I went into The Turning in the dark and in some ways I wish I hadn’t and in others I’m glad I did. I’ll see if I can explain.
The film is a collection of related shorts, each based on a single story from Tim Winton’s acclaimed collection of the same name. That much I knew. As story after story rolled through, each produced by a different Australian creative team, each taking a unique and original approach to storytelling, I started to see connections between them. Many of these connections were visual – the recurrence of rusty abandoned cars, people living in caravans. Some were geographic – a Western Australian mining community surrounded on one side by red dirt and on the other by the ocean. Damaged, corroded and corrupted masculinity. Redheads. The name “Vic”.
Afterwards I read a copy of the glossy souvenir booklet that viewers get to take away with them when they buy a ticket for this “special cinematic event” and those connections became clearer. In Winton’s book all of the stories inter-connect – characters re-occur (often at different stages of their lives) and events we see in one story might be referred to obliquely in another.
Has any rock group inspired – and paid for – as much cinema as the Rolling Stones? From Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil to Scorsese’s gilded concert footage for Shine a Light in 2009, the Stones have woven themselves into film history at the same time as they became rock legends. The Maysles Brothers’ Gimme Shelter is even in the Criterion Collection and footage from it informs a central chapter in Brett Morgen’s documentary (auto)biography of the band, Crossfire Hurricane.
As the 1969 Altamont free concert deteriorates into murderous anarchy, the still-living Stones provide their own 40-year-on perspective in croaky voiceover and it’s these audio-only reminiscences that provide the main novelty of a film that – at only two hours – struggles to contain the full majesty of “the greatest rock and roll band in the world”. There’s plenty of unseen (by me at any rate) new backstage and behind-the-scenes footage too, in an intricately edited portrait which is as honest as any band-authorised and Jagger-produced documentary is likely to be.
From the tour de force of A Few Good Men in 1992 (“You can’t handle the truth!”) to the winning Charlie Wilson’s War in 2007, Aaron Sorkin’s sparkling dialogue and intelligent characters provide (all too rare) beacons of brilliance among the parade of dross that is most commercial cinema.
And that doesn’t count his contribution to television. I’m one of those people who love “The West Wing” so much that I wish I could simply mainline it direct into a vein, so a new Sorkin script of any description is an event.
Torn from the blogs (and a best-selling book by Ben Mezrich), The Social Network is the heavily mythologised story of the invention of Facebook and the legal tussles over the plentiful spoils. Sorkin is in his element, here: He doesn’t write action or gun-battles, he writes smart, literate people arguing over ideas and it’s an unending pleasure.
If you are on the look out for an intelligent, serious and impressively well-made drama that will stimulate and move you (and of course you are, or you wouldn’t be reading this) then The Reader will fit your bill perfectly. The last of the big Oscar contenders to hit our shores, this is a version of the best-selling novel which put the German struggle to come to terms with the crimes of the Nazis centre stage. The adaptation (by British playwright and screenwriter David Hare) also does this but something else as well – it becomes a meditation on all kinds of guilt and shame as well as the complex interaction between the two.
In 1958, schoolboy Michael Berg falls ill and is helped by a stranger (the extraordinary Kate Winslet). After his recovery, three months later, he returns to thank her and they begin an affair that lasts the final summer of his childhood. Between bouts of lovemaking she demands he read to her, telling her the stories and plays he is studying at school. Several months later she disappears, breaking poor Michael’s heart, only to return to his life eight years later in a Berlin courtroom, on trial for war crimes.
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.