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 Skarsgård 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.