Saturday, October 31, 2009

Preston Sturges Retrospective 3 - THE GREAT McGINTY (1940)

If it wasn't for graft, you'd get a very low type of people in politics, men without ambition, jellyfish!

THE GREAT McGINTY was the movie that made Preston Sturges an auteur: it's the movie in which he moves from being a screen-writer to a writer-producer-director. Already we can see some of the thematic concerns that will colour his great films: unlikely romances; social and political injustice; all pinned on a narrative arc that strains credibility. The fact that Sturges chose to hang his narrative on a character that would typically be a Hollywood villain still seems daring. After all, the McGinty of the title is a muscle-bound homeless bum with little elegance and less charm. He's plucked from the soup-line by a mobster looking for someone to vote illegally and rises through the ranks to become a stooge gubernatorial candidate. Sturges' depiction of the machinations of politics is cynical, astute and stands sharply in contrast to the sugar-gum optimism of MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON. In Sturges film, we know up front that when McGinty does finally try to do the right thing, inspired by his wife-of-convenience turned actual lover, he's going to end up on the run. I love the fact that Sturges skilfully manages to combine rather dark material with genuine light-hearted comedy: a truly amazing balancing act. But there's no denying that this film does not reach the same high standards of witty one-liners, nor physical comedy, as SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS or THE LADY EVE. The movie is a daring and assured debut with one or two dialogue scenes that are superb - but it remains a promise of greatness to come rather than the finished product.

THE GREAT McGINTY was released in 1940. It won the Best Writing, Original Screenplay Oscar, beating Charlie Chaplin's superb THE GREAT DICTATOR.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Pantheon movie of the month and Preston Sturges Retrospective 2 - THE LADY EVE (1941)

There are two stars in THE LADY EVE: Preston Sturges' witty script, and Barbara Stanwyck as the beautiful adventuress with a vulnerable heart, Jean Harrington. The joy of the film is watching these two stars toy with the other characters in the film, and with us! Stanwyck - in sharp contrast to the impenetrable shark in DOUBLE INDEMNITY - plays a witty, wise businessman who happens to be a woman, and like any woman, is capable of being piqued, and once piqued, of exacting revenge! In a bravura opening scene she sits in a cruise-ship dining room surveying her rivals - a variety of sophisticated women trying to attract the attention of limpid, naive, rich Charlie Pike (Henry Fonda). Subtly spying on their pathetic attempts on her compact, she gives a razor-sharp, incredibly funny commentary on woman trying to catch a man. And really, as she says later in the film, is there anything so wrong in being a blatant adventuress? Isn't every woman an adventuress at heart?!

"Holy smoke, the dropped kerchief! That hasn't been used since Lily Langtry. You'll have to pick it up yourself, madam. It's a shame, but he doesn't care for the flesh. He'll never see it. Look at that girl over to his left. Look over to your left, bookworm. There's a girl pining for ya. A little further. Just a little further... There! Wasn't that worth looking for? See those nice store teeth all beaming at you. Oh, she recognizes you! She's up, she's down, she can't make up her mind. She's up again. She recognizes you! She's coming over to speak to you. The suspense is killing me. "Why, for heaven's sake, aren't you Fuzzy Oathammer I went to manual training school with in Louisville? Oh you're not? Well, you certainly look exactly like him, it's certainly a remarkable resemblance... But if you're not going to ask me to sit down, I suppose you're not going to ask me to sit down... I'm very sorry, I certainly hope I haven't caused you any embarrassment, you so and so.""

Of course, Jean Harrington, as a professional, has a better plan and catches her man rather elegantly, culminating in a seduction sequence where she makes playing with his hair the most sexy thing you've seen on screen for a long time. Only problem is, poor Charlie Pike discovers her game and casts her off at the end of the first half of the movie. Does Jean sulk? Does she feel bad? Not at all! This wonderfully active, ballsy heroine takes her destiny into her own hands again, and infiltrates Charlie's circle as an English aristo, the Lady Eve! Of course he recognises her, and perhaps subconsciously wants to fall in love with her again. His loyal valet may keep protesting it's the same chick, Charlie is in denial all the way to the altar, when Jean skewers his ego with tales of past loves. The second truly bravura dialogue scene is on the honeymoon night. Just watch how Jean elegantly lets slip about a certain Angus and then unravels a sorry tale of her mis-spent youth. And look how Charlie goes from moon-calf love to pompous forgiveness to absolute disgust!

Even after seventy years, the dialogue in THE LADY EVE still fizzes off the screen - the pratfalls are still brilliantly funny if, admittedly, childishly over-used. Just stop and think awhile how clever it is that Sturges can pull off both styles of comedy in the same film. Even more amazing, think how clever it is that Sturges can create as finely balanced character as Jean/Eve - she's a powerful modern woman but also, a sucker for love! She is urbane and sophisticated, and yet you do believe that she would fall in love with the innocent Charlie, just as you believe that Charlie is bewitched and amazed by Jean. We talk a lot about "odd couples" in comedy, but this is one of the best. THE LADY EVE is, simply put, a great film!

THE LADY EVE was released in 1941. It was nominated for the Best Screenplay Oscar but in a year when even CITIZEN KANE was overlooked in most categories in favour of HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, lost out to a forgotten pic by Harry Segall.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

London Film Fest Day 16 - PERSECUTION

Daniel is an layabout construction worker, without a house or a steady job, or, apparently, a comb. He spends his time trying to get away from people, sulking and feeling sorry for himself. He is insecure about the fact that his career-woman girlfriend, Sonia, won't commit to him, but it's not like he's ever introduced her to his best friend, Thomas, or to his brother. And now he's being stalked by a man who claims he loves him, and alternates between kicking him into the street and having a familial chat over a cigarette. Yes, Daniel is a shiftless, emotional mess. Often intensely dislikeable, and yet, in Patrice Chereau's new film, ultimately sympathetic.

The movie is an intimate portrait of a man who has great difficulty with intimate relationships. The most painful moments are conversations with his girlfriends - they feel like negotiations over the terms of engagement. The most awkward, but also the most weirdly touching, are with the stalker. The resulting film is well-acted, well-written, and compelling. Romain Duris and Charlotte Gainsbourg are impressive as the couple, and Jean-Hughes Anglade does well in a difficult smaller role as the stalker.

But I found myself a little disappointed in PERSECUTION. Maybe I am being unfair in holding it up against his other films, which almost uniformly set a very high benchmark. Where, given the subject matter of sexual obsession, is the sexual tension of the marvelous LA REINE MARGOT? Where, given, the deep crisis in the central relationship, is the brutality of Chereau's best and most recent film, GABRIELLE? Certainly, PERSECUTION is a good film, but it is not a film I need to see again.

PERSECUTION played Venice 2009 and will be released in France on December 9th.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

London Film Fest Day 15 - STARSUCKERS

STARSUCKERS is the latest film from British documentarian Chris Atkins, whose last film, TAKING LIBERTIES was a powerful indictment of the Blair government's systematic dismantling of our civil rights. His new film focuses on the way in which Big Media creates celebrity avatars and systematically markets them to us from a very young age, so that the desire to be near the famous amps up their sales.

The production values on the film are, in all honesty, terrible. The animation, the slickness of the title credits, the way in which it's filmed - none of it looks as good as, say, a Michael Moore documentary, with the weight of the Weinsteins behind it. But all of that matters not one jot. Because Chris Atkins, in sharp contrast to Michael Moore, knows how to organise his material, how to back it up with credible commentators, and how to take an audience through a complicated thesis from the stuff we all think we know, to the stuff that we don't know and that scares us.

The Atkins' thesis is that humans have evolutionary programming that attracts us to celebrities, and makes us want to get as close to them as possible. It's all about wanting to learn from or mate with the alpha male. Politicians and corporate brands know they can feed off that by associating themselves with celebrities, and pretty soon the line begins to blur. Big Media creates a message splicing the two, and targets it at us from a young age. Moreover, they hold out the carrot that we too can become celebrities through reality TV. Where it gets dangerous is when Hannah Montana is marketing Walmart to kids through alarm clocks, or the Live 8 concerts are being arranged to spoil the coverage of the Make Poverty History campaign.

As I said, STARSUCKERS is a compelling, well-organised and well-argued documentary, even if I don't agree with everything it says. For instance, I fear that blaming our addiction to celebrity culture on pre-historic impulses lets us off the hook for our complicity in the whole thing. After all, THE SUN would provide 20,000 word thoughtful reviews in the manner of the LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS if that's what sold. The key point is that even if you don't agree with everything Atkins is arguing, his arguments are still credible and well-researched.

More than that, you almost have a duty to yourself as a consumer of popular culture to watch this film. By definition, if you're reading this review, you've probably come via IMDB and spend a disproportionate amount of your time consuming Hollywood and the celebrity press' output. It becomes, then, mandatory to see footage of Max Clifford boasting of squashing stories - a story that he tried to injunct.

My only real criticism of STARSUCKERS is that it doesn't go far enough. I didn't get the same sense of anger as I did watching TAKING LIBERTIES. Chris Atkins takes down some low level sleazy tabloid journos, but nowhere does he explicitly examine the power, say, of Rupert Murdoch, and the way he has successfully lobbied government's to dismantle concentrated ownership laws. And in his section of politicians as celebrities, would Berlusconi not have been a more powerful example than some Lithuanians. All through the documentary, Atkins' narrator talks on behalf of "Big Media" as "we". Well, if that's the case, you need to show more complicity between the big media agents.

STARSUCKERS played London 2009 and is on limited released from this weekend, including at the Curzon cinemas.

London Film Fest Day 15 - THE WINDOW / JANALA

THE WINDOW / JANALA is the latest film from Indian art-house director Buddhadev Dasgupta - a modern day Satyajit Ray, if you will. The film moves at a slow lyrical pace, and is a warm-hearted chronicle of the absurdity of life for the ordinary working class folk in modern day day India. The film opens with an intimate portrait of a couple, happy in each other's love and happy to be having a baby, even though they have yet to get married. It's a shocking scene for people used to conventional Bollywood movies in which you never see such real intimacy but song and dance numbers. The woman works in the modern India. She's a call centre worker for American Airlines, listening to the abuse and ignorance of western callers, saving hard for their marriage and child. The man is in the India that has been left behind. He has no family, no home, and a life working in an old folks home miles away. He's a lovely, innocent guy, and decides to donate a picture window to his old village school - a window he can't really afford. The film shows follows the man as he has the window made and tries to deliver it, and works as a kind of picaresque tale, as he comes across all manner of people. The India that Dasgupta is portraying is one of endemic corruption, theft and poverty, where acts of kindness occur, but the good will always be swindled.

What I love about this film is that is never shows contempt for its characters - even the thieves - and while it shows a fundamentally hopeless situation, it still manages to be warm-hearted. The main character, who could so easily have been an unbelievable child-man, actually seems real. With a light touch, Dasgupta tells us more about social injustice than all the angry docs and issue-movies in the world. And he entertains us to boot.

This is one of the best films I have seen in the festival.

JANALA played Telluride, Toronto and London 2009.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

London Film Fest Day 14 - A SERIOUS MAN

A SERIOUS MAN is being marketed as the new black comedy from the Coen Brothers. But I found this movie absolutely excruciating to watch. Not because it's badly made. It would be hard to find a movie that has better production values, better lead performances, a more tightly written script or a more brilliant visual style. No, I found this film tough going because it essentially take a nice man, Larry Gopnik, and hurls abuse at him for two hours. I could see, in the abstract, that a lot of the dialogue and situations made for good black comedy. And I could hear the rest of the audience laughing. But I was just so over-powered with such a bleak vision of humanity that I couldn't laugh. In fact, I could barely sit through it. This is, without doubt, one of the most depressing, most depressed, and most sadistic film I have seen.

The story is simple. You take a nice middle-aged, middle-class guy living in a suburb in the 1960s. He has a wife and two kids and he's going for tenure at his university. And then, for two hours, you make his life crumble. His wife leaves him for a guy who is smug and patronising. His kids treat him as a cash-register/TV fixer. His students try to bribe him for better grades. Someone is writing slanderous letters to his tenure committee. His neighbours are taking over his garden. But Larry is a good Jewish man, and he wants to be a serious man, who takes these issues in a thoughtful calm manner. So he turns to Rabbis, and they just give him crappy advice - meaningless stories that give no hope or insight. It's even worse: he takes comfort in his son completing his Bar Mitzvah successfully but in reality it's a sham - his son was stoned. And in the final scenes, my interpretation is that the ending is incredibly bleak - we are all basically insignificant and buffeted by the elements/God.

So, I can see how some will laugh at these situations. The writing is funny, in theory. Fred Melamed, in particular, is genius as the oleaginous lover, Sy Abelman. David Kang is also funny as the Korean student Clive. But I found this movie really depressing. I took the message that life is basically cruel; humanity is dumb and selfish; and that the stories in the film and by extension, radically, the story that is the film, are ultimately pointless.

A SERIOUS MAN played Toronto 2009 and is currently on release in the USA, Denmark and Norway. It opens on November 6th in Italy and on November 20th in Australia, Iceland, Sweden and the UK. It opens in Russia on November 26th. It opens in Argentina and Finland on December 3rd. It opens on January 20th in Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands.

London Film Fest Day 14 - GLORIOUS 39

Stephen Poliakoff is a well-respected British play-wright and some-time film director, and the cast of Glorious 39 is filled with great British actors - from the young and talented Romola Garai and Eddie Redmayne, to stars Jeremy Northam, Julie Christie and Bill Nighy. How disappointing, then, to find his new World War Two political thriller to be poorly made, poorly acted, poorly written and patronising to boot.

The story is set in the weeks before England went to war with Germany - the glorious summer of 1939. The adopted daughter (Romola Garai) of a wealthy aristocratic family (Nighy, Agutter, Redmayne, Temple, Christie) discovers that the British government is hiding recordings of meetings in her family's rambling country estate. They give evidence that certain elements within the British establishment are so afraid of another war, and so convinced that they can't win it, that they are preparing to negotiate a secret surrender to Hitler before the war has even begun. (All true, as it happens). The movie is a thriller, wherein the daughter uncovers the who the voices are on the record, and tries to smuggle it out to people who can use it to bring down Chamberlain's government and bring Winston Churchill to power.

All this could've been the stuff of a superb thriller, in the manner of ENIGMA. But this film lacks context. We never see the politicos, the military and the aristos arguing over the future of Britain. The stakes are all rather academic, and explained in a very patronising manner by characters played by David Tennant and Hugh Bonneville. Stephen Poliakoff seems to be assuming that his audience won't know anything about World War Two. What we are left with is a melodrama centred on this rich family who motor around the countryside and attend nice parties. The siblings are vaguely sinister, and there is a spooky looking government man, but no real sense of tension. I spent much of the movie being annoyed at the heroine for taking her time. If you found the 1939 equivalent of the Watergate tapes, wouldn't you just jump in a car and take it straight to the opposition party? Why all the listening, carrying in handbags and re-listening? Why the comedy, Agatha Christie style bumping off of minor characters?

Still, for all that, the movie is vaguely interesting for the first hour. Where it really comes off the rails is in the final hour. The heroine finds out who is plotting against her and is captured. At that point, the performances and writing veer into B-movie melodrama. It's truly risible and basically unwatchable. We then squelch into a final act, where the enemies, so ardent in hunting her down, just let her slip off, and a final scene in which we're meant to acknowledge her as a true hero of the war. But she never actually does anything!

What a waste of talent.

GLORIOUS 39 played Toronto 2009 and opens in the UK on November 20th.

Monday, October 26, 2009

London Film Fest Day 13 - TAKING WOODSTOCK

TAKING WOODSTOCK sees Ang Lee, director of tense, beautiful tragic romances - LUST, CAUTION and BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN - take a step back into gentle comedy. The resulting film is warm-hearted, earnest, occasionally funny, but also somewhat ramshackle, meandering and ultimately, unsatisfying. Interesting characters are given too little screen time in an ensemble film, uninteresting characters are left to over-act wildly, and the third act acid trip is a complete waste of half an hour. Maybe the problem is that Ang Lee doesn't quite have the conviction he needs to make a film about a famous concert that IS NOT a concert film. He wants to tell the story of the family who's run-down motel became the HQ of the organisers and the impact the festival had on them. He wants to make a point about Woodstock being, for most people, about the journey there and the people you met, rather than the concert itself. But Ang Lee does cave in and gives us his protagonist journeying toward the mainstage and getting dragged into acid trips and mud-slides. It's just too much of a tease! Either focus on the motel, or give us the concert, but don't flail around in the mud!

The movie starts of well. We have a likable protagonist called Elliot - a sweet kid, who's compromising on his dream of going to San Francisco because he's helping out on his parent's run-down motel in the Catskills and because he can't quite admit that he's gay. Faced with foreclosure, he decides to invite the Woodstock festival to relocate to his parents' motel and his neighbour's land, when the folks in that town rescind the permit, scared of thousands of freaks showing up. Before you know it, the cash is rolling in and Elliot's conservative parents are surrounded with hippies and beats. Both they, and Elliot, experience many-splendored life, and then the festival rolls of out town.

The period setting and casting are absolutely spot on, with the exception of rather broad performances from Emile Hirsch as Billy and Dan Fogler as Devon, the Earthlight Player. Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman are particularly good as Elliot's rather flummoxed parents, and Demetri Martin is affable and congenial as Elliot. But the two most interesting characters get way too little screen time. The first is Eugene Levy in a fairly straight performance as farmer Max Yasgur, the guy who actually rented out his fields to the festival. Why was such a provincial farmer so very liberal minded? Fascinating, but unexplored. The second fascinating, but too little explored character, was Vilma, a former US marine turned transvestite, played by Liev Schreiber. What a wonderful character! And what a fascinating nascent relationship with Elliot's father! I would have loved to spend more time with them. But instead we get Ang Lee trying, very clumsily, to speak to Vietnam in the form of the cliche of a battle-traumatised Vietnam vet, and to speak to the counter-culture in the form of a completely pointless acid trip. And when Ang Lee tries to create some real dramatic tension with a final act revelation involving Elliot's mother, it all seems out of tone with the rest of the film. Shame.

TAKING WOODSTOCK played Cannes 2009. It opened earlier this year in the US, Australia, Canada, Sweden, the USA, Germany, Denmark, Finland, Norway, the Netherlands, Portugal, Estonia, France and Spain. It is currently on release in Hong Kong, Israel, Singapore, India, Italy, Taiwan, Belgium and Greece. It opens in the UK on November 6th, in Argentina and Mexico on December 10th and in Brazil on January 15th 2010.

London Film Fest Day 13 - LEBANON

LEBANON is the Venice Golden Lion winning debut feature from Israeli director Samuel Maoz. It is, simply put, the most brutal film I have seen during this festival and also the best. It makes THE ROAD look like light family entertainment. Samuel Maoz’s story is almost entirely set within the confines of an Israeli tank participating in the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. We meet the crew as they meet each other - some matter-of-fact about the task ahead, some incredibly nervous about making it out alive. They are already in the tank, so the atmosphere is dark, dank and claustrophobic. For the next hour and a half, all we will see of the outside world is what they see through their view-finder, and very rarely, when they dare to poke their head out of the tank. The initial raid happens at breakfast time. The newbie tank driver is reluctant to fire upon the civilians he sees in his view finder. The on the ground troops he is supporting finish the job for him. Through the view finder we pick up truly horrific sights: mutilated people - both Isaraeli and Lebanese and butchered animals. After the raid, the tank loses its way and is marooned in Syrian held territory. The tank is ordered to wait for Phalangish (Christian Arab) help. The Phalangist who arrives is even more savage than the tank commander, threatening the Lebanon prisoner-of-war, being held inside the tank, with torture. The young Israeli soldiers are uncomprehending (literally because of the language barrier) and also because they are just not used to this degree of brutality.

What I love about LEBANON is its unflinching gaze and the even-handedness with which it portrays both Israeli and Lebanese. The formal constraint of depicting life within the tank is sustained marvellously. Simply put, this is a superb film.

LEBANON opened in Israel earlier this year and played Venice and Toronto. It opens in France on January 13th.

London Film Fest Day 13 - THE INFORMANT!

THE INFORMANT! is perhaps the most enjoyable film that Steven Soderbergh has ever made. It’s clever and accomplished but wears its high production values lightly. It’s a story as playful and charming and roguish as its protagonist, Mark Whitacre, a man that we laugh at while laughing with. Whitacre was a successful executive at a corn-products manufacturer with a somewhat Walter Mitty-ish hold on the truth. Who knows why he embezzled money? He was making a good living after all. And worse still, if you were embezzling money, would you really make up stories of corporate espionage, attracting the attention of the FBI? Even more ludicrously, would you become an FBI insider, making tapes for the FBI indicting your firm of an international price-fixing conspiracy? Whitacre did all this and more. In his own mind he was a character in a John Grisham or Michael Crichton novel, and the tongue-in-cheek 70s serial score hints at the fact that this is a man who really is living in a world inspired by popular culture. He’s a hero in his own mind, much like the other real life lost soul Josh Harris in Ondi Timoner’s documentary WE LIVE IN PUBLIC. Soderbergh’s movie is a success because it knows just what balance between mockery and empathy to sustain, and because Matt Damon is superb in making this rather bizarre and exasperating guy likeable. After all, as Soderbergh chooses to tell it, we spend the entire movie inside Whitacre’s head, listening to his banal, bizarre stream of consciousness. This device could’ve been intensely irritating and it’s credit to the script and Damon that in fact, it’s very funny and also rather touching. It reminded me a bit of his performance as Tom Ripley - an altogether more sinister character - but again, someone who has a tenuous grasp on reality. You spend the movie knowing Ripley is a psychopath but still, the tragedy of his self-created prison is touching. THE INSIDER! is not an entire success, however, The momentum and sheer fun of the first half, as we watch Whitacre live out his dream as an FBI spy, fade as we enter the second half, and the lies are exposed. I felt it could’ve been trimmed down to a neat and zippy 90 minutes. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed the film and was delighted to have finally found a Soderbergh film to admire after a string of over-inflated pretentious flicks that left me cold.

THE INFORMANT! played Venice and Toronto 2009. It opened in September in Canada, Italy, the USA, Spain and France and in October in Greece, Brazil, Sweden, New Zealand and South Africa. It opens later this month in Finland, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Denmark, Iceland and Norway. It opens on November 5th in the Czech Republic, Germany, Russia and the Ukraine. It opens on November 20th in Belgium, Slovakia, Lithuania, and the UK. It opens on November 27th in Estonia and on December 3rd in Australia.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


It took me a while to calm down enough to write this review. So far, it's been a pretty mediocre festival with not a single moment where I have had my breathe taken away by a movie. This stands in contrast with last year when films like THE WRESTLER and IL DIVO stunned me with their boldness. I was, therefore, pinning a lot on the Surprise Film and with some confidence, because in previous years Sandra Hebron had programmed NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and THE WRESTLER. On Twitter, the Facebook discussion boards, and in the auditorium before movies, regular festival-goers debated what the surprise movie would be. Would it be something mainstream like WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE or SHERLOCK HOLMES? Or would it be an Oscar-contender like AMELIA (before the bad reviews). As the lights went down we had an enigmatic opening sequence - some vintage TV footage teling us to be prepared for gruelling viewing. And then then titles told us that the Surprise Film was CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY. I was so angry I wanted to leave right then and there, but in a seat at the end of an aisle, that would've been almost as anti-social as Sandra Hebron's programming choice. The disappointment in the auditorium was audible.

I am still angry at having to watch this poorly constructed, poorly argued, patronising, highly personalised piece-of-shit documentary. Indeed, I'm still trying to figure out what Michael Moore was trying to document other than his own ignorance and self-proclaimed righteous anger. I'd always had my suspicions about him. Watching FAHRENHEIT 9/11 and SICKO, in the scenes where I actually knew something about the subject matter, I found him to be factually wrong at worst, and distorting at best. As a result, I never found his work credible. And now, here was a documentary very much on my home turf: in "real life" I'm an Ivy League Economics graduate with 10 years experience in finance. Now, don't get me wrong, despite the title of this blog I'm not a cheerleader for unfettered free markets, and much of the policymaking before, during and after the collapse of Lehman Brothers drew my criticism. We actually NEED a good documentary examining these issues. But Moore squanders his opportunity. Worse still, he doesn't even have good intentions.

CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY is poorly constructed. The single commonality among good documentaries is that they organise their material well. Typically hours of footage are shot and then whittled down to create a coherent story. CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY, by contrast, lacks focus, is scatter-shot, and seems to jump from one issue to another. Apparently, Michael Moore started making a rather different documentary before Lehman Brothers collapsed and the bail-outs began, and it shows. This movie feels like it was made without any clear plan. Is Moore critiquing Capitalism or is he trying to expose white-collar crime or is he just pulling stunts to entertain us? Nowhere is there a coherent discussion of any one topic. Sure he tells us a bit about white collar crime, but without the focus of ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM. He hints at rising indebtedness but without the focus of I.O.U.S.A. He's like a little kid with a pick-n-mix bag and without the balls and talent to sustain our interest in a complicated issue for two hours.

CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY is poorly argued. It starts of as a lament for the hollowing out of the US manufacturing base (as in Roger & Me). There is, underneath this, a genuine debate about free trade that does come under the banner of critiquing one kind of capitalism. Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has made this argument. But Moore isn't really interested in actually fashioning a balanced case but in hurling unfounded accusations. Moore then tries to posit a choice between capitalism (a term he never cares to define) He doesn't seem to understand that pure unfettered capitalism isn't the only type of capitalism on offer, just as documentaries aren't the only kind of feature. You can have capitalism with social protection, as we do in the UK, and the balance between free markets and social protection tilts further toward protection as you go into Continental Europe. But these are all variants on capitalism. What Moore calls socialism isn't really socialism but social market capitalism.

Even then, Moore can't quite bring himself to risk public opposition to his advocating socialism - a word that is held in more contempt in the US than in Europe - so he draws a bizarre opposition between Capitalism and Democracy. This is his most absurd step. Capitalism is an economic system and Democracy is a political system. The opposite of capitalism in communism. The opposite of democracy is not capitalism but fascism or communism or absolute monarchy.

As for individually misleading or factually incorrect statements, I cannot remember all the examples, but here's a classic case. Moore points to a better time, in the post-war era, when the USA was wealthy but also shared that wealth. He points to the 90% top rate of income tax, as if rich people were happily paying such a high marginal tax rate to further social cohesion. Well, as any fool knows, paying income tax, even at today's lower tax rates, is optional for the super-rich. Anyone eligible to pay such a rate will have employed a good tax lawyer and become an overseas resident, or actually moved to a tax haven. The super-rich are also super-mobile and thus high marginal tax rates are usually ineffective in raising tax revenues and don't actually result in higher distributions to the working classes.

Worst of all, CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY is patronising. If Michael Moore really cares about the working classes shouldn't he care enough to craft a sensible, balanced, well-thought out argument? Why patronise them with cheap stunts like driving a truck up to the headquarters of Goldman Sachs and asking for the money back? He shows as much contempt for his desired audience as the plutocrats he criticises.

CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY played Venice, Toronto and London 2009. It was released in the US last month and in Canada earlier this month. It opened in Austria and Iceland this weekend. It opens in Norway next week and in Australia, Lebanon, and Singapore on November 5th. It opens in Germany on November 12th, in Denmark on November 20th and in France, the Netherlands and Finland on November 27th. It opens in Japan on December 5th, in Slovenia on December 31st, in Belgium on January 6th and the UK on February 26th.

London Film Fest Day 12 - CRACKS

CRACKS is a coming-of-age drama set in a British girls boarding school in the 1930s. Eva Green plays the glamorous Miss G who holds the diving team in thrall, particularly the captain, Di (Juno Temple.) The order is upset when an equally glamorous new girl arrives. Fiamma is Spanish, an aristocrat, beautiful and has travelled widely. Her self-possession and sophistication stands in sharp contrast to the other girls, and Miss G soon makes her a favourite, upsetting Di. The majority of the film deal Di vacillating position in coming to terms with Fiamma’s usurpation and Miss G’s increasingly unhealthy obsession with her. The cracks of the title refer to the girls finding the cracks in Miss G’s persona, and in their faith in authority.

This story is nothing we haven’t seen before in film such as THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE and turns out to be rather more obvious and less seditious than that seminal work. The production values are all top notch (superlative photography from John Mathieson and a particularly good score from Javier Navarrete) but the story is intensely predictable from the start. In particular, anyone who sees that Fiamma has a breathing problem in the first reel can see where the movie is going. The enjoyment is thus comes from the little moments that ring true. I loved a scene where the girls prepare for a midnight feast, and another where they get excited/disappointing by the arrival or lack thereof of post from home. Anyone who went to a boarding school will agree that these moments are marvellously well done. Juno Temple gives a strong central performance as Di, and Eva Green is strong as Miss G. In terms of conveying a magnetic sexuality that inspires high school crushes, Green is just right. But I do question casting her given her accented English, or at least casting her without changing her name to hint at a more cosmopolitan heritage. But then that would work against a key point in the plot

Overall, while CRACKS is certainly an assured debut feature from Jordan Scott (daughter of Ridley) it‘s high quality production is almost too good for the rather hackneyed story of a high school infatuation gone wrong.

CRACKS played Toronto and London 2009. It will be released in the UK on December 4th and in France on December 30th.

London FIlm Fest Day 12 - POLYTECHNIQUE

POLYTECHNIQUE is Canadian film director, Denis Villieneuve’s, fictional retelling of the Montreal Polytechnicque masssacre in the late 1980s. A disaffected student, angry at feminists studying mechanical engineering who apparently wanted the best of both words, entered a classroom, split the girls from the boys and shot the girls, before walking through the rest of the university, shooting at random, before committing suicide. In dealing with this material, Villeneuve chooses to take a formal approach, establishing the motives of the killer and its impact on the students by recreating the events of that day rather than in essaying the journey to that place. Villeneuve takes accounts of the massacre and creates a killer and a composite male and female student. The male is shown being ushered out of the room before the girls, his friends are massacred, and then takes us with him for the rest of the day. The movie then cuts back to the classroom and shows us the shooting from the perspective of the female character and shows us the impact on her life.

The film is well-made and has moments of real impact, but I have a few problems with it. First, I think that Villeneuve makes a wrong choice in taking the killer at his word at being angered by feminists and following up this theme in the struggle of the female character to be taken seriously in the male-dominated world of mechanical engineering. This is, I think, pandering to the killer’s twisted view of the world. And after all, aren’t all these psychopaths just using whatever particular beef they have as a justification for a more basic need to cause hurt and gain attention? The other reason I think Villeneuve makes a mistake in focusing on the feminism theme is that it leads him into mawkish territory - particularly in the final, cliché ridden monologue of the female character.

POLYTECHNIQUE played Cannes 2009 and London 2009 and opened in Canada in February.

London Film Fest Day 12 - WE LIVE IN PUBLIC

Ondi Timoner makes entertaining documentaries: they're fast-paced, non-judgmental, technically accomplished and are typically the result of patiently following a charismatic central character for years. DIG! was a classic example - following a self-hyped feud between two C-list indie bands - the Brian Jonestown Massacre and Dandy Warhols. The subject wasn't that earth-shattering but it played like Spinal Tap for real - deeply enjoyable. Her new doc, WE LIVE IN PUBLIC is just as enjoyable but it's also trying to thought provoking and to raise consciousness: Timoner's subject is a sometime internet visionary, Josh Harris, who personally and professionally encapsulates the dark-side of the internet.

Harris made a fortune in the late 1990s selling consumer-marketing stats and burned it in three ways: first, he set up a web TV channel too many years before broadband made it viable; second, he poured cash into a really fracked up, pseudo-fascistic Big Brother project that pre-dated the TV version and took it to its logical conclusion; and third, he lost money in the Dot-com crash. Never entirely socialised, this internet nerd turned self-styled art-house visionary then decided to make himself and his girlfriend the subject of a life web-cam experiment called "We Live in Public" - in which every moment of their relationship, including a nasty break-up and financial ruin, was documented. He reinvented himself as a hick apple-farmer, and then as an Ethiopian school-teacher. In between, he did try to capitalise on the ability of broadband to make his ideas commercial, but by then he'd burned his commercial credibility with his NYC antics in the late 1990s.

The lessons to us all are many and, unfortunately from Timoner, a bit obvious. Lesson 1 is that stuff on the internet lives forever and a reputation burned is burned for good. Lesson 2 is that we have traded a few intimate relationships for many superficial relationships. Lesson 3 is that being documented materially impacts reality - you "play up to" the cameras. The particular tragedy of Harris is that while he enjoyed (somewhat sadistically at times) being the puppet master of his real-life rats in a cage, he didn't see that making himself the subject of the webcams would turn him into a rat and strip him of control. Again, a pretty obvious thing to have figured out.

The biggest irony is that while this doc. is trying to be thought-provoking by showing the dark side of the internet, it's success is sustained by that very medium. Timoner refs. this in Q&A but doesn't show it in the film. And, while we all sit in the audience and nod sagely about the destruction of privacy, we all rush out to tweet and blog about it. I would've liked to see Timoner address this in the doc. and perhaps add a little pre-credit epilogue. After all, Harris himself is likely to get another chance at fame and maybe even business now that the doc has won the Sundance Best Doc award.

The upshot is that WE LIVE IN PUBLIC is an entertaining doc about a fascinating figure. I don't think it makes any great revelations about the profound social impact the internet has had/is having. It's almost too late for that. As a provocation, it works better as a journal of how New York changed in 2000/2001 as the wealth sucked out in the equity market crash, and in the wake of heightened security post 9/11.

WE LIVE IN PUBLIC played Sundance, where it won the Grand Jury Prize - Documentary. It was released in Los Angeles in September and will be released in the UK later this month.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

London Film Fest Day 11 - VALHALLA RISING

VALHALLA RISING is my biggest disappointment of the festival to date. I *LOVE* the movies of Nicholas Windig Refn. The PUSHER trilogy - a tragicomic tale of the underclass, starring Mads Mikkelsen - was superb. Absurd, violent, funny, poignant, all at the same time. And as for NWR's BRONSON, starring Tom Hardy - that's one of the most powerful films I've seen this year: visually and narratively bold choices coupled with a strong central performance.

VALHALLA RISING does, at least, have some of this visual boldness. NWR shoots the movie like a graphic novel along the lines of 300. It's all gory, bloody, tattooed medieval warriors set against monochromatic landscapes. You can easily spend the first half hour of the flick just admiring Mads Mikkelsen's profile and the insanity of the violence. The problem is that this movie has nothing else to offer. Mikkelsen's norse soldier never speaks, never explains his actions and does not develop as a character. He just stands there, hating his Scotch captors, and occasionally flashing back to a hellish vision of murder. The captors don't do much either. They stand around looking grim. They get in a boat to fight the Crusades. We don't see anything but them sitting in the boat, enveloped in fog, and feeling desperate. They land in what turns out to be America and again we cut to some more wandering around in fields looking grim.

I mean, seriously, WTF? If you want to present an epic of heathen man versus nasty Christians, then that's what you've got to do. And if you want a highly stylised, austere character study (like BRONSON) you need to give the audience something to hold on to. Without these things, VALHALLA RISING just plays like a series of moody stills, and that's about as boring as traffic.

VALHALLA RISING played Venice and Toronto 2009. It will be released in Finland on January 29th and in Denmark on March 5th.

London Film Fest Day 11 - METROPIA

METROPIA is a derivative dystopian sci-fi flick raised above the parapet by its superb and novel animation and brought back down by the essential ridiculousness of its main concept.

Set in 2024, humanity has been brought low by environmental degradation. The world is enveloped in a grey fog, concrete buildings rot, and litter scatters the streets. In other words, this is the environment of every sci-fi flick you've seen. As usual, big business is the enemy, as embodied by Ivan Bahn (Udo Kier), the head of Metropia - the company that linked all of Europe's metro systems. The project was conceived as a peace initiative - making Europe truly one country - and of course, all of us have horror-flashbacks to the last person who tried that, and indeed the last movie, set on a train system, to explore it, Lars von Trier's superb EUROPA EUROPA aka ZENTROPA. Writer-director Tarik Saleh also takes no chances on his protagonist, a boring everyman call-centre worker called Roger. He's firmly in the vein of Orwell's Winston Smith, or Terry Gilliam's Sam Lowry. He has a lovely girlfriend but he dreams of the hot chick on his shampoo bottle. He's also convinced that something's not quite write on the metro and takes the seemingly outlandish step of riding his bike to work. The movie works as a sort of Hitchcock thriller, in which our hero gets enchanted by a Hitchcock blonde - the beautiful Nina of shampoo-bottle fame. Together they try to work out why Roger can hear a voice in his head telling him what to do.

Now, my fundamental issue with the film is that I find the precise means by which the standard-issue evil corporation is going to take over the world absolutely ridiculous. Because, ladies and gentleman, The Man is going to control your mind through.....wait for it.....anti-dandruff shampoo. Yes yes.

The good news is that this film is so technically well-made and perfectly cast that you can almost ignore the fundamentally stupid concept at its centre. The film-makers have basically photo-shopped the frack out of real photos of real people. The result is incredibly unsettling and alienating - characters that look recognisably human but have been subtly distorted. It gives you the creeps - in a good way. The same can be said of the design of the environment. It all looks like our world but subtly distorted - made to look older - like a WW2 film - but futuristic at the same time. It's wonderfully unsettling. Vincent Gallo is superb as the voice of Roger - capturing the whiny, paranoid but no-nonsense character - and Alexander Skarsgard (of TRUE BLOOD fame) is spookily well-matched as his "inner voice" Stefan.

So what can I say? On balance, do I think this film works? For me, no. But my goodness, it was wonderful to look at.

METROPIA played Venice, Sitges and London 2009. It opens in Sweden on November 27th.

Friday, October 23, 2009


Werner Herzog's remake of the 1992 Harvey Keitel flick BAD LIEUTENANT is insane. Herzog is basically inviting us to join with his actors in laughing at the crime thriller genre. To say that the performances are hammy, or that the direction is off-the-wall, doesn't even begin to capture it. Problem is, with everything subordinated to a cheap laugh, there's nothing to hold our attention for the two hour run-time.

The original flick was directed by Abel Ferrara. It was a gritty, sleazy exploitation film about a New York cop strung out on drugs and booze, investigating the rape of a nun, whose forgiveness of her attacker, the cop can't understand. It was down and dirty, sure, but it was serious, after its own fashion. I was expecting a similar tone to this remake. After all, the new flick is written by William Finkelstein, whose credits include NYPD Blue, Law & Order and Murder One. But no.

Nic Cage stars as a corrupt cop, self-medicating for back pain with smack and crack he hustles from people he's taking down. His girlfriend (Eva Mendes) is a hooker, he's running up serious gambling debts, and he's trying to bring down a local drug baron for executing a Senegalese pusher and his family. The cop claims that there's no limit to what you can achieve when you concentrate, which is like a kind of insane joke at the centre of the film. Because just when the cop should be interrogating someone, or investigating a crime scene, Herzog decides to spend a few minutes in extreme close-ups of iguanas set to a hammy version of "Please release me". In one shot, you can actually see Cage in the background cracking up. By the time Cage's character is ruffling the feathers of a "connected" client of his hooker girlfriend in Biloxi, the movie has truly jumped the shark into "just for laughs" territory. I mean, you can admire Herzog's insanity all you like, but what really is the difference between this flick and SNAKES ON A PLANE?

Some reviewers are going to try and sell you the idea that this movie is so ludicrous it's brilliant. Nope. If this were directed by anyone other than Herzog, they'd be calling it an over-long pastiche B-movie and giving it one star. Don't believe the hype.

BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF NEW ORLEANS played Venice, Telluride, Toronto and London 2009. It opened this autumn in Italy, Greece and Israel. It opens on November 6th in Romania, on November 20th in the US, on December 2nd in Belgium, on January 8th in Sweden, on January 15th in Germany, the Netherlands and Austria, and on March 3rd in France.


PRECIOUS is a tremendously funny, moving film that has won Audience Awards and critical acclaim on the festival circuit. As the ungainly title says, it's based on a novel by an American author who had worked with young girls in the projects. The resulting protagonist, Clarice "Precious" Johnson, is a compendium of the troubles they experience. She is obese and illiterate, the mother of two children before she is 17, both the result of paternal rape. Her mother is obese, foul-mouthed and verbally and physically abuses the child she perceives to have stolen her man. Precious begins to rehabilitate after being kicked out of school and into the Each One Teach One programme. An heroic teacher gets her literacy and confidence up and she finds friends for the first time. But even then, author Sapphire loads more onto her, as she realises that her father made her HIV positive.

The technical choices in this film are superb. Lee Daniels preserves the stream of consciousness from the original novel, including the way Precious forces herself into a fantasy world to escape abuse. Horrific acts are shown to us, but when you think about it, we're shown less than we imagine through these brief flashbacks, especially concerning marital rape. But what really sets this movie apart are the performances. Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe gives a great performance as Precious - able to play both the downtrodden teen and the confident, sexy girl of her fantasy life. Paula Patton (DEJA VU) is empathetic as her teacher. But the real surprises come from the celebrity cast. Lenny Kravitz gives a fine modulated performance as "Nurse John". Mariah Carey is astoundingly good as social worker Mrs Weiss. But most of all, someone needs to give Mo'nique as Oscar for her performance as Precious' mother. She plays a hideous monster for most of the film - appallingly abusive. But in a final confrontation with Mrs Weiss and Precious, Mo'nique gives depth, layers, and even vulnerability to that character that brought me to tears.

PRECIOUS played Sundance, Cannes and Toronto 2009. It will be released in the US on November 6th, in the Netherlands on November 12th, in Finland on January 22nd, in Sweden on January 29th, in Australia and New Zealand in February and in France on March 10th.

London Film Fest Day 10 - MOTHER / MADEO

South Korea is not submitting Park Chan-Wook's superb THIRST as its entry for the Foreign Language Oscar this year. Rather, it is submitting Joon-Ho Bong's MOTHER. The absurdist tone of his horror flick, THE HOST, carries over into this bizarre take on the crime thriller, in which a devoted mother sets out to prove that her mentally disabled son did not murder a young girl. TV actress Kim Hye-a stars as the mother, and utterly convinces of her crazy devotion to her son, but the overwhelming tone of this film is comedy and absurdity. Unfortunately for me, this wasn't enough to sustain the two hour run-time. If you want me to sit still for that long, you either need to take this movie into the dark underbelly of bourgeois life in the manner of David Lynch, or take the absurdity to its extreme logical conclusion as in Almodovar or Park Chan-Wook himself. By contrast, this film starts promisingly but is essentially well-made but rather tame. Certainly, there is nothing in the main body of the film to match the compelling opening scene of the mother dancing in a field, her face fixed in a grimace. At that point, I was reminded of the dancing dwarf in Twin Peaks, and thought I was in for a wild ride. No such luck.

MOTHER played Cannes, Toronto, New York and London 2009. It was released in South Korea and Australia earlier this year and opens in Japan next week. There is no UK or US release date as yet.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

London FIlm Fest Day 9 - CHLOE

Atom Egoyan's latest film, CHLOE, treads familiar territory - sexual jealousy, paranoia and the transgressive desires that rock mainstream marriages. Julianne Moore plays a successful gynecologist (of course!) who suspects her flirtatious husband (Liam Neeson) of cheating. As in the laughably dissimilar EXTRACT, she tests him by setting him with a beautiful young prostitute (Amanda Seyfried evidently trying to shake off that MAMMA MIA! wholesomeness). In contrast to the more simplistic French source film, NATALIE, Egoyan and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (SECRETARY) keep us guessing as to whether the husband is really cheating, or whether he is the victim of his wife's insecurity. We also have a classic Egoyan relationship between the wife and the prostitute: is the wife really falling for the hooker, or is she just trying to get close to her husband in a really fracked up way? And is the hooker really falling for the wife, or is she just being emotionally or indeed financially manipulative?

I really loved this film. Moore gives a strong central performance as a woman d'un certain age in a crisis, and Seyfried is convincing both as seductress and vulnerable young girl. They sell their relationship, and that makes the film. I also love the very particular production design from Phillip Barker, and the locations chosen - in particular the marital home. The wife is, by virtue of architecture mirroring her psyche, a voyeur, condemned to look through picture windows and listen at doors and stare at reflections. It works wonderfully.

CHLOE played Toronto 2009 and will be released in France in March 2010.

London Film Fest Day 9 - EXTRACT

What is EXTRACT doing in the London Film Festival? It's not a high-brow art film looking for UK distribution. It's not the latest movie from an acknowledged auteur - Jarmusch, Egoyan, Haneke. And it's not a high profile glitzy premiere designed to lure the sponsors - a necessary evil. Nope. EXTRACT is an enjoyable but ultimately lightweight comedy from Mike Judge. Worse still, it's less conceptually interesting than IDIOCRACY, if better executed.

So, let's approach this as if it were just another Saturday night movie. Jason Bateman stars a successful businessman called Joel. On the surface he has it all: great house, great car, pretty wife, and his own business - a flavouring factory. But everything's going wrong for Joel. His staff are morons; his wife won't sleep with him; his neighbour's a creep; and he's falling for a con woman. Worst of all, his best friend (Ben Affleck) keeps advising him to do drugs and other crazy shit.

As the movie opens you think the con woman (Mila Kunis) is going to be the star but she drops off the radar. Then the movie almost becomes a bromance with Joel as Dante from CLERKS and Ben Affleck as his Randall. (Without the swearing and Star Wars jokes, of course.) It all feels a bit PG Kevin Smith. Stuff happens; Affleck, J K Simmons and the guy who plays Brad the gigolo are funny; a few laughs are had and it all winds up happily enough.

Not bad but nothing special either.

And will someone please give Mila Kunis a decent part?

EXTRACT was released in the US and Canada in September. It opens in Iceland on November 20th and in the Netherlands on April 29th 2010.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Michael Haneke makes films that toy with the audience - whether with malicious black humour in FUNNY GAMES or with subversive, slippery political provocation in CACHE/HIDDEN. He hates clear-cut answers and stories that claim that life is more simplistic than it really is. He is concerned with human nature and the cruel violent and sexual impulses that lie behind the facade of bourgeois life. All these preoccupations are visible in his beautiful, disturbing, Palme d'Or winning new film DAS WEISSE BAND - A GERMAN CHILDREN'S STORY.

In terms of toying with the audience, this starts with the very title of the film. DAS WEISSE BAND or THE WHITE RIBBON is translated for non-German audiences, but the beautifully written sub-title isn't. Haneke claims that this is because the story should resonate for people whichever country they are from, rather than being read as a particularly German fable, but then why have the sub-title there at all, untranslated and provocative. The games continue with the first image of the film, shot in pristine black-and-white. This serves as a distancing device that panders to our images of the early twentieth century, in black and white photos. The distancing also comes through the employment of a voice-over from one of the characters in the film, who admits in the first line of the film that he can't be sure that he's remembering events correctly after all this time. In other words, nothing we are to see can be taken at face value.

The tale that unravels is certainly concerned with sexual violence and cruelty. It is set in a North German town in the year before World War One, but could easily be depicting a world from centuries before. The town is oppressed financially, under the feudal system under the Baron, and by the fierce religious morality enforced by the town priest. A young boy is forced to wear a white ribbon to remind him of the purity to which he should aspire. But more violently, each night his hands are tied to the side of the bed by his pastor-father to stop him from masturbating. Naturally, this being Haneke, superficial rigid morality disguises physical and moral corruption - incest, murder, arson, theft, adultery. Adults brainwash children, but act like wilfully, as children. Children are either presented as cherubic paragons of virtue or as sinister and in mobs. For every scene that is heartbreakingly beautiful there is a scene that is perverse and frightening.

There is no doubt that DAS WEISSE BAND is a great, beautiful, challenging, multi-faceted film. You can watch it for the sheer joy of the composition of the photography, or for the tense portrayal of an oppressed society. No doubt some will watch it, reductively, as a story of how the generation who became Nazis was formed. But this movie is much richer, and more applicable, than that.

THE WHITE RIBBON played Cannes, where it won the FIPRESCI prize and the Palme d'Or, and Toronto 2009. It was released in September in Germany and Austria. It is currently on release in Belgium and France and opens next week in Greece and Italy. It opens in the UK on November 13th, in the Netherlands on November 19th, in Sweden on December 11th, in Norway on December 26th, in the USA on December 30th and in Russia on January 12th.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

London Film Fest Day 7 - AN EDUCATION

AN EDUCATION is a British coming-of-age drama set in the swinging sixties, based on the memoirs of the British journalist Lynn Barber. It's essentially the story of an intelligent young girl swapping a place at Oxford (and a conventional life) with her dream of being an urban sophisticate, in the arms of charming man (Peter Sarsgaard). As I was attending another screening, Our Gmunden Correspondent took my ticket. Here are his thoughts:

"Just a few thoughts on An Education.

Yes it was nice. The film is a fine period drama on the clash of bourgeois and bohemian life in the early sixties, expressed in the ambivalent experiences of young Jenny, coming of age. There is everything a good film needs to have, a perfect script, great set design, catchy music, and, above all, impeccable performances of a dream cast (even if it sometimes felt a bit overacted, meaning that the actors seemed more to enjoy themselves in showing off their great talent and skill than actually embodying a persona; but good, no doubt). It is entertaining and a pleasure to watch and to listen to. If that's what we are looking for in a film, mission accomplished, all good. If we are setting higher standards, want to see revelations and revolutions in filmmaking, it seems like a little etude, do everything you are expected to do and you will get a good movie, which is not more than the sum of its parts, rather less even. It would be worth looking the flick just to hear the actors talk, devour the great sets and sounds, and accomplish the perfect editing, yet there is something missing. It lacks the subtlety of showing the inbetweens of lifestyles, that there is grey zone between good and bad, between the deeds society demands and the pleasures the individual needs. To cut it short: Watch it, enjoy it, don't think about it too much. Full stop."

AN EDUCATION played Sundance 2009 where John de Boorman won the Cinematography Award and Lone Scherfih won the Audience Award. It also played Berlin, Sydney, Brisbane, Toronto and Helsinki 2009. It is currently on release in New Zealand, the USA, Australia and Israel. It opens next week in the UK. It opens in February 2010 in the Netherlands and Germany and opens in April in Norway.

London Film Fest Day 7 - STORM

From Hans-Christian Schmidt and Bernd Lange, the director and writer of REQUIEM, comes a court-room drama with good intentions, but that plays like a TV drama. Kerry Fox stars as Hannah Maynard, an international criminal lawyer in The Hague, charged with bringing a Serbian nationalist to trial for war-crimes. When her original witness proves flaky, she digs deeper into the case and uncovers heinous crimes, as witnessed by Anamaria Marinca's Hannah Arendt. The rest of the film sees the lawyer try to persuade the Bosnian woman to put her new life in Berlin at risk and to rake over painful memories in order to see justice done. However, this is set in the context of deep political machinations involving the UN, The Hague and the EU. The Serbian general is now running for parliament and wants to cut a deal - moreover, the EU is keen to see his country have smooth accession talks. The resulting film is a well-acted solid piece of work. It has evidently been well-researched and is earnest. However, I felt that it's shooting style and production values were not really cinematic. Moreover, given its commitment to telling the unvarnished truth about realpolitik I was somewhat upset by a rather fairytale ending.

STORM played Berlin 2009 and opened in September in the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark.

London Film Fest Day 7 - EYES WIDE OPEN

EYES WIDE OPEN is Haim Tabakman's immensely impressive and brave debut feature about the difficulty of reconciling a private life within a community of strict orthodoxy. To be sure, Tabakman has explored this issue by depicting a homosexual love affair within an Orthodox community in Jerusalem, but the issues would apply equally to, say, young girls threatened with "honour" violence in the UK, or, say, gays in the Catholic church. This is a film about people who cannot simply cut the ties from the communities who reject them and flee to a more tolerant place, but want to live out both their private life and their faith. The inability to choose on or the other is the tragedy.

The movie succeeds because it is resolutely NOT sensationalist but actually rather quiet and introspective and intimate. Zohar Strauss plays a butcher who is playing a role in his father's butcher's shop and as a husband and father. He seems to be a genuinely kind man, and a man of faith. He falls for a handsome young man (Ran Danker) who has already been expelled from one religious community. Aaron is warned by the Rabbi and more menacingly by a self-appointed group of young men. There is a particularly beautiful shot where the two are arguing in front of the shop about whether the relationship is tenable. A van pulls away and in the reflection we see that this whole argument has taken place in front of the menacing youths. And at the same time, the story is widened out, to show a young girl acquiesce to an arranged marriage.

This really is a powerful, sensitive relationship drama that shows a situation that is more widely relevant that a reductive plot summary might suggest. It is not at all sensationalist or exploitative, but authentic, credible, well-acted and well-photographed. It deserves to be widely seen.

EYES WIDE OPEN / EYNAIM PEKUKHOT played Cannes and Toronto 2009 and opened in September in France and Israel. It opens in Belgium on December 2nd.

London Film Fest Day 7 - THE LIMITS OF CONTROL

I must confess that I found THE LIMITS OF CONTROL such hard work that I simply walked out after an hour of lessening patience and sheer disgust with how ludicrous the whole thing was. What a pretentious pile of wank this movie is.

Isaach de Bankoele is some kind of shady character. He sits in various cafes and for no particular reason orders two espressos in different cups. He exchanges matchboxes with various other shady characters and engages in the same stilted stupid conversations. There's even a random, seriously off-her-trolley naked chick. What is all this for? What is it meant to be? Or is it just a case of the Emperor's New Clothes.

Are we meant to be laughing with Jarmusch or at Jarmusch? I left because I felt he was laughing, sneering, at us.

THE LIMITS OF CONTROL was released earlier this year in the US, Canada, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Australia, Romania, Finland, Hong Kong, Sweden, Japan, New Zealand, Brazil and Spain. It is currently on release in Russia. It opens on November 26th in Argentina; December 2nd in France, the Netherlands and Mexico; on December 11th in the UK and on February 2rd in Belgium.