Saturday, March 31, 2007

THE NAMESAKE - lyrical immigrant story

THE NAMESAKE is a beautifully produced, deeply affecting immigrant story, based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. The team behind SALAAM BOMBAY and MISSISSIPI MASALA (director Mira Nair and writer Sooni Taraporevala)and cinematographer Frederick Elmes deliver a sensitive adaptation that will, I hope, resonate beyond the ex-pat communities in America and Europe.

The two-hour drama centres on a charismatic but self-contained Bengali academic called Ashoke. An avid fan of author, Nikolai Gogol, he undergoes a traditional arranged marriage and takes his young bride to America. They have two children, move to the suburbs and have a loving, happy life. This all sounds rather banal, but thanks to absolutely stunning performances by Irrfan Khan and Tabu,
this relationship is captivating. It is rare to find two such memorable characters - and such an enchanting portrait of a quietly happy marriage - on screen.

The real drama of the story centres on Ashoke and Ashima's son, formally named Nikhil (a name he can conveniently shorten to Nick in later life), but lovingly known as Gogol. Gogol grows up as an all-american kid and much of the second half of the movie centres on how he comes to terms with both aspects of his life. I found this a far less successul plot strand - although still by far more interesting than most movies. The reason is that Gogol is played by Kal Penn who, while a highly gifted comic actor, simply does not have the chops for such challenging dramatic material*. Another problem is that Gogol's love interests - a Bengali played by Zulheika Robinson and a preppie played by Jacinda Barrett - are thinly drawn: arguably casualties of compressing the novel into a two-hour run-time.

Despite these flaws, THE NAMESAKE remains a fascinating, finely-observed, moving story. Highly recommended.

THE NAMESAKE played Toronto and London 2006 and is on release in the USA, India, France, Italy and the UK. It opens in Australia and Singapore on April 5th and in Belgium, Mexico, the Netherland and Spain in May. It opens on June 14th in Germany. *Although it is ironic to note that Kal Penn has also shortened his Indian name to make it more Hollywood-friendly.

Friday, March 30, 2007


In the Best Film Category at this year's Academy Awards we had three films of undoubted brilliance: THE LIVES OF OTHERS, PAN'S LABYRINTH and AFTER THE WEDDING. Then we had two films characterised by worthy subject matter, impressive ensemble acting and stunning landscape photography: WATER and DAYS OF GLORY. Both films also share rather clumsy, melodramatic endings and in the fact that their big political points are so obvious to any reasonably liberal viewer that the movies become banal.

DAYS OF GLORY (a bizarre translation of the original French title, INDIGENES) is a political film. The point it makes powerfully is not, however, a subtle or complex one. During World War Two, France recruited soldiers from her North African colonies, shipped them to France, and used them to help her regain some military honour in repelling the Germans. However, while "German bullets do not pick and choose", the military establishment certainly did. Mainland French soldiers got better food, more leave, promotion and glory. The North Africans, while being sold an idea of the French motherland, were treated as second-class citizens. So much so that by the end of the film, the hero is living in poverty.

The movie is handsomely photographed, well-acted, and well-written by Rachid Bouchareb and Olivier Lorelle. I don't agree with some reviewers that the soldiers all follow "types" - the Uncle Tom, the radical, etc. Their conflicted loyalties to the French state are more subtle than that. However, as I said, this movie suffers - as most "issue" movies suffer - from too much hand-wringing, repetition, and preaching to the converted. Still, it is worth checking out - perhaps on DVD - and is notable for the fact that the French government actually changed its policies on war pensions for the North African soldiers.

DAYS OF GLORY/INDIGENES played Cannes, London and Toronto 2006 and opened in France, Belgium, Singapore, Malaysia and Sweden last year. It opened in the Netherlands and the US earlier this year and is currently playing in Spain and the US.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

MIDDLETOWN - bonkers....

..but not enough to be interesting.

MIDDLETOWN is a low-budget film set in contemporary Northern Ireland. It is monochrome both in terms of colour palette and narrative. Matthew MacFadyen plays an ex-missionary priest who returns to his home town to find his brother gambling and his pregnant sister-in-law serving pints on a Sunday. He's pissed off for around 80 minutes then goes mental in the final ten. Whoops, I just gave away the plot....such as it is. I think the point is that fundamentalist nutters are a menace. Evidently.

MIDDLETOWN went on release in Ireland in November 2006 and in the UK for about a nanosecond in March. It is available on Region 2 DVD.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

TMNT - the franchise that dare not speak its name

One of the occupational hazzards of being the person in the family who is known to watch a bunch of films, is that you find yourself volunteered to chaperone a bunch of ankle-biters to movies that you would, in all prejudice, rather bite off your own ankle than watch. I can just about deal with the idea of a short cartoon about teenage mutant ninja turtles eating pizza, shouting "cowabunga" and prancing about on skyscrapers, but a full length movie was always going to be too long and too ridiculous even for me.

But TMNT - the franchise so eager to rebrand it's not even using its full name - is not a bad film. Director Kevin Munroe has deftly traversed the problem that grown men in latex suits look stupid by cunningly CGI-animating all the characters so that they all look stupid. Oh yes! in TMNT, not only are the turtles more buff, but the human characters are eerily elongated and distorted like a pastiche of manga. Fans will be happy, though, to see April, the turtles and Splinter back, although the villains are different. The plot, such as it is, involves the turtles being reunited to round up some evil beasties that are wandering the city causing havoc. Turns out an immortal Aztec warrior turned wall street tycoon (figures!) needs them to unlock a portal to another world and unleash hell on earth, Ghostbusters-stylee.....

The movie skips along at a furious pace, with not so much "cowabunga" as of old and a lot of fighting. Indeed, the whole movie is basically one loud, long, CGI fight scene with various armies of ninja-people, ninja-turtles, ninja-friends, April's house-mate in a hockey-mask, robo-ninjas, stone-ninjas, and a wolf-ninja for fun. I can't say it did much for me, but it was over soon enough and the kids seemed to get an adrenaline-rush and the desire to swing sticks at things. Which I gather is a good thing.

TMNT is on release in on release in Australia, Israel, Russia, Canada, Singapore, Turkey, the UK and the US. It opens in Belgium, the Philippines, Argentina, Greece, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Iceland, Norway, Spain and Venezuala next week. It opens in France, Germany and Austria on April 12th and in the Netherlands, Latvia and South Korea later in April. It opens in Finland on June 22nd.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

AMAZING GRACE - workmanlike but worthwhile biopic

In AMAZING GRACE, director Michael Apted (HBO's Rome) and writer Steven Knight (DIRTY PRETTY THINGS) deliver a workmanlike but worthwhile biopic of anti-slavery campaigner, William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffud). The film covers his early life as an MP, fired up by an ex-slave-ship captain turned preacher (Albert Finney) and his best friend, Prime Minister William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch). Despite the evidence of an escaped slave (Youssou N'Dour) and some popular support, every year Wilberforce's bills are beaten by vested interests in the form of Lord Tartleton (Ciaran Hinds) and The Duke of Clarence (Toby Jones.) Worse still, when the new French Republic declares war on Britain, Wilberforce and his radical friends (not least Rufus Sewell's Thomas Clarke) are seen as seditious. Despondent, and increasingly dependent on laudanum, Wilberforce contemplates defeat, before a fiery young woman played by Romola Garai prompts a renewed attack in a more helpful political climate and victory, via a cunning Fox is achieved.

The movie is not without its flaws. It will not win prizes for visual flair and feels the need to dress up its earnest history lesson with a little love story (Wilberforce and wife) and a little emotional manipulation (the blind preacher's final speech). History is teased into a palatable form: lords sit with commoners in parliament, for example. However, there is no doubt that this is a very well acted film, with a scene stealing cameo from Michael Gambon as Charles Fox and a finely nuanced performance by Cumberbatch as Pitt. And as someone with little prior knowledge of this issue I found the movie engrossing - an effective primer on the social and political backdrop to the anti-slavery movement in Britain. But, in fairness, I should warn viewers looking for the African viewpoint on slavery, that that lies beyond the scope of this particular project.

AMAZING GRACE is on release in the US and UK and opens in Australia in June.

Friday, March 23, 2007


Paolo Sorrentino's new film, THE FAMILY FRIEND, is one of the most sinister and stylish movies I have seen. Set in contemporary working-class Italy, the central character is a morally and physically grotesque tailor and money-lender called Geremia (Giacomo Rizzo). He portrays himself as a kind-hearted simple man who helps out friends in trouble but really he is a shrewd, sleazy, shuffling little man who uses his hold over people to insinuate himself into their lives. It is truly horrifying to see Geremia lusting over the beautiful young bride (Laura Chiatti) who's wedding he has financed. Similarly horrifying is his relationship with his house-bound mother - a character straight out of David Fincher movie. At the same time, there is something absured about Geremia's situation - a weak, vulnerable looking old man who is actually rather powerful. Sorrentino underlines the black comedy by giving Geremia a natty line in potato-filled headbands (cure for migraine, apparently) and a side-kick goon who's obsessed with Country and Western music.

THE FAMILY FRIEND gives us, in Geremia, a truly memorable character and a tragi-comic plot. But what raises it even further above the norm is Paulo Sorrentino's originality of vision. He films the story with a cool detachment that mirrors the deadpan humour of the piece. Most impressive, though, is his choice of music on the soundtrack. Geremia at his most scheming is accompanied by Elgar's Cello Concerto - not a piece I would have typically associated with such a scene - but a brilliantly bathetic choice. Later, we have plenty of early 80s synth music which gives us a cheap porn-movie feel. And even more improbably, the inclusion of Antony and the Johnsons.

In short, THE FAMILY FRIEND is the sort of movie that cine-addicts dream of: it surprises even the most jaded viewer and piques even the most satiated appetite.

THE FAMILY FRIEND was released played Canned and London and was released in Italy in 2006. It opened in the UK last week and opens in France on May 2nd.

CATCH A FIRE - earnest, important, dull

CATCH A FIRE is an earnest drama based on the true story of a black South African man called Patrick Chamusso. He was a successful foreman in the power-plant that supplied half the country's electricity. He cared for his wife, his two daughters and coaching the local footie team: he kept himself away from the ANC's rising campaign of terror and fight for liberation. The defining moment of his life was the point at which he was wrongfully arrested for committing a terrorist attack on the power plant. The white South Africans' brutal treatment of his wife prompted him to leave the country, join the ANC and return as fully-trained freedom fighter.

The movie is nicely-filmed and well-acted. Derek Luke (Antwone Fisher) does well in his role as Chamusso and the supporting cast is fine, despite Tim Robbins risible attempt at a white South African accent in his role as the head of the Anti-terrorist squad, Nic Vos. However, the film falls well-short of the claim on the poster that it is a "thriller". There is a little chase at the end as the army tries to hunt down Chamusso before he blows up the power plant, but for the most part this is not an action film in the BLOOD DIAMOND vein, but a drama about a man's coming to political consciousness.

And here we find a problem. Because the movie never really gets inside the skin of the lead character. Chamusso is never more than a cipher - observing the surrounding political events and leading the viewer through the landscape. In particular, the movie skips over the two parts of Chamusso's life that I thought would have been really interesting: how he got through his long imprisonment on Robben Island and how he came to forgive Nic Vos. I find this whole concept fascinating: the idea that a whole country could go through a truth and reconciliation process. And here, through two men, we could have had a glimpse at how such a process worked. Sadly, this second act is wrapped up with undue haste by the director.

So, while CATCH A FIRE is an important story, it also makes for 90 minutes of desperately dull cinema. Moreover, it's a big disappoinment for fans of Phillip Noyce's previous films, RABBIT PROOF FENCE and THE QUIET AMERICAN.

CATCH A FIRE was released in the US and Australia in 2006 and in Kuwait, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Spain, Singapore, Japan, Egypt and France earlier this year. It is currently on release in the UK and opens in the Netherlands on April 19th and in Italy on June 23rd. CATCH A FIRE is also available on Region 1 DVD.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

300 - truly a spectacle

300 is truly a spectacle. It dazzles the viewer with stunning images of finely-hewed, red-caped Spartan warriors; decadent Persian courtiers; a gold-flecked, jewel-bedecked god-king; and enough stylised spear-fights to satisfy the most ardent Total Warrior.

The movie is based on Frank Miller's graphic novel which told the story of the Battle of Thermopylae. Thermopylae is a narrow pass in Greece, and in 480 BC King Leonidas of Sparta defended that pass with a small army of his own Spartans and other Greeks against a vastly larger Persian invading force.

Writer-director Zach Snyder beautifully renders Frank Miller's graphic novel: feeding our imaginations with the sort of old-fashioned glamour, excess and epic sentiment that old-fashioned big-studio Hollywood used to specialise in. The director uses the same techniques as in SIN CITY - mixing live-action with CGI to create highly stylised visuals that approximate the graphic novel. Famous plates are re-created closely - specifically Leonidas pushing the Persian ambassador into the well; the Spartans herding the Persians off a cliff; and the final spear throw that grazes Xerxes face. The casting closely matches the facial features of the characters in the graphic novel too - especially the case of the effete Xerxes and Leonidas himself.

The plot is also fairly close to the novel, with no key scenes ommitted. The key difference is that the role of Queen Gorgo is massively enhanced, perhaps as a sop to Hollywood's need for a strong female character and a love-interest. (They did the same thing with the role of Arwen in LOTR). Thus, the film breaks away from the battle-scenes to Gorgo's struggle to get the Spartan council to send the full army in support of Leonidas.

So much for what 300 is. What 300 is not, is a history lesson. It is not a political tract. Nor should we beat it up for failing to give us an exact rendering of the key battles and fighting styles or for simplifying the clash between Persia and Greece as one of freedom versus tyranny. (Although, in its defence, Dominic West's Spartan politican rightly points out to Lena Headey's Queen Gorgo that not all men are born equal, even in Sparta.)

300 does not pretend to be a serious politico-historical discourse. It is, simply-put, epic, fascinating, sensually-luxurious entertainment. The concubines, giant-mutant beasties, scabrous priests and other exotica pander to our most basic desire for the strange and exciting. I defy anyone not to take pleasure in the finale to Gorgo's council speech or Gerard Butler's Connery-like drawl as he refuses to kneel to Xerxes on account of his "cramp".

Moreover, exotica aside, the battle scenes do give us a sense of the scale of the battle and the key tactical necessity of forcing the Persians to abandon an open assault from the beach and attempt to pass through the narrow gorge at Thermopylae. I doubt whether Frank Miller's novel or this film would have been successful as they are without this key central fact: dress it up how you will, the true story of a small band of men defending their home against a mammoth invading army and inflicting disproportionately large injuries upon it is, in a word, quite literally: awesome.

300 is on release in the Philippines, Greece, Malaysia, Singapore, Canada, the US, South Korea, Hong Kong, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Turkey, the UK, Belgium, France, the Czech Republic, Hungary, the Netherlands and Russia. It opens in Bulgaria, Estonia, Italy, Mexico, Norway, Poland, Romania and Spain tomorrow. It opens in Argentina, Chile, Peru, Slovakia, Slovenia on the 29th and in Brazil, Denmark, Latvia and Venezuala on the 30th. 300 opens in Sweden on April 4th and in Australia, Germany, Israel and Portugal on April 5th. It opens in Austria and Finland on April 6th and in Japan on June 9th.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

WILD HOGS isn't well-judged but it is funny

Hey, I took my law enforcement course on the internet! For arms training they just told us to play Doom!WILD HOGS is an alpha-gamma Big Studio Comedy. The plot is ropey, the character development non-existent, the jokes occasionally homophobic, and the Kyle Gass cameo redundant. In fact, it's everything you expect from the Hollywood production line. But I can't deny that when it works it really works, and as Doctor007 and I had at least a dozen laugh-out loud-moments, I have to give it a qualified thumbs-up.

D'apres CITY SLICKERS, the basic premise is that four middle-aged guys (William H Macy, John Travolta, Martin Lawrence and Tim Allen) get off the suburban treadmill and take a road-trip on their motorcycles to rediscover their youth. The early comedy successfully spoofs the Born-to-be-wild myth of easy riders, but John C McGinley of SCRUBS fame is saddled with an uncomfortably homophobic cameo that sours the mood. Pretty soon though, the movie is back on track. The WILD HOGS manage to piss off some hard-core bikers. (Hard-core, within the context of a Disney movie, mind you.) The denoument sees them in a stand-off, defending a bunch of innocent townsfolk, A-team stylee.

There's nothing big or clever here. For the most part, the humour consists in guys slapping cattle, getting hit in the crotch with baseballs and William H Macy in a Snoopy-as-the-Red-Baron helmet. But after a seriously hard day crunching numbers, this was exactly what the Doctor ordered. Plus, the script was surprisingly witty - surprising that is, until I realised that it was penned by the guy behind ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT and MY NAME IS EARL - two shows I love. The Brucey Bonus is a neat spoof of EXTREME MAKEOVER: HOME EDITION at the end.

So, WILD HOGS may not be clever or even consistently well-judged, but it is a bunch of fun, and while I entered the cinema stressed-out and pre-occupied I left with a smile on my face.

WILD HOGS is on release in the US, Australia, New Zealand and Russia. It opens in Estonia and Iceland this weekend and in Belgium, Argentina, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Spain and the UK on April 13th. It opens in the Philippines, Austria, Germay, Hungary, Malaysia, Singapore, Brazil, Italy, Latvia and Sweden on April 20th. It opens in Turkey on April 27th and in France on June 13th.

Monday, March 19, 2007

SUNSHINE - Utilitarianism 101

SUNSHINE is for the most part a beautifully designed but predictable sci-fi movie. Some time in a future imagined by Alex Garland (THE BEACH), mankind is about to freeze to death as the Sun burns out. A small crew of astronauts is sent to deliver a nuclear payload that will somehow cause the Sun to be reborn (there goes the Science!), thus saving all of mankind. But the Icharus never made it. And so, seven years later (biblical?!) another eight man crew is sent to nuke the sun in Icharus II. They comprise: Rose Byrne, Cliff Curtis (WHALE RIDER), Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans (FANTASTIC FOUR), Troy Garrity (MILWAUKEE, MINNESOTA), Hiroyuki Sanada (THE WHITE COUNTESS), Benedict Wong (A COCK AND BULL STORY) and Michelle Yeoh (MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA). And yes, Icharus II has a nice soothing HAL-like voice.

Director, Danny Boyle (TRAINSPOTTING, 28 DAYS LATER), and cinematographer Alwin H Kuchler combine to create some stunning visuals of space stations, passing planets and solar glare. And as things start to go wrong with the mission, they successfully ratchet up the tension. Of course, as the ethical questions and risk-return trade-offs are argued over by the crew, you feel like you're back in Ethics prelims. Heck, that's half the fun of sci-fi! And yes, it is marginally annoying that you can tell who'll last longest by who's the most beautiful and/or bank-able. And I must also admit that not once, not twice, but three times, at least half of the full-house at the National Film Theatre were tittering at unintentionally funny lines.

But for all that, SUNSHINE was a really great sci-fi movie (nicely acted, imagined and realised) until about half an hour into the end, when it turned into another sort of film entirely. Danny Boyle and Alex Garland seriously dropped the ball, and the fact that it still looked stunning and was edited in an innovative way couldn't stop me thinking they'd miscalculated badly. Shame.

SUNSHINE goes on release in Hong Kong, Hungary, Israel, Jamaica, Malaysia, Peru, Singapore and Taiwan on April 5th; in Iceland, Latvia, Mexico and the UK on April 6th; in Belgium and France on April 11th; in Argentina, Australia and Italy on April 12th; in Brazil, Norway and Poland on April 13th; in Japan on April 19th; in Germany, the Netherlands, Russia and Slovakia on April 19th; in Finland, Spain, and Sweden on April 20th and in Estonia on April 27th. It does not open in the US until September 14th.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

PREMONITION - dreary time-travel thriller

In which Sandra Bullock - an actress who is charming in romantic-comedies - opts once again to make a feeble sci-fi movie of little originality or interest. Has her husband (Julian McMahon) really died? Or is she having a premonition? Can she save him and her daughter by following the clues scooby-doo style? Is the shrink (Peter Stormare) up to no good? Do we care? No.

THE PREMONITION is on release in the US and UK. It opens in Portugal, Italy and Spain on March 30th, in the Netherlands on April 19th, in Austrlia and Turey on April 25th, in Belgum on May 16th and in France o nAugust 22nd and in Germany on September 20th.

Friday, March 16, 2007

FUR: AN IMAGINARY PORTRAIT OF DIANE ARBUS - what the heck just happened here?!

From the writer and director of indie cult hit SECRETARY and the director of photography of THE MATRIX and TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE comes a movie so off-the-wall that I left the cinema perplexed as to what I had just witnessed.

At first glance, FUR is another of those dramas about a conventional nineteen-fifties housewife who battles depression to find sexual and personal freedom. But this time, instead of Julianne Moore as Mrs Brown we have Nicole Kidman as notorious but acclaimed documentary photographer, Diane Arbus. She's married to a loving husband who supports her development as a photographer, even when she turns their studio into a salon for ex-circus freak show performers. In this fictional riff on the emotional life of the real Diane Arbus, our movie-Diane finds her true self through a friendship with a wig-maker called Lionel. Lionel has a genetic disorder resulting in him being super-normally hirsute. In short, while he has Robert Downey Junior's mournful eyes, he looks like Chewbacca in a rather fruity suit.

So, this upper-middle class housewife is allowed to develop her taste for exhibitionism and voyeurism. Kidman plays her with such a naive simplicity that we believe that she simply finds all these people beautiful and fascinating. Within the context of her love affair with Lionel - and the whimsical, enchanting tone of the film - that holds up. But I'm sure that some viewers familiar with the controversial nature of Arbus' work will regard the film-makers as side-stepping the exploitation issue.

My problem with FUR is more prosaic. I admire the bravery and originality of the film-makers in daring to make a psychological rather than generic biopic. I love the production design and the lead actors do well with unusual material. But this is a *long* picture. Over two hours, despite the fact that all that really happens is that a stifled, happily married woman, summons up the courage to fall in love. The film-makers are perfectly at liberty to excise the boring old biographical details; the actual photographs; the controversy; the suicide; the legacy.....Sure, they are free to fashion a whimsical love story, but ye gods, if that's all we have, can't we move things along a little?

FUR: AN IMAGINARY PORTRAIT OF DIANE ARBUS was released in the US, Italy and Israel in 2006. It opened in Greece, Belgium, France, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, Mexico and Sweden earlier this year. It is currently on release in the UK and Finland and opens in Japan on May 19th.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

JINDABYNE - confused Aussie drama

The best thing about the opening night of the London Australian Film Festival was a wickedly funny short film with a warm centre called BOOTH STORY. By contrast, the main feature, JINDABYNE, was disappointing at best. Ray Lawrence (LANTANA) fashions a confused two-hour movie from Raymond Carver's short story, 'So much water so close to home' - a story that also inspired part of Altman's SHORT CUTS.

In a nutshell, four men go on a fishing trip outside the Australian town of Jindabyne. They find the corpse of a young girl in a stream. Instead of reporting their find straight away, they continue with their holiday and go the police two days later. The film pretends to explore the ramifications of this decision.

But JINDABYNE never explains why the men didn't report the body. Fair enough. Sometimes there is no rational explanation. But it does not sufficiently unpick the dynamic between the men. There is a sinister scene where one of them - an ageing car mechanic called Stewart Kane, played by Gabriel Byrne - returns to the body, but the director brings this up only to let it hang there. This is one of many threads that are picked up but not seen through.

The pyschological drama rests with the wives that the men return to. In particular, with Stewart Kane's wife, Claire, played by Laura Linney. Her character is interesting. She is obviously intelligent and has suffered from severe post-natal depression. As a result, both her husband and mother-in-law undermine her authority. But her earnest good intentions and status as victim are finely balanced by her self-involvement, self-righteousness and disregard for other's privacy. As she goes stumbling through the town, trying to provoke an apology from her husband and forgiveness from the girl's family, I couldn't help but wonder whether the director and writer were making a ham-fisted point about American liberal angst. Or maybe, it's just that Laura Linney's performance is not sufficiently well-modulated to give a more subtle reading of the text?

The film-makers stray beyond the bounds of a relationship drama and make occasional passes at an exploration of Australian racial politics. The dead girl was an aborigine and pretty soon some of her family have daubed the words "white race crime" onto Stewart's petrol station. Sadly, the film-makers do not take this as a cue for a more interesting analysis of the issue. Rather, they implicitly adopt the attitude that, by their casual indifference, the anglers are on a par with evil white colonials. Surely there is no other interpretation of the movie given the soupy melodrama of the final scenes of the movie?

These scenes offer a resolution that seems as invasive and crass as Claire's seeing the body in the morgue. It wants to offer the characters and viewers a closure that stands at odds with the prevailing moral tone of the film. And the artistic choice to have a young girl choking back tears as she sings a love-song memorial is pure Hollywood sugar-coated emotional manipulation.

So, as far as plot, character development and artistic choices with the material go, I was deeply disappointed with JINDABYNE. In addition, the production features a couple of jarring mistakes. Not least, even after Stewart Krane has died his hair raven black, there is footage of him on a fishing trip with the old grey hair, before he returns to the car with black hair again. Amateurish.

Is there anything, then, to recommend this film? I found Gabriel Byrne and Laura Linney's lead performances rather thin, although it's not clear whether this is their fault or that of the writers and directors. However, the film does feature some splendid performances from the supporting cast - not least Sean-Rees Wemyss and Eva Lazarro as the two children, Tom and Caylin-Calandria. DP David Williamson also takes some spectacular shots of the surrounding country-side.

JINDABYNE played Cannes and Toronto 2006 and opened in Australia in 2006. It played Dublin 2007 and opened the London Australian Film Festival tonight. It opened in Norway and Sweden earlier this yera and opens in the US on April 27th and in the UK on May 25th.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

SHERRYBABY - brilliantly crafted portrait of a lady

SHERRYBABY could adopt the same tagline as INLAND EMPIRE: a woman in trouble. It's a breathtakingly well-made and well-acted drama following a young ex-jailbird, junkie and mother as she leaves prison and tries to regain her daughter. The movie features a central performance by Maggie Gyllenhaal that is powerful, moving and certainly the most breath-taking portrayal I have seen in the past twelve months. Indeed, it makes Dame Helen Mirren's multiple award-winning role in The Queen look like dress-up. Gyllenhaal has to portray a woman who is simulataneously angry, strong, determined but also damaged, desperate for attention and self-destructive. We have to believe that Sherry loves her daughter and wants to make good, but also the serious danger of spontaneous self-harm. The complexity of both the written part (writer-director Laurie Collyer) and Gyllenhaal's performance combine to take this film beyond a typical tart-with-a-heart story and into something more impressive and authentic. Not to be missed.

Further to my cursory but glowing review, I bring you in on the thoughts of Movie Matt - probably the nicest person you'll ever not meet and definitely the guy who's seen the most movies. Note that his review contains spoilers and, more to the point, the issues Matt talks about will be more interesting if you've actually seen the film already:

"I'm glad to hear you liked Sherrybaby, because I LOVED it. Maggie Gyllenhaal's central performance was truly captivating, and I found myself thinking about it for days. The story of the film is, of course, remarkably simple and could be summed up in a single sentence. This could be construed as a flaw, because in all probability upon hearing this summation before the movie you would predict a clichéd ending of her making the choice to do what is right by her daughter etc. Indeed this is actually what happens, however in all likelihood you wouldn’t guess the outcome when you see the movie because of how believable Sherry is as a person. I thought the troubled aspects of her character were well explored during the course of the story. I really believed how frustrated Sherry was over her own shortcomings as a mother, and as a person, that I just wanted to see the character develop as much as she did. The subtle ending was well executed, leaving you with just enough hope for her future as a mother, but not so that you’ll unrealistically think it’ll all now be happy times ahead.

The tense, and yet often quiet scenes really emphasised her feelings of isolation and loneliness, which in turn added to the realism of the movie. I enjoyed the simple reflections of the atmosphere to her own feelings, from the (often) intense sunshine when she is the most hopeful about her future (i.e. when she meets her daughter again for the first time since her release) to the dingy, heavy florescent lighting of the motel rooms when despair gets the better of her. This effectively echoed not only her own mental state but also the tone of the film as a whole. Indeed the ending of film takes place at night when you see her driving away into the distance after dropping off her daughter at her brother’s house. While the darkness is still all around her and it has certainly tainted her, she’s still moving forward. Simple, yet powerful.

I was also quite impressed with the solid supporting cast, including Giancarlo Esposito as her parole officer and (quite surprisingly) Danny Trejo who really shows that he has talent as an actor. The bath scene where he cleans Sherry delicately with a sponge was particularly poignant, as the total absence of any sexual intention really gave you the impression that he was taking care of her the way a father would take care of his child.

However, by far my favourite scene in the film was where Sherry meets her father again for the first time since her release from prison, because of how much was revealed about her past and her family’s attitude towards her. Watching her standing on the couch with her arms touching the ceiling like a little girl, and actually competing with her own daughter for her father’s attention was utterly compelling. There were also such strong impressions of Sherry being emotionally disconnected from her family, which was demonstrated beautifully when ten seconds after her father sees her for first time in three years, he immediately moves away from her to talk to his son about getting the gutters cleared.

I was also impressed how the story only gave a hint of the underlying abuse Sherry grew up with when you see her father touch her just for a couple of seconds. The film wasn’t trying to shock you with the notion of abuse, and because of this subtlety it was all the more disturbing. Indeed her own reaction to her father touching her was to run away and this told us a lot about her own character i.e. she wasn’t disgusted with her father for what he just done (when of course she clearly should be) she was disgusted with herself because it happened. Then we wonderfully see her run through the neighbourhood, a great analogy to the escapism that drugs provide.

Brad William Henke also gave a good performance as Sherry’s brother. He was a very conflicted character as on one hand he’s a strong enough person to undertake raising Sherry’s daughter in her absence, but on the other he’s aware of his father’s actions and does nothing. Their relationship is summed up very well in the way they greet each other at the start of the film. They hug very awkwardly and slowly from a distance. Yes they love each other, but they don’t feel close.

All in all I walked away overwhelmingly impressed with the movie and further convinced of the depth of talent Maggie Gyllenhaal has as an actress."

SHERRYBABY played Sundance 2006 and closed the BirdsEye View Festival in London in 2007. It opened in Sweden in 2007 and is available on Region 1 DVD.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

My not-so-secret shame: I was bored and disappointed by INLAND EMPIRE

Credentials first: I am a fan of David Lynch. I adored Twin Peaks; I watch all his films on a regular basis; I like that there is no spoon-feeding or hand-holding; I love the persistent sense of menace; the whimsical humour; the evocative use of music; the precise framing and visual motifs. So I approached the new Lynch movie, INLAND EMPIRE, with great anticipation. 3 hours in Lynch-world: thank you very much.

People who always hated Lynch for his obscurity, self-indulgence, surrealism.... will hate INLAND EMPIRE too. Conversely, hard-core LYNCH fans will not be disappointed. We have all the classic Lynchian symptoms here: weirdness, unease, horror, confusion, beauty of a sort, evil, brutal fucking murder, two dollar whores and some pretty heavy shit.

The movie opens with extreme close-ups of a young whore crying uncontrollably. Classic Lynch. We then move to a sitcom complete with canned laughter. Naturally the actors are dressed in bunny rabbit outfits and their conversation makes only enough sense to disturb us. We then switch to the key story. Laura Dern (BLUE VELVET) stars as an ageing Hollywood actress who has just been cast in a movie alongside Justin Theroux's (MULHOLLAND DRIVE) lecherous leading man by a camp director played by Jeremy Irons. (
ERAGON). This being Lynchworld, Harry Dean Stanton plays the director's bum side-kick.

Pretty heavy shit surrounds the production. On the eve of winning the part, the actress is accosted by her strange Polish neighbour who warns her (and the viewer) obliquely about the content of the script and the lack of a linear structure to what will follow. This scene is about as frightening as anything you'll see on screen and all the more impressive for being simply a series of extreme close-ups - shot on rubbish quality DV - of Grace Zabriskie (TWIN PEAKS). The sense of unease is increased by placing the actress (Laura Dern) in an oppressively decorated mansion and having her jealous husband leer over the balcony.

An hour into the film, and Laura's character is committing adultery and starting to see her identity dissolve into that of the character she is playing. Bad news, when you consider that the plot of the film does indeed involve brutal fucking murder and that a previous production of the same script was halted when a number of key people died. We follow her for the next two hours through a series of weird rooms-within-rooms behind the movie set and through the looking glass. She looks threatened and disturbed by these refractions of her psyche.

While I could see flashes of beauty and brilliance - not least in Laura Dern's career-defining and award-worthy performance - I was basically bored rigid by INLAND EMPIRE. Freed from the shackles of a pre-defined script and the kind of studio heat that comes with a production budget that allows for old fashioned photography, Lynch has indulged himself. The beauty of Lynch's photography is heavily compromised by the use of DV. While I can take my fair share of whimsy and treat much of Lynch's work as a sort of tone poem of beautiful brutality - this movie left me cold. I need not have structure and explanation - but if I am to float in a sea of random fragments, I'd like a shorter run-time. Call me superficial - but there are only so many scenes of Laura Dern looking threatened that I need to see.

INLAND EMPIRE played Venice 2006 and opened in the US and Slovakia in 2006. It opened in Italy, Belgium, France, Iran and Spain earlier this year and is now showing in the UK. It opens in the Netherlands, Portugal, Hapan, Finland, Germany and Poland in April and in Russia and the Czech Republic in July.

Monday, March 12, 2007

AFTER THE WEDDING/EFTER BRYLLUPPET - Nik's best film of 2006 AND 2007!

This review is posted by guest reviewer, Daniel Plainview.

It's important, in any movie review, to cut to the chase quickly, for those who do not plan to read past the first paragraph. So, to put it succinctly, this is the best film I've seen this year. Since it's not been up against great competition, I should add that had I seen it in 2006, it would still have been the best film I had seen that year too. Susanne Bier (BROTHERS) has outdone herself here in directing an understated yet moving, contentful, and absolutely captivating drama, that takes the viewer on a voyage with the characters that they won't soon forget.

Even had the plot not been as thick as it was with suspense and raw human emotion, this film would have been worth seeing for the acting performances alone. Mads Mikkelsen (CASINO ROYALE, PUSHER) outdoes himself as the central character Jacob; quietly spoken; intense; a man of few words. Sidse Babett Knudsen (Helene) and Stine Fischer Christensen (Anna) make for excellent co-stars, skillfully weaving the complex relationships that the movie portrays and making them more real, more tangible. But even given these superlative performances, Rolf Lassgård as Jorgen (father of Anna and husband to Helene) simply steals the show. I defy anyone not to be moved by the awesome power and sheer humanity of his acting - in fact I think his performance alone makes the film worth seeing again.

And indeed, that is perhaps the greatest triumph of the film, that it's worth seeing again. The plot unravels in such an intense and clever way that despite the relative simplicity of the central concept, and the fact that there are no clever Memento or Pulp Fiction-like plays with chronology, you are nevertheless constantly re-evaluating earlier scenes, the emotions of the players, the development of the characters, why they reacted the way they did, how they must have been feeling given what was going on inside them. Of course there is no "inside them", they're only actors, but such is the stark realism of this film encapsulated not only by the acting but by the sensitive camerawork and subtle score, that the scenes, the emotions, the stories become completely real to the audience.

I suppose I ought to be balanced in this review, and to say that this won't be everyone's cup of tea, for a very good reason. After the Wedding is an intense experience - one that is emotionally draining in a way other films are not. You come out of the cinema feeling as if you've gone through not quite an ordeal, but a journey with the characters. So much has happened, there's so much to the film; so many emotional highs and lows; so many twists and turns and surprises; so much drama, and pain. This is not by any means light viewing, and I wouldn't recommend it as a popcorn muncher.

But it does set the bar as far as future releases for this year are concerned. It is a sad comment on modern cinema that, for the first 40 minutes or so, I sat in the cinema expecting the plot to unravel in a 2-dimensional way, with goodies and baddies, a linear plot, a hero, a anti-hero, and a simple happy hollywood ending. Even though I say it again, realism is the catchword in this film - it avoids the melodrama of hollywood, the paint-by-numbers morality of Jungian archetypal characters, and the triteness of a clean, happy and sown-up ending. After the Wedding exceeded all my expectations, repeatedly confounded my cynicism, and finally conquered my heart. I laughed, I cried, I fell in love and out of it, and I am left with only one option: to heartily recommend this same experience to you.

AFTER THE WEDDING - ETER BRYLLUPPET opened in Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands and Italy in 2006 and in Greece and Germany earlier this year. It is currently on release in Belgium, France, and the UK. It opens in Poland next week and in the US on March 30th.

P.S. BINA007 wholeheartedly concurs with this review.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

OUTLAW - The Return of Auto-Bean

OUTLAW is a piss-poor low-budget British revenge drama from the director of the infinitely better FOOTBALL FACTORY, Nick Love. Comparing it to similar movies in this genre, OUTLAW has none of the intelligence, black humour, sheer terror or narrative coherence of the brilliant DEAD MAN'S SHOES. Indeed, the best thing I can say about OUTLAW is that, as low-budget revenge dramas go, it's at least significantly better than STRAIGHTHEADS.

The production values are all fine. I liked the use of the Canary Wharf location and the film looks handsome enough despite being filmed on DV. But in every other sense it fails. The premise is fine: a bunch of men from different walks of life are united by their disappointment in the ability of the Criminal Justice system to avenge them and so become vigilantes. The problem is that the reasons for which these men turn to vigilante crime are weak in the majority of cases. A barrister's pregnant wife is killed by the local gang boss. A university student has been brutally beaten up for no reason by a bunch of vicious chavs. Fair enough motives so far. But the other vigilantes are there because they're getting picked on at work, their wife is having an affair or because they are plain nuts. Not a great start.

But even if we grant the screen-writer his original character motivations, he isn't consistent as to their motivations and actions as the movie progresses. Characters who feel nervous about stringing up a murdering paedophile one moment, feel quite happy to gun down innocent coppers the next. It makes no sense. Indeed, the ending is the most disapointing part of all: a movie that had just about maintained some tension and the mature feel of a thriller suddenly reverted to an immature, facile, motive-less gun-battle.

Perhaps the inconsistencies and insufficient character motivations in the plot are responsible for the weak performances from the likes of Sean Bean, Rupert Friend and Bob Hoskins. Danny Dyer has another opportunity to display his limited range with genuine dramatic material. It's a shame because he is a charming comedic actor: he is wasted here.

OUTLAW is on release in the UK.

Friday, March 09, 2007

BECOMING JANE - lacking in wit, passion or style

Affection is desirable. Money is absolutely indispensable!BECOMING JANE is a flimsy little costume drama that shamelessly cashes in on the Jane Austen fanbase and has far too little wit, character, plot, intelligence or style to sustain its 120 minute run time.

I say this as an impartial observer. I am not one of those rabid Austen fans who resents an American lead actress (Anne Hathaway - accent and performance both fine by me.) I am rather intrigued by the idea that Austen's novels found a base in a thwarted love affair with a gallant but impoverished Irish lawyer (James McAvoy in yet another charming role). I have also read and re-read all Austen's novels - an essential prerequisite to watchng this film. For BECOMING JANE panders to people like me who can recognise protypes of famous characters in Jane's family, friends and suitors. But after a while this becomes a rather lazy means to engage our interest and I despair for any viewers who don't even have the background hum of recognition to fall back on.

We watch a young Jane feel affronted by an arrogant Lefroy at a ball, before falling in love with the one person who takes her writing seriously. The obstacle to the match is their poverty: each must marry well. The screenwriters - Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams - try to conjure a little excitement with an elopment - but it feels like what it is: padding.

In the end, we are left with the fact that Jane Austen wrote a couple of marvellous novels, but lived a rather quiet life that was clearly insufficient in excitement to fill a film. Worst of all, the simplistic structure and banal dialogue of BECOMING JANE look all the more mediocre when the film is constantly referring our attention to the superior art of Austen.

BECOMING JANE is on release in the UK. It opens in Australia on March 29th, in Sweden on March 30th, in Finland on June 29th, in the US on August 3rd, in the Netherlands on August 16th, in Norway on September 14th, in Germany on October 4th and in Spain on October 19th.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

ALL THE KING'S MEN - really not so bad as all that....

....but not so fantastic either. ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN attracted a lot of critical brick-bats when it was released last autumn and made no money at the box office either. So I was expecting a tedious over-blown movie. But, you know, it's not as bad as all that.

The movie is an adaptation of the famous political novel by Robert Penn Warren, which was in turn loosely based on the life of the Louisana Governor, US Senator and one-time potential presidential candidate, Huey Long. Long was a populist demagogue, who got elected on the 'hick vote' and proceeded to threaten the vested interests with a programme of wealth redistribution and massive infrastructure investment.

In the movie, the Governor is called Willie Stark, and is played by
Sean Penn as a fire-brand orator of superb skill. He begins as a man of fierce integrity, who won't touch alcohol and stands on street corners warning the electorate of the corruption of their local officials. When he discovers that he's been put up as a Gubernatorial candidate to split the Hick vote - that he's a patsy - he starts campaigning for real and wins a landslide election to become Governor. Many critics have taken Penn to task for his exaggerated Southern accent and wild polemical style. But if you look at the most successful orators in history some have had exactly this kind of over-the-top style. This is precisely what translates to the gathered hordes at the back of the stadia. Frankly, I found his performance mesmerising.

Sadly, he is let down by poor casting of the other roles and a poor script. Penn's Governor Stark is propelled to power thanks partly to the help of a journalist played by Jude Law. This character should be one of the most intriguing in the movie. He is the son of a wealthy establishment family - precisely the kind that Stark's policies are aimed against. Indeed, when Stark needs to side-step an impeachment trial, he asks the journalist to investigate his own godfather - a man with whom he is incredibly close. The moral decision that the journalist makes: whether or not to dig dirt on his own surrogate father to further the career of a politician that he knows has become corrupt - should form the emotional and moral heart of the film. Instead, the viewer is constantly distracted by Jude Law's inability to consistently hold down any variant of a Southern accent. The same is also true (but with less serious damage inflicted because they have smaller parts) of
Kate Winslet and Anthony Hopkins as the girlfriend and the godfather respectively.

The other big flaw is in the development of Sean Penn's character. Instead of sliding into the mire of corruption and compromise, he seems to go to sleep one night as candidate with integrity and wake up as a corrupt Governor. There is no middle ground. This makes the movie infinitely less interesting and once again focuses attention onto Jude Law's character as the centre of the moral drama - leading to the aforementioned frustrations.

Still, for all it's faults, I was never bored watching this lengthy political thriller and despite its manifest flaws, I enjoyed Sean Penn's performance and the handsome production (
Pawel Edelman (DP) and Patrizia von Brandenstein). I even enjoyed James Horner's orchestral score, although I have heard it described as clumsy and over-worked.

ALL THE KING'S MEN was released last autumn and is now available on DVD.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Overlooked DVD of the month - FROZEN

This week's overlooked DVD is a low-budget British flick written and directed by acclaimed short-film director, Juliet McKoen. FROZEN got a fleeting UK release in January but is now available on Region 2 DVD for your viewing pleasure. Shot on a variety of digital and VHS media, the movie captures beautifully the textures of the British coast at Morecambe Bay. The sea-scape is haunting and lyrical and forms an evocative backdrop to this story of arrested mourning. Shirley Henderson plays a woman whose sister has disappeared. Viewing CCTV footage at the local police station, she imagines that she has seen - in a blurred close-up image - her sister. She harrasses the local police officer to blow up the image and give her a story - some evidence - anything rather than the pain of having to deal with the fact that she may never know what happened to her sister. Meanwhile, she enters into a relationship of sorts with her therapist - a local parish priest played by Roshan Seth.

FROZEN is far from a flawless movie. The subject matter is slight and at some points the narrative seems to meander aimlessly. (The same sort of issues are covered with greater complexity, skill and bravery in Andrea Arnold's
RED ROAD for instance.) But Shirley Henderson and Roshan Seth give great performances and the photography is worth seeing alone.

FROZEN was released in the UK in January 2007 and is now available on DVD.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

A GUIDE TO RECOGNISING YOUR SAINTS - six reasonably interesting characters in search of a plot

This review is posted by guest reviewer Nik, who can usually be found here.

I just went to the Barbican Cinema website to look up the name of the film I am reviewing. That's not a good start my friends. A Guide to Recognising Your Saints is a film set on the tough, mean streets of New York where four boys, including our lead character Dito (played by Shia LaBeouf), have to live and survive - grow up and learn how to be men. But after all that's said, this film is really about Dito's personal voyage in managing his relationships with his friends, his girlfriend (Rosario Dawson), and ultimately his love-hate struggle with his father (Chaz Plaminteri). And isn't that the universal story?

Well, no, it's not the universal story unless you bother to inject a plot, which director Dito Montiel conspicuously fails to do - conspicuous given that the film is supposed to be autobiographical. 98 minutes I sat there, curtain went up, popcorn went down, that's all that fucking happened. Even sporadically good acting from the likes of Martin Compston for example (playing Mike, a young Scottish lad who befriends Dito) cannot save the movie - mainly due to the fact that the script is pretty patchy, and that nothing actually happens.

Worse, the characters aren't even all that entertaining. The main character Dito, in both young and old (Robert Downey Junior) forms, fails to inspire anything but ire from the audience, as he whines and angsts like a girl about his life - and consistently makes blonde decisions and comments. Furthermore, the cinematography, which the brochure handed to me as I entered the cinema informed me was "experimental", just jarred - and the little "artistic" touches (like each character introducing themselves to camera during the film) were insulting and facile.

I've panned this one, and rightly. There were few saving graces, the movie was boring, poorly scripted, up itself, and completely without merit either as art or entertainment. The best that can be said is that it was slightly better than Epic Movie, which has now replaced Analyse That as my baseline for shite. Save your money. Stay away.

A GUIDE TO RECOGNISING YOUR SAINTS played Venice and Sundance 2006 where it won the Best Director (Drama) and a Special Jury Prize for the Ensemble Cast. It was released in the US and Australia in 2006 and in Turkey in 2007. It opens in the UK today and in Greece next week. It is available on Region 1 DVD.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Late, late, late review - THE FULL MONTY

I grew up in the the prosperous South-East of England, but in the early 1980s even I remember people collecting money to support the striking miners, news headlines of ever record-breaking unemployment and race riots. It's easy to forget in the anodyne political landscape of contemporary Britain - when political parties compete over environmental credentials, but are all of a mind on NHS privatisation - just how socially divided Britain was in the early 1980s. It is especially criminal to forget the high price of the "structural reforms" that helped deliver today's low inflation and cheap mortgages. Behind the euphemism was a generation of working-class blue-collar employees who woke up one day and found themselves in dinosaur industries - no longer worth the bother of sustaining. Among them were the steelworkers of Sheffield, who form the band of desperate, emasculated, unemployed men at the heart of THE FULL MONTY.

The movie is now ten-years old and is being released in a Special Edition DVD full of more extras than any fan could possibly know what to do with. (Fun for UK film fans to see Derek Malcolm on screen, though.) It's never before been the case that I've willingly pocketed swag for a dead cert positive review, but in the case of THE FULL MONTY I had no moral objection to graft. Ten years after it's initial release - after the Oscar noms, the ubiquitous sound-track and West End show have died away - it's nice to go back to the original film and remember what made it so good.

The enduring worth of the movie is to give a modern audience an insight into the sheer horror of long-term, hopeless unemployment when for us unemployment is basically non-existent. For at heart, THE FULL MONTY is about a bunch of men whose self-esteem is damaged when they can't support their families, maintain their status and provide for their kids. Is there anything more tragic than a former manager, played brilliantly by
Tom Wilkinson lying to his wife about his job - surely, lying also to himself? Or Robert Carlyle willing to do a striptease in order to earn the cash to see his son? It goes to the very heart of a person.

But the popular success of the film surely comes from the rich vein of black humour that offsets the surprisingly grim drama. (More grim than I had remembered, at least.) Alan Bleasdale had already ploughed this path with his brave and pioneering TV series,
THE BOYS FROM THE BLACKSTUFF and there is certainly nothing as dark or as surreal as his tales in THE FULL MONTY. But there are enough nudge-nudge sex gags, prat-falls and buddy-humour-moments to keep us - and the characters - going. Not to mention a satisfyingly toe-tapping nostalgic score. Altogether then, a rare occasion when critical and popular opinion - awards, box office success and an enduring legacy - have combined.

Sunday, March 04, 2007


THE GREAT ECSTASY OF ROBERT CARMICHAEL is a film whose brave ambition and memorable cinematography are skewered by poor acting, crass socio-politics and insufficiently drawn characters.

The ambition lies in writer-director Thomas Clay's willingness to grapple with the big socio-political issues of our time in a manner that is brutally explicit and uncompromising. He sets his film in a desolate British sea-side town on the eve of the current Iraqi war. Teenagers hang around in town squares with nothing to do but swear, drink and wait for the rozzers to move them on. These scenes are shot with a spare, still beauty that belies the substance of the plot. Fuelled by Ecstasy from a newly released ex-con, they jump from mildly anti-social behaviour to gang rape and murder with a speed that undermines the movie's credibility, to my mind.

Other flaws range from the trivial to the profound. The acting is uneven, with a particularly amateurish, over-acted performance from Michael Howe as Jonathan Abbott.
Danny Dyer - the only marquee name actor in the film - is largely wasted in this comic book self-parody of an ex-con geezer.

A more serious flaw is that the profound socio-political point that Thomas Clay is trying to make is rather wrong-headed in content and overly simplistic in the manner in which it is made. Clay wants to draw a parallel between the nihilism and amorality of the teenagers and the Iraqi war. But I rather think that they are two very different things: the difficulty with Blair and Bush was not so much casual nihilistic amorality as a well-thought out, well-intentioned, and yet still utterly vain, disingenuous and misapplied morality. But even if we grant Clay his moral parallel, the manner in which it is made is still crass - simply having a news item on the Iraqi war in the foreground of a gang rape. Hardly, a sophisticated take on the situation.

Perhaps Clay would argue that sophistication is besides the point - that his very aim is to be brutal, heavy-handed, and shocking to the point where even today's desensitised viewer will be affected. Hence the Kurbrickian contrast of classical music and explicitly shot, exploitative violence. He meant it to be exploitative, so that's okay then? My problem with this is that the final rape scene is so egregious as to be self-negating. I didn't feel disgust at how brutal society or war can be, or at how desensitised I had become. I felt appalled at the crass attempt to manipulate the audience and the fact that this explicit scene was serving no greater argument than the rather obvious: haven't we all gotten too used to casual violence?


Saturday, March 03, 2007

GHOST RIDER - Forecast is for "bad craziness"

When is "bad craziness" not a good thing? When it's so bad, it goes past being crazy and back to bad again. Before we get to the review I should probably explain how psyched I was about seeing GHOST RIDER. What wasn't to like?! I was all set for a popcorn-tastic, camp classic roller-coaster-ride of motorcycle stunts, supernatural bad-asses and cheesy gags. After all, there's no way you can play the following plot without your tongue in your cheek: a kid called Johnny Blaze (!) makes a deal with the devil to save his father from death by cancer only to see the father die in a motorcycle stunt anyways. Years later, Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda with an insanely bouffant blow-dry-job) forces JB (Nic Cage to honour his contract and harvest souls. Oh yeah, and JB has a childhood sweetheart called Roxy (Eva Mendes) reappear on cue as a TV reporter, and Mephistopheles has a son called Blackheart eager to push daddy into early retirement.

If anyone was willing to accept this movie as a light-hearted romp, it was me, but I was sorely disappointed. It's so flat and long-winded and plain dull that you just can't overlook the absurdity of the thing. In the prologue, the kid who plays Cage Jr is wooden. In the main body of the film, Cage and Mendes have no chemistry. Frankly, I was bored.

GHOST RIDER is on release in Egypt, Indonesia, Kuwait, the Philippines, Taiwan, Australia, Malaysia, Qatar, Russia, Singapore, Estonia, Iceland, Latvia, Mexico, Spain, Turkey, the US, Finland, Belgium, France, Germany, New Zealand, Austria, Bulgaria, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Croatia, Hungary, Brazil, Denmark, the UK and Japan. It opens in Hong Kong next Friday and in Argentina, Portugal and Italy the following week. It opens in the Czech Republic on March 22nd and Israel, the Netherlands and Venezuela the following weekend.

Friday, March 02, 2007


I have a great deal of respect for Charlie Chaplin - as a director, comedian and as a man fully engaged in the political issues of his time. (Any man so viciously persecuted by J.Edgar Hoover can't be half bad.) The silent movies featuring The Tramp take us into the world of the homeless, the hungry, the abandoned and the new immigrant and not a few times leave us with a tear in our eye once the belly-laughs have subsided. But while a rich vein of humanitarian concern was present in all Chaplin's earlier films, who could have predicted the brilliant union of physical comedy and political satire contained in THE GREAT DICTATOR?

It is an admirably brave and politically prescient movie in which Chaplin plays on the similarity between his tooth-brush moustachio'd Tramp and Adolf Hitler to create a spoof character: Adenoid Hynkel, Dictator of Tomania. Chaplin captures with eery brilliance the oratorical style of Hitler - the increasing frenzy and cadences - through speaking in a gobble-de-gook language littered with chilling references to "Juden". But he also captures the absurdity of aggressive competition, not least in the games of one-up-manship between Hynkel and Napaloni, Dictator of Bacteria. And let's not forget the famous scene in which Hynkel dreams of conquering the globe, performing a little ballet with an inflatable globe and bouncing it off his bottom.

Meanwhile, Chaplin also plays a Jewish barber - a typical kind-hearted but unempowered Chaplin protagonist. The slow process by which and his tentative girlfriend (Paulette Godard) come to realise the straits they're in is heart-breaking. But by chance, the barber helped save an important Tomanian General in World War One, and when that General decides to do a Stauffenberg, he enlists the barber's help. By a series of pratt-falls, the barber is switched with Hynkel on the eve of the Osterlichian anschluss, giving the barber his chance to speak to the world.

THE GREAT DICTATOR is an unabashedly funny film, which is itself a brave gesture given the target it is mocking. It is prescient, in that Chaplin was planning to expose the sinister basis of Hitler's mesemerising oratory when Western politicians were still appeasing him. And it is, I think, one of the most perceptive pieces of work about the human failings and insecurities that go towards making a popular demagogue tick and making us fall for them, for a while at least. It's truly a pantheon movie. No surprise that the Academy overlooked it then....

THE GREAT DICTATOR was released in 1940 and is available on DVD.

Here's the speech in full......

......I'm sorry, but I don't want to be an emperor. That's not my business. I don't want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible; Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other's happiness, not by each other's misery. We don't want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone, and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men's souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge as made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost. The airplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men; cries out for universal brotherhood; for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world, millions of despairing men, women, and little children, victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people. To those who can hear me, I say, do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish. Soldiers! Don't give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you, enslave you; who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel! Who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don't give yourselves to these unnatural men - machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines, you are not cattle, you are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don't hate! Only the unloved hate; the unloved and the unnatural. Soldiers! Don't fight for slavery! Fight for liberty! In the seventeenth chapter of St. Luke, it is written that the kingdom of God is within man, not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people, have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then in the name of democracy, let us use that power. Let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill that promise. They never will! Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people. Now let us fight to fulfill that promise. Let us fight to free the world! To do away with national barriers! To do away with greed, with hate and intolerance! Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men's happiness. Soldiers, in the name of democracy, let us all unite! Hannah, can you hear me? Wherever you are, look up Hannah! The clouds are lifting! The sun is breaking through! We are coming out of the darkness into the light! We are coming into a new world; a kindlier world, where men will rise above their hate, their greed, and brutality. Look up, Hannah! The soul of man has been given wings and at last he is beginning to fly. He is flying into the rainbow! Into the light of hope, into the future! The glorious future, that belongs to you, to me and to all of us. Look up, Hannah. Look up!

Thursday, March 01, 2007

DVD round-up 3: PANDORA'S BOX

PANDORA'S BOX is G.W.Pabst's cinematic interpretation of the Wedekind plays that also became the base of Berg's opera Lulu. (Irrelevant side-note: my favourite opera.) In this black and white film, iconic star Louise Brooks plays the tragic Lulu - a woman with a magnetic hold over men. The tragedy is that Lulu's free-willed and unabashed erotic nature cannot be allowed to exist in the society of the time. When we meet her, she is having an affair with a bourgeois man who dumps his respectable fiance for Lulu only when found in a compromising position. Meanwhile, she is attracting the attentions of an aristo lesbian and the husband's son. Although sexually liberated, the genius of Brooks' performance is that Lulu can also seem innocent because she is by far the most emotionally honest (and perhaps guile-less) character in the film. To that end, I find reviewers who see Lulu as the embodiment of evil - pace the title of the film - as somewhat missing the point. Besides which, the Box in question contained all possibilities - good as well as bad. And that is what Lulu represents for me - the possibility of sexual freedom and choice in an age when that was seen as threatening. It is no surprise that she is eventually put on trial and ends up in a confrontation with Jack the Ripper. But surely we're not meant to see this as a punishment? The film stands up to time very well. The modernity of Lulu - from her short bobbed hair, to the way she is open about her sexual desires - is astounding. And the way in which Louise Brooks acts in close-up is a masterclass. This newly restored print is yet another reason to be thankful for the British Film Institute.

PANDORA'S BOX was originally released in 1929. It was re-released in the UK in December 2006 and is now available on Criterion Collection DVD.