Sunday, December 25, 2005

BLUFFMASTER - Slick Indian remake of Nine Queens/The Game

BLUFFMASTER is a beautifully shot and cleverly constructed Indian movie that tells the tale of a conman operating in Bombay. Should you watch it? Only if you haven't seen any of the following flicks: the 1963 original; Nueve Reinas; Criminal; Ocean's Eleven; Matchstick Men; Snatch or The Game. Let me break it down for you:

borrows its title from the 1963 movie starring Shami Kapoor. The original bluffmaster also featured a conman undone by his love of a good woman but there the similarities end. The plot of Rohan Sippy's movie is stolen alost entirely from Fabian Bielinsky's superb 2000 flick, NUEVE REINAS, later remade in typical half-assed fashion as CRIMINAL for all those Yanks that can't read subtitles. Of course, all Bollywood movies have to have a happy ending, so about 2 hours into this caper we flip into David Fincher's outstanding 1997 flick, THE GAME. Being a Bollywood movie, we also have four musical numbers which are all shot in the manner of MTV videos. The music and the photography are a mish-mash of Will Smith's "Switch" and "Mambo number 5". I especially like the lead actor, Abhishek Bachchan, dressed up in a flat cap and sheep-skin jacket, a la Arthur Daley, rapping in the main song. About as hard as Fifty Cent.

I have to say that it is pretty ironic that a movie about the immorality of theft should be so thoroughly lifted from so many other cinematic greats. With a pedigree like that, it's not surprising that we have a good end-product! And all kidding aside, if you haven't seen the Hollywood originals, this really is a good movie. However, my enjoyment was definitely impaired, not only because I knew all the plot twists, but also because this sort of blatant ripoff leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It's not that there is any crime in remaking a Hollywood movie - Hollywood cannibalises its own back catalogue often enough - but there is surely some ethical, if not legal, obligation to credit the originator. Moreover, young directors like Rohan Sippy will surely only make truly great movies when they move away from homage/pastiche/plagiarism/whatever and into telling new and original stories.

BLUFFMASTER was released in India, the UK and US on the 16th December 2005.

Monday, December 19, 2005

THE FAMILY STONE - great cast, shame about the script

THE FAMILY STONE is a film that is less than the sum of its parts. Despite having a great cast and moments of compelling drama and kooky comedy, it never manages to combine these elements into a coherent and involving whole. The movie is an out-and-out sentimental Christmas family movie, that has ambitions beyond its stature. But first, let's start with the comedy set-up. Dermot Mulroney plays a stand-up guy who comes from the most politically correct family on the face of the planet. Mama Stone, played by the luminous Diane Keaton, has a whole bunch of kids, including a deaf gay son who is dating a coloured guy; a stoner son who edits documentary film (Luke Wilson); the aforementioned stand-up guy; a pregnant "rock of the family" daughter; and another kooky irritable daughter played by Rachel McAdams. On the Christmas in question Dermot Mulroney brings home his uptight Wall Street girlfriend played by Sarah Jessica Parker. The family - who pride themselves on being non-judgmental, liberal, anything-goes people - immediately turn on her. They are judgmental and mean, forcing her to flee to the local motel and call her sister as back up. The kid sister, played by Claire Danes, fits in fine, of course, creating even more tension. The film plays out from here in a fairly predictable manner. Opposites attract, pot saves the day, and by the end of the movie no real lessons have been learned. People are still as judgmental. For me, the real failing of the movie is its inability to handle the marked changes in tone of the dramatic and comedic moments. We go through scenes where the Sarah Jessica Parker character really bares her soul and her insecurities. To SJP's credit, I really felt for her. And then, a blink of an eye later, we are meant to laugh at slapstick comedy which includes, I kid you not, people slipping up on spilt pudding. Some films can get away with this change of mood and are the stronger for it. But here, it simply feels clumsy. So, all in all, a deeply disappointing movie. What a waste of a great cast!

THE FAMILY STONE went on release in the UK, US, France and Germany on the 15th December 2005. It goes on release in France on the 28th December 2005.

Friday, December 16, 2005

KING KONG - 90 minutes stupendous boredom, 90 minutes cinematic genius

You should definitely see KING KONG and, if at all possible, you should see it on the big screen because it is one of the most beautiful and brilliant love stories ever photographed. However, you should be sure to take a lot of food and a discrete video gaming console for the first ninety minutes which, super visuals aside, suck ass. Let me explain.

00:01. The movie opens in 1930s New York. It is the Great Depression and there are people who have - the rich movie producers who only care if a movie contains boobies - and the havenots - notably the renegade film-maker Denham and our heroine, out-of-work actress Ann Darrow. People wear snazzy clothes and speak in declamatory statements that end in exclamation marks. ("You mean the world to me!" "He died for what he believed in!" "He never met his mother" "Noooooooooooooooooooooooh!" etc.)

00:30. Ann takes a chance on a renegade film production. The Orson Welles-like egomaniacal film director has hijacked a boat and camera crew and is a bound for the uncharted "Skull Island". The captain is spoooooooooky and there are lots of stupid B-movie film tricks, like creeeepy music, and Extreme Close Ups of Jack Black's crazy eyebrows.

01:00. We get to the spoooooky island. It's all a bit Scooby Doo, especially when the locals arrive in grass skirts and spears. Mean locals kidnap lovely Ann and sacrifice her to Kong; film crew go to the rescue shooting awesome footage along the way. Bina007 would not, at this point, be surprised to see Oompa Loompas.

01:30. Movie flips into absolutely convincing and genuinely heart-breaking love story between hot chick and large ape. Thanks to CGI, ape has all the warmth and facial expressions of Gollum a.k.a British thesp. Andy Serkis. Naomi Watts, the fanastically talented actress who rose to prominence in the wonderful David Lynch flick, MULLHOLLAND DRIVE, gives Ann Darrow real warmth and credibility. Despite the clear absurdity of the match, the audience finds itself rooting for the ultimate Odd Couple.

01:40. Skip back to stupid-ass dinosaur scenes. They look awesome, but advance the plot not one iota. Peter Jackson feels very happy with himself for having topped Jurassic Park but to what end? Jackson could have dropped these scenes, saved me half an hour and his production company $50 million. Only slight plus point is crew member's gruesome death by evil giant sucking slug thing.

02:15. Back to New York, where the captive Kong is put on show by the eeeeeeevil Denham. Kong escapes, shares quality time with girlfriend atop Empire State Building, airforce intervenes.

02:53. Jack Black, alleged comedian and actor playing evil director Denham, massacres one of the most iconic lines in movie history: "Well there you have it: beauty killed the beast."
02:55. Credits roll.
03:10. Credits end.

KING KONG went on global release yesterday.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

GOLDEN GLOBES PREVIEW - Who should win and who will win

Brokeback Mountain
will win. A History of Violence should win. The Constant Gardener and Good Night and Good Luck are worthy movies nominated for no good reason. Match Point is a great film but Hollywood doesn't give awards to people who a) aren't photogenic b)don't turn up and c)marry their adoptive daughters. Conspicuous by its absence is Spielberg's controversial new movie, Munich.

The Producers will win, continuing its runaway Broadway success. Walk the Line should win BEST DRAMA! Pride and Prejudice and Mrs. Henderson presents should be nowhere near this list, they are so bloody mediocre.

BEST ACTOR (DRAMA) - should and will go to Philip Seyour Hoffman for Capote, but could go to Heath Ledger for Brokeback Mountain. Terrence Howard is great in Hustle and Flow, but this year the competition is tough. BEST ACTRESS (DRAMA) - should go to Maria Bello for A History of Violence but will go to the more marketable Charlize Theron for North Country. Gwyneth Paltrow should never have been nominated for Proof, in which she was insipid, unconvincing and unengaging.

BEST ACTOR (COMEDY/MUSICAL) Nathan Lane should and will get it for The Producers, but Joaquin Phoenix should get Best Actor Drama for Walk the Line. The rest of the contenders are pants.
BEST ACTRESS (COMEDY/MUSICAL) should go to Reese Witherspoon, again for Walk the Line which is in the wrong freakin' category! The award will no doubt go to Keira Knightley for Pride and Prejudice and I will kill myself.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR will go to Will Ferrell for The Producers - a cruel Papageno effect as the award should go to George Clooney for Syriana.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS should go to Scarlett Johansson for Match Point, but will go to Michelle Williams for Brokeback Mountain. That In Her Shoes is nominated for anything is a travesty.

BEST DIRECTOR and SCREENPLAY will and should go to Brokeback Mountain, but it is sad for Woody Allen, as Match Point is just as good. It would be unusual for Spielberg to get an award for Munich when the film has received so few other nominations. If he wins, it is a sympathy vote. BEST FOREIGN FILM should and may well go to KUNG FU HUSTLE, by far the best film of 2005 and the best film on any nomination list.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

MARCH OF THE PENGUINS - not a patch on Attenborough

There is not a whole lot I want to say about this documentary. It shows a bunch of Emperor penguins making the annual migration to Antartica where they mate. That's it. The penguins look cute. The scenery looks majestic. The cinematography is worth a look alone. However, you do have to contend with a ridiculous narration from Morgan Freeman which ascribes all sorts of human emotions to the penguins. This will jar to British audiences raised on a diet of scrupulously scientific natural history programmes by Sir David Attenborough. So on that level, while it succeeds as a visual spectacle, THE MARCH OF THE PENGUINS fails as a documentary.

As a side issue, THE MARCH OF THE PENGUINS has become the second-highest grossing documentary in US history after FAHRENHEIT 9-11. This is largely because a bunch of American Christian critics thinks that the movie underlines the divine hand in creation and the need to get back to fundamentally Christian values like monogamy and raising your kids. I have no problem with people reading messages onto movies, but I would just like to point out that being a responsible parent is not a uniquely Christian, or even religious, virtue. Moreover, penguins can also be gay.

THE MARCH OF THE PENGUINS is on general worldwide release.

CRYING FIST - Searing South Korean drama

CRYING FIST is the latest movie from Seung-wan Ryoo, the South Korean movie director who brought us ARAHAN. ARAHAN is a really great post-modern martial arts film - mixing hyper-real action sequences with MTV dialogue and a healthy dose of slapstick.

By contrast, CRYING FIST is a dead serious, straight-up drama telling the story of two men who are in hopeless situations. One is a 43 year old ex-amateur boxer. He is in debt and a loveless marriage, and when his wife kicks him out he is reduced to fighting people in the street for cash. The second man is a young punk who learns to box in prison. He has a lot of aggression, little technical skill, and something to prove to his family. Both lead actors play against type in this film. The ageing boxer is none other than conflicted killer, Mr. OLDBOY, a.ka. actor Choi Min-Sik, who also appears as the nasty Mr. Beak in LADY VENGEANCE. The young punk is played by Seung-Beom Ryoo, the gormless hero from Arahan and the director's kid brother.

The first 90 minutes of the movie show these two men being degraded and defeated. It is painful to watch but compelling all the same - like watching a car crash in slow motion. There is no sentimentality, no deeper message, no sweeping orchestral score as in Ron Howard's CINDERELLA MAN.

In the final half hour, the two men meet in a boxing tournament. The fights are well choreographed but are shot with none of the balletic artistry of RAGING BULL. The director is very clear in communicating his belief that boxing is a nasty, ugly, painful thing to submit yourself to. To my mind, this is not a film arguing that redemption comes through boxing. Rather, the tragedy of these men is that they have so little hope, that boxing seems to them a redemption. The lack of a rip-roaring ROCKY-style final match has been criticised. But I think that it is a strength of the film that there is no good-guy facing off against a bad-guy. We have seen both of these guys treated like shit and want to see them both win. That is what makes the final scenes so engaging.

Overall, this is a movie that I admired more than enjoyed. It was a brave move for the director to steer away from cartoon kung-fu to straight-up boxing drama. It was an unusual move to have us sympathise with both of the protagonists. I found the relentless misery of the first 90 minutes a bit hard to take - but without them I would not have felt the full impact of the final 30 minutes. So I would recommend this movie, but be warned. It is a hard slog.

CRYING FIST was shown at Cannes in May where it won the Critics Prize for Best Film. It is currently on release in Hong Kong and the UK. There is no scheduled release date for Continental Europe or the US.

Friday, December 09, 2005


When I went to the first instalment of The Chronicles of Narnia last night, one of the trailers was for the Gulf War flick, Jarhead. In the trailer, a character said to a new recruit, "Welcome to the suck." It's not a particularly witty line, but it worked all too well as a prelude to one of the most disappointing blockbusters of the year. However, before I go on with my review let me, in fairness, point out that I seem to be in the minority. All the famous critics have given it two enthusiastic thumbs up. 

THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE is based upon the famous novel by C.S. Lewis. It tells the story of four children who are evacuated from London during the Second World War. While playing a game of hide and seek in their new country home, they stumble through the back of a wardrobe into another world called Narnia. Narnia is governed by the evil White Witch who has made it permanently winter, but never Christmas. The children go into battle against her aided by the rightful king of Narnia, the aforementioned lion, Aslan. 

So what's there to like? The child actors are all decent and the youngest is almost winning. Their English middle-class reaction to the bizarre events is very funny. When told he must lead an army into battle, the eldest child, Peter, points out that they "aren't heroes." His sister Susan follows up, "we're from Finchley". Similarly, the children are helped out by a very funny married couple who happen to be beavers. (I kid you not.) Mr. Beaver is a perfectly rendered Cockney cab driver. Superbly funny, but one wonders how far this humour will travel outside of England. 

Unfortunately, the Suckfest begins where the intentional humour ends. Where to begin? The set design looks clunky and has none of the depth of design as those used in THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Everything is rendered in simplistic primary colours and looks like drawings out of a colouring book. This serves to undermine the emotions we are meant to feel in the battle scenes. How can I take seriously the possibility that the kids might die in battle when they are walking around in ten-dollar rented knight costumes? In the final scene where we see the kids grown-up, the costume designer has seen fit to give the lads bouffant 1970s Bee-Gee hair-dos and droopy moustaches. This, as well as the surfer-dude Californians accents used by the talking horses, raised a mocking titter from the London audience.

The special effects are also distinctly poor, not least when you consider that Disney spent $150m on the film. At one point, as the kids stand against a background of a country scene, you can see them outlined in black where the foreground images have been "cut and pasted" onto the background. The score is also mis-judged. Instead of a traditional orchestra-based score we get some new-fangled semi-Enya semi-club music score that jars horribly. The costumes are also pretty crappy. 

The more well-known actors are are mishandled. The usually brilliant Jim Broadbent as Professor Kirke (kirke=church, geddit?!) has little scope to impress given the script-limitations and largely sleep-walks through his part. Worst of all, Tilda Swinton is not at all awe-inpiring as the White Witch. She is neither fearsome in battle nor charming in seduction. What a waste. The only vaguely interesting portrayal is given by James McAvoy as Mr Tumnus. 

However, the biggest problem with this movie has nothing to do with errors in the cinematic process but derives from the source material. The kicker to the Narnia stories is that much of this boys-own adventure material is a clunky allegory for the New Testament story. To be sure, Disney has played this aspect up for all it's worth in its effort to target the American fundamentalist segment of the market, but the fault lies squarely in the source material. Don't get me wrong. I have no objection to religious themes and concepts in film, but in this film the blindingly obvious symbolism suffocates any enjoyment one might have taken from the whimsical fantasy world. The cinema audience wants to feel out the story for itself, not have the Giant Director in the Sky join the dots for them.

The more I think about this movie the more angry I get at Hollywood's seeming inability to move off-formula and finance some interesting cinema. This flick is nothing more than a shameless attempt to cash in on the religious market in the wake of the huge success of Mel Gibson's THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST and the fantasy market on the back of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. The fact that such a formulaic, derivative piece of crap was directed by the guy who made SHREK is even more lamentable. The sad part is that the studio will no doubt be proved right. The reviews are fantastic and we await the opening weekend gross with interest. Is this the movie that saves Disney from a year of flops? You, the cash-paying cinema-goer can decide.

THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE goes on general release in the US, UK, Germany and Austria today. It opens in France on the 21st December 2005.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Christmas movies suck, but egg nog makes it all better

Today, we take a break from normal programming as Bina007 finds herself unable to sit through another saccharine, manipulative, pile of poo Christmas movie. Christmas movies suck and if you don't believe me try watching the god-awful Susan Sarandon flick, Noel, or the even worse Arnie vehicle, Jingle All the Way, without vomiting over the kid sitting next to you.

However, I am all about Christmas, and in an attempt to redress the balance, here is my recipe for highly toxic Egg Nog. Not only is it guaranteed to make you feel super-happy, if you are forced to watch some disgusting festive movie starring Ben Affleck, at least you won't remember any of it the next day.

Take 4 eggs and split the whites from the yolks. Whisk the whites till stiff. Whisk the yolks with half a cup of sugar. Fold the yolks into the whites along with 1 1/2 cups milk and half a cup of double cream. Finally fold in a cup of rum and a cup of brandy . Sprinkle with nutmeg

This should make 8 cups if you are sharing with friends or enough to get you paralytic enough to watch The Sound of Music for the seven hundredth time.

Share and Enjoy! (Ideally while watching the anti-Christmas movie, BAD SANTA, released last week on Region 2 DVD.)

Sunday, December 04, 2005

WHERE THE TRUTH LIES - sleazy thriller, no more, no less

Expectations run high for WHERE THE TRUTH LIES. It is directed by that darling of the Indie scene, Atom Egoyan and stars Colin Firth (the original and best Mr. Darcy) and Kevin Bacon, who dazzled me with his sympathetic portrayal of a paedophile in THE WOODSMAN last year. In addition, the love interest is "rising star" Alison Lohman, last seen with Nic Cage in MATCHSTICK MEN. Not only are the cast and crew high quality but the director's aim is grand. Atom Egoyan has attempted to create an old fashioned film noir - those wonderful 1940s movies that were intricately plotted movies with tough guys, wicked women, murders, incest, theft and glamour. Re-creating that kind of ethereal, dangerous mood is difficult in these days of colour film and special effects but a few movies have pulled it off with great success, not least the superb L.A CONFIDENTIAL. WHERE THE TRUTH LIES is nowhere near as successful but neither is it a bad film.

The plot centres around a 1950s comedy double-act in the style of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Colin Firth plays the straight man and Kevin Bacon his comedy stooge. They live the "Frat pack" lifestyle to the max - hot chicks, fast cars, alcohol, hotel rooms. However, when an actress is found dead in their bath-tub it all goes wrong. Fast forward to the 1970s when a young ambitious reporter tries to unravel the hushed-up scandal.

The plot synopsis makes the movie sound a lot more interesting than it really is. At heart, it is just another sleazy erotic thriller. There is nothing wrong with that but it seems a bit of a waste of effort for Egoyan and his cast to come up with something so one-dimensional. Sad to say that in years to come, if this movie is remembered at all, it will be as a footnote in film school text books on censorship. Thanks to a menage a trois between Colin Firth, Kevin Bacon and Rachel Blanchard, featuring lots of "thrusting" the movie received the rarely used NC 17 rating in the US, limiting its ability to earn back its budget.
WHERE THE TRUTH LIES is already on limited release in the US and the UK. It goes on release in France on the 21st December 2005 and in Germany on the 2nd February 2006.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

DOOM - Why outsource the blowing up of shit?

DOOM is a decent first person shooter video game that has been, for reasons unclear to much of the Western hemisphere, transformed at great expense into one of the most pointless movies ever made. Pointless because seeing The Rock blow shit up is clearly less satisfying than blowing shit up yourself, especially given the fact that the graphics in most video games are better than the CGI effects we get here. Admittedly, if the screenwriters had actually bothered to give the movie a plot or decent characters, it could have been a more satisfying entertainment experience than playing the game itself. But they haven't so it isn't. 

There are four very slight redeeming features to this movie. 1. Guys get to see the blonde Bond girl from "Die Another Day" run around a lot. 2. Girls get to see Eomer from Lord of the Rings open a can of whoopass. 3. We also have the nostalgia trip of seeing that cheeky Yank from kids TV show The Press Gang playing a character called Pinky. 4. Oh yes, and let me not understate the unintentional comedy value of seeing The Rock lovingly handle his "big gun." 

DOOM went on general release in the US in October where it failed to make even half of its budget before dropping down the charts. Since then it has failed to earn money in Germany and France. It opened in the UK yesterday and I trust that the Great British Public will also consign it to the trashcan of shame.

Friday, December 02, 2005

LOWER CITY - a Brazilian tale of corrosive passion

I guess it is not particularly original to make a movie about how a beautiful woman can corrode male friendship, but LOWER CITY takes this hackneyed material to a higher level of brutalilty and intensity. The camerawork, acting and plot lines are not quite as searing as CITY OF GODS, but then why should they be? Instead of an epic tale, we have here a smaller character study which, compared to your average Hollywood fare, is a memorable and racy ride. The movie opens with a young, beautiful girl called Karinna. She is hitch-hiking her way to Salvador de Bahia in Brazil by whoring herself to men with boats and trucks. (The movie takes its title from the "Lower" part of that city.) Her first lift is with a couple of close friends, Deco and Naldinho and it is with these men that she will spend the rest of the film. While their first relations are commercial, as the film develops the sexual attraction and tension grows. Not least because, in the confined spaces that poverty inflicts upon these characters, two characters make love in front of another. The relationship settles into a seemingly workable menage a trois for a while, but the stability rests on a knife-edge. The boys slide into the territory of pimps, colluding in conning dumb-ass "clients" out of their money. But as the male possessive instinct is awakened and events take a turn for the worse, the movie races toward a brutal climax.

The movie is filmed on 16 mil but looks fantastic. It captures perfectly the claustrophobic small rented rooms and the seedy, heady atmosphere of sawdust bars and strip clubs. We would expect nothing less from a director - Sérgio Machado - who comes to film from a background in documentaries. Some of the most intense camerawork is of a brutal cock-fight. Animal-lovers who find this sort of thing distateful should beware, but also reassured that it is not gratuitous. The cock-fight between the black and white animals serves as a chilling metaphor for the relationship between the two male leads.

LOWER CITY showed at Cannes 2005 where it won the "award of the youth" and goes on limited release in the UK today. It opens in the US on June 16th and in France on June 28th 2006.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

FLIGHTPLAN - slick but derivative thriller

FLIGHTPLAN is a perfectly decent thriller set on board a commercial airliner. Jodie Foster plays a recently believed mother of a six-year old girl. She is flying back to the US with her dead husband in a casket in the hold. She wakes up to find her daughter missing. The only problem is that no-one believes that the daughter even boarded the plane. This sets up an interesting (if derivative) thriller: is Foster's character delusional or not? And will her frustration and anger put the flight in danger?

As I said, the movie is a well-made if conventional thriller. The production is slick and features good actors such as Peter Sarsgaard and Sean Bean, although they are not asked to strectch themselves as actors here. If you like thrillers and you don't watch that many movies, I suspect that FLIGHTPLAN will provide a good piece of entertainment. However, if you have even a cursory knowledge of cinematic classics, you will feel increasingly frustrated at the collage of other - better - movies.

FLIGHTPLAN is on global release.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS an offering for the export market

MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS is a bit of harmless fluff based on a true story that one suspects is somewhat more gritty. It is World War Two and those nasty nasty Huns are dropping bombs on London. How are we to keep up our morale? Why, by making a nice strong cup of tea and taking our clothes off! Spiffing. Mrs Henderson, Judi Dench in self-parody mode, is a rich aristo. widow who buys Soho's Windmill Theatre only to discover that there is little cash in serious plays. So she decides to bring French style buck-naked Vaudeville to the West End. The Lord Chancellor is a bit concerned, but Mrs. Henderson cunningly points out that if the naked girls stand still, rather than jiggling their proverbial "bits", then it is ART not SMUT.This is in essence the entire movie. Nice English girls get kit off. The only other point of note is that Bob Hoskins gets his kit off. However, I am hard pressed to discover what kind of audience THAT prospect would attract to the movie theatre.

This is a harmless, eccentric and mildly amusing film about harmless, eccentric and mildly amusing Brits and I imagine that it is designed largely for the export/costume drama market. Don't look for any deep insight about living in London in the Blitz or about landmark legal decisions on freedom of expression. Like a nice cup of tea, it is vaguely warming and heartening, but the effects wear off after about 10 minutes.

MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS went on general release in the UK on the 25th November 2005. It goes on limited release in New York and LA on the 9th December and on limited general release on Christmas Day. It hits France on the 6th January and Germany unaccountably late on the 23rd March 2006.

THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE - Fails both as a horror flick and as a legal thriller

Let me set out my stall. I am a big girl when it comes to horror movies. Harry Potter 4 scared me silly. So when I say that THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE failed as a horror movie, you can take it from me that this is not because I am some hard-core fan of blood, gore and severed limbs. The set pieces in this flick had the audience in the screening laughing. I wasn't scared one bit. And that is a bit of a structural flaw for a movie with the word "exorcism" in its title.

So, horror aside, what can we salvage from this movie? Well, aside from all the spooooooooky stuff, we have the remains of a half-decent legal thriller. Emily Rose is a devout Catholic teenager who believes herself possessed by demons. Her university medical practitioners believe her to be suffering from epileptic fits and psychosis and put her on medication. However her family and her parish priest believe her to be possessed and attempt an exorcism. The rite fails and Emily dies. At this point, the priest, played without any sense of emotion or conviction by the usually superb Tom Wilkinson, is taken to court on charges of criminal negligence. According to the prosecution, he should have called in the doctors rather than resort to superstitious mumbo-jumbo. There follows a typically melo-dramatic American court-room drama, with Laura Linney on auto-pilot as the defence attorney. The moment when the prosecutor calls an "objection on the grounds of silliness" is truly the low point of the movie.

I was rather disappointed by THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE. The movie appears to have been filmed without any sense of passion or intellectual engagement with what could have been a very interesting topic: how far can modern people, even religious people, really take the existence of demons and the like seriously? Apparently a German production based on the same true story is due for release next year, and it will be interesting to see if they can bring a greater degree of authenticity and credibility to the project. Until then, if you think you're hard enough, you'd be better off renting

THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE went on release in the US in September and in the UK and Germany last weekend. It goes on release in France on the 7th December 2005.

Monday, November 28, 2005

MAD HOT BALLROOM - A wonderful, genuinely "feel good" movie

Here's yet another great movie to come out of this year's Sundance Film Festival, although I have to confess that it completely slipped under my radar. So first of all, let me give big mad props to that audacious fellow, Swedish Philip, for the "hot tip". I am really happy to be able to pass on the tip - MAD HOT BALLROOM is glorious piece of work and I strongly recommend it, if only for the fact that it is a very rare thing in Hollywood - a genuine example of a feel-good movie.

So, on to the nuts and bolts: MAD HOT BALLROOM is a documentary film about a bunch of eleven-year olds from deprived backgrounds in New York City. Many of them are on track for teenage pregnancies and a career in petty crime, and it is heart-breaking to see them speak with such candour and wisdom about drug dealers, adultery and shattered families.

However, this is not a downbeat documentary. In fact, it is one of the most relentlessly upbeat films I have seen all year, but not in an annoying, manipulative, sacharine way. The big heart of this movie stems from two things. First, a lot of the warmth derives from the sheer brilliance of the children on which it focuses. They have wonderful and winning personalities and their musings on life, love and the opposite sex are often unintentionally hysterical. In particular, the little kid on the left in the photo above cracked me up, especially when he got paired up with a ridiculously tall girl at dance class - "She was practically an adult!" he complains, before running away as fast as he can. And then there is a really cool kid called Cyrus who is truly the Zen master of the eleventh grade with a righteous ginger 'fro. Believe me, I don't normally find kids "cute". I am not a warm and cuddly person. And even *I* found this kids charming!

The second reason why this is such a "feel good" movie is that we are witness to a little miracle at work. A group of Latin American ballroom dance teachers have gotten together to run in-school dance classes in around 60 public schools in New York City. The programme runs for 10 weeks and is a complusary part of the school curriculum so even the toughest kids have to take part. At first, the boys are reluctant to dance and the girls think the boys are dumb, but sure enough they start to respond to the attention they are getting from perhaps the only male role models in their lives as well as the joy of dancing itself. The lessons go way beyond how to tango. The kids are learning how to be a partner to someone, how to tuck their shirt in, how to make eye contact, how to have some self-respect. You watch these teachers at work and feel very humble about whatever money-grubbing day-job you happen to be in. And believe me, I don't often get pangs of guilt about my own self-indulgent lifestyle. (You will be pleased to know that they have since passed.)

So what more can I say? It's a film that made me like kids and respect people who choose to earn minimum wage. I call that something of an epiphany. Go check it out, and if you need a second opinion, check out my mate Nik's blog

MAD HOT BALLROOM was released in the US in May, in France and Germany on the 25th October and in the UK and Austria on the 26th November 2005. It is already available on region 1 DVD

Monday, November 21, 2005

FACTOTUM & THE LIBERTINE - people get drunk

FACTOTUM: Matt Dillon plays beat-poet Charles Bukowski, gets drunk and is boring

THE LIBERTINE: Johnny Depp plays plays 17th-century-poet The Earl of Rochester, gets drunk, gets syphillis and is modestly interesting.

FACTOTUM and THE LIBERTINE are on nationwide release in the UK. FACTOTUM goes on release in France on the 23rd November, in Germany on the 8th December and in the US on the 24th February 2006. THE LIBERTINE goes on release in the US on the 13th January and in France on the 25th January.

P.S. 12th July 2006. FACTOTUM is now out on DVD and Bugsy asked for a longer review. We here at Bina007 Movie Reviews are all about value, so here it is. FACTOTUM: Matt Dillon plays a guy who resembles beat poet Charles Bukowski. He gets drunk, works a series of dead-end jobs, bets on the gee-gees, fucks two different women, gets nagged by his folks, gets crabs and is boring.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

HARRY POTTER & THE GOBLET OF FIRE - a lesser movie than the sum of its parts

The new HARRY POTTER movie is a decent enough 2 and a half hour version of the novel and if you like the novel no doubt there is some charm in seeing it up on screen. It is fun to see Harry nervously asking out Cho Chang and to finally catch a glipse of evil Lord Voldemort. But if you are not a fan of the books you will probably be bored by the unrelenting gloom of the surroundings and the uncomfortable mix of a corny high school romance and a far darker gothic thriller. This strange mix of the cute and innocent and the far grittier core story is, of course, evident in the book itself. But over a sprawling mass of 600 odd pages each strand has a bit more room to breathe and the contradictions are not so evident. In the movie, the mood swings jar. Most notably, in the penultimate scene we have the long-awaited clash between Voldemort and Harry. Nasty things happen and they are shot with authenticity and acted with conviction. When Harry emerges from this harrowing encounter we feel that he has been through something that is literally terrible. But he emerges into the cute Olde Worlde Hogwarts, with cute friends, kindly wizards and floppy scarves. This return to Enid-Blyton-land subverts the preceeding emotional intensity.

Overall, this is a good movie in its parts. It is well acted, well shot and while I found it over-long it is hard to see where the editor and screen-writer could have cut it down without losing key plot points. But put together I find the tension between the two story strands untenable. Presumably this tension will only get worse in the next two movies as the body count increases. This raises the key question of how suitable and indeed enoyable a movie this will be for kids. The classic horror movie tropes are all in evidence, and as the kids get stuck in a vicious maze at the end, I half expected Jack Nicholson to come bounding out with an axe. More practically, 2 and a half hours is a long time for kids to sit still. The movie has been given a 12A certificate which puts the responsibility with parents to decide if their under-12s are up to it. I would advise extreme caution.

HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE went on global release yesterday.

DiG! - Spinal Tap for real

DiG! is a rockumentary shot by a chick called Ondi Timoner about two up-coming Indie rock bands - The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. Since then, The Dandy Warhols have achieved a certain fame, not least in the UK when Channel 4 TV used their song "Bohemian Like You" as the sound-track for all their advertisments. By contrast, The Brian Jonestown Massacre have slipped back into obscurity and the festival circuit thanks to a combination of over-weening ambition and a raging narcotics habit. Naturally, the BJM feel a bit hard done-by as they are arguably better band and came up with the whole "let's conquer the industry" project in the first place.

DiG! is a great movie for anyone interested in how art meets industry. In a moment of lucidity one of the band members notes that "The record company says they are about fashioning a career and not about hits, but if you don't have a hit, they don't give a f*ck about your career." But I think that DiG! will appeal to a wider audience that just wants to laugh at the egotistical excesses of others. There is a lot of hysterical footage where each band stakes its claim to God-like status, and a whole bunch of beating each other up on stage, RAMONES-stylee. For myself, as a greedy capitalist bastard, there is nothing funnier than seeing a bunch of peace-lovin', sitar-playin', kaftan-wearin' hippies get violent with each other. "You broke my f*ckin' sitar man!" Pure comedy gold. There is also something delicious in seeing a man who thinks he is "starting a revolution" against "corporate America" bitching about how someone stole from him and how that is "like, completely against the law, man". Plus, you get the added bonus of seeing how ridiculous a lot of the record company A&R people are. One chick says "The Brian Jonestown Massacre are so retro. And so future" without absolutely no sense of irony.

Aside from that, cineastes have a good opportunity to see a lot of new shooting techniques in practice. The long-span of filming means that it incorporates footage on every type of new camera. Ondi shot 100 hours of black and white footage on tiny surveillance Hi-8 cameras and 800 hours of footage on digital video using Super-8, then Super-16 then Super-35 cameras. No wonder the movie took 4 years to edit down to just 2 hours of hard-hitting rock journalism.

DiG! deservedly won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2004, beating off competition from Murgon Spurlock's McDonald's expose, SUPER SIZE ME. DiG! was released in theatres in the US in Winter 2004 and in Europe in Summer 2005. It is now available on DVD and is well worth a look.

Friday, November 18, 2005

PATHS OF GLORY – Kubrick’s satiric masterpiece on the futility of war

A big part of what the British Film Institute does is preserve old films. They seek out old reels, restore them and create shiny new prints that can be played again in modern multi-plexes. The latest movie to benefit from this treatment is Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, PATHS OF GLORY. The movie is set on the French front-line in World War I and its themes are the dislocation between senior officers and front-line soldiers and the absurdity of fighting against extreme odds when the final objective is unclear. These are themes that still resonate today. Kirk Douglas, most famous as Spartacus, gives the performance of his career as Colonel Dax. Dax is a man of common sense and integrity charged with leading his men in an impossible attack on a German ant-hill. The Generals who have ordered this attack know full-well that the odds of taking the hill are slim but do not care. They are morally corrupt dandies, wearing uniforms rich in brocade - insensible to life outside their chateaux. Dax does as he is told, but when his men retreat he is forced to defend them in a corrupt court-matial.

The movie is a paragon of economy – packing profundity and absurdity into just one hour and fifteen minutes of superbly photographed celluloid. While I also admire rambling epics such as APOCALYPSE NOW and THE THIN RED LINE, it is interesting to see how much better Kubrick does in such a short space of time. Indeed, so searing is Kubrick’s attack on mindless militarism that the movie was banned in France until 1975 on the grounds that it offended France’s military honour. Similarly, the film was banned in Franco’s Spain until his death.

No self-respecting cineaste can avoid seeing this movie. Although it was made before Dr Strangelove, Lolita and The Shining, we already have the famous long tracking shots that made Kubrick famous. For instance, early on, we have a scene where Kubrick follows Dax as he walks through a narrow trench greeting all his men, and we see, close-up, the degradation of war. This shot was aped by Jean-Pierre Jeunet in his recent World War One movie, A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT. It has also influenced the fluid camera movements of film-makers like Scorsese in iconic scenes such as the entrance to the night-club in GOODFELLAS. Despite the limited budget and lack of computer-generated special effects, the battlefield scenes, shot on location oustide Munich, are truly horrific. To my mind, they have only been bettered by Spielberg in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.

So, I encourage you to see this movie, whether at the cinema in London, or on DVD. The new print does have a yellow sheen and the sound quality is rather poor, but it is great to see the film as Kubrick intended, rather than on the TV-screen format you get when watching it on DVD.

Thursday, November 17, 2005


This movie starts with all the style and cool and intensity of Tarantino at his best. Three young men on the prowl in Paris, wearing sharp black suits and skinny ties. They speak in slang and obscenities. They are negotiating how to split the money they'll make on a couple of deals. They listen to techno. They get out of their car at a run-down joint. Are they there to shoot someone? No. These are small time real estate brokers who will use any means necessary to close - whether that be beating up squatters or letting rats into a flat to reduce its sale value. The city is corrupt. The municipal council hands out permits to build at will. So they are corrupt. It is as simple as that. This casual and petty violence and callousness towards others seeps into their social lives. They get in brawls in bars, exploit women, and treat each other like so much trash. But it doesn't matter. They look good. They enjoy life. And yet. And yet. All is not well with our hero, Thomas Seyr. While his father is the king of corrupt realtors, his mother was a concert pianist. One day, on a whim, he chases after her manager and secures an audition. He badly wants to become a concert pianist too, but can he conquer the ties to his old friends, his business obligations and his own impatience and temper?

This is an emotionally searing movie. This is down to a superb supporting cast but most of all because of the breath-taking central performance of Romain Duris. He can be tender, vulnerable, physically frighteningl.... What can I say? It is a terrific performance. The movie also succeeds for two other reasons - one technical and one conceptual. On a technical level, while the director uses a lot of techniques to suggest a gritty urban environment - hand-held camera, extreme close up on half of the actors face while the background is out of focus - these techniques are not over-used to the point where they attract attention to themselves and detract from the story. The camerawork is not an obstacle here - we are permitted to empathise fully with Thomas. Conceptually, I think that the re-make has one key advantage over
the movie on which it was based. In the original, the erstwhile pianist was played by Harvey Keitel and was the son of a mafiosi. His conflict between being a gangster and a pianist was far more extreme and melo-dramatic. Here, the director, Jacques Audiard, avoids making Thomas' father a comic-book villain. Instead, he is small-time businessman who is corrupt in a mean and petty, but realistic way. The choices facing Thomas Seyr are now less extreme, but far more credible and, thus, engaging.

I love this film.

THE BEAT THAT MY HEART SKIPPED (De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté) was released over the summer in France but is not yet available on DVD. It is still playing on limited release in the US, UK, Germany and Austria.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

WALLACE AND GROMIT, THE CORPSE BRIDE and NANNY McPHEE - kids movies you can watch without feeling like a big girl

Do you remember the days when no self-respecting adult would go to the cinema to watch a kids movie without taking an actual kid? This was back when Disney had cornered the market, producing schmaltzy fairy-tales where the handsome prince rescued the virtuous girl while cute animals did comic turns. How times have changed. Now it is the done things for adults to proudly read HARRY POTTER on the metro and discuss computer games at dinner parties (or maybe that’s just me?!). And Hollywood has not been slow to cotton on to the box-office pay-dirt that is the crossover movie.

These crossover movies usually have the bright colours and simple narrative structure that are necessary to sucker in the under-tens. But they also have a sophisticated, subversive sense of humour and knowing references to current events and cultural icons. And while they started off as kids films with added bite, such as the CGI animated Shrek, they are increasingly adult films with a comic book sensibility. KUNG FU HUSTLE and ARAHAN are both live-action martial arts movies that will spawn action dolls marketed at children. Both have the sensibility of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. We’ve seen the future, and it has big ears.

All of which is a rather long-winded introduction to my review segment on kids movies. All three are flicks that you may find yourself watching at the multiplex this weekend despite the fact that you are a twenty-something professional who hasn’t been within half a mile of a kid since 1998.
So let’s kick off with the hysterically funny box office smash WALLACE AND GROMIT-CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT. Wallace and Gromit are two well-loved British clay-mation characters. Wallace is an inventor – sort of like an old, bald, love-able Inspector Gadget – and Gromit is his long-suffering side-kick who just happens to be a dog. Gromit never speaks, but like Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp, his facial expressions are side-splittingly funny.

In this, their first full-length feature, Wallace and Gromit are hired by Lady Tottington to rid her country estate of the Were-Rabbit that is ruining the garden. In the mean-time, the nasty Lord Victor Quartermaine is out to get the rabbit by less humane methods, and to marry Lady Tottington into the bargain. The humour is many-layered - slapstick comedy, sly visual jokes, British toilet humour, and spoofs of famous scenes from horror movies. In addition, the filming is superb. Though created out of clay, these characters are filmed with real cameras on real celluloid with real lighting. Believe me - this makes all the difference and this helps create one of the most visually stunning movies of the year.

Tim Burton’s THE CORPSE BRIDE is a very beautiful, charming movie but I am not sure that charm alone is enough to carry the average adult through 85 minutes of animation. The stop-motion animation looks fabulous but jokes are thin on the ground and even the running reference to the creepy actor Peter Lorre, most famous as the oleaginous Ugarte in CASABLANCA, wears thin. In fact, despite its Disney with necrophilia twist, this is a remarkably conservative movie. Boy meets girl, boy falls in live with girl, boy mistakenly marries another girl who happens to be a corpse……, they sing some jaunty songs and then it ends happily.

Next up is NANNY McPHEE, starring British luvvie, Emma Thompson (The one with Sense in SENSE AND SENSIBILITY) and Colin Firth (the *real* Mr. Darcy). Thompson plays a Nanny brought in to subdue some obnoxious kids in Sound of Music style. Every time she improves their behaviour she loses a wart. I kid you not. No self-respecting adult should go see this, and no self-respecting kid should find it funny. But NANNY McPHEE is raking in the cash, so what do I know?

WALLACE AND GROMIT and THE CORPSE BRIDE are on world-wide release. NANNY McPHEE is already on release in the UK and hits the US on the 27th January 2006 and Germany on the 9th February.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

MANDERLAY – Lars is a whole lot dumber than he thinks he is

When Lars von Trier made the movie, THE IDIOT, the advertising slogan was “You are a whole lot dumber than you think.” Well, people who live in glass houses should avoid throwing stones. But before we get to my thoughts on his latest movie, MANDERLAY, I must confess that, for the first time in my life, I actually walked out of the screening of MANDERLAY at the London Film Festival. So what follows is not a review but a “coming to terms” with why I did this. But first, some context…..

Lars von Trier is a film-maker who has consciously created a persona as a bad boy auteur who is tough to work with but produces controversial uncompromising works of art.
His need to create a high profile began from the earliest days when he inserted the “von” into his plain old name and took his first full length feature, THE ELEMENT OF CRIME to Cannes in 1985. He deservedly won the Technical Prize for the film’s amazing cinematography and the accomplished use of old-fashioned visual effects and colouring. But this was not enough for Trier who was furious not to have won the Palme d’Or and has had a difficult (and highly publicised) bad relationship with Cannes ever since. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, Trier was the master of old-fashioned (no denigration intended) film techniques and mastered every aspect of the art of cinematography. This was particularly evident in ZENTROPA, sometimes known as EUROPA, EUROPA, released in 1991. Partly filmed in black and white, Zentropa used back screen projection and all sorts of other “lost techniques” to resurrect an ethereal and sinister post-war Germany. Once again, the film won the Cannes Technical Prize, and indeed, the Jury award, but failed to get the Palme d’Or. Trier literally gave the jury the finger.

Perhaps because he was so sick of getting labelled as a technical master, or perhaps because he was just bored, in 1995 Trier got together with some other directors and came up with the DOGME school of film-making. The idea was to strip film of everything but the camera and the actor. No artificial lighting, no artificial sets, to costumes, improvised dialogue, handheld cameras, no special effects. Not a bad plan, but rather than execute it, Trier continued to film his hysterical spoof-thriller/horror TV series,
KINGDOM HOSPITAL and went off to make the superb BREAKING THE WAVES. It must have rankled when Trier’s stable-mate, Thomas Vintenberg, beat him to it and released the first and most highly acclaimed Dogme movie, FESTEN, rather stealing Trier’s thunder. The stripped down shooting style perfectly suited this story of a family anniversary party ruined by accusations of incest. This didn’t stop Trier making his own Dogme film – THE IDIOT. This was, in my opinion, less successful than Festen, and once again, as with Breaking the Waves, was nominated for, but did not win, the Palme d’Or.

So is Trier the Martin Scorsese of European cinema? No. By and large, I think the Cannes jury has correctly praised his technical skill, and usually, better films have won the Palme d’Or. Even when Trier’s most complete film
BREAKING THE WAVES lost, it was beaten by the marginally better SECRETS AND LIES from Mike Leigh. By contrast, Scorsese always loses the Best Film Oscar to terrible movies viz. the sublime GOODFELLAS losing to the abysmal DANCES WITH WOLVES in 1991. (Cue another essay on why democracy does not work when it comes to adjudicating film awards…)

So, Trier had failed to conquer Cannes with his technical masterpieces and had failed to wow the world with Dogme. So now he decided to produce
DANCER IN THE DARK, a lavish musical starring, improbably, Bjork and Catherine Deneuve. The kicker was that this was a thinly disguised critique on the capitalism, the treatment of immigrants in America and the injustice of the American legal system. Now, I absolutely love Dancer in the Dark. I do not agree with all its political points, but I do think that they are made in an intelligent and original way and most of all, they do not overwhelm the emotional heart of the story. I admire Dancer in the Dark a lot, but I also find it entertaining in part, and emotionally involving to the point of tears in others. Finally, Trier had cracked the code, and had won the Cannes Palme d’Or in 2000, beating off stiff competition from another Pantheon movie, Wong Kar Wei’s IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE.

What did Trier do next? He made too of the most polemical diatribes ever seen in a mutliplex
DOGVILLE and now MANDERLAY. Both are filmed in quasi-Dogme style. They are shot in bare studios with no set and few props. Where buildings and cars and trees should be they are marked out with masking tape on the floor. Let’s take DOGVILLE first. Nicole Kidman plays Grace, who has run away from her gangster father and is taken in by the good people of Dogville. It is the Great Depression and times are tough and the villagers soon start abusing Grace as a manual labourer and finally sexually. No doubt Trier meant this to be, as in Dancer in the Dark, an indictment of American capitalism and America’s treatment of immigrants. But to watch Dogville was like being bludgeoned over the head with an over-sized version of the Communist manifesto plated with iron. The acting performances were to be admired, as well as the sheer bloody-mindedness of the technical exercise, but there was little original or interesting in the political message. Let me once again re-iterate that I did not dislike this film because of its anti-capitalist message. I love Dancer in the Dark despite this. And if there were any further proof needed that anti-Americanism is not enough to make a movie good even in France, Trier took the film to Cannes and, for the first time ever, went home completely empty handed.

MANDERLAY has all of the political dogmatism and unsubtlety of DOGVILLE but has fewer decent acting performances to offset this. Notably, Bryce Dallas Howard, taking on the role of Grace, is a pale shadow of Nicole Kidman. This time Trier focuses his attentions of race relations and whether interfering in another regime is justified, and everyone is in the firing line. Grace stumbles on a plantation where slavery is still in effect despite the fact that it is now illegal. Should Grace intervene in affairs, and tell the slaves, indeed force the slaves, to be free? Or should, as the father suggests, they keep their noses out of other people’s business. (American foreign policy, anyone?) Grace intervenes, freeing the slaves and making the white slave owners their servants. At one point she has the former slave owners don “black face” and serve the former slaves supper.

Now, it is laudable to make a film about racial intolerance and whether it can be right to “force people to be free”. But I felt like Trier had nothing new, or powerful or interesting to say about these issues – at least in the first 80 minutes of the film. Worse still, I felt that Trier had none of the restraint shown in DOGVILLE. He was simply being shocking for the sake of it, as if to mask his lack of originality or indeed profundity with cries of horror. And isn’t making actors perform degrading acts without making any original and interesting creative or political statement in itself a form of exploitation? So I walked out. Once again, let me say that I do not object to the themes in Manderlay, or the use of some Dogme techniques, or the use of shocking imagery. I just object to the quality of the creative concept behind them. To my mind, MANDERLAY is a massive miscalculation and as crass and an offensive piece of work as you are likely to see on screen. It hurts to say that because I do admire much of Trier’s early work.

So should you see the movie? No doubt. My judgment is worthless because I could not stomach the full screening and who know what might have happened had I watched the whole movie. So please do go see MANDERLAY, and please tell me what you make of it!

MANDERLAY opened in France and Germany last week. It is scheduled for a limited release in the US on the 3rd February 2006. I’ll update the UK release date when I have it.

Monday, November 14, 2005

IN HER SHOES – mis-marketed but remarkably good

IN HER SHOES is one of the most mis-marketed movies I have ever come across. The PR seems to imply that it is going to be your usual air-head chick flick. Cute girl falls for wrong guy but nice guy is waiting in the wings or variations thereupon. Some laughs, some tears, then we all go home and forget about it. And I suppose, that one plot strand of IN HER SHOES confirms to this pattern. However, there is a lot more to the film. Indeed, IN HER SHOES is a thoughtful and perceptive drama about family. It focuses on the relationship between two sisters. The elder, Rose, is a successful lawyer who has always perceived herself to be less attractive than her younger sister. The younger sister, Maggie, is a ditzy blonde who can’t hold down a job. Although Rose’ life work has been looking out for her sister, one day Maggie does something unforgivable leading to a huge rift and some serious self-examination for each of them. Rose is brought back to life by a wonderful man; Maggie by a shrewd grandmother.

The movie is directed by Curtis Hanson, the man who brought us L.A. Confidential and 8 Mile. Hanson is a director I really admire, but in retrospect. What I mean by that is that I don’t immediately recognise a film as one of his. There is no obvious visual style or thematic tic. However, he does seem to have a talent for taking apparently straightforward genre movies and making them seem fresh and credible. If you don’t believe me, compare the taught and compelling dramatic arc of 8 MILE with the ludicrous hagiography of GET RICH OR DIE TRYIN’. Hanson manages to work that magic again with IN HER SHOES. He keeps all the insights of the novel and brings them to the screen at a pace wherein the transformation of the central characters seems neither forced nor unrealistic. He brings a lightness of touch to some very profound and difficult subject matter – mental illness, learning difficulties, sexual politics in the workplace – ultimately reconciliation with oneself and one’s family. In this endeavour, we have to thank the screenwriter but especially three very strong central performances from Toni Collette, Cameron Diaz and
Shirley Maclaine. I have to say here, that I reject the criticism from some viewers that Toni Collette is too pretty to play Rose. I agree that Toni is very attractive but the point is that she is also, to my mind, highly successful in portraying someone who perceives themselves as being unattractive.

So, I strongly recommend IN HER SHOES to all of you, especially the girls. But this isn’t a disposable chick flick or date movie: it is a well-crafted drama and deserves respect as such.

IN HER SHOES is on release in the US, Germany, Austria and the UK and hits France next week.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE - it'll do, I suppose

The story is familiar to most, but if not, here is the set up: Mr Bennet is a gentleman with a vulgar wife, no son, and hence no property to leave to his five daughters. The eldest daughter Jane is on the verge of engagement to the wealthy Mr. Bingley, when Bingley's proud best friend Mr. Darcy persuades him against such a poor match. But will Mr. Darcy be so "kind" to himself when he falls for Jane's younger sister, Lizzie?

I say that PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is a harmless and pretty film because, despite manifold failures and errors of judgement, the source material itself is so charming that, to the faithful Austen fan, there is a certain happiness in just seeing another run through. Any adaptation that keeps the famous witty repartee and chooses idyllic English country houses shot in perpetual sunshine will produce something that slides down as easily as a good up of tea. This is "heritage" cinema and as far as it goes, there is nothing wrong with that. Note also that on this point you should not be led astray by press banter from the director, Joe Wright, who claims to have "roughed up" Austen. Yes, the Bennets have geese and swine running through the back yard. But a little mud does not make this Dickens and while some characters do have sordid pasts this is all off screen. We are by no means in the realms of recent BBC adaptations of Dickens and Thackeray where all the dirt, grime, corruption and pollution is on screen. By contrast, everyone in this adaptation looks like an advert for The National Trust.

But when you look beyond the pretty gowns and carriage there is something very wrong with the mechanics of the thing. I think this is half casting and half scripting. Keira Knightley looks lovely as Lizzie Bennet and has the right sort of energy, but too often looks petulant rather than passionate. Much has been made of the fact that she is the same age as the fictional Lizzie Bennet but I, and it would appear much of England, prefers Jennifer Ehle's portrayal in the 1995 BBC adaptation. Matthew Matthew MacFadyen is similarly miscast as Mr. Darcy. He has none of the fearsome authority that would silence a ballroom ( a proposterous scene). Rosamund Pike is delightful as Jane Bennet but her Mr. Bingley is hopeless. Not that I think that this is fault of acting as much as of scripting. Poor Simon Woods is made to look a complete buffoon. Bingley is meant to be too trusting and too persuadable, but not an idiot. Against such a poor cast, it is no wonder that Tom Hollander stands out as the odious, obsequious Mr. Collins.

The other half of the problem is scripting. By this I mean that while it is not inconceivable that we should have a 2 hour PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, this is not it. In choosing what to slash and compress some wrong choices have been made. The plot strand that really suffers is Lizzie's infatuation with Mr. Wickham and her conviction that Darcy has done him wrong. I am convinced that Rupert Friend was only cast as Wickham because he looks vaguely like Orlando Bloom and he gets precious little screen time with Lizzie. As a result, we hardly understand why she should take against Darcy on his account. This undercuts the development of the relationship between Darcy and Lizzie - the very centre of the story.

Overall, then, a decent enough romp through familiar territory but hardly anything to recommend a second viewing. To be sure, it does not have the luxury of 6 hours playing time, but even in the shorter time-frame allowed more could have been made of the cast. Perhaps viewers unfamiliar with the iconic BBC adaptation will not hold this version up to that high benchmark and take this version on its own terms as a sweet, period drama. But ardent Austen fans, while thankful for any big-screen indulgence, will be disappointed.

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE was released in the UK in September and in Germany and Austria in October. It is released in the USA on the 23rd November and in France on the 28th November. A 10th anniversary DVD of the BBC production has also been released.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

THE WENDELL BAKER STORY - sweet comedy from three of the four Wilson brothers

THE WENDELL BAKER STORY is a rare find - a comedy that is both sweet and subversive. It is well acted, laugh-out loud funny, sweet without making you want to use a sick-bag and "feel good" in the good sense of the phrase.

Wendell Baker makes a living selling fake drivers licenses from a mobile home to illegal Mexican workers in Texas. When he gets out of jail he takes up a job at a retirement home where he makes friends with the residents, has to deal with a mean head nurse, and tries to get back his ex-girlfriend.

The movie has a super cast. Eva Mendes (Will Smith's squeeze in HITCH) is the woman Wendell tries to win back. The residents of the nursing home include Kris Kristoffersen ("The Blade Trilogy") and Harry Dean Stanton ("Paris, Texas"). One of the funniest scenes in the movie centres on Harry Dean Stanton, who is 80 years of age, chatting up two young chicks in a grocery store.

The movie is written by and stars Luke Wilson, perhaps most famous to multiplex movie-goers as the boyfriend, Emmett, in the "Legally Blonde" films. But when not earning the proverbial phat cash from autopilot "cute boyfriend" roles, Luke Wilson is part of the quirky comedy troupe headed by Wes Anderson, who directed "Bottle Rocket", "Rushmore", The Royal Tenenbaums and "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou". The movie also stars Luke's brother Owen and Seymour Cassell, who are also Wes Anderson regulars.

I think that THE WENDELL BAKER STORY's cast has mis-led some viewers into expecting it to be like a Wes Anderson movie. But they should remember that it is OWEN, not LUKE, Wilson who collaborates with Anderson on his screenplays. This is a very different movie. Less visually indulgent, less blackly funny, and more of a straightforward romantic comedy. Luke and Andrew Wilson (another brother and the director of the movie) should be judged on their own efforts, and while THE WENDELL BAKER STORY is not going to revolutionise the movie industry, it does make us laugh.

I don't know of any release dates for this movie, but it is doing the Festival circuit so keep an eye out...I suspect it may end up (undeservedly) in "straight to video" hell.

Friday, November 11, 2005

WALK THE LINE - All hail The Man in Black

Years from now, pretentious film students will talk about James Mangold in the same hushed tones used to discuss Kubrick and Fellini. He has, so far, given us three Hollywood movies and all three* have been intelligent, emotionally involving, with flashes of black humour. First came COPLAND, a gritty thriller about corruption and integrity in which we discovered that Sly Stallone could actually act. Next came GIRL, INTERRUPTED, a story about young women with mental illnesses, in which we discovered that Angelina Jolie could act, and for which she won her Oscar. Now we get WALK THE LINE, a biopic of country singer, dope fiend and womaniser, Johnny Cash – a movie that is heavily and deservedly tipped for Oscars.

WALK THE LINE tells the real-life story of how Johnny Cash, one of the US’ most successful recording artists, fell in love with June Carter while still in an unhappy first marriage. Cash is played by Joaquin Phoenix, one of the best actors of his generation. Phoenix manages to combine a strong physical presence with emotional vulnerability. Sometimes this is sinister, as when he plays the murderous Commodus who just wants his father’s love in “Gladiator”. In WALK THE LINE, it is heart-breaking. Here is a man whose life is spinning out of control, and the only person who can save him, June Carter, is out of reach. I can only speculate as to how painful it was for Joaquin Phoenix to play Johnny Cash. Like Cash, Phoenix watched his own beloved brother, River Phoenix, die young and has suffered with alcoholism.

But for me, the real revelation was to see Reese Witherspoon playing June Carter. Gone in the bubblegum blonde from “Cruel Intentions” and “Legally Blonde”. Here, we have a woman whose bubbly stage persona hides a core of steel. She conveys the difficulties of growing up in the public eye and conducting a private life when your so-called adoring audience want you to live up to their unreasonably high expectations.

I cannot recommend this movie highly enough. I went into the cinema knowing nothing about Johnny Cash and caring not a jot about country music. The strength of this movie is that it engages you in a long and winding real life love story that is never sentimental or easy. That the two protagonists happen to be real life highly talented musicians just adds another couple of layers to an already complex and intriguing story. It is, in short, a triumph.

WALK THE LINE is released in the US on the 18th Novmeber2005, in Germany on the 2nd February 2006, in the UK on the 3rd February and in France on the 15th February.

*I am, charitably, ignoring the schmaltzy rom-com KATE AND LEOPOLD and the derivative thriller IDENTITY. After all, even Kubrick had EYES WIDE SHUT and The Beatles had THE WHITE ALBUM.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

LORD OF WAR – “Evil prevails" but enough about ELIZABETHTOWN….

LORD OF WAR is a decent black comedy about a second-generation Ukrainian immigrant called Yuri Orlov who escapes his low-life existence in New York by becoming a gun runner. There are plenty of cracking one-liners delivered in flawless dead-pan by Nicholas Cage and just enough exposure to the surrealities of African civil wars to leave you with a bad taste in your mouth.

The movie was written and directed by Andrew Niccol, who previously brought us the outstanding sci-fi movie, “Gattica” and the haunting script of the “Truman Show”. In Gattica he coaxed Jude Law into giving his only decent acting performance to date, and he does it again with LORD OF WAR. Nicholas Cage is terrifyingly convincing as a nice guy who just wants to make a buck off the free market. I reckon this is his best performance since he won an Oscar for "Leaving Las Vegas". Niccol also has a great visual eye. The opening scene where we see the life of a bullet from manufacture to detonation, all from the bullet’s point of view, is astounding. It’s probably one of the most impressive credit sequences since “Swordfish”. Niccol also shoots a fantastic scene using time-lapse photography, where we see poor Africans asset—strip a 747.

But LORD OF WAR stops a little short of being great for the reason that this really is a script that revolves around one man, and only devotes time to his relationship with his friends and family in a cursory way. This holds back the film in a number of ways. First, the supporting roles are all under-written and waste the acting talents of Ian Holm (the Hobbit), Jared Leto (“Alexander the Great”’s boyfriend) and Ethan Hawke (the “Cop with a conscience” from “Training Day”). Second, for the film to work we have to be interested in what Yuri is up to. But this is a guy who succeeds in his occupation because he manages to shut out all the nasty aspects of his work. This sort of alienation is fascinating to watch for a while but not for 122 minutes.

So while there is a lot to recommend LORD OF WAR, and it is worth checking out, it is far from a perfect movie. If you really want to see what it is like to trade illegal goods, check out the biopic of a drug dealer named George Jung, played by Johnny Depp, in the fantastic movie “Blow”.

LORD OF WAR opened in the US in September and in the UK in October. It opens in France on the 21st December.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

ELIZABETHTOWN – Not even the genius that is Alec Baldwin can save this mess

Cameron Crowe’s new movie ELIZABETHTOWN is so bad that The Onion spoofed it this week. Cameron Crowe’s new movie is so bad that even a cameo from that God Among Men, Alec “Two Macs” Baldwin cannot save it. Cameron Crowe’s new movie is so bad that Susan Sarandon frickin’ tap-dances at her husband’s memorial service.

But, my friends, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad tales about the death of kings. Do you remember when Cameron Crowe delivered funny, sweet movies with kickass sound-tracks? Do you remember when Cuba Gooding Junior “showed us the money” in “Jerry Maguire” and when Tom Cruise had Renee Zellwegger at “hello”? Well, my friends, Cameron Crowe has just flushed his indie credentials down the toilet.

Should I even bother telling you the plot? Heck, why not? Just for the sake of tradition. ELIZABETHTOWN tells the story of a young trainer designer – oh yes – played by the Elf from Lord of the Rings. The Elf designs a trainer called the Spasmotica, which is, well, so spastic, that it loses the Nike-a-like shoe company – cue Dr. Evil – “ONE BILLION DOLLARS!” This, we are told by the Phil Nike character, played with Crocodilian charm by Alec Baldwin, “is a lot of money”.

So the Elf is fired. He is about to commit suicide when his dad dies and he has to go to Elizabethtown to arrange the memorial service. En route he meets a perkier than perky air stewardess played by Kirsten Dunst. They talk a lot on the phone. They make out. The whole thing descends into something so sickly sweet it could be on a Hallmark card. The final 30 minutes of the film is deeply deeply irritating – to the extent that I defy you not to walk out of the theatre. The only plus point is that it was 30 minutes shorter than when the film showed at Toronto. Cameron Crowe was shamed into cutting it down by the ritual suicide of all film critics in North America.

Can I say something nice about this film? Dunst and Bloom are perfectly fine. It is the lame-ass script that lets them down. Dunst in particular is asked to inhabit a character so annoying she should be shot on site as a lesson to others. She says stuff like “Men see things in a box, and women see them in a round room.” I kid you not. Alec Baldwin is awesome. So, if you can, sneak into the movie theatre, watch the first 20 minutes, then sneak out.

ELIZABETHTOWN opened in the US on the 14th October, in France on the 2nd November, Germany on the 3rd November and in Austria and the UK on the 4th November. But once again, I urge you NOT to see it.

HUSTLE AND FLOW - Isaac Hayes is in this movie - do you need another reason to see it?

HUSTLE AND FLOW is one of the best films released this year. It is funny, dramatic, has elements of a thriller and a domestic farce. Trust me – you don’t have to be into rap music to get a lot from this movie.

How can I describe how awesome a movie this is? First off, every acting performance is superb. Terrence Howard is having some kind of year. First, his superb performance in Paul Haggis’ “Crash” as the TV producer dealing with racism in modern day Los Angeles, forced to look on helpless as his wife is finger-fucked by a LAPD officer. Now his break-out-role as D-Jay, a low-level Memphis p*mp, who wants to become a rap star. Howard raps on all the tracks, combines the necessary mean business-like attitude of a p*mp with occasional flashes of integrity and tenderness. Plus, he reportedly spent months trying to get the Memphis drawl just right. (I am no judge, I live in London.)

The gaggle of prostitutes controlled by D-Jay are not one-dimensional screeching cr*ck-heads – they are real women in a bad place. In particular, Taryn Manning, who plays Nola, is fantastic and will surely get picked up for mainstream Hollywood roles on the back of this. Ludakris is great as Skinny Black, another local kid made good, and James will be thrilled to see that Isaac Hayes has a small walk-on part. Behind the camera, the cinematography by Amy Vincent, who directed the 2nd unit on “Lemony Snickett” is decent. Far better is the fact that the tracks D-Jay is writing actually sound like they could chart. We actually believe in Terrence Howard could be a rap star and this makes us invest a lot of emotion in the challenge of getting him noticed.

I honestly cannot think of a bad word to say about HUSTLE AND FLOW, but others have. The movie has attracted a lot of criticism because it was written and directed by – shock! Horror! a white man, namely Craig Brewer. And it is true that when you see TV footage of Brewer he does come over a bit Ali-G. But as John Singleton, the film’s producer and director of the superb “Boyz’n the hood” said, “What is a black film? Is an Eddie Murphy film a black film.” I quite agree. If Eddie can do such populist studio crap as "Doctor Doolittle", why shouldn’t Brewer do a movie about a p*mp turned rapper? I mean it’s not like he isn’t at home with the material. Like his protagonist, Brewer’s Mrs. was a stripper who had to give up when she got pregnant. And surely the only benchmark should be whether or not he makes a good movie? Brewer seems to be aware of the minefield he is about to step in to when he introduces a young white boy who helps D-Jay out with his music. When they first meet, D’Jay asks his black friend, Key, “Who's this niggah?” Key replies, “That's Shelby, he plays piano in my church. I thought he could help us develop your sound.” D’Jay looks aghast, “You know he's white, right?”

The film also took a lot of heat from black critics for portraying “the worst of Memphis”, as though the city was only about p*mps, h*okers and decrepit housing. But surely you can’t have it both ways. If "The Cosby Show" was too unrealistically upper-middle class, at least HUSTLE AND FLOW is telling you what is actually happening at the bottom of the heap. The movie never pretends to give you a comprehensive picture of society but to take you for a short time into D-Jay’s world. Surely this is as valid as Charles Dickens only showing the seamy side of Chancery Lane in "Bleak House"….

HUSTLE AND FLOW opened in July in the US, and is released in the UK on the 11th November, in Germany on the 17th November and in France on the 7th December 2005. Terrence Howard has been nominated for an Oscar for his performance in this film.