Sunday, April 30, 2006

16 BLOCKS - superior crime thriller

16 BLOCKS is a crime thriller starring Bruce Willis and Mos Def. The concept is that Willis is an alcoholic, passed-it, cop who has been charged with delivering a witness 16 blocks away to a trial in New York. The witness - Mos Def - is going to testify against a bunch of dirty cops, who naturally try and smoke him as he travels to the court-house. That's pretty much it, and as the movie opened I got rather nervous. It seemed rather conventional. Bruce Willis doing what he does well and Mos Def using a bizarre accent. However, as the movie progressed I got sucked in and the reason is this. It is very will directed (by Richard Donner who did the original Superman) and really well written. It contains a lot more dialogue than one would expect for a movie of this genre - it's really rather talky - and that is a nice change. So I can recommed 16 BLOCKS wholeheartedly - it's superior popcorn and perfect for both mind and heart.

16 BLOCKS is already showing in the US, France, Germany, Austria and the UK.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

THE MOGULS/THE AMATEURS - promises kookiness, delivers the commonplace

THE MOGULS is a feel-good comedy about a bunch of small-town losers who band together to make a feature-length porno and thus achieve something with their lives. The comedy relies on having a bunch of ordinary schmucks sitting around mama's house eating jell-o talking about lesbian sex. This appealed to my juvenile sense of humour for around half an hour and then I got mildly annoyed that the movie was turning out to be just another schmaltzy feel-good losers-do-well movie. It's like THE FULL MONTY but with tanned Hollywood stars - not least Jeff Bridges, William Fichtner, Tim Blake-Nelson and Ted Danson - less profundity and less jokes. In fact there is only one cast iron joke. The Fichtner character asks the Bridges character for a job on the movie - not too much work - just so he can stand around and watch stuff happen. Bridges makes him the Executive Producer. Apart from that, it's all pretty run-of-the-mill and I feel vaguely disappointed that in this day and age a closeted homosexual is still deemed comic fodder. So this is probably a movie to miss, or at most rent on DVD.

THE MOGULS went on limited release in the UK yesterday. It is known as THE AMATEURS in the US.

Friday, April 28, 2006

FREEDOMLAND - a comprehensive failure

FREEDOMLAND is a mess. It wants to be a dark psychological thriller touching on issues of racial prejudice in contemporary America. It ends up as a badly written, uninvolving, predictable whodunnit featuring that rare of rare things - a bad performance by Julianne Moore. She plays an over-wrought white-trash mother who's son has been unwittingly abducted in a car-jacking. She lives in a poor community over-whelmingly populated by African-Americans, so that when she says a black man stole her child and the overwhelmingly white police come to investigate, the residents start rioting. The movie fails because Sam Jackson is on auto-pilot as the black policeman caught between two worlds. It fails because the writer and director mistakenly try to superimpose sexual tension onto his relationship with Moore's character. It's all dreamy music, moody lighting and empathetic glances. It fails because Julianne Moore cannot keep her white trash accent straight. It fails because her make-up and hair style is absurd and obviously fake - a sort of K-mart version of Charlize Theron's make-up in MONSTER. Finally, it fails because you figure out what's going on an hour before the end, and the ending comes three scenes later than it should, LORD OF THE RINGS-stylee. All of which is a shame because Edie Falco gives a rather nice supporting performance as the leader of a group of volunteers who help stage man-hunts for lost kids.

FREEDOMLAND was released in the US in February and is in on release in the UK.

TICKETS - thought-provoking but sterile

TICKETS is an odd sort of film and, sadly, admirable rather than enjoyable. The concept is that three directors who have formidable reputations in making socially and politically aware movies (Ermanno Olmi, Abbas Kiarostami and Ken Loach) should create a film that focuses on the relationhips between various passengers on an Italian train. The movie is not split into three formal sections but it is possible to detect the shift in which director is handling the story as the focus moves to different sets of characters.

In the first section, an old man sits in a first class compartment musing on his love for his younger secretary. This being Italy, first-class is luxurious, with hot pasta served by suited waiters. Through the glass sliding door, the first-class passengers can see third-class passengers cramped in the corridor – in particular, a family if Albanian illegal immigrants with a young child. When a brusque guard spills the baby’s milk, the first-class passengers look on, but do nothing to help. One of the attendants mops up the milk – clearing up the mess – but that is all. Finally, the old man orders the waitor to bring him some warm milk in a glass and then, under the gaze of the astonished first-class passengers, takes it to the young mother.

I have gone into the detail of the narrative of this segment because it sums up the feel of the rest of the film very nicely. Instead of an over-arching narrative we have little situations, much like in a novella, in which the interaction of people of various social classes and races is highlighted. Moreover, while each segment plays as a nice character study or tragi-comedy of manners, they can also be read as political allegories. In the case of the first segment, we see the inaction of rich Western nations in the face of deprivation in Africa or even New Orleans. They do nothing when the drama is unfolding, but pride themselves of mopping up the mess. In each segment there is some hope – some small gesture of reconciliation that can be made. But the barriers created by the class of ticket you hold are never entirely removed.

As a concept, this film is intelligent and timely, and in its execution it is elegant and thought-provoking. However, I found TICKETS to be rather a sterile viewing experience, and a film that I admired rather than enjoyed.

TICKETS premiered at Berlin 2005 and went on limited release in the UK in December 2005. I do not know of a release date for the US, France, Germany or Austria. It is now available on Region 2 DVD.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

INSIDE MAN - a solid thriller

This review is posted by guest reviewer, Professor007: Who would have thought that yet another flick about a bank robbery can come up with so many new turns and twists? After a hard day’s work, I went there with the mindset of addicting myself to a well-done but 100% predictable story. But already Clive Owen's cool introductory monologue indicates this it ain’t gonna be as obvious as one might have thought. And indeed, quickly a funky story unfurls, with everybody running around in Phantom-of-the-Opera-esque masks, and the police being led up the garden path repeatedly. In a nutshell: solid entertainment for a good two hours. Only downside is the lack of hot chicks. You can’t have it all.

INSIDE MAN is on global release.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

BALLETS RUSSES - great story, great artistry, great movie

I can count the number of times I have been to the ballet on one hand. While I enjoyed these occasions, my knowledge of what makes for good technique and style is non-existent. Nevertheless, I have a fascination for what makes any art establishment – ballet companies included – live or die, not to mention the fact that I view THE RED SHOES as one of the greatest movies ever made. THE RED SHOES features the divine Anton Walbrook as Boris Lermontov – the impresario of a ballet company supposedly modelled on Diaghilev’s famous Ballets Russes. It tells the tragic tale of how a young ballerina must choose between commitment to her art and her marriage, and famously features a long ballet sequence. The fact that the movie, released just after World War Two, could “get away with” including such a long ballet, was in part thanks to the fact the Ballet Russe had popularised the art-form in America during the war.

In fact, as this documentary hammers home, the Ballet Russe, in its many incarnations, radically changed the way in which ballet was performed and perceived in the first half of the twentieth century. The story starts with Diaghilev founding the Ballets Russes in France in 1909, creating fantastic modern productions that used the best talent across the arts. Sets were designed by Picasso and Matisse; music composed by Ravel and Stravinsky; dances choreographed by Fokine, Nijinsky, Massine and Balanchine; and danced by, among others, Dame Alicia Markova. After the death of Diaghilev in 1929, the company dissolved. Into the breach stepped Colonel de Basil, who reformed the Ballet, hiring Balanchine as ballet master, who in turn hired the “baby ballerinas” – 13 year-old Russian émigrées based in Paris. Despite the great success of the company, the many clashing egos resulted in Balanchine being forced out to make way for Massine. However, in 1936, Massine also left the company and the autocratic rule of the Colonel, to found his own “Ballet Russe”. He took with him some of the dancers, but lost the right to perform the dances he had choreographed.

We then have a tale of two very different companies. The “Original Ballet Russe”, run by the Colonel, became a money-making machine, using old favourites to draw in crowds, rather than refreshing the repertoire. By the end of the war, having been forced out of the US and into Latin America, it has slid into irreparable decline. By contrast, Massine’s new Ballet Russe went from strength to strength, creating new dances, taking surrealist ballet to the American boon-docks, and even making forays into Hollywood, not least in THE RED SHOES. However, eventually even this company began to haemorrhage talent when the impresario, Denham, began to promote his mediocre ballerina girlfriend to the top roles, Citizen-Kane-style.

The documentary is fascinating because it gives us insight chiefly into what makes a ballet company successful, and the implicit answer is that you must follow the talent rather than the money. If you have the artistic creativity, the money will, by and large, come too, even if very little filters down to the actual dancers. The documentary is less successful in chronicling the social changes of the last century, not least because the companies fled the war in Europe for the comparable safety of the Americas. The Great Depression and the build-up to World War Two are off-screen. However, we do discover how ballet was popularised in the US, and how this Russian company created a demand for an authentic “American” ballet and ballet-dancers. Unfortunately, one of the most fascinating topics is rather skimmed over. The Massine company hired an African-American ballerina named Raven Wilkinson for the corps de ballet. However, she eventually left the company because whenever the company toured the southern states the Klan would come out. Some of the members of the corps de ballet are recorded saying how said it was because she was such a talented dancer. However, I feel that the documentary makers missed a trick in not pressing the key players at the time – Frederick Franklin or Madame Dolinova, perhaps – for more information about how the managers of the company and principals, felt about and handled the situation.

Ego-mania and social change aside, the real heart of this film lies in the wonderful characters that are interviewed – the ballerinas. They are all remarkably physically fit given that they are mostly in their eighties and they are all still active in dance or theatre – whether running studios, teaching at universities or writing about ballet. One of the “baby ballerinas” - Tatiana Riabouchinska – is typical of this highly atypical group of people. Aged over 80, she stills holds herself with poise and is in remarkable physical condition. It is clear that she, like Vicky Page in THE RED SHOES, must dance – it is like breathing to her.

So, BALLETS RUSSES is not only fascinating in its own right, but reminds us how absolutely spot-on THE RED SHOES was in its depiction of the power-struggles within a ballet company and the commitment required of its members. Even if you think you don’t like ballet, I urge you to see it, because these power-struggles and issues of what today we might clumsily term the “work-life” balance have a relevance beyond the world of ballet. Moreover, you will get to know some amazing people, whose sheer talent and commitment to art cannot fail to dazzle and inspire. The only slight qualification to my uncharacteristically unreserved praise for this film is whether you need to see it on the big screen. For the most part, the movie plays like a very well put together BBC/HBO TV doc. – relying on interviews, archive dance footage and clips of old playbills and newspaper reviews - and could as easily be enjoyed on DVD. There is no stunning visual work that especially requires a big screen. This is not to detract from the achievement of the directors. However, as the movie is unlikely to get a wide cinematic release, it’s good to know that you won’t be missing much if you decide to check it out on DVD.

BALLETS RUSSES premiered at Sundance 2005 and is currently on release in the US and UK. I do not know of a US, French, German or Austrian release date.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

TOP SPOT - Rubbish

TOP SPOT is a sixty minute movie by British artist Tracey Emin. Admittedly, what I know about modern art could be written on the back of a postcard, but as it happens I have found Emin's work interesting and provocative whenever I have seen it in a gallery. So, despite the generally bad press, I was interested to see her debut feature. However, I am sad to report that TOP SPOT is the most incompetent and depressingly naive movie I have ever seen. Let's deal with the incompetence first. (Remember that it's not been a week since I watched RAG TALE - a movie that made me nauseous it was so badly filmed - and I think TOP SPOT is WORSE.) The movie was apparently made on £165,000 and alls I know is that someone is walking round with £160,000 in their back pocket. It looks cheap and nasty, which is a shame given what can now be achieved with Digital Video. There is no attempt to correct for lighting or sound effects, and no mastery of the technical aspects of shooting footage. Most of the camerawork is straight to camera monologue or painfully slow tracking shots. Even more painful is when you hear Emin do her directorial commentary on the DVD. She so clearly had great ambition for the project - talking about how the Margate sunset is beautiful - and completely fails to capture any of the breathtaking shots she was aiming for. But enough of that - let's move on to the naivety of the subject matter. Emin's movie is, like much of her art, semi-autobiographical. It focuses on a bunch of school-girls in the British sea-side town of Margate. These girls cut school, hang out in amusement parks, have casual sex, fall in love with guys who they think are in Egypt but are actually locked up, get abused, get raped, get pregnant....You get the picture. It's all fairly gritty stuff, and might have been both interesting and provocative if carried off. However, the stilted acting, not least from Emin herself, and the unrealistic dialogue combine to make TOP SPOT utterly uninvolving and often crass. Worst of all, we have a final shot of Emin herself taking off in a helicopter and flying over Margate. Cut to images of bomber planes blowing the place up. Clearly, this is meant to be symbolic of Emin leaving her past behind her in spectacular fashion. However, it comes across as a bit of self-aggrandisement, not to say ironic coming from an artist who has so completely plumbed her own back-story in the name of art.

TOP SPOT premiered at London 2004. The film was not given a commercial release in the UK because Emin was angered that the BBFC had (rightly, to my mind) given it an 18 certificate. Now, of course, it would be very cynical of me to suggest that she withdrew it because she knew it would get a horrible critical reception....

Monday, April 24, 2006

U-CARMEN E-KHAYELITSHA - Great opera, okay movie

U-CARMEN takes Bizet’s opera set in Seville a hundred and thirty years ago and transposes it to a modern-day South African township. The movie is directed by Mark Dornford-May, who apparently has a long history in British theatre and opera. Some time ago he moved to South Africa and set up a lyric theatre/opera company populated largely by people who had never set foot inside a theatre, let alone been on stage. Dornford-May directed a production of Carmen, featuring Pauline Malefane, one of the few members of the troupe who did have a professional training in opera. That production, sung in French, became successful both in South Africa and on tour, and forms the basis of this film.

Dornford-May was anxious to set the movie firmly in contemporary South Africa and so Pauline Malefane (Carmen) translated the French libretto into Xhosa, complete with clicks. Carmen still works in a cigarette factory, and there is still a local barracks, albeit populated by policeman rather than army officers. Admittedly, the dashing toreador Escamillo is now a famous opera singer, but we still get a the goring of a bull in a traditional sacrifice of thanks for his home-coming.

Musically, the movie stays faithful to Bizet – why would you mess with genius after all? I am sure the film-makers made many cuts to get it all down to two hours but the only absences I noted were the children’s chorus greeting the changing of the guard and the sextet. The orchestra and singers all do a great job and after a while I even stopped noticing the change of language. Clearly this is not a star-studded company, but I have seen far worse sung on London stages over the years. In terms of acting, comparisons are hard to make as usually you are never close enough in the opera house to see much of the facial expressions. Here, by contrast, the film-makers shoot the movie as if on stage with the actors, with extensive use of close-ups. To my mind, Pauline Malefane handles herself well in front of the camera, conveying the strength, sensuality and vulnerability of Carmen. However, the Jose and Escamillo characters are rather wooden.

It is also worth pointing out that while this is a dramatically ambitious movie, it is not cinematically ambitious. For the most part, the film is shot in a straightforward manner and sometimes looks a little amatuerish. In a key scene between Jose/Jungi and his sister-in-law, the characters are shot with the bright mid-day sun behind them and we cannot see their faces. The only time we see anything approaching a “cinematic” moment is one of the opening scenes. The camera rolls back at high speed through the township as the sound mix combines an orchestra warming up with the traffic noise of a busy highway.

Having said all this, Carmen is still a great movie for opera-lovers. As stretched as the transposition might sound, the move from Seville to the town-ship works rather well. I think this is because Carmen, as opposed to say, Rigoletto, deals in themes that are still relevant to contemporary society, especially one characterised by deep economic and social inequality. Carmen is a fascinating character, to me at least. Here we have a woman who has a strong sense of her own sexual identity and tries to gain social and economic freedom by using it. Picked up by the police, she seduces Jose/Jungi into letting her escape, and then promises Zuniga/Gaetano that she will sleep with him if he drops the charges. Finally, she and the other girls allow the smugglers to pimp them out to the customs guards in order to smooth the passage of the contraband. So here is a woman who, given her lack of economic opportunities in a partriarchal society, is forced into using her sexuality as a weapon. The fact that she does so with such gusto does not offset her vulnerability to violence at the hands of the men she “plays” with. One of the great things about this film is that it brings to the surface all the violence that exists in the text. I must confess to the fact that, despite having seen and heard Carmen many times, I had never picked up on the throw-away line that Jose/Jungi joined the army because he had murdered a man. While most conventional productions despict Jose as a soft-hearted dope brought to a tragic end by a coquette, in this production, Jose is always a violent man, and Carmen merely unlocks his repressed anger. So, while Carmen is in control of her own sexuality, she suffers at the hands of man repeatedly, and is, in the final analysis, undone by it. Her search for freedom is in vain.

To sum up, I feel that U-CARMEN is a movie for people who love opera. It may lack cinematic ambition, but it more than makes up for this by delivering real insight into an almost too-familiar text. However, I would hesistate in recommending this film to people who really just do not like opera. While the movie does raise interesting questions about how society treats strong women, if you don’t like this style of music, I imagine it would be very difficult to get into.

U-CARMEN was shown at Berlin 2005 where it won the Golden Bear. It went on release in Germany in December 2005 and in France in February 2006. It went on release in the UK on Friday. It has not yet been sold into the US.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

TRISTAN + ISOLDE - rather leaden sword-swinging romance

TRISTAN + ISOLDE* all starts promisingly enough, centred as it is on an epic tragic romance. With a story as strong as Romeo and Juliet it is fairly hard NOT to grab the audience's interest. Since the fall of the Roman Empire, mainland Britain has splintered into warring factions and thus remains weak and at the mercy of the marauding Irish king. In one nasty blood-letting, young Tristan loses both his parents, and is adopted by Lord Marke - ruler of Cornwall. Fast forward nine years, and Tristan is now a brave warrior, loyal to his saviour. He leads the Cornish in a rout of the Irish but is presumed dead when battle ends. Sent off in a funeral boat he washes up in Ireland where Isolde, the daughter of the Irish king, nurses him back to health in secret. They fall in love, but he does not know who she is. The Irish are now on the run, but the king comes up with a cunning plan to divide the Brits. Each tribe will compete for the hand of his daughter. Tristan wins Isolde for Lord Marke, and now comes the real point of the story. Will Tristan and Isolde forsake their love in order to maintain peace between the Irish and British behind the new King Marke?

This movie gets a lot right - as one would expect from the director of ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES. The production and costume design is great and the cast is largely made up of superb British and Irish character actors. The script is fine for the most part, and while some have complained about the anachronistic use of a poem by Donne, I have no problem with that, for it expresses perfectly the emotions of Isolde. Where I think the movie falls down badly is in the casting of James Franco as Tristan. He stands around brooding and beautiful, which is nice for a while, but is hardly enough to convey the emotional and moral trauma Tristan is under-going. By contrast, Rufus Sewell is so brilliant as Lord Marke - combining the vulnerability of a man who has fallen in love late in life with the sheer heft of a warrior-king - that the audience is left somewhat surprised that Isolde has not simply transferred her affections to him! This is made all the more puzzling given that Sophie Myles successfully portrays Isolde as an intelligent and courageous woman. She seems perfectly matched with Marke. So, once the love triangle is established, the improbability of Isolde still being in love with Tristan weighs the movie down. It plods along is a rather leaden manner and finally expires in a fit of exhaustion after over two hours. This is a real shame.

TRISTAN+ISOLDE was released in the US in January 2006 and in the UK on Friday. It hits Germany on May 18th, Austria on May 19th and France on August 30th.
*This may well be the most stupidly titled movie of the year. Why not just Tristan AND Isolde?! Why the poncey use of the plus sign? When Baz Luhrmann did this with Romeo+Juliet it all had a point - Luhrmann was comprehensively re-imagining the story. Here it just smacks of being a bit too clever for its own good.

Friday, April 21, 2006

TONY TAKITANI - a delicate movie about loneliness

At the risk of disappearing up my own arse, I would describe this movie as a beautiful, strange, surreal tone poem. The movie is about a man and woman called Tony and Eiko. Each has a profound emptiness inside and seeks to mask it. Tony becomes a gifted illustrator who specialises in depicting mechanical objects. It is almost as though he has, by isolating himself, become an automata himself. But he meets the beautiful Eiko, and they marry. His opening line to her is, "I love the way you inhabit your clothes with such relish." At first, this seems like a wonderfully guache, yet charmingly honest pick-up line. But later we see that it has a darker under-tone. He has married a woman who also has a deep emptiness inside. She buys clothes in order to feel that she is alive. This might seem a little ridiculous as the basis for a movie, and for the first five minutes I had deep misgivings about this film. However, if you give it a chance it is impossible not to be drawn in by Tony's awful sadness, his undoubted love for Eiko, and her own loneliness.

The movie is based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, who has created unique and sympathetic plot and characters. But it is Ichikawa who has rendered them into a powerful cinematic masterpiece. He has done this in three ways. First, in adapting the novel he has used the unusual device of having almost the entire film narrated, either by an off-screen narrator or by the characters themselves. Very little of the film is conventional dialogue. At first, this seemed odd and forced, but it suits the characters perfectly. So much of their life is about isolation and an inability to communicate, than what better a device than internal narration? The second key choice was in casting. Apparently Issei Ogata, who plays both Tony and his father Schozaburo, is a well-known comedian in Japan. I would nver have guessed that from his mournful performance, but it proves the old adage that comedy is only a heartbeat away from tragedy. The third key choice was in the look of the film. There is nothing extraneous on-screen, just as there is no extraneous dialogue. Much of the film takes place in Tony's house - a set created on top of a hill in Yokohama. The house is shot in subdued natural colours, with views of whispy nature all around, increasing the heightened sense of reality and isolation. Moreover, the director deliberately chose a stills photographer to be his cinematographer, and this comes through in the calm, tableaux-like feel of the movie.

Despite my initial scepticism about this film, as the lights went up I felt as though I had seen a delicate but beautiful masterpiece. Certainly too delicate and slim in its subject matter to support the vast amount of over-intellectualised nonsense that some audience members threw upon it in the Q&A. However, if you have 75 minutes to spare and want to see something original, engaging and quietly stunning, do check this movie out.

TONY TAKITANI showed at London back in 2004 and at Sundance 2005. It got a limited release in the US, Germany and Austria last summer and is currently, finally, on commercial release in the UK.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

CRAZY is what would happen if That 70s Show had emotional heft, visual style and a guy singing Charles Azanvour songs

CRAZY is a wonderful, if somewhat structurally incoherent, movie. It tells the tale of a French-Canadian family of five sons growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. The first strand of the story is based on the child-hood experiences of director, Jean-Marc Vallee. Vallee grew up in the kind of intensely spiritual family that we see portrayed in CRAZY, with a mother whose fondest desire is to go to Jerusalem and who believes that her son has a gift for healing people. So as the family are eating “ironed toast”, or spaghetti with dad’s “special sauce”, you get random telephone calls with relative calling up to say, “Unky Herb just cut himself on a knife: pray for him, Zac!” I loved all this stuff. No-where have I empathised with a character more in recent cinema as when young Zac sits in church and imagines the priest telling everyone that “midnight mass is already too long. Why don’t you all just go home and open up your presents?!”

The second strand of the story is based on reminiscences of one of the director’s friends, Francois Boulay. Boulay apparently also grew up with four brothers, and had a tortured relationship with his father on account of his bisexuality. Zac is all over the place with his sexuality – in denial, experimenting, being brutally homophobic, and finally self-accepting. What I love about this film is that we see clearly that Zac’s mother and father love him deeply, and while the father cannot understand or condone his sexual leanings, he is only trying to protect Zac from what he perceives to be an unliveable life.

CRAZY works in part because of its wonderful observation of the small but funny incidental things that make up normal life. And let me be very clear, I laughed my way through this movie. Sure, a lot of the comedy here is specific to the fact that this is a Catholic French-Canadian family, but we can all recognise the trademarks in our own families. Here, the father sings the same old hackneyed Charles Aznavour songs every Christmas. We all have a dad or an uncle who does the same. CRAZY also works because it creates that intimate, authentic feel of watching old home-movies. I love the fact that whenever there is a big family argument, you always having your kid brother sucking a Popsicle nonchalantly in the corner. The director explained that he consciously strove for this effect. Despite shooting with one camera, he was aiming for a “second camera feel”. What he means by that is that he wanted the footage not to look properly staged and framed and lit, but as though someone had just left a camera running in the corner of the room – a camera that was picking up reactions and odd details rather than providing the perfect Hollywood close-up of the melo-dramatic family reconciliation. CRAZY also works because the cast are great to a man. Special shout outs have to go the actors playing the parents, and the two kids who play Zac. The younger Zac may be the director’s son, but this is not a case of simple nepotism –he’s absolutely fantastic. And finally, this movie has an AWESOME sound-track and uses it to the max. The tour de force is a long sequence set to the Stones’ “Sympathy for the devil”. Outstanding.

The only flaw with CRAZY is that once the excitement at seeing something so visually inventive and tragi-comic wears off you realise just how incoherent the structure of the movie is. After the first hour, the movie seems likes a random assortment of comic interludes from the life of Zac and I lost confidence that the film-maker knew exactly where he was going with it all. I came out of the screening thinking that the 127 minute movie could have been a good 45 minutes shorter and lost none of its emotional punch. My only other slight criticism is a scene near the end when Zac goes travelling and ends up in the middle of the desert. This was the one scene that felt contrived to me (apologies to Francois Boulay if it really happened) and just a little too “cute”.

At any rate, despite its tendency to feel like a funny yet over-indulgent scrap-book, CRAZY is a delightful, original, and desperately funny movie. If you are lucky enough to have it playing near you, you should definitely check it out.

CRAZY played at Toronto 2005 and opens in the UK tomorrow. It opens in France oon May 21st 2006 and in Germany on May 25th. Despite being sold to 50 countries, it has not found a US distributor. However, I think you can get hold of it on DVD.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

RAG TALE - Fleet Street brutally satirised

The hosts of one of my favourite movie podcasts recently discussed their top movie satires, and included great films such as BOB ROBERTS and NASHVILLE. I want to give a small shout out to a small British movie called RAG TALE - released in festivals in 2005 and on Region 2 DVD in 2006. RAG TALE brutally satirises British tabloid journalism in the manner of The Eye on acid. It features the outstanding actor Rupert Graves as the editor of a tabloid paper called The Rag. The paper is owned by a rich and ruthless businessman played by Malcom MacDowell, who is obsessed with climbing the British social ladder by publishing sycophantic articles about the Royal Family in contravention of the editorial line of the paper. Aiding him in his quest is his young American wife, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. The movie is filled with the kind of scathing wit and putrid bilge that I had feared dead when The New Statesman and Spitting Image got the chop. I luxuriated in the back-biting, conspiring and foul-mouthed plotting that filled the ninety-odd minutes of the movie. HOWEVER, despite writing a satire to die for, writer-director Mary McGuckian has also committed visual suicide. Under her direction, the film is shot as if by a paralytic hunchback - all swerving hand-hold shots from odd angles. Worse still, it is edited to within an inch of its life - so much so that I felt nauseous watching it. FEAR NOT, dear reader, for there is a solution, much as it pains me to say it. We have to treat this movie as a radio play. You pop the DVD in the player, turn on the TV and then go into the next room and do some ironing. Hey presto! 90 minutes caustic wit and no need for a sick bag!

RAG TALE was shown at Edinburgh and the oh-so-wittily titled Raindance Film Fest 2005. It is available on Region 2 DVD.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

SHE'S THE MAN - not that bad really

Okay, so now I have stopped laughing at the headline in today’s Guardian (Jamie Foxx: “I’m here to save R&B”[1]) – I am ready to review the latest teen flick, SHE’S THE MAN. Clearly, no self-respecting cinema-goer over the age of 16 should see this movie. As a straightforward romantic-comedy for adults it fails miserably: it lacks the cross-over charm and satirical edge of a movie like MEAN GIRLS. However, if SHE’S THE MAN is not going to set the world alight, neither is it a terrible movie. And as a former young teenage girl, and the “responsible adult” who usually winds up taking her young cousins to the flicks, I can attest that for its target audience, this movie ticks all the boxes.

Anyways, let’s get back to basics. SHE’S THE MAN is a very loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s [2]Twelfth Night[3]. Viola is a young girl who just wants to play football[4] but faces opposition both from her school and her mum[5]. When her twin brother Sebastian bunks off to London with his band, she takes his place at his prep school. Her aim is to make the football team and beat her old school, thus proving that she is a better player than the boys. The hiccup in the proceedings is that while she is meant to be persuading school hottie, Olivia, to date Duke (her hunky room-mate) she falls in love with him herself.

The success or otherwise of SHE’S THE MAN rests squarely on the shoulders of the actress playing Viola – a girl named Amanda Bynes. Given that I live in this Sceptred Isle, I had no frickin’ clue who Amanda Bynes is, or why she should stake a claim to my hard-earned (ahem!) ten squid. However, a quick tour of the internet reveals that she used to host her own variety show on US TV. Now, it strikes me that Amanda Bynes could be the female Yanqui equivalent of our very own self-styled “cheeky chappies”, Ant and Dec. These two child-TV-stars have seamlessly moved from crappy kids TV to crappier Saturday night TV “entertainment” to yet crappier movies with unstudied ease. No doubt Amanda Bynes has a similarly stellar career as the poor-man’s Lyndsay Lohan in front of her, especially as for the most part the average “responsible guardian” would rather their charges aspire to being cute and love-able than skeletal and dating Wilmer Valderrama[6]. Seriously, Amanda Bynes is actually very likeable in this movie, and while clearly no-one would actually believe that she is a man, that is no barrier to enjoying the movie.

I realise that I have spent a lot more time on this review than the film merits, but let me quickly make one last comment aimed squarely at British readers. Please do not be put off by the fact that the Football coach is played by Vinnie Jones[7] . He is on-screen for barely five minutes in the whole movie and does not detract from the generally above-average quality of the cinematic proceedings.

[1] A statement that is ridiculous in so many ways. [2] Somewhere out there is a PhD student writing a thesis on the Teen Chick movie genre and its sub-genre: the Shakespearian adaptation. If CLUELESS is the ageing Don of the genre (still feared, but unlikely to take you in a back-alley scrap) and 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU is the Michael Corleone (the new pretender to the throne) then SHE’S THE MAN is the Fredo (amiable, will keep you entertained for ninety minutes, but destined to be rubbed out by greater men.) [3] I find it kind of funny that this has been played up by the movie’s marketers and has been splurged all over reviews and posters. I mean, is it likely that in ASBO-Britain, an allusion to the Shakespearian source material is likely to help or hinder the target audience from going to the cinema? [4] That’s soccer to you yanks [5] Is this a cunning rip-off of sleeper-hit BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM or a shameless cash-in on World Cup 2006 hysteria? Or is it a canny combination of the two? Either way, you’ve got to admire the marketing moxy of whoever cooked this movie up. [6] Although “Wilmer” is a cool name.
[7] C-list celebrity footballer, famous for on-field violence rather than actual footbaling prowess.

SHE'S THE MAN is on release in the UK and US. It goes on release in Germany on September 21st 2006.

Monday, April 17, 2006

MISTRESS OF SPICES - one for the feng shui idiots

MISTRESS OF SPICES is a truly execrable movie - one of those films that transends mediocrity and becomes physically painful to watch. The guilty party is writer and first-time director Paul Mayeda Berges - husband of cross-over queen Gurinder Chadha, which perhaps explains how he got this pile of sentimental goo financed. The movie stars Aishwarya Rai. Now here's the thing. Aish is beautiful and a talented classical Indian dancer. I even believe she is a good actress when well-directed in Indian art cinema - take RAINCOAT or CHOKHER BALI as evidence for the defence. But Aish is consistently shocking in English-language cinema, perhaps because up until this point we have only seen her in ill-written movies by Chadha (BRIDE & PREJUDICE) and now Berges.

Perhaps the problem is that Berges is trying to create something that is mystical and magical but which simply seems absurd. The idea is that Aishwarya Rai's character is one of many young women around the world who can basically do magic by giving people the right spices. So, if you want to make knew friends, Aish will pop a cinammon stick into your turban and, before you know it, you'll be the Homecoming Queen. Or rather, because MISTRESS OF SPICES has a Serious Message about Race Relations - a member of the Crips. Of course, with infinite power comes the itty-bitty-living-space* and celibacy. And you know what that means - Aish is going to meet a gorgeous hunk and fall in love with him in the first five minutes of the movie and then spend eighty-five minutes wondering whether or not the universe will explode if she has sex with him. Added to this, Berges has written a screenplay that turns its back on conventional dialogue and puts a bunch of ridiculous internal monologue in its place. What this means is you get a lot of stuff like: "Talk to me, chillies!" or "Chillies, don't send him away, he means me no harm." Puh-lease.

MISTRESS OF SPICES showed at Toronto 2005 and is released in the UK on April 21st. It opens in India on April 28th 2006 and in the US on May 5th. *Upon perusing the Disney website for the Aladdin link I was disturbed to find that the 2-disc edition features "A Whole New World" sung by Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey. And this was used as a marketing plus-point.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

SCARY MOVIE 4 - less funny than just watching Tom Cruise

SCARY MOVIE 4 is not a satire on horror movies. It is a string of vague pastiches of recent films and events in popular culture that centre on the Tom Cruise vehicle, WAR OF THE WORLDS. It certainly isn't scary and spends little time spoofing the horror genre in the manner of the infinitely superior SHAUN OF THE DEAD. One of the sight gags consists of a cloud shaped like an arse farting lightning. If that makes you laugh, and good for you if it does, then you should check this movie out. To my mind, the chief targets of this movie - George Bush and Tom Cruise - are so easy to mock that the movie's writers have set themselves all too undemanding a target. What's worse, they have opted for low-grade funnies rather than anything more biting. Frankly, you can get a lot more malicious laughter from watching the actual Tom on Oprah footage or the banned episode of South Park, both of which are available on You Tube. A link to the first is underneath the title of this post. Enjoy!

SCARY MOVIE 4 is on global release.

Friday, April 14, 2006

BASIC INSTINCT 2 - My not-so-secret shame

So I found myself in the West End with a couple of hours to spare and I decided to check out BASIC INSTINCT 2. My motives were pretty miserable: curiousity and a sort of malevolent will to laugh at something bad. So, I slapped down my ten squid, armed myself with some happiness-inducing ice-cream and braced myself for the worst. Two hours later I left the theatre in a state of shock and shame - my entire worldview had been shaken - I had to admit to myself that I *really* enjoyed this movie. Which is, as far as I can tell, a minority view. When something like this happens you have to ask yourself: is the rest of the world completely wrong about BASIC INSTINCT 2 and/or was I smoking crack?

Well, as painful as it is, let's try and work out exactly why I think you too should go see BASIC INSTINCT 2 this weekend. BASIC INSTINCT 2 is an erotic thriller. And before you think that sounds sleazy, you have probably seen and enjoyed more erotic thrillers than you think: Fatal Attraction, Where The Truth Lies, Mulholland Drive, In The Cut....And this sequel is
far less erotic and far more a thriller than the original. (I am not saying that this is a good or a bad thing, just noting it for the record.) There is far less explicit sexual content, no obligatory lesbian sex-scene. Indeed, most of the time, sex is hinted at, off-screen, or we just see the sordid consequences of it. In many ways, then, BASIC INSTINCT 2 has taken its relocation to London seriously, and while the content hints at dark-doings, these are no worse than your average British political
sex-scandal. (And no, I am not *just* talking about the spoofing of the famous Christine Keeler photo.)

A big sales factor for me is that the movie is shot not just in generic London but in precisely the part of London in which I live. And London looks bloody brilliant: all hyper-modern blade-runner skyscrapers in Canary Wharf and the City contrasted with claustrophic Gothic trophy buildings. It captures everything that I love about this town - that you can walk through the medieval glory of the Tower of London and five minutes later amble by the Lloyds building. And Soho (which these days is rather a gentrified tourist trap) has never looked more like a page from an Alan Moore novel.

But anyways, on to the plot and performances. The plot is pretty similar to the original movie. Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) is a successful author of pulp fiction. Her novels involve sex, drugs, murder: "the basic instincts", and usually describe sleazy crimes that later just happen to occur. In the first five minutes of this movie she speeds off a road into the Thames while having sex with C-list British footballer, Stan Collymore, leaving him to die. This brings her to the attention of the local police, one of whom (David Thewlis) wants to bang her up (ho-ho) whether or not he has the evidence. Catherine is referred to the state's psychologist, Dr Michael Glass (David Morrissey). Glass diagnoses her as a "risk addict" whose own death will be the only final boundary to her reckless actions. He then takes Catherine on as a private patient. A tangled web of affairs and evil-doings unfold involving David's ex-wife, her lover - a tabloid journalist threatening to expose murky secrets in Dr Glass' past - and David's mentor, played by the ever-amazing Charlotte Rampling. As in the first Basic Instinct, as the murders pile up we ask whether Catherine really is a psychopath, or whether Dr Glass, or even the dirty cop, are committing them to save their respective assess.

So far, so good. The plot ticks all the right boxes. How about the execution? Like I said, director Michael Caton-Jones (who bizarrely has the diametrically opposite movie, SHOOTING DOGS in UK cinemas at the same time as this) creates the perfect backdrop in London. London shimmers and seduces in exactly the same way that Catherine should. And, to my mind, Sharon Stone really does pull it off - although I am a "gurl" so clearly am no judge compared to all those moronic guys on blogs posting that she is too old to play the part. Alls I know is that I cannot imagine anyone else acting this outrageously and looking completely authentic while they are doing it. I am less sure of David Thewlis as the dirty cop and David Townsend as Dr Glass. Thewlis goes for over-the-top hammy - presumably on the say-so of the director - and Townsend is little better than a foil. It would have been infinitely more satisfying had they cast a heavyweight actor - whether Yank or Brit. Someone like Clive Owen, I suspect, would have done better.

But finally, I think the film works on a basic level as a whodunnit. The two hours flew by as the bodies mounted up (hehehe) and the plot became more complex. Yes I know some of it is a bit silly, not least the Stan Collymore episode, but you have to admire any film-makers that understand that genre and revel in its possibilities. And I defy any audience not to enjoy the scene where Catherine immitates Christine Keeler, gets Dr Glass hot, and then announces, "I think our time is up, Doctor!" That was one of the many INTENDED laughs that this film got.

So there we are. I really liked this film. What's next? I develop a taste for Jennifer Aniston rom-coms?

BASIC INSTINCT 2: RISK ADDICTION is on global release.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

JUNEBUG - brilliant but in need of a little more editing

JUNEBUG is for the most part a brilliant film that combines a simple plot with fantastic characterisation. First, the simple plot: George (Alessandro Nivola) is a guy from a small town in America who had a good Christian upbringing. He leaves home and meets Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) - a sophisticated, well-meaning but ambitious art gallery owner. Madeleine has to go to the country to visit an eccentric artist that she wants to sign up and, as its nearby, she and George go home to visit his family. The family are mum and pop - good people, even if mum does slightly mistrust Madeleine's strange, cosmopolitan looks and habits. Then there's kid-brother Jonny (Ben McKenzie of The OC fame) and his pregnant wife Ashley, played by Oscar-nominated Amy Adams. The character of Ashley is an absolute delight! At times she seems so infantile you hardly believe that she could be a mother, but she clearly has great strength of character. To quote her mother-in-law, Peg: "She's a firecracker!"

And that is the strength of this film: all the characters are complex and have a lot of grit. Director Phil Morrison and script-writer Angus MacLachlan never patronise them or caricature them. Unlike THE FAMILY STONE, Madeleine, the out-of-towner, is not a caricature nasty, hard-assed, insensitive city-girl. And unlike BUBBLE, the people in the country are not just simple, naive, credulously pious bumpkins.

Let me say again that these are all great characters, and the script-writer has unearthed rich comic potential in their meetings and misunderstandings.. I don't think I have heard an audience laugh as much since I watched GRIZZLY MAN.
The only flaw I can find with this movie is that when events take a darker turn, the structure becomes rather loose, meandering and in sore need of some good editing down. Despite flashes of brilliance in performance and dialogue and the emotional weight of what was before me, I found myself getting a bit fidgety. Still, even if the final half hour is a little frustrating, JUNEBUG remains a very insightful, funny and powerful movie. It is well worth checking out.

JUNEBUG premiered at Sundance 2005 and has been on release in the US. It opens in the UK tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

TAKE THE LEAD - step away from the ticket booth and put your Visa card down

Once upon a time there was a great feel-good documentary called MAD HOT BALLROOM that did something few studios ever achieve: it told an unusual and interesting story that was emotionally engaging without being manipulative. The true story was about a bunch of inspired ball-room dance teachers that ran programmes in inner-city schools, and through teaching kids the basics of ball-room dancing, also taught them self-respect and respect for others. It really was a fantastic film. I guess it was inevitable that faced with an original story featuring cute kids and great music (for which read sound-track revenue) Hollywood would not take long to sink its teeth into the neck of MAD HOT BALLROOM, and here we have the ghastly result. TAKE THE LEAD is a horror of a movie - a sort of insipid, formulaic, glitzy re-packaging of a film whose success was largely down to its authenticity. By contrast, this plastic disaster is all PC cliche and no balls. Shame on Liz Friedlander (maker of videos) for agreeing to helm it. Shame on Dianne Houston (writer of nothing of note) for "novelising" the documentary. And yes, I admit, Antonio Banderas is one of the few men who could make ball-room dancing an aspirational activity for hardened kids, but no, his good performance still does not make this a film worth watching.

TAKE THE LEAD opened in the US on April 7th 2006 and opens in the UK on Friday. It opens in France on July 5th. However, you can do yourself a favour and just rent MAD HOT BALLROOM instead.

Monday, April 10, 2006

FAMILIA RODANTE - Are we there yet?

FAMILIA RODANTE tells the tale of an eccentric old granny who takes her extended family 1500km across country in a decrepit camper van to attend a family wedding. I know I was meant to find this bunch of eccentrics charming and their little family arguments and flirtations endearing but I just found it dull, and vaguely depressing. When I was a kid my family would take long trips to visit relations in London. This was back before the M25 or climate control existed, and we'd spending hours crawling along the M1 in an over-heated Vauxhall. You know how it is. The slightest comment on dad's map-reading abilities flares into an irritable argument. You crawl through channels on the radio but only find crappy country music. Half the passengers are asleep, their sweaty foreheads stuck to the hot polyester seat covers. Perhaps the only chance of excitement is when your idiot kid-brother sticks his head out of the window as a lorry passes. Other than that it's just monotonous countryside and the odd petrol station. Well, having suffered enough of these journeys as a kid, I feel no need to suffer through anyone else's, even if they are from Argentina.

FAMILIA RODANTE premiered at Venice 2004 and went on limited release in the UK in November 2005. It goes on limited release in the US in August 2006 but is already available on Region 2 DVD.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

RENT - why did I cry when I found this movie so dull?

The thing about RENT is that it features a bunch of people that I can empathise with but whose lives are so divorced from my own that it takes a lot of effort. They are a bunch of singers, song-writers, artists, film-makers, strippers, junkies....who are mostly gay or at least bi-, some of whom are HIV positive. What they have in common is that they have dropped out of mainstream society and squat in a loft in downtown New York. Now, RENT means a lot to a lot of people because it captures a time and a mood - when the AIDS crisis hit hard at a point in the 1980s when it seemed like Anglo-Saxon society had collectively sold its soul to flash consumerism. It was the first musical in a while to capture what was going on in contemporary society and make it from off-Broadway to Broadway proper and into the mainstream consciousness.

The problem is that RENT then is not the same as RENT now. What seemed like viciously acute concerns then are no less concerning but have played out differently in a different context. The meatpacking district is now chic and the subject matter in RENT the movie now seems so tame it was given a PG-13 rating by the notoriously strict MPAA.

The other problem with RENT is that the music, choreography, lyrics and story-line were always rather mediocre and had none of the subtlety, seduction or sheer danger of, say, CABARET - which similarly focuses on marginalised members of a brutish society. Added to that, the movie makes the mistake of using members of the original cast who are clearly too old for the parts they play. Anthony Rapp looks plainly absurd in some of the dance moves - a fact highlighted by ham-fisted director, Chris Columbus' decision to focus on him at bizarrely painful moments. Added to the director's rap-sheet we must also point out that barring La Vie Boheme, none of the numbers had any energy. I've seen RENT live and the entrance of Angel is usually a HUGE moment. Here is was throwaway. And finally, if Rapp's character, Mark, is meant to be an aspiring Indie film-maker, why not make his footage actually look inspired rather than like America's worst home videos?

All in all, I found this to be a pretty uninspired movie. However, seeing the final reels of all the friends before drugs and AIDS takes hold, you can't help but be moved. I shed a tear when the stills of Angel are flashed across the screen at the end. A rare moment of directorial brilliance.

RENT is already on release in the US and UK and opens in France and Germany next week.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

STEAMBOY - thought-provoking but not entertaining

STEAMBOY is an animated movie from Japan, directed by the man who made the fantastically popular AKIRA. The issues raised are really interesting, especially when you consider that the movie is directed by a man who comes from the only country to have suffered a nuclear attack. And there is added piquance when you conside that the film was issued at a time when the US and UK are at war in Iraq using an unprecendented quantity of mercenaries.

The key issue is the purpose of science. The movie is a kind of James Bond-like action thriller featuring three generations of Mancunian inventers/engineers called the Steams. Grandpa Steam has invented the Victorian England equivalent of nuclear power - a tiny steam ball that contains untold energy. He thinks that the purpose of this scientific breakthrough should be "to make people happy". To that end he steals the SteamBall and sends it to his grandson in England, fearful that the Foundation that has sponsored his work will exploit it. In England, the Steam Ball is intercepted by Robert Stephenson and the British State. The Government's position is the British people cannot be happy unless they are "secure", and that science has a role here too. Moreover, if there is a military use for science, the State should have a monopoly on it. Not only does he want the Foundation to stop selling the technology to enemies of the State, he also does not want the Foundation to amass a private army.

Finally, Papa Steam - the Bond Villain of the piece - simply thinks that the fruits of science should be sold to the highest bidder and market forces - survival of the strongest - will do the rest. His plan is to display the SteamBall at the Great Exhibition at the Alexandra Palace and to sell his steam-powered army to the highest bidder. SteamBoy is caught in the middle of each faction, but eventually saves the City of London from a steam-powered attack. His sidekick, Scarlett O'Hara, scion of the dynasty that runs the Foundation, also makes the journey from naive coquette who simply wants "to win" even when she doesn't know what the game is.

As interesting as this story sounds, STEAMBOY failed to interest me. The evocation of Victorian England is great but there are simply too many long drawn-out action scenes involving British iconic buildings getting bombed. A lot of stuff is plain ridiculous - and despite my high resistance to ridiculousness (I loved KUNG FU HUSTLE for instance) this movie tipped over the line. The fact that the Foundation heiress is named Scarlett O'Hara is just silly for starters, let alone when open warfare breaks out in front of the "Ally Pally". Finally, while Al Molina and Patrick Stewart do a good job in the English-language voice-cast, Anna Paquin CANNOT do a Manchester accent. Still, this is less of a flaw because you could always get hold of the original Japanese language version and use the subtitles.

Overall then, I was a bit disappointed by STEAMBOY. Fans of strange animated stories might want to check out HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE instead.

STEAMBOY was released in Japan in summer 2004 and in the UK in December 2005. It is available on DVD.

Friday, April 07, 2006

PIERREPOINT took my breath away

PIERREPOINT is the kind of movie that leaves you struggling to articulate your emotions when the lights go up in the cinema. To paraphrase my friend, Swedish Philip, with whom I saw this movie, "it affected me inside." I can think of no higher recommendation for any film.

PIERREPOINT is a multi-faceted portrait of England's most prolific executioner, Alfred Pierrepoint. Pierrepoint executed over 600 people in his career in the 1940s and 1950s including Lord Haw Haw, various Nazi war criminals and, perhaps most controversially, Derek Bentley and Ruth Ellis. He was essentially a good and decent man who had a strong sense of duty and service to his monarch and state. He was also a quietly religious man. He was entirely uninterested in what his victims had supposedly done. It was enough for him that the State had judged them guilty. His vocation, as he saw it, was to deliver them the most efficient, humane and merciful death. And, once they had atoned for their sin, to treat their bodies with dignity and care. Pierrepoint certainly took a sort of school-boy pride in being the quickest to take his victim from cell to noose, or in being picked by "Monty" to administer swift British justice to Nazi war criminals, but somehow his pride does not seem selfish. Indeed, it can be selfless. In the most affecting scene of the movie - moreso because it is factually correct - Pierrepoint has to execute a man for whom he feels a great deal of affection. He knows this will plague his conscience for the rest of his life - despite the fact the man is uncontrovertably guilty - but goes through with the execution anyway. He knows that he can reassure the man, and ensure that his death is painless.

But PIERREPOINT is about more than one man's psychological and emotional journey. It is about the great social change that took place in British society in the 1940s and 1950s. At the start of the film, Pierrepoint is a man who administers Edwardian justice in a world that treats him as a war hero for it. By the time the film closes, the calls for an end to capital punishment are gathering sway and both Pierrepoint and his wife are no longer able to repress the emotional and physical reality of what he has done.

To my mind, this is one of the most amazing scripts that I have seen brought to the screen. The screenwriter lures us into Pierrepoint's world and psyche. I felt that I could finally understand why a good, affable chap could be an executioner, and why, in the end, he could not. Praise must go to every single member of the cast but especially to Timothy Spall, who plays Pierrepoint, Juliet Stephenson, who plays his wife, and to Eddie Marsan who plays "Tish". The production design, photography and score all combine to create the claustrophobic, repressed world of the 1940s and 1950s. (The movie is shot by Danny Cohen, who also shot the wonderful DEAD MAN'S SHOES.) The achievement is all the greater when we learn that the film was shot in four weeks on a shoe-string budget, and on 16mm film.

What more can I say? This is movie making at its finest with real creative talent and artistry devoted to bringing the singular life of a singular man to the screen. Please, do try to see it.

PIERREPOINT: THE LAST HANGMAN premiered at Toronto 2005 and goes on release in the UK today. It goes on limited release in the US on September 15th 2006.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Overlooked DVD of the month - THUMBSUCKER

THUMBSUCKER is a movie that is less than the sum of its parts. But, oh, when it works it really does work! One of the most-(over)hyped movies of the independent cinema circuit in 2005, it received a comparatively limited cinematic release. However, it's now available on DVD and I take great pleasure in recommending it. The movie tells the story of a family living in contemporary Oregon. The thumbsucker of the title is the elder son - Justin Cobb, played by the wonderful debutant, Lou Pucci. Justin is a seventeen year-old who sucks his thumb, a source of great embarrassment to himself, his kid brother and his Jock father. He finds sympathy with his mother Audrey - played be the ever-brilliant Tilda Swinton - but she also has her own problems, namely a fixation with a sleazy TV star played with a straight face by Benjamin Bratt. Meanwhile, Joe has to endure his kid brother's scorn and heart break at the hands of the pretty girl at school. In an act of desperation, Justin agrees to be medicated with Ritalin. Perhaps one of the most beautifully played scenes shows Justin and Audrey sitting at a table as he takes his first pill. There is no dialogue, but their faces tell the story - Justin's hope to become a new person - Audrey's simultaneous happiness for Justin and fear for what the drugs might do.

I am not saying that THUMBSUCKER is perfect. At times the material seems familiar - just another earnest coming-of-age drama - and the pacing can be slow. Moreover, it rivals JARHEAD for the most pretentious closing scene in cinema. But THUMBSUCKER is saved from mediocrity by occasional blinding flashes of humour. I have never seen
Vince Vaughn so muted and yet so funny as when he, the teacher, gives his school debate team a pre-match pep talk. And I never knew that Keanu Reeves could give such an intentionally funny, not to mention subversive, performance. He plays Justin's orthodontist - a guy who is into "alternative therapies". Believe me. Keanu is funny, parodic and even faintly sinister. Genius.

THUMBSUCKER premiered at Sundance 2005 and went on cinematic release in the UK in October. It is now available on Region 2 DVD.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

ALIEN AUTOPSY - sporadically funny, usually dull, British "comedy"

The ALIEN AUTOPSY of the title refers to the mythic footage that was supposedly taken at a US army base in the 1940s. The footage apparently shows army officials disecting an alien. Fast forward to 1995. A British chancer called Ray Santili allegedly uncovers this footage and sells it to the world's TV stations, where it is greeted with awe and then scepticism. Fast forward to 2006, and now, for your viewing pleasure, we have ALIEN AUTOPSY, the movie: a low budget British comedy about the infamous hoax.

I have to admit that this movie is far better than we had any right to expect given that it stars two British "entertainers" called "Ant and Dec" - self-styled cheeky Geordie chappies who have fashioned a career in Light Entertainment. True to their TV form, Ant and Dec inject a sort of low-key sporadic humour to the film - especially in the scenes where the hapless crew re-shoot the autopsy while the Gran passes round sausages on sticks. And, for all people forced to live in and around the 1970s horror that is the Barbican, there is a sustained joke at the expense of the Museum of London: surely the most ugly and pointless of London's tourist attractions. Lovely. But I just felt that a lot of great comic talent had been wasted. Why hire Jimmy Carr and Omid Djalili and then give them nothing to do? Whenever the movie strays out of Islington - to the house of a laughably bad Hungarian mafiosi, for instance - it becomes deathly dull. Worse still, Ant and Dec look hopelessly out-of-depth when sharing screen time with screen-legend Harry Dean Stanton. Stanton acts everybody else off the screen and spends most of his time looking like a deeply pissed-off refugee from a better movie. What possibly induced Harry Dean Stanton to appear in such mediocre fare?

ALIEN AUTOPSY goes on release in the UK on April 7th 2006.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

UNKNOWN WHITE MALE - fascinating and, to my mind, not fake

UNKNOWN WHITE MALE is an interesting documentary by Rupert Murray that has probably attracted more media attention than it deserves, or than is good for it. The subject of the documentary is Rupert’s friend Doug Bruce. One day, Doug woke up on a subway train to Coney Island. He had no idea who he was or what he was doing there and his backpack contained no identifying material except the phone number of a random woman. Doug turned himself in to the police, who contacted the woman, whose daughter – an ex-girlfriend of Doug’s – came to pick him up. The documentary follows Doug’s attempts to rebuild his life, shorn of any memory of who he used to be. We see the uncomfortable meetings with close family and former friends – nervous of whether he will feel an instinctive attraction to them. Doug does not regain his memory and seems nervous or regaining a life that he now feels is somewhat redundant. By the end of the film, he is happily in love with a woman who did not know him before the amnesia, and pursuing a life in the New York arts scene. Even his old friends and family seem to agree that he is “happier”* and more mellow in his new life.

Doug comes across as a genuinely engaging guy who is coping with a lot of very bizarre and frightening stuff with a great deal of character. The moment that stands out for me is the emotional intensity as he describes how, when he didn’t know who he was, he was able to, somehow automatically, sign his name in the hospital register and realise that “I am somebody”. If the film is emotionally engrossing then this is down to the fact that the director was able to get hold of a lot of old home video footage, photographs and Doug’s own video footage of his recovery. In fact, to my mind, the weakest parts of the film were the director’s reconstructions of Doug’s experiences, thanks to an altogether too liberal use of distorting lenses and weird camera angles. I get the point that the director was trying to show us how disorientating Doug's experience was, but there was too much of it. I also got the feeling that, having dismissed organic neurological damage as the cause of Doug’s amnesia, the director had missed a trick in not examining the possibile pyschological causes of it. Perhaps this is the disadvantage of having a director that is too close to his subject. But, havign said all that, what I did love was the fact that the director managed to convey the philosophical interest of the case – in other words, what is the meaning of identity? I left the screening with lots of questions and (happily) few answers.

I feel compelled to say a few quick words about the controversy that has surrounded this film in the US, where certain critics and film-makers, not least Michel Gondry, have alleged that the Doug Bruce case is a fake. According to Roger Ebert, while it is hard to find documentary evidence on the case, the film-makers convinced him that it was real. Having attended a brief Q&A with the director and producer in London, I can attest to their hurt and outrage at the accusations, although this alone is not enough to convince. What did convince me – a professional cynic – was the “performance” of Doug Bruce, which seemed, to me at least, utterly authentic. But in the final analysis, I am not sure if it even matters whether or not this is real (other than on narrowly puritanical grounds, but who is Hollywood kidding anyway?) The issues raised in the film are interesting and deserve cinematic discussion, and the central character is engaging. And that, dear reader, is more than I get out of most movies.

UNKNOWN WHITE MALE premiered at Sundance 2005 and was shown at the London Film Festival 2005. It went on limited release in the US in February 2006 and goes on limited release in the UK on April 7th 2006. There are no continental release dates but it is worth looking out for on DVD. *He DOES seem happier, but I cannot think of anything more tragic than waking up one day with my love for West Indian cricket having been erased.

Monday, April 03, 2006

CALVAIRE - Makes HOSTEL looks like Snoopy

CALVAIRE/THE ORDEAL is a genre movie that satisfies. In 90 minutes, the director, Fabrice du Welz, creates an atmosphere at first blackly comic, then slightly unnerving, then sinister and finally horrific. Marc Stevens is a cabaret singer who dresses in a sparkly cape and pays meticulous attention to his make-up. We meet him as he travels around the Belgian countryside performing in front of a nursing home full of desiccated, frustrated grannies. The director allows us to see Marc perform a full song, filmed in a single shot. Perhaps we are meant to laugh at his corny routine, but it is clear that Marc is happy in his calling. He will later cling to this when all around him is spinning out of control: “My name is Marc Stevens. I am a singer of love songs.” On the way to his next gig, Marc’s van breaks down in the back-woods of Belgium. He is taken by a vaguely sinister, yet seemingly harmless hillbilly who is searching for his lost and beloved dog to stay with another vaguely sinister and yet seemingly harmless hillbilly who has a room to spare. Increasingly nervous at the obstacles involved in getting his van repaired and embarrassed by the way in which the woodsman, Bartel, has befriended him, Marc obliges him by singing a tender love song. This song triggers something in Bartel, and he is reminded of his wife, who left him for another man. Bad things happen. This film completely creeped me out, despite the relatively restrained use of blood and gore because it created a sense of inevitability and claustrophobia. In HOSTEL, while bad things happen at the hands of psychopaths, the fate of the protagonist is ultimately in the hands of rational but ruthless people who can be appealed to, or outwitted, or paid off. By contrast, in CALVAIRE, there is no hope. Bad things happen not just because the protagonist is held hostage by a delusional hillbilly, but because the entire community is unhinged. There is no way out. There is no reason. And that, to me at least, is utterly horrifying.

CALVAIRE is available on DVD.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

SEPARATE LIES - quiet, intelligent drama

I like Julian Fellowes' debut directorial effort a great deal. It is a quiet, intelligent movie that shows empathy and sympathy with good people in difficult moral situations. There are no heroes and villains, but there is a great deal of humanity. The cast is exellent throughout, the direction competent, and the script, as always, interesting and insightful. SEPARATE LIES tells the tale of an upper-middle class English couple who live a superficially idyllic life in the sort of England that Richard Curtis tends to depict without irony. The husband is a successful lawyer in the City (Tom Wilkinson) whose priorities have become skewed toward work rather than toward his wife (Emily Watson). He is a fundamentally decent man who happens to work late rather a lot and undermine his wife in a number of small ways. She feels judged and criticised and is tired by it. She enters into an affair with a man (Rupert Everett) whose very indifference toward her is liberating. This is not, perhaps surprisingly, the cause of the "lies" flagged up in the title. Rather, a hit-and-run accident in the village threatens to implicate various members of the cast. How far should they lie to save innocent people from being hurt? How far can one lie, continuously, successfully? And how far can you say that you love someone until you see them at their worst/best? Just one example of what makes SEPARATE LIES fascinating viewing: the City lawyer has a secretary. The actress playing the secretary has little screen time and even fewer lines of dialogue. And yet, behind her prim and efficient exterior she manages to convey a frustrated love for the lawyer, a benevolent decency to his wife, a quiet pride in herself despite her vulnerability. This is old-fashioned drama at its best.

SEPARATE LIES went on release in Autumn 2005 and is now available on DVD