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Review: Sex and the City: The Movie, Untraceable, Shine a Light, Leatherheads, Happy-Go-Lucky, Brick Lane, Adam’s Apples, 21 and Prom Night

By Cinema, Reviews

Never hav­ing seen an epis­ode of Sex and the City on tele­vi­sion, I’ll have to leave it to oth­ers to place it in con­text. From what I can gath­er, though, it appears to be about four women in Manhattan, not too bright, not too nice and not too deep, who are look­ing for love, suc­cess and shoes. The cent­ral fig­ure in the group is Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) whose on-again, off-again rela­tion­ship with Mr Big (Chris Noth) is about to become very much “on” with a huge soci­ety wed­ding and a pent­house 5th Avenue apart­ment with a closet big­ger than the apart­ment build­ing I live in. Amazingly, it is the closet that causes the most excite­ment, even when empty.

Meanwhile, Charlotte (Kristin Davis) is bliss­fully happy with her hus­band and adop­ted daugh­ter Lily; Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) is some­what less than happy to find out that her hus­band (David Eigenberg) has cheated on her and sex kit­ten Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is find­ing life in the shad­ow of a hand­some day­time soap star to be less than fulfilling.

It all comes to a head at the wed­ding but not before (as well as dur­ing and after) we are forced to listen to many, many long con­ver­sa­tions mostly about events we have just seen.

Untraceable is a per­fectly ser­vice­able thrill­er set in rainy Portland. Diane Lane is a wid­ow work­ing the FBI cyber-crime night-shift who dis­cov­ers a crazed loon string­ing up vic­tims in front of a web­cam. The more eye­balls he receives the faster his vic­tim dies mak­ing every­one com­pli­cit in the even­tu­al murder. Director Gregory Hoblit has an unparalelled tv back­ground (“Hill Street Blues”, any­one?) and also dir­ec­ted the tight mind-games thrill­er Fracture last year and Untraceable is bet­ter than it sounds, effect­ive and not nearly as exploit­at­ive as the trail­er led one to believe.

Just like the U2 con­cert movie earli­er this year, most of the people at the front of the Rolling Stones 2006 Beacon Theatre show (recor­ded for pos­ter­ity by Martin Scorsese as Shine a Light) watched it via the screens on their cell­phones. Heavens, people! Stop try­ing to record the life going on in front of you and just get in there and live it! (Written from the back row of a darkened cinema on a sunny day). Shine a Light shows the Stones off superbly – the sound is mag­ni­fi­cent and the per­form­ance (from Jagger in par­tic­u­lar) is stun­ning. Not enough Charlie Watts for my lik­ing but that’s a minor quibble.

It does­n’t take long to estab­lish why the latest George Clooney romantic-comedy has been bur­ied either at ses­sions no one can get to or cinemas no one wants to vis­it. Leatherheads is an indul­gent romp, feed­ing off Clooney’s nos­tal­gia for old-time foot­ball and clas­sic movies – a lim­ited mar­ket. Set in 1925 at the birth of pro­fes­sion­al foot­ball, Clooney plays “Dodge” Connelly, an age­ing play­er try­ing to keep his ath­let­ic dreams alive via the unpre­pos­sess­ing Duluth Bulldogs. As a last gasp attempt to get crowds to pro games he signs col­lege star and war hero Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) to an exor­bit­ant game by game con­tract and inad­vert­ently changes the sport forever. He also gets hard-boiled newspaper-woman Lexie Littleton (a much less annoy­ing than usu­al Renée Zellweger) who is try­ing to uncov­er the truth about Rutherford’s war record. Vaguely remin­is­cent of fast-paced verbal com­ed­ies like His Girl Friday and Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (and even The Sting), the best thing about Leatherheads is Randy Newman’s won­der­ful score.

Every great artist has major works and minor works. For Prince, for example, Sign O’ The Times is a major work and Alphabet Street Lovesexy isn’t. Mike Leigh’s major works include Naked, Secrets and Lies and All or Nothing and his minor list fea­tures Topsy-Turvy and now Happy-Go-Lucky, about primary school teach­er Poppy (Sally Hawkins) and her fam­ily and friends. There’s not much story and not much devel­op­ment, but I think the reas­on why Happy-Go-Lucky fails is the lack of empathy for the char­ac­ters (pos­sibly caused by Leigh not hav­ing act­ors like Brenda Blethyn and Timothy Spall to make the emo­tion­al con­nec­tions for him).

The second half of my con­tem­por­ary work­ing class London double-feature was Brick Lane, based on a nov­el I’ve actu­ally read. On the death of her moth­er, Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee) is mar­ried off to prig­gish Karim (Christopher Simpson) in London where a life of grimy coun­cil flats and racist neigh­bours awaits. Clumsily con­densed and fussily dir­ec­ted, Brick Lane nev­er quite over­comes it’s own clichés.

Totally cliché-free and like noth­ing you have ever seen, Adam’s Apples is a very odd black com­ic fable about a white suprem­acist, Adam, sent to a remote coun­try church to see out his parole peri­od. There he meets a gaggle of eccent­ric, dam­aged or just plain bark­ing char­ac­ters, not least Ivan the priest (Mads Mikkelsen) who turns the oth­er cheek so often it might as well be inside out. Full of surprises.

Finally, a couple of dis­pos­able (though prob­ably not bio­de­grad­able) enter­tain­ments for the yoof: 21 is based on a true story about MIT stu­dents who use their phe­nom­en­al abil­it­ies at, er, count­ing to cheat the black­jack tables in Vegas. MIT is in Massachusetts and cent­ral char­ac­ter Ben (Across The Universe’s Jim Sturgess) is a fath­er­less schol­ar­ship boy so the film could have been called Good Will Counting. If it had any heart or soul or wit. 21 also fea­tures Kate Bosworth and Kevin Spacey in their third film togeth­er in less than four years.

And Prom Night is a run-of-the-mill slash­er film fea­tur­ing a high school sci­ence teach­er with an infatu­ation for Brittany Snow (Hairspray). He kills all her fam­ily and then, three years later, escapes from deten­tion to wreck her Prom party. Totally forgettable.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 11 June, 2008.

Notes on screen­ing con­di­tions: All unre­mark­able screen­ings at cinemas not­able for their atten­tion to screen­ing qual­ity except for Adam’s Apples which is pretty scratchy and has a dam­aged soundtrack (Paramount) and Shine a Light which looked and soun­ded simply superb at the Embassy.

Review: No Country for Old Men, Michael Clayton, 30 Days of Night, The 11th Hour and Talk to Me

By Cinema, Reviews

No Country for Old Men posterNo Country for Old Men is essen­tial cinema in two senses of the word. First and fore­most you must see it, prob­ably more than once. But it is also cinema reduced to its essence. Everything con­trib­utes: Cormac McCarthy’s respect­fully adap­ted ori­gin­al nov­el; beau­ti­fully com­posed images superbly pho­to­graphed by Roger Deakins (the only cre­at­ive on the pro­ject not named Coen); edit­ing that could be a film school in a box. The stand­ard music­al soundtrack is replaced by the music of the every­day: foot­steps, cof­fee pots, car engines, gun fire.

A hunter (Josh Brolin) stumbles across a wil­der­ness drug deal gone wrong: many corpses, a flat­bed full of drugs and briefcase full of money. He takes the money hop­ing to start a new life away from the West Texas trail­er park he inhab­its with Trainspotting’s Kelly MacDonald. But instead of a win­ning lot­tery tick­et he has unleashed the epi­tome of cinema badass-ery: Javier Bardem as an angel of ven­geance determ­ined to retrieve the cash by any means necessary.

All the per­form­ances are won­der­ful but the heart of the film is Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Ed Bell. Always (aggrav­at­ingly) a couple of steps behind he is a good man ill-at-ease with the sheer, inex­plic­able, evil he is con­fron­ted with. A masterpiece.

30 Days of Night posterJosh Hartnett plays anoth­er small town sher­iff, out-gunned and out-matched, in 30 Days of Night. He runs Barrow, the northern-most town in Alaska, so far north that one month of the year is spent in dark­ness. This is the per­fect setup for a smart vam­pire to take advant­age of: 30 days of feed­ing with no enforced hiberna­tion and a bunch of unsa­voury char­ac­ters (well-led by Danny Huston) cer­tainly go to town. Entertaining and styl­ish, 30 Days goes about its work (with­in its genre lim­it­a­tions) respect­ably enough.

Michael Clayton posterI’m begin­ning to think that George Clooney is so good that his pres­ence has actu­ally made some films seem much bet­ter than they actu­ally are: Syriana would be an example. This the­ory comes in to focus when dis­cuss­ing Michael Clayton, anoth­er Oscar con­tender from first-time dir­ect­or Tony Gilroy. Clooney plays the eponym­ous leg­al fix­er, a middle-aged man los­ing his bear­ings: his mor­al com­pass is as adrift as the mal­func­tion­ing sat­nav in his Merc. He is try­ing to fix a rap­idly unrav­el­ling case defend­ing a dodgy agri-chemical com­pany when he real­ises that he is prob­ably on the wrong side but his tenu­ous per­son­al situ­ation doesn’t give him the free­dom to do the right thing. He is con­flic­ted, in oth­er words, and Clooney plays that con­flict superbly. But, while George is act­ing his heart out, the rest of the film doesn’t quite meas­ure up. Performances mis­step and the plot weighs the themes down more heav­ily than it needs to. A good film but not a great one.

The 11th Hour posterLeonardo DiCaprio for the Nobel Peace Prize? Following in the foot­steps of Al Gore’s act­iv­ist phe­nomen­on An Inconvenient Truth in 2006, DiCaprio stakes his own claim with a doc­u­ment­ary about envir­on­ment­al destruc­tion and the urgent need for change: The 11th Hour. Sadly for the earn­est DiCaprio, there’s noth­ing here we haven’t seen or heard before and (des­pite his star power) he is an uncon­vin­cing presenter. Perhaps he should have stayed behind the cam­era and paid Morgan Freeman to front it – he is God after all.

Talk to Me posterTalk to Me is an enter­tain­ing and mov­ing little film, destined to be over­whelmed by the heavy­weight Oscar con­tenders open­ing all around it. Oblivion would­n’t be a fair out­come though and if you find your­self with the time and inclin­a­tion to give it a try you won’t be dis­ap­poin­ted. Always reli­able Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda) plays real-life Washington DC radio star and act­iv­ist Ralph Waldo “Petey” Green and the excel­lent Chiwetel Ejiofer (Dirty Pretty Things and American Gangster) is his best friend and Programme Director Dewey Hughes. The racial powder­keg that is DC in the 60’s is well recre­ated on a lim­ited budget but it is the rela­tion­ship between these two very dif­fer­ent men that works best.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 6 February, 2008.

Special thanks to D at the Embassy for let­ting me go back to see No Country a second time before deadline.

Review: Transformers, Nancy Drew, Starter for 10Eden and Heartbreak Hotel

By Cinema, Reviews

"Transformers" posterAbove the pro­scen­i­um arch at the Embassy theatre, on either side of the screen, there are two flash­ing red lights. They’ve been there ever since the Return of the King refurb and I thought they were some­thing to do with the secur­ity sys­tem – motion sensors per­haps – but after watch­ing Michael Bay’s Transformers on Friday night I got the idea that maybe they are eyes, you know, wink­ing at us.

The Embassy as sen­tient sen­tinel – pro­tect­ing us from evil, ready to trans­form at a moment’s notice into a giant robot with a really deep voice: as a vehicle for justice, its no more pre­pos­ter­ous an idea than the muscle cars, hot rods, tanks and 18-wheelers fea­tured in the film and it might explain that feel­ing of secur­ity I get sink­ing in to the leath­er seats.

In the film, Earth has become the battle­ground for two war­ring races of robots: the good guy Autobots and the not-so-much Decepticons. The cube that is the source of all their power is hid­den some­where here and the only clue is a pair of antique glasses in the pos­ses­sion of horny high school kid Shia LaBoeuf who the Autobots enlist to help. As you might expect with 30 metre tall robots, keep­ing their pres­ence secret proves chal­len­ging and the atten­tion of the author­it­ies (includ­ing a very hammy John Turturro) is soon in full force.

Transformers is big and loud and mostly fun but the age of its tar­get audi­ence seems to change from scene to scene and the more-than-casual racism of the char­ac­ter­isa­tions (every non-white char­ac­ter seems to be a buf­foon or a cow­ard or both) is a sour note, thank­fully rare these days.

"Nancy Drew" posterEqually white bread, but not quite as insult­ing, is the latest incarn­a­tion of the Nancy Drew stor­ies about the fam­ous teen­age girl detect­ive. This time Nancy is played by Julia Roberts’ niece (and creepy Eric’s daugh­ter) Emma and while she’s got a little pres­ence she does­n’t seem to totally know what she’s doing. It’s a fish-out-of-water story as Nancy leaves her small mid-western story­book town for the wilds of Los Angeles and any­one who has ever seen an epis­ode of Scooby-Doo knows what’s going to hap­pen next.

"Starter for 10" posterThe ubi­quit­ous James McAvoy (Last King of Scotland and Becoming Jane) plays Brian Jackson, a work­ing class boy on his way to Bristol University in 1985, in Starter for 10. Determined to get the most out of the exper­i­ence he tri­als for the University Challenge tv quiz team, get­ting a massive crush on the beau­ti­ful but shal­low Eve in the pro­cess. His two best mates are played by two act­ors from The History Boys which, as they were set at the same time and much of the music is inter­change­able, feels like you are watch­ing a weird altern­ate uni­verse at times. Recommended, but unchallenging.

"Eden" posterTwo minor entries from Europe to fin­ish. Eden is a fable about a bril­liant but lonely chef who falls for the unat­tain­able wait­ress at his favour­ite café: Food porn with a sur­pris­ingly ugly twist at the end.

"Heartbreak Hotel" poster
Colin Nutley’s Heartbreak Hotel is about two 40-something divor­cées in Stockholm who strike up an unlikely friend­ship as they try and nav­ig­ate the world of the newly-single. Heartbreak Hotel itself is the name of the nightclub they go to, a neon cock­tail of the worst aspects of the Courtenay-Blair com­bin­a­tion on a Wednesday night.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times, Wednesday 4 July, 2007 (Eden and Heartbreak Hotel cut for space, Starter for 10 moved to the Picks sec­tion for the same reason).