Sunday, December 29, 2013

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG - he's not even the centre of his own poster, goddamit!


So, I'm a great fan of Tolkien, going so far as to podcast in great detail on Lord of the Rings (links here) and despite the changes, I really loved Peter Jackson's movies.  By contrast, I found the first HOBBIT film dull and tonally uneven - never quite knowing whether it wanted to be the whimsical children's book or an altogether darker, more complex prequel to LOTR, using material from the Silmarillion and Appendices.  The result was a movie that alternated between troll-ish buffoonery and deep dark elvish foreboding, and never quite sat right with me. So I went into its sequel, the middle film of the trilogy, with low expectations.

But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself? And I'm sure there are lots of people who will watch these films without having read the book - and, indeed, if you didn't see the first HOBBIT film, Jackson has provided a handy little catch-up prologue at the start of this one.  

Bilbo Baggins is a small hobbit living in a high fantasy world of trolls, elves, dwarves and dragons.  He's taken along on an adventure by thirteen dwarves, led by the mighty Thorin Oakenshield, to find a dragon called Smaug and to trick him into giving up the Arkenstone - a jewel which will allow Thorin to reclaim the kingdom that Smaug pillaged.  When we meet the band of travellers in this instalment, they run into a giant wolf-warg called Beorn, as well as some giant spiders, before finding themselves imprisoned by the elf-king Thranduil, his son Legolas, and a comely female Elf called Tauriel. They escape though, and find themselves in a desolate Laketown, hiding with a smuggler called Bard, before entering the Lonely Mountain itself, to face off with the dragon, Smaug.  

As movies go, this one has its fare share of CGI heavy adventure sequences - some of which will surely delight children.  But I found it hard to care about any of the characters. If the hero is Bilbo, as the title suggests, why does he sort of disappear from view for the middle section of the film? (I mean, he doesn't even get centre stage in his own poster!) Are we meant to care about Thorin - he's heroic but also arrogant and cold.  And what are we meant to make of Tauriel, a newly invented character meant to redress Tolkien's lack of women?  Well, maybe I'd be able to take this more seriously if the writers had made her a genuinely independent kick-ass warrior, rather than foisting her into the middle of an awkward love triangle between Legolas and Kili, a dwarf! And are the actors meant to be playing it straight - angst-ridden men on the verge of war (Thorin, Bard) - or camping it up (Thranduil, the Master of Laketown)? Lee Pace's Thranduil is camper than Alan Cumming as Emcee.  And if the pacing is less stretched than the first film, there are still twenty minute sections of this one that left me bored.

That said, when this second movie works, it really works!  I loved everything to do with Martin Freeman's Hobbit and Benedict Cumberbatch's Smaug, even if Smaug does commit that fatal Bond villain error of not killing his enemy immediately. I loved Evangeline Lilly's Tauriel when she was arguing with Lee Pace's Thranduil about taking a less insular stance toward the evil in the forest.  And I loved the idea of building out Bard's character so that we actually care about him when we get to the fateful events of the next instalment.

Still, I can't help but think that this flick would've been better of as two films at most, or at best, as a miniseries.  Or perhaps it's a question of expectations? Instead of calling these films "The Hobbit" maybe Jackson should've called them genuine prequels to Lord of the Rings. That way, he wouldn't have been hamstrung by the more childish elements - tricking trolls and escaping in wine barrels - and could've steeped himself in the rise of Sauron to his heart's delight? 

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG has a running time of 161 minutes and is rated PG-13 in the USA and 12A in the UK for moderate violence and threat. 

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG is on release pretty much everywhere except Vietnam, where it opens on January 3rd; China, where it opens on February 8th; and Japan, where it opens on February 28th.

LET IT SNOW

Conventional to the point of death by boredom, this harmful holiday-themed rom-com should be avoided at all costs. Candace Cameron Bure (FULL HOUSE) plays a workaholic businesswoman sent to audit a ski lodge for her father during Christmas. Naturally she forms an instant antipathy to the lodge-owners’ son played by Jesse Hutch (THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT). She is the Grinch - they are the spirit of Christmas. Cue lots of oh-so-funny scenes of her falling over trying to ski, and kicking up a fuss wearing unflattering winter clothes. And all so predictably, we soon find out that the two star-crossed lovers have more in common than they think. They’re both less than happy with how their families handle Christmas - she doesn’t really get it, and he gets it for 7 weeks of the year. She learns to love some of the traditions of the ski lodge and he likes her idea to partly modernise its activities. You can join the dots and fill in the rest of the film. There’s nothing really objectionable here, but neither is their anything new, unique, truly funny or worth watching.

LET IT SNOW has a running time of 82 minutes.



Saturday, December 28, 2013

FROZEN - Disney Passes Bechdel



FROZEN is as delightful as it is intelligent - the best Disney film since BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and the only Disney film that passes the Bechdel test. Finally we get a film about Princesses where being a Princess isn't really the key point - a film about women who learn to be confident in themselves and protect each other - a movie that thoroughly de-constructs the Disney mythos.

Of course, I didn't know all that when I walked into the cinema, depressed by the cricket and searching for some light entertainment. In fact, I pretty much hated this movie for the first twenty minutes of its runtime.  It seemed to conform to every Disney stereotype about beautiful but isolated orphaned princesses, defined entirely by their relationships with their absent fathers and handsome lovers.  The kingdom of Arendelle seemed like a place created by the Disney of the 1940s and 1950s - it felt like SHREK had never happened.  

Or so I thought.  That was before FROZEN broke every cliché it had so skillfully set up - to create a movie that's better than a lampoon, because it actually has positive values that it espouses. 

So here's the deal. Princess Elsa is the snow queen of fairytale legend.  When she was a little girl her powers almost killed her little sister Anna, so her parents locked her up until she could control her powers.  Her life is one of suppression and repression until her coronation day when a furious argument with her un-comprehending sister sparks an angry icestorm of epic proportions. Elsa flees to the mountains, content to finally express her powers without fear, but wilfully optimistic Anna pursues her, sure that sisterly love can conquer all, and lift the icestorm that has frozen the kingdom. What follows is a struggle but not a classic Disney fight with an external evil.  Elsa needs to decide whether she wants to be a classic villain or whether she really does care.  While Anna needs to decide who she loves more - her sister, her fiance - the handsome Prince Hans, or the charming peasant Kristoff who has helped her up the mountain.

What follows is a movie of unsurpassed delight. Anna's aw-shucks goofy loveliness is grating right up until we realise what this movie is trying to say, at which point Kristen Bell's portrayal becomes utterly endearing.  Elsa is truly the most complex Disney character yet seen (not a high benchmark, I grant you) and her song "Let it go" is an empowering anthem with relevance beyond fairytale kingdoms. Idina Menzel gives a voice performance of nuance and strength and deserves an Oscar for Best Song.  Josh Gad (JOBS) is utterly adorable as the huggable snowman Olaf - the most charming animated sidekick since Donkey.  As for the men, well what a surprise to see that it's the male characters who are the least developed - and there's a cognitive dissonance when you realise that Prince Hans, whose face is clearly modelled on Paul Rudd, is in fact voiced by Santino Fontana, and that Kristoff, clearly modelled on Owen Wilson, is voiced by  Jonathan Groff. That's not to say that the actors do a bad job - it's just that the voice/face dissonance is so extreme that it was a bit distracting.

Still for all that, FROZEN had be captivated. The medieval folk architecture was beautiful - the stunning ice palace a marvel - the animation of racing through snow exhilerating.  Even better, the humour wasn't grounded in cheap pop-culture references (SHREK, I'm looking at you) but in real characters - those characters had emotional growth and development - and the surprises were genuinely shocking. I even loved the elegance with which small events and scenes were handled. The way in which it is delicately suggested that the King and Queen have died - when a black veil is hung over a portrait - is a great example here.

So kudos to all involved, but particularly to Jennifer Lee, who co-directed and wrote the movie.  She's the woman who wrote WRECK-IT RALPH - one of the best films of 2013 and is clearly a star to watch.  Particular mention also to Robert Lopez (co-creator of THE BOOK OF MORMON) and Kristen Anderson-Lopez who wrote the original songs for the film.  They're all strong, but "Fixer Upper" and "Let It Go" are instant classics.  I predict many, many awards, and rightfully so, this season. 

FROZEN is on release pretty much everywhere except South Korea, Estonia and Turkey, where it opens on January 17th; Sweden, where it opens on January 31st; and Japan, where it opens on March 14th.

FROZEN has a running time of 102 minutes and is rated PG for mild threat. 

Friday, December 13, 2013

AMERICAN HUSTLE


AMERICAN HUSTLE has swagger and style and enough hairspray to raise the Titanic. It has whizz bang energy and crazy characters high on their own con. There are times when it's outlandish hype slips into self-conscious kitsch - times when the performances are so balls-deep in crazy you wonder if the movie has just become BAD, but it's so fun, so bizarre, so outlandish you can't help but stick with it. 

So what's the skinny?  AMERICAN HUSTLE is a very loose retelling of the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s - an FBI sting operation that spiralled out of control, eventually targeting US senators and congressmen with a fake Arab sheikh offering cash for a passport.  The whole thing was murky as hell.  I mean, the guys took the bribes, but this was entrapment and selection of targets as an artform.   In this version of the story, the original conmen are Irving Rosenfeld, played by Christian Bale, and his partner Sydney, played by Amy Adams. They're caught on a small time charge by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who gets so glamoured by their lifestyle that he decides to become part of the con, using them to entrap politicians.  Key among them is a New Jersey mayor, Carmine Polito - a mobbed up man, to be sure, but one who genuinely speaks from the heart when he says he wants to use the fake Sheikh's money to reinvigorate his home town.

Director David O Russell is far less concerned with the technicalities of the plot and the con than with the characters and their conscious and subconscious motivations. This is absolutely right.  And ironic.  In a movie so concerned with surface - the hairstyles, the clothes, the moves - there is no superficiality.  When a character extravagantly combs over his hair, or creates a tight perm, or wears a dress cut to the navel - they're becoming a character and the whole point of the movie is to watch them reimagine themselves as they'd like to be. So when the movie becomes a cheap melodrama, that's maybe because that's how these characters see themselves - as the stars of their own C-list caper movie.

Another delicious irony - the most honest man in the film is the original conman, Irving Rosenfeld.  And when I say honest, what I mean in the context of a film about self-delusion is that Irving is totally self-aware.  He knows he's a schlubby conman.  He knows he's going to be ensnared by his manipulative wife forever. And he knows he can stay safe by staying small, and not letting greed get the better of him. He's even self-aware about his weakness - his need to disguise his baldness.  This gives Irving a kind of wisdom and humanity that's lacking in the other, almost universally more narcissistic characters.  He's fully aware that Carmine Polito is a good man dirtying his hands to do good works, and is the only character who shows any kind of moral courage in warning him off.  There's a kind of brilliance in Bale's understated performance - the flash of knowledge that passes across his face as he acknowledges that DiMaso is out of control and makes the call to effectively switch sides.  And, yes, I see the added irony of calling Bale's performance subtle. But it is. Under the weight gain, and the combover, and the velvet wide-lapel suits, it's a great subtle performance. 

By contrast, we have Brad Cooper in appropriately manic mode as Richie DiMaso, the henpecked mama's boy who sees the glamorous "Lady Edith" (Sydney's con character) as his ticket to reinvention as a kind of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, super-cool, super-macho, big-time PLAYA. He over-reaches in a way that Irving never would - to Lady Edith - to Senators - and his tragedy is that unlike Irving he really can't handle reality. 

Irving's wife Rosalyn is as deluded as Richie but to gloriously comic effect. She's a young single mother so fortunate as to have Irving provide and adopt her son.  But in her mind, she's always in the right, always responsible for the good things, never responsible for the bad, and a star in her own universe.  Jennifer Lawrence is so unbelievably hilarious and captivating in her few scenes that she threatens to unbalance the movie just as she unhinges the con, and if her Oscar nomination last year was generous, this year it will be thoroughly deserved. 

Sadly, Lawrence's incadescent Rosalyn put Amy Adams "Lady Edith" in the shade.  Adams, cast against time as the vamp, just can't carry off the super sexy outfits and in the inevitable final act confrontation between Irving's lover and his wife, it's Rosalyn/Lawrence who comes out triumphantly on top.  In fact, they seem to be in different films - and maybe that's the point.  Adams/Edith is playing in a romantic tragedy whereas Lawrence/Rosalyn is in a lurid supersexy melodrama. Adams has the  emotional crisis, but Lawrence has all the fun. 

All the way through watching AMERICAN HUSTLE I felt like I was right on the edge where so bad it's good becomes just bad.  But the more I think about it, the more I think that's the point. These characters are all, more or less, actors, hustlers, putting a con on themselves and us. Some do it better than others.  And David O Russell has made a movie that isn't so much his take on the Abscam scandal, as a patchwork of all these hustlers own perceptions of their con.   Maybe I'm being generous. And if I'm wrong, there are times when the performances and the direction in this film are so broad and pastichey and kitschy they are bad.  But if I'm right, then this is a film working on a meta levels of brilliance while all the time being entertaining in the most basic of ways. 

AMERICAN HUSTLE has a running time of 138 minutes and is rated R in the USA and 12A in the UK.

AMERICAN HUSTLE is on limited release in the USA and Australia. It opens on December 20th wide in the USA and in the UK. It opens on December 26th in Israel, Singapore and Vietnam; on December 31st in Taiwan; on January 1st in the UK and Italy; on January 2nd in Lebanon; on January 9th in Greece; on January 17th in Romania; on January 23rd in Argentina, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Portugal, Serbia and Turkey; on January 31st in Japan; on February 5th in France; on February 7th in Brazil and India; on February 12th in Belgium and Germany; on February 21st in Finland and Sweden and on March 20th in the Netherlands. 

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

jOBS


jOBS - the too cutely titled Steve Jobs biopic - is a ruthlessly efficient but frustratingly unenquiring film that is ultimately saved by the convincing central performance by Ashton Kutcher.  Kutcher goes beyond his striking similar resemblance to adopt the loping walking and speaking style of the iconic computer developer, and allied with superb production design and authentic Los Altos locations, this make the film compelling despite its stylistic problems.  These must rest with the director Joshua Michael Stern (SWING VOTE) and debut screenwriter Michael Whiteley..   To be sure, they don't sugarcoat Jobs - they show his immediate and early ripping off of fellow collaborators - his harsh rejection of his daughter - his frustrating single-mindedness - but they never investigate it.  Why - on the first deal they did together - did Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad) off?  Where did he get the drive and knowledge to cut such a financially astute deal with venture capitalist Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney)?  Why did he cut out early collaborators such as Daniel Kottke (Lukas Hass) out of the lucrative Apple IPO?  Why did he deny he was his daughter's father for so long?  And why did he then recant?  This latter issue is perhaps the most frustrating.  In a movie that uses Jobs' eviction from Apple a major psychological turning point it's incredibly annoying to reunite with him a few years later where he's apparently turned into a doting father, husband and zen father. 

So if we're not getting psychological depth here, what are we getting?  A fairly straightforward corporate history of Apple. It reads as follows.  Woz is the IT genius who creates the PC but Jobs is the marketing and design guru who sells it to the financiers and then to Wall Street.  His search for perfection and naivety leads him to a position where the greedy capitalist CEO John Scully (Matthew Modine) forces him out, causes a personal crisis for Jobs and a corporate crisis for Apple. Years later he's called back, annoints his design successor Jonny Ive (Giles Matthey) and announces the design of the iPod.  The rest is final credit success and deliberately avoided death.  I'm no expert on Apple's corporate history so I can't tell you if the account is broadly accurate and fair, but it IS compelling, if a little bit TV movie of the week.  And that's how I'd advise you watch this: on the small screen.

JOBS has a running time of 128 minutes and is rated PG-13 in the USA.

JOBS played Sundance 2013 and was released earlier this year in the USA, Singapore, Canada, Turkey, France, Argentina, Kuwait, Portugal, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Australia, Israel, South Korea, Brazil, Poland, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Iceland, Croatia, Serbia, Thailand, Estonia, Greece, Hong Kong, Finland, Lithuania, Spain, Taiwan, Colombia, Latvia, Mexico, Bangladesh, Macedonia, Japan, Norway, Peru, Sweden, Italy and Chile. It does not yet have a UK release date.

Friday, November 29, 2013

FILTH


Irvine Welsh's Filth was a novel of characteristic brutality and dark humour - depicting corruption, drug abuse, sexual perversion and decadence in contemporary Scotland with an unflinching stare and a complex prose style.  Notoriously, part of the novel was narrated by the tapeworm living inside of police officer Bruce Robertson's abused gut.  Hilariously, the tapeworm later becomes sentient and helps us diagnose the true root of Bruce's current emotional breakdown.

Writer-director John S Baird's approach to the novel is one of courage in taking on the grim subject matter, with barely any concessions to the censors, as well as a pragmatic and inventive approach to solving the tapeworm problem. Rather than trying to do some kind of bizarre POV a la Terry Gilliam, he's given Bruce a nutty psychiatrist, Dr Rossi, who in surreal nightmarish visions does much of the work the tapeworm did, with some nice visual pointers for the book fans.  The result is a movie that is loyal to the spirit of the novel but understands that to make a coherent film you sometimes have to make drastic changes.

So, on to the meat of the film.  Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy) is a nasty corrupt drug-addled cop determined to screw over every departmental colleague in his mission to get promoted. That said, his sense of dark mischief doesn't extend to making trouble for some concrete end - he'll happily taunt his best friend's wife with sexually harassing phone calls, or spike said friend's drinks with drugs and leave him freaking out in a hotel room, for no reason at all.  As the movie progresses, we realise that there is some cause to this malevolence - or perhaps causes - rooted in an unhappy home life in the past and present (isn't it always!)  Thank god the movie makes all of that sound far less hackneyed than the description just sounded.  And even when the movie introduces a character explicitly designed to make Bruce question his morality, it doesn't give him an easy out.  

The framing device for the film is the investigation of the murder of a kid by a group of nasty violent teens in an underpass.  The irony is that despite his deeply unethical methods, Bruce is actually apparently fairly good at investigating the murder - apparently.   But let's be honest, that's not what this movie is really about. It's a character study - or a study of Bruce's psychosis - a study of just how far a human being will descend into mayhem in order to avoid the truth.   And in amidst all that, we have lurid, sleazy, darkly funny visuals and cameos - John Sessions as the homophobic head of department who dreams of writing screenplays - Shirley Henderson as the deliciously sex-starved middle-class wife throwing herself at her phone stalker - and of course Eddie Marsan as her husband, the repressed accountant.   But really, this movie belongs to James McAvoy who throws himself into an incredibly challenging and provocative role and is utterly compelling throughout.  It's his real emotional trauma that keeps us anchored in a movie that would otherwise be a confusing and alienating mess of nastiness.

FILTH has a running time of 97 minutes.

FILTH opened earlier this year in the UK, Hungary, Ireland, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Serbia, Slovenia, Finland and Japan. It opened last weekend in Australia and New Zealand. It opens in Lithuania on December 6th, in Estonia on December 13th and in the USA in 2014.

Monday, November 25, 2013

ENOUGH SAID - LFF 2013 - Late Review

Nicole Holofcener is an American writer-director who specialises in brutally honest, sometimes brutally unpleasant films about women of a certain income in California. I had some issues with her last film, PLEASE GIVE, which could be described with the hashtag onepercentproblems, and if I, greedy capitalist bastard that I am, found it self-involved, imagine what everyone else must have thought.

The good news is that her latest film, ENOUGH SAID, is far more heart-warming while sacrificing none of her authentic observations of women-of-a-certain-age.  Perhaps that has something to do with casting James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus - two of the most charming and likeable actors.  Or perhaps it just has something to do with accepting a more conventional high-concept rom-com conceit.

The movie focusses on Eva (Louis-Dreyfus), a middle-aged masseuse whose beloved daughter Ellen is about to leave for college.  She starts dating schlubby Albert (Gandolfini) but sabotages the relationship when she realises that one of her clients is his ex-wife Marianne (Catherine Keener). Rather than dump the client or confess to Albert, Eva just can't help but ask the ex what went wrong, and Marianne's jaundiced view of Albert becomes contagious.

To be honest, the chamber comedy aspect of this film - Eva hiding behind a bush to avoid meeting Marianne and Albert's daughter - the final reveal that she knew all along - is  the least satisfying part of the movie.  What really holds our attention is the finely observed and heart-warming depiction of the insecurities of middle-aged dating and the way in which parents fear their children leaving home. In fact, there were times at which I wished the side plot had more room to breathe - the way in which Eva subsconsiously fills her time with her daughter's lonely best friend was so tragic and real it broke my heart.

So what are we left with? Nicole Holofcener's most approachable film, full of human truth, if saddled with a rather clumsy conceit. Gandolfini and Louis-Dreyfus are a pleasure to spend time with, and it's so sad that this is Jim's last film. 

ENOUGH SAID has a running time of 91 minutes and is rated PG-13 in the USA. 

ENOUGH SAID played Toronto and London 2013 and was released earlier this year in the USA, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Turkey, Mexico, Israel and Singapore. It is currently on release in Australia. It opens on November 29th in Poland, on December 5th in Greece, Hungary, Brazil and Lithuania, on December 19th in Germany and Spain, on January 15th in France and the Netherlands and in Italy on April 10th.

Friday, November 22, 2013

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE begins in media res, assuming wisely that we've all watched the first movie if not read the wildly popular books.  We're in a harsh dystopian future where fascists keep the masses in penury, fobbing them off with glitzy super-violent reality TV. Our heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is back from the Hunger Games of the first movie, struggling to explain her faked on-screen romance with fellow survivor Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) to her home-town love-interest Gale (Liam Hemsworth.)  But this nascent and hackneyed love triangle is rightly cut short by larger political dangers.  The evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) fears that Katniss has become a symbol of defiance and, when she can't convince him or the crowds that she's an obliging mouthpiece of his regime, he orchestrates a Hunger Games in which she will once again have to compete for her life. The catch is that she will compete against those she cares for - Peeta and their mentor, Hamitch (Woody Harrelson).

What I love about The Hunger Games franchise is that while it does have a fair dollop of the typical teenage romance, it's given limited time and is handled with far more nuance than, say the Twilight franchise. Katniss is a strong woman - she isn't defined by her love interests - indeed, to Gale and Peeta's disappointment, she refuses to even acknowledge them.  We understand that she loves both men in different ways - Gale as a symbol of the home he loves but Peeta as the man who can empathise with what she has been through since she left.  And in an unusual twist on the typical romance, Katniss is the physically stronger of the two, whereas Peeta has the higher emotional intelligence. She may save him in the arena, but with his ruses to win the heart of the public, he saves her from the Capitol.

Given this film's emphasis on the political fallout from Katniss victory in the first film, and lesser time spent on the actual gladiatorial contest, I far prefer it to the original. I love seeing the dystopian world-building - the rich art direction - the beautiful costumes - the stark depiction of poverty.  More importantly, I love the satire on contemporary reality culture, and the sinister edge that Stanley Tucci's gamehost, Caesar Flickerman, lends to what most would leave as just a comic performance. There's something truly unnerving about his forced laugh and day-glo teeth.  But for me the real scene-stealer is Elizabeth Banks as Katniss and Peeta's stylist, Effie. As in the first movie, Banks has to sport the most outlandish costumes and toe the party line on being fabulous-dahling but in this movie, she gets to show the real heart beneath the wigs, while all the time pretending to still believe in the system. It's a marvellous portrayal.

As usual, I had less time from the games in the arena, which always seem like a series of levelling up quests followed by a tricksy ending. There's nothing to match the death of Rue in the original.  There are some new characters, all rather banal, and poor Jena Malone's over-acts fiercely as the angry Johanna Mason.  Most fascinating is the casting of my acting hero, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee, the new gamesmaker.  For most of the film, Hoffman is so anonymous as to almost look like he's in a different movie, or phoning it in.  I leave you to decide whether, given the final act, this is a clever choice or just lazy.

Overall, the best way to describe the movie is professional and faithful.  Taking over from writer-director Gary Ross, we have Francis Lawrence in the director's chair and Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt writing the script.  I could discern little difference - we still get a movie with rich production design, solid to excellent performances and a fascinating political plot.  Indeed my only real criticism of its direction and script is the rather underwhelming final shot - that said, this is probably faithful to the book.

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE is on global release. The film has a running time of 146 minutes and is rated PG-13.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

THE COUNSELOR


THE COUNSELOR has been comprehensively drubbed by the film reviewing community, recalling Roger Ebert's seminal review of Vincent Gallo's THE BROWN BUNNY, along the lines of "I've had colonoscopies that were more funny."  And just as I really liked THAT film, I actually rather like THE COUNSELOR. Or rather, I should say that I'm fascinated by why people are so horrified by it.  It's not that I enjoyed watching it so much as I enjoyed all the provocations it presented as I watched it.  

The movie opens with and maintains a rather opaque narrative style - a mash-up of abstruse conversations in beautifully designed international locales inter-cut with grungy Mexican drug runners pushing a truck full of cocaine disguised as human shit over the US border.  The Counselor of the title is a naive but greedy lawyer (Michael Fassbender) who is defined his love of the equally naive Laura (Penelope Cruz).  The Counselor works for Reiner - a flamboyant drug dealer and club owner played by Javier Bardem as a cross between Brian Grazer and Brad Pitt in Twelve Monkeys. Which is weird because Brad Pitt also stars in the film as a kind of a redneck magus, who tries to wise the Counselor up, but to little avail. The plot, such as it is, sees someone hijack the drug shipment and pin it on our crew, which violent and grim consequences.

Bardem does Grazer's fright wig

The moral of the story, is that there are no morals. There's just the hunt. This is a fascist world in which weakness, and flamboyance, and hubris are brought low in a manner that is so foul and evil as to be shocking.  The moral is that you should not be shocked.  There is a brutal simplicity and fascination in seeing faceless men pull off brutal procedural heists. But also something bewildering about seeing actors such as Toby Kebbell and Natalie Dormer pop up in small roles that hint at something more fascinating that isn't given a chance to develop. 

Anyone looking for the redemptive final act of Cormac McCarthy's sublime novel, The Road, is looking in vain.  And critics who have panned the film have typically blamed McCarthy for forcing this word-heavy, abstract, opaque script on a high quality cast and director.  I disagree.  This is like a sleazy B-movie filtered through an art-house lens -  as grungy and elliptical as Raymond Chandler - as absurd and meaningless and provocative.  As an example, I'd give you the notorious scene in which Reiner's wonderfully unapologetic and spiky girlfriend Malkina fucks a car.  This is as shocking as Chandler's depiction of the nympho Carmen Sternwood would've been in THE BIG SLEEP.  But what is the movie really focussed on? Not her sexual act - she is confident, unapologetic and uncaring about what you or I or Reiner might make of it.  The movie focusses on the reaction of the men in the picture - their horror, fear, inability to process.  In fact, I would argue that THE COUNSELOR is a shocking and reviled movie because it's so radical.  No-one's a good guy.  The bad guys are pussies.  And the bad girl doesn't care what you think.

THE COUNSELOR has a running time of 117 minutes and is rated R in the USA.

THE COUNSELOR is on release almost everywhere except Taiwan where it will be released on December 6th and in Italy where it will be released on January 30th 2014.

Friday, November 15, 2013

THE BUTLER

THE BUTLER is a pretty hackneyed, emotionally manipulative, conservative examination of US race relations in the twentieth century.  Told through the eyes of a fictionalised version of real White House butler, the movie shows us the attempts by presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan to address the race issue, and the conflicting attitude of African Americans toward this struggle.  The butler, Cecil Gaines, after a harrowing childhood experience of extreme prejudice and lawlessness of a 1920s cotton firm in the South, decides to use a strategy of smiling compliance in the search for safety. He will numbly hear anything, and be subservient to anyone, to keep his family safe in the relative middle class affluence of Washington DC.  By contrast, his son Louis is affronted by this subservience, and first joins the peaceful protests led by Martin Luther King, before briefly flirting with the violent activism of the Black Panthers, and ending with direct political engagement.  

The problem with the film is that this political dialogue between father and son - between safe servility and dangerous activism - is so heavy handed and starkly drawn that it threatens to overpower what is actually the far more interesting aspect of the story - the character drama that sees a convincing marriage shown over fifty years. What gives this film emotional heft is not the fact that after years of prejudice, the Butler finally gets to meet President Obama, but that his wife is not there by his side, after decades of struggle, overcoming alcoholism and genuine love. That's the reason why I cried a little at the end of the movie - because that's the part of this film that has emotional honesty and authenticity.

As for the politics, it's fairly simplistic in its opposition between father and son.  The only nuance is delivered by the Martin Luther King character who makes a slight (and rather unconvincingly continued) case for the idea that the butler figure is not subservient but subversive. As for the depiction of the various presidents, this is fatally undermined by stunt casting and few of the famous actors chosen manage to transcend that "ooh look it's Robin Williams as Eisenhower" novelty to approach authenticity.  I suspect the only one who really manages is Alan Rickman as Reagan - but he also has the most nuanced character insofar as he seems to have the most genuine connection to Gaines but also the most offensive race policies.  The movie also plays a bit like history as "one damn thing after another".  We spool through presidents, each with their allotted five minutes, until it becomes more of a fashion parade than anything else.  One senses a rather cheap need to depict famous fashion moments with Nancy Reagan and the scene showing Jackie Kennedy in her famous blood-stained pink suit struck me as very exploitative indeed.  The stunt casting of Mariah Carey as Cecil Gaines mother also fatally undermines what should be a very tragic character.

So in all this - the stunt casting - the simply drawn politics - what is there to like in this film? A strong performance by David Oyewolo as Louis Gaines - the son who embodies the civil rights struggle. And most of all a magisterial performance from Oprah Winfrey as Cecil's wife who moves from blowsy drunk to noble loving wife.  It makes you wonder about the performances we have missed because of her talk show day job.  As for Forest Whitaker, a fine actor, I feel that he isn't given a wide range here - his character essentially being stalwart in his views and reactions until a small epiphany near the end of the film. He serves, if anything, as the counterpoint to Winfrey's Oscar-worthy performance, but that's merely the result of the script. 

THE BUTLER is on release in the USA, Canada, the Philippines, Portugal, France, Denmark, Iceland, Israel, Germany, Kuwait, Indonesia, Spain, Sweden, Singapore, Finland, Australia, Brazil, Lebanon, the UK, Ireland and Mexico. It opens in Hungary on November 21st, in Romania on November 29th, in Belgium on December 4th, in the Netherlands on December 5th, in Norway on December 25th, in Poland on December 26th, in Chile and Greece on January 30th and in Japan on February 15th. 

Friday, November 08, 2013

THOR: THE DARK WORLD

Hi honey, I'm home! After nearly a month's movie detox after the BFI London Film Festival, I'm back with a review of what is arguably the final in the long tail of summer blockbusters or the first in the holiday season - THOR: THE DARK WORLD aka THOR 2.

I've always found Thor to be one of the least exciting of the Marvel heroes - a quite literally ham-fisted hammer-wielding macho god improbably in love with an earthling astrophysicist, Jane Foster.  British luvvie Kenneth Branagh got around this portentous Norse nonsense in the first movie by injecting a sense of knowing camp and kitsch that nicely balanced the over-designed mythical space-world of Asgard and the usual Marvel over-loud over-long effects-heavy action sequence.  As much as Kenneth Branagh - champion of Shakespeare - was a left-field choice for THOR, somehow it just worked. Whereas Alan Taylor - mostly a TV director who works on dark character-led dramas - The Sopranos, Mad Men, Game of Thrones - is also a left-field choice who kind of doesn't.  There's none of the kitsch comedy that Branagh brought to THOR in THE DARK WORLD, and the action sequences are dull, ill-conceived and just bizarre in their programming. But I wonder if the problem really lies in the script, penned by Marvel TV writer Chris Yost as well as Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (CAPTAIN AMERICA, which let's not forget benefited from the Joss Whedon running the slide rule over it.)

Their plot hinges on the conceit that the nine realms are about to enter a "convergence" - a planetary alignment that allows matter to pass between worlds or something.  An evil elf (I kid you not) plans to use some WMD called the Aether to cause interplanetary chaos at just this point. Problem is, that space-WMD has been magicked into Thor's girlfriend Jane, and when he takes her to Asgard for safe-keeping, the elves lay waste to his home planet.  He then teams up with his evil brother Loki to defeat the elf, which for reasons not entirely clear culminates in a huge battle in London complete with a seemingly mad Professor Selvig running around with no pants.

The problem with THOR: THE DARK WORLD is that Professor Selvig running round in his pants in pointless but also one of the funniest and most touching parts of the film.  Poor Natalie Portman has very little to do as Jane, basically fainting from the Aether and being rescued. Chris Hemsworth's Thor is all muscly and earnest but as little to do.  And you guessed it - Christopher Eccleston as the evil elf - is all heavy duty make-up, evil stare and, little to do.  The movie is hijacked  - thank the Norse gods - by the tricksy evil brother Loki played with delicious malevolent glee by Tom Hiddleston. He's the only actor given anything to get his teeth into, and is an absolutely magnetic presence - second only to Heath Ledger's Joker as the comic book evil villain par excellence. He injects the film with good humour, ambiguity and true charisma.  It's only a shame there isn't more of him.  I wanted more humour. I wanted more odd-couple comedy - more Thor getting jealous of Jane's human love interest - more of Thor getting on the Tube asking the way to Greenwich - but sadly this movie was too dark and gloomy and bang-shouty to let that in.

THOR: THE DARK WORLD is on release pretty much everywhere except Japan where it opens on February 1st 2014.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

SAVING MR BANKS - LFF 2013 - Closing Night Gala


SAVING MR BANKS is an emotional drama about the making of the Disney musical comedy, MARY POPPINS.  Specifically it's about the relationship between the apparently frosty British author P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson) and the jovial studio boss, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). The reductive psychology of the movie is that Mrs Travers is stubbornly opposed to anyone trivialising her book with animation or songs because it is so intrinsically linked to her childhood trauma.  In flashbacks, we see her a small girl, living in a small Australian town, doting on her charming father (Colin Farrell) and drowning in guilt that she couldn't save him from his alcoholism.  As we move back and forth between her Australian childhood and 1960s Hollywood, we know only too well that the movie WILL be made, and it will contain dancing penguins, and songs, and Dick van Dyke with that ghastly attempt at a cockney accent.  And this takes much of the suspense out of the movie - it's only a matter of time before Travers capitulates to Disney's oleaginous charms and has a final act moment of catharsis at the première. 

The movie is simplistic and problematic. At times it reads like propaganda for Disney - who comes across as a thoroughly decent, fun-loving papa-bear in line with his public persona.  The psychology is reductive.  And there's way too much time spent watching Emma Thompson look stern and disapproving.  But in flashes - in moments - it really works. There's something wonderful and close to the bone in Colin Farrell's portrayal of a drunk but loving father.  There's a magisterial beauty to a pivotal scene on a lake at night.  And the Aussie landscape in general is just stunningly filmed, so kudos to the cinematographer John Schwartzman (THE AMAZING SPIDERMAN).  I also loved Paul Giamatti as Travers' Hollywood chauffeur. It's a relationship designed to be emotionally manipulative by the writers (Sue Smith and Kelly Marcel of the troubled FIFTY SHADES OF GREY) - the emotionally closed-off writer who forms an unlikely friendship with the warm-hearted writer - but it's hard to resist the genuine chemistry and high quality acting.  But overall, one can't help but feel that this movie would be a whole lot better if it were half an hour shorter, or had had the courage to be as forensic about Disney as it was about Travers. 

SAVING MR BANKS has a running time of 125 minutes and is rated PG-13.

SAVING MR BANKS played London 2013 and is released in the UK on November 29th, in the USA on December 13th, in Turkey on December 20th, in Australia on December 26th, in Hong Kong, Brazil and Spain on January 10th, in Argentina on January 23rd, in Germany on January 30th, in Denmark, Italy and Sweden on February 21st, and in France and Singapore on February 26th. 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

MYSTERY ROAD - LFF 2013 - Day Eleven


For those of you who have seen the critically acclaimed Sundance Channel murder mystery set in New Zealand, Top of the Lake, MYSTERY ROAD is going to seem rather familiar.  A small Antipodean town is riven with drugs, teenage prostitution, racism and a police cover up.  The problem is that while Top of the Lake was taught, tense, genuinely sinister and anchored on a devastatingly affecting central performance, MYSTERY ROAD is overlong, overdrawn, with a paint by numbers plot and a final shoot-out so overblown that the audience was laughing at it. 

The plot, such as it is, sees Aaron Pederson as a smalltown cop where a young Aborigine girl is found murdered.  He begins his investigation in the teeth of opposition from town's white cops, and stumbles on a subculture of drugs and teen prostitution.  Tragically, he finds himself similarly alienated from his own indigenous community, as a man sent to investigate his own. Worse still, his daughter, living with her alcoholic abused mum, is right in the target demographic of the victims.  The movie unravels at a deeply slow pace to reveal police collusion and ends in a somewhat bizarre stand-off. On the way, we get some interesting insights about contemporary race relations in Australia - some stunning cinematography from director Ivan Sen - and the evocation of Australia as a kind of lawless, corrupt Wild West.  But ultimately this movie needed a better script, a better editor, and a less ludicrous ending. 

MYSTERY ROAD has a running time of 122 minutes.

MYSTERY ROAD played Sydney, Toronto and London 2013. It opened earlier this year in Australia and the USA. 


video



DABBA aka THE LUNCHBOX - LFF 2013 - Day Eleven

Ritesh Batra's directorial debut, DABBA, is the most wonderful, unique, affecting film.  It's that movie that you hope for every festival: the unexpected show stopper.  He has created characters that I've taken to my heart: a love story so delicate, so fragile, so darkly comic that you want it to never end, but you're so pleased when it does.  Because Batra knows how to end a movie: without sentimentally and without being obvious. It's masterful.

So what's it all about, Alfie?  Irrfan Khan plays a grumpy old widower, a month short of his retirement, who accidentally receives the lunch tiffin intended for the husband of a neglected young housewife. Tentatively at first they start a correspondence consisting of notes tucked in the tiffin, expressing their dissatisfactions, hopes and musings. Through opening up to her, the old man becomes more open toward life in general, befriending the young co-worker he'd initially cold-shouldered.  Through him, she gathers the courage to look for a better life with her daughter.  

This all sounds so deceptively simple.  How can I explain the humour of seeing the woman's relationship with an entirely unseen "auntie" who lives in the flat upstairs and dispenses sage advice and chillis in a basket?  How can I explain the brilliant hilarity of a tiffin-delivery man protesting to the woman, eager to track down her correspondent, that tiffins simply cannot be misdelivered because men from Harvard have been to examine the system.  

But this movie is more than its humour.  It's the private pleasure the woman takes in preparing her tea and reading her letter, to sound of old Bollywood love songs played in the flat above.  It's the lifelong devotion of Auntie to her husband.  It's the beautifully drawn character of Shaikh, the widower's young colleague who has overcome so much prejudice to make a joyful life for himself.   It's the fragile hope that we, the audience, have, in seeing the widower refuse to become an old man.

I love that Ritesh Batra trusts us, the audience, to be content with the delicately essayed rather than the grindingly obvious.  I'm so pleased that there's no Western equivalent of the "dabbawala" phenomenon.  It means that we won't get a schmaltzy Hollywood remake of this wonderful, truly memorable movie. 

DABBA aka THE LUNCHBOX has a running time of 104 minutes.   DABBA played Telluride, Toronto and London 2013.  It was released earlier this year in India, and opens in Germany on November 21st and in the Netherlands on December 12th. 

DRINKING BUDDIES - LFF 2013 - Day Eleven

There's a lot to like in Joe Swanberg's relationship comedy, DRINKING BUDDIES.  He moves on from the narcissistic, solipsistic mumble core stylings of UNCLE KENT to something more mainstream and accessible, but manages to keep the emotional authenticity of his previous work.

Olivia Wilde is fantastic as Kate, a fun-loving, rather fragile girl who works at a micro brewery with her best friend Luke (Jake Johnson of THE NEW GIRL fame).  They have one of those close friendships that verges into sexual chemistry and we feel sure that they're with the wrong people.  This is compounded when we realise that their respective others, played by Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston, are also actually pretty well paired, and should probably get together.  

In any other movie, this would descend into a cheesy play by numbers rom-com in which Chris breaking up with Kate and Kate rebound sleeping with a sleazy coworker would spark Luke into jealously realising that he should be with Kate all along.  But this isn't that movie. Instead, in a number of closely observed scenes, we get Jill go on vacation, leaving Kate and Luke to become closer but also to be exposed to what each of them really up is and wants.  As an audience, we realise that Kate really isn't as attractive as all that.  She quite immature, maybe developing an unhealthy dependence on alcohol.  And while Luke seems like a similarly fun loving guy, he's actually a lot more grown up.  In fact, the seemingly perfect couple if-only-they-knew-it, well, isn't. 

The joy of this film is seeing the largely improvised and naturalistic way in which these relationships evolve and unravel.  I love that it subverts and depends the classic rom-co characters and tropes.  And I love that I genuinely liked the characters and wanted to see what happened to them.  Kudos to all involved. 

DRINKING BUDDIES has a running time of 90 minutes and is rated R in the USA.

DRINKING BUDDIES played SXSW and London 2013. It opened earlier this year in the USA.  It opens in the UK and Ireland on November 1st. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

12 YEARS A SLAVE - LFF 2013 - Day Ten


You can listen to a podcast review of this film below, or subscribe to Bina007 Movie Reviews in iTunes.




Steve McQueen is a young British artist turned director whose previous two movies - HUNGER & SHAME - both gave us an unflinching portrait of dark and complex issues - the IRA hunger strikes and sex addiction. Both combined strong central performances from Michael Fassbender with stunning visuals and painfully held tableaux.  Both were the stand out movies of their year at the London Film Festival.

Accordingly, 12 YEARS A SLAVE came to the London Film Festival on a sea of hype - so much so that twitter had been filled with unblemished praise from critics who had seen the film that morning.  And even Festival Director Clare Stewart seemed speechless in her introduction to the film.  After the screening, the BFI tweeted pictures of standing ovations at the cinema. Everyone agrees the movie is moving, important and destined for Oscar glory.

I'm sad to say that I don't agree.  Yes, the film in important and unflinching. It's beautifully shot - all the more horrible to contrast the beauty of the Southern landscape with the cruelty of slavery. And yes, the movie hinges on a powerful central performance from Fassbender.  But too much of the rest of it seemed to me to be redundant, and a worse crime, to descend into emotional manipulation.

But let's start at the beginning. The film is based on the true life story of Solomon Northup, a successful free black man in Saratoga, married with children.  He was tricked into a business trip, captured and sold into slavery, first to a relatively benign slaveowner called Ford and then to a more complex sadistic coupled called the Epps.  Finally, he is freed when he manages to get a message out through a liberal white Canadian, although that reunion is tinged with bitterness at leaving his fellow slaves behind. 

Chiwetel Ejiofor is said to have given the performance of his career as Solomon, and to be sure he has grace and power, but I personally prefer him in DIRTY PRETTY THINGS.  I do, however, hope that he wins awards for this because let's be honest, as a black actor, how many other starring roles of this gravitas is he likely to get?  In minor roles, I really liked American Horror Story's Sarah Paulson as the sadistic, jealous Mistress Epps, erging on her deeply troubled husband to whipping the slave, Patsey, that he seems to be sexually obsessed with.  I also rather liked Paul Dano as the classic nigger-hating plantation overseer Tibeats whose jealousy at the favour Ford shows Solomon leads to Solomon being chased off the estate. He brings real insecurity and violence to that role.  It's truly sinister.  But perhaps surprisingly, the one mis-step is perhaps the usually note perfect Benedict Cumberbatch as the nice plantation owner Ford. Admittedly, Cumberbatch has little to do in this rather thinly drawn part, but his Southern accent doesn't seem convincing.

For me, this film belongs to two actors - Michael Fassbender as the tortured Epps and Lupita Nyong'o's slave Patsey.  Fassbender brings layers of menace, vulnerability and borderline madness to his portrayal of the almost superstitiously religious man who has a bizarrely close tortuous relationship with his slaves that culminates in one of the most horrendous scenes of the film. Goaded by his wife, he cannot bring himself to whip Patsey so he forces Solomon to do it instead. This is psychosexual terror at its most devastating. As Patsey, Lupita Nyong'o is more than a match for Fassbender, bringing layers of pride and then terrorised desperation to her character.  It's a fine performance.

Behind the camera, Steve McQueen's usual austere framing is somewhat diluted here, in what is undoubtedly his most mainstream movie. The exception are two pivotal scenes of great power. The first is one when Tibeats has Solomon strung up, and the overseer leaves him there.  The camera stays on him in his suffering then pulls back showing us slaves, so fearful, that they have to continue their work around him. Then we pan round to show how close this hanging is to the main house, and to see the mistress of the house looking on almost lackadaisically.  It's a beautifully pointed scene.  The second is the forced whipping of Patsey that I referred to before, and then Epps taking the whip himself.  The detail is rightfully brutal.

So what stops this from being a great film?  Too long spent in the banality of Ford's plantation.  Too long spent away from Fassbender in general.  The rather absurdly drawn character of Bass, the liberal Canadian played almost like a salvation Jesus by Brad Pitt.  And the ending.  McQueen could have ended this film on the scene where Solomon leaves the Epps plantation - a close-up on his half-unbelieving, relieved and yet guilt-ridden face, as Patsey faints in the background. That would have perfectly summed up the conflict at the heart of this story of personal liberation.  Instead, he tacks on the standard schmaltzy scene of catharsis, where Solomon is reunited with his family - martyred apologies and group hugs all round. Conventional, unnecessary, sugary and ruinous. 

12 YEARS A SLAVE has a running time of 133 minutes and is rated R in the USA.

12 YEARS A SLAVE played Telluride, London and Toronto where Steve McQueen won the People's Choice Award.  The movie will be released in the USA on October 18th, in Germany and Spain on October 31st, in Greece on December 12th, in Singapore and Sweden on December 20th, in New Zealand on December 26th, in France, Finland and the UK on January 24th, in Norway on January 31st, in the Netherlands on February 20th and in Denmark on February 27th. 

THE PAST - LFF 2013 - Day Ten


Iranian director Asghar Farhadi's THE PAST is a movie that is in desperate need of Harvey "Scissorhands" Weinstein to cut down its over two hour running time into something less frustrating. But even then, one suspects that it's contrived and ultimately uninteresting plot would remain problematic. And of all the performances in this tense relationship drama, I am flabbergasted that the Cannes Jury chose to reward Berenice Bejo, who I found to be ordinary in the extreme.

The movie is about guilt and the complexity of modern relationships.  As it opens general all-round nice guy Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) arrives in Paris to finally divorce Marie (Bejo). He arrives in a cluttered ramshackle house, symbolic of the cluttered ramshackle relationships. There are assorted children - it takes us a while to figure out who their parents are.  It turns out that the elder daughters, Lucie and Lea belong to Marie by a marriage previous to Ahmad, and the little boy Fouad, belongs to Marie's new lover Samir (Tahar Rahim).  But Samir is not yet free - his wife is in a coma.  

The resulting movie is full of bitterness, guilt and recrimination.  Who is responsible for failed relationships?  How are the children fairing?  Only Ahmad provides a still moral centre as the other characters whirl around him.  He tries to unpick the source of the tension and the final hour of the film plays a bit like a he-said-she-said mystery of the most melodramatic kind. It tends to melodrama, and after so many twists and turns we begin to lose sympathy, undermining all the good realistic acting and camerawork in the first hour.   Ultimately, the movie becomes so entangled in itself, and Samir and Marie so self-involved that the experience becomes alienating - and a far less engrossing and artistically pure work that Farhadi's beautiful A SEPARATION.

THE PAST has a running time of 130 minutes.

THE PAST played Cannes 2013 where Berenice Bejo won Best Actress and Asghar Farhadi won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury.  It also played Toronto and London 2013. It opened earlier this year in Iran, the Netherlands, Poland and Greece. It opens on November 29th in Finland, on December 5th in Serbia, on December 19th in Italy, on December 20th in the USA, on December 25th in Norway and on February 7th in Sweden. 

MANHUNT - LFF 2013 - Day Ten


MANHUNT is a must-see documentary for anyone who has an interest in the rise of Al Qaeda, 9-11, and the USA's response to that.  Which, let's face it, should be everyone who cares about the world in which we live. It's a scrupulously fair, brilliantly compiled documentary that has somehow gained access to the very people who analysed and researched Al Qaeda, and some of the military who had to deal with the situation on the ground.  War correspondent and film-maker Greg Barker manages to get access to everyone you'd want to hear from - directors of the CIA, Stan McChrystal, the actual analysts who were hunting down Bin Laden from back in 1995, the FBI Jordan chief who conducted interrogations, the CIA men in charge of Black Sites.  And what's more, Bergen gets them to talk - candidly - about what they did, and the morality of it. He doesn't edit to a politicised angle but let's the stories conflict where necessary.  We have seemingly mild-mannered women talking about how they make peace with the fact that their analysis will lead to drone strikes.  We have CIA men arguing that extreme interrogation techniques yielded results, and FBI men arguing the opposite. Bergen let's us decide. 

The picture that emerges is of, by and large, good men and actually, largely women.  People who aren't evil power-crazed spooks but genuinely care about their country and doing a good job. People who's lives have been spent in service to bringing Al Qaeda down. They aren't the lone rogues of Homeland or ZERO DARK THIRTY.  They are committed team players.  They aren't the evil violent power-hungry men in black. They are conscious of the moral quandary they're in - some more than others, admittedly. You come out of it with a respect for their work, but also a sense that whatever that work has become - how frightening and futile the increase in drone strikes - it wasn't a deliberate power grab but something that happened organically and perhaps without the people who were at the centre of the chaos of the manhunt truly realising until it was fully manifest.  But that's all the more reason for us to sit back and watch a documentary like this and think about where we've come and whether we're okay with that - essentially the plea of Stan McChrystal.  This documentary is the first step in that process of self-reflection and is absolutely essential viewing. 

MANHUNT has a running time of 90 minutes. 

MANHUNT won a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Sepcial.  It played Sundance 2013 and was shown earlier this year in the USA.  

1 - LFF 2013 - Day Ten


‎There's was a moment in the introduction to the JFK Assassination film, PARKLAND, where the director, Peter Landesman, said that people rewatch the Zapruder tape because they hope that this time, maybe this time, the awful horror won't happen and the ending will be different. I feel the same watching the onboard camera footage from Imola 1994. I seek it out, hungry for documentaries on Formula One in general and Imola in particular. And every time you watch you will the ending to change and cry when it isn't. I'm not sure why I get so upset. I'm not a massive Formula One fan but Senna was a childhood hero and his death, watched live in my home, was a tragic shock, and begged the cruel question: was Imola worth that beautiful glorious Interlagos win? Did we need to accept the tragedy in order to get the triumphs? Was this just a part of Formula One?


Paul Crowder's exceptional new documentary answers that question, and in doing so gives us an amazing historical sweep of Formula One's attitude toward safety. He starts with the tragic crash of Jim Clark - one of the greatest all time drivers - at Hockenheim 1968 and contrasts this with that amazing Martin Brundle crash at Melbourne 1996.  If we have the same amount of crashes now as then, how is it that Brundle walked out unscathed, and got back into a car to finish the race, but Clark died?  The answer is that for too long, the FIA and organisers just didn't care about safety - or didn't want to spend the money and time to make the races safe.  They didn't have crash barriers, medical care wasn't standardised, the courses weren't properly stewarded.  And even with high profile crashes - whether or not fatal - Jochen Rind to Niki Lauda - too often the drivers themselves just wanted to race faster despite efforts from racers like Jackie Stewart, Lauda et al trying hard to improve conditions. 

So, we get to the 1990s and suddenly racing as Bernie Ecclestone selling the TV rights which brings in the money and the TV audiences.  This is crucial because you get people like me shocked at the death of Senna and public outcry that guys still die racing.  And you get the money to make a difference - and thank god for Bernie hiring Professor Sid Watkins to standardise medical response. 

What I love about this documentary is that puts the recent films SENNA and RUSH in their proper historical context, both in terms of how racing deals with safety, but just more broadly in terms of how driving has evolved.  We see wonderful early footage of icons like Fangio and Clark and Stewart and Graham Hill and love them once again.  Crowder spends a lot of time of Hunt-Lauda which is fantastic, less on Senna, which is a shame, but I do understand that, because he wants to focus on the 1970s. This was the pivotal time in which the cars were getting a lot faster, but the tracks were still woeful - when the technology had outpaced the still amateurishly run sport.  It's the key to understanding the film.

Crowder has crafted a movie that's fair, beautifully edited, with a great driving sound-track and most of all, the blessing of Formula One. What that means is that everyone talks to him, honestly and candidly.  From Jackie Ickx who still isn't a big fan of safety over speed to Jackie Stewart who is still a powerful advocate.  We see the modern generation of racers - Lewis Hamilton - who seem almost cavalier about safety because - than god - they've come to fame in a period where it's much better.  And we hear from a lot of the true modern greats - not least Michael Schumacher. 

The resulting movie is a must-watch for anyone interested in Formula One, and especially newbies who's interest has been piqued by SENNA and RUSH and want to know more.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, was educated by it, and came out with a newfound respect for Formula One drivers in general, and Sid Watkins in particular. 

1 has a running time of 110 minutes.  The movie is available as VOD in the USA and will be released in the UK next spring. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

KILL YOUR DARLINGS - LFF 2013 - Day Nine


KILL YOUR DARLINGS is a compelling, moving, beautifully produced movie about a dark emotionally manipulative relationship at the heart of the Beat generation.  You don't have to be fascinated by the Beat poets to be sucked into this tale of youthful exuberance, and malevolent sexual desire, so brilliantly is it crafted.

What most people know about this film, is that stars Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame as a young Allen Ginsberg, years before he wrote Howl - a naive innocent Jewish boy arriving at Columbia and dazzled by the charismatic proto-Beat writers he meets.  But really, this isn't his film, although he's a key observer and interpreter of it - our eyes and ears inside the chaos.  Really, the film is about Ginsberg's fellow Columbia student, the charismatic but deeply troubled Lucien Carr (Dale Dehaan) and his disturbed relationship with the older David Kammerer (a heart-breakingly good Michael C Hall).  When we first meet the pair, standing in Ginsberg's shoes, it seems like it's a relationship of equals.  Kammerer is obsessed with Carr, but Carr uses Kammerer to his advantage, making him write his papers.  It feels like Carr, if anything, has the upper hand.  But as the movie progresses, we learn that Kammerer isn't just a jealous boyfriend, and Carr may not be confident in his sexual orientation.  In fact, Kammerer could well be a predatory stalker.  I guess we'll never know why and how the obsessive love story ended how it did, but I love how director John Krokidas deftly navigates the spidersweb of conflicting stories and motivations. It feels fair, and fascinating, and real, even if, in reality it wasn't a possessive Ginsberg that told Kammerer where Carr was, but an unaware Kerouac. 

The cast is superb throughout. In smaller parts, I loved the sinister strangeness of Ben Foster's well-heeled heir William S Burroughs, and the carefree charm of Jack Huston's Jack Kerouac.  In the larger roles, Daniel Radcliffe is nuanced and charismatic and conflicted as Allen Ginsberg, creating an extreme version of a relatable character - the wide-eyed kid suffering his first unrequited love affair at college.  And the way in which his eyes are opened to intellectual thought - the way in which those early college friendships can change your life - made me nostalgic for my own freshman year. But as I said before, this is really a movie that belongs to Dane Dehaan and Michael C Hall - so lucid and sympathetic and fragile and tragic.  Truly heartbreaking stuff, especially from Michael C Hall, and I hope we see more of him on the big screen now that his time as Dexter is up. 

And finally, kudos to first time feature director John Krokidas who has fashioned a movie so elegant, and intricate and confident that it's amazing to think it's really his first film. I loved the way in which he folded and moulded time, using flashbacks in a totally unconventional way. I loved the way in which he could direct both the comedic caper movie material as well as the emotionally intense material - and his feeling for editing together the great pivotal scenes.  His direction is so brave and assured that I am truly excited to see what he does next. 

KILL YOUR DARLINGS has a running time of 104 minutes and is rated R in the USA. 

KILL YOUR DARLINGS played Sundance, Venice, Toronto, and London 2013.  It goes on release in the USA and Italy this weekend, in Greece on November 7th, in Canada on November 8th, in Australia on December 5th, in the UK on December 6th, in Germany on January 30th and in Brazil on February 14th.