Friday, November 29, 2013


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 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 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 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


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.