Jan 3, 2010

Review Post 58: Spread / Nine / Sherlock Holmes

DIR: David MacKenzie
CAST: Ashton Kutcher, Anne Heche, Margarita Levieva

I’ve been following the development of Spread for some time, and I’ve declined the chance to watch it online because I was excited enough about it to want to see it for the first time at the cinema. I’ve actually become less intrigued by it as time has gone on, first because Jennifer Jason Leigh pulled out of a key role (played by Anne Heche) and then because the reviews have been largely savage, but one thing kept giving me hope; Scottish director David Mackenzie, whose entire filmography to date I had enjoyed a great deal.

Considering that Mackenzie’s three previous films; Young Adam, the little seen Asylum and Hallam Foe, had all dealt with sex and jealousy in refreshingly intelligent and adult ways Spread would seem to be right up his street. It’s the story of Nikki (Kutcher) a male hustler, who lives in LA without a job, a place or a car thanks to the older wealthy women he shacks up with and bilks every penny he can from. Essentially he is an amoral character, constantly on the lookout for his next meal ticket. He finds one in Samantha (Heche) a drop dead stunning lawyer of about 40 with whom he essentially trades regular orgasms for a place to live. It all comes crashing down though, when Nikki falls for Heather (Levieva), threatening his thus far comfortable and easy lifestyle. David Mackenzie should have been able to turn that idea into something brilliant, he’s made immoral and amoral characters utterly compelling before, and exhibited a real, sharp, understanding of the battles of the sexes and of sexual jealousy. It’s a shame and a surprise then to see him come horribly unstuck with this American debut.

I wonder if, given that he’s one of the producers, Kutcher was pressed on Mackenzie, because I can’t imagine that he would have won the role of Nikki any other way. First off, he’s a bit old for it. Kutcher was probably 30 during filming, and while he’s certainly handsome he looks 30. Nikki seems as though he should be younger, first because the character is clearly written as some beautiful 22 year old, using his looks to scam desperate women and secondly because, though he’s street smart, Nikki is so shallow that it’s hard to imagine him being much past his early 20’s, he just seems to have so little idea about life and about people that I can’t buy a man of Kutcher’s age in the part. More of a problem than Kutcher’s age is his acting. He’s so lifeless that to call him a cipher would be to oversell his performance. Kutcher drones Nikki's voiceover in a sub-catatonic drawl that suggests Harrison Ford doing the Blade Runner voiceover while on powerful downers, and his onscreen performance is no more lively. Kutcher’s facial expressions are very limited. In dramatic scenes we get ‘sleepy’ and during the many couplings there is a relatively impressive variety of ‘ugly sex face’ (he may have come up with as many as seven, actually). Sadly none of these expressions actually express much (besides ‘I’m fucking Anne Heche’, or rather ‘I’m pretending extremely unconvincingly to fuck Anne Heche’). And when he’s called upon to deliver some emotion Kutcher comes up comically empty. Nikki is accused of being vacuous, and certainly Kutcher conveys that very well, but he’s supposed to change, and still all we get is ‘sleepy’ and ‘sex face’.

Anne Heche does some nice work in Spread, making Kutcher look, if such a thing is possible, even more inert and emotionless than he already is. She is astoundingly good looking, and in stunning shape at 40. The problem is that she perhaps looks too good, she could pass for a good eight or ten years younger than she is (so well is she made up and photographed here), which makes her and Kutcher a rather logical match, and undermines the arrangement of their relationship somewhat. This is where casting Jennifer Jason Leigh would have paid off; she’s very beautiful still, but looks her 46 years, there would have been more to invest in her side of this arrangement, because it would have felt more like she might need it. Miscast as she is, Heche is a better actress than she’s often given credit for, and she’s effective when Samantha is allowed to come across like a real person rather than a MILF fantasy. The dialogue is often risible, but Heche does a lot with silence, particularly after we find out why Samantha has made a mid-movie trip to the hospital.

The great problem with these two characters, and with Maragarita Levieva’s Heather (whose character I won’t discuss, because spoilers might ensue) is that neither screenwriter Jason Dean Hall, Mackenzie or the actors themselves can find any way to make us care about them. Will Nikki and Heather find love? Who cares? Neither of them has a personality, they are each as morally bankrupt as the other and there is no sense of any interest between them other than the purely physical. Will Samantha… I don’t know, honestly, I don’t know what this movie wants us to want for Samantha. She seems to exist solely for Nikki to have a place to live and provide the film some shagging.

It’s frustrating, because as flawed as it is I think life could have been kicked into Spread. Imagine it with Joseph Gordon Levitt and Jennifer Jason Leigh (or even Heche, to be fair), with a rewrite to punch up the Nikki/Heather story and then we might have something. Instead there’s this lifeless corpse of a movie, a black hole of tedium that even Anne Heche’s fantastic breasts struggle to enliven. I honestly don’t know what David Mackenzie can have been thinking when he accepted this job, but I hope it gave him some cash so he can go away and do the interesting, individual, thought provoking work that was previously promised by his credit. This was a sad and disappointing note on which to start 2010.

DIR: Rob Marshall
CAST: Daniel Day Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Judi Dench,
Penelope Cruz, Kate Hudson, Sophia Loren,
Fergie, Nicole Kidman

Rob Marshall’s last musical was the mega successful, Best Picture winning Chicago.  This film won’t repeat either its box office or its awards success.

For a movie with such a wealth of talent at its disposal, Nine is shockingly, indeed almost unwatchably, awful. At my screening the movie had to be started twice, at first, thanks to some projection fault, the film looked as if there was a red filter on everything. As an audience we wondered if this was a fault or simply a strange stylistic choice for the beginning of the film. It was the former, but the ensuing two hours made me long for anything resembling the latter. Marshall is apparently trying to ape Fellini with this film. I don’t know Fellini’s work well, but with the best will in the world, Rob Marshall is no auteur. He’s a safe pair of hands, a journeyman who can be relied upon to get a movie up on screen and have it look like a movie. That said, there are parts of Nine that look downright amateurish. The black and white footage (which is largely used in flashback sequences, but also crops up in Kate Hudson’s song, more on that later) is especially poor. Grain swarms over the black and white footage, attracted to it like flies to shit, and it’s really badly lit; too even, with little contrast, everything a grey rather than blacks and whites that pop. The editing isn't terrible at a technical level, but Marshall’s cutting between the real world and songs (always on the same soundstage) taking place in a character’s head jars badly. The real problem with Marshall’s direction is how tossed off it feels, there’s not a single shot here that surprises or impresses, nothing you’ll remember after leaving your seat, at least, not because of anything Rob Marshall did.

In a musical the songs need to do a couple of things. First they have to be memorable, tunes or lyrics that lodge in your memory, songs you can hum on your way out of the cinema. Seecondly they have to advance the plot, because if they don’t then what’s the point. This is the golden rule of cinema; everything you include in your final cut should have to be there, the film shouldn’t be able to function without each scene being in place. Neither of these things is true of Nine. The songs are lumpen things, all bombast and no weight. There’s hardly a memorable note played in the whole film, never mind something to rival, say, Falling Slowly from Once. There’s not a single thing I want to listen to again, and in a two hour musical that is criminal.

The bigger musical problem is simply this; Nine doesn’t need songs, at all. The story of Guido Contini’s (Day Lewis) struggle to make his new film; Italia is thin and duller than a Friedberg/Seltzer double bill, but it’s all told without songs, all perfectly understandable. In some cases the songs actually detract from the film. This is especially notable with Marion Cotillard’s numbers. Cotillard is the only cast member to escape Nine with her dignity fully intact, indeed she gives a mesmerising performance, full of emotion; a rich, deep characterisation that shames every other aspect of the movie. She’s so good that her silent acting utterly negates the need for either ‘My Husband Makes Movies’ or ‘Take It All’ (which is by far the best song in this sorry film). Some songs vaguely comment on the action (Cruz’ hideous 'A Call From the Vatican') and there is no rhyme or reason to the inclusion of others (Judi Dench’s ridiculous 'Folies Bergère', for example, and the nadir represented by Kate Hudson’s 'Cinema Italiano').

The talented cast are wasted, with the exception of the wonderful Cotillard. Cruz turns up and pouts her way through the role of Guido’s lover, Dench does her best Judi Dench as a costume designer, Kate Hudson and a very artificial, immobile looking Kidman each pop up for about ten minutes in utterly pointless roles and Sophia Loren, though she doesn’t disgrace herself, has little to do but stand around in soft lighting and simper in Day Lewis’ direction. There is a nice surprise in the Black Eyed Peas singer Fergie, who belts out 'Be Italian' in a manner creditable enough that she should, at the very least, be in a much better band.

The real puzzle of Nine sits at its very centre. Daniel Day Lewis is legendary for his quality control and for his total immersion in his roles. Two questions arise. 1: What the holy hell is he doing in this formless mess to begin with? 2: Why is he doing an accent one step removed from comedy Italian, and how does he manage to be so completely unconvincing as a director suffering major creative block. At times watching Nine is like watching community theatre and Day Lewis is, to my utter bafflement, among the worst offenders. His performance is so silly that I wondered if he thought he was making a comedy, certainly I laughed while watching this film, but I don’t think I was supposed to.

Nine is all sorts of terrible, but it’s not even car crash cinema, it’s not interesting in its badness, it’s just numbingly boring. If you want to spend two hours listening to unmemorable and largely pointless songs delivered by a cast who can, for the most part, only vaguely sing then by all means go and see Nine. You'll be rewarded with lots of beautiful women in skimpy clothes and with a brilliant performance by Marion Cotillard, but as for the rest, well, I warned you.

DIR: Guy Ritchie
CAST: Robert Downey Jr, Jude Law
Mark Strong, Rachel McAdams

Full disclosure: I’ve seen three of Guy Ritchie’s films, and I thought they were all pretty dreadful. Even half way through Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (god, even the title annoys me) I was bored with his one note mockney gangster shtick (and annoyed by the fact that the film was so yellow I suspected it had jaundice). I’ve skipped his last two forays into cinema; the roundly panned, kaballah influenced, Revolver and the back to tedious basics outing Rocknrolla (again, all it takes is the title). So, please, understand that when I tell you that Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes is… good, and fun, I am saying it with both surprise and relief in my voice.

One of the key elements that is likely responsible for Sherlock Holmes being good is the simple fact that it doesn’t feel like a Guy Ritchie film, and he hasn’t had a hand in the screenplay. Usually I would lambast a film for being so lacking in directorial identity, but here it comes as blessed relief, as Ritchie simply concentrates on steering the boat and letting everyone get on with their jobs. The visuals are generally strong; the sense of period is effectively evoked, with Victorian London seeming distinctly dirty, crowded and smelly. Ritchie doesn’t have a great deal of experience with effects, but the digital additions to the film generally work well, with the use of CG assisted slow motion in the fight scenes being particularly effective, if a little hackneyed as a device. The one downfall in this area is with the CG fire used in two key scenes, it just looks fake, really fake. Still, overall Ritchie delivers the goods with the visuals, and largely gets out of his actors way.

Get out of the way is about all you can do with Robert Downey, Jr. Downey’s renaissance and his recent status as a box office friendly leading man is one of the happiest stories in recent Hollywood history. His Holmes is a typically eccentric creation. The English accent is a little broad and affected, but who cares? Downey’s Holmes is one filled with restless energy, from him you really get the feeling of a mind constantly whirring, occupied with whatever thoughts and theories stray unbidden into it, it’s there in te details, the way his hands are always occupied, whether feeling something, tasting something or simply plucking at a violin.

Downey also plays brilliantly off an unusually cast Jude Law as Dr Watson. Law’s Watson is a sexier character that we’re used to, and there’s an air of danger about him. Holmes can hurt you, but you get the feeling that Watson is the man not to be crossed. Here Watson is also a character who is extremely intelligent and thoughtful in his own right, and as fast with his wit as the blade hidden in his cane. The two leads strike a sparky chemistry, and when they are on screen together Sherlock Holmes is a witty, pacy joy.

Sadly a couple of the other main characters are underwritten. Despite the best efforts of Mark Strong the villainous Lord Blackwood lacks menace, to say nothing of a well defined plan (the final act and the ambition behind Blackwood’s villainy thuds with a misplaced attempt at contemporary resonance). Also suffering from a distinct lack of screen time is Rachel McAdams, whose Irene Adler is a rather dull character; an old flame of Holmes’, and a criminal, she ought to be interesting, but neither the script nor McAdams bring much to the table. Of the rest of the supporting cast Kelly Reilly does nice work in a tiny role as Watson’s fiancé, but Eddie Marsan steals a good few scenes as the bumbling Inspector Lestrade (interestingly one of those scenes is a direct quote from the Basil Rathbone film Pearl of Death, of which, more tomorrow), the only cast member to really rival Downey for the spotlight.

This film is unmistakably the first chapter in a franchise, with Professor Moriarty (rumoured to be played by Brad Pitt) set up as the villain next time out. It’s a solid start, introducing the characters well and establishing a strong dynamic between Downey and Law. Next time out lets see the stakes raised and a little more colour in the margins, that way Holmes may yet go from good to great.

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