Saturday, June 30, 2007

GOLDEN DOOR/NUOVOMONDO - strange, beautiful, unique!

GOLDEN DOOR is one of those strange magical quiet films that you either take to your heart or find boring and pretentious. For my part, I was enchanted by something so magical and yet so authentic it feels like re-enacted social history.

GOLDEN DOOR opens in rural Sicily at the turn of the twentieth century. It is a country of superstition, mean understanding and deep poverty. Widower Salvatore Mancuso dreams of a land called Califormia where there are rivers of milk and the earth is so fertile that vegetables grow taller than men. So he sets off for America with his two sons, mother and two other girls from the village who will marry Italian-Americans and so gain their citizenship.

The small steps towards this goal make up the two hours of this film, and they are re-created in detail, with an observant glance that makes subtle judgements rather than large political points. The Mancuso family walk to the port-town from where they will sail to Ellis Island. They have scavenged shoes, suits and cloaks to make a good impression when they arrive. Before boarding they must pass medicals and have photographs taken - all strange and wondrous things. A well-dressed English lady, Lucy (Gainsbourg) attaches herself to the family and no-one has the confidence to ask why. A quack doctor tries to sell them medicine for the mute son.

The movie is about the strange bonds that form between the rural family and the well-dressed English woman. The grace of the movie is that it leaves almost everything unspoken and lives a little in the land of dreams. But the movie is also about the petty hurdles that these often illiterate people had to cross to enter into the New World. They are not simply tested for diseases but for being too "feeble-minded" to enter the USA.

But if you see this movie for no other reason, watch it for the beautiful production design by Carlos Conti and stunning use of the camera by DP Agnès Godard. The stand-out shot is an aerial view of the dock-side and the deck of the ship. At first it just looks like a single surface teeming with people. But as the boat pulls away, we see that they are split into voyagers and well-wishers.

The only flaw I can possibly think of is that some might object to the anachronistic use of Nina Simone in the score. (I embraced it!) But frankly, in a world of formulaic studio films, I'd rather directors were too daring and occasionally failed, rather than continually safe. Bravo, Emanuele Crialese!

GOLDEN DOOR/NUOVOMONDO played Venice and Toronto 2006. It opened in Italy in 2006 an din Poland, Sweden, France, Denmark, Belgium, Argentina, Israel, the Netherlands, Germany, the US, Greece and Hungary earlier in 2007. It is currently on release in the UK and opens in Finland on August 17th.

Friday, June 29, 2007

HOSTEL PART 2 is NOT a horror movie, okay?!

HOSTEL PART 2 is not a horror movie. Objectively speaking, it's primary concern is satire not horror. Subjectively, (and bear in mind my wuss-like nature) I was not scared once in the whole 90 minutes.

It opens with a little prologue featuring Jay Hernandez as Paxton - the survivor from the original HOSTEL movie. The prologue ends with a tableau that is not scary but stylised. We then move to Italy where our three unwitting American girls (Bijou Phillips, Heather Matazarro, Lauren German) are about to be lured to a Slovakian torture factory by a hot chick. It's the same MO as in the first flick. To parochial American eyes, Eastern Europe must indeed seem exotic and un-nerving. But for heaven's sake, these countries are in the EU now, if not the Euro-zone. I simply can't take them seriously as spoooooooooooky Transylvanian settings.

It takes us an hour to get to the first death and it's not scary at all - just lame. Writer-director Eli Roth clearly wants to make some big point about how women can be torturing-murderers as well as men, but the scene just comes off as sleazy. The second and third deaths aren't even shown on screen - rather we see before and after - and frankly neither are that gruesome. And as for the final torture scene, it's just crudely funny - like a fart joke. If anyone tells you this is scary, bear in mind that the nasty evil villains are two bit-part characters from Desperate Housewives. We aren't dealing with Freddie here.

So, this movie is not horrific. After all, as I said in my review of the first HOSTEL flick, it's hard to be scared when the people menacing you are rational human beings who can be bought off. (And call me an arrogant capitalist bastard but I live my life in the certain knowledge that however evil you are, my daddy can buy you off.) That point is made to the n'th degree in this film - resulting in a horror movie that sort of implodes on itself. If you can pay to torture and murder someone, then you can also pay for safety. And that, my friends, is why Breitling make a fortune selling
Emergency watches.

At best, this is a weak satire on capitalism and consumer society. At worst, it's a waste of time. The original
HOSTEL was eons better. There's nothing in the sequel to remotely compare to Rick Hoffman's genius cameo. So, if you want to be genuinely freaked out at the cinema this week-end, check out SHUTTER instead.

HOSTEL PART TWO is on release in Argentina, Australia, Slovakia, Estonia, Iceland, Russia, the US, Germany, Colombia, Latvia, Spain, Sweden, Italy, Poland, Belgium and the UK. It opens in Greece, Israel, Serbia, France and Finland in July. It opens in Singapore on August 9th and in Brazil on August 24th.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Early review from Al - TRANSFORMERS

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

I've never been a fan of TRANSFORMERS, but since the first trailer debuted couple months back I promised myself I would watch it. It comes out in Asia/Aus before anywhere else, so there haven't been any reviews to provide me anticipation of what the film would be like. Let's cut to the chase - TRANSFORMERS was just really disappointing. The special effects were predictably impressive and the larger-than-life robots left me gawking in awe like a child - but once the amazement and fascination wears out, I start wanting more Unfortunately beyond the robot huha and grandiose CGI, the movie just has little else to offer.

The biggest problem I had was with the script. Historically, one of the worst. Most of the lines/phrases are so ridiculously dumb and banal it's not even a laughing matter. You just have to witness it for yourself to truly experience the sheer nightmare that the script is. A couple of times one of the robots (usually Optimus Prime - is this misspelled Who gives a damn) launches into some preachy monologue that's so cheesy, cheap and Hallmark-ish, I feel like ripping my gums out.

Moreover, Megan Fox can't act for nuts - the whole way she was pouting with this bimbotic blank face like she was permanently stuck in a Revlon commercial. Shia LaBeouf fares a whole lot better, but once the focus shifts completely to the conflict between the two robot clans, Shia's character gradually phases out of significance and becomes ornamental (aside from having to run endlessly and protect the cube on which the fate of the planet rests on, but I can't hardly give a damn about). The final street battle scene starts off grea but quickly becomes unfocused and messy. It starts and ends repeatedly, to the point where it becomes anti-climactic and I'm just done with the damn thing. With the material, they had the potential to invent something imaginative, new and possibly groundbreaking, and it's obvious the special effects team worked their butts out to ensure things looked perfect on their part. But in the end, the mediocre, uninspired story and shit stain of a script brings the entire film down.

*Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 100% rating (although I'm sure the figure will go down as more reviews come in). What a joke.

**I know noone gives a shit, and even IMDB doesn't acknowledge this - but there's a part in Transformers that plays homage to Jet Li/Kill Bill.When Bumble Bee changes from the old Chevrolet to the new one, which is yellow and has two black stripes in the middle (the same pattern on The Bride's suit in Kill Bill Vol. 1/Jet Li's old movies), the song that comes on is the song used in Kill Bill Vol. 1 when Oren Ishii and the Crazy 88 is first introduced at the House of Blue Leaves.

TRANSFORMERS is on release in Australia, Italy, Malaysia and Singapore. It opens on July 4th weekend in New Zealand, Austria, Denmark, Egypt, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Norway, Russia, South Korea, Sweden, the US, Israel, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Spain and Turkey. It opens on July 20th in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico; in Belgium, France, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the UK on July 27th. It opens in Estonia, Japan, Iceland and Slovakia in August.

Bina007 adds: I was really interested to read Al's review, because like him I'd been taken by surprise at how cool the ad campaign looked. I have to say, though, that I'm not entirely surprised it sucks. Apparently, like Pirates 3, this is a movie who's release date was set BEFORE they had a cast or script. So it's another case of getting a product - any product - to justify the marketing. Does anyone else think the PR goons have taken over the asylum?

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

THE FLYING SCOTSMAN leaves it too late to move beyond the genre

THE FLYING SCOTSMAN spends its first hour solidly within the conventions of the under-dog sports movie. It's everything DODGEBALL spoofed so well. We meet Graeme Obree as a little kid being bullied at school. His dad (a rozzer - unfortunate) gives him a bike for Christmas and soon he's speeding away from the bullies and into the record books. We next meet him as a grown man, played by Jonny Lee Miller with a weak Scottish accent. He's down on his luck in Glasgow. But with the help of a Loving Wife, a Chirpy Side-kick (Billy Boyd) and a Wise Mentor (Brian Cox), he soon finds himself breaking the world record on his unconventional "make do and mend" bike. So far so boring. Indeed, the caricature of the evil German World Cycling Federation bureaucrat villain (Steven Berkoff) is insulting.

Luckily the movie picks up in the final chapters. There is an attempt to investigate Obree's depression; the visual representation of his cycle rides is interesting and I like the shadowy final scene. Is this enough to offset the earlier tedium? I'm not sure, but at least you leave the cinema feeling engaged and exhilerated.

THE FLYING SCOTSMAN was released in New Zealand, the US, Italy and Singapore earlier this year. It is currently on release in the UK. It opens in Germany on July 5th and in Australia on August 9th 2007.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007


MY BOLLYWOOD BRIDE takes all the worst elements of Bollywood romances and grafts them onto an American style teen-romance. Jason Lewis (Sex and the City) plays a not unattractive American writer who falls for an Indian girl (Kashmira Shah) in LA. He follows her back to Mumbai only to discover that she is a huge move star with a mogul (Gulshan Grover) for a fiance. Is anyone going to be surprised to discover that love conquers all? The movie looks fine, and there is some honesty in dealing with Indian arranged marriages and the bent movie business. However, there are SERIOUS flaws: twee voice-over, wooden acting from the two leads, excruciating dialogue and the most painful rap song since Ice Ice Baby. Definitely one to avoid.

MY BOLLYWOOD BRIDE was released in India in March 2007 and in the US on June 8th. It's available on DVD.

Monday, June 25, 2007

OPENING NIGHT - Rowlands is magnificent; the rest is a mess

In the same year that Verhoeven released SOLDIER OF ORANGE - a film that satisfies the intellect AND gets the pulse racing - John Cassavetes was trying to get distribution for OPENING NIGHT. These days, Cassavetes is touted as the grandfather of independent film. In terms of the practical issues of making low budget films outside of the studio system, that's as may be. But I have always found Cassavetes work difficult. For that reason, I welcomed the UK cinematic re-release of OPENING NIGHT.

The movie centres on a beautiful and successful stage actress called Myrtle Gordon. She has opted out of marriage and family in order to focus her energy on her career. But now she is older than she cares to admit and she's scared. Scared that her beauty is fading. Scared that in her jaded old-age she cannot conjure up her emotions as easily as when she was young. Her reaction is self-destructive: she drinks and smokes to excess, throws herself at men, harrasses the writer and director, fantasises that a young adoring fan is by her side, and has a near nervous-breakdown in rehearsals. She is the very definition of a "difficult actor" but we sympathise because she is clearly deeply, deeply troubled. We also sympathise with Myrtle because the people around her are so self-serving and exploitative. Neither the writer, herself an ageing woman, nor her director, nor her leading man, sympathise with her. Instead, they taunt her, force her onward and exploit her vulnerability.

In short, this is a long intense film about rapacious people exploiting an indulged and self-indulgent actress who is having a nervous breakdown because she is getting old. These are not nice people. But they are real. Or at least they seem real, thanks to John Cassavetes piercing script and loose camera-work, and an astoundingly good central performance by Gena Rowlands.

However, this is by no means a perfect movie. Indeed, on balance, I rather dislike it. For one thing, it is at least forty minutes too long. When you create a piece of art that is so intense and brutal you do not need baggy repetition to hammer the point home. Second, the supporting cast is of varying quality. In particular, I did not feel that Joan Blondell had the strength of character to play opposite Rowlands in the role of her writer, Sarah Goode. It comes as no surprise to learn that Cassavetes originally wanted Bette Davis for the part. Finally, and most fatally, I find the final scene disappointing and unconvincing. It stretches credulity too far and feels as though nobody really knew how to end the film.

So I find myself where I began: acknowledging the important role Cassavetes played in the evolution of independent cinema but not particularly appreciating the substance of his oeuvre. I've been doing some reading to try to help me understand what others perceive as his greatness. Sadly, it's made me neither more nor less appreciative of the work, but certainly more dismissive of the man.

OPENING NIGHT got panned by US critics and did not find distribution. By contrast, it received a warmer reception in European art-houses. Now here's Cassavetes' hurt and angry response, taken from Ray Carrey's brilliant "Cassavetes on Cassavetes":

"There are a bunch of people around in this world who don't deal in concepts. They only deal in narrative and in cocktail parties and in what's going to be not only successful but acceptable to the way people currently are....I'm telling you we have something so much better, so wonderful, that you are just priveleged to see this movie! This picture is terrific!"

And that's the problem. You can't make a movie assuming people should feel privileged to see it! You have to respect the fact that when an audience watches your mvoie they are giving you two hours of their valuable time, not least their hard-earned cash! In his dismissiveness, Cassavetes is being just as patronising toward his audience as Hollywood can be patronising in churning out inferior blockbusters. Moreover, you can make films because you are indulging yourself, by all means. I'd bet some money that Tarantino fundamentally makes flicks because he likes those kinds of flicks and if the audience likes them too then that's cool. But to insult the audience because they don't like your film is just plain arrogant. If you look at the people who gave OPENING NIGHT bad reviews - critics like Kael and Sarris - these aren't intellectual light-weights looking for studio saccharine. They are pioneers of film theory, steeped in the traditions of art-house cinema. So it all smacks a little bit of sour grapes and does Cassavetes no credit whatsoever......

OPENING NIGHT originally opened in 1977. Though panned in the US, Gena Rowlands won the Silver Bear at Berlin for her remarkable performance. It is available on DVD and is currently on limited release in the UK.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Pantheon movie of the month - SOLDIER OF ORANGE/SOLDAAT VAN ORANJE

Some spoilers follow:

is Paul Verhoeven's masterpiece. The Dutch director has since become known for his sexually explicit dramas - not least BASIC INSTINCT and SHOWGIRLS. But in his more serious work, he has used his brutal honesty to expose the hidden truths behind accepted social history. We saw this most recently in his Dutch resistance drama, BLACK BOOK. But he originally visited this theme in the brilliantly-made war movie, SOLDIER OF ORANGE. The movie was originally released in the Netherlands in 1977 and was a great revisionist work. It refused to peddle the happy myth of noble Dutch resistance to the evil Nazis and took a more complex view of human motivations and actions during the occupation. The movie achieves the rare combination of seeming authentic but also contemporary. The story is based on the autobiographical novel by Dutch war hero Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema and is shot on location with lavish attention paid to uniforms, interiors and military hard-ware. But this is no staid costume drama - nor does it feel "over-dressed" in the way that BLACK BOOK sometimes did.

The movie opens with apparently vintage black and white news-reel footage of Queen Wilhemina returning to the Netherlands after the liberation from the Nazis. As she descends from the airplane she is shadowed by an adjutant upon whom the camera momentarily pauses. She moves on through cheering crowds to her palace. The narrator tells of the glorious liberation. It's the pre-revisionist view of the Dutch occupation, wherein a proud stalwart nation is temporarily subdued but comes back with its honour in tact. Technically, the inter-cutting of vintage and re-created footage is superb, with Verhoeven even bringing the old radio announcer out of retirement to dub his newly shot work.

Next, we move to the opening credits which are brutishly simple. The Dutch flag is shown in garish tri-colour; militaristic music plays; the credits are bold but nothing else moves.

And then, the movie switches to a dark room full of shaven-headed young men. They are let out into a Leiden University hazing ceremony. The freshmen are humuliated and already a few form a lose bond in their humiliation. One student, Erik Lanshof, played by Rutger Hauer, sustains head injuries and is visited the next day by the charismatic President of the society, Guus, played by Jeroen Krabbe. Already we see that this a privileged milieu - elitist, secretive, given to displays of ritual and tradition.

We move to a rather civilised meeting of six handsome, well-dressed university friends. They wear their privilege lightly: they play tennis, listen to jazz, speak of love affairs. The news announcement that England is at war with Germany is merely a distraction from a summer party. The presumption is that the Netherlands will stay neutral. Anyone who takes a more morbid view is presumed to be a Jew, and so dismissed. Time moves swiftly and the camera moves fluidly from one lavish summer party to another white tie ball. Sure, a few more men are in uniform but there main aim is to look dashing and have a little excitement. (And this being Verhoeven, this will involve a little gratuitious nudity).

When the first air raid occurs we are only twenty minutes into this fast-moving film. Although SOLDIER OF ORANGE was the most expensive Dutch film at the time, in restrospect it is amazing how good the special effects in the bombing sequence are despite the fact that the budget was low by international standards. And, yes, it's Verhoeven, so you get grizzly disemboweled limbs. Our heroes are still in white tie, and on scooters, on their way home from the party. Serially harassed by German troops, their vanity insulted, they begin to object to the invaders in a vague sort of way. Nonetheless, Verhoeven is careful to show us that normal Dutch people were pleasantly surprised at the good manners and generosity of their occupiers.

Things move fast. We're not twenty minutes into the film and Holland has capitulated. After the capitulation, life continues to be jolly. Beach parties, sex in haystacks, flirting with the German soldiers and the Dutch flag still flies, albeit alongside the Nazi flag. Of course, Jewish professrs are banned from the University and it becomes acceptable to taunt Jews on the streets. Within the group of six, motives are becoming blurred. Alex originally joined the Dutch army, but when he sees his German mother interred he joins the Germans. The Jewish member of the group becomes increasingly politicised. Robby, who has a Jewish girlfriend, becomes a radio operator for the resistance. And Guus and Erik try to help their Jewish friend escape to England.

Their early attempts at resistance are cartoon-stupid, with a discarded cigarette igniting a trail of benzine which blows up their beach-hut, Wyl-E-Coyote style. Robby, the radio operator, is already known by the Germans. Erik and Guus attempt to sail to England. In the aborted attempt, the Jewish member of the group is arrested and beaten up. Still, the rest of the group seem like dilettantes - playing at war-time heroism.

An hour into the film and the adventure heroics are gone. The first of the six, the Jew, is shot dead in a strangely subdued scene. Brilliant sound design in a sand dune echoes the moral vacuity of the new regime. Our hero Erik is also under arrest but has been released to bait the rest of the student resistance. He crosses a Nazi parade and sees his friend Alex, who has joined the German army. Alex smiles at him warmly, not seeing the clear division. Pointedly, Verhoeven shows ordinary Dutch women following the parade raising Nazi salutes. Still, as the first half of the movie ends, Guus and Erik have successfully made it onto a boat to England.

The second half of the movie is more of a straight-forward war movie with clearly delineated heroes in a plot against the Nazis. Erik and Guus are trained by the RAF to go back into the Netherlands. The atmosphere is one of a war-time thriller and it's all well-shot and tense. However, Verhoeven still throws in the odd cynical line. Edward Fox's RAF officer is happy to sacrifice a few Dutchmen to throw the Nazis off the scent. The atmosphere is also darkened by the friends' suspicions that they have been betrayed by one of their own - although, as it turns out, that person also has a conflict of interests as to how to "do good".

As with BLACK BOOK, Verhoeven is brilliant at pointing out how acts of heroism are not carried out by austere noble men, but young idiots who like to have casual sex and dance. He also shows how even in times of war, people will find a way to have a good time. So, torture scenes exist alongside riotous parties. Moreover, by the end of the film, it turns out that our erstwhile hero, Erik, is the close advisor of the Queen, and heavily implicated in the equivocal PR.....

Overall, SOLDIER OF ORANGE is a brilliantly made movie that satisfies us on many levels. It's a fast-paced war thriller as a well as an intelligent examination of the Dutch war-time experience. As such it is a finely balanced example of what Verhoeven does best, unlike his later, more unbalanced Hollywood work.

SOLDIER OF ORANGE was originally released in 1977. It is available on DVD in the 152 minute cinema cut. However, there is apparently also a version that includes footage originally used in Verhoeven's TV serial version of the film.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

GURU - handsomely produced but cumbersome

GURU is a handsomely produced but cumbersome film based on the life of Indian rags-to-riches businessman Dhirubhai Ambani.

Co-written and directed by Mani Ratnam (director of the infinitely better YUVA), GURU is unambitious in its narrative structure and thematic material. It follows a young man as he leaves his small Indian village and learns his trade in the markets of Istanbul. Cue a credibility-busting "item number" involving excruciating belly-dancing from Mallika Sherawat. Composer A.R.Rahman should know better too. Guru returns to India and marries a disabled girl, ostensibly in order to get the money to stake his business. He starts a cloth trading company, successfully breaking up the corrupt local bosses with the help of a local crusading journalist. Before long he is running one of the biggest companies in India, if not the world. Naturally, there is some bribery, some corruption, some adversity, some triumph over adversity. And then it's over. But nowhere do we have the kind of emotional exploration that we see in a film like GODFATHER II - another film about a powerful but corrupt man.

With the nicely drawn visuals offset by the weak narrative in the second half of the film, do the performances tip this into a must-see movie? Basically, no. The movie stars Bollywood's Brangelina, Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai as the businessman and his wife respectively. Bachchan has done better work, not least in YUVA. Rai returns to her plastic big-Bollywood persona - a million miles away from her early performances in art-house movies CHOKHER BALI and RAINCOAT. The talented Madhavan, Mithun Chakraborty and Vidya Balan are good in the supporting cast, but this is small recompense in a near-three-hour slog.

GURU was released in Canada, India, Malaysia, the Netherlands, the UK and the USA on January 12th 2007. It is now available on DVD.

Friday, June 22, 2007

CAPTIVITY - it's like Chuck D said...

Turn up the radio, They claim that I'm a criminal....

For a rubbish little movie, CAPTIVITY sure has created a big old hoo-ha. Call it misogynstic sleaziness - call it PR genius - the original US poster campaign got canned when the complaints soared. The poster featured lead actress Elisha Cuthbert (annoying Kim Bauer from TV's 24) being "Abducted", "Confined", "Tortured" and then "Terminated". Those of us who'd witnessed Kimmy's whining, stupidity and escape from the cougars were thinking it was karma in action. Over in Blighty, serious film critics roundly panned the movie on the grounds that it was tasteless, sadistic and utterly misconceived. BBC Radio 5's Mark Kermode, who is infamous for his hatred of the PIRATES franchise, said he'd rather watch PIRATES 3 than CAPTIVITY. I paraphrase, but you get the picture. In the cosmic battle of cinematic good versus evil, CAPTIVITY was definitely the spawn of Beelzebub.

Don't believe the hype. CAPTIVITY is not so much conceived out of hatred for women as out of hatred for all intelligent cinema-going life-forms, whatever their gender or species. It's not so much nasty and sleazy as plain old boring-ass DUMB. I mean, it's not even a horror movie, really - more of a thriller. And I say that because I was never horrified. Let me re-iterate, I'm a complete wuss when it comes to horror movies. My tolerance for chills and gore would embarass a three-year old. But I sat through CAPTIVITY in a state of bored calm: never once scared; never once forced to look away from the screen. Doctor007 felt redundant. Redundant and ripped off for £9.25.

Why is that? Part of the explanation for my shock-free viewing experience could be down to the fact that the movie is not directed by a tried and tested horror director. Rather, it's directed, improbably, by Roland "THE KILLING FIELDS" Joffé. And Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr Joffé, respected director he may be, does not know diddly about suckering us into empathising with the victims, making us feel tense and apprehensive or scaring the bejesus out of us.

Let's start with the empathy. Casting Kim Bauer as your lead actress alienates any part of the audience that watched 24. This isn't helped by the fact that actress Elisha Cushbert, even unleashed from the Kimmy character, simply can't act. But worst of all - and here's where the writers are on dodgy ground - I don't think we're MEANT to empathise with the lead character. Instead, we're invited to view the character as a cold-hearted bitch who coasted through life as an arrogant model/movie star and in some respect deserves no sympathy. If this is truly what writer Larry Cohen intended, then I guess casting Cuthbert was genius. At any rate, I expected a lot better from the man who penned compelling thrillers PHONE BOOTH and CELLULAR.

As far as raking up the tension goes, CAPTIVITY fails there too. It fails because it opens with a prologue showing some torture. I mean, where do you go from there?! It fails because one of the baddies looks like Harvey Weinstein. (Deliberate?!) It fails because as soon as a certain character is introduced you KNOW there's gonna be a certain plot twist. It fails because DP Daniel Pearl shoots the flick like a R&B music video - all warm honey tones - rather than as a down and dirty horror movie, exempli gratia VACANCY.

Finally, is CAPTIVITY worth seeing for shock value? Is it, like AUDITION, path-breaking horror? No, no and again no. It's not shocking. It's not horrific. Yes, the woman is kidnapped. Yes, she's kept in captivity. Yes, bad things are threatened. But actually, not much happens.

So, don't believe the hype. This movie isn't evil. It's just very, very, very dumb indeed.

CAPTIVITY was released in Russia, Spain and South Korea earlier this year. It is currently on release in the UK. It opens in the US on July 13th, in Singapore on July 26th, in France on August 8th, in Belgium on August 29th and in Italy on August 31st 2007.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

GROW YOUR OWN - brave, bleak British comedy

GROW YOUR OWN is a brilliantly well-observed black comedy. Directed by Richard Laxton and shot by David Luther, it has the same bleak look as LIFE AND LYRICS and is unafraid to show the grimier aspects of contemporary British life. Writers Frank Cottrell Boyce (24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE, A COCK AND BULL STORY) and Carl Hunter have penned a subtle tragi-comic script about an issue that haunts contemporary Britain: immigration. Neatly, they set movie in an allotment - that most British of inventions. The locals initially object to the "invasion" of their land by asylum seekers from the Middle East, Africa and China. So, when a mobile phone company offers them five grand if they sacrifice a plot to a phone mast, they are only too happy to secretly ear-mark one of the immigrant's patches for the concrete rollers.

The writers use this issue to explore knee-jerk reactions to immigration and the difficulties faced by both sides as they get used to each other. There is more than a smattering of laugh-out loud humour, but this is always under-cut by the serious subject matter. To that end, it helps that the movie has an ensemble cast that has the range to play both comedy and serious drama, not least Omid Djalili, Eddie Marsan and Olivia Colman. Best of all, there aren't any Hollywood endings although my one criticism is that the film-makers can't resist an opportunity to stoke up the angst. This is especially evident in Benedict Wong's portrayal of a Chinese immigrant. By the end, the emotional manipulation starts to grate, and throws off the previously finely balanced black comedy. Nonetheless, this movie is definitely worth checking out.

GROW YOUR OWN is on release in the UK.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Speaking of weak rom-coms: HOW TO LOSE A GUY IN TEN DAYS

This limp and lifeless movie comes as a disappointment given that it was directed by Donald "Miss Congeniality" Petrie and co-scripted by Burr "Igby Goes Down" Steers. Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson play New Yorkers who, for reasons of Wildean subtlety, have to make the other love them/dump them within ten days. She annoys him; he refuses to dump her; they fall in love; they find out that they were set up; they break-up; they make-up. The humour is scarce despite bit parts for Adam Goldberg and Bebe Newirth. The romance falls flat, highlighting the fact that while Sarah Jessica Parker may be irritating there's a certain role that she does best. Overall, not even one for DVD.

HOW TO LOSE A GUY IN TEN DAYS was released in 2003 and is available on DVD.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

LUCKY YOU - strangely unengaging

LUCKY YOU is a truly banal film. The movie is about a professional poker player called Huck Cheever (Eric Bana) struggling to a) get the entry money for the World Series of Poker b) defeat his estranged father, two-time world champion LC Cheever (Robert Duvall), and c) win the heart of pure-hearted singer Billie Offer (Drew Barrymore).

Each of these three story strands utterly fails to engage the audience. As each actor is gifted, I can only put this down to bad writing and direction. Curtis Hanson, who so skilfully directed LA CONFIDENTIAL, films the poker games in an entirely pedestrian style. He also fails to elicit memorable or even engaged performances from his lead actors. Hanson also fails to use his DP, Peter Deming, well. Consider that the same DP, working with David Lynch, created the unforgettable visuals of MULHOLLAND DRIVE. As a co-writer, Hanson has the bad fortune to be mixed up with screen-writer, Eric Roth. Roth is a serial offender, creating one bloated, over-complicated, banal script after another. I give you MUNICH, ALI, THE GOOD SHEPHERD, and THE HORSE WHISPERER as evidence. Here, Roth resorts to truly painful platitudes. At the key emotional moment of the film, he has Billie tell Huck: "You know what I think? I think that everyone's just trying not to be lonely." Ye Gods. L C Cheever tells his son Huck, "You got it backwards kid. You play cards the way you should lead your life. And you lead your life the way you should play cards." Such wisdom!

The final, fatal problem with this movie is that while there is too much poker for the uninitiated to deal with, for anyone with a passing interest in the game, the hands are either too dramatic and improbable, or too curtailed to be engaging.

Grim. With the exception of fascinating five minute cameo from Robert Downey Junior.

LUCKY YOU was released in the US, France, the Philippines, Australia, Portugal, Greece and Argentina earlier this year. It opens in Brazil, Italy, the UK and Japan this weekend. It opens in Germany on June 28th, in Belgium in Jly 18th and in Spain on July 27th 2007.

Monday, June 18, 2007

IDIOCRACY - a world where the biggest-selling movie is called "ASS"

IDIOCRACY is a live-action comedy from the creator of Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill, Mike Judge. Sadly, the wickedly funny mind that brought us perfectly formed short-format animation hasn't quite mastered the feature length format. The writing is uneven, with a smattering of biting satire offset by some weak dialogue, obvious humour and the inexplicable casting of Maya Rudolph in a lead role. Still, there's enough comedy in the central premise to warrant a DVD rental.

Mike Judge starts from the following worrying fact: idiot chavs are having more kids than clever, professional people. This demographic dumbing-down is pushing evolution into reverse - we're all regressing into...well....Beavis and Butthead. Luke Wilson and Maya play a present-day Joe Average and a hooker who have been cryogenically frozen and wake up in the future imperfect. In the new IDIOCRACY, dumb people water crops with gatorade and convicts get "rehabilitated" in a Running Man style TV show.

Ultimately, Mike Judge can't sustain the satire and the narrative is pretty weak. But there are enough unpleasant truths to prevent me from dismissing this film in the manner of the studio that buried it in straight to video hell.

IDIOCRACY went on limited release in the US in September 2006 but didn't get a cinematic release in the UK. It is, however, available on DVD.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

VACANCY - pretty vacant

There's no point in asking why Hollywood insists on churning out these derivative, mediocre horror flicks. The answer's simple. They're relatively cheap - requiring only deserted motels/warehouses/army facilities and C-list stars. You don't even need to bother with an original plot.

In the case of VACANCY, the standard issue victims are played by Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson. They discover that their creepy motel room is actually a snuff movie set. The first fifty minutes of the movie are actually pretty well put together and successfully ramp up the tension. DP Andrzej Sekula creates a suitably grungy look in contrast to the eerily clean feel of AMERICAN PSYCHO. It's also quite nice to have protagonists that you can sympathise with because they're half-intelligent adults as opposed to whiny-ass teenagers. And despite their C-list status, Wilson and Beckinsale actually perform pretty well. Early on they have a conversation in which they discuss their impending divorce. It feels real and heartfelt. I almost suspected them of having some range. The last twenty minutes of the movie are as weak as a very weak thing, though.

I don't know why I persist in watching this stuff. I mean, it's not like it's actively bad, but it certainly doesn't push out the boat in the way that the best J-horror does. I feel that we're at the edge of a trend that leads toward the best-selling movie in 2055 being called "ASS".

VACANCY is already on release in the US, Russia, Egypt and the UK. It opens in Singapore, Denmark, Germany, Malaysia, Finland, Italy, Sweden, Hungary, the Netherlands and Slovakia in July. It opens in Belgium, France, Brazil and Australia in August. It opens in Argentina in September and in Spain in November 2007.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

THE WAR ON DEMOCRACY - agit-doc at its best

THE WAR ON DEMOCRACY is a well-argued, well-structured agit-doc indicting America's post-war foreign policy. It posits the thesis that America is an empire in all but name. While it may portray itself as a champion of liberty and democracy, it has systematically incited coups against democratically elected regimes that do not toe its line. The "national interest" is defined by Presidential fiat and filters down through the CIA and shadowy funding organisations to "right-thinking" elite opponents of populist regimes.

The documentary works because John Pilger is a respected journalist with gravitas. There are no Michael-Moore-like histrionics or obfuscations (although history may judge harshly his skating over Chavez' emergency presidential powers). The interviews with witnesses to terror are deeply moving. The interviews with ex-CIA operatives vary from the informative to the deeply scary and gruesomely funny. But throughout, this film is compelling viewing - and I can only wonder whether it will ever get a US release. In addition, this is one of the few documentaries that deserves a theatrical release because of the stunning panoramic views of the shiny central business districts and breeze-block barrios of Latin America.

THE WAR ON DEMOCRACY is on release in the UK.

Friday, June 15, 2007

LA MOME - LA VIE EN ROSE - stunning central performance; baffling direction

Writer-director Olivier Dahan and co-writer Isabelle Sobelman have fashioned a biopic of Edith Piaf that is infuriating in its narrative structure. The movie flits back and forth through the iconic singer's life like a demented squirrel. Flashbacks, flash-forwards and inter-cut scenes add nothing to the viewer's understanding of her character or motivations. Far from enlightening us and drawing perceptive links, they confuse and infuriate Even within a scene, the director affects attention deficit disorder. The most grievous offense is in the final scene where Piaf - her whole bitter-sweet life building to this moment - sings "Non, je ne regrette rien". All good directors know that when a performer is giving their all in an iconic moment the best thing you can do is keep the camera firmly on them. Think of Liza Minelli as Sally Bowles singing her final song, "Life is a Cabaret" or when John Travolta does his solo dance number in Saturday Night Fever. The key is to let the talent do the talking without any flash camera-work or too many cuts. Olivier Dahan, however, cannot resist cutting away from Marion Cotillard's breath-taking performance. He switches to pictures of Piaf as a little girl; Piaf making a death-bed revelation; Piaf in Paris. It all serves to under-mine what should be the triumphant, heart-breaking finale.

Not only in this biographical material badly organised and badly directed, the choices concerning what to show and what to omit are bizarre. The exact nature of her relationship with her "sister", Momone, is left vague; the fact that she had a child is only revealed in the denouement for no clear reason; and World War Two doesn't seem to happen at all!

The miracle is that the film survives the baffling directorial choices. The reason is partly that it is handsomely designed, beautifully photographed, well-scored and exceptionally well-acted. Marion Cotillard's performance as Piaf is astounding. She plays Piaf from a teenager to death and is convincing at every age and in every mood. But the supporting cast are also strong, with an especially strong performance from Testud.

The other obvious reason is that however you slice it, dice it and genrally dick around with it, Piaf's life is fascinating and the material is mostly all there once you decipher the running order. Edith was born in 1915, the daughter of a singer and an acrobat, and grand-daughter of a brothel keeper. By the time she was discovered by an impresario (Depardieu), she had already lived with whores, travelled with a circus, taken up with the alcoholic Momone, lost a child to meningitis and become embroiled with the mafia. After the murder of the impresario, she retrained as a music hall singer and achieved worldwide fame. She found love with the married boxer Marcel Cerdan, who tragically died in a plane crash. Later she married twice, suffered in a horrific car-crash and became addicted to morphine. She died young - her body exhausted and racked by arthritis, cancer and drug addiction. Throughout it all, the film suggests, she never lost her faith, her willingness to love and to live a full life.

This is, then, a grand story that befits a great spirit and iconic singer. Cotillard's performance does Piaf justice. It is a shame that Dahan's directorial choices did not.

LA MOME - LA VIE EN ROSE played Berlin 2007 and has already been released in Belgium, France, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Israel, Canada, Greece, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Lebanon, Denmark, Taiwan, Slovenia, Span, Italy, Argentina, Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, the USA, Iceland and Hungary It opens in the UK on June 22nd, in Australia and Russia on July 12th, in Singapore on July 26th, in Turke on August 3rd and in New Zealand in September.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

TELL NO-ONE/NE LE DIS A PERSONNE - teeeeeee-dious "thriller"

Inside the bloated two hour run-time of TELL NO-ONE is a decent thriller screaming to get out. But sadly, as it is, this movie is over-long, poorly directed and woefully un-thrilling.

Based on a novel by Harlan Coben, the movie has been adapted and directed by the young French director Guillaume Canet. François Cluzet plays a grieving pediatrician called Alex Beck. Beck receives an email from his wife, who was apparently brutally murdered eight years previously. At the same time, the police re-open her murder case when they un-earth two bodies near Beck's country estate. Beck goes on the run from the police, seeking help from the criminal types he meets in his clinic and from his sister (Marina Hands) and her lover (Kristin Scott Thomas.) Eventually, not so much through his own cunning as other's need to talk, Beck discovers the truth.

My problems with the movie are many and various. The pacing is way too slow. The structure too meandering. Cluzot chooses to play Beck as unemotive - which makes his screen-time really dull. The deep dark secret at the centre is easy to spot if you pay attention to the huge big random bits of information that are clumsily dropped in half way through. Thereafter, the film unfolds slowly and the deep dark secret is treated simply as a plot motivator rather than explored in the depth that it deserves. Treating that particular issue as a Macguffin is especially tasteless. The denouement is even more annoying. After a supposedly tense, adult thriller we are left to wallow in sun-kissed sentimentalism that feels completely out-of-place. Frankly, this movie is a mess.

TELL NO-ONE/NE LE DIS A PERSONNE opened in the Czech Republic, Belgium, France, and Switzerland in 2006 and in Russia, the Ukraine, Israel and Turkey earlier this year. It is currently on release in the UK and the US. It opens in Sweden in August and in Finland on September 28th.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


The new FANTASTIC FOUR movie is unpretentious, kind-hearted and fun. It won't win any awards, but after the bloated, god-awful summer blockbusters I've been subjected to this year, RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER is arguably the best summer movie I've seen this year.

You know the MO. The Fantastic Four are like a love-able family who happen to have super-powers. There's none of that secret identity, inner turmoil crap. The nearest we get to an emotional crisis is that Dr Fantastic (Ioan Gruffud) and The Invisible Girl (Jessica Alba) keep having their wedding interrupted by super-villains! And as for political allegory or delusions of grandeur, the only charge is a faint whiff of Gitmo in the interrogation of the Surfer, but this passes very quickly. Frankly, no-one's taking this moving too seriously. Chris Evans is clearly having a blast, Ioan Gruffud is making rain and the talentless Jessica Alba is proving that Hollywood really is an equal opportunities employer.

In this episode of the franchise, the apparent villain is The Silver Surfer. He's silver, he surfs, he has the voice of Larry Fishburne and the body of Doug Jones. More importantly, he's not really a bad guy but the herald for the truly horrific Galactos. The plot arc sees the FF persuading the Surfer to help them battle Galactos and their old nemesis Victor Von Doom.*

Like I said, FANTASTIC FOUR 2 is not a great comic-book movie in the vein of the first Sam Raimi's SPIDERMAN movie. But neither is it an embarassment in the manner of SPIDERMAN 3. So if you want a good old-fashioned mediocre comic-book flick: this is the movie for you!


*Minor criticism and spoiler: Bear in mind that I have never read a comic in my life.....But if the Surfer could destroy the Galactos all along, why didn't he do it in the first place? Surely that would have alleviated the threat to his home planet, his beloved, and left him free from being complicit in genocide?! Another unrelated questions for fanboys: does Von Doom look like the Emperor from Jedi in the comics too?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Bina007 makes a wrong turn on the way to the cinema and ends up in AVENUE Q

Do you think the only way to count to twelve is in the style of the Pointer Sisters with Maceo Parker jamming in the back-ground?

Do you think that what might be right for you may not be right for some?

Do you spend hours in the pub discussing the latest homosexuality of Bert and Ernie?

Did you spend the first few years after graduating college feeling disillusioned, under-paid and losing hope?

Do you think that, while blogging and Amazon are handy, the internet is basically just for porn?

If so, AVENUE Q is the Broadway-musical for you. It's a musical in the style of Sesame Street, with humans and muppets hanging out in the seedier parts of New York dealing with real life issues. The big difference is that while Sesame Street is a childrens' TV show, AVENUE Q is most definitely an adult musical. It focuses on a bunch twenty-somethings dealing with love, sexuality, unemployment and even homelessness in a breathtakingly honest and incredibly funny way. The song-titles alone should give you a hint: What Do You Do with a B.A. in English? - It Sucks to Be Me - If You Were Gay - Everyone's a Little Bit Racist - The Internet Is for Porn. Think Tom Lehrer crossed with South Park but performed by Cookie Monster.

But a musical does not become a hit on the strength of a gimmick. AVENUE Q is a quality product. Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx have penned catchy songs with perceptive, funny lyrics that resonate with all of us who've been through that post-college downer. There's a proper story and while it follows the formula it does occasionally wrong-foot you.

Moreover, despite the fact that half the characters are muppets I felt completely emotionally engaged, and was genuinely upset when the closet homosexual Rod realised that his friend Nicky wasn't in love with him. Perhaps this is because the writers have consciously played on all our scurrilous imaginings about the inner life of the Sesame Street characters. Rod is convincing as a closet homosexual because we always viewed Burt as gay.

The performers are also incredibly talented - matching there facial expressions to those of the muppets, making the muppet torsos almost an extension of their own bodies, and being careful to have the muppets address each other rather than the muppeteers. They all have strong singing voices and deliver the lines with the requisite pathos or humour. The best thing of all is that the muppets are absolutely necessary. In other words, it isn't just a gimmick. There are certain scenes which simply wouldn't work - or wouldn't be shown - if they weren't using muppets.

So, I can thoroughly recommend a night out at AVENUE Q for those of you with a broad-mind and a love of 70s pop culture. Liz and I laughed throughout and left the theatre feeling immensely cheered up despite the fact that we'd just had some gruesome news. If it could make us feel that good in such a context, it must be a winner.

AVENUE Q is currently playing in the Noel Coward theatre in London.

Monday, June 11, 2007

THE FILTH AND THE FURY - two wrongs don't make a right

In the late 70s, the UK was suffering race riots, mass unemployment, mass strikes and teetering on the brink of chaos. To hear Johnny Rotten tell it, it was only a matter of time before a bunch of disillusioned working class lads grabbed some guitars and attacked all the institutions that had robbed them of a future. To hear his ex-manager, Malcolm Maclaren tell it, there was no spontaneous rock movement. Rather, it was all a lucrative hoax perpetrated on dumb consumers with Maclaren as the genius-puppeteer. If bass player, Glen Matlock, were allowed to get a word in, he'd probably call them both arseholes.

Documentary film-maker Julien Temple pandered to Maclaren's ego and genius for self-promotion with his 1980 film, THE GREAT ROCK'N'ROLL SWINDLE. It attempted to tell the story of the Sex Pistols phenomenon - the raw performances; the violence; the outrage; the break-up; Nancy Spudgeon's death; Sid Vicious' OD - from the point of view of a media event. It was a deeply partisan piece of work that was edifying only in terms of exploring Maclaren's genius for media manipulation years after the Pistols had imploded.

Then we had the 1986 drama, SID AND NANCY, which focused on the internal life of the lovers whose story dominates the end of the phenomenon. They seemed like naive, infantile, damaged people who found solace and self-destruction in each other. Nancy may have given Sid his first hit of heroin, but it seemed less malicious than a lark.

Twenty years later, Julien Temple gave the Pistols there say in the doc, THE FILTH AND THE FURY. Predictably, there's a lot of cursing at Maclaren's expense and between the various members of the band. In fact, the only thing that seems to unite them all is a hatred of Nancy Spudgeon. They characterise her as a prositute, junkie and groupie, who got Sid hooked on smack and ruined the band. They have seemingly no sympathy for her tragic death.

It's not a great documentary. Sure, it's exhilerating to see the old concert footage, and eery to see interview-footage of Sid Vicious. But a documentary dominated by the opiniated Rotten is as biased and frustrating as a doc dominated by Maclaren. And there's something somehow gutless about a bunch of people slagging each other off without their faces being shown on screen. In fact, that's perhaps the most bizarre directorial choice Temples makes: to shoot the ex-Pistols against bright sunlight so that their faces are in the dark. For a band so mad for telling it how it is, this seems a curious obfuscation.

THE FILTH AND THE FURY was released in 2000 and is available on DVD.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

TAKING LIBERTIES - I humbly implore you to watch this film

TAKING LIBERTIES is that rare thing: an agit-doc that is well-structured, well-argued and convinces. It held my interest and made me feel suitably outraged even though I went into the film thinking I already agreed with all of its propositions. The thesis is simple. Tony Blair's administration has systematically eroded British civil liberties to the point where habeas corpus itself is undermined. The government prevents us from peacefully protesting; invades our privacy; can ship us off to the US without prima facie evidence of a prosecution case; and at worst, can ship us to a country where we will be tortured. Their defence is that if we have done nothing wrong we have nothing to fear. But this doc continually shows us innocent people doing nothing wrong being harrassed by the criminal justice system. The government claims that liberty must be compromised to protect our safety. But the terrorists are winning partly because of these draconian measures. And the Madrid bombings still happened, despite the fact that Spain has ID cards. I felt radicalised by the film, and I'm as card-carrying a member of the establishment as you can get. Imagine what people who have directly suffered from the new infringments must think?

Perhaps the film's only flaw is its willingness to equate our current loss of liberty with Germany in the 1930s. This charge - which comes in the first ten minutes of the doc - left me sceptical. But I have to admit that as case study upon case study of people being denied their rights piled up, I became a lot more sympathetic to that view.

I read those adverts proclaiming that TAKING LIBERTIES was the most important doc of the last ten years and cynically thought this was just marketing hype. Now I've seen the film, I think it's well-earned praise. This film is essential viewing.

TAKING LIBERTIES is on release in the UK.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

A TIGER'S TAIL - directionless social criticism of the Irish boom

Ireland has accumulated massive wealth over the past ten years. Much of this wealth has been generated through property development and there are plenty of examples of corruption in the granting of planning permits on the news. A trip to Dublin today is fascinating. There's more congestion getting into town from the airport than from Heathrow to Central London. Grafton Street has smarter shops and richer customers than Bond Street. Temple Bar is full of British hen nights and stag do's - there's barely an Irishmen there. (Even the bar staff seem to come from Eastern Europe). And the top end hotels rival the most expensive European capital in price. The International Financial Centre is crammed with big name banks; the International Film Festival is approaching the glamour of London's; and house prices have rocketed......But as with most economic booms, the gap between the haves and haven-nots has widened, and for every self-made millionaire there are first-time home-buyers who have been squeezed off the bottom of the housing ladder.

Writer-director John Boorman (THE TAILOR OF PANAMA) has made a brave attempt to chronicle this modern Irish crisis of conscience. The first forty minutes or so of his film, A TIGER'S TAIL is brilliantly perceptive. Dublin is seen as a city that is constipated with traffic and so gorged on money and excessive consumption that it's literally vomiting. Brendan Gleeson plays a millionaire property developer called Michael O'Leary who has benefited from the Celtic Tiger economic boom. He's got a fabulous house, a bolshie son (Sean McGinley) and a glamourous wife (Kim Cattrall.) But he's haunted by a down-at-heel doppelganger who may be a long-lost brother and seems to be after his life.

So the movie turns from social criticism to a weak thriller of sorts. It goes seriously off the tracks when the imposter turfs the real O'Leary from the family home. Cattrall struggles with her Irish accent, and the sex scene between her and Gleeson is laughable - whether intended or not. The movie then lurches on with melodramatic reunions, implausible events and decisions, and finally stutters to a close. It's a tremendous shame that the weak writing and lack of clear vision for the project undermined the fine opening section. One for DVD at best.

A TIGER'S TAIL is on release in the UK and opens in Israel on June 28th 2007.

Friday, June 08, 2007

OCEAN'S THIRTEEN are smug bastards

OCEAN'S THIRTEEN is an arrogant film. Look how smooth we are; look how well we dress; look at our private jets and our designer sunglasses; look at the luxury hotels we stay in; look at the stand-up friends we have; look how effortlessly we slice through apparently impenetratable security systems.....

In short, look how COOL we are.

We're so cool, you'll pay ten quid to watch us be cool. And we won't have to create genuine plot twists like in OCEAN'S ELEVEN. And we won't bother having a love-story at the movie's heart. Heck, with our ludicrous channel tunnel plot-line we'll break all bounds of credibility. And you won't even care because you'll be so blinded by our dazzling teeth.

The fact that the script-writers have the audacity to rail against the modern Vegas - the crass commercialisation and PG-i-sation the Strip - infuriates me with its hypocrisy. And were they trying to make some point about underpaid Mexican workers? I mean, seriously, do they really think that from THIS platform, they can hint at a social critique? I am stumped.

OCEAN'S THIRTEEN is on global release.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

BLACK GOLD - poorly edited, poorly argued agit-doc

BLACK GOLD is another one of those earnest liberal agit-docs. This one rightly rails against the injustice of the coffee trade. I have said before that, with the exception of AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, these agitdocs are a pretty futile exercise. They pick on subjects that are sitting ducks - so self-evidently unjust that no liberal can possibly object. Moreover, they are preaching to the converted. No self-respecting greedy capitalist bastard is going to pay money to see a movie whose avowed aim is to bring down the system. That said, I've seen some well-structured, fascinating docs over the last year, and whatever you say about Michael Moore, he's made it possible to get a theatrical release for political films.

The first thing to say is that BLACK GOLD is beautifully photographed by Marc and Nick Francis and Ben Cole. The scenes in the Ethiopian coffee plantations are exceptionally well-shot and I was amazed that the film-makers were using DV. The second thing to say is that, in Tedesse Meskela, they have found a charismatic figurehead for their cause. Meskela is an articulate, charismatic man who represents Ethiopian coffee producers and tries to cut out the middle men between the producers and the roasters. By doing so, he hopes to pass on more of the earnings from the finished product to the deeply impoverished producers.

But, sadly, the problems with this critically acclaimed-documentary are, to my mind, legion. First off, it is poorly structured, flitting back and forth between showing the poverty of the producers; the riches of the retailers; the New York Board of Trade where the commodity coffee price is set; the roasters.....It's a repetitive mess. Second, the film-makers do not interrogate their sources. A classic example is an interview with the Illy coffee people in Italy. Illy feel very self-satisfied because they pay more for coffee. This is NOT because they are bleeding-heart liberals. It's because they buy speciality coffees whose price is set away from the NYBOT. But the film-makers do not bring out this important distinction. As a result, the segment just looks like an advert for Illy!

Third, the documentary simply does not explain the process by which the producers get ripped off. It just keeps stating the fact over and over and over again. Which is silly, because it's self-evidently true so we don't need telling twice. There's a quick pass as the NYBOT and the WTO but the mechanisms are not explored. Indeed, the documentary seems as confused as the farmers as to how this injustice happens.

Issues that should have been explored include:
1. The difference between Value and Price
2. The reason why Africa planted "cash crops" in the first place
3. The reason why Africa remains a producer rather than a roaster i.e. why the value-added jobs do not take place in Africa.
4. A proper examination of the way in which the EU and US block free trade despite their rhetoric toward Africa, enforced with an iron fist by the World Bank
5. The difference between a commodity, and the mechanisms for setting a commodity's price and a luxury/speciality good and the mechanisms for setting its price.
6. The way in which multi-nationals pay supermarkets for shelf placement so that it's simply harder to find a fair-trade coffee.

So, BLACK GOLD is at best a useful start, but I was seriously disappointed at the poverty of the analysis and the rambling structure. Both contributed to the feeling that the film was dragging when in fact it was under 90 minutes long.

BLACK GOLD played London 2006 and Berlin 2007. It went on limited release in the US last October and is on release in the UK.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

KURT AND COURTNEY - the purist and the parasite?

British documentary film-maker Nick Broomfield started off making a film about Kurt Cobain, his music and the North-west Grunge scene, financed in part by MTV. As he started to investigate the controversy surrounding Cobain's suicide he began to counter opposition. Courtney Love refused the rights to Cobain's music. Her representation put pressure on the financiers and they pulled funding in the middle of the shoot. Even the BBC got the jitters. In a final gasp, Courtney Love got the movie pulled from Sundance - a move that backfired in terms of PR, given that Broomfield was one of the festival's judges that year.

As the pressure was applied during the filming process, the documentary switched from being about Kurt and his music, to being about the nature of Kurt and Courtney's relationship and about artistic freedom.

On the former, Broomfield interviews Cobain's old friends as well as Love's old boyfriend, father and other kooks. Most of them regard Kurt as a caring, sensitive but deeply depressed individual. They regard Courtney Love at best as a money-grabbing, ambitious, controlling parasite. At worst, they regard her as an accessory to murderer. Broomfield ultimately seems to come down in favour of the theory that Cobain did commit suicide but that Love's presence contributed to his desperation. But he does give the assorted kooks a lot of screen time and his documentary style - being shown in frame, microphone in hand, leading his witnesses - makes him seem less objective than he probably is.

Arguably the bigger theme of the film is the difficulty of achieving artistic freedom in an industry dominated by big corporations. That the studios backed out of the film is depressing but expected. The bigger shock is to see Love championed by the ACLU, and one of the most sinister scenes sees Broomfield bundled off an ACLU podium for daring to point out the hypocrisy of such an award.

This is then, a fascinating documentary, despite my scepticism about Broomfield's style. It is less an expose of Love's ambition as a chronicle of how well-oiled PR machines work. After all, Pat Kingsley was no more voracious in her defence of Love than she used to be of Tom Cruise's interests. And I'm sure that process is repeated for every major star.

KURT AND COURTNEY was released in 1998 and is available on DVD.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

SID AND NANCY - A Tale of Two Patsies

Alex Cox made a movie about Sid Vicious and Nancy Spudgeon becuase he didn't want Hollywood to make its picture starring - of all people - Madonna and Rupert Everett. For that alone, he's to be thanked. On top of that, we get a low-budget factually based picture about abuse.

When we first meet Sid Vicious he's already the infamous bass player for the Sex Pistols. Malcolm Maclaren is balls-out honest about the fact that he's not in the band because he can play. Even by the gonzo standards of punk, he was a piss-poor musician. Rather, he was in the band because he perfectly embodied punk. It was a movement which, as I understand it, arose from a reaction against the dying embers of the free-love, doped-up Hippie revolution. It appealed to poor kids from the shit-holes of England who had no means of escape. England was in economic collapse. The Pistols reacted angrily. If society had no place for them, then society could go fuck itself. They advocated anarchy. They were nihilistic. They were getting the fuck out of Bermondsey. But, in typically English fashion, despite the furore they were basically harmless. (It's no accident that Johnny Rotten ended up as a much-loved star of reality TV, Ozzy Osbourne stylee.)

Like I said, when Sid met Nancy, he was a rock star, but also a depressed, messed up kid. Nancy was just another groupie, and he fell in love with her at the same time as he fell in love with heroin. He left her for a US tour missing her all the way. She sold herself, but carried on loving him. Reunited they carried on abusing drugs and loving each other in an almost naive and casually self-destructive way. It all ended in her much-documented death in the Chelsea Hotel, and his overdose shortly after.

Writer/director Alex Cox, who later wrote the screenplay for FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, brilliantly communicates the tangled mess that resulted in their tragic deaths. He conveys their love and the abusive nature of their relationship. Gary Oldman is beautiful and intense as Sid. Chloe Webb, who'd later end up in family-comedy hell (TWINS), is vulnerable and love-able as Nancy. A classic example of the power behind the performance is the scene where she tells her mum that she got married over the phone and her mum doesn't believe her. It's sad and frightening at the same time. And the cast features a bunch of people we recognise from British TV including the ridiculously talented comedienne Kathy Burke. The movie also features an eery cameo from Courtney Love, more of whom in tomorrow's review.....

Behind the camera, Roger Deakins (later famous as the Coen Brothers regular DP) squeezes memorable visuals from the low budget. The contrast between grey, decrepit, washed out England and the almost Hollywood beautiful American landscape is stark. Nancy may feel she has come from suburban hell, but to Sid it's paradise. It's sweet to watch a notorious star behaving so courteously at grandma's house. I also like the writing and framing of the final scene of the film where Sid dances happily with some kids in New York. You really feel that he was just a good kid who searched for love and happiness in the wrong place.

It's also worth pointing out how good the production design is. The movie's shot on location and real care has been paid in the details. A classic example is that you can see the old Conservative election posters on the walls. But the real coup was persuading Glen Matlock to be music director and play bass when the cast play the classic Pistols songs. And that again was a great choice. Having actors lip synch to the classics would've been far more artificial and distracting than just having them re-interpret them.

SID AND NANCY was originally released in 1986 and is available on DVD.

Monday, June 04, 2007

LUNACY/SILENI - God is a monster; art is dead; the lunatics are running the asylum and they are our only hope of liberty

A young man, Jean, is plagued by nightmares in which he suffers his mother's fate: he is placed in a straight-jacket by two menacing asylum guards. By chance he meets a strange old man who calls himself the Marquis and dresses and acts like Sade. For an hour we see the Marquis act out elaborate scenes with Jean as an unwitting and repulsed victim. But the Marquis has benign intentions. He hopes to liberate Jean from his nightmares by confronting him with his fears. Jean is give the option of voluntarily entering an asylum that has been taken over by its inmates.

LUNACY is the latest film from Czech surrealist, puppet-maker and film-maker, Jan Svankmajer. His films are self-declared political statements: surrealism in opposition to the Soviet obligation for realism. More practically, LUNACY is an unconventional riff on stories by Edgar Allen Poe and Sade. It's avowed intention is to repulse, to shock and to accurately depict a world gone mad. To this end, beautifully designed live-action footage shows the asylum and its in-mates. This is interspersed with stop-motion animation of fleshy tongues, eye-balls and brains pulsating and squelching through houses and workrooms. Flesh seems to have a "mind of its own". And obeying the desires of the flesh in a sort of rebellion against the tyranny of society.

The combination of black comedy, horror, live-action and animation yields a movie that is the bizarre, funny and disturbing. It is without a doubt the most provocative and inventive film I have seen this year, and is not to be missed.

LUNACY opened in the Czech Republic in 2005 and in Japan and Slovakia in 2006. It is currently playing in the UK. It is also available on Region 1 DVD.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

THE GUARDIAN - wishing for Tom Cruise

Director Andrew Davis makes heavy work of this derivative, ponderous action movie. Kevin Costner stars as a legendary coastguard with marital problems. Obliged to take up a post as a trainer, he meets a cocky young student played by Ashton Kutcher. Kutcher is seriously out of his depth in a serious dramatic role, and shocked as I am to admit this, I found myself longing for the Tom Cruise of TOP GUN, or better still the Richard Gere of AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN. Actually, I was longing for the emotional depth and brutality of a OFFICER all the way through this formulaic clap-trap. Yes yes, we've seen it all before. Kutcher will change from a narcissistic idiot to a mature, battle-scarred coast-guard. The hard-as-nails local girl will fall for him. And Costner's character will learn to respect Kutcher's character. Ron L Brinkerhoff's script offers nothing new. So, while I admired the technical effects and the ballsiness of the denoument, frankly, after two hours of weak bilge my emotional investment was nil.

THE GUARDIAN went on cinematic release in autumn 2006 and is available on DVD.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

TEN CANOES - tricksy Aborigine folk tale

TEN CANOES runs rings around its audience. It starts with a beautiful slow sweeping shot of a river winding through lush almost luminous grass. An aborigine narrator, David Gulpilil, opens with a fairytale: "Once upon a time...." and then immediately checks our expectations with a "no, it's not that kind of story!" The narrator baits us with the promise of a great story, but at the same time holds it distant from us. It's not our kind of story but his story. And amidst all this talk of a story he firmly refuses to get on with it! No, we must wait and do things his way, starting at the very beginning, with the aborigine creation story.

After this prologue, we move back in time to the era of the narrator's grandparents. In black and white, we see aborigine men out on a hunting expedition. They are stripping the bark off trees to make canoes in order to gather goose-eggs. The scenes look like images from old anthropology textbooks and the patient narration has a quasi-nature doc. feel to it. But before we fall into the trap of imagining the aborigines as naive, innocent children of the earth, they start cracking jokes about farts, small pricks, impotence and gluttonous grandfathers (the scene-stealing Richard Birrinbirrin). It transpires that Dayindi (Jamie Galpilil) is after his elder brother Minygululu's pretty young third wife. So Minygululu tells Dayindi a salutory tale to teach him "to live proper." And that's the tale that the narrator, FINALLY, is going to tell us.

So, once again, we shift back even further in time to the ancients, where another brother is lusting after his elder brother's wife. We're back in colour and it seems to a modern audience that we might finally be getting somewhere. Of course, the narrator can't help cutting back to the goose-egg gathering, or making wry comments. But the tale does flower, with plenty of humour and not a little pathos.

Eventually, the story comes to its conclusion. The narrator teases us again: "And they all lived happily ever after." Of course, he's joking. But the interesting part for me was that as much as the narrator wants to distance us from this very different tale, it has the same sort of pat moral as your typical European folk tale. Small world, eh?

TEN CANOES played Toronto, London and Cannes, where it won the Un Certain Regard prize for 2006. It opened in Italy, Australia, Greece, Norway and France in 2006. It opened in the Netherlands and Belgium earlier this year and is crrently on release in the UK and US. It opens in Germany on August 9th 2007.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Who is Slavoj ZIZEK!?

I noticed, I’m idiot at some level, by idiot I mean psychotic, I take things literallyZIZEK! is a short (70 minute) but intense documentary that serves to answer the question: who is Slavoj Zizek?

Slavoj Zizek began his public life as a Slovenian dissident in the 1980s. He was blacklisted, unable to find work in academia, and finally forced to take a job for the Central Committee. But after the fall of Communism his career blossomed - ironic seeing as he remains a convinced Marxist philosopher. He even stood for the Slovenian presidency and nearly won. However, he is not a politician so much as a political and cultural theorist.

Zizek is not any old Marxist: he is also a Lacanian. Not that he agrees with Lacan's apparently pompous style of delivery - as demonstrated in the documentary with clips from a lecture broadcast on French state TV. But Zizek agrees with the substance of Lacan's theory of psychoanalysis. The difference is that Zizek applies psychoanalytical theory not just to the relationship between private individuals, but to the influence of the anonymous social whole on private individual's conscious and unconscious desires. In practical terms, how do social phenomena - movies, adverts, terrorist attacks - impinge on our individual make-up?

Within certain circles, Zizek has achieved the status of a rock-star philosopher. He gives sell-out lectures in crammed auditoriums. Young students clamber over each other just to touch him or to get his autograph. No doubt part of his appeal lies in his memorable oratorical style: the thick Slovenian accent, the lisp, the intense eyes, the manic hand gestures, the slightly clown-ish aspect to his love of the extreme phrase. It is this TV friendly package, as well as Zizek's willingness to apply his highly developed theories to movies we've seen, that have given him a certain visibility.

In the documentary, Zizek says he hates his notoriety. He fears that by indulging his clown-like nature, his opponents have made a straw man. If the public sees Zizek as a shocking, funny posturer, they won't take him seriously as a philosopher. He argues that he almost needs to commit public suicide - to kill off the persona that has made a documentary like this inevitable - in order to get back to his roots. Then again, his willingness to mock up a suicide for the closing shot of the film, suggests that his love of mischief will always get the better of him.

I think it would be a shame if Zizek lost his ability to shock and amuse. He is one of the few philosophers who is able to speak to a wide audience in clear English and to convey interesting, thought-provoking ideas. If he needs to clown around to get our attention and tell us about the modern relevance of Marx' theory of commodity fetishism, then so be it. I'd rather have the complete Zizek than either dry theory or empty pop cinema. Still, this dilemma - how the artist can retain his integrity while also remaining popular - is interesting. It's the same issue we saw debated, albeit under a different guise, in JOE STRUMMER: THE FUTURE IS UNWRITTEN. So for all those interested in philosophy, psychology or the nature of fame in the modern era, ZIZEK! is essential viewing.

ZIZEK! was released in Germany earlier this year and is currently on release in the UK. It is available on Region 1 DVD.