Wednesday, February 28, 2007


Where Daniel Radcliffe has stripped off emotionally and literally in a West End play to shake his Harry Potter image, side-kick Rupert Grint merely plays a slightly older put-upon teenager in this woeful coming of age comedy. Writer-director Jeremy Brock gives us a lazy film that has neither charm nor originality and is saved only by a typically witty performance from Julie Walters as an ageing luvvie. She hires Grint's hapless teenager as a home-help and shoe-horns him into driving her to the Edinburgh festival. Predictably, he learns a lot about life and love (i.e. clumsy sex) en route and they form an odd-couple friendship. The comedy derives entirely from Walter's fruity accent and the mild shock value, apparently, of hearing an old woman talk about "roaring lesbians."

DRIVING LESSONS was originally released in the UK in September 2006 and in the US in October. It is now available on DVD.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

DVD round-up 1: STEP UP

From the writers of SAVE THE LAST DANCE and episodes of THE OC we get a teen romantic drama as formulaic and gauche as one might expect. Beefcake du jour Channing Tatum plays a Vanilla Ice-style inner city kid who trashes a school for the performing arts and gets landed with 200 hours' community service cleaning out dustbins. When Jenna Dewan's ambitious dancer gets stuck for a partner she recruits the rough kid and sparks fly. Unsurprisingly, ex-boyfriends turn out to be scoundrels, there's a last minute fracas as to whether the show will go ahead and all ends happily bar the gratuitous and melodramatic exit of a side character. This movie has neither the wit of SHE'S THE MAN nor the emotional pull and on-screen chemistry of DIRTY DANCING. Still, there are worse things in life for a teenage girl than looking at Channing Tatum in a wife-beater for two hours.

STEP UP was originally released in the US in August 2006 and in the UK in October 2006. It is now available on DVD.

Monday, February 26, 2007

SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS - weaker than Vanilla Ice

SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS is a weak romantic-comedy remake of the classic 1960s Brit flick. (Younger viewers might see a little of ANGER MANAGEMENT in the setup.) It stars Jon Heder (NAPOLEON DYNAMITE) as a doofus loser called Roger who signs up for an empowerment class with swindler, sleazebag and all-round geezer, Doctor P, played by Billy Bob Thornton. When Roger starts to do too well in class, Doctor P steals his girlfriend just because he can, challenging Roger to step up to the plate and take her back. So follows some lame-ass plot resolutions involving a cameo from Ben Stiller - whose plot line is left hanging in mid-air. Shorn of his afro, Jon Heder raises no laughs in this under-written comedy. The few laugh-out-loud moments largely consist of Billy Bob Thornton calling someone or other a "dumbass". There's another smart line about Moby. But call me an old stick in the mud - I just don't find jokes about rape that funny.

Maybe, just maybe, if you are a big enough fan of Thornton you could check this out on DVD, but frankly, the hundred and twelfth viewing of
BAD SANTA is going to be a lot more worthwhile. I am astounded that this film is directed by the same director who brought us OLD SCHOOL.

P.S. Sarah Silverman fans should not be fooled by the posters - her part is small and her talent utterly wasted here.

SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS was released in the US, the Philippines, Thailand, Greece and Russia last year. It opened in Singapore, Latvia, Turkey and Estonia earlier this year. It is currently playing in the UK and opens in Iceland on March 2nd, Australia on March 22nd and in France on July 4th. SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS was released on Region 1 DVD last week.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA deserves its critical acclaim

We soldiers dig. We dig all day. This is the hole that we will fight and die in. Am I digging my own grave?To my mind, LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA is a far more successful film than its companion piece, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS. In the latter, director Clint Eastwood relies on an overly complicated non-linear plot to make an essentially simple point. It is an important point but not especially emotionally engaging. By contrast, LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA has a simple narrative structure. Its power lies in telling a story that we have not seen before through engaging characters and evocative photography.

The action of IWO JIMA takes place largely on the infamous island. We see the soldier digging pill-boxes on the beaches in anticipation of the American invasion. Much like the Americans in FLAGS, the Japanese soldiers realise that they are up against great odds, especially given that they can expect no support from air or sea forces. Added to their tactical difficulties is a literally suicidal factionalism within the high command. Ken Watanabe plays a General whose common sense rationale will not see scarce troops commit "honourable suicide", but who knows that the battle is essentially a suicide mission writ large. But he faces opposition from the old guard who demand death rather than escape to fight another day. And make no mistake, Eastwood does not shy away from showing us the extreme brutality of such actions on the ordinary soldiers tunnelled into the mountains.

In short, LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA makes for uncomfortable viewing, as it should. But it is essential viewing all the same.

LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA was released in Japan and the US in 2006 and played Berlin 2007. It is on release in Greece, the Netherlands, Finland, Iceland, Italy, Mexico, Spain, Belgium, France, Australia, Canada, Germany, Israel, Singapore, Austria, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Norway, Turkey and the UK. It opens in the Philippines, Hong Kong, Hungary and Brazil next weekend and in Brazil on March 9th, Sweden on March 9th, Russia on March 15th and the Czech Republic on March 29th.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

BLUE BLOOD - new movie of the week

BLUE BLOOD is a fantastic no-budget documentary by Stevan Riley covering the run up to the Oxford vs Cambridge Varsity Boxing Match. Minor, but inconsequential, gripes include the amateurish feel of the DV camera footage and a hammy pre-credits prologue, complete with Oscar Wilde quotation, beating drums and centuries-old rivalry. But once the film gets going it's absolutely gripping.

In the first half hour, we are introduced to a bunch of Freshers trying out for the team. They are largely a bunch of charming oddballs - and as such, to my mind, pretty much representative of Oxford life. We have a nerdy-looking philosophy student called Kavanagh; a foppish fine art student called Charlie; an aggressively ambitious unconsciously funny USAF officer called Justin; a serial reject from the OU rugby team called Boiler; and a nice ordinary lad called Fred! All of them bar Justin look unlikely boxers, and all of them, including Justin, are to a certain extent objects of hillarity in the first half hour.

However, we see them train hard and get to know them and like them. As a result, when they face their bouts in the second half hour we feel every punch they sustain and will them to win. Eventually, some make it to the Varsity match and win the coveted Blues. I have to say that I was as bound up in their victories and losses as I was watching the original ROCKY film. (For all you ROCKY-haters, I should explain that the last sentence is about as high as my praise for a boxing film can get.) My admiration for all these young lads was immense, as well as my admiration for the committed coaching team that has to take these raw recruits and turn them around in a mere academic year.

So, while it may be rather hard to find in a cinema near you, I strongly recommend that you go out of your way to find this documentary. It delivers far more entertainment, emotional engagement and insight than any other movie on release this week.

BLUE BLOOD is on release in the UK.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Oh, how I tried to like THE NUMBER 23

While I always try to be fair-minded as a critic, I really made that extra effort to like THE NUMBER 23. Whenever I've seen Jim Carrey in a role that isn't his usual straight comedy, I've been highly impressed by him. In particular, I think his performance in MAN IN THE MOON deserved the Best Actor Oscar. I also like Virginia Madsen and Danny Huston as actors and believe that they aren't as well know as they perhaps deserve to be. As for director Joel Schumacher - the man who will always be blamed for killing off the Tim Burton BATMAN franchise - he has made some of my favourite films. I cite FALLING DOWN, THE LOST BOYS, FLAWLESS and TIGERLAND in his defence.

But let's get right to it: THE NUMBER 23 bored me rigid. But it's not like it's badly filmed or acted. Indeed, I rather liked the director's visual stylings and the photography of Matthew Libatique. I even like the concept of the film. It's a psychological thriller in which a happily married guy called Sparrow (played by Carrey) starts to believe that the central character in the novel he's reading is a mirror of himself. The character in the novel is a homicide detective called Fingerling (also played by Carrey). He meets a woman who is driven to suicide by a paranoid conspiracy theory about the number 23. The detective believes that the curse has been passed to him and is soon having nightmares in which he murders his sexually provocative girlfriend. Back in the real world, Sparrow also starts to believe that he is in the centre of a 23 conspiracy and starts to lose control over his life.

That the movie fails is down, I think, to a shockingly bad script. The structure is all over the place. The movie takes too long to get started, uses too much voice-over, and never feels as though it is in control of the inter-twining plot strands. Little details in how the conspiracy theory are fleshed out are infantile and stretch credulity just that little bit too far. For instance, the author of the novel is called Topsy Krett. Top Secret. Geddit?!

So, it is with heavy heart that I report that a movie with a bold concept and bold casting is just an uninvolving mess. Not a disaster, by any means, but no reason to hand over ten quid at the multiplex either.

THE NUMBER 23 in the UK, US, Iceland and the Philippines. It opens in Belgium and France next week and in France, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Germany, Singapore, Brazil, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Spain, Sweden and Italy in March. It opens in Portugal in April and in Russia in May.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

THE GOOD SHEPHERD - the duracell bunny of spy flicks

Someone asked me why when we talk about CIA, we dont say 'the CIA' , and I told him, 'You don't say 'the' when talking about God.'Like the Duracell bunny, THE GOOD SHEPHERD goes on...and on....and on...with nary a emotional hook or surprising plot twist to keep you going. I swear if I hadn't been on a date I would have walked out. Over designed and directed, this ponderous three hour movie drags its heels through twenty years of the life of the American secret service like so much cement.

The story sees a young
Matt Damon recruited into the prototype of the CIA - working for US Secret Ops from London and then Berlin. Married to a woman he does not love (Angelina Jolie) and father to a son he barely sees, he ascends the bureaucrat ladder until, twenty years later, he becomes involved in the Cuban invasion. Insofar as the story has an emotionally sterile man at its heart, it should come as no surprise that I felt so emotionally uninvolved in the film. Damon's performance does what it should, but with the minutes ticking on I felt strangely uninvolved in Jolie's emotional life.

As a spy thriller, the movie fares even worse. The writer tries to inject a little
Smiley-Karla competition by pitting Damon's CIA man against a KGB counter-part codenamed Ulysses. The denouement is a weak mirror of the means by which Smiley finally ensnares Karla, for all you fans of the infinitely superior early spy-novels of John le Carre. The film-makers were unwise in bringing such a comparison to the viewers attention. Where le Carre used to be deft, economical, cynical but still a little romantic; where characters were quirky, fascinating, constantly evolving; Eric Roth gives us the most turgid screenplay I have seen filmed since MUNICH. It's no coincidence.

Other minor gripes:
Billy Crudup makes a hash of an upper class English accent in his portrayal of a British spy; Alec Baldwin is wasted as a Fed; as is John Turturro as Damon's side-kick/heavy; the make-up do not make Damon look convincing as an older man; ditto Jolie as an older woman.....

THE GOOD SHEPHERD was released in the US in December 2006 and has since opened in Brazil, Australia, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Austria, Venezuela, Argentina, Russia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Poland and the UK. It opens in Latvia and Sweden on March 2nd; in Turkey and Italy on March 9th; in France and Switzerland on March 21st and in Singapore on March 29th. It opens in Spain on April 4th and in Belgium on April 18th. THE GOOD SHEPHERD is released on Region 1 DVD at the end of March.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

I don't get the appeal of CARMEN JONES

I don't understand why CARMEN JONES is worth a re-release. Sure, Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge are attractive and give decent acting performances as the free-spirited seductress who lures an upstanding soldier into a life of crime and desperate violence. But this is, in many ways, a disastrous adaptation of the Bizet opera (of which I am a moderate fan). For a start, the lead actors (the majority of whom were accomplished singers) are dubbed by singers who do not have the technical chops for singing opera. Second, Otto Preminger does not bring the best out of the source material which his staging. A classic example is early on in the piece when Carmen sings "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle" or whatever the updated version of the score calls it. On stage, the aria is our first glimpse of Carmen's character and we have to believe that she is absolutely bewitching. Usually, this is staged with Carmen moving fluidly through a group of people hanging on her every word. Preminger chooses to have her sing this in a cafeteria where all involved are seated - indifferent - at tables through which Carmen moves uneasily.

Overall, then, this film left me cold. If you want to see an imaginative, though not flawless, modern version of the operetta, you should check out U-CARMEN instead.

CARMEN JONES was originally released in 1954. Otto Preminger won the Golden Bear and Dorothy Dandridge was nominated for, but did not win, the Best Actress Oscar. The film is currently on re-release in the UK.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

CASABLANCA - wonderful contradictions

What can I say about CASABLANCA that hasn't already been said by more articulate reviewers - that hasn't been confirmed by continuous sales over the last sixty-odd years and countless accolades in those AFI Best Of.. lists? As with THE THIRD MAN, all I can give is a personal response. I first watched CASABLANCA on a scratchy video copy at college and was struck not so much by the famous love story but by the dry wit of the script. And as I continued watching it - and I have watched it many times since on video, DVD and restored at the cinema - I am always struck by the inherent contradictions in the movie and I am convinced that it is this tension and subtle complexity that make CASABLANCA such an outstanding film. *Spoilers follow*

So to take it from the top....The protagonist is a bundle of wonderful contradictions. Rick Blaine is a wry, apparently cynical night-club owner who professes to protect no-one's skin but his own. And yet, he has fought on many a losing side in Europe and ultimately makes a sacrifice not merely for love but also for the Czech independence movement. He is played by Humphrey Bogart, an unconventionally handsome man, famous for his roles as wry private eyes with a penchant for white knight behaviour that gets them beaten up and not much love or money when all the fighting's over. In other words, despite Rick's superficial cynicism, he is a romantic.

The heroine is a superficially modern woman called Ilsa, played by Ingrid Bergman at the height of her beauty. She had an affair with Rick in Paris, but left him for the Czech freedom fighter, Victor Lazlo. Despite the fact that she is beyond the conventional morality of the time - she will eventually leave Casablanca with Lazlo rather than staying with Blaine, to become, essentially, a conventional First Lady figure and emotional support. Blaine may push her onto that plane but I believe Ilsa has a strong enough character to refuse if she really wanted to.

The supporting characters are also a rich rogue's gallery of witty, politically slippery refugees, black marketeers and military officers. The contradiction here is in the film-makers deliberate attempt to make the rogues likeable and to allow Rick to find a certain camaraderie among these slippery people.

Further to this, we have a lushly romantic film - with one of the most emotionally devestating final scenes - wherein the best remembered lines are remarkably ordinary - remarkably colloquial and everyday. "Here's looking at you kid" is a classic example: hardly a dramatic, flowery declaration of passionate love, and yet the fantastic chemistry between the two leads makes us believe that that's exactly what they feel. But let's take this further and look at the tone of the film in which this passionate love story is played out. I give you the following dialogue as an example:

Captain Renault: What in heaven's name brought you to Casablanca?
Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
Captain Renault: The waters? What waters? We're in the desert.
Rick: I was misinformed.

This dialogue is funny in its own right, but I think it does more than that. It's sharpness cuts through the heavy romance of the core story and stops it from becoming cloying. Which is why, while we adore CASABLANCA because it is a noble story of love renounced for a greater good, we watch it again and again because it is also good fun. To wit, up with all those famous lines of dialogue about love, perhaps one of the most famous lines has nothing to do with the love story at all: "Louie, this could be the start of a beautiful relationship."

You know all about this, of course. CASABLANCA is a genuinely great and popular movie. Memorable characters, general character development, a narrative that keeps you hanging even when you've seen it before, witty dialogue and an emotional payoff at the end...... But it is worth seeking the movie on re-release because you'll better really appreciate the skillful and economical direction of Michael Curtiz (ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES) and the photography of Arthur Edeson (THE MALTESE FALCON) on the big screen.

CASABLANCA was originally released in 1942. It won Oscars for Best Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay but bizarrely lost out on the Best Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Photography and Orchestral Score gongs. It is currently on re-release in the UK.

Monday, February 19, 2007

WATER - the sad lot of Indian widows

WATER is a politically charged film exposing the cruel treatment of Indian widows in pre-independence India.

Director Deepa Mehta explores this alien world through the eyes of a young girl called Chuyia ("Mouse"). Married before puberty, Chuyia finds herself a widow and thus an outcast from society. Her family leave her in a religious house where these outcasts band together, praying for a happier reincarnation, whistfully remembering the years of feast, begging for money and, if young and beautiful, being pimped by a eunuch on behalf of the alpha widow. When Chuyia asks obvious questions - when do we stop praying? - where is the house for widowers? - the other widows anxiously quieten her. She is expected to accept her fate and the belief that merely by touching a married woman, she can pollute her.

As well as attacking the traditional treatment of widows, the movie attacks how high caste Indians treated the outcastes. In a striking scene, a Brahmin (upper class) man tells his son, Narayan - a liberal law student, follower of Gandhi, and the hero of the film - that a whore is blessed when a Brahmin sleeps with her. Therefore, he should feel no compunction in sleeping with the attractive young widow, Kalyani, and forget all this marriage nonsense. To marry a widow, whether whore or not, would be a sin.

WATER works best when following Chuyia's exploration of her newfound role in society. And for me, the real hero of the piece - in terms of an emotional and intellectual awakening - is the widow Shakuntala. Both are played by fine actresses - Chuyia by a young Sri Lankan girl and Shakuntala by Seema Biswas, famous for her role as Phoolan Devi in Bandit Queen. The love story between Kalyani and Narayan felt like a distraction, although presumably necessary to expose the hypocrisy of shunning the widows for being polluting in public but sleeping with them anyway in private. Lisa Ray is just okay as Kalyani - but then she is largely a cipher. But how pleasantly surprising to see Bollywood action hero, John Abraham, give a decent turn as Narayan!

Apart from the performances from Sarala and Seema Biswas, the key strengths of the film are its stunning and atmospheric cinematography and score. Its most obvious flaw is a melodramatic denouement which feels out of step with the mournful tone of the rest of the film. Is there enough here to merit an Oscar? I don't think so - at least not in the year of Volver, Tony Takitani, Pan's Labyrinth. I only hope that the movie has been nominated on merit rather than out of liberal solidarity. Famously, production in India was halted after protests by politicians still touchy about the criticisms of Indian society and the two leads had to be recast.

WATER played Toronto 2005 and was released in Canada in 2005. It opened in the US, France, Germany, Portugal, Italy, Belgium and Singapore in 2006. It is available on Region 1 DVD. I do not know of a UK release date. WATER has been nominated for Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

Sunday, February 18, 2007


LOS OLVIDADOS is a brutal, short, black and white film shot by Luis Buñuel in the slums of Mexico City in 1950. The movie has an energy and authenticity derived from its quick gonzo shoot and the use of real kids and real stories.

A mean kid called Jaibo is released from prison and proceeds to gather a gang of young waifs around him. He beats up the helpless - the crippled and blind - in his desperate but cruel bid to survive. Less excusable is his lecherous advances to a young girl and his violent revenge on the kid who squealed. Jaibo hangs out to dry a young kid trying to make good called Pedro. It is with a sadistic and Dickensian sense of fatalism that when Pedro is given a chance by a kindly reform officer, Jaibo is waiting for him, and drags him back down to the gutter.

Superficially, LOS OLVIDADOS is a very different film from later Luis Buñuel flicks like
BELLE DE JOUR. However, within the overall tone of gritty realism we have a sinister dream sequence that is Buñuel at his most idiosyncratic and psychologically penetrating. Still, there is none of the macabre black humour of a film like BELLE DE JOUR here. The tone is nihilistic and fatalistic. This is a world where a mother will feed herself before her son. It is a world where the director will make us sympathise with a blind man, viciously attacked, but then show us the same blind man as a sexual predator. I haven't seen a movie end on such a low note since THE 400 BLOWS.

LOS OLVIDADOS was originally released in 1950, when it won the award for Best Director at Cannes. It has been restored and re-released by the British Film Institute in the UK.


ORCHESTRA SEATS is on-paper a pretty mediocre romantic-drama/comedy written and directed by Danièle Thompson. But is has a low-key charm and optimism that I find hard to resist.

Technically this is very workman-like project: there won't be any prizes for camera-work or editing. In fact, they are downright poor. Similarly, the plot is full of incredible coincidences and the whole movie is an extended meet-cute.

Essentially, we have three people who have achieved, but are to some extent dissatisfied with, worldly success. All three have a big night taking place around a local Paris brasserie. Valérie Lemercier plays Catherine Versen - a foul-mouthed but hysterically funny daytime TV star, opening in a theatre production and desperately wanting a serious film break from an American producer played by Sydney Pollack. Albert Dupontel plays Jean-François Lefort, a celebrated concert pianist who is desperate to get out of the concert circuit and begin a more humble life. He is petrified that his wife, Valentine (Laura Morante) won't make the move with him. Meanwhile, Claude Brasseur plays the old widower, Jacques Grumberg. On the same night as Catherine's theatre opening and Jean-François' concert, Jacques is auctioning off the art-collection he spent years amassing with his wife. Jacques is also dating a younger woman (Annelise Hesme, best known to Brits as the girl in the Renault ads), much to his son, Fred's, chagrin.

What unites these people is their patronage of the local cafe, where a young girl from the country is a waitress. Jessica (Cécile de France) has a naive innocence that brings out the best in all concerned and forces the requisite happy ending, not least for Fred (the not unattractive Christopher Thompson.)

As I said, a lot of the plotting of this movie is pretty hokey but as a nice meditation on life and love it has a quiet charm that is exactly opposite to the forced sentimentality of most Hollywood romantic-comedies. This isn't a movie to seek-out, but if you're looking for a less crass date movie, it'll fit the bill.

ORCHESTRA SEATS opened in France, Belgium, Israel, italy, Greece, Germany, Canada and Brazil in 2006. It opened in the US last Friday and opens in the UK next Friday. I topens in Argentina on March 29th and in Australia on April 12th.

THE GOOD GERMAN needs a good DP

THE GOOD GERMAN is a pastiche of movies like CASABLANCA, THE THIRD MAN and CHINATOWN. Director Steven Soderbergh sets himself a sort of technical exercise: to recreate an old-fashioned noir-thriller using the technical apparatus available to film-makers at the time. To that end, the movie is shot in black-and-white using the appropriate camera equipment on a Hollywood back-lot. The resulting film is technically incompetent. Soderbergh betrays a lack of technical mastery that is unforgivable in a technical exercise of this sort: or at the very least, a lack of practical humility in refusing to hire a Director of Photography with the requisite skills. The lighting and treatment of the film stock results in a poorly lit and often under or over exposed movie which jars the viewer. To see old-fashioned cinema techniques done properly one need look no further than some of Lars von Trier's early movies, not least Zentropa. Still, the cack-handed photography is to some extent offset by the appropriate orchestral score and the spot-on production design.

Technical failure aside, how does THE GOOD GERMAN fare as a thriller? I'm split on this. On the one hand, I think the casting is a complete failure. Tobey Maguire is unconvincing - simply too light - as a young American GI on the make in post-war Berlin. He's meant to be a cunning, anti-Semitic, abusive black-marketeer pimping out his glamorous girlfriend played by Cate Blanchett. Maguire's performance is so superficial that the relationship isn't sold to the audience. As for Cate Blanchett, as much as I admire her acting chops, to be cruel, she simply doesn't have the conventional beauty required for such a role. Moreover, her decision to lower the tone of her voice to approximate a sort of Garbo-seductive tone is a mis-fire. It sounds like a mockery. Moreover, her accent is inconsistent and basically not very German. George Clooney is by far the most appropriately cast as a journalist investigating a murder at the Potsdam conference and the truth about Cate Blanchett's character. Although he betrays a rather limited range, the only definite clanger is when he speaks German with an accent and fluency ridiculously poor for a character who supposedly lived in Berlin before the war.

The plot itself is just fine. Moderately interesting and I did want to know whodunnit and whytheydunnit. In fact, I now want to read the source novel and have my enjoyment of the story unencumbered by poor photography, Cate Blanchett's accent and Soderbergh's clumsy nods to noir classics. You'll get an idea of how clumsy these are when I tell you that Clooney spends much of the film with a plaster across his ear, Nicholson stylee.

Overall, then, what can I say? Despite its manifest flaws, THE GOOD GERMAN does sort of work as a thriller. Perhaps one for DVD?

THE GOOD GERMAN played Berlin and Dublin 2007. It has already opened in the US, Argentina and France and opens in Singapore and Sweden next week. It opens in Germany, Austria and Italy on March 2nd and in Australia, Spain and the UK on March 9th. It opens in Belgium and Iceland on the 16th and in Brazil on the 23rd. It opens in India, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Turkey, Norway and Japan in April.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP/LA SCIENCE DES REVES - kooky, romantic, beautiful

THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP is a visual and imaginative tour de force from writer-director Michel Gondry (THE ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND). Some say that unshackled from post-modern cult writer, Charlie Kauffman, Gondry has slipped into beautiful but self-indulgent and ultimately boring whimsy. I beg to differ. While I can see the intelligence and conceptual brilliance of a movie like ETERNAL SUNSHINE, Kauffman's films have always left me a little cold. The characters always seemed like pawns in a clever game and I found the movies emotionally sterile. (Perhaps this is the point?) By contrast, THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP is deeply personal and each character is well-loved and engaging, despite going on a surreal, sometimes creepy romantic thrill-ride.

Our hero is a young artist called Stéphane with a child-like fondness for inventing things and optical illusions. Lured back to Paris from Mexico by his French mother with the offer of a creative job, Stéphane finds himself stuck as a typesetter in a basement full of kooky colleagues. The most memorable of these is a middle-aged alleged love-monster called Guy who mercilessly takes the piss out of his co-workers and upstages the lead characters whenever he is on screen. Faced with such a numbing job, Stéphane retreats into his richly imagined dreamworld. Here he is the star of his own Blue Peter style childrens TV show; he can kick his boss out of the window; and he can have fantasies about his co-worked Martine. However, events really kick off when he meets his shy neighbour Stéphanie. At first, he fancies her friend, but soon, Stéphanie's obession with rescuing knitted dolls and making things wins Stéphane over. The question is: will Stéphanie allow herself to be drawn into this charming, romantic dream-world and find love.

It should now be clear that you cannot approach this film with a cynical mind-set. The whole point is to confront us with an infantile man and ask us what is wrong with his reversion into dreams. To that end, the production & costume design betrays an attention to detail not seen since THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS and the characters have a similar habit of saying exactly what they think, no matter how naif or down-right bizarre that seems to us.

If the movie walks a fine line between whimsy and ridiculousness, it stays on the right side thanks largely to a laugh out loud funny script and outstanding performances from all lead and supporting actors. Among the supporting cast, Alain Chabat (LE GOUT DES AUTRES) is outstanding as Guy. And as far as the leads go, while Charlotte Gainsbourg is absolutely fine as Stéphanie, the revelation is Gael García Bernal as Stéphane. I have always liked his work but it has all been off a piece - THE CRIMES OF PADRE AMARO to THE KING to BAD EDUCATION, he has played sexually confident, almost predatory men. By contrast, in THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP he plays a shy, child-like character completely convincingly and - more of a revelation - plays comedy really well, moving as easily between English, Spanish and French as his character moves between dreams and reality.

THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP played Berlin 2006 and went on release in France, Germany, the US, Belgium, Russia, Denmark, Israel, Portugal, Mexico, Poland, the Netherlands, Greece, Hong Kong, Sweden, Turkey and Estonia in 2006. It opened in Finland and Italy in January 2007 and is currently on release in Spain and the UK. It opens in Japan on April 7th, in Australia on May 3rd and in Argentina on August 9th. THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP is also available on Region 1 DVD.

Friday, February 16, 2007


THE TRUTH ABOUT LOVE is a romantic-comedy so piss-poor that its release has been delayed three years, and even now it's only being pushed out to cash in on the sad-acts who venture into the cineplex on Valentine's Day looking for a quick snog in the back row for the price of a bargain bucket of popcorn. Clearly, Jennifer Love Hewitt is in familiar territory, but what the heck is Dougray Scott doing here? He needs better representation.

THE TRUTH ABOUT LOVE went straight to DVD in the US in 2005. It is on release in the UK, but do you really want to see a romantic-comedy whose third cast member's role is "suppository man"?

Thursday, February 15, 2007

HOT FUZZ makes SHAUN OF THE DEAD look pants

From the team that brought you break-out comedy and horror spoof SHAUN OF THE DEAD comes a movie so funny that hysterical cameos by Martin Freeman, Bill Bailey and Steve Coogan are BY FAR not the funniest things about it. Yes, yes, yes. Finally, we have a genuinely laugh-out loud comedy that contains a clever but never up-its-own-arse pastiche of the cop thriller genre. Simon Pegg returns as the straight man around which all manner of weird shit happens in deceptively "normal" British surroundings. This time, he plays a super-dedicated cop called Nicholas Angel. Angel is a man after my own heart - a genuine Londoner - and he's being pushed out to the country (yikes!) so that his colleagues can stop looking so bad. Angel hooks up with a dopey side-kick local copper called Danny who dreams of packing heat and busting drug-lords, BAD BOYS II stylee. Sadly, the village of Sandford has the lowest crime-rate in Britain. A crime-rate almost suspciously low. Hehehe. Cue lots of creepy "local" goings-on; genuinely witty dialogue; brilliantly observed gags at the expense of town verus country rivalry; and the kind of intelligent pastiche that the writers of EPIC MOVIE should bloody well aspire too. I can't say more because it'll just come out like a bunch of repetitive sycophantic drivel. Basically, this movie is funny. If you want to be amused, go and see it.

HOT FUZZ is on release in the UK. It opens in Spain on March 9th, in Argentina, Australia and Russia on March 15th and in the Netherlands on April 5th. It opens in Sweden and the US on April 13th and Germany on June 14th.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

EPIC MOVIE - the 38th worst movie of all time

I considered writing a one word review of EPIC MOVIE. It would read "WANK". That, I felt, would sum up how much effort the writer-directors Jason Friedberg & Aaron Seltzer, and the cast, notably Kal Penn and Jennifer Coolidge (both of whom should know better) had put into the movie.

Heck, it's not even a spoof of EPIC films! Half of the time it's pastiching films like
NACHO LIBRE or CHARLIE AND THE CHOOCOLATE FACTORY which are in no way epic. And we're lucky if it even sticks to movies - the other half of the time it's making lame-ass references to MTV Cribs and the like. At one point, it rips off SNAKES ON A PLANE, which is itself a pastiche. Seriously. EPIC MOVIE isn't even cinema. It has no discernable narrative arc, no character development and barely a phrase of sentient dialogue.

Indeed, the movie is only noteworthy because it is another in a long franchise that manages to score well at the box office despite the intellectual and emotional vacuity of the product. I assume that the people who watch these films are the same cohort that smoke cigarettes - how else can you explain people who willingly hand over hard-earned money to watch something so poisonous and patronising? (I got a free ticket because the cinema had earlier messed up an internet booking. It proved to be the cinematic equivalent of free drugs from your friendly local dope-peddler. They give away the shit for free because no-one would willingly get involved in such a racket.)

EPIC MOVIE is on release in Australia, the US, Ireland, Latvia and the UK. It opens in Singapore and Philippines later this month and in Argentina, Spain, Iceland, Russia, Estonia, Belgium, Finland and Sweden in March. It opens in Germany and the Netherlands and Italy in April. It opens in France in May.

BECAUSE I SAID SO - arguably racist, definitely piss-poor

The makers of BECAUSE I SAID SO should go and sit in a corner and think very carefully about what they have done. It beggars belief that this woefully under-written, uninspired romantic-comedy was directed by the man who gave us the acerbic cult classic, HEATHERS. But then again, it is co-written by the woman who foisted I AM SAM onto an uncaring world. Diane Keaton embarasses herself in a farce unworthy of her undoubted comedic talents and whether or not Mandy Moore has true acting chops, she is wasted here. The plot, such as it is, involves a creepily intrusive mother setting up her daughter with some racially profiled dates.

All I can say is, thank god
MUSIC AND LYRICS is also out this week: it gives those of us who have faith in the romantic-comedy genre something to cling on to.

BECAUSE I SAID SO is on release in the US, Italy and the UK. It opens in Argentina on March 8th, in Brazil on March 23rd, in Iceland and Turkey on April 13th, in Finland on April 20th and in Belgium on August 8th.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Overhyped DVD of the month - BROTHERS OF THE HEAD

From the makers of the outstanding documentary LOST IN LA MANCHA comes a truly bizarre mockumentary, BROTHERS OF THE HEAD. Using fake archive footage, the mock. tells the story of a pair of conjoined twins, raised on an isolated farm in the Fens. Plucked from obscurity by a mercenary band manager they are transformed into a highly influential punk band. The twins are corrupted by the rock'n'roll lifestyle, but most especially by a female rock journo, interviewed in flashback. It all ends in tears - an ending that is none too subtly hinted at by talking heads throughout the mockumentary. Frankly, I found the film dull. Innoncence corrupted by freak-hunting commercial bastards is not news. And despite a decent attempt at the costumes and some hand-held camerawork, the alleged archive footage never convinces. The film-makers just haven't got a handle on the requisite techniques. Worse still, the allegedly conjoined twins just don't maintain the fiction of being conjoined! There's also another aimless, sub-par script from Tony Grisoni. Indeed, about the only saving grace is the nice photography of East Anglia courtesy of DP, Anthony Dod Mantle.

BROTHERS OF THE HEAD played the festival circuit to wild acclaim and got a limited release in the US and UK last year. It is now available on DVD.

Monday, February 12, 2007

CLIMATES/IKLIMLER - brutally honest

The healthy humor of the honest tommy. Don't worry my boy, if you should falter, remember that Captain Darling and I are behind you. CLIMATES is the latest film from the Turkish auteur, Nuri Bilge Ceylan (UZAK). It is an uncompromising, unflinching examination of an emotionally abusive relationship. Ceylan plays a middle-aged university lecturer who treats his younger girlfriend with a casual indifference. Bored with her, he suggests a split. He has a brief fling with a more sexually and emotionally confident woman, but is stung by a reference to his ex-girlfriend. He offers himself to her again, with promises of reform. She refuses him but - and this is no spoiler to those who know the fatalistic, bleak nature of Ceylan's work - eventually relents.

From such thin material, Ceylan creates a visceral, painful portrait of a woman who goes back into an unsatisfactory relationship knowingly, and with quiet, tearful resignation. He also creates a character in Isa - the lecturer - that is more than the cliche commitment-phobic middle-aged man. I honestly got the impression that Isa did not see that he was behaving badly. He just did what he did. The older woman sees this and plays along. Despite physical submission we don't feel she is any real danger. By contrast, the younger woman seems to be signing on for life imprisonment.

The strength of the film lies in the uncompromising honesty of every aspect of the production. The performances are quiet and authentic rather than histrionic. The dialogue and orchestral score are spare. The photography is austere, forcing us to concentrate on the internal life of the characters, thanks to static tableaux and intrusive close-ups. But most importantly, in the age of the disposable romantic-comedy or the crass melodrama, Ceylan dares to be brutally honest about the reality of modern relationships.

CLIMATES/IKLIMLER played Cannes, where it won the FIPRESCI prize, and Toronto 2006. It was released in Turkey, the US, Norway and Greece in 2006 and is currently playing in France and the UK. It opens in Austria on March 23rd nd in Italy on May 4th.

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION - sadly, rather disappointing

In every actor there lives a tiger, a pig, an ass, and a nightingaleI realise that it's more than a little perverse to praise a mainstream, unimaginative rom-com like MUSIC AND LYRICS and then to pan a Christopher Guest movie in the same week. After all, Christopher Guest is a comic genius. He co-wrote and starred in THIS IS SPINAL TAP and more recently brought us the wickedly well-observed improvised mockumentaries BEST IN SHOW and A MIGHTY WIND. So, I approached his latest effort, spoofing a low-budget movie production that suddenly gets a whiff of an Oscar, with high expectations.

The resulting film is, however, sadly disappointing. Something about the scenario or the characters just didn't take. Perhaps it's because Hollywood is too obvious a target. No-one had made a film about dog shows, let alone used it as a hook on which to skewer the insecurities of humanity. But Hollywood has been done - not least by David Mamet in the outstanding STATE AND MAIN. Maybe, Guest just missed a trick in the characterisations he handed his key players. In particular, I thought Jennifer Coolidge was wasted - criminally hemmed in by her part as a dim-witted movie producer. But a lot of the time, the results yielded by the improvisation just didn't have the necessary quotient of witty one-liners. Ricky Gervais was very ordinary as a mercenary studio executive, and the Siskel and Ebert spoof fell flat too.

Still, Christopher Guest on bad form is still light years ahead of most of the alleged comedy filling the multiplex and there are a couple of scenes in FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION that had me guffawing in an embarassingly conspicuous manner. The stand-out actors are John Michael Higgins, who plays a PR agent called Corey Taft and Fred Willard who plays an ageing, wannabe hipster entertainment reporter. Willard really is Pure Comedy Gold in this flick.

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION played Toronto and London 2006. It was released in the US last November, in Australia in January and in the UK on Friday. It is released on Region 1 DVD on February 20th.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

MUSIC AND LYRICS - surprisingly good!

I had a fun time watching MUSIC AND LYRICS. Yes, it sticks to the conventions of the romantic-comedy. Yes, it's cheesy. Yes, it has an improbable but ludicrously heart-warming denouement. But compared to a mercenary, over-long, over-schmaltzy product like THE HOLIDAY, MUSIC AND LYRICS looks like a winner.

The movie features Hugh Grant as a washed-up 80s boy-band veteran. He's stuck on the nostalgia circuit - playing school reunions - and desperately needs to write a hit song for a Britney-like singer hip-hop singer called Cora. To this end, he recruits his conveniently lyrically-gifted plant-waterer (I kid you not), played by Drew Barrymore. They write the song, fall in love, and despite the obligatory obstacles, the movie ends happily.

There are three great things about the film. First, it brilliantly spoofs 1980s pop bands - and Hugh Grant clearly has a lot of fun in the role and delivers his self-mocking one-liners with real comedic skill. Second, the ballad that Hugh and Drew are writing is really rather nice and adds credibility to a rather improbable tale. But third and most crucially, Hugh and Drew have genuine on-screen chemistry and grown-up dialogue to deliver. So, as surprised as I am to say this, credit where credit's due: MUSIC AND LYRICS is a great romantic-comedy.

MUSIC AND LYRICS is on release in the UK. It opens in Australia, Malaysia, the Philippines and the US on Valentine's Day and in Bulgaria on the 16th. It opens in Hong Kong, Brazil and Italy on the 23rd. It opens in Iceland and Sweden on March 2nd, in Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Singapore, Austria and Norway on March 9th. It opens in France on March 14th, in Latvia on March 16th and in Spain on April 13th.

THE REEF aka SHARKBAIT aka PI'S STORY - a stinker by any other name would smell as rotten

Rob Schneider derp de derp. Derp de derpity derpy derp. Until one day, the derpa derpa derpaderp. Derp de derp. Da teedily dumb. From the creators of Der, and Tum Ta Tittaly Tum Ta Too, Rob Schneider is Da Derp Dee Derp Da Teetley Derpee Derpee Dumb. Rated PG-13.As much as I hate the liberal earnestness of a movie like HAPPY FEET, there's something equally annoying about a kids movie with the moral center and profundity of a Sweet Valley High novel. THE REEF is a poorly animated CGI movie from South Korea featuring a series of mediocre voice talent who use the word "dude" too much. The plot sees a Nemo-esque cute fish seek refuge in a protected Reef after his family becomes sushi. He falls for a cute fish called Cordelia (Evan Rachel Wood in a career mis-step) but in true Karate Kid form, she is the preferred date of a bullying tiger shark. So, little Pi has to stand up to the mean shark in order to save his chick, with the help of a hard-as-nails turtle voiced by the embodiment of cinematic evil, Rob Schneider. Presumably, really small kids will be thrilled enough by the mere concept of animated talking fish but for anyone else, I suspect, intense boredom awaits.

THE REEF was released in South Korea in July 2006 and is currently playing in the UK. It opens in the Czech Republic on February 22nd and in the Netherlands on April 25th.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

HANNIBAL RISING - he knows Kung Fu

HANNIBAL RISING is an unnecessary prequel to the Hannibal Lektor stories, RED DRAGON and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. I call it unnecessary because I always thought it was scary to see Lektor as an evil that simply existed rather than the result of some childhood trauma. The unexplained is infinitely more frightening that the neatly diagnosed. Of course, in a world of shameless cash-ins, a prequel was a dead cert, and here we have it.

The movie is directed by Peter Webber of THE GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING fame, and so looks handsome and contains fine performances as far as the absurd script allows. It opens on the Eastern Front of World War Two, with the aristocratic Lektor family being caught in the cross-fire of the Nazis, Soviets and mercenary partisans. Trapped in a cabin with the latter, Lektor as a young ten-year old sees them cannibalise his young sister. This would be a plot spolier (it takes Hannibal half the film to remember) were it not so bloody obvious from the start. Lektor survives the attack and as a young adult escapes a Soviet orphanage - gaily pole-vaulting over the Berlin Wall - to join his widowed Aunt in France. In another authorial choice that stretches credibility, the aunt turns out to be a glamourous Japanese woman who teaches him Samurai skills (!) and condones his murderous crimes of vengeance. Hannibal then attends medical school, becomes involved in the persecution of Vichy criminals and returns to his home to extract revenge.

Gaspard Ulliel (A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT) and Gong Li do as well as can be expected with their roles as Hannibal and Lady Murasaki. Ditto Rhys Ifans as the original cannibal. But the whole this is transparent nonsense and even more high-camp than the Anthony Hopkins movies. I am also slightly disturbed by the casual way in which the Holocaust is used as a sort of narrative crutch for the movie. Clealy, one to avoid.

HANNIBAL RISING is on release in the US, UK, France, Australia, Russia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Latvia and Turkey. It opens in Germany, Austria, Finland, Iceland and Norway on February 16th, and in Belgium and Estonia on February 23rd. t opens in Singapore on March 1st, the Netherlands on March 8th, Hong Kong on March 15th, Japan on March 31st and in Malaysia on April 14th.

Friday, February 09, 2007

GOAL! 2 LIVING THE DREAM - losing the naive charm

A couple of years ago we were subjected to GOAL! - a heart-on-its-sleeve, rags-to-riches story about a poor, illegal immigrant Mexican football player getting scouted for Newcastle United. The movie had manifest flaws. It left no sports-flick cliche unexploited and had a painfully wooden cameo from David Beckham. Still, it did what is set out to do with a certain naive innocence and had a certain charm for all that.

Every aspect of GOAL! that I gave the benefit of the doubt comes in at half the pace and quality in GOAL! 2: LIVING THE DREAM. Instead of Danny Cannon (CSI) as director we get Jaume Collet-Serra of HOUSE OF WAX fame. As a result, the movie has zero visual flair and the football scenes in particular are edited to within an inch of their life. Whereas GOAL! had been script-doctored by British comedy greats, Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais, GOAL! 2 lacks their more authentic and interesting dialogue. Poor Anna Friel, who plays Santiago's Geordie girlfriend, fares the worst from this ommission. She spends the entire film exclaiming, "Oh wow, this is so big!" or "Oh no! I really need a wee!".

The plot is pretty lame. Real Madrid has swapped Michael Owen for Santiago. He becomes their super-sub, scoring at will, while his ageing friend Gavin (Alessandro Nivola) is in a goal drought. As any fule kno, in a sports movie, when the hero makes it big, he starts to piss-off his old loyal friends and girlfriend, attracts hot chicks with evil designs, suffers as a result, before being redeemed. The only marginal difference here is that Santi discovers he has a poor half-brother with soccer skills in Spain.

It's rather a shame that GOAL! 2 has lost its charm and what little visual flair GOAL! had. I am also shocked that so many pro-footballers are willing to put in face-time. After all, the figure of Gavin is clearly taking the piss out of ignorant, cash-rich premiership footballers. Doesn't Beckham see they are mocking him?

GOAL! 2: LIVING THE DREAM is on release in the UK. It opens in Spain on March 16th, in Hong Kong on March 22nd, in France on April 4th and in Germany on May 31st.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

CHARLOTTE'S WEB tells some home truths

CHARLOTTE'S WEB is a perfectly passable children's film based on the famous book by E.B.White. It stars Dakota Fanning as a little girl who rescues the runty pig from her father's axe. The little pig, named Wilbur, then moves into her uncle's stable and befriends an articulate spider called Charlotte. Charlotte sets about writing words in her web describing the pig as special, so as to persuade the humans of a miracle and save Wilbur from a pre-Christmas trip to the smokehouse.

The movie is filmed in live action, with a host of ridiculously famous actors lending their voices to the various animals - Julia Roberts, Oprah Winfrey, Steve Buscemi, Robert Redford, John Cleese, to name but a few. The voice-overs are well-done and the whole movie has a suitably fairy-tale feel, as evidenced by the fact that the orchestral score is by Tim Burton-favourite, Danny Elfman. However, apart from Julia Roberts who voices Charlotte and Dominic Scott Kay who voices Wilbur, the actors all have thankless tasks - doing their best with limited screen-time. This is particularly a problem for Fanning who finds herself upstaged by an alarmingly cute talking pig.

The movie has its fare share of cloyingly saccharine moments. But let's be clear. CHARLOTTE'S WEB is a movie about how all life ends in death and how some animals are higher than others on the food chain. The tone is set early on, when the little girl saves the piglet from her father's axe and the editor cuts to some sizzling bacon frying in a pan. So parents with little kids should be warned that the movie contains some heavy material - indeed teaching little kids some reality is exactly the point of the film. Still, you need'nt fear that this is a liberal, vegetarian rant. Both the novel and film are remarkably conservative. The message is not that bacon comes from cute pigs so don't eat it, but that this is how life is, so deal with it.

CHARLOTTE'S WEB is already on release in Australia, the US, the Netherlands, Greece, Singapore, Japan, Denmark, Mexico, Venezuala, Germany, Brazil, Poland, Kuwait, Argentina, Estonia, Iceland, Norway, Armenia, the Philippines, Switzerland, Belgiu, France, Sweden and the UK. It opens in Hungary, Finland and Hong Kong next week. It pens in Italy and Latvia in March and in Turkey and Spain in April.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Overlooked DVD of the month - SNOW CAKE

SNOW CAKE is a fascinating low-budget film directed by Marc Evans (MY LITTLE EYE) and written by first-time screen-writer Angela Pell. It stars Alan Rickman as an uptight English middle-aged man travelling by car through Canada. He is approached by a kookie young girl called Vivienne in a road-side cafe and reluctantly offers the emotionally-open, talkative young girl a lift. As a result, his journey takes a detour to Vivienne's home town, where Rickman's character strikes up an unlikely friendship and respect for Vivienne's high-functioning autistic mother, played by Sigourney Weaver.

This is, more or less, the extent of the plot of the film. It's success relies in making us - the viewer sceptical of the meet-cute in the opening scene and the too-familiar odd-couple story-line - form an affection and respect for the central characters. Alan Rickman's character invites our sympathy as the vulnerability underneath the stand-offishness is revealed. And Sigourney Weaver's character has a remarkable inner strength and a charming ability to be direct and bang-on. Their scenes together are surprisingly funny: despite the subject matter, this is not a dour film.

I was initially put-off by Sigourney Weaver's performance - which seemed exaggerated to the point of parody - but before long I was swept up in the developing friendship. I'm not sure whether the performance toned down as the film developed or whether I, like Rickman's character, just overcame my prejudice and became accustomed to it. It's certainly one to ponder. At any rate, this is an interesting and unusual movie that goes beyond typical Hollywood stereotypes and, bar the last scene, avoids any sentimentality or patronising its central characters. Definitely work a look.

SNOW CAKE played Berlin and Edinburgh 2006 was originally released in the UK in September 2006. It is available on Region 2 DVD. It opens in Belgium on March 14th and in the USS on April 25th.

Monday, February 05, 2007


My turd is a direct communication from the Holy Father.RUNNING WITH SCISSORS is a star-packed adaptation of a best-selling memoir that is now the subject of a lawsuit. Unsurprising, given that the author, Augusten Burroughs, depicts his adoptive family as a bunch of crazies (technical term) stretching the viewer's credulity. Dumped by his egocentric, failed poet mother, Augusten moves into the criminally filthy, decrepit Finch household in the mid-1970s. There follows many a bizarre-O scene involving Papa Finch (unlicensed, tablet-dispensing, tax-owing Psychologist - Brian Cox); Mama Finch (eats pet food); Hope Finch (high-strung, eats dead cat - Gwyneth Paltrow); Natalie Finch (raped as kid, rebel - Evan Rachel Wood); Bookman (schizo, gay, paedophile - Joe Fiennes); kid who poops under the Christmas tree.......Sadly, the director, Ryan Murphy never manages to fashion a coherent whole from this gallery of grotesques. Worse still, he never makes us care. Final result: dull, dull, dull, despite a star-turn from the ever-brilliant Annette Bening as the kid's mum.

RUNNING WITH SCISSORS was released in the US last October, in Brazil in November and in Germany, Norway and Spain in January. It is currently on release in Singapore and the UK and goes on release in Italy on the 16th and in Argentina and Israel on the 22nd. It opens in Sweden on March 16th, France on March 21st, Belgium on March 28th and Australia on March 29th.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

FREEDOM WRITERS - earnest yet alarmingly crass

Wow, you used your library card?FREEDOM WRITERS has everyone's favourite under-dog, Hilary Swank, play an inspirational teacher in inner-city LA. Based on a true story, the movie nonetheless has a tired feel: another white middle class teacher (viz. Michelle Pfeiffer in DANGEROUS MINDS) reaching out to ethnic minority kids afflicted by gang violence. She does this by working extra jobs to take them on trips and buy them nice shiny new books. The mid-1990s hip-hop sound-track has a nice nostalgic vibe (remember when rappers rapped about life rather than champagne?) and Swank plays earnest like no other. But I couldn't help feeling a little scandalised by the parallel drawn between life in urban LA and life for persecuted Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. Hollywood at its most earnest and yet also at its most crass.

FREEDOM WRITERS was released in the US in January and opens in the UK and Spain on March 2nd. It opens in the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark and Turkey on March 9th and in Belgium, France and Germany on March 15th. It opens in Australia on March 22nd, Singapore and Italy on March 30th and in Brazil, Norway and Sweden on May 18th and in Argentina on May 31st.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Read Gareth D. Myles' Public Economics: Don't watch AMERICA: FROM FREEDOM TO FASCISM

Federal Reserve is no more 'federal' than Federal Express. I've never seen a full list of ownership for the Fed -- I don't think anybody has.AMERICA: FROM FREEDOM TO FASCISM is ostensibly a piece of investigative journalism uncovering the shaky constitutional basis of the Federal Income Tax and the IRS. It is in fact a thinly veiled, badly argued, and badly constructed piece of political propoganda. Let's take each of these charges in turn.

The writer-director and inquisitor-general, Aaron Russo, is not up-front about his political affiliations and he's similarly slapdash in explaining who his talking heads represent. So, for instance, you might find that a certain person is a Professor of Constitutional Law. Fair enough. But it would be nice to know which institution had awarded him tenure so as to evaluate his credibility. Or Aaron Russo will show an apparently respectable representative of such-and-such think tank. It would be useful to have a little explanaation of what that think tank's key positions are - just as we conventionally label a member of Congress with his party and constituency.

The documentary is also badly argued. It's crux is that the Constitutional Amendment that introduced Federal Income Tax was passed under dodgy circumstances and the resulting law and its enforcement by the IRS is illegal. If true, this is fascinating.* But Russo can't resist going further: asserting that its passing was the result of a conspiracy from international financiers in terms scarily reminiscent of anti-semitic propoganda in turn of the century Europe. Moreover, he does not confine himself to the issue at hand but takes a scattergun aim at all sorts of bogeymen.

This lack of coherence distracts the viewer and undermines the credibility of the basic argument and leads me to the conclusion that AMERICA: FROM FREEDOM TO FASCISM is a bad documentary. By contrast, the best agit-docs take a powerful simple story and tell it in a credible, straightforward manner.

AMERICA: FROM FREEDOM TO FASCISM was released in the US in summer 2006. It is now available on DVD.

*Fascinating yes, but of practical importance? I'd argue that whether or not the amendment was passed in 100% the proper way, I'd still want to pay my income tax. Russo asserts that people should resent paying Federal Income Tax because the money spent goes on servicing debt NOT on providing public services. They are financed from corporate tax and hypothecated indirect taxes such as vehicle excise duty. First off, how does he think the debt is incurred? From paying for public services, of course! For paying for more services, in fact, than can be afforded from current receipts. It is not a question of comparing expenditure in one year and drawing a false trade-off but at looking at public finances in a dynamic sense. Second, if there were no Federal Income Tax, the government would have to either cut spending or increase corporate and indirect taxes. Corporations would have to pass on those tax increases through higher prices to the end-user (i.e. consumer) or indirect taxes would have to rise. The burden would still fall on the person originally paying Federal Income Tax, broadly speaking. Throughout much of this argument, I couldn't help wish that Russo had read a basic textbook on Public Economics. And don't even get me started on the arguments concerning Central Bank policy....The frustrating thing is that I superficially share many of Russo's stances - being of a very liberal turn of mind. In general, I am for small government, civil liberty and transparent, accountable public institutions. But this guy has gone off so half-cocked, and with such little basic understanding of tax policy, that he has done the cause more harm than good.

Friday, February 02, 2007

ARTHUR AND THE INVISIBLES is so cute I can forgive it all its manifest flaws

Jimmy Fallon and Madonna redeem themselvesI've read the bad reviews of ARTHUR AND THE INVISIBLES and I agree with everything they say. The movie borrows heavily from other films and children's stories. The plot is a bit random. Whole set-pieces happen for no other reason than, say, writer-director Luc Besson, wants to see a rastafarian character (voiced by Snoop Dogg) get the pre-teen hero get high. And of course there is that snobbish need to condemn any movie that has a connection with Madonna. The movie rips off many another tale, and features far too much ueber-hip post-modern stylings from the characters. One of the most ridiculous plot contrivances is that despite life-threatening poverty, Arthur attends an English boarding school so as to explain his upper-class English accent! There's also a disastrous parody of Pulp Fiction and Saturday Night Fever.

But the thing is that ARTHUR AND THE INVISIBLES is a fun time. If you take some kids to see it, they will enjoy it and, frankly, I enjoyed it too. Certainly a lot more than the usual talking-animal US animation.

The story sees a young boy called Arthur (Freddie Highmore) who lives with his poverty-stricken grandmother (Mia Farrow) on a rural farm in 1960s America. The nasty evil Goonies-style property developers are about to seize the family farm and turn it into condos. So Arthur has to search for some rubies that his grandfather hid on the family estate in the care of some inch-high little humanoids called the Minimoys. In miniature form, the movie switches from live action to animation and Arthur has to journey into the lair of the evil M (David Bowie) and rescue his grandfather, locate the ruby and win the heart of the feisty Princess (voiced with no little skill by Madonna.)

It's not a work of genius, but you know, the Minimoys are sweet, and their world is richly imagined. Despite the plot plagiarism, ARTHUR AND THE INVISIBLES is actually far less formulaic than most studio-produced kids movies. So all in all, I have to give it a thumbs up.

ARTHUR AND THE INVISIBLES was released in Francem Belgium, France, Israel, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Iceland, Hungary, the US and Kuwait in December. It was released in Poland, Australia, China, the Philippines, Argentina, Germany and the Netherlands in January. It is currently on release in Italy, Sweden, the UK. It opens in Denmark on Feb 9th, in Norway on Feb 16th, in Finland on March 2nd and in Hong Kong on April 5th.