Friday, October 31, 2008

HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 3 - creepy fun

HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 3 is the first of the successful Disney teen musical franchise to get a theatrical release. Everything is bigger and shinier but the plot is essentially the same. Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) is conflicted. He's the high school basketball star and his dad wants him to take up a sports scholarship to his alma mater. But Troy also loves singing in high school musicals with his girlfriend Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens), the math geek who might leave before Prom for the Stanford summer school. Meanwhile, Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale) wants to steal Troy and Gabriella's limelight (and a scholarship to Juilliard) and enlists her brother Ryan (Lucas Grabeel) to help. Troy and Gabriella provide the gloopy romance and ballads - Ryan and Sharpay provide the comic relief. It's a simple formula and it works well. The dance numbers are professionally done with lots of energy. The kids clearly have buckets of talent.

So, HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 3 is a good movie. It gives the fans exactly what they want: more of the same. Parents and guardians may, however, be less happy to sit through HSM redux and find themselves wondering how healthy it is for their kids to think that the world is filled with squeaky clean straight kids whose biggest problem is whether to accept that ivy league scholarship or that place at the prestigious music school. I grew up watching GRANGE HILL where Zammo got hooked on smack. This whole movement seems spookily STEPFORD to me.

HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 3 is on release in the US, UK, Sweden, Denmark, Egypt, France, Austria, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Kuwait, the UAE, Brazil, Canada, Estonia, Finland, Hong Kong, Norway, the Philippines, Poland, Singapore, Spain, Taiwan, Italy, Belgium, Indonesia, Peru, Portugal, Iceland, Italy and Panama. It opens in Russia, Romania and Turkey on November 14th; in Chile and Vietnam on November 20th; in Argentina, Slovakia and Venezuela on November 28th; in Australia, the Czech Republic and New Zealand on December 4th; in the Netherlands on December 10th; and in Japan on February 7th.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

London Film Fest Day 16 - SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is a bizarre hybrid movie from the incredibly versatile British director Danny Boyle. He's done urban grime (TRAINSPOTTING), quasi-zombie movies (28 DAYS LATER), sci-fi (SUNSHINE) and now a sort of English-language Bollywood movie. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE has the art-house director's eye and a willingness to depict the horrific truth of life in the Mumbai slums. But it splices this with the schmaltzy romantic ending of your typical Bollywood movie. It's a tricky balance to pull off. Moreover, the film carefully and elegantly weaves together scenes showing its protagonists at age 7, 12 and 18. Danny Boyle shows his quality because he manages to control the conflicting styles and inter-weaving script.

The movie is about a boy called Jamal who grows up in the Mumbai slums with his older brother Salim. At age seven, anti-Muslim riots make the boys homeless orphans. They are lured into becoming beggars for an organised gang and only escape when it becomes clear that the gang-leader will blind Jamal because blind singers earn double. It's that brutal. In escaping, the boys leave behind their friend Latika. At age 18 the boys return to Mumbai and search out Latika, who is being trained to be a whore. They rescue her, only for Salim and Latika to fall back into the clutches of a gang boss - now transformed into a property developer in the Maximum City Mumbai of 2008. Jamal is reduced to working as the teaboy in Mumbai call centres.

So far, the movie plays like a British independent movie dissecting the social truth of life in Mumbai in 2008 - the call centres, rising middle-class wealth, gated luxury apartments alongside the old slums, the corruption, the hazard.....It's all brilliantly well done - well acted and beautifully shot on handheld DV by Anthony Dod Mantle.

Where the movie ultimately lost me (and our Gmunden correspondent) was in its high concept framing device. 18 year old Jamal (Dev Patel of SKINS fame) has decided that the only way he can contact childhood sweetheart Latika is to appear of the Indian version of WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE? - a TV show she watches. Through sheer luck, he knows all the answers to the questions and as taping ends on the first day he is on the verge of being a millionaire. The show's oleaginous host (Anil Kapoor doing a brilliant impression of Amitabh Bachchan) suspects him of cheating. How can an uneducated slumdog know all the answers? So over-night, Jamal is interrogated by the police (Irrfhan Khan). In explaining his answers to the policeman, Jamal gives us the flashbacks of his life and the story to date. The copper believes him and lets him go so he can finish taping the show and hopefully find his girl. Jamal may be a slumdog but he's actually not in it for the money.

The high concept allows Danny Boyle to give the movie a melodramatic, schmaltzy Bollywood ending. I can see why this would be the popular choice, but it tipped the movie over the edge. I like my social commentary undiluted. Still, while SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE isn't quite my thing, you can't deny that it's a well-made, audacious, truly original hybrid film - and manages both to provoke and to entertain!

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE played Toronto (where it won the People's Choice Award) and London 2008. It opens in France on January 7th 2009; in the UK on January 9th; in Belgium on January 14th and in the Netherlands on April 2nd.

London Film Festival Day 16 - RACHEL GETTING MARRIED

RACHEL GETTING MARRIED is in that sub-genre of indie movies that does family dysfunction. Think THE SQUID AND THE WHALE or MARGOT AT THE WEDDING. Think of a middle-class American family gathering for a big occasion, being truly horrific to each other until, hey, they all realise that they are family and they love each other, thus making the first hour's histrionics seem a bit pointless. All this in played out against the background of perhaps the most forced politically correct wedding in cinema history - moreover, in a movie where director Jonathan Demme seems far more interested in the outstanding score that in the narrative arc. He's more wedding planner than engaged director in this film. Nonetheless, the movie is worth seeing for Anne Hathaway's raw performance as recovering junkie, Kym, who is reinserted into family life for her sister Rachel's wedding. Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) resents the fact that Kym is the centre of attention - Kym resents everyone judging her. The arguments between Kym and Rachel build to an almost unbearable crescendo. It's a shame that it all disintegrates into an extended world music video.

RACHEL GETTING MARRIED played Venice, Toronto and London 2008. It is currently on release in the US. It opens in Germany on March 26th, in Belgium on April 22nd, and in the Netherlands on April 30th.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

London Film Fest Day 15 - QUANTUM OF SOLACE - the Bond that dare not speak its name

Health warnings up-front. I despise the Ian Fleming Bond novels. They are vulgar, misogynistic, sado-masochistic fantasy novels that miss the mark on international espionage as far as Michael Bay missed the mark with PEARL HARBOUR. Give me the grime of John Le Carre any day. As far as the movies go, I appreciated the pre-Daniel Craig franchise insofar as it was camp, ludicrous, gratuitously luxurious and balls-out ridiculous. To me, Bond was only good insofar as he was driving pretty cars and the villains were stroking a white cat. I can, however, see why many people didn't like the old Bond flicks. The boundary between being camp and just being bad is easily transgressed viz. DIE ANOTHER DAY.

I think a lot of people who hate typical Bond movies liked CASINO ROYALE because it was trying to be a BOURNE film. It had characters with real emotions, a decent plot, proper actors and some okay action scenes. I, on the other hand, hated CASINO ROYALE on the grounds that if I want to watch a decent spy thriller, I'll watch THE BOURNE IDENTITY. If I watch a Bond film I want a Bond film. I don't want Bond driving a fracking Ford Mondeo and playing Poker in the Hotel Splendide.

My view is that the Bond franchise has now boxed itself into a corner. It's too ashamed to do anything too Bond - random rumpy-pumpy, gratuitous violence - but feels that it has to nod to the genre-tropes. So, in QUANTUM OF SOLACE, Bond does have a random shag with Gemma Arterton but it's all very perfunctory and joyless. On the other hand, the movie wants to be both an emotional character drama AND an action film. So you find yourself in a very odd mish-mash of a film. In the case of QUANTUM OF SOLACE, it's directed by Marc Forster (THE KITE RUNNER, STRANGER THAN FICTION) who knows how to do drama. Problem is, he can't direct action movies for toffee. It's all hand-held close-ups and frenetic editing so you can't tell what's going on. I was just praying for him to pull back, keep the camera still and just let the action unwind.

All this is to delay the inevitable point where I attempt to tell you the plot of QUANTUM OF SOLACE. This is tricky because QoS is a really badly written, poorly assembled film, with a narrative (and indeed a title) that never quite make sense. It's a terrible waste of Daniel Craig and Mathieu Amalric as the baddie. Gemma Arterton barely gets a look-in and Olga Kurylenko is once again just a body. The basic idea is that Bond is on the warpath after the shadowy evil organisation that forced the suicide of his lover, Vesper Lynd. So Bond goes ga-ga, indulging in a plethora of chase scenes in the company of similarly vengeful Camille (Olga Kurylenko). They are chasing down Dominic Greene (Amalric), head of a Smersh like org called Quantum (a-ha!) We know he's a purveyor of evil because he's essentially a utilities trader! And that's it. Welcome to Bond does Enron.

Obviously, all the deeply annoying crap from CASINO holds over here. The shameless merchandising; the endless chases; the embarassment at being Bond at all. But even if you liked CASINO ROYALE I think you might be disappointed with QUANTUM OF SOLACE because it doesn't even have the compensation of tight plotting and emotional engagement.

QUANTUM OF SOLACE played London 2008. It goes on release in the UK, France and Sweden this weekend. It opens next weekend in Bahrain, Belgium, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Oman, the Philippines, Switzerland, Argentina, Bolivia,Chile, Croatia, Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Peru, Portugal, Qatar, Russia, Serbia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Syria, Thailand, Ukraine, UAE, Italy and Norway. It opens on November 14th in Hungary, Austria, Belize, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Denmark, Ecuador, El Salvador, Estonia, Finland, Guatemala, Honduras, Iceland, India, Kenya, Latvia, Lithuania, Mexico, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Panama, Poland, Romania, Taiwan, Turkey and the USA. It opens in Australia on 19th November; in Spain on the 21st; in South Africa on the 28th; in New Zealand and Venezuela on the 4th December; in Uruguay on the 26th December and in Japan on January 10th 2009.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

London Film Festival Day 14 - LION'S DEN / LEONERA

This festival has seen a trio of movies anchored by powerful performances by men - HUNGER, IL DIVO and THE WRESTLER. So it's refreshing to finally come across a movie that centres on the performance of a woman, and also highlights the specifically feminine issue of motherhood, and more powerfully, raising a child while incarcerated.

As the film opens, our protagonist, Julia (Martina Gusman), wakes up in bed, bruised, bloodied and in shock. She automatically goes out for the day and returns him, and only then does she realise that there is a dead man in her house. She's arrested and charged with killing the man - the lover of her boyfriend (Rodrigo Santoro). Prison overwhelms this shy pregnant woman, unwilling to shower naked, spurning the lesbian advances of her fellow inmates. By the time she is tried and convicted, three years later, she has become as brazen, strong, and willing to accept intimacy as the other prisoners. As her son grows, the question arises of what should happen to Julia's son Tomas. Julia's mother thinks that prison is no fit place for a child to live. But Julia thinks that the best place for her son is with his mother. And so we build to a tense denouement in which Julia goes to extreme lengths to protect her child.

LEONERA isn't the kind of film that's full of action and plot points. It's essentially the story of a woman who grows in self-knowledge and strength through her friendship with other women and her love for her child. Despite it's apparently dour subject matter, I can reassure you that it never drags, moves along at a swift pace, is utterly engrossing, and ultimately, uplifting.

LEONERA played Cannes, Toronto and London 2008. It was released in Argentina and Spain earlier this year. It opens in France on December 3rd and in the Netherlands on December 11th.

London Film Festival Day 14 - THE BROTHERS BLOOM

THE BROTHERS BLOOM is the visually delightful but ultimately self-indulgent follow-up film from writer-director Rian Johnson. His first film, BRICK, reinjected noir with a teen sensibility and seemed genuinely unique. It's tragic, then, to see Rian Johnson decide to make a film that seems to be something of a Wes Anderson rip-off. The elaborately designed sets; the anachronistic costumes; the richly choreographed sight-gags; the international jet-set milieu; the suffocating family relationships; the longing romanticism........oh, it's all there. And if the best of Anderson is present in this movie, so too is the worst. All that carefully placed beauty and absurdity does get a bit, well, boring after a while. And the layers and layers of artifice alienate the audience, and prevent us from feeling the reality of the attempted emotional ending. So much for the critique, what of the substance? THE BROTHERS BLOOM opens with a tour-de-force prologue which is narrated entirely in rhyme in a sort of Dr Seuss fashion. Two orphan brothers grow up poor in a rich town. The younger romantic boy wants to talk to a sweet girl but can't work up the courage. So his protective older brother comes up with a complex con in which he'll make some cash, his brother will impress the girl and all the kids will think they've stumbled upon a magic cave. Fast forward twenty years and the elder brother (Mark Ruffalo) is still trying to find the perfect con and the younger brother (Adrien Brody) is still looking for real love. They are joined by a female Japanese equivalent of Silent Bob (Rinko Kikuchi) and their mark, cloistered millionairess Penelope (Rachel Weisz). The first hour of the film is brilliant fun. Kikuchi steals every scene she's in and Weisz shows that she has real comic acting ability. Even Ruffalo and Brody are fine. The problem is simply that the fun and games go on too long and deaden the impact of the ending. 

THE BROTHERS BLOOM played Toronto and London 2008. It goes on release in the US on December 19th.

London Film Festival Day 14 - THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX

THE BAADER-MEINHOF COMPLEX is a straight-forward, unexciting re-telling of the history of the Red Army Faction - a group of German left-wing militants active in the 1970s, also known as the Baader-Meinhof gang. Directed by Uli Edel (LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN), the film is more easily recognisable as another of producer Bernd Eichinger's historic German epics. Following on from DER UNTERGANG, it seeks to put Germany's recent past under the microscope. In terms of subject matter, the social unrest of the late 60s and early 70s is a logical follow-up to Hitler's suicide. So much of what the students were protesting against was a direct result of World War Two - the feeling that their parent's generation had no moral (and therefore legal) authority - the feeling that denazification had not gone far enough - the resentment of US policies that seemed to ape the imperial aims of Nazism in Vietnam and the Middle East - the tangible presence of US army bases on German soil.

Of course, most students only went as far as demonstrating. Political extremism was just another cause - along with feminism and environmentalism. And the middle-class liberals were similarly pursuing legitimate lines of protest. The Red Army Faction decided that talk meant nothing without action, influenced by figures such as Che Guevera. A key flaw of this film is that it never really shows us why these people went beyond talk to violent direct action. Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtrau) seems to fire guns because he thinks it's cool. Is that really all it was? Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) supports direct action because....I'm no clearer after this movie. The more interesting character is Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck). Meinhof was older and an influential journalist with a real reputation. She could've affected change through legitimate protest. According to Uli Edel's interpretation she opts for violence because she's goaded into it, which seems rather pathetic, and hard to believe of such an intelligent woman. Still, maybe that's the point? Maybe the RAF was violent for no other reason than that it was bored and it seemed exhillerating?

Over the first hour of the film, the Baader-Meinhof gang succeed in their aims of causing general mayhem. They also succeed in aligning themselves with some particularly nasty people, and the film is very clear in showing them to be feckless and petulant to a degree that is shocking and basically evil. It's ironic that these guys are protesting against "fascist tendencies" and yet they employ the same language as the Nazis. They regard the police as "not human" and that to kill a policeman is "not murder" just as the Nazis dehumanised the Jews before killing them. One of the most disturbing moments - and one too little explored in this movie - is when the Black September terrorists holding Israeli athletes hostage during the 1972 Munich Olympics ask for fellow terrorists to be released. Among the names are those of the imprisoned RAF members.

In the final hour, the film changes focus. The founder members of the RAF are in prison and the second generation of terrorists continue their work, escalating methods and targets. They collude with the PLO to hijack an airplane and assassinate a prominent businessman. There is less talk of ideology - it's just simple revenge. Meanwhile, in Stammheim prison, the first generation prisoners look banal and pathetic. Martina Gedeck gives a convincing portrayal of Meinhof as an ideological purist driven mad by solitary confinement and guilt. Ensslin and Baader commit suicide rather than dance to the tune of the court. But they don't seem to show any real remorse or understanding.

THE BAADER-MEINHOF COMPLEX is technically good. The film-makers recreate the look and feel of Germany in the 1970s and pack a lot of material into the two and half hour run time. The problem is that they don't have an over-arching point that they are trying to make. And as a result of the "...and then this happened, and then that happened, and then this other thing happened...." approach to history, THE BAADER-MEINHOF COMPLEX, doesn't tell us anything we wouldn't know from reading a Wikipedia entry. In dealing with Irish republican terrorism in HUNGER, Steve McQueen took a radical approach. He decided that we could all look up the narrative of the campaign. He was going to cut straight to the real question: how can people murder other people in all good conscience? He did this by focusing his gaze on Bobby Sands, and on a single conversation that Sands has with a priest. I was looking for similar insight in THE BAADER-MEINHOF COMPLEX, and I never found it. So for all its superficial attention to detail and marquee actors, this film is ultimately a failure.

THE BAADER-MEINHOF COMPLEX played London 2008. It was released earlier this year in Germany, Austria, and Finland. It opens in Italy and Norway this weekend. It opens in the Netherlands on November 6th; in France on November 12th; in the UK on November 14th and in South Africa on March 20th 2009.

Monday, October 27, 2008


"The towers are gone now, reduced to bloody rubble, along with all hopes for Peace in Our Time, in the United States or any other country. Make no mistake about it: We are At War now -- with somebody -- and we will stay At War with that mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives......It will be guerilla warfare on a global scale, with no front lines and no identifiable enemy. . . We are going to punish somebody for this attack, but just who or what will be blown to smithereens for it is hard to say. Maybe Afghanistan, maybe Pakistan or Iraq, or possibly all three at once. Who knows?.....This is going to be a very expensive war, and Victory is not guaranteed -- for anyone, and certainly not for anyone as baffled as George W. Bush. All he knows is that his father started the war a long time ago, and that he, the goofy child-President, has been chosen by Fate and the global Oil industry to finish it Now."
Hunter S Thompson in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

On form, Hunter S Thompson was one of the most perceptive, prophetic and entertaining commentators on US society and politics. He moved journalism beyond dry, objective reportage and into wild, subjective, semi-fictional narratives that somehow seemed to get right to the truth of the situation. His descriptions of the drug-addled social movements of the 60s and 70s earned him fame, fortune and cult status. FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS is a monument of alternative fiction. But Thompson's greater achievement was his political commentary in FEAR AND LOATHING ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL and in other articles in the years that followed. It's in this guise that I first came to read and love Hunter S Thompson, and it's in that guise, rather than as the cartoon-crazy Raoul Duke, that I wish he could've remained.

To that end, GONZO is a documentary that chimes with my deep sadness at the oft-predicted suicide of Hunter S Thompson. The central thesis of the doc., and one with which I concur, is that when Thompson created his wildly popular alter-ego, he also built his own coffin. The public wanted Gonzo, and Hunter served it up. He couldn't go back. How can you be the un-noticed hack at the back of the press conference when you're front-page news?

With fame and fortune came literary decline, a reluctance to leave Owl Creek and continued narcotics abuse. Still, Hunter might be with us today if it weren't for his sensitivity to US social and political currents combined with his deep patriotic fervour. The characteristics that made him a great writer, made life unbearable. When Hunter killed himself I felt angry that he'd deprived us of his piercing analysis just as we needed him most. In neo-con America we truly had a slavering beast to match Nixon. Hunter's first wife expresses the same sentiment in this doc. But the thing that I took from this movie was just how unbearable life must have been for a man who had fought Nixon and all that he stood for, tooth and nail, the first time round. It's unfair to expect a man to do it twice.

GONZO is a great documentary that tells the uninitiated why they should care about Hunter S Thompson and gives fans like myself new insight. I was morose after watching it - it felt like a eulogy - or better, a love letter, to a great writer and a tragic soul.

GONZO played Sundance and London 2008. It was released in the US and Canada earlier this year and is released in the UK on December 19th. It is released on Region 1 DVD on November 18th.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

London Film Festival Day 12 - THE WRESTLER (Surprise film)

THE WRESTLER is one of those films that makes you re-assess your preconceptions about a certain actor or director. After the bloated disaster of THE FOUNTAIN I was wondering if Darren Aronofsky would ever produce anything as visceral and devestating as REQUIEM FOR A DREAM. And as for Mickey Rourke - well his career was a joke, wasn't it? And yet here we are with THE WRESTLER - a movie that eschews all the technical tricks and pretentious philosophical musings of Aronofsky's earlier work to give as a restrained, emotionally rich character study. And here we have a central performance from Rourke that's just astounding and definitely Oscar-worthy, channelling all his own experience of a fall from fame into a nuanced and endearing performance. Indeed, THE WRESTLER is up there with IL DIVO and HUNGER as the best movie of the festival so far.

It's a simple story, well told. THE WRESTLER opens with a wry sub-title "twenty years later". Rourke plays a wrestler called "The Ram" who was famous in the 80s but now ekes out a living playing local exhibition matches for cash-in-hand. He lives in a trailor - his daughter doesn't want to know him - his only emotional engagement is with a stripper - his body is a beaten-up mess. But despite all this, The Ram remains a surprisingly upbeat, stand-up guy. He's a pleasure to spend time with. He throws himself into life - even a shitty job at a supermarket deli counter - with gusto. And thanks to a brilliant performance from Rourke, we really want him to turn around his relationship with his daughter and to have a proper relationship with the stripper.

The tragedy is that The Ram is now so bent out of shape that to fight will kill him. But what else can he do? In real life, he's called "Robin", he works a crap job, and he has to struggle for respect. In the ring, to the fans, he's a god. This is the secret of his relationship with the stripper. In the club, she's Cassidy. But outside of the club, she's Pam - a hard-working mum with a kid. For a moment, it looks like they'll be able to help each other, but in the final analysis, the wrestler can't switch his identity so late in life. Really, this movie has the perfect title - it's how The Ram identifies himself and who are we to judge him for sticking to that?

THE WRESTLER played Venice, where it won The Golden Lion, Toronto and London 2008. It opens in the US on December 31st, in Australia on January 15th and in Germany on February 26th.

London Film Festival Day 12 - HAMLET 2

HAMLET 2 is so ridiculous it shouldn't work, but I can happily report that Steve Coogan's latest comedy is laugh-out loud funny from start to finnish. Coogan plays a failed actor, reduced to embarassing commercials and piss-poor high school plays. Even his personal life is a mess - he's unable to get his sarcastic, unsupportive wife pregnant. But despite all this, Dana Marschz remains upbeat about life and art and his enthusiasm is infectious. Even though his plays are openly mocked, he sees no reason not to stage a high school musical called "Hamlet 2". The concept is simple: with the aid of a time machine, Hamlet can stop everyone from getting killed at the end of Hamlet 1, which was, after all, such a downer! The resulting musical, featuring songs about getting "raped in the face" and "sexy Jesus" attracts the ire of the local school board and the attentions of the ACLU before becoming, PRODUCERS-style, a runaway success.

HAMLET 2 is a satire on movies like the HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL franchise, where discussing sexuality is forbidden, and those awful high school dramas like DANGEROUS MINDS where a white teacher saves poor ethinic kids through the redemptive power Thomas and kung fu. The writing may be uneven, but more often than not, the satire hits home, and Steve Coogan is just fantastingly funny to watch. I also loved the ironic use of Elisabeth Shue as a disenchanted actress called "Elisabeth Shue", now working as a nurse. You also get some brilliant scene-stealing from Catherine Keener as Dana's wife and Amy Poehler as the ACLU lawyer.

HAMLET 2 played Sundance and London 2008. It opened earlier this year in the US, Canada, Iceland, Greece and Romania. It opens on November 28th in the UK and in the US on August 27th 2009.

London Film Festival Day 12 - GENOVA

Michael Winterbottom has an impressive track record as a director, spanning genres from hyper-real reportage in A MIGHTY HEART to the witty, post-modern A COCK AND BULL STORY. But, 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE aside, I've always been a bit frustrated by Winterbottom's movies. They seem to get four-fifths of the way there, in terms of performance, integrity and style, but miss that final energy that grips you and makes you want to watch a movie again.

Winterbottom's latest movie, GENOVA, is another case in point. It's beautifully filmed on location in Genoa. It has a strong cast, led by Catherine Keener and Colin Firth. It has an earnest subject and Winterbottom treats it with restraint and respect. But the movie never really goes anywhere. It dangles promising ideas in front of us but leaves us hanging. In short, it's a ninety minute tease.

As the movie opens we see a mother (Hope Davis) and her two young daughters driving on a highway. The car crashes and the mother dies. We then move to a snowy funeral. The father (Colin Firth) is taking his two daughters to Genoa for a year. He'll teach in a university, they'll go to school, and the "change will do them good". Arriving in Genoa they are met by an old college chum (Catherine Keener) who clearly has a thing for the father.

We seem to be in the same sort of territory as Nic Roeg's classic film about grief in Italy - DON'T LOOK NOW. The narrow, dark streets of Genoa are as menacing and bewildering as the Venetian canals. Winterbottom even hints that we'll be dealing with dark supernatural material. The younger daughter finds a photo of the landlord's dead wife in the flat and the glass mysteriously cracks. And then she starts seeing and hearing her dead mother. The feeling of menace builds towards a crescendo but without any final pay-off. Maybe Winterbottom has no interest in pursuing genre film and wants to go for something more real - like QUIET CHAOS - but if so, why introduce those elements in the first place?

GENOVA played Cannes, Toronto and London 2008.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

London Film Festival Day 11 - CHE Parts 1 and 2

"I was sitting in first class with a hot towel on my face when I realised I was the right person to direct this film." Steven Soderbegh, introducing his 4 hour, 2 part biopic of revolutionary Marxist Ernesto "Che" Guevera at the London Film Festival.

"Maybe they didn't have a Q&A because they were so embarassed at how at how bad the film was?" Our Gmunden correspondent, leaving the cinema, 4 hours later.

CHE (THE ARGENTINE & GUERILLA) is an interminable, unedifying vanity project from director Steven Soderbergh, producer and lead actor Benicio del Toro and newbie writer Peter Buchman. It's a film that gives us no real insight into Che's politics or personality - indeed it perversely holds us at a distance to him. It's a film that gives us no real feel for his revolutionary career - perversely leaving Cuba before he has even entered Havana. It's a film that tells us nothing about his charisma or passion - nowhere in this film do I get a feel for why people would have put themselves in mortal danger to follow him.

Do we blame Soderbergh for having no over-arching vision for this story? Do we blame del Toro for his walking zombie performance? Do we blame the screen-writers for taking a decade of radical action and boiling it down to a series of monotonous, unexciting marches? Whatever the reason, CHE is quite frankly a disaster.

The movie is divided into two parts: THE ARGENTINE and THE GUERILLA. Producer Laura Bickman told us that they were to be released as two separate films rather than playing as a double bill, so that's how I'll review them here.

THE ARGENTINE opens with a patronising shot showing a map of Cuba, highlighting the name of each region and the position of the major cities. It's like Geography 101. It's a clumsy way to convey information and has zero artistic content. Perhaps the film-makers should realise that anyone who comits 4 hours to a Che biopic probably knows where Cuba is. We then enter into the main body of the film, which is framed by a scene in Mexico City where Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir) outlines his plan to invade Cuba, and persuades Che (del Toro) to go with him. In the final scene of the film, Che will agree, only if he can leave Cuba when the invasion is over and spread the revolutionary message to the rest of Latin America. The intervening two hours inter-cut the story of the invasion of 1956 with scenes of Che confronting the United Nations in New York in 1964.

The footage of the Cuban revolution is pretty monotonous. We see revolutionaries march through long grass a lot. Occasionally, Castro hurts Che by refusing to let him take command of troops. Che is, after all, an outsider, an intellectual, and better suited to training, inspiring, and treating illness, than strategic thinking. We also see flashes of Che's purist ethics. He wants his men to be educated, moral, above petty corruption. All these themes are fascinating, and a film pursuing them would've given real insight to Che's politics and personality. Sadly, these moments of clarity are only ever brief flashes. Other than that, we learn that war is quite boring. The footage from New York is similarly frustrating insofar as Soderbergh could've really investigated the reactions to the revolution from US politicians and other Latin American countries. After all, Che is preaching world revolution - h
ow threatening was that to the US and Latin American establishment? But once again, we get quick-cut, impressionistic scenes that only make sense if you come into the movie with a lot of prior knowledge.

CHE: THE ARGENTINE ends with Che on the road from Santa Clara to Havana. We never see him arrive. It's an odd ending - leaving the audience with little sense of closure. The movie finishes abruptly. This may work in a double-bill, but I doubt that anyone would give GUERILLA a chance after this dull, unenlightening, strangely neutered work. I learned nothing about Che that I didn't already know, and it's interesting to note that in the US, this first film is not being released at all (acc to IMDB).

CHE: GUERILLA is modestly more successful that CHE: THE ARGENTINE, but the benchmark is low. The first thing to say is that it looks like a completely different film. The shooting style and editing style are much more languid and patient - the narrative is linear - we are allowed a little closer, though still not close enough - to our hero.

The movie skips Che's entry to Havana and his period serving in the Cuban governemnt. It skips his failed attempt to start a revolution in the Congo and rolls right into his radical activities in Bolivia in 66/67. The revolution is hopeless and the film a monotonous and depressing inch by inch movement toward the inevitable execution. The Bolivian government is aided by the US, so instead of hapless Cuban troops who surrender at the first sign of violence, Che is facing crack special ops. The Cuban peasants were ready for revolution but the Bolivian peasants are unconvinced by his arguments. (Heck, so are we - we never see him as a charismatic Marxist evangelical). Worse still, the local Communists want nothing to do with him; he loses contact with Havana; and his foreign aides stupidly lead the Bolivians right to him. So what you get is a film about isolation and failure. A random bunch of men wander round the Bolivian countryside until finally they are cornered and shot. Portraits of failure and disillusionment can be captivating. Look at the brilliant, mournful THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD. But GUERILLA is just dull. We are never allowed to empathise with Che in the way that we entered the emotional drama betwee James and Ford.

If CHE: GUERILLA is better than THE ARGENTINE it's because there are odd moments of visual flair. The scene where some of the guerilla are gunned down in a river is beautifully done. And there is a scene where Che is injured and on the run on the slope of a ridge. At the top, silhouetted against the horizon we see a handful of special ops soldier. And then, in a flash of pure menace, these men are joined by tens of other until the horizon is filled with men bearing down on our hero. These moments are to be expected from a man with Soderbergh's experience and technical skill. They are, however, too few.

Soderbergh began the LIFF screening with a joke - that a man who flies first class is the wrong man to make CHE. That's too reductive. But still, it contains a grain of truth. Walter Salles made a brilliant film about CHE because he was passionate about the content, could relate to it and had something to say about it. Salles was, like Che, born into privilege in Latin America but has chosen to turn his back on the establishment (in this case, being the scion of a banking family) in order to make politically and socially aware films about the poor. I would love to know why Soderbergh came to this project and whether, in all honesty, he felt any real emotional attachment to it. Because there is little evidence of any love for the project in the final films.

CHE / THE ARGENTINE & GUERILLA played Cannes where Benicio del Toro won Best Actor, Toronto and London 2008. THE ARGENTINE went on release in Spain in September, opens in Mexico on December 26th; opens in the UK on January 2nd; in France on January 7th and in Argentina on January 29th. GUERILLA opens in Argtnina on November 13th; in Greece on November 27th; in the US on December 12th; in France on January 28th; in the UK on February 20th and in Japan in March.

London Film Festival Day 11 - NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD

NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD is a brilliant doc about Aussie exploitation flicks from the 70s and 80s. It's a great flick for three reasons. First off, the subject matter is just balls out funny - slasher pics, crazy stunts, kung-fu fighting and copious quantities of tits'n'ass. Second, because even if exploitation films aren't your thing (and they're not my thing at all) you can't fail to be swept up by the enthusiasm, good humour and audacity of the guys and girls who made and starred in these movies and their chief cheerleader - Quentin Tarantino. This is all down to director, Mark Hartley, who has managed to get all the major players on tape, talking candidly. Third, Hartley does a great job in editing his material together. He manages to impose order on this chaotic film movement, making a clear case for Ozploitation as being culturally significant and the foundation of the Aussie film industry. After all, people like Barry Humphries, Susannah York and DP John Seale went on to mainstream success, and directors like Brian Trenchard Smith have a major influence on films from KILL BILL to the SAW series. So whether or not you're a fan of B-movies - indeed whether or not you're a cineaste - I can highly recommend NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD. It's that rare thing - intelligently made AND raucous fun!

NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD: THE WILD, UNTOLD STORY OF OZPLOITATION! played Toronto and London 2008. It was released earlier this year in Australia.

London Film Festival Day 11 - VICKY, CRISTINA, BARCELONA

VICKY, CRISTINA, BARCELONA is a superficial film about superficial people. It has the surface polish of all Woody Allen films - sun-dappled, beautiful people in beautiful houses - but none of the moral bite or emotional imsight of a MANHATTAN or CRIMES and MISDEMEANORS. It slips down easily thanks to the pretty faces and the witty dialogue, but frankly there is no reason for this movie to exist nor for you to waste ninety minutes on it.

The movie opens with two classic Woody Allen tony yanks arriving in Barcelona for the summer. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is Sense and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) is Sensibility. Both are propositioned for a weekend of culture and casual sex by free-thinking painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem). They accept - Vicky reluctantly, Cristina happil - but of course its sensible, engaged Vicky who ends up in the sack. Back in Barcelona, Cristina moves in with Juan Antonio and enters into a menage a trois with him and his dramatic ex-wife Maria-Elena (Penelope Cruz). As the summer ends, serially dissatisfied Cristina writes it all off as a phase and leaves, along with Vicky who condemns herself to a life of boring marriage to a safe investment banker.

Have we learned anything? Woody Allen is down on love. Sensible girls end up with the safe life and the cash. Flighty girls end up being disatisfied. Sexual bombshells are a complete fucking nightmare. Everyone is self-involved - everyone ends up unhappy. The fact that this is all set in beautiful, sunny Barcelona should not fool you as to the deeply nihilistic message at the core.

As to the quality of the production, certainly the film and the actors look beautiful, and even when Woody Allen isn't saying anything new or interesting, he still says it with some style. The big problem is that Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz act Scarlett Johansson off the screen. The even bigger problem is that Allen never really explores or gets under the skin of the emotional and sexual dynamics of the menage-a-trois as Christophe Honore did in LES CHANSONS D'AMOUR.

VICKY, CRISTINA, BARCELONA played Cannes and London 2008. It was released earlier this year in the US, Norway, Spain, Singapore, France, Taiwan, Italy, Israel, Belgium and Finland. It opens in December in Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Russia and Australia. It opens in Argentina on February 5th.

Friday, October 24, 2008

London Film Festival Day 10 - W.

W. is a frustrating movie. It features a strong central performance from Josh Brolin (NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN) as George W. Bush, but this biopic plays like an afternoon TV drama. Writer Stanley Weiser and director Oliver Stone have given us a conventional biopic wherein a bunch of stuff happens to W. He goes to Yale, he drinks a lot, he fails at a bunch of jobs, he gets born again, and somehow, just to prove he can, he gets elected, he takes us into Iraq....Nowhere do the film-makers show the kind of intelligence in shaping the material that Paolo Sorrentino lent to his Giuilio Andreotti biopic, IL DIVO. There are no big ideas. Okay - there's one big idea. That W. was always trying to prove his worth to his "poppy" H.W. But frankly, this is treated in such a ham-fisted, cursory manner it hardly passes for an over-riding theme. And the dream-sequence in a baseball stadium is so crude and so ill-pursued that it wouldn't look out of place in a rookie feature. Oliver Stone seems to be regressing from a work of labyrinthine brilliance and daring - JFK - to this superficial, paint-by-numbers narrative. Directorial clumsiness aside, biographers of W. have a problem, and it's not a problem that Oliver Stone resolves. You have to make a choice on how you view W. If you assume that he really is as dumb as he looks - that he can barely string a sentence together and that he's been manipulated by the neo-cons - then you reduce him to a buffoon. And if you reduce him to a buffoon, but you're dealing with serious issues like Iraq, then what the audience wants is actually a film about Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and how those guys got what they wanted. In other words, you want a movie in which W. is not the lead character. On the other hand, if you argue that W. was actually more intelligent and active than that - that it takes more than a famous name to become POTUS - then you have to work hard to argue your case and to make W. a nuanced and interesting character worthy of a biopic. Oliver Stone simply doesn't do this. He doesn't try to get underneath the skin of W. in the way that he got underneath the skin of Nixon. Stone goes for the easy laughs in mocking W. As a result, he undermines his own case for making the film. Accordingly, we get a sporadically entertaining but largely dull film that strings together famous phrases, a series of vignettes and some piss-poor caricatures of cabinet members. This film is not worthy of Oliver Stone. And it's certainly not worthy of an American president that took his country into a three-front war; tore down constitutional protections; and was at the helm at the start of an economic clusterfuck. 

W. played London 2008. It was released earlier this month in the US and opens next weekend in Belgium and France. W opens in the UK on November 7th, in Turkey on November 14th, in Sweden on December 5th, in Finland on January 2nd and in the Netherlands on January 8th.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

London Film Festival Day 9 - THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES

THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES is a movie set in South Carolina in 1964 and features a cast full of famous African-American actresses. Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys and Sophie Okenodo play August, June and May Boatwright - three sisters that live in a beautiful house and make honey. They are affluent, cultured, strong and independent. This is so rare for the period, where Jennifer Hudson's abused house-made Rosaleeen is the norm, that the Boatwright family seem like something out of a fairy tale. Certainly this is how runaway Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning) sees them.

I had thought that a movie about a little white girl taking shelter with an African-American family would be a film about race. And superficially, it is. We get an early scene where Noraleen is beaten up for daring to register to vote. And later on, Lily's friend Zach will be abducted and beaten up for daring to go to a movie with a white girl. In the background, we can spy an Atticus-Finch-like lawyer, and Alicia Keys character - a feminist, activist member of the NAACP - screams for more screen-time as a representative of the social movements coming to the boil in the mid-60s. Now, that would have been an important and interesting movie.

But the dirty secret of THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES is that it's just not interested in investigating the reality of the ethnic minority experience in the 1960s. In fact, it falls victim to the same prejudice we have seen through the history of mainstream cinema, where ethnic minority issues are fit only as a framing device or context for the real meat of the story - which is all about the white characters. What THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES is *really* about is a dysfunctional father-daughter relationship. Lily Owens and her father T.Ray (Paul Bettany) have a violent, guilt-ridden relationship. T. Ray hates Lily and abuses her because he resents the fact that her mother loved her but didn't love him. Lily has to come to terms with the reality of her parents marriage and to learn how to empathise with her father. That's the real emotional journey of this film. And it has nothing to do with race.

Still, if you're looking for a soupy, schmaltzy, weepy sort of melodrama setting in a fairy-tale world of hot-pink houses and forever-sunshine, then THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES is at least nicely-shot, well-intentioned and well-acted, particularly by Dakota Fanning in the lead role.

THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES played Toronto and London 2008. It was released in the US last week and opens in Portugal on November 27th and in Germanhy on April 23rd.

London Film Festival Day 9 - SUGAR

SUGAR is the latest film from the directors of the quietly brilliant drama HALF NELSON. HALF NELSON starred Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps as a schoolteacher and student forming an unlikely friendship. The twist was that the white teacher wasn't helping out the African-American kid from the deprived inner-city school. Rather, the young girl was helping out the fucked-up junkie teacher. I loved HALF NELSON because it told an unusual story with sensitivity and without judgement. Ryan Boden and Anna Fleck gave the film room to breathe but built slowly to a devestating denouement.

SUGAR shares some qualities with HALF NELSON. Once again, the movie tells an unuaul story that crosses class and race lines and adopts a quiet, patient tone. New-comer Algenis Perez Soto plays a Dominican called Migel "Sugar" Santos. Like so many of his friends, he's desperate to make it out of poverty by playing baseball. Apparently a lot of US teams have training camps in Latin America, where they can train and recruit players at a fraction of the cost of their US college-educated counterparts. Each year a few of these players will make it to wealth, fortune and Major League success. But many will get a season or two in the minors and get injured, or not quite make the grade. What happens to them?

In SUGAR, we see players come to America, struggle with language, get injured, under-perform, and get released. One of Sugar's friends skips out to New York rather than go home. Better to drive a taxi and send home dollars than to return to poverty. Sugar experiences the same trajectory. He moves to the US and plays so well he's catapulted to a "Single-A" local team. He lodges with a baseball-crazy family called the Higgins. But soon he gets injured and when he returns, he's off his game. Life is thin. Everyone's kind but he's basically isolated and frustrated. Rather then wait to be axed, he leaves for New York where he carves a harsher and yet more familial existence with the local ex-pat community. It's a bitter-sweet ending. He won't make it as a baseball player, and he has regrets, but he does have friends and purpose, and he can still send money back to his family.

Once again, the strength of SUGAR lies in the fact that Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden coax a good performance from an unknown actor. Moreover, they continue to avoid melodrama and to show rather than tell. Take the way they treat the issue of race. Sugar is treated well by everyone he comes across - from the baseball manager, to a kindly waitress, to the random people he meets in New York. But we do get little hints of subtle discrimination. When Sugar and his friends go to a nightclub, Sugar borrows a friend's ID. They are convinced that the white bouncer won't care to tell them apart. And then, when Sugar starts dancing with a white girl, the white guys at the bar are clearly unhappy.

The problem with SUGAR is that it lacks the emotional pay-off of HALF NELSON. The slow pace and subtle tone go nowhere. The movie ends on the same even-handed, almost narcoleptic tone as it begins with. All this is fine - I don't need whistles and bangs - but it just felt a little bit, well, thin.

SUGAR played Sundance, Toronto and London 2008. It opens in NY and LA on April 3rd 2009.

London Film Festival Day catch-up - IL DIVO

The London Film Festival is a marathon event where you try and pack in as many films as you can, pausing only to refuel. But this year, I've done something I've never done before: seen the same film twice. I knew that there was a high probability I was going to love Paolo Sorrentino's IL DIVO before I saw it the first time. His sinister, darkly comic, bizarre film THE FAMILY FRIEND was on my "Best Of" list in 2007, and I am fascinated by the grand macchiavellian figures of modern politics. What better, then, than a Sorrentino treatment of the political career of Giulio Andreotti - seven times prime minister of Italy, famously accused of colluding with the mafia and the masonic P2 lodge? The reviews were wildly enthusiastic, and the movie had already won the Prix du Jury at Cannes.

Still, for all my anticipation, I could not have predicted just how strong my reaction would be. IL DIVO is simply a tremendous film that takes the raw subject matter of political biography and presents it with imagination, wit and a holistic view of Andreotti as a symbol of the endemic corruption of the Italian elite. Take an early scene when Andreotti has become premier once more and is on the verge of attempting to take the Presidency. The Andreotti faction of the Christian Democrats is at the height of its power and flush with success. Inside parliament a massive party is raging, with African music playing and ministers of state dancing manically. It's a wild display of power and ownership. Italy is their plaything. Power is a right. Why trust to luck - to mere democracy, when you can negotiate votes from mafia-controlled regions? "I don't believe in chance, I believe in the will of God." Meanwhile, Andreotti is in a back room, holding court, sipping his ubiquitous alka selzter.

The central performance from Toni Servillo is masterful. He has been physically transformed into the ageing politician with the corners of his ears turned down, the large glasses, the hunched back, the repressed, closed gait and the sly smiles. Even when he falls under accusation of being complicit in the death of Aldo Moro and having symbolically kissed mafia boss of bosses Tony Riina, Andreotti always seems in control and, in a macabre way, amused by the game. More seriously, he uses the same slippery arguments that we hear from hard-line politicians everywhere: it takes a truly good man, truly concerned with the good of his country, to be able to consort with sinners and perpetrate evil acts. The ambiguity and mystery at the centre of this film is whether a man as intelligent and as conscious of irony as Andreotti would really believe such a statement or just like the sound of it. Maybe it doesn't matter. To quote Andreotti, "We learn from the Gospel that when they asked Jesus what truth was, he did not reply."

Even bad films can contain great performances. Frank Langella was superb in FROST/NIXON playing a similarly despised, conflicted, mired politician who thought he was a "good" man. But the surrounding film was clumsy and superficial. Nixon's downfall was shoe-horned into a Hollywood story about a hero fighting evil against all odds, and with everything to lose. By contrast, IL DIVO is a brilliant film because it puts Andreotti in the context of Italian politics - with a cast of oddballs equally as interesting as the protagonist. Moreover, Sorrentino chooses a technique to tell his story that's as ambiguous, complicated and darkly comic as the subject matter. Indeed, in its complicated elliptic structure, its visual stylings and its playful use of sound-track, IL DIVO is one of the most technically audacious movies I have seen in a while. Take for instance a scene where the newly re-elected Andreotti enters parliament, walking through grandiose halls, to an internal sound-track of pompous classical music. A cat meows, the sound-track comes to an abrupt halt, and Andreotti stares down the cat. The cat moves, the sound-track restarts and Andreotti's triumphal march continues. How better could one illustrate the idea that these men were playing out a sort of egomaniacal fantasy of wealth and privilege, despite their often humble upbringing?

IL DIVO repays multiple viewings. I'd go further and say that it actually requires them. If you're not completely familiar with Italian politics, and I'm certainly not, then on the first viewing you're hanging on to your seat trying to keep up with the machinations of the various characters. It takes a second viewing to be able to see through the headlines, into the deep, rich world of Italian politics behind them and to be able to more fully appreciate the directorial choice. Like I said, I've seen this film twice now and I can't wait to see it again.

IL DIVO played Cannes 2008, where it won the Jury Prize, Toronto and London. It opened earluer this year in Italy and opens in France on December 31st. It opens in the UK on January 23rd and in the Netherlands on February 26th.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

London Film Festival Catch-Up - A CHRISTMAS TALE / UN CONTE DE NOEL

UN CONTE DE NOEL is writer-director Arnaud Desplechins's attempt to create a French family drama that's half way between Bergman and Wes Anderson. Sadly, it contains neither the insight of the former nor the visual with of the latter. Rather, it's a loose, rambling, two and a half hour marathon of neuroses, narcissim and general nastiness, leavened by the occasional flash of physical humour.

Catherine Deneuve and Jean-Paul Roussillon play Junon and Abel - the heads of the dysfunctional Vuillard family, reunited at Christmas. The family is under pressure to find a suitable donor to save Junon's life. The family is also under pressure because the black sheep of the family, Henri (Mathieu Amalric) is returning for the first time in five years, having been banished by his ice-cold sister, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny). Added to this mix, we have a nephew who is having a nervous breakdown; a cousin (Laurent Capelluto) who is in love with younger brother's wife (Chiara Mastroianni) ;and faintly concealed anti-semitism when Henri shows up with his Jewish girlfriend Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos).

From all this follows a tale of over-drinking, physical fights, bitchy comments and randomly callous acts interspersed with moments of authentically captured family intimacy and absurdity. A small mystery is created out of the reason for which Elizabeth banished Henri from the family but it isn't resolved in the movie (although a Q&A intro with the director revealed the reason).

UN CONTE DE NOEL contains flashes of brilliance, mostly involving Mathieu Amalric's performance as Henri. But frankly, it's just not worth through sitting through. If you want to watch Bergman or Anderson, watch Bergman or Anderson. This film adds nothing new.

A CHRISTMAS TALE played Cannes, Toronto and London 2008. It opened earlier this year in France and Belgium. It opens on November 28th in Finland; on December 3rd in Canada; on December 26th in Norway and on January 2nd in Italy.

London Film Festival Catch-Up - MIRACLE AT ST ANNA

MIRACLE AT ST ANNA is a big, baggy war epic about the African-American experience in World War Two. Writer-director Spike Lee tackles big themes intelligently and just about keeps a hold of all the complex material in the movie.

The key question the movie asks is what stance African-American soldiers should have taken during the war. After all, in the US they were facing extreme racism - as shown in a pivotal scene in the centre of the film in which German POWs are treated better than African-American serving officers. And even when they were fighting, we see white commanding officers treat the African-American troops with disdain - actively putting their lives at risk because they fundamentally don't accord them the same value. So how far should the African-American soldiers identify with and support the war effort? The argument is played out in the conflict between Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy) and Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke). Bishop is in the war for what he can get - which is a good time where possible. He isn't going to try to get on with his white senior officers. By contrast, Stamps sees the war as a means to self-advancement. He wants to do well and get ahead, believing that the war will fundamentally change attitudes back home.

A second question the movie deals with is how far we should take direct action for a just cause when innocent people will be hurt by it. The Italian partisans in the movie are fighting against the Germans, but the villages they hide out in are subject to vicious retaliation. The partisan leader, Peppi Grotto (Pierfrancesco Favino) feels immense guilt for having indirectly caused the massacre of innocent villagers.

The third question the film deals with is the question of faith. Throughout the film, one of the most apparently dim-witted of the soliders, Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller) believes that the marble statue that he is carting around is a lucky charm. It's easy to mock train because he's such a dolt, but the statue does serially provide a sort of protection to whoever is holding it. It even allows one of the soldiers to survive the campaign and live to a ripe old age in New York when, in the movie's framing device, he finally takes revenge on the partisan who betrayed them.

The guts of this film are well executed and intelligently told. Spike Lee is at his best when he's confronting the subtle tensions in race politics. But there's too much romantic sentimental jibberish that muddies the movie. Most egregiously, the relationship between Train and a little Italian boy he's taking care of is sweet - and speaks to the mythology of the statue - but is deeply distracting. It's also weird that in a movie of subtle conflicts and flawed characters, Spike Lee has created a mythic simple-minded good guy. Train seems two-dimensional compared to everyone else in the film. The second major flaw is the denoument - which is pure unadulterated schmaltz that seems about as realistic as the final scene in Shawshank (which I think everyone agrees was unnecessary.)

MIRACLE AT ST ANNA played Toronto and London 2008 and was released last month in the US.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

London Film Festival Day 7 - TYSON

TYSON is a documentary biopic about the legendary heavyweight boxing champion. The movie takes the form of an extended, frank and open interview with Tyson interspersed with archive footage of bouts and press conferences. Unusually, we don’t get any talking heads – sports writers, ex-wives etc – to give us an alternative perspective. With most subjects, this would have led to charges of bias, lack of perspective and hagiography. But that isn’t the case here because Tyson is incredibly open and self-critical and proves his best judge. The documentary is also very well edited.

The central thesis of the movie – and of Tyson – is that he was an insecure, bullied boy who grew up in the roughest of neighbourhoods where all he learnt was how to hustle. Thrown into juvenile detention, he would have ended up like all his schoolfriends – in prison for life, dead or a junkie – had it not been for a chance encounter with a man who taught him boxing and passed him on to trainer Cos D’Amato when he got out. By the age of 20, D’Amato had rebuilt Tyson from the ground up, rebuilding his self-confidence and turning his into a disciplined world-class boxer. The tragedy is that just as Tyson was unifying the title, D’Amato died, leaving him adrift and subject to “leeches”.

It’s testament to Tyson’s perspective that he never blames other people for his misfortune. He blames himself for letting leeches use him for his money and for being too young and immature to get married to Robin Givens. He blames himself for losing his title both before and after his prison sentence for rape – he was out of shape and deserved to lose. He blames himself that his two wives left him – he shouldn’t have been promiscuous. Indeed, he only seems to be genuinely angry at two people: the woman he was convicted of raping (he still protests his innocence) and Don King – who stole his money. Still, despite all the mellowness in maturity, the film-makers are careful to insert choice pieces of news footage showing Tyson completely losing it to show us how quickly his temper can flare up and how savage he could be.

Aside from his notorious personal life, the documentary is the most interesting when Tyson explains how he psyches himself up before a match and talks us through his most famous bouts (including the infamous ear-biting scene). I was most into boxing in the late 80s when I was a small kid, hanging out with my older cousins. Big fights were major occasions and we’d all gather at some ungodly hour – the whole family cheering. Those were the glory days for Tyson, when you could talk about his ferocity without any unpleasant double-meaning. It was great to see that footage again and hear how Tyson felt when it was happening. It was also pretty tragic to see him transformed into a show-pony, showing up in poor shape to matches for pay checks. I may be biased, and out of nostalgia, reluctant to give Tyson a hard time, but I found this documentary to be a fascinating and sympathetic look at a great pugilist and self-confessed flawed man. It’ll be interesting to see if it catches any flack for having no accusers on screen other than the man himself.

TYSON played Cannes and London 2008.

London Film Festival Day 7 - TOKYO!

TOKYO! is a three part movie comprising three thirty-five minute shorts loosely linked by surreal goings-on in Tokyo. The first and most successful segment is directed by Michel Gondry called INTERIOR DESIGN. An aspiring art-house film director and his supportive girlfriend are struggling to make ends meet. They’re camping out at her friend’s cramped apartment, dodging questions about how long they’re thinking of staying, and taking menial work to pay the fine to get their car out of the pound. One day, the girlfriend, fed up with being the artist’s practical support, finds herself turning into a sturdy wooden chair! And, once in this state, she’s picked up by a random passer by who takes her/it to his flat. There, she carves a contented existence, providing practical support when he’s at home and living a nice unhurried life as a real girl when he’s not. It’s a rather touching and bizarre little film.

The next segment, directed by Leos Carax, slips nicely from simply odd to scarily ghoulish. One day, a disfigured man with a red-beard emerges from a sewer and causes havoc in downtown Tokyo, despite the fact that he’s not actually doing anything more threatening that being unwashed and insolent – that is until he stumbles upon a box of hand grenades. He’s picked up by the authorities and we get very funny news reports showing that the government’s first reaction is to tighten immigration laws. The strange man is eventually tried and sentenced to death on the urgings of the ultra-nationalists, but to everyone’s chagrin is reluctant to die. He may hate people, especially Japanese people, but he love’s life! MERDE is a provocative short, taking some nice pot shots at media hype and showing real visual flair in the scenes in the courtroom and on death row. I guess you could also read something into it regarding the Japanese attitude to foreigners, but it was fairly ambiguous.

The final segment is a film by Joon-ho Bong (THE HOST) about an obsessive-compulsive hermit whose perfectly ordered and repetitive life is disturbed when he falls for a pizza delivery girl. She’s so moved by the perfection if his apartment that she hands in her notice and decides to become a hermit too, forcing him to leave his apartment for the first time in eleven years to meet her. SHAKING TOKYO is a bittersweet, delicate romance featuring a moving central performance and lovely production design. It's a million miles away from THE HOST, which might, however, disappoint fans.

Overall, I remain unconvinced about these collections of shorts. The links between the segments always feel forced, although they’re clearer here than in the random jumble of PARIS JE T’AIME. I can’t say that I got any greater insight into the segments by virtue of watching them back to back. Nonetheless, whether viewed together or singly, they make for interesting viewing.

TOKYO! played Cannes and London 2008. It was released earlier this year in Japan and is currently on release in France and Singapore. It goes on limited release in the US on December 5th.

Monday, October 20, 2008

EAGLE EYE - slick vacuous paranoid thriller

If you're staring at me, it better be because I'm the suspect. If not, get back to work or I swear you're all demoted to something that involves touching shit with your hands!EAGLE EYE is a very slick, not undiverting action movie with a plot to so ludicrous* you could stick a cherry on top and call it Sarah Palin. Two normal people, played by Shia LaBeouf and Michelle Monaghan, are plucked out of obscurity by a sinister female voice on the end of a cellphone who seems to be able to control any IT system in America. Naturally, the fuzz, in the form of Billy Bob Thornton and Rosario Dawson, are also chasing after our heros, in a movie that splices by NORTH BY NORTHWEST with 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and ends up some way south of both of them. There are some flashy stunts and car chases and a suitably paranoid thriller element in which the very systems designed to keep us safe turn against it. As a basic guide, if you enjoyed WANTED or HITMAN you'll probably enjoy EAGLE EYE, but don't expect something of the same quality as DISTURBIA.

EAGLE EYE is on release in the US, Argentina, Australia, Chile, Hong Kong, Peru, Thailand, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, the Philippines, Venezuela, Belgium, Singapore, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Russia, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Turkey, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, South Korea, Austria, Estonia, Spain, Egypt, Indonesia, Kuwait, India, the UK and Japan. It opens next weekend in Iceland and Norway. It opens on December 24th in France and on January 2nd in Japan.

*Seriously. *SPOILER* Would an artificial intelligence so powerful it could control every network need to coerce two dumbass civilians anyways?

London Film Festival Day 6 - ADORATION

Atom Egoyan's new film ADORATION, is good enough to be considered with the best of his work - THE SWEET HEREAFTER and ARARAT. It's a sophisticated, emotionally resonant drama about clingng to grief and the slippery nature of memory - themes explored in other Egoyan films. The movie is well-acted, beautifully scored and cleverly put together. The heart of the film is a Lebanese schoolteacher called Sabine (Arsinée Khanjian) who befriends an orphaned schoolboy called Simon (Devon Bostick). She encourages him to develop a dramatic monologue in which he imagines that his father was a terrorist who had planted a bomb on his wife, then pregnant with Simon. If she hadn't been interecepted by security, Simon, his mother and 400 passengers would have died. Simon - precociously calm and articulate - becomes engrossed in this alternative history to the point where he insists on pretending that it's true to his schoolfriends and the wider internet chatroom community. It is hinted that he gets off on the audience reaction and his newfound local notoriety. It is, after all, more satisfying to control a story than to have to piece together fragments of your parents fateful car crash and your grandfather's racist attitude toward your father. At the same time, Sabine tries to reach out to Simon's uncle, Tom. He's an insular man who tries to avoid confrontation, in sharp contrast to Simon's father who tackled his father-in-law head-on. Tom is the opposite of Simon, refusing to even try to make sense of past events, avoiding emotional or intellectual engagement with reality until Sabine literally forces herself into his life. I was suprised to find that underneath the beard, the actor playing Tom was Scott Speedman - the guy from the UNDERWORLD movies. It seems that with the right material he is a talented actor. The movie progresses by small reveals and small obfuscations in that typical Egoyan way. But slowly we follow the characters uncovering the truth of Simon's parents relationship and the events leading up to their death. More importantly we see three characters who begin the movie in a state of arrested mourning move toward some sort of peace, if not quite normality. 

ADORATION played Cannes, Toronto, and London 2008. It opens in France on January 7th and in South Africa on February 13th.

London Film Festival Day 6 - HUNGER

Debutant writer-director Steve McQueen has made one of the most austere, brutal films of the festival so far - an unshrinking depiction of the conditions inside the infamous Maze prison at the height of the Dirty Protests, and Bobby Sands' fatal hunger strike.

As the movie opens, we see a middle-aged man eat breakfast and then leave the house. He checks underneath his car, and we realise that he's a prison guard in fear of his life. It's 1981, and he works at the Maze prison just outside Belfast during the Troubles. The next forty minutes give us an unflinching depiction of dirty protests with little dialogue but a brilliant sound-track that captures every scrunch of a sweater and every thud of cudgel on riot shields. The Republican prisoners look like savages - long hair, unwashed, wearing a blanket or a towel at most, living on mattresses crawling in maggots, walls smeared in excrement, mouldering food heaped in the corners of their cells. Every now and then, the riot police are called in and the prisoners are taken out kicking and screaming for a forced bath while their cells are hosed down. You feel the desperation of men who believe that their only option is to dehumanise themselves, and pity for the prison guards who in brutalising the prisoners to keep order are also brutalising themselves.

What the prisoners are protesting is their right to Special Category Status. It's the old beef. They think they are freedom-fighters and political prisoners. Mrs Thatcher's government says that they are simply criminals and should be treated accordingly. There is a stand-off. Accordingly, at the mid-point of the film, Bobby Sands has a meeting with a priest and discusses his intention to start a second hunger strike. This scene is the heart of the film and is absolutely gripping. It's basically a single-take fixed camera shot with Sands and the priest facing each other across a table, sideways on to the audience. The two men establish a rapport and engage in a debate about what the strike could achieve and what the price of failure would be. Liam Cunningham's priest is quick-witted and brooks no nonsense. Michael Fassbinder's Sands is articulate and steadfast. The priest asks Sands straight out if he's in it for the fame or if he's simply committing suicide. Sands argues that he'll be a masthead for recruitment if he dies, which turned out to be the case.

The final half of the film shows us, once again with minimal dialogue, how a man starves himself to death. Fassbinder really does lose the weight, and the bleeding sores look pitifullu authentic. With no melodrama, no fuss, just simple bureaucratic note-taking, Sands simply wastes away, the white sheet is pulled over his body, and the movie ends.

Steve McQueen's film strikes a fine balance between explaining the stance on each side - showing the consequences of violence both for the prison guards and for the prisoners. It never sensationalises or glorifies but merely shows us, unblinkingly, what's involved in such extreme choices. It's a strength of the movie that while I came out of the film essentially unchanged in my political stance on the Maze and Sands' actions, I felt that I could finally understand and empathise with his choice, and almost, but not quite, respect the resolution it must have taken.

As Mrs Thatcher said, "Mr. Sands was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It was a choice that his organisation did not allow to many of its victims". This film shows us the thought behind that choice - both his choice to be an active Republican and his choice to starve himself - in an insightful, intelligent, honest manner. Michael Fassbinder and Steve McQueen deserve all the plaudits they are receiving.

HUNGER played Cannes where Steve McQueen won the Camera d'Or, Sydney where it won the Sydney Prize, Toronto where it won the Discovery Award, New York and London 2008. It is currently on release in Grece and the Netherlands and opens in the UK on October 31st. It opens in Belgium on November 12th and in France on November 19th.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


NICK AND NORAH'S INFINITE PLAYLIST is a charming romantic comedy about two music geeks who fall for each other over a night running around New York City looking for a secret gig. Yes, they both have toxic ex-es, but finally they stop being cute and get down to it so that we can all go home, our cockles warmed and what-not. It's not unentertaining, although the laughs are thinner than they should be, way too dependent on gross-out toilet humour, and the romance is incredibly forced. Such are the pitfalls of the genre.

NICK AND NORAH'S INFINITE PLAYLIST is also a movie that, upon consideration, I think I despise. Everything about it is contrived to suck up whatever droplets of cool remain in the hipster movement and spit them out in bland commercial form for the mass market. I knew it was over for the indie rock movement when THE O.C. started merchandising mix CDs of Modest Mouse. This movie tries to ride the crest of the wave that combined the runaway success of JUNO and VAMPIRE WEEKEND but crashes on the roadblock of its own hypocrisy.

The movie opens with animated credits that are so desperate to be this year's JUNO it's painful to watch. And then we dive into the meet cute. Michael Cera plays the typical Michael Cera character - Nick - a nice guy geek who's being treated woefully by his domineering girlfriend (the disturbingly baby-faced Alexis Dziena). He makes her ueber-cool mix-CDs. She tosses them. Her friend Norah (Kat Dennings) picks them up. When Norah finally meets Nick his gay best friends put her in a wonderbra and wish her luck. We then get an hour of nonsense (but no actual discussion of cool bands, natch!) Clearly these characters are designed to be together and their ex'es are so godawful that there's no dramatic tension at all. When they do get together we get the most absurd sex scene in recent cinema. It takes place in a recording studio where Nick has the temerity to accuse Norah's dad of being a "hippie turned yuppie the mass market."

I couldn't have said it better myself. Especially when you consider that the guy who directed this film started out making genuinely gritty indie movies like RAISING VICTOR VARGAS.

NICK AND NORAH'S INFINITE PLAYLIST played Toronto and London 20078. It is currently on release in the US and opens in Iceland on December 5th. It opens on January 22nd in Australia and Germany; it opens in the UK on January 30th; in opens on February 13th in Italy; on February 20th in Finland and Sweden; on February 27th in Denmark; on March 4th in Belgium, Egypt, Argentina and the Netherlands and on March 11th in France.

London Film Festival Day 5 - QUIET CHAOS / CAOS CALMA

QUIET CHAOS is a well told, moving drama about mourning. It wreaks of quality and yet doesn't quite have that extra something that catapults it into greatness. Alessandro Gasssman directs Nanni Moretti in a role as a successful businessman whose wife dies in a tragic accident while he is at the beach, saving the life of a drowning Isabella Ferrari. Once back in the city he slips into a quiet mourning. No outward histrionics - his grief manifests itself in the decision to sit outside his daughter's prep school every day - nodding hello to the locals, reading the paper and occasionally holding court to his work colleagues who are being riven by office politics. The movie has attracted attention because of a controversial sex scene with between Moretti and Ferrari but frankly, it's tame stuff considering what you see in modern cinema these days, and should be compared to the sex scenes in MONSTER'S BALL - perfectly merited in the given context. The problem is that all that brouhaha and the all-star Italian cast has attracted more attention than this movie actually warrants. Yes, it's all very well done, but it lacks the innovation or slipperiness of a movie like Egoyan's ADORATION also showing in the festival.

QUIET CHAOS / CAOS CALMA played Berlin and London 2008 and opened earlier this year in Italy, Spain, Israel and the Netherlands. It opens next week in the UK and on December 3rd in Belgium and France. It opens on January 29th in Germany.

London Film Festival Day 5 - A PERFECT DAY

A PERFECT DAY/UN GIORNO PERFETTO is a methodically told, well acted Italian drama that tries to explore the psychology of domestic violence. Director Ferzan Ozpetek opens with the police being called to the apartment of one of their own - a cop called Antonio who works as the bodyguard of an MP. After this framing device we move back 24 hours to see the events leading up to the gun-shots.

Valerio Mastandrea gives a superb performance as Antonio, the cop, driven mad with rage when his abused wife Emma (Isabella Ferrari) finally takes their two children and leaves him. It is testament to the nuances of his performances that the audience can feel sympathy for such a brutal man. Isabella Ferrari is also very convincing in an award-winning performance as the put-upon wife, dressing younger than her age, overlooked by life, unable to take on any more problems. The sub-plot sees Antonio's employer, an MP, losing power and his young wife tempted into leaving him for his son by an earlier marriage.

The central story - based on a novel by Melania Gaia Mazzucco - is powerful and handles a difficult subject with understanding and fine balance. However, the romantic sub-plot reeks of daytime TV soap opera. Nonetheless, insofar as the bulk of the movie is an intelligent adult drama, and such intelligence is rarely seen on our screens, this movie is still worth seeking out.

A PERCECT DAY played London, Toronto and Venice 2008 where Isabella Ferrari won the Pasinetti Award for Best Actress. It opened earlier this year in Italy and opens next week in Turkey.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

London Film Festival Day 4 - RELIGULOUS

RELIGULOUS is a disingenuous documentary by American comedian and atheist Bill Maher. Rather than investigate how intelligent people reconcile their faith with their rationality, Maher mocks them to their faces for the first ninety minutes of the film and then restates his own atheistic beliefs in an anti-religious diatribe for the final five minutes. Don't get me wrong - the wilfully ignorant and bigoted are no friends of mine and I agree with many of Maher's critiques of religious idiocy. But skewering zealots doesn't make for particularly insightful journalism - it's just as nasty and as lazy as taking candy from a baby. Sure, it's funny to see Maher put amusing sub-titles under a Democrat senator who is so inarticulate he makes up words. But I would far rather have seen Maher use his contacts to interview senators more seriously about how the separation of church and state is being eroded.

In the final analysis, RELIGULOUS is a movie that is intensely funny but fails to satisfy on an intellectual level. Maher gets far less traction when he talks to moderates, which is perhaps why they take up such a small portion of his film. We do need a serious discussion about the rise of theocratic strands in US politics, and the challenge that liberal democracies face in dealing with intolerant minority groups. Sadly, this film isn't it.

RELIGULOUS played Toronto and London 2008. It is currently on release in the USA and Canada. It opens on November 5th in Belgium and Germany; on November 27th in the Netherlands and Iceland; on December 4th in Portugal and Italy and on January 21st in France.

London Film Festival Day 4 - AMERICAN TEEN

I had the misfortune of watching AMERICAN TEEN in a double-bill with the brilliant short documentary KIDS + MONEY. Ostensibly covering the same material - modern American teenage life - KIDS + MONEY was everything that AMERICAN TEEN wasn't - insightful, contemporary, disturbing, authentic. By contrast, AMERICAN TEEN seemed stagey, forced, incredible and addied nothing to cinema's treatment of teenage experience since THE BREAKFAST CLUB.

Documentarian Nanette Burstein (THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE) doesn't help her own case by pandering to the social stereotypes she is trying to investigate. In her year in the life of "normal" teenagers in Warsaw, Indiana, she picks four kids to follow who can easily be labelled as the Popular Princess; Jock; Weirdo and Geek. Starting from that premise she engineers/edits footage to comply with those stereotypes.

So Megan Krizmanich, the popular princess is shown to be a superficial bitch - burning a friend's rep by sending a topless photo of her round the school and leaving hateful voice messages on her answerphone. Colin Clemens, the Jock, has essentially no personality and activity off the basketball court. The "weirdo" - a charming kid called Hannah Bailey - is intruded upon in the most callous manner - with Burstein almost following her inside her depresssion. And geek Jake Tussing is shown getting serially dumped and cheated upon by girls, but getting his revenge in video-game fantasies.

This documentary has attracted a lot of controversy as to how far it really was reality TV. It won the documentary award at Sundance, after all, and Burstein has defended it fiercely as being authentic. Frankly I think this misses the point. Whether or not the footage is unmediated (and clearly no footage is ever 100% unmediated), the key point is that it *seems* staged. Burstein has to take responsibility for the fact that her choices - taping reaction shots on either side of a phone call; the use of animation; setting relationships to cheesy love songs as montages - all undermine the documentary feel of the film. I found these devices alienated be from the footage and I found it hard to empathise with these stagey events.

I might have overlooked the staged feel if the documentary had had anything meaningful to say about contemporary teenage life - but frankly this adds nothing to whaat John Hughes said in the 80s.

AMERICAN TEEN played Sundance, where Nanette Burstein won the award for Best Director - Documentary, and London 2008. It opened in the US earlier this year and is currently on release in Japan. It opens in the UK on November 7th and in Australia on November 27th.

London Film Festival Day 4 - KIDS + MONEY

KIDS + MONEY is a thirty minute documentary short by Lauren Greenfield about Los Angeles teenagers attitudes to money. In a series of disarmingly frank interviews teens from different income brackets discuss how far they think or worry about money and how far material possessions dictate their social status and happiness. The subjects range from a poor hispanic kid who seems thankful for what he little he has - after all he at least has food and a fridge - to a rich young girl whose parents have endless domestic staff but who has the self-awareness to feel bad when her best friend can't afford prom. In the middle we have the wannabes who dress above their income to impress - hassling their parents for new clothes so they can vamp like kids from The O.C. - thinking that popularity lies in looking good rather than being nice. Most frightening is the degree to which parents enable these habits, fuelling their kids' excesses. After all, they're as status obsessed even when they should be old enough to know the financial consequences.

The resulting documentary is tightly edited, scintillating viewing and by far the best thing I have seen in the festival to date. It's all the more relevant at a time when the world's market economies are in the midst of massive wealth destruction after an orgy of debt-fuelled excess.

KIDS + MONEY played Sundance and London 2008.

BURN AFTER READING - a bleak tragedy shoehorned into a screwball comedy format

...I'm not set up to mold hard rubber.BURN AFTER READING is a profound discussion of middle-aged angst - nihilistic, bleak, depressing - shoe-horned into the form of a typical Coen Brothers screwball comedy. It's as if the atmosphere of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN has infected THE BIG LEBOWSKI. The result is, unhappily, pretty painful to watch. It's a film in which unhappy people make bad choices, creating an mess that signifies nothing. As the lights went up, I wondered what I had just witnessed and the answer was, basically, the most wilfully mis-marketed film of the yar. Maybe that was the point - that underlying all comedy is tragedy. But, the odd laugh aside, it was neither as enjoyable as the great Coen Brothers comedies nor as profound as their best work. More superficially, without Roger Deakins at DP the film lacked visual flair - all the more noticeable since it is set in Washington DC and yet makes no use of that environment.

The plot of the movie, for what it's worth, is a caper gone wrong. Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt play gym instructors who chance upon a CD containing "CIA secret shit". They use it to blackmail John Malkovich's CIA agent. Of course, he's a mess too - an alcoholic, fired from his job, being divorced by his wife (Tilda Swinton) who's cheating on him with a marshall (George Clooney) who is also sleeping with Frances McDormand's character, and himself being divorced. George Clooney's character is also deeply tragic - an insecure man who slips from woman to woman always looking for an audience to impress and signs of adoration. Wires get crossed, people die, characters become ever more desperate for love and whatever they think will make them complete. The CIA looks on in bewilderment, shovelling all the stupidity all under a rug and closing the manilla folder. What do we learn? That disillusionment lies ahead. That most things are empty and meaningless. All of which is fine subject for a movie, but why choose the comedy-caper as the vehicle for such a message and advertise with George Clooney pulling his trademark zany face and Brad Pitt with the trademark Coen Brothers crazy hair?

BURN AFTER READING played Venice 2008. It opens in the UK on September 12th; in the US on September 12th; in the Netherlands on September 18th; in Russia on October 2nd; in Spain on October 10th; in Australia on October 16th; in Norway on October 17th; in Finland on November 21st; in Belgium and France on December 10th.