Saturday, September 29, 2012

London Film Fest 2012 - Top Picks - WEST OF MEMPHIS

The next of our top picks for the London Film Festival also carries the theme of children abused and communities bearing down on outsiders. It's the documentary WEST OF MEMPHIS, and tickets are still available from the BFI for both the October 13th and October 14th screenings. 

In 1993, three young boys were hogtied and murdered, and their bodies thrown into a watery ditch. Three teenagers were tried for those murders, even though there was precious little physical evidence and no motive, unless you believed that they were in a Satanic cult, and the confession obtained under duress from one of the accused.  Decades later, and the verdicts still stood, despite the recantations of key witnesses; experts pointing out that supposedly Satanic genital mutilation was probably carried out post mortem by turtles; and what can only be called deliberate manipulation or withholding of evidence by the pathologist and prosecutor.  This was a travesty of justice so obvious to everybody but the State of Arkansas, that celebrities wrote songs and raised money to overturn the verdict, and HBO produced three documentaries on the case - the PARADISE LOST trilogy by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky.  

Among those celebrities drawn to the case were the couple behind the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh.  And thanks to them, we know have this new documentary, directed by Amy Berg (BHUTTO).  This film redresses some of the information that was current at the time of PARADISE LOST but which later investigations proved to be incorrect, and brings us right up to date. It does so in a sober and calm style which befits the material, in a tech package that is absolutely top-notch.

The first hour of the film recounts the original murders and trial, and makes the case for the innocence of the "West Memphis Three". It leaves us with a profound sense of injustice and disgust at just how shamefaced some of the prosecution's tactics were.  The only reprieve is a brief moment of cathartic shock when we see an animal handler prove what a turtle bit looks like.  I found this hour to be utterly compelling - interweaving vintage footage of the trial - commentary by Peter Jackson and other celebrities who got involved in the cause - and most emotionally, footage of the incarcerated Damien Echols and his wife and campaigner Lorri Davis.  

The second hour of the documentary then provides us with an alternate murderer - the stepfather of one of the murdered kids, Thomas Hobbs.  I found this hour to be highly disturbing. To be sure, it seems like there's a lot of evidence against Hobbs. He had an apparent history of violence against his lovers and children - his daughter is severely disturbed and wonders if she was sexually abused by him - and the documentary paints a convincing picture of a man who was jealous of the attention his wife paid to her son, and spontaneously murdered him and his two friends.  What I found disturbing was that, in a sense, this documentary was condemning this man in the court of public opinion rather than in a court of law. And when the documentary is telling us that previous documentaries did the same thing to another of the stepfathers in this case, but got it wrong, and caused him much suffering, I think that should give us pause.

I guess the real tragedy here, and one that the final half hour of the documentary shows, is that because the West Memphis 3 eventually got out of jail on a technicality - so worn down with fighting for justice they accepted a technical guilty plea but assert their innocence - that we'll never have real closure.  They won't have cleared their names truly, and therefore, Thomas Hobbs can't be tried for a crime that others have already been condemned for.  Guilty or innocent, Hobbs deserves a fair trial. So did the West Memphis 3.  

WEST OF MEMPHIS played Sundance and London 2012 and will be released in the USA on December 25th 2012.

Running time: 150 minutes. Rated R.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

London Film Fest 2012 - Top Picks - TALL AS THE BAOBOB TREE

At first glance, our two first Top Picks for London 2012 seem worlds apart.  THE HUNT is set in the affluent liberal Nordics, whereas today's pick, TALL AS THE BAOBAB TREE, is set in rural Senegal.  But both employ a very distinct technique to bring the viewer right into the heart of the story - both create a sense of intimacy and of moral urgency - both focus on the agency and vulnerability of children within a community - and both are exquisitely shot.

TALL AS THE BAOBAB TREE is not a dogme film, but it is definitely a "found" art.  Debut feature director Jeremy Teicher has assembled his story and his cast from a documentary project in Senegal, and the resulting feature film has an authenticity and intimacy that is captivating.  He casts real-life sisters Dior and Oumoul Kâ as fictional sisters Coumba and Debo.  The first generation to be sent to school in their village, this small step to emancipation and education is threatened when their father must pay his son's medical bills, and so pulls the younger sister from school in order to arrange her marriage.  The elder sister tries to prevent this backward step by taking employment in the city.  

What I love about this film is the complete lack of cultural arrogance or simple moralising.  The decision to take the girl out of school and arrange her marriage is not seen as a bigoted outrageous step, but as part of the rich tradition of the village.  We understand that the father is genuinely trying to do what is best for his family: it's just that the next generation has had a taste of a different life and will try anything to retain that opportunity.  Indeed the over-riding theme is one of the impossibility of communication.  When the elder sister tries to explain the situation to her teacher, he rather facilely tells her to explain to her father why he should alter his views - as if such a simple thing is possible!  Every decision in this film is fraught and enmeshed in the conflict between traditional familial duty and modernity.  And if it seems rather far away from contemporary London, I can only say that this is exactly the same  kind of conversation that I have experienced in contemporary British-Asian society.

But I should stop there. I don't want to give you the impression that TALL AS THE BAOBAB TREE is an earnest, preachy, but rather dry film.  Rather, it is absolutely captivating and emotionally involving. The cast transmit their intimacy and everyday triumphs and setbacks against a backdrop of stunning Senagalese landscapes.  There are as many moments of joy as of conflict, and the film is worth watching for DP Chris Collis' HD lensing alone.

TALL AS THE BAOBAB TREE aka GRAND COMME LE BAOBAB played London 2012.  It does not yet have a commercial release date.

Running time 82 minutes. Language: Pulaar. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

London Film Fest 2012 - Top Picks - THE HUNT

This year, I'm trying to point the casual festival-goer to a handful of movies that are truly wonderful and CRUCIALLY, for which it is still possible to get tickets at the time of writing. After all, what's the point of reading Top Pick lists that tell you to go and watch AMOUR when it was sold out about a minute into the members' booking period? Not that you shouldn't still try to see AMOUR, or ARGO, or the other hot tickets - the BFI does a great job in releasing unused sponsor's tickets, and there are always Returns - keep an eye on the Festival website or follow the BFI on twitter for more info. That said, THE HUNT is a quality movie, fêted at Cannes, that you can still get tickets for, without all the hoop-la.

Danish director Thomas Vinterberg - of FESTEN fame - reunites the team behind his most recent quiet, austere drama SUBMARINO, to take a hard look at what happens when an innocent man in a small town is accused of sexually abusing a child.  There is no melodrama here - no wild hysteria - but the quiet destruction of a man's life and reputation, the frighteningly casual way in which a man can be ostracised, when a child "says something foolish" and it all gets out of hand.  The violence is mostly contained, and all the more frightening for when it does rear up through the façade of bourgeois life - all the more sinister and the more likely to leave a lasting paranoia.

There are no easy choices here.  The man accused - Lucas - is a humble, beloved kindergarten teacher. A sensitive man who one day offers to walk his best friend's daughter to school so as to escape her parents' argument.  No good deed goes unpunished - and to a sensitive child, this special attention, when suddenly coming up against the bounds of proprietary - leads to a heartbreak and a foolish vengeful thought - a thought whose power Klara can barely understand.  The poor parents and teachers of course have to take it seriously, even with the accused is their best friend.  Which parent has the fortitude to call their daughter a liar? 

The power of this movie lies in its closely observed, beautifully acted scenes of apprehension and concern.  The young actress who plays Klara, Annika Wedderkopp, delicately portrays a child who lies, becomes confused, tries to protest her innocence, simply can't remember, but only knows she's lost her friend.  And Mads Mikkelsen is typically superb as Lucas, playing so far within himself one almost forgets his impressive physicality.  He truly is an astonishing actor - able to go from hapless, buffoon in PUSHER, to Bond villain, to this almost passive Good Man. There's a particularly tense, cathartic scene near the end of the film, where you can see this two, separated by a movie's length of town panic, broking some kind of reconciliation - and it's quite simply magnetic.  Finally, one also has to praise cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen for her richly coloured Danish landscapes and pristine digital lensing.  

THE HUNT aka JAGTEN played Cannes 2012 where Mads Mikkelsen won Best Actor and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen won the Vulcain Prize for the Technical Artist and director Thomas Vinterberg won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury.  It also played Toronto and London 2012. It opens on October 25th in the Netherlands; on November 14th in Belgium, France and Russia; on November 30th in the UK; on January 10th in Denmark and Portugal; on February 1st in Norway and Sweden; on March 8th in Iceland and on March 28th in Germany.

Running time 110 minutes. Tough material but no explicit sexual content.

Monday, September 24, 2012


I was dreading UNTOUCHABLE. I thought it was going to be an earnest soupy French Driving Miss Daisy with questionable racial politics, dripping in sentiment. I couldn't have been further from the mark. It's a film that is full of life, energy, humour - whose central characters are captivating and charismatic.  I laughed my way through the movie, desperate not to leave its company, and would be more than happy to watch it again.  It is undoubtedly one of the best films I have seen this year.

The movie stars  Francois Cluzet (LITTLE WHITE LIES) as paraplegic millionaire Philippe, bored and frustrated by the endless parade of earnest, highly qualified, pitying carers.  On a whim, he hires a petty criminal immigrant and self-confessed ladies man, Driss (Omar Sy) - who apparently also take the job on a whim - to acquire a bathroom all to himself! 

The wonder of the movie is that their odd-couple friendship never feels like a cliché.  They feel no pity for each other, genuinely care, and have that kind of open deep friendship where one can be utterly honest.  A movie like this stands or falls on the chemistry between the leads - and here, it definitely works.  I also love the fact that the co-directors and writers Oliver Najache and Eric Toledano (TELLEMENT PROCHES) wear their social commentary with a very light touch.  There's no preachy politics contrasting Philippe's privileged life with Driss' over-crowded apartment in the banlieu - and although there is a powerful moment where Philippe sets Driss free to take care of his errant brother, the evident danger and limited opportunity of the banlieu is lightly sketched rather than dogmatically discussed.

Overall, a tremendous movie - superbly funny - never sentimental - with two of the most memorable characters of 2012. Not to be missed.

THE INTOUCHABLES aka UNTOUCHABLE played San Sebastian and Tokyo 2011 and was released in 2011 in Belgium, France and Hungary.  It was released earlier in 2012 in Germany, Italy, Spain, Israel, the Netherlands, South Korea, Greece, Portugal, Taiwan, Poland, Romania, Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Turkey, Serbia, Estonia, the USA, Canada, Iceland, Cambodia, Kuwait, India, Argentina, Peru, Mexico, Venezuela and Brazil. It is currently on release in Japan, Hong Kong, Colombia, Sweden and the UK. It opens next weekend in Australia and New Zealand. It opens on November 9th in Norway; on November 22nd in Denmark and on November 30th in Finland.

Saturday, September 22, 2012


KILLING THEM SOFTLY is an unrelentingly bleak and cynical examination of mid-level criminals in a bad economy.  It chronicles an America bloated and decayed, with a soft belly and a smack addiction, where "hope you can believe in" is just a pathetic fairytale.  America is a business not a democracy, and this movie is about getting paid.  To that end, it is fitting that nothing that happens in this film is a surprise.  The wheels of capitalism, whether on Wall Street or trashy motels, grind on regardless.

The first act sees ex-con idiots Frankie (Scoot McNairy - IN SEARCH OF A MIDNIGHT KISS) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn - ANIMAL KINGDOM) hired by The Squirrel (Vincent Curatola - THE SOPRANOS) to knock off a card game.  The twist is that because the host of the game, Markie Trattman, (Ray Liotta) is known to have held up his own card game once before, the suspicion will fall on him and they'll get away scott free.  The second act sees a dull bureaucrat (Richard Jenkins) hiring muscle to kill not just the guilty trio but also Trattman.  For confidence to be restored to the "market", justice must be seen to be done, even if the underworld have gotten the wrong end of the stick. The bureaucrat hires Brad Pitt's hitman, Jackie Cogan, who in turn brings in James Gandolfini's Mickey, only to realise that Mickey is not fit for purpose. The final act sees Cogan resigned to the task at hand.

There is a grim inevitability to the crime and punishment narrative. But that doesn't mean that the film has no dramatic tension.  The initial heist is painfully, terrifyingly drawn out.  And the final execution is expected but unbearably tense.  I've never seen a punishment beating look so visceral as when Trattman is beaten by two goons.  I've never seen an execution look simultaneously so beautiful and so desperately anonymous as when Trattman is off'ed. I've never seen a smack addict getting high so imaginatively depicted than when DP Greig Fraser (SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN) photographs the perceptions of Russell.

But we all know that director Andrew Dominik is the master of the technically brilliant set-up - the unbearable tense pregnant pause.  That's partly what made THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD an instant pantheon movie - and probably the best film I've ever seen at the London Film Festival.   That film coupled stunning visuals and a foreboding mood with a sickening, fascinating obsessive love story.  It had heart  - a twisted heart, admittedly - but an emotional centre for us to hold on to.  Similarly, Dominik's first film CHOPPER had audacious visuals and superlative editing, but it's success hinged on the charisma and horror of the central character.

The problem with KILLING THEM SOFTLY is that it works at an intellectual but not an emotional level. This is quite deliberate.  Dominik is making an intellectual point - about the decadence and squalor of the USA  - the bad economy - falling wages, rising bureaucracy - that it's just about getting paid, and getting paid is getting harder.  I didn't find the political analogy over-bearing as I know some critics have. I found it not just valid, but urgent.  The problem is that the cynicism of the film is alienating - almost unbearably so.  Dominik just doesn't give us anything to hold on to. And as a result, his latest film is less than the sum of  its parts.

KILLING THEM SOFTLY played Cannes 2012 and opened this weekend in Ireland, Spain and the UK. It opens next weekend in Slovenia. It opens on October 11th in Australia, Hong Kong, Italy and Argentina; on October 18th in Argentina, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia, Estonia and Lithuania; on October 25th in Greece; on November 1st in Portugal and Norway; on November 9th in Mexico; on November 16th in Poland; on November 23rd in Bulgaria; on November 29th in Germany and the USA; and on December 5th in Belgium, France and Denmark. 

Saturday, September 15, 2012


HOPE SPRINGS is an utterly banal, highly disappointing drama about an elderly couple in a sexless marriage going to therapy. Though marketed as a slightly risqué comedy (Meryl Streep suggestively holding up a banana), the movie is actually a very, very talky drama, with most of the 100 minute run-time spent with the two leads (Streep an Tommy Lee Jones) uncomfortably discussing their marriage in front of a poker-faced therapist (Steve Carell).  There are no character-deepening revelations, no telling moments of wry humour - nothing at all to hold our interest in Vanessa Taylor's deathly straightforward script and David Frankel's workmanlike direction.  Given the high-class cast, and potentially fascinating set-up, what a desperate shame!

HOPE SPRINGS is on release in the USA, Canada, Hungary, Israel, Brazil, the Philippines, Australia New Zealand, Croatia, Portugal, Slovenia, Sweden, Argentina, the Czech Republic, Singapore, Ireland, Poland and the UK. It opens on September 21st in Norway, on September 27th in Germany, the Netherlands and Spain, on October 5th in Finland and Turkey, on October 10th in Belgium and France, on October 18th in Hong Kong, Italy, Estonia and Iceland, in Denmark on November 15th, in Greece on November 22nd, in Chile on December 6th, in Russia on December 13th, in Bulgaria on December 21st, in  Macedonia on December 27th, in Taiwan on January 4th, and in Mexico on February 22nd.

HOPE SPRINGS has a running time of 100 minutes and is rated PG-13 in the USA.

Friday, September 14, 2012


PARANORMAN is an absolutely delightful, heart-warming, funny and beautifully visualised stop-motion animation film about a young troubled boy who finds acceptance when he saves his town from zombies.  Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is the classic emo kid bullied at school and a cause for embarrassment at home. The reason: he sees dead people.  The social pain reaches a pitch during the school play when he's carrie back in time to when a little girl was similarly misunderstand by Puritan townsfolk and hounded out, sparking a curse that Norman must lift.  True to the touchy-feely wholesome values of this film, that curse is lifted with empathy rather than pitchforks, with the upside that his family finally accept Norman for what he is, and more importantly he finally feels comfortable with his gift and understands that they truly do love him.  The scene where his blonde bimbo elder sister (Anna Kendrick) grabs his hand and protects him from a mob is positively heart-breaking.  The movie works on all sorts of more subtle levels too - I love that they cast geeky Christopher Mintz-Plasse as the voice of the bully - a role he'd never be able to play in a live action film.  I love the balls-out bravery of the final joke between the elder sister and the guy she's been crushing on. I love the subtle and obvious reverential references to horror films throughout the movie. And I love the gentle humour and genuine chemistry between Norman and his eager best friend: "Don't make me throw the humus - it's spicy!"  Overall, there's nothing not to like about this film.  It's less dark than the Neil Gaiman penned CORALINE which many of the team here also worked on, but what it looses in darkness it gains in sheer heart. 

PARANORMAN is on release in  Mexico, Iceland, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, Peru, Canada, Colombia, Taiwan, the USA, Vietnam, Belgium, France, Germany, Russia, Chile, Singapore, Slovenia, Romania, the Philippines, the Czech Republic, Brazil, Estonia, Finland, Pakistan, Greece, Portugal, El Salvador, Ireland, Norway and the UK.  It opens on September 20th in Denmark, Poland and Sweden; on September 28th in Lithuania; on October 4th in Thailand; on October 11 th in Italy; on October 19th in Turkey; on October 25th in Argentina; on October 29th in Israel; on September 21st in December; on January 10th in Australia and Hungary; on January 17th in New Zealand and in Japan on March 29th.

PARANORMAN has a running time of 92 minutes and the movie is rated PG in the USA.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


TO ROME WITH LOVE is a rather mediocre, derivative, Woody Allen movie - a portmanteau of four stories, neither of which is especially interesting, well-acted or well-developed.  The only real link is that they all take place in Rome - there isn't a link between them - either through the characters or thematically, as far as I can tell. 

The most ill-fitting of the four stories, by virtue of the fact that it's in Italian and also because it isn't romantic but whimsical-philosophical, centres on an ordinary Joe (Roberto Benigni) who suddenly becomes famous for no reason he can see. It's kind of an inverse Josef K situation - and a wry comment on the fatuousness of modern celebrity culture - and reminded  me of early Woody Allen movies where a fantastical idea was worked out to it's ludicrous extreme. The problem is that the story makes a rather simplistic point, and doesn't really take it anywhere.

The story I found simultaneously the best and worst features Woody Allen himself back in an acting role, as a cynical retired impresario who puts his daughter's Italian father-in-law on the stage. Problem is, this simple mortician can only sing when he's in the shower. It's meant to be fantastic and funny but fell rather flat for me. The only redeeming feature was Judy Davis, cast once again as Woody Allen's wife.  She gets the only really funny one-liners of the whole film.

Next up, we have Jesse Eisenberg playing a young Woody Allen character - an unsatisfied cynic who cheats on his earnest girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) with her flighty, flirty best friend (Ellen Page). I really hated this segment, mainly because the romantic triangle is well-worn in Woody Allen; second, because I thought Ellen Page was woefully miscast as the femme fatale; and third, the conceit of having Alec Baldwin play a devil on the shoulder of Jesse Eisenberg's character also just fell flat.

Finally, we have the weakest story of the bunch.  A young Italian couple lose each other - she flirts with an elderly actor and he gets entangled with the cliché Woody Allen brassy whore (Penelope Cruz.) No laughs, no insights, no point.

All in all, after his recent good run, this is an utterly worthless and mirthless movie.  We've seen all this done before - and better. Most of all, it's disappointing to see Jesse Eisenberg wasted on such poor material.  He's an actor who seems to have been playing Woody Allen all his life.

TO ROME WITH LOVE opened earlier this year in Italy, the USA, Argentina, Brazil, Norway, Uruguay, Belgium, France, Israel, Russia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Georgia, Iceland, Mexico, Denmark, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Germany, Hungary, Finland, Greece and India. It opens this weekend in the UK, Ireland and Lithuania. It opens next weekend in Portugal, Singapore, Estonia and Spain. It opens on September 28th in Taiwan and Turkey; on November 9th in Bulgaria; and on December 20th in New Zealand.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


THE SAVAGES is a day-glo bright, tawdry, energetic mess. Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch play unlikely friends and wholesale drug manufacturers - the former an earnest hippie who has perfected killer strength drugs, the latter a war vet who cares more about money and getting the job done. The two share a ditzy blonde chick played by Blake Lively. The plot, such as it is, sees the trio under threat from a Mexican drug cartel (Salma Hayek and enforcer Benicio del Toro) and entrapped by a corrupt narc (John Travolta).

The lurid colours and kinetic force of the film are attractive but are not enough to compensate for the alienating characters.  Ultimately, it's hard to care about the fate of Lively's character in the movie's more serious second act, when her persecutor is playing a drug baroness a la Cruella deVil. Moreover, the satisfyingly tricksy plot is ultimately undone by an entirely fatuous epilogue. 

SAVAGES opened earlier this year in Canada, the USA, Colombia, Mexico, Turkey, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Portugal. It opens this week in Argentina, New Zealand, Russia and Vietnam. It opens on September 20th in Singapore, Ireland and the UK and on September 26th in France, Chile, Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Estonia, Iceland, Poland and Spain. It opens on October 3rd in Belgium, Hungary, Brazil and Lithuania. It opens on October 12th in Denmark, Germany, Finland, Norway and Sweden. It opens on October 18th in Australia and on October 25th in Greece and Italy.

Friday, September 07, 2012


I have a major problem with director Joe Wright. I think he is a technically accomplished director who creates wonderfully fluid, extravagantly choreographed shots that are entirely at odds with the content of his films. I first noticed this in ATONEMENT, where his long tracking shot on the beach at Dunkirk didn't advance either plot or character - it was a showy distraction in what should have been (viz. the novel) a tightly structured, chamber drama. Sadly, in ANNA KARENINA, this desire to be as contrived and artificial and intricately choreographed as possible has over-taken the film to the point where all passion, tragedy and joy is lost in a never-ending series of delicate backdrops that showcase the Chanel Haute Joaillerie collection.  This film is not so much a tragic romance as a musical without songs, and a perfume advertisement that lasts two hours.

I am not entirely sure who is to blame.  Who was it that came up with the conceit to imprison what many have called the greatest novel ever written in the simplistic straitjacket of a theatre metaphor?  Was it Joe Wright, or playwright/screenwriter Tom Stoppard? In their version of 1870s Imperial Russia, high society becomes a theatre in which every aristocrat has a part to play, and rules to which they must confirm, or else be brutally cast aside.  This is the lesson which Anna Karenina learns when she sacrifices her son and her marriage to have an affair with the dashing Count Vronsky.  He also loses - his Commission, his freedom, the respect of society - but not as much as Anna -  because he can still contract a good marriage and so redeem all.  Both Anna and Vronsky learn that happiness is tarnished by the exigencies of real life, and ultimately, they are made wretched by each other and their situation. 

The intensity with which Wright and Stoppard used the theatrical metaphor is dazzling in the open twenty minutes of the film - so ingenious it quite crowds out our attention.  I barely noticed Anna and Vronsky fall in love, or Kitty's heartbreak when Vronsky leaves her for Anna.  Anna's brother Stiva becomes a caricature of a decadent aristo, like a larger than life minor comic character in Dickens.  I kept waiting to see marionette strings.  And as for the production design - it was so rich and beautiful as to be claustrophobic, and then became a parody of itself, with Princess Betsy turning into Effie Trinkett from THE HUNGER GAMES with her outlandish dresses and coiffeur.   Underneath all the anachronistic dance moves that distracted with their inelegance and artifice, I detected what looks to be a more mature and nuanced performance from Keira Knightley, and especially Jude Law as her dogmatic husband Karenin.  Too bad those performances didn't have room to breathe. But as for poor Aaron Taylor-Johnson, his Vronsky was never more than a vain poseur.  When never feel and see his love for Anna, and his motivations are not rich enough - either in respect to Anna or the  eligible young Princess Sorokina. Maybe it's the fault of the script, but Jude Law did better with less.

The result is a film that looks fabulous and moves with the intricacy of a Swiss watch, but which feels insubstantial and skates over us too lightly.  Perhaps it's because Vronsky is so poorly written.  Perhaps it's because the larger, metaphysical discussion is entirely absent.  In the novel, Anna's attempt to escape society's constrictions is contrasted with the gloriously good but conflicted and occasionally delusionally idealistic Levin, who flees to the country but never quite loses sight of the dark backing to the mirror.  We see nothing of Levin's confusion, nothing of Kitty's process of maturing, nothing of his happiness and final equivocations.  Short-changing this story might have seemed like a narrative necessity in a two hour film - editing the "secondary" story to give Anna and Vronsky more screen time. But it's a fatal cut.  Anna's story works in relation to Levin's.  And, indeed, it's possible to see ANNA KARENINA as Levin's story after all.  Without it, the film has none of the intellectual heft of the book - and it loses perhaps the best description of happiness in literature.  Still, given these constraints, I have to say that Domnhall Gleeson was absolutely superb as Levin.  I just wish I'd seen more of him.

Of course, I am well aware that after my tirade against TINKER TAILOR, I might be giving the impression that I have a pantheon of novels that have become so much a part of my life that I cannot conceive of a film-maker's interpretation that would do my vision justice. Not so in the case of ANNA KARENINA.  I admired the 1997 Bernard Rose adaptation, starring Sophie Marceau, Sean Bean and Alfred Molina, very, very much indeed. 

ANNA KARENINA played Toronto 2012 and is released this weekend in the UK and Ireland.  It opens on November 16th in the USA and on December 6th in the Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands and Portugal. It opens on January 3rd in Russia and Turkey; on January 10th 2013 in Denmark; on January 17th in Australia; on January 24th in Australia; on January 31st in New Zealand and Brazil; on  February 14th in Argentina, Norway and Sweden; on February 21st in Italy; and on March 13th in Belgium and France.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012


LAWLESS is the kind of movie you could watch in an imaginary art-house theatre where the only seat is a Chesterfield sofa in the middle of the room, and you're curled up with a bottle of Bourbon and an Opus X cigar. It contains scenes of sickening violence; ethereal cinematography;an immersive, at times overwhelming sound-scape; and a disturbing, provocative moral ambiguity.

Set in Prohibition era Virginia, LAWLESS is the tale of the three Bondurant brothers - bootleggers holding out against a corrupt lawman, and dangerously believing the myth of their own invincibility.  Gruff, inarticulate older brother Forrest (Tom Hardy) is at once a faintly comic goon and a frighteningly violent dispenser of justice, as he sees it.  Middle brother Howard (Jason Clarke) is a largely silent, forgotten (and fatefully forgetful) middleman. Younger brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is the vain, starry-eyed, romantic fool who's wooing of the preacher's daughter ultimately sets in motion the final showdown between the brothers and the "Law", Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce).

Tom Hardy is mesmerising as Forrest - walking a fine line between fearsome and funny - and killing a final scene where he has to question his own myth.  But this movie belongs to Guy Pearce in the same way that NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN belongs to Javier Bardem.  He plays perhaps the most chilling, disturbing dandy killer since Brother Mouzone of The Wire, with brilliantly conceived make-up - a slightly too wide parting, slightly too thin eyebrows - unsettling us from the start.  

Ultimately, the rest of the movie is pretty thinly conceived. Poor brother Howard has nothing much to do.  The female roles are underwritten.  Gary Oldman - playing a Chicago mobster - is criminally underused, although he does have one tremendous scene with Noah Taylor.  The plot, when you really think about it, is pretty thin too.  The boys refuse to pay off the corrupt Rakes. He tries to terrify them into submission. They refuse.  It comes to a showdown.

But I guess I just think all that is beside the point.   The movie is both lyrical and hard-boiled. It's all about the battle  between Forrest and Rakes - and their personalities dominate the screen.  It's about the atmosphere of that time enveloping us - Benoit Delhomme's beautiful photography of landscapes shrouded in mist, and interiors cast in shadow. It's about being immersed with Jack in the overwhelming sound of the religious meeting to the point of being sick.  It's about the uneasy feeling that even in lighthearted moments, sickening violence is always a possibility.  It's about being complicit in the violence - cheering on the boys, as the poster suggests, as "heroes", but knowing that Forrest has done some truly repulsive things.

More than that, the film is - like BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID - or THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD - about myth, and the dangers of believing in your own press. Early on Forrest tells Jack that the only thing that keeps the brothers safe is the myth of their invincibility.  But this myth is subversive.  Poor Jack and his sidekick collect shell casings to make necklaces and take photos of each other posing with guns.  Forrest's belief in his own invincibility is used against him by his lover.  And Rakes is infuriated by that myth.  Far from glorifying the violent Forrest, in the end he is a figure of hapless incompetence and comedy.  So much for the hero.

LAWLESS played Cannes 2012 and is on release in Canada and the USA. It opens this weekend in Bulgaria, Finland, Ireland, Norway and the UK. It opens next weekend in France, Hungary, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden. It opens on September 20th in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Greece, Brazil and Iceland. It opens on October 4th in Russia; October 11th in Australia and Denmark; October 18th in Portugal and South Korea; October 25th in Argentina and Turkey; November 15th in the Netherlands; November 30th in Poland and on February 7th 2013 in New Zealand.