Thursday, September 29, 2011

Review - The Change-Up

Sometimes a film just makes me despair. The Change-Up is the latest body-swap comedy to emerge from Hollywood, but few entries in this long-running genre have ever been more dispiriting or odious than this witless farce. The film fails on every conceivable level, but it's hard to avoid the notion that they have failed because they barely tried to make something worthwhile in the first place. There's nothing inherently wrong with making another body-swap movie – as recently as 2003 I thoroughly enjoyed Mark Waters' Freaky Friday – but to make a successful one you need just a little bit of wit and imagination, a clever central conceit, and characters whose predicament we can care about or at the very least be interested in. The Change-Up doesn't offer any of these qualities and the overwhelming sense one is left with as the credits roll is one having experienced a film that possesses an astonishing level of contempt for both its characters and its audience.

The Change-Up's premise is fundamentally broken by its choice of the two characters who undergo this switch of bodies. An old man swapping bodies with a teenager is interesting, a mother inhabiting the body of her daughter is interesting – one bland, middle-aged white guy trading places with another middle-aged white guy is not interesting. Jason Bateman is Dave, who we first meet when he goes to tend to his two screaming (and badly CGI-d) babies and takes a mouthful of projectile shit from one as he changes its nappy (weirdly, the camera focusing on the infant's dilating anus before the shit is unleashed). If there's one thing we learn from The Change-Up's depiction of Dave's life, it's that marriage is a miserable, stressful, sexless nightmare, so it's little wonder that he wishes he could live the life enjoyed by his buddy Mitch (Ryan Reynolds), a mostly unemployed actor whose chief pursuits are pot-smoking and promiscuous sex. What's less clear is why Mitch would want to trade places with Dave, but for the purposes of moving the story forward, he wishes just that and thus the pair switch bodies as they both piss into a magical fountain.

The 'comedy' that ensues is just stupefying in its crassness and its dullness. Mitch proves to be predictably incompetent as he is tasked with closing Dave's major business deal while Dave is completely out of his depth on the shoot of a porn movie and hapless when it comes to Mitch's many lovers. Part of the reason The Change-Up isn't funny is because Bateman and Reynolds' lack of distinctive mannerisms or a recognisable acting style means you constantly need to remind yourself who is playing who, but the main reason it isn't funny is because every single joke is cheap, ugly and juvenile. Aside from the film's inexplicable fecal-obsession (as well as the baby shit both Bateman and Leslie Mann are shown taking a dump, while Bateman also sticks his finger up a woman's arse), the gags rely on all characters behaving with implausible levels of stupidity. But for the most reprehensible aspect of the film, it's hard to see past the way The Change-Up treats its women. They are all strange, faintly disgusting creatures who have babies, get old and sometimes even goes to the toilet (pass the sick bag!), and they're held up for our mockery and revulsion unless they are willing to play the role of fun-loving sex object (a part Olivia Wilde dutifully fills).

Here's the thing about The Change-Up. It wants us to see it as a raunchy, taboo-breaking comedy, but at heart it is bound by the formulaic and deeply entrenched conservatism of Hollywood (when Dave has the opportunity to have sex with the woman he has lusted after for years, why does a sudden pang of conscience drive him back to his wife?). Nothing in the movie is real or honest. The characters don't convince (it's impossible to believe that these two guys would still be friends) the obstacles they face are hackneyed (Mitch has a rocky relationship with his dad – fucking daddy issues yet again. Get a grip, Hollywood!) and their eventual epiphanies feel totally artificial, emerging from the need to hastily wrap the script up and nothing more. The Change-Up exemplifies mainstream Hollywood at its worst, displaying a scant regard for quality or for the taste and standards of its audience. You may have noticed that at no point in this review have I mentioned the name of the director – sorry, I didn't catch the credit. Let's just look at The Change-Up as another forgettable piece of garbage, rolling off the production line of a filmmaking industry that hates you.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Review - Mademoiselle Chambon

In other hands, Mademoiselle Chambon could have been a passionate, heady romance, but director Stéphane Brizé is not interested in playing it that way and the film is all the more effective as a result. The story brings together family man Jean (Vincent Lindon) and schoolteacher Véronique Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain) through a stroke of ill-fortune – when Jean's wife is hurt at work and cannot pick up their son from school – but the relationship that develops between them is built in small steps. After their first encounter, Véronique invites Jean to come back and speak to the class about his career as a construction worker and then asks him to drop by her house to look at a damaged window. All the time, this pair are edging closer together, but they do so in such a tentative, hesitant fashion. There are raging passions here, but they just happen to exist below the surface.

One of the catalysts that sparks their romance is music. Jean discovers that Véronique plays the violin and he gets her to perform for him, which she does so with her back turned as she is too nervous to perform for an audience. Music helps to build a bridge between them, with Jean being moved by her skill and Véronique appearing to emerge out of her timid self when she plays for him. Brizé's last film to be released here was Not Here to be Loved, another sensitively played romance in which two people were drawn together by a shared passion (in that instance, it was dance) and once again the director shows a remarkable knack for allowing scenes to breathe and develop in a manner that feels entirely organic. That same generosity is extended to the actors, who excel in their subtly drawn roles. Lindon is hugely impressive as an ordinary working-class character experiencing feelings he never anticipated, while delicate beauty Kiberlain manages to bring emotional depth to her character while retaining an intriguing unknowable quality.

Brizé expertly sustains the sense of longing and the erotic tension that exists between Jean and Véronique as well as creating authentic relationships between Jean and his wife (Aure Atika) and elderly father (Jean-Marc Thibault), but what's most impressive about Mademoiselle Chambon is how he does so much while saying so little. Words are less important in this film than looks and gestures, and Antoine Héberlé's camera is alive to the meaning that exists in the most fleeting of glances. The most refreshing aspect of Mademoiselle Chambon is its willingness to leave so much unsaid, but that understated approach is precisely what allows it to cut deeper than most screen romances.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Blu-ray Review - Manhunter

The Film

If you hear the name Hannibal Lecter, what do you see? Most people will instantly bring to mind Anthony Hopkins, who won an Oscar for his performance in The Silence of the Lambs and subsequently reprised the role in two further movies, but some will surely think of Brian Cox delivering lines with subdued menace as "Dr Hannibal Lecktor" in Manhunter. This was the first screen appearance of Thomas Harris' brilliant, sadistic villain, but he's very much on the periphery of this picture and had not yet morphed into the camp, spotlight-hogging character that Hopkins would eventually turn him into. When the novel Red Dragon was later adapted for a second time – by Brett Ratner – it seemed as if Hollywood was trying to wipe away the memory of this unusual 80's thriller, but Manhunter deserves a better fate than to be remembered as the "other" Hannibal Lecter movie.

The true villain of the piece in Manhunter is Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan), but we don't meet him until almost an hour of the movie has elapsed. Instead, we see the aftermath of his crimes, as the killer known only as "The Tooth Fairy" slays families in their sleep. Will Graham (William Petersen) is the tormented FBI agent leading us through the crime scene. At the start of the movie Graham is retired, having suffered a breakdown after his confrontation with Lecktor, but he is coaxed back into action by the Tooth Fairy murders, as his unique perspective on the mind of a murderer makes him the only man capable of bringing him to justice. Graham walks in the footsteps of his prey and tries to enter into the murderer's thoughts. In a superb sequence, Graham reconstructs Dollarhyde's actions as he watches a video of his victims' home movies, gradually starting to see the world through the eyes of a killer.

Eyes and the act of seeing are key motifs in Manhunter – "Do you see?" Dollarhyde repeats as he presents images of William Blake's Red Dragon, which he dreams of becoming. After killing his victims, he replaces their eyes with shards of mirrors so he can see his image reflected in them, and the woman he is infatuated with (Joan Allen's Reba) is blind and therefore can't see the disfigurement that he is so conscious of. Noonan's performance as Dollarhyde is sensitive and devastating and his scenes with Allen are beautifully played, but it's Petersen's driven central performance that really impresses. All of the horrors Graham has subjected himself to in the line of duty are visible in his tired face and wary demeanour, and his turn matches beautifully with Cox in their key scene together. Cox plays Lecktor with a relaxed arrogance; we first see him slumped in his startlingly white cell, partially obscured by the door. He only has a small role in Manhunter but he nails it so effectively, capturing the insidious nature of Lecktor's dialogue: "Dream much, Will?"

Cox's style is very different to that later adopted by Hopkins and the overall aesthetic of Manhunter is distinct from the later entries in the series. If you need a lesson in how working with a creative, visionary director can affect a cinematographer's work, then compare Dante Spinotti's filming on Manhunter with the images he conjured in Ratner's drably uninspired Red Dragon. Manhunter looks sensational throughout with Mann's typically vivid hues creating a rich, unsettling atmosphere, and his use of a subjective camera makes us see what Dollarhyde and Graham see. The film builds to a remarkable climax set against In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida and when you look at the wide variety of virtues that Manhunter offers it's puzzling that it remains the film received such a lukewarm reception upon its release and that its cult status has taken so long to solidify. At the very least, the film deserves to be considered the equal of the much-lauded The Silence of the Lambs, and in many ways perhaps Mann's film is superior. This may not be the Hannibal Lector you know, but it's one you should know.

The Extras

Both the theatrical and director's cut are present here with the latter featuring a commentary by Michael Mann. He's a dry talker and sometimes states the obvious, but he also offers illuminating technical details and discusses the psychological layers behind his story. Mann is absent from the retrospective documentary but interviews with the major cast members compensate, and Dante Spinotti provides an interesting interview in which he explains how he and Mann created Manhunter's distinctive look.

Manhunter will be released on blu-ray on September 26th

Buy Manhunter here

Friday, September 23, 2011

Review - Page One: Inside The New York Times

I knew I was going to enjoy Page One: Inside The New York Times as soon as it began. The opening credits run over images of the newspaper being prepared for its morning despatch – machines whirring as pages run through them, before being bundled and driven out in a fleet of vans. It is a familiar and heartening sight, but this is exactly what we are on the verge of losing, with print newspapers dying out in the digital age. Andrew Rossi's documentary couldn't have been filmed at a more turbulent time for America's "paper of record," having been shot while the Times saw sales drop, was forced to let long-serving staff members go, and faced difficult questions about its future as the entire media landscape shifted irrevocably.

Page One is a fly-on-the-wall film that takes us into the New York Times offices, observing both the everyday operations of the paper and examining the situation that it currently finds itself in. To do all of that in a shade over ninety minutes is a tall order and if I have a criticism of Page One, it's that Rossi tries to cover too much in a short period. Being allowed to watch as the paper gets put together is a fascinating and rare opportunity, but the filmmaker's attempt to blend that with the vast and complex subject of print media's uncertain future risks eating into the amount of time he can spend on those scenes, and vice versa. Both subjects are probably interesting enough to merit a feature in themselves.

Having said that, the feature we have is a solidly entertaining and thought-provoking one. The shift between the traditional values of the paper and the new world of technology is epitomised by young reporters such as Brian Stelter, who blogs and tweets and an extraordinary rate while filing his stories; but as adaptable fresh talent such as Stelter thrives, stalwarts from the paper's other departments – having given decades of service to the Times – receive news of their redundancies. The paper is rapidly reshaping itself for this new age and many of the contributors whom Rossi interviews have opinions on the its current position and future viability (some have already written an obituary for the Times), but as David Carr explains, even in the vast network of news sites and blogs that now inhabit the world wide web, the source for all stories is often the same – the New York Times.

Carr is a force of nature and he provides Page One with a fascinating, effortlessly charismatic central protagonist. A media columnist with the paper, Carr is a passionate advocate for everything the Times represents, even going off the record in an interview to angrily chastise his subject after an ill-advised remark against the paper. As he stalks around the NY Times office in his distinctive manner, grouchily espousing his own ideas on the changing face of journalism, Carr is at the centre of Page One's most memorable scenes. Towards the end of the film, Rossi follows Carr closely as he puts together a major story, ringing his contacts, checking his facts, piecing together the evidence he uncovers and gradually building the finished article through his painstaking work. It's truly compelling viewing and a vital reminder that no matter what media receive our news from, quality journalism such as this is at the bottom of it all. It is an invaluable commodity and one that must not be lost as the times rapidly change.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Review - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Thomas Alfredson's new film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is about as good a two-hour movie as I can imagine being made from John le Carré's spy novel. In 1979, the BBC adapted the story into a seven-episode miniseries that has subsequently been hailed as a TV classic, so how can we expect a single movie to compress such a complex and slow-burning plot into a fraction of the time without losing some sense of complexity or depth? The good news is that the film stands up to the inevitable comparisons to both the source material and the television version and comes out of it looking pretty good. Sure, it may not be the definitive Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but the fidelity and integrity that screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan have shown in adapting le Carré's story is admirable, and as a showcase for both a gifted young director and the cream of British acting talent, the film is hard to beat.

The first thing one notices about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is how superbly Alfredson and his team have nailed the atmosphere of the world that the story takes place in. This is a tale of spies and double agents, but there is nothing overtly thrilling about the manner in which the film is presented. George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is a British Secret Service agent forced into retirement along with head of the agency Control (John Hurt) after a bungled mission in Budapest results in one of their men being ambushed. However, there is talk of a Soviet mole "right at the top of the Circus" and as a man who is now on the outside Smiley is the perfect candidate to find out who exactly the traitor is. As Smiley, Oldman gives the most reserved and minimalist possible, sinking into the role of a character who keeps his cards close to his chest at all times, a character who has taken the notion that "careless talk costs lives" to his heart so literally that he barely utters a word.

It's a central performance of remarkable restraint and subtlety, and it's also an entirely selfless piece of acting, providing the film with a calm anchor and allowing other actors to steal the limelight with their more animated turns. Of these, Tom Hardy (as the anxious agent Ricki Tarr), Benedict Cumberbatch (as the man Smiley enlists to help him find the truth) and Mark Strong (as a former agent trying to start his life anew). It seems harsh to pick out individual performances, though, because the whole ensemble excels, with some wonderful actors maximising their impact with just a few minutes of screen time (Simon McBurney and Kathy Burke particularly). It is an embarrassment of acting talent and their ability to instil their characters with immediate depth and texture is vital in a film that has little time for introductions.

Because there is an awful lot of plot to cram into Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. As written by le Carré, the story is paced in a measured fashion and steadfastly refuses to juice things up with action when a quiet conversation will suffice. By necessity, the film condenses this narrative but through some judicious editing and utilisation of flashbacks and expository scenes, it manages to keep the plot moving while maintaining the deliberate rhythms of le Carré's storytelling. Alfredson orchestrates so many scenes beautifully, from the fateful Budapest ambush outlined above, to Ricki's nervous adventure in Istanbul and a gripping attempt to steal valuable documents from deep within the bowels of the Circus. Every frame of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is crafted with love and attention to detail, which is why it pains me so much to say that there's something missing at the heart of it all.

Maybe it's just that – heart. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an immaculate piece of work, with the rich but unfussy production design and artistically drab cinematography immersing us in the world of its characters, but while I found myself admiring every aspect of the film individually, I just couldn't love the whole. The film wants you to believe that there's a torrent of suppressed emotion hiding behind these closed-off façades, but I never felt it, and the manner in which the film kept me at arm's length throughout meant it ended up falling short of where each aspect of its production seems to place it. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is in many ways a film about love – the love of one's country, the love of a woman, the love of one's fellow man – and what it feels like when that love has been betrayed, but the characters and the filmmakers keep those feelings buried too deep to have any real and lasting impact.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

"It was all about building this relationship where it's all a big game, even though for you it's a lot of anxiety" - An interview with Céline Sciamma

Céline Sciamma received great acclaim for her debut film Water Lilies in 2007, a sharp and beautiful exploration of the relationship between two teenage girls in the world of synchronised swimming. Her second film Tomboy also concerns a young girl going through a difficult and confusing period in her life, and once again Sciamma has proven herself to be a sensitive and skilful filmmaker, capable of handling potentially troublesome scenes with remarkable grace. Warm, intelligent and moving, Tomboy is one of the best films of the year, and I met Céline Sciamma in London this week to talk about it.

The thing I loved most about Tomboy is how it accurately showed the way children behave when there are no adults present. What is your process for capturing such natural behaviour on film?

That's the whole challenge. It's about writing first and being accurate about character building and bringing back memories from childhood, but not having that nostalgic point-of-view of an adult and really being at the scale of children. I also had a kind of strategy where they always had to do stuff. The scary thing when you are working with children is that you have these little trained monkeys saying the line in a witty, funny way, and this is what you fear the most as an audience and as a director. So you make them do a puzzle, play with Play-Doh, play with water, and when you are on the set that brings them into the scene and makes them forget about the fact that they have to say the lines. That's the basic strategy. You have to find the balance between being accurate with them as with any actor – talking about the goals of the scene, the goals of the character – and making them forget about the fact that it's a job. That's why we were shooting very long takes, 10-12 minutes, and never cutting, because it's a like a fail when you cut for them, and I was always talking to them and playing with them a lot. When they danced I danced, when they sang I sang, when they bathed...well, I was not in the bath [laughs], but it was all about building this relationship where it's all a big game, even though for you it's a lot of anxiety.

I was particularly touched by the relationship between the sisters, which I think is one of the best depictions of a sibling relationship that I've seen for some time.

I'm glad you say that because it's the most intimate part of the movie for me. Sisterhood is really the thing I wanted to portray with a strong feeling and to show that complicity. And working with a six year-old, you know, it's really not the same thing as working with an 11 year-old. The 11 year-old can focus, she can forget about herself, but the six year-old is tired and then she's unstoppable, so you have to bring those two energies together. They were both only childs so they didn't know that relationship, which was a good thing because they learned together.

I understand you found Zoé Héran on your first day of casting, which was an incredible stroke of luck because if that performance isn't perfect then the film won't work.

Yes, and that was what made it such a great challenge. It is luck but it's also how you create your own luck because the movie was made really fast and I had three weeks to do the casting. That's why I didn't do what I expected to do, hunting the streets everywhere trying to find the perfect little girl, because we just didn't have the time, so I spread the word with casting agencies everywhere that I was looking for a little girl who could be mistaken for a boy. The word came back that Zoé was kind of boyish and was registered in an agency for several years but not really performing because she was too awkward for what you expect from a child on TV or cinema. That was why I said I wanted to see that girl first and she came in the first day.

You never explain the reasons behind Laure's deception. I wonder if Zoé had any questions or ideas about why her character was behaving in this way?

Actually it's easier to explain to a kid than an adult, and Zoé never asked why. Adults always ask why, but the movie never says why and it's more about the 'how.' Zoé understood that she's new here and nobody knows her, this other girl mistakes her for a boy and she's just going for it, simple as that. She really connected to that because I think those questions were too big for her. The plot works on such simple mechanics that she could always relate to the plot and it was a comfortable story for her, actually.

You see the film from the child's point-of-view and while adult viewers know her secret will be revealed when Laure goes to school at the end of the summer, Laure is not thinking that far ahead. It reminded me of being ten years old when you feel like summer is going to last forever.

Yes, you have a very small projection when you are a kid, it's all about the present. I always kept that in mind when I was writing. I remember thinking as a kid that things like, "I want that video game" or "in a week it will be blah-blah's birthday," or else you have very big ones like, "When I am old..." so yes, I think that was very important to stay true to the children's mind.

Why did you go with the English title of Tomboy? Is that a well-known term in France?

No, not at all, nobody knows what Tomboy means in France. In France to say tomboy you would say garçon manqué which means "failed boy," but that would be a terrible title! That's why I didn't want to use that expression. Tomboy is also more mysterious, so people would go into the film not knowing what it is about, although here and the US and everywhere you'll all expect what you're going to see.

When you made Water Lilies you had never directed even a short film before. What were the biggest lessons you learned from that film that helped you prepare for Tomboy?

[Pause] Mmm...that's a good one. [laughs] Well, first I learned that I loved it, which I didn't expect. Also, I really tried to make mixed emotions and I kind of failed. You know, I had fun sequences and I shot them, but I couldn't find the balance and that was something I really wanted to achieve with Tomboy, trying to get those contrasts. Sometimes you can laugh and you have this humorous little character of the sister, so that was my biggest lesson to think about the contrast, and I think this movie is more open and more generous.

Water Lilies was a big success, receiving a great critical reaction and nominations for the César Awards, but when most people make their second film they are expected to make something on a bigger scale. You've gone in the opposite direction with a smaller budget, young actors and a faster shooting schedule.

I wanted to avoid the pressure, I guess! [laughs] Yeah, it was a way to avoid the pressure and it was a political gesture, because people expect that of you and also you expect it of yourself. You have to get bigger but I was thinking that I wanted to be freer, because that's what the success of the first film should give me, more freedom. There are two legends about second films: they are bigger and less sincere, and often they are a failure. I decided to do just the opposite because I wanted it to be fun.

It's a strange paradox about filmmaking, the bigger a budget gets the less freedom a director has.

I think that's something you get to learn. I felt like I was a rookie but now I feel more confident that I could handle a bigger budget knowing how to do it, and I can grow bigger but not be a slave to money or famous actors. It's not that I resent that but I just think you have to find the right moment to do it for yourself.

I saw your short film Pauline that you made as part of a government anti-homophobia campaign and the strong theme that runs through both your features and the short is this idea of young women questioning their own identity.

It is an intimate question that I am not struggling with anymore, but it's part of my own journey, I guess. I am obsessed with it, I can't help it, but I feel lucky that I am obsessed with it because I feel there are great opportunities for fiction. You feel like you are writing a story that hasn't been told that many times; a girl pretending to be a little boy or putting Play-Doh in a swimsuit. It's so exciting and it really brings strong storytelling and strong characters, so that's why I like it. It's original and political and alive.

Obviously a film like Pauline can be used as a great educational tool, but Tomboy could be used in a similar fashion.

It's actually going to be the case because it has been elected as part of the school programme. It will be shown in primary schools and high schools and that's amazing. Pauline was made for this purpose, it was a script written by a teenager and it was political gesture, and Tomboy was not made for that purpose but I'm glad that it gets to reach the kids. That's really cool.

It took you four years to make your second feature. Will we have to wait as long for your third one? Do you already have the idea for your next film?

I don't have the idea yet, but this time I think I'm going to be faster. I want to write in a few months if the promotion gives me some time. I have been working as a screenwriter for other people and working in TV to learn my stuff, so now I hope it won't be so long before I get back to work.

Are you happy writing scripts for other filmmakers to direct?

Oh yeah, I still want to do that. You don't wake up every day with a story idea that you want to spend years with. You have to believe in it really strongly because it's hard making films, you know. I like working for other people. I like the fact that I can be a soldier for somebody else's battle.

Don't you look at their film and think, "I would have directed it this way" or "I'd have done that better"?

[laughs] I haven't been in that position yet. It's the French way to write it together with the director so if you pick him and trust him it's OK. It's his project, it's not like you're writing it and handing it to him, so it's less painful, I guess.

I know you've said a couple of times that you want to work in TV as well.

Yeah, because it's really flourishing in France and everybody wants to make it big on TV now. There's less of a frontier between cinema and TV, when ten years ago this wouldn't be happening.

So many big movie directors are moving into television now, like all of the filmmakers working on HBO series.

And you guys here too, the BBC. I think we should be more like the BBC than HBO, as we're European. I have been writing a TV series for Canal+ and I have learned a lot just being one of the writers, so now I'd like to write my own. I'm already in touch with the channels to talk about it.

Well, I hope we see that series over here.

I hope so too.

Review - Tomboy

At first glance, there's nothing unusual about Michaël, the central character in Céline Sciamma's second feature. He wears the same baggy t-shirts and shorts that most ten year-old boys prefer, he wears his hair cropped short, he's protective of his younger sister and he loves playing football. Michaël is the new kid in town, with his family having moved into this small suburb during the summer, but he quickly becomes a popular figure among the local children, particularly his pretty neighbour Lisa (Jeanne Disson). There is something unusual about Michaël, however – his name isn't Michaël, and he's not even a boy. Laure (Zoé Héran) is actually a ten year-old girl whose naturally boyish demeanour hides any hint of femininity. Her deception is sparked by an innocent misunderstanding – when Lisa first introduces herself and understandably mistakes her new neighbour for a boy – but Laure takes this error and runs with it, and as summer progresses she seems to grow ever more comfortable in the character she has assumed.

We initially watch Tomboy from a position of curiosity, wondering how long Laure can maintain this extraordinary façade. We know that her secret will ultimately be revealed
after all, she will have to enrol in her new school at the end of the summer, where her true identity will be exposed but Laure is too busy revelling in the joys of being a young boy among friends to worry about such consequences. Sciamma's first film Water Lilies was a hugely impressive debut, beautifully composed and tactful in its handling of sensitive topics, but Tomboy struck me as a much more acute and emotionally involving film. She directs with a remarkable delicacy of touch, allowing scenes of entirely natural behaviour to play out on screen and immersing us in Laure's two worlds – the family home, a warm and loving environment, and the woods where Michaël and his pals play. The director offers no explanation for Laure's behaviour; she is more interested in observing how this young girl adapts to new situations and how the group dynamics among her friends evolve around her.

So Sciamma is hugely fortunate to have discovered such eminently watchable young actress to carry her film. Zoé Héran is so utterly convincing in the challenging lead role that it's impossible to imagine any child being a better fit for the part. This is a performance of stunning subtlety and dexterity, and it's fascinating to watch Héran as she methodically negotiates the various tricky situations she finds herself in; examining her body to confirm that her undeveloped breasts won't give her away, or fashioning penis from modelling clay to ensure her trunks will be appropriately shaped when she goes swimming, trying to find a secluded spot among the trees to urinate while the other boys relieve themselves in the open. Sciamma obviously has a wonderful facility to draw entirely believable and spontaneous performance from children and the magic she works with Malonn Lévana, as Laure's 6 year-old sister Jeanne, is just as crucial to the film's success. The scenes between these two are an unalloyed joy, and one of the finest depictions of a sibling relationship that I've seen in years, with Jeanne being especially delightful to watch when she becomes a co-conspirator in Laure's lie and enjoys spending time both with her big sister and with new friend Michaël.

Tomboy is a small film – running for little more than 80 minutes – but few pictures this year have felt more perfectly formed. In terms of scale, the film couldn't be further removed from Terrence Malick's epic The Tree of Life, but what the two pictures share is an uncanny ability to view the world through the eyes of their young protagonists and to express both the bliss and pain that encapsulates childhood experience. Tomboy's approach is softer and quieter, however – it's a film that sneaks up on you, and you have no idea how deeply involved you are in the drama until you feel it. Sciamma and Héran make us care about the central character's happiness in a way that precious few films manage to do, and whether you call her Laure or call him Michaël, you'll be left in no doubt as the credits roll that you've spent time with a very special young person.

Read my interview with
Céline Sciamma here

Review - 30 Minutes or Less

Working with David Fincher on a film like The Social Network must be a tough act to follow, but Jesse Eisenberg probably thought he was on safe ground when he reunited with his Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer for 30 Minutes or Less. Unfortunately, he has only made the transition from a sharply written, multilayered and precision-directed film to a movie that has been thrown together in the most careless and haphazard fashion. Alongside Eisenberg, who plays pizza delivery guy Nick (the title is a reference to the money-back guarantee on offer if Nick doesn't deliver on time), the film has cast Aziz Ansari as his buddy Chet, and these two work tirelessly to keep the thing moving, but 30 Minutes or Less so often stalls.

The film opens with two distinct narrative strands that eventually crash noisily into one another. Nick and Chet spend their days hanging out and smoking pot until Chet finds out that Nick has been seeing his twin sister Kate (Dilshad Vadsaria), a revelation that sparks further recriminations and results in the two pals grappling messily on the floor. They go their separate ways, with bad blood between them, but they will soon be reunited when Nick finds himself in a fix. That fix is the brainchild of Dwayne (Danny McBride) and Travis (Nick Swardson), two idiots who have their eyes on the lottery fortune currently being enjoyed by Dwayne's father (Fred Ward). They decide to have the old man bumped off but in order to raise the $100,000 that a hitman charges these days, they'll have to rob a bank, which is where Nick comes in.

The idea of Nick wearing a bomb vest and having to rob a bank for these clowns has potential, but 30 Minutes or Less never seems entirely sure of what kind of movie it wants to be. There's a madcap, screwball energy to certain sequences but the film is too disjointed to work as a farce, and it frequently slows down for indulgent scenes in which Dwayne and Travis bicker tiresomely or discuss their plans for a tanning salon/brothel. McBride is at his most intolerable here as the stupid loudmouth arsehole who thinks he's the smartest guy in the room, and his belligerent delivery gets old very fast. Fleischer and his screenwriter Michael Diliberti struggle to work tasteless gags into the mix – a supermarket cashier suggests Nick and Chet are purchasing a "rape kit" when they buy toy guns and ski masks – in fact, the film's treatment of its female characters is pretty depressing throughout. The most notable woman on show is a stripper while Kate, whom Nick is supposed to be so enamoured with he'll risk taking a detour en route to the heist, is little more than window dressing.

There's one very funny scene in 30 Minutes or Less and it occurs when Nick and Chet finally make it into the bank and improvise their way through a robbery, but the film doesn't hit such heights again. 30 Minutes or Less is never quite sharp enough, never quite crazy enough and never quite funny enough, and it nosedives badly in its second half with scenes of violence that jar badly against the film's comic element. Are we meant to care about the film's various one-dimensional lowlife characters as they wind up shooting each other and setting themselves alight? The baffling resurrection of one apparently dead character for a post-credits gag suggests that none of it really matters anyway.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

"We sort of lived for three days in this kind of crazy, oppressive state" - An interview with Melanie Lynskey

Melanie Lynskey has become a regular fixture on both big and small screens in recent years with her appearances in Up in the Air, The Informant!, Away We Go and Win Win, and her role on TV's Two and Half Men, but when I spoke to the actress this week it was her very first performance I was interested in. Lynskey was just 16 years old and had no screen acting experience when she was cast alongside Kate Winslet in Peter Jackson's true-life tale of obsession and murder Heavenly Creatures. The film is finally released on blu-ray and DVD this week, and here's what Melanie Lynskey had to say about her debut role.

It's hard to believe that Heavenly Creatures is 17 years old now. I watched it again this week and it's still as strange, beautiful and disturbing as ever.

Yeah, I just saw it last night because they screened it at the New Beverly here and I hadn't seen it in ten years. It was so strange!

When you were cast as Pauline you had no acting experience. Did you have acting aspirations or did it completely come out of the blue?

I always wanted to be an actor, it was really my great dream in life. When I was 16 at high school and at the age when you have to decide what you want to do in life, I kept telling people I wanted to act and they would say, "What, are you crazy? That's not a career." I was thinking about what else I might be able to do when they came to my school and asked me to audition and I got the job. I was so lucky.

What was that audition process like? Did you meet right away with Peter Jackson?

It was his partner Fran Walsh who came around and they didn't have a script or anything. They just told us a little about what the character was like and they took two girls at a time and had them improvise with each other. At the time I was doing a lot of improv comedy and stuff like that, so I was used to improvising and it was just fun and easy. A couple of weeks later they took me down to Christchurch to meet Peter and have a long audition, a proper audition on film, and they also showed me Kate Winslet's audition tape. It was like, "This is the professional actress from England who has been working for six years and this is how good you have to be." [laughs]

But even though Kate Winslet had been acting for some years, this was her first feature film role, so I guess she was in the same boat in some ways.

It didn't feel like she was, at all. She was so confident and so sure of herself, she just seemed like an old pro.

How familiar were you with the real story before getting this role? Did you have to do a lot of research?

I was familiar with it because New Zealand is such a small place and there aren't that many murders so you really hear about all of them. [laughs] Peter and Fran had done a lot of research. They had talked to everybody they could and read all the diary entries and there was a huge folder they gave us. We also went around and talked to people, like girls who went to school with her, because we wanted to get all of the physical stuff right, the mannerisms.

It's a very dark and emotionally taxing role. As your first part, was that a daunting character to take on?

I felt nervous just because I was the only person who was a newcomer, and I felt that all of these people were so amazing and I wouldn't be able to fit in with them, but they all made me very comfortable. As for the acting side of it, I wanted to act so much and I was doing everything I could in my own town, like community theatre and so on, so I just felt like it was such an opportunity and it just felt exciting to me. I also felt I was in very safe hands with Peter and I knew he wasn't going to let me go crazy.

It was a real departure for Peter Jackson too because his movies up to that point had been trashy, outrageous B-movies and he hadn't suggested the kind of subtlety and ambiguity he showed here.

Definitely. I had seen Braindead so when they started to talk to me about what the movie was about I thought, "Oh my God, it's going to be awful." [laughs] But as soon as I read the script I saw the sensitivity and it was really a whole other thing.

What was it like to shoot those fantasy sequences?

It was funny. The girls themselves were imagining all of that and it felt like we were in the same sort of situation because we had to imagine all of that was around us, so Kate and I relied on each other's energy and we trusted that we were looking at the same things. It was a funny thing to play, and it was a lot of fun when we did the clay people scenes because they were real people so that was kind of a bizarre situation.

I read that you and Kate stayed in character between scenes. Is that true?

Kind of. I think she said something like that in an interview. I mean, we were definitely very teenager-y with each other and very animated, and we talked and talked and talked, but I don't know if I'd say we stayed in character. There was some times when we did stay in character because it would have been difficult otherwise, like the murder sequence, when we sort of lived for three days in this kind of crazy, oppressive state. It was so upsetting to get into the role and it was easier to just stay in it.

Was it easy to get out of that mindset afterwards?

It was difficult. I remember we had to shower right afterwards. I mean, immediately after the scene we had this little place to shower and it felt very symbolic to get rid of it all. We were at the place where it really happened and Sarah's [Peirse, who played Pauline's mother] performance in that scene was so shocking to me at the time and it was so upsetting. That was really tough.

Filming at the actual site where these events took place must have been very strange.

It was bizarre. Initially, Peter and Fran thought they would film it in the exact spot where it happened, but when they went there they felt too upset and freaked out by it, so they just recreated it in a spot that was very similar.

When you made the film, what were your thoughts on the kind of exposure it was going to get? Until Heavenly Creatures and Once Were Warriors came out at around the same time, New Zealand cinema didn't really have much international recognition.

Not really, I guess there was The Navigator. There were some films that would go to Cannes and I loved film so much that I had an awareness of that kind of thing. The film just felt so personal to me and I had never been part of something that people watched, so it hadn't really crossed my mind, and when people started talking about festivals and stuff like that I just thought, "What?" It was such a weird leap for me to make that people were actually going to see this thing that felt so private, but everybody else on set was so used to it. I remember Kate saying to me, "So what are you going to spend your money on?" and I thought, "What are you talking about? I'm never going to make money like this again in my life, I'm going to save it!" [laughs] She was already off auditioning for other things. When the film came out the way people responded was really amazing. I remember going to the Venice Film Festival and people were so intense about it. It was really crazy.

Did you get a lot of attention and more movie offers straight away? For your second film you worked with Peter Jackson again on The Frighteners.

I didn't get any offers, it was just silence. [laughs] I didn't expect it either. I went back to high school and felt like I had been so lucky to get this opportunity. Nothing else came up and I thought, "Well who do I think I am to believe I could make a career out of this?" and I had really accepted it for a little while. Then I got this agent in America who said I should go over and do some auditions, but I thought she was crazy. I don't know, I felt embarrassed and like I was being laughed out of there, because that role was so specific. Of course, all of these films were happening for Kate and I felt like, that's her thing and I don't have any business trying to do that. After a few years of university studying theatre, I felt that I had loved the experience so much and what if I could do it? I'd always regret it if I didn't try. So I came to LA and started to do some auditions, but it was when I was at university that I did that little thing in The Frighteners. Peter just asked if I wanted to come and do this movie and hang out.

Could you have predicted at the time that he'd be directing Lord of the Rings within five years?

Kind of. It wasn't a great surprise how it turned out for anybody. Some people just have this confidence about them and faith in themselves, and they make you feel that anything is possible. Peter definitely has that and it always seemed like he would do things on his own terms. He kept telling us about all of the movies he was being offered and they were all these really schlocky horror movies, but he stuck to his guns and said, "I want to do the projects that I want to do, and I want to stay in New Zealand." And he did.

You said that it took a few years for your career to take off but you've had an amazing run in recent years. You've been involved in a number of films I've loved, like The Informant! and Win Win.

I love The Informant! and I always love people who love The Informant! [laughs] It's a real 'love it or hate it' movie and I love it. It's my favourite thing I've ever done.

I just picked it up on blu-ray the other day and I love re-watching it. I'm always amazed by Matt Damon's performance.

He's so good in that movie! I mean, he was great in Invictus as well, but it's so weird that he didn't get nominated for that.

They always screw the comedy performances when it comes to awards.

They do, it's so funny. I don't know why they do that. But yeah, the last few years have been so great. I got this new agent because I wasn't really happy with how things were going and I needed to change it up a bit, and this agent I'm working with now is really good about me not working unless it's something that I believe in. It just feels like a different world and I'm so lucky.

What have you got lined up next?

I'm taking a little break because I haven't seen my husband all year so I'm just going to hang out with him for a while, but I'm excited about this movie that I've just finished. I was in Connecticut where I was shooting a movie that Todd Louiso is directing called Hello I Must Be Going. His wife wrote it and it's a great little script that came out of Sundance development, and I hope it comes out OK.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

DVD Review - Heavenly Creatures

The Film

Heavenly Creatures already seemed like something of an anomaly when it was released in 1994 and it seems even more incongruous when you consider where Peter Jackson's career has taken him since then. Jackson was known at that point for his proudly tasteless and outrageous comic horrors Braindead, Meet the Feebles and Bad Taste. For his fourth feature, Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh took on the notorious murder of Honora Rieper in 1954 by her daughter and her daughter's closest friend, and the constraints of real events forced him to curb his more outrageous impulses. There is a fantastical element to Heavenly Creatures, but unlike Jackson's later The Lovely Bones – in which the ill-judged afterlife sequences swamped the real life portion of his narrative – this aspect of the film feels organic and necessary, and a glimpse into the minds of two very unusual teenage girls.

Our first sight of them is startling. Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet (Kate Winslet) run through the woods, screaming hysterically. They run towards the camera and we can see their faces and clothes are covered with blood; "It's mummy," Pauline cries, "she's terribly hurt!" From this opening, Jackson takes us back a year, to show us how these girls first met and began the intense friendship that would end in bloodshed. When we are introduced to her, Pauline is an introverted and unwelcoming presence, with her arms crossed and a permanent scowl on her face. If she does speak, she only mutters quietly before withdrawing to her own private thoughts.

Compare her demeanour with that of Juliet, an English girl who suddenly arrives in Christchurch and lights up Pauline's world. She walks into the classroom with a brash arrogance and superiority – head held high, chest out. The pair are thrust together in an art class, when Juliet's anti-authoritarian stance strikes a chord with Pauline, and from that point they are inseparable. They bond over their shared love for scars, Mario Lanza, clay figures and their shared distaste for Orson Welles ("The most hideous man alive") and Jackson draws us into this relationship, allowing us to share in the imagined world that they frequently escape into. The lively confidence of Winslet melds beautifully with Lynskey's dark conviction, and together they superbly express the overwhelming, intoxicating need that they have for each other. Lynskey's perfectly pitched reading of the real Pauline's diary entries and letters also acts as a valuable insight into her character's fractured and tumultuous emotional state.

There are elements of Jackson's schlocky past on display here. He uses weird angles and tight close-ups on authority figures – priests, nurses, teachers – as they loom over the girls, but the effect sits well with the central characters' skewed perspective on the world. His judgement of tone is impressive throughout, daringly mixing scenes of darkness and light, and finding imaginative ways to render potentially troublesome moments, such as Pauline's first sexual experience. The film feels vibrant and fresh in a way that few of Jackson's more heavy-handed pictures have since, with the images blooming into rich life during the fantasy sequences. Jackson can be guilty of letting some scenes run a little long, but the film is always fascinating to watch.

It's also deeply disturbing, and when I re-watched Heavenly Creatures recently I was struck by how horrible the murder of Pauline's mother is – not just the act itself, but the long build-up to it. Lynskey's delivery of the line, "treat yourself" is chilling, and the long walk that precedes the murder is an agonising one. We believe in what we are watching not only because it is so closely based on the real event, but because we have come to believe so completely in the twisted love that has driven these two girls to this point of no return. Heavenly Creatures remains a true one-off in Jackson's filmography; a film in which rich imagination and raw emotion combine to unforgettable effect. Will he ever reach these heights again? We can only hope, but the world of CGI appears to have swallowed this once iconoclastic filmmaker whole.

The Extras

No extras were provided on the disc for review. The final version will contain a retrospective documentary.

Heavenly Creatures will be released on DVD and Blu-ray by Peccadillo Pictures on September 12th.

Buy Heavenly Creatures here

Friday, September 09, 2011

Preview - The BFI London Film Festival 2011

During the month of October I will be doing very little aside from watching films, talking about films, writing about films and – probably – dreaming about films. Yes, the London Film Festival is back, and after attending the press launch on Wednesday morning, I have spent the last couple of days working out exactly what I want to watch from this year's programme. The festival is divided into various strands, and I've picked out a few highlights to look out for from each one.

Galas and Special Screenings

This year's collection of gala films is generally a safe, predictable and disappointingly dull one (both Clooney films? Come on...), but there are a handful of potential gems here. I've already seen We Need to Talk About Kevin, a gripping and deeply unsettling adaptation (and, I think, improvement) of Lionel Shriver's novel. Tilda Swinton gives a stunning lead performance and Lynne Ramsey displays an unerring control of the material, producing a series of vivid images and utilising some expert sound design. Others I'm excited about include the closing night film The Deep Blue Sea, an adaptation of Terrence Rattigan's play which marks Terence Davies' first narrative feature in a decade and stars the reliably excellent Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston. The Dardenne brothers are also filmmakers you can rely on to produce something special, and they return with their new film The Kid With a Bike, while Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender (who worked together on the outstanding Hunger) reunite for New York-based sex drama Shame. But the two galas I'm most excited about are silent features, made eighty years apart. Newly restored, Miles Mander's The First Born will be presented at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with a new score from Stephen Horne, while Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist is a new silent film that recreates the cinema of the 1920's. Having enjoyed Hazanavicius' OSS:117 collaborations with the brilliant Jean Dujardin, I can't think of a better pair to pay homage to that bygone era.

Film on the Square

New films from Giorgos Lanthimos, Werner Herzog and Hirokazu Kore-eda are on offer in this section of the programme. I've tried to avoid reading anything about Alps because I went into the stunning Dogtooth cold and want to experience this film in the same way. Herzog's Into the Abyss takes the inimitable director to an American prison to interview inmates on death row, while I Wish is a return to contemporary family drama from Kore-eda after the eccentric (and, for me, disappointing) Air Doll. The indefatigable Fred Wiseman's latest documentary goes behind the scenes at the Crazy Horse cabaret club in Paris, while Takashi Miike returns with Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, which has a lot to live up to after 13 Assassins was one of the hits of LFF 2010. I'm intrigued by Andrea Arnold's adaptation of Wuthering Heights and by the fact that Sean Penn appears to be playing Dorian from Birds of a Feather in Paolo Sorrentino's This Must Be the Place, but perhaps the most enticing prospect here is Miss Bala, the new film from Gerardo Naranjo, which received some extraordinary reactions at Cannes. I've already seen one and a half of the films in this strand – Take Shelter is an absorbing, slow-burning drama that features an incredible performance from Michael Shannon, but I was rather relieved when my screening of Miranda July's The Future ended after an hour thanks to a power cut. I won't be going back to find out what happens to that damn cat.

New British Cinema

The films in this group are mostly unknown quantities, but that means there's hopefully a lot of potential for exciting surprises. I've certainly got my eye on Dreams of a Life, a documentary reconstruction of a desperately sad story, and Shock Head Soul uses similar techniques to tell the story of Daniel Paul Shreber. Junkhearts has a strong cast, including a welcome lead role for Eddie Marsan, while Richard Jobson's The Somnambulists sounds like a bold experiment and Andrew Haigh's gay romance Weekend is one I'll be keeping my eye out for. But really, everything in this section deserves some consideration.

French Revolutions

I always enjoy a good workplace movie and so my interest was piqued by the Jean-Pierre Darroussin-starring Early One Morning even before the programme compared it to the excellent Time Out. I also enjoy the physical comedy of filmmaking team Abel, Gordon and Remy that has been displayed in their films Iceberg and Rumba, so the presence of their new picture The Fairy in the lineup is cheering, while the endearingly weird Dominik Moll presents The Monk. Elsewhere in this section, I like the look of 17 Girls, Guilty and Nobody Else But You and I'm keen to see if Mathieu Amalric builds on the promise of his directorial debut On Tour with his new film The Screen Illusion.

Cinema Europa

I'm not sure if I'll get to enjoy what looks like one of the most daring projects in the festival, but I feel it deserves to be highlighted. Dreileben brings together three directors for a trio of loosely linked features, all of which are sparked by the same event. The festival is screening the three films together and separately, and I hope I can find time to catch them. Elsewhere, a couple of directors whose previous work has impressed me have new features in the festival. Andrei Zvyagintsev, who made a stunning debut with The Return, has now directed Elena, while Ruben Östlund, director of Involuntary, returns with Play. There's also the documentary Whore's Glory, the new film from Andreas Dresen Stopped on Track and the ambitious Russian dystopian epic Target to look out for.

World Cinema

This is perhaps the most eclectic collection of films in the festival, with features from familiar powerhouses of the international cinema scene and offerings from countries whose film culture is less widely recognised lining up alongside each other. From Japan, there's Mitsuko Delivers, a new film from the director of last year's charming Sawako Decides; from America there's two films from Joe Swanberg (Uncle Kent and Silver Bullets); from Iran there's persecuted director Jafar Panahi in This is Not a Film and the excellent actress Leyla Zareh in Goodbye; from China we have comedy-adventure blockbuster Let the Bullets Fly. I'm intrigued by the taboo-breaking Indian film Asshole, the South African film Beauty from director Oliver Hermanus (whose Shirley Adams I admired in 2009), Egyptian true-life tale Asmaa and Sri Lanka's Flying Fish. There's also a collection of films representing New African Cinema and a couple of Tibetan features: Old Dog and The Sun-Beaten Path. I can't wait to expand my cinematic horizons here.

Experimenta/Short Cuts & Animation

I'll be honest. Every year I promise myself that I'll seriously explore the experimenta and shorts strands but every year I fail to find sufficient time in my schedule. I'm approaching this year's festival with the same good intentions, as Twenty Cigarettes and The Pettifogger catching my eye among the experimental offerings, while a couple of the shorts collections – notably The Suburbs and Just Because You're Paranoid Doesn't Mean They're Not After You – show some promise. Will I actually see any of these films? Watch this space!

Treasures From the Archives

Every year when I first get my hands on the programme, this is the section I eagerly flick through to – and what riches I discovered this year! Pick of the bunch is undoubtedly Shin heike monogatari, a 1955 film from Kenji Mizoguchi (and one of his only two colour features) that receives a rare screening here. The other archive feature that stood out is The Machine That Kills Bad People, a very atypical Rossellini film about a man who discovers that his camera has the ability to take lives. The director himself described this foray into surreal humour as "an isolated experiment," and I'm not going to miss this chance to see it. There are a couple of great-looking silents as well; The Nail in the Boot + Shoes from Russia (with the BFI's Soviet cinema season having stoked my interest in the country's early filmmaking efforts this year) and an American feature called The Goose Woman, starring Louise Dresser. Finally, I really want to make time to see Barbara Loden's Wanda, Elia Kazan's America, America, the Turkish thriller Law of the Border and a new 4k restoration of Les enfants du paradis. I know everyone flocks to the LFF to see exciting new films, but please don't forget to check out this section of the programme. This is where the real treasure is buried.

The BFI London Film Festival runs from October 12th to 17th at venues around the capital, and I'll be providing extensive coverage here throughout the month.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Review - 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy (3D rou pu tuan zhi ji le bao jian)

3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy
starts as one sort of film and ends up as something very different. I tolerated the first half and loathed the second. The film is the fourth instalment in a series of Chinese erotic comedies originally inspired by a 17th century novel, but this is the first one to bring the series into the third dimension, with the decision to embrace cutting-edge filmmaking techniques paying off at the box-office. In Hong Kong, the movie raced past the records set by Titanic and Avatar, with people even flocking to Hong Kong from China to enjoy a film banned in their own country. Sex sells, no matter where in the world you go, but that's truer than ever in this case, because there's little beyond the sex to get excited about in Christopher Sun's movie – there's no Zen as far as I could see, and precious little ecstasy.

The big story surrounding 3D Sex and Zen upon its release in this country has been the decision taken by the BBFC to demand a couple of minutes worth of cuts before the film received an 18 certificate. So it comes as something of a surprise when the film quickly reveals its rather tame approach to carnal matters. Most of the sexual encounters consist of some softcore writhing, thrusting and moaning, while the only penises shown in the film are a tiny one exposed for comedic value and – more alarmingly – a severed horse cock which is flung at the 3D glasses-wearing audience (The House of Flying Phallus?). At other times, huge erections are shown as silhouettes or under garments, but it wasn't for this reason that the BBFC demanded revisions.

We'll get back to that matter later on.First, let me expand on the dichotomy between the film's two halves. 3D Sex and Zen is the story of a young man named Wei Yangsheng (Hiro Hayama) who falls in love with the beautiful Tie Yuxiang (Leni Lan) at first sight, scuppering her planned marriage to his best friend. The pair make love incessantly in their first days of wedded bliss, but Yangsheng proves to be a disappointment in bed, climaxing almost immediately every time they have sex. For some reason (plot is not this movie's strongest suit), Yangsheng ends up at the Tower of Rarities, where he becomes intoxicated by the sexual delights going on inside and decides to stay, promising to serve the Prince of Ning for a decade. He encounters a "proportionally perfect" woman (Saori Hara), a beautiful hermaphrodite with a very deep voice and a talented penis (Vonnie Liu), and he decides to solve his own genital inadequacy by have a horse transplant. As you do.

All of this is played with plenty of gusto and broad strokes, and it's mildly enjoyable in its cheerfully amateurish fashion. The tone is giggly, prurient and farcical – like a slightly more explicit Chinese Carry On film – and the enthusiasm of those involves allows us to overlook the film's deficiencies at times. It really is a shoddy piece of work, though. The acting, as you may expect, is hopeless, and the film has been thrown together in such a haphazard manner I often had no idea what was going on. At one point we're asked to recall a scene that I don't think was even in the movie, and when two characters climbed up a mountain towards the end to (a) have sex with and (b) kill a monk, I hadn't the foggiest notion of who they were or what they were up to. OK, people aren't going to go and watch 3D Sex and Zen for its compelling narrative, but after the novelty of some boobs being jiggled at the camera in 3D has worn off, the picture becomes an awful drag. Then the tone suddenly shifts.

The BBFC in its modern incarnation is not in the habit of requesting cuts films without good reason, and the statement released over the 3D Sex and Zen decision states: "Compulsory cuts were required to two scenes of sexual and sexualised violence, which included elements with a tendency to eroticise and endorse sexual violence." Having seen what remains in the film, I'm not a bit surprised that they made that call. The second half of 3D Sex and Zen descends into ugliness, becoming focused on dismemberment and rape to a repulsive degree. At one point, a woman is forced to sit on a wooden horse that has a rotating spiked device embedded into its back, but as she suffers her moans and screams are barely distinguishable from the orgasmic noises made by her and other women when in the throes of passion earlier.

It's not just the misogynistic nature of this content that I found sickening; it's the comparison with how the film depicts these sights and those of the earlier lovemaking. Why is the depiction of sex soft-pedalled while violence is shown in all of its explicit, bloody unpleasantness? This is true not just of this movie but of contemporary film culture in general; films which take a frank approach to sex always seem to cause a stink while the sadistic Saw, Hostel or Final Destination films and their myriad imitators have become an accepted aspect of mainstream cinema. For a while I thought I might have some fun with 3D Sex and Zen, but on reflection, I doubt I'll see a more depressing and repulsive movie this year.