Sunday, January 30, 2011

BRIGHTON ROCK (2010) - A noble failure

When writer-director Rowan Joffe introduced the preview screening of BRIGHTON ROCK at the BFI last night, he was apologetic. He apologised for daring to take on the Boulting Brothers' classic adaptation, but argued that his movie was borne out deep respect and love of Graham Greene's novel. In the production notes he went further, arguing that Greene's novel was so great, that it DESERVED more that one interpretation. I thought this was a rather odd introduction. Good art should never apologise for itself. And how can one separate the novel from the film in the case where the novelist actually wrote the screenplay?

At any rate, taking Joffe at his word, this is what is likely to happen in any broadly faithful version of Brighton Rock. A violent teenage racketeer called Pinkie murders Fred Hale, a member of the most powerful gang in town. He has to seduce an innocent young girl called Rose in order to find out if she really does know who did it, and prevent her squealing to the police. And while he's trying to placate this needy innocent girl, despite his inward disgust at her masochistic nature, he's trying to out-wit the local gang-boss, Collioni, and avoid the interfering meddling of Fred Hale's friend, Ida. The tone of the film should be menacing, unnerving, sometimes terrifying, but always taut. And running in the background is a debate about the nature of good and evil. Is Ida's simplistic categorisation of herself as good and Pinkie as evil, through and through, like the lettering in the stick of rock, true?  Or is Grace far more complicated and far more grand than her vulgar mind can fathom?

So how does Rowan Joffe's adaptation stack up? To start with the positive, it is a handsomely made film with beautifully observed production design. It takes us from the peeling walls of Kite's house via the faded grandeur of Ida's tea-rooms to the glossy, pretentious interiors of Collioni's Cosmpolitan hotel. DP John Mathieson's (ROBIN HOOD, GLADIATOR) photography captures that watery sunshine of the British sea-side and there is a beautifully lit climax on the cliffs. As for the acting, Andrea Riseborough (NEVER LET ME GO) is an effective Rose, making her delusional belief in Pinkie believable and heart-breaking. She is ably supported in the minor roles by a fine cast, with British actors of the quality of Phil Redmond (ANOTHER YEAR), Sean Harris (24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE) and Steve Evets (LOOKING FOR ERIC) playing Spicer, Hale and Rose's father respectively. Moreover, there is an air of earnest respect and delicate care that overlays the entire project. Joffe claims he loves the novel and is respectful of the original film. Well, you can feel that.

And maybe that's the problem. Because this film just never takes off. It feels turgid. There is no pace, no sense of menace, and for all the nightmare visions of Pinkie at the end of a rope and scenes of Rose praying, no real sense of the stakes - whether literal or metaphysical. The film feels too safe, too sunlit, too designed somehow. It's as though the effort of getting the 1964 costume designs just right - the perfectly appointed suite in the Cosmpolitan Hotel - has resulted in a series of beautifully framed still shots. But where is the seedy menace of Greeneland? I simply wasn't scared of Sam Riley's Pinkie.

If we're looking for culprits, I guess the decision to set the film in 1964 rather than the late 30s would be one. The "pop" clothes and music, the mods and rockers, are a distraction, and far less menacing than the lurid clair-voyants and fair-gound freakishness of the original film. Maybe the youth angst theme is just to temporary - too situated - for a film about mortal sin. I also think some of the performances are too broad and perhaps the writing too reductive. Helen Mirren's Ida is shorn of the 1947 Ida's vulgarity. She comes off as a simplistic "tart with a heart" - and the use of these simplistic tropes is something I noticed, and disliked, in Rowan Joffe's script for the awful George Clooney thriller, THE AMERICAN. Andy Serkis' Collioni is a caricature - and maybe there is some sense in which those glamorous Italian mobsters are self-consciously caricatures - but you don't get the feeling that Joffe and Serkis are playing with that level of sophistication here. 

Just as some of the performances are very broad, the movie also has an incredibly intrusive over-worked orchestral score by Martin Phipps, never ceasing to bring out the Catholic material with its use of religious texts. In fact, the treatment of the movie's religious content is altogether reductive and crude.  Do we really need Pinkie's wooden bedroom to have the paint-stripped in just the pattern to reveal a cross? Do we really need Pinkie and Rose's first kiss to be shot from over-head, Pinkie holding her uncomfortably by the hands in a kind of martyred crucifix pose? Do we really need to see Rose in Church praying before an altar, shot from above the head of Christ? This ham-fisted handling of the religious content is best seen in his choice of final scene - the true test of any screenwriter claiming that he has adapted the book out of love. Admittedly, it was a test that Greene himself partly failed, but that is no excuse.

BRIGHTON ROCK played Toronto and London 2010 and will be released in the UK and Finland next Friday. It opens in Germany on April 21st.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Pantheon movie - BRIGHTON ROCK (1947)

This review reveals the plot of both the novel and the film.

Full disclosure: I am the cliché. I converted to Roman Catholicism at Oxford and transferred the zeal of the convert into an obsession with the writings of the two most famous Catholic converts - John Henry Newman (now on his way to Sainthood) and Graham Greene (whose works appeared on the now thankfully defunct Index Librorum Prohibitorum). Greene's honest portrayal of the difficulty of reconciling Catholicism with humanism - his rejection of simplistic certitude, even though that was what his Church seemed to demand of him - resonated deeply with me. And so, as many other readers, I started off, predictably, with his novels, especially the "Catholic novels" - Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The End of the Affair, The Heart of the Matter, Monsignor Quixote....It developed into a solid collection of literary criticism of Greene's work, thence into biographies and came full circle, reading Greene's superbly analytical criticism of others, not to mention his substantial body of film reviews. Finally, I came to the films. Of the works he scripted, THE THIRD MAN is simply untouchable and perfect. Taut, harsh, unsentimental. Of the films adapted from his novels, surely the greatest is the one he himself adapted (reworking Terence Rattigan's initial screenplay), The Boulting Brothers' 1947 version of BRIGHTON ROCK.

The novel was based in a world that Greene was fascinated by and closely observed - Brighton's underworld of black marketeers, Italian gangsters and sawdust bars. What was fascinating was the Greene depicted Brighton's public face as being no less vulgar, menacing and and disgusting than its underworld. Greene barely concealed his contempt for day-trippers looking for superficial, transient pleasures. Their faults are magnified in the character of Ida Arnold - a vulgar woman, completely of her time and locale. Ida drinks, flirts, visits clairvoyants, and has that complete and utter moral certainty and righteousness that fills the pages of the Daily Mail. She stands in contrast with Greene's anti-hero, the teenage gangster, Pinkie Brown. Pinkie Brown is a man out of time - by virtue of his Catholicism, which makes him "other" in Anglican England - but also because he is emotionally sterile - disgusted by sentiment and sex. He wanted to be a priest not because he felt a calling, but because he thinks that being a priest will allow him to live as a neuter - as nothing. This is the nihilistic outlook embodied in T.S.Eliot's early poetry.

The novel plays itself out as a battle between Ida's simplistic superficial morality and Pinkie's grander conception. He can be demonic, yes, but he also has grasped more firmly what true grace is, and so has a glimmer of a chance of something greater. Pinkie commits murder, but doesn't drink. He seduces the innocent young waitress, Rose, and marries her, simply to prevent her from giving evidence against him. He hates Rose because he hates her wilful naivety and because he finds her loving him absurd. It is absurd. But it is also frightening for him. Because, as in all sado-masochistic relationships, Pinkie realises that it's Rose who has the power. And so he tries to blot her out in the most complete manner - by making her commit suicide. He is not merely removing the threat to himself (the dead cannot give evidence), but removing her absolute faith. By tempting her into committing a mortal sin, he is killing innocence itself. Of course, the irritating, do-gooding interventions of Ida Arnold save Rose from suicide and damnation, and Pinkie is killed instead. But Pinkie is triumphant in the end. For the more charitable, the parish priest holds out the hope of grace and mercy, even for the murderer and seducer. For the less charitable, Pinkie's triumph is that he will ultimately destroy Rose's innocence from beyond the grave, thanks to a malicious recording he left her, telling her that he hates her. The end of the novel is utterly chilling. And for a novel that is widely seen as a "Catholic novel" it seems to dash away Hope and easy religious answers. There are no trite miracles. No easy fixes.

The Boulting Brothers' 1947 film of the novel is a tour-de-force of British noir - far surpassing their later social satires (LUCKY JIM, I'M ALRIGHT JACK) in visual style, if not in substance. From the opening chase scene, and the murder of Fred Hale, the movie is fast-paced and menacing. Brighton is menacing - both the grim under-world and the lurid sea-side attractions. DP Harry Waxman (THE WICKER MAN) and cameraman Gil Taylor (later DP on DR. STRANGELOVE) light everything with stark contrasts and frame scenes from unsettling angles. The point-of-view shots are un-nerving - often taking the audience through someone's hands to the scene beyond, as every scene is one of potential strangulation. That's how we first see Pinkie - a close-up on his hands playing with twine, as if to strangle. Richard Attenborough's performance as Pinkie is superlative - the contrast between his innocent baby-face (he was only 23 and looks 17) and the coolness with which he commits murder and the ease with which he picks up Rose. And, much as Greene reputedly didn't appreciate her performance, Hermione Baddeley is suitably crude and intrusive as Ida - an essential characteristic in confirming our sympathy for Pinkie, despite his heinous crimes.

There are two key changes from the novel. First, it's Catholic debate is essayed more lightly and subtly than in the book. But this is surely the right move. After all, without using an intrusive voice-over for internal monologue, it's hard to see how the Catholic angle could've been explored more explicitly without seeming heavy-handed. The second change is the ending. Where the novel has Rose walking home to listen to Pinkie's vicious record, the film ends with Rose in a convent, listening to a record which, thanks to a scratch that cuts short the monologue, allows her to believe that Pinkie did love her. Her Catholic faith is in tact, she can believe that she did "change him", and all this because of, we are supposed to believe, Divine Mercy. For years, I hated this ending, until I realised that actually one could choose to read it as the bitterest and most ironic ending of all. After all, is it more cruel that Rose has her illusions shattered, or that she lives on completely deluded? Still, this seems like a second-rate shabby sort of fix. Worst of all, one cannot blame Rattigan or the Boulting Brothers for this easier, more commercial ending, because it was Greene himself who changed it, apparently to appease the censors. Greene has been quoted as noting: "Anybody who had any sense would know that next time Rose would probably push the needle over the scratch and get the full message." I don't think that's right. I think you can't have it both ways. Either the end is sugary, or she is deluded. The evasion at the end weakens what is otherwise a sublime picture.

BRIGHTON ROCK was released in 1947.

Friday, January 28, 2011


HOW DO YOU KNOW is a truly execrable relationship drama that was, for some reason, marketed as a light-hearted romantic comedy. Reese Witherspoon plays a pro soft-ball player cut from the national team as she turns thirty - a move that sends her into a life crisis.  She simply doesn't know whether she wants to be a normal girl with a boyfriend and eventually a baby, let alone who she wants to be with. The choices are Owen Wilson's wealthy but promiscuous pro sportsman and Paul Rudd's earnest but hapless failed businessmen. Hardly a great set of options.  Cue lots of sex with the pro sportsmen, lots of wannabe quirky-cute conversations with the failed businessmen, and a lot of really really boring scenes in which unlikeable narcissists ruminate on how shitty their lives are, all the time in perfectly designed rooms with perfectly quaffed hair.  Witherspoon is mawkish; Rudd is mawkish; and Wilson plays that charming rogue character he always plays.  But no-one is more ill-used than Jack Nicholson.  Where's the emotional insight and wry wit of James L Brooks' AS GOOD AS IT GETS?  Where's the real heart of James L Brooks' THE SIMPSONS.  Poor, poor, poor.

HOW DO YOU KNOW is on release in the US, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Egypt, France, Ireland, Spain and the UK. It opens in February in Estonia, Australia, Kazakhstan, Peru, Russia, Bulgaria, Japan, the Netherlands, Italy, Argentina, Hungary, Israel, Iceland and Lithuania. It opens in March in Belgium, Kuwait, Malaysia, Portugal, Singapore, the Philippines, Poland and Norway. It opens on April 29th in Brazil.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

London Film Fest 2010 - Day 15 - BIUTIFUL

Alejandro González Iñárritu's last film, BABEL, prompted one of the most excoriating reviews published on this site, as guest reviewer Nikolai, mocked its pomposity and pretension.  I was completely in agreement: it seems to me that ever sense his breathtakingly raw and powerful debut, AMORES PERROS, Iñárritu has done little more than create boring, overly-complicated, emotionally sterile films - beautifully shot maybe - but turgid and unwatchable.  Sadly, BIUTIFUL is no exception to this rule. Watching it feels like being in a lecture hall with a dusty old professor explaining why his theory is very, very clever, and earth-shatteringly important, and achingly sad.  As the minutes pass you get more and more resentful and start wishing for something altogether less earnest and more, well, entertaining.  And the tragedy is that Iñárritu is wasting his talent - his talent for creating arresting visuals, for being totally in control of the screen - and wasting Javier Bardem's talent too. For Bardem, arguably the finest Spanish language actor working today, and one of the best in any language, turns in an award-worthy performance in the lead role.  But to what end?

Bardem plays a man called Uxbal - a man dying of cancer, with little time left and many problems to solve. He is father to two children, still in love with their mother, but unable to trust her with their care given that she is an alcoholic.  So, he tries to amass a small amount of money in order to bribe a seeming stranger into caring for them after he has died. In order to do this, he exploits his gift of people able to speak to the dead, and cuts so many corners in his job as middle man for a gang of Chinese sweatshop owners, that he puts others lives at risk.  The moral quagmire is real and Bardem beautifully portrays a man feeling guilty for selfishly trying to protect his kids - and at the same time knowing that his attempts are essentially futile.  And as the movie grinds into its final stages, we should be moved to tears by his children's plight.  The problem is that our senses are deadened by the socio-political hectoring of the director - Iñárritu's pathological need to inspire liberal angst at the dangerous lives of illegal immigrants and children raised in poverty.  He wants us to feel, but ends up turning us off. And that is the greatest tragedy of all.

BIUTIFUL played Cannes, Telluride, London and Toronto 2010. It was released in 2010 in France, Mexico, Norway, Sweden, Spain, Israel, Denmark and the USA. It is currently on release in Greece, Brazil and Finland and opens this weekend in the UK, Turkey and Portugal. It opens on February 4th in the Czech Republic, Estonia and Italy. It opens on February 9th in Indonesia; on March 10th in Germany and on March 18th in Iceland. It was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language film but lost. It has also been nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film and Javier Bardem has been nominated for Best Actor.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Oscar nominations in full....

Person/film I think WILL win in blue; SHOULD win in red (if different to WILL); UNWORTHY of a nomination in green. Let the high stakes wagers begin!

BEST FILM: Black Swan; The Fighter; Inception; The Kids Are Alright; The King's Speech; 127 Hours; The Social Network; Toy Story 3; True Grit; Winter's Bone;

BEST DIRECTOR: Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan; David O Russell, The Fighter; Tom Hooper, The King's Speech; David Fincher, The Social Network; Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit.

BEST ACTOR: Javier Bardem, Biutiful; Jeff Bridges, True Grit; Jesse Eisenberg, Social Network; Colin Firth, The King's Speech; James Franco, 127 Hours.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Christian Bale, The Fighter; John Hawkes, Winter's Bone; Jeremy Renner, The Town; Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are Alright; Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech.

BEST ACTRESS: Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right; Nicole Kidman, The Rabbit Hole; Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone; Natalie Portman, Black Swan; Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Amy Adams, The Fighter; Helena Bonham Carter, The King's Speech; Melissa Leo, The Fighter; Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit; Jackie Weaver, Animal Kingdom.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Matthew Libatique, Black Swan; Wally Pfister, Inception; Danny Cohen, The King's Speech; Jeff Cronenweth, The Social Network; Roger Deakins, True Grit.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy, 127 Hours; Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network; Michael Arndt, Toy Story 3; Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit; Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini, Winter's Bone.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Mike Leigh, Another Year; Scott Silver and Pal Tamasy, The Fighter; Christopher Nolan, Inception; Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg, The Kids Are Alright; David Seidler, The King's Speech.

BEST ANIMATED FILM: How To Train Your Dragon; The Illusionist; Toy Story 3; Alice in Wonderland;

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: Biutiful, Dogtooth, In A Better World, Incendies, Hors-La-Loi.

BEST ART DIRECTION: Alice in Wonderland; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; Inception; The King's Speech; True Grit.

BEST COSTUME DESIGN: Alice in Wonderland, I am Love, The King's Speech, The Tempest, True Grit.

BEST DOCUMENTARY: Exit Through The Giftshop; Gasland; Inside Job; Restrepo; Waste Land.

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT: Killing In The Name; Poster Girl; Strangers No More; Sun Come Up; The Warriors of Qiuqang.

BEST EDITOR: Pamela Martin, The Fighter; Tariq Anwar, The King's Speech; Jon Harris, 127 Hours; Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter, The Social Network.

BEST MAKE-UP: Barney's Version, The Way Back, The Wolfman, How To Train Your Dragon.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE: John Powell, How To Train Your Dragon; Hans Zimmer, Inception; Alexandre Desplat, The King's Speech; A. R. Rahman, 127 Hours, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, The Social Network.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG: Comning Home from Country Strong; I See The Light from Tangled; If I Rise from 127 Hours; We Belong Together from Toy Story 3.

BEST ANIMATED SHORT: Day and Night; The Gruffalo; Let's Pollute; The Lost Thing; Madagascar, Carnet de Voyage; The Confession; The Crush; God of Love; Na Wewe; Wish 143.

BEST SOUND EDITOR: Inception; Toy Story 3; Tron: Legacy; True Grit; Unstoppable.

BEST SOUND MIXING: Inception; The King's Speech; Salt; The Social Network; True Grit.

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS: Alice in Wonderland; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1; Hereafter; Inception; Iron Man 2.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Random DVD Round-Up 4 - JONAH HEX

JONAH HEX should've been superb in the way that SOLOMON KANE was superb.  Based on pulp comics written by John Albano and illustrated by Tony DeZuniga, Jonah was a late ninteenth century bounty hunter in the Old West, sold to the Apaches by his father, his face disfigured by scars in  a tribal ritual, bound to protect the innocent, and battling alcoholism.  Jonah had no superpowers or skills other than being a damn fine shooter, and was the classic lone anti-hero.

The movie version of Jonah Hex abandons the simplicity of the original. It's as if the scriptwriters, Neveldine, Taylor (of CRANK fame) and William Farmer, just didn't trust the source material to be exciting enough, although as the former have disowned the script, perhaps the original was more coherent and faithful? Whatever the truth, the film version of Jonah Hex is given superpowers - he can speak to the dead - and his disfiguring scars aren't from an Apache battle but from being branded by his nemesis, evil Confederate general, Quentin Turnbull. The plot is also shoe-horned into contemporary political allegory, with Turnbull a kind of anti-Unionist terrorist determined to blow up the White House, and Jonah hired by President Grant to stop him.

The result is a short film (it's barely an hour and ten minutes long sans credits) that feels mashed up in the editing booth - over-stuffed with characters and allegory - and never given the time to breathe and establish itself. Josh Brolin's Jonah Hex is suitably brooding, but John Malkovich must go down as the most environmentally sustainable actor of all time, recycling his typical baddie tropes as Turnbull. Megan Fox looks sultry but is given little else to do as Hex's love interest, and actors of the calibre of Michael Sheen are wasted in small roles. It is a film destroyed in re-writes and conflicting visions - an unloved bastard of a film - and a crying shame.

JONAH HEX was released in summer/autumn 2010 and is now available to rent and buy.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


As a massive fan of eighties action flicks - everything from Arnie classics like RED HEAT and PREDATOR - to all those Sly Stallone ROCKY flicks - I was massively looking forward to Sly Stallone's nostalgia-fest, THE EXPENDABLES. Any movie features Sly, Dolph, Arnie, Mickey Rourke et al was going to be okay with me. It was a bit disappointing they couldn't get Jean-Claude van Damme too but hey, it was a dream cast-list of muscle-bound meat-heads plus their younger heir apparent, Jason Statham. The plot also sounded reassuring hackneyed - a bunch of mercenaries are hired by the CIA to go depose a Latin American dictator. Simple as. Knife fights, gun fights, fist fights, blowing shit up, liberating locals and presumably returning home to some grateful hot totty.

What did we get? Half an hour of sheer nostalgia and gratitude on the part of this viewer. Every time I saw another aged crony on the screen I felt warm and fuzzy. But after the initial thrill had passed, I was just plain bored. Because THE EXPENDABLES is basically a very very mediocre film. Sure, all the explosions and stunts are there, but there are no stakes. The dialogue is crappy and I really didn't care about any of it. What writer-director Sly Stallone failed to realise was that in those 1980s classics, sure there was ridonkulousness, but there was also heart. We cared about Rocky and Adrian. Rambo was actually a pretty deep film about psychological scarring and alienation. Movies like TERMINATOR and RUNNING MAN had proper political and sci-fi credentials. And even when the movies were purely stupid - PREDATOR springs to mind - they had the good sense to amp everything up to R-rated craziness. And while THE EXPENDABLES had some of the violence, and I say this with all respect to the feminist cause, where were the boobs?

Sad, but true, THE EXPENDABLES was just to bland and safe and polished.

THE EXPENDABLES opened in August/September 2010 and is now available to rent and buy.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Random DVD Round-Up 2 - SEX AND THE CITY 2

I didn't hate SEX AND THE CITY 2 as much as I thought I would, but then again, my expectations were very low indeed. I'd never been a fan of the series. I didn't relate to a bunch of women defined by their conspicuous consumption of luxury goods or the apparent contradiction of wanting to be both sexually liberated AND pining for a rich husband. The show, and indeed the first movie, wanted to both have its cake and eat it, and was expressed with a vulgarity of tone, and shameless excess that seemed to undercut its wannabe-serious political agenda.

Fast forward to 2010 and the release of SEX AND THE CITY 2, and the franchise's crass vulgarity has been amped up even more than I thought possible, simply by transferring the four most egregiously consumerist girls in the US to the most egregiously consumerist nation on earth, the UAE. The resulting film feels like a 2 hour info-mercial advertising Abu Dhabi as a vacation resort just so long as you don't want kiss in public, and of course, conditional on you having $22,000 a night for a suite. The plot is the same-old bullshit we got on the TV show: privileged women whining about how tough life is. Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), the lawyer, is angry because her male boss dismisses her. Rather than deal with it maturely, she just quits. This is meant to be seen as a victory. Charlotte (Kristin Davis), having sweated spinal fluid to catch a rich husband and have two children, is tired and pissed off with being a mother, despite the fact that she has full-time help. Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) is angry her husband is, well, old, and wants to stay in, and when her book gets a bad review, kisses an ex- in a fit of pique. Her husband's reaction to this is just plain unbelievable. And finally, Kim Cattrall is eating hormones to stave off the menopause, and angry she can't fuck anyone she wants in public in a Muslim country.

Now, there are some moments when the movie feels vaguely interesting. I mean, it's nice to see women actually speaking openly about menopause and hot flashes. And yes, being a mother to small kids is hard. But the movie consistently fails to make itself relatable beyond this. There are few casual sentences referring to the awful economy, or congratulating mothers who survive without help, but when uttered by women in a $22,000 a night suite, it just feels condescending - as condescending as Carrie tipping her Indian butler so that he can fly home and visit his wife.

I guess it must sound like I'm criticising the movie less than criticising the lifestyle of the characters, but in a franchise that sells a lifestyle choice, I think that's fair game. But even if I bought into its lifestyle, would I like the movie? Nope. Because even on its own terms, it fails. The fashion is not fabulous but looks horrid. The women don't look wonderful in their middle age, but haggard and trying to hard. The shooting style is pedestrian and the direction workmanlike at best. And just what was that Liza Minelli song and dance number? Did they take her face and morph it onto a different body? It just looked plain weird.

SEX AND THE CITY 2 opened in summer 2010 and is now available to rent and buy.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


SHREK THE THIRD was a desperate movie - a commercial enterprise designed to squeeze every last buck from a franchise, no matter that the plot was confused and cobbled together. I barely sat through it, and hated every moment. When the franchise began, Mike Myers's Shrek was a loveable anti-hero subverting our idea of a fairytale Prince into a farting ogre and Cameron Diaz' Princess Fiona wasn't just a passive pretty girl waiting to be rescued but a feisty, whip-smart woman whose true self was fat and happy. The joy of those films was to see unlikely friendships form between Shrek, Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss In Boots (Antonio Banderas), and to see Shrek and Fiona fall in love. To be sure, the humour was subversive of the Disney myth, but it was always warm-hearted, and after a pretty straight-forward adventure our anti-heroes would always emerge triumphant and true to themselves.

By contrast, by SHREK THE THIRD, Shrek had turned into a whiny little bitch, and the humour was particularly snarky and mean - coming in the form of cheap, lazy Exorcist spoofs of ROSEMARY'S BABY and teen-rom-coms. Fiona was less feisty woman that put-upon wife, and the whole thing had a rather mean-spirited, vulgar feel. So, when SHREK FOREVER AFTER rolled into our cinemas, complete with that ultimate commercial shake-down - 3D - I decided to give it a miss. Imagine, then, my surprise to discover that SHREK FOREVER AFTER isn't have bad at all!

The good news is that the writers have decided to focus on just one idea - and the big grand concept is that Shrek is so peeved with being a harassed father that he allows Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohm) to trick him into signing a contract in which he never existed. What then follows is a sort of IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE meets STAR WARS movie, in which Shrek sees what would have happened if he hadn't existed, and must get Fiona to give him "true love's kiss" in order to get back to normal. Donkey blanks him; Puss In Boots has become fat and lazy; Far Far Away is ruled by a tyrannical Stiltskin, and Fiona, having rescued herself, has become a Rebel Leader leading her fellow ogres in arms against Vader, sorry, Stiltskin! The great thing about this conceit, is that we get to see Fiona back to being feisty, and we get to relive what was wonderful in the first films - seeing Shrek and Fiona fall for each other again, and seeing Shrek and Donkey and Puss become friends again. It's as though the film-makers didn't want the franchise to end on the downer of Part Three and so restored us to the feel-good feeling of Part One. SHREK FOREVER AFTER is, then, a pleasingly good watch. Not as brilliant as Part One, partly because we can't get back that initial surprise, but good fun nonetheless. Hopefully, the film-makers will have the good grace to end it here.

SHREK FOREVER AFTER was released in summer 2010 and is now available to rent and buy.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

BLACK SWAN - glorious trash

Darren Aronofsky's much-praised new film, BLACK SWAN, is beautifully-produced trash, and I say that with all respect and admiration. It brings an auteur sensibility to material that is basically a camp psycho-sexual horror flick, in the style of Polanski's REPULSION or Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA. While the material may superficially resemble Powell and Pressburger's seminal ballet melodrama, THE RED SHOES, BLACK SWAN contains none of that film's elegant framing or love for high-art. Rather, BLACK SWAN is the ultimate B-movie - a genre movie that wears its balls-out craziness on its sleeve. The result is beautiful and exhilarating, but I can't say that it affected me as emotionally and as profoundly as Aronofsky's previous film, THE WRESTLER.

In fairness to Aronofsky, the B-movie craziness of BLACK SWAN can be traced back directly to its roots - the ballet Swan Lake - a Gothic melodrama containing elements of body-horror, psychotic doubling and ending in transformative suicide. If that isn't the stuff of a Polanski horror flick, I don't know what is. In the ballet, an evil wizard transforms the innocent princess Odile into a were-swan. The love of the handsome prince should set her free, but her evil doppelgaenger Odette seduces the prince, with results varying depending on which version of the ballet you watch. In the film, Natalie Portman's Nina Sayer has been infantilised by an over-bearing mother (Barbara Hershey). Under pressure to be the perfect "sweet girl" and ballerina, Nina self-harms, is bulimic, has a pathological desire to please, and a psychotic fear of imperfection. When given the role of the Swan Queen, Nina has to bring her innate sexuality, so suppressed by her mother, out into the open, to inform her dancing of the Black Swan. She simply cracks trying to reconcile her mother's expectations of pre-pubescent innocence and her ballet director's (Vincent Cassel) aggressive demands that she be as instinctively sexual as her understudy (Mila Kunis).

What follows is a movie that creates a sense of building tension through the use of claustrophobic interior shots; invasive close-ups; visual trickery with mirrors; and sound editing that suggests an inner self trying to break through. The movie is never pure horror despite plenty of shots involving nail-clipping and skin-scratching.  After all, we never really doubt whether what we are seeing is real or imagined. Nina is shown to be an unreliable witness too early in the movie for that. What we do have is a powerful display of hysteria - but heightened to the point where it is sometimes unintentionally funny (an early scene bedroom scene, for example) and moves so far beyond realism that one feels almost disengaged from it. Nina is less a person to sympathise with than a delicate compendium of every single neurosis that can arise from intensely un-boundaried parenting.

The thematic material in BLACK SWAN is very similar to THE WRESTLER. In both movies we have individuals who are so dedicated to and defined by their profession, that they ultimately sacrifice their physical and mental well-being to it. The Wrestler staples himself and batters himself to entertain, just as Nina breaks her toes and punishes her body. The Wrestler and Nina may be extreme examples of self-destruction, but they hint at the systematic physical abuse that their professions entail. That's why Aronofsky's shooting style is so perfect. By taking the cameras on-stage, by using tracking shots that immerse us in their worlds, Aronofsky is making us look behind the costumes to see the grueling physicality. He wants us to see the sweat, the muscles, the bleeding toes and the broken bones. 

In a sense, Aronofsky is making a bigger point about the demands the entertainment industries make of its professionals, begging the obvious question of how far this applies to his profession, with its pressure to maintain youthful good looks with botox, plastic surgery and aggressive dieting. To that end, one can only view the casting of Mickey Rourke in THE WRESTLER and Barbara Hershey in BLACK SWAN - both self-mutilated by plastic surgery and injury - as provocations. By casting these actors, Aronofsky is himself blurring the line between actor and character - just as Nina can't separate reality from fiction. Similarly, the use of Winona Ryder to play the prima ballerina Nina supplants is inspired. Ryder was a beautiful young actress whose early success morphed into career stagnation and personal humiliation.  Who else better signifies crushing rejection in reality and on screen?

Still, for all the similarity in material, and in the vérité shooting style used in the apartment scenes, to my mind BLACK SWAN is at once a greater and lesser film than THE WRESTLER. It is a greater film insofar as it shows Aronofsky and DP Matthew Libatique in perfect command of vérité shooting style but also able to inter-cut this with its exact opposite - a super-heightened gothic horror shotting style using chiaroscuro and close-ups. It also shows that Aronofsky can do genre cinema with the best of them. But BLACK SWAN is a lesser film insofar as that willingness to leap into melodramatic horror is ultimately a distancing device. Nina Sayers is such a compendium of crazy - under such extreme pressure - that she becomes a device rather than a person. Accordingly, as the film moves into its final act, it is beautiful but it isn't emotionally arresting. Nina's self-destructive tailspin is transfixing, wonderful, crazy and all-consuming - but it never made me feel the visceral hurt that The Wrestler did. That is BLACK SWAN's only flaw - but it is a serious one.

BLACK SWAN played Venice, Telluride, Toronto and London 2010. It opened last year in the US and Canada. It opens this Friday in the UK, Australia, Denmark, Germany, Ireland and Poland. It opens on the 27th in Chile, Greece, Slovenia and Lithuania, It opens on February 4th in the Netherlands, Portugal, Brazil, Iceland and Norway. It opens in France, Singapore and Mexico on February 10th. It opens on February 17th in Argentina, Hungary, Israel, Russia, Estonia and Spain. It opens on February 24th in Belgium, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Finland and Turkey. It opens in Sweden on March 4th, Italy on March 11th and the Czech Republic on April 7th.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

THE GREEN HORNET - in which Hollywood pisses on my eiderdown once more

I am HUGELY disappointed by THE GREEN HORNET. I know it had a "troubled" journey to our screens, with Kevin Smith's scripts hacked and directors dropping out like so many milk-teeth. But when it got to the final credit list, I was full of anticipation. After all, this was a superhero movie that was going to be set square in the tradition of fond mockery - the tradition that produced the brilliantly funny KICK-ASS and genre-pastiches like PINEAPPLE EXPRESS. And who better to mock fondly than director Michel Gondry - the guy behind the wonderfully sweet, adorably goofy BE KIND, REWIND, not to mention quirkier, stranger, more brilliantly crazy THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP. The cast looked fly too - the newly trim Seth Rogen - hilarious in PINEAPPLE EXPRESS was going to bring that child-like enthusiasm and general all-round good-egg persona to the role of Britt Reid/The Green Hornet, playboy millionaire turned masked-crime-fighter. Cameron Diaz - always willing to take the piss out of herself - was going to play the love interest, Lenore Case. We had the promise of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS' Chrisoph Waltz as the evil villain Chudnofsky. And best of all for Battlestar Galactica geeks, we had Edward James "Adama" Olmos as the editor of the Daily Sentinel. Okay, so I'd never heard of the Jay Chou, guy who plays The Hornet's sidekick, Kato, but I was willing to roll with it. So there it was - I was all ready for a superhero pastiche/homage full of good jokes, ridonkulous super-weapons and a general good-time.

But what did I get? Joke-free boredom. And without jokes, all this movie becomes is a Batman/Superman knock-off. Derivative, predictable, silly, emotionally involving, and absolutely no stakes. And when the jokes don't work you have to blame either the script or the actors or, in the case of physical humour, the director. So, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Jay Chou, Cameron Diaz, Christoph Waltz, Michel Gondry, I know want you to go and stand in the corner and think VERY carefully about what you've done. Especially Gondry. I mean, I am genuinely amazed that Gondry even knows how to direct something this banal.

Evidently, somewhere in Hollywood, in some drawer, there is a Kevin Smith script for THE GREEN HORNET that is frackin' amazing. Somewhere, years ago, in some producer's office, there was a dream of a brilliantly witty, action-filled movie. The dream, ladies and gentlemen, is dead.

P.S. I got so angry when I was writing this review that I forgot to mention the biggest insult of all! This movie has been retro-fitted with 3D after principal photography was completed. The result is a film that costs an extra few pounds to see, and where the only material impact of 3D is that it looks several shades more dull than if you were watching it without the glasses.  There are no cool action shots that are enhanced by it. There's no immersive, subtle enhancement of depth of field. Just cynical commercial decision-making at its most brazen.

THE GREEN HORNET is on release in Belgium, Chile, Egypt, France, Belgium, Chile, Egypt, France, Switzerland, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Austria, Canada, Estonia, India, Spain, the UK, the USA and Venezuela. It opens next weekend in Australia, New Zealand, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Japan. It opens on the 28th January in Greece, Singapore and Italy. It opens on February 3rd in Russia.

Friday, January 14, 2011


BLUE VALENTINE is a justifiably praised indie drama about a young couple falling in and out of love. The stories of their meeting in the early twenties, and their disintegrating marriage six years later, and presented linearly, but inter-cut. Seeing the couple in their early heady romance juxtaposed so directly with their later frustrations brings an added pathos to what would have already been an incredibly affecting, brutally closely observed story.

Ryan Gosling (HALF NELSON) and Michelle Williams (WENDY AND LUCY) both give bravura performances as Dean and Cindy, perfectly rendering portraits of their characters at two stages of life. Gosling's Dean starts off as a charming, spontaneous, caring young man, stuck in a blue-collar job but apparently not asking anything more from life. No surprise then that Cindy - stuck in a loveless home - is drawn to his open-ness and warmth - so much so that when she falls pregnant she is willing to shelve her career ambitions to make a life with him. Six years later, and Cindy is tired and frustrated - a dutiful mother and working woman. Dean's spontaneity and charm now strike her as infantile, and though faithful to the idea of marriage, she has no desire for him. Meanwhile, Dean is seemingly so content with the idea of being a husband and father that he has no desire to push himself any further in life, or any real comprehension as to his wife's new-found coldness toward him. By marrying Cindy he has achieved more than he could have ever dreamed of - the pretty middle-class girl - and perhaps the greatest sadness of the film is that while Cindy can see more, has been raised to try for more, Dean has never been given that sense of possibility.

The bold performances are matched by documentary film-maker Derek Cianfrance's choices with the camera and editing. He shoots the couple in two very different styles in each period of their life - the courtship is in wide-angled Super 16 that always seems a little bright and grainy - like watching old cine-films of your childhood. It adds to the feeling that these are old memories. The present is shot with long lenses on DV, and it feels like the camera is always positioned to give us the feeling that the two characters are caught in a confined space, and yet never in the same focus when in the frame. It's as though the camera lens is literally entrapping them in a shared space but perpetual misunderstanding.

The overall effect is one of uncomfortable voyeurism. The movie is almost an endurance test. Because we are charmed by the couple's courtship - because they are both essentially good and charming and caring people - it becomes absolutely gruelling to watch them inflict hurt after hurt upon each other for no typically Hollywood-reason - no distinct cause - but just because they have grown up, or haven't in different ways.

BLUE VALENTINE played Sundance, Cannes, Telluride, Toronto and London 2010. It is currently on release in the US, Australia, Malaysia and Canada. It opens in the UK this Friday, in Portugal on February 3rd and in Sweden on April 1st. Both Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams have been nominated for Golden Globes.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

THE KING'S SPEECH - wonderful pantomime

In the mid-1930s, Britain was still a proud Empire that ranged from the Caribbean territories in the West, via East Africa, to India, Australia and Hong Kong. But the home country was still reeling from the Great Depression and fearful of the second Great War in living memory. The Empire needed leadership, both from its politicians who had the real political power, and from its monarchy, whose job was to inspire loyalty and imperial unity in the face of adversity. But the politicians fell grip to appeasement, and bar Winston Churchill, utterly failed to anticipate Hitler's aggression. As for the monarchy King George V was dying; and his son, David. the short-lived King Edward VIII, abdicated so that he could marry the scandal-ridden divorcee Wallis Simpson. Thus, David's younger brother, Bertie, the Duke of York (father of the current Queen Elizabeth) was thrust onto the throne as King George VI, with the task of leading his country and his Empire into World War Two. Pity then, the man, courageous and dutiful, but hampered by a debilitating stammer induced, the movie argues, by a shockingly loveless and brutal childhood.

THE KING'S SPEECH is, then, the story of how Bertie (Colin Firth) persevered through humiliation and fear to become technically more accomplished at public speaking and emotionally able to take on the burden of monarchy. He did this, the film posits, through sheer courage; the love of a good woman (Helena Bonham-Carter); and through the advice and friendship of the radically informal, Antipodean speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). 

So here's the thing. THE KING'S SPEECH is basically a really well made and emotionally involving film. It comes to our screens dripping with critical praise and smothered with awards. Director Tom Hooper eschews the typical lavish costume drama production design and shooting style, instead trapping his King in fog-bound streets and narrow corridors. The cast give fine performances. The script is beautifully written. I was deeply caught up in the drama. But, as I write this review some days later, I am less impressed by the film. Because, essentially, I was in the realms of pantomime cinema.

Colin Firth is, after all, playing an essentially Good Man.  Firth's Bertie is understandably angry; occasionally very funny; a warm, loving father and a dutiful king. He is an under-dog hero without faults, played by an actor at the top of his game.His wife is also without fault in this film - determined to help her husband, utterly sympathetic to him, charming to commoners, but conscious of maintaining her regal authority. And even Lionel Logue is a man without fault and dripping with charm! He is wonderfully brash, believes in Bertie's essentially goodness, and constantly helps him, even when Bertie sounds off at him. Even the minor characters are basically charming and lovely.  Logue's wife (Jennifer Ehle) in a few short scenes is a picture of calm concern and wise advice.  The horribly politically wrong Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin (a marvelous cameo from Anthony Andrews) is noble and humble in his failure.  And even Chrurchill (Timothy Spall), the towering personality who seemed to win the War single-handedly through sheer bloody-mindedness and brilliance, is humanised by the admission of a youthful speech impediment. 

And what of the villains of the piece? They too are essentially mono-dimensional. David (Guy Pierce with a pitch-perfect voice impersonation) is basically a bullying, selfish cad, utterly beguiled by the domineering Wallis. The late King George V (Michael Gambon) and his wife are distant, uncaring, bullying parents. And Derek Jacobi's Archbishop of Canterbury is an obsequious passive-aggressive arse.

So there you have it:  THE KING'S SPEECH is the ne plus ultra of feel-good movies, with the added bonus of being about glamorous royals. It comes complete with palaces and princesses - evil villains, unimpeachable heroes, the love that conquers all, the buddy movie, the under-dog story. And the biggest signal that we are in the realms of blatant emotional manipulation? The lazy use of the adagio from Beethoven's 7th symphony and the adagio from Beethoven's 5th piano sonata as we hear the King give his final, triumphant speech and wave to his adoring public on the balcony of Buckingham Palace.

THE KING'S SPEECH played Telluride, Toronto, London and the AFI 2010. It was released last year in the USA, Canada, Greece, Spain, Australia and New Zealand. It is released on January 7th in the UK, on January 21st in Estonia and Finland, and on January 28th in Slovenia, Iceland and Italy. It will be released in France on February 2nd, in Hungary on February 3rd and in Brazil and Sweden on February 4th. It will be released in Portugal on February 10th and in Germany and the Netherlands on February 17th. It will be released in Russia on March 17th.

At the British Independent Film Awards, THE KING'S SPEECH won Best Film, Screenplay, Actor (Colin Firth), Supporting Actor (Geoffrey Rush), Actress (Helena Bonham Carter). It was nominated for Best Director, Supporting Actor (Guy Pierce) and Production Design (Eve Stewart). It has also been nominated for seven Golden Globes and four SAG awards.