - bizarre directorial decisions weaken a visually stunning film

An odd experience on Friday night - finally getting to see one of my cinema-heroes, Tim Burton, do a Q&A at a point where I was starting to lose faith in him. I was coming to terms with the fact that SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET had left me underwhelmed. I was wondering if Burton, like Wes Anderson and Kevin Smith, was joining the league of directors delivering diminishing returns. When Tim Burton first came to our attention he was doing something radically different. He was creating fables, even if they were set in contemporary America. He was creating slushy romances set against a bitter, twisted and hateful world. And when he took teen heart-throb Johnny Depp and mutiltated his face in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, he was radically altering our perception of the actor.

The years have passed by and we have seen Burton express his fascination with dark comedy, thwarted love and expressionistic horror films in myriad form. We've seen stop-motion animation, period horror stories and re-made children's novels. Now, with SWEENEY TODD, we get a musical. But in every case, the movies are very direct, unfiltered expressions of Burton's world. The heroines will have long blonde hair set in waves and almost white-blonde eye-brows. No matter which period the source material was set in, you are most likely going to see women in corsets and men in stocks and frock coats. Johnny Depp, the ominpresent hero, will have slightly crazy wavy hair. The photography will feature chiaroscuro lighting and an expressionistic use of colour, where it appears. Our thwarted lovers will finally be united but not after a couple of hours toiling against the world's mis-deeds. The humour will be dark - the orchestral score from Danny Elfman - rich and dominant. All these factors are distinctly Burton. I don't think he can make a movie any other way and be faithful to his interests and particular talent. But I have to say that I am becoming, well, a little bored by it.

SWEENEY TODD is a case in point. Johnny Depp looks like an older version of Ichabod Crane - the costume is the same - the only change a white stripe in his hair and rouge-noir under his eyes. Jayne Wisener, who plays Todd's grown-up daughter Johanna (badly, I mght add), is a dead ringer for Katrina Van Tassel. All the other characters and sets are dressed in an indistinct Burton-land - a sort of vague Victorian stock-horror look. The result is that the film doesn't feel new and interesting, even though the costume and production design is evidently brilliant. Another side-effect of Burton's choices is that the movie doesn't feel as though it's set in London. Sure, you see St Paul's on the sky-line now and again, but there is no respect for the topography of the area or the peculiarity of Victorian London. Fleet Street, and Mrs Lovett's pie-shop are less claustrophobic and squalid than one might imagine. All in all, the London of SWEENEY TODD looks like a more built up version of SLEEPY HOLLOW.

So the movie feels familiar. That wouldn't be so much of a problem if the framing and editing weren't also pretty weak. Too often, Burton and DP Dariusz Wolski created a beautiful tableau only to have the director/editor (Burton regular Chris Lebenzon) snap away in a jarring movement that destroys the mood. The final scene is a classic example of this. I also have problems with Burton's choices as a writer too. I'm all in favour of a slash-and-burn policy with regard to long musicals. I love that he cut out the Ballad of Sweeney Todd, which would have been an annoyingly didactic overture. But by refocusing the musical on Todd and, to a lesser extent, Mrs Lovett, Burton leaves his love story high and dry. For much of the film, I'd been bored to tears by the insipid Anthony (inspid performance too by Jamie Campbell Bower) blathering on about his Johanna, but all the same we were building toward an exciting confrontation. Johanna is hidden in a box in Todd's barber shop.

(SPOILERS till the next paragraph.) She discovers that Todd is a serial murderer and that he has just killed her guardian. She discovers that Todd is actually her father, Benjamin Baker, and that Barker was shipped off to Australia by a corrupt judge who then had his wicked way with her mother. Furthermore, she then discovers that her mother was alive until Todd just killed her! And now Todd is remorseful until he too has his throat slit. So, poor Johanna has just gone through an enormous revelation while sitting in the box in Todd's barber shop. Moreover, she has just run away to be with her Anthony. As boring as I found this character, and as annoying as I found the actress portraying her, it would have been nice to get her out of the box and give her some closure!

So much for the disappointments: what of the good? Well, despite all this grumbling, I did actually enjoy SWEENEY TODD for four simple reasons: first, Stephen Sondheim's score is brilliant and the lyrics very funny and very dark; second, Helena Bonham Carter is brilliant as the demented lover of an acknowledged murderer who bakes the corpses into pies; third, Johnny Depp is brilliant as Sweeney Todd, acting through his expressions rather than through words - his decent singing voice compensating for a dodgy British accent; fourth, Sacha Baron Cohen's scene-stealing performance as Italian barber Pirelli. (And take note, Depp fans, if you want to see a London accent done properly, the unmasked Pirelli is your benchmark.)

SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET opened in the US in December 2007. It opens in South Korea on January 17th; Japan on January 19th; France, Australia, Hungary, the Netherlands, Iceland, New Zealand, Turkey, the UK and Venezuala on January 24th; Hong Kong, Lebanon and Portugal on January 31st. It opens in Denmark, Greece, Singapore, Slovakia, Brazil, Egypt, Argentina, Estonia, Finland, Spain, Germany, Swizterland, Italy, Norway, Sweden and Belgium in February. It opens in Russia on March 6th.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Coen Bros. return to form with NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

Aw, hells bells. They even shot the dog!NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is a beautifully crafted, darkly comic thriller adapted by the Coen Brothers from an acerbic novel by Cormac McCarthy. A hick Texan called Llewelyn Moss stumbles on the aftermath of a drug deal gone horribly wrong and in a moment of weakness abandons a dying Mexican and absconds with a suitcase full of money. Problem is, a psychopathic murderer called Anton Chigurh is tracking the money and Moss, via a transponder stuck in the briefcase. Meanwhile, a decent old-fashioned copper, Ed Tom Bell, is trying to reach out to Moss via his wife Carla Jean. So the film is essentially about two men - a murderer and a thief - stalking each other through motels in small towns - and the impact of this gruesome hunt on a mild-mannered Sherriff. The violence is graphically depicted as is its aftermath. We feel every bullet wound and see every attempt to repair the human body. Watching blood ooze from Moss' body, or Chigurh jabbing lidocaine into his punctured leg - the impact on the audience is visceral. The tension is constant and intense. I can't remember a recent thriller where so much attention was paid to the shadows cast by madmen hiding behind doors. But what makes this such a unique film is the fact that the dialogue is so darkly funny. It's really impressive the way in which Cormac McCarhy and the Coen Brothers manage to bring out the quirkiness of Texan idiom without under-mining the general air of menace. Moreover, despite the fact that a lot of the characters speak and dress like the kind of stereotypes mocked in the Coen Bros.' O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU?, they are fully developed, magnetic characters. Tommy Lee Jones, who has so often played these Texan law officer parts, is particuarly sympathetic as the world-weary Sherriff, who simply cannot comprehend modern, random violence and prefers not to carry a gun. In an era of CSI, it's also refreshing to see an old-fashioned copper check out a scene and use good old-fashioned logic to work out what went wrong. Josh Brolin is a revelation as Llewelyn Moss. He's far more than just a dumb hick who got lucky - he's loyal, honest (after a fashion), resourceful and ballsy. Faced with a psychopath, he doesn't back down. He's a tremendously likeable character. However, I suspect the character that will become an icon is Javier Bardem's ultimate bad-ass, Anton Chigurh, with his laughable bowl-hair-cut; sinister, deadpan use of idiom; and quirky method of despatching locks and people alike.

All three actors are worthy of Best (Supporting) Actor nods. Indeed, it's a measure of how finely balanced this movie is that the movie seems to belong to all three actors equally. In genuinely supporting roles, Kelly Macdonald puts on a fine Texan ccent as Carla Moss and Woody Harrelson has a funny turn as a bounty hunter. Garret Dillahunt is also hysterically funny as the Sherriff's sidekick. In the end, though, it's the talent behind the camera that makes NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN the masterpiece that it is: in particular, Roger Deakins' attention to the framing and lighting of every shot and the Coen Bros. perfect marriage to the source material.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN could knock off every film on my Best of 2007 list bar 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS. Roger Deakins would certainly make the Best DP list and the Coen Bros. would make the Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director lists. This is a tremendous return to form for film-makers who stunned us with FARGO but slipped into mediocrity, ill-judgement and self-parody with INTOLERABLE CRUELTY and THE LADYKILLERS. And to those critics who hold back a little - and criticise the denouement of this film - I simply can't understand what they object to.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN played Cannes, Toronto and Vienna 2007 and was released in the USA in November 2007. It opens in the UK on January 18th in Belgium, France and Australia on January 23rd and in Argentina on January 31st. It opens in Brazil, Russia, Estonia, Mexico, Iceland, Portugal, Slovakia, Norway and Sweden in February 2008. It opens in Greece, Denmark, Finland, Spain, Turkey, Singapore, Japan and Italy in March and in Germany on April 10th.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Todd Haynes retrospective - SAFE

No! We wanted teal! We ordered teal!Todd Haynes' 1995 movie SAFE is one of the creepiest, most subversive films I have seen. It opens in perfectly manicured American suburbia - the home of the shag-pile carpet and the hostess trolley. Everything is perfect - almost too perfect. Sterile surfaces are photographed in perfectly symmetrical tableaux - coloured in bland pastel. Our protagonist is a housewife called Carol White. Julianne Moore plays her as a fragile woman, uneasy in her own skin. Her life is defined by her house and its furnishings and she exists to service the needs of her family.

Moments of black humour, satirising materialism, are flecked throughout this otherwise sinister and intense film. Just watch Carol's reaction when she realises her decorators have delivered the wrong coloured sofa! But for the most part this is a terrifying film. Carol develops non-specific illnesses. Is she really physically ill or are her allergic reactions a manifestation of a nervous disorder? Will her doctors and her family help her? Will she put herself forward for help? In the end, Carol scorns conventional therapy for a new-age centre for people sickened by the modern environment. In this final section, the movie shifts from a critique of bourgeois materialism and neuroses to a satire of new-age cults that cater to the whims of those willing to pay.

Haynes' film is notable for three reasons. First, as social critique it was remarkably prescient on the issues of environmental degradation and the rising tide of nameless fear whipped up by politicians and the media. In addition, one might read the movie as a parable about the irrational reaction to the rise of AIDS in the 1980s. The second reason why the film is notable is that it gave us a glimpse of Haynes' technical accomplishment - a facility that was to be expressed most fully in his homage to Douglas Sirk, FAR FROM HEAVEN. Finally, the film was a break-out role for Julianne Moore and foreshadows many of the roles she was later to become famous for. In her icy detachment and her self-imprisonment, Carol White is the precursor for Linda Patridge in MAGNOLIA and more particularly, of Laura Whitaker in FAR FROM HEAVEN and Laura Brown in THE HOURS. For all these reasons, and the sheer horror of this chilling thriller, SAFE remains a must-see movie.

SAFE opened in 1995 and is available on DVD.

Friday, January 04, 2008

LUST, CAUTION/SE, JIE - beautiful tragedy but less substantial than BROKEBACK

Pantheon director Ang Lee's new film LUST, CAUTION is a beautiful, erotic thriller set in war-threatened Hong Kong in 1938 and Japanese-occupied Shanghai in 1941. A student activist leads his amateur dramatics group in a plot to assassinate a high-level collaborator, Mr Yee. The group transforms a shy actress, Wong Chia Chi, into a sophisticated honey-trap called Mrs Mak. The movie unfolds at a leisurely pace, with Rodrigo Prieto's camera lingering over the luxuriant recreation of pre-occupation Hong Kong and war-torn Shanghai. The camera also lingers over the student leader Kuang as he gazes with admiration upon his creation. Wong Chia Chi slips easily enough into her new role. She takes a cigarette against her better judgement because she is told that is what actresses do. Almost as easily, she resigns herself to losing her virginity to a man she doesn't love, because that will make her experienced enough to deal with Mr Yee. The first hour of the movie slips by very quickly. Mr Yee falls for Mrs Mak, but it too cautious to act upon his lust. And then, all of a sudden Mr and Mrs Yee leave Hong Kong for Shanghai, and the plan has apparently come to nothing. Wong Chia Chi has sacrificed her virginity - and the students their political innocence - for nothing. Three years later and a mournful Wong Chia Chi is in occupied Shanghai. The resistance take her up as a means to get to Mr Yee once more. The relationship is facilitated easily enough but this only brings more problems. Mrs Mak has successfully broken Mr Yee's resistance, but he has also broken hers. They use each other completely in sex scenes that are depicted graphically and, I think, necessarily. As in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, two people have found a certain freedom with each other away from the strictures of social pressures and political risk. When Wong Chia Chi graphically describes her relationship with Mr Yee to an embarassed resistance leader, she is forcing him to confront the emotional danger she is. All of which leads to the ultimate question: will Mrs Mak and Mr Yee have the strength to betray each other - as their political roles require.

Ang Lee has crafted a beautiful movie of long lingering looks that lead to passionately expressed desires. The production is sterling. But, unlike BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, I think that the substance of the film - the dilemma at its heart - is insufficient to sustain the run-time and the weight of expectation generated by the slow build-up to the final act. Wei Tang certainly gives a subtle and convincing performance as Wong Chia Chi/Mrs Mak, but I've seen Tony Leung give more memorable performances - not least in IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. He also starred in INFERNAL AFFAIRS, which I thought better handled the issue of finding truth and forging relationships when under-cover.

LUST, CAUTION is a beautiful, tragic film and certainly worth watching. But the central relationship didn't capture my imagination and I certainly felt a little short-changed when I left the cinema. Would LUST, CAUTION have changed my Best Of 2007 had I seen it last year? Probably not.

LUST, CAUTION played Venice, where Ang Lee won the Golden Lion and Director of Photography, Rodrigo Prieto, won the Golden Osella. LUST, CAUTON also played Toronto, London and Vienna 2007. It was released in Taiwan, Hong Kong, the US, Singapore, Germany, the Philippines, Indonesia, South Korea, China, Turkey, Greece, Russia, Thailand and Spain in 2007. It is currently on release in the UK and Italy and opens in France, Australia, the Czech Republic, Iceland, Poland, the Netherlands and Belgium later in January. It opens in Denmark, Sweden, Argentina, Finland and Norway in February.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

THE KITE RUNNER - well-made Afghan drama

THE KITE RUNNER is a handsome adaptation of the best-selling novel by Khaled Hosseini. David Benioff's script cuts down the novel into three main episodes that encapsulate the story of two young boys whose friendship plays out against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1970s, and much later, the Taliban take-over. The first part sees two best friends playing with kites in Kabul. Amir is a cowardly, sensitive, privileged child. He is protected by his best friend Hassan, an illiterate, servant-boy from a tribe that is looked down upon. The two young actors playing these boys - Zekiria Ebrahimi and Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada - have real chemistry and you really believe in their friendship. This makes Amir's betrayal of Hassan all the more tragic. The betrayal is never resolved because Amir is smuggled out of Afghanistan with his father when the Russian's invade. We pick up the story when Amir is courting his wife-to-be in California. Khalid Abdalla and Atossa Leoni are convicingly gauche as the young couple but the real joy of this second segment is the acerbic wit of Amir's father (Homayoun Ershadi). It's also fascinating to get an insider's view of the Afghan community in the US. The third part of the film is the most dramatic and moving. Amir returns to Afghanistan under the Taliban to rescue his childhood friend's young son. Marc Forster and his production team recreate Talibani Afghanistan in the mountains of China and they are unsparing. We see an adulterous women stoned to death at a football match. It's quite amazing. You read of stoning in the Bible - as with all those stories it loses its punch with the re-telling - but you realise how radical and relevant the message of that story is when you realise that people are still subject to such ruthless punishment in contemporary society.

Fans of the novel may feel cheated by the necessary abridgement of its themes and content, but Forster and Benioff have produced a swift-paced, engrossing, well-acted and handsomely-produced film. It moves you, but perhaps more importantly, it gives you a glimpse of life in a country that is of key importance in modern politics.

THE KITE RUNNER is on release in the US, Australia and UK. It opens in the Netherlands, Mexico, Germany, Brazil, Norway, Argentina and Singapore in January. It opens in Denmark, Italy, Belgiu, France, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria, Iceland, Romania, Turkey and Finland in February. It opens n Spain, Taiwan and Thailand in March and in Japan on May 31st.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

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I'M NOT THERE - a daring conceit that mostly pays off

I accept chaos. I don't know whether it accepts me.I'M NOT THERE is Todd Haynes audacious attempt to make a film, not so much about Bob Dylan's life, as about the way in which Dylan himself manipulated his own image and was in turn manipulated by his fans and the press. Haynes tackles head-on the difficulty of creating a linear, neat biopic about a poet, musician and political icon, who shifted shape so often. Dylan often seemed deperate to make us realise how non-chalant he was of what we thought of him. He wanted to appear aloof and enigmatic. As a result, I get the feeling that Dylan is a paradox and a mystery. But not to the extent that he'd like us to believe! Haynes response to the tangled web of image, fact and manuipulation is to create a collage of scenes, both real and imagined. He takes on a surreal journey into Dylan's alter-egos. He recreates iconic documentary-footage and press conferences. Most notoriously, Haynes casts a number of actors to depict Dylan's various self-creations. He weaves their stories together, leaving the viewer to pick through the minefield of information and misinformation.

I admire the bravery of Haynes' concept and for the most part, I think it pays off. The young actor, Marcus Carl Franklin, is brilliant as Woody-Guthrie-Wannabe-Bob. This was the point where a middle-class Jewish boy with a lovely singing voice transformed himself into an Old Time blues singer, inspired by the laments of the Great Depression and the radicalism that came out of it. He transformed his voice, his name and his stance, in a manner that is as radical as having a teenage white man played by a pre-teen African-Amercan boy. In another incarnation we see the fantastically talented young British actor, Ben Whishaw, play Dylan the Poet. He's filmed face-on to the camera in black and white, explaining his stance on language, politics and poetry. He's already complaining about how slippery language and labels can be - a true post-modernist - and will return throughout the movie. Next up, we have Christian Bale as Acoustic-Folk-Bob, who latches onto the folk movement and takes it from an underground anti-establishment scene to the very heart of the mainstream. In faux-documentary footage, we see a Joan Baez type figure played by Julianne Moore tell us how quickly Dylan put himself in opposition to the movement, becoming cynical about its chances of success. We then have the radical break that will forever define Bob - his use of the electronic guitar and move from political songs to songs of personal experience. Cate Blanchett is note perfect (and painfully thin - intentionally?) as Electro-Bob. She plays Bob at his most scabrous, cynical, manipulative and spikey. It's glorious stuff. Finally, we revert back to Christian Bale as Born-Again-Bob.

All this material is superbly acted and filmed with a technical mastery of different types of film, lens and style. If Haynes had left it at that, he would have had a tightly-knit, fascinating film of about 90 minutes in length. The problem is that he adds two other "Bobs". The first is Actor-Bob who plays Folk-Bob in a movie. He's played by Heath Ledger - the least comvincing portrayal. Actor-Bob has a long set of scenes with Charlotte Gainsbourg playing his wife. I suppose the point of these scenes is to show us how cruel Dylan was to some of the women in his life. I thought this could have been more effectively portrayed by expanding the role of the Joan Baez figure in the Folk-Bob scenes. The second redundant Bob is Richard Gere's portryal of Bob as a Billy the Kid figure. Gere is fine in this role, but the segment seemed the most pointless, the most random and the least well though out.

I'M NOT THERE played Venice 2007 where Todd Haynes won the Special Jury Prize and Cate Blanchett won the Volpi Cup. It also played Toronto, London and Vienna 2007. It opened in Italy, the US, Denmarl. Canada, France, Finland, Belgium and the UK in 2007. It is currently on release in Israel and opens in Norway on January 18th. It opens in Austria on February 1st, Sweden on February 8th, Germany on February 28th, the Czech Republic on March 6th, the Netherlands on March 13th and Japan on May 17th 2008.