Sunday, January 31, 2010


BOOGIE WOOGIE is a highly enjoyable, acerbic satire on the contemporary art world, directed by debutant Duncan Ward and based on the novel by Danny Moynihan. Both are art-world insiders and the film has the feel of authentic anecdotes on speed.

The film has a large cast and many sub-plots, but these all coalesce around the gallery of Art Linson - a Jay Jopling like art-dealer who stands at the centre of the London art scene. Art is played in trademark oleaginous, sinister mode by Danny Huston, who needs to seriously worry about typecasting. Three main stories whir around Art. First, his main clients - art collectors Jean and Maclestone (Gillian Anderson and Stellan Skarsgard) are fucking a young artist and a gallery assistant (Amanda Seyfried) respectively, and are engaged in a bitter battle over who gets the art. Second, naive Dewey (Alan Cumming) is trying to promote his best friend, video artist Elaine (Jaime Winston) who ditches him for Art's assistant Beth (Heather Graham). Finally, ageing collector Alfred Rhinegold (Christopher Lee) is being manipulated by his wife (Joanna Lumley) and her butler (the ever brilliant Simon McBurney) to sell a valuable painting, at a price manipulated by art dealer Art Linson.

In short, the majority of characters are self-involved, sexually promiscuous, and care more about jockeying for money and fame than about art itself. Only a few - Alfred Rhinegold and Dewey - have a genuine passion for the work - and they basically get screwed over for their pains. It's not that the art world is indifferent to their pain, but that characters like Beth and Elaine will actually exploit it. After all, in the era of reality TV and constant self-exposure, pain is just another means to create a sensation.

The movie moves quickly; finely balances humour and disgust; assuredly handles its large cast; and is sharply photographed by John Mathieson (HANNIBAL, GLADIATOR). Art aficionados will appreciate the fact that the art was curated by Damien Hurst. I presume that when this finally gets released, it will be very limited. But this flick is definitely worth seeking out.

Additional tags: Joanna Lumley, Christopher Lee, Alan Cumming, Duncan Ward, Danny Moynihan.

BOOGIE WOOGIE played Edinburgh 2009 and will be released in the UK and US in April 2010. It is, rather improbably, currently being shown on British Airways long-haul flights.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

EDGE OF DARKNESS - Curiously flat

EDGE OF DARKNESS is a curiously anemic political thriller starring Mel Gibson as a straightlaced cop whose daughter is assassinated by her employer - a shadowy military defense contractor. While the police are distracted with the idea that the killer was really after the cop, the father begins his own investigation that takes him into the upper reaches of government and business. The marketing campaign for this film led me to believe that the film would be akin to the recent Liam Neeson vehicle TAKEN - in which a vengeful father murdered and tortured his way through Paris. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that EDGE OF DARKNESS is a far quieter, more talkative film. Indeed, barring one or two scenes, it is hardly an action movie at all. Rather, the movie takes the form of a series of conversations. Mel Gibson is actually rather sympathetic and credible as the grieving father and his scenes opposite Ray Winstone, who plays a government fixer, are marvelous to watch. Winstone is more modulated than is typical, and keeps us guessing as to his true motives. But I was rather disappointed to see Danny Huston roll out the same oleaginous sinister performance as the corporate boss. I was also disappointed by the technical quality of the film, despite being shot by the team behind CASINO ROYALE, and by the complete lack of tension. Indeed, the film was so baggy that after an hour I was tempted to leave. The mechanics of the plot - the secret everyone is trying to hide - is very mono-dimensional and obvious. There is no real attempt to work out the ramifications of the secret either politically or in the media. Indeed, despite a rather impressive corporate HQ, the movie has a rather parochial air (all the more because only Gibson attempts a Boston accent.) This extends to one of the most flat and brushed aside endings to a thriller I've seen in a while. So, all in all, despite a rather sympathetic performance from Gibson, this is ultimately a rather frustrating film.

EDGE OF DARKNESS is on release in the UK, the US, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Singapore, Brazil and Canada. It opens next weekend in Australia, Denmark, New Zealand, Finland and Sweden. It opens later in February in Belgium, Slovenia, France, the Czech Republic, Greece, Norway, Romania and South Korea. It opens on March 4th in Argentina and Germany; on March 12th in Taiwan and on April 2nd in Estonia.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A PROPHET/UN PROPHET - Powerful, tense, exhilarating.

French writer-director Jacques Audiard's new film, UN PROPHET, is a devastatingly good film - even more searing than the already impressive 2005 flick THE BEAT THAT MY HEART SKIPPED. It's the kind of film that has you on the edge of your seat, wincing with unease throughout, and yet leaves you exhilarated and re-energised in your belief of what cinema, at its best, can be capable of.

The movie opens with a teenage kid being admitted to prison. Malik El Djebena is a zero. He has no politics, no religion, no friends, no ambition and no clue. Within ten minutes of the two and a half hour run-time his fate is sealed. The Corsican chief Cesar has demanded that Malik kill the Arab chief Ryad, or be killed himself. The means by which the murder has to be committed, and Malik's practising it, is one of the most insanely horrific scenes in recent cinema history. Half an hour into the run-time and Malik has established his modus vivendi, protected by the Corsicans, educating himself, working up his own network. He's still an outsider: too Corsican for the Arabs and too Arab for the Corsicans, but he is on the ascendancy. Once again, while he shows some initiative, this is basically success by default. When Sarkozy's new policy sends Cesar's goons back home, Cesar has no choice but to depend on Malik, and to exploit his day-release passes. During this middle-section, the movie seems to drift a little. There are excursions and petty deal-making - it all seems rather banal. But this is, in fact, the genius of the film's structure. Because it comes almost as a surprise that, inch by inch, Malik is now the man in control - and Cesar just a pathetic, lonely old man.

I shan't say more because I feel that UN PROPHET is a movie that works best when you know as little about it as possible. Suffice to say that I think this is a movie that is a worthy contender for Haneke's DAS WEISSE BAND as the foreign-language film of the year. Moreover, Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestup, as Malik and Cesar respectively, deliver powerful and nuanced performances worthy of praise in their own right.

Not to be missed.

UN PROPHET played Cannes, Telluride and London 2009 and Sundance 2010. It opened last year in Belgium, France, Russia, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Greece and Portugal. It is currently on release in the UK. It opens in February in the Netherlands, the USA, Argenina and Spain. It opens in March in Germany, Israel, Taiwan, and Finland. It won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes.

Monday, January 25, 2010


BY THE PEOPLE: THE ELECTION OF BARACK OBAMA is a rather uninspired HBO-produced documentary following Barack Obama on the campaign trail through the Presidential primaries and the general election to the point of victory. The real coup for the film-makers was to have pitched the doc to the Obama camp and to the financiers as a documentary about a charismatic first-term senator who might have a shot at 2012, but to have found themselves actually on a presidential victory run. The weakness of the film is that, despite the fact that the film-makers – Amy Rice and Alicia Sams – appear to have been “embedded reporters”, there is little in the way of off-the-cuff revelation and insight. And we shouldn’t expect any, because, after all, Obama won partly because he ran such a locked-down tight media operation. So, sure, you get some footage of Obama calling home to his kids that he’ll be late in, and you get some footage of Obama trying to call Hillary on a cellphone and congratulate her on a particular primary win, but typically we are seeing campaign footage that the campaign would want us to see. Moreover, we are being shown that footage by a directing and producing team (Ed Norton) that is openly in the Obama camp. The success of the film is in documenting a particular mood at a period when the seemingly impossible became possible – the euphoria around the election campaign. It seems curiously nostalgic just a year on. But overall, there is little new here, and the events are really rather too recent to merit a trip down memory lane.

BY THE PEOPLE: THE ELECTION OF BARACK OBAMA was shown on HBO in November 2009 and is released on DVD today.

Friday, January 15, 2010

OSS-117: LOST IN RIO - sporadically funny French spy spoof

The OSS-117 movies are French parodies of the early Bond movies, where Bond was a slick-haired, cock-sure spy in a flash car and a shiny suit, bedding women to cheesy 1960s background music. The latest release, RIO NE REPOND PLUS or LOST IN RIO, sees the hapless French spy Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath dispatched to Rio to purchase a microfilm containing the names of French collaborators from a Nazi colonel. On the way he teams up with a beautiful Mossad agent called Dolores, the Nazi’s hippie son Heinrich, and a CIA agent called Trumendous. As with the previous OSS-117 flick, when the movie works, it works because of star Jean Dujardin’s tremendously funny facial expressions coupled with the fact that he really does have the cheesy grin and good looks of Sean Connery. There’s also a lot of verbal humour around Hubert’s verbal clumsiness in dealing with women, Mossad and Germans. The resulting film contains more than its fair share of laugh-out loud moments, even if the source of the humour is sub-Austin Powers. The problem is that this film is too long and contains too many scenes that just don’t work, especially early on in the film. For instance, the character of CIA agent Trumendous, who seems to just laugh and swear for no reason, simply doesn’t work as a spoof of Felix Leiter. I would’ve preferred a shorter, more tightly written movie, with a runtime of maybe 80 minutes rather than 100 minutes. This would’ve put the sequel up there with the first movie, CAIRO, NEST OF SPIES, which felt like it had a lot more energy and more consistent laughs. So, maybe one for DVD.

OSS 117 - LOST IN RIO / RIO NE REPOND PLUS was released in Belgium, France, Latvia, Greece, Russia and Kazakhstan in 2009. It is currently on limited release in the UK.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

3 IDIOTS - The funniest Hindi comedy since Munnabhai

3 IDIOTS is one of the funniest Hindi movies I’ve seen since MUNNABHAI MBBS. So it comes as no surprise to find that it was written and directed by Rajkumar Hirani, the guy behind that smash-hit. 3 IDIOTS also has certain plot similarities to the first MUNNABHAI movie. Once again we find ourselves in an Indian university, with students under pressure from their adoring parents to do well and get a great job. Once again we have an iconoclastic rebel who goes against the faculty head and argues for less learning by rote and more actual education. And once again, there’s a romance between the rebel and the Dean’s daughter. But there the resulting is far more raucous, far more consistently witty, and genuinely laugh-out loud funny.

Aamir Khan plays Rancho, an iconoclastic student who transforms the lives of his two best friends Raja (Sharman Joshi) and Farhan (Madhavan). Together, they are the 3 idiots of the title, who fight financial and social pressure to have pursue their passions. They come up against the tyrannical and uncaring university dean, nicknamed Virus, and played by the typically hilarious, but here more modulated, Boman Irani. Lisp and comical haircut aside, Irani’s Virus is less funny than terrible, because until tragedy strikes his own family, he does not change. The 3 idiots also come up against the university swot, a Ugandan NRI nicknamed Silencer, played with a pitch-perfect East African gujurati accent by Omi Vaidya. Silencer is also a tragic figure, but equally one of the funniest, with a hilarious comic set-piece revolving around a formal speech in front of the education minister which the fluent Hindi 3 idiots have doctored replacing the word “serve” with “screwed”. Silencer is also the best exponent of the movie’s full and up-front exploration of fart jokes! Naturally, this being a Hindi film, there has to be a love interest, and so we have Kareena Kapoor, also superb at the comdy, playing Pia, the dean’s daughter.

The bulk of the movie takes place a decade ago, and sees Rancho befriending the other idiots, confronting the dean and falling in love. The movie’s framing device takes place in the present day, with Raju, Farhan and Silencer trying to track down Rancho after ten years of radio silence.

The perfectionist Aamir Khan, aged 44, undergoes an impressive physical transformation to play Rancho, a university student. He has lost weight, and the combination of baggy clothes, make-up (unfairly – botox?!), posture and physicality make him more convincing in the role than you might imagine. It was even more suprising to see how far this actor, famed for his serious political films, could do pure physical comedy. His acting in the song “Aal eez well” is superb, and genuinely laugh-out-loud funny.

So, 3 IDIOTS is utterly hilarious. But the great thing is that it is also politically provocative. The key argument in the film is that Indian parents are too strict with their kids, picking out their careers for them, and putting too much pressure on them succeed. Worse still, success is measured purely by salary, with which you can buy flashy branded clothes and attract a pretty wife. The price of this pressure is extreme – suicide. Rancho argues that real learning isn’t learning by rote to come first in an exam. And that, rather than trying to come top in an exam, if you “pursue excellence, and success will follow, pants down.” Most of all, if you love engineering, be an engineer. Don’t become a banker in a foreign land. It’s a wonderful ethos and the argument sorely needs to be made. It’s great to see a populist movie taking such a stance.

Of course, with Hindi cinema you have to expect a big dollop of melodrama and implausibility. For instance, the framing device see the “two idiots” go in search of Rancho by driving from Delhi to Shimla via Ladakh – a massive road trip that seemingly happens in a day! And the single most ludicrous set-piece is the scene where Rancho and the students help the dean’s daughter to give birth despite heavy rains, a lack of electricity, and any medical equipment. Just when you think the scene can’t get more schmaltzy and melodramatic, Hirani pushes it one step further, with the movie’s motto, “Aal eez well” playing a key part. It’s ludicrous. But then again, you have to assume that a writer-director who has pastiched Hindi cinema tropes in the song “Zoobi Doobi” knows perfectly well what he’s doing. He’s both pandering to our expectations of what a Bollywood movie should do, and simultaneously sending them up. It takes a very assured director to create a scene that’s both moving and hilarious.

3 IDIOTS was released on Christmas Day 2009.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Douglas Sirk Retrospective 2 - ALL I DESIRE

We're a big disappointment to each other, aren't we? You've got a mother with no principles; I've got a daughter with no guts.

Continuing with the Douglas Sirk retrospective, we have his 1953 melodrama, ALL I DESIRE. In a theme that Sirk would explore most famously in IMITATION OF LIFE, Sirk shows the price paid by a woman who sacrifices her family to her career, and who later is positioned as a rival to her daughter. Barbara Stanwyck stars as the classic Sirkian heroine, a woman who has made a break for freedom and personal happiness, by leaving her decent but dull schoolteacher husband, her three children and her possessive lover, to pursue a career on the stage. A decade later she returns, to find her grown daughter about to graduate, and her family convinced she has made it as a big star. As with all Sirkian heroines, she is forced to sacrifice and subsume her passions in order to make her judgemental family happy. This is the genius of Sirk - on the face of it, ALL I DESIRE is a deeply conservative morality tale in which a malcontent runs from her responsibilities, returns home with her tail between her legs, realises that she really wants her dull husband and settles down to her dull life. But in reality, it is a film about the invisible constraints of suburbia - the malicious force of small-town gossip - and settling for less than you wanted through exhaustion and desperation. The resolution is less a happy ending than a resigned return to repression. It is a tremendous film - and all the more astounding because it is examining the dilemma of MAD MEN's Betty Draper on screen at the time at which it was *actually* happening, right in front of an audience who think they're in for some populist sentimental nonsense.

ALL I DESIRE was released in 1953.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

SEX & DRUGS & ROCK & ROLL - Spasticus Autisticus

SEX & DRUGS & ROCK & ROLL is a fast-paced, manically inter-cut biopic of Ian Dury, New Wave singer, genius wordsmith, ladies man and radical. Born working class, crippled by polio, trained by Peter Blake, married to a middle-class portrait painter, father to two kids, living in suburbia. That's how we meet Dury - a punk radical playing shitty pubs with a dodgy band, desperate for fame, and deeply at odds with his suburban home life. Somehow his wife puts up with his shit, even when he shacks up with a pretty West Indian girl much younger than him and moves out. Somehow the Kilburn and the High Roads turn into The Blockheads, the seminal songs are written, and the money comes rolling in. Before you know it, Dury and his crew are in a swanky rented country house, generally pissing about and not getting much work done. His girlfriend and wife are both simultaneously in love and at wits end with him. His young son is much loved but exposed to drugs and not much schooling. His young daughter is basically ignored. The End.

If the plot summary above seemed to have no structure, well, neither does the film. It survives as entertainment purely on the strength, charisma and sheer bravado of Andy Serkis' (best known as Gollum) leading performance. You get a good sense of Dury as wordsmith but you don't really get how he became famous. One minute he's playing pubs, the next he's famous. You never get how his character might have changed. His girlfriend Denise (Naomie Harris) complains that fame has changed him, but the audience doesn't see it. He just seems as much of an egotistical but charming arse as ever. His wife (Olivia Williams) evolves - moves on - but Dury never changes. He's just too clever by half, too selfish by half, and a lot of fun to be around.

If you love Ian Dury's music, you'll get a kick out of this film. Serkis is genius, and ably supported by Olivia Williams and Naomie Harris. But if you don't know who Ian Dury is, this film isn't going to help. You get a lot of stuff about his early life, but it doesn't tell you about art school and how he became a radical performer. You get the starting point (the film posits that being crippled was the defining change) and the final product, but nothing inbetween. You don't have a clue why he's married to an RA.

So, all in all, this is a great little film that could've done with a bit more substance, and a bit more exposition, a little more context.... As it is, it's unlikely to get an audience beyond the core fanbase. Still, anything that makes you dust off your old vinyl, it's no bad things.

SEX & DRUGS & ROCK & ROLL is on release in the UK.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

DAYBREAKERS - Don't you want to get out of Cape Cod?

I really enjoyed DAYBREAKERS - the new vampire sci-fi flick from Aussie directors, Michael and Peter Spierig. The concept is clever, logically explored, the production design is imaginative and slick, and there's some genuinely cool gory special effects. I am shocked at just what a good job they did with such a low budget, and I can't wait to see what they do next.

So, down to the details. The concept is cool. In the near future, vampires have turned so many people that humans, and more importantly, the human blood that vampires crave, is a rare commodity. The remaining humans are hunted down and farmed for their blood by Sam Neill's powerful corporation, while the vampires desperately try to create a synthetic blood. Rations are cut, causing riots. Rich vamps are supplied - the poor become homeless, begging for a drop - and when they get nothing degenerate into feral, bat-like "subsiders". And then, the society that turned on humans, turns on itself. Set against the vampire majority are a group of human rebels and their vampire helpers, led by haematologist with a heart of gold, Ethan Hawke. Crazy ass former vamp Willem Defoe thinks he's found a cure for vampirism, which will solve the food crisis for good.....

I love the way the details of the hypothesis are worked out. I love the design of the houses, cars, and offices that allow a vampire population to live "normal" lives by night. I love the way in which all the shitty things in real life transfer and invert to the new world - like the fact that class distinctions still apply. I also love the casting of Ethan Hawke as the sympathetic vamp - ever since DEAD POETS SOCIETY he's been portraying ordinary schmos navigating through crazy events - and being utterly sympathetic all the while.

My only issue with DAYBREAKERS is a logical loophole. In a society that can farm humans for blood, why would they not also farm human ovaries and create test tube babies who could grow into a perpetual food supply? But really, I'm just being pernickety. DAYBREAKERS is a great-looking low-budget sci-fi vamp flick. It gets how to do gore. It gets how to do scares. And it gets how not to over-complicate a good thing.

DAYBREAKERS played Toronto 2009 and is currently on release in the UK, Canada, Poland, Russia and the USA. It opens on the 14th January in Singapore, Slovenia and Estonia. It opens on January 21st in Australia, Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland and Sweden, It opens on January 28th in Argentina, the Netherlands and Thailand. It opens on February 5th in Norway; on March 17th in France; on March 19th in Italy and on April 15th in New Zealand.

Friday, January 08, 2010

IT'S COMPLICATED - fails to be subversive

IT'S COMPLICATED wants to be a romantic-comedy that subverts convention by giving us an old formerly married couple indulging in an affair. Whether or not you will like this film basically rests on whether you find the concept of Meryl Streep declaring, "turns out, I'm a bit of a slut" funny or not. Sadly, writer-director Nancy Meyers does not develop the humour beyond the initial concept. Oh, I forget, she has ex-husband and current lover Alec Baldwin sneak around Meryl's house peering into windows at her new date (a completely under-used Steve Martin). Baldwin trips and falls. Oh, how funny.

Thin comedy aside, what else does this movie offer? A risible attempt to actually examine the impact this affair would have on the husband's new younger wife, her son, and on the couple's grown children. Any attempt at emotional profundity is undercut by the fact that the script is superficial; Alec Baldwin simply doesn't have the acting range; and Meryl Streep chooses not to use her god-given talent but instead simply mugs to camera.

Worst of all, this movie - which seeks to oh so daringly depict love among the fifty-somethings as a valid concern in our youth-obsessed age - is itself ludicrously obsessed with surface appearance. Indeed, it plays less like a rom-com and more like a feature length advertisement for life in Santa Barbara - all gorgeous properties, perfect interior design, chi-chi food stores, and sweeping drives. When Meryl Streep laments the fact that it took her ten years to get over her divorce and feel confident enough to remodel her house and get the kitchen she always wanted, you look at her current kitchen and wander what the fuck is her problem.

Overall, this is a movie about a bunch of people who live a life of over-designed ease. They are all basically self-obsessed and unlikeable. I didn't buy that they were having a genuine emotional journey. I didn't want them to live happily ever after. I wanted the movie to end very, very quickly indeed.

IT'S COMPLICATED was released in the US, Belgium, France, Greece, Hungary, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Canada, Finland, Spain and Norway in 2009. It is currently on release in the UK, Australia and Argentina. It opens next weekend in Israel, Russia, Singapore and Estonia and opens on the 21st in Denmark, Germany and Sweden. It opens in Croatia on January 28th, in Romania on February 19th, in Japan on February 19th and in Brazil on February 26th. It opens in Turkey on March 5th and in Italy on March 19th.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

RED RIDING - 1980 - Arguably the best of the trilogy

Peter Hunter: You don't like the police much, do you?
Martin Laws: No love lost, no.
Peter Hunter: So when someone kicks down your front door, kills the dog and rapes the wife, who you gonna call?
Martin Laws: Well it certainly wouldn't be the West Yorkshire Police - they'd already *be* in there, wouldn't they.

RED RIDING: 1980 is perhaps the best in the trilogy of Channel 4 films, in that it has both the best of the lead performances (Paddy Considine as Peter Hunter), the most thematically dark and obscure material, and the best direction. The film opens with the West Yorkshire police under pressure from the public for not finding the Yorkshire Ripper - a serial killer who preys on whores. Hunter is brought in to investigate the Ripper case, but to covertly investigate corruption in the West Yorkshire police. Rozzers who were in the minor leagues in 1974 have now risen to positions of power in 1980 and will be even more ruthless in the attempt to protect the status quo. Hunter's case rest on tip-offs from BJ - a male prostitute - and the insane ramblings of former Yorkshire Post journo Jack Whitehead - both of whom believe that the Ripper murders are being used to cover up non-Ripper murders.

The strength of the material is its willingness to deal in endemic corruption. The idea that you cannot escape from the evil, even when you have uncovered the truth, continues. The impotence of all good men is the tragedy. Paddy Considine is always impressive and nowhere more so than here: conveying both Hunter's ambition and earnest good intentions, but also his flaws and vulnerability. Just as Eddie Dunford, Hunter is no saint. I particularly liked David Morrissey in the increasingly important role of bent copper Maurice Jobson. As villains, Joseph Mawle and Sean Harris impress as the Ripper and copper Bob Craven respectively.

Acting aside, what raises this film above its predecessor is the shooting style. British director, James Marsh (MAN ON WIRE, THE KING), conveys a sense of claustrophobia and moral quagmire through the way he frames and lights his characters. DP Igor Martinovic's use of technoscope is inspired, because it gives the grainy feel of the 16mm DV used on 1974, but without the hazy dream-like quality. The lines are more defined and precise, which makes sense in a chapter where we are starting to see the truth more clearly, but are still helpless to make it stop.

The only flaw is the soft-pedalling on the sexual and verbal brutality seen in the novels. Which is not to say that this film is anything other than dark and disturbing. Nonetheless, as in 1974, our eyes are spared the worst of it. Worst of all, as in 1974, there seems to be a need to foreground a romance - this time between Hunter and his assisting policewoman Helen Marshall - out of proportion to its importance in 1980, the novel. The continuing foregrounding of the relationship also detracts from the power of the final revelation in the novel. As in 1974, the complexity of the final chapters is significantly reduced to tie in with the simpler ending in 1974 and to keep the story moving, presumably. I feel that this is to the film's detriment.

Despite these flaws, one has to be thankful that something this dark and subversive made it on to our screens at all, not least with the resources of first-rate casting and direction. But before I sign off, a few words on the producers decision not to shoot the novel 1977. You can, sort of, see their logic because Hunter will investigate, in 1980, the same crimes being investigated by Jack Whitehead in 1977. The problem is that if you just have Hunter investigate in 1980, and then the opening revelations in 1983, the motivations of the police come a little out of the blue. Whereas 1977 goes right to the heart of the money motive and the sheer scale of the police corruption at the heart of the novels.

1980 was first shown on British TV in 2009 and is available both on DVD and on Channel 4's video on demand service.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

The best and worst of 2009

As the annual commercial hoop-la of award-season hoves into view, I thought I'd add my tuppence-worth with the conventional and more unconventional annual Bina007 Best of and Worst of list. And, given that award-givers typically reward melodrama rather than comedy, with start with the laughs. After all, as Sullivan found in that Preston Sturges masterpiece, there's nothing wrong with just trying to make people laugh, especially in a year as ball-shrinkingly grim as 2009........

Funniest movies of the year: by far the funniest was Armando Ianucci's scabrous political satire IN THE LOOP. We already knew that Peter Capaldi's Malcolm Tucker was the filthiest, most evil of spin doctors, but Tom Hollander was a delight as the incompetent junior minister who indirectly led Britain to war. I was crying with laughter for pretty much the entire first twenty minutes of this film.

The second funniest film of the year was the Paul Rudd vehicle ROLE MODELS. The genius was in the casting: Ken Jeong as the narcisstic little bitch warrior king; Bobb'E J Thompson as the foul-mouthed little kid; and Jane Lynch as the former crack-addict turned mentor. Pure Comedy Gold. Funnier than PINEAPPLE EXPRESS and I LOVE that film.

And continuing the warm-hearted tone, here's some praise for films that I didn't really expect too much from. It's moments like these that I live for: the reason why I watch so many movies: the capacity to be genuinely entertained and surprised. First up, its Bryan Singer's hammy Hitler-assassination thriller, VALKYRIE, was better than it should've been, and such was Tom Cruise's fervour, I almost believed he was going to take Germany! Second is Alex Proyas' Nic Cage sci-fi flick KNOWING. It had all the hallmarks of Nic Cage schlock but somehow won me over with the sheers balls-out bravery of taking the movie to its logical conclusion.

The movie that made me cry the most, but in a good way, was MILK. Sean Penn's Harvey MILK was simply inspiring, and the love affair with James Franco's Scott so convincing and beautiful. But most of all, I felt so very deeply for Josh Brolin's repressed, twisted, vulnerable Dan White. The real scenes of the candle-lit march had be blubbing like a little girl.

The most beautifully imagined movie I saw, and the movie that most perfectly encapsulated the wonderful mystery of cinema - why show and tell is so powerful - was THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS.

The most believable lovers were Meryl Streep as Julia David and Stanley Tucci as her supportive husband in Nora Ephron's semi-biopic JULIA & JULIA. There perfectly matching eccentricity left me wanting more Parisian craziness and less contemporary whining.

Of course, not all movies can be unique, beautiful, brave and intelligent. But it's all the more disappointing when good directors do bad things, movies that were less than they should have been:

David Fincher takes an elegant little F Scott Fitzgerald and turns it into a pretentious bloated movie that wants to be profound but ends up being just one damn thing after another. The only good thing about THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON was that Tilda Swinton cameo.

John Patrick Shanley's award winning play turned movie, DOUBT, starring premium-cut actors and featuring the photography of Roger Deakins turned out to be over-acted, over-written and over-directed hammy pretentious nonsense with not one elegant or original thing to say.

Zack Snyder's heartfelt but ultimately flawed adaptation of Alan Moore's genius graphic novel WATCHMEN featured both the most astounding opening titles of any film of the year but also the most excruciating sex scene and the worst wig. Ultimately, Snyder's shooting style also mitigated against the point of the film - the superheroes do not actually have superpowers (Doc M excepted) and so shouldn't be shot as though they do.

Michael Mann's turgid John Dilligener biopic PUBLIC ENEMIES failed to catch-a-fire, despite a sterling cast, and beautiful production design. Washed out DV visuals didn't help either.

Finally, and most heart-breakingly, Pedro Almodovar's latest, BROKEN EMBRACES just didn't match up to the recent brilliance of VOLVER or BAD EDUCATION. And yet, and yet, isn't a re-examination of early Almodovar better than 99% of what plays the cineplex?

The movie I'm ashamed to admit I was happy was a failure: THE SOLOIST: over-hyped British director Joe Wright finally made a movie so irredeemably bad that even his typically fawning press couldn't ignore it.

Most balls-out insane: Werner Herzog's simply inexplicable, high-camp, purely insane, iguana-obsessed BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL: NEW ORLEANS. A movie so large, so insane, that even Nic Cage is left laughing at the camera wondering what the fuck is going on. A noble winner in the face of strong competition from Park Chan Wook's insane priest-turns-vampire love story, THIRST and Lars von Trier's leg-crossingly excruciating ANTICHRIST.

The Francis Ford Coppola Memorial Award for Alpha-Gamma Film-Making: Nicholas Windig Refn, director of the unique, brutal, beautiful biopic BRONSON featuring a mesmerising performance from Tom Hardy, as well as the bizarre, momentum-less elongated howl, VALHALLA RISING.

And now to the conventional awards:

Best Film: Nicholas Windig Refn's visually stunning, brutal biopic, BRONSON

Best Animated Feature: Henry Selick's wonderfully dark children's horror, CORALINE

Best Foreign Language Feature: Michael Haneke's strange, enigmatic, disturbing drama, DAS WEISSE BAND

Best Documentary: Serge Bromberg's loving restoration of the the movie that almost killed Clouzot: HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT'S INFERNO

Best Director: Tomas Alfredson for his hauntingly beautiful LET THE RIGHT ONE IN.

Best Actor: Sam Rockwell as Sam in Duncan Jones' astonishingly assured, provocative and moving debut feature, MOON

Best Supporting Actor: Josh Brolin terrifying vulnerability as Dan White in MILK

Best Actress: Carla Gugino's complex relationship to her own past as The Silk Spectre I in WATCHMEN

Best Supporting Actress: Both Mo'nique and Mariah Carey as tyrant-mother and patient social worker respectively in the moving drama PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL PUSH BY SAPPHIRE.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Tom Ford's delicate, elegant, compelling adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's romantic tragedy A SINGLE MAN.

Best Original Screenplay: Armando Ianucci for IN THE LOOP - a movie that made me laugh more than all the others combined.

Best Production Design and Art Direction: The wonderfully cluttered, antiquated and tactile world of the THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS

Best Cinematography: Eduard Grau's honey-toned California sunshine in Tom Ford's impeccably put-together A SINGLE MAN.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

RED RIDING - 1974 - Less slippery and subversive than the novel but well put together nonetheless

1974 is the first of three films produced for television by Britain's Channel 4, based on the "Yorkshire noir" novels of David Peace. Each of his four books, 1974, 1977, 1980 and 1983, is about the corruption of policeman, priests, politicians and businessmen who murder and extort for no reason other than that they can. There never seems to be much money or success to be had from it, other than protecting the status quo. These crimes are posited as endemic in a region crippled with obsolete heavy industry and chippy toward outsiders. The greatest tragedy is to think you can remain an outsider - a cool observer - and that you can affect change. West Yorkshire is a law unto itself, and that law is policed by West Yorkshire's Finest, and spun by the compliant journalists of the Yorkshire Post. David Peace's world is one of almost complete corruption and casual evil. There are no heroes, but there are characters through whom we investigate the world and with whom we come to empathise.

In 1974, that character is a cocky young journalist called Eddie Dunford, newly back from a failed stint as a journo in Fleet Street, and desperate to make a name for himself by proving that someone is serially killing little girls despite the obfuscation of the rozzers; competition from senior crime reporter Jack Whitehead; and the powerful forces protecting a successful local property developer, John Dawson.

The movie is directed by Julian Jarrold, whose previous directorial efforts included the painfully superficial and hi-gloss remake of BRIDESHEAD REVISITED. 1974 is a far more successful film. Shot in sepia tones through the perpetual haze of cigarette smoke, the movie feels claustrophobic and sinister - just as it should. There's a superb scene where the camera looks over Dunford's shoulder through the patterned glass to a distorted image of Paula Garland - mother to a murdered girl - and soon to be Dunford's lover. That sums up Dunford: he sees through a glass darkly. And the tragedy of the film is that his eventual knowledge brings no relief. In a pivotal scene, he hands over a bag of documents - the research of his dead colleague Barry Gannon - to the one policeman he thinks is honest. Dunford is relieved - elated - as he drives toward his lover for an escape to the South. What a fool, the film-makers say, to think that he could actually escape the clutches of Yorkshire corruption. What a selfish, naive fool to think he could dump the files and fuck of to the South, where the sun shines.

Andrew Garfield is superb as Dunford - with his performance in THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS - he has become an actor I will go out of my way to watch. Rebecca Hall is moving as his lover, Paula Garland. In John Dawson, Sean Bean finds yet another role that capitalises on his slightly sleazy charisma. But the real strength is the depth and quality of British character actors filling the cast, from John Henshaw as the harsh-but-fair Editor, to Peter Mullan's Reverend Laws.

The resulting film is atmospheric, sometimes like a bad dream, hard to hold on to, unnverving, and very hard to let go of. Tony Grisoni has done a good job in adapting a ferociously complicated novel for a hundred minute runtime, and cleverly compresses characters. What the film looses, however, is the sheer force of its brutality. The novel is hard work, both in terms of language and descriptions of violence and sex. Every time Julian Jarrold cuts away from a blackmail photo or pans away from a scene of torture, David Peace takes you into the mind of the aggressor. And where the worst crime Grisoni's Dunford can be accused of is naivety, and a final loss of temper, Peace's Dunford is a far more ambivalent character. If policemen casually rape whores, then in the novel Dunford treats women as casually and cruelly, though playing, as it were, in the minor leagues.

And, without ruining either, I found the "solution" of 1974 and the closing scenes too neat and twee, where they should've been more slippery and open-ended. Presumably this was the result of the compression of a large conspiracy into a single culprit but the result was that the ending felt rushed and just plain bizarre - the logic behind the killing was almost given as a throw-away line, and significantly undermines the slow build-up.

RED RIDING was shown on UK TV in 2009 and is available on DVD and on the Channel 4 4oD video on demand service.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Douglas Sirk Retrospective 1 - HAS ANYBODY SEEN MY GAL (1952)

Douglas Sirk was a Danish boy raised in Germany, who was forced to leave his successful career in European cinema in 1937, eventual finding fame as the director of melodramas for Universal in the 1950s. His films raked in the phat cash - women loved the soupy romances with strong women triumphing over parochial social mores to find love and sometimes wealth. But, in contrast to fellow emmigres, Otto Preminger and Billy Wilder, Sirk's films were critically panned. After all, the 1950s was a decade in which European directors were stripping back cinema to deal with supposedly more authentic real people in real situations. Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer and Rivette were the heirs of Italian neo-realism. There movies featured improvised dialogue, jump cuts and existential angst. The characters in the Nouvelle Vague films were the kids of the bourgeois middle-aged women featured in Sirk.

But history sometimes redresses past slights, and Sirk is now as beloved of the self-appointed guardians of taste as the French auteurs. Directors from Fassbinder to Tarantino cite him as a key influence. The references are subtle (in PULP FICTION, Mia Wallace orders her "Douglas Sirk steak, bloody") or complete, as in Todd Haynes' homage, FAR FROM HEAVEN. Contemporary critics thought Sirk's lavish use of colour, sets and costumes was superficial and pandering to the baroque tastes of his audience. They failed to see that Sirk was using lavish interiors and costumes to show the oppression of his characters by their surroundings. The suburban house, filled with life's accumulated wealth, comes to symbolise the staid restrictions of country club society. Characters are frequently shown imprisoned by window panes and reflected in mirrors. Sirk may have given Lana Turner the most expensive costumes in cinema history for IMITATION OF LIFE, but that was for a greater reason than to dazzle his audience. It was to show quite literally the price she had paid for happiness.

I must confess that before this retrospective, I'd never seen a single Sirkian movie, and I was shocked at how explicit they were in tackling social issues such as race and sexual conventions, but also how fresh they seemed in tackling still relevant issues about a working woman's ability to successfully raise a family. On one level, Sirk's movies are absurd to modern eyes - can you really imagine a whispering campaign against a middle-aged widow because she wants to remarry a younger, poorer man? No. But one can certainly see how selfish children can stifle a mother's happiness in any age. And so, on to the marathon!

The first film is HAS ANYBODY SEEN MY GAL? Unusually for Sirk, this is a costume drama, set in the 1920s, with a very light tone. Our heroine, Milly (a shockingly young Piper Laurie) is happily courting Dan (Rock Hudson) until eccentric and wealthy Sam Fulton leaves her family $100,000. Newly rich mother Harriet now wants Milly to marry a socialite, fit to match their new mansion and new friends. It plays almost like a musical without songs - or rather with only one song - the opening number. There's plenty of screwball comedy and tongue-in-cheek aw-shucks feel to it. But even here, the familiar Sirkian style and themes are familiar. Style-wise, the colours are bright and brash and the sets are lavish and cluttered. Characters are defined by their environments - the pharmacy with the soda-stream is beautifully recreated, and the movie is essentially the story of a family who move to a nicer house. It is, then, the familiar Sirkian battle between true love and bourgeois convention. And most importantly, the movie features strong woman - first Harriet, who is wrong-headed but a matriarch, and then Milly, who is equally strong-headed. The husband and beaux are merely victims of their caprices. Even Milly's little sister bosses around the rich Sam Fulton, dragging him round like a puppy! No wonder women loved this film!

HAS ANYBODY SEEN MY GAL? was released in 1952.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

NOWHERE BOY - suprisingly conventional Lennon biopic

NOWHERE BOY is a beautifully written, beautifully acted, sensitively directed biopic of the young John Lennon, directed by the reknowned British artist, Sam Taylor-Wood. Set in a perfectly rendered 1950s Liverpool, the film shows a 17 year old Lennon groping toward the truth of why he lives with his Aunt Mimi rather than with his mum and dad, not to mention taking his first steps toward becoming a Beatle.

Aaron Johnson (THE THIEF LORD; ANGUS, THONGS AND PERFECT SNOGGING) is assured as the young Lennon, complete with rock-n-roll quiff and iconic Scouse accent. He pulls off both the cockey laddishness and the vulnerability. His John is witty and playful; promiscuous and arrogant; occasionally violently angry; but also desperately adrift. Kristin Scott-Thomas also gives a nuanced performance as John's Aunt Mimi - both stiff and severe in her middle-class home, but also undoubtedly very loving toward John and possessing a wicked sense of humour. (And to those reviewers criticising Scott Thomas for being too posh, Mimi really didn't have a broad Scouse accent. Indeed, Lennon later commented that he had to broaden his Scouse accent for PR purposes.)

The character that jumps off the screen is John's mum, and Mimi's younger sister, Julia. Anne-Marie Duff's Julia is so full of energy and fun that she simply sweeps you up in her love of life and rock'n'roll music. But like John you can't help but feel something is forced in such buoyancy and we're right to distrust it. Despite being remarried with two small children, Julia obviously suffers from depression and can only truly relate to men through flirtation. This extends to John and his band members, and the delicate way in which Sam Taylor-Wood and her script-writer deal with this is both honest and elegant.

The resulting film is a moving emotional drama that is interesting on its own terms, let alone because it formed an iconic musician.

NOWHERE BOY is a very good film. It reminded me a lot of Tom Ford's feature debut A SINGLE MAN, in that it was both apparently conventional in its structure and visual style but also wonderfully brave in tackling uncomfortable subjects head on, without judgement and without cliché. The conventional style is even more surprising from Taylor-Wood given the nature of her graphic art, and her bizarre short film.

NOWHERE BOY closed London 2009 and is currently on release in the UK and Australia. It will play Sundance 2010. It opens in New Zealand on March 4th; in the Netherlands on April 1st; in Russia on April 15th and in Norway on September 10th.

Saturday, January 02, 2010


Maybe I'm just in an unreasonably happy holiday mood, or maybe my expectations had been lowered by the generally pisspoor reviews, but I rather enjoyed DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE MORGANS? It's the latest romantic comedy from writer-director Marc Lawrence, the man behind the phenomenally successful MISS CONGENIALITY and 2007's rather charming MUSIC AND LYRICS, also starring Hugh Grant. In DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE MORGANS? Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker play two successful New Yorkers on the verge of divorce but forced into the witness protection programme together.

This is a rather ludicrous premise on which to hang a relationship drama, but perfectly in step with typically farcial rom-com set-ups (see THE PROPOSAL or FAILURE TO LAUNCH). And, as you can imagine, there are plenty of set pieces where the effete liberal New Yorkers come up against the cruder delights of country living. Naturally, there is a third act crisis which prompts a happy ending. There's plenty to object to here. The laziness of the derivative plot, for one. The reductive politics in which city dwellers are cynical ne'er-do-wells and country dwellers are the keepers of Real American Values, is another.

But hidden underneath all these lazy genre tropes is a rather engaging romantic drama in which two mature people talk through issues from real life - the way in which difficulty conceiving can put a relationship under pressure. I found myself actually routing for Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant. Moreover, many of Hugh Grant's lines are genuinely witty.

So, whatever the rest of the reviewers say, I had a good time with this film. Underneath all that predictable attempted screw-ball slapstick lies a rather sweet relationship drama.

DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE MORGANS? is on release in the US, UK, Australia, France and Thailand. It opens next weekend in Argentina, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Portugal, Singapore, Switzerland, Austria, Spain and Sweden. It opens on January 20th in Egypt; on January 27th in Belgium, South Korea and Norway. It opens on February 5th in Brazil, Estonia and Finland; on February 11th in the Netherlands, Slovenia and Venezuela; on February 18th in Russia; on February 26th in Italy and Romania. It opens on March 5th in Poland and on March 12th in Japan.

Friday, January 01, 2010

SHERLOCK HOLMES - solid blockbuster fun, but what's with Adler?

I have read much of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes canon, but was never as taken with it, qua detective fiction, as I was with Agatha Christie. The reason being that Conan Doyle did not play fair. His Victorian detective always solved crimes by means of arcane knowledge that only he could possess - the taste of a particular type of wax used by just one candle-manufacturer in Brittany. As a consequence, the clever reader cannot solve a Conan Doyle mystery in the same way that he can use pure logic and close observation to solve an Agatha Christie novel. So, I read Conan Doyle, as most schoolchildren do, for that sense of Britain at the height of imperial glory but also at the depths of urban degradation - and for that wonderfully subversive idea that Holmes was a bit of a bastard, possibly homo-erotically attached to his sidekick Dr Watson, and addicted to cocaine.

I would suggest that Guy Ritchie's new adaptation of Sherlock Holmes also works best as a mood piece, interspersed by some rather spectacular stunts. His London is out of Tim Burton's SWEENEY TODD - all smoke-filled narrow streets and filthy docks contrasted with the opulent luxury of parliament, Mayfair hotels, and quasi-Masonic lodges. The production design is simply marvellous and makes good use of what is left of Victorian Britain in Manchester and London (from what I could tell). Ritchie also finally finds a suitable object for his obsession with posh chaps bruising with the chavs. He amps up Holmes' boxing, drug-taking and general down-and-dirtiness. Holmes is happy chatting with the local bobby, Clarkie, or with a grimy looking trawlerman. He is altogether more uncomfortable dining in a genteel restaurant.

As an action film, SHERLOCK HOLMES works well too. Ritchie gives us some marvellous stunts that truly make use of the Thames. There are three action set-pieces: one sees a ship slipped off its moorings during a fight between Holmes and a French giant; the second sees Watson set off a string of explosions at a riverside factory; and the final act confrontation between Holmes and his adversary, Lord Blackwood, takes places atop an as-yet-unfinished Tower Bridge. I would have happily paid the price of admission just to see the imagined Victorian vista from the top of that bridge.

Even better than as a mood piece and as an action film, SHERLOCK HOLMES works best as a "bromance" in the manner of all the best action/detective flicks. Robert Downey Junior and Jude Law, as Holmes and Watson respectively, utterly convinced me of their fondness for each other. With such a high-stakes and frankly ludicrous plot swirling about them, it was the credibility of their relationship that anchored the film. I loved their bickering; Holmes' resentment of Watson's new fiancée; and their genuine affection. We truly believe that, as in the books, Watson has brought Holmes back to the edges of respectable society. We also believe, in the first of a few annoying retcons, that Holmes keeps Watson's addiction to gambling in check. When all the explosions were over, I loved the scenes between these two, and I'll be watching the next film for those.

So all in all, I had a rather good time with SHERLOCK HOLMES as a beautifully rendered, action blockbuster, centred around a charismatic relationship between Holmes and Watson. Sure the plot was insane - Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) wants to use black magic to rule the world! But it does at least do that typical Holmes thing where something that seems supernatural can be explained with good old fashioned science. I know that Ritchie has exaggerated Holmes' bruiser antics in the manner of his Mockney flicks, but hey, what's life without a little indulgence? And, it finally looks like Ritchie has found a good excuse to use his slo-mo fight scene style!

That is not to say that there isn't a problem with this film. And that problem is the retconned introduction of Irene Adler - a love interest for Holmes. Anyone with any knowledge of the books will know that this is just plain wrong. But, producers aiming for a target demographic of horny teenage boys will have their way so it looks like we're saddled with her. Ritchie just doesn't do female characters. He doesn't know how to create a well-rounded, interesting woman on screen. And Rachel McAdams' Irene Adler is a victim of this. The concept of the character, nowhere in the books, is a good one - to have a criminal mastermind who has gotten under Holmes' skin. But for a woman to have married as many times as Adler and to have been up to as much crime, she would need to be older - nearer to Holmes' age. I would have loved to see Helen McCrory in this role. But more to the point, Adler was utterly redundant in this flick, except as a nod to the teenage male audience, and in helping to set up the second film. I mean, seriously, imagine a film without Adler. It would've been twenty minutes shorter and the better for it. So for the sequel, I'm hoping that McAdams will be booted, just like that awful Katie Holmes from BATMAN BEGINS, and replaced by someone older and frankly, better at acting. I'm also hoping the scriptwriters give her more to do.

SHERLOCK HOLMES is on release in the USA, UK, Bahrain, Croatia, Hong Kong, Kuwait, Malaysia, Portugal, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Latvia, Switzerland, Australia, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, Indonesia, Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Mexico, Romania and Sweden. It opens next weekend in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Hungary, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Brazil and Estonia. It opens on January 14th in Argentina, Greece, Spain, and Turkey. It opens on January 22nd in Finland; on January 28th in Germany and Switzerland; on February 3rd in France and on March 12th in Japan.