Monday, August 30, 2010


CEMETERY JUNCTION is a really lovely heart-warming coming-of-age drama set in 1970s provincial England. It tells the story of three school-friends on the cusp of adulthood, when you're still trying to figure out how to talk to the opposite sex, which sort of a job you want to do, and basically what sort of a life you want to lead. The engine of the plot is that one of the friends, ambitious Freddie (Christian Cooke) gets a white-collar job as an insurance salesman. This sparks off two different problems, reflecting the social upheaval that was going on in the UK at the time. First, by trying to move away from blue collar work, Freddie alienates his father and his friends, who think he is implying that he thinks he's better than them. Second, through his job, Freddie comes across an old flame, Julia, who happens to be the boss' daughter. Julia's life has already been mapped out for her by her dad, Mr Kendrick (Ralph Fiennes). In encouraging her to get engaged to his similarly chauvinistic side-kick, Mike (Matthew Goode), he's condemning her to the same life her mother (Emily Watson) has - invisible mother and helper. Freddie wants Julia to leave Mike not just to because he wants her for himself, but because he wants her to have the life and career that she really wants.

The resulting relationship drama is sensitively handled, often laugh-out-loud funny, but ultimately far more concerned to hit the right emotional notes. I really bought into the idea that Freddie, Bruce and Snook were old friends - the banter and body language was spot on. I also really loved Ralph Fiennes and Matthew Goode as the older and younger versions of the male chauvinism. But the actress who really impressed me was Emily Watson - who is able to make herself appear so small and oppressed despite her star power - and with the slightest change in expression and a relatively small amount of screen-time, communicate so much.

Most of all, it's exciting to see Gervais and Merchant in their first co-directed feature film. CEMETERY JUNCTION has some of the finely judged social comedy of THE OFFICE, but it's a much warmer, gentler and optimistic film that THE OFFICE was ever allowed to be - and certainly less self-consciously clever and grim than THE INVENTION OF LYING. I think it's encouraging that two people who have become famous for a very particular brand of observational humour feel able to tackle something quite different. That they are able to bring it off is highly impressive.

Additional tags: Stephen Merchant, Tom Hughes, Christian Cooke, Jack Doolan, Julia Davis, Tim Atack, Valerio Bonelli

CEMETARY JUNCTION was released in the UK in April 2010 and was released on DVD and Blu-Ray today.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES - Ampas is vindicated

When THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES beat DAS WEISSE BAND and UN PROPHET for Best Foreign Language Oscar I thought, given the Academy's woeful form, that this was just another miscarriage of cine-justice. Well, UN PROPHET remains one of the best films I've seen this year, but THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES is equally good. In fact, in some ways, in its technical accomplishment and the delicate balancing act it pulls off juggling genres, it's even better. All I can say is that it has been a long time since I've seen a movie that made me laugh out loud and moved me to tears - that made me feel like I wanted to spend more time with the characters than I'd been given; but also utterly satisfied at the end. This is a truly tremendous movie - evocative, profound, sentimental, sometimes hokey - but always fascinating.

The heart of the movie is a retired law clerk called Benjamin Esposito. In contemporary Buenos Aires he tries to make sense of his life by writing about the sensational Morales case of 1974. In flashbacks, we see the beautiful Liliana raped and murdered, and her modest husband Ricardo Morales devastated by her death. We see Benjamin and his side-kick, drunken wise-man Sandoval, refuse to let the case drop. And we see Benjamin's glamorous senior litigator, Irene, join him in a witness interrogation that results in a conviction. But we also see the consequences of this prosecution. How the corruption in the Argentinian political and judicial system conspires against the earnest young lawyers, and the grieving bank clerk - how it corrupts and obstructs love itself.

The events of 1974 are inter-cut with Benjamin as an old man, rehearsing these events with Irene. We see them step gently through their shared past, through documents, photographs, in offices heaped with papers bound with string. The irony is that they have lived their lives surrounded by documents and words, and yet they are still struggling to agree on a shared memory and interpretation of events - literally, they cannot find the words. In one of the most elegant motifs of the film, we see a cranky typewriter passed around the major characters - the letter "A" doesn't work - until the final scene, when it all makes sense. The theme is further explored in Benjamin's relationship with Ricardo Morales. We see what it is to be trapped in the past and to be in a prisoner of memory. In one of the most telling lines in the film, a character begs for conversation - again, reiterating the idea that to be denied words is the cruellest of punishments.

THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES explores ideas of memory, loss, love, meaning, but it is never pretentious or ponderous. In fact, the film contains some of the best cine-swearing I have seen since IN THE LOOP, and in the relationship between Esposito and Sandoval we have a touching, hilarious double-act. It's also lovely to see a love story between two middle-aged people who don't look Hollywood-beautiful but real and attractive. Finally, for those of a technical bent, writer-director Juan José Campanella has created a seminal helicopter-CGI tracking shot that takes us from above a football stadium and into the crowd - you can see how it was done here.

THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES won the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2010, beating UN PROPHET and DAS WEISSE BAND. It is Juan Jose Campanella's second movie to receive an Oscar nonination and is Argentina's first movie to feature in the IMDB Top 250.

THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES played Toronto 2009. It was released in Argentina, Spain, Uruguay and Paraguay last year. It was released earlier this year in Chile, Ecuador, Israel, Brazil, Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, Norway, Sweden, the USA, Canada, Finland, Turkey, Denmark, France, New Zealand, Portugal, Australia, Mexico, Italy and Greece. It is currently on release in the UK and Japan and opens next week in the Netherlands. It opens on October 28th in Germany.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

RAPT - This is not my beautiful house

Stanislas Graff is the President of a French industrial conglomerate. He has a beautiful wife, a beautiful house and a beautiful car. He hunts with the cream of French society and is invited on trade missions with the President of the Republic. And then, one day, Stanislas Graff is kidnapped, and the facade cracks when his family tries to raise the €50m ransom. They discover the apartment he has kept for fifteen years, the string of affairs, and - most damning - the heavy gambling debts. The company, once keen to stake their man, now backs away. In the midst of a global recession, where the unions chafe at the bosses' bonuses, they cannot be seen to bail out at playboy President whose gambling debts have presumably resulted in the kidnapping.

Now, you can see what's wrong with RAPT. It's a thriller, and yet in describing the main outline of the plot I haven't given away anything that the movie itself doesn't give away inside the first fifteen minutes of its two hour run-time. There is, simply put, no dramatic tension in the movie. Even a scene in which Stanislas has his finger cut off isn't as gruesome or shocking as it should be. I found my attention wandering. Admiring Mrs Graff's elegant clothes, and the beautiful lampshades in the apartment, and the modernist kettle in the mistress' apartment. That can't be good - can it? I mean, not when our protagonist is being kept, blind-folded and manacled in a grotto, with his finger cut off. On two occasions, I thought I could scent a plot twist - or at least a change of direction into something that could've been more interesting. Maybe the protagonist had been stitched up? Maybe dark forces were painting him to be a playboy gambler in order to seal his fate? Or maybe he was paying off the kidnappers himself to pay off the gambling debts?

Maybe not.

I'm not sure why this film has garnered so much critical acclaim. To be sure, it is beautifully produced and photographed. I certainly fell in love with the apartment. And the acting is, given the constraints of the script, very good. Yvan Attal (THE SNAKE, LEAVING) plays Stanislas Graff with a cold intensity; Anne Consigny (THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY) is noble and fragile as his wife; and Andre Marcon (THE FATHER OF MY CHILDREN) is particularly authentic as the ruthlessly efficient COO.

But, ultimately, one has to ask, what is this film for? Does it work as a thriller? No. But, I am told, it's not a thriller. It's merely using the structure of a thriller to explore the power structures in French society and to show psychologically what happens to a man in this situation. But if that's the case why don't they spend more time exploring the relationship between Stanislas and his Board? And why don't we get more of Stanislas' reactions through the kidnapping? Most puzzling of all, and here I will try to be oblique, is the final scene. The scene isn't actually puzzling. In fact, I'd seen it coming since it was obviously set up half an hour before hand. And I was pissed off it was left to the end when the script couldn't deal with it. But you have a film reviewer I really respect - Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian - calling it a master-stroke. Strange.

RAPT was released in France and Belgium last winter and is currently on release in the UK. It was nominated for four Cesar Awards (the French Oscars) but was beaten by UN PROPHET in each category.

Additional tags: Lucas Belvaux, Andre Marcon, Francoise Fabian, Alex Descas, Maxime Lefrancois, Pierre Millon, Danielle Anezin, Frederique Belvaux

Friday, August 13, 2010


I would imagine that you have to try pretty hard to take material that is literally mythic, and a stellar cast, and produce a movie as plodding, hokey and unconvincing as CLASH OF THE TITANS. Director Louis Leterrier (THE INCREDIBLE HULK, THE TRANSPORTER) delivers a flick in which the CGI looks shittier than Harryhausen stop-motion and every single actor looks as automated as the Kraken. Leterrier has supermodels cast as Greek godesses and the not unattractive Mads Mikkelsen swinging a sword. He has Liam Neeson cast as Zeus; Ralph Fiennes cast as Hades and throws bit parts away on actors with the heft of Pete Postlethwaite. Most of all, he has a story filled with characters that have captivated audiences since thousands of years before Christ was born. And with all this, he creates a quivering mess. Shame, shame, shame.

This is, I suspect, what happens when you have a big budget, big actors and a lot of CGI. There's a sort of spreadsheet calculation that the movie simply can't fail. And yet, and yet, where is the directorial vision to cut through the large cast of characters and shape the underlying story? Where is the unique style of an epic like 300? Where is the producer to pull up the director and tell him that the eighty foot scorpion-Kraken is laughable?

Long story short, this movie sucks. But for the sake of form (and I can't believe I'm doing this because didn't we all learn this in school?) here's the plot summary. Zeus, chief God on Mount Olympus is pissed off because the people of Argos have become so arrogant that they refuse to worship him. In a fit of pique he allows his brother Hades to terrify the Argosians by unleashing a big beastie called the Krakan. Hades tells Zeus that this will cause the men to love him again and beg for his help; really Hades just wants to cause panic and seize power himself. So, back in Argos, the King's daughter Andromeda is to be sacrificed to the Kraken unless the demi-god Perseus (Sam Worthington - Aussie accent comical) can kill the Kraken first. He does this by cutting off the snake-addled head of Medusa (Natalia Vodianova) and using it is as a weapon. All this while Perseus has to come to terms with the fact that daddy was a god who forced himself upon mummy and then had his family killed. Perseus defeats the Kraken with the help of some buff Argossians (Mads Mikkelsen) and a hot chick who doesn't age (Gemma Arterton). And in an ending that defies legend with typical Hollywood producer arrogance, Perseus and Io have a nice romantic ending despite the fact she is pace legend basically his great grand-mother to the power of n.

Additional tags: Alexa Davalos, Elizabeth McGovern, Luke Treadaway, Travis Beacham, Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi, Beverley Cross, Agyness Deyn, Natalia Vodianova, Ramin Djawadi, Peter Mezies Jr

CLASH OF THE TITANS was released in April 2010 and is available on DVD and on iTunes.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


To my mind, the greatest tragedy of the Bush presidency was that the image America projected of itself was a crude caricature of all that was great in the idea of America. A country founded on lofty principles had descended into populist, xenophobic, knee-jerk foreign policy, and with figures like Sarah Palin and media outlets such as Fox News, was portraying itself as a country that gloried in its own ignorance - where a stubborn refusal to see the complexity of an issue was lauded as homespun wisdom.

The problem with playing with such caricatures (as I am sure many of the more savvy in Washington were consciously doing) is that others may take you at face value. And for every American who thinks of the French as cheese-eating surrender monkeys, and the average Pakistani as a terrorist-harbouring rag-head, there's a Frenchman and a Pakistani who believes that Americans are basically coming straight out of TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE with a cultural chauvinism and gun-totin' agenda that is as abhorrent as it is (I hope) mistaken.

If cinema reflects the times in which we live, FROM PARIS WITH LOVE is, then, a fascinating cultural artefact. A movie financed by a US studio, starring a major US movie star, in which a US secret agent comes to Paris to chase down a Pakistani terrorist cell that is pushing coke to launder money. (Presumably they have never heard of Liechtenstein). The French are impotent, bereaucratic fools; the Chinese are drug-dealers; the Pakistanis are terrorists; and the brave heroic Yanks are there to save the day, with their Jack-Bauer-inspired brand of summary justice. In a scene that could come from a Glenn Beck wet-dream, at the end of the film, the Ivy-League-educated protagonist, James Reece, overcomes his squeamishness about killing people to join up with his buddy Charlie Wax in a campaign of killing "bad guys".

And so, ladies and gentlemen, we have stepped through the looking glass. A Frenchman, Luc Besson, is peddling back to American mainstream cinema a vision of American chauvinism. I can't decide whether this is particularly insidious or just brilliant business.

The basic mechanics of the movie are the same as in most other Luc Besson-penned movies. As in TAKEN, a hard-ass American (John Travolta) comes to Paris to kick some Muslim terrorist ass. As in the TRANSPORTER movies, there will be a lot of driving really really fast through busy streets and some loud explosions. There will also be a lot of swearing and the occasional line that's trying to be as iconic as Arnie in TERMINATOR. (Is there any reason for John Travolta's character to be called Charlie Wax except to allow a lame KARATE KID joke? And for that matter, did they only cast John Travolta so that they could reference a Royale with Cheese?)

Still, for all that, I can't deny that FROM PARIS WITH LOVE zipped along at a pace, and wasn't as painfully shit as Besson's ANGEL-A. The stunts are fine; the car chases through the streets of Paris exhilarating; and John Travolta chews up the scenery. I even liked Jonathan Rhys Meyers as his square side-kick, Reece. In the one scene where Meyers gets to act - when he sees himself in a mirror covered in blood and his to react to his new life - he actually looks pretty convincing. The key point is that this movie is firmly in the B-grade of action flicks. It's treading well-worn ground and dripping in faintly offensive cliché. That they're being peddled by a Frenchman is about the most interesting thing about the whole enterprise.

FROM PARIS WITH LOVE was released in Spring 2010 and is available on DVD and on iTunes.

Additional tags: Frederic Thoraval, David Buckley, Richard Durden, Kasia Smutniak