Sunday, October 28, 2012


Despite my pseudonym, I am not in fact a great fan of Bond - rather I named myself after my friend Caspar who famously crashed his car pulling out of Frankfurt airport when distracted by an Aston Martin, and was forever after known as Caespi007.  For me, Bond was a pathetic fantasy denying Britain's post-Suez decline.  A man more in the tradition of Flashman - slick surfaces, sport fucking and sado-masochism.  The movies were, in general, even more ridiculous, with their wonkish gadgetry and porn-name Bond girls.  Some were entertaining in an ironic way, but let's face it, as spy thrillers go, this was a long long way below the standard set by John Le Carre's Smiley. Smiley lived in a world of decay, corruption, failure and bureaucratic incompetence. There was a sense of honour and of love, but it was struggling to survive. 

Of the recent Bonds, CASINO ROYALE was a superior reboot but only because it was trying to be a Bourne film.  Moreover, the dumbing down of the Aston Martin to a Ford, and baccarat to poker, struck me as anti-Fleming, insofar as one cared at all about the heritage of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.  We all know that QUANTUM OF SAUSAGE (HT @djeremybolton) was impenetrable, dull nonsense, and undid much of the goodwill that CASINO had rebuilt.  What then could we expect of SKYFALL, helmed by Sam Mendes, a wunderkind British theatre director of middling reputation as a cinema director, starting with the acclaimed AMERICAN BEAUTY and sliding into obscurity ever since? 

The early signs were good - a cast list full of English thespians of the highest calibre - Ben Whishaw, Rory Kinnear, Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney.  A script from Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (CASINO ROYALE) and John Logan (RANGO) that was going to tackle head-on the incompatibility of kiss kiss bang bang Bond with the age of Bourne.  And photography from perhaps the best DP working today: Roger Deakins.  All was shaping up for a Bond that was in tune with London 2012 and the Diamond Jubilee - a country presided over by an implacable matriarch, learning to be proud of its imperial heritage without making the mistake of being shackled to it, looking to a very different future with some slight degree of confidence. 

The result is a movie that is perhaps the most thoughtful and reflective of the Bond series.  A movie that can look upon its heritage with fond humour but safely put it aside.  A movie that is conservative - passionately making the case for on the ground espionage; for men with the experience to tell them when to, and when not to, fire the bullet; for leaders with the balls to take the tough calls but also with the good sense to know they are accountable. It's the kind of movie, in short, where Bond can do his job with just a gun and a radio, but ultimately also uses the rockets in his Aston Martin DB5, and doesn't feel the need to apologise for either. It's the movie in which a joke can be made about the ejector seat, but in which ultimately we are rather pleased to see order restored - M, Moneypenny, Q and Bond, in a tastefully old-fashioned leather padded room.   This was a Bond I could get on board with.

In fact, SKYFALL may well be the Bond I've seen. It had wry humour; real emotional development; perhaps the most sleazy, scary villain in the canon; precious little cheap sex; and real consequences to actions. It felt plausible in a way so little Bond feels plausible.  The acting was superb. And the cinematography deserves an Oscar. I had a thoroughly good time - laughed, cheered, was moved, was scared.  It was the complete entertainment experience.  

The plot has reflection and consequences and sheer heft built into it from the start.  In the precredits sequence, as Bond (Daniel Craig) chases down a man with a MacGuffin, we see M (Dame Judi Dench) take two brutally hard but necessary decisions, resulting in Bond's apparent death. He goes off on a drinking binge post-credits only to emerge when a terrorist attack on MI6 turns into a very personal attack on M. It appears that a rogue former agent (Javier Bardem) seeks vengeance on M precisely for taking those brutal decisions that put the country before the agent.  Bond is broken, unfit and old; M's "fitness for purpose" questioned by her political superior, Mallory (Ralph Fiennes); and even Q (Ben Whishaw) mocks the idea of exploding pens and the necessity of on the ground fieldwork when the world's battles are now fought with computers. 

Through all this M is our unwavering moral compass. She never questions that her decisions were right, but also fully acknowledges their human cost.  Bond is, through her faith in him, reconstituted from broken man to polished active agent, able to acknowledge that the world has changed, that the new Q is valuable, and to see his own worth within the modern machine.  Mallory is a good example of just how well-thought act the script is - that a minor character with only a handful of scenes can challenge our prejudice about him every time we meet him.  Ralph Fiennes is superbly slippery in the role.  The screenwriters do a similarly superb job with Bond girl Eve (Naomie Harris) who begins as an irritating incompetent, and raises our suspicions of typical Bond misogyny, until we realise that it's all part of her character development.  Ben Whishaw is, as always, a scene-stealer as geek hacker Q. And as for the villain, Javier Bardem has created a character as outlandish as Scaramanga, or Anton Chigurh, or Hannibal Lecter - all of which this movie consciously references.  In a tour-de-force piece of CGI work we see just how damaged he is.  He is at once the most pantomime villain of the series - but also the most scary, sleazy and unnerving.  He is the Bond villain that surpasses all others - just as Heath Ledger's Joker redefined Batman villains.

Behind the camera, Adele provides the strongest theme song in years, with Paul Epworth's orchestration echoing, but never quite pastiching the old Shirley Bassey numbers.  Daniel Kleinman's opening credits sequence is also one of the most memorable of the recent Bond outings.  But most of all the superior quality of this film is down to DP Roger Deakins, long-time collaborator with the Coen Brothers.  You can see this most of all in the Shanghai, Macau and Scottish sequences.  In Shanghai, he captures that exciting neon brightness of the modern metropolis - every glass surface reflects luminous advertising - the city has the unreal air of Newton Thomas Sigel's LA in DRIVE.  In Macau, Deakins has Bond arrive at a casino against a backdrop of darkness surrounded by soft orange lanterns that takes one's breath away.  And in Scotland, we see Bond silhouetted against burnt orange night sky that reminded me of some of the most arresting visuals from Robert Elswit's THERE WILL BE BLOOD.

Is everything perfect? No.  Naomie Harris and Daniel Craig do not have enough sexual chemistry to carry off the shaving scene. And the Scottish scene starts off a little A-Team.  But these are all minor quibbles in what is an incredibly beautiful, superbly written and acted film that lifts the standard of the Bond series and puts it on a much more sustainable footing. Kudos to all involved. 

SKYFALL is on release in the UK, Bahrain, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, Finland, France, Hungary, Iceland, Iraq, Iceland, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malta, Norway, Oman, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, South Korea and Sweden, the UAE, Switzerland.  It opens next weekend in Italy, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Serbia, Spain, Argentina, Austria, Bolivia, Chile, Croatia, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Lithuania, Malaysia, Peru, Singapore, Slovenia, Uruguay, China, Colombia, Ecuador, Estonia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, Taiwan, Turkey, Venezuela and Vietnam. It opens in November 9th in Jamaica, the USA, Albania, Canada and Pakistan, It opens on November 15th in Cambodia; on November 22nd in Australia and New Zealand; on November 30th in South Africa; on December 1st in Japan; and on December 6th in the Dominican Republic.

Friday, October 26, 2012

ROOM 237

Rodney Ascher's documentary is a bizarre-o look at the crackpots and conspiracy theorists who have obsessively rewatched Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, THE SHINING.  Hidden in continuity errors and the patterns in the carpet, they claim to have found evidence that the film is really a metaphor for the Holocaust, or the massacre of Native Americans, or how Kubrick faked the moon landing footage.  To those who would claim mere coincidence, they say that Kubrick was both obsessive compulsive about detail AND mischievous.  They're right: if any director was going to lay down intricate clues, it would probably be Kubrick. 

I love that Ascher approaches their theories with cool detachment. He allows them to make their case and uses side by side screenshots and visual effects to elucidate their theories.  He lets them prove their point (some times), and make outlandish and unsubstantiated claims (other times.)  This detachment allows us to take the documentary both as a closer look at THE SHINING but also as a film for which THE SHINING is incidental.  By this I mean that the real value of this film is not in over-analysing a famous film, but in showing us how popular culture makes crazy geeks of us all.  In other words, you needn't be a fan of Kubrick to enjoy ROOM 237, but it does help if you're someone who's obsessed over Firefly, or Galactica, or A Song of Ice and Fire.  If you fall into that latter camp, this movie serves as the warning on the cigarette packet.

ROOM 237 played Sundance, Cannes, Toronto and London 2012 and is currently on release in the UK, Ireland and Sweden. It opens in the USA on March 29th 2013. 

The  film has a running time of 102 minutes.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Watching movies with Her Majesty

Still from the 3D coronation film "A Royal Review"

In one of the more surreal moments of my life, I found myself queuing in the rain to pass security checks and get into a highly spruced up BFI Southbank, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the opening of the original BFI cinemateque, the National Film Theatre.  The usually welcoming, casual, trendy Benugo Riverfront Cafe had been transformed into a staid British 5 star hotel lobby, complete with pianist, muzak and earl grey tea served in porcelain cups and accompanied by victoria sponge.  The reason for this rather bizarre re-dressing of the film set?  We were awaiting the arrival of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.  

The audience was a mish-mash of BFI staff, governors and supporters, various people associated with film, and a few humble reviewers, including, bizarrely, me.  Spotted in the queue - directors Richard Ayoade (SUBMARINE) and Tom Hooper (THE KING'S SPEECH), London Film Festival director Clare Stewart, reviewers Peter Bradshaw (The Guardian) and Jason Solomons, and random famous media types like Paul Gambaccini - the only one of the media types to wear a very handsomely cut pinstripe suit that wouldn't be out of place in the Square Mile.

One ticket stub I won't be binning.
While "Her Maj" was touring the BFI's impressive new Reuben Library and the Mediateque, meeting local schoolchildren, the rest of us took our seats in NFT1 for the obligatory protocol notices (do NOT tweet in front of HM), and to watch a restored version of "A Royal Review" - an early example of a 3D movie showing the Queen's journey to and from her coronation in a golden carriage, the cheering crowds, and her tour of Scotland and the City thereafter. It was pretty banal stuff, with a portentous voiceover of the type spoofed by modern comedians, but also made me rather nostalgic for a time when the Monarchy was under no circumstances a subject of mirth.

HM takes her seat in NFT 1 with Amanda Nevill on her left.

And then, the moment we were all waiting for, the Queen herself, in a royal purple coat and hat, took her seat to watch Jonathan Ross introduce showreels highlighting the history of British cinema and the restoration work of the BFI.  Most bizarre, we were treating to excerpts from the royal collection, which the BFI is now digitising.  How did HM feel seeing her Great Grandmother, Queen Victoria perambulating in Balmoral with Tsar Nicholas II - the first film of monarchy shot in 1896.  And how did she feel seeing her own mother and father in home cine-film, playing with her young son, Prince Charles?   

As the reels ended, we were all herded back into the Riverfront to watch HM move through the line-up, and Greg Dyke give a gushing speech, and present HM with a movie poster. One wonders what use she will have for it - she looked polite but faintly bored - one suspects cinema is not high upon her list of personal interests.  And then, she left us, driving off in her beautiful Roller? Bentley? with the royal flag.  And, relax. 

As Armando Ianucci put it so well in his British political satire, IN THE LOOP, most of us present had been "room meat", filling out the room as admiring subjects, but not actually called upon to interact with the monarch who glided before us, in one more event that must make up the seemingly endless parade of her life.  Still, I was highly grateful for having been chosen to attend.  As modern and cynical and indifferent we might all affect to be, there is an undeniable feeling of pride, nostalgia and, yes, gratitude, that our Head of State is a woman who has taken her service and duty to the nation so very seriously indeed.  God save the Queen. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

London Film Fest 2012 Day 12 - GREAT EXPECTATIONS (2012)

Charles Dickens' superlative novel, Great Expectations, has been adapted many times for the small and large screen.  The first theatrical outing was in 1917, the most recent TV adaptation last year, with a notable contemporary version by Alfonso Cuaron starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Estella and Anne Bancroft as the Miss Havisham character. My personal favourite is the TV movie from 1999 directed by Julian Jarrold (BRIDESHEAD REVISITED), with Ioan Gruffud as Pip, Justine Waddell as Estella, and an absolutely definitive Charlotte Rampling as Miss Havisham.  Given the rich canon of work, a high bar should be set for any new production.  One should ask what this particular interpretation is going to do anything that is new and insightful.  Surely it isn't enough just to create another film simply because it has been five years since the last one, and there's a nice commercial tie-in with the Dickens bicentenary.  Sadly, I suspect that's exactly the motivation for Mike Newell's new version of the novel. And I can't say it surprises me.  His career looks very much like one of a moderately talented director for hire, without any clear over-riding style or thematic consistency.  How else dos one explain credits that vary from DONNIE BRASCO to HARRY POTTER & THE GOBLET OF FIRE to PRINCE OF PERSIA: SANDS OF TIME?

That said, a cursory look at the production notes suggested a movie that could be something very special indeed. Given her personal Gothic style and amazing talent, one might have thought Helena Bonham Carter born to play Miss Havisham - the rich, capricious, vengeful woman who raises her adopted Estella to be a cold-hearted temptress and so have her revenge on men. Holliday Grainger, so impressive as Lucrezia in TV's The Borgias, would not have far to go in depicting the tragically emotionally blighted Estella. Jeremy Irvine, the likeable boy at the heart of WAR HORSE, would make a touching Pip - the young working class lad whose head is turned by an inheritance and his love for Estella.  And the rest of the cast is a who's who of British talent, starting with Ralph Fiennes - so sinister as Heathcliff - as Magwitch, the convict whose life is entwined with that of Pip - Robbie Coltrane as the ruthless lawyer Jaggers and Jason Flemyng as the kind-hearted blacksmith Joe Gargery.  I was quite ready to believe that a half faithful script and half decent production design would allow these actors to create a GREAT EXPECTATIONS that was both Gothic and sinister as well as heartbreaking: the tale of a young boy corrupted by wealth and redeemed by love, and of the corrosive impact of secrets.

On one level, the movie is a success.  The story of Magwitch and his unlikely friendship with Pip - his life mangled by the Justice system, and redeemed by his recognition of a kindly act - is given almost half of the screentime, and Ralph Fiennes really is marvellous.  I'm not sure that Jeremy Irvine matches him, but that would be a tall order indeed.  The story of Pip and his friend Joe, so bound up in the start and end of the story, is also given room to breathe, and I believe that this role is Jason Flemyng's finest and that he is also the best Joe Gargery I've seen on screen.  The problem is with the Satis House storyline.  I'm not quite sure why but Helena Bonham Carter's performance just falls flat. She is neither sinister nor tragic.  Poor Estella gets very little screentime indeed, and her marriage to the brutal Bentley Drummle is rather thrown away.  Does the audience unfamiliar with the novel realise that he has beaten her into submission? Poor Herbert Pocket gets very little screentime, although both Olly Alexander as older Herbert, and Charlie Callaghan as Young Herbert are scene stealers.

Overall, then, a rather flat, imbalanced movie in which the Magwitch storyline is creditably done and Satis House isn't. And as Satis House is what this novel is ultimately remembered for, that is a fatal flaw indeed.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS played Toronto 2012 and will be released in the UK and Ireland on November 30th 2012.  It opens in Germany on December 6th; in Russia on January 24th 2013 and in New Zealand on March 7th.

London Film Fest 2012 Day 12 - END OF WATCH

END OF WATCH is a Los Angeles set cop thriller that turns convention on its head. Instead of a portrait of Rampart-style corruption, cynicism and racism, we get two guys who are genuinely nice, genuinely fun to hang out with, and genuinely want "to serve and protect".  

Even more radically, despite a dire warning from their jaded older colleague (David Harbour), the LAPD has their backs.  Their superiors do not screw them over for uncovering malfeasance - indeed, there is rarely a hint of a corrupt cop in their immediate hierarchy.  Their commanding officers have their backs, and they are the heroes of the department. In other words, while this might be a harsh world of drugs, human trafficking, child abuse and general nastiness, we can trust and rely on the LAPD to see us right.  

This rather controversial message  is sold by the lead performances of Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as the patrolmen and best friends.  Gyllenhaal plays a refreshingly bright young man, who's tired of banging "badge bunnies" and wants a nice girl to settle down with.  Pena plays his wiser, more settled partner.  They both have a natural chemistry, and frankly I could've just spent two hours rolling with them and listening to their hilarious anecdotes. It's a sterling performance from Gyllenhaal and a break-through role for Pena, who hopefully will be offered more interesting roles from Hollywood than the standard Hispanic sidekick fare. 

The result is a movie that is softer and more heart-warming than TRAINING DAY, despite showing a similarly brutal world.  I was deeply affected by the performances and consistently surprised by the lack of histrionics. I have mixed feelings, however, about the conceit of having Gyllenhaal's character a keen amateur cameraman.  On the one hand, the conceit of handheld cameras and the copcar POV gives the movie an immediacy and intimacy that is impressive. However, the conceit is not sustained - shots are shown that clearly aren't found footage, and that was jarring for me.

END OF WATCH played Toronto and London 2012 and is on release in Canada, the USA, Greece and the Netherlands. It opens next weekend in Hong Kong and Sweden. It opens in Australia on November 1st, in Argentina and Portugal on November 15th; in the UK on November 23rd; in Denmark and Norway on November 20th; in Belgium and France on December 5th and in Germany on December 20th. 

The running time is 109 minutes.

Michael Pena on the red carpet.

London Film Fest 2012 Day 12 - CELESTE & JESSE FOREVER

Following on from last night's sophisticated but essentially conventional genre piece, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, today we have another unusually intelligent but ultimately banal rom-com - CELESTE & JESSE FOREVER.  Both movies are a cut  above the norm, with an emotional insight and verbal with that is rare, but I can't really see what they're doing in a Film Festival that's supposed to be spotlighting pioneering and unconventional film-making.  

Anyways, enough of that grouchiness and back to the movie.  Rashida Jones (PARKS & RECREATION) and Andy Samberg (SNL) play Celeste and Jesse, two charming people who have remained best friends through their divorce.  This unhealthily amicable mock separation is kicked up a gear when Jesse  unexpectedly knocks up a one-night stand, and decides to make a go of it, forcing Celeste to confront the fact that she is really alone.  

A lot of the framework of the movie is clichéd. Jesse is the typical Apatow-esque manchild of the Seth Rogen or Jason Segel variety, and Celeste is the typical uptight career woman.  Indeed, one could see this movie as an attempt to replay KNOCKED UP or FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL from the perspective of the ambitious girlfriend that the schlubby manchild tries to forget.    Accordingly, the narrative journey involves the protagonist maturing and accepting that life goes on.  But instead of the manchild growing up, it's the woman who has to grow less controlling and judgemental. 

I really appreciated a lot of what the film was trying to do. It was refreshing to see the rom-com so firmly anchored on a female protagonist and, what's more, a woman who seemed real in her fears, frustrations and actions.  Kudos to Rashida Jones for co-writing the script and bringing a new perspective, as well as strong comedic timing, to film.  The problem is that although Jones and co-writer Will McCormack are trying to break the mould, too often the movie slips back into hackneyed set-ups and scenes.  A classic example is the inappropriately revealing but endearing wedding speech by the best man, or in this case, maid of honour.  The character of the popstar Riley, and the way in which her love-life is casually "fixed" is another case in point.

So a lot to like here, and some frustrations.  CELESTE & JESSE FOREVER is an entertaining watch, but I doubt I'll remember it in a week's time.

CELESTE & JESSE FOREVER played Sundance and London 2012. It was released earlier this year in the USA, Taiwan and Singapore. It opens in Argentina on December 6th and in Germany on February 14th 2013.

Saturday, October 20, 2012


David O Russell brought arthouse integrity and quality to the underdog sports movie with THE FIGHTER, and pulls the same trick on the rom-com genre with SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK. It's a clever, funny, superbly acted movie with a visceral, up-close and uncomfortable shooting style that almost fools you into thinking that it's a braver, more unconventional movie than it really is.  At its heart, the movie is a basic one - boy meets girl, girl loves boy, boy's too hung up on former lover to realise he loves girl, there's a dance contest, they kiss, the end. The twist is that he's bipolar and just out of a mental institution, she's a widow with massive SLAA issues, his dad's OCD  with anger management issues, and his mum's clearly an enabler. The film's plot is driven by the unhealthy quid pro quo: she'll help him contact his ex (against whom he has a restraining order) if he'll participate in a dance contest with her.

David O Russell's script (based on Matthew Quick's novel) is whip smart and crackles with energy.  Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper have real chemistry and seeing them spar is one of the joys of the film.  It's great to see her broaden her range beyond put-upon hardened teen and similarly it's great to see him move beyond pretty-boy wise-ass roles. There are mis-steps to be sure -  the age difference threw me off and I never really bought it.  The inclusion of an African American character (Chris Tucker is his most modulated and impressive performance to date) only to have him, per movie cliché  contribute to a dance scene by having the white characters "dance blacker". And that schmaltzy final declaration could've come out of a risible Richard Curtis movie.  But overall, it was fun to spend time with the main characters and feel the grunginess of working class Philadelphia through  Masanobu Takayanagi's (WARRIOR) frenetic camerawork. 

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK played Toronto 2012 where David O Russell won the People's Choice Award for Narrative Feature. It was the surprise film at London 2012. The film will be released in the USA, UK, Russia and Iceland on November 21st. It opens in Portugal on December 6th, in Sweden on December 21st, in Germany, Norway and Turkey on January 4th, in Spain on January 11th, in France and Australia on January 31st, in New Zealand and Bulgaria on February 8th, in Argentina on February 21st, in Belgium and the Netherlands on February 27th, in Italy on March 14th and in Denmark on April 25th.  

London Film Fest 2012 Day 11 - THE PERVERT'S GUIDE TO IDEOLOGY

Perhaps the most famous contemporary philosopher, Slovenian Marxist and Cultural Theorist returns to our screen's with the enjoyable but frustrating PERVERT'S GUIDE TO IDEOLOGY.  It looks and feels the same as has more narrowly focussed and more tightly argued GUIDE TO CINEMA, with Sophie Fiennes effectively filming him giving a lecture. The clever visual twist is to have him discuss cinema (and in this case, modern history and culture more generally) by inserting him in costume into the clips he is discussing.  Thus, when we discuss TITANIC, we have Zizek in a tux on a life raft.  When we see him discuss THE SOUND OF MUSIC, he is in a cassock in the Mother Superior's office.  This is an incredibly winning conceit and takes us into the heart of the topics he discusses.  And what is he discussing? The concept that ideology is not the obvious political discussion or propaganda that we expect to encounter, but rather the hidden meanings in everyday artefacts.  We must look through the superficial ideology to get to the true ideas that govern us.

As fans of Zizek will be well aware, the pace at which he produces his off-beat ideas, the complexity of the language he uses, and the eccentricity of accent, means that really paying attention to the discussion can be exhausting, and my suspicion is that this would have been a better film if it had had a shorter running time.  This could have achieved by tighter editing of the lecture.  Zizek has always been one of those thinkers who throws everything at the wall.  To be sure, within that, you find one or two ideas that really stick - really make you reassess what you think about something - but a lot of it can just seem random and poorly organised. A case in point is the fact that his analysis of the class message in TITANIC really did make me look at that film again - that underneath its superficial Marxist promotion of working class authenticity, it is actually a deeply conservative movie in which the upper classes must ditch the working classes to survive.  But Zizek's quickly discussed idea that Christianity is more atheist than atheism just wasn't fully developed enough to be convincing.

Slavoj Zizek and director Sophie Fiennes.

THE PERVERT'S GUIDE TO IDEOLOGY played London 2012 and does not yet have a commercial release date.

London Film Fest 2012 Day 11 - AFTER LUCIA

Mexican writer-director Michel Franco's AFTER LUCIA is a grim, unrelenting movie about a teenage girl victimised by her classmates after an ill-advised, drunken and, crucially, video'd sexual encounter.  At first the abuse it typical cruel teenage boy harassment.  But it steps up a level when the girls become jealous of her.  Early on, there is an opportunity for her to tell her teachers and father WHY she is acting up. Perhaps because she wishes to protect her grieving father from further pain, or just from sheer shame, she keeps quiet. This is a fatal decision that leads to further introversion, abuse and ultimately catastrophic consequences for all involved.  

AFTER LUCIA is at its most affecting when it shows how a father and daughter - once so casually intimate - become distanced from each other as they struggle to cope with their grief and (in her case) extreme bullying. This deterioration of communication was all the more tragic because the director so brilliantly depicted the former closeness.  On a personal note, I am very close to my father and it's just a relationship you rarely see on screen.

At first I found the level of abuse Alejandra takes hard to believe.  I just couldn't believe that schoolkids would be so savage and, indeed, that Alejandra's teachers, if not father, would notice. At its most brutal, the film reminded me of Larry Clark's KIDS.   But the director is always careful to show how she covers up, and also how the kids are cognisant of when and what they can get away with.  And Tessa Ia is so convincing in her portrayal of  girl who just goes inside of herself, that I went with it.  It was then, a shame that in the final reel the movie took a turn that I really did not believe, cheapening the overall effect of the film.

Still, even with that incredible turn of events  AFTER LUCIA remains one of the most disturbing and best of the films at this year's Festival. 

AFTER LUCIA played Cannes, where it won the Un Certain Regard Award, and London 2012. It is currently on release in France, Russia and Mexico.

Running time - 102 minutes

London Film Fest 2012 Day 11 - SEVEN PYSCHOPATHS

SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS is the title of a screenplay that lovably drunk Irish screenwriter Martin (Colin Farrell) is struggling with.  He reluctantly accepts the help of his gonzo actor buddy Billy (Sam Rockwell) who as it happens is both shagging the girlfriend of, and has kidnapped the dog of, the local mobster Charlie (Woody Harrelson).   Billy's in cahoots with Christopher Walken's ageing conman, too, adding to the generally whacky cast of characters both in the world of the movie and the second-order fictional world of the film that Martin is writing.  

The problem with Martin McDonagh's follow-up to his wildly successful black, bleak comedy IN BRUGES, is that while it retains that movies quick wit it singularly fails to recreate its narrative drive and compelling central emotional pull.  This may well be because McDonagh chooses to abandon the simpler linear thriller structure of IN BRUGES for an altogether more clever, knowing, movie-within-a-movie satire on Hollywood shootemups.  The result is a movie that is often very funny, consistently smart, but ultimately frustrating - altogether less than the sum of its parts.  

SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS also contains its own critique - a movie whose best line is its title, whose best scene is its stylish Tarantino-esque opening - a movie that admits its female characters are ill-drawn and some of its characters' motivations ill-defined.  What is left, then, for the critic to say? Here's what.  A movie that plays with its own structure and grammar has to be, (viz. Charlie Kauffman) very tightly written indeed. It has to be so neatly constructed that the audience watching it subsconsciously allows the director to play with them, feeling secure that he knows what he's doing.  In other words, for a movie about a screenwriter meandering aimlessly in search of a plot to itself be meandering aimlessly in search of a plot, is ultimately a weak joke. Sure, as Christopher Walken's character puts it, "it's got layers".  But if we don't care about the characters, feel no sense of peril, and become bored of the joke, what's the point?

That said, there's a lot to pass the time with in this movie. Individual pieces of dialogue or visual gags that are inspired.  Having a character refer to "Hans" in a cemetery and then show a grave with the name "Gruber" on it is genuinely funny.  I also like putting Colin Farrell and Sam Rockwell on screen together as the two buddies at the centre of the film. It's a kind of cosmic joke to have two actors who rose to fame and then fizzled out on the back of poor script choices and outlandish personal behaviour.  I also like that forces Farrell into the "straight man" role against Rockwell plays to type.  In smaller roles, Woody Harrelson is, of course, good value, and there's some cheap but still enjoyable stunt casting in the form of Tom Waits and Dean Stockwell.

SEVEN PYSCHOPATHS played Toronto and London 2012. It is currently on release in the USA and Russia. It opens in Chile on Nov 1; in Argentina on Nov 29; in Germany on Dec 6; in Norway on Dec 14; in Denmark on Dec 25; in France on Jan 30; and in the Netherlands in Feb 2013.

London Film Fest - Day 11 - CAPTIVE

This review is brought to us by guest reviewer, JK007.

CAPTIVE has all the elements needed for an intense, thought-provoking and well informed picture but unfortunately only skims the surface. Instead what we get is a great first hour where director Briallante Mendoza outlines the story but the progression of the two hour picture is a path of nowhere. 

The movie is based on the 2001-2002 Dos Palmas hostage crisis in which Islamic separatists, Abu Sayyaff Group (ASG), kidnap 20 guests from a resort in the southern Philippines which included tourists and Christian missionaries. Among them in the film is Therese, a French social worker, played by the brilliant actress Isabelle Huppert and her elderly companion Soledad. Unfortunately, due to a weak (and perhaps improvised?) script Isabelle’s ability was wasted. In addition, what was really important was the engagement of the characters so the audience could relate - again a huge let down. 

The film does try to keep away from a documentary feel and thus inserts a little bit of Hollywood gun shooting, taking over of hospitals and the constant running did carry on the suspense of the film but could only take it so far. 

Don’t get me wrong, Mendoza without doubt began the film full of promise with the shaky cam style of the actual capture and then the journey in a rickety boat to land. The feeling of unknowingness allowed us to follow the journey through the eyes of the captives, we too were prisoners. 

It is clear through their basic interrogation of the captives that the ASG were simply in it for the ransom money but unfortunately their captors weren’t the wealthy they first assumed and so from this the captors had the only solution of appealing to governments. 

Therese, the only hostage, that we ever to get to know anything about first comes to light very early on in the film when one of captors realises that on board is a box of bibles and wants to sling them off immediately. Therese, single handedly confronts the situation but is simply moved aside. This Muslim Christian divide is just one of the issues that could have interestingly been fleshed out but instead had simple mentions. 

CAPTIVE then hones in on one of the best features of the film: location shooting that adds great authenticity. The ASG takes the captives through the jungle where they both have to fend off leeches, scorpions and ants to a very realistic degree. 

The big difference with other films of this type is that Mendoza gives a human-side to the captors and does not make this film a simply Hollywood good vs. bad. The ASG are kind and respective to the captive, and at the same time Mendoza explores the relationship between captive and captive taker. Through the tumultuous months, barriers break down and relationships form where Therese finds herself pulling one of the younger rebels into cover when he is injured. One of the younger female hostage even flirts with one the captors and when confronted about it outright defends herself with the belief that the captors have legitimate reasons for their actions. 

However, as the film progresses this civil and humane side of the ASG break down with change of leader as rape and beheading become part of the troubles and both the audience, captives and captors are waiting for their to be an eventual end! 

Though, there are some gems of scenes such as one where a film crew comes in to interview the captives and we see finally are able to understand a glimmer of the captives mental state. Though any of the points that are made such as Therese questioning that if it’s easy enough for a film crew to find them what makes it so difficult for the government. These key points are washed aside due to the fact that what the audience is waiting for is any type of argument or story. 

Mendoza does get across throughout the film the sense of disbelief that characterizes the violence in Mindano with scenes of fighting between militants and the army amidst the very graphic birth of a child. But, what this film unfortunately does not do is explain much more about the crisis in Mindano or even the controversial issues between terrorist groups and their motives. 

Hats off to the Isabelle Huppert because it is clear she had the ability to make this film a must-see but just wasn’t given the opportunity. Instead the film lacked in many major areas such as script, character development and ultimately argument which the content had more than ample scope for. For the location, scenery and shooting itself absolutely great! 

CAPTIVE played Berlin, Sydney and London 2012. It was released earlier this year in Denmark, the Philippines, France and Poland. It opens in Brazil this weekend. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

London Film Fest 2012 Day 10 - SLEEPER'S WAKE

Everything wrong with South African thriller SLEEPER'S WAKE can be summed up in the word "baboon".  It's the kind of movie that has a half decent idea at its centre and some decent enough performances, but as two crucial junctures, mishandles the tone so that we laugh at it and the tension is broken.  As a result, despite its good intentions and genuine sense of unease and menace in its first hour, it has to be judged a failure.  

The  movie is brought to us as the debut feature of writer-director Barry Berk.  The protagonist, Lionel (John Wraith), is a grieving middle-aged widower mourning in a deserted "cabin in the woods". As is the way with this genre of film he meets an eery family - religious domineering father, sexually precocious daughter and disengaged son.  Int the first hour of the film, Lionel is repeatedly put in  a position where a woman is making him uncomfortable and his genuine gestures of goodwill lead to sinister results.  So far so good. The problem is that as the tension ratchets up the movie enters its final half hour, it tries to go Straw Dogs but ends up in a place of absurdity, from which it cannot recover. 

SLEEPER'S WAKE played Toronto and London 2012.

London Film Fest 2012 Day 10 - A LIAR'S AUTOBIOGRAPHY 3D

A LIAR'S AUTOBIOGRAPHY is a wonderful, intimate, irreverant animated biopic of Graham Chapman, member of Monty Python's Flying Circus, and perhaps most famous for portraying Brian in THE LIFE OF BRIAN.  He was a complicated character - a grammar school boy who did good, studying medicine at Cambridge, where he joined the Footlights, met the bright young things of comedy of his generation, and eventually made his way to Python.  He was a bundle of contradictions - contradictions that he himself struggles to grapple with in his slippery, brilliant autobiography with its caveat emptor title.  A pipe smoking, tweed wearing rugby player, he came out at a time when that was a very brave thing to do.  Openly gay, he remained a closet alcoholic - perhaps surprisingly, an addiction picked up while a medical student, rather than in the supersonic rise to fame as a Python.  This led to him becoming, eventually, a bit of a liability on set, but he carried out until the Pythons retired and he, tragically, died before his 50th birthday of cancer. 

The marvellous thing about the movie is that you can tell it's made by people who care - not just about Graham but about respecting his memory by being - well, disrespectful!  It's a movie that honours his style and humour while also being honest about the elusive nature of his character.  Maybe that reflects the fact that it's made people who are evidently fans - or colleagues - or relations of colleagues.  The remaining Pythons all voice the animation and one of  the three directors (Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson and Ben Trimlett) is the son of a Python.  The real genius is to make an animated film rather than a conventional documentary splicing vintage film and interviews with the Pythons.  Moreover, to create a patchwork quilt of different animation styles using many many different animators.  It gives the movie a unique beauty while also conveying something of the gonzo patchwork nature of Chapman's life and character. There are genius moves - like stunt casting Cameron Diaz as Freud - and lots of Python in-jokes.  For instance, in an early scene, where Chapman's father locks his book in a glove compartment we see a can of spam inside.  A passing building is graffiti'd "Romanus eunt domus". 

My suspicion is that this densely packed humour and deep love for Chapman makes this movie one for hardcore Python fans alone, rather than a wider public. That said, fans of animation, rather than Python, should check it out purely for the bravura display of styles. 

Director Bill Jones and Pythons, Terry Jones and Michael Palin.

A LIAR'S AUTOBIOGRAPHY 3D played Toronto and London 2012 and will be shown on US TV on November 2nd. The running time is 82 minutes.

London Film Fest 2012 Day 10 - IT WAS THE SON

Is this a trend or just two Italian movies that just happen to have the same absurdist - sinister- tragic reaction to the corrupting effect of consumer credit culture on Italian family life? I ask this because two of the most thematically rich movies of this year's London Film Festival have been Italian, and not just Italian, but focussing on working class families in mafia strongholds, who have a sudden chance at easy money and have their heads turned by it, with tragic consequences.  Moreover, in each film, the film grammar that the director uses to depict these events is one of absurdity that treads a fine line between hilarity and tragedy.  Each film features a directorial style that is formally controlled, deliberately stylised, and heightened.  We are in the world of a modern day fairy tale, combining both the fantastical and sinister elements that that genre encompasses.

The first film in this vein was Matteo Garrone's supremely beautiful and disturbing REALITY.  The second is the debut feature of director Daniele Cipri, IT WAS THE SON.  Toni Servillo (IL DIVO) stars as the paterfamilias of a working class Sicilian family, making a meagre living from scavenging scrap metal  from the docks, supporting his wife, parents, beloved daughter Serenella and feckless son Tancredi (a wry reminder of faded Sicilian grandeur from Il Gattopardi?)  In the first act of this drama, Cipri depicts the family in all its comic absurdity, but with a loving, gentle tone.  Toni Servillo is, of course, the master of this kind of role - giving an astounding physical performance that transforms the quietly conniving Andreotti of IL DIVO into a raucous, rude, domineering, but wickedly funny father.  In particular, we fall in love with the relationship between father and equally obstinate young daughter.

Accordingly, it's a wrench when Serenella is shot by a stray mafia bullet, and when almost immediately the movie switches in tone from tragedy back to the broad humour of its first act.  For the family is now entitled to compensation, and their high spending in advance of its receipt and the father's obsession with his brand new Mercedes drives the action in the second and third act respectively.  

The movie has a visual style and imagination which is right up there with Garrone and Sorrentino, and I was not at all surprised to see that the cinematographer was lauded at Venice. It also has, similar to Garrone, a willingness to look the poverty and corruption of the South right in the face, but without being patronising.  The only problem I had with the film was that I felt quite uneasy about the tonal shift between the death of the daughter and the resumption of the extreme black humour. But as the movie progressed to its shocking denouement (and a genuinely unexpected twist) I began to realise that this was indeed Cipri's point. Rather than seeing the uneasy tonal shifts as a failure of direction, one has to see them as a deliberate provocation pointing us toward the surreality and ultimate injustice of life in the Mezzogiorno.

IT WAS THE SON played Venice and London 2012 and was released in Italy in September.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

London Film Fest 2012 Day 9 - CROSSFIRE HURRICANE

The Stones then...

CROSSFIRE HURRICANE is about as good a rock documentary as one could expect from self-produced hagiography.  Commissioned and produced by Mick Jagger to mark the Rolling Stones' 50th anniversary, the movie is a fairly straightforward edit of vintage clips showing the Stones rise to fame, narrated by interviews with the current band-members.  They don't go into their private lives, or their finances (much) and there are no other talking heads to contextualise the skill (or otherwise) in their music.  Indeed, the only comment on actual virtuosity come from Bill Wyman admitting that Charlie Watts plays behind the beat rather than leading the band, and Keith Richards praising his fellow guitarists with a single line.  There's no-one to tell you why the sound works, which Blues artists influenced the band, and who they have in turn they influenced.  The result is a strangely anaemic documentary that skates on the surface of the Stones history.  Lots of great concert footage but no real honesty, except regarding drug-taking.  On three key events - the sacking and death of Brian Jones and Altamont - the Stones give themselves all too easy a ride, and director Brett Morgan (absent from the film in terms of voice-over or heard questions) doesn't want to push them.  

For instance, in the episode of Brian Jones, they don't admit that they didn't actually try to help him, or talk about the impact of Richards walking off with Jones' girlfriend, and sacking him from the band.  Things just don't add up. If Brian was sacked because he was drug-addled and unproductive, why did they put up with Keith in the South of France, when as Wyman admits, he turned what should have taken 2 hours to record a song into 2 weeks?  The truth is, it wasn't the drugs.  Richards could get away with it because he was half of the song-writing combo. I guess people who really want some insight on what went down can check out the former London Film Fest film STONED, which explores that episode in some depth.

The upshot is that while CROSSFIRE HURRICANE will be a must-watch for hardcore Stones fans, it doesn't have much to offer people who want something more than communal adulation.  I couldn't help but contrast this piece of self-PR with the stunningly good rock doc BEWARE OF MR BAKER, also showing in this Festival. That was a gnarly, energetic, insightful  doc about Ginger Baker, legendary drummer for  Cream and Blind Faith. Both in terms of musical significance and cinematic accomplishment, that is by far the superior film.

....and now. [Insert obligatory exclamation of wonder that Richards is still alive.]

CROSSFIRE HURRICANE is an HBO film and will air in the USA on Nov 15th.

London Film Fest 2012 - Day 9 - EVERYDAY

There were two French women next to me in the screening of Michael Winterbottom's new film, EVERYDAY. They talked throughout the film and would sometimes laugh at strangely inappropriate moments.  Normally, I would've asked them to be quiet, but as it turns out, eavesdropping on their banalities was about as much entertainment as I got in the 90 minutes runtime of the film.  Which is not to say that the film isn't well-made. It's just that nothing actually happens.

Shot over five years, the film is about a family living through the imprisonment of the father (John Simm). This involves the mother (Shirley Henderson) gathering up her four kids in rural Norfolk, and taking trains and buses to get to a variety of prisons in which the father is held. We see that both parents love their kids and each other.  Casting the kids from the same family also helps bring an air of intimacy and authenticity.  And by shooting over the prolonged period, we get a real sense of changing seasons and passing years.  I liked the family and I sympathised with them.  The problem is that basically nothing happens.  The dad comes out on day release, then parole, then for good.  The family are happy to see him come home. The End. There's no grim explanation of what he did, or of his chances of re-offending. No social context at all. And because the family is, by and large, loving and warm, no drama to speak of.

The result is that EVERYDAY may not be the worst film I've ever watched, but it's certainly one of the dullest. Shame on writers, Michael Winterbottom and Laurence Coriot (HUNKY DORY) for wasting such a good cast and a terrific score from Michael Nyman. 

EVERYDAY played Telluride, Toronto and London 2012 and will be broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK.

London Film Fest 2012 - Day 9 - ARGO

This time last year I called THE ARTIST for Best Oscar solely based on the grounds that Harvey Weinstein had personally introduced it at the London Film Festival, indicating that the Karl Rove of Academy campaigns was putting his not inconsiderable weight behind it.  It didn't, of course, hurt that the movie did the two things that Hollywood absolutely loves: a) cast a nostalgic eye back to its own history and b) make us laugh, make us cry but with a outer casing of Profundity to make us feel less superficial while we get our kicks.

This year, on the same logic, I'm calling ARGO for Best Film.  Harvey isn't involved this time, but they flew out EVERYBODY for the red carpet PR fest last night, not to mention the fact that The Hollywood Reporter is already running front cover articles on Ben Affleck's comeback.   And, per my second rule, this movie is an exceptionally well-made crowd-pleasing thriller.  But because it's based on real events in Iran, it makes us feel like we learned something too.  

In short, ARGO is not a film we're going to remember in ten year's time - it's not a movie that remakes the boundaries of the cinema.  But that's okay, we here at MOVIE REVIEWS FOR GREEDY CAPITALIST BASTARDS are all about genre movies that aren't ashamed of what they are, do the job well, and make piles of phat cash in the process.

The basic history is that in 1979, the US embassy in Iran was stormed by pissed-off Iranian revolutionaries and the staff taken hostage.  The Khomeini revolutionaries wanted the despotic Shah of Iran returned from his asylum in the USA to face charges, which evidently wasn't going to happen.  Meanwhile, 6 embassy staff had managed to sneak out and were hiding out in the Canadian embassy. The CIA's specialist "exfiltrator" Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) created a cockamamie plan to get them out: create a real life Hollywood production company with a real life script and pretend the embassy staff were the film crew were scouting locations in Iran.  He flies in alone, gives them their cover stories, and flies out with them through an airport crawling with revolutionary guards.

The genius of a movie like ARGO is that, if done well, even though we know the ending, every time our band of civil servants goes up against a checkpoint, we are completely nervous about whether they're going to make it. This kind of tension relies upon perfect pacing and editing, and performances good enough that we like and care for the characters.   Moreover, with a movie like this, where the stakes are so high but the cover story so ludicrous, it takes a special kind of director who can keep the balance between laughs and tension.  

In this film, the ensemble cast is superb - with small parts for the likes of John Goodman, Alan Arkin and Bryan Cranston to name but a few.  It's a movie in which no-one carries the film, although I'd like to give special props to Scoot McNairy (KILLING THEM SOFTLY) who surprises his fictional colleagues and us with a last minute character turnaround that has us whooping with joy on the inside.   But really, the success of this movie is down to Ben Affleck's direction - his choices, his ability to handle the tonal shifts and intercut scenes of madcap Hollywood with absolutely grave images of hostages, his ability to make us care and have us on the edge of our seats.  The proof of that - if proof I needed - was when the plane took of Tehran airport and left Iranian airspace and the audience watching the movie burst into spontaneous applause.  That really is proof of how good this movie is.

Like I said, ARGO is "just" a factually based thriller.  But it's about as good of a thriller as you are likely to see. It shows the hidden courage and patriotic service of a handful of Hollywood insiders and CIA men, and the public courage of a handful of Canadians.  It makes us feel good about ourselves, and doesn't hide the contemporary relevance and grey shading as to why the Iranian revolutionaries were so angry at the Americans.  Kudos to all involved.

John Goodman, Ben Affleck and Bryan Cranston.

ARGO played Telluride, Toronto and London 2012 and is currently on release in the Ukraine, Canada, Colombia, the USA, Argentina, Serbia, Australia, New Zealnd, Russia, Singapore, Japan and Spain. It opens on November 2nd in Finland, on November 7th in Belgium, France, Switzerland, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Brazil, Ireland, Norway and the UK. It opens on November 15th in Hong Kong and Slovenia and on November 23rd in Sweden.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

London Film Fest 2012 Day 8 - SHELL

Writer-director Scott Graham's impressive debut feature SHELL is an exercise in formal control and austere, bold film-making that reminds me of Dogme films. It has an intensity and power and slow building tension that combine to make a captivating and provocative watch.  Chloe Pirrie stars as 17 year old Shell, living with her father (Joseph Mawle) in a dilapidated petrol station in the remote Scottish Highlands.  Home-schooled, without a mother, living with an introverted man, friends only with a couple of regulars, Shell is tragically left alone with her thoughts and pubescent desires.  All of the meagre relationships she has cross boundaries - the limited choices and loneliness of those she encounters put her in a vulnerable position.  The result is a character study that is so intense it almost becomes unbearable. My only criticism of the film is that it might have ended without its final scene, leaving more to be implied.

SHELL does not yet have a commercial release date. The running time is 90 minutes.