Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Mike Leigh retrospective - ABIGAIL'S PARTY

ABIGAIL'S PARTY has a mammoth reputation in British cultural history. It's a late 1970s TV play that threw a satirical light on the British obsessions of class, social climbing, and consumerism. It made Alison Steadman famous and propelled sometime actor Mike Leigh into his career as a writer-director.

I found ABIGAIL'S PARTY heavy work. Recent television shows such as SHAMELESS have made an art-form of the serio-comedy that satirises British class prejudice and social aspiration. As a result, ABIGAIL'S PARTY feels like a clunking prototype that is less subtle and insightful than its successors.

The film is a straightforward adaptation of a stage play, and is filmed in a very unambitious "camera in front of the proscenium arch" style. All the action takes place in a suburban living room in 1970s Britain. A couple - Beverly and Laurence - are hosting their neighbours - a couple called Angela and Tony and a divorced mother called Susan. Susan's teenage daughter, Abigail, is hosting a party next door but is never seen. Over the course of the evening, alcohol is consumed, music is played and marital tensions exposed. There is also a rather incredible and odd denouement.

Alison Steadman is much-praised for her performance as the domineering, sharp-tongued social climber, Beverly. It's true that Beverly is a true monster and, as such, a memorable creation. But is she credible? Is she funny? Certainly, we can all recognise aspects of her character - the grandstanding - the ambition - her self-delusion - the ruthless use of others for her own ends. But Steadman's shrill voice, heavy accent and over-bearing body language turn Beverly into a caricature rather than a real character. As a result, it's hard to empathise with her and, worse still, hard to remain interested in her after the first fifteen minutes or so.

Janine Duvitski also adopts a caricature accent as Beverly's dowdy neightbour, Angela. Angela is a nurse and has a more practical mind than Beverly but still whines about inconsequential matters.

Both of these women are contrasted with their emasculated husbands. Indeed, they barely register as a presence: Beverly's husband Laurence (Tim Stern) is mostly absent, running errands, and Angela's husband Tony (John Salthouse) is silent and superior. One wonders why, if he feels so superior to his own prattling wife, he is so taken in by another.

All four neighbours are thrown into contrast with the patient, poised, evidently upper middle-class neighbour, Susan, played by Harriet Reynolds.

Mike Leigh is presumably trying to make some sort of point about the superficiality and frustration at the heart of British lower-middle class life in the 1970s. The audience is invited to mock people who try to portray themselves as having superior taste in music and clothes, but only reveal themselves to be kitsch. Are we meant to feel sympathy for these characters? After all, they are all deeply unhappy? Sadly, I don't think so.

To me, this film felt deeply nasty - just an opportunity to mock people of poor taste, unhappy marriages and superficial character. Maybe I'm missing something, but I could discern nothing that was funny or insightful or that spoke to the human condition.

ABIGAIL'S PARTY was originally broadcast on British TV in 1977. It is available on DVD.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Martha Fiennes retrospective & pantheon movie of the month - ONEGIN

Martha Fiennes' feature length directorial debut, ONEGIN, is one of the most impressive films I saw during my university years. I strongly remember wandering into the local arts cinema with a motley crew of scoundrels, more out of passive boredom than out of an active decision to watch the film. We all left the cinema in complete silence, walking back to my flat without discussing the film at all because we were so wrapped up in our own emotions and reactions. Despite our very catholic taste in film, we all later agreed that it was a desperately moving and brilliantly executed film.

The first great success of the film is its translation and adaptation of the classic Pushkin poem. Peter Etedgui and Michael Ignatieff - a writer, historian and public intellectual - manage to preserve the characterisations, wit, beauty and even some of the lilt of the source language without making the characters speak dialogue that feels cold and anachronistic.

The second great success of the film is Martha Fiennes' particular visual style. Her camera moves elegantly around ball-rooms and through corridors, and has a very fluid, sensuous feel. Moreover, she has created sets and costumes that are rather stylised. So instead of a static, crowded, 100% historically accurate "BBC costume drama" feel, we have a sense that the characters are real and have room to move and breathe.

Finally, the casting is, with a few exceptions, absolutely spot-on. Ralph Fiennes is perfect as the anti-hero, Onegin. His face is almost immobile, his voice barely raised to inflection, in the early scenes in Petersburg. He is manifestly bored by society, bored further by his idea of the country and, as we meet him in the opening scene, wrapped in furs, wandering when "death will take me". Later, when he comes to realise the value of the innocent love that Tatiana Larina offered him - and which he patronisingly rejected - Ralph Fiennes will transform Onegin into an uncertain, weary, perhaps deluded figure, huddled in a blanket on a freezing Petersburg balcony, forever waiting for the love letter that will never come.

Playing against Ralph Fiennes, Liv Tyler is outstanding as Tatiana - the young girl who offers herself to Onegin, only to be rejected, and then martyrs herself in a loveless but faithful marriage to a dull but worthy man. Tyler always manages to convey passionate emotions and profound thought just behind her very proper and conventional surface. And, of course, it doesn't hurt that she's so beautiful. There's also a wonderful little scene where her rich aunt has praised her skin and Tatiana, perhaps for the first time, turns to a mirror and assesses her value on the marriage market, with some evident pride.

In the smaller roles, we have some economically sketched and wonderfully portrayed cameo performances by British character actors. Harriet Walters is suitably spiky and thwarted as Madame Larina; Simon McBurney is very funny as the oleaginous, pretentious French tutor Triquet and Irene Worth is magisterial as the pragmatic, amoral Petersburg matriarch Princess Alina.

If there is a flaw with the film, I think it's in the casting of Tatiana's sister Olga, and her lover, Lensky. In fairness to Lena Headey, she doesn't have much to do as Olga, other than flirt, but I've always found Headey curiously lacking in screen presence and unable to portray depth of characterisation. Toby Stephens isn't bad as the simple-minded but honest country lord and aspiring poet, Lensky. In other roles I have found Stephens irritating - he always seems to come across as arrogant and dull-witted, no matter what the part. Luckily that is not a distraction here, although I think the scene where he thinks Olga is flirting with Onegin is horribly over-acted.

But perhaps the real skill was in choosing to adapt the poem in the first place. I've always thought that the more closely drawn and sparely populated the source material, the better the film. Sprawling epics are rarely done justice on the big screen. Collapsing WAR AND PEACE into a two-hour romance necessarily degrades it, and few film-makers have the unlimited budget offered to Sergei Bondarchuk. On the other hand, look at the wonderful recent adaptation of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN - a short story with a cast of maybe two main and two secondary characters; a few key dramatic episodes; and lots of room for the film-maker to take a lyrical and patient approach. ONEGIN is another example of a source text that is richly but tightly drawn, with a handful of key protagonists, a few key episodes but a profound and unforgettable emotional journey lying underneath it.

Fiennes carefully contrasts the prattling posers in Petersburg with the more straightforwardly socially aspirant country society. Amidst all the useless beauty, Onegin spots Tatiana Larina and is intrigued by her honest integrity, intelligence and curiosity. He sees her worth and while he does not consider her as a lover, he sees how much more she is worth than her flirtatious superficial sister Olga. Onegin's relationship with Lensky is, in some ways, even more interesting. Lensky is a fool, but honest, and honestly in love with Olga. One imagines that Onegin's intelligence and cynicism is offended by this ridiculous and yet apparently deeply felt love. Offended even more when it is thrown into contrast by Tatiana's genuine offer of love which Onegin, jaded, high-handed, cannot accept.

Perhaps it is the ludicrous nature of the contrast between the romance between Olga and Lensky - and the romance he won't permit between himnself and Tatiana - that leads Onegin to cruelly expose the emptiness at its heart. He dances with Olga, Lensky is enraged, they duel, and Onegin kills his friend. He has destroyed a second-rate sort of love affair, but he curses himself in the process. He has learned the true value of Tatiana, of his capacity for love, and the true hell of an empty and solitary life. All this is captured with a delicate camera, sensitive performances and without the dessicated feel of a period drama, in Martha Fiennes' wonderful film.

ONEGIN played Toronto and Venice 1999 and was released in the UK and US that year. It opened in Israel, South Korea, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Portugal, Spain, the Philippines, South Africa, Germany and Poland in 2000 and in Hungary and Hong Kong in 2001. It is available on DVD.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Wong Kar Wai Retrospective - DAYS OF BEING WILD

I always thought one minute flies by. But sometimes it really lingers on.Continuing with our sporadic Wong Kar Wai retrospective, we come to his 1991 feature, DAYS OF BEING WILD. A critical success but a commercial failure, the movie has all the hallmarks of Wong Kar Wai's particular brand of cinema: love-lorn urban men; women unable to move on from heart-break; the beautiful, evocative camera-work of Christopher Doyle; kitsch American popular music; and a plot that is less event-driven than an exploration of character and mood.

We are Hong Kong in the 1960s. It's monsoon season and the colour-scape of the film is lush green and brooding blue. Tragic pop-star Leslie Cheung takes on the lead role of Yuddy - an emotionally jaded young man who seems unable to maintain a stable relationship with the many girls who fall in love with him. The first of these is a naive, whimpering girl called Su Lizhen, played by Wong Kar Wai regular, Maggie Cheung in a "typical" role. The second is a ballsy show-girl called Leung Fung-Ying, played brilliantly by Carina Lau. Possibly a third is Yuddy's controlling, intimidating, ex-whore mother (Rebecca Pan). In some ways, she is the most interesting character, given her decision to cruelly reveal to Yuddy that she is actually his adoptive mother, and that his real mother is living in the Philippines.

In contrast to Yuddy, Wong Kar Wai presents one of his classic policeman characters. Andy Lau plays a decent neighbourhood copper, who comes across Su Lizhen stalking Yuddy's apartment. He takes pity on her, and is so emotionally affected by their encounters that he leaves Hong Kong for the Philippines. There he will come across Yuddy, who is now searching for his birth-mother.

DAYS OF BEING WILD is far from a masterpiece and viewers not familiar with Wong Kar Wai's patient mood pieces may be frustrated by its longueurs. However, it's a rewarding film for fans not least because it takes us further on the journey to the most perfect expression of Wong Kar Wai's style - IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE - a movie presaged by the brief, irrelevant and yet lovely little cameo of Tony Leung at the end of the film.

DAYS OF BEING WILD played Berlin and Toronto 1991 and was released that year. It is available on DVD.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

PERSEPOLIS (US dub) - after careful parent consideration, a film teenagers should see

Some critics are getting a bit sniffy about this English language re-dub of the critically acclaimed French language animted film, PERSEPOLIS. But the great thing about this new version is that you now have more of a chance of dragging along the teenagers, to whom some of the material will speak very directly. PERSEPOLIS is basically a coming of age story and it's disarmingly frank about how girls experience musical crazes, puberty, first love and first heart-break. It's insightful, honest, funny and beautifully hand-drawn, largely in stark black and white against watercolour backdrops.

What gives the movie its depth and importance is that it's essentially a true story of a young girl who grew up in Iran during the Islamic revolution. She starts off as someone who could easily be a Westerner - wearing sneakers, idolising Bruce Lee and obsessed with pop music. But she quickly learns how members of her family have been imprisoned and then killed; she is forced to wear the veil and can't hold hands with her boyfriend in public.

Twice our heroine flees Iran. First, as a mouthy teenager her parents decide to send her to Vienna. She struggles to fit in, and after a disastrous love affair returns to Iran. Finally, when the repression increases and her marriage fails, she leaves her family for good, for Paris.

The dark material is faced head on. Early on we see a young buy shot during the revolution; later we see a Communist stand in front of a noose, and the Iran Iraq war sees batallions fall under fire. Added to this, we have to negotiate suicide, torture and homelessness. So parents should carefully consider whether their kids are ready for this stuff. The good news is that the material is usually shown in silhouette and in a highly stylised form. The best news is that, if your kids are ready for the material, it could prompt some wonderful conversations and reflections on how modern life in the West compares to Iran.

PERSEPOLIS played Cannes 2007 where it won the Jury Prize tied with STELLET LICHT. It also played London and Toronto 2007 and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. PERSEPOLIS was released in France, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Russia, Tyrkey, Spain, Greece, Belgium, Germany, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Hong Kong and Japan in 2007. It was released earlier this year in the USA, Poland, Singapore, Italy, Brazil, the Netherlands and Thailand. It is currently on release in Romania, Argentina and on re-release in the UK. It opens in Austrlia in August.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

THE OXFORD MURDERS - beware of grad students bearing spaghetti

Can't even get decent food - right after I got here, I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce, and I got egg noodles and ketchup. I'm an average nobody... get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.THE OXFORD MURDERS is a tremendously silly murder mystery that fails on every level despite having a decent cast. Despite beng set in the picturesque quads of the University of Oxford, this film is a largely Spanish production which may explain some of the more stilted dialogue but not the fact that the script that has a feeble solution, a killer that no-one cares about and one of the most excruciating sex scenes I've ever seen.

John Hurt and Elijah Wood star as Maths professor, Arthur Seldom, and grad student, Martin. They are on the hunt for a serial killer who's trying to prove a neat mathematical point to Seldom, and so chooses victims who are already on the brink of death (so that's okay then!) The movie throws up a bunch of suspects who are odd but neither sinister nor threatening. Burn Gorman, who was so brilliant as Guppy in the recent BBC adaptation of BLEAK HOUSE, was particularly disappointing as Russian mathmo Podorov - just what was that accent he was attempting?! The final solution to the murders is disappointing both in terms of its mathematical content and because by that point I really didn't care a fig.

As far as it goes, THE OXFORD MURDERS might have been suitably condensed into a 1hr TV detective show - a more forgiving format. As a feature film it fails on every level. Where it tries to be sinister, it's banal. Where it tries to be sexy, it's causes genuine embarassment. Where it tries to be clever, it's obvious.

THE OXFORD MURDERS was released earlier this year in Spain, France and Italy. It is currently on release in the UK and opens in Argentina on May 1st.

Friday, April 25, 2008

DECEPTION - beware lawyers bearing weed

DECEPTION is a nicely shot and decently acted thriller that's ultimately skewered by a plot so transparent it could've come sponsored by Swarovski.

Ewan Macgregor stars as an introverted auditor who's offered a pass into a glamourous world of anonymous sex by a suave lawyer (Hugh Jackman). Turns out, Jackman's character is using the hot sex to blackmail the auditor into embezzling money from a client.

For the most part, this is a fairly ordinary but workable thriller but in the final half hour it truly jumps the shark. I can buy that the auditor has the smarts to put up a fight, but would he really have the Mission Impossible skills to get his hands on a fake US passport at 2 hours notice? The film-makers also commit the unforgiveable sin of wasting Charlotte Rampling.

Overall rating: Meh.

DECEPTION is on release in the US, UK and Australia. It opens in May in Belgium, and France; in Singapore and Finland in June; and in Germany in September.

THREE AND OUT - terrible as a comedy, but not bad as a drama

The centre of THREE AND OUT is a beautifully acted, well-written domestic drama about a decent woman who is confronted by the scoundrel who ran out on her eight years ago. He is repentant and, though she doesn't know it, terminally ill. Imelda Staunton beautifully essays the mixture of resentment and attraction; Colm Meaney carefully balances the sympathetic and unsymapthetic. The problem with THREE AND OUT is that this family drama is wrapped up in a goof-ball comedy of dubious quality, based on a dodgy premise. The idea is that a loser tube-driver (Mackenzie Crook of THE OFFICE fame) needs to find a suicidal man to fall under his train and win him a big pay-out from London Underground. Hence, he stumbles upon Meaney's suicidal rogue and takes him on a final weekend of reconciliation in the Lake District. The movie would've been better without the obligatory romance and an excruciatingly unfunny sideplot about a fetishistic suicide. And it must also go down as one of the most mis-marketed films of all time. Far from selling it is a crazy British comedy, the PR guys should've focused on its superior dramatic core.

THREE AND OUT is on release in the UK.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Martha Fiennes retrospective - CHROMOPHOBIA

"Well, I'm seeing a woman with a mustache about my parenting flaws and my residual bulimia. And I'm doing autogenic self-hypnosis to try to keep the low self esteem at bay. I'm getting back to work and - But anyway, it's just really exciting for me at the moment because I am beginning to find the real me."

Writer-director Martha Fiennes throws up a rich portrait of supremely successfully, but deceitful and narcissistic Londoners in her second feature film, CHROMOPHOBIA. Their vices vary from a sort of desperate, void-filling materialism to sexual exploitation of the worst kind. Perhaps their most over-riding flaw is their self-deception. No-one really thinks they're a bad person, do they? Their world of material ease but self-inflicted paranoia is exposed when a tabloid journalist exploits a drunken indiscretion by one of his best friends. Well, it's a savage world.

Martha Fiennes' film is beautifully rendered. The over-designed, polished interiors are spot on, as are the rather pathetic problems that obsess our protagonists. Kristin Scott Thomas is particularly good as a sexually frustrated, spend-a-holic wife. But I would have had more time for this film had it not tacked on a rather ludicrous fairy tale romance between a terminally ill "heart-of-gold" Spanish hooker (Penelope Cruz) and an earnest social worker (Rhys Ifans). These characters are cliches, although Ifans makes the best of it. I also rather disliked the final scenes. One of the key characters makes a life decision that belies their earlier moral cowardice and self-involvement. Maybe it could've happened that way. Maybe we can redeem ourselves in moments of crisis. But this turnaround rang false.

CHROMOPHOBIA closed Cannes 2005. It was released in Italy, France and Israel in 2006 and in Spain and the UK in 2007. It is available on DVD.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

U ME AUR HUM - The Notebook meets Away From Her, but infinitely lower quality

Piss-poor Bollywood flick from first-time director but major-wattage actor, Ajay Devgan. Devgan has crafted a career combining cheesy blockbusters and intelligent classics like OMKARA and RAINCOAT. Sadly, this film is definitely in the former camp. The first half has Devgan playing a sleazy psychiatrist who tricks a goody-goody cruise-ship waitress into falling in love with him. The rom-com is thick on schmaltz and broad, crude attempts at humour. We also get the obligatory dance track of little musical merit featuring scantily clad white chicks gyrating wildly.The rap video shooting style permeates the non-musical scenes. The whole thing is framed by a clumsy device in which a much older Devgan is sleazing on to a much older Kajol (for yes, he has cast himself opposite his real life wife.) The second half of the movie does a U-turn from rom-com into serious issues movie, insofar as the female love interest developes Alzheimer's disease. This attempt at earnest emotional drama is clumsily handled but, I suppose, laudable. Presumably it will kill the movie's chances at the Hindi box office.

U ME AUR HUM is on release in the UK, India and the US.

STREET KINGS - once a patsy....

STREET KINGS is a dull, predictable, mis-cast, dirty-cop-thriller from the director of HARSH TIMES and writer of TRAINING DAY. The movie features Keanu Reeves as a meat-head, bent-out-of-shape, vigilante cop. Forest Whitaker is the corrupt police chief pulling his strings. The Reeves character has an attack of morality and goes after the gang-land killers of another cop who was actually snitching on him. It's a cute little Catch 22 situation. If he finds the killers, they could implicate him (wrongly, for once) in the hit. Should he take the fall but do the right thing? In a town so corrupt, what's the right thing anyways?

After LA CONFIDENTIAL and TRAINING DAY, I need to see something pretty special from a dirty cop film to justify its existence, and this film just doesn't have it. The script is derivative, paced too slow, and the plot twists will be obvious to anyone familiar with the genre. The casting is an even bigger problem. Keanu Reeves is plain unconvincing as a grizzled, hard-as-nails cop. He's about as hard as my grandmother. Hugh Laurie is similarly unconvincing as a foul-mouthed, intimidating Internal Affairs cop. Forest Whitaker hams it up as the Chief - it's like watching one of those grim Al Pacino performances where he randomly shouts things and pastiches himself. In fact, pretty much the only actors who do a good job are two young, relatively inexperienced cast members - Naomie Harris as a grieving widow and Chris Evans as a rookie cop.

STREET KINGS is on release in the Philippines, Singapore, Estonia, Finland, Indonesia, Turkey, USA, Oman, Germany, Greece, Hungary, the Netherlands, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan and the UK. It opens next week in Argentina, Denmark, Iceland, Spain and Sweden and the following week in Norway. It opens in May in Belgium, Hong Kong and in June in Australia, France, Italy and Poland.

Monday, April 21, 2008

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY - En Ra Ha-ha-ha!

En Ra Ha!
HAPPY-GO-LUCKY is a marvellous film from British writer-director Mike Leigh. Unlike some of his best known films - VERA DRAKE, SECRETS AND LIES - HAPPY-GO-LUCKY is remarkably up-beat and life-affirming. I've heard some people describe it as less consequential than Leigh's previous films because of that. I think this is to profoundly misunderstand the movie, but I can see why they do it.

The movie is about a thirty year-old primary school-teacher called Poppy who lives in contemporary North London. She doesn't own a house or a car and she hasn't got a boyfriend. But she is happy: she has great friends, a job she is passionate about and a full life. Poppy expresses herself with a big grin, almost constant laughter and a quick wit. She wears loud, bright, clashing clothes. Indeed, she looks like a refugee from the 1980s.

I thought I might find Poppy's twittering optimism annoying, being a dreary old cynic myself. But the whole point about this film is that Poppy isn't delusional or superficial or blithe. She is, in fact, fully engaged with the world. When confronted with racism, or homelessness, or violence or physical pain, she doesn't walk on by but deals with the situation head-on. And all the time, she does so with patience, empathy and a cheerful disposition. Moreover, she isn't a martyr: she knows when to withdraw from a situation. So, instead of choosing not to see the grim realities of life, Poppy makes a positive, intelligent choice to see all that hardship but to deal with it.

To that extent, HAPPY-GO-LUCKY is, as one of the characters says in the final scene, a film about people who "choose to make their own luck". In other words, it's a film about the power of individual choice: that on a small scale, every day, we can make choices that make life better. And what could be more consequential than that?

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY is then, a film that has a positive and important message. But that description makes it sound terribly earnest and dull. And that's precisely what it isn't. The movie is full of closely observed scenes of how good friends behave in each other's company - indeed, it's rare to see such credible depictions of mature female friendship on screen. It's also a tremendously funny movie, but like all of the best comedy, has its roots in every-day situations that we can all relate to.

The movie is universally well-acted. Sally Hawkins won the Silver Bear at Berlin for her performance in the lead role, but Alexis Zegerman (perhaps better known as a playwright) is fantastic as Poppy's stalwart, best friend Zoe. Eddie Marsan, once again, is transfixing in his role as a tightly wound, paranoid driving instructer, and Kate O'Flynn is hysterically funny in a small role as Poppy's younger sister.

What more can I say but that Mike Leigh has once again produced cinema that is intelligent, thought-provoking, original and uniquely his. This is without doubt one of the best films I have seen all year.

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY played Berlin 2007 where Sally Hawkins won the Silver Berlin Bear for Best Actress. It is ucrrently on release in the UK. It opens in the Netherlands in May 15th; in Germany on July 3rd; and in the USA on September 25th.

Sunday, April 20, 2008


You sound like you're from London!FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL is the latest romantic-comedy to bear the thumb-print of Judd Apatow (KNOCKED UP, THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN). In true Apatow-style, a geek is dumped by his gorgeous girlfriend. He goes on holiday to forget her, only to land up in the same hotel as her and her ludicrous new boyfriend, a Brit rocker played by Russell Brand. Despite Judd Apatow's involvement, this movie is basically a debutante effort, from director Nicholas Stoller and writer-lead actor Jason Segel. So, let's check out what Al, our Asia-Pac correspondent, makes of it all.....

As screenwriter, Jason Segel's idea of a story is to basically make it as complicated as possible. There's hardly a moment in the story anyone pauses to genuinely think: they're all swaggering around in this giant move-about because something new happens every five minutes. A whole lot of noise: not much meaning.

It's not all bad. Some of the jokes worked, but for every one of those you had 20 stinker gags seriously testing an already bored and quiet audience. You get a heap of low ones like "You sound like the women on Rock of Love-"I'll KILL YOU"-jokes like these seriously question whether there were any standards when it came to writing jokes for the film. The best jokes were no doubt the small ones-slipped into conversations and having little to do with anything. When Segel aims big or tries to pull off situational comedy, I couldn't help flinching, thinking that maybe I had inadvertently walked into a bad Ben Stiller film.

Most of the characters are self-absorbed and obnoxious loudmouths. Jonah Hill & Jack McBrayer (who plays Kenneth in 30 Rock) gave bewilderingly humorless performances and were painful to watch. Plus it didn't look like they were enjoying themselves either. Kristen Bell (who played Veronica Mars brilliantly throughout its 3-season run) is totally devoid of sex appeal in this supposedly sexual role,and is frustratingly whiny and tool-like (appearing right when Segel seems to have come to terms with the break-up, just to inspire another "hilarious" love run-around. Jason Segel himself seems determined to thoroughly humiliate himself for humor, constantly doing dumb things to get the story going (often into new territory). The only characters inspiring real laughs were Paul Rudd's light-headed surfer and Russell Brand's pompous Brit rocker who were both consistently funny and entertaining.

With the amount of comedy talent attached, FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL should've come out soaring, but the script's limp brand of humor was a damning curse - often immature and just plain unfunny. Also,the way the film goes bulldozing past things and never once considers developing on anything (that past 90 minutes, so many things have happened but it feels like story hasn't taken off). With a loose sense of purpose and no set of bearings, it falls way off the mark and doesn't come close to the ranks of Judd Appatow's previous efforts.

FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL was released this weekend in Australia, Iceland and the USA. It opens next weekend in Hungary, Russia, Estonia and the UK. It opens in May in Norway and Sweden; in June in France, Italy, Belgium, Germany and Spain; in July in the Netherlands, Denmark and Singapore; in August in Turkey and Mexico and in Argentina in September.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

IN BRUGES - genre-busting, ball-busting, belly-laughing cinema

Writer-director Martin McDonagh has fashioned a paradoxical movie out of the conventional gangster flick. He makes a movie about two hit-men on the lam. But instead of putting them in a hard-bitten urban setting, he sticks them in a picturesque Medieval town in the backwaters of continental Europe. Instead of having ueber-cool, ueber-scary actors in the lead roles, he casts Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell - the first, a chubby, amiable old man and the latter acting like a petulant six-year old with about as much professional expertise as a muppet. He has a hard-as-nails gangster boss chase down the two hit-men and kick-off a deadly shoot-out. But he casts Ralph Fiennes, darling of posh-boy indie cinema roles, as the East End mob boss. And as for the final shoot-out: he spends as much time having the participants chat about the rules of engagement as he spends watching them shoot each other.

McDonagh's iconoclasm goes beyond casting decisions and subverting the rules of the genre. He has made a movie about hit-men and drug-dealers, and affects a deeply politically incorrect sense of humour. Then again, his movie has a deeply moral and sentimental core. What else is it but a story about self-less love and honour among thieves?

What does it all add up to? IN BRUGES is certainly well-written. It's tightly-structured, and incredibly, sharply funny. It's certainly a pleasure to see Colin Farrell back in form, even if Ralph Fiennes' performance feels like a rip-off of Ben Kingsley in SEXY BEAST. I just have this awful feeling that the movie is so clever, so knowing, so cine-referential that the final scenes lost some of their punch. After all, wasn’t all this talk of honour rather ridiculous? Should we care a fig about these characters at all?

IN BRUGES is already on release in the US, Ireland, Poland, Iceland, Greece and the UK. It opens in May in Israel, Germany, Russia and Norway. It opens in June in Belgium, France and the Netherlands. It opens in Finland in August.

Friday, April 18, 2008

FLASHBACKS OF A FOOL - a melancholy drama about guilt and fear

Are you wearing make-up?  Fuck off.
The first half hour of Baillie Walsh's intriguing movie is a witty indictment of the savage superificiality of Hollywood. Daniel Craig plays Joe Scott - a self-indulgent, narcissistic, ageing Hollywood star whose cocaine-fuelled lifestyle has alienated his personal assistant (Eve) and his agent (Mark Strong in a fantastic suit and an even better accent). The death of Joe's child-hood best friend leads him to drunken reflection and takes the movie into an extended hour-long flash-back sequence. Amid the pitch-perfect bric-a-brac of 70s Britain, a teenage Joe (Harry Eden) demonstrates that character is fate. He could've had the life of his best friend Boots, dating a local schoolgirl called Ruth. But instead, he drifts into a relationship with a predatory older woman (Jodhi May) only to be brought up short by the consequences of the relationship. Guilt-ridden, he runs away, and presumably kept running all the way to Hollywood and the ultimate life of no consequences, until his past catches up with him.

FLASHBACKS OF A FOOL has much to recommend it. It's patient, intelligent, the characters seem credible and the period detail of 1970s Britain is impressive. The use of period music in the score is absolutely spot-on, and special mention must be given to John Mathieson's wonderful photography. The cast is good, with Helen McCrory and Miriam Karlin particularly good in smaller roles. The only slight mis-step is in the final segment, where the ageing star returns to Britain. On his way to confront the grieving widow he makes a statement about how standing still is more courageous than taking action which seems utterly trite and belies the more enigmatic atmosphere of the rest of the film. In addition, I feel Claire Forlani is mis-cast or perhaps mis-dressed (is that even a word?) as the widow. In her Tiffany necklace, skinny jeans, riding boots and perfect make-up, she looks nothing like the widow of a heavily indebted, poverty-stricken rural Briton.

These quibbles aside, FLASHBACKS OF A FOOL is a melancholy, visually impressive movie that deserves attention.

FLASHBACKS OF A FOOL is on release in the UK and opens in Portugal on June 5th.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

FOOL'S GOLD - when Matthew McConaughey's naked torso isn't enough

FOOL'S GOLD is a rather bland romantic-adventure-comedy along the lines of Matthew McConaughey's last vehicle SAHARA. This time, he's reunited with Kate Hudson of HOW TO LOSE A GUY IN 10 DAYS fame. The two are suitably bronzed and buff, and charm their way through a laughably under-written (but sadly not laugh-provoking) treasure hunt in the West Indies. McConaughey plays his typical slacker character and Hudson plays his History PhD(!) ex-wife. They team up to hunt for Spanish treasure, roping in Hudson's ueber-rich British boss (Donald Sutherland), his air-heard daughter (Alexis Dziena) and an inexplicably Ukrainian side-kick (the Scot, Ewan Bremner). The baddies are a bunch of goons including Theo Huxtable; led by Ray Winstone with a piss-poor Texan accent; and financed by a spoof gangster rapper called Bigg (sic) Bunny.

Director Andy Tennant (HITCH) fails to make this movie sparkle. It's a long way off the best of the genre - namely, Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito in ROMANCING THE STONE. And the after-school special sub-plot in which the bimbo daughter is lectured by Kate Hudson's character is entirely obnoxious. Studios should take note: as wonderful as Matthew McConaughey's naked torso is, it's nowhere near enough to sustain an audience's interest for 2 hours.

All in all, FOOL'S GOLD is one for DVD at best.

FOOL'S GOLD was released earlier this year in Australia, the US, Singapore, Mexico, Argentina, South Korea, Brazil, the Philippones, Thailand, Turkey, Hong Kong, Kuwait, Russia, Estonia, Iceland, Chile, Hungary, Israel, Panama and Egypt. It is currently on release in the UK, Poland and Slovakia. It opens later in April in the Czech Republic, Germany, Spain, Belgium, France and Norway. It opens on May 1st in the Netherlands, on June 14th in Japan and on June 20th in Finland.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Another pantheon movie - ANOTHER COUNTRY

All problems solved for life. No commies and no queers.In the 1930s, five young men of rank and privilege decided to systematically betray their country and their class by spying for the Soviet Union. What drives men to such actions? Partly it was an entirely admirable reaction against the seemingly inexorable rise of Fascism. Partly it was an insider's view of how brutal life in the class system was - even when you were destined to be top of the pile. But some have made another, psychological, explanation: that for Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, their experience of having to hide their homosexuality in a bigoted society alienated them from the very establishment they were supposed to be members of. Certainly Miranda Carter, in her excellent recent biography of Anthony Blunt, claims that his miserable time at public school, miserable partly because of his homosexuality, helped foster a subversive but also superior attitude toward British society. This potent combination - insecurity and moral superiority - fed into a belief that this chosen elite had the right to be exempt from mere conventional morality for the good of the masses. Well, were they so very different from the colonial dictators they so despised?

Kim Philby, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess were exposed in the 50s and defected to Russia, but Anthony Blunt escaped public exposure until 1979. The fact that a traitor could have ascended so high in British society (Blunt was Director of the prestigious Courtauld Institute as well as being Surveyor of the King's Pictures) was profoundly shocking. The shock prompted a re-consideration of the motives of the Cambridge Spies. Julian Mitchell's play ANOTHER COUNTRY, and the following cinema adaptation, was part of that process.

The movie opens with a seedy old man in a dingy Russian apartment. His true origin is betrayed by the sepia photographs of schoolfriends in Eton dress. An interviewer asks how he could have betrayed his class. He preceeds to relate a story that will show it to have been as despicable as it was delightful. We flash back to Eton in the 1930s. A young schoolboy is caught by a master having homosexual sex: the shame of exposure will lead him to commit suicide. Fearful of the school's reputation, the self-elected elite pupils ("Gods", closely modelled on "Pop") decide to crack down on homosexual activity. Note that it is not the practice they object to so much as exposure. And wrapped around the events are the frantic manoeuvrings surrounding election to the Gods next term.

ANOTHER COUNTRY is essentially about a young homosexual student called Guy becomes disillusioned with these ridiculous and yet deadly serious manoeuvrings. Guy is desperate to become a God, but is also desperate to love another young boy called Harcourt. Love leads him to indiscretion, exposure and exclusion from the fulfilment of his ambition. At such a point, he becomes radicalised and a fellow traveller of his best friend Judd - an intellectually committed Communist.

The radical idea behind ANOTHER COUNTRY is portray the road to betrayal as starting in a very personal, emotional crisis, rather than in a purely intellectual attraction. The other radical idea is to portray the traitor as the victim. In this, director Marek Kanievska is spot on in photographing the classic English boarding school in soft dappled light and to make it look as superficially delightful as we could imagine it to be. He's also fortunate to have the quite shockingly beautiful and youthful Rupert Everett as his leading man. Everett is perfectly cast as Guy - he is mischevious, intelligent, clearly in love, nervous around his lover, and altogether sympathetic. What could be more tragic than seeing him crushed by the juggernaut of the English class system? Guy was being bred to rule the colonies through force - as foreshadowed by the military drills for corps. He was being bred to inflict rule in the real world by playing at Gods at school. And against this inhumanity he rebelled. ANOTHER COUNTRY challenges you to judge him for it.

ANOTHER COUNTRY played Cannes, where DP Peter Biziou won Best Artistic Contribtuion, and Toronto 1984. It was released in the UK that year. It is available on DVD.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Timely reminder 2 & pantheon movie of the month - NETWORK

There is no America. There is IBM and Du Pont and Dow Chemicals.In NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, the Coen Brothers and Cormac McCarthy lament the fact that every generation feels that it is uniquely witnessing the decline of humanity into barbarous savagery. And yet, no matter how far we think the bar has fallen, our children will no doubt distantly remember a golden age of civilisation and see their own frail dotage as the era of scandalous decline. I suppose one small upside to this relentless cycle of disillusionment is that we can truly relate and fully appreciate great cinema afresh.

NETWORK is an incredibly famous and highly praised movie originally released in 1976. It articulates rage at the devaluation of politics after a kleptocratic presidency; rage at an economic meltdown characterised by spiralling inflation and rising unemployment; moral and phsyical exhaustion after an long-fought war; and disillusionment with the crass commercialisation of the media. Sound familiar?

The genius of NETWORK is to express all this rage through a premise so preposterous you almost catch yourself believing it; so funny you want to laugh, but so perceptive you're scared to admit it.

One night, a beat-up old news-caster, the victim of poor ratings, tells millions of viewers that he is going to blow his brains out on TV. At first, the production team are so self-involved they don't even notice what he's saying. After much ado, the news-caster goes back on air for a final show, but loses his cool again, railing against the bullshit: "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!"

At first, the Network is furious with his outburst, but a brilliant young studio executive realises that they have a hit on their hands. Here's a man who can articulate the angst of his time - tapping into the visceral fears of the viewers - and turn them into high ratings, prime-time advertising and the proverbial phat cash. The newscaster is given a glossy prime time show where he's encouraged to rant against the very machine he's feeding. And it doesn't stop there. The Network fills its schedules with radical, subversive TV. Communist revolutionaries broadcast guerilla terrorist attacks live, but squabble over distribution rights when the camera's off. The message is utterly miserable: you may rage against the machine, but the machine is so damned efficient that it will use your energy as fuel. Finally, it will spit you out.

NETWORK drips with class. You've got Sidney Lumet, of TWELVE ANGRY MEN fame, as director, eliciting fine performances from his cast. Peter Finch won Best Actor for his role as the angry prophet; Faye Dunaway won Best Actress as the glamourous, talented but ultimately soul-less studio exec; Beatrice Straight won Best Supporting Actress for a small but incredibly powerful role as a scorned wife; and Ned Beatty was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in his role as a ruthless corporate boss.

Lumet and his DP, Owen Roizman (THE FRENCH CONNECTION) create a documentary syle early on which helps keep the movie feeling credible despite the increasingly absurd story. We wander around news-rooms and into studios with a fluid camera. In addition, we never here an orchestral score: the sound-track feels realistic.

But the real star of the show is screen-writer Paddy Chayevsky, whose scabrous, darkly funny script is always shocking and utterly compelling. Not since DOCTOR STRANGELOVE have we seen humour and tragedy so brilliantly combined.

NETWORK was originally released in 1976 and is widely available on DVD. Peter Finch won Best Actor postumously; Faye Dunaway won Best Actress; Beatrice Straight won Best Supporting Acress;and Paddy Chayefsky won Best Original Screenplay. Ned Beatty was also nominated for Best Actor but lost to Jason Robards for ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN; Owen Roizman was nominated for Best Cinematography but lost to Haskell Wexler for BOUND FOR GLORY; Sidney Lumet was nominated for Best Director but lost to ROCKY; Alam Heim was nominated for Best Editor but lost to ROCKY; and Howard Gottfried was nominated for Best Picture, but lost to ROCKY.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Timely reminder 1 - BOB ROBERTS (1992)

The times they are a-changin' back.We sit at the fag-end of a bitter Presidency: the US preaches liberal free-market democracy but is perceived to practice illiberality, protectionism and to award power by judicial fiat. We distrust our politicians and distrust big corporations and self-medicate with brain-benumbing reality TV. Many movies have chronicled our greasy slide into decrepitude. Some achieved acclaim upon release, and others feel like sadly overlooked markers in the sand.

BOB ROBERTS falls into the latter category. It's a razor-sharp satire on all that is most grasping and petty in politics. The anti-hero of the piece is a Republican gubernatorial candidate. Bob Roberts is a successful businessman, former Marine and passionate campaigner against drug use. He's also a popular singer who peddles easy answers to a catchy folk tune. Consider the following couplet from his hit song:

"Grandma felt guilty 'bout being so rich and it bothered her until the day she died. But I will take my inheritance and invest it with pride, yes invest it with pride."

And what about the opening lines to his song mocking the poor:

"Some people will have / Some simply will not / But they'll complain and complain and complain and complain and complain / Some people will work / Some never will / But they'll complain and complain and complain and complain and complain / Like this: / It's society's fault I don't have a job / It's society's fault I'm a slob / I'm a drunk, I don't have a brain / Give me a pamplet while I complain / Hey pal you're living in the land of the free No-one's gonna hand you opportunity."

In other words, Bob Robert is smug and rich and, by the way, implicated in an Iran-Contra style narcs-for-guns scandal.

Now, Tim Robbins' evidently doesn't go for a subtle approach here. Bob Roberts is a good old-fashioned screen villain, painted with a broad brush. And the whole side plot with a Spike Lee style angry independent film-maker trying to expose Roberts thinly-veiled fascist tendencies is more distracting than incisive. So why is this movie so great? First off, Robbins really captures the feel of a documentary with talking heads, hand-held camera footage and those little shots of people caught unawares. Second, the spoof songs are absolutely hysterical - not least the mock Bob Dylan and Robert Palmer promo videos. Third, Robbins takes Bob Roberts into territory so evil that it will stun even the most jaded of hacks. Fourth, the movie works as a sort of elegy for all those elder statesmen who really believed in public service and human decency. They are distilled here in Bob Roberts' opposition - a patrician incumbent of evident intelligent and mortal certitude. Time was....

So, if you like your comedy intelligent and your politics sharp, check BOB ROBERTS out. Robbins may have been looking back to Reagan, but this movie is a fair place to start as an indictment of Bush 43.

BOB ROBERTS was originally released in 1992 and is available on DVD.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Justifiably overlooked DVD of the month - MRS RATCLIFFE'S REVOLUTION

MRS RATCLIFFE'S REVOLUTION is a film based loosely on the true story of a naive British family that voluntarily moved to East Germany in 1968, such was the father's passionate belief in Communism. His wife is more agnostic, but moves out of love for her husband and being swept up in his enthusiasm. Once there, they realise how oppressive the country is and hatch an escape. Apparently, the father is now a Tory, which is rather amusing.

Unlike this film. Presumably, the film-makers had a choice about how to explore this story. They could have made a very penetrating movie about life in the GDR - few people have had the experience of both Capitalism and Communism in practice. However, the writers have chosen to make a naive film about naive people. The movie attempts a whimsical, low-fi British comedy feel and the colour scheme is bright and sunny. Yes, the family make a grievous mistake, but they extricate themselves in a fairy-tale ending that is rather trite.

All this is a great shame. We know the writers could have made something far more closely observed, far more heartfelt, and (if they had really wanted to go down this route) far more funny. They did all this in the bittersweet British comedy
SIXTY SIX. Moreover, MRS RATCLIFFE'S REVOLUTION benefits from a sterling cast including Iain Glen as the father of the family and the wonderful comedienne Catherine Tate as his wife. Tate gives glimpses of a great talent that runs beyond her usual comic fare - I hope she starts to be offered and accepts more serious dramatic parts in future.

MRS RATCLIFFE'S REVOLUTION was released in the UK in September 2007 and is available on DVD.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

LEATHERHEADS - in which Clooney tosses up genres like so much confetti

If there's anything worse than a woman living alone, it's a woman saying she likes it.Yet another flaccid movie squelches its way into cinemas this weekend. In another directorial effort, George Clooney unsuccessfully splices together the under-dog sports genre, the screwball comedy and the 1960s sex comedy. He chooses to set the unhappy cocktail in prohibition-era America.

Clooney plays an ageing lothario struggling to keep his pro-football team above water in the era before mega-bucks sports. He does so by hiring a fantastically popular college player, who's a war hero to boot (John Krasinski from the US version of THE OFFICE - wasted in this role.) The old hand may be resentful of the young gun's newfangled methods, but he loves the massive increase in gate receipts. Problem is that a feisty investigative reporter (Renee Zellwegger) is trying to expose "The Bullet's" impressive war record as a hoax, as well as causing romantic jealousy all round.

The sports movie component of LEATHERHEADS is fairly thin. It's basically just a wry comment on the irony of getting what you wished for. In order to survive, the team bring about a mew commercial era, but that very commercialisation means an end to the good old rough-and-tumble of the sport they loved.

As for the rom-com element, I found it pretty weak. Sorry to sound ageist, but Renee Zellwegger is simply too old for the part and partly for that reason she has no chemistry with John Krasinski. It looks like Mrs Robinson's trying to mack onto the new kid, rather than a genuine love triangle with Clooney. I'm also a little bit tired of Zellwegger trying to pull off these Doris Day sex-comedy roles. Clooney desperately wants the banter between his and Zellwegger's character to be brilliantly witty, but it's obvious and flat. And, despite her feminist aspirations, Zellwegger's character rolls over annoyingly easily.

LEATHERHEADS is on release in the USA, UK, Ukraine, Canada, Estonia and Italy. It opens on April 23rd in France; in Argentina on May 8th; in Australia, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Sweden on May 30th; in Germany and Spain on June 5th and in Belgium on July 2nd.

Friday, April 11, 2008

KRAZZY 4 - limp Bollywood caper flick

Isn't it convenient for a fifty-two year-old man who has no history of mental illness to suddenly have a complete psychotic breakdown, just when he's about to be indicted?Jaideep Sen's directorial debut is a lacklustre, snail-paced caper movie called KRAZZY 4. The incomparable Irrfan Khan (THE NAMESAKE) and popular comic actor Arshard Warsi lead a pack of mental patients let loose on the streets of Mumbai when their kind-hearted psychiatrist (Juhi Chawla) is kidnapped. When the movie breaks for the Interval, our Krazzy heroes have unwittingly uncovered a nasty plot involving political corruption.

The movie plays as a poorly written, flabby caper movie, with half-hearted attempts at physical humour and romance in the first half, and a thin thriller plot in the second half. Arshad Warsi, Irrfhan Khan and the rest of the cast are not given a chance to shine. In addition, I fear that the only thing anyone will remember about the score will be the legal kerfuffles surrounding its authorship. Rakhi Sawant is in typically sleazy form in a very lacklustre item number in the first half; the promise of some high wattage cameos will no doubt keep fans in the cinema for the item number in the second half.

The only thing I can really find to praise in KRAZZY 4 is the sporadic attempt at social critique. The film is mostly set on India's Independence Day and the screenwriter has a lot of digs at the corruption and disrespect for public property that is endemic to Indian society.

KRAZZY 4 is on release in India and the UK.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

21 - far less interesting than you might have hoped

I'm not the guy I was in Boston21 is a movie about a bunch of MIT math geeks who go to Vegas, count cards, make a pile of money, but then incur the ire of their svengali-like professor and a Vegas security guard. And no, I'm not spoiling the plot. The trailer does that already, and even if it didn't, you'd figure out all the plot twists well before they occured. The movie evidently wants to dazzle us with a story of an improbable rise to wealth and equally precipitous fall; it wants us to enjoy the vicarious ride from geek to cool. Let's all buy in to that Ocean's Eleven glamour! Sadly, it doesn't live up to its billing. Like I said before, this is mainly because the story - as bizarre as it is - simply isn't interesting enough to hold our attention for two hours. How many times can we really get interested in a geek becoming popular, being mean to his childhood friends, losing everything and learning what "really matters"? The narrative arc contains no elements of surprise and the supporting characters are insufficiently drawn. Added to this, beyond Jim Sturgess in the title role, the rest of the cast was pretty unimpressive, not least Kevin Spacey in one of his trademark over-bearing, hammy performances.

21 is already on release in the US, Israel, Brazil and Germany and opens this weekend in the UK, Greece, Iceland, Spain and Sweden. It opens on the 17th in Belgium, Argentina, Russia, Estonia and Italy. It opens on April 25th in Turkey. It opens in May in Portugal, Australia, Finland and Japan. It opens in June n France, Singapore, Mexico, Norway and the Netherlands.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008


These guys aren't Nazis. There's one looking like Al Capone, there's another like Mussolini, Richard III, Napoleon... Smeg, it's like all the worst people in history have been brought together in one place. My God, there's James Last. I recognize him from Rimmer's record collection.
MY BROTHER IS AN ONLY CHILD is a film full of energy, honesty and visual flair. It brilliantly captures the raucous fighting, petty jealousies and little triumphs of family life in a cramped house. In this case, the family lives in provincial Italy in the 1960s. Exploited by their employers and corrupt local government officials, both sons turn to direct action. The eldest becomes a charismatic Communist revolutionary on the lam from the rozzers and his sometime lover. The younger becomes a Fascist, but finds family ties stronger than The Idea.

Writer-director Daniele Luchetti never lets the politics swamp the family drama - the film never feels self-conscious. But over and above the sensitive handling of complex subject matter, Luchetti displays an impressive facility with the medium. The camera never stops moving, giving the movie a fast tempo, and some of the editing is inspired. I particularly liked the way in which Luchetti chooses to show the transition from a young actor to an older actor in the part of the second son. And the final images of the film - which could have been very pretentious - are beautifully handled. Elsewhere, the use of costume, set dressing and music to evoke the 1960s is spot on.

I can't wait to see what Luchetti does next.

MY BROTHER IS AN OLD CHILD played Cannes and Toronto 2007. It opened in Italy, Belgium, France, Spain and Turkey in 2007 and in the Netherlands, Sweden and the USA earlier this year. It is currently on release in Greece and the UK. It opens later in April in Argentina and in May in Germany.

Monday, April 07, 2008


FUNNY GAMES is the original German language horror film that Michael Haneke recently remade as FUNNY GAMES U.S. Both movies are identical, barring the language and small differences in performance. In this version, we meet a prosperous couple and their young son travelling to their summer house on a lake. Two apparently polite young men ask to borrow some eggs. Their insistence is a little sinister, but I think Susanne Lothar is slower to exhibit her suspicions that Naomi Watts in the remake. Soon, the two youths are torturing the family for kicks, occasionally turning to the camera and breaking the fourth wall. Haneke teases the audience - first, by never actually showing the violence and second, by mocking our voyueurism.

On the whole, I prefer the remake and not simply because my German isn't perfect. Michael Pitt seems more self-assured than Arno Frisch as the lead torturer - he's more poised and more sinister. And if there's any single scene that defines this movie, it's the closing shot where the torturer looks directly at the audience. For that reason, the re-make just has the edge over the original.

FUNNY GAMES played Cannes and Toronto 1997.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

FUNNY GAMES U.S. - who gets the last laugh?

You shouldn't forget the importance of entertainment.
FUNNY GAMES U.S. is Michael Haneke's shot-for-shot remake of his 1997 post-modern horror flick in which two polite teenage boys torture an affluent family for no reason other than to entertain themselves. The genius of the original film and this English-language remake is to create an atmosphere of stomach-churning tension without actually showing us any gory violence. Our imaginations fill in the blank between the scared reaction shots and the blood-spattered TV set. As a slow-burn thriller of almost unbearable tension, FUNNY GAMES is hard to beat. After all, what is more frightening than an evil that we cannot reason with? It's for this reason that I find the HOSTEL movies laughably unthreatening. If someone wants to sell me to a torturer, I'll simply offer more money. No, what's really terrifying is a situation in which I have simply no language in which to communicate with my kidnapper - no purchase on his conscience or on his wallet. The final shot of a torturer holding our eyes unashamed is brilliantly frightening.

On one level, we can simply watch FUNNY GAMES U.S. as a brilliantly executed thriller. But Haneke wants us to question our enjoyment of the experience. He does this by having one of the torturers break the fourth wall and directly question the audience. Not only is he torturing the couple, he is trying to make us feel bad for enjoying our voyueurism.

I have to say that I find this trite post-modernism rather simplistic and condascending. I feel no shame in enjoying a movie like FUNNY GAMES qua horror movie. I find it cathartic. I do not enjoy it as a voyueur but as an intelligent, affluent, comfortable woman who can empathise with the situation of the family in the film and who is working out her fear of social change through the experience. So who gets the last laugh? The director who tries to under-cut our enjoyment of his masterpiece with his hectoring, or the audience, who can choose to dismiss such foolishness and get a brilliant thriller anyway?

FUNNY GAMES U.S. played London 2007 and Sundance 2008. It was released in Canada, the USA and Greece earlier this year. It is currently on release in Finland and the UK and opens later this month in Israel, Singapore, Belgium, Norway, Frnace and Sweden. It opens in May in Portugal, Russia, the Netherlands and Germany. It opens in Romania in June and in Spain in July.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

I'M A CYBORG / SAIBOGUJIMAN KWENCHANA - Korean yodelling aside, this movie is a mess

Be White. Live White. Like this.
Fans of Park Chan Wook's trademark Vengeance films will be bemused, but probably not amused, but his latest film I'M A CYBORG (BUT THAT'S OKAY). It's the story of a girl who is so traumatised when her granny is put in a mental institution that she imagines she is a cyborg. Her mission is to lose her sympathy so that she can kill all the doctors and give her granny her dentures back. I use the word "story" in its loosest possible sense. This movie has the thinnest of narrative arcs, and most of the time it feels haphazard and lacks momentum. The first hour was desperately boring and while the second hour did contain an emotional victory of sorts, the movie lingered on for a good 30 minutes after that. By the denouement, when the girl and her friend are sitting in a field, praying for lightning to strike, so were we, because at least that would mark an end to the movie. It would also have provided a far cooler ending than the limp scene Park Chan Wook actually offers up.

The really annoying thing is that I'M A CYBORG had the potential to be a really great movie. Not a classic Park Chan Wook movie, mind you, but a Korean Charlie Kauffman-esque voyage into whimsy and the imagination. The production design is beautifully imagined and rendered. There are flashes of comic brilliance: not leaast the Korean yodelling and the electro-static flying scene.

Still, for all that, even die-hard fans (among which I count myself) are going to find it hard to sit through this film.

I'M A CYBORG opened in South Korea in December 2006 and played Berlin 2007. It opened in Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and France in 2007 and opened in Germany, Russia and Greece earlier this year. It is currently on limited release in the UK.

Friday, April 04, 2008

AWAKE - a one trick pony

Debutant writer-director Joby Harold constructs a thriller with a fairly obvious plot, even if you haven't seen the trailer. If you have seen the trailer, there's really no point seeing the movie, because the entire plot is given away: fain will you look for further plot twists. If you haven't, I guess you could check this out on DVD: it's probably not worth a trip to the cinema.

The premise is that a man is given a general anaesthetic, but while he looks numb he's actually still awake. As a result, he can hear that the surgeons giving him a heart transplant are actually plotting to kill him. How do you alert the authorities when you're apparently out cold?

Hayden Christensen, Terrence Howard and Jessica Alba do a decent enough job as the victim, his surgeon and his love interest respectively, but the only stand-out performance is from Lena Olin as the victim's mother. It's a pleasure to see her back on the screen.

AWAKE was released in the USA last year and was released in Russia, Portugal, Israel, Turkey, South Korea, Thailand and Spain earlier this year. It is currently on release in the UK and Brazil and opens later in Paril in Singapore and Iceland. It opens in Argentina in May and in Belgium and the Netherlands in September.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

NEVER BACK DOWN - macho bullshit

Well we've established that the macho bullshit approach isn't opening the door. Any other suggestions?
NEVER BACK DOWN is a piss-poor movie in which Tom Cruise' mini-me and Volchok from The O.C beat the crap out of each other while Mandy Lane looks on adoringly. The movie tries to cast a veneer of Grecian morality over its fascist enjoyment of oiled up, buff blokes pounding each other senseless, and briefly hints at girl on girl fights, so that's okay with women's lib, right?! Wrong. I'm not sure what's more stupid: the ludicrous premise of this film; the fact that I fell for the free tickets and sacrificed 2 hours of my time watching it; or the people who actually take a vicarious thrill from watching what is essentially glammed-up happy-slapping on YouTube.

NEVER BACK DOWN is on release in the US, Canada, Australia and the UK. It is released in Russia, France and Spain later in April and opens in Germany and Iceland in May.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

STEP UP 2 THE STREETS isn't going to capture the teen imagination in the same way that its predecessor did

STEP UP 2 follows much the same formula as the original dance-school teen romance. A girl from a rough neighbourhood gets into a performing arts school and clashes with the classical dance curriculum. She leads a posse of renegade misfits into competing in a street dance contest, hooking up with a hunky colleague in the process.

The sequel is weaker than the original in several respects. Channing Tatum was far more convincing as a kid from the streets that clean-cut Briana Evigan: the writers seem to think that by rolling up one of her trouser-legs to her knee, she'll look credible!. The love interest (Robert Hoffman) is so bland as to be boring and the Evil Dance Teacher (Will Kemp) may well be a talented dancer but his acting is wooden. Overall, the central love story is not going to capture the teen imagination in the way that the first movie did.

For all that, STEP UP 2 THE STREETS is still well worth seeing for the brilliantly choreographed dance scenes and music mixes in the final contest. It's truly impressive, and it's nice to see popular dance taken beyond a 3 minute backdrop to a rapper and given it's own show-case and soom room to breathe.

STEP UP 2 THE STREETS is already on release in the USA, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Iceland, Lithuania, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Czech Republic, Russia, Estonia, Greece, Poland, Romania, Germany, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand,Slovakia, Australia, Israel, the UK and Croatia. It opens in April in France and Italy; in Spain and Finland in June.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

LARS AND THE REAL GIRL - Don Quixote in Minnesota

LARS AND THE REAL GIRL is an improbably wonderful drama from the director of the piss-poor Billy Bob Thornton vehicle MR WOODCOCK. It's about a young man (Ryan Gosling) who deals with stress by inventing an imaginary girlfriend in the guise of a blow-up doll. The movie challenges us not to laugh but to empathise, and even to enjoy role-playing ourselves. The small-town community in which Lars lives is a proxy for the audience. We might start off like his elder brother (Paul Schneider) - thinking it ridiculous and hoping for a quick fix. Or maybe we start off like his sweet sister-in-law (Emily Mortimer), playing along, hoping he'll work it out. But pretty soon, we're like the old women at church, the work colleagues and the friends at the mall. It's fun to play dress up with a real life doll - to cut her hair - invent social outings: the whole town falls in love with "Bianca".

With LARS AND THE REAL GIRL, Craig Gillespie has done that rare thing: he's made a romantic comedy with substance; furthermore a film that feels as credible as it does incredible. He hints at how common delusion is with his reference to Dulcinea, but more widely he shows how far the whole community enjoys Lars' delusion. Ultimately this is a profoundly uplifting film - and not in the easy, saccharine manner of films like THE BUCKET LIST. It's a film about a bunch of people doing something a little bit silly because they love someone, and believe he'll work it out. And in a cynical, busy, impersonal world, that's a wonderful thought.

LARS AND THE REAL GIRL played Toronto 2007 and was released in the USA and Singapore last year. It opened in Hungary, Italy, Israel, Greece, Belgium, Norway and Germany earlier this year. It is currently on release in South Korea, Iceland, the UK and the Netherlands. It opens in Australia and Spain in April and in Japan in June.