Monday, May 30, 2011


THE HANGOVER PART II has been critically panned. No matter. The collective goodwill that bounced off the first, break-out, film, has enabled the sequel to smash box-office records. Not only is THE HANGOVER PART II the biggest opening on record for an R rated film, but it's also the biggest opening ever for a comedy. So, people are going to watch this flick AND, according to the IMDb ratings, a quarter are scoring it as a perfect ten, with nearly 60% giving it between 8 and 10. 

So, what's biting the reviewers?! I guess what disappointed me most about the sequel was its slavish replication of every key scene - every little surprise - from the first movie. This makes the sequel lead-heavy as we fall to checking the boxes from the original, and sucks the air out of every gag. The second problem is that Zach Galifianakis - the break-out star from the original movie - is given way more air-time in the sequel. This brings up a problem I have with a lot of movies - from Galifianakis' previous flick DUE DATE, to most recent movies starring Danny McBride. These guys are funny but in a kind of creepy way, and they work best when used in short cameo scenes to enliven broad comedy. When they move to centre-stage they shatter a movie's equilibrium and start to grate. 

The final problem is the movie's setting. Taking the flick from Vegas to Thailand radically changes the sleaze factor of the antics. After all, Vegas has done an amazing job over the past fifteen years, relabelling itself as a family destination and distancing itself from its criminal past. So when our clean-cut heros get into shenanigans, we don't seriously fear for their lives - it's all basically slightly naughty but fundamentally fine. Changing to Bangkok adds a level of grime, grit and stakes that sit at odds with the movie's comedy stylings. For example, in the original, Bradley Cooper's Phil gets tasered. In this flick, he gets shot. In the original, Ken Jeong's Mr Chow gets locked in a car boot. In this flick, he actually dies from a cocaine dose. In the original, Ed Helms' Stu loses a tooth and marries a stripper. In this flick, he gets fucked by a Ladyboy. Not that I'm against explicit material in general. But it just felt that time and again, this movie had moved beyond the same boundaries of the original - and for no real comedic gain. The upshot is that I had a lousy time watching THE HANOVER PART II. I was bored and unamused. The slavishly familiar plot. The lack of a cameo to rival Mike Tyson. The grimier, bleaker environment. It was all, basically, a downer. But what do I know? Director Todd Phillips is sitting on a cash-pile the size of my house. 

THE HANGOVER PART II is on release in the UK, USA, Belgium, France, Italy, Sweden, Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, Croatia, Denmark, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, the Netherlands, Peru, Slovenia, Thailand, Brazil, Bulgaria, Colombia, Estonia, Finland, India, Mexico, Norway, Paraguay, Venezuela and Armenia. It opens on June 2nd in Belarus, Greece, Germany, Hong Kong, Kazakhstan, Portugal, Russia, Singapore, Poland and Turkey. It opens on June 16th in Georgia; on June 24th in Spain and on July 1st in Japan.

Friday, May 27, 2011

SENNA - a documentary worthy of Ayrton

Never has a movie inspired such tear-stained reminiscence among my close friends and family - some of whom worked in F1 racing - as Asif Kapadia's new documentary, SENNA.  For those of us who watched racing in the 80s and 90s, Ayrton Senna was an icon. Young, handsome, rich, for sure, but more than that -  brilliant at driving in wet conditions, and bold in exploiting a gap to take the lead.  He was everything a racing driver should be. 

Of course, at the time, as a kid, while I knew of his rivalry with the French incumbent world champion, Alain Prost, I hadn't realised just how poisonous that rivalry had been, nor the mechanics of their famous clashes in Japan.  Nor had I realised just how political FISA had been, with its French boss, Jean-Marie Balestre apparently hand in glove with Prost, the Sepp "Colonel" Blatter of his day. I hadn't appreciated how revolutionary the Williams' team use of electronics in the early 1990s had been, and that this had prompted Senna's move from Maclaren run by the true gent., Ron Dennis. I remembered the tragic build-up to race day at Imola 1994, but I had no idea how reluctant Senna had been to race that day.  The memory of that day is still with me. It's like remembering Hillsborough - one of those searing moments where you realise that you are watching tragedy unfold in front of you in real time, and feeling powerless but transfixed - that a young handsome boy who had so much talent had died on, of all things, the seemingly benign Tamburella turn.  

The brilliance of this documentary is twofold. First, that the director and producers managed to persuade the Senna family and Bernie Ecclestone to co-operate - giving them access to the home videos, their impressions of what Ayrton was thinking at crucial moments, not to mention the extensive F1 archives, with footage of everything from on-board cameras, to drivers' briefings, to conversations in the pit. This level of access is unprecedented and results in a documentary that has the freedom of a feature film in terms of camera placing and editorial choices. More importantly, it takes the movie beyond recreation of key races to the emotional state of mind of Ayrton - most crucially in interviews with his sister and team-medic.  

But access is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a great documentary. And SENNA *is* a great documentary. The reason for that is that it has a clear narrative arc (kudos to writer Manish Pandey) and some of the tropes of a classic fiction drama. This helps focus a film that could've been over-whelmed by the sheer weight of material, and become unbalanced by Imola.  Indeed, the wonderful thing about this doc. is that it focuses on Senna's life - gives you a sense of how important his faith was to him, reminds you of his charitable work, situates him within a loving but fearful family, and shows both sides of his character - both the integrity and humility but also the pride and fall from grace in Suzuka 1990.  

The resulting documentary is insightful, well-constructed and powerful.  I started crying at Interlagos 1991 - the sheer force of will that made Senna drive 10 laps with just sixth gear and to lift that trophy in front of his home crowd.  And when the race day at Imola began, it was game over.  That sense of anticipation - the directorial choice to keep us with the on-board camera - and Antonio Pinto's sensitive score....What can I say?  It all adds up to a documentary that is unmissable for F1 fans, but - and here I can speak to the experience of Doctor007 - a movie that works even for those who have never heard of Ayrton Senna.   For Doctor007, SENNA worked as a fascinating character study that gripped him on an almost Shakespearian level.  After all, is there anything more archetypal - more universally translatable - as the story of a young pretender facing an older incumbent - of a man of faith battling the corruption of the establishment - of the under-dog making good - of a good man dying young?   

SENNA opened in Japan and Brazil in 2010 and in Italy, Germany and France earlier this year. It played Sundance 2011 and opens in the UK on June 3rd. It opens in Australia on July 21st.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

I rarely say this pre-review but you MUST go and see SENNA

Whether or not you are a fan of racing. This is by far the best film I have seen all year. Review to follow...

Monday, May 23, 2011

THOR 3D - a movie so dull it took me two weeks to work up the energy to review it

THOR is a super-hero movie so simplistic that it makes you feel like BATMAN BEGINS never happened.  I left the theatre bored and patronized.  Not to mention shocked that the director – Kenneth Branagh – who brought us intelligent and subtle readings of Shakespeare – was trading in such trite pastiche.  The movie neither challenges intellectually nor delights visually. It is – both in terms of style and content – an absolute zero.

The plot has two parts to it, but both are hackneyed and predictable. The first part is your typical Oedipal tale of familial jealousy and revenge.  Papa loves big brother (Thor) more than little brother, so little brother gets his revenge by framing big brother and having him exiled before usurping his father’s throne. This all takes place in a Norse superhero world peopled by buff gods in He-Man outfits but decorated by Trump.  There is an inter-world travel-ator which looks like a posh version of the Star Trek transporter and is, shock! horror! to comic book fans, guarded by a black god.  (The only shock I felt was why Idris Elba – so brilliant in The Wire – was slumming it in this dreck). This brings us to the second part of the story, which is basically your typical, predictable fish-out-of-water rom-com, as last seen in Disney’s THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG.  Aforementioned big brother gets exiled to earth where he meets a hot chick who just happens to be an astrophysicist. He learns how not to be an arrogant arse after one night’s deep and meaningful conversation on top of a camper van, and then buggers off to save his world.

The issue here is that the movie is cheap.  It looks cheap and it goes for cheap laughs. Thor is undoubtedly a camp character but then so is Batman. The problem here is that he is also one-dimensional, whereas Batman has nuance and conflict. Thor’s character “development” from idiot-jock to sensitive-hippie is boring because it doesn’t come by stages but rather at the flick of a switch. The  script-writers are simply uninterested in exploring the genre conventions in which they are operating, and to the post-modern viewer, the result is a movie that seems old clunky, simplistic and frankly, just not trying hard enough.  At worst, it feels like pastiche.  There is little point in discussing performances –for what hope do the actors have to dazzle when they are asked to be little more than cardboard cut-outs? Natalie Portman, as the love interest, Jane, simply has to swoon.  Chris Hemsworth, as Thor, simply has to be ridiculous and be-muscled. Anthony Hopkins, as Papa Odin, has to be austere. And poor Tom Huddlestone, used to much finer fair in British independent cinema, is reduced to twirling his pantomime moustaches as little brother, Loki. This cheapens the actors as much as it cheapens the audience. Poor show, all round. 

THOR is on release in all markets bar Japan where it opens on July 1st.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES - A movie so dull I walked out after 90 minutes

About fifteen minutes into the latest PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movie, Dame Judi Dench -  her ear be-slobbered by Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow -  asks "Is that all?"  I felt very much the same way as I waded through this over-stuffed and yet ultimately vacuous blockbuster.  For let us be clear: this is an absolutely terrible movie. Derivative, muddled and, sin of all sins, dull.  I walked out after 90 minutes, leaving a good 45 minutes of the movie left to run.  Still, not to worry.  No doubt the shameless hacks chez Bruckheimer are penning episodes 5 asnd 6 of this lucrative franchise as we speak.

So, what it all about, Alfie? Three ships are sailing to South America to find the Fountain of Youth (TM).  One ship contains Spaniards, trying to capture the elixir for their king. (We don't hear much more about them.)  The second ship contains Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush), who has swapped piracy for privateering - the only credible bit of character development in the film - and an interesting analogy for the way in which this franchise has sold-out from camp farce to clunking establishment milk-cow. The final ship contains Captain Blackbeard (Ian McShane, presumably cast because he is the only working actor more wrinkled than Keith Richards), Blackbeard's daughter Angelica (Penelope Cruz) and Captain Jack Sparrow himself.  The movie sees these crews assembled, reach land in South America, do battle with some cannibalistic mermaids, and then set off over land to find the fountain.  That's the point at which I left.

I left because it had become painfully clear that ON STRANGER TIDES was suffering from two structural problems that were not going to be resolved by simply hanging about for another forty five minutes. First up, the movie commits the cardinal sin of subverting the very formula that made it successful!  In the first flick, which I rather liked, the prevailing atmosphere was "camp family fun"! We had pretty young lovers to root for,  a little bit of spookiness, and every now and then a bit of naughtiness in the form of Captain Jack Sparrow - a pirate so effete and ineffectual he was a walking spoof of the pirate movie genre.  By contrast, in ON STRANGER TIDES, Sparrow is front and centre throughout, rather than being used as comic relief. His presence tires -  he has become the establishment - in fact, he's rather good at getting out of scrapes even if all the set-piece fight scenes are lifted straight out of Indiana Jones or earlier PIRATES films. Worst of all, the camp Jack Sparrow has to sustain the main love story, with a smouldering Angelica, utterly at odds with his camp style. All of this leaves Geoffrey Rush's Barbosa as by far the most interesting, and certainly the only entertaining, figure on screen.

The second big problem is the direction. Rob Marshall is, simply put, a terrible director. And here, I am looking to his previous films too - CHICAGO, NINE and MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA.  Marshall seems to direct by throwing everything at the kitchen wall - more characters, more plot, over-loaded production design, more angles, more cuts, more orchestration (Hans Zimmer particularly irritating here). The editing style is the biggest culprit here, especially in the set-pieces.  Marshall doesn't seem to be able to trust the action itself - the choreography (ironic given his background) to be interesting enough to hold our attention. So he cuts, cuts, cuts, all the time holding the camera so close to the action that I wanted to pull back for breath.  Take for example an early scene where Sparrow is dancing on top of the King's dinner table and then swings from chandeliers. Why not just let the camera sit back and see his quick, deft, steps across the table?  The whole thing smacked of complete lack of confidence in the material.

Of course, added to these two big structural problems, there are many minor irritations. The cavalier hijacking of the Indiana Jones format. The way in which the hero and heroine conveniently happen upon trap-doors. The fact that the producers evidently thought - "you know, those vampire movies are making a bunch of money - let's get some hot teenage girls and give them vampire teeth!".  Worst of all, the screenwriters actually gave us a love story between a priest and a mermaid. I have seen anything as crass since the notorious soap opera Sunset Beach had the Father Fit storyline.  Weak.


Monday, May 09, 2011

HANNA - visually brilliant - narratively nonsensical

HANNA is a visually stylish; brilliantly edited; powerfully orchestrated action movie let down by inconsistent acting styles; insufficiently developed themes; and a story full of plot holes so large you could drive a horse and carriage through them.

Let's start with the bad. HANNA is a story that simply collapses on its own lack of logic. Papa (Eric Bana) wants to keep Hanna (Saiorse Ronan) safe from evil CIA meanie, Marissa (Cate Blanchett).  Lesser-trained peeps might think to hide in plain sight in a major metropolis, camouflaged by banality.  But no, ex-CIA tough guy, Papa, decides to keep Hanna in a wintery forest, training herto be a bad-ass assassin, Kick-Girl-stylee, and then, allowing her to press a transponder button that immediately alerts the CIA to her presence!  And even then, rather that travel to some safe little town Papa and Hanna engineer a confrontation in Berlin because, hey, without that, there wouldn't be a film.  The CIA are similarly idiotic. For those who have seen the film, I simply ask why Marissa didn't run after Erik and the baby after the car accident and end proceedings right there?  

Still, let's say we go with this absurd plot and willingly suspend our disbelief, the movie doesn't help by consistently undermining the credibility and authenticity it's so desperately trying to create. (And I'm not just talking about idiot goofs like showing that Hanna's ears have been pierced).  The big problem is inconsistent acting styles. 

Ronan does a good job in trying to convey what it must be like for an isolated child to suddenly be part of the modern world, with its incessant babbling.  Director Joe Wright, together with his DP Alwin Kuchler, and his editor, Paul Tothill, do a stand-up job of depicting sensory overload.  I also loved Hanna's tentative first friendship with a teenage camper, played by the scene-stealing Jessica Barden (TAMARA DREWE).  There is a real sense of intimacy and authenticity - in particular, I loved the scene in the tent - it was intimate but never felt voyeuristic or exploitative.  I also really loved Hanna's reaction to seeing a real family interact for the first time - her simple smile at seeing a mother and father hugging a child. I completely disagree with reviewers and commentators who say that the film loses pace at this point.  After all, this is not just an action film but a character-driven film - and Hanna's response to the family moves this film beyond KICK-ASS and into some altogether more interesting territory.

The problem is that all this good character-work is completely undermined by Cate Blanchett's hammy performance as the CIA agent, Marissa.  Blanchett's Marissa isn't so much a fully developed character as a colour-coded compendium of caricatured evil: posion-green Prada shoes, bright orange ill-fitting fright-wig and ever-shifting Southern accent (as if, in this post-Osama world, the worst thing you can sound like is a Southern Republican).  It was almost as much of an embarrassment as the throw-back costume design of Tom Hollander's sleazy German night-club owner and his skin-head Droogs - as if A Clockwork Orange had been crossed with Smiley's People.  

I suspect the problem was that Joe Wright was trying to explore the fairytale themes in the story - Hanna as a little red riding hood in a cottage in the woods and Marissa as a kind of evil step-mother figure and/or the big bad wolf.  The cottage in Berlin is out of Hansel and Gretel...  These themes are suggested in the visuals - costumes, colour choices, and even more explicitly in the final scene between Marissa and Hanna. But, those themes are obstructions to credibility and are never fully developed.  I think that's why, when I finally left the cinema, I felt I had been given a taste of something deeper, something clever, but that the film hadn't followed through.   

Still for all those criticisms, and the final sense of disappointment, I really did enjoy watching HANNA and I think it's definitely worth the price of admission for the brilliantly choreographed and scored action sequences and the friendship scenes between Ronan and Barden. Joe Wright needs to make a flick that either pure character-driven action - like BOURNE - or pure character. He needs to stay focussed and pick a script that hasn't been worked over so much that it becomes a mass of contradictions and poorly developed themes.

HANNA is on release in Aruba, Greece, Hong Kong, Canada, the US, Malaysia, South Korea, Taiwan, Iceland, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia and the UK. It opens on May 11th in Belgium, on May 13th in Italy and on May 26th in Germany and Switzerland. It opens on June 9th in France, Argentina, Estonia, Spain and Turkey. It opens on June 16th in Hungary, on June 23rd in Portugal, and on July 7th in Sweden, the Netherlands and Norway. It opens on July 21st in Singapore, on August 27th in Japan and on September 1st in Australia and New Zealand.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Random-DVD Round-Up 4 - FRED: THE MOVIE

FRED: THE MOVIE is the infinitely irritating feature-length flick starring self-appointed YouTube sensation "Fred" aka teenager Lucas Cruikshank. Cruikshank's character is an infantile teen with a passion for day-glo clothes, who speaks in a speeded-up Chipmunk voice and has a two-year-old temper tantrum whenever things don't go his way. This might have been charming in the YouTube short-form but it is absolutely unbearable for 90 minutes. Shame on teen pop star Pixie Lott for jumping on its hopefully short-lived PR bandwagon. As for the movie - the colours are Day-Glo, the direction pedestrian, and the basic plot the same as any other teen comedy: the nerdy protagonist has to triumph over the neighbourhood bully to get the prettiest girl in high school. Frankly, I watched 20 minutes before switching off. Admittedly if the movie had taken a right-turn into a slasher flick wherein the main cast get nastily ripped limb from limb, it might have improved. I will never know. 

FRED: THE MOVIE was released as a TV movie in the US in September 2010 and was inexplicably given a theatrical release in the UK and Ireland in December. It is now available to rent and own.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011


I really rather liked LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS: THE OWLS OF GA'HOOLE. It is a beautifully animated, brilliantly voiced, old-fashioned story in the manner of WATERSHIP DOWN.  Moreover, it is blissfully absent of the sort of post-modern wit that propels the SHREK franchise. What's even more astonishing is that it was directed by Zack Snyder - purveyor of visually lush but morally vacuous, if not morally objectionable, fare like 300 and SUCKER PUNCH. The protagonists were sympathetic and endearing and their adventure story more compelling than any plot description would suggest. 

The story is based on the Guardians of Ga'Hoole books by Kathryn Lansky books, and this film focuses on two young owls, Soren and Kludd, who are kidnapped by some nasty racial purist owls. Luckily Soren is taken under the wing of a fellow inmate and taught how to outwit his captors and to eventually seek out the Jedi like Guardians who can teach him how to use his Gizzard and "save the world". If this sounds very STAR-WARS then it succeeds for the same reasons that Star Wars succeeds - it's a classic Saturday Morning Adventure Serial with good triumphing over evil, framed as a coming-of-age story. 

LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS: THE OWLS OF GA'HOOLE went on global release in autumn 2010. It is now available to rent and own.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011


I rather liked THE FAMILY JEWELS, although I must admit it was rather betrayed by its marketing. I was rather expecting it to be a gross-out frat-boy comedy in the manner of a Judd Apatow flick. After all, the central conceit is that Patrick Wilson's character - Barry Munday - is a promiscuous, misogynistic David Brent-style loser who gets his balls cut off by the vengeful father of a teenage girl. Just as he realises he can't father children, he's told that a plain-jane one-night stand (Judy Greer) he can't even remember fucking, is knocked up.  What then follows is actually a rather sweet, rather earnest little romantic drama, in which Barry comes to accept fatherhood and his baby-mama, Ginger, comes to accept his attentions. The movie may be rather predictable and the direction is certainly workman-like, but it's also peppered with some delicious cameos from the likes of Billy-Dee Williams as Barry's boss; Malcolm McDowell as Ginger's dad; and Cybill Shepherd as her mum. Overall, the movie is not particularly memorable but it was enjoyable enough at the time, and Patrick Wilson is so funny and convincing as Barry Munday I would love to see him do more out-and-out comedy. 

THE FAMILY JEWELS played a bunch of minor festivals in 2010 and had a very limited US release in October 2010. It is available to rent and own.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Random DVD Round-Up 1 - THE ROMANTICS

THE ROMANTICS is a movie about a bunch of late-twenties college friends reunited at the Long Island wedding of two of the group. The marriage forces the group to re-assess their friendships, loyalties and sexual attraction - and all this should create tension around whether the wedding between Tom and Lila (Josh Duhamel and Anna Paquin) will actually go ahead given that Laura (Katie Holmes) is still carrying a torch for the groom. The audience is meant to be drawn into the emotional lives of characters who feel mixed-up and sympathetic - just like us! And debut feature director, Galt Niederhoffer (adapting her own novel, employs lots of obvious tricks to try and manufacture that empathy and a sense that we are watching an hip counter-culture indie flick rather than an inauthentic Hollywood rom-com: gloomy lighting; painfully indie sound-track; deliberately obscure ending. Sadly though, the film fails on every level. Casting 40 year olds like Josh Duhamel breaks the credibility of the film, especially when we're meant to believe he was a peer of THE OC's Adam Brody. The acting is universally bad and yet for diametrically opposite reasons: chip-board performances from Duhamel and Katie Holmes but hammy, over-the-top acting from Elijah Woods, Malin Akerman and Anna Paquin. The whole thing struck me as self-indulgent; pretentious; inauthentic and dull, dull, dull. Distributors were right to scorn it: there is a reason why it appeared in the UK as a straight to video/TV release. 

THE ROMANTICS played Sundance 2010 and was released in 2010 in the US and Slovenia. It was released in Iceland in March 2011.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Late Late review - London Film Fest 2010 Day 11 - 13 ASSASSINS

13 ASSASSINS is a fantastic film. I literally bounced out of the cinema having watched it! On one level it's a brilliantly lavish Samurai film in the classic mould - beautiful costumes, whole villages created as sets, codes of honour broken, elegantly choreographed sword-fighting - and it reminded me how much I loved Samurai films. On another level, it's typical Takashi Miike mischief - satirising the violence of Samurai movies with a level of gore and blood that is quite simply ridonkulous - and making the village idiot actually a better sword-fighter than the pompous Samurai.

The plot is straight out of Shogun Total War 2. It's mid 19th century Japan with the Shogunate on its last legs but still rich enough to hire Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho) to assassinate the evil pretender, Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki). The first half of the film is a Kurosawa style "putting the band back together" narrative, with the cool twist of having Yusuke Iseya play the provincial dolt who gains a place alongside his hard-core Samurai team-mates. And in the second half of the flick, they turn the town of Ochiai into an A-Team style booby-trap setting up a brutal, bloody massacre.

The first thing to say about 13 ASSASSINS is that it looks amazing. The production design is lavish in style and flawless in its period detail, creating a look typically associated with epic historical drama. The photography (Nobuyasu Kita) echoes this lavish style with Kubrick-like deliberate framing and slow, stylised camera movements. Interior scenes are lit by candelight to give an authentic feel and the detail of the costumes is breath-taking. The second thing to say is that beyond the historic detail, Takashi Miike remains the Director of the Egregious - from the audacious sadism of Naritsugu (e.g. the women crippled so extremely by "total massacre") -  to the egregious and dogmatic code of honour of Shinzaemon -  to the balletic, operatic, monumental final display of bloodshed in the village. Miike creates a film that is utterly modern in its gorging, self-indulgent, obese display of blood and violence - but also a film that is curiously nostalgic for the age of the Samurai when that bloodshed was part of a self-sacrifice for honour. His film is, then, a bravura performance - modern, nostalgic, bloody, but with depth. Undoubtedly one of the finest films of the London Film Festival.

13 ASSASSINS played Venice and Toronto 2010 and was released in Japan in September. It opens in the UK in May 2011.