PICK OF THE WEEK
Sex and the City (B)
U.S.; Michael Patrick King, 2008, New Line
Hit TV shows take on a life of their own, and that's certainly true of Sex and the City. The single-girls-in-Manhattan sex-comedy series starring Sarah Jessica Parker and her three pals -- Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis and Cynthia Nixon -- is a show that, in six years on HBO (1998-2004), became a national TV fixture, a primo contemporary New York City fairytale and a fashionista's paradise.
The series, which originated when creator-producer Darren Star, of Melrose Place, decided to adapt Candace Bushnell's autobiographical New York Observer columns about an unattached female's urban fun-life -- belongs in a time-honored sexy movie tradition, the girls-on-a-spree film, though these pictures usually feature two or three ladies on the loose instead of four (i.e., How to Marry a Millionaire, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Three Little Girls in Blue, et al.). But this show not only gave us ladies who talked about man-hunting and sex, but also showed them doing it -- besides shooting on location and using all kinds of snazzy details, new clothes and contemporary references to keep things funny and au courant.
Sex's huge national audience followed tell-all writer Carrie Bradshaw (Parker), lusty good-time gal Samantha Jones (Cattrall), prim and preppy Charlotte York (Davis) and often-angry lawyer Miranda Hobbes (Nixon) through six years of career triumphs, epic shopping sprees and romantic adventures and misadventures. The movie Sex, narrated as usual by Carrie, uses the show's pattern of keeping everything up-to-date -- picking up the story four years after and carrying the quartet through three romantic crises, two split-ups, one aborted wedding, one Mexican holiday, one pregnancy, one messed-up sushi orgy, and the inevitable get-togethers, confabs and reunions.
There's some more old characters around -- Candice Bergen as frosty Vogue editor Enid Frick, Mario Cantone and Willie Garson as gay caballeros Marentino and Blatch -- and one welcome new face: Jennifer (Dreamgirls) Hudson as Carrie's new assistant, Louise, from St. Louis, who naturally gives her boss a DVD of Meet Me in St. Louis for the holidays. As before, Samantha and Charlotte are the primarily (screwball) comic characters of the quartet -- Samantha a Mae West/Carole Lombard and Charlotte an Irene Dunne, while Miranda is more dramatic (Bette Davis) and Carrie a mixture (Kate Hepburn). And, as before, they keep sliding lithely between the drama and the comedy.
I liked it. The filmmakers and the actresses have taken these characters so far and done so much with them, given them such fullness and depth, that they've grown into a thoroughly pleasant predictability, the blessed TV kick of familiarity. Also, Sex the movie scores points by balancing its bouts of sex (pretty steamy) and hilarity, with the drama and real anguish.
A caveat here: Sex and the City is one of my lady friend's two favorite TV shows (the other is Law and Order, which also employs Noth), and I've seen far more episodes with her, and sacrificed far more NBA games in the process, than I would normally admit. I usually enjoy them.
Sex, I think, will not disappoint most of the TV show's fans -- thanks to a lot of effort from the producers, who include Parker and series creator Darren Star. Director-writer (and producer) Michael Patrick King is another Sex vet; he wrote many of the TV episodes, directed a few and obviously fills the bill. Most of the main actors/characters are here too, along with key crew, including costume designer Patricia Field, who probably deserves co-auteur ranking along with Star, King, Parker -- and, oh yeah, Candace Bushnell.
But I have some cavils. Though John Thomas' cinematography for the show was some of the sharpest and most stylish-looking on TV, for some reason, his work on the movie looked a little fuzzier. (Maybe it was the projection.) The movie, for my taste, also needed more ventilation (more outdoor scenes) -- and, in general, King doesn't stretch the scenes out long enough, maybe because he's too used to the show's quicker rhythm.
The movie Sex also starts the new story too fast. Perhaps they should have kicked off the film with a little prelude (not too long), where Carrie narrates the beginning of the story, and gives us some quick character synopsis -- how the four got together -- and then zips us through their 10-year history -- instead of acting more as if we were just walking into a new episode. That prelude also would have heightened the impact of King and Thomas' very affecting four-girls crane shot at the end.
There could be more explanation for Big's curious wedding and post-wedding behavior here, besides our memory of his series-long skittish behavior, a lost cell-phone, Miranda's nasty cracks at the pre-wedding party, and Carrie's refusal to read his emails. The guy is supposed to be a big-time financier, dammit. (I would have suggested a much longer pre-wedding scene between Miranda and Big, and that could have been the movie's dramatic highlight.) Also, the movie could have taken somewhat further the threatened nymph-satyr L.A. summit meeting between Samantha and the naked, sex-crazed hunk next door, instead of resolving it by having her go on an eating binge.
But, most of all, any movie that uses a clip from Meet Me in St. Louis at holiday time and doesn't show at least a good snatch of Judy Garland singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" to Margaret O'Brien ("Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow...") is committing a mortal sin against cinema -- and it doesn't matter if The Family Stone seemed to beat that song to death.
But these are mostly quibbles or personal whims. Sex and the City will hit the G-spot for anybody who loved or liked the TV series. And it does seem that they've seriously wrapped up the story here, at least in its girls-on-the-loose chapters; how many more romantic crises can you invent? Maybe we can take an occasional visit back to four married Manhattan pals, who've learned to make compromises and survive and read the right labels -- and still have time to snack and shop.
Meanwhile, I may still be have to miss some games; perhaps unwisely, I bought my lady friend the complete TV box set. For her Merry Little Christmas. (Extras: King commentary, interview with King and Parker, featurettes.)
BOX SET PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Godfather -- The Coppola Restoration (A)
U.S.; Francis Coppola, 1972-1974-1990, Paramount
One of the genuine American movie masterpieces: The Godfather Trilogy, restored by its brilliant maker, Francis Coppola, along with his original DVD commentary is now available in a five-disc set. Sure, we're still a little disappointed that Coppola didn't try harder (and, for God's sake, hire Robert Duvall, whatever his asking price) on The Godfather III. But these are the kinds of films we want to see from our best filmmakers, and the kinds of opportunities we want them to have. Not just business, but strictly personal.
Includes: The Godfather (1972, A+), The Godfather Part II (1974, A+), and The Godfather Part III (1990, A-). (Extras: Coppola commentary on all three films, additional scenes, 2001 DVD featurettes and one disc of new supplements.)
The Bill Douglas Trilogy (A)
U.K.; Bill Douglas, 1972, 1974, 1978, Facets
You probably won't remember it, but along with The Godfather, another great movie trilogy started in 1972: Bill Douglas's magnificent low-budget semi-autobiographical three-part tale of his impoverished youth in a small Scottish mining village, shot in lyrical black-and-white and featuring an extraordinary non-professional cast. Since the three parts are barely a hour long apiece, they can probably best be seen as one three-hour drama -- and they should be see far more often.
As a British social realist, Douglas is on a par with the best of them: Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Stephen Frears and Humphrey Jennings. But he has something special. This is the darker, more penetrating side of the kind of family mythos celebrated in How Green Was My Valley. It's real and stark and emotionally devastating. With Stephen Archibald as Jamie, Douglas' Antoine Doinel, who grows with the part as we watch.
Includes: My Childhood (1972, A), My Ain Folk (1974, A), My Way Home (1978, A). (Extras: Documentary, booklet.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Mother of Tears (B)
Italy; Dario Argento, 2008, Anchor Bay
A much better movie than The Strangers and some of the other homegrown horrorfests this year -- though it's so gory it may drive some audiences right out the door -- is Mother of Tears, the latest chapter in Italian shockmeister Dario Argento's "Three Mothers" trilogy: a blood-stained, visually gaudy and arrestingly shivery triptych that also includes Argento's classic Suspiria (1977) and its first sequel, Inferno (1980). In order, we get three increasingly powerful witches: Mother of Sighs, Mother of Darkness, Mother of Tears.
Like the first four movies of the Rocky series, in a weird way, these three movies are basically all the same story, getting bigger and more expensive each time out. The core plot -- a lady-in-distress (or lady-and-guy-in-distress) pursued by demons and witches -- stays pretty much the same. But the arena gets bigger. In Suspiria, it was Jessica Harper in a girl's ballet school in Freiburg, Germany. In Inferno, it was Irene Miracle and brother Leigh McLoskey in another, bigger school, in New York. Here, it's director Dario's iconic actress daughter Asia vs. the worst Satan-witch-bitch of them all, the Mother of Tears herself (Moran Atlas) in a bigger place in Rome -- in fact, in almost all Rome itself, turned into a gruesome devil's den and thrill-city.
Along with Deep Red, Suspiria has always been my favorite Argento; his scripts tend to be thin, clichéd and outrageous, but he can always shock your socks off once or twice. (You can see most of the movies -- though you'll want to be picky -- on Anchor Bay.) So I can appreciate the fans who've been waiting 27 years for this one. It's bloody as hell, but, unlike some superficially classier directors, Argento know where to point his camera. Like his fellow horror ace countryman Mario Bava, he's a wicked treat for the politically incorrect and the esthetically adventurous.
Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (B+)
U.K.: Diarmuid Lawrence, 1992, Acorn Media
Angus Wilson's scathing '50s novel of the vicissitudes, hypocrisies and depravities of British academia reign here -- as exposed by a false archeological discovery (a well-hung pagan icon found in a pious bishop's grave) that keeps resonating through and sometimes ruining lives. Richard Johnson, who became an even better actor, and got better roles, as he aged, plays mournful historian Gerald Middleton; Elizabeth Sproggs is his wife, Inge; and Tara Fitzgerald, at her sexiest, is his lifelong lady love, Dollie. Popping up in smaller roles: the young Daniel Craig and Kate Winslet. The script is by Andrew Davies, one of the most celebrated and awarded of BBC novel-adaptors -- and recently screenwriter for the new theatrical film of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.
The New Centurions (B+)
U.S.; Richard Fleischer, 1972, Columbia
One of the best '70s cop movies, though relatively neglected, is this Dick Fleischer-Stirling Silliphant adaptation of ex-LAPD cop Joseph Wambaugh's ultra-real study of an ambitious young L.A. cop (Stacy Keach) who falls into a deadly rut, and of his salty partner/mentor Kilvinski (George C. Scott), who plunges into a deadlier one. With Jane Alexander, Scott Wilson, Ed Lauter, Clifton James and future TV stars Erik Estrada and Isabel Sanford. Fleischer is at his best with this kind of realistic or fact-based crime material, and Scott, who's at his best, blows us (not to mention himself) away. (Extra: Trailer.)
The Anderson Tapes (B)
U.S.: Sidney Lumet, 1971, Columbia
One of the more unusual American heist movies is this complex caper thriller, with Sean Connery as Anderson, the embittered ex-con mastermind behind a deluxe New York City apartment building theft, during which he and his gang members are, unknowingly, constantly under surveillance. Less realistic than satiric, the movie is based on a Lawrence Sanders novel by writer Frank R. Pierson (who later reteamed with Lumet for the 1975 classic Dog Day Afternoon), and the typical high-class Lumet cast includes Dyan Cannon, Martin Balsam, Alan King, Ralph Meeker, Margaret (The Wicked Witch) Hamilton and, in his movie debut, that great weird actor Christopher Walken. The ending is a knockout. (Extra: Trailer.)
Affair in Trinidad (C)
U.S.; Vincent Sherman, 1952, Columbia
Rita Hayworth returned to movies after her Aly Khan holiday with this erotic thriller, written by screenwriter/science fiction author James Gunn, which borrows very heavily from Hitchcock and Ben Hecht's Notorious. Rita is the sexy bait, Alexander Scourby is the smitten traitor/mastermind, Glenn Ford is the surly lover, and the maguffin is a German-designed rocket. Not much atmosphere or visual pyrotechnics here for a so-called film noir, but the post-Gilda Rita and Glenn are still an incendiary couple. (Extra: Trailer.)