Friday, June 27, 2014


I wrote of Olivier Dahan's movie LA VIE EN ROSE, that is contained a stunning central performance but baffling direction. Well, his GRACE OF MONACO has neither a stunning central performance, nor an improvement in the direction, but has something, just something that I found intriguing. But first, the obviously bad.

The story should've been intriguing. It is one of an iconic American movie star - one of Hitchcock's famous blondes, who traded it all for an arranged marriage to an ageing lothario who also happened to be the monarch of a bankrupt French protectorate. She must've known full well of Monaco's precarious situation behind the glamorous facade of the casinos. So why did she do it? And did she really expect to be allowed to act after she did?  But sadly this movie joins the story after Grace Kelly's marriage. She already has two children and though rarely seeing her husband and cold-shouldered at court, seems to be in love with him. Alfred Hitchcock offers her the lead role in Marnie, but she turns it down, because she's going to support her husband and never act again.  

This should have been a moving and deeply relevant film about the conflicts that career women face and a sorry tale of delusion after a whirlwind marriage. But instead, what we have is a very cursory attempt to show conflict - essentially Nicole Kidman's Grace looking disturbed into the middle distance, or humiliated for having a short haircut at luncheon - but no real emotion or excitement.  Rather the message of the film is essentially a conservative one - that it is the job of a woman to stand by her man for the sake of her children and sacrifice her own concerns. And if she needs to have a PRINCESS DIARIES makeover at the hands of a highly camp French Count played by Derek Jacobi, why then, all the better!

This is a movie of surfaces - beautiful costumes, beautiful locations, but not NOT beautiful people. I'm sorry but I'm just going to have to say it. Nicole Kidman is simply too old to play Grace of Monaco.  The wigs are too obviously wigs.  The botox and fillers insufficiently obfuscated by the soft focus.  It's hard to hear the message of the film - about the grim artifice behind the fairtytale - when the grim artifice is all too visible.  Of course one could forgive all this - I was once moved to tears by Mark Rylance's Cleopatra - were the acting sufficiently good.  And if it isn't, from an actress as worthy as Nicole Kidman, should we perhaps blame the director, the clumsy Dahan, or first-time screen writer Arash Amel?  Or should we, per Dahan, blame producer and extreme-editor Harvey Weinstein who has all but disowned the film?

I'm not sure, but what's utterly frustrating is that there is something to this film - and that's in its politics.  After all, this was a fascinating period for Monaco and for Grace's husband Prince Rainier. He inherited a poor kingdom dependent on gambling and tried to limit the power of the monarchy, widen the economic base and redistribute wealth.   He did so in the teeth of an economic blockade from a France desperate for tax revenues to finance the Algerian war.  All of this intrigue - the sticky hands of Ari Onassis (a ludicrous hack-impression from Robert Lindsay) - the attempted coup by his sister - are true and bear further investigation.  But one can't take the attempt seriously when Dahan/Amel want us to believe that the best way to create a red-herring baddie is to dress her in Miss Haversham-black.  Or when they want us to believe that the diplomatic crisis was solved by the giving of a ball and a Don't Cry For Me, Monte Carlo speech.  Shame on them all for not tackling the gritty issues - is a tax haven really the poster child for democratic liberty? - and all their contradictions. 

GRACE OF MONACO played Cannes 2014 where it was excoriated by the press. It opened in May in France, Germany, Italy, Kuwait, Finland, Poland, Belgium, Denmark, Hungary, Macedonia, Portugal, Serbia, Singapore, Estonia, Spain, Norway, Sweden, Israel and Lithuania. It opened earlier this month in Australia, the Netherlands, the UK, Ireland, Taiwan, South Korea and China. It opens in Japan in October and in Brazil on January 1st 2015.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


I fell in love with MALEFICENT despite its obvious weaknesses. Maybe it's because I'm one of those kids who was terrified by the Disney villain but also kind of wanted to be her! She was wicked and sarcastic and marvelous in the way that made Alan Rickman a scene stealer in the Kevin Costner ROBIN HOOD - that supercilious British aristocratic charm that makes Americans fawn over Dame Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey. That, and I'm a sucker for a gothic fairy tale - and a subversive Angela Carter investigation of the sexual motives at their heart.

So in this movie, per Linda Woolverton's (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST) script, Maleficent was once a wonderfully romantic innocent child who happened to fall in love with an ambitious man who used her cruelly, physically and violently to gain the throne. Mutilated and bent on revenge she curses the new King Stefan's daughter Aurora and he descends into paranoia, sending his daughter off to a cottage in a forest guarded by three good fairies. But in another twist, they are self-absorbed and incompetent, and it's only Maleficent's at first-reluctant, and then eager, care that keeps the girl safe. In a wonderful irony, the girl herself is not insensible of this care, calling Maleficent her "fairy godmother", and as all of us who have seen FROZEN know, true love's kiss can be recast - this time as a maternal rather than sibling bond.

Am I spoiling the ending? No, I think it's telegraphed widely beforehand.  As soon as we see the perfectly cast, almost fey Elle Fanning as Aurora gushing over her fairy godmother, the brilliantly comedically uncomfortable Maleficent, we know where the story is heading.  And perhaps this is the place to point out how marvelous Angelina Jolie in the role. Of course, her looks are perfect for Maleficent, and enhanced further by super-sharp prosthetic cheekbones.  But it's her rarely scene comedic acting that seals the deal  - the bemusement and discomfort when the cute baby Aurora (played her real-life daughter) asks to be picked up, or the patronising amusement as she prevents the baby from wandering off a cliff.  The supporting cast is similarly well appointed. I loved Sam Riley as Maleficent's soft-hearted "evil henchman" Diaval - and I'm sort there's fanfic being written about the two of them as we speak.  But how lovely to see Juno Temple as one of the three good fairies too.

So kudos to all involved - for Linda Woolverton's well-thought out script, to Peter Stromberg for his direction which is 9/10th amazing production design, to the charismatic Jolie and the believable relationship with Fanning's Aurora. If there's any false note it's perhaps Sharlto Copley's almost method-insane Scottish King Stefan, curiously grim and out of step with the almost self-consciously arch delivery of Angelina Jolie. He seemed to be in quite another film.

MALEFICENT has a running time of 97 minutes and is rated PG. MALEFICENT went on global release on May 28th. It will open in Japan on July 5th and in Bangladesh on August 6th.

Sunday, June 22, 2014


Apparently THE FAULT IN OUR STARS is based on a wildly successful novel by a chap called John Green about a couple of cancer-ridden teens who fall in love before tragedy inevitably befalls them.  So I entered the cinema expecting a kind of LOVE STORY movie in which wise-cracking, beautiful kids suffered and I cried and in that bizarre and slightly morally questionable way, felt better for it.  Well, I was only half right.  This is a handsome film. Handsomely cast, handsomely shot, and earnest even in its dry wit.  The star-crossed lovers are suitably pretty and witty and their portentous/pretentious names signal just how seriously this movie takes itself. The kids might be post-modern about their disease, but this movie isn't. We're never for a minute allowed to forget how tragic and wonderful it all is.  I could talk at length about how kids don't really talk like that, and teenage love, especially under extreme stress isn't really like that - how it's all just a fairytale of suffering.  But then I'd sound like the anti-hero of the piece - the deliciously spiky author Peter Van Houten, as played by Willem Defoe - a man so bitter and twisted that even the angelically patient kids tell him to go fuck himself. (It should, of course, not surprise you that the spiky novelist is also softened by the kids gorgeous loveliness.)  

I guess I can some up my gripes as follows. First, from a cerebral perspective, there's a cognitive dissonance.  The whole point motivating narrative of the story is that Hazel Grace  (Shailene Woodley - THE DESCENDENTS) gives Augustus Waters (Ansel Eglort) her favourite book by the aforementioned author - a book that she describes as being the only one that ever described how she felt as a cancer sufferer - the book that they travel to Amsterdam to hear explained.  But  I found myself asking whether this movie, if seen by a teenage cancer sufferer, would provide the same service? Would it live up to the ideal of being authentic and uplifting and empathetic?  Does it describe something real and admirable and truly tragic?  For me the answer is no. Because nothing about how these kids look, feel and are whisked on a magical journey felt real - and because of that, using cancer felt exploitative.  My second gripe comes from the heart.  The movie just didn't make me cry - maybe because of the artifice I mentioned before and in spite of the genuine chemistry between it's two lead characters. In fact, the character who moved me most - who's anger and frustration seemed more real, was Augustus' friend Isaac (Nat Wolff).

So basically, it's a thumbs down for THE FAULT IN OUR STARS because I disagree with the very contradiction at its heart - the authentic book that is embraced by the in-authentically perfect suffering couple.  I guess what that means is that I wanted to see a movie based on the fictional novel by Peter van Houten rather than THIS movie based on THIS book by John Green.  Can I really criticise this movie for not being another movie? It's well enough made, after all?  Perhaps I am being unfair. All the same, it's just not for me.

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS has a running time of 126 minutes and is rated PG-13.  The film is currently on release in the USA, Egypt, Jamaica, Trinidad, Australia, Brazil, Belarus, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, New Zealand, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Russia, Slovakia, Austria, Canada, Estonia, Iceland, Latvia, Mexico, Poland, South Africa, the UAE, Bahrain, Switzerland, Chile, Germany, Denmark, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Montenegro, Macedonia, Oman, Qatar, Serbia, Bulgaria, Norway, Romania, Belgium, Israel, Dominican Republic, the UK, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Singapore, Cyprus, Lithuania and Sweden.  It opens in Cambodia on June 25th, in Argentina and Uruguay on June 26th, in Ecuador and Turkey on June 27th, in Spain, India and Venezuela on July 4th, in the Netherlands and the Ukraine on July 10th, in Finland on July 11th, in Thailand on July 24th, in Malaysia on July 31st, in Hong Kong on August 14th, in France on August 20th,  in Indonesia and Taiwan on August 22nd, in Slovenia on August 28th, in Azerbaijan and Italy on September 4th.

Monday, June 16, 2014


First a public service announcement: do not go to see CHEF on an empty stomach or with a vegetarian friend! Not since Stanley Tucci's glorious BIG NIGHT have I seen a movie more in love with food and the process of cooking - that photographs sumptuous sides of pit beef and steaming piles of spaghetti with more indulgent care. It's a movie that's passionate above being passionate about what you eat - and that wraps us up in that mission to eat authentic, but not over-complicated, food. Which is not to sound precious - this is also a movie that is at its heart a simple family story - about a father reconnecting with his son when his career hits a road bump by quitting his fancy restaurant and driving a food truck serving simple Cuban food from Miami to LA.

I can imagine a lot of critics getting quite sniffy about the basic simplicity of the story. There's nothing particularly new about seeing a workaholic divorced dad (Chef Carl Caspar - Jon Favreau) struggling to reconnect with a cute, emotionally wise kid (Emjay Anthony - IT'S COMPLICATED). There's although nothing particularly new about the mid-life crisis movie in which an apparently successful middle-aged man throws it all in to fight the Man (think Jerry Maguire). And of course, there's something almost annoyingly ungrateful in the obvious analogy between Chef Carl and the writer-director-lead actor of the movie. Jon Favreau started off in the indie hit SWINGERS, but ended up helming the mega franchise IRON MAN movies. It's no great leap to think that he too dreamed of giving it up (albeit temporarily) for smaller scale, more authentic tales/films, and CHEF is the literal and metaphorical result. And while we're on a downer, it did get ever so slightly irritating how every woman in this movie was there as a loving, supportive two-dimensional pretty young thing to swoon over Chef's food and ease him through his existential crisis. I mean, in the modern era, is there any excuse for the shot of Maitre D Molly (Scarlett Johanson) wearing little more than an over-sized jumper ogling Chef's spaghetti? Oh, and do we really need such full on product placement for Twitter?!

So why, given the trite emotional journey and 2-D female characters should one still watch CHEF? Because despite all that nonsense the sheer enjoyment of authentic food drips off of the screen. Favreau is writing about what he loves and it shows. And it's not just the food but the cultures and communities that create it and nurture it - the idea that eating something in its place of birth is special and unique and to be protected. It's also worth giving a shout out to the music in this movie. The soundtrack is just hands-down the most fun you can have in a cinema, and put together with the sun-kissed cinematography from DP Kramer Morgenthau (THOR: DARK WORLD and the movie just wills you to have a good time. The second thing to enjoy in this movie is the sweet and occasionally spiky relationship between father and son. I love that Jon Favreau allows himself to look as mean as he does - shouting his evidently emotionally distraught son out of the food truck and serially undercutting touching moments with his debbie-downer attitude. Other occasional joys: the sheer energy John Leguziamo brings to the screen as Sous-Chef Martin; the classic gonzo cameo from Robert Downey Junior at the centre of the movie; a use of cornstarch that you just can't forget once you've seen it.

So, despite it's well-worn path to emotional enlightenment, and the rather cloying product placement, CHEF is a wonderfully feel-good movie, full of love, authentic spikiness and a real passion for food, family and community.

CHEF is rated R in the USA and X in the UK and has a running time of 115 minutes.

CHEF played SXSW 2014 and was released earlier this year in New Zealand, the USA, Kuwait, Lithuania, Portugal, Vietnam, Singapore and Hong Kong. It goes on release in Estonia in June 20th, in the UK on June 25th, in Ireland on June 27th, in Brazil on July 10th, in Greece on August 21st, and in the Netherlands on September 4th.

Sunday, June 15, 2014


I'm the perfect audience for this documentary and even I was bored. I've been reading The New York Review of Books for 25 of its 50 year history and have often dipped into its wonderful online archive.  To me, it's the magazine I turn to for erudite in-depth book reviews, but also wonderful essays on contemporary political, legal and economic events.  In its pages I have been educated by Ronald Dworkin on US constitutional matters, and Paul Krugman on economics - from Tony Judt on contemporary European issues to Avishai Margalit on the Middle East. The joy of the Review is that you get writers of as high a calibre as the people they are reviewing - creating a kind of double or triple pleasure for the reader - imagine Hilary Mantel reviewing Coetzee, or John Banville on Nabokov on Pushkin. It's a safe haven where style and content and deep thinking still matter.  
I had always wondered what this sanctuary must look like in real life. I knew about the Review's origin myth: the scathing indictment of modern reviewing written by co-founder Elizabeth Hardwick and the exploitation of a newspaper strike to put on a serious book review with the backing of poet Robert Lowell, publisher Jason Epstein and the editors Barbara Epstein and Robert Silver. But how did the paper run today? Were they worried about the retirement of now sole editor Robert Silver?  Were its best days - the epic battles between Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer - firmly behind it? Was the paper's influence everything it once was or, in the internet age, was it likely to fade into the sunset like many of its readers?  In short, was the Review still relevant? 

Sadly, this documentary, produced by Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi didn't answer any of those questions. Rather it serves as a fairly plodding, hagiographic document of the Review's own fiftieth anniversary celebrations in New York - combining talking heads of some of the current contributors with stock footage of the now deceased.  We get a sense of the magazine's impact in the 60s and 70s but after that the material is much thinner. Yes, it is still a joy to read, and it was particularly moving seeing the current generation of writers describe their own connection with those early reviewers.  But there was no attempt to look into the future apart from a cursory enquiry as to when Silvers intends to retire.  The overall tone was one of beatific glory - perpetual - omniscient - omnipresent - right-thinking if left-leaning.  All of which added up to quite a dull ride, and arguably even less interesting than Scorsese and Tedeschi's other hagio-doc, SHINE A LIGHT.

A 50 YEAR ARGUMENT has a running time of 95 minutes and played Sheffield Doc Fest 2014.

Thursday, June 12, 2014


Aliens are invading earth and its military has formed a United Defence Force with one trick up its sleeve, PACIFIC RIM-lite super-soldier suits.  A slick adman called Bill Cage (Tom Cruise) is a self-proclaimed coward drafted into a Normandy-style attack on the enemy position. He dies, but is looped back to the start of his deployment and soon realises that he needs to make contact with Emily Blunt's war heroine, Rita. She too went through the time-looping and realised that the Aliens are winning the war by resetting and replaying their attack every time they die.  She and now Cage have somehow hijacked the ability to reset and by doing so can now win the war. She therefore sets about training Cage to be a military hero, shooting him to reset the day so that they can start again. 

I'll go on the record and say that I have deep problems with Tom Cruise and that this kind of CGI heavy action movie is not something I usually connect with, but I really enjoyed EDGE OF TOMORROW. Part of that is to do with seeing Tom Cruise on the back foot for the first half of the movie, playing a cowardly doofus who is literally getting beaten up by a girl.  But the other half is seeing just how cleverly the director Doug Liman (THE BOURNE IDENTITY) handles the time loop story.  Because let's be honest, this concept could've gotten pretty boring pretty early, and actually pretty smug.  Nobody wants to see Tom Cruise lord it over everyone as he cannily predicts just what they're going to do before they do it.  But somehow, Liman keeps everything on track and tense and actually emotionally evolving.  The payoff comes in the final scene, which I won't spoil, but where we'd actually seen emotional growth.  I really enjoyed the journey. 

EDGE OF TOMORROW has a running time of 113 minutes and is rated PG-13.  The movie is on global release.

Friday, June 06, 2014


I'm not exactly sure why critics seem to pissing on a great height over Seth MacFarlane's new comedy, A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST.  The only legitimate criticism is that his highly concentrated humour, with visual and verbal hits coming at you at a rapid-fire pace, is hard to take for over two hours.  But other than that, what's not to like?  This film is funny, wry and has genuine heart and I honestly don't see what there is to criticise in the performances either.  

The movie works in the same way as MacFarlane's smash hit comedy, TED.  Take some outlandish premise and apply that extreme harsh MacFarlane humour. In this case, we're put in the Wild West, complete with shoot-em-outs, warehouses and corrupt oligarchs and asked to laugh at how absurd it is.  Hence the title of the film. The West isn't a place to romanticise but a filthy, disease-ridden misogynistic and racist era in which nature and man conspired to kill you.  So if you get the one person in the film, played by Seth MacFarlane, bitching about how absurd life is within the context of a spoofily all-happy Western, then that, to me, is really funny.

The plot is as follows. MacFarlane plays Albert Stark - a hapless sheep farmer who has been rejected by his sweetheart Louise (Amanda Seyfried) in favour of the rich moustache-bearing merchant Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). Albert then forms a friendship with Anna (Charlize Theron) who teaches him how to shoot properly so he can survive a duel with Foy. Little does he know that Anna is really the wife of an outlaw called Clinch (Liam Neeson.)

So what we have is the classic rom-com set-up where a guy tries to impress the one girl while really falling in love with the other.  We even have a song and dance number that is absolutely brilliant and probably the best thing Neil Patrick Harris has done since Dr Horrible's Sing-a-long Blog.   We also get a side plot that pokes a lot of fun at an earnest guy (Giovanni Ribisi) dating a whore (Sarah Silverman) who refuses to sleep with him until they are married.

Like I said, I loved TED and I loved this film. It was half an hour too long, for sure, but I found its analysis of the absurdity of the Western myth spot on and its casting superb.  

A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST has a running time of 116 minutes and is rated R. The movie is on global release.