Saturday, January 31, 2009

HEARTBEAT DETECTOR - Disturbing, audacious, provocative, intelligent, restrained...

...some of the adjectives I could use to describe Nicolas Klotz' political thriller, HEARTBEAT DIRECTOR. Mathieu Amalric stars as an in-house psychologist at a Kafkaesque corporation, whose HQ is all perfectly symmetric, sterile spaces. His duties extend beyond the usual HR bilge to providing a secure place where company employees can dance, get high and explore their secret sexual desires. The company thus has total control over its employees' lives. 

SC Farb is, of course, a thinly veiled reference to IG Farben, and all those German corporate names we still shop with who, during World War Two, benefited from Jewish slave labour. Amalric's character is forced to move beyond the oleaginous corporate persona he has built for himself when called to assess the company's French boss, played by the ever-impressive Michael Lonsdale. The quiet conversations between the naive psych and the weary, dessicated captain of industry, are chillingly quiet and matter of fact. The movie left me emotionally drained and disturbed.

HEARTBEAT DETECTOR played Cannes 2007 and was released in 2007/2008. It is available on DVD.

Friday, January 30, 2009

REVOLUTIONARY ROAD - strong performances trump mannered direction

REVOLUTIONARY ROAD is a beautifully scripted and performed tragedy about a failed marriage in 1950s American suburbia. Frank and April Wheeler believe in fictionalised versions of themselves - talented, bohemian, decidedly not second-rate. April says that callow, banal Frank is the most interesting person she's ever met. It's patently obvious to us that this reflects her day-dream rather than reality.  The reality is that, seven years later, Frank works a dull job in an office cubicle and April is a housewife in a banal town. April attempts to shake them out of the rut by persuading Frank to quit his job, sell the house, and take April and the kids to Paris. She'll work, he'll find himself, and they'll fix their marriage. The tragedy is that April really hates her life and wants to see the dream through. Frank discovers he actually rather likes being the high-earning paterfamilias. Or maybe he's just afraid that there's nothing to find?  April feels betrayed.

The movie is based on the superb novel by Richard Yates - a novel I only recently read and thoroughly enjoyed. Justin Haythe's script stays faithful to the content and style of the novel. His one key departure is to give the Wheeler's neighbours' son, John, more time. John, on a home visit from electro-shock treatments in an asylum, sees through all the pretense. He sees through the myth of suburban contentment but also through the Wheeler's attempt to portray himself as "special". His analysis is piercing and Michael Shannon truly steals every scene he's in with his powerful, menacing performance. He deserves his Oscar nom, if only as delayed recognition from his even better performance in Billy Friedkin's BUG.

What of the rest? Yes, Kate Winslet is superb as April Wheeler, with a raw and affecting performance that I think trumps her work in THE READER. I was also impressed by the maturity and nuance in Leonardo di Caprio's performance as Frank. Kathy Bates and Zoe Kazan (as Maureen) are particularly strong in support. And any movie photographed by Roger Deakins looks great. Where the movie falls down is in its direction. There was something rather obvious and lazy in Sam Mendes' concept for the movie: the perfectly pastel costumes and decor; the overly-insistent score; the obvious shot of Frank running near the end of the movie. I far preferred what Stephen Daldry did with the Mrs Brown segment in THE HOURS or what Todd Field did with LITTLE CHILDREN (though that was also a flawed film.)  There was nothing in this film that surprised me or shook me  or impressed me in the direction.

REVOLUTIONARY ROAD is on release in the US, Germany, Austria, Norway, Belgium, Egypt, France, Australia, Croatia, Hungary, the Netherlands, Canada, Spain, Japan, Argentina, Chile, the Czech Republic, Portugal, Russia and Slovakia. It opens today in the UK, Brazil, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Italy, Mexico, Poland and Sweden. It opens on February 6th in Turkey; February 12th in South Korea and February 19th in Singapore.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Overlooked film of the month - I SERVED THE KING OF ENGLAND - brilliantly eccentric

I SERVED THE KING OF ENGLAND is the misleading title for a brilliantly satirical, eccentric and often surreal comedy from Czech auteur, Jiri Menzel. It tells the fabulous/fabulist life of Jan Dite, an unassuming everyman waiter in Prague who tangles with Nazis, Communists, runs a hotel, serves time, serves luscious food and has comically choreographed sex. It's a leisurely paced two hour stroll through absurd tales of survival in brutal regimes - the film Kafka would've made if he had a food fetish, a fondness for silent movies, and a sense of humour.

I SERVED THE KING OF ENGLAND won the FIPRESCI prize at Berlin 2007. It was released in 2007 and 2008 and is available on DVD.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

MR WHITE MR BLACK - piss-poor Bollywood comedy

Piss-poor Bollywood feature by writer-director Deepak S. Shivdasani. Childhood friends Gopi and Kishan (Suniel Shetty and Arshad Warsi) reunite to nick diamonds from a flash hotel: Gopi, a small-town simpleton having been corrupted by Kishan's big-town thieving ways. The humour is strained and juvenile, the production design cheap, the songs mediocre....in general a pure waste of time. Arshad Warsi may be a good comic actor but any director who puts him on a beach in a wet T-shirt and tries to shoot him a sex-symbol in a music video is clearly lacking in judgment.

MR BLACK MR WHITE was released in May 2008 and is available on DVD.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

GOLMAAL RETURNS - Bollywood smash-hit farce

Rohit Shetty's follow-up to his phenominally successful 2006 film GOLMAAL (loosely translated as "crazy stuff") sees Bollywood A-lister Kareena Kapoor join Arshad Warsi and Ajay Devgan and much of the old cast. The film is an old-fashioned screwball comedy in which innocent mix-ups lead to wives suspecting husbands of philandering; people pretend to be other people; and generally rather juvenile but harmless comedy.

Production values are high and I'm sure the target demographic was rolling in the aisles with laughter. I find this sort of artificially high-pitched domestic farce hard to take even when done well. I also don't particularly like the kind of quasi-Happy House sound-track that music director Pritam churns out for the wannabe MTV dance numbers.

GOLMAAL RETURNS was a huge hit on Diwali 2008 and is now available on DVD.

Monday, January 26, 2009

POSTAL - Crude political satire from Raging Boll

The almost comically terrible German director Uwe Boll is better known for his critically derided adaptations of video games, and for his Raging Boll, challenge to critics to "put up or shut up". Still, there's no denying the man is clever - if only at self-publicity - apparently he has a PhD in Literature! POSTAL is another of these low production values-poor taste flicks. The plot is ludicrous and overtly politically crass. A small-town hick and his Cult Leader Uncle hijack a shipment of porn dolls that Bin Laden (oh yes) has infected with biological weapons. In a serious of plot developments too ludicrous to explain, Uwe Boll gets kicked in the nuts, Verne Troyer gets raped by a thousand monkeys the hicks take on Al Qaeda, George W Bush bombs places and Bin Laden looks to him for protection.

It's all very crude and, I'm ashamed to admit, sporadically very very funny. Nonetheless, it's nowhere near tightly enough written to merit it's own marketing tagline, "Like a live action South Park".

HIJACK played Frightfest 2007 and was released in Fall 2007 and Spring 2008. It's available on DVD.


Sunday, January 25, 2009

HIJACK - Slick, Restrained, Indian Action Flick

Kunal Shivdasani's debut Bollywood feature is a slick, relatively restrained action movie based on the real-life hijack of an Indian airplane, IC 814. The first hour of the flick sets up Bollywood B-lister Shiney Ajuja (LIFE ON A METRO), as your typical perfect Bollywood hero. He's an airport engineer, widower, and perfect father to a cute little girl. There's some flirting with other women but basically we are wacked over the head with the idea that he's a Good Guy. At the same time, the film establishes the threat of Islamist terrorism in India, as incarnated in the Bad Guy, who's currently in detention. The second half of the film changes from sentimental family drama to full-blown action flick. The Bad Guy's goons hijack the plane that the Hero's daughter is on (flying to a debate contest with her teacher). Naturally, he breaks into the plane when it's grounded by simply unscrewing the under-carriage. He then proceeds to take out all the bad guys while simultaneously flirting with Esha Deol's air stewardess. All this is a bit Bollywood-formulaic, but I have to say I was impressed by the director's handling of the action scenes and Esha Deol and Shiney Ahuja's restrained performances. 

HIJACK was released in September 2008 and is available on DVD.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

BERLIN aka LOU REED'S BERLIN

Julian Schnabel's concert film on Lou Reed's never-before-performed 1973 album "Berlin". The concert is played against a background of screens showing dreamy images of Emmanuelle Seigner, and the resulting footage is layered with those same images. Not sure if all this adds up to much - indeed sometimes it feels like it's getting in the way of experiencing the concert. I far preferred Jonathan Demme's less invasive style in HEART OF GOLD (which Ellen Kuras also shot, along with SHINE A LIGHT). Still, there's great pleasure to be had in seeing Lou Reed play classic songs about a failing relationship from an album that inexplicably bombed on first release. Reed gets a full choir and string section to back him up and highlights include "Caroline Says", "Satellite of Love" and an "off-album" version of Candy Says show-casing Antony and the Johnsons.

BERLIN played Venice and Toronto 2007 and was released in 2008. It is available on DVD and opens in Spain on May 15th.

Friday, January 23, 2009

VALKRYIE - superficial conspiracy procedural

VALKYRIE is a straightforward conspiracy procedural about Claus von Stauffenberg's failed assassination of Hitler and anti-Nazi coup. Given that we all know the bare bones of the story, it's laudable that writer Chris McQuarrie and director Bryan Singer manage to sustain tension. Indeed, when Stauffenberg gets back to Berlin, convinced that Hitler is dead, and starts convincing territories to join his cause, I almost believed that the SS might capitulate to the sheer force of Tom Cruise's personality. In particular, I really like the fact that McQuarrie manages to open up the movie from being about an assassination to the wholesale seizure of power - a far more difficult feat.

Where the movie fails is in its ham-fisted, clumsy dialogue. Lines like, "To understand National Socialism, you must understand Wagner". The movie also has a tendency to slip into kitsch. Note the fetishistic treatment of Stauffenberg's glass eye. Would Stauffenberg really have put his glass eye into a glass of whisky to summon the attention of Fellgiebel?

I was also a bit disappointed that Singer didn't have more ambition. To say that this movie basically succeeds as a B-movie is to admit that Singer hasn't even bothered to make a more psychologically involved film. After all, the key point of this movie is that in a country where decision-makers were too self-interested, weak-willed, callow and drunk on power and ideology to make a stand; a small group of men did. Why them? Yes, Singer and McQuarrie do hint at Stauffenberg's faith as a driver, but what about his sense of obligation as an aristocrat or his political views? This movie raises more questions than it answers.

VALKRYIE is on release in the US. It opens on January 22nd in Australia, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, South Korea and the UK. It opens on January 28th in Belgium, France, Russia, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Spain, Sweden and Turkey. It opens on February 12th in Egypt, Argentina, the Czech Republic, Portugal, Singapore, Brazil, Estonia and Poland. It opens on February 20th in Denmark; February 27th in Italy; March 12th in Croatia; and March 20th in Japan.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Random DVD Round-Up 7 - MY BROTHER NIKHIL

Oppressively earnest Indian drama about a rising sport star who is ostracized from society and his family when he discovers he is HIV Positive and moves in with his gay lover. A well made and important film for Indian society but like being berated with the obvious (thankfully) for those of us living in comparatively liberal countries.

MY BROTHER NIKHIL was released in 2005 and is available on DVD.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Random DVD Round-Up 6 - BUTTERFLY ON A WHEEL aka SHATTERED

Tab A fits perfectly into Slot B in this taut, competent thriller. Gerard Butler and Maria Bello play a successful complacent couple, terrorised by a vengeful Pierce Brosnan. He kidnaps their kid, issues sadistic demands and they run around town all night. The mood is noir. The atmosphere is sombre. There's a satisfying plot twist and then a slightly rubbish one. Overall this is an engaging way to spend ninety minutes and I can't quite figure out why it had such a limited theatrical release.

BUTTERFLY ON A WHEEL was released in autumn 2007 and is available on DVD.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Random DVD Round-Up 5 - IMAGINARY HEROES

Derivative and poorly directed drama about a disfuntional suburban family dealing with teen suicide is elevated by strong performances by matriarch Sigourney Weaver and a troubled young Emile Hirsch.

IMAGINARY HEROES played Toronto 2004 and was released in 2004 and 2005. It is available on DVD.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Random DVD Round-Up 4 - THE BROTHERS SOLOMON

Bad taste alleged comedy in which two intelligent but infantile brothers (Wills Arnett and Forte) decide to shock their dad out of a coma by surrogate fathering a child. Yes yes. The result is as unfunny as the plot is plausible. Clunky direction, thin writing, forced humour make this straight to dustbin as opposed to straight to video.

THE BROTHERS SOLOMON was released in autumn 2007, promptly fell like a stone, and is available on DVD should you care to waste ninety minutes.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

SEVEN POUNDS - enigmatic, emotional drama


It is testament to Will Smith's brand-name that he can bank a movie that is outside his core competence (drama rather than comedy), with a title and marketing campaign so evasive that the audience has little idea what to expect going into the film. I'm not going to spoil the mystery either: it's absolutely integral to the intellectual and emotional pay-off of the movie.

Suffice to say that SEVEN POUNDS is a daring film - crafting an emotionally uplifting drama out of a rather macabre and implausible premise. Director Gabriele Muccino and DP Philippe le Sourd follow a world-weary, driven Ben Thomas (Will Smith) around the California suburbs as he investigates the lives of seemingly random people. As the movie unfolds, we become as intrigued by Ben's motives as one of the targets of his investigation, a charming woman called Emily (Rosario Dawson). The remainder of the film is concerned with the development of their relationship despite the asymmetry of their knowledge about each other.

The camerawork is patient, slow and intimate and such is the native charm of Smith and Dawson that the movie is mysterious and romantic rather than sinister and saccharine. I love the faded, dusty, world-worn feel that the movie has. The acting is perfect throughout: Smith shows his range; Dawson her charm; and in smaller parts Barry Pepper ad Judyann Elder are memorable. Suffice to say that I think this is a worthwhile movie, and, despite my initial hesitation, I spent the final half hour in tears.

SEVEN POUNDS was released in 2008 in the US and Brazil. It is currently on release in Singapore, Australia, Germany, Peru, Portugal, Iceland, Italy, Mexico, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Russia, Estonia, Spain and the UK. It opens on January 28th in January and on February 6th in Israel, South Korea, Finland, Norway and Sweden. It opens on February 12th in Kazakhstan; February 19th in Croatia; February 21st in Japan; February 26th in Argentina and Greece; March 5th in Slovakia; and on March 12th in the Czech Republic and Poland.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

MILK - beautifully acted political biopic

MILK is a movie about the political career of Harvey Milk, an iconic figure in the American gay rights movement of the 1970s. It is a movie that has been deliberately made to appeal to the widest possible audience and to argue for Milk's place as a political leader in the American pantheon alongside Kennedy and Martin Luther King. To that end, Gus van Sant is less auteur than a conventional, albeit technically accomplished, director. This self-effacement is reflected in the fact that while the lead actors and screen-writer have been nominated for awards, Gus van Sant has been ignored. This is a fair reflection of the relative merits of the movie, but I think it only fair to praise Gus van Sant. In an industry that still does not boast an openly gay leading man, kudos to the openly gay director who willingly dilutes his own experimental, challenging style in the service of his subject matter and his cause.

The movie opens with black and white photographs of gay men in America being rounded up by the filth, quickly establishing how repressive society was. Against this back-drop, an already middle-aged Milk embraces life and love in the relatively gay-friendly district of Castro with his lover Scott Smith. However, even in Castro, gay men have to walk around with whistles, alerting fellow-travelers when they are in physical danger, often from the very policeman that should be protecting them. Instead of just bitching about it, as so many of us would, Milk gets organised. He organises the gays, alligns with the unions, reaches out to other communities and becomes a catalyst for gay rights. Finally, by virtue of hard-slog ground-up campaigning combined with a flair for the theatricality of politics, Milk finally becomes the first openly-gay man to hold high office in America. The film shows Milk bring the fight to the Christian fundamentalists, led by Anita Bryant, and defeat them. He passionately believed that gay men needed to come out, indeed be outed, so as to show the straight majority that homosexuality was not a disease or a perversion or a pseudonym for paedophilia, but simply an unthreatening statement of sexual orientation. To the extent that these issues are, shockingly, still current, the rehearsal of these arguments is still relevant and indeed urgent.

All of this would make for an important historical movie. What makes it engaging and affecting are the personal relationships. Sean Penn and James Franco are incredibly effective in showing us the instant attraction between Harvey and Scott, and their tender, playful relationship in the Castro. It is truly sad to see their relationship become a casualty of Harvey's increasing commitment to politics. I also love that we see both the sweet paternalistic relationship that Harvey had with the young activists in his circle as well as the absurdity of his relationship with the narcissistic, flighty Jack Lira. In other words, writer Dustin Lance Black doesn't give us a paragon.

Which brings us to arguably the most important relationship in the film - that between Harvey and his fellow City Supervisor, Dan White. If Sean Penn's Harvey is charming, effervescent, enjoying his new-found purpose and power, Josh Brolin's Dan White is his opposite: insecure, earnest but unsuccessful. Where Milk takes a dark situation and gets active and takes a stand, White takes a dark situation, broods on it, and finally murders Milk and Mayor George Moscone.

I love what the writer has done here in making Dan White's motives ambiguous rather than straightforwardly homophobic. I also love Josh Brolin's performance. He essays White's descent from naive co-operation to cynicism to murderousness with a subtlety and emotional impact that belies the amount of screen-time he getsIt's also often in the scenes with Brolin that van Sant and DP Harris Savides' directorial flourishes are seen. For instance, I loved a scene where White is watching a successful Milk on screen and sees his own reflection - family man with a baby on his knee - reflected back to him.

Ultimately, this remains Harvey Milk's movie. Dustin Lance Black is less interested in showing us the consequences of the murder, for which see the Oscar winning documentary THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK. Rather, this movie begins and ends with Milk, quite literally reading us his political will, ever-conscious of the high probability he'd be murdered but ever hopeful that even his assassination would be a political victory.

As to my personal reaction to the film, I was disappointed that MILK is more Dustin Lance Black's vision than Gus Van Sant's but I can see why a more conventional approach might have been the best way to sell the message. I was impressed with Penn, of course, and Franco's quiet performance, but more so with Josh Brolin. I thought Harris Savides photography was superlative, and the art director perfectly recreated 1970s Castro. I spent much of the movie in shock at the blatant homophobia and ludicrous logic of Bryant et al. Swedish Lis and I kept turning to each other in disbelief at the bigotry on screen. Perhaps the movie is worth watching if only to shock us out of our post-political-correctness complacency, if Prop 8 hadn't already done so.

MILK was released in the US and Israel in 2008. It is currently n release in Singapore, Spain and Russia. It opens on January 22nd in the Netherlands, Ukraine, Poland and the UK. It opens on January 29th in Portugal and Romania and plays Berlin 2009. It opens on February 6th in Brazil, Finland, Iceland and on February 12th in the Czech Republic and Argentina. It opens on February 19th in Germany, Hungary and Norway. It opens on March 4th in Belgium and France.

Friday, January 16, 2009

BOLT 3D - old school

BOLT is a 3D CGI animated adventure for kids, produced by the Disney Animation Studio newly under the direction of John Lasseter of Pixar fame. Lasseter is the director behind TOY STORY and CARS and he's clearly the big brand name in the marketing of this film, rather than debutant directors Byron Howard and Chris Williams.

The first thing to say is that while Disney has bought Pixar, the animation departments are separate. And while Lasseter claims to have fired the execs and put the control back in the hands of the creative guys, BOLT feels like a conservative and conventional Disney movie compared to Pixar classics like WALL-E and RATATOUILLE. Yes, BOLT follows the Lasseter code in having comedy driven by character and situation rather than pop-cultural references, Dreamworks style. But for all that, it seems a rather mediocre, though still enjoyable, effort. As for the 3D, Lasseter is not one of those guys who designs a film specifically to give opportunities for stuff to fly out of the screen at the audience, as in JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH or MONSTER HOUSE. Rather, he thinks the point of 3D is to immerse the audience in the experience. Maybe, Lasseter's right - maybe that's how 3D should best be used. But for all that, I couldn't help but be disappointed at how unshowy the use of 3D was in BOLT.

Anyways, as I said, BOLT is harmless if unmemorable fun. John Travolta voices a cute dog called Bolt who stars in a prime time TV show that's a little like Inspector Gadget. Every week he saves the life of his friend Penny (Miley Cyrus) and defeats the evil Dr Calico (Malcolm McDowell). Bolt really thinks he has superpowers because the TV producers keep him in isolation between shows to get "real" performances, TRUMAN stylee. But when Bolt thinks Penny's been kidnapped and escapes to find her, he realises that in the real world he's just another dog. It's up to his new found friends Mittens (Susie Essman) and Rhino (Mark Walton), to show him that he can be a hero regardless.

Earnest moralising aside, BOLT is a good laugh. Mark Walton steals the show as the TV obsessed hamster Rhino, but I also loved James Lipton's cameo as The Director. The downside is that the movie has been hijacked as a vehicle for Miley Cyrus. Moreover, it doesn't have the audacity of WALL-E or the visual richness of RATATOUILLE. To that extent, it's a bit of a disappointment.

BOLT 3D was released in 2008 in the US, Canada, the Philippines, Russia, Italy, Poland, Indonesia, Singapore, Israel, Spain, Venezuela, Portugal, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Mexico, Taiwan, Chile, Peru, Iceland, Turkey, China and South Korea. It is currently on release in Australia, Brazil, Egypt and Croatia. It opens on January 22nd in Argentina, Germany and Hong Kong. It opens on January 29th in Hungary and Estonia and on February 6th in France, Greece, Sweden and the UK. It opens on February 12th in Belgium, the Netherlands and Finland. It opens on February 19th in the Czech Republic and Slovakia and in Japan on August 1st.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Random DVD Round-Up 3 - THE DEATH OF MR LAZARESCU

As powerful as the concept is simple, THE DEATH OF MR LAZARESCU is a tragicomic depiction of an old Romanian hyochondriac being driven from pillar to post in an ambulance. No one cares - not his family, not the medical profession. Welcome to modern death, attenuated by unfeeling, illogical, Kafkaesque bureaucracy. Technically, the movie is a paragon of what you can achieve with firm purpose, a good hand-held cameraman and small budget. One of the most original and brilliant films of 2005, this is definitely one to watch on DVD if you didn't catch it in its limited theatrical release.

THE DEATH OF MR LAZARESCU won the Un Certain Regard Prize at Cannes 2005. It also played Toronto 2005 and was released that year. It is available on DVD.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Random DVD Round-Up 2 - NO RESERVATIONS - formulaic rom-com bilge

NO RESERVATIONS is a deeply unexciting romantic comedy based on the much more nuanced German film MOSTLY MARTHA. Catherine Zeta Jones plays the highly-strung ambitious chef landed with her niece (the ubiquitous Abigail Breslin) after a family tragedy. Calculating boss Patricia Clarkson decides that CZJ can't cope with work and family and brings in boho chef Aaron Eckhart to take over. CZJ hates him. Then she loves him. And it all end schmaltzily ever after. A thousand feminists die. Philip Glass composes a typically over-bearing score.

NO RESERVATIONS squelched into theatres in summer 2007 and is available on DVD.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Random DVD Round-Up 1 - HALLA BOL / RAISE YOUR VOICE - Paisa Equals Power

HALLA BOL is an Indian drama that asks whether justice can prevail in an unequal society where the rich dominate power structures, and demands that typically self-interested people put their safety and reputations on the line to ensure that it does. The movie features a strong performance from Ajay Devgan as a callow film star struggling with his conscience to stand as witness to a murder loosely based on the infamous Jessica Lal case. For a Rajkumar Santoshi film I found the direction uneven; the moral message a little naive; the dialogue stilted; some of the action just ludicrous; and the first half slow. Indeed, this three hour movie should have been a much tighter one hour fifty. This is not a movie that lives up to the high standard of similarly-themed films like DAMINI. On the plus side, the second half is genuinely gripping and I loved the score from Sukhwinder Singh - who is no longer a particular type of voice but a good Music Director in his own right. But perhaps the best reason to watch this is to see the strong performance from Pankaj Kapoor as Siddhu - the moral heart of the film.

HALLA BOL was released in summer 2007 and is available on DVD.

Monday, January 12, 2009

SEX DRIVE - piss-poor alleged comedy aimed firmly at the horny teen demographic.

SEX DRIVE is the kind of film that makes me grateful that I grew up laughing cheekily at flicks like FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH and WEIRD SCIENCE - teen comedies that actually bothered to develop characters and crack jokes rather than just string together a bunch of boob shots, jizz jokes and gay taunts. Seriously, debut writer-director Sean Anders should be ashamed of having put together such a lazy, derivative movie. There are no laugh-out-loud moments. No deep and abiding truths. No flashes of sentimentality underneath all the crass vulgarity.

The plot, for what it's worth, sees a geeky, horny teen called Ian (Josh Zuckerman) steal a sweet car from his elder brother (James Marsden) and drive cross country to bang a chick he met on line. He takes along his highly sexed best friend Lance (Clark Duke) and best friend Felicia (Amanda Crew). On route, they encounter the regulation slack-jawed yokels and, why not?!, horny Amish people. The only truly comedic performance is from Seth Green.

SEX DRIVE was released in 2008 in the Netherlands, Iceland, the US, Belgium, Greece, Australia, the Philippines, Thailand, Sweden, Singapore, Finland, Turkey and Estonia. It is currently on release in Croatia, Argentina and the UK. It goes on release in Brazil on January 16th; in New Zealand on February 5th; in the Czech Republic on March 12th; in Slovakia on March 19th; and in Germany on March 26th.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

DEFIANCE - important and entertaining

Edward Zwick (BLOOD DIAMOND, THE LAST SAMURAI) is back with another professionally put together but visually uninspiring thriller that seeks to educate as it entertains. In the case of DEFIANCE, Zwick teaches us the true story of the three Bielski brothers, smugglers whose shady smarts proved invaluable in forming a resistance group against the Nazis and their Belorussian collaborators during the Holocaust. Thanks to these brothers, 1500 Jews survived in the woods of Belarus. Zwick's movie makes a powerful point about modern movie treatment of the Holocaust in which the Jewish characters are often an amorphous mass of passive victims, to be pitied no doubt, but not as individually interesting as the Nazis. By contrast, DEFIANCE is a film that shows us Jews fighting the Nazis and, indeed, surviving.

The movie has been criticised for being somehow too superficial - too fond of battle scenes and too interested in the heroes' love lives - as if an audience can't simultaneously be entertained and educated. Paul Verhoeven has successfully combined both elements in his work, most recently in ZWARTEBOEK, and Zwick pulls off the same trick here, though will less directorial style. So yes, we see Jamie Bell's character, youngest brother Asael, shyly fall in love with pretty young Chaya (Mia Wasikowska). And yes, we see Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber as elder brothers Zus and Tuvia, take lovers after their wives have been killed. But we also see Zus and Tuvia debate the merits of direct action allied with the Communists versus slowing down but giving shelter to the elderly and women. And we see Zus and Tuvia debate the reversal of fortune which sees them - working-class boys, hailed as heroes and respected by the academics and rich.

The result is a thoughtful, well-acted film (Schreiber and Craig excel), that is also fast-paced and compelling. It's not as earnest or ponderous as SCHINDLER'S LIST but it is one of Zwick's better films allied to truly important subject matter.

DEFIANCE is on release in the US. It goes on release in South Korea, Spain and the UK next week and in France and Italy the following week. It opens in Poland on January 23rd; in Croatia on January 29th; in Singapore and Finland on February 6th; in Japan on February 14th; in Iceland on February 20th; in Australia, Brazil and Estonia on February 27th; in Belgium and Germany on March 5th and in the Netherlands on March 19th.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

ROLE MODELS - genuinely, laugh-out-loud funny

ROLE MODELS is funnier than PINEAPPLE EXPRESS (though I laughed my ass off watching that flick). Funnier than TROPIC THUNDER. Way funnier than FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL and KNOCKED UP. It's the kind of movie that has fast-paced verbal wit that is genuinely driven by the situation that the characters are in. It also has beautiful little touches of physical humour. So much so that I can't wait to see it again and catch up on all the little asides that I missed the first time round.

The plot is simple and definitely contrived. Two feckless thirty-somethings screw up at their job (using the guise of anti-drug talks in schools to push energy drinks) and are sentenced to 150 hours community service. They end up mentoring two kids - one a geeky medieval role-playing game fanatic - the other a foul-mouthed kid full of attitude. That's pretty much it! But from this simpled meet-not-so-cute, writers Paul Rudd, David Wain, Ken Marino and Timothy Dowling carve a movie so funny, and in a way, so true-to-life, it's brilliant.

Take Paul Rudd's character Danny. He's painfully recognisable. He's the kind of guy who gets to 35 and realises he has a crap job and no direction and that his being smart hasn't really gotten him anywhere. He acts out by picking people up on things like putting words in quotation marks or using phrases like "asap" or "fyi". But this pernickety superiority merely serves to make him even more angry, and to alienate his long-suffering girlfriend (Elizabeth Banks). I'm guessing that a lot of people are going to relate to his character.

It's Danny who ends up having a mini-breakdown that land him and his friend and co-worker Wheeler (Seann William Scott in the kind of role - cocksure, none too smart side-kick, that he excels at) into community service. Danny and Wheeler - both work the verbal comedy route brilliantly, but they're acted off the screen by Jane Lynch as the creepy ex-crack whore, Gayle, who runs the mentoring programme ("Me and the judge have a special relationship... I don't wanna get too graphic but I sucked his dick for drugs." and Bobb'e J Thompson who plays Wheeler's mentee, Ronnie ("Suck it, "Reindeer Games"!") As the movie progresses, Wheeler and Ronnie form a bond over their common love of boobies.

Danny takes longer to bond with his geeky mentee Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) but in the end the feel-good factor and character development comes from this storyline. Danny learns to actually be positive and try something that seems weird, joining Augie in his medieval role-playing games. Danny defends Augie's weirdness to his truly awful parents, and in the process ires the RPG King Argotron (Ken Jeong) who banishes Augie. (In fact, you could make a case for Ken Jeong as the best actor in the movie with his subtle physical ticks - watch him finger Paul Rudd's face as Danny kisses King Argotron's hand. Pure Comedy Gold!) The final scenes centre heavily on how far Danny and Wheeler come to accept their responsibility as mentors, and how far they'll go to stand by their kids.

What more can I say? ROLE MODELS may sound contrived but it contains grains of human truth. Better still, it contains the funniest lines and delivery since PINEAPPLE EXPRESS. I can't wait to watch it again!

ROLE MODELS is on release in the US, Australia and the UK. It opens on January 1th in Croatia; on January 23rd in Iceland and Norway; in Spain on January 30th; in France on February 4th; in Estonia on February 6th; in Germany on February 26th; in the Netherlands on March 12th; in Finland and Sweden on March 20th; in Brazil on March 27th and in Italy on May 22nd.

Friday, January 09, 2009

BRIDE WARS - not as bad as the reviewers are making out

BRIDE WARS is clearly a rather shamelessly commercial enterprise aiming solidly at the demographic that falls for schmaltzy formulaic rom-coms like MADE OF HONOUR and P.S.I LOVE YOU. The direction is pedestrian, the writing is mediocre, the clothes are lovely and the ending is entirely predictable. Kate Hudson is about the least convincing lawyer I've seen on screen. Anne Hathaway shows none of the nuance that powered her role in RACHEL GETTING MARRIED. Still, given the shit that has been thrown at the movie, I was pleasantly surprised by how watchable it was. I wouldn't want to watch it again, but it was a perfectly pleasant way to pass ninety minutes.

It may have sub-plots that deal with relationships with men, but the movie is really about female friendship. In its defense, the movie is pretty honest about the lamentable amount of pressure some women put on themselves to have a perfect wedding and the competitiveness and neuroses that underlie some friendships. When the two lead characters, Liv and Emma (Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway) attend a third girlfriend's wedding, as happy as they are for her, they can't resist making digs about the floral arrangements. And when Liv and Emma announce that they are getting married, their other girlfriends hit the ice-cream and anti-depressants, worried that they're falling behind the curve. Finally, when a mix-up by the wedding planner (Candice Bergen) means that Liv and Emma have to get married on the same day at same hotel, neither wants to back down. Each firmly believes that she should have her day in the spotlight.

What then unfolds is a rather unedifying series of sabotage plots until everything goes so far that the two girls realise what we knew all along: it simply isn't worth it.But for all that, Kate Hudson is very watchable as high-achieving, competitive Liv, and her character actually develops as the movie unfolds. I actually rather like Kate Hudson as a light comedic actress. Anne Hathaway is a bit more anonymous as passive-aggressive Emma but Kristen Johnston (3rd ROCK FROM THE SUN) provides some genuine laugh-out-loud moments as Emma's egotistical maid of honour.

BRIDE WARS is on release in the UK, US and Turkey. It opens next week in Australia, Spain and Sweden and on January 22nd in Singapore and Estonia. It opens on January 29th in Hungary; on February 5th in Argentina, Croatia, Germany and Brazil; on February 11th in Belgium, France, Portugal and Norway; on February 20th in Finland and Italy; on February 26th in Russia and the Netherlands and on April 2nd in the Czech Republic.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Where to go if THE SPIRIT piqued your interest in the original comics

Typically when I review a movie based on a comic book I take along my friend Berko who spends more time than any thirty year old would care to admit reading comics. Aside from also being another movie buff, Berko fills me in on the original source material and whatnot. After watching THE SPIRIT we both agreed it was a pretty piss-poor movie - too much of a pastiche to be genuinely engaging, and with a visual style that merely replicated SIN CITY. Still, I thought the whole idea of the story and the characters was pretty intriguing and was interested to know how far Will Eisner's original comics differed from this adaptation. Now, in the case of THE SPIRIT Berko's knowledge was pretty sketchy but he did point me in the direction of a really great comic book podcast called AROUND COMICS. What I love about it is that it's a bunch of guys who really know and love comics and obviously have a lot of knowledge BUT are also keen not to intimidate new fans. In fact, they've helpfully set up a forum where newbies like me can ask seemingly obvious questions. In answer to my question of where people whose interest in THE SPIRIT had been piqued by the movie could go, I got the following answer, and I figured other people might be interested too....

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

[REC] - high concept Spanish horror

[REC] is a high concept horror flick by Spanish directors, Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza. A reality TV presenter and her cameraman follow a fire crew to an apartment block late at night. Turns out the inhabitant of the attic is a demoniacally possessed, contagious near-zombie who has infected the building. The police cordon of the building and the inhabitants and camera crew are left to figure out what's going on. The story and action are deftly handled and the movie benefits from being filmed on location. But the concept of live action footage seems a bit old hat in the wake of CLOVERFIELD. Moreover, I think it's a bit weak to introduce such a juicy idea as possession and not follow through.

[REC] played Venice 2007 and was re;eased in Spain in 2007. It was released in Italy, Russia, Portugal, Sweden, the UK, the Netherlands, Finland, France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Japan, Greece, South Korea, Poland, Hong Kong, Mexico, Argentina, Singapore, Brazil and Turkey in 2008. It has been remade into the US film QUARANTINE and is available on DVD. [REC] 2 is due to be released later this year.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

IRINA PALM - weak tragicomedy redeemed by a single scene

Just got round to seeing this odd little drama from German director Sam Garbarski. It stars Marianne Faithful as a frumpy widow called Maggie who reluctantly becomes a sex worker to pay for her grandson's medical treatment. The dialogue and acting are rather clumsy and the production values are poor. I was also unimpressed by the hammy treatment of Maggie's incipient romance with sex-club owner Miki (Miki Manojlović) and Kevin Bishop's unconvincing histrionics when he discovers what his mum does for a living. But, to my great surprise, the movie was redeemed by a brilliant bit of black comedy when Maggie is goaded into telling her bridge four the big secret. The humour is quietly played - devastating - and Faithful really is convincing as a meek woman who has found her strength and self-respect by giving the best hand-jobs in London!

IRINA PALM played Berlin 2007 and opened in 2007 in Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Germany, the Netherlands, Israel, Taiwan, South Korea, Finland, Norway, Poland, Australia, Portugal, Japan, Sweden and Turkey. It opened in 2008 in Romania, Estonia, the US, Denmark, Hungary, Mexico, the UK, Slovenia, Colombia and Argentina. It is available on DVD.

Monday, January 05, 2009

If Bina007 Ruled the Academy....

...then this is how the Oscars would go down. 

BEST FILM: THE WRESTLER; HUNGER; THE FALL; UNRELATED; Guy Maddin, MY WINNIPEG.



BEST ANIMATED FILM: WALL-E; HORTON HEARS A WHO;

BEST DIRECTOR: Darren Aronofsky, THE WRESTLER; Paolo Sorrentino, IL DIVO; Steve McQueen, HUNGER; Tarsem, THE FALL; Celine Sciamma, WATER LILIES.

BEST ACTOR: Mickey Rourke, THE WRESTLER; Michael Fassbender, HUNGER; Sam Neill, DEAN SPANLEY; Ben Kingsley, ELEGY; Toni Servillo, IL DIVO.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Bobb'e J Thompson, ROLE MODELS; Heath Ledger, THE DARK KNIGHT; Josh Brolin, MILK; James Franco, PINEAPPLE EXPRESS; Tom Cruise, TROPIC THUNDER.

BEST ACTRESS: Kathryn Worth, UNRELATED; Tilda Swinton JULIA; Catinca Untaru, THE FALL; Kristin Scott-Thomas, IL Y'A LONGTEMPS QUE JE T'AIME; Penelope Cruz, ELEGY; Meryl Streep, MAMMA MIA!.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Rosemarie deWitt, RACHEL GETTING MARRIED; Lisa Gay Hamilton, HONEYDRIPPER; Penelope Cruz, VICKY, CRISTINA, BARCELONA; Jane Lynch, ROLE MODELS; Ashley Tisdale, HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 3.

BEST SCREENPLAY, ORIGINAL OR OTHERWISE: Paul Rudd, David Wain, Ken Marino and Timothy Dowling, ROLE MODELS; Alex Holdridge, IN SEARCH OF A MIDNIGHT KISS; Mark Herman, THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS; Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, TROPIC THUNDER; Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, PINEAPPLE EXPRESS.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Maryse Alberti, THE WRESTLER; Colin Watkinson, THE FALL; Anthony Dod Mantle, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE; Crystel Fournier, WATER LILIES; Luca Bigazzi, IL DIVO.