Genius filmmaker Mike Leigh has been on a bit of an up and down streak in recent years. 2002’s All or Nothing was wonderful, Vera Drake (2004) I found frustratingly unwatchable and, most recently, Happy-Go-Lucky seemed too thin – beneath his significant talents – and yet, despite not liking it very much, I find myself thinking about Happy-Go-Lucky quite often. And that’s Leigh’s skill – he gets under your skin even when you resist.
Another Year is his latest film and it’s terribly good. It’s Secrets and Lies good, that good, despite having no plot to speak of. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen (Leigh regulars) play Tom and Gerri, a happily married couple who seem to be surrounded by people who simply aren’t as good at coping with life – Lesley Manville’s Mary, a highly strung, alcoholic, work colleague of Sheen’s who turns up to embarrass herself in their kitchen periodically; Tom’s old university buddy Ken played by Peter Wight (overweight, depressed, lonely, also alcoholic); Tom’s taciturn widower brother Ronnie (David Bradley). They all drift into and out of Tom and Gerri’s welcoming suburban kitchen while tea is made and drunk and banalities are spoken.
Following the surprise success of Second Hand Wedding in 2008, screenwriter Nick Ward and director Paul Murphy have been given a vastly improved budget and access to two international stars and told to make lightning strike twice.
The stars of Love Birds just happen to be the two fussiest actors in the world, Sally Hawkins (Golden Globe winner for Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky) and TV comic Rhys Darby, and when the two of them start fidgeting and stammering it feels like you are in for a long night. Luckily, both have their still-er moments and at those times you can see that Darby has real potential as a big screen romantic lead.
I got some feedback on this column the other day. Apparently I “write well” but I “don’t like much”. Perhaps I am a little jaded after four and a half years in these pages but I am pleased to report that this weekend I saw five films on your behalf and enjoyed all of them. Yes, all of them.
In the first scene of The American, George Clooney does something so un-Clooney-like that audience members beside me audibly gasped. He plays a hit-man who might be called Jack or Edward but is probably neither.
After narrowly escaping an attempt on his own life he holes up in picturesque Castel del Monte in the mountains of central Italy. As a single-minded professional with no ties, Jack could be the brother of Clooney’s corporate assassin in Up in the Air and like that film it takes unexpected feelings for a beautiful woman to make him realise how empty his life is.
Directed by famous photographer Anton Corbijn (The Joshua Tree etc), every frame of The American is luscious and perfectly composed, Mr. Clooney makes this stuff look easy and if you’re in the market for a quality Euro-art-house Bourne-type thriller then look no further.
Half way through Winter’s Bone I found myself thinking, “So, this is what the Western has become?” The best Westerns are about finding or sustaining a moral path though a lawless frontier and the frontier in Winter’s Bone is the hidden world of the rural poor and the path is a strange and terrifying one.
In the rough and remote Ozark Mountains, teenage Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is single-handedly bringing up her two young siblings while caring for her emotionally damaged mother. One cold morning the Sheriff turns up with the news that her father, Jessup, used their house as his bail bond and unless Ree can find him and persuade him to turn up for Court, the family will lose everything.
Jessup is (or maybe was) what we would call a ‘P’ dealer – the only economy in the area showing any kind of growth. But the company he was keeping were the meanest of the mean and to find her father Ree must venture into dangerous territory.
The allotment is one of the United Kingdom’s greatest achievements, unrepeated I believe anywhere else. In exchange for moving in to shoeboxes stacked upon each other the British poor were given a back garden somewhere else – a nearby shared field converted into small plots where they could grow some food and still experience something of a life outdoors, connected to the seasons. And who could have guessed that, at the same time, the allotment could also be such an effective metaphor for life in modern England.
In Richard Laxton’s film Grow Your Own, the spare plots at a Liverpool allotment are being allocated to refugees, to help them adjust to life in their new country and give them something to do during the otherwise long days. The locals, led by ex-cop Big John (Philip Jackson) with the help of his downtrodden son Little John (Eddie Marsan from Happy-Go-Lucky), don’t like the idea of their patch being invaded by “gypos” and turn a cold shoulder to their new neighbours.
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 StreetLovesexy 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 thirdfilm 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 whichlooked and sounded simply superb at the Embassy.