JON’s FILM REVIEWS

An archive of film reviews I wrote in the Noughties for movie website Phase 9. I stand by all of it (apart from maybe Garden State).


MY SUMMER OF LOVE

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Adapted loosely from a novel by Helen Cross, this charming little film about two teenage girls and their hazy summer romance provides a breath of fresh air both for audiences and for the British movie industry.

It tells the story of Mona (Nathalie Press), an orphaned, frustrated teen living above a pub in a sleepy Yorkshire village with her brother Phil (Paddy Considine), a reformed criminal and born-again Christian who wants to reclaim the valley from evil and who starts by pouring away all the pub’s booze and turning it into a prayer centre. Mona’s loneliness and boredom are relieved when she meets the posh and enigmatic Tamsin (played by Emily Blunt), a boarding-school girl back for the holidays. Despite class differences the girls form a close friendship which soon blossoms into love in the face of personal troubles – Tamsin explains that her dad is having an affair and later tells that her sister Sadie died from anorexia. But Mona (a nickname from Phil in his wittier days, her real name being Lisa) soon becomes worried when Tamsin’s intrigue at Phil’s beliefs turns into a ploy to play with his emotions.

As the two young leads, Nathalie Press and Emily Blunt form an engaging and convincing pair. Both surely have promising careers ahead of them and they admirably fill the boots of two characters who, although based on rather stereotypical notions of class, are well-drawn by screenwriter Michael Wynne.  But despite getting relatively little screen time, it’s Paddy Considine who steals the show with his turn as Phil, a man whose latent anger is never completely absorbed by his new faith. It’s a joy to watch such a neat, self-contained story as this, and Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski brings it to life wonderfully with some beautiful visuals which conjure a rare sense of exoticism in the landscapes of the Yorkshire Dales. As well as lingering shots on the countryside Pawlikowski likes to pepper the film with symbolic flourishes, for instance capturing the fervour of the Christian followers by repeatedly focusing on their outstretched, pleading hands. He shows a great stylistic touch which services the tale of the girls’ romance without distracting from it.

‘My Summer of Love’ is a delightful English drama, its enjoyable story played out with good chemistry between the two leads. For anyone who’s looking for an alternative to the mainstream gloss of ‘Alfie’, this would be 90 minutes well spent.


VERA DRAKE

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Mike Leigh's latest film, which he both wrote and directed, Vera Drake is already garnering awards and as its general release draws near, it is starting to generate some serious Oscar heat. On watching the film it's easy to understand why.

Imelda Staunton stars as the eponymous cleaning lady Vera, who lives in a small flat in 1950s London with husband Stan (Phil Davis) and their adult children, Sid and Ethel. Vera works selflessly not just for her family but also for others, regularly visiting one sick neighbour and inviting another, Reg, to dinner to make sure he eats properly. But Vera's charitable spirit goes further than her family realise, as she also secretly helps women end unwanted pregnancies, never accepting any fee. But when one girl whom she treats ends up seriously ill in hopsital, the truth is uncovered and Vera's world starts to crash in on her.

The film is a wonderfully touching tour de force by Leigh, who builds such warmth in his characters that you'd be hard pressed not to care about them as the tragic nature of the story unfolds, and although this is a very personal story it also raises the bigger debate about abortion itself, in a delicate and never didactic way. Imelda Staunton is truly excellent as Vera, and is surely deserving of an Oscar nomination for the way she breathes life into the role. The direction shows a lightness of touch that allows the story to unfold without ever deflecting from it, and the supporting cast (particularly Phil Davis as husband Stan) deserve unanimous praise for their contribution to creating such a believable world.

It's a slow burner of a film, but staying with it as the story builds is definitely worth the effort, and if it's a sensitive, thought-provoking drama that you're after, you'll be hard pressed to beat this.


KUNG FU HUSTLE

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Kung Fu Hustle is the latest zany action comedy from Stephen Chow, the ingenious Hong Kong filmmaker who last year brought us the superbly wacky
‘Shaolin Soccer’.

It sees Chow (who also wrote and directed the movie) star as Sing, a petty criminal haunted by the childhood memory of being conned into buying a pamphlet on how to be a martial arts master. Now Sing only has ambitions of joining the infamous, and surprisingly twinkle-toed, mobsters The Axe Gang, who want control of Pig Sty Alley, the last neighbourhood not yet under their control. It’s a run-down and ridiculous place, run by an old landlord (veteran actor Yuen Wah) who himself is under the thumb of his frighteningly domineering wife (played superbly by Yuen Qiu). When it emerges that three old, retired kung fu masters are living in the alley, a fierce battle for control with The Axe Gang ensues.

The whole film is laced with a cheeky slapstick tone that’s a joy to watch, topped off with spectacular effects thanks to fight choreography by the legendary Yuen Wo Ping and some wonderfully cartoonish CGI and sound effects – in a scene of carnage reminiscent of ‘Kill Bill Vol. 1’ a single fighter takes on a huge mob of suited goons, who end up flying in all directions to the sounds of a pinball machine. At the same time, Chow proves himself again to be not only a fine martial arts star but also a masterful judge of story, able to build bizarre and surreal worlds populated by believable and endearing characters.

The overall effect is one of ‘Bruce Lee meets a Loony Tunes cartoon’, not the most obvious mix, perhaps, but one that works hilariously in another piece of madcap brilliance from one of cinema’s hottest comic talents.


TRAUMA (2004)

‘A psychological chiller’ and ‘starring Colin Firth’ aren’t two phrases you’d normally expect to hear together. But that’s exactly what is served up in ‘Trauma’, the new British production from director Marc Evans.

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The story has Firth’s character, Ben, waking from a coma sustained after a car crash to find that while he survived, his wife has died. As he deals with the tragedy he struggles to piece together his own life and develops an increasing sense of paranoia, made more difficult as he has to endure a flood of media attention over the recent murder of a famous young pop star. Swamped by his problems, Ben looks to his psychiatrist and to a new friendly neighbour, Charlotte (Mena Suvari), for comfort.

The scene is set, then, for a dark thriller exploring both Ben’s inner fears and the media’s obsession with celebrity, but despite the potential the producers must have felt the film had, it ends up tangled in its own plot strands and fails to deliver. Neither theme of paranoia nor celebrity is followed through fully, and as a result the story ends up feeling more confused than Ben is supposed to be. By the end, various seeds have been planted: was it actually Ben who killed the pop star? Is his wife really dead? Is Charlotte just a figment of his imagination? But while all these questions float around unanswered, Ben is never an interesting enough character for us to truly care.

The director Evans, who previously helmed the minor hit horror MY LITTLE EYE, does his best to add some flair to the mix and manages to build up a claustrophobic feel that meshes well with the understated performance of Colin Firth, who is perhaps miscast but does his best to inject some emotion into the story. The visual flashes and Firth's acting aren’t enough, though, to paper over the cracks of a muddled script, which lacks interesting supporting characters and ultimately spirals into an anticlimax.  


THE VILLAGE

A 19th century close-knit community in rural Pennsylvania is the setting for THE VILLAGE, the latest supernatural thriller from M. Night Shyamalan, the writer/director/producer behind THE SIXTH SENSE. The big question, as with everything he’s done since his blistering debut, is whether the story all hangs on a final twist. The answer, rather unsurprisingly, is ‘yes’.

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Shyamalan has certainly managed to concoct another vivid, and different, world. This time the inhabitants of the scenic village in question, led by a group of ‘elders’ including Edward Walker (William Hurt) and Alice Hunt (Sigourney Weaver), follow a simple and seemingly idyllic life. But they never stray into the woods beyond their borders, for fear of a race of monstrous creatures that live there, and with whom they’ve maintained a fragile truce for years. So when Alice’s headstrong son Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) resolves to venture beyond the agreed boundaries, a chain of events begins that puts the whole village’s future in jeopardy.

 With the ‘spooky set-up’ box firmly ticked, Shyamalan again proves himself to be adept at building cinematic tension and playing on an audience’s fears and expectations. His problem, which THE VILLAGE demonstrates all too clearly, is relying far too heavily on playing the ‘twist’ card at the end. It seems he is really struggling to live in the shadow of the success of THE SIXTH SENSE, and four films down the line he’s now in real danger of being labelled a one-trick pony. It’s a shame for the all-star cast, who bring the story to life well in the first half, that there isn’t a more satisfying pay-off. Phoenix puts in an understated turn as the curious Lucius, and he’s more than matched by newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard (daughter of director and one-time ‘Happy Days’ star Ron) as the blind heroine and love interest, Ivy.

 But while the film looks beautiful, its slow and at times tedious pace means that by the time the big mystery is revealed it would need to be something very special to be worth the wait. If you do get swept up by the story you may think Shyamalan has struck gold again; if not, as is more likely, you’ll probably leave the cinema feeling cheated rather than rewarded.

 The Village opens in the UK on 20 August.


KINSEY

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Professor Alfred Kinsey changed many people's thinking about sex and relationships with his 1948 book 'The Sexual Behaviour of the Human Male'. He also sparked a media frenzy, and his research wasn't just groundbreaking but brought him global fame. Now writer/director Bill Condon brings his story to the big screen in this thought-provoking and emotional biopic.

Kinsey might not be the most obvious man to make a movie about, but what makes this film work so well is how Condon weaves together the professor's fascinating public work with his own personal life and how his findings impact on his own love life with college sweetheart 'Mac'. As his scientific approach to sex suggests that extra-marital sex is not only widespread but even natural, he becomes embroiled in an affair himself, with his male assistant Clyde. And things become yet more complicated when, again following Kinsey's own beliefs, Mac and Clyde also later decide to have sex. While all this is going on, Kinsey has to fight to get the second volume of his studies published, against a rising tide of anger against his radical views.

Underpinning this gripping drama are some wonderful performances, most notably from Liam Neeson, who can feel disappointed for missing out on an Oscar nomination for his touching portrayal of Kinsey, and Laura Linney as Mac, who unlike Neeson has had a nod from the Academy. Fine support comes from John Lithgow as Kinsey's domineeering father and the always excellent Peter Sarsgaard as Kinsey's assistant Clyde.

And Condon too deserves credit for a fine screenplay sensitively handled by his direction, allowing the characters room to breathe and time for the audience to really get to know, and care, about them.

Whatever the film makes you think about sex and relationships, Kinsey's greatest strength is that at least it certainly will get you thinking, and matching the strong issue-based script is a story that's always entertaining and well worth a watch.



THE LAST MITTERAND

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The 80s French government of Francois Mitterand now seems a fair old way away, and it's perhaps for this reason that director Robert Guédiguian decided he'd make a suitable subject for the biopic treatment - well, that and the fact that Mitterand was so enigmatic a figure (and a very different  political animal from the 'Iron Lady' persona of Maggie Thatcher, his British counterpart).

It’s Mitterand’s personality, his opinions and the secrets of his wartime past that provide the focus of the movie, rather than the tumultuous political events of his time in office, and it’s a perhaps surprisingly reflective piece detailing the president’s struggles as he copes with cancer in his dying days. Michel Bouquet is wholly convincing in his portrayal of Mitterand’s curious mix of character, flitting between stubbornness one moment and a mischievous sense of humour the next, which becomes all the more poignant as his illness worsens. Yet not all the drama comes from Mitterand himself, as instead his characterisation as we see it is refracted through the one-to-one interviews he grants with biographer Antoine (Jalil Lespert). It’s this device that helps conjure a sense of how captivating Mitterand was, as Antoine’s relentless passion to seek out the truth leads to him to neglect his own personal life.

The drama is played out at a slow tempo, and whether you can enjoy it for two hours may well depend on how much interest you can muster in Mitterand the man. It’s not the sort of movie that ever lights the blue touch-paper, but it proves itself to be a delicately written drama brought to life by two strong performances by the leads, and is a timely look back at the life of an intriguing world statesman of the recent past.


CLOSER

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Adapted from former ‘The Day Today’ alumnus Patrick Marber’s award-winning play, and with the small but heavyweight cast of Jude Law, Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman and Clive Owen, ‘Closer’ is unsurprisingly one of the most hotly tipped films for the new awards season. It tells the story of a ‘love quadrangle’ and their intertwining relationships, flitting between the romance of coupling up and the trauma of breaking up, and leaving all the padding in between at the door. The result is a smart mix of light and dark, punctuating the heavy drama with some polished comedy.

Obituary writer Dan meets lover Alice (Portman) by chance after she’s knocked down by a taxi, and as he accompanies her to the hospital they begin a romance which will inspire his first novel. Yet years later, when he’s promoting the book he tries it on with photographer Anna (Roberts), who at first resists his charms and chooses instead Larry (Owen), a doctor inadvertently introduced to her by Dan. But as time passes, Dan wins Anna and their affair sparks a chain reaction from which everyone gets hurt.

The film is powered by its refreshingly honest take on relationships and the pain which sexual infidelity can cause, and all four A-listers do well to bring their characters (and their flaws) to life credibly. Portman and Owen (who appeared in the stage play as Dan) excel, breathing life into Alice and Larry’s emotional wounds and desperate reactions to them, while the higher-billed Law and (particularly) Roberts pale by comparison. What stops the film from being a true classic is the unexpectedly flat direction by Mike Nichols, which drains the emotion from dramatic moments such as Larry and Alice’s encounter at the strip club, and at points the overly theatrical nature of the screenplay (which Marber himself wrote) becomes too exposed. It begs the question of whether the stage is where this truly belongs. But even so ‘Closer’ the movie exudes class, emotion and humour, and is a safe bet to garner a fair few awards in the coming months. Portman for best supporting actress? You read it here first.


THE CORPORATION

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‘The Corporation’ feels like the start of new a sub-genre of factual filmmaking – the documentary ‘epic’. At two and a half hours long, this detailed and fascinating look at what it calls ‘today’s dominant institution’ is definitely not meant to offer a light-hearted trip to the flicks, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t a trip worth making.

The film sets out by announcing that, according to US law, the corporation is legally a ‘person’, and from this starting point attempts to discover what sort of personality it possesses. The unsettling conclusion is that it shares the same fundamental disorders suffered by a psychopath. Each of these disorders is then considered in turn, and through interviews with key figures a powerful argument is built demonstrating how some multinationals have become simply too influential and how their single-minded pursuit of profit is wreaking havoc both to people and the planet. As the story is told, the filmmakers (Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan) spice up the serious subject matter with some neat flashes of wry humour, be it through anecdotes, video or old educational animations, although by the end this becomes an over-reliance on clips of Michael Moore stunts.

The main weakness of the movie is that throughout its monumental running time it tries to keep the impression of being objective while in truth it is a searing polemic against the very nature of the corporation itself. So although it is highly effective in exploring and explaining the corporation’s serious problems, it lacks balance and none of its talking heads offer any concrete alternative vision: do they think the means of production be returned to the State? It’s all left unsaid. This isn’t to say the film should be held to account for not having the answers to the big questions, but such a huge project offered a golden opportunity to explore them further.

Where the film shines is in how it brings out corporate corruption and failure, especially in a devastating exposure of Mon Santo: an American multinational which continues to inject American cows with a chemical to increase milk production (a practice banned in many other countries, including the UK), and which for a long time used its power to stop this story being broadcast on US news. The revelation is startling and is told with both zeal and style, although the lack of other detailed examples makes it feel slightly isolated as a case-study.

But while ‘The Corporation’ is certainly not flawless it’s fascinating, both because of the sheer scale and freshness of the undertaking and because its critique of this global institution is so powerful and timely. For both these reasons overall it is a simply stunning watch, and it’s a film that can’t fail to make you sit up and think.


TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE

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Five years after their last foray on the big screen (with ‘South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut’), Trey Parker and Matt Stone are back with ‘Team America: World Police’. They may have swapped animation for puppets, but their trademark mix of razor-sharp satire, boundary-pushing jokes and hilarious songs is as strong as ever.

The plot sees a Thunderbirds-esque organisation dedicated to fighting terrorists wherever they rear their heads, even if it means destroying huge swathes of cities like Paris and Cairo in the process. But when North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il threatens to wreak havoc on the world by launching a ‘9/11 x 2,356’, Team America must recruit Broadway star Gary Johnston and use his acting skills to help thwart the deadly plan.

As should be expected, when Parker and Stone choose a target for the cutting comedy they give it the full treatment, but while US-led War on Terror gets its fair share of mockery, this film is no one-trick pony, nor is it a comic equivalent of Farenheit 9/11 – in fact Michael Moore is depicted here as a hot-dog chomping suicide bomber. Even more than it is an attack on American foreign policy (interestingly George Bush is never mentioned), the film’s main targets are liberal actors, and particularly the glossy action movies typified by the films of uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, with a touching love ballad bemoaning how ‘Pearl Harbor’ sucked.

It’s the wonderful desire to puncture the pompous rubbish churned out by Hollywood which is the movie’s greatest strength, and by using puppets as ‘actors’ they are able to render ridiculous everything from Matrix-style kung-fu to a brilliantly over-the-top sex scene, to the heroes being attacked by ‘giant’ domestic cats. It’s a joy to see a film as savagely funny as this not taking sides but instead seeing everything as fair game. Climaxing in an ingenious philosophical statement which boils down global politics to being about dicks, pussies and assholes, this is Parker and Stone at their unrelenting best, and as long as you’re not easily offended, ‘Team America’ will be a pure treat.


STAGE BEAUTY

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 The parallels are obvious and the comparisons are inevitable - is 'Stage Beauty' just 'Shakespeare in Love' Mark II? Well the checklist is all ticked: historical setting, Shakespeare acted out on stage, importing American talent to play the lead(s), and an ensemble cast of British character actors. In fact, Tom Wilkinson's roles in both films gives a particular sense of deja-vu. But despite the similarities, Richard Eyre's new movie is certainly more than a carbon copy of the 1998 Oscar-winner, and underneath its skin lies a much deeper content.

Jeffrey Hatcher's adaptation of his own stage play is interested in the last generation of English male actors who learned the skill of, and earned their living from, acting female theatrical parts on the stage (well, pantomime dames excepted…). When Charles II sanctioned that women could, and indeed must, play the roles of women, these actors had their turned upside down, none more so than Ned Kynaston, a true historical figure here played superbly by Billy Crudup. Ned struggles to get to grips with the new law, and finds it even harder to bear when his dresser Maria (Claire Danes) decides to try her hand as a thespian and, to start with at least, is terrible at it.

Set a hundred years after Elizabethan times, the reversal of the 'Shakespeare in Love' gender-swapping formula is still clear, but Crudup proves far more adept at the job than Gwyneth Paltrow was. His performance is a real tour de force, and Danes is also impressive in the role of a woman who must learn the craft of acting during the course of the story. It feels like the whoel cast enjoyed tacking this material, that looks at and revels in the art of acting itself. The tone and direction are well handled in Eyre's steady hands, and the film's issues are sensitively treated, never allowed to swamp the story. Nor do they prevent a healthy sprinkling of comic moments throughout the story, most of which are excellently delivered by the ever-dependable Richard Griffiths and Rupert Everett, both in fine form. 

If a criticism is to be levelled at the film, it's that the romance between Ned and Maria does feel levered into the film towards the end to give the story a more conventional feel, and the chemistry between the two leads seems to lack that elusive spark, not quite matching their individual performances as a couple. Whether this may be because of, or despite, the apparent off-screen romance that blossomed between Crudup and Danes during shooting is something to speculate on! But nevertheless, when 'Stage Beauty' is engaged in the telling of what is an interesting and relatively untold historical story, it's a highly enjoyable watch.


GUERILLA: THE TAKING OF PATTY HEARST

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With threats of terrorist acts still pervading the news, it’s timely to be reminded of the remarkable story of Patty Hearst’s abduction by the Simbionese Liberation Army (SLA) in the 1970s, and Robert Stone’s new documentary offers a fascinating take on it.

An interesting, and well-judged, choice by Stone is to steer away from the speculation over rich heiress (and granddaughter of William Randolph) Hearst’s true motives for her actions while with the SLA. Instead he plants the focus firmly on the media circus which surrounded the kidnapping, so successfully whipped up by the self-styled terrorists that they seem to lose their way about how to deal with it. One of the most stunning aspects of the film is the extent and revealing nature of the archive footage that Stone’s managed to dig up, from the news conferences held by Patty’s distraught father to a security recording of Patty helping conduct a robbery. Another strong point is the decision not to lace the film with a voiceover, but to allow the story to be told primarily by two former members of the SLA themselves (Mike Bortin and Russ Little).

Not only is it enrapturing to watch this iconic tale of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ in action, but it’s also a salutary lesson in how the press can contribute to the sense of cult that can surround terrorists, in this case the SLA. It also shows the descent of a group of young radical idealists towards an increasingly unprincipled and desperate existence, with five of the group dying in a climactic siege and gunfight which helped expose the ineptitude of the FBI and police handling of the case. You can’t help wondering not just what were the terrorists thinking, but how they got away with it for so long.

The film has a powerful double ending which contrasts the decision of four former SLA members, including Bortin himself, to admit their role in the unintended murder of a bank worker and be sentenced to prison terms, with Hearst’s own rehabilitation into society and new role as c-list chat show guest. It rounds off an impressive retelling of a truly bizarre story.


GARDEN STATE

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An independent movie seen by some as the surprise US hit of 2004, Garden State is very much Zach Braff's film. As writer, director and star, this is some feature debut by the star of US sitcom 'Scrubs'. Braff plays Andrew 'Large' Largeman, a jobbing actor in L.A. who returns home to New Jersey for his mother's funeral after ten years spent estranged from his family. While back home he meets all sorts of old acquaintances, who are now working in bizarre jobs from gravedigger to knights selling fast food. He also has to face up to his psychiatrist father Gordon (played by Ian Holm), who's been a domineering influence on 'Large' even from the opposite coast. Large's fortunes take a turn, though, when he meets Sam (Natalie Portman), a carefree colourful character who's determined to make him make the most of life.

What makes Garden State work as a movie more than anything is its tone. Braff injects a laid back sense of humour to proceedings, and shows a good sense of visual timing. The soundtrack also helps build a sense of events washing over 'Large' rather than him actively seeking them out (Braff says many studio execs who said no to his script still kept listening to his mix tape of music for the film).

There's a danger at one point that the film will become just too morose to work as a comedy, but this evaporates with the appearance of Natalie Portman, whose performance as Sam is what gives the film its energy. Braff showed great foresight to choose her for such a role which, after years spent in the doldrums as far as good parts go, allows Portman to show what a talented actress she is. It's even more impressive given that Sam's character is under-written - she's apparently epileptic and a compulsive liar, but without going into either trait in much depth they are left feeling a bit too much like clumsy devices. That said, Braff and Portman (and Peter Sarsgaard as friend Mark) display a great on-screen chemistry which lights up the story and makes any script niggles much easier to forgive.

Towards the end of the movie we learn that Large's lethargy has been caused to a great extent by his dad's decision to put him on medication, and perhaps if this was revealed earlier it would make Large's position easier to sympathise with. As it stands, this part of the story feels rather underdeveloped and rushed (and Ian Holm is underused as the dad), but although not a perfect film Garden State has a great sense of warmth which makes it very difficult to dislike. It's a well-crafted statement of twenty-something life in America and for a debut film from Braff it's a gem, and well worth watching.


ALIENS OF THE DEEP

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James Cameron, off the back of "highest grossing film ever" Titanic, is one of Hollywood's most powerful men, and it's been a surprise to some that he's chosen to use his influence (and money) to make a couple of costly but relatively low profile IMAX features. But sitting in front of 'Aliens of the Deep' you're left in no doubt that it's fuelled by the same ambition and enthusiasm that drove his most famous blockbusters.

This new project sees Cameron himself lead a team of scientists down to the depths of the oceans with state of the art equipment to investigate some of the most fascinating and little known lifeforms on the planet. On a succession of dives the film serves up a wonderful vision of life under the sea, and builds to a climax wondering what life might lurk in the hypothesised subterranean oceans on other worlds in the solar system and beyond. At the end Cameron's imagination finally takes over, as fact is replaced by speculation, but fortunately this doesn't encroach on the spectacle.

What makes this film noteworthy, and special, is that it's been filmed in IMAX, and if you're considering watching it make sure it's on an IMAX screen. As a plain documentary 'Aliens of the Deep' isn't especially captivating or insightful, at points feeling more like a glorified Disney ride than serious science. However, as a visual experience in IMAX the ride really does become worth taking, and in certain points the images are breathtaking. Given that Cameron takes NASA scientists on his voyages and the film ends up in the far reaches of other planets, it sometimes seems that he'd much rather be exploring space than the sea, and there are moments when he's clearly enjoying the cheesy dialogue and being in front of the camera for a change. It's no surprise too, after watching this, that Cameron's planning to return to sci-fi soon with his new project 'Battle Angel'. But despite these quibbles this is one of the few IMAX features made so far which doesn't just feel like a gimmick but which really exploits the new technology to enhance the cinema experience. It's (nautical) miles away from a David Attenborough programme, but this very different natural history film is well worth a look - if you can see it in IMAX.


ROIS ET REINE

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In Rois et Reine, the new film by French director Arnaud Desplechin, parallel storylines tell the tales of two ex-lovers, Nora and Ismael: Nora's now a single mother who has to care for her terminally ill father; meanwhile Ismael, a brilliant musician holed in up in mental ward, plots his escape.

The film revolves around the elegant and beautiful Nora, played by Emmanuelle Devos, and the various men whose lives are entwined with hers, across the generations. For she has to care both for her elderly father, a celebrated writer dying from terminal cancer, and at the same time for her young son Elias, whose father Pierre died before he was born. And in the midst of this Nora wants Ismael, who’s her second lover and trying to escape from the hospital, to care for Elias.

Nora’s at the heart of all of this, and her portrayal perhaps becomes too harsh as the film reaches its climax. This may have something to do with the fact that in France the film was seen to be an attack by Desplechin on his former lover Marianne Denicourt (who then wrote a book which was a thinly veiled counter-attack). Yet despite this Rois et Reine is a rich and intriguing drama, with characters depicted sensitively by a fine ensemble cast (as well as Devos, Mathieu Almaric and Catherine Deneuve offer strong support).

The biggest problem is a rather simple one – the film is just too long. 2 hours and 40 minutes is the sort of duration that might be expected of a grand, sweeping epic, but for such a low-key romantic drama as this it eventually outstays its welcome. This is a shame as the characters do benefit from the time afforded to them, but it’s hard to see how it couldn’t have been more concise. Some scenes are particularly weakly scripted and acted, such as the flashbacks with the appearance of the dead husband Pierre, and they take the shine away from what is fundamentally a good story. To enjoy this fully will need a good dose of patience, but if you can get past the running time, it’s an entertaining watch.


NOTRE MUSIQUE

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The latest film from acclaimed French director Jean-Luc Godard, Notre Musique is a curious blend of abstract cinema, documentary and fiction. It’s divided into three sections, or ‘kingdoms’ (namely ‘Hell, ‘Purgatory’ and ‘Heaven’), each very distinct, and certainly in the case of ‘Hell’, pretty hard to watch.

This first section is a long montage of war atrocities, blending clips of documentaries and narrative films. It’s powerful stuff, and the relentlessness of the violent imagery (which might not look out of place in the footage Alex is forced to sit through in ‘A Clockwork Orange’) evokes an immediate sense of despair at the state of the human race.

A narrative appears for the first time only in the second act, ‘Purgatory’, in which Godard himself and various other literary figures converge on Sarajevo for a literary conference, where they talk about their hopes and fears for peace. There’s plenty of focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but both here and in the final part (‘Heaven’) which follows a young journalist involved in a suicide bomb attack, issues are raised but not fully pursued. The result is a continuing sense of hopelessness, which might have be more captivating if Godard had wrapped it in a full narrative with rounded characters. Instead we’re given no more than passing snapshots, leaving a strong aftertaste of frustrated and unfulfilled promise.

Notre Musique is the sort of film that can’t help but make you think, but despite running at only 79 minutes, it manages to feel rambling and, even, lazy. Godard’s work remains ingtriguing, though, for its delight in pioneering and rule-breaking, and if you’re looking for a very different anti-war voice this film will do the trick.


CRIMINAL

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'Criminal' (a US remake of the critically acclaimed Argentinian film 'Nine Queens') is a slick independent heist movie, a fact that shouldn’t surprise when the names Clooney and Soderbergh appear in the credits as producers. It follows a young hustler named Rodrigo (Diego Luna) who’s desperate for money to help pay off his father’s debts and who gets taken under the wing of John C Reilly’s Richard, an older and more experienced conman looking for a new partner. Soon an opportunity to trick a millionaire businessman out of a fortune offers the pair a chance to get rich, if they can work together.

As the directorial debut of longtime Soderbergh collaborator Gregory Jacobs it’s an efficiently told tale, and the transfer of the story from Argentina to Los Angeles works perfectly well even if it doesn’t fully answer why a remake was actually necessary. It’s held together by a good central chemistry between Reilly and Luna’s bickering con-artists and if anything it all feels a bit rushed, clocking at just 87 minutes. With such a short running time some of the characters feel undercooked, which is a shame given the talented supporting cast on show, headed by the excellent Maggie Gyllenhaal as Richard’s long-suffering sister. The final twist also lacks some of the punch of the original, but for the most part the story's panache remains intact. While ‘Nine Queens’ is the superior film, Criminal' is nevertheless an engaging and entertaining watch, and certainly doesn't outstay its welcome.


THE PRINCE AND ME

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'The Prince and Me' is a modern re-spinning of the old Prince Charming yarn as a feel-good romantic comedy. The 'Me' in question is Paige Morgan (Julia Stiles), an American medical student about to start another year's study and determined to pass her forthcoming exams. Little does she know that her life is about to be turned upside-down by the arrival of Eddie (Luke Malby), a.k.a. Edvard, Crown Prince of Denmark, who thinks spending a year incognito at a Wisconsin University will be a free ticket to loose women and alcohol. Needless to say, Paige and Eddie cross paths and manage spectacularly to defeat each other's expectations for the year ahead. And that's before Paige learns of Eddie's royal heritage.

An immediate problem for films like this is that the audience already knows the main twist of the story before it even starts. The director, Martha Coolidge, manages to counter the threat of boredom by carving out some fun scenes between the two leads, and there is good on-screen chemistry between Stiles and Malby. It's a shame, then, that Coolidge (who was behind the camera for many episodes of 'Sex and the City') doesn't bring much of the style or wit of that TV series to the big screen. It's all a bit too formulaic and predictable, as Paige and Eddie gradually get together 'against the odds', and there's very little in the way of interesting supporting characters to enjoy. For some reason the casting director decided to choose British actors to play the Danish Royal Family, and only the ever-dependable Miranda Richardson (playing the queen) even attempts a Danish accent. It leaves you wondering whether the filmmakers would much rather have been telling a story abotu the much higher-profile British royals instead. One noteworthy performance comes from Ben Miller, one half of British TV comedy duo Armstrong & Miller, who puts in a decent turn as the Prince's servant Soren, and he gets most of the film's best lines.

Strangely the film only really gets its motor running in the final half-hour, as Paige decides to chase after Eddie once he's gone back to Denmark to become king. The tone up to this point has been so constant that once Eddie proposes marriage you could expect the credits to follow straightaway. But instead we get to see Paige trying to get used to royal life and we begin to share her dilemma - does she accept the chance to be queen, even it means giving up her dreams? It's a shame that this is rushed through at the end, as it provides a neat balance to Eddie's need earlier on to adapt to normal college life, and it gives the story a bit of depth.

Ultimately this movie is a vehicle for Julia Stiles who, having starred in other teen-flicks like "Ten Things I Hate About You" and "O", again proves she's the undispited queen of the college-based romantic comedy genre. She's a highly talented actress and seems able to handle movies like this on autopilot. Given that she's currently getting West End stage experience in the intense drama 'Oleanna', it would be great to see her taking on meatier film roles too in the near future.

As a straightforward rom-com, though, 'The Prince and Me' hits the right buttons and it should prove popular with its intended audience of pre-teen/teenage girls, who might well like to see something other than Spiderman 2 this summer.


BROTHERHOOD (TAEGUKGI)

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The first thing that hits you about this epic on the Korean War is the eye-popping nature of its production values. It’s not surprising that it’s the most expensive movie in South Korean film history, but by modern standards it was still pretty cheap to make ($13 million). And yet it shares much with one of the biggest American war movies made in recent years, namely Saving Private Ryan.

This proves to be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand director Je-Gyu Kang treats us to plenty of death and carnage but on the other he slaps on layers and layers of sentimentality, just as Spielberg did. The story sees brothers Jin-tae (Jang Dong-gun) and Jin-seok (Won Bin) conscripted into the army to fight the invading communists. Jin-tae learns that if he can win the medal of honour he can save Jin-seok from the front line, and with this in mind he volunteers for various suicide missions and embarks on a killing spree, until he becomes consumed by bloodlust and personal glory.

It’s here that the story lurches into a more melodramatic tone that doesn’t sit well with the gore and killing that surrounds it. This soap-opera element is made all the more obvious by a sickly score which again clearly betrays Western influences, all the more strange given the current trend of American directors borrowing from their Asian counterparts. The upshot is that while Brotherhood is visually superb, emotionally it’s a bit of a mess.


STRINGS

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It's a perhaps unlikely decision to tell an epic story about the struggle between two mythic races by the use of puppets, but that's been the four-year project of writer/director Anders Rønnow-Klarlund in bringing 'Strings' to the screen.

The plot sees Hal, heir to the throne of his kingdom set out on a quest to kill opposition leader Kharo and avenge the murder of his father, only to  discover a cover-up by his wicked uncle Nezo who plans to seize power. Hal's journey and his quest for justice give the story a slight taste of 'Danish  mythology meets Gladiator', and from about 30 minutes in it shouldn't be rocket science to work out where it's all going to go. And this is a real shame, because the look of the film is simply stunning. It's beautifully shot and finely puppeteered, particularly a genuinely emotional sex scene which manages to be just as moving as its parallel in 'Team America: World 
Police' is crudely hilarious. It's also a clever stroke to make the puppets' strings integral to the characters and the world of the story (even long shots of cities and battlefields show the skyline raked with hundreds of strings).  And it's all backed up by a heavyweight British cast providing the English langauge voicework. Derek Jacobi and Ian Hart are a strong combo as the villainous pair Nezo and Ghrak, showing up somewhat the whiny and actually unsympathetic portrayal of the hero Hal by James McAvoy.

There's some fine filmmaking on show here, and if only the rather convoluted cod-Shakespearian intrigue of the first act could have been dealt with more crisply and quickly, the surprisingly savage action of the finale would have been all the more satisfying. It takes itself too seriously too, where a hint of comic relief would have been welcome to break the one-tone feel.

If the makers had spent as long on the script as on the production of 'Strings', the result might well have been unmissable, but as it is in this case at least, beautiful looks can't make up for a predictable plot and a real lack of soul.


LITTLE BLACK BOOK

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Brittany Murphy stars as Stacy, a young woman who’s just got her first job in television as an associate producer for a sub-Jerry Springer daytime talk show, in this romantic ‘comedy’ that does get you wondering, if only about how films like this managed to get greenlit.

The plot has Stacy, whose boyfriend Derek (Ron Livingston) is reluctant to talk about past relationships, stumbling upon his Palm Pilot – or electronic ‘little black book’ - while he’s on a trip away and succumbing increasingly to temptation to dig into his secretive past. Acting as the little devil on her shoulder egging her on is work colleague Barb (Holly Hunter), who wants to help Stacy get to the bottom of the mystery. And at the same time the talk show is busy preparing an episode on the very theme of the ‘Little Black Book’. As Stacy keeps delving into Derek’s past, she engineers meetings with a succession of his former girlfriends and discovers that at least one of them isn’t as far from Derek’s life as she expected, but soon enough her meddling comes back to haunt her.

Stacy’s actions hardly make her a likeable character, but instead of pursuing the dark tone that this story needs Brittany Murphy plays her as a poor innocent just caught up in a big mistake. With such an uninteresting lead role, the supporting parts are left floundering in the wake of a truly awful script and the mind boggles how Holly Hunter and Kathy Bates (as the small-time talk show host) can end up in such a mess of a film. The only freshness here is in a climax which does provide a good final twist, but it comes far too late to be a saving grace.

Little Black Book ends with a truly cringe-worthy cameo by Carly Simon, whose songs Stacy likes to listen to when she’s upset. Unfortunately, when it comes to this kind of film, most people could do it better.


WHO KILLED BAMBI?

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The ‘Bambi’ of the title, in this medical thriller from director Gilles Marchand, is Isabelle (Sophie Quinton), a beautiful nursing student suffering from bouts of fainting at the hospital. It’s for this reason that suave, respected surgeon Dr. Philipp (Laurent Lucas) gives her the nickname, seeing as she’s unable to keep her footing, just like the famous Disney character. It turns out, though, that Philipp has a much less respectable habit, in the form of his treatment of patients at night.

This is the directorial debut of Marchand, who’s already carved out a successful career as a writer (notably on the thriller HARRY, HE’S HERE TO HELP), and here he’s certainly able to convey a strong sense of the hospital’s unnerving atmosphere, helped greatly by Pierre Millon’s cinematography. It’s a shame, then, especially given Marchand’s record, that the plot isn’t more gripping and unpredictable. While Quinton does well to bring to life Isabelle’s vulnerability, Lucas’ performance as the doctor feels too full-on, so it becomes incredible he’s not suspected of the crimes earlier on, or by more people.

Perhaps the biggest problem with WHO KILLED BAMBI? is that it barely carries enough suspense through the story to justify its genre billing as a thriller. What’s left instead is a mainly tedious drama punctuated by unengaging subplots, together with an anticlimactic ending. It seems that in helming his first feature Marchand has forgotten what made much of his previous work so strong, namely a top-drawer story.


R-POINT

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Vietnam is the setting for this new supernatural chiller from writer/director Kong Su-chang. It tells the story of some soldiers from Korea (who sent thousands of troops to assist the US in the war), who receive disturbing radio signals apparently from a unit stationed in the isolated region codenamed ‘Romeo Point’. The trouble is that all the soldiers from the unit in question are supposed to be dead. In response to the distress call a platoon is sent out to investigate the area, which turns out to be under a horrific curse. This is something that the soldiers, led by Captain Choi Tae-in (Kam Woo-sung), discover slowly as they are terrorised by supernatural forces on their way.

It’s a powerful idea to pit armed troops against a ghostly enemy, as this is one situation in which guns and armoury, which might well be effective on the battlefield, won’t help. But of course the premise is certainly not something new – the classic reference point is obviously John McTiernan’s PREDATOR, and it’s unsurprising (and a bit disappointing) that some of the traditional basic army character-types are to be found among the troops (the tough-talking sergeant, the young blood yet to see combat, and so on). That said, the talented young Korean ensemble cast do a good job of bringing life to the group as the horror worsens, and Su-chang too does well to breathe a real sense of fear into the action, exploiting the claustrophobic environment of the Cambodian jungle where the film is mostly shot. The clever use of the landscape to build tension is also effective, and again reminiscent of PREDATOR.

It’s arguable that, having raised the interesting fact of Korea’s involvement in Vietnam, perhaps R-POINT misses the chance to say something about that country’s attitude to the war, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that this is fundamentally a ghost story, not a political movie. Like so many of the top quality movie exports from the Far East over the last few years, this film does deliver in offering a good few chilling moments worth the admission money. The plot does drag in places and a deeper insight into the soldiers’ characters would have been welcome, but this mix of war and horror is for the most part a satisfying blend.


LA NINA SANTA

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Written and directed by Lucrecia Martel, LA NINA SANTA (aka THE HOLY GIRL) is a charming Argentinean / Spanish / Italian film about the relationships between the main characters, which are portrayed very delicately and explores the story of the triangle that develops between the three of them.

It stars Mercedes Moran as world-weary mum Helena, living in the dilapidated family hotel where she’s bringing up her daughter Amalia (played with great sophistication by young talent Maria Alche). When the mysterious Dr Jano (Carlos Belloso) comes to stay at the hotel for a medical conference, Helena becomes interested in him even though she knows he’s married with children.

The story takes a dramatic turn though, when in a crowd of people watching a street performer Jano presses himself sexually against Amalia. The young girl then spies on the doctor for days, telling her young friend Josefina (Julieta Zylberberg) that she has a mission to save the man from sin. With their knowledge, the doctor’s world lies in the hands of a pair of adolescent girls.

It’s this fact that makes the story so compelling. Director Martel does a wonderful job in depicting the huge gap between the innocence and lack of consequences of a child’s life and the trials and tribulations of adulthood, together with the tension and drama that can result when the two worlds collide.

Strong performances from the cast are backed up by great subtle visuals, and the final shot of the two girls swimming together, just as the full effects of Jano’s actions are about to come crashing down, is tantalising. Martel has crafted a fine, polished tale, and comes highly recommended.


5x2 (aka CINQ FOIS DEUX)

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Watching a divorce lawyer reading out the terms of a couple’s separation while they sit and listen isn’t the most comforting start to a romantic drama, but it’s a mesmeric way to catapult us into the lives of Gilles (Stephane Freiss) and Marion (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) in 5×2. The title refers to the five emotional vignettes, told in reverse order, through which their relationship is recounted, in this latest film by François Ozon, director of the critically acclaimed SWIMMING POOL.

It’s not the first time the device of telling a story backwards has been used to good effect in screenwriting, but even so it really does work a treat here, making you want to keep watching and learning more about the couple’s past, even though (and because) you know their romance is ultimately doomed. The film starts at the moment of the divorce settlement and a seedy, pre-arranged, final fling in a hotel. Ozon then shows us selected snapshots of their life together, taking in a dinner party with Gilles’ gay brother and his younger partner in which conversation turns to infidelity, and where the cracks in the marriage are clear to see. Going back further, we’re taken back to the birth of the couple’s child (and Gilles’ absence from it), and then to the wedding night, when Marion meets a strange American and ends up having sex with him. The final vignette shows the two of them flirting on holiday, building to their implied getting together as the credits roll.

The screenplay, co-written by Ozon, is a beautiful distillation of how love can blossom, fracture and finally shatter between two people, and both Freiss and Tedeschi are gripping and entirely convincing as Gilles and Marion. Neither party is guiltless in the collapse of the marriage, and it’s one of the film’s pleasures that it raises potent questions about relationships without offering any easy or reassuring answers. The result is a powerful and passionate drama, which comes highly recommended and confirms Ozon’s talents as a filmmaker.


MILWAUKEE, MINNESOTA

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This charming little independent film tells the story of Albert, a retarded twenty-something living in Milwaukee with his overprotective mum, and who has a special talent – he’s a champion ice fisherman, winning thousands of dollars in prize money in competitions across the state. When his mum’s killed in a suspicious ‘hit and run’ incident, Albert is left alone and is soon preyed upon for his money by both smooth-talking salesman Jerry James and a pair of streetwise teenagers, Tuey and Stan.

It takes a little while to find its feet, but once the main characters are all introduced and the pace subtly quickens it’s hard not to get sucked into what is a simple but infectious story. Troy Garitty gives a deftly understated performance as Albert, and fine foils are provided by Randy Quaid (as the scheming Jerry) and particularly Alison Folland’s seductive Tuey. On this evidence both Garitty and particularly Folland are ones to watch for the future.

The whole film is cleverly crafted, and screenwriter R.D. Murphy skilfully interweaves Albert’s attempts to cope alone with the plotting and manoeuvring of everyone who walks into his life. For a feature debut, director Alan Mindel has served up an intriguing little gem, and if you have a soul it’ll surely be touched by the time you reach the poignant ending. Catch this if you can.