Sunday, March 27, 2011


It has become fashionable for critics to patronise Woody Allen, a director who, apart from the odd freak hit such as VICKY, CHRISTINA, BARCELONA, hasn't produced a run of sustained hits since the late 1980s. He has been accused of cannibalising his back catalogue; producing dramas of diminishing quality; and for focusing his attention on an idea of the upper middle-class intellectual elite that is both anachronistic and irrelevant to modern life. Woody Allen has thus been condemned as a parody of himself. An old man who should do his reputation a favour and just retire. This view seems to be shared by the distributors. Outside of the Woody Allen-loving Parisians (and let's face it - they thought Jerry Lewis was a genius) most Woody Allen films receive a limited theatrical release or just go straight to video.

Still, for those of us who obsessively watched, loved and were provoked by his back catalogue, particularly the greats from the late 70s and 80s, a new Woody Allen film is hard to pass up. And when you get a movie based in your home town, starring actors of the calibre of Gemma Jones, Naomi Watts, Josh Brolin, Anthony Hopkins, Antonio Banderas and the criminally under-used Lucy Punch, expectations are higher than the critics would allow.

YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER is about the things that Woody Allen films are always about - the big questions of modern life. How far are we willing to delude ourselves into believing in love? How far are we willing to compromise our morals to achieve success? How crazy will we become to avoid admitting our mortality? If the first question was best explored in ANNIE HALL, and the second and third in CRIMES AND MISDEMEANOURS, what does YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER add?

Precious little. The mood is perhaps even more cynical and nihilistic. The location different. But the material is undoubtedly rehashed not to mention the use of characters such as brassy hookers (DECONSTRUCTING HARRY, MIGHT APHRODITE) and men who are willing to murder and steal to get ahead (CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, MATCH POINT) let alone the idea of justice hanging on the throw of a dice or the fall of a coin (MATCH POINT). Humanity is portrayed as fickle, callow, self-serving and self-obsessed - life is a pathetic game of self-delusion - a desperate bid to outrun the inevitable. Woody Allen's characters may live in beautiful houses but they are rarely happy, and if they are, he mocks them for being idiots.

Having said all that, I still thoroughly enjoyed YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER for the simple pleasure of watching those familiar themes refracted through a new set of characters and a new set of actors. Because I didn't have to concentrate on surprises in the plot or thematic material - because I knew how the relationships would pan out from the start - I could simply luxuriate in the wonderful performances and three or four superb dramatic set-pieces that hold their own against any of Woody Allen's finer movies.

The first of those scenes is wonderful tragicomedy. Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) is an old man who doesn't want to admit that his life is nearing its end. He dumps his wife Helena (Gemma Jones) and bankrupts himself dating a money-grabbing hooker (Lucy Punch). Woody Allen skewers Alfie's vanity in a marvellous scene in which they sit in a sterile penthouse flat. She is draped on a fur coat she has just extorted for him, and he is waiting for his viagra to kick in, "Three more minutes..." Pathetic, beautifully observed, hilarious!

The second scene features Alfie's ex-wife Helena and their daughter Sally (Naomi Watts). Sally has married a failed author (Josh Brolin) and desperately needs her mother's money to start a new art gallery, but her mother has been wasting it on seeing a psychic who tells her she will meet a Tall Dark Stranger, and even worse, advises Helena not to give Sally money. The scene is wonderful because, as in life, you have two people who are related but who are in such different emotional and intellectual places that they simply cannot communicate. Helena comes across as smug, deluded and selfish in her manufactured happiness. Sally comes across as justifiably frustrated but also entitled and spoiled. It's beautifully acted and also tragic that this mother and daughter are unable to understand each other's needs.

The third scene features the wonderful Josh Brolin, schlubbed up as the failed writer Roy, so pissed off at his wife Sally's constant nagging for a baby that he has an affair with a pretty young woman (Freida Pinto) and so desperate for success that he steals an unpublished novel. There is a marvellous scene where he realises that he may well be busted and that look on his face - simply that - is worth the price of admission alone!

So, what can I say? YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER doesn't tell you anything you didn't know about Woody Allen's misanthropic world-view.  I don't need to see another brash hooker, and Freida Pinto certainly cannot hold her own among this cast-list. But, for all that, I enjoyed almost every minute, and certain scenes will stay with me as much as anything in Woody Allen's earlier work.

YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER played Cannes and Toronto 2010 and opened last year in Spain, the USA, Canada, France, Belgium, Israel, Greece, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Brazil, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, the Netherlands, Estonia and Uruguay. It opened earlier this year in Mexico, Portugal, Romania, Argentina, Kazakhstan and Russia. It is currently on release in Poland and the UK.

Friday, March 25, 2011


ANUVAHOOD is a beautifully observed, wickedly funny satire on British "yoot" culture, as depicted in flicks like KIDULTHOOD. Writer-director and lead actor Adam Deacon takes us into the council estates of contemporary London, and gives us the unforgettable character of Kenneth - a nice boy from a nice family who thinks its cool to pretend to be a gangster-rapper from Baltimore. All talk and no action, the boy spends the first hour of the film talking in a nonsensical patois that's more Ali G than The Wire, hanging out with his mates, having zero luck with the ladies and getting picked on by the camp bully, Tyson. Just as you start crying out for something to actually happen, the movie lurches towards the semi-serious, with Kenneth selling drugs to save his family from the bailiffs. The movie doesn't really survive this abrupt tonal shift, although the skits shown during the credits help to restore the day-glo comic-style comedy of the first hour. 

The film is well put-together - very assured for a directorial debut, and I very much liked the cinematography from DP Felix Wiedemann. In particular, in the goofy early scenes, hardly any dialogue is shown in two-shoots - rather we flip back between PoV shots in a cartoon-ish manner.  Adam Deacon, Femi Oyeniran and Jazzie Zonzolo are incredibly funny as the useless teens, although I found Richie Campbell as Tyrone too broad. There are choice cameos from Paul Kaye; Levi "Reggae Reggae" Roots; the self-parodying Aisleyne of sometime Big Brother fame; and Linda Robson. But best of all, we get a very tongue-in-cheek turn from Richard Blackwood as "Laimbsury's" manager, Russell. I loved the irony of Russell telling "K" that his music career won't go anywhere, as well as later references to Ashley Walter's flick 

Overall, ANUVAHOOD is definitely funny enough to justify a cinema ticket, and while I didn't buy in to the tonal shift in the third act, there's something cheering about the fact that British teen flicks are established enough that they warrant their own spoof. Not to mention the ultimate message that it's better to just be yourself than to aspire to be some dickhead pot dealer. 

ANUVAHOOD is on release in the UK.


LIMITLESS is a nicely executed sci-fi thriller but falls down on the screenwriters' inability to fully explore the ramifications and consequences of its initial conceit. For all that, a perfectly decent DVD-night film. 

THE HANGOVER's Bradley Cooper stars as Eddie Mora, a hapless novelist with a loyal but alienated girlfriend (Abbie Cornish).  At his wits' end, he takes a dodgy pill called "Limitless" from his ex brother-in-law and suddenly has absolute focus and boundless energy. He writes an amazing novel in one day, gets a sharp new suit, and - obviously - this being Hollywood where greed is always manifested as greedy capitalism - he becomes a day-trader.  His ability to make quick money gets him a job with legendary fund manager Carl Van Loon (Robert de Niro) and all goes well until the dodgy Russian mafiosi that staked him in the stock market comes looking for money.  The final straw is when Eddie realises that he's running out of his precious drug.

The movie start off with real energy and style. Cooper is convincing both as the self-pitying schlub and as the slick trader. Abbie Cornish is sympathetic as the girlfriend and Robert de Niro - well, he barely has to act to look scarily impressive.  Behind the camera, I loved the way cinematographer Jo Willems (30 DAYS OF NIGHT, HARD CANDY) made subtle changes in lensing and film stock to show the difference between the ordinary world and the crisper, sharper world when on Limitless.  But the movie really falls down on Leslie Dixon's (MRS DOUBTFIRE, LOOK WHO'S TALKING) script.  I loved Carl Van Loon's big speech where he talks about having to earn rewards - but that isn't played out in the endgame for Eddie Mora.  Not at all. And one can't help wonder how a darker, more daring director like David Fincher would've treated the material during the black-out.  

LIMITLESS is on release in the US, Belarus, Bosnia, Israel, Kazakhstan, Russia, Canada, Turkey, the US, Philippines, the UK, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Brazil and Bulgaria. It opens in April in Greece, Kuwait, Poland, Armenia, Belgium, Hong Kong, Hungary, the Netherlands, Singapore, Finland, Spain, Taiwan, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Mexico, Portugal, India and Sweden. It opens on May 24th in Indonesia. It opens in June in Lithuania, Norway, Colombia, Estonia and Peru.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Random DVD Round-Up 4 - BURIED

Ryan Reynolds plays Paul Conroy - a man buried in a coffin - running out air, and running out of cellphone battery life. He frantically tries to call his employers, his wife, the emergency services - he is frustrated, put on hold, given the run around.  It's the perfect horror movie set-up. Claustrophobia - a truly hard deadline - and the frustration that comes of dealing with an invisible enemy and supposed helpers unwilling to realise what's at stake. The concept is brought to screen with absolute perfection: director Rodrigo Cortes and DP Eduardo Gau (A SINGLE MAN) create a sense of true horror by never letting us leave the coffin. We are trapped with Paul, only seeing by the light of his Zippo and only hearing the voices on the other end of the cell. I don't suffer from claustrophobia but I was squirming in my seat by the end of the flick. 

You can take BURIED as a high concept horror flick and leave it at that, but it's so much more. Arguably much of the best horror has a political or social agenda - all those Fifth Columnist body-snatchers, for example - and BURIED is firmly in that tradition. For Paul Conroy is a military contractor working in Iraq, paid by the US government. His captors are angry that he has come to their country and wrought war, but he comes off as naive and deluded - denying that he is a warmonger because he is not actually, technically a US soldier. As the movie develops, we see Paul disabused of that naivete, most brilliantly - not because his captors treat him badly but because his employer does! And, politics aside, who doesn't sympathise with being passed around a phone loop being forever put on hold by ignorant, underpaid, idiots at call centres? 

BURIED is, then, a perfect film. It satisfies both as horror and as political satire. The crew deserve mad props for pulling off the technical feat and for having the good sense never to show a flashback or the face at the other end of the line. Ryan Reynolds deserves props for making his character believable and go on a genuine narrative journey despite the fact that he can barely move. But most of all, praise to the screenwriter Chris Sparling for combining fear, wit and intelligence in equal parts. 

BURIED played Sundance and Toronto 2010 and went on global release last October. It opens in Hungary on April 21st.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Random DVD Round-Up 3 - DUE DATE

Todd Philips, writer-director of OLD SCHOOL, SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS and the break-out hit THE HANGOVER, returns to our screens with what can only be described as a piss-poor; woefully under-written; shameless cash-in. The structure of the movie aims to rip off what was best in PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES. Robert Downey Junior plays an up-tight architect on his way home to see his wife deliver their first child. Zach Galifianakis plays the creepy fuck-up who manages to get the architect put on a no-fly list, sans wallet and cash, compelled to take a road-trip with the very man who messed up his travel-plans. What follows is a series of comedy set-ups that just don't work for two reasons. First, Downey Junior and Galifianakis have ZERO chemistry (and made me appreciate just how well Jude Law and Downey Junior worked together in SHERLOCK HOLMES by comparison). Second, Galifianakis is, like Danny McBride, the kind of comedy "talent" that works best in small doses. They always play creepy man-child characters - people who are meant to make us laugh with their social ineptitude. Five minutes to leaven an otherwise grown-up comedy is just fine to add a dash of zaniness. But these guys can't carry a feature - they topple it over. For further evidence, check out McBride in TROPIC THUNDER (perfect!) and FIST FOOT WAY (over-dose).  

Other than the lack of chemistry and over-use of the irritatingly weird Galifianakis, the political satire (anti-terrorist airport security, cross-border immigration) falls flat, and the joke about a dead man's ashes kept in a coffee canister just reminds us how good the Coen Brothers are, and how much subtler their treatment of the same comic material was in LEBOWSKI.  And, dear lord, what on earth are Jamie Foxx and Juliette Lewis doing in this flick?  And will their ever be a comedy cameo to match the sheer surprise of finding Tyson in THE HANGOVER or Bill Murray in ZOMBIELAND

DUE DATE went on global release in November 2010 and is now available to rent and own.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Random DVD Round-Up 2 - MAMMOTH

In New York a young professional couple outsource childcare to a Philippino nanny.  Sure, the surgeon-mother might get angsty that her daughter has more of an emotional relationship with the nanny than with her, but there's no real solution. Meanwhile, dad is off doing business in Thailand. We believe he really loves mum. Truly. And he's a good guy. But even he can't resist casual sex. And all the while, we cut to scenes of the Philippino nanny's kids, longing for mum to come home, and shamefully neglected by people who are too busy to care.

A decade ago, Swedish writer-director, Lukas Moodysson created a movie called LILYA 4-EVER about a young girl lured into child prostitution.  It was a movie that forced us to confront an appalling social wrong but also went beyond politics by making us empathise with Lilya in an unforgettable sustained POV shot of her being serially raped.  At the time I was shocked out of complacency and full of admiration for a movie that could make an "issues film" so visceral and unforgettable.  Unfortunately, Moodysson's latest feature, MAMMOTH, is less pure, less shocking, less affecting than LILYA 4-EVER:  with its intertwining pan-national storyline feels more like the pretentious, ponderous BABEL

MAMMOTH's unceasingly heavy-handed examination of the cross-national labour trade is superficial and alienating - and undermines what are actually naturalistic and believable performances from Gael GarcĂ­a Bernal, Michelle Williams and Marife Necesito.  The tragic result is that, while I can intellectually buy into why I should be angered by the issues shown in the film, I was bored rather than engaged.

MAMMOTH played Berlin 2009 and opened that year in Sweden, Norway, Finland, the Netherlands and Belgium. It opened last year in Russia, Spain, Germany, Hungary and the UK. It opened earlier this year in Poland. It is available to rent and own.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


By the time I got round to watching THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT on iTunes, it had been well-reviewed by Ebert and The Guardian, and garnered a stack of award-season acclaim. And the film certainly had pedigree. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore are capable of both opening a movie AND portraying characters of emotional depth and nuance (see BEING JULIA and SAFE). Mark Ruffalo has impressed me ever since his turn as a bent cop in Jane Campion's IN THE CUT. And if we look at the younger members of the cast, Mia Wasikowska showed balls as well as ethereal beauty in Tim Burton's ALICE IN WONDERLAND, and Josh Hutcherson's performance in BRIDGE FROM TERABITHIA contributed to the emotional punch packed by the film. Most of all, I loved writer-director Lisa Cholodenko's spiky, emotionally skewering drama LAUREL CANYON, and was eager to see how she would bring that wry observational skill to the topic of a gay marriage brought under pressure by the appearance of the childrens' birth father. Put simply, I was ready to believe that the critical and commercial success of THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT was well deserved and looked forward to seeing it myself. 

Imagine then, my disappointment, to discover a drama filled with characters drawn in two-dimensions, behaving in ways that seemed at odds with their temperament. I neither understood their actions nor cared about the consequences. A drama that should have been nuanced and sophisticated thus seemed as trite and crass as romantic-comedies dealing with more conventional relationships. I can, then, only, conclude, that the praise heaped upon this film reflects our collective relief that one can now make a movie about a gay marriage and treat it as a matter of fact rather than as a cause. But, then, again, doesn't the heaping on of accolades suggest that we aren't quite there yet? 

At any rate, here's how the film works. Nic (Annette Bening) is married to Jules (Julianne Moore) and they have two kids, 18 year old Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and 15 year old Laser (Josh Hutcherson). The characters are drawn in broad strokes. Nic is the professionally successful control freak - Jules is the stay at home mum turned landscape gardener - a wannabe hippie with low self esteem. The kids are similarly broadly drawn - Joni is the swot and Laser is the jock. Basically, they are happy enough until the kids get in touch with their birth father, an immature but charming restaurateur called Paul (Mark Ruffalo). Nic is immediately suspicious of his destabilising influence, but Jules connects with his laissez-faire non-judgmental attitude. 

Some of what follows is deeply predictable. Joni starts acting out in teen rebellion, spurred on by her motorcycle driving dad. Laser actually wisens up when his cool dad points out that his cool friend is actually an arsehole. But the real shock - the real crass and incredible (as in I literally don't believe it) - is that Jules has an affair with Paul. What kind of loving mother would really give up her family for a drifter like Paul?  (Unlike many message-boarders I don't have a problem with the fact that she has an affair with a man rather than a woman - I can buy that she's maybe bisexual rather than a lesbian.) Just because she felt her wife wasn't giving her enough support at home? I mean, maybe I could buy it in a movie that took her emotional state before the affair more seriously, but in this sunshine rom-com, I just didn't get it at all. As a result, when Nic reacts with understandable rage and distress, Annette Bening's performance seems to be coming from a different place entirely. It's worthy and heartfelt but entirely out of keeping with the rest of the film. Worst still, it makes Julianne Moore's performance as Jules during the repentance scene look utterly shallow by comparison.

What I was left with was a film that was trying to be very right-on and deserved credit for trying to treat gay marriage like any other marriage - worthy of cinematic exploration.  But I was also left with a film full of characters that acted in ways that I didn't buy into because they weren't sufficiently well-drawn. Poor Annette Bening tried to take the  material to a more profound level, but was, frankly, running on her own. This isn't, then, a bad film, but it isn't a great one either. Too uneven in tone - too uneven in its performances - too unfair to its male lead character - too easy on its female lead character - and just too thin altogether.

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT played Sundance, Berlin, London and Toronto 2010 and opened last year in the US, Iceland, Israel, Australia, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Argentina, France, Greece, Ireland, the UK, Brazil, Uruguay, Germany, Portugal, Austria, Chile and the Netherlands. It opened earlier this year in Belgium, Kazakhstan, Russia, Singapore, Poland, Spain and Hong Kong. It is currently on release in Estonia, Italy, Mexico and Turkey. It opens on April 7th in Hungary and on April 29th 2011. It is available to rent and own. THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT was nominated for BEst Film, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Screenplay at the 2011 Oscars. It won the Berlin Teddy for Best Feature Film. It won the Golden Globe for Best Film and Actress - Musical or Comedy.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Overlooked DVD of the month - MARY AND MAX

MARY AND MAX is an amazing film, and all the more wonderful for being un-expectedly so. It's a darkly comic, emotionally raw clay-animated drama about the unlikely friendship between two very lonely people - a little girl called Mary, who lives in Australia, and an old man called Max, who lives in New York. Mary Daisy Dinkle is lonely because her mum is a mean drunk and her father is a withdrawn taxidermist. She hates how she looks, she's socially awkward and other kids tease her. Max is lonely because he finds the world strange and irrational and frustrating and retreats into a closed existence of comfort-eating and writing angry letters. They are each other's only and best friends. 

The movie takes us from the early heady days of their friendship - the first not to involve an imaginary friend for both of them - through Mary's adolescence and marriage. The friendship blossoms, then flounders on betrayal, and is finally redeemed. The journey is genuinely moving - I cried like a baby at the end of the film - and I was happy to have spent time with these intriguing people despite the harsh material I was forced to endure - drug abuse, sexual infidelity, self-loathing, suicide and chronic disease. 

If all this makes MARY AND MAX sound about as much fun as shock-therapy, then please believe me that despite the unbearable sadness as its heart, it's also a very funny, and ultimately uplifting film. The detail of the art design is wonderfully witty, with lots of clever details to repay a repeat viewing, and the verbal humour is at once pathetic and laugh-out-loud funny. I have always had nothing but praise for Philip Seymour Hoffman, but he really surpasses himself as Max, imbuing every sentence with common-sense, hurt, longing, fear and unintentional wit. Toni Colette is wonderfully misguided and sympathetic as Mary, and even Eric Bana gives a sweet cameo. So, if you love the kind of gentle, warm, heart-breaking humour found in the following quotations, please check MAX AND MARY out. As for me, I just can't wait to see what Australian writer-director Adam Eliot does next.

Max Jerry Horovitz: When I was young, I invented an invisible friend called Mr Ravioli. My psychiatrist says I don't need him anymore, so he just sits in the corner and reads. 

Max Jerry Horovitz: Butts are bad because they wash out to sea, and fish smoke them and become nicotine-dependent. 

MARY AND MAX played Sundance and Berlin 2009 and opened in Australia, the Czech Republic, New Zealand and Russia that year. It opened last year in Denmark, Belgium, Greece, Norway, Brazil, Sweden, Germany, Austria, Hungary and the UK. It is currently on release in Singapore and opens in Japan on April 23rd. It is available to rent and own.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

SUBMARINE - as unsatisfying as onanism

This review is brought to you by The Ginger Dwarf, a man cursed not only with being short and ginger, but also with going to school in Wales.... 

I have never read “A Catcher in the Rye”. Perhaps this is why I felt deeply unsatisfied by “Submarine”, which, like onanism and caffeine, felt momentarily fantastic, but was ultimately disappointing. Its quirky humour, often delivered with deadpan voiceover, was at times inspired and very funny, but wasn’t sufficient to carry a movie which was too long and whose plot fell into facile traps towards the end. 

Richard Ayoade’s debut film (he wrote the screenplay and directed it, and most impressively, managed to live in Barry throughout the filming process, as anyone who has ever lived in South Wales will immediately understand), follows the travails of precocious pseudo-intellectual teen Oliver Tate. 

Oliver, best described as Wales’ answer to Adrian Mole, wears a duffle-coat and carries a briefcase around school. He obsesses about the nonchalant, twisted and red-coated Jordana Bevan, whose eczema and apparent bow-legs appear to be offset in his eyes by high-cheekbones and a flirtatious smile. That he is bound at some point to lose his virginity to her is a sine qua non, since this is a coming-of-age movie. And when the moment comes, pun intended, it is well executed and almost Andy Stitzer-like. Our solipsistic hero, encouraged by this victory and undamaged by life experience decides to try to save his parents’ marriage. Unfortunately for the viewers we simply don’t care enough about this awkward couple to care; they are just not likeable enough. They’re the sort of people who encourage their children to call them by their first names. We hardly envy their bourgeois hell. The juxtaposition of the parents’ decaying marriage and Tate’s burgeoning relationship with Jordana feels laboured. 

The only saving grace of this development is that it allows Paddy Considine’s character to run wild for a while. Much more of the dynamic between the mulleted Graham Purvis and Oliver could have been made, not least since, in their own ways, they believe equally in their own grandiose self-images. Prosaic characterisation is the film’s biggest let-down. Although he is bullied, it is refreshing that Oliver is not a total wimp, eschewing wholesale playground capitulation, but still he’s still whimsy and annoyingly affected. Jordana could have been more than the tough lass with a (barely) hidden soft side. Indeed, if this was a grown-up movie she’d have been a hooker-with-a-heart. Personally, I’d have preferred her to remain a hard-nosed and Juno-esque, or even better, like Sheeni Saunders’ “Portia Doubleday” in that other, excellent but neglected Michael Cera vehicle “Youth in Revolt”. Also noticeably implausible is the mother’s character. Albeit brilliantly played by Sally Hawkins, she comes across as far too sensible to fall for Purvis’ phoney wizard cum wedding DJ. Ayoade’s film has been frequently compared to Rushmore, indeed Wes Andersen regular Ben Stiller appears fleetingly as a TV soap star in Submarine. And yet the characters are self-involved and unpleasant, without the redeeming qualities which make Andersen’s films so textured. Despite the buzz, Submarine is underwhelming. Ayoade’s irreverent humour (he lists his influences for this film as Taxi Driver & Badlands – is he, even here, taking the piss?) is hit-and-miss and fails to convince in a movie which should have ended differently, and earlier. 

SUBMARINE played Toronto and London 2010 and Sundance 2011. It opens in the UK this weekend; in Norway on April 15th; in the US on June 3rd; in Poland in August and in Sweden on September 23rd.

Monday, March 14, 2011


Sweet tap-dancing Christ, NORWEGIAN WOOD really is the most boring, self-indulgent, opaque, pointless film I have seen in a long time. I didn't care about any of the characters. I didn't find any of their actions authentic. I didn't understand any of their motivations. All that was left was a series of ponderous still shots and a fascinating soundtrack by Jonny Greenwood.

Not having read the widely acclaimed and popular Murukami novel, all I can judge is what the movie gives me.  And from what I can tell the story is basically about a boy called Toru (Kenichi Matsuyama), whose best friend committed suicide in high school. A few years later he's at college in Tokyo in the 60s and meets the best friend's ex girlfriend Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi). They start hanging out, maybe to rekindle memories of the dead boy - they fuck - and this precipitates a nervous breakdown for the girl, who goes off to a rural sanitarium where she share s a room with another patient called Reiko (Reika Kirishima), who will later throw herself at Toru. Toru continues to believe he is in love with Naoko but starts hanging out with Midori (Kiki Mizuhara), a pretty flirtatious student who apparently already has a boyfriend. Her easy sexual banter contrasts strongly with Naoko's frigidity. 

But of course, this is pop psychology 101. Toru clearly has issues. He's wandering through life passively falling in with any girl who toys with him - bland and banal and acted upon. The three girls he fucks might seem superficially different but they are all essentially the same - emotionally unavailable and inordinately needy. This could have made for a fascinating psycho-sexual drama, and I suspect that's what the novel delivers. But given the opacity and lack of interiority shown in the movie, what we get is an truly uninteresting, banal story: a plastic hero and his three emotionally needy, unavailable women. 

What this film needs is a sense of humour. It also needs to offer us some explanations of why people do what they do. It needs to be firmly embedded in its time and place. Beyond some period costumes and a particularly cheesy use of the Beatles' song, I want to know why students are marching - to feel more of the sixties vibe. And, most of all, what this film needs is a sense of interiority - of Toru's emotional journey through various love affairs toward maturity. It lacks any kind of beating, bleeding centre that might elicit our empathy, let alone sympathy. 

NORWEGIAN WOOD played Venice and Toronto 2010 and was released last year in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Russia, Vietnam and Hong Kong. It was released earlier this year in the Netherlands and the Netherlands. It is currently on release in Thailand and the UK. It opens this weekend in Sweden; on April 14th in Singapore; on April 21st in Hungary; and on July 7th in Germany.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


Documentarian Alex Gibney (ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM, TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE) has a convincing but controversial thesis. That the enemies Eliot Spitzer made on Wall Street as New York Attorney-General, and in Albany as New York State Governor, combined to bring him down - exploiting his use of prostitutes with a FBI inquiry that was maliciously leaked to the press. Spitzer himself comes across as less melodramatic. He takes ownership of his mistakes, though unwilling to be drawn on the psychology behind them. He is also less than candid about how pugnacious he truly was as Attorney-General and State Governor. He comes across as an idealistic man who resorted to a thug-fight, and naively seems surprised that the people he bruised would resort to the same vicious tactics to exploit his mistakes. Spitzer is not a man one necessarily warms to, but was essentially right to throw a searchlight on Wall Street. And it says something that he was willing to give Alex Gibney an interview. 

The people who come off far worse than Spitzer are those Spitzer opposed - notably Frank Langone and Hank Greenberg - titans of Wall Street who resented Spitzer's legal cases against their fraudulent behaviour - fraud that has since been exposed in the 2008 financial crash. They come across as venal, smug, and crowing over his defeat. By comparison, Spitzer's political opponent, New York Senator Joe Bruno, since convicted of fraud, comes across as a mere second-tier fraudster. The prostitute, "Kristen" or Ashley Dupree, also comes off as a slick media-manipulator, eager to cash in on her new-found fame, enabled by the right wing media who love nothing more than to keep her in the public profile and thus keep Spitzer's name tarnished. 

The biggest surprise of the documentary was the prostitute that Spitzer sought out most frequently and who appears in the doc played by an actress to protect her identity. She comes across as smart, empowered, with enough integrity to spurn the media and just get on with her life. I guess it says something about the modern-day corruption of the politico-economic establishment when a whore is the most sane, selfless and intelligent voice in the room. 

The resulting documentary is an even-handed tale of hubris and nemesis. Spitzer made his own mistakes, but the people he pissed off took full advantage. Does it need to be two hours long? It certainly lost pace in the second hour. Does it need to be seen on the big screen? No. Gibney produces very high quality work, but this could easily be seen on the small screen. But for all that, this is a film that tells its story meticulously, has the air of truth about it, and educated me about the intricacies of Spitzer's downfall. Although I had followed his case closely at the time, it was fascinating to see a well researched documentary take us through the planted media stories and behind the scenes. 

CLIENT 9: THE RISE AND FALL OF ELIOT SPITZER played Toronto 2010 and went on release in the US and Canada last November. It is currently on release in the UK and has been released on Region 1 DVD.

Friday, March 11, 2011


True story. Valerie Plame was a CIA operative, building networks to fight terror in the Middle East. Her husband, Joe Wilson, was a pugnacious ex-diplomat, and mediocre businessman.  When the Bush administration misquoted his research, and used it as casus belli for a "pre-emptive" war in Iraq, Wilson went public, explosively. In an act of miscalculated vengeance, Dick Cheney's aide, Scooter Libby, outed Wilson's wife as a CIA agent, exposing her network in the process.  Plame and Wilson had their reputations slandered in the press, suffered the stress of intrusive paparazzi, but ultimately history will see them as on the side of truth. Scooter Libby went to prison for obstructing justice but Bush soon commuted his sentence. And, of course, on the larger issue, the war in Iraq, it was too late to put the genie back in the bottle.

FAIR GAME is a new feature film based on this political and family drama, directed and shot by Doug Liman (MR AND MRS SMITH, THE BOURNE IDENTITY) and written by John-Henry and Jez Butterworth (THE LAST LEGION).  The movie drips in earnest good intentions. It wants us to be utterly repulsed by the dinner-party ignorance in Washington; by the brazen exploitation of Plame by the Bush administration; and the manipulation of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraqi war. It wants us to share in Joe Wilson's outrage and see his journey as one of vindication - from puffed-up has-been to inspirational public speaker. It wants us to admire Valerie Plame's loyalty, and sympathise with her disillusionment.

I think the problem with the film is that for those of use who share its political stance, none of this is new, and for those who don't - well, they are hardly going to pay to watch it. I was shocked at the time, but too much time has passed - too much nefarious wrangling has been exposed - for the shock factor to still exist. And as for the mechanics of cooking up a war, there is no better exposition than Armando Iannucci's IN THE LOOP.  And, suffice it to say, IN THE LOOP managed to be unbelievably entertaining, while at the same time expository. In contrast, FAIR GAME where it's mission very heavily indeed.  All that is not to say that the film isn't handsomely acted and technically well-made. It just fails to spark up.

FAIR GAME played Cannes 2010 where it lost to OF GODS AND MEN for the Palme D'Or.  FAIR GAME was released in 2010 in Italy, Norway, Belgium, France, Canada, Finland, Spain, Sweden, the USA, Bulgaria, Greece, Israel, the Netherlands, Thailand, Australia, Germany, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Austria, Taiwan, Portugal, Denmark, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia and the UAE. It was released earlier in 2011 in Iceland, India, Egypt, Croatia, Singapore, New Zealand, Estonia, Indonesia, Ireland and Latvia. It is currently on release in Serbia, the UK and Brazil. It opens later in March in Brazil and Mexico. It opens in May in Argentina and Poland; in June in Chile, Kazakhstan, Russia and Uruguay; and it opens on July 14th in Ukraine.

Sunday, March 06, 2011


THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU is a slick sci-fi thriller based on a story by Philip K Dick and adapted and directed by George Nolfi, the scrennwriter behind THE  BOURNE ULTIMATUM. Photographed by John Toll (THE THIN RED LINE, VANILLA SKY) to depict contemporary New York as adjusted to be slightly shiner and sharper than it really is, the movie starts Matt Damon and Emily Blunt as a politician and dancer, for whom The Adjustment Bureau has bigger plans than to "just" fall in love and be content.

I loved the look of the film, and I found the chemistry between Damon and Blunt convincing. I even found the idea of Damon as a young, charismatic politician credible.  But I hated pretty much everything else about the film.  Anthony Mackie's inert performance as the Adjuster with a heart was unconvincing, and the fact that these angels/aliens? wander round Manhattan in Mad Men style suits and hats just seemed anachronistic and laughably obvious. I also had a problem with the central premise that these Adjusters have allowed us to have free will on small things, like which colour tie to wear, but not on big things, like who to fall in love with. I mean, haven't we all been raised to believe in the Butterfly Effect - that everything matters? Surely, when it comes to free will versus determinism you can't be in a half-way house. This inconsistency and poor-logic extends to the ending, which, without spoiling it, is very unsatisfactory.   

The other problem with the concept at the heart of the movie is that it reduces the stakes of the film.  We are meant to empathise with the Damon and Blunt characters - to root for true love - to want them to be allowed to be together.  But when we discover that they only want to be together due to a kind of psychic residue from an earlier version of The Plan, frankly I didn't care too much. All of a sudden the movie wasn't about true love being hindered, but mopping up after an old version of the plan.

THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU is on release in Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Greece, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Bulgaria, Canada, Estonia, Ireland, Philippines, Poland, Spain, Turkey, UK and Denmark. It opens on March 11th in Denmark, Germany, Portugal, Slovenia, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Egypt. It opens later in March in Egypt, Hong Kong, Lithuania, Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Hungary. It opens in April in Mexico, Colombia and Israel. It opens in May in Brazil, Peru, Japan and Panama. It opens on June 16th in Argentina, Chile, Italy and Venezuela and on June 24th in Paraguay.

Friday, March 04, 2011


Joanna Hogg's debut feature, UNRELATED, was an emotional drama so quietly powerful - so cleanly produced - that I was tempted to tag it Pantheon and dare history to prove me wrong. Her second feature, ARCHIPELAGO, has all the virtues of UNRELATED, and if less immediately gripping that her first film (perhaps because expectations are so much higher?), is still miles ahead of most current cinema in its ability to mine the deeply held frustrations of familial relations. ARCHIPELAGO is a satisfyingly uncomfortable watch - a movie both darkly funny; raw; bitter; and all finely balanced on a knife edge.

The film begins as Edward (Tom Hiddleston) arrives on the Cornish holiday island of Tresco to spend a final fortnight with his family before abandoning a City career for a year's charity work in Africa. The fortnight will consist of walks, bicycle rides, picnics, painting and the occasional dinner. Edward's mother Patricia (Kate Fahy) and sister Cynthia (a scene-stealing Lydia Leonard) are already there not to mention a cook, Rose (Amy Lloyd) and a painting tutor (Christopher Baker). But, much to Ed's chagrin, his girlfriend Chloe hasn't been allowed to come because she's not family with a capital "F", and much to Cynthia and Patricia's discomfort, the father doesn't show up either.

And this brings us to the meat of the story: what family is and what one should expect of them. Ed's family are not supportive of his belated gap year. His mother is quietly negative. ("Ed's decision doesn't reflect badly on his father" when clearly she thinks it does.) His sister is openly, brutally critical. One can tell that both are hitting somewhere near the mark - Ed clearly doesn't know what he is about to do - but there means of expressing it is truly poisonous and stems in some part from frustration with the absent father.

As the film progresses, each member of the family reveals more of themselves despite the covering layers of upper-middle class politeness. There are, however, no big dramatic revelations - no moments of crisis - no moments of catharsis followed by closure. Joanna Hogg maintains the tone of strained emotions throughout - eschewing big bang finishes for an authentic examination of real emotions. The purity and austerity of this approach is underscored by her shooting style, which typically uses static cameras in still frames which may or may not include the faces of the people speaking; avoids introduced lighting often leaving her characters in darkness; and avoids artificial sound-tracks making those uncomfortable silences even more ominous.

The resulting film is difficult, honest and painful, because so much of the behaviour is recognisable. Like her previous film, UNRELATED, ARCHIPELAGO seems to live in a space where characters live in self-delusion but are stripped bare in a sequestered environment. Interns of content, Joanna Hogg reminds me of Nicole Holofcener, the American director who has made similarly painful, scabrous films about the emotional lives of the upper-middle classes. But the austerity of Hogg's style is quite unique.

ARCHIPELAGO played London 2010 and goes on release in the UK today.

Thursday, March 03, 2011


ANIMAL KINGDOM is a fascinating but not flawless Australian crime thriller that has garnered critical acclaim, not least in a Best Supporting Actress nod for Jacki Weaver. The feature debut of writer-diretor, David Michod, it's the kind of movie that has so much ambition, and has so many individual moments of brilliance, that you can't wait to see what the director does next, even though the product before you is fairly raw. 

The movie is loosely based on a true story of armed robbers in late 80s Melbourne. As we meet the characters, that era of armed robbers and corrupt police is coming to a close. The criminal Cody family is being hunted by the police, and once cornered, turn on each other. The film watches their disintegration and the shifting allegiances and power positions within the familial set-up. We see the weak killed; the under-estimated rise to the top; the old order removed and the so-called establishment side-lined. The nominal paterfamilias is "Pope" Cody (Ben Mendelsohn) - a man who we must assume was to be feared but who know, though still capable of extreme acts of violence - seems lost - uprooted - almost tragic. He is a man out of time. The world is moving on but he doesn't know what to do. His brothers are similarly adrift. Darren (Luke Ford) is scared and parasitical, just looking for another leader to cling to. Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) takes refuge in drugs. And into this mix comes "J" - their teenage nephew whose mum OD'ed and who looks brainless, comatose, and like a patsy in the making. But the REAL power in the family is the creepily over-emotionally involved mother, played by Jacki Weaver. A woman who'll call you "darling" and "love" while arranging your murder - a woman who epitomises the maternal survival instinct. It's a chilling and often blackly funny performance. 

ANIMAL KINGDOM is at its best when it's documenting the shifting power-structure within the family and watching these apparently fearsome robbers looking ineffectual. I love that David Michod has the confidence NOT to turn this into a courtroom drama, even though the final third of the movie is all about a big case. Rather, he cares about the "before" and "after". The scheming, the prep, the digesting of the results. In that way, this becomes a movie that constantly pulls the rug out from under your expectations. It feels satisfyingly dense and hangs on several highly impressive performances - Jacki Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn and Guy Pearce as the cop. But the movie has its flaws. I regretted never seeing the family at the height of its power against which to contrast its fall. Sometimes, when the guys were being completely ineffectual, it felt implausible that they had ever committed the crimes they were accused of. At times, the plot felt too messy - too hard to disentangle. Sure, it's great for a director to trust his audience and introduce ambiguity - especially regarding the final scene. But earlier on, some of the exposition seemed murky to me. And finally, a lot of the film just seemed plain implausible. I didn't buy that the girlfriend's family would let her hang out with "J". I didn't buy how she exited the film. And I really didn't buy the transformation of "J" at the end of the film. Major problems. Still, for all that, this is a brave movie containing powerful performances, and I can't wait to see what David Michod does next. 

ANIMAL KINGDOM played Sundance 2010 where it won the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema - Dramatic. It opened last year in the USA, Canada and Poland. It opened earlier this year in Spain and Finland and is currently on release in Denmark and the UK. It opens in France on April 27th. Jacki Weaver was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars and Golden Globes but lost to Melissa Leo for THE FIGHTER. She did however win at the National Board of Review awards.