Friday, February 27, 2009

THE INTERNATIONAL - 'enslaved to debt'; betrayed by modern art

I really enjoyed THE INTERNATIONAL: it's a solid, intelligent thriller that neatly side-steps a few irritating genre conventions but also delivers a very slick, satisfying action set-piece.

The set up is simple. Clive Owen and Naomi Watts play an Interpol officer and a New York DA trying to frame a case against a shady Luxembourg based bank. Based non-too subtly on the infamous BCCI, the bank is using its capital to broker arms deals, selling cheap weapons from China to fund coups in Africa. It uses any means necessary to protect its interests. The movie is essentially a police procedural in which our two investigators track an IBBC assassin. CSI: Eurozone leads them back to New York where a quite magnificent shoot out takes place in the Guggenheim. (I acknowledge that, strictly speaking, there is no reason to have a shoot-out in an architectural marvel, but my word, it's glorious.) Thereafter, it would've been quite easy for director Tom Tykwer to have rolled into a high-octane, pat ending. Rather, he reverts to the discursive, restrained tone of the preceeding scenes. There is no simmering sexual tension between the leads; no dramatic denouement a la MICHAEL CLAYTON. We leave the film as we begin - the world is "enslaved to debt". I find this a fitting, if bleak, film for our times.

THE INTERNATIONAL played Berlin 2009 and is currently on release in Germany, the USA, Egypt, Australia, Sweden, the Philippines, Croatia, Russia, South Korea, Finland, Iceland, Kazakhstan, Norway, the UK, Venezuela, Denmark and Estonia. It opens next week in Belgium and France and on March 19th in Argentina, Greece and Italy. It opens on March 27th in Russia, Poland and Romania. It opens in April in Japan, the Czech Republic, Israel, Singapore and Turkey.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

BEN X - Sigur Ros sound-track good, schmaltzy ending bad

BEN X is the avatar of an autistic Belgian teen called Ben whose only social interaction is with a fellow on-line fantasy game-player. When vicious school bullies make Ben the star of Youtube he considers suicide. Debut feature writer-director Nic Balthazar does a good job in showing how Ben reacts to real-life as a computer game and technically the movie is spot on. What I didn't like was the lazy characterization of fear - rubbing an eyebrow, jittery feet - and the implausible, schmaltzy ending. Still, the movie evidently struck such a chord with audiences that it's being remade in English. One wonders if it will be successful given that the plot twist is so weak and, presumably, by now known.

BEN X played Berlin 2008. It was released in Belgium and the Netherlands in 2007 and in France, Germany, Turkey, Finland, the UK, Sweden, Hungary, Denmark and the US last year. It was released earlier this year in Argentina and goes on release in Spain next week. It is available on DVD.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

CHOP SUEY - Bruce Weber doc for fans only

CHOP SUEY is a fascinating biographical documentary from fashion photographer Bruce Weber. The format inter-cuts a photoshoot with Weber's new obsession - a handsome wrestler and male model called Peter Johnson - with footage of Weber talking Pete through his influences and early subjects - focusing largely on a jazz singer called Frances Faye and Diana Vreeland. The movie is filmed largely in Weber's characteristic black and white, and employs a rather dreamy collage of scenes and stories, coupled with his relaxed, inviting voice-over. I found it mesmerising but I can imagine many viewers finding it confused and elliptical. What fascinates me about Weber is that he often produces overtly homo-erotic images of people that he views almost as mind-less Grecian statues. And yet, these people are typically married with kids, and Weber is himself straight. He never seems to think this is strange - beauty is where it falls. All of which stands in sharp contrast to the stance of Frances Faye, who looms large in this documentary, and who was, rather bravely, very open about her homosexuality in the 1950s. The result is a movie that tells you rather little about Weber but maybe quite a lot. He stands in contrast to photographers like Arbus who are sometimes accused of exploiting their subject matter. In the moment when he shoots them, Weber is clearly in love. He has the best of intentions, even if those intentions are barely articulated.

CHOP SUEY played Berlin and Toronto 2001 and was released in the UK in 2002.

Monday, February 23, 2009

THE AIR I BREATHE - pretentious wank

"I always wondered, when a butterfly leaves the safety of its cocoon, does it realize how beautiful it has become? Or does it still just see itself as a caterpillar?"

Who writes such nonsense? Debut feature director Jieho Lee apparently. The ensuing film, THE AIR I BREATHE, is a deeply unhappy affair.The laborious structure sees four inter-twining stories each focusing on a character whose story, apparently, illustrates an Asian proverb that life is made up of Happiness, Pleasure, Sorrow, and Love. This apparently gives Lee leave to include dialogue as banal as that quoted above. Forest Whitaker plays a naive low-level banker who loses a ton of money in an illicit gambling den and ends up robbing a bank to pay back Andy Garcia's rent-a-mobster. In an inter-related story, the mobster's cocky nephew (Emile Hirsh) is being shepherded through the night by a clairvoyant goon (Brendan Fraser). The goon will end up saving a teen popster (Sarah Michelle Gellar) from the mafiosi, and all the stories are linked when Kevin Bacon's doctor realises the popster has a rare blood type that can save the life of the woman he loves.

The performances fall into two broad camps. Garcia, Whitaker and Hirsch play to type, lazily. Fraser and Gellar are running as fast as they can from their typical screen personae. The script is banal and never matches up to its self-proclaimed profundity. The direction is gimmicky. Need I say more?

THE AIR I BREATHE was released in early 2008 and is available on DVD.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA - killed by conventional direction

This lavish adaptation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez' classic novel is, tragically, a failure. Tragic, because it has a high quality script from Ronald Harwood; a top-class cast including Javier Bardem as Florentino and an impressive Benjamin Bratt as Urbino; and lush location work in Colombia. The production design and costumes drip with authenticity and beauty. The problem is that this movie sticks so closely to the bare bones plot of the book that it looses the magic, the whimsy, the poetry of it. In short, the movie becomes a typically plodding costume drama in which boy meets girl, love strikes, girl marries posh bloke, posh bloke dies decades later, and boy and girl finally consummate their love. Director Mike Newell lacks the daring of, say, a Julian Schnabel, and while he respects the book that isn't enough. With this film he confirms himself as a director for hire rather than an auteur, gliding between genres - (Rom-com: FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL, kids-action: HARRY POTTER...)

LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA was released in 2007 and 2008 and is available on DVD.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

GRAN TORINO - Dirty Harry Meets The Karate Kid

GRAN TORINO is a mediocre flick that has, bizarrely, garnered a lot of praise, not least for Clint Eastwood's performance. Bizarre because Clint Eastwood always seems to play the same character - no nonsense, grizzly Real Men, who know their way around a gun but have conflicted relationships with their families. The only thing that's different in this flick is that Clint chooses to give his character, Walt Kowalski, the same ludicrously gravelly voice as Christian Bale foisted on Batman, complete with an unintentionally comedic penchant for growling like a pissed-off rottweiler whenever someone does something that disappoints him.

This is a common occurrence. Walt Kowalski is a retired auto-worker, traumatised Korean war vet, widower and bigot. The first third of the movie laboriously establishes that he hates his spoiled children. He hates that his neighbourhood has been taken over by Asian immigrants. He hates the local priest. Frankly, you could started the movie twenty minutes in with no loss to your understanding of Walt's character.

The movie is, then, about Walt's transformation from insular bitterness to caring mentor to the bullied kid who lives next door. Walt's still casually racist, but he genuinely cares - building up Thao's confidence with girls, teaching him a trade, getting him a job - even lending him his sweet mint condition 1972 sports car. I swear that the middle section of this movie felt just like THE KARATE KID. It was positively saccharine and fairly hard to watch given the stilted acting of the amateur Hmongs and Christopher Carley as Father Janovich.

The surprisingly light-weight middle section also jars with the sombre tone of the final half hour of the movie. The tragedy and highly emotional ending are undeserved. The result is a well-intentioned, nicely shot, but fundamentally flawed film, skewered by weak performances in the supporting cast, odd choices on the part of Clint Eastwood and a jarringly uneven tone.

GRAN TORINO was released last year in the USA and is currently on release in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, the Philippines and Russia. It opens next week in Belgium, France, Croatia, Greece and Israel. It opens on March 6th in Argentina, Germany, Iceland and Spain and on March 12th in the Netherlands, Italy and Sweden, It opens on March 19th in South Korea, Brazil and Norway and on March 26th in Singapore and Poland. It opens on April 3rd in Estonia and Finland; on April 9th in Slovakia; on April 1th in the Czech Republic and Romania. Finally, it opens on April 2th in Japan.

Friday, February 20, 2009

PUSH - Soporific sci-fi chase flick

PUSH is an incoherent, derivative sci-fi flick from the team behind stylish noir comedy, LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN. SLEVIN was guilty of using its convoluted plot as a mere clothes rail for quirky characters and lavish set pieces. PUSH is guiltier still. Basically it's just a chase movie set in Hong Kong. Chris Evans, Dakota Fanning and Camilla Belle are psychically gifted ex-pats on the lam from the a clandestine government agency that wants to exploit them for military purposes. It plays like a mixture of HEROES and JUMPER, and starts of as a tolerably well-made, if over-familiar, sci-fi flick. About half way through the script breakds down completely, with yawn-inducing results.

PUSH is on release in the US, France, Romania, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Spain and the UK. It opens next week in Greece. It opens in March in Belgium, Singapore, Argentina and Turkey. It opens in April in Estonia, Italy, New Zealand and Poland. It opens on May 1st in Brazil and on August 13th in Germany.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

CONFESSIONS OF A SHOPAHOLIC - superficial, derivative drivel

CONFESSIONS OF A SHOPAHOLIC epitomises everything that is most invidious about the romantic comedies. The plot is derivative and formulaic; the characterisation is two-dimensional; the concept asks us to suspend our disbelief to the point of absurdity. 

Isla Fisher plays Rebecca Bloomwood - a klutzy girl who funds her designer wardrobe with her credit cards and dreams of writing for a Vogue-like magazine. Chased by a debt-collector, she creates a double-life as - oh the delicious irony! - a personal finance columnist. So successful are her jargon-free columns that she lands a TV spot and the love of her charmingly rich, but hard-working boss, played by Hugh Dancy. Of course, there are stumbling blocks to happiness - but how happy the addict whose hoard of illicit goods can fund an easy conversion to the straight life?

The treatment of addiction is insultingly superficial - as is everything else about this tepid film. Worse still, it can't even boast the guilty pleasure of seeing the wardrobes of SEX AND THE CITY or THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA. Rebecca may spend like Anna Wintour but she dresses appallingly. The humour is strained - zero verbal wit offset by the odd pratfall and wilfully embarassing dance scene. Where is the genuine wit and energy of LEGALLY BLONDE or, indeed, director P J Hogan's previous hit, MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING?

CONFESSIONS OF A SHOPAHOLIC is on release in Russia, Thailand, Estonia, Kazakhstan, Mexico, the US, the UAE, Croatia, Turkey and the UK. It opens next week in Hong Kong, Iceland and Italy. It opens on March 6th in Greece and Finland and on March 12th in Argentina, Australia, Germany and the Netherlands. It opens on March 18th in Belgium and Spain and on March 26th in the Czech Republic, Singapore, South Korea and Norway. It opens on April 10th in April, on May 20th in France and on May 20th in Japan.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A COMPLETE HISTORY OF MY SEXUAL FAILURES - self-pitying, over-hyped bilge

Chris Waitts is a scruffy, unemployed, emotionally callow thirty-something who lives in a cesspit of an apartment and has impotence problems. And yet, this self-pitying fool is so flummoxed as to why he doesn't have a girlfriend that he makes a documentary, interviewing his ex'es to find out why. Clearly he's aiming for that love-able idiot persona - look at me! I'm a mess, but boyishly, charmingly so! I'm not buying it. I'm also not buying the movie. The interviews are actually pretty short and feel exploitative. The rest of the time, Waitts explores sexual fetishes/pharma's in order to get over his impotence. It smacks of a desperate attempt to get cheap laughs - notably the scene where he wanders the streets of London asking random chicks to have sex with him after he ODs on Viagra. Why this flick generated such hype is beyond me. It's not raw, honest and funny but semi-staged and embarrassing.

A COMPLETE HISTORY OF MY SEXUAL FAILURES played Sundance 2008 where it was nominated for the Grand Jury prize but lost to TROUBLE THE WATER. It opened in the UK and Finland last year, in Spain earlier this year and opens in France on May 6th.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

NOTORIOUS - what do you want? A cookie?

When I was a kid, rap music spoke about the menace of crime, poverty, drug addiction and institutional racism. If you go back and listen to The Message, Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five talk about people pissing in stairwells and OD'ing. A decade later, and New York dope peddler turned rapper Christopher Wallis aka Biggie Smalls aka Notorious B.I.G. was talking about diamond earrings, champagne and fucking an endless stream of compliant and thankful women. He did this while posing in shiny suits - simultaneously boasting of his high-class style and his gangster credentials. The narcissism was almost as irritating as his producer, Sean "Puffy" Combs, mumbling in the background of his records and dancing like a fool in the videos. (Voletta Wallace: What kind of grown-ass man calls himself "Puffy?")

All that posturing turned nasty in 1994 when West Coast rapper Tupac Shukar accused Biggie and Puffy of setting him up to be robbed and shot. Biggie retaliated by releasing a record called "Who Shot Ya?" - a diss record, conveniently recorded months before the shooting. Then Death Row Records boss Suge Knight, who comes across as perhaps the nastiest person in this whole sordid mess, nevertheless said what everyone was thinking at the 1995 Source Awards: "Any artists out there who wants to be an artist and stay a star, and don’t wanna have to worry about the executive producer trying to be…all in the videos, all on the records, dancing…come to Death Row!” The bullshit escalated. The media loved it. The East Coast West Coast Rivalry sold papers. It also resulted in the death of Tupac in 1996 and the death of Biggie in 1997. Neither murder case has been solved by the police.

There are a number of interesting films that one might make from this story. Nick Broomfield investigated the murders in his insightful, if brash, documentary BIGGIE AND TUPAC. One could imagine a WALKING THE LINE style biopic that put the rappers into context and showed their impact on the music scene and their legacy. Sadly, NOTORIOUS is neither of these things. After all, we're not going to get cast-iron objectivity in a movie produced by the deceased's mother and one of the leading characters, P. Diddy himself.

In other words, NOTORIOUS is hagiography of the laziest, most clumsy sort. Lazy, because it's so enthralled by Biggie that it doesn't even bother to apologize for the fact that he's a callow, narcissistic fool. It just ASSUMES that we love him too. Clumsy because against all evidence to the contrary, it tries to shoe-horn Biggie's life into a conventional biopic and that means Character Development. Biggie's life has to have meaning - purpose - fulfillment. We have to excuse all his questionable actions because, hell, he was just becoming "A Man".

It reminded me of that Chris Rock sketch: "You know the worst thing about niggas? Niggas always want credit for some shit they supposed to do. A nigga will brag about some shit a normal man just does. A nigga will say some shit like, "I take care of my kids." You're supposed to, you dumb motherfucker! What kind of ignorant shit is that? "I ain't never been to jail!" What do you want, a cookie?! You're not supposed to go to jail, you low-expectation-having motherfucker!"

Before this movie I didn't know much about Biggie and what I knew didn't endear me to him. After this movie, I feel I don't know, or want to know, anything more. There's absolutely no attempt to string together a coherent picture of his emotional life. Worse still, there's no attempt to put his music in context and to show us why he was a good rapper. You'll learn more about how to put together a record from HUSTLE AND FLOW.

NOTORIOUS is on release in the US and UK and played Berlin 2008, improbably. It opens in Australia on March 12th, in Germany on March 26th, in the Netherlands on April 16th, in Singapore on April 30th, and in Belgium and France on June 24th.

Monday, February 16, 2009

NEVER APOLOGIZE - Malcolm McDowell's homage to Lindsay Anderson

NEVER APOLOGIZE is a film of Malcolm McDowell's one-man show where he reminisces about his time working with legendary British director Lindsay Anderson. Anecdotes and crazy stories are interspersed with readings from Anderson's diaries - the incidental cast includes many of the greats of British and American screen. For cineastes - especially those who love the British new wave - it's a treat. Others will be left flailing to pick up the references. Essentially, don't watch this until you've watched THIS SPORTING LIFE, IF...., O LUCKY MAN! and BRITANNIA HOSPITAL. And if you haven't seen those four magnificent movies, what are you waiting for?!

NEVER APOLOGIZE was released in autumn 2008 and is available on DVD.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

BROOKLYN RULES - piss-poor coming-of-age mafiosi flick

A movie so risible it went straight to video everywhere but the US, BROOKLYN RULES is a derivative, poorly-written, poorly-acted coming-of-age mafiosi flick that presumably puts the final nail in the feature film careers of Mena Suvari and Freddie Prinze Junior. It's a tale of childhood friends who grow up in Brooklyn (no!). One studies hard and gets a shot at college. Another gets caught up in organised crime (as embodied by Alex Baldwin in a phoned-in performance). Dramatic clashes ensue. Except they're not very dramatic. Michael Corrente's direction is ham-fisted, but the real problem is with Terrence Winter's piss-poor script. What did we expect from the man who penned the offensively poor Fiddy vehicle, GET RICH OR DIE TRYIN?

BROOKLYN RULES was released in 2007 and is available on DVD.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

UNDERDOG - piss-poor live action kids flick

Despite featuring several very good actors (notably Peter Dinklage as the evil villain), Frederik du Chau's (RACING STRIPES) live action kids flick, UNDERDOG is a tedious watch. The concept, nicked from a 1960s network TV showm is that UNDERDOG is a genetically modified Superdog. The execution is lo-fi, lo-imagination, lo-laughs. The biggest problem is that the movie doesn't know whether it wants to be a scabrous spoof or not. Kids deserve better.

UNDERDOG was released in 2007 and 2008 and is available on DVD.

Friday, February 13, 2009

VEXILLE - sci-fi thriller cum political critique

VEXILLE is the follow-up feature length CGI animation from the team behind APPLESEED. As with that flick, the 3D backgrounds are stunningly rendered and knock the socks off anything produced by Western animation artists and the 2-D action is perfectly rendered using motion-capture. Ladies and gents, this is the future of animation.

The movie is essentially a sci-fi thriller on the surface but a political discourse on Japan's inward-looking culture underneath. In 2077, Japan has invented robotics technology of such power that the rest of the world is essentially dependent on its OPEC style monopoly on production. The UN reacts by legislating against it, at which point Japan retreats from all international discourse and returns to its C17 isolationism. The meta-narrative is, then, all about questioning Japanese cultural tropes. On the surface, the movie is an action flick. Vexille is a US agent sent on a secret mission into the heart of Japan to spy on the super-tech. The resulting movie is intelligent, imaginative, fast-paced and visually stunning - and one that repays repeated viewing.

VEXILLE played Toronto and London 2007 and was released in 2007 and 2008. It is available on DVD with a very insightful commentary.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

THREE MONKEYS / UC MAYMUN - brutal, languid, tragic

"Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil".

THREE MONKEYS is set in motion by a hit and run accident on a mountain road. But Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan doesn't make films where you see crucial events presented as beautifully staged set pieces. Rather, his movies focus on the emotional consequences of events - lingering over glances, refusing to pull away from brutal arguments - mining the internal lives of his characters. The protagonists are neither paragons nor villains. They are complex and have shifting loyalties. Take, for instance, the man who causes the accident. He's an oleaginous, cynical politician who bribes his driver to take the rap but later seems almost sympathetic and vulnerable. The driver and his son are at once domineering and listless. Both condemn others but themselves resist guilt - passing it forward, remaining complicit, callow, victimised. Look at the driver's wife: an equally fascinating but shifting character. With small gestures she transforms from a mousy, put-upon house-wife into a woman rediscovering her sexuality.

As with all Ceylan films, the intensity of the emotional journey is matched by evocative cinematography. DP Gokhan Tiryaki manages to shoot a deserted rail track or a decrepit concrete building and make it look as fascinating and evocative as a sweeping panorama of the Bosphorus. All of this adds up to a movie in which every gesture, every glance is meaningful, and where the audience can be oppressed by the tension. This has been taken by some as a fault of the movie. It's true: it's no easy watch. But that is, I think, it's strength.

UC MAYMUN played Cannes 2008 where Nuri Bilge Ceylan won Best Director, beating Clint Eastwood (CHANGELING); Soderbergh (CHE); Ari Folman (WALTZ WITH BASHIR) and the Dardennes Brothers (THE SILENCE OF LORNA). Indeed, the only director in the list that I feel was unfairly overlooked was Paolo Sorrentinto for the outstanding IL DIVO. UC MAYMUN also played Toronto 2008. It opened last year in Taiwan, Turkey, Mexico, Norway, Greece and Portugal. It opened earlier this year in Croatia and France and opens this weekend in the UK. It opens in Germany on March 19th.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

SUPERHERO MOVIE - Not as risible as I've come to expect from this franchise

I'm not usually a big fan of the SCARY MOVIE franchise - indeed, I make a solid attempt not to see these films. I prefer to remember Leslie Nielsen in the Golden Age spoof movies like AIRPLANE!: flicks that threw physical and verbal comedy at you so fast you had to watch the movie a couple of times to get all the jokes. These new MOVIES are much less tightly packed with gags, and often don't actually spoof movies rather than just reference pop-cultural phenomenon. Still, Craig Mazin's SUPERHERO MOVIE wasn't as bad as I expected - lightly lampooning the SPIDERMAN franchise which, let's face it, did loose all credibility in the third installment. Some of the jokes are unbelievably crass and unsuccessful but in general, this isn't a bad watch and there are enough laughs to justify the rental.

SUPERHERO MOVIE went on release in summer 2008 and is available on DVD.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Pantheon movie of the month - A TASTE OF HONEY (1961)

A TASTE OF HONEY is a British new wave movie that has acquired something of a cult status since Morrissey announced it was his favourite film of all time and referenced its lead characters in his lyrics. Adapted for the screen by playwright Shelagh Delaney, who penned it at 18, it perfectly epitomises all those British films that turned away from polished period dramas toward chronicling the real life of the working classes in our Northern industrial towns - the so-called Kitchen Sink dramas.

The movie stars a very young, pre-fame Rita Tushingham as Jo, an earnest young school-girl who has to "manage" her flighty mother Helen (Dora Bryan), fleeing from unpaid bills in cramped rooms in Bed and Breakfast hotels. Her life seems hopeless until she chances to meet a young dock-worker called Geoff (Murray Melvin). She falls in love and falls pregnant - a turn of events more piquant given that this is the early 1960s - that he is black. Forced to leave school, Jo takes up with Jimmy (Paul Danquish), a sweet gay best friend who offers to do the honourable thing.

The story is gripping, well-told and feels all too authentic. Despite the sombre subject matter it never seems heavy or pretentious - indeed, it contains some wickedly funny lines. Rita Tushingham is stunningly good as Jo, but the cast is first class all the way through, with some of the cast reprising their roles from the successful West End run. The black and white photography of Manchester is stunning and serves as an interesting counter-point to Terence Davies' recent black and white homage to Liverpool, OF TIME AND CITY. Tony Richardson's direction is pitch-perfect - and this movie stands up with his perhaps better known films, THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER and LOOK BACK IN ANGER.

A TASTE OF HONEY was released in 1961 and played Cannes and Venice 1962. Rita Tushingham and Murray Melvin won Best Actress and Actor at Cannes.

Monday, February 09, 2009

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON - technically brilliant, emotionally sterile

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is a very, very long, oppressive movie based on a very, very short, funny story about F Scott Fitzgerald. The only commonality is that both book and film are about a man called Benjamin who is born as an old man and ages backwards - through decrepitude, into middle-age, to the sexual immaturity, childhood to infancy and then death. His life experiences come in the right order, but his body rebels. As a newly born old man he has cataracts and arthritis. As a long-lived infant he suffers from dementia. In middle age, he has to grapple with how to live someone who is "going the other way".

The movie is broadly speaking, an elegy. An elegy for the young men who died needlessly in World War One and the old men slaughtered in front of Benjamin's eyes in World War Two. It's an elegy for lost opportunity and failed marriages. It's an elegy for those who we condemn to death before their time, shutting them away in nursing homes, fit only for ceremonial visits once a year. Finally, most clumsily, it's an elegy for the New Orleans that was destroyed in Katrina.

Insofar as the movie works at all, the first ninety minutes pass quickly. The viewer is mesmerized by the fairy-tale feel of the story - enlivened by the fabulist prologue concerning a blind watchmaker and tales of a man struck by lightening seven times. I could have used more of that charming whimsy. The movie simply looks fantastic, and as David Fincher and DP Claudio Miranda take us into steamy brothels, misty tug boats, and shabby Soviet hotels, the senses are overwhelmed. 

Where the movie falls down is when the traveling stops and Benjamin returns home after the war and we focus on his relationship with Daisy. She was fascinated by him as a child, throws herself at him as a twenty-something, rejects him at thirty and finally has a passionate affair with him in her forties. They "meet in the middle", but their tragedy is that they cannot grow old together. I think this part of the movie failed for me because I just didn't buy into why Daisy would find Benjamin so fascinating - a character who has become a passive observer of a world he is separated from by his freakish aging process. I find passive heroes very hard to get a hold of. I also just didn't buy into the motivation that underpins a major decision at the centre of the second half of the film. And if you don't buy into it - if you don't feel you are being swept up in an emotional tragedy - the second half of the movie is a pretty tedious affair.

All of which got me thinking what I really liked about the film. It certainly wasn't the passive performance from Brad Pitt as Benjamin or the rather typically good but not outstanding performance from Cate Blanchett as Daisy. Rather, I responded to the little vignettes, and the colourful characters that filled the margins of the story.  Taraji P Henson, Tilda Swinton and Jared Harris all give strong performances but the latter is particularly charismatic as the drunken Irish sailor who takes a semi-decrepit Benjamin from his "child-hood" home in New Orleans to Communist Russia and thence to World War Two. In addition, there's also something fascinating and funny about "fish out of water" stories. To that end, seeing an old-looking but pre-teen Benjamin visit a brothel or get drunk is wonderfully funny. But let's not get too pretentious. It's the same brand of entertainment as FREAKY FRIDAY.

So, in the final analysis, for me BENJAMIN BUTTON is a game of two halves - a beautifully made, elegaic fable enlivened by the odd flash of raucous humour, somehow hitched to a film that tries to be an epic love story but left me cold. 

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON opened in 2008 in the US and Australia. It opened earlier in 2009 in Turkey, the Philippines, Brazil, Sweden, Egypt, Greece, Portugal, Denmark, Poland, Argentina, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, Switzerland, Austria, Iceland and Venezuela. It opens this weekend in Belgium, France, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia, Singapore, Slovakia, Estonia, Italy, Norway, the UK and Japan. It opens next weekend in South Korea and on February 20th in Finland.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

HOTEL FOR DOGS - (c)harmless kids adventure

HOTEL FOR DOGS is a (c)harmless children's live action adventure movie about a couple of orphans who take care of strays in a condemned hotel. That is, until the mean guys from the dog poundand their selfish foster parents put an end to the fun. I use "fun" in its loosest possible sense. The success of this film relies on two things. First, you have to find dogs performing tricks fun. I don't. You might. Second, you have to buy into the close relationship between the orphaned siblings and feel sorry when you think they are going to be separated. For whatever the reason, I never bought into the relationship between Emma Roberts' Andi and Jake T Austin's Bruce. And that's not to say that they aren't charming young actors - rather that they are upstaged at every turn by the animals and hamstrung by a transparent, predictable plot. Adding in Don Cheadle as a heavyweight actor playing a social worker doesn't remedy the situation. And as for Lisa Kudrow's supposed comic turn as the rock star wannabe foster mother, this is simply under-written. All in all, definitely one for kids only. Adults will be struggling.

HOTEL FOR DOGS is on release in Australia, the USA, Chile, Peru, Mexico, Panama, Denmark, Germany and Iceland. It goes on release this Friday in the UK. It opens later in February in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Argentina, Portugal, Russia, Brazil, Italy, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Hungary, Finland and Romania. It opens in March in Egypt, Croatia, Israel, Singapore, Spain and Turkey. It opens on April 16th in the Czech Republic.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

DOUBT - over-acted, over-written, over-directed

John Patrick Shanley has directed a movie based on his own award-winning play called DOUBT. It's about a Catholic priest in 1960s New York who may or may not have abused a young African American boy attending an overwhelmingly white Catholic school. The priest is chased out of the parish by a nun who is certain of her belief that he is a paedophile despite the lack of actual evidence. Or maybe she just doesn't like him because he is a liberal reformer who stands against her conservative interpretation of Church practice.

Now I like the fact that Shanley doesn't give us a clear-cut answer as to whether Father Flynn is guilty. And I especially like the reaction of the purportedly abused child's mother, Mrs Miller, to Sister Aloysius' suspicions. It's complicated, deftly explained, emotionally brutal. Because in essence, this good woman decides that maybe being abused is a price worth paying for a chance at college. It's a shocking, complicated reaction and Viola Davis totally sells it. She well deserves his Oscar nod.

Everything else, I hate.

I hate the direction. John Patrick Shanley directs like he's shouting. His film is full of pointless off-kilter camera angles and heavy-handed symbolism - lights gong out, winds of change. Most of all I hate the clumsy forced symmetry of the final scene. I hate Roger Deakins' anonymous sub-par cinematography. I hate the fact that the script never does say anything intelligent about the battle between pre and post Vatican II catholicism. And most of all, I hate the performances from Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman acts at the role, and expresses emotions by shouting louder. Streep plays Sister Aloysius like a pantomime villain. She has all the subtlety of the ruler-snapping nuns in THE BLUES BROTHERS. I laughed out loud at several of her line-readings.  She's so self-evidently prejudiced and bigoted I had not one iota of sympathy for her position - and that's fatal in a movie that's supposed to give you a balanced argument. 

I don't understand the hype. I don't get why this is meant to be so intelligent and so well-acted. It seems clumsy, superficial, and hammily acted.

DOUBT played Toronto 2008 and is currently on release in the US, Israel, Argentina, Australia, Norway, Croatia, Greece, Singapore, Bulgaria, Finland, Iceland, Italy, Spain, Germany, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Portugal, Brazil and the UK. It goes on release next week in Belgium, France and South Korea and opens later in February in Poland, Slovakia, Estonia and Turkey. It opens in the Czech Republic on March 5th.

Friday, February 06, 2009

MOUTH TO MOUTH - beware hippies

Writer-director Alison Murray's debut feature is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age film starring Ellen Page as a rebellious yank living in Europe. Her character drops out of school and takes up with a bunch of hippies who naturally travel in camper vans, do drugs, fuck and diss The Man. As in all movies of this ilk, most notably THE BEACH, it turns out that underneath the vegetarian Acapulco shirt of the gang leader (Eric Thal) lies the beating heart of a psychopath complete with emotional manipulation, humiliation and general nastiness. Not least in seducing Page's character's mum when she comes to rescue her.

The movie looks great - all vibrant Super 16 - and the soundtrack is great. Ellen Page gives the kind of charismatic performance that we've seen come to expect. But when the movie turns from psychological drama to soap opera - mother and daughter fighting over the same guy - it loses its path.

MOUTH TO MOUTH played Toronto 2005 and opened in the UK last year on the back of Ellen Page's success in JUNO. It is available on DVD.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

JAKOB THE LIAR - should a Holocaust film really be a feel-good movie?

Jakob Heym: Hitler goes to a fortune-teller and asks, "When will I die?" And the fortune-teller replies, "On a Jewish holiday." Hitler then asks, "How do you know that?" And she replies, "Any day you die will be a Jewish holiday."

JAKOB THE LIAR is a schmaltzy, manipulative but patently earnest film about the Holocaust. Robin Williams is in typically over-the-top as Jakob, shut in the ghetto, who stumbles into telling his fellow sufferers uplifting lies of advancing Allies via his illicit, imaginary, radio. This newfound hope transforms them: Liev Schreiber's loveable Mischa starts courting.

The problem with this film is that it takes a fundamentally grim subject and tries to turn it into a tale about the triumph of the human spirit. It leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. It's the same problem I had with SCHINDLER'S LIST and LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL: both earnest, well-made, and arguably better-written and acted than this film. There is something that strikes me as hokey in anything that dilutes the raw power of documentaries like THE SORROW AND THE PITY or SHOAH.

JAKOB THE LIAR played Toronto 1999. It is available on DVD.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

KISMAT KONNECTION - forgettable Bollywood rom-com

KISMAT KONNECTION (DESTINY CONNECTION) is a rather anonymous Indian rom-com. Shahid Kapoor plays a hard-up architect who thinks Vidya Balan is his good luck charm. Egged on by Juhi Chawla's fortune teller he wheedles his way into Balan's life, despite the fact that he's planning to build a supermarket on the site of her beloved community centre. Comic capers ensue.....or not. Less screwball than formulaic and entirely forgettable.

KISMAT KONNECTION was released in summer 2008 and is available on DVD.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

THE EYE - not scary

High production values don't offset the lack of imagination, visual flair or genuine chills in this piss-poor Hollywood remake of the Pang Brothers 2002 original. Jessica Alba plays a blind concert violinist who undergoes an eye transplant after which she starts seeing dead people. Alessandro Nivola is the psychiatrist who helps her journey to Mexico to discover the original owner of her eyes and the secret behind the spooky visions. It's all very predictable, nicely done, but not scary in the least.

THE EYE was released in early 2008 and is available on DVD.

Monday, February 02, 2009


THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK is Rob Epstein's 1985 Oscar winning documentary about Harvey Milk - the first openly gay man elected to US high office, only to be assassinated by a jealous colleague a year later. It has been re-released to coincide with the success of Gus Van Sant's biopic, MILK.

The story is the same, but Epstein uses a wider time line. Epstein efficiently covers Milk's childhood and early adulthood - a succession of jobs that didn't quite fit. By contrast, Gus van Sant hits the ground running with Milk turning forty, coming out, and moving to the Castro with his lover to start a new life, almost falling into neighbourhood activism by mistake. Both the documentary and the film are very good at showing Milk's natural flair for politics - for cutting deals, for grassroots campaigning, and for the well-crafted photo op. MILK colours in the emotional background - the relationships. The documentary gives us more political intrigue and features some wonderfully candid interviews with people who worked with Harvey. He was fortunate to have such eloquent friends.

In both films, Milk's colleague Dan White is a rather shadowy figure. I think MILK gives us more of an insight into why White might have been at an emotional place where he could kill Harvey. By contrast, the documentary gives us the facts. And whereas MILK ends with Harvey's death, the documentary takes us through White's trial and the mockery of justice that was the Twinkie Defence.

Both film and documentary are moving, but the film is fundamentally uplifting while the documentary is more elegaic, focusing as it does on Milk's death and legacy. Here's interview Sally Gearheart on the candle-lit march that followed Harvey's assassination: "It was one of the most eloquent expressions of a community's response to violence that I've ever seen, and I think that we as Lesbians and Gay men, and all the straight people who where marching with us that night - and there were thousands - I think we said it. I think we sent a message to the nation that night about what our immediate response was - not violence, but a certain respect for Harvey and a deep... a deep... regret and feeling of tragedy about it, because Moscone had been our friend as well."

I suppose my one criticism of both the movie and the documentary is that Milk's opposition, the Christian right, come of as bigoted, unintelligent, inarticulate bogeymen. Not that I have any sympathy with their position, but a lot of people did, and it would have done Milk a better service to make his opponents flesh and blood so as to better understand his victory.

THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK was released in 1984 and played Berlin 1985. It won Best Documentary at the Oscars in 1985. It is currently on re-release at the ICA and will play Berlin 2009.

Sunday, February 01, 2009


This is paint by numbers concert video of the real life teenage pop star Miley Cyrus and her Disney TV alter-ego Hannah Montana, along with some songs from the manufactured boy band THE JONAS BROTHERS. Director Bruce Hendricks doesn't add much with a few bland behind-the-scenes shots and interviews with over-eager fans. The only reason I rented this flick was a prurient desire for back-stage footage of Miley and her father Billy after those rather questionable Vanity Fair shots. There's some justice in the fact that my prurience was soundly beaten by the smooth defenses of the Disney machine.

HANNAH MONTANA/MILEY CYRUS: BEST OF BOTH WORLDS 3D opened in Spring 2008 and is available on DVD.