Archive for the ‘UK’ Category
Friday, March 4th, 2011
Countries: United States, UK, Netherlands, France
Directors: Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker
Appearances: Rachel Beaudry, Sebastien Canonne, Stephane Glacier, Frederique Lazard, Regis Lazard, Jacquy Pfeiffer, Philippe Rigollot, Philippe Urraca
Run time: 84 minutes
DVD distributor: First Run Features
I have one major complaint about Kings of Pastry, and I’m going to get it out of the way first. That is, two of the documentary subjects look so similar that I kept having to pause the movie to figure out which one was which before continuing to watch. Jacquy Pfeiffer and Regis Lazard are as similar as Dan Marino and David Hasselhoff. It’s confusing.
Now that this is officially (I assume) the only review of Kings of Pastry that includes photos of David Haselhoff and Dan Marino, on to the movie. This is an intense, tightly-wound 84 minute documentary about an incredible competition that takes place in France. It’s called the “Meilleurs Ouvriers de France”, or “MOF”, which translates approximately to “Best Craftsmen in France”. The top 16 pastry chefs in all of France show up to compete for the prestigious award in a gruelling three-day competition.
The documentary follows three of those pastry chefs – Pfeiffer, Lazard and Phillippe Rigollot. They have been training, and preparing, for the big competition for years. The MOF is akin to a Nobel prize in pastry – the chefs all idolize the previous winners, who get to wear the red, white and blue collars that come with the honour for the rest of their lives. For these dessert artisans, the MOF is more than just a great honour, it’s an obsession and the culmination of their life’s work.
So we get to see the three doc subjects preparing for their big day. They try different designs. They invent pedestals upon which they can set their creations without breaking them. They build massive, impressive wedding cakes and five-foot-tall sugar sculptures and tiny little puff pastries and a myriad of other things, trying to get the ingredients and the architecture just right. They have three-day marathon trial runs before the contest itself so they can prepare for the intense physical demands of the event.
It’s certainly interesting to see the amazing cakes and the intricate detailed work, and to get to know these men a little more behind the scenes. But it’s the competition itself that is truly captivating. My wife watches all those cooking competition shows – Hell’s Kitchen and Top Chef and I think there are forty-one others. I like them okay, but I can take only so much staged television reality show drama.
Kings of Pastry is different. This is real. This is a competition that was not invented for television, it’s one that holds real prestige, and winning an MOF designation is more like being inducted into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame than it is like winning American Idol. For me, that makes the competition twice as intense, and even little moments like a chef dropping a small part of his sugar sculpture caused my heart to skip a beat.
My wife watched this too, then she decided she was going to bake some puff pastries and learn how to stretch and shape sugar. She bought the ingredients, but I’m not holding my breath. After all, she watches forty-three cooking shows, and the most I get out of that is a suggestion for a recipe that maybe I could cook.
I am the cook in the family, and I love cooking, but I never bake. Normally, a movie like Kings of Pastry would inspire me to at least give it a go. But not this time. It’s not that I didn’t love the movie – I did. But when it was over, there was no way I was going into the kitchen to whip up some cakes. After seeing what these guys are able to do, after a lifetime of dedication to their craft, I am much LESS likely to try my hand at it. That would be like watching a documentary on Picasso, then deciding to take up finger-painting.
On that note, I’m out. Now, if anyone does a google search for “Picasso, Dan Marino, David Hasselhoff, French Pastry Competition, and Documentary Film”, my post here will likely be the only one that pops up. In the meantime, Kings of Pastry is available on DVD from First Run Features, and it’s very good.
Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011
Genre: Kids, Animation
Starring (voices): James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Michael Caine, Jason Statham, Ashley Jensen, Ozzy Osbourne, Matt Lucas, Jim Cummings, Stephen Merchant, Patrick Stewart, Maggie Smith, Dolly Parton, Hulk Hogan, Kelly Asbury
Director: Kelly Asbury
Run time: 84 minutes
I get it. Gnomeo & Juliet is based on Romeo & Juliet. They rhyme, see? And I also get that Romeo & Juliet is a play by Shakespeare. I don’t (and nor do my kids) need to be hammered over the head with it. By all means, make reference to the play you’re doing. You know, Romeo and Juliet. But throwing in references to Hamlet (2b or not 2b), Macbeth (out out damn spot) and dozens of other non-sequitors is not funny. It’s obnoxious and pompous.
And I know Elton John’s a big reason this film got made. But maybe he could have recruited a few more of his friends to fill out the soundtrack some. It isn’t a question of who will come up next, but what is the next Elton John song to be used? (Although I will say I did enjoy the use of ”Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” in one scene.)
For a while, garden gnomes coming to life and talking is cute. The red ones live at one house and the blue ones at another and they are the Montagues and Capulets and have hated each other for generations for no apparent reason. But this is exactly like all other “normally inanimate things come alive when the humans are gone” movies. And there are a LOT of those movies.
So once you get over the cuteness of the gnomes, and that happens surprisingly quickly, all that’s left is to go through the motions of re-enacting Romeo And Juliet with some vaguely quirky extra characters (a flamingo locked in a shed for years, a water-spitting frog who stands in for Juliet’s nurse). But that’s all there is. And with the exception of a few scenes featuring some maniac stone bunny rabbits, there is little left that I enjoyed.
There just isn’t any magic in a story being acted out by yet another group of toys-come-to-life, especially when it’s one of the most familiar stories ever. The biggest twist imaginable would have been if they had kept the original ending to the real Romeo and Juliet – they don’t – not like I’m giving anything away there though, it’s a kids movie. What are you gonna do?
Thursday, January 20th, 2011
Starring: Charlotte Rampling, Nichola Burley, Richard Winsor, Rachel McDowall
Director: Max Giwa, Dania Pasquini
Run time: 99 minutes
DVD distributor: Alliance Films
A brief synopsis of Streetdance goes like this…Carly has always wanted to dance. Now she does, with a street-dance “crew” and she’s happy. They are competing with the Best Street Dance Crew In England, and their leader (Carly’s boyfriend) just quit. Now SHE must lead them and they have to share rehearsal space with a BALLET company. The ballet people are stuffy and snotty and too cool for street dance. The street dancers are tough and hip and too cool for ballet. Will Carly be able to use BOTH ballet AND street dance to win the competition? Will she find love again with the BALLET boy?
And that’s it. There is little else going on in this movie. There’s the requisite I-just-found-out-the-guy-who-dumped-me-is-a-jerk scene, then the requisite dance-on-a-rooftop-scene where she ends up with the right guy, and the incredibly silly (but obviously necessary) scene where the ballet folk and the street dance folk dance at each other to show their mutual disdain.
So it’s a formula. The one that exists in every single dance movie ever made, and most singing and boxing and cycling movies as well. Will Carly get over her ex? Only if she sees him being a douche. Will she realize that her crew must do their own thing to succeed? Only if she has an epiphany. Will she manage to combine ballet with street dance in time for the big competition? Of course. Will the ballet dancers make it to the Big Competition in time? Of course they will.
Most of the 99 minute run time here is filler. And by filler, I mean dancing. Some hard British rap song pumps through the speakers, then some people flip in the air and pose aggressively, all during a series of jump cuts and changing camera angles and so forth. The movie was directed by a pair of music video veterans, and it shows. The dancing doesn’t interest me at all, and the filler is even more boring than the substance of this movie. I get it. They pretend to be thuggish and wear their hats sideways. Now DO something interesting.
Then there’s the wonderful Charlotte Rampling, who appears to have wandered in from a set next door and become lost in this film. She seems to be acting in another movie entirely – one that is GOOD. She plays the instructor of the ballet students, teaching them and molding them and helping them break out of their rigid little boxes with the help of…gasp…street dance! She fights with the benefactors and administration of the ballet school over this decision, and holds herself with dignity and class. In a movie absolutely devoid of both.
I will admit that, although I was bored out of my mind by the dancing and lulled into slumber by the acting and story, I WAS actually interested in seeing the final performance where Carly has managed to incorporate ballet into street dance and vice versa. It’s gonna be off the chain, yo! Or so I was led to believe. This was going to revolutionize street dancing forever, and be totally new and fascinating and…no. It just plain sucked. Even the one moment I actually anticipated in this film, the one that was kept under wraps so it could have a Big Reveal, was underwhelming at best.
The movie itself obviously doesn’t think so. Like many other movies about thugs and toughs and dancin’ (like the TRULY dreadful Steppin’), it feels that the Big Dance Finale is the high point, and stands on its own. And so it must end with the Big Dance Finale, and wrap up no loose ends whatsoever. Do the ballet dancers make it into the ballet school for which they are auditioning? Does Carly’s team win the competition? Does her lousy ex feel the sting of comeuppance? Then again, there are two more compelling questions I was asking – does anyone still care? And what was Charlotte Rampling thinking?
Tuesday, January 11th, 2011
Genre: Comedy, Cult, Classic
Stars: Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths, Ralph Brown, Michael Elphick, Daragh O’Malley, Michael Wardle, Una Brandon-Jones, Noel Johnson, Irene Sutcliffe
Eye candy: None
Director: Bruce Robinson
Run time: 108 minutes
DVD distributor: Alliance Films
There have been other editions of Withnail & I. There is a superior Criterion Collection edition I recommend to anyone who can find it. But it’s out of print, as are all the other DVD editions I have seen over the years. The only way to get it on DVD now, it seems, is with this new release, January 11th, from Alliance Films. If you can get the Criterion, go for that one. If not, get this one. So long as you watch this unbelievable movie.
The premise is simple. It’s toward the end of the 60s, and two out-of-work, drug-addled actors attempt to escape the squalor of their surroundings and their disgusting filthy apartment to spend some time in the country. Marwood (or, “I”) and Withnail head out to the country home of Withnail’s Uncle Monty. Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths) is a lecherous homosexual who takes an interest in Peter, perhaps with a little bit of misinformation courtesy Withnail.
All of this is funny, and well-acted, and well done. The semi-autobiographical movie from director Bruce Robinson hits all the right notes, and the script is top-notch. Griffiths is magnificent, Paul McGann is terrific as “I”, but this movie belongs to Richard E. Grant. His “Withnail” is quite simply one of the most memorable characters I have ever seen in any movie, ever. He’s a raging menace, a pitiful loser, a sharp-tongued maniac, and a fantastically compelling, watchable, hilarious character. When he’s on the screen, you can’t take your eyes off him.
This, Grant’s performance, is the genius of Withnail & I. Not only does he carry everyone he meets in the film along for his bonkers, mean-spirited, sad ride – he carries the audience along for the ride as well. Much as Withnail can be loathsome and crass and obnoxious, it is impossible not to want to follow him wherever he’s going. Not only to see what he’s going to do, but just to be close to someone so utterly charismatic and exuberantly bitter.
There is a scene where Withnail tries to kill a chicken. It’s fantastic physical comedy. Another scene sees him try to escape a fight at a bar when a big guy calls him (and Marwood) a “ponce”. That is fantastic simply for Withnail’s insane progression through a series of distraught facial expressions. The scene where their long-haired drug dealer shows up at their apartment is one of the best dialogue scenes in movies.
What I’m saying is that Withnail & I works in every possible way. It verges on perfect, and is deservedly a cult classic. And what I’m also saying is go find it, and watch it, right now.
Wednesday, December 15th, 2010
Sometimes a documentary gets me fired up, like I’m going to leap up and do something to fix what’s happening in the world. Like I learn about how my food is killing me, and I eat different food. Or, I discover that Japan is slaughtering dolphins and whales with impunity, and I…join a facebook group or something. There’s not always a lot you can do, outraged though you may be.
And such is the case with Mugabe and the White African, out December 14th from First Run Features. Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe since 1980, has a controversial “land reform” program that began almost a decade ago. The program is really land redistribution, as the government confiscates land from corporations and wealthy Europeans and redistributes it to poor black farmers who have never before had a chance to farm or own their own land.
At least, that’s the theory, and that’s the Mugabe party line. In reality, foreign landowners and corporate titans are not the targets of the land redistribution. It turns out that only white people are kicked off their land, and the farms don’t go to the poor, or even to farmers. They become the property of Mugabe’s cronies. The girlfriend of his interior minister. The cousin of his head of security. And so on. The farms go untended, no farming is done, and it’s well known how disastrous the economic conditions in Zimbabwe have become, in large part because of these fundamentally foolish land takeovers.
Watching Mugabe and the White African made me upset. This wanton racism and disregard for the welfare of his own country made me sad. But there wasn’t much I could do about it. Instead, I got a chance to watch the story of Mike Campbell, a white farmer in Zimbabwe who had an opportunity to actually effect change. Whether he did or not…I’m not going to ruin the end of the film. I hope you watch it. Know that it will fill you with impotent rage and sadness, but that it’s worth the ride.
The main reason to watch Mugabe and the White African is not for any kind of activist reason – it’s simply because this is a really, really good movie. In fact, it’s a great movie. The story of Campbell and his family is fascinating. We see them at the depths of despair as Mugabe’s thugs close in on their property. The Campbells take their case to an internationl tribunal elsewhere in Africa, and we see them frustrated and angry as their case gets delayed again and again in an attempt to put them off.
The determination and bravery of Mike and the rest of his family are inspirational. Through intimidation, the Campbells continue to surreptitiously videotape the aggressors at great risk to themselves. Through a horrible beating suffered by Mike, his wife, and his son-in-law at the hands of Mugabe’s thugs, their resolve is only strengthened. Through setback after setback, they keep fighting for justice to be done.
It’s that story, and the footage that accompanies it, that makes this a memorable and powerful movie. Just knowing this kind of thing is happening on the other side of the world is enough to make your blood boil, but to actually see it for yourself is something else entirely. Mugabe And The White African was shortlisted for the documentary film Oscar last year, the prize that was eventually won by The Cove.
Monday, March 22nd, 2010
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Country: Australia, UK
Starring: Randy Quaid, Frank Whaley, Sheree North, Christine Harnos, Nancy Kwan
Director: Alan Metter
Run time: 88 minutes
DVD distributor: Alliance Films
Cold Dog Soup does not make any sense. Frank Whaley is a timid, nerdy guy who miraculously and inexplicably scores a date with the hottest woman at his gym in the opening scene. Christine Harnos is fabulous as the gorgeous Sarah, who despite missing a hand for some reason exudes dirty sexiness in every frame of this movie. When Whaley arrives at her house for their date, he sits down with Sarah and her mother (Sheree North). Then their dog dies.
Somehow (and it seems reasonable to the three people concerned) Michael (Whaley) is tasked with the responsibility of burying the dead dog under a tree in a park so he can live with squirrels and flowers for the rest of time. Michael is keen to get this burial over and done with because it somehow means that he will get laid, and receive the “pressure cooker” from Sarah. Whatever that is. But it’s probably filthy and totally worth it.
So he takes the dog, in a garbage bag, outside and flags down a cab. The cab is being driven by Jack Cloud (Randy Quaid), who is creepy and strange and obviously a maniac. When he discovers the dead dog in the garbage bag, he immediately insists that rather than bury the dog, they go somewhere and sell the corpse. Which is an odd idea to begin with, but gets weirder and weirder as the movie goes along. When Michael reluctantly agrees to the corpse-selling plan, his night gets stranger still.
Soon Michael, Sarah and Jack are visiting furriers, restaurants and voodoo priests in an attempt to unload the dog. They are attacked by a group of thugs straight out of The Road Warrior, in what is clearly a very odd part of town. And none of it makes any sense. Then when the movie ends, it makes even less sense. And it’s a heck of a lot of fun.
Cold Dog Soup is the very definition of absurdist comedy. Whaley is good and believable as the timid guy who lets everyone else push him into doing reprehensible things. But Quaid is most definitely not believable – this man could never exist. And Harnos, while totally hot, is not exactly believable either. She’s like a cartoon, a woman who is always right on the edge of an orgasm and has no other thoughts in her brain except for what comes immediately next.
If she were a character in another movie, and not this bonkers comedy, I would wonder if she was unintentionally giving offense to the mentally handicapped, as I would think she is borderline retarded. But in this movie, she’s just another weirdo cartoon character in a city apparently filled with them. The fact of the matter is, Cold Dog Soup is highly entertaining. And it’s a lot of fun. And it’s finally on DVD after being released in 1989. March 23rd from Alliance Films. Just don’t expect it to make any sense.
Tuesday, February 9th, 2010
Bronson is a hard movie to describe. It’s all about a man who is hard to describe. And I don’t think it’s very good. Perhaps if someone sat me down and explained the entire thing to me, I might like it a lot better. It might grow on me and I might be able to appreciate it more than I currently do. Because right now, I look at this movie like it’s a pretentious, overblown con job.
It’s the “true” story of Michael Peterson, who is Britain’s Most Violent Prisoner. He went to jail at a young age, was supposed to do only a small amount of time, and has spent pretty much the rest of his life behind bars. The film would have me believe that the reason is his violent outbursts. He never seems to attack fellow prisoners, or even to interact with them. He spends most of his time in solitary confinement, because he is continually attacking the guards. For no real reason, except that he appears to like it.
The movie wants to make the point that Peterson (who soon renames himself Charlie Bronson, after the Death Wish actor – hence the title) wants to be a star. And in prison, he is a star thanks to his crazy brawls with guards. Which is fine, but we certainly never see him being a star in prison. With whom is he famous? He never even meets his fellow prisoners, so how does this work?
The film also shows that he is incapable of dealing with regular people in regular society, but for a guy who greases himself up in order to fight as many prison guards as he can, that seems pretty obvious to me. So…what am I to take from this movie? Or am I just supposed to watch it and enjoy it and be horrified by it? I am guessing the latter. The DVD case compares this film to A Clockwork Orange, and I see the comparison. But A Clockwork Orange was much more compelling. Yes, it was brutal and violent and depraved and had no real moral. But there was a lot of stuff going on.
In Bronson, there is almost nothing going on at all. We get one scene where Bronson goes all nutty, strips down to his bare ass and attacks a bunch of guards. Then we get a scene where he is standing on a stage wearing face makeup, telling his story as though he is delivering a soliloquy to a rapt audience. Then we see him fighting again. (He doesn’t seem to win many fights, by the way. He may be Britain’s Most Violent Prisoner, but he is likely not their Most Dangerous as well.) Then it’s back to the face paint and the stage.
The effect is genuinely interesting. For a while. Like watching two combattants in an Ultimate Fighting cage match who stop between rounds to entertain the crowd with a “Who’s On First” routine before jumping back into the cage and pummeling each other. I like the concept, and artistically it really works. For a while. But by the halfway point of the movie, I was pretty tired of the fighting and the stage and the fighting and the stage. I get it. (I think.) And by then I was pretty tired of the movie too.
Wednesday, November 11th, 2009
“Twelve thousand troops. But that’s not enough. That’s the amount that are going to die. And at the end of a war you need some soldiers left, really, or else it looks like you’ve lost.”
Starring: Peter Capaldi, James Gandolfini, Tom Hollander, David Rasche, Gina McKee, Chris Addison, Steve Coogan, Anna Chlumsky, Mimi Kennedy
Director: Armando Iannucci
Run time: 102 minutes
DVD distributor: Alliance Films
In The Loop is a biting satire, a wonderful black comedy and a terrific tongue-in-cheek look at the beginnings of the Iraq war. It is also a little bit too pleased with itself. Yes, it’s clever. And yes, it’s extremely well done to the point where it’s almost believable as a historical account of the British-American complicity in the fabrication of the evidence that led to the invasion in the Middle East. But it’s not that clever. And I got the sense, watching it, that an awful lot of this movie was an inside joke to which I was not privy. I have followed, very closely, the history of the Iraq war. I am aware of the “intelligence” linking Al-Quaeda to Saddam Hussein, obtained from a single source that was suspect at best, and fed through the British before being recycled back to the Americans as a justification for invasion.
But although I am pretty well-versed in this despicable saga, I still felt as though I was missing a lot of the comedy in In The Loop, and that several references were being made to things and events with which I was not familiar. I hate to borrow a phrase from last year’s American presidential campaign, but a lot of this stuff felt like “Inside Baseball”. By the way, isn’t that one of the most annoying phrases to come out of that campaign? Inside Baseball? Anyway.
That being said, the bulk of In The Loop is tremendously entertaining and intelligent. At its best, it’s scathing and brilliant. James Gandolfini, as an American general who has been to war and is therefore against any invasion of Iraq, is absolutely fantastic. The British actors are wonderful, especially Peter Capaldi as a filthy-mouthed director of communications for the Prime Minister and Tom Hollander as a hapless British Secretary of State who is in way over his head. The performances in this film, to a person, are letter-perfect.
The British humour, the fast pace of the film and a terrific script make In The Loop a fantastic ride. It’s just one that might pass over the heads of many of us, those of us who can’t remember every little detail of the British complicity in the “intelligence” reports that led to the invasion of Iraq. But you know, watch it anyway. It comes out November 10th from Alliance Films.
Saturday, October 17th, 2009
“You brought them into this world. They’ll take you out.”
Starring: Eva Birthistle, Stephen Campbell Moore, Jeremy Sheffield, Rachel Shelley, Hannah Tointon, Rafiella Brooks, Jake Hathaway, William Howes
Director: Tom Shankland
Run time: 84 minutes
DVD distributor: Alliance Films
DVD extras: The Making of The Children, Shooting on location, Paul Hyett talks prosthetics, Snow set design, Inside Tom Shankland’s on-set lair, Working with the children, Deleted scenes
You know, I have always liked movies about murderous children, at least a little bit. The idea that small kids turn evil and start killing is charming, in a way, and I like the ethical dilemma it presents – can a mother kill her own child when that child has become a zombie-ish murdering psychopath? It’s all a very schlocky version of a Sophie’s Choice type situation. You know, in a way. Now, if those murderous children are not your own, then there is an entirely different kind of dynamic at work. You see, they are still small children, and they are trying to kill you. Finally, you now have a chance to punch children! They’re kids! They’re small! Just punch them! Not that this is one of my fantasies, but…
One of these two scenarios is bound to be the ending of The Children, out October 20th from Alliance Films. The only thing up in the air is whether there will be one last final scare, or a tragic self-sacrifice to close the film. Or both. I won’t give the ending away. Because there is enough good stuff in The Children to make it worthwhile for horror buffs. So you might watch this one. And you might enjoy it. There are a few seriously hot women (Rachel Shelley and Hannah Tointon, for example) in the movie, and some adorable kids. Who turn murderous. There are some decent scares and some definitely creepy oh-God-that’s-a-body scenes.
But then, there are some problems also. The thing that makes or breaks the creepy-killer-kid movie is almost always the creepiness of the kids. If the kids are adorable, and are still kinda cute and not very threatening when they turn into maniacs, then it doesn’t work. If the kids are able to turn on the thousand-yard stare and the deadpan expression, and they are able to derive real glee from the mutilation of their elders, then they can be very scary. In The Children, there are four main kids who become infected with some kind of virus that makes them psychopathic killers. Two of those kids remain adorable throughout, and two manage to be effectively, if only vaguely, creepy.
One more problem – the kill scenes. The biggest problem with little kids murdering adults is that it is so easy to punch them. If the adult is awake, a four year old with a knife has little chance of stabbing that adult to death, if the grown-up sees it coming. The only possible way to effectively kill someone ten times your size is probably through stealth, and sneaking up. The kids in this film don’t always sneak up. Sometimes, they come right for you, knives out and all. Showing the actual murders being committed would look silly, wouldn’t it? The adult would just have to sit there and take it, really, which would look dumb. So instead we get a bunch of flashes of stabbings and quick cuts to creepy images and then, ten minutes later, someone discovers the body.
There are certainly good moments in The Children, and some good actors as well. Shelley and Tointon are especially solid, but they are pretty constrained by the murderous child horror genre. Which doesn’t appear to have much room to grow. It’s still fun at times, and gruesome at others, but The Children isn’t what it could have been. And it certainly could have used more kid-punching.
Monday, September 21st, 2009
“It’s so exciting.”
“Not nearly as exciting as crossing your mother.”
Countries: United States, UK
Starring: Jessica Biel, Colin Firth, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Barnes, Kimberley Nixon, Katherine Parkinson
Director: Stephan Elliott
Run time: 97 minutes
DVD distributor: Alliance Films
Easy Virtue, out September 22nd from Alliance Films, is based on a stage play by Noel Coward. Which means it’s witty, it’s quick, it’s erudite and it’s cleverly funny. The biggest problem with the film is that Jessica Biel, the star, is not terribly witty, or quick, or erudite. Or funny. Whenever she needs to use a big word, like “fatuous”, or “demoralizing”, or “universally”, she absolutely chews on it. It’s just not her – she seems so thrilled to be in a movie that uses words bigger than “gun” or “God” that she just seems totally out of her element.
That being said, she accomplishes most of what she needs to accomplish with her character. She is tough, she is very American, she is a little uncouth and she is rough around the edges. And her character is meant to be spectacularly hot. Check. She plays Larita, who has just married a British man named John Whittaker (Ben Barnes). He brings her back to his family’s massive estate in England to meet his family. And of course, she is going to rub his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) the wrong way. And there will be fireworks aplenty.
Scott Thomas is excellent – wound as tight as they come, she appears to be one deep breath away from bursting entirely. But the heart and soul of the movie is provided by Colin Firth, as her sardonic, utterly apathetic husband. He hates the estate, hates his life, hates his wife, and just doesn’t care any more. And it’s hilarious. Ben Barnes is basically useless to the film, providing the reason to get the two women in the same room so they can hate each other. But then he sort of disappears and becomes irrelevant. His sisters are more central to the plot, and they are both young and innocent and capricious and well-played by Kimberly Nixon and Katherine Parkinson.
The thing is, clever though the script is, and there are some very funny moments, a lot of this movie feels trite and derivative. The scene where Biel sits on the tiny family dog and kills it feels like a moment from Meet The Parents. And as the feud between Biel and Scott Thomas escalates, I felt like I was watching some of the worst moments from Monster In Law. Of course, this movie is far better than Monster In Law, but the fact that I even thought of that dreadful movie while watching this one gave me pause.
Overall, Easy Virtue (out September 22nd from Alliance Films) is quite good, and the best moments outweigh the worst considerably. But Biel feels miscast, and certain moments where she is supposed to provide the comedy (the motorcycle scene during the fox hunt) drag the movie to a crashing halt. One thing I really like about the film though – none of the characters really grow or change, at all, over the course of the movie. Barnes learns something about himself and about the world. Firth is inspired to make a decision he should have made years ago. But they haven’t really changed. Because they don’t have to. That alone makes Easy Virtue different, and worth renting.
Monday, September 7th, 2009
There is precious little dialogue in Hunger. Those seeking action, or talking, will have to look elsewhere for their fix. Those seeking phenomenal movie making, however, need look no further than this story about the final days of Bobby Sands. Sands, for those of you (like me) who were not around for his story, was an IRA prisoner in a British prison who led a hunger strike in the early 80s, leading to the death of ten inmates, including himself. Although this is the central story in the docudrama, we don’t even meet Bobby Sands until the movie is about halfway done.
In the meantime, director Steve McQueen (who really ought to have changed his name before getting into film, if he was going to do films this good – I mean really, that would be a fine name for the director of Buxom Bitches of the Badlands or something, but Hunger is no B-movie) sets the tone with a look inside the prison. The utter chaos of the “troubles”, the almost incomprehensible actions of both the IRA prisoners and their British captors, and the general tone of confusion that surrounded the whole thing. We meet a prison guard who is constantly in fear of assassination. We meet two IRA prisoners who join with their brethren in a “no wash” strike, where they refuse to bathe or shave and they pour their urine into the hall and smear the walls with their feces and do other disgusting things. For some reason.
The only real dialogue in the film comes soon after Sands (Michael Fassbender) is introduced for the first time, as he sits down with a priest (Liam Cunningham) for a long, incredible, powerful talk about his impending hunger strike (among other things). This is some of the best acting I have seen on film in a long time, as Fassbender and Cunningham sit across from each other, in one extremely long take, discussing the reasons to go on a hunger strike and the reasons not to go on a hunger strike. The camera doesn’t move, the actors move very little, and the only action in the scene is the pair of them smoking. And it’s one of the most riveting scenes I can remember.
The best thing about that scene, and the movie as a whole, is that it perfectly captures the questionable motivation behind Sands’ actions. He is certainly willing to die for his cause, and his beliefs, but he is also willing to take his fellow soldiers down with him, and I could never really understand exactly what he wanted to accomplish with the strike. I suspect that to this day, nobody really knows. Or at least, no one really understands. But I believed Michael Fassbender understood, when he was sitting in that room with Liam Cunningham, and that is the best reason to watch the film.
I watch movies in my living room, and in my living room there is a clock that ticks. It’s not terribly loud, so I never notice it when I’m watching a movie in full surround sound cranked up to eleven. But I certainly noticed that tick-tock while watching Hunger. The movie is almost silent much of the time, as people sit around in prison. I was about to take the batteries out of the clock, but I realized that it added a little something extra to the film. It was the perfect companion to prison, and made it feel even more so like time was passing incredibly slowly. The movie appears to be going incredibly slowly as well. But in fact, it isn’t. It’s slow, but it’s just incredible.
Sunday, September 6th, 2009
“Did we just break the law?”
“Nope. That’s what you call damn fine reporting.”
Starring: Ben Affleck, Russell Crowe, Helen Mirren, Jeff Daniels, Robin Wright Penn, Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams
Director: Kevin MacDonald
Run time: 127 minutes
There’s one character in movies I will always love. I will never get tired of the grizzled, curmudgeonly veteran newspaper reporter. The one who drinks too much, works too hard, has a love-hate relationship with his overly tolerant boss, sleeps with the wrong women and causes as much trouble as he prevents. Clint Eastwood in True Crime, Robert Downey Jr. in Zodiac, dozens of other actors in dozens of other movies, and now Russell Crowe in State of Play. Crowe is great, but it’s not like we haven’t seen the character before. His relationship with his editor (Helen Mirren) is fantastic, and she is terrific as well. But again, it’s something we’ve all seen before.
We’ve also seen the young cub reporter just trying to make it in the business, being taken under the wing of the grizzled veteran. But rarely has that cub reporter looked like Rachel McAdams. That’s a nice twist. Now, there are often congressmen in these movies as well, and they often look and act like Ben Affleck. He’s not new. Also not new are the battles between the cops and the reporters, the politicians and the lawyers, the politicians and the cops, and so on and so forth.
But most of all, what is not new about State of Play is the subject matter. Tragically, there is a model out there for the Big Bad Company in the film, PointCorp. They are a “private security” company that provides mercenaries to the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are the company who was sent in to keep the peace after Hurricane Katrina. They are well known for their brutal tactics, their disregard for human life, the massacre of innocent civilians and their above-the-law status. They are essentially untouchable, and the government keeps awarding them massive contracts. At this point it seems that the only thing standing in the way is congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) who is investigating PointCorp. Sound familar? It will, if you’ve read anything about Blackwater in the last three or four years. This is, almost exactly, what Blackwater is currently doing.
There are two events that set the movie in motion, both of them murders. The first is a murder of a petty criminal drug addict and a pizza delivery guy by a hardcore professional killer. The second is the apparent suicide of congressman Collins’ assistant, the young woman who is heading up the investigation into PointCorp. Of course, we know it isn’t a suicide (because frankly, if it was, this would be a rather silly movie). Russell Crowe is the reporter assigned to the murder of the drug addict and the delivery boy. Rachel McAdams is the paper’s political blogger, and is assigned to the (apparent) suicide of Sonya, the aide to congressman Collins.
Collins is Crowe’s friend, and Crowe is also sleeping with his wife (Robin Wright Penn). Which complicates things, and in the end I think complicates things unnecessary. When he and McAdams discover that their two stories overlap, and that something bigger is going on, they begin one of those hardcore newspaper investigative reports that I find thrilling. They investigate PointCorp, they chase down leads and pursue suspects. In doing so, they get into trouble with the police and with the editor and so forth. The moral dilemma presented by the police would have been interesting had it been pursued further, but the movie moves too quickly to bother fleshing that out.
And that’s what State of Play is. It is fast-paced. Very fast. And it’s tense, and it makes sense, and each scene is more gripping than the last. Until the movie winds down, at which point there is a rather disappointing cop-out. Which is too bad. This was a really great film up until that point. It’s still very good, thanks to Russell Crowe and Rachel McAdams and Helen Mirren and Robin Wright Penn, but had they found a way to resolve the movie better, without the big cop-out, it could have been really great. Still, I recommend the film highly.
Sunday, August 9th, 2009
“On my command, unleash hell.”
Starring: Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, Russell Brand, Toby Jones, Talulah Riley
Eye candy: Gemma Arterton, Caternia Murino, Mischa Barton, and a bunch of high school girls. I know that makes me creepy.
Directors: Barnaby Thompson, Oliver Parker
Run time: 101 minutes
DVD distributor: Alliance Films
“Houston, we have a problem.”
There are an awful lot of lines in St. Trinians that come from other movies and seem trite. Or silly. Or even awful. There is virtually nothing in the film that we haven’t seen in other movies. And the movie is sadly and painfully PG-rated. However, it is good. Very good. It’s a teen movie, and it’s a girly movie, but it is an awful lot of fun and I was surprisingly and thoroughly entertained. St. Trinians comes out August 11th from Alliance Films, available in a single-disc edition or packaged together with 17 Again. Please don’t get the two-movie package. 17 Again is nowhere near the caliber of this clever and surprising British film.
“Be afraid, sir. Be very afraid.”
Annabelle (Talulah Riley) is a young girl whose father drops her off at St. Trinians, an all-girls boarding school with a bad and dangerous reputation. Apparently St. Trinians is an old film series in Britain leading back to the 50s, and these characters should be familiar to certain British folk in the audience. Not me though, and I found them to be fresh and fun and just badass enough. As Annabelle gets acquainted with the school, we see girls being dragged behind tractors, others being hung over bannisters, and general craziness and misbehaviour that would not be out of place at a prison riot.
St. Trinian’s never takes itself seriously, so the violence and bad behaviour and possible murders are always dealt with extremely lightly and for comedic effect. The school has the standard cliques – the hot chicks, the goth chicks, the jocks and the nerds and the so on and so forth. Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace, Rocknrolla) provides the main eye candy in the film, as the smoking hot, harsh and sexy Head Girl. In fact, there are a lot of hotties in this film, which is vaguely creepy for a high-school-girls movie, but also extremely standard.
Rupert Everett, who also produced the film, appears as two different characters – Annabelle’s effete, callous and awful father, and the scatter-brained, boorish headmistress of the school. Yes, Everett is in drag. Also memorable is Russell Brand, who shows up at the school several times, as the girls are all involved in his seemingly extensive criminal enterprise. They distill vodka for him, and make other products, which he then sells. His occasional appearances are the best part of the movie. And Colin Firth is pretty good as the Ministry of Education man intent on shutting down the school.
“You can so see why Colin Firth wanted to shag her.”
But it’s the girls who carry the film, even though the script and plot are pretty standard and tired. Arterton is a fantastic ice queen as the head girl, there are two hilarious little girls, twins, who are demolitions experts, and every girl is memorable in her own way. The bank wants to shut down St. Trinian’s, and the girls must come up with 500,000 pounds to pay the bank to save the school. They decide to steal the famous painting Girl With A Pearl Earring which will be on display at a nearby museum. And in order to get into the museum, they must win a series of scholastic trivia contests.
All of this sounds pretty boring, and pretty usual, and pretty cliched. And it is. But thanks to the girls and a genuine sense of silly devil-may-care film making, St. Trinian’s rises above the dreck from which it sprang. It isn’t revolutionary. It isn’t, really, politically incorrect either. It doesn’t really push any buttons or break any boundaries. But it did make me smile. And sometimes that’s all I want from a movie. St. Trinian’s delivers.
Monday, July 27th, 2009
“If he [The Dalai Lama] returns, the political situation will change…and the day of happiness will dawn on Tibet.”
Countries: India, UK
Language: Tibetan w/ English subtitles, English
Starring: Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso, Jampa Kalsang, Tenzin Jigme
Directors: Ritu Sarin, Tenzing Sonam
Run time: 90 minutes
DVD distributor: First Run Features
The Dalai Lama was forced to flee Tibet 40 years ago, in 1959. Since then, many other Tibetans have joined him in exile, many of them moving to India. Dharamsala, in Northern India, is the headquarters of the Dalai Lama in exile, and that is where Dreaming Lhasa takes place. Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso stars as Karma, a gorgeous young woman who travels to Dharamsala to make a film about former political prisoners living in exile and to reconnect with her Tibetan roots. She meets Dhondup (Jampa Kalsang), an ex-monk who has come from Tibet to India to search for a missing resistance fighter named Loga to fulfill his mother’s dying wish.
Karma joins up with Dhondup to take part in his quest, and their journey becomes a powerful story of Tibetans living in exile, of their connection to their homeland, and of their extremely complicated interaction with the outside world. The actors in the movie have stories just about as interesting as the story in the movie itself. Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso is an American citizen who works for Chevy Chase bank. When the movie was finished, she went back to her bank job. Jampa Kalsang is from Kathmandu, Nepal and seems to be the only experienced actor in the cast.
Also interesting is Tenzin Jigme, who plays…appropriately…a character named Jigme. In a way, he appears to be playing himself. Jigme is a career musician, with his two brothers, in the band JJI Exile Brothers in Dharamsala. Throughout the movie, a band (maybe the same one) plays Tibetan freedom songs. I couldn’t decide whether those songs were cheesy and misguided or powerful and strong. By the end of the film, I still couldn’t decide. I think the songs are supposed to be a little of both. True words, real concepts, but there is a Quixotic feel to a lot of the music and sentiment that in a way comes across as cheesy.
Dreaming Lhasa is populated largely by non-actors, but this really works in its favour. For a film that touches at least briefly on such a long list of historical events and subjects, the stars bring their own life experiences to the screen. Karma is American, seeing Dharamsala for the first time and learning about her Tibetan roots. And so is the actress who plays her. Jigme is a Tibetan born in Dharamsala and knowing nothing but exile in his life. And so too is the actor playing him. The movie touches on the involvement of the CIA in the Tibetan resistance, and the subsequent violent Chinese crackdown. It touches on the attitudes of the exiled Tibetans toward the Dalai Lama and his stance toward the Chinese government. And of course dozens of other subjects.
Dreaming Lhasa a terrific look at an exiled people and their tenuous and awkward existence vis-a-vis the outside world. But it isn’t a documentary, and it’s more than just a list of facts and figures. It’s also a really interesting, really moving film. The relationship between Dhondup and Karma, as they travel together and develop feelings for one another, is genuine and unforced. The interaction between Jigme and Karma is charming. And the end of the film, when they finally find Loga, provides an unexpected yet powerful moment. I would suggest the aftermath of that meeting is a little easy and not as challenging as the rest of the movie, but that’s a pretty small complaint.
Dreaming Lhasa is a wonderful movie about a group of people who don’t make a lot of headlines. It works as a statement film, and as a feature. There are a few special features on the disc, including a short film called rights…and wrongs that is just pictures and video of people and the Tibetan resistance. It works, and it’s strong. There is also a “making of” featurette which doesn’t say much, and an interview with the director and the composer about the soundtrack (which is mostly Tibetan freedom songs and dub reggae). Altogether a very good DVD, Dreaming Lhasa came out July 21st as part of the Human Rights Watch DVD box set from First Run Features.
Sunday, July 19th, 2009
“I’m a tourist.”
“I’m a terrible wizard.”
OK, I get it. Twoflower (Sean Astin) is the first-ever “tourist” in the magical Discworld. He likes taking pictures of things, and does foolish stuff that puts his life in danger because he is oblivious to the fact that Discworld is nothing like London. And Rincewind (David Jason) is a terrible wizard, expelled from the wizard University for his general ineptness. And he worries and frets and bumbles and stumbles and falls over a lot. Haha. Lol. And so forth. This is a charming concept for about an hour. As Twoflower enlists the recently-expelled Rincewind to be his guide during his camera-happy trip through Discworld, at least an hour’s worth of comedy is sure to ensue.
However, the biggest problem with The Color of Magic is that three and a half more hours of movie ensue. The comedic possibilities of an old failed wizard falling over, and a clueless tourist snapping pictures without realizing how perilous his situation is, and a piece of luggage with legs that follows the duo around only to show up at the most opportune times…are limited. And they are exhausted at the one-hour mark. Which means that any attempt at comedic pratfalls for the last two and a half hours of this miniseries are not only tiresome, they are actually painful.
The Color of Magic is a miniseries from the U.K. (which means that the title really should be The Colour Of Magic, shouldn’t it?) distributed on DVD July 14th from Alliance Films. It’s based on a series of children’s books by author Terry Pratchett. And apparently the people behind the series wanted to cram every bit of that series into the 200-minute running time. So as Twoflower and Rincewind set off on their tourism junket, they have those standard adventures that every traveling duo in a fantasy has had since The Hobbit.
They encounter invisible dragons and get imprisoned in their lair. Rincewind discovers a magic Excalibur-like talking sword, and has to do battle in anti-gravity boots against a leather-clad dragon-commanding hottie. Twoflower discovers that he has some kind of ability to command dragons himself. And so they escape. And…on to the next adventure. They end up in the mouth of a troll made out of rocks. There is always a troll made out of rocks. Or a giant. Whatever, they all look the same. They meet a bunch of people, and a bunch of creatures, and just when I thought they had hit every standard kids-movie creature and situation, there were ten more I had forgotten.
Finally, the hot blonde on the cover (Laura Haddock) shows up. I was wondering when we would get to her! She is about to be sacrificed in a druid ritual, and she gets saved by Twoflower, Rincewind, and a mysterious crazy old man. It turns out that the crazy old man is a legendary Barbarian Named Cohen (David Bradley)…get it? Cohen and the hottie join the group for a trek back to the University to help save the world. There is an interesting dynamic there, where this gorgeous young 20-something babe is hot for the ninety-some barbarian. She has this hero-worship thing going on, even though he has no teeth and weighs less than she does…
That dynamic could be a pretty interesting one, if it was explored at all. But it isn’t. Instead we get some attractive female assassins and other unnecessary confusions to an already confused plot. At the end of the film, the couple with a 70-year age difference get married. So they aren’t forgotten, at least. But they are ultimately useless, much like the bulk of this miniseries. Astin is good for an hour. Jason is good for an hour. But for the last two and a half hours, they are obnoxious, tiresome, repetitive and terrible.
However, as you can see, I have not given this movie a terrible review. It is an average review, a five out of ten, because for every dreadful, useless moment delivered by the two stars, there is a wonderfully campy and silly-evil moment delivered by either Tim Curry or Christopher Lee. Lee plays the voice of Death, and Death is a pretty fun character in this movie. He keeps showing up, here and there, to taunt Rincewind and wait for his inevitable demise. When Rincewind is hanging onto a tree brach above a crazed pack of wolves, Death shows up to sit on a branch opposite him, sardonically waiting for the plunge that will claim the inept wizard. That’s pretty fun.
Also fun is Tim Curry, who is easily the best part of the movie. He plays Trymon, the requisite Evil Wizard who appears in every film of this nature. Curry, one of the best campy, evil over-actors in history (up there with Gary Oldman) is obviously having a lot of fun with the role, even when it doesn’t make a lot of sense. He is playing the scheming, creepy wizard who has designs on the top spot at the University, a spot he can attain only by bumping off those wizards who are ahead of him in the pecking order. And he dispatches them all, with great relish, until he is Top Dog. His confrontations with the Arch-Chancellor (the head of all wizards) are a lot of fun, and of course incredibly campy.
So you get two movies – the Trymon one which is confusing, in some cases makes little sense, but at least it is fun. Then there is the Twoflower-Rincewind story, which is plodding and interminable, and mostly useless. And, in the end, the vast bulk of the miniseries IS useless. The Tim Curry story has virtually nothing, in the end, to do with the Astin-Jason plot line. There is also some non-sequitor garbage about turtles and elephants. And the special effects are nice, but certainly nothing spectacular to make this worthwhile. The Color Of Magic could have been charming and decent as a made-for-TV movie that lasted an hour and a half. I can’t imagine that too many people kept tuning in until the end of this very, very long three-and-a-half hours.