Tuesday, September 30, 2008

ALEKSANSRA / ALEXANDRA - alpha gamma agit-prop

ALEXANDRA is the latest movie from Russian auteur Aleksandr Sokurov, known in the West, if at all, for his movie RUSSIAN ARK. RUSSIAN ARK is a technical tour-de-force - a feature-length movie comprising a single tracking shot that winds it way around the Hermitage. Technical achievement aside, RUSSIAN ARK is a surreal and evocative work that manages to capture something of the shifting use and symbolism of that building and with it, the shifting social and political life of Russia itself. The slow steady camera movement, lack of conventional narrative, and snatches of brief conversations work well in RUSSIAN ARK. The simulatenously tight and loose structure leaves the audience space to work out the meaning of the film.

Sokurov's latest film, ALEXANDRA, adopts some of the same techniques as RUSSIAN ARK but without the technical conceit. As with RUSSIAN ARK we have a focal character who ambles through a set without much purpose or direction - alighting on conversations here and there - allowing us to weave our own narrative. The French marquis of ARK is replaced by an indefatigable grandmother, Alexandra, who is visiting her grandson at an army camp in Chechnya. She wanders around, asking basic questions of officers and grunts, shuffling into town, taking tea with the locals, and shuffling back. The movie shuffles about too, almost listless in the perishing heat of the desert, and drowned in sepia-tint and a rather mawkish orchestral score.

At first, I was frustrated by the lack of pace and purpose in the film, but after half an hour or so I was lulled into its somnabulent pace and tuned my eyes and ears to the small details that Alexandra was picking up on: the terminal exhaustion, constant hunger and grim resignation on both sides of the war. And, as Sokurov makes clear, this isn't just about the Chechen war but war in general. Sometimes it takes an obstinate, simple woman to ask the obvious questions and point to the painful truth of a situation - the reality behind jingoistic Russian nationalism. Finally, I found myself if not quite enjoying ALEXANDRA, at least admiring its intentions and innovative style. As a cineaste, it was definitely worth watching, but the occasional viewer may find it a stretch.

ALEKSANDRA played Cannes, Toronto and London 2007. It was released in Greece, France, Belgium, Russia and Poland in 2007. It was released earlier this year in the Netherlands, the US and Turkey and is currently on release in the UK.

Monday, September 29, 2008

IL Y'A LONGTEMPS QUE JE T'AIME / I'VE LOVED YOU SO LONG - superb

Contemporary, provincial France. A drab, tired woman called Juliette is met by her idealistic young sister, Lea. Lea knows that Juliette has just served fifteen years for murdering her young son, but despite this, she trusts in her childhood memories and entrusts her house and her two young daughters to Juliette's care. Lea's liberal husband has his doubts, and the audience shares them. And that is the key to the success of Philippe Claudel's movie. It combines the beautifully acted character study of Juliette with the dramatic tension of a thriller. At first, the audience is concerned that Juliette will be triggered into a horrible crime against Lea's children. And then, the audience is desperate to know the motive for the original crime. It's all so carefully balanced that this movie of few concrete actions and even fewer words seems to fly by. Kudos to Kristin Scott Thomas for a genuinely brilliant performance in a difficult role, and to Philippe Claudel for crafting such three-dimensional characters. And as to the denouement, some may quibble, but I was so engrossed that I would've bought anything by that point.

IL Y'A LONGTEMPS QUE JE T'AIME played Berlin and TORONTO 2008 and was released earlier this yaer in Belgium, France, Greece, the Netherlands and Spain. It is currently on release in the UK and opens on October 24th in Israel, and the USA. It opens in Germany on November 13th.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

THE FOOT FIST WAY - McBride's better in small doses

Meditation is terrific and all, but I've never heard of it saving anyone from a gang rape type situation.THE FOOT FIST WAY is a star vehicle for American comedian Danny McBride. Up till now, McBride has been a scene stealer in ensemble comedies such as PINEAPPLE EXPRESS. He specialises in playing loser characters who are convinced that they're the best thing since sliced bread. There's something very funny about the arrogance of the dumb-ass, and McBride is the king of deadpan outrageous bullshit.

In THE FOOT FIST WAY, McBride plays a Tae Kwon Do teacher with a slapper wife who starts acting out when he discovers she gave her boss a hand job and gets worse when she shags his hero. The movie is filmed much as THE OFFICE was filmed. It's deliberately low-rent, trying to give the proceedings a voyeuristic, docu-drama feel. Accordingly the humour isn't so much laugh-out-funny as wince-inducingly awkward.

The conceit of the film is funny as far as it goes, but I couldn't help but feel that I was watching a crazy side-character gone AWOL from the main feature. This kind of character is far better deployed as a side-kick, especially when the resulting movie has little plot and no real change of tone. So, sadly, I can't recommend THE FOOT FIST WAY.

THE FOOT FIST WAY was released in May in the US and is currently on release in the UK. It was released this week on Region 1 DVD.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

DEATH RACE (2008) - does exactly what is says on the tin

Frankenstein can't die. He's just a mask.Back in the 70s schlock movie maestro Roger Corman produced a drive-in hit called DEATH RACE 2000. It starred David "Kill Bill" Carradine as Frankenstein, a racing driver in a dystopian future where the US government runs gladiatorial cross-country violent auto races to keep the plebs happy. Racers get points for how many and what type of people they run over - therein the social satire.

Brit helmer Paul W S Anderson's DEATH RACE is less a straightforward remake than a loose re-working. In fact, bar the violent car racing, I thought DEATH RACE (2008) had more in common with the Schwarzenegger classic, RUNNING MAN, where death-row inmates fight each other on national TV for a chance at freedom. Like RUNNING MAN, DEATH RACE posits a dystopian future in which ratings are king and pay-per-view dollars don't so much grease the wheels of justice as steer the driving wheel.

A demure-looking Joan Allen plays the greedy capitalist bastard at the top of the pile. She hams it up as Warden Hennessy, the Madam running the show. Her job is to select the appropriate drivers from her prison full of murderers and wack-jobs; drum up the publicity; milk the pay-per-view dollars; and then run the three-day Death Race. Simple as. Only problem is, her most lucrative driver, Frankenstein, is dead, and she needs a replacement.

Here steps in Jason Statham as the patsy in the driver's seat. He doesn't do anything more than the typical Jason Statham performance - gruff voice, buff body - this man's career is a glorious triumph against all rationale! To watch Statham try to force up some emotion at a picture of his baby daughter, or to try to register intellectual effort as he works out whodunnit, is comedy of the purest form. Anyways, he's joined in a souped-up racing car by sexpot Nathalie Martinez. You have to hand it to Paul W.S. Anderson: there's something wicked about being so blatantly exploitative but then writing that exploitation into the social critique in the film. He HAS to cast a hot chick because that's exactly what the Pay Per View Death Race execs would do!

Anyways, there's a bunch of car races. There are horrific mash-ups. Heavily tattooed men of many ethnicities die. Eventually, Statham figures it out and we all go home. Job done. It's not pretty, it's not intelligent, and it's nowhere near as brilliantly trashy as RUNNING MAN, but if you want mindless entertainment, look no further.

DEATH RACE was released last month in Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, the USA, Indonesia and the Ukraine. It is currently on release in Iceland, Russia, Estonia, Romania and the UK. It is released next weekend in the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, Poland and Spain. It opens later in October in Belgium, Egypt, France, Hungary, Mexico, Turkey, Brazil, Finland, Sweden and Argentina. It opens in November in Venezuela, Slovakia, Italy, Norway, Germany, Denmark and Japan. It opens in Chile on December 4th.

Friday, September 26, 2008

APPALOOSA - a great character piece marred by a blowsy broad

APPALOOSA is two movies spliced together. The first is a beautifully acted, patiently told, character piece set in the American West some time after the Civil War. Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen play two peace-enforcers to hire. They find themselves in a small towm called Appaloosa, hired by the townsfolk to defend their businesses and their women against Jeremy Irons' lawless ranch-hands. It's a savage, unforgiving place. Irons' dessicated amoral rancher shoots sherriffs at will (and rather bizarrely, seems to be affecting an accent somewhat similar to Daniel Day-Lewis in THERE WILL BE BLOOD). The two peace enforcers inflict tyranny on the town in exchange for peace. Both men have a sort of languid, homespun charm, but Ed Harris' character in particular is prone to moments of range.

The charm of APPALOOSA is to show the quiet beats between the moments of violence and set-piece stand-offs. The two law-men have a comfortable relationship reminiscent of an old marriage, and Viggo Mortensen's character may be visiting the local whore, but he is evidently in love with Ed Harris' character in a way that may step over the line from hero-worship to homo-eroticism. I also love the fact that these very real, complex characters are situated in a perfectly authentic world. The little details in the production design are evocative - from the leather patch on Viggo's jacket where he rests his gun, to the way in which the law-men have tanned faces up to the line where their hats shade the top of their foreheads.

Unfortunately, this movie is marred by a serious mis-step of casting and direction with the pivotal role of Mrs Alison French. She's meant to be a conspicuously elegant, seductive woman who blows the two men off course and leaves them stumbling for words to describe her actions. Renee Zellwegger plays Mrs French in strokes and colours so broad that it looks like she's in a different movie from Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen. It would be easy to criticise Zellwegger for these choices, and I do. She's not a great actress, but she IS a good actress, and if she had had any senstitivity to the rest of the cast, she would have modulated herself accordingly. However, I also have to lay some of the blame at the door of second-time director Ed Harris, who presumably didn't give her the right direction.

This is all a tremendous shame, because APPALOOSA is evidently a labour of love for Ed Harris, and he goes so far toward creating a classic modern Western only to have Zellwegger's character blotch the paper.

APPALOOSA played Toronto 2008 and is currently on release in the US, Singapore and UK. It goes on release next week in France and Norway and opens in Argentina on December 4th.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

SWING VOTE - actually rather enjoyable!

I went to see SWING VOTE because my mum loves Kevin Costner and I love my mum. That age discrepancy leads you to the first stumbling block in the movie: how plausible is it that someone of Kevin Costner's age would have a 12 year old daughter? How much more fun would this movie have been if it had, for instance, starred Sam Rockwell? But this is the least of the film's problems in terms of willing suspension of disbelief: the conceit of SWING VOTE is that the whole US Presidential election is so finely balanced that it comes down to the vote of a single man and that, thanks to a malfunctioning electronic voting terminal, each party has ten days to win him over to their cause.

Despite these seemingly insurmountable odds, SWING VOTE made a really good attempt to make the electoral conceit seem believable, and the whole movie is so much fun that I simply went with it. Like a moody independent, I was won over by its earnest good intentions, its sheer audacity, and the fact that Kevin Costner and Madeline Carroll pull-off the central emotional relationship at the heart of the film. Kevin Costner absolutely surprised me with his humanity and ability to pull off physical comedy. He makes Bud Connell an everyman in the mould of Homer Simpson. Yes, he's a shirker, yes, he drinks too much beer, but at heart he wants to do right by his family and he's got a lot of common sense. Madeline Carroll is also really great as his daughter Molly. She plays one of those over-responsible kids of divorce, effectively parenting her own father. But she also acts like a kid and doesn't have the preternatural air of grim adulthood that I sometimes detect in Dakota Fanning.

Admittedly, this movie pulls its punches when it comes to satirising the political system. Kelsey Grammer plays a W-lite dumb Republican President and Dennis Hopper plays a candidate for "Change" Democrat. Their campaign managers are played by the ever-brilliant Stanley Tucci in Karl Rove mode and Nathan Lane respectively. But the jokes are as soft as the targets are obvious. This movie clearly doesn't want to upset anyone. Still, maybe this was the right way to go with what is, essentially, a sweet film about a father and daughter bonding. And on that level, this is a very satisfying film.

The SWING VOTE opened earlier this year in the US, Greece and Turkey. It is currently on release in Brazil and the UK. It opens in the Netherlands and Spain on October 30th.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

TAKEN - 24 the movie

Now's not the time for dick measuring, Stuart! TAKEN is a slick, quick thriller that sticks in the throat. Liam Neeson plays a Jack-Bauer-like US special ops agent whose daughter, Kim, is like Kim Bauer, kidnapped. This being a piece of neo-con agit-prop, the kidnappers don’t have a grudge against her father, or indeed, stepfather, either of which would’ve been interesting. Rather, the kidnappers are improbably traffickers in sex slaves who have decided that their business model would be more profitable if they kidnapped rich young tourists rather than duping poor East Europeans. Now, I can see why this might save on “transport costs” but surely if you and some complicit French rozzers are running a sex-trafficking business you’d rather not attract the attention of rich, angry Yanquis parents putting pressure on the local cops via an irate US embassy?

At any rate, after half an hour of mooning over his sappy daughter, Liam Neeson jumps on a plane and heads to Paris where he single-handedly uncovers the plot and discovers his daughter while killing and torturing lots of cheese-eating surrender monkeys and evil rapist towel-heads. Yes, yes, in this world, every Frenchman carries a baguette under his arm and every Muslim want to rape young Americans. In short, TAKEN is a film whose tone and content are lifted straight out of 24 and whose entire world-view was so roundly mocked in TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE. I can’t quite believe that Liam Neeson agreed to star in such xenophobic, derivative drivel.

TAKEN was released earlier this year in France, Israel, China, South Korea, Belgium, the Netherlands, Turkey, Spain, Australia, Italy, Poland, New Zealand, Chile, Peru, Argentina, Russia, Thailand, Mexico and Venezuela. It opens this weekend in the UK and Portugal and next weekend in Austria and Brazil. It opens in the USA on January 23rd 2009 and in Germany on February 5th.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

THEN SHE FOUND ME - indigestible

THEN SHE FOUND ME is a very busy film - jampacked with tragic, dramatic events that somewhat overload what had the makings of an interesting, emotionally engaging adult drama. First-time director, and lead actress, Helen Hunt, handles all the material without missing a beat, but the resulting film is indigestable.

The movie focuses on a mousy, middle-aged primary-school teacher called April, played by a suitably dowdy-looking Hunt. Within a week, her husband Matthew Broderick) leaves her, her adoptive mother dies, she meets a really lovely bloke (Colin Firth), but finds out she's actually pregnant with her ex-husband's child. And, by the way, her biological mother (Bette Midler), a talk-show host, turns up with lots of tall tales about how she gave April up. The impact of all this on the key players unfolds over the next hour, finishing up with a rather trite repetition of a proverb that was told at the start of the film. As well as the overly-dramatic plot, THEN SHE FOUND ME also contains some of the corniest dialogue this side of Mills and Boon and I pity Coln Firth having to play the stock bumbling, inarticulate Brit.

THEN SHE FOUND ME played Toronto 2007 and opened earlier this year in the USA, Israel, Australia, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Greece, Portugal and Poland. It is currently on release in the UK and opens in France on October 1st and in Argentina on November 13th. THEN SHE FOUND ME is available on Region 1 DVD.

Monday, September 22, 2008

DIE WELLE / THE WAVE - doesn't ever quite convince

Confronted with a class of German schoolchildren sick of hearing about the Holocaust and convinced it could never happen again, ("we've moved passed it"), schoolteacher Rainer Wenger decides to make an experiment. In "project week", he reintroduces traditional seating plans, uniforms, and respect for the teacher. The bored, pampered schoolchildren are energised and excited by the feeling of solidarity and belonging. Coming from broken homes, or parents so liberal they create no boundaries, the kids respond to a repectable authority figure. Soon, they take the project and run with it, introducing a hand signal, a graffiti tag and a rather menacing attitude toward those that don't fit in. Before they know it, they have enthusiastically become a gang with fascist over-tones.

The movie is well-acted and manages to capture the infectious energy of teenagers and the way in which teenage relationships work. Juergen Vogel also does a good job as the charismatic teacher who runs the project to teach the kids a lesson, but is as susceptible to the feeling of power as they are. However, I think that writer-director Dennis Gansel makes a mis-step in forcing the transformation of the kids into a "Project Week" rather than, say, into a term. The pace of the transformation seems forced, especially with the few kids who are fired up but then become disillusioned, all within a week.

Still, I can't deny that this is a powerful movie, provocative and engaging, and desperately relevant.

DIE WELLE played Sundance 2008. It opened earlier this year in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Turkey. It is currently on release in the UK and Russia and goes on release in Poland next week. DIE WELLE opens in October in Hungary abd Belgium and opens in November in Greece, the Netherlands, and Taiwan. It opens in France on January 28th.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

THE WOMEN (2008) - deliberately confused?

This is my face: deal with it.THE WOMEN is a rather baffling film about four privileged middle-aged women who are struggling to balance careers with families and to maintain dignity in the face of societal pressures to look young. It centres on a country-house wife called Mary (Meg Ryan) who has put her career on hold to be a supportive wife and mother only to discover that her husband is cheating on her with a perfume counter girl (Eva Mendes). Not only that, but Mary is betrayed by her best friend Sylvie (Annette Bening), a magazine editor who trades gossip on her friend's marriage in order to keep her job.

The message of the movie seems to be that female friendship is as important, if not more so, than a good marriage. It's also that women should be "selfish" and put their career and happiness first. Moreover, women should not bow to societal pressure to look young or have sex early. As Annette Bening's character says "This is my face, deal with it." All good, empowering stuff.

Then again, the message of the movie seems to be "It's hypocritical: it's complicated". After all, how can we not notice that Meg Ryan has had significant and devestating plastic surgery, and looks very different from Annette Bening who is ageing more naturally. Mary's mother (Candice Bergen) has a face lift, and Mary supports that decision. Maybe female empowerment is about being empowered to cave in to pressure and not feel guilty?

I'm not sure if THE WOMEN is a good movie or not. It seems to be genuinely confused about what it wants to say and as such it's hard to pin it down. The performances are fine and it looks polished. The issues it raises are important and of interest to modern career women. Yes, it's slippery in terms of its messages but maybe that's deliberate - maybe that accurately reflects women's odd relationship with their own self-image.

Insofar as the movie provoked me into thinking about big life-issues margibally more than it irritated me with it's clumsy product placement, I guess I would give it a qualified thumbs-up.

THE WOMEN is on release in the USA, Canada, Romania, Turkey and the UK. It opens in October in Puerto Rico, Argentina, Russia, South Korea, Poland, Italy and Spain. It opens in November in the Czech Republic, Norway and the Netherlands. It opens in December 11th in Germany; on December 26th in Finland and on January 28th in France.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

LINHA DE PASSE / PASSING LINE - earnest but dull Brazilian family drama

LINHA DE PASSE is an earnest film chronicling the lives of a poor family living in contemporary Sao Paolo. Sandra Corveloni plays the matriarch, Cleuza. She's a tough, caring woman, no longer with her husband, father of her three oldest boys. She also has illegitimate son, and another baby of unknown paternity on the way. Cleuza drinks and smokes through preganancy, attends soccer matches, and struggles to make a living. Her son Denis, a father himself, is a motorcycle courier who reluctantly turns to petty crime to escape poverty. The second son, Dinho, is trying to escape his shady past through religion. The third son, Dario, wants to escape through football but at 18 he's too old and he lacks the money to bribe the scout. The youngest, Reginaldo, spends his days riding buses, trying to work out who his father is.

The resulting film is well-acted and feels authentic. It's a non-glamourous story without any Hollywood endings. Poor people struggle, get frustrated, fail, but you never doubt the bond connecting the family.

Still, I have to say that I found the movie interminably dull. Yes, yes, it's earnest and it's great to see an unblinking slice of real life. But the odds stacked against our characters staying honest and the grim inevitability of the stories sucked any dramatic momentum out of the movie. I felt like I was being hit over the head with this unsubtle portrait of working-class horror and that the situations in which the characters found themselves were too conveniently symbolic of modern Brazil.

LINHA DE PASSE played Cannes, where Sandra Corveloni won Best Actress, and Toronto 2008. It opened earlier this month in Brazil and is currently on release in the UK. It opens in Israel on November 27th; in the Netherlands on January 22nd and in France on January 28th.

Friday, September 19, 2008

UNRELATED - so good I'm tempted to tag it "pantheon"

UNRELATED seemed much longer than its run-time and that's a good thing. It feels long because it's intense, and because you feel you have come to know and sympathise with a group of complicated, interesting people in an almost unbearable situation. It's been a while since I've seen a movie featuring actors that look real - middle-aged women with crow's feet - and act real - making wrong choices that aren't movie-cute or contrived. And it's certainly been a while since I've seen a movie where I was so on edge, desperate to know how it was going to develop.



Anna is a middle-aged, middle-class woman. She arrives at a Tuscan villa at night. It's so dark you can't see her face. A group of teenagers, rich with the arrogance of youth, wonder who she is. She tries to sleep despite their loud talking. The following morning she meets their parents - her friends - but she's equally awkward with them.

Perhaps it's boredom that leads the kids to adopt her as a token member of their group. Soon Anna is flirting with "Oakley" and he flirts back. It's excruciating to watch her watching him. Eventually, when she pushes the moment, he backs off and she has to go through the indignity of being an outsider again. The situation becomes even worse when a big family row proves how far she has no place with them and, as far as we know at that point, no place with her husband back in England. Finally, Anna comes full circle. She is back at the villa at night, but instead of partying with the kids in a desperate act of recapturing her youth, she's annoyed by the loud talking. She's an adult again, dealing head on with her emotions.

Kathryn Worth is outstanding as Anna and she is supported by a note-perfect cast. Mary Roscoe is utterly convincing as her stalwart best friend and David Rintoul has a rather chilling role as the other "old" George. Among the kids, Tom Hiddleston is quite brilliant as "Oakley" - the charming young man who is quite aware of his impact on Anna but equally just wants to boff the girl in the villa next door.

UNRELATED is testament to the fact that big budgets, flashy effects and saccharine endings aside, cinema can be powerful and insightful and intelligent. That it is a debut feature is even more impressive. I can't wait to see what Joanna Hogg does next.

UNRELATED played London 2007 where Joanna Hogg won the Fipresci prize. It is currently on release in the UK.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

KING OF NEW YORK - random-expletive-generator

"You know I don't feel that strongly about it. I'm not saying it wasn't bad. It was bad."

"The script took five years to write? How? He just pulled expletives at random out of a hat."

Nikolai on
KING OF NEW YORK.


KING OF NEW YORK is a poorly made, politically dubious gangster flick from writer-director Abel Ferrara. It features Weapon of Choice, Christopher Walken, as ex-con wannabe dealer, Frank White. As the movie opens, White leaves Sing-Sing in a moody looking town car and heads straight to the Plaza where he shags two hookers. He then proceeds to run around town, giving money to charity, while all the time off'ing dealers who refuse to do business with him. He also offers jobs to punks who try to mug him. "Come to the Plaza. Ask for Frank White." Doesn't he think the concierge at the Plaza is going to start noticing all the gangsters turning up?

The whole thing feels amateurish. It wants to look moody but looks shoddily put together. Everyone seems to be pastiching bad guys. Laurence Fishburne is particularly guilty of this - walking with all the attitude and conviction of Ali G. But even Christopher Walken seems to be hamming it up more than usual. Not once did I feel threatened by any of these characters. They were like silly kids playing a rather vicious kind of dress-up.

That, of course, is the criticism most often thrown at this film. That it is irresponsible because it glamourises pimping, dealing and shooting people at random. I, of course, have no objection to pimping, dealing and shooting people. I do, however, object, to boredom, bad acting and grand-standing.

KING OF NEW YORK was originally released in 1990 and is available on DVD.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

SILK - lavish but strangely uninvolving

SILK is writer-director Francois Girard's adaptation of Alessandro Baricco's best-selling novel. Set in 1860s France and Japan in the 1860s, it focuses on a young couple Herve and Helene Joncour (Michael Pitt and Keira Knightley). Herve is hired by Baldabiou (the wonderful Alfred Molina) to travel to an isolated village in Japan to buy silk-worm eggs. The mission is a success but Herve's marriage is lost. He becomes obsessed with a Japanese woman, and even when he returns to France, is transfixed by her love letters to him, begging him to return.. Nothing much actually happens but everyone looks miserable.

Michael Pitt does his typical moody, longing schtick and Keira Knightley follows suit with a series of emotionally pregnant glances that prefigure her (far better) performance in THE DUCHESS. The denouement tries to inject some drama but, given the simpering that preceeded it, it struck me as quite out of character.

On the plus side, SILK does look beautiful.

SILK played Toronto 2007 and was released in the US, Canada, Italy, the UK, Hong Long, Singapore and Greece that year. It opened earlier this year in Taiwan, Japan, Israel, Thailand, Mexico, Kuwait, Portugal, Spain, Brazil, Australia, the Netherlands and Argentina. It opens this week in Belgium and is also available on DVD.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

LADIES IN LAVENDER - soporific schmaltz

Yes, yes, Dame Judi Dench and Dame Maggie Smith are simply marvellous actresses and it's interesting to see Charles Dance turn his hand from acting to directing. It's even rather nice to seen a costume drama set, not in a country house, but in a charming cottage on the English coast. But oh my word, this movie takes a long time to make it's rather slight emotional point. The bat's squeak of emotion barely survives the two-hour run-time.

The plot, such as it is, involves a young Polish man (Daniel Bruehl in a thankless role) who is washed up on the English coast in the middle of the last century. He is taken in by two old spinsters. The elder (Maggie Smith) is kind but reserved. The younger (Judi Dench) forms a strange attachment to the young man, becoming irrationally jealous when he forms an attachment to a young German woman (Natascha McElhone). It turns out that Judi Dench's character is trying to recapture a youthful passion. This is all very sad, but frankly, not enough to set the world alight, and certainly not enough to engage my sympathy or interest.

LADIES IN LAVENDER played Toronto 2004 and was released that year. It is available on DVD.

Monday, September 15, 2008

WAZ - grimy thriller undone by hammy acting

WAZ is gorgeously grimy, sludgy, filthy looking serial-killer/police-procedural from British writer-director Tom Shankland. It has the balls to show a serial killer who isn't completely demented but who's scarily in control and to give you scenes of stomach-turning torture. It also slips along at a tremendous pace with a suitably slippery plot.

The problem is that the characters are, killer aside, caricatures, played by actors who verge on pastiche. Stellan Skarsgard is the epitome of the grizzled cop and Melissa George is suitably naive and sweet as his newbie side-kick. Worst of all is Ashley Walters - a Londoner - who plays a New York gangsta like something from a rap video. Indeed, he gives a performance so ludicrous, with an accent so wide of the mark, that he rivals Fishburne for Least Convincing Hood of the Week.

WAZ played Edinburgh 2007 and ws released in the UK in February. It is available on DVD.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

THE ORDER - skewered by its central conceit

THE ORDER features Heath Ledger and Mark Addy as two Catholic priests whose order specialises in exorcisms and other demon-related shenanigans. They go to Rome to investigate the suspicious death of the head of their order. Tagging along, is a mentally unstable girl called Mara who, of course, has the hots for the younger of the priests, Alex. The fact that they stumble upon, and the central conceit of the movie, is that sinners have discovered a loop-hole to get into heaven. Instead of repenting, they simply get a Sin Eater to literally ingest all their bad deeds so that they can ascend with a pure soul. Neat! However, the current Sin-Eater (Benno Fuermann) wants Alex (Ledger) to take over, goading him into eating the sin of suicide so that Mara (who by now he is boffing) can go to heaven. It all ends in rather bleak and messy manner.

Insofar as this movie works at all, it works as a thriller as we try and uncover the true allegiance of various shady characters. However, on the whole, it's a dismal failure. I think the problem has to do with the central concept of the Sin Eater. The CGI depiction of the sin-eating is ridiculous and totally undermines any sense of horror or peril. It doesn't help that writer-director Brian Helgeland (of LA CONFIDENTIAL fame) tacks on a completely unsuspenseful love story.

At any rate, the movie plays like a pastiche of THE EXORCIST or THE OMEN and is definitely one to avoid.

THE ORDER aka THE SIN EATER was released in 2003 and is available on DVD and on iTunes.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS - an immaculately-made, disturbing film (*spoilers*)

THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS is, deep breath, a film about the Holocaust for children, based upon a book that is now being taught in British schools. The fact that it may be on your child's book list shouldn't make you complacent about taking them to see it. It's a disturbing picture and seeing things on the big screen can be more horrific than reading them on a page. It's important to teach this history but please be aware that the film-makers do not pander to their audience in the final ten minutes. If you need further information you can check out the PBBFC information here.

Ok. Public Service Announcement over, we can get back to the review. THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS is a deeply affecting, well-made drama aimed at children, but worth watching as an adult. The movie is told from the point of view of an eight-year old boy called Bruno, and the film-makers are careful to introduce the details of the Holocaust very slowly. The first time we see Bruno's father he isn't in uniform. He just looks like a normal dad. And it helps that the mostly British cast choose not to play it with caricature German accents. Still, Bruno is an observant child and he can tell that his grandma isn't happy with his father's decision to move the family to the countryside. Once in the new house, Bruno is frustrated and lonely. He manages to sneak out of the house and stumbles upon the electric fence of a "farm" where everyone wears "striped pyjamas".

The clever thing is that none of the adults lie to Bruno. The assumptions that he makes about the prisoners and the nature of the camp are all logical and plausible when viewed from the perspective of an innocent young boy who falls back on the presumption that his dad is a good man. Even when Bruno starts speaking to Schmuel, an 8-year old prisoner, he is slow to catch on. So long as you can grant the film-makers the initial conceit that these two boys could have met, the rest of the movie flows naturally. Their conversations, rationalisations, mistakes and reconciliation have an air of authenticity.

The denouement comes swiftly and, for adults, with a grim sense of what the end will be. The grim inevitability and sheer horror is enhanced by James Horner's tremendous orchestral score which builds to a literal scream. I was surprised by just how straightforward the film was and just how affecting the end was. This is surely as it should be. This is the sort of film that you don't leave the cinema talking about with your friends. You walk home in silence, considering what you've seen.

Kudos to novelist John Boyne and screen-writer, director Mark Herman for having the judgement to bring this to the screen. Herman in particular deserves praise for getting good performances from the two young boys, Asa Butterfield and Jack Scanlon. David Thewlis and Vera Farmiga are typically good as the parents, but we also get a very powerful cameo from Sheila Hancock as the grandmother. I also thought this was the first film in which Rupert Friend gave a very convincing and nuanced performance.

THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS is on release in the UK. It opens on September 26th in Spain; on October 3rd in Ireland; on November 7th in the USA; on January 23rd in Norway; on February 12th in Argentina; and on April 2nd in Germany.

Friday, September 12, 2008

EDEN LAKE - a middle-class nightmare

Don't touch the axeEDEN LAKE is a violent thriller movie comments on the British obsession with class. The plot is very simple: a middle-class couple is violently attacked by a gang of working class kids. The social commentary is more interesting. At first sight, the depiction of the working class characters looks dangerously like the worst sort of smug prejudice espoused by the British tabloid press. The parents are obese, selfish, crass and amoral. They don't actively parent their children, but leave them to roam, savage and near-feral. The kids have no respect, no courtesy, no sense of right and wrong and no boundaries. These are the kids that stab each other in clubs, happy-slap innocent bystanders and cause general mayhem.

If this was all the film was, it would be pretty simplistic and insulting. But it's not. Writer-directer Michael Watkins takes care to show that the kids aren't mindless thugs, but products of their environment, and that they are extremely nervous about crossing the lines into outright violence. Moreover, the middle-class couple betray the same capacity for savagery as the kids. Michael Fassbender accurately conveys the smug confidence of the middle-class male. He refuses to be drawn into a scene of racial bullying - "boys will be boys" - but as soon as he's on the sharp end he becomes riled and aggressive. Kelly Reilly, however, has a far more interesting role. She begins as almost a spoof of the milksop middle-class girl - a harmless primary-school teacher, pained by bullying, eager to avoid trouble. When the worst occurs, she proves resourceful and clever but also goes on the classic "heart of darkness" journey. In extremis, she has the same capacity for feral savage revenge as the chavs.

So, EDEN LAKE satisfies as a simple thriller, but it's also fairly nuanced in its social commentary - far more nuanced than some reviewers would have you believe.

EDEN LAKE played Frightfest 2008 and is on release in the UK.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

THE WACKNESS - a goofy story about stoned losers

I got mad love for you shorty. That’s on the real.THE WACKNESS moves at the lackadaisical langurous pace of the stoners it portrays. Essentially, it's a coming-of-age movie, dressed up as original thanks to its early 1990s setting and its cast of narco losers. For all that, it's still as charmingly goofy as its hero, and despite the occasional ennuis, who doesn't love a story about a broken heart.

Josh Peck plays Luke Shapiro, a resourceful kid who sells weed to the popular kids and frets about his parent's financial difficulties. When all the cool kids leave town for the summer he gets his chance with a bored popular girl called Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby). She is genuinely charmed by the guy - as is the audience - and they hang out - but everyone knows it won't last. Shapiro is shepherded through this pivotal experience by his similarly messed-up shrink come client, Dr Squires, who happens to be Stephanie's dad. Squires is basically an infantile pot-head with a failed marriage to a similarly messed up wife (Famke Janssen).

The overall message seems to be that life is harsh and messy and that you have to find love and friendship while you can and when you can. It's testament to the Jonathan Levine's script and Ben Kingsley's acting that these goof-ball characters ring true and that we care about them. And after all, they're far nicer, and their own way, far more in touch with reality than the popular kids or the "normal" parents.....

THE WACKNESS played Sundance where it won the audience award. It was released in the US earlier this uear and is currently playing in the UK. It opens in France on September 24th.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A GUY THING - disposable rom-com

Disposable, bland, rom-com, that tries so hard for every character to be nice and earnest that no-one's interesting. Jason Lee is ironed out into a decent guy called Paul who just happens to sleep with his fiancee's cousin on his stag night. Except that he didn't really, because that's how nice he is: they just passed out. The lovely fiancee, Karen (Selma Blair), is always a hair's breath away from finding out the messy truth, but fate always lets Paul off the hook. All of which leads to a stagey denouement in which Paul has to summon the balls to tell Karen that he's really in love with kooky Becky (Julia Stiles, who really cannot play kooky). It's all very, very unfortunate.

A GUY THING was released in 2003 and is available on DVD and on iTunes.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

CASHBACK - worked better as a short

Being Swedish, the walk from the bathroom to her room didn't need to be a modest one.CASHBACK is a visually stylish, low-budget British art-flick by Sean Ellis. It's based on an Oscar-nominated short that is provocative, weirdly funny and tightly structured. Sean Biggerstaff plays an art student who dumps his girlfriend and then can't sleep. So, to kill time, he takes a job working nights in a supermarket, where he wrily comments on his fellow in-mates and visualises all the shoppers naked, as in life-drawing class.

In this full-length movie, the fiscally prudent Ellis has used all the footage from his short, and padded it out with extra storylines and more fantasy nudity. Personally, I feel the extreme, bizarre style of the original worked best as a short and that the nocturnal imaginings seem leery when populating a full length film.

CASHBACK played Toronto 2006 and opened in Belgium, France, Israel, Canada, Bulgaria, South Korea, Turkey, Greece, Hong Kong, Sweden, the Netherlands, Australa, the USA, Singapore and Denmark in 2007. It opened in Japan, Spain, Mexico, Portugal and the UK earlier this year. It is now on release in DVD.

Monday, September 08, 2008

BANGKOK DANGEROUS - mawkish

The Pang Brothers English-language remake of BANGKOK DANGEROUS has all the faults of the original plus Nic Cage in a fright-wig. It's an action movie about a jaded assassin (Cage) who falls in love with a deaf-mute Thai pharmacist and wimps out of a political assassination because he wants to do the "right thing". As jaded assassin films go, you'd be better off watching THE MATADOR, and if you want guns, motorbikes, and scantily clad chicks, I give you the early works of Arnie. Frankly, this is all way too slow-moving to satisfy on a superficial level, and far too morally hackneyed to satistfy on an emotional level.

One for pizza and DVD night, at best.

BANGKOK DANGEROUS is on release in Spain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Hong Kong, Russia, Thailand, the UK and the US. It opens later in September in Singapore, South Korea, Norway and Sweden. It opens in October in Greece, Brazil and Finland in November in Poland. It opens in Argentina and Venezuela in December.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

THE DUCHESS - hollow

I came to Amanda Foreman's biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, as someone passionately interested in the politics of the late 18th century - particularly the relationship between Fox and Pitt the Younger, and the impact of the French revolution on British political culture. I was drawn to the book because of Amanda Foreman's thesis that Georgiana, as wife of a powerful Whig patron, had a profound influence of the role of women in electioneering, by deliberately exploiting her influence as a woman of fashion.

I was far less interested in the social history of Georgiana. Yes, it is tragic that she was trapped in a loveless marriage, legally her husband's property and valued only as a means to produce an heir. But this is the history of many women before the late twentieth century and one might as well read THE FORSYTE SAGA or histories of Marie-Antoinette. That Georgiana, like Marie-Antoinette, masked her troubles at the gaming tables was also not especially interesting to me. I found it far more fascinating that men who would rule the country and its finances, such as Fox, would game all night and politick all day.

It seemed to me that the biography sold because of readers' prurient interest in the fact that the Duke of Devonshire kept his mistres, the Duchess' best friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster, in the same house as his wife, apparently with his wife's consent. This new film panders to that prurience, especially in its ill-judged marketing campaign.

By stripping away the social and political context - the gambling, the significance of the electioneering, the profound disruption of revolutionary politics - the film becomes a mono-dimensional romantic drama. Naive young Georgiana is excited to make a dazzling marriage into the very pinnacle of society. But her husband is uncommunicative and, given her failure to produce a male heir, disrespectful. He callously keeps his lover, her best friend, in their house(s). And when Georgiana finds some happiness with her lover, the Duke forces her to renounce him and their love-child, or to give up her legitimate children. Georgiana does the honourable thing - after all, this is a woman so maternal that she has raised the Duke's illegitimate child as her own.

This hard-boiled story was not enough to satisfy me. The Duke (Ralph Fiennes) is a void - a misogynistic adulterer who communicates nothing. The mistress (Hayley Atwell) is insufficiently drawn and given insufficient motive. She knives her best friend so as to see her children. Very well. But Atwell is given little scope to make her seem sympathetic or even interesting. And she and Fiennes have no sexual chemistry. The Duchess (Keira Knightley) is again rather one-dimensional. Stripped of her gambling addiction, and made to renounce her lover for the noblest of reasons, she is so virtuous as to be uninteresting. That said, Keira Knightley gives a nuanced performance that brings her to life more than one could've expected given the script. This is a good performance. It's not, let's say right away, Oscar-worthy. Sadly, Dominic Cooper is rather out of his depth as her lover, Grey. He lacks the gravitas to play a potential Prime Minister, and speaks with a pronounced Estuary accent.

Will the film get away with the hollowness and thinness at its centre? Perhaps. Audiences will wallow in its lush period settings and handsome costumes. Charlotte Rampling gives a fine cameo performance as the Duchess' mother and Simon McBurney is typically captivating as Fox. Still, this could have been a far more substantial film, either in terms of content (if they had tackled the politics and gambling head on), or in terms of the visual style (if they had taken a more daring approach, as with Sophia Coppola's MARIE-ANTOINETTE.)

THE DUCHESS is on release in the UK. It is released in the US on September 19th; in Hong Kong on October 1st; in Australia on October 2nd; in France on November 12th; in Israel on November 13th; in Belgium on December 3rd; in Italy on December 23rd; in Finland on January 9th and in the Netherlands on January 15th.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

ROCKNROLLA - Lock Stock Lite

Once upon a time, Guy Ritchie was a director who made visually stylish, wickedly funny, caper movies set in a caricature of London's underworld. Then he made box office stinkers SWEPT AWAY and REVOLVER under the evil twin influence of Madge and Luc Besson. You can hardly blame him, then, when he retreats into his comfort zone with a LOCK, STOCK-lite, commercially viable flick designed to restore him to some semblance of respect.

ROCKNROLLA is, then, something of a return to form, if you're being generous, or a desperate attempt to recapture earlier promise, if you're being harsh. It lacks the comic insanity of LOCK, STOCK and the sheer malevolence of SNATCH. The characters are re-hashes, as is much of the dialogue and situational comedy. Everything seems lightly warmed-over, like last night's pizza. Still, for all that, ROCKNROLLA is likely to be warmly received by critics and audiences for what it isn't - a pretentious disaster.

Once again, we're back in Ritchie-land circa 2007. Pre-credit crunch, London is a mix of old school East End gangsters and new-school Russian billionaire mobsters. Caught in the middle, we have "The Wild Bunch". They're actually a rather banal bunch of working-class lads who do the odd heist and serve the odd stretch. The Russian mob pay the East End gangster to use his bent Councillor to give planning permission to a big real estate deal. The low-level crims, tipped off by the Russian's temptress accountant, nick the bribe money not once, but twice. In the process, they uncover the real identity of a grass, and procure the Russian's "lucky painting" that was stolen by the Gangster's smack-head son. The fact that I can summarise the plot so succinctly shows you how much less ambitious and twisty the plot of ROCKNROLLA is compared to LOCK, STOCK and SNATCH.

Everything seems a little weaker than in previous films. Gerard Butler lacks the gruff authenticity of Jason Statham in the lead role. His side-kicks are less colourful characters than in Ritchie's first two flicks. Thandie Newton has little to do as the temptress. Jeremy Piven and Ludacris are wasted as the token yanquie guest stars. Tom Wilkinson hams it up as the East End gangster but lacks the menace and force of Alan Ford's Bricktop, or even Mike Reid's Avi. Altogether, Ritchie has gone for big-names in his cast rather than local character actors to the movie's detriment.

There remain two reasons to watch this film: Mark Strong is always watchable and is good value in the Jason Statham role of narrator and hard-man. But the real star of the show is Toby Kebbell as the fucked-up step-son of the Gangster - a rock star who has faked his own death from an overdose - a smack-head but the only person with a clear idea of the machinations of the underworld. If there is a sequel to ROCKNROLLA, and Kebbell is at the centre of it, I'll be there on opening night.

ROCKNROLLA is on release in the UK. It goes on release in the US on October 8th; in the Netherlands on October 23rd; in Argentina and Australia on November 6th; in Venezuela on November 14th; in France on November 19th; in Germany on November 27th; in Greece and Portugal on December 4th; in Belgium on December 10th; in Russia on January 1st and in Japan on March 28th.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Guy Ritchie retrospective - SNATCH

SNATCH follows the exact-same formula as LOCK, STOCK except that this time, the world of underground gambling and narcotics has been replaced with diamond-smuggling and under-ground boxing. The visual style is similar - flashy editing, video-game manipulation of action and the all-knowing mockney voice-over, this time from our protagonist Turkish (Jason Statham). To that extent, SNATCH is doomed to be less satisfying than LOCK, STOCK because it's less of a surprise.

On the other hand, I do really like SNATCH because it's even less compromising than LOCK, STOCK. Accents are thicker, and in the case of Brad Pitt's charver, deliberately impenetrable. The violence is harsher - including an arson attack and a particularly nasty form of dispatching errant crooks. The humour is darker, the double-crossing is nastier, the sets are grimier and the language is filthier. Despite the Tarantino-like comedy anecdotes, Alan Ford is genuinely menacing as the evil gangster Brick Top, and unlike LOCK, STOCK, there are several scenes of genuine peril. The most memorable of these is a scene where footage of hare-coursing is inter-cut with footage of a small-time burglar getting nabbed by Brick-top's men. It's outstandingly well put-together. Similarly, the boxing scenes are really well shot, even if they take heavy inspiration from RAGING BULL.

My over-riding feeling after watching SNATCH was that this was a holding picture. Ritchie was still in his comfort zone regarding characters and settings but had become a lot more accomplished technically. He was set up nicely for a third film. That was until he took a left-turn into Kabbalah and up himself with SWEPT AWAY and
REVOLVER.

SNATCH was released in 2000 and is available on DVD.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Guy Ritchie retrospective - LOCK STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS

Do you remember when Britannia was cool? Do you remember when we were Common People? Do you remember when Jason Statham was just some skinny bald git? Do you remember when Guy Ritchie was the saviour of British cinema? Before the marriage to the cinematic kryptonite that is Madonna - before the kabbalistic drivel of REVOLVER - before the straight-to-video disaster of SWEPT AWAY....

LOCK STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS remains the best of Guy Ritchie's movies - full of energy, cartoonish-fun, a genuinely new visual style, and a script so tight and complex you could put a cherry on top and call it a weasel. It was a shock to the system when it first came out. It celebrated all that was great about the old Ealing comedies and caper films, but amped it up for the video-gaming age with sharp editing, pop-culture references and a Tarantino-like fondess for the absurdity of violence.

The plot is too byzantine to discuss in any detail. Suffice it to that, as with all Ritchie films, it takes a slice of London life in all its grimy glory but puts it through the filter of a cartoon-sensibility. So we have posh kids producing drugs; working class kids losing heavy money gambling; heists and counter-heists; cockney gangsters and immigrant scams. The whole things ties together with a neatness that is awe-inspiring. Instead of dumbing everything down to a sort of universally understandable but banal language and set of character types, Ritchie glories in the quirkiness of Londoners. He goes out of his way to create outlandish characters and loves their particular idioms and squalid hang-outs. He doesn't want Hollywood-handsome. He wants "Barry the Baptist" and "Nick the Greek".

Ten years later you can still stick this on the old DVD player and have a laugh and that's more than you can say about most movies. Critics and audiences weren't wrong to get excited about what this mockney was going to do next. LOCK STOCK didn't just have promise, it delivered.

LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS hit the screens in 1998 and is available on DVD.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

PRIVATE PROPERTY / NUE PROPRIETE - the dangers of parenting without boundaries

Isabelle Huppert plays another of those intense, stubborn, sexually transgressive characters at the centre of a fucked up family relationship. This time she is a bitter divorcee living in a lavish country house with her two twenty-something lay-a-bout sons. She parents them without boundaries - showering in the same room with them, asking them for comments on her lingerie, allowing their adolescent demands to put a freeze on her social life. When she finally decides to break free - getting a lover and proposing to sell the house - she forces the boys to a moment of crisis - violent and savage.

It's a gripping drama thanks to a sharp script, strong central performances and the oppressive, claustrophobic photography of the country house. Most of all, the film-makers create a brooding, fatalistic atmosphere that is sickening.

PRIVATE PROPERTY played Venice and Toronto 2006 and was released in Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands, the USA and Greece in 2007. It was released in Argentina and the UK earlier this year and is currently on release in Germany. PRIVATE PROPERTY is available on DVD.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Otto Preminger retrospective - DAISY KENYON

The first is an occasional series looking at the films of Pantheon director of movie such as ANATOMY OF A MURDER, BONJOUR TRISTESSE, THE MAN WITH A GOLDEN ARM, CARMEN JONES and....

DAISY KENYON is a refreshingly adult, modern drama about a mature, career woman (Joan Crawford) with a conflicted love life. She is having an affair with a married rich lawyer (Dana Andrews) and hasn't got the strength to leave him. He spins her a fancy line but doesn't want a messy divorce. At the same time, Daisy is being romanced by a charming, grieving, soldier (Henry Fonda). He is aware of her love for the lawyer, and she cannot resolve her feelings for either of them, but knowing all this, they get married anyway. At which point, the lawyer's wife starts divorce proceedings, naming Daisy, and opening up the possibility of a new life with her old lover.

This movie isn't classic noir in the Philip Marlowe style, but it is noir in its moral complexity, emotional ambiguity and sexual tension. Daisy, the lawyer and the soldier are all confused about what they want and their motivations are complicated. Even at the end, we are not particularly convinced that the "happy couple" have moved off of shifting sands. Adultery is not judged harshly, but neither is it condoned. The writers just face up to messy reality. We also have some class criticism, with the lifestyle and casual power of the lawyer contrasted with Daisy - a middle class career woman - and the soldier - who has returned to his working class life.

All of this elevates what might seem to be a superficial soap opera story into a work of interest that still seems modern - and more honest - than SEX AND THE CITY and its ilk.

DAISY KENYON was released in 1947.

Monday, September 01, 2008

BABYLON A.D. - All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing

I'll say one thing for Russia, the health service is tremendous.Over-budget, over-schedule, unloved by its studio, disowned by its director, heavily edited down and released in two versions....BABYLON A.D. is a confused movie with a void at its centre, and I'm not talking about Vin Diesel. Writer-director Mathieu Kassovitz, who made the brilliant flick LA HAINE, has a done stitch-up job on the studio, accusing them of blocking his artistic vision with harsh editing. He's right. This dystopian thriller, based on the novel by Maurice G Dantec, has had its guts ripped out in the editing suite. The poor viewer never really has a clear idea about what the frack is going on.

My vague feeling is that a hundred years in the future, Russia has turned all of Europe and Asia into satelite states that have disintegrated into cyber-punk savagery. America is a locked-down haven of functionality but at a price - culture has been commercialised to the point where religion is sold through billboards like face-cream. Years ago, a mad scientist created a cylon baby who would have a virgin birth, propelling a particular sect to world domination. This baby, now a woman, is to be smuggled to the sect's headquarters in New York by a mercenary called Toorop and, for no particular reason other than sheer improbaility, a kung-fu nun.

The key point is this: the only bit of that plot summary that comes across coherently in the actual film is the final sentence. In other words, this movie is just one long chase scene for no particular reason. The only real pleasure is in observing the production design, which veers from a cool, gritty Kreuzberg like Europe, via Canadian snow-scapes, to a futuristic New York.

Mathieu Kassovitz claims that the studio hacked his film to death. I believe him. Still, that's only half the problem. The other half is the piss-poor casting. On the one hand you have Vin Diesel who, gods love him, can't really depict characters in the midst of moral dilemmas. And then you have Mélanie Thierry who plays the girl. Now, for the first hour of the film I swear to god I thought she was about fifteen. But then, in a really excruciatingly embarassing scene, her character comes on to the mercenary and you think, oh my god, she's actually meant to be in her twenties! I came home and looked up the actress' age on IMDB. She's actually 27!!! Amazing. Put it this way, you can cast her as your lead actress, but you need to put her opposite someone who looks like he could conceivably have a relationship with her without being accused of pederasty or indeed crushing her to death in the palm of his hand.

So all I'm saying is this. Kassovitz needs to come clean. Yes, the film is shit. Yes, the studio probably did bad things with FinalCut Pro. And maybe, just maybe, they forced Vin Diesel onto him. But he acquiesed. And then he cast an actress who looked 15 opposite him.....

BABYLON A.D. is on release in France, Belgium, Russia, Canada, the UL and the USA. It goes on release next weekend in Indonesia, Argentina, Portugal, Mexico and Panama. It opens on September 11th in Austria, Germany, Singapore and Brazil. It opens in Spain on September 19th. BABYLON A.D. opens in October in Australia, South Korea, Finland, Italy, Norway and Egypt and in November in Venezuela and Greece.