Sunday, November 27, 2011

Overlooked DVD of the month - THE BLACK POWER MIXTAPE, 1967-1975

THE BLACK POWER MIXTAPE, 1967-1975 does exactly what it says on the tin.  It edits together footage found in the archive of the Swedish equivalent of the BBC - footage filmed by Swedish journalists interviewing key figures in the black civil rights movement in the US.  It takes us through the footage chronologically, allowing those icons to speak in their own words, with the occasional voiceover from contemporary figures to provide context.  We are given unprecedented access to Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael, and Kathleen Cleaver.  And as modern commentators, we have the older Davis, Questlove, Erikah Badu, and others. We even see the original journalists become part of the story as the US authorities become concerned at the allegedly negative portrayal of the USA in Sweden. All of this adds up to an enriching, educational experience - the feeling that we have had a glimpse inside a movement, and rediscovered its relevance and potency.   This film is important, intelligently edited, and genuinely entertaining and insightful to watch.  I can't imagine why you wouldn't.

From a personal point of view, watching this film made me angry at the apparent intellectual poverty and political vacuity of the current Occupy movement.  Where is the charismatic articulation of a clear set of aims - the clear exposition of injustice?  Where is our Stokely Carmichael? Where is our Angela Davis?

THE BLACK POWER MIXTAPE played Berlin, London and many other festivals in 2011. It was released in Sweden in April; was released in the US in the autumn, and is currently on release in Greece and France. It opens in Germany on December 14th.

Saturday, November 26, 2011


There is a great movie to be made about the conflict between Marilyn Monroe and Sir Lawrence Olivier on the set of THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL. Unfortunately, MY WEEK WITH MARILYN is not it.  That is because the writer, Adrian Hodges (TOM & VIV) and director, Simon Curtis (TV's CRANFORD)  have made a decision to take the sharp edges off the drama at every turn.  Instead of the caustic wit of Colin (son of Kenneth) Clark's memoir, the movie gives us a protagonist in the classic "ingenue" line - very dull, very sweet, and hardly necessary at all as an entry point to the film's real drama.  He falls for Marilyn, she flirts with him, but it's all very tame indeed, if in fact it really happened.  

What we really want to see is Marilyn versus Larry.  The Sexy Film Star, enmeshed in the Method, desperately trying and failing to be a technically great actress, puffed up and doped up by her self-serving entourage (a particularly menacing portrayal of Paula Strasberg) versus the Great Actor, painfully aware that his time has passed, resentful he cannot set the screen alight, and in fear of hysterical women from his experiences with Vivienne Leigh.  When MY WEEK WITH MARILYN catches afire, it's because we're watching Marilyn and Larry bring out each other's insecurities - in those moments, we get a glimpse into their interior lives.  But all too often, this fascinating material is cut short for drippy dating scenes as Marilyn and young Colin skinny dip, or visit Windsor Castle.  I wanted more of the drama - more of the tension as cinema and theatre acting changed era - more of Marilyn and Arthur Miller - more of Larry and Vivienne.

The resulting film is basically shot and scripted like an afternoon movie on the Hallmark channel. And, unfortunately, it is filled with a fair few anonymous performances - from Dominic Cooper as a suffocating manager to Julia Ormond unbelievably mis-cast as Leigh.  Emma Watson is utterly wasted as Colin's parochial love interest, and Eddie Redmayne has nothing more to do than look charming and naive.  In the minor parts, it's only really Judi Dench who stands out - she oozes class as Dame Sybil Thorndike and deserves a sort of Oscar-double-whammy for her performance here and in J.EDGAR.   As for the leads, Kenneth Branagh is stunning - stunning - as Lawrence Olivier - capturing not just his particular intonation and mannerisms, but giving the towering presence in English theatre real pathos.  

All of which brings us Michelle Willams' much hyped performance as Marilyn, the subject of an Oscar campaign from the Weinsteins. Frankly, I was utterly underwhelmed. Yes she gets the breathy, tremulous voice, and yes she can sing the songs and do the moves. And yes, she appears to have put on a bit, if not enough weight.  But she problem is this - she has not got the sexy star quality that Marilyn had, and you simply can't manufacture that.  (Which is not to say she isn't a terrific actress - just look at BLUE VALENTINE).  Too often in this film we see other characters look at Marilyn and gasp in awe and envy at the way she "lights up the screen" or the "magic" she works or the way she's "full of life".  Sadly, the sign of a bad film is when people tell rather than show.  We shouldn't need this commentary.  Williams' should be doing it herself.  And I don't buy the concept that no-one can light up a screen like Marilyn today.  We have instinctive "film stars" now just as we have "technical actresses".  Sadly, I would put Michelle Williams in the latter camp.

MY WEEK WITH MARILYN played New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and the AFI Fest 2011.  It opens this weekend in the US and UK. It opens on December 29th in Singapore; on December 30th in Finland; on January 5th in Portugal; on January 13th in Norway and Sweden; and on January 19th in Lebanon and the Netherlands. 

Friday, November 25, 2011

J. EDGAR - A Love Story

J Edgar Hoover is perhaps one of the most significant figures in twentieth century US history. He near invented the FBI; ran it and its predecessor for 50 years; held presidents and public figures in fear of his blackmail material; used the resources of the FBI to pursue personal vendettas and prejudices - against "reds" and civil rights activists - and forever damaged the balance between personal liberty and security.  Hoover was involved in the crackdown on prohibition era gangsters; the Linbergh baby kidnapping; the McCarthy witch-hunts, "Cointelpro" and all the Cold War and anti-civil rights movement paranoia that followed. It is no exaggeration to say that he shaped US history.  He did all this, but remained himself an enigma - unmarried, but with a suspiciously close relationship with his professional sidekick Clyde Tolson. Hoover was a man capable of viciously hounding public figures but also capable of inspiring such personal loyalty that his long-time secretary Helen Gandy destroyed all his personal files after his death before Nixon could get his hands on them.

The odd thing about Clint Eastwood's new biopic is that it seems utterly unconcerned with Hoover's political and institutional significance.  Presidents come and go, the Lindbergh case is used to enhance the bureau's power, but all this is merely grist for Hoover's emotional mill. McCarthy isn't mentioned - neither is Cointelpro.  There is a brief scene where Hoover is trying to pressure Dr King, but nothing is fully explored.  One leaves the film knowing no more about his real significance than when one enters the cinema. That emptiness and confusion is exacerbated by the film's structure - which cuts between a linear re-telling of Hoover's career highlights as he narrates a self-serving autobiography from the 1970s.

Rather than create a biopic, Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (MILK) have decided to create a movie about a repressed love that just happens to involve famous historical figures.  To that end, this is less JFK or W. than BRIEF ENCOUNTER. In Black's thesis, Hoover suffered his whole life from severe emotional repression. He fell in love with Clyde Tolson at first sight, but couldn't return his love physically because his domineering mother had so inculcated her shame at having a gay son.  Even after her death, the relationship remained chaste - a love that was hidden in private as well as in public.  This is, to be sure, a deeply tragic story, and I was genuinely moved by it.  The scenes between Tolson and Hoover - a pivotal and rare emotional outburst at a hotel - the final scene together - are incredibly touching.  But, unfortunately, that wasn't the movie I had been sold, and wading through the hours of running time - of famous politicians lifted up and cast aside - to get to these few emotional scenes - was just utterly dreary.

The movie is a similarly mixed bag when it comes to the technical specs. Lensing by long-time Eastwood collaborator Tom Stern is straightforward, but the film is desaturated to within an inch of its life, leading to a distancing effect that is as artificial as Armie Hammer's make-up as the ageing Tolson (diCaprio has a far more convincing make-up job as the ageing Hoover).  The period costumes and set are sumptuous - as one would expect from a big budget affair, but it all feels as deadened and manicured as Hoover's inner life. In terms of performances - diCaprio is typically impressive, but the real breakthrough is Armie Hammer - the emotional heart of the film, who even manages to move us through his terrible make-up - and Judi Dench as Hoover's grandiose, truly horrifying mother. I would love to see both get Best Performing nods, but I suspect that it's diCaprio who will take the glory come the Oscars.

J. EDGAR played the AFI Fest 2011. It is on release in the US and Canada. It opens on January 6th in Greece, the Netherlands, Singapore, Italy and Norway; on January 11th in Belgium and France; on January 20th in Denmark, Sweden and the UK; on January 26th in Australia, Portugal, Brazil, Spain and Japan; on February 16th in Germany; on March 1st in the Czech Republic and on March 2nd in Turkey.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


Brad Pitt as Oakland A's manager Billy Beane and
Jonah Hill as his statistician sidekick Peter Brand. 

Michael Lewis is the chronicler of our age - the man who takes us inside big money, whether on the trading floors of Wall Street (LIAR'S POKER, THE BIG SHORT) or in the soccer and baseball stadiums of America (THE BLIND SIDE, MONEYBALL).  Lewis is the documentarian who shows us who big money distorts ethics and produces outcomes that are inefficient, even from a financial point of view.  In previous novels he took us insides world we didn't know and showed us their glamour and danger.  Heck, LIAR'S POKER was as big a recruiter for Wall Street, as well, WALL STREET.  

The fundamental problem with MONEYBALL is that his big angle is really not that insightful.  Lewis wants to tell us that when baseball managers buy players, they are distorted and prejudiced by all sorts of extraneous and irrelevant information - how good looking a player's girlfriend is an index of self-confidence is - how good he is at doing one thing when really what you're buying him for is something really different.  As a result, Lewis argues that the managers systematically misprice players - overpaying for "stars" and underpaying or plain ignoring the hidden gems. Yes, that's it.  That's the big idea.  And for those of us who are the 1 percent, that's really not revolutionary.  It's just Ben Graham's concept of value investing applied to sport. 

Still, even without a revolutionary idea, MONEYBALL could still have been a good underdog sports movie, of the type that DODGEBALL satirised so well. There is something genuinely romantic about failed player and down on his luck coach Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) taking his two-bit club, the Oakland Athletics, to baseball's greatest winning streak in history, and a genuine contender for the World Series. And, because he didn't have the money to outbid the Yankees for the best players, he had to do it with smarts - with a geeky kid called Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) who believed that stats could pick a holistic team of write-offs and turn them into a great and consistent squad. All this in the face of stiff competition from the conservative old guard, particularly coach Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the rest of the baseball fraternity.  I was expecting a buddy movie - as the handsome jock and nervous geek unite against the world - an underdog movie - a David versus Goliath feelgood epic.  And who cares if I don't know about baseball? I love cricket so much I can appreciate a game suffused with stats, and that chronicles the triumph of the statos over the jocks. 

But no, MONEYBALL turns out to be an utter damp squib of a movie - unloved, uncared for, without a single voice, a single vision, or any conviction about what it's trying to do.  I guess the problem is literally one of rejected parentage. Originally this was a movie that was going to be directed by Steven Soderbergh (CONTAGION) with a screenplay by Steven Zaillian (the forthcoming GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO).  But then, at the last minute, Soderbergh was axed in favour of Bennett Miller, a relative unknown who hasn't done anything since 2005's CAPOTE, and the script was rewritten by Aaron Sorkin of THE SOCIAL NETWORK fame.  The result is a script and a film that just never finds its groove.  

For the most part the dialogue is flat, and characters ill-fleshed out. There is no charismatic connection between Pitt and Hill.  Pitt does that thing where he thinks he's acting if he constantly eats on screen and squints.  Hill turns out to be utterly uninteresting in a straight, non-comedic role.  Poor Philip Seymour Hoffman barely gets anything to do as the antagonist. We don't feel the stakes. We don't buy Pitt's apparently tragic back story.  His connection with his daughter seems utterly trite. There's  not enough actual gameplay. But then again, I didn't really feel like I knew what the coaches were doing or why certain moneyball tactics were working.  The only flashes of wit and excitement are a couple of scenes where Beane is playing off team's against each other, and another brilliant scene in Boston - scenes that scream Sorkin and jar against the tone of the rest of the film.  One can only imagine what this film might have been with Fincher and Sorkin behind the camera, and maybe Clooney and Gordon-Levitt in front of the camera.  And believe me, you'll be so bored, you'll have plenty of time for such conjecture.

MONEYBALL played Toronto and Tokyo 2011. It was released earlier this year in the US, India, Mexico, Russia, Panama, Iceland, Hong Kong, Lebanon, Japan, Taiwan, France, Israel, the Netherlands and Brazil. It opens this weekend in the UK and Ireland. It opens on December 2nd in Finland and Lithuania; on December 8th in Belgium, Greece, Hungary, Sweden and Turkey/ It opens on December 16th in Norway; on December 23rd in Estonia; on January 12th in Portugal; on January 27th in Italy; on February 2nd in Germany and Spain and on February 16th in Singapore. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN - PART 1 - Cronenberg meets Christian fundamentalists

THE TWILIGHT SAGA, based on Stephenie Meyer's turgid novels, and starring the pretty R-Patz, gay icon Taylor Lautner, and professionally bored Kristen Stewart, is critic proof. It will rake in millions upon millions at the box office from hysterical hordes of narcissistic and insecure teenage girls, who dream of being fought over by not one, but two dishy boys - but all, let us not forget, in the safest possible manner.  Because these are films and novels about the wisdom of abstinence until there's a ring on your finger. The result in a saga that have been, up until this instalment, utterly anaemic - foregoing a potent gothic mix of subversive sex and death for the bland trite stylings of Sweet Valley High.  

It comes, then, as something of a relief, to find mopy Bella (Stewart) finally tying the knot with rich cool vampire Edward (Pattinson).  To be sure, in order for her to cope with his powerful vampiric sex drive he's going to have to turn her into a vampire too, and this clearly pisses off Edward's hot-blooded werewolf rival Jacob (Lautner) although apparently not Bella's mum and dad.  For reasons I never really understand, though, Bella decides not to be turned before her honeymoon, and so go at it with gay abandon, but after her honeymoon. The implications of this are that she - beaten and bruised by her vampiric husband - still begs him for sex (sex, that we never see mind you, despite waiting for eons of boring abstemious cinema time) - and then falls pregnant with a half-breed child that kills her as he grows inside of her.  Of course, she won't consider an abortion, this being a book penned by a writer with a specific moral agenda, and the denouement of the film is a kind of explicit body horror that comes straight from the cinema of Cronenberg.

The resulting film is both severely tedious, embarrassingly low-rent, but also provocative. The first hour is a drippy super-romantic marriage sequence that feels like an endless montage and advert for interior decorating.  The honeymoon is similarly out of Conde Nast traveller, and annoyingly coy.  The acting is sub-par. The dialogue stilted.  The second hour of the film then trips into all out body horror that was satisfyingly gory - brilliant FX turning Stewart into an emaciated victim of internal vampiricism - followed by a birthing scene that will turn anyone celibate.  How to reconcile the two?  How to sit still through the boring first hour and twenty minutes before you get to the gore?  By pondering the provocative messages we are sending our teenage girls by giving them a popular culture that combines the famous-for-being-slutty Paris Hilton and Snooky and the equally extreme abstemiousness of the Twilight Saga.  How on earth are they meant to have a healthy attitude toward sex and toward their own physical health? What messages are they getting from seeing a battered Bella beg for sex? I mean, for fuck's sake, shouldn't we be telling them that when a guy leaves you battered, you leave? 

The whole thing is frankly at once highly silly and camp, and yet at the same time, deeply deeply disturbing.  Let's just get Part 2 over with.

BREAKING DAWN PART 1 is on global release.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

George Ghon on MELANCHOLIA

Andreas Gursky's Rhein II

Doom and gloom are high on the agenda nowadays. Lars van Trier’s poetic Melancholia is one of the more beautiful jigsaw pieces that deal with the sombre mood in an arresting way, creatively speaking. A big blue planet named Melancholia approaches earth on a trajectory, which will eventually lead to a fatal crash, terminally extinguishing humanity. Given that background, we follow the wedding party of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) at a remote, neo Gothic estate, owned by the rich husband (Kiefer Sutherland) of Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The newly wed couple (with Alexander Skarsgård as Michael) arrives in a pristine mood, trying to wiggle their oversized limousine up a narrow mountain road, delaying their arrival, but keeping their state of general excitement and mutual enjoyment. Only when faced with the party guests, her parents (a confused John Hurt and a cold Charlotte Rampling), and her unscrupulous boss (Stellan Skarsgård), Justine’s fragile emotional composure comes to light and we witness the mental pains of a pretty girl, which seems to have, by all conventional standards, a pretty good life. 

If we remember the Justine of de Sade’s eponymous novel as a victim of society in pre-revolutionary France, whose virtuous intentions get callously exploited by powerful figures (representations of church/law/aristocracy), Lars van Trier’s character is a bit more subtle, her suffering largely self-inflicted, or so it seems. There is no apparent traumatizing event that links to her mental condition. The Melancholia from which she suffers comes out of the blue, like the menacing planet that is spiralling towards earth on its fatal course. On a superficial level it could be afflicted by it, but speaking in more symbolic terms, the planetary crash could act as metaphor for the threat that Melancholia, the illness, is to contemporary society. In this context, Slavoj Zizek’s book ‘Living in the End Times’, which was originally published in 2010, gains new relevance. In a chapter on depression he asks the crucial question: ‘If the twentieth century was the Freudian century, so that even its worst nightmares were read as (sado-masochistic) vicissitudes of the libido, will the twenty-first be the century of the post-traumatic disengaged subject (…)?’ The libido recedes in that transformation, leaving Thanatos to overpower Eros. 

Or the libido takes its funny turns, to say the least. Instead of procreating with her understanding husband, Justine opts for the quicky with the dumb office boy on the nightly golf course to momentarily please her wavering sexual desire. It has to be said that the men in this film don’t live up to their roles. The boss is an asshole, the father doesn’t listen, and the only thing the brother in law can think of is his money. The male characters are bystanders on the sideline, one-dimensional lightweights that merely accessorize the plot, which is driven by the emotionally complex interactions of the two sisters, Justine and Claire. As the end of the world approaches, they have to face the tragedy without any masculine comforting. Claire is ridden with terror, but Justine doesn’t fear the approaching apocalypse. Mankind is evil, she concludes, and the universe better off without it. She is longing to die, can’t wait to swap the bland reality she experienced for something that might turn out to be spiritually more fulfilling. 

This abstract desire to annihilate the human race and trade it in for something more sublime, is equally apparent in Andreas Gursky’s photograph Rhine II, which just sold for $4,3m at Christies in New York and broke the prize record in a photography sale. The large print shows the grey Rhine River framed by its green bed under a foggy sky. Ultra-minimalist composure, strangely attractive, but with every human trace carefully removed in the retouching process of the digital file. Why are the aesthetes longing for a post-human equilibrium so much these days? Both Gursky and van Trier suggest a pretty radical solution to the struggles of society in the 21st century: Complete wipe out. Let’s hope that this message can be seen in a metaphorical way, too, and be understood as a mere hint that it is time to change, soon. 

MELANCHOLIA played Cannes 2011 where Kirsten Dunst won Best Actress, and Toronto. It opened earlier this year in the Czech Republic, Denmark, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Brazil, France, Estonia, the Netherlands, Greece, Ireland, Romania, the UK, Germany, Italy and Hungary. It opened earlier in November in Spain, Canada and the US. It goes on release in December in Portugal, Slovenia and Australia. It opens in January in Hong Kong and Turkey and in February in Japan.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


ORANGES AND SUNSHINE is a turgid earnest historical drama more suited to be a TV afternoon movie than a feature release. The debut feature of TV director Jim (son of Ken) Loach, the movie tells the true story of a British social worker in the 1980s who stumbled upon a scandal, whereupon British kids of unwed mothers were shipped off to workcamps in Australia in the 1950s and 1960s, only to be abused and exploited. This powerful material should've made for a powerful film but this film is damp, dull, earnest, attempting to beat the audience into submission.  Emily Watson is becoming typecast in these suffering martyr roles - the only real revelation on the acting front is Hugo Weaving as  a suffering man, so far from his superhero roles, and David Wenham as a macho Aussie bloke coming to terms with his childhood abuse.  I suspect one would be better off reading the book upon which the movie was based. 

ORANGES AND SUNSHINE opened in summer 2011 in the UK, Ireland, Australia, Greece, New Zealand and Lebanon. It went on limited release in the US on October 28th. It is available to rent and own.

iPad Round-Up 6 - EASY A

In the wake of the critical acclaim for THE HELP, it is perhaps too easy for reviewers to see EASY A as the movie in which Emma Stone - the star of both - first made an impression, and perhaps to transfer their admiration of that film to this.  To  my mind, while Stone does have a kind of winning likeability and sass so often missing from today's bland young teen stars, EASY A is far from a compelling film. It doesn't have the dark humour and danger of a film like HEATHERS. It doesn't create a modern vernacular in the way that JUNO attempted to do. And it certainly doesn't treat its literary other, Hawthorne's Scarlett Letter, with the intelligence and respect that CLUELESS treated Pride and Prejudice.  Rather, director Will Gluck (FIRED UP) and writer Bert V Royal, create a movie that attempts to be clever, contemporary, and dangerous, but ends up looking like a movie that occasionally lands a comedic punch, but as often mis-fires.  I'm also pretty tired of seeing cheap shots taken at super-religious nutters.

Stone plays Olive, a girl who masquerades as a slut to gain credibility and cash, but is really a good-hearted virgin. Her parents (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson) are completely unbelievable in their willingness to go along with this ruse.  Events spiral out of control as they are wont to do in such films - largely when a nasty school counsellor (Lisa Kudrow) uses Olive to cover up an affair with a student. But all's well that end's well, in a movie that is far more conservative than it wants you to think it is.  Essentially, this is a fluffy, patchy affair, worth a DVD rental at best.

EASY A played Toronto 2010 and was released last winter. It is available to rent and own.

iPad 5 Round-Up -

From the laughs, authenticity and social relevance of ATTACK THE BLOCK to the turgid, sexually exploitative own-goal that is  Tragic that promising young writer-director-actor Noel Clarke, who started off with material like KIDULTHOOD that was a serious look at modern British youth culture, should descend into directing a piss-poor genre flick.  Because is essentially a derivative caper movie, complete with MacGuffin (bag of crisps stuffed full of diamonds), and a "high concept" that sees the same day replayed through the point of view of four above-average pretty and under-dressed young girls.  The movie wants to have the tight pace and clever interlocking plot of a Guy Ritchie flick, itself derivative of Tarantino, but ends up looking brash, weak and ordinary.  Not helped by fairly anonymous performance from the four lead girls (Emma Roberts, Ophelia Lovibond, Tamsin Egerton and Shannika Warren-Markland).   Still, I pity them the leering lads mag treatment they get from Clarke, unhappily veering away from what he knows about to a sort of teen boy fantasy of guns, girls and heists, that is an embarrassment to all involved, including, inexplicably, Kevin Smith. was released in the UK, Ireland, Australia, and Greece in 2010 and in Kazakhstan and Russia in February 2011. It is available to rent and own, but why bother?

iPad Round-Up 4 - ATTACK THE BLOCK

ATTACK THE BLOCK is the tightly written, brilliantly observed, laugh-out-loud hilarious directorial debut of British TV comedian, Joe Cornish.  The concept is brilliant - what would happen if aliens didn't invade LA or New York, but a South London council estate? Suddenly all the anti-social behaviour that the Daily Mail readers like to pillory looks like basic survival skills, and the essential paedophobia of modern British society is turned on its head. The muggers, dope dealers and bad-boys are shown to be lost kids with mad skills who save the day.

What I love about this film is that while it's making a serious social point - all the more serious after this summer's riots - it wears its learning lightly.  It gets the whole Castigat Ridendo Mores point I was making in my review of THE CONSPIRATOR.  It never forgets to make us laugh - it has characters we believe in and care about - and it immerses us in the messy details of modern life on a London estate.  And it goes to show that you can make a great movie that's just 90 minutes long.  

Kudos to Joe Cornish for the genuinely funny, intelligent script. But also real kudos for pulling off some cool sci-fi effects on a low-budget, and for assembling a mostly unknown cast of kids for the film.  Once again, young Sammy Williams (WILD BILL) steals every scene he's in, but there are no weak links here.  A must-see movie, and likely to become a cult favourite on DVD.  Moreover, one of the few films that exploits its SHAUN OF THE DEAD connections, that deserves to do so.

ATTACK THE BLOCK played SXSW 2011 and was released this summer in the UK, Ireland, Indonesia, Malaysia, Belgium, France, Iceland, the Netherlands, the USA, Turkey, Kuwait, Germany, Singapore and Israel. It is currently on release in Sweden. It is available to rent and own.

iPad Round-Up 3 - THE WAY BACK

Yet another heartfelt, earnest political drama with impeccable production values but no soul.  THE WAY BACK is a movie I admired more than enjoyed - a movie whose run-time dragged, whose journey was interminable, whose real historic story seemed somehow absurd and beyond human endurance when shown on screen.  

In post-WW2 Siberia, a rag-tag group of prisoners - political and hardcore thugs, plus one random girl - do the unthinkable - they escape by walking across a continent, 400 miles and 5 months, through Russia into China and then India. They talk - explaining the obvious.  They walk.  They survive.  But there are no emotional truths, no small practical details of how they survived, to immerse us in their story.  

Peter Weir (MASTER AND COMMANDER, THE TRUMAN SHOW, DEAD POETS SOCIETY) has a real mis-step with this clunking film - over-burdened by its political and attempt at spiritual significance.  Wasted performances by Jim Sturgess, Colin Farrell, Mark Strong, Ed Harris and Saiorse Ronan. Only Russell Boyd 's cinematography is memorable, but that certainly isn't enough to warrant a viewing of this tedious film.

THE WAY BACK played Telluride 2010 and opened worldwide in the first half of 2011. It is available to rent and own. THE WAY BACK was nominated for Best Make-Up at the 2011 Oscars but lost to THE WOLFMAN.


Yet another thumpingly pedestrian issues-film from Robert Redford.  The movie takes the form of an historic court-room drama, with James McAvoy playing the lawyer defending Robin Wright's Mary Surrat of conspiracy to murder President Lincoln (she was Booth's landlady and her son has mysteriously fled.)  This being a Redford film, the politics are naively simple and oppositional: McAvoy's lawyer is the champion of all things good - liberty, the constitution and the right to a fair trial even in the wake of an appalling political crime.  Kevin Kline's war minister represents the forces of evil:  putting ends before means, willing to sacrifice right to expediency, with a contemporary relevance in that Surrat was denied a civilian trial before her peers, and tried under military law. 

The issues are fascinating, the casting top notch, Newton Thomas Sigel's cinematography is superb, and the dilemmas at the movie's heart are clearly highly relevant today.  The problem is that it feels like a college debate rather than a movie.  Movies must entertain. If they educate and provoke as well, then all to the good. But no-one ever learned anything while their eyes were rolling to the back of their head in boredom.  Castigat ridendo mores. Moliere knew this. Redford apparently does not  He needs to treat his subject matter with a little less respect and his audiences with a little more.  

THE CONSPIRATOR played Toronto 2010 and opened in summer 2011 in the USA, Hong Kong, South Korea, Ireland, the UK, Portugal, Australia, Turkey, Kuwait and Germany. It opened last month in Singapore. It goes on release in Belgium on November 16th and in Spain on December 2nd. It is available to rent and own.


A straightforward piece of hagiography, enlivened only by its access to the still relevant, revolutionary hairstylist Vidal Sassoon.  What stands out is his description of race and class discrimination in post-war East London where he grew up.  Vidal learned to "talk proper", moved to the West End, and created the legendary "five point cut" that liberated women from over-styled, over-teased  hair.  Together with fashion designer, Mary Quant, he defined the Swinging Sixties.  Even more fascinating, Sassoon seems to have invented the cult of the celebrity stylist with a range of merchandise, TV show and "lifestyle" to sell.  All of which took him to LA and ultimately led to divorce.  The tragedy is that where Craig Teper could've used his access to really mine the emotional toll of success, he chooses to keep a reverential distance.  The result is a documentary that is educational but not inspirational - and less than its subject matter deserved.

VIDAL SASSOON: THE MOVIE played Tribeca 2010 and went on limited release early in 2011 in the UK and the USA. It is available for download.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Guest review by George Ghon - CONTAGION

A ghastly virus breaks out. It kills so fast that any hope to find a suitable remedy in time becomes elusive. A father, whose wife had died, tries to protect his daughter from the evil disease (Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Anna Jacoby-Heron respectively). The government official (Laurence Fishburne) with field experience shows his toughness and rigor to handle the nightmarish situation according to his professional standards. He cooperates with the World Health Organization, which in turn sends a cute epidemy specialist (Marion Cotillard) to analyse the trajectory of the virus and determine where it had come from, ending up on site in Hong Kong. The scientist in the laboratory (Jennifer Ehle) does what she can and all along the viewer waits for an unexpected turn in the plot. 

Is a James Bond villain behind all this? Does the CIA have secret intelligence? Can it be that a Swiss pharmaceuticals CEO has gone insane under the current economic pressure and a little experiment to boost the sales for Aspirin went way out of control? 

No, nothing, the story just continues and the source of the disease is backtracked to an obscure bat population in the Asian jungle. The whole trick box of elaborate Hollywood dramaturgy remains closed, giving preference to a Realistic account of a current-day bio-catastrophe. There is no evil scheme to be discovered. The guys in power are working hard, doing their job as best as they can. The alternative souls (Jude Law as Frisco-based wannabe journalist) are as corrupt and prone to sell their conscience to greedy hedge fund managers as every other human being could possibly be. And even the offices of high profile government organisations, and with them their functionaries, are suspiciously unattractive.

Steven Soderbergh, who wants to see this? Hollywood is the dream factory, not the documentary Mecca! It is easy to dismiss this film as unsuccessful try to wrap an action plot into some layers of the Real. Boring! On the other hand, do we need to see another hyper-stylized, action packed, fast cut, over-dramatized doomsday film? Isn’t Steven Soderbergh here discovering an interesting gap that uses all the tools Hollywood has on display, but does not heighten them to a flasher à la Michael Bay? 

The film is purely led by the prosaic unfolding of a story, which could happen any day, without any conspiracy scheming that goes unnoticed by the public. The lead characters are not immortal (Bruce Willis, Tom Cruise, watch out for Mr. Soderbergh’s casting director, he might eventually get you), nor are they overly beautified (ok, Gwyneth Paltrow looks sexy in a party scene, but no one else would show her deliberately with reddened skin irritations on the neck, I guess) or morally beyond (the people having privileged access to the vaccine that is eventually found gladly take it, without making too much fuss about their ius primae seri). Contagion doesn’t bother too much with aesthetic conventions or viewer’s expectations. It just tells it how it is. Hollywood for the quotidian.

CONTAGION played Venice 2011 and opened in September in Hong Kong, Singapore, Italy and the US. It opened in Hungary on October 13th; and in Finland, Ireland, Poland, Sweden and the UK on October 21st; in Norway on October 28th. It opens in Belgium and France on November 9th; in Spain on November 29th; in Australia on December 3rd and in Germany on December 24th.

Saturday, November 05, 2011


An encounter. Quiet, solitary Russell (Tom Cullen) sleeps with Glen (Chris New) after noticing him in a club, and two of them spend the weekend together. The few days they share are spent largely in hungover, hungry conversation, and it is this naturalistically-played series of exchanges that makes for the potent draw of WEEKEND.

Glen, we learn, is doing an art project on the sexual experiences of gay men, and, in bed the morning after the night before, he opens a tape recorder and records Russell’s tentative description of their encounter and questions his thoughts and intentions around it. When Glen switches off the recorder, this confessional discussion continues for the next forty-eight hours. We discover that Russell is mostly settled and reticent in his behaviour whereas Glen is restless and confrontational and angry at a public that he predicts will pay no attention to his project and the queer truths it offers.

During this time, writer/director Andrew Haigh stays the camera on his leads, watching them from the coffee table or above the bed, letting the talk and the characters work their ordinary magic. Though Russell and Glen never feel quite symbolic, they are particular – each having been able to act repeatedly on his desires from a young age, in the context of a certain city culture – and, in its strength, their story never feels like an overshadowing of the spectrum of our own poignant routes and experiences. There is space enough for any of us here.

As it will, the pair's weekend draws to a close, and the spell runs its course. What of this unexpected relationship? What of love and its queerness? A beautifully measured ending, with the sound stripped away at a crucial point, maintains the unostentatious style the film clings to. Glen’s project, which is ultimately Haigh’s own, emerges then as a quiet and involving success.

WEEKEND played SXSW, London and many other festivals this year. It opened in the US in September, in Germany in October and is currently on release in the UK. It won the Grand Jury Award at LA Outfest; a Special Mention at the Dinard British Film Festival; Tom Cullen won Best Actor at Nashville; Andrew Haigh won the Emerging Visions award at SXSW; Andrew Haigh won the Audience Award at San Franscisco International LGFF; and the Audience Award at the Toronto Inside Out LGFVF.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

RA.ONE - a new benchmark in Hindi sci-fi action flicks

Ladai goliyon se nahin, dil se jeeti jati hain.
Hindi cinema has never had a strong tack record in the sci-fi and fantasy genres. Its product has tended to focus on the musical rom-com, melodrama and tragedy - sometimes all bound up in the same film.  There have been successful gangster, cop and thriller movies, and a consistently rich seam of independent cinema.  But with a few recent exceptions - KRRISH, perhaps - Hindi cinema hasn't really ventured into the lucrative arenas (in the West, at least) of children's animation, fantasy, horror, and sci-fi.  Perhaps this reflects the fact that all these genres need state of the art technical expertise of the kind that up until recently wasn't available in Mumbai - surprisingly so, when you consider India's considerable edge in IT.  But IT in the creative industries - that's something quite different.  Moreover, these films need considerable and expensive post-production work - again not the kind of facilities easily accessible in Bollywood.

All this pre-amble gives you some idea as to how revolutionary RA.ONE is. Because this isn't so much a new film, to be reviewed as other films are reviewed, but a statement of faith in the future of Hindi cinema on the part of its star, legendary Hindi actor Shah Rukh Khan, and his wife and now producer, Gauri Khan.  RA.ONE represents a massive gamble, and indeed investment, on their part - in creating production facilities in Mumbai - in using the best post facilities in London for effects and retrospective 3D.  They  have shown the world that Hindi cinema can now produce movies of technical skill to match anything Hollywood has to offer, and the box office receipts show that Indian audiences are quite willing to embrace the relatively new genre of sci-fi action thriller.  To that end, RA.ONE must be seen as a technical and commercial success - a seminal film - regardless of the quality of the actual work.

The movie itself is far more conservative than the radical technical achievement.  The story is a strange and not entirely felicitous mash-up of elements from TERMINATOR, THE MATRIX, and TRON, shoe-horned into a typical Hindi family comedy. 

Shah Rukh Khan plays a nerdy video game designer called Shekhar, married to his loving wife Sonia (Kareena Kapoor).  In order to impress his alarmingly feminine-looking son, Prateek (Armaan Verma), Shekhar invents a game in which the bad guy always wins. Problem is, the bad guy avatar, Ra.One (a  play on the Hindi name of an evil demon, Raavan) breaks free of the computer game and enters the real world, desperate to kill his gaming foe Lucifer, the avatar of Prateek. Only the good guy avatar, G.One (a play on the Hindi word for "life", Jeevan), modelled on Shekhar, can save the day.

The scenes of family life, with Shekhar and then G.One playing husband and father, are classic Hindi schmaltz.  It's a culture in which the family unit is idealised - where father is always right, mother is entirely dependent on father (despite a brief reference to feminist research), and the little kid is a spoilt brat who comes to realise that, well, father was right all along.  There are schmaltzy scenes of bonding, and Shah Rukh Khan's brand of typically broad, crude comedy.  He does things here that are so simplistic - donning a stupid perm wig to simulate being a geeky southern Indian - that no other actor would get away with.  But accusations that Shah Rukh Khan is a hammy actor are beside the point. His fans want to see through the thinly veiled disguise of costume and antics to the superstar beneath.  He is his own brand - losing himself in characterisation would be alienating to his admirers.

The handling of the sci-fi material is also pretty cursory.  This isn't THE MATRIX - posing deep questions about the nature of reality and perception. The explanation of how Ra.One and G.One can escape the video game is all a bit Basil Exposition.  No-one here is really interested in the philosophy.  But I have to say that I did appreciate the almost self-effacing way in which the screenwriters (David Benullo, Kanika Dhillon, Niranjan Iyengar, Mushtaq Sheikh, director Anubhav Sinha and Shah Rukh Khan) acknowledge this fact. Shortly after the interval they insert a scene where Sonia, Prateek and G.One meet Rajnikanth in the role of Chitti - the robot come to life that he played in the recent Hindi film ENDHIRAN - a much more subtle and intelligent investigation of the nature of virtual reality.  Sonia explicitly pays homage to the superior creation.

Where the film scores big is in the use of CGI and the staging of the action scenes, that surpass anything in recent Hindi cinema, and even surpass second-tier Hollywood action flicks like THE GREEN LANTERN and THE GREEN HORNET.  The imaginary worlds look amazing, Shah Rukh Khan looks superb in his blue-lit suit, and the set-pieces are just stunning - particularly a train chase sequence that culminates in the (subversive political?!) destruction of Mumbai's colonial Victoria Terminus railway station.  I also liked the in-jokes - the inclusion of Desi girl jokes at Priyanka Chopra's expense, for instance.  And, of course, completing the cross-cultural switch, we have the American rapper Akon singing the two key songs that frame the big musical item numbers.  These scenes work really well, and it's actually pretty surprising to see how convincing Akon is singing Hindi lyrics, although this is undercut by the absurdity of Khan lip-synching to them. Ra.One is also one of the more successful retrospective 3D movies of recent times.

Overall, it's easy to knock RA.ONE - the plot is shaky, the sci-fi exposition cursory - and it's basically just another vehicle for Shah Rukh Khan's brand of cheeky family comedy, newly supplemented by his buff physique. The movie was never trying to be a subtle sci-fi thriller.  What is was trying to do was lay down a new benchmark for CGI-packed action films. And in that respect, it's an unqualified success.

RA.ONE went on global release on October 26th.