The Best and Worst of 2008


2008 was a mixed year for cinema and Irish films in particular. My list of best and worst is, once again, in alphabetical order.

If I had to pick one film above all the rest, I wouldn’t be able to. My favourite films this year were The Coen Brother’s No Country For Old Men and PT Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Having seen within a couple of days of one other at the start of the year, I still cannot separate them.

Charlie Wilson’s War (Mike Nichols)
Claimed as a true story, if only half of Charlie Wilson’s stood up to scrutiny, it would still be an astonishing yarn. Terse, tart and timely.

Cloverfield (Matt Reeves)
A fragmented monster movie that was dumb and fun.

The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan)
Director Nolan followed his reinvention of the Batman character with this even darker and more dangerous sequel, both beautiful and grotesque, which joins the tropes of the superhero movie to the inky noir of the vigilante film.

The Diving Bell & The Butterfly (Julian Schnabel)
Based on the memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby, Julian Schnabel’s inventive and emotionally devastating film brings us inside the mind of the author, paralysed by a stroke, who can only communicate with the world by blinking his left eye.

4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu)
A damning indictment of life inside Ceucescu's Romania, framed in a story about an illegal abortion. Devastating.

Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone)
The long reach of the Neapolitan mafia is exposed in Garrone’s brilliantly realised real-life crime saga which carefully examines the venomous effects of corruption on Italian society in five interwoven stories.

Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh)
A great central performance from Sally Hawkins makes Leigh’s bittersweet story about a young teacher learning how to drive into something uniquely heart-warming.

Hunger (Steve McQueen)
Turner Prize winning artist McQueen announced himself as a fully-formed filmmaking talent with this brave and unflinching visual poem about the death of Bobby Sands in Long Kesh in 1981. Michael Fassbender’s deterioration as a man making the ultimate sacrifice is hard to watch but the film offers rich reward for those who can bear it.

In Bruges (Martin McDonagh)
Another crime caper, and another debut feature, playwright McDonagh lets chalk-and-cheese killers Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell loose in the Belgian town of Bruges, throws entertaining obstacles in their way and sits back to revel in the mayhem.

Kisses (Lance Daly)
Dublin writer and director Daly single-handedly restores pride in home-grown cinema with this deft and touching story of two impoverished suburban kids. Brilliantly conceived and satisfyingly complete, Daly’s film is blessed with a pair of exemplary performances from Kelly O’Neill and Shane Curry.

Lars & The Real Girl (Craig Gillespie)
Ryan Gosling is in fine form as the emotionally stunted young man who buys a life-like sex-doll on the internet and treats her like a real person.

Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud)
Visually hewn from Satrapi’s glorious graphic novel, this is a clever, emotionally honest animated biography that I preferred to the similar, but less artful, Waltz With Bashir.

Man On Wire (James Marsh)
James Marsh’s breathtaking docu-drama about Philippe Petit, a high-wire walker who dared to cross the Twin Towers in 1974, is both a keen character study and a compelling examination of obsession.

No Country For Old Men (The Coen Brothers)
The Coen’s stripped Cormac McCarthy’s already taut novel down to its bare bones for this exemplary modern Western. No Country is another examination of greed but one that owes more to fate than strategy.

Of Time & The City (Terrence Davies)
A beautifully assembled film about loss and regret that has the under-employed director wander through the Liverpool of his youth. Guy Maddin’s surreal, but funnier, My Winnipeg runs it a close second for most elegiac.

Son Of Rambow (Nick Goldsmith)
Genuine, clever and suffused with a delight in cinema.

There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Daniel Day Lewis won the Best Actor Oscar for his indelible performance as the oil-mad baron Daniel Plainview, but PT Anderson’s film about greed and God is more than just a one-man show; it is an excoriating condemnation of capitalism wrapped in the sweep of a beautifully photographed and edited epic.

Wall-E (Andrew Stanton)
Pixar’s latest cartoon epic, about a cleaning robot left alone on a rubbish-filled earth, is at once a hilarious semi-silent children’s film, a cautionary ecological story and a beautiful marriage of technology and ideas


The Worst

Sigh.

Roger Ebert took flak this year for slating a film called Tru Loved that he admitted to only watching about eight minutes of. I can sympathise. He went back, watched the movie through to the finish, and hated it all the more. Read it here.

Before you might watch any of the movies below, consider Victor Hugo:
"Short as life is, we must make it still shorter by the careless waste of time."


Alarm (Gerard Stembridge)
Stembridge attempt to expose the shallowness of Celtic Tiger Ireland by making a shallow, empty-headed movie was further undermined by a bizarre script and flaccid performances.

Anton (Graham Cantwell)
Cantwell’s independent Irish feature gets full marks for spirit but the result was a mess of soap-opera scripting and hopelessly amateur acting.

Awake (Joby Harold)
Awake? Barely.

Botched (Kit Ryan)
The title says it all really; this was a shambolic, dispiritingly derivative horror comedy that lacked a single moment of genuine cinematic wit.

Cassandra’s Dream (Woody Allen)
Poor old Woody. They say his new one Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a return to form, but they’ve been saying that since Everyone Says I Love You and that was released in 1996.

College Road Trip (Roger Kumble)
Martin Lawrence makes his by now traditional appearance on this list, with a crushingly cheap and derivative ‘family comedy’ in which the entire human cast was outplayed by a pig.

The Cottage (Paul Andrew Williams)
Director Williams painstakingly wasted the promise shown in his debut London To Brighton with this immediately forgettable horror comedy that grew increasingly desperate with each passing decapitation.

Doomsday (Neil Marshall)
An outright disaster from start to finish, Marshall pisses all over the potential he showed in The Descent. The most annoying film of the year.

Eagle Eye (DJ Caruso)
Indistinguishable from a video game and nowhere near as coherent.

88 Minutes (Jon Avnet)
Al Pacino had a year to forget, with this horribly dated serial killer movie matched in its inanity only by his dull crime caper Righteous Kill. Hoo-ha!

Fool’s Gold (Andy Tennant)
Matthew McConaughey can fuck off for himself.

The Happening (M Night Shyamalan)
Shyamalan’s descent into obscurity gathered terminal velocity with this shrill and vacuous eco-thriller about spooky plants killing off humanity with an airborne virus. Star Mark Wahlberg – who shared a dialogue scene with a pot plant - followed this with Max Payne, just edging out Pacino for 2008’s worst male lead.

Lakeview Terrace (Neil LaBute)
Samuel L shouts his way through another identikit performance in LaBute's shallow and silly reverse-racism drama.

Love In the Time Of Cholera (Mike Newell)
Magic realism without the magic.

Rambo (Sylvester Stallone)
A red soup of eye-watering violence and incomprehensible mumbling from Stallone, who should leave it at that, now, thanks.

Summer of the Flying Saucer (Martin Duffy)
A farrago of crass performances, dull scripting and inane special effects. Wanderly Wagon did this kind of tuppence ha’penny children’s entertainment far better twenty years ago.

Three And Out (Jonathan Gershfield)
A crass story about a loser (Mackenzie Crook) eventually finding the courage to write a novel by saving an old drunk (Colm Meaney) from suicide. Fails utterly to carry the conceit or cadge a decent joke.

Mamma Mia! (Phyllida Lloyd)
It might have proved popular at the box office and sold billions of DVDs but this hideously up-tempo musical taken from a playlist of Abba songs was the cinematic equivalent of a root canal. If you want a vision of the future, imagine a sparkly platform boot stamping on a human face, forever.

PS I Love You (Richard Gravenese)
Whatever the merits of Cecelia Ahearn’s source novel, Richard Gravenese’s film was an ordeal by candy-floss, a sickeningly twee and unnervingly creepy rom-com that was neither romantic nor comic in any way, shape or form.

You Don’t Mess With The Zohan (Denis Dugan)
Adam Sandler. How much is too much? Any at all.


The best movie books I read this year were American Prince: A Memoir by Tony Curtis, Scorsese by Ebert by Roger Ebert and Martin Scorsese and Making Movies by Sidney Lumet, originally published in 1995.

Incidentally, the worst movie book I read was Geoffrey Macnab's Making of Taxi Driver, which showed little insight into the film or the filmmakers and was riddled with errors and spelling mistakes.

My song of the year was Talking Head’s 'This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)' which sent a shiver down my spine when it was used, with devastating accuracy, in Lars & The Real Girl.
I love the song but loved the shot of the needle hitting the record almost as much. Outside the picture house, 'Got To Go' from Reflections On Creation And Bass was on heavy iPod rotation.

RIP Paul Newman and Bo Diddley.

Twilight


Not being a twelve year old girl, I was unaware that Twilight is the most important thing that has ever happened in the world, ever. But apparently it is. The first in a burgeoning franchise of anaemic vampire romances taken from a series of tween-lit books by Stephenie Meyer, Catherine Hardwicke’s faltering supernatural drama crested a tsunami of hype to break box-office records on its American release but the film itself fails to quicken the pulse, being a lumpy splicing of Judy Blume and Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

Twilight introduces us to teenage loner Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) as she moves to the small north eastern town of Forks to live with her policeman father (Billy Burke). On her first day in her new high-school, she finds herself unaccountably drawn to the local heartthrob Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), a moody student who is only ever seen with his similarly glum and pasty adopted siblings. Soon, the two have begun a chaste love affair, she finding his brooding mystery irresistible while he proclaims her to be the most interesting girl he has ever met. But Edward has a secret; he’s a 100 year old vampire, part of a clan of ancient fiends that have haunted the town for generations.

These vampires are not bothered by daylight, although they tend to avoid it because it makes their skin iridescent. They don’t bare their fangs or bite jugulars or sleep in coffins. They won’t harm humans, only hunting animals for their blood. The only thing that distinguishes them from the rest of the crowd is a faint amber tint in their eyes and a tendency to wear too much make up. By making them ordinary, let alone vegan, Twilight makes them boring.

Both leads are suitably pretty, Pattinson just edging it, but Hardwicke’s effort to connect them as a pair of star-crossed lovers is unsuccessful. The angelic Edward might sparkle in the sunlight, but the film doesn’t. A well-positioned opening act soon flat-lines into endless scenes of semi-conscious moping, the tone dampened further by a series of goggle-eyed staring matches and reams of brainless dialogue. Stewart affects a torturous verbal tic that has her sigh meaningfully after each stumbling sentence, in contrast with her artificially chirpy high-school friends. They are so full of bouncy, sugary enthusiasm it’s not difficult to see why Bella prefers the company of the undead.

The middle section of the film is essentially an interminable fumble around the uncomplicated themes of teenage chastity and social exclusion. Like Footloose, but with less bite. Then, from nowhere, the gang meet a new set of nasty vampires, setting off a shuffling third-act chase, a juddering confrontation in a mirror-lined ballet studio and a ponderous, pointless reunion at the Prom.

In the days following the screening I attended, the news broke that Hardwicke would not be asked back to direct the sequel New Moon, already in pre-production. This can only be good news for the property; her film is laboriously constructed, unevenly performed, crammed with glaring continuity errors (a plaster cast switches legs mid-scene, for instance) and clumsy special effects. Grown-ups who have come to terms with the whole sex thing will find much more interesting meat in the superficially similar Swedish drama Let The Right One In when it opens here in the Spring.

Rivals


A throwback to the gritty euro-thrillers of thirty years ago, French cop drama Rivals reunites Guillaume Canet and François Cluzet from last year’s gripping Tell No One to tell the story of two brothers, one a cop, the other a robber, circling one another in a brilliantly realised 1970s Lyon.

Loosely based on a true story, Canet plays Francois, an ambitious young detective charged with capturing a gang of dangerous thieves who have committed a series of bank heists around the city. Struggling with a bad reputation among his peers and engaged in a foolhardy relationship with the wife of a convict, Francois’ already complicated life gets even more uncomfortable when fun-loving Gabriel is released from prison and returns home, pledging to go straight.

At his elderly father’s request, Francois gives his older brother a room in his house and promises to support him while he gets a job. But packing shelves in a supermarket was never going to satisfy the fast-living Gabriel, and he is soon back in touch with his old lowlife friends, looking for a big payday.

Writer and director Maillot hews closely to the crime conventions laid down by the likes of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon but cannot inject his own characters with the same sense of urgent cool. His flics and voleurs are outlined in broad strokes, that the actors sometimes struggle to fill in, making them recognisable as archetypes but less interesting as personalities. The drama simmers for long stretches while the pair circle one another, then suddenly bursts to life in a series of conflicts that come, almost without fail, from unheeding blunders. As a result, over time the film loses focus, undermining the carefully constructed air of retro chic, further evoked by a nostalgic score from Stépan Oliva.

For all that, Rivals doesn’t descend into a standardised action picture, even if Maillot never shies away from the tough stuff, throwing his camera around in a restless scrum, effectively capturing the reality of violence in a series of deft, taut sequences.

The performances are excellent, with Cluzet shading the battle between the brothers in part because his Gabriel is a teeming mass of contradictions, brutal and tender, determined to go straight but easily tempted to return to the life he knows best. The rather flat, one-directional story and a rushed ending preclude Rivals from earning a higher recommendation but this is still a decent film, lacking the touch of narrative finesse that the meticulous production design deserves, but essentially sound.

Kisses


At the tail-end of a year where the only consistent emotion our native filmmakers evoked was disappointment, tinged with despair, comes an enchanting film brimming with heart and humanity. Writer and director Lance Daly’s low-fidelity fairytale Kisses is by some distance the best Irish film of 2008, a captivating story about youth, poverty, fear and Bob Dylan.

In a run-down estate somewhere on the outskirts of North Dublin, two pre-teen kids, Kylie and Dylan (Kelly O’Neill and Shane Curry) live next door to one another. Kylie lives with five other sisters and her overworked mother while Dylan tries to cope with his alcoholic father and despairing mother by losing himself in his video games. In the run up to Christmas, following a violent row with his father, Dylan decides to run away and brings Kylie with him. After boarding a canal barge, operated by a philosophical Brazilian, they make their way into the city centre to find Dylan’s older brother, who had fled the family home himself, two years before.

Once in the city, the earlier black and white images giving way to full colour, the kids spend their money on wheelie-sneakers, allowing them to roll their way through the streets, followed by Daly’s roving camera. These suburban kids are entering a strange world; they don’t know the city at all. They buy clothes, steal food and wander around the backstreets, but cannot find Dylan’s brother, although they discover he has been kicked out of a squat and is now homeless. As the night wears on, the kaleidoscopic images of a city filled with life and light taken on a darker tone as the two huddle together, swapping stories about the dreaded Sackman, a puca who bundles unguarded children into a black bag and steals them away to another world.

The two children give astonishingly natural performances, lacking all guile or pretension, their innocence and fear perfectly communicated by Daly’s carefully modulated emotional scheme and a script that crackles with razor sharp dialogue. Throughout, the director hints at the classics of children’s literature, from 'Babes in the Wood' to the old Walter Macken classic The Flight of the Doves, but his film is a entity all to itself, far more precise in its intentions and acutely observed than any contemporary Irish film. Winner of the Best Feature award at the Galway Film Fleadh earlier this year, Kisses is a terrific achievement, a fascinating film well worth seeking out.

Changeling


He’s might be coming up on his 80th birthday, but Clint Eastwood shows no signs of slowing down. Currently preparing his Nelson Mandela biopic in South Africa and with culture-clash drama Grand Torino already in the bag, Eastwood tells another story of a woman in trouble, following Million Dollar Baby, Changeling. Single mother Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) lives in a suburban street in Los Angeles with her nine year old son Walter (Gattlin Griffith), a quiet, obedient boy who loves movies. When she is called into work unexpectedly one Saturday, she has to leave Walter by himself for the day, with the radio on and a sandwich in the fridge. When she gets home, later that evening, the boy is gone.

The initial response of the Los Angeles Police Department is unhurried and faintly condescending, a chill indication of what is to follow. Five months later, the city’s publicity-seeking police chief (Colm Feore) reveals that the boy has turned up in a small town in the Mid West, and stages a reunion. But this boy is clearly not Walter. When Christine points this out to anyone who will listen, she is treated first as a hysterical fool and then as a dangerous lunatic. With the help of a campaigning minister Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), Christine confronts the authorities and exposes the corruption and incompetence in the LAPD in order to continue the search for her son.

At its best, Changeling is a frightening and effective parable of stained innocence and endemic corruption. Time and again, the people charged with protecting Christine; the arrogant police captain (Jeffrey Donovan), the sneering doctor (Peter Gerety), the sadistic psychiatrist (Denis O’Hare), reveal themselves as misogynistic and self-serving bullies. Christine’s trial at the hands of these men is enough to carry the entire film but in switching from her point of view, the film overburdens itself.

What begins as a mystery-thriller becomes an impassioned issue film when Christine is thrown to the wolves of the LAPD, then transforms into a Cuckoo’s Nest style medical drama. Later, in another change of tone, Eastwood skirts around the tropes of the serial killer film before climaxing in a series of courtroom scenes that bring us from a condemnation of corruption to a pointedly one-sided discussion on the death penalty. It is interesting to read that Eastwood shot Changeling from the first draft of J. Michael Straczynski’s exhaustively researched script, something almost unheard of in Hollywood where scripts can go through dozens of revisions from various writers. Another point of view might have retained the same elements but arranged them in a less awkward form.

The innovation shown in bringing 1920s Los Angeles to the screen in recreating entire streets, cityscapes and generating crowds of digital background actors is not fully matched by the story which carries the ring of truth but is perhaps too conventionally told. Ambitious and affecting, Changeling just fails to cohere as the epic tragedy it wants to be, the sad saga of Christine’s battle with the authorities overshadowed by the adjoining history of the Chicken Coop Murders, the two stories connected by history but uncomfortably crushed together here.

We are interested in Christine, in her struggle for truth and justice, and once she achieves that, the actuality of the case, the hows and whys and whens, carry very little meaning. In attempting to widen the scope of his story, Eastwood loses track of his central focus, ultimately attempting to bring both sides to a conclusion in an unwieldy double court case, cross-cutting between both in a muddled rush of endings.

Regardless, at the centre of the film is a brilliant performance from Angelina Jolie, a shy, tender woman whose life is shattered and mounts a ferocious battle to put it back together. Jolie’s intimate, emotional turn works because we endure it with her; it is not just a series of events. Changeling is not ‘based on a true story’, the title card bravely announces it is as ‘a true story’, every scene is based on an attributable historical record. This shocking veracity gives Jolie’s performance even more power, and she wields it with tremendous ability.

I have abandoned my increasingly strained efforts to craft punning headlines for the reviews. It was all getting a bit stupid. I'll use the film's title from now on.

Soul Food


Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen makes his feature debut with the bewildering and unforgettable Hunger, the story of the last six weeks of Bobby Sands' (Michael Fassbender) life and death in Long Kesh.

Hunger opens with the sound of dustbin lids banging off concrete streets, a relentless staccato that only stops when we are introduced to Prison Officer Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham) as he sits down to a cooked breakfast. The knuckles gripping his fork are split and raw, the scars from the last beating unable to heal before the next. Lohan checks under his car for a bomb before setting off to work in Long Kesh. A few brief lines of text give us little more than a time and place, before we are plunged into life in the prison, constructed as an Orwellian labyrinth of cells and corridors. As part of their protest against being classified as criminals, the prisoners daub their own excrement on the walls and refuse to wash, making the already hellish prison into an intolerable cess pit.

This is ground that has already been covered in films like Some Mothers Son and H3 but Hunger transcends the formal narrative of history to become a visual poem, at times urgent and immediate and at other times quietly, incessantly devastating.

McQueen and Fassbender have the confidence to allow their pictures to tell the story, removing any unnecessary dialogue and boggy historical context to narrow the focus of the film to a point of brilliant light. The central section of the film is a twenty minute long, unbroken conversation between Sands and his priest Fr Moran (Liam Cunningham) over a rickety table in a visiting room. The camera never leaves their faces as the two men talk about the decision Sands has made, the morality of his actions and the effect it will have on the people outside. It is a brilliantly conceived and written sequence, daring and demanding but the basis of our connection to this unknowable character, an almost silent presence up to that point.

From then on, Hunger details Sands gradual disappearance into skin and bone and it is harrowing stuff. Fassbender is simply brilliant in his deterioration, his calm, skeletal face staring out through the screen, the light in his eyes gradually fading. Context for the revival of the hunger strikes comes from the disembodied voice of Margaret Thatcher in the House of Commons, a droning dirge of intransigence that McQueen and his screenwriter Enda Walsh position as the voice of God; the over-ripe tones set against images of desolate trees and scattered birds.

There are a few missteps, a policeman breaking down in tears during a brutal assault and an overly ecclesiastical visual nod to Michelangelo’s La Pieta, but a great film is very rarely a perfect one and these are minor flaws, only obvious because of their sincerity. As a history of the troubles and the hunger strikes, Hunger is more of a starting point than a comprehensive chronicle, but as a wholly immersive and emotionally draining piece of cinema, this is a major work, stripped of context to illuminate a wider point about the inhumanity of places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

Hunger
is an astonishing film, one of the finest debuts I have ever seen, a difficult story told with extraordinary tenderness and skill, both beautiful and grotesque, spare and full of detail. It is a tour de force and McQueen’s talent blazes from the screen in every frame.

Thumb Twiddler


Since graduating from multi-million dollar, thirty second advertisements to even pricier and longer B-movies with the Balkan War flick Behind Enemy Lines, Dundalk-born director John Moore has delivered a series of shiny but empty remakes and genre exercises for Fox Studios, the latest of which is by some distance the shiniest and emptiest.

The opening line of video-game adaptation Max Payne has the titular tortured cop, played by Mark Wahlberg, growl, “I believe in pain.” Me too, Max. Even more so now.

Haunted by the grisly deaths of his wife and child years before, Max now works the ‘cold case’ desk, deep under police headquarters in a snow-blown New York. His obsession with finding the man who ruined his life leads him to investigate a gang of shadowy criminals, somehow connected to a big pharmaceutical company who make top secret drugs for the military. These glowing vials of blue goo turn ordinary soldiers into superhuman killing machines but anyone else who drinks it sees visions of demonic angels and goes insane. There is also some horribly dated nonsense about Norse tattoos. By way of conducting his investigation, Max roams the icy streets beating the lining out of anyone who stands in his way and suffering the occasional thrashing himself, a procedure that pans out much as it would if you were sat at home, playing the game.

That’s the trouble with these adaptations; the source games themselves are so heavily influenced by movies and comic books, the material cannot survive a second recycling. Making it look a bit like Sin City and lifting chunks of The Matrix and Constantine only adds to the unpleasant feeling of pre-mastication. There is nothing here but a series of special-effects sequences: no story, no characterisation and nothing to hold the flashy bits together.

His narrow range, blunt reflexes and monotone delivery mean Wahlberg's cynical gumshoe was always going to struggle to charm but, once again, the dwindling actor gives a rigid performance lacking all personality or dimension, a growling, grimacing cartoon. Moore’s insistence on lingering over the action in the interminably numerous slow-motion sequences, mandated by the source material, eventually brings him to a dead stop. Beside him, Mila Kunis as Mona the ice-queen Russian assassin looks positively agitated and all she does is lift her lip in a sneer. In the deeper background, the rapper Ludacris snoops around shiftily in an improbable trench coat and trilby while Chris O’Donnell, who’s plummet into obscurity Wahlberg should take as a chill caution, pops up for five minutes as cannon fodder.

The cast should be grateful that Moore, aiming for noir chiaroscuro, shoots most of the action through an impenetrable, over-processed murk. Sit through ten minutes of end credits and there's a short scene that sets Max up for a sequel. Agonising.

Anyone read past the words "video-game adaptation"? Anyone?

Dubya Indemnity

Although he set out to make a serious film, once he had done his exhaustive research on the subject there was something so cosmically unilateral about Mutually Assured Destruction, Stanley Kubrick’s only option was to turn to slapstick. The acid farce of Dr Strangelove is framed around a clownish cabal of madmen, somehow entrusted to positions where they hold the fate of mankind in their hands. Even if they no longer control the hand, they cling to power though arrogance and private stupidity, desperate to fulfil their own agendas regardless of the consequences. If Kubrick was alive today he might find parallels in the last days of the Bush administration and the same sour laugh in his throat.

Oliver Stone’s W., a biographical study of the brash cowpoke from Texas, chronicles George W Bush’s early years as a failed oilman and baseball team owner through his run for Congress, his work on his father’s presidential campaign, his election as Governor of Texas and finally his ascent into the White House where, at the time of writing, he is silently running down the clock until Barack Obama can take over in January, and save us all.

In W, Stone is looking to make comedy out of tragedy. Central to his analysis is a psychological conjecture about Bush only being motivated in politics to win the approval of his father, the 41st President and to prove himself a worthy scion of the illustrious family. Which is all well and good, and most likely true, but portraying him as a daddy’s boy without the smarts to realise the opportunity he has been given is not nearly a close enough analysis. Furthermore, Stone is far too selective in what he picks to illuminate his point of view. The focus here is on the fictitious Weapons of Mass Destruction, the invention that gave the green light for war and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, but the details of the war itself are passed over: the four thousand American casualties and the countless hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead go unmentioned.

None of the Bush administration’s strange neologisms are referenced; water-boarding, extraordinary rendition, My Pet Goat, Haliburton, Abu Ghraib. Having already made his monument to September 11th in World Trade Centre, it is understandable that Stone doesn’t return to the subject, but there is no excuse for him passing over the scandalous response to Hurricane Katrina, the questions surrounding the 2004 election, the Enron meltdown or, even as the film was being shot, the looming financial crisis. The oddest thing about W is how even-handed Stone is with his subject but by selecting his punches he misses a lot of the ones that matter. What W lacks most is what it needs most, courage.

About three days after his ascension to power, Bush was labelled a dummy. Stone too sees him as a blundering fool but since he managed to get himself re-elected, wage war on every front he could find and destroyed the American economy from the inside, to underestimate him and his cronies seems, to me, to be a trivialisation and a mistake. The caricature is easy and Stone doesn’t make it any more difficult for himself than he has to. Part of the problem is that the story is as yet, unfinished. Screenwriter Stanley Weiser ends the film on a triumphant note, 2004’s re-election, which makes for a more manageable running time but this is a story that lacks a third act. This desire to paint the portrait in broad strokes also extends to the major figures in Bush’s life; his wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks) becomes little more than a cheerleader. His family, including envied brother Jeb, are almost invisible.

Although he shares a lot of screen time with them, Bush’s cabinet are reduced to impersonations. Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) as a rat-faced Iago. Condoleeza Rice (Thandie Newton) is a squinting schemer. Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) is a tormented military man. Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn) is a bloodthirsty madman and Karl Rove (Toby Jones, the best of the lot) an ethereal conscience, carrying a stack of polling data. Rove and Cheney are Bush’s closest allies and the two men who understand him best, instinctively manipulating his ambitions and his fears to suit their own political ends. The drama between these characters, however, is pitched at the level of a sit com farce, when the reality is something far more sinister.

There is more meat on Stone’s deftly drawn psychodrama between father and son, with James Cromwell as Bush Sr playing a stern, almost papal figure that set expectations for his son that the boy could never match. In the midst of this flurry of pulled and missed punches, it is Josh Brolin as Dubya who holds the centre of the film together. With a puzzled smirk and a simian crouch, Brolin transcends simple mimicry to create a credible character; dislikeable and smug but somehow human in his failings. History will not be so lenient.

Ring A Ding Ding


Back in his Scrap Saturday radio days, Gerard Stembridge could skewer the highest and mightiest in the land with a single thrust. His first feature as writer and director, 1995s Guiltrip, was a dark kitchen-sink story of a marriage consumed by alcohol and violence while his pointedly frivolous sex comedy About Adam caught something of the go-go millennial mood. Eight years later, Alarm again attempts to take a snapshot of Irish society and frame it in a movie genre – this time the psychological thriller – but the result is as shrill and annoying at its title, a hopeless dud from start to finish.

Opening with a single clanging chord, Alarm introduces us to trainee journalist Molly (Ruth Bradley) as she sits with her psychiatrist, played by Emmet Bergin. Something awful happened to Molly a couple of years ago and now she lives with friends of the family (Tom Hickey and Anita Reeves). But all she wants is a place of her own, so after paying more than the asking price, she moves into an identikit house somewhere in the commuter belt. The sleazy estate agent, having patiently explained the theory of gazumping, then offers to install a burglar alarm for only a thousand euros. Molly demurs with a shudder, no alarms!

The first night in her new unsecured home, Molly throws a party for her tiger cub chums. There she meets the dark and dashing Mal (Aidan Turner), who gives her meaningful stares and offers to hang her wallpaper for her. That’s not a euphemism; he duly turns up the next day, brush and paste in hand. Molly, meanwhile, stares at him over the rim of her teacup, mentally ticking off her checklist; car, house, man. Smiling, positive Mal moves in and sad Molly is so delighted she stops taking her medication and talking to her doctors. Or anyone else, as it turns out. Then one night, the house is burgled and a bike is stolen. Kindly locals Joe and Mossie (both Owen Roe) insist on installing an alarm, but the robbers return, again and again.

Alarm is an attempt to serve the Celtic Tiger chop-suey style, on a bed of shredded movie references, but Stembridge uses a hatchet where a fillet knife is required. The result is an overcooked mess, lacking all taste and savour. Intended as a wake-up call to a society that has lost direction and is at the mercy of property carpetbaggers and lifestyle profiteers, Alarm is poorly conceived and dramatically flaccid. Neither lead is up to the task, their evident struggle not helped by cloth-eared dialogue and a series of inane plot developments. Tediously repetitive and unappealingly eccentric, Alarm soon descends into glib, patronising nonsense that is not even second rate – an insipid, technically inept and cinematically bankrupt film.

Far more shocking than any of Stembridge’s yellow-eyed observations is the realisation that our filmmakers are insistent on rendering the Irish experience down to a few greasy nuggets of cliché, just as John Boorman did in the equally facile and condescending Tiger’s Tale. Traffic jams and house prices: is that all there is? Is that what it means to be us?

Bond On The Run


The new James Bond film, the twenty second in the franchise, sees the British super-spy continue his billion dollar renaissance under Daniel Craig but if Casino Royale was a busted flush, Quantum of Solace is as incomprehensible as its clunky title, a messy, overly moody procession of stunts, stylisations and non sequiturs.

After an underwhelming credits sequence and a misjudged theme song, the story picks up an hour after the events of the first film with Bond being chased through the tunnels around Lake Garda in Northern Italy by a fleet of machine-gun toting bad guys. At the MI6 safe house in Sienna, Bond meets M (Judi Dench) who is concerned about his state of mind but still allows him to attend the interrogation of Mr. White (Jesper Christensen). It doesn’t go well and soon Bond and M realise they’ve uncovered a secret organization that is looking to take the world hostage by controlling natural resources. But Bond doesn’t really care about that, he just wants revenge for Vesper Lynd, drowned in a Venetian canal at the end of Casino Royale.

A well-realised spy-science bit, where boffins track money by satellite, leads Bond to Haiti and the feisty Camille (Olga Kurylenko). Already on her on quest for retribution, she leads him to her shifty-eyed millionaire lover, Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), busy arranging the overthrow of various South American governments in return for exploration rights. Soon Bond is trailing Greene around the world while trying to keep M on his side and negotiate a clear path with his old friend Felix Leiter of the CIA (an underused Jeffrey Wright), who are also tracking the clandestine organisation for their own ends.

Whatever its failings as a story, Casino Royale had drive and panache. QoS has the same breakneck tempo, but aside from some well executed set pieces involving cars, boats and planes, the film lacks all invention and wit, ironic or otherwise. The incomprehensible script from returning writers Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade is poorly structured, dramatically underwhelming and hurriedly delivered, with dialogue replaced by detonations, exposition by explosions, vengeance by violence. As the double-crosses and duplicities pile up, the story fragments into individual scenes of choppily choreographed mayhem, pausing only to allow Craig a few moments of respite which he uses to peer out of frame, his blue eyes staring blankly at nothing in particular. He is supposed to be mourning the only woman he ever loved but going by Craig’s craggy, emotionless face, you’d never have guessed it.

If Bond himself is remote and isolated, his villainous opponent is a real disappointment. Amalric is a fine actor, but his character has nothing but the occasional bug-eyed rant to differentiate him from anyone around him. Greene is a very ordinary madman and Amalric cannot make him special. Bond’s most significant opponent is also the most unlikely, his controller and champion M, and Dench plays the role perfectly. She is one of the film’s few real pleasures.

QoS feels more like the tail end of its immediate predecessor than a standalone endeavour, the closing act of a better story collapsed into a blur of fights and face-offs. Some of this is down to the films curtailed running time (at 105 minutes it is the shortest Bond of all and a full half hour shorter than Casino Royale) but mostly it is down to a lack of any connection, between the characters and the story, the story and the audience.

Remove all the trappings of 007, the legacy of the franchise and the detritus of cliché it has collected over forty years, and what remains is a ordinary, everyday action flick, overly influenced by Jason Bourne but unremarkable in every other way.

Spooky Tooth


Having dipped his toe with punchy cameos in the likes of For Your Consideration and Night At The Museum, television’s favourite creep Ricky Gervais makes his Hollywood debut as a lead in the spiky but safely pasteurised studio comedy Ghost Town.

Gervais plays the delightfully named Bertram Pincus, a misanthropic, uptight dentist (is there any other kind in movies?) who suffers through life desperate to avoid any human contact. Bertram’s knotted bowels bring him to hospital for an operation, where, in a very funny scene, his doctor (Kristen Wiig) explains he died on the operating table for seven minutes. Now, it seems, he can see and speak to ghosts, stuck in the middle of this world and the next.

The most desperate spirit he meets is Frank (Greg Kinnear), a rich Manhattan executive who recently died in an accident. Frank was having an affair with his yoga instructor, but now deeply regrets it and wants to communicate this remorse to his widow, Egyptologist Gwen (Tea Leoni). Gervais doesn’t want to help Frank, or anyone else, he just wants to go back to his beloved drills. But predictably, lonely Bertram contrives to fall in love with gentle Gwen, their relationship sparking over a desiccated mummy with gingivitis in the depths of the city museum.

Although the film could hardly have taken any other direction, once the romance starts any ruffles in Ghost Town are firmly ironed down. Gervais is supposed to be crass, he’s meant to be unsure of himself, twitchy, sweaty and inappropriate. But we are asked to grow to like him, root for him even, so eventually he just stops being nasty and mean and starts being funny and charming. I liked it better when he was horrible because Gervais is better at that. This crucial conversion happens in a rush of broad, neutered set-ups and ordinary jokes. So much time is spent establishing Pincus as a grumpy sad case, that we never spend enough time with him as a fully realised character.

In his trudge through the plot, the pressing demands of New York’s legion of unsettled ghosts are more or less forgotten while Kinnear’s even cuter problem takes precedence. The various resolutions, when they arrive, come in a flood of twinkling lights and wistful smiles, heavily laden with corn syrup.

Gervais plays Bertram as another extension of himself, the same tics and reflexes as David Brent and the same stammering confusion as Andy Millman in Extras: a semi-comprehensible flood of faux pas and panicked smiles. Cast to type, I would prefer to have seen him play the duplicitous yuppie millionaire and the dashing Kinnear take on an isolated loner, lost in sadness. Leoni, as the tightly-wound smart girl, is the thread that binds the two leads and plays a natural, self-dependent woman made all the more attractive by her smarts and determination.

Despite its odd tone and flagging pace, Ghost Town tries to channel the essence of the Golden Age screwball comedies but the potential for something beyond the safe and pre-tested fades early and never recovers.

Great Flames From Little Sparks

The Coen Brothers were always going to struggle to match the Oscar-winning glories of No Country For Old Men, but taken for what it is, a pitch black political comedy, Burn After Reading is a fine achievement, made all the more engaging by a series of clipped, breakneck performances from their ensemble cast of familiar faces. It’s not an essential film, but it is far superior to their other recent quick fire comedies, the lacklustre Ladykillers remake and the terminally dim Intolerable Cruelty.

Set in a bleached-out, industrially austere Washington DC, Burn After Reading (the title comes from a command stamped on a CIA folder), opens with short, tight-knit scenes that establish the main players. At CIA headquarters in Langley, obnoxious and perpetually disgruntled middle-manager Osborne Cox (John Malkovich, forever pursed), quits his job before he can be demoted for his secret drinking. He arrives home to tell his doctor wife Katie (an icy Tilda Swinton), that he plans to retire and write his memoirs.

Katie has a secret of her own; she’s been having an affair with the smirking lothario Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a married cop with an inability to remain silent for two minutes. Meanwhile, Osbourne has mislaid the computer disc containing the first draft of his not-so-sensational book and, more pressingly for Katie and her divorce lawyer, the details of their financial affairs. It turns up in the locker room of Hardbodies Gym and, through various machinations, into the hands of personal trainers Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt). Linda is lonely, forever searching dating websites for Mr Right Now and dreaming of expensive cosmetic surgery, which she thinks can save her from eternal spinsterhood. But a body overhaul doesn’t come cheap, so she and man-child Chad hatch a plan to blackmail Osbourne for $50,000, threatening to go to the Russians if he doesn’t comply.

From that point on, everyone is fair game, and the Coens take some considerable relish in making them squirm before dropping the axe. As we have come to expect from these most technically exacting filmmakers, Burn After Reading is set to a dizzying blueprint of character intersection, story revelations and surprises. The trademark rapid-fire Coen dialogue zips from the screen, to an accompanying progression of o-faced reaction shots, slapstick tumbles, winks and widened eyes.

This is a bureaucratic, uncomfortable place where nobody listens to a word anyone is saying, everyone betrays everyone else and interpersonal relationships are difficult to form and impossible to maintain. These people are enthusiastic adulterers and fast-learning blackmailers but don’t appear to find any pleasure in their transgressions beyond a perfunctory ego-massage or a quick-fix moment of criminal thrill. They aren't nice people, but that hasn't stopped the Coens before. They aren't as smart as they think they are, but the Coens are smarter than all of them put together. The problem is that they can't combine smart, dumb, crafty and naive to become wholly interesting characters.

The sustained theme is that things are never what they seem to be on the surface. Nothing, not a marriage, a memoir, a classified secret or an internet dating site, is what it really is, and none of it is worth the effort the protagonists put into maintaining the façade. The Coens maintain a distance by opening the story with a Gods-eye view of the American continent before zooming in on Washington, where these little people scrabble around in a mess of their own creation. The ending is the same shot, reversed.

If that sounds cold, it is supposed to be; Burn After Reading drips with misanthropy and cynicism. It is an American film of its time. As each of the various strands bundle together, the directors drop in a running commentary from a pair of pernickety CIA spooks (David Raschke and J.K. Simmons), who have all the information they need on the major players but are waiting “for it all to make sense”. The fact that it never does is the sourest joke of all.

Gomorrah People


There’s a remarkable scene in Matteo Garrone’s Italian mafia film Gomorrah, where a smooth-talking, ostensibly respectable businessman is overseeing the dumping of thousands of barrels of toxic waste in an abandoned quarry. When an accident causes his drivers to mutiny, Mr Franco (Toni Servillo) and his assistant drive into town and return, not with a doctor, but a gang of homeless kids who climb into the lorries, sit on cushions, and continue to deliver the endless barrels of poison to the pit. Covered in a thin layer of sand, the barrels will seep into the ground water, destroying the land. Later, Franco will take a basket of gnarled peaches from an elderly grandmother with a smile, then stop his car and throw them in a ditch to rot, overcome by their tainted stench.

These scenes, one arm of an astounding, multi-layered epic, reveal the intense cynicism of the Naples mafia, known as the Camorra, who illicitly dispose of northern Italy’s industrial waste in the rural south, becoming phenomenally rich in the process. But Garrone also wants to show us the limitless amount of cheap, undocumented labour available to the criminals, a deep pool of illegal immigrants and poor natives who will do anything for money and who, in some cases, see the Camorra as the only way to escape grinding poverty and social isolation.

Gomorrah isn't one of those crime operas with a cast of romantically lit, gentlemanly Don Corleones to follow. Much of the action takes place in a vast, crumbling housing estate on the outskirts of the city, a warren of apartments and catwalks where every move is watched by drug dealer’s sentries. Without explanation, we are thrown into the middle of five interconnected stories. Mr Franco is busy destroying the landscape around the city. Two Scarface-addled teenagers (Marco Macor and Ciro Petrone) decide to wage war against the local Camorra boss, a fat, ignorant boor who rules his kingdom from a tiny, steamy flat. One of his underlings is a likeable, ambitious youngster (the brilliant Salvatore Abruzzese) who delivers groceries for his mother’s shop but wants to become a proper mobster and will do anything to achieve that. At the same time, an impoverished tailor (Salvatore Cantalupo) in an illegal workshop is busy making cheap copies of designer frocks, a skill that has caught the attention of a new gang, the Chinese, who lure him away with the promise of a fortune. Finally, there’s an elderly foot-soldier (Gianfelice Imparato), a bag-man who delivers cash to mob-affiliated families, small payments rewarding loyalty or silence, but who gets caught up in a turf war between rival gangs.

Whereas Antonioni, for instance, might have spun these sprawling elements into a downtempo meditation on the parasitic effect of crime, Garrone is not interested in grand gestures or proclamations, preferring to allow the facts to speak for themselves and in the process, draft a catalogue of how all-pervasive and corrosive the Mafia influence has become. This is a chilling, brutal mosaic of cross-generational corruption, violence, greed and power, spiked with beautifully presented and astonishingly powerful set-pieces that throb with incisive anger. Shot like news reports from a war zone and hewing closely to journalist Roberto Saviano’s best-selling non fiction book, Garrone simply and efficiently details how to many Neapolitans, the underworld has become the real world.

Gomorrah, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes this year, is the finest film to arrive on our screens since January’s double whammy of No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood, as dark and nihilistic as either of those masterpieces but firmly grounded in the reality of its origins. A must see.

Square Pegg


Nobody has a good word to say about Toby Young, including Toby Young. In his memoir of a failed career as a New York society writer, How To Lose Friends And Alienate People, he boasts of his “negative charisma”, the same bad vibrations that reportedly drove Robert Weide to remove him from the set of this film adaptation when he began to offer the director notes on the actors performances. Since his book was published in 2002, Young has made his name as a writer by chronicling his own inadequacies. By his own admission he has no shortage of material to work with but the same is not true of the film, which starts in a muddle and quickly exhausts itself.

We first meet Sidney Young (Simon Pegg) as he struggles to publish another issue of his London based satirical magazine. His desperate attempts to make a success of his hip but penniless London magazine have somehow come to the attention of Clayton Harding (Jeff Bridges), the floppy haired editor of New York’s prestigious Sharp’s magazine (all the names have been changed to protect the guilty, but Bridges is essentially a lawyer-friendly clone of Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter).

Badly dressed and bathed in a panicked sweat, Sidney is quickly brought up to speed on life in the Big Apple. Only a chosen few will rise above the herd so if Sidney wants into what Harding calls “the seventh room”, he’d better learn to pucker up. His only friend on the magazine is the clued-in Allison (a disappointingly remote Kirsten Dunst) who claims she hates him and is only marking time before finishing her novel. Sidney is too infatuated with beautiful but dim actress Sophie Maes (Megan Fox, playing herself essentially) to notice.

A fish out of water, Sidney duly flops about on deck in a series of dim-witted set-ups spiked with celebrity cameos and media-friendly references. The story proper starts when Sidney learns the secret to success is access so cosies up to all-powerful publicist Eleanor Johnson (Gillian Anderson). A photo by-line, a Park Avenue apartment, an open invitation to celebrity parties and a swanky watch all arrive in quick succession. You don’t need to have seen The Apartment, The Sweet Smell Of Success or it’s imitators like The Devil Wears Prada, to know that Sidney will eventually come to realise that his toadying has cost him his integrity.

Struggling writers have been the jumping off point for countless comedies, from Adaptation to Barton Fink, but HTWFAAP simply isn’t smart enough to tackle the theme, taking instead the easy route of lengthy montage, eye-rolling slapstick and some derivative nonsense with a Chihuahua. It is all tinged with a snide sense of injustice and a curious reverse snobbery, some of which manages to be faintly amusing, but the remainder decidedly less so.

Pegg has proven himself to be a nimble comic presence, using his mobile, expressive face to fill the frame with gurning despair or wrinkle-nosed self-loathing. Underneath the buffoonery, there is a performance but Sydney is so obnoxious, even in the scenes where we are supposed to like him that Pegg fails to win us over. This inability to connect with our odious anti-hero, or to feel anything for his inevitable conversion, is the film’s most significant flaw but it is not the only one.

Director Robert Waide, whose resume includes episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, has form when it comes to unlikeable, spiky characters but his treatment of the material here is anonymous and lumpy. He pushes the one-directional story along at a fair clip but Peter Straughan’s script gets too distracted along the way. Allison’s covert romance with the pompous sub-editor Lawrence Maddox (Danny Huston) is hastily established and even more quickly resolved. Neither actor can do anything with it. Sideshows from Miriam Margolyes as the elaborately moustachioed Eastern European landlady and Bill Patterson as Sidney’s estranged intellectual father are abandoned once they deposit their narrative burdens. The greatest waste is Bridges, presented with a few illuminating moments as the taciturn mentor but inelegantly squashed into the remainder of the story.

Read my interview with Pegg and compadre Nick Frost for Hot Fuzz here

Harry Shearer & For Your Consideration


To mark the release of Harry Shearer's new album, Songs Of The Bushmen, I'm posting an interview I did with him around the release of For Your Consideration, in 2006, where he talks about the process of being funny, the state of America and the future of celebrity.

“Ho-ho and bejabbers” says Harry Shearer in a terrible Oirish accent as his PR minder smoothly introduces me. Surely that’s not your best effort I reply, in a neutral tone, as the man of a thousand voices explains the double reference in his greeting: he’s doing Steve Coogan doing Alan Partridge doing Irish, “in that scene with the visiting TV producers in the restaurant, remember? I love Alan Partridge, he’s so…clueless.”

When not momentarily confusing visiting journalists, regardless of nationality, Harry Shearer wears a lot of hats, mostly in disguise. As an actor, he is probably best known for his long collaboration with Christopher Guest on the series of hilarious mockumentaries that started with Rob Reiner’s Spinal Tap back in the 1980s and continued with famously improvised comedies like Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. If you don’t know him from there, for more than a decade he has voiced an ensemble of the best loved characters on The Simpsons; Monty Burns, Principal Skinner and Ned Flanders among them and had finished work on the upcoming Simpsons Movie the week before. Last December he published his third comic novel, ‘Not Enough Indians’ while keeping busy by releasing albums of satirical songs, doing a weekly radio show and exhaustingly, spending most of last year on the road in a run of one-man ‘evenings with…’, including a sell-out month at the Edinburgh Fringe. Despite the workload, he looks chipper enough today, painstakingly neat like all American actors bar the teenagers, resplendent in a vivid purple shirt and black dress pants with razorblade seams.

For a certain constituency of moviegoer, the opening of a new film from writer/director Guest and his collective of comic performers, is cause to dust down their happy faces and bulwark their sides against an imminent splitting. They arrive every four years or so and feature, for the most part, identical casts but they never seem to repeat themselves. So how does it come about? “Well, Chris will initiate something discreetly so once we all get wind of that, we sit by the phone waiting for the call to say “you’re in!”. I’m friendly with Chris outside of the work and he’d been saying after Mighty Wind that he didn’t want to do any more of that specific type of movie. So that was that, we thought, and we all went away to do our own thing. That lasted about three months, then I get the call - I have an idea - then six months - well I’m kind of still looking at it – and then it’s like – what are you doing in February?”

The movie’s title, For Your Consideration is taken from the strap line of the attention-hustling print advertisements for the Academy Award nominees that clog the US trade magazines around this time of the year. It is something of a departure from Guest’s trademark mockumentary format, being at least partially scripted. “About half of it was all there beforehand.” In it, Shearer plays Victor Allen Miller, a middle-aged actor best known for portraying a six-foot hot-dog in a series of adverts on the telly. In the film-within-a-film a grateful Victor is playing the concerned father in a low-budget production, a preposterous Jewish melodrama set in the Deep South in the 1940s called Home for Purim. Opposite Victor is the similarly faded Marilyn Hack (Catherine O'Hara), playing Ester, the ailing wife and mother to Callie (Parker Posey) who has returned home for the titular Jewish holiday after a long estrangement. What we see of the film is a procession of hilarious Oy-Vey! yiddisher clichés, directed by Guest himself as a wire-haired buffoon. The real story is happening off set where thanks to some buzz on a movie website, the rumour starts that the three ‘stars’ might be in the running for an Oscar nomination. The three suddenly star-struck nobodies are surrounded by a typically deranged army of Guest’s usual performers, familiar faces that, endearingly and almost uniquely, are a genuine pleasure to see together again. Fred Willard and Jane Lynch play a duo of Hollywood gossip show hosts. Bob Balaban and Michael McKean play Purim’s railroaded writers. John Michael Higgins plays an exciteable publicist while the blank-faced Jennifer Coolidge plays a dense producer. The most notable newcomer to the ensemble is Ricky Gervias, playing and interfering studio executive, as keen as the cast are to ride the coattails of the Oscar possibilities.

Although comics will tell you that being funny is the hardest thing in the world to do, the impression from the outside is that the cast reunite, put on the togs and start cracking jokes, while later Guest trims it down to into a manageable movie. “No, it’s not like that at all”, says Shearer. “We don’t crack jokes. We’re really not cracking jokes. As a group, we’re not deadpan serious, obviously, but the first job is to tell the story that Chris has outlined in his notes and be that character. So if it’s a scene with Victor and his agent (Eugene Levy, co-writer and constant presence), I think the scene is pathetic enough without having to lard it up.” I ask him if, in the ensemble, there’s ever any argument when it comes to deciding who plays who? “No, no, we’re very civilized. Anyway, both Chris and Gene have a clear idea at the outset of who is going to play who. The fighting comes over deciding the look of your character. I get to the makeup room on the first day of shooting and might be thinking about something in a moustache, say and they’re like, no, sorry, McKean has a moustache. What about a beard? Funny teeth? So, literally, that is what we fight over. We’re the kind of actors who work on our characters from the outside in – we need to know what they’re going to look like from the outset.” Is that the secret, goofy teeth? “Well, it helps if we make each other laugh, right? Chris is operating with the luxury of time and in the assumption of trust; that if you get these people together funny stuff will happen and he will be able to find it. But the job description is really just an acting job. Yes, we’re all trying to make our characters into funny characters, but just to play that guy or girl as much as you can and try to get into their skin, and add to it the little you know about yourself or other people.”

Everything we know as being bad about Hollywood and the business of stardom gets a skewering in Consideration. Shearer, who was a child actor, has been around the place for a long time so I ask him what the dumbest thing anyone ever said to him within the precincts of LA. He thinks about his answer for a moment and grimaces slightly as he leans forward. “I was in a movie called The Truman Show and in the lead up to the release this American magazine asked me to do a diary about working on the picture. So, I did that, carefully writing up my thoughts, and the first line was ‘Even though this movie stars Jim Carrey, I never laid eyes on him during filming. So this diary is not about Jim Carrey’. Now, that was simply stating a fact, because we didn’t have any scenes together but the magazine chose to title the piece The Trouble With Carrey.” He spreads out his arms to marquee the headline, emphasising it word by word and sighs. “The day it came out, I get a call from the producer, who shall remain nameless, to say that I was disinvited – is that a word - to the premiere. I was persona non grata on the whole publicity tour. So I said that I didn’t write the headline personally, or edit the piece, but if he was to actually go and read beyond the first paragraph, it was very complimentary and very positive about the movie and so on. He hangs up. The next day, word comes back. ‘If you show up at the premiere, the entire event will be cancelled on the spot’.” He pauses for effect. “I stood there, phone in hand, for a full five minutes thinking “I’m going to do it! Where’s my tux?” But I like Peter Weir and the rest of the cast, and I had a great time making the movie, so why would I want to ruin their evening? But that, the ravings of a five-year-old, temper-throwing moron who just happens to be a very powerful person in the motion picture business, is about the dumbest and weirdest thing that’s ever been said to me.”

Victor, a dummy adrift in a sea of idiots, goes to some weird and infantile places over the course of his momentary fame, pulling on a tight, shiny t-shirt, spiking his hair and bleaching his teeth and acquiring a startling oxo-cube tan. He even dances on MTV’s TRL, bumping and grinding with two teenage girls. Shearer insists that although he knew Victor would “get a dose of the same disease, the madness that grips Marilyn”, he didn’t realise it would involve completely reinventing himself into what he calls ‘Victor II’. “You see, this is one of the ironies of this situation, that at the very moment they get the attention they believe they deserve, they want to be a new, improved version of themselves. It speaks to that big hole in the centre here, the actor’s idea that they really deserve this recognition but they’re simply not good enough at the same time. Victor feels the need to be prettier, younger, nicer, thinner, hipper, and all of the above and more.”

Has he thought about the part that the interview process, the same publicity machine that they nail in the movie and part of which involves somebody like me being hustled into a hotel room to ask a few barely probing questions? “Well, first of all, it’s not somebody like you, it’s the actual you. I think the cast were all thinking about that, the kind of mirror game we’re playing here. It started for me when we were in Toronto at the Film Festival and I was walking out of the hotel to get a cup of coffee and I met these two guys, just regular festival goers not industry people. They offered to buy me a cup of coffee and one of them says, completely straight-faced, ‘so Harry, what’s the buzz on your movie?’ I said to myself, isn’t that what Consideration is about. It’s a hall of mirrors.” Shearer admits that while making the film, the cast talked about how they were going to face the press and the publicity with a straight face. “First of all, there is this cacophonous media environment where companies spend zillions of dollars to bludgeon you with news of their new product. We’re trying to get just the tiniest scrap of the public attention and say, this movie might interest you. You might have a good time watching this. What we’re doing here, it’s all about that and you know, what we’re making fun of in the movie more than anything else is that note of desperation that can creep in. Please notice me, love me!”

In the movie, there’s the sense for the actors that finally, after this long process of humiliation there might come a moment of esteem? “Well it’s that or just relief from the humiliation.” He laughs. “Which would be just as good, believe me.” “It’s not about flattery, though”, he continues, “with the cast of Home for Purim, these people always been third-tier talents and when you’re anywhere but at the absolute top in this business, humiliation is a constant. You’re either experiencing it, or you’re just over it or it’s coming around the corner. It’s the actor’s constant fear. So any salve you can apply to that is the Holy Grail.” The ultimate salve, the most soothing ego-balm for any actor, is the Oscars. I ask Shearer if he's a member of the academy. “Nope”, he says. Has he ever been asked to join? “Er, well, Ed Begley said you need two people to nominate you for your body of work, which is a curious phrase, and something happened over the years that turned into nothing, but I don’t really care. My wife (singer Judith Owen) is in the BAFTA, so we get the screener DVDs and isn’t that the only real benefit?”

After admitting that he’s recently been busy enough to justify employing a publicist for the first time, I ask Shearer what he thinks about awards show season, which now runs from December to the Oscars in March. “There are way, way too many of them, no question about it. But there are too many awards generally. I’ve been making a little collection of awards shows from outside of the entertainment industry, the strangest little corners of American commerce and effort. Really, I get sent videos. I have ones from ‘The Oscars of Funeral Directors’ or ‘The Oscars of People who make PR Videos about Funeral Directors’.” I laugh at his joke, partly because he delivers it in pure Kent Brockman, before he stops me. “No, really, it goes on and on and on. They’ve all watched the real Oscars, and have learned about walking to the podium and doing their acceptance speech and not talking too long in case the music drowns you out. Doesn’t anybody just do a job anymore? Is there a back left unpatted in America? The great American humourist Jean Shepherd once said ‘Eventually, Everything Will Become Showbusiness’. At the time, it seemed like a daffy thing to say but now it’s absolutely true.”

Redbelt & Taken


Twinned curiosities this week, with David Mamet, American cinema’s snarling id, bringing us his jiu-jitsu Rocky and Liam Neeson laying waste to all around him in a politically whiffy French kidnap drama? What next – Anthony Hopkins pointing a glowing finger in E.T. II: Elliot’s Revenge? Cameron Diaz outing vile spots in Judd Apatow’s Macbeth?

Redbelt, titled after the highest grade of expertise in the sport, a cross between judo and wrestling, is essentially a chopsocky drama. This description that might seem like a departure for the heavyweight writer and director, but Mamet always twisted genre archetypes to suit his own ends. Different tales told in a distinctive voice, his films share the same blank tone, unmistakable staccato dialogue, deftly pleated storylines and an uncommon throb of excess testosterone.

Redbelt is a Mamet from the opening frames, an experiment in channelling the zen of Bruce Lee through the conduit of Jean Luc Godard’s infamous dictum that “all you need for a movie is a girl and a gun”. The girl is Laura (Emily Mortimer), the gun belongs to LA policeman Joe (played by Max Martini), who leaves it lying on a bench in a failing martial arts studio run by Mike (Chiwetel Ejiofor). High-flying lawyer Laura is jonesing for her anti-anxiety medication and in an excited moment grabs the pistol. It goes off, setting in a motion a series of unlikely events that will change Mike’s life dramatically and test the patience of even the most serene viewer.

Mike isn't just a teacher, he's a guru, an aesthetic monk who follows a strict code of honour in life and in combat. Even though he is broke, a fact wife Sondra (Alice Braga) reminds him of daily, Mike refuses to enter fighting competitions, believing they corrupt and demean his sport. In a rush of developments, Mike saves movie star Chet Frank (Tim Allen) from a beating in a bar and is invited to dinner by way of thanks. There he meets Chet’s sleazy manager (Joe Mantegna) who brings him on board the film and gifts him an expensive watch. Life, for once, looks good for Mike and Sondra, who makes an important business connection with Chet’s wife (played by Mamet’s wife, Rebecca Pidgeon).

Mike the warrior philosopher is the typical Mamet hero, a throwback to a time of honour and values. In the developing scam, Mike is the patsy, the mark, and like the best of his kind, he is oblivious to his status. He makes the mistake in thinking that everybody is like him, honest and sincere. The story, based in part on Mamet’s own experiences as a jiu-jitsu student, soon becomes needlessly, wilfully complicated but Ejiofor has reserves of stoic serenity to play with, a calm charisma that maintains our interest in the early part of the story. It doesn’t hold, partly because Mike remains a character without a story of his own, a collection of ideas and surface indicators. It’s to Ejiofor’s credit that he remains as watchable as he does for as long as he does.

Redbelt might appear tough but Mamet pulls too many of his punches, unable to communicate Mike’s impotent rage with the same verve he brings to the spitfire dialogue and bewildering disclosures. These elements are what make the film uniquely Mamet, but are also what suffocate it in familiarity. His intellectual machismo has become cliché, his determination to befuddle a narrative tic, even the secondary cast is assembled from the writer and director’s stock company of actors. These familiar faces spout beautifully poised epithets across Mamet’s recognisable spaces, affecting an unruffled, world-weary disdain as they punctuate their emphatic line readings with oddly spaced pauses.

So focused is Mamet on pulling the wool over our eyes he reduces his emotional material - a suicide in disgrace, an emotional betrayal - to throwaway lines of dialogue that bounce off Mike’s broad chest without effecting so much as a flinch. Instead we get an increasingly preposterous story about maintaining the Corinthian spirit in sport, spliced into a green ink essay on the machinations of unscrupulous movie producers.

Mamet loves these characters for their smart mouths and their balls but doesn’t seem at all interested in their souls. He revels in poking around in the background of their lives but Redbelt remains a tentative snoop around dimly lit corners, ignoring the potential in darker basements and distracted by the inexorable crawl towards the climactic fight. The problem is not the density of the drama or the preponderance of narrative blind alleys; it’s that the plot lacks all coherence and consistency. The trap Mamet springs is dependent on hastily explained (if we’re lucky) off-screen interventions and a long series of plausibility-sapping coincidences. Even after another character carefully explains the ending to him, Ejiofor looks none the wiser.


Taken, the new film from District 13 director Pierre Morel, has Liam Neeson playing a kind of middle-aged Jason Bourne, a retired CIA agent who is forced into action when his teenage daughter is kidnapped by human traffickers in Paris. All towering menace, Neeson plays single-dad Bryan Mills, who is on the phone with his 17-year-old daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), when she and her friend Amanda (Katie Cassidy) are taken from their holiday apartment by Albanian gangsters who steal unaccompanied women and sell them into slavery. Having already established the schism between Bryan and his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen), Neeson’s highly-trained killer boards her new husband’s private jet and touches down in Paris to start the search for his daughter.

Armed with little more than a briefcase full of high-tech gizmos and his own hungry fists, the infinitely resourceful Bryan races around the city, extracting vital information from the scantiest of leads while dishing out cold-blooded retribution. Having established Byran as a superman, Neeson is allowed to do some pretty extraordinary things – in effect, he can do what he likes – striding into the gang’s hideout, shooting dozens of swarthy assailants, evading the French police and the piqued Albanians while gradually getting closer to the truth of what has happened to Kim.

Director Pierre Morel has a great eye for action and an ability to maintain tension through even the most unlikely developments. Taking his cue from producer Luc Besson’s commitment to narrative momentum and Paul Greengrass’s livewire photography, Morel delivers a series of beautifully choreographed, high-octane action sequences and bruising fight scenes, in contrast to the overly expedient script, which sees scores of ‘foreigners’ fall victim to Bryan’s righteous vengeance, shot where they stand for getting in his way.

Neeson is 56 now but he remains an effective, efficient action man – he was a Jedi Knight, remember - a credible threat right from the opening scenes. Taken is trimmed back to the bone, and moves at such a blistering pace, that the Ballymena actor is only required to express wrinkle-eyed concern and flared-nostril wrath, but he does both extremely well. Around him however, the secondary cast flounder. Janssen’s role amounts to almost nothing, acting as a foil for scene-setting resentments and then dissolving into a voice on the phone. Grace, a 25 year old playing 17, is overly excited in the set-up, innocently giggling and skipping on her way to her doom before her character is reduced to a focal point for Bryan’s revenge.

Redbelt and Taken are odd, jumpy stories about absurdly driven men in dangerous surroundings fighting to retain the only thing that remains dear to them. They share a gritty sense of realism but are stiff with genre formalities and hobbled with implausibilities. In the end, the difference between the two films – why one bears the ugly brand of two-star disdain and the other gets a tentative recommendation – is a question of intent.

Taken takes action seriously, casually administering regular jolts of adrenaline that compels the viewer through the story. Redbelt has just as many opportunities to deliver thrills, but is too preoccupied with higher thoughts to properly address matters of the gut. Taken moves in an unswerving straight line at tremendous speed, Redbelt meanders distractedly before rushing its conclusions in a fumble. Redbelt thinks it is Greek Tragedy, Taken knows it is a fantasy. One aspires to have meaning, the other couldn't care less.

This post is a so-far unique two-for-one deal. A recessionary move.
I was struck by how similar and how different both films are, even though they come from completely different places.

Wave Goodbye


German director Dennis Gansel’s political allegory The Wave is based on a real event that took place in a Californian history class in 1967, when an impassioned history teacher laid down draconian new rules by way of introducing his students to fascism and was surprised to see the teenagers follow them to the letter.

Now transposed to modern-day Germany, we first meet Rainer Wegner (Jürgen Vogel), a hopelessly trendy teacher in a Ramones T-shirt and canvas satchel, as he races his car to work. Disappointment awaits - a rival teacher has taken the class on rock and roll anarchy and he must teach boring old autocracy. Stupid Hitler and all that stuff, say the kids on the first day; the jock, the hippy, the goth and the hot girl united in eye-rolling ennui. But Wenger has a trendy plan. He’ll subvert their expectations by turning the classroom into a microcosm of dictatorship, with him as the glorious leader.

Under the teacher’s charismatic instruction, the slouchy, lippy teenagers straighten up and fly right with implausible alacrity, adopting a white-shirted uniform and rediscovering personal grooming. The new class slogan, “Strength Through Discipline” has clearly struck a chord. By Wednesday, they have promulgated a floppy-armed salute, like someone describing the contours of a recumbent Sophia Loren. Thursday sees the class scrawl a graffito of flaming waves throughout the town while developing a snippy attitude towards outsiders and a not-the-brightest collective mentality, a C+ hive mind.

As the power-tripping Wenger surveys his new-build Reich, remnants of his liberal consciousness cause an eye to twitch. What Would Joey Ramone Do? Also, his wife doesn’t like it. The experiment continues apace, despite the efforts of a red-shirted dissenter (Jennifer Ulrich), who has cottoned on to ze movement’s malign momentum and made a myspace page about it. Just in time too. The kids have taken to pointing guns at punks, the point at which the already slack narrative finally loses its hold, the nub of truth worn down to didactic nudges and calculated contrivance. Friday holds little surprise.

More props than characters, the young ensemble are efficiently commanded by the veteran Vogel but are less convincing when playing soldiers amongst themselves. Although he touches off themes like teenage alienation and parental disinterest, Gansel turns an interesting premise into a grasping, over-extended trudge through the bullet points of totalitarianism. The Wave has things to say, but lacks the guile, wit and dramatic innovation to say them well.