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