Monday, March 31, 2008

THE ORPHANAGE/EL ORFANATO - a supernatural thriller dripping with guilt

THE ORPHANAGE is a handsome, patient, supernatural thriller from debutant director Juan Antonio Bayona. A young mother returns to the orphanage in which she grew up, only to find that her own son has been abducted. She suspects a weird, fraudulent social-worker, and then connects her son's imaginary friends to the ghosts of the children she grew up with. In desperation she calls in a medium, only to tip her supremely rational husband into leaving her.

On one level, the movie plays a tense thriller that edges close to horror in a tour-de-force scene featuring Geraldine Chaplin as a medium sensing screaming children in a darkened house.

But the real heart of the movie lies in Belén Rueda's performance as the frightened, desperate, grief-stricken mother. Her performance, and indeed the entire film, drips in a sense of guilt and shame. The guilt of having been adopted and leaving behind her comrades; the guilt of whether she sufficiently loves her adopted child; the guilt of choosing to forget uncomfortable facts in her past.....

As I said, THE ORPHANAGE is a good movie. But the marketing campaign is rather misleading, playing as it does on Gulliermo del Toro's well-deserved reputation for richly imagined, genuinely horrific thrillers. THE ORPHANAGE is good but it's still some way off the sheer brutal horror of THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE let alone PAN'S LABRYNTH. Having said all that, it's definitely worth a look.

THE ORPHANAGE played Cannes, Toronto and Frightfest 2007. It opened in Sapin, Greece, Finland and the USA last year. It opened in Venezuela, Denmark, Colombia, Mexico, Germany, South Korea, Russia, Belgium, France, Hong Kong, Brazil, Iceland, Argentina and Norway earlier this year. It is currently on release in Singapore, the UK and the Netherlands. It is released on DVD in April.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Why does DRILLBIT TAYLOR exist?

Back in the 80s, John Hughes made a string of films that were brilliantly funny, tightly structured and perfectly articulated the anxiety of growing up in suburban America. His best movies - THE BREAKFAST CLUB; SIXTEEN CANDLES - didn't rely on the improbable plot devices. But even movies like WEIRD SCIENCE were firmly nailed to the ground with their honest depiction of adolescent sexual frustration. It was refreshing to see life from the point of view of the ordinary people - the anonymous mass rather than the pretty cheerleaders.

Since then, teen comedies have become a much impoverished genre - alternating between gross out spoofs for the guys and air-brushed love-stories for the girls. As for John Hughes, he became enmeshed in the depressingly mediocre HOME ALONE and BEETHOVEN franchises.

With THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN and KNOCKED UP, it looked like Judd Apatow might have inherited Hughes' ability to chronicle our anxieties with a healthy whollop of self-deprecating wit. These movies appealed to the generation reared on Hughes, now dealing with the transition from college grad to responsible adult.

No doubt Apatow and his frequent collaborator Seth Rogen are cresting a wave. The question is whether they are spreading themselves too thin and letting the quality of their projects suffer.

DRILLBIT TAYLOR is a case in point. Even roping in the legendary Hughes hasn't produced a tightly-plotted, consistently funny script. In fact, this film feels hastily assembled and overly-reliant on Owen Wilson's goofy smile. The plot is simple. Three geeks (Hughes-a-go-go!) hire a bodyguard (Wilson) to pose as a teacher and protect them from the school bully. But the bodyguard is really just a homeless scam-artist looking for a quick buck until his heart-of-gold (and bogus friends) get in the way.

There's no coming-of-age; no biting satire; no real jokes. Wilson is sweet; the geeks are sweet; everyone's rather lovely and it all ends well. The final point is this: DRILLBIT TAYLOR is not a bad film but it IS a deeply lazy, forgettable and mediocre film. Why does it need to exist at all?

DRILLBIT TAYLOR is currently on release in Australia, Canada, Mexico, the US, Belgium, Estonia and the UK. It opens in April in Russia, Argentina, Turkey, Iceland and Sweden. It opens in May in France, Denmark, Germany, Singapore and Spain. It opens in June in Finland, Norway and the Netherlands.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

ONCE - Brief Encounter for buskers

Fuck you batteriesONCE is a sweet, melancholy movie about a hesitant and unconsummated romance between two musicians living in contemporary (but roughed up) Dublin. Their emotional attachment is expressed through their music, which we see them rehearse, record and "montage" to. Musicians cum actors Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová do admirable work. They have clear chemistry and seem relaxed and natural in front of the camera. Director John Carey creates a feeling of intimacy with his unobtrusive long shots. It's also refreshing to see a story about two "normal" people connecting in seemingly everday circumstances. My only criticism is that while this film is already under 90 minutes, it could have been under 60 minutes. The movie is padded out with constant repetition of its famous, award-winning song, and frankly, I got a little bored by it.

ONCE pkayed Sundance, Dublin and Edinburgh 2007. It won an Oscar for Best Original Song and won the World Cinema Audience award at Sundance. It is now available on DVD.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Dullard DVD of the month - GOOD LUCK CHUCK

GOOD LUCK CHUCK is a piss-poor romantic comedy starring alleged stand up comedian Dane Cook and the not unattractive Jessica Alba. The set-up is ridiculous. Dane Cook plays a man who has been cursed. If a woman sleeps with him, she is bound to marry the next guy she dates. Apparently, this leads lots of credulous women to offer themselves to him, just so they can end up married - an absurd, and borderline misogynistic premise. Cook's character then meets a pretty girl played by Jessica Alba and has to work out how to date her, but stop marrying the next guy she meets.

Director Mark Helfrich eschews verbal witticisms in favour of physical humour. Now I have nothing against slapstick but this stuff is obvious and neither Cook nor Alba have the talent to pull it off. Neither do they have the chemistry to pull of a rom-com. As for Cook's comedy side-kick, Dan Fogler, that actor is rapidly becoming the Rob Schneider of his generation. Definitely one to avoid.

GOOD LUCK CHUCK was released in Autumn 2007 and is now available on DVD.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Overlooked DVD of the month - RAZZLE DAZZLE

If Chris Guest defines the spectrum of quality for mockumentaries, then RAZZLE DAZZLE lies somewhere below THIS IS SPINAL TAP and BEST IN SHOW but somewhere above FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION. By which I mean that RAZZLE DAZZLE is a brilliantly observed, witty addition to the genre. Director Darren Ashton sends up the world of children's dance contests, and with it the wider world of pushy parents, bitchy mentors and that business we call show. Given that popular culture has become infested with reality "talent" contests - super-ego judges and glossy dance routines, this movie couldn't have come at a better time.

British actor Ben Miller is superbly under-stated and dead-pan as the kind-hearted perpetual runner-up Mr. Jonathan. He shepherds his girls through insane routines that aim to entertain, but also to instruct. From the environment to the Taliban, Mr Jonathan has a routine to prick our conscience. Mr Jonathan comes up against Miss Elizabeth, a prim dance teacher who wants to win at all costs, and pushes her girls to perfection by way of anorexia and harsh rejection. Along the way to the state finals, we'll meet a rogue's gallery of recognisable but exaggerated characters but the real stars of the film are the costume designer, choreographer and young kids who pull off such absurdly brilliant dance routines.

RAZZLE DAZZLE does better than most mockumentaries in maintaining the fiction that this is real footage that captures people unawares. But there are just one or two over-the-shoulder shots that look too posed and not enough of the through-the-blinds camera-work that made THE OFFICE so credible. Still, for sheer wit and warm-hearted enjoyment, it's hard to beat.

RAZZLE DAZZLE played Berlin 2007 and was released in Australia, New Zealand, Irealand, the UK and Norway last year. It opened in January in france. It is now available on DVD.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

RACE - the superficial

RACE is a fantastically superficial, depressing and boring Bollywood action thriller. The film is characterised by hyper-glossy women; self-conscious slo-mo action shots; an ear-threateningly loud score; and a penchant to shoot all the stars as if they were in rap videos.

The brothers Burmwalla are best loved for their hit movie CHORI CHORI CHUPKE CHUPKE but have significantly amped up the stunts and the sex scenes since then. In this film they concoct a ludicrous tale about two feuding brothers who are both the subject of $100m life insurance policies. The brothers and their accomplicies scheme and plot to kill, defraud, bribe and triumph. They are aided by two hot chicks, and held up by a comedy double-act of coppers. The plot has so many implausible plot twists that the audience is long past caring well before the end. Still, giving credit where it's due, unlike some convoluted thrillers, the Burmwalla brothers do manage to tie up every loose end.

As we go from plot twist to plot twist we're kept busy by fast-paced, western-influenced dance numbers; some action scenes and a bit of light relief. The dance numbers are universally poor, both in terms of the songs and the choreography. Fans of Bipasha Basu will find no hit song to match "Beedi" here. And Katrina Kaif as the second hot chick is, as always, wooden and lacking in true dance ability. The action scenes are ambitious by Bollywood standards but car chases have been done better in movies like DHOOM. And overall, KRRISH had a more high-quality tech-package than RACE. Which brings us to the light relief. Johnny Lever - veteran comic actor of Indian cinema - is outstanding in his five-minute cameo. And Anil Kapoor is decent as the Columbo style cop. I even liked Sameera Reddy as his idiot side-kick.

Still, I can't help but thinking that RACE is a step back for Hindi cinema. All style but no substance and the abasement of actors better known for art-house work. In particular it's a shame to see Saif Ali Khan, who was so outstanding as the Iago character in the brilliant OMKARA, posing like a rapper. It's a shame to see Bipasha Basu, who also made a breakthrough as a serious actress in CORPORATE, take a step back to steamy love-scenes and being just a "body".

RACE is on release in India and the UAE.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

THE COTTAGE - do you wanna buy some pegs, Dave?

THE COTTAGE wants to be a gore-filled black comedy in the manner of the wickedly funny, horrifically scary SEVERANCE. [ah! do you remember when Danny Dyer was value-for-money entertainment?!] It starts off well. Under-stated opening. Tense atmosphere. Andy "Gollum" Serkis, Reece 'Papa Lazarou' Shearsmith and Steve 'Spudgun' O'Donnell showing real comic timing and chemistry. Two bickering brothers and their half-wit friend have kidnapped the local pimp's step-daughter. In true RUTHLESS PEOPLE style, the kidnappee runs rings round the kidnappers and soon the conspirators and the victim are running around the British countryside in the middle of the night, being chased down by a crazed yokel. Jennifer Ellison - a British Z-list "star" of day-time TV - lowers the tone with her one-note angry Scouser routine, though it's hard to know if this is merely a fault of the script. The bigger problem is that the movie is never scary enough to be labelled a horror flick. And it's really funny never funny enough to get a belly-laugh. Sadly, after THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN so successfully sent up the British obsession with sinister peasants, movies like THE BAKER and THE COTTAGE just seem old-hat. Which is all rather a shame, because Shearsmith, Serkis and Williams have all done really impressive work in the past.

THE COTTAGE is on release in the UK and opens in France on May 7th.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

10,000 BC - don't scratch my soca!

Forget about it is like if you agree with someone, you know, like Raquel Welch is one great piece of ass, forget about it. But then, if you disagree, like A Lincoln is better than a Cadillac? Forget about it! you know?
Cinegeeks crack me up! Seriously, there are people on IMDB complaining that 10,000 BC contains factual errors. Ye gads, it's a Roland Emmerich big-budget studio action flick! It's not a National Geographic segment! This is the man who had Bill Pullman and Will Smith destroy invading aliens by uploading a virus into their improbably compatible computer network!

Thing is, if I see a movie like 10,000 BC, I don't expect it to be factually correct. In fact, if I'm going to have spend 2 hours watching actors in cheap wigs speaking gibberish I need A LOT of absurd craziness as compensation. I need good-looking people, scantily clad, running from bad-ass hairy mamaluks.

Tragically, 10,000 BC falls between the two stalls. It has great pretensions toward serious drama and gut-wrenching action but has neither the intelligence nor the sheer heart-busting adrenaline-rush chase scenes of APOCALYPTO. (And, frankly, if actors are going to have to utter such ridiculous dialogue - viz. the scene where our hero politely asks a sabre-tooth tiger not to eat him - I'd rather they did so in ancient Mayan or some other incomprehensible language.) More than once, I thought I saw the awesome Cliff Curtis smirking as he looked upon the ridiculous action before him.

Still, 10,000 BC isn't a complete write-off. First, the landscape photography from DP Ueli Steiger is truly beautiful to contemplate. Second, there's an unintentionally comedy performance from Mona "Auntie Susu" Hammond as Old Mother. That was enough to send me on a whimsical tour of old episodes of Desmond's whenever the action got too tedious to pay attention to.

10,000 BC is on global release.

Monday, March 17, 2008

HORTON HEARS A WHO! - by far the best of the recent Dr Seuss adaptations

Even though you can't see them at all, A person's a person, no matter how small.
Like many of you, I grew up reading Dr Seuss, so his books are a cherished part of my childhood.* That's why it hurt so much when Jim Carrey and Mike Myers' live action versions of his books were less CAT IN THE HAT than Smelly Cat. But prejudice aside, I am pleased to report that HORTON HEARS A WHO! is a giant step forward. First off, the minute you see the animation you realise how intrinsically right it is to forgo actors dressed in prosthetics. Dr Seuss should feel whimsical and magical rather than forced and deliberate. And no matter how good Carrey and Myers are as comedians, they never managed to make all that make-up seem, well, natural. Directors Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino also make the right choice in keeping a lot of Dr Seuss' famous rhyming couplets in a voice-over narration from Charles Osgood. I particularly liked their little conceit of having Horton day-dream in Seuss' trademark 2-D style!

But back to basics. For those who don't know, you're in for a treat! Horton is a large, happy-go-lucky elephant who stumbles upon a delicate little speck sitting on a flower. He hears a little voice and makes contact with the tiny little Mayor of Who-ville, who lives in a miniature world upon that very speck. Horton and the Mayor realise that unless Horton can put the speck in a safe place, Who-ville will be destroyed by all the commotion. But first, Horton and the Mayor have to gather the courage to hold on to their belief in each other's existence; and to fight for the right to br heard, no matter how big or how small they are.

The directors handle the animation beautifully and the voice-cast also do a superb job. Steve Carell is charming as the Mayor and Jim Carrey is absolutely hillarious in a slightly more modulated performance than he typically gives. The script-writers manage to keep to a minimum the post-modern in-jokes that cover modern animation like poisonous pustules. And the defiantly pop-culture reference they do include - having Horton imagine himself as a manga hero - is absolutely brilliant. My only slight criticism is that the material is too thin for the run-time. Frankly, they could've trimmed the film down to 70 minutes and we would have all gone home as happy as after 85 minutes but without having mainlined as much glucose from the tofee popcorn.

HORTON HEARS A WHO is on release in the USA, Argentina, Chile, Germany, Russia, Singapore, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Estonia, Iceland, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, Spain, Belgium and the UK. It opens next week in Egypt, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Australia, Hong Kong and Croatia. It opens on March 27th in Croatia. It opens in April in France, the Czech Republic, Greece, Israel, Italy and Turkey. It opens in May in South Korea and in Japan in July.

*I even went to the same college as Dr Seuss, although I must confess that by the age of 16, the fact that John Le Carre was an old boy was far more impressive to me.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

CHILDREN OF GLORY/SZABADSAG, SZERELEM - a partially successful movie about the Hungarian Uprising

There are no bears in Hungary. Unless we've crossed the border into Romania, in which case there ARE bears. If we're in Serbia, then... I don't know.CHILDREN OF GLORY is a bombastic, self-consciously epic film from the pen of Joe Eszterhas of BASIC INSTINCT fame. He brings a mainstream Hollywood, glossy sensibility to the deathly serious subject matter of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and the blood in the water incident at the Melbourne Olympics. I have mixed feelings about the glossy style of this film. Perhaps superimposing a schmaltzy love story onto this material will win it a wider audience - and frankly, this is such an important subject that you could take the view 'by any means necessary'. But I also felt a little uneasy, especially in the final scenes, that the movie had reduced something important to a sort of under-dog sports-movie finale.

The movie opens with the Hungarian water-polo team playing a rigged match in Moscow. Evidently the Soviets will not lose to a satelite state. Upon their return, the team are upbraided by the secret police for rubbishing their hosts and our beautiful hero, a fictional composite called Karcsi Szabó (Iván Fenyö) is initially happy to comply. Being an Olympic sportsman brings him privilege and protects his family. Our hero gets drawn into the student protests against Soviet occupation when he spots a pretty protestor called Viki (Kata Dobó). Through her, he finds that he actually does believe in fighting for freedom even it means sacrificing his place in the Olympic team.

The protests spill into a wider Hungarian uprising and the Soviets mobilise their tanks. But in a cruel twist of history, the Hungarians are fooled by a temporary withdrawal and appeasement. Thinking they have won, Karsci goes to the Melbourne Olympics to win glory for his newly free country. But Viki is left behind as the Soviets renege on their promises and send in the tanks. She continues to fight, hoping the Americans will intervene.

As the revolution is crushed, we move to the Olympics for the obligatory Hollywood adrenaline packed finale. The water-polo team triumph, despite a vicious attack on Karsci in the water. But the simplistic end of the film seems thin and unsatisfying. Can we really take any comfort from a sporting triumph when we've just seen Hungarians butchered? And what will become of our hero? We know his friends will defect but the movie doesn't bother to tell us whether he goes back to Budapest.

Still, I can't help but think that it's worth watching CHILDREN OF GLORY. It's handsomely shot and you certainly get a feel for how a student protest spilled out into a wider protest. I like the little details. Moreover, while the love story may seem a little cheap by the end of the film, there's no doubt that it provides a useful hook upon which to hang the audience's interest for the majority of the film.

CHILDREN OF GLORY opened in Hungary and the USA in 2006. It played Berlin 2007 and opened in Thailand, Sweden and Japan. It is currently on limited release in the UK.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

WATER LILIES/NAISSANCE DES PIEUVRES - sinister, breath-takingly honest coming-of-age movie

WATER LILIES is a delicate, schmaltzy title for a film that is uncompromising, sinister and breath-takingly honest. It has an 85 minute run-time but creates an atmosphere that is so oppressive and yet so mesmerising that it feels longer. This is a good thing. Indeed, debutante writer-director Céline Sciamma has created one of the best films I have seen in 2008.

The movie explores how we abase ourselves in search of sexual fulfilment. Our two protagnists are teenage girls living in contemporary suburban France. They aren't cool or self-assured but awkward and strange. Marie (Pauline Acquart) is introverted and mostly silent, so that when she does act and exhibit her strength, it's almost frightening. Anne (Louise Blachère) is unhappily ridiculous, self-conscious about her body, and yet willing to throw herself after love. Marie ingratiates herself into the world of glamourous Floriane (Adele Haenel). Marie's crush may or may not be reciprocated - but Floriane certainly languishes in their intimacy, taking their mutual obligations to an audacious extreme. But, while she teases Marie, Floriane's real mission is to lose her virginity so she can be the slut that everyone assumes she is, and satisfy her boyfriend François (Warren Jacquin), who is also the object of Anne's sexual desire.

The four lead actors do a tremendous job, although one has to gasp at what Sciamma asks her young cast to do. The sexual tension drips from the screen and while there are no easy resolutions, there is at least some groping toward self-awareness for the two outsiders by the end of the film. This is perfectly complemented by Crystel Fournier's superb photography. Her camera is a voyueur, sneaking into changing rooms, swimming pools and night-clubs along with Anne and Marie. It makes us feel uncomfortable but convinces us of the beauty and violence to be found in such commonplace activities.

WATER LILIES played Cannes, Toronto and London 2007. It was released in Belgium and France last year and is currently on release in the Netherlands and the UK. It will play the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival next month and opens in Norway on April 11th.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Overlooked DVD of the month - ROCKET SCIENCE

The big city is, uh, is, is Trenton?ROCKET SCIENCE is an alpha-gamma movie. Or rather, it's a gamma-alpha movie. The opening sequence was a blatant rip-off of Wes Anderson. A Max Fisher-style character, complete with bow-tie and preppie confidence, is speaking at a school debate. This is over-laid with a self-conscious, portentious narration by an actor called Dan Cashman who sounds just like Alec Baldwin in the opening sequence of THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS. As we moved onto the meat of the movie, I still felt wary about the movie's derivative feel. The sound-track, shooting style, dead-pan comedy and focus on eccentricity and quirk all had me bewailing the pervasiveness and same-ness of modern American independent movies.

The good news is that once the movie settles down it becomes really rather wonderful. Writer-director Jeffrey Blitz paints a convincing picture, evidently drawing on his own experience, of a sweet, intelligent boy who can't express himself because of his stammer. Rather improbably, the school's star debater picks him to join the debating team. Our hero is thus forced to find his voice.

What I love about ROCKET SCIENCE is that the director doesn't make it a conventional triumphing-over-adversity movie. There's no magical denouement where our hero takes to the stage and, thanks to some little trick, becomes the most articulate and eloquent debater in the state. But he does find his voice in another sense: he becomes confident - active rather than passive - and while still puzzled about life and love ("it shouldn't be rocket science"), more engaged with it.

ROCKET SCIENCE played Sundance 2007, where Jeffrey Blitz won the Directing (Drama) Award. It went on limited release in the UK and US last autumn. It is now available on DVD.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES - beautifully made children's fantay film

If they say 'suicide' and you say 'goblins', this place is where they put you.THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES is a beautifully made, well-acted, children's fantasy adventure.

A young boy, angry at his parents' separation, discovers a curious field guide to a magical world of faeries, goblins and sylphs. Problem is, an evil ogre wants to steal the book and use its collected knowledge to rule the magical world. So much for the plot. The real meat of the movie is a story about children who have to live without their fathers, and the importance of family.

The great thing about SPIDERWICK is that the wonderfully-rendered CGI effects never swamp the story. Indeed, director Mark Waters takes an admirable amount of time to establish the human story before he unleashes the magical world. I also think that the casting is spot-on, and helps us feel real empathy for the characters. Freddie Highmore pulls off playing both twins - giving each a distinctive character and voice. Sarah Bolger and Mary-Louise Parker are believable as the big sister, mature before her time, and the mother at the end of her tether. But I especially like th casting of Nick Nolte as the ogre; David Strathairn as the author of the field-guide; and Joan Plowright as his grown up daughter Lucinda. Joan Plowright has the most amazingly sympathetic, twinkling eyes, and it's a pleasure to have her back on the big screen. The voice-work is also great, with Martin Short playing a sweet little brownie called Thimbletack who morphs into the angry Bograt; and Seth Rogen as the cowardly but kind-hearted Hogsqueal.

My only reservations about this movie aren't really concerned with the film-makers but with the source material. I was never particularly convinced by the internal logic of the fantasy world. (Then again, if you have Tolkien as your benchmark, everything seems thin by comparison). Moreover, I never felt the stakes were high enough. I don't think we see enough of the fantasy world to care about it's destruction and the script didn't make it very clear whether the human world was really at risk from the ogre, beyond the family itself.

Still, these are all comparatively small quibbles that might concern adults but not the kids. THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES is sure to keep children amused (at least those who aren't so young as to be scared by a pretty mean looking ogre who can morph into a snake).

THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES opened in February 2008 in the US, Canada, the Philippines and South Korea. It opened earlier in MArch in Thailand, Mexico, Poland and Finland. It opens this weekend in the Netherlands, Greece, Portugal, Singapore, Colombia, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Turkey and Venezuela. It opens next weekend in Belgium, Argentina, Chile, Croatia, Germany, Hong Kong, Lebanon, Peru, Russia, Ukraine, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Iceland, Italy, Panama, Romania, South Africa and the UK. It opens on March 26th in Egypt and in April in Australia, Taiwan, New Zealand, France, Serbia and Montenegro, India and Japan.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Wong Kar Wai retrospective - AS TEARS GO BY/WONG GOK KA MOON

People like us don't have tomorrows
AS TEARS GO BY sees Wong Kar Wai's essentially romantic, fanciful nature shoe-horned into a conventional Hong Kong traid movie, reminiscent of MEAN STREETS. The result is a movie that is occasionally surprising but which has dated badly. Indeed, to modern eyes, it can sometimes feel like a pastiche. Having said all that, the movie opens in classic WKW territory. We're in a cramped flat in Kowloon and a young man (Andy Lau of INFERNAL AFFAIRS fame) is about to fall in love with a woman he has barely met. Instead of the femmes fatales of later flms, AS TEARS GO BY features a young Maggie Cheung as a milk-sop provincial who simpers in a hugely under-powered role. Naturally, this new relationship will force Brother Wah to reconsider his future as a gangster. It doesn't take much: he was already getting tired of bailing out his volatile, useless side-kick, Fly (classic Joe Pesci territory).

The movie oozes eighties stylings. There's a deeply annoying synthesizer sound-track; everyone looks like they trying to be extras in TOP GUN; the plot is pretty conventional and the denouement utterly unsurprising. Jacky Cheung over-acts horribly as Fly and Andy Lay isn't given a chance to display the talent he shows in INFERNAL AFFAIRS. So, pretty much the only reason to watch this film is to trace out the developing style of Wong Kar Wai. We can see it in superficial things like the use of cheesy songs and stroboscopic photography from DP Wai-Keung Lau. But we can see it in the substance of the film and the scenes that sit around the obligatory set-piece action sequences: lovers are thwarted and romantic life is squeezed between the petty obligations of real life.

AS TEARS GO BY was originally released in 1988 and played Toronto 1989. It is available on DVD.

*Thanks to the old lag, Berko, for clueing me in to the correct terminology for this maddening effect that so marred my enjoyment of MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Wong Kar Wai Retrospective - CHUNG KING EXPRESS

CHUNG KING EXPRESS is a wonderful film from Wong Kar Wai. Originally released in 1994 to critical acclaim, it foreshadowed much of the thematic material of IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE and 2046 and some of the stylistic mannerisms of the disastrous MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS.

The movie takes the form of two loosely connected stories set in contemporary Hong Kong. As in later films, Wong Kar Wai takes us into cheap diners in dingy, crowded cities. Bus terminals have lockers that are dented and covered in grafitti and the floor is strewn with litter. The protagonists live in cluttered filthy apartments with mould in the shower and subsist on canned food bought in grubby 7-11s. The great thing about this film is, however, that it doesn't judge any of this. Indeed, it rather revels in the accidental beauty of such scenes. The key to these films is to uncover the romantic leanings of the ordinary people who inhabit these locales - the people one might pass on the street and assume, rather patronisingly, were leading drab uninteresting lives. So, in sharp contrast to his later films, the characters in the film look "normal". They aren't dressed to perfection, hovering in a state of delicate beauty: girls wear normal clothes, but even when they dress up, it's in a rather grubby mac and blonde wig.

But there are other elements that form a straight line through to MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS. The use of popular, almost cheesy, Western pop songs on almost continuous loop; the love of neon signs; a femme fatale; a camera that follows its prey with a voyeuristic, intimate glee; and in the first section the use of slow-mo and distorted vision to try and capture the frenetic pace of city life.

My preference is for the scenes where the camera is fluid but not "interefered with" in the style so irritating in the first scenes of MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS. And it's hard to know whether my weaker response to the first story is due to the shooting style. Still, even apart from that, the story is lyrical, compelling and beautiful. A lonely police officer (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is mourning a failed relationship, creating bizarre little rituals involving out-of-date canned food to focus his mind. He runs across a mysterious blonde, who turns out to be a drug smuggler. (Note the fantastically fast-paced, beautifully edited scene in which she suits up and organises the Indian mules.) As we come to expect in a Wong Kar Wai film, when the two finally meet their relationship is fleeting and muted - and is valued mostly for the memories it will generate.

The second story takes similar material. Another lonely cop (a very young Tony Leung) is mourning another failed relationship, in another cramped apartment. He strikes up a bizarre relationship with another quirky girl, who expresses a desire for intimacy by secretly cleaning his flat! It sounds bizarre and it is bizarre but it's never cheap or crudely funny. Rather, it's sweet, strange and wonderfully fresh. This is largely down to Tony Leung's superbly melancholy presence and a rightly award-winning performance by Faye Wong - the stand-out actor in this film. It just goes to show how important it is to cast actors and indeed locations that can make the most surreal and unabashedly romantic material seem real and natural. That is the key difference between a pantheon film like CHUNG KING EXPRESS and a disappointment like MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS.

Monday, March 10, 2008

FOUR MINUTES/VIER MINUTEN - provocative, affecting, but finally mis-judged

For about the first seventy minutes, VIER MINUTEN is a refreshingly complicated, provocative movie. Writer-director Chris Kraus puts us in a contemporary German prison where a pernickety old piano teacher is giving lessons to an astonishingly talented, but murderous, young woman. As their relationship develops, we learn about their thwarted past lives.

Unlike a conventional Hollywood movie, Monica Bleibtrau's withered teacher is not a wise, comforting figure with angelic patience. This movie is about as far away from FINDING FORRESTER or GOOD WILL HUNTING as you could get. Frau Krueger emphatically does not believe that delinquent Jenny will be "saved" by her art or become a "better person". Indeed, Frau Krueger's motives and methods are both rather suspect, as is her categorisation of jazz as abominable "negro music". Even the prison guards and governor are compromised, and therefore more credible. For example, a kindly guard called Muetze - one of those solid good men - is capable of viciousness when provoked.

And what of Jenny? There is no doubt that Hannah Herzsprung gives a raw and convincing performance as this deeply traumatised girl. Both her acting, and what I can only assume was her own piano playing, are affecting and, in the final scene, quite remarkable. But I do feel that she was rather under-mined by some of the screen-writer's choices regarding her character's motivations and past life. What's worse, the whole movie was seriously thrown off its balance by a misjudged, sentimental, final act.

If only Chris Kraus had shown more restraint, this could have been a true pantheon movie. As it is, he has made a memorable and promising movie. Solid characterisation and deft handling of the music aside, I would also like to praise DP Judith Kaufmann's fluid camera movements that follow Frau Krueger even when that takes us away from the action or the conversation. The way she shoots the concert scene, and indeed the way the whole movie is edited to show elipses in time, are also remarkable.

FOUR MINUTES played Toronto 2006 and Berlin 2007. It was released in Germany, Italy, Australia, Spain, Austria, the Netherlands, Greece, the Czech Republic, South Korea, Japan and Belgium in 2007. It opened in France earlier this year and is currently on release in the UK.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Overlooked DVD of the month - KLIMT

KLIMT is a wonderfully free-form movie from veteran film-maker Raul Ruiz. Released in butchered format in the UK last year, it's now available in a full two hour director's cut on DVD. The film is less of a standard biopic than an impressionistic, sometimes surreal visit with the Austrian artist. John Malkovich gives a wonderful performance in the central role. We see Klimt's foul mouth and short temper with the pretentious fools in cafe society. We see his childlike excitement, but also gentle discretion, over his many affairs. He fathers many children, sees them rarely, but when he does he has a great affinity with them. He is broad-minded, honest, but has that thin-skinned anger that people who have no time for convetional mores often have.

If you don't know much about Klimt prior to watching the film, you might feel a little lost. Ruiz assumes knowledge about the paintings, the people in Klimt's life and the "characters" of the day. I find this refreshingly unpatronising, but frankly, if you haven't heard of Wittgenstein or Schiele you might feel a little lost. In addition, Ruiz' film resists a straightforward linear narrative structure. We first meet Klimt on his deathbed and then skip back and forth through different scenes in his life. Some of these are presumably real, some are fantastic. To give two examples, Saffron Burrows plays an artist's muse who has seemingly two disinct characters - the "on-show" personality, and the private personality - and these are represented as two separate people. And Stephen Dillane plays an enigmatic figure who pops up throughout the film, commenting acerbically on Klimt's life and acting as a sort of ghostly companion.

To be sure, the film is far from perfect - if you want a sure vision and a film that feels like a composed, coherent unit, you'll have to look elsewhere. But the fun is in the feeling that anything could happen. Moreover, I did feel that I had gained an insight into the artist's personality and work. The tech package feels a little rough - or perhaps it's the DVD transfer that makes everything look muddy and under-lit? Still, the movie is well-worth checking out.

KLIMT was released in Austria, France, Germany, Poland, Portugal, South Korea and Japan in 2006. It was released in Spain, Estonia, the US and UK in 2007. It is now available on DVD.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

VANTAGE POINT - tedious, exciting, laughable

VANTAGE POINT is an action movie about a terrorist attack on the US President. The concept is to have the attack re-hashed from the points-of-view of different characters until the audience can piece together the truth, Rashomon-style.

The first third of the film must have looked really clever on paper, but is actually pretty tedious to watch. We see the attack around four or five times, each time learning a little more about the conspiracy, but not enough to justify rehashing the story *yet again*.

The second third of the film picks up in inverse proportion to the film-makers' willingness to drop the Rashomon conceit. A further plot twist is revealed and the movie settles down into an exciting political thriller, complete with betrayals and a high-adrenaline car chase.

But the film-makers drop the ball in the final third of the film, which is literally laughable. We are asked to believe that various people would survive hideous car crashes and that a hardened terrorist would swerve to miss a child.

The movie has its moments but overall it's rather forgettable. In such a large ensemble cast, no single actor has a chance to shine, or to capture our imagination. We never get a clear handle on the terrorists' motivations, and the whole thing seems rather mechanical. The attempt to graft on a sentimental story involving a divorced parents and a small girl is simply toe-curlingly saccharine.....Basically, this is a movie to avoid.

VANTAGE POINT is on release in the Philippines, the US, Hong Kong, Qatar, Austria, Canada, Mexico, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Argentina, Germany, Kuwait, Russia, Swizterland, Denmark, Italy, Spain, Sweden, India, Estonia, Japan and the UK. It opens later in March in Indonesia, Australia, Croatia, New Zealand, Slovakia, Brazil, France, Chile, Portugal, Singapore, Bulgaria, Finland, Bahrain, Belgium, Egypt, Jordan, Oman, Greece, Israel, Lebanon, Nigeria, Slovenia, the UAE, Iceland, Lithuania, Norway and Romania. It opens in April in Peru, Thailamd, Ecuador, Kenya, Latvia, Polamd, South Africa, the Czech Republic, Hungary, the Netherlands, Turkey, Colombia, Uruguay, Bolivia and the Ukraine.

Friday, March 07, 2008

THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL is strewn with cowpats from the Devil's own satanic HERD

Who is Cyberman's favourite Briton? It would have to be Henry the Eighth. He killed off the Catholic Church. He killed Cardinal Wolsey. He killed Catherine Parr and Anne Boleyn. Yes our favourite Briton is definitely Henry the Eighth. Because he was an unstoppable killing machine!THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL is an adaptation of Philippa Gregory's historical novel. She portrays the Boleyn and Howard family as eager to advance in wealth and position by pimping out their daughters to Henry VIII. First, Henry knocks up docile Mary, but then casts her aside for her more intelligent and ambitious sister Anne. Her pride piqued by her rejection at the hands of Henry Percy and her family's prior support of Mary, Anne pressures the King into divorcing his true wife, Catherine. But as Queen, Anne's position will only be safe if she can deliver Henry a son.

It's a fantastic story written in clear unpretentious English. Best of all, Gregory manages to balance our base instinctual need for trashy romance and a happy ending with a more profound depiction of a society where women were chattel, and those who made their own way were liable to be seen as abominations.

The movie, however, is problematic.

The problems start with the script. Peter (of THE QUEEN fame) takes an intellectually superior work of historical fiction and strips it of any subtlety. He leaves behind a work that is much reduced - in terms of scope, motivations, credibility and enjoyment. The novel made the relationship between the two sisters more complicated. Yes, there were jealousies and rivalries but there was also a shared commitment to success and wrongs on either side. By contrast, the film has Mary as a pantomime do-gooder heroine and Anne as a malicious little whore. (Anne's relationship with Henry Percy is so quickly skated over that we have no time to see her softer side. It's also ironic to see Anne portrayed in the first half of this film almost as maliciously as she would have been portrayed at the time. So much for historical revisionism in a post-feminist world!) The motivations of Henry VIII are rendered especially opaque and Peter Morgan creates a particularly crass scene in which Henry rapes Anne. This strikes me as a particularly lazy and insidous short-hand. The mechanics of how Anne comes to be accused of being a witch are also reduced to a crude and obvious incest charge - a theme that is handled with far more subtlety and intrigue in the novel.

Finally, the most grave charge against Peter Morgan's adaptation is slovenliness. He introduces themes only to leave them hanging in the air. A classic example is that we are introduced to Mary's husband William Carey. He sort of disappears and then before we know it William Stafford is offering to take care of her. The informed viewer will realise that Carey has died in the interval, but Peter Morgan doesn't bother passing on this information. Morgan also allows a couple of lines of jarringly anachronistic dialogue to creep into the script. So, one moment we are talking of "piss-pots". The next, we're being asked to "look on the bright side". Morgan also makes the Boleyn's mother, Lady Elizabeth, the voice of feminist dissent. This is rather patronising. I think I might have worked out the social importance of the film without having a character precis it for me.

The director and cinematographer, Justin Chadwick and Kieran McGuigan, do little better, making choices that reduce their film to a cheap bodice ripper with no self-respect. From the start, the movie is drenched in a warm honey glow - soft-focus love scenes and dappled sunlight that renders the actors faces orange in the interior scenes. This is so starkly in contrast to the aggressively modern, grimly real look of Chadwick's BLEAK HOUSE that one can only assume that the critically acclaimed BBC adaptation was a success because of fine editing and production design rather than its direction. Or maybe Chadwick was hamstrung by producers and marketing departments going for a "heritage" TV look and a simple tale of sibling rivalry?

There's little joy in front of the camera. Scarlett Johansson (Mary Boleyn) doesn't so much act as look doe-eyed and slow-witted. Natalie Portman (Anne Boleyn) is the better actress. At least, she is very good at working herself up into fits of hysteria. Her mastery of the English accent is less certain. Jim Sturgess (George Boleyn) looks uncomfortable and inadequate. David Morrissey (the Duke of Norfolk) delivers his lines in a modern style that stands out from the self-conscious affected period melodramatics of the lead actress. Accordingly, he seems mis-cast, or at least misdirected. Eric Bana (Henry VIII) is a fine actor but Peter Morgan's script doesn't offer him much opportunity to portray the complexities and gravity of Henry VIII's decisions. There is some compensation in the smaller roles. Mark Rylance (Sir Thomas Boleyn), Kristin Scott Thomas (Lady Elizabeth Boleyn) and Benedict Cumberbatch (William Carey), all do brilliantly well is largely under-written parts.

Finally, what more can one say than that this movie is a dreadful disappointment?

THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL is on release in the US, Netherlands, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Spain, Egypt, Russia, Germany and the UK. It opens later in March in Australia, South Korea and Iceland. It opens in April in France, Singapore, Belgium, Israel and Italy. It opens in May in Brazil; in August in Norway and in Finland on Septmeber 12th.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

THE BAKER - hokey cokey pig in a pokey!

This is a local shop for local peopleMilo is a hitman on the lam in a Welsh village. The locals presume he's the new baker and Milo's all to happy to swap his Glock for an apron and stave off his mid-life crisis. Problem is, the locals soon twig what he really does for a living and start commissioning him to kill their irritating neighbours. Milo still thinks they're ordering "cake". So proceeds a comedy of errors that is painfully executed. Writer-director Gareth Lewis never moves beyond the obvious - exploding Welsh sheep, garden gnomes - and always crosses the line from silly to plain stupid. The classic example of this is a scene where our (anti-)hero Milo (Damian Lewis) and his love interest Rhiannon make love smeared in flour, eggs and cocoa powder. Unsexy and, what's worse, not hugely funny.

We've seen hitmen turn soft before. This territory is covered better in
THE MATADOR. Even ANALYSE THIS makes a better fist of it. Fish-out-of-water comedy has been done better too. But the most tragic thing about this movie is that it seems to ignore all the development in British comedy over past decade, not least by the genius TV series THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN. In that phenomenonally successful show, the comedians moved beyond the crude stereotypes used by Lewis. They satirised the urban view of rural life as well as pushing those stereotypes to their logical and grotesque conclusions. By contrast, THE BAKER seems very old-fashioned and unambitious.

THE BAKER is on release in the UK but is also available on DVD.

Monday, March 03, 2008

27 DRESSES - superior but still flawed rom-com

Today you're just the bitch who broke my heart and cut up my mother's wedding dress.27 DRESSES sees Katherine Heigl of KNOCKED UP play a sweet girl called Jane, who copes with early grief by becoming super-romantic, super-organised and super-accommodating. The movie is about Jane facing up to all of this. She has to stop obsessing over everyone else's life and start living her own. The film is at its best in the scenes where Jane argues through her issues with a cynical journalist called Kevin and her apparently obnoxious kid sister, Tess. Katherine Heigl is a delightful actress - she makes the audience feel sympathetic even when she's doing something truly mean, and she has a real talent for physical humour. She could easily become the Meg Ryan of her generation. I also like James Marsden in this movie. He seemes believable in the crumpled cynical journalist role, even though his character isn't as well fleshed out.

2 of the dresses on display at the Arclight, HollywoodThe problem with 27 DRESSES is that the screen-writers didn't leave it as a relationship drama with the odd painfully funny moment. Instead, they have shoe-horned the material into a formulaic romantic-comedy. So, we have quirky wise-cracking sidekicks, one of which is Indian. We have an understanding father who makes his grown daughter pancakes. We also have the path of true love blocked by a third man (in this case, Jane is in love with her boss, played by Ed Burns). Instead of people getting to know one another while walking down the street (Woody Allen style), we have implausible scenes of bar-room drunkenness. Just when love reveals itself, the girl is betrayed by her guy. And instead of a private declaration of love in the final act, we have a ludicrously stagey public avowal. Note that all these features apply not just to 27 DRESSES, but equally to another romantic-comedy on release this week: THE ACCIDENTAL HUSBAND. All of this is a great shame because 27 DRESSES could've been a great relationship film. Instead, it's just a superior, but still flawed genre movie.

27 DRESSES was released earlier in 2008 in Australia, Hong Kong, the US, Singapore, the Philippines, Argentina, Denmark, Germany, Mexico, Brazil, Estonia, Icleand, Russia and Spain. It opens next week in Belgium, the Netherlands and South Korea and on the weekend of March 14th in Finland and Ireland. It opens on March 20th in Russia and Italy an don March 27th in the UK and Sweden. It opens in Norway on April 11th and in France on April 23rd.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

THE BANK JOB - brilliant story; workmanlike execution

I was a potential millionaire, yet I had to be satisfied with eight pounds, fifteen shillings, less deductions.

True story: in 1976 a bunch of loveable idiots tunnelled into a London bank and nicked three million quid in cash and jewels. They also nicked some tasty pornographic photographs incriminating a member of the royal family and more than a few members of the government. This, naturally, caught the attention of the British secret service, policeman both straight and corrupt, not to mention the porn king of Soho. In fairness though, the rozzers were given a bit of a head start when an amateur radio enthusiast picked up the idiot robbers chatting to each other on their walkie-talkies!

It's a great story. The resulting film, however, is worth a watch but probably not the price of a cinema ticket. It's more the kind of film you watch by chance on Freeview on a boring Tuesday night. Roger Donaldson's direction is competent but unimaginative. The cast are all fine but there are no stand-out performances. (Although I have to say that David Suchet did look eerily like Ronnie Barker.) The production design is fine, but I've seen the seventies re-created more thoroughly on screen. The biggest problem is that the heist takes too long to crank up and grind out. The viewer has more fun watching the bunglers wriggle out of the mess they've made. Frankly, we could've lost twenty minutes off the run-time and it would've been a much snappier, much more exciting film.

THE BANK JOB is on release in the UK. It opens in the USA on March 7th; in Russia on April 3rd; in Finland on July 11th; in the Netherlands on July 31st; and in Belgium on August 6th.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

SEMI-PRO - Ricardian cinema

Will Ferrell was a hysterically funny bit-part player in frat-pack comedy, OLD SCHOOL. And in ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY, he got a showcase for his very special brand of comedy. Ferrell typically plays middle-aged men clinging onto the last vestiges of some earlier minor league fame. They are desperate, emotionally vulnerable men who act like spoiled children when real life catches up with them. They can be vicious and mean to their best friends and alienate their loved ones. But somehow these freaks always redeem themselves and come out smiling. I use the word freak advisedly. Ferrell's signature style is to selflessly embarass himself in the pursuit of a cheap laugh. No costume is too ludicrous - no nude scene over-looked. It's as though he is so deperate to raise a laugh that he throws himself onto the mercy of the audience. "Okay, what I'm doing here may be pretty lame, and you may have seen it in every other film I ever made, but I'm trying so very hard, pleeeeeeeeeease love me!"

The problem is this: Will Ferrell has been in so many films spoofing the 1970s that his movies now strike me as stale, cynical, lazy cash-ins. I haven't genuinely belly-laughed at a Ferrell movie in years. On the other hand, you can't damn his movies completely. After all, his attention to the costume and production design and his willingness to whip himself up into hysteria is, well, admirable.

The sad truth is that I have a lot of respect for Ferrell, but his movies have been delivering diminishing returns to the £10 ticket price ever since ANCHORMAN. And let's face it, why do you need him return to the screen as a semi-pro basketball player doing basically exactly the same schtick as he did as a racing car driver or weatherman? Ferrell is a great actor. It's time that producers and script-writers rose to the challenge and gave him a new outlet for that talent. Otherwise he's going to turn into a sad pastiche of himself.

SEMI-PRO is on release in the UK and USA. It opens in Iceland on March 7th; in Singapore on March 20th; in Australia on April 3rd; in France on May 14th and in the Netherlands on May 22nd.