Thursday, December 23, 2010

SOMEWHERE - I got you under my skin

I thought I was going to hate SOMEWHERE. In fact, I almost wanted to hate it. I had even crafted the first line of this review. "It must be possible to create a movie about boredom and alienation that is not itself boring and alienating." And as the curtain lifted on Sofia Coppola's latest movie, I thought I was going to have to walk out. For here we had a guy driving round a dirt track in a Ferrari - driving fast, going nowhere, static framing, not even choosing to show the whole circuit in the frame - and I thought "Oh god, this is some pretty heavy-handed metaphor we're trading in here." The credits came up and we switched to an interior scene at the infamous Hollywood hotel, the Château Marmont. Stephen Dorff is Johnny Marco - Hollywood star and good-time boy - so drunk he falls over and injures his wrist - recuperating in his bedroom with two blonde twins pole dancing for him in a manner so unerotic as to be ridiculous. I thought - here we go: poor little rich movie star, all alone in the Chateau Marmont, bored, alienated, self-hating, blah blah blah.

Having watched the entire movie, I can't disagree with its critics. This is yet another Sofia Coppola movie in which we see static framed, dialogue-free shots of beautiful people hating their beautiful lives. There is a deep-set narcissism here - both in terms of the narcissism of the characters and Coppola's assumption that we, The Ordinaries, give a rat's ass. There's also something rather snide in her treatment of the people who enable the Stars. Public relations people, agents, producers and TV stars are all depicted as basically sycophantic, fake morons. Even worse than that, SOMEWHERE could be seen as a deeply misogynistic film. Every woman Johnny meets throws herself at him, and even when they hate him (nasty text messages, "what the fuck?" meetings in hotel lobbies) they still respond to his summons. Even his 11 year old daughter Cleo, brilliantly portrayed by Elle Fanning, loves him, mothers him, raises an eyebrow but not a fuss when his one-night stand shows up at breakfast. She'll still love him even after he off-loads her at camp.

This movie has technical faults too. No film-maker should dare to quote from Fellini's masterpiece of ennui, LA DOLCE VITA unless they are willing to make the stakes as high (death, suicide, alcoholism) as Fellini did. But Coppola does it twice - first in a press conference where the questions are asinine, second in a pivotal scene near the end where Johnny's confession to Cleo is drowned out by the sound of a helicopter. Worst of all, I think the movie is simply ten minutes too long. I bought into all of it except the final character development. Without spoiling the ending, is it really credible that we should see such action from a person who has up until now been entirely passive?

Still, for all its narcissism and misogyny, SOMEWHERE really did get under my skin. Why? Because I genuinely enjoyed watching the relationship between Johnny and Cleo and Johnny's best friend Sam (Chris Pontius). There is something rather touching in the way in which a guy who is basically a waster can still be a loving father, at least when his daughter is within his sight. I also like the symmetry of actions e.g. when Cleo is with Johnny she lovingly cooks for him, then when he's on his own he makes a cak-handed attempted to cook for himself. This is a more eloquent portrayal of a lonely soul than a histrionic emotional breakdown would've been. I also got into the static framing and long takes of not much happening. It was relaxing and contemplative and gave me room to consider what was going in the relationships on screen. So, overall, I'd say that I really liked SOMEWHERE. It's not flawless, but it did affect me, and it affected me more than the movie most critics seem to prefer, the thematically similar but stylistically more showy LOST IN TRANSLATION.

SOMEWHERE played Venice 2010 where it won the Golden Lion, beating BLACK SWAN, and London 2010. It opened earlier this year in Italy, Sweden, Denmark, Greece, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Kazakhstan and Russia. It is currently on release in the UK and the US. It opens later this month in Australia, Norway, Finland and Malaysia. It opens in France, Estonia and Brazil in January and in the Czech Republic on February 10th. It opens on April 2nd in Japan.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

BURLESQUE - nonsense

BURLESQUE is a Hollywood song-and-dance movie that exists entirely as a vehicle for Christina Aguilera and consists entirely as a collage of cinematic clichés, over-singing and over-acting. Debut writer-director Steve Antin should be ashamed to have so blatantly tried to rip off the style of the non-pareil musical, CABARET, harnessing Fosse's dance-steps to a plot so vacuous as to make a barbie doll look real.

Aguilera plays a wannabe who leaves rural Iowa for LA, stumbles into Cher's gorgeously appointed but dangerously over-mortgaged nightclub. By sheer irritating perseverance she works her way from waitress to chorus-line dancer to Star, allowing Cher to double the entry fee and potentially save her club from the twin clutches of the bankers and an oleaginous property developer called Marcus. Meanwhile, Christina, piqued that her room-mate Jack already has a fiancée is seeing the aforementioned Marcus, and risks losing her soul for fame, or something.

Everything here is hokey and unimportant. Of course the wannabe comes from the country! No aspiring singer in a movie of this sort comes from down the street, otherwise where would our greyhound bus scene be?! Of course the room-mate she thinks is gay turns out to be hot and fit and straight and to have a massive crush on her! Of course there's a richer older man waiting to tempt her away from true love! Of course Cher is a battleaxe with a fag hag best friend!

I couldn't care less. The reason why musicals like CABARET and CHICAGO work is that beyond their glitz and jazz there's some pretty serious satire and politics in there. And in musicals that are pure romance - Butterfly, Boheme, Camille etc - the romance is pitched at such a level that it transcends schmaltz and becomes tragedy. BURLESQUE has neither of these qualities. Rather, it's emotional concerns are straight from a Sweet Valley High novel.

Oh, and by the way, the reason why great musicals work is because, au fond, they have great showtunes. Even OKLAHOMA!, which I find really quite sinister and disturbing, has amazing numbers and set-pieces. The music in BURLESQUE is simply to weak - too forgettable - too paint-by-numbers.

So what do we have in the end? A threadbare plot of no consequence. Plenty of opportunity for Christina Aquilera to shriek. A complete waste of Cher's acting talent. Stanley Tucci reprising his fag-hag role from DEVIL WEARS PRADA. And dear lord, why on EARTH did they bother casting Alan Cumming not to use him at all. That man has more pure acting, dancing, singing and genuine CABARET instinct and talent running through his veins that the rest of this cast put together. And what does he get? Barely two scenes.

Shame, shame, shame.

BURLESQUE has somewhat bizarrely been nominated for three Golden Globes.

BURLESQUE is on release in the US, Canada, the Netherlands, Spain, the UK, Japan, Belgium, France and Switzerland. It opens this weekend in Latvia, Romania, Vietnam and Denmark. It opens on December 30th in Portugal; on January 1st in Taiwan; on January 5th in Egypt and Jordan; on January 6th in Austria, Bahrain, Germany, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Thailand, the UAE and Turkey. It opens on January 13th in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, the Ukraine, Brazil and Lithuania. It opens on January 21st in Argentina, Ecuador, Estonia, South Africa and Uruguay. It opens on January 26th in Indonesia, Bulgaria, India, Mexico, Norway, Sweden and the Philippines. BURLESQUE opens on February 3rd in Chile, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Slovenia, Finland, Iceland and Poland. It opens on February 11th in Slovakia, Colombia, Kenya and Nigeria. It opens on February 17th in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Italy. It opens later in February in Bolivia, Russia, Serbia and Venezuela.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

CATFISH - "The REAL Facebook movie"

Nev Schulman meets Megan Faccio on the internet. She writes him songs, he sends her compliments. They seem to "connect". Pretty soon the texting turns to sexting. Nev starts to talk about what it would mean to make a relationship work with someone who lives out of state. The infatuation goes beyond Megan. Nev is friends with her family and her friends. He thinks they're all pretty awesome. But somehow, while he speaks to them on the phone, they never get to meet. And then the scales fall away. It looks like those songs she wrote were taken from Youtube. When he drives out to Megan's house, it's unoccupied. And when he shows out at Megan's mum Angela's house, it's clear that the poor woman has been running a ring of fake IDs on Facebook and conducting a fake cyber-love affair with Nev out of sheer frustration and loneliness. Far from being a cute twentysomething, Angela is a middle-aged mother with two severely handicapped children and a life of limited possibilities. Her fantasies are understandable, but Nev is a real person with real feelings who was led on. Or was he? After all, he is a documentary film-maker. He chose to share the most intimate details of his relationship with the camera even when he apparently thought it was real. And when he realised it was fake, he carried on filming. He and his friends created a sting, and sure, they were gentle with Angela, but not so gentle as to let her off the hook completely, because then there would be no film.

So, this film raises questions about identity and personal boundaries beyond those that the film-makers think they are posing. Most simply it poses the question about how we can trust personae that we meet on line. I think that's not particularly original. But it does show how quickly a person can cross the line from selective editing of a Facebook profile (not posting those pictures where we don't look our best) to wholesale fabrication. Second, CATFISH poses a question about how unboundaried we have all become. From the girl who posted so many pictures on line that Angela could easily steal her identity, to Nev, who thought nothing about letting a girl into his emotions that he'd never met, to the film-makers, Nev and Angela, who presumably feel comfortable exposing all this material for the sake of making a film. In other words, what I'm saying here is that while I think Angela has problems, she's just a case in extremis of what all of us who use Facebook and Twitter and Blog experience - that erosion of personal boundaries and personal privacy that we trade for a wider group of virtual friends.

CATFISH is, then, a provocative documentary and for all its questionable morality - entrapping a woman who clearly needs help - and pimping out one's own emotional life for the sake of a movie - let alone the (I think scurrilous charges) that the entire thing (as opposed to maybe certain scenes) were set up - it remains an important piece of work. It's not a great film in terms of its shooting style or structure - there were definitely passages where I got bored waiting for the inevitable unmasking - but it prompted so much discussion that it has become, by virtue of its content, a must-see film.

CATFISH played Sundance and London 2010 and opened in the US and Canada in September. It is currently on release in the UK and the Netherlands.

Monday, December 20, 2010


THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER is the third installment of the Narnia franchise, based on the children's fantasy novels and Christian apologia by C.S.Lewis. It comes to our screen after a troubled birth. After the disappointing box office on PRINCE CASPIAN, Disney pulled out of funding, having tried unsuccessfully to restrict the budget to $100m. And presumably in order to boost sales, Walden Media retrofitted the movie with 3D, resulting in a picture that looks very handsome indeed when you take off your 3D glasses, but dim and murky with the glasses on. But for all that, I think THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER is a perfectly entertaining family film, especially if you are not wedded to the books.

As the movie opens, World War One has begun, and the elder Pevensie children are in America with their parents. (In other words, they are now too old to go to Narnia - the magical land where good fights evil amidst a mish-mash of ancient mythological creatures, talking animals and Celtic lore). This leaves the younger children, Lucy (Georgia Henley) and Edmund (Skander Keynes) stuck in Cambridge, living in the house of their beastly Cousin Eustace (THE SON OF RAMBOW's Will Poulter). Lucy is kicking against her youth, wanting to be as pretty and desired as her elder sister. Edmund is kicking against his youth too, hating a world in which he is no longer a king. And poor Eustace is kicking against his delusional cousins who keep going on about Narnia.

Five minutes later and we are back in Narnia, aboard the Dawn Treader - the finest ship in the Narnian fleet. Prince Caspian is now King and has pacified his lands. But he still needs to find the seven lost Lords of Narnia and, we are later told by a magician, lay their seven swords on the table of Aslan in order to vanquish an evil mist that tries to corrupt and tempt us. This forms the MacGuffin of the film - a driving reason for the characters to visit a number of strange and fantastical islands, to battle slave traders and sea serpents. The green mist also provides a number of moral challenges - offering Lucy beauty, Edmund the chance to emerge from his elder brother and Caspian's shadow, and tormenting Caspian with his father's disapproval. Poor Cousin Eustace doesn't even get the psychological treatment but is turned into a dragon in order to teach him humility and kindness! And so, after some rather fast-paced and random seeming island-hopping and pouting and moaning, everyone eventually emerges wiser and better at the End of the World with Aslan the Lion aka Jesus.  Lucy and Peter and Caspian have resisted temptation, Reepicheep has his final reward and Eustace has faith.

There's a lot to like here. Murkey 3D aside, the production design, costumes and visuals are handsome - the sunsets glint on the sea and the End of the World looks suitably magisterial and beautiful. The acting is first class. Georgia Henley is superb as wise, courageous Lucy, but Will Poulter absolutely steals the show as Cousin Eustace. And thank goodness poor Ben Barnes has been allowed to drop his Spanish accent! The only shame is that they couldn't get Eddie Izzard to reprise his role as Reepicheep - the valiant little mouse - especially as his story culminates in what should be a very moving scene - I certainly found it so, even with Simon Pegg's rather flat delivery. And, finally, there's enough action - dragons and sea serpents included - to keep little ADD minds constantly amused.

The negatives are twofold. For the "casual" viewer, the movement from island to island seems a little random and ill-developed. So too does the resentment of Edmund for Caspian, and Caspian's torment. We sort of get that they are being tormented by the green mist but it's never particularly well developed. For the "committed" viewer, who has read and loved the books, there is plenty to complain about. The introduction of the seven swords (horcrux like), the reduction of Lucy's character to teenage angst, the ease with which the dragon's bracelet is removed, the length of time for which Eustace remains a dragon, the fact that the sea serpent is now conjured by Edmund's imagination (Staypuft Marshmallow man!).....

These are all valid concerns, and THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER has more gaping holes than it should. But, as I said before, it's a perfectly enjoyable confection, and with Will Poulter as Eustace Scrubb, I certainly hope it does enough business for the studio to consider making THE SILVER CHAIR.

THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER is on global release bar the Nordics, where it opens on Christmas Day, Argentina where it opens on January 6th, Venezuela where it opens on February 4th and Japan where it opens on February 25th.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Random DVD Round-Up 8 - WAR INC.

WAR INC. is a lo-fi but high concept political satire set in a fictional post-Soviet Islamic republic. Focussing on the key differentiator of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the country isn't occupied by the US Army but by a Blackwater style private mercenary organisation run by a Cheney like former US Veep (Dan Aykroyd). He hires John Cusack's assassin to kill a Middle Eastern oil minister in order to provide further money making opportunities. So, Cusack's character goes undercover as organiser for a local pop star (Hilary Duff, sending herself up brilliantly).

Written by Cusack and the guy behind the Warren Beatty political satire BULLWORTH, WAR INC. has its moments of visual and verbal humour and I love the over-arching concept. But the humour just isn't well enough developed or sustained to create a truly funny or insightful movie. Somehow the movie just doesn't cohere. This confirms my belief that good satire is one of the most difficult genres to pull of in any medium let alone film. One has to work hard to make it subtle and sharp and one has to resist the temptation to go for broad-brush sending up of obvious targets. Moreover, satire is ultimately an alienating form of humour, and it is hard to do well while also engaging us emotionally - as in the final scenes of this movie.

So, WAR INC. is a failure, but a noble failure.

WAR, INC played Tribeca 2008 and was released that year in the US, Israel, Russia, Taiwan, Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal. It is available on DVD.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Random DVD Round-up 7 - SUBURBAN MAYHEM

Like an Australian mash-up of TO DIE FOR and NATURAL BORN KILLERS, Aussie director Paul Goldman's (THE NIGHT WE CALLED IT A DAY) SUBURBAN MAYHEM is a lot of fun up until the point where, well, it isn't. The star of the show is Emma Barclay's Kat - a slutty media-whore intent on raising the cash to get her murderous brother a retrial, and willing to manipulate meat-heads into off'ing anyone who gets in her way. The first half of the flick is carried along on a wave of black humour, loud music, saturated colour, ludicrous characterisation and hilarious talking heads. However, as the movie hits the second half it falters without a remotely sympathetic character to anchor our interest. It's like a lurid rock song that lasts way too long. Indeed, Kat is such a monster of narcissism, and the director takes such evident pleasure in filming this teenage single-mum whoring it up, that one might almost be tempted to call this a rather misogynistic flick except for the fact that screenwriter Alice Bell is evidently taking equal pleasure in showing how simple-minded the guys are who fall for Kat's manipulation. Still probably worth a watch just for the bravura performance from Emily Barclay and for an early glimpse of the now Hollywood-famous Mia Wasikowska as Lilya.

SUBURBAN MAYHEM won 3 AFI awards and was nominated for a further 9. It played Cannes and Toronto 2006 and was released in Australia in 2006 and in the UK, New Zealand and France in 2007. It is available on DVD.

Random DVD Round-Up 6 - THE PUFFY CHAIR

So I should've written up THE PUFFY CHAIR years ago, but looking back at 2010, and realising that CYRUS was the movie I loved the most, prompted me to finally get round to doing it. That and being snowed in, wondering whether my Christmas vacation was going to be cancelled. It's amazing how much crap you get round to doing - filing your pay-cheques, organising your sock drawer (literally), and writing up old film reviews....

THE PUFFY CHAIR is basically a relationship movie set up as a road trip. Two brothers and a girlfriend drive from New York to their parents house in Atlanta to give their father the gift of a new lazyboy chair. The elder brother is caught in a bind with a highly dramatic needy woman. The younger brother happens upon a woman he likes. And both brothers are struggling with the nature of their relationship to each other given their wildly differing personalities.

THE PUFFY CHAIR is the kind of movie I normally hate, given that it's characters are slacker/hipster/moany/whiny twentysomethings who are basically pretty privileged but spend their time stressing about what life is all about and what they are going to be When They Grow Up. BUT the key difference here is that while its characters ARE self-indulgent, the movie IS NOT. And that's a nicety I think many reviewers and message-board-posters have over-looked. I am not disagreeing that the elder brother Josh is passive-aggressive, or that his girlfriend is an irritating drama-queen, or that his brother Rhett is immature and narcissistic. I'm not disagreeing that, like, calling, like, everyone, dude, is, like, irritating. But if you're trying to capture certain people at a certain point in their lives, then maybe this is the reality. And maybe, it's more honest than a Hollywood hipster rom-com like (500) DAYS OF SUMMER or a movie like CLERKS which deals with real frustrations and dilemmas but with a hyper-real set of comedy twists and dialogue that none of us bar Kevin Smith can come up with?

All I can say is that I've met these people and I've been through those phases, and had those uncomfortable midnight conversations about real relationships. So whether or not I'd care to see this film again (probably not!) it was still refreshing and interesting to see it that one time.

THE PUFFY CHAIR played Sundance 2005 and went on limited release in the US and UK in 2006 and 2007 respectively. It is available on DVD.


With HEART, BEATING IN THE DARK, Japanese director Shunichi Nagasaki remakes and reimagines his own 1982 movie of the same name. Filmed on both 35mm and Super-8 the movie attempts to recreate the punk energy and moral ambiguity of the original tale of a murderous couple on the run from their own consciences. That film was short (seventy minutes), grimy, claustrophobic and bleak. The remake is about people who are trapped even moreso than the original. Not only do we see the original dilemma - a young couple on the lam - played out, but this new couple meets the characters from the original film, still trapped by their past. And it's as though the director himself seems mired in the earlier version, incorporating actors and clips from that film. The resulting movie is an intellectually involved film about the nature of movie-making and taking a point of view, as well as about the original fears that coloured the first film. I found it an exhilarating and provocative movie, but I'm not sure how far it will make sense to anyone who hasn't seen the original. 



HOT TUB TIME MACHINE really isn't as funny as it should be given it's awesome title. It's like the SNAKES ON A PLANE of comedy.

The conceit is that a bunch of schlubby frustrated middle-aged friends go back to the ski resort where they had an awesome batchelor ski-trip. They drink too much, wind up naked in the hot tub, and somehow get zapped back in time to the original holiday. Cue lots of early 80s nostalgia - images of Ronald Reagan and ALF (remember ALF!) on TV, eighties rock on the airwaves, big hair and day-glo ski-suits. It's time for the men to undo passed mistakes and work out what really went down regarding the parentage of the teenager they have in tow.

Problem is, the eighties jokes/costumes are mined for a pretty crude kind of comedy, but nowhere is the humour as brilliantly crude as in, say, THE HANGOVER or SOMETHING ABOUT MARY. Rather, the writing seems to go for the lowest common denominator. Unsurprising to find out the movie was directed by Steve Pink (Justin Long comedy ACCEPTED) and screenwriters Josh Heald (debut), Sean Anders and John Morris (SEX DRIVE). This isn't sophisticated. Which is fine. Not every comedy needs to be STRANGELOVE. But I guess what I found even more disappointing was the complete lack of chemistry between the lead actors - they didn't feel like best friends - and the fact that John Cusack - typically so charming - was basically not at all interesting in this flick.

So, basically, a big let-down and really not worth the time, even on DVD.

HOT TUB TIME MACHINE opened in spring/summer 2010 and is now available on DVD/iTunes.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Edie and Thea are two young women who came to New York in the 1950s and found love. They shared their lives together, became engaged, travelled, loved, grew old, marched for gay rights, and suffered from homophobia. Eventually, with Thea in a wheelchair, dying, and Edie a still beautiful 80 year old, they got married. Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir (THE BRANDON TEENA STORY, later fictionalised as BOYS DON'T CRY) have created a moving and powerful hour long documentary about the couple, and through them, the political times they lived through. The women are refreshingly frank about sexual attraction. They speak candidly about setbacks - familial disapproval - getting kicked out of Sarah Lawrence - being kicked out of anti-Vietnam protests for making the war marchers "look bad". But they also speak candidly about dancing together, good sex and love. By asserting their normality - by making them rounded and human, the film-makers give greater power to the question of why Edie and Thea weren't allow to take their love to its "normal" conclusion - marriage. And this makes for a far more affecting argument that any barnstorming polemic could've been. This sort of insight and subtle investigation is exactly what documentary film-making is all about.

EDIE & THEA: A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT played a couple of festivals including the BFI LESBIAN AND GAY FILM FESTIVAL 2010. It was released on DVD in November 2010.

Random DVD Round-Up 3 - THE LOTTERY

THE LOTTERY is a deeply partisan piece of documentary film-making, advancing the case of publicly funded but privately managed Charter Schools over the old established Zone schools. The argument is advanced with a dazzling array of statistics quoted on screen, calm and dignified talking heads, and seemingly evangelical teachers and parents. The basic thesis is that the monopolistic provision of publicly funded, publicly controlled primary school education in America's deprived inner cities is failing its typically second-generation immigrant and African-American students. Inept teachers are protected from accountability by strident unions and politicians, dependent on the union vote, are reluctant to act. The alternative is the Charter School - schools publicly funded but managed by private sector bodies that stand to lose their charter if they don't achieve results. Charter Schools apparently get those results by Taking Education Seriously - longer school days, longer terms, obligations on parents to read to their kids and make their kids show up. They are championed by eloquent and passionate teachers and politicians who are given ample time in this documentary to state their case for empowering parents and giving children a chance to succeed. And what could be better evidence of the Charter School's success than the fact that so many parents are desperate to get their kids accepted that they subject themselves to an annual lottery for scarce places? It is this lottery - and the journey of four Harlem families through it - that provides the hook for this political film.

I have a lot of sympathy with the provision of multiple education choices, and with the idea of ambitious parents wanting to lift their kids out of public education. After all, my parents worked hard to put me through a private prep school and I was a scholarship girl in a private secondary school. If I have kids, and I can afford it, I'll be sending them to the best private school I can afford. So, be assured that what follows is not politically motivated.

THE LOTTERY is a very poorly made documentary because it makes no attempt to present a balanced case. Rather it is pure political propaganda. The proponents of Charter Schools are given plenty of time to calmly state their case. They are portrayed as earnest, articulate and rational. Their opponents - the teaching unions - are portrayed as a loud, irrational, selfish rabble, photographed shouting on the streets but not given the same calm talking head format to explain their position. The statistics quoted are also very selective, and there is little attempt to interrogate either the numbers or the people advocating Charter Schools. Nowhere does director Madeleine Sackler point out the political ambitions of the head of the Charter School movement, Eva Moskowitz, for instance.

The issue of whether Charter Schools work and how they impact local public schools is absolutely critical, not just in the US, but also in the UK where the new Conservative-Lib-Dem government is keen to introduce them. Unfortunately, THE LOTTERY gives us just one side of the coin, making it of little real use in addressing the issues. If you want to find that balance, you can look at a recent edition of the New York Review of Books. Diane Ravitch reviewed the Davis Guggenheim documentary, WAITING FOR SUPERMAN, which covers similar territory to THE LOTTERY, but garnered more attention, presumably because Guggenheim's previous film, AN INCOVENIENT TRUTH, was so very commercially and critically acclaimed. Ravitch is a Professor of Education at NYU and a Brookings Institution fellow, and her more nuanced and balanced assessment of the successes and failures of Charter Schools relative to Zone schools can be found here.

THE LOTTERY played a bunch of festivals including Tribeca and went on limited release in the US in May 2010.

Random DVD Round-Up 2 - HEARTBREAKER

French TV director Pascal Chaumeil makes his big-screen debut with the commercial hit, HEARTBREAKER. It's a whimsical romantic-comedy starring Romain Duris (THE BEAT MY HEART SKIPPED) and Vanessa Paradis (er...Chanel ads?). Penned by Laurent Zeitoun, Jeremy Doner and Yohan Gromb, the plot is driven by a conceit that is so palpably stupid that the film never really recovers from it. Duris plays Alex - a man who is hired by the friends and family of women who are stuck in awful relationships but can't see it. He comes along, charms them, and they, realising how crummy their current boyfriends are, dump them. Problem is that in this particular set-up, Vanessa Paradis' Juliette boyfriend Jonathan (Andrew Lincoln) isn't actually crummy. In fact, he seems to be genuinely in love with Juliette and vice versa. So, if Alex hadn't come along with his Patrick Swayze dance moves, all would've been well. This is a major problem for a romantic-comedy where we're meant to be rooting for a couple to get together.

The humour is sporadic, sometimes plain weird and lazy. The caper aspects - how the heartbreaker team set up the meet-cutes - are just silly. And call me pragmatic, but I was wondering why, if you had such good IT and general spy skills, you wouldn't be using them for something more lucrative and impactful. There's some attempted humour at the expense of Juliette's nympho best friend, but that seems discordant when the tone the director is trying to go for with the main plot is one of whimsical romance. And then, of course, there's the idea that Alex and Juliette fall in love over a shared passion for the film DIRTY DANCING. This could've been tremendous, but I found the pivotal dance scene somehow lacking in spark and fun. Romain Duris seemed to be putting his all into the role, but Paradis seemed rather cold and disengaged. That is, to be sure, part of her character, especially in the early scenes, but we should've seen more of a progression.

Overall, the film struck me a laughably silly but never so silly as to make me laugh. It looks like a hundred minute commercial for Monaco and has very little merit other than that. God help us for the remake. I predict some piss-poor Gerard Butler-Katherine Heigl set-up.

HEARTBREAKER opened in summer 2010 and is available on DVD and on iTunes.

Random DVD round-up 1 - LEAVING

Kristin Scott Thomas has a cool hard beauty that has seen her cast in many a film as, well, a cool hard beauty - emotionally repressed and stolidly dutiful. How wonderful then to see her madly, wide-smilingly in love - almost fey.

In Catherine Corsini's LEAVING, Scott Thomas plays Suzanne, a middle-aged middle-class woman married to a financially successful medic and living in a beautiful house. She is rather taken for granted by her husband (Yvan Attal) and kids, and is trying to reclaim her career as a physiotherapist. She is, in many ways, wandering through life on auto-pilot with occasional outbursts where the rage erupts - as in the powerful opening scene. Suzanne's life changes when she meets and pursues a Spanish builder called Ivan (Sergi López). Their attraction is physical - for sure - but not as singularly as her husband tries to portray it. She isn't just a middle-aged woman who has discovered sex but rather, as in Lady Chatterly's Lover - a kind of freedom and self-knowledge. The second half of the film sees the erotic character study move into a sort of procedural thriller as the two lovers are forced to live cut off from the husband's money and Suzanne's children. The surprise is that it isn't Ivan who drives the narrative - neither as seducer nor as breadwinner. Pretty soon Suzanne's girlie happiness turns into a more brutal, steely survival instinct.

By putting Suzanne firmly at the centre of the film, writers Catherine Corsini and Gaëlle Macé have given Kristin Scott Thomnas a role of the kind that is rarely seen in cinema. A middle-aged woman is allowed to be multi-faceted and the driving force of the action and emotional content of the film. Scott Thomas is completely up to the task and this is further evidence of an actress at the top of her game. I also appreciate that Corsini doesn't feel the need to spin this movie out beyond a 80 minute run-time. Too many films nowadays are unnecessarily baggy. But, there is a big problem with this film - and that's the final act. The closing action is too predictable, too crude relative to what has come before, and the final scenes over the end credits, while presumably trying to be ambiguous seem rather off-tone.

LEAVING played London and Toronto 2009 and was released last year in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Brazil. It was released earlier this year in Germany, Italy, Portugal, the UK, Argentina, Denmark, Sweden and the US.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Golden Globes nominations in full...

BEST PICTURE – DRAMA: The King's Speech; The Social Network; Black Swan; The Fighter; Inception. All fine with me except The King's Speech which is clearly a nostalgia choice and comes on the back of Colin Firth catching everyone's eye last year. Black Swan should win. The Social Network might.

BEST PICTURE - MUSICAL OR COMEDY: Alice in Wonderland; Burlesque; The Kids Are Alright; Red; The Tourist. All more or less rubbish. The Kids Are Alright will probably win because Hollywood loves to prove how right on it is.

BEST DIRECTOR: Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher, Tom Hooper, Christopher Nolan and David O Russell. In other words, all the Best Picture-Drama directors, which shows how piss-poor the Comedy noms are.

BEST ACTOR - DRAMA: Jesse Eisenberg; Colin Firth; James Franco (127 Hours); Ryan Gosling (Blue Valentine); Mark Wahlberg. Let's hope James Franco gets this for his superb perf.

BEST ACTRESS - DRAMA: Halle Berry (Frankie & Alice); Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole); Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone), Natalie Portman (Black Swan); Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine). Let's hope Jennifer Lawrence wins.

BEST ACTOR - MUSICAL OR COMEDY: Johnny Depp (The Tourist and Alice); Paul Giamatti (Barney's Valentine); Jake Gyllenhaal (Love and Other Drugs); Kevin Spacey (Casino Jack). No comment.

BEST ACTRESS - MUSICAL OR COMEDY: Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right; Anne Hathaway, Love and Other Drugs; Angelina Jolie, The Tourist, Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right; Emma Stone, Easy A. Angelina Jolie. Seriously?

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Christian Bale, The Fighter; Michael Douglas, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Andrew Garfield, The Social Network; Jeremy Renner, The Town; Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech. I mean, I love Andrew Garfield and Michael Douglas, but these performances are nowt special. In fact, none of these performances are anything special.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Amy Adams, The Fighter; Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech; Mila Kunis, Black Swan; Melissa Leo, The Fighter; Jacki Weaver, “Animal Kingdom. Who cares.

BEST ANIMATED FILM: Despicable Me; How to Train Your Dragon; The Illusionist; Tangled; Toy Story 3. It's gonna be Toy Story 3 isn't it?

BEST SCREENPLAY: Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy, 127 Hours; Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Bloomberg, The Kids are All Right; Christopher Nolan, Inception; David Seidler, The King's Speech; Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network. Bound to be Aaron Sorkin who wins this, right?

BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FILM: Biutiful; The Concert; The Edge; I am Love; In a Better World. By far not the best five but of this pick, Io Sono Amoro should win. Biutiful probably will though.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE: Alexandre Desplat, The King's Speech; Danny Elfman, Alice in Wonderland; A.R.Rahmann, 127 Hours; Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, The Social Network; Hans Zimmer, Inception.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG: "Bound to You" from Burlesque; "Coming Home" from Country Strong; "I See the Light" from Tangled; "There's a Place for Us" from The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me" from Burlesque.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

THE TOURIST - in the words of the great Ian Dury, what a waste

THE TOURIST is that dirty of dirtiest of Hollywood words, a "troubled" film. This is Hollywood code for a project that has become toxic; stuck in pre-production; riddled with "creative differences"; lead actors dropping out; directors hired, fired, and hired again; and writing credits expanded by the desperate attempts of over-paid script-doctors to hammer some shape and vision back into the bulbous mess. When the revolving doors at GK Films finally stopped turning, many a talented film-maker was trapped between the glass. But to no avail. The resulting film is absolutely without merit (which has bizarrely not precluded it from winning three Golden Globe nominations, once again proving how utterly without merit are Hollywood awards).

A gaunt but Prada-impeccable Angelina Jolie stars as mysterious British woman who seduces a provincial dolt (Johnny Depp) in order to throw Interpol off the scent of her real on-the-lam boyfriend, Alexander. They meet-cute on a high-speed train from Paris to Venice and then spend a few days running round Venice being harassed by aforementioned policemen, not to mention the Russian-wannabe goon that Alexander stole money from. And all the while, what we're really meant to care about is whether Angie really loves Johnny or Alex or what.

What this movie basically wants to be is a classic, beautifully-dressed, elegantly-romantic, quivering-under-the-surface sexy classic romantic-thriller along the lines of CHARADE or TO CATCH A THIEF

Problems: 1) Angelina Jolie phones it in as Eloise, doing little more than look arrogantly beautiful and over-dressed. 2) Johnny Depp cannot look like a provincial schlub if he tries. He also can't do physical slapstick comedy, and yes, I AM including Pirates of the Caribbean in that. 3) The police come off as complete idiots. That means there is NO dramatic tension. It's also a waste of Paul Bettany's acting talent. 4) The vengeful mafiosi that Alexander stole from is also completely OTT. Well, I know that's the point of casting Steven Berkoff. But please, this is just hokum. 5) I got the plot twist about an hour before the end of the flick. 6) It's really irritating how the Danieli keeps turning into the Gritti Palace 7) It's quite astonishing how DP John Searle has managed to photograph Venice to look ugly. 8) It's even more annoying that the director and screenwriters don't know what sort of tone they are going for - tense thriller with real threat and violence or physical comedy or whimsical romance? Is this CHARADE or is it RUN LOLA RUN? Or is it just a colossal waste of time?

Let's hope poor Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's reputation survives directing this fiasco, although god only knows why he went from art-house hit THE LIVES OF OTHERS to this confection. I guess Jolie and Depp's careers are fire-proof. Do yourself a favour and watch the Sophie Marceau-Yvan Attal French original, ANTHONY ZIMMER, instead.

THE TOURIST is on release in the UK, US, Egypt, Kuwait, the UAW, Bahrain, Canada, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar and Turkey. It opens this weekend in Belgium, France, Germany and Italy. It opens the following week in New Zealand, Australia, Hungary, Indonesia, Malaysia, Serbia and Singapore. It opens on January 6th in Russia, Sweden, Portugal, Slovenia, Estonia and Iceland. It opens on January 13th in Poland, the Netherlands and Slovakia. It opens on January 21st in Brazil and Finland. It opens on January 27th in Greece and Venezuela and then in Japan on March 11th.

Monday, December 06, 2010


THE NEXT THREE DAYS is a faithful remake of Fred Cafave's French thriller, POUR ELLE / ANYTHING FOR HER. It has been remade by the American writer/director Paul Haggis, famous for scripts and films that are, to my mind, over-long, over-elaborate, over-technical and lacking in real emotion. Unfortunately, THE NEXT THREE DAYS is no exception.

Russell Crowe stars as a schlubby loser who loves his wife and little kid. So, when she's locked up for apparently murdering her boss in a fit of rage, he's devastated. When the conventional legal channels are exhausted, and his despairing wife attempts suicide, poor Schlub has no choice but to plan a prison break-out. Apparently, this is quite easy. You interview a guy who's already written books how to do it; watch a couple of YouTube How To videos; and while you are basically a good guy, you discover hidden physical strengths. These include the ability to a) cold-bloodedly murder some drug-dealers b) drive a car at high speed in on-coming traffic and c) hold on to your wife while your car performs a triple lutz with its door open.

As you might tell from my facetious tone, I wasn't any more convinced of the reality of this film any more than I was by the original. In both versions, the film-makers attempts to ground the movie in reality with a detailed slow-build of research before the prison break fails to do its job. And while Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks are just fine in their roles, the basic concept is simply too incredible to buy into.

Worst still, Paul Haggis direction and script adaptation contrives to bring us out of the film rather than keep us in it. For instance, why make the guy who sells Schlub fake passports deaf? I have nothing against deaf people, but when the actor playing him first spoke you could hear the audience wondering what was going on, (some of them tittering - shame on them) and it was a distraction. Another example is where Schlub has done something bad but then counters by doing something that's meant to be sympathetic. But as his car pulls away and we still the shot of what he's done, it's just plain funny. The audience in my preview screening laughed AT the movie, rather than being impressed by the emotional confusion of the protagonist. Third Paul Haggis does his typical thing of dumbing everything down. Why does he need to play a childish game, teasing us with whether or not the wife really did murder her boss? At least the French flick had the maturity to make that a non-issue. And finally, this movie has more endings than LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING.

Overall, dull, banal, incredible (literally), and while decently acted, utterly forgettable. Save your money, save your time.

THE NEXT THREE DAYS is on release in the US, Belgium, Kazakhstan, Russia, Canada, Poland, Egypt, Kuwait, Singapore, Bulgaria, Finland, Norway and the Philippines. It opens next weekend in France, Greece and the Netherlands. It opens on December 24th in Brazil; on January 7th in the UK; on January 20th in Germany and Hungary.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

TRON: LEGACY 3D - Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

TRON: LEGACY is the much anticipated sequel to the iconic, pioneering 1982 sci-fi flick that took us inside the computer for the very first time. It is faithful to the original, while at the same time taking full advantage of new technologies, and while I am sure fan-boys will be happy, as a complete newbie, I found it exciting, evocative and literally wonderful. However, as I'll go on to explain, it's not without its problems - and for those reasons - I think the original movie stands head and shoulders above the remake.

As with the original movie, TRON: LEGACY has a simple plot that is explored on two levels: in reality and on the Grid (the computer-world), and characters exist both in real life and as avatars in both. A prologue tells us that back in 1989, talented computer programmer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) disappeared, leaving his little boy Sam an orphan. 27 years later, and Sam (Garrett Hedlund) is lured into the Grid by an apparent signal from his long-dead father, and both will try to battle a Programme more powerful than MCP (the villain of the first film). This time, the enemy is the very avatar Kevin Flynn created to patrol the Grid, called Clu; and Clu has bent Tron, the original security programme, to his will. No matter - for the Flynns have their own programming skills, as well as the help of a pioneering new programme called Quorra (Olivia Wilde), not to mention the attention of an oleaginous show-man called Castor (Michael Sheen).

The first good thing to say about TRON: LEGACY is that is looks absolutely bloody amazing. I watched it in 3D and what they did with the Disney logo - the logo - not even the film ! - had me gasping. We then break into scenes of real-life as we establish the prologue and the back story, but once we enter the Grid we're back into a world of clean fluorescent lines; dazzling car and motorcycle chases; iconic costumes and sets; and simply amazing 2012-like interior design. I can't wait to see this film again just to, quite simply, see it - to luxuriate in its design. I guess this reflects well on the fact that Disney respected the original designs and the camerawork of David Fincher's DP, Claudio Miranda, particularly skilled at working in DV. But most of all, the seamless use of CGI. Take, as just one example, the way in which Jeff Bridges' younger self plays CLU, retro-aged using the same technology that made Brad Pitt old in Benjamin Button.

The second good thing to say about TRON: LEGACY is that the story makes absolute sense. In other words, the screen-writers didn't mess up the logic or the lines of the original but extended it forward in a perfectly reasonable manner. That might sound petty but I've seen many a movie "opened out" by careless writers trying to over-shoot themselves. Edward Kitsis and Adam Horrowitz (veterans of LOST) don't make that mistake. And whenever there's a nod to the outside world - the world outside the movie - it makes sense and doesn't break the fourth wall. So, for instance, TRON the video game exists in the world of TRON: LEGACY but as an Encom product. Another example is using Daft Punk as the house-DJs in the Grid's End of the Line club. This might've been distracting were it not for the fact that Daft Punk's whole style, clothing and music is so Tron-like anyways that they fit right in.

The third good thing to say about TRON: LEGACY is that despite all the technological wizardry, a number of the key cast members give really powerful, believable performances, not least Jeff Bridges as the young, self-assured CLU and the older, wiser, more regretful Kevin Flynn. In the scene where he acknowledges his youthful pride and his love for his son, as the only true "perfection" that can be attained, Bridges just acts everyone else off the screen. Perhaps more surprising is that Olivia Wilde, as Quorra, is actually rather good. Wilde has the kind of linear, hard beauty that makes her superb casting as a computer programme. And the surprise for those of us who knew her from her role as Mischa Barton's love interest in The OC is that, when given half a chance, she can actually act. As Quorra she displays a certain wide-eyed excitement about the real world - what's Jules Verne like? what's the sun like? - that's captivating and engaging. And the movie desperately needs characters we can feel for to counter-act and humanise all the technology and CGI stylings.

But this movie really does have problems too. First up, first-time feature director Joseph Kosinski uses every directorial cliché in the book, especially in the 2-D live action scenes. For example, when Sam rides his motorcycle up to his dad's old arcade hall, we see his reflection in the motorcycle mirror. Why? What for? Except that's what directors usually do. Moreover, while Kosinski can direct high-paced thrilling Grid battles, he can't film a thrilling live action motorcycle chase. The opening cops versus Sam chase is simply dull.

Second, and far worse, two of the key performances are seriously off-beam. Michael Sheen's Castor/Zuse looks like a cross between an Albino and an Oompa-Loompa and he plays the character like Alan Cumming as MC in Cabaret. His performance is so camp, frenetic and outré, that it's begging to be called "scene-stealing" but instead I found it out of place and distracting. But far worse, and the biggest weakness of TRON: LEGACY by far, is the casting of Garrett Hedlund (Patroclus in TROY) as Sam Flynn. According to IMDB, Ryan Gosling was in the running, and would no doubt have pulled off the scenes of emotional heft with greater depth than this wooden-surfaced, persistently-smirking young man. Seriously, this guy gives Mark Hamill in NEW HOPE as the most wooden, peevish sci-fi protagonist of all time. He truly grates. And I guess it's the director who ultimately has to carry the can for a) casting him and b) not directing him better. If you need evidence check out the scene where he meets his father - the person he thinks walked out on him and left him an orphan - for the first time in 27 years. He should be angry, happy, confused, questioning, bewildered - any or all of these things. Garrett Hedlund's Sam can only register far off angst or a smirk or bland acquiescence. Shame, shame, shame.

It says a lot for the visual brilliance of TRON: LEGACY that I still think it's worth checking out despite the ham-fisted live-action direction and Garrett Hedlund's lack of acting ability. But it's desperately sad that a movie that had so much right, has been pinned back from true greatness by poor casting.

TRON: LEGACY will be released on December 15th in Egypt and the UAE. It is released on the 16th in Argentina, Australia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Malaysia, Russia and Singapore. It is released on the 17th in Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Finland, India, Japan, Norway, Spain, Sweden, the UK, the USA and Venezuela. It opens on December 23rd in Hong Kong and Russia; on December 24th in Lithuania and Poland; on the 25th in Colombia; on the 26th in Iceland and on the 30th in Estonia and South Korea. It opens on January 6th in Slovakia; on the 12th in Italy; on the 13th in Portugal; on the 26th in Belgium and the Netherlands; on the 27th in Germany and on the 28th in Turkey. It opens in France on February 2nd.

Late review - London Film Fest 2010 - HORS LA LOI / OUTSIDE THE LAW

This review is brought to you by guest reviewer, Alex:

Director Rachid Bouchareb’s story of a family of Algerian immigrants to France and their lives from 1945 to 1962 has been likened to “The Godfather” or “Once Upon A Time in America”. Like the excellent “La Haine” which touched on the same themes, the movie provoked protests and high security when it played the Cannes film festival and right-wing French politicians labelled it historically revisionist and "anti-French".

Bouchareb’s previous Oscar-nominated 2006 movie “Days of Glory” shamed the French government into supporting Algerian veterans who fought for the French state against the Nazis in World War Two. “Outside The Law” reunites many of the previous film’s cast. Brutal, real and enjoyable, “Days of Glory” had me slavering at the chops for more. After all, a well-made action movie with a social message is the best of both worlds – the equivalent of Saturday night in the pub and early Sunday morning mass rolled into one. Sadly, I was disappointed.

“Outside The Law” limps prosaically through over two hours chronicling the brothers varied involvements in the cause of the arm of the FLN, a terrorist group whose premise was to campaign for Algerian independence, from within French borders. One leads it, asserting control first over the organisation’s French chapter and then over rival groups, the other, a veteran of the doomed Indochinese war, is the violent facilitator of the FLNs’ ends, and the last distances himself from the group until forced to participate.

The irony of this premise is little explored, except in the film’s intellectual denouement when arch-nemesis police inspector Colonel Faivre (Bernard Blancan) is forced under duress to meet with our boys in a posh Parisian in private club. Abdelkader’s comparison, and the ironic synchronicity, of his own political and armed struggle for Algerian freedom with the Colonel’s previous decoration for his role in the French Resistance to Vichy regime is well-made.

Bouchareb has used the family tale as metaphor for French immigrant experience; represented by brothers Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila), educated and politicised; Roschdy Zem as Messaoud, the brutal bag-man and assassin, and Jamel Debbouze (of “Amelie”) as Saïd who is amoral, entrepreneurial and secular. Stoic and grim, the boys’ mother (Chafia Boudraa) is the patriotic conscience and maintains the family’s religious and traditional practices; she is also the most vibrant of the female cast members, although that’s not saying much. Messaoud’s wife is dutiful and introverted and Sabrina Seyvecou as Hélène, a white French sympathiser and financier to the FLN cause is anaemic and obsessed with unfulfilled desire for Abdelkader. His rejection of her advances in favour of total devotion to the cause is clumsily portrayed and represents a token attempt at character development.

Better handled is the conflict played out between the brothers. Saïd’s dream of creating the first French boxing champ of Algerian origin, representing ideas of assimilation, is opposed by the very real threats he faces from his ideologically torn brothers who see his fighter as a courtesan of the despised French state. Given that we already know how violent the group’s measures can be, how far will they go to stop the fight, we wonder?

Action scenes such as the opening recreation of the infamous Sétif massacre in 1945 were well made (Bouchareb admits he was trying to create "a sort of western") but the plot develops falteringly and there’s a sense that in trying to popularise the movie beyond its natural audience, an action scene has been added every so often to cattle prod us awake again between the characters’ soap opera-like vacillations.

Telling the story of a 20th century conflict from the underdog (and ultimately winning) perspective is undoubtedly a rich, unmined cinematic vein; Vietnamese Bảo Ninh’s novel “The Sorrow of War” would be an interesting antidote to the abundance of Hollywood movies on the same topic. Arguably “Outside The Law” is another take, from a different angle, on the much better “Battle of Algiers”.

If Bouchareb wished to again provoke social change and political action he has succeeded. There is even some similarity in his film in this respect to Visconti’s “Rocco and his brothers”. If he wished to entertain, he has fallen short of the mark, but not failed entirely. Add to your Lovefilm rental queue but don’t pay good money to watch at the cinema.

HORS LA LOI / OUTSIDE THE LAW played Cannes, Toronto and London 2010 and opened in France, Switzerland and Belgium in September. It opened in the US in November.

TRON (1982) - Avatar

We all have movies we are obsessed with as children. For me, it was STAR WARS. Star Wars the movies, the toys, the computer games, the novels...TRON passed me by. Not so for a generous of incipient sci-fi freaks and computer nerds, not to mention Daft Punk. For those kids, TRON the movie and even more so, TRON the arcade game, are nostalgia-inducing, iconic, pop-cultural artefacts. So, the other night I Sky-plussed the original 1982 movie and finally sat down to watch a movie, loaded with the baggage of knowing that it was iconic, and the slightly odd recognition from having watched TRON: LEGACY on preview earlier in the day. The movie felt familiar and strange - archaic and modern - technical and emotional - all at the same time. I had a truly great time watching it, and while the visual effects might seem old hat today, the sheer beauty and austerity of the design is still impressive, nearly thirty years later.

The plot is simple but works on two planes - reality, and within the grid - with the same people fighting the same battle in both worlds by means of avatars. In the real world, ruthless Dillinger has plagiarised the work of talented computer programmer Kevin Flynn and then forced him out of Encomm. Now, he is being blackmailed by the Master Control Programme he created to run the company. MCP, like HAL, thinks Programmes are superior to Users, and is hacking military computers to gather programmes. Flynn's friend and fellow programmer has, thankfully, created a security programme to patrol MCP, called Tron, and when MCP ruthlessly lasers Flynn INTO of the grid, using another friend, Laura's super-gadget, he will be helped by their avatars, Tron and Yori, to defeat the evil MCP/Dillinger.

Everything about the film must've seemed amazing and pioneering at the time. Just the fact that writer-director Steven Lisberger thought that the guts of a computer would be an interesting place to set a film would've been radical, decades before MATRIX. And while he didn't have CGI, the way in which he mashed up live action, painted animation, roto-scoping, and good old visual effects is quite superb, and still visually striking. And no wonder, when you realise that the creative vision was the result of collaboration between Meobius and BLADE RUNNER's Syd Mead. It's thanks to them that we get the iconic grid structure, light-cycle races, uniforms and discs. But the key strength of TRON - the reason why we still love it - is that the technical wizardry isn't all their is to it. Steven Lisberger and Bonnie MacBird have created characters we empathise with - whether it's the youthful enthusiasm of Bridges' Flynn, or the love story between Tron and Yori, or the most moving scene in the film which - radical at the time - involved the death of what is basically a computer programme.

So, for me, TRON has it all - visual purity, radical creativity, pioneering technology, but always, most importantly, real heart. I can't believe I waited this long to watch it!

TRON was released in 1982. It was nominated for Oscars for Best Costume Design and Best Sound but lost to GANDHI and ET respectively. Apparently it wasn't nominated for an Oscar because the MPAA, in all its wisdom, thought the film-makers had cheated by using computers! This says a lot about how threatened the academy felt by new technology.

Saturday, December 04, 2010


MONSTERS - ceci n'est pas un horror flick

MONSTERS is a movie that has been much-hyped as a totem for how movie-making has become democratised by cheap digital cameras and editing packages. The young British director Gareth Edwards has proved that a talented visual effects artist can create a horror movie that looks every bit as slick and full of special effects as the largest Hollywood studio with a few digital cameras and an editing package on a laptop. I'm not sure what all this fuss about laptops is. I mean, if you have a team of CGI animators and visual effects artists in LA or Soho they're basically just using a bunch of computers. The idea of a "laptop" as somehow impoverished and amateur is nonsense. And I say that typing this on an Alienware M17x with a terrabyte of internal storage and enough speed and power to conquer mainland China. However, in fairness to Gareth Edwards, he's made this point on many a TV and radio show. Indeed, he has also admitted that the budget for his "miraculously low-budget but hi-fi looking" movie isn't as low as people think. This is a little disingenuous though - he is modest but then again he's all over the media talking about how gonzo his filming style was. To hear him tell it, he basically decided to make a monster movie, got two young actors, a translater and a van, roamed up and down Mexico shooting people and places that caught their interest, improv'ing dialogue around a set of pre-defined scenes. I have this Scooby Doo vision of pesky kids harassing Mexicans for access to their tavernas.

At any rate, this is a rather nastier and long-winded start to a review than I normally cobble together, and actually doesn't reflect on my feelings about Gareth Edwards' work but rather for the sycophantic, near-hysterical reception it has received among the mainstream reviewers. They are so proud of themselves for having discovered a gonzo movie - a movie to stick it in the eye to Avatar - that they are positively falling over themselves to praise it. It's as though everything else in the film must be great because, hey, it was made by a plucky Englishman in his bedroom! So, let's all stand back and take a long hard look at MONSTERS and ask ourselves what we'd think of it if we didn't know how it was made. If someone gave us a tenner and told us to pick a movie and we watched it, what would we think? And the answer to that question is, "yeah, it's okay, but it's not really scary, or original is it?"

Essentially the movie is a two-hander between Scoot McNairy and his real-life girlfriend Whitney Able. He plays a rough and tumble photojournalist, and she plays a rich girl who ran away from her fiancé, and whose father has charged the photojournalist with bringing her back home. And so we get a planes, trains and automobiles story where two young good-looking kids discover that, basically, they really really like each other, and that while they both want to get home, they want to get home for each other. This, ladies and gentlemen, is nothing new in cinema. Moreover, it's so obvious, the dialogue so clichéd that it's about as annoying as the heroine's oh so edgy, hipster haircut.

Now, the backdrop for this lo-fi road movie romance is the Mexican-American border. Back in the day, nasty evil alien squid things landed in Mexico and were cordoned off in an "infected zone". When this story begins, aliens are just a fact of life, an ever-present threat against whom the humans lash out, descending to practises that violate basic principles of humanity. DISTRICT 9 anyone? Except MONSTERS wishes it were DISTRICT 9. It creates a walled border between Mexico and America, with aliens kept "outside" and people with passports finding it easier and cheaper to get across. The movie deliberately raises the analogy of present-day immigration politics and then doesn't do anything subtle or sophisticated with it. Where DISTRICT 9 was closely observed, satirical and scabrous, MONSTERS is ham-fisted, amateur and superficial. Essentially, there is no substitute for a script. And, as for the praise heaped upon a lo-fi film for looking good, yes, to be sure, the cinematography is superb. There are scenes of a sunrise on the water that are just breath-taking. And the use of CGI to replace real bill-boards and signs with Monster related iconography is very well done. But the monsters themselves are lolloping giant squid and look about as scary as a Pepe the Prawn.

So, in the final analysis, MONSTERS is beautifully shot and throws up some interesting ideas. But as romance, it's hackneyed, and as horror movie, it isn't scary, and as political allegory, it doesn't even try to get beyond the interest of its initial concept.

MONSTERS played the festival circuit and opened in the USA, Kazakhstan, Russia, Canada and Australia earlier this year. It is currently on release in France, Indonesia and the UK. It opens on December 9th in Germany and on January 20th in 2011.