Monday, December 31, 2012

The Best of 2012 - ARTHOUSE MOVIES

So here's to the wilfully obscure, fragile, indulgent movies that fought the accountants and got made in the teeth of every sound investment principle. Away from the mainstream formulaic releases, the reason we watch hundreds of films a year is to uncover gems such as these.  In retrospect, I can discern a theme, which is of young naive girls left to fend for themselves when their parents abuse their responsibility toward them.

Matteo Garrone's audacious REALITY
First up, Matteo Garrone astonished me with his visual audacity and provocative take on reality TV. His REALITY was one of those films that leaves you reeling - at once surreal and profoundly familiar. He focuses on a small-town guy desperate to appear on the Italian version to the point where he becomes delusional.  There's a rich seam of black humour, a joy in the grotesque, and a deep truth about how in the world of Facebook and Youtube our lives only have meaning if documented. 

Another Italian director, Daniele Cipri, elaborated on the themes of moral corruption and easy winnings with his similarly ambitious, audacious, darkly comic but ultimately terrifying film, IT WAS THE SON.  The movie stars Toni Servilio as the father of a family in a decrepit mafia-riddled town, squabbling over a windfall to the point of insanity. It shows humanity as grotesque and greedy but never with scorn. 

From Italy to Denmark for Thomas Vinterberg's fictionalised account of an innocent schoolteacher accused of paedophilia, THE HUNT. Mads Mikkelsen visibly shrinks into his role as the quiet, downtrodden teacher, and the movie is all too believable.  It serves as a modern fable about the danger of quick judgements and mob hysteria. 

Mexican director Michel Franco's brutal film about schoolyard bullying, AFTER LUCIA, was perhaps the most brutal watch of the year.  It meticulously shows how an escalation of bullying can lead to devastating result, and hinges on a superb performance from teenager Tessa Ia. Every parent of a teenage daughter needs to watch this flick with their kid.

From Mexico to Chile, where Pablo Larrain's superbly researched NO! tells the story of Chile's referendum to end dictatorship from the point of view of the ad exec hired by the pro-democracy campaign.  Gael Garcia Bernal is compelling as the cynical exec crafting Coke-like ads to woo the youth slowly discovering his political conscience.  I had no clue about this episode before the film, but was utterly riveted and can still remember the ad jingles. 

Next up, two films about teenage girls of no mean courage forced to fend for themselves in extraordinary circumstances, symbolic of their times. Aussie director Cate Shortland recreates Germany at the end of World War Two in this German-language drama about a young girl, LORE, whose Nazi parents are apprehended.  She must take her small siblings across the war-torn, lawless countries, as well as grappling with the enormity of the fact that her parents were on the losing side, and all that they told her may not have been true.  It's a deeply affecting, beautifully made picture. 

The second film is Sally Potter's loosely autobiographical GINGER & ROSA, set in highly politicised 1960s London. Elle Fanning has a perfect British accent as sensitive, intelligent, naive young Ginger whose best friend Rosa sleeps with her father causing an emotional crisis. It's a delicate, fragile movie that drips with authenticity and melancholy. 

As brutal as AFTER LUCIA, Scott Graham's tense, austere drama SHELL was astounding. The British drama featured Chloe Pirrie as a teenager in remote rural Scotland living with her widower father: a relationship in such isolation that it become necessarily unhealthy. 

From Europe to the Middle East for Israeli dirctor Rama Burshtein's visually ravishing, intense, claustrophobic emotional drama, FILL THE VOID. The movie stars Hadas Yaron as Shira, a naive young girl in the Orthodox Israeli community.  She is pressured by her family into marrying her deceased sister's widower, and is repulsed, shocked and entranced by the emotions she feels for him and the impact she has on him.  This was perhaps the movie that prompted the most visceral reaction in me all year.  


Back to the USA, and perhaps my favourite film of the year: the poignant, melancholy, deeply affecting buddy movie, ROBOT & FRANK.  Jake Schreier's drama is set in the near future, and stars Frank Langella as a retired burgler suffering from Alzheimer's, called, Frank, who forms an unlikely attachment to his medical carer robot. This movie poses so many profound questions about the nature of memory, and the duties of family, and what constitutes a "real" relationship, but does so with an admirably light touch.  I'm not ashamed to say it got a little dusty in the theatre. 

Finally, two honourable mentions: movies with art-house sensibilities but mainstream releases: Ang Lee's LIFE OF PI and Wes Anderson's MOONRISE KINGDOM.  Both movies with particular and beautiful visual palettes that tell seemingly fairytale stories of deep import.  Both among the best films of the year. 

THE HUNT was released in the UK in November 2012 but does not have a US release date yet. REALITY will be released in the UK on March 22nd 2013 but has no US release date.  LORE will be released in the UK on February 22nd but does not yet have a US release date. SHELL will be released in the UK on March 15th but does not yet have a US release date. NO! will be released in the UK on February 8th and in the USA on February 15th. ROBOT & FRANK was released in the USA last year and will be released in the UK on March 8th. IT WAS THE SON, FILL THE VOID and AFTER LUCIA do not yet have a US or UK release date. 

The Best of 2012 - GENRE MOVIES


Critics drawing up lists of the best films of any particular year tend to focus on the arthouse wonders and avant-garde. You know what I mean - the latest subtle deeply affecting Iranian agit-drama in which the death of a tree symbolises the ruling neo-fascist kleptocracy. And there'll be more of that to follow. But in this post I want to give mad props to all those film-makers who took the hackneyed genre tropes that make up the vast majority of theatrical releases and reinvigorated them.

First up, CHILDREN'S movies, and PIRATES! IN AN ADVENTURE WITH SCIENTISTS!  This is an absolutely hilarious, beautifully created, intelligent kids claymation picture that casts Hugh Grant as a hapless but well-meaning pirate going up against the nefarious Charles Darwin.  This movie has heart, but not in that schmaltzy manipulative Pixar way (controversial!)  It has wit, style, irreverence, a very British sense of humour, and a kickass Queen Victoria.  Why don't we see more of Hugh Grant in roles like this? 

I don't really watch HORROR movies, as I'm totally gutless, so in this category, I'll have to nominate FRANKENWEENIE, Tim Burton's return to form with this poignant horror homage featuring a little boy who re-animates his beloved dog, Sparkie. This is a kids movie that's really for cineastes, with wonderful in-jokes and references, and a genuine love of cinema-history.  Again, no false schmaltz here, but a genuinely tearful experience.  Just goes to show you can make a great film that clocks in at under 90 minutes. Not sure you really needed the 3D though. 

Next, DRAMA. For me the best was J C Chandor's MARGIN CALL. I have an on-going beef with how Hollywood represents my day job, and this is the first (and probably last) time that I've seen the reality of life in an investment bank depicted accurately on screen. If you want to know what really happened in the Global Financial Crisis, watch this film, and realise that we were all drinking the cool-aid.  Also memorable for a genius slippery cameo from Jeremy Irons as a thinly veiled version of Lehman Brothers' chief, Dick Fuld. This is the movie WALL STREET 2 should have been.

The London Film Festival brought us the best THRILLER of the year.  ARGO came with the fanfare of the Hollywood machine, cueing itself up for Best Picture. It's basically just a very well put together political thriller, but there's  no harm in being just that. Even though I knew the outcome of the US diplomats trying to escape from Iran, I was on the edge of my seat for the whole film.  And, let's face it, we and the Academy love a movie in which Hollywood saves the day!  With ARGO and THE TOWN, Ben Affleck becomes the best actor turned director since Clint Eastwood, and given the latter's recent poor form, perhaps the best currently working. It's just a shame the phrase "Argo fuck yourself" never caught on. 

Perhaps the most unexpectedly brilliant film of the year was debut director Barnaby Southcombe's City-set NOIR, I, ANNA starring Charlotte Rampling as an enigmatic murder suspect pursued by Gabriel Byrne's rumpled cop.  Beautifully acted and shot, satisfyingly slippery and stylish - a movie whose confidence belies its low budget.

When it came to DISASTER movies, Joe Carnahan's THE GREY blew me out of the water. Taut, spare, tense, emotional.  Who knew Liam Neeson would emerge as an action hero with actual klout, flying in the face of the buff, waxed, pumped up muscle-hounds that fill the pages of Men's Health. Don't go gentle, motherfuckers.

When it comes to BUDDY COP movies, especially those set in LA, you can assume that you're going to get 2 hours of profanity, macho bullshit and corruption.  The genius of David Ayer's END OF WATCH is that it turned that assumption on its head, with a portrait of true, real friendship and integrity.  Sad to say that we live in such a cynical world, seeing two good guys just going about their business is enough to be considered genre-redefining. 

My penultimate choice is a movie from a genre that I think is typically ill served by mainstream Hollywood: the ROMCOM.  I'm not sure why  modern rom-coms are so banal and assinine, when the golden era of precode Hollywood produced such wonderfully acerbic, pugnacious and magnetic relationships. What kind of a world takes us from HIS GIRL FRIDAY to the latest Katherine Heigl vehicle?  Anyways, it was refreshing to see David O Russell give us an off-beat odd-couple in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK.  Perhaps the cutest moment in this year's cinema is when Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence unconsciously hold hands as they walk into the pivotal dance comp at the end of the flick and each denies they did it first. 

Finally, hands down the best genre film of the year belongs to the franchise that has become a genre in its own right, the BOND movies.  SKYFALL was, to my mind, the best Bond of the modern era.  Psychologically realistic, beautifully shot and superlatively cast.  And yet it had enough irreverence and good humour to understand that just as we don't want stupid gadgets ("What were you expecting, an exploding pen?") we still do want to see a glimpse of the Astin Martin.  Truly, this was a post-modern Bond and worth every second of its three-hour running time. And remember, my dear readers, if you need any advice on mixing martinis, don't listen to that nucklehead Ian Fleming, but head over to our sister site, CYBERMARTINI.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Best of 2012 - GUILTY PLEASURES

Of the 139 movies I watched, some of the worst were the heavily hyped, high production value epics that fell flat. (PROMETHEUS, I'm looking at you.) By contrast, some of the best times I had at the cineplex were watching movies that were balls-out crazy, silly, goofy and spoofy.  These were movies without pretensions of greatness.  Movies without the budgets to look slick.  But they never forgot the real reason why most of us go to the cinema on a Friday night - to have a bunch of fun.


The year began with Michael Dowse's GOON, a film that totally surprised me with its big heart and big laughs.  The movie features Sean William Scott as a stupid, buff ice hockey player whose basic role is to beat people up during the match. He falls for a sassy chick played by Alison Pill before she betrayed the Sisterhood in HBO's piss-poor Newsroom.  GOON is gritty, grungy, chaotic and yet you really care about every single character, not least Liev Schrieber's ageing goon Ross Rhea - maybe the funniest, most moving cameo of the year.  Unjustifiably overlooked - you'd be a fool not to rent goon for DVD date night.

Next up was Baltasar Kormakur's remake of his own caper film, CONTRABAND. Starring Mark Wahlberg as the head of a crew stealing art and shipping them home on a freighter, the movie was fast-paced, very funny and centred on the totally believable camaraderie among the crew.  It's also notable for having another one of those eye-rollingly insane Giovanni Ribisi performances which have become the stuff of hilarity. If there's a sequel, I'm going to be first in line.  The movie also underlines just how talented Mark Wahlberg is, in that he can move between starring in the utterly earnest THE FIGHTER as this kind of anonymous, downtrodden kid brother, to being the mischievous, charismatic leader of a crew. Kudos.

In April, I laughed my ass off watching Phil Lord's loving spoof of 21 JUMP STREET, falling in love with the chemistry between Jonah Hill's  Schmidt and Channing Tatum's Jenko. Indeed, as much as we talk about the McConaughasence, this really was Tatum's year, with this star turn and his producer-writer-actor credit on break-out indie hit, MAGIC MIKE.   21 JUMP STREET "got it" in a way that many TV series reboots don't.  You need to spoof the genre with a generous heart, allowing the audience to fall in love with the central characters and conceit even as they laugh at it.  Also, I'm thinking that Johnny Depp had been waiting YEARS to exorcise his hatred of the teen TV soap with his hilarious piss-taking cameo at the end. 

In June, I had a bunch of fun watching Timo Vuorneslea's IRON SKY, a low-fi Finnish sci-fi spoof about Nazi Zombies.  Let me say it again. NAZI ZOMBIES. Do you need another reason to watch this film? Yes it's script is all over the place, and there as many hits as misses, but when it works it's really hilarious and you have to admire the amazing special effects on such a low budget.  Oh yeah, and NAZI ZOMBIES. 

Perhaps the movie I was most embarrassed to like was the Farrelly Brothers movie of THE THREE STOOGES starring Sean Hayes, Will Sassso and Chris Diamantopoulos.  This isn't a show that entered the British cultural psyche in the way that it did in the USA and I normally don't respond to slapstick humour and dayglow production design. But after a slow start, I really got into the movie, caring about the characters and responding to the light-hearted cultural teasing. Towit, one of the funniest moments of the year was watching the Stooges beat the crap out of the cast of Jersey Shore.  So don't listen to the haters, and watch it!

The penultimate film in this category is a movie that could have been designed for me: a comedy about a bunch of Aussie park cricketers who tour India.  Boyd Hicklin's SAVE YOUR LEGS! has heart, makes you laugh, and reminds you why you love the prince of sports.  Damon Gavreau gives one of the best comedic performances of the year as Stavros but it's the genuine camaraderie between the cast that makes you enjoy the movie.  And as much as there as certain jokes that really work for cricket fans, there's enough relatable material about growing up and getting new priorities to give this movie a wider audience. It's out in Australia on February 28th and I reallty hope it gets a UK release date, ideally during the summer Ashes series. 

Finally, let's hear it for everybody's rogue cop with a heart, Chulbul Pandey. Arbaaz Khan's follow up to the smash-hit, DABANGG 2 repeats the formula of the original almost slavishly but to great effect. Salman Khan is hilarious as the smalltown cop tough on crime and the causes of crime.  Every time he dances by tugging on his belt or puts his sunglasses on the back of his collar, you just have to smile.  And Katrina Kapoor gives us the best item number of the year with Fevicol Se.

All of these films were released in 2012 and are available to rent and own with the exception of SAVE YOUR LEGS! which will be released in 2013 and DABANNG 2 which is currently on theatrical release and has not yet been released on DVD.


The Best of 2012 - DOCS

I watched 139 films in 2012 and despite the grinches and naysayers, I thought this was a great year for film.  So much so that I refuse to indulge in a trite Top 10 list, or grinch my way through a Bottom 10 of the year.  Instead, here's a list of all the films that moved me, impressed me, surprised me or made me laugh, split by category. It's a list that reflects my own tastes - often puerile, anti-hippie-vegetarian, politicised and eccentric.  It's far from comprehensive - I watch very little horror, even less action and due to an ankle injury mid-year, missed a lot of summer blockbusters. But it sums up my year in movies and I hope gives you a few left-field suggestions for DVDs and Festival screenings turned mainstream releases in 2013.


To begin, it felt like 2012 was a great year for DOCUMENTARIES. In March, I watched two superb docs during the Sundance London Festival.  Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern's film of LCD Soundsystem's valedictory concert at Madison Square Garden, SHUT UP AND PLAY THE HITS, introduced me to the best band of the decade about a decade after everyone else caught on (doh!) and led to a month of round the clock listening.  Sometimes it feels like I'm Losing My Edge is the soundtrack to my professional life.  The Kids Are (indeed) Coming Up From Behind. More closely related to my dayjob as a greedy capitalist bastard, Lauren Greenfield's THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES was a surprisingly touching look at the excesses of the credit-fuelled property boom and subsequent bust - a microcosmic counterpart to the superlative MARGIN CALL.  Back at the multiplex I cried like a baby during Kevin MacDonald's MARLEY, in memory of a rejected man who became a legendary musician and spread love, perhaps all too freely for his children's taste.

This was also an exceptionally strong year for docs at the London Film Festival.  Shola Lynch's FREE ANGELA AND ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS reaffirmed my admiration for Angela Davis and the principled articulate protests of the 1960s and 1970s, in sharp contrast to the amorphous, inarticulate Occupy movement of today. Alex Gibney produced a similarly hard-hitting documentary looking at the Catholic Church's tragic mishandling of child sex abuse, by working out from the original US court case.  MEA MAXIMA CULPA was a necessarily painful watch for those who, like me, still consider themselves members of the Church, but given the recent allegations about Jimmy Saville at the BBC, raises important questions about all institutional cover-ups.  FREE ANGELA and MEA MAXIMA CULPA touched subjects close to my heart, but it was a testament to just how well put together Nick Ryan's THE SUMMIT was that I was fascinated by his K2 mountaineering disaster doc.  It doesn't yet have a UK or US release date which is a crying shame.

My final three documentary picks are about larger than life eccentric geniuses who defined their eras and fundamentally changed their art.  The first is Charlie and Lucy Paul's portrait of Gonzo artist, Ralph Steadman, FOR NO GOOD REASON.  The film-makers show Steadman drawing, and capture an in-depth with Johnny Depp that examines his famous relationship with, and resentment of, Hunter S Thompson.  A LIAR'S AUTOBIOGRAPHY is a fantastically innovative animated biography of Monty Python's Flying Circus member Graham Chapman - openly homosexual when that was still a crime, but a closeted alcoholic. Bill Jones' doc is as irreverent and witty and surreal as a Python deserves.

But hands down the most balls-out insane doc about the most balls-out insane man is the aptly titled BEWARE OF MR BAKER.  Poor Jay Bulger spent years chronicling the angry drummer's tirades, vitriol and bile, while also reminding us just how revolutionary a man he was, principally with the legendary supergroup Cream.  Ginger Baker is also the only man who has threatened to smash a broken bottle over the head of the man who shot his doc on stage at the London Film Fest.  He also inspired the character Animal on The Muppet Show.  Legend come to life. Watch it.

THE SUMMIT, FREE ANGELA & ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS, NO GOOD REASON do not yet have a commercial release date.  A LIAR'S AUTOBIOGRAPHY went on limited release in the US in November and goes on release in the UK in February.  MEA MAXIMA CULPA  and BEWARE OF MR BAKER went on limited release in the US in November. MARLEY went on global release in summer 2012 and is available to rent and own. THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES THE HITS went on release in the US, Canada and the UK earlier this year and is available to rent and own.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

ROBOT & FRANK


ROBOT & FRANK is a delicate film that breaks your heart, makes you think, and all with the lightest of touch.  It's also an astonishingly assured debut feature from Jake Schreier (director) and Christopher D Ford (screenplay).  Set in the near future, Frank Langella plays a retired cat burgler called Frank, afflicted by Alzheimer's but charmingly no-nonsense and wily.  His concerned son Harrison (James Marsden) buys Frank a Robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to get him onto a routine and make sure he eats right.  Frank is wary at first, but eventually warms to the Robot who provides him with companionship, and indeed, facilitates a return to crime - ripping off their smarmy yuppie neighbours.  

The movie works on many levels.  At its most obvious, it's a loose sci-fi film, although those viewers looking for detailed applications of the laws of robotics per Asimov will be disappointed. Instead, the film is more concerned with the emotional implications of forming an attachment to a robot, and plays more like the most intelligent buddy-movie you've ever seen.  All this despite the fact that Robot is always reminding Frank that the friendship can't be real because Robot is, well, just a robot.  The sad fact remains that for Frank, Robot is a much more real emotional presence than his distant son or irritatingly right-on daughter (Liv Tyler). There's also a light critique of urban yuppies moving to the country, an a melancholy lament for the printed word that touched a chord with me.

Frank Langella gives a charismatic central performance as Frank. He's charming and grouchy all at once, but never in that mean grinchy Clint Eastwood way.  He always keeps us guessing as to how much Frank really knows what's happening, and how much his Alzheimer's is taking over.  I really loved Peter Sarsgaard as Robot too.  He has a melancholy tone to his voice that's just perfect - there's empathy if you want to read it that way, but neutrality if you don't.  I cared about the two of them, even though Robot was telling me not too. Special mention too for Susan Sarandon who gives perhaps the most challenging performance in a small role as a librarian that Frank befriends. 

Overall, ROBOT & FRANK is one of those surprising rare birds - a fragile movie that wears its deep thinking lightly and creates memorable characters and stirs deep emotions. I'm not ashamed to say that in two deeply poignant scenes near the end of the film, it got a little dusty in the theatre.

ROBOT & FRANK played Sundance 2012 where Jake Schreier won the Alfred P Sloan Feature Film Prize, and Sitges 2012 where he won the Audience Award for Best Feature Film.  It was released earlier this year in the USA, Canada, France, Kosovo, Kuwait, Taiwan, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Australia and New Zealand. It opens in Hong Kong on January 31st; in Portugal on March 7th; in the UK on March 8th; and in Spain on May 24th. 

ROBOT & FRANK has a 89 minute running time and was rated PG-13 in the USA. 


Friday, December 21, 2012

PITCH PERFECT

Do yourself a favour and watch THE BREAKFAST CLUB instead.

PITCH PERFECT is a movie made possible by the massive commercial success of the TV show GLEE, and BRIDESMAIDS. It combines a female centred gross-out humour and bonding comedy with remixed and mashed up show tunes, all with a day-glo tongue-in-cheek sensibility.  It's a movie that both mocks and loves GLEE and all its antecedents.  This was going to make it a tough sell for me. I love musicals as much as the next man, but I don't get on with GLEE. I don't like that hyper-pop-music style of singing or the caricature characters. But I *did* like BRIDESMAIDS, so I went into PITCH PERFECT with high hopes.

My viewing experience. I could see characters and lines and pratfalls that were making everyone else laugh, and an intellectual sense, I could vaguely admire them, but I just wasn't laughing. Maybe it was that I couldn't buy Anna Kendrick - the sweetest, most wholesome actress working in cinema today - as an emo rebellious teen?  Maybe I didn't really care about the thinly manufactured rivalry between the all-male victorious campus glee club and our gang of uptight, old-fashioned female acapella singers?  I knew that as much as Kendrick's Beca claimed she was too cool for school, she was eventually going to alienate and then re-woo her sweet boyfriend Jesse (Skylar Astin). And, OF COURSE, we were cueing up for a final showdown where the girls get it together, mash up monster pop hits and take the prize.  In between all that predictability, the vomit jokes and the fat jokes weren't floating my boat.  And are we really okay with some of the racially tinged jokes about Asians?

In fact, the only real joy I got from this movie were Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins as the scabrous glee contest commentators - genuinely edgy and unpredictable!  That, and the fact that it prompted me to go back and watch THE BREAKFAST CLUB, which is to this mush as Adele is to Lea Michele.

PITCH PERFECT opened earlier this year in the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Taiwan, the Philippines, Cambodia, Slovenia, Iceland, Singapore and Portugal. It is currently on release in Australia, Israel and Brazil. It opens this weekend in the UK, Ireland, Germany and the Czech Republic. It opens on December 26th in Belgium; on January 3rd in the Netherlands; on February 1st in Spain; on February 7th in Argentina and Sweden; on February 21st in Denmark and Lithuania; on March 22nd in Norway and on May 8th in France.

DABANGG 2


Watching DABANGG 2 is like watching an episode of The A Team. The plot is nonsense, the tone camp, and the audience knowing. But the end result is a bunch of mindless fun that delivers exactly what it promises. In the case of DABANGG 2, that's a funny spoof of 70s Bollywood cop-hero dramas, masala films and "item" girls. And, given that modern Bollywood is at home with Hollywood cliches, the shooting style and score reference Spaghetti Westerns and spoof Zach Snyder's over-stylised bullet-time photography. In other words, this is a film able to mock the faux heroic in Indian and US cinema history, while lovingly recreating the cheap thrills of those genres. It's a film with its heart on its sleeve and its sunglasses clipped to the back of its collar.

The plot, such as it is, sees our hero, police officer Chulbul Pandey (Salman Khan) relocate to a provincial town with his new wife Rajjo (Sonakshi Sinha) and father. Chulbul picks up where he left off in the original wildly successful movie, besting up mafiosi with wild abandon, incurring the wrath of local politician and goon Baccho Singh (legendary screen villain Prakash Raj). Naturally, Baccho retaliates against Chulbul's family resulting in an epic final fight.

The movie sticks very closely to the formula that made the original a success. Salman continues to combine self-mockery of his pumped up physique with a childish sense of humour. Some of the best scenes in this film see him prank call his father, for instance. The vainglorious hero continues to dote on his wife and have a childish giggle while at the same time murdering goons in outlandish fight scenes.

The close similarity extends to the movie's score, which mirrors every song from the original film, reprising playback artists, lyrical motifs and musical themes. Composers Sajid-Wajid are back in charge, and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan's reinterpretation of the first film's breakout hit, Tere Mast Mast Do Nain, Dagavaaz Re is simply beautiful. And in place of Item Girl Munni (who cameos in another song) we now have Kareena Kapoor in Fevicol Se, an instant classic item number which shows that Kareena is the best at self mocking, hilarious item numbers.

Overall, DABANGG 2 is not going to win any awards for its deft plotting or originality.  And if anything, the pacing and direction by debutant, Arbaaz Khan, is less deft than with the predecessor, helmed by Abhinav Singh Kashyap. But for all that, DABANGG 2 has cracking songs, and loveable, ridiculous hero, who respects his old sweet father. What's more, in its ability to ingest, mock and worship Bollywood and Hollywood history, it provides a more sophisticated brand of entertainment than might at first appear.

DABANNG 2 is on global release.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY 3D HFR

He looks pretty bored too.
I came to THE HOBBIT as a fan of Peter Jackson's THE LORD OF THE RINGS, and a fan of fantasy in general.  But even the most ardent fan must admit that when read in retrospect, JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit is an enjoyable but slight work.  It is, after all, a short-ish children's story about a group of dwarves  going off to battle a dragon who has stolen their gold.  On the way they meet goblins and trolls and the adventures largely consist of riddles and tricks rather than epic battles. In fact, even though it later became the stuff of epic-world building, The Hobbit isn't epic. It's small and intimate and cracks along at a rapid pace.

I was, then, rather worried about Peter Jackson's decision to "open up" the novel with lots of back story to THE LORD OF THE RINGS.  It seemed to me that the tightly written book with its rambunctious tone wouldn't survive having the dark, brooding, heavy backstory of Middle Earth being hung from its slender frame.  And I was right.  Watching THE HOBBIT is like watching a childhood friend being excruciatingly slowly stretched on a wrack until his bones snap.

Of its three hour run time, the first forty-five minutes are just prologue.  Old Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) starts to write his story for Frodo (Elijah Wood) on the eve of his final birthday party in Bag End.  All this creates moments of recognition from THE LORD OF THE RINGS that are fun for the superfans, but still we are frustrated that the story isn't moving.  Indeed, it's ironic that even when Bilbo begins, he doesn't start with the dwarves coming to collect him for their quest, but rather with their own backstory.  In other words, we have back story within back story(!): the tale of how Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the dwarf Prince, witnessed his granfather's mountain empire taken over by Smaug The Dragon, and was betrayed by the elf Prince Thranduil (Lee Pace.)

Sixty years earlier and the dwarves finally make it to young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the story can begin.  But over the remaining two hours, we are in very tedious and tonally inconsistent territory - with the childish japes among the trolls interspersed with earnest conversations at Rivendell with Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee.)   At the end of it, the dwarves just about make it to the mountain where the real story can begin - Bilbo's fateful meeting with Gollum, and most important of all, his decision to spare Gollum's life.  Even then, the movie doesn't end but creates a final act involving Orcs and Eagles.  

The result is a film that feels like one damn Orc chase after an other. Unlike THE LORD OF THE RINGS, there is no natural build-up to major battle scene so everything lacks tension.  The humorous passages are far too few, and the earnest foreshadowing of LORD OF THE RINGS feels too much like a faint echo of a far greater work. In fact, to my mind, the only things that save this film are the pivotal scene between a masterful Andy Serkis' Gollum and Bilbo, and the brilliantly funny turn by Sylvestor McCoy as the mushroom-eating, super-rabbit chauffered wizard Radogast The Brown.  The rest of the film is basically just arse-numbingly dull.

A quick technical word for the cinema-enthusiasts. I watched the film in 3D which was definitely a plus as a lot of the scenes (butterflies, eagles, rabbits) really suited it. As for the High Frame Rate (filming at 48 frames per second rather than 24 frames per second), it's a mixed bag.  In scenes that were interior or night-time, with subdued lighting, the clarity and brightness afforded by shooting at 48 FPS offset the typical murkiness that comes with wearing 3D glasses. But in daytime scenes in full sunshine, the 48 FPS footage was so bright that it looked like cheap TV and the make-up and special-effects were all too obvious. 

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is on global release. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

LIFE OF PI


I believe that LIFE OF PI is director Ang Lee's most technically accomplished  emotionally arresting and finely balanced film.  It surpasses even LUST, CAUTION.  LIFE OF PI must also be one of the most beautifully rendered adaptations - and all the more surprising because the novel upon which it is based was widely regarded as "unfilmable".  Ang Lee, using a screenplay by David Magee (FINDING NEVERLAND), has responded with a film that is both faithful to the content of the book, but also to its sense of wonder and its examination of the slipperiness of faith, identity and storytelling itself. 

All this might make the film sound rather dry and earnest, but it is anything but.  Because at its core, this is a movie that asks us to fall in love with a young boy, admiring his resourcefulness and compassion.  That boy is the eccentrically named Pi Patel, born in French India on the verge of independence.  He embodies the loose infinite multiculturalism of India - creating his own patchwork faith of Hinduism, Catholicism and Islam - much to the chagrin of his liberal humanist father.  The family travels with their zoo animals to America in search of a better life, but a storm hits, leaving Pi the only survivor about a life boat with a vicious Bengal Tiger. He is clever enough to be wary, to survive, thanks in no small part to his patchwork faith. And, in the movie's framing device, tells his story, or versions of it, to the French-Canadian writer who will choose which tale to tell.

Irrfan Khan and Rafe Spall have an easy familiarity as the elder Pi and the writer.  But the movie really belongs to Suraj Sharma who plays the teenage Pi who finds himself on the boat alone with the tiger, and holds our attention for over an hour.  It is a performance that feels utterly natural and compelling and draws us into the story. We care passionately about how he will fare, just as we care about the tiger "Richard Parker" - and because of that, we follow him even as his tale becomes bizarre and magical.

In the epilogue, the movie asks questions about the nature of storytelling and the value of faith. I might not agree with the answers it gives, and they have certainly caused some controversy.  But one cannot deny that the movie finely balances spectacle and provocative ideas in the most charming package. This is clearly one of the films of the year, and the best of Ang Lee's career. It also shows what an imaginative director can do with the appropriate use of 3D and CGI rendering when his intention is to marry it to the material rather than shamelessly cash in on higher cinema ticket prices.

LIFE OF PI was released in November in Canada, Puerto Rico, Taiwan, the USA, China, Hong Kong, Macedonia, India, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan and Spain. It is released on December 14th in Vietnam; and on December 19th in Belgium, France; on December 20th in Belarus, Bosnia, Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, the Netherlands, Portugal, Serbia, Slovenia, Thailand, the UK, the UAE; on December 21st in Brazil, Bulgaria, Colombia, Ecuador, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Lithuania, Mexico, Sweden and Venezuela; on December 25th in Denmark and Norway; on December 26th in Austria and Germany; on December 27th in the Dominican Republic and Peru and on December 28th in Turkey. It is released on January 1st in Australia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Panama and Russia; on January 3rd in Bolivia and Chile; on January 4th in Guatemala, Honduras and Philippines; on January 10th in Argentina; on January 11th in Poland and on January 25th in Japan. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Geek-gasm! STAR TREK INTO THE DARKNESS - First look still!



Super-excited to see the first still from the J J Abrams' Star Trek sequel,  STAR TREK INTO THE DARKNESS. Zachary Quinto is on the left, reprising his role as Spock and Chris Pine is on the right, reprising his role as Captain James T Kirk.  The most exciting bit is seeing BBC TV's Sherlock,  Benedict Cumberbatch, as the villain John Harrison.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS


THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS is not a movie you're going to enjoy on date night, sober. It's the kind of  movie that requires a few beers and a college dorm room so that it's inconsistency and sheer ridiculousness becomes a virtue.  It'll also help if you, the viewer, has a much of a geeky knowledge and love of The Shaw Brothers martial arts flick, and also with to pay homage to Gordon Liu.  This movie may be "presented by" Quentin Tarantino, but don't be fooled. RZA's directorial d├ębut is not like KILL BILL - tightly written, slickly produced, allowing all viewers a point of access. This is definitely a B-movie - not grungy enough to be pure blaxploitation wushu, not well-made enough to be taken seriously.  The plot is stupid, character development non-existent and the leading man (RZA himself) has about as much charisma as former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.   But when the movie works, in one or two key scenes, it really will make you laugh out loud, and the martial arts sequences are all excellent - as they should be, considering they star many of the genres most famous fighters. 

The movie is set in "Jungle Village" - a dirt poor town in 19th century China, that happens to have a kick-ass freed slave blacksmith (RZA) and a super luxurious whorehouse, presided over by Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu). It also houses the Blacksmith's hooker/sweetheart (Jamie Chung).  The blacksmith is forced to make kick-ass weapons for various rival gangmembers, not least Silver Lion (Byron Mann) and the late Golden Lion's real son The X-Blade (Rick Yune). Into this potent mix comes the Governor's gold shipment, which the Lion gang attempt to steal from the Geminis, and who knows where Mr Knife's allegiances lie?

The real fun of this film lies in a gloriously overweight Russell Crowe playing Oliver Reed playing Mr Knife. Pure Comedy Gold, especially in his interaction with Lucy Liu's proto-feminist brothel-keeper.  Crowe and Liu are joined by the wonderfully camp Bryon Mann in taking this movie about as seriously as it requires i.e. not very much, and all three are having a ball. It's a shame the other characters didn't join suit.  Sadly, whenever they're not on screen, you just get heavy exposition and boredom while waiting for the next fight scene. But these are worth waiting for. MMA star Dave Bautista is used to great effect, and I'm guessing we'll all remember what Gemini stance is from now on.

Overall, THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS is far from a classy flick, but it drips with love of the genre and if you're in the mood to go with it, with a beer in hand, it's more than a fun time. And please will someone give Crowe more roles like this?

THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS was released in November in the USA, Canada, Kuwait, Spain and Germany. It opens on December 7th in the UK, Ireland and Australia. It opens on January 2nd in France and Belgium; in January 11th in  Bulgaria; on February 8th in Sweden and the Netherlands; and on February 21st in Argentina and New Zealand.