Thursday, 31 December 2009

2009 in Review - Best Film

As we reach the end of my salute to the achievements of 2009 here are my top films. I have been lucky, of the 42 times I went to the cinema I only consider 6 outright failures, and none of the films were so dreadful they had nothing to recommend them. That doesn't make the compilation of a top ten list any easier, in fact the overall quality has meant that many films which were very good ended up being left out. All but the top 3 could easily have been displaced by the dozen other contenders.

I won't be giving any commentary to list, not even a brief sentence, but please note that I have chosen these films because they moved me, gave me pure unadulterated pleasure or just led to more conversation than any of the other films I saw (number 10 for instance has led to 4 different viewings with deep discussions about the outcome).

1. Where the Wild Things Are

2009. Dir: Spike Jonze. Starring: Max Records, Catherine Keener, James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara and Lauren Ambrose. My Review

2. Maria Larsson's Everlasting Moments

2008. Dir: Jan Troell. Starring: Maria Heiskanen, Mikhail Persbrandt, Jesper Christensen, Emil Jensen and Ghita Nørby. My Review

3. Che Part 2

2008. Dir: Steven Soderbergh. Starring Benicio Del Toro, Franka Potenta, Joaquim de Almeida, Demián Bichir and Lou Diamond Phillips. My Review

4. A Serious Man

2009. Dir: Ethan and Joel Coen. Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick and Aaron Wolff. My Review

5. Away We Go

2009. Dir: Sam Mendes. Starring: John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph, Carmen Ejogo, Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels. My Review

6. Milk

2008. Dir: Gus van Sant. Starring: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna and James Franco. Not Reviewed.

7. Antichrist

2009. Dir: Lars von Trier. Starring: Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg. My Review

8. Avatar

2009. Dir: James Cameron. Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Sigourney Weaver and Michelle Rodriguez. My Review

9. Drag me to Hell

2009. Dir: Sam Raimi. Starring: Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Lorna Raver, Dileep Rao and David Paymer. My Review

10. Doubt

2008. Dir: John Patrick Shanley. Starring: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis and Joseph Foster. My Review


Anthony Hopkins

Happy Birthday to

Anthony Hopkins

72 today

The former Welshman (he's now a US citizen even if he doesn't mind using his heritage to get roles - see below) isn't showing any signs of slowing down with age. This year we have Woody Allen's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger to look forward to as well as the delayed Wolfman, and in the following year he'll by Odin to Chris Hemsworth's Thor.


Wednesday, 30 December 2009

2009 in Review - Best Actor

Compared to the last three days the Best Actor category is by far the starriest group with a couple of massively popular performers, but it still has it's fair share of wtf selections so I'm looking forward to hearing comments on this. Tee hee.

1. Benicio Del Toro - Che Part 1 and 2. There are few biopics where the actor so inhabits the person that we can't see the affectations and walls the actor has copied off the original. As far as I'm concerned Del Toro is Che Guevera.

2. Russell Crowe - State of Play. This superior thriller may not be the sort of film you would imagine as an acting showcase, but in casting Crowe as the archetypal news hound they managed to make it one. Everything he does is natural and built around an solid believeable characterisation.

3. Max Records - Where the Wild Things Are. Few child actors can make me sit up and notice their performance, often they come across as mannered or "stage schooly". As the one real wild thing in the movie Records was equally impressive when having a temper tantrum as when feeling isolated in his fantasy island.

4. Willem Dafoe - Antichrist. The He in Lars von Trier's nightmarish vision was a tough role for anyone to take on, both loving yet arrogant and mentally abusive, the performance had to be perfectly balanced to prevent it from going over the edge. Dafoe managed that and with Charlotte Gainsborough salvaged the humanity in the film.

5. Sean Penn - Milk. It's a tough choice for number 5, with both Penn and Mickey Rourke fighting for it. In the end I had to decide which performance spoke to me more, and Harvey Milk recruited me.



2009. Dir: Rob Marshall. Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench and Nicole Kidman. ●●●●○

The question I asked myself as I walked into the cinema this week was: Is Rob Marshall the saviour of musical cinema or it's destroyer. I left the cinema with the same question. I simply do not know. I deeply suspect that he is neither, and in the fullness of time he will remian merely a footnote in the history of movies. That is not to say that Nine is a bad movie, it is very enjoyable, but also strangely forgettable.

Before I go any further on this review, I'd like to point out the excellent review by TomS over on his blog. I'd advise going there if you want a slightly more positive spin on what I'm about to say.

Nine is a film adapatation of the stage musical based on Fellini's 8 ½, which is in itself essentially a rumination on writer's block within the film industry, with the lead protagonist a thinly veiled version of Fellini. Nine then follows the story of an egotistical, womanising director - Guido Contini (Day-Lewis) - struggling to create his latest masterpiece even though production is set to begin and the marketing is in full throttle.

Contini distracts himself by talking to and imagining the women in his life, and in each of whom he equates to a particular song and dance style, and so we are able to include the element of music added to the stage without arousing suspicion that it's a musical - it's all in his head. A heady reminder of the artifice of cinema and the strains of the creative process. You may remember Rob Marshall used this technique in Chicago, there it seemed original and clever, here it seems like he's stolen it from himself.

Daniel Day-Lewis does his best in the lead role, hunching his neck forward like a vulture seeking out new prey (or women), but there's little in his demeanor to indicate why women flock to him. Maybe they're awed by his talent, but as he doesn't appear to be "nice" to any of them I can't see why they'd stay around. Saying that Day-Lewis is better at the comedy than I'd suspect - he skulks around the spa furtively hiding from people like a seasoned farceur.

Of the ladies the stand-out is Marion Cotillard (she came first in my supporting actress of the year awards), as I said there she effectively gives us the impression that her love for her husband Guido is balanced by her realisation that that may not be enough. She also performs both her songs with dignity and passion.

The singing performance can only be surpassed by Fergie as the under-written Seraghina, the whore Contini remembers as a child. She has the best song (Be Italian - it was used in the trailer) and really knows how to sing to the back row, the Fosse inspired choroegraphy is also a great additoon to the song.

Some of the other ladies do not do so well - Sophia Loren was distinctly underwhelming and I was also disappointed by Penelope Cruz's mugging. Part of the fault of this is because Nine is just not that good a musical. We want either songs we can repeat the refrain endlessly or to at least be able to spot the beauty of the music outside of it's setting. Nine largely fails at both of these.

The production values also seemed inconsistent. I liked the dancing, but wished the camera would look at it more - Marshall hasn't learnt that editing is crucial to getting the audience to understand the "story" of the dance. The evocation of 1960s Italy was superb until Nicole Kidman's movie star glared at me from a film poster, her face seemingly painted by a different artist from the rest of her body. I will admit the opening and closing scenes were excellently staged and performed, as a introduction and effectively a bow from all the women and their imagined choruses.

As I said at the beginning of the review my overall impression was that I enjoyed the film, but I will soon forget it.


Russ Tamblyn

Happy Birthday to

Russ Tamblyn

75 today

"When you're a Jet,
You're a Jet all the way
From your first cigarette
To your last dyin' day."

I couldn't think of a finer way to say happy birthday to the definitive Riff.


Tuesday, 29 December 2009

2009 in Review - Best Actress

In the other three categories there are fillers - I will admit that. I have only seen 42 films, so there have been performances that probably should have been put aside for greater achievements. I don't think that is the case for Best Actress, in fact I could have easily done a top ten with tremendous performances.

1. Maria Heiskanen - Maria Larssons Eviga Ogonblick(Everlasting Moments). By far the most moving performance I saw this year was by a little known Swedish actress in a art-house release that I almost missed at the cinemas. Playing an abused wife, who falls in love with another man but does nothing about it, she ripped my heart in two.

2. Anne Hathaway - Rachel Getting Married. We may have seen Anne's boobs in the past but this was the film where she truly performed as an adult. Playing the destrutive sister of the titular bride, Anne was a torrent of self-pity and rage with an undercurrent of pure guilt. Excellent.

3. Sasha Grey - The Girlfriend Experience. A deeply unsettling and naturalistic performance where all we see are the layers a professional hooker places around herself. Throughout the film we see them falling apart, and the impact that has on the understanding of your own identity.

4. Michelle Pfeiffer - Cheri. The second courtesan of the list, with Pfeiffer playing someone who knows her best days are behind her and enters into her final doomed love affair. No-one does brittle like Michelle, and the look into the mirror at the close of the film tells us everything we need to know about her future.

5. Abbie Cornish - Bright Star. We end with more doomed love affairs - this time separated by society and by death. Abbie's Fanny Brawne is unafraid to announce her passions to the world (and to do some first class sulking) and this confidence is striking in the final performance.


Tuesday Trailers - Oscar special

Like most film fans I am influenced by other fans and by the industry. There are a selection of websites and blogs that I look to for advice about what films to see next. Occasionally that means that films I wouldn't normally go to see move up in my plans. At no time of the year is that more prevalent than in the months before the Academy Awards. During this period the films which are being touted as potential nominees will still a dormant interest that may just steer me to the cinema another time. These following four films have all come to my attention as part of that buzz.

Precious, Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

Director Lee Daniels, along with stars Gabourey Sibide and Mo'Nique are reaping lots of precurser attention with this bleak looking poverty drama. (Not bad for a collaboration between the director of Shadowboxer and the star of Phat Girlz). It's released on 29 January 2010.

A Single Man

Tom Ford turns from the fashion world to Hollywood to make the equistitely crafted A Single Man, based on the Christopher Isherwood novel. The trailer is enigmatic and gorgeous to look at - I hope the rest of the film lives up to that. See it on 12 February 2010.

Crazy Heart

It's not all about the performances, but if this is the film that Jeff Bridges finally wins an Oscar for then it's got to be worth seeing. On 19 February 2010 to be exact.

The Last Station

Tolstoy famously died in a train station, which I should imagine gives away the ending of this star-studed biopic about the writer and the ultimate fate of the rights to his novels. It can be seen on 19 February 2010.


Jon Voight

Happy Birthday to

Jon Voight

71 today

One of the most incredible mysteries in modern cinema is why Jon Voight's career hasn't gone better. Oscar nominated 4 times, he's never managed to take that raw talent and matinee idol looks to become a real household name. Now he's propping up the cast list in dreck like Transformers and National Secrets. What a waste.


Monday, 28 December 2009

2009 in Review - Best Supporting Actor

Supporting performances are always tought ot choose from. On one hand nearly every performance is there to support the story, but you don't want a piece that could conceivably be called the lead, nor do you want to glorify a cameo (I may be about to do that). Of the 5 performances listed below only one is likely to get an Oscar nod, and I've completed ignored last years selection that could have been eligible (Brolin, Hoffman and Shannon), however all these actors have reached out and grabbed me in their own way. Each of them lifted the overall piece and that, surely, is worth celebrating.

1. Christoph Waltz - Inglorious Basterds. As you know I had big problems with the lack of humanity in this film, but strangely it was the least humane character who lights up the screen. Waltz veers from comic to serious poses often in the same sentence, and shows he can act in 4 different languages - no mean feat.

2. Fred Melamed - A Serious Man. Before Melamed enters we get a vague idea of his character from Larry Gopnik and his wife as they consider the forthcoming divorce, but nothing prepares you for his melodious voice and hurt dog tone. Possibly the worst person you'd want to lose your wife to.

3. Stephen Lang - Public Enemies. Lang is barely in Michael Mann's latest exercise in digital film; he's merely an additional agent called in by Christian Bale, but he carries himself, and speaks in such a way that you know he's seen every crime imaginable and he knows how to catch this criminal.

4. Rayniel Rufino - Sugar. The character is there as a foreshadow to our protagonist. He has moved to the states earlier and his career will dramatically change earlier, but with every decision Rufino makes with the part you can understand it and appreciate where's he's heading to.

5. Tom Wilkinson - Duplicity. This is a bit of a guilty pleasure, and I've probably seen better performances that fail to make this list, but Tom's proper bastard CEO relishes the competition he sets himself. He also is involved in a completely barmy bust up with Paul Giamatti so extra points for that.


Maggie Smith

Happy Birthday to

Maggie Smith

75 today

I hate to use a Potter photo, but that's all Dame Maggie seems to be doing right now (and I expect it's where most people know her from these days). I've been a big fan of hers since seeing the BBC adaptation of Muriel Spark's Momento Mori in 1992, even writing a poem about her for an English project at school (aged 14)!


Sunday, 27 December 2009

2009 in Review - Best Supporting Actress

Like most self-obsessed actors I dream of one day being accepted by the industry as one of their own, and eventually being invited to join the Academy. (I know, I know, but I can dream). Part of that dream would mean having my own ballot, my opportunity to give my opinion of the best performances and best films of the year.

Well, until AMPAS notice me I guess the only place I can say what I think is right here. So, starting today (and for the next 5 days) I'll give you my votes. Of course they won't follow the Academy rules - I'm using the films I've seen and not just the ones eligible for this years which means 15 of the actual nominees from last year have the opportnity to appear on my ballot.

Like the voters I don't have to explain myself, however I will give a sentence or two to explain my choice. Feel free to argue in the comments.

1. Marion Cotillard - Nine. Marion has proved in both her films this year that she is a singular talent. She really gets to show off her range both vocally and performance wise in Nine, and the way she responds to the audition tapes is jaw-droppingly real.

2. Penelope Cruz - Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Last years Oscar winner comes a very close second for me. Technically the third (or maybe even the fourth) billed actress she is a force everyone talks about and responds to, so much so that the film wilts without her.

3. Melanie Lynskey - Away We Go. Like most of the characters in Sam Mendes' latest film Lynskey only gets a short time to make an impact, but in her scenes as she gradually gets drunker we see the happy facade seep away to reveal the emptiness inside. Witness the pole dance and tell me you don't know everything about how she feels.

4. Marisa Tomei - The Wrestler. Continuing the theme of pole dancing, Tomei hits her usual high marks as a stripper confronting her own limits. Rourke may have taken most of the applause, but without Tomei backing him up we wouldn't have cared for his character.

5. Blanca Portillo - Broken Embraces. The character drifts between guarded sarcasm and over-zealous confessionals which in lesser hands could have been seen as terribly inconsistent. However Portillo shows the tension inside of her in every scene.


Saturday, 26 December 2009

Film News (26/12/09)

It's another last for 2009; the last film news report. Needless to say it's pretty dull - even Hollywood takes time off at Christmas. At first all I though I had was release date changes (I'm dumping the box office statistics) and the second story I'm running. Luckily we had a great piece of casting news on Tuesday - more of that below.

By the way, did you know I've featured 161 projects in the news over the year, that's over 3 times the number I've seen in the year. Although it's worth noting that only 40% are currently in production - the rest remain rumours and longer term developments. 15 of the films I've mentioned will turn up in my top 20 anticipated films for 2010 - countdown coming in January. I won't drop any clues as there will be a prize for guessing the top film...

The Talking Cure

Christopher Hampton knows how to write about sexual politics and intrigue; Dangerous Liaisons and Atonement being just two fine examples. His latest play to be developed into a movie is The Talking Cure. Based on the development of psychoanalysis the story revolves around a (fictional) shared patient of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung as they form thier own ideas about therapy and the contruction of the human psyche. Keira Knightley will be playing the confused go-between and Inglorious alumni Christoph Waltz and Michael Fassbinder will step into the shoes of the pioneers of therapy.

My Soul to Take

Wes Craven's latest slasher flick revealed details of it's supernaturally powerful killer this week. I told you it washn't a great story. He had a name, and a photo and everything. I didn't make any notes.


Leap Year - Amy Adams aims for rom-com stardom with her Ireland based road movie about a bride to be attempting to propose on 29th February. Unfortunately she's got to cross Ireland to get to him. I don't know why this film is being released in 2010. Ask your man to marry you on 26 February 2010.

Ondine - Colin Farrell finds a girl in his fishing net who may or may not be a mermaid; and has to decide what to do about it. A grown up Splash! if you will. Sing with the Merfolk on 12 March 2010.

The Ghost - Roman Polanski's latest thriller is likely to hit the headlines more because of his current house arrest and probable extradition to the States, than for the quality of this Robert Harris adaptation. Read the truth on 19 March 2010.

Dear John - The big screen adaptation of Nicolas Sparks' war torn lovers hanky fest has moved it's release date again. Judging by the trailer I doubt anyone cares. Write love letters to our boys on the front on 16 April 2010.

Prince of Persia: Sands of Time - There's always a lot of jostling over the summer release schedule, so the falling back of this video game property is hardly surprising and probably only means the studio thinks it will open better one week later. Rescue your princess on 21 May 2010.

Warrior - If the Cage-fighting movie is essentially a subset of the boxing movie do you think this will be more about the family dramas outside of the "cage" or will be just see grown men beating the crap out of each other? Watch sweaty men in shorts on 17 September 2010.

Social Network - The official facebook movie has sprung up pretty quickly, focusing on the development of the web-site the film will concentrate on young men with no social skills invent whole new ways to not take to each other. Poke your local cinema on 22 October 2010.

How do You Know? - Slight change of release date for James L. Brooks latest venture. Reese Witherspoon will have to choose between her two unlikely suiters; gien that it's a comedy I expect she'll go for the lovable schlub. Follow your heart on 21 January 2011.

Spider-Man 4 - The web-slinger will be returning to the big screens for his fourth outing in 2011. The quality of the whole production may depend on the villian casting, so lets just hope they think long and hard about it. Get caught in a web on 06 May 2011.

Thor - I'm a little behind the curve on this one, but the latest marvel to screen adaptation has been moved back to 2011 for some time, but it's only this week the UK schedules were changed. Attack like a viking on 20 May 2011.


Friday, 25 December 2009

Out This Week (25/12/09)

Need less to say I am not writing this post on Christmas Day, neither are these films actually coming out today. Some were released yesterday, and others tomorrow, but I thought it best to just go with the pattern. This weekend is a little special - it's the last Friday of the year, so these 6 films represent the last gasps of 2009. There have been a total of 426 releases during the year, I personally have seen about 10% of these, with probably a further 20% that I would have seen if I had a lot more time and money. Over the next few days I'll be running through my top ten and selecting the best performances, I hope you can join me for those posts. In the meantime please note that the film of the week is Sherlock Holmes.

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel

I'll admit it, even if I'm the only one, but I found the title quite funny, and the Chipmunks joining in the the 20th Century Fox fanfare in the trailer did make me chuckle. These may be the best bits of the film, though.

Runs like a Gay Excitometer: ●●○○○○○○○○

Dogging: A Love Story

Right. Sit down. I have something to explain. Dogging is a sexual act done in a public place (ususally in a car or a wood) for the benefit of onlookers who are strangers. The term is high profile in the UK as a number of celebrities (including professional footballers) have been caught by the tabloids. In the States the title will be changed to Public Sex to avoid confusion. Looks dreadful.

Runs like a Gay Excitometer: ●●○○○○○○○○

Happy Ever Afters

Oirish comedy about two wedding taking place in the same hotel, and how the guests mix them up and generally cause a ruckus. Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky) is one of the brides.

Runs like a Gay Excitometer: ●●●○○○○○○○

My Father My Lord

David Volach's debut feature is a thoughtful and temperate look at life within an Orthodox Jewish family in Isreal. It comes with some critical acclaim, having been judged the best film at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival, however it's release is incredibly limited so rush to see it if you can.

Runs like a Gay Excitometer: ●●●○○○○○○○

Nowhere Boy

Rather than looking at the formation of the Beatles in a true sense, this John Lennon biopic tries to understand the man by focusing on his relationship with his mother and the aunt who brought him up following her abandonment.

Runs like a Gay Excitometer: ●●●●○○○○○○

Sherlock Holmes

Guy Ritchie mockneyfies Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective, adding bare-knuckle fighting to his illustrious talents. The chemistry between Downey Jnr and Law (as Dr. Watson) is palpable in the trailer and if there's a fair cash in the tills to be had hopefully this will lead to a sequel or two.

Runs like a Gay Excitometer: ●●●●●○○○○○

3 Idiots

Hindi film - could be about anything - probably in some way based around idiots failing to achieve the standad of sducation they need. Poster is quite good and the website is surprisingly addictive.

Runs like a Gay Excitometer: ●●●●●○○○○○


Sissy Spacek

Happy Birthday to

Sissy Spacek

60 today

I feel very sorry for anyone born on Christmas Day (except for Jesus, obviously) as they don't get the chance to celebrate the day for themselves. So today, when you see this post, just take five minutes to sing Happy Birthday to Sissy.


Thursday, 24 December 2009


2009. Dir: James Cameron. Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Sigourney Weaver and Michelle Rodriguez. ●●●●○

On Tuesday Avatar stormed past $100m in domestic receipts, when you add the estimated overseas groses Avatar is almost certainly in the black. There are a bunch of LA accountants patting themselves on the back and starting to work out how to re-invest the profits. In that respect Avatar is a massive success.

The hoopla about immersive 3D environments and photo-realistic computer generated effects is justified. It's made it's money back, all that expence and time means nothing as it's in profit. The margins will mean that this technology is justified and is the way forward; clearly Cameron has changed cinema forever.

Let's be honest about this - what James Cameron wants to do with his films more than anything else is to prove he has a lasting legacy and get people in the door. Innovative and spectactular are merely byproducts of that desire to live forever in cinema history. (I'm not knocking that, I have the same dream of sorts.)

But is it any good?

Technologically it is incredible, marking a new milestone in the creation of 3D digital effects. It was difficult to judge what was real and what was computer generated which surely must be the aim. However there is still so very far to go. I believe that 3D is as just a fad today as it was in the 1950's. When falling into a cavern or having pointy things thrust upon you it is great and exciting, but I still don't feel part of the action - immersive panoramas are a myth that Hollywood will continue to peddle for many years to come. The effects also don't have the weight of reality, the wild things I raved about earlier in the week were so much more "there" than any of Pandora's natives, even though they were clearly fantastical elements of Max's imagination.

Producton design and the design of the flora and fauna is also a highlight. It's clear that Cameron has used his expertise of the deep sea environments as an influence, the preponderance of ultraviolet light and the concept of bigger predators being better predators (although I'd argue it probably isn't likely biologically for animals to grow to the sizes shown in thick jungle habitats). I also have concerns about the (quasi-sexual) appendage that can be used between different species to create a physcological link - where would this have developed evolutionary in such different species? Perhaps if all the specias with them had 6 limbs it may have been more conceivable.

The Na'vi themselves show where CGI has reached, when Sigourney Weaver's Avatar smiled it was recognisable, yet at the same time the walk and talk of the native Na'viwas different to the Avatars - at least before Sam Worthington had trained himself up. This may also be a compliment to the Na'vi performers who developed a graceful movement technique for the motion capture to pick up on.

Unlike most reviews I haven't talked about th plot structure and what happens. This is partly because, unlike most of the films that interest me, it is not the plot that makes people watch Avatar, it is partly beacause the plot, when analysed is complete drivel.

To summarise: humans are bad, Na'vi are good; War is bad, peaceful co-existence is good; abusing the planet for it's resources is bad, living at one with nature is good. The parallels between Pandora's strife and the world in which we are living today are so plain and in your face that they could have been written by a 10 year old. Released as the occupation in Afganistan comes close to 8 years and during the World's biggest climate change conference it's message couldn't be more timely, and yet the simplicity of the parallels is such that it lessens the impact.

It's not like these issues are new to Cameron, either. From the moment it opens we know that humanity has been dehumanised (a character we never meet is zipped into a body bag then put straight into a furnace - nothing close to a funeral service). Faceless corporations focus on the product and don't care about the consequences (see Skynet). Like Titanic hundreds of digitally produced characters are created in order to be killed off heroically - it's amazingly how little we care about them, though.

All in all these misgivings about the plotting have made me reticent about recommending Avatar. It is certainly a game changer, the future of cinema, but until storywriting and technology work together we will never see a brave new world.


Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Crossing Over

2009. Dir: Wayne Kramer. Starring: Harrison Ford, Ray Liotta, Ashley Judd, Jim Sturgess and Cliff Curtis. ●●○○○

I have tried to make allowances for watching the multi-storyline drama Crossing Over on video over the weekend, rather than at the cinema. I know that at home even if you're watching an excellent film your mind can wander off as you look at your bookcase or hear birdsong out of the window. However even being lenient the film, a remake of director Wayne Kramer's previous short, still fails on many levels.

The idea of taking a large number of parallel storylines to illustrate a point have been arond since the beginning of cinema. Grand Hotel with it's "galaxy of stars" and ideas of emotional equality (even with groups who are massively unequal socially) is a good example. The technique was later honed by Robert Altman - look at his masterpiece Nashville which confronts ideas of patriotism as well as cleverly interweaving 20+ rounded characterisations. The last 10 years have seen Crash and Syriana use this tool to highlight particular issues, and it's the critical succes of these films which probably led to Crossing Over being green-lighted.

Crossing Over does not compare well to any of the titles I've listed above. It aims to take a long hard look at U.S. immigration control and the dilemmas facing people at various stages of the process as well as the very essence of what it means to be American, however it shoehorns so many plots and characters in that the central conceit is muddled and many of the performances seem flat.

In a butchered 108 minutes (40 minutes less than Traffic, which it is clearly aiming to be - there must have been a lot more filmed than this) we have actresses selling their bodies for a green card, honour killings, the lure of gang violence, the effect of 9/11 on the freedom of speech, the disparity between immigrants of different cultural and economic backgrounds, I could go on. In reality any single issues addressed could have filled a movie of their own. I want to know understand more about the life experience of Summer Bishil's character, to find out how she has the confidence to speak out at the beginning. The family politics in Cliff Curtis' background would be more than enough to satisfy me.

So why do we get Ray Liotta gurning his way through every line, or sit through lots of time with Jim Sturgess' loveable Jewish rogue; is accent was all over the place, but at least the religion stays contant through the film.

Harrison Ford, clearly the marquee name for this, does an adequate job as a honorable man working for the immigration service but the stand out performances are Bishil and Curtis. Curtis in particular has a lot of heavy lifting to do, however the screenplay lets him go without the payoff he deserves.

Talking about the screenplay this is strictly plotting by numbers. From the first time we meet any of the characters we see virtually every side to them, with no-one going through an arc or showing any depth. Needless to say the end is also nicely resolved with all the loose ends tied off, the bad guys going to jail and the morally questionable ones getting their comeuppance.

Wayne Kramer can be an interesting director, the shoot out in the liquor store is tightly choreographed and the bleached flashbacks with unflinching sex and shocking violence are done with the same hard edge he used in Running Scared and The Cooler, however he needs to find a good thriller plot to hang his technique around and not waste time with passion projects like this.


Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Tuesday Trailers - The Lovely Bones

Peter Jackson's latest epic is having a hard time over in the States, reviews have been withering and the box office isn't looking special (open it wide now, before too much damage is done...) However I'm still looking forward to seeing it, regardless of whether Jackson has hit the tone of Alice Sebold's novel he is still a unique auteur and should be supported. The trailer below gives us a glimpse to what in store:

The Lovely Bones is released on 29 January 2010.


Ralph Fiennes

Happy Birthday to

Ralph Fiennes

47 today

Ralph (or Rafe to you and me) likes to keep himself busy. In between being him who mustn't be named he's managed to sneak off for showy cameos in classy independent fare like The Hurt Locker and In Bruges. Mind you he's been lining up big pay packets for the next couple of years - Nanny McPhee, Clash of the Titans shudder.


Monday, 21 December 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

2009. Dir: Spike Jonze. Starring: Max Records, Catherine Keener, James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara and Lauren Ambrose. ●●●●●

I will start this review by confessing that I have never read Maurice Sendak's Where the wild things are. Regardless of it's status as one of the greatest children's books ever written I was never exposed to it's beauty as a child. The biggest compliment I can say having seen the film is "I wish I had". If the book has even half the emotional richness that the film has then every child should have that opportunity.

By now you probably know that I liked Where the Wild Things Are. I really really liked it.

The plot (bearing in mind this is not really plot driven) follows a small boy (Max Records) first in his normal every day life then, following an arguement with his mother (Catherine Keener), in a fantasy land populated by "Wild Things" where he escapes to. In both environments he plays, fights, builds forts and (fails to)connects with everyone else.

There are so many things this film gets right it's difficult to choose which ones to look at. Primarily the casting of Max is perfect. I don't know whether the boy can act but he was incredibly natural, both on screen and in his actions. The changes in emotional state from joy to fear to petulance as perfectly played and as spontaneous as children can be. Later as Max begins to realise the psychology of the Wild Things and as he appreciates the shift in dynamics that takes him from being the child to the parent he handles the subtle changes incredibly well.

The screenplay perfectly judges to tone. It is a kids film, they could watch it and understand everything that is being said, enjoy the comedy of throwing mud balls at each other and feel the fear when the Wild Things may turn on Max. Yet it's also an adults film. In growing up we start to hide all those emotions that Max allows to run rampant, but that doesn't mean they don't exist - or that they ever fully go away. As an adult I can recognise those Wild Things and appreciate them - I want ot be Max and face them.

The Wild things themselves are brilliant. Both as physical creations - the things they do are pure fantasy but because they are real people in big suits (with some addition FX shots to clean up the facial expressions) we can feel their movements as much as see them. The voice performances are all suited to the characteristics their Wild Things portray, but special kudos go to Lauren Ambrose as K.W. (representing the pull of family) and Paul Dano as Alexander (loneliness).

A brilliant film that should be seen by everyone.


Jane Fonda

Happy Birthday to

Jane Fonda

72 today

The former Barbarella has really let us down, after retiring from films in 1990 we all clamoured for her return to the silver screen. However when she did come back all we got was Monster-in-Law and Georgia Rules neither of which hold a candle to either the lightweight comic touch she could bring in her heyday, let along the heft of her major performances. Maybe she's gone back in retirement with the piles of money she must have made from L'Oreal adverts - or maybe she's got another project on the go. I only hope if she does make another appearance it's worth it.


Sunday, 20 December 2009

The Girlfriend Experience

2009. Dir: Steven Soderbergh. Starring: Sasha Grey, Chris Santos, Mark Jacobson, Glenn Kenny and Christine Nadeau. ●●●●○

I had planned to get some professional help, and a little insider knowledge, when reviewing The Girlfriend Experience, but alas "Sean"'s plans changed so I am writing from my own experience and knowledge only.

Steven Soderbergh's fourth feature from 2009 is by far his most outré, in terms of both content and style. Che was in immersive biopic of a controversial 20th Century figure as viewed through a very small period of time, The Insider a comic vignette, an exercise in big gestures and little resonance. In The Girlfriend Experience we follow a high class hooker (Chelsea), as played by porn actress Sasha Grey, over a couple of weeks leading to the 2008 Presidential election. During that time we meet her clients, her friends, her business associates and hear her diary entries.

It should be noted this film is not an exercise in titilation, at no point are Ms Grey's physical attributes glorified or debased. In fact we see much more of her chatting to her clients about the future of the economy or their family than we see her even kissing the patrons. This is also not a film about the horrors of protitution. Chelsea is strictly top end, offering a Girlfriend Experience, not a quick blow job up a back alley. The clients and the environments reflect this. And as there is no risk for Chelsea this can therefore be not seen as an essay on the rights and wrongs of prostitution. If you had imagined either a cheap thrill or a polemic then this is not the movie you think it is.

Instead the film looks at the nature of identity and how that is affected by selling yourself. The film plays with chronology, often returning to scenes over and over, and one of those is an interview where Chelsea is repeatedly asked what if a client wants the real her. Each time she answers that he gives the client a fake version of the real her, but you can it's that question preoccupying Soderbergh. What is the real Chelsea and how do the layers she puts in front of herself affect her self confidence?

Sashe Grey gives a remarkable performance, destroying any notion you may have that pron stars can't act. For the naysayers who would claim that Chelsea is so close to Grey that it's not acting I would say just look at the nuance in her eyes. The way she sits with her clients, the abstract listing of her designer shoes, her mouth curling when she receives a 'phone call at a hotel (I don't want to spoil that scene but it's a killer). I really hope that Hollywood sit up and take notice as I'm sure Sashe Grey could make that transfer to mainstream cinema with ease.

The rest of the cast are patchy, Glenn Kenny is suitably sleazy as an erotic reviewer, but her boyfriend Chris Santos ia little more than buff furniture.

Soderbergh uses a fly on the wall style which compliments the idea of detachment from the protagonists. The camera is often a couple of tables away in a restaurant or through the glass of a taxi, making each scene seem to be like snippets of conversation we've overheard with nothing really said of any importance.

For a 77 minute film there somehow manages to be some filling, as Soderbergh tries too hard to reflect selling your body against the meltdown in the banking industry and the confidence in the forthcoming changes in administration, perhaps streamlining some of this might have left the film feeling less baggy. Overall though this was an excellent look at a difficult to comprehend subject, proof that Soderbergh really is the king of indie cinema.


Saturday, 19 December 2009

A Serious Man

2009. Dir: Ethan and Joel Coen. Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick and Aaron Wolff. ●●●●○

Book a ticket to see a Coen brothers film and you know that they will try to subvert your expectations, from the grim tone of No Country for Old Men to the celebrity smug off that was Burn after Reading, it's probably best to leave those expectations at the door and their latest, A Serious Man, proves the case. Whatever you have heard, whatever you imagin this film to be, it can only be appreciated or understood through actually seeing it for yourself.

It's a meditation about what it means to be Jewish, a parable about middle class complacency and a intelligent comedy about family and relationships. It manages to all these things, and yet comes across as nothing. It is both highly entertaining and fearlessly opaque - if you have to believe one thing you've read in the reviews then trust me this is a film the Coen's have made for themselves.

The film begins with an reenactment of a Jewish superstition. This may seem disconnected to the rest of the film, however it sets up the theme of bad things happening to good people - we don't know who the good person is in the prologue, this will depend on whether you believe the husband or the wife, but we know that good deeds lead to misfortune. Flash forward to the 1960's, not the counter culture we explored in Taking Woodstock but to the buttoned down suburbia that populates the rest of America.

We meet Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) an academic who is waiting for the decision on his tenure. Like the biblical Job he is being faced with a catalogue of appalling disasters, his wife is asking for a divorce, his brother is sleeping on the sofa and getting in trouble with the law, he is being blackmailed by a student, threatened by a neighbour and a hate-letter campaign is being raged against him.

Faced with an extraordinary amount of bad luck he attempts to seek advice from the Rabbis. Each of these visits is a new chapter during which the advice he is given either assists or confuses him.

The performances are perfect, Stuhlbarg internalises much of his emotion which makes him a fascinting comic stooge and Fred Melamed steals every scene he's in as Larry's patronising love rival. The set-up may seem far fetched but the writing is so on the button that you go along with the Coen's punishment for Gopnik and each fresh obstacle for the character seems organic. Although the open-ended finish seems to indicate a running out of ideas rather than a perfect way to leave our characters.

Technically the film is top rate with Jess Gonchor's production design striking that fine balance between period and lived in.

Overall this is the best comedy I've seen in 2009, and one of the most fascinating projects within the Coen's back catalogue.


Film News (18/12/09)

No opportunity for smaller projects getting the limelight this week. We're now deeply into the awards season (apparently 274 films are eligible for the Oscars) so it's only directors currently selling their competing projects who are able to hit the non-award headlines. Unless you're involved with a massive comic book franchise (after the cut). So, here goes...

Battle Angel

So, Jim Cameron is changing cinema forever, returning once again to being the King of the World. What's next? Well, he's confirmed that he's seriously working on the film adaptation of Battle Angel Alita, Yukito Kishiro's renowned Manga novel. It's about a female cyborg and will certainly be an opportunity for Cameron to build on the technology advances he's made with Avatar, as well as referencing he's back catalgue of Terminator movies.

The Man who Killed Don Quixote

Terry Gilliam's second attempt to tilt at windmills seems to be going in the right direction with the news of casting Robert Duvall as the titular knight. It's an inspired choice, Duvall continues to be at the top of his game and it should also bring in some punters and investment. After all who doesn't want to see the great actors take on one of the most infamous literary characters.

Peter Jackson's Untitled Gallipoli project

Peter Jackson has stated a vague interest in making a movie about the ANZAC troops and the suicidal mission at the Dardanelles during the first World War ready for the centenary in 1915. It's an incredible piece of Australian and New Zealand history as thousands of troops attempted to cut off the Ottoman Empire from the rest of the central European axis. The story has already been told in Peter Weir's excellent Gallipoli as well as in the exhaustive 1985 TV mini series "ANZACs". Nevertheless it will be interesting to see how Jackson handles the material.

X-Men: First Class

The origin collection of the X-Men franchise will be continuing with the beginnings of the Xavier school for the gifted. For all the collective doubt we may have about prequels where you know the fate of the characters this could be interesting as Bryan Singer, director of the first 2 installments has signed on. This could mean that he will explore the themes of isolation and discrimination that were the central point for the second film, and one which could ultimately give a heart to this venture.


Cicely Tyson

Happy Birthday to

Cicely Tyson

76 today

Cicely is one of those actresses who paved the way for African American stars to share the same status as white actors. She had a long and interesting TV career as well as an Oscar nod for Sounder. Pretty much restricted to Tyler Perry's output these days she is at least working.


Friday, 18 December 2009

Out This Week (18/12/09)

If I were truly a brave and free-thinking blogger I would probably ignore the two titan that are fighting for the top recommendation this week and plump for the interesting indie Humpday, or maybe even one of the Bollywood offerings. Of course I'm not, and whilst Avatar is promising to change the way we look at cinema (you'll hear my thoughts on that next week when I review it) the cast of Nine is simply too delicious to ignore, so Nine is the film of the week.


This is it. James Cameron returns after his self imposed 12 year exile with a special-effects behemoth, a dazzling white elephant, a metaphor about man's inhumanity to man and the the planet. It's timely and he thinks it will change cinema forever. This is truly 2009's must see film - but I'd rather watch big stars dancing.

Runs like a Gay Excitometer: ●●●●●●●●○○


Mumblecore goes mainstream as Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard's college buddies reunite, get drunk and decide to make a gay porn film. Exploring issues of identity and the infantilisation of adult men, as well as heterosexual male views of gay sex this is a great choice if you want to avoid the crowds.

Runs like a Gay Excitometer: ●●●●○○○○○○


I can't even find a plot synopsis for this Bollywood release, except to say it's probably an action film of some description.

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Well, it's a musical about Italian cinema and the creative process, and it stars (in general order of how excited I am about their presence) Penelope Cruz, Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, Sophia Loren and Fergie. WOW!

Runs like a Gay Excitometer: ●●●●●●●●●○

St. Trinian's 2: The hunt for Fritton's Gold

I'm not sure why they've resurrected the old brand for the noughties take on girls school shenanigans, the humping dogs seem a long way from the gentle Alistair Sim. In this sequel everyone's trying to get hold of some gold hidden within the school, including the dastardly David Tennant.

Runs like a Gay Excitometer: ●●○○○○○○○○


In the latest Tamil release Vijay moves to the big city to become a police officer, but complications and temptations get in his way. Re-telling of classic folk-story with Anushka Shetty as the love interest.

Runs like a Gay Excitometer: ●●○○○○○○○○