Sunday, March 30, 2014


BLENDED is the latest in the series of harmless rom-coms starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore as Jim and Lauren. In this iteration they play a widower and a divorcee respectively who go on a horrible blind date where he takes her to a Hooters and pays her no attention.  Naturally they are opposites. She's a professional closet organiser and so is portrayed as uptight and overly controlling, with her two boys dressed in smart suits. He's a sports-nut with there girls dressed in athletic wear.  Neither parent is coping particularly well with their kids going through puberty. 

The plot kicks off when Lauren's best friend ends her relationship with Jim's boss freeing up a luxury holiday that the boss had booked. They both get to go with their kids, and while they start of hating each other and protesting that they aren't dating - well, you can guess what happens. 

The humour is very very low key indeed. It's not really a laugh-out-loud movie. But I did, in spite of my in-built cynicism, feel that trademark Sandler-Barrymore warm cuddly feeling and I genuinely liked these people and wanted things to work out. There are no surprises, and I knew I was being manipulated by a script that repeated a tried and trusted formula. But I just couldn't help it.  And you know when I knew this movie was really working?  Terry Crews.  When I first saw his cameo as a South African singer I thought, my god, is this borderline racist?  By the end, I just went with it, and even found it funny. So yes, there's nothing original or pioneering here.  But it works.  It really does.

BLENDED is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 117 minutes. BLENDED is on release in the USA, UK, Ireland, Germany, Puerto Rico, Austria and Canada. It opens on May 30th in Thailand, Bulgaria, India and Vietnam.  It opens in June in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Singapore, Uruguay, Colombia, Cyprus, Pakistan, Belgium, Iceland, Kuwait, the Philippines, the UAE, Australia, Lebanon, Peru, Indonesia, Panama, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Greece, Romania, Taiwan, Mexico, Spain, Finland and Sweden. It opens in July in Italy, Denmark, Croatia, Hungary, Israel, Macedonia, Portugal, Serbia, Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine, Poland, Venezuela, South Africa, the Czech Republic, Hong Kong, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Norway, Brazil and the Netherlands. It opens on August 6th in Egypt, and in Japan on March 11th 2015.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER 3D brought to you by proud sponsor, Edward Snowden

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is an utterly satisfying comic-book summer blockbuster but I wonder how certain members of the audience will view its earnest liberal political agenda.  Which is to say that I agree with absolutely everything this movie says about the trade-off between freedom and security, but even I found the messaging rather heavy-handed. So much so that this movie could've been sponsored by Wikileaks or the Edward Snowden defence fund.  That said, it's the most politically engaged, elegantly written Marvel movie, so I'm really not complaining.

As the movie opens we see the formerly cryogenically frozen super soldier Captain America unfrozen and working for SHIELD  As well as catching up on fifty years worth of pop culture, he's also struggling to reconcile his earnest no-nonsense good guy values with his current job enacting secret missions in a world without clear-cut enemies. His boss, Nick Fury, isn't helping by being all paranoid and on the verge of launching three super-fighters capable of taking out terrorist threats before they happen, with the co-operation of World Security Council chief Alexander Pierce.  But soon Fury is the subject of an assassination attempt, Captain America himself is under attack, and Hydra is rearing its many-heads once again.  His only allies are the newly contemplative Natasha Romanoff aka The Black Widow and the similarly earnest Sam Wilson aka The Falcon.

There's a lot to love here without the politics. The dialogue is smart, if not as constantly wise-cracking as an IRON MAN movie.  I love the genuine chemistry between Chris Evans' Steve Rogers and Scarlett Johansson's Natasha.  I love the elegant way in which the scriptwriters (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) give us the prequel backstory by way of a museum exhibit.   The plot has a pleasing complexity without seeming wilfully obscure, and it allows minor characters a chance to shine - not least Sebastian Stan in what could've been a thankless cameo role as The Winter Soldier but drips with melancholy.  I even love the behind the scenes stuff - particularly the subtle ageing make-up on Hayley Atwell's Peggy Carter, the gorgeous hand to hand combat choreography, and the cinematography from Trent Opaloch (DISTRICT 9) that's less than the motion sickness of Bourne but still engrossing enough to keep us on the edge of our seats. So kudos to the unlikely directors, the Russo brothers, for pulling it all together.

But this movie ultimately stands or falls on how you feel about its politics because, believe you me, this kind of earnest engagement with a highly contemporary issue is bold and brave, not least because of its ramifications for SHIELD within the real-life complex commercial universe that Marvel has established.  I love that beyond all the fighting this is ultimately a thoughtful, provocative and bold film - one that, like Captain America himself, has the courage of its convictions and a kind of audacity that is rare in a summer blockbuster.  That audacity caps itself off in the anti-casting of arch-liberal Robert Redford as a hawk, and the wonderfully subversive final scene involving Jenny Agutter.  We've come a long way from THE RAILWAY CHILDREN!

CAPTAIN AMERICA was a great summer blockbuster.  Its sequel is something more than that.  A great entertaining movie but one that also has the courage to pose serious questions about our world and doesn't patronise the audience with easy answers.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLIDER has a running time of 136 minutes and is rated PG-13 in the USA and 12A in the UK for infrequent moderate violence.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is released this week in the USA, France, the UK, Belgium, Ireland, Italy, South Korea, Norway, the Philippines, Poland, Sweden, Argentina, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Portugal, Singapore and Spain. It is released on April 3rd in the UAE, Australia, Greece, Hong Kong, Macedonia, New Zealand, Russia and Thailand; on April 4th in Bulgaria, Canada, China, Estonia, India, Iceland, Lithuania, Mexico, Peru, Romania, the USA (wide release) and Vietnam; on April 9th in Serbia; on April 10th in Brazil, Hungary and Cambodia; on April 11th in Turkey; on April 19th in Japan.

Sunday, March 23, 2014


ABOUT LAST NIGHT is a romantic comedy from director Steve Pink (HOT TUB TIME MACHINE) based on the 1980s David Mamet play "Sexual Perversity In Chicago" and remaking the 1980s movie starring Rob Lowe and Demi Moore.  In this iteration we have two contemporary African American couples discussing sex and dating.  Kevin Hart and Regina Hall (THINK LIKE A MAN) play Bernie and Joan who have a one-night stands at the outset of the film and so introduce their friends Danny and Debbie, played by Michael Ealy (BARBERSHOP) and Joy Bryant (Parenthood).   

I started off really hating this movie and maybe that's because it focusses up front on Joan and Bernie, who come off as crass, drunk and trying to be funny. It's the kind of humour that asks you to laugh when a couple try to have sex on a toilet and accidentally hit the flush.  But at least Kevin Hart was sporadically funny whereas the handsomely banal couple Danny and Debbie are just going through the motions of every other relationship drama we've ever seen on screen.  They have an instant chemistry - all is loved up - they move in - he feels cramped - they have a massive argument - they could cheat with ex-es - they don't because they are fundamentally nice people. 

I did eventually mellow forward this film. It's an easy enough watch even though it doesn't surprise AT ALL.  For instance, you just know that when Danny takes Debbie to the old Irish bar he visited as a kid, and sees it fall on hard times, that there's going to be some kind of hipster-ish extreme makeover.  The actors are ok.  Kevin Hart and Regina Hall have their comedic moments. But it's one for DVD night at best.

ABOUT LAST NIGHT has a running time of 100 minutes and is rated R.  The movie is on release in Canada, the USA, Kenya, Nigeria, the UAE, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Syria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Ecuador, Australia, South Africa, Malaysia, Uruguay, the UK and Ireland.  It opens in April in Philippines, Thailand, India, Chile, Indonesia and New Zealand. It opens in May in Denmark and Taiwan, in June in Hong Kong and Germany.


X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is a long and convoluted film. That it remains engaging says something for the quality of the cast it has assembled, the ballsiness of its premise and the elegance of its action scenes.

The movie sees Wolverine sent back in time to the 1970s by Kitty Pryde to persuade Professor X and Magneto to come together and prevent Mystique from being captured by an evil inventor called Trask.  He will create robots called Sentinels who use Mystique's own mutated blood to become the ultimate Mutant killing machines.  If she isn't stopped Mystique will unleash a future in which Mutants are all but extinct.  But the mission isn't an easy one. Wolverine has to persuade a disillusioned, drugged up Professor X to help; he has to bust Magneto out of prison for killing JFK; and that's before he even gets to Trask.

The cast is impeccable. Fassbender vs McAvoy as Magneto vs Professor X is just the ultimate buddy movie with consequences.  You need actors will real heft to pull of a man scarred by the Holocaust and another who has to go back into his wheelchair for the good of humanity.  Jennifer Lawrence plays a woman on the brink of a massive ethical decision. The new additions are Peter Dinklage as the bad guy, Trask, fine but nothing spectacular, and Evan Peters as Quicksilver. (Yes, you're right - a different Pietro Maximoff to the one in AVENGERS....)  Peters doesn't have much to do, but he does star in the most awesome action sequence of any X-MEN movie to date, in which he goes so fast the reality around him slows down and he literally re-arranges bullets in the air.  Amazing scoring for that scene too. As for Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, well, he's played Wolverine so many times by now I almost don't think of him as acting anymore.

The heart of the film is the relationship between Mystique and Magneto.  Is he going to stay good or go bad?  And between Charles Xavier and, well, the world. Is he going to give in to depression or grasp the future, the future he can create?  It's this more than anything else that keeps us coming back to the franchise.  It's not just ever bigger and bolder action sequences but that these are grown up, complex, scarred characters that wrestle with their doubts and dissatisfactions. There are no easy choices. Everything carries weight. Everything matters.  That's what elevates X-MEN, and this instalment in particular, to something very special indeed.

X-MEN DAYS OF FUTURE PAST has a running time of 131 minutes and is rated PG-13. The movie is on global release.

ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE - LFF 2013 - Day Eleven - Super late review!

So here's a super-late review of the gloriously weirdly wonderful romantic-comedy ONLY LOVERS LEFT LIVE from art house director Jim Jarmusch (THE LIMITS OF CONTROL).  I originally saw this flick at the London Film Festival, and then watched it again on Valentine's Day at the BFI.  I resisted reviewing it because sometimes the movies you truly love are the hardest to write about. Somehow it's easier to pinpoint exactly why you hate hate hate hate hate a movie and far harder to articulate that nebulous feeling of unashamed joy when you luxuriate in a movie that's uniquely wondrous. But, as this flick is still on a few arthouse screens in the UK, here goes....

ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE tells the story of two ancient vampires called, in biblical simplicity, Adam and Eve.  When we meet them, they're living apart. She's in the richly decorated decadent Tangier, hanging out with her friend Marlowe (wry jokes about ghosting Shakespeare), and generally looking effortlessly punk-rock-chic.  He's hanging out in decaying Detroit, writing awesome moody music on self-consciously old-school tech, procured by his cluelessly half-baked muggle friend Ian.  

Adam's in a funk, and Eve comes to rescue him. What's funny and sweet about their relationship is that after all those centuries it has matured into a kind of docile middle-aged marriage and yet we still feel they're passionately in love with each other, and utterly good people who make each other better, which is ultimately the aim, right?  He shows her his decrepit post industrial city by night, dodging fan-girls, and all seems wistfully melancholy until Eve's little sister Ava turns up and throws everything into chaos.  There's a lot of fun to be had at Adam's deadpan response to Ava's hell-raising antics, and the key plot point is that it forces our Lovers onto a plane to Tangier, leaving their ethically sourced blood supply behind them.

Throughout all of this, Jim Jarmusch seems to be engaging us in an elegy for high culture.  Adam is weary with superficial modern culture - the source of his depression - and longs for a greater more glorious past.  Eve might try to snap him out of this, mocking Byron as an old bore, but there's a feeling that the times of great dandy fashion and music and writing is over and they are not just the Only Lovers Left Alive as in the only truly passionate people left, but the only Lovers of Art left in a modern world denuded of taste. To that end, Eve's little sister with her insatiable immediate and unfiltered appetites might remind us of modern pop-culture - superficial, insatiable, undiscriminating.  If Eve's reading Marlowe, then Ava's reading TMZ. 

All of which makes this movie sound rather pedagogic but it's only after I watched it, and rewatched it, and pondered it, that I came to this awareness. When you're in the movie, you're enjoying the wonderfully attenuated, chiselled beauty of Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, and utterly buying into their love story.  You're enjoying the wonderfully curated ramshackle houses that they live in.  You're glorying in the very British humour delivered in particular by Hiddleston and his interplay with Anton Yelchin as Ian. Plus, did I say that the music is just insanely wonderful?

Really, there's nothing not to like here.  And if you've found Jim Jarmusch inaccessible and wilfully obscure in the past (as I have) then please don't let that put you off this beautifully shot, deeply affecting film.

ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE has a running time of 123 minutes and is rated R in the USA and 15 in the UK for strong language.  

ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE played Cannes, Toronto and London 2013.  It was released in 2013 in Russia, Croatia, Switzerland, Japan and Germany. It was released earlier this year in Greece, South Korea, the Netherlands, Sweden, Turkey, Belgium, France, the UK, Ireland, Romania, Poland, Taiwan, Denmark and Finland. It will be released in the USA on April 11th, in Australia on April 17th, in New Zealand on May 1st, and in Spain on June 27th.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

BFI FLARE - Opening Night Gala - LILTING

LILTING is a movie that drips with sincerity and authenticity and makes you cry - but not in that emotionally manipulative way that a film like THE BLIND SIDE brings you to a crescendo of weepiness - but in the quiet way that a movie about real loss can. And despite all this - and its profound investigation of grief and the guilt around caring for our ageing parents and the difficulty of coming out - and the way in which we circumscribe our communication to shelter others or shelter ourselves - it's actually a properly laugh-out-loud funny film! That all this comes from a first-time feature writer-director is just astonishing!

The movie is about unpicking the memories and emotions around a dead young man called Kai (Andrew Leung) who lived in  London with his long-time partner Richard (Ben Whishaw) but hadn't come out to his possessive mother Jun (Pei-Pei Cheng).  We begin the movie after his death but in a series of elegantly languidly interlaced flashbacks we get to know and sympathize with Kai over his genuine love for his mother but the way in which he feels trapped by his dependence on her. Meanwhile, in the present, as his boyfriend struggles to grieve for Kai, we see him start to visit her in a nursing home, despite her evident dislike for the rival for her son's attentions, and the ambiguity surrounding how much she really knows about the nature of their relationship.  Much of the humour of the film comes from the incipient relationship between Jun and another resident at the home, Alan (Peter Bowles). Initially, Richard introduces them to a translator (Naomie Christie) to aid their romance, but soon as Naomie becomes more involved in their lives, it's Richard and Jun that she mediates and translates for. 

I want to emphasize just what a beautifully elegant and softly woven film this is.  How authentic and conflicted the relationships feel, and just how good the performances are, so that even in the midst of selfish arguments you can sympathize with each participants.  I left the cinema having laughed out loud but also having quietly cried - feeling that I really knew these people and desperately cared about what was going to happened to them.  I can't tell you how infrequent an experience that is at the cinema and how much these unique voices must be supported.  Moreover, why isn't Ben Whishaw more famous? 

I suppose the final question is, with the movie featuring a gay couple, and centering on the issue of coming out, whether this is exclusively a gay interest film.  I would argue that it deserves a far wider audience that that.  The issue of how we as vital children relate to our ageing parents is universally relatable as is the idea of what we choose to say and with-hold in our relationships.  This is a wise film indeed. 

LILTING played Sundance, where Urszula Ponticus won the cinematography award for World cinema - Dramatic,  and BFI Flare 2014.  It will be released in the UK and Ireland on June 20th.

Saturday, March 15, 2014


So I'm a massive fan of the Veronica Mars TV show, even though, like most people, I came to it too late to contribute to the actual ratings, and watched it on Netflix after it got cancelled.  It was this amazing high school detective noir, similar in tone to Rian Johnson's insanely good debut feature BRICK.  I loved the cynical vibe - the fact that high school was all about date rape, infidelity, class warfare and injustice.  And I loved that the heroine was genuinely smart, tough and witty, like Buffy but without all the fluffiness. Finally, just to make me extra-happy, as the show as set in a fictional town near La-La-Land, there was also a healthy dollop of satire at the expense of Hollywood, as well as a really ahead-of-its-time understanding about the impact of social media on teenage lives.

Of course, a TV show this smart was going to get canned, and arguably should've finished after series 1 anyways.  Like the similarly dark (although far crazier) TWIN PEAKS it never really survived the big reveal of who killed Lily Kane/Laura Palmer.  So I was a little worried about what this new kick-starter funded ten years on movie would look like? Was it going to be like friending those high school kids on Facebook years later just to see what they looked like now? Or was it actually going to have merit as a movie on its own terms?

I can't really judge the latter - what the movie feels like to someone who didn't watch the TV show. And to be sure there was a lot of fun to be had seeing how people looked and where writer/director Rob Thomas had them ten years on.  Some of the problems persisted from the original. I always felt that Veronica's high school friend Wallace Fennel (Percy Daggs III) got a bad rap from the writers who didn't know what to do with him once Veronica started dating/using Logan (Jason Dohring) as a sidekick. And even in this movie, poor Wallace seems to have grown up to be a high school coach just so Veronica can get some info on current students. It was far more satisfying to see geeky IT hacker Mack (Tina Majorino) grow up to become a spiky babe, or the humour with which they still had Veronica hitting up cop Leo (Max Greenfield) for info.  I also liked that they gave former biker-with-a-heart-of-gold a really politically provocative and all too believable sub-plot, which will hopefully also be the hub of a sequel.  

Does the movie stand up on its own, though? The murder mystery at the heart of the film is fairly mechanical and as we don't really care about the victim in the way we came to care about Lily Kane, I guess it's not that involving. I also saw who did it as soon as we realised where their career aspirations were.  Moreover, the whole Ross-Rachel aspect to the Veronica-Logan relationship felt weird and weak and a sad call for Piz (Chris Lowell) but I guess that Rob Thomas was more constrained by fan-service than most writers given the nature of his movie's funding. Still there was enough in the plot to keep me interested and provide a vessel for Veronica's and particularly Keith Mars' wit. And I would definitely watch another film? At the theatre? No.  But a a kind of extended TV movie, yes.  And it's too bad Netflix doesn't just fund another series. 

VERONICA MARS is available to watch on demand. It has a running time of 107 minutes and is rated PG-13 in the USA and 12A in the UK for strong language, moderate violence, sex, and sex references.

Thursday, March 13, 2014


Wes Anderson's THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is a wondrous set of films within films and memories within memories of a world that never quite existed and yet has such a profound resonance with our own.  It begins with an earnest young girl making a pilgrimage to the memorial of an un-named writer (Tom Wilkinson) in an unspecified Mittel-Europische town. In a technical flourish we change aspect ratio and film stock - something that the unversed viewer will only subliminally mark as a shift in perspective - to see that writer as a middle-aged man, trying to give a po-faced TV interview about how he wrote his now famous work about The Grand Budapest Hotel.  He sits in a perfectly appointed 1970s apartment - every attention paid to the production and costume design - his focus disturbed by his mischievous son shooting a BB gun.  Echoes to THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, and once again, a shift in perspective and memory.  We unravel another layer of wrapping paper to this box of magic and go back further to a Central European Soviet setting with that peculiarly gharish and soul-destroying imposition of dun-coloured formica upon the face of our beloved majestic wedding cake ostentatious Grand Budapest Hotel.  A now younger writer, played by Jude Law, comes across a mysterious vaguely exotic hotel guest (F Murray Abraham) who invites him to dinner to reminisce about the hotel's hey-day.  And at last, we are at the heart of the box of tricks, in the mythical country of Zubrowka, in the mythical hotel that established a kind of aristocratic service that only ever existed in the fictional Browns Hotel of Agatha Christie, or in today in the grand hotels of Venice, like the Danieli or the Gritti, that aspire to give us a sepia-tinted view of the past closer to Downton Abbey than reality.

The lynchpin of the story - the man who gives it its drive, its power, its comedy and its tragedy - is the hotel concierge Monsieur Gustave, played with delicious camp glee by Ralph Fiennes, in his funniest role to date. He squires the hotel's ageing guests, genuinely delighted in their attentions and gifts - a man so far removed from reality and yet utterly self-aware. The mechanics of the plot sees his M. Gustave inherit a priceless (fictional!) piece of art from Madame D., a wonderfully aged up decrepit Tilda Swinton, invoking the ire of her mean son Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Adrienne Brody) and his henchman Jopling (Willem Defoe.) There follows a kind of caper movie as M. Gustave secures his prize, is thrown in jail, and conceives an escape with his fellow cellmate Ludwig (Harvey Keitel) and the legendary Society of the Crossed Keys led by Bill Murray.  All this, and I haven't even mentioned Zero yet!  Zero is M. Gustave's protege, a refugee from somewhere vague and oriental, with no-one to look after him and no papers, hence the name.  And it's the relationship between the camp, extravagant M. Gustave and this earnest, lost little boy that gives the brilliantly shining mirror of a movie its dark backing.  For in this fictional world, a fictional SS is about to arrest Zero for having incorrect papers, and when M. Gustave calls them "darling" and explains that they can't POSSIBLY arrest the Bellboy at The Grand Budapest Hotel, we see the clash between the hermetically sealed world of Wes Anderson and the dark realities of European history.  We see that behind the indulgently rich detailed creation of hotel liveries and scrumptious pastries in delicate ribbon-tied boxes there is a reality that mean and in antithesis to all the values of heroic friendship that M. Gustave embodies. And suddenly this fairytale world becomes even more tragic because we truly understand how fragile it is, and our minds are drawn back to its fate as a crumbling 1970s Soviet bloc bath-house. 

The standard take on Wes Anderson is that he always made these delightfully detailed, beautifully imagined confections whose only failing was their solipsism and similarity. But now, with THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, he has finally made an important film, whose profound subject matter lives up to the wonder of the detailed design indulgence.  But when you sit back and really think about it, his movies have always contrasted hermetically sealed children's worlds of wonders,and shown the tragedy inherent in confronting reality.  They are monuments to the infantile shock at the adult world.  RUSHMORE quite literally memorializes a school;  THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS is about returning home to mother in the shadow of incest, suicide, addiction and death; and MOONRISE KINGDOM uses the metaphor of Noah's flood to show our loss of innocence.  Parents are frail, love is desperate and doomed, children are overlooked and hurt.  Wes Anderson's worlds may be as scrupulously curated as a beloved Victorian doll's house, but they are dangerous places.  The only difference in THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is one of scale - the stakes here are higher - it is not just a single child losing innocence, but a whole European civilization caught on the pyre of a fascist war. 

What IS knew in GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is the continuous, raucous comedy, that is far more sweary and frank than much we have seen before in Wes Anderson's films, as well as the patchwork of overt homages to different film genres and directors. We have the chase scene involving the lawyer Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum) that feels like something out of THE THIRD MAN, and the jail break scene that's straight out of THE GREAT ESCAPE, as well as countless other nods to the films of Powell and Pressburger (especially Colonel Blimp).  The humour seems to be something taken from an Ealing Studios caper comedy starring Sir Alec Guinness, and overall, the movie has the air of something from wartime British cinema.  This together with the deft and deliberate handling of the differing aspect ratios, and the self-conscious use of miniature work and stop-motion animation, coupled with the over-arching theme of memory, mis-memory and world-building, makes THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, par excellence, a self-conscious movie about cinema.  It's a film that addresses full-on our need for escapism - what else is it that the hotel sells to its old-maid residents?  It's a film that sympathizes with that need, and delights in providing it, but which also knows the limits of that fiction - and that when confronted with violent reality - the confection inevitably melts away.

This is then, for all those reasons, Wes Anderson's most thoughtful, entertaining, technically accomplished and tragic film to date.  It's also, for those that care, the best movie of the year to date. 

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL premiered at Berlin 2014 and is currently on release in the Netherlands, France, Belarus, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Israel, Macedonia, Austria, the UK, Ireland and the USA. It opens on March 13th in the Czech Republic and Kazakhstan; on March 14th  in Canada and Lithuania; on March 20th in Hungary, Singapore and Slovakia; on March 21st in Spain, Norway, Romania and Sweden; on March 27th in Argentina and Denmark; on March 28th in Estonia and Poland; on April 3rd in Brazil and Chile, on April 10th in Australia, Italy, New Zealand and Portugal; on April 11th in Finland; on April 18th in Turkey and in June in Japan. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


If MANDELA: THE LONG WALK TO FREEDOM peeled back some of the myth surrounding Nelson Mandela's prison release, adding an edge of cynicism to the narrative fashioned by our better selves, then PLOT FOR PEACE is a comprehensive debunking.  Before both films I had the naive impression that international boycotts and the ANCs terrorism forced the deeply religious FW DeKlerk to free Mandela unconditionally and that the famous scene we saw on television was truly Madiba's first step outside of a prison in decades.  LONG WALK TO FREEDOM told us that in reality Mandela had been negotiating with the Apartheid government and living in a comfortable mansion, if still imprisoned, for some time before his release, but essentially sticks to the narrative of two rather idealistic men decided to make change positive rather than let South Africa crumble into violence.  Ultimately, it left Mandela's destiny in his own hands, and that of DeKlerk. All this is a charming bedtime story - the triumph of good over evil - the age of the hero, and both men rightfully received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts.

What we learn from PLOT FOR PEACE is that sometimes great change happens not because a benevolent heroic leader takes destiny into his own hands, but because self-interested men, utterly unaccountable to anyone, hidden in the shadows of history, are found in the right place at the right time.  These men aren't the stuff of glossy Hollywood biopics that tug at the heartstrings and make big grand speeches. They are men of compromised actions and motives who nonetheless govern great events.  Jean-Yves Olliver, aka Monsieur Jacques, the subject of this new documentary, is just such a man.

At first glance, Jean-Yves is exactly the kind of man that earnest liberal people would hate.  He's a greedy capitalist bastard who made a fortune trading commodities and defying sanctions against places like South Africa.  He's almost a cartoon villain - a short French-Algerian Gordon Gekko - chomping on cigarettes and laying out his playing cards and changing world history without a care for democratic accountability.  But something in his background made him the perfect actor for south African peace.  A childhood in Algeria during the civil war powerfully taught him that a white minority cannot control a native majority forever, and that if unprepared, the end of the regime can be deeply traumatic and violent. With that in mind, he wanted to broker an end to apartheid that was more peaceful than the Algerian civil war, but to do so, he had to essentially broker peace in the entire region.

Why? Because, as this documentary so concisely and clearly explains, this was the height of the Cold War - with the neighbouring state Angola torn apart by civil war - the government backed by Castro, and the rebels backed by South Africa and the USA.  While South Africa was embroiled in a foreign war she would not focus on domestic peace.  And so began a period of intense shuttle diplomacy in the 1980s, often at Jean-Yves' own expense. He would charter planes and pay court to the regional leaders, dealing with officials from Cuba and the USA, trying to win their trust, establish his own credibility, and come to some kind of mutually beneficial agreement.  The result was a massive prisoner exchange in 1987; the withdrawal of both US, South African and Cuban troops from Angola in the Brazzaville Protocol of 1988; the independence of Namibia; and finally the intense negotiations with Pik Botha and the African regional leaders to bring apartheid to a close. These talks fatally undermined PW Botha - the prime minister - ushering in FW DeKlerk who then could negotiate with Mandela. Thus Monsieur Jacques set the dominoes in motion that ended apartheid.

PLOT FOR PEACE tells this story with energy, excitement and occasional flashes of great humour.  It's a tale full of rogues and villains - colourful characters with great power and greater egos - negotiations that can be undercut by capriciousness - but that can succeed when great men realise their place in history is at stake.  I was shocked at how pivotal Jean-Yves Ollivier was to ending apartheid and indeed civil war in the region and surprised at his total honesty as to his own motives - indeed the candour off all the interviewees. And boy, what access! We hear from everyone from Pik Botha to Winnie Mandela to the Cuban and US policymakers.  Kudos to the film-makers for putting it all together.

PLOT FOR PEACE opened in Spain and France last year and opens in the UK on March 24t on demand on DVD.  It has a running time of 83 minutes and is rated 12A in the UK. 

Thursday, March 06, 2014


300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE is a highly enjoyable trashy ancient history action romp with a far better technical and historical pedigree than one might, at first, believe.  Rather than a straightforward sequel, the story of this film envelopes and gives context to the narrower, purer story of the original film. In that movie, we see King Leonidas of Sparta lead his personal bodyguard of 300 men to the hot gates, only to be betrayed by a hunchback to their deaths at the hands of the Persians. As this  movie opens we see Spartan Queen Gorga (Lena Headey) sailing with her men into battle, and recounting the back story of those events.  She takes us back to the Battle of Marathon when the Athenian general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton - ANIMAL KINGDOM) - killed Darius I, inspiring the anger of his son Xerxes that manifested itself in the current Persian wars.  Gorga tells us of how her husband was killed (the events of the first movie) and the bulk of the action sees the simultaneous sea battles with Themistocles pitted against Xerxes' navy - commanded by his female commander Artemesia (the always brilliantly bonkers Eva Green.)  There's a lot of awesome tactical stuff, some ludicrously gory battles, and a stupidly over the top sex scene between the two opposing commanders. (Because - well - just because).  And then finally we get the Battle of Salamis, where after the death of Leonidas, Sparta finally joins its ships to the Greek alliance.  (If you think that's a spoiler, it's bloody 2500 year old history!)

There's a lot to like here.  The battles and tactics are all mostly accurate and the aerial shots mean that even in the midst of all the OTT video-game style violence you still have a clear idea of what's going on.  The acting isn't bad - certainly not as bad as Gerard Butler's Scots inflected "THIS IS SPARTAAAA!" and the style is exactly the hyper-stylised Zack Snyder style of the original, albeit directed by Noam Munro (SMART PEOPLE).  I really loved the way the movie was written, with a lot of back story handled deftly and the nice enveloping of the original movie. All in all, it just felt like an awesome live action version of Total War.

As to the actual history,  the basic outline of the story is true.  There really was a war that united the Greek city states against the Persian empire, and Themistocles really was the leading Athenian politician who commanded the navy, although that post technically went to a Spartan called Eurybides who doesn't appear in the movie.  The Spartans really didn't believe in democracy but united against a common enemy, although in fact they only supplied 16 ships against the Athenians' 180.  The battle tactics we see are mostly true - particularly the awesome battle where the Greeks lure the Persians into a narrow inlet where the size of their fleet works against them.  It is, sadly, unlikely that Queen Gorgo led the Spartans into battle, but Artemesia really was the leading Persian naval commander, and highly influential on Xerxes. She was a skilled tactician, foresaw that Xerxes should have invaded Greece by land rather than sea, but didn't die in battle. Nor was she a gang-raped slave. Rather she was Queen Regent of a Persian client state.

Which neatly brings us to the issue of alleged misogyny. On that subject it has to be admitted that we only have to wait a few minutes before we get a gratuitous boob shot, but set against that so much of 300 is about the objectification of male bodies - so much so that one might declare this a camp classic.  Admittedly, the decision to make Artemesia a sexual slave in order to motivate her vengeance is questionable, as is the fetishisation of her blood lust.  On the other hand, in the pivotal sex scene with Themistocles, when he attempts to take her from behind she turns the tables on him.  Still, I guess there is a problem with the fact that she ultimately dies (all strong women must be punished) - then again, Queen Gorga leads her troops into battle.  So, overall, 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE has far more slippery politics than one might expect, and it's also the case that we have a sword-swinging action movie where the two most recognizable stars - both of whom go into battle - are women!

In other words, this may well be the first movie franchise that has gone so far round the circle of misogyny that it's actually come back out as proto-feminist.  But maybe I'm just over thinking it!

300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE went on global release on the weekend of March 7th. It has a running time of 102 minutes and is rated R in the USA and 15 in the UK for strong bloody violence, strong sex and sexual violence.