Wednesday, September 30, 2009


THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE is another one of those films that Steven Soderbergh (OCEAN'S ELEVEN, TRAFFIC) makes on a low budget to indulge his auteur-fantasy. The first was a lo-fi, hi-def, amateur-cast drama called BUBBLE. BUBBLE was about brutal jealousy among factory workers. With the deadpan amateur cast and hokey script, I was utterly unimpressed. THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE is another beast entirely. For a start, it looks much better - indeed, it's just as glossy as Soderbergh's mainstream films and the static framing works well as a distancing device that matches the emotional distance between the characters. If BUBBLE was about inappropriately extreme emotion, THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE is about lack of emotion. Real-life prostitute Sasha Grey plays a high-class hooker who sells not just sex (indeed, we never see it) but fake relationships. All this, while trying to maintain a relationship with her real-life boyfriend. This film could've been amazing. The concept of using a real-life prostitute to play an imaginary prostitute who's playing a girlfriend to the detriment of her real (qua movie) boyfriend, is fascinating. The movie also serves as a small slice of life at the height of the boom - a mirror to that craziness - where people were obsessed with investment returns and status symbols and everything could be bought. But ultimately, THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE is a failure. Casting an amateur leads to line-delivery that is painfully flat and fake. The dialogue (from the screenwriters of ROUNDERS and OCEAN'S THIRTEEN) also feels stilted and fake. As a result, at the point in the film when we're supposed to empathise with the hooker as she takes a chance on love with a client, we're so distanced from the action that it's impossible to care.

THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE played Sundance 2009 and opened in the US, Canada, France, Brazil and Australia earlier this year. It was released on Region 1 DVD yesterday. It opens in Russia on October 22nd and in the UK on November 27th.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Justifiably overlooked DVD of the month - GIGANTIC

GIGANTIC is the debut feature from director Mark Aselton and writer Adam Nagata. It's a refreshingly ambitious, original, bizarre romantic-comedy. That said, it's a complete failure, and is only worth watching insofar as it whets your appetite for what this film-maker will do when he gets a proper editor and starts to better structure his whacky ideas. The movies sees Paul Dano's mattress salesman sell a high-end mattress to John Goodman's back-pain afflicted millionaire. His daughter (Zooey Deschanel) picks it up, and wants to start a romance, but the salesman is too busy avoiding a madman and trying to adopt a Chinese baby. So, we trudge through 100 minutes and the movie never coheres and never engages. It's a tremendous shame, because the film-makers are obviously trying to break with the Hollywood identikit rom-com and the performances are great.

GIGANTIC played Toronto 2008 and was released in the US and UK earlier this year. It is available on DVD. It will be released in Portugal on October 22nd, in France on November 18th and in the Netherlands on March 25th 2010.

Eventual tags: adam nagata, clarke peters, daniel stewart sherman, edward asner, ian roberts, jane alexander, john goodman, matt aselton, paul dano, peter donahue, robert stanton, zach galifianakis, zooey deschanel

Monday, September 28, 2009

FAME: I've had more memorable turds

This review is brought to you by Daniel Plainview.

We went into this film with very low expectations, which it constantly failed to live up to. At the very least, we expected some effort to remake the original FAME – instead we got a mish-mash of seemingly (and as it turned out, actually) unconnected scenes interspersed with disappointingly crap dancing, singing, acting and tunes. The original’s themes of sex, drugs, racism and disillusionment were replaced by a wank-a-log of superficial, pointless, middle-class “problems”, inconsequential relationships and breakups, and needlessly worried black parents. Even the songs from the original were depressingly absent.

The set-pieces were damp squibs, they were more about tits-n-ass than production values or choreography. The cardboard-cut-out so-called characters failed to develop in the audience even one iota of engagement or interest. The dialogue descended into meaningless drivel or saccharine monologues (“success is love” – “if you don’t open up you’ll never be an actor”). The camerawork was lazy, and like the rest of the film insulted the viewer’s intelligence.

10 minutes in, I asked myself, “is this as good as it gets?” Sadly, it was. An hour later I asked Bina007 whether I’d fallen asleep during the part that contained the point. She confirmed that I hadn’t, and she suggested we leave. Stupidly I declined. We waited until the bitter end, and were rewarded with an unintentionally hilarious finale, complete with slow-motion ballet to a song called “Don’t Be Afraid to Succeed!” I laughed – but the £8.50 I’d spent on a ticket wasn’t laughing with me.

Perhaps most damningly of all, an hour later as Mrs Plainview and I wrote this review, neither of us could remember a single name of a single character in the movie. The only disagreement we had was when Mrs Plainview thought the strapline to this review should be: "gives a bad name to the word 'shite'" As you can see I over-ruled her, but still went for a suitably poo-based slogan.

This was execrable. Rent the original on DVD, or better still, buy the “Best of the 80s” CD from Woolworths Online, turn up your ghetto-blaster, put on a red head-band and rock away. Whatever you do, don’t go and see this – it’s the worst film I’ve seen this year – and by far the most awful remake I’ve ever seen.

Really, truly shocking.

FAME is on release in the USA, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Canada, Estonia and Singapore. It opens next week in Greece, Israel and Belgium. It opens in October 7th in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Iceland, Italy and Sweden. It opens on October 15th in Slovenia, Brazil, Cyprus, Finland and Norway. It opens on October 30th in Austria and Spain. It opens on November 19th in Germany and Bulgaria. It opens on December 10th in Russia and on January 7th in the Czech Republic.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

SURROGATES - weakly plotted sci-fi thriller

There have been a couple of movies recently that tackle the issue of avatars and virtual relationships. In GAMER, an updated version of RUNNING MAN, the ability to pilot real-life chip-implanted humans brings out the worst in humanity. As with today’s plain vanilla internet, advanced IT is used most commonly to allow humans to indulge vices as old as time. You can disapprove of the nasty, misogynistic, bleak depiction of humanity at the core of GAMER, but sad to say, the numbers support it. By contrast, the new Bruce Willis sci-fi thriller SURROGATES, posits a world in which the ability to pilot robot avatars has resulted in a safer, if anodyne, world. Humans have retreated to their pyjamas and their lounges, steering robots through life instead. Of course, the robots are our younger, idealized selves, but the exploitation at the heart of GAMER is absent. Indeed, in a world full of robots, crime rates have dropped dramatically. There is, however, a resistance movement that wants humans to get back into actual contact with each other. The plot of the movie sees two cops (Bruce Willis and Radha Mitchell) hunting for a new weapon that has been used to kill real people by killing their surrogates. The existence of such a weapon threatens the very point of having surrogates in the first place – cocooning people from harm. There are some shenanigans involving the resistance movement and the original creator of the surrogates (James Cromwell) - and stakes so high, and motivation so iillogical, as to be ludicrous. It's all as uninteresting as the premise of a crime-free robot-induced future is unbelievable. The only impressive thing about the film is the make-up. They really did a great job of creating the life-like but ever-so-slightly plastic look of the surrogates.

SURROGATES is on release in Australia, Hong Kong, Israel, Kazakhstan, Russia, Canada, Poland, Turkey, the UK and the US. It opens next week in Egypt, Hungary, singapore, South Korea, Bulgaria, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. Itopens on October 9th in the Czech Republic, Brazil, Denmark and Estonia. It opens on October 15th in the Netherlands and Spain. It opens on October 22nd in New Zealand, Slovenia and the Ukraine. It opens on October 28th in Belgium, france, Argentina and Portugal. It opens on November 5th in Greece and Italy. It opens on January 5th in Italy; January 21st in Germany and January 22nd in Japan.

Friday, September 25, 2009


Finally! After what seems like endless twee, smug, in-love-with-their-own-kookiness hipster rom-coms, with about as much authentic emotion as a Barbie doll, along comes a quiet little independent movie called MANAGEMENT. Part bittersweet relationship drama, part broad comedy, the movie is hard to define (and presumably hard to market). Sometimes characters do crazy cute things that only really happen in rom-coms. Some characters are so exaggerated they couldn't possibly exist in the real world. But for every purely funny scene, there's a scene of real emotional warmth and truth.

Jennifer Aniston plays Sue Clauson - a really nice woman who's somehow still single and fills up her life with worthy causes. On a business trip she meets a guy called Mike, another lonely, nice person, stuck working in his parents; motel. The two hook up and so it should end, but Mike rather fantastically, and immaturely, starts following Sue across the country, finally parachuting into her pool and serenading her. She's stuck between being flattered by this insane "rom-com" behaviour and being creeped out by his semi-stalkerish immature antics. What I love about the film is that there is no quick Hollywood ending but actual personal growth. Jennifer Aniston in particular turns in a convincing, modulated performance, while Woody Harrelson and James Liao are very funny indeed.

MANAGEMENT played Toronto 2008 and was released earlier this year in the US, Israel, Iceland, Romania, Belgium, the Netherlands, Taiwan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Singapore and the Philippines. It opens today in the UK and on October 29th in South Korea.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

GAMER - sporadically interesting Running Man remake

GAMER is a remake of the seminal Schwarzenegger sci-fi flick, RUNNING MAN. It's set in a dystopian future, where sex and violence are commercialised in computer games, allowing obese couch potatoes to fuck beautiful women and teenagers to control ultra-violent prisoners in live-action shoot-em-ups. Why have a virtual avatar when you can remote control actual people? The game is controlled by billionaire Ken Castle (a typically mischievous Michael C Hall) and peopled by set-up con Kable (Gerard Butler) and his wife turned hooker Angie (Amber Valetta). As in the original flick, the action really takes off when the "running man", Kable, escapes the game, aided by revolutionaries (Ludcaris, Aaron Yoo and Alison Lohman).

Despite all the CGI, GAMER doesn't have the visceral thrills of the action sequences in RUNNING MAN - for a start, there are no ridiculous baddies - remember the ice-hockey guy with the chainsaw?! In fact, the action sequences were pretty dull, which has to count as a big negative in a summer action movie. It was more interesting seeing how the film-makers had updated the dystopian future to capture the full weirdness of modern gaming. In terms of style, I was pleased to see Neveldine calm down the frenetic style of the CRANK movies, delivering a film with a nice bleak, almost monochrome look, while retaining their ability to mesh computer graphics and standard live-action film. I also like the fact that this film has more layers to it than the CRANK films - simultaneously critiquing and glorying in the voyeurism and nastiness of modern entertaining culture. And let me not forgot, a song-and-dance sequence in which Michael C Hall plays to Sammy Davis Junior's I've Got You Under My Skin. Worth the price of entry alone!

GAMER is on release in Greece, Canada, Finland, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden, the USA, Belgium, Estonia, France, the Philippines, Russia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Cyprus, Denmark, Latvia, the UK, the Czech Republic and Austria. It opens next week in South Korea and Bulgaria. It opens in October in Brazil, the Netherlands, Iceland, Croatia and Lithuania. It opens on January 7th in Germany.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER - twee

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER is a hipster movie in love with its own kookiness. It thinks it’s being truthful about modern dating, and daring in its fantasy sequences. But what we really have is a romantic drama about a vapid, irritating woman and her schmuck of a boyfriend. The schmuck is played by Jospeh Gordon Levitt, taking a break from his typically grittier fare with an outing in G I JOE earlier this summer, and now this confection. He plays a greeting card writer and geek, who falls for the cute office girl. He wants a relationship – indeed he thinks he’s in one already. She refuses to “put labels on it”. You could interpret Zooey Deschanel’s character as emotionally scarred and, therefore, afraid of commitment, but then, right after dumping the schmuck, Summer marries another guy. The schmuck is understandably dismayed, as was I. It also doesn’t help that we don’t meet the guy who is so she’s suddenly so sure about it. Because of this rather opaque writing, the girl’s motives are unclear and her behavior hard to understand. The result is that, despite the innate charm of Zooey Deschanel, Summer came across as basically a bitch, and I just wasn’t interested in her, or in any man content to be screwed over by her. Harsh, but there it is.

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER played Sundance 2009 and opened earlier this year in the US and Canada. It is currently on release in the UK, Australia and Italy. It opens next week in the Netherlands and on October 1st in France, New Zealand and Taiwan. It opens on October 8th in the Czech Republic, Singapore and Turkey. It opens on October 22nd in Germany, Russia and Spain, and on October 30th in Finland and Norway. It opens in November in Belgium, Croatia, Brazil, Poland and Argentina. It opens in December in Slovenia and Estonia and on January 9th in Japan.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

DORIAN GRAY - a mess

In recent years, filmgoers have been treated to some rather lovely adaptations of Oscar Wilde's work, not least director Oliver Parker's AN IDEAL HUSBAND. Therefore, I was rather hopeful about Parker's adaptation of Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. However, Dorian Gray is a very different beast to Wilde's society plays. They dealt with issues of contemporary morality, certainly, but in light atmosphere. By contrast, Dorian Gray is a pyschological novel, dealing with debauchery and corruption, using the genre tropes of gothic horror. The key question was whether Oliver Parker's directing style - high-gloss Merchant Ivory with whimsical modern touches - would be flexible enough to grapple with a meatier book.

The novel opens in late nineteenth century London. Talented artist Basil Hallward falls in love with handsome young Dorian Gray while painting his picture. Of course, there is no crude declaration of love given that homosexuality is taboo, but sublimated "ownership" of Gray's social life. This is put under threat when Dorian becomes fascinated with Basil's friend Lord Henry Wootton - a man who, while a member of the British establishment at the height of Victorian prudery, preaches a life of unrestrained sensuality. Encouraged by the man he admires, falling prey to narcissism seeing the finished portrait, Dorian starts to value beauty and art above all else, casually wishing that he could remain as young and beautiful as his portrait. He callously rejects his young lover Sibyl Vane when her talent fades and learns that his casual wish has been fulfilled: the wages of sin show on the portrait but he remains outwardly youthful and innocent.

With this apparent freedom, Dorian degenerates into a life of excess and cruelty - sexual encounters straight and gay, and eventually to blackmail and murder. It is here that Wilde most brilliantly takes aestheticism to its logical conclusion - positing that crime is merely, as art, "a means of procuring sensation". Eighteen years later, returned from his travels, Dorian tries to turn his life around, looking to his portrait as the ultimate barometer of authentic repentance. In this latter portion of the book, we are privy to some of the most high-stakes soul-searching in modern literature. Wilde, an artist who turned his life into art, simultaneously warns us of the dangers of so doing - themes he later explored in De Profundis. A the end of novel, order is restored: art is restored, in its frame, beautiful - life is separated from it, real, variegated.

The new movie of Dorian Gray is, essentially, a failure. Director Oliver Parker and debutant screenwriter Toby Finlay, fail to translate the feeling of menace and corruption to screen, condensing crucial episodes (Sibyl Vane) and introducing new material that amps up the Hollywood action and romance for crass commercial reasons. Ben Barnes is mis-cast as Dorian. He just doesn't have the acting chops to depict inward moral disintegration in the way that, say, Al Pacino did in the GODFATHER movies. Colin Firth is also mis-cast as the corrupting Sir Henry Wootton. He just can't play sinister. Imagine how much better this movie would have been with Eddie Redmayne and Jeremy Irons in the lead roles. In terms of execution, the movie features some of the most unsexy orgy scenes since EYES WIDE OPEN and some of the cheapest CGI. The only plus points are the lovely costunes, settings and the breath of fresh air that is Rebecca Hall's performance as the newly invented daughter of Sir Henry.

DORIAN GRAY is on release in the UK and played Toronto 2009. It will be released in Italy on October 23rd, in Australia on November 12th and in Finland on Christmas Day.

Friday, September 18, 2009

JULIE & JULIA - boring and brilliant respectively

JULIE & JULIA has the dubious honour of being the first movie based on a blog - the blog of a thirty-year old failed writer called Julie, cooking her way through the legendary cookbook, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" by Julia Child. I say legendary, and there's even an SNL spoof by a young Dan Ackroyd showing how far this 6 foot 2, preppy woman had entered the American mainstream with her cooking show. I'd never heard of her.

The movie, written and directed by Nora Ephron of WHEN HARRY MET SALLY fame, is a bit of a mixed bag. To my surprise, I was utterly captivated by the story of Julia Child. Meryl Streep is absolutely enchanting as Julia - no-nonsense, up for any challenge, relentlessly optimistic, and yet hard-working too. In Paris after World War Two, she took Cordon Bleu courses designed for professionals and peopled by men. She studied hard, tested and tested recipes, honed her skills, and many years later received great success. All this with the unfailing support of her charming husband, Paul, a US diplomat, played by Stanley Tucci. They seemed to have a rather wonderful marriage, appreciating each other's eccentricities. Indeed, this is one of the most wonderful depictions of a happy marriage I have seen on screen (and stands in contrast to the mawkishness of AWAY WE GO.)

I would have loved a proper biopic of Julia Child. But, the price we pay for this new-found interest in Julia Child is dealing with Julie Powell, the blogger. Now I know that there is no little criticism of Julie Powell on the blogosphere - that she exploited Julia Child for fame* - but that strikes me as partly envious of her ensuing book deal, and overlooking the naive and casual ways in which most of us start blogging. Okay, she didn't study like Julia, and so maybe didn't deserve her success as much. But she never claimed to be a master chef. No, my objection to Julie Powell is more simple. She takes time away from Julia Child. A mousy Brooklyn wife, who can't really cook and throws temper tantrums and moans about how poor she is really isn't any competition for Julia Child - a pioneer, self-taught expert and true-life eccentric.

The result is a movie that's still worth watching, purely for the Streep-Tucci segments, but which is boring during the Amy Adams segments. My only other criticism is that, unlike BIG NIGHT, this movie never had me drooling over the food, and surely that's a must?

*Judith Jones, senior editor and vice president at Alfred A. Knopf, and Child's editor and friend, shared Child's sentiments with Publisher's Weekly: "Julia said, 'I don't think she's a serious cook.' ... Flinging around four-letter words when cooking isn't attractive, to me or Julia," Jones said. "She didn't want to endorse it. What came through on the blog was somebody who was doing it almost for the sake of a stunt."

JULIE & JULIA was released earlier this year in Canada, the USA, Germany and Austria. It is currently on release in the UK, France and Argentina. It is released next week in the Czech Republic and Estonia. It opens on October 2nd in Finland and Norway. It opens on October 9th in Australia, Bulgaria, Poland and Sweden. It opens on October 15th in Belgium, Hungary, the Netherlands, Russia, Singapore, Slovenia, the Ukraine, Brazil, Denmark, Romania and Taiwan. It opens on October 22nd in Greece, New Zealand, Iceland and Italy. It opens on October 30th in Croatia and Mexico. It opens on November 6th in Spain, on November 19th in Portugal and on November 28th in Japan.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Late review - LITTLE ASHES

LITTLE ASHES is a delicate little costume drama/biopic about Salvador Dali, Luis Bunuel and Federico Garcia Lorca. Set in an exclusive Madrid university in the period between World War One and the Spanish Civil War. Dali immediately stands out as the new boy because of his archaic dress, beautiful paintings and sensitive soul. Bunuel immediately spots his talents and introduces him to his set of iconoclastic cool kids, who reject establishment authority and want to live life to the full. Here, Dali meets Lorca, and, as alleged in Ian Gibson's biographies, they fall for each other, but Dali is too scared to actually consummate the relationship. He is, ultimately, more in love with himself.

The movie has a lot of things going for it. It looks beautiful, in the Merchant Ivory tradition of beautiful people in beautiful costumes and beautiful settings. Javier Beltran is wonderful as Lorca and Robert Pattinson doesn't disgrace himself as Dali. Problem is, the movie is as repressed as the lovers themselves in dealing with homosexuality, and while a pleasant enough watch, never gets to grips with its subject matter.

LITTLE ASHES was released in Spain, the US and UK in May 2009 and is available on DVD and on iTunes.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

ADVENTURELAND - surprsingly sensitive

ADVENTURELAND is a quiet little drama focusing on the love-lives of a bunch of teenagers working in the eponymous lo-rent amusement park for a summer in the late 80s. Indeed, it's such a sweet, real film that it's hard to believe it was directed by the same guy who made the crass SUPERBAD. Jesse Eisenberg (THE SQUID AND THE WHALE) plays a nice kid, smart, with dreams of summer travelling through Europe. When his parents can't pony up the cash, he ends working in an amusement park. He falls for an emotionally distant girl called Em (Kristen Stewart), who despite her difficulties is also intelligent and sensitive. But, true to life, our hero is distracted by the standard-issue hot chick egged on by the guy (Ryan Reynolds) who Em is already seeing. I love this film because it feels real - anyone who's spent a summer working a shitty job, feeling that their life is on hold, feeling under-appreciated can relate. And anyone who's ever made a dumb decision in a relationship, knowingly, but unable to resist can relate to. Jesse Eisenberg impresses again, but it's Kristen Bell who really struck me as a good actress, in a nuanced performance so much more interesting than that TWILIGHT schtick.

ADVENTURELAND played Sundance 2009 and opened in the US, Canada, Turkey, Australia, Iceland, Argentina, South Africa, Estonia, Italy, Romania, Hungary, Ecuador and Germany earlier this year. It is currently on release in the UK and opens in Spain in two weeks time.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

AWAY WE GO - twee

AWAY WE GO is a great step forward for Sam Mendes, whose previous directorial efforts (AMERICAN BEAUTY, REVOLUTION ROAD) have been story-boarded and designed to within an inch of their lives. In this film, he hangs loose, allowing his story and characters room to breathe. The movie looks and feels lo-rent, almost casually thrown together, rather than distracting us with a high-gloss finish. Great.

Problem is, Sam Mendes hasn't moved beyond his other fatal flaw as a director - being patronising. I have yet to see a Mendes movie that does carry with it an air of smug self-satisfaction. AWAY WE GO features John Krasinki and Maya Rudolph - two actors better known for comic roles on TV - in a semi-serious character driven drama. They are well-adjusted, right-thinking, warm-hearted, in-love and pregnant. When his parents decided to move to Antwerp on the eve of the birth of their child, this prompts a crisis. Well, no, they are too banal to ever have a crisis. Rather, the young couple are concerned that they haven't figured out how and, indeed, where, to live. So follows a road trip, visiting friends and family, hoping to learn.

The couple are basically good people (and indeed, are portrayed by good actors). As shown here, they don't really have anything to learn. This is a road-trip with no real emotional journey. The couple are confronted with a series of increasingly caricatured couples, and it's a no-brainer that these are not the guys to learn from. In particular, the hippie couple depicted by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Josh Hamilton were so absurd they completely took me out of the film. And then it all winds up with an ending that is as schmaltzy as it unbelievable.

AWAY WE GO was released earlier this year in the US, Canada, Greece, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Israel and the Netherlands. It is currently on release in the UK and opens next week in Belgium. It opens in October in Finland, Norway, Germany, Australia, and Romania. It opens in November in New Zealand, Portugal, Sweden, Argentina and Spain. It opens in Russia on December 10th.

Monday, September 14, 2009


The number one movie at the US box office this week is I CAN DO BAD ALL BY MYSELF. With an estimated budget of USD13m, it has already grossed USD27m. But this film is unlikely to be released in the UK, catering as it does to what the studios might have termed a niche market, African-Americans, until they saw the numbers. So, in order to get a peek at this apparent phenomenon, I took a look at writer-director-actor Tyler Perry's previous film, MADEA GOES TO JAIL.

As with BIG MOMMA'S HOUSE and too many Eddie Murphy films to name, MADEA GOES TO JAIL features Tyler Perry in prosthetics as an old, fat, black woman, with an "anger-management problem" and a brutally simple philosophy on life: don't blame people, don't be the victim, suck it up, fight your corner, and get on with your life. Her segment of the film sees Perry/Madea refuse to turn over a new leaf and go to Church, finally ending up in jail, where she rules the roost. The segment is played for broad laughs - Madea trashing the car of a woman who stole her parking space - and mostly works. In particular, there is very funny and indeed, very clever scene where Madea goes to therapy with Dr Phil.

The strange thing is that rather than just create a broad comedy that's all Madea's own, Tyler Perry chooses to create a movie that is tonally very different indeed. Worse still, those two movie are inter-cut with each other with hardly any relationship to each other, until almost the last fifteen minutes of the film. In this second segment, Derek Luke plays a warm-hearted DA whose ambitious girlfriend resents his involvement with an old friend turned prostitute and drug addict. This segment is very earnest but also very preachy indeed and speaks to why Perry is so popular with the Christian community. It preaches, quite literally, getting clean, moving on, and allowing Jesus to save us.

I'm not entirely sure why the movie has been so derided by the critics. Each segment works well on its own terms, and it's rather nice to see a film-maker who actually cares about the message he is giving and the audience he is catering to. And if the two segments sit uneasily together for mainstream sensibilities, it reminded me very much of the kind of genre-shifts Bollywood has been dealing in for decades. The idea being that, if you want people to pay over their hard-earned dollars in the cinema, you need to give them a little of everything.

MADEA GOES TO JAIL was released in the US in February 2009.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Overlooked DVD of the month - THE KILLING ROOM

Director Jonathan Liebesman followed up DARKNESS FALL and TCM: THE BEGINNING with a quiet psychological thriller called THE KILLING ROOM. It's an austere, tightly made, well-acted film that, while mining familiar material, still manages to hold our attention. The movie takes the same kind of approach as DAS EXPERIMENT - creating a fictional exploration of a real psychological experiment - in this case, the CIA's infamous MK Ultra programme. In the real life version, "volunteers" were subjected to mind-control experiments, often drug-induced, of the kind that led to Manchurian candidates. In this fictionalised version, four men have volunteered for a medical experiment run by the ruthless Dr Phillips (Peter Stormare) and the ambitious but morally uncertain Miss Reilly (Chloe Sevigny). They have to solve puzzles, and the man with the least correct guess is summarily executed. The prisoners try to outwit the system, and even escape, while the audience try to figure out what purpose such a sadistic experiment could serve. I liked the stark production design, gathering sense of claustrophobia, and Timothy Hutton's performance as one of the "volunteers". This movie is well worth a watch.

THE KILLING ROOM played Sundance 2009 and went straight to DVD.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

YEAR ONE - sporadically, funnier than I'd been led to believe

YEAR ONE had such a critical basting that I didn't bother watching at first. Good news is that it's really not as unwatchable as I'd been led to believe. Indeed, there were scenes I really liked. Maybe it's just a question of low expectations?

The movie is basically a puerile comedy vehicle for Jack Black and Michael Cera. They start of as a couple of Neanderthals, a hunter and a gatherer respectively. The best contextual and verbal humour is found in these early scenes, and I though Black and Cera worked well together. Both have crushes on girls they can't get so Black eats the forbidden apple from the tree of knowledge. This catapults them into a biblical epic, which the movie then tries to spoof. The Cain and Abel is pretty unfunny and underwritten, but the movie picks up when the protagonists end up Sodom. There's a brief skit by Hank Azaria as Abraham, but the real humour in this session comes from Oliver Platt as a libidinous High Priest.

Overall, I'd say the movie really is worth DVD and pizza night, if entirely forgettable. Still, you'd have hoped that actors of the profile of Jack Black and Michael Cera could find scripts that weren't essentially strung-together skits of variable quality.

YEAR ONE is on release in Australia, Iceland, the USA and the UK. t opens later in July in Finland, Sweden, Portugal, Denmark and Norway. It opens in August in Belgium, Egypt, France, Brazil, Bulgaria, South Africa, Spain, Argentina, Germany, New Zealand and Singapore. It opens in September in the Czech Republic, Greece, Russia, Estonia, Hong Kong and the Netherlands. It opens in October in Italy, Mexico, and Romania.

Friday, September 11, 2009

SORORITY ROW - cinematic pot noodle

SORORITY ROW is cheap and nasty. Still, once in a while, typically after a few drinks when there's nothing else in the house and you need to carb up, it's just what you need. It is, in short, a guilty pleasure.

So when I tell you that I had a surprisingly good time watching SORORITY ROW, you'll see where I'm coming from. This movie is pure trash - full of gratuitous tit shots; a risible plot; unscary scary scenes.... It's a slasher movie so bad, it has to be deliberate. But, in the spirit of honesty, it's only fare to 'fess up and say that I laughed hard and long watching SORORITY ROW and positively bounced out of the cinema. And no, before you ask, it had nothing to do with the large gin and tonic at The Imperial beforehand.

The plot is simple. At the start of the university year, a practical joke goes badly wrong and a bunch of sorority sisters hush up the death of their friend, dumping her body rather than call in the cops and getting bounced out of school. Fast forward to graduation day and someone is killing anyone who knows the secret. Is Megan back from the dead? Is her little sister seeking vengeance?

Production values are pretty decent. Indeed, there's an impressive tracking shot that takes us through the sorority house during the opening night party. The acting is also fairly decent, given how hard it is to say so-bad-it's-good lines with a straight face. Perhaps most surprising is that Rumer Willis (daughter of Bruce and Demi) is fine - although she pretty much only has to whimper for the whole film. Best of all, we have Carrie Fisher in a cameo as the House Mother in full on psycho-bitch mode. Genius. As you can imagine, it's the willingness of the movie to spoof its own target demographic that makes it a success. Basically, it's an exercise in depicting - nay lavishing in - the Daily Express' vision of hell: promiscuous teenagers, high on booze and drugs, with too much money, too few scruples, and high-speed internet connections.

We've seen the future, and it's wearing a crystal lip-gloss, a mini-dress, and driving daddy's Porsche Cayenne over a troublesome ex-.

SORORITY ROW is on release in the UK, Australia, Canada and the USA. It opens in two weeks time in Brazil. It opens on October 8th in the Czech Republic and Singapore; October 15th in Argentina; October 22nd in the Netherlands and Venezuela; November 5th in Russia; and November 19th in Portugal.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

G. I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA - cinematic TVR

The British, god bless us, do many things well, but building sports cars isn't one of them. We used to build a car called the TVR - a car so uncool it's name was a shortened version of "Trevor" - a car so insane it put a v8 engine inside a light-weight chassis - a car so loud and shouty that Jeremy Clarkson famously said of it, "it will kill you". Further, "my wife loves this car. She loves the noise and the vibrations and the sense of danger and the way that when you over-rev it, the whole dash lights up like a baboon's backside. Richard Hammond on the other hand, he pretty much hates it. He says its too difficult and too complicated and that all the stitching in here looks like the kind of stitching you find when someone's tried to mend their own shoes."

I feel the same way about G I JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA. Your teenage kid brother might like it, but what does he know, eh?

G I JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA isn't so bad, it's good. It's so bad, period. Much like the TRANSFORMERS flicks, similarly spawned from shitty kids toys, the movie is heavy on ludicrous CGI special effects and loud-shouty battle scenes. In the brief spaces when the fighting stops, there's a lot of rather convoluted plot crammed in. Essentially, there are bunch of baddie arms dealers who've created nano-bot super-soldiers. On the other side, there are a bunch of tooled up soldiers who are trying to stop them. In the middle, there's a chick who used to be in love with the good guy but who is know kicking ass for the baddies. But hey, apparently even a woman scorned can't resist beefcake Channing Tatum.

The resulting movie is just no fun. It's actually pretty boring being brutalised by non-stop loud battle scenes. All of which is a crying shame, because idiotic, puerile premise apart, this movie has pedigree. The DP is Mitchell Amundsen, of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE III, BOURNE SUPREMACY, and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN fame. The script was written by Stuart Sommers, who wrote the far funnier MUMMY movies. Not to mention the fact that you have people who can actually act - Joseph Gordon Levitt, Christopher Eccleston - in major roles. God knows why they went for this flick. Let's hope they, Tatum, Miller et al, have paid for their respective new houses and can now all get back to the indie flicks they're known for.

G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA is on global release.

Sunday, September 06, 2009


If BROKEN EMBRACES weren't by Almodovar, would it still be as highly praised by critics? I have great respect for Almodovar - I loved his crazy, transgressive early comedies and melodramas - TIE ME UP, TIE ME DOWN; WOMEN ON THE EDGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN, and respected inestimably his more recent, mature, dramas - BAD EDUCATION, VOLVER. To my mind, ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER and TALK TO HER are masterpieces. By contrast, BROKEN EMBRACES was unengaging, and sometimes, unforgivably, dull.

To be sure, BROKEN EMBRACES is as technically accomplished and well-acted as anything that Almodovar has ever done. And it contains all those classic Almodovar thematic concerns and audacious tricks. Within five minutes of opening, a blind screen-writer called Harry Caine (Lluis Homar) has picked up a pretty young girl and joyously fucked her on his couch. It's classic Almodovar - with a cheeky shot of a foot over a sofa replacing the typical Hollywood soft focus sex scene. Ten minutes later your into another classic Almodovar scene, as people come and go from Caine's flat, ringing the doorbell, like a British theatrical farce. Chief among them is Caine's production manager, Judit (Blanca Portillo), from the time when he was a sighted directer called Mateo Blanco. Evidently, she still carries a torch for him. Thirty minutes in and we get our mandatory Almodovar drugs scene, as Judit's son Diego (Tamar Novas) OD's. There's also the standard vengeful, creepy homosexual, in the shape of Ruben Ochandiano's Ray X.

But what does all this speak to? Certainly, there's no real reason to spend time with an OD'ing Diego. It's all a framing device for the heart of the story, which takes place in 1992 and is told in flashback by Mateo/Harry to Diego. Back then, Mateo had an affair with Lena, the leading lady in a movie rather similar to WOMEN ON THE EDGE. She (Penelope Cruz) was a failed actress, prostitute, and mistress of a rich, old industrialist called Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez). The story is about how the jealousy of Martel is abetted by his voyeuristic son and Judit, with tragic consequences.

That's it. I was amazed by how, well, THIN, the story really was. And how unengaged I was by it. Despite some energetic sex scenes, there is precious little sexual tension between Penelope Cruz' character and either of her lovers, and despite the fact that she was evidently a vulnerable and wronged women, for some reason I didn't feel any sympathy with her. The only character that really worked for me on a raw, gut level, was Blanca Portillo's jealous ex-lover Judit - the only really stand-out performance.

To be sure, Almodovar weaves a lot of intellectually interesting material around the hollow centre of the film. And for hardened cineastes this may be enough to sustain interest. The allusions to his own back catalogue, as well as other Hollywood and European classics and clever. The examination of double identity - Mateo Blanco/Harry Caine - Lena/Severine - the movie-within the movie - the taped tristes/the protagonist dubbing it - are all slippery, clever, and daring.

But as much as I appreciated all this on an intellectual level, my over-riding impression was still of a film that was below par for Almodovar, if not still well above the standard of your typical Hollywood fare.

BROKEN EMBRACES played Cannes 2009 and opened earlier this year in Spain, Belgium, France, Israel, Russia, Germany and Austria. It is currently on release in Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands and opens next weekend in the UK. It is released in September in the Czech Republic, Norway, Croatia, Portugal, Brazil, Hungary and the Ukraine. It is released in October in Argentina, Italy,, Greece, Estonia and Mexico. It is released in the US in late November and in Australia in December.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Late review - LAND OF THE LOST

The problem with LAND OF THE LOST is that it doesn't know what kind of a movie it wants to be, and so it ends up being an nothing at all. It's not a kids adventure with crazy CGI in the manner of JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH. It's not a successful spoof of a much-loved TV series, in the manner of STARSKY AND HUTCH. It's not a faux-naif comedy in the manner of PINEAPPLE EXPRESS. Bottom line: it's just not entertaining.

The writers and director have radically changed the source-text. Instead of having a normal family trapped in an alternate dimension, as in the TV show, they have Will Ferrell playing his typical "love-able" loser, this time manifested as a crack-pot scientist. Anna Friel plays his more sensible assistant. They take his latest invention into a decaying theme park ride, run by Danny McBride, playing that typical Danny McBride effeminate, wise-ass, and all three are sucked into another dimension where dinosaurs roam the sands, and a monkey-man called Chaka helps them out.

By this point, I was bored beyond belief. Stuff happens. I got to thinking about the Will Ferrel persona. I mean, there is something seriously creepy about watching a middle-aged man play his brand of narcissistic, self-destructive loser again and again. It's not funny so much as disturbing. He needs a new act and/or to be better constrained within a better-written script.

LAND OF THE LOST was released earlier this year in Canada, the US, Australia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Singapore, Ukraine, New Zealand, Kuwait and Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Argentina, Chile, the UK, Spain and Mexico. It opens in September in the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Norway, Romania, Sweden and Portugal. It opens in October in Germany, the Netherlands, and Finland. It opens in November in Denmark and in December on Italy, Belgium and France.

Friday, September 04, 2009


Nikhil Advani, director of Bollywood weepie KAL HO NAA HO, and love story, SALAAM-E-ISHQ, returned in early 2009 with a glossy, US-backed, Bollywood love-story-comedy-martial arts flick called CHANDI CHOWK TO CHINA. A vehicle for ageing comedy hero Akshay Kumar, and up-coming actress Deepika Padukone, the movie is there to show us that Bollywood can do wire-fu too.

The plot is simple - too simple for a 150 minute film. Kumar plays his standard rough and ready hero with a heart of gold. He's a poor cook with bad luck. But all that changes when some Chinese people believe him to be the reincarnation of an old Chinese hero, who should return to their village and defeat the gangster who is controlling their lives. On the way, Kumar's character meets an Indian model who is also on her way to China, where her twin sister is now working for the aforementioned gangster. Naturally (!) the hero learns that all those years dicing potatoes were, "wax on, wax off" styl-ee, the perfect training to be a martial arts legend.

The problem with this film - as in most modern Bollywood films - is that the concept, the songs, and the look - are more important to the film-makers than the actual story. Indeed, I am not surprised in the least to know that the film's teaser poster - Akshay Kumar in a Chinese outfit - was the inspiration for the storyline, rather than the other way around. The sets are glossy, the martial arts lean heavily on CGI and wire-fu, the songs (Shankar Mahadevan) are forgettable, and I'm starting to become really embarrassed for Hollywood stars who ape rappers and MTV videos.

Overall, in the whole 150 minutes the only real fun I had was in two scenes. In the first, the hero finds "the face of hanuman" in a potato and people start worshipping it - great satire. In the second, the heroine attaches a dance-gadget to the heroes legs, and Kumar does a little skit ape-ing Bollywood hits of the past. Kumar is good at physical comedy. He's less convincing as an action hero. He should leave the wire-fu to Hrithik Roshan. I am deeply unconvinced by Padukone's talent.

CHANDI CHOWK TO CHINA was released in January 2009 and is available on DVD.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Pantheon movie of the month - ERASERHEAD

David Lynch - master of surreal suburban horror. Things that seemed egregious and silly to reviewers of his first feature back in 1977 (check out the dismissive, excoriating review in VARIETY) now seem like early examples of style and themes that have been consistently mined over his career. To my shame, I hadn't seen ERASERHEAD until yesterday despite being a hard-core Lynch fan. (Two weeks ago, some friends and I did a Twin Peaks Series 1 marathon - Series 2 is next weekend).

What shocked me was how much now-classic Lynchian tropes were present in ERASERHEAD and how, even in his first film, he managed to find a perfect balance between beauty and horror. Take the haunting song sung by the deformed Lady in the Radiator. It's as beautiful as the song Donna and Maddie sing with James in Twin Peaks but far more unsettling. Even the design is similar to later works - little things like the pattern on the floor, or the style of dress.

The plot sees a repressed man with iconically frizzy hair father a deformed child, perhaps the result of the machinations of the Man in the Planet. The mother leaves him, unable to cope with the child's mournful crying. The father is plagued with nightmares in which his severed head is sold to a pencil company to be used as erasers. He has an affair with the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall, who then cuckolds him. In a fit of pique, the father unwraps the swaddling bandages of his baby, only to find that they are part of the baby's flesh. In an electrical storm, he is transported to another place with the Lady in the Radiator.

It's pointless to try and lay down what all this means. Far better to linger on the nightmarish, Freudian images of a father threatened by his own offspring - visions of impotence - the dread of suburban family existence - the possibility of spiritual salvation.

This movie is source-gold for Lynchians, and I suspect, more annoying to non-Lynchians, than anything else in his oeuvre. It's obscure, but in a manner that provokes emotional, visceral responses, as opposed to the more opaque, and frustrating INLAND EMPIRE. It has been referenced by tens of films, its music has been covered by many a band, and it was reputedly one of Kubrick's favourite films. It prompted the offer to direct ELEPHANT MAN and also, rather bizarrely RETURN OF THE JEDI. You can see a lot in ERASERHEAD, but I'm not sure whether you can see anything to make you think of cute cuddly Ewoks.

ERASERHEAD was released in 1977, after a five-year, cash-constrained shoot.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

THE FINAL DESTINATION: 3D - Freakin Hilarious!

THE FINAL DESTINATION: 3D is not a movie. It doesn't really have a plot. It's just a silly, flimsy framework for hilarious, cinematic, set-piece, 3-dimensional deaths - and in that limited way it's a huge success.

Sure, if we'd seen the 2D version we've have been hugely disappointed. The film really was very, very dumb. But the 3D made it absolutely fantastic. I laughed raucously all the way through. There's nothing funnier than seeing a trailer-trash NASCAR fan getting her entire body crushed by a flying 12-valve petrol engine landing plum on her torso - in brilliant 3D - with blood and shit flying out of the screen at you. It really is that sort of "entertainment".

So as long as you're not expecting anything clever or high quality, and you're willing to spend that extra penny on 3D Glasses at the cinema, you're likely to pass a very silly and enjoyable hour and a half. On the other hand, if you like your films with a story that makes sense, and characters with substance, and you don't get a vicarious thrill from seeing people getting exploding nails driven into their skulls, then this isn't the film for you.

Otherwise, sit back and enjoy!

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Overlooked DVD of the month - TOKYO SONATA

Japan is the only country where the unemployment rate has a positive correlation with the suicide rate. From such a statistic, J-horror director turned dramatist, Kiyoshi Kurosawa carves a story of a contemporary Japanese family in emotional crisis. Typically authoritarian father and salary man, Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) cannot bear the loss of face involved in telling his family that he has lost his job. Similarly, repressed housewife Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi) cannot bear to tell her husband that she knows he now has a job as a lavatory cleaner. Their sons try to find meaning in a society based on rules of appearance and repression. Elder son Taka (Yu Koyanagi) is so desperate for purpose he joins the US Army and younger son Kenji (Inowaki Kai) deceives his parents by taking piano lessons.

The direction and framing capture the ennui and embarrassment of modern life - of people psychologically buckling under the weight of societal expectations. It's a simultaneously beautiful and disturbing film - anchored by a searing performance from Kyoko Koizumi as the mother. The only mis-step is a third act filled with action that borders on absurd, but all is forgiven with a painfully beautiful resolution of sorts, with perhaps the best use in film of Clair de Lune.

TOKYO SONATA played Cannes, where it won the Un Certain Regard prize, and Toronto 2009 and was released in Japan last year. It is available on DVD.