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.

THE CONSTANT GARDENER - Above average political thriller

QUICK REVIEW: Intelligent thriller about a British diplomat who, in investigating the death of his wife, stumbles on a conspiracy by big-pharma to test dangerous drugs on poor Africans.

LONG REVIEW: I should first lay out my stall. I love John le Carre. He is, to my mind, one of the finest novelists of the twentieth century and has extended his analysis of the miserable, unglamorous, morally cloudy, world of Cold War intelligence to the similarly dark underbelly of multi-national corporations. His novel The Constant Gardener, tells the story of a radical young woman called Tessa who marries a low-level diplomat called Justin, based in Nairobi, Kenya. The first scenes show her husband react to the news of her murder. The story then tells, in a combination of flashback and normal narrative, how in investigating her murder he comes to understand his wife and truly fall in love with her.

Rachel Weisz (most famous as the chick from “The Mummy” and one of Hugh Grant’s many squeezes in “About a Boy”) plays Tessa with just the right mixture of good intentions and a slightly annoying gung-ho, selfish attitude. Her character is not meant to be a paragon but a real woman who means well and tries to do right even if using odd tactics. It is refreshing to see such a multi-dimensional portrait brought to the screen. Her husband is played by Ralph Fiennes, who I think is immensely good. His character is a nice, slightly unsure diplomat, unwilling to rock the boat, but fundamentally decent. When faced by matters of global import he does not turn into James Bond, but his integrity carries him through. The penultimate scene of the movie, where he fully comes to terms with his predicament and what his wife’s life was, is outstanding.

The movie also has a decent cast of supporting actors although it is slightly irksome to see the Brit, Pete Postlethwaite, play a South African with an appallingly bad attempt at the accent. Moreover, Danny Huston, a Yank who went to school in the UK, somewhat fumbles his attempt at a Brit accent for the role of the ambassador. However, all this is offset by the scene-stealing performance by Bill Nighy (“Love, Actually”) as the man from Whitehall. His casual cruelty is unnerving precisely because he is so charming. A true villain for the age of bureaucracy.

The movie is directed by Fernando Meirelles, who had such success with “City of God” and is shot with the same saturated colours and crazy hand—held camera-work. I find it a little over-done in this context, and it is worth contrasting his hyper-active video-game style with Michael Haneke’s still, long takes in the more successful thriller, Hidden. But there is no doubt that Meirelles makes Kenya’s northern regions look stunningly beautiful. For that reason, it is worth trying to see this in the big screen rather than on DVD. Overall, while there may be one or two slightly better movies out there – notably Hidden and “A History of Violence”, this movie stands head and shoulders above most of the dross currently showing. I think the rumours of Oscars are over-done, but you could do a lot worse.

THE CONSTANT GARDENER was released in August in the US. It goes on release in the UK on the 11th November, in France on the 28th December, and in Germany on the 12th January 2006.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Early review of PROOF – When formulae fail

You can just see the Weinstein boys and their monkeys at Miramax huddled round an excel file plugging in known variables: Oscar-nominated director (John Madden), check; Oscar-winning actress (Gwyneth Paltrow), check; Oscar-winning actor (Anthony Hopkins), check; cool Sundance-award-winning screenwriter (Rebecca Miller), check; plot point similarity to multi-Oscar winning movie, (“A beautiful mind”), check. With the tried and tested formula for a high-grossing award-winning movie in place, what can go wrong?!

Nearly everything. This is a movie based on a play by David Auburn, and reunites director John Madden and actress Gwyneth Paltrow from their recent success on the West End stage and in Shakespeare in Love”. Paltrow is Catherine, a Math whiz from Chicago who gives up her own grad-work to care for her mentally-ill father, Robert. Robert, played by Anthony Hopkins (best-known as Hannibal Lecter), was a genius who transformed numerous fields of Mathematics in his youth. When Robert dies, his former student, Hal, played by Jake Gyllenhaal (“Donnie Darko”) discovers a ground-breaking new proof among his papers. The second half of the movie hinges on whether Robert or Catherine wrote it.

First off, there is a lot of stuff that, if not “right”, is “not wrong” with PROOF. The acting, editing, photography, set design etc. are all workman-like and the script is funny in unexpected places and touching where it should be. Better still, there is not that obvious tugging of the heart strings that you get with all sentimental Ron Howard movies, notably “A beautiful mind” and “Cinderella Man”.

But I found it very had to care either way who wrote the proof, or to empathise with Catherine’s fear that she, too, is going mad. I think the problem is one of authenticity. In films like “A beautiful mind” and Hustle and Flow it is essential that we believe that the protagonist could have authored the product around which the plot turns, and that we believe that the product is of sufficiently high quality to warrant the hoop-la. So, in “A beautiful mind” we have a nice little explanation of, at a very simple level, Nash equilibria, and we see their importance to a variety of different fields. In a very different film, Hustle and Flow, we hear D-Jay write and perform rap songs and these songs are really really good. We believe that he could have a career as a recording artist. The problem here is that we do not really buy into the idea that either Hopkins or Paltrow are gifted mathematicians, or have a sense of Hopkins greatness. And without that, it all seems like so much shouting about not much in particular.

PROOF was released in September in the US and opens on 24th February 2006 in the UK.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005


What’s not to love about a film where there is a running joke taking the piss out of vegetarians and one of the lead characters is a Ukrainian Ali G? (Apologies, Veronika and Katya.)

EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED is based on the best-selling book by Jonathan Safran Foer - a book which I have admittedly not read. Writer/director Liev Schreiber focuses on one strand of the novel and tells the story of young Jewish geek called Jonathan Safran Foer (genius!) who goes to Ukraine to find the woman who saved his recently deceased grandfather from the Holocaust. Jonathan is played by Elijah Wood (that’s The Hobbit, to you) in a serviceable performance, but in truth he has little to do but be a cipher, wear ridiculous glasses and occasionally put things in Ziploc bags.

Jonathan has three Ukrainian guides: Alex Perchov – the Ali G of Odessa; his grandfather, who affects blindness and anti-semitism; and the grandfather’s “seeing-eye Bitch” Sammy Davis Junior Junior. Alex is a fantastic comic creation and is brought to life superbly by relative newcomer Eugene Hutz. His slight mis-steps with the English language are hilarious as is his wannabe B-boy pose: “All the ladies are wanting to get carnal with me because of my premium dance moves.” As a result, the first 45 minutes of this movie move along quickly with lots of laughs and more than a little debt to the shooting and cutting techniques that Guy Ritchie used in “Snatch”.

However, half way through, this movie flips into something altogether more ponderous, and in my view, less successful. It becomes clear that the real protagonist is not Jonathan but the grandfather, who must confront what happened to him during the war. The movie becomes very earnest indeed, and rather than letting the audience draw its own conclusions as to the weightiness of the subject matter, the Director hits us over the head with over-long close ups, and a Lord of the Rings style never-ending ending.

Overall, EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED is a decent film – especially the first half - but is let down by the turgid pacing of the final scenes. The direction, photography, sound, editing are all fine but nothing amazing, and I was astonished to see that Liev Schreiber won the Laterna Magica at the Venice Film Festival this year for this, his directorial debut. It’s worth checking out, but you could happily wait for the DVD.

EVERTHING IS ILLUMINATED is already on release in the US and goes on nationwide release in the UK on the 25th November. I am not aware of the European release dates.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

LONESOME JIM – Why oh why oh why oh why?

What is it with successful Hollywood actors and directors that they feel the need to go back to small towns and make deathly dull earnest movies of charming small town folk who look terrible, say nothing witty, do nothing of consequence and then die? We know life sucks. That is why we go to the movies. We want guns, fast cars, and hot chicks in Santa outfits. Enough with the white man’s version of keeping it real. Let’s keep it fake. That’s why God invested plastic.
You think I’m kidding? Lonesome Jim (Casey Affleck – and yes, he is related to Ben) is a 27 year old guy from Indiana who moved to New York and ended up walking dogs for a living. He comes home to have a nervous breakdown, is mean to his mum, ignores his dad (Seymour Cassel), depresses his elder brother so much he attempts suicide, improbably shags Liv Tyler (the chick who marries Aragorn in Lord of the Rings) and nearly messes that up too. Don’t get me wrong. All these people give great acting performances, but they have little to work with.

The movie is shot with a digital camera (the Panasonic AG-DVX100 for all you camera geeks) and the resulting print looks grainy and washed out. This is not (I think, I hope) a deliberately cultivated aesthetic. Some other random facts and assertions…..Apparently it cost $500,000 to make. I assume this is Taiwanese dollars not US dollars. LONESOME JIM was also nominated for the Grand Jury prize at Sundance back in January, but didn’t win. 40% of people who rated this on IMDB gave it ten out of ten. I am willing to bet that 100% of these people attended film school.

LONESOME JIM premiered at Sundance back in January 2005 but only goes on limited US release from 10th March 2006. There is currently no European release date, thank God. For once, I think the distributors have this down. Apart from some film geek gawpers who would turn up to see Buscemi sneeze, who is really going to shell out ten squid to see this?


THE PIANO TUNER OF EARTHQUAKES is a stunnigly beautiful mood-piece from the imaginations of the Quay Brothers. Turning from their beloved puppet animation they have created a live action feature that is a rare treat of visual style and evocation. It is quite simply unique. The story revolves around a mysterious Doctor Emmanuel Droz (Gottfried John) who lives on a sort of Prospero's island populated by disarmingly life-like automata and his house-keeper, Assumpta (Assumpta Serna - veteran of early Almodovar.) Droz has taken a beautiful dead opera singer to his island. In life, he haunted her performances, phantom-like and in death he summons a piano-tuner, who looks mysteriously like the singer's fiancee to his island...

This is no ordinary film. It feels like watching an old silent movie, where events unravel at a leisurely pace and the landscape is full of surrealist imagery. It is about longing, sexual desire and the power of dreams and fantasy. It is certainly not for everyone and at all times - I suspect you have to be in the right mood for it - but I was lucky and found it utterly bewitching.

THE PIANO TUNER OF EARTHQUAKES was shown at the London Film Festival. It opens in the UK in February 2006, in Germany in August, in France in September, and in the US in November 2006.

THE BROTHERS GRIMM – Napoleonic Ghostbusters

In this movie, the Brothers Grimm are con artists who ride around rural French-occupied Germany faking witches and goblins to scare superstitious German peasants and then vanquishing with the help of shiny armour, explosives and catapults, all for a big fat fee. Heath Ledger (10 Things I Hate About You, Monster’s Ball) gives a very enjoyable performance as geek, scholar and believer in magic, Jakob Grimm. Half the time he is channelling Brad Pitt in Twelve Monkeys – all rapid-fire dialogue and facial ticks. The other half of the time he is channelling Steve Coogan as Alan Patridge. The performance is not quite the sum of its parts, but is enjoyable nonetheless. Matt Damon plays William Grimm, who emphatically does not believe in magic but in making money by exploiting the dumb-ass peasants. A worthy aim indeed.

Everything is ticking over nicely until they are sent by the Napoleonic head honcho to Marbaden to rescue the little girls who have gone missing in the words and are respectively excited and horrified to discover that there really is something in the woodshed – namely Monica Bellucci (Matrix, The Passion of the Christ) as a five hundred year old witch trapped in a mirror.

There are significant flaws with this movie. The French general, Delattombe, and his Italian sidekick, Cavaldi, are played by Jonathan Pryce (Evita, Brazil) and Peter Stormare (The Big Lebowski) as caricatures – absurd costumes and accents. What passed for humour in 1980s sitcoms like “’Allo, ‘Allo” and “Fawlty Towers” just isn’t funny anymore - it’s lazy.

But there is a lot to like. At its heart, there is a serious discussion about how much native culture was lost when the Christians took over Europe, and of the Enligtenment battle between faith and reason. There are many obvious and subtle references to fairy tales, all beautifully re-created with a seamless blending of CGI and old school cinematographic techniques. The whole thing is a visual feast with a few good one-liners thrown in.

Like any Terry Gilliam film, this was beset by funding difficulties. MGM pulled out at the last minute and the Weinsteins took over production. They vetoed Samantha Morton as the female lead, fired the Director of Photography, Nicola Pecorini for going to slowly and generally ticked Gilliam off. Finally, the release was pushed back to allow Miramax’s movie The 40 year old virgin to retain its number one spot in the US box office. The film was likewise mistreated by the US critics who, to a man, called it a rambling mess – albeit visually stunning. On the upside, the film was finished, unlike the ill-fated "Don Quixote", and was released, and it is not a mess. It is highly enjoyable, pure entertainment. One last thing, if you are going to see this movie you should try to make it to a cinema rather than waiting for the DVD to get the full benefit of the production design.

The Brothers Grimm has been on release in the US since the 26th August, in France and Germany since the 5th October and finally goes on Nationwide release in the UK on the 4th November.

3 NEEDLES - don't be put off by the gruesome title

Without a doubt, if this movie had the backing of a major studio, it would be up for Oscars. But what am I saying? No major studio would back a movie that reads like such a “downer”. 3 NEEDLES tells three separate stories of people suffering from AIDS – a porn star in Canada, plantation workers in South Africa and villagers in China. There is lots of gruesome stuff – young African boys undergoing ritual adult circumcision for starters – but this is not a pretentious didactic grim mess. There are a lot of movies out there that you admire more than enjoy. But here you can do both. Many of the scenes are very very funny and the film wears its social message lightly.

chloe sevigny plays a nun so you have to reckon she is going to fall off the celibacy wagon at some point, right?3 NEEDLES is directed by a young American director - Thom Fitzgerald. Despite his relatively unproven track record, he has been able to attract a brilliant cast, including Chloe Sevigny, Sandra Oh, Olympia Dukakis, Stockard Channing and Lucy Liu.

In the Canadian strand, Stockard Channing ("Anything Else", "Practical Magic") plays the working class mother of a young porn star who has AIDS but is fiddling his blood tests so he can keep acting. He knows he is infecting his co-workers but needs the money. In the South African strand, Chloe Sevigny ("The Brown Bunny", "Melinda and Melinda") plays a novice who becomes a missionary to South Africa, working in a health clinic attached to a plantation where AIDS is pandemic, the plantation owner is reluctant to fund healthcare and the victims believe that they can cure the virus by sleeping with a virgin.

In the Chinese strand, Lucy Liu ("Charlie's Angels", "Kill Bill") plays a woman who is running an illegal blood supply business. Driving round villages in a white van she offers peasants five dollars for their blood, which is then sold on to hospitals. Her equipment is contaminated and infects whole villages. This strand is actually surprisingly funny and touching in how it depicts the relationship between a father and his young daughter who is a blood donor. The comic timing is all the more amazing given that this is a cast of largely untrained actors. Lucy Liu also gives an outstanding performance of real pathos. Who knew she could actually act?

This film was originally shown at the Toronto film festival in September 2005 and ran at 123 minutes. The version shown at the London film festival 2005 – the European premiere - was 15 minutes shorter for which we can “thank” the Canadian distributor. However, the Director intimated that a European release would have the extra footage restored. 3 Needles will get a limited US release in December 2006.