Thursday, July 31, 2008

RISKY BUSINESS - maybe you just had to be there...

A friend of mine read my recent review of THE GIRL NEXT DOOR and was shocked that I didn't criticise it for biting so heavily on the early 80s teen classic movie, RISKY BUSINESS. I explained to him that I didn't mention it because I'd never seen it. I may not be in my first flush of youth, but I'm not THAT old! So, mainly to stop him from whining, we wound up watching it. Now, I didn't have a bad time with this movie, but I really didn't get what the big deal was. Maybe it's because I was never a horny frustrated teenage boy? Maybe it's because I didn't watch it as a teenager? Whatever. This movie just didn't do it for me.

The flick was written and directed by Paul Brickman, who seems not to have a done great deal in cinema thereafter. It opens with a very young, and yet not young enough to really pull off the role of a schoolkid, Tom Cruise. He lives in a nice house in a wealthy suburb and his parents want him to go to a good school. He's under pressure and, despite the urging of his best friend, unable to just say "fuck you". Aforementioned friend hires him a hooker and, after a small hiccup, he ends up getting it together with Rebecca de Mornay. As with THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, this then leads to entanglements with a mean pimp/manager (Joe Pantoliano). The hooker realises that the combination of rich, horny boys; hookers; and an empty house could be a money spinner. Tom Cruise goes from geek to Wayfarer-wearing cool dude in a matter of minutes. The dramatic tension, such as it is, lies in discovering whether the kid will get away with it. Will his parents come home to find their house wrecked? Will the Princeton admissions tutor be horrified by this Young Enterpriser's business? And is Lana really his girlfriend, or just using him?

Tom Cruise is charming, the 80s outfits are hysterical, and Paul Brickman gives Rebecca de Mornay some acid one-liners that she delivers with brilliant dead-pan e.g. "Go to school, Joel. Learn something." The movie works as a decent enough, slighly absurd teen comedy. And, after all, wouldn't everyone like to have the balls to say "fuck you!" once in a while? But, like I said, I didn't get the big deal about the movie. It has nothing like the angst or wit of a John Hughes flick.

RISKY BUSINESS was originally released in 1983 and is available on DVD and on iTunes.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

BABY MAMA - at best mediocre, at worst hypocritical

I'm going to bang all your friends. Consider them banged! BABY MAMA is meant to be a warm-hearted romantic comedy about an uptight career woman who hires a white trash surrogate mother to give her a baby. It's meant to be an "odd couple" movie in which both women emerge better for the experience. It's also meant to be a rom-com in which the path of true love in kinked by the fact that the career woman doesn't tell her implausibly understanding boyfriend what she's up to.

The problem is that BABY MAMA isn't very funny, despite being penned by SNL writer Michael McCullers and starring brilliant comediennes Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. There aren't enough insightful gags, and what gags there are rely on really lazy sight/aural gags - for instance, the birthing teacher with a lisp.

While you're not laughing you might notice the pedestrian direction, the lack of chemistry between Tina Fey and her love interest (the always charming Greg Kinnear), and the fact that Dax Shepherd and Romany Malco almost steal the show. You might also notice the remarkable irony with which a script that supports a woman's right to have a baby at 37 goes right ahead and mocks another woman having kids at an old age. Huh? You might also notice that the writer loses his balls in the final reel to give us all a soft slushy ending that is utterly unearned.

BABY MAMA is on global release.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

RONIN - stylish, emminently quotable thriller

John Frankenheimer, best known for THE BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, has since worked steadily and in 1998 gave us the thriller RONIN. Based on a script from newcomer J D Zeik, the film is replete with stylish one-liners thanks, one presumes, to script-doctor David Mamet. And it helps that these one-liners are delivered by the eminently nonchalant Robert de Niro. Nonchalant even when he's talking a criminal through digging a bullet out of his side on a kitchen table.

The plot isn't much to write home about. There's a briefcase. It's a MacGuffin. All you need to know is that the Russians and the IRA both want it. So the IRA (Natascha McElhone and Jonathan Pryce - both with distractingly risible accents) hire a motley crew of internationals to steal it. They comprise de Niro, Sean Bean (acting well!), Stellan Skarsgard, Skip Sudduth and Jean Reno. They run around France looking moody, exchanging witty dialogue, double-crossing each other and generally being cool. Every now and then, to relieve the tension, we get a high speed car chase of the kind that has since been reinvented by THE BOURNE films.

Let me be clear - you don't watch RONIN for plot, character development, good accents or anything else. You watch it for the mood and the dialogue. That more than repays a viewing.

Sam (de Niro): Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt. That's the first thing they teach you.
Vincent (Jean Reno): Who taught you?
Sam: I don't remember. That's the second thing they teach you.

RONIN played Venice 1998 and was released that year. It is available on DVD and on iTunes.

Monday, July 28, 2008

I THINK I LOVE MY WIFE - in which Chris Rock neuters himself

You can lose lots of money chasing women, but you will NEVER lose women chasing money.Poor Chris Rock. He has a successful career as a stand-up comedian who specialises in aggressive, outlandish commentary on relations between the sexes and relations between the races. He's appeared in, and made a couple of, movies but each time he essentially plays the on-stage Chris Rock character. In DOGMA, for instance, he's Chris Rock as the thirteenth disciple - loud, funny and pissed off AND a disciple.

The problem with I THINK I LOVE MY WIFE is that Chris Rock has delusions of grandeur. Admirably he decides to break out of the Chris Rock persona and make a straight family drama about a bored married man tempted into infidelity. (it's a remake of Eric Rohmer romatic-comedy cum morality tale, L'AMOUR L'APRES-MIDI). We know Chris Rock is serious because he's wearing glasses, a moustache and a suit and because he only lets his loud, angry persona explode for a few moments in the movie. So, first up, fans of Chris Rock, of which I am one, shouldn't approach this film for classic Chris Rock humour.

That aside, how does I THINK I LOVE MY WIFE work as a semi-serious discourse on the pros and cons of married life? Not brilliantly, and that's fundamentally the fault of the scriptwriters - Rock and Louis CK. They cast Gina Torres as the boring suburban wife and Kerry Washington as the temptress Nikki Tru but give neither of them anything to do except be whiny and seductive respectively. With such two-dimensional options, the central character's moral dilemma seems two-dimensional too. There's no real sense of danger. There's no real sense of why someone as hot and vapid and Nikki would go for this suburban schlub. And frankly, there's no sense of why someone as mature and composed as his wife would stick with him either.

So you have this semi-straight, two-dimensional family drama for an hour and a half which is boring and bland but, hey, at least Chris is trying to break out. But then, the writers wimp out and give us the most bizarre, tone-breaking, vomit-inducing ending I've seen all year, with two of the characters declaring their love by means of song. Ye gods. Did no one on set have the balls to say, "Chris, seriously, NO!"

I THINK I LOVE MY WIFE was released in 2007 and is available on DVD.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

SUMMER HOURS / L'HEURE D'ETE - dry philosophical drama

SUMMER HOURS is a hopelessly dry philosophical drama in which narrative drive and emotional veracity are sacrificed for a rather hackneyed discussion of the nature of memory, artistic value and heritage.

The movie opens with a scene of a family celebrating their grandmother's birthday in a French country house. The wonderfully well-preserved Anna Scob plays the matriarch as a refreshingly realistic woman: she has sacrificed her life to preserving the memory of her beloved uncle, a famous artist, but she will not impose the same burden on her own children. They come, enjoy the house, leave her exhausted and abandoned. She knows that there is no room for her in their full lives, and that, with the exception of her eldest son, they have no appreciation of the wonderful works of art nouveau scattered throughout the property.

The film then moves into its second segment. Some time has passed and the matriarch has died. The three children meet at the funeral and decide what to do with the house. The younger son is an ambitious businessman moving to China, with no need of a third-share in a living museum. The daughter is a successful New York-based designer, similarly keen to sell out of the house and, indeed, of France. The elder son is forced to comply as he doesn't have the money to buy them out.

It is at this point that I thought the family drama would break into a fever pitch. But no, everyone is incredibly civilised. Yes, the elder brother, played ably by Charles Berling (RIDICULE), is heart-broken, but he can empathise with his siblings. Indeed the sister (Juliette Binoche) and the younger brother (Jérémie Renier (IN BRUGES)) are also keen not to impose on their brother, and are sorry that the necessary actions must be taken. In addition, there is a sniff of passed scandal, but nothing that is developed or played out.

So, the movie grinds on through the disposals, in an ever more dessicated, academic discussion. Do the objects, removed from the house into the Musee d'Orsay, caged and sterile, lose their real beauty? Or is it better that they should be properly restored and displayed for the nation? Should we sanctify our heritage or play basketball in the artists studios of yesterday? And what constitutes art? The honest appreciation of a cleaner, or the appraisal of a critic?

SUMMER HOURS is a movie, then, that sacrifices emotion to academic discussion. Such a shame, that's it's intellectual debates are so trite and unoriginal.

SUMMER HOURS was released in France and the Netherlands earlier this year. It is currently on release in Taiwan and the UK. It goes on release in Greece on August 14th.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Pantheon movie of the month - BROADCAST NEWS

Before James L Brooks became famous as the writer of THE SIMPSONS, he was famous for making award-winning tragi-comic cinema. Indeed, with AS GOOD AS IT GETS, he proved he could still do it. BROADCAST NEWS is, to my mind, his best film. It's a wonderfully funny, chillingly perceptive movie about the kind of relationships that over-achieving careerists have, and the decline in the quality of public discourse. Unlike NETWORK, the brilliantly cruel satire of the "dumbing down" of television, BROADCAST NEWS has a heart. And unlike George Clooney's more recent homage to the good old days of journalists with integrity, GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, BROADCAST NEWS has a sense of humour. In short, BROADCAST NEWS is the most wonderful of films: intelligent; funny; scabrous, but never despairing.

The movie opens with a brilliant little intro to its three main characters as kids. First up is a cute but dumb kid called Tom who wonders what a cute but dumb kid can do for a living. Answer: network news anchor! We then switch to a high-energy, highly-strung kid called Jane who berates her father for applying the word "obsessively" to her incorrectly. Caption: network news producer. We then switch to a nerdy kid called Aaron, who berates the school bullies as he graduates early: "You'll never earn more than $19,000!". Caption: network investigative journalist. So there you have it: the philosophical and emotional triangle has been established. Jane is the ambitious editor who admires everything Aaron stands for and sympathises with him. They're the smart kids who hate the dumb, beautiful people who are killing intelligent news coverage. Problem is, Jane doesn't fancy Aaron. Worse still, she's falling for Tom's open charm and winning good looks.....

BROADCAST NEWS gets so much right. We care about the three main characters. We ache for Aaron, with his unrequited love; we are confused with Jane; and we fall for Tom's charm. Their emotional entanglements, flaws and foibles seem real. Albert Brooks, Holly Hunter and William Hurt are all excellent in their respective roles. The supporting cast of characters is full of recognisable types and odd-balls - notably Joan Cusack as Jane's assistant and Jack Nicholson as the hard-assed Network anchor. But what James L Brooks really gets is how seductive the adrenaline-rush of the deadline-driven job can be. We all know that it's unhealthy - a little off-balance, but that feeling of camaraderie and achievement when you've pulled it out of the hat at the last minute? Brilliant.

The only tiny flaw with this film is the denouement, which is just a little too pat. And I guess that such a flaw should disqualify BROADCAST NEWS from being a pantheon film on my own rules - a film of which I would change not a frame - of which every component is perfection - and the combination magnifies their brilliance. But frankly, this movie is so damn good other than those three minutes, I can break my own rules!

BROADCAST NEWS was released in the US in 1987 and played Berlin 1988 where Holly Hunter won the Silver Bear. At the Academy Awards, it lost Best Film to THE LAST EMPEROR; William Hurt lost Best Actor to Michael Douglas for WALL STREET; Holly Hunter lost Best Actress to Cher for MOONSTRUCK; it lost the Best Screnplay award to John Patrick Shanley for MOONSTRUCK; it lost Best Cinematography to Vittorio Storaro for MOONSTRUCK; it lost Best Editor to Gabriella Cristiani for THE LAST EMPEROR. On the whole, as much as I love BROADCAST NEWS I can't disagree with these choices. MOONSTRUCK is a great film and both Nic Cage and Cher are outstanding in it. And as for WALL STREET, BROADCAST NEWS is by far the more intelligent, prescient film, but Michael Douglas' performance is iconic. BROADCAST NEWS is available on DVD and on iTunes.

Friday, July 25, 2008

BEFORE THE RAINS - engaging but somehow slight

BEFORE THE RAINS is a beautifully photographed, well-acted period drama about the consequences of cross-cultural marital infidelity in pre-independence India. Linus Roache plays a British planter having an affair with a married village girl played by Nandita Das. She is naive enough to believe that he will eventually leave his wife for her. In his defense, one can say that in their early scenes together, he seems to be genuinely fond of her. But when she arrives at his house, beaten by her husband, he callously pays her off, asking his faithful driver TK to take her away. The only person who seems surprised by this is the girl, who returns, leading to a cycle of disruption and violence.

The best thing about BEFORE THE RAINS is the photography of the lush Keralan countryside, by DP turned director Santosh Sivan. The performances are also decent, especially from Rahul Bose as the servant who mediates the story. He starts off as a faithful believer in the British Empire, willing to be ruled in exchange for civilisation. His journey to realisation of the true nature of Empire is at the heart of the film. The girl and the natural environment are all symbols for the country itself - exploited for a buck. The problem with the film is that the metaphor and the substance of the drama are rather obvious. It's a plot you can see coming for miles, and a message that is far from revolutionary.

BEFORE THE RAINS played Toronto 2007. It was released in the US in May and is currently on release in the UK.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

DONKEY PUNCH - disappointingly not about energy market manipulation, but sexually motivated blunt-force trauma

So DONKEY PUNCH isn't about Enron traders fucking up the California energy markets. It IS about a bunch of drunk British teenagers having sex on a yacht in the Med. Writer-director Oliver Blackburn nicely captures the hedonism and carelessness involved in the life-style and takes a wonderfully long time amping up the tension. Half an hour into the film the titular act takes place, but even then it takes a while for all hell to break loose. Okay, a girl has died in unfortunate circumstances, but the kids try to make the best of it, until they start working out the legal consequences of the act, fraternal loyalties interfere, and the girls get a clue. By the end of the film, it's all gone truly Pete Tong. But one or two truly gruesome scenes aside, I was surprised at how restrained the movie was. I was also pleasantly surprised that the internal logic of the film seemed to hold to the end. So, to my great surprise, I can warmly recommend this film to fans of the bad-things-happen-on-lonely-sailboats genre of movies.

DONKEY PUNCH is on release in the UK.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Pantheon movie of the month - MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON

I've spent much of the Bush-Blair era in despair as the values I so admired - liberal democracy and the rule of law - were flushed down the toilet. MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON is, then, a timely reminder of the proper response to bleak times: not despair, but continued struggle. I didn't think that when I started watching the film, mind you. It struck me as hopelessly glib and unrealistic. I was watching the film out of a sense of duty. After all, I claim to be a cineaste, but here was a film, universally acclaimed by critics, that I had never watched.

MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON was released in 1939, as the US resisted being pulled into a war fought between fascists, communists and democracy. This wasn't the marginal bickering of modern-day centre-right versus centre-left, but real, fundamental, political choice. Director Frank Capra chose to make a film that explored the American political process and held it up to the world - tarnished, sullied, and yet fundamentally decent, fair and resilient. He was, therefore, accused of being unpatriotic and playing into the hands of America's enemies. This is, I think, a fatal misunderstanding of the powerful impact this film still has on cynical audiences.

As the movie opens, a naive but decent hick called Smith has been appointed to the Senate by a corrupt cabal who want to build a dam for personal gain. When Smith gets to Washington he visits the monuments and in a sequence often pastiched is inspired by their grandeur and their message - in particular, the Lincoln Memorial, and its inscription of the Gettysburg address, speaking of freedom and self-government. Smith is a man who believes passionately in liberty, duty and democracy for all, regardless of race, colour or creed. We are openly invited to mock his naivety, just as his fellow senator and the political reporters mock him. Upon entering Congress, Smith freely admits that he's out of his depth, but decides that it's his duty to not vote blindly but informed, and to try to legislate himself. Surprised at his independence, the cabal that nominated him frame him for corruption. But before he leaves, Smith, ably aided by a cynical polical hack - Clarissa Saunders - stages an historic fillibuster to prevent them from getting their hands of the land for the dam. So, just like the Senators and newsmen, we are convinced that Smith is no boob, but an intelligent, decent man who has the courage to defend what we cynics long ago gave up on.

Jimmy Stewart is perfectly cast as Smith. He has that air of straight-forward decency as well as being adept at the physical comedy that playing a clumsy fool requires. Jean Arthur also convinces as Saunders, the battle-hardened cynic and pioneer career-woman whose heart is melted by Smith's innocent hope. I particularly love the fact that in a film about corrupt men it's a savvy woman who out-manoeuvres them all. I also liked Claude Rains* as the crooked but smooth Senator Paine, even if I found the end of his character arc unconvincing. However, the real winner in this movie is the script and the sheer dramatic tension during the fillibuster. Sidney Buchman gives Smith some powerful lines about the values that a democracy is supposed to espouse - words that are inspiring and seem relevant today.

The real trick is that Frank Capra never lets his movie feel like a sermon, even though it is. The central dramatic tension - the accusations against Smith - the fillibuster - the central love story - all involve us on a human scale, sugaring the pill of the big ideas at the heart of the film.

MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON was originally released in 1939. It won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. It lost to GONE WITH THE WIND for Best Film, Best Director, Best Editing and Best Art Direction. James Stewart lost to Robert Donat for GOODBYE MR CHIPS, Harry Carey and Claude Rains lost to Thomas Mitchell for STAGECOACH. DP Joseph Walker lost to Gregg Toland for WUTHERING HEIGHTS.

*Incidentally, Rains delivers my all-time favourite movie dialogue when he asks Rick why he came to Casablanca. "For the waters." He replies: "The waters? What waters? We're in the desert." To which Rick says, "I was misinformed."

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

THE DARK KNIGHT - The Emperor's New Clothes

You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villainThis review is replete with spoilers.

THE DARK KNIGHT opens with a suitably moody image of the Batman icon but soon cuts to a very modern, bright picture of the top of a skyscraper in a contemporary US city. It's as though Nolan wants to separate himself completely from Burton's urban gothic. Or maybe he just wants to show that a year after BATMAN BEGINS, Gotham has been cleaned up. So instead of the beautifully designed grunge, overland metros and grafitti of BEGINS, THE DARK KNIGHT looks like a sleek thriller. Indeed, the opening bank heist reminded me of INSIDE MAN more than BEGINS or the Burton movies. It was all very anonymous and rather disappointing.

Half an hour into the movie we get our first scene of The Joker having fun with emasculated Gotham mafiosi. Heath Ledger is captivating: a scene with a pencil is shockingly funny. Finally, I feel like I'm being entertained. I even overlook all his precious lip-smacking.

We then wander around for another twenty minutes. The familiar characters are introduced. Michael Caine and Lucius Fox are wise-cracking and wise respectively as Alfred and Lucius Fox. There's a lot of time-wasting in Hong Kong and some really rather nasty off-hand comments about buying American rather than Chinese. I really don't like the inference. Batman forcefully extradites a mafiosi money-launderer from Hong Kong and dumps him at the gate of Lieutenant Gordon. Gary Oldman - now there's a subtle performance! If anyone deserves praise it's Oldman. Just look at the flicker of a cheeky smile as he appraises Batman's gift. Later, look at him plead for the lives of his loved ones. Now there's real emotion. Contrast it with Maggie Gyllenhaal (an actress I have much respect for.) She never convinces as a lawyer or as a woman torn between two men. She has no chemistry with Aaron Eckhart's clean-cut crusading DA, Harvey Dent. She's even less convincing in her scenes with Bruce Wayne. Watch her tell him she'll be there for him. Could she be more non-chalant? She plays it like she's trying to remember where she put her keys.

Fifty minutes in and The Joker's back on the scene with a truly frightening window scene. We're back to the excitement. He's an anarchist and he wants us to play his game. He even teases us with shifting versions of his origins story. (A little rich from a director who just spent a whole film giving us Batman's!) Note that in my humble opinion you could have cut into this film at minute forty-five and not have missed a thing.

Then we're on again with all the crime-thriller shenanigans. Gordon and the Batman want to bring down the mafia via its money launderer so they take their eyes off The Joker. Bruce Wayne goes all CSI. Blah blah blah. The director attempts to pull the rug from underneath the audience a couple of times. We all figure out what's going on immediately. Like they'd let Gordon die. Of course, once we know he didn't die we know Rachel really has died. They couldn't pull it off twice. Let's stop dancing round each other and get to the action!

One hour and thirty minutes into this film we finally get a proper showdown with the only truly spectacular action sequence involving a truck flipping over.

One hour and forty five minutes into this film and we reach a natural end. It's truly brilliant. Dark, unresolved, nihilistic, The Joker's head out of the car window, laughing at us all. This is like THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK only meaner.

Then we get another interminable forty-five minutes in which we basically get the origin story of Twoface, and a terribly rushed unwinding of his story. By this point, I'm fidgeting in my seat. I'm frustrated because Two-face's story should be more interesting than The Joker or BATMAN. After all, THE JOKER is an anarchist. There's no character development. Batman starts off conflicted and ends conflicted. He gets precious little screen time and he's just not that interesting here. But Harvey Dent could've been played like the fall of Michael Corleone. Except, Nolan shoe-horns his character arc into an unwanted epilogue rather than making it the strong start to the next movie. I esepcially disliked Two-face's make-up. The whole point about Batman is that the characters are normal people who are mentally disturbed. So Batman is just a man in a suit. The Joker is just a man with freakish scars and make-up. But Two-face looks so deformed he breaks through my willing suspension of disbelief. Less would've been more.

And, finally, what's with the crude attempt to get into the politics of The Patriot Act and the Ethics 101 practical philosophy class? The conversation between Batman and Lucius Fox about the ethics of wire-tapping to catch a terrorist is ham-fisted. It's as though Nolan is desperately trying to be political and of his time. But these sorts of political allegories are important and require a more profound treatment than a tacked on five minute scene.

Similarly, the philosophical dilemma with the two boats struck me as ridiculous. One boat is full of convicts: the other is full of ordinary citizens. Each boat has five minutes to blow the other one up or they both blow up. Nolan decides to have both the criminals and the citizens act with superlative integrity, despite a bit of whining from some of the people. How unrealistic is that? More to the point, it's completely out of keeping with the dark, subversive tone that he's trying to go for with the rest of the film. In fact, it's pure sentimental schmaltz. The Joker comes to spread anarchy and fear. But we good citizens won't play dice because, at heart, we love our fellow man. Please. The whole point of this film is that "with a few sticks of dynamite" The Joker can turn the most moral man in Gotham, Harvey Dent, into a pychopathic killer. Come on Nolan: make up your mind.

THE DARK KNIGHT isn't a terrible film but it is flawed. I didn't enjoy it except in brief flashes. It's overlong, and yet feels rushed. It has a brilliant cast, and yet feels poorly-acted. It's a comic book film but it films like a cliched movie thriller. Yes, Ledger is one of the highlights, but I've seen better performances this year. Indeed, I've seen arguably better performances in this film, not least that of Gary Oldman.

So, in the immortal words of PUBLIC ENEMY, Don't Believe The Hype.

THE DARK KNIGHT opened in Iceland, Argentina, Australia, Greece, Taiwan, Brazil, the US and Venezuela on the weekend of July 18th. It opens in Egypt, Italy, Nroway, Israel, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Estonia, Finland, Sweden, Turkey and the UK the weekend of July 25th. It opens in August in Belgiu,, Japan, France, Spain and Germany and opens in Russia on September 11th.

Monday, July 21, 2008

CSNY DEJA VU - Neil Young throws down again

CSNY DEJA VU isn't a movie about forensic scientists, as one colleague of mine erroneously believed. It's a documentary by and about Neil Young - legendary folk-rock musician, political protester, and all round rebel. As part of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, he wrote one of the best known and most heart-felt rock anthems of all time - "Ohio". Nearly forty years later, it's a different war but the same old fear and loathing, and Neil Young is angry. So angry that he dashed off an album, "Living with the war", in 2006, corralled his old band-mates, and hit the road again. The band are under no illusions about their capacity to inspire a political movement. Moreover, they know that in many cases they'll be preaching to the choir. What they want is to get the choir off their asses.

The tour starts off looking creaky - much like the sixty-something band members. Worse still, as the band moves to the south, they get nervous about the reaction they might get to songs with lyrics such as:

"Let's impeach the President for lying / And misleading our country into war
Abusing all the power that we gave him / And shipping all our money out the door

Let's impeach the president for hijacking / Our religion and using it to get elected
Dividing our country into colors / And still leaving black people neglected."

As you might imagine, the band are greeted with as many boos as cheers. Plenty of people resent having politics forced on them for the price of a $100 concert ticket. But the reaction, as chronicled by ABC embedded war reporter Michael Cerre, isn't universally negative. There are plenty of war veterans who feel that CSNY articulates their angst.

Now, I'm a great Neil Young fan, and I agree wholeheartedly with his views. But the documentary felt cobbled together and never gained traction with me. I couldn't help but wonder if it would have been more effective as a straightforward concert film, along the lines of Jonathan Demme's HEART OF GOLD. These songs are so effective, and their staging to powerful, that I may well have been more moved by hearing them through without the video diary interruptions.

CSNY DEJA VU played Sundance and Berlin 2008 and is currently on release in Germany and the UK. It opens in the US on Friday.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE - brutal, brilliant documentary

This is not prisoner abuseSTANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE is a documentary about the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse scandal. It is directed by Errol Morris - the film-maker who brought us a stunningly candid interview with former US Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara. Morris' documentary, THE FOG OF WAR, allowed McNamara to walk us through his decisions to escalate the war in Vietnam. It transformed my rather thin understanding of the period, and my prejudice against McNamara, into empathy and sympathy. Part of the reason why THE FOG OF WAR was such a good documentary was that Morris allowed his documentary subject the room to feel comfortable and be himself. Moreover, in sharp contrast to the high-concept documentaries of Michael Moore, Morris' doesn't loom large over his films. The subject is centre stage and the documentarian is as neutral as possible.

Those sterling qualities are what make STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE a tremendous film. Morris goes straight to the people at the heart of the biggest moral quandries of our time and gives them a comfortable environment in which to explain themselves. There's no hectoring, no crude politics - people are left to damn themselves with their own excuses or gain our sympathy in turn. The subject matter is also similar to THE FOG OF WAR. McNamara is a poster-boy for liberal hate for his involvement in Vietnam. Lynndie England, Charles Graner, Sabrina Harman, Ivan Frederick, Megan Ambuhl et al are even more notorious as the cocky, smiling sadists, posing with Iraqi prisoners in humiliating sexual positions for their own kicks.

Morris interviews many of the key participants, though not Charles Graner, who seems to have been the ringleader, because he's still in jail. Morris wants to get behind the infamous photographs. Photos don't lie, but they are simply a snapshot. You don't see the before and after, the cajoling, the nervousness, the regret or the defiance. So he just turns the camera on the people involved and lets them calmly explain what was going on when the photographs were taken, inter-cutting this with the actual footage, re-enactments, and a subtle score from Danny Elfman.

Lynndie England feels very strongly that she was the victim of the cajoling of her domineering boyfriend. She makes excuses but doesn't seem particularly contrite. She regrets her life being ruined so young, but does she really recognise why people were so horrified? Doesn't seem so. Megan Ambuhl and Javal Davis make exuses too. Then again, they come across as more cogent. You get the feeling that they knew what they were doing wasn't morally correct but that they had reasoned that in "the fog of war" all gloves are off. Sabrina Harman, on the other hand, does seem to regret what happened. She seems to acknowledge that she crossed a line: that at some point, she knew she had done wrong and that she was going to be punished. The only person who I felt genuinely sorry for - apart from the Iraqis, of course, was Janis Karpinski - the commanding officer at the prison. She comes across as a woman of real integrity and honour who was treated very poorly by the hierarchy eager to be seen to react.

Watching STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE is a brutal experience because you are constantly exposed to gruesome footage of people being sadistic and then making excuses. You're seeing humanity at its worst. But what's even more shocking is that, in the final analysis, these US soldiers - some of them very young - some of them clearly under the impression that their behaviour was sanctioned - were hung out to dry. And, after all, aren't they partly right? The photograph shown above wasn't one for which they were prosecuted. No. This wasn't "prisoner abuse". This was Standard Operating Procedure. This was sanctioned. And if we've fallen to the point where this is allowed, who's to judge what isn't?

STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE played Berlin 2008, where it was the first documentary to be nominated for the Golden Bear. It was released in the US, Germany and Belgium earlier this year. It opens this weekend in Australia and on July 18th in the UK.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

WALL-E almost lives up to the hype

It seems that Operation Cleanup was a failure!Short of Heath Ledger's performance in THE DARK KNIGHT, WALL-E is the most hyped film of the year so far. Indeed, it's been praised by all and sundry as the CITIZEN KANE of animated cinema. Well, I didn't think it's a perfect film, more of which to follow, but it's certainly beautifully drawn, emotionally engaging, and laugh-out-loud funny. Surely that's praise enough?

WALL-E is based in a dystopian future. Humans have so polluted the earth that they're living in a space-ship run by a monolithic hypermarket called Buy'n'large. Here, the movie acts as a savage indictment of crass commerce. The human race is obese and all human interaction is mediated by computers. However, it takes us 30 minutes to reach this world. Up until that point, we're back on earth with WALL-E, a cute ET-like robot, who's compacting rubbish. WALL-E is adorable in the way that curious toddlers can be adorable. He is excited by packaging rather than it's contents. He makes us laugh in the same way the Charlie Chaplin made us laugh.

WALL-E falls in love with a rather aggressive robot called EVA - sent to earth to find signs of regenerated life - and follows her back to the spaceship to play out his own little romantic dream of holding hands with the girl-robot he loves. Once on board the spaceship, I felt the movie lost a lot of its charm and actually moved too slow. The social satire is funny at first, but it's also fairly crude. Things picked up again once the ship's captain started to rebel against the HAL-like autopilot, and the ending is truly lovely. Still, ACT II was a little boring in parts.

Having said all that, WALL-E is still a great animated film. In terms of its visuals, its sound design and its homage to the best silent comedy, it's far ahead of anything else in terms of ambition and scope. Still for the complete package - a film that kept me interested throughout its run-time - I'll take RATATOUILLE by a small margin.

WALL-E is on release in the US, UK, Bolivia, Chile, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Panama, Uruguay, Kuwait, Ukraine, Mexico, Argentina, Israel, Iceland, Lithuania and Poland. It opens next weekend in Gong Kong and Hungary, and on July 20th in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. It opens in August in Egypt, Spain, South Korea, Latvia, Venzuela, Thailand, Indonesia, Portugal, Estonia, Singapore, Slovenia, Denmark and Norway. WALL-E opens in September in Bulgaria, Finland, Romania, Sweden, Australia, Greece, New Zealand, Germany and Turkey. It opens in Switzerland and Italy in October and in Japan on December 20th.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Random DVD Round-Up 3 - BLACK AND WHITE

BLACK AND WHITE is the latest movie from writer-director Subhash Ghai, best known for TAAL and the relative flop, KISNA. In this film he narrows his scope and makes a relatively subdued and earnest movie, by Bollywood standards at least. Newcomer Anurag Sinha is cast as a young muslim boy, traumatised by the death of his mother at the hands of Hindu militants, and indoctrinated by Islamists. He comes to Delhi to attack the Red Fort on independence day. His clarity of purpose is muddled by two things - his attraction to a young girl of a different religion, and his friendship with a well-meaning couple played by Anil Kapoor and Shefali Shetty (best known to Western viewers for her performance in MONSOON WEDDING). Kapoor plays a deeply tolerant, intelligent Urdu professor - eager to take the boy under his wing. Shetty plays a more radical, political activist who is initially wary of the brooding young man.

The movie plays as a quiet, intelligent analysis of political corruption and the motives behind terrorist acts. It's remarkably unsensationalist and even-handed. Anil Kapoor gives a decent performance, as do Shetty and Sinha. I especially liked Sukhwinder Singh's score and Somak Mukherjee's location work in Chandi Chowk, Jama Masjid, the Red Fort and Qutab Minar. Admittedly, the plot is a little predictable, and the denoument rather melodramatic. But as Bollywood political thrillers go, BLACK AND WHITE is certainly worth a look.

BLACK AND WHITE was released in March 2008 and is now available on DVD.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Random DVD Round-Up 2 - MONSTER IN LAW

I think you dislocated my vagina. MONSTER IN LAW is a deeply unfunny, painfully badly written rom-com rip-off of MEET THE PARENTS, from director of the infinitely better LEGALLY BLONDE. J-Lo stars a sweet girl who meets-cute with a sweet doctor (the anodyne Michael Vartan). They get engaged to the horror of his Barbara-Walters-like mega-successful mother, played by Jane Fonda. Coming back to the big screen with this role will go down as one of Fonda's biggest career mistakes. It's amazing to me that a woman who has been so politically engaged, and given such outstanding performances, would make such a shockingly banal film, playing such as two-dimensional character, so badly. Her character schemes against J-Lo's character. J-Lo's character schemes back. And then there's a ridiculous and unbelievable final scene where everyone gets mushy.

Pure cinema trash.

MONSTER IN LAW was released in summer 2005. It is available on DVD.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Random DVD Round-Up 1 - THE GIRL NEXT DOOR

THE GIRL NEXT DOOR is only interesting because it contains early performances from actors who would later go on to do interesting things: Emile Hirsch, Paul Dano and Timothy Olyphant. Elisha Cushbert however, does what she did in that awful teen slasher flick - pander to teen fantasies in films of dubious quality and sleazy morals.

Hirsh plays a nerdy schoolkid who falls for the girl next door. Turns out she's a porn star. So he, cajoled by his crass buddies, assumes she's easy and takes her to a hotel room, and she, being a classic movie hooker/porn star with a heart of gold, gets offended. The whole plot then grinds on for another interminable hour.


THE GIRL NEXT DOOR was released in 2004 and is available on DVD.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH - a glorious popcorn B-movie

You're 13. You can't call dibs on the mountain guide.I've never read Jules Verne's "Journey to the Centre of the Earth" and I'm unlikely to in the future. I don't care if this movie is true to its source. I don't care that they spell centre the American way. I don't care that Brendan Fraser isn't Laurence Olivier. I don't care that the hot Icelandic mountain guide's name is a boy's name not a girl's name. I don't care that the rollercoaster ride through the mineshafts is lifted from INDY 2. I don't care that the dinosaurs look like cheap JURASSIC PARK knock-offs. I don't even care that the boy-hero (the kid from TERABITHIA) takes a cell-phone call in the freakin' centre of the earth!

I don't care because JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH is fun! Good, old-fashioned, B-movie, popcorn-tastic fun. A kid, his ludicrously buff scientist-uncle and a Scandy hiker fall through a volcano into the centre of the earth. It's a great little adventure. There are mean beasties and what the UK film censors like to call "mild peril". There are some laughs, some mild 3-D inspired surprises and the whole thing is as much fun as Thunder Mountain Rail Road crossed with the Indiana Jones ride at Universal Studios.

This film is just so good-natured and the minutes slip by so easily that I simply can't see what anyone has against it. Roll on the nicely set-up sequel!

JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH is on release in Brazil, Canada, Panama, Taiwan, the UK and the US. It opens later in July in France, Argentina, Mexico, Turkey, Israel and Thailand. It opens in August in Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, Poland, Portugal, and Venezuela. It opens in September in the Netherlands, Finland, Russia, Iceland, Australia, Greece and Norway.

Monday, July 14, 2008

MY WINNIPEG - The Forks, The Lap, The Fur...

Intone it like a mantra....

Guy Maddin is one of the most consistently original, surprising and evocative of the independent film-makers working today. And for the uninitiated, MY WINNIPEG is his most accessible work. It's a fictionalised documentary about his home town - the buildings, people and local legends that shaped his childhood. Maddin's voice looms large over the work, in a lyrical voice-over that speaks of the spiritual power of a town founded on ley-lines, at the intersection of two rivers, and at the hub of a great railway network. He speaks of his childhood above a hair-salon, "the gynocracy", and intones the word "home" with such meaning it makes you feel nostalgic too. You feel his civic wrath at the simple-minded local government that tore down the landmark Eaton department store and ice hockey rink. And if you let yourself go with the movie, you want to believe, as Maddin does, that a ghostly team of all-stars still plays on its site.

Maddin's homage to Winnipeg isn't fenced in by reality but somehow manages to convey the true spirit of the city more successfully through an acknowledged fictionalising of events. So, while Maddin persists in pretending that the actress Ann Savage really is his mother, pressed into re-enacting key scenes from his childhood, he also starts the movie with a scene showing us that he is directing her! It's as though he's teasing us: I know and you know that this is a nonsense-tale, but after all wouldn't you rather believe that the town council really did conduct seances in city hall?

That this movie weaves a spell is in no small part down to Maddin's brilliant way with words, but it's also due to his wonderful collage style of filming. His movies are largely shot in monochrome, as if cobbled together from period footage, distressed and jump-cut. Images over-lap each other - there's extensive use of back-projection....It feels like you've stepped into a box of old photos and gramophone records. Sometimes, Maddin shows you some contemporary colour footage, and then let's you see him transform it back into monochrome myth. It's as if he can't resist letting you know just how clever he is! More charitably, that he's saying something meaningful about how we create memories.

MY WINNIPEG played Toronto 2007 and Berlin 2008. It opened in the US on June 13th and is currently playing in the UK.

Friday, July 11, 2008

COUS COUS - LA GRAINE ET LE MULET - an elegant, authentic, heart-breaking immigrant story

COUS COUS is a justifiably critically acclaimed family drama from French-Tunisian writer-director Abdel Kechiche. His story is set in a harbour town in contemporary France and centres on an old dock-worker called Slimane. When we meet him, Slimane is being down-sized - his years of service irrelevant because they were largely off the books. Even at home, Slimane is marginalised. His ex-wife, Saouda, scorns his alimony payments (yet more mullet!) His feckless sons think he should bugger off back to Tunisia. He's a has-been - good for nothing but doting on his grandchildren. Slimane's true supports are his haughty lover and her doting daughter, Rym (a brilliant and award-winning performance from Hafsia Herzi). While his real family stand on ceremony and points of honour, these hard-working women do whatever's necessary to make Slimane's dream of running a restaurent-boat come true.

The resulting film is beautifully made. Both the acting and the photography are naturalistic and feel authentic. The complex web of emotions and relationships is essayed by allowing the viewer to watching the family having everyday conversations and arguments. In one particularly brilliant scene, we learn of the state of affairs by hearing the Greek chorus of old men gossiping rather than seeing the action directly. I love the way Abdel Kechiche takes his time to establish the characters before slowly painfully ratcheting up the tension on the night of the restaurent's grand opening. And I especially love the elegant final scenes, that resolve everything and nothing.

COUS COUS won the FIPRESCI prize and tied for the Special Jury Prize at Venice 2007. Hafsia Herzi won the Marcello MAstroianni Award. COUS COUS also won the César for Best Director, Best Film, Best Screenplay and Most Promising Actress for Hafsia Herzi. It opened in Belgium and France at the end of 2007. It opened earlier this year in Italy, Greece, Australia, the Netherlands, and Egypt. It is currently on release in the UK, Russia and Israel. It opens on September 4th in Germany.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

MEET DAVE - mirthless

It's cold outside, there's no kind of atmosphere. I'm all alone, more or less.MEET DAVE is a truly mirthless comedy from the people that brought you NORBIT.

Eddie Murphy plays a human-replicant droid sent my a miniature alien species to drain earth of its water. The survival of their race entails the destruction of our world. However, when the robot, Dave, starts hanging out with a cute moppet from New York and his sweet mother, he learns the meaning of love and laughter, and loses his will to destroy humanity.

This film is high concept but low on laughs. We've all seen movies that have random strangers struggling to fit in with our weird earth manners. This sort of thing was done far better in the TV seris, THIRD ROCK FROM THE SUN, for instance. And as for the production design, it's distinctly low-rent. Compare the set design for the captain's bridge inside Dave's head with any sci-fi show, or the special effects in the decades earlier INNERSPACE.

Overall, then, a big fat thumbs down.

MEET DAVE is on release in the US, Iceland, Kuwait, Russia, Finland, Indonesia and Romania. It opens next weekend in the UK, Australia, Israel and Estonia. It opens later in July in Mexico, Venezuala and Greece. MEET DAVE opens in August in Belgium, Argentina, Brazil, Egypt, France, Singapore, the Netherlands, Portugal, Denmark, Italy, Autria, Germany, Hong Kong, Slovenia and Sweden. It opens on September 19th in Norway and on December 19th in Japan.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM - Mun-kaaaaaaaaayyyy!!!

FORBIDDEN KINGDOM is a loving a tribute to chessy kung-fu flicks and the dream movie for geeky kung-fu fanboys around the globe. The movie gives them their dream of being transported from drab reality into a world where Jet Li and Jackie Chan will teach them to fight and win the hot Asian chick of their dreams. But it's also a movie that lovingly mocks the conventions of the genre and the fans who worship it. (WANTED wishes it had this much heart and wit.) Jet Li spoofs Masaaki Sakai's Monkey - he fights brilliantly but he's also brilliantly funny. Both Jet Li and Jackie Chan mock the silly white teenagers who know every move but can't perform a single one. And let's not forget the Pure Comedy Genius of the Silent Monk making rain for the Drunken Master!

Comedy aside, fanboys will be watching the movie for the first screen battle between Jet Li and Jackie Chan. About half an hour in we see their fight. Yes, there's some wire-fu but it's mostly fist-on-fist. Awesome stuff, even if the physical impact of all the contact is muted for the 12A rating.

In fairness, the narrative surrounding the fight scenes is very corny Cinderella stuff. The dialogue is cheesy as is the incipient romance between the geek and the kung fu chick is weak. I also loved the montage where the kid learned kung fu in a week. Truly worthy of a TEAM AMERICA tribute song! Still, I can't deny that the movie left me in a cheerful mood. It's nice to think that dreams can come true. What else is cinema for? And all that wonderful location photography of sun-lit Chinese countryside made for a nice change after the torrential London rains.

FORBIDDEN KINGDOM was released earlier this year in Malaysia, Singapore, Canada, Indoensia, the Philippines, Thailand, the US, Hong Kong, Russia, South Lorea, India, Turkey, Israel, Portugal, Kuwait, Ukraine and Iceland. It goes on release in the UK today and opens in Estonia, Finland, Japan and Australia later in July. It opens in Norway, Brazil and the Netherlands in August; in New Zealand, Belgium and France in September and in Spain in October.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

ANGUS, THONGS AND PERFECT SNOGGING - a qualified thumbs up from the target demographic

Revisionist historians now claim that far from being mad, Joan of Arc may have been a victim of food poisoning.A sure sign of ageing: I offered The Kid a chance to see the WALL-E preview; she asked to see ANGUS, THONGS AND PERFECT SNOGGING instead. Since when did The Kid know about thongs? And have I taught her nothing about cinema? Ah well, youth must be indulged even if the mere title of the movie brought me out in hives.

ANGUS, SNOGS AND PERFECT SNOGGING is based on a series of exceptionally successful children's books by Louise Rennison. The books are narrated by a teenager called Georgia Nicolson who is willing to do anything to get a boyfriend. The film is a catalogue of her attempts - from changing her physical appearance to taking snogging lessons to using an innocent bystander to make her putative boyfriend jealous. The whole thing is pretty formulaic, including the fact that Georgia manages to piss off all her friends in the third act before a completely unearned happy ending in the fourth. (The evil baddie got pretty harsh treatment - I thought unnecessarily harsh.)

The message of the film is apparently that young girls should be happy looking the way they look, because Mr Right will like you just the way you are. Laudable enough. But why did I have to sit through ninety minutes of dialogue so puerile I got seriously worried about The Kid's sanity? To give you a flavour, here's the description of the one of the books from the website: "The third gorgey book about Georgia's adventures - guaranteed to have you laughing your knickers off. Find out how Georgia copes with her rapidly expanding nunga-nungas!" I mean, dear gods, did Ms Pankurst chain herself to the railings for this?! Clearly, I am not the demographic for this movie, and I strongly suggest that you drop your over 12s at the cinema and pick them up afterwards.

The only opinion that matters, I suppose, is that of The Kid. She had a great time, once she got over the shock of the changed title, lack of berets(?) and collapsed storyline. Apparently, the screenwriters have combined events from different novels, presumably saving us from sequels, and massively beefed up the parents marriage trouble storyline. She thought Robbie was cute (Aaron Johnson - the kid from THE ILLUSIONIST and THE THIEF LORD) and that Georgia was perfect. I also thought that Georgia Groome gave a charming performance. Moreover, she was playing a role a million miles away from her turn in LONDON TO BRIGHTON. She's evidently an actress to watch. Finally, though, even The Kid thought the denouement was just too ridiculously fairy-tale. And she has a pretty high hurdle-rate for schmaltz. So, all in all, I guess it's a qaulified thumbs up from the fan-base.

ANGUS, THONGS AND PERFECT SNOGGING goes on release in the UK on July 25th. It opens in Italy on August 1st; in Belgium on August 13th; in Germany on August 28th; in Australia and Russia on September 18th; in Norway on September 26th; in the Netherlands on October 2nd; in Spain on October 2nd; in Sweden on October 17th and in Denmark on January 2nd 2009.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

THE VISITOR - admirably restrained

THE VISITOR is a beautifully acted, admirably restrained, chamber drama. It focuses on the relationship between a dessicated old academic and three immigrants that he meets by chance. Richard Jenkins gives a subtly modulated performance as the introverted Professor Vale. Forced to visit New York to attend a conference, he finds that a fraudster has been renting his apartment to a young couple. They panic, and then apologetically leave, but Vale is decent enough not to have them sleep rough. He invites them back and forms a tentative friendship, cemented through a shared love of music. He starts to enjoy life again. The politics of immigration are barely mentioned until the young man, Tarek, is arrested and threatened with deportation. Even then, writer-director Thomas McCarthy doesn't force a political message down our throat. Instead, he lets the audience follow Walter Vale through the process of visiting a friend who's in detention. The petty frustrations and callous treatment speak for themselves.

This is, finally, the strength of the film. McCarthy lets the characters and situations speak for themselves, quietly, forcefully, authentically.

THE VISITOR played Toronto 2007 and Sundance 2008. It opened in the US earlier this year and is currently on release in the UK. It opens in France in October.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

A CRUDE AWAKENING: THE OIL CRASH - a primer on peak oil

So a friend of mine was bugging me about why oil prices were so high (being tangentially connected to my day job) and I recommended he watch A CRUDE AWAKENING. Be very clear, I don't think this is a great documentary. I was pretty bored watching it, but like I said, I'm more than familiar with its arguments. It does, however, serve as a primer on where oil comes from, how much we consume relative to history, and the problems with securing supply for the future. It also presents a simple diagnosis of the relationship between the oil business and international politics.

I have two quibbles with A CRUDE AWAKENING. The first is the manner in which the film-makers present their arguments and use the medium of cinema. Frankly, the movie plays like a well-made TV documentary - I can see no reason why it would need a theatrical release. The more substantive problem I have is that by focusing on the contested "peak oil" arguments, the documentary gets caught arguing against a straw man. Whether or not we're at, or have surpassed peak oil - even if we had billions of gallons of untapped oil ready to pump into the world economy - we'd still be reckless in using it because of the environmental damage. Surely that's the bigger point than this scare story?

A CRUDE AWAKENING: THE OIL CRASH opened in the UK last November and is available on DVD.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Meryl Streep deserves an Oscar for her performance in MAMMA MIA!

Mamma Mia! The cruel meatball of war has rolled onto our laps and ruined our white pants of peace!The story is slight. Twenty years ago, Donna (Meryl Streep) fell in love with Sam on a Greek island, but he left her to marry his fiancee. She then slept with two other men on the rebound - Harry and Bill. Twenty years later, the resulting child, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) secretly reads her mother's diary and invites her three potential fathers to her wedding, hoping that she'll just intuit who her real dad is. Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) remains a free-spirited traveller, rather flummoxed at the idea of having a daughter. Harry (Colin Firth) is now a straight-laced financier, who is charmed with the idea of even a part-share in a daughter. But for Sam (Pierce Brosnan) the prize is not just a daughter, but lost love.

The resulting movie is a well-crafted balance of the light and dark in Abba's music. On the one hand, we have all the disco classics, with high-energy song and dance routines. Christine Baranski and Julie Walters are laugh-out-loud funny as Donna's female friends and Colin Firth steals a couple of scenes towards the end of the film.

On the other hand, the writer has evidently taken care to listen to the lyrics of the darker material about relationships gone wrong and thwarted dreams. These are played out in the relationship between Donna, her daughter, and her old lover Sam. Meryl Streep is absolutely brilliant as Donna. We really believe that she used to be a wild child, and she pulls off all the physical comedy. But Streep excels in the scenes that demand emotional depth. In particular, her performance of "The Winner Takes It All" - a brutal song - is heart-breaking. I didn't imagine I'd leave MAMMA MIA! having seen an Oscar-worthy dramatic performance, but I honestly believe that Streep has pulled it off.

Phyllida Lloyd's direction is full of energy and in general, feels naturalistic, even when the performers go into heavily choreographed routines. She wisely uses a lot of location work rather than studio sets, and Haris Zambarloukos' photographs the Greek islands beautifully. The only mis-steps for me were the staging of "Money, money, money" and the use of the literal Greek Chorus, which seemed just too camp and jarred with the less stage-y feel of the rest of the movie. Still, the odd gripe aside, MAMMA MIA! was tremendous fun and also surprisingly moving. I was dragged along by a total Abba fan who was desperate to see it on opening weekend, and I felt a little hemmed in by the die-hard fanatics at the start, but soon lost all my prejudices. MAMMA MIA! makes for great entertainment and is by far the most satisfying summer movie this year.

MAMMA MIA opens on July 3rd in Greece. It opens on July 10th in the UK, Australia, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Sweden. It opens on July 17th in the US, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Austria, Estonia and Finland. It opens on July 23rd in Egypt; in August in Spain, the Czech Republic, Brazil, Argentina, Israel and Mexico. It opens in September in Slovakia, Romania, Belgium, France, Hong Kong, Singapore, Russia and Venezuela. It opens in Turkey and Italy on October 3rd.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Overlooked DVD of the month - I COULD NEVER BE YOUR WOMAN

I COULD NEVER BE YOUR WOMAN is a very witty satire at the expense of the superficiality of TV studio execs, played out in the form of a romantic comedy. It features a star cast including Michelle Pfeiffer, Paul Rudd and Saiorse Ronan, who went on to win acclaim for her role in ATONEMENT. British comedy fans will be delighted with cameos from Graham Norton and Mackenzie Crook. And yet, this film went straight to video in the UK.

I have no idea why this movie bombed. I found it really hillarious, spot-on in its social critique and pretty insightful about how men and women approach ageing. Pfeiffer plays a forty something TV exec who writes a teen sitcom in the manner of SAVED BY THE BELL. She's trying to "moisturize her way back to her twenties" and believes that by wearing a Ramones t-shirt and maintaining her college weight she can fight off the ageing proces. Paul Rudd plays the twenty something cast-member who tries to date her. Already, you've got a movie that takes the piss out of the fact that all the supposed teens on US TV are actually married with kids. And then you have the meta critique with Rudd and Pfeiffer playing people ten years younger than they are.

All I can say is, that this movie is definitely worth seeking out. It far surpasses all those Judd Apatow movies on the laugh-out-loud-o-meter. If you liked CLUELESS or KNOCKED UP - this is one for you!

I COULD NEVER BE YOUR WOMAN opened in Spain, Belgium, Greece, Brazil, Turkey, Poland, the Netherlands, Russia, Hungary, Estonia, Indonesia and Israel in 2007. It opened earlier in 2008 in the Philippines, Hong Kong, Thailand and Mexico. It went straight to video in the US and UK.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The good news is that Will Smith's career can survive HANCOCK

What about Magna Carta? Did she die in vain?I like Will Smith. He has a charming, amiable personality and he's brilliant at making wholesome family comedies. He's so damn charming he survived WILD, WILD WEST. So, claims that HANCOCK is going to do to Smith's career what THE LAST ACTION HERO did to Arnie are likely wide of the mark. Moreover, while HANCOCK is a deeply flawed movie, it's by no means a complete disaster.

The first half of the movie is actually a lot of fun. It's laugh-out loud funny and it contains cool special effects and a buddy relationship to believe in. Will Smith plays a reluctant superhero called Hancock. He feels unappreciated and reacts by being rude to the people he's helping. Hancock is transformed into a considerate, professional superhero by a warm-hearted PR man called Ray (Jason Bateman). It's wonderful to see our down-trodden hero finally get the public recognition he deserves.

Sadly, the second half of the movie is weird, rushed, logically flawed and completely different in tone to the first half of the film. This is motivated by an easily spotted plot twist. It's as though the screenwriters didn't have the balls to follow through on their premise:
what happens when a superhero has as complicated an emotional life as your typical adult? Even more interestingly, they hint at, but don't have the balls to address fully, the issue of inter-racial dating. Instead, we get a fudged, rushed ending that makes no sense at all. And yes, I know superheroes are a fantasy but the rules of the game have to be consistent enough to support our willing suspension of disbelief.

HANCOCK is released this weekend in the USA, the UK, Canada, China, Egypt, Estonia, Iceland, Indonesia, South Korea, Argentina, Australia, Germany, Hong Kong, Hungary, Singapore, Slovenia, Brazil, India and Venezuela. It opens the following weekend in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Russia, Mexico and Poland. HANCOCK opens on July 16th in Denmark, Finland, Norway, Spain and Sweden. It opens in August in Turkey and Japan and in September in Italy and Greece.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Overlooked DVD of the month - CEKSY SEN / CZECH DREAM

CZECH DREAM is a little like SUPERSIZE ME in that it's a documentary that centres on a single, brilliant idea. In this case, the two directors decide to fake the opening of a new Czech hypermarket. They have makeovers so that they look the part of corporate managers; they hire a marketing team to plaster the Czech Republic with posters advertising the grand opening; they sit back and wait for the people to come. While they're waiting they interviews shoppers, store workers and marketing men about the consumer revolution that the Czech Republic has undergone over the past decade. Here is a nation that experienced decades of rationed consumption under Communism, now collectively buying into the dream of sparkling, inviting aisles stacked with every kind of produce you could ever want, and lots that you don't need. Feel the calm satisfaction of the bulging trolley! Turn up to a grand opening, believe the hype! A wonderful allegory for EU membership? I'm not convinced. But as a slice of social history in a transition economy - yesterday the Czech Republic, today China - this is fascinating stuff.

CZECH DREAM played London 2004 and was released in the Czech Republic that year. It opened in the UK in 2005 and is available on DVD.