Monday, February 28, 2011

Are the Oscars relevant to anyone but Conde Nast?

Last night, the Oscars finally jumped the shark, with a televised ceremony in which the host, James Franco, looked as bored as the audience. Because, let's be honest, the Oscars have long-since been completely irrelevant for film-goers and an endurance test for television viewers - useful only insofar as you care about haute couture trends and selling advertising space in glossy fashion magazines.

The reality is that when it comes to rewarding good Cinema, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has always missed the mark. This is, after all, the voting population that gave an Oscar to Dances With Wolves over Goodfellas, and to How Green Was My Valley over Citizen Kane. But at least Kane was nominated. The Academy didn't even pay that respect to The Third Man; Brazil; Mean Streets; Last Tango in Paris; Easy Rider...The list goes on: iconic films that have become part of our cultural heritage, and all of them completely over-looked by the self-appointed arbiters of quality and success. Not only does the Academy have a shocking track record in rewarding quality, but they compound errors in judgement by trying to make amends in following years, further punishing that year's worthy candidates. The classic example of this would be Martin Scorsese, serially and criminally overlooked for his masterpieces - Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Goodfellas - only to have those slights "put right" with a sort of Lifetime Achievement Award in all but name with his Best Director Oscar for The Departed in 2006. Too bad for Almodovar, whose Volver surely deserved recognition.

The cause of this shambles is threefold: age, actors and alternative votes. First off, the Academy voters are OLD. Once you are invited to join, you are eligible to vote for life, resulting in an average voting age in the late 50s. And, as ageist as this might sound, old people are inherently more conservative than young people. And in an industry where cutting edge, pioneering, radical art will be produced by the young - and mainstream blockbusters are designed to be consumed by teenage boys - the Academy voter is left out-of-touch with both art-house and mainstream sensibilities. This is why you end up with sentimental, populist pantomime like Driving Miss Daisy and The King's Speech cleaning up, while more edgy material is left unrecognised. And if one wanted to be even more damning, that's why a movie like Brokeback Mountain, featuring explicit gay sex, never stood a chance.

Second, the Academy voters - made up of the leading lights of all the industry groups that bring movies to the screen - is dominated by actors. And actors basically vote for films that contain Big Melodramatic Performances. This is a key reason why so many Serious Dramas win Best Picture while comedies - especially group ensembles - tend to be overlooked. That's why Hilary Swank won two Oscars before Sandra Bullock got a nomination - and why everyone's favourite "girl next door" actress had to choose an Issues Film before she finally got recognition. And don't even get me started on how genre films - you know - the type of movies most of us take to our hearts! - get overlooked. If the Oscars really represented the best of 2010/2011, then Toy Story 3 would've won Best Picture, not just Best Animated Feature, and Kick-Ass would've been nominated too.

The final nail in the coffin is the Alternative Vote system of voting. What basically happens is that each industry group gets to vote for its own award - so the directors vote for the Best Director and the editors vote for the Best Editor. But in the case of Best Picture, everyone can vote and they have to rank all ten (count 'em!) ten nominees. If a nominated film fails to get at least 10% of the first-choice votes, it gets knocked out, and all the people who voted for that film have their second choice added to the ballot. So goes the knock-out process until a winner emerges. What this means is that you can easily have a film win without a majority, or even a plurality of first-choice votes, so long as most people think it's basically okay and rank it somewhere in the top third of movies. And, you guessed it, that favours films that are basically pretty harmless and banal and are unlikely to offend anyone.

The upshot is that, thanks to Age, Actors and AV, the Oscars never were and likely never will be a place where great pioneering provocative cinema is awarded. But just because the awards on offer have no credibility doesn't mean that the TV show has to suck. In theory, one could imagine a scenario in which, while the awards were nonsensical, the ceremony was spectacularly entertaining. And for years this is exactly what the Golden Globes managed to pull off, with its slightly anarchic, shambolic air, fueled by too much booze and a sort of wry amusement at the anonymity of the hosts. This trend reached its apex with this year's ceremony, featuring Ricky Gervais as a kind of schlubby avenging angel, speaking Truth to Self-Appointed Power. Gervais said what everyone was thinking but didn't have the balls to say. And what's more, he said it to their faces. Never before have I seen such a glorious spectacle - such a brilliant skewering of ego. But, alas, hackles up, Hollywood is never going to allow that kind of bat-shit crazy career suicide again.

And so we ended up with the debacle that was last night's ceremony. The awards roster was, as usual, bloated with technical awards that no-one except the industry cares about (who, outside the obsessives, even knows what an Art Director does? - who even watches short features anyway?) The winners were all the odds-on favourites - The King's Speech cleaning up the main awards, Inception taking the technical awards, and The Fighter and Black Swan rounding out the roster. Even Melissa Leo's F-bomb came across as pre-scripted - her faux-naivete and excitement a calculated move to garner column inches and, hey!, I too fell for it. The only real shock was just how uninvolved James Franco looked - merely cementing his art-house credentials as the guy too busy reading Kerouac to give a damn.

And so the endless speculation about the winners is over, and the real Oscar conversation - who wore what - can begin. Glossy pictures of stars in ball-gowns will sell magazines and drive unique page-views to the TMZ. And in a world where print media is dying and advertising is leaking to the internet - where movie studios are struggling to fend off piracy - maybe we shouldn't begrudge them their annual shameless cash-in. Fine. But all I ask is that we stop pretending that the Ocars have anything to do with a real discussion about what was good and admirable in the last year's cinema.

Friday, February 25, 2011


DRIVE ANGRY 3D is a brilliantly crass grind-house movie.  If you want to see a hot chick beat the crap out of a naked chick who's just been caught fucking the first chick's fiancé, then this is the movie for you. Or if you want to see a bad-ass smoking a cigar, fully clothed, fucking a naked woman in a motel room, while simultaneously shooting six assholes dead, then this is your flick!  The plot is ridiculous - obviously. Nic Cage plays a dude called John Milton (Paradise Lost, people!) who escapes Hell to chase down a cult-leader called Jonah (Billy Burke) and save his baby grand-daughter from having her head ripped off. Of course! He is helped by a smokin' hot waitress played by Amber Heard, and is in turn chased down by a mean guy called The Accountant dressed in a Men In Black style suit and played by William Fichtner. 

I'm not sure if it makes any sense to seriously review a movie who's every component justifies an exclamation mark, other than to say that director Patrick Lussier and writer Todd Farmer (MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3D) have succeeded in making a movie as ridonkulous and vulgar as CRANK.  It's great as far as it goes and I really loved it for the first hour, but after that, the relentless car chases wore me down. Still, in this age of post-modern detached cynicism, you've got to love any movie that tries so hard to have a balls-out good time.  And, from a technical stand-point, in an era of retro-fitted piss-poor 3D, you've got to embrace DP Brian Pearson's wallowing in the schlock-entertainment factor of the medium.

MY BLOODY VALENTINE is on release in the UK, US, Bosnia, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Kuwait, the Netherlands, Canada, Estonia, Lithuania, Malaysia, the Philippines and Poland. It opens next week in Argentina, Egypt, the Czech Republic, Greece, Kazakhstan, Russia, Bulgaria, India and Armenia. It opens on March 25th in Uruguay, Belgium, France and Turkey. It opens in April in Peru, Brazil, Mexico, Italy, Spain, Panama, Venezuela and Singapore. It opens on May 13th in Iceland, on May 26th in Portugal and on August 6th in Japan.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Random DVD Round-Up 4 - THE SWITCH

THE SWITCH is not half as bad as I thought it would be. From the marketing campaign, I'd written it off as one of those Hollywood romantic-comedies featuring an actress too old to really be playing the ditzy chick, given a new shot at features with plots featuring getting knocked up. (Think J-Lo in THE BACK-UP PLAN). Worse still, having been bitten too often by risible, banal Jennifer Aniston rom-coms - distracted by her botox and repelled by the smell of desperation coming off the screen - I was simply in no mood for it. But I have to say that, basically thanks to a rather restrained performance by Jason Bateman, I rather liked it! 

 Directed by Josh Gordon and Will Speck (BLADES OF GLORY) the movie starts off as a crude frat-boy gross-out comedy but morphs into something altogether more thoughtful. The opening scenes take us through the mechanics of the set-up with a sort of knockabout humour that entirely failed to connect with me. Kassie (Jennifer Aniston) has a party to celebrate getting artificially inseminated by hunky Roland (Patrick Wilson). Her best friend Wally (Jason Bateman) thinks she's making a mistake, gets drunk, accidentally knocks over Roland's semen and replaces it with his own. Years later, Kassie moves back to the city with her little kid - an introspective odd-ball, and as Wally and Kassie tentatively rekindle their friendship, he starts to realise that he's the kids father. We then get what is actually some rather touching character-driven drama as Wally opens up about his own childhood to the kid, and breaks Kassie and Roland up. 

There's a lot of mono-dimensional character-writing in the film, to be sure. Poor Patrick Wilson has little to do except be buff - Juliette Lewis' balls-out craziness is entirely unused - and Jeff Goldblum is the cliché promiscuous but basically lonely older sleazebag. But somehow, underneath all that, we get Jason Bateman's character really baring his soul. And yes, I think on balance, watching this film is probably worth it for Bateman. 

THE SWITCH was released in Autumn 2010 and is now available to rent and own.

Monday, February 21, 2011


Documentarian Nanette Burstein (AMERICAN TEEN, THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE) makes her debut feature with the like-able and sometimes authentic romantic-comedy GOING THE DISTANCE. Drew Barrymore and Justin Long - perhaps two of the most charming light-comedy actors currently working - play a couple who meet and have a fun fling knowing she's about to relocate from New York to San Francisco. Trouble is, they really connect, and so attempt to do a long-distance relationship. I love the honesty of it. Lots of scenes will feel familiar to anyone who's tried this. The financial strain of buying plane tickets - the jealousy of "friends" who are closer by - the justification to friends of why it's worth it - the struggle to weigh up career-choices versus life-partners. And the great thing is that Geoff LaTulippe's script handles it all very lightly. I can't say much bad about the script. It's well acted, contains consistent laughs and I genuinely cared about what happened to the characters. There may be a few rom-com cliché moments (do we really need the crude, OTT tanning salon scene?), but so many as to detract from the overall vibe. Basically, it's all good!

GOING THE DISTANCE was released last autumn and is available to rent and own.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Random DVD Round-Up 2 - GROWN-UPS

GROWN-UPS is an alleged warm-hearted comedy that utterly fails to entertain on any level. 

The conceit is that four school-friends, now grown-up, come together at the funeral of their beloved school sports coach, and spend the weekend together in a vacation home. Their lives have taken them in different directions. Adam Sandler's character has turned into a big name Hollywood name, and is married to a glamorous fashion designer (Salma Hayek). Meanwhile Kevin James' character has ended up a small-time employee, much to his own shame. The movie is meant to be about how these friends rediscover their friendship and what really matters in life. It's meant to be about how our kids have become spoiled by Tivo and video games and need to just run around in the mud sometimes. All laudable aims. 

But in terms of execution, the fact that this flick was directed by Dennis Dugan (YOU DON'T MESS WITH THE ZOHAN, BIG DADDY, HAPPY GILMORE) and co-written with Fred Wolf (THE HOUSE BUNNY, LITTLE NICKY) tells you all you need to know about the crass humour and crude narrative arcs that the characters are sent on. I didn't invest in any of the characters, and so didn't care about their enlightenment. I didn't buy into the fashion designer ditching her Milan show - her heart melting with surprising ease. Even worse, I hated the so-called attempts at comedy. What happened to Maria Bello's career that she takes a part where her only job is to provide a "gag" about her toddler still drinking breast milk? Am I really meant to laugh at a grown man falling into mud? And what dirt do SNL has-beens David Spade and Rob Schneider have on Adam Sandler that he keep casting them in his films? 

 Still, it's far more watchable than COUPLE'S RETREAT. 

 GROWN UPS was released in summer 2010 and is available to rent and own.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


COUPLE'S RETREAT is a truly piss-poor alleged comedy starring Vince Vaughn, Jason Bateman, Jon Favreau and Faizon Love as middle-aged men frustrated by middle-aged family life. So they and their wives (Malin Akerman, Kristen Bell, Kristin Davis, Kali Hawk)) take off for a tropical island and a weekend of intense marital therapy run by a spectacularly mis-cast Jean Reno. I just don't know where to begin in terms of reviewing it. It's a movie so devoid of comedic inspiration that it simply falls flat in every scene. I didn't care about any of the characters. I didn't find any of the verbal or physical humour funny. And I wanted the film to end. Quickly. Save yourself the trouble and rent Favreau and Vaughn's genius early pic, SWINGERS instead, and remember a time when they were able to create genuinely sympathetic characters and laugh-out-loud funny lines.

COUPLES RETREAT was released in autumn 2010 and is now available to rent and own.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


The Coen Brothers are, for me, film-makers who chronicle the absurd and the arbitrary. Their films feature ordinary folk living ordinary lives, taken up by Chance and led into crazy adventures.The protagonists may well be eccentric - and often, superficially, have crazy hair - but they have nothing on the people they meet and the circumstances they encounter. In the early films, Chance manifested itself in a kind of dark, absurd, comedy. The protagonists were put through the ringer but ultimately were set down back in their homes, happy and well. But of late, the Coen Brothers' films have taken on a darker tone, and become almost obsessive with the arbitrary nature of Chance. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, following directly from the novel, goes to black mid-sentence. The message seems to be that after all this cruelty, all this killing, there are no answers, no justice, no meaning. A SERIOUS MAN is similarly nihilistic. It's a film filled with search for meaning, typically religious meaning, but ultimately it holds no answers. A good, if complacent man, suffers the torments of man and nature. Why? There isn't a why.

It was, then, with some surprise that I learned that the Coen Brothers were adapting Charles Portis' True Grit for the screen - a novel whose over-arching theme is "You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another". For, at the most basic level, True Grit is a story about a young girl in late nineteenth century rural Arkansas, who hires a mercenary to help her get revenge on the thief that murdered her father. And at a more complicated level, it's a story about the sacrifices that those who seek to punish must make. The heroine, Mattie Ross, pays dearly for her single-minded obsession with revenge, but even her associates, Rooster Cogburn and LaBoeuf lead diminished lives as a result. Punishment is meted out to all, and in direct proportion to their crimes and faults. This is not, then, the world of arbitrary justice so often depicted in Coen Brothers films.

The Coen Brothers' adaptation of the book is faithful - as faithful as their adaptation of No Country For Old Men - and far more faithful than the 1969 film starring John Wayne, Glen Gampbell, Kim Darby and, in smaller roles, Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper. In this film, the voice of the narrator - Miss Mattie Ross - comes undiminished to the screen, and it's no surprise to see that it's Hailee Steinfeld, the young girl playing that character, who has the best of the dialogue and the pick of the award nominations. It's a gift of a role. In the book as in this film, Mattie is as particular as any Coen Brothers character. She's a teenage girl with a cool head for business, a strong religious sense of right and wrong, and a determination beyond her years. She weighs everything according to its cost and brooks no opposition. The funniest scenes in the film come early on, as we see wily adults try to fool her or dismiss her, only to be taken to the cleaners themselves. The lawman she hires, Rooster Cogburn (played by a wonderfully grizzled Jeff Bridges), comes to respect her after initially trying to shake her off. And even the vain Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (a wonderfully funny Matt Damon), overcomes his initial frustration and distaste to feel affection for her. But Mattie is warned early on by a local lawyer that she will pay dearly for this stubborn determination, and as we see the movie's final scene and epilogue we can see that that has been the case. But we get no sense that she regrets her actions. She knew the cost, and accepted it. Her sense of justice is as cool whether concerning herself or her father's murderer, Tom Chaney. And that's the message of the novel and the film. True Grit is to do what you feel is right, but to look unflinchingly at the consequences. And when it comes to steadfast courage, Mattie beats the men she hires hands down.

The resulting film is a work of the highest quality and quiet strength. It's not as superficially provocative or quirky as many of the Coen Brothers' films, and because of its thematic material and lack of spectacular haircuts, many reviewers have dismissed it as being "not a Coen Brothers film". My view on this is that the Coen Brothers have become so reknowned for delivering films with rapier-like dialogue, superb acting performances, stunning cinematography (typically from Roger Deakins) and great scores (here, Carter Burwell), that viewers and reviewers have become complacent. It's as if the machine is so well-oiled that it is taken for having been effortless, or even banal. To my mind, this is utterly wrong-headed. TRUE GRIT is a kind of pantheon film - a film in which every part of the whole - lead performances, supporting performances, photography, design, editing, dialogue - blend seamlessly into a profound and affecting whole. No individual component stands out and attracts attention in the way that Javier Bardem's character did in NO COUNTRY, but the completed work is truly a thing of great art and craft.

To my mind, TRUE GRIT is simply the best film of the cinema year 2010-2011, and has been woefully underplayed during the awards season. It is being drowned out by more populist or more self-consciously dramatic fare (THE KING'S SPEECH, THE SOCIAL NETWORK and BLACK SWAN). But, foolish as it is to make such predictions, I believe that TRUE GRIT will stand the test of time far better than those, still very admirable, films. Quiet quality does not often get rewarded, but look at any aspect of this production and tell me it isn't first class.

TRUE GRIT opened last year in the US and Canada. It is currently on release in Norway, Australia, Mexico, Argentina, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Peru, Russia, Brazil, Iceland, Panama, Poland, Spain, the UK, Venezuela, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Greece, Hungary, Kuwait, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Finland, Italy and Sweden. It opens next week in Belgium, Egypt, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey. It opens on March 18th in Japan.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


Ivan Reitman, of GHOSTBUSTERS, fame returns to our screens with the kind of contemporary social comedy more typically associated with his son Jason (THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, UP IN THE AIR). The result is a movie that wants us to think it's edgy and honest, but when you cut to the meat, it's still the same old rom-com happy-ending bullshit we've been subjected to for decades.

Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher play two emotionally bruised people who react to their wounds in diametrically opposite ways. The girl becomes emotionally repressed, running from anything that could turn sour and hurt her. By contrast, the boy becomes immensely open and vulnerable, rushing toward people who can't return his emotions. Not automatically the set-up for a rom-com, one might think. But hey-ho, this being Hollywood, the two star-crossed lovers meet cute and decide to have NSA sex. Inevitably, they fall in love. He pushes for a relationship and she runs. One suspects that if Jason Reitman had been directing the film that's where it would've ended. But no. Because, while this film tries to prove how modern and liberated it is with its explicit sexual references and a whole scene devoted to period cramps, essentially it is a conservative project. And this contradiction infects every scene. Thus, while there are some rather funny set-pieces, typically involving the superb supporting cast (Mindy Kalinga, Kevin Kline, Lake Bell, and a brilliantly ditzy Ophelia Lovibond), the movie as a whole just doesn't hang together.

Not only does the film not hang together, it also has the faint whiff of desperation about it. It's desperate for us to love it - for us to think it's cool. In fact, it's about as desperate as the scarily need mono-dimensionally good guy that Ashton Kutcher plays in this flick, not to mention last year's VALENTINE'S DAY. I am genuinely puzzled as to why Natalie Portman, darling of indie flicks since LEON, and soon to be Oscar winner for BLACK SWAN, decided to take a role in this film. And it's even more bizarre when you realise that she actually produced it. And perhaps most puzzling of all - what a bizarre and wasteful way to use Cary Elwes!

NO STRINGS ATTACHED was released in January in the USA and Canada. It is currently on release in Bulgaria, Belgium, Indonesia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Portugal, Finland, Norway, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Singapore. It opens next week in Argentina, Greece, Brazil, Estonia and the UK. It opens on March 18th in Poland; on March 25th in Iceland and Spain; and on March 31st in Slovenia. It opens on April 1st in Sweden; on April 15th in Italy and on April 22nd in Japan.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


JUST GO WITH IT is an Adam Sandler vehicle directed by his long-standing collaborator, Dennis Dugan (HAPPY GILMORE, BIG DADDY, GROWN UPS).  It's based on a French farce, which means that you have to willingly suspend your disbelief as layer after layer of ridiculousness takes place. I don't mind a good farce, but one tolerates the nonsense plot in exchange for consistent raucous laughter. Sadly, JUST GO WITH IT  doesn't deliver. In fact, barring a few sly plastic surgery jokes, the movie is by turns dull, mawkish and plain embarrassing.

Adam Sandler plays an emotionally scarred plastic surgeon who avoids real relationships by shagging young birds while wearing a wedding ring. When he finally meets a girl he actually likes (Mrs Andy Roddic - Brooklyn Decker) he has to magic up an actual ex-wife, and persuades dowdy co-worker (Jennifer Aniston looking about as un-dowdy as, well, Jennifer Aniston) to pretend. Of course, when the girlfriend twigs that Jen has kids, she wants to meet them too - cue a massive extended family holiday in Hawaii.  The pretence gets even more complex when Aniston's character bumps into her super-successful college bete-noire (Nicole Kidman) and wants to pretend she's still married to Sandler, much to the confusion of his current girlfriend.

The problem is that a) Aniston doesn't look dowdy so her transformation into hot chick lacks punch b) Sandler's character is meant to realise that he should grow up and date a real women rather than a super-model. Except that he ends up realising the grown woman is for him because she turns out to look like a super-model - having your cake and eating it much?! c) the scene where Aniston and Sandler tell each other what they like about each other made me want to vomit d) the scene where Kidman gets on stage and tries to out-shine Aniston's character was probably the most embarrassingly unfunny thing I'll see on screen all year. 

JUST GO WITH IT is on release in the US, UK, Egypt, Israel, Singapore, the UAE, Canada, Iceland, Ireland and Mexico. It opens later in February in the Philippines, Estonia, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Finland, Norway and Spain. It opens in March in Brazil, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Kazakhstan, France, Belarus, Russia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Australia, Malaysia and Peru. It opens in April in Colombia, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Belgium, Portugal, India, the Netherlands, Panama, Venezuela and Argentina. It opens on July 1st in Paraguay.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

THE FIGHTER - Bale is outstanding, the rest is cliché and caricature

THE FIGHTER is a good old-fashioned boxing under-dog movie, with all the clichés and genre-conventions that go with the territory. 1. You get a boxer. He's scrabbling around getting beaten up for half the film. He gets a title fight chance - there's a training montage - he wins against all odds. 2. The boxer has a trainer who is self-destructive and threatens to derail the boxer's career. But the boxer really does need him and so they reconcile before the title fight. 3. The boxer has a girlfriend. She really believes in him and protects his interests against all the liggers and users who try to derail him. It's been the same story ever since ROCKY.

In this version, The Boxer is real-life Boston fighter, Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg). He's the stereotypical good guy, but hen-pecked by a manipulative, over-bearing mother (Melissa Leo) and his seven sisters. The Self-Destructive Trainer is Micky's step-brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale). Dicky used to be a fighter too, and is living off the memory of the time he supposedly knocked out Sugar Ray Leonard. Like many addicts, he's developed a charming, witty, winning personality out of survival instinct - as a crack-addict he's constantly having to charm his way back into his family's affections. Together, Micky's family put him in shitty fights, needing the money, and emotionally blackmail him from getting outside help. The Girlfriend is Charlene Fleming (Amy Adams), a feisty waitress who sits in Micky's corner, but essentially, rather than liberating him from his family, she just provides another set of commands. Coupled with its straightforward genre-convetions, THE FIGHTER has a straightforward, linear plot. We meet Micky as a third-rate journeyman boxer - see Charlene force a split with the family - only to unite before the climactic title fight. Nothing new there.

The resulting film gives us no surprises. You can predict how it's going to work, and who's going to do what. Most of the characters are caricatures. Silent, frustrated Micky. The evil manipulative mother - a far less subtle portrayal than Livia Soprano, and practically on a level with the animated Mother Gothel in Disney's TANGLED. The Feisty Girlfriend. And the performances are pretty mono-dimensional too. I think Wahlberg has been unfairly blamed for being "absent" - that's what his role calls for. But I really don't get all the praise for Melissa Leo and Amy Adams. Their characters are just crude portrayals of one-note harpies. Maybe I should blame the writing, but honestly, there's nothing demanding or insightful here. Only Christian Bale as Dicky Eklund is given a character with real depth, contradiction and development. He's a man trapped inside a delusion - a fictional character called "the pride of Lowell" that he performs for his fellow townsfolk, crack addicts and inmates. Sure he plays up to the cameras, when the HBO documentarians come to town, but he's playing up to reality too. As the movie unfolds, we see him confronted with his delusion and move towards some kind of self-knowledge. It's a superb piece of writing, and a bravura performance from Bale - as broad as the Joker in the "Pride of Lowell" character, yet also reflective and quiet as the reforming Dicky. Dicky is the real Fighter in this film - and the real emotional centre of the movie. When we see the final frame static capture of the brothers celebrating Micky's triumph, it's Dicky's face we look to. It's his triumph to have reformed, to have been let back into Micky's corner, and to have become a big enough man to allow his brother his success, and to be proud of him. Bale should be getting all the awards this season - but for Best Actor, rather than Supporting Actor.

I guess I've already hinted at what I perceive to be the weaknesses in the script - the broad characterisations and resistance to pushing the envelope. I think there are also real weaknesses with David O Russell's (THREE KINGS, I HEAR HUCKABEES) directorial choices. Essentially, I feel that Russell is living in the shadow of Darren Aronofsky in this picture. After the success of THE WRESTLER, Aronofsky was down to direct THE FIGHTER and lives on as its executive producer. A lot of the way in which Russell approaches the material seems to be "Aronofsky-lite" - a sort of pastiche of the filming style used in THE WRESTLER. It's all hand-held cameras, faux-documentary intimacy and visible grain. Which is ironic because as much as this film tries hard to capture the clothes, accents, and gritty reality of 1980s Lowell, with a script trading to high in cliché, it really could've been set anywhere. Worst of all, David O Russell bottles out of doing anything interesting with the boxing scenes, with the convenient excuse of using the HBO crews to re-create the pay-per-view look.

THE FIGHTER opened in 2010 in the US, the Philippines and Canada. It is currently on release in Singapore, Greece, Australia and Iceland. It opens this weekend in the UK and Brazil. It opens on February 11th in Portugal, Russia, Poland and Turkey. It opens on February 25th in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Norway. It opens in March in Malaysia, Lithuania, Sweden and the Netherlands. It opens on April 7th in Germany.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

TANGLED - lovely!

So the first thing to do is forget the Brothers Grimm tale of Rapunzel, the peasant girl taken by the witch next door in exchange for the herbs that saved her mother's life. Locked in a tower as she reached puberty, Rapunzel was knocked up by a passing Prince, enchanted by her voice, but cast out by the witch in disgust. Of course, there was a happy ending. The Prince, blinded on thorns by the scheming witch, wanders into Rapunzel, who's tears of sadness heal his sight, and he takes her to be his princess.

Naturally, in Disney's version of the tale, we can't have a naive girl fall pregnant, and we can't have something as simplistic as true love conquering blindness. Moreover, in the post-modern, post-Shrek age of animation, we have to play up the modern social angle. Rapunzel is now a captured Princess who falls for a commoner (just as in SHREK and THE KING'S SPEECH - what is with it Hollywood's obsession with royals falling for commoners?) and while the teen rebellion survives, it is now cast less as a tale of hidden puberty than of fighting for independence from an over-bearing manipulative mother. Rapunzel is less a fairy-tale than an animated version of THE FIGHTER! (Not to mention the fact that she really can handle herself!) Every musical number borders on pastiche - from Riverdance style folk dances, to Mother Gothel's Big Momma Morton inspired "Mother Knows Best". There are quotations from cinema, there's teen-angst slang, there's "talk to the hand" attitude from the side-kick comedy chameleon. Basically, this movie may be a fairy tale about an innocent girl, but it's very very knowing indeed.

Still, for all that, I rather enjoyed it! Mandy Moore's Rapunzel is charming; Zachary Levi's handsome commoner, Flynn, is very witty; Donna Murphy's Mother Gothel is absolutely brilliantly manipulative, and I simply LOVED the blood-hound horse, Maximilian! There was annoyingly modern verbal humour, yes, but even better, good old-fashioned slapstick humour and a wonderfully old-fashioned visual look to the film. It may have been made on computers, but it feels a lot more painterly than recent films, and has the lush colours, deep woods and medieval castles of SNOW WHITE. The 3D added nothing, and some of the songs were soupy, but overall, TANGLED was well worth watching. I was genuinely engaged by the movie, and moved by its ending. So, after the serious mis-step with BOLT 3D, and the side-track into the American dream with THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG, I can honestly and gladly say that Disney is back to what it does best: fairytales. Beautifully drawn, moving, funny fairy-tales.

TANGLED was released last year in the US, Canada, Israel, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Russia, Singapore, Indonesia, Italy, Mexico, Poland, Venezuela, Belgium, Egypt, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Hungary, Kuwait, Bulgaria, Austria, Germany, Portugal, Slovakia, Ukraine, Australia, Turkey and Chile. It was released last month in Croatia, Argentina, Greece, New Zealand, Brazil, Panama, Romania, Serbia, Peru, Estonia, Iceland, India, Slovenia, Ireland, Lithuania and the UK. It opens this weekend in Denmark, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Norway, Spain and Finland. It opens on February 11th in Finland and on March 12th in Japan. It has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011


Writer Aline Brosh McKenna (27 DRESSES, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA) and director Roger Michell (NOTTING HILL) have a served up a muddled mess in their new alleged comedy, MORNING GLORY. A newly emaciated Rachel McAdams (SHERLOCK HOLMES) stars as plucky little TV producer Becky Fuller, hired by Jeff Goldblum's cynical executive, to turn around the worst-rated network TV morning show, hosted by Diane Keaton's Colleen Peck. The emotional heart of the film is the relationship between Fuller and the heavyweight serious journo, played by Harrison Ford, that she shoe-horns into co-hosting the show. He's reluctant to do frivolous cooking segments, and makes everyone's life hell, until he learns the virtue of being a team player. Or something. Frankly it was a last minute character development that seemed about as phony as the high-concept set-up of the movie; as superficially essayed as Becky's relationship with Patrick Wilson's Adam Bennet; and about as painful to witness as Becky Fuller's wannabe charming, ditzy behaviour.

The problem with the movie is that it picks up lots of serious issues and then never bothers to deal with them - either seriously or comedically. There are vague gestures toward exploring the dumbing down of morning TV - the difficulty of achieving work-life balance - but the movie chooses a frenetic pace, montages, and attempts at crackling dialogue rather than the genuinely intelligent, blackly funny sunny satire of a movie like NETWORK. Basically, this is frivolous nonsense and not worthy of anybody's time, least of all the cast.

MORNING GLORY opened last year in the US. It is currently on release in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Germany, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Russia, Serbia, Slovenia, Switzerland, Ukraine, Austria, Finland, Norway, Greece, Malaysia, the Netherlands, France, Iceland, Denmark and Spain. It opens in February in Egypt, Brazil, Sweden, New Zealand, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Serbia, Slovenia, Japan, Norway and Poland. It opens in March in Italy, the Philippines, Argentina, Chile, Croatia, North Korea, Peru, Brazil, Colombia, Panama, Romania, Venezuela, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Malaysia, Portugal, Singapore, Thailand and Israel. It opens in April in Turkey, Belgium, France and Iceland.