Saturday, April 30, 2011

UNCLE KENT - Mumblecore, softcore, borecore

While kicking up a riot at Scoundrels Chicago, I managed to break out and detox for a little over an hour in the mecca for all film reviewers - The Gene Siskel Film Center. I wandered in to the first film showing - which happened to be Joe Swanberg's mumblecore flick, UNCLE KENT. Just as its genre conventions require, UNCLE KENT is a low-budget lo-fi drama basically consisting of a bunch of financially comfortable but emotionally illiterate twenty and thirty somethings whining about their personal problems and jacking off. That might sound dismissive and I think the genre does have a tendency toward self-indulgence and baggy-narratives. However, when in the right hands it has managed to throw up movies of real warmth, depth and honesty. Think Alex Holdridge's IN SEARCH OF A MIDNIGHT KISS and the Duplass brothers' CYRUS - both of which made it to my Best Of lists.

Unfortunately, UNCLE KENT is no CYRUS. In fact, at a 72 minute run time including credits, it's barely a feature length film. It stars Kent Osborne (real-life animator on Spongebob Squarepants as "Kent" - a commitment-phobe jack-ass in the body of a forty-year old who dresses ten years too young. As with most mumblecore flicks, Kent espouses a kind of slacker freedom and mediates all his personal relationships through the internet. As the film opens, Kent picks up a girl called Kate (Jennifer Prediger) on Chatroulette - a website usually known for men jacking off on webcam - a point later demonstrated in the film. Still from such unpromising beginnings, the pair to seem to have a genuine connection. The tragedy is that they can only express it by having a threesome with a girl they meet on Craigslist. And as the weekend winds up, the downside of "slacker freedom" is painfully obvious to us and to Kent - not knowing where you stand - not being able to speak honestly about feelings, but constantly speaking openly about sex.

The movie looks better - more tripod shots - than in Swanberg's previous work, although he still uses POV shots and handheld cameras to annoyingly trite effect. The narrative is baggy and meandering and bores, even though the run-time is short. Most of all, while the movie did contain flashes of honesty about how my generation dates via the the web, it didn't really get under the skin of their emotional lives. One day, Swanberg is going to have to sit down and write a proper script and move beyond superficial "wisdom" about the distancing effect of the internet.

UNCLE KENT played Sundance 2011 and was released on a variety of media in the US earlier this year. It is currently playing at the Gene Siskel Center in Chicago.

Monday, April 18, 2011

RANGO - Wonderful, radical, revolutionary

RANGO is a revelation. It is one of the best films I have seen this year, one of the best animated films since TOY STORY, and must surely raise the bar in terms of what is seen as appropriate material for a children's film, and the level of ambition one can bring to the visuals in an animated film. I wonder if history will judge it as revolutionary as AVATAR in terms of bringing the craft of cinema forward and - contra AVATAR - showing us just how dazzling and immersive visuals can be without 3D, but when the CGI animators are guided by one of the best cinematographers working today, Roger Deakins (TRUE GRIT, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN).

The movie has been put together by the team behind PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN - director Gore Verbinski and star Johnny Depp - and it's their best film to date - capturing the sheer energy and comedy of the original POTC film, but allying it to a stronger story and imbuing it with an indulgent love of cinema. For this is, above everything, a film for cineastes - a film about the joy of transformation - of being part of a story that you craft - and about living up to the Heroic Ideal. To that end, John Logan (GLADIATOR)'s screenplay leans heavily on the plot of 70s film noir, CHINATOWN, but lives in the shadow of all of those wonderful Clint Eastwood westerns, not to mention doffing its cap to FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE and APOCALYPSE NOW among others.

Johnny Depp plays a pet lizard with no real friends but a vivid imagination. The lizard is the ultimate cinephile, indulging in wild cine-literate fantasies, but ultimately lonely and confused about who he really is. When a car accident leaves him wondering into a old western town in the Mojave desert, he takes the opportunity to reinvent himself as "Rango" - a gun-slinging hero along the lines of The Man With No Name. And boy does this town need a Hero. Some Evil man (obvious to anyone who's seen CHINATOWN) has been hoarding water, leaving the town to run dry, forcing humble farmers from their land....In order to sort this mess out, Rango has to over-come his fear, make good friends, and become a Real Hero, helped out by a wise armadillo (Al Molina) and a surreal dream featuring Timothy Olyphant as the Clint-like Spirit of the West.

What I love about Rango is its evident love for the genres it's referring to (in sharp contrast to the risible YOUR HIGHNESS) and its evident love for the textures of the western. I've never seen an animated film - typically full of shiny, bright, smooth CGI - look so dusty, weather-beaten and worn. The details of the fur, the clothes, the buildings is quite stunning and the film is drawn as if it really has been shot on old fashioned 35mm by the best cinematographer in the business. Add to that a story with real stakes and real emotional heart, voiced by actors at the top of their game. (Special mentions for Isla Fisher as Beans and Ned Beatty as the Mayor.) But most of all I love that this film neither patronises its young audience nor bores its adult audience - and yet doesn't pander to quick, cheap laughs with post-modern winks at popular culture - a trait I particularly detest in the SHREK films. Which other animated movie would dare to have a joke in which the word "thespians" is confused for "lesbians" - or a sequence in which the Hero cross-dresses?

All of this makes RANGO at once marvellously old-fashioned in its cinephilia, its textures and its wonderful photography, but also marvellously modern in its subversive adult humour and willingness to use surreal dream sequences. This really is a wonderful film - and one can only hope that other animated features rise to the challenge of matching its attention to detail and depth of vision.

RANGO is on global release in all bar Japan where it opens on September 23rd.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

YOUR HIGHNESS - Worst. Spoof. Ever.

YOUR HIGHNESS is an attempt at the kind of broad, slapstick spoof comedy so brilliantly done by Mel Brooks in his classics, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, BLAZING SADDLES and, to my mind, SPACEBALLS. The first problem is that while often as crude, or indeed cruder, than Brooks, it lacks the consistency of good jokes. The second problem is that it lacks a close observation of the material that it's spoofing. Because, as we all know, a spoof is really a kind of love-letter, and the best spoofs are wonderfully detailed in how they take apart genre-conventions. When you watch YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN you just know that Mel Brooks was a great fan of James Whale. Just as when you watch THE HOLY GRAIL, you know the Monty Python team was immersed in Medieval history at school. But in YOUR HIGHNESS you don't really feel that director David Gordon Greene or writer Danny McBride had a soft spot for epic quest flicks. The plot may have the right feel - two princely brothers go on a quest to rescue the elder's abducted bride to be, and fight wizards and ogres on the way. But the detail is all wrong.

So we are left with a movie that is as much of an embarrassment as the caveman spoof starring Michael Cera and Jack Black, YEAR ONE. In fact, it's worse because the cast is of so much higher quality, and many of them featured in one of my favourite flicks of 2008, PINEAPPLE EXRESS. The humour is broad - which is fine - I'm not a snob for elitist intellectual jokes. But they are not funny, and worst of all they aren't really aimed at the genre they are spoofing. Take an early example. Why does the wise old man who directs the quest with his gift of a compass have to be an alien? What does that add? Nowt. Or further along, why does there have to be a bunch of butt-naked cavewomen types? That's not medieval. It's just an excuse to show some tits. Not that I'm against showing tits - but let's at least attempt to have a genre-appropriate reason! What more can I say? James Franco, Zooey Deschanel and Natalie Portman should be thoroughly embarrassed that they chose to appear in this shit. And producers take note: Danny McBride, just like Zach Galiafanakis, is best used in small doses to spice up a movie, rather than being a lead role in which there juvenile aggressive antics will inevitably grate. And directors take note: improvisation works if you're Mike Leigh. If you are writing a joke-filled spoof, make sure the script is nailed down BEFORE you start shooting.

YOUR HIGHNESS was released in the US and Canada on April 8th and in the UK on April 13th. It will be released in Portugal on April 21st; in South Africa on May 13th; in Turkey on June 3rd; in Malaysia and Singapore on June 23rd; in Hungary, Norway and Sweden on July 8th; in Finland on August 5th; in the Netherlands on August 18th and in France on September 28th.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


With her self-consciously naive re-telling of the Little Red Riding Hood fairytale, TWILIGHT director Catherine Hardwicke undoes all the good work of Angela Carter in bringing Charles Perrault's original story up to date with modern sexual mores. For, as she revealed in her brilliant short story, which was itself made into the film, THE COMPANY OF WOLVES, Red Riding Hood is really a story about a young virgin fearful of the bestial sexual appetites of men. In the original fairytale, the young girl is taught to stay well clear of men, lest she be raped and murdered. But in Angela Carter's retelling, the young girl takes control of her fate, fucks the wolf and lives happily ever after. Unfortunately, in this strange new world of teen cinema, where teenagers fall in love as if their lives depended on it, but no-one actually has sex, there is little room to explore the themes of The Little Red Riding Hood story. The resulting film is strangely neuter - strangely childish - a lot of fuss about nothing.

In this film Amanda Seyfield (MAMMA MIA!) plays Valerie aka LRRH as a drippy emo teenage girl, desperate to get it on with her dishy boyfriend Peter (Shiloh Fernandez - a poor man's Ed Westwick) but affianced to the similarly dishy Henry (Max Irons - a poor man's Robert Pattinson). She nearly fucks Peter, and flirts a little with Henry, but the potential for anyone with brown eyes to be the Big Bad Wolf obviously puts a dampener on things. Is it Peter? Is it Henry? Is it Julie Christie's gothic-loopy Grandmother? Who knows? Who cares? The movie grinds through its hokey whodunnit plot and the big reveal turns out to be dull and sexually uninteresting.

Amanda Seyfried is, I suppose, passable as the drippy teen, but both Max Irons and Shiloh Fernandez are wooden. Virginia Madsen as the mother and Gary Oldman as the sinister inquisitor are wasted and Julie Christie is in hammer-horror territory. The soundtrack, with music by Fever Ray, is suitably atmospheric, and Mandy Walker's photography is suitably moody, but she is let down by Thomas E Sanders' (Coppola's DRACULA) too shiny, too over-designed Alpine village set. I particularly hated screenwriter David Leslie Johnson's attempt to critique the use of torture in a war on terror (I kid you not!) and as I said before, his refusal to deal with the sexual subtext is just bizarre.

Overall, RED RIDING HOOD is just absolutely zero. A movie with no soul, no heart, no sex, no tension and no resolution worth its name. The only possible reason to watch it is for the comedy gold moment when you realise that the Reeve is Colonel Tigh!

RED RIDING HOOD was released in March in the USA, Singapore, Canada, Iceland, the Philippines, the USA, Kazakhstan, Russia, Bulgaria and Denmark. It was released earlier in April in Turkey, Armenia, Australia, Kuwait, Finland, Norway, Belgium, Portugal, Slovenia, Colombia, Spain and the UK. It opens next week in France, Sweden, Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Italy and Venezuela. It opens on April 28th in Greece, Hungary and Estonia. It opens on June 10th in Japan, and on June 24th in Poland.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

THE EAGLE - Job. Done.

I really enjoyed THE EAGLE. I loved it in the same way that I love commanding my Roman cohort to form the Testudo against a bunch of screaming German women and wolf-skin wearing savages in Rome Total War. It's a guilty pleasure that works for anyone who ever loved sword-and-sandal epics  or was forced to do a lot of class-civ. as a kid. And let's be honest, "the ninth legion" is a phrase that, for people educated in a certain time and place*, resonates strongly. Raised by Pompey to fight in Spain, the Legio Nona Hispana were definitely massacred by Boudica's Iceni in AD 60's Roman Britain, and were rumoured to have vanished north of Hadrian's Wall in AD 120, but may well have been finally defeated by the Teutons....Whatever happened, they represent the inability of Mighty Rome to hold off the Native Horde - a story that resonates today as we see the superior forces of our modern superpower struggling to fight scrappy insurgents in the Middle East. And this is the parallel that Scottish director Andrew MacDonald and screenwriter Jeremy Brock (THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND) bring to this adaptation of Rosemary Sutcliff's popular children's historical adventure, "The Eagle of the Ninth", by giving the Romans American accents and by confronting them with the motives of the "insurgents".

As in the novel, the story is simple and compelling. Young Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum) is the son of the disgraced Roman general whose legion was massacred by the northern British tribes. Worse still, those tribes captured the legion's Eagle - its symbol of authority and good fortune. Desperate to restore his family's honour, Aquila deliberately seeks a posting to Hadrian's Wall, and when injured defending his men, he journeys north of the border to find the Eagle without the sanction of Rome. We have, then, the Stakes. But the heart of the novel and the film is the relationship between Aquila and his slave-then-friend, Esca (Jamie Bell). Aquila's emotional arc takes him from viewing the Celts as savage insurgents of little honour and less integrity, to brave fighters defending their homeland against Rome's rape and pillage. The Seal People may do savage things - not least their "crown prince" as played by Tahar Rahim (UN PROPHET) but in death, when the war paint washes off, he is just a young man defending his tribe. So, by the end of his journey, while Aquila is still convinced of the idea of Rome, he can cock a snook at the Senate, and take the lead of a Freed Man (a ham-fisted scene admittedly.)

The resulting film is really well put together. Andrew MacDonald gives us all those little details of life in a Roman outpost that made the novel feel real and alive - we feel the armour chafe, we feel the adrenaline inside the Testudo, we hear the crowd cheer the gladiator. I loved Anthony Dod Mantle's photography - beautifully capturing the Scottish rural landscape and the fog of battle. This isn't Rome as glossy and glorious, but life in the trenches against an enemy that hates you. I was impressed by Channing Tatum as Aquila. He was convincing as the young soldier from the patrician family - born to lead - but also as the demoralised and depressed decommissioned soldier. He had genuine chemistry with Jamie Bell as Esca, and the way in which their understanding of each other develops is the back-bone of the film. Of course, Bell is the better actor, but the pairing didn't feel as imbalanced as I feared it might.

Is the film perfect? Of course not. As I said before, the final scene seemed a little cheesy. (Englishman) Mark Strong's American accent was so broad as to be distracting. We lost some emotional punch in the reduction of Cradoc (the guy on the chariot with knives sticking out of the axle) from a guide-turned-traitor to a generic screaming savage. And by axing Cottia (the love interest in the novel) but refusing to amp up the homo-erotic aspects of the story, MacDonald leaves the relationship between Aquila and Esca annoyingly ambiguous. Still, for all that, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed THE EAGLE. It was beautifully put together, solidly acted, and gave me a real feel for AD 100s Roman Britain. Job. Done.

THE EAGLE was released in February in Kazakhstan, Russia, Canada, the USA; Bulgaria, Finland, Romania, Indonesia and Armenia. It was released in March in Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, the Philippines, Greece, Kuwait, Egypt, Denmark, Hungary, Malaysia, the UK, Portugal and Singapore. It was released last week in Lithuania and Spain. It opens on April 18th in Estonia and Norway; on April 28th in Croatia and on May 13th in Turkey. THE EAGLE is released on Region 1 DVD on June 21st. 

*And if you think I'm taking this too far, we learned Latin before we learned French; our school magazine was called Aquila (Eagle!), the debating society was the Quintilian Society; the school moto was Alta Petens....To say that I was conditioned as a child to be fascinated by Rome is an under-statement.

Friday, April 08, 2011

SOURCE CODE - a lot less clever than it thinks it is

Duncan Jones' directorial debut, MOON was a beautifully crafted, emotionally powerful, low-budget sci-fi flick that was arguably one of the best films of 2009. As a result, his new film SOURCE CODE has been met with a lot of good-will on the part of the critical fraternity and has led to what are, in my opinion, overly generous reviews. Because SOURCE CODE is, essentially, a rather simple-minded, emotionally uninvolving movie full of plot holes, featuring at least one awful acting performance and saddled with a piss-poor Hollywood ending. Overall, it's enjoyable enough as a sort of lo-rent thriller, but it's neither good sci-fi, nor a follow-up film worthy of MOON. I am deeply, deeply disappointed.

The set-up of the film, written by Ben Ripley, is half way between Quantum Leap and that Denzel Washington-Tony Scott time-travel/CSI thriller DEJA VU. Jake Gyllenhaal plays an army officer called Colter Stevens who is parlayed by some sci-fi gimcrack into the mind of a commuter called Sean on a morning train to Chicago. That train is about to be blown up by a terrorist as a warning shot before an even bigger dirty bomb goes off in the city. The army keeps sending Colter back into Sean's body for eight minute segments  to find the identity of the bomber so that he can be apprehended before the second attack. But it is made very clear to Colter that he can't change what's already happened - the people on that train must die - and just because Colter has the hots for Sean's girlfriend Christina (Michelle Monaghan), he can't save her life.

Duncan Jones deftly handles the first half of the film. The repeated eight minutes segments on the train, that repeat in variations, GROUNDHOG DAY style, are never dull. There are some wonderfully innovative tracking shots in the confined space and good use of editing. Kudos also to Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan for giving those segments a sense of urgency and intimacy. But I started to lose interest badly in the second half of the flick for a number of reasons. First up, the first big plot reveal - about how Colter ended up in the Source Code - could be spotted a mile off. Second, if Colter knows the bomber has to leave the train to set off the second bomb, why does he bother interrogating people on the train? Third, the introduction of Jeffrey Wright's Evil Scientist character was just thin two-dimensional writing, and his performance as hammy as hell. Fourth, the character of the army-officer-with-a-conscience was similarly thinly written. And poor Vera Farmiga was simply an age-appropriate delivery device. Fifth, the ending. I think even those who really love this film will agree that there is a natural place where this film should end, and yet it goes on for another five minutes in what I can only assume was a studio intervention.

The upshot - disappointment with what was basically a mediocre thriller with a ham-fisted ending and no real ingenuity in its handling of its sci-fi or emotional material.

SOURCE CODE is on release in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, Canada, the Philippines, Taiwan, the UK, the US, the Czech Republic, Kuwait, Serbia, Bulgaria, Estonia, Iceland, Turkey and Spain. It opens later in April in Portugal, France, Spain, Hong Kong, Hungary, Malaysia, Singapore, Greece, Italy and Norway. It opens in May in India, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Finland. It opens on June 2nd in Germany; on June 9th in the Netherlands; on June 16th in Denmark and on August 5th in Sweden.

Friday, April 01, 2011


Werner Herzog is, hands down, the most exciting director working in cinema today. Exciting because he makes connections between emotions, sounds and images that no-one else would begin to think of, let alone have the audacity to put on screen. His films vary from horror to documentary to cop thrillers - that is they vary by genre. But his films are always, everywhere, Herzog - obsessed with the power and cruelty of nature, human nature foremost - and wonderfully obsessed with the power of storytelling - filmed in a kind of gonzo style and yet with perfect control over the medium. For Herzog, mere truth should never be allowed to get in the way of a good story - from a deeper more profound truth. And neither should stand in the way of a lingering shot of a lizard!

Herzog's latest film is a documentary that uses small 3D HD cameras to take us inside a famous cave at Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc in Ardeche. This cave contains the oldest known cave paintings, beautifully preserved by a delicate ecosystem - so delicate that ordinary tourists are rarely allowed inside. As a result, Herzog's film is the only chance most of us will get to see these beautifully detailed, vivid images. On one level, the documentary is conventional enough. Herzog shows us the paintings and interviews various members of the scientific team, who explain their significance. But nothing is ever that straightforward with Herzog. For he brings with him his childlike wonder at the beauty of the paintings - at early man's use of the curve of the stone and visual techniques to portray motion - and at the very idea that he is sharing a space across time with his earliest ancestors. Who else would see cave paintings and describe them as a sort of proto-cinema, or make a connection between monochrome paintings and Fred Astaire? Some of this might sound hokey, but the sonorous particularity of Herzog's voice and the earnestness with which he delivers these ideas is as compelling as the paintings themselves.

For let us be clear - while this is a documentary - it has the same strange stillness, macabre other-worldliness - as his recent film MY SON MY SON WHAT HAVE YE DONE?, complete with DP Peter Zeitlinger's tableaux vivants. And even more audacious, the final five minutes are a flight of fantasy, except that the content - too deliciously bizarre to spoil here - really exists!

What can one say but that the Chauvet caves could have been photographed by many directors, and they would have looked wonderful. But only Herzog makes them seem vivid, connected to us, and magical.

CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS 3D played Toronto 2010 and Berlin 2011. It was released in the UK in March 2011 and will be released in Germany in November. The film is being released in 2D and 3D. to my mind the 3D is more engrossing but the dimness of the image, in an already dim-lit cave, is a deep disadvantage.