Korean Park Chan-Wook’s Thirst is a variation on the horror-standard vampire origin story, imbued with the director's signature visual bravado, narrative contortion and deadpan comic touch.

Sang-hyun (Korea’s best known actor, Song Kang-Ho) plays a Catholic priest who follows a vocation to help people and travels to Africa to take part in a medical experiment investigating a strange blood disorder. It doesn't go well. After his life is saved by a blood transfusion, the priest gradually realises he’s been turned into a vampire. A good, God-fearing man, he finds himself unable to resist his new desires, particularly when he meets the beautiful Tae-Ju (Kim Ok-Bin), a married woman with an idiot husband and an interfering mother in law.

With all of his superhuman senses now awakened to the possibilities of life (while technically, undead), the priest falls in love with the girl and they conspire to find a way to be together forever. He is determined to fight his new-found desires and tries to cause as little harm as possible to the humans he feeds on, but she loves her new unnatural nature and enthusiastically pierces the neck of anyone who comes within her grasp.

Thirst might not be the greatest vampire movie ever made (it is certainly not the most coherent) but there is something utterly unique and unsettling about the way it is presented, performed and considered. A note in the press material reveals that Thirst is loosely based on Emile Zola’s ‘Thérèse Raquin’. The reference would have passed me by, but the book is about a murderous marital affair and an interfering mother-in-law. More so than the narrative skeleton, Park seems to have been inspired by a note Zola made in the preface to the novel, where the writer explains his goal was to “study temperaments, not characters”. There is more here than mere blood-soaked fun and games. The clue to Park’s film is in the title. Thirst is about sensation, need and appetite.

Bold, brave and frequently beautiful, it isn’t quite in the same class as the director’s masterpiece Oldboy but it is still a million times more interesting and involving than the trendily fanged flirting of Twilight. There are, perhaps, deeper seams in the story than Park can mine in the finished film. Park’s priest never comes to deal with the philosophical question of being, or loving, one of the undead. More prosaically, the film feels too long, with Park spinning the central section into a repetitive dance around a single idea, allowing the attention to wander just at the time it is most required.

The Invention of Lying

Fiction - and the imagination that dreams it up - is essential to the smooth running of society, from the little white lies of social etiquette to the bigger questions that can’t be answered, can’t even be properly formulated, without making an imaginative jump from one point to another. Ricky Gervais’ second big-screen outing as male lead is a high-concept comedy, set in a horrible alternate world where everyone tells the truth.

In The Invention of Lying, Gervais plays Mark, a struggling screenwriter who is in danger of losing his job at the film studio where, in the absence of fiction, they make dreary historical documentaries, read out by actors sitting in armchairs. Even so, Mark is about to be fired. He has run out of things to write about. Broke and despairing, while standing at a bank counter one day, Mark has a brainwave. Instead of telling the cashier how much is actually in his account, he makes up a number. She hands over the cash without question, after all, Mark must be telling the truth. (Incidentally, this does not work in real life.)

So Mark tells another lie at another bank, and then another, and is soon flush with cash. Money and the confidence it bestows makes it a lot for Mark to woo the lovely Anna (Jennifer Garner), who had previously considered him “genetically inferior”. Mark goes back to work and presents his boss (Jeffrey Tambor) with a new script, a ‘real-life’ epic, forgotten in the archives, about a 1st century between the massed armies of men, dinosaurs and space ninjas. Then Mark tells another story, this time to his mother (Fionnuala Flanagan) as she lies in a hospital bed. It’s a story about a wonderful place you go where you die, where all your family and friends are waiting and everything is great. But the yarn is overheard by doctors and spreads like wildfire. Nobody doubts that it couldn’t be true. Mark has accidentally invented God.

Like Moses on the mountain, Mark stand in front of a vast crowd of disciples and preaches a deviously complicated sermon about the rewards of living a good life. It’s a well-worked scene that plays to Gervais’ strengths as a stand-up comic, blustering double-takes and exaggerated flop-sweats, but like his tablet-wielding inspiration, Gervais is leading us into a narrative desert. His elevation to messiah, however inadvertent and unwanted, tires badly when syrupy emotion and redeeming messages start to fill the space that should contain jokes.

A world where people can only speak the truth is an interesting notion for comedy, but in fact Gervais’ characters don’t so much speak honestly as speak without self-censorship, which is not quite the same thing. It’s a narrative cheat that reduces the altitude of the high-concept but is less of an issue than Gervais casting himself once again, following Ghost Town, as an ordinary guy, touched by fate, who overcomes his misanthropy to use his powers to help those around him. If telling lies is a sin, vanity is too.

Opposite Gervais, Jennifer Garner overcomes the obvious lack of chemistry with her leading man to deliver a dryly amusing, well-rounded performance as the innocently offensive career woman with a heart of gold. There are funny moments too from an underused Tina Fey as Mark’s assistant and Rob Lowe as a slimy love-rival. Filling out the cast are comedians Jonah Hill and Louis C.K., as a suicidal neighbour and a boorish best-friend, but neither serves any purpose in the second half of the film other than to provide Mark with someone to save. With a tighter script and better direction, all the good ideas in The Invention of Lying might have coalesced into something special. As it stands, it’s just OK. Honest.


The opening fifteen minutes of Pixar’s latest digital animation Up is the finest quarter hour of cinema I have seen so far this year – a jaw-dropping sequence that would be the pride of any of the American greats; Chaplin, Welles, Kubrick or Spielberg.

In a few deft, deliberate strokes, directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson encapsulate the life-long love affair between the square-headed Carl Fredericksen and his delicate wife Ellie, from their first meeting as children through marriage, middle-age, happy retirement and, brace yourself, her death. Yes, death. It’s an indication of how advanced and ambitious Pixar have become that the company not only write stories for human (as opposed to superhuman) characters, they have the courage to put them into emotionally realistic (and, going by the stifled sobs at the screening I attended) quietly devastating situations.

From that point on, viewers who can keep their eyes dry will witness one of the sweetest, funniest stories the animation studio has produced yet. Widowed and retired from his balloon-selling business, 79 year old Carl (Ed Asner) wants only to live out his days in the house he built with Ellie. But, a giant construction company wants to buy him out, and after a series of unfortunate incidents, Carl must concede. Rather than move to a retirement home, however, Carl straps 25,000 helium balloons to the roof of the house, prying it from its foundation and carrying it skyward.

Carl intends to fly his house to Venezuela and visit the Lost World he heard his childhood hero Edward Muntz (Christopher Plummer) talk about, seventy years before. However, he’s got a stowaway in the form of Russell (Jordan Nagai), a chubby boy scout who happened to be standing on the porch when the house took off. Together, the two mismatched heroes begin an adventure that takes in forgotten explorers, gawky 15-foot rare birds and a platoon of talking dogs.

Although it’s easy to forget as you get caught up in watching it, Up is a film that is aimed at children. Notwithstanding the continuous movement and endless incident that the family audience demands, Pixar have crafted an incredibly refined and delicate picture, which places visual beauty and hard-earned emotion ahead of flashy sensation and pop-culture references. The computing power required to generate the wondrous 3-D images is one thing, but the real cinematic craft on display here is the same one that has been exercised since the dawn of movies – careful, considered writing.

The scripting and characterisation that acts as the foundation for Pixar’s success is so well-engineered it can support any flight of fancy the filmmakers care to build on top of it. This bedrock extends to the perfectly chosen voice cast, with brilliant turns from a gruff Asner and a smooth Plummer matched by nine year-old first-timer Nagai as the tireless Russell.

Up must be the first kid’s film to feature an extended homage to Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, along with nods to The Boys From Brazil and Indiana Jones. Keen-eyed viewers will also spot Pixar’s recurring in-jokes; a voice cameo from actor John Ratzenberger (who has appeared in all of the companies films), a prominent use of the alpha-numerical code A113 (after the room at CalTech where the Pixar boffins studied) and another drive-by from Toy Story’s Pizza Planet delivery van.

The Soloist

Director Joe Wright’s third feature is a significant departure from his two previous movies, Pride & Prejudice and Atonement. Those were both period dramas, adapted from beloved literary sources, which focused on the social and romantic complications of the British aristocracy. The Soloist, by contrast, is adapted from a series of articles from journalist Steve Lopez that appeared in the Los Angles Times in 2005 and is set on Los Angeles’ skid row; Wright’s customary bonnets and blushing belles replaced by crack-pipes and down-and-outs.

The film, like this year’s other journo-drama State of Play, opens with a loving montage of newspapers flying through a printing press before we are introduced to the LA Times star columnist Lopez, played by the always watchable Robert Downey Jr. Lopez is in need of a good story, anything to placate his peevish editor, and ex-wife, Mary (Catherine Keener). While out driving one day Lopez encounters a homeless busker Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), playing a virtuoso solo on a two-stringed violin.

Dressed in a suit of lights made from dozens of colourful rags, Nathaniel stammers out his story to the intrigued writer. He was once a student of the prestigious Juilliard School of Music before his undiagnosed schizophrenia made continuing his education impossible. He drifted away from New York and migrated to LA, “because you can sleep outside all year round”. Lopez has found his story, and writes it up as a column that is met with a wave of positive reaction from readers. More columns follow and a relationship develops between the two men. A reader’s donation of a cello brings Nathaniel and Lopez into contact with an LA homeless shelter, a place where the troubled man can get respite, if he chooses to take it, and the writer can find his subject when needs be.

Downey Jr played a journalist in David Fincher’s Zodiac and is again, wholly credible as an essentially honest, hard-working professional; his physical fluidity and clipped delivery going to underline his character as a keenly intelligent, doggedly inquisitive mind. The real life Lopez must be delighted with him. As Nathaniel, Foxx is a decent counterpoint to Downey Jr’s restraint, playing a man terrified by his own mind and reliant on music as a respite from the pain of his existence.

Director Wright doesn’t handle the transition to real-world, real-life drama all that well, seeming to prefer artful camera technique and delicate tableaux over the cut and thrust of a present-day drama. Despite Lopez being just a shiny halo short of sainthood and Ayers’ being a deeply sympathetic character, The Soloist fails to do justice to their shared story. This contemporary narrative has the germ of fascination but in Wright’s hands it emerges in lumpy spurts from a series of awkwardly conjoined sequences, alternately pretentious or bland, that settle unattractively into a globular mass of information. There are distracting sub-plots that arrive from nowhere, only to return there immediately, like Lopez's struggle with raccoons that have taken over his garden, and his somewhat less urine-soaked attempts to reconnect with his ex-wife.

Aside from a deftly presented multi-coloured light-show, that hints more at Nathaniel’s synesthesia than his schizophrenia, Wright strains to find any grandeur in his imagery and displays little understanding of his characters or the hard truths of homelessness. Wright’s attempt to depict schizophrenia from Nathaniel’s point of view collapses in a muddle of overlapping sound, crashing edits and indecipherable flashbacks.

For all its sensitivity to the horrors of mental illness, The Soloist ends up feeling a little unhinged itself; distracted, fidgety and self-absorbed. Wright’s regular cinematographer Seamus McGarvey fires off every cannon in his considerable arsenal - long tracking movements, swooping crane shots and delicate compositions - but the camera fails to bring grace to what is essentially a humdrum treatment. Far better is the thunderous score from another Wright regular Dario Marianelli, which amends and underlines a selection of Beethoven concertos to winning effect. Like the two central performances, it deserved a better film.