It’s been a weekend made for movie watching with cinemas across the city groaning under the weight of patrons escaping the filthy weather. It’s been so busy, in fact, that I failed to get in to either screening of The Last Station that I tried to attend — sold out at the Lighthouse and the Penthouse. Obviously, I should know better than to not book in advance on a holiday weekend but it means that I’m one down on the reviews I planned to offer you this week.
Instead of Tolstoy and his Russian cultural legacy, then, we kick-off with Sex and the City 2, a film that already has had some notoriously vicious reviews, and it deserves every single bit of vitriol the world can throw at it. SATC2 is an artifact of pure evil, a hate crime disguised as a puppy. I thought that the first film was pointless and dumb, but didn’t realise how offensive and pernicious the values on display actually are. There’s not a character in this film that isn’t a narcissistic whiner, stuck in their privileged little bubble, willfully ignorant of anything other than themselves and the fantasy world they live in.
We’re born alone and we die alone and in between nothing goes according to plan and the people around us are mostly unreliable and occasionally malevolent. Meanwhile, God either doesn’t exist or is indifferent to our suffering. Either way, A Serious Man, the new film by the prodigiously gifted Coen Brothers, is a very serious film. It is also a very funny one.
In a mid-west University town in the late 60s, Physics Professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) has a happy family, a great career and a beautiful house in a nice neighbourhood. Actually, he has none of those things. His wife (Sari Lennick) has fallen for smooth-talking Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) and needs a Get (a formal Jewish divorce), his daughter wants a nose job, his son is preparing for his bar mitzvah by smoking dope and listening to rock music and his unsuccessful brother (the great Richard Kind) is sleeping on the couch and draining his cyst in the bathroom. At the same time, the tenure committee at the University is receiving anonymous complaints and his white-bread, red-neck neighbours are mowing their lawns in a particularly threatening way.
One of the pitfalls you try and avoid in this gig is reviewing the film you wish you were watching instead of the one that is actually in front of you. It’s important to judge a work on it’s own terms, as well as it’s own merits, and avoid imposing your expectations but, with the best will in the world, there are times when you sit there wishing that the film you were watching was, y’know, better.
Exhibit A is The Bank Job, a lethargic caper-movie starring the reliable B‑movie action hero Jason Statham. It has all the attributes of an entertaining night out — chirpy knees-up cockney ruffians a la Lock Stock; painstaking bank heist preparations like Ocean’s 1x; an escape that goes terribly wrong like The Italian Job. The problem is all in the execution: mainly the editing which provides no impetus to the drama until the final third which by then is too late. It’s worth watching for the impeccable early-70s, East End art direction though. The flavour of the times are perfectly created.
Once I’d got over the fact that The Edge of Heaven wasn’t the long-awaited Wham! biopic I was expecting and instead an arthouse drama set in Turkey and Germany, I settled in to enjoy myself enormously. Writer-Director Fatih Akin specialises in stories about the intersection between Turkish immigrants living hard lives in the new Europe but he has surpassed himself this time. Less socio-political than his previous work (but with those threads still woven throughout), The Edge of Heaven tells two parallel stories (that intersect and occasionally frustratingly don’t) about the pain and heartbreak of being a parent and child. A richly detailed screenplay supports the clever structure and the film ends on a perfectly satisfying note. Recommended.
Charlie Bartlett is a smug, pseudo-indie, comedy about a gifted rich kid (Anton Yelchin) whose money making schemes get him kicked out of private school and into the mainstream where his attache case and blazer mark him out for unwanted attention. Charlie’s access to the family shrinks (and their prescribing power) allows him to become unofficial school therapist, handing out Ritalin like candy, providing these kids with the sensitive ear that they can’t find anywhere else and him with a role that transcends getting beaten up everyday.
Sadly, only the great Robert Downey Jr. (as the alcoholic principal) makes the lines sound, not only, like he’d actually thought of them himself but that they had occurred to him right then and there. Everyone else holds their characters at arms length and the whole film wears it’s irony rather too consciously on its sleeve.
A recent article in The Australian tries to define what ails current newspaper cinema reviewing and one of the examples is “boosting unworthy local material”. No danger of that with Apron Strings, the first feature by Toi Whakaari graduate and award-winning short film maker Sima Urale. A kitchen-sink drama set in the multi-cultural badlands of South Auckland that uses cooking as a metaphor as well as a plot mechanism. In a Curry House on a suburban street corner, Leela Patel makes her kormas and her sweets while long-lost sister Laila Rouass has become a top tv chef using those same recipes. Meanwhile, Jennifer Ludlam’s bigoted cake decorator a few doors down has to deal with her own disappointing children and a changing world she isn’t very keen on. (Perhaps too) lovingly and (too) carefully directed Apron Strings’ flaws are on the page rather than on the screen. Screenwriters Shuchi Kothari and Dianne Taylor squeeze so much in that the film collapses under the weight of all that coincidence and so many ‘points’. They also prove that it is very difficult to write a decent, three-dimensional, white racist character these days without falling back on cliché.
Another example of film reviewer irrelevance from The Australian is the concept of quote-whoring — writing specifically to get quoted in an ad. Well, here’s my one for this week: “I was woken by the sound of my own snoring”. Probably not the fault of Prague, the new Danish drama starring ubiquitous Mads Mikkelsen, as I did manage to stir before the half way point and quite enjoyed myself after that, but it takes a long time to get going. I’m sure there is a lot in there to reward a patient and attentive viewer but, apart from watching one of the great modern screen actors at work, I couldn’t find it.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 13 August, 2008.
Nature of conflict: Well, that gag about falling asleep ended up giving me plenty of grief after I repeated it on Nine to Noon. Prague is distributed in New Zealand by Arkles Entertainment, who I do some work for every now and then, and Managing Director (and all round paragon despite some dubious political allegiances) John Davies was not well-pleased. The threat to fire me faded somewhat when the 4 star Herald review appeared. Which just goes to show that, despite any appearances of a conflict of interest, the opinions offered here are always independent and free of influence.
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.
2008 is shaping up to be a year of great films about people being beastly to each other and the first cab off the rank is Tim Burton’s majestic adaptation of Sondheim’s broadway opera Sweeney Todd. Based on the true-ish story of the Victorian barber who murders his customers to provide fresh meat for his girlfriend’s pies, Sweeney Todd is positively Shakespearian in scale – meaty, savage, sinister and poignant. Johnny Depp plays the talented scissor-man who returns to London 15 years after he was transported to the colonies by crooked Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) who had desires on his pretty wife. Consumed with a passion for revenge Todd goes back to work above the shop selling London’s worst pies, made by the redoubtable Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter). There, more by accident than design, they discover that his skills with a razor might be profitable in more ways than one.
Sondheim’s music and lyrics are as good as any other writing for the stage in the last century and the film version honours that talent unconditionally. When young Toby (Ed Sanders) sings “Not While I’m Around” (probably the most beautiful song ever written) to Mrs Lovett you can see the look in her eyes that shows he has just sealed his own fate, the temperature in the theatre seemed to drop a few degrees. Not just anyone can pull that off.
The best of the rest at the moment is Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, a pacy and observant look at the life of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), Harlem’s most notorious and successful drug dealer of the 1970s. Russell Crowe plays Richie Roberts, the only honest cop in New York. It’s an interesting story well told by three charismatic film personalities.
After the Wedding is a lovely, layered drama from Denmark starring the watchable Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale) as an aid worker at an Indian orphanage who is summoned back to Copenhagen by a mysterious billionaire (Rolf Lassgård). Lassgård wants to donate enough money to save the programme – millions of dollars – but there are strings attached. Those strings turn out to be less nefarious than they seem at first but the choice that Mikkelsen’s Jacob has to make is still a heart-breaking one. Totally recommended.
Totally un-recommended is the Australian comedy-drama Clubland about an unusual showbiz family led by domineering mother Brenda Blethyn. Asinine in conception and horrible in execution, it struggles to get one good performance out the entire cast put together.
Death at a Funeral isn’t much better, although a couple of performances (Peter Dinklage and a doughy Matthew McFadyen) rise above the cheap and nasty script. The funeral is for McFadyen’s father and various friends and family members have assembled to form a quorum of English stereotypes. Standard farce elements like mistaken identity and accidental drug-taking are shoe-horned together with the help of some poo jokes.
Alien vs. Predator: Requiem managed to disappear from my memory about as soon as I left the theatre with my ears still ringing from the noise. An Alien pod being transported across the galaxy crash lands in Colorado and starts laying eggs – cause that’s just how they roll. A creature from the Predator home-world tries to clean up the mess and a whole bunch of random citizens get caught in the middle. All the signature moments from the original Alien (the chest-bursting, the almost-kissing a whimpering young woman) are repeated often, to diminishing effect and, I know I sometimes see cinematic racism everywhere, is it really necessary for both malevolent extra-terrestrial races to look like big black men with dreadlocks?
There’s a factory in China, I’m sure, stamping out films like Elsa & Fred on a weekly basis, making subtle cultural and generational changes where necessary but preserving the formula like it’s Coca Cola. And fair enough as these films will always sell: un-challenging, easy to decipher, vaguely life-affirming. Elsa (China Zorrilla) is a batty old woman in a Madrid apartment block. Fred (Manuel Alexandre) is the quiet widower who moves in opposite. She decides to point him back the direction of life and he tries to make her dreams come true before it is too late.
Finally, Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution is an extremely well-made but overlong erotic thriller set in Japanese-occupied China during WWII. Stunning newcomer Wei Tang plays Wong Chia Chi, persuaded in a moment of youthful, patriotic weakness to join a student resistance group. She is sent undercover to try and woo the mysterious Mr Yee (Tony Leung) who is a senior official collaborating with the Japanese occupation forces. Unfortunately, for them both he is interested but a challenging mark and it is several years before she can get close enough to him (and believe me she gets very close) for the resistance to strike. Ang Lee is the poet of the stolen glance and he is in very good form – I just wish it hadn’t taken quite so long to get going.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 23 January, 2008.
Nature of Conflict: After the Wedding is distributed in NZ and Australia by Arkles Entertainment who I do some work for; Clubland is distributed in Australia and NZ by Palace whose NZ activities are looked after by the excellent Richard Dalton, who is a good mate.
At present Reading Cinemas are not offering press passes to the Capital Times. This means that their exclusive releases (such as Cloverfield) will go un-reviewed unless I can work something out with them or the distributor. Maybe I’ll just download them …
This week’s Capital Times film review: Casino Royale (Martin Campbell); China Blue (Micha X. Peled); Flushed Away (David Bowers & Sam Fell); Tiger and the Snow (Roberto Benigni). Illustrated but not annotated, too late at night, sorry.