Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Wes Anderson's THE FANTASTIC MR FOX to open London 2009

After the genius of BOTTLE ROCKET and THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS and the self-indulgent fiascos of THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU and THE DARJEELING LIMITED, all eyes are on Wes Anderson's next project, an animated adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic, THE FANTASTIC MR FOX. Set for release in the UK on October 23rd and in the US on November 13th, the movie will open the London Film Festival this year. Let's hope it can break the hoo-doo of recent open films which have all been picked on commercial rather than critical grounds - mediocre, solid but that's all. I give you films such as THE CONSTANT GARDENER, FROST/NIXON and oh, that awful biopic, SYLVIA. So far, things look good. We have a voice cast stuffed with Anderson regulars - Owen Wilson, Angelica Huston - but we also have top notch British characters - Michael Gambon, Helen McCrory - not to mention genuine Hollywood A-list in Meryl Streep (stepping in for Cate Blanchett as Mrs Fox). I also love that Anderson has gone back to old school stop motion animation. Sounds, if not fantastic, given his recent record, at least intriguing....

Monday, July 27, 2009

Overlooked DVD of the month - CHICAGO 10

Brett Morgan has a knack for making funny, insightful documentaries about colourful historical figures. Half his genius is picking characters that have a finely tuned sense of theatrics: the other half of his genius is in bringing that to a modern audience with a sense of flair and energy. In his bio-doc of Robert Evans, legendary Hollywood producer and ladies man, THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE, Morgan used photo-montage and memoir. In CHICAGO 10, Morgan mixes vintage news-footage, animated court-room recreations, contemporary interviews and simulated stand-up. The sound-track mixes contemporary protest music with Eminem and the Beastie Boys. The resulting documentary is very funny, often surreal, and brings home the gravity and high stakes of the American civil rights and anti-war movement of the late 1960s.

The story is simple. In 1968, the American counter-culture movement is fuming about the escalation of the war in Vietnam. They plan to come to Chicago and lobby the Democratic National Convention. The movement coalesces around the Yippie movement led by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, and the Black Panthers led by Bobby Seale. Mayor/Boss Daley sets the pigs onto the protestors: Communist conspiracies "justify" disproportionate police brutality. The Chicago 8 are brought to trial. The documentary basically dramatises court records and puts them in context. The Chicago 7 come across as witty, intelligent and radical, but not unreasonable. The gagging of Bobby Seale, and the severance of his trial from the group trial seems like an act of pure and brutal racism. It's shocking to modern eyes. Hank Azaria is simply brilliant as Abbie Hoffman and Jeffrey Wright is powerful as Bobby Seale .(The final two members of the 10 are the two lawyers).

Watching the movie today I was shamed by how active and passionate these kids were and how bland and anaemic the anti Iraqi war protests were. But I was also massively entertained. It's just FUN to see Hoffman skewering the judge, or the defense attorney asking if an undercover cop was hurt by a jumper. And so Brett Morgan achieves the rarest of rare things: he makes a movie that is important and entertaining: and a documentary that actually deserves to be seen on the big screen.

CHICAGO 10 played Sundance 2007 and opened in the US and UK in Spring 2008.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

MESRINE: PART ONE - DEATH INSTINCT - a new gangster classic

Jean-François Richet's French gangster biopic is the movie that PUBLIC ENEMIES should've been: part character study, part thriller, part prison break-out movie. It's well-directed, emotionally and intellectually satisfying and superbly acted. It evokes a sense of time and place and involves the audience without glamourising the subject matter.

Richet splits his biopic into two parts, in the manner of Steven Soderbergh's recent biopic of Che Guevara. The movies are self-contained but as soon as I watched one I was desperate to see the other, and they work best as a whole.

Part One opens as a tense thriller - a plump, middle-aged Jacques Mesrine (an award-winning performance from Vincent Cassel) and an enigmatic woman (Chloe Sevigny) are ambushed by the police in late 1970s Paris. The movie then switches to a more youthful Mesrine, witnessing horrific interrogations as a soldier in the Franco-Algerian war - the start of his brutalisation perhaps? After the war, he rejects a bourgeois life and joins his childhood friend working for local mob boss (Gerard Depardieu). Mesrine is smarter than the average thug, more charming, and more honourable. Cassel has us believing that he does want to make good for the sake of his kid, but ultimately, he can't keep straight, and abandons his family for a life on the run in Canada with a similarly inventive, ruthless crim. played by an unrecognisable and ruthless Cecile de France.

The resulting movie is gripping, emotionally affecting, and impartial without being indifferent. Cassel is deeply impressive - but so are Depardieu and de France. The period and mood are brilliantly evoked - style serves content. This film is, simply put, a new gangster classic.

MESRINE PART ONE won three Cesars,for Best Actor, Best Sound and Best Director. MESRINE: PART ONE played Toronto 2008 and opened last year in Belgium, France, Russia, Hungary, Estonia, the Czech Republic and Croatia. It opened earlier this year in Poland, the Netherlands, Israel, Italy, Turkey, Norway, Germany, Denmark, Greece and Brazil. It opens in the UK and US on August 7th.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

THE PROPOSAL - over-styled, under-powered rom-com

Anne Fletcher, of 27 DRESSES and STEP UP fame, delivers a high-concept but low-on-laughs "romantic comedy". The big concept takes a career-bitch (Sandra Bullock) who fakes an engagement to her younger executive assistant (Ryan Reynolds). She wants to get a visa to the US; he wants to be promoted to editor. Over a weekend in Alaska to visit his parents they are meant to fall in love with each other. Problem is, there is zero chemistry between the two. It just looks like a middle-aged woman, with too much Botox and far too over-styled, macking onto a much younger guy. I didn't buy the whole "I'm a tortured rich-kid" dynamic with the guy. I didn't buy the whole "I'm a power-bitch because my parents died" excuse for the woman. And I really didn't buy the wannabe schmaltzy ending. For falling-in-love over a family country-house weekend, check out the far superior in DAN IN REAL LIFE. And for a more credible and affecting immigration set-up, check out the old Andie McDowell/Depardieu classic, GREEN CARD.

THE PROPOSAL is on release in the UK, the US, the Netherlands, Belgium, Australia, Georgia, Hungary, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, New Zealand, Russia, Lithuania, Mexico, Poland, Turkey, Egypt, Sweden, Greece, Bulgaria, Argentina, Portugal, Ukraine, Brazil, Spain and Estonia. It opens later in July in Iceland and Germany. It opens in August in Malaysia, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Singapore and the Czech Republic. It opens in September in Italy, Hong Kong and France. It opens in Japan on October 16th.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Normal service resumes

Apologies for the enforced absence, Moviegoers, but I was struck down with Hamthrax, as those of you following BinaDoubleO7 on twitter will have gathered. The high likelihood of catching weirdass diseases while travelling on the Underground is one of the few major disadvantages of living in Zone One. However, I am now safe for human consumption, as it were, although the thought of having to watch THE PROPOSAL this weekend could send me back to the sanatorium. Normal service resumes tomorrow.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

SHINE A LIGHT - I just don't get it

Bad joke - what do The Rolling Stones and Martin Scorsese have in common? They both did all their best work before I was born. And, let me be clear, I'm not that young. As if in testament to the sheer ludicrousness of the Rolling Stones' continuing concert career, Scorsese inter-cuts this vanity project/concert movie with vintage TV interviews with the younger Stones, musing on how long their careers with last. And in an effort to make their music seem relevant to the Kidz we also have Christina Aguilera and Jack White guesting on a couple of songs. The resulting film is presumably a must-see for Stones fans but left me cold. It's just a tragic continuation of the failed 1960s radical project. Here we have counter-culture icons, continuing to milk that iconography for their audience - who have themselves grown-up and sold out. The Rolling Stones wait around to shake the hand of Bill Clinton's mother-in-law. Give me a break. Martin Scorsese parodies himself with an unnecessary closing tracking shot. The whole thing reeks of crass commercialisation.

SHINE A LIGHT opened Berlin 2008 and was released in Spring 2008.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Pantheon movie of the month - SALO OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM

Pier Paolo Pasolini is one of the most important directors of the twentieth century: he lived, portrayed and died the political crises that plagued Europe and the world.

SALO is the last film that Pasoloni made. It comes after his social realist films where, as a committed Communist, he tried to make honest works about working class life and celebrated honest sexuality. He had become disillusioned with the project, and the non-responsive of the working class audience. SALO is thus a brutal and bleak critique of the political regimes and social changes he had lived through in Italy. First, and most powerfully, it is a criticism of the extreme corruption and degradation of the Fascist regime. Second, it is a criticism of what came after the war, when Italy "caught up" under Marshall Plan economic aid, creating "Il Boom!" - a society of consumers gorging themselves.

The title of SALO also works on two levels: first as an adaptation of the Marquis de Sade's infamous novel and second as a reference to the small town on Lake Garda whence Mussolini ran the final fascist government of Italy, propped up by Hitler. The movie shows four powerful men representing each type of power: feudal, religious, legal and political, enjoying absolute power at the end of a dying regime. Together with their complicit guards and two old prostitutes, they imprison an equal number of young men and women and subject them to horrific sexual torture. Finally, the prisoners are killed.

The point about Salo is that the sexually explicit material is not there to titillate (as in Sade) but to shock and disturb. And it is not there to shock gratuitously or in a sensationalist manner. It is there for a particular and explicit political purpose: to illustrate the absolutely corruption and complete power of the Fascist regime. Further, Pasolini is making the point that, fundamentally, sexual relations are power relations. He is also expressing a Hobbesian world-view: man is corrupt and, if given the opportunity of absolute power, will descend into violence. Sexual violence is an important part of that. Sex in SALO is used to degrade. It is not erotic. And it is this continuing, bludgeoning, extreme degradation that makes SALO such a bleak, punishing film.

Technically, the film achieves brutality without titillation by framing its scenes as stylised, symmetric tableaux that distance the viewer from the action. Sexual acts are shown in cruel light and filmed without the pleasing soft-focus of typical sex scenes in mainstream movies. The audience POV is often the same as that of the guards or the torturers, making us feel even more uneasy about what we are watching. This is especially true of the final scenes of torture, which we see through the binoculars of the torturers. This has the added benefit of showing the final scenes of murder at a distance, so that we imagine more than we are actually shown.

If the material is shocking, Pasolini has achieved his end. Maybe, he is saying, we should have been more shocked by, and more active in resistance to, the political degradation of Fascism. If he has to resort to sexual torture to shock us, isn't that partly our fault?

The Duke: We Fascists are the only true anarchists, naturally, once we're masters of the state. In fact, the one true anarchy is that of power.

SALO opened in 1976 and immediately encountered difficulties with the censors because of its sadistic and sexually explicit material. In 2000 the British Film Institute instigated a screening and debate about the film, resulting in the the release of a BFI DVD. This includes the film, uncut, and a supplemental disk replete with fascinating documentaries about Pasolini, the film, and the censor's response to it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Overlooked DVD of the month - WHAT JUST HAPPENED?

Over a decade after making the political satire WAG THE DOG, veteran Hollywood director Barry Levinson made a Hollywood satire, WHAT JUST HAPPENED? It features Robert de Niro in the thinly fictionalised role of producer Art Linson, upon whose memoirs the film is based. De Niro's character is trying to get a British auteur (Michael Wincott) to recut his movie so that the studio (Catherine Keener) will give it a Cannes premier. Meanwhile, he's trying to get Bruce Willis to shave off his beard and look the part of a leading man in his forthcoming picture. And then there's the wife he wants to reconcile with (Robin Wright Penn) despite the fact that she's sleeping with the screenwriter (Stanley Tucci); the daughter (Kristen Stewart) who's going off the rails; and the Hollywood groupies who'll do anything, any time, for an interview.

I really liked this film for exactly the reason that all the other reviewers seem to have skewered it. They complain that it isn't caustic enough - that the stakes aren't high enough. All that's at stake, they say, is the continuing functioning of the well-oiled Hollywood money-making machine. By contrast, in Altman's THE PLAYER, or indeed in Levinson's previous political satire, it was a matter of life and death. But surely the point is EXACTLY that the studios, the starlets, the directors and producers are prostituting themselves for worthless commercial dross. In SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS the movies were worth something and that partially excused the shameless behaviour. But this movie is all the more tragic because it shows just how meaningless the whole sharade is.

More superficially, this flick is great because of all the scabrous one-liners. It's eminently quotable in the way that GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS is eminently quotable. It also features a great performance from Michael Wincott as the auteur - a guy who last got a role as memorable when he played Guy of Gisbourne in the Kevin Costner's ROBIN HOOD. You also get to see Catherine Keener in one her most subtle performances as the quietly threatening studio boss who can turn on a dime if she gets a faint whiff of box-office success.

WHAT JUST HAPPENED played Sundance 2008 and Cannes, out of competition. It opened in the UK and US in winter 2008. It is available on DVD and on iTunes.

Monday, July 20, 2009

CADILLAC RECORDS - fails to catch fire

Writer-director Darnell Martin has created a biopic, but not of a single figure in music history, as with RAY or WALK THE LINE, but of a record company - Chess Records. Founded by a pair of Polish immigrants (one of whom is excised from this story) who sold records from the back of a cadillac, the label was home to the best and most influential blues and early rock acts: Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Etta James, Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry and Little Walter. With such a cast of icons, it's great that Martin manages to quickly essay their back stories, their characters, and to convince us of their musical talent. In this, she is helped by a tremendous score from Terence Blanchard. The movie also tackles head on the race issue: black musicians having their musical heritage appropriated by white people who could play to a larger audience and hence make more money. The acting is fine throughout, but Jeffrey Wright stands out as Muddy Waters and Beyonce Knowles is surprisingly good as Etta James - indeed the only truly dramatic scene is where James is high on heroin and having an emotional crisis with her record producer boss (Adrien Brody). And therein lies the problem, this movie never quite catches fire. Like the worst kind of reverential history, it's just one damn thing after another. Still, blues fans will luxuriate in the period music and the great musical set-pieces.

CADILLAC RECORDS was released in the USA in December 2008 and in the UK, Spain, Germany, Australia, Sweden, Italy earlier this year. It will be released in Japan on August 15th and is available on DVD.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Overlooked DVD of the month - BIGGA THEN BEN

BIGGA THAN BEN is sporadically very funny, continuously inventive low-budget British comedy about two Russian teens who come to London to make it big. With no qualifications or legitimate work visas, they rely on their fellow Russian ex-pats teaching them how to scam credit card companies and other petty swindles. Based on a book by a genuine Russian ex-pat, the movie delights in poking fun in the British system, and has an admirably honest approach to depicting the shittiness of London weather and the harsh side of London life. The first hour is indeed very funny, very fast-paced and features a nice satirical voice-over from one of the pair (played by Narnia's Prince Caspian). The final half hour of this short film takes a darker turn, as the other kid takes to drugs. Writer-director Suzie Hazelwood doesn't quite manage to pull off the transition to the darker material in the same way as, for example, TRAINSPOTTING did. In fact, by the end of the movie, I had thought it might've worked better as a 55 minute TV special, taking the very best of the material from the feature film. Still, for the faltering ending, BIGGA THEN BEN provides more than enough laughs to repay a viewing, and it's good to see Ben Barnes in a funnier, less epic role.

BIGGA THAN BEN opened in Russia, the UK and the US in autumn 2008. It is available on DVD.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

MOON - the first sci-fi flick to make it to my Best Of list

MOON is the assured debut feature from writer-director Duncan Jones, featuring a stand-out performance from Sam Rockwell as an astronaut suffering from acute loneliness.

Jones wastes no time in establishing the conceit with a pitch-perfect faux-TV-spot. In some indeterminate future, Earth has solved all its energy problems by mining Helium-3 from the dark side of the moon. The operation is mostly automated, but there's a poor schmuck overseer on a three-year contract (Rockwell). In the final weeks before returning to his wife and daughter he suffers an accident and starts, apparently, hallucinating an alternative, clean-cut super-functional Sam. Is his sub-conscious creating a play-mate? Or is their something more sinister afoot?

Showing just how much you can do with a limited budget and some miniature models, Jones perfectly evokes the shabby-futuristic lunar base, complete with HAL-like omniscient robot Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey). I particularly liked the naff touch of having him show emotions through emoticons! But this is truly Rockwell's movie, with assured performances in two very different characters - Sam at the start of the mission - a neat, ambitious, temperamental man: and Sam at the end of the mission - mellowed, messy, apathetic. And while this is, basically, a serious, ideas-based movie, there are moments of humour, or perhaps better put, weirdness, as the two characters face off over a ping-pong table on the road to friendship. The real trick is that by the end of the film, I felt completely emotionally invested in the fate of Sam Bell, and was on the edge of my seat for the final twenty minutes.

I am not a big sci-fi fan, and I can imagine some purists getting cheesed off at the lack of zero-gravity and whatnot. But I think you can take a more high-level view that this movie is sci-fi at its purest. Rather than getting bogged down in super-impressive CGI shots and action sequences, you have sci-fi as it was meant to be - exploring ideas. You also get a film that is steeped in the sci-fi classics and has subtle nods to them while also creating something new and interesting. I can't wait to see what Jones does next, and I'm hoping that the movie's indie status and limited release doesn't bar Rockwell from some acting gongs.

MOON played Sundance, Tribeca and Edinburgh 2009. It opened earlier this summer in the US and Canada. It is currently on release in the UK. It opens in Russia on September 17th; in Australia on October 8th; in the Netherlands on October 15th and in Spain on October 23rd.

Friday, July 17, 2009

ANTICHRIST - emotional psychodrama

ANTICHRIST is, to my mind, Danish auteur Lars von Trier's best film since DANCER IN THE DARK. Forget the hype - ignore talk of genital mutilation and talking foxes - at core this is a deeply felt, beautifully filmed story of grief and religious guilt.

The film opens with a prologue shot in black and white, in extreme slow motion, set to a haunting aria about escaping tragic fate. Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg play a married couple having passionate sex. Their is graphic nudity, but it's not sensational. The camera focuses on the wife's face as she climaxes. The footage is intercut with scenes showing the couple's toddler leaving his cot, climbing onto a table and falling out of their apartment window to his death. It is immediately apparent that Lars von Trier is going to be tackling issues of women's sexuality as conceived in religious propaganda: a woman can be a mother or a whore, and the price of climax is to lose the child.

We then cut to the first chapter in the story, "Grief", and the movie switches back to real-time, colour and naturalistic acting. The chapter sees the mother unable to move beyond grief, consumed with guilt at having left her son unattended. The father, a psychotherapist, wants to take her out of hospital and off meds. He thinks grief is natural and has to be confronted and worked through. She thinks he's arrogant, but submits to his plan. The acting in this chapter is superlative. I've never seen such an honest and touching evocation of guilt on screen. Charlotte Gainsbourg earns her Best Actress award at Cannes in spades. And when you consider that Lars von Trier is often seen as a technical master, but just a jokester, this is simply stunning work.

The second chapter, "Pain (Chaos Reigns") sees the couple journeying to their country cabin in the woods to confront the wife's fear of "nature red in tooth and clear". The husband tries to remain rational and evidently loves his wife dearly, but even he is saying unnatural, Shakespearian, portents - wild animals disfigured, damaged and dying. The wife can't shake off her fear: nature is dying and evil, "Satan's Church". She wakes up one morning, seemingly cured, but her husband distrusts the cure, as do we. Once again, the acting and emotional content in this chapter is searing, and the subtle build-up of dread masterly. I particularly liked the way in which DP Anthony Dod Mantle warps the image at the edges to give a feel of surreality. Sometimes the imagery is so beautiful it's as heart-breaking as the content. The only problem is the final image, where a fox intones "chaos reigns". We all laughed. Maybe that's what we needed? Maybe it's Lars von Trier showing us that even in the midst of the most serious material he can still be a prankster. Either way, I think the movie would've been better without it. But then, it wouldn't be a Lars von Trier film!

The third chapter, "Despair (Gynocide)" is where the stuff that you've read about starts to happen. The wife was writing a thesis on the medieval church's cruel treatment of women which centred heavily on sexually active, powerful women being burned as witches. While researching in the log cabin a year ago, she came to the conclusion that the women actually deserved that punishment. In other words she has become a self-hating woman - a female misogynist. What follows in this chapter and the next, "The Three Beggars", is that the wife descends into madness and takes out her anger on her husband and herself. It is savage - both graphic - and emotionally freakish. But that is all, I think, called for. I never felt that the material was sensationalist, and, once again, Charlotte Gainsbourg must be praised for making it seem credible. I love the ambiguity of whether her greatest fear was "Me" as in herself of "Me" as in her husband. I love the ambiguity of whether she really was complicit in her son's murder. And I love the physical ambiguity in the prologue.

I think the real problem with ANTICHRIST is the sensationalist title, the aforementioned Fox scene, and the fact that it is going to be the victim of its own hype. The movie actually struck me as a bit banal - I had thought it would be up their with SALO but it's nowhere near. But when you reflect on it calmly, and see it for what it is, it remains an impressive, provocative and actually very moving piece of work. And no, a movie about a woman turned misogynist is not, of itself, misogynist, any more than BORAT was racist.

ANTICHRIST played Cannes 2009, where Charlotte Gainsbourg won Best Actress. It opened earlier this year in Denmark, Italy, Finland, France, Poland, Norway, Sweden, Kazakhstan and Russia. It opens in the UK on July 24th, but is on preview at the Curzon Soho next week. It opens in Spain on August 21st; in Brazil on August 28th; in Germany on September 10th; in Belgium on September 15th; in Romania on October 16th; in the USA on October 23rd and in the Netherlands on October 29th.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

FELON - thoughtful prison drama, but lacking in real bite

Veteran stunt director Ric Roman Waugh has turned writer-director with FELON, a thoughtful prison drama based on a true story, that lacks momentum in the first two thirds and then dissolves into melodrama in the final third. Despite good location work in New Mexico and fine performances from Stephen Dorff and Val Kilmer, the movie never quite coheres. Dorff plays a successful businessman and husband imprisoned after killing a home intruder, and transferred to maximum security on a false accusation. A shared respect for family leads to a relationship with the older, cannier criminal played by Kilmer in a dude like goatee and replete with colourful tatoos. The crims are victimised by corrupt police, yada, yada, but it never quite captures the peril and cruelty of SHAWSHANK. And, as I said, the final third degenerates and the overall effect that is "meh". Unsurprisingly, this went straight to DVD outside of the US.

FELON was released in the US in summer 2008 and went straight to DVD everywhere else.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


The sixth installment of the HARRY POTTER saga is a perfectly serviceable and enjoyable addition to the franchise. The movie wastes no time in establishing the characters and the story so far - so neither will I. After all, how can you spoil a movie when everyone's read the books? Technically, the film works fine. Steve Kloves has done a good job of condensing the material without being too slavish and Bruno Delbonnel has filmed it in the same warm, dark tones as A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT. The special effects and production design are top-notch. The performances are particularly strong - all the regulars do well, with Daniel Radcliffe given a chance to play some comedy, rather than just look put-upon. Among the new-comers, Jessie Cave plays comedy brilliantly as Ron Weasley's first girlfriend and Evanna Lynch steals every scene as Luna Lovegood.

For all that, I did have two problems with the film. Not big enough to kill my enjoyment, but flaws nonetheless. First, the movie lacks any real inventiveness or directorial stamp, in the manner of Alfonso Cuarón's AZKABAN. Second, the film is too biased in favour of the teen rom-com material in the novel at the expense of properly developing the serious material concerning Tom Riddle, Lord Voldemort, horcruxes, Snape and Malfoy. The films have been getting progressively darker and more emotionally satisfying. The last movie featured a genuinely scary scene with Ralph Fieenes. But this movie went for the easy laughs. And in doing so, the film-makers dropped the ball. Take, for example, the limited screen-time and development of Draco Malfoy. That's an emotional struggle to get your teeth into, but his final confrontation with Dumbledore is very brief. And what about the identity of the Half Blood Prince? That's revealed almost as an aside!

So, top marks for light laughs: but they dropped the ball on the darker content.

HARRY POTTER & THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE is on global release.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Preston Sturges Retrospective 1 and Pantheon movie of the month - SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS

Preston Sturges - King of the Screwball Comedy and inspiration for the Coen Brothers early work - one of the first Hollywood screen-writers to wrest control of his work and become a "full service" auteur - writer, director and producer. Starting in 1940, Sturges had an astounding 4 year run, crafting wonderful romantic-comedies that mixed good old-fashioned slapstick with bravura dialogue capturing the battle between the sexes. In just four years, he redefined the popular comedy and made serious cash to boot. Most directors would be happy to produce a single film as iconic as THE GREAT MRS McGINTY (1940), THE LADY EVE (1941), SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS (1941), THE PALM BEACH STORY (1942), THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK (1944), and HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO (1944). So over the next few weeks, I'll be taking some to watch these great movies, in no particular order, and to have some fun!

John L. Sullivan: I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.
John L. Sullivan: A little, but I don't want to stress it. I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.
John L. Sullivan: [reluctantly] With a little sex in it.
Hadrian: How 'bout a nice musical?

SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS is a great movie, regularly appearing on critics and film-makers' Top Movies of All Time lists, but it's not as well-known as other iconic 1940s features. I watched it for the first time recently, and was surprised by the fact that, despite being known for it's comic opening, quoted above, it's really a very serious film about poverty, homelessness, and the cruelty of the justice system.

As the movie opens, a handsome, privileged, rich Hollywood director, John Sullivan plans to make a movie entitled O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? - a title borrowed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen for their 2000 film. He wants to make a serious movie about poverty, but the studio is nervous about its box-office potential. In order to put him off, they rightly criticise him for not knowing a damn about poverty. So Sullivan borrows a tramp's costume from wardrobe and decides to try and make it on ten cents a day.

The resulting film is tricky and post-modern before the term was invented. The film itself has a lot of footage of poverty and destitution. Sullivan is arrested, imprisoned and works on a chain gang. He goes to the cinema as a prisoner, looking to the funnies for his only joy in life. But the film, SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS is also concerned with being too serious and un-entertaining - the same concern that afflicted the producers of O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? So, Sullivan has some witty dialogue with the producers, itself about serious versus entertaining films! Moreover, there has to be a screwball romance: and so Sullivan takes up with a beautiful aspiring actress (Veronica Lake) and there's a lot of cute dialogue, some physical comedy involving falling into a swimming pool, and a happy ending.

The movie ends with Hollywood having it's cake and eating it. It's okay to make superficial funny pictures because, hey, "that's all some people have". And, if we make a bunch of money along the way, well....

I can't quite decide if I admire or abhor SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS for this slippery conclusion. But I do admire it for it's clever dialogue, physical comedy, realistic depiction of poverty and clever structure. It's a classic film, and one that's worth viewing, especially if you're a Coen Brothers fan.

SULLIVAN'S TRAVEL was released in 1941.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

BRÜNO - Professor007 lays down the wisdom

This review was written by our Austrian correspondent, Professor007

BRÜNO – In your face, but very funny

Arguably, what made Borat so good was not so much the slapstick-like scenes of him mincing around in mankinis or pooing on a sidewalk in Manhattan, but the way in which he managed to bring out the dark sides of otherwise normal-seeming people: the interviewee responding that he would have no problem with Borat shooting jews; the car salesman advising on the minimum speed to run over gypsies in a Hummer; or a crowd cheering when Borat proclaims that George Bush may drink the blood of every man, woman, and child in Iraq. Brϋno, a gay Austrian reporter for fashion show Funkyzeit, has made himself “Aus” of the Viennese fashion circles after causing havoc during a fashion show and leaves his country in order to seek fame in the United States, accompanied solely by his former assistant’s assistant, Lutz. He starts his quest in LA where he consecutively tries and fails to become a film star, a celebrity talk show host and a porn star, in-between hopping rather randomly from Kansas to Alabama with a short detour to the Middle East and Africa, in a rather haphazard storyline. In terms of wit and sarcasm, Brϋno doesn’t quite match his Kazakh predecessor. Granted, there is the scene where a human rights activist sits down on a Mexican worker doubling as a chair, explaining how much she loves to help suppressed people; and the Alabama priest trying to cure Brϋno from his homosexuality. However, most of the scenes live from their grotesqueness, constantly bordering on the ethically unacceptable and culminating in the homoerotic showdown between Lutz and Brϋno in a fighting cage. Which is not to say it’s any less enjoyable to see: if you enjoy (penis) in-your-face humour, you will, like me, walk out of the movie with your belly aching from laughter.

Finally, what does the Austrian in me have to say? Apart from me simply enjoying an occasional evening of crass humour, I certainly also went to be prepared for the inevitable ridicule I would have to suffer as an Austrian following Brϋno’s release. I’m not quite sure yet whether I should be relieved or disappointed, but there’s surprisingly little on the theme of my homeland, so I hope it will cause a little less upheaval in Austria than Borat did in the Kazakhstan.

BRUNO is on release in Australia, Belgium, Iceland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Israel, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden, the UK and USA. It opens next weekend in France and Russia and on July 31st in Brazil. It opens on August 6th in the Czech Republic; on August 14th in Turkey; on August 20th in Singapore; on September 25th in Mexico; on October 15th in Argentina and on October 23rd in Italy.

Friday, July 10, 2009

FIRED UP - piss-poor teen "comedy"

From the Director of the piss-poor DUMB AND DUMBERER and an untested writer comes a lame-ass teen comedy, whose limited ambitions can be summed up by the fact that the film-makers think the abbreviation of its title is funny. Nicholas d'Agosto and Eric Christian Olsen (no you won't have heard of them) play two jocks who decide to become cheerleaders in order to get laid. Because evidently girls are attracted to guys who cheer rather than guys who play ball. But it's okay, because after an hour of weak gags about getting laid, what the chaps discover is that all they really want is to be part of a team.

The premise of the movie is paper-thin and implausible. Still, teen rom-coms - a highly stylised genre - have survived worse. What really does for this movie is the under-powered script (compare how the MILF storyline is handled here to AMERICAN PIE), not to mention the fact that the actors are at least ten years too old for the parts. What the director and screen-writer have forgotten is that the best lewd and crude teen comedies satisfy on two levels - they really go for the gross-out comedy but they also have an emotional pull. In AMERICAN PIE we laughed at the jokes but we also sympathised with the geeks. FIRED UP neither pushes the jokes far enough nor creates any emotional depth.

FIRED UP was released in the US, Australia and Kazakhstan earlier this year. It is currently on release in the UK. It opens in South Africa on August 7th.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

PUBLIC ENEMIES - is that it?

Man, this movie was boring. I mean, eye-rollingly, "should I walk out?", "what should I make for dinner?" boring. And all this, despite the fact that I really like Johnny Depp and Christian Bale as actors, I really like gangster movies, and I respect Michael Mann as a director. Maybe it's the script? Maybe it's the cheap-looking, distractingly hand-held DV shooting-style? Maybe it's the fact that Michael Mann just isn't that interested in who John Dillinger really was? But this biopic of one of America's most notorious bank robbers lacks energy and drive. It just never got me by the proverbial balls and made me care.

What a shame. What better time to make a film about a folk hero who robbed the banks that were foreclosing on honest, hard-working folk at the height of the Great Depression? What better time to show the FBI abusing civil rights in its mad dash to imprison Public Enemy Number One? But Michael Mann isn't really interested in all that.

He's interested in telling the same old Michael Mann story - where real men are defined by their job and real movies are about real men who cannot, for some reason, continue in that job, and enter an existential crisis. So here's John Dillinger as the man who robs banks, never leaves a pal behind bars, and offers his coat to ladies. He isn't closed down by the Feds but, more fundamentally, by the crime syndicates who realise that bank robbery is bad for the real business of gaming rackets. Impeded from his typical modus operandi, Dillinger is forced to take work with the psychopath Babyface Nelson - a much higher stakes game.

Don't get me wrong - DV aside - this isn't a bad film. Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Billy Crudup, Marion Cotillard all give decent performances. Stephen Graham as Babyface Nelson is actually superb. But the resulting film is, like bad schoolboy history, just one damn thing after another. I finished up not really knowing why Dillinger loved Billie or why he felt compelled to do what he did or what was going on in Melvin Purvis head. Despite a classic shoot-out sequence it lacks the momentum for an action movie. And despite the ponderous pace and period detail, it lacks the beauty and complexity of a film like THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD. Which makes the movie ultimately an exercise in clever but ultimately vacuous film-making.

PUBLIC ENEMIES is on release in the USA, Canada, the UK, Greece, Denmark, France, Indonesia, Morocco, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Israel, Slovakia, South Korea, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia and Turkey. It opens on July 23rd in Belgium, Hong Kong, Russia, Singapore, Ukraine, Brazil, Norway, Sweden, Egypt, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Iceland, Germany, Portugal, Finland, Romania, Spain and Italy.

Monday, July 06, 2009

RUDO Y CURSI - funny Mexican fable

RUDO Y CURSI is a tongue in cheek Mexican fable about being careful what you wish for and love-hate sibling relationships. Rudo (Rough) and Cursi (both "smooth" and "camp") and two step-brothers living in poverty in rural Mexico. Both have ludicrous dreams of escape - Rudo has his gambling "system" and Cursi wants to go to America and become a pop star. When fortune favours them in the form of a travelling football scout, their key mistake is their refusal to forget their childhood dreams and just be thankful for what they have.

The resulting film is very funny - physical humour, obscene jokes, and a warm-hearted mockery of village life and the naivety of poor kids who see a jacuzzi for the first time. When Rudi becomes a big-time goal-keeper he gets a hair-quiff and ray-bans; Cursi gets vulgar blonde highlights and a gold-digging girlfriend. Both make themselves ridiculous. Writer-director Carlos Cuaron has a better sense of the absurd than his brother Alfonso and has made a more playful, if more disposable, movie. I love the way he uses colour and language and frames his shots. A particularly clever device is not to actually show any soccer footage early on in the film but to show reaction shots to Cursi scoring goals.

Put simply, I had a great time watching this flick and I can't wait to see what Carlos Cuaron does next.

RUDO Y CURSI was released in Mexico last year and in Argentina, Chile, Peru, Spain, Uruguay, Panama, the USA, Canada and Israel earlier this year. It is currently on release in Portugal and the UK. It opens in a fortnight in the Netherlands. It opens in Belgium on September 30th.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

HANNAH MONTANTA - THE MOVIE: way better than it ought to be

The shameful truth is that the HANNAH MONTANA movie is a perfectly watchable, highly enjoyable teen rom-com even for people like me who aren't in the target demographic. It's well made, well written, funny when it should be funny, sweet when it should be sweet, and even though it stays within the constraints of the genre, it's at the top of its league. Essentially the film is a classic double-identity comedy in the manner of SHE'S THE MAN or, for people who were the right demographic in the 80s, THE SECRET OF MY SUCCESS. Indeed, it's the same emotional core that powers superhero flicks like SPIDERMAN and SUPERMAN. Miley Cyrus plays a character based on herself - a Tennessee teen who has found fame as a pop-star called Hannah Montana. Her father (real life dad Billy-Ray Cyrus) and her family are in on the secret but back home, everyone just knows her as Miley. Drunk on success and the Hollywood lifestyle, dad takes Miley/Hannah back to Tennessee where she falls for the local farmboy (PRINCESS BRIDE fans!) and dad falls for someone too. Problem is, both relationships are compromised by the lies and craziness around protecting Hannah Montana's real identity when she comes to town to play a concert that will save some local land for evil developers. I rather like the idea that a Disney movie can confront the Hannah fans with the inherent weirdness of teen stardom and the dual (if not triple) identity on which the successful franchise rests. No surprises that the resolution is no resolution at all: home-town values may be best; honesty may be best; but the fans still need a product, and Miley still needs to sing.

HANNAH MONTANA - THE MOVIE was released in April 2009. It is currently on release in Argentina, New Zealand, Romania, Belgium, Indonesia and the Philippines. It is released on July 30th in Portugal, on August 19th in the Netherlands and on August 28th in Venezuela.

Saturday, July 04, 2009


Not having read Jodi Picoult's book, and going purely by the trailers, I had thought that MY SISTER'S KEEPER would be a provocative courtroom drama examining the moral and legal issues around "savior siblings" - that is, children conceived in order to provide perfect match organs to their cancer-ridden siblings. But MY SISTER'S KEEPER isn't actually interested in the legal dilemma but the simpler story of a family under extraordinary emotional pressure. Yes, the other siblings may be taken for granted by their parents, but it isn't really the issue of organ-harvesting but a wider issue of just spending time with them. And the movie isn't so much about the ethics of taking organs from children who cannot consent, but about coming to terms with the fact that people die and not all battles can be won. In other words, this is a Weepie rather than an intellectual film.

To the extent that this movie wasn't a courtroom drama, I was disappointed. And I was rather annoyed at the slippery way in which this aspect of the movie was derailed. But then again, how credible was a courtroom drama really going to be given that Cameron Diaz is cast as the aggressively pro-organ donation lawyer-mother - a role beyond her ability - and Alec Baldwin (a prisoner of his 30 ROCK persona) was cast as opposing council. Only Joan Cusack, as a grieving mother and presiding Judge, adds any emotional weight and credibility to those scenes.

So how did the resulting emotional drama hold up? I didn't like a lot of the stylistic choices - particularly the voice-overs from the different characters explaining their points of view. (Although this is apparently a feature of the book). I especially didn't like the happy-family sunlit montages set to schmaltzy music. Jason Patric as the passive father looked mostly bored. Cameron Diaz as the aggressive mother looked mostly hysterical. Aunt Kelly looked entirely redundant. Ignored younger brother Jesse just looked mopey and is it me, or is Abigail Breslin just acting the same in all her films.? I feel she is over-exposed. The only thing that saved the story was the luminous lead performance from Sofia Vassilieva as the cancer-ridden teen, the touching evocation of her first and only romance with a fellow patient, and the realistic portrayal of her illness. This girl is definitely one to watch. I also applaud the writer-director for creating an ending that is, apparently, more realistic than that in the original novel.

MY SISTER'S KEEPER is on release in the UK, USA, Canada and Mexico. It opens next week in Iceland and Greece. It opens on July 30th in Australia and New Zealand; on August 6th in Slovakia; on August 13th in Russia, Ukraine and Taiwan; on August 21st in Romania, on August 27th in the Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands, and Bulgaria; on September 4th in Italy and Norway; on September August 9th in September; on September 17th in Portugal; on September 23rd in Belgium, Argentina, Brazil and Sweden; and on December 4th in Finland.

Friday, July 03, 2009

THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1 2 3 (2009) - full of sound and fury, signifying nothing

For all its hi-fi sets, frenetic chase scenes, shouted ultimatums and heavyweight cast, THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1 2 3 is a movie that fails to engage. It's like the TRANSFORMERS 2 of heist movies - so full of high-voltage action shots that plot, character and audience empathy are flushed down the toilet. Are we surprised? After all, the movie has been remade by the ultimate Lads Mag Director, Tony Scott, of TOP GUN fame and DOMINO and DEJA VU mediocrity. But maybe I am a bit surprised to find that this utterly predictable movie was written by the man who wrote LA CONFIDENTIAL. Essentially, the movie is about a psychopath (John Travolta chewing up the scenery) who boards a New York metro train, takes the passengers hostage and demands a bunch of money. He forms a weird relationship with a rail dispatcher with a shady past (Denzel Washington), and spurns the attentions of the cops (John Turturro) and the Mayor (James Gandolfini). The movie could've been so much better - a fracked up psychological cat-and-mouse game between hostage-taker and dispatcher - a discourse on the corruption of politicians and the police. On a technical level, it should've evoked the claustrophobia of the hijacked metro-cab and the wider menace of The City. In the end, it's all just a convenient hook to hang a chase scene on. Weak, weak, weak. Go watch INSIDE MAN instead.

THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1 2 3 is on release in the USA, Egypt, Kuwait, Lebanon, Singapore, South Korea, UAE, Canada, the Philippines, Taiwan and Argentina. It opens in the final week of July in the UK, Greece, Malaysia, Austria, Spain, Belgium, France, Morocco, Switzerland, Israel, Kazakhstan, Finland and Lithuania. It opens on August 6th in Iceland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Romania. It opens on August 13th in the Czech Republic. It opens on September 4th in Slovakia, Brazil, Japan and Mexico. It opens on September 11th in Bulgaria; on September 17th in Cyprus, Portugal and Italy.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Justifiably overlooked DVD of the month - THICK AS THIEVES aka THE CODE

Predictable, derivative straight-to-DVD heist flick, directed by Mimi Leder (PAY IT FORWARD DEEP IMPACT) and starring a pay-check motivated Morgan Freeman and a mis-cast Antonio Banderas. Freeman plays an elderly thief "Ripley" (winks to Highsmith), who recruits the younger, inexperienced, Banderas (youth signalled by wearing a hoodie.) Meanwhile, Banderas' character is having an affair with a Russian chick (Radha Mitchell). No double-cross or double-identity is left unturned, and the ending is ludicrously schmaltzy. Ted Humphrey's script is poorly conceptualised and the dialogue is hammy. Bulgaria makes a poor stand-in for New York. Mimi Leder's shooting style is over-stylised. And the cast is uniformly too old and ill-motivated. Avoid.

THICK AS THIEVES went straight to DVD in the UK and the US earlier this year.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

TRANSFORMERS - REVENGE OF THE FALLEN - Michael Bay on the illusory nature of plot

Michael Bay should be hung from crimes against cinema, so I am not planning to watch the new TRANSFORMERS flick, much less review it. That is, you see, the advantage of being a blogger rather than a respectable paid-up critic. I can bow to sheer prejudice. Clearly, I could be wrong. TRANSFORMERS 2 could be genius. If so, dear readers, do let me know. Till then, the following satire is, I am convinced, far more entertaining than watching unrelenting CGI bangs and crashes.....

Critical consensus on Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen is overwhelmingly negative. But the critics are wrong. Michael Bay used a squillion dollars and a hundred supercomputers' worth of CG for a brilliant art movie about the illusory nature of plot......

(Thanks to Andreas von Ohlsdorf for the tip.)