16 BLOCKS is already showing in the US, France, Germany, Austria and the UK.
Sunday, April 30, 2006
16 BLOCKS - superior crime thriller
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 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 was released in the US in February and is in on release in the UK.
TICKETS - thought-provoking but sterile
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
INSIDE MAN is on global release.
Wednesday, April 26, 2006
BALLETS RUSSES - great story, great artistry, great movie
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 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
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.
Sunday, April 23, 2006
AMERICAN DREAMZ - More hit than miss, but still not brilliant
Saturday, April 22, 2006
TRISTAN + ISOLDE - rather leaden sword-swinging romance
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
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
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
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
Anyways, let’s get back to basics. SHE’S THE MAN is a very loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Viola is a young girl who just wants to play football but faces opposition both from her school and her mum. 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. 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 . 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.
 A statement that is ridiculous in so many ways.  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.)  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?  That’s soccer to you yanks  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.  Although “Wilmer” is a cool name.  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
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 on global release.
Friday, April 14, 2006
BASIC INSTINCT 2 - My not-so-secret shame
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
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.
Tuesday, April 11, 2006
TAKE THE LEAD - step away from the ticket booth and put your Visa card down
Monday, April 10, 2006
FAMILIA RODANTE - Are we there yet?
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 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
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 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
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"
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
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 is available on DVD.
Sunday, April 02, 2006
SEPARATE LIES - quiet, intelligent drama
SEPARATE LIES went on release in Autumn 2005 and is now available on DVD.