Sunday, August 31, 2008

STEP BROTHERS - Will Ferrell needs to get a new act

Barbara Walters, Oprah, your wife. You gotta fuck one, kill one, and marry one, go!Who coulda guessed?

Judd Apatow makes a film about a middle-aged man who's still acting like an adolescent.

Will Ferrell stars in a film as an annoying man-child, oblivious to normal adult etiquette, making everyone's life miserable until he goes through a third act montage.

Bina shells out ten squid plus jelly babies and comes away with a few chuckles at best.

The plot of this, the latest, Will Ferrell vehicle, is contrived. (The shock). Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins play two sixty-somethings who marry, uniting their respective kids (Ferrell and Reilly) as forty-something step-brothers. Both kids are irritating man-children who need to get off their fat asses and get jobs. The step-father sticks to a tough-love policy, alienating the step-mother, forcing the family to a crisis point. Eventually the kids do accept some kind of responsbility and start shaping up, until the harsh father gimps out and admits that he prefers his kids unique.

I hated this movie. It's crass, lazily-acted and poorly-scripted. Will Ferrell needs to do more than just turn up, screw up his face and whine. However, it could just be that I have tired of Ferrell's one-note comedic stylings and John C Reilly's Ferrell knock-off performances.

To sum up: your enjoyment of this film will be greater the fewer Will Ferrell movies you have seen.

STEP BROTHERS is on release in Canada, the US and UK. It goes on release in September in Iceland, Germany, Singapore, Estonia, Venezuela, Australia, Brazil, Russia and Finland. It opens in October in France, Sweden, Argentina, Greece, Norway, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, Turkey and Denmark.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Overlooked DVD of the month - JOY DIVISION

JOY DIVISION is an intelligent emotional, imaginatively-made documentary from DP/director, Grant Gee. The story of this revolutionary Mancunian post-punk band has been told twice before in the last five years. It was peripheral to the brilliant, insane story of Tony Wilson, told in Michael Winterbottom's 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE. And it was central, though mono-focused, in the recent Anton Corbijn flick, CONTROL. CONTROL was hard-wired into the story of Ian Curtis, his wife Deborah and his lover Annik Honore. It was sensitively told, visually brilliant, but, as a fictionalised account, narrowly focused and slippery. By contrast, this documentary is scrupulously balanced, straightforward in its chronology, and blessed in its access. Gee manages to interview all the former members of the band and the key players in the story from Tony Wilson to Annik Honore. Deborah Curtis isn't interviewed, but she is quoted. Gee also unearths old bootleg footage of concerts and layers this onto the interviews, old TV appearances, and imaginative recreations of the Manchester of the time. He even produces a nice little spoof of the old FAC numbers, with his list of Things That No Longer Exist - old pubs where gigs took place and such - all knocked down in Manchester's transformation from a post-industrial shit-hole into a modern, commercial city.

JOY DIVISION is worth watching because the story of the band matters and because it affects you emotionally.

It matters because JOY DIVISION were a revolutionary group that took, to paraphrase an interviewee, the monosyllabic, simplistic "Fuck you" of Punk and turned it into the sophisticated, articulate, damning "We are fucked" of Post-Punk. This group of young Northerners wrote songs that expressed the lack of opportunity of living in a country in deep decline - a country being emergency funded by the IMF and on the brink of the Thatcherite revolution. Not only were their songs expressing something real for the first time, they were being expressed in a style that was ultra-modern thanks to Martin Hannett's genius production. The songs changed the path of popular music - a claim that is made of many bands but is rarely true. This documentary gives you a feeling of what it was like to be present at the creation - the excitement, the expectation - and a sense of context. Context in terms of where music and popular culture were headed, but also in terms of the regeneration of the North-West of England.

What I wasn't expecting was just how emotional an experience this documentary would be. Grant Gee manages to get devestatingly honest interviews. These kids had no idea what Curtis' severe epilepsy meant. While Annik might have been concerned that Curtis was living the dark lyrics of Closer, they all thought it was "just an album". Curtis was physically and mentally torn apart by love and illness and yet these naive boys were surprised when he tried to commit suicide and then succeeded, and they freely admit to have been out of their depth and sorry for that.

JOY DIVISION played Toronto 2007 and was released in the UK, Japan, Finland and Brazil earlier this year. It is available on DVD.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Overlooked DVD of the month - BLAME IT ON FIDEL / LA FAUTE A FIDEL

BLAME IT ON FIDEL is a charming, beautifully executed story about a privileged young girl whose parents become Communists. Unlike MRS RATCLIFFE'S REVOLUTION, this film refrains from a cartoon-like depiction of the confrontation between bourgeois morality and dogmatic idealism. Rather, it is an authentic, detailed account of family disruption.

Nina Kervey-Bey is stunning in her depiction of the young girl at the centre of the film. When we meet her she lives in a luxurious house in the Paris of the late 60s. She attends a strict exclusive Catholic school, and delights in teaching her young cousins etiquette. With a child's unerring intuition, she realises that the unexpected arrival of her aunt and cousin from Spain bodes ill. Soon, her father is guilt-tripped into joining the revolution and both parents run off to Chile to support Allende. The parents are rather high-handed about their children. After all, didn't they stay with the nanny alone for two weeks?

Even when they finally return, the kids are merely shoe-horned into their parent's new radical existence. The nice apartment becomes a poky little flat, filled night and day with bearded radicals talking about "Group Solidarity" and unable to answer the little girl's brutally honest questions. We see their delusion and folly through her eyes - literally, because director Julie Gavras shoots the film from the little girl's height. This technique pays off most memorably in a seen where her parents take her on a demo and all she can see are the legs and waists of the crowd, the smoke and the sound of the police cracking down.

It's tempting to think that Julie Gavras had a special ability to bring this material to life because she has infused it with her own memories as a small child in the house of radical - her father, the revolutionary film-director Costa-Gavras. But whatever the reason, this film has what many lack - a feeling of authenticity and a light touch. Though deeply political and moral, it never preaches but allows us to wander through the period and its dilemmas as a small child trying to figure out what to do. It's truly a great film.

BLAME IT ON FIDEL played Rome 2006 and Edinburgh and Sundance 2007. It was released in France in 2006, in the UK, US and Brazil in 2007 and in Japan and Turkey 2008. It is now available on DVD.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Justifably overlooked DVD of the month - LES CHANSONS D'AMOUR / LOVE SONGS

After the marvellous bittersweet family drama DANS PARIS, French writer-director Christophe Honoré returns with a bittersweet contemporary musical LES CHANSONS D'AMOUR. It's a drama about the impact of love affairs and loss on a group of young people in a rather dismal, gloomy, contemorary Paris.

The movie sees Christophe Honoré continue his collaboration with the young actor, Louis Garrel, who appears in an all-too familiar role as a cheeky, good-looking erotomaniac. Ismaël (Garrel) is an infantile exhibitionist, who'll play with puppets to cheer people up. Some may find this charming (Honoré evidently does). I found it deeply irritating. The fact that I was irritated is, however, simply a matter of taste. The more serious charge against Garrel's performance is that it undercuts the serious subject matter of the film. We have to believe that he is genuinely torn between his love for his girlfriend Julie (Ludivine Sagnier) and his attraction to his co-worker Alice (Clotilde Hesme). We have to believe that when a tragic event occurs, "every second is a sob". We have to believe that he starts to shag anyone he can - even the sweet young boy who genuinely loves him - so that he can at least connect again. Sadly, Garrel's performance is not one that convinces that such an emotional weight lies behind his actions. The result is that he simply looks like a confused young man indulging in some opportunistic shagging. (Contrast this with Romain Duris' performance as a guy with REAL emotional problems in Honoré's previous film DANS PARIS.)

The other big problem with LES CHANSONS D'AMOUR is that, surprise surprise, the story is told through music. I didn't particularly like the style of Alex Beaupain's rather insipid acoustic songs. Neither did I like the breathy, half-spoken singing style of the actors. The problem is that pop song lyrics, which their short lines and easy rhymes, often sound banal. Even when Honoré wants to do something poetic with them, they just end up sounding pretentious. All in all, it's a big fat failure.

Never mind. With a director as talented as Honoré we can always look forward to the next film!

LES CHANSONS D'AMOUR played Cannes and Toronto 2007 and was released in Belgium, France, and the UK last year. It was released in the US, Russia and Greece earlier this year and goes on release in Germany next Friday.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

IN MEMORY OF ME / IN MEMORIA DI ME - the movie that Satan's Alley spoofs

I desperately wanted to like IN MEMORY OF ME and there are many reasons I should've done. I am a Roman Catholic who struggles with faith but regularly goes on retreat so I should've empathised with the subject matter. What could be more fascinating than a clever young man forsaking material gain to become a Jesuit seminarian - forced, in the silence of the cloisters, to confront the real nature of his faith and the true meaning of life? IN MEMORY OF ME had another claim on my time: director Saverio Costanzo was allowed to film the story inside the famous palladian church of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. I am interested in architecture, and the chance to see previously off-limits parts of the building sensitively photographed was a treat.

There is no doubt that IN MEMORY OF ME is beautifully shot, patiently told and well-acted. It is an earnest film that deals with profound questions of sexuality, faith and obedience. The problem is that there is a limit to how long I can stay interested in the inner struggles of men who are, largely, silent and inscrutable. It also didn't help that I had the Tobey Magure/Robert Downey Junior spoof film add for SATAN'S ALLEY running through my head on continuous loop!

IN MEMORY OF ME played Berlin and Toronto 2007 and was released in Italy and the UK last year. It was released in France, Belgium and the Netherlands earlier this year and is currently available on DVD.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

IN AMERICA - witty, earnest biopic undone by cheap sentiment

Ariel: What are transvestites?
Christy: A man who dresses up as a woman.
Ariel: For Halloween?
Christy: No, all the time. All the time.
Ariel: Why?
Christy: It's just what they do here, OK?


It's this sort of dialogue that makes Jim Sheridan's 2002 film IN AMERICA a
delight to watch. Much like BLAME IT ON FIDEL, it takes the point of view of a young girl living through family disruption in the near past. This time, instead of late 60s revolutionary Paris, we're in early 80s New York. Two young sisters are brought to America by their Irish parents. Mum is a waitress, dad is an out of work actor, and they live in a manky apartment building full of drug addicts and a threatening neighbour who screams a lot.

Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton are tremendous as the parents. I tend to think that Considine is rather overlooked compared to Morton. I've seen him do pathetic and sleazy in MY SUMMER OF LOVE and sinister and threatening in DEAD MAN'S SHOES. In this picture he shows the frustrations and insecurities of the father who can't provide for his children with a devestating passion in a pivotal scene with Djimon Hounsou.

Sadly, the movie is completely undercut by a rather simplistic, sentimental plot thread in which the scary African neighbour is, in fact, a pussycat, and everyone just gets on swimmingly. I can't say I'm sorry that IN AMERICA lost any of its three nominations at the Academy Awards.

IN AMERICA played Toronto 2002 and Sundance 2003. It is available on DVD and on iTunes. Samantha Morton was nominated for Best Actress but lost to Charlize Theron for her role in MONSTER. Djimon Hounsou was nominated for Best Supporting Actor but lost to Tim Robbins in MYSTIC RIVER. Jim, Naomi and Kirsten Sheridan were nominated for Best Original Screenplay but lost to Sofia Coppola for LOST IN TRANSLATION.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Overlooked DVD of the month - JESUS CAMP

JESUS CAMP is a deeply disturbing but one-note documentary about the way that evangelical American Christian extremists are brain-washing young kids to hate Muslims and to be prepared to die to defend their faith. (That's right: DIE.) They do this by putting the kids in an isolated bubble - home-schooling them and sending them to intense Sunday schools and summer camps. Under pressure in a radio interview, radical preacher admits that the values she teaches are illiberal and anti-democratic. This is a "sick old world", she says. Soft democratic values aren't going to protect America. Never mind that you've transformed it into a theocracy.

This is a petrifying documentary about adults with radical views brainwashing vulnerable children. The problem is that the damage is permanent. If you teach kids that science is fiction, evolution didn't happen and that teachers lie, you rob them of the analytical tools to make informed choices later in life. This is precisely the preachers' point.

The only problem with JESUS CAMP is that it's one note. After forty minutes, you get the point. These people are dangerous fundamentalists. There's too little context - too little rebuttal. The doc. left me asking questions - how typical is this movement of the evangelical revival in the US? How infuential is it? How far can it truly swing elections?

Still, this doc. is a must-watch for anyone concerned about America's role in world politics, if only for the wake-up call that palpable nonsense like this is entering the mainstream:

Becky Fischer: "It's no wonder, with that kind of intense training and discipling, that those young people are ready to kill themselves for the cause of Islam. I wanna see young people who are as committed to the cause of Jesus Christ as the young people are to the cause of Islam. I wanna see them as radically laying down their lives for the Gospel as they are over in Pakistan and Israel and Palestine and all those different places, you know, because we have... excuse me, but we have the truth!"

And my personal favourite comedy moment: "[Referring to President George W. Bush] He has really brought some real credibility, um, to the Christian faith."


JESUS CAMP was released in the US in 2007 and in France, the Netherlands, Singapore, Belgium and the UK in 2007. It is available on DVD. JESUS CAMP was nominated for Best Documentary at the 2007 Academy Awards, but lost to AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS - in which George Lucas creates, against all odds, a character even more annoying than Jar Jar Binks

When I was a kid I was so obsessed with Star Wars that I used to write fan-mail to George Lucas to make Parts I to III of the saga. I've since learned that some things are better left to the imagination.

The movie plays as one long battle peopled with sanctimonious Jedi, anonymous robots and the odd banal evil-doer. Anakin Skywalker is actually less wooden now that Hayden Christiansen is out of the picture and he's just a 2-D animation, but most of the key characters suffer from being voice-impersonations. Obe-wan Kenobi is a case in point. You've got a Yank impersonating a Scot doing a bad impersonation of a Brit with a very particular accent. And god knows what sort of cor blimey guv'nor accent Captain Rex has been given. Accents aside, the dialogue is your typical clunky George Lucas fare made worse by vocabulary aimed firmly at the pre-teen market. This is encapsulated in the deeply annoying new character, Ahsoka Tano, a young female Padowan straight from the Valley, who calls Anakin "Sky guy" and needs a good slapping.

Buried underneath all the battle scenes and annoying dialogue is a plot that is pretty inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, even though we're meant to really care about the outcome. Both the Republic and the Separatists are fighting for the allegiance of Jabba the Hut. Palpatine and Dooku try to frame the Jedi for the kidnapping of Jabba's baby (I know, I know). The Jedi have to rescue the baby and present him alive and well to his dad. That's it.

Holding up this animated movie against the original trilogy is unfair. Lucas isn't claiming this film to be the heir of the original trilogy. We all know that this is a shameless cash-in, advertising a forthcoming kids TV series. It's aimed at a new generation reared on The Bear in the Big Blue House, rather than a generation of tired old fanboys whose dreams of quality films depicting an expanded universe were shattered some years ago.

STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS is on release in Argentina, Australia, Germany, Peru, Sweden, Colombia, Finland, Norway, Panama, Turkey, the UK, the US, Venezuela, Japan, Belgium, Hong Kong, the Netherlands and Japan. It opens later in August in France, Portugal and Singapore, Brazil, Iceland and Spain. It opens in September in South Korea, Italy and Poland. It opens in October in Slovakia, Russia and Greece.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

SHOOT ON SIGHT - poorly made, crude, political drama

SHOOT ON SIGHT is a poorly made, earnest but superficial film about the British police response to the post 9-11 terrorist threat. It's made by the team that brought us PROVOKED - another movie based in the British Asian community. It shares that film's ropey production values as well as its caricature about race issues in the UK.

The movie takes its inspiration from the
de Menezes shooting, in which an innocent South American man was mistaken by British police to be a suicide bomber and was shot in a tube station just after the 7/7 bombings. However, in its ham-fisted way, instead of making the victim a South American clean-shaven man, they make him a caricature Orthodox muslim complete with kurta pajama and cap. The nervous police, as represented by Brian Cox, bring in a muslim cop (Naseerudin Shah) to investigate the case. Shah is a very fine actor, but his accent is all over the shop - from Cockney to Scouse - and this is extremely distracting. This being a simplistic, neat drama, obviously the copper's childhood friend just happens to be a fanatical mullah. And of course, wouldn't you just know that he's sponsored his nice young radical nephew to come and live in his loft-conversion?

Apart from Gulshan Grover and Om Puri (representing moderate and radical Islam), the performances are all weak. Crucially, there is no attempt to understand how the suicide bomber became a radical. Behind the camera, we have a shooting style reminiscent of cheap British soap operas and a score that is as subtle as a Bollywood melodrama.

If you want to see a movie about the pyschology and politics behind suicide bombing and the police response to it, you would do far better to watch the recent Indian art movie, BLACK AND WHITE. BLACK AND WHITE strives hard to prove that the issues are never really so binary, whereas SHOOT ON SIGHT never bothers with such nuances.

SHOOT ON SIGHT is on release in the UK.

Friday, August 22, 2008

SOMERS TOWN - gritty humour undone by schmaltzy product placement

I'm a big fan of Shane Meadows' films and SOMERS TOWN didn't disappoint. It's a charming, laugh-out-loud funny story about a teenage boy called Tomo who leaves his no-hope life in the Midlands for London. He doesn't make it far from the railway station he arrives in - loitering in Somers Town - the area between Kings Cross and Euston. Despite being mugged, having no money and no plans, Tomo manages to survive, and even to have some laughs, through sheer bare-faced cheek. He sort of adopts a shy Polish kid called Marek and together they pash on a hot French waitress and earn money through some dodgy deals with a local Del-Boy.

Thomas Turgoose, the star of THIS IS ENGLAND, has grown up a lot but retains a winning mix of vulnerability and cheekiness as Tomo. Piotr Jagiello is sweet as his Polish side-kick. Meadows deserves praise for being able to elicit such natural performances from relatively inexperienced actors. As I said before, the movie is very, very funny, mostly because of Tomo's adolescent boasting, but also because of Perry Benson's larger-than-life wheeler-dealer. SOMERS TOWN also has some fine dramatic moments - not least an honest conversation between a Polish father and son.

My only problem with the film is its sense of unreality - the sheer ridiculousness of the fact that this young kid ships up in Camden and is basically taken in by a series of kind-hearted people. Even young Tomo can hardly believe it, questioning whether he'll have to perform sexual favours for his keep. I could almost forgive this deliberate "happy-go-lucky" atmosphere as an artistic choice, if it weren't for the final five minutes, all in colour, which basically serve as a sickly sweet ad for Eurostar. Imagine how good this film would've been if they'd have finished it as the two kids have their conversation on the balcony, Tomo returns to his polishing and they agree to meet up later......

He's definitely an actor to watch. SOMERS TOWN played Berlin 2008 and is currently on release in the UK.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

GET SMART - mis-fire

GET SMART is a big-budget Hollywood remake of the old US TV series in which a clutz secret agent called Maxwell Smart was helped by his beautiful, competent, partner, Agent 99. In this new version, the writers decided to make Smart actually quite clever, and a decent, charming guy to boot. Agent 99 is also a little softer round the edges and despite the wide age difference between the actors - Steve Carrell and Anne Hathaway - they actually have good chemistry. I like that Smart and Agent 99 are a better match for each other and bought into their relationship. Sadly, everything around that central relationship is pretty weak, ripping on Bond movies and ENTRAPMENT. The plot is thin, and aside from location work in Russia, it's all very pedestrian. Alan Arkin and Hiro from HEROES are wasted in small roles, and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson needs to progress beyond this material. On the whole, one for DVD at best.

GET SMART was released in June in Bolivia, Chile, Greece, Peru, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Brazil, India, Panama, Taiwan, the US, Argentina, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Mexico, Uruguay and Venezuela. It was released in July in Italy, Kuwait, Estonia, Romania, Austria, Germany, Russia, Spain and Hong Kong. GET SMART is currently on release in Hong Kong, Portugal, Egypt, Iceland, Israel, the Netherlands, Hungary and the UK. It goes on release next weekend in Croatia, Denmark, Finland and Sweden. It opens in September in Belgium, Norway, France and Japan.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

TROPIC THUNDER: RAIN OF MADNESS - is it because I is Brit?

TROPIC THUNDER is a movie spoof so thorough in its mockery of Hollywood excess, that the film-makers have gone so far as to spoof "Making Of" docs like LOST IN LA MANCHA and, more directly, HEART OF DARKNESS. The resulting doc, RAIN OF MADNESS, is going to be released in the US on iTunes on August 26th. This is profoundly annoying to us all of crippled by the restrictions on iTunes European stores. Anyways, if you all you Europeans want to be cock-teased by sneak previews to a product you can't own, you check out the following:











Tuesday, August 19, 2008

YOU DON'T MESS WITH THE ZOHAN - do you find the idea of Adam Sandler catching a fish in his butt-crack funny?

Do you like to see one-joke movies based on two-dimensional SNL characters?

Can you live without a plot so long as you see lots of comedy shagging?

If so, YOU DONT MESS WITH THE ZOHAN is the film for you.

In all seriousness, I almost admire Adam Sandler for the balls-out energy he throws at the screen and his chutzpah in making a gross-out comedy based on the Middle-Eastern conflict. OK - all those humus jokes fall flat, and I really don't find Sandler's character schtupping old age pensioners funny, but you can't deny that this movie means well. It tries so hard to make you laugh, I almost felt bad that I didn't like it more. But I really didn't like it. I hated the Zohan character - a deadly Mossad agent who just wants to be a hairdresser, love his Palestinian girlfriend, and live in peace. I've seen Sandler do the 80s hairdo schtick too many times before, and the accent just rips on Borat. There's nothing intrinsic in Zohan's predicament that requires that he shag older women - Sandler just sticks that in to pad out forty minutes before he can fall in love and protect the neighbourhood from a property developer. Weak. Very weak. And just because it's better than LITTLE NICKY doesn't mean it's good.

Whatever happened to the Adam Sandler who did PUNCH DRUNK LOVE?

YOU DON'T MESS WITH THE ZOHAN is on release in Canada, Iceland, Mexico, the US, Australia, Israel, Russia, Singapore, Sweden, Hungary, Panama, Estonia, Romania, Poland, Indonesia, the Philippines, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Germany, Austria, Brazil, Turkey and the UK. It opens this weekend in Belgium, Croatia, Colombia, Denmark, Finland and Spain. It opens on August 28th in France, Slovakia and Venezuela. The movie opens in Argentina and Norway on September 19th and in Italy on October 3rd. It is released on Region 1 DVD on October 10th.

WILD CHILD- I am Spartacus!

Deeply derivative and banal teen romance in which a troubled California teen learns the value of real friendship, hard-work and team spirit at a British boarding school. The tone is as dismal and dull as the grey British weather and even the presence of Shirley Henderson as Matron can't enliven things. Emma (niece of Julia) Roberts is appropriately snotty then earnest as the transformed girl. Alex "Stormrider" Pettyfer is wooden as the boyf. It's not really their fault. What are you meant to do with a script that contains lines like: "every second I'm with you I catch my breath"? I also liked the irony of a girl finding her true self when she cuts off her blonde hair extensions and returns to a natural brunette - all the time pashing over a boy sporting a set of blonde highlights not seen since the heyday of WHAM!

Will someone please give Juno Temple a starring role, please, and end this reign of banality?

WILD CHILD is on release in the Netherlands and in the UK. It goes on release in Norway on August 29th; in Australia on September 18th; in Spain on November 7th; in Singapore on November 13th; in Denmark on November 14th; in Italy on December 5th and in Germany on January 1st 2009.

Monday, August 18, 2008

TROPIC THUNDER - worth seeing for the odd moment of genius

There are many problems with Ben Stiller’s new Hollywood spoof, TROPIC THUNDER. It’s over-long, too many of the jokes fall flat, and many of the main characters are under-written or just plain redundant. That said, TROPIC THUNDER does contain a handful of genuinely hilarious scenes that are, on balance, worth the price of admission.

The movie features three recognisable types of Hollywood actor – the action hero Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller); the gross-out comedy star Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black); and the method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Junior). Each actor is insecure. The Sly Stallone-spoof Tugg Speedman is desperate to be seen as a real actor, hence his disastrous attempt to play a mentally disabled kid in an I AM SAM type movie called SIMPLE JACK. The Eddie Murphy-spoof, Jeff Portnoy, is upset that he’s only famous for farting on-screen, and consoles himself with Class A drugs. Finally, the Russell Crowe-spoof, Kirk Lazarus, goes so far into his method-acting that he can barely remember who he is any more.

The movie opens with all three actors filming a war movie in Vietnam that’s behind schedule thanks to their tantrums. Under pressure rookie director (Steve Coogan) takes them on a Werner Herzog style journey into the jungle, where they will face real fear and thus give good performances. Problem is, the gun-fire is real, as the actors stumble into the territory of drug war-lord.

The aim of the film is to poke fun at Hollywood actors, producers and agents, with their big egos and insecurities. In addition, the movie spoofs the shameless avarice that creates life-less franchises and paint-by-numbers genre movies as star-vehicles. Most famously, the movie spoofs actors who try to win awards by doing something apparently earnest and issues-based – such as method-acting their way to Oscar by playing a mentally disabled person or an ethnic minority character. This is all good stuff, and I profoundly disagree with anyone who thinks that the movie is being racist by having a character wear black-face, or that the movie is being offensive by having another character play a mentally disabled character.

TROPIC THUNDER succeeds when it proposes an intelligent satire on Hollywood excess. Robert Downey Junior is superb in his nuanced portrayal of a method actor so far under-cover he’s lost himself. The movie also succeeds in its sheer balls-out excess. I defy anyone not to rejoice in Tom Cruise’s cameo as foul-mouthed, angry studio producer, dancing Usher-style and tempting Tugg’s agent (Matthew McConaughey in a brilliant performance). Some of the physical humour also works brilliantly. There’s a scene where a small kid gets tossed off a bridge that’s desperately funny.

TROPIC THUNDER fails miserably when, for the majority of its run-time, it moves down a notch from satire into spoof. Spoof is all well and good, but it’s frightfully thin and one-note. In other words, you can laugh once at Jeff Portnoy needing a fix, or Tugg Speedman being a stupid ass, but you can’t laugh at it again and again for a near 2 hour run-time. In fact, you could’ve lost the Portnoy character altogether. The ancillary characters are also poorly sketched. Poor Danny McBride – so hysterical in PINEAPPLE EXPRESS – is wasted here. Steve Coogan is given no funny lines as the rookie director. Nick Nolte is given nothing to do as the Vietnam vet. And the two characters who act as foils to the three big egos are also given little to do. Jay Baruchel makes the most of his part but poor Brandon T Jackson only exists in the movie as insurance. His character is basically there to diffuse the tension of having Robert Downey Junior dressed in black-face. It’s like the film-makers thought – a lot of African-American people watching this are going to want to slap Downey Junior, so let’s just put an African-American character on screen and have him to do it for them.

TROPIC THUNDER is on release in the US and Russia. It opens later in August in Australia, Iceland, Mexico and Estonia. It opens in September in Argentina, Hungary, Romania, Germany, Austria, Denmark, Finland, the UK, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Norway and Spain. It opens in October in Belgium, France, Venezuela, Singapore and Italy. It opens in November in Egypt.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

James Franco is a revelation in PINEAPPLE EXPRESS

Much to our surprise, Chairman Phil and I laughed our asses off throughout PINEAPPLE EXPRESS. We'd both liked THE FORTY-YEAR OLD VIRGIN but more recent Apatow creations had been subject to the law of diminishing returns, culminating in the fatefully titled SUPERBAD. Added to that, the programme notes were full of pretentious wank from Apatow et al about what the movie was trying to do. Our hearts sank. I was unsure that any stoner movie could live up to the brilliance of LEBOWSKI or whether Seth Rogen would be able to exist on screen without annoying the frack out of me. Well, sometimes in cinema, it's wonderful to be wrong!

Of course, PINEAPPLE EXPRESS isn't as good as LEBOWSKI. Then again, it's not really what I would call a stoner movie. Okay, the two lead characters are a pot dealer and his client; they're on the lam after witnessing a drug-gang murder; and they're life problems stem from being wasted; and a lot of the humour rests on taking hits and driving while under the influence......But seriously, even after all that, this movie is really a spoof of cop-buddy-movies like LETHAL WEAPON and 48 HOURS. To that end, writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg send up the inherent homo-eroticism in all buddy movies by making most of the characters ludicrously camp and having the kind of "aw, gee, gosh, I really love ya, buddy" conversations that never actually happen in real life!

The script is absolutely spot on - superbly funny at every turn. And in terms of the movie's technical aspects, you have to love the synth heavy pastiche 70s soundtrack. But what really lifts the film are the performances. This starts with a hysterical cameo by Bill Hader as a soldier in the 50s testing weed for the US government. Seth Rogen does his usual thing as a semi-functional dope smoker, but the scene-stealers are Danny McBride as the camp, drug-dealer Red, and James Franco as the drug-dealer Saul. James Franco is an absolute revelation in this role, and I can't help but feeling that his pin-up good looks have somewhat derailed his career into banal romantic roles, when in reality he should be a comedy star.

PINEAPPLE EXPRESS isn't a perfect comedy. The final shoot-out at the warehouse goes on way too long, and let's face it, despite the real attempt by the film-makers to show genuine stakes, we never really doubt how the movie's going to work out. But in the final scene in a diner, where the protagonists relive their experiences and joke about their scrapes, you realise just what a great time you've had.

PINEAPPLE EXPRESS is on release in the US and Australia. It opens in the UK on September 12th; in Iceland and Turkey on September 19th; in Estonia on October 3rd; in Finland on October 10th; in the Netherlands, Singapore and Venezuela on October 17th; in Germay, Russia and Sweden on October 24th; in Denmark on October 31st; in France on November 12th; in Egypt and Spain on November 19th; in Belgium, Argetina and Italy on November 26th.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

JAR CITY / MYRIN - no gaucamole bullshit here!

JAR CITY is a hysterically funny, visually arresting, tricksy little police procedural set in Iceland. The movie is among the most funny I have seen all year, and yet works equally well as a carefully told character-driven drama.

The movie is written and directed by Baltasar Kormákur, but based on the successful crime novel, "Mýrin" by Arnaldur Indriðason. The source novel is a linear crime thriller. Kormákur has added a rich seam of humour - both verbal and bordering on slapstick as well as an insistent desire to show the rest of the world how tasty sheep's heads are. More seriously, this is a film that lovingly shows us how strange life can be in a small, rather isolated country, where half the population are essentially still country folk, and the other half are embracing the fake-cosmpolitanism of the Starbucks culture. Much of the humour comes from the sheeps-head brigade mocking the latte-drinkers, and in a pivotal chase scene, the latte drinker is quite brilliantly ineffectual.

Kormákur also takes an interesting approach to the contruction of the narrative arc that adds a certain intellectual challenge to the film. It also changes the emphasis from a conventional "whodunnit" to a "whydunnit". In other words, this is no CSI Rekjavik but a proper drama.

The hero of the movie is a quiet, tough, loner called Erlendur. He's a detective investigating the death of a local sleazebag. Erlendur is the kind of guy who buys the same take-out every night. He's also the kind of guy who'll kick you out of his house and throw you down the stairs, but then bring you a cushion for your leg and call an ambulance. He is, in short, a decent but flawed man. This is most painfully shown in his relationship with his daughter - a drug addict. He is strict in not giving her money to feed her habit - on the other hand he'll offer her a home and try to protect her. And by the end of the film, he'll even tell her how deeply he has been affected by his work - a small opening to a real relationship.

The murder Erlendur is investigating is also about relationships between the generations. Thirty years ago, a nasty piece of work with a rare hereditary disease raped (or did he really?) two women and sired two children, both of whom passed on the weakness to their children. This rare genetic thumb-print will allow Erlendur and his sidekcik Sigurður to track down the murderer of the original rapist, thanks to the new, controversial, Icelandic DNA database. Without being overtly political, Kormákur carefully shows the dangers of absolute knowledge of this kind.

Despite the fact our Gmunden correspondent and I watched JAR CITY subtitled into English, we walked out of the cinema quoting lines, still laughing, convincing Nikolai that he simply had to see it. It's one of the best films I've seen all year.

JAR CITY was released in Iceland and was the most successful Icelandic film in history and won 5 Edda awards. It played Toronto and London 2007 and was released in Norway last year. JAR CITY was released in the US in February, and will be released in France and the UK on September 12th 2008.

Friday, August 15, 2008

THE GOOD NIGHT veers off track

THE GOOD NIGHT is a rather straightforward movie about lucid dreaming and comes off as indebted, but deeply inferior, to THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP. Martin Freeman (THE OFFICE) plays a faded Britpop star frustrated with his new career writing derivative commercial music. He's also frustrated with his deeply irritating girlfriend (Gwyneth Paltrow) and fantasises about a beautiful woman played by Penelope Cruz. Mocked by his amoral best friend (Simon Pegg), our hero turns to a variety of new-age kooks for techniques to sustain and even control his dreams. Finally, he actually meets a girl who looks just like the object of his fantasies.

The movie has some little comedic gems - Simon Pegg is on brilliant form and Britpop legend Jarvis Cocker is unnervingly convincing as a talking-head. But overall, THE GOOD NIGHT is a mess. The look of the film is bizarre - it's meant to be set in New York but is transparently set in London. The acting is mixed, with Danny de Vito and Michael Gambon wasted, and apparently unmotivated, in smaller roles. But most of all the script, from writer-director Jake Paltrow, veers off track. The movie starts of a romantic-comedy with an odd-ball streak, but ends up feeling like an Almodovar rip-off. Paltrow simply doesn't have the stones to handle the severe material he introduces.

THE GOOD NIGHT played Sundance 2007 and went on release in Russia, Greece, the USA and Israel in 2007. It was relased in 2008 in the UK and South Korea and is now available on DVD.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

MARTIAN CHILD - banal bonding movie

Actor John Cusack and director Menne Meyjes are reunited in sentimental father-son bonding drama, MARTIAN CHILD. Cusack plays a grieving sci-fi author who fosters a disturbed young child who combats his feeling of isolation by claiming to be a martian - photosensitive and thus unable to come out from under a box and play with the other kids. Cusack's character starts to believe that the kid might actually be an alien - so spooky is his ability to predict when traffic lights will turn green. The film-makers certainly lead the audience down this road. But in the final analysis, the film-makers aren't particularly interested in creating a spoooooooky film, but a sentimental one. The final scene sees Cusack's character battling a sceptical social welfare panel for the right to adopt the child and there are no prizes for guessing how it all turns out. Paternal love can be the foundation of powerful drama - viz Cusack's GRACE IS GONE - but not in this hackneyed treatment.

The technical aspects of this film are fine but nothing special, and you could say the same for the performances, barring Joan Cusack as a scabrous older sister.

MARTIAN CHILD was released in the US in fall 2007. It went straight to video in the UK and is currently available on DVD.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

NUMB - crass

Despite starring Matthew Perry of FRIENDS fame, NUMB went straight to DVD in the US and went on extremely limited release in the UK. Potential distributors had correctly surmised that the movie fell uneasily between two stalls: neither a charming romantic comedy nor a serious treatment of depersonalisation disorder.

Perry stars as a Hollywood screen-writer who has a mental disorder wherein he perceives life as at one step removed from himself. This is a genuine mental disorder and has, as yet, no means of treatment. As the movie progresses we see Perry bounce from psychologist to psychologist as different mixes of therapy and pharmaceuticals fail to give him any relief.

This could have been the basis of an insightful and moving drama of a man struggling to function in the face of illness. But instead, in a shamefully crass move, the film-makers decide to make the mental illness a mere conceit upon which to hang a romantic-comedy between Perry's character and Lynn Collins' green-light girl. As romances go, this feels cliched and unreal thanks to one of those typical declarations at an airport and a rather schmaltzy speech in a video store.

NUMB went straight to DVD in the US and was released in a handful of screens in the UK in June 2008. It is available on DVD.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

SARAH SILVERMAN: JESUS IS MAGIC: why is this on at the cinema?

SARAH SILVERMAN: JESUS IS MAGIC is a concert film from the eponymous American comedienne. Silverman has made a name for herself in the USA for looking sweet and innocent and vapid but saying the most unutterably heinous things about sex and race. Some people think she's racist. This is to miss the point. She's not racist (although she does have a bizarre beef about Jews driving German cars, which could almost be considered racist against Germans). What she's trying to do is satirise racists and show us all how stupid, ignorant and vapid they are. My problem with Sarah Silverman is, therefore, not that I think she's racist, but that I don't need her to tell me racists are stupid and wrong. Of course, you can take the piss out of racists and make people laugh. That requires actually fashioning a series of skits full of funny characters and situations. Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock are all devestatingly funny and clever, on the topic of race. But Sarah Silverman doesn't bother with the craft of writing a proper sketch. She just utters racist or sexually provocative comments and then skips to another one. It's as though she has ADD - her material spews forth like so many non sequiturs.

On top of the material which I don't think is particularly funny or intelligent, this movie has godawful production values. Lousy lighting, shoddy camera-work and a terrible DV transfer. The editing is crude and the musical interludes simply don't work.

The key question is this: why, three years after its release in the USA, is this movie being shown on UK cinema screens when it's fit for a heavily edited TV special at best? (The side question is why I still went to see it having read Ebert's review.)

SARAH SILVERMAN: JESUS IS MAGIC was released in US cinemas in 2005 and was released on Region 1 DVD in 2006. It is currently on release in the UK.

Monday, August 11, 2008

DEATH DEFYING ACTS - what a waste!

I think that in a year I may retire. I cannot take my money with me when I die and I wish to enjoy it, with my family, while I live.DEATH DEFYING ACTS is a tragic film, combining a waste of talent, the waste of a compelling story, and betrayal on the part of its studio. The movie is directed by Gillian Armstrong who, with movies like OSCAR AND LUCINDA, proved she could tell dark and complex stories of love and obsession and set them in beautifully created period settings. DEATH DEFYING ACTS also features a talented cast, with Guy Pearce as Houdini, Catherine Zeta-Jones as his love interest Mrs McGarvie, Saoirse Ronan (of ATONEMNENT fame) as her daughter, and the wonderful Timothy Spall as Houdini's manager Mr Sugarman. Finally, the story, while fictitious, features enough of Houdini's real life to have been potentially as interesting and dark as THE PRESTIGE.

Houdini was born into poverty as Erich Weisz, and through diligent training became the world's most famous and pioneering illusionist at the turn of the last century. The movie sees him on tour in Edinburgh, mourning the death of his mother and challenging spiritualists to channel her final words to him for $10,000. All this is true: Houdini was deeply affected by his mother's death and did have a side-line in exposing fraudulent mystics. Guy Pearce plays Houdini as a driven man - ambitious and able to shape the world to his will. He is also an unhappy man, never fully at ease in the high society he has now entered, regretting his early life with his large family. Indeed, I would have loved to see Pearce take the leading role in a proper Houdini biography rather than have his character shoe-horned into a cheap romance with a Scottish con-woman.

Everything that the screen-writers do with Houdini's character militates against Pearce's interpration of him and their script! He's a deep sceptic and intensely private, and yet he melts at the sight of a pretty woman who reminds him of his mum. For this to really have flown the writers would've have to have made much more about the hints that Houdini was unnaturally close to his mother, but they back away from this as soon as they raise it. And they tack on this deeply sentimental ending wherein the little sprite declares that she and her mother taught Houdini about love. Yeesh.

For all that DEATH DEFYING ACTS isn't a complete disaster and fans of period romances might well enjoy a viewing on DVD. Guy Pearce's central performance can't quite offset the muddle at the centre of the film. Ultimately, it falls far short of THE PRESTIGE and even a little short of THE ILLUSIONIST.

DEATH DEFYING ACTS played Toronto 2007 and was reelased earlier this year in Australia, Israel, South Korea, Brazil, Spain, Greece, Russia, Singapore, Turkey and the US. It is currently on release in the UK. It opens in New Zealand next weekend; in Argentina on October 9th and in Italy on November 14th. It is also available on Region 2 DVD.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

ELITE SQUAD / TROPA DE ELITE - The Pope's Rozzers

EL BANO DEL PAPA was a remarkaly discreet and affecting movie about the consequences of a Papal visit to Uruguay. With gallows humour and quiet humiliations it depicted a political system that is so inherently and completely corrupt that it both criminalises the poor and those in power.

ELITE SQUAD also tells the tale of a Papal visit to Latin America. When the Pope comes to Brazil in the 1990s, the government forms an elite squad of police, called the BOPE. They are meant to be ruthless and free from corruption, going into the favelas and taking out drug-dealers and pigs alike. The difference is that EL BANO DEL PAPA is a film with nuance and insight. ELITE SQUAD plays half like a loud music video and half like its trying to copy the visual style of the infinitely better CIDADE DE DEUS. It has a confused political message, and I get the feeling that the director doesn't really know how he wants us to feel about the BOPE.

On the one hand, the spoiled, pot-smoking, upper class sociology students say that everyone's a victim of the system. Rich and poor are born into endemic corruption. They argue that the BOPE are symptomatic of the complete breakdown of society - a group of fascist thugs who intimidate the rich and shoot the poor on sight and without judicial oversight. On the other hand, the BOPE, as symbolised by the narrator, Captain Nascimento, believe that they are doing right - that in a corrupt society they are the only people capable of restoring order. Moreover, they do so at substantial cost to their personal lives and sanity.

Director Jose Padilha is on tricky ground here. The BOPE have distinct fascist over-tones, complete with the SS style use of skulls on their insignia, the black uniforms, and the deliberate cultivation of an elite, cult-like mentality. On the other hand, he wants us to sympathise with them. It could've been a brilliant movie if it had truly pulled this off, and in the story of Andre Matias it almost does. Matias starts off as an idealistic law student who is shocked by police corruption and wants to do right. But by a series of small indistinguishable steps, Matias and his best friend Neto, slide into corruption and into the elite squad.

Sadly, this slide into fascist thuggery isn't as compelling as it should be because the frenetic shooting style and multi-linear narrative work against us seeing anything with clarity. Second, because, in the English-language release, the movie has been re-cut to put the focus on Nascimento rather than on Neto and Matias, using a deeply patronising voice-over. The voice-over, which continuously told me the obvious, had the effect of making me switch of my brain and disengage from the viewing experience.

ELITE SQUAD played Berlin 2008. It was released in Brazil in 2007 and in Argentina, Colombia, Turkey, the Netherlands, Mexico, Italy, Singapore, Portugal, Venezuela and Spain earlier in 2008. It is currently on release in Israel and the UK and is released next week in Hong Kong. It is released on September 4th in France and Greece and on September 19th in the USA.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

ELEGY - intelligent, emotionally brutal drama

ELEGY is a well-made, brilliantly acted, intelligent and moving drama by Spanish director Isabel Coixet and based on a novel by Philip Roth. It stars Ben Kingsley as an ageing academic with a penchant for sleeping with his students. More seriously, he has devoted his life to becoming truly independent, at the expense of his relationship with his son and a certain loneliness. The professor starts an affair with a stunning young student (Penelope Cruz). He is mesmerised by her beauty and frightened by the fact that he will never truly possess her. His flaws are to objectify her - think of her as unknowable - and to assume that she will leave him. This last is fatal. She is, in fact, remarkably self-assured, and prepared to brave society's scorn by introducing her older lover to her conservative family. *He* is the one who lacks faith, breaking her heart in the process. This act, so true to life, comes roughly half way into the film and the remainder of the movie is about how he comes to terms with his decision, his relationship with his son, and his relationship with the girl. There are no epiphanies or neat endings, but genuine character development and brutal emotional encounters.

Ben Kingsley gives a nuanced performance and has a real rapport with his unjudgmental best friend (Dennis Hopper) and, finally, with his son (Peter Sarsgaard). But the lynchpin of the film, and the real achievement, is that the relationship between Kinglsey and Cruz is utterly believable. We believe that they both find each other attractive and have a complicated, evolving relationship, despite the age difference. Cruz, in particular is superb as the student. Watch her reaction in the key episode at the centre of the film, and feel the tragedy of a photo-shoot near the end of the film. It's an award-winning performance. In addition, I would single out Patricia Clarkson for praise in her cameo role as a self-assured business woman. It's always a pleasure to see an older woman portrayed on screen as successful and sexually attractive.

ELEGY played Berlin 2008 and was released in Spain earlier this year. It is currently on release in the UK, US and Canada and opens next weekend in Austria, Germany and Russia. It opens on August 28th in the Netherlands; on September 13th in the Czech Republic; on October 22nd in Belgium; on November 27th in Mexico; and on December 4th in Argentina.

Friday, August 08, 2008

SPACE CHIMPS - the great run of B-movies continues!

Houston, we have a problem!SPACE CHIMPS is another one those movies - like THE MUMMY 3 and JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH - that is funnier and more enjoyable than I had any grounds to expect. It's an animated film that does exactly what it says on the tin. There are some smart-talkin' chimps and they get shot into space by NASA to see if there is life on a distant planet.

This isn't a movie working on the level of WALL-E. And, frankly, there's nothing special about the animation, and many of the characters are stock-types. But it is, nonetheless, an enjoyable film. The hero is a wise-crackin' cocky chimp called Ham III, who lives in the shadow of his grandfather, the original (and real life) space chimp Ham. He's always macking onto the uptight but pretty Lieutenant Luna. Naturally, they have one of those classic movie scenes where the laid-back cool guy gets the chick to loosen up through the power of....vodka? No, body-popping! The third member of the crew is a Buzz Lightyear-like chimp called Titan - earnest, brave but a bit stupid. The three chimps land on an alien planet where the mean Zartog has enslaved the other aliens thanks to his control of the original landing probe. The chimps have to go jump through some hoops (very Journey to the Center of the Earth/platform video-game) before freeing the aliens and returning home. On the way, they learn to clean up after man's metaphorical mess and the true nature of being an astronaut. The humans may use chimps as dumb animals but they can take control and become true space chimps.

Why did I like this movie so much? Maybe because it new its limitations, keeping to a brisk 70 minute run-time. Maybe because its colour palette is so bright and cheerful and because the aliens are do damn cute - especially a sweet little baby alien called Kilowatt. Mybe it's because the film-makers eschewed the usual cast of big-name actors and went for a cast of high-class TV comedians who know their craft? On the whole, I think I liked SPACE CHIMPS because it's genuinely funny and engaging. The jokes are clever - satirising the relationship between politicians and scientists and lovingly spoofing the sci-fi genre. But on a more basic level, who wasn't laughing when they saw three geeky scientists body-popping to Axel F?!

SPACE CHIMPS is on release in Hong Kong, South Korea, Brazil, Canada, the USA, Portugal, Kuwait, the UK and Israel. It opens later in August in Singapore, Croatia, Finland,Spain, Russia and Poland. It opens in September in Norway and Australia and in October in the Netherlands, Belgium and France.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR - mindless fun, yay!

The yak yakked!As I said in my review of HELLBOY II, the action-adventure romantic-comedy is one of the hardest genres to pull off. It demands a disciplined approach to plotting and the ability to keep the audience engaged in an emotional story despite all the whistles and bangs of the set-piece action sequences. In short, the director needs to be a master of technology, action, comedy and bring it all together in a coherent whole. When adventure movies work, they are about as much fun as you can have at the cinema. They exploit the scale and the group participation that you can only get with a packed house on opening night in a really big screen. I defy you to enjoy anything more than the opening night of HELLBOY II or, back in the day, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC or THE GOONIES. INDIANA JONES 4 should've given us that thrill but it didn't.

THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR certainly isn't in the class of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, and it owes those movies a debt of gratitude for set pieces in Shanghai and scenes at archeological digs. But THE MUMMY series, of which this is the best yet, certainly ticks all the right boxes for an entertaining, undemanding night out at the cinema. The movies have a lot of energy, exciting chase scenes and exotic locations, and for the most part roll along at a rapid pace throwing a good few laughs along the way.

In this episode, Rick and Evy are disgruntled with boring post-war married life, and take up the Foreign Office's offer to deliver a precious jewel to Shanghai. It turns out that the jewel will help resurrect an ancient Chinese emperor and his Terracotta Army - artefacts that Rick and Evy's son Alex just happens to have excavated. So follows much running, leaping, flying, wise-cracking and romancing.

The obvious glitches are the casting of a boy who looks way to old relative to his parents, and the fact that Maria Bello, fine actress though she is, being unable to pull off an English accent. It's also a bit frustrating to see Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh in a movie but no awesome martial arts sequences. However, this is more than compensated for by Brendan Fraser's trademark gusto, and John Hannah's ability to make cheesy lines like "My ass is on fire: spank my ass!" funny.

THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR is on release in Argentina, Chile, Hong Kong, Hungary, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Portugal, Russia, Singapore, Slovakia, South Korea, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, India, Mexico, Panama, Poland, Spain, Turkey, the USA, Venezuela, Egypt, France, Iceland, Indonesia and the UK. It opens this weekend in Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Norway, Pakistan, Romania, Sweden and Japan, It opens next weekend in Belgium, Croatia, Slovenia, Japan and Israel. The movie opens in September in Australia, Greece, New Zealand and Italy.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

MAN ON WIRE - compelling doc about a brilliant act of public art

James Marsh (THE KING) returns to documentaries with the compelling true life story of Philippe Petit - a cheeky, self-mythologising Frenchman who pulled off the breathtaking coup of walking a tightrope between the Twin Towers. Having previously walked between the towers of the Notre Dame and between the posts of the Sydney Harbour bridge, this ingenious hippie couldn't help but raise his sights to the world's tallest building, which had only just been completed. He went to New York, spied on the building, figured out the practicalities, and practised at his home in France. A motley band of friends and girlfriends helped him figure out how to smuggle in his equipment and connect the wire between the two towers. They shared his excitement at staging a beautiful public performance, but also the knowledge and fear that he could easily slip and fall to his death. Finally they saw Philippe engorged by sudden fame, feted and distant.

The documentary is a collage of interviews with all the key participants, archive photographs and video and elegant re-enactments. Marsh inter-twines the long-run story of planning the coup with the events of the day itself - the tension of smuggling in the equipment and the actual moment of the walk.

Philippe Petit is certainly a charismatic narrator, and one can't help but wonder how much of his story has been refined and re-enacted over the years. Certainly, I felt that the sort of personality that would attempt something as crazy-beautiful as this would necessarily be faily melodramatic and larger-than-life. But for me the most fascinating character was Philippe's best friend, who felt his friend was crazy but knew he was going to attempt the walk, and so tried his best to make sure he did so as safely as possible. There's a moment where he describes looking at Philippe's face as he steps onto the wire: the intense concentration changes into a broad smile. The adrenaline and physical memory take over: the friend knows Philippe will be okay, and even now, over forty years later, he starts to cry. It's a tremendously powerful moment and speaks of the really amazing thing at the centre of the film: true friendship, even if it couldn't ultimately survive the tension of the coup.

MAN ON WIRE played Sundance 2008 where James Marsh won the Audence Award ad the Grand Jury Prize for World Documentary. It is on release in New York and the UK. It opens in the Netherlands in February 2009.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

HELLBOY II - THE GOLDEN ARMY - hands (of doom) down the best of the summer blockbusters

Aw, crap!HELLBOY II - THE GOLDEN ARMY is by far the most satisfying of the summer blockbusters in terms of sureness of purpose; visual flair; emotional engagement; and sheer balls-out entertainment. It leaves the HULK and IRON MAN trailing in its wake, and while THE DARK KNIGHT may have been more ambitious and seditious, it teased more than satisfied: HELLBOY II, by contrast, shows a film-maker in full control of his medium and his subject matter.

The story is simple but captivating, rooted in myth and legend. Man has encroached upon the territory of monsters, and Prince Nuada will lead a mechanical golden army to reclaim that territory. His twin sister, Princess Nuala wants to maintan the peace and unites with Hellboy and his fellow paranormal investigators at the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. So, "Red" goes into battle once more, defendng the very humans who call him a freak, turning against his own kind. On top of which, he's got relationship problems with is pyrokinetic girlfriend Liz Sherman; he's being ragged by his new boss, an ethereal officious pyschic called Johann Krauss; and his best friend, a merman called Abe Sapien has gone goofy for the Princess. What's a demon to do but slap on the Barry Manilow, drink more beer and kick the crap out of the other guy?!

Guillermo del Toro's plotting is admirably neat and linear, and that allows him to spend all his time, care and energy on some of the most wonderful visuals to be seen in a summer blockbuster. Art-house fans will see the same sort of organic, authentic fantasy creatures from PAN'S LABRYNTH on a far bigger canvas. The genius od del Toro is to harness the power of CGI without making his creatures look too fake, sleek and automated. His world is grimy, grungy, living and breathing, mythic and beautiful. The "cantina" scene in the Troll Market already has me desperate to see the movie again and wallow ithe richness of the imagination on show. And the internal mechanisms of the Golden Army are intricate and breath-taking.

The rich visuals are complemented by a script and performances that manage to walk the line between genuine emotional engagement and laugh-out-loud comedy. It says a lot for Anna Walton and Seth "Family Guy" MacFarlane that we fall for a love story between two characters played from behind serious make-up and prosthetics - the most unlikely romantic couple in cinema. And Ron Perlman has cause to feel overlooked in all the hype about Heath Ledger. He's consistently one of the most charismatic and engagic actors working. He manages to pull of deeply romantic scenes with Liz (Selma Blair), moments of soul-searching, and slapstick comedy in fights with Krauss and drunken male bonding with Abe.

Many summer blockbusters try to capture the heady mix of action, romance, comedy and myth that made the original STAR WARS flick and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK so enjoyable and memorable. Few have succeeded. But HELLBOY II is firmly in that genre, and is one of the very few CGI movies to be a master of its technology rather than a slave to it.

HELLBOY II - THE GOLDEN ARMY was released earlier this year in Singapore, Thailand, Mexico, Panama, the US, Iceland, Italy, Israel and Russia. It opens on Agust 14th in Russia; on August 15th in Turkey; on August 20th in the UK; on August 21st in Hungary, the Netherlands and Portugal; on August 22nd in Norway; on August 28th in Australia and on August 29th in Spain. It opens on September 5th in Slovakia, Brazil, Denmark, Estonia and Finland and later in September in Poland and Sweden. It opens in October in Argentina, Greece, Venezuela, Germany, Belgium, Egypt and France.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Juatifiably overlooked DVD of the month - YOU KILLED ME

John Dahl (ROUNDERS) tries very hard to create a stylish noir romantic-comedy but fails by a whisker. He wants to make us laugh at the bleak and bizarre coupling of a old recovering-alcoholic hitman (Ben Kingsley) and his younger girlfriend (Tea Leoni), as mediated by his sweet-as-pie mentor (Luke Wilson.) The script is occasionally funny, but by far neither funny nor insightful enough. Moreover, the movie doesn't have the distinct visual flair or truly balls-out bleak humour of IN BRUGES. Fatally, Ben Kingsley had no real chemistry with Tea Leoni, who, by the way, was by far the most impressive person in this film. Her laid back, dry, rather desperate line-readings were absolutely spot on, but even then, not enough reason to watch this film.

YOU KILL ME played Cannes 2007 and went on cinematic release last year. It is available on DVD.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

THE X-FILES - I WANT TO BELIEVE - huh?

Never seen an episode of the X-Files. Never going to. Definitely not after this film, which plays like a sub-CSI police procedural artificially stretched beyond its natural 45 minute run-time.

6 years after the end of the TV show, cultural icons Mulder and Scully are pulled back into the FBI to help find a missing agent with the aid of a psychic, paedophile priest. At the same time, Scully is now a paediatrician, struggling with her conscience: should she give a kid a painful stem-cell treatment with a small chance of success or let him die in peace?

The spoooooky X-Files kidnap/organ-harvesting storyline was very lo-rent. Certainly sub-CSI and at around the level of an Urban Legend spoof. The stem-cell storyline could've been cool but the movie jumps the shark when Scully learns how to conduct cutting edge complex surgery by *googling* "stem cell research". Seriously?!

I'm sure the TV show was better than this. At least, that's what the message boards and my informal sample of 2 frends who are massive sci-fi geeks suggest. But there's no need to schlep to the cinema for this unless you really have a strong fan-boy urge to see Mulder and Scully kiss on the big screen.

THE X FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE is on global release.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

THE LOVE GURU - not quite good enough

Marishka Hargitay!Here's the thing. I don't find dick and fart jokes particularly funny. (This isn't judgmental - just a a matter of taste). Nor do I find comedians putting on ethnic accents at the cutting edge of humour: Peter Sellars had that down decades ago. Having said all that, I love WAYNE'S WORLD and the first AUSTIN POWERS movie. They were such warm-hearted joyful pastiches of genre-movies, I could overlook the occasional crude joke. Mike Myers' latest movie, THE LOVE GURU, tilts the balance firmly in favour of the crude and away from the thoughtful spoof. That's fine and if you like that kind of humour, as many of the people in the cinema I was in last night did, you'll have a really good times. The litmus test is this: is the idea of two lychees wrapped in pastry to look like balls funny to you? If so, go forth and enjoy!

If you don't find that funny, as I didn't, is there enough in this film to keep you satisfied? My answer is wishy-washy. I can't say I'd want to watch THE LOVE GURU again, and I did cringe every time Ben Kingsley portrayed a cross-eyed Indian guru. (Has Ganndhi come to this?!) The running joke using Marishka Hargitay's name may not play in the UK and Justin Timberlake is definitely worth more than his cameo as a camp Quebecois hockey player. And the scene where the trainee gurus joust with urine covered mops was truly tragic.

But there are a handful of genuine laughs in this movie, and I had an okay time with it. The basic idea is that Mike Myers is a LA based celebrity Guru, always striving to be bigger than Deepak Chopra. If Guru Pitka can reunite an ice-hockey star and his wife in time to restore his game and win the championship, the Guru will appear on Oprah securing his position as number one Guru. Pitka has a bunch of risible self-help techniques, signified by trade-marked acronyms, and the titles of all his books ARE funny. The early sight gag of the motorised cushion is also brilliant. I even liked the Bollywood song-and-dance number spoofs with Jessica Alba.

Still, as funny as the soft spoofery was, I couldn't help but think that THE LOVE GURU would've worked better as a SNL sketch. And, if truth be told, the funniest thing in it IS like a SNL sketch - Stephen Colbert's satire on sports commentators was sharper and edgier than anything Myers brought to the table.

THE LOVE GURU was released earlier this year in the USA, Australia and Israel. It is currently on release in Iceland, Italu and the UK. It opens later in August in Singapore, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Turkey. It opens in September in Belgium, the Netherlands, Venezuela and France. It opens in October in France, Germany, Austria and Spain.

Friday, August 01, 2008

THE POPE'S TOILET / EL BANO DEL PAPA - finely balanced tragicomedy

EL BANO DEL PAPA is a delightful tragicomic tale of hope and disillusionment in a poor town in Uruguay.

Beto smuggles contraband food and batteries over the border from Brazil on his bicycle. It's hard work and treacherous thanks to the unwanted attentions of the corrupt, indecent "mobile patrolman", Meleyo. Despite the precariousness of Berto's existence, this is not a sob story. Even in poverty, Berto and his mates have a space for drinks with friends, running jokes and a passionate love life. Moreover, Berto is a chippy bloke, always looking for an angle. A visit by Pope John Paul II himself looks like his ticket out of poverty. After all, the slick local TV presenter tells the villagers that floods of faithful Brazilians will come to hear the mass. Why not make some money selling chorizo and hamburgers? Why not mortgage the house or sell your bike to buy kilos of burger buns? And, in a stroke of insane brilliance, why not build a bathroom and charge the tourists to use it?!

It won't ruin anybody's film to report that the promised thousands never flood in. THE POPE'S TOILET is firmly in the tradition of COUS COUS and BIG NIGHT. From the first scene we know that the joy of the film will be in watching the collective madness and that the bitter streak will be the inevitable disappointment. For Berto, it takes the shape of disillusionment with religion: the Pope's visit should've been a miracle rather than a disaster. For his daughter, it takes the shape of disillusionment with the slippery promises and distorted reportage of TV journalists. Ironically, this realisation comes through seeing her father's true character on the TV - wandering through town, begging visitors to come and use his expensive new toilet.

Writer-directors César Charlone and Enrique Fernández have crafted a finely balanced tale. There are bleak moments, but the balance is always restored by Berto's irrepressible drive. Special mention must be made of César Troncoso's performance as Berto. Just look at the cheer joy he communicates when he finally gets to ride a motorbike! Moreover, look at the wonderful camerawork, capturing the thrill of speed, also from Charlone (CITY OF GOD).

EL BANO DEL PAPA played Cannes and Toronto 2007. It opened earlier this year in the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Spain. It is currently on release in the UK and it opens in Argentina on September 4th.