Thursday, March 25, 2010


A (very true to the) real life story of Steven Russel (Jim Carrey) - a Christian, a family man, and a closet homosexual - who after a devastating car crash decides he's going to ditch the lies and be true to himself. And that means moving to Miami, becoming as queer as a $12 note, and starting a life of crime, deception and fraud to fund his exuberant "out" lifestyle.

When the conman is finally caught - he goes to prison in Texas where he meets and instantly falls in "love" with the effeminate, vulnerable Philip Morris (Ewan McGregor). The rest of the story documents the jail-breaks, cons and increasingly incredible antics that Russel employs to get close and stay close to Morris. The true story (1, 2) is faithfully represented on screen - and is so strange that it warrants the "This really happened... It really did" on-screen message in the titles.

So that's the basic plot - but what is this film really about? I think the whole experience can be summed up in four points:
  1. An unflinching and uncompromising look at gay sex. You expect some boundary-pushing stuff from the directors of BAD SANTA - and I LOVE YOU PHILIP MORRIS doesn't disappoint. If you're uncomfortable with seeing men bone, you've got a real problem here. Whole sequences revolve around homosexual fellatio. Russel's sexuality is revealed by a graphic and unexpected scene of anal intercourse. Ewan McGregor gives more head than a hooker on a Saturday night. The big black guy behind me in the cinema repeatedly told his girlfriend "I'm not comfortable with this" while squirming. The depiction of sex in this film is pretty gritty and down to earth - and very funny - and challenges the Hollywood status quo of not depicting graphic homosexuality. It's an acquired taste - don't take your Granny.
  2. A parody of the "gay" scene, and the prejudice it faces. "Golf? But you're a homosexual!" says Morris to Russel as he tries to fit in in a homophobic Texan workplace. The gay stereotype is exposed as fake - Russel's obsession with being as "gay" as he can be takes him to a caricatured extreme which reflects his real character and feelings but little. Russel's wife and colleagues on the other hand comically reflect southern homophobia (and racism). "So does the gay thing and stealing thing go together?" asks Russel's evangelical Christian wife to his boyfriend. In this way both extremes are held up to ridicule. You could argue that they were easy targets though, and the attacks aren't substantial enough to form a really coherent thread.
  3. A raucous comedy that shows that real life is stranger than fiction. There's no doubting this film is funny. It wasn't made to shock - rather it was made primarily to amuse. Carrey and McGregor carry off the smitten gay couple perfectly - Carrey especially amuses throughout and gives a performance that thankfully relies little on rubber-faced humour, and far more on talent and comic timing. The sheer bare-faced cheek of his antics, and the exuberant gayness of whole flick, makes it utterly entertaining from beginning to end. It's worth seeing just for a laugh.
  4. A dark and tragic portrayal of a broken man. Other reviewers have interpreted I LOVE YOU PHILIP MORRIS as a romance. Don't be fooled, there's nothing romantic about it. Russel suffers acute separation anxiety due to his adoption and later summary rejection by his birth mother. He becomes the ultimate people-pleaser - defining his sense of worth by what others think of him, unable to tell the truth or approach anything resembling intimacy. This vacuum in his sense of identity drives him to attach to models and stereotypes of what he feels he ought to be - the best Christian ever, the best husband and father ever - then the most screaming queer ever, the biggest liar ever. Progressively deadened spiritually and emotionally, he seeks some sort of connection with life and feelings through compulsive thrill seeking - addictive spending, compulsive lying. Finally, he defines himself through a love-addicted and completely dishonest attachment to Philip Morris. Morris is complicit as the co-dependent in this - flattered by Russel's attentions and turning a blind eye to his obvious dysfunctions. Ultimately, Russel becomes nothing more than his pathology - a borderline personality in the truest sense - his sense of self completely eroded.
So in summary, this is a very black comic tragedy, looking the audience straight in the eye and never flinching from giving us reality, however ugly, sweaty or gay. The real tragedy of course is that it's a true story - Russel is a genuine product of a abandonment, dysfunctional family life, prejudice and stereotype.

His various addictions and compulsions are funny, but only in the sense that a visit to the asylum is funny. He represents the spiritual corruption and emptiness of man. His wife, through her prejudice, unwittingly stumbles on a truth - asking whether the gay thing and stealing thing go together. In Russel, we cannot be sure whether any part of his personality is genuine - or whether it is merely another attempt to self-define or self-affirm through some outside object or activity.

Russel is a pathetic character in the truest sense - his tragic end the inevitable conclusion of his many character flaws.

So, overall expect a shock, expect a challenge, expect a laugh - but don't expect to walk away happy.

This is a really solid film - the acting is consistently excellent, the way the story is told is clever, and it covers some very challenging subject matter. But it's not a romance, it's not DUMB AND DUMBER, and it's not for the fainthearted. With that caveat, it comes highly recommended.

I LOVE YOU PHILIP MORRIS played Sundance and Cannes 2009 and was released earlier this year in Belgium, France, Russia, Taiwan, Finland, Sweden, Estonia, Italy, Lithuania and Kazakhstan. It is currently on release in Japan, the UK and the Philippines. It opens next month in Iceland, Brazil, the Netherlands and Germany. It opens in the US on May 7th.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

THE BLIND SIDE - insidious, manipulative schmaltz

THE BLIND SIDE is a deeply insidious movie that has been rewarded with Oscar gold, one suspects, as a gesture toward Sandra Bullock's track record in bringing home the cheques with her trademark fluffy romantic-comedies. It is based on the true story of Leigh Anne Tuohy, an All-American soccer mom who gives a home to an enormous black kid from a deprived neighbourhood, seemingly on a whim. Once she has committed to raising him, Leigh Anne does so with ferocious commitment, eventually seeing him into a successful American football career. There is no dramatic tension. Neither is there suspense. It is quite clear that from the polished veneer that we are in the kind of territory where good triumphs over evil and where racial politics are reduced to offensive bland statements. Note how Quinton Aaron, as Michael Oher, is essentially objectified - a passive object with a skill, merely there to respond to Bullock/Touhy's sympathy and actions. I find the Academy lauding this film, and Sandra Bullock's role in particular, rather fascinating. On the one hand, the racial politics of this film affirm the Liberal credentials of the Academy, and you can see them just desperate to acknowledge this film in the same way that they acknowledged CRASH. On the other hand, Leigh Anne Touhy is a character straight out of a liberal humanist's worst nightmares. And I quote, "If you so much as set foot downtown you will be sorry. I'm in a prayer group with the D.A., I'm a member of the NRA and I'm always packing." And so, ladies and gentlemen, we have the current aspirations of both left and right wing America wrapped in a one lady - racially aware but also gun-totin' and bible-quotin'. It does rather feel like Hollywood is trying to have its cake and eat it.

THE BLIND SIDE was released last year in the US and Canada. It was released earlier this year in Singapore, the Philippines, Australia, Hong Kong, Japan and Uruguay. It is currently on release in Argentina, Kuwait, Brazil and Mexico. It opens this weekend in Germany, Portugal, Austria and the UK. It opens on April 19th in Finland and on May 6th in Denmark. It is released on Region 1 DVD today.

Additional tags: Tim McGraw, Quinton Aaron, Jae Head, Lily Collines, Ray McKinnon, Kim Dickens, Alar Kivilo

Monday, March 22, 2010

GREEN ZONE - too simplistic, too late

GREEN ZONE is Matt Damon and Peter Greengrass' risible attempt to sucker the fanbase of the BOURNE films into watching a movie with a more avowedly political subject matter. Which just goes to show that the mainstream audience isn't that dumb. Just because it's got shaky handheld camera work and Matt Damon running around looking earnest and puzzled, doesn't mean that a movie is suspenseful or fundamentally politically interesting. I think the basic problem with GREEN ZONE, other than that it's not BOURNE 4, is that it's trying to make something we now taken as read look interesting. Yes, yes, it's a crying shame that we were taken into war in Iraq on the false premise that the Iraqis had weapons of mass destruction. But, seven years later, I think the public is too jaded to really care. We were lied to - we're in a mess - now what? Kathryn Bigelow broke through the apathy with her micro-psycho take on the archetypal figure in a street-fighting war - the bomb disposal expert. Her film, THE HURT LOCKER, was tense, but also took us into a side of the war that we genuinely might not have know about before. But GREEN ZONE, for all its earnest good intentions, tells us nothing new, and shows us nothing new. Roger Ebert says that GREEN ZONE looks at war in a way no other war film has, insofar as the US is the dupe not the hero. I beg to differ. Hollywood has been making great films about the vicious lie at the heart of most wars for decades, not least about Vietnam and more recently with THREE KINGS. Ebert also damns with praise here: "By limiting the characters and using typecasting, he [Brian Helgeland] makes the deceit easy to understand". Respect to Ebert, but no. If you have to debase yourself with typecasting, then you're just not up to the job. And at any rate, this film really just isn't that complicated. The trick missed is to show the personal human price paid. As THE HURT LOCKER took inside the insane world of the lead character, we should've seen more about how a stand-up guy like Damon's CWO Roy Miller would've reacted psychologically to realising that he'd been duped. What happens when the naive man grows up? That to me is more interesting than how fast and where he runs around.

GREEN ZONE is on release in Australia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Singapore, Canada, Finland, Indonesia, Norway, the Philippines, Spain, Sweden, the UK, the USA, Egypt, Germany, Kuwait, Switzerland, and Austria. It opens this weekend in Denmark, South Korea and Estonia. It opens on April 14th in Belgium, France, Argentina, the Netherlands and Brazil. It opens in Italy on April 23rd, in Turkey on April 30th, in Japan on May 14th, in Hungary on June 3rd and in Poland on June 4th.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

THE GHOST WRITER - the joy of skewering Bliar

I eagerly anticipated the release of Roman Polanski's latest film, THE GHOST WRITER. Partly because I think Polanski is a fascinating director, with a technical mastery beyond many of his contemporaries and an obsession with the sinister that is as compelling as it is unwavering. Partly because I have always loved Robert Harris' intelligent, well-researched, political thrillers. And partly because his novel, "The Ghost", is a thinly veiled skewering of a particularly slippery figure - Tony Blair. I was not disappointed. THE GHOST WRITER reminded me a lot of MICHAEL CLAYTON - it's intelligent, suspenseful, provocative and beautifully made. Indeed, quite superbly photographed by DP Pawel Edelman.

The plot centres on an un-named writer (Ewan McGregor) who has been hired to ghost the memoirs of an oleaginous former Prime Minsiter, Adam Lang (a perfectly cast Pierce Brosnan). The plot is driven by his investigation of the accusation that Lang illegally handed war criminals to the CIA. The Ghost doesn't know whether to trust Lang, his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams), his mistress (Kim Cattrall) or his aides. And of course, this being Polanski, there are no idealistic pay-offs for truth-seekers.

When I left the screening I had a wistful feeling. Because as polished and convincing as THE GHOST WRITER is, somehow, because you know it was made by Polanski, and you know what he is capable of achieving, you end up feeling a little short-changed by a "mere" good thriller. I loved the Hitchcock reference, but it wasn't necessary to the plot. And that kind of slight mis-step seemed to me indicative of a true auteur turning in a "place-holder" film.....

THE GHOST WRITER played Berlin 2010 where Roman Polanski won the Silver Bear. It is on release in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Poland, the US, the Philippines, Belgium, France, Canada, Greece, Israel, Estonia and Italy. It opens this weekend in Denmark and Norway. It opens on April 8th in Portugal and on April 16th in Finland, Spain, Sweden and the UK. It opens in May in Thailand, the Netherlands and Romania. It opens in June in Hungary and the Czech Republic, and on August 19th in Argentina and Slovakia.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO - a faithful adaptation of a great thriller

Niels Arden Oplev's screen adaptation of the wildly successful Stieg Larsson thriller, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, is a sure crowd-pleaser. Though still coming in at two and a half hours, it is an admirably condensed and faithful adaptation of a complicated thriller. As fans will be well aware - and I'm assuming most people who see the film will have already read all three books - the movie is about two people who form an unlikely bond in order to investigate an old crime in one of Sweden's most prominent families. Years ago, a young girl disappeared from the wealthy island inhabited largely by her family - the Vangers. In old age, her grand-uncle hires disgraced investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist to re-examine the case and the rogue's gallery of former Nazis and selfish old bastards that make up the Vanger family. Blomkvist is a like-able decent guy - and in his relationship with his long time mistress and best friend Erika, as well as with his new found aide, Lisbeth Salander, he proves that he is a "man who loves women". He enjoys their company, enjoys making love to them, treats them as equals and with respect. But Lisbeth Salander - the true star of the books and this film - is a prickly character - highly intelligent, gifted with computers, a victim of extreme abuse, and as uncomfortable in her skin as Blomkvist is at peace.

I found the direction to be workmanlike in all but the elegant way in which the IT hacking was depicted. What set the movie apart was, source material notwithstanding, the genuine sympathy between, and charisma of, the two lead characters. Michael Nyqvist is superb as the laconic Blomkvist, and Noomi Rapace commits physically and psychologically so fully to being Lisbeth Salander that you can feel the ferocity. And this is important, because inevitably, in order to compress the film, the side relationships - and the smaller characters at Millenium and Milton Security - have been stripped away. As a result, the film lives and dies by whether you are emotionally affected by an abused woman opening a small sliver of her life to Blomkvist. This is much more pivotal than solving the "whodunnit". After all, if there's any real message to Larson's novel, it's that the establishment in its entirety did it.

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO was released in 2009 in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Hungary, Finland, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Canada, Italy, Spain, Iceland, the Netherlands, Portugal, Germany, Greece, Austria, Poland and New Zealand. It opened earlier this year in Japan and Estonia. It is currently on release in the US and UK and opens next weekend in Australia. It opens on April 23rd in Brazil.

Additional tags: Jacob Groth, Jens Fischer, Eric Kress, Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Lena Endre, Peter Haber, Sven-Bertil Taube, Peter Andersson, Ingvar Hirdwall, Marika Lagercrantz, Ewa Froling, Tomas Kohler, Gosta Bredefeldt, Niels Arden Oplev.

Friday, March 19, 2010

CRAZY HEART - sanitised

CRAZY HEART is an earnest and handsomely made film from debutant director Scott Cooper. It's a simple story about an old country singer, reduced to playing small gigs while his mentee plays stadiums. He falls for a well-meaning, likeable young woman, and is finally compelled to seek help for his alcohol addiction when he imperils her son. The movie has an air of intimacy thanks to Scott Cooper's predeliction for warm tones, close-ups and lingering shots. It has an impeccable country score, masterminded by T-Bone Burnett, and played out by Jeff Bridges as the ageing Bad Blake and Colin Farrell as Tommy Sweet. But there is no "wow" factor - nothing that makes you think this is an Oscar-winning movie or an Oscar-winning performance. Sure, Jeff Bridges turns in an affecting performance, but where's the savage psychological daring of THE WRESTLER? Where's the hurt and hopelessness and sheer Sisyphian pain or endurance? Nah. CRAZY HEART is soul-bearing-lite. It's grinds through its gears, and we reach the end, still basking in the honey glow of an all-too-easy conversion to sobriety, as cheerful as the cute little kid. It's too easy. Too sanitised. Too forgettable.

Additional tags: Barry Markowitz, T-Bone Burnett, Stephen Bruton, James Keane, Thomas Cobb, Scott Cooper.

CRAZY HEART was released in 2009 in the USA. It is currently on release in the UK, New Zealand, Mexico, Norway, Belgium, France, the Philippines, Germany, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Brazil, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Malta, Argentina and Turkey.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Normal service will resume shortly....

So, I've had a bunch of emails pitched at varying stages of directness asking where the new reviews are. The intern will have these on line by the middle of next week, apparently, after I detox and write them (it was the variety of wine that did it.) In the meantime, know that I rather liked THE GIRL IN THE PEARL EARRING; was deeply underwhelmed by both THE BLIND SIDE and CRAZY HEART; depressed by OLD DOGS; charmed by I LOVE YOU PHILIP MORRIS; and very sorry that Thomas Turgoose hadn't been given a better script in THE SCOUTING BOOK FOR BOYS.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

ALICE IN WONDERLAND 3D - what is Tim Burton trying to say here?

My response to ALICE IN WONDERLAND 3D was much the same as my response to Tim Burton's Roald Dahl adaptation, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. The production design, costumes, and sheer visual imagery were wondrous to behold. But Tim Burton had made poor choices regarding the narrative structure, tone and very heart of the subject matter.

So let's go back to the beginning. This movie originates in the children's novels Alice's Adventures In Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. The novels were written by Charles Dodgson, an Oxford mathematician, better known as Lewis Carroll. On one level, the novels fall into the category of nonsense literature, in the same vein as Edward Lear. When the little girl Alice chases a small white rabbit, clothed in a waistcoat, down a rabbit hole, she enters a world that is surreal, sometimes sinister and that defies narrative logic. Potions and mushrooms make you larger or smaller. Animals talk, have tea parties and smoke hookah pipes. There are riddles, logic puzzles and chess moves; wonderful explorations of mirror-ing, double-ing and mathematical concepts; satirical sketches of donnish Oxford life; references to the Wars of the Roses - but ultimately, it's all just one giant non sequitor. Anything can happen because anything can follow. For a little child, this is a wonderfully liberating, but also an extraordinarily frightening concept. (The same conflicting reaction is at the heart of the most sinister of all the very sinister late Victorian and early Edwardian childrens' novels - Peter Pan. To this day, I am shocked that this is marketed as a children's novel rather than as horror.)

The genius of the original illustrations by Tenniel was to capture that strangeness - at once captivating and repulsive. Alice with her dark eyes and obnoxious self-confidence - the stern Victorian politicians anthropomorphicised into baffling characters. Wonderland is a world where one can fear drowning in a sea of one's own tears and where power is abused by a series of tyrannical and clearly insane aristos. It's hardly Disney. Unless of course you are watching the bland saccharine Disney version of the film. As adaptations go, it was faithful in the superficial - the characters were all there as were the each of the famous scenes in the right order - but completely failed to capture the sheer oddness of the world. To that end, Jonathan Miller's BBC film is my adaptation of choice - he fully explores the concept that Wonderland is really Oxford and makes the characters there so very close to real people, Wonderland isn't "other" or "under" but sits alongside reality.

Given how dark and surreal the source material is, I would've thought that Tim Burton would've been the perfect director for ALICE IN WONDERLAND 3D. And as the publicity stills were released I got more and more excited. I loved the make-up for Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter - he looked like a psychedelic version of McAdder. Helena Bonham Carter's encephelatic head as what I thought was the Queen of Hearts looked superb. Matt Lucas, who I'll always think of as the baby on Shooting Stars, looked born to play Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee. And when you looked down the cast list you could see lots of high-class British character actors in the voice roles, from Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat to most surprisingly and perfectly Barbara Windsor as the Doormouse. Most wonderfully of all, I was longing to Crispin Glover - a fascinating but little seen actor - as the Knave of Hearts. I suppose my suspicions might have been aroused by the casting of Australian Mia Wasikowska as Alice - not on the grounds that she can't act - she makes a perfectly decent fist of her role - but because she isn't a child. So there was obviously some serious re-writing at hand. And then, with the very appearance of the Tweedles and the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) they were clearly conflating the two novels, most notably in the character that looks like the Queen of Hearts but is called the Red Queen.

The resulting film is a strange beast indeed, but in all the wrong ways. Script-writer Linda Woolverton (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, MULAN, ALLADIN) has made Alice a teenager being pressured into marriage. She runs away from her fate and down the rabbithole, but refuses to believe that she has been there before, as a child, despite being haunted by recurring nightmares of talking caterpillars and smiling cats. When she reaches the Underland, which she had mistakenly called Wonderland, she finds a landscape of scorched earth, stormy skies and familiar characters suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. To echo LA Times reviewer, Kenneth Turan, the Mad Hatter's tea party seems to be set in a sort of ill-conceived Mordor and the Mad Hatter himself has lost his mind in reaction to the Red Queen's hostile take-over of Underland. When events get too much for him he trips into a pitch perfect Scottish accent, but this only serves to make him even more McAdderish! The loose plot sees Alice journey to the Red Queen's palace to capture the Vorpal Sword and free the Hatter. She then visits the White Queen and summons the courage to defeat the Jabberwocky on the frabjous day (calloo callay!) in a finale that would've mean more appropriate to LOTR.

Despite the lovely creations that are the Mad Hatter, the Red Queen and the lovely costumes for Alice, the movie feels rather dismal and flat. I suppose that can't be helped as this is a vanquished world, but somehow, that wasn't a problem for Narnia or Rohan. Alice is supposed to find herself but the transformation isn't particularly convincing. Back in the real world, the idea that she would then become a neo-feminist adventuress is ludicrous. I think the problem is that the movie shifts in tone rather abruptly. In the same scene, you'll have Johnny Depp playing it utterly straight as the traumatised hatter, but Anne Hathaway pastiching the idea of the pure, slightly unpractical, narcissistic White Queen, with her pure white dress but scarily black lips and nails. Both are fine, but do they belong in the same film? And the sheer ill-judgement of the 1980s dancing that the Hatter roles out in the penultimate scene defies description.

Overall, then, while I can see consistency of design, I didn't see a consistency of vision as to what this movie was really about and what it was trying to say. A fatal flaw, no matter how lovely the costumes. Burton refuses to let ALICE be a wonderfully nonsensical nonsequitor. He wants to give characters a back story and feeeeeelings. But at the same time, he doesn't take the time to actually explore them properly. Worst of all, with the exception of the rather lazy introduction of some real-world twins, nowhere do we see Alice's visions as subconscious reworkings of people she has seen in the real world.

Additional tags: Mia Wasikowska, Dariusz Wolski, Christopher Lee, Geraldine James, Tim Piggott-Smith, Frances de la Tour, Marton Csokas, Barbara Windsor, Leo Bill, Linda Woolverton.

ALICE IN WONDERLAND is on global release.

Saturday, March 06, 2010


THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE is a movie that is utterly, wretchedly disappointing. Despite an all-star cast, and handsome production values, the resulting film is uneven in tone, superficial where it wants to be profound, and undeserving of the big emotional punches it tries to pull.

The film was written and directed by Rebecca Miller(THE BALLAD OF JACK AND ROSE), based on her own play. It features the eponymous Pippa Lee (Robin Wright Penn) as a middle-aged woman, questioning her life choices through a series of flashbacks. Despite her picture perfect middle-aged existence, we learn that, as a young girl, Pippa was damaged by her exposure to her mother's addiction to speed and resulting psychological problems. The young Pippa (Blake Lively) thus high-tails it to New York where she almost falls into become a soft-porn model for her aunt's girlfriend (Julianne Moore) out of sheer boredom, develops a drug habit of her own, but then is rescued by an older man (Alan Arkin.) Fast forward to her present day crisis, and Pippa is living with her aged husband in a retirement community. She is insulted by his affair with a damaged even younger woman (Winona Ryder) and so trips into an affair of her own with an equally damaged young man (Keanu Reeves).

As I said, this is a well-cast film, and handsomely photographed. I have no doubt that Miller is trying to earnestly explore middle-aged feminine angst and to say something profound about self-esteem and addiction. The problem is that none of it seems real. It all seems like a very stage-y very contrived set of scenes, clumsily shuffled into a movie. At times it almost seems like a caricature of one of those Woody Allen films, except without the wry humour, where old men seem to be able to attract ever younger more attractive women and everyone spends the whole time discussing their neuroses and committing suicide.

Enough already.

THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE was released last autumn and is available on DVD and on iTunes.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Random DVD Round-Up 3 - SHIFTY

SHIFTY is the impressive debut feature from British writer-director, Eran Creevey. It portrays 24 hours in the life of a second generation Pakistani boy nick-named Shifty (Riz Ahmed, THE ROAD TO GUANTANEMO), who has evolved from being a good schoolkid selling a bit of weed on the side into a hard core crack dealer. Shifty is on the edge of a knife - his elder brother Rez (Nitin Ganatra, EASTENDERS) and his best mate Chris (Daniel Mays, ATONEMENT), recently returned from Manchester, are trying to pull Shifty back from a life of crime. But Shifty is being set-up by his dealer Glen (Jason Flemyng).

The movie was shot for under £100,000 in just 18 days and captures the grim reality of suburban drug use in sludge colours and lower middle-class homes. This isn't London as Compton wannabe KIDULTHOOD style. Rather, you see drug use messing with real families. The movie is emotionally tense and builds suspense toward a dramatic conclusion. It feels authentic and while it makes some perceptive points about the cultural ironies of a being a second-gen Muslim immigrant, it wears its social critique lightly. SHIFTY is just superb guerilla film-making.

SHIFTY played London 2008 and opened in the UK in April 2009. It is available on DVD and on iTunes.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Random DVD Round-Up 2 - CREATION

CREATION is a handsomely made, beautifully acted biopic of Charles Darwin, focussing on the period during which he wrote his seminal work, ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES. Based on the biography by Randal Keynes, the movie stars real-life couple Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly as Charles and Emma Darwin. They are utterly convincing as a deeply loving couple grown distant because of their differing reactions to Darwin's work, more widely, and to familial grief, more closely. Emma looks to the Church for solace, as represented by the orthodox but genuinely concerned Reverend Innes. Charles turns to his science, and experiences a gradual loss of faith. He also, most touchingly, lives in his memories of his relationship with his dead little girl Annie (Martha West). One of the most brutal lines in the film is where Charles asks Emma whether his fancies are an more a prop than her idea of Annie in heaven.

What I love about this film is that, despite the costumes and the lush period settings, which can so often be distancing, there is an immediacy and credibility to the Darwin family. I completely believed in the emotional and intellectual struggle between the two parents, and I was entranced by the relationship between Charles and his daughter Annie. Martha West (daughter of the Dominic West) has genuine charisma, and it's delightful to see Charles' delight in telling his children fantastical stories of different tribes he has encountered on his travels.

The movie also cleverly sidesteps the highly politicised debate (in the US at least) between believing in evolutionary theory and in the Old Testament. Rather than reducing the movie to a bald and crude debate between the two sides, CREATION makes the struggles personal and nuanced. Reverend Innes is orthodox but no fanatic - he wants to be a genuine friend to Darwin. And Darwin is losing faith, but for a personal reason, and sees in the wondrous variety of nature something to be praised.

Given the lamentful tone of the piece, its considered pacing and focus on internal struggle, I was rather surprised to find that CREATION had been directed by Jon Amiel, the man behind action flicks, THE CORE and ENTRAPMENT. But he has completely succeeded in creating a quiet, delicate film in which deep issues are internalised.

CREATION played Toronto 2009 and was released in 2009 in the UK, Greece and New Zealand. It was released earlier this year in the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, and the US. It goes on release in Brazil next week and in Argentina on April 15th. It is available on DVD and on iTunes.

Additional tags: Jon Amiel, John Collee, Randal Keynes, Jim Carter, Martha West, Christopher Young, Jess Hall.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010


DOGGING: A LOVE STORY is the debut feature from British director Simon Ellis, with a screenplay from Brock Norman Brock - the man who wrote one of the best films of 2009 - BRONSON. Despite the deliberately provocative title, and plenty of night-vision footage of random Geordies having sex in parked cars while voyeurs look on, or are invited in, the movie itself is rather banal. Clueless wannabe journalist Dan (Luke Treadaway - BROTHERS OF THE HEAD) tries to write an expose of this seamy social activity, egged on by his lecherous flat-mate Rob (Richard Riddell). There's a bit of voyeurism and fumbling internet chat before loser Dan finally meets up with the equally dim-witted Laura (Kate Heppell). The film-makers presumably wanted to subvert the prurient subject-matter with a rather naive love story, but neither the top-shelf antics of the doggers nor the drippy nascent romance seem particularly believable or interesting. There's some low level black comedy as voyeurs praise the suspension of a knackered car in which a couple are going gangbusters on the back seat. And a passing attempt at emotional drama in the relationship between Laura and her concerned father. Other than that, I suspect this film will be best remembered for having passed over an audition from Robert Pattinson. Out of the car park and into the celibate teen vampire flick!

DOGGING: A LOVE STORY aka PUBLIC SEX was released in the US in October 2009 and in the UK on December 26th 2009. It is available on DVD and iTunes.

Additional tags: simon ellis, brock norman brock, michael groom, luke treadaway, richard riddell, sammy t dobson, kate heppell, allen mechen, tom bailey, robert hardy,

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Overlooked DVD of the month - THE COVE

Now, I'm no hippie vegetarian peace-nik and in general, I am sceptical about the ability of agit-docs to change the world, given that they largely preach to the choir. On top of that, I am sceptical about how many documentaries make good use of the 35mm format and truly deserve a theatrical release as opposed to TV airtime. THE COVE is an exception. Watching it was as close as I've ever come to caring about animal welfare. And that's because the documentary is well-argued; is argued with passion; makes itself interesting by disguising itself as a special ops mission; and finishes with the kind of visceral footage that you just can't ignore.

The basic premise is this: dolphins are no ordinary mammals - unlike cattle or chickens, they are possessed of keen intelligence and self-awareness - traits that make farming them for their flesh, or to perform inane tricks in dolphinariums, particularly cruel. Of course, everyone loves Flipper, and in most countries eating dolphin is taboo. However, in Japan dolphins are indeed farmed, as they are too small to come under the protection of the International Whaling Commission. Not that the IWC would do much: it's shown to be a toothless body in which Japan pays off small countries to vote in their bloc. What's even worse is that the dolphins are not farmed in anything like a humane manner. Rather, in the notorious and eponymous cove in Taiji, they are basically tortured with the loud noise of patrol boats and herded into a netted bay, whereafter fisherman harpoon them to death. How do we know this? Because the documentarians mount a daring special ops mission involving camouflaged cameras hidden as rocks, thermal imaging, and general derring do.

The resulting movie contains beautiful images of the ocean that fully justify the use of a big screen, but also some really powerful images of a cove red with the blood of dolphins and audio tracks of dolphins in evident distress. We also get some heroes: not just veteran campaigner Richard O'Barry, whose claim that a dolphin can commit suicide might stretch credulity, but the documentarians themselves, who decided to get the footage out.

This film is something that many films are lazily called - a "must-see movie".

THE COVE was released in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, France, Finland, Germany, the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands last year. It opened earlier this year in Estonia and Sweden earlier this year and in Denmark and Portugal last week. THE COVE is also available on DVD.

THE COVE has been nominated for an Academy Award and has already won a DGA, NBR, WGA and Sundance award.

Additional tags: louie psihoyos, mark monroe, j ralph, brook aitken, geoffrey richman

Monday, March 01, 2010


In MESRINE PART 2: PUBLIC ENEMY NUMBER 1 we see Mesrine in frumpy middle-age, already notorious as a bank robber and serial prison escapee, but now trying to fuel his reputation with an ill-judged foray into political terrorism. The second part of this all-star cast biopic of the real French thug is thus a tale of hubris and decline, neatly cancelling the glamour, raciness and sheer absurdity of his daring exploits in the first film. Vincent Cassel puts on weight and a series of fruity wigs to play the older Mesrine and he is convincing as a man out of time. The bank robberies of the 1960s look rather quaint in the 1970s - a world where crime is a political act and the players are the PLO and the Baader-Meinhof gang.

Dramatically, Mesrine is contrasted with his co-conspirator Francois Besse (Mathieu Amalric). Besse just wants to keep his head down and out of prison. He doesn't understand Mesrine's need to fan his notoriety and to make ill-judged political forays. He doesn't understand Mesrine's need to taunt his victims - sitting in front of them in disguise and asking if they have had any trouble with a notorious bank robber. Despite the flashes of dark humour in such exchanges, the overall tone of this second film is one of tragedy. Mesrine is a debased and delusional man, kidding himself that his crimes, and his anger at the French state, has some deeper meaning. Even his relationships are debased. Rather than the more genuine love of the mother of his children, he now ends up with Sylvia (Ludivine Sagnier) - a woman who is attracted to Mesrine the myth rather than Mesrine the man.

As in the first film, the quality of the production in Part Two is top notch. From the costumes, to the architecture of the escape scenes to the acting - everything is impressive. I was particularly impressed that despite an opening shot that shows how Mesrine will be brought down, the film-makers still manage to sustain tension throughout, especially in the final sequences leading up to that event.

MESRINE: PUBLIC ENEMY NO 1 played Tokyo 2008 and was released in Belgium, France and Russia in November 2008. It opened in 2009 in the Czech Republic, Hungary, the Netherlands, Croatia, Israel, Slovakia, Italy, Turkey, Greece, Norway, Germany, Denmark, the UK and Japan. It is available on DVD.

Additional tags: jean-francois richet, abdel raouf dafri, gerard lanvin, olivier gourmet