CLOSING THE RING * *
12A, 118 mins
Cinema luvvie and national treasure, director Richard Attenborough, recently joked that he'd like to peg out after calling cut on the final day of shooting.
One can only hope he has at least one more film left in him. After making such greats as Ghandi, Cry Freedom and Shadowlands it would be a pity if this limp romantic melodrama were to prove his epitaph.
The debut screenplay of Edward Woodward's son Peter, it's a confused mish-mash about lost and unrequited love that straddles some 50 years and two continents, embracing the Second World War and the Irish Troubles.
It crucially pivots around a 1944 plane crash in Northern Ireland that took the life of Teddy Gordon (Stephen Amell), one of three Michigan buddies who'd enlisted in the Air Corps. Before leaving, however, he secretly wed girlfriend Ethel (Mischa Barton) and, even more secretly, made best friend Chuck promise to marry her if he failed to return.
It's Chuck's funeral on which the film opens. However, the now older Ethel (Shirley Maclaine) isn't exactly overcome with grief, something that further widens the gulf between her and alienated daughter Marie (Neve Campbell) and sends Jack (Christopher Plummer), the third of the trio, once also secretly in love with Ethel, off to drown his sorrows.
Meanwhile, back in Ireland, Belfast teen Jimmy (Martin McCann) has taken to joining old Michael Quinlan (Pete Postlethwaite) who, driven by a wartime promise, has been obsessively collecting fragments from the hillside crash site, and, wouldn't you know it, the kid finds the ring Ethel gave Teddy before he left, tracks her down and calls her up with the news.
Since a clunky subplot involving the IRA, who use the hillside for their own purpose, means Jimmy has to make himself scarce for a while, he duly pops across to the USA to deliver it in person.
Dickie directs as adequately as possible on a limited budget and manages a couple of well-mounted scenes, but you can't make a romantic silk purse out of a pig's ear soap opera.
Amell has the beefcake looks but everytime he opens his mouth the flashback love story grinds to a woodenly creaking halt and, while the acting may be better (or at least more professionally hammy), the 90s sequences are so riddled with contrivance and coincidence that the only tears the catharsis and confession climax on a Belfast street in the middle of an IRA bombing or Ethel's literal tearing down of her walled up life are likely to evoke, are those of laughter.
LUST, CAUTION * * * *
Cert 18, 158 mins, subtitled
A lengthy adaptation of Eileen Chang's short story, Ang Lee's follow-up to Brokeback Mountain again explores his familiar themes of self-delusion, identity, repressed desires and doomed forbidden love, but the storyline mirrors that of both Hitchcock's Notorious and Paul Verhoeven's Black Book.
The film opens in Japanese occupied wartime Shanghai as Mrs Yee (Joan Chen), wife to the collaborationist government's secret service chief (Tony Leung), hosts a session of mahjong and gossip for her socialite friends, among them Mrs Mak (Tang Wei), the young Cantonese/ Shanghainese wife of a Hong Kong businessman.
When Mr Yee returns home, the two exchange subtle knowing glances and, shortly afterwards, she heads for a cafe and makes a cryptic phone call.
Flashbacks to 1938 Hong Kong, reveal Mrs Mak to really be Wong Chia Chi, a member of a politicised university theatre group run by the charismatic Kuang (Wang Leehom) who (secretly in love with her) recruits Wong for a resistance plot to assassinate Yee.
Everything is engineered for her to pose as Mrs Mak (including a comic scene as she has to lose her virginity to one of the group), infiltrating Mrs Yee's inner circle to get sufficiently close to her husband that he will let his guard down and afford a window of opportunity.
However, an inevitable spanner is thrown into the works, leading to a gruesomely-botched murder and the collapse of the plot.
Fast forward three years to Shanghai where Kuang resurfaces and persuades Wong, now living with her aunt, to pick up the pieces. Invited into the Yee household, the relation-ship between her and Mr Yee slowly deepens, eventually exploding into physical passion with brutally sadomasochistic sex.
There's a desperate sense of emotional hunger to Yee's carnality while, in turn, Wong becomes increasingly seduced by the empowerment of playing submissive to his psycho-sexual domination.
It may not be love, but there's an intense mutual need and lust that, come to the crunch, may well prove the undoing of the plot and all involved as true and fake identities clash.
Although much has been made of the torridly graphic sex scenes, an emotionally raw physical metaphor for the political scenario, the film's real strength comes from the intensity of its slow-burning romantic melodrama.
At times evocative of Wong Kar Wei's In The Mood For Love (in which Leung also starred), it takes its time getting to the heart of the matter in the third act, but involvement in the narrative rarely slips.
Finely underplaying and full of wordless expression, newcomer Tang is outstanding as a woman who finds herself so immersed in her role she loses touch with herself while Leung finds a measure of sympathy for what is an essentially ruthless, cruel and unlikeable character.
Despite having won the Golden Lion at Venice and being nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Foreign Language film, the sex scenes, lengthy running time and the almost totally Chinese or Japanese dialogue will keep it from reaping the same Oscar harvest as Brokeback Mountain but audiences looking for sophisticated, thoughtful, and, yes, erotic entertainment won't be disappointed.
PS I LOVE YOU * * *
Cert 12A, 126 mins
A bittersweet but uplifting romantic comedy chick flick weepie, Richard LaGravenese's New York relocated adaptation of Irish novelist Cecilia Ahern's bestseller is basically Ghost for the Bridget Jones generation.
First seen arguing in their apartment, Holly (Hilary Swank) and Gerry (Gerard Butler) are, for all their bickering, very much in love. Then, once past the opening credits, he's been carried off by a brain tumour and she's left wallowing in grief.
The best efforts of mother Patricia (Kathy Bates) and friends Sharon (Gina Gershon) and husband-hunting Denise (Lisa Kudrow) are to no avail but then, on her 30th birthday, she receives a cake from Gerry, along with a tape recording announcing he's arranged for a series of letters to be delivered with instructions designed to restart her life.
Cue a series of amusing episodes in which Holly's prompted to realise that death isn't necessarily the final chapter for the living, including a karaoke revisitation and trip to Ireland by the three girls where a flashback reveals the couple's meet cute and she has a one-night stand with Gerry's old bandmate (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).
Hoarily sentimental and trite perhaps, complete with Truly Madly Deeply-style sequences in which Holly fantasises an inevitably bare-chested Gerry back in the land of the living, but there's sufficient wit and unforced poignancy to just about carry it past its contrived, manipulative schmaltz.
Despite being clearly too old to make believable best friends, Gershon and Kudrow steal some of the best moments while Harry Connick Jr struggles to give romantic plausibility to the sweet but too forthright barman with a crush on Holly and Swank appears to have no natural propensity for comedy.
Butler at least makes his mark, albeit for one of the worst cartoon Oirish accents to grace the big screen. Maybe it's the afterglow of the festive season, but this feels funnier and more touching than it might otherwise warrant. Enjoy before new year cynicism takes hold.
I'M NOT THERE * *
Cert 15, 135 mins
It's possible that seeing it in the sub-Arctic conditions of an Electric cinema press show numbed critical response, but, after all the glowing reviews, Todd Haynes' art house biopic meditation on the man and myth that is Bob Dylan just felt like a well-crafted, finely acted bore.
Legendarily enigmatic, even Dylan's autobiography offers few keys to his riddle. License enough for Hayes to offer his individual interpretation of the "poet, prophet, outlaw, fake, star of electricity", an elusive chameleon shifting skins on a journey that has seen him as folk singer, protest icon, mainstream star, born-again preacher and reborn troubadour.
Looking to visualise an idea rather than a man, Haynes has cast six actors to portray the different Dylan manifestations, intercutting between the different incarnations.
Bookending the extremes are young black actor Marcus Carl Franklin is Woody, the guitar playing 11-year-old hobo with a fanciful patchwork of back stories, and (harking to the John Wesley Harding era) Richard Gere as a now aged Billy the Kid, living a reclusive life until former nemesis Pat Garrett (Bruce Greenwood) resurfaces with plans to drive a highway through his sleepy town retreat.
Flitting from black and white to colour, between times, you have the pick of other Dylans.
Ben Wishaw is the Rimbaud-influenced rising star reciting Dylan's own enigmatic interview responses in what appears a black and white police interrogation scene.
As Jack, Christian Bale embodies the earnest early 60s Dylan singing The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll to a group of workers, but also the late 70s Christian phase when he resurfaces as Pastor John.
Movie star rather than singer (having made his name playing the early incarnation of Jack) but clearly representing Dylan's relationships with Sara Lownds and Carol Dennis (fused here via Charlotte Gainsbourg), Heath Ledger arcs from youthful idealism to cynical bitterness as is Robbie.
In the film's most noted performance (even if she looks more like John Cooper Clarke), Cate Blanchett's Jude embodies the Dylan of Highway 61 Revisited, going from a revered protest icon linked to folk legend Alice (Julianne Moore channelling Joan Baez) to reviled sell out after going electric, dallying with the current It girl (Michelle Williams as the Edie Sedgwick figure) and being given a hard time by a cynical BBC presenter (Greenwood again).
Cross cutting between the stories, although there's an overriding connection, there's no defined chronology and much is defiantly impressionistic in the manner of Fellini or Godard while also embracing humorous nods to Richard Lester with a background reference to Help! as Jude frolics with a Fab Four.
There's certainly individual moments of genius and throwaway wit (Brian Jones referred to as a member of that British covers band), Hayes choice of songs is suitably obscure and all of the Dylan incarnations are excellent in their own way.
It's certainly less tedious than the loosely biographical and terminally incoherent Masked and Anonymous but, ultimately, only someone already well versed in Dylan lore will get the allusions and references while Arena audiences and the merely curious alike will likely be intellectually and aesthetically impressed but confounded by the narrative structure and at a loss to engage with the fragmented central figure.
THE WITNESSES * * *
Cert 15, 114 mins, subtitled
Something of a belated Jules Et Jim style look at the impact of the first Aids outbreak, Andre Techine's drama covers the overlapping stories of a group of Parisians all variously connected to promiscuous young homosexual Manu (Johan Libéreau).
Schematically staged in three acts that arc from innocence to awareness to enlightenment, those in Manu's orbit include his aspiring opera singer sister (Julie Depardieu), 50-something platonic partner doctor Adrien (Michel Blanc) who devotes himself to researching a cure, vice squad chief lover Medhi (Sami Bouajila) and his open marriage blocked novelist, maternally ambivalent wife (Sarah) Emmanuelle Beart.
Well acted, unsentimental, insightful and ultimately optimistic, there's no arguing with its credentials or artistic quality, but you can't help feeling it's about 15 years too late to have any real impact.