Monday, October 31, 2005


Quick review: Perfect disposable Friday night movie - fast cars, small guns, hot chicks, some of which are dead, but at least one is wearing a Santa outfit. Go see it! 

Longer review: Robert Downey Junior plays a thief who runs into a Hollywood audition to escape the cops, and is whisked off to cool LA parties. The producer of the movie is never actually going to hire him, but is trying to scare Colin Farrell, the first choice for the role, into dropping his price tag by a couple of mil. Of course, Robert Downey Junior thinks he genuinely has a shot at the role, and has to shadow a real life Private Detective, "Gay Perry" (yes, Roman, he is, in fact, gay) to prepare for his movie role. Gay Perry is played by Val Kilmer, in his best performance since playing Jim Morrison in The Doors - admittedly not a high benchmark. The trio of protagonists is completed by Robert Downey Junior's old flame from school who just happens to be an out-of-work actress addicted to detective fiction. Cue lots of fast cars, small guns hidden in amusing places, hot chicks, some of whom are dead and have horrible hair-dos. There is also a little bit of (comedy) electrocution. 

The movie was written and directed by the guy (Shane Black) who wrote the Lethal Weapon movies, and that pisspoor Arnie movie, The Last Action Hero. Here he delivers a slick, laugh-out-loud-funny movie that satirises a whole bunch of Hollywood genres at once: film noir, the buddy cop movie, James Bond movies, good old-fashioned farce and all those oh-so-clever post-modern Sundance movies where the protagonist starts talking to you and doing weird shit with the narrative structure. ("Adaptation", anyone?) 

Clearly you're not gonna remember it the day after you see it, but it will make you laugh. And anyone who saw the Crime against Comedy that was The Wedding Crashers will be grateful for any studio movie that can still raise a chuckle on a Friday night. Is this as funny as Doogie Howser MD? Heck, no. Are you gonna get a bigger laugh in pre-Oscar season? Unlikely. It's a toss up between this and Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Either way, the dog gets it. 

Nationwide release in the UK and US on the 11th November 2005; apparently it is already out in Germany, which I find kind of hard to believe, insofar as if there is a centre to this universe it is undoubtedly in Zone One, but what do I know....

Sunday, October 30, 2005

HIDDEN - Intellectually demanding thriller, superbly executed

Austrian director Michael Haneke's new flick HIDDEN is superb. Indeed, for what it is worth, this is my Best Film of 2005, a triple honour shared by A History of Violence and Kung Fu Hustle. It is a thriller that is tense from the first second to the last; it demands utter concentration and intellectual engagement from the audience. One scene in particular will take your breath away. It repays dividends.

The movie is set in present day Paris (though one of the filming locations is Vienna.) Daniel Auteuil (perhaps best known as Henri of Navarre in La Reine Margot) gives a bravura performance as George Laurent and Juliette Binoche plays his wife Anne. They are a successful couple - he is a famous TV literary figure, a Melvyn Bragg if you will - and she is a succesful publisher. They have a teenage son. They start getting video cassettes of surveillance footage of the street where they live and threatening pictures. The police are powerless to help. George's reaction to this "terrorism" is to become aggressive, taking action on thin evidence, becoming deceptive. Anne "gives in" to the terrror. So by now you should realise that as well as being a superbly executed face-value thriller, this movie can also be taken as an allegory for France's colonial history and recent political/military history.

In a rare example of Awards ceremonies getting it right, HIDDEN won the prize for Best Director at Cannes and was nominated for the Palme d'Or. I can't say more for fear of ruining the tension, but believe me, if you are not feeling tired and could do with an "adult" movie you could do worse. It's this or David Cronenberg's A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, and for me, HIDDEN edges it out.

HIDDEN is already on release in France. It goes on nationwide release in Austria on the 18th November, limited release in the USA on 11th January 2006, and nationwide release in the UK and Germany on 26th January.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

BUBBLE - An artistic sneeze

QUICK REVIEW: DO NOT SEE THIS FILM. LONG REVIEW: My review of this film is pretty redundant seeing as very few people will ever read it and even if they do, actually finding a theatre playing this movie is pretty hard. As far as I can tell, it only has a US release date - 26th January 2006 - and it is being released simultaneously in theatres, on cable and on DVD. Apparently this is because it is SO cool, cutting edge, "Sundance" etc., that it can shun the usual Hollywood premiere, critical attention hoopla. Translation: this is so pointless and unmarketable it is going straight to video. Feel free to dig BUBBLE out of your local Blockbuster bargain bin next Spring, but be warned - you'll never get those 70 minutes back.

To be sure, this movie is not Pure Cinematic Evil. It is NOT Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo.
In fact, it has a lot going for it. The movie is directed by Steven Soderbergh, the man who brought you Erin Brokovich and the all new Ocean's Eleven. He shoots the movie on Hi-Def video but it looks as good as if it were shot on celluloid. This is no mean feat. Moreover, there is something admirable in the fact that Soderbergh has felt the need and the actually been able to go low-budget after the $110 million extravaganza that was Ocean's Twelve.

He takes us to Bumblef*ck USA. Meet Martha, an obese middle-aged woman who lives with her invalided father and spraypaints plastic dolls in a small factory. The only joy in her life is eating junk food and befriending the much younger Kyle. Kyle is a young kid who didn't graduate high school and works in the factory making the plastic dolls. He lives with his mum in a trailor. Into this mix comes Rose, a young single mother who romances Kyle provoking Martha's jealousy.

Soderbergh wants us to think he is "keeping it real". There are lots of loving still shots of various bits of factory equipment, and he has cast unknown "real" people who speak in "authentic voices" (translation: boring, whiny, repetitive, assine....)

Stuff happens to Martha, Kyle and Rose for 70 minutes and then the movie sort of stops, leaving the audience thinking "huh?!"* But what is the freakin' point?! Deuce Bigalow had a point. The Wedding Crashers had a point. They wanted to make us laugh. They failed, but the aim was admirable. Shit, even Pearl Harbour had a point. BUBBLE does not have a point. Indeed, the only tentatively provocative shot is at the end-credits when we see the rejected defective plastic dolls - arrays of mutilated plastic - a comment on society's obsession with superficial perfection?

What do I know? Not much. And certainly not a jot more at the end of Bubble than at the beginning.

*Beware any critics who tell you this is similar in intent and quality as movies like Elephant and Gerry. They didn't have to pay £12.50 to see it and are going to be less pissed than you will be by a truly experimental film.

Friday, October 28, 2005

SOPHIE SCHOLL - THE LAST DAYS - hard work but essential viewing

SOPHIE SCHOLL - THE LAST DAYS/Sophie Scholl - Die letzten Tage is hard work. The subject matter is grim - all the more so because it really is a true story. The director, screen-writer, cinematographer and editor also take pains not to add any artificial suspense or plotting. What we have is a straightforward narrative in which not much actually happens. The film opens with a young woman called Sophie and her brother Hans printing anti-Nazi leaflets in a cellar. In the final days of World War Two envelopes have become scarce, so Hans decides that he will distribute this incendiary material by hand in the university in Munich. The next day, Sophie and Hans take the leaflets to the university but are caught in the act. So begins the main bulk of the film, which is the interrogation of Sophie by a man named Mohr. Her confession is extracted over many long conversations. The exchanges are fascinating - albeit dry rather than overtly dramatic. This has to be the right choice. Julia Jentsch (previously seen in the UK in The Edukators) portrays Sophie as steadfast and brave. Mohr is not a stereo-typical screaming Nazi but a man who utterly believes he is acting for the best and simply cannot comprehend why such a smart girl persists in her error. The final, shorter section of film shows Sophie's trial and punishment. It is here that the inverted morality is most exposed - with a judge using phrases such as "decency". It is a degradation of justice.

As I said this is a film that treats historic fact with respect. As a result, the film provides little relief for the viewer. It is hard work, but rewarding. I also find it incredibly encouraging that with movies such as this, as well as IM TOTEN WINKEL - HITLERS SEKRETAERIN/
HITLER'S SECRETARY: BLIND SPOT and DER UNTERGANG/THE DOWNFALL, German film-makers are now able to engage fully with all aspects of the German war-time experience. Here is a genuine war-time heroine who chose bravely but also simply to follow her conscience. It makes, I feel, for essential viewing.

SOPHIE SCHOLL - THE LAST DAYS played at Berlin 2005 and has since opened in Germany, Austria and France. It opens in the UK today and in the US in February 2006.

Monday, October 24, 2005


THE LEGEND OF ZORRO takes great production design, decent actors (Rufus Sewell, Catherine Zeta Jones, Antonio Banderas) and an iconic character and throws them away on one of the most asinine scripts I have seen on screen. The faithful plot, dash and wit of the original Banderas-Jones movie have been replaced by inferior physical comedy and a incredible, anachronistic plot. The basic idea is that it is ten years after the first movie. Zorro and his missus are married with a mini-Zorro in tow. She wants him to hang up his mask and be a devoted father: he needs the adoration of the crowd and the thrill of the chase. She demands a divorce, gets a swish French lover, and both uncover a plot to tilt the balance of power in the forthcoming American Civil War. The only innovation that works is the introduction of mini-Zorro, played with élan and superb comic timing by Adrian Alonso.

You know it’s going to be a duff ride when the opening scene has the bad guy fall balls-first onto a cactus plant. That supposition is only strengthened when, in a desperate and misguided attempt to appear topical, another bad-guy starts talking about developing a new Weapon of Mass Destruction that will be used in a pre-emptive strike on Washington. Needless to say, Zorro will try to stop him and put those oppressed Californian peasants on the road to democracy as they join the United States. Seriously. That is how ham-fisted the politics of this movie are. Believe me, no amount of hackneyed chase scenes or sword-swinging can make up for that kind of nonsense.

THE LEGEND OF ZORRO is on global release.

Friday, October 14, 2005

DOMINO - like a ferret on crystal meth

DOMINO is a failure of a movie. Shot and edited like a ferret on crystal myth, this movie is the most likely to cause motion sickness since RAG TALE. With so many freeze-frames, jump cuts, colour-saturated action sequences, it takes a real effort to actually concentrate on what is actually going on. Perhaps this is the intention of the director, because the plot is poor. Do not be fooled by the fact that the central concept is fascinating or that the screenplay was penned by Richard Kelley, the wuenderkind who wrote and directed DONNIE DARKO. Donnie Darko was a great flick but let's tell it like it is: Kelly screwed up a perfectly fascinating tale. For DOMINO is a very loose biopic of a woman called Domino Harvey. The daughter of a famous actor and a supermodel, Domino reacted against the stuffy British establishment and the Beverly Hills crowd. She got thrown out of a bunch of boarding schools and eventually became a bounty hunter in South L.A. Now, that's a story, and Tony Scott, director of TOP GUN, TRUE ROMANCE and SPY GAME, thought so too.

Here's the glitch. Kelly or Scott or whoever had the brainwave of overlaying Domino's story with a heist movie. Worse, a heist plot that is difficult to believe, so reliant is it on absurd coincidences. Then, just to add to the general chaos obscuring the central story, they added a whole bunch of fascinating but totally out-of-place discourse on pop-culture. There are lots of fun critiques of reality TV, for instance, but the satire is blunt and moves away from the point.

All of which makes DOMINO a rather uninvolving and annoying viewing experience. Who knew? A
Christopher Walken film I would happily not see again.

DOMINO is on release in the US and UK. It goes on release in France on November 23rd 2005 and in Austria and Germany on December 29th.

Friday, October 07, 2005

SERENITY - sub-standard derivative sci-fi nonsense

My abiding impression of SERENITY is that it feels like a pilot for a TV show. It’s hard to say whether I was subconsciously influenced by the knowledge that the movie does indeed have its roots in a cancelled TV show, Firefly. I don’t think so. In fact, it is hard to think of a movie I have seen with fewer preconceptions. SERENITY was written and directed by Joss Whedon who also came up with Buff the Vampire Slayer. I’ve never seen an episode of Buffy or Firefly, and I didn’t recognise anyone in the cast-list of Serenity other than Chiwetel Ejiofor. As to the subject matter, I had a vague idea that it was set on a space-ship. Well, here’s the skinny for all non-fans of the TV show. SERENITY is set in a dystopian future where humans have colonised other planets. They are ruled by a benevolent dictatorship called The Alliance – the outcome of a civil war that is hinted at. Now, somewhat predictably, absolute power is corrupting The Alliance and the powers-that-be have messed with the mind of a 17-year old girl called River. She is psychic, traumatised and can turn into a lethal killing machine at the drop of a hat. Her brother, a mild-mannered doctor, sacrifices his career and cash to break her out and most of the movie is a series of chases as the authorities try to catch her again.

I have to say that pretty much the only thing I liked about this movie was the ever-brilliant Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance as The Alliance’s assassin. Wielding a sword, some hard-core martial arts moves and a self-awareness that is chilling – Ejiofor made sub-standard schlock sci-fi material look credible. As for the rest, well, it’s best summed up with the word “sub-standard”. The world that Whedon has created is insufficiently detailed and lacks the instant authenticity of, say, Star Wars. Whedon’s cause isn’t helped by the obviously low-budget special effects or the clear rip-offs of Star Wars. The crew aboard Serenity seem to me to be a lazy conflation of the chaps in the Millennium Falcon, The Matrix movies and even more bizarrely, Young Guns. The crew-members all speak in an unconvincing pastiche of Wild West slang – itself a horrible pastiche! Worse still, I got the feeling that the actors, bar Ejiofor, were also sub-standard. The kind of people who get cast in day-time TV shows because they aren’t quite talented or pretty enough to make it in the movies. To cap it all off the use of the camera, editing and sound is entirely pedestrian. The movie is shot as if for TV, and every so often you hear an actor utter a line of dialogue against a crescendo of sound followed by a fade to black and you think, “This is where they should insert the ad break!”

To sum up, not only did I find this movie puerile, derivative and poorly made, it convinced me that I need never check out the TV series Firefly. I am, however, curious to check out Buffy, if only out of curiosity. Surely such a popular show cannot be as bad as this?

SERENITY is on release in the US and UK. It rolls into France on October 19th 2005 and into France & Austria on November 24th.