The Best and Worst of 2006

I sat down the other day to compile my 'best of' list for the newly minted Dublin Film Critics Circle (more about that in a few weeks) and found myself surprised at how many really excellent films I saw in 2006.

There are about 250 movies released in Irish cinemas every year. Its interesting, to me at least, that I can confidently mark 10% or so of them as being well worth watching and well-nigh essential if you consider yourself conversant with the modern cinema. Just as interesting, about 10% of that annual slate are unmitigated rubbish, leaving the majority of films in the mediocre category - that may have proved popular, like Superman Returns, Casino Royale, The Queen or World Trade Centre, but are flawed for a variety of reasons. I really enjoyed watching Superman and gave it a glowing review at the time, but the film passed from memory too quickly and my opinions on it have changed very slightly. My opinions have hardened on Casino Royale, but to a much greater extent. WTC was too bland to consider re-considering.

But the point is this. 25 movies of a standard as good as any year in the recent history of the medium is a decent rate of return for the regular cinemagoer. There are at least another 25 that won't leave you feeling disappointed, exactly. If you picked the shit 25 (to which I could add another 25 if I was feeling particularly bilious) well that's just tough.

The Departed was, for me, the most consistently entertaining and exciting film I saw this year. I am a Scorsese fan (as opposed to fanatic) but was electrified by the angular story, the gritty performances and the blank, dark tone. It's the only film this year that I went out to watch again in the cinema. So thats tops, but the remainder of the must-see list are presented in no particular order.

Best Films of 2006

The Departed

United 93 - for a sense of horror that didn't fade for days

Pan’s Labyrinth - awesome visuals and brilliant writing and performances

Little Children

Little Miss Sunshine

The New World - utterly transfixing, made me aware of changes in my breathing.

The Squid & The Whale

The Wind That Shakes The Barley - after The Departed, the film most people talked with me about this year


An Inconvenient Truth

The Three Burials of Melquiandes Estrada

Borat: Cultural Learnings…- the funniest comedy

Red Road - the ending was disappointing, but what went before was excellent

The Host

Flags of our Fathers - angry, brilliantly realised war film

Romanzo Criminale

Marie Antoinette

Crank - best action film, consistently surprising

Children of Men - most dropped jaw moments

Good Night, and Good Luck

Stranger Than Fiction

One title jumps out unchallenged when selecting the worst film of the year, Martin Lawrence's unrequested reprisal of his obscene 'family' clown, the monstrous insult Big Momma's House 2. I hate that unfunny prick and his sub-normal caricature of entertainment. The remainder of the 'worst of' list should be considered, like finding a head on a stick during a jungle stroll, a warning not to proceed.

Worst Films of 2006

Big Momma's House 2


The Holiday - yikes

The Tiger’s Tale - the right things, said in the wrongest possible way

Step Up

Big Nothing

Tenacious D In The Pick Of Destiny

A Good Year - Crowe at his most crass

All The King’s Men

The Da Vinci Code - overhyped, overlong and under-entertaining

The Lady In The Water - humourless, odd, rambling junk

Life & Lyrics

Beerfest - not a single funny moment

Stay Alive

Just My Luck - mental poison

Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift

When A Stranger Calls



Rent - distilled from the tears of unicorns

Aeon Flux

D.O.A. - beat 'em off made from a beat 'em up

The Lake House - sloppy and soppy

Rather than leave you with the thoughts of Keanu slobbering over Sandra like a stoned bloodhound eating a packet of Opal Fruits, the best film book I read this year was Patrick McGilligan's A Life In Darkness & Light (even if it was published in 2003) and the best song I heard was Mississippi Fred McDowell's [wiki] 61 Highway, which is of far earlier vintage.

Man, I have to think about contemporising in 2007.

Yule Be Sorry

The awful Black Christmas represents yet another remake of a supposed cult classic horror, culled from the seemingly endless supply of 1970s slasher pictures by grubbing studios desperate to mine the last nuggets of revenue from a long exhausted seam. What this movie (like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Fog and The Hills Have Eyes remakes before it) illuminate is the true depth of Hollywood’s creative crisis; lazy, uncaring product spewed without care or craft into the eager Cineplex supply line and an example of audiences being fed leftover turkey before the Christmas.

The original 1974 film, which starred a pre-Superman Margot Kidder and a post-2001 Kier Dullea, was an efficient gore-fest by the standards of the time but clunky and almost comic today. It was directed by the hack Bob Clarke, who later made an about-face with the very cute adaptation of Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story, but also made Karate Dog and Baby Geniuses 2, so it’s not like they’ll be opening film schools in his name anytime soon. The original movie teetered on the sole, subversive contrast between Peace on Earth and pieces of sexually precocious teenage girls. Nobody remembers it now, which might offer this shabby remake a snowballs chance at the box office, but I doubt it. As regurgitated by Final Destination producer turned director Glen Morgan, Black Christmas is a cretinous procession of sub-pantomime acting, illiterate dialogue and larcenous plotting, scattered throughout with scenes of torture, titillation and tacky gore. While I can never approve the former, I am generally in favour of the latter, especially in the context of an entertaining horror story. That is not found here.

The major difference between the two films, original and remake, is that this time out the psycho loses his anonymity and has an elaborate back story grafted onto his demented shoulders. After that shabby set-up, we cut to present day where the killer’s childhood home has been converted into a sorority house, a university dormitory that houses a gang of eight bitchy young women; Kellies and Megans and a couple of, like, Heathers. Barring internet floozies du jour Lacey Chabert and Michelle Trachtenberg, the cast are anonymous, but collectively they display all the life and humanity of a cutlery drawer. Their middle-aged minder Mrs Mac (Andrea Martin), tells them the legend of Billy (played by Robert Mann making his debut and, with any luck, taking his bow), while gathered to exchange grudging Christmas gifts. Soon, one of them turns up dead, with the cast of suspects including the aforementioned killer, a sleazy amateur pornographer boyfriend and the hilariously miscast ‘big sister’ of one of the teens, played by the director’s 40 year old wife.

Bonkers Billy stalks the skimpily dressed robots throughout the labyrinthine house, making noisy, threatening telephone calls and then picking the victims off, one by one, in a series of increasingly tawdry murders. Throats are slashed, eyeballs are plucked out and buckets of blood are splashed over Christmas decorations, while out in the cheap seats, yawns are stifled and watches are checked. The film is nigh on unwatchable. Word is that the studio Dimension enforced script changes and demanded an alternate ending, in effect taking the film away from Morgan, but the director doesn’t otherwise hint that there was anything here before the interference. He creates no atmosphere, no sense of dread or suspense and relies on the outward thrust of his cast’s cleavage and the staccato beat of his cheap shock moments, with the only scare being the speed at which both of fall victim to the laws of diminishing returns.

Pretty, Vacant

A horribly contrived and echoingly empty confluence of ‘Christmas movie’ and ‘chick flick’, The Holiday marks the return of What Women Want and Something’s Gotta Give writer and director, former studio executive Nancy Meyers; a lady who knows more about demographics than she does cinema and who, it would appear, is immune to voodoo. It’s either that or I haven’t been sticking the pins in far enough.

A series of short vignettes introduce us to the four main characters. Amanda (Cameron Diaz) owns a Los Angeles company making movie trailers and has recently broken up with her two-timing boyfriend (Ed Burns, briefly). On the other side of the Atlantic we meet lovelorn London journalist Iris (Kate Winslet), finally getting over her unrequited love, the caddish Jasper (Rufus Sewell). It’s Christmas, and neither woman can face being alone, so they decide, during the course of a quick internet exchange, to swap houses for two weeks. Now, you’ll stop me there. Isn’t that Tara Road? Yes, it is.

Enter the men, Jude Law and Jack Black; a singleton London book editor and a piano-playing soundtrack composer respectively. The unholy coming together of the two couples is arranged in a series of ‘meet cutes’. Meyers later wheels out the great Eli Wallach as an elderly Hollywood writer, to explain what she means, and have a pop at the current state of studio cinema while he’s at it. There’s a heartbreaking irony in this turn of events. Wallach’s character makes a tear-jerking speech at a Writers Guild of America function arranged in his honour, the same Guild that met in arbitration to discuss the authorship of The Holiday. The WGA eventually gave the credit to Meyers, although both Maeve Binchy and Helen Fielding’s names must have come up at some stage.

Diaz, who is lovely to look at, is insufferable to watch; playing a dizzy, air-headed blonde without a screed of plausibility, shrill and clumsy and wooden. Her disastrous performance aside, the chatter she is asked to express is choice. Detailing her urgent need for a vacation she trills the line, “I want to eat carbs without wanting to kill myself”. If you are the kind of woman to whom this magazine-article line rings true, you really need to talk to somebody. Winslet comes out the better of the two female leads, but there’s only a hair between them. She bears the contrivances well enough, and certainly perks up later on, but it is sad to see such talent wasted. Jude Law plays Jude Law, but with extra mischievous twinkle and later, a whole heap of blubbing pathos. He has never been more irritating. Jack Black, whose appearance as a romantic lead initially gives hope to something out of the ordinary, ruins it by doing that terrible improvised singing thing he does. By the third time he opened his gurning yap, pap-skip-skap-skoodly-doo, I was half way out of my seat, until some greater power, call it a sense of duty or ingrained masochism, forced me to stay put.

The film’s pretence that it shares a heritage with the classic Hollywood screwball comedies of the Golden Age is as inappropriate as it is desperate. Meyer’s approach to sparkling wordplay is to have one character jabber on for two incomprehensible minutes, then have the other character say something pithy, like ‘Exactly!” Failing that, there’s always a reaction shot from a dog. It is pure drivel. The director’s plotting is even less sophisticated, with every well-forecasted, painstakingly arranged plot point driven home as if at the head of a sledgehammer. Deathly bland and false, The Holiday is as bad a film as I have seen all year. Whether it works as a romance or not is a matter of individual taste, but it cannot be a comedy unless it contains jokes. Actual gags, not the exhausted Black or the dippy Diaz routine. A special mention is reserved for Hans Zimmer’s outrageously syrupy score, a constant meander of plinking piano designed to reinforce emotions the cast are simply unable to muster themselves. Like everything else on display, it is nauseating.

Write On

Breathless comic Will Ferrell plays it mostly straight in Marc Forster’s enchanting modern-day fable Stranger Than Fiction, a brilliantly realised story of an ordinary man caught up in an inexplicable fantasy. Ferrell plays Harold Crick, a quiet, isolated US government tax inspector who wakes up one morning hearing a mysterious voice in his head. The female voice, clipped and plummy, isn’t talking to him, it’s talking about him, describing his mundane actions and predictable moods in a precise narration, like a voice over in a movie. Harold, who shows worrying signs of obsessive compulsion, an odd world-view beautifully explained by the director with on-screen graphics showing Harold’s continuously compiled internal calculations, is naturally perturbed at the intrusion, especially when the voice tells him, in a matter of fact way, that he is about to die.

Just at the point where Harold believes himself to be going mad, he seeks advice from a psychiatrist, (played with a squint of suspicion by Linda Hunt), who listens patiently to his ravings and refers him on to a professor of literature, Dr Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), a man as spontaneous and emotional and strung out on caffeine as Harold is ordered and subdued. Hilbert also listens, while slurping constantly from his coffee mug, explaining to Harold that whatever story he believes himself to be a part of can only be resolved through one of a number of standard literary archetypes. Patient questioning comes up with a handul of names of authors who could be transcribing his life, eventually leading the duo to one writer, Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), simply because all of her published novels end in the death of the main character.

It’s a good deduction, Eiffel is indeed the writer, a fact confirmed when Harold hears her speaking on an old television show, but she has problems of her own. She hasn’t published anything in a decade, and is terminally blocked, writing and rewriting the last couple of chapters of Harold’s life without being able to find a way to conclude her story satisfactorily. To that end, her publishers have sent her an assistant (played with restraint by Queen Latifah), a no-nonsense woman who quickly takes the neurotic, chain-smoking, suicidal author in hand and attaches her to a routine. Meanwhile, something extraordinary has happened to Harold. His apartment has been destroyed in an accident, forcing him to move in with his only friend Dave (played by Tony Hale from Arrested Development). While dealing with this spur of disorder, he goes to meet a woman who has misfiled her tax return, and falls in love with her. Ana, a free-spirited, heavily tattooed baker (played with a heartbreaking sincerity by Maggie Gyllenhaal) initially despises this government enforcer, rifling through her papers in an effort to prosecute her, but gradually softens, until a point where the two stand before one another, mutually smitten, and suddenly alive again. But the voice is telling Harold his time is running out, with his life being taken from him just at the point where it has become worth living.

Zach Helm’s script, his debut, appears at first to follow the trendy, labyrinthine path of Charlie Kaufmann, but the film most closely matches The Truman Show in uncovering the individual decisions that these characters make in order to fulfil a destiny they are secretly terrified of. Director Marc Foster tells the story beautifully and intelligently, adopting a low-key mood and having his talented cast unquestioningly accept the magic that has come into their lives. Crucially, he never attempts to explain it all, adding immeasurably to the satisfaction, even as his characters arrange a compromise ending to the story we are watching. The acting performances are flawless, funny and touching and deliberate. The picture looks terrific, and boasts an outstanding, delicately used soundtrack.

Roots, Bloody Roots

Guillermo Del Toro’s extraordinary grown-up fairytale Pan's Labyrinth arrives on a wave of expectation, having wowed the crowd into a half-hour standing ovation at Cannes, in the process garnering the best reviews of the Mexican directors career, and it doesn’t disappoint. It is a hugely rewarding film; a rich, dark, meaty stew perfect for a long winter’s night. The story, written by del Toro, opens in Northern Spain in 1944, where we meet a young girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), travelling with her pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) from the city to the mountain headquarters of Captain Vidal (Sergi López), a Franco Nationalist on a mission to eradicate the local Republican resistance. Ofelia’s mother, recently widowed, has recently married the sadistic Captain, who has demanded she travel to the hilltop camp so his son can be born in his father’s house. Ofelia has brought her only possessions, illustrated books of fairy tales, although she has been told she is getting too old for them.

Soon, the young girl meets a strange, clicking insect, who transforms into a mute fairy, which in turn guides her to a lost labyrinth, an underground maze, where she is greeted by an ancient faun (played by del Toro’s regular collaborator Doug Jones). The seemingly benign faun introduces himself as the guardian of a gateway to a fantasy world and explains that Ofelia is a reincarnation the daughter of the king of the fairies, an almost-forgotten princess of a world hidden just out of sight of what she knows as reality. Ofelia, who in her heart has always suspected as much, listens intently as the faun gives her a series of tasks to perform, in order to prove herself worthy, open the doors to the lost kingdom and fulfil her destiny. With her mother is confined to bed, suffering from the long journey and the lack of adequate care, Ofelia is taken into the care of the good-hearted, brave housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), a sister of the leader of the resistance committed to supplying the rebels with food and medicine from the army supply store. With the woods closing in around her, the lonely young girl is trapped; between childhood and adolescence, war and peace, between her dying mother and her raging adoptive father, between a sinister world of fantasy and a far more dangerous reality.

Del Toro expertly creates this dual universe; a magical fugue state of crumbling, ancient stone etched with arcane symbols, in harsh shadows and creaking wood peopled with fantastical creatures from the subconscious, and also his real, concrete world of infinite sadism, blind ideology and practical cruelty. His fluid control over both is exemplary. His lead actress, thirteen year old Banquero, gives a brilliant performance as the resourceful Ofelia, manifesting a child’s fears and uncertainties through little more than widened eyes and shortened breath. Beside her, Sergi López gives a startlingly monstrous performance as the wicked, ruthless fascist, a cunning, all-powerful executioner. This is a horror fantasy, as brutal and occasionally terrifying as the genre demands, but it is also a delicate allegory for Spain itself and the decades of totalitarian rule imposed on her people. Death is everywhere and hope is fleeting. There are moments in the film where redemption seems inevitable, with del Toro determined to whisk it away again before it can take root, just as he did in this film’s companion project, the little seen Devil’s Backbone. The film, photographed by Guillermo Navarro, looks astonishing with indelible creature effects and a finely crafted, all-pervading sense of unease, half-remembered mythologies and the true horror buried in the heart of even the sweetest fairy stories.

Robert Altman RIP

Robert Altman, one of America's finest directors and a wilful, cantankerous son of a bitch, died yesterday in LA. He was 81. Like Hitchcock and Scorsese, he had been nominated for the Best Director Oscar a total of five times (the last being for Gosford Park in 2001), but never won it.

Having had a heart transplant a decade ago, a fact he kept to himself, the academy gave him the honorary statuette last year, paying tribute to the genius behind M*A*S*H, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, Short Cuts and The Player, just in time as it turned out.

Altman started out in industrials before Alfred Hitchcock gave him a start directing episodes of his television series in the 1950s and went on to direct innumerable television shows and about 40 features, some of them the finest American film of the past forty years and some of them, it has to be said, the worst. His latest, A Prairie Home Companion, is awaiting an Irish release. One of the first films I watched with properly adult eyes was Short Cuts, while a student in Limerick in 1993. It had a profound effect on me; being cynical and funny and strange and sad.

A true maverick, Altman was always good for a quote. I like this: "This business is run by accountants who, as long as a film makes $40 billion, don't give a shit if it kills the whole goddamn industry. Everything can also be shown so quickly in the home now - which means that the people who go to movie theaters are teenagers who just want to get out of the house. The audience has changed and the content has changed to suit that audience."

Bang on.

I had just cracked the spine on the copy of Altman On Altman I bought earlier this year in LA. Might leave it back on the shelf for a while, now.

Further Reading:
Eddie Copeland has a touching tribute
As does Dennis Cozzalio at Sergio Leone & The Infield Fly Rule
Keith Uhlich bows his head at The House Next Door
The Guardian's obituary

Busted Flush

Meet the new Bond, same as the old Bond. Blonde British actor Daniel Craig might be the current incarnation of Ian Fleming’s super spy, with the filmmakers set on re-inventing the suave agent for a new generation but in Casino Royale, the much-heralded changes are mostly cosmetic. The 40 year old franchise is again produced by the Broccoli family, directed by Goldeneye’s Martin Campbell and written by veteran Bond team Neil Purvis and Robert Wade. With the success of Matt Damon’s Bourne films, Bond was forced to contemporise, but the more they change, the more things stay the same.

After a short, violent, black and white sequence that explains how Bond earned his ‘double 0’ licence to kill, there follows some jarringly awful opening credits, an over-designed extravaganza relayed in silhouette, based on the four symbols from a deck of cards and a whirling roulette wheel. It is an ominous shambles, further undermined by a terribly bland stadium rock tune from Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell. The film then quickly switches to Bond’s first proper assignment, spying on terrorist suspects in Madagascar, and a hyper-kinetic, dizzying, chase scene through a building site inspired by the urban sport of ‘free-running’.

Bond’s mission soon leads him to the Bahamas, where he discovers the evil Le Chiffre (Danish star Mads Mikkelsen), who has put in place a plan to fund a series of terrorist attacks by staging a high-stakes poker game at the titular Casino Royale in Montenegro. With his handler M (Judi Dench) unconvinced by Bond’s methods, the $10million he is given to infiltrate the game comes accompanied by a minder from the Treasury, the beautiful Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). Bond soon allies himself with Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini), MI6’s local field agent, and Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) who is representing the interests of the CIA. These occasional asides do not distract from the long periods of boredom around the poker table. It would take some remarkable reinvention to make a poker game cinematically exciting again and it simply doesn’t happen here.

Craig is the first Bond since Connery to look like a killer. When Brosnan threw a punch, it was followed with a quip or a wave of his hanky. When Craig throws one it is followed with his forehead. I wasn’t fully convinced by the usually charismatic actor, but this is not all his fault. Casino Royale wants it both ways – to be tougher, more vital and more ‘realistic’ and at the same time sustain the fantasy of international intrigue, swooning beauties, luxury cars and the ultimate dream, death without consequence. The more the filmmakers try to ground the franchise, the further it sails away on the breeze. Bond shows his newfound nerve-endings in a brutal scene where Le Chiffre batters his scrotum with a knotted rope while the spy is tied to a chair. Rather than spend the remainder of the running time strapped to a packet of frozen peas, I was astonished to see the same man, in the next scene, saunter along the sands of Lake Garda without so much as a wince. A lot of blood, and a lot of it Craig’s, is spilled to remind us of the new Bond’s gritty humanity, but the story itself and its shiny presentation are so unnatural and mishandled they only go to remind us that we are watching a fiction.

Craig gives us a lot of piercing stares, his tiny blue eyes peering away at something in the distance as the camera holds his round head in close-up. I have no idea what he is looking at, his credibility disappearing over the horizon, perhaps. Where once there was Andress or Berry emerging from the surf, we now get Craig resplendent, a bulldog in speedos, squat and flexed and tilted forward as if constantly in motion. His action sequences are well executed, if a little repetitive, but the character’s newfound vulnerability, his determination to soul-search, leaves Craig looking occasionally unsure of himself.

There are deviations from the long-established Bond canon, most of them welcome. Green is not a typical giggling sex-object, she is smart and educated and very capable. The over-elaborate digital effects work the series had descended into – invisible cars, surfing tsunamis - have been dropped with what remains, for the most part, being utilised in an almost subtle manner. Q does not appear (and indeed no special attention is paid to the gadgets), replaced by an on-call team of boffins, none of them named Moneypenny, communicating with a tiny microchip buried in Bonds arm. As before, however, big-ticket brand names are showcased throughout; luxury cars, watches, couture clothing, with more attainable products, like mobile phones, laptops and family saloons benefiting from mini advertisement breaks all to themselves. Bond might have changed his face for a lumpier model, lost seven inches in height, gained seven in breadth and grown a pair, but his is still a licence to make a killing.

Rather than stand alone as a film, Casino Royale is an episode of a long-running serial, chopped up even further into bite sized chunks, a compendium of action scenes assembled around an immediately recognisable character. Scenes appear out of nowhere, and disappear back again just as quickly, without any impact on the overall momentum of the story. A final grand spectacle set in a crumbling Venetian villa rattles through the duplicities in double-quick time, leaving us with a conclusion of sorts. Having lost track of the thin story during the doldrums of the poker game, I wasn’t overly concerned, but there followed another ending, then another and then another. Then the new Bond stared out again for what felt like a solid minute and finally we heard John Barry’s theme, wrapping up this curiously back-to-front film. That’s not to deny that each of these endings, and indeed most of the work that preceded them, was efficiently presented, technically impressive and occasionally gripping, but they are not connected to one another with any strength. It’s very messy, and so long, at two hours and twenty minutes, that it’s eternal nature becomes an abstraction, another element of the whole phenomenon that doesn’t work.

Ride The Tiger

Things fall apart for Liam O’Leary, a millionaire property developer when he meets his doppelganger while stuck in a traffic jam, a sinister exact double that insidiously takes over his life in John Boorman’s snapshot of modern life in Ireland, The Tiger's Tale. Obsessed with finding out who this man is, and what he wants, O’Leary’s personal and professional lives quickly spiral out of control, as the double moves into Gleeson’s bank account, opulent mansion, boardroom and his wife’s (played by Kim Cattrall) bed. Now the Pauper to the impostor’s Prince, homeless and broke, O’Leary takes a journey of self discovery in an effort to patch up his fractured sense of identity.

Much of Tiger’s Tale is related with the heaviest of touches from Boorman, crashing and clanging through slow-moving panoramas of orgiastic debauchery and decadence. A lengthy scene through a nightclub, a stumble along the choked streets of Temple Bar and a visit to a hospital are all presented as the seventh circles of Hell through the unbroken steadicam of Seamus Deasy. O’Leary’s opulent home and free-spending lifestyle meets with nagging disapproval from his politically charged son, played by Gleeson’s own son Briain, manifested as short, undergraduate speeches about socialism and the exploitation of workers. Further clumsiness arrives when the impostor joins the unawares Jane in the marital bed, her initial vehement struggle against his attentions turning to coos of orgasmic delight. Boorman alone knows why this scene is played as it is, but it’s effect is to leave a very bad taste, further undermining Catrall, who up to that point had done little more than flick her hair and wobble her accent. Another clanger comes later, when a suspected “barbiturate” overdose by the already floundering junior Gleeson brings the family to the ground zero of A&E.

There is no doubting Boorman and Gleeson’s sincere anger; they are clearly pointing the finger at the lop-sided, selfish society we have created from a decade of prosperity, with an enormous gap between the haves and the have nots, our dilapidated services and our choked infrastructure. Boorman, who has lived here since the 1970s, and is in his seventies himself, is absolutely correct in a lot of what he is saying; the trouble is his argument is so inarticulately expressed and clumsily played. Continuing his long-running collaboration with the director, Brendan Gleeson plays both the boorish millionaire and the Geordie impostor with the same wide-eyed gusto, steadily racking up the hysterics even as the script collapses beneath him. The actor is at his best in the quiet moments, sipping tea at dusk at a farmhouse table or ducking beneath the breakers while swimming in the sea. The rest of the time he seems uncomfortable and uncertain, not helped by the broadest of supporting performances from Sinead Cusack as the troubled older sister and Cathy Belton and Sean McGinley as O’Leary’s loyal staff.

I Started Something

In Starter For Ten, working-class Essex-boy Brian Jackson (James McAvoy), has always been obsessed with trivia, growing up watching University Challenge on TV throughout the 70s and early 80s. When he passes his exams and gets accepted to Bristol, he leaves behind his widowed mother (Catherine Tate), and best friend Spencer (Dominic Cooper). At a fresher’s week party Brian meets the beret-wearing, right on Rebecca (Rebecca Hall, who also features in The Prestige). Just as something might happen between them, his head is turned by the snooty, stunning blonde Alice (Alice Eve), who is also his team-mate on the Bristol University Challenge squad. The story plays out against the background of the tricky TV quiz, as young Brian works out his priorities, romantic and academic, learning life lessons along the way.

Starter for Ten is scripted by David Nicholls from his own comic novel, once recommended by the Richard & Judy book club. That might tell you more than you need to know about the by-the-numbers plotting of the rites-of-passage story, easy meat for the mid-afternoon crowd, with the added nostalgia of Doc Martens, black leggings and fingerless gloves underlined by an eclectic greatest hits soundtrack. Debut director Tom Vaughan initially takes the traditional approach to his British romantic comedy, establishing new surroundings and exciting changes that lead to initially embarrassing romantic situations, betrayal of friendship and an epiphany of some sort, preferably during a rainstorm. Flipping a few of these standards on their heads in the last act might be clever, but the overall effects are negligible when capped with a last-minute realisation of the true love that was there, all along, under the hero’s nose, over his wry grin.

The airy tone, nuggets of droll observation and rising talent McAvoy’s earnest performance go some of the way towards making up for these deficits, but not completely. The film is never less than perfectly amiable and chugs along at a fair pace, but finds it difficult to sustain much in the way of enthusiasm. Highlights of the sideline performances are The League of Gentlemen’s Mark Gatiss’ uncanny impression of pre-Paxman presenter Bamber Gascoigne; an inquisitive, bubble-permed squirrel, and the delightfully named Benedict Cumberbatch as the pompous idiot team captain.

Repent in Dust and Ashes

Brian Kirk’s gloomy Northern Irish gothic Middletown is the story of a squat, fogbound village, marooned in what might be the 1960s, visited by an avenging angel. Fifteen years before, young Gabriel Hunter (Tyrone McKenna) is told he has been called by God for a higher purpose in life. After a spell on the African Missions, Gabriel, now played by Matthew MacFadyen, comes back to Middletown to take over the local church, with his father Bill (Gerard McSorley), brother Jim (Daniel Mays) and his wife Caroline (Eva Birthistle) waiting at a dinner in his honour.

It doesn’t take long for the zealous young minister – the film doesn’t specify a denomination, although he is clearly Protestant - to discover that things in town have changed in his absence. The people have neglected the church and taken to drinking, gambling and cockfighting, mostly in the local pub, run by the heavily-pregnant, turquoise mini-skirted Caroline. With a name derived from the archangel of God and a nod to Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, Gabriel wastes no time in explaining to his congregation that they are hypocrites and sinners who must change their ways or face damnation. Bible-thumper or not, he’s right. Middletown is a nasty place, sharp-tongued and violent, peopled with sleeveens and ignoramuses that, for the most part, deserve what’s coming to them.

Director Kirk builds an atmosphere of steeply arched gothic, angling his camera from the rafters of the pokey church or shadowed under the low lintel of the pub door. There is an insistent sense of physical discomfort throughout the film; from the mildewed, cramped interiors to the itch of the wet woollen costumes and the straight backs demanded by hard wooden pews. There is no succour for the infirm either; corrective eye-patches, crutches and unchecked aches and twinges go to remind the parishioners that their deliverance will not come from science.

Daragh Carville’s screenplay begins as a drama about the chasm that exists between the ideals of a fundamentalist church and the reality of life as people live it, but ultimately wanders back to more familiar genre territory. Without some element of a personal history or any sense of humanity (even a simple mark like the ‘Love’ and ‘Hate’ etched on Robert Mitchum’s lumpy knuckles), Gabriel’s mission loses its spiritual dimension and becomes a procedural psychotic rampage. There are hints at a greater darkness, like a scene where the minister furiously scrubs his bare chest with wire-wool, but this territory isn’t explored in detail. There’s no mistaking Macfadyen’s blank-eyed conviction, whatever its source, but in the clunky melodramas that follow, he is a one-dimensional zealot, a stiff, lifeless cipher.

Better is Daniel Mays performance as the craven second-born son Jim, who can’t afford to get his house built and is smuggling diesel for spare cash. A graduate of the reflexive, freewheeling films of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, Mays has a mobile face, quick and expressive. Eva Birthistle gives another rich performance as the independent, quick-to-anger Caroline, a woman who fights for her rights to make her own decisions but allows the men of the village to hold weekly cockfights in her cellar to sell more beer. Of the rest of the cast, Richard Dormer as Skinner, a grotesque butcher and Sorcha Cusack as Caroline’s protective mother give sturdy support. A mournful Mick Lally as the retiring former minister drops out understandably early but Bronagh Gallagher is lost in the background of a handful of crowd scenes, an oddly silent, anonymous presence.

I Like!

For those seven of you who don’t know, Borat Sagdiyev is the creation of British comedian Sascha Baron Cohen who, like his other alter-ego Ali G, makes the transition from small screen to big in the extravagantly, extraordinarily titled Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, but for those of you who remember In Da House, this time with considerably more comic effect.

Opening with a quick introduction to life in his impoverished village in impoverished Kazakhstan, proudly displaying his VCR and cassette player in the rundown shack he shares with a cow, Borat makes some quick introductions to his over-friendly sister, the fourth best prostitute in the country and his terrifying wife, who despises him, before announcing that the Ministry of Culture are to send him to make a documentary about the US and A. Enough of a storyline to satisfy our need for a consecutive narrative and sustain a stream of gags kicks in once Borat arrives in America, figures out the television in his hotel room and happens upon a rerun of Baywatch. The camera holds on his face, a picture of wonder, as Pamela Anderson bounces across the screen in slow-motion. Abandoning all other committments (the government, his journalistic integrity, the education of his nation), right there and then, Borat instead buys an ice-cream van and starts out on a road-trip, across the country to LA to find and marry the buxom babe with his flapping producer Azamat (Ken Davitian) and a huge brown bear in tow.

At the first stop on the road-trip, at a rodeo in Virginia, through a monumental lapse in somebody's concentration, Borat is allowed to address the crowd for a few minutes on the topic of the war in Iraq, before then singing the Star Spangled Banner, the traditional kickstart to public events in the US. The crowd clap politely while the heavily accented Borat endorses their “war of terror” and cheer when he wishes “George Bush drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq”. The booing starts when, instead of the familiar lyrics, he sings a song about Kazakhstan potassium production over the lilting air. It goes on for a few minutes. In the background, startled by the unfamiliar noise, a flag-toting cowgirl falls from her horse in surprise in a brilliantly poetic accidental moment, and the scene ends. So it goes, scene after scene of hilarious inappropriateness, with barely a dull moment. He crashes around an antiques store, causing a couple of hundred dollars of damage. He shits in a bag and brings it to a swanky Southern society dinner table. He hatches a romantic plan that however deranged, is not beyond most men's daydreams. The Pamela Anderson scenes, most obviously, are scripted, but other than that there is a fair bit of predestined material. The best of it, however, and that is still most of it, is improvised. Although you and I are in on the joke, the people Borat meets along the way have no reason not to believe he is exactly as he says, a foreign documentary maker, making a real film. In a way, he is. Borat’s apparent innocence, his air of professional earnestness and initial willingness to learn and adapt make him irresistible to those willing to rise to the bait. Although coming for the most part from a sincere place, the well-meaning default setting of the typical American, some of the people he meets are dangerously easily prompted into agreeing with Borat’s racist, bigoted opinions. Some try to explain how things are different in the West. Some, probably the smart ones, just run screaming.

In the expert hands of Curb Your Enthusiasm director Larry Charles, Borat covers all the comedy bases in a rapid-fire 80-odd minutes, although most of his job involved pointing the camera and keeping it in focus. It's the Borat show, and this is sublime physical work – his walk is astonishing, his jumping idiot’s face and flapping hands are all-revealing. As carefully assembled as Chaplin’s Tramp, he creates an immediate effect in his rank polyester suit, square shoes, bushy head and broad moustache. His blathering, seemingly stream-of-consciousness dialogue is always hilarious and always beautifully timed. Baron Cohen’s ability to remain in character under the greatest duress and come up with the killer gag time and again is extraordinary to see. Busy outraging a panel of distinguished New York feminists with his stone-age beliefs, in a delicious aside, he asks one of them to “smile, baby”. Her jaw hangs open in astonishment, and yours will too.

To further pile on the embarrassment there are a few no-holds-barred gross-out scenes. He has Western bathroom etiquette explained to him in detail by a Southern Belle and wrestles his despoiling producer naked through a crowded hotel lobby in a riotous scene, done in a single unbroken take. On the issue of anti-Semetism, Baron Cohen is Jewish, so is perfectly entitled to mine this seam for humour in the same way as, say, Tommy Tiernan casts his yellow eye on the Irish. Anyway, it's not about Borat, really. Under the cover of his broken English and equally fractured grin, spitting out his enthusiastic catchphrases and requesting high-fives, the nub of it is that these people can believe for a moment any of Borat’s excitable, offensive ramblings; that ‘in my country’ women are kept in cages, people drink fermented horse urine and there is a man with 182 teeth in his head. No matter how outrageous and offensive Borat is, there is an American willing to match him. It's funny all the way through, but the kicker is that Borat's bottomless ignorance is being used to expose shades of the same bigotry and racism in those people he meets along the way. I would hate to think what dark corners he'd find if Borat walked the streets of Ireland asking the plain people of Ireland about knackers or immigrants, or table manners for that matter, but Baron Cohen choses his own targets. He gives America the rope, but they hang themselves.

UPDATE: Joe Queenan is a fucking idiot.
FURTHER UPDATE: Except for the opening paragraphs about Life Is Beautiful. He's bang on there, even if I don't really see the connection.

Eating Crowe

Based on Peter Mayle’s 80s yuppie fantasy A Year in Provence and directed by his old friend and colleague in the advertising business Ridley Scott, A Good Year is a tired, predictable knockabout farce pushed beyond the point of blithe disregard by an atypical performance by the Gladiator star Russell Crowe, unforgettable for all the wrong reasons. His Max Skinner (played as a boy by Freddie Highmore) used to spend idyllic summers at his roguish Uncle Henry’s (Albert Finney) chateau and vineyard in Provence. Now, fully-grown but hardly matured, Max is a bond trader in The City of London, a high-flying millionaire and low-minded boor. When word arrives that Uncle Henry has died, Max takes off to France to settle his affairs, and sell his treasured home to the highest bidder, leaving Henry’s staff, Francis (Didier Bourdon) and wife Ludivine (Isabelle Candelier) out of a job and homeless. A convenient job suspension for insider trading keeps Max in Provence longer than he planned, but just long enough for the rural charm to cast its spell. Intrigue and romance arrives in the form of beautiful American girl Christie (Abbie Cornish), who says Uncle Henry was her father and who might stymie Skinner’s plans for a quick sale.

A Good Year is so mistimed and miscast that it simply collapses. The elderly jokes are uncomfortably delivered, with much supposed comedy made from Crowe peeking up ladies skirts and down blouses. Not that amusing (unless you’re Sid James and the good year in question is 1963) but eye-wideningly crass and embarrassingly broadly played. Even more painful is the steady arrangement of slapstick physical gags; inelegant tumbles and pratfalls that Crowe, no gazelle, thumps his way through without raising a single moment of humour. By naming a dog Tati, and showing a few clips from M Hulot’s Holiday, Scott is attempting to channel the master of French confusion, Jacques. By the third or fourth banana skin homage, the director has run out of ideas, leaving the remainder of the mirth over to a series of running jokes (scorpions, cyclists, senility) that, uniquely, die more painfully each time they are revived. There is even a speeded-up sequence, believe it or not. Between these excruciating moments there is a constant slideshow of chocolate-box countryside portraits and some marginally more animated, misty-eyed flashbacks to Skinner’s idyllic youth.

All of this reminiscing is supposed to uncoil itself into a damascene conversion as Skinner learns the errors of his ways, but none of it works. Despite the script’s horrible contrivances and Crowe’s desperate mugging, the film never succeeds in changing our opinion of Skinner, much less learn to like him, although it does increase our sympathy for the other characters forced into his orbit. The film is laboured to the point where you feel obliged to notify a shop steward, even up to the point of the inane and undeserved happy ending (which wouldn’t have made it out of the room at a Scooby Doo script conference). Support, from the best mate Tom Hollander, Albert Finney as the bon vivant late Uncle and romantic interest Marion Cotillard as a feisty local waitress, is all wallpaper; mere dressing for Crowe’s master-class in smarm.

Having undercooked his last epic Kingdom of Heaven, Scott sticks closely to the recipe for light comedy here, but is uninspired and uninvolved, making his clumsy film feel middle aged and slightly tipsy. Displaying all the facility for the material you’d expect from his pug face and growling tones, Crowe never relaxes into the situations the story presents him with, much less breathe through his nose. Fatally, he never changes from smug and obnoxious to human and grateful, making A Good Year just one aggressive, blundering moment after another; an arrogant, actively dislikeable experience.

Queen For A Day

Opening on a static shot of the young princess supine on a chaise longue, wrapped in lace and surrounded by cakes, Sofia Coppola’s third feature, a kind of dreaming biopic of France’s ill-fated Marie Antoinette confounds expectations, being empty and superficial, but impossible to hate for all that. High-born in Austria, the innocent Marie (gracefully played by a childlike Kirsten Dunst) is married off to the shy Dauphin Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman) in a match arranged between her domineering mother Maria Teresa (Marianne Faithfull) and the King of France (Rip Torn). Making the journey by coach to Versailles, the young princess is stopped at the border, in the first of Coppola’s more complicated and emotionally resonant scenes, to be divested of everything she owns, including her friends and her beloved puppy. On arriving at Versailles, the teenage princess is astonished at the opulent luxury of the court and troubled by the constant gossip and seemingly endless, incomprehensible protocol.

After the wedding, and the young couples first night together (blessed by a bishop, watched by a crowd) Marie is pressured into creating heirs, a process that turns into a competition with her sister-in-law, but stymied by young Louis seeming disinterest in sex. He’d much rather go hunting or read about locks and keys. Surrounded by ladies-in-waiting, led by the lemon-faced Comtesse De Noailles (Judy Davis) young Marie must follow an unbending regime, heading up processions of her courtiers; a constant movement through the court to pre-set destinations following a strict timetable. When her coterie fight over who is given the privilege of dressing her in the morning, like a doll, Marie protests that the treatment is “ridiculous”. “This, Madame, is Versailles”, she is told and that is the answer to everything.

The daily life of the court, from accounts in Antonia Fraser’s detailed biography, take up much of the middle section of the film; eating rituals, montages of spending sprees (on shoes and frocks), and Marie’s struggle against the insular society (personified by two backbiting Ugly Sisters, played by Molly Shannon and Shirley Henderson). With his father having died, young Louis ascends to the throne, but still spends most of his time hunting, leaving him “too exhausted” to consummate his marriage. These sections are deliberately drawn out, occupying the space where a narrative should be, but eloquently describe the tedium and routine of decadent nobility, tempered with the tang of futility and emptiness.

Coppola, who was given special permission to shoot at the Palace of Versailles, immerses herself in the splendour of the décor, with her cinematographer Lance Acord showing the influence of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon both in the naturalistic lighting and his use of jarring symmetries. Much has been made of Coppola’s use of a new-wave 80s soundtrack (songs from New Order, Bow Wow Wow and Gang of Four play over the action, much as they might have done in Heath Ledger’s A Knight’s Tale) but soundtrack is just one element of the whole cinema, and her choices are never intrusive.

Without an heir, Marie’s situation is precarious; a fact she is reminded of in her mother’s regular admonishing letters, and the lectures delivered by her ambassador (a wry Steve Coogan). Later, her brother, the Emperor of Austria (Danny Huston in a cameo) arrives to lecture the distracted Louis about his husbandly duties and the two eventually have children. The third act has the increasingly rebellious Marie establish a hideaway in Versailles, a manicured rural idyll where she can raise her daughter and entertain her friends, including a half-imagined affair with a young Swedish soldier (Jamie Dornan). These episodes are languorously told, simple framed moments drawn out into lengthy sections, adding to the ethereal mood but short on drama, dialogue or incident. Critically, Coppola stops her story just at the point where the revolutionary mob (played mostly as noises off) are kicking in the door of the palace; preferring a poetic, symbolic bow on a balcony to showing the Queen’s final bow before Madame Guillotine.

Coppola is creating an atmosphere of understanding rather than a documentary, in order to create her own movie, an interpretation of historical events reconfigured to make a statement about class, privilege and duty. This is not Les Miserables, thankfully, and neither is it is a crusty history lesson or a complete fantasy, but lies somewhere in the middle. There is no doubt that the rich, well-connected Coppola empathises deeply with her subject and that is all she must do in order to succeed in making her film, the third in her series of young women trapped inside their own lives, as sleepy as The Virgin Suicides and remote as Lost in Translation, but far more maddeningly disconnected and narratively obtuse. Like the ever-present pastries, Marie Antoinette is lovely to look at but provides only poor nourishment.

The Past Is A Foreign Country

The History Boys, the film version of the multi-award-winning play by Alan Bennett reunites the cast and director (Nicholas Hytner) from the theatre production for a snappy trip down memory lane for the 1983 graduating class in a Sheffield secondary school. As the film opens, a small group of nine high-achieving students, having just received their A-level results, are gathered together by their headmaster for an extra term to prepare for the Oxford and Cambridge entrance exams in December. Their favourite teacher Hector, played by the hugely entertaining Richard Griffiths (who steals the show here), tutors his charges in a loose, free-flowing curriculum covering everything from Vera Lynne torch songs to the Socratic Dialogues. The pretentious, blustering Hector argues for A.E. Houseman’s dictum that “all knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use”. Although married, “unexpectedly” according to his colleagues, Hector is gay, frequently touching his students inappropriately while giving them a lift home on his motorbike. Oddly, and just one of the implausibilities that damage the film, none of the students seem to mind Hector’s lecherous attentions, being devoted to the portly old rogue and all seeing the clear benefits of his scholarship and his wisdom.

Although his methods might be unorthodox, and crustily old fashioned, his commitment to his pupil’s mental advancement is not. Bennett gives Hector long, dextrous monologues, full of historical anecdotes and witty wordplay, that mark him out among the cast as the repository of philosophical education, concerned more with their joining the dots in their education than achieving high grades. All too aware of his staff’s inability to bring students on to the next phase of their education, vinegary headmaster (Clive Merrison) brings in a specialist, Mr. Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), a cynical Oxford graduate, to tutor the boys in how to pass the exam and interview that will determine if they get to walk among the dreaming spires.

Hytner, who previously collaborated with Bennett to great success on The Madness of King George expertly and effortlessly captures the time and place, providing a perfect stage for deft, touching performances from both his young cast and the more familiar veterans. He is assisted tremendously in setting his mood by a classic soundtrack of early 80s British pop. It is the obvious chemistry shared by the large ensemble, and the fluency of their constantly shifting allegiances and motivations, that offer the best in the film. Of the nine younger actors, Dominic Cooper playing the cool, manipulative Dakin and Samuel Barnett as Posner, the conflicted teenager who is in love with him and clearly Bennett’s surrogate, that excel but the entire class give strong performances in what are complicated roles.

The theme here is knowledge and its application in the real world coupled with sidebars into the duty of educators to mould minds, the right-wing politics of early 1980s conservative England and the tangled mess of teenage male uncertainties, most of which have to do with questions about sexuality. Some of the plays darker themes – on the manipulation of history by politicians and the insidious influence of the media - have not made it to the screen, with what has survived being underplayed for the most part, barring one uncomfortable scene between Dakin and Mr. Irwin that is as cold and chilling as it is brilliantly played. Some of the large cast, Frances De La Tour in particular (as the world-weary Mrs. Lintott), are unhappily relegated to the background, the side-effect of trimming a large playbook into a feasible screenplay. There is still plenty of smart humour to be found in The History Boys, a constant stream of howling one-liners and witty references whizzing around the classroom, particularly during one early scene conducted entirely in French, but it doesn’t all come together entirely satisfactorily, a final scene giving us a flash-forward to what the students became adding unmerited pathos at the same time as providing a convenient conclusion.

Departed to the Judgement

After mixed success with his two grand epics, The Gangs of New York and The Aviator, Martin Scorsese returns to the mean streets of the American gangster movie for The Departed, a loose remake of the labyrinthine 2002 Hong Kong cop thriller Infernal Affairs and one of the films of the year.

Getting right into it from the opening frames, Scorsese introduces us to swaggering local mob leader Frank Costello (an electric Jack Nicholson, making his Scorsese debut) who has graduated through the ranks of South Boston mobsters to rule his fiefdom with an iron grip. He has groomed a bright neighbourhood kid, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) from an early age to join the state police and be his inside man, tipping him off about the investigations against him, in the process allowing him to extend his influence into drugs and high-tech contraband. On the other side of the divide, an unstable rookie cop from the area, Billy Costigan (forcefully played by Leonardo DiCaprio) accepts an assignment from his superiors to go deep undercover and infiltrate Costello’s mob, which means he must change identity, serve time in prison and on release, gradually gain the respect of the psychopathic Frank. Both men enter their new double lives unaware of one another, and are both charged with discovering the others identity – flushing out the rat.

Both have the backup of their respective administrations; Damon’s police are led by Captain Ellerby (Alec Baldwin) and his undercover experts, Queenan and Dignam (Martin Sheen and a never-better Mark Wahlberg), while Di Caprio has to contend with Costello’s dangerous second-in-command, Mr. French (Ray Winstone) and two henchmen, Fitzy and Delahunt (David O’Hara and Mark Rolston). It’s a brilliant set-up for the tense, twisting, violent drama that follows; rich with the language and psychology of the streets and fused for detonation as each man becomes consumed by his double life, each trying to smoke the outer out and suffering the consequences of living under a death sentence. The two moles lives also intersect at the point of police psychologist Madolyn (Vera Farmiga), who starts a relationship with Colin at the same time as she starts to counsel Billy, who comes to see her as part of his parole.

Of the three leads he has played for Scorsese, this is by some distance DiCaprio’s best, matched step for step by Damon. Both give astonishing performances, mature and grounded, playing men disintegrating under the strain of double lives and constantly on the verge of being found out. The film belongs, however, to Nicholson, who is just astonishing, delivering a performance of rare menace and constant threat, leavened with a dark streak of bilious humour and some killer one-liners. Still crazy after all these years, Nicholson here is the personification of evil, insane and bloodthirsty. The other noteworthy supporting performance is from Alec Baldwin, playing the cocksure, unstable police captain with an irrepressible abandon.

The brilliant script, from Boston native William Monahan takes the central notions from Infernal Affairs and spins them out into a beautifully positioned meditation on identity and guilt, like so many of Scorsese’s films, where sin and suffering are endured in the hopes of eventual redemption. These characters, the situation they find themselves in and their relentlessly cynical attitudes make The Departed Scorsese’s most uncompromisingly bleak film, darker and less forgiving even than Taxi Driver, where the abject nihilism was at least tempered by a hint of redemption. Here we descend into a startling closing reel, another sustained Scorsese bloodbath of violence and retribution, played ultra-realistically for maximum effect. Michael Ballhaus’ fluid camera, filled with dramatic noir shadows, gives the film a tremendous texture, matched by the peerless control of editor Thelma Schoonmaker and a rousing Scorsese soundtrack of ocassionally celtic-derived rock and roll. And the Rolling Stones, naturally.

Far from being just another gangster yarn, The Departed is a rich and rewarding film. Scorsese uses the colour red throughout the film to signify death and danger, particularly in a demonic scene at the opera where Nicholson leers directly into the camera. The letter ‘x’ is also used symbolically, scratched on windows and floors as a tribute to the 1932 movie Scarface. Being Scorsese, the film is packed with other references to classic cinema. A scene with Damon and a mobile phone set on vibrate matches Hitchcock for drawn-out suspense. A chase through a Chinese neighbourhood recalls The Lady From Shanghai, with another nod from The Third Man that has Madolyn ignore Colin at a funeral, walking past him with a devastatingly eloquent thousand yard stare.

Following in the wake of indifferent, similarly expensive and high-profile, offerings from his fellow noir-influenced directors Brian De Palma and Michael Mann, Scorsese shows his true class in The Departed; a gripping crime story, brilliantly realised and boasting career-best performances from the three top-lining actors. Emerging from the screening, the first thing I wanted to do was go back in and see it again. The director says this will be his last gangster picture. Let’s hope he changes his mind.

Departed to the judgment,
A mighty afternoon;
Great clouds like ushers leaning,
Creation looking on.

The flesh surrendered, cancelled
The bodiless begun;
Two worlds, like audiences, disperse
And leave the soul alone.

Emily Dickinson [wiki]

The Weight of History

When Jean-Luc Godard resolved that his next movie would be about “a girl and a gun”, he was cracking wise about the conventions of gangster movies and at the same time coming to terms with the fact that in order to sell tickets, the filmmaker must give the public what it wants. So it proves in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Centre, which takes the true story of two policemen who were pulled from the rubble of the collapsed towers to fashion a mausoleum of faithful Christian heroes, substituting gat-toting molls for atheists and foxholes. From the bones of a story that everybody knows, we are presented with a flag-waving, overly sentimental film designed to help American audiences exorcise the ghosts of 9/11 without ever confronting the reasons why the catastrophe happened or how it brought about the War in Iraq.

WTC opens in peace with a long montage of dawn over Manhattan on the 11th of September 2001, then focuses to follow police sergeant John McLoughlin (Nicholas Cage) taking roll call at the Port Authority. The impact of the first plane stops all the day’s planning, with McLoughlin and his small team, including policeman Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), rushing to the Twin Towers to help evacuate survivors, unaware of the details of what has happened and scrambling for rescue equipment. While making their way in to the scene through an underground foyer, the two men are trapped in a stairwell as the building collapses.

From this point on, Stone switches faithfully back and forth between the trapped men and their suburban families on the outside. The stories run in parallel, as the men talk to one another to prevent slipping off into what might prove a final sleep and the women, surrounded by their friends and families, wait for news and worry and watch the television news. The third arm of the story is the introduction of the rescuers, notably David Karnes (Michael Shannon), who leaves his office job in Connecticut, gets a haircut, puts on his old Marine Corps uniform and strides into the smoking rubble to search for survivors. Astonishingly, although he appears to be a construct of a fevered propagandist, Karnes’ story is true, even if Stone later uses him to articulate America’s desire for revenge and, most unforgivably, by drawing attention to the fact that he later served two terms in Iraq, suggesting a causal link between 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Iraq that has repeatedly been proved to be false. If the approach taken is at times unreliable, the cast at least are solid throughout in what are difficult, unambiguous roles. Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal are convincing as the frantic wives, deftly skipping through rocky emotional scenes. Gyllenhall is at her best in a scene in a supermarket, offended by the suggestion of a normal life in the midst of her most terrible crisis. Bello’s moment comes later in the hospital, a mumbled conversation with the mother of another survivor slowly opening into a devastating point of release.

Stone’s best touches illustrate his newfound restraint as he allows the screen to go dark a dozen times throughout the film, long pauses that poetically suggest the fall of the towers and the untold horrors the news cameras couldn’t see. It’s a tribute to Cage and his co-star Pena that they make this tiny enclosure into a stage, with the close-ups on their desperate faces making for riveting viewing. The sense of terror under the rubble is carefully crafted, through moments of shock like when a dead colleague’s gun goes off randomly, through falling dust that might announce a further collapse, with the masterful use of the creaks and screams of falling concrete and metal and the off-camera groans of the two cops, muttering prayers or encouragements. Stone’s most bombastic moment arrives with a wobbly apparition of Jesus carrying a bottle of water that Jimeno sees in a dream and excitedly relates to McLoughlin, who, inspired, subsequently imagines his wife lying beside him in a halo of saintly light. Then we see Jesus again, his arrival having been presaged by long, unbroken shots of a simple wooden cross in a chapel and a leather bound bible opened on the first page of the Book of Revelation. Was this an attack on America or an attack on God? Is there a difference anymore?

WTC has its merits, it is a well made and effectively moving drama, but by focusing on the survival of two men, it sacrifices the stories of the thousands of people, of all faiths and nationalities, who died on the day itself and in the wars that have followed in the subsequent half-decade. By turning his camera away from the wider truths to focus on the only story with a happy ending, Stone refuses us the connections that allow us to frame such an enormous tragedy in our own minds. There is no denying the bravery of those who risked their own lives to help evacuate the buildings and later search for survivors, humanity at its best responding reflexively to humanity at its worst, but WTC concentrates on courage and defiance at the expense of any other analysis, becoming more of a re-enactment, a memento mori, than an honest look at what might turn out to be the defining moment of our times.

There are those who will consider the entire enterprise shameful; a for-profit film that recreates the mass murder of thousands of innocent people for the purposes of feel-good sermonising. What looked like a blockbuster movie come to life when we first watched it on the television news is now just that; a property, a product, remade on an LA backlot with Big Stars and styrofoam rocks and ancillary rights. As a story of survival from a seemingly hopeless situation, WTC pushes all the right buttons and in the right order and that is all it does. Stone’s closing shots of the hobbling heroes at a picnic serve as nothing more than a recast, relocated “Mission Accomplished”, the dust-covered Manhattan streets standing in for the aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea. As with that stage-managed victory ceremony, similarly desperate for unwarranted closure and easy validation, Stone is dropping the curtain halfway through the play, having shown us only enough to placate us.

Apocalypse Soon

The world, the one you’re standing on right now, is heating up faster than a teenager’s face at a school disco, a process that means serious trouble for mankind. Now that is inconvenient.

Global warming is real, not the ramblings of tree-huggers. And it isn't a natural, cyclical phenomenon, we caused it to happen. A short twenty years from now, according to Al Gore in his brilliantly argued but terrifying documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, it’ll be too late to reverse its disastrous effects, meaning life for our children and grandchildren will be an distinctly uncomfortable prospect.

Director Davis Guggenheim’s documentary is, for the most part, a simple recording of the powerpoint presentation and lecture that Gore has toured the world with (on carbon-spewing aeroplanes, worryingly) for the past five or six years, enlivened by the addition of some robustly presentled statistics of doom, a few chucklesome, self-effacing jokes and long segues into biographical background details on the former US Vice President. If that sounds boring, the film is anything but – it’s as gripping as any horror movie with the difference being that this is real, and its denouement is imminent.

Gore, who does get a great moment out of a cherry-picker, doesn’t otherwise require much in the way of spin or smooth talk to convince his audience that the Earth is in serious trouble. Although the film could be read as an elaborate campaign advertisement for a still-active politician, who carefully positions himself as the man with the plan to save our sorry hides, it is better viewed as the wake-up call we need to pay attention to. The beaten candidate at the election that brought the oil-hungry Texan GW Bush to power, Gore by contrast comes across as an educated, decent and earnest fellow, informed and passionate, with a professional politician’s highly-developed communication skills, especially when presenting complex ideas in a clear and unequivocal manner. Rather than wring his hands while preaching to the choir, Gore presents hard evidence that can support no counter-argument, and proposes a consensus on up-to-date scientific thinking. Red-tinted graphs show the rapid increase in global temperatures and the corresponding increases in greenhouse gas emissions. Simple, unadorned comparison shots of glaciers, reduced to ice-cubes in as little as thirty years, or the disappearance of the snows of Kilimanjaro. The film is packed with troubling case studies; struggling polar bears swimming hundreds of miles searching for their melted habitats or the sequence of stark Google Earth forecasts that illustrate the deluge that awaits the coastal cities of the world (which includes most of the metropolitan areas in this country) when the ice-caps melt and the sea-levels rise. Better learn how to swim.

Then there are the grim statistics. The 10 warmest years in history were all in the last 14 years. The Gulf Stream and the other ocean currents of the world are changing as sea temperatures rise. There is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that at any other time in history. Snow reflects sunlight back into space, but since the polar ice-caps are melting, in an alarmingly rapid manner, and sea-water actually absorbs heat, the more the ice melts, the more of the sun’s energy is retained by the ocean. Gore leaves us with the hope that the effects of one hundred years of industrialisation can be reversed if action is taken immediately. An Inconvenient Truth is the most important documentary released to cinemas this year, but movies don’t change the world, people do. Lobby government, change your lifestyle, get informed and do what you can to increase awareness in your local area.

Practical information and more details on the film are available at the film's special website.

A Ray of Hope

Little Miss Sunshine, the Sundance-winning feature debut from husband and wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, takes a stock film genre, the dysfunctional family road-trip, and with the help of a razor-sharp script from fellow newcomer Michael Arndt, breathes into it new, albeit warped and sardonic, life.

The American everyman Greg Kinnear and the brilliant Toni Collette are Richard and Sheryl Hoover, a married couple barely holding everything together in the flat-pack suburbs of Albuquerque. She’s tired of trying, feeding the family take-out chicken on paper plates while he’s a failed motivational speaker. They have two children; teenager Dwayne (Paul Dano), who is devoted to Nietzsche and has taken a vow of silence until he is allowed to join the air force and the younger Olive (Abigail Breslin), a chubby seven year old who harbours dreams of becoming a beauty queen. Their grandpa (the extraordinary Alan Arkin) is helping her achieve this dream, in between hits from his heroin stash. When Sheryl’s brother Frank (Steve Carell), a literature professor, fails in a suicide attempt and has nowhere left to go, she takes him in, completing the dysfunctional clan. All they need now is something to do; which, when another kid drops out, takes the shape of a cross-country road trip to take little Olive to the titular Little Miss Sunshine pageant in California. With little money, they pile into the family van and hit the road.

Following the standard set by Chevy Chase in another space and time, the Hoovers clapped-out VW bus encounters engine trouble, with the part required obviously not immediately available. Dauntless, they struggle on, introducing a repeated gag where the cheerleading Richard sits behind the wheel while the rest of the family pushes, running alongside and leaping into the cabin as the van gains momentum. As a symbol of struggle, and how tenuous a hold we all have on our sense of self-belief, the backfiring yellow van would take some beating. Taking them from fleapit motels to cheap roadside diners, across the physical spaces of the American countryside and the psychological spaces between them all, it’s the vehicle, literally, that allows the estranged Hoovers to find again their freedom and the love for each other, something they have let the hassles of daily life erode away.

The screenplay allows these characters to interact in a marvellously natural manner, with the finely tuned comedy brilliantly brought to life by the stellar cast, with Carell in particular displaying a hitherto unsuspected affinity for playing bitter and lost. Kinnear’s Richard, a flailing paterfamilias has a wound-up smirk and a fine line in peppy clichés while Colette tries to hide her disappointment and despair behind an open face and a level gaze. It’s rare in film that a cast can form a credible family as completely as the Hoover’s do. The road trip, taken chiefly to give the troublingly remote Olive some much needed interaction, becomes a kind of rescue mission for the family itself, which is coming apart at the seams. Hidden away, somewhere between the bitter jokes and the gradual burn of the character’s development, there is a constant, overwhelming sense of the simple struggles of middle-class American life – a myriad of financial and career problems, the closed doors of alienated teenagers, the dreams of children and the desperate attempts by their parents to both enable them and establish a barrier that protects them from life’s hard truths for as long as possible. Illuminating this in a typically understated moment, the silent Dwayne, desperate to leave his hated family behind, turns down to sound on the TV in order to better hear his parents argue.

Although the story, which starts as a keenly observed slice of disillusioned American life, reaches beyond incredulity towards the finish, the characters sing true throughout, regardless of the increasingly daft things they are required to do. Their honesty and humanity is underscored when the Hoovers meet the other pageant parents, a collection of aspirant monsters and pushy snobs smothering their children in airbrushed fake tan and choreography. They might be struggling to keep their place on the ladder and disintegrating before our eyes, but the family never pretend to be anything other than themselves. It might take as its starting point a well-established cinema formula, but that’s not the same thing as being formulaic. Quirky, darkly observant and distinctly individual, Little Miss Sunshine is also heart-warming, funny and life affirming, and there’s no blueprint for that.

Crank Shaft

Crank, I am assured, is American street slang for methamphetamine, making it the perfect title, never mind prerequisite, for this blistering action movie which takes us through the last day on earth of an ex-pat British hit-man. Jason Statham, who has made a career out of these tough-guy chase movies following The Transporter, plays British hit-man Chev Chelios, who wakes up on the day in question with a bit of a problem. Local Chicano gangster Ricky Verona has taken umbrage with Chev eliminating a Chinese drug runner, and has administered a dose of ‘Beijing’ poison while he slept. According to the DVD message Verona leaves behind, Chev only has hours to live and there is no antidote. Already struggling, our anti-hero makes a run for it, believing there must be some way to stay alive or at least exact an excruciating revenge on his tormentors. His medical pal Dr Miles (a deliciously sleazy Dwight Yoakam) is stuck on an airplane, but tells him that the only way to keep breathing is to maintain the adrenaline level in his body until he can attend to him. Cue deliberately dangerous manoeuvres on Chev’s part as he screeches around LA, with the requirement to stay buzzed matched by the desire to avenge his own death. Meanwhile, the army of gangsters are furiously trying to finish the job, Chev’s pot-smoking surf-girl girlfriend Eve (Amy Smart) is along for her own safety and the cannon-fodder cops are closing the dragnet, following the eye of the hurricane.

A twitchy thrill ride with large dashes of charm and invention added to the high-octane mix, Crank is a superior action movie that only occasionally stops to think about what it is itself describing, making it the perfect entertainment for these attention deficit times. The grim-set Statham and his co-directors Brian Taylor and Mark Neveldine have fashioned an extraordinary punk rock action movie, one of the best of its kind in a long time, which unleashes extraordinary havoc on the screen. An instant classic of the unstoppable, one-man-army genre that takes its cues as much from Rambo and The Terminator as it does MTV and Duke Nukem, this is a light-speed paced juggernaut of vandalism and obscenity that is as thrilling as it is exhausting. The admirable stunt work and towering body count aside, the film adds layers of finesse to the mayhem by constantly changing direction and focus, cutting away to the inside of Chev’s body as the adrenaline kicks in, or the nightclub memories in the mind’s eye of his cross-dressing sidekick Kalo (Effren Ramirez).

For a film with a super-flashy visual style it’s interesting that the majority of the action is physically executed in camera; notable throughout is the lack of wire-work or digital trickery. Statham will never play Hamlet, but this is nevertheless a powerhouse performance, the effort of which is etched all over his granite face. It helps that the script is packed full of ear-catching dialogue and the soundtrack is relentless. Crank is also brilliantly photographed, with a heart-shredding pace established from the opening 8-bit credit sequence taken from old video games, the constantly mobile camera and the inventive and often surprising editing. Chev’s precarious condition means he has to pit-stop along the way, at a corner shop for a whole shelf of energy drinks, at a strip-club for a wrap of cocaine (inhaled off the floor of the gents) and best of all, at a hospital for a shot of something to keep him going that kick-starts a long chase sequence that culminates in a highly-charged encounter with a defibrillator. Crank is fiercely told, violent and crude and occasionally surreally funny, but it is bedlam throughout, pure unfettered madness really, and because of that a hugely entertaining popcorn adventure.