'Tis the season to release films that are intended to win Oscars, and no film is more likely to make the Academy sit up and take notice than Nine.
For one thing, it stars the Oscar-winning Daniel Day-Lewis as an Italian film director, a Fellini substitute who's suffering from director's block in mid-1960s Rome. For another thing, the women in his life, both in reality and in his fevered imagination, are played almost exclusively by the Oscar-winning Nicole Kidman, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench and Sophia Loren. And for a third thing, Nine is a musical directed by Rob Marshall, and the last of those was the Oscar-winning Chicago. If Nine doesn't garner at least nine Oscar nominations, then something's gone very wrong indeed.
As it happens, nothing's gone very wrong – but nothing's gone very right, either. As in Chicago, Marshall fills the screen with shapely women wearing fishnets, high heels and not much else, which is always to be welcomed; and as in Chicago, he tries to dodge past contemporary viewers' resistance to musicals by consigning the songs to fantasy sequences. But the conceit doesn't work as well the second time around. Chicago's Roxie Hart was obsessed by the thought of becoming a cabaret diva, so it made sense for her to see life as one long razzle-dazzling production number, whereas Day-Lewis is playing a film director who has never made a musical, so there's no excuse for his subconscious to be thronged with high-kicking showgirls.
Nor do the songs push the narrative along. Apart from a touching ballad performed by Cotillard, as Day-Lewis's wronged wife, you could cut out any of them without affecting the story, mainly because there isn't much of a story to affect. If Chicago was a tale of murder, passion, and crazed ambition, Nine – which is inspired by Fellini's 8 1/2 – is a wander through the memories of someone we're given no reason to care about, and quite a few reasons not to. He's due to start shooting his latest film in 10 days, but he still hasn't written the script, a situation which could be the basis of a farce, but not a reverential angst-fest. Oh, the trials of being an internationally adored movie maestro! Oh, the horror of having Cotillard, Cruz and Kate Hudson all competing to lure you into their luxury hotel suites! The heart bleeds.
Nine's screenplay was co-written by the late Anthony Minghella, to whom Nowhere Boy is dedicated. It's a film I was looking forward to, not so much because it's the directorial debut of the artist Sam Taylor-Wood, but because it's written by Matt Greenhalgh, who provided the screenplay for the superb Ian Curtis biopic Control.
In Nowhere Boy, Greenhalgh tackles an even bigger pop icon, John Lennon (Aaron Johnson). It opens when Lennon is 15. For the past 10 years he has lived with his strait-laced Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her husband Dave, but then he discovers that his biological mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), has been raising a family down the road the whole time. For her, life is about fun, laughter and the rock'n'roll records that American sailors are bringing to Liverpool's docks – and that's music to Lennon's ears.
There's certainly the material there for a challenging coming-of-age drama, but Nowhere Boy is no more than a typical celebrity biopic, the kind you might see on BBC4, without any of the flair you might hope for from Taylor-Wood and Greenhalgh. It never quite rings true, partly because its production design is so exaggerated. Julia is the scarlet woman who imbues Lennon's world with colour, so everything she possesses is red: her hair, her lipstick, her clothes, her furnishings, even the cakes she serves her son on his first visit to her red-carpeted house. Another problem is that Johnson is more like Clark Kent than John Lennon. Even though the actor is the right age for the part, he looks a foot taller and a decade older than his schoolmates, and when he and the 15-year-old Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster) first play their guitars together, you could mistake them for a ventriloquist and his dummy.
The question raised by the new Sherlock Holmes film is whether an over-familiar, much-caricatured English archetype, teetering between genius and madness, can be rehabilitated as a viable cinematic protagonist. And the answer is, very nearly. After several problematic films and one problematic marriage, Guy Ritchie can almost be taken seriously as a director again.
In Ritchie's rollicking adventure, Holmes (Robert Downey Jr) is a wild-eyed, unhygienic crackpot who indulges in bare-chested bare-knuckle boxing matches, and wins them by envisaging every punch in advance. Watson (Jude Law) is a tough war veteran with a gambling habit and a love-hate relationship with his barmy flatmate. As they hurtle around a gothic London, propelled by Hans Zimmer's galloping score, the film is a blast to begin with, but the viewer's interest is soon drained by a repetitive plot, apparently borrowed from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, that at first seems to be far too complicated then turns out to be too elementary.
Ritchie shoehorns in numerous action sequences, and even more numerous scenes of Holmes and Watson bickering, but they become numbing when you don't have a clue what's going on. Still, the franchise has got itself two cracking characters and one enticing setting. Now all it needs is a half-decent story to go with them.
Also Showing: 20/12/2009
Humpday (95 mins, 15)
At a party one night, two old college buddies, a married homeowner (Mark Duplass) and a free-spirited backpacker (Joshua Leonard), drunkenly pledge to enter an amateur art-porn film contest by videoing themselves having sex. The next morning, neither is willing to back down. For Leonard, it's the only way he can live up to his self-image as an artist. For Duplass, it's one last pre-parenthood opportunity to prove that he's still young and adventurous. Now he just has to persuade his wife, Alycia Delmore, to see the project in the same way.
Humpday can be filed under "Mumblecore": Lynn Shelton, the writer-director, belongs to a loose group of friends who employ minimal budgets and bare-bones scripts to make honest, comic portraits of white, directionless urbanites in the years after they graduate from university. But Humpday is funnier and more pointed than all of its predecessors. The sort of film that Kevin Smith must dream of making. It's sweet, piquant, bold and intelligent, balancing its outrageous concept with relationships and conversations that are all too believable.
St Trinian's 2: The Legend of Fritton's Gold (106 mins, PG)
If you have a particular fetish for Rupert Everett in drag, or, more feasibly, for leggy twentysomething actresses in skimpy school uniforms, you may be tempted by St Trinian's 2. But be warned: this contrived sequel is an interminable, headache-inducing time-waster that never picks up any speed, weighed down as it is by far too many characters, and far too many slow-motion shots of the girls striding towards the camera.
Alvin and the Chipmunks 2: The Squeakquel (U, 90 mins)
Mind you, it's all relative. Alvin and his fellow helium-voiced CGI rodents were unbearable enough in their first film, but this desperate sequel – sorry "squeakquel" – is such a blatant cash-in that the producers might as well have gone straight round to young viewers' houses and stolen their piggybanks. Jason Lee, the original film's human star, sensibly restricts himself to a brief cameo, and the tie-in toy range is augmented by the introduction of three female chipmunks (or possibly chipnuns).
Dogging: A Love Story (18, 103 mins)
Ah, the British film industry! This very cheap, Newcastle-based romantic comedy stars Luke Treadaway as a wannabe journalist who decides that he'll get his big break if he writes an article on the people who have sex in their cars, and the people who watch them. The cast members have enough charm to make you wish you were seeing them in a film that didn't seem like such a terrible, terrible idea.