Saturday, February 27, 2010

LOVE HAPPENS - undeserved

LOVE HAPPENS is the excruciatingly dull and self-important debut feature from writer-director Brandon Camp. It features Aaron Eckhart as a self-help guru who coaches grieving Americans on how to reclaim their lives. Irony being that he has yet to confront the death of his own wife. He will do this through his nascent romance with an earnest florist (Jennifer Aniston in a beanie hat and pigtails, which is how we know she's earnest and tree-hugging). Their budding romance is egged along by her quirky girlfriend (a typecast Judy Greer). The final act emotional breakthrough is nursed along by the grieving father-in-law (Martin Sheen). In a movie filled with trite one-liners about the grieving process, and written to a quality that is undeserving of its profound subject matter, the only really authentic emotion is expressed by John Carroll Lynch (SHUTTER ISLAND) in his role as a grieving father.

LOVE HAPPENS was released last autumn and is available on DVD.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

SHUTTER ISLAND - the auteur's B-movie

SHUTTER ISLAND is a psychological horror film directed by Martin Scorsese and based on the popular 2003 novel by Denis Lehane. This faithful adaptation is a self-consciously old-fashioned sort of an enterprise, set in a maximum security prison for the criminally insane, in 1950s America. It deals very deeply in notions of personal and national guilt – denial and repression. The protagonist is a veteran soldier turned Federal Marshall called Teddy Daniels (Leonardo di Caprio). He has been three two traumas – being present at the liberation of Dachau, and having his wife die in an arson attack on their apartment. Nominally, he has come to Shutter Island to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a female patient/prisoner called Rachel Salondo. His real agenda is to investigate the whereabouts of the man who killed his wife though - he protests – not to take revenge – and to investigate what really happens in Ward C. The central puzzle of the film is what is the agenda of the employees of Shutter Island, not least the lead psychologists (the superbly sinister Sir Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow.)

SHUTTER ISLAND is a profoundly odd film. Just as with THE SHINING it sees an A-list auteur apply his talent to a B-movie genre – the brooding psychological thriller. All the way through the movie, I found myself being brought out of the film by the sheer quality of Martin Scorsese’s framing or Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing. I was also deeply impressed by the sophistication of the intellectual material – the conflation of personal and political guilt. But somehow, the sheer quality of the thematic material and its production mitigated against the hyper-real construction of a sinister atmosphere, through Robbie Robertson’s careful use of Mahler and the fictively sombre grey clouds hanging over the eponymous prison island with its gothic central house and proto-fascist civil war prison fort. It also mitigated against my emotional involvement with the film. Thus scenes that should be downright petrifying or deeply emotionally moving were neutered by their subvention to the tricky plot.

The movie is thus, at times, deliberately bad – especially in its opening sequences – with its self-consciously over-the-top weather effects and ludicrously over-bearing score. It is also at times extremely good – so good that it breaks the B-movie veneer. In particular, I would cite the flashback scenes to Dachau, especially the mass execution, which plays like a sort of demented ballet. At other times, Scorsese seems to be reaching for something darker and more twisted than I have seen him wrestle with before, but basically fail in that task. The way in which he treats the hallucinations and warped memories of his protagonist is beautiful and bizarre. But it brings to mind comparison with BUG and David Lynch’s recent work – not least MULHOLLAND DRIVE. I couldn’t help but wonder what a less faithful and more free-wheeling treatment of the material might have looked like in the hands of someone like Lynch.

And this brings me to my final thought on SHUTTER ISLAND: it is, after all, a beautifully made but rather conventional treatment of the subject matter. Scorsese’s art is well-honed but he is somehow a prisoner of it. He hasn’t allowed himself to truly break free and show us something so unhinged as to utterly disturb us. Neither has he subverted the B-movie horror film in the way that a Quentin Tarantino did with World War Two films in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (a film which, by the way, looks better with each passing day).

SHUTTER ISLAND premiered at Berlin 2010. It was released last weekend in the US, Argentina, Argentina, Denmark, Georgia, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Russia, Bulgaria, Canada, Finland, Lithuania, Norway, Spain and Sweden. It is released this weekend in Belgium, France, the Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Israel, New Zealand, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Austria, Estonia, Iceland, Taiwan and Venezuela. It opens on March 5th in Switzerland, Hungary, Brazil and Italy. It opens on March 12th in the UK, Egypt, Mexico and Turkey. It opens on March 18th in South Korea and on March 26th in Poland. It opens in April 9th in Japan and on April 15th in Singapore.

Monday, February 22, 2010

PERCY JACKSON AND THE LIGHTNING THIEF - also not entirely unwatchable

Another movie that’s easy to deride is PERCY JACKSON AND THE LIGHTNING THIEF. The similarity of the source material and the fact that it shares the same director as the first two HARRY POTTER films have led many reviewers to call it “Harry Potter lite” or a Harry Potter rip-off. Certainly, you can see their argument. Percy Jackson is a boy who is “special” and that being “special” relates to his now absent father. His being special leads him to a special school where he will learn to use his secret powers, and to make two friends – a loyal but doltish boy and a much more clued-on girl. They will ultimately have to contend with another student who has conflicting loyalties, and to go on a quest for high stakes. They will be guided by a wise old teacher and their adventures will take place both in a magical realm and in our real world. The only difference is that Harry Potter is a wizard and Percy Jackson is the son of the Greek god Perseus, and is thus a demi-God. And rather than battling Voldemort, he is battling to restore to Zeus his bolt of lightning in order to prevent a war between Zeus and Hades. There are even similarities in the production design, largely because of the journeyman-like-quality of all Chris Columbus movies. He’s the go-to-guy if you want a movie to come in on time, on budget, to have some serviceable special effects and not do anything too crazy.

The resulting film is just fine. It’s not the sort of kids film that adults should go and see unless they are accompanying a small child, but I’m betting good money that any kid, bored in the school holidays, will have a good time watching this film.


Sunday, February 21, 2010

VALENTINE'S DAY - not entirely unwatchable

VALENTINE’S DAY is a romantic comedy along the lines of LOVE ACTUALLY – in which we follow a number of characters, all loosely connected, living in contemporary LA on Valentine’s Day. We have everything from a teenager trying to lose her virginity (Emma Roberts); to a serving officer home on leave (Julia Roberts); from a cynical “player” sports journalist (Jamie Foxx) to an old-romantic florist (Ashton Kutcher) and many many more besides.

It is easy to deride VALENTINE’S DAY. It is a movie that has been so carefully constructed in the Excel sheets of Hollywood producers that is feels about as real and alive as a frozen turkey twizzler. Every actor has been chosen for their essentially good looks and winning smile. Every character is broadly delineated as being wholesome and good and thus deserving of True Love or as being superficial and duplicitous and therefore only worthy of being Alone. It’s the sort of movie that pats itself on the back for being so liberal as to have a gay character but doesn’t have the balls to show him making out. There is no plot development that cannot be predicted well in advance and no satire that hasn’t had its rough edges smoothed down. It’s a movie so shiny and brightly coloured in makes LOVE ACTUALLY - with its depiction of at least two “good characters” who end up unloved at the end of it – seem spiky and socially aware.

Nonetheless, I can’t deny that I had a passably good time watching the film, in the same way that a can of coke is predictable, tasty at the time, but offers no nutritional value. In a rising tide of blandness, Queen Latifah delivers one truly superb line, Taylor Swift was surprisingly willing to play dumb, and Anne Hathaway is always good at pulling off vulnerability. As for the rest of the cast, there’s nothing to write home about. The only thing that really pissed me off was the gaff in the writing that had Bradley Cooper’s character flying coach on a fourteen hour flight when he’s rich enough to have a chauffeur-driven limousine. Please. That guy would’ve been safely ensconsed in his personal sleeper seat in Business rather than propping up Julia Robert’s dozing head.

VALENTINE'S DAY is on global release.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

THE LAST STATION - patronising and superficial

THE LAST STATION is a lavishly produced but patronising biopic of Leo Tolstoy's last years - when he was the world's most famous author, but had turned his back on literary fame to pursue a life as a natural philosopher and advocate of interior spirituality and an austere life of renunciation. The movie is written and directed by Michael Hoffman - a director with a somewhat patchy history. In the early 1990s, he directed the scabrous network TV satire SOAPDISH but then settled into much more banal fare such as the Clooney-Pfeiffer rom-com ONE FINE DAY and the warmly photographed but morally equivocal curio THE EMPEROR'S CLUB. THE LAST STATION is also a rather odd film. The warm glow of its lavish photography (Sebastian Edschmid) and the beautiful production design (Patrizia von Brandestein) lend the whole enterprise a Merchant-Ivory glow. Who wouldn't want to be sitting in the real Yasnaya Polyana drinking tea with jam and listening to opera? Everything is wonderfully appointed and nothing more so that the fine cast. There may be grumblings about Anthony Hopkins and Meryl Streep pulling out of their roles as the ageing Lev and his wife Sofya, but their replacements, Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren are no less weighty. And in his typical role as callow naive voyeur we have James McAvoy, fresh from his apparent success in ATONEMENT, as Lev's secretary Valentin. This being a sort of Merchant Ivory world in which weighty literary stuff slips easily down the throat, Valentin has a love interest - an independent young woman called Masha (ROME's Kerry Condon). Naturally, in a world where all intellectual brain-ache has been banished, we shall be led through the story by our charming ingenu Valentin, and have the larger issue of Love versus Rules thought through by Valentin and Masha.

The tragedy of this film is that it had the real locations and a fine cast and production team at its disposal but chose to create nothing more complicated than a soupy melodrama. Sofya is the matriarch who loves her husband and is proud of his fiction but is contemptuous of the men who would turn his Confession into dogma, and steal her children's inheritance into the bargain. This could have been tragic: a woman of genuine nobility and strength forced to flatter and manipulate and throw hysterics in order to be heard. But Helen Mirren's broad performance plays right out of the newspaper reports that Chertkov would've been planting. Plummer's Tolsoy could have been more tragic still - a deperately intelligent man who is forced to hurt the one he loves in order to move forward with what he thinks is his larger plan - or a tragic buffoon manipulated by the ideologues who want to use his name and claim the copyright on his novels. Who knows? Michael Hoffman makes him a jovial old cock, but nothing more. He never acts but is acted upon. It is a curious void at the centre of the film. I have little to say about the character of Valentin other than that this is a rather stereotypical role for McAvoy and rather unworthy of the opposing (and fictional) character Masha. Kerry Condon is impressive - the only actor who seems to be embracing some kind of truth, but she has little to do. And as for Paul Giamatti's Chertkov, wouldn't it have been more interesting to make him sympathetic? To have us believe that he genuinely cares for, and believes in, Tolstoy, rather than being a cartoon-villain puritan and chancer.

What I'm trying to say is that, at the start of this film, we have established the dramatic tension within ten minutes. Sofya loves Tolstoy and wants his attention and his money. Chertkov loves Tolstoy and wants his name and his money. Sofya shouts and schemes. Chertkov wheedles and schemes. Tolstoy hobbles about between the two and then carc's it in a provincial train station. If you want to make a movie on this subject matter that sustains itself for two hours you have to be willing to dig deeper into motives and to play in shades of grey. You have to be willing to roll up your sleeeves and deal in moral ambiguities as well as in moral certainties. You can't just loll about in beautifully photographed countryside bouncing the same argument back and forth like the world's most dull tennis match.

Additional tags: Michael Hoffman, Kerry Condon, Patrick Kennedy, John Sessions, Sergei Yevtushenko, Sebastian Edschmid, Patrizia von Bradenstein

THE LAST STATION played Telluride 2009 and was released in the US, Canada, Germany and Austria earlier this year. It is currently on release in the UK and opens next weekend in the Netherlands. It opens in Singapore on March 4th and in Switzerland on April 1st. Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer have been nominated both for Golden Globes and Academy Awards.

Friday, February 19, 2010

SOLOMON KANE - a near perfect piece of pulp entertainment

I love the CONAN films, and pretty much all Arnold Schwarzenegger flicks from the eighties in general. But CONAN is special. There's something deliciously disturbing about a woman like me (quasi-feminist, post-modern, intellectual snob) liking something so, well, unreconstructed in its full-on appreciation for strong men swinging swords in a battle for cosmic stakes painted in simplistic terms. Good and evil are tangible in the world of Robert E. Howard. So while I didn't know much about SOLOMON KANE going into the film, I knew enough: for this is another character created by Robert E. Howard, and in true pulp stylee, the resulting film is just astoundingly, unashamedly pure in its intentions. We are going to get a straightforward battle between good and evil fought for the ultimate stakes, and it will be waged by a fit guy with a multitude of weapons.

Solomon Kane is a sixteenth century aristocrat turned rebel warrior. Like St Augustine he has lived a life of pillage and murder upon the high seas, resulting in the Devil laying claim to his soul. Kane being no hippie vegetarian, he escapes the Devil and retreats to a monastery whereupon he repents and disavows violence. With steady purpose he sets off back to the West Country to his ancestral home, but finds that it has become over-run by sorcery and evil with a capital E (good piece of paedophobia involved). His dilemma is whether to forfeit his redeemed soul and take up the sword in order to vanquish evil.

The first thing to say is that this movie looks fantastic. It's all gothic horror - misty moors, muddy fields, craggy castles on clifftops. The cast look like Puritans have turned up in the middle of Mordor, with Solomon Kane looking distinctly like Aragorn and the evil thugs rather orkish. Mackenzie Crook of THE OFFICE looks particularly superb in a frightwig as a mad old priest and James Purefoy (Mark Anthony in HBO's ROME) looks every inch the convincing warrior with a crisis of conscience. They've even wheeled out Max von Sydow as Kane's father and Jason Flemying as the sorcerer Malachai with some very fruity face-grafitti.

The second thing to say is that despite the complete insanity of the plot - witches, sorcerers, pacts with the devil etc - everyone plays it straight. There's never a whiff of pastiche and somehow, the fact the actors all invest into it, means that we do too. I mean, the stakes are absurdly high here, but I never for a minute thought "Hold up! This is RIDONKULOUS!" Rather, I was genuinely fascinated to see how it would all play out, and felt genuinely sorry for this poor bastard who renounces violence and lives in genuine fear for his immortal soul but is caught in the worst of all Catch-22s.

Basically, SOLOMON KANE is just about as perfect as you can get for sword-swinging fantasy epic entertainment. I dock it half a mark for breaking the carefully constructed veil of plausibility by inserting a truly ludicrous CGI monster into the final act. It's even more annoying that writer-director Michael J Bassett did this, because when you look at the narrative, and the choice that has to be made to drive the denouement, you don't actually need the monster at all. The key point is that Kane has to make a choice, and a sacrifice. The struggle is internal, and the struggle against external ravenous beasties is secondary. Still, despite that minor hiccup, SOLOMON KANE remains an impressive and entertaining flick. I could happily watch it again, and I'm really hoping it makes enough phat cash that they greenlight the rest of the planned trilogy.

SOLOMON KANE played Toronto 209 and opened in France, Kazakhstan and Russia last Christmas. It opened earlier this year in Spain and the Philippines and is currently on release in the UK. It opens in the Netherlands on March 18th and in South Korea on March 25th. No US release date yet.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

THE WOLFMAN - anaemic

Joe Johnston, hack director of such memorable fare as HIDALGO, JURASSIC PARK III and THE ROCKETEER (oh yes!) creates another cine-clunker with his ill-conceived remake of the Curt Siodomak classic, THE WOLF MAN.

The story is simple. Innocent Lawrence Talbot is bitten by a werewolf on Blackmoor while investigating his brother's savage death. He has to fight to stop the beast, while battling with his own lycophagia, all the time being hounded by the police and the psychiatrists, and with the help of his brother's attractive fiancée, Gwen.

Neither gory enough to be convincing as horror, nor well-acted enough to be convincing as familial drama, the movie occasionally plays as a campy spoof. It's surprising to me that the production design is so hi-rent - with richly textured costumes, and decadent gothic sets. And yet, the make-up design for The Wolfman is distinctly unconvincing, running a close second to Ang Lee's bouncing luminous green HULK as the most implausible filmic creation. You watch the sub-par transformation scenes, and the Teen-Wolf-laughable Wolfman bounding across London and you're taken out of the movie immediately. And as for the acting, despite the high quality cast (Anthony Hopkins, Geraldine Chaplin, Benicio del Toro, Emily Blunt, Antony Sher), the performances seem flat and uninspired. Only Hugo Weaving, as a mis-placed Inspector Abberline, looks like he's having any fun at all.

What a waste of a fine cast. What a waste of the beautifully decorated sets, period costumes, and lush Danny Elfman score. What a waste of my time and money.

Additional tags: Joe Johnston

THE WOLF MAN is on global release in all bar Russia, Australia and Poland where it opens next weekend, Israel where it opens on April 1st and Japan where it opens on April 23rd.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG - the best of both worlds

Watching THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG is a deeply nostalgic experience. It reminds you of how wonderful the old Disney classics were, and the simple delights and warmth of hand-drawn animation. Just as in the good old days, this movie doesn't depend on post-modern pop-cultural references or 3-D gimmicks. Nope. Here we have a lovely story, charming characters, true love and some sweet songs. A charmingly earnest, hard-working waitress called Tiana kisses a charismatic but lazy Prince turned Frog. As they journey through the Bayou to have the voodoo overturned, the Prince learns that for the woman he loves, he'd be willing to work, or to sacrifice his own happiness. And so, true love blossoms, inspired by a sweet little Cajun firefly called Ray, who is in love with a star in the sky - an absolutely adorable side-plot. The lovers are aided in their journey by a trumpet-playing alligator called Louis - who is clearly inspired by Balou the Bear from THE JUNGLE BOOK, and wants to be human a little bit like King Louie from the same film. There's the aforementioned firefly Ray, who is so wonderful, and the wise old Mama Odie.

If nostalgic in style and feel and look, the movie is also nostalgic for a time when New Orleans was the old Big Easy, associated with beignets, Hot Jazz and A Streetcar Named Desire, rather than being a symbol of Federal incompetence. But at the same time, the movie is rather modern. It's not just that Disney has finally given us a coloured heroine, (though sneakily still sidestepping issues of economic inequality by setting the film in the 1920s). It's that it supplements the traditional wishing on a star with hard graft and shaping your own destiny. I like the new empowering Disney. But I like the old-fashioned hand-drawn Disney even more. Long may it continue!

Additional tags: Randy Newman, Anika Nonie Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David, Michael Leon Woolley, Ron Clements, John Musker

THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG is on global release bar Japan where it is released on March 6th.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Overlooked DVD of the month - PONTYPOOL

Okay. So the first thing you have to do is banish thoughts of a Welsh town. This Pobtypool is a town in Canada. And this film, PONTYPOOL, is a superbly claustrophobic, chilling little lo-budget horror flick from Canadian director Bruce McDonald. Based on the book by Tony Burgess, the movie takes place almost entirely within a small-town radio station, where a grizzled old DJ, Grant Mazzy, is stuck with his producer and studio manager on Valentine's Day, broadcasting his sardonic wit to local listeners. In a reverse of the Orson Welles War of the Worlds scenario, the radio station starts getting calls from listeners seeing savagery on the roads, and before they know it, they're hemmed in by infected zombies, who succumb to the infection by stumbling upon their words.

I love the fact that this is a film subverts the very concept of Talk Radio as quite literally an agent for broadcasting virulence. I love Stephen McHattie's charismatic central performance. (It reminded me of how when we saw Richard Jenkins in THE VISITOR, it was like we were really SEEING him for the first time, even though we'd seen him as a character actor in loads of films before that.) And I love the simplicity of the central conceit.

Definitely worth checking out on DVD.

PONTYPOOL played Toronto 2008 and was released in 2009 in Canada, Turkey, the UK and Austria. It is available on DVD.

Monday, February 15, 2010

INVICTUS - A Sports film by Basil Exposition

INVICTUS is a superficial, schmaltzy, by-the-numbers sports movie in which Clint Eastwood dumbs down the social and political history of South Africa, and completely fails to capture the excitement and brilliance of the 1995 Rugby World Cup. As you can tell, I'm pretty pissed off at having to have sat through two hours and fifteen minutes of this earnest but ham-fisted bilge. I will do my best to structure my anger into something like a meaningful review.

The plot is basic. It is 1995 in South Africa. Nelson Mandela is President of a nation still riven with racial tensions. He decides that he will, against all odds, unite the nation behind the South African rugby team, the Springboks, despite the fact that they are an icon of Apartheid. The Springbok captain, Francois Pienaar, responds to Mandela's faith in him, and through rigourous training, the team triumphs and wins the World Cup, against all odds.

The issues are complex. Mandela wants to unite his nation, but this is no hippie vegetarian love-in. He needs white South Africans to feel invested enough in the new South Africa to make it economically and socially viable. He may portray himself as a wise sage, forgiving all and inspiring all, but he is, after all, a former terrorist (no matter how righteous the cause), addressed by his followers as Comrade. Mandela has an interest in creating the image of the wise harmless old statesman that we see given back to us in this film. A better film would have portrayed a more complicated man.

The simplicity of the screenplay is even more evident in the handling of Chester Williams, the only black South African in the squad. He is a smiling docile sort of chap who ignores politics in the one line he is given. Did he really ignore it or was he forced to? How did he feel about the pressure put upon him? How did he feel to be injured in the opening game? We never know.

And what of the attitude of the white South Africans? In this film, they are portrayed as low-level racists - a bit pissed off - a bit disenfranchised - but basically willing to throw it all up for an inspiring Mandela speech and some free world cup tickets. The Francois Pienaar character barely has to move at all - he seems ripe for conversion to Mandela's rainbow nation cause. At one point, I thought the film might delve into the issue of race in the relationship between Pienaar and his more surly players - the players who refuse to sing the former ANC hymn, Nkosi sikelele Africa. But no, Pienaar asks them to sing the anthem; they refuse; game over. Nowhere do we see actual argument or soul searching or character development. All we get are some speeches from Mandela and a magical transformation into a nation united behind the team. The worst the opposition can muster are some pissed off looks.

In Eastwood's "exploration" of the new South Africa, deep social and racial issues are reduced to a pissed-off stand-off in the playground.

Enough for the conceptual weakness. What of the production? This is, basically piss-poor. Locations in Jo'burg and Cape Town are mixed up. Morgan Freeman can't do a South African accent. Matt Damon makes a better attempt but looks like a midget compared to the real Pienaar. Not trusting the innate tension of the sporting events, Eastwood tries to inject a weak thriller element into his film by having Mandela's security guards worry about an assassination attempt. Not trusting the intelligence of the audience, he has characters explain the significance of every single action three times over. The dialogue is hammy: the security guard literally says "Not on my watch." The style is ham-fisted: we see a little black kid trying to listen to the match on the white copper's car radio. And yes, sure enough, by the end of the match, the copper is holding the kid ahoist. And they all lived happily ever after.

Basically, as a cinema-goer you have to decide what you want the movies you watch to do for you. If you want film to skate over the surface of the difficulties in life, and to tell soothing stories - if you want cinema to be as bland and as obvious and as Mickey Mouse simplistic as a mug of Ovaltine, go ahead and watch INVICTUS. But you do have a choice. If you want to be challenged - if you want to think radical thoughts about the racial issues really present in South Africa, watch DISGRACE instead.

Finally, one last point. There are certain moments that you do not cut away from. You just leave the camera standing and let the power of the shot mesmerise the audience. The nine minute rape scene with Monica Bellucci in IRREVERSIBLE is one. The first solo dance scene with John Travolta in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER is another. You do NOT cut away from the Haka. You just let the All Blacks scare the shit out of you. That's the power - that's the thing that tells the audience that the Bokke are really up against it. Unless of course you are Clint Eastwood and you have no appreciation of rugby history and are merely shoe-horning a famous match into a schmaltzy sports flick genre picture.

INVICTUS is on global release.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Justifiably overlooked DVD of the month - I LOVE YOU, BETH COOPER

Truly execrable vehicle for HEROES' Hayden Panettiere in which High School nerd Denis confesses his love for hottie Beth Cooper in his valedictorian speech. As a direct result, Beth Cooper turns up at his house that night and the polar opposites end up spending time together. This movie is meant to be like THE BREAKFAST CLUB or CAN'T HARDLY WAIT - where disparate schoolkids ends up realising that there is more to each other than they thought before returning to life as normal. Problem is that the dialogue seems forced, the situation is by necessity contrived, there is very little humour beyond jokes about being nude, or getting an erection. There's none of the depiction of genuine insecurity and vulnerability that characterised the masterful works of John Hughes, and that leavened the crass humour in AMERICAN PIE. Avoid at all costs.

Additional tags: Hayden Panettiere, Paul Rust, Jack T Carpenter,

I LOVE YOU, BETH COOPER was released in summer 2009 and is available on DVD, though why you'd want to watch it, I don't know.

Saturday, February 13, 2010


ONG BAK 2 is the much anticipated follow-up to the 2003 break-out film for Thai martial arts actor Tony Jaa, who went on to star in the ridonkulous flick THE WARRIOR, memorable principally for the fact that what inspired all the craziness was a stolen elephant.

The original ONG BAK film followed rural teen Ting on his quest to modern Bangkok to recover a stolen bust of Buddha. The narrative was pretty weak but there was awesome Muay Thai kickboxing fight scenes, and it was a all a nice change of pace from those CGI filled movies. ONG BAK 2 feels very different indeed. For a start, it's a very slick, high budget, lavish epic set in Ancient Thailand, and works less like a prequel as a primer for Western audiences as to what Muay Thai is all about. Tony Jaa plays a Tien. When he was a kid, bandits killed his family and threw him to the crocodiles. Tien's ability to survive impresses the local warlord so much that he adopted Tien and taught him how to fight. As an adult, Tien (Jaa) goes on the predictable revenge mission, which takes him through various fight scenes and sets up the inevitable ONG BAK 3.

Tony Jaa has clearly taken a lot of pains over the costumes, sets, photography and fight choreography. But a medieval forest is no match for the back-streets of Bangkok as a high-octane setting, and fans of the original flick might feel mis-sold. But, while the film seems less exciting than the original, it is certainly more technically impressive. The fight scenes - incorporating the best of Thai, Chinese, Japanese and European martial arts - are simply amazing. There's a scene where Tony Jaa is fighting while skipping over elephants and IT'S NOT CGI. What Jaa needs is to harness his slick moves to proper plots. And then we'd be in business.

Additional tags: Tony Jaa, Panna Rittikrai, Sorapong Chatree, Saruny Wongkrachang, Nirut Sirihanya, Nattawut Kittikhun,

ONG BAK 2 was released in 2009 and will be released on DVD on February 15th 2010.

Friday, February 12, 2010

ASTRO BOY - clever but lacking wit

I can't say I'd ever heard of ASTROBOY before watching this film but apparently he is an insanely famous Manga character created by Tezuka Osamu in the 1950s. Apparently the original stories have already inspired a 1960s TV series. In that series, Astroboy started life as the young son of a famous scientist, Dr Tenma. When young Toby is killed in a car accident, Dr Tenma resurrects his memory in a robot, CAPRICA stylee. But tragically, Tenma is revolted by his creation and sells him to a vicious circus-owner called Hamegg (shades of ELEPHANT MAN) whence he is rescued by Tenma's kind-hearted boss, Ochanomizu. Tenma may occasionally help Astroboy, but he never truly accepts him.

In this new film, ASTROBOY has been yanked into our contemporary political tensions. The whole narrative takes place in a world that has been ruined by litter-bug exploitative humans (shades of WALL-E) and the elite of the world have relocated to a shiny Metro City in the clouds. Metro City is being run by a politician who wants to start a war to win an election. Rather than being killed in a car crash, Astroboy is killed when the evil politician tries to put evil red energy into a military robot. His father still rejects him, but in order to make Tenma more palatable to modern audiences, he doesn't actually sell him to the circus owner. Rather, Toby runs away, and ends up with Hamegg by chance. And Hamegg is a more equivocal character - he truly loves robots, but at the end of the day, doesn't think AI makes you worthy of human rights. (A good debate for BSG fans!)

The resulting film is pretty complex for a kids film, and like Miyazaki films, is concerned with environmental degradation and consumption run amok. It also has shades of the best science fiction, making explicit reference to Asimov. The CGI animation is interesting in its design and the voice work is particularly good. I especially liked Freddie Highmore as Astroboy, Nic Cage as Tenma, and a modulated Bill Nighy as the heart-breakingly kind Elefun. But somehow, the diffuse plotting made for a rather plodding film, especially in the middle portion where Astroboy falls to Earth and side-steps into a film that seems to be half Oliver Twist and half Gladiator. I rather missed the wit, charm and old-fashioned simplicity of David Bowers previous directorial effort, FLUSHED AWAY.

ASTRO BOY played London 2009 was released last year in the US, Canada and Asia, It is now on global release.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Werner Herzog Retrospective 3 - AGUIRRE WRATH OF GOD (1972)

After his gonzo film-making expeditions to the Sahara and Lanzarate in FATA MORGANA and EVEN DWARVES STARTED SMALL, Werner Herzog put together a tiny crew of eight people and headed to Peru to film his hastily written feature, AGUIRRE WRATH OF GOD. Starring German actor Klaus Kinski, in the first of a five-film collaboration, this movie is arguably Herzog's most admired and most famous. Viewers have responded to its rough and ready look and the delicious post-modern irony of watching a film about losing your mind in the jungle in the midst of an overly ambitious project being made by film-makers losing their mind in the jungle in the midst of an overly ambitious project. AGUIRRE is arthouse cinema's APOCALYPSE NOW, with an industry of mythic tales about its insane production almost more fascinating than the film itself.

The film opens in sixteenth century Latin America, with a group of Spanish conquistadors looking to claim El Dorado for the Spanish crown. They do so in heavy armour, with canons on rafts, bringing along their women and caged chickens. Don Aguirre (Kinski) leads the scouting party in a mutiny and takes them further into the jungle, into desperation and insanity. As the movie unfolds, Aguirre's pychopathic ambitions become clear: he is murderous and harbours a fantasy of founding a new pure race with his symbolically blonde daughter.

I guess if you were being fairly simplistic about it, you could take AGUIRRE as being a political film about how self-serving and basically dumb the conquistadors were - "Isn't that cannon going to rust?" etc. But I think this isn't really a movie about colonial oppression at all. Rather, it's about a charismatic man who has become untethered from reality in an environment where violence is sudden and anonymous. (Notably, we never see the face of the Indians.) So untethered that he even refuses his own death as a reality. Aguirre is the ultimate exemplar of the Will to Power. And, on an even more profound level, AGUIRRE is the story of Herzog making the film. It is a movie that depicts the folly of making an epic film in a jungle. Who is more crazy: the conquistador taking a cannon on a raft; or Dino de Laurentis taking a crew out to Chihuahua to film DUNE? There are many great films about the film-making process - not least 8 1/2. But typically these pit the artist against the commercial studio bosses, with the added pressures of a wife and a mistress. In AGUIRRE, the line between Kinski and Aguirre and Herzog is blurred. Herzog is pitting the film-maker against nature and the chaos of the void itself.

That may all sound a bit pretentious, but I think it's the only way to approach this film. If you go for a straight reading of the film, you're going to find it insubstantial and poorly made. The visuals, the sound, the hasty framing - it all looks pretty shabby by modern standards - and too many actions taken by the characters seem against character and rather random. But taken as a whole - as an immersive endeavour - the movie just works. And it works not just because you feel that Herzog is going to take it wherever it leads - but because of the charisma of Kinski himself. You watch this German guy which his chiseled features hunkering down in his helmet, looking daggers, scheming and plotting and you can almost feel the febrile insanity of it all. In SUNSET BOULEVARD, Norma Desmond says, "We didn't need dialogue, we had faces." She would have loved AGUIRRE.

AGUIRRE WRATH OF GOD played Cannes 1973.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Werner Herzog Retrospective 2 - EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL (1970)

Next on the smorgasbord of crazy in the Herzog back catalogue is his film EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL. Filmed in black and white, on location in Lanzarote, this movie presents a world of midgets in which the inmates take over the asylum and the pristine wards descend into barbaric violence. Thematically, the film reminded me a bit of IF... - another film that scratched the surface of an institution (in that case, the British public school) to reveal the savagery beneath.

Just like FATA MORGANA, Herzog is trying to create an environment that looks alien to our eyes but that contains the savagery of human nature. In FATA MORGANA, he used Africa and in this movie he uses midgets to create that distancing effect. If he weren't such an iconoclastic liberal, and if he weren't known for being so playful, you'd have to take issue with this. I guess his excuse would be that he's only using midgets as a shorthand for weirdness because that's what works for his bigoted audiences, rather than because he personally agrees with such a presumption.

Anyways, back to the film itself. I thought it was a lot easier to watch than FATA MORGANA, partly because there are actual characters with actual dialogue, and partly because it's just a lot more fun to watch a bunch of people go crazy (some of whom are wearing those Fata Morgana goggles), as opposed to some random people wandering in front of a moving camera. It's not so much "fun" as just bizarre and compelling. It's like watching a sort of demented nightmare unwind. Admittedly, it's a nightmare in which a monkey gets crucified. Now, the DVD I watched didn't have a director's commentary on it, which is a shame. But I gather from reading about the film, that "demented nightmare" is the look he was going for. The movie has a bizarre power that commands your attention from start to end. Well worth a look.

Additional tags: Klaus Kinski, Thomas Mauch, Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus, Helmut Doering, Paul Glauer, Gisela Hertwig,

EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL played Cannes 1970 and is available on DVD.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Wener Herzog Retrospective 1 - FATA MORGNAN (1971)

Werner Herzog makes insane movies about insane people. That's the only conclusion I can come to after watching his latest Hollywood-backed release, BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS. This is a movie so insane that it makes everything else Nic Cage has ever done look understated. A movie so insane you can actually see Val Kilmer cracking up on screen. A movie so insane it randomly pauses to give an extended close-up on a lizard!

So I thought I'd take a look back at Herzog's earlier work, which I'm ashamed to say that I have never viewed before, to see how early this insanity set in. First in the DVD queue was his 1971 film FATA MORGANA. Shot on hand-held cameras on location in Africa, the film has seemingly no narrative structure. The POV is of a person randomly wandering through a barren landscape strewn with old car parts and machinery. Local people, kids, drift in front of the camera's gaze and are photographed in a peculiarly objectified manner. Occasionally they wear stylised round goggles. The whole thing is just plain bizarre - a feeling heightened by the eclectic soundtrack featuring a number of Leonard Cohen tracks. Notionally split into three parts: The Creation, The Paradise and The Golden Age, and pretentiously introduced by narrators (including Lotte Eisner) reading from mystical texts, the movie resists explanation. I came through the other end wondering why anyone would actually want to watch such a bizarre flick except as part of a Herzog retrospective.

So then I watched it again with Herzog's commentary. Apparently, the effect he is going for is "political science fiction", in which you imagine what it would be like for a bunch of aliens to land on earth and survey the people. Hence the strange, alien landscape and the curiously objectified presentation of the people in the film. I guess what Herzog was trying to for was some sort of abstract, strangely compelling picture of a planet ravaged by human brutality? Or am I reading too much onto this from his later work? Fans may speak of "beguiling poetry" but I found the movie rather tedious after the first fifteen minutes of interest in the landscape. I tend to think that a movie in which the director's commentary is the only point of access can never be more than an oddity.

FATA MORGANA played Cannes in 1971 and is available on DVD.

Additional tags: lotte eisner, blind faith, the third ear band, jorg schmdt reitwein

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Miguel Arteta retrospective - THE GOOD GIRL

The only good thing to have come out of my watching YOUTH IN REVOLT is that it prompted me to look back at the career of director Miguel Arteta. It turns out the last feature he directed was way back in 2002 - the bleak tragicomedy THE GOOD GIRL. I really enjoyed THE GOOD GIRL, not least because I was pleasantly surprised that Jennifer Aniston would have the balls to play such an equivocal and drab character. I was even more surprised at how convincing she was in the role. The film garnered a lot of critical praise, and I guess its surprising that Arteta took so long to get back into features. It's slightly less surprising that Jennifer Aniston has drifted back toward the light and cheery comedy fare that made her name.

Anyways, back to the matter under consideration. THE GOOD GIRL is the story of a supermarket check-out girl called Justine (Aniston) who is married to a good-hearted but dull pot-head (John C Reilly). For no better reason than boredom, she starts an affair with a slightly creepily obsessive college drop-out with Catcher in the Rye delusions (Jake Gyllenhaal). Things get even more complicated when her husband's even more creepy best mate (Tim Blake Nelson) attempts to blackmail her with this knowledge.

What I really love about this film is that while the situation may be contrived, and some of the characters exaggerated (particularly Zooey Deschanel's brilliantly subversive store assistant), the emotional conflicts ring true. Because, at its core, this is a film about a typical housewife who finds herself settling for less than she had hoped for, and needs to decide where the balance lies between selfishly pursuing her happiness and disappointing those that she does, on some residual level, love. And it's about a woman wondering whether settling is really as bad as she thought itm might have been. The great thing is that Justine isn't just a plain vanilla good girl. She is fundamentally decent but does not some really questionable shit and makes some terrible decisions. It's rare to see such a realistic and nuanced character study outside of European art cinema.

If you haven't seen THE GOOD GIRL, don't be put off by YOUTH IN REVOLT. This is a great little black comedy that's well-acted, intelligent and interesting to watch.

THE GOOD GIRL was released in 2002 and is available on DVD.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

YOUTH IN REVOLT - affected nonsense

YOUTH IN REVOLT is an 89 minute quirky hipster comedy that felt like it last three hours, irritated me with its affectations, and didn't make me laugh. It stars Michael Cera as the same character he always plays - an unthreatening, horny teenage boy, desperately courting a cooler girl who stoops to conquer on account of his taste in films and music or whatever. It's the same schtick that was cute in JUNO, became less so in NICK AND NORAH'S INFINITE PLAYLIST, positively irritated in PAPER HEART, and really, really pissed me off here. He needs to stretch himself and try something different. Or at least deign to inflect his voice on occasion.

Anyways, in this particular film, Cera plays a kid called Nick Twisp, a sensitive loner who has good manners, likes Sinatra, and wants to travel the world. He meets the girl of his dreams and, hipsters being self-involved, she's his female double - an unthreatening hipster loner who dreams of a tall French boyfriend. Both of these kids speak like no-one you've ever heard of, and hatch up plots that are contrived and distancing, including getting expelled, trashing several cars, and drugging people. Of course, Nick Twisp doesn't really need a double to end his loneliness - he already has the voices in his head - his bad alter-ego, European play-boy Francois, and his feminine alter-ego Carlotta. Stop me if I'm freaking you out.

I think we're meant to find the incidental characters amusing - Ray Liotta as the sleezy cop; Zach Galifianakis as the loser boyfriend; Steve Buscemi as the dad; Fred Willard as the liberal neighbour; Justin Long as the doped up brother - but I found them to be under-used and unfunny. I can't disguise how tired I am of Cera. But I guess my real problem is with Gustin Nash's script based on C.D.Payne's novels. This film is too absurd to get emotionally involved in, but not stylised enough to be as good as, say, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS.

YOUTH IN REVOLT played Toronto 2009 and is currently on release in the USA, Canada and the UK.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

DVD release - THIS IS IT

THIS IS IT is a masterpiece of editing. HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL director, Kenny Ortega, cuts down hours of concert rehearsal footage into the skeleton of a live show. We have two further things to be thankful for. First, that the rehearsals were shot on hi-def Red One digital cameras with rich sound. Second, that Michael Jackson is so astonishingly talented that even watching him marking out steps and singing every other line is fascinating enough to sustain our interest. The resulting movie is a pretty simple film documenting what would surely have been a remarkable live concert - combining Michael Jackson's superlative choreography, extravagant sets, and intensive use of CGI rich video footage. As a film, I can't fault THIS IS IT. It does what it's meant to do: it provides ticket-holders with a vicarious experience of the concert they will never attend; and it provides the concert-backers with some financial recompense. Everyone goes home happy. And if you go home with the Blu-Ray disc you get the video shorts for Thriller and Smooth Criminal that would have been played before the performances and further behind the scenes footage of the casting process and production design. You even get members of the production reminiscing about Michael - a video eulogy. Stuff to keep the fans happy.

Still, my experience of watching this film was conflicted. Once again, that's nothing to do with any flaws in the film-making, but rather to do with the complex nature of our relationship with Michael Jackson as a media object. I grew up in adoration: going to the Bad tour concert at the Milton Keynes bowl was by far the best concert experience of my youth; we played the Thriller cassette on constant loop for about a year, so much so that we bought about 5 versions because they'd wear out or get caught in the car cassette player; my cousin Miguel had a mini Beat It jacket and new all the dance steps. Michael Jackson was just part of what it was to be a kid in our house. But by my late teens, Michael was already Wacko Jacko - a man who had too much money, too much fame, and was surrounded by too many yes-men. His music didn't seem relevant. His persona was just weird. And then, as the nineties continued, he became sinister. Even if you didn't believe the worst of the allegations, his apparent erasure of his racial identity through plastic surgery, his bizarre marriage and child-rearing - it was all too tragic to contemplate. There was something hypocritical and patronising about Earth Song and Black and White. So when Jarvis Cocker mooned Michael at the Brits, I was with Jarvis, not with Michael. In later years, as he became even more reclusive, paranoid, persecuted, one couldn't help wonder why someone didn't just take him in hand and tell him to stop. And finally, in La La Land, Michael bought access to anesthetic drugs and died.

So, when the movie came out in theatres I didn't want to watch it for the same reason that I didn't want to go to the concert. I wanted to remember Michael as the sweet kid in the Jackson Five, or as the charismatic young man in Off the Wall, or as the icon in Billie Jean live at Pasadena for Motown 25. I didn't want to see a financially desperate man forced into touring - who died during the preparation - pimped out by his concert promoters, who were shamelessly exploiting the grieving fans. The film gave me another chance to marvel at Michael's talent. But it wasn't happy viewing because it just makes you think, yet again, how wasted that talent was in his final two decades, and how corrupted our memory of that talent will always be by the controversies surrounding his private life. You look at the concert footage and you see him direct everything just as he wants it, but never raise his voice. Sure. He doesn't have to. The deference, the worship, is palpable. No wonder he ended up in the mess he did.

THIS IS IT is a deftly edited concert rehearsal video of a superlative talent. But it's also documentary evidence of the hermetically sealed world in which a megastar was allowed to indulge his every fantasy to whatever end. As such, I found it a profoundly sad film to watch.

THIS IS IT was released in October 2009 and is released in the UK on DVD and Blu-Ray on February 22nd.

Monday, February 01, 2010

THE BOOK OF ELI - Spoiler free review before release date notes, spoilers afterward

THE BOOK OF ELI is the latest flick from The Hughes Brothers, the directors behind the impressive DEAD PRESIDENTS and the piss-poor Alan Moore adaptation FROM HELL. ELI lies somewhere in between: it's visually imaginative and audacious in its premise, but it's so ludicrous in its execution as to undermine its credibility. The story has Denzel Washington play a lone man with kick-ass knife- skills walking a lonely highway in post-apocalyptic America. This basic set-up has some similarity with THE ROAD, leading some critics to draw comparisons. But that's just nonsense. Viggo Mortensen looks like he's been walking for years without a haircut or soap or a decent meal in THE ROAD. In THE BOOK OF ELI, all the lead characters sport a look that's more Hollister Hobo - pearly white teeth, skinny jeans, cool boots, latest-season sunglasses. Where THE ROAD is shot in a menacing sombre murky grey, THE BOOK OF ELI is sunbleached and de-saturated. It feels more like the Wild West than the end of the world as we know it. So, back to the story. Our lone man with mad kung-fu skills walks into a Wild West town, run by local fascist Carnegie, played by Gary Oldman. (We know he's a Fascist because he reads Mussolini, because the film is THAT subtle. Seriously, it wouldn't have surprised me if Carnegie were sending out biker gangs to find Unobtainium). Carnegie sends out illiterate biker gangs to hunt down a book - a book that Eli happens to be carrying - that he believes will give him the power to dominate mankind. And, in case you really can't guess what that book is, I'll say no more about it. Everything else about the town is pure movie cliché. There's a seedy bar where the out-of-towner kicks off a fight. There's a cute chick in distress (Mila Kunis) who looks like she has full access to a functioning hairdresser. There's even a general store full of goods that apparently isn't knocked off, despite the fact that it's only guarded by Tom Waits with one gun.

So, Eli realises he needs to get the hell out of dodge and the Hughes Brothers make a lame attempt to have him bond with the cute chick who insists on following him. We pause for a truly bizarre encounter with an old cannibal couple, played completely improbably by Michael Gambon and British comic gem, Frances de la Tour. I'm almost tempted to say that this movie is worth the price of admission for this crazy scene. But that would be a misjudgement.

Because in the final act, THE BOOK OF ELI wraps itself up in a manner so stupidly that you really shouldn't respect anything about the film at all. But, in case you are going to see it, stop reading here. Those of who have seen it, continue on, after the release date notes.

THE BOOK OF ELI is on release in the UK, US, Greece, Russia, Canada, Kazakhstan, France, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Estonia, Poland and Romania. It opens on February 3rd in Egypt; on Feb 10th in Belgium; on Feb 18th in Australia, Germany and New Zealand; on Feb 26th in Finland, Italy and Sweden. It opens in March in the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Singapore, Argentina, Brazil and on June 19th in Japan.


Okay, so there are three major problems with the ending of this film. First, you know that even after Carnegie gets his hand on the book, he's not gonna be able to read it. (I was betting on it being in a foreign language). So there's no suspense. The second major problem with the film is the way in which the rug is pulled from under the audience with the revelation of Eli's blindness. This was just totally lame. A blind man simply would not be pulling off the manoeuvres he had pulled off throughout the movie, and I'm not buying the "divine protection" crap. The final problem is that, even if we buy the blindness and the surprise, what was the point? I mean, the world has been near-annihilated by an apparently religious war and we're meant to be all happy that religious books have survived? Don't get me wrong - I'm not anti-religion - indeed, I am a practising Catholic - but shouldn't someone in the movie at least QUESTION whether Eli is doing the right thing?

Ah well. The whole thing was frustratingly ill-conceived.