Monday, June 30, 2008


The not unattractive Ben Barnes pouts for NarniaIt's hard for me to separate my critique of the NARNIA films from my dissatisfaction with the source material. I am an avid fan of Tolkien precisely because he eschews easy allegory and pays such close attention to the consistency of his fantasy world. Tolkien would never have put fauns and Father Christmas in the same imaginary space and he would never have used a device as obvious as Aslan. All of this I would overlook if the resulting films were well-made and captivating qua cinema. However, the first movie, THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE, failed on this count. The technical aspects - shooting style, lighting, costumes - seemed amateurish and clunky.

PRINCE CASPIAN is far more satisfying than the first movie, but it's still far from perfect. The special effects, make-up, costumes and shooting style have improved, although key set-pieces still feel like weak versions of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Take, for example, the scene where Aslan summons up a river storm to wash away the enemies of the Narnians. It is typical of the clunky imagery employed in PRINCE CASPIAN that the river takes the form of God as depicted in one of those Biblical Epics - an old white man with a beard. Compare this with the visual beauty and simplicity of Tolkien/Jackson's charging horses.

As for the plot, what we have here is basically one long battle. The four Pevensie children return to Narnia 1300 years after their original visit, to find their land over-run by Spanish-sounding men and Aslan a myth. They unite with their enemy's nephew, Prince Caspian, to reclaim his throne and an independent Narnia. Of course, they are only successful when they fight in the name of Aslan, rather than for themselves.

The battle scenes are fine, although I couldn't help wondering whether younger kids might get bored and/or frightened - especially by the first night-time raid in which half of the Narnian army is massacred. By far the bigger problem with the film is the emotional content. Peter has a clash of egos with Prince Caspian in which they both come off as whiny and there's a tremendously embarassing teen crush story-line between Caspian and Susan. Not sure if that's bad direction, script-writing or acting. Either way, it sorely undermines the serious dramatic content surrounding the children's loss of faith in Aslan and their temptation by the White Witch. It's rather hard to be swept up in a story about religious faith when the director keeps pulling you into Sweet Valley High.

PRINCE CASPIAN is already on release in Indonesia, Russia, India, Mexico, the USA, Japan, Singapore, Brazil, Poland, Egypt, the Philippines, Australia, Hong Kong, Israel, Argentina, Estonia, Iceland and Venezuela. It opens this weekend in France, Hungary and the UK. It opens on July 2nd in Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Sweden. It opens on July 11th in Turkey; on July 17th in Portugal; on July 31st in Germany and on August 20th in Italy.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

KUNG FU PANDA - earnest but unmemorable

We are noodle folk. Broth runs through our veins.KUNG FU PANDA is an amiable CGI animated movie for kids. Jack Black plays a kind-hearted panda called Po, the ultimate Kung Fu fan-boy. To everyone's surprise, Master Oogway names Po as the Dragon Warrior - the only fighter who can beat the evil tiger Tai Lung and bring peace to the valley. At first, all of the other Kung Fu masters mock the fat panda, but Po's tenacity wins them round. He developes his own style of Bear Kung Fu that uses his big belly as an asset and fulfills his destiny. The moral of the story is that even the most unlikely person can be a hero if they only believe in themselves.

Like Po, KUNG FU PANDA has a kind heart and good intentions. All of the characters have names that correspond to their meanings in Mandarin and great attention has been paid to the choreography of the martial art scenes. They reference great cinema battles, but never cross the line into pastiche. There are moments of great humour - not least a chop stick fight over a dumpling between Po and Shifu. Jack Black does a great job and he has great chemistry with Dustin Hoffman as his master.

Having said that, KUNG FU PANDA isn't up there with the best of animation. It doesn't have the emotional depth, narrative complexity or visual style of a RATATOUILE or TOY STORY or MONSTERS INC. It feels rather thin. Aside from the relationship between Po and Shifu, the subsidiary characters - voiced by the likes of Angelina Jolie and Jackie Chan - are poorly developed. Basically this is a one-note story and it could've been 75 rather than 90 minutes long.

KUNG FU PANDA played Cannes 2008 and was released in June in Russia, South Korea, Ukraine, Estonia, the Philippines, Singapore, the USA, Egypt, Kuwait, Thailand, Indonesia, CHina, Mexico, Australia, Israel, New Zealand and the Hong. It opens on JUly 3rd in Iceland, Argentina, Germany, Hungary, Portugal, Austria, Brazil, Poland, Romania, Turkey and the UK. It opens later in July in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Venezuela, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Japan. It opens in Finland on August 1st; in Italy on August 29th and in Greece on September 3rd.

Saturday, June 28, 2008


SOUTHLAND TALES is Richard Kelly's satire on post 9-11 US society. It's a paranoid fantasy about a USA destroyed by the four things: terrorism; the government's anti-liberal response to it; the vulgarity of popular culture; and environment degradation. Sadly, Kelly isn't up to synthesising all these concerns into a definitive take on contemporary angst. Rather, he has created an ambitious, fleetingly interesting, but overwhelmingly baggy, messy and pretentious film.

The movie is a rag-bag of inter-twining stories all played out in Kelly's alternate USA in 2008. A terrorist nuclear attack has wiped out Texas and prompted the US government to turn the US into a police state. Meanwhile, the energy crisis has been solved by a company that harnesses wave power to produce energy, the side-effect of which is to slow down the rotation of the earth and cause a warp in the space-time continuum. Against this back-drop we focus on three characters. The Rock plays a Schwarzenegger-like actor suffering from amnesia, trying to make sense of it all. He's being exploited by a porn star turned cultural commentator, Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar). Meanwhile, Seann William Scott plays a police officer, on the trail of Marxist radicals and his alternate self. All these characters are being messed up warps in the space-time continuum caused by environmental degradation.

The resulting film is a mess. And not in the way that Terry Gilliam's BRAZIL is a mess, but touched by genius, and therefore a cult film. SOUTHLAND TALES is misconceived. "State of the nation" content is better suited to the format of the novel. Novels like THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES or VANITY FAIR can take their time and build up a coherent narrative. My proposition is that the feature film is fundamentally unsuited to this kind of artistic endeavour.

SOUTHLAND TALES played Cannes 2006 to a disastrous reception. It was then put on extremely limited release in the UK and US in winter 2007. It is available on DVD in the theatrical release cut.


A few years ago, an investigative journalist called Shane O'Sullivan appeared on the BBC's flagship news programme, NEWSNIGHT, and presented evidence that two CIA operatives had been present in the Ambassador Hotel on the night of the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. This feature length documentary spends an hour putting flesh on the bones of that circumstantial evidence. In a series of interviews, Sullivan posits the theory that Sirhan Sirhan, who has never been able to remember the shooting, was in fact a Manchurian Candidate, programmed by the CIA to kill the man who, according to them, screwed them over during the Bay of Pigs invasion. The claim is far-fetched, but it's testament to O'Sullivan's detached tone that it started to gain traction with me. However, an hour into the documentary, O'Sullivan, ever the good journalist, destroys his own story by presenting contrary evidence. So in the end, we're back to where we started. We have a lone gunman in prison and a bunch of conspiracy theories with no evidence to back them up.

So, has O'Sullivan pulled the rug out from under his feet? Is the documentary still worth watching? The case in favour of still watching the documentary is that it still lays out the events of the shooting and provides a useful primer for those of us who have a vague idea of what happened, would recognise the name "Sirhan Sirhan", but nothing more because, frankly, these events occured before we were born. The second reason to watch the documentary is that it provides a classic example of how investigative journalism and conspiracy theories work. The ease with which you can build up a case on a few photo IDs is alarming, and the ease with which you can demolish it also a useful lesson.

The case against watching the doc is part of the wider case that we are far too fixated with the mechanics of how JFK and RFK died. The more important thing is to understand why they were so hated by vested interests - the mafia, the unions, the CIA, big business. Whether any of those four actually pulled the trigger is almost moot. The key fact is that they all felt threatened. In other words, let's understand where power lies, and how RFK wanted to unravel it.

Having said that, I can make another argument for renting the DVD of RFK MUST DIE, and that is to watch the extensive extras showing RFK on the campaign trail and his speech upon the death of Martin Luther King Junior. We now sit at a point where many people around the world - not just radicals - have lost faith in the idea that America represents and upholds liberal democratic virtues. Bobby Kennedy was running for President against a similar tide of disillusionment. Understanding why he connected with so many people is fascinating and translates directly to the current electoral race. It's wonderful to revisit that footage and to be inspired by him once again. And to that extent, the DVD extras on RFK MUST DIE serve as a complement to Emilio Estevez' brilliant film, BOBBY, released earlier this year.

RFK MUST DIE is an extended documentary investigation by journalist Shane O'Sullivan. of a thRFK MUST DIE: was released in the UK and US earlier this year and is available on DVD.

Random DVD Round-Up 2 - SHROOMS

Low-budget Irish horror flick in which hapless Yanqui teens go camping in Ireland with a canny local who fills their heads with ghost stories and their tummies with magic mushrooms. The kids trip. They don't know if what they're seeing are hallucinations or real. And who's really after them? In-bred yokels or angry abused orphans? Either way it's all pretty forgettable and derivative other than a nice scene between Robert Hoffman of STEP UP 2 fame and a talking cow.

SHROOMS was released in 2007 in Russia, Spain and the UK. It opened earlier in 2008 in the USA. It is available on DVD.

Random DVD Round-Up 1 - AUGUST RUSH

A deeply sentimental film that could've been dreamt up by a Barbie obsessed 11 year-old. A wannabe rock musician (Rhys Meyers) and a cellist (Russell) share a nausea-inducing night of romantic twittering and, though coyly not shown, sex. Thereafter, evil forces (her controlling dad) split them up. The resulting baby is given up for adoption without the girl's knowledge. 10 years later, he's a musically gifted, irredeemably romantic boy (Highmore), on the lam from child services, playing music on the streets with Robin Williams' modern-day Fagin. Given that this is basically a modern-day, live-action fairy-tale, you can guess the ending.

AUGUST RUSH is actually a well-made, decently-performed film, and it doesn't hurt that Highmore, Rhys-Meyers and Russell always seem emotionally in the moment even when they have to utter dialogue that will have cynics rolling their eyes. I think the key test of whether you'll enjoy the film is whether you can get through Highmore's opening dialogue without wanting to slap the screenwriter. I have to say that I found the whole thing gauche but I can imagine it appealing to some people. Given that we live in a cynical world, directors trying to pull off a cheesy love story have to face the audience's in built objections head-on. That was the secret of the success of ENCHANTED.

AUGUST RUSH was released in Winter 2007/2008. It is now available on DVD.

Friday, June 27, 2008

LES FEMMES DE L'OMBRE / FEMALE AGENTS - straightforward recreation of wartime heroism

Start the war with the Germans, finish with the English - a typical French attitude!FEMALE AGENTS is a no-nonsense World War Two spy thriller. The film-makers don't try anything fancy in terms of visual style, narrative structure or performances. However, the true story upon which the film is based is interesting enough to maintain interest throughout the two hour run-time.

Five young French women are recruited by the British secret service to rescue a geologist from a German military hospital. It is imperative that they do this before the Germans realise that he has been surveying the beaches of Normandy before the D-Day landings that will liberate Europe. It is crucial that the Germans continue to believe that the main invasion will come at Calais. The agents rescue the geologist easily enough, but then have to assassinate the German soldier who has extracted his secret. There are several attempts in a beautifully recreated wartime Paris, culminating in a very effective final showdown in a misty train station.

FEMALE AGENTS works well as a thriller but I like it even more for the fact that its protagonists aren't simple caricatures but real people with conflicted motives and developing characters. The ending may have been a touch sentimental, but I was so carried away by the film that I felt it utterly justified.

FEMALE AGENTS was released in France and Belgium earlier this year. It is currently on release in the UK and opens in the Netherlands in October.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

TEETH - fascinating, if mis-marketed

So everybody told me TEETH was a wicked satire of those dogmatic American evangelical Christian teens who make a cult out of biological ignorance and chastity. And I suppose the movie does start off as a comedy, but instead of a knowing, witty satire, it was more dead-pan and goofy. We meet a pretty teenage girl called Dawn and she's lecturing kids to keep it in their pants, right up to the point where she meets a sensitive Christian boy called Tobey. We get some quietly funny, goofy scenes in which they try and play down the obvious sexual tension, and it all ends with them making out. At which point, Dawn's mutated body puts up a rapier-like defense as her vagina dentata do for Tobey's manhood, and indeed, his sorry little life.

Now, I expected this scene to be played for broad laughs, and it's true that there is a lame attempt at gross-out comedy. But my overwhelming emotion for most of TEETH was pity. I think this is because Jess Weixler, who plays Dawn, is such a good actress and plays it so straight, that I actually began to sympathise with her. After all, she's a genuinely nice kid, who is learning that she's a mutant, and having to cope with a mother who's terminally ill and a psycho-sexually fucked up brother at the same time. In the scene where she finally enjoys sexual pleasure I was seriously happy for her!

So, while I did laugh out loud a lot during TEETH, I actually found it far more emotionally rewarding than, say, SEVERANCE. But I didn't quite get a handle on what writer-director Mithell Liechtenstein was trying to say. He starts by mocking the Christian teens for their distorted picture of sexual relations but in the end doesn't he present something equally warped, and alarmingly close to the fundamentalist view that teenage girls need to be protected from the predatory sexual instincts of teenage boys?

TEETH played Sundance, Berlin and Frightfest 2007. It was released earlier in 2008 in the US, Singapore, France and Hong Kong and is currently on release in the UK.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

WANTED - offensive, derivative, stupid

Your father died yesterday in the rooftop of the Metropolitan Building. He was one of the greatest assassins who ever lived. And the other one is behind you WANTED is the kind of unintelligent macho bullshit that appeals to the lowest common denominator. In particular, it'll appeal to every pathetic geek who dreamed of being swept into a more exciting life by a hot chick. In this case the geek is the newly buff James McAvoy, who despite the body-building remains far more convincing as the nervous schmuck than as the hard-as-nails assassin. The hot chick is Angelina Jolie, who does nothing more than look cool. Why does a woman of such obvious intelligence and acting ability persist in such roles? Morgan Freeman plays the arrogant prick directing the group of assassins in picking off seemingly innocent people. Apparently it's all okay because the Loom of Fate says so. I was pretty disturbed that this movie took an hour to even ask the question of whether murder is ever justified and by how quickly it brushed it off.

Maybe I'm taking all this too seriously? Let's consign our brains and ethical sense to the boot of the car, and go on pure adrenaline. How does WANTED fare qua action flick? As with all of Timur Bekmambetov's movies, the visual style is MATRIX-lite. It's all bullet-speed photography. The sole innovation is to have the bullets curve. A-HA!!! I'm sorry but that does not fill a 2 hour movie. What you don't get with WANTED is a fully fleshed alternate world that contextualises all the violence. WANTED is about beating the crap out of people. Period. NIGHT and DAY WATCH have higher stakes, and more respect for old-fashioned stuff like proper plotting and dialogue and emotional pay-offs. By contrast, the supposedly emotional plot-twist in WANTED just looks like a cheap rip-off of EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.

Basically, this is a big budget blockbuster aimed at mindless adrenaline junkies. It's got a big cast and a big marketing budget. But don't let that fool you. It's no less puerile and fascist than the widely derided

Don't believe the hype.

WANTED is on release in the UK, Czech Republic, Hungary, Russia, Singapore, Slovalia, Slovenia, South Korea, Canada, Estonia, Finland, Hong Kong, Lithuania, Panama, Poland, Turkey and the USA. It opens next weekend in Italy and Venezuela. It opens on July 16th in Indonesia, Belgium, Egypt and France. It opens on July 31st in Romania and Australia. WANTED opens in August in Mexico, Braziln and Denmark, and in September in Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Japan.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

ADULTHOOD - compelling, terrifying, British drama

Writer-actor Noel Clarke steps up to direct this sequel to the terrifying urban drama KIDULTHOOD. Once again, Clarke shows us 24 hours in the life of the thieves, drug-pushers, drug-takers and thugs of contemporary West London. Once again, this film brilliantly captures the language and concerns of a section of British society painted by the Daily Mail as generic "hoodies". There are no concessions to outsiders, and one can imagine Americans finding it hard to understand the dialect.

Six years after the events of the first film, Sam is released from prison, having served time for murdering a boy called Trife. Trife's friends want Sam dead by nightfall, and he has to run around town making apologies. Sam tried to act "big" in the first film. In the second, he faces the consequences. Indeed, the whole film is really a tour of the victims of crime. For all that, this is not an overwhelmingly grim film. Adam Deacon stands out with his hysterical, quasi-Ali G depiction of Sam's nemesis, Jay. And Clarke does indulge in a rather sentimental denouement. But I was willing to forgive this because I'd so bought in to Scarlett Alice Johnson's desperately moving portrait of damaged coke-addict.

ADULTHOOD is on release in the UK.

Monday, June 23, 2008

There's just no escaping the fact that ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS are cute!

What can I say? This is a pretty formulaic kids morality tale. Cute little chipmunks land in the house of a failed song-writer called Dave. He provides them with a hit song and a father figure. They provide him with the motivation to take responsibility for his life and get the cute girl next door. Along the way an evil record producer tries to intervene, taking the Chipmunks away from Dave on a world tour in which, horror of horrors!, they lipsynch. It's all pretty shameless stuff - especially the bit where a big Hollywood studio has the temerity to mock the record industry. And Jason Lee is hopelessly upstaged and out-acted by his furry friends, of whom Justin Long is the only well-known voice-artist. Still, for all that, you can't deny that when those wonderfully CGI-rendered chipmunks start singing, they're cute as hell!

ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS was released for Christmas 2007 and is available on DVD.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

STEALING BEAUTY - interactive voyeurism

Disturbingly leery film in which a variety of men and women are transfixed by a virginal American teen staying in Tuscany. The voyeurism hinted at in the title begins in the opening credits when our protagonist (Liv Tyler) is stealthily photographed on a plane to Sienna. It continues as the old bohemians speculate about her losing her virginity and implicates the viewer as we're forced to watch her being deflowered. This is after we've sat through two hours of flirting with a terminally ill Jeremy Irons and a whole bunch of teen angst, condensed into mind-numbingly juvenile poems. It's all left me asking, "So what?" This being a Bertolucci film it looks fantastic, of course, but without the political context or deep psychosexual drama of THE DREAMERS and LAST TANGO it all seems rather thin.

STEALING BEAUTY played Cannes 1996 and was released that year. It is available on DVD.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

THE ESCAPIST - Best of British

THE ESCAPIST is an intelligent, imaginative take on the prison-break movie as exemplified by THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. Indeed, this low budget British flick heavily references the cult classic, contrasting the savagery of prison life - drugs, rape, brutal violence - with religious imagery and martyrdom. The style, however, couldn't be more different. The sun-lit American prison is replaced with grungy British misery. And the straightforward linear style is replaced by a narrative that starts both at the beginning of the plot and at the beginning of the escape itself. We learn about the motivations of each participant as we watch their escape unfold. I found the method absolutely compelling and neat because it didn't diminish the suspense. The key question of whether or not the men would pull off their escape was still there till the end. But we also get a wonderful plot twist that asks more interesting and meaningful questions.

What else is there to love about this film? For a start, the performances are great. Brian Cox leadsfrom the front, but is upstaged by a quite sinister, physical performance from Steven Mackintosh as a rapist, junkie. The only false note was Damian Lewis trying to look hard with a half-baked working class accent. Still, not even that was enough to keep this film off my Best of 2008 list. Kudos to debutant feature writer-director Rupert Wyat.

THE ESCAPIST played Sundance and Dublin 2008 and is currently on release in the UK. It opens in the Netherlands in February 2009.

Friday, June 20, 2008

THE EDGE OF LOVE - Keira Knightley rises to mediocrity

Never ask for directions in Wales, Baldrick. You'll be washing spit out of your hair for a fortnight.Hard-drinking, womanising poet fucks wife and ex- in Welsh squalor. Cuckolded husband understandably pissed off at funding menage a trois while fighting WW2, returns with psychological trauma and loaded gun. Cillian Murphy phones in perf. as English cuckold; Matthew Rhys suitably charming as Dylan Thomas; Keira Knightley surprisingly not a disaster as The Ex, including plausible Welsh accent; Sienna Miller steals show as discarded wife despite complete lack of Irish accent. Highlight of film is close-up of Miller cryng, book-ending scene wherein she is betrayed. Other 100 minutes desperately dull despite visual flourishes.

THE EDGE OF LOVE is on release in Ireland and the UK. It opens in Australia in August and in New Zealand in October.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

MAN OF THE YEAR - a liberal wet dream

When did the Washington Post suddenly get the monopoly on wisdom?BARRY LEVINSON has had a patchy career - from hits like RAIN MAN and GOOD MORNING VIETNAM to his more recent, rather anonymous, films of which MAN OF THE YEAR is an exemplar. It's a half-baked attempt at political satire in which a Jon Stewart-like talk show host runs for President on a tide of popular dissatisfaction with Washington cronyism. He gets elected thanks to a computer voting glitch, exposed by a life-threatened whistle-blower. Robin Williams is good value as the TV host, at least in the scenes where he's allowed to let rip at stand-up. But the intervening drama, featuring Jeff Goldblum as the corporate heavy and Laura Linney as the do-gooder whistleblower, is dull. This isn't rapier-sharp satire but obvious, earnest, liberal angst. On balance, you'd do better to just rent some Robin Williams or George Carlin stand-up.

MAN OF THE YEAR was released in 2006 and 2007 and is available on DVD.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

OUT OF THE BLUE - neutered by its understandable sensitivity to the subject

OUT OF THE BLUE is a respectfully straightforward retelling of the worst massacre in New Zealand's history. A schizophrenic man shot 13 people at random before being shot dead by police after a 22 hour seige. Karl Urban of LOTR fame stars as the local copper first on the scene. The strength of the film is its evident respect for, and patience in depicting the lives of the victims. The weakness of the film is its understandable unwillingness to think creatively about such a sensitive subject. The only truly memorable sequence is near the end. Without more of this, you can't help feeling that this is a well-made TV true life drama.

OUT OF THE BLUE played Toronto 2006 and was released in New Zealand that year. It was released in the USA in 2007 and in the UK in March 2008. It is now available on DVD.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

PRICELESS / HORS DE PRIX - does anyone else think this is actually quite depressing?

Je voudrais......J'aimerais.....PRICELESS is a very loose, contemporary French re-imagining of BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S. An attractive young woman called Irene is gold-digging on the French riviera. An innocent hotel waiter called Jean falls for her, and turns into a gigolo so as to keep up with her lavish lifestyle, and persuade her that what she really wants is a life of poverty with him. That the movie slips down so easily is entirely due to the fact that the leads, Gad Elmaleh and Audrey Tautou, are photogenic. Elmaleh also displays a deep talent for physical comedy - just watch how he uses his mournful eyes!

The problem I had with PRICELESS was the nagging feeling that this was all actually rather disingenuous. It's the same problem I have with the film adaptation of BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S. It's all too light and breezy. I mean, how can we stay all frothy and romantic when what our two protagonists are really doing is turning tricks?

HORS DE PRIX opened in Belgium and France in 2006. It opened in 2007 in Poland, Latvia, Iceland, Australia, Hong Kong, Israel, Singapore, Malysia, Estonia, Spain, Greece, Italy, Finland, Turkey, Russia, Argentina, Sweden, Hungary and Romania. It opened earlier in 2008 in the US, Japan, Mexico and South Korea and opened this weekend in the UK.

Friday, June 13, 2008

IN SEARCH OF A MIDNIGHT KISS - one of my favourite films of the year

Take all five.Writer-director Alex Holdridge's debut feature, IN SEARCH OF A MIDNIGHT KISS, is a wonderfully funny film about modern courtship. It's remarkably frank, the characters and situations feel real, and the whole thing makes you feel good about life without being manipulative or obvious.

The opening scenes of the film reminded me of Woody Allen's brilliant MANHATTAN - except this time the black and white lensing captures contemporary Los Angeles. But as the movie progressed it reminded me a lot more of the Doug Liman flick, SWINGERS, with it's micro-humour milked from the lives of failed actors, cruising LA for love. Instead of Vince Vuaghan's cocky motor-mouth Trent, we have Brian McGuire's Jacob - deeply funny, bracingly honest, the ultimate cool best friend. Instead of Jon Favreau's broken-hearted Mike, we have Scoot McNairy's broken-hearted Wilson. Wilson misses his ex-girlfriend and, having been exposed jerking off to a photoshopped picture of his best-friend's girl, is shamed into joining Craigslist to find a date for New Years Eve. As with Mike, Wilson is clueless when it comes to modern dating, but in his favour, he's genuinely likeable and the audience cares that he has a good time and rebuilds his confidence. His date, Vivian, is beautifully written and beuatifully played by Sara Simmonds. She starts off as bitter and caustic, melts into a giggling schoolgirl and ends as a damaged woman. It's rare to see such a well-rounded female character on screen.

I love the way the film avoids clear-cut happy endings and neat characters. This isn't a conventional Hollywood fairy tale. I also love the fact that, unlike most rom-coms, IN SEARCH OF A MIDNIGHT KISS made me laugh out loud throughout its run-time, even while it had me genuinely emotionally involved with the key protagonists. You really must go and see this film! (And I say that rarely...)

IN SEARCH OF A MIDNIGHT KISS played the festival circuit in 2007. It opened in the UK this weekend and opens in the USA in August.

Overlooked DVD of the month - IMPROMPTU

Afflicted with a summer cold, I spent a day convalescing. While waiting for the Euro 2008 matches to begin I stumbled upon the new iTunes video rental feature. The prices are high and the choice limited, but I was a captive market. The only movie I hadn't seen and was mildly intrigued by was the early 1990s Chopin-George Sand biopic, IMPROMPTU. I rented the movie because I'm a sucker for period romance but also because George Sand is an intriguing figure. A radical feminist in the mid nineteenth century, her fiction may be of mixed quality but her importance cannot be denied. She flouted conventions by wearing men's clothes and loving "strongly, exclusively and steadfastly" a number of the key artists of her time - not least Frederic Chopin and Alfred de Musset. An added inducement to watching the film was the fact that Judy Davis - a brilliantly talented actress - was playing the lead. I was less enamoured of the prospect of seeing Hugh Grant play Chopin.

The first half of the film passes as something of a bedroom farce, with Liszt, Musset, Delacroix, and Sand house guests of some country aristos eager to look civilised. All of Sand's lovers quarrel and Sand pursues Chopin - a provincial, prudish blushing near-virgin. It's all rather light and funny and reminded me a little of Woody Allen's A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S SEX COMEDY. As the artists disperse we get to the true business of Sand wooing Chopin and we leave them as they depart for Mallorca. Here the film has a more serious, more straightforwardly romantic tone.

Judy Davis is superb as Sand. She embodies her energy, passion, opennenss and intelligence but also her vulnerability. You truly understand why men would be drawn to such an unconventional woman. Davis is surrounded, for the most part, a sterling supporting cast. Bernadette Peters gives a great performance as Franz Liszt's mistress Marie d'Agoult. She is a monster, but crucially, one with whom we can empathise. Mandy Patinkin is hysterical as Musset. Emma Thompson displays her gift for comedy as the Duchess d'Antan. Anna Massey is captivating in her cameo role. Indeed, the only bum note is struck by Julian Sands as Liszt - an utterly thin performance.

The real surprise, however, is Hugh Grant! He pulls off the accent, the provincial outrage, and finally the hesitant declaration of love. He's never looked more beautiful and it was a courageous role for a young actor - to appear so thoroughly emasculated on screen. I am thoroughly impressed!

IMPROMPTU was released in 1991 and is available on iTunes.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

THE INCREDIBLE HULK - yet another disappointing summer blockbuster

You wouldn't like me when I'm angryI've been known to read a comic or two in my time but I never cared much for HULK. The story was just too thin: repressed scientist's arrogance backfires when his own gamma bomb explodes, irradiates him, turning him into his suppressed alter-ego - a seething, angry giant. I mean, that's pretty much it. Yes, there's a weak romance with fellow scientist Betty Ross, and yes, the Hulk is hunted down by her father General Ross, and yes there's an even more fucked up mutant enemy, The Abomination........But Hulk never had the psychological complexity of Batman or the sheer exuberant fun of Tony Stark.

Zak Penn and Ed Norton's script for the new HULK feature shoots itself in the foot by collapsing the whole origin story into the opening credits. What this means is that all we have left for the two hour run-time is the following.....

Bruce Banner hides out in Brazil.

Bruce Banner gets chased by US military: turns into Hulk.

Bruce Banner hides out in Culver City.

Bruce Banner gets chased by US military: turns into Hulk.

Bruce Banner hides out in New York City.

Bruce Banner gets chased by US military: turns into Hulk.

Bruce Banner hides out in Canada.........

This is not very interesting. It's especially not interesting because the ludicrously over-worked CGI Hulk looks nothing like Ed Norton. So, even though Norton gives a sympathetic turn as Banner, I didn't care what happened to him as Hulk. Contrast this with Peter Jackson's KING KONG. Thanks to deft motion capture and some lovely scenes between Kong and Ann Darrow I really cared when Kong was being attacked by the military.

But let's end on a positive note. This movie is not a complete failure. Tim Roth chews up the scenery and actually has some fun as Hulk's enemy, Emile Blonsky. Louis Leterrier puts in some stunning aerial photography of the Brazilian favelas and he certainly knows better than Jon Favreau how to direct an action scene. And the movie nicely sets us up for an AVENGERS movie, wherein the dull mediocrity of THE INCREDIBLE HULK will hopefully be leavened by the far from perfect but still much more entertaining spirit of IRON MAN.

THE INCREDIBLE HULK opens this weekend in the UK, the US, Australia, Greece, Hungary, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Brazil, Estonia, Finland, Mexico, Norway, Poland, Sweden and Turkey. It opens next weekend in Egypt, Italy, Argentina, the Netehrlands, Iceland and Spain. It opens on June 26th in Belgium and Denmark; on July 3rd in Israel; on July 10th in Germany; on July 23rd in France and on August 1st in Japan.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Overlooked DVD of the month - THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB

THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB is remarkably like a Jane Austen novel. It's peopled with a group of women searching for love. Althought the women face obstacles, not least their own inability to see love when it's staring them in the face, everything ends happily and order is restored. The entire process is charming and witty and involving and entirely harmless. The ensemble cast do a great job. I particularly liked Hugh Dancy is his role as a relentlessly optimistic IT-geek called Grigg. I've never been particularly impressed by Dancy before but he utterly won me over with his performance in a role which is hard to take seriously. He makes Grigg more than just a two-dimensional nice guy. The upshot is that I finished the movie in a sunny mood entirely at odds with my usual callous, cyncical demeanour.

Once the optimistic glow had subsided, my usual cynicism kicked in and the house of cards collapsed. The whole movie was contrived from top to bottom. The idea is that five women and one man meet once a month and discuss one of Austen's novels. Such is Austen's universal wit and wisdom that they can draw piquant life lessons from her novels and apply them to their own lives in contemporary California. Problem is that a lot of the lessons seem misapplied, or stretched to say the least.

Consider PERSUASION - a wonderful novel about second chances. The lessons are applied to Prudie and Dean. Prudie has delusions of a Left-Bank life; Dean is a neanderthal. Apparently having him read PERSUASION will lead to a rekindling of their romance. Sorry. Not buying it. The whole set up of the film is that they are congenitally unsuited. Reading a novel won't change that. And what about the relationship at the core of the film - between a repressed older woman, Jocelyn, and the younger man determined to win her love - Grigg. Apart from the completely predictable way in which they come together, I really hated the fact that the reasons for Joceyln to be so closed off were never explained. This made it hard to sympathise with her. She just seemed mean.

Apparently these issues are dealt with at more length in the novel and I look forward to reading it. And I suppose any movie can't be all bad if it makes you want to spend more time with its characters....?

THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB played Toronto 2007 and was released last year. It's now available on DVD.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Overlooked DVD of the month - THE EMPEROR'S CLUB

THE EMPEROR'S CLUB has much the same setting and set-up as DEAD POET'S SOCIETY but it is a very different film. It lacks DPS's beautiful visual style, emotional heft and moral certainty. The result is a film that is only interesting to look at insofar as it captures the New England prep school as the English like to imagine it. (A sad result given that the DP was the excellent Lajos Koltai.) In terms of pure entertainment, Kevin Kline's finely modulated performance as a deeply repressed Classics teacher is no match for Robin Williams' charismatic poetry don. Kline's Professor Hundert believes utterly in the virtues of his school: Williams' John Keating is a maverick. Hundert's students are, for the most part, a bunch of indistinct swots. Keating's students have their own stories and personalities.

For all that, THE EMPEROR'S CLUB remans a fascinating film precisely because it eschews sentiment and clear answers. Professor Hundert believes in virtue but he is no paragon. His own romantic view of the power of good teaching to reform the class clown leads him to compromise his ideals. He throws the young ruffian an opportunity to reform at the expense of a more worthy pupil. The ruffian repays him by cheating. They point is not, however, the boy's inability to change, even in adulthood, but the teacher's reaction to it. When quietly nudged by the headmaster, Professor Hundert refuses to expose the well-connected boy as a cheat.

What we have here is a quietly played moral drama that provokes serious discussion. Doctor007 and I were talking about for the equivalent of the run-time of the movie. Can character be reformed? Was Hundert right to intervene? How far does this sort of thing go on all the time, in an era when schools and universities are even more dependent on legacies? The perils of benevolent interference are clear in this film, and you look at our foreign policy and you realise how widely applicable these questions are.

So, THE EMPEROR'S CLUB may fail as a technical achievement, but as a provocative drama it certainly succeeds. Moreover, it's always a joy to see Kevin Kline given centre stage.

THE EMPEROR'S CLUB played Toronto 2002 and was released later that year. It is available on DVD.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Re-release - LET'S GET LOST made me cry

I rarely cry when watching movies but Bruce Weber's Chet Baker documentary made me cry. Maybe it was the contrast between the beautiful young trumpeter before junk took a hold of him and the haggard, frail old man, older than his years, photographed shortly before his death. Maybe it was the sight of one of the all time great jazz trumpeters humbly asking the Cannes mob to be quiet while he sings them a heart-breaking version of "Almost Blue". Throwing pearls to swine. Maybe it was the relentless parade of women who'd loved him, still loved him, despite being cheated on, abandoned, abused and used. Maybe it was his children, cheekily asking for money, or conspicuous by their absence. All through the film I felt the heavy weight of dissipation - yet another great jazz man lost to heroin.

Bruce Weber's documentary is beautifully shot, as one might expect, and captures perfectly Chet's slippery charm and his vagabond life. All through the craziness there's one continuous thread - and that's the music. Even having all his teeth knocked out didn't stop that - just derailed it. From TV footage in 1956 when Baker is poster-boy-pretty to the Weber orchestrated recording session in Paris in 1987, that soft, smooth, seductive voice is exactly the same. The horn playing is less easy to compare. TV shows went for the romantic ballads and the late night jam sessions with Dizzy aren't captured on film. But we get the witnesses telling us how inspirational it all was. Our generation has to be content with CDs and just imagine the talent that's only briefly hinted at on record. But at least those of us who volunteer to watch this film on re-release don't need to be asked to be respectfully quiet.

LET'S GET LOST played Toronto 1988 and Sundance and Berlin 1989. It was nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar but lost to Marcel Ophuels' HOTEL TERMINUS. It was released that in 1989 and is currently on re-release in the UK. It is available on DVD.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Ram Gopal Varma missed the mark with SARKAR RAJ more than Michael Bay missed the mark when he made Pearl Harbour

Why does Michael Bay get to keep on making movies?I saw two movies yesterday. One was the hillarious political satire, TEAM AMERICA WORLD POLICE. The other was Hindi director Ram Gopal Varma's Godfather rip-off, SARKAR RAJ. This sequel picks up from 2005's SARKAR, in which real life father and son Amitabh and Abhishek Bachchan took on the Vito and Michael Corleone roles. The movie came complete with a Kay Adams like girlfriend; attempted murder on an unguarded father scene; and the sad demise of a Fred0 type brother. In the follow-up we see more of the Godfather key dramatic events reprised, althought the denouement is entirely new and entirely weak.

As the movie opens, Sarkar (Amitabh Bachchan) has established himself as goon turned politician, with his westernised son, Shankar, at his side. Shankar is now married to a subservient dutiful wife. (No prizes for guessing what happens to her.) They are trying to push through plans for a new electrical plant, proposed by Aishwarya Rai's ruthless businesswoman, Anita. But they are up against the local vested interests in the form of a hypocritical Gandhian Rao Saab and his agitprop. son Somji, not to mention other corrupt businessmen and politicians.

Violence, arguments, attempted bribery, murder, corruption, plotting - it all rolls on for two and half hours in a loud, over-edited mess and it's not all that interesting. Amar Mohile's bombastic score insults the audience at every turn, illustrating every line reading with a Tom and Jerry like musical narrative. Amit Roy's cinematography is puerile and without effect. He shoots every entrance like a rap video - cameras low to the ground looking up on the diagonal. There's a whole scene of dialogue between Sarkar and Shankar shot up through a glass table top. For what reason? Against such a over-bearing background what hope do the actors have? They all do a tolerable job, I suppose, but frankly, in a movie that calls to mind great performances from the likes of Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, what hope do they have of impressing?

Perhaps the only good things I can say about this film are that Ram Gopal Varma resists the urge to chuck in an Aishwarya Rai song and dance number, or indeed to spin a screen romance between real life husband and wife Abhishek and Aishwarya. Moreover, he makes a pretty ballsy plot twist at the end. But frankly, a nice final scene does not atone for 150 minutes of over-blown bilge.

SARKAR RAJ opened this week in the UK, India and the Netherlands.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Vladislav Moudrykh* Memorial Review - MONGOL

As an armchair military historian an avid player of Medieval Total War II (does my geekdom know no bounds?) I can't think of a movie more designed to appeal to me than MONGOL - the first in a three part biopic of Gengis Khan. In the twelfth century, this man united the fractious Mongol tribes under his leadership by a mixture of savage physical force and strict adherence to the rule of law. By the time he died he'd conquered most of Central Asia. His descendents' Empire ran from China to Eastern Europe. The tragedy for historians is that Gengis Khan lived in a community rich in oral tradition but without a written record of great deeds. Accordingly, the history of Gengis Khan is largely made up of myth and patriotic legend. To some he is a hero - to others, a butcher.

Sergei Bodrov's film leans heavily toward the former interpretation although, as the film ends before Gengis starts invading his neighbours, it could be that Bodrov will paint a more balanced picture in future films. Still, it's interesting that Bodrov chooses not to show Temudjin killing his brother on a hunting trip....

Other than that exclusion the film is actually rather less bombastic than one might have imagined. In fact, Temudjin spends most of the film getting his arse kicked by a variety of angry tribesman, foreign powers, and even his blood brother! Temudjin is also portrayed as being firmly under the thumb of his deceptively quiet-spoken wife, Borte. All this adds up to a far more engaging, human picture than I had expected. I especially loved the charismatic, insouciant blood brother Jamukha, played by Honglei Sun - a total scene stealer.

Hillarious inter-marital escapades aside, MONGOL also boasts some of the most stunning cinematography and costumes I've ever scene. You leave the film having a real feel for the lifestyle of medieval Mongols and half falling in love with the landscape. Kudos to Sergei Trofimov (of the WATCH movies) and Rogier Stoffers (DISTURBIA.)

Overall, MONGOL is deeply entertaining, has some suitably gory battle scenes, but also lots of quietly funny family drama. I think it's a bit of a shame that the Oscar nom has led the PR guys to pimp it out as an art-house movie. It could've had the appeal of a GLADIATOR. I'm certainly looking forward to the sequel.

MONGOL played Toronto 2007 and opened in Russia in 2007 and was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. It was released earlier this year in Turkey, Japan, France, Belgium and Italy. It opened this weekend in the UK and US and opens next week in Australia. It opens in Israel on July 10th, in Germany and the Netherlands in August and in Norway on September 5th.

*This review honours Vladislav Moudrykh, Fellow Scoundrel and Peasant Outreach Officer, 1998-2002, Missing, Presumed Fed.

Friday, June 06, 2008

GONE BABY GONE - stunning as a mood piece, less convincing as a thriller

Get that sausage off my lawnGONE BABY GONE is a thriller about a little girl who is abducted from her home in working class Boston. Her mother is a junkie who is evidently an irresponsible mother, but her aunt and uncle are apparently good people who call in the press, the police and private detectives Patrick and Angie. The resulting investigation fails as a thriller. One can only blame Dennis Lehane's source novel and screen-writers Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard's unwillingness to re-work the implausible denouement and character motivations. Sadly, the unconvincing resolution of the case mars the final forty minutes of an otherwise brilliant film.

The brilliance lies in Ben Affleck's ability to render a working class community without being patronising or superficial. The movie feels authentic in its sights and sounds even as the plot gets increasingly hard to swallow. Younger brother Casey delivers a deeply affecting performance as a detective trying to do the right thing; Ed Harris is charismatic as the jaded older cop; and Amy Ryan pulls of her role as the junkie mother well, though I doubt it was really one of the five best female performances of 2007. In smaller roles, Amy Madigan is superb as the pious aunt "Bea". Is all this enough to compensate for the weak plot? Yes, but it's a disappointment all the same.

GONE BABY GONE was released in the US, Canada, Spain, Panama, Russia, Argentina, Mexico, Germany, the Philippines, Colombia, Denmark, Belgium and France in 2007. It was released earlier in 2008 in Israel, Finland, Hungary, the Netherlands, Norway, Estonia, South Africa, Sweden, Venezuela, Greece, Singapore, Romania, Turkey, Portugal, Poland, Italy, Australia, and Iceland. GONE BABY GONE was meant to play London 2007 and to be released last year but was pulled because of sensitivities surrounding the abduction of Madeleine McCann. It is now on release in the UK but is also available on DVD.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Random DVD Round-Up 4 - PURE

PURE is an oddly sentimental movie about a very nasty subject: a small boy coming to terms with his mother's heroin addiction. We first meeting him cooking up her "medicine", lashing out as nasty neighbours who call her what she is - a junkie. Later, he'll try to nurse her through cold turkey. Scenes where she tells him she wishes he'd never been born are almost unbearable to watch.

Molly Parker turns in a brilliant performance as the addict mother who undoubtedly loves her son. David Wenham is quite scarily convincing in his cameo role as the sinister dealer. But the real star is a young Harry Eden, seen recently in FLASHBACKS OF A FOOL. He's utterly convincing and heart-breaking as the young boy old before his time with worry, eager to do right by his mum.

What stops this movie well short of greatness is its tendency towards mawkishness, as reflected in Nitin Sawhney's score. The other great flaw is Keira Knightley trying her best with a chav London accent but failing miserably to convince as a pregnant working-class junkie.

PURE played Toronto and London 2002 and Berlin 2003 where Gillies Mackinnon and Harry Eden won awards. It was released in the UK in 2003 and in the US in 2005. It is available on DVD.

Monday, June 02, 2008

SEX AND THE CITY THE MOVIE - and I quote, "same old horse-shit", bigger screen

same old horse shit, bigger screenMy favourite line from all the reviews I've read of SEX AND THE CITY comes from Slant magazine. "The Sex and the City movie wouldn't be a Sex and the City movie without the horseshit—and at two-and-a-half hours, there's lots of it here." All I can say is, I concur!

I was never a fan of the series. And all these reviews by men saying "I'm not the target audience" are irritating me because they seem to be letting the movie off the hook. What they're saying is, "I don't get it, but maybe her in-doors will, so maybe I should pretend the jury's still out when in reality the verdict's in and it's the chair."

I didn't like SEX AND THE CITY because it didn't ring true. I couldn't relate. I have a bunch of female friends and we were/are single, high-earners who love shopping and hope for love, but "Love and Labels" did not make up the entirety of our lives. The TV show was praised for being candid and "pushing the envelope" about how female sexuality and friendship were presented on screen. Maybe so, but I still found the result reductionist and vaguely insulting. So the movie is just more of the same. More vapid consumerism, more unrealistic relationships and more adolescent humour and generally intolerable teenage behaviour. Presumably, fans of the TV series will be in heaven.

A few words about the translation of SEX AND THE CITY from the small screen to the big screen. In terms of substance the movie feels like a bunch of episodes strung together. The characters haven't really developed at all - same old problems with the possible exception of Miranda who gets a half-decent grown-up storyline. The film-makers try to make the product more politically correct by including an African-American character. Frankly this late inclusion in such a minor role merely highlights, rather than addresses, the show's narrow focus. Finally, there has been no attempt to change the look of the movie for the big screen. Fans will presumably approve. I, however, wished they'd actually bothered to exploit the extra possibilities the big screen gives you.

SEX AND THE CITY is released this weekend in the UK, US, Austria, France, Germany, Israel, Singapore, Iceland, Italy and Turkey. It opens on the weekend of June 6th in Egypt, Belgium, Australia, Greece, Hong Kong, Portugal, South Korea, Brazil, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Norway. It opens on June 12th in Argentina and the Netherlands; on June 20th in Russia, Spain, Taiwan and Sweden; on June 17th in Chile; on June 27th in Venezuela and on August 2nd in Japan.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

HAROLD AND KUMAR ESCAPE FROM GUANTANEMO BAY - everyone's a little bit racist!

Roldy is an up-tight hard-working Korean-American investment banker. Kumar is his Indian-American pot-smoking med-school-dodging best-friend. The movie picks up from the end of the sleeper hit HAROLD AND KUMAR GO TO WHITECASTLE, in which our two heroes got high, got the munchies and went in search of the perfect hamburger. In this movie they head to Amsterdam so that Harold can hook up with the hot chick in his apartment building - Maria. But en route they get accused of attempting to hijack a plane, when all they were really trying to do was get high. They're shipped to Gitmo, quickly escape, and then travel across the American South in search of a presidential pardon and, for Kumar, true love!

All the stuff we loved in the first movie is here in the sequel. Harold and Kumar (John Cho and Kal Penn) have great comic timing and there's another great cameo from Neil Patrick Harris aka Doogie Howser MD. Some of the stuff we hated in the first movie also persists - the random shagging of the big bag of weed dream sequence, for one. But underneath the gross out humour and the ludicrous plot, HAROLD AND KUMAR ESCAPE FROM GUANTANEMO BAY has an actual, proper, well thought-out message!

The comedy genius that was Tom Lehrer once wrote a song called "National Brotherhood Week"....

"Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics / And the Catholics hate the Protestants / And the Hindus hate the Moslems / And everybody hates the Jews

But during National Brotherhood Week / National Brotherhood WeekIt's National / Everyone-Smile-At-One-Another-hood Week / Be nice to people who / Are inferior to you / It's only for a week, so have no fear / Be grateful that it doesn't last all year!"

And that's basically the message of HAROLD AND KUMAR ESCAPE FROM GUANTANEMO BAY. It sucks if you're Korean or Indian, so people assume you're a Communist or a terrorist. But then again, it sucks if you're from rural America and people assume you're a provincial dolt with in-bred kids. Even George W Bush gets a break: we assume he's an asshole but maybe he's just another kid pressured into joining the family business?!

So there we have it. H&K tell it like it is: everyone's a little bit racist. Now, who'd have thought such a popcorn movie would dare make such a political statement?!

HAROLD AND KUMAR ESCAPE FROM GUANTANEMO BAY opened in April in Singapore, Canada and the USA. It opened in Iceland in May and in Australia in August.