Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sundance London 2012 - LUV

LUV is an earnest film with flashes of brilliance, but ultimately it stretches credulity too far to be taken seriously. Written by Justin Wilson and directed by Sheldon Candis (YOUNG CAESAR), it tells the tale of a young kid called Woody living with his uncle and grandmother in Baltimore. The opening scenes clash with every preconception we have from watching The Wire. His clothes for school are neatly laid out and he's getting a proper breakfast.  But Woody's day takes a wrong turn when his Uncle - an ex-con ex-dealer trying to go straight - decides to take Woody under his wing and teach him about "real life".  This, it turns out, encompasses a quick lesson in firing a gun and driving a car - clumsy foreshadowing anyone?  Woody doesn't actually do much for half the film. He just watches his Uncle get drawn back into the game.  They share some sweet moments but the relationship is always slippery and slightly sinister - and I love that delicacy of writing.  

The problem is in the second half of the film when Woody becomes a Mary Sue figure, and the finale is quite simply absurd.  At the Sundance London screening, the director asked us to accept the film as a fable rather than as a realistic portrayal of events, but frankly there wasn't enough in the stylistic choices within the film to support this reading.

On the positive side, the film contains strong performances from Common as the Uncle and Michael Rainey Jr as Woody.  There are also some nice cameos from Dennis Haysbert, Danny Glover and the legendary Michael K Williams.  The tech package, however, leaves something to be desired. A lot of the film takes place outside at night at the Red One's inability to capture true deep black is a problem. 

LUV played Sundance and Sundance London 2012. It opens in the USA on November 9th. 

Sundance London 2012 - CHASING ICE

CHASING ICE may well be the most important movie since AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH.  And I say that as a self confessed greedy capitalist bastard and sceptic about all social activism, causes, and anti-corporate whining.

For me, AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH was a movie that raised awareness but also raised questions about the veracity of climate science. Was the climate really changing and if so, was human activity the cause?  And most importantly would changing human activity  reverse the damage or is it already too late?  What CHASING ICE does is, for the first time, give powerful, irrefutable, visual, easily understandable evidence that climate change is happening, and at a pace that is frightening.

Jeff Orlowski's documentary does this by basically shadowing a nature photographer called James Balog, in his worse time lapse photographic melting glaciers.  That all sounds much simpler than it really is. The doc (as penned by Mark Monroe -THE TILLMAN STORY) shows exactly what a labour of love it has been.  Balog and his team have had to hike up to some of the most inaccessible and hostile places on earth to install cameras to take the photographs - designed bespoke equipment to withstand the gruelling climate - and at no small cost to Balog's health.  It becomes clear that Balog didn't start out as a climate change evangelist. He was just a guy who took amazing photographs of nature, and somehow stumbled onto this story.  But once he found it he pursued it with a passion that seems at times reckless, and produced visuals that deserve to be seen by the widest possible audience.

CHASING ICE answers he question of whether climate change is happening. It is. Naysayers need to just get over it.  That said, CHASING ICE doesn't get to the part about whether governmental action to alter human behaviour would reverse the change.  That's fine: that's not Balog's job.  But it sure does throw down the gauntlet to the rest of us.

The run-time is 76 minutes.

Sundance London 2012 - THE HOUSE I LIVE IN

Eugene Jarecki's Sundance award winning documentary, THE HOUSE I LIVE IN, is a powerful and insightful examination of the US war in drugs. Inspired by the family history of his family friend and employee, Nani Jeter, Jarecki comes to the topic with fresh eyes and enquiring heart.  He interviews everyone from cops, judges and prison officers, to dealers, addicts and their families.  He brings in medical experts and historians of social policy.  Most prominently, Jarecki brings in investigative journalist turned screenwriter, David Simon, the man who created The Wire. 

I came the this documentary a little complacent that because of obsessive viewing of The Wire and reading in this subject, I wasn't going to learn anything new.  But I was wrong.  Where Simon gave us a deep and penetrating analysis of once city, from he Senator down to the kid on the corner, savagely indicting current policy, Jarecki takes a broader view.  He traces the war's origins to the early decades of the last century, when drug use was criminalised to provide enforcement agents with a hook upon which to arrest elements in society that were an economic threat.  And, then, with the urbanisation of the black population, the situation was compounded by housing policy that concentrated the "target" populations and made a simplistic policing policy of low level arrests easy and efficient to organise.  

The irony is that policies that were once either designed, or had the unintended consequence of marginalising the urban black poor, are now capturing the rural white poor, as disenfranchised blue collar workers are turning to meth.  Simon in particular makes a strong case for the war on drugs as basically as a class war, in which Americans rendered economic valueless are conveniently rounded up and incarcerated.  It's powerful stuff, even more so when an historian compares the marginalization of these people to the marginalization  of the Jews in 1930s Germany.

It's testament to the intelligence of his documentary that that parallel isn't pushed too far.  But after two hours witnessing the futility of a policy that takes people with no economic opportunity and further punishes them, we need as provocative an ending.  The result is a documentary that is in the best tradition of agitprop, well organised enough for the viewer with no prior knowledge but with enough new material for the armchair specialist.

THE HOUSE I LIVE IN played Sundance 2012 where it won the Grand Jury Prize - Documentary. It also played Sundance London.

Runtime - 117 minutes. US rating - R.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

This is not a review of - 2 DAYS IN NEW YORK

Because Sundance projected the film for 30 minutes without subtitles, then faffed about for 10 minutes, then cancelled the screening. In all my years of going to LIFF and watching c50 films per fest, I've never seen something like that happen. Just sayin'

Sundance London 2012 - FOR ELLEN

So Yong Kim's anaemic "drama" is a cinematic dead end, in which very little happens and I cared even less. The first hour of this short 90 minute flick forces unto spend time with a feckless loser called Joby  (Paul Dano) a wannabe rocker and deadbeat dad who's suddenly realised that he's about to lose custody of his kid and is looking for everyone else to fix a situation he's gotten himself into.  But even that description sounds too energetic for a film that doesn't deign to trade in mere dialogue and narrative arc. The only thing the poor viewer has to cling on to is e occasional flash of humour and awkwardness from Jon Heder (NAPOLEON DYNAMITE) as Joby's lawyer.  By the time we see Joby interact with his kid, the Ellen of the title, there's precious little screen time left, and we really get is crass sentimentality. I really can't find anything redeeming in this entire exercise.

FOR ELLEN played Sundance, Berlin and Sundance London 2012. The run-time is 94 minutes.

Sundance London 2012 - NOBODY WALKS

NOBODY WALKS is a beautifully made drama in which very little happens and yet the viewer feels intimately connected to each character, and invested in the emotional response to each situation.  The performances are subtle and brave; the visual design of the film stylised and impactful: the overall effect one of establishing and maintaining an uneasy tone where seemingly banal occurrences hide emotional crises.

The single plot point that sets the movie off is the introduction of a newcomer to a family that is playing at being beautiful and privileged but evidently isn't functioning at a very basic level. The newcomer is vibrant, sexy Martine (Olivia Thirlby) - a young experimental filmmaker from New York. The family consists of psychologist Julie (Rosemarie Dewitt), her daughter Kolt (India Ennenga), her husband, Peter (John Krasinki) and their son.  Peter is a sound designer helping Martine out with her film, but while he feels an attraction to her, its Martine that initiates the relationship.  This doesn't go unnoticed by Julie, who is also facing temptation from her inappropriately keen patient (Justin Kirk). Meanwhile, the daughter, Kolt, is envious of Martine's flirtation with Peter's assistant David; equivocal about dating the sweet but unexciting Avi; and sleazed upon by her Italian tutor.

What I love about this film is that characters do things that may or may not be morally reprehensible but their motivations and the morality of their actions is always ambiguous and the more interesting for that.  Is there something more honest in Peter's reaction to Martine than in Julie's response to her parents?  And what are Martine's real motives? Is she consciously exploiting her sex appeal or a victim of men projecting their desires and assumptions onto her.  It's this kind of provocation that makes NOBODY WALKS such an elusive and fascinating film.  I hope it gets the distribution it deserves.

NOBODY WALKS played Sundance and Sundance London 2012.  It will be released in the USA on October 12th 2012.The run-time is 83 minutes.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Sundance London 2012 - SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED

I guess it was a sure bet.  Any movie based on a cutesy internet meme (see above graphic) was gonna rub me up the wrong way.  SAFTEY NOT GUARANTEED is the kind of hipster, quirky, indulgent comedy that I hate.  In fact, even calling it a comedy is a stretch given that it peddles the gentlest of gentle comedy.  I only laughed out loud three times, so on that basis it fails the Wittertainment 5-Laughs rule.  I predict that this will end up like last year's lauded hit, LIKE CRAZY. That was another movie the indie community loved and I hated. It too ended up in a bidding war at Sundance only to fail at the box office.

The problem with the film is that everything about it is so contrived that goofy that there's nothing to relate to - no point of entry unless you're also a wannabe oddball hipster.  It also contains precious few proper jokes (as mentioned above), and uneven tone, as it skirts past various genres. I blame Derek Connolly's pretentious script and Colin Trevorrow's lacklustre direction.  Performances are mostly so-so.  Aubrey Plaza (PARKS AND RECREATION) does her snarky, moody thing, but predictably melts when she meets Mark Duplass' oddball paranoid wannabe time-traveller.  They meet up because she an intern at a magazine and her boss Jeff is faking interest in the madcap scheme so as to write a funny story on the guy.  Jake M Johnson provides the only real laughs as Jeff, nicely playing against the "nice Nick" character in THE NEW GIRL.  As for Karan Soni's Arnau, it's nice that we people of Indian origin are starting to get more airtime in movies, but does it always have to be a clichéd geeky hard-working student? I'm starting to get offended.

SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED played Sundance 2012 where Derek Connolly won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. It also played Sundance London. It will play SXSW 2012 and will be released in the USA on June 8th.

Sundance London 2012 - SHUT UP AND PLAY THE HITS

So I walked into the screening of SHUT UP AND PLAY THE HITS having never heard of the band LCD soundsystem nor caring that it was a super influential synth rock group that had apparently retired at he top of its game with a show at Madison Square Gardens last year.  

And this new concert film by British directors Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace (BLUR: LIVE IN HYDE PARK) made no concessions to viewers who Kent not know what the fuss was about.   We get a short clip from the Colbert Report where the schlubby middle aged front man tells us he wants to retire and do non specific stuff. He likes coffee. And then we're into songs from the last gig interspersed with the random clips of the post concert wind down. 

This, it turns out, is a genius choice. The music, and the lead singer James Murphy, speak for themselves. The music, it turns out, is amazing. A kind of David Byrnes-esque synth pop. And the footage makes you feel like you're right in the mix of the concert. And the off stage footage gives you an idea about the crazy-sane decision to quit. 

Watch this flick.  It doesn't matter if you've heard of the band (and I'm sure everyone but me has!). This is great music, and a great doc.

SHUT UP AND PLAY THE HITS played Sundance and Sundance London 2012.  It will be released in the US this summer. 

Sundance London 2012 - THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES

THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES says everything that needs saying about the cycle of greed between consumers and banks that collapsed with the Global Financial Crisis.  And it does so not by interviewing Wall Street bankers and earnestly explaining the securitisation market, but by taking us into the stupendously large home of the Siegler family, whose fortunes were magnificently swept up in the boom bust cycle.  

Papa Siegler was the king of timeshare.  Credit fuelled his business at every level. Poor American families bought his units on credit -subprime credit as it turns out - and he in turn used the massive revenues he was generating to build ever more resorts and build ever more palatial houses.  The lines between business and personal wealth were blurred.  He mortgaged the gigantic Versailles house - the biggest house in America as it turns out -  and ploughed the money into building a timeshare tower in Vegas.  And when the credit cycle burst, he found himself in dire straits.  

Papa Siegler comes across as a stern, hard-ball businessman: tenacious, clever, hubristic at the start, and bloodied but unbowed at the end. His self awareness about the opiate of cheap finance does him credit.  He is prickly, but sympathetic. But the really fascinating character is his second wife, a college educated girl who became a beauty queen, and married this man, thirty years her senior. With her plastic body and botoxed face, her seeming inability to curb her spending, and her lackadaisical approach to household management, Jackie would be easy to mock.  But it's a tribute to director Lauren Greenfield that Jackie is not caricatured through editing but is allowed to come across as a sympathetic character. She seems to genuinely care about her friends and neighbours getting foreclosed upon, and to be genuinely worried about her stressed out husband. She loves the good life, but she's willing to stick by her husband for better or for worse.

What I love about this documentary is that it shows you the morbid excess of consumerism -especially when put it in contrast with the lives of the Filipino nanny - but it also shows you how these people aren't bad people.  It's hard to get perspective on the whirlwind when you're in it.  To me, this movie is the flip side of the brilliant MARGIN CALL, which made a similar case for empathising with the Wall Street bankers who were running on the same hamster wheel of greed as the sub prime borrowers. We were all drinking the same Kool aid.

THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES played Sundance and Sundance London 2012. It will be released in the USA on 6th July 2012.

AVENGERS ASSEMBLE - that ole Whedon magic!

Joss Whedon's Avengers Assemble is about as good as it gets for a superhero blockbuster movie.  The action set pieces are thrilling; the emotional stakes are high; and in Robert Downey Junior, Whedon has found the perfect avatar for his trademark pop-culture savvy wit.  The movie itself is the logical culmination of all those marvel adaptations we've seen in recent years, from the less successful (Hulks inter alia) to the commercially successful (Jon Favreau's Iron Man) to the hammy (Thor) to the more emotionally satisfying (Captain America.) 

In this flick, the MacGuffin is the tesseract: a blue cube that apparently unleashes untold energy that can be used for good or ill.  When Thor's resentful brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) comes to earth, wanting to use the tesseract to bring in an alien army, it's up to Samuel L Jackson's slippery government agent to unite the superheroes and save the world.   

Whedon does a masterful job of handling a wide cast of characters, of whom the audiences have different levels of familiarity.  He uses a prologue to set up Loki's theft of the MacGuffin then quickly moves to a couple of scenes that set up the new characters of the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansen)  and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and re-establish Dr Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo).  From there we're into the meat of the story:  whether the Avengers can put aside their personality differences and learn to work together. This take us through spectacular action set pieces in a flying aircraft carrier/ supherhero lair and an alien obliteration of midtown Manhattan. 

For me, the brilliance of Whedon isn't just the witty dialogue, although that sure goes a long way to lighten up a movie that's basically about macho blokes beating each other up.  His genius is that he can crack jokes while simultaneously giving characters emotional doth and complexity in a few short scenes.  This is particularly true of the way in which he depicts Bruce Banner as a deeply sympathetic, borderline suicidal genius struggling with "the other man".  What's amazing is that Whedon/Ruffalo's Banner is simultaneously the most emotionally interesting and realistic character but also the one that generates the biggest belly laughs. His scenes in the final battle where he thumps Thor and throws Loki around like so much confetti are absolute crowd-pleasers. 

And that brings me to the final reason why Whedon has made the best summer blockbuster I've seen in a long time: he knows how to direct action!  Too many modern films have action sequences so frenetic that it's hard for the viewer to keep pace with the choreography of what's actually happening.  I'd blame Michael Bay, but I think among the better quality filmmakers, the desire to imitate Paul Greengrass' Bourne films is also to blame.  Whedon gives us all the loud bangs and crashes but never, never, let's us lose sit of the bugger picture. He keeps us engaged at every turn. And that's what makes AVENGERS ASSEMBLE a superhero movie with wit, heart and exhilarating action.  I can't wait for the next installment. 

AVENGERS ASSEMBLE AKA THE AVENGERS is on global release. The running time is 143 minutes. The US rating is PG-13 but parents be warned: there's a sneaky quim joke!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Sundance London 2012 - LIBERAL ARTS

LIBERAL ARTS is a trite, cliché-ridden, entirely unbelievable movie that runs too long, and bores during its run-time.  Written by, directed by and starring Josh Radnor aka Ted in HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER, the movie reads as a mash-up of rom-com set pieces, with pretensions at saying something more profound.  

That profound insight is basically that most of us reach a point where we're happy in our small contained world, and once we leave it, life is basically a series of disappointments. For some kids, that'll be high school. For others, when they leave college.  For some lucky folk, it's when they retire. The point that the movie wants to make is that no matter how tempting it is to go back to that place of nostalgia, it isn't healthy. You have to move on and grow up.

All of which is fair enough.  I can relate. That could've been the backbone of an interesting movie. But what we get instead is half a film showing a soupy meet-cute and falling-in-love story between Radnor's 35 year old arrested development book-worm and Elizabeth Olsen's 19 year old Liberal Arts college student.  They share music mixes and feel uplifted by Schubert!  To make this bearable, Radnor needed to be a lot more self-aware and ironic with the material than he was. The second half of the movie zings all over the place, with one plot twist involving Olsen that rang hollow - another plot twist featuring a depressed student called Dean ( a very impressive turn by John Magaro - want to see more of him) that seems to come from another film altogether - and so many resolutions and endings that the film drags itself out worse than RETURN OF THE KING.

In the midst of all this, Richard Jenkins' reluctantly retiring Professor gets too little screen time. Allison Janney's brilliantly acerbic Professor gets just enough but steals the show. And Zac Efron has a charismatic cameo. But all this does is to reinforce the feeling that what we have here is an ill-written jumble of scenes, some of which work, some of which don't - a hammy sensibility aiming at something better. All of which is coupled with a pretty basic technical package.

Move along. There's nothing to see here. 

LIBERAL ARTS played Sundance and Sundance London 2012 and will be released in Australia on September 20th 2012.

Sundance London 2012 - UNDER AFRICAN SKIES

In 1986 Paul Simon went to South Africa, and collaborated with black South African musicians to create Graceland, an iconic album that introduced the West to the vibrant South African music culture, and arguably did more than anything to raise consciousness about the disgrace of Apartheid - then at its violent height.

Problem was, in going to South Africa, he broke the UN cultural boycott, and despite sound advice from Harry Belafonte, failed to go under the auspices of the ANC. Unsurprisingly, when the album came out, the praise for the music was almost drowned out by the political controversy.  Was Simon exploiting African musicians? Were they right to tour with him? Was his project well-meaning but ultimately destructive of the anti-apartheid struggle?

Joe Berlinger's documentary explores these issues in depth thanks to unlimited access to Paul Simon, Belafonte, Dali Tambo (Simon's most vocal opponent, and son of the former ANC leader) and the musicians who played on the album. Berlinger uses video footage of the original sessions and 2011's 25 year reunion concert to frame interview footage, and to take us through the timeline of the controversy.

Paul Simon comes across as devastatingly honest, but slippery in his reasoning.  He knew he wanted to go record with these musicians - it was an obsession - and he knew he was on thin ice so didn't tell Harry.  He claims again and again that he was invited to go - as if the volition of the South African artists over-rides the ANC - but he was the one who pushed his record label for introductions, and most of the artists had never heard of him.  To my mind, Simon is on more solid ground when he points out that the boycott twice punished the oppressed.  It was designed to isolate white South Africa (hence the importance of maintaining the cricket and rugby boycotts) but the black South African musicians were effectively cut off from cultural exchange too.  That said, Simon remains ambiguous to the end, even through the Q&A.

The documentary is provocative and Joe Berlinger is admirably even handed - allowing the opposing sides to present their arguments clearly and calmly. But it's almost too cool - too detached - too focused on the politics and not enough on the power of the music.  The near two-hour run-time felt long (longer than the fast paced 150 minute MARLEY), and I was impatient for the documentary to end.  For me, this is a movie that's really a 60 minute TV political doc. 

UNDER AFRICAN SKIES played Sundance, Newport Beach and Sundance London 2012. It does not yet have a commercial release date.

Sunday, April 22, 2012


Kevin MacDonald (THE EAGLE) returns to the documentary format with this insightful, beautifully edited documentary about Bob Marley. MacDonald inherited this "troubled" project after Scorsese and Demme left, apparently during the editing process, but it's clear that MacDonald was able to go back and shoot extra footage because his voice is occasionally heard interviewing Marley's family and friends. As a result, this is a project very much in the style of TOUCHING THE VOID. MacDonald comes to the material with a clear, curious head, but stays in the background - letting Marley's contemporaries (to whom he has exceptionally good access) speak for themselves.  MacDonald does not flinch from emotionally and politically tough issues - Marley's multiple girlfriends - the difficulty his children had in breaking through the entourage to his get to their father - Marley's political naivete - often playing for the "people" but hijacked by nasty political factions, and African dictators. 

The documentary begins at Nine Mile - up in the verdant hills of Jamaica - far away from the cliched image of Montego Bay.  Marley grew up in rural poverty, doubly cursed by being of illegitimate and mixed race parentage.  An outsider, he becomes fiercely competitive (even with his own children), strongly disciplined about his music, his route to escape. He followed his mother to Trenchtown, the Kingston ghetto, and made his early forays into the music business with the Wailing Wailers - a kind of Motown clean-cut boy band influenced by local ska and mento music. After a brief excursion to the US, following his mother, frustrated at his lack of success, he returns to Jamaica and his musical style and philosophical self-confidence seems to turn on his becoming a Rastafari.  The documentary spends a good amount of time examining what this religion meant to Marley, and why an outsider might have felt drawn to a minority "cult", itself the subject of prejudice, which preached "one love". 

But for me, the movie really became compelling when it got to its final hour, and Marley's final years.  When Marley was such a potent icon that he was being used by politicians. When Jamaican politics descended into gang violence between crypto-Communists and crypto-Fascists.  When Marley ships equipment to Zimbabwe at his own expense to celebrate independence, but sees his audience tear-gassed.   I love that MacDonald manages to open out from a music documentary into a sad documentary about the tragedy of independence - so many former colonies descending into political chaos or tyranny. That for me, is what makes this documentary, and Marley's life and early death, tragic. (So much so that I wasn't the only person crying in the cinema.) This clash between his harsh experiences; his idealism; and the contested politics against which he had to operate. Even the images of Marley over the final credits are problematic.  Is his music an evangelical rallying cry that has touched people across the world, even today? Or has he become another icon exploited by the merchandising men, like Che Guevara - a face on a T-shirt?

MARLEY played Berlin  and SXSW 2012. It is currently on release in the UK, USA and Ireland. It opens in Belgium on May 9th, in the Netherlands on May 10th, in Germany on May 17th, in Portugal on May 24th and in France on June 13th

MARLEY has a runtime of 144 minutes and is rated PG-13 in the USA and 15 in the UK. 

Sunday, April 15, 2012

BATTLESHIP - Surprisingly good!

I appreciate the irony of me telling you to ignore the critics - at least the paid ones - because BATTLESHIP is a lot of fun. And I say this as someone who couldn't watch TRANSFORMERS and generally doesn't do mindless action summer blockbusters.  I can see why the critics are being sniffy. BATTLESHIP is, no pun intended, an easy target to hit.  It has more than it's fair share of ludicrous action sequences and clichéd dialogue.  Its plot is a pick'n'mix from BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, INDEPENDENCE DAY, STAR WARS and TERMINATOR - utterly predictable from start to finish.  And worst of all, it stunt-casts a Sports Illustrated model (Brooklyn Decker) and a pop star (Rihanna). It's also pretty long.

But forget all that. Here's the deal.  NASA has sent  out signals to an earth-like planet that have resulted in an early-invasion alien task-force targeting a satellite station in Hawaii, putting up a forcefield that keeps out the US navy.  Luckily, BSG-stylee, a few ships are trapped inside the field, and it falls to them to destroy the alien force, eventually decommissioning an old battleship complete with vets on board.  Part of this involves tracking the alien ships, battleship game style, by trying to hit grid co-ordinates. Meanwhile, on the island, a geek, a girlfriend and a war-vet come together to knock on the communication satellite via which the aliens are due to bring in the rest of the invasion force.

There are a lot of battles and fights and whatnot and the vis-effects are all top-notch.  But what makes the film a success is that it takes its time establishing character, so that when it gets to the battles we actually care about the outcome and the character development they engender. The movie starts with a clean-cut Naval officer Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgard) witnessing his love-able loser brother Alex's (Taylor Kitsch) attempt to woo the daughter of an Admiral (Brooklyn Decker).  The intro is genuinely funny, just as the opening scenes with Kitsch as John Carter trying to break jail were really funny.  And what this movie does right is that it recognises that Kitsch has a Harrison Ford like loveable-rogue quality and rather than squashing that (as in John Carter) it actually lets it run throughout the movie.  All the way through we have him wise-cracking even as he becomes more mature and takes on command of the ship. 

Moreover, whenever, the dialogue gets too hammy, you have another character commenting on that. A lot of critics have criticised Kitsch's character using the line "I have a bad feeling about this" after a destroyer has pretty much been shot to shit. But I think they're missing the fun that the screenwriters are having with the genre they're in. How else can  you explain having Hamish Linklater play the science geek Cal looking basically like a young George Lucas?  And a couple of times he even explicitly says things like "who talks like that?!" This is a movie that internalises its own critique - it knows it has a mockingly self-indulgent attitude toward the genre conventions its playing with.

What's interesting is that this self-indulgent, gentle mockery sits alongside a very earnest, patriotic streak that runs throughout the film.  Early on, we have a scene where Korean War vets are saluted.  They play a key role later on.  And real-life vet Gregory D Gadson plays a pivotal role in the island storyline.  I like the fact that alongside all the action sequence nonsense, the movie looks us straight in the eye and shows us the true cost of war - men with their limbs shot off.  And it doesn't do this is in a sensational way - it just quietly makes its point.

So for me, BATTLESHIP is pretty much the perfect summer blockbuster. It's a mindless action movie that actually has a lot of intelligence - combining respect for vets with a conciliatory attitude towards the US' historic enemies.  It deals in cliché, but does so in a funny and self-aware manner. And we finally get a movie that understands that Taylor Kitsch is best used in a role which shows off his easy charm.  I'm all about this movie and look forward to the sequel.

BATTLESHIP was released on April 12th in Belgium, France, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Taiwan, the UK, Australia, Denmark, Germany, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Finland, Iceland, India, Italy, Japan, Spain and Vietnam. It opens on April 19th in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Greece, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Turkey.  It opens on May 11th in Brazil and Colombia; on May 18th in Canada, Paraguay and the USA.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

iPad Round-Up 8 - ALBATROSS

ALBATROSS is a nicely observed British coming-of-age drama by debut director Nial MacCormick and writer Tamzin Rafn.  It stars Felicity Jones (LIKE CRAZY) as Beth, an earnest intellectual teenage girl living in her parents seaside boarding house. Her mother (Julia Ormond) is the put-upon wife of a one-hit wonder author (Sebastian Koch).  Into the mix comes Emelia (DOWNTON's Jessica Brown-Findlay), a teenage tearaway who conducts an affair with the father, and befriends the daughter, leading rather predictably to a confrontation about the implicit betrayal staged over Beth's Oxford entrance interview weekend.  There's nothing massively new here, but I liked the performances, and there was something convincing about both Beth and Emelia - both girls aware that they are sexually attractive but not yet in control of it. I also liked Sebastian Koch as the wastrel father. ALBATROSS isn't a stand-out film by any means, but it is an interesting enough watch, and I look forward to MacCormick's next feature. 

ALBATROSS opened in the UK and Ireland in 2011 and is available to rent and own.


Deeply dull, pretentious art-house flick about a bored young girl who gets paid by fetishists to sleep, drugged, while they do anything they want to her except penetration.  The debut feature from writer-director Julia Leigh, the movie never explores the full creepiness of what is happening, or even who is exploiting whom. It wants to be subversive and provocative but is more uncomfortable because of the amateur-ish acting that because of any explicit content. This is a movie without about as much understanding or interest in sexual fetish as Kubrick's EYES WIDE SHUT. And one can only be thankful that promising young actress, Mia Wasikowska, dropped out before this piss-poor indie hit besmirched her career.

SLEEPING BEAUTY played Cannes 2011 and opened in 2011 in Australia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Estonia, Hong Kong, the UK, Japan, France, the USA and Philippines.  It opened earlier this year in Belgium, Singapore and Brazil and opens in the Netherlands on July 12th. It is available to rent and own.

iPad Round-Up 6 - WARRIOR

WARRIOR is a movie that stands in the shadow of THE FIGHTER and looks pale by comparison. It also features two brothers as competitive fighters, one of whom is a "troubled", and a parent who is poisonous and controlling.  And is with THE FIGHTER, the fighting in the ring is secondary to the emotional conflict outside the ring, leading to an eventual reconciliation.  Moreover, both films show the impact of an intrusive media.  Where THE FIGHTER is steeped in an authentic locale, and powered by three superlative performances, WARRIOR feels contrived, emotionally manipulative, and powered by brawn rather than brains.  Nick Nolte, as the alcoholic father, received an Oscar nomination for his role, but this felt undeserved to me.  And as for the two brother, Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton have both done better work.  This is the kind of movie in which two brothers enter a mixed martial arts contest and, no shit, they end up facing off in the final.  Puh-lease.

WARRIOR was released in autumn 2011 and is available to rent and own.

iPad Round-Up 5 - IMMORTALS

Tarsem Singh's last film, the visually stunning, whimsical, deeply emotionally affecting THE FALL, is one of my favourite films of the past decade. In my mind's eye I can see vivid imagery - breathtakingly framed action sequences, wondrous costumes and locations - but I can also feel how heartbroken I was in a pivotal scene where a sweet little girl is bertrayed by the injured man she is trying to help.  It's a movie that has so much heart - such a simple story, when all is said and done - that it compensates for the distancing effect of the highly-stylised visuals and the baroque story-telling style.

Tragically, IMMORTALS is a movie in which there is style, too much style, too many artfully staged, framed and HD-colour-timed visuals, and too little narrative or emotional clarity.  The resulting film is dull (literally - not sure what was up with my iPad download but it was so dark in places I could barely see the action) and then simply unwatchable.  In theory, the movie is about the Greek myth of Perseus, the Clash of the Titans, and the Minotaur.  I studied these myths in school in depth.  But even I didn't have a clue what was happening, or care why.  The actors do the best they can, I suppose, but they're swamped by the visual effects and no-one comes out of it with any credit.  I also suspect that Mickey Rourke, as Hyperion, was simply mis-cast.

Avoid at all costs.  

IMMORTALS was released in November 2011. It is available to rent and own.


This new adaptation of Herge's famous children's adventure stories is a technical masterpiece. Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson have come together to create a movie using the latest motion capture, CGI and 3D technology to create a spectacular visual experience.  The problem is that I'm not sure their choices work, and I'm not sure the story can withstand the heavy visuals placed upon it.  

The first problem is that Herge's comics have such a particular style, and the motion-cap work seems to come down somewhere between straightforward animation and live-action, creating a sort of eerie look of humans with plasticine faces and over-large hands.  I  found the mo-cap humans with exaggerated facial features creepy.  

The second problem is that the movie contains so much swash and buckle, so many car-chases, naval-escapades and exotic locales, that I had no idea what was going on or what was at stake.  The whole thing read as a giant MacGuffin, designed to propel us through ever more exciting action sequences. I simply did not care about the clues to treasure that TinTin and his alcoholic sidekick, Captain Haddock, were seeking, nor did I think that they had enough camaraderie to anchor a buddy-action adventure story.

Maybe my whole problem is with the character of TinTin himself? I've never read the comic books and I find this strangely asexual boy-scouty do-gooding journo deeply unengaging.  So much of this film shares the 1920s action serial tropes that made INDIANA JONES so compelling, but without a loveable rogue as the lead character, there's no emotional entry point.

So, count me out for the sequel.

THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN opened in October 2011 and is now available to rent and own.


THE PEOPLE VS GEORGE LUCAS plays like a slick version of a YouTube fan doc. Alexandre O Philippe basically interviews a bunch of Star Wars fans and gives them a kind of group therapy space to discuss their love of the original trilogy and their sense of betrayal both at the changes that George Lucas has made to it, and to the travesty of the prequels. For me, this was a movie that perfectly articulated my own love-hate relationship with Lucas and made me feel less alone in my frustration.  

Along the way it explores interesting issues. The first is the tragic figure of Lucas - a man trapped in a prison of his own making.  The irony of the indie film-maker who has himself become the guardian of a capitalist franchise.  Francis Ford Coppola is particularly articulate on the idea that George Lucas never made the brilliant artistic films he could've done because he was trapped by the Star Wars monster. The second is the nature of "art"  and who owns it. 

The second big issue is whether the fans right to feel that because they have invested so much into the original trilogy, that Lucas is obliged to respect their feelings and not make any changes? Or is Lucas, as owner of the film rights, perfectly at liberty to do as he pleases?  Indeed, in an age of the internet, when geeks can come together in real time, creating a hysterical response to a cultural work, critiquing every line, are we just setting ourselves up for a fall? I can see this on the current fan forums for George R R Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire.  The hype is so great, any new novel is almost guaranteed to be a disappointment. And the emotional investment is so great, even the slightest change in the HBO TV show causes outrage. 

And what about all the collaborators who worked on those original films? Do the special effects guys whose effects have now been replaced with CGI been robbed of their contribution?  In other words, how far is the director really the auteur who can play God with a collaborative art-form?  Lucas clearly things he is God, the Creator, with the right to do as he pleases.  But have generations of film critics created a false perception of just how important the director truly is?  Is the director as deluded as the fans?

THE PEOPLE VS GEORGE LUCAS is thought-provoking, entertaining, and gives you a great sense of camaraderie.  It's well worth a watch, even if you're not a Star Wars fan, because it describes so clearly modern fan culture.  

And for the record, HAN SHOT FIRST!

THE PEOPLE VS GEORGE LUCAS played SXSW 2010 and was released in 2011 in the USA and on YouTube.  It is available to rent and own.

iPad Round-Up 2 - TATSUMI

TATSUMI is a wonderful animated film that works on two levels.  Most obviously, it is the life story of Japanese manga artist Toshihiro Tatsumi, based on his award-winning graphic novel/memoir, "A Drifting Life".  It shows him growing up in war-torn Japan, making his name as a young Manga artist, and finally pioneering a new type of comic for adults, dealing explicitly with sexual frustration, ennui and social issues in post-war Japan - in sharp contrast to the Astro Boy comics of his idol Osama Tezuka. To that end, the movie works as biopic for manga fans, interspersing the impressively frank autobiography with short animated films of some of his most famous short stories. This was interesting, and elegantly done, but as a person who has never read a single manga story, I found the movie more compelling as a document of social history. Thanks to Tatsumi's keen eye and honesty, we learn a lot about the social, sexual, political and economic changes in Japan, from the horrors of the nuclear bomb, to deprivation, to the economic boom. There were all sorts of little facts that shocked me - I was shocked at my own ignorance - such as the fact that the Japanese couldn't travel abroad until 1964 and even then with only a dollar's worth of Yen. So, for me, this film was entertaining, moving and educational, and I would recommend it even to people who have no interest in manga at all.  The visuals are beautiful, elegant and powerful, and have prompted me to start reading "A Drifting Life".

TATSUMI played Cannes 2011 and opened last year in Singapore and Hungary. It opened earlier this year in Ireland and the UK and is currently on release in the USA. It is available to rent and own

iPad Round-Up 1 - THE BIG YEAR

THE BIG YEAR is a charming, gentle comedy about the importance of family and following your dreams.  Jack Black stars as a guy in a dead-end job who has a passion for bird-watching, and defies his father's incredulity to do "the big year" - a challenge in which US birdwatchers compete to see the most species.  He's competing against Steve Martin's successful executive, who's about to retire and spend time with his loving family.  And both the Steve Martin and Jack Black character strike up a friendship in opposition to their common enemy - Owen Wilson's slick, hyper-competitive, incumbent title-holder - a man who has sacrificed his marriage to his obsession.

There are no big revelations in terms of the performance.  Jack Black plays his typical loveable loser character.  Steve Martin plays his typical loveable cool dad character.  Owen Wilson plays his typical loveable rogue.  The direction (David Frankel - MARLEY & ME) is workmanlike and the script (Howard Franklin - ANTITRUST) is efficient.  But the movie had a genuinely warm tone to it, it successfully conveyed the madness and the beauty of birdwatching, against all odds, and I had a good time with it.

THE BIG YEAR was released in Canada, the US, Ireland and the UK in 2011 and earlier this year in Malta, Australia, Portugal, Lithuania and Romania. It opens in Germany on June 14th and in France on September 19th. It is available to rent and own. 

Friday, April 13, 2012


21 JUMP STREET is a bunch of fun whether or not you're familiar with the original 1980s TV show that it affectionately spoofs.  Judd Apatow regular Jonah Hill slims down to play Schmidt, a former high-school geek turned cop, who's sent back to school under-cover to undercover a drug dealer.  Schmidt teams up with former high-school jock, Jenko, played by the not unattractive Channing Tatum showing impressive comedy timing.  A lot of the comedy comes from the classic "fish out of water" trope, with Jenko now forced to hang out with the science geeks and Schmidty becoming the popular guy in a post-modern high school full of enviro-geeks.  The true joy for this capitalist bastard reviewer is that it's the hippie do-gooders that are really the skanky drug-dealers.  And Dave Franco (James' kid brother) does a great job playing the smug little shit who's dealing dope. There's also probably the best movie cameo since ZOMBIELAND. 

Goofy, buddy comedies like these, when they work well, can seem effortless.  But there's a lot of skill in scripting a story that pokes fun at its source material without ever descending into snide pastiche; that knowingly winks at the viewer but still has heart.  Moreover, there's something wonderful about seeing a comedy double-act really hit it off on screen. Tatum and Hill just work really well together, and I can't wait for the sequel. 

21 JUMP STREET is on release in the US, UK, Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, Estonia, Ireland, Lithuania, Romania, Israel, Russia and New Zealand. It opens in Sweden on April 20th; in Chile and India on April 26th; in Argentina, Hong Kong, Hungary and Brazil on May 4th; in Germany, Singapore and Spain on May 10th; in Slovenia and Colombia on May 18th; in Norway on May 15th; in Belgium, France and the Netherlands on June 20th and in Portugal on June 28th.

Saturday, April 07, 2012


I love this movie!  Parents with small kids should go see it!  Adults without kids should go see it!  It has wit, charm, intelligence, pirates, the Elephant Man, a dodo, swashbuckling, ham-eating, Brian Blessed, and all in an action-packed, emotionally satisfying 85 minutes.  Honestly,  this is about as good as cinematic entertainment gets!  Kudos to Aardman Studios (home of Wallace and Gromit) for brilliantly mixing hand-made stop-motion animation and CGI backdrops, and achieving a level of visual wit that demands repeated viewings. Kudos to director Peter Lord of Morph fame, for delicately balancing comedy and action.  Kudos to all the voice artists, but particularly Hugh Grant as Pirate Captain - a rare chance to see his comedy chops.  But most of all, kudos to Gideon Defoe, who wrote the screenplay based on his own novels. I really hope Aardman follow the ADVENTURE WITH SCIENTISTS!* with the rest of the series.

In this instalment, we meet Pirate Captain and his dead-pan named crew (Number Two, Albino Pirate, Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate...).  He's a loveable old cove, but pretty hapless and destined to lose the Pirate of the Year award unless he can pull off a massive coup. His chance arrives when he mistakenly holds up Charles Darwin's Beagle, and Darwin (David Tennant) tells him that his beloved parrot, Polly, is in fact a Dodo!  There follows a trip to London to display Polly at the Royal Academy, thereby winning some booty, and an adventure against a sword-wielding Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) who hates, hates, HATES pirates!

There's so much to love here.  The richly decorated backdrops are full of visual jokes.  But in the foreground, I loved the whole Brian Blessed worship.  I loved the idea of Darwin's butler being a trained monkey with comedy flash-cards.  I loved the idea of Queen Victoria as a murdering ninja.  Most of all, I just loved Hugh Grant in his best performance since ABOUT A BOY.

This is hands down my movie of the year to date.

THE PIRATES! is on release in the UK, Ireland, Belgium, France, Denmark, Germany, Finland, Lithuania, Norway, Sweden, Italy, Australia, Kuwait, New Zealand, Serbia and Estonia. It opens on April 12th in Greece; on April 20th in Argentina, Colombia and Romania; on April 27th in the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Canada, India and the USA; on May 11th in Brazil; on May 17th in Hungary; on June 7th in Serbia; on July 20th in Spain; on July 26th in Hong Kong; on August 9th in Israel; and on August 30th in Singapore.

*I'm not sure why the film has been retitled for the US market unless the marketing department think the US has become a crypto-theocracy in which even the mention of science is going to alienate audiences?

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Late review - London Film Fest 2011 Day 10 - HEADHUNTERS

This Norwegian adaptation of Jo Nesbø's popular thriller sets of at a rapid pace but jumps the shark at the thirty minute mark and never regains its credibility. As a result, the final furlong is a dull trawl of a thriller - utterly unthrilling - enlivened only by a moment of emotional reconciliation.

Aksel Hennie plays Roger Brown - a professionally successful headhunter who is so insecure that he moonlights as an art thief to keep his beautiful wife in finery. His life unravels when he crosses path with Clas Greve - a specialist military tracker and former tech-CEO, who also happens to have a priceless Rubens in his flat. (Greve is played by the not unattractive Nikolaj Coster-Waldau - Jaime in HBO's Game of Thrones.) At this point, there is rather predictably a heist that goes wrong. Greve turns out to be sleeping with Roger's wife, and tracking Roger down with guns, dogs and fast cars.

For me, the movie started to go wrong as soon as Roger and Clas had an encounter at a cabin in the woods. Roger just seemed way too resourceful for a pen-pusher - too adept at being o the run. I mean, he's practically Bourne - surviving too easily, too much. And Clas, for a world-class military tracker, just seemed too incompetent, letting Roger off the hook not once but twice. And the foreshadowing is clunky as a sperm whale. Conspirator Ove (Eivind Sander) helpfully describes the many guns in his house as well as some hidden cameras broadcasting straight to his security firm. Do you think they're gonna be important?!

Film critics often get sniffy about remakes. I'm no exception. But after the rip-roaring fun on CONTRABAND (also on release in the UK now, and a far better watch), I can't wait to see the Mark Wahlberg remake of this film. It's bound to be more entertaining. 

HEADHUNTERS played Toronto and London 2011. It opened last year in Norway, Finland, Belgium, Sweden and the Czech Republic. It opened earlier this year in Kazakhstan, Russia, Estonia, Australia, New Zealand and Germany. It is currently on release in the UK and Ireland. It opens on April 12th in the Netherlands; on April 27th in the USA; and on August 23rd in Spain.