Thursday, December 24, 2009

PLANET 51 - harmless, disposable fun

PLANET 51 is the Meg Ryan of kids animation. It's not flashy, ground-breaking or breath-taking. Rather, it's harmless, banal, and mildy amusing in parts. As Christmas entertainment for bored kids, you could fare worse, but this is no TOY STORY.

The concept is clever. Instead of aliens invading earth, with all the predictable genre-defining consequences, earthlings invade an alien planet. Or rather, a narcissistic astronaut (voiced by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) lands on a planet of little green men and women. The kicker is that the aliens are just as versed in pop culture and B-movies, and are just as petrified of the "alien" as we would be. In fact, one of the most memorable and endearing things about this film is the beautiful and witty translation of the look of late 1950s/early 1960s small-town America to the alien planet.

Unfortunately, the story doesn't really live up to the concept, because there really isn't one. The astronaut lands, gets separated from his ship, hides out with our alien teen hero (Justin Long) and then tries to get back to his ship. On the way, his robot (a dead ringer for Wall-E) tries to hook up with him and his alien helper tries to hook up with a hot alien chick (Jessica Biel). The problem is that the guy we're meant to empathise with as our hero is pretty whiny and dull, and the other person we might empathise with, the astronaut, is an insufferable bore. It's never good when the little robot has more personality than the hero. (As a sidenote, I also don't get why Dwayne Johnson couldn't have voiced a coloured astronaut?)

So, where does that leave us? PLANET 51 works well as a namecheck of alien invasion classics, and adults will get a certain kick out of that. There's probably enough slapstick humour, not to mention the cute robot, and that'll keep the kids happy. Happy, but in a sort of disposable, single-serving way.

PLANET 51 was released in November in the US, Malaysia, Peru, Russia, Ukraine, Canada, Italy, Argentina, Georgia, Greece, Kazakhstan, Brazil, Cyprus, Mexico and Spain. It opened earlier in December in the Philippines, Germany, Kuwait, Portugal, Iceland, the UK, Australia, Israel, New Zealand, Singapore, Bulgaria, Panama and Venezuela. It opens tomorrow in Turkey and on December 31st in Slovenia. It opens in Finland on January 1st, in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Sweden on January 14th. It opens in France on February 3rd and in Belgium and the Netherlands on February 10th.

Monday, December 21, 2009

DISTRICT 9 - a re-review

So some nice movie folk sent me a DISTRICT 9 BluRay disc and I took the opportunity to rewatch one of the most original sci-fi flicks of the year. I haven't fundamentally changed my opinion of the movie, which you can read here. The movie is two thirds superb satire of South African politics; brilliantly conceived mockumentary; and re-casting of the sci-fi genre. I still love the down and dirty look of the film. I still admire the way that the director and co-writer, Neill Blomkamp, balances comedy and action. And I still think that shot of the alien spaceship hovering over Jo-burg is iconic. Admittedly, I also still think that the final third of the film descends into a mindless shootemup/buddy movie that's entertaining but in a more lo-rent way than the first two thirds of the film.

The plus point of the BD disc is that special effects flicks really do look cool on HD - even a special effects flick that's fundamentally fighting against the Hollywood-glossy look. As for the extras, the director's commentary is also pretty insightful. You get the feeling that Blomkamp knew exactly what he wanted for this film, and it's pretty amazing that he took on such a technically ambitious project for his first feature. You also get to find out how he got involved with Peter Jackson, and thus got the funding to turn his short into a feature. I was most fascinated by his anecdotes about how the political situation in South Africa fed into the movie - sometimes in an unforeseen manner. For instance, it was after shooting began that the violence against Zimbabwean refugees took place - violence that echoes the reaction of the poor South Africans toward the "prawns" in the flick.

There's also around 90 minutes worth of short docs explaining everything from the improvisation process to the sound design, CGI special effects and old-fashioned prosthetics. As with all of these kinds of extras, they typically contain more information than you actually need or care about unless you're a complete fan-boy. The only one I found interesting, as someone who liked the film but isn't a fanatic, was the segment on the physical effects transforming Wikus into a prawn.

Stuff that didn't work so well: the MovieIQ feature, that's meant to use your internet connection to give interesting little factoids throughout the film, wasn't working because the server was down. Also, why oh why oh why do movie distributors try to cross sell with up front ads? Why do I have to fast forward through a Michael Jackson ad to get to my film?!

DISTRICT 9 is released on DVD/BluRay on December 28th.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

An Excoriating and Witty Review of Star Wars The Phantom Menace

Thanks to Malcatraz for the tip off. Be sure to continue to Part 7. Despite the funny tone, this reviewer has a lot of incisive analysis on how genre cinema should work and why The Phantom Menace doesn't. He even has some amazing behind the scenes footage. Maybe he was an insider? The worst part is where the Editor of the film delivers the most devastating critique of the denouement, and even Lucas seems to admit that the thing is a mess, but that it's too late to disentangle it.

Friday, December 18, 2009

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE - weather with you

Spike Jonze, the visionary director behind BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and ADAPTATION, returns to the big screen with an adaptation of Maurice Sendak's iconic children's book. The book is slight, dark but also joyful: a little boy called Max throws a tantrum, is sent to his room, and disappears into an imaginary world of wild things. The wild rumpus if fun, but he grows lonely and returns home in time for his supper, which is still hot! BBC Radio 4 produced a marvellous programme on the book and its iconic status, interviewing Sendak. He said he thought the book was radical because Max wasn't a WASP but a little Jewish kid, and because Max wasn't a classic innocent child but a realistic rage-filled, energy-filled little boy. And after all, he had it both ways - King in his imaginary world, but also welcomed back into his home.

Spike Jonze and writer David Eggers have taken the slender meat in the book and spun it out into a beautifully rendered, overwhelmingly dark and pyschologically truthful film about the fears and resentments of childhood. In truth, there isn't much joy left in it, and I'm not sure what kids will make of it. But for adults, the film is a deeply emotionally affecting depiction of what it's like to be a child, and indeed, the pressures on parents in a modern world of working parents and divorce.

The first hour of the film gives us the reality of little Max (Max Records), a nine year old kid growing up in the snowy American burbs. His elder sister is too busy being a teen to hang with him, his working mum (Catherine Keener) tries her best to give him attention but has her own stress to deal with. He loves mischief - instigating a snowball fight with his sister's friends - but gets scared when the fight gets out of control and they smash his igloo. The film is full of visual references to kids seeking small dark places to hide and feel safe in, but that safety being intruded upon. It's also full of play fights that have real emotional consequences. In these early scenes, I love the efficiency with which Jonze and Eggers essay Max's emotional life. The fight that triggers his running away comes out of nowhere. I also love the freedom of the camera, capturing with handheld the rumpus, but also shooting from Max's POV and height. There's a lovely scene where Max is sitting under his mum's desk tugging at her tights - a wonderfully intimate moment but also hinting at his need to express himself and incapability of doing so with words.

By the second half hour, Max has run away from his house having thrown a tantrum and bitten his mother on the shoulder - a highly charged scene. He takes a boat and through scary waves, lands in the land of the wild things. There he meets a loose collective of monsters and becomes their king, starting play-fights that soon sour. All of these monsters are expressions of Max's own insecurities and fears - the fear of not fitting in, of being abandoned for cooler friends, of not being understood, of not being loved, of sadness. The fear that doing a robot dance won't make his mum happy and won't make the monsters happy either.

I love this section for its wonderful visual style. When Carol (James Gandolfini) takes Max to see his model world, it really is magical. There's a kind of magic to the simple mastery of making and doing rather than CGI wizardry. That translates to the monsters themselves. They are giant muppets that have been ever so lightly CGI animated to show the facial expressions of the actors voicing them. It's a really wonderful result - they look real, they have weight, but they also look, well, muppety enough to have come from a kids imagination. I also love the wry humour. Classic example: Max and Carol are walking through a desert and an absolutely enormous monster appears on the horizon. Carol dismisses it as a harmless pup: "don't feed it or he'll follow you around." But there's no denying that this section is also pretty much a constant downer. The monsters talk like a bunch of depressed characters from a Woody Allen film, filled with neuroses about failed relationships and low self-esteem. They speak in phrases that kids must hear and not quite understand. They have an abiding sadness that poor Max can't shift because, after all, he's not a real king.

In the final section, emotions come to a head. Some of the monsters realise that Max favours KW and Carol - that's he not an equal opps king. And then they realise that he's not really a king at all. And then, most crucially, as Max tries to convince KW about the need for family and why she should return "home" to Carol, he also realises that he too needs to go home. What is learned? Maybe not much. Max always loved his mum, and still has trouble expressing himself. The rage and the fear are still there.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is a brave, bold and beautifully imagined movie that takes us into the psyche of a kid who has trouble expressing himself. Is it a kids film? Not sure. But it is certainly a superb film about being a kid, and about being a parent. It is uncompromising, challenging, dark, scary and makes you cry. Spike Jonze remains one of the most fascinating directors working today.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE was released in October in the USA, Canada and Italy. It was released in November in the Ukraine, Malaysia, the Czech Republic and Romania. It is currently on release in Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Denmark, Lithuania, Norway, Turkey, the UK, France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Spain. It opens on December 30th in Belgium. It opens in January in Brazil, Singapore, Finland, Taiwan, the Netherlands, Japan, Argentina, Greece, Portugal, Venezuela and Sweden. It opens on February 4th in Russia.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

ST TRINIAN'S 2: THE LEGEND OF FRITTON'S GOLD - too few genuine laughs

I rather liked the 2007 St Trinian's remake. It was cheeky, rather fun, but in a rather charmingly lo-rent way. Rupert Everett dressing up in drag to play Camilla Fritton, headmistress of the most anarchic school in England, was a fun antidote to all those airbrushed teen-rom-com flicks starring Amanda Bynes and Emma Roberts. I liked the visual humour and Colin Firth sending up his Mr Darcy image.

So it was with some anticipation that I watched the sequel, ST TRINIAN'S 2: THE LEGEND OF FRITTON'S GOLD. The story is rather clever in that it build's on St Trinian's anarcho-feminism. It turns out that an ancestor of headmistress Camilla Fritton (Everett) and new head girl Anabelle Fritton (Talulah Riley) was a swashbuckling pirate who hijacked gold from Lord Pomfrey - an anti-feminist who was going to use the loot to dethrone Elizabeth I. In the present day, Piers Pomfrey (David Tennant) is trying to steal the treasure back. The girls have to follow clues to London, find the gold and defeat the scoundrelous enemy, with the help of old head girl (Gemma Arterton) and Camilla's love-interest Geoffrey Thwaites (Colin Firth).

The film succeeds in some of the same ways as the original. There is a lot of visual humour around the production design of the school, and a certain lo-rent charm to the way it's been put together. Unfortunately, it does not have the verbal wit of the original. Indeed, there are very few genuinely laugh-out loud moments. The film misses Gemma Arterton in a starring role, and didn't really use Girls Aloud's Sarah Harding in a sensible manner. I know that most of the actresses are passed their school days, but Sarah Harding strains credibility as a current school girl - surely she would have been better used as a returning old head girl? In general, I feel the film might have benefited from spending more time at school, generating humour from the absurdities of a St Trinian's education, and less time chasing for gold in London. Ultimately, it just doesn't work.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

NINE - a series of songs sung by women who are basically in love with a shit

Rob Marshall directed two movies before NINE and I didn't like either of them. His movies are pretty on the surface and are obviously the product of much care and attention to detail. But somehow they miss the essential point of the story, not to mention any subtlety or subversion. And this is a major flaw in movies that deal with the the appearance and reality of sexual domination (MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA) and sexual and judicial corruption (CHICAGO).

And yet, still flush with the some-time success of CHICAGO, Marshall had the ambition to tackle NINE, a movie adaptation of a Broadway musical that was itself an adaptation of Fellini's seminal movie - perhaps one of the greatest movies of all time - 8 1/2. How can I explain to you what a technical, psychological and dramatic achievement Fellini's film was? It was a movie that dared to depict the impossibility and insanity of trying to create art in a commercial, celebrity-obsessed environment. Even more daring, it was a movie that threw its own director's psyche onto the screen - his narcissism, his eroticism, his conflicted relationship with his childhood, his relationship with his mother, his wife, his lovers....8 1/2 was a movie so radical and so brilliant that it redefined cinema. It was a movie so great that other directors tried to compete with it and came up short - Henri Georges Clouzot, with his INFERNO, had a heart attack trying.

If great artists have tried and failed to match Fellini, what can we say about Broadway composer and lyricist, Arthur Kopit and Maury Yeston? Sadly not much. Yes, they have gotten the bare bones of the story - the narcissistic movie director battling writer's block and a kind of personal crisis - running between his wife and his lover - but never finding the pure adoration that only an Italian mother can give. But they fail to translate Fellini's daring and subversion to the Broadway stage. Worse still, the songs are rather anonymous. "Be Italian" has a decent melody but the rest are utterly forgettable. Worse still, the lyrics have none of the rapier-like wit of CHICAGO or CABARET. No, this is a poor vehicle indeed on which to hang a Hollywood film.

Rob Marshall takes poor fare and does nothing to improve it. Yes, there are a couple of new songs but none of them have any more punch than the originals. Indeed, the 60s pastiche Cinema Italiano, is truly bad. Worst of all, Marshall didn't have the balls to change the incredibly weak opening number. And, after all, what's a song and dance show without a bravura opening number? Catherine Zeta Jones in CHICAGO gripped the audience.

Okay, so the music is weak - hardly Marshall's fault. What about the purely cinematic choices? The casting is variable in its success. Daniel Day-Lewis is either miscast as the director, Guido Contini, or mis-directed by Marshall. Day-Lewis' attempt at an Italian accent distracts from his perfect physical embodiment of the distracted, harrassed, hunch-shouldered director. Penelope Cruz and Judi Dench have a lot of fun and perform with gusto as Guido's lover and loyal friend. Marion Cotillard is superb as Guido's suffering wife. Fergie of The Black Eyed Peas is the best singer and performer by far in the best song in the piece, despite Marshall saddling her with frightful hair and make-up and entirely missing the eroticism of the encounter with the kid. Less happily, we have Nicole Kidman doing nothing special as the Anita Ekberg inspired movie star Claudia. Sophia Loren survives on her iconic status. Kate Hudson is entirely out of her depth but luckily only has to do a MTV dance routine before she's off stage. Her part is entirely disposable.

Most importantly, Marshall doesn't attempt to translate the complexity at the heart of the piece. And without that, Guido comes across as merely annoying, unsympathetic and whiny - a big kid with a mamma complex and an over-extended libido. The women, with the exception of the wife, are not really developed. As a consequence, when one of them does something dramatic, it seems not so much out of character, as we don't know what her character really is, but out of the blue. It's just hard to care. The movie becomes a series of songs sung by women who are basically in love with a shit. And frankly, there's nothing entertaining about that.

NINE is on release in the US, UK and Slovenia. It opens next week in Greece and Canada. It opens in January in Israel, the Netherlands, South Korea, Cyprus, Denmark, Brazil, Italy, Australia, Spain, Taiwan and Romania. It opens in February in Argentina, Hungary, Sweden, France, Finland, Belgium, Germany and Singapore. It opens in March in Japan.

Monday, December 14, 2009

AVATAR - you can have too much of a good thing

AVATAR is the much hyped new film from writer-director and special effects obsessive James Cameron - the man who brought us TITANIC, ALIENS and TERMINATOR. Let us say that James Cameron has consistently pushed forward the technology of film, and has produced consistently thoughtful sci-flicks. Indeed, I would argue that he deserves more kudos than Spielberg - creating fewer but more consistently entertaining and polished blockbusters. But let us also admit that Cameron is the master of hyping himself, and has saddled us both with Celine Dion and with a 130 minute movie of arse-numbing proportions.

First, the praise. AVATAR is a technical marvel. Not because it does anything new - rather, it pulls together all of the advances of the last five years and pushes them further and does them better than anyone else. The 3-D is immersive rather than trying to shock us. The CGI is photo realistic. The characters and animals have weight and heft. The natural science detailing on the plants and animals is breathtaking. Fantastic creatures seem real. It is easy to mock a director who goes to the lengths of actually inventing a new language for his fictional race, the Na'vi. But it works. Much like LORD OF THE RINGS, AVATAR works because it makes us believe in an alternate world, and through believing, we care about its future.

AVATAR is also tightly structured and directed so well that it maintains momentum throughout its runtime (which is not to say it couldn't have done with being a good forty minutes shorter). Cameron may be a master of CGI but he never forgets that story comes before technical wizardry. The movie plays a three-act drama. We are in a dystopian future where humans live on a dieing world, and have colonised a planet called Pandora, in order to mine a precious metal, whose main deposits lie underneath the "hometree" of the indigenous Na'vi people. In Act One, the audience invests its sympathy with the hero and heroine. A disabled jarhead pilots an avatar Na'vi body in order to infiltrate the tribe and negotiate a relocation by any means necessary. Problem is, he becomes fascinated by their respect for nature and falls for a Na'vi chick. In Act Two, the stakes are established. The army, impatient for profits, decimates the hometree, scattering the Na'vi people, and destroying their trust in the Jarhead. The science team establish that the whole ecosystem of the planet is connected and a powerful source of energy. In Act Three, we have the dramatic climax and resolution. The Na'vi regroup and with their human allies take on the colonials.

The strength of the AVATAR story is that James Cameron knows who to weave successful aspects of genre fiction into his more modern allegory of environmental degradation and ruthless military exploitation. We have a good old-fashioned romance between the jarhead and the Na'vi chick. We have a coming of age story, as the jarhead learns the rules of the new world. We have a buddy movie as the jarhead bonds with the science officer. And finally, we have a spiritual story of redemption. I love the fact that Cameron is willing to tackle both issues of science, politics and religion in the same film - to that end, it reminded me a lot of the better aspects of Ronald D Moore's BATTLESTAR GALACTICA.

Given all these positives, it isn't a surprise that I had a good time watching this flick, even though it did seem just too long to spend in a cinema for what should just be a bit of entertainment, albeit intelligent entertainment.

But there are negatives. AVATAR features some of the most hokey dialogue and two-dimensional characterisation seen on film since STAR WARS. And maybe that's no coincidence. Maybe when a writer-director is having to balance different genres, a large cast, action, technology and romance, it's just too much to ask to have good dialogue and nuanced characterisation too? But then again, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA did, by and large, pull that off. One of the strengths of that series was its ability to present conflicted characters who changed, evolved, and felt three-dimensional. By contrast, in AVATAR, you're either a righteous hippie earth-child or a cigar-chomping, profiteering rat-bastard. And characters say the stupidest things. Towit, jarhead to Na'vi chick: "why didn't you kill me?" Na'vi chick to jarhead: "Because you have a big heart." I mean, no-one, not enough imaginary aliens, speaks like this! There's also something slightly hypocritical in a movie that thinks nasty evil people who blow shit up are bad, but nevertheless wants us to be excited by a final act which is basically about people blowing shit up in more and more noisy ways.

Ultimately, AVATAR is such a feat of imagination that, like STAR WARS IV: A NEW HOPE, it survives the hammy dialogue and weak characterisation. It's nice to spend time in this world. It would've been even nicer to have been all done in two hours.

AVATAR is on global release.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009


Reviews are getting posted a little less promptly now that the locks are off the alcohol cupboard in Bishopsgate (quite literally) and the European fixed income divergence trade is starting to bear fruit. Which brings me to a preview of a movie that one might think a little at odds with the purported aim of this blog - a review site that loves shameless violence and scorns vegetarianism in all its manifestations. Not that I don't have time for the earnest agit-doc, but it always seems to me that they make not one iota of difference: after all, no unrepentant flat-earther is going to shell out his hard-earned cash to see some flick from the Lib-Lab coalition. To my mind, this genre of film is basically preaching to the already converted Guardian readership. This is where BEYOND THE POLE comes in - a new British film touting itself as the first environmental comedy. We sent our correspondent - a man more at home with ultra-violent Korean flicks - to investigate......

"Beyond the Pole sounds ghastly, promoted as a feelgood environmental comedy, which does it a disservice. It's not schmaltzy, doesn't preach, and has no over-the-top scene where everybody cheers. But it is very funny. Filmed documentary-style,
Stephen Mangan (GREEN WING) and Rhys Thomas (THE FAST SHOW) work well as the glass-half-full and glass-half-empty buddies who are equally foolhardy. They set off from Lichfield to the North Pole hoping to set some sort of Guinness record. The film charts the obstacles they face, which include polar bears, frostbitten penises and, through their radio, relationship strife back home.

For the most part the film belies its shoestring budget and radio play origins. The Arctic is beautiful even when purpotedly shot on a camcorder. The cast is never hammy, and benefits from the comic timing of Rosie Cavaliero as the long-suffering girlfriend and Mark Benton as the local amateur radio enthusiast. In a stroke of luck for the filmmakers, it also boasts a pre-True Blood
Alexander SkarsgÄrd camping it up as a rival trekker.

Moviemaking on ice was never going to be easy. To some extent location filming in three weeks against-the-odds, on a Greenland ice field that was due to melt, has helped the performances. The dialogue comes across as improvised and the tension seems genuine. However, the script's ending needed more development prior to the shoot. We know it's inconceivable that such a pair of losers could make it to the North Pole and back unscathed. Eventually things have to go seriously wrong. This juncture is held off as long as possible to keep the humour flowing, but once the fun is over, the conclusion feels perfunctory. With more pathos, and maybe even a bit of schmaltz, Beyond the Pole would linger in your mind as a charming comic tragedy."

BEYOND THE POLE will be released in the UK in early 2010.

Sunday, December 06, 2009


British thespian Christian McKay is charismatic, enigmatic and pitch perfect in his portrayal of legendary theatre and film director, Orson Welles. He is all thick, creamy charm and wonderfully, audaciously, self-confident. You want to be in his presence, to be caught up in the excitement of pulling off a daring production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar against all the odds. McKay's Welles convinces us that art matters, and that excellence is possible, and that if the artist wants to charm a little radio secretary or two in the meantime, well, who is he to be pinned down by conventional bourgeois morality? All hail, the brilliant wunderkind Orson Welles, and woe betide you if you dare to question his ducal rights.

The tragedy of ME AND ORSON WELLES is that Richard Linklater has not fashioned a framing device interesting enough to hold our attention when Welles is off screen. Indeed, Welles must be turning in his grave to see his grand personality reduced to romantic-comedy fodder. For, in this ill-advised film, we are asked to see Welles through the eyes of a naive, romantic schoolboy (Zac Efron with his first decent haircut), who gets a bit-part in Welles' production. For much of the movie's runtime, the schoolkid follows Welles around, filching his best pick-up lines and moving in on his PA (Claire Danes) only to get ideas above himself and mess it all up. We are supposed to care about this young kid losing his illusions about what it takes to get ahead, and worse still, to care about his romance with a drippy wannabe writer (Zoe Kazan) with eyes so wide she could be a Disney heroine.

All of this is so much nonsense. What we really care about is Welles and his genius and his relationship with long-time collaborators - his producer John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) and his best friend, Joe Cotton. The movie sags when Welles is off-screen. Frankly, I would've put up with just seeing him schmooze chicks, but what would've been superb would've been a portrayal of how he worked. Sadly, other than one seen where he discusses The Magnificent Ambersons, we get precious little of that.

The resulting film is too frail a frame upon which to hang a biopic of such a great man. It is likely to disappoint all potential audiences. The HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL crowd will no doubt be annoyed to see their pet outshone by an older, less handsome man, and the cineastes will be teased but not satiated by McKay's performance. Little scene gems - a big band led by Jools Holland with Eddi Reader as the singer - are wasted on such a thin film.

ME AND ORSON WELLES played Toronto 2008 but has only just been released in the USA and the UK. Never a good sign.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Thoughts on DISGRACE (spoilers)

DISGRACE is Australian director Steve Jacobs' faithful adaptation of J M Coetzee's challenging, radical Booker-prize winning novel, starring John Malkovich in the lead role. Despite the pedigree of both the source material and the lead actor, the film has difficulty getting wide release, a fact that the director is clearly very bitter about. In an opening statement to a crowd at the ICA, he blamed the increasing commercialisation of cinema, and claimed that his film wouldn't be funded today. I'm not so sure. After all, we've recently seen successful commercial release of challenging books with big stars - THE READER, for one - so surely the difficulty is more to do with this particular film and how it was or wasn't marketed. I can't speak for the marketing, but I can say that the film has one absolutely fatal flaw that irritated from start to finish: as fine as John Malkovich's performance is, he simply cannot do a South African accent. God knows what effect he was actually going for, but it sounds like no natural accent on earth. Other than this, my review of the film and the book are one and the same, given their similarity. Both are finely made and are admirably brave and radical in their subject matter and point of view. My critique of the book is the same as my critique of the film.

Coetzee gives us the character of Professor Lurie (Malkovich). He is a middle-aged literary man, who idealises himself as a sort of romantic hero, above petty bourgeois morality, who goes where he likes and fucks who he likes. When his usual biracial prostitute is unavailable, Lurie casually seduces a biracial student. What proceeds is not rape, but a submission of a sort - a distinction which I think is more finely graded in the book than in the film. The student reports him for sexual harassment and an unapologetic Lurie refuses to play ball with a University committee saturated with political correctness, demanding a quasi-religious confession. He is kicked out, but not yet in disgrace - rather confirmed in his views that he is the last bastion of European culture in a country now run by people whose morality, language and culture he cannot understand. Just as Byron, Lurie chooses exile, but the irony is that he exiles himself to a place where the challenge of living in the new South Africa is to played out in a far more savage manner than at his University.

Lurie's daughter Lucy lives alone on a small farm, and runs a market garden and dog-kennel. She makes a show of practical independence, but it soon transpires that she is dependent for practical help and protection from her black "dog-man" Petrus, an ambitious New South African who will play the system of land grants and maybe something more sinister, to cement his ascendency over Lucy. Three young black men gang-rape and impregnate Lucy - an act even more traumatic because she is a lesbian - and lock the desperate Lurie in a bathroom before setting him alight. Lurie is fiercely angry, and wants Lucy to prosecute what turns out to be Petrus' nephew, or maybe even son, but Lucy refuses. She will not run away from her country, and knows that the price of remaining is to accept subjugation by Petrus and to carry the baby to term.

Lurie shares the reaction of the reader/audience - sheer shock that Lucy will not conform to our expectations of what a rape victim should do and feel. But he has himself been changing, softening, since the attack - learning to respect the unattractive Bev, who runs an animal welfare shelter - even starting an affair with her, and becoming a "dog man" himself. He realises that he has wronged his former student, and apologises to her family. He even selflessly has the battered dog he has come to love put down.

What can we make of a book so transparently written and so full of radical ideas and elegant dualities? I found Lurie's transformation from selfish, delusional Byron figure to a more vulnerable, frustrated and yet caring man utterly believable in both the book and film. Indeed, Malkovich's performance really is very powerful and it is such a shame he didn't just play the role with a standard American accent if he couldn't manage the South African accent. He goes from self-styled Byron to finding comfort in a fat middle-aged woman. He goes from belittling her work to respecting animal rights. And he understands that he has never really been there for his daughter and so has no right to interfere now. He is a man made redundant by societal change - and thus an essentially tragic figure. For Coetzee is making the radical point that, despite all the PR spin about a Rainbow Nation, there is no room for a European-literary man in the new South Africa. The nation's concerns, discourse, language and value-system are different now.

What I found incredibly difficult to understand in both the novel and the film was the decision made by Lucy. Don't get me wrong, I love the idea of Lucy, and the idea of Coetzee subverting our ideas of her reactions to being impregnated by her rapist. She is a provocative vehicle for provocative ideas. But does she work as a believable character? Are her actions routed in some kind of reality that we can empathise with? No. It's as though he posits a reaction and then takes it to its logical consequences. He doesn't argue for the reaction or embed it in reality. I found that incredibly frustrating in the book, and continued to find it frustrating in the film, despite Jessica Haines' superb performance.

Overall, then, DISGRACE the film is as problematic as DISGRACE the novel. And not problematic in that its ideas are difficult and shocking - which they are - but problematic insofar as they make the novel seem less like a convincing fiction than an excuse to work out a hypothesis of the possibility of life in the new South Africa. Coetzee subverts many of our conventional responses but he does so at the price of a credible lead character. Neither the book nor the film survive the thought-experiment.

Additional tags: steve jacobs, eriq ebouaney, jessica haines, steve arnold,

DISGRACE played Toronto 2008 but has not had much luck with distribution. It opened in Norway in December 2008 and in Russia, Poland, the Netherlands, Australia, Belgium, Spain, the US, Germany, New Zealand and Portugal earlier this year. It is currently on release in the UK and opens in France on January 20th.

Monday, November 30, 2009

NATIVITY! - Lo-fi, irritating, but pulls it back at the end

NATIVITY! is a low-rent, shamelessly schmaltzy family film directed by Debbie Isitt, of whose previous film, CONFETTI, I wrote "it may be 'sweet' on occasion, but it fails in its central mission to make us laugh". I could say exactly the same thing about NATIVITY! It's a poorly written film that hangs upon a ludicrous premise: loser primary school teacher (Martin Freeman) tells a white lie that his Hollywood producer ex (Ashley Jensen) is coming back to town to see the school nativity play. The "town" of Coventry gets wind of this and the hype grows so large that the hapless teacher is forced to fly to LA to persuade his ex gf to really show up, before an all-singing, all-dancing, cutesy finale. The acting is as notable as one might imagine given the absurd script, with the exception of a rather bizarre performance from Marc Wootton as a teaching assistant. Production values are similarly lo-fi. Directorial choices are ham-fisted. Why go to the trouble of setting up a visual gag wherein a whole street of houses is decked out in Christmas lights with the exception of the house of the grinch-like school-teacher, if not to pull back and actually show the whole street? And so it goes on. Basically, this film is rather mechanical, poorly-made, and utterly forgettable. The only redeeming feature is the final segment in which we see the kids put on the actual nativity play. After all, it takes a really mean critic to actively decry the efforts of a bunch of six-year olds giving it all they've got.

NATIVITY! is on release in the UK.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

LAW ABIDING CITIZEN - tricksy but disposable

F Gary Gray, director of BE COOL and that godawful remake of THE ITALIAN JOB, returns to our screens after a four year hiatus with a perfectly entertaining but utterly disposable thriller. Gerard Butler stars as an apparently normal guy turned vigilante, taking revenge on a legal system that has failed his brutally murdered wife and child. I am forever amazed by Butler's ability to sustain moderate success in Hollywood despite his inability to pull off an American accent. Luckily, he's given back up by Jamie Foxx as the prosecuting attorney who agreed to the plea; Bruce McGill as the DA; and Viola Davis as perhaps the most impeccably dressed Mayor ever to appear on a movie screen. What sells the film are the sleek visuals; beautiful photography of Philadelphia's City Hall; the genuine chemistry between Butler and Foxx; and the rather satisfyingly tricksy mechanics of how the crimes have been pulled off. To my mind, the cool tricks offset the fact that we are being sold a "good guy goes psycho" movie in the first half of the film, but in fact, Butler's character was never an ordinary guy. Looking at the negatives, the least said about final five minutes - not to mention the movie's piss-poor attempt to examine the issues of doing right versus criminal justice, and the balance between civil liberty and national security - the better.

LAW ABIDING CITIZEN is on release in the US, Canada, Greece, Denmark, the Philippines, Israel, Russia, Brazil, Norway, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hong Kong, Ukraine and the UK. It opens next weekend in Hungary and Romania and on December 10th in the Netherlands, South Korea and Finland. It opens on January 28th in Australia.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Preston Sturges Retrospective 6 - HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO

HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO! is a movie that prefigures films like THE FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS but is all the more impressive because it was made while World War Two was still raging and because, in contrast to Clint Eastwood's earnest dirge, it dares to treat its subject comedically. Preston Sturges is arguably at his most political in the tale of a young soldier called Truesmith (Eddie Bracken) who is demobilised on a humbug and confused for a war hero. Pretty soon, egged on by "Sarge" Heffelfinger (Sturges regular William Demarest), Truesmith is the town hero. His mother's mortgage has been paid, and he's being offered the mayorship.

Despite its superficially syrupy concerns - the love story with the hometown sweet-heart - the humility of the naive protagonist - HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO is one of the most subversive movies ever made, especially when you consider the timing of the release. Preston Sturges satirises everything that makes up the iconic American ideal - smalltown values, sentimental treatment of the family home, hero-worship, and the ease with which the democratic political process can be corrupted. The dialogue is razor-sharp witty but also dangerous! A perfect combination.

HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO was released in 1944 and was nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar in 1945 but lost to biopic WILSON.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Preston Sturges Retrospective 5 - THE GREAT MOMENT

After the success of THE LADY EVE, SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS and THE PALM BEACH STORY, Preston Sturges took a break from self-penned screwball comedies to direct a historic biopic about a Boston dentist called William Morton who discovered the use of ether as an anaesthetic. Apparently these sorts of medical biopics were rather popular at the time, and one can only assume that Sturges was personally interested in the subject matter. After all, he was already so much better paid than any of his contemporaries, this can't have been a shameless cash-in, can it? The movie opens strongly with a segment that excoriates political process and venality as much as anything in THE GREAT McGINTY: our hero is manipulated into filing a lawsuit to protect his patent that makes him seem like a profiteer and disenfranchises him. The rest of the movie, told in flashback, is only sporadically interesting. Joel McCrea does his best to pull of the drama, but for the first time, Sturges can't quite balance the emotional content with the broad comedy. Admittedly, the main fault for the film's failure is studio meddling to create a contrived happy ending. But one can't help but feel that Sturges either misjudged the material.

THE GREAT MOMENT was released in 1944.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Preston Sturges Retrospective 4 - THE PALM BEACH STORY

THE PALM BEACH STORY is perhaps my favourite Preston Sturges film, beating THE LADY EVE, and just like THE LADY EVE, it's a wonderfully quick-witted, sophisticated comedy featuring a strong, charismatic female character dabbling with the emotions of men who can barely keep up. Claudette Colbert excels as the beautiful Gerry Jeffers, who manages to be world-wise without appearing cynical. Frustrated by her loser-husband Tom (Sturges' regular Joel McCrea) she decides to take off to Palm Beach for a divorce, while simultaneously squirrelling a fortune out of a millionaire to give her ex a start in business. As she so wryly tells him, "You have no idea what a long-legged woman can do without doing anything." Having charmed her way into a free train ticket, Gerry manages to get "picked up" by J. D. Hackensacker III, a chivalrous millionaire who falls for the straight-talking beauty. Conveniently, his much-married sister falls for Tom, who has, by now, made it to Palm Beach too and, as this is a screwball comedy, is introduced as Gerry's brother. Whip-smart dialogue and shenanigans ensue, and they all live happily ever after, or, famously "do they?!"

What I love about this film is how much more modern, frank and wise it seems compared to contemporary romatic-comedies. Most of us would view the 1940s as a far more sexually repressed and simpler world, but here we have the battle of the sexes fought with far more elegance and savoir-faire than you see in the average chick flick. There's something wonderfully grown-up about THE PALM BEACH STORY despite the zany plotting. And most wonderfully, it still seems fresh and full of verve today.

If I prefer THE PALM BEACH STORY to THE LADY EVE it's simply because Tom and Gerry's foil is so much more charismatic and surprising than Henry Fonda's Charlie Pike. Indeed, John D Hackensacker III is one of the all-time great comic creations. Consider lines like "Chivalry is not only dead, it's decomposed," or "That's one of the tragedies of this life - that the men who are most in need of a beating up are always enormous." Or his catch-phrase - that state-rooms and tipping are "un-American". It's shocking to discover that Rudy Vallee didn't merit an Oscar nom for his performance. Then again, is there anything more heart-breaking than watching Tom and Gerry fall in love again while JDH sings "Goodnight Sweetheart"? Only Sturges can pull off that wonderful combination of clever and genuinely heartfelt.

THE PALM BEACH STORY was released in 1942.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

THE TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON - chiz moan groan

I have two problems with the TWILIGHT saga. In my review of the first flick, I summed up the first: "Instead of lashings of sex and death and sexy death and death-inducing sex, we get a lot of holding hands and big declarations of love but precious little rumpy-pumpy. Frankly, instead of all the narcissistic angst I would've far preferred the heroes to go and have some healthy sex and get over themselves. But that, my friends, kills the goose that laid the golden royalty cheques."

My second fundamental problem with the TWILIGHT saga is that it's completely dishonest. It's meant to be about pure love and abstinence but at the same time it makes no bones about showing buff guys stripped to the waist. Far from being about spiritual, emotional love, it's as much about the objectifying lust-objects as Baywatch. The only PC touch is that it's the men rather than the women who get their kit off.

These twin problems result in books and films that are as constrained as their characters: teens who want to jump each others bones but can't. And that leads to frustration on the part of the characters and the viewers.

NEW MOON opens with teen vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) abandoning his human girlfriend Bella Swann (Kristen Stewart) because he fears he can't keep her safe. So follows about ninety minutes of Bella going being depressed and boring. The only time she breaks off from this emo behaviour is to say something assinine to the newly buff teen were-wolf Jacob Black (newly buff Taylor Lautner). "You've buff" etc. Unfortuntely (ironically?) given the lack of on-screen chemistry between Bella-Edward or Bella-Jacob the whole love triangle thing never gets off the ground. In the final half hour we get something that looks like narrative momentum. Edward's sister has had a vision of Bella committing suicide, which has prompted Edward to do the same, Romeo & Juliet stylee. Aforementioned sister and Bella thus rush to Italy (for no other reason than that it looks picturesque) to prevent Edward from inciting some powerful vampires from killing him. All this might have been quite dramatic were it not for the fact that Michael Sheen is evidently taking the piss and hamming up his performance as the super-powerful Vampire king or whatever he is meant to be.

All in all, a movie that is dull, assinine, dull, picturesque, camp, dull.

And there are how many more of these to go?

THE TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON is on global release.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

So about that normal service.....and a shameless plug for MOON

Struck down by the resurgence in world financial markets and lung-blight from an ill-advised trek through Whitechapel at midnight, hence no film reviews for another week. I have, however, been watching lots of stuff and will update as soon as I can, chaps. In the mean-time, here's a shameless plug for the DVD/Blu-ray release of MOON. I don't normally accept cine-swag, nor take the company shilling, but in this case I'm making an exception. MOON is an exceptionally good sci-film film - all the more astounding because it's a debut feature and made on such a low budget. It's the sort of film that reminds you how good cinema can be when it's all about ideas, characters, and a proper narrative arc, not to mention a bravura performance from Sam Rockwell. So, if my opinion's worth anything to you, please do check it out, and read the full length review here.

MOON stills hinting at Sam Rockwell's super performance

Hopefully more incentive for you all to check out the DVD/Blu-Ray released earlier this week!

The glory of deep space:

This is how you look when you're chipper and ready for action:

This is how you look after long service in deep space:

Friday, November 20, 2009

A CHRISTMAS CAROL - good intentions under-cut by cheap tricks

Bullied as a poor child, Ebeneezer Scrooge has turned his back on love and become a miserly, mean old man, persecuting his good-hearted clerk Bob Cratchett and his kindly nephew in turn. On the eve of Christmas, in smoggy, lamp-lit, London, he is visited by the ghost of his old business partner Marley, and warned to transform his ways. Scrooge is then visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, who show him what he has turned his back upon, how horribly he is viewed by others, and the lonely death that awaits him. He awakes on Christmas morning a changed man, having had his heart melted by Cratchett's young crippled son Tiny Tim, and the shit scared out of him by the hellish Ghost of Christmas Future.

So goes the iconic Christmas tale from the author who was simultaneously England's greatest social critic and the writer of some of our most sentimental nonsense. To that end, Dickens got right to the heart of the Christian message as telegraphed by St Paul: one part tears and mercy; one part hell and brimstone. Accordingly, his books veer between rapier-like, courageous social critique and absurd depictions of innocents and children. The villainous Fascination Fledgby goes hand in hand with the unreal Oliver Twist. The superbly drawn sexual psychodrama of Bradley Headstone stands in contrast with the bizarrely anemic and oddly-motivated John Harmon. Dickens pulls this off because he is a genius.

The sharp contrasts inherent in Dickens can trip up those who try to adapt him for the screen. Oftentimes, a simply crazy and irreverent attitude is best. Thus, you can't not enjoy A MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL and I even have a soft-spot for the Gordon Gekko-transposed Bill Murray vehicle SCROOGED.

By contrast, Robert Zemeckis' new Jim Carrey-CGI extravaganza is far more faithful to the source-text and the popular idea of how Dickens should look. His film is all smoky chimneys, candle-wax and handsome whiskers. You simply can't fault the detail of the design, the texture of every surface, and the believable rendering of human emotion on every face. In general, I loved the production design. Indeed, the only character I thought really didn't work was the Ghost of Christmas Present, partly because of the look of the character, partly because the trick of looking through the floor to new scenes didn't quite get the perspective right, and partly because Jim Carrey voice-work didn't do much for me.

Zemeckis tries to pull off the Dickensian double of horror and twee emotion. Early scenes with a ghostly door-knocker and bells-tolling had little kids squirming and the Ghost of Christmas Future and his Black Riders are absolutely terrifying - and so they should be. Jim Carrey's Scrooge looks genuinely horrified and makes a convincing turnaround. I also liked the fact that after every really scary scene, the movie had some light-hearted physical humour to break the tension. Unfortunately, I thought Zemeckis didn't pull off the emotional scenes. The emphasis was somehow all wrong, especially at the end. Schmaltz requires that we see Scrooge and Tiny Tim gathered round a resplendent turkey. But in this adaptation, we just see Scrooge pack a turkey into a carriage and then head over to his nephew. Zemeckis definitely missed a trick with that one.

Still, even with the failure with the second ghost and the missed-trick on the ending, this could've been, on balance, a rather good film, were it not for Zemeckis' fatal flaw: he just can't resist having his characters whoosh through the skies in 3-D glory. Yes, it looks cool. Yes, the kids might love it. But what on earth has it got to do with Dickens? And why on earth would you spend so much time creating an authentic and textured depiction of Dickensian life only to under-cut the whole thing with some cheap, vulgar, hyper-modern stunts? Poor show.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL is on global release.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT'S INFERNO - great footage, great choices, but no context

LOST IN LA MANCHA was a wonderfully tragicomic documentary about Terry Gilliam's failed attempt to make a film about Don Quixote. With the charismatic Gilliam railing against the Gods, it was marvelously entertaining and very accessible. The fact that the film-makers were documenting events as they happened made it feel immediate and communicated the sense of a film unraveling before our very eyes. By contrast, HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT'S INFERNO is a rather dry restoration project, of interest to people who love cinema-history and the technical aspects of film-making. I doubt it will hold the attention of anyone who hasn't already heard of the mid-century French auteur.

Part of the reason for its limited appeal is that the documentary film-makers give so little context to Clouzot. Yes, they name-check his films and have his co-workers praise him, but there are no film clips of those films and no potted history of French cinema to that point. The audience is meant to already know why THE WAGES OF FEAR or LE CORBEAU are signficant, and to understand who the French New Wave were and why they might be antipathetic to Clousseau's directorial style and subject-matter. The audience is expected to know why Clouzot might have been so angered by this, and jealous to top Fellini's masterpiece 8 1/2, that he drove himself to grief with the ambitious INFERNO. But no, precious little information is given here. Reductively, we are told that the French New Wave objected to his detailed story-boarding. Similarly, nowhere do we explore Clouzot's style and thematic concerns before the ill-fated INFERNO project. All we know is that he is concerned with paranoid sexual jealousy, he works his actors hard, and he is a giant of French cinema. Apparently, no one needs to make the case.

Our Gmunden correspondent and I, embarrassed to have never seen a Clouzot film between us, were somewhat surprised by the oblique nature of this documentary, and felt rather excluded by its elitist tone. Nonetheless, we were fascinated by the actual substance of what it offered - a well-edited, lovingly restored set of clips from Clouzot's test shots and experimental footage. Clouzot seems to have been obsessed with how to depict the aural and visual experience of sexual jealousy. So we have experimental footage taken from the husband's perspective: he fixates on his wife's face, body, lips, smoking, flirting....This is Serge Bromberg's coup. In addition he makes another brilliant choice. Clouzot's footage has no sound. So, rather than dub in the script, clumsily and intrusively, Bromberg has used a sensitive score by Bruno Alexiu and recreated scenes using contemporary actors Berenice Bejo and Jacques Gamblin. This has the effect of confronting the incomplete nature of the archive footage rather than trying to mask it. It is a very elegant choice, and one can't help but wonder what a remake featuring these two actors would look like!

HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT'S INFERO played Cannes, Toronto and London 2009 and is on release in the UK and France. It opens on March 4th in the Netherlands and on March 10th in Belgium.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


WHATEVER WORKS is Woody Allen decoupage. You watch a bunch of his film and cut out and assemble the familiar characters and themes. First, you take a Woody Allen cipher, played in his younger days by Allen, and now by Larry "Curb Your Enthusiasm" David. Second, you have that character be cynical about life, and to talk about his cynicism incessantly to his friends, random strangers and, breaking the fourth wall, to the audience. Third, you have the Allen character meet and, rather improbably, have a sexual relationship with, a nubile young girl. It started with Mariel Hemingway in MANHATTAN but we now get a surprisingly charismatic and fascinating Evan Rachel Wood. Fourth, you have all the characters fall in and out of love and talk about charmingly in a series of rather lovely autumnal New York scenes. Finally, you have the cynical old know-it-all realise that the young flibbertigibbet was really on to something when she said, "you gotta have a little faith in people". The End. The only real difference in WHATEVER WORKS is that the old lech and the young idiot actually get married in an implausible turn of events that seems like a desperate plea for understanding by a writer-director who's marriage to his much younger adopted daughter has been ill-received.

Larry David is just about watchable even when he's trying to shoe-horn his schtick into the Woody Allen straitjacket. As I said, Evan Rachel Wood acts just about everyone off the screen. Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Junior are just fine as the parents who come to get their daughter back, but end up being transformed by the magical mystery powers of New York. Henry Cavill is rather flat and anonymous as the younger man. All's well that end's well, I suppose, but the whole film feels rather warmed over and re-hashed - like a Muzack cover of a Greatest Hit.

Where's the provocation of CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS? Where's the genuine heartbreak of ANNIE HALL? Where's the fizzy subversion of VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA?

Eventual tags: woody allen, comedy, evan rachel wood, larry david, harris savides, patricia clarkson, henry cavill, ed begley jr, conleth hill, michael mckean

WHATEVER WORKS was released earlier this year in the USA, Canada, France, Sweden, Norway, Italy, Belgium, Spain, Australia, Hong Kong, and Finland. It is currently on release in Brazil and Estonia. It opens on November 27th in Iceland. It opens in Germany on December 3rd and in Russia on December 31st. It does not have a UK release date but is available on Region 1 DVD.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

HARRY BROWN - the only permissable bigotry

These days you can't hate people on the grounds of their race, sexual orientation, religion or political views. The only permissable form of bigotry in the UK is the hatred of the white working class, and in particular, white working class kids. The right-wing middle-class media make a living from depicting chav kids as feral, dope-addled, knife-wielding granny botherers and social menaces. English society is in decay! Suburbia is lawless! And it's all because a bunch of uneducated kids have taken to drinking cans of Super-tenants outside Burger King at 11 at night while wearing fake Burberry caps, and driving modified Novas. It says a lot about how insecure post-modern, recession-bound Britain is that the only new cinema we seem to be capable of producing is either lauding the "glory" days of 1980s soccer hooliganism (punching people IS our proud heritage) or decrying working class violence. Whether the films are glorifying or condemning chav-violence, they are still making the lethal assumption that this is the way life is. And you think to yourself, does Mike Leigh work in vain?

HARRY BROWN is a good film. It's technically well-made, visually impressive, suspenseful, and features a great central performance from Michael Caine as a pensioner who turns violent on the teenage drug-pushers terrorising his estate. There's a satisfyingly slow-build to a pretty convincing revenge thriller. Caine has some nice Tarantino-style one-liners while dispatching a dope-peddler. There's even some astute critiquing of how the police are riven by spin and politicking. Emily Mortimer gives a nuanced performance and Iain Glenn is absolutely menacing. There's no denying it - this is a good film. I would have really loved it had I not been continually wary of the fact that I was watching a sort of middle-class angst-porn, designed to push all my buttons as a tax-paying constructive member of society meant to be living in fear of being knifed on the Central Line.

I don't buy the Daily Mail and I'm not buying this. I don't care how nice the packaging and how gritty the performances.

HARRY BROWN played Toronto 2009 and is on release in the UK. It opens in the Netherlands on February 25th 2010.

Normal service resumes today!

Thursday, November 05, 2009


BLAIR WITCH, CLOVERFIELD, QUARANTINE....We've seen this shizzle before. Low budget horror, filmed on DV, acted by unknowns, trying to get thrills by feeling "real". BLAIR WITCH was truly spooky - I still remember the scene with the guy standing in the corner of the house, facing the wall, like a kid being punished - but gave me motion sickness. CLOVERFIELD was like Godzilla and hi-fi, but gave me motion sickness. I guess the best thing that can be said about PARANORMAL ACTIVITY is that its mockumentary concept at least features fixed cameras. Katie and Micah are a young couple living in contemporary America. It's the America of STARSUCKERS and WE LIVE IN PUBLIC - a nation of people who believe that if it's not on TV it isn't real. So when Katie tells Micah she's being stalked by a poltergeist, his schmucky reaction is to video-tape everything. So follows footage of a normal couple bickering, interspersed by in-camera special effect horror. Spooky demon footprints in talcum powder etc. I'd love to know how they did it all in frame, but I really wasn't scared by it. And the reason I wasn't scared is because the mockumentary format is a distancing device. We know it's a trick and so we aren't involved. This applies to rom-coms as much as to horror, by the way, as I argue in my review of PAPER HEART. So, don't believe the hype. This film is entertaining enough as a post-modern comment on media-obsessed society, but it doesn't work as horror. And for all its lo-rent indie cred, I notice that the movie is "presented by Steven Spielberg", and that the director hasn't turned down the chance to make a studio-backed sequel to cash-in on this flick's commercial success.

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY was released in October in the US and Canada. It opened earlier in November in Greece, Russia, Singapore, Finland, Sweden, and Germany. It opens this weekend in Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK. It opens next weekend in France, Australia and Denmark. It opens in January in New Zealand and Norway and in Italy in February.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009


Sacha Gervasi's debut documentary ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL reeks of a reality TV set-up in the way in which the narrative arc has been edited together from all the hours of footage. Gervasi tries very hard to make the story of ANVIL a "true underdog story" in the tried-and-tested Hollywood formula. First, you take a love-able loser, Anvil lead guitarist Steve "Lips" Kudlow. Second, you establish that they have been held down by some arbitrary force. In this case, bad management apparently prevented Anvil from progressing beyond initial success into truly successful Metal recording artists. Third, you have the protagonists start arguing under the stress of pursuing their dream. Finally, the love-able losers achieve success against all odds! We all love movies where Johnny Nobody makes it big because it makes us think it might happen to us too. But it's rare to see a director so blatantly try to manipulate us into that empathy. Just look at how he intercuts footage of Lips et al stressing about whether anyone's actually going to show at their Japanese come-back gig with footage of an empty stadium. And then watch him build to a crescendo - the camera panning out to the packed auditorium of Japanese metalheads.

This documentary has won a lot of critical acclaim and it has made a lot of money. People are describing as a feel-good doc - as Spinal Tap for real - as a heart-warming comedy. But it's not. It's a shameless and exploitative exercise. Gervasi exploits Anvil - posing them in scenes that recall SPINAL TAP. Gervasi exploits his audience in engineering the underdog-does-good climax. The tragedy is that Anvil are presumably all too happy to be exploited - finally getting some publicity after all these years. The only thing that saves this film is that the guys in the band are nice, so it's easy enough to spend time with them.

ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL played Sundance and Toronto 2009. It opened in the UK, US, Australia, Iceland, Japan and Canada in 2009 and is now available on DVD.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Random DVD Round Up - FIGHTING

Far be it for to criticise a movie in which the not unattractive Channing Tatum spends time bare-knuckle boxing, but FIGHTING really is a complete waste of time. It plays as a pastiche of every boxing movie you've ever scene. Debut director, often-time writer Dito Montiel (A GUIDE TO RECOGNISING YOUR SAINTS) tries to give his movie an air of authenticity and street-smarts with the seventies score and slang and a portrayal of corruption and underground power. But he fouls it all up with his sub KARATE KID plotting and phoned-in performance from Tatum, Howard and pretty much everything else. Worst of all, for a movie called FIGHTING, the fight scenes are brief and unimaginatively filmed. For all its affectations of grittiness, this film is basically just a schlocky romance whose plot gives Channing Tatum a chance to take his shirt off. To that extent, I almost prefer the more straightforward macho bullshit of NEVER BACK DOWN.

FIGHTING was released in spring 2009 and is available on DVD.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Pantheon movie of the month - DOUBLE INDEMNITY

Phyllis: I'm a native Californian. Born right here in Los Angeles.

Walter Neff: They say all native Californians come from Iowa.

DOUBLE INDEMNITY is a brutal, enigmatic film noir - one of legendary director Billy Wilder's best films (a bold claim seeing as he helmed SUNSET BOULEVARD, THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH and SOME LIKE IT HOT) - a slippery masterpiece, like all of Raymond Chandler's slippery thrillers - and creepily shot by John Seitz, DP on SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS. Watching the film today is to find a film that still feels modern, perhaps because of its cynical approach to relationships, and puzzling, because of the conundrum at its centre.

The film takes the form of a crime thriller. Beautiful Barbara Stanwyck is a ruthless woman who uses her sexuality to manipulate men for money. She does a quick number on an insurance salesman called Neff (Fred McMurray), convincing him to murder her husband but to make it look like an accident so that they can both collect on his life insurance. Under the double indemnity clause, an accidental death pays out double. What's completely bizarre is that there is no heat in the relationship between Phyllis and Neff, and it's not clear why he'd switch from being a successful businessman to a murderer. There is something willfully, arbitrarily self-destructive which is utterly sinister and incredibly compelling to watch. The relationship that's arguably even more compelling is that between Neff and Keyes - the boss sent to investigate the "accident", prove it was suicide or murder and deny the claim. Keyes (Edward G Robinson) is the hero of the piece, if you can have a hero in a noir. He forms a genuinely empathetic relationship with Neff and the real suspense of the film comes not from whether Keyes will track Neff down, but why Neff feels compelled to collude in that process.

DOUBLE INDEMNITY was released in 1944 and is available on DVD. It was nominated for seven Oscars. Barbara Stanwyck lost out to Ingrid Bergman for GASLIGHT; John Seitz lost to Joseph LaShelle for LAURA; Billy Wilder lost to Leo McCarey for GOING MY WAY; Miklos Rozsa lost to Max Steiner for SINCE YOU WENT AWAY; it lost Best Picture and Best Screenplay to the Bing Crosby comedy GOING MY WAY; it lost Best Sound to WILSON.

Eventual tags: barbara stanwyck, billy wilder, black and white, edward g robinson, fred macmurray, james m cain, jean heather, john seitz, miklos rozsa, noir, pantheon, porter hall, raymond chandler, thriller

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Preston Sturges Retrospective 3 - THE GREAT McGINTY (1940)

If it wasn't for graft, you'd get a very low type of people in politics, men without ambition, jellyfish!

THE GREAT McGINTY was the movie that made Preston Sturges an auteur: it's the movie in which he moves from being a screen-writer to a writer-producer-director. Already we can see some of the thematic concerns that will colour his great films: unlikely romances; social and political injustice; all pinned on a narrative arc that strains credibility. The fact that Sturges chose to hang his narrative on a character that would typically be a Hollywood villain still seems daring. After all, the McGinty of the title is a muscle-bound homeless bum with little elegance and less charm. He's plucked from the soup-line by a mobster looking for someone to vote illegally and rises through the ranks to become a stooge gubernatorial candidate. Sturges' depiction of the machinations of politics is cynical, astute and stands sharply in contrast to the sugar-gum optimism of MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON. In Sturges film, we know up front that when McGinty does finally try to do the right thing, inspired by his wife-of-convenience turned actual lover, he's going to end up on the run. I love the fact that Sturges skilfully manages to combine rather dark material with genuine light-hearted comedy: a truly amazing balancing act. But there's no denying that this film does not reach the same high standards of witty one-liners, nor physical comedy, as SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS or THE LADY EVE. The movie is a daring and assured debut with one or two dialogue scenes that are superb - but it remains a promise of greatness to come rather than the finished product.

THE GREAT McGINTY was released in 1940. It won the Best Writing, Original Screenplay Oscar, beating Charlie Chaplin's superb THE GREAT DICTATOR.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Pantheon movie of the month and Preston Sturges Retrospective 2 - THE LADY EVE (1941)

There are two stars in THE LADY EVE: Preston Sturges' witty script, and Barbara Stanwyck as the beautiful adventuress with a vulnerable heart, Jean Harrington. The joy of the film is watching these two stars toy with the other characters in the film, and with us! Stanwyck - in sharp contrast to the impenetrable shark in DOUBLE INDEMNITY - plays a witty, wise businessman who happens to be a woman, and like any woman, is capable of being piqued, and once piqued, of exacting revenge! In a bravura opening scene she sits in a cruise-ship dining room surveying her rivals - a variety of sophisticated women trying to attract the attention of limpid, naive, rich Charlie Pike (Henry Fonda). Subtly spying on their pathetic attempts on her compact, she gives a razor-sharp, incredibly funny commentary on woman trying to catch a man. And really, as she says later in the film, is there anything so wrong in being a blatant adventuress? Isn't every woman an adventuress at heart?!

"Holy smoke, the dropped kerchief! That hasn't been used since Lily Langtry. You'll have to pick it up yourself, madam. It's a shame, but he doesn't care for the flesh. He'll never see it. Look at that girl over to his left. Look over to your left, bookworm. There's a girl pining for ya. A little further. Just a little further... There! Wasn't that worth looking for? See those nice store teeth all beaming at you. Oh, she recognizes you! She's up, she's down, she can't make up her mind. She's up again. She recognizes you! She's coming over to speak to you. The suspense is killing me. "Why, for heaven's sake, aren't you Fuzzy Oathammer I went to manual training school with in Louisville? Oh you're not? Well, you certainly look exactly like him, it's certainly a remarkable resemblance... But if you're not going to ask me to sit down, I suppose you're not going to ask me to sit down... I'm very sorry, I certainly hope I haven't caused you any embarrassment, you so and so.""

Of course, Jean Harrington, as a professional, has a better plan and catches her man rather elegantly, culminating in a seduction sequence where she makes playing with his hair the most sexy thing you've seen on screen for a long time. Only problem is, poor Charlie Pike discovers her game and casts her off at the end of the first half of the movie. Does Jean sulk? Does she feel bad? Not at all! This wonderfully active, ballsy heroine takes her destiny into her own hands again, and infiltrates Charlie's circle as an English aristo, the Lady Eve! Of course he recognises her, and perhaps subconsciously wants to fall in love with her again. His loyal valet may keep protesting it's the same chick, Charlie is in denial all the way to the altar, when Jean skewers his ego with tales of past loves. The second truly bravura dialogue scene is on the honeymoon night. Just watch how Jean elegantly lets slip about a certain Angus and then unravels a sorry tale of her mis-spent youth. And look how Charlie goes from moon-calf love to pompous forgiveness to absolute disgust!

Even after seventy years, the dialogue in THE LADY EVE still fizzes off the screen - the pratfalls are still brilliantly funny if, admittedly, childishly over-used. Just stop and think awhile how clever it is that Sturges can pull off both styles of comedy in the same film. Even more amazing, think how clever it is that Sturges can create as finely balanced character as Jean/Eve - she's a powerful modern woman but also, a sucker for love! She is urbane and sophisticated, and yet you do believe that she would fall in love with the innocent Charlie, just as you believe that Charlie is bewitched and amazed by Jean. We talk a lot about "odd couples" in comedy, but this is one of the best. THE LADY EVE is, simply put, a great film!

THE LADY EVE was released in 1941. It was nominated for the Best Screenplay Oscar but in a year when even CITIZEN KANE was overlooked in most categories in favour of HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, lost out to a forgotten pic by Harry Segall.