Saturday 31 May 2008

Sex and the City

Screen Fever Score: 7/10


A refreshingly grown-up take on love and relationships which, while not quite at home on the cinema screen, is much better than most Hollywood rom-coms.

Full review:
Last week’s return of Indiana Jones was a momentous occasion for me, a movie event I’d been waiting many years to see realised, and one which when it finally came brought equal amounts of pleasure and disappointment. It didn’t escape my attention that the arrival of Carrie Bradshaw et al on the big screen was an equally anticipated event, albeit by a different, and perhaps even more demanding, audience.

But this time I was in a rather different position. Having never seen an episode of the smash hit TV series, I approached this movie as just another of 2008’s slate of summer blockbusters, while also wondering if my unfamiliarity with the show would make its near two and a half hours a pretty redundant experience. Happily, the film was most welcoming to a Sex and the City virgin; an opening montage featuring some thumbnail sketches of the characters and a quick blast through six series’ worth of feelings, frocks and that other f-word did a fine job of bringing me up to speed.

Initially the story centres on Carrie’s impending wedding to John James Preston - more commonly known as Mr Big – but as events unfold SATC’s focus expands. While this firstly feels like a mis-step, it ultimately makes for a better film. After a first hour that deftly balances character stuff, fashion stuff and fun stuff – including several trying-on-outfits scenes that show 27 Dresses how it should really be done - the film comes to something of a standstill as the girls hightail it to Mexico. While the change of situation allows for some fine comedy moments, the attempts at more serious reflection fall flat, and it’s a relief when they finally get back to New York and things get interesting again. It's here that the film settles into four distinct story strands, each eventually heading to satisfying and not-wholly-predictable conclusions.

Despite its title, the film isn’t really about sex. There’s still a fair amount of bedroom action in it, but each narrative strand is actually more focused on the pleasures, struggles and challenges of trying to make a long-term grown-up relationship work. Writer/director Michael Patrick King’s great achievement is to tackle this theme in a mature and complex way (particularly in the Carrie/Big and Miranda/Steve threads) without ever losing sight of the need to also be funny and entertaining. In this respect SATC sits head and shoulders above countless empty-headed romantic comedies, and it is a unique pleasure indeed to enjoy a summer event movie for the quality of its writing, complemented by a cast who really know their characters inside-out.

The flipside of this is that the material is not particularly cinematic, and King does nothing to pull the show out of its small-screen roots; only a handful of shots really benefit from big-screen projection, and for the most part this would work just as well as a one-off TV special. Also unsatisfying is an occasional reliance on unconvincing plot turns in order to get the characters into particular situations. Most frustratingly, the key moment of the story centres around a missed phone call, which feels too much like an easy get-out for the writer.

But these are not major complaints, and overall Sex and the City is an unexpected pleasure, offering warm humour, excellent performances and a little insight. Judged against any recent film of its type, it proves that the movies could really learn something about good writing and believable storytelling from the ‘lesser’ world of television.

Writer/director: Michael Patrick King
Cast: Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Catrall, Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Davis, Jennifer Hudson
Cert: 15
UK release: 28 May

Sunday 25 May 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Screen Fever Score: 7/10

Harrison Ford returns to the role of his life with solid-gold movie star style, but Steven Spielberg can’t quite match him, making a film that’s too much whizz-bang visuals and not enough heart. It's fun, but not a patch on Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Full review:
I should really have learned by now, after a good few decades of movie watching, that the biggest of blockbusters will most likely fail to live up to expectations. Especially if it’s a long-time-coming sequel to a much-loved series. Still, I couldn’t help hoping that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull might just break the mould, and actually be the Best Movie Of All Time. It’s probably not surprising to you to hear that it isn’t. In fact, it’s not even the best film of this year so far, and by my current reckoning it will probably end up fighting Temple of Doom in the film annals for the dubious honour of “least-good Indiana Jones film ever made”.

So that’s the hard part out of the way, but thankfully, it’s not the end of the story; because even though Indy 4 isn’t a classic, it does offer a lot to enjoy in the way of old-fashioned action thrills – at least in the moments when Spielberg keeps away from his pesky box of digital effects trickery.

The story begins, after a scene-setting credits sequence, in the usual Indy style, at the tail-end of an adventure we never see the start of, with Indy, 20 years older than we remember, being dragged out of a car boot in the Nevada desert. Time has moved on since his wartime adventures, so now the baddies are Russian, and our grizzled but still instantly recognisable hero is their captive. By his side is a new colleague, Ray Winstone’s cowardly Mac, and in his face a new nemesis, Irana Spalko, a fantastic Cate Blanchett boasting a severe haircut and a ridiculous Ruski accent. The stage is set, and the action kicks off. The story that unfolds incorporates old and new characters; Shia LeBeouf cements his movie star status as young rebel Mutt, Karen Allen makes a welcome return as Raiders’ Marion Ravenwood and John Hurt and Jim Broadbent have small but significant roles as key characters (although ‘plot devices’ would be a better description of their impact in the film).

But even with its glowing cast list, Indy 4 is really a one-man show, and it primarily reminded me why Harrison Ford really is a world-class movie star. He is Indiana Jones, and even after 19 years away he is in complete command of the role. His performance in Crystal Skull offers up a plethora of iconic moments that confirm why we love these movies: a moment in his study with Mutt when Indy’s eyes light up at the prospect of a new adventure; a hilarious exchange with old flame Marion as they face certain (ahem) doom in a sinking bog; and of course, trading punches with a pesky Russian soldier who will just not give up. Ford convinces in every moment, getting to display a lightness and sense of humour that we haven’t seen from him since, well, the last Indy movie.

But if Ford slips back into character like he’s never been away, the same can’t be said of Spielberg. While there are some knock-out moments of big-screen magic (Indiana Jones encountering a nuclear mushroom cloud being the most jaw-dropping) Crystal Skull too often feels forced, like Spielberg is trying to recapture the spirit of the earlier films, but it’s not coming so naturally any more. Occasionally the tone is too silly, as when Mutt swings through the jungle with a tribe of monkeys in tow, and at other times action sequences seem to lack the intensity of Jones’s former escapades. The cliff-top jeep battle should be the most exciting, thrilling piece of action escapism that we see in 2008, but it comes off as flat. Even while watching it, it’s the idea of what’s happening that is more exciting than the actual execution of it on-screen. This isn’t helped by some very scrappy green-screen work, which pulls the audience out of the action all the more.

But a less than top-of-his-game Spielberg is still preferable to the majority of mainstream Hollywood directors working today, and Crystal Skull’s first half in particular contains some golden material, mainly resulting from the change of time period. It’s 1957, Elvis’s Hound Dog soundtracks the rip-roaring opening scene and Indy first encounters Mutt in a classic ‘50s diner (just think; set 2 years earlier we could have conceivably been seeing Indiana Jones come face to face with Marty McFly – now that’s a mash-up I’d pay good money to see!). Said diner is the starting point for one of the best set-pieces in the movie, as Indy and Mutt instigate a fight in order to elude some shady KGB men, consequently jumping on Mutt’s bike and starting a breakneck chase through Indy’s college campus grounds. The chase has a touch of the Bourne films about it in its audacious staging, but the sheer sense of fun is classic Spielberg. It ends with a pay-off line from Indy that is the icing on the cake of Crystal Skull’s most enjoyable sequence.

Sadly, as the film progresses Spielberg relies more heavily on CG effects to achieve his goals, resulting in a big finale that sees Indy sidelined in favour of a screen filled with digital effects that are all spark and no fizz. To Spielberg’s credit, the very end of the film is perfect, with a final exchange between Indy and Mutt that’s warm, funny and knowing in all the right ways. It’s that spark of humanity that makes the Indy movies so great, and it’s that which is crucially missing from Crystal Skull’s key grandstanding moments.

Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: David Koepp
Cast: Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Shia LeBeouf, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent
Cert: 12A
UK release: 22 May

Thursday 15 May 2008

Smart People

Screen Fever Score: 6/10

Too many over-familiar indie movie trappings to be essential viewing, but worth checking out for its well-written characters and great performances.

Full review:

A little film with a big cast, Smart People could easily be dismissed as yet another self-involved indie flick in the style made popular by Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach et al. But under the familiar surface are some interesting and well-drawn characters, brought to life by strong performances from Dennis Quaid and Ellen Page in particular. The film, from debut directing/writing team Noam Murro and Mark Poirier, takes a gently humorous look at the lives of a family of intellectually ‘smart’ people who, it becomes painfully clear, have no idea how to engage with the real world.

Quaid plays Lawrence, a widowed university professor who lives a selfish existence ignoring the emotional needs of his two teenage children, and is none too pleased when his adopted slacker brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) turns up in need of somewhere to live. Matters are complicated further when Lawrence ends up in the ER after some ill-advised trespassing, and there encounters Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), an old student of his and now head of the ER. A romantic connection of sorts ensues, but only serves to highlight Lawrence’s complete inability to connect meaningfully with others.

Similarly stunted in her emotional growth is Vanessa (Page), Lawrence’s daughter, an uptight and old-before-her-time Young Republican whose sole focus is on getting a perfect score in her SATs. Vanessa’s quick wit and sharp tongue make her immediately reminiscent of Juno MacGuff, but in truth she is a much more complex character, in denial of her own neediness, leading to a fumbling attempt to get closer to the bemused Chuck. Page’s performance is marked by the same skill and subtlety that earned her an Oscar nomination for Juno, and is one of the film’s highlights.

Some over-familiar indie movie elements make Smart People difficult to warm to, particularly the seemingly obligatory intrusive acoustic soundtrack, and the initial feeling that we have seen these characters before. In the case of Chuck that’s not too far from the truth, as Church is basically doing the same slobby thing he did, to similarly entertaining effect, in Sideways. There’s also some fudging of issues in the latter third of the film, with things working out much too easily for all concerned; a little more reality wouldn’t have gone amiss. Nowhere near top of its class then, but Smart People has enough interesting elements to mark Murro and Poirier as a creative team to watch.

Director: Noam Murro
Writer: Mark Poirier
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Ellen Page, Thomas Haden Church, Sarah Jessica Parker
Cert: 15
UK release: 16 May

Thursday 8 May 2008

Speed Racer

Screen Fever Score: 7/10
Go Speed Racer go! Although stretched out too long and boasting a visual style that takes a little getting used to, Speed Racer is a big shiny blast of a blockbuster.

Full Review:
First a confession. I’m one of the few people in the world who is quite fond of the Matrix sequels. Yes, they are flawed, yes, they’re too long and oh yes, the rave scene in Reloaded is a shameful and embarrassing few minutes of film. But for all their faults, they also contain some of the most thrilling action scenes put on film since, well, The Matrix first burned up our multiplexes. So I always get excited at the prospect of seeing whatever The Wachowski Brothers do next. When I saw the brain-frazzlingly bright zips and spins of the Speed Racer trailer, my appetite was well and truly whetted. Could they transplant the kinetic blast of adrenaline that characterized The Matrix films’ best moments into the cartoon world of 60’s kids animation Speed Racer? Would it be as good? Is there life after Neo for The Wachowskis?

Having sated my appetite with a pristine IMAX-vision screening of Speed Racer, I can answer my questions thusly: yes, not quite, and definitely. When Speed Racer puts pedal to metal it’s a thrilling and spectacular joyride.

The story focuses on the eponymous driver (Emile Hirsch) and how his racing bids for glory pit him against the multi-billion dollar might of Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam), head of Royalton Industries and a bit of a cad. Fortunately Speed has a loving family on his side, as well as the assistance of the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox). Structured around three major race sequences, and set in an entirely digital, fluorescent-themed environment, the film is a visual head-rush, and in the first instance it’s a little hard to tell what on earth is going on. Stick with it though, and soon your brain catches up with your eyes. By the time Speed makes it to the central, life-threatening cross-country rally, known as The Crucible, you’ll be feasting on the Wachowski’s gleefully gravity-defying camerawork, as cartoon-like cars fly from both ends of the screen and impossible zooms catch the determination in the eyes of the drivers.

It’s all two-dimensional stuff (quite literally), and the performances of the talented cast are suitably primary-coloured. Particular mention should go to Christina Ricci as Speed’s girlfriend Trixie and Paullie Litt as Spritle, his younger brother; Ricci looks like a real-life cartoon character as it is, and her spirited performance sums up the film’s innocent and simple tone perfectly. Litt brings great comedy timing to what could have been a really grating character; it’s quite refreshing for the comic relief to be genuinely funny in a big-budget blockbuster.

Where Speed Racer suffers is in the Wachowski’s lack of subtlety in dovetailing action and plot development, making the film a rather bumpy ride, narratively speaking, and pushing the running time needlessly over two hours. The opening race when commentators conveniently spell out Speed’s troubled backstory is clunky, to say the least, and the final third also packs in far too many emotional family scenes - I could definitely have lived without Susan Sarandon’s “your racing is, like, art” speech.

But primarily this is a film about the rush of the moment, and it has loads of visual highlights. The Wachowski’s bring out different colour themes for each race, and throw in neat little touches all the time; look out for the switch to heat-sensitive vision during Racer X’s gangster ambush. Speed Racer won’t change the filmic landscape in the way that The Matrix did, but it will brighten it up for a few hours, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Directors/Writers: Larry and Andy Wachowski
Stars: Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Matthew Fox, Susan Sarandon
Cert: PG
UK release: 9 May

Wednesday 7 May 2008

Iron Man

Screen Fever Score: 6/10

Solid comic-book entertainment, led by a great performance from Robert Downey Jr, but with no stand-out action sequences or memorable moments that haven’t already been played to death in the trailers. Iron Man is not going to be remembered as one of the summer’s best.

Full Review:
Iron Man is the first of 2008’s big summer blockbusters out of the gate, putting it in something of an unenviable position. If it’s great, it sets the benchmark for the rest of the summer’s movies to live up to, a la Spider-Man in 2002, but if it’s no good, or even just okay, it will soon be superseded by next week’s multi-million dollar spectacle. Taking into account the fact that Indiana Jones 4 is just around the corner, my money is on the latter outcome being Iron Man’s fate.

Plot-wise, it’s an origins movie, tracing Tony Stark (Downey Jr)’s transformation from weapons-manufacturing playboy to renegade metal-coated defender of war refugees by way of a swift lesson in the evils of war. A war that, he realises, he has provided much of the firepower for.

Kidnapped by Afghani terrorists, trapped in a cave and commanded to create a super-missile for his captors’ evil ends, Stark instead uses the materials provided to build himself a bullet-resistant iron suit and makes good his escape. This scenario unfolds – along with a bit of flashbacking character introduction – during Iron Man’s first half hour, and it’s very enjoyable stuff. Downey Jr is a quirky, atypical headliner for this type of film, and he delivers the witty lines with panache but also brings the right amount of gravitas when required. There’s also a fair amount of genuine tension and threat in this first part of the film, but this soon evaporates once Stark is back in his Malibu home and sets about building an all-new Mk. II Iron Man suit.

What follows is standard comic book hero-origins stuff: Stark slowly perfects his new power-suit, while in the background his shady business partner Obadiah Stane (a lip-smacking Jeff Bridges) does shady things, his best buddy Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard) turns up every now and then to have a “what the hell’s wrong with you” conversation and his beautiful and long-suffering assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) continues an on-off flirtation/disapproval with him. It’s slick, professional and entirely by the book.

That isn’t to say that it’s not enjoyable, but it’s a crowded field out there for superhero movies these days, and Iron Man isn’t stylish or unique enough to stand out from the rest. This is partly due to director Jon Favreau’s lack of visual flair; none of the images he constructs linger in the memory, and I found myself longing for more movement from the camera. The script can also be blamed, not in terms of dialogue, but more because in focusing so completely on the transformation of Tony Stark none of the other characters - except perhaps Potts, a restrained and very likeable Paltrow performance - get any kind of development. The recent spate of quality comic adaptations (Spider-Man, X-Men and Batman Begins) have demonstrated that you can do origins stories while also fleshing out fully-formed villains, providing a real sense of conflict. Iron Man’s writers aren’t as skilful, so when the villain of the piece is unveiled, it’s a foregone conclusion, a non-event, and there’s never any question as to whether he will be defeated or not.

Iron Man is not a bad film; it's full of very funny dialogue, has excellent and seamlessly incorporated visual effects and serves as a fine introduction to a character who will soon return to movie screens (Iron Man 2 is already slated for a 2010 release). But the fact that its sequel will undoubtedly be better doesn't let it off the hook; this is just good, it should have been great.

Director: Jon Favreau
Writers: Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Art Marcum & Matt Holloway
Stars: Robert Downey Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard
Cert: 12A
UK release: 2 May 2008
Watch the trailer here